BOOMERBROADcast

Enjoy, laugh, disagree or simply empathize with those who lived life in THE sixties and are now rockin' life in THEIR sixties, and beyond.


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Warlight was worth the wait


It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery—or is it the other way around? However you look at Michael Ondaatje’s latest book Warlight it’s a compelling story about a puzzling set of relationships. The story is set in London right after the Second World War. When 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are informed by their parents that work will be taking them far away to Singapore, they are stunned to learn they will be left behind in the care of a vague family friend they call “The Mole”. Feeling abandoned, the young people become increasingly confused when they find their mother’s fully packed trunk still in the basement after she leaves. Where is she? Why did she not take them?

Life for Nate and Rachael soon becomes filled with a strange and nefarious assortment of characters. The Mole, who supposedly worked as an air-raid warden on the roof of the Grosvenor Hotel resumes his pre-war duties as catering manager and is often absent, leaving the siblings to fend for themselves. An odd assortment of people begin frequenting their home and before long, Nate and Rachel become involved in strange adventures. Piecing together fragments of information they pick up along the way, Nate realizes his mother is involved in what appears to be covert intelligence work for the government, a continuation of her war work.

Thanks to The Mole, Nate gets part-time work after school and on weekends in the hotel kitchen and has a romantic affair with another teenaged hotel employee known as Agnes. A shady character called “The Darter” who was once a prize-winning boxer and possible criminal becomes a regular in their lives. He takes Nate along on his mysterious nightly runs smuggling illegal greyhounds and other secret cargo on a barge up the Thames River during dark London nights.

Ondaatje has a keen knowledge of London and its wartime buildings. It’s a treat to follow the observations of Nathaniel as he accompanies The Darter around the city. His sister becomes increasingly less visible until a dramatic event changes the course of their lives. The author is a skilled wordsmith and I was totally engaged in the writing, the psychology of the characters and the progression of their lives. I was a teensy bit disappointed in how it wrapped up but that’s just me. I’d rate it 8 out of 10.

Click here to order Warlight by Michael Ondaatje from Amazon.


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The Pilgrim sets off on a long and winding road


I knew I was going to love I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes right from the opening sentence. It was a line from a Beatles’ song, “There are places I’ll remember all my life—” The author obviously knows his audience. The story begins with a bizarre murder in a seedy New York Hotel. The crime scene replicates instructions detailed in a book written by a former high-level intelligence agent known under a variety of aliases that mask his real identity as Scott Murdoch a.k.a. The Pilgrim. When Murdoch is brought in to view the product of his “instruction manual” a complicated web of evidence unfolds.

Murdoch is a seasoned veteran of international espionage working at the highest levels of United States security and intelligence. When he’s persuaded to help the investigating New York police officer, the threads of the crime reach to the Middle East and uncover a potential threat to American security even greater than 9/11. As Murdoch peels back the layers of the simple crime in the seedy hotel, he travels to Turkey where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. In keeping with his training, everyone he encounters is considered a bad guy.

When a young American billionaire is found dead after accidentally falling from the cliff in front of his luxury villa in Turkey, the plot thickens. Soon, the President of the United States (a fictional good guy, not the current one) is involved in the action. A rogue jihadist has created a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox that he has manufactured and plans to release on the American public through seemingly innocent flu vaccines.

The severity of the threat is such that less than a dozen people are aware of it in order to prevent international panic and catastrophe. The Pilgrim draws on his years of expertise dealing with terrorists and traitors to eliminate the problem. The book was over one thousand pages on my e-reader (624 pages in hard copy) and I couldn’t put it down. It was a page-turner for sure but peppered with bits of humour and more than enough twists to keep me engaged the entire time. Author Terry Hayes is an Australian journalist and his first novel is a New York Times best seller—a remarkable achievement. I’d rate it 9 out of 10. Have fun.

Click here to order I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes from Amazon.


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Sharing the joy of reading


Not in my world.

