Book Catch Up

Portrait of a Spy: A Gabriel Allon story by Daniel Silva. One of the better books in this series about the former Israeli agent Gabriel Allon. Interesting characters, fast-paced drama. Fun to read.

Cartwheel: A LibraryThing Early Reviewer selection by Jennifer Dubois. This is inspired by the Amanda Knox story. A young woman is arrested for murder while studying abroad. It is interesting from the start. The central question, of course, is whether Lily Hayes did in fact murder her roommate. Lily’s case is not helped by her odd behavior. Or is the problem that her behavior is misinterpreted due to language and cultural barriers? It’s hard to discuss this too thoroughly without giving alot away. But there remain interesting ambiguities in the story and this is a worthwhile read.

The River of Doubt: Candice Millard’s portrait of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition into the South American interior. After TR’s defeat in the 1912 Presidential campaign, he embarked on an epic trip to South America. This book depicts Roosevelt’s reason for making this trip, as well as the egos involved in the trip and the serious blunders that occurred along the way. Like many well-written expedition tales, even though the reader knows how the story ends, it is still an interesting and gripping drama.

I think I read a few other books since I last blogged, but none of them are memorable enough to write about. So now I’m all caught up!

Movie Catch Up

I’ve spent the summer running from here to there and there to here. I’ve been a houseguest, I’ve had houseguests, and have not had much time to blog. So I’m having a quick catch-up session, and will shortly be up to date.

Three movies:

Fruitvale Station: Not for the faint of heart. This gripping docu-drama tells the sad story of Oscar Grant, the 22 year old man who was killed by a police officer on the  platform of the Fruitvale BART station. The movie recounts the final day of Oscar’s life, with flashbacks to his past. Quite graphic.

Blue Jasmine: The latest Woody Allen movie. Although there are amusing moments, this is definitely not a comedy. Alec Baldwin plays a Bernard Madoff like character, with Cate Blanchett as his wife.They are living the high life at the expense of everyone who’s ever invested with him. Cate’s character (Jasmine) moves to San Francisco to start her life over. There, she invents her own story in an attempt to have a fabulous new life.

Planes: Sort of like Cars, but with planes. The star is Dusty, a cropduster who enters an around the world race. Fine for the younger set, with a bit of potential scariness while Dusty flies through a severe storm. It is nowhere near as well done as Cars, and lacks the fine soundtrack.

The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud

Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is Claire Messud’s novel about a single woman, Nora Eldridge who, in her own mind, typifies the literary trope of “the woman upstairs”. Nora is a third grade teacher in Boston. She lives alone, and has a very narrow social circle. Nora has spent years helping her father care for her dying mother, and now helps out her elderly father.

Nora fancies herself an artist, although she has little to show for her pretensions. Her major work is a miniature version of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. She obsesses over each detail. She also plans dioramas of the rooms of other women artists, including Andy Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick.

As a new school year begins, Nora meets the Shahid family. Reza is her pupil. His father, Skandar has come to Cambridge to spend a year as a visiting professor at Harvard. Reza’s mother, Sirena, is an artist who reluctantly accompanies her husband from Paris, where she has been preparing for a show. To continue her work in Boston, Sirena rents a studio and asks Nora to share the space. Nora of course agrees.

And she agrees because she is a doormat, and because she has fallen in love with the entire Shahid family. The way she responds to each of them individually is creepy, particularly Reza. Nora moons a bit too much over the eight year old’s eyes. Yuck! Of course the family takes advantage of her. Nora helps Sirena with her art, while neglecting her own. She also babysits for Reza while his parents pursue the active social life available to university professors.

Of course this odd relationship will take its toll on the characters, particularly on Nora. In a way, Nora is much like the main character in the previous book I reviewed, Rockaway. She wants to be an artist, but is unable to commit to the lifestyle. She uses others as her excuse not to create. She is emotionally stunted and, altogether, a very unpleasant person.

Nora has so few redeeming qualities it was difficult to read this book. She is not at all interesting. She stalks the Shahid family, but they don’t even mind because they are so happy to use her in any way to make their lives easier. What a bunch of losers! I say pass on this book.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Knopf-2013
Softcover edition-to be published-Vintage-February 2014

The Woman Upstairs

Songs of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost is the second novel by Jamie Ford, the (justly) acclaimed author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Like his previous work, this novel explores a dark time in American history. This is the story of a 12-year-old Chinese boy who lives in a Seattle orphanage in 1934.  While conditions at Sacred Heart Orphanage are harsh, William Eng and the other orphans are relatively lucky. Outside the walls of Sacred Heart, the Great Depression rages. Dispossessed families live in a nearby Hooverville. There are bread lines, and children work to support their families by shining shoes and selling newspapers. William and the other orphans have a roof over their heads, 3 meals a day, and regular schooling.

Many of the children at Sacred Heart are not, technically, orphans. Their families, unable to care for them, have left them at the orphanage, with a vague promise to one day return. The annual outing celebrating the collective birthday of the boys of Sacred Heart includes a visit to a local movie theater. On the screen, William sees the actress Willow Frost.  He is convinced that Willow is his mother. The last time William saw his beloved ah-ma he was six years old and she lay dying in a bathtub in their small apartment in a seedy Seattle hotel. Liu Song was brought to a hospital, and William to Sacred Heart.

William sees from a flyer that Willow is appearing in a revue that will soon be coming to Seattle. He is determined to escape the orphanage and find Willow.

