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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

July & August Releases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then enjoy your summer days.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 22 Comments

Dunkirk and Mini-Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

The Glass Castle and A Separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 20 Comments

White Fur and The Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

Saints For All Occasions and The High Mountains of Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

Purity and My Summer List

Recently I scored the audio download of Jonathan Franzen’s 2015  576-page novel “Purity” from the library. It took a couple of weeks to listen to it all, which I did mostly while walking … and then walking some more, but I found it well worth it — as the story hooked me early on and engaged me till the very end.

And oh my, it’s quite epic. It takes you down varied paths — from Northern California to the Eastern Bloc and jungles of Bolivia — and through the lives of its characters in a whirlwind. I found it at times humorous, creepy, endearing, and maddening. It has a lot in it and much to say. I was especially impressed by the captivating storytelling of it, which sort of surprised me — as this was my first Jonathan Franzen novel — and here I thought he was supposed to be snooty, grumpy and once infamously mocked Oprah Winfrey’s book club. All of Franzen’s novels about families I (wrongly) presumed were long, dense, preachy, and morose. Yet I found “Purity” to be quite accessible, full of life, easy to fall into, and funny early on.

It’s a story about a young college grad, the whip-smart Purity “Pip” Tyler, who’s laden with student debt, living at a rundown group home and working at a hokey business in Oakland that sells renewable energy. She doesn’t have anyone close to her except her single mother, a recluse who raised her at a remote cabin in Northern California and won’t lend her money or tell her who her father is. Her mother is manipulative and clingy yet Pip still loves her.

In time Pip takes an internship at The Sunlight Project in South America run by this dubious guy Andreas Wolf, an East German who rose to fame during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He’s a competitor to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which his company resembles, leaking secrets of the world. Pip wants to use his company’s resources to find out who her father is, though Andreas is interested in Pip for reasons she doesn’t yet understand and which will eventually upend her ideas of right and wrong — when she pursues a job at an online investigative news organization in Denver. The story is a bit of a mystery, you’ll want to stick around to see what happens to the likable Pip, how it all ties together, and whether she’s able to reunite her family.

It’s also a bit of a modern-day Dickens tale that reminded me slightly of Lauren Groff’s big seller “Fates and Furies,” which came out around the same time. It has a similar epic-storytelling feel to it and is partly about the Battle of the Sexes. Like Groff’s Lotto and Mathilde, Pip’s mother and father are at odds with one another and their sordid history unfolds over time. Franzen seems to satirize their “feminist marriage,” which breaks apart in a firestorm. The mother in “Purity” is particularly worth strangling, though the father, is no white knight either. None of the characters — from Andreas to even Pip turn out to be as pure as they claim to be; they all harbor harmful secrets and have dirtied their hands from it — so to speak.

Like “Fates and Furies” too, “Purity” includes quite a bit about the characters’ sex lives or motives, which aren’t always pretty, so be forewarned. There’s a couple sections where I wondered if Franzen deserved the “bad sex in fiction award” but I think he narrowly dodges it by using it to show just how depraved his characters sometimes are.

What is interesting is the story’s theme that explores power and secrecy issues in the Internet age, and particularly those surrounding journalism vs. WikiLeaks, which Pip must navigate through early in her young career. It’s a timely theme, and one that delves into the background of the Assange-like character, Andreas Wolf. Earlier in life he’s on the run from the Stasi in East Germany for a crime he’s involved in. This part of the book is pretty gripping and reads like a thriller. It’s various side stories like these that make “Purity” worth the price of admission. For all it offers, I gave the novel five stars on Goodreads, despite it including two pretty dislikable marriage partners.

What about you have you read this one, or any of Franzen’s books and if so, what did you think?

As for my Summer Reading List, I’ve listed 15 novels below that I’ll be trying to get to from June 15 to Sept. 15.

Are any of these on your list? Or if not, what is?

I combined some thriller, fast-paced types with slower, deeper reads so hopefully it’ll be an enjoyable season.

