May Preview

May is now upon us — can you believe it? Lately I’ve been busy playing in a couple tennis tournaments, trading in an old car, and making plans to attend the memorial service of my friend back East and then continue on to the BookExpo America in Chicago. It could be a crazy trip. If you’re going, I hope to see you there. Meanwhile this past week I’ve been reading British author Jonathan Lee’s historical novel “High Dive,” which is about the real-life assassination attempt by the IRA of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in 1984 at the seaside town of Brighton, England. It’s quite excellent so far. I also finished the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s alluring 2014 novel “Astonish Me,” which involves the world of professional dance and the defection of a Russian ballet star. Have you read either of these? I plan to review them this coming week.

In fiction releases for May, quite a few acclaimed authors have new novels coming out, notably: Richard Russo, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, and Julian Barnes among others. You might want to jump on these ASAP. But of course, I can’t resist Chris Cleave’s latest novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which is set during World War II and is apparently inspired by the real-life love letters between Cleave’s grandparents. I know, I know, it’s another WWII novel, and you likely have the same fatigue over that subject matter as I do, but I’ve read all of Cleave’s novels including “Incendiary,” “Little Bee,” and “Gold” so I can’t stop now. His books have held me in their clutches before.

But nothing this month is more highly anticipated than Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic novel “The City of Mirrors,” which is the finale of his Passage trilogy. I gave the first two books to my husband and watched as he lapped them up like nobody’s business. I will dish out the third and see his reaction. I have yet to get to these epic tomes and the survivors in the desert, but oh I will! I have heard so many good things about the books — it’s just a matter of which deserted island — or alas, back deck — I will take them to — and when the heavens will part for my total immersion. I’ll keep you posted.

A few other novels that are piquing my interest this month are Adam Haslett’s new one “Imagine Me Gone” about the ravages of mental illness on a family. Publisher’s Weekly says “Haslett’s latest is a sprawling, ambitious epic about a family bound not only by familial love, but by that sense of impending emergency that hovers around Michael, who has inherited his father John’s abiding depression and anxiety. … In Michael, Haslett has created a most memorable character.” Said to be both gut-wrenching and at times hilarious, the novel seems an excellent one worth exploring.

I also like the look of Karan Bajaj’s novel “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent” about a man who leaves his successful life behind as a Wall Street analyst and embarks on a spiritual journey that takes him to the farthest reaches of India. Part adventure story and part journey of transformation, this novel is receiving highly favorable reviews on Goodreads. I’m not sure if it strives to be a modern-day channeling of Hermann Hesse, but I’m open to yoga and stories of awakenings, so count me in for this.

Lastly in fiction this month, I’m curious about Jennifer Haigh’s new novel “Heat and Light” — about the residents of a rural Pennsylvania town caught up in the fracking boom. I was impressed by Haigh’s last novel “Faith” about the Catholic Church abuse scandal, which I read for book club, so I’m geared up for this one too. Haigh seems an author who presents various sides of an issue in powerful and thought-provoking ways. This one appears to be an environmental novel pertinent to today’s national debate surrounding energy resources and drilling.

As for movies in May, I am not a big fan of summer blockbusters — it’s true — but they are here! If you like all things Marvel then you will be happy about seeing “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” both in the same month. I’m guessing Captain America will win that box-office battle. There’s also Disney’s sequel to “Alice in Wonderland” — “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with returning stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as Alice. I like Mia as Alice. But what about the Jodie Foster-directed thriller “Money Monster” with Julia Roberts and George Clooney? I watched the trailer and it looks sort of didactic — so I’m a bit hesitant if it’s worth stomaching. Though indeed George is in it.

I guess there’s no May movie I’m dying to see, but the trailer of “The Lobster” looks a bit quirky and funny. It’s a satire, set in a dystopian near future, in which single people, by law, are taken to a place where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into the woods. Who thinks these things up? “The Lobster” looks pretty peculiar and stars Colin Farrell playing the deadpan lead character. I’m hoping maybe it might be slightly reminiscent of the quirky but heartwarming movie “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix, which I really liked, but I don’t expect it’ll be nearly as good.

As for albums in May, such icons as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have new ones coming out, which sound quite interesting, — as do Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Ziggy Marley, and Cyndi Lauper, too. I’d like to check out Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” as well as the new one called “The Things We Are Made Of” by an old favorite of mine Mary Chapin Carpenter. She’s always been a crowd favorite each summer on the lawn at Wolf Trap.

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

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The Invention of Wings and Stone Mattress

Wow congrats to Viet Thanh Nguyen for winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel “The Sympathizer” about an undercover communist operative during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom reviewed it recently and raved it was the best novel she had read so far in 2016, and from her heavy stream of good reads, that’s saying something! I can’t wait to snatch it up in the near future. I also plan to get a hold of William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. This book made a great gift for my surfer brother this past Christmas, and now I need to travel vicariously through its waves too.

Meanwhile I am planning on attending this year’s BookExpo America, which takes place in Chicago in a few weeks. So if you’re there, let’s meet up and say hello. I would love to meet other bloggers I follow and put faces to your blogs. I have not been to the Expo before, but Chicago is a manageable destination from here, so I thought I’d give it a swirl. I noticed that among others, author Jane Hamilton will be there with her latest novel “The Excellent Lombards,” which I talked about a couple weeks ago. So that works out! We will see what many other books and authors I discover there.

