Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Review: Too Bad to Die

Too Bad to Die (2015)
Written by Francine Mathews
348 pages
U.S. Publisher: Riverhead

Bond. James Bond. The words are iconic.

The suave style, the pithy one-liners, the strong women and the exotic locales are all part of what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie. But what about the man behind the secret agent?

In Francine Mathews' newest novel, Too Bad to Die, Ian Fleming does some spy work of his own to thwart a Nazi conspiracy to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during the Tehran Conference. When Fleming intercepts a message from Enigma code breaker Alan Turing suggesting a turncoat is in their midst, the race is on to find the culprit and stop the conspiracy.

Mathews clearly had fun writing this and that enthusiasm is evident on each page. She throws many Bond references in, whether it be a martini drink or Fleming thinking of himself as 007. Many of the trademark Bond items are in Mathews' book and the thrills are heaped on, particularly at the halfway point. It felt like a Bond movie written on the page and as I read, I thought, "This would make a pretty good movie." Mathews also melds the history of the Tehran Conference and fiction together seamlessly, causing some to try to guess where the fiction starts and ends.

In a welcome departure from the usual Bond formula, Mathews takes special care to creating strong female characters, particularly a British Signals operator and a rogue agent that plays both sides, that help advance the plot.

There's just one little hitch. I figured out who the turncoat was early on, so when the character is revealed to be said traitor, it didn't have the emotional impact. Most of Bond's villains have not been particularly secret (Goldfinger and Dr. No come to mind), so on one hand, this works with the usual Bond style. But on the other hand, it made the book easy to deduce.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Despite spotting the villain early, Too Bad to Die is a fun spy thriller, especially for James Bond fans, history buffs or anyone who wants a fun read.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Film Friday: Spielberg is Ready for Player One

Steven Spielberg made waves at the beginning of the month when he signed on with Jennifer Lawrence to adapt Lynsey Addario's memoir It's What I Do for Warner Bros. This week, WB announced that he'll also helm the adaptation of Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel Ready Player One, which was one of the best books I read last year. A mashup of young adult dystopia, virtual reality, 80's references and Willy Wonka, the book felt cinematic when I was reading it. Spielberg is explicitly mentioned in Cline's book, so it'll be interesting to see him directing a character that is very fond of E.T., Indiana Jones, and other Spielberg films.

When it was announced that Zak Penn was polishing Ready Player One's script, WB apparently wanted a big-name director attached to the project. The fanboy community immediately thought of Christopher Nolan, who is based at the studio and made sci-fi films like Inception and Interstellar plus The Dark Knight trilogy. Deadline said Ready Player One would be Spielberg's next project after he directs the adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. Personally, I was hoping for It's What I Do first over Ready Player One, but I'm excited for both projects.

In a weird twist, the news is both good and bad for sci-fi book fans. Spielberg is notorious for dropping projects (American Sniper and Memoirs of a Geisha were two), but his jumping onto Ready Player One will likely mean the further delay of Robopocalypse, another sci-fi film he was in line to direct. That project, based on the Daniel Wilson book, had a screenplay written by Drew Goddard and even had a release date at one point.

Another literary project likely to be put on hold is Thank You For Your Service, a film version of the David Finkel book about soldiers readjusting to life after a Middle East campaign. The film's screenplay is being written by Jason Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar for adapting American Sniper.

In other news...

• Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne's turn as transgendered artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, will be released Nov. 27 in New York and Los Angeles. The film's release will be in the thicket of Oscar season.

• Steve Martin has signed on for a role in Ang Lee's adaptation of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which was written by Ben Fountain. Few details are available on Martin's role, but production is set to begin soon. The book is about an Army platoon being feted for heroism during a Dallas Cowboys football game after a firefight in Iraq. The novel earned a number of awards including the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize when it debuted in 2012.

