Reckless and The Lightkeeper’s Daughters

Fall officially starts on Friday and it already feels like it’s here. Temperatures have dipped and the leaves are starting to turn yellow. It must mean the literary award season is upon us, and this past week the longlist for both the National Book Awards (U.S.) were announced as well as those for Canada’s Giller Prize. Out of the 10 that made the U.S. longlist for fiction, I’m keen to read Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach,” Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko,” and Lisa Ko’s “The Leavers.” From the Canada fiction longlist, I’m most curious to read Rachel Cusk’s novel “Transit,” which apparently is the second book in a trilogy that began with “Outline.” So I need to start with that first. Both award lists will be cut to five finalists during the first week of October with the winners being announced in mid-November.

Also this past week, eyes were raised when three American authors made the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which had been a literary award historically reserved for U.K. authors and those of the Commonwealth. The Brits are none too pleased to have the Booker Prize opened up the past few years to Americans; can you blame them? And the fact that many favorites failed to make the shortlist, including the novels of authors: Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Irish authors Sebastian Barry and Mike McCormack, and British authors Zadie Smith and Jon McGregor (even American Colson Whitehead) shocked some critics and made others quite ticked. Instead this year’s Booker shortlist for fiction includes:

“4 3 2 1” by American Paul Auster
“Lincoln in the Bardo” by American George Saunders
“History of Wolves” by American debut author Emily Fridlund
“Exit West” by British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid
“Autumn” by British author Ali Smith
“Elmet” by British debut author Fiona Mozley

Who would have guessed this list? I’ve read “Exit West” and wanted more from it (sorry to those who thought it sublime) so I think that leaves it wide open for George Saunders to win. But while I still need to read “Lincoln in the Bardo” (many loved it), I’m sort of more curious now to read Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves.” Aren’t you? I remember when it came out in January, somehow I let it pass by not sure about it, but it’s received a lot of praise since then. And it sounds like a sense of foreboding and suspense permeate the novel about a 14-year-old girl’s awakenings as she confronts a web of mysteries in the icy woods of Minnesota. Hmm, I’ve read the ending is a bit disturbing and moving, but I want to check it out.

As for what I finished this week, I read with bated interest Chrissie Hynde’s memoir “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” which I should have raced through when it came out in 2015. Good grief, I was a big fan of hers back in the day, when Chrissie and the Pretenders put out their first few albums. Oh their music made an impact on my high school; it was cool stuff. Remember that punk phase in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s? I can’t say I was too huge into the music of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, or Iggy Pop, but I did fall for the sounds of David Bowie and the Pretenders. So I thought her rock memoir would be an interesting read.

Her book though is a bit of a curious thing. The first half is about her life growing up in Akron, Ohio, with her parents and brother, and how the times were a changin.’ The placement of highways and the removal of stores downtown, she says, ruined things for her city, and there was a disconnect between one’s parents and the generation coming of age in the ‘60s. From early on, Chrissie seemed a bit of a rebel and a tomboy who was only good at art in school and tried to hide her carousing and behavior from her folks. With her friends, she started getting into the radio tunes of the day and bumming rides to see shows.

Despite her poor record in school, Chrissie ended up attending Kent State University, where I didn’t realize she was one of those in the crowd on May 4, 1970, when four unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. One of her friends’ boyfriends was killed that day. As college progressed, Chrissie seemed to be getting more and more into the counter-culture life (the hippies and bikers) and experimenting with drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. She mentions seeing shows of the Stones, Bowie, and Iggy Pop as well dozens of others.

By 1973 at the age of 21, she was ready to bolt Ohio, and wound up in London, hanging around the British punk scene. This is where you think the book is right where you want it to be — at the heart of the music. And it is interesting the milieu she talks about. You get the picture of her: loving her new London environs, scraping by to make ends meet, listening to bands, and eventually coming to know various rockers such as Joe Strummer of the Clash, and Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. She was right there in the thick of things, but man, there were a lot of drugs. It sounds like all those around the music scene, including Chrissie were — as she says — “truly fucked up most of the time, or at best, reeling from the effects of the day before.”

It gets pretty exhausting in the book all the drug use, which she laments looking back but says it was the defining characteristic of her generation. Her story mills about quite a while during her days figuring out her direction. It’s only the last 45 pages of the book where she talks about her band the Pretenders forming by lucky circumstance, which surprised me. It only covers her life up until the Pretender’s first two albums and their touring behind them with the four original members — two of whom overdosed and died thereafter, which altered the band’s course. It doesn’t get into her later family life, her marriages, or the rest of her career with the Pretenders, argh.

Despite being cut short, I thought the memoir was quite honest and insightful and also very modest of her talents and what she came to accomplish. Her writing in the book is quite good and paints the music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s well. It reminded me a bit of Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir “Chronicles, Volume One” since it seems impressionistic about her life, the times, and the people she meets. It felt a tinge sad about regrets she’s come to live with and changes that came to pass. I was only sorry that the book didn’t include a bit more about the songs, where they came from, and her performing of them. Still I feel I know her a little bit better now (one of my rock singer heroes) and I’m glad that she was able to become drug-free in later life.

Also last week I finished the audiobook of Jean Pendziwol’s novel “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters,” which unravels the story about a woman’s past growing up on remote Porphyry Island on Lake Superior, where her father manned the lighthouse seventy years before. The story alternates chapters told by the woman (Elizabeth), who is elderly now and nearly blind, living in a senior facility and a delinquent teenage girl (Morgan) who comes to help Elizabeth figure out her past from old journals found amid the ruins of an old shipwreck.

What’s apparent is that Elizabeth was born and raised on the island with her parents, two brothers, and a mute twin sister Emily, but the gaps in the history of what happens to them unfolds as the story goes on.

Oh I really did want to love this novel, which is popular on Goodreads and has a great cover. And I did enjoy the storytelling in Part 2 particularly, and the setting on the island with the lighthouse was great. The characters were interesting too and I did get into the woman’s life story, but as it went along I found the amount of twists and secrets in it went overboard and strained my believability. The fates that tied together and the story’s details became a bit too convenient and too coincidental for me, not to mention a bit confusing. What is it about a lighthouse story that brings everything out of the woodworks?

Still I’m in the minority on this one, so if you like plot twists and family secrets in your novels, you’d probably like this one as well. It reminded me a little bit of a Kate Morton novel, if you like her tales.

What about you, have you read any of these books — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Music | 10 Comments

The Locals and The Life We Bury

Here are a couple more photos taken from my week in Vancouver, B.C. It’s a beautiful city, especially in the summertime, and I was able to get around town by bicycle. Like most of the Northwest, it’s quite progressive and has some good bike lanes for commuting throughout the area. While there, I was lugging around in my backpack, along with my tennis gear, a library hardback copy of Jonathan Dee’s novel “The Locals,” which came out in August. It’s a sprawling thing — and it sort of reminded me of last year when I brought a copy of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” with me to the tennis nationals, which seemed sort of crazy. Surely one could argue these are both important reads, but did I really need to challenge myself so — right there on such a fun and busy August trip?

What was I thinking? Obviously lighter fare would have been much more sensible, but sometimes you have to read things when you get them.

Anyways, “The Locals” is not a hard novel to read per se (there’s some nice storytelling within it), it’s just robust. Every page is filled to the brink with text without much in the way of breaks or dialogue. What is 400 pages felt a bit like 600 pages in reality. Still after a couple weeks, I came out the other side, feeling like I came off a significant mountain.

