Exit West and Noah’s Compass

It appears the Masters golf tournament is on and baseball has started so it must be officially spring. Are the azaleas in bloom where you are? No buds are open here yet, but the yard is raked up and ready to hopefully turn green soon.

My book assistant, at left, duly noted that I gave both of the books I completed last week 3.5 stars on Goodreads. They might not have been complete home runs for me, but they were still worthwhile. I know others gave Mohsin Hamid’s book 5 stars, so perhaps it was just me and my scattered brain last week that made it less so. But here are my reviews. …

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 2017, 240 pages, Riverhead Books

I’ve had this British-Pakistani author in my sights since his 2007 novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” gained much exposure and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I always supposed it would have made for a good book club kind of discussion book — being about a Pakistani immigrant in America in the wake of 9/11 — but then my group never selected it and I didn’t get to it.

So I jumped to read Hamid’s latest novel “Exit West,” which is similarly timely with world events. It’s a story that captures a world in flux, full of war and mass migrations that follows a young couple Saeed and Nadia, “who leave an unnamed country in the midst of a civil war and journey to Greece, England and eventually the United States in an effort to invent new lives for themselves,” so writes Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

It’s a story too that has a bit of magic to it as there are rumored to be magical doors, which Saeed and Nadia seek out, that are said to transport refugees to safer parts of the world. In interviews, the author says he used the device because he wasn’t interested so much in the characters’ physical migrations as he was in writing about the psychology of their exile, loss, and dislocation once they left their homeland. I found the doors played a minor role in the story and didn’t disrupt from its overall picture, which I was glad about since I’m not usually a fan of magical realism and the like.

“Exit West” is a story I liked for its premise and observations about a world that reminded me of the civil war in Syria and of people fleeing unimaginable conditions. I found many of its sentences to be heartfelt, truthful, and beautifully rendered. I was curious too about Saeed and Nadia falling in love during such a time and what would become of their relationship away from their homeland.

The only trouble was the storytelling in that regard felt a bit distant and lacking to me. I wanted to be more connected to the characters and the story as my mind wandered too much while reading the novel to other things. The interspersed segments it included on other refugees also failed to fully capture me. So alas, I felt the storytelling could’ve been more involved and better, but still I was glad to have read it. The novel paints a stark glimpse of people forced to leave their homelands, their alienation, and the ties they leave behind.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler, 2009, 277 pages, Knopf

Meanwhile, I listened to this novel as an audiobook last week. It’s been a long while since I picked up an Anne Tyler book — maybe not since the ’80s and ’90s when I read her novels “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “The Accidental Tourist.” They were so good, but then for whatever reason I never read anymore of her books. Perhaps I thought they were too domestic or family-oriented stories that were all a bit quirky and similar. But boy, I think I’ve missed out — as this book reminds me — she is a master novelist and storyteller.

The funny thing is this novel (her 18th) is apparently considered to be one of her weakest according to her ardent fans and critics, but still I enjoyed it and found some parts funny and endearing. Tyler is said to be known for her middle-age male protagonists who are often sad sacks  that undergo violent encounters or midlife crises of some sort that ultimately change their lives with their families.

And this book is no exception. It’s about 61-year-old Liam Pennywell, a divorced father of three daughters, who gets let go from his job as a 5th grade teacher and then is knocked unconscious from a burglar at his apartment. He doesn’t remember a thing about the attack, but later drifts into a wayward time where he gets involved with a 38-year-old frumpy woman named Eunice, who leads him astray and ultimately makes him want to regain closer ties with his daughters and ex-wife.

The story’s narration is not unlike that of a Kent Haruf book; I recently completed “Benediction” and this reminded me a bit of that — the everyday-ness of it, the concentration on domestic family members and matters, and the older male protagonist. But Tyler’s tale throws in some amusing parts as well; at one point the mother (Bootsie) of the young burglar asks if Liam will meet the boy and be a character witness for her son at his trial, saying he’s really a good kid despite knocking Liam unconscious and robbing various people’s homes. It’s a funny scene that’s quite a hoot and made me shake my head in disbelief. It’s probably one that only Anne Tyler could pull off so well.

It’s true “Noah’s Compass” is a story not without its faults, but I found it entertaining and endearing. I’ve heard Tyler’s stories have been criticized for being sentimental, but luckily I didn’t find this story to be overtly so. It’s a book that actually makes me want to go back and pick up more of Tyler’s stories in the future. Which one is your favorite?

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

Posted in Books | 33 Comments

April Preview

We’ve made it to April now, wow. Which reminds me of the saying: “April showers bring May flowers.” Or are your flowers already out? I took the photo at left yesterday when I went bicycling; see the snowy mountains? The trees don’t have their leaves yet, but it’s starting to warm up here and we could get into the 60s later this week. I’ve already raked the yard for a spring cleanup and I hope things turn green soon.

Meanwhile a lot of new books are coming out this month, which we should discuss. Among others, there’s new ones by Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Kostova, Randy Susan Meyers, David McCullough (a collection of his speeches), and even some long-lost unpublished short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. I’ve whittled down my list to five or so new titles coming out to watch for, so let’s get started.

First off, I’ll look to get my hands on Omar El Akkad’s dystopian debut novel “American War,” which is set in 2074 and recounts the outbreak of a second American Civil War between the North and South and its catastrophic aftermath.

Many are raving about this terrifying saga, which the New York Times’s reviewer Michiko Kakutani calls “powerful” and one that “creates as haunting a post-apocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in “The Plot Against America” (2004).” These are certainly strong words from the often dour Kakutani, and so I hope to get to the book right away, especially since I really liked Ben Winters’s slightly similar alternative history novel  “Underground Airlines” from last year.

Next up, I got to go with Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Anything Is Possible.” Although I wasn’t overly thrilled with her last novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” which this one is a sequel to, I’m still a big fan of Strout’s storytelling and have read most of her novels.

Apparently in this new one, “Strout reveals specific details of the horrible circumstances in which Lucy and her siblings were raised, as recollected by some of the inhabitants of Amgash, Ill., and the surrounding communities,” so says Publishers Weekly. It interweaves a dozen or so characters and is similar in format to her well-known novel “Olive Kitteridge.” I hear it’s good, so I will not miss it.

I’m also curious this month about M.L. Rio’s debut novel “If We Were Villains,” which is said to be a page-turning literary thriller, similar in nature to Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History.” It’s set at a Illinois college specializing in Shakespeare studies, and follows a group of college students whose passions and insecurities over time escalate to murder; uh-oh. It’s said to be an exploration of friendship and seems to be rife with obsession, betrayal, and the words of Shakespeare. I liked “The Secret History” so I think I will probably like this one as well, which is getting strong ratings on Goodreads. Apparently the author is pursuing Shakespeare studies in London so hence her idea for the novel likely came from there.

