Kunstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction / Audio book)

Twenty-something Julian Kunstler — somewhat ineffective in his attempt at adulting — is sent to care for his ninety-something grandmother Mamie and her elderly dogsbody of unknown origin, Agatha, during Covid. Venice, California is a lovely place to wait out a pandemic — almost too lovely as Julian feels guilt at his own safety while others dwell in fear and panic. They pass the time with Mamie’s stories — of her own times of isolation, fear, and survivor guilt as an 11-year old Jewish emigre from Vienna who lucked into safety through the intense efforts of Hollywood’s artistic community to extract as many Jews as possible from Germany in 1939.
This was truly a wonderful book — full of stories suffused with reality and a painstakingly reconstructed sense of time and place. We hear the stories as well as the inner thoughts / reactions of both of them, giving an evolving insight into two distinct characters with wildly different contexts taking in the same information. Spectacularly presented.
With these stories, Schine manages to evoke not just the physical space of Venice Beach / Hollywood in the 40s, but the mental and cultural space as well. Music, language, philosophy, meaning, existence, and the nature of memory pervade conversations and thoughts. Music in particular suffused everything — Mamie came from the most cultured of Viennese Jews, her father a composer and mother a writer. She supported herself as a violinist, and I loved the way she took up violin as a youngster because she found the piano an oppressive instrument — as it missed all the notes in between while the violin could get them all. Many Hollywood stars of that era (mostly emigres like Mamie) feature in the stories: Greta Garbo, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and others. Her discussions with Schoenberg are priceless — they discuss the “emancipation of the dissonance.” (I can’t stand dissonance in my music but I sure enjoyed reading about the Schoenberg’s thoughts on the subject!). There are parallels between Mamie and Julian — the guilt of being safe while their friends and family are decidedly not, the isolation, the feeling that the world they know is collapsing — and Mamie wants to help Julian make spiritual and ethical progress in his life. To understand the need for joy and to be able to live fully.
Listening to the audio book while walking I had to stop every five minutes to write something down — I was so afraid of losing it (unfortunately, I have a crap memory). I felt like every page had a life lesson available to anyone who wanted to catch it. I would have had a lot of quotes, but could not capture them in time with the audio format. I did manage to remember one: “ Ones trauma becomes banal when it is trotted out too many times.”
Hard to believe I hadn’t heard of Catherine Schine before this. I read so much that I am literally shocked to find such an excellent writer with plenty of previous work that I don’t know. I listened to this on audio and loved it. The reader did an excellent job of portraying the voices — I sometimes found the “elderly” voice she used for Mamie to be a bit difficult to hear but I adapted.

Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino (Non-fiction — Audio book)

The title says it all — this book is Tarantino’s very personal account of his love of movies and the industry, launching from accompanying his single mother and her friends to “grown up” movies when he was eight. His analysis of practically every movie he saw includes a full grasp of the trends of the times and how the movies exploited, responded to, and sometimes created those trends. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge about the industry and the book serves as an intellectual history of the age through the medium of film. He paid particular attention to audiences and how they interacted with the film. Listening to his mom’s commentary on the way home and watching some films in crowded theaters full of viewers who were happy to provide their own loud and colorful commentary.

It’s no surprise that Tarantino got more out of every movie he watched than I ever could. He described them so well and with such passion that I started making lists of movies I wanted to see (or see again) though I know I won’t enjoy them as much as he did or be able to understand them in the context of cinematic history as he did. I’m not a cinephile but that is a big part of what I liked about this book — it allowed me to see movies through the eyes of someone who is a dedicated, articulate, and passionate cineast (new word for me!) An extra plus is that Tarantino and I are roughly the same age so I recognize each decade (and the actors, films, and experiences) as his commentary proceeds through the years.

I listened to this on audio book and Tarantino read the first and last chapters himself. Unfortunately, someone else read all of the other chapters — a real disappointment. Nothing wrong with the other reader but he doesn’t have Tarantino’s rapid fire, wise guy kind of voice or delivery. The other reader articulates his words too much and can’t swear well — too stiff! But listening to the first and last chapters made the book far more compelling to me and I was able to listen to the others with Tarantino’s real voice in mind. It gave that personal edge to the story. Apparently there are pictures in the actual book, however, which I obviously missed by listening to the audio.

Needless to say I am now heading off to rewatch my favorite Tarantino movies (which, given that I’ve caught a miserable head cold, seems like a brilliant plan for the day!)

Suspect by Scott Turow (legal thriller / audio book)

Great audio book! Action both in and behind the courtroom. It’s no secret who the bad guy is but figuring out the game and finding the evidence is a whole other story (the story of this book in fact!). I was also very impressed with the fully integrated roles for women, different ethnic groups, and those with varied sexual preferences without making that the point of the book (I’m getting very tired of the heavy handed agendas of current literature!). Each character is a character with his/her own personality, flaws, interests, etc. in addition to his/her various hashtag-identifiers.

Lucia Gomez is the police chief of Highland Isle and has managed a good balancing act between authority and camaraderie until she is accused of exchanging promotions for sexual favors. Talk about a gender bender! The accusations are false, of course, but there is enough “activity” to make the accusations at least plausible. It’s fun to imagine the story where the genders were switched. Hired by her lawyer to uncover the truth is PI Pinky Granum — she of the misspent youth. As an aside, Pinky is somewhat obsessed with her new and mysterious neighbor whom she suspects of being up to something. Or is it an aside? Maybe there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

Excellent reader, twisted plot, and really interesting characters. Turow writes really good female characters. He writes good male characters, too (obviously) but it’s honestly rare for me to like female characters written by most men. So Bravo! At any rate, this book kept me entertained and thinking for a good 12 hours of driving. Much obliged!

Thank you to Hachette Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 27th, 2022.