The Stranger in the Woods and Goodbye, Vitamin

For those in the U.S., I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your turkey day and weekend are filled with plenty of good food, cheer and family gatherings. We’ve already had the holiday here, back in October, so alas, it’s the usual workweek in Canada (see my book assistant at left, napping with her dolly). Still, times feel festive and Christmas parties and decorations are already upon us. The forecast is calling for a warming trend here in which it’s supposed to reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit on U.S. Thanksgiving Day. That will definitely help us thaw out quite a bit and might melt away much of the snow by the weekend. Hooray, now all I need to do is not wipe out on the ice that’s leftover.

In book news, I want to congratulate author Michael Redhill this week for winning Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize, for his novel “Bellevue Square.” I haven’t read it just yet, but I heard the author read from it just last month at our city’s annual book festival.

It seems a bit of a page-turner, in which a woman in Toronto tries to track down her doppelganger following rumors that someone that looks just like her hangs out at Belluvue Square, a local park in the city. But when park users, eager to help her, start disappearing, things turn sinister and she must find a way to put an end to it.

It sounds like a doozy. Apparently the novel has a slew of plot twists and turns and is a bit of a mind-bender. It slightly reminds me of the Jake Gyllenhaal 2013 film “Enemy” in which he plays a man who seeks out his look-alike after spotting him in a movie. Did you see that one? It’s pretty creepy and strange no doubt.

Meanwhile I finished the audio of Michael Finkel’s nonfiction book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.” It’s a journalist’s story about a man who apparently lived alone in a tent in the woods of Maine for 27 years before being caught breaking into a camp site for food. You get to know the journalist a bit as it’s partly his story of how he comes to gradually interview and interact with this very reticent individual — the hermit Chris Knight — whom he first meets while Knight’s in jail, waiting to be sentenced for the thousand break-ins he committed in order to survive around the North Pond area of Maine.

Oh he’s no easy loner. Knight, it’s clear, wants no part of the journalist or society and would rather be left alone. It seems like pulling teeth to get his story. Even Knight’s family, being the stoic Mainers that they are, won’t talk with the journalist about him and didn’t report Knight missing when he disappeared at age 20 in 1986, yikes — he wasn’t found or captured until 2013. Still somehow the journalist gets to Knight and pieces his story together from nine one-hour interviews of him from jail.

Admittedly I had a hard time at first latching on to the story. The hermit — Knight — isn’t exactly the most likable character (he steals repeatedly and doesn’t say much for one thing), though his survival in the woods alone for so long is rather admirable and an interesting oddity. It’s curiosity more than anything that takes you into a story like this. How did he make it — especially living outside during the Maine winters without making any campfires — and why was he out there? Although he stole to survive, no one ever saw him do it and he’s said not to have really damaged property; he pried open windows apparently, using screwdrivers. There’s an unbelievability to his feat of being alone 27 years in the woods that’s hard to accept, or perhaps hard to fathom.

And I couldn’t help but compare Knight’s story a bit to that of Chris McCandless’s, who author Jon Krakauer wrote about in his 1996 book “Into the Wild” — about a young 23-year-old who goes off to live on his own in a remote part of Alaska. That’s a tragic story that gripped me from the get-go. Knight’s feat of surviving outdoors is much more successful, but his whole background and tale perhaps quite a bit less so. But I did like the fact that Knight was a voracious reader in the woods  (from books he stole at summer cabins a ways away) and also liked how in tune he was with nature and how he knew the seasons and trees and everything around him.

But perhaps what elevated “The Stranger in the Woods” story for me — was not exactly the hermit himself or the journalist’s many attempts to try to connect with him, which were often futile, but perhaps all the research the author did in the book about topics such as solitude in the wild, idleness, loneliness, survival skills, and studies of other hermits around the world. It was quite interesting, and as the book went along I got more into it.

It’s even discussed whether the hermit had Asperger’s syndrome or the like. The audiobook, too, was a good way to go because the narrator was able to credibly do the different voices for both the journalist and the hermit, who has a Maine accent. The story engaged me till the end, though I felt uneasy that the author continued to try to contact the hermit even though the guy made it clear he was done with being contacted a year or so after he got out of jail. They weren’t going to end up being true buddy-buddies just because Knight agreed to talk to the journalist for his book. That much was clear.

I also finished reading Rachel Khong’s debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” last week. It’s about a 30-year-old girl (Ruth) who quits her job and returns home to her parents’ house for a year to take care of her ailing father, a prominent history professor, who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s written from Ruth’s perspective in a diary format that details her relationships with her family, friends and her struggles over her recent breakup with her boyfriend.

There’s some amusing anecdotes and descriptions and creative turns of phrase in the story from which you can tell Ruth is a quirky but caring person. The author surely has talents about her writing, but somehow the story felt too episodic to me and not as cohesive as I would have liked.

