Wednesday, September 30, 2015

TV Time: The Casual Vacancy

 The Casual Vacancy. 2015. Dir: Jonny Campbell. Starring Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie and Abigail Lawrie. HBO Production.

The Casual Vacancy the book made waves when the book was published in 2013 as author J.K. Rowling's first foray into writing for adults. I remember how many readers were expecting something light and expressed disappointment that yes, this was dark and no, they were not going to relive Harry Potter in its pages. I haven't read Harry Potter or The Casual Vacancy, but I do want to read the latter after watching the very compelling HBO miniseries.

The small English country town of Pagford seems like an idyllic tea-and-scones hamlet, but there is trouble brewing under its calico-print surface. A wealthy lord, Sweetlove, long ago left a large property in trust for the benefit of Pagford and an adjacent area, The Fields. The Fields is now a run down housing development ("estate" in the local parlance) whose residents are poor and deal with rampant unemployment and drug addiction. The Sweetlove property is now a community center and drug treatment center bringing the Fields residents into Pagford.

The present Sweetloves want to turn the property into a luxury spa, and some Pagford residents think getting the Fields residents to leave their town is a great idea. Barry Fairbrother is Pagford resident and town council member who advocates passionately for the treatment center; Shirley and Howard Mollison, also on the council, are an elderly petit-bourgeois couple with social-climbing ambitions who see a chance to butter up the aristocratic Sweetloves and thereby raise their own social standing. When Barry dies suddenly, a space opens up on the council (the vacancy of the title), and along with it a power struggle emerges in the town. Meanwhile, a Fields girl named Krystal struggles with her mother's heroin addiction and it's through her story that we see the human consequences of the fight.

"The Casual Vacancy" is dark, depressing and raw, and it doesn't end well for anybody. By the end everyone is broken, beaten or dead; consequences and karma are passed around like snacks and while some relationships are healed, most are quite a bit worse for the wear. It's not that the characters don't care about each other. It's more that the show is almost too realistic in its portrayal of actions and after-effects. Michael Gambon is positively awful (in the good sense) as the wretched Howard Mollison, a grotesquely selfish man. All the actors are great. But the narrative as a whole is so unrelentingly negative, it's hard to say it's enjoyable in any way. I will say it's addictive viewing though and it definitely got me hooked. I'd recommend it for people who like dark suspense and realism; I'm just not sure how big a group that is.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: THE POPE'S DAUGHTER by Dario Fò

The Pope's Daughter, by Dario Fò. Published 2015 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

Of all of Europa's summer offerings, this was the book that attracted me the most, being about Lucrezia Borgia, one of the most (in)famous members of that very famous and powerful family. Her father, Rodrigo, served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the Pope headed an army and the Papacy was as much about the Earthly as the spiritual- maybe more so. Lucrezia herself was a pawn in her father's political maneuvering, married several times to various members of the European nobility as it suited either Rodrigo or her brother Cesare, also politically ambitious but not as inclined towards the Church. She was also the subject of another recent novel, Sarah Dunant's 2013 Blood and Beauty. To get started, I would definitely recommend The Pope's Daughter to Dunant's readers.

Like Blood and Beauty, The Pope's Daughter tasks itself with reinventing or redefining Lucrezia, whose reputation has tended to be that of a femme fatale. Fò tries to show us that she was an intelligent, strong woman who often resisted her family's manipulations and who truly loved and was loved in return.

Unlike Dunant's novel, Fò writes his in a tone that reads as history- in other words, you might forget that you're reading fiction.
All of the many chroniclers and historians of the Borgia agree that Rodrigo came to Rome at roughly the age of eighteen, eager to place himself under the protection of the Spanish pontiff. This is just the first sign of the shameless nepotism of this high prelate, who gladly footed the bill for all the expenses the young man faced. Rodrigo had as his personal instructor none other than Maestro Gaspare da Verona, a man of great learning and extraordinary skill as a teacher.
He continues in this vein and even interleaves his own illustrations of the characters throughout the narrative, as if he were writing a textbook and not a novel. But it is fiction even though it's based on history. He is clearly smitten with Lucrezia. "No one," he writes, "would ever have suspected that there was such a fiery spirit in her," as she tries to raise troops to save her brother from one of his escapades. He gives his leading lady a tender side when it comes to personal relationships; she cares deeply for her father-in-law Ercole and develops a tight friendship with his daughter, a powerful woman in her own right. Fò portrays Lucrezia as a player with a heart, a woman who grows from a malleable girl to a shrewd and tough woman who can hit as hard as she kisses.