I’m a voracious reader but not a fan of book clubs; I prefer to only read what I truly enjoy and not analyze the bejeezus out of it. Reminds me too much of all those painful high school English classes with Mr. Crowther asking “what did the author mean?”. Good grief! Who but the author really knows what he or she meant. I’m just in it for the fun of reading. I have an extensive spreadsheet summarizing books I want to read—recommendations picked up from friends, The New York Times or The Globe and Mail reviews, magazine reviews and other sources. My detailed ‘To read’ chart includes?

  1. the title of the recommended book
  2. author’s name
  3. a few words describing what the book is about
  4. who or where the recommendation came from
  5. the date when I actually read the book
  6. its rating on a scale of 1-10.

I have to keep track because as soon as I finish a book and move on to the next one, I’m challenged to remember what I just read (which explains why when I was in high school in the olden days, memorizing reams of material for exams was not my forté). Does this level of tracking sound a bit excessive? There are so many books I have to cover in the short time I have left on this earth and I’m not about to waste time on something that doesn’t totally engage me and lift me up.

And she lived happily ever after.

Reading is a cheap and effective way to vicariously travel to foreign countries, experience other cultures, eavesdrop on conversations between fascinating people, engage in a plot for the downfall of a corrupt individual or organization, fall in and out of love, learn about strange events or just simply learn something new, all in the comfort of my LaZgirl. As I said in an earlier blog, the best investment I never made was my library card. What a deal.

Like most bibliophiles, I love the feel, texture and even the smell of a lovely hard-copy old-fashioned linen-covered book, but I’m also a huge fan of e-reading. I’ve gone through many iterations of e-readers and settled on the iPad mini as being my favourite digital reading device. While I’m sitting in Five Guys scarfing down forbidden french fries and Diet Coke, I can hide my face in whatever book I’m currently engrossed in. And nothing beats several books downloaded onto an e-reader for convenience when traveling.

What I like and don’t like

Historical fiction is my favourite genre but I also like:

  • autobiographies and biographies
  • books by and about strong women
  • humour (who doesn’t love David Sedaris?)
  • classical Russian literature including Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoyevsky (go figure??)
  • some of the current best-sellers.
  • I’m a big fan of Canadian and British female writers.

With all those options, I don’t have time for what I don’t absolutely love. If I start a book and don’t love it within the first couple of chapters, then it gets tossed. This means that many books that were commercially popular or acclaimed by the literary big-wigs did not pass muster. So, when I publish a book review on BOOMERBROADcast, you can be sure it’s a book I enjoyed. There are many books I’ve attempted (sometimes multiple times) to read without success and had to abandon for various reasons:

  • Anything by Ayn Rand. Really?
  • Alice Munro is a Canadian literary goddess. But I find her books boring and tedious. Sorry. Guess I’m just not smart enough.
  • Rachel Cusk also leaves me cold. I’ve tried her Transit Trilogy books three times now, without success.
  • I’m ambivalent about Margaret Atwood. I enjoyed her early writing and Alias Grace, but couldn’t get into her dystopian trips. Although I didn’t enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it thirty years ago, I love the television series.
  • The Fifty Shades of Gray series did not make the cut. After the first few pages, I found the writing almost laughable. For those who did enjoy them, more power to you—you’re reading and enjoying yourself which is always a good thing.
  • Surrealism and sci-fi aren’t my thing so I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Harry Potter, anything by Tolkien, or the Twilight series. I’m obviously in the minority about Harry Potter but I did try and as soon as we landed on Track 13½, that was it for me. Moved on.
  • I’ve tried reading Zadie Smith without luck. After about fifty pages of NW I gave up but I may give her another try.
  • I’m very circumspect about anything recommended by Oprah as most of the books she recommends are just plain depressing. When she made a big fuss several years ago about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne I thought I’d give it a whirl because it was about positive thinking. Who couldn’t benefit from a bit of that? Most of the material was copped from other writers and mentors and I felt ripped off. Waste of time. Hated it.

