Girl in Glass / Review & Giveaway

I’m not a mother, nor have I read many childbirth books, but I snapped up a review copy of Deanna Fei’s 2015 memoir “Girl in Glass: How My ‘Distressed Baby’ Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles” because I was curious about what the author and her family had endured and had to say. I wasn’t aware beforehand that she and her baby had been in the news in 2014 after AOL’s CEO had signaled out her baby’s healthcare costs, along with another’s, as a reason why he was cutting the company’s employee benefits. (More on this in a bit.)

Instead I picked up the book blind, whipping through the first half of the memoir, which is a nail-bitting account of how the pregnant author woke up one morning to find herself in labor at 25 weeks — over three months ahead of her due date. It hadn’t been a high-risk pregnancy; she had given birth to a healthy boy just a year earlier, and the new baby, a girl, was on schedule and healthy, according to her doctors. But for unknown reasons, the baby girl came very prematurely, weighing just 1 lb, 9 oz after being delivered by an emergency caesarean section. As a result, she was kept in intensive care for months and underwent various health complications.

“Girl in Glass” navigates the parents’ journey, specifically the mom’s, through these incredibly difficult and uncertain times. It’s very open and personal about her fears, her marriage, and the guilt over why the premature birth happened and her thoughts of whether the baby should be “let go.” She describes her and her husband’s harried lives commuting back and forth from their Brooklyn home caring for their lively boy, back to the Manhattan hospital where their daughter lay in a glass isolette hooked up to a contraption of wires. There’s times the author seems to be on the verge of a breakdown, unable to sleep and endlessly pumping milk to try and feed her tiny daughter. You can only hope beyond hope for the baby’s survival and improvement.

Towards the end of “Girl in Glass,” the author delves into a 2012 incident at a town hall meeting in which her husband’s then-employer, the CEO of AOL, blamed the healthcare costs of covering two “distressed babies” for the reason the company was cutting employee retirement benefits. Many surmised he was talking about their daughter, which he was. The whole thing, which seems terribly offensive and illegal — that of a CEO meddling in employees’ health expenditures and disclosing others’ medical information under the label of “distressed babies” — caused a national uproar and led the author to rebut him in an essay on Slate, ultimately earning the CEO’s apology.

At the end, “Girl in Glass” raises a lot of pertinent issues surrounding both premature babies and medical privacy infractions, which I found quite illuminating and relevant considering both are on the rise. Author Deanna Fei also lays out the history of neonatal care and today’s guidelines on which preemies are usually saved; at her daughter’s birth at 25 weeks, only half of the babies are said to survive, and many of those are disabled. Fei’s story packs a wallop for her candor during her daughter’s struggles, and is informative about issues that many of us never imagine, or plan on, could happen to our families.

What about you — have you heard of “Girl in Glass” or this author’s circumstances — and if so, what do you think? Or do you know of similar circumstances?

Thanks to Tandem Literary and Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy Of “Girl in Glass” to review.

For those interested in the book, I have one copy to giveaway, just leave your interest in the comments and I will randomly draw a winner.

My Sunshine Away

A hardback library copy of M.O. Walsh’s 2015 debut novel “My Sunshine Away” accompanied me on vacation as my husband and I traveled over hill and dale recently through parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec. We were attending a family reunion for a few days and then took a bicycle trip, and luckily the book did not get rain damaged in my bike pannier, though a paperback copy probably would have been easier to lug.

I’ve been surprised to see some readers refer to “My Sunshine Away” as a crime or mystery novel. Although a crime does take place in it that is eventually solved, to me it’s much more a coming-of-age tale set in the South. And I for one, find it hard to resist really good coming-of-age stories — whether it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Catcher in the Rye” or Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” or this one, I feel the need to consume it rather completely.

For those who haven’t heard, “My Sunshine Away” is about an adolescent boy growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose life changes when a girl that he has always had a crush on is raped in his quiet suburban neighborhood in the summer of 1989. He’s so obsessed with the girl, Lindy, that he ends up becoming a suspect in her assault. Yet later he and Lindy bond after his family suffers a tragedy. What happens to their relationship collides at the end with an attempt to solve her rape case.