Last week I finished Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 bestselling novel “The Invention of Wings” and the audiobook of Margaret Atwood’s 2014 book of nine tales “Stone Mattress.” Both were excellent so I can’t complain too much about dawdling, though I have — during this span of exceptional spring weather — which has been perfect for outdoor activities. “The Invention Wings” is a novel I read for my book club, which plans to discuss it tonight. I thought it was a great read and a tough look at slavery. It surprised me a bit because I wasn’t overly taken by Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel “The Secret Life of Bees,” which came off a bit saccharine to me when I read it in 2001. But now I sort of want to go back and reread it because I found “The Invention of Wings” to be quite authentic and moving. So perhaps I was mistaken about the former, or was I?

“The Invention of Wings” is the story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a white wealthy South Carolina plantation owner, who on her eleventh birthday in 1803 is given a black slave named Hetty by her parents to be her waiting maid for life. Sarah tries to refuse but is forced to succumb to owning Hetty over a couple decades time. The story, which alternates chapters narrated by Sarah and Hetty, details the lives and families of both women over many years linked by the horrors of slavery.

It’s a riveting story and one that I found even more so because it’s inspired by the real life of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina Grimke of Charleston. I had not heard of these famous Grimke sisters, who grew up in a large slave-holding family and later became early abolitionists and suffragists, but their incredible lives of courage are detailed in this novel. It’s said that Sarah’s writings influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and pre-dated “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by 13 years, wow!

But I actually didn’t know this till I read the Author’s Note at the end of the book. While I was reading the novel, I liked the story for its moving tale about the two women, Hetty and Sarah (and their families), one black, one white who are trapped by the confines of the day and the diabolical institution of slavery. They share an uneasy relationship, but come to rely on each other in unexpected ways. I liked too how the alternating chapters of the two women are equally interesting and contain page-turning incidents that transform them both and move the story along.

Author Sue Monk Kidd does an amazing job at seamlessly blending fact and fiction to create a totally believable tale, making the 19th-century setting and the characters’ voices come alive. It felt very real and visual to me. Hetty’s narration seemed just as strong, if not stronger than Sarah’s, lending a visceral look at how the institution affected both. I think it’s one of the best novels about slavery I’ve read in a long while. I know there’s other recent popular books on the subject that I would like to get to, notably: Lois Leveen’s novel “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” Kathleen Grissom’s novels “Kitchen House” and “Glory Over Everything,” which Michelle over at the blog That’s What She Read just reviewed and liked a lot, and of course Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave” which I found an unflinching movie that I’d love to follow up with the book. Have you read any of these?

But at first I need a break as the subject matter is so disturbing. So thank goodness for the wicked, offbeat tales of Margaret Atwood’s in “Stone Mattress” this past week. I’m no expert on Atwood, though I know she’s royalty here in Canada. I’ve read about five or six of her books over the years, but I guess if I plan to stay in the country I need to do a lot better than that, or else I might face deportation, joke joke. My favorite novel of hers has been 1996’s “Alias Grace” about a notorious 19th-century murder case, but now I’m thinking the array of tales in “Stone Mattress” perhaps better showcase her talent and total command as a writer.

Parts of the tales in this collection are funny, while some are eery and sinister, a couple are otherworldly, some deal with literary, artsy things, some with retribution and quite a few in the book deal with aging. I laughed at parts of her tale “Torch the Dusties” about companions trapped inside an assisted living facility besieged by a violent anti-elderly movement, though other parts of it are real and unsettling. Atwood has a bit of everything in her tales, they’re clever like that, just don’t call them short stories — or you’ll be remiss for making a bad faux pas.

At first I thought the tales in “Stone Mattress” would all be linked by the same characters since the first three in the collection start out that way. I was imagining something like the novel “Olive Kitteridge,” but no, after that the rest are all separate. I liked the first three linked tales — they’re clever, imaginative and entertaining, but my favorite ones in the book (besides “Torch the Dusties”) are the sinister ones: “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” “The Dead Hand Loves You,” and my favorite one, the title story “Stone Mattress,” which is about a damaged woman who plans a murder on a trip to the Arctic. A perfect way to bump off your spouse, right? (Ahh don’t worry honey …) This tale involves retribution for a crime done long ago.

Oh yes, Atwood is at the top of her game with these! I particularly loved listening to the audiobook version of the book because different readers narrate each tale (except one who reads two of the stories). All are done exceptionally well, though Atwood’s own narration of her title story “Stone Mattress” was my favorite by far. It’s done so sedately and matter-of-factly — it’s wonderfully unsettling. I had to listen to its entirety twice. What a master!

But what about you have you read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Invention of Wings” or Margaret Atwood’s book “Stone Mattress” and if so, what did you think?

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Reading Mojo and Late Nights on Air

It’s been another busy week and I still haven’t fully recovered my reading mojo. It’s been warm here though, so I’ve been doing other things. In my spare time, I’ve been bicycling and playing quite a bit of tennis lately. I’m in a tournament for fun at the end of the month — so I need to get cracking, or swinging so to speak. As for books right now, I’m reading Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 novel “The Invention of Wings” for book club, and I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s book “Stone Mattress” as an audiobook. Both are good, have you read either of them?

Meanwhile this past week, I finally finished Elizabeth Hay’s 2007 novel “Late Nights on Air,” which seemed to take forever despite being 364 pages. At the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure I would get to the end as it seemed slow and a bit meandering and I wasn’t sure it was going anywhere — but then upon completing it I was glad to have seen the story through. The novel won Canada’s top literary prize, the Giller, in 2007 beating out Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Divisadero,” which I’m sure was no small feat. I came to read Hay’s book because I met the author last fall at our city’s book festival and had her sign a copy.

