Year End Summary and Favorites

Below is a rundown of my stats and favorites from 2016. I had a good year (see photo of Lake Louise at left) and averaged a little over a book a week, which is the pace I feel suits me best. I was surprised that I completed the same amount of audiobooks as books read. Audios sure have gained in popularity and I enjoy listening to them on my frequent dog walks. I mixed in a fair amount of nonfiction too, which I hope to continue to do, though literary fiction is my favorite genre of all. There were a lot of great books this year so it was really hard picking which ones I liked best, but something gave the edge to Imbolo Mbue’s novel “Behold the Dreamers” and Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography “Born to Run,” my favorite reads in fiction and nonfiction respectively for 2016.

As for movies, I just saw “Manchester By the Sea,” which is quite potent in an understated way and I thought deserving to go on top of my list (for a saddish drama, it is excellent), but there are still others I plan to see before the Academy Awards takes place on Feb. 27. See the list below. Still “Manchester By the Sea” is a strong contender and Casey Affleck gives an affecting performance as an uncle who is asked to become the guardian of his teenage nephew. I cannot say too much more about it without giving too much away, but it did leave me thinking about it for days after. The setting, too, of the Massachusetts seaside town is very much ingrained in the film. You can sense the feeling of the place from a mile away.

As for music, I realize that a majority of people nowadays don’t listen to “albums” as they once did. Music streaming services such as Spotify among other things have changed the way people listen or compile music. Indeed I only bought five albums this year, which made up my list below.

I guess I should feel remiss for not putting the “Hamilton” musical Broadway soundtrack on it, which a friend assures me all the kids she knows have memorized. I guess she’s right, probably the biggest thing in the arts going on in 2016 was “Hamilton” on Broadway. If you didn’t get into it, you missed it. And alas, I’m still in that category. Who knew this Founding Father would be all the rage in 2016. I still want to read the book by Ron Chernow, which my brother-in-law says, is the best biography he’s ever read. All 731 pages of it, enjoy! And happy reading in 2017.

Books Completed: 54
Nonfiction: 10
Fiction: 44
Audiobooks: 27
Books Read: 27
Male Authors: 18
Female Authors: 36
Canadian authors: 4
British & duel citizen authors: 11
U.S. & duel citizen authors: 39

Favorite Nonfiction That I Read in 2016

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen (2016)
“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough (2015)
“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren (2016)
“Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
“Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art” by Carl Hoffman (2014)
“Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West (2016)

Favorite Fiction That I Read in 2016

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue (2016)
“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters (2016)
“The Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyle (1995)
“The North Water” by Ian McGuire (2016)
“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

Other Novels I Enjoyed That Were Published in 2016

“Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld (2016)
“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron (2016)
“The Longest Night” by Andria Williams (2016)
“The Girls” by Emma Cline (2016)
“Shelter” by Jung Yun (2016)
“News From the World” by Paulette Jiles (2016)
“Sweet Lamb of Heaven” by Lydia Millet (2016)
“The Mothers” by Brit Bennett (2016)

Favorite Movies From 2016 So Far

“Manchester By the Sea”
“Deepwater Horizon”
“La La Land”
“Hell or High Water”
“The Light Between Oceans”
“Me Before You”
“Our Kind of Traitor”
“Captain Fantastic”

Movies I Still Want to See From 2016

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
“The Birth of a Nation”

Favorite Albums of 2016

The Lumineers — “Cleopatra”
Norah Jones — “Day Breaks”
The Avett Brothers — “True Sadness”
Vance Joy — “Dream Your Life Away”
Michael Kiwanuka — “Love & Hate”

What about you — how were your stats and what were your top favorites in 2016?

Posted in Top Picks | 33 Comments

The Mothers and La La Land

We had a great time in Southern California visiting with my family over Christmas (see photo at left) and now we are back to the cold of Canada, which is a brisk re-introduction. But it isn’t all gloomy, we did go cross-country skiing yesterday with our dog, Stella, and that was fun. It helps to get out and about despite the winter temps here. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday and will ring in the New Year tonight with plenty of good cheer.

While on break I finished Brit Bennett’s debut novel “The Mothers,” which received a lot of hype before it came out in October. The author was selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees, along with Yaa Gyasi, who wrote the novel “Homegoing.” And indeed Bennett is young, just 26 years old. Apparently she started writing the book while in high school in Oceanside, California, then finished it after going to Stanford, and getting an M.F.A. at the University of Michigan.

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Bennett’s novel “The Mothers” is about an unwanted teen pregnancy that affects those involved — as well as others — and reverberates throughout their lives. Particularly it’s a coming of age tale of two teenage girls and a boy who become close and are all struggling to overcome hardships. The two girls bond over trying to come to grips with being abandoned by their mothers, and the boy, a star athlete, dates one of them while healing from a career-ending injury. It’s their relationship with each other — as well as the secrets surrounding the unwanted pregnancy — that form the gist of the novel, set against the backdrop of the tight-knit church and military community in which they live.

It’s a book that kept me reading to find out what would happen to the lives of these three entangled characters, though I didn’t end up totally liking any of them. They continued to make bad choices — one betrayal in particular — which sort of confounded me and I couldn’t really get over for my appraisal of the book. So while I thought the author had some good writing in it, and the book was a worthwhile read, I liked but didn’t overly love “The Mothers.” It was just some things that didn’t fully resonate or work for me that made me like it a bit less. Too bad, I had heard so much glowing praise about it. Still I will continue to watch for what the author writes next.