Judging by comments on Goodreads, people had a pretty diverse reaction to this novel, most really liking it, while others did not. I think some readers had problems of being stuck inside the mind of an adolescent boy who’s totally obsessed with the girl next door. His infatuation perhaps gets too much or endless for some. But I think the kid, a young sort of lost teen, is trying to find himself — a bit like Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” — and find his way in that specific corner of the world in Baton Rouge. He’s going through tough stuff: his parents become divorced, his family suffers a tragedy, he’s desperate for a girl. He narrates as he learns looking back at these years, what it meant, and how the crime of her rape affected him and the whole neighborhood.

I found the story quite immersive and moving, and amusing in places despite it’s dark subject matter. I thought a lot of the writing was wonderful, and two chapters in particular stuck out for me. In one he describes what happens at school the day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, which is quite a scene. In the other he tells how Baton Rouge differs from New Orleans, and what happens later in life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The novel’s sense of place and time, specifically for the South in the 1980s, is terrific throughout.

I would highly recommend “My Sunshine Away” for readers who especially like coming-of-age tales, or stories set in the South. Enjoy this quirky heartfelt gem.

Summer Break

I’ve been away this past week and unplugged of gadgetry. My Hub and I are bicycling in Quebec on a self-supported tour and are enjoying the scenery. I plan to be back shortly after a few final days exploring Montreal. So I will talk to you soon. Meanwhile happy trails and reading. I’m interested to hear what books you are delving into this week and what you think of them?

Beryl Markham and Circling the Sun

I first came across Beryl Markham’s memoir “West With the Night” in the late 1980s when I was working at an independent bookstore in Colorado. The 1942 book apparently had been collecting dust in an attic when it was re-discovered and re-published to much acclaim in 1983. It became an international bestseller and that’s when I first got my hooks into it.

Many know by now that Beryl Markham was raised in Colonial Kenya in the 1920s. She was an independent woman before her time, becoming a racehorse trainer, a bush pilot, and the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936. She then became an author, of “West With Night” and also wrote other stories that were posthumously published in “The Splendid Outcast.” She was married three times and apparently had various lovers and affairs during her life, including some say to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester.

But Markham’s memoir “West With the Night” doesn’t really include any of her juicy personal life; it’s mostly about her adventures in Africa, her love of animals, and her flights as a pilot. Still it’s a terrific read and made quite an impression on me. Right after I read it, I got a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s biography of Markham called “Straight On Till Morning,” which came out in 1987 and is a definitive source on her life. Lovell was able to interview Beryl and her relatives quite extensively before Beryl passed away in 1986, which makes it quite a read. If you’re at all interested in this remarkable adventurer, you should check out this very interesting biography.

Which brings me to the latest book on Beryl’s life: Paula McLain’s novel “Circling the Sun.” At the start I was a bit wary of it since a novelization of a famous person can be a bit dicey, don’t you think? I’ve always been a bit leery of authors who make up words and thoughts for iconic figures. What if they misrepresent them? Who are they to say? But I ended up really liking “Circling the Sun” and thought it had the right tone of Beryl Markham. It sounded like her from her own books. I found “Circling the Sun” to be an addicting read, and I wanted it to keep going, telling her life story well after the book ends in the 1930s. Markham didn’t die until the 1980s so there was much more to be told.

But McLain focuses on Beryl’s early years, what made her like she was, from a kid into her thirties. She delves into her personal life, how she grew up without a mother, and how she became linked with the men she would marry and others she would love. Particularly Denys Finch Hatton! The same man that Karen Blixen (i.e. Isak Dinesen) lived with and loved. The book explores their love triangle and the tragedy that ended it for good. Though surprisingly, “Circling the Sun” doesn’t delve hardly at all on Beryl’s piloting days, only at the very end. I thought more time could have been spent on her days as a bush pilot, which are quite amazing in “West With the Night.”

But on the whole, I found McLain’s book included many beautiful passages and writing. It was evocative of the time, and poignant in places; she told Beryl’s story well. But I guess not everyone’s been so keen on “Circling the Sun.” First off, biographer Mary Lovell wasn’t too pleased that McLain used the material or information that Lovell had researched for her biography and turned it into a novel without initially giving her her due. But McLain has since put Lovell in her book’s acknowledgements apparently.

