Monday, May 22, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

'A Gentleman in Moscow', one of the most buzzed about books of 2017, tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to live out the rest of his life on "house arrest" in the grand Metropol Hotel, following his "conviction" by a Bolshevik tribunal. Set in 1922 and the years that follow, the entire book’s plot centers on this hotel and the unlikely friends, lover, and even child that become a part of the Count’s life.

At first, I thought this novel would be a wordy tome full of intellectual ramblings. Instead, it turned out to be a delightful Russian-style comedy full of irony, romance, tragedy, intrigue, political satire, and hilarious scenes of slapstick humor. It does contain some philosophizing, but these musings are interesting and but ultimately fall short. 

While I appreciated the glimmers of stories throughout and the relationships that help sustain him in his time in Metropol, these interludes really didn’t necessarily move plot, but was more of a study of character. The Count is certainly a charming gentleman and I really found myself enamored with him during his interactions with Nina (a precocious 9 year old girl who he meets in the early days of his house arrest) and Sophia (Nina's daughter who he becomes a surrogate father for).  Also, the Bishop is quite the worthy adversary to Rostov as a Bolshevik version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.  

I can certainly see why so many are enamored with this book, but I was craving a little more action and a little less introspection in this story.  

Recommended by Monica Shine
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Monday, May 15, 2017

Swiss Army Man (Comedy, 2016)

Like abnormal? See this. Like intelligent? See this. Like funny. SEE THIS! Swiss Army Man's diversity was not only noticeable but its strangeness was not only quirky but hilarious. It's outrageous, it's visionary, it's full of humor and heart. To those of you who often complain that there's nothing original to watch in theaters anymore, writing/directing team Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have come to the rescue.

Paul Dano plays Hank, stranded on a deserted island, about to commit suicide because to him, all hope is lost. And suddenly he sees a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who changes everything.  Long story short, he discovers that this corpse has special abilities. It can satiate his thirst, chop wood in half, spit bullets out of its mouth, among other things. Soon, the body starts to talk. Hank is determined to use his new multipurpose friend to go on an epic adventure that Hank hopes would bring him back to the woman of his dreams.

For almost the entirety of the movie we're trying to figure out if Dano is simply hallucinating or if the corpse really is coming to life. Many details are left for the imagination. But they don't even really matter.  Swiss Army Man is a considerably entertaining adventure that pushes the envelope of cinematic absurdity in a way that is moderately smart, and pervasively weird in every turn. This is a movie that will understandably put off some viewers, but at the same time leave others inspired. Those who are able to buy into the eccentric material and occasional vulgarity are the most likely to find the gold in this cinematic entry.

Recommended by Monica Shine

Monday, May 8, 2017

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

If someone told me, mix these elements: 1) historical fiction; 2) magical twist; 3) silly humor; 4) a little bit of romance; and love the book, I would probably have deemed it impossible. This book puts a new, refreshing and laugh-out-loud funny spin on the life of the Lady Jane Grey, an often overlooked ruler in the tumultuous period following King Henry VIII's death.

But this is not your average historical fiction novel.  The reader is immediately treated to as much.  Also, its kind of hard to notice when the main characters start turning into animals.  In order to solidify the line of succession, Edward VI  (Henry VIII's only surviving son) marries his cousin, Lady Jane Grey to Guildford Dudley, the future Earl of Suffolk.  But Guildford (or G as he would have you call him) has an affliction, he spends his waking hours as a horse.  Yup, a horse.  This immediately makes life complicated for the newlyweds.  They are joined by fellow history mates by Edward himself, Elizabeth and Mary.  

What could easily be written off as absurd works quite well in this story.  What follows is a tale of intrigues, plots, assassination attempts and rescues.  It will make you smile the whole time you're reading and the narration style is fantastic. I just never wanted this book to end. Here's to hoping these three authors come together to once again rewrite history.

Recommended by Monica Shine
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Friday, May 5, 2017

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside is a heartbreaking look at the issues of race, violence and law enforcement. There is much in this book that is enlightening, bun in a disheartened, disappointing way. Many parts left me somewhere between outraged, saddened and flat out disappointed that we, as a society cannot do better.  As well as the fact that we've made so little ground in addressing the issue of murder in our cities' poorest neighborhoods.