Reading and writing are my two favourite activities, or more accurately, lack of activity. I’ll pick up greasy magazines in the waiting room while I’m getting my oil changed; I’m a magazine junkie. When I enter a bookstore or library I can feel my heartbeat accelerate as I’m confronted with all the marvels on those beautiful shelves. Cereal boxes, picture books, airline safety brochures—put it in front of me and I’ll give it a go. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being engrossed in a good book for hours at a stretch—one of the benefits of being retired.

My personal taste in reading is purely subjective, whittled down after years of trial and error. My friend Alice loves mysteries and fortunately the public library seems to have an endless supply so she’s all set for years to come. Valerie can’t resist a good self-help book and my father, at the age of 92 has just discovered Danielle Steele on his retirement home bookshelves and is enjoying her books. Most of my girlfriends enjoy the same kind of books I do so we trade books and titles constantly. Everyone has their own individual preference in reading material and if you enjoy the same kind of books I do, you probably enjoy my regular reviews. At least I hope you do. I’d love to hear suggestions from readers of BOOMERBROADcast in the “Comments” about books you’ve enjoyed. We’re probably on the same page so let’s share the wealth.


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Take David Sedaris to the beach or cottage this weekend


The only problem with reading a book by David Sedaris is—it ends. I love his humour and whenever I start one of his books, I try to take my time, savouring each word, each sentence, each paragraph in an attempt to make the deliciousness last as long as possible. But inevitably I can’t put it down and before I know it, I’ve reached—The End. I try to deconstruct what makes his writing so brilliant while appearing so simple. He’s sweet but slightly raunchy, honest and endearingly self-deprecating. His latest book, Calypso is a collection of autobiographical essays examining his life from the perspective of late middle-age. All his books have weird titles with the meaning buried in some obscure reference within the book. I’ll let you find this one yourself. The cover is an hommage to a friend who interprets natural plywood as art. It takes all kinds.

Some of the issues he confronts in Calypso include his perceived physical shortcomings, his three-decade relationship with his partner, Hugh, the tragic suicide of one of his sisters, Tiffany, the interesting people he meets while touring to promote his books, and minutae of his daily life with Hugh. Thirty years after the death of his alcoholic mother at the age of 62 from cancer, he’s still strongly affected by the loss.

I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of shopping for eccentric clothing, like a hat shaped like a toilet brush (shades of the chapeau worn by Princess Beatrice at Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton?), that he and his sister Gretchen like to buy at a store called Kapital when they’re in Japan. He describes shopping expeditions with his sisters as like being ‘in a pie-eating contest, only with stuff. We often felt sick. Dazed. Bloated. Vulgar. Yet never quite ashamed.’. I know the feeling.

Read any book by David Sedaris and you won’t be disappointed.

Sedaris has a respectful and sometimes fraught relationship with his 92-year-old Trump-loving father. The senior Sedaris refuses to leave the five-bedroom family home despite being unable to maintain it or properly cook for himself. He has a propensity for hoarding and uses a flashlight to find his way around the house at night, thereby saving on electricity. Sound familiar? The challenges faced by the family dealing with a stubborn, aging parent are something most boomers can relate to and Sedaris delivers a humorous perspective on the issue.

Calypso is a joy to read from start to finish. It’s a wonderful escape on a warm summer day or a pick-me-up if you’re feeling down. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.

To order Calypso by David Sedaris from Amazon click here.


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Who doesn’t love a good spy story?


There’s nothing more compelling than a great story about espionage especially when it is written by a real-life former intelligence officer who was part of the C.I.A. for more than thirty years. The movie industry thought so too and produced a movie based on the book “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. Although I have not yet seen it, the movie is rarely as good as the book. Movies can never capture the nuances of the thought processes of the characters or the subtle and delicate intertwining of various plot lines that comprise a book of several hundred pages. Books are infinitely more fascinating even without special effects and big-name movie stars.