How to explain it? “The Locals” is a novel, set during the days right after 9/11 till after the housing bubble bursts in 2008-9, that tells the story of a small town of residents in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. There’s quite a number of characters, maybe a dozen or so that Jonathan Dee seamlessly shifts in and out of the story detailing their lives and perspectives in the town. (This slice of life aspect of various characters in a small town reminded me a bit of Kent Haruf’s novels, but then his stories are much shorter, and Dee’s novel delves more into America’s dramas with rising inequality, working class decline, and a new authoritarianism that takes hold of the town.)

The main characters include various members of the Firth family: Mark Firth being a contractor who’s trying to re-coop his family’s losses after being swindled by a financial advisor. He seems to have lost his wife Karen’s trust in his financial feasibility and his daughter Haley is going through some growing pains as a teenager. Meanwhile Mark envies the wealthy weekenders whose second homes sit vacant during the winter.

Then along comes a rich NYC hedge fund manager who moves to town after 9/11 and hires Mark to fortify his mansion with security additions. The two represent different worlds that end up colliding in the novel, particularly when the ex-Wall Street manager becomes the town’s first selectman and begins to implement changes that ultimately upset the town’s applecart.

Other characters include Mark’s sister Candace, a dissatisfied teacher who’s had an affair with a parent of one of her students; and his troubled brother Gerry, recently fired, who Mark goes into business with — buying up foreclosed properties as real estate investments. These characters, along with Mark’s wife, parents, and daughter, are just the tip of the iceberg in this story of a community that’s headed for the economic skids.

I liked quite a bit about “The Locals,” namely Dee’s storytelling I thought was well done, and the atmosphere felt real; he also draws a revealing portrait of the various characters in the town (all of whom seem pretty unhappy). The only trouble I had with it was there’s not a whole lot that happens in the story or much action (the most fluid part is at the novel’s beginning during the week of Sept. 11, 2001, when a stranger befriends Mark while he’s in New York City, uses him for dinner and a place to crash and then ends up stealing from his wallet). Ouch, it’s a harsh unsettling way to experience 9/11 through the eyes of this criminal, yet in many ways it’s the most grabbing part of the story.

Thereafter the novel shifts to Mark’s hometown in the Berkshires where characters alternate in and out throughout the story, though I’m not sure if it really goes anywhere — other than eliciting the general malaise and economic struggles in the years after. I became a bit exhausted at points reading it, yet still I persevered, which in the end felt good. It’s a different kind of 9/11 story for sure (more about the post years in a small town); still I’m glad to have perused its perspectives and characters.

Also last week I finished the audiobook of Allen Eskens’s 2014 debut novel “The Life We Bury,” which turned out to be excellent. I didn’t even know much about it, but I had been on the library wait list for it after Kathy at the blog Bermuda Onion had such positive things to say about it last year. And indeed “The Life We Bury” is a crime story that drew me in hook, line, and sinker. The narration, in particular, by the character Joe Talbert, who has a troubled family life and is putting himself through school at the University of Minnesota, is terrific. Good grief, I didn’t really know if the audio was nonfiction or fiction for awhile — it just came out like it was a true story of what happened to this guy.

Though I eventually did clue in: it’s a story, told by Joe, who goes to a retirement home for a class assignment to interview and write a brief biography of a person. There he meets Carl Iverson, a dying Vietnam vet and a convicted murderer, who’s recently been paroled. As he begins to write Carl’s story, Joe becomes taken with finding out whether Carl was indeed responsible for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl over 30 years ago. All the while, Joe must deal with the demands of his alcoholic mother and worry about his autistic brother who’s under her care.

Oh it’s good stuff, and the story keeps moving as Joe begins to learn things about Carl’s original trial that don’t seem to add up. He enlists the help of his skeptical college neighbor Lila Nash and the two make quite a team, following leads that eventually become dangerous. You won’t know till the end what happens to Joe and whether Carl has been wrongly convicted.

I thought the narration, pacing, and characters were great in this, and it slightly reminded me of John Grisham’s book “The Pelican Brief” because the protagonist/sleuth in that was also a college student who becomes endangered. Other than that I don’t think there’s too many similarities between the two. But I’m glad to have found the audio version of “The Life We Bury” because I think I might have liked it better (due to its narration) than if I had experienced it in print; go figure.

I’ll be curious to see if Allen Esken’s next crime novel “The Deep Dark Descending,” which comes out in October, will be as good. Also the movie version of “The Life We Bury” is slated to come out in 2018, though no actors have been officially attached to it yet, but it’s left readers of the book wondering about the possibilities. So far no one comes to my mind for the role of Joe right off the bat. I’ll have to think on it.

What about you — have you read either of these books or authors — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

September Releases

Hi all, I’ve recently returned from playing in the senior tennis nationals in Vancouver, B.C., which was a fun event that included many hard-fought battles from players all over the country. Even though I made it through just a couple rounds this year in the singles and doubles, I enjoyed some tough, close matches and spending time in that beautiful city. Hopefully I’ll be back to play the tournament again next year, if my knees hold up, though the event will move to Montreal and clay courts in 2018.

As for Vancouver, it was wonderful. The water, sights, and weather couldn’t have been better. They were all gorgeous days in the Northwest while I kept hearing all the dreadful news of flooding in Texas, holy smokes that’s been unreal. They have a lot of bookstores in Vancouver too. Check out this one at left that I saw. I admit I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and sci-fi, but I have to give a thumbs up to White Dwarf Books for its displays and exuberance for the subject matter. It’s a cool place with a catchy name. Check it out if you’re ever in the area.

Meanwhile it’s time to discuss what’s coming out in September — wahoo! — one of the biggest release months of the year. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the major upcoming books, namely John le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies,” which I’ll give to my husband to read. He’s a big fan of the spy master, who is 85 now and has completed with this one his 24th novel. So far his followers are liking it quite a bit according to Goodreads, so my husband will be eager to get his hands on a copy of it.

Also, I can’t say I’m not curious to read some of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book “What Happened” about the 2016 election. Usually I wouldn’t go near a politician’s book or believe much of it, but the country blew it on election day (with a capital B) — just my own view — so I’m interested in getting an inside perspective on this major debacle of our times. Granted, I voted for her so I’m in that camp.

As for literary fiction, is anyone game for Salman Rushdie’s new novel “The Golden House”? According to Publishers Weekly, it’s set during the Obama years and is about a mysterious billionaire from overseas and his three adult sons who change their names and move to New York City in an attempt to reinvent themselves after tragedy. Hmm. It’s supposed to be a bit reminiscent of “The Great Gatsby” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but is it? I can’t recall the last time I read a Rushdie novel, so perhaps I will give this one a try.

Next up, I will likely check out Celeste Ng’s second novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” which explores the lives of two intertwined families in a suburb of Cleveland. Like her highly touted debut novel “Everything I Never Told You,” this one seems to be packed with a lot of issues including — as Publishers Weekly says — “the complexities of adoption, surrogacy, abortion, privacy, and class, questioning all the while who earns … and who loses the right to be called a mother.” Ouch. I liked aspects of her first novel, which I thought was quite grim, so I plan to read this one to see how it compares.