Next I’m interested in Vaddey Ratner’s new novel “Music of the Ghosts” about a woman who returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She comes to meet a man who wrote to her, claiming he knew her father at a Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared 25 years ago.

Similar in themes to her first novel — “In the Shadow of the Banyan” — Ratner’s new story is said to be a “tragic odyssey of love, loss, and forgiveness in the wake of unspeakable horrors,” says Publishers Weekly. Gulp, count me in. I had planned to read the author’s first book but then didn’t get to it. But now I want to read both, even though reading about the Khmer Rouge genocide totally scares me. The author is a survivor from the regime in Cambodia, who now divides her time between Southeast Asia and Washington, D.C.

Lastly in books, I’m tempted to pick up Frederik Backman’s new novel “Beartown,” probably because I haven’t read him before and he’s such a popular author after “A Man Called Ove.” I shoved the “Ove” story onto my husband — hint hint don’t be a curmudgeon — and he liked it. And I’m sure I’ll see the Swedish movie of it sometime. But for now, maybe I’ll get onboard with Backman’s novel “Beartown.”

It’s said to be about a tiny community deep in the forest that is hoping its junior hockey team can win the national championship and bring the place glory, but then a violent act occurs, which leaves a young girl traumatized and the town in turmoil. Hmm. Apparently the story is dark at times but also poignant. Will it be my first Backman read?

As for movies in April, there’s a few that look promising. I’m a sucker for anything having to do with anthropology, archaeology, and explorers so “The Lost City of Z” — based on David Grunn’s 2009 book about British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared along with his son while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s — is right up my alley.

British actor Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the TV series “Sons of Anarchy,” plays Percy Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller are in it as well. It’s an adventure tale based on a true story that seems to have all the elements; what more do you need?

Also the movie adaptation of Dave Egger’s 2013 novel “The Circle” is one I will likely see. It stars Emma Watson as the lead character who finds her dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to find out later that the company’s invasive agenda goes way overboard. Tom Hanks plays the company’s director, and the late Bill Paxton makes an appearance as Emma’s father. (So sorry for Paxton’s recent passing.) The storyline slightly reminds me of “The Firm” — remember that one? — though this one is more about privacy issues in a modern world gone technologically crazy. It’s creepy stuff that doesn’t seem too farfetched from reality.

Lastly for those interested in nature documentaries, photography, and wild animals there’s Disneynature’s “Born in China,” which looks pretty amazing for its cinematography, subject mater, and scenery. It follows the stories of three animals families: notably a panda mother and her cub, a golden monkey and his baby sister, and a mother snow leopard struggling to raise her two cubs. I’m sure it’s a film worth viewing and I’d especially like to see the footage of the elusive snow leopard. Apparently if you see the movie opening weekend, Disneynature will make a donation on your behalf to World Wildlife Fund to benefit the wild pandas and snow leopards, which is an added plus.

As for new albums in April, I’ll pick Sheryl Crow’s upcoming one “Be Myself.” I’m a fan of her early albums and songs (such as “Leaving Las Vegas” and “If It Makes You Happy”) so I’m a bit curious what this new one will be like. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like a return to her pop days, but hopefully it won’t be too pop-py, if you get my drift.

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


Posted in Top Picks | 26 Comments

All Grown Up and A Tale for the Time Being

Hi, how is your spring going? Have you watched any March Madness? Most of the snow and ice are gone here now (just left with some mud), and we are contemplating taking our first bike ride of the season today. I’m really excited that winter is over, hooray, though snowflakes can come here at anytime. I hope the buds are opening where you are, and that you are feeling spring fever. It’s a great time of year. I will leave you with some reviews of things I finished last week.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, 2016, Houghton Mifflin, 208 pages

I picked this novel up thinking it might be a bit fun with some attitude — a single girl in the city kind of novel, from an accomplished author, that I heard was bitingly funny. And indeed it didn’t disappoint in that regard. It’s told in a series of vignettes from different points in the protagonist’s life, which go back and forth in time. It read almost like it was a first-person memoir, but instead is a work of fiction.

The main character in the novel, Andrea Bern, is quite a piece of work. She’s approaching 40, lives in Brooklyn, has no passion for her job in advertising, sleeps around with no intention of getting married, and is seemingly lost and going through a rough patch. She is trying to figure out what it means to be an adult since her world is devoid of what typical adults are like. All the while, she is dealing with the grief of her brother and sister-in-law who are caring for a terminally ill child; the absence of her mother, who leaves the city to help them; and her best friend whose marriage is imploding. There’s also the baggage she carries around from dropping out of art school (her one true love), and the death of her father, who died from a drug overdose when she was a teenager.

Andrea would be totally sympathetic if she weren’t so flawed. She’s pretty selfish and self-absorbed and often not that likable. She’s also insecure and at times childish, and I wanted to shake some sense into her. But along the way, while seeking connection, she seems to gain some heart, and I started liking her for being clever, candid, and pretty funny as well. She’s snarky but sensitive too.

The story ends up being not so much about singledom — as perhaps just trying to find happiness, which most of us can relate to, though this book probably won’t be for everyone. But it’s a short, quick novel that turns out to be more touching than I would have initially thought — by an  author whose earlier books I’ve been tempted to pick up. I’m glad I got to this one. Have you read her before?

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, 2013, Viking, 432 pages

Meanwhile I listened to this novel as an audiobook, which is read by the author, who does a superb job of narrating the various characters. The book had been quite popular when it came out a few years back, but somehow I never got my hands on it. I’m glad I finally did. It starts with a relatively simple premise but then expands to cover so much. Who knew?!

It’s about a married Japanese-American writer (Ruth) on a remote island off British Columbia who finds a bag with a diary, a watch, and letters that washes up on shore sometime after the 2011 tsunami hit Japan and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The diary turns out to be written by a teenager named Nao in Tokyo who’s being mercilessly bullied at school. She had once lived in Silicon Valley in California, but her father was downsized there, so they returned to Tokyo, where her father has attempted suicide a couple times, and her mother works a lot.

The chapters alternate between hearing about Nao’s life in Japan and Ruth’s life on the island where’s she going through writer’s block and trying to figure out more about whose diary and letters washed ashore and where they came from. (Don’t you love these lost artifact kinds of stories? Another one is Bich Minh Nguyen’s novel “Pioneer Girl,” which is also quite good.)

Both storylines of Ruth and the young Nao are quite captivating, though Nao’s chapters are more engagingly told as she grapples with the harsh times she’s going through. She’s a plucky teenager, who’s only solace is to write the life story of her great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century, and who turns Nao’s life around when she goes to stay with her on summer break.

Oh there’s much more to the story, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a book that covers some dark subjects, such as from Nao’s life: depression, suicide, and bullying, and from Ruth’s life: nuclear fallout, ocean pollution, and species extinction (and from both lives: 9/11). But the book is also oddly uplifting, even a bit funny at times, how the two characters persevere and transcend time and place to reach out to one another through the diary and letters.