Secondly in a New York Times review of “Circling the Sun,” Alexandra Fuller called McLain’s writing “insipid,” “sentimental,” and “exasperating,” which I didn’t find it to be. Fuller’s angry, too, at the “settlers who used Kenya as their hapless playground at catastrophic expense to those who called Kenya home long before the whites arrived.”

But to Beryl, Africa and Africans seemed the world to her. She was close to them; she trained with tribesmen in her youth. It didn’t appear to be a playground, it was her home for the majority of her life until her death in 1986. I stick by my impressions of “Circling the Sun” and think others — who are interested in Africa or this time period, or this remarkable woman — would like it as well.

Thank you to the publisher who supplied me with a copy to review via NetGalley of Paula McLain’s “Circling the Sun.”

What about you — have you read Paula McLain’s new novel, or any of the books about Beryl Markham — and if so, what did you think?

My Salinger Year and August Preview

It’s already August, which leaves me with a slight panic that fall is imminent when all I really want is summer to last … and last and last. Such is life living in a northern country. This week I finished the nonfiction audiobook “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff and I’m half way through the novel “Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain. I also saw the movie comedy “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer (it’s raunchy-crazy if you like that) and rented the sci-fi thriller “Ex-Machina” (don’t miss Oscar Isaac as a bad bald guy in this).

I was turned on to Joanna Rakoff’s “My Salinger Year” by Sarah over at the blog Sarah’s Book Shelves who had highly praised it last year as one of her favorites. Indeed it is an amusing and poignant coming-of-age memoir about a 24-year-old, who after completing graduate school, lands a job in 1996 as an assistant at a heralded literary agency in New York.

When I told my husband I was listening to the audiobook of “My Salinger Year,” he commented that he disliked authors that used famous people to write book exposes about, as if it were like the chauffeur of Marlon Brando divulging his secrets. I told him it wasn’t really like that. Sure J.D. Salinger figures in the book (and a few tidbits about him are learned), but it’s more a memoir about a girl’s start in life, getting her first office job and what transpires during that meaningful year in her life.

It’s wonderful too that author Joanna Rakoff reads the book for the audio. Perfect really. I listened to it twice while walking our dog this week as it’s light and not very long. It made me laugh at points, and reminded me of some of my first office jobs in my early twenties. Part of the memoir goes into Rakoff’s job at the literary agency and what her tasks are like, her dealings with her boss and the other agents; while the other part of the memoir deals with her personal life, her then-socialist boyfriend Don, her family, friends, place in Brooklyn, and aspirations. It’s all melded together in quite an engaging way.

As for J.D. Salinger whom the agency represents, Rakoff does meet him and talks with him over the phone. She becomes a fan of his works after reading them during her year there, and learns that “The Catcher in the Rye” was once rejected by a publisher before being snatched up by Little Brown and published in 1951. Can you imagine the publisher that passed over “The Catcher in the Rye”? Holy smokes it only missed like a billion in sales and credibility.

I think if you’re interested in the publishing industry, or in Salinger’s works, or just in a light, amusing coming-of-age memoir of an aspiring writer — you’d like “My Salinger Year.” The audio was refreshing on my summer walks, and made me want to revisit Salinger’s books in the future. Rakoff has a gifted touch and is a writer to watch.

As for books coming out in August, there’s quite a load and I’m still grappling with which ones I’m most interested in. Veteran authors Shirley Jackson (posthumously), Haruki Murakami (two novels reissued), and short-story master Ann Beattie all have new books due out. But perhaps I’m most curious about Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson’s second book “Fortune Smiles,” which is a collection of six short stories that Publishers Weekly calls “hefty and memorable.” Something tells me that whenever or whatever Johnson writes, I need to read it fairly pronto.