“Late Nights on Air” is about a group of misfit co-workers at a Canadian public radio station in the far northern town of Yellowknife in the 1970s. There’s the affable lead character Harry, who becomes the station’s manager as the book opens; and Dido, the beautiful, alluring one who has the perfect radio voice; as well the receptionist, the likable lonely Eleanor; and twenty-something Gwen who’s driven 3,000 miles from Ontario to get radio experience. There’s also Eddy, the brooding technician, and 60-year-old Ralph, the station’s book reviewer who doesn’t get enough air time.

It’s these characters and their relationships among one another that form the crux of the novel and kept me curious to see what would eventually pan out, though it takes awhile to get there. The story is descriptive and imbued with a strong sense of place of remote Yellowknife, a city only 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. Apparently the author, Elizabeth Hay, worked at a radio station there in the 1970s, so her novel is a bit autobiographical. Amid the backdrop of the characters’ lives, the city — in the novel — is undergoing a ruckus over a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cut across Native lands, and the first incoming television station threatens to disrupt their local radio programming. Much is in flux there that at times binds and comes between the crew at the radio station.

The story meanders on for awhile, but luckily picks up towards the end as four of the radio crew take an epic six-week canoe trip to pursue the route of English explorer John Hornby along the remote and wild Thelon River. This was my favorite part of the book with some beautiful nature writing and a little suspense to its passages. I wish this journey had started earlier in the book as the river pages flew by. By the book’s end, the friends eventually depart the radio station and move on with their lives, but not before making an indelible impact on each other and their time together in the North. It’s a novel that grew on me over a long while, and its characters and northern scenes have stayed with me after turning its last pages.

For those who like radio, or are interested in character-driven novels, or the far North, you might like this one.

What about you have you read “Late Nights on Air” or any of Elizabeth Hay’s books, or any similar novels? And if so, what did you think?

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Billy Lynn and April Preview

March is over now. It went by in a blur. It was consuming but not exactly conducive for reading or blogging. I had a good time on our biking and camping trip in Arizona mid-month, but sadly the close friend I had visited in early March at the hospital in D.C. passed away last Saturday before Easter. She was 47 years old, and had been ill for awhile. It was rough this past month with her in the hospital. And my mind and thoughts were long gone and faraway. She was a former journalist and co-worker with me — a single mother of a 17-year-old daughter, who I have long known and often cared for. It’s a terrible blow, and something I need to work through.

But I will try to turn April around. One step in front of the other. The garden is already coming up here, which is very early for Canada. I look forward to doing my spring yard cleanup. Last week I finished the audiobook of Ben Fountain’s 2012 award-winning debut novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which I thought was a funny satire with some biting truths to it. Actor Oliver Wyman narrates the story and the different characters so well that I’m glad I opted for the audio.

The story’s about a squadron of eight Bravo soldiers, heroes on a break from the Iraq war who are sent on a U.S. “Victory Tour” by the Bush administration to drum up support for the war. Most of the novel takes places at a Dallas Cowboys football game where the Bravo guys are guests who are fawned over by promoters, Hollywood producers, fans, and cheerleaders. They’re even part of the halftime show, sharing the stage with Destiny’s Child.

Much of the story involves Americans meeting the Bravo soldiers and pontificating like doofuses in regards to the war and their service. Author Ben Fountain is brilliant with the dialogue and the craziness at the football game. His side plot about a Hollywood producer trying to make a movie deal with the Bravo squad is pretty hilarious. Hilary Swank is interested to star in the movie apparently, which is a hoot (I hope in real life Swank has read this book as she’s mentioned and lampooned in it quite a bit).

Though what grabbed me most wasn’t the antics at the football game, which seemed to get repetitive after awhile, but rather the personal journey of the young lead character, Bravo Billy Lynn, who is working his way through a lot of issues while on break from the war. He’s dealing with the death of his Bravo friend, and is going through changes while reflecting on things during his stint in the U.S. and with his family. It’s these quieter moments with Billy that grabbed me and underscore the book’s points of how it feels to go to war. His talks with his sisters and his endearment to a cheerleader seem to speak volumes. And my, does Billy learn a lot in a couple day’s time before his return to Iraq. Kudos to author Ben Fountain for the book’s humor and truths, and for how well the story is done. The novel might not have grabbed me at first, but by the end, it sunk in like a football game well played.

As for new releases in April, I see such popular storytellers as Anna Quindlen, Jane Hamilton, Curtis Sittenfeld and Stewart O’Nan have new novels coming out. I have liked their books in the past and would especially like to get my hands on a copy of Jane Hamilton’s “The Excellent Lombards,” which is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s life growing up on her family’s struggling apple orchard. I haven’t read Hamilton’s books since “The Book of Ruth” in 1988 and her powerful novel “The Map of the World” in 1994, but those books are proof enough for me to look for this one. She’s a great storyteller, whose novels, like her new one, are often set on farms in the Midwest.

I’m also thinking Hope Jahren’s debut memoir “Lab Girl,” which is getting rave reviews, looks good. A scientist and professor of geobiology, Jahren writes in the book about her study of plant life and her insights on nature. She also talks about the man who becomes her lab partner and the scientific adventures they take to various spots around the globe. I hadn’t heard of this award-winning scientist before, but now with all the praise of her book, I’m quite interested to learn more about her life and work. Cheryl Strayed calls Hope Jahren a “deeply inspiring woman — a scientist so passionate about her work I felt myself vividly with her on every page.” Hmm, count me in.