The novel’s essentially about the nature of time, and people in time: “time beings” as it says. For those who like a bit of philosophy in their fiction, and even quantum physics, which the story touches on near the end, then this novel is for you. It also includes a dose of magical realism, which luckily didn’t overwhelm me, or the story too much.

For the most part, I was captivated by Ruth and Nao’s lives, and I thought the novel was cleverly put together by the author. My only criticism perhaps was that it felt a bit uneven in parts, and could’ve been edited shorter. It goes on too long and for me didn’t necessarily need to cover so much. For instance, I would’ve been okay without the quantum physics part. Still I was totally surprised by the depth and how involved the story of “A Tale for the Time Being” was. No wonder it was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I thought it deserved it.

Lastly this week, I watched the Best Picture nominated film “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is my second to last film in that category I haven’t seen. (I still need to see “Fences.”) “Hacksaw” is based on a true story about Desmond Doss, a combat medic in WWII who was the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. Because of his Seventh-day Adventist’s beliefs, Doss didn’t touch guns and instead requested to serve as an unarmed medic.

The movie reminded me in some regards of other typical war, heroic films, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Unbroken.” The Battle of Okinawa, which it depicts, was brutal with huge casualties on both sides. The film is quite graphic in terms of showing loss of lives, and body parts blown off. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, dodges around the battlefield dragging the injured to safety. His courage and exploits are amazing, and apparently he saved 75 lives from the battle.

And though it is like other war films, I was interested to find out about the life of Desmond Doss, who grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, and dropped out of school in the 8th grade to help support his family through the Great Depression. His beliefs amid the war were quite atypical — so they are thought-provoking in the film. Apparently he lived quite a long time after the war, despite his injuries and contracting tuberculosis in the Philippines. He died in 2006 in Alabama.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

Miller’s Valley and The Zookeeper’s Wife

It was a busy a week, and I’m a bit behind these days, but I’ll catch up, so bear with me if I haven’t stopped by your site recently. I hope everyone had a nice and safe St. Patty’s Day. Spring is coming, I’m very excited. I wanted to congratulate Louise Erdrich for winning the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for her novel “LaRose.” It’s a book I plan to get to and one that Judy over at Keep the Wisdom had  wonderful things to say about. For now, I will leave you with a few reviews of what I finished last week.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen, 2016, 272 pages

I picked up this novel when I saw it lying around my parent’s house when I was traveling a couple weeks back. After the first 80 pages or so I didn’t think it was going to be for me — it’s a coming of age, family saga that seemed to start off a bit slowly and the material appeared a little thin. Maybe it seemed too quiet, or character driven? But sometime after that the story crept up on me and I became much more invested in it.

In the novel, Mimi Miller recounts her young life growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s with her family who’ve lived on a farm there for generations. There’s talk that the government wants to relocate their community, which is susceptible to floods, to make way for a reservoir, while her father and others are dead set against it.

Like her few friends, Mimi’s family is a bit of a mixed bag. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is a fix-it man; she has a successful older brother who’s married and moved away, and another brother she idolizes who parties through high school and then enlists in Vietnam to escape the stagnancy. There’s also Mimi’s reclusive Aunt Ruth who lives in a small house on their property but never goes outside.

All the while, there’s little money or future prospects, so Mimi loses herself in her school work, farm chores, and a sexual relationship. In many ways, the story is not uncommon to a lot of coming-of-age tales with family secrets, setbacks, and heartbreaks, but what I liked about it was Mimi’s narration, which gives it resonance with her insightful thoughts about what’s happening around her. Her sensibility piqued my curiosity into what would happen to her and the fate of the town and her family members.

I liked its themes too of home and place and the people who you grow up with. As Mimi says, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, even if they go.” I guess I shouldn’t have doubted the quiet power of an Anna Quindlen novel as the couple I’ve read usually have resonated quite a bit.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman, 2007, 384 pages

Meanwhile I listened to this nonfiction book on audio, which took a couple weeks of deeply concentrated dog walks with my headphones on (ha). I was glad to get to it before it comes out as a film at the end of the month starring Jessica Chastain. The movie was filmed in Prague, which stands in for Warsaw in the story. In retrospect, maybe it would have been easier to follow reading it in print, instead of listening to it, as the book covers so many different things pertaining to the Zabinskis’ lives and the war in and around Warsaw. But then again the narration of it on audio was so beautifully done by Suzanne Toren with all the accents and Polish words and ideas, which I liked. So I guess a combination of both perhaps would have been optimal.

The book is about the true WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw zoo, and his wife Antonina, who sheltered and hid about 300 Jews and Polish resisters during the war in their villa and in the animal cages and sheds. The author used Antonina’s diaries, and other sources and research to shed light on the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the ghetto, the uprisings, and how the Zabinskis managed and were able to do what they did.

It’s a remarkable story, but as many have found the book is not exactly an easy read or listen. Judging from what others have said on Goodreads, many abandoned or didn’t care for the book because they found it disjointed or scattered from the main story of the Zabinskis. In the book for example, the author will be telling about an incident with Jan or Antonina or their young son and then often go on a tangent idea about Polish customs or music or Nazi ideology or whatnot. So you have to hang with it a bit for the author to circle back around to the incident she was initially talking about.

It’s a book with a lot stuffed in it. Not only do you learn about the Zabinskis and what they were like, but there’s also a lot in it about nature and animals, what zoos were like at the time, Polish history, language and customs, Warsaw life, and Nazi ideology. It brought to light new things much of which I didn’t know. It also talks about various people who were pertinent to the Zabinskis during the war such as the spiritual head of the ghetto, the duplicitous director of the Berlin zoo, and others in the underground resistance.

I found the author’s research and broad scope phenomenal and fascinating. It might not have made for the easiest storytelling to follow, but sticking with it I found it rich and rewarding. I feel like someday I’ll have to return to the book to scoop up additional facts and tidbits from it. The writing too is often quite poetic and alluring, which I guess is not uncommon from the author, who’s known for this in her naturalist writings. Her love of animals and nature is definitely evident in the book, and makes for a new angle on WWII, which I haven’t heard about much before.

Other things I took away from “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was the courage of these regular people to do what they felt was right and help people despite the threat to their lives, as well as the ingenuity of many of the Polish people and Jewish resisters who thwarted the Nazis. They seemed far from idle or resigned to their fate under the occupation, and their resistance movement and uprisings are quite legendary. I was in awe of them throughout this book. I recommend the book for those who are interested in such tales of WWII resistance but know it’s probably not for every reader.

Finally last week we rented the movie “Jackie” and I thought it was quite interesting and much better than I thought it would be. I guess I thought it would be just a lot of grieving and mourning over the assassinated President Kennedy — and a portrayal of a horrified, stunned Jackie in her bloody outfit, but there’s more to the script than that. Somehow it captures quite a bit of what was going on at the time, as well the perceptions and myths, and it gets to every side of Jackie. It’s more multi-dimensional than I would’ve believed.