Check out what’s on it:

1) If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (2017)
2) Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (2017)
3) Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar (2017)
4) Transit by Rachel Cusk (2017)
5) The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016)
6) To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)
7) The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005) / movie out in August
8) The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
9) The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne (2017)
10) The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer (2017)
11) White Fur by Jardine Libaire (2017)
12) Celine by Peter Heller (2017)
13) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) / b/c of the TV series
14) Before the Wind by Jim Lynch (2016)
15) Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Hopefully I won’t get too distracted by other titles not on the List, but unfortunately I usually do. I’ll incorporate those additions as I go along.

This weekend I’m in California visiting my folks (can you tell?) so I will bid you adieu for now. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Reading!

Posted in Books | 30 Comments

June Preview

Well I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo in New York this past week, but it looked like it highlighted some big-named authors with new fiction coming out this fall, notably Jennifer Egan with “Manhattan Beach” (Oct.), Nicole Krauss with “Forest Dark” (Sept.), Jesmyn Ward with “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (Sept.) and the first story collection of Jeffrey Eugenides called “Fresh Complaint” (Oct.). I’m sure many other buzzed about books were there, but we’ll have to wait and see what the word is on those. If you went to the Expo, I hope you had a great time and will give us the lowdown on what transpired and is hotly anticipated. Most importantly, how many books did you pick up, or which authors did you meet?

These days I’m juggling due dates of checked out library books with the onslaught of those coming off hold, and recently I finished listening to the audiobook of Jonathan Franzen’s lengthy 2015 novel “Purity.” Wow that one took me two weeks to get through but the storytelling I found was well worth it. My review of that will follow sometime this week along perhaps with my summer reading list. I enjoyed putting one together last year. It’s fun to decide which books go on the list — as my summer reading usually varies quite a bit from the rest of the year. It’s a prime-time for page-turners or stories you can easily fall into while catching rays on the back deck.

June is usually a great month — busy though. I have a couple trips and much yard work planned. It is very green here now and all the foliage has grown bonkers. So summer begins — I hope you enjoy yours. For now I’ll leave you with some notable new releases of what I see coming out this month.

I’m usually not a reader of really long, thick books, but Rachel Kadish’s novel “The Weight of Ink” (576 pages) seems like a totally immersive experience that’s received quite a bit of high praise.

It’s a story about two British historians who get a hold of a mysterious collection of papers hidden in a historic London home that sends them on an unforgettable quest. They’re 300-year-old letters written by a Jewish woman with an intellect unwilling to be squashed. One part is about her life in 17th-century, plague-ridden London, and the other part is the quest of the present-day historians trying to figure out the puzzle behind her letters. Hmm, I’m game.

Also the Indian author Arundhati Roy has a new book coming out called “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” which is her first novel in 20 years. I remember reading her debut “The God of Small Things” in 1997 when it won the Booker Prize, but it’s been a long, long time.

Her new book looks to be a complex and challenging read, but one that is said to be rewarding and worth the wait. I gather it’s a bit hard to sum up but features a diverse cast of characters whose stories are interweaved with India’s social and political tensions, particularly the violent retaliations to Kashmir’s fight for self-rule.

Apparently the story includes a lot of violence and suffering but also is suffused with flashes of humor and irony. Ron Charles of the Washington Post has called the novel a “remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains.” Hmm I’m curious to see how it compares to her first novel from long ago.

Next up, after that challenge, I’ll likely need Karen Dionne’s fast-paced psychological thriller “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” about a woman whose dangerous father has killed two guards and escaped from prison, disappearing into the marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she was raised. The police start a manhunt for him, but the daughter knows she’s the only one who can track him down.

The story sounds unsettling and sinister for sure — it’s been recommended for those who liked Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” — but is said to be well-done and to keep readers on the edge of their seats. It might be just the right thing while sunning on the back deck.

Then there’s Daniel Riley’s debut novel “Fly Me,” which is said to be a story of dark discovery set in the debauchery of 1970s Los Angeles. It’s about an airline stewardess who falls into a drug-trafficking scheme that clashes with the skyjacking epidemic of the day and one she does her best to break free of.

