Books: Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner


Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but it is a book club selection so I didn’t really have a choice. It was a fast read which is probably the biggest positive for me. The story itself is mostly about Clara, a young woman in 1911 who escapes the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC. Unfortunately, a young man named Edward that she meets only 2 weeks prior to the fire does not. She spends the rest of the book pining over him, which causes the reader to want to shake her and tell her to get on with her life. Clara , suffering from PTSD or its 1911 equivalent, escapes to Ellis Island where she nurses immigrants too sick to be allowed on shore. She meets Andrew, a young man whose wife of 2 weeks died on the voyage to America and Ethan, a Doctor on the Island and they both slowly become part of her life. She can’t decide what her feelings are for either in a frustrating ride for the reader (refer back to pining for Edward).

Occasionally interspersed with Clara’s story is that of Taryn who is in the present and lost her husband on 9/11. It seems like every book I read these days goes back and forth in time and between characters. The technique must be taught in every creative writing class in the country. In the best books, it works but in an average book like this, it is tiresome. Last week I actually read a book where every chapter was in chronological order. It was heaven but I digress. Let’s get back to Taryn who has never recovered emotionally from the loss of her husband Kent and Clara still mourning Edward.   Connecting both women’s stories is a scarf with marigolds on it that originally belonged to Andrew’s wife Lily and ultimately ends up with Taryn. She loses the scarf during the chaos of 9/11 but ultimately it comes back to her along with the man who rescued her. The scarf represents love lost and found again I guess as in the end everyone lives happily ever after.  The stories are very lightweight, predictable and contrived. If you are looking for a slightly romantic novel (there is a lot of holding men at bay in this book) that you can read quickly without thinking too hard then this might be the novel for you. If not, feel free to skip it.


Books: The Trespasser by Tana French


The Trespasser by Tana French 

If you like crime novels and have not read Tana French, you need to. Her sixth novel, The Trespasser, came out a couple of weeks ago and is excellent. All of her novels take place in Dublin and have one or two members of the Dublin Murder squad investigating them.. She generally uses different detectives for each of the books keeping her characters fresh and interesting. The Washington Post calls her “the most interesting, the most important crime novelist to emerge in the last ten years” and “her work renders absurd the lingering distinction between genre and literary fiction”.

In her new book the Trespasser, Ms. French uses two detectives, Antoinette Conway and Stephan Moran, who first appear in her novel the Secret Place. They are called out to investigate a seemingly routine death of a young woman in her apartment. The death appears to be a straightforward accident/murder with the girl’s boyfriend as the primary suspect. Both detectives are unhappy that they don’t get something more interesting/important to investigate but go at it with professional integrity.  The evidence is all circumstantial so the detectives pursue a number of other leads, many of which take them down rabbit holes.  After many false leads, they eventually discover a potential cover-up by some of the more senior members of the murder squad.

Conway, the only woman on the squad is constantly harassed and threatened along the way which makes her think about quitting. It also becomes clear that one of the most experienced detectives is thwarting her investigation and trying to get her to stop following the various leads and just arrest the boyfriend.  Her reaction to all of this is to have an immense chip on her shoulder and think that every member of the squad is out to get her. Ultimately Antoinette is vindicated in this psychological thriller.  Despite the fact that Antoinette is persona non grata in the squad, her attitude gets somewhat tiresome after a while and makes Antoinette not very likable. However, one certainly can’t fault the brilliant character development achieved by the author in creating a very complex female detective.

Ms. French’s writing is award winning and the way she unravels crimes in her novels is exceptional. My only reservations with the Trespasser are the length (it drags a bit in the middle and is definitely a slow burn) and how unappealing Antoinette Conway is. I don’t recall the same issue in “Secret Place” however her role wasn’t as front and center. The novel is another winner by a really great author. If you haven’t read her, try her first novel, In the Woods, which won a number of awards including the Edgar. My favorite novel is “Faithful Place” and the only book I’d skip is “the Likeness”.  I’ll be anxiously awaiting her next novel – hopefully it won’t take more than a couple of years.


Books: “The Worst Hard Time” – a view view into our future?