It’s also quite a provocative and beautiful film. And despite the flak I might have heard about Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie, I thought she was terrific and dug deep for the role. How she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar award over Emma Stone in “La La Land,” I’ll never know. Emma was good, but in my mind didn’t dig as deep as this.

What about you — have you read these books or seen this movie, and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 33 Comments

The Nightingale and It’s What I Do

Hi, I’ve been out of the loop for awhile traveling. We had a great time touring around Southern California going on some bike rides and spending time in San Diego, the town of Julian, Borrego Springs, Redlands (my hometown), and Temecula. We got rained on a few days, which was unusual, but I know California could use all the moisture it can get, so I won’t complain (too much).

I love the desert, which sort of feels like home to me, and we usually try to get out there once a year as a reprieve from the long Canadian winters.

It was beginning to bloom in Borrego Springs, and many areas including the canyons were quite green from all the rain in California this winter. Even the Salton Sea, the large dying lake out in the desert along the San Andreas Fault, had apparently risen a bit, according to the park ranger there.

In San Diego, we stayed and toured around Coronado Island and visited the USS Midway Museum — the huge aircraft carrier that operated for 47 years and saw action in the Vietnam War as well as serving as the Persian Gulf’s flagship in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm.

It’s fascinating to tour the ship that was once a City on the Sea to a crew of more than 4,000. It was fully equipped with a dentist and doctor’s office, a laundry department that handled 43,000 pounds of clothes a week, a Post Office, a brig, and six galleys that served 13,500 meals a day, oh my. In case you’re wondering, the ship is more than three football field lengths long, but still could cruise at a speed of 33 knots or 38 mph — fast enough to water ski behind. Pretty incredible. I’m pleased I didn’t get lost aboard.

Meanwhile on the trip I read Kristin Hannah’s 2015 bestselling novel “The Nightingale.” I’m aware I’m late to the party on this popular story about two French sisters in German Occupied France during WWII. You remember Isabelle, the resistance fighter based in Paris, and her sister Vianne at home in the countryside with her daughter, billeted with a German soldier. Both sisters (who are quite different from one another) do their best, trying to survive the war and end up helping others in the process. These are scary days indeed. There are grisly things that happen in their lives, make no mistake that this is a lightweight book in that regard.

I know the novel might be considered historical fiction-lite or historical romance, but it was an absorbing page-turner while on my trip. The reading level was pretty easy, YA level perhaps, and it flowed along at a speedy pace. I thought the storytelling was well done and I was caught up in the sisters keeping alive during the war. The story did not sag for me, despite being a good-sized saga. Apparently Isabelle is based on the real life story of 19-year-old Andree de Jongh, a Belgian woman who helped hundreds of Allied aviators escape by escorting many over the Pyrenees on foot. Like Isabelle, she too spent time at Ravensbruck concentration camp. As you might have guessed “The Nightingale” is slated to be made into a movie, but who will star as the French sisters? — that is the question. Any picks for the actresses?

I’ve read about Occupied France in the recent novels by Sebastian Faulks, Anthony Doerr, and Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” and “The Nightingale” captured and daunted me as well. On top of that, I’m listening this week to the audiobook of the true story of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” set in Poland during WWII; how much more can I take of these crimes against humanity? If I survive this one, I’ll look to get out of Occupied Europe for awhile in my reading.

While away, I also finished the audiobook of Lynsey Addario’s 2015 memoir “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.” The author has photographed for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic among other publications, and has covered dangerous conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and the Congo. You name it, she’s been there. This memoir tells of her life becoming a photojournalist and of her days on the road in these far-flung places doing the job that she so obviously loves doing, and is driven to do.

I thought the book was told quite candidly, not as a photo expert but more about how her career unfolded as well as her fears, insecurities, and drive to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession. It also delves into her personal life and how she struggled to try to find a balance between that and her work life. Her travels in this book are quite astounding, and the stories she tells of her photo assignments in dangerous places are pretty hairy; she gets injured and almost killed on a few occasions. Her memoir sheds light on journalists putting their lives on the line to do their jobs and unearth the truth.

I was quite amazed by how driven she is in the book (obviously she’s greatly accomplished at what she does) and it reminded me of the journalists I worked with while at the Washington Post as a copy editor. We often talked to our co-workers while they were in the field over questions or updates on their stories. I remember those busy days and reading about the foreign conflicts Addario talks about.

Some of her choices I thought were pretty crazy, especially traveling to risky places while pregnant and shortly thereafter. It seemed quite nuts to me; for a couple decades it appears she never said No to an assignment, despite the risks or constant travel involved. Still she’s made her life work for her. As I said, I listened to this as an audiobook, which I liked, but then I went to her website to see her photographs, which is a must to get the full experience of what she’s spent her life doing. All in all, I thought it was a thought-provoking memoir, and especially would be liked by those who are interested in  journalism or conflict photography.

Lastly we rented two movies on the trip, “Patriots Day,” which was a passable movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing starring Mark Wahlberg among others. I judged it to be slightly above a TV kind of true-story movie, which follows the details of the case pretty closely. It grabs at the emotions pretty well but is not something I would normally go out of my way to see.

We also saw the pretty weird thriller “Nocturnal Animals” with Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal about a wealthy art gallery owner who’s haunted by her ex-husband’s new novel. Have you seen this one? It starts off pretty scary and disturbing portraying the story from the novel then flashes back to their days together. I can’t say much more about it without ruining the story, though it does have one of those huh? kind of endings. Some will like it, others will not. I’m still wondering if it really worked.

What about you, have you read these books or seen these movies — and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

The Oscars and March Preview

My husband and I are heading out this Saturday for our “spring break” trip, which will include a week of bicycling and exploring in Southern California, particularly in San Diego and the Palm Desert area. So I’m posting early. We will try to catch some of the Academy Awards while there; Jimmy Kimmel is hosting and he should be pretty funny. Many think that “La La Land,” which tied “Titanic” and “All About Eve” with a record 14 Oscar nominations, will run away with the night in a landslide, though many movie critics are pulling for “Moonlight” to win.

I liked both of these films fine, but I’m hoping that maybe “Manchester by the Sea” or “Lion” will win something big too. Those two were my favorites. “Hidden Figures” and “Loving” followed closely behind the big four for me. I missed “Fences” and “Jackie,” but I’m sure they will come on rental soon, along with the nominated documentaries that I want to see. Which was your favorite film, or acting performance of the year?

Meanwhile March is just around the corner and I’m looking at what novels are coming out that I want to get my hands on. First off I’m interested in checking out Mohsin Hamid’s new novel “Exit West” about a couple who flee their homeland, which is on the brink of civil war, to join other migrants traveling to safer havens through closely guarded doors. The novel is said to contain surrealistic elements as people are transported from the doors to different parts of the world.