Also on my September list is Rene Denfeld’s new novel “The Child Finder,” about an investigator on a case to find a missing child in a remote forest in the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly I’m getting quite wary of the numerous missing persons kind of stories, but I was quite impressed with Denfeld’s debut novel “The Enchanted” from 2014, so I want to follow up with this one, which I’m told is “intense” and I’m sure will have some of the same tragic, sad elements to it as her first novel did. Apparently the investigator / protagonist in this story must try to overcome her past traumas as she goes about solving the case of the missing child. Sound a bit alluring to you?

Last up in books, I’m curious to read Jesmyn Ward’s new novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family. Granted I don’t know too much more about it than that, but BookPage says: it’s an intricately layered story that “combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South.” Oh my! I haven’t tried Ward before, but she won the National Book Award in 2011 with “Salvage the Bones.” So maybe I should start there first.

As for September movies, Stephen King fans will be ecstatic that the adaptation of his 1986 novel “IT” will finally be coming out. The trailer creeps me out, just seeing those evil clowns!

Which reminds me: I’m not sure if I ever fully recovered from seeing the film version of King’s “Cujo” in 1983 or for that matter “Carrie” from 1976. I also saw King’s “Misery” from 1990 and “Delores Claiborne” from 1995 — and maybe even his “Children of the Corn” from 1984. But the mastery and scariness of “The Shining” from 1980 stands out to me. So many quotable lines in it! I haven’t decided if I will see “IT” on the big screen or just wait for the rental. What about you — which is your favorite adapted King movie and do you plan to view the twisted clowns?

As for other movies this month, there looks to be a bit of a weak one about the life of author J.D. Salinger called “Rebel in the Rye.” Judging by the movie trailer, it just doesn’t seem like Salinger to me and I’m sure the famous reclusive author would be rolling in his grave if he knew about it. So I think I’ll stick with his books instead (his later life seemed a bit creepy to me, but I’m a fan of his fiction.) So far, the film versions of his life, haven’t fully captured the elusive Salinger for me, though I still haven’t seen the 2013 documentary about him.

But I might be interested in seeing the upcoming sports film “Battle of the Sexes” based loosely on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. That looks quite good to me (is it just because I’m a tennis fan, or is it more the feminist aspect of it?). Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King and Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs — what more do you want? And were you watching the match in 1973? I was quite young, but I remember it on TV. Go King!

Lastly in albums for September, there’s a number of news ones by such old rockers as: Neil Young, David Crosby, Van Morrison, Bruce Cockburn, Cat Stevens, Ringo Starr, and even a posthumous album by Gregg Allman. Quite a lineup! But it’s a bit hard to say which among them — that I’ve heard bits of — that I liked best, or for that matter among the new albums by such acts as: The Killers, The Foo Fighters, The National, or even Tori Amos and Jack Johnson. But since Neil Young is releasing a long-lost acoustic album called “Hitchhiker” recorded in 1976, I’ll go with that. I was once a big fan of his music.

What about you — which September books, movies, or music are looking forward to?

Posted in Top Picks | 18 Comments

The Handmaid’s Tale and Daring to Drive

Greetings. I hope some of you will get to see the upcoming solar eclipse in its totality. It should be quite something! Apparently the last time the U.S. saw a total solar eclipse was in 1979 and it won’t see one again until 2024. On Monday, the longest period that the moon will fully block the sun will be about two minutes and 43 seconds in Carbondale, Illinois. I will be in Vancouver, B.C., by then for the tennis nationals, but I’m sure to check out the sky on Monday at 10:21 a.m. for its maximum there, which apparently will be about 88 percent. Enjoy it, but don’t forget to wear the special eyewear to protect yourself. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with reviews of what I finished last week.

Ahh yes, I’m one of those who finished Season 1 of the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and then went back and read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of it. I was curious to see how closely the series tracked to the original, and I was pleasantly surprised that in many ways the storyline honored the book very well. Both follow a totalitarian theocracy — the Republic of Gilead — that has taken over the U.S. and strictly controls women, forcing them out of jobs and money and into various classes, including the reproductive “handmaids,” who are denied all rights and coerced to produce babies for the elite barren couples.

You know the story. It tracks the life of Offred, who comes to be a handmaid for a top Commander and his wife in Cambridge, Mass. Part of it follows the oppressive life Offred leads living in the house as a handmaid to the Commander and in the community where resisters are hung dead from a Wall near the river, and the other half flashes back to Offred’s life years before, when she was married and had a daughter, and had a job and money — before Gilead. Oh it’s eerie stuff! Poor Offred remembers the good old days with her family, which are contrasted to the horrors of her current life under the totalitarian regime.

Of course, it’s the Commander and his wife, beacons of this society, who break the rules at whim. The Commander starts a secret relationship with Offred, spending evenings with her and taking her out to an underground club, and his wife, who wants Offred’s offspring, asks her to secretly have sex with their car attendant, Nick, believing her husband is infertile. It’s threatening stuff, and you don’t know who among Offred’s contacts can be trusted. Is Nick someone she can trust? Or will her old friend Moira, or Ofglen, a handmaid who is secretly part of the resistance, come to her aid? You won’t find out till the very end.

Atwood effectively writes it so at the onset you’re thrown into Offred’s circumstances, but you don’t exactly know what’s going on. The mystery and horror of the times sort of unfold as you go along. Atwood creates an atmosphere and a world that seem so scarily realistic you can easily believe it is happening. In fact, as she has said in interviews, there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country. She has said she took the idea for Gilead from the early Puritans “who came to America to set up a theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders,” where dissent within is not tolerated.

It’s a book that has been selling like hotcakes again ever since the U.S. election and the TV series came out. The series with Elisabeth Moss as Offred is quite well done and follows the storyline (as I said) pretty closely, but there are some differences. For one, it takes place in today’s world and appears more modern than you get from the book. Also Gilead in the TV series includes various races and orientations of people especially among the major characters, while the book’s society has removed non-whites and gays to faraway lands. Also the sequence of events in the book and the series differ, and secondary characters are much more fleshed out in the TV series. Whereas in the book, what happens is solely from Offred’s point of view, the series involves her husband Luke’s viewpoint as well as others. The characters of Luke, Nick, Ofglen, and Moira all have bigger roles in the series and some of their fates differ from what happens in the book.

Remember Rory from the Gilmore Girls? Well apparently the actress Alexis Bledel will continue as Ofglen in the upcoming Season 2, even though she died in the book. I must say the cast is superb, and it has a lively and surprising soundtrack. Also Elisabeth Moss, who is excellent as Offred, is more headstrong in the series. I think Season 2 will depart from the book since it was almost at the end of the book in the finale of Season 1 and heading that way — off-script.

Still Atwood has been involved with the show, and her very brief surprise cameo (in the pilot of episode 1) was great to see. It’s a bleak and disturbing storyline for sure, but you get hooked into pulling for the resistance every step of the way. It’s a series that champions the resistance and is perhaps why many have taken to the story in light of the Trump administration coming to power. As the secret Latin text carved into Offred’s floor translates: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

If you doubt the oppression in Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” then you probably need to check out the second book I finished just yesterday. I listened for a week to Manal al-Sharif’s memoir “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening” as an audiobook and it made my blood boil among other things. The book, which came out in June, has made the rounds on the blogosphere and that’s where I heard about it. Of course, you might think you know about the restrictions and oppression happening to women in faraway places, but until you read a woman’s first-hand account there, you really don’t know up-close the magnitude of what’s going on.

Remember the news reports a few years back about a woman being arrested for having the gall to drive a car in Saudi Arabia? Well that was Manal al-Sharif. She became the unexpected leader of a movement to support women’s right to drive. It sounds a bit absurd right? She was thrown in prison for the transgression of “driving while female.”