Meanwhile last week, I saw the movie “La La Land” with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I rarely ever see musicals, but I was curious about it since it also received such positive hype. It’s about a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. Surprisingly I found the movie quite entertaining. Gosling and Stone share an enticing charisma and chemistry, and I liked how — though set in contemporary times — the film pays homage to the heydays of Hollywood, harkening back to the movies of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as well as “Rebel Without a Cause.” It’s neat too to see such landmarks in the film as the Griffith Observatory, the Rialto Theatre, and the movie star murals on the city’s streets. It includes some musical numbers, but the storyline becomes more spoken as it goes on — it’s not totally filled with singing and dancing numbers. With the themes in it, “La La Land” celebrates the artists and dreamers of the world — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What about you, have you seen this movie, or read the novel “The Mothers,” and if so, what did you think?

P.S. Please stay tuned for my post later in the week previewing new January releases and my Best Of 2016 list. Thanks, and Happy New Year!

Posted in Books, Movies | 28 Comments

Behold the Dreamers and Allied

I hope everyone is staying warm. Argh, did your area get the dreaded “Arctic blast”? Well it was quite brutal here, but now it seems to be leaving, and this week we should see temps back in the 30s F (+3C), hooray. That’ll be easy and good for when we board our flight to California later this week. Christmas is almost here, and the reading days for 2016 are coming to an end. My reading has slowed a bit amid the holiday rush and festivities, but still I’m getting to some great books. I hope to squeeze in a couple more before the year’s end.

This week I finished Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel “Behold the Dreamers,” which was mentioned to me by my sister, who had read it for a book club group. Wow, what a great book it would make for a discussion. It turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. It’s neat when that happens — when you’re not expecting to come across a Favorite Book of the Year and then sometime during your reading of it a light goes on in your head and you think: “Whoa, this is one of them.” Have you had that happen? Well, I had the light go on with Imbolo’s “Behold the Dreamers.”

I guess I didn’t know much about it when I picked it up, but the story hooked me right away. It’s about an immigrant family from Cameroon that tries to make ends meet living in Harlem New York. Jende and his wife Neni love America and want to give their 6-year-old son the opportunity for a better life, but they need decent-paying jobs while working towards getting their papers for a more permanent status in the States. So all is good when Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive named Clark Edwards at Lehman Brothers. In time, Jende gets to know the wealthy Clark and his family, and Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni a job at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. Things seem promising for Jende and Neni’s all-consuming dreams of staying in the U.S. — that is until Lehman Brothers collapses and the lives of all four are upended.

Yes, this novel is set amid the troubled times of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. It’s not your average immigrant tale I can assure you. It grabbed me by my lapels so to speak and had me racing through it. I liked how the story delved into the lives of both the immigrant family’s and those of the white executive’s. Neither is all good or all bad. The novel paints a more realistic, complex picture of both couples, each wanting the best for their kids. And under the strains, the marriages of both are put to the test.

I felt for Jende and Neni who struggle so desperately to get their U.S. residency papers. I remembered when I came to Canada — it’s not exactly easy living in another country; there’s a lot of procedures, application paperwork, and hassles. It’s a long, long process, believe me. For the immigrants in this story, it was far worse. Among other things, they didn’t marry into it like I did.

“Behold the Dreamers” is pretty gushy about “America” and all of its opportunities. It felt a bit weird reading about it like that — I’m sure I take too much for granted being from the U.S. and perhaps don’t see it so unblemished as the characters in the novel do. But by the end, the story also reveals the high price people can pay for living in the land of opportunity — not only in terms of financial obligations and how much people have to work but also in terms of stress and other things. Each of the characters in the book is pushed to a breaking point, and you wonder along with them: at what cost is it worth it?!

It reminded me slightly of T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel “The Tortilla Curtain,” which I also read this year and loved. That novel about a Mexican illegal alien couple and a white yuppie couple whose lives collide in California suburbia was more satirical than this one, but this novel has little of that in it. I’m totally impressed that “Behold the Dreamers” is a debut novel, which it didn’t seem like, by an author from Cameroon who came to New York in 1998. I watched an interview of Imbolo on video talking about the book and she seems like a breath of fresh air. If you have time, check it out here.

Also this past week, I saw the movie “Allied” with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. For some reason, I was preparing not to like it — as if it had a high bar to clear, but then I liked it quite a bit. So I’m glad I went. It’s fun too that Pitt plays a Canadian intelligence officer in the film who says his dream place is Medicine Hat, Alberta, which is just a few hours away from here. That got a few guffaws from the audience.

Anyways, the movie is set in WWII and Pitt’s character meets a French resistance fighter played by Marion Cotillard on a mission behind enemy lines. Later they meet up in London, and you are led to wonder whether one of them is betraying the other. Both Pitt and Cotillard are pretty good in this, and the screenplay by Steven Knight, who also wrote “Eastern Promises,” “Locke,” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” moves fairly quickly. I wouldn’t say “Allied” is an award winner, but I did find it entertaining. And who doesn’t want to look at the magnetism of these two stars?

What about you, have you read “Behold the Dreamers” or seen “Allied,” and if so, what did you think?

Also I want to wish everybody who reads my blog Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for stopping by and for making it such a great year at The Cue Card. I really appreciate all of your comments and insights and think very highly of all of you. It’s been great this past year getting to know my regular readers.