When beautiful young Dominika’s ballet career is permanently derailed by a broken foot inflicted by a jealous fellow dancer, her entire life’s plan is erased. At her father’s funeral she is approached by her Uncle Vanya, an unscrupulous General in the SVR (formerly KGB) who makes her an offer she can’t refuse. In return for becoming a special Red Sparrow agent, her mother will be able to stay in her large Moscow government apartment and their lives can proceed as comfortably as before her father’s death. Red Sparrow is the name given to Russian agents, predominantly female but including a few males, who are trained in a so-called ‘whore school’. They are schooled in the finer arts of seduction which produces agents given special assignments requiring them to elicit secrets through old-fashioned pillow talk.

Real life spies operate closer than we think.

Meanwhile, the security of Nate Nash, a young American agent stationed in Moscow is compromised and he’s forced to relocate to Helsinki. Although he’s a relatively junior agent, he is the primary liaison between the CIA and a highly placed Russian double-agent called MARBLE and the Americans want to maintain his relationship with MARBLE (who is incidentally one of the few sympathetic characters in the novel). The Russians are aware of a deep mole in their network and assign Dominika, code-named DIVA to coerce Nate into exposing the Russian traitor. Naturally, a love story develops between the two agents and the plot becomes extremely complicated.

As we work our way through the various plot lines, the reader is educated about the CIA and espionage jargon, dirty tricks and political struggles. We feel like part of the team and I started feeling rather clever when I started to put two and two together, until things didn’t add up to four. I often became impatient with the clumsiness and weakness of Nate and wanted to yell at him to smarten up. But the secondary characters were fascinating and kept me engaged. The story line is current and Vladimir Putin makes periodic fictional appearances.

In real life, the author lived and served as a foreign intelligence agent in countries around the world so he has intimate knowledge of the cities where the action unfolds. He embraces local cultures and includes descriptions of meals enjoyed by the various characters, followed by a recipe at the end of each chapter. This book is part one of a trilogy and I will no doubt be checking out the next two. As I was reading, I was blown away (but not really surprised) by the level of intrigue perpetrated by the CIA and SVR and the overwhelming degree of corruption that exists.

Red Sparrow is a hefty read but well worth it. The author’s technical knowledge is impressive and we’re constantly kept in suspense about where the story will go next. The dialogue is intelligent and at times humorous, and I’m left wondering if there really is such a thing as a Russian “whore school” for secret agents. If I ever meet Jason Matthews I’ll be sure to ask as he’s bound to know for sure. I may even check out the movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, but think I’ll wait ’til it comes on television as it’ll probably be a disappointment after reading the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Red Sparrow and give it 8 out of 10.

Click here to order Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews from Amazon.


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Do you hear the call of the wild?


When I read Kristin Hannah’s earlier novel, The Nightingale (about a female resistance fighter in WW 2 France), it was obvious the lady can write, which is why I was anxious to tuck into her latest novel, The Great Alone. This story is set in Alaska in the 1970s and is steeped in graphic descriptions of the geography, the wildlife, the people and the unusual lifestyles they embrace. As I was reading the book I was amazed at the depth of research she must have undertaken, then discovered that she lived in Alaska which explains why she has such a deep appreciation and sensitivity for the area.

The main character, Leni Allbright is born to teenager parents (her mother Cora was only sixteen) during the sixties. When Leni’s father Ernt comes back from Vietnam with what would now be called PTSD, his demons surface in the form of anti-social behaviours and domestic violence against his wife. One day he receives a letter from the father of a deceased army buddy stating that his friend had left him a plot of land and a cabin in Alaska. Ernt sees this as the perfect opportunity to escape life and live “off the grid” so he packs his wife and young daughter into an old VW van and they head off for remote Alaska.

Upon the family’s arrival in a small, isolated community in late spring, they are befriended by locals including Large Marge, a former lawyer who has also left the bustle of urban life in Seattle and runs a tiny general store in town. The few people who live nearby pitch in and help the Allbright family set up their homestead on a muddy patch of land with a dilapidated two-room cabin. Life without electricity, running water and plumbing is challenging and in order to survive their first winter they must start growing vegetables, raise chickens and goats and learn basic wilderness survival strategies.