Apparently the novel is an excellent time capsule of 1970s nostalgia and is a book that author Scott O’Connor says “conjures a place and time as vibrant and compelling as the embattled young woman at the heart of this story.” I like novels set in L.A. and Southern California where I grew up — so count me in for this one. I think its plot gets pretty crazy but we will see.

Lastly in books, Thrity Umrigar’s new novel “Everybody’s Son” looks to be an interesting novel that examines race and privilege in America. It’s about a neglected 10-year-old African American boy who thrives as a foster child to a white U.S. judge and his wife who pull strings in order to keep him. But when the boy discovers the truth about his life and his birth mother, he must come to terms with those who’ve meant the most to him.

It sounds like a moving and timely novel from an author I have not tried yet. Author Celeste Ng says of it: With assured prose and deep insight into the human heart, Umrigar explores the moral gray zone of what parents, no matter their race, will do for love.” Hmm, it sounds like it’s a story worth exploring.

As for movie picks in June, it looks like “Wonder Woman” will surely make a dent at the box office. Critics like it too apparently as it’s received a 94% approval rating on the site Rotten Tomatoes. So who knows, I may eventually see my first superhero movie in many many years. I was going to wait for Aquaman — which is coming out in 2018, but maybe “Wonder Woman” is worth it? What do you think, have you seen it? It’s sure to be huge, and will likely do wonders for DC Entertainment, but I haven’t been a big superhero film watcher since the days of lovely Christopher Reeve and his Superman movies. As for other films this month, I’m hoping the romantic-comedy “The Big Sick” might have some laughs in it. Gosh it seems we could all use some laughs about now. So let’s hope this one has some in it; it looks a bit promising.

As for albums coming out in June there’s a slew of new ones by a variety of singers from pop divas Katy Perry and Lorde to singer-songwriter, country-alternative types like Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, Roger Waters, Ani DiFranco, and Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters among others. I’m not sure yet of any of these new ones, but I’ll try the latter as my pick this month. The Honeycutters hail from Asheville, N.C., and I’m new to them.

What about you — which upcoming books, movies, and music are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 28 Comments

American War

Hello. I was away traveling in the mountains last weekend during the Canadian May long weekend, which was truly gorgeous. We had spectacular sunny conditions for the annual three-day Golden Triangle bike ride and survived the long cycling routes just fine. It was really lovely out there. Along the way we saw deer, elk, and mountain goats but no bears this time; they were around the area according to all the Rangers’ signs posted but must have gone out of sight into the woods by the time we passed by.

Now we are coming down from that Rocky Mountain high to fly to Michigan this U.S. Memorial Day weekend for our nephew’s wedding. It should be quite exciting an event and fun to see other relatives there. Just a bit of a whirlwind. I wish all those in the U.S. a very happy Memorial weekend, and until next time I’ll leave you with a review of a book I finished recently.

Oh yes, I was lucky to score a copy of Omar El Akkad’s debut novel from the library, considering it’s been in high demand after receiving some rave reviews recently in The New York Times among others. It’s a dystopian novel about a family caught up in the days amid a second U.S. Civil War, of the North vs. the South, that takes place from 2074 to 2095. The war is caused largely by the prohibition of fossil fuels by the North, which the South doesn’t want to ban.

The story’s main protagonist is Sarat Chestnut who is of mixed race and only 6 when the war breaks out; her father has been killed and her mother decides to flee their home in Louisiana and take her brother and her twin sister and her to a refugee camp farther north near Tennessee. There in Camp Patience among tents they live fenced in for six years with hundreds of others while trying to wait out the war. But eventually an atrocity occurs at the camp — that along with Sarat’s befriending of a mysterious mentor — changes the paths of their lives and the country’s forever.

Oh it’s dark times indeed. The novel paints a picture in which the effects of climate change have wrecked havoc on the Earth, and northern drones, causing ruthless attacks, rule the skies. The barriers between the North and South feel like Korea’s DMZ, and there’s a Guantanamo Bay-like prison that Sarat must endure. Oddly enough there’s not a lot of mention of racism or slavery in the book (like in the first Civil War), but once again Southerners appear to be on the losing end, poor and desperate.