Usually I’m not too keen on such portals or doors in novels, though I did like “Narnia,” but I’m curious enough to see it through. Mohsin Hamid is a highly regarded British Pakistani author who’s book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is still on my shelf waiting to be read. Moreover I liked what the Huffington Post had to say about “Exit West”: “Hamid’s timely and spare new novel confronts the inevitability of mass global immigration, the unbroken cycle of violence, and the indomitable human will to connect and love.”

Next, I’m also considering Jami Attenberg’s new novel “All Grown Up,” which is said to be darkly funny about a “39-year-old single, childfree woman who defies convention as she seeks connection.”

I have not read Attenberg’s other novels “The Middlesteins” or “Saint Mazie,” but this one looks perhaps too good to pass up. The novel’s protagonist — New Yorker Andrea Bern — seems like quite a character, with her cutting observations on relationships and singledom. As Glamour says about the book: “Told in vignettes, “All Grown Up” asks what happens after you’ve got the whole ‘adult’ thing under control.” Hmm. I might still be working on that.

Also Peter Heller has a new novel coming out called “Celine,” which I probably can’t resist since I liked his other novels “The Dog Stars” and “The Painter.” This one is about a 67-year-old NY private investigator named Celine who heads with her husband Pete out to Yellowstone National Park to help a young woman solve the long ago missing person’s case of her father, who was said to be mauled by a grizzly but was never found.

Heller usually has a strong knack for settings amid nature, which I like, and the Library Journal has said about the novel: “Heller blends suspense with beautiful descriptive writing of both nature and civilization to create a winner.” So count me in.

Next up is Jessica Shattuck’s upcoming novel “The Women in the Castle.” I know I sort of promised myself not to take on anymore WWII novels than what I already have on my shelves, but with all the praise this story seems to be getting, I’m having a hard time resisting it.

Really it takes place post-WWII (so I’m okay there), amid the ashes of a defeated Germany, and is about three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined. All three women eventually must “come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war.” Hmm despite being buried in WWII books, I find myself game for the genre once again.

Lastly in books this month, there’s Nikolas Butler’s new novel “The Hearts of Men,” which sounds like it’s straight from the cult of the masculine — does it not? But Butler is well regarded from his previous novel “Shotgun Lovesongs,” which many readers loved. I have not gotten to it yet, but his new one gives me a chance to catch up with his storytelling, which comes highly praised.

“The Hearts of Men” is set at a woodsy Boy Scout summer camp and follows three generations struggling to find their place in a world bent on dealing them a bad hand, according to Publishers Weekly. Author Christina Baker Kline says about it: “Part coming-of-age narrative, part meditation on masculinity, part war story, this novel had me spellbound all the way to its riveting conclusion.” Hmm. I’m curious about checking this author out.

As for new movies in March, there’s a couple of cute comedies that look fun as possible future rentals, namely “Table 19” with Anna Kendrick about an ex-maid of honor who finds herself at the wedding reception assigned with five random guests to the dreaded Table 19. Oh my, I think I’ve been there! Also there’s Shirley MacLaine’s new movie “The Last Word” about a curmudgeon businesswoman who tries to control the writing of her own obituary, and in the process becomes friends with the local newspaper obit writer, played by Amanda Seyfried. It looks light and fun and a MacLaine-kind of movie.

But my main movie pick for March goes to “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which is based on the 2007 nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman that draws on the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska. It stars Jessica Chastain and tells the true story of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

I love to see these WWII resistance kinds of stories, similar to that of Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List.” I’m number 27 in line for the book of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” at the library, while the movie of it comes out at the end of the month. Have you read it?

Lastly in album picks for March, there’s new ones by Canadian singer-songwriters Jenn Grant and Amelia Curran, which I plan to look for, and also the band Spoon from Austin, Texas, has a new one called “Hot Thoughts,” which seems fun. Also Bob Dylan seems to be turning into a crooner with his “Triplicate” album that features 30 covers of classic American songs; oh my! No wonder he couldn’t make it to Sweden for the Nobel Prize, right? But my pick this month goes to Aimee Mann, whose music I like, for her upcoming album “Mental Illness.” She’s a badass singer-songwriter and is always worth listening to.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month? Till next time, I bid you adieu.  Bon voyage!

Posted in Top Picks | 26 Comments

Fifteen Dogs and The Last Days of Night

Lately I’ve been averaging finishing one book, one audiobook, and a movie per week, which seems to suit me fine as my thoughts are kept a flutter amid the three. Note: this is the last week before the Academy Awards airs next weekend, so if you’re trying to see something before then, the time is drawing near. Luckily I’ve seen a bulk of the nominees, which I hope to talk about sometime next week in my Oscar post. Meanwhile my husband and I are leaving for our “spring break” trip next Saturday, so there’s a lot to do before then. For now, I leave you with a few brief reviews of what I finished last week.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, published by Coach House Books, 2015, 175 pgs 

This short novel won the Giller Prize in 2015, Canada’s top literary award, and I’ve been meaning to get to it for a long while, especially since it includes dogs. But it’s not your typical dog story; oh no, this one seems to have quite a bit to say about the human condition, perhaps it’s a bit reminiscent in this way to George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm.” “Fifteen Dogs” is about what happens to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet clinic who are granted human intelligence and language by the gods.

The dogs of course escape the clinic and make a beeline for the beach and park, enjoying their newfound freedom and lives. But things aren’t exactly rosy amid their pack. Some of the dogs want to resist their new awareness and consciousness and go back to their old dog ways, while others want to embrace the change and form their own language. There’s a struggle over this, and it gets hairy! Some of the dogs become exiled, while others are attacked and killed; it’s truly a dog-eat-dog world for them. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to follow all of the cast, but soon the story focuses on a few of the dogs, notably Majnoun, an exiled black poodle who becomes close to a human couple who takes him in; Bengy the conniving Beagle who wanders from house to house; and Prince, a mutt who’s exiled from the pack for composing poetry.

It’s an interesting construct of a story, which unfolds with you waiting to see whether getting human consciousness has doomed these dogs. The interactions within it, too, are revealing in what they have to say about language, happiness, and love. It made me think about consciousness in new ways and I wondered this week what my own dog was really thinking. While I found the story interesting and cleverly done, I can’t say it was exactly a pleasure read. Its view of the dogs is quite grim and dark (except for a couple of them) and not nice and sweet like you normally think of these animals. The story had a little “Lord of the Flies” quality about it, but it made its point for me: dogs are much better off without our own baggage apart of them. But what does this story say about us?

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, published by Random House, 2016, 368 pages

This is quite a wild tale — it’s historical fiction that’s based on true events — which I listened to as an audiobook on long walks this past week. I had first heard about the novel from Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom who had a lot of great things to say about it. Though I wasn’t sure as I started it, if I would be kept truly interested in a story about the legal battle between Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse over the light bulb patent in the late 1880s. Come again? What did I care about following the main protagonist, a young lawyer (Paul Cravath) as he tried to win the patent case for his client Westinghouse? Wasn’t it just two bigwigs battling for prominence?