My mind wandered too often while reading it, which is usually a sign that something isn’t working for me. The diary entries jumped around quite a bit in its telling of vignettes, and I couldn’t get fully gripped by the story. It’s too bad, I so wanted to like the novel from all the hype it received when it came out in July. It was said to be quirky, endearing, funny and heartwarming too, and it is all that in ways, it just didn’t fully capture my attention. And its ending, too, didn’t make much of an impression on me. Still I’ll be curious to see what she puts out next.

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

Posted in Books | 8 Comments

Home Fire and Ethan Frome

Last week, I tagged along a couple days on my husband’s work conference to Banff, and then when I returned home I was in a tennis tournament over the weekend so it’s been busy. Being in Banff was really nice as usual, especially as it is still a bit of the quieter shoulder season there, though the ski season is just beginning and things are starting to pick up.

I took a few walks around town and along the river and went to one of my favorite spots — the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It usually has an exhibit or two worth seeing.

This year it was Colleen Campbell’s art work of her 20 year career as a field biologist in Banff National Park tracking the patterns of bears along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Her drawings detail the bears’ individuality and show the challenges they face in the increasingly high-traffic corridor of the park. Sadly many bears over the past decades have been hit and killed by cars on the highway or by trains, though park officials are trying hard to mitigate this. I kick myself for not getting a few shots of Campbell’s work while I was there, though some of it was quite detailed and might not have shown up too well using the iPhone camera. Still it was fascinating.

Since my last post, I finished Kamila Shamsie’s novel “Home Fire,” which was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize Award, as well as Edith Wharton’s timeless 1911 classic “Ethan Frome.” Both lead up to endings that come to shattering reckonings. Shamsie’s novel is said to be a modern re-telling of Sophocles’ play “Antigone,” but it’s not something you really need to know about to follow her story. Only afterwards, did I look up “Antigone” to reacquaint my memory that it’s about a woman who attempts to secure a proper burial for her brother who is killed in battle. She has a sister too, who, unlike Antigone, hesitates to bury him out of obedience to the king’s authority.

Meanwhile, Shamie’s story is set in London and follows the lives of 19-year-old twins, Aneeka and her brother Parvaiz, who were raised by their older sister, Isma, the devout orphaned daughter of an Islamic jihadi fighter. It’s only when Isma leaves for a Ph.D program in the U.S., that things take a drastic turn. Parvaiz disappears to Syria to try to prove himself to the father he never knew, while his twin Aneeka becomes involved with the son of the British Home Secretary (a secularlized Muslim) to try to get help for her brother. But what starts as a relationship driven by motive soon develops into something much more.

Oh what a tangled web is weaved. What plays out between the two families from different neighborhoods — Isma’s and the Home Secretary’s — holds the story in the balance. Told from different characters’ perspectives, “Home Fire” deals with terrorism, religion, and politics in ways that are quite bold. I found it to be a timely and absorbing read that explores themes of love, loyalty, family, and justice. It caught me in its grip to the point that I listened to both the novel as an audiobook from the library, then when it expired too soon, I read it in hardback to pick up more of the details. I recommend both formats, though maybe even more so the audio as it’s superbly rendered and the hardback uses a font that seems unnecessarily tiny. Why do they do this to me?!

All in all, I’m thinking “Home Fire” is one of my favorite novels of the year. How it didn’t get shortlisted for the Booker Prize I don’t know. I thought it was better than Emily Fridlund’s novel “History of Wolves,” which made the Booker’s short list — or perhaps the subject matter of “Home Fire” just interested me more. It definitely surprised me because I had read Shamsie’s previous novel “A God in Every Stone” and found it a bit slow and cumbersome and a chore, but this one was lively and kept me turning the pages.

I didn’t find the story overtly pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim (the author is a Pakistani who was raised in Karachi and moved to London in 2007), but it showed people of various adherences of faith from the peaceful to the radical as well as to the secular … against the back drop of the dangerous and politicized times we live in. The roots of radicalism are explored in it as well as the pull of family — slightly similar to another novel I found thought-provoking — Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs.” “Home Fire” too has an ending that will send you scurrying for cover. A bit of a love story with a modern-day crisis about it, the novel’s themes carried the day for me.

Speaking of love story, I picked up a copy of Edith Wharton’s short novel “Ethan Frome” that was lying around my parents house when I visited them back in October. My folks had recently been in Massachusetts and had stopped by Wharton’s estate in Lennox, which is now a historic house museum. I gather my Dad was fond of the story from his school days and so bought a Signet Classic paperback Centennial Edition from the house museum. It’s the one that starts with a Foreword from author Anita Shreve who says “Ethan Frome” has “always been her favorite novel” and though she’s read it at least 20 times, she says the novel “never grows old or even fully known to me.”

And so with that, I plunged into the story set in a desolate winter landscape around the fictional farming town of Starkfield in western Massachusetts. Oh it’s a frigid place and time of year: cold, cold, cold! Brrr, the story makes you experience the freezing temps and the icy slopes as the protagonist Ethan wields his horse buggy along the rural snowbound roads. And from early on, you know something is not quite right with Ethan (now a man of 52); he’s had a “smash-up” of some sort that’s left him in a ruinous state along with his farm, where he lives with his shrew of a wife Zeena. But try as you must, you won’t find out what happened to him decades earlier until the episode plays back at the novel’s end.