Posted in Books, Movies | 20 Comments

The Beauty of Humanity Movement

We’ve had Arctic temps here this past week. It’s been about -10F or -23C outside. Ouch! Luckily I’ve worn my trusty big gloves and snow boots, which have worked well on my early morning dog walks. Yes, my dog still wants to go out and chase her ball. Yikes, she’s pretty oblivious to the cold and to me trudging through it after her. Next week, the cold snap should break and it’s supposed to hit 15F, which should feel easy peasy by then. But it’s still a good thing I’ll be in California over Christmas week. I’m looking forward to de-thawing then and visiting with family.

Meanwhile this past week I finished Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel “The Beauty of Humanity Movement,” which was a read for my book club. It’s my second novel about Vietnam this year, but it’s a bit different than the other one I read — Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer.”

The title of Gibb’s book “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” is a bit of a mouthful, but it refers in the novel to a group of Vietnamese dissident artists who meet during the war at Hung’s cafe in Hanoi and put out a few underground publications before the cafe is shutdown by the Communists and the artists are hauled away to re-education camps.

Now decades later Old Man Hung is a soup vendor, peddling his popular and delicious “pho” on the streets and living by a dirty pond in shantytown. His most faithful pho customer is Tu, who is the grandson of one of the artists, and a tour guide in the city. One day Old Man Hung is visited by a Vietnamese-American woman (Maggie) who is working in Hanoi to catalogue an art collection for the Hotel Metropole. She is searching for clues to her father, a dissident artist who disappeared during the war after she and her mother fled to the U.S. But offhand Hung can’t seem to remember her father, or what happened to him.

The story follows these three intersecting characters as they dig into the past to try to find out more. Tu develops a crush on Maggie and wants to help her, as does Hung who treasured the dissidents and is haunted by what happened to them and his family during the war. He begins to reflect back to those days, and it’s Hung’s life story that makes the novel so compelling. He gives a glimpse into the violent Communist crackdowns, the U.S. bombing raids, and the sheer poverty of the war years, surviving on trees and what little else he could find by the pond. It’s the making of “pho” for his small community that propels him to live — as well as the dissidents’ publications and his love for a girl named Lan. You’ll want to read on to find out what happens.

It’s quite a bittersweet tale, about lost love and changing times, which by the end might make you hungry for a Vietnamese bowl of pho — Old Man Hung’s specialty. I have not eaten pho in a long while, but in honor of the story I’d like to. What I also liked about the novel was how it brought Hanoi’s past and present together. You really get a glimpse of what it’s like there today and what the people in the North went through many decades ago. I think this is the first novel I’ve read set in Hanoi, as opposed to Saigon, so it was new and interesting to me. The city is still a bit of a mystery to many Westerners. I didn’t find the novel a fast read, but I didn’t mind slowly meandering over its pages. The ending seemed a bit too tidily rendered for the main and secondary characters. Still I thought it was definitely a worthy read, which touched on a number of themes, such as the redemptive powers of community, art, and love.

I wondered a bit how the author wrote about Vietnam so well being from Britain and Canada. I hadn’t heard of her before this book, which a member of my book group picked to discuss. But apparently Camilla Gibb has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford and seems well adept at traveling the world and writing about other cultures. This is her third novel. Her prior one “Sweetness in the Belly” is about a Muslim girl in Ethiopia. I hope to read that one sometime next year.

As for movies this week, I didn’t make it out to the theater, but we did rent the 2013 TV movie “Burton and Taylor,” about the last work collaboration between the two legendary actors and former married couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1983, they starred in the Noel Coward play, “Private Lives,” together, which is what this movie is about. While making the production, Liz, played by Helena Bonham Carter, comes across as a bratty diva squandering her talents, while Burton, played by Dominic West, seems resigned and conflicted by her. Neither are in good health, or easy much to like. And their relationship is a bit all over the place — with their intense bond and history together eventually pulling them apart. It’s a bit sad really, but an interesting look into their lives. Who knew Burton would die the following year. Till then, apparently he and Liz spoke every few days although they were no longer together. What they shared was quite a connection.

Seeing “Burton and Taylor” made me a bit wistful for their happier “Cleopatra” days.

What about you — have you read Camilla Gibb’s books — or seen this movie? And if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

December Preview

The hectic holiday season is upon us and already my reading has suffered. At least that’s my excuse for the slowdown. Currently I’m reading Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” for my book club’s discussion next week. It’s a novel set in contemporary Hanoi, Vietnam but touches on the past as well. I’m enjoying it so far and will review it next week. Have you read any of Camilla Gibb’s novels?

For December, the only books coming out that sort of drew a pulse out of me are Michael Lewis’s new one “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” and Will Schwalbe’s “Books for Living.” Granted, I’ve never actually read a Michael Lewis book, but I’ve enjoyed the adapted movies of his books quite a bit, namely “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” and “The Big Short,” which were all excellent, and this book looks good as well. Will Schwalbe’s latest work is another for those who like to read about books. His first one “The End of Your Life Book Club” was poignant, and this one similarly entails a personal journey through a life of reading. If you like book lists, or adding to them, then you might want to check it out.

But as far as notable literary fiction goes, there’s very little that comes out in December, so it’s a good time to try to catch up on novels over the past year. I’m hoping to get a few read before the year’s end that I’ve heard good things about, notably: Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers,” Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs,” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” They’re all awaiting me. It’s just a matter of sitting down in one place for a certain amount of time, and focusing.