Songs of Willow Frost is an excellent novel. The characters are realistic and believable. The plot moves along at a good pace, despite the use of flashbacks. It took me a long time to read this book, but only because it was so sad that I could only read a little at a time. Jamie Ford has avoided the “sophomore curse” of so many second novels. I highly recommend this book. Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending this along to me.

In USA:

Author Jamie Ford

Author Jamie Ford

Hardcover-to be published-Ballanatine Books- September 2013

Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel

Rockaway

Tara Ison

Tara Ison

LaJolla

LaJolla

Rockaway

Rockaway

Rockaway is the very new novel by Tara Ison. I had not heard of her or any of her books before, and was pleased that my book club made this our next selection. We actually chose it from Oprah Magazine’s “Best Books of Summer” feature. And this book is about a summer-specifically the summer of 2001 which the protagonist, an artist named Sarah, spends in a borrowed house in Rockaway, Queens.

Sarah has been an unsuccessful artist. At 35, she works in an art supply store in her hometown of LaJolla, California. She lives in a dreary apartment, and spends much of her time caring for her not-so-elderly parents. A local gallery owner offers Sarah the possibility of a show based on some old paintings of hers. But the gallery owner wishes to exhibit only current works by the more mature Sarah. With the help of a childhood friend, Sarah relocates temporarily to Rockaway for inspiration and time alone to paint.

At first, this scenario strains credibility. I’ve been to LaJolla, and I’ve been to Rockaway. If I were an artist, I couldn’t imagine a more inspiring landscape/seascape than LaJolla.(see photos above-take your pick!) But it soon becomes clear that Sarah’s need is more than inspiring scenery. She needs to break free of her needy, depressed parents and follow her own vision. This is not easy for her, as she is immature, unfocused, self-centered and has a serious, unacknowledged drinking problem.

Sarah is judgmental, and really unable to connect meaningfully with other people. Sarah procrastinates, makes excuses for her lack of productivity, and consoles herself with alcohol. Not a pretty picture.It’s tough to empathize with Sarah, until we learn more about her family background, and how childhood events have shaped her adult life.

Rockaway is a quick and easy read, but definitely has more depth than the usual summer beach book.

In USA:

Published in softcover-Soft Skull Press-2013

Rockaway: A Novel

Imperfect Harmony

Author Stacy Horn

Author Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony is Stacy Horn‘s memoir about singing in an amateur choir. The choir has added depth and meaning to Horn’s life. But this book is much more than that. It is also a brief history of choral singing. Horn touches on the lives of the composers of great choral music, and much of that is fascinating. There are also very interesting passages on the research which has shown the benefits that music, and singing in particular, has for people.

Horn sings with The Choral Society, which is associated with Grace Church in New York City. The Choral Society is one of the premiere amateur musical groups in the city. As part of her well-documented research for this book, Horn has interviews fellow choir members, as well as the choir director and the associate director. All have a unique perspective on choral singing and on The Choral Society.

Grace Church is an old, established Episcopal congregation. Most interesting to me in this book is Horn’s exploration of the dichotomy between her non-belief and the inspiration she receives from performing some of the most religious choral works written.

I really enjoyed reading Imperfect Harmony. As an amateur musician myself, I feel that Horn did a masterful job in explaining how being part of a musical group can enhance one’s own life. I play in a community band, and every year I look forward to that first e-mail with our rehearsal and performance schedule.

Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me this book!

In USA:

Published in softcover-Algonquin Books-2013

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others

Endurance-Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

The Endurance Succumbing to the pressure of the ice pack

The Endurance
Succumbing to the pressure of the pack ice

In August 1914, the ship Endurance left England on the first leg of what was called the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition. Led by Ernest Shackleton, the purpose of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent on land, from one end to the other, across the South Pole. The ship was sturdily built, well-supplied, and had an able crew. The Endurance left for Antarctica from South Georgia Island on December 5. By February 1915, the ship was trapped in the ice.

The crew wintered on the ship. In October, when it became clear that the Endurance was going to be crushed by the pack ice, Shackleton ordered his crew to abandon ship. They set up camp on an ice floe, in the hopes that it would drift north towards land. When the ice floe broke up in April 1916, the crew gathered in their lifeboats and reached Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and a crew of five journeyed through the roughest seas on the planet back to South Georgia Island, about 800 miles away. Shacklteon then returned by ship to Elephant Island to rescue his crew, arriving on August 30, 2016, two years after they had left England.

The miracle of this expedition is that every man on the expedition survived. Shackleton’s leadership ability and courage are legendary.

So-everyone knows the basics of this amazing story. What Alfred Lansing has done is bring these intrepid explorers to life. For his source material, Lansing had access to diaries and personal accounts of some members of the expedition, and was able to interview a a number of the surviving members of the expedition. Even knowing the outcome, I was riveted by the details that Lansing wrote about.

The crew was subject to the constantly changing Antarctic weather. Shrieking winds, blinding snow, high seas, sub-freezing temperatures, and months of darkness plagued them during the winter. The Antarctic summer brought little relief, as temperatures hovered near freezing, and the melting and shifting ice brought extraordinary danger.

The story of Shackleton’s expedition is a true life adventure, with true life heroes.

In USA-published in hardcover-Adventure Library-1994
Softcover edition-Basic Books-1999
(Original edition published in 1959)

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage