Friday, July 30, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson (audio)

Well, that's it folks. No more Lisbeth, no more Mikael. Unless Larsson's girlfriend, father and brother sort out their differences over the late author's estate, and hire someone to complete the unfinished fourth installment, this is the end. We have the Swedish films to look forward to, of course, and the US version if casting doesn't make several potentially fatal errors, but that is little consolation for what could have been the biggest series in decades. Forgive me for a moment while I go cry in my Carlsberg Lager.

There probably isn't much sense in revealing the plot. It has been beaten to death on the blogs, and, frankly, you really must read the first two installments (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl That Played With Fire) if you don't want to be completely lost. But just so I can feel like I am doing my job, I'll say a few words.

After being shot in the head and buried alive by her most vile bastardly father and half-brother, Lisbeth hangs onto life, being the resilient survivor that we know and love. She is hospitalized and in rehabilitation for most of the story, but still is very much present and doing her thing, which happens to be kicking everyone's ass with her computer hacking skillz. Mikael is once again the knight in shining armor, and digs up the whole scoop on the depth of the governmental conspiracy that lies behind Lisbeth's father, which is controlled by men who mean to protect their secrets at all costs. And he picks up a hard-bodied honey along the way. (What is up with this guy's sex appeal anyway? Women drop like flies at his feet...).

And for a guy that wouldn't live to see the completion of his fourth book, Larsson did a mighty fine job of wrapping things up. Can you imagine if he had failed to finish THIS book? I would have had a cat. We can be at peace with this ending.

But I have to bring up the contrary opinion. A few discs into this book, I became aware of a several posts concerning Larsson's poor writing style. Yes, the rule of thumb for not only literature but movies is "show, don't tell". Don't tell me the person is upset, show them in a fit of despair as they collapse on the bed in tears. Critics of Larsson claim that he is a teller and has been damned for it. Hmmm. I went back to my iPod and listened.

They are right.

How did I not see this? This is truly a critical flaw. So why have I completely fallen in love with the series and failed to notice?

Well, the first reason would be the wondrous narration of Simon Vance. His caramel-smooth voice makes it all really compelling and intellectual. He could make The DiVinci Code feel like a revered classic. I know a number of books that could have used his expertise.

But the second reason, and just as important, is the character of Lisbeth Salander. I doubt if I would actually like her if I met her, but I want to protect her, take a bullet for her, and give her a great big hug. How is it, that an author that tells us everything and shows us very little, has created a character in which I am invested more than any other? And I'm not the only one. There is an army of Lisbeth fans. Hollywood actresses are mud-wrestling over the priviledge of playing her.

There are definitely issues in the third installment. It wanders. It needs editing. There are so many words. Holy moly. What they ate. What they wore. The history of Amazon women. But about 2/3 of the way through the story we come to The Trial. The one where Lisbeth fights for not only her freedom, but her rights as a human being. For justice and redemption. It is nearly impossible to stop reading during this portion of the novel. It is tight and tense, and fist-pumping awesome. You forget the flaws. You want to start the Lisbeth Salander fan club. You fear you will curse and rip at your clothing if the US producer casts Kristen Stewart in her role. I carelessly cast aside the showing or telling, and at the risk of my book blogger cred, I will shamelessly declare my love.

If I had to rank the books in the series, I liked The Girl Who Played With Fire the most, followed by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and this book coming in last. But it is a means to an end. A very poignant end.

Hornet's Nest: 4 out of 5 stars

The series: 5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paco's Story Readalong - Week 4

This is the fourth and final post on the readalong for Paco's Story. I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing this reading experience with Anna and Serena, our hosts, and the rest of the participants. The questions certainly gave me pause, and provoked musings that would not have been considered otherwise. The last two chapters of the book were the darkest by far, enough to make me squirm and get an ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach.

1. What is the significance of the rape scene? How does it change your opinion of Paco?

As Paco sits in his apartment listening to his neighbor, Cathy, have noisy sex with her boyfriend, he flashes back to an event in Vietnam, where the infamous Gallagher (nasty fellow, he) decides to rape a local girl. This is a horrible, graphic scene that is not for the light-hearted. In this flashback, not only does Gallagher abuse the girl, but the entire platoon participates, and ends with the girl's death. Paco recognizes the beginning of the end, the evil in this act, but doesn't make any gestures to walk away or speak up on the girl's behalf. I found myself greatly saddened and disappointed in Paco. I recognize it is not the culture to speak up, especially when pack mentality is present, but I didn't really want to be privy to these details.

I can only guess to the significance of this scene. Perhaps Paco is only now allowing himself to recognize the evil in himself, or that his viewpoint towards sex has been permanently altered. I found it revealing that Paco only recalled the rape scene while listening to Cathy's sexual antics.

2. Cathy’s diary plays an integral role in Paco’s final decision. Why do you think it has such a drastic impact?

Hasn't Paco ever been taught that you should never read someone else's diary unless you are strong enough to handle what is written inside? While Paco knows that Cathy has a boyfriend, he's imagined an attraction between them, and maybe some tiny bit of hope they might connect. This is only the first or second ray of light for Paco, that hint of a normal life to come.

Paco discovers though the diary that Cathy WAS initially attracted to him, but over time, exposure to his scars and his disabilities caused this to change. In fact, her opinion of Paco was horribly cruel. Was this meant to be representative of how all civilians view Vietnam Veterans? I hope not. No human should ever have to read those things about themselves. It made me angry. This was the sign to Paco that there was no future for him in this town. He was probably right, but this insensitive tramp was not worth Paco's angst.
Obviously Paco was more fragile than I had imagined.

3. What are some of the similarities between Vietnam and Boone, Texas? Differences?

From everything I've read, Vietnam, while horrible, also provided bonding and brotherhood that can be once in a lifetime. In fact, many men found themselves longing for it after they returned home, unable to find that same closeness in the day-to-day drudgery. In Vietnam there were also few rules in which to abide, and there was a constant source of adrenaline. It is no wonder that our men had issues with the transition.

I'm not so sure about the similarities, except for the presence of good and evil.

4. Were you satisfied with the ending? What are your overall impressions of the book?

This was an incredibly dark view of one man's life after Vietnam, of humanity, and of the United States that our veterans faced when they returned. It isn't a pleasant book, but is one I will remember for a long time. In fact, it is one that has the potential to rattle around in my brain forever.

Was I satisfied with the ending? This is a trick question, and my answer has to be both yes and no. The ending is realistic and not the least bit sugar-coated. But it also filled me with extreme sadness and hopelessness. I suppose I should have more confidence in Paco's ability to rebound and survive, but wouldn't we imagine that Boone, Texas is just a microcosm of our country as a whole? Will Paco find peace and normalcy in another town? I'm not sure about that. It may be decades before he finds what he is looking for.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Yosemite #4

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri

After reading the beautiful "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri last summer, I was smitten. I'd never been a big fan of the short-story, but this was unlike anything I'd ever read before in my life - a study of the human condition presented with elegance and grace. I was almost overwhelmed for Lahiri that this debut effort was awarded the Pulitzer. How on earth do you top that? With "Unaccustomed Earth", that's how.

It is clear to me, however, after reading "Unaccustomed Earth", Lahiri is not a one-hit wonder. In this second collection of short stories, she has tapped into the source of what made Maladies so magical. These stories focus on the complications of mixed race marriages (Bengali and Caucasian), finding the balance between old world and new, the difficult journey of marriage itself, coping with the death of a loved one, and inter-relationships between man, wife, mother, daughter, father, son, lovers and friends. The nuances are subtle, and are full of so much beauty and grace, it is breath-taking. Whether you are Indian or not, the emotions addressed here are those of each and every one of us. I feel like I am being pithy and vague, but few words can really do her work justice.

A grown Bengali women is pleasantly surprised to find common ground with her widowed father who had been emotionally distant throughout her childhood. A married couple get away for the weekend to attend the wedding of a friend, and are forced to face jealousies and "life after kids". Siblings grow distant when the brother falls victim to alcoholism, and attempt to reconcile with potentially disastrous consequences. A young man watches helplessly when his roommate and secret crush endures a dysfunctional love affair.

But the piece de resistance is a three-chapter story about Hema and Kaushik, two young people who enter and leave each other's lives multiple times. Hema narrates one chapter when they are in their teens. Kaushik narrates the second chapter when he is in college. And they both narrate the third, when they are adults. Each time their lives intersect, their fates are irreversibly altered. You finish this set of stories feeling like you, too, have had your set of literary standards altered.

If your hesitation with short-stories is that you feel short-changed on character development, look no further. Lahiri's stories are between thirty and fifty pages long - longer than the average short story. In addition, Lahiri is very efficient with her words, so almost immediately you are drawn into these characters' lives. I've read three hundred page books that give you less. Do I wish the stories were full-length books? Yes and no. You fall in love with some of the characters, and don't want to let them go, but some things are better left where they stand. Just like with the end of Gone With the Wind, I'd rather think about the possibilities than have reality muck it all up.