The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan 

If you think the “Grapes of Wrath” was depressing, try “The Worst Hard Time”, the story of the great dust bowl disaster of the 1930s. Unlike the Joads who escaped Oklahoma for California during this period, many of the homesteaders in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle stayed and Timothy Egan tells their story. It is a history book told in the form of a novel and chronicles several families who first came to the area as homesteaders and remained through one of the worst environmental disasters ever.

Egan is not shy about blaming the government for giving away the prairie land that was once the home of Native Americans and buffalo only to have it “destroyed” by farmers. The homesteaders plowed under millions of acres of grassland and planted crops – mostly wheat – that after a few profitable years withered and died in the drought of the 1930s. Without the prairie grasses to hold the soil down, huge dust storms blew the soil away throughout the thirties. FDR finally provided some assistance to the farmers who lost everything and engaged the best scientists of the time to help conserve the land for the future. There were a few successes but the efforts were mostly futile and millions of acres of land are still dead today.

I found Mr. Egan’s technique of trying to follow a number of families over this period somewhat confusing and as the book got more and more depressing, I felt like it was suffocating me as the dust did to the homesteaders.  I also thought that my background as an American History major and having read Steinbeck’s novel that I knew a fair amount about this period.   I still learned a lot. While there is no happy ending, I found the book’s focus on the scientific aspects of the Dust Bowl period fascinating.  I suspect, that because it is a non-fiction account that doesn’t read like one, this book has replaced “The Grapes of Wrath” in many classrooms. If you are interested in Modern American history, this book offers an important glimpse into the 1930s in a much more palatable way then a straight history book. It succeeds in answering not just the “what” but the “why” of history and one wonders if it is a look into our future with the impact of climate change.

Books: Station Eleven and Hogwarts – Wouldn’t it be Great if Harry Potter Survived a Post-Apocalyptic World?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 

This 2014 novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction Award as well as being a finalist for the National Book Award. The author doesn’t view the book as Sci-Fi and after reading it, I would have to agree. Just because it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a flu pandemic  doesn’t mean it is science fiction. It is more like TV’s “Last Ship” only far better!

As the novel begins, a well-known actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear on stage in Toronto dies of a heart attack and that same night, people start dying of he flu. The author smartly avoids the first two decades after the disaster in order to focus on what happens after the initial chaos subsides. There is no government, no electric grid, no planes, cars, cell phones or computers and the survivors are in small clusters spread throughout North America. We are introduced to a band of musicians and actors that call themselves the Traveling Symphony and do Shakespearean plays as they roam from town to town. In the band, is Kristin who is now in her twenties but was with Arthur on stage when she was eight.

Several of the key characters are connected (through Arthur) and the book goes back and forth in time and between characters to fill the gaps in on life before the flu and how the characters evolved and connected. At the beginning of the book, I found some of the skipping around a bit confusing but it was probably more because the story wasn’t going where I expected it than the structure of the novel. Station Eleven refers to a couple of sets of comic books by that title that were hand drawn by Arthur’s first wife and one set was given to Kristin the night of his death. It keeps her going through the twenty years after the pandemic.

Station Eleven is a really great book and the story parallels the tragic story of King Lear while focusing on what is important in life and how the Arts should be saved at all costs even in a society that is primitive. There are also major themes of love, loss, memories and survival. Station Eleven may take place in a post-apocalyptic world but I agree with the author that the book is literary fiction.  It is well deserving of all its awards. 

Pottermore Presents: 3 Short Stories

J.K. Rowling and her Pottermore organization have released three new e-books, which are short stories with very little new material. Basically the Pottermore website was reorganized and readers found content difficult to find so the archives were gone through and these e-books published for $1.99 each. There are three of these short-story books: Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide;  Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists and Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies. The new material provides includes a chapter on Minerva McGonagall and another on Horace Slughorn that explores their history in a bit more depth.

The three books are short and easy to get through but again, not much new here. I guess one can’t go too wrong given the price but it would have been nice to have a little more original material. Nonetheless, in reading through the books, one can’t help but marvel at just how well developed the background story is for every character that Ms. Rowling created. Whether she included the information in her books or not, she had flushed out their entire history (and future) in her head. It truly is phenomenal and a testament to one of the most creative minds ever. My admiration is unbounded in how well though out this world and all the characters in it are.

Even if there isn’t a lot of original material in this collection of short stories, it is a great year for Potter fans with the screen play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this new e-book collection of short stories and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them movie coming in a couple of months. All of these together make for a wonderful journey to J.K. Rowling’s world that was unexpected at the time the books concluded.

TV: “American Experience: The Boys of ’36 ” – the story of the boys in the boat

TV: American Experience: The Boys of ’36 (PBS, Itunes)

First of all, if you have never read the book “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, you have to do so immediately. It is one of the best books I have ever read and chronicles the uplifting story of the University of Washington crew team, which took the Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics. Whether or not you have, you can watch a short one-hour documentary on the story of “the boys” which originally aired at the beginning of August on PBS. I missed “The American Experience: The Boys of ‘36” while on vacation and was unable to find it on my local cable “On Demand” service so I rented it ($3.99) from ITunes.

The documentary relies heavily on Daniel James Brown, Timothy Egan who wrote “The Worst Hard Time” (next on my reading list), a few rowing historians and a ton of original footage. Heretofore I had seen only the official Berlin Olympic photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the race, which focused primarily on the German and Italian crews. The documentary footage (likely also from Riefenstahl) showed the Americans for more of the 6 ½ minute race. In addition, there is great footage of some of the Washington collegiate races, practices and for you U- Dub fans, lots of photos of the buildings and area as it was in the 30s. You also get a great feel for just how popular rowing was at the time and the thousands of people who turned out at these rowing venues for races.

This is an epic story that highlights interviews with some of the children of the participants telling their father’s stories along with Daniel James Brown’s commentary. To be able to see film of all the key players after reading the book was really terrific and made them come to life for me. It is an hour well spent to watch the courage and fortitude of these rowers who despite all odds achieved the greatest honor in rowing at the time and made Hitler unhappy in the process. The story of the “Boys of ‘36” is one of heart and achieving goals with every obstacle imaginable put in front of them. These boys came from humble origins in the severely depressed Pacific Northwest of the 30s and with the help of a difficult coach and inspirational boat builder beat the best crews in the world.

See “The American Experience: The Boys of ‘36” and read “The Boys in the Boat”.

A Great Book; Very Good TV Series and a Fun Movie

I don’t usually post this way but I had a book, a movie and one TV show this week (the end of August is really a TV dead period!) so here goes!


The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defection Story by Hyeonseo Lee

I get emails every day from BookBub letting me know e-book sales on Amazon. I don’t look at them all the time because it takes some doing going through the books and researching what might be worth grabbing for a cost of $0 to $1.99. I should do it more often because you can really find a gem that you otherwise would have no idea existed. That is how I came upon this wonderful non-fiction story of Ms. Lee’s unbelievable escape from North Korea.

It is unusual to gain a glimpse of life in this secret society but Hyeonseo takes us through her first 18 years growing up in North Korea and what being a citizen of this repressive communist regime entails. As fascinating as this is, it is the story of her escape that is the highlight of the book for me. It provides a riveting chronology of first getting to China then living in multiple places there and then on to South Korea in a series of moves precipitated by her being discovered. If that weren’t enough, the story then follows an even more perilous journey to get her family out of North Korea. The prose is straightforward (she had a collaborator) and simple but extremely compelling as Ms. Lee navigates life in these countries so different than her birth nation.

Hyeonseo Lee is clearly an extraordinary young woman, intelligent, beautiful and determined. How she was able to figure out survival skills, including languages in China and North Korea is remarkable. It has to be incredibly difficult to break the bonds of indoctrination and leave everything she knew behind. I was in awe of this woman at every point in her journey. I have often wondered why more North Koreans don’t leave and I now have a better understanding of the brainwashing that occurs in a country that controls by fear and intimidation. It is also fascinating to explore just how different the cultures in China, South Korea and North Korea are.