Overall I found the novel entertaining. The action flows along at a good clip and getting to know his Lucrezia is fun. Fò does less than Dunant to portray her sex life and he tries to dispel the incest rumors that have dogged her reputation. He portrays Cesare as almost uninterested in women and
really doesn't have much to say about her other brothers. He portrays Rodrigo as a kind of boor and his relationship with his daughter as affectionate but distant.  I think the book would be great for historical fiction readers, maybe as something different for people who have read all those Tudor books and want a new scandalous family chronicle for the beach bag or book club. It's a solid read and very enjoyable.

This is my 15th book for the 2015 Europa Challenge.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Serial Reading - My Ideas

There are a lot of compelling contemporary series that are really popular right now, like My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard and the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante, whose fourth book, The Story of the Lost Child is burning up the bestseller lists right now. Here are some of my suggestions for great series, for when you're done with those.

If you like character-driven series like My Struggle and the Neapolitan Quartet, consider

Lydia Millet's Extinction series, starting with How the Dead Dream. About the struggles of modern life and reconnecting with nature in startlingly different ways, each book in the trilogy covers the lives of its characters from a different character's point of view but moving forward in time. Her writing is wonderful, dreamy and edgy, and I recommend her highly.

Reinaldo Arenas's Pentagonia, five books starting with Singing from the Well. Dream-like and surreal, it's been called an autobiography of Cuba in the guise of the life of its protagonist.

If you like crime series like the Millennium series by Steig Larsson, consider
The Alligator series by Massimo Carlotto, gritty, uncompromising noirs focusing on corruption and disintegration in contemporary Italy, or

Stav Sherez's Cariggan and Miller series, following a pair of London police officers tackling crime and politics in modern-day London. First up: A Dark Redemption. Think globally; kill locally.

Jassy Mackenzie's gripping series of noirs set in modern day South Africa and starring detective Jade de Jong. The first book is Random Violence and it's a winner.

If you like sprawling historical fiction like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series, try

The Ibis Trilogy, by Amitav Ghosh, just completed, about the First Opium War and how it helped shape the modern world. Start with Sea of Poppies and by the time you get to volume 3,  Flood of Fire,  it will be out in paperback, lol.

Cities of Salt, by Abdelrahman Munif, about the transformation of the Middle East after the discovery of oil,

or Palace Walk, by Naguib Mafouz, a trilogy set in Egypt and covering that country's history and development in the 20th century.

Or go back to early Britain with Nicole Griffith's Hild, first in a planned trilogy about that country's early recorded history.

For a fantasy series you may have overlooked, try

Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch quartet, light urban fantasy about vampires and other creatures roaming the streets of Moscow,

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri series isn't strictly speaking fantasy but the supernatural is key to this detective series set in 1970s Laos. The first volume is The Coroner's Lunch and is a personal favorite of mine.

Jeff VanderMeer published the three-volume Southern Reach Trilogy last year, starting with the heart-pounding Annihilation, sure to leave you gasping for more. Think Lovecraft meets the X-Files.

For something completely different, for a light Barbara Pym-type read, seek out the 42-volume (don't worry, nobody expects you tor read them all) Barsetshire series by Angela Thirkell, long out of print but coming back slowly from Virago Modern Classics. They are also readily available used if you poke around. It doesn't matter where you start- dip in anywhere.

Hopefully those will be enough to keep you busy once you've struggled through all those other hipster favorites it's nearly impossible to avoid!