I'd be hard-pressed to choose my favorite Lahiri novel. You aren't going to go wrong with either one. If you haven't yet experienced the gift of Lahiri's writing, I must implore you to put her on your list of things to read soon.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - The Big Draw

This week's topic for the Monday Movie Meme with the Bumbles is all about animation. This seems to be top of mind these days with Toy Story 3 enchanting viewing audiences everywhere. My family saw this movie in 3D IMAX about a month ago, and I was initially skeptical. A sequel? How could it touch the first two? But we laughed, cried, and agreed it was worth every bit of the hype. (I think it is the best of the three movies.) So what other animated films have rocked our world over the years? Here are some of mine:

1. Spirited Away - Haha! It is a challenge now to figure out how many weeks in a row I can fit this amazing movie into the weekly parameters! What is this, the fourth week in a row I've mentioned it? Of all Miyazaki movies, this one is my favorite. But I think it is worth mentioning that I could easily put ALL of his films on the animated list.

2. The Wall - This is a little blast from my college years, but I still pull out this movie and watch it. Not only is this the music that defined my youth, but the blending of reality and animated fantasy are graphic and a bit of a mind trip. It is truly a full-sensory experience.

3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox - In the category of stop motion animation (a quick nod to our beloved Bumble), this movie was more fun than an adult would ever expect to have with the children's genre. It is clever and quippy, and while the kiddies will no doubt be entertained, it has just as much to offer the grown ups. I laugh until my stomach hurts every time I watch it.

4. Beauty and the Beast (also known as the token Disney selection) - You can't list animated movies without recognizing something from Disney, who wrote the book. I struggled a little with this, because some of the older movies (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella) are sentimental favorites. There are the more recent movies that provide inspirational, strong female characters (Mulan, Hercules, Aladdin). Then there are the movies where the animation is unparallelled with its sweeping scenes and vivid texture (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast). At the end of the day, I chose Beauty and the Beast. The animators outdid themselves (I still get chills when I see the ballroom scene), it is a classic story with a good lesson, and Belle loves her books. You can't argue with any of that.

5. Waltz with Bashir - This one is way off the animation radar, but deserves your attention (and the Academy thought so too when it was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2009). This animated autobiographical documentary on The Lebanon War is haunting and informative, and not something you will soon forget.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Salon: Walking Turkey

We are in our third and final week of our Indiana trip, and we are filled with a sadness that it is almost over. We also miss home, our kitties and piggy and daddy. Our returning home also reminds us that school is only a few weeks away. Sheesh. That went fast. I am currently asking myself "am I excited about re-discovering this thing they call a schedule, or am I dreading the chaos of homework and two independent sports schedules?". Can't answer that one. But I think maybe both.

We did some more fishing this week, and caught enough for a couple of meals for the five of us. We saw the movie Inception, and LOVED it. Mind-twisting is good for a brain on summer vacation! We then headed off for one of my favorite childhood playgrounds - Turkey Run State Park. We rented a couple of cabins, threw caution and hygiene to the wind, and hiked this park's famous trails in the 90 degree heat and 98 percent humidity. We got wet, muddy and exhausted. We rode horses. We saw a covered bridge. Then we swam when we couldn't stand ourselves anymore. I barely noticed that I had no Internet.

What am I reading, you ask? Well, my poor audiobooks. I have about ten more discs to go with The Passage. Slowly but surely. I guess the key to audio productivity is alot of house-cleaning and errand-running (the only upside I guess). And Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has stalled completely. The kids have decided they prefer to watch movies in the car, and have turned their backs on it. While The Hobbit was sweet and dear, and allowed us to overlook the narrator issues, it is a problem now. It makes me want to poke a stick in my eye. Maybe once we get home, we'll be able to pick it back up. Urgh.

I finished "One Day" by David Nicholls, at the expense of sleep and blogging. But it was oh, so worth it! I just wanted to eat that book up with a spoon. I also read "Rules of the Lake", the prequel to Irene Ziegler's "Ashes to Water" in less than 24 hours. That was another one I wanted to roll around in - all that great Floridian atmosphere. I am now entrenched in "The Girls From Ames", a story about eleven women who grew up together in the midwest and are still friends now when they are in their forties. There are many parallels with my friends from high school, and I'm finding the read to be extremely enjoyable.

What is up with you this fine Sunday?

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien (audio)

After our year-long audio experience with the Harry Potter series, the kids and I decided our next journey would be through the world of J.R.R Tolkien (stopping only for audio emergencies, like the upcoming Mockingjay). Personally I was thrilled. I have foggy memories of starting to read The Hobbit in grade school, but probably got distracted by Judy Blume and V.C. Andrews. We have watched the LOTR trilogy movies at least a dozen times (for a little dose of Viggo, yes?), and are excited for the release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, if MGM and New Line can get their financial troubles sorted out.