This book has a 4.4 rating on Goodreads, which is extremely high. Although I doubt it is still available on Amazon for $1.99, it is worth picking up at the library or paying full price to read this wonderful autobiography.


Finales: The Night Of (HBO)

The Night Of completed it’s run last night. The first show in this 8 episode miniseries was one of the best premiers I have ever seen. It followed Naz’s ill-fated “borrowing” of his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan through his waking up the next morning to find that a stranger he went home with was dead in her bed and he had no idea what happened. It was riveting. From there, the series stalled somewhat. It seemed to take forever in the next couple of episodes to get Naz situated and charged but then it picked up again.

Not everything worked in this series. The biggest issue on Twitter seemed to be the continual focus on John Stone’s eczema but Stone was clearly the best character in the show. Not only was did the writers give us a great persona but he was brilliantly acted by John Turturro. The character of Chandra, the inexperienced lawyer was not good (although the actress was fine). She made many questionable decisions, particularly in the last episode that just didn’t make any sense given what had occurred up to that point. Also, the ending with the probably identification of the killer was not well constructed. There really wasn’t any reason to even guess that this minor character might have had anything to do with the crime.

This is not an upbeat series. It delivers a dark indictment of the legal system and the effect on all involved from judges, to attorneys to those accused of crimes. None of the participants in this process came out ok in this show – except maybe a cat. The system did them all in. I did think the finale did a nice job of wrapping everything thing up and showing how this crime had impacted all involved. I hope that if there is a sequel to this that they do another case and don’t continue with these characters – I think the way the writers resolved the case was good and they should leave it as is.

This series gives us a little more hope that HBO can still deliver a very good drama. It was a nice summer surprise.


Star Trek

I am probably the last person on earth (at least among those who plan to see the movie) to see Star Trek as it opened shortly before I left on vacation and I just didn’t have time to see it until now. As a Star Trek fan, it was worth the wait. I have really enjoyed the first two JJ Abrams Star Trek reboots. This latest film in the franchise has a new Director, Justin Lin, (JJ was doing Star Wars) and has some of Lin’s “Fast and Furious” trademarks. The movie is non-stop action with extraordinary special effects that are in many cases quite stunning. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company are fun to be around again even if the plot is pretty over the top at times. Even with different actors and much better technology,it has the same heart as the Star Trek that premiered 50 years ago and that I would rush home from Friday night Dancing School class to watch.

In short, don’t look for a stellar plot or even one that makes sense. It’s a fun bunch of characters in outer space in situations that are often pretty ridiculous and the good guys always win. It was really sad to see Anton Yelchin’s final performance after his tragic death and unfortunately Idris Elba was totally wasted as Krall. If you are a Trekkie, you’ll enjoy this movie and if SyFy is not your thing, there are other films out there.


Books: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne 

I need to admit first and foremost that I am a rabid Harry Potter fan. I have read the entire series more times than I’ll ever admit to and find the universe of Harry Potter one of the most brilliant and imaginative worlds ever invented by a writer. So it was with trepidation that I read the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new stage play that opened to rave reviews in London last month. It is difficult to pick up a script and read it without comparing it to the novels and their rich characters and locations. If I had been able to see the play, I certainly would have preferred that to reading the script but this was my only option because I wasn’t going to ignore this latest addition to the Potter world (Ok…I admit to getting up at 3 in the morning to try and get tickets to the play when they were released but I was thwarted in my quest).

Overall, I think the book is for devoted Potter fans. I wouldn’t bother with it if you aren’t. Go see the play, which is supposed to be wonderful – even if it takes longer to get tickets than it takes for Hamilton. I think that within the Potter fandom, there will be mixed reactions. On one hand, there are those who would rather the story of Harry Potter end with the epilogue to Deathly Hallows and this script will reinforce their opinion.  In the other camp, there are those who want any additional stories about this world that can be delivered to them regardless of the vehicle. For the former, it will be difficult to understand how Harry becomes the father that is portrayed in this play. It just doesn’t ring true with whom the boy/man is that we left after the Battle of Hogwarts or even in the Epilogue. These fans will want more character development then is found in a script and wonder why there isn’t more mention of Harry’s other children among other things.  It will seem like a superficial view into Potter’s universe which is the difference between a play not written by Ms. Rowling and one of her novels.