Sure enough I didn’t know anything about this and had a lot to learn. It didn’t take long before I was engulfed in Paul’s story and all of its particulars. There is so much more to it than I ever imagined — and of how high the stakes were — more to the rivalry of Edison and Westinghouse, more to the science and the times, more to what it was all about. Along the way, there’s interesting glimpses of inventors Alexander Graham Bell, financier J.P. Morgan, and the introduction of the electric chair, which is simply grisly in what happens as depicted in the book.

“The Last Days of Night” brings the history and real characters wonderfully to life. Who knew, about the maneuverings and alliances, the backstabbing and betrayals, and the turns and twists of fate that accompanied the powering of light. It’s like a consuming soap opera. Surely I did not know, nor did I know much about the inventor Nikola Tesla, who plays a quirky and major role in the story. He seems to hold the key for Paul in defeating Edison, or does he? There’s also Paul’s love interest, Agnes Huntington, an opera singer, who is also not all what she appears to be.

Will the case be won, or lost, or will all go bankrupt? You have to stay tuned to the end to find out. The novel has quite a bit of science in it (about alternating currents versus direct currents), yet it’s written for laypeople to understand, which helped me get by. The chapters are short and snappy, which keeps the pace moving. I thought the storytelling was superb, though it didn’t surprise me that an award-winning screenplay writer, Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for “The Imitation Game,” wrote this novel, as it seems written a bit like a screenplay. And sure enough, apparently Eddie Redmayne has signed on to star in the adapted movie of it in 2018. So we will see if “The Last Days of Night” translates well to the big screen. For now, go for either the book, or the audio; both are — shall we say — pretty illuminating. 🙂

The Crown — TV series on Netflix

We finally finished watching the first season of this series. Duh. It took me a while. I liked seeing how the reigns of power passed from King George to Queen Elizabeth, and the behind-the-scenes interactions within the royal family and with Winston Churchill are particularly interesting to watch.

The performances of Claire Foy as the Queen and John Lithgow as Churchill are excellent, though at times I thought the pace of the episodes was a bit glacial and a few times I fell asleep. I kid you not. “The Crown” did wonders for me catching up on a few zzzzs.

I know it’s terrible of me, but I woke up for the parts about Princess Margaret, who seemed to have more life about her than the rest of them put together. It was enraging that the Queen gave her word twice, and yet Margaret was foiled from marrying Peter time and again. Good grief, what torture. Let Margaret be!

Despite my small gripes, I look forward to Season 2 of this six season show, which apparently will cover from the Suez Crisis in 1956 through the retirement of the Queen’s third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1963.  Claire Foy will be back to star as the Queen once again.

Hidden Figures — based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly

I’m glad I finally got to see this movie about a team of African American women mathematicians who worked for NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. Despite all the obstacles they faced, including racism and sexism, they persevered and contributed to helping NASA win the space race. It’s an uplifting and inspiring film based on true events and real people whose lives and jobs were not well known about before Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book came out about them.

After the movie, I picked up a copy of the book, which I’m interested to see how closely it correlates to the film. I particularly liked the photos at the end of the movie of the real women whom the three actresses portray. They seemed amazing in their talents and diligence and it brought it all home for me, as the photos similarly did at the end of the movie “Loving.” These were real women, who made a real difference in the 20th century. Kudos to their efforts, I’m glad they have been honored with their story in this way.

What about you — have you read these books, or seen these films and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 23 Comments

The Dry and Benediction

We had brisk temps all week, but it now looks to be improving, and by Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, it could reach 50F. How heartwarming! That will trigger a massive melt off of snow here.

I’m traveling this weekend and will be having a reunion of sorts, with a couple friends in the San Francisco area, which I’m excited about. So I will leave you with a few brief reviews of what I finished last week. Oh, and many of you know my trusty book assistant and walking partner by now, Stella, pictured at left. She was almost attacked by a coyote this week while we were walking in the hills. Luckily she got away from it after a scuffle and ran back to me. It was a scary situation — and I didn’t know what would happen — but thankfully she is okay and in one piece. Gave me a slight heart attack at the time, but we have learned from this, I hope.

The Dry by Jane Harper: published by Flatiron Books, Jan. 2017, 320 pages

What it’s about: (culled from the publisher’s synopsis and me)

Federal agent Aaron Faulk returns to his small, struggling farming town in Australia for the first time in decades after the apparent murder-suicide of his best friend Luke and his family. Only things don’t add up when Faulk begins poking around, and he begins to wonder if Luke’s death is connected to something that happened twenty years ago when they were both teenagers. Set amid severe drought conditions, the novel follows Faulk and the local detective as they try to piece together what happened to Luke, his wife, and son.

My thoughts:

This is a slow burn of a murder mystery that despite the time it takes developing never seems to wan. I was interested in the story and the main character Falk’s unraveling of it the whole way. It starts with the gruesome deaths of three family members at a farm house, which the police conclude was a murder-suicide, but was it? Falk begins to poke around, while his thoughts become infused with the days he spent there in his youth with his father and friends. He starts having flashbacks, which are intermingled and italicized frequently throughout the story. I know some readers didn’t care for this, but it didn’t put me off too much, as some interesting things, linked to the present case, are divulged amid the flashbacks; it’s just the italics that  got a bit annoying.

But there’s not really a break in the murder case until quite late in the novel. I guess I was expecting more of a “thriller” type pace to the story, though the developments in it kept me engaged. It has a great Australian setting too. I could feel the dryness and the farming town’s struggles from drought, which are evocatively rendered in the novel. I thought I knew who the killer was long before the end, but it takes a turn and I was wrong about who it was. “The Dry” is well done by debut author Jane Harper, and it has an intriguing storyline. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

Benediction by Kent Haruf — published by Knopf, Feb. 2013, 258 pages

This novel, which I listened to as an audiobook, is set in the same small town of Holt, Colorado, as were the author’s previous novels “Plainsong” from 1999, and “Eventide” from 2004, but this one involves different characters. I had read “Plainsong” long ago and this is my second of Kent Haruf’s books, though I’d like to eventually read them all. Unfortunately he passed away in 2014 and will be greatly missed. His last novel “Our Souls at Night,” published in 2015, was well liked across the blogosphere and one I hope to get to.

What it’s bout: (culled from the publisher’s synopsis and me)

This novel is centered around Dad Lewis, a 77-year-old hardware store owner who’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He and wife Mary work to make his final days comfortable, while their daughter Lorraine returns home from Denver to help care for him. But Mary and Dad can’t locate their estranged son Frank, to let him know, and his presence is sorely missed. The story also involves a young girl next door, who is being raised by her grandmother after the death of her mother, and the town’s newly arrived minister, who faces disdain after a particular sermon doesn’t go over well.