Other noteworthy reads out this month that I’m interested in are all very long epics. Martha Hall Kelly’s popular debut “Lilac Girls,” a WWII-Holocaust story that weaves together the lives of three women, is just under 500 pages;

Suzanne Rindell’s new novel “Three-Martini Lunch” about the publishing industry in New York in the 1950s is just over 500 pages; Stephen O’Connor’s innovative debut “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” which fuses fact and fiction to interesting effect, is 624 pages; and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book 5 of his acclaimed series “My Struggle,” weighs in at 626 pages. Which reminds me I simply must get to Karl Ove’s series sometime in the near millennium. The latest book involves his move at age 19 to Bergen, Norway to be a writer — a place I have had the good fortune to visit — so I think Book 5 sounds enticing. With all these large novels out this month, how on earth is there time to get anything else done?! Nevertheless, I bid good luck with the tomes of spring.

As for new movies in April, critics are liking the Richard Linklater comedy “Everybody Wants Some!!” about a group of college baseball players partying it up for three days before school starts. But do I really need to go there? And then there’s actor Don Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davis called “Miles Ahead,” which looks a bit troubled in its execution. There’s also John Carney’s latest film about music “Sing Street,” and I have liked his movies “Once” and “Begin Again” in the past, but I’m not sure this one holds the same allure for me. That leaves me with either: the Tom Hanks film “A Hologram for the King,” adapted from the Dave Eggers’ book (which I’d love to read first), or the Susan Sarandon comedy “The Meddler,” which actually looks kind of funny. I guess both are feel-good kinds of flicks. Nothing wrong with that for April. I think I’ll go with the Dave Eggers story “A Hologram for the King” for my pick this month.

Lastly, in albums for April, I’ll make it short and sweet: my pick is “Cleopatra” by the folk-rock trio out of Denver the Lumineers. Hands down they’re good. Enjoy!

What about you — have you read “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and if so, what did you think? Or which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 24 Comments

Spring Break Revival

Here’s wishing everybody a very Happy Easter and spring break (if you plan to take one). I’m recently back after cruising the beautiful scenery of southern Arizona, which was terrific! My husband and I explored all around Tucson and also enjoyed a week bicycling southeast of there and staying in the small towns of Patagonia, Tombstone, Bisbee, and Sierra Vista. We biked in a 50 person group with the organization Adventure Cycling Association, which is an excellent nonprofit that promotes bicycling and offers tours in the States. You might know of it, if not I heartily recommend its “adventures.”

We camped a bit on the trip, which was pretty bold for me as I’m not usually a camper (what was I trying to prove?) — and the mornings in the desert were quite brisk. It felt like frost one morning and I recall tepidly putting my feet into what seemed like frozen shoes. Ouch. But luckily every day warmed up very quickly and by midday we were cycling our 40 or 50 daily miles, slathered with sunscreen and worried about too much heat. The sun there is very intense, especially for pale Canadians! Now I have weird tan marks all over and feel like a zebra when wearing shorts.

Some of the sites we saw and would recommend are: hiking in the Sonoran Desert amid all the spectacular cactus including the tall Saguaro cacti; visiting the Kartchner Caverns with its remarkable mineral deposits and formations; touring the Desert Museum outside Tucson, which is an immersive outdoor experience and is considered one of top museums in the country; taking a tour at the Titan Missile Museum, which offers a daunting look at a nuclear weapon system and underground facility the U.S. had on standby during the Cold War; and lastly, taking a mine or museum tour in the town of Bisbee, which lies amid the Mule Mountains and is world renowned for its diverse minerals and wealth of copper.

Who knew so much was there? I suspect this is only a tip of the iceberg in southern Arizona. We’ll have to go back sometime for more.

Meanwhile my reading didn’t fare as well as my sightseeing, but I’m midway through Canadian author Elizabeth Hay’s novel “Late Nights on Air” which won the Giller Prize in 2007 and takes place at a radio station in the far northern Canadian town of Yellowknife in 1975. I’m liking it so far, though not a lot has happened. I’m also almost done with the audiobook of Ben Fountain’s 2012 award-winning novel “Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk,” which I almost put down at first but now is gaining ground with me. I should be finished soon so tune in next week for reviews of these two books.

The one book I did finish this past week was a short-ish one by a friend of mine whom I met at the dog park. We walk our dogs together there at times and that’s where I first learned of her funny sense of humor. After a couple years of going to the park, she told me of the book she was writing for women about coping after they’ve been dumped in relationships with men, and I agreed to read it. (She writes under the pseudonym Jade Edgal, how cool is that?)

Her self-published book “Dumped: Mockery, Blame, Revenge & Other Coping Strategies for Women” is quite a funny lambasting of the male species — as we know it — and a guide on how women can avoid becoming jilted fools and how to prevent relationship train wrecks in the future. I laughed while reading it. Quirky, sarcastic, absurd, and rather wicked, “Dumped” is not only a humor book but is also a helpful, truthful guide to moving on with one’s life after a terrible breakup. If you’re in such a mess, or if dating isn’t going well for you, you might find it helpful to pick up this book that’s filled with considerable levity and insight. It includes examples from the author’s personal experiences and from life in general. If you’ve ever been dumped, then you might find yourself laughing — as I did — instead of weeping into your bowl of soup.

Meanwhile this coming week I have a lot of catching up to do, and I hope to visit all of your blog postings, which I missed while I was away. So I’ll be in touch!