So we meet the affable Bilbo Baggins, a happy Hobbit soul who lives peacefully in his Hobbit Hole. Until Gandalf, the great wizard comes to visit him, and invites him to come on an adventure with thirteen dwarfs. You see, long ago, a large amount of gold treasures belonged to the dwarfs' forefathers, but were stolen and kept deep inside a mountain guarded by a fierce dragon named Smaug. They simply mean to get back what is theirs, and they need Bilbo's help as a clever and stealthy thief. Bilbo thinks this sounds like fun, so off they go.

On their adventure, they encounter friends and foes of all kinds...goblins, elves, eagles, a bear-man, wolves, and village men. And of course, Gollum. Let's not forget about him! When Bilbo gets lost in a cave, he stumbles upon this creature, and takes his ring (THE ring) which allows Bilbo to become invisible. With the help of the ring, Bilbo is able to indeed become a clever and stealthy thief, and saves the dwarfs numerous times from ill fate. The adventure reaches it's climax with the defeat of Smaug and a brutal war named The Battle of the Five Armies.

Bilbo remains the center figure throughout the story, and it is pleasurable to watch him mature from a simple Hobbit to one who becomes a brave and shrewd problem-solver. The prose is enchanting, and dear, which is the best word I can find for it. Despite the horrors encountered by these endearing characters, the words still feel sweet and fairy-taleish.

I was surprised by a couple of things, this being my first time "reading" The Hobbit. One was the small role played by Gollum. He is such a huge force in the later movies, that I got the impression that his history could be found in this first installment. Apparently not! He was like the wind - here and gone. Secondly, I had the impression that the ring transformed its owner into a tortured soul, but this did not happen to Bilbo. I'm now intrigued how this piece of metal becomes an instrument of the devil for Frodo later!

A special comment must be made about the narrator, Robert Inglis. After listening to the truly brilliant Jim Dale for a year, our first impression of Inglis was "meh". My daughter was grumbling in the back seat, and I was afraid she would ultimately black-ball the audio (she has been known to do this). My BFF said she abandoned the audio because of his voice. I couldn't put my finger on the exact reason for our discontent. His voice is very stiff and formal, I guess, and very old British with the trilling of his tongue. But he had an incredible range of mimicry, including quite a bit of decent singing. There's nothing wrong with the guy - he comes with respectable cred...acting with the Royal Shakespeare and Royal Court Theatre companies, and even performed The Hobbit on stage by himself. We would not be denied however, and we persisted, and the man began to grow on us. Jim Dale and Simon Vance he is not, but I would recommend vigilance for the sake of the story (and yes, he does narrate the rest of the series).

Now we journey into known territory with The Fellowship of the Ring, and the land of Middle-Earth and Mordor.

Have you read the series? Have you listened to the audios? What did you think?

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Paco's Story Readalong - Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of the Paco's Story Readalong. Our assignment for this week was Chapter 5, entitled "The Texas Lunch", which is the name of the diner where Paco starts working as a dishwasher.

I have to admit, I really struggled with this chapter. The prose seemed to wander all over the place, and my attention strayed so much that I wasn't sure what I had just read. I just shook my head and wondered if I would be able to answer any of the questions! Here they are:

1. Is the identity of the narrator becoming more clear?

My impression has always been that the narrator is the ghost of a soldier in Paco's unit. The narrator uses the term "us grunts" when reminiscing about things that occurred in Vietnam. There is also this passage:

"No, James, Paco has never asked Why me? It is we - the ghosts, the dead - who ask, Why him?"

I think that makes it pretty clear. My only confusion at this point is figuring out who James is. Others have mentioned a foreword in the book where this is all explained. My book does not have this explanation!

2. What is it about the work at the Texas Lunch that makes it so easy for Paco to assimilate?

Like the military, work at The Texas Lunch is very predictable, regimented and controlled. Few surprises, and a clear beginning and ending to the day and the tasks required. It also allows Paco to operate under the radar without much social interaction, and without much thought. He actually is enjoying himself. From the outside looking in, this is probably the ideal job for Paco.

3. What is the purpose of the dream sequences?

Jeez, these dream sequences. I had to go back and re-read to answer this one. Well, the narrator explains that Paco has never questioned "why me", so the ghosts of the fallen soldiers have taken it upon themselves to breathe a few suggestions into his subconscious state. What these dreams signify, I have no earthly clue. They are dark dreams...dreams of escaping an angry mob, dreams of panhandling, dreams of execution, dreams of leaving Vietnam whole and on his own two feet. I'm sure Freud would have had fun with the analysis, but my takeaway is that Paco is a disturbed soul. He maintains a stoic presence throughout the day, but his dreams are the true indication of his psyche.