I’m also hoping to check out Rajia Hassib’s highly praised debut novel “In the Language of Miracles” about an “Egyptian-American family and the wrenching tragedy that tears their lives apart.” It’s been hailed by author Laila Halaby as “a gripping, hold-your-breath exposé about being Muslim in post-9/11 America where the heinous act of one can demonize all.” But, she says, “it’s also a universal, multi-generational, immigrant tale.” Judging from the positive reviews of it on Goodreads — which call it powerful and moving — I’d definitely like to snag a copy.

I also like the look of Meg Waite Clayton’s WWII novel “A Race for Paris” about “two American journalists and an Englishman, who together race the Allies to Occupied Paris for the scoop of their lives.” I’m not sure I can resist this historical novel based on real frontline stories of female reporters during WWII. I worked at a newspaper after all and still need to read the biography of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, which my dad gave me years ago. It’s high on my shelf and would be a good companion most likely to reading “A Race for Paris.”

Lastly in books, if I need one more summer beach or plane read, which I likely do, I might turn to Lucy Clarke’s novel “The Blue” about “a group of friends whose journey around the world on a yacht turns from a trip to paradise into a chilling nightmare when one of them disappears at sea.” It’s said to be a real page-turner and would likely do well preoccupying me when I fly to the other coast for summer vacation in a week. I have not read any of Lucy Clarke’s thrillers, but it appears her books have quite a large following.

As for movies coming out in August, it appears a few well-known actresses have light comedy-dramas due out: Meryl Streep is in “Ricki and the Flash,” Lily Tomlin is in “Grandma,” and Patricia Clarkson is in “Learning to Drive.” All of these movies look half-way decent though I’m not sure what to think of the preview of Streep as an aging rock musician who returns home looking to make things right with her family. Hmm. Writer Diablo Cody got it right in “Juno” but will “Ricki and the Flash” be half as good? Perhaps I’m a bit more curious about the sci-fi drama “Z for Zachariah” at the end of August, which is about three nuclear war survivors that wind up in a love triangle. Come on, it’s got Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie. Everyone else on Earth is gone. Somehow I knew Chris Pine would make it after the apocalypse. :-)

In albums due out in August, there’s new ones by Iris Dement, Grace Potter, Rob Thomas, and Wilco among others. But I think I’d like to check out the latest album from Seattle indie folk singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen called “Carry the Ghost.” I don’t know Gundersen’s music yet, but I like the sound of the album’s pre-released single “Slow Dancer,” so I plan to listen to more once it’s available.

How about you — have you read Joanna Rakoff’s book “My Salinger Year,” or seen Amy Schumer’s movie “Trainwreck” — and if so what did you think? Or which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Dabbling and Boundless

I’ve always been a monogamous reader. I read one book at a time while giving it all my attention. I know it sounds pretty boring, right? But I thought it helped with my focus and speed of the book at hand. However just this week while I was slowed in the middle of a nonfiction book, I picked up both a novel and an audiobook. And voila, I became a multi-book reader. Not only was I breezing through a couple newspapers a day, but I was also dabbling in three books at once. Ohh it was nice! How did I not do this before?! My focus seemed undeterred, and even felt heightened, and my speed had me moving through three books at a good pace instead of languishing in one. I was able to finish the nonfiction that had dropped off for me, which was a relief. I plan to continue on with reading one nonfiction book, one novel, and listening to one audiobook at a time. I think it might be the right mix to keep things moving. How about you — are you a monogamous or polygamous reader? And how has it worked for you?

This week I finished Kathleen Winter’s 2014 nonfiction book “Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.” I had liked Winter’s last book, a 2010 novel called “Annabel,” about an intersex child that is raised in a remote coastal town in Labrador, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. She’s an English-Canadian author who signed a copy of “Boundless” for me at our city’s book festival last fall.

The book is about a two-week summer journey Kathleen Winter took in 2010 through the storied Northwest Passage. She went aboard a ship with many others including marine scientists, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. With them, she visits Greenland, Baffin Island, and all along the passage, noting what it’s like in the far North and the changes going on there. It’s a travelogue of what she sees and what she learns from other passengers, a couple of whom she bonds with have Inuit backgrounds. Her book also delves a bit into her personal life and journey: emigrating from England to Canada as a child, becoming a widow with a child from her first marriage, and having another daughter in her second marriage.