Meanwhile a number of publications have made their Best Books of 2016 lists, which I always find interesting once they narrow it down to 10 or so. If you like these, below are the links:

The Washington Post
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Please note that Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” is the only novel that made all four of these lists! He had a great year with his novel, which I nabbed in May at the BookExpo in Chicago and plan to get to soon. I hope to make my own Best Of list sometime at the end of this month. So stay tuned.

As usual for December, there’s a lot of movies coming out, but I’m not sure the looks of any of them have really grabbed me yet. I’m usually not too into musicals, but “La La Land,” with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, has received a lot of praise so I will likely see it. It apparently pays homage to the musicals of the 1950s and the Golden Age of Hollywood. So we will see. Also, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie” looks like it might be one to get an Oscar nomination, so I should go see that as well. It’s set in the period directly after President Kennedy’s assassination while Jackie is grieving.

Other than that I’m thinking perhaps “Gold” with Matthew McConaughey is a movie to see. Does anyone remember the Bre-X mining scandal of 1993 — or only my husband? This movie is based on that, about an unlikely pair that journey into the Indonesian jungle in search of gold. It’s probably best not to know any more than that, or else it might give it away — only to say it seems their gold did quite a number on the Canadian market. McConaughey apparently gained 40 pounds for the role along with acquiring a receding hairline, so he’ll be far removed from his romantic-comedy days.

Other than that, I’m thinking a lot of the notable movies came out in November this year. I still need to see “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” And maybe even “Allied.” So that’s plenty for the holidays. Though there’s also Martin Scorsese’s upcoming movie “Silence,” about two Jesuit priests in the 17th century who travel to Japan to spread the word. Hmm. And if you like foreign films, there’s “Things to Come” (French), “Neruda” (Spanish), and “Toni Erdmann,” (German) which all look pretty interesting as well. So perhaps there’s more than I thought worth seeing.

Lastly in albums for this month, there’s new ones by John Legend, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and Pete Doherty among others. All of these are fine artists, but their new tunes haven’t hooked me, so I think I will opt for some holiday music instead to get me into the Christmas spirit. I have a few albums I turn to every year, but if you know of any great holiday albums, let me know.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 28 Comments

Born to Run and Sweet Lamb of Heaven

I hope everyone in the U.S. had a very lovely Thanksgiving. It was pretty uneventful here in western Canada. There’s still no snow on the ground, but that’s okay. I’m loving that there’s no ice to slip on. Next weekend, my husband has a conference in Lake Louise, so I’m planning to tag along, for the gorgeous views, fireside reading, and perhaps some cross-country skiing. It should be great.

Meanwhile after a couple weeks I finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s 508-page autobiography “Born to Run,” which is good stuff! Of course, it helps if you’re a diehard fan of his music to read the book as it’s quite a detailed account of his life and career. To me it was like ice cream on the cake — I couldn’t get to it soon enough. I won’t bore you with the details of my years following Bruce’s music and his shows, but suffice it to say I first got into listening to him with the “Born to Run” album in 1975, and I haven’t missed an album since.

I was excited when I heard he was coming out with a memoir. Interestingly, the book was written over a seven-year time period, in a notebook by longhand. Apparently Bruce would write some, then put it away for intervals then come back to it a year later, with fresh eyes. It’s a pretty straightforward, chronological account, which I was quite thankful for as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

My favorite part is the first half of the book about his growing up years. This part flows so well and the narrative is so good you really get a sense of what his working-class neighborhood in Freehold, New Jersey and his family were like. His beginnings were much more humble than I had realized. His family was pretty poor, his dad was often an unemployed bus driver and his mom was a legal secretary. The house he grew up in often didn’t have heat other than the stove they cooked with, and his grandparents played a big role in his upbringing. He was the oldest child, with a sister close in age, and another much later. But it’s his tenuous relationship with his father that’s central in the book. His father had a lot of hostility towards Bruce and was often brooding, drunk, and unrelatable to him in his youth. Seemingly it was through music that Bruce could find an escape.

Like others, Bruce got his first guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, but guitar playing didn’t stick with him until after he saw the Beatles on the show years later. He got into it then and was playing in a neighborhood band while eventually graduating from high school — and dodging the draft for Vietnam by being found unfit to serve. He was late in his teens then, when his parents decided to leave New Jersey and move to the San Francisco area with his youngest sister. Bruce stayed behind and moved to the Jersey coast, squeaking by playing in bar bands and writing songs, while crashing on the floor of his friends’ surf shop.

Bruce’s work ethic, as evident in the book, and how he got his recording contract with Columbia Records are quite extraordinary. Not to mention how he followed it up by making such remarkable albums. He tells about it so openly and humbly you feel as if you’re right there as it’s being played out. He has a good memory, and the details are often fascinating. What’s refreshing too is that this is one of the first rock memoirs I’ve read that doesn’t have a lot of drugs or alcohol in it. There’s no overdoses or hallucinations. Bruce didn’t do drugs (he didn’t need to be high in order to write), and didn’t have his first drink till his 20s. Neither did he have a driver’s license till then, so a lot of his transportation came through hitchhiking. (Though it’s interesting to note: all of the cars in his early songs.)