What about you — have you been to southern Arizona or do you plan to take a trip somwhere this spring? Or have you read Ben Fountain’s or Elizabeth Hay’s books? And if so, what did you think?

PS. Who is this slow person to the left? And would she mind staying to the far right of the bike path! While I’m back home now in Canada, I can’t help but bring on some more Arizona dreaming.

Posted in Books | 32 Comments

The North Water and Between the World and Me

Tomorrow my husband and I are headed off on a bike trip with a group around southern Arizona for a week. It’s our spring break, so to speak. Since there’s a few nights of camping involved along with the cycling, I’m not going to be bringing a computer or blogging during the trip. That will have to come after. It’ll be a break of sorts — to lap up the scenery, get fresh air, and renew ourselves. But before I go, I want to leave you with two quick takes on books I finished this past week.

First off, Ian McGuire’s new novel “The North Water” is a doozy of a page-turner. It’s about a 19th-century whaling ship that sets sail for the Arctic with a killer onboard. Needless to say, the story got its hooks into me early on and didn’t let go until the end. Not only is there a shipmate onboard secretly committing heinous crimes, but there’s also a plot by a few to purposely scuttle the ship to get the insurance money. The only crew member to figure out who’s behind both acts is an ex-army surgeon (Patrick Sumner) whose reputation has been ruined by past mistakes while serving overseas. Will he be able to shrug off his own demons and stop them in time? Or will they perish amid the arctic winter?

I thought the author did a wonderful job at capturing the 19th-century feel of the characters and the realities of the whaling trade, and the arctic landscape in a suspenseful way. But be forewarned: “The North Water” involves quite a lurid, gritty tale with considerable harsh language to boot. The whaling industry back then wasn’t exactly for the squeamish. While it might be too much for some, to me the book’s depictions seemed realistically evocative of the place and times.

I found “The North Water” to be an easy, quick read — well written — with plenty of intriguing imagery and action. While anyone who likes adventure kinds of tales might surely like it, the book would probably especially interest those who have liked books such as I have on the Whaleship Essex tragedy, and Franklin’s lost expedition, and other arctic and whaling tales. In that respect, it was a book with a subject matter right up my alley. (Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy to review via NetGalley.)

The second book I finished this week was an audiobook of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s nonfiction 2015 bestseller “Between the World and Me,” which takes the form of a letter written to the author’s son warning him of the dangers of being black in America today.

This book pretty much lit up the blogosphere when it came out last year, and I think it was JoAnn over at Lakeside Musing who said the audio was a must listen. So I got on a long list for it at the library. Then I listened to the book twice this week, which is indeed powerfully read by the author. You can tell Coates has written poetry as his book is quite lyrical sounding and like poetry in places. I loved the audio version for this reason — it’s a book that seems meant to be read aloud — only I missed being able to mark sentences that I particularly wanted to note — which I could’ve done easier if I had the book in print.

“Between the World and Me” is a strong cup of coffee — thought-provoking, frank, unflinching, and challenging in a good way. It boils over the American history, traditions, and laws that have plundered black lives and over police brutality cases and the culpability of the democracy that made the police what they are. At one point in the author’s discussion he says whites are just interested in personal exoneration, and he isn’t too hopeful for any change ahead for racial harmony in America.

His perspective and experiences are quite fascinating. I particularly felt his sections on Prince Jones, his Howard University schoolmate who was gunned down by a police officer, were some of the strongest of the book. His outrage and sorrow palpable. His talk of the Sept. 11 attacks were less agreeable to me. But all and all I found “Between the World and Me” powerful and illuminating. It made me want to read more of James Baldwin’s books, which apparently had inspired Coates’s book.

What about you — have you read “The North Water” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book and if so, what did you think?

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March Preview and Week in Review

Happy March. We’ve just about made it to the start of spring, which is always a bit exciting for those living in a Northern country. Though May is usually the time when a lot of flowers open and things turn green up here. Still it’s the thought about “spring” that counts. But this past week has been rough as I unexpectedly had to return to D.C. to visit a friend under palliative care in the hospital. I’m glad though that I was able to visit with her and her daughter for a few days; it made a big difference for me and hopefully I was able to help a little.

While in D.C., I was sorry to hear that author Pat Conroy had passed away on Friday. I was a big fan of his novel “Prince of Tides,” which I remembered sneaking away to read in the employee breakroom at the U.W. Many years later, I took my page-worn copy and stood in line while Mr. Conroy was on a book tour with his novel “Beach Music.” I remember the line to meet him wrapped around the building and parking lot of a shopping mall in Virginia and round and round it went, but I was determined to meet him so wait I did. I finally got to the front of the line and he said some nice things and signed my copy of “Prince of Tides.” I thought he was great. He was a Southern rock star of a writer and a good guy to boot. “Prince of Tides” was undoubtably my favorite book of his, but which one is yours?

As for new fiction releases, this month is plentiful with an array of talent. There’s new ones by veteran authors: Pat Barker, Edna O’Brien, Tracy Chevalier, and Jim Harrison among others. And I’m hopeful that Helen Simonson’s new novel “The Summer Before the War” might be as good as her charming 2010 debut “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” although I’m seeing a few mixed reviews about it, so we will see.

In the meantime I’ve picked up “The North Water” by British author Ian McGuire, which a publisher passed my way, about a 19th-century whaling ship that sets sail for the Arctic with a killer onboard. Author Hilary Mantel calls it a “tour de force of narrative tension and a masterful reconstruction of a lost world that seems to exist at the limits of the human imagination.” So far it’s a fairly coarse, but seemingly realistic depiction of seamen in the 1850s whaling trade. But the story has me in its grip. So stay tuned: I plan to review it next week.