4. Why do you think Ernest and Jesse are so forthcoming with their war stories, but Paco is not?

In the normal process of healing, it is always easier to talk about the tragedies in your life once you've put some time between yourself and the event in question. Ernest and Jesse have seen and lived the horrors of war, but they are in a different stage of the healing process. Paco's wounds are fresh. He still has constant pain, mentally and physically. I also think that Paco is suffering from survivor's guilt and his heavily weighed down by the fact that he was the only man amongst 93 to survive.

Next week will be the last week of our readalong, covering Chapters 6 and 7.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Yosemite #3

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Monster of Florence - Douglas Preston & Mario Spezi

One of my favorite sayings is "you can't make this ____ up". (insert expletive) That is probably why I am so taken with true crime - it IS stranger than fiction. And my husband knows his wife, because he came home from one of his business trips with this book in his hand, which he purchased for me when spending idle time in an airport bookstore. Good job, honey.

Douglas Preston never imagined what lie in wait for him in Florence, Italy when he moved his family there to write one of his murder mysteries. But when he discovered that his rental home was located near the site of a grisly 1980's murder, one of a series in fact, he was distracted. Upon befriending journalist Mario Spezi, who covered the slayings of 7 "lover's lane" couples that occurred over a ten year time period, he was hooked. His focus was officially diverted.

The first half of the book is the serial murder case as described by Spezi. And it is something more unbelievable than the most deranged murder thriller you've ever read. An elusive individual (or possibly more than one?) creeps up to couples parked in their car for a little romance, shoots the male execution-style, and butchers the woman with a knife, removing various female parts as a souvenir. Often the crime occurs during a full moon, and goes through cycles of frequency and then periods of silence. Forensic evidence is abundant, but due to a seemingly bumbling police department, crime scenes are never protected, and much of the evidence is never collected. In fact, the police investigation is more of a witch-hunt based on rumors and speculation. Many different individuals are arrested and imprisoned over the years (mobsters, old men, sufferers of dementia), but each time a new murder occurs, the investigation is knocked back to square one. Pursuit of the killer occurs for twenty years after the last crime, but the murders are never solved.

The second half of the book begins when Preston shows up in Florence and begins to poke around. His interest in the case is fueled by Spezi's passion to get to the bottom of a mystery that has been mishandled from the very beginning. Spezi and Preston interview suspects, unearth documents, and believe they have a very good idea of who the murderer actually is, but can't prove it. Unfortunately, the police take great offense - how DARE they second guess authority??? - and soon become the enemy.

You see, according to a local member of Florence's society and friend of Preston's, Italy represents a community with a permanent climate of witch-hunting. An answer MUST be found, public opinion must be upheld, and everyone has the potential to be a suspicious character, no matter if they are truly guilty or not. As pot-stirrers, Preston and Spezi threaten to upset their apple cart, so authorities construct a story that places the two writers at the center of controversy. Spezi is imprisoned (later to be released but with a ruined reputation) and Preston is run out of Italy and told to never return.

It would probably be fair to say that this book has a little bit of an identity crisis. Both identities make very good reading, don't get me wrong. The serial murder mystery is terrifying, heightened by the raw viciousness of the crime, and the fact that the perpetrator was never caught. The idiotic state of the police and the justice system in Italy is shocking and maddening, and makes me never want to step foot in that country ever. God forbid you are in the same building at the same time a crime is committed, and you have a funny look on your face when you are questioned. You just might find yourself in an Italian prison forever.

So is it a true crime murder mystery? An expose? A rant? Yes to all. Nevertheless, it is gripping, easy to read, and, if you don't mind your questions being unanswered, something any true crime fan will immensely enjoy. It left me with one lingering thought.

There is more than one monster in Florence.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Boredom Blues

Today's Monday Movie Meme from the Bumbles is being guest hosted by Forgetfulone, a scrapbooking mama who loves her movies. She has informed us that July is National Anti-Boredom month. Who knew? So in honor of this most upbeat of month-long celebrations, we are asked to pull out those movies that we would watch anywhere, anytime, to beat the boredom blues.

I must first apologize to you, because I'm possibly going to sound like a broken record. We often are asked to talk about our most oft-watched flicks, our top five flicks, or some variation on this theme. Generally, I give the same answers. Which you are going to get again, with one or two new ones thrown in for flavor. For those of you that meander over to You've GOTTA Read This every Monday, there won't be many surprises today.

1. When Harry Met Sally - this was at top of mind this evening as I read "One Day", which is extremely reminiscent of this adorable romantic favorite. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan really are an unlikely casting, but they make it work, even if you are watching it for the 43rd time.