The book’s chapters follow album by album through his career. While he does give insights into each of them, I would have liked even more on specific songs (since I’m a bit nuts about them). Still he does go behind the scenes about the E Street Band and each of its members and talks about his two marriages and three kids. He isn’t harshly critical about anyone and has a lot of positive, kind things to say about all of those he has worked with, and loved. Though I didn’t realize he had suffered periodically from such serious depression. That’s the news of the book. He’s been seeing a shrink since the ‘80s and occasionally has been on medication. Apparently his father was later diagnosed with mental illness, so it appears to run in the family. Still it was a bit surprising to hear of this with Bruce, someone so talented and successful with a close-knit family. If he’s depressed, then what does this say about our lives?

All in all, “Born to Run” is my favorite autobiography or memoir of the year. Are you kidding me? This is a very rare and wonderful treat — from a songwriting, rock legend, no doubt. As I said, I enjoyed the first half of the book the best. Through his albums “The River” and into the years of “Born in the USA,” it’s quite illuminating. Towards the end, it gets more condensed and felt a bit more like a list of things that happened, instead of the neat narrative that flows at the beginning. Still Bruce includes many interesting stories about his amazing life and career in the book, and it’s fortunate that we get such a glimpse. I plan to keep listening to whatever comes next from him.

Lastly this past week, I finished the audiobook of Lydia Millet’s novel “Sweet Lamb of Heaven,” which is pretty cool as it’s read by the author. Oh it’s a spooky, strange little novel. Part thriller, and part horror, it also has an apocalyptic sense to it. The novel is narrated by a woman (Anna) who is on the run from her uncaring husband. She’s taken their 6-year-old daughter from their home in Alaska and is hiding out in a motel on the coast of Maine, where she’s trying to figure out why such strange things as hearing voices have happened to her. It turns out other guests at the motel have heard similar things.

Meanwhile her conniving husband tracks her down, giving her an ultimatum to come back or else face consequences. It’s then that more unexplained things start to occur and Anna and her daughter are almost killed in a number of freak “accidents.” All the while she’s tries to come to grips, along with the other motel guests, with what’s going on and what to do about her husband’s ultimatum. You’ll want to wait for the ending as it’s quite a doozy.

“Sweet Lamb of Heaven” slightly reminded me of a Stephen King story, but with some deeper elements as well. There’s quite a bit of ruminating on “deep languages” and God, which I was trying to stay on top of. I’m not sure I understood everything, but I liked what was said. There’s a mysterious quality about the novel that held me in its grips, along with the protagonist’s narration. I haven’t read Lydia Millet before, but I think some of her other novels have surreal elements to them as well. Thanks to Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom who had such good things to say about the book and the author. I plan to read more of Millet’s works in the future.

What about you — are you a Springsteen fan, or have you read any of Lydia Millet’s novels, and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

News of the World and Where the Red Fern Grows

I want to wish those in the U.S. a very Happy Thanksgiving this coming week. It’s hard to believe Turkey Day is about here and we’re nearing Christmas. Already there’s quite a few Christmas lights up in our neighborhood. We won’t be traveling anywhere this time for U.S. Thanksgiving but are excited to be joining relatives in California for Christmas. So that’s the agenda so far.

Also this week I want to congratulate the 2016 National Book Award winners, notably Colson Whitehead for his novel “The Underground Railroad,” which won for fiction. I heard Colson speak at the BookExpo in May in Chicago and plan to read his novel soon. It’s about a runaway slave named Cora who escapes a Georgia plantation and travels north via a literal underground subway. Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom has read and liked it as have other bloggers, so I’m keen to try out my first book by him.

Interestingly another novel given out at BookExpo — George Saunders’s book “Lincoln in the Bardo” — has been hailed by author Zadie Smith as “a masterpiece” in this week’s New York Times’ By the Book interview. Saunders’s book (his long-awaited first novel) is not due out till February but you might want to take note of it, if you don’t already have an advance copy. It’s said to be a “mesmerizing historical novel that’s also a moving ghost story.” It combines a tale of Lincoln with the supernatural. Hmm.

In my reading this past week, I finished Paulette Jiles’s historical novel “News of the World,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award. I have not read a lot of westerns, but this one captured my imagination so I might like to read more in the future. It’s about an elderly widower, a captain in the Civil War, who in the 1870s makes his living traveling around North Texas giving public readings from far-away newspapers to paying customers.
It’s at one of these stops that the Captain is offered a sum of money to deliver an orphan girl to her relatives outside San Antonio. The girl, just 10, had been captured by Kiowa Indians four years earlier when her family was killed. She’s been rescued but now no longer remembers the English language or the white settlers’ ways of life. But the Captain agrees to take her and the two embark on a 400-mile journey south in a wagon with two horses.

It’s not a journey you’d think they could likely make. He’s a 70-plus aged grandpa and she’s a feisty young girl who refuses to act “civilized” and wants to escape back to the Indians. The terrain, too, is unforgiving and the state quite lawless in the 1870s. The towns they come upon often spell trouble, and the threat of attacks on the remote road is high. I was on full alert the whole time, fearing they’d be robbed and their throats would be slit. Maybe I’ve been watching a little too much of the Walking Dead, but they seemed to be sitting ducks on the open road.

As the miles go by, the girl and old man eventually form a bond that helps them endure. Both are appealing. And I liked how a lot of the narrative deals with how different the former-captive girl is — and how she can never fully go back to the ways of the white world. She thinks of herself as an Indian. Apparently this was true of most child captives on the Texas frontier — “they rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families,” so writes the author in a note at the back of the book. The captain’s character, too, is based on a real person, a friend of the author’s great great grandfather, who traveled around reading the “News of the World” to paying customers in 1870’s Texas. The story of these two combined had me easily hooked to see how it would end — if they would make it to San Antonio, and how the two would part there.

