July 31, 2017

Recent Reads

78. Big Mushy Happy Lump (Sarah's Scribbles #2)
This is the second collection of comic strips about the author's anxieties and musing. It's a quick light read, and while there were some that I found amusing, for the most part this one didn't work as well for me. Rating: 2 stars.

79. The Weight of Ink
Book blurb: Set in the London of the 1660s and of the early 21st century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city, and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of 17th-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents' scribe, the elusive "Aleph".

I'm a fan of historical fiction, especially ones that have strong woman characters who buck society's expectations to follow their own hearts. This one also has old documents, recently discovered, which sheds new light on life in the 17th century. The story follows two timelines, one present and one past, and unlike many novels that utilize this device, the author does a superb job of making the two story lines dance and complement one another. I loved the writing, the settings in both timelines, the mystery, and for much of the reading I thought this might be a five star read. I did not however enjoy the Aaron Levy thread, and while I understand why the author might have added him, I could have cared less about his rather predictable story. The book could also have used some tighter editing.

I was fully immersed in these worlds as I was reading, I found myself talking to the characters and pondering their various dilemmas. How could I not thoroughly enjoy a story about unconventional women with a dash of history and old letters, a pinch of mystery, with a teaspoon of philosophical musing thrown in? I'm off to look into her back list.

I listened to the audiobook which is wonderfully narrated by Corrie James, and I'd recommend trying this one on audio. Rating: 4 stars.

80. The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1)
For our family reunion this year my nieces and nephews picked two books for our Myrtle Beach book club. This one, and the next in the series.

I've read and really enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, but have since stalled on finding any of the other books compelling enough to read. The kids on the other hand continue to love these books, so I was curious to see if this latest series was any good. I think this would have worked much better if I was the age of the target audience for this series. It's not a bad book, and I quite enjoyed Apollo's point of view - oh the snark of being a handsome immortal god and then suddenly finding yourself in an acne covered teenage boy with - gasp - flab! I loved that sexuality was simply a spectrum and not a big deal either way, and I really liked how myth and history were intertwined in this tale. However, it is rather plot heavy and if that's your thing you'll probably like it. Still, it's a quick read that made me smile in places, and I really enjoyed our book club. Turns out the entire family loved Peaches. Rating: 2 stars.

July 27, 2017

Cinemascope: Miss Sloane

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Image result for miss sloane movie poster

Released in 2016.

Plot line: Willing to bend the rules for her clients, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career and the people she cares about.

An interesting behind the scenes look at how things happen in Washington, and the power of lobby groups. This one rests squarely on the shoulders of Jessica Chastain, and she is great in  it. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the politics and the political process in the US.

You can see the trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a movie worth watching.

July 24, 2017

Recent Reads

76. A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life
Book blurb: This volume of Pat Conroy's nonfiction brings together some of the most charming interviews, magazine articles, speeches, and letters from his long literary career, many of them addressed directly to his readers with his habitual greeting, "Hey, out there." Ranging across diverse subjects, such as favorite recent reads, the challenge of staying motivated to exercise, and processing the loss of dear friends, Conroy's eminently memorable pieces offer a unique window into the life of a true titan of Southern writing.

I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by Scott Brick.

At 25.0%: Been in tears twice already and my fellow walkers look concerned for me. Oh boy.
At 58.0%: Enjoying some of these pieces more than others, but it's clear that the man had some wonderful long-term friendships.

I'm a fan of this author and was one of those saddened when he passed away. Since I was heading to the Lowcountry this month decided it was the perfect opportunity to read this one. As you can see from the blurb, it's a collection of pieces, and I was in tears for the first several. This man's gift was his honestly and vulnerability in his writing, and there is a reason he is much beloved by his readers. In this collection, some from his blog, he pays homage to reader, writers, teachers, mentors, friends, and all who wear the ring. I preferred some of the earlier pieces to the latter ones, but this is required reading for his fan base. Rating: 3 stars.

77. Notes of a Native Son
"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."

I don't recall the last book I read that gave me such a mental workout. It took me a while to read this one as I had to stop and ponder what the man said, and much of my copy is highlighted. I would have loved to read this one in a classroom setting, so was delighted that my GR pal Elizabeth agreed to a buddy read.

"Joyce is right about history being a nightmare - but it may be the nightmare from which no can CAN awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them."

I recently read The Weight of Ink, and this Baldwin quote kept playing in my head as I read it. We are the sum of our cumulative DNA, both physical, social, emotional. I've often thought about people being trapped by their history, but the idea of being trapped in history is an interesting one.

No review I write can do justice to this one, so I'd recommend picking up a copy and prepare yourself for a deep dive on race, religion, what it means to be human and other, societal/ cultural/ media critiques, and "the complex condition of being black in America." I learned much, pondered much, and was left with a different perspective on the issues of our time.

That Baldwin wrote this collection of essays in his early twenties is amazing. That much of what he wrote about is as pertinent today as it was in the late 1940s, early 1950s is sobering. Highly recommended, and should be required reading for everyone, especially Americans. Rating: 5 stars.