It’s not a complex story. It’s about what happens when a young cousin of Ethan’s wife (Mattie Silver) comes to live with them on the farm. In due time, Ethan falls in love with Mattie but is trapped in his marriage to the awful, ailing Zeena, who moves to take from him the greatest chance at happiness he has left. Oh the story’s a heartbreaker whose shattering ending is far worse (I agree with Shreve in the Foreward) than we could have imagined.

It’s hard not to see it as semi-autobiographical — based on Wharton’s own dismal marriage that she was trapped in for 28 years to a mentally unstable man before she divorced him in 1913. Apparently she had an affair towards the end of her marriage to an American journalist that was brief but made her happy. It’s the story of Ethan Frome in reverse!

I tried to find the movie version of “Ethan Frome” from 1993 with Liam Neeson as the protagonist and Patricia Arquette as Mattie, but it wasn’t on Netflix or Apple TV. But too bad. Maybe it’s on YouTube. Guess who plays the sickly and cruel wife Zeena in the movie version? None other than the seemingly tough actress Joan Allen, who you might remember as CIA Director Pamela Landy in two of the Jason Bourne movies. Oh I fear she makes a harsh Zeena!

So thanks to my Dad for lending me a copy of his Signet edition of “Ethan Frome” and also to Brian over at the blog Babbling Books who reviewed Wharton’s short novel in October and urged me to read it. I indeed found it a classic worth visiting and Wharton a masterful author at the height of her powers.

What about you — have you read either of these novels or seen the movie — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

November Preview

We got hit with snow this past week and today the temps are hovering around 8F/-13C (yikes) — see my little pine tree out in the front yard. It stands next to a very tall parent tree, but I’ve always liked this little one best. It’s grown quite a bit since we moved here. It’s my Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I’ll put some red balls on it and maybe some lights when we get closer to that time of year, but wait, I’m jumping a bit ahead of myself. What about November? Will you be traveling for the U.S. Thanksgiving? We will be staying here and traveling instead at Christmas, but maybe we’ll make a turkey dinner.

The year is winding down quickly now and I’m trying to read some of the acclaimed books  from 2017 that I might have missed. There’s not a whole lot of notable fiction releases out this month, or albums for that matter, but movies are ramping up. In books, there’s new ones by John Banville, Janet Fitch, Andy Weir, and Louise Erdrich among others. Erdrich is sure putting out books quickly these days. It seems like it was just the other day that her novels “The Round House” and  “LaRose” came out, and now this one the “Future Home of the Living God” is already upon us.

I must say I’m quite curious to read it. If Erdrich has turned to writing dystopian/speculative fiction in this troubled day and age, then I figure I need to get to it.

A bit like Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” Erdrich’s story takes place in the U.S. in a dystopian future ruled by a religious government in which pregnant women are being rounded up and reproductive rights taken away.

But in this one, evolution is now moving backwards, affecting every living creature on earth, yikes. The protagonist is a pregnant Native American woman on a reservation in Minnesota who tells much of the story in a letter to her unborn child. I think it’ll be filled with some interesting observations and ideas, so count me in for this.

Also I might not be able to resist Andy Weir’s second space novel “Artemis,” after liking his debut book “The Martian.” This one is set on the moon several decades into the future and has a female protagonist named Jazz. She’s grown up in the moon’s only city Artemis and hopes to strike it rich doing a shady job for a wealthy businessman, but — as you might expect — it doesn’t go quite as planned.

I’ll have to read it to find out more, though perhaps I should test it out on my husband first. Readers don’t seem to be loving it as much as they did “The Martian,” but it does have some of the same kind of humor in it I’ve been told.

Next up, I’m also curious about eco-activist Bill McKibben’s debut novel “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.” With a title like that and a premise about a hippy protagonist who is broadcasting from an undisclosed location advocating that his state Vermont secede from the U.S. — it’s a bit attention-grabbing. I sort of thought Gov. Jerry Brown wishes California were totally autonomous by now, but I hadn’t thought much about Vermont in that way though there is the Bern factor.

McKibben’s story sounds like a rollicking tale of eco and political activism much in the vein of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” I like the idea of a “Fable of Resistance,” my only worry would be if it gets too didactic. But Kirkus Review says it’s a “timely yarn that, though a little obvious and a little clunky, makes for a provocative entertainment.”

Lastly in books, for those who like California noir, there’s Ivy Pochoda’s new novel “Wonder Valley.” Apparently a traffic jam is the springboard for this story about the gritty lives of Southern California drifters who are entwined first by circumstance, then by love and revenge, according to Kirkus Reviews.

I’m not too sure what to think about picking up this multi-character novel, similar maybe to the film “Crash,” but I want to try out the author, whose last novel “Visitation Street” received some high praise. She seems to be one to watch.