Other March novels that look enticing include: Lyndsay Faye’s new one “Jane Steele,” which is said to be a Gothic retelling of “Jane Eyre” — a reimagining of Jane as a gutsy, heroic serial killer. It’s said to be “wonderfully wicked” with author Suzanne Rindell describing it as a “darkly-humorous, elegantly-crafted story of an ‘accidental’ vigilante.” I haven’t read Lyndsay Faye before, though her novel “The Gods of Gotham” received considerable recognition when it came out, so count me in for this one.

Also Montana author Rick Bass has a new collection of short stories out called “For a Little While” that gathers his best stories together, 18 from previous collections and seven new tales. Admittedly, I’m not usually a big reader of short story collections, but Bass’s latest has been getting rave reviews and wide recognition. Joyce Carol Oates calls it “nothing short of remarkable” and William Kittredge says Bass’s “name will be on notices alongside Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor.” So I’d say it’s about time I sampled his short fiction.

Lastly two other books from authors across the pond have caught my attention. First British author Jonathan Lee’s new novel “High Dive” is based on the real 1984 assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher’s life by an exploding IRA bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel. Publishers Weekly calls it an “incredible novel of rare insight, velocity, depth, and daring,” and authors Lauren Groff and Tea Obrecht are among many others hailing its praises. It makes me think “High Dive” could be one of the year’s best, but we will see.

The other book is a debut novel by Irish author Sara Baume called “Spill Simmer Falter Wither,” which is about a misfit man who adopts a misfit dog. Apparently after the seaside village where they live shuns them, the unlikely duo takes to the road, providing comfort to each other’s lives. Anne Enright says the book is “a flame in daylight: beautiful and unexpected,” and Booklist calls it “elegant, heartbreaking, and inspiring.” I can’t resist a good dog story so count me in for this small, quiet novel.

As for movies in March, all the talk is about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Ben Affleck vs. Henry Cavill. I’ll take Cavill thank you very much. In this movie apparently the Caped Crusader has a tiff with the Man of Steel (okay it’s more than a tiff) but eventually they team together to fight Lex Luthor, this time played by a seemingly demented Jesse Eisenberg. It’s true that I’m not the big superhero, movie-watching girl that I once was in the Christopher Reeves days — I never even saw the 2013 flick “Man of Steel” with Cavill and Amy Adams — so I’m not likely to rush out to see this one, but who knows? Maybe I’ll need a Henry Cavill fix, or an urge to revisit the Caped Crusader’s mask once again.

My two actual movie picks this month include “Midnight Special” about a kid who possesses special powers, which looks a bit like a “Close Encounters” kind of movie. It’s by the same writer and director who made “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” which I liked, so this one should be decent too. Then there’s Nanni Moretti’s Franco-Italian film called “Mia Madre” about a film director in the middle of an existential crisis, who’s unable to accept that her mother’s dying. It looks good and has received a 91 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So “Mia Madre” it is for me.

Lastly in albums for March, there’s new ones by three notable male singer-songwriters namely: Ray LaMontagne, Pete Yorn, and the late Jeff Buckley. Wow what a trio. I’ve long been a big fan of LaMontagne’s music. He’s wonderful as is his music, though his latest album the cosmic “Ouroboros” sounds a bit like a departure from his folk roots kind of stuff, which I might lament. But if I need more of that perhaps I can turn to Jeff Buckley’s posthumous album “You and I.” It’s a collection of 10 of his demo tracks, which are mostly covers, or I can check out Pete Yorn’s sixth studio album called “Arranging Time.”

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

Posted in Top Picks | 31 Comments

The Oscars, Americanah, and Wave

Thanks to those who commented last week about Harper Lee’s legacy and books; there was quite a good discussion with various excellent points raised. Now today is the Academy Awards, which has its share of controversy this year (or once again) for its lack of racial diversity in its nominations. Some actors are boycotting it, believing some films and actors have been overlooked. I read an interesting New York Times article this week, which is worth checking out called “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If … a straight white man.)” It gives some good insights by various actors about instances of discrimination and racism they’ve faced in the industry, which aren’t hard to believe. I’m sure Chris Rock will have a bit of a field day about the diversity issue, which should be good, when he hosts the Oscars tonight.

My guess is that the film “The Revenant” will likely take home a few of the big awards, perhaps Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor — though it’s quite a rough and brutal film. For that reason alone, it’s not exactly my favorite film of the year, but I’m glad I saw it — some of its shots and cinematography are exceptional and I liked its mystical and metaphorical qualities. I’ve seen most of the films nominated this year. My favorites were: “The Big Short,” “Spotlight,” and “Room.” After those I liked “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Steve Jobs,” and “The Martian.” A couple others I saw this week were the foreign film “Theeb” and the documentary “Cartel Land.” Both were pretty good, and reminded me of how films such as “Spotlight” and “Cartel Land” that address such important issues can be so powerful. Three films I haven’t seen yet are: “45 Years” with Charlotte Rampling, “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne, and the Hungarian film “Son of Saul,” which is favored to win Best Foreign Film. I’m sure to get to them in time.

Meanwhile I (finally) finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 lengthy novel “Americanah” which is a book I picked for my book club to discuss next week. It’s a story that revolves around two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers growing up in Nigeria — and leave because of their country’s military dictatorship to pursue school — she in the States and he in England. They part ways for over ten years, but eventually meet again when they both return to live in Nigeria — both wondering how much the Western countries have changed them.