• The film rights to Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, a novel of two sisters in World War II France, were acquired by TriStar, the same studio behind Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Hannah's book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for six straight weeks and earned rave reviews. While the acquisition of rights does not automatically mean a movie will be made, it shows that there is interest and given Hollywood's penchant for World War II-era stories, I'd bet the book will make the jump to the big screen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)
Written by Cristina Henriquez
Narrated by Yareli Arizmendi, Christine Avila, Jesse Corti, Gustavo Res, Ozzie Rodriguez and Gabriel Romero
Run Time: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Knopf

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
 — Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus" (1883)

Lazarus' poem, mounted on the inside of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty 20 years after it was first written, was emblematic of European immigrants' hope for a better life once they passed Lady Liberty's lamp beside the proverbial golden door that was Ellis Island. According to records, about 12 million immigrants transited through the island by the time it closed in 1954. The process to get into America took three to seven hours. For those that made it through, Ellis Island was an "Island of Hope." Those that were turned away, often because of a criminal record, insanity or a chronic illness, dubbed it the "Island of Tears."

A century later, the lamp is still lit and people from all over the world want to get through the golden door and have a better life in America. For some, it remains a place of hope while others have shed tears during their American experience.

Cristina Henriquez's book The Book of Unknown Americans taps into the inherent sense of risk and desperation immigrant families have in coming to America for that better quality of life. Arturo, Maribel and Alma Rivera have made the long trek from Mexico to a Delaware apartment complex in the hopes helping Maribel, who has suffered a significant injury. Her parents sacrifice for her to attend a special school, even when facing racism, bureaucracy and ludicrous job conditions. Meanwhile, Maribel starts to fall for Mayor Toro, the son of Panamanian immigrants who also live in the apartment complex.

One of the best qualities of the book, and it really stands out in the audiobook, is the variation of people. There are interludes where immigrants in the apartment complex tell their backstory and come from the likes of Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. When these interludes happen, they are each spoken by a different voice actor, giving a variation that hammers home the point that there is no one single road for immigrants. Some of the characters arrive through visas while others walk across the Mexican border or are smuggled into the U.S. No two journeys are alike.

Henriquez writes in a style that at times felt like a series of feature news articles. She writes with a sense of the harsh realities of immigration, because not everything goes swimmingly when a family migrates to another country and tries to adjust to its culture and idiosyncracies. At the same time, there are tender moments, particularly with the teenage romance between Mayor and Maribel. The characters are easy to empathize with, especially when they struggle in adapting to American life.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Regardless of what your view is on the current state of immigration, I would encourage picking up Henriquez's book for the relatable characters and diversity of backgrounds they have as they try to blend into the American melting pot.

As part of the book's launch last year, Henriquez debuted the Unknown Americans Project on Tumblr. Below, she gives a taste of the kinds of stories the project has unearthed.

The book is available in all formats. A paperback edition was just published in the U.S. earlier this month via Vintage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Audiobook Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination and Being Prepared for Anything (2013)
Written and narrated by Chris Hadfield
Run Time: 8 hours 45 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Little, Brown

Growing up in the hills north of Los Angeles during the days of the Space Shuttle, my school would occasionally announce through campus-wide speakers something to the effect of, "Do not be alarmed, the Space Shuttle will soon be passing overhead. It will be loud." Moments later, a sonic roar would blast overhead as the shuttle flew en route to a safe landing at Edwards Air Force Base, about 45 minutes northeast of our suburb.

While he may not have flown the shuttle on those landings, Col. Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency peels back the curtain in this memoir of his time pursuing a dream to be an astronaut as well as some of his adventures onboard the International Space Station. He handled each challenge with humor and grace, whether it be an episode on going blind in space (which he later gave a TED talk on) or the day-to-day routine of living in zero gravity.

Much of the book is about problem solving and Hadfield presents his strategies in clear, practical ways. His ability to make multiple contingency plans and get around roadblocks reminded me of Hannibal Smith, the leader on the TV series "The A-Team" who would famously say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

While on board the space station, Hadfield made several YouTube videos that later went viral, including a cover of David Bowie's song "Space Oddity." Among those videos were Q & A sessions he did with Canadian schoolchildren explaining how some basic tasks on Earth are a bit different in the zero-gravity of space, like wringing a wash cloth. Hadfield briefly touches on this in the book, but I loved hearing his enthusiasm for explaining space, especially in a post-Space Shuttle era.

One of the biggest strengths of the memoir is Hadfield's narration of the audiobook. There's an authenticity to it that wouldn't be achieved by a third-party narrator. He makes the complicated world of space flight accessible to readers without talking down to them or overloading it with jargon. There are lots of humorous moments in the book and its pace is excellent, making it an audiobook suitable for any listening style (I listened to it on my work commute).