It surprised me how short the novel was. Just 209 pages. This is no epic “Lonesome Dove.” “News of the World” could almost be a novella. It wasn’t a fully expanded drama, but I liked the book’s brevity. The wagon wheels kept turning so to speak. If you’re looking for something short, you might want to throw it into your travel bag. It’ll transport your imagination to the dusty frontier days in no time.

Also this week I finished the audiobook of Wilson Rawl’s 1961 children’s classic “Where the Red Fern Grows,” which I hadn’t read since elementary school. I knew as a dog lover I had to revisit this story about a boy and his two redbone coonhound hunting dogs. Most know the story about Billy and how his family is poor and they live in the remote Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma. And how Billy saves up two years to buy two coonhound pups and train them. Oh yes, Old Dan and Little Ann, how can anyone forget these dogs?

I hadn’t forgotten but I wanted to see what I had recalled of the story from childhood. The good news is after quite a few decades (no one’s counting) I can tell you: the magic of the book still holds up! The love Billy and his dogs have for one another feels very real, and the picture of their lives and the hunting of raccoons they do together at night in the remote woods along the river is very vivid. I was captured by the story once again.

It’s a tale that’s based on the hunting of “coons,” so if you’re sensitive to this topic you might not find it as favorable. But for the most part the scenes are not graphic, they depict more about the dogs’ chase of the critters and the adventures Billy has in the woods with them. There’s one axe scene between Billy and the area bully that scared me as a kid and that still looms large. But compared with today, it’s quite an old-fashioned story that is wonderful for being so. The boy’s narration is pitch perfect and the story of his days with his dogs rings true.

From my youth I had recalled the book as having one of the saddest endings of all time. But luckily I was able to “handle” it a bit better this go-around. It was still very sad, but I reasoned that Billy and his dogs had happily spent the best period of their lives together. That’s all most of us can ask for, right? As a dog person, this book still remains in my Top 10 of canine tales of all time. Children’s book or not.

Lastly this week, I saw the Amy Adams-alien movie “Arrival” at the theater and the Viggo Mortensen movie “Captain Fantastic” on rental. They were both sort of different. “Arrival” seemed to have a slower pace and was more ponderous than I expected. (It would probably be better as a rental.) I liked the scenes where Adams’ character is trying to communicate with the aliens, which are interesting looking things with elephant-like limbs. But perhaps there wasn’t enough in the movie besides the visual. Though there is a time element aspect of “Arrival” that makes you question the sequence of the story. If you like these kinds of “Interstellar” – time sorts of films, you might like this one as well. It makes you wonder about the connectedness of events, and the sequence of them.

As for “Captain Fantastic” — about a father trying to raise his six kids by hunting and gathering in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest — whoa. It seems a cross between “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Mosquito Coast,” if you’ve seen those. It’s an engaging film — all the kids are intellectually astute from reading books and being self-taught by Dad — and the first half in the woods is pretty cool, but it gets a bit crazy in the second half as the father and kids reenter society to attend the mother’s funeral. Some parts might stretch one’s believability but still the movie (as a rental) is appealing and at times amusing, especially with Viggo Mortensen as the father, one of my sister’s all-time favorites. “Wherever V-goes, she goes,” apparently.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 23 Comments

The Election and The Girl You Left Behind

Oh it was a horrible week. Let’s not sugarcoat this (why should we?). The U.S. election result was a terrible shock and blow. I’m still so ticked off and disillusioned I can’t believe it. What a disaster and heartbreak. The U.S. had a great opportunity in front of it but totally blew it. Completely blew it. As the author George R.R. Martin wrote: “America has spoken. I really thought we were better than this. Guess not.” So glad I’m no longer working in D.C., where I was for 15 years. I even worked on the Hill for awhile. Gawd what clowns this new administration will bring.

Needless to say, the election took the wind out of my sails and I wasn’t able to get much done this week. Of course, my most potent antidotes in times like these are my dog Stella and falling into a good book. So I’m midway into Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography “Born to Run,” which I’m loving. It also helped that my husband, Stella, and I went to a cabin near the mountains last weekend and did some hiking. (See the attached photos.) So far we’ve had a warm November and it’s been nice to have a little Indian summer to our parts. The area of Waterton Lakes National Park is beautiful and we saw a few moose and Rocky Mountain sheep while there, which was really cool.

Meanwhile I did finish the audiobook of Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel “The Girl You Left Behind.” This is my second novel of Moyes’s — the first being “Me Before You” — and it was light and a story that swept me along, which is what I needed this week. I guess what I enjoy most about Moyes’s works is that she is an excellent storyteller. Even if a few parts of her novels can seem contrived or unlikely, she can spin a good tale.

“The Girl You Left Behind” is no exception. I got sucked into the first part of the story that takes places in 1916 during WWI in a small French town that has fallen to the Germans. Sophie and her sister are caretakers of their family’s hotel, where the German officers are coming for meals. Both sisters’ husbands are gone, fighting at the front, and life is precarious in the town. Especially once the German Kommandant there becomes interested in a portrait of Sophie’s that her artist husband had painted that hangs in the hotel. A gripping scene follows where Sophie’s fate seems to hang in the balance.

