Purity and My Summer List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out what’s on it:

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 30 Comments

June Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 28 Comments

American War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 26 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, TV | 26 Comments

May Preview

Oh thank goodness we survived the April tax season and are now into the more pleasant month of May. The tennis tournament I played in over the weekend was fun though I didn’t win any top prizes. I battled in both singles and doubles and seem to have more work to do with my game over the summer. So I guess that’s all right, if only my bad knees will cooperate. (Note to knees: stay healthy despite the twists, turns, and pounding on the court you will endure.) Meanwhile there’s plenty of new releases to talk about this month, so let’s get started.

First off, who will be diving into Paula Hawkins’s new novel “Into the Water”? Ugh it’s received some pretty poor reviews from The Guardian as well as The New York Times, but will that stop us from reading an author whose prior book (need I mention the title) sold 20 million copies worldwide? Maybe. It doesn’t bode well that “Into the Water” includes 11 narrative voices that the Guardian says are “almost impossible to tell apart” and end up being both “monotonous and confusing.” Moreover Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes: Hawkins’s “goal may be to build suspense, but all she achieves is confusion. “Into the Water” is jam-packed with minor characters and stories that go nowhere.” Yikes. I think I’ll take a rain check on this one, though I did enjoy her prior blockbuster book for the genre that it was.

Instead I might try Richard Russo’s new book called “Trajectory,” which is a collection of four relatively long short stories. All of these stories, I’ve heard, are about aging people — college professors, a writer, and a real estate agent. Apparently it’s a book filled with characters quite different than Russo’s usual blue-collar, small-town Maine citizens, but I’ll believe that when I read it.

I enjoyed his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls” as well as the movie adaptation of his 1993 book “Nobody’s Fool” with Paul Newman, which was great. He’s a gem of a writer, and if you’re a fan, I heard this latest one is a must-read. So I hope to dive into it soon.

Another one I’m considering is Melodie Winawer’s debut novel “The Scribe of Siena.” Apparently it’s one part historical mystery and one part love story that includes elements of time-travel that blends the modern day with 14th-century Siena. Some say it’s reminiscent of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” and Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” if you liked those.

Usually I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of time-travel narratives, but some of the high praise this one has received on Goodreads makes me want to snatch it up — as well as the fact that I visited Siena a few years ago and found its history quite fascinating. I wouldn’t mind going back in time to check out life in medieval Siena.

I might also like to try J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel “Saints for All Occasions” about two Irish-Catholic sisters who journey to America full of hope only to find that a subsequent secret drives them apart. Hmm. Maybe this one, involving Catholic guilt, silences, and secrets, will appeal to the folks who liked the novel and movie “Brooklyn,” though I think this novel will differ a bit from that. I guess I want to know more about the secrecy going on.

I haven’t read Sullivan before, so that makes me curious too. From what I’ve read about the novel on Goodreads, it might be just the right family saga for a beach read.

Lastly, I’ll probably check out Dennis Lehane’s latest novel “Since We Fell,” which sounds like it gets crazy midway through and doesn’t let up. Remember Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island”? Well if you liked that kind of psychological, tense thriller, you’ll probably like this one as well.

It’s about a former journalist (his first female protagonist) who after an on-air mental breakdown, now barely leaves her house. Still she enjoys a good marriage until apparently a chance encounter “sucks her into a conspiracy thick with deception, violence, and possibly madness,” which she must find the strength in herself to overcome. Yikes it sounds a bit like “Shutter Island” Part 2, but perhaps it’ll be a fast-paced read while catching rays and drinking beer on the back deck. We’ll see.

Meanwhile in movies for May, I know that fans of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” who have been waiting patiently, will now be happy for the long-awaited Vol. 2. I’m sure “Guardians” will rule the month at the box office exponentially, yet it will have to compete with another “Pirates of the Caribbean” film at the end of the month. I have lost track of those, but apparently Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Keira Knightley are still apart of the swashbuckling script.

There’s also a new “Alien” prequel flick, this time called  “Alien Covenant,” which looks scary as all heck. I did see “Prometheus” back in 2012 and this apparently is the sequel to that. I’m a bit of a Michael Fassbender freak and luckily he’s returned for this one, though I’m not sure I’ll see it — as it would probably make me jump out of my skin.

But I am game for the movie “The Dinner,” which is adapted from the Herman Koch novel you might remember. Oh yes, how could one forget. It’s a novel I thought was pretty effective and disturbing. In the movie, the two couples are played by Steve Coogan and Laura Linney, and Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall. Quite a good cast.

The movie has been hailed by some critics as a “provocative journey” and panned by others, with only a 48 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ouch. From what little I’ve read about it, the numerous flashbacks get in the way of the story’s suspense, but I’ve been trying not to read too much about it because I still hope to see it. Call me crazy for that.