Rating: 4/5 stars. A great audiobook perfect for those curious about astronaut life with a dash of humor to go along with it.

The book is available in most countries in hardcover, ebook or audio. A paperback edition will finally be published Stateside on April 14 via Back Bay Books.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: Lost Boys Symphony

The Lost Boys Symphony (2015)
Written by Mark Andrew Ferguson
352 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown

Disclosure: I received a free advance digital review copy via NetGalley in exchange for a review. The book will be on store shelves March 24.

The scene is a classic. The man runs out to the middle of the bridge as snow is falling and screams "Help me Clarence! Get me back! I don't care what happens to me! Get me back to my wife and kids!"

The above scene from Frank Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life has a distant cousin in Mark Andrew Ferguson's debut novel The Lost Boys Symphony. Henry is heartbroken after a breakup with his girlfriend Val when, while on the George Washington Bridge, two older versions of himself intervene and kidnap him. Naturally, his friend Gabe becomes increasingly concerned and contacts Val in efforts to find Henry.

I didn't care for the book as much as I thought I would, but that's not to say it was poorly written. Ferguson melds several genres together and at first, the plot strands don't quite gel. But as the novel progresses, the blend works really well. Ferguson uses sound descriptions throughout the book (after all, the title does refer to a symphony, the cover art features a guitar neck and headstock and Henry is a musician). After awhile, I began to wonder what this book would sound like if it were like a radio play with all the musical sounds and interludes.

However, I thought the novel was mostly dour and sometimes, downright bleak. Multiple characters look at the past, present and future with the proverbial glass half-empty outlook. This doesn't mean every character has to be happy-go-lucky, but the brief hints of humor were welcome relief from the overall dour tones, especially when characters lament not being able to adjust life events. Some of the drug and sexual humor was also not the right fit for me personally, though I know most wouldn't object to it.

Rating: 2/5 stars. This isn't a bad book per se and it's use of music to help tell the story is commendable, but it just wasn't a good match for me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Audiobook Review: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015)
Written by Erik Larson
Narrated by Scott Brick
Run Time: 13 hours, 4 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Crown

Like two bullet trains on a collision course, the Lusitania sinking at the hands of the German U-boat U-20 is a gripping story.

While reading Erik Larson's excellent history of the Lusitania's sinking, Dead Wake, I often had a sense of dread. Like a retelling of other historical attacks such as Pearl Harbor, I read Larson's thriller of a book hoping something or someone would intervene, but knowing full-well that no intervention would come.

Larson is one of the best at writing narrative history and his eye for detail is ever-present in Dead Wake. Not only does Larson give full backgrounds of Lusitania captain William Turner and U-20 captain Walther Schwieger, but also many of the Lusitania's passengers. He explains the diplomatic tensions at the time and even delves into President Woodrow Wilson's search for companionship, which was happening simultaneously with Lusitania's voyage.

Larson's book is written on a big scale, stretching from the walls of the White House to inside the British Admiralty. And yet, it isn't overwhelming. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the descriptions of how passengers passed time while onboard, including poetry readings. Man, how times have changed.

Brick's narration provided a sure hand through the story, accentuating moments of tension without going over the top or sounding melodramatic. There are even sections in Brick's narration that manage to be very humorous, a respite from the white-knuckle tale. And when the attack comes, it is handled with grace by both Larson and Brick.

Rating: 5/5 stars. This was one of the most eagerly anticipated nonfiction books of the year and it didn't disappoint.

Below, Larson reads the prologue from Dead Wake during a Q and A with the Wall Street Journal. It sets up the story to unfold well and gives an idea of what is to come in the later pages.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Film Friday: Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams

Shoeless Joe (1982/1991)
Written by W.P. Kinsella
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Run Time: 7 hours and 46 minutes
Publisher: Blackstone Audio/Houghton Mifflin

Growing up, my dad shared his love of sports with my sister and I. The two sports he loved most were baseball and football. My sister played softball for years, often playing first base or pitcher while I operated the scoreboard or was the bat boy for some of her league games. I played T-ball at a young age, but I was terrible at it.

Years later, Dad and I would take occasional sabbaticals from California to Arizona, where I was born and where he grew up, to watch spring training baseball. By March, the desert heat would make the ballpark feel like it was summer, with some stadiums having open-air barbecues and sunbathers soaking up the UV rays on towels beyond the outfield fences. Hope is renewed for a successful season for each club, even for the legions of Cubs fans who make the annual pilgrimage to Mesa for spring training, despite their team not having won a World Series title in more than 100 years.