My Thoughts:

I felt for the dying Dad Lewis in this book and his family, friends, and the community of Holt. He is a codger and sort of a grump, but it seems to be because of his life and how he grew up. As he comes to grips with his diagnosis, you sense the realizations he’s going through and his regrets in life — why he wasn’t a more loving person, particularly to his children, neighbors, and employees.

“Benediction” is a story about life and death, people’s regrets, and the ties that bind us. Although it’s a quiet and relatively simple story (and may not be for everyone), I got caught up in its cast of characters, who seem very real and are all going through different things and emotions. Kent Haruf is a master of writing about small towns, families, and communities— and seemingly can do it perhaps better than anyone else. I’m slightly reminded of author Alice Munro, who’s books are often filled with similar kinds of towns and people. Also the small town feel of “Benediction” made me think a bit of Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge,” but perhaps it’s less quirky than that. Listening to this story was another winner for me, and I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

Lastly this week, I saw the movie “Lion,” which is a Best Picture Academy Award nominee, and I must say it is quite excellent. I wonder if it surpasses “Manchester by the Sea” for me in terms of which one I liked better, though I know both are high on my list. “Lion” is based on a true story about a five-year-old Indian boy who gets lost from his village and winds up thousands of miles from home. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple and grows up there. Then 25 years later he sets off to find his biological Indian family.

This is a powerful movie and will pull at your heart strings along the way. It’s an amazing story, and I actually have the book, which the movie is based on, that I was hoping to read first. But Oops! I got to the movie first. The cinematography is also pretty great, as well as the actors in it. Might “Lion” win Best Picture? Or is it not hyped enough as the others?

What about you — have you read these books are seen this movie — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 28 Comments

February Preview

Light snow is falling here this weekend and it’s all pretty and white outside. It’s cold, too (6F, -15C), so it’s better just to stay inside and read near the fireplace with a mug of hot cocoa. It’s perfect for a good murder mystery, and I’m enjoying Jane Harper’s novel  “The Dry”  currently, which I plan to review next week. I almost forgot about Super Bowl Sunday with all the distractions this week from the continuing Trump Gong Show, which troubles me to no end. But we do plan to watch the game, the ads, and the halftime performance by Lady Gaga. What about you? I hope it turns out to be a good game and a peaceful day.

Meanwhile February has arrived and it looks to be a good reading month. There’s new novels coming out from  Joyce Carol Oates, Claire Fuller, Christina Baker Kline, Clare Mackintosh, and Heather O’Neill  among others, all of which I hope to look at, but I’ve picked a few other novels that have caught my main attention.

First off I need to check out George Saunders’s historical novel  “Lincoln in the Bardo,”  which I’ve been hearing about since I saw the author at BookExpo last May. It seems a bit of an unusual supernatural story about President Abraham Lincoln and his beloved 11-year-old son Willie who dies in 1862. In the story, Willie is caught in a strange purgatory after dying, mingling among ghosts, where there’s a struggle for his soul.

The book intertwines the living and the dead, as well as history apparently. It seems quite imaginative and I’m game for it. The author is known for his award-winning short fiction so this is his first novel. I’ll be interested to see what I think. Have you read it already?

Then on my radar I have Georgia Hunter’s debut novel  “We Were the Lucky Ones”  that chronicles the remarkable history of the young author’s own Jewish family (the Kurcs), who were separated at the start of the Second World War in Poland and flung to such distant points as Africa, Brazil, and Siberia, determined to survive and reunite.

It sounds like a harrowing journey, one in which her grandfather and great-aunts and -uncles endured and persevered despite overwhelming odds against them. The author gives more insight into her research of her family and the book at her website. For those who liked Kristen Hannah’s WWII novel “The Nightingale,” this seems to be similarly gripping.

Next up I’m curious about Katie Kitamura’s novel “A Separation,”  which appears to be another “Gone Girl” type of psychological whodunit. It’s about a woman on the edge who tells the story of the end of her marriage to her husband in London and what happens when he disappears and she goes to look for him in Greece. Hmm. I know I should probably get over this Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins type of genre, but I’m being pulled back in by the spotlight that this novel is getting. It’s said to be a slow burn of a story that builds with great force and intensity as the woman “discovers she understands less than she thought she did about her relationship and the man she used to love.”  Hmm. We will see. I’m #18 in line for it at the library.

I’m also interested in Min Jin Lee’s novel “Pachinko,”  a multi-generational saga of a Korean family from 1910 to 1989 that includes the Japanese occupation of Korea, and later the family’s experiences as expatriates in Japan, where they “suffer endless discrimination but also moments of great love and renewal,” according to Publishers Weekly.

“Pachinko” sounds like a fascinating epic, and though I don’t normally read a lot of historical, multi-generational tales, this one is getting a lot of strong praise and favorable reviews and seems too good to pass up. I hope to win a copy of the book in the giveaway on Goodreads that’s going on now. This is the author’s second novel after “Free Food for Millionaires,” which came out in 2007.

As for movies in February, Raoul Peck’s documentary  “I am Not Your Negro,” which chronicles writer James Baldwin’s story of race relations in America from his unfinished novel, looks to be quite revelatory and strong. I have not read a lot of Baldwin’s books, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” from 1953 or “The Fire Next Time” from 1963, but I plan to remedy that in the future. He was a tremendously influential thinker, writer and activist in so many ways … for Civil Rights and to writers such as Toni Morrison. This documentary appears to come at a period in America that seems timely.

Reviewer A.O. Scott of the New York Times called the film “life-altering” in a review on Friday, and Tre’vell Anderson of the Los Angeles Times said the film like James Baldwin is “unadulterated, uncompromising and unapologetic.” From all I’ve read about it, the documentary sounds like a powerful must-see.

The movie “A United Kingdom” with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike is also getting pretty favorable reviews. It’s based on the true story of the black Prince of Botswana who married a white woman from London in the 1940s, which caused an international ruckus. Their families didn’t approve of the interracial marriage, nor did their governments, but somehow they persevered to assume power in his African country after independence. It seems like quite a story. Though the movie likely won’t be as formidable to me as “Loving” was on the topic, it still seems worth seeing. The actor David Oyelowo I’m sure will remind me of his role as MLK in “Selma,” and I hope Rosamund Pike doesn’t remind me too much of her role as Crazy Amy in “Gone Girl.” She was totally freaky but good in that.

Also note, Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz are in a period piece at the end of the month called  “Tulip Fever,”  about a young married woman who gets involved with a painter who’s commissioned to paint her portrait in 17th-century Amsterdam. Uh-oh. Her husband, played by Waltz, isn’t exactly thrilled by that. This appears to be Vikander’s first appearance since her role in “The Light Between Oceans,” which I liked.