2. Baby Boom - Sandy's fantasy movie...inherit a baby that doesn't cry, move to the country after leaving a high-powered job, meet dudeish country vet, build an organic baby food empire from the ground up, all the while sticking it to the man who didn't think women could have it all. So there!

3. The Breakfast Club - this is a new addition. But my mom has this DVD (it's one of her favorites), I watched it recently, and it is good fun. Talk about capturing the angst of youth in a two hour film. You really do want the princess to get together with the bad boy, and the freak show to fix herself up and look pretty.

4. Shawshank Redemption - another movie about sticking it to the man, and about the power of hope. Every time I watch it, it makes my heart soar.

5. Mulan - Not only is the music amazing, but I have always preferred the Disney movies that are about empowered females. No true love's first kiss here, thank you! We've got Huns to conquer.

6. Spirited Away - I think this is probably the third week in a row I've lauded this movie, but it deserves it. It is a vivid feast for the eyes and the mind.

7. Fargo - what is not to love with this dark comedy? A pregnant police officer, who divides her time between eating and chasing bumbling evil-doers in the stark, cold tundra of Fargo, North Dakota? The twisted genius of the Cohen Brothers? No less than several dozen quotable quotes that I carry around in my back pocket in case of an emergency? You betcha.

What movies do you pull out when you are in need of solid entertainment? Ones that are sure to cure a bad case of the blahs?

Sunday Salon: Week two of Indiana fun

It was another week filled with activity for us in Indiana. First, may I say that I really did not wish to bring Florida's horrific heat and humidity with me, but it appears I did. I have this great app on my iPhone called Weatherbug, where I can get temps, forecasts, radar map, etc. of anywhere in the country. I have been obsessively flipping back and forth between Indiana and Florida, and nine times out of ten, it is hotter and more humid in my current location. This is just WRONG!

So we were off and running in this heat. We took the kids to see Despicable Me, which was a good indoor activity. Totally a cute movie. We picked about 15 pounds of blueberries at a blueberry farm (we probably would have picked more had I not started to whine about melting into a puddle). Then we took off to the south end of the state to visit Holiday World for a few days. I really need to do a separate post on this place. It is a combination amusement park and water park, located in a itty bitty town called Santa Claus - the entire place is decorated for Christmas year-round. We rode roller coasters, water rides, and enjoyed the park's unique feature of free drinks (lemonade, sodas, tea, water), free parking and free sunscreen (Disney needs to take notes). I do believe Wednesday was the hottest day of the year (97 degrees) and probably the busiest day of the year at the park, but suffice it to say that we slept well that night.

On our way back home Thursday, we took a detour so my parents and kids could see the gorgeous West Baden Springs Resort in French Lick, which my husband and I visited last fall. I want to go back! I also desperately want to read the book "So Cold the River" by Michael Koryta, which takes place at the resort.

On Friday, I reunited with my friends from high school (the ones I cruised with last fall). We stayed in a hotel in Lafayette and had intended to participate in a festival called "Dancing in the Streets", but God gave us a torrential tornado-looking storm. So we stayed in our room and made our own festival. Little bonus? The hotel is right next to a Borders. I had to make "So Cold the River" my own.

So what about the reading? Unfortunately, the audios have been neglected. In the four hour drive down to Holiday World and the four hour drive back, the kids chose to watch movies, so no Lord of the Rings. I wasn't walking my country roads, so no listening to the battle of the virals. But I did finish "The Nobodies Album", which really touched me. Wow, how to review that one? I'll have to wait for an inspired moment. Then I started "One Day" by Dave Nicholls, which is all over the place these days. Call it a British version of When Harry Met Sally (one of my favorite movies), but it is totally enchanting, clever and so much fun. I'm about 25% of the way through, and if the book continues on this same path, it could possibly be a favorite of 2010.

So are you tired listening to me yet? I am. Prepare yourself for more action and adventure next I think I need to go take a nap.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Hundred Feet Over Hell - Jim Hooper

Last fall, months before I signed up for the 2010 Vietnam Reading Challenge, my husband attended a weekend retreat, where he met a gentleman who was a Vietnam Veteran. When my husband mentioned that I was a book blogger, the gentleman immediately recommended that I read and review "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" and declared it to be one of the best Vietnam books he'd ever read. Recommendations don't come any higher than this.

The book's message was in good hands. The author is a seasoned war correspondent whose brother, Bill, served in Vietnam as a "Catkiller" pilot in the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Bill and his merry band of "Myth Makers" had the role of flying flimsy little single-engine Cessnas, that could barely exceed speeds of a passenger car, to seek out the positions of the enemy, provide assistance to troops in peril, and engage in combat if necessary.