“Boundless” had all the ingredients I thought I would love: part travelogue of an intriguing place, and part memoir of a successful author. Are you kidding? How many Arctic and Antarctic explorers’ books had I read over the years? A handful on Shackleton alone and a number of others as well. Gosh I was envious of Kathleen Winter going on a voyage like that. Darn her, I don’t think it even cost her much because she was the writer-in-residence onboard, but normally it’d have cost a sizable chunk of money to go. I’d need to win the lottery.

Till then it’d be Kathleen Winter’s book. And while I liked “Boundless,” it wasn’t as great as I thought or hoped it would be. It seemed uneven, some parts were quite interesting and other parts not so much. I got the gist of her outlook of trying to view things not in terms of the White Male Explorers and their northern conquests, but more in terms of the land and the Inuits or Natives. She does talk about Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, especially since their ship follows his route, but her focus seems to be more on the land and Natives along the way and their cultural ways and words, which was interesting but also seemed in glimpses.

In general the book came off more as her impressions or reflections while in the North. I guess I was looking for it to be a little more substantial. It felt a bit flimsy in parts, or dreamy, as she tries to describe throughout how it feels being at one with the environment, how the land affected her, or what conversations she was having with other passengers. The book was okay but I wanted or expected more. Still many on Goodreads rated it high, and I think it would appeal to nature readers among others.

How about you — have you read any great travelogues, or natural history kinds of books? If so what were they and what did you think?

Audiobooks and Long Man

I don’t often listen to audiobooks although it’s not because I don’t like them. I do. It’s just that I’m either not in one place long enough (I don’t have a long commute), or I don’t have a system worked out of listening to the endless hours behind them. There are remnants of audiobooks I’ve started (five discs in, five more to go) that I have not finished over the years. Perhaps I could remedy this by listening more to audiobooks on my iPod while gardening and dog walking.

I find audios enjoyable but also different for me than reading books. I either experience them differently, or focus differently, or use different muscles :-). Sometimes I worry I’ll miss small details if they’re spoken and not in print, or else I’ll lose my place when I put an audio aside. For various reasons I guess I much prefer reading over audios but every once in a while I’ll treat myself to listening to a production of a good narrator breathing life into a novel. What are your thoughts on audiobooks? Do you find them as effective as reading books? When do find the time to listen to them? And do they count in your book totals?

Last week I (finally) finished the audio of Amy Greene’s 2014 novel “Long Man,” which we had started in June while driving to Glacier Park in Montana. It consisted of just 9 CD discs but somehow those seemed to last a lifetime. Still I was transfixed at times to the story and actress Dale Dickey’s voice who told it. She was the perfect narrator with her Tennessee accent where the story is set and by giving all the characters such an emotional authenticity.

The novel takes place over a few days in 1936 as the government plans to dam the Long Man River in East Tennessee and flood a small Appalachian town to bring electricity and jobs to the region. Just a few holdouts remain, notably Annie Clyde Dodson, who wants to keep her family’s mountaintop farm and is protesting the power company from driving her out. But as the deadline looms for her to leave, a storm rages and her three-year-old daughter, Gracie, goes missing.

Did Gracie drown amid the rising river, or did Amos, a drifter who’s returned home to wreak havoc on the government’s plans, take her? You won’t know till the very end. But meanwhile the book is quite a bit more than just the one storyline. It’s very descriptive and goes into the whole Appalachian town and community and what’s happened to it during Depression times.

There’s various characters, too, that the story gets into the heads of, namely Annie Clyde, and her husband James Dodson, her aunt Silva, Amos the drifter, and the woman who raised him, the town’s sheriff, and the man from the power company. It takes a little while to keep them all straight, but including them all infuses the story with a fuller picture of it from various angles. Just a few times I wanted to clobber the ever-stubborn and at times crazy Annie Clyde for not getting out and saving her family before the flood. Though she doesn’t seem to listen.