It is with this frame of reference that I recently read the classic book Shoeless Joe, or as its film version is known, Field of Dreams. The book, published in 1982 and made into an audiobook in 1991, is a wonderfully told story of an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears the now-famous voice in his corn field "If you build it, he will come." As he builds a baseball field, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous Chicago White Sox outfielder indicted as part of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, appears. Eventually, Ray sets off on an adventure to meet author J.D. Salinger and little-known player Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. But as he is away, the farm is in danger of being snatched from Ray by his brother-in-law and business partner who don't see the value of the baseball diamond.

The book is solidly enjoyable as it focuses on the passing of bygone eras. It celebrates everything old-fashioned, from day games at ballparks to carnivals and older farming techniques. Some of these pay off while others didn't quite work for me. There's a whole subplot that involves Ray's brother and a traveling carnival that I didn't care about as much as I should have. The novel runs at such a quick pace, though, that it didn't detract from the main story. Amusingly, the book made me like J.D. Salinger, even though I really didn't like The Catcher in the Rye when I read it in high school. Gardner gives a great performance as the audiobook's narrator, providing just the right tone to fit each character, especially Salinger.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Despite an ending that felt a little too all-over-the-place, the book is a love letter to baseball and nostalgia.

Field of Dreams (1989)
Written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Rated PG for some language and mild thematic elements
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures

In the interest of full disclosure, this is my favorite baseball movie, but I think that's in part because of how heavily it focused on the father-son relationship. In the book, the relationship between Ray and his father was a key part in the story, but the movie strips down the narrative to have the relationship be center stage. For example, there's a subplot unique to the movie about censoring questionable books that ties back into the relationship, since author Terrence Mann is blamed for the split. (Due to fears of litigation from Salinger, the character of Mann was created).

Two of my favorite scenes in the movie and book are almost verbatim from each other. The first is Ray's first meeting with Moonlight Graham in the ex-player's Minnesota office. Played by screen icon Burt Lancaster, Graham is resigned to hoping for another shot at the majors after realizing that "we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening."

The second is the famous speech given by James Earl Jones' Mann about how "the one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball."

But what commentary on the movie would be complete without the scene that makes grown men cry? In the movie's final scene, the father-son relationship is healed, despite the father wearing a Yankees jersey. (In the book, he only played in the minor leagues and hated the Yanks).

Grade: 5/5 stars. While others may like Bull Durham or The Natural from the many 80's-era baseball movies, I'll gladly take Field of Dreams over them any day. The book's themes of faith in what you hold dear stand out and it's father-son subplot became the central plot in the movie.

Field of Dreams was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. Robinson went on to write and direct the 1992 hacker film Sneakers, as well as direct an episode of the lauded miniseries Band of Brothers and the action film The Sum of All Fears. James Horner conducted the music, one I play frequently, and went on to conduct the music for the likes of The Rocketeer, Apollo 13, Braveheart and Titanic, the latter of which won him an Oscar.

The field and farm where they shot the movie still stands and has been visited by more than a million visitors since the film's release. The field is near the town of Dyersville, Iowa and is routinely named as one of the top places to visit for baseball fans.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: A Man of Good Hope

A Man of Good Hope (2015)
Written by Jonny Steinberg
294 pages
U.S. Publisher: Knopf

If war is an earthquake, then A Man of Good Hope is about the many aftershocks that resulted in one man's life from the civil war in Somalia that erupted in the early 1990s.

The book chronicles the life of Asad Abdullahi, a man born in Somalia who became one of millions displaced by the conflict. He had one of the most hellish childhoods I've ever seen or read and traveled through a half-dozen African countries in search of a permanent place to call home, only to find adversity at every turn.

This story is not for the faint of heart. There were multiple times where I had to read it piece meal because of the level of tragedy in it. Having said that, it is a terrific book that sheds light on so many contemporary global issues. There's a lot to be said in the book about migration, war, immigration, xenophobia, family, survival of culture and values and how to face adversity. From Somalia to Ethiopia to South Africa, Abdullahi constantly had to fend for himself in counties where he was not welcome by some of the residents. Beside the initial terror in Somalia, the worst events came in the supposed safe haven of South Africa, where a string of tragedies in 2008 killed Abdullahi's family or co-workers or drove relatives out of the country. I was glad for him in the end, but the road to that ending is paved with heartbreak, violence and a steely resolve for a better tomorrow.