When teenage Leni starts school there are only about half a dozen students of assorted ages in the tiny one-room school. She makes an immediate psychological connection with Matthew Walker who is the same age. His father is one of the town’s founding families and because of their long history and hard work in the area they are somewhat better off and more established than most of the community’s inhabitants.

Leni’s father Ernt soon displays the psychotic behaviours he exhibited back in “the world” and he becomes unpopular with the other members of the community. He’s pegged a trouble-maker and the abuse he inflicts on his wife soon becomes apparent. His only friend is the equally irascible father of his former army buddy. Leni and her mother Cora function in a constant state of fear and tension in an effort to not ignite Ernt’s hair-trigger temper.

I definitely plan to read more books by lawyer-turned-author Kristin Hannah.

A close friendship develops between Leni and Matthew but they must keep it secret from Ernt for fear of serious reprisal. During their early years in Alaska, Leni and her mother Cora adapt and learn to love Alaska as much as the local people and feel they have found the place where they want to spend the rest of their lives. The challenge is how to survive not only the geographical and climate conditions but also the volatile Ernt. Beyond this I won’t tell you any more of the plot as I don’t want to spoil it but I can assure you the narrative is beautifully and sensitively written. Hannah has a deep understanding of life in Alaska and articulates rare insight into the psychology and practicalities of domestic abuse. While the story is distressing at times, it is also fascinating, sensitive and educational.

I found myself wondering how I would cope in such an environment. The story is set in the 1970s long before the advent of the internet and wifi and life in Alaska is not easy. While I like to think I could rise to the challenges I’m afraid I’m now a confirmed city girl. The story is compelling and beautifully written. I highly recommend The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.

To order The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah from Amazon, click here.

To order The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah from Amazon, click here.

 

 


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Meg Wolitzer addresses feminism through fiction


The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer tackles the evolution of contemporary feminism through the experiences of fictional 20-something Greer and 60-something Faith Frank. It’s a riff on the old theme of A Star is Born where the veteran is overtaken by her protégé. We’re introduced to Greer as a young girl being raised by seemingly indifferent parents. Her neighbour Cory becomes her best friend, lover and hoped-for life partner. Both Greer and Cory are gifted students with great futures predicted for them both at high-end ivy-league universities. Cory successfully qualifies for a scholarship and attends Princeton while Greer grudgingly attends a lower echelon college because her parents couldn’t master the scholarship application forms.

During her first year of college, at the urging of a friend, Greer attends a presentation by a famous early feminist, Faith Frank. During a post-speech encounter in the ladies room, Greer scores a business card from empathetic and powerful Frank which Greer uses when she graduates to land a job at Faith Frank’s feminist foundation. In the meantime, after graduating from Princeton, boyfriend Cory’s career in business takes him to Manilla. During his overseas assignment, Cory receives devastating news that results in his returning home to take care of his mother. Complications naturally arise and the characters’ career trajectories are diverted. As Greer and Cory’s individual lives evolve, their personal relationship evaporates.

There are many reasons I looked forward to reading The Female Persuasion:

  • I enjoyed Wolitzer’s earlier book, The Interestings.
  • The plot focuses on the evolution of feminism, an issue of deep interest to me.
  • When I saw the author interviewed on The Social I was impressed with her intelligence and powers of observation.
  • The book is a New York Times best-seller and film rights have been optioned by Nicole Kidman.

However, just because all these criteria come together in The Female Persuasion it doesn’t necessarily mean I loved the book. I found the plot to be a tad cliché and the story didn’t keep me strongly engaged. It’s only because the book was a best-seller and I held out hope that it would get better that I kept going. Parts of it were crushingly boring and could have used further editing. I’d call it light reading and more about love and romance than feminism. I disagree with New York Times’ readers. I’d be interested in knowing what you think. Rating: 5 out of 10.

To order The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitizer from Amazon.ca, click here.