Still I’m quite amazed by author Amy Greene’s gift for storytelling and writing in “Long Man.” The amount of detail she uses in itself is luminous. I haven’t read her first novel “Bloodroot,” which was highly praised as well, but I’m thinking I need to. Surely no one paints a more thorough picture of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and its characters than Amy Greene does in her books. She’s from there, and packs a wallop in everything she describes. I thought the suspense in “Long Man” was pretty good too, though at times all I wanted was the story to get back to finding out where the child went. Did the river swallow her or not? I listened long and hard to the audio to find out and was rewarded with an interesting and fulfilling ending. Now I will eagerly await whatever book Amy Greene does next.

What about you have you read either of Amy Greene’s books, and if so what did you think? Or what are your thoughts about audiobooks?

Watchman and Mockingbird

Yes, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is out Tuesday and the Twitter-sphere is awash with the news that Atticus Finch is now a racist who once attended a Klan meeting etc. When I read Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of it on Friday I just about fell out of my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I about gagged. Obviously I wasn’t expecting Atticus to be turned into a racist and Jem to be dead in the new book. I’m not sure what I expected but surely it wasn’t a complete reversal of things in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Just last week I reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” to get myself ready for the new book. I revisited Jem, Scout, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Boo Radley, and the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, and I thought the novel held up from when I read it in school. Scout as the six-year-old narrator is funny but sincere. She’s a tomboy who butts heads with authority and gets into fights at school with name-callers. I identified with her when I was younger. So many did. Atticus, too, was someone you looked up to. He stood for equal rights, justice and being a devoted father. He was a lawyer, defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape against a white woman. It wasn’t an easy time; the story is set in the Deep South during the Depression and times of racial inequality.

As soon as I finished the book, I rewatched the 1962 film of it, with Gregory Peck as Atticus. I had to see if everything was the same. The film condenses the book but maintains the essentials and keeps the ending. But while the novel deals more with the daily life and adventures of Scout and Jem in Maycomb, the film focuses more on Atticus and Tom Robinson’s trial. I mean if you had Gregory Peck for the role, wouldn’t you? Gregory Peck is Atticus, or was to me. The kid actors are wonderful too; I still laugh at Dill. The characters in the book are so relatable, and who hasn’t come upon a Boo Radley house or person? The story long ago had sunk into the American psyche, and I made myself familiar upon this second reading with even its smallest details.

And now — somehow — I need to wrap my head around everything surrounding Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” I’ve calmed down a bit since my initial reaction a few days ago. I must say since I just read “Mockingbird” and have good feelings from that, I feel less inclined to read “Watchman” right away. If Atticus is a racist and the story is a bit of a mess (from what I hear of the second half), do I really want to go down that path immediately?

I’m aware that apparently “Watchman” was a prototype or an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though “Watchman” picks up the characters’ lives 20 years later. It’s hard to even reconcile how this early draft morphed into the eventual classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which indicted racism and became associated with the civil rights movement.

For now I’ll look at these novels as two separate creations of Lee’s. It seems she explored ways in which she sought to write her narrative — first, as an adult in New York coming home to a segregated South — and second as a child who hadn’t left her hometown yet. I sort of see the two Atticuses as separate people in the two books, and not one and the same person. (Maybe that’s just my way to deal with how opposite Atticus is in “Watchman” from “Mockingbird” — a transformation that obviously is bizarre and bewildering to so many.) If Lee’s goal was to write about the racial injustices she grew up with, the narratives in the “Watchman” and “Mockingbird” are definitely two different ways of doing it.

I still plan to read “Go Set a Watchman” but maybe not while “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so fresh in my mind. I’m curious about Lee’s theme of the alienation of a daughter returning home — as apparently, the main conflict in “Watchman” is Scout’s struggle in coming to terms with a father who is not who she believed he was. This could be an interesting theme — or then maybe not — if it fails to compel or is not done well.

Though many believe “Watchman” will forever change how we read or view “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, I still value the 1960 version for what it is on the page and the story it portrays.

What about you — what do you think about the two books and will you be reading “Go Set a Watchman”?

Tiny Little Thing and Suite Francaise

Happy 4th of July weekend to all those in the U.S. I hope you enjoyed some fireworks and barbecues. We had a nice Canada Day here on July 1, hiking in the mountains, see photo at left. On Sunday, we plan to go for a bike ride and then watch the U.S. women’s soccer team hopefully win the World Cup against defending champs, Japan. Go team!