While she starts her book with this episode of being taken in the middle of the night to prison, she thereafter goes back and tells her life story of growing up in Mecca a devout Muslim from a modest family. Her story of her Islamic fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness (her word) in the first half of the book are not always easy to listen to and I almost couldn’t wait to get to the second half of her memoir where her transformation takes place and she becomes more liberated and a female activist. Of course this all happens very gradually over time, certain things occur in her life that slowly change her perspective, including being forced by her parents to undergo a gruesome female circumcision when she was a teenager; going away to university, which opened her eyes; and watching the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold on TV.

Her ambition for a career and to help her parents financially were also factors in transforming her. Eventually she works her way up into getting a good job with Aramco, the state-owned oil company — yet like at every other stage in her life she ends running up against the Saudi rules of what women there are prohibited from doing. Just listening to all the minutia prohibiting women is staggering.

For instance, you always have to have a male guardian with you when you go outside, and you can’t drive yourself anywhere but need to use your paycheck to hire a taxi or driver to take you where you want to go, and you need to get permission to do things, like register for a class, or get an apartment, or have a male guardian sign for you on everything. Life there for women seems so much more complex, unjust, and time-consuming.

Manal’s account is both eye-opening and also uplifting in how she becomes transformed and persistent in her fight for women’s right to drive. As an activist, she eventually moves out of Saudi Arabia but still she is hopeful for a day when it will change there. I highly recommend her book, which reminded me of other powerful human rights memoirs such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book “Infidel” and Malala Yousafzai’s book “I Am Malala.”

Lastly this past week, my husband and I went to see the Kathryn Bigelow film “Detroit.” Oh my, I almost didn’t make it through. For those who don’t know the movie takes place during the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 when the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets, and three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel.

Midway through there is a section of about 40 minutes or so of a scene of white police brutality that is quite difficult to watch. It felt torturous, especially for how long it goes on. Eventually this scene ends and it turns into a court case against the officers over what happened. It’s far from an easy movie — it’s rather disturbing, but the filmmaking is quite vivid and powerful. You feel like you’re right there and can feel the heat and the tension. At times it seems it’s shot from a hand-held camera that’s bouncing around from the chaos and violence on the streets. You get to know what happened to these real people who were caught up at the Algiers Motel that night. Gosh it would change their lives and the history of the city’s forever. Despite some of its difficult viewing, I’m glad I saw the movie and think it will be nominated for some awards by the end of the year.

What about you — have you read or seen any of these that I reviewed — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies, TV | 17 Comments

Everybody’s Son and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Greetings. I hope everyone is enjoying August. Warm and smoky weather persists here with most of the smoke coming from the numerous wildfires going on in the province west of us — British Columbia. I only hope firefighters can get a handle on the blazes there, or at least some help from mother nature. They could use some rain.

You see my book assistant, at left, looks concerned, but it’s likely she’s just wondering what we’re having for lunch. Food — not fires or books — is usually her main preoccupation. I’ll be in Vancouver two weekends from now to play in the national age-group tennis tournament. Let’s hope the smoky air quality there improves; they say it’s a bit like Beijing’s air at the moment. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with two reviews of what I finished lately.

Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar / Harper’s / 352 pages / 2017

This was a novel I had on my summer reading list and my first by this author who was born in Bombay, India, and now lives and teaches in Cleveland. I had heard quite a bit about her novels, and this story, which examines race and privilege in the U.S., didn’t disappoint.

In a nutshell, it’s about a nine-year-old African American boy (Anton), who after an incident is taken from his drug-using birth mother and becomes a foster child to a rich, white, U.S. judge and his wife whose son was killed in an accident. The judge is so taken by Anton that eventually he has strings pulled in order to adopt him, giving him the affluent life he never imagined. But later in life when Anton comes to discover the truth about his birth mother and what happened, he’s left to reassess those who’ve meant the most to him.

This novel I thought was well done. It’s a bit like a morality play involving race and class — and a boy caught between two backgrounds as he grows up and goes to university and then law school. It made me get into the characters’ minds about the circumstances right off the bat. I was lured into their world and felt a bit for each of them in a situation that never seems fully clearcut or good guy / bad guy — although the line the foster father crosses to adopt Anton is truly squirm-worthy.

It reminded me a bit of the novel “The Light Between Oceans” as both involve stories about raising a child that is not biologically yours. Though “Everybody’s Son” asks different questions — about one’s identity and being black or white, and rich or poor. As Anton’s college girlfriend tells him: “I can’t decide if you’re the whitest black man I’ve ever known or the blackest white man I’ve ever known.”

It also drives home the point that while one’s parents might love and have the best intentions in raising their kids, they don’t always do what’s right by them — as Anton finds out with his birth and foster parents. If you like such sticky-situation stories then this one is for you. I found the characters felt pretty real even if the construct of the story played out a bit simplistically at times. All in all, it makes me want to try out other novels by Thrity Umrigar in the future, such as perhaps “The Story Hour” from 2014. Which is your favorite of hers?

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie / Little, Brown / 464 pages / 2017

Wow this book has a bit of everything to it — part family memoir, part poetry, part remembrance, part grief book, part essay, part cultural reckoning. It took me a couple of weeks to listen to all of it as an audiobook read by the author, which I’m glad I chose since he seems born to orally narrate his works.

I’m a bit of newbie to knowing about Native American author Sherman Alexie, age 50, who I vaguely remember won the National Book Award in 2007 for his young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Somehow I missed this well-known book, but I recently heard him interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on her CBC program “Writers & Company” and I thought I’d try out his memoir.

It revolves mostly around the bittersweet relationship the author had with his mother and the years he spent growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. At the onset, he replays his mother’s illness and funeral at age 78 in 2015, and then he looks back on his years with her and his siblings. His mother had saved their lives when she quit drinking and supported them with the quilts she made, yet she was tough on them too. Alexie’s father was an alcoholic, and not the breadwinner, and Alexie’s years were often spent hungry and challenged on the reservation. He had to have a brain operation when he was six months old and was bullied at school. But somehow he persevered, and both parents apparently supported his leaving the reservation to attend high school 22 miles away in Reardon, Washington, and he never fully went back.

Sherman Alexie has quite a story, and it’s dramatically told. He doesn’t shy away from anything, whether it’s personal or he’s talking about genocide or prejudices against Native Americans. I thought some parts of the book were excellent and the author’s candid grief, anger, and humor shine through. I sympathized with him over the death of his mother, which has caused him so much pain, the brain operations he’s gone through, his life on the reservation, and the stuff he found out about a couple relatives being raped  (though I was a bit unsure from his narrative whether his mother was a product of a rape or his half-sister was, or both were). Regardless it’s a pretty emotional narrative in parts.

I also liked his poetry that he includes and narrates well. It’s interesting too he talks not only about the genocide done by whites and the damage it has caused, but also is quite highly critical of the violence and harm that Indians do to one another. Particularly he is unnerved when other Natives question his Indian-ness or his tribal affiliation, and he takes to task Indian violence on the reservations.

I gave the book 3.5 stars on Goodreads, which put me in the minority of many who liked it more. My only trouble with his memoir was that he rambles on and on from chapter to chapter (it’s not exactly chronologically told) and it felt unfocused quite a bit and overly long. It seemed to circle around and around repetitively to the same topics and I grew tired of the run-on-ness of it. It was a bit like a marathon and an endurance event (at 160 chapters!), and I wasn’t sure a few times if I was going to finish it, but in the end I managed to. It felt a bit uneven, but still I’m glad I read it; many parts of it I found were quite powerful and he had plenty of interesting things to say.