July 17, 2017

Recent Reads

73. The Liszts
This children's picture book is about a family that makes lists. Everyone, including the cat, makes lists particular to their own interests. One day a stranger who is not on anyone's lists appears. Who is he and what does he want?

I really like the art and color palatte in this one, and the story is cute, but there are unresolved questions in my mind. Why were Sundays listless and who is that stranger? I did like the connection the stranger made with Edward, the middle child. If you are part of the "listers gotta list" part of the population, you'll appreciate the gentle humor in this one. Rating: 3 stars.

74. Ethel and Ernest
This graphic memoir/ biography is about the author's parents from the time they met in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s. Ethel worked as a chambermaid, Ernest a milkman, and this is the story of their life together during the large and small political and social changes of their day in Britain.

I loved the art and colors in this one, and was delighted by the clear affection the author has for his parents. It was fun to read about the couple's dynamics, and this is a wonderful tribute to them.

The reason this does not get a higher rating is that this is a very specific story about a certain, albeit lovely, couple, and I'm not sure why anyone not family would really care about them. I gather that the author is a much loved children's author, so maybe if this would work better for fans of his work. I know that this is a perpetual issue I have with these types of books, and I didn't know the premise when I picked it up. Still, it's a fast read, and the art is lovely. Rating: 3 stars.

75. Boat of Dreams
This wordless picture book would work equally well for both children and adults. The art is stunning, and I could look at each page for hours. Since it's wordless there are many possible interpretations of the story. There's an old man and a young boy. Are they the same person in different time? Did one imagine, create, or dream up the other? Could the man be re-discovering memories he had forgotten? What is the relationship between art and isolation and distance? Try it and see what story plays in your head. Rating: 4 stars

July 10, 2017

Recent Reads

70. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Book blurb: The story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

I'm a fan of sport histories, regularly attend the Head of the Charles Regatta (the largest 2-day regatta in the world, with 11,000 athletes rowing in over 1,900 boats in 61 events), and actually spent a day once in a single person scull, so I fully expected to enjoy this book.

The premise is outlined in the blurb above, and this book is an example of narrative non-fiction that is a page turner of a read. I really liked learning about lives of the boys, their families, the boat builder, and the coaches. Anyone who has played a sport knows full well that the work, commitment, and sheer grit needed to be a world class athlete is beyond most of us, and in this book we get some insight into why. As much I enjoyed the buildup to, and the races, I really appreciated that the author placed these individual successes and failures against the larger national and international context. So many dots connected, and new interesting avenues to explore. I docked a star because there was a tad too much repetition for my taste. Also, while I got a fairly clear image of certain people, there were nine boys in that boat, and each did not get the same amount of airtime. I understand why the author did that, but some of the key people in this story are rather weakly fleshed out.

Right after completing the book I watched the PBS documentary titled The Boys of '36, which I would also highly recommend as it contains actual footage of the people and events discussed in the book.

I listened to the audiobook, which is superbly narrated by Edward Herrmann, and if you plan on reading this one, I'd highly recommend the audio. Rating: 4 stars.

71. Exit West
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 22.5 million refugees, 10 million stateless people, and 189,300 refugees settled in 2016.

Take a second and let those numbers sink in.

How to make sense of these numbers? Yes, one can read about it, watch news stories or documentaries, and this book is one lit match held up in the darkness to help shed some much needed light.

This is the story of two young Muslims, in an un-named country on the brink of civil war. As thing get progressively worse, they discover there are ways they could leave and start anew someplace else.

I admire the author, and so wanted to love this book, but it fell short in some significant ways for me. I really liked the writing; very simple and short sentences can capture entire experiences for example. I really liked that so much is un-named. It's interesting to juxtapose those nameless people and places with things that are named, and I really liked the exploration of the power of names. I really liked the exploration of what is lost and what is gained when you are forced to leave your home, and how well one immerses oneself, or not, in a new culture. I really liked the exploration of what home means, and where it can be found.

And yet. There was something missing in the reading of this for me. There was too much emotional distance for starters. Maybe that was intentional as many readers might not want to be sucked into the horrors of these experiences, and keeping things on a lighter level might make this a more popular read. Maybe what I was experiencing was reading about people with PTSD, as that might also explain the lack of emotion in the telling of this tale. Either way, I found the lack of emotional connection jarring considering the subject matter.

I think the use of magical realism was an interesting choice. It prevents the story from getting bogged down in transport minutiae and helps really compress time and movement, but the use of this device also hides the reality of what is actually involved when one flees.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well narrated by the author, but this felt like the longest book I've listened to, and it was less than 5 hours. It seemed to go on forever for such a slim book. So, I'm mixed about this one. I appreciate that it reaches readers who might otherwise not be exposed to these issues and that is no small thing, but it just didn't work as well for me. Rating: 3 stars.