Meanwhile this week, I did some “beach” reading, though I live no where near the ocean. I wanted to lighten things up with a good summer read, so I snapped up an e-copy of Beatriz Williams’s latest novel “Tiny Little Thing” from the publisher via NetGalley.

This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and though it was fine, I wasn’t overly taken with it. Maybe I had heard so much about this author and how her novel “A Hundred Summers” is a favorite beach read of so many people that I was expecting beach magic. Or alas, maybe this genre of fiction isn’t exactly my cup of tea? Would you call it commercial historical fiction or historical romantic fiction or something else? Whichever, I have a feeling that Williams’ fans, despite any of my misgivings — I am likely in the minority here — will like this novel just as well.

Set in the 1960s, “Tiny Little Thing” is about a woman (Christina “Tiny” Schuyler) who thinks she’s doing the right thing by marrying Frank Hardcastle, a man from a wealthy Cape Cod family who’s apparently destined for political greatness. He’s running for Congress and Tiny is the perfect “trophy” wife. They make an attractive power couple and have a promising future.

But as the campaign gets underway, various occurrences lead Tiny to doubt her life’s direction and the relationship with her husband. Her volatile sister arrives for a visit, as well as her husband’s cousin, Caspian, who became close to Tiny two years before. Tiny’s also being blackmailed by somebody who has incriminating photos of her. It appears everyone has a secret of some sort which plays out toward the end.

The characters felt a bit dopey to me in this “Mad Men”-era tale, but after awhile enough was happening to keep me going. I typically like political novels, and this one had a Kennedy-esque feel of a privileged wealthy family gone wrong. “Tiny Little Thing” was all right as a beach read — I liked how Tiny questions her identity of always having to be the good girl and doing what’s right because of her family’s expectations — but I felt the story seemed sort of contrived at times with not a great deal of depth.

I didn’t realize it’s one of three novels by Beatriz Williams about the Schuyler sisters — the first being “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” about Vivian Schuyler, then there’s “Tiny Little Thing” about older sister Tiny, and in November the last one will be about sister Pepper Schuyler called “Along the Infinite Sea.” I probably just need to go back sometime and read Williams’s bestseller “A Hundred Summers,” which everyone seems to talk about.

Meanwhile our small artsy theater in town is playing the film “Suite Francaise,” which we enjoyed seeing last night. Do you remember the novel of it by Irène Némirovsky, which was published in France in 2004 and became an international bestseller? It’s incredible that the story was written during the Occupation of France in 1940 and ’41 and was only read and published by the author’s daughter some fifty or sixty years later. Nemirovsky tragically died at Auschwitz in 1942, but her writing carried on and made quite a mark.

In the film, American actress Michelle Williams plays Lucile Angellier, a French villager who’s husband has gone off to fight in the war. Lucile lives with her well-off mother-in-law (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s a landlord of several properties. As Germany takes over, they are billeted with a German soldier who shows them kindness. Over time, Lucile and the soldier start to fall for one another, but harsh wartime events intercede.

It reminded me a little of the recent novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” since it involves a young French villager and a German soldier, but “Suite Francaise” takes place earlier in the Occupation and is more involved in ways. You get an idea of how villagers snitched on one another, stole, and did what was necessary to stay alive under the scary circumstances. It’s a pretty powerful movie with a bit of action that’ll put you on edge. I didn’t realize this important book had been made into a movie, but I’m glad it did. It broadens my horizons once again on WWII events and made me feel the humanness of people even under war.

What about you, have you seen or read “Suite Francaise” and what did you think? Or what did you think of “Tiny Little Thing” or other Beatriz Williams’s novels?

July Preview

Taking a cue from Laurel over at the blog Rainy Days and Mondays, my hub and I set out last week to see the small, slice-of-life movie “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It’s definitely the opposite of the action blockbuster fare that is out nowadays for summer, but in that way we found it to be a refreshing change.