For the Potter fans that just want to revisit that world under any circumstances, it is wonderful to have Snape, Hagrid and other characters come alive again along with Harry, Hermione and Ron. There are humorous moments like the time travel episode that showed Ron married to Padma Patil.   Draco having a kind and generous son makes for a very satisfactory addition to the Malfoy family tree. The links to the Goblet of Fire are intriguing as is the visit back to Godric’s Hollow. There are many other well written connections to the books which provide the fans with their due.

I tend to fall in both camps. I am glad the play was written in order to continue Harry’s story but it left me wanting so much more – I missed the amazing world and characters that Ms. Rowling was able to describe magnificently on ever page of her 7 novels. For me, Cursed Child was a quick diversion from my normal fare but one that left me hanging. I will hope that someday, Ms. Rowlings continues the story with a new generation but I’m happy to leave Harry where he was at the end of Deathly Hallows.

My children were the perfect age when the Potter books came out and we’d all be at Barnes and Noble at Midnight as each book rolled out unless they were at camp and I ordered through Amazon to ensure delivery the day of publication. We’d then spend all night reading them. This summer, my almost 30-year-old daughter was on staff at her childhood camp and I sent a copy of Cursed Child to her. It was like old times and I wasn’t the only parent of a millennial to do that! Pottermore fans, enjoy and everyone else – wait for the play to eventually get to you – I’m sure it will!

Two very different books: The Nightingale and The High Mountains of Portugal


The Nightingale   by Kristin Hannah

This book is usually mentioned in the various top fiction lists for 2014 and it didn’t disappoint.  It is the story of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabella living in different French cities as the Nazis take over the country. Their mother dies when Isabella is four and Vianne is in her early teens. Their father is incapable of caring for them and sends them off to another home to be brought up. The sisters are not close given their age difference and personalities but both crave their father’s love –  a useless pursuit.

As the war closes in on them, Vianne’s husband enlists in the army leaving her and their daughter to fend for themselves in occupied France.  Both sisters initially flounder. Isabella wants to do something but can’t seem to figure out how to make an impact and Vianne with how to live without her husband during wartime.  We follow their stories through the Nazi occupation. Vianne has Nazi soldiers residing in her house and a Jewish best friend who is taken away.  She leaves her small son with Vianne to protect and hide. Isabella falls in love with a Resistance fighter and soon becomes one of the most storied fighters herself  (she becomes known as the Nightingale) as she leads downed pilots across the border to safety.

The book is apparently based loosely on a true story.  It moves between one of the sister’s in the 1990s in America and the back-story of the two women. You are never sure which sister is telling the story until near the end of the book. The time differences allow for the stories to be concluded in a really nice way.  For all the World War II novel lovers out there, this book about the Nazi occupation of France and the resistance fighters brings a different perspective on the war.   The focus is not on the concentration camps although they play a peripheral role. Vianne and Isabella become unlikely heroes illustrating the theme that even the most average individual can rise to great heights in times of crisis. It is also a story of survival and what it takes to not give up. I enjoyed it immensely but I am a sucker for good World War II novels.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I was excited to get my hands on this new book by the author of “Life of Pi” which is one of my all time favorites. Martel’s newest novel has had pretty good reviews, which made my anticipation greater. Unfortunately for me, I found it to be tough going – particularly the first of the three stories that the book is divided into. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I really hated that first part but the book grew on me as I progressed. It probably wasn’t light enough reading for a summer vacation so I’ll just say up front, if you land up reading this, try it in winter when you are more likely to appreciate all the symbolism and craziness of the novel.