What about you — have you read this book or author, or Thrity Umrigar’s — and if so, what  did you think?

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

July & August Releases

Happy August. I hope the month doesn’t slip by too quickly as we have to make summer last as long as possible here in the North Country. It’s a grand time of year for being outside. As for book news, I was sorry to hear that the chief book critic of the New York Times Michiko Kakutani was leaving her job after 38 years. Oh I liked following her reviews; it seems she could make or break a book by whatever she wrote, and I often agreed with her favorites and was curious to see which books she was critical of. Now with her reign over, it’s an end of an era in a way, which is a bit too bad.

You might have noticed that I missed doing my July Preview post last month. It’s something I sort of like doing to keep me alert to the new releases that are coming out, but I was away then so I missed it. Still I’d like to go back now and highlight three novels that came out in July that I’m curious to read as well as three from August. Since it’s still summer, I’m keeping my reading picks not too heavy. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you thought.

Yes I’m game for Rachel Khong’s debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin,” which various bloggers have liked and reviewed. Apparently it’s about a 30-year-old girl who’s recently broken up with her fiance and moves back to her parents’ home to help care for her father who has Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s a sad topic but apparently the author infuses her diary-type of narrative with quite a bit of humor, which makes its telling fresh. As Amazon’s Seira Wilson says: “Goodbye, Vitamin” is a generous and funny novel about love, family, and finding your way.” So count me in.

I must need humor these days because my next pick is also said to be funny. It’s Andrew Sean Greer’s novel “Less” — about a middle-aged writer who accepts a series of invitations to attend literary events around the world so that he will have an excuse not to attend the wedding of his ex-lover. From Paris to Berlin and Morocco to India, it sounds like the protagonist undergoes a slew of mishaps that seem all too humorous. “Less” has been labeled a “scintillating satire of the American abroad,” but it is above all apparently a rumination on the human heart and a love story. I heard the author speak about it on the New York Times weekly book podcast and thought it sounded too fun to pass up, so bring it on.

My third pick for July releases has been a struggle to decide on as various titles are calling out to me. It’s either Michael Robotham’s latest novel “The Secrets She Keeps,” which I’ve heard is an excellent 5 star-ish kind of thriller and quite a doozy, or Jean E. Pendziwol’s novel “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters,” which is about the last family manning a lighthouse on the Ontario side of Lake Superior in the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s said to be a wonderful yarn of a story.

And good grief, I’m a sucker for anything lighthouse-y: I ate up the setting of M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel “The Light Between Oceans” and surely I’m game for more. (Please note: I also can’t pass up stories about protagonists in fire lookout towers, or for that matter, those headed on polar expeditions, LOL.) Since “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters” has received high praise on Goodreads and has an alluring cover, I’m going with it — shining light or no shining light.

As for August novels, I’m picking Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel “Stay With Me,” which Michiko Kakutani praised so highly in her last book review for The New York Times. Among other things she said it was “stunning” and “heartbreaking.”

Set in Nigeria, it’s apparently the story of a young married couple who are experiencing fertility issues. Told by both the husband and wife, the story delves into their marriage — and the forces that threaten to tear it apart.

The Nigerian author is said to be an “exceptional storyteller,” and at 29 years old, quite a talent. I can’t wait to check out her first novel.

Next up, I’ll pick Jonathan Dee’s new novel “The Locals,” which is said to work as both political allegory and an engrossing character study. It’s about the residents of a small rural working-class New England town who have their world overturned by a billionaire financier who moves there post-9/11 and becomes mayor.

As author Mary Karr says “Jonathan Dee tells a must-read story for our age. Class struggle, tyranny, America’s disillusionment after 9/11—‘The Locals’ creates a delicately drawn world impossible to forget.”

Dee is an author I have not read before, but one whose novels I would like to check out. This one seems the perfect place to start.

Lastly for August books, I’ll pick Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel “My Absolute Darling,” which sounds like a pretty terrifying story about a teenage girl who’s raised by her abusive father in the Northern California wilderness. Usually I would not go near a story like this, but apparently the teenage girl, nicknamed Turtle, is a protagonist well worth the difficult journey for her independence.

This novel has received a ton of positive hype and buzz from many authors and sources — who say it’s heartrending and impossible to put down, but I’m still contemplating whether I can handle a “Room” type of story. You recall the Emma Donoghue book from which a movie was made. If someone has read  Tallent’s novel, please tell me if it’s too much to bear.

As for movies, I pick “Dunkirk” for July releases and “Detroit” for August ones, which “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow made, based on the murder of three young African American men during Detroit’s five-day street riot in 1967. Judging by the movie’s trailer, this period crime drama looks explosive and intense. I guess I didn’t know much about the 1967 riot in Detroit, but the film was released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event, which I plan to read more about in the days ahead.

It looks like a much better film than perhaps “The Glass Castle,” which is also coming out this month. Although I loved Jeannette Walls’s memoir, the film version (sadly) doesn’t look like it will live up to her book — just judging by the movie’s long trailer. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the father looks quite off to me, but tell me if I’m wrong.

As for July album releases I’ll pick Coldplay’s EP “Kaleidoscope,” which apparently is a companion piece to the band’s prior album “A Head Full of Dreams.” The new one has just five songs on it, but I usually get what Coldplay puts out, so hence I have to go there. For August, it’s either David Rawlings’s album “Poor David’s Almanack” or Iron & Wine’s new album “Beast Epic” — there’s not much else out this month, but prepare for September as it will be huge.

Until then enjoy your summer days.

And let me know which July and August releases you have liked, or are  looking forward to.

Posted in Top Picks | 22 Comments

Dunkirk and Mini-Reviews

July has been busy. It seems I haven’t been home much to blog, or visit blogs, so bear with me. We’ve had visitors to tour around since it’s prime summertime, and a group of us here are gearing up to participate in the Canadian Tennis Nationals next month in Vancouver. It’s a tournament by age group, so you compete against your own peers no matter which decade you’re in. The local tennis men and ladies, like me, have been practicing and playing in small club tournaments to get ready. It’s been quite a bit of tennis, both singles and doubles, but hopefully it’ll pay off once we get there, or at least we’ll have a ball trying.

Last night my husband and I went to see the movie “Dunkirk” on its opening weekend and what I can say is “Whoa” — there’s some tremendous filmmaking and action in this war film based on the epic rescue in May and June 1940 to evacuate Allied soldiers — who were cut off and surrounded by German forces — from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk in northern France.

Apparently writer and director Christopher Nolan used 6,000 extras on the shoot and as many as 62 ships on the water at once to re-create the miraculous evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops by a hastily assembled fleet of more than 800 boats. The film unfolds with little dialogue and jumps around in three perspectives of what’s happening on land, air, and sea, which Nolan makes it feel like are all ongoing at once, even though the duration of these events varied: the film’s action on land took a week, the action at sea a day and the air battles over an hour.

But oh my, you are in for an experience that seems to capture WWII down to the shaking in the boots, the dirt in the teeth and the blood and sacrifice required to save Western Europe. This isn’t CGI crap, Nolan uses the real stuff: naval destroyers, spitfires, the works. By the end, I was slickened by the oil in the water and affected by the men’s stories. One of the best parts is the small recreational boats that come to help the evacuation — in which actor Mark Rylance plays a father with two sons who steers his boat to pick up soldiers lost at sea. It’s a touching and heroic effort that amazingly helped save many of the troops.