The book's aforementioned themes made me think long and hard about geopolitical issues akin to ones in the book. For example, Americans tend to think of immigration exclusively in regards to people migrating through the border with Mexico. But migration and immigration happens all over the world. And as people migrate to different countries, native residents resent the newcomers for loss of job opportunities and the like. And yet, people migrate every day in search of a better life.

In a strange way, the sheer amount of trials Abdullahi had to persevere through reminded me of some of Louis Zamperini's experiences in Laura Hillenbrand's mega-bestseller Unbroken. Steinberg, a lecturer of African studies at Oxford, interviewed Abdullahi dozens of times in his car, an unusual place for an interview. As the book progresses, Steinberg will point out geopolitical forces at work and if Abdullahi has a fuzzy recollection of events, Steinberg indicates it. As such, Abdullahi is not made out to be a perfect saint, but he is still a person I rooted for to get his happy ending, wherever it would be.

This is, simply, a stellar book. Highly, highly recommended. Grade: 5/5 stars.

The book is currently available in hardcover and ebook formats.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant (2015)
Written by Kazuo Ishiguro
Narrated by David Horovitch
Run Time: 11 hours and 48 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Knopf

I had never read an Ishiguro book prior to his newest tale, one set in a Britain of mottled greens and greys as well as giants, ogres, dragons and other fantasy folk. Would it match up to the hype? Sort of.

The book follows an elderly couple named Beatrice and Axl who seek to reunite with their long-lost son. Along the way, they meet Arthurian knight Sir Gawain, a boatman and an assortment of other characters. They want to end a supernatural mist that causes the area's inhabitants to forget their past.

The book weaves in allegory akin to The Chronicles of Narnia, the quest from Beowulf and a malevolent dragon from the likes of The Hobbit. Some of the allegorical motifs really worked. The novels themes of memory, both collective and personal, were intriguing, especially when transposed with our digital era of instant gratification and forgetting history. Other issues like ethnic conflict also factor into the narrative. While the titular giant is mentioned briefly at about a quarter or so in, I thought the title was reflective of uncovering memory.

The narrator's prose, when read by Horovitch, reminded me of what I imagined the professor in Narnia or a conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo sounding like. The sound is of a scholarly English gentleman and it really shows, particularly in conversations between Axl and Sir Gawain. At first, the novel had a great start, but then it started to really slow for me as the story shifted away from Beatrice and Axl. I just didn't find the other characters to be as likable. There were lengthy conversations that seemed to be circular and repetitive and there were several times when I felt like I had a case of audio deja vu. During these moments, I often wondered what the other characters were doing and had to really focus to get back into the story. It picked up again in the end, but that was mostly due to a shift of focus back to Axl and Beatrice.

There has been heated debate online as to whether or not this novel is a fantasy book. I would classify it as part of the genre in part because it has characters that would be at home in a fantasy novel and an archetypal quest. Having said that, if you're expecting grand battles a la The Lord of the Rings or similar books in the genre, this book is not that kind of page-turner.

Grade: 3/5 stars. Fantasy books like Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were books that established my love of reading. In some aspects, Ishiguro did them proud, namely the use of allegory, conversation style and setting. However, the middle portion of the book heavily sagged for me. While the audio narration by Horovitch is very good, I would urge readers to read the print or ebook editions, since it is a book that works best with complete undivided attention.

For a primer on the book from Ishiguro himself, click here.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood power producer Scott Rudin, who has a long track record of purchasing the rights to books, purchased the film rights a day after the book's publication. However, I genuinely don't see this book lending itself to film well.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Film Friday: Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014)
Written by Mark Harris
Narrated by Andrew Garman
Publisher: Recorded Books/Penguin
Run Time: 20 hours 1 minute

Amid the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age, the war that spanned the globe called five men to act.

Five Came Back is a very thorough, completely engrossing and stellar history of five Hollywood directors who were compelled to get involved in World War II, even as America was slow to follow. The Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 40s was one of powerful studio titans with vice grips on actors and actresses, a government-mandated production code that creatives hated and an industry that some in Washington feared had too much of an ability to influence.