Lastly for May, there’s new albums in pop music by Harry Styles, and Ruth B (she’s from Alberta!); and in country music by the Zac Brown Band; and in singer-songwriter folky music by Justin Townes Earle — all of which sound pretty good. But I’ll pick the album — “Safe Haven” — by the young Ruth B for my pick this month since she’s a local to the province and her song “Lost Boy” is still pretty infectious.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 32 Comments

The Women in the Castle and Anne of Green Gables

Well it turned into another snow day here. First it rains, then it snows, then it melts away. Then it repeats. Still I await spring; there’s buds on the trees and plants, and the grass under the snow is green, I swear. I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy playing in a couple of indoor tennis tournaments. I leave town tomorrow to play in another tournament and I can only hope the tennis gods are with me and my doubles partner. She’s Austrian and amazing. So we will see. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple of reviews of books I finished last week.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, 2017, 353 pgs, William Morrow

I think I was drawn to this one because it’s received a lot of positive hype and it dropped timely into my lap from the library. I wasn’t actually looking for another WWII story (I seem to have had my fill lately), but this novel is set in Germany and delves more into how three widows rebuild their lives after the war, which is a bit of a different take than the usual.

I’m not sure I’ve read too many WWII novels that are set solely in Germany, or from a German perspective, though I have read Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel “The Book Thief” and Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel “The Reader,” both of which were quite effective in a devastating kind of way. “The Reader” shares some of this book’s themes.

In this one, a German widow named Marianne returns after the defeat of Nazi Germany to the dilapidated Bavarian castle of her husband’s ancestors. Her husband, a resister, was killed after being involved in the July 1944 failed plot to assassinate Hitler, and Marianne plans to keep her promise to help and protect her husband’s conspirators — her fellow resistance widows.

As the war ends, she ends up rescuing Benita from the Red Army in Berlin, and Benita’s son Martin from a Nazi reeducation house, inviting them to live with her at the castle, as well as another widow, Ania, and her two sons. It’s a makeshift family that Marianne thinks will hold together from common ground, but little does she know how their secrets and different experiences threaten to rip them apart.

It’s a fairly intriguing premise and the first half of the novel flies by with some great storytelling about their lives. All three widows have made different choices before, during, and after the war and have dealt with its horrors in different ways. Post-war, Marianne seems to want to confront the atrocities head on, watching the news, volunteering, and having the kids know all about what happened; while Benita is set on moving on to the future; and Ania remarries only to be interrupted by someone from her past. All three are more complex and not as likable as you might initially think.

I was intrigued by the story’s themes namely those of shame, complicity, and what the average German knew or did not know or think about during the war’s darkest times. It’s something that you wonder about. What was the main populace doing or thinking? Does it have any parallels to today’s political climate? This book provides some interesting glimpses into what was going on. Interestingly in an Op-ed last month in the New York Times, the author wrote a piece entitled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi.” In it she reveals her grandmother’s answers to some of the same questions she grapples with in this novel. It’s heady stuff.

The only trouble I had with “The Women in the Castle” was that while I liked the first half of it, I found the last portion of it dropped off for me. Starting with Part III and along with Part IV there’s a change in time and momentum and somehow the story lost some of its luster and mojo for me. It sort of drivels off towards its ending. But overall there are still plenty of good things I liked about “The Women in the Castle,” which made me glad I read it. For those who liked the storytelling of the novels “All the Light We Cannot See” and “The Nightingale,” this one seemed in a similar ballpark.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, 1908, (audiobook read by Shelly Frasier)

Meanwhile I listened to this children’s classic as an audiobook last week. And I want to thank Naomi over at the blog  Consumed by Ink for all the attention she’s given to L.M. Montgomery over the years and to Canadian Lit in general. She got me interested (again). I’m not sure I had read the Anne stories in my youth (uh-oh) though I was aware of them. For some reason, for me I was deep into Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden” (1911), Jean Webster’s book “Daddy-Long-Legs” (1912) and Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” (1877), though that had a different theme altogether.

Of course I knew I needed to acquaint myself with Anne (make no mistake that’s Anne with an E) in order to live in this great country of Canada. Perhaps it’ll be on the citizenship test as well it should be. Anne of Green Gables, as most know, is the 11-year-old orphan girl who is adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert and grows up on Prince Edward Island (which I hope to visit someday in the years ahead). She is a bright young girl who sure is a talker! She exasperates her mother — with all her mishaps and talking — but also gets into her heart as well. Anne’s vivid imagination doesn’t need cultivating like it does in others but transforms her parents’ and best friend Diana’s modest lives in innumerable ways. There’s a little Tom Sawyer and Dennis the Menace about Anne, but she’s also whip-smart and a good girl too.

Book 1 tells of Anne’s youthful adventures and her school days, which she excels at as a student. Just don’t call her carrot head. Oh how she dislikes her red hair and freckles, and is very sensitive about them. Her schoolmate Gilbert Blythe had to learn the hard way after teasing her about her hair; it’d be years before she ever spoke to him again. The novel ends with Anne deciding whether to attend college, or stay at Green Gables and teach at the local school.