This is Nolan’s first historical film — he’s known for his Batman movies, though I liked his space flick “Interstellar” a bit more than those, but “Dunkirk” is far more exceptional. It brings to life the scope of the momentous rescue mission, so see it if you can.

As for novels this week, I’ll leave you with two reviews of what I finished lately.

Before the Wind by Jim Lynch, 2016, 304 pages, Knopf

For all those who like sailing or boating and being on the water — and maybe even if you don’t — then this novel is for you. It’s about a crazy sailing family, the Johannssens, whose grandfather and father design and build sailboats out of Seattle and who’ve instilled in the three Johannssen kids the skills and drive to compete in sailboat racing after many years of endless practice. Their mother, too, is a math teacher and whiz who regales them with the science behind things on the boat and stories of Einstein’s sailing days.

But years later the Johannssens, once a tight family, have gone their separate ways. The middle kid, Josh, now 31 and repairing boats at a marina south of Seattle, narrates the story of his life and his family’s ups and downs. And all is not well. His siblings have flown the coop — his sister Ruby to Africa, and his brother Bernard is a fugitive somewhere at sea. His father’s and grandfather’s business is involved in a boat lawsuit and his mother seems to be going a bit batty. Josh too is languishing, his dating life is pretty pathetic though it provides quite comical fodder, and his job at the boatyard is filled with sailing dreamers and losers.

It’s a family teetering under strains, but one that unexpectedly reunites when an important sailboat race brings them back together. What happens during the race — and the revelation that follows — will affect them all.

I enjoyed the characters of the story, especially the narrator’s sister Ruby, who’s the sailing star of the book. She’s almost ethereal in her command of the wind and the boat, and perhaps no love for a sister has been done so well for a long while. Josh’s narration too is filled with heart and a wry sense of humor, especially of the oddball characters at his boatyard of which there are plenty.

It’s a story that has a lot of charm to it and really delves into the details of sailing and boats and their maintenance, which some might find to be too much for them, but I have a sailing father and spouse so I could relate to quite a bit of it. The novel felt almost like a love letter to all the ins and outs of sailing in general — and the dreamers who love it — which was sort of nice and I liked its location set in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. The only trouble I had with the novel is that some parts seemed a bit slow to me midway into it as well as the parts about Einstein’s interest in sailing, which is talked about throughout the story. The focus too jumps around a bit, and it meanders on for quite awhile so I couldn’t wait for the sailboat race action near the end. I needed action by then, and luckily it came through.

Despite some slowness for me, I found “Before the Wind” a poignant novel with pleasant charm and interesting characters. For those who like dysfunctional family tales or sailing novels, it’s definitely worth a swirl. I’d be curious to pick up another of Jim Lynch’s books sometime. Have you read him?

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane, 2017, 419 pages, Eco

Where to begin with this one? I listened to it as an audiobook and it felt almost like two books to me. The first half of the novel, which I seemed quite into — is about a young girl (Rachel Childs) whose mother is a rather cold, self-help author who won’t tell her who her father is, and thus the girl goes off on a search for him once her mother unexpectedly dies. (This part sort of reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Purity” with the flawed mother and the young female daughter on an epic search for her father.)

Though eventually that ends and Rachel makes her own way succeeding as a journalist in broadcast news, until one on-air meltdown while reporting in Haiti derails her. She loses her job, and becomes prone to panic attacks, too scared to leave her house. Still when she marries the ideal guy, she thinks her life is turning around, only to have suspicions creep in later that he may not be who he says he is. Is she being crazy? Or will she have the wherewithal to figure out what’s going on?

It’s sort of an enticing premise, having an unstable protagonist try to crack her life’s case, but unfortunately I found too much of the second half of the book to be like an airport thriller that’s too far-fetched or hard to believe. Dennis Lehane, obviously, is a great storyteller with such novels as “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Shutter Island,” but this story leaves a lot of threads along the way and didn’t seem to me up to snuff as those other books.

Truth be told, I didn’t find Rachel Childs that likable or outstanding and I thought this just another summer thriller kind of book that felt a bit like nonsense in the end. Still, crazy fast-paced thrillers are sometimes what summer reading or listening is all about so I can’t dismiss it fully. It is what it is.

How about you — have you read “Since We Fell” or “Before the Wind” or seen “Dunkirk” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

The Glass Castle and A Separation

It’s good to be home after a great trip and summer vacation back East. We spent a week cottaging (my new verb) on an island along the St. Lawrence River near the Thousand Islands. See the view from the photo at left. It’s a beautiful area and river — where my husband grew up — that borders Canada and the U.S. and we visited both sides. Has anyone been to Gananoque, Ontario, or Clayton, N.Y., or Cape Vincent, N.Y.? Lovely little towns. We enjoyed bicycling the island, kayaking around, sunning and swimming (mostly my husband braved the waters while I read my book and enjoyed the views). It was a neat place to explore and we will think about it again maybe for next year.

We had a fair share of sun and rain there with a few big thunderstorms that crashed down rattling the small cottage. With all the water and humidity, it felt like a jungle out there covered with lush vegetation and trees — quite a change from out West where it’s very dry and scorched at the moment. We returned home to Western Canada to a heat wave where things are brown, and fires are raging in B.C. (Down south my father said it was 112 where they live in California, yikes!). Thankfully we are getting a thunderstorm today and a reprieve from the heat. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a couple of reviews of novels I finished on the trip.

I’m not sure why I never read Jeannette Walls’s memoir “The Glass Castle” when it came out in 2005. It was on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than five years. I think by then I might have been a bit wary or just plain scared of down-and-out memoirs about really tough childhoods. I had read Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir “The Liar’s Club” and Dorothy Allison’s 1992 semi-autobiographical novel “Bastard Out of Carolina,” both of which were pretty disturbing. There was also Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir “This Boy’s Life” and Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir “The Kiss,” both of which I knew were pretty rough and I held off on reading. I was sort of in a recovery pause from those kinds of memoirs, but then I heard “The Glass Castle” was coming out as a movie in August, and I thought it was about time I read it and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact it surprised me just how powerful it was. I completely fell into Jeannette Walls’s story on Page 1 and it kept me in its grips till the very end. For those unfamiliar with it, the memoir recounts the poverty-stricken upbringing Walls and her siblings faced at the hands of her dysfunctional parents. When she was young, the family moved around the West among small mining towns where her father hoped to find gold and strike it rich. They often lived in dirty shacks and didn’t have enough to eat or clothes to wear. Eventually they inherited a place to live in Phoenix when Jeannette’s grandmother died, but after some years they ran out of money and moved once again — this time to Jeannette’s paternal grandparents’ town in Welch, West Virginia.

It’s in Welch that things become even more dicey for Jeannette and her siblings. Her alcoholic father spends their money at the bars and her mother puts her energies into doing artwork, rather than her off-and-on teaching jobs. All the while the family resides in a small rotting house with no indoor plumbing and a roof that leaks on them. Her father promises that he’ll someday build his dream house, a glass castle on the property, which like all of his dreams never comes to fruition. Still Jeannette and her siblings persevere, leaving in their late teens for New York City, where they somehow make it, pursuing higher education and careers.