As for movies, November is a big month. I always fall first for the historical dramas such as “Darkest Hour,” which is coming out around U.S. Thanksgiving and stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill — oh yeah.

It’s set during the early days of WWII when the British PM must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler or fight on despite considerable odds. It’s received 70+% favorable ratings on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, quite a bit better than Rob Reiner’s movie about “LBJ” with Woody Harrelson as President Johnson, which isn’t getting too much love surprisingly. It’s cool though that Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in it as Lady Bird Johnson — so I’ll probably end up seeing it as well.

For those who liked the popular 2012 children’s novel “Wonder” about a 10-year-old boy who has a rare medical facial deformity, the movie adaptation comes out this month with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson starring as the parents. The story reminds me a bit of the films  “The Elephant Man” from 1980 and the movie “Mask” from 1985. Oh I still will watch “Mask”  if I see it while changing channels: Eric Stoltz and Cher put in some pretty good performances. But I will wait on “Wonder” for now. It might have a bit too much goo in it for me.

Meanwhile the movies “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” seem to be getting the most critical hype this month. “Lady Bird” is not about President Johnson’s wife, but is a comedy-drama about a high school girl — who gives herself the nickname Lady Bird — and her parents who move to Northern California for a year.

I must say the trailer looks pretty funny with Saoirse Ronan as the girl, who comes off smart-alecky and quirky. I have liked Saoirse’s performances in “Atonement” and “Hanna,” and  indie actress Greta Gerwig — whose roles are always a bit humorous and quirky — writes and directs the movie. So because of these two, count me in.

As for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” it looks to have a more serious storyline but apparently it’s a dark comedy about a mother who challenges the local police to solve her daughter’s murder after they fail to catch the culprit.

I didn’t have much reaction to the movie’s trailer, but it’s getting strong reviews and stars Frances McDormand as the mother. I loved her in “Fargo,” but will this be anywhere near as good? Some of the same dark humor looks to be in this one too — along with having a strong female protagonist. So we’ll see.

As for November albums, if you’re a fan of pop music, or your kids are, you’re in luck because Taylor Swift has “Reputation” coming out. Remember the days when she put out country music? No more. Just pure pop pop. Even Maroon 5 seems overtly dance pop-py these days with the band’s new album “Red Pill Blues” coming out.

For me, I usually need a little more rock (or folk) to my tunes so I’ll pick Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and their album “Who Built the Moon?” for my choice this month. Enjoy your November.

What about you — which books, movies, or music coming out this month — are you most anticipating?

Posted in Top Picks | 34 Comments

Stay With Me and The Glass Castle (movie)

Greetings and Happy Halloween. I’ll try to remember the candy for Tuesday evening. Last week, I was in Southern California visiting my parents — where I also got to see my brother and sister who gathered for a couple days. It was a scorcher there. We spent some time inland not too far from Palm Springs and also at the beach at the OC where it hit over 100 degrees. Yikes it’s never that hot at the beach! Well at least since 1965, so confirmed the newspaper. I went swimming in the Pacific multiple times — which says a whole lot — as the water is usually freezing, but it felt great this time. I guess I hadn’t been back during late October in a couple decades so I expected some autumn temps but apparently not lately. So much for fall. It was a bit confusing, though not all together unpleasant for a current resident of Canada.

While there, I finished Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel “Stay With Me.” It’s about Yejide and Akin — a young married couple in Nigeria who love each other very much but whose fertility issues end up driving their relationship to the brink. After a couple years, in which Yejide can’t get pregnant, the husband’s in-laws suggest a second wife for him, which apparently is the tradition there of having multiple wives. Though neither Yejide and Akin, who meet years before at university, really want this and conspire separately taking significant lengths for a solution to their pregnancy problems that ends up having devastating consequences.

Ohhh, there’s a lot of grief in this story, which is told in alternating chapters by the husband and wife. If only they had talked their personal problems through, but no! Too much pride and tradition seems to stand in the way. At different times, I sympathized with both of the protagonists, but I also found fault with their decisions too. Their head-space seems to drive both to make some poor choices, which put me on edge about them. Despite this, I liked how the story, which is set against a backdrop of Nigeria’s political upheavals, explores issues between tradition and modernity and masculinity and femininity, as well as self-identity. You get the feeling that these characters are pulling against the past in Nigeria while trying to step into a more modern and democratic time.

There’s quite a bit to think on in this short novel, which rolls along at a steady pace. After finishing it, I didn’t know just what I felt about it at first — for sure, I was relieved the ending was happier — but as time passed I’ve thought “Stay with Me” was potent, sad, thought-provoking and well done. It explores one couple’s marriage a little like Lauren Groff’s novel “Fates and Furies” did — combined with the backdrop and culture of Nigeria like in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah.” Both were quite effective. I’d like to read more novels from African authors, so this is a new start.

Also last week before I left for California, my husband and I saw the movie “The Glass Castle” at the $5 theater in town. Despite my misapprehensions that the movie would be bad based on the trailer and critics’ reviews and that it wouldn’t live up to the book, it ended up being quite good. So the movie proved me wrong big time! My husband and I had both read Jeannette Walls’s 2005 best-selling memoir this summer and both liked the movie.