Monday, September 21, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Readng?

I almost don't see the point of posting about my reading while I'm in the middle of two chunksters... still reading Flood of Fire, which I'm loving, and The Big Green Tent, which I'm also loving. Those are huge books and wonderful, the kind of books you read slowly because you don't want them to end. So I'm reading both relatively slowly. But enjoying every word and line.

For a treat, I read The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, by Cesar Aira, on the subway this week because the purse I was carrying over the weekend was too small fit either of my chunksters and carrying a separate tote for the books was not practical considering what I was doing.

Shot of J.P. Morgan's bookshelves at the Morgan Library
In one case, I visited the Morgan Library and in the other I went with my husband to Korea Town (32nd Street between 5th and 6th) for lunch and a walk around. A friend recommended a coffee shop there (Grace Street Cafe) and then I found an H-Mart and other delights. I went to Grace Street after visiting the Morgan on Friday, then went back to K-Town for lunch at a food court on Sunday.

Sunday's Mexico Independence Day Parade on Madison Avenue
Anyway The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is another short but intense read from one of my favorite writers. It's about a doctor known for making miracles who's put to the test by a wealthy Buenos Aires family and it's just great. His books are often difficult to describe and this is no exception, but I always recommend him.

What are you reading this week?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Cats and Italian Food-Or, An Average Week

So last weekend I went with some pals to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, to see an exhibit called "How Cats Took Over the Internet." As someone who loves both cats and social media this sounded like an ideal afternoon.

The exhibit consisted of a short film series of cat videos taken from YouTube and a walk-through showing the history of cat photography, cat memes and statistics around the popularity of cats online. The films included an episode of "Henri, le Chat Noir" called "L'Haunting" and "The Internet is Made of Cats," a very catchy song by, among other things. It was pretty fun. I was surprised to learn that in raw numbers, cats are not more popular than dogs online, but somehow cats and cat videos and memes have taken hold in the public consciousness in a way not reflected in those numbers.

Then yesterday my husband and I went to Soho to walk through the San Gennaro Festival, an annual Italian American saint's feast which culminates on Saturday when the statue of the saint is paraded through the streets of Little Italy. I don't think we'll make it to that, but we had fun eating corn dogs, gelato and arancini. And really it's all about the food.

But it's really about the religion, and I feel like there was a special buzz on the street with the impending visit of Pope Francis to New York City next week. There were pictures of him everywhere at the festival; I think NYC Catholics are really excited about this very charismatic and popular pontiff's visit. I know this Catholic is!

Unfortunately I was not lucky enough to receive tickets to his appearances, but that's OK. I'll watch from home in Queens along with most other New Yorkers. With cats by my side.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mexican Independence Day

Photo courtesy of iivangm/Flickr
September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and in celebration I've put together a brief list of some of my favorite books about Mexico and Mexican people.

I will admit I haven't read as much as I might have in Mexican literature, a lapse I'd like to correct, so please leave your suggestions in the comments!

Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel. When I was in college everyone loved to watch the film version in our dorm's common room, but the book is even more magical than the movie. It's about a young woman who channels her feelings into the food she makes for her family. According to a family tradition she's not allowed to marry, but that doesn't stop her from loving, or from her family's fortunes from changing along with her country.

The Adventures of Don Chipote, by Daniel Venegas. This book was
originally published in the 1950s, then translated into English in 2000. It's about an early-20th century migrant named Don Chipote who comes to the United States for a better life, only to find that life is anything but better. It's witty and full of jokes, but a current of anger is unmistakable. Now it's considered a "rediscovered classic" of Chicano literature.

Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, is a big, engrossing coming of age story about Lala, a girl living between a Mexican and American identity, who spends part of the year with her father's family in Mexico City and part of the year in Chicago. Lala also tells us her grandmother's story, which is fascinating. The book is slow and colorful and wonderfully immersive.