Of course, it’s a charming story (drawn upon from the author’s own childhood experiences on PEI) and one that is still entertaining and as popular as ever. I had to wrench the audiobook out from all the other Anne newbies and fans on the waiting list, but I successfully did so in due time. I’m sure I should read the rest of the series at some point — or else face self-deportation — in this year that marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. I’m really thankful to be here these days.

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

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

The Sense of an Ending and 10:04

Happy Easter! I hope everyone has a great day. We woke up this morning to a trace of snow on the ground. It is quite pretty out now, but it will likely all melt away by afternoon. There’s a robin trying to build a nest in the tree out front and was mad when I came out to take pictures. Snow or no snow, this robin is busy at work — and must not be disturbed.

There’s plenty of snow left in the Canadian Rockies as the hub went skiing yesterday and said it was powdery up there. So while you get your mitts and ski outfit back on, I’ll leave you with a couple of reviews of books I finished last week.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, 2011, 150 pages, Jonathan Cape

Recently I saw the movie adaptation of this novel and then I went back and read the book. Usually it’s the other way around: book first and then the movie, logically. But the movie was leaving the theater and I didn’t want to miss it. The movie is quite good and follows the book fairly closely though there are a few differences.

There’s definitely a number of passages in the book that make it great, along with the story, though I’m still wondering if I liked the movie just as much — as crazy as that sounds. The Indian director Ritesh Batra, who made “The Lunchbox,” does a great job with the film, along with the veteran actors Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. Need I say more?

I’m not sure why I didn’t read the Julian Barnes novel back in 2011 when it won the Man Booker Prize. It has the kind of haunting storyline from one’s past that always seems to get me. I think it’s been compared to Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement,” which is one of my all-time favorites. I guess I can see a similarity in that in both books an act is committed in one’s youth that inflicts much hurt and is deeply regretted later in life. These are the stories that often kill me.

In “The Sense of an Ending,” it all starts when the book’s protagonist Tony Webster, a divorced man in his 60s, is bequeathed a diary that belonged to his brilliant school friend, Adrian, who committed suicide 40 years earlier at the age of 22. Tony doesn’t actually get the diary though because his long-ago first girlfriend Veronica, who later dated Adrian in college, has gotten her hands on it. It’s in this struggle over the diary that Tony begins to revisit what happened in his youth and of how badly he reacted to Adrian’s and Veronica’s involvement.

It’s a story in which a lot of ideas come to the forefront — as Tony mulls over his past and his teen days with Veronica — about time and memory and how we choose to reshape events as we tell them to ourselves and others over our lives. There are definitely some truthful passages in the novel that held me deeply, though there’s also Tony’s whiny, obsessive ways and irksome narration at times. I wanted to strangle him: to get on with it. He’s not been that great a person to those close to him and he did something pretty awful way back when. Oh the stupid things we do in our youths!

How it plays out at the end might surprise you. The twist only deepens Tony’s part in it. But his sense of guilt and profound regret seem to save him and made him more redeemable to me. It’s quite a story, packed within a short book and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

10:04 by Ben Lerner, 2014, 256 pages, Farrar Straus Giroux

Meanwhile I listened to this novel as an audiobook last week. I must be going through a New York autobiographical, quirky novel kind of phase as this one is my second in recent weeks. I’m not sure if the novel was as much a full story as episodes in this guy’s life but still it was entertaining.

The protagonist is a 33-year-old Brooklyn-based novelist, poet, and teacher who’s got a lot on his plate at the moment: he’s been recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition; he’s trying to write a second novel — a follow-up to his surprisingly successful debut; and his best friend has asked him to help her conceive a child. He’s reckoning his mortality and the prospect of fatherhood, all the while the city is undergoing frequent superstorms and social unrest.

It’s a pretty funny story, or so the narrator makes it out to be. He’s quite clever, perhaps too much for his own good. There’s many episodes in his writerly life — such as when the narrator gives a reading at a writers’ event and meets a famous author and then later when he goes to a writer’s retreat in Marfa, Texas — that are quite amusing and take unexpected turns. In one part, he talks about the episode that made him want to become a writer — the poetry used at the memorial after the Challenger disaster in 1986. There’s even a part in which a short story the narrator submits to the New Yorker is put in its entirety within the book, and then it tells what happens to the story.

“10:04” is a bit modern and quirky like that. The structure is a bit scattered and that’s probably why I gave it 3.5 stars on Goodreads. But I seem to have liked it a bit more than Jami Attenberg’s New York novel “All Grown Up,” which I reviewed a couple weeks back. In both books, there’s heart underlying the characters’ funny and at times biting disposition that becomes apparent along the way.

“10:04” put Ben Lerner on the map for me, though I’m sure it won’t be a book for everyone. Sometime I want to go back and read his first novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” from 2011— as it does sound similarly humorous and self-deprecating as this one.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 25 Comments

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