Although it’s a rough, condensed version of her family’s story, the movie still manages to hit some of the essence of her superb book. It cuts to the universality of the parent – child relationship, and doesn’t go too easy on how terrible these particular parents were at times, though the mother seems noticeably a bit less of a problem than she appears in the book.

Brie Larson as Jeannette Walls and Woody Harrelson as her father end up being quite excellent. (Brie earns big kudos from me for taking on the movie adaptations of the book “Room” and now “Castle” in roles that surely weren’t easy.) So despite all the negative hype about the movie, I’m glad I saw it. While it might not be as shattering or as great as the memoir is, it is still worth seeing as a heart-tugging drama about children and their parents. I especially liked how they show some of the real photos of the family and places at the end of the movie. Hooray for Jeannette.

How about you — have you read “Stay With Me” or seen this movie — and if so, what did you think?

Till next time, I’ll leave you with this parting shot of the sunset at the beach in California taken by my brother while I was there. Who knew — it’s never too late in the season for beach reads.

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

The Child Finder and I Had to Survive

The annual book festival, Wordfest, was very enjoyable here last week. I went to quite a few author talks and readings and picked up a couple signed copies. My favorite talks included one from Canadian author Claire Cameron who spoke about her new novel “The Last Neanderthal,” which follows the story of two female protagonists 40,000 years apart. One character is a Neanderthal girl who’s part of a depleted family, and the other is an archaeologist who unearths her bones in the modern day.

I must say I was impressed by the author’s extensive research and knowledge of Neanderthals for her novel. She said she came up with the idea for the story in 2010 when she read an article about the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, which showed an incredible overlap of about 99.7 percent between modern humans and Neanderthal DNA. Wow, who knew we were so closely related to this archaic human species, which became extinct around 40,000 years ago. I hope to check out “The Last Neanderthal” sometime in the near future.

I also enjoyed the talk with nonfiction authors Michael Finkel and Alexis Okeowo, see photo at left. Finkel spoke about his latest book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which is about a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years in a tent. Did he really? My husband is sort of dubious of this, but apparently it is a true story of this man’s sojourn into the wilderness. He was ultimately apprehended after breaking into vacation homes to steal stuff and reintroduced back into society. I’ll be curious to see if the book is as good as Jon Krakauer’s similarly themed 1996 book “Into the Wild” about Chris McCandless who lived by himself for a while in the Alaskan wilderness. That story floored me with its tragic sadness.

I also met author Alexis Okeowo who writes for The New Yorker and spoke about her debut book “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.” Okeowo, an American raised in Alabama by Nigerian parents, seems like a talented young star and one to watch. Her book is a result of the five years she spent living in Africa and reporting across the continent.

As Publishers Weekly says of it: “Okeowo’s in-depth, perceptive reporting gives a voice to the extraordinarily courageous—and resilient—women and men fighting malevolent ideologies and organizations in their native countries.” I found the author bright and engaging. So count me in for this one.

Also at the book festival, I heard novelists Tom Perrotta speak about his latest book “Mrs. Fletcher,” which is about a 46-year-old divorcee whose quiet suburban life becomes upended when her online porn fixations start to spill over into her real life, and Ruth Ware’s latest crime thriller “The Lying Game,” which is set at a boarding school about four friends whose dicey game ends up having dire consequences. I’m not sure either novel is at the top of my list, but I did enjoy hearing them speak about their books and their thinking process in writing them. Both authors were quite impressive, and have various TV/movie options of their books in the works. See the photo of the authors above at left.

Lastly I’ll leave you with brief reviews of two books I finished last week. First Rene Denfeld’s novel “The Child Finder” is about a private investigator who specializes in missing children and gets on the case of a 5-year-old missing girl who disappeared three years ago while with her parents in a national forest in rural Oregon. Told in alternating chapters by the investigator (Naomi) and the child (Madison), you soon realize that Naomi was once a missing child herself and still has reoccurring nightmares of her days abducted that she’s still trying to figure out; and that Madison is a bright, perceptive child who is doing her best in the predicament she’s in.

It takes a while for Naomi to get any leads on the case as she pokes around the small hamlet in the forest. You wish she’d hurry up, even though it moves almost as well as a snowball downhill to its reckoning. I found the story quite visual and atmospheric, good for suspense. And the author writes about damaged people — like she did with her first novel — quite well.

My only trouble with “The Child Finder” was that I had very high expectations of it because of how much I liked the author’s 2014 debut novel “The Enchanted,” but this one I found pretty typical of other thrillers and missing children stories. I didn’t find the same spark or originality I had with her first book, which wasn’t a thriller, so this one seemed to pale in comparison. Too bad. Sophomore efforts can be hard; sometimes for the author and sometimes for the reader. Still I will continue to see what she writes next.