I've ridden in one of these airplanes; my dad owned and flew one on the farm in the '70's. These are little more than motorized tin cans with some wings and plastic windows. The very idea that these pilots would fly into some of the most hostile terrain in the war, scribbling radio frequencies and coordinates with wax pencils on the windows, communicating with troops under fire and ground control, in zero-visibility weather, literally hanging out of their windows shooting weapons and throwing grenades, all at only hundreds of feet above the ground in mountainous territory and with plumes of napalm exploding around is terrifying. These boys had nerves of steel.

When Jim Hooper began to help his brother compile his thoughts about his experiences in Nam, he located some of his brother's platoon mates and found them eager to share their memories as well. As horrific as the war was, it seems that they were not only adrenaline junkies, feeding off the constant thrill of near-death experiences, but also felt the camaraderie and the bond of a unified cause to be unparalleled in life. The result was something more than just a book. It is a real-time narrative, with all of the players taking turns, jumping in with their contribution to the story. I would liken this reading experience to transporting yourself back in time, into the cockpit, re-living some of their most memorable missions.

We get to know the pilot's personalities, their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. Because of the intense pressure experienced in the air, these boys had to blow off steam through drinking, fart humor, poker, and practical jokes that were nearly as dangerous as combat. Bless Hooper, because he includes pictures - I love pictures - so the reality of their brave, handsome faces are etched in your mind. Hooper's last gift to us is the epilogue, letting us know what happened to the boys after the war. (I get the sense that many of the pilots continued to seek that same adrenaline rush once they had returned stateside.)

For those who decide to read this, I will mention that you may have some initial issues in reading some of the dialogue. It is snappy and filled with pilot and war lingo. There is a helpful glossary in the back to help you wade through, but this was a drag on my momentum, so I just went for it. No, I didn't know what a Kit Carson scout was, or a Delta-1, but I got the idea.

Often, you will hear that "The Things They Carried" is the quintessential Vietnam novel. In many ways I would agree - it is an everyman's story of the war on the ground. I would argue that "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" should carry just as much gravitas, only from the perspective of the sky and with a grittier voice.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien (Kindle)

While I have read dozens of books on World War II, I have very little experience with those written about Vietnam. So when I heard over and over again that Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is considered the quintessential Vietnam novel, so much that the 20th anniversary of its publication was recently celebrated, I had no way to personally confirm or deny. All I knew is that it stunned me. I have never read a war novel quite like this one.

Because my husband’s family is from Poland, we are emotionally immersed in the WWII history. But Vietnam? My father was excused from the draft because my mom was pregnant with me. Nobody in my family had any connection with this war. However, my husband and I have a very close friend who did fight in Nam as a Marine, and every time we get together with him and his wife, I am reminded of this fact. He carries his Vietnam experiences with him, inside his heart, every day of his life. He guards them closely, even with his most intimate friends, but I see it all there right beneath the surface. Maybe reading this book would help me understand.

I believe this novel has served several important purposes for O’Brien, who fought in Vietnam. First and foremost, I believe this was the ultimate therapy for him – a way to tell the TRUTH about what really happened over there. He writes honestly and with candor about his emotional and physical reaction to being drafted…something he had never told anyone and which caused him great embarrassment. He writes about his most nightmarish experiences, getting them out of his dreams and down on paper, with the hope perhaps that in the daylight, it will lose some of its power over his psyche. He admits to a childish feud he had with another soldier, an act of revenge that was fueled by an anger he couldn’t control.

But beyond exorcising his personal demons, more importantly O’Brien also gives a voice to every soldier who fought in Vietnam. He explains WHY soldiers had to treat death as a joke. Why imagination was a killer. Why most war stories were 90% baloney. He reveals, via a devastating story of one of his friends, how incredibly hard it was for some to return to the US and resume a normal life. Who did they have to talk to? Who would understand?

It was not easy to read this book. I would need to set it down and walk away often, and nearly dread picking it back up again. But once I did, I was riveted. It was a strange mixture of emotions. The writing is easy, open, but insightful and introspective. His stories are vivid and often disturbing. But you do walk away with a better appreciation for the horrors of this war, from one soldier’s perspective which I am sure mirrors many. I tried to imagine what it would be like to read this book as a veteran and could never come to a conclusion. Would I be angry? Would I feel validated? Would it bring it all back to me? It would be impossible for me to say.

And what about the things they carried? What does the title of the book mean? “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.” Pocket knives, can openers, lighters, water. “What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.” Maps, radios, binoculars, weapons. “What they carried varied by mission.” Mosquito netting, machetes, tarps, mine detectors. “They all carried ghosts.” Pictures, Bibles, a girlfriend’s pantyhose. “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition.” A good luck pebble, a rabbit’s foot, a shrunken thumb. “For the most part, they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity.” Not all things carried were tangible, but spiritual.