The book is actually 3 short  loosely connected novellas centered on grief, religion and primates. The first is the longest, which was clear as soon as I started and my Kindle showed that the chapter was over two and one half hours. This section centers on Tomas who loses his wife, child and father in quick succession. In his attempt to deal with his grief, he takes off in 1904 in his uncle’s state of the art automobile (which is a rarity at that time) to the “high mountains of Portugal”.   He is in search of a crucifix mentioned in a diary of a 17th century priest that Tomas uses for inspiration. Tomas, knowing nothing about cars has a continual series of disasters with the auto, which are humorous to some but to me were just painful. Oh….and he walks backwards all the time – I guess it is symbolic of walking away from the world but I don’t want to have to work so hard on vacation at understanding a book.

The second tale went better for me – probably because it was about half as long! This section highlights a pathologist working at his lab late at night when his wife visits and goes on and on and on with an analogy of Agatha Christie novels and their similarity to Jesus and the gospels. Having only read a few of her novels over 50 years ago, I remembered nothing about them and just glazed over this analysis. It was clear pretty quickly that his wife was dead … like section 1, there is a dead wife and some walking backward. Unlike Section 1, there is another woman with the same name as his wife who carried her dead husband in a suitcase and I’ll save you from what happened next but it was still better than the first story and did involve a primate.

I only read the third section so I could write this review and give potential readers a warning about the book however, it moved much more quickly for me and was the closest reminder I had to Life of Pi. I can almost say I enjoyed the story of a man (Peter) who loses his wife (sound familiar?) and adopts a Chimpanzee (sound familiar?), and moves from Canada to the” high mountains of Portugal” (apparently there aren’t any “high mountains” in Portugal which is some more symbolism lost on me) to get away from his grief and start a new life with his Chimp Odo.  He lands up in what turns out to be the house of his ancestors where there is an Agatha Christie book that has significance.  The third chapter connects a number of the themes and characters in the first two sections and it all makes marginally more sense by the end of the book which did bring some satisfaction and I felt better about the novel.

I probably won’t pick up another Yann Martell book anytime soon.  It is not surprising to me that the Goodreads scores were very polarized. I saw a lot of 4 and 5s from those who loved the book and just as many ones and twos from those who did not. What I didn’t see were many threes. Either people loved it or hated it. I really disliked the first story but came around on the second two. Sometimes you just aren’t in the right frame of mind for a book and I suspect that this may be one of them. I almost feel like if I picked this book up again at a different point in time, I might have much more appreciation for it. I doubt I’ll do that as I don’t think I could stand to read that first chapter again even knowing how the stories interrelate and understanding some of they mysticism and symbolism in the story.   Clearly many readers and critics love this book and if you are into heavy symbolism and the bizarre, you might well really like it – otherwise, I’d steer clear.






Books: An Older and Very Different Baldacci Novel


Wish You Well by David Baldacci

“Wish you Well” was published in 2001 and is considered by Baldacci to be one of his 5 best books. I’m don’t normally read Baldacci but have listened to a few of his audio books on long drives. His crime procedurals are easy to follow, reasonably well written and about the only books that my husband and I can agree on in the car. A number of people whom I respect, however, have recently recommended this book so I thought it might be a good summer read especially for air travel where it is hard to concentrate so I pulled it out for a short vacation.

I’ll start off by saying that this is a very atypical Baldacci book. He calls it a labor of love to his mother who was brought up in rural Virginia. There is a lawyer in it but that is about all that this novel has in common with the rest of his mystery novels.   It is a story set in 1940’s rural Southwest Virginia about two children (Lou and Oz) whose father is killed in an automobile crash, which also incapacitates their mother. They move with their unresponsive mother to their great Aunt Louisa’s farm on a mountain in Virginia. There, they learn the life of struggling Appalachian farmers and how to survive off the land. There is the requisite evil natural gas company and lots of misfortune along the way.

This book was ok and a decent summer read but there are issues. The end is never in doubt from very early in the book. While there are a couple of surprise deaths along the way, the outcome for the main characters is clearly transmitted. The major issue I have with the book is that the 13-year-old Louisa (Lou) was written as an adult. Her thoughts and decisions are those clearly of a much older person. No thirteen-year-old thinks and reasons like that. This has been true of the similarly aged girls in the few other books that I have read by Baldacci so perhaps he ought to steer away from young teenage girls as major characters. Some of the character development is lacking.  Lou’s father dies early in the book and although the author tries to give us some background on him, I don’t think that the reader ever understands his motives.   In spite of its flaws, the book is a page-turner that won’t disappoint for a summer read.