Also I finished the audiobook of Roberto Canessa’s 2016 memoir (written with co-author Pablo Vierci) titled “I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives.” Oh my, if you are of a certain age, you probably remember the popular 1974 book “Alive” about the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose chartered flight of 45 people crashed into the Andes mountains in October 1972. The survivors spent some 70+ days stranded in the wrecked plane near a mountain peak in sub-zero temperatures and were forced to eat the dead in order to stay alive. Ultimately two of the emaciated players hiked 10 days over the icy peak to get help for the remaining 14. It’s a harrowing and epic survival tale and more deserving than just being known for its cannibalism.

Roberto Canessa, who was 19 at the time and one of the survivors that hiked for help, revisits the story some 40 years later in the book, which is broken into two parts. In the first half, he recounts in vivid detail the horrible plane crash and ordeal on the mountain, as well as the mind-boggling hike out — without proper clothing or gear — to try to find help. It’s quite miraculous he made it that far, considering he had lost 70 pounds and was very weak and withered by the end.

The book’s second half delves into Canessa’s later life as a world-renowned pediatric cardiologist at the Italian Hospital of Montevideo in Uruguay. It recounts his medical cases, saving children with heart defects, which is also pretty amazing, along with his commitment to his patients and always having hope for them no matter how dire their health is.

Quite a bit of the book is told by Canessa, but there are various other chapters that are told by: the flight crews that tried to find them; his father who searched; as well as in the later chapters: the parents of the children he’s treated; and his son and daughter. So you get quite a few different voices telling about his life.

Although the book’s second half gets a bit redundant — involving Canessa’s various medical cases and virtues — taken as a whole his story is quite life-affirming, inspiring, and  an example of giving your all when facing adversity and always having hope despite overwhelming odds. The things that Dr. Canessa learned from the plane crash he says have helped to serve his entire life … as a doctor, father and husband. Surely he seems to have never forgotten those desperate days on the mountain and has put his time after surviving it to good use. His is a very admirable story.

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

Posted in Books | 28 Comments

History of Wolves and Lincoln in the Bardo

How is your fall going? A lot of the leaves are down here now so I need to get out and rake, rake, rake the yard. We had some snow but luckily it didn’t stick around too long, though more flakes are in the forecast. This week is busy with the book festival, Wordfest, going on here; I think I’m attending eight author events. Most notably perhaps is an evening with authors Tom Perrotta and Ruth Ware. I’m also looking forward to seeing nonfiction author Michael Finkel who wrote “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which came out this year and I’m on the wait list for at the library. I’m sure there will be plenty of other interesting readings and talks,  mostly by Canadian authors who are featured here, so I will let you know how it goes.

Also kudos to British author Kazuo Ishiguro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, Wow. I thought it was a good choice. I loved his novels “The Remains of the Day” (1989) and “Never Let Me Go” (2005) — so sad and good. I’d like to read more of his books including “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986) among others. I’ve heard various people say that “An Artist of the Floating World” is their favorite of his novels, but I think “Never Let Me Go” is hard to beat. Which one is your favorite of his?

Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished last week. Both of them happen to be shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Set in Northern Minnesota, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves” is a coming-of-age story that is quite unsettling. It’s about a 14-year-old girl (Linda) who lives with her parents in a drafty cabin in the woods by a lake, where they once were apart of a commune. She’s a lonely girl, unsupervised most of the time, who comes to be the babysitter for a 4-year-old boy whose parents have a place a mile or so away. Something happens to the boy — you learn this at the very beginning, though it’s not revealed then how — and the girl, Linda, who doesn’t see it coming, is haunted by it in the years after.

Told in the first person by Linda, the story delves back and forth in time over her young life there and her relations with the boy and his parents — as well as there’s a side story about Linda’s high school history teacher, who she’s drawn to, that’s accused by a student of wrongdoing. This side part turns out to have some thematic parallels with the main story about the boy, though it’s not evidently clear what those are until the very end.

I’m still rolling over in my mind what I thought of the novel. It sort of creeped me out in a bit of an icky way, but it did get under my skin. It very slightly reminded me of Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You” because the boy’s fate is known at the beginning (like Ng’s character’s is), and because I wanted to shake some sense into each of these characters at some point, just like I did with Ng’s book. You’ll figure out what happens long before Emily Fridlund’s character Linda does, but like her, you probably won’t want to see it coming.

I guess I’m a bit surprised “History of Wolves” was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. For one thing, it’s a debut novel — and for another, I didn’t realize they pick many in this psychological thriller genre for the award (but maybe that’s just my own misconception). Also some of the threads of the story seemed to strain one’s sense a bit — though I do agree it is a pretty visceral debut — both a bit moving and disturbing. I will watch to see what the author writes next.

Second up, I finished listening to the audiobook of George Saunders’s offbeat and much-talked-about novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which features 166 different actors’ voices for the many parts — perhaps the record for any audiobook. Surely all the different voices light up the story. It’s a lyrical narrative and at times the chapters sound like poetry and at other times the scenes of the interaction between characters come off like a play.