Lastly for February, there’s new albums by Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss,  and the Canadian folk singer  Rose Cousins. I like all three of these musicians, but I’ll pick Rose Cousins’s new album  “Natural Conclusion”  since we’re going to see her in concert here in March. It should be good.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 30 Comments

The Girl in Green and The Unseen World

This week was pretty productive as I finished one book, one audiobook, one TV mini-series, and watched two films. Surely I need “outlets” in these days of the new U.S. administration — ugh, but don’t get me started on that. I will leave you with some brief reviews of what I finished. Note: the second TV mini series I have listed below is something my husband and I finished a few weeks ago so I thought I’d report on that now as well. I had hoped the two books included this week would be 5-star reads, considering all the high praise of them on Goodreads, but I found them more like 3-star reads for me. I liked them but I didn’t overly love them. Though judging from Goodreads, I might be in the minority on this.

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller, 2017, 336 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This novel is about two men who experience a brutal incident in 1991 during the Gulf War and then team up 22 years later on a mission to set things right and save a refugee girl in Iraq involved in an insurgent attack. One is a veteran British journalist who’s home life is in trouble, and the other is an irreverent American soldier who does things his own way. With the help of U.N. aide workers, they set off on their mission into unfriendly lands, only to get into more trouble than they bargained for.

I really wanted to get caught up in this plot — as I know how big the refugee and immigrant crisis has been in places originating from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but the narrative and characters felt a bit distant to me, written in the third person, and I didn’t get as fully gripped by their dilemmas as I had hoped. The conversations, too, between the characters are often jokey and irreverent, which I didn’t always appreciate, but I liked how the novel gave a glimpse into the world of U.N. refugee workers on the front lines. They are real heroes no doubt. There’s quite a few tangents in the book going on that defuse the situation and slow the plot a bit, but luckily it picks up towards the end — as the fate of the girl and the two men hang in the balance. Still I didn’t find it to be a typical thriller.

In the acknowledgments at the back of the book, the author says he drew heavily for this on his PhD dissertation in which he studied the Iraqi civil war of 1991 in depth. It seemed to me a bit like that. There was information he seemed to want to impart. It also says the author worked on diplomatic missions and for the United Nations, and I wonder a bit if I would have liked this more as a memoir or nonfiction book than this story, which seemed a bit far-fetched and out of my full reach of the characters’ turmoil. Hmm, it’s just a thought.

The Unseen World by Liz Moore, 2016, 464 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., read for the audio by Lisa Flanagan

I listened to this as an audiobook, which took me on long walks all week, considering its length. The novel is about a young girl (Ada) who idolizes her single father, who’s raising and home-schooling her. He’s a scientist who runs a prestigious lab in Boston working to develop a program on artificial intelligence. But it’s later in life when her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s that Ada shockingly finds out that he is not really who he says he is. Thereafter she takes up trying to unravel her father’s cryptic past, and the codes and files on his computer.

There are some nice storytelling elements in this novel, which spans Ada’s entire life. I felt for her, as she’s a lonely kid who’s adopted by some neighbors after her father becomes ill. But I usually don’t take to the genre of fiction in which characters aren’t who they say they are to their loved ones (unless it’s a spy story). A lot of novels involving secrets feel contrived to me or are not my thing, but I know they are popular. For these reasons, “The Unseen World” made a pretty decent audio, but I didn’t feel the novel was fantastic. I also thought parts of it were over-written and it could have been edited for a tighter effect.

Still for those who like novels based on secrets or identity plots, I say go for it. Of those I’ve read, it reminded me of aspects of Kate Morton’s “The Forgotten Garden,” Suzanne Rindell’s “The Other Typist,” Jojo Moyes’s “The Girl You Left Behind,” and Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests.” It’s sort of along these lines of stories, if you liked them.

The Night Manager — a British TV mini-series with 6 episodes

My husband and I just finished this series, which is based on John le Carre’s 1993 novel, and we enjoyed it very much. It had pretty riveting suspense and action. It’s about the night manager of a hotel in Cairo (played by Tom Hiddleston) who is recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate an arm dealer’s inner circle.

Gosh Hugh Laurie is fantastic as the billionaire bad guy in this, and Hiddleston’s character Jonathan Pine is cool as a cucumber undercover. No wonder this series won two Emmys and three Golden Globes. Some parts of it might have seemed a bit unrealistic but still it made for an entertaining spy drama. For those who were fans (like we were) of the British TV series “MI-5,” which ran from 2002 to 2011, you’ll definitely want to see this series as well.

Trapped — an Icelandic mystery TV mini-series with 10 episodes

I think I found this show on Netflix by mistake but then we got caught up in it and there was no turning back. It’s a whodunit murder mystery that takes place in a small town in Iceland where everyone knows everyone else. It has subtitles in English but that didn’t distract me from the overall story, which is: When a human torso washes up on shore, the town’s chief of police and his two junior officers must find out who’s responsible. Is it a human trafficker from the ferry boat that recently arrived in town, or is it someone local with a dubious history? As the officers begin to investigate, they soon have their hands full with a number of strange incidents, including an avalanche, fire, and theft of the corpse.

This is an entertaining murder mystery and I loved its snowy, isolated setting. It’s a little tricky keeping track of all the Icelandic names, but it was well worth it. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, “Trapped” is the most expensive TV series ever filmed in Iceland. Hmm, who knew.

Moonlight — a 2016 U.S. film, which has received 8 Oscar nominations

I finally got to see this at the theater. It’s been so heavily hyped since its fall release that I didn’t really know what to expect. While I thought it was an interesting, moving drama about a black boy who tries to find his way while growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami, I didn’t really think of it as a Best Picture film but feel free to disagree with me if you did.

It shows the boy, Chiron, in three stages of his life: adolescence, mid-teen, and young adult, which I thought were effective, especially during the teen years. You really feel for him as his mother is a drug addict and he’s bullied to a pulp. I didn’t realize before seeing “Moonlight” that it involves a gay relationship (duh I’m way behind on this), but I thought it was done well and realistically. In some ways, it’s a subtle film, but one in which you can feel its strong undercurrents.

The Birth of a Nation — a 2016 U.S. film

Lastly, I rented Nate Parker’s film, which came out in October to much commotion. It’s about the real life of Nat Turner, the literate slave and preacher, who lead an uprising in Virginia in 1831. The historical life of Nat Turner is quite fascinating and has been broached a number of times onscreen and in books. Turner’s rebellion made quite an impact during its day, perhaps not unlike John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. It’s referenced in a number of later works by escaped slaves.

The film is violent but isn’t gratuitous considering the subject matter of slavery. I thought it was pretty powerful and worth watching. It made me want to know more about Turner’s life and I would like to read Thomas Gray’s 1831 pamphlet about him called “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” While I didn’t feel “The Birth of a Nation” was perhaps as stunning or as full a picture as the 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave” about Solomon Northup, I did think it was a valuable addition to the film canon of slave narratives.

What about you — have you read these books, or seen these TV shows or movies? And if so, what did you think?

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