As Nazi Germany continued to invade countries in central and western Europe, Hollywood was getting concerned about what was almost exclusively referred to as "the war in Europe." Some directors sought to make movies about the war, but isolationism in America dictated the box office. Few studio bosses wanted to be seen as war mongers. While not referenced directly in Harris' book, I suspect that these directors and screenwriters that wanted to spotlight "the war in Europe" thought and acted like Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca when he says, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America."

And then, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed most everyone and everything. Few isolationists retained their pre-December 7th views and America was at war.

Directors John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra all joined the military and offered their expertise in making movies in service to the war effort. Each director and their contributions to the war effort, at a time when countries waged "total wars," are remarkably researched and delineated from each other by Harris. For example, Ford was the gung-ho type who served in the Navy and directed this film on the Battle of Midway:

The directors went to both the Pacific and European theaters of war, all while chronicling both the experiences of soldiers as well as their own ordeals. Capra opted to make a series of informational videos, known as the Why We Fight series:

Heading into the book, I was most familiar with Ford and Capra's work, thanks to Stagecoach and It's a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas movie. Wyler, however, turned out to be my favorite of the five that Harris follows in his book. The director, an immigrant from the often fought over Alsace-Lorraine region of France that borders Germany, wanted to make a difference for both his adopted and native lands. Wyler, like many of the men who returned from World War II, suffered physical and mental anguish as a result of his time in Europe. Arguably, he had the greatest tragedies and triumphs in the book.

Other cultural and historic icons make their way into Harris' pages, including a humorous portion involving Theodore Geisel, the man who would later be better-known as Dr. Seuss. Also, Harris documents the five directors' time before and after the war so well, including Capra's making of It's a Wonderful Life and its subsequent flop at the box office, that they were part of the natural ebb and flow of the story. I was as invested in these sections as I was the descriptions of the filming in combat.

The book is one of the best nonfiction titles I've read. While a knowledge of early cinema is helpful, it isn't required to enjoy the book and as a result, caters to a wider audience than some would think. Earlier this week, the book was named as a finalist in the history category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes of 2014.

I had initially opted to hold out for the paperback version, but after hearing rave reviews from family and the online film community, I snagged the audiobook. Garman does an admirable job of showcasing the material and helping give each person a distinct narrative.

I cannot recommend this book enough. 5/5 stars.

Five Came Back is available in hardcover, ebook, audio and a just-released paperback edition.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Spring Flurries in Book and Film Deals

News regarding book-to-film adaptations had dried up most of the winter as the industry waged its annual Oscar campaigns. But then, the news started flying this week with three big news items.

• Lynsey Addario's memoir It's What I Do, about her experience photographing conflicts around the world, debuted last month to rave reviews. After an auction that had Hollywood power players from George Clooney to Reese Witherspoon involved, the film rights to the book were sold to Warner Bros. with the legendary Steven Spielberg to direct and A-list actress Jennifer Lawrence set to star. To boot, producer Andrew Lazar just came off Oscar nominee American Sniper. Obviously, this does not indicate a release date and it still needs a script, but if this movie doesn't scream Oscar-bait, I don't know what does.

Addario's memoir, published by Penguin Press, has been making the rounds in the journalism realm because of her longstanding excellence as a photojournalist. Former and current co-workers of mine have been super-excited for her book. As a journalist myself, some of the best co-workers I've ever had were the female photojournalists at my current newspaper and the one I worked at in college. My college paper had an all-female photo team, one of whom looks up to Addario herself, and they were terrific. I have this book currently in my Vroman's buy queue, since it didn't make sense to listen to a book about photography or read it on a black and white Kindle Paperwhite. The memoir is currently #11 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and climbing fast after she was featured in the paper's magazine.

• In the wake of The Fault in Our Stars being one of last summer's hit films, studios have been getting in bidding wars for John Green books, or thanking their lucky stars if they've already purchased the rights to one. This summer, Fox and the writers and producers of Fault are making an adaptation of Green's Paper Towns, due in theaters June 5. Apparently, the writers and producers really like Green's books because news broke earlier this week that writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are set to pen the adaptation of Looking for Alaska at Paramount. Looking for Alaska, at its utter simplest, is a tale about a boy who falls for a girl at a boarding school.