But then the story abruptly changes to 2006, and a 32-year-old woman in London named Liv owns Sophie’s portrait. It was a wedding gift from her husband before his sudden death. But when Liv’s new boyfriend, who deals in returning stolen art, sees the painting, troubles begin. He says Liv must turn over the portrait to Sophie’s descendants who’ve been searching for it, but Liv’s determined to keep it. A court case ensues and the reckoning of what happened to Sophie and her painting is unveiled in twisty ways.

I was jarred at first by the change in the novel’s second half but then got into it as well, as the new cast of characters came to life. Though the second half seemed a bit more flawed to me. I wasn’t sure exactly why Liv wanted to hang on to the painting so much in the face of financial ruin and doing what seemed right to those who were looted from during the war. But still I was compelled to find out more in the court case. The ending though seemed a bit too nicely tied up. Ultimately while parts of the novel might have stretched my believability, I still enjoyed being swept away for awhile with these characters and finding out what had happened to the painting and Sophie during the dark days of WWI. It’s quite a tale.

What about you — have you read this book, and if so, what did you think? Or what are your thoughts on the election? This Rocky Mountain sheep might know better than I do where we go from here.

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

November Preview

We are off to a cabin this weekend near Waterton Lakes National Park so I will dash off a quick post now about new releases coming out this month. I usually do these preview posts as a way to help myself put new things on my radar; it helps me organize too about what’s coming out. I hope you might find them useful. November is a time when the volume of literary fiction starts dropping off a bit while the release of notable movies starts ramping up. Still there are a couple veteran authors with books out this month along with a few others, which I likely can’t pass up.

First off, British author Zadie Smith’s new novel “Swing Time” is about two young girls of mixed race who grow up in the same low-income project in North London and become friends, sharing an interest in dance. One is good at it and the other is not. The novel is about their friendship as they grow up and their lives diverge. Having read one of Smith’s books — “White Teeth” — previously from 2000, that’s all I need to know to be excited to read her again. “White Teeth” blew me away with Smith’s talent, and even if “Swing Time” is a fraction of that, it will be quite all right.

I’m also curious about Michael Chabon’s upcoming novel “Moonglow,” which is based on a trip the author took to visit his terminally ill grandfather, a WWII veteran, whose deathbed reminisces serve as the novel’s main narrative. According to Library Journal, “The story builds to core revelations of wartime horror and postwar heartbreak as powerful as they come.” I’ve read two of Chabon’s novels in the past — “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Wonder Boys” — and have liked his personal-based stories. This one, according to the publisher, is an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir. With the prose of Chabon, it’s a book likely not to miss.

I’m also looking at Kelly Luce’s debut novel “Pull Me Under.” It’s about a Japanese-born mother who leaves her family in Colorado and travels back to Japan for the funeral of her estranged father. While there she is forced to confront a violent crime from her childhood and everything that led up to it. “Pull Me Under” has received some high praise and sounds like a psychological novel that explores themes of home and identity amid illuminating descriptions of Japan and Japanese culture. It looks to be a bit of a page-turner and one that I might like.

Finally I wouldn’t mind checking out Nicola Yoon’s young-adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star” and Ted Russ’s debut war novel “Spirit Mission.” Granted, I don’t read a lot of YA novels, but I did read Yoon’s first novel “Everything, Everything” and thought the author showed quite a bit of promise. Her new one is about two teenagers with nothing in common who fall in love over the course of a day in NYC. Hmm it’s usually not my thing, but Yoon’s novel has been picked as a National Book Award finalist so I plan to read a copy of it that I picked up at BookExpo earlier this year.

As for “Spirit Mission,” it looks to be a fast-moving thriller about a Chinook helicopter team that goes on an illegal run deep into ISIS territory to save an American aid worker. This one has flashbacks to the days at West Point when the Lieutenant Colonel of the mission knew the man being held by ISIS. Judging by the scoop on the novel, it appears to be both a psychological study of military school and a compelling action story. Quite a few are hailing the book on Goodreads so I’m interested to check it out.

As for movies in November, there’s a lot of notable ones coming out. It’s sort of hard to pick which one I’m most interested to see. Amy Adams is in a new one called “Arrival” that seems bit reminiscent to me in subject matter to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or perhaps “Contact.” If you liked those, you probably will like this one as well as it’s getting a lot of advance praise. Usually I like Amy Adams, though some of these ET kinds of movies can get pretty predictable, eh?

There’s also three war films coming out including: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “Allied” with Brad Pitt, and “Hacksaw Ridge” directed by Mel Gibson, which has been advertised to death. I wanted to see “Billy Lynn” since I read and liked the book and since it’s directed by the wonderful Ang Lee, but it’s received some low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. So I’m not sure about that. “Allied” should be worth seeing with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The preview for the movie makes it appear that the character Cotillard plays is suspected of being a German spy during WWII, which her Allied husband, played by Pitt, is later informed about. Uh-oh, sounds like a heap of trouble.

Lastly in November movies, I want to see both “Loving,” based on the true story of the interracial couple that were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married; and “Manchester by the Sea” about a Boston janitor who is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies. Both movies have received a lot of favorable press and the trailers look good. I often like these smaller indie films best, so I will choose these as my picks this month.