The scene setting, daily grudge, and characters in it are quite vivid and perceptively drawn, though one might need to suspend his or her disbelief a bit over some of the fuel/geographic/science details of it. I actually thought as a dystopian novel, it would be more action-packed than it turned out to be. The story meanders and takes it own sweet time and has some slow pacing issues in the middle. I was starting to lose patience when luckily it picks up again near the end, building to its conclusion (as peace plans are brewing) then taking a turn and coming crashing back down. Ugh it wasn’t an ending I was hoping for — the cycle of vengeance in it is quite rough. But did I really expect some light at the end of the tunnel?

Ahh well, I guess it was pretty effective in a scary kind of way. It’s a book that supposedly isn’t meant to be so much about America or its past Civil War as it is about the “universal language of suffering” and what it does to people, so says the author, Omar El Akkad, who I coincidentally was able to see this week at a discussion about the book. He was in town giving a talk — right as I had finished the novel, which was perfect timing! See a photo of him at left at the event hosted by Wordfest.

Although it’s a novel that appears to be timely in today’s fractured world, it was started long before the days of Trump, and was in reaction to things the author witnessed in the Middle East while reporting there for the Globe and Mail. He told us he was born in Egypt and moved to Canada when he was 16. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife who teaches there.

The author admits he offers no answers with the book’s story, and says the character of Sarat is not a person we have to sympathize with, or apologize for, or like, but he hopes readers will come to understand how she gets the way she is. In this way and others, it’s certainly a thought-provoking novel … and rather provocative.

Although I probably liked Ben Winters’s 2016 novel “Underground Airlines” — which imagines the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists —  a bit more, I’m glad to have read “American War” and to have heard the author speak about it. He was quite interesting and well-spoken. I just hope the path of his story is not the way the future turns out for any of us.

What about you — have you read “American War” or other dystopian novels like it — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 26 Comments

Beartown, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Sun Is Also a Star

Happy Mother’s Day to all those out there. I haven’t posted in awhile because it took me some time to get through the novel “Beartown” and I’ve been busy with the yard and getting ready for a three-day bicycle trip next weekend. It’s the annual Golden Triangle bike ride that about 400 cyclists do every Canadian May long weekend. We are hoping for good weather but you never know until it gets here. I will report back on it, until then I will leave you with a few reviews of what I finished lately.

It’s true I like an occasional sports novel. I’ve read Chad Harbach’s baseball novel “The Art of Fielding,” John Grisham’s football novel “Playing for Pizza,” and Chris Cleave’s bike racing novel “Gold” among others — so with the hockey playoffs going on, I was game for Fredrik Backman’s novel “Beartown,” which is about a small depressed community, set deep within a forest, whose junior ice hockey team means about everything to the people who live there. Molded by years of endless practice and coaching, the team has a real shot at the country’s championship — that is until a crime takes place involving its 17-year-old star player and the 15-year-old daughter of its general manager, which changes things in the community forever.

It’s an alluring premise and setting, and the novel skips around in snippets among a lively cast of quite a few characters that includes players, coaches, parents, the GM’s family, the town’s bar owner and others. Of these, I liked the young immigrant boy, Amat, who is small but very fast on skates and is trying to make the team. A lot rests on him and what he knows in the aftermath of the crime.

This was my first book by the Swedish author — who also wrote the bestseller “The Man Called Ove.” His novels seem to border on popular fiction, which is okay if it moves along accordingly. He definitely seems to know his hockey, which there is quite a bit of in this story. My only trouble was that the first half of the novel seemed rather repetitive about how important hockey and the team meant to the dying town — there’s quite a bit of backstory that takes awhile to get where it’s going — and while the novel’s second half moves better with the crime and aftermath, I found it was a bit heavy-handed and lacking in subtly. There’s an occasional voiceover narration — in addition to those of the characters’ — that seems to drum its message into you. I guess I didn’t care for that, or being molded about how to feel about the situation — let us decide for ourselves.

Still judging by all the raves on Goodreads, I’m in the minority on this one, giving it three stars, which to me means I liked it okay but didn’t overly love it.  Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an e-copy of the book to review.