Jill Leovy has spent her career covering the “plague” of murder (particularly black on black murder) for the Los Angeles Times.  She spent years embedded in the beleaguered 77th Street Division in South Central, Los Angeles. Covering homicide after homicide which received little to no coverage in local or national news she embarked on tracing the epidemic of murder in the poorest parts of Los Angeles County.   

The plot primarily follows the tragic story of Bryant Tennelle, an 18 year old gunned down simply walking down the streets of his neighborhood, pushing his bicycle.  Tennelle was the son of a well-respected LAPD Officer.  You could say Bryant was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that he was killed because he was wearing the wrong colored hat. Solving this messy case fell to Detective John Skaggs, who was tenacious about tracking down leads. 

In a post-Ferguson, post Trayvon Martin era it may be easy to criticize police handling of cases in high crime areas are somewhere between ambivalence and outright disgust.  But this book shows you the day to day life of a detective in our highest risk communities.   How personally many of the officers take criticism that they don't care about the community, that they don't care about black lives, that they don't care about the victims. Leovy shows time after time that there are many officers who do care, and they work as best they can to solve insurmountable problems.

This work is a page-turning combination of a true crime story and sociology/social commentary. Underneath it all is a tidal wave of devastating loss and grief of big city homicide.

Recommended by Monica Shine

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

This was a fun book--I was unaware of the early days of the BBC, so the history aspect was of interest. If you want a book with VERY strong female characters furthering the cause of women's rights, this is a good choice. The story itself is engaging--watching the protagonist Maisie grow and mature, really come into herself, was lovely. Hilda Matheson—a real life BBC player—was a fantastic character and one I want to find out more about via non-fiction reading. And when you toss in spying, MI5, sex & gender politics, class and economic status, and the rights of women to vote, well you’ve hit just about every check box needed for a 21st century novel. 
For me, that was the problem though—this was too much a 21st century mindset telling a story from a very very different time (nearly 100 years earlier). The voices in this—all of them, were far too informed by this century for it to ring true. If you can get past this, this is a fun engrossing read.

Recommended by Cynthia Lambert
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The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler

I'd not previously read Butler's work, but was drawn to this book because of the cover. Boy am I glad I picked the book by it's cover.

This was a fantastic book--well written, compelling, funny, and heart-breaking. It's the story of Nelson--a good kid with no friends at Boy Scout camp or at home--and his unlikely "friendship" with Jonathan, a good looking, athletic, popular older kid--a kid who is not necessarily always a good kid. We follow Nelson from his life altering week at camp when he is 13, through Vietnam, and ultimately, back at the Scout camp where he is now, at 70, the Scout Master, tending to Jonathan's grandson. 

Nelson is a good Scout--a good boy. He believes in and follows the Scout code. He grows into a good man--and despite his flaws and the very bad things he has done, he is a good man. In the case of Jonathan, we don't know if he is a good boy or will be a good man. He is flawed, but each time he is messes up, in the end, he is good. As he ages, his flaws increase. The one semi-constant in both lives are one another. 

These characters were very real--I cared when they were hurt and cheered when the triumphed. Their development was rich and nuanced--nothing was easy, nothing glossed over. My one complaint (and the loss of the star) concerns the female characters, especially Rachel. Her reaction to a very tragic event is simply not enough. The development of any female characters--is very weak, somewhat formulaic, and not at all complete. The women are not fully drawn, stand alone characters. Yet they are incredibly important in the lives of these men. I expect more from this writer, who clearly has skill but choose not to use it to the advantage of his female characters.

Recommended by Cynthia Lambert
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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The World Without Us by Alan Wiesman

What would happen if every human on planet Earth spontaneously disappeared?  How long would it take for Mother Nature to reclaim the landscape and return to her primordial roots?  That’s the theory that distinguished journalist Alan Wiesman poses in his book The World Without Us.  The results of this theory are fascinating.  After a few short days without power, the Hudson River would start to reclaim the subway of New York City.  The Panama Canal, perhaps one of man’s greatest technological achievements, would spill over to flood the Isthmus of Panama after a mere 20 years without maintenance.  Wiesman engages the reader with discussions of just how quickly the earth would reclaim man-made structures.  However he also reports from areas where the natural environment exists with little to no human influences like Poland’s ancient Białowieźa Forest or the stark Korean Demilitarized Zone.  This books’ subject matter is fantastically simple and yet exploring this topic is both interesting and shocking.   This engrossing piece of nonfiction not only vividly describes the natural wonders of planet Earth but also the ephemeral nature of humankind. 

Recommended by Monica Shine

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