The Son by Philipp Meyer. Set in Texas but covering the overlapping fortunes of two families- one American, one Mexican-over the course of the 20th century, I think this book fits the theme even if it's not a perfect fit. The McCulloughs and the Garcias will come together time and again- in love, in violence and death, in reconciliation-maybe. Their clashes mirror the course of history and the story is epic and unforgettable.

I'm sorry I don't have more books for you, but these are all books I loved. Please leave your suggestions for great Mexican reads in the comments so I can do better next time!

Monday, September 14, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet, and have every intention of reading its sequel Ghost Light soon. I've already read book 3, Magnificence, which I loved, and I loved Dream; I think Millet is a fantastic writer, kind of like a mid-career Margaret Atwood before she went all post-apocalyptic. Readers looking for strong women writers would do themselves a favor to check her out.
Still working my way through Flood of Fire, at the rate of about a chapter every few days. I'll admit I haven't been reading anything very much lately. When I do read it, I love it though.

I stumbled across a galley of the forthcoming book by Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of my top 3 favorite women writers these days, and have put everything else aside until I finish her very long and very excellent latest. It's called The Big Green Tent and it covers the lives of a group of friends from Stalin's death until-? I'll let you know. I was supposed to get this for review but I think wires got crossed when I moved. I'm so glad to have found it though!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: ELDERS, by Ryan McIlvain

Elders, by Ryan McIlvain. Published 2013 by Hogarth/Random House. Literary Fiction.

I had Elders in my to-be-read pile for a long time, just about since the paperback came out, and yes, what prompted me to finally pick it up was going to see the musical "Book of Mormon" on Broadway this summer. That said, this beautiful, bittersweet book is nothing like what I saw on stage (which I also loved). Elders is an absorbing and accomplished story about growing up and testing limits and finding what it takes to take the steps you need in life.

The book focuses on two Mormon elders on their mission in Brazil. Elder McLeod is an American from an elite family. He is partnered with Elder Passos, a Brazilian convert from a poor background who is both zealous and ambitious. Elder McLeod has the relaxed attitude of someone who takes his faith for granted. It's simply the air he breathes, but sometimes he can't quite.  Passos is a convert with something to prove to himself and others. Alongside his holy mission to bring new people to his church is Passos's personal mission is to gain admission to Brigham Young University and a make life in the United States, and he is equally dedicated to both.

McLeod and Passos work together just fine and get along okay, enduring the daily grind of prospecting. McLeod has even invited Passos to stay with his family in Utah if Passos succeeds in his mission to get into BYU. But when they meet Josefina, an attractive woman genuinely excited about converting to Mormonism, things begin to fall apart. Josefina's husband Leandro neither shares her enthusiasm nor trusts these handsome young men who pay so much attention to his wife, and as it turns out the very Mormons who hold the key to Passos's future have some things to say about Josefina's conversion too.

As their relationship with the couple develops, fault lines open up between the two men. McLeod finds Passos rigid and difficult; Passos finds McLeod lazy and spoiled. Each questions his relationship to the church for different reasons and also the necessity of their partnership as time goes on. When the situation with Josefina erupts into open conflict their relationship deteriorates alongside it.

I loved Elders and strongly recommend it to readers of literary fiction. McLeod and Passos are believable and detailed characters; their lives felt very real to me. McIlvain's writing is excellent; he draws with a sure hand. His portrayal of these men and their life is nuanced and thoughtful and thought-provoking. He captures a piece of religious life not often seen in mainstream fiction and he captures it beautifully with its beauty and its flaws.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

TV Time: Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie. Netflix original series, 2015. Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie is about two women whose husbands Robert and Sol respectively one day announce that they are gay and are leaving Grace and Frankie for each other.

The show is a comedy that focuses on the growing friendship between Grace (Fonda), an uptight WASP with perfect hair and Frankie (Tomlin), an artistic Jewish woman who smokes pot and does yoga and wears big flamboyant jewelry. The four have known each other for years though they have never gotten along very well. But now they're sharing Grace's beach house until they can figure out what to do next.