The novel is an African immigrant story that’s primarily about race and identity. Ifemelu, who never thought about being black in her native Nigeria, is forced to grapple with it for the first time when she comes to live in America. Her observations about race are shaped as she vies unsuccessfully for awhile to get employment, affordable housing, and finish her schooling. While in America, she has a relationship first with a rich white guy, and later with an African-American professor — while starting an anonymous blog about race in America that instantly becomes popular.

This was my first Adichie novel (I hope to get her other two sometime) and the three things I particularly liked about it were:

  • Adichie and her protagonist Ifemelu have a very keen eye for observation. There were times when I thought: Wow how did she pick up on that. She seems to anticipate and know people, places, thoughts and bring them to light before you’re aware.
  • “Americanah” is also highly readable and accessible and a breeze for the most part to get through.
  • It’s ballsy too. Adichie addresses race head on in this book, not only about the subtle and non-subtle ways racism pervades the West, but also its variations as it pertains to African Americans and “Non-American Blacks.” It sheds considerable insight into the African immigrant’s experience and the mix between races.

My only slight criticism of the novel is that towards the end I thought it went on a bit too long and that it could’ve been cut shorter. I kept waiting for the two characters to finally meet up again. And perhaps in a few places certain aspects or characters seemed to be more just a foil for her commentary than add much to the story. Perhaps I liked diving into the story more than its over-abundance at times of commentary.

Lastly this week I finished the audiobook of Sonali Deraniyagala’s 2013 memoir “Wave” about a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka who lost her parents, her husband, and her two young boys when the wave hit. I’ve had it on my TBR list for a long time and finally downloaded it from the library — though I was duly scared of its horror and grief.

And right I was to be: as the first half is agony to listen to someone who’s lost their entire family. The shock and grief are stunning. I wanted to find the author’s family in my dreams and give them back her. I wanted to make the world right again for her. But only Superman could undo time. I was amazed by how well the audio’s narrator (Hannah Curtis) managed to get through parts of the book without breaking down. She read it well and was a pillar of strength when I was ready to crack.

I’m sure the book isn’t for everyone: it could be too much for some. But I think it does honor those in the disaster to read about victims stories and to know what happened. The earthquake and tsunami that followed were one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries. God, I remember exactly where I was when it happened on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in 2004. I was at a ski resort with my family skiing in Colorado. How awfully incongruous life can be: people are dying by the thousands on the opposite side of the world — while others are surrounded by family getting on a chair lift. It made no sense and seems sickening — though it took awhile for the scope of the disaster to be fully known.

But the memoir isn’t total agony — as it goes on it becomes something more — a study of grief and memory over the passage of time. Whereas Sonali, the author, once couldn’t bear things that reminded her of her family, she now welcomes them and seeks to integrate the memories of her family into her everyday life. The book lightens towards the end and shines love into those she lost, going back in time to tell of their history together. I thought the book seemed very honestly and beautifully done. It has courage and heart and insight into the universality of the human experience.

How about you — have you read “Americanah” or “Wave” and if so, what did you think? Or what films were your favorites this year? Do you plan to watch the Academy Awards?

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

Pioneer Girl and a Week in Review

I was sad to read of Harper Lee’s death yesterday. I had reread her 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” last year and had re-watched the 1962 movie version of it too — all in preparation for the 2015 release of her book “Go Set a Watchman,” which is generally considered to be an early draft of “Mockingbird” written in 1957. But — ugh – everything in “Watchman” seemed to turn “Mockingbird” on its head.  I didn’t like it much and thought the writing in it to be fairly forgettable too.
 
And now with Harper Lee’s passing, I wonder: do I wish “Watchman” had never been released?  Probably, yes.  I sort of always liked the idea of Harper Lee having written just one novel, one classic – sort of like Ralph Ellison did with “Invisible Man,” which I loved too.  But now with “Watchman” out there, it muddies the waters and presents more of a complex picture of what Harper Lee wrote and how “Mockingbird” came to be, which I guess isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I too was eager at first to reacquaint myself with an older Scout but sometimes prequels or sequels don’t always turn out to be what’s best.  I’ll always be fond of the 1960 story and characters, but now I’ll just know that they grew out of something else. What about you – do you feel it was too bad that “Watchman” was released when it was?
 

Meanwhile this week I’ve been working my way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 588-page novel “Americanah,” which I’m reading for my book club.  I’m not done with it just yet, but I’m marveling at how readable the novel is and how the story hasn’t sagged for me yet despite how long it is.  I’m usually not a fan of overly lengthy, thick novels so I’m pleasantly surprised by this one. It flows and entertains and keeps me wanting to find out what will happen at the end to the two main characters.  It also offers an interesting commentary on race and class along the way. I plan to finish and review it sometime next week.
 

I did finish the audiobook of Bich Minh Nguyen’s 2015 novel “Pioneer Girl” this week and enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s about an American Vietnamese girl (Lee Lien) who upon finishing her Ph.D. in literature returns home to the  Chicago area for awhile to help out in her immigrant family’s restaurant. But while there, her brother steals their mother’s jewelry and takes off for California, leaving Lee with their mother’s gold leaf brooch that was left behind in their family’s Saigon restaurant years ago by American reporter Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Soon Lee begins investigating Rose and Laura’s histories and whether the brooch is indeed an heirloom of the famous author’s, whose books were a favorite of Lee’s as a child.
 