It’s quite a story, made all the more crazy since their parents wind up following them to New York, eventually living in an abandoned building as squatters. Jeannette recounts one evening while in a taxi seeing her mother picking through a dumpster for food. Jeannette and her siblings had helped her parents to get off the streets on various occasions, eventually to no avail. It’s this secret about Jeannette’s life that eventually propels her to confront her shame and open up about her impoverished childhood.

It’s a story that left me at times feeling quite exasperated and angered by her parents, who are truly neglectful of raising their kids and at times feeding them. I wanted to shake some sense into them along the way, yet surprisingly the kids make their way nonetheless and the family keeps together. The emotional bonds remain despite all the hardships, which I found surprising. It’s not a ranting memoir by an embittered daughter but rather a coming clean story about one’s past, in which the author remains in the end close to her parents.

As rough as it gets, the story luckily is not filled with a lot of physical abuse like some memoirs are about rough childhoods. I was thankful for that, and I thought Jeannette’s writing was superb — candid and evocative — and not overly wrought. Just telling it like it was. If you haven’t read it and get a chance, don’t pass the book up; there’s things to be learned from the memoir that I hope not to forget.

But judging by the movie’s trailer, there’s a chance the movie will not live up to the book for me. They make it seem sort of whimsical, as if the parents were just some unconventional, optimistic dreamers who wanted to challenge their gifted kids and have them learn the ropes a different way. While some of that may be true, from what I read in the book their grim poverty was real and the parents’ neglect of responsibilities seemed abusive; it’s a serious issue in many homes. I hope the movie treats it as such, though I agree the parents’ characters were more nuanced than being just plain bad or good; they were a mix, which makes it all the more emotionally complex. Still I hope the filmmakers have been careful to match it to what happened in the book.

Also last week I finished the audiobook of Katie Kitamura’s novel “A Separation,” which came out in February. For some reason — maybe because of the book’s marketing — the story was not what I expected but I liked it perhaps even more for that. It is actually much different than a “Gone Girl” type of thriller. Good grief, it’s an injustice to lump it together into that genre — for both fans of that genre and others who avoided it for trying to be another “Gone Girl.” For the record, “A Separation” is a slow-burn of a novel that’s much more ponderous about its themes.

It’s about a woman — a wife in London, whose mother-in-law sends her to Greece to find her son (the woman’s husband) because she hasn’t been able to get in contact with him and is worried. The husband, who’s on work travels in Greece, and the wife have been married for five years, yet separated six months ago without telling friends and relatives, maybe with a chance that they’d work it out. But when the wife gets to his hotel in Greece, she finds he’s not there but is known by the staff and is thought to be out doing research in the area, which has been charred earlier that summer by wildfires.

You get an ominous picture as the woman narrates the story of her travels to the hotel, her meetings with the staff there, her talks with her husband’s parents, and her searches for her husband. There’s not a large amount of action or dialogue in the story but it’s more consumed by the woman’s narration of her internal thoughts, feelings, and suspicions regarding her marriage, her husband’s infidelities, which you learn about, and love and divorce.

Wow this woman rattles on and on about it all. It’s quite a sad and tension-filled narration, sometimes I wanted her to stop and the story to just get on with where it was going, but most times I found her thoughts revealing and I couldn’t turn away as small details about the marriage unfold as well as those about her husband and what happened to him. It’s an internal kind of story no doubt, and in that way it might not appeal to everyone. Some might lose patience midway through and feel like chucking the novel against a wall, but I was kept intrigued and wondered admiringly who the author was and why I hadn’t know of her earlier. I found “A Separation” to be a bit unusual and a potent small gem. I will watch for whatever Katie Kitamura puts out next. Apparently she’s married to British novelist Hari Kunzru, for those who know his work.

What about you — have you read “A Separation” or “The Glass Castle,” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 20 Comments

White Fur and The Circle

I was in an outdoor club tennis tournament over the weekend that was fun but took a lot of time. It was hot and windy and yesterday temps hit 90F degrees, which is big for Western Canada; people generally sort of melt here under such conditions, but they seemed to be having fun along the river, floating rafts downstream and throwing balls for dogs.

Meanwhile my husband and Labrador were out sailing and hiking. See Stella at left. She’s a big water dog and likes to show off, leaping into the river at full run. She believes she’s the best swimmer in town, which is pretty hard to argue with since she’s so fanatical about it.

We are going away next week back East for our summer vacation. Usually we don’t go in July, but it just worked out that way. And of course it’s Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation on July 1, so it’s a big deal. We will bang pots and pans and watch fireworks and celebrate along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. From there we can see Upstate New York, but we will be on the other side of the water, sporting our Maple Leaf flags and boating around amid some of the Thousand Islands. I will report on it when I get back, until then I will leave you with two brief reviews of what I finished lately.

Jardine Libaire’s novel “White Fur,” which came out in May, is getting quite a bit of buzz this summer and I was lucky to get a copy from the library. It’s about two 20-year-olds from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for one another amid the glitz and grit of New York City in the 1980s. They meet in New Haven, Conn., where Jamie Hyde is a junior at Yale. He’s beautiful and wealthy, an heir to a family fortune with high expectations. Elise Perez lives next door in a rundown apartment with a roommate who found her sleeping in his car. Half white, half Puerto Rican, Elise is a high school dropout who doesn’t know her father and ran away from her  mother’s life in public housing in Bridgeport.

Nevertheless the attraction between Jamey and Elise is quite instant. And what seems to start as a sexual obsession becomes something greater — as they move to Manhattan together that summer. Yet as their relationship grows, there’s forces — such as Jamie’s intervening family — that threaten to tear them apart and will have consequences for them staying together. You have to stay tuned to the very end to see whether they will survive it.

It’s a story that’s been compared to “Romeo and Juliet” and Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero,” and it reminded me a bit of a mash-up of those. Of course, the theme of star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of the tracks has been done many times before, but there’s a freshness to this novel’s episodic-like telling that I found appealing. It’s raw, it’s gritty, it’s poetic at times, and there’s a feel for New York City that brings the story to life. Both protagonists’ views — Elise’s and Jamey’s — get fairly equal weight in the novel as do a bit of their family’s. “White Fur” is not only a love story, but it also focuses a lot on their class distinctions and the divide between rich and poor, which they try to transcend. The different New York City spots they frequent only highlight the melting-pot microcosm of economic society that surrounds them.

There’s not a lot of judgement in the book, other than two people trying to be together from opposite worlds. I thought the author put a lot into its writing and it came together fairly well — except for an episode or twist at the end that seemed to strain believability and that I didn’t care for. Despite that part, I rounded it up to 4 stars on Goodreads, though I don’t think it’s a book for everyone. Just fair warning: it’s rough around the edges, the sex is frequent and graphic and there’s a bit of rough language in it as well. It’s nice though that Elise and Jamey aren’t two misfit drug addicts who don’t know what they’re doing. For the most part, they’re pretty sober and clear about where their hearts come to lie.

Meanwhile, I finished the audiobook of Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel “The Circle,” which I don’t know why I didn’t get to when it came out a few years back, but it is long. And the movie of it, which came out at the end of April with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, was pretty much obliterated by the critics, with only 15 favorable ratings compared to 83 rotten ones on the site Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently it’s considered one of the biggest movie disappointments so far of 2017, probably because of how topical and good the novel was. People were waiting for it after the book but then the movie didn’t deliver. Ugh. I couldn’t even talk my husband into going.