A Great Book; A Good Movie and a Really Promising TV Mini Series


Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi

This debut novel by a young Stanford graduate is getting rave reviews as one of the best books of 2016.  It traces the lineage of two half sisters born in Ghana in the mid 1700s. One is enslaved and brought to America and the other remains in Ghana. Each chapter is about one of their descendants and follows the two families through six generations. What is fascinating about the book is not so much the story of the family in America but what happens in Africa.

The impact of slavery on the various tribal cultures of  WestAfrica was huge. It turned tribes against each other; made them capture their own people and disrupted their way of life.  I think the African scenes make the book. The unbelievable trauma to the families of those who disappeared, never to be seen again and the residual changes to the identities of the tribes and cultures after years of conflict (both with other tribes and the whites) is a part of history that we aren’t generally that familiar with.

The American story is filled with the brutality of slavery and the resulting history of segregation and discrimination. It covers slavery in the South followed by Reconstruction and takes the family through Jim Crow laws and into the drug infested world of Harlem in the 1960s. It is a story that we are much more familiar with yet it is so important to continually be reminded of the history in order to better understand race relations in America today.   This is a book everyone should read and hopefully it will open some eyes as to why there is still so much anger and resentment amongst African Americans.


De Palma

The only Brian De Palma movie I have ever seen is the original Mission Impossible so I wasn’t quite sure whether I would find this documentary very interesting but I was pleasantly surprised. For an hour and 45 minutes, De Palma goes through his movies, talking about how he made them and the influences on his work. He comes from the same generation as Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese yet has not met with the same commercial success as his peers. He talks about his successes and failures equally with his insights into the actors he has worked with and why he thinks some of his work has bombed at the box office.

I must admit that as clips from his movies played out on screen, the blood and what seemed to be a constant theme of brutality towards women really turned me off. I had planned on watching a film or two of his after seeing the documentary but I left the theater not really wanting to see any of them. In hindsight, there seems to be a parallel between Hitchcock who had such an influence on his work and himself in the way they treat women. I would have liked for the film to have delved deeper into this area but it didn’t.

For film fans, this simple and straightforward documentary provides a window into how a filmmaker creates his work. For De Palma fans, it will gives a great deal of insight into his films and legacy along with some tidbits of gossip about famous actor he worked with. For others, you probably want to see something else despite it being a well done and very watchable documentary.



The Night Of (HBO)

The Night Of, a new HBO mini series, premiers July 10 but the first episode is available for streaming now so I watched it and it was really good.   Nasir Khan is a Pakistani-American college student from Queens who takes his dad’s cab out one night to attend a party in Manhattan. He can’t figure out how to turn on the “Off Duty” light on the cab and a young woman gets in and convinces him to go with her to her apartment. After a night filled with sex and who knows what else, he wakes up to find her dead beside him with so much blood around her that the cops refer to it as “Gettysburg”.

Nasir is immediately picked up through a series of naive blunders and found to be possessing  a bloody knife.  He is identified by witnesses and things look pretty grim when an Attorney, who I can only assume is going to be a fascinating character, sees him in jail and takes his case knowing nothing about what he is being charged with.  From what I understand, the next 7 hours of the mini-series is a journey through the NYC judicial system. The series is based on a British mystery and is well reviewed. The first episode is dark and I’m not thinking there is going to be any kind of a happy ending here but it is addictive and I can’t wait for episode 2. A rare summer treat on TV.




I didn’t binge anything new this week because I was watching several old seasons of Downton Abby again before I visit Highclere Castle next month.  Still trying to finish S2 of Kimmy Schmidt and get to some others that I really want to see but vacation is looming and time is running short! 


Great: 2 (UnREAL S1; Pride and Prejudice)

Good: 1 (OITNB S4)

OK: 0

Not Good: 1 (Bloodline S2)