72. The Butcher's Hook
From the author's note: I was fascinated by the idea that, three hundred years ago, an undereducated young woman with a smart mind and febrile imagination would have very little to go on when it came to making sense of, and dealing with, her world. She'd have hardly any conversation with anyone, there'd be precious little communication with her peer group and the impositions of her rank and gender meant that she'd have to find a way of coping with what happened to her ... and that way turned out to be highly unusual and idiosyncratic.

This debut novel showcases a wonderful new talent, and yet I cannot give it a higher rating. I loved the premise of this story, enjoyed the historical fiction setting, and liked the exploration of a young woman's agency in a world that seeks to confine her. The author has a wonderful way of capturing moments. As an example: I lift my skirts a little as I enter the room as if crossing shallow water. It is the moat of my father's constant disapproval that I try and avoid, for it wets so much and stinks when it dries.

There are nuggets like that throughout this book, and for the first quarter I thought this might actually be a five star read. Then events occur that were unbelievable, and once I could not suspend disbelief the story lost much of its power. Let me illustrate my point without spoilers. When I was an older teen I spent a year in boarding school in India. One day my cousins and I skipped class and went to watch a movie and explore the sights. Now this was not a large city, nor a small one, and when I went home that very evening my grandfather asked me how I had liked the movie. Turns out someone saw me and wasted no time in letting my Appacha know that I was up to no good. Why do I share this story? Because there is no way in hell that young Anne Jacob left her house and roamed around 1763 London without tongues wagging. And that's just the tip of the unbelievable iceberg. Events unfold that don't make sense, let alone for a 14 year old girl, and yet the book blurb states that Anne is 19. So, there's that disconnect. This coming of age story is a dark one, and made me ponder the nature versus nurture debate.

Inspite of its shortcomings, the writing is really good, and there are scenes I won't be forgetting soon. I can't wait to see what this author releases next. Rating: 3 stars.

July 6, 2017

Cinemascope: Experimenter

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2015.

Plot line: Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) designs a psychology experiment that remains relevant to this day, in which people think they're delivering painful electric shocks to an affable stranger (Jim Gaffigan) strapped into a chair in another room. Disregarding his pleas for mercy, the majority of subjects do not stop the experiment, administering what they think are near-fatal electric shocks, simply because they ve been told to. Milgram's exploration of authority and conformity strikes a nerve in popular culture and the scientific community. Celebrated in some circles, he is also accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. His wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) anchors him through it all.

Human behavior is something I find fascinating, and this historical drama recounts some of the interesting experiments and findings in the 1960s that have shaped our understanding of humans to this day.

You can see the trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a movie worth watching.

July 3, 2017

Recent Reads

67. American Gods
55% done, and I'm bailing on this one.

About four books later I think it might have to call it. I love Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series, but cannot seem to get into his prose. I keep trying, because I love how this man's brain works, and the worlds he conjures up are fascinating, but alas, yet another one bites the dust.

This book moved to the top of my list when I saw that Starz was adapting it for TV. I listened to the audiobook, which is superbly narrated by George Guidall, and I'd give him 5 stars for his work here. The reason I even got so far into the book was mostly due to his narration, and partly because I was listening to it on long walks, and kept listening as I made my way back home.

The premise of this story is fantastic. I love the idea of old country gods following the faithful to America, and then finding themselves stranded and abandoned here as the faithful move on to worship new gods in the form of internet, money, TV, etc. I really liked the mythology behind this yarn, but no character is fully developed. Maybe that is intentional as can humans really know their gods? The story felt like a long strange road trip where some interesting characters are encountered, but mostly nothing of interest really happens. That scene where a man is swallowed by a vagina though! That kept me listening for another hour. There are sparkly bits in the story, classic Gaiman magic, but they were too few and far between to keep me interested, and if I had been reading the print book, I'd have bailed way sooner. So onto the DNF pile it goes.

As a side note, I watched the first episode of the Starz production, and find myself feeling the same way I did about this book. Not sure if I care enough to continue with the show either. Will see. Rating: 1 star.

68. Nightlights
This is the story of an artistic girl with a wonderful imagination. Young Sandy draws what she imagines, and the line between fantasy and reality blurs one day when a mysterious girl appears at her school. Does anyone else see her?

The art in this children's graphic novel is vibrant and lovely, and I really liked it, however the story didn't seem cohesive, especially the ending. There is touch of horror in this yarn which is quite appropriate for young readers, and this would make a wonderfully spooky Halloween read with the wee ones in your life. Rating: 3 stars.

69. A Child of Books
I've been making my way through several children's picture books lately. There is something quite lovely about holding a large brightly colored book in these adult hands that makes me happy.

I am a child of books.
I come from a world of stories.

Those two lines are what caught my attention. This is a book about the power of words, stories, and books, and while I really liked the art, especially the use of book texts, the writing itself was lackluster, and does not convey the magic of reading in my opinion. I'd give the art 4 stars and the text 2, and that's how I ended up with my rating. Rating: 3 stars.