But I’m glad I went ahead with the audiobook because I found it quite entertaining and I laughed throughout it. It’s a wonderful satire of Silicon Valley culture and social media, even if it is heavy-handed at times about its message. It seems Eggers had quite a bit of fun writing this one, sticking it to the tech giants at every turn.

It’s a story about Mae Holland who can’t believe her luck when she’s hired to work at the Circle, a Bay Area tech company that’s cornered the world market on social media and e-commerce. As she rises through the ranks, she quickly loses sight of her friends, family, and sense of self to meet her work quotas and gain social acceptance, eventually becoming privy to the company’s plans to make the world safer, which include preventing child abductions through microchips, reducing crime through constant surveillance, and eliminating political corruption through transparency via personal cameras. Soon Mae’s encouraged by the company’s founder to participate in the experiment of full disclosure to “Go Clear” and wear a camera so the public can watch and comment on her every move. But when this has consequences on her family and friends, she must decide if she’s doing the right thing, and whom to trust and be loyal to.

It’s a story that’s a little scary to think about if our every computer keystroke is quantified and tracked and there’s little to no privacy, either online or off. Is this more of what we have to look forward to in the future? It’s a grim thought and Eggers isn’t shy in his novel about showing us the downfalls of this kind of dehumanized world. Though some didn’t like the novel because they found it too heavy-handed or simplistic a screed on the tech world. And they thought Mae was too passive and accepting of the Circle’s policies.

For the most part, I found it a fairly effective satire: funny and alarming at the same time. The corporate culture at the Circle’s campus — where social activities after work hours are encouraged and tracked — are particularly laughable in the book. Pretty soon Mae is just about living on-site and it’s a stifling feeling. She’s railed on to share all of her experiences with her thousands of co-workers through inter-office messaging whether it be while out kayaking on the Bay, or visiting with her parents, or about who’s she’s dating. Oh there’s way too much sharing! It’s a social media company run amuck. You’ll want to steer clear of it if you’re ever offered work at such a place.

This was my first Dave Eggers novel, so I was pretty impressed. I thought it was a bit too long (and I’m sure overdone), but I enjoyed it and would read him again in the future. Some of his novels such as “What Is the What” and his memoir I’ve heard are excellent, so I will eventually get to them.

What about you — have you read “The Circle” or any of Dave Eggers’s novels, or have read “White Fur,” and if so, what did you think? Also Happy 4th of July and Canada Day to all who celebrate it. Enjoy.

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Saints For All Occasions and The High Mountains of Portugal

Summer days have been busy so I have been away from the blog a bit. I returned from a short trip to California to visit my folks and plunged headfirst into summer chores and activities here. See the photo at left of our bike ride in the mountains from last week. My reading has taken a bit of a hit as a result as it’s been left on the back burner, but I hope to get it back on track soon.

The two novels I finished lately both had a little about religion and faith to them, though they were not alike. You’ll notice neither are on my “summer reading list” that I put forth in my last post but I started them before “the List” was created. So I will have to jump back to that now. Meanwhile here are my reviews of the two recent books.

(The following summary was culled in part from the publisher’s description)

J. Courtney Sullivan’s 2017 novel “Saints For All Occasions” is about two close, Irish Catholic sisters that immigrate to the U.S. in the late 1950s to start a new life in Boston. The older, responsible one (21-year-old Nora) is shy and serious and engaged to a man she doesn’t know if she wants to marry; the other (17-year-old Theresa) is pretty and outgoing and loves the social scene in Boston. But when Theresa becomes pregnant, Nora comes up with a plan to right the situation that will have life-long repercussions for both of them. Fifty years later, Nora is the mother to four grown children and Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. They haven’t spoken in decades, but a sudden death in the family forces them to confront the choices they made from long ago.

The story alternates chapters of the sisters in the 1950s with those from 2009 among Nora’s grown kids and the two sisters, now in their 70s. The oldest son Patrick, who was a troublemaker growing up, is now a bar owner; then there’s John, a successful political consultant (married with an adopted child); followed by Bridget, quietly planning to have a baby with her girlfriend; and lastly Brian, living at home after a failed baseball career. It’s a well-done story and I got caught up into each of the family members’ modern lives and perspectives and how those differed from their mother Nora’s immigrant one. You get a bit from Theresa, too, about her life at the abbey and why she chose the nunnery — and most importantly why the two sisters’ lives diverged so suddenly and much.

It reminded me a bit of other Irish Catholic family tales, though I haven’t read a lot in this genre. I found it rather frustrating because of the secret kept and things left unsaid among the family members that threaten to undo them (which made me want to yell at each to spill the truth). None of the characters are exactly saints in the story and perhaps that’s the point of the book’s title. I particularly wanted to strangle the mother Nora for her stern ways, grudges, and for making matters worse, but then again she’s not altogether bad, but is caring in her own ways, which makes the novel more complex. It’s a story tinged with sadness and regret that made me think about it for quite awhile afterwards.

This was my first novel that I read by J. Courtney Sullivan and I’d be curious to read her others. I’ve heard that her 2011 novel “Maine” perhaps is the one readers have liked the most, though her two others “Commencement” and “The Engagements” are also talked about. As for “Saints For All Occasions,” I gave it a worthy 3.7 stars on Goodreads.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Yann Martel’s 2016 novel “The High Mountains of Portugal.” You might recall from his award-winning novel “Life of Pi” that Martel’s stories often unfold like fables, delving in allegory and magical realism and containing animals in them. And this novel is no exception.

The book is broken up into three different sections — each like a novella unto themselves with different main characters and set in different decades, but the stories are slightly inter-connected and all come to pass in the same area of Portugal.

It’s a strange novel that touches on faith and religion, and animals and humans. I almost gave up on the book during Part I as nothing much seemed to be happening to keep my attention. This part is set in Portugal in 1904 where a man, whose family has died, embarks on a journey using one of the earliest motor cars to find an artifact of a mysterious crucifix in the high mountains of Portugal. The premise seems enticing, but early on the story waxes on and on about the inner workings of the car and the man’s frustrations with it — and after while I just wanted to throw the audio against the wall. I was surprised — was this really the work of the great Yann Martel, the same author of “Life of Pi”? I couldn’t believe it. But somehow I kept going and eventually odd things about the crucifix artifact were revealed, including its chimp-like qualities.

Thankfully Part II picks up a bit and tells an odd story set in 1938 about a Portuguese pathologist who receives a visit from his wife who waxes on about Christianity in the works of his favorite author Agatha Christie. Afterwards the pathologist has a strange occurrence while doing an autopsy on a man whose body is filled with unusual items, including a curled up chimpanzee. What the story all means, I couldn’t exactly tell you.

But Part III is by far the best. Set in 1981, it tells the story of a Canadian senator who, grieving his wife’s death, moves to Portugal bringing with him a chimpanzee — freed from an animal research facility — as his companion. This last part is wonderfully told and almost fully made up for the other two lesser parts. All three sections are inter-connected by a character and include a protagonist who is grieving a great loss — moreover they all include chimpanzees. As far as I can tell, each story seems to be about faith or the lack of it, though I’m not sure I understood everything in them — or if Yann Martel was smoking too much dope at the time. But he seems to raise and pursue the Darwinian notion that: “We are risen apes, not fallen Angels,” which he quotes at the end of Part I.

If you liked Martel’s novel “Life of Pi,” as I did, (or the movie) you might give this one a try too. It’s not as great as that one was — but still has a few interesting things about it.

What about you — have you read either of these authors, and if so, what did you think?

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