It’s neat that the story explores both the Asian American experience of growing up in a strict, hard-working immigrant family in the Midwest, as well as being part literary mystery into the details of Rose and Laura’s lives. In their own ways, Lee and the Wilders are all “pioneer girls,” or at least Lee is drawn to Rose and Laura as being such. Lee’s life with her own tough mother and deceased father alternates chapters of Rose and Laura’s fractured lives. It’s an interesting parallel and one I found quite insightful and engaging.

I hadn’t thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books in a long time. I had read and liked them as a kid, and sometimes watched the TV show based on the books, but this novel brought them back to me — and left me wondering about Laura and Rose’s collaboration on the books — with Laura as the writer and Rose the editor. Bich Minh Nguyen’s novel makes me want to read “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder with editor Pamela Smith Hill, which came out in 2014 and apparently has a lot of new details into the family’s pioneer and writing lives.

It’s cool when a novel such as Bich Minh Nguyen’s can tell an interesting story about a girl’s immigrant roots and self-discovery and espouse a love of literature at the same time. What’s not to like?! For those who loved the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s this book is especially for you.

Ps. I didn’t realize beforehand that Nguyen was married to fellow novelist Porter Shreve. I had met him many years ago in D.C. where he signed a copy of his debut novel “The Obituary Writer” for me. It’s quite a fun novel as I recall.

What about you — do you have any thoughts about Harper Lee’s legacy, or Adichie’s novel “Americanah,” or Nguyen’s novel “Pioneer Girl” and if so, what are they?

 
 

Posted in Books | 39 Comments

My Name Is Lucy Barton and Everything, Everything

I’ve had a great week visiting old friends and playing tennis in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area, but I’ve been “on the Go” quite a bit so I haven’t read much of anything this week (other than restaurant menus, LOL) but I look forward to diving more into Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah” on the plane ride home. That’s a book I picked for my book club, so I hope it’s a good one to discuss with others.

Meanwhile last week I finished two slim but interesting novels. The first being Elizabeth Strout’s latest book “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” which like her first novel “Amy and Isabelle” involves a mother-daughter relationship. Strout seemingly loves this dynamic and is awesome at exploring its ties. Over the years, I’ve read all of her novels except her 2006 one “Abide With Me,” which must have slipped past me, though I’m sure I should rectify that.

Her latest one is a melancholy novel narrated by a thirty-something wife, mother, and writer named Lucy, who after an operation spends nine or so weeks in the hospital in the mid-1980s recovering from an infection she gets post-surgery. While there, she is visited for five days by her estranged mother who she hasn’t been in touch with much in many years but still loves dearly. In trying to reconnect, Lucy is flooded with memories from her lonely childhood, growing up in poverty with her parents, sister, and brother outside a small farming town in Illinois, and from her married life since then in New York City.

It’s a book in some ways that feels more like observations or reflections than a full story. You may keep waiting for the story to begin when in fact these memories of her life and interactions with her mother from her hospital bed are what make up the book. Many writers probably couldn’t pull it off, but with Strout there’s various layers going on that drew me in — notably the subtleties of the mother-daughter reconciliation; the fact that Lucy in her married life has risen above her upbringing but is still marked by it; and by how the advice she receives from an author while attending a writer’s workshop pertains to her life.

These things and the fact that Strout is a writer that often hits upon heart and bone when exploring family ties and class — is what makes me pick up her books each time. There’s a truth in her writing. Maybe in some slight ways she’s a bit like author Anne Tyler that way but also different too. Strout’s character Lucy is surely a ways apart from her character Olive Kitteridge, yet both are no strangers to loneliness and sadness. This book though has a different arc and scope than that one — narrower but with a few layers that kept me going.

My second book last week was Nicola Yoon’s very popular 2015 young adult novel “Everything, Everything,” which I listened to as an audiobook. I don’t pick up many YA novels — perhaps my last one was John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” or Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy, but I can see why this one engaged so many readers.

I might be one of the last bloggers to get to Yoon’s book — as it was checked out at the library for months — but for those who haven’t heard the novel is about a whip-smart 18-year-old biracial girl named Madeline who has an immunodeficiency condition and can’t leave her sealed, air-filtered house where she lives with her physician mom and a full-time nurse. But then a boy, Olly, moves in next door and she falls for him (mainly over the internet and through her windowpane) and begins to want to risk her health to be with him in the outside world.

I was pretty entertained by the start of the book. Madeline is a bright and avid book reader, and the story creatively includes in its telling some of her small books reviews, quotes, emails, and instant messages with Olly. Her narration too is pretty upbeat for someone stuck inside house-bound for so many years whose heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are constantly monitored. Though you can’t help but feel sorry for her since she’s alone a lot without much interaction except for a couple tutors, her nurse, and playing games with her mom at night. That is until she meets Olly, whose world is complicated too because of an abusive father.

As their friendship grows you begin to wonder: what will happen, and if Madeline and Olly will take a risk outside their worlds. The story seems to be building along just fine, but then a major twist happens toward the end, which I didn’t think worked and felt pretty creepy to me. It was like Ick. The twist bummed me and the story never really recovered for me after that, which is too bad. I did like the metaphor or moral of the story which I took away to be that: living an overly protected life can often be worse than the risks, and that it’s better to risk heartbreak then be trapped inside your house by fear. I appreciated that part of story, but just not the twist it used in getting there.

What about you have you read “My Name Is Lucy Barton” or “Everything, Everything” and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 21 Comments