As its distributor, Bleecker Street, puts it: “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is about a widow and former songstress, Carol, played by Blythe Danner, who’s everyday activities lose their luster after her beloved dog passes away. With the support of friends, she decides to branch out socially, starting an unlikely friendship with her pool maintenance man, going on dates with a new love interest, and reconnecting with her faraway daughter.

“I’ll See You in My Dreams” is a heartfelt, touching movie about people who feel their lives are lacking in purpose and feel pushed aside. Though it’s geared toward older audiences, it won’t only appeal to retirees. Blythe Danner, of course, really makes the movie, and does one heck of a job singing “Cry Me a River” at karaoke. I’ve always liked her in movies. I’m sure many know her from “Meet the Fockers,” but I remember her more from “Prince of Tides” in 1991 and “The Great Santini” in 1979. She always seems to play the shafted wife, which she does very well, but this time she’s a bit different in this leading role.

Anyways, I’m sure “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is not for everyone. There’s not a lot of action or drama in it and it’s a bit slower paced. But though it may seem to be simply a glimpse into an older woman’s life, it has some laughs and just the right ingredients that make for an uplifting and delightful movie. So catch it if you’re so inclined.

Besides that, I’ve been caught up in watching the Women’s World Cup soccer, which is going on throughout Canada now. The games are getting pretty close so I’m sure it’ll come down to the wire on who will win the final on July 5. I’ve been pulling for the USA and Canada, but then England had to rain on that parade by beating the host country. Still, go USA!! Then of course there’s Wimbledon, which starts this week and will trap me, too, for a couple of weeks.

But it’s not a bad way to start July. It’s hot here! Hot and dry in the West. We could use some rain. In looking ahead to books out this month, the most hotly anticipated one of course is Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel “Go Set a Watchman,” due out on July 14. Need I say more? Atticus, Scout and Jem. GET thee a COPY. I plan to reread Lee’s classic TKAMB (better known as “To Kill a Mockingbird”) before that date so I’ll be ready.

I also plan to grab Paula McLain’s new historical novel “Circling the Sun,” set in colonial Kenya of the 1920s, about record-setting aviator Beryl Markham. Are you kidding me? Ever since I read Markham’s book “West With the Night,” (one of my all-time favorites), I’ve been a huge fan of anything Beryl Markham. So this new book is very welcomed. Undoubtedly Markham was a complex person, who had a slew of love affairs; she also was a racehorse trainer, and one of the first bush pilots in Africa before becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. As Jojo Moyes says of Markham, she was: “a woman who persistently broke the rules, despite the personal cost. She’s a rebel in her own time, and a heroine for ours.” Well said.

Lastly in books out in July, Shannon over at the blog River City Reading sparked my interest to get “The Last Pilot,” a debut by Benjamin Johncock set during the early days of the Space Race about a test pilot who’s family faces a sudden tragedy that haunts them and strains his marriage. Shannon says it’s “wonderful but also incredibly heartbreaking,” which has me thinking since I just read the saddish novel “Everything I Never Told You” maybe I should hold off and pick up something a bit happier and summery —

— such as William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life,” which could be a perfect read during this hot weather month. Finnegan’s a staff writer at The New Yorker, and this memoir is about his addiction to surfing and his lifelong adventures, chasing waves all over the world. It seems like an interesting read, and maybe could shed some light on my youth at the beaches in California.

As for movies in July, there’s another “Terminator” and “Mission Impossible” coming out, as well as another “Magic Mike.” All of which I won’t see. There’s also a new Woody Allen film called “Irrational Man” with Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, and a movie adaptation of John Green’s book “Paper Towns.” Do you plan to see it? I’m still looking, however, for something I can sink my teeth into, perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal’s upcoming boxing film “Southpaw” will do the trick. It looks rough and down-and-out and Jake is ripped for the role. I might be sorry later but for now it’s my pick of the month.

Lastly in new albums for July, I don’t see much coming out. Singers and songwriters are already busy on the road playing concerts and summer festivals. But I do like Jason Isbell, the former member of the Drive-By-Truckers who has his fifth solo album coming out. So I’ll pick Isbell’s new album “Something More Than Free” as my pick this month.

How about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?