Both couples have adult children who take the news well, although Frankie's son Nwabudike acknowledges the pressure they feel to accept Sol and Robert's relationship; if his dad had left his mom for another woman, his reaction, he says, wouldn't be so positive. But basically the kids accept the new normal and do their best to negotiate their relationship with Grace and Frankie as well as with each other. They're all going to be one big happy family now, right?

For thirteen episodes Grace and Frankie is light lunchtime TV that is nonetheless emotional and moving. Over time they hash out various issues they've had over the years, flirt with the idea of new boyfriends and new lives for themselves and grow to appreciate and enjoy each other's company. Grace finds a hunky beau while Frankie works through her complicated feelings towards her now ex-husband, who may still have feelings for her despite his new relationship and identity.

I enjoyed Fonda and Tomlin more than Waterston and Sheen. The women are facing a real crossroads in their life, left behind at a vulnerable stage of life and the actresses portray that confusion and sense of loss really well.  The men, especially Waterston, always looked like they were on the verge of cracking up, and Sol and Robert came across as mostly glib and shallow too. Sol (Waterston) seems to have more feeling about the effects of his choice, more compassion for Frankie although he does do some things which are quite self-centered with respect to her. Robert's (Sheen) break with Grace is cleaner. He and Grace had been distant for a long time and he also shows less empathy for her. He is fully focused on moving forward. In the first episode for example, he immediately cuts off his wife's credit card, oblivious to the effect this would have on a woman who hasn't supported herself in years.

Events move along towards Sol and Robert's wedding but the season ends with a cliffhanger that could potentially tear the couple apart. And it's been renewed for Season 2, which almost disappoints me because I thought the ending is perfect as is.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

New on the Shelf

Here's a quick round-up of some recent additions to my TBR table.

I was thrilled to hear that Vintage was re-issuing one of my favorite books as a teen, Davis Grubb's The Night of the Hunter. A bizarre, creepy noir (is there any other kind?) about a preacher-turned-murderer after the buried treasure of a former cellmate, it was made into an equally creepy 1955 movie starring Robert Mitchum. The movie is now considered a classic even though it bombed at the time. The book is amazing and I can't wait to re-read it.

Farewell, Shanghai, by Angel Wagenstein, is translated from the Bulgarian and tells the story of World War 2 Jewish refugees seeking safe harbor in China. Wagenstein is the author of the wonderful Isaac's Torah and I'm looking forward to reading another book of his. Other Press.

Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Froeberg Idling, is a love triangle set in Cambodia and set during and after the 1955 election. I picked it up at Idlewild Books, a small travel-and-foreign-language bookstore in midtown Manhattan and it just looked intriguing. Pushkin Press.

And the ever-adorable and wonderful-to-read Simon Van Booy has a new collection, out in November, and I managed to snag a galley. Everyone loves Simon Van Booy. You just can't help it. Harper Perennial.

What's new on your shelf these days? Any big releases you're excited about?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Frida Kahlo at the Bronx Botanical Gardens

A couple of weekends ago, I went with some pals to see a beautiful exhibit currently running at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, called Frida Kahlo- Art, Garden, Life.

The exhibit shows several Kahlo paintings and a floral exhibition inspired by her life and work. The art consisted of several paintings, maybe a dozen or so, including Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, as well as a collection of photos and sketches. We were not allowed to take pictures of the art, so you will just have to take my word that it was stunning. I don't think I'd ever seen her paintings in person before, so it was a treat.

The floral exhibition was housed in the Garden's Conservatory, and was absolutely a feast for the senses.

The Conservatory exhibit included flowers she would have grown, a model of her desk and even a replica of the cactus fence that she and Diego Rivera designed in one of their homes. And we went on a beautiful sunny day so it was just perfect. To top it off, the museum even had a Mexican food truck on the scene so visitors could enjoy a yummy taco or two as they wandered the grounds.

It was a beautiful day, and I got a membership to the Gardens with my New York City ID card, so I'll definitely be back for walks and hiking in the fall!

The exhibit runs through November and on certain evenings they have more food available on the grounds. Here's the website: New York Botanical Garden at