As for albums in November, there’s new ones by such popular artists as Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, Bruno Mars, Sting, and Miranda Lambert among others. Sticking with my indie preferences, I’ll pick a combination of Martha Wainwright’s latest album “Goodnight City” along with the new one from Alicia Keys’ called “Here.” Should be a good mix.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 26 Comments

Late Fall Mini-Reviews

Happy Halloween to all. It seems a lot has happened lately. First off, congrats to Paul Beatty for becoming the first American to win the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Sellout.” The publisher calls the book a “biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.” I’ve seen reviewers refer to it as “scathing,” “caustic,” and a “bruising” novel about American race relations, but it’s also said to be “funny and daring.” I think I’m curious to check it out though I’m glad to be forewarned about it too. Judy over at Keep the Wisdom thought it was the real deal when she reviewed it back in April, so I’ll put my name in for it at the library, though now it could be quite a wait.

Also last week there was the ghastly season opener for the TV show “The Walking Dead.” Good grief, the new villain Negan killed off two characters of the show with his barbed-wired bat, one of whom had been an original cast member. Oh I was not happy but mainly because it was so gruesome and sadistic. It almost seemed similar to the beheadings by ISIS and who wants to watch that. It was graphic and intense.

My husband regularly asks me why we watch the show, now in its seventh season, and even I don’t know why. Because it’s there? I haven’t read the comic strip that the show is loosely based on so I don’t know what comes next, but I still hope the group will be saved and be able to live a peaceful existence on some farm or whatnot — at least give me a break — but the show seems constantly into misery. Forget the zombies, it’s the other human beings they come across that are always the worst. They are never to be trusted. Remember the cannibals? Ugh. Do you watch the show, and if so, what did you think of the opener?

Meanwhile last week I finished three books, which is a bit crazy for me, but I started them awhile ago. First off, I read “The Perfect Girl” by Gilly Macmillan for my book club. It’s another psychological thriller-type novel — a very quick, light read that I think members of my book club were looking for after I picked the dense novel “The Sympathizer” last time. “The Perfect Girl” was a palate cleanser for sure. I liked that it was quick but otherwise I didn’t care for it that much. Apparently the book was originally titled “Butterfly in the Dark” but then retitled “The Perfect Girl.” I can only imagine that might have been because of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” They were likely trying to market another “Girl” blockbuster to the mix.

This one is about a 17-year-old musical prodigy (Zoe) who’s life was shattered three years ago after she was involved in a tragic accident that left three of her classmates dead. After some jail time, Zoe is given a second chance to start anew when her mom moves them away and remarries a well-off man with a musically gifted son. But she never tells them of Zoe’s past. Then on the night of Zoe’s first big recital back, her mom mysteriously winds up dead. The book alternates narrators piecing together what happened and concludes with a final twist.

It’s a novel that includes quite a few characters with a lot of problems: from drunk driving, to bullying, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse, MS, infidelity, and murder. I found it pretty simplistic and manipulative for suspense. With a storyline that happens over a 24-hour period there isn’t a lot of development, just actions and reactions. I kept wondering too why Zoe’s past solicitor narrates various chapters though he’s not involved in the present case. I also found it implausible that Zoe is described as having an IQ that’s higher than Einstein’s. Really? Come on, I didn’t think she really acted like it. Despite all that, it’s a decent, fast thriller if you’re stuck on an airplane or need a palate cleanser. It keeps the pages turning rapidly.

I also finished geobiologist Hope Jahren’s memoir “Lab Girl,” which has been quite a popular hit this year. It took me awhile to read it though. The author alternates chapters about the science of plants and trees with chapters about her personal life, career, and experiments in the field with her lab partner Bill. I especially liked these parts best, as she and Bill are quite quirky and funny. Who knew? The book includes many amusing anecdotes and stories of Hope and Bill’s adventures together and their rising careers as research scientists. How they squeaked by in the early years — he living in his van, and she working all nighters at the lab; how they got degrees at Berkeley, and built labs in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Hawaii. I sort of thought they would wind up together married, but around age 32 she meets her husband to be, who seems an understanding man for how much Bill is apart of her life.

I also liked how her passion for researching plants comes through, and how candidly she talks about her life in science and the difficulties she faced as a woman in the field, as well as with her pregnancy and bipolar disorder. I think she gives a unique window into the world of being a female research scientist and I was fascinated to hear about it, even though I muddled through some of the science / plant parts of the book. Some of the book felt a bit uneven to me — I liked some parts of it better than others — but all in all I did find “Lab Girl” to be quite interesting, and her words are making me look at trees a bit differently this fall. Who knew they had such lives.

Lastly I finished the audiobook of Stacey D’Erasmo’s 2014 novel “Wonderland.” It’s about a former indie rock star (Anna Brundage), who at age 44 after a seven year absence puts out an album and sets out on a European comeback tour with a new band and manager. Anna narrates the story, which alternates chapters between her stops along the tour and those of her past with her artist father, her tours from her heydays, and her affair with Simon, a father of two.

It’s a different kind of novel; there doesn’t seem to be a big story arc, but it’s more like a travel journal of Anna’s life. The chronology in the story jumps around a bit, which confused me a few of times, but I was still able to piece it together. While the novel feels a bit disjointed, I found the writing and passages to be quite poetic at times and likely the best feature of the book. After awhile I came to enjoy the narration of Anna, her inner life, and what happens to her on the tour. Her tone is quite measured and low-key, she’s definitely not a diva but is someone struggling to come to grips with the choices she’s made and is exploring the possibility of second chances. I’m interested in rock artists’ lives so this novel was in the ballpark for me. Kudos to Xe Sands who read it for the audio; she is always one of the best.

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

Posted in Books, TV | 20 Comments