The novel has quite a few components to it, but mainly it intermixes historical parts about President Abraham Lincoln after his 11-year-old son Willie dies in 1862 — with a fictional story about ghosts in limbo of those dead, including Willie, who hang out at the cemetery where he is buried. It’s quite a motley crew of the undead who are in various states of decay that befriend Willie. They yammer amongst themselves about their past lives and their anxieties of their current limbo.

I didn’t know exactly what to make of all the ghosts. Some are comical and some tragic; they made me contemplate otherworldly states a bit. But despite their colorful liveliness, I was more drawn in the story to the interspersed historical parts about Lincoln that Saunders compiles from bits of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, testimonies, and history books. Some of these sources are fictional, while others are real. They are quite fascinating, and give a portrait of Lincoln that shows his utter grief over his son’s death, the struggles he has with his faith, and the loss of lives in the Civil War. It’s a sobering and sad view of the president and all that was happening at the time. (I guess I didn’t realize either that there was a party given at the White House the night Willie lay ill and dying upstairs, which only compounded the Lincolns’ grief later.)

All in all, I enjoyed the language of “Lincoln in the Bardo” — which made it feel like it was 1862 — and its imagery and history. Though there were times in the audio that I became lost with who was speaking and what was happening — due to the immense number of characters and facets to the story, and therefore I should go back at some point and read the print version as well. Despite its brevity, there’s quite a bit to take in. Some parts of the novel worked better for me than others, yet I still think it’s likely to win this year’s Booker Prize.

Finally last week my husband and I saw the movie “Battle of the Sexes” about the 1973 tennis match between then-world No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champ and hustler Bobby Riggs. Oh it’s an enjoyable movie and is about much more than tennis (which is mostly at the end of the film). It delves into the personal lives of both Billie Jean and Bobby at the time, and the social change that was going on in the country. With Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby what are you waiting for? They are terrific in the roles — even if slightly nuanced from the real Bobby and Billie Jean.

Surely pro athletes such as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have much to thank (as we all do) for the early women pioneers of the sport, who are highlighted in the movie, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement of women’s equality and workplace fairness … which is clearly evident this week by the abhorrent story of Harvey Weinstein and how he conducted business at Miramax films for decades. In regards to all these cases that have recently come forward (with Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly etc.) —   “Battle of the Sexes” seems to be still highly relevant and timely in a number of ways.

That’s all for now. What about you — have you read these books or seen this movie and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

Mini-Reviews and October Releases

Ahhh it’s October. I hope you are enjoying fall where you are. It’s been nice here the past few weeks and I love the colors. But wait, what’s this I hear … they’re calling for 10 to 20 cm of snow today on Monday; are you kidding me?! Darn, the only happy camper will be our dog, Stella, who enjoys the cold. We’ll see how much we get. Meanwhile there’s only three reading months left of the year, so I’ll try and bear down to get to some of the better novels of 2017. This month an array of new releases look to be enticing and I’ll discuss those in the paragraphs that follow, but first I’ll leave you with a couple of brief reviews of what I finished last week.

Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel “Outline,” the first in a trilogy, is one of the more different novels I’ve read this year — the story follows a woman who travels to Athens to teach a summer writing workshop and details the conversations she has with various people and friends she meets there. Not much is divulged about the woman herself but those she’s in contact with tell her much about their daily lives, such as their loves, losses, ambitions, perceptions and things that have happened to them. Quite a few of them have been divorced or have had relationships that have fallen apart.

They spill the beans to her, so the woman must be a sympathetic listener, though she isn’t much of a talker. You get only glimpses of what she’s about and her background. Over time from bits and pieces you gather: that she’s from London, she’s divorced, has two sons and is in debt. Only towards the end do you learn her name is Faye. It seems her divorce has been rough on her — like quite a few of those narratives she listens to — which are from students, or fellow writers or friends or the man she sits next to on the plane. All of the narratives put together feel sort of like a meditation on the relations between men and women.

It’s not much of an action story, more of a thinking one, but I found Cusk’s writing kept my attention. Her descriptions were restrained but often pitch perfect; they seemed to capture some of Faye’s inner mood and the different kind of living she mentions trying to start. A few people have told me they didn’t care for the novel and I can see where it wouldn’t be for everyone — a story made out solely of conversations between various people and the main character — can get old, but for the most part I thought Cusk wrote it well enough to pull it off. She seems quite a smart cookie and though I’m not sure I understood everything she mentions in her short novel, I appreciated the command of her writing.

I eventually plan to get to her second book in this trilogy — “Transit” — which has recently been shortlisted for Canada’s 2017 Giller Prize.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Graham Norton’s 2016 debut novel “Holding,” which I’m pleased to say was a total delight. I went into the story blind and didn’t realize until after that the author is a TV and radio presenter in the U.K. Do you know of him? His novel is about a small village in Ireland whose inhabitants’ lives are disrupted when decades-old human remains are discovered on an old farm. The remains are suspected to be those of Tommy Burke, a former love of two different ladies in town. As police Sergeant PJ Collins tries to solve the case (the first real one of his career), a lot of resentments, secrets and regrets are stirred up in the community along the way.