“…for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.”

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Paco's Story Readalong - Week 2

Welcome to the Paco Story Readalong Week 2 discussion questions. In chapters 3 and 4, Paco has arrived in the US from Vietnam, with scars and a walking cane as proof of his experience. He gives nearly all of his cash to a bus driver and tells him to take him as far as the money lasts. Which is a small town in Texas.

1. Do you think Paco is ready to rejoin the living and will he easily re-enter “normal” life?

Would anyone be ready, honestly? I think just about every Vietnam Vet had issues with adjustment after they returned home, but it seems like Paco is as ready as the next guy. I don't think his re-entry will be easy. His cane and his limp draws attention and prejudice, and he will have to overcome this.

2. How do you think the lively atmosphere of Rita’s Tender Tap affects Paco?

It is hard to tell what Paco is thinking in any of these scenes, because he speaks few words. But by his actions (in this case, his swift departure), I believe he was overwhelmed by all that humanity, and by the patrons' disregard for him. I would imagine he felt like he didn't belong.

3. Do you think Heinemann made the right choice in narrator, or do you believe Paco should be telling his own story?

The obvious choice WOULD have been for Heinemann to allow Paco to tell his own story. However, the soldier ghost's perspective is an inspired decision. It provides us the viewpoint of America, watching our soldiers come home from the war. An outsider's viewpoint. It actually is more insightful than if we were privy to only Paco's thoughts. What it tells me is that in general, the world passed the soldiers by, and often could care less about their stories.

4. Do you think the side stories about the medic who found Paco, the bus driver, and Mr. Elliot, etc., add to the narrative or take too much attention away from Paco, who seems to hide in the background during these asides?

No, I don't think the side stories distract at all. Like I stated in question #3, these characters are a cross-section of America, and how they responded to the returning soldiers. In Mr. Elliot, we see a man damaged by his own wars and ghosts, and didn't even recognize the existence of the Vietnam War. The bus driver saw Paco as one in thousands that pass before his eyes in a year's time. The owner of the diner, on the other hand, was a Marine and saw in Paco a brother. Each of these characters represents everyman.

5. How do you feel about Paco at this point in the book?

Obviously I feel sympathy for him, and wish I could help him. But I've had little insight into who he really is. So far, he has passed through the first four chapters as an invisible man.

Wordless Wednesday: Yosemite #2

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This Body of Death - Elizabeth George (audio)

I first lost my heart to Elizabeth George and the Inspector Lynley series years ago with her 2005 chunkster "With No One As Witness". As murder mysteries go, it blew me away...intense character development, heinous crimes, a fast-pace, and a gritty reality to it all. I realized too late that this book was one in a very long line from a series, but it stood alone in its brilliance. I've since listened to "Careless in Red" and now "This Body of Death". I long to go back and read everything from the beginning, but I'm thinking I'd better save that for retirement. As it was, I was thrilled to see that "Body of Death" was on the list for the EW Summer Books Challenge.

This story starts out with a type of narrative, one deduces from the past, describing an event with three delinquent boys, a dead toddler, and an unspeakable crime. It is like a shot of adrenaline, this "report". The combination of the horror of the boys' actions, and the clinical prose, is the stuff of nightmares. The narrative is slowly spoon-fed to us, intermittently, throughout the novel. It is obvious the characters in this morbid tale are going to play a vital role in the rest of the novel; we're just not sure how.

We fast-forward to the present. Lynley is back from his leave of absence and has been invited to assist his old department with a particularly gruesome murder of a young woman who was stabbed and abandoned in a London cemetery. The department is now being temporarily led by Isabelle Ardery, who must prove herself before she gets the job permanently. Ardery has a few demons of her own, and Lynley might possibly be her only ally and her ticket to acceptance. Assisting on the case is the usual gang, including the rough-around-the-edges Barbara Havers and the dignified Winston Nkata, both of whom I am quite fond.

Once they begin digging, they find a whole cast of shady suspects, all with hidden agendas and secrets of their own. We wade through the puzzle with our investigators, expending much mental energy. A hidden pregnancy test. An ancient coin. A false, untraceable identity. A mentally disturbed witness. Then there is that little problem with the dead toddler. Where does that play into things?

George also weaves in a personal element. For die-hard fans of the series, we have some interaction with Simon and Deborah St. James, old friends of Lynley's, some insight into the lives of Barbara Haver's 8 year-old neighbor and her father, Ardery's ex-husband and twin sons, and Haver's attempt to ditch the draw-string pants and look