Next up, I listened to the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which the author does a fine job of reading. It came out last June, and I feel like I might be one of the last bloggers to get to it. It’s been that popular! I had no idea, really, but the book’s sales sure took off amid the pre- and post-election hoopla, despite not being about politics or even mentioning Trump. Nor did I know the author was just 31 when it came out last year — it’s a memoir by a young person one could say.

As many know it’s about the author and his family’s life growing up poor in the Rust Belt — first in Kentucky’s Appalachia region then in Ohio, where his grandparents moved hoping to escape the poverty. J.D. chronicles how he was raised along with his sister mostly by his grandparents since his parents divorced — his dad moved away and his mother struggled with addiction problems and a trove of men and unsuccessful relationships.

To say his family life was chaotic would be putting it mildly. But luckily for him, his tough, gun-toting grandmother provided the stability and guidance he needed to get through high school. She is quite a character, who was not to be messed with. A couple years in the Marines also gave him discipline and structure and he went on to attend Ohio State University and thereafter Yale Law School and a high-paying job.

It’s quite a rise and the book chronicles his life’s changes in details that make for an interesting read. I admire how J.D. overcame so much (especially dealing with his mother) to get his education and job and make his life better. His genuineness in the book and the audio’s narration come through, and he tells it in a way that is straightforward and pretty humble. It’s mostly a memoir but also talks about the white working-class; he seems to love his hillbilly family and neighbors but is also critical of them.

Perhaps one of my takeaways of the book is that it takes a village or a support system to raise a child, especially when you don’t have reliable parents (surprisingly this sounds like Hillary). He credits his grandparents, sister, and mentors along the way for helping him. That seems key. I also like how he talks about taking personal responsibility and not always blaming others or the government for one’s place.

Apparently J.D.’s a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton, but someone else. But I’d be surprised from what I read in the book if he fully sees eye to eye with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, are you kidding me? Does he? I didn’t find the book abundantly political — and I may not agree with everything in it — but I thought it was thought-provoking, and I’ll be curious to see where the author’s thoughts and life take him from here.

Lastly in fiction, I also listened to the audiobook of Nicola Yoon’s young-adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star,” which is about a teenage girl (Natasha) in New York, who along with her family faces deportation to Jamaica in 12 hours, and a first generation Korean American boy (Daniel) who is being pushed by his parents to attend a college and career path he doesn’t want. Daniel and Natasha fatefully meet, and over the course of a long day, traipsing around the city trying to solve their problems, fall for one another, while their personal histories and those of their families unfold.

I thought there were a lot of excellent things about this story: the dialogue and details with which Yoon writes about teenage life and love seem pretty authentic and she knows a lot about the magic of love and how to write about it. The families and perspectives also seemed fairly realistic, though they came off a bit stereotypical. It’s a timely premise with today’s climate of increasing deportations, and the anxiety in it seemed palpable. I actually liked this book of Yoon’s better than her first bestselling novel “Everything, Everything,” which is coming out as a movie this month.

Though I might be too jaded to fully believe that two people can fall in love with one another in 12 hours. When I pick up a YA book, I often feel like I’m the wrong audience for the genre as the whole melodrama of the teenage experience isn’t often my cup of tea. So it’s usually me and not the book to blame. A few parts of this novel got a bit cheesy to me, and other parts I thought included an overabundance of cursing by the boy Daniel. Still I’m glad I finished it, and I think Yoon has a lot of talent writing YA fiction if she doesn’t go too overboard. I like her optimism and the spirit of love in her stories.

As for TV shows we’ve been watching, we finished Season 6 of “Homeland,” which ends with the president-elect pretty much going bonkers with retribution and cutting civil liberties. Hmm, is anyone paying attention? Now we’re into the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government rules the former United States amidst an ongoing civil war — where society is organized with classes of women being brutally subjugated.

Oh my it’s grim, bleak stuff! After three episodes, my husband has declared it darker than Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Still it’s hard to turn away from and there is hope for the resistance. Filmed around Ontario, Canada, the series apparently has been renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. Viva the resistance!

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

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