I admit I'm not in Green's target audience, but The Fault in Our Stars was enjoyable and I've got a copy of Paper Towns on my bookshelf. But what excites me most about Green's books is that they are encouraging young adults to read books that don't rely on dystopian sci-fi or some other genre trope without the sappiness of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Don't get me wrong, I like dystopian sci-fi as much as the next guy, but if Green is encouraging teens to read realistic fiction and explore the world around them too, whether through his books or his wildly-popular Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, then I can sincerely applaud that.

• As Netflix continues to grow as a provider of exclusive content like House of Cards, the Daredevil TV series and the Virunga documentary, it was only a matter of time before they would try to add feature films to the list. Earlier this week, the streaming service acquired the rights to the film version of Uzodinma Iweala's debut book Beasts of No Nation, a tale about a child recruited into a unit of guerrilla soldiers in a West African country. The movie stars Idris Elba and is already garnering Oscar buzz. Now comes word that major theaters will not screen the movie as a boycott against Netflix. The ban would hinder an Academy Award-qualifying run for the film.

I don't watch television, but I do subscribe to Netflix. Having said that, I generally prefer watching movies in a cinema (preferably an ArcLight). I understand theaters' dislike for anything Netflix and their trepidation toward simultaneous streaming/theater models, but I suspect people will continue to want to stream movies at home on their 120-inch flatscreen and wall-vibrating surround sound and avoid rude moviegoers. However, there is a sense of irony that a film that has reignited the Netflix-theater war is based on a book, a sign both the film and publishing industries are undergoing rapid changes due to the internet.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Etta and Otto and Russell and James (2015)
Written by Emma Hooper
Narrated by Robert G. Slade
Run Time: 8 hours and 2 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio

Some books grab your attention by a plot or the cover. In the case of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the characters are the headliners.

Etta, an elderly wife, dreams of seeing the ocean, so she leaves her husband and farm on the Canadian plains and walks east to the ocean. Meanwhile, her husband Otto makes due at home, building papier-mache animals and trying to cook, often hilariously. Their neighbor Russell goes after Etta, fearful for her safety, but ends up on an adventure himself. James is a talking coyote that accompanies Etta for portions of her journey.

While on her trip, flashbacks to Etta, Otto and Russell's earlier days occur and as the novel progresses, the line between memory and present-day begins to blur. Like multiple marbles swirling around a funnel, flashbacks and the present-day bounce off each other in the early stages, but as the book ends (the bottom of the funnel in this example), memory and reality collide and meld into a mass that the reader has to sort out. Also, there are sequences involving Etta's memory and a nursing home toward the end that take the book in a darker direction than I was expecting. As such, this is a book that has an undefined ending, leaving it up to each reader's imagination.

The characters are enjoyable, namely James and Otto, though Etta has her moments as well. Every time James was around, I enjoyed his commentary on humans and smells. Otto is hilarious when he tries to tend to his homestead.

The book can best be described as "magical realism" fiction, because there's a lot in it that wouldn't pass muster in the real world. What husband would be okay with his elderly wife walking across Canada alone? Wouldn't authorities be alerted? Since when do coyotes talk? However, I wasn't bothered by them because the characters were so engaging.

The book is also an ode to a time and place long past. Etta and Otto often converse through letters, a forgotten art form in today's texting world. The correspondence and relationship between the two almost reminded me of what I would imagine the elderly couple in Up would have said during their long marriage. The Canadian farmland is dry and dirty, with residents struggling to make ends meet on their farms while the area's men head off to a war overseas. Though the war is never explicitly said by name, I implied that it was World War II and the farmland strain the remnants of the Great Depression. But again, it is left to the reader's imagination.

The stellar audio narration by Slade has a distinct Canadian flair, complete with dialect. The town of Regina, Saskatchewan is pronounced reg-ine-a and again is a-gain. Slade gives each character a distinct voice, especially James, who is delivered in a near growl. The voice work added to the charm of the novel and ended up being one of my favorite aspects of it. Having said that, the audiobook can be a challenging read since much of the novel is written in letters and I found the ending, a twisted knot already, more so because I feared I missed details that I may have picked up on if I were reading it on paper or digital.

Grade: 3/5 stars. The ending threw me for a loop as I was trying to construct what happened, but otherwise, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a book with loads of charm and very likable characters.