It’s an enjoyable small caper of a story — revealing the lives of half a dozen characters in the village. I got right into it and found the storytelling quite entertaining, especially with a bit of the spotlight on overweight Sergeant PJ Collins, who is quite a sympathetic hoot. You’ll have to wait till the very end to find out about the case, but that’s not really the story’s main appeal. Instead it’s the frumpy village and the characters stories. I thought it had a lot of charm and heart to it — as well as being funny and sad at times too.

The author reads the novel for the audio and performs all the parts very well — making it one of my favorite audios of the year. Who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised if a second novel with police sergeant PJ Collins were to follow.

But now on to October releases and my, there’s a slew of upcoming ones by an array of well-known authors, including Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Mark Helprin, T.C. Boyle, Jeffrey Archer, Walter Isaacson, and even a memoir by Amy Tan. I’m zeroing in on a few others that I’d like to get my hooks into.

Most noticeably the marketing has been high for Jennifer Egan’s new novel “Manhattan Beach.” Gracious it’s been all over the place. If for some reason you were on Mars and missed her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which I did, then there’s time to get back onboard with this more traditional historical novel of hers. It’s said to be set on the Brooklyn docks during WWII and follows an intrepid young woman into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Hmm, I’m game as I need to try Egan out. She seems to be the literary darling of most every critic.

Also Jeffrey Eugenides has a collection of short stories out called “Fresh Complaint” that I probably will grab. Ever since he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Middlesex” and I read his novel “The Marriage Plot,” I’ve been keen on his fiction.

The stories in this new book are said to be ones he’s been steadily producing through the years; even his M.F.A. thesis is included within it. I may not be a frequent reader of short story collections, but if it’s from Eugenides then I must venture forth for it. Still I must ask: when is his next novel coming out?!

Next up, there’s British author Naomi Alderman’s dystopian novel “The Power,” which won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. A protege of Margaret Atwood’s, Alderman’s book was influenced by and dedicated to her. It’s apparently about teenage girls who develop the ability to inflict pain through jolts from their fingers, thus enabling them to become the dominant gender and resetting the world’s order. As the Guardian’s reviewer says of the book: “What starts out as a fantasy of female empowerment deepens and darkens into an interrogation of power itself, its uses and abuses and what it does to the people who have it.” Hmm, count me in.

Lastly in books for October, I’m curious to check out Irish author Jon McGregor’s novel “Reservoir 13” and perhaps C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel “The Floating World” too. Apparently McGregor’s latest is an atmospheric novel that begins as a mystery about a disappeared 13-year-old girl in an English village and morphs into something a bit different. Instead it chronicles the lives of the villagers over the years and the impact the girl’s disappearance has on them. McGregor seems to be a rising star with three of his four novels being longlisted for the Booker Prize, so I’m game to try out this new one.

As for C. Morgan Babst’s novel “The Floating World,” which is also getting high praise, it’s about a New Orleans family that is shattered and scattered by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Said to be another essential Katrina story, it “explores family, race, class, and the essence of disruption,” so says author Walter Isaacson, who calls it a powerful and lyrical novel. I still haven’t read Jesmyn Ward’s novel about Katrina “Salvage the Bones” — but this one sounds like I need to add it to the pile as well.

In movie releases for October, there’s a lot coming out. For those “Blade Runner” fans the sequel “Blade Runner 2049” looks to be very favorable with critics scoring 85 on Metacritic and 96 on Rotten Tomatoes. Still even though I like Ryan Gosling and all that, I’m not really keen to see it. Don’t ask me why — the trailer just didn’t appeal to me.

But I am a bit interested to see the movie about the early law days of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice who served 24 years on the high court. It’s called “Marshall” and stars Chadwick Boseman — who played Jackie Robinson in the movie “42” — as Thurgood. Apparently it’s about a lawsuit he worked on before his landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. I wonder why they didn’t choose that case for the movie?

I’m also a bit curious about the murder mystery, crime thriller “The Snowman” based on the book by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. The movie stars Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole who investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman. I haven’t read the book, but I rarely skip a major Fassbender film (with the exception of the “X-Men” stuff). He’s usually divine.

Neither of the movies “Marshall” or “The Snowman” has received any reviews yet, so I’m winging it on my picks. I couldn’t seem to select the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet plane-crash flick “The Mountain Between Us” because the content of its trailer seems to strain credulity left, right and center, but perhaps the movie could make a decent rental if you want to be stuck with them, lost on a mountaintop.

Finally in albums releases for October, there’s new ones by Liam Gallagher, Beck, and Robert Plant among others — all worth listening to. Though since I’m a fan of folk music, I’ll pick The Weather Station’s new album, which is conveniently titled “The Weather Station,” and is a Canadian band fronted by Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman. She’s quite good.

That’s it for me. What about you — which October books, movies, or music are looking forward to?

Posted in Books, Top Picks | 26 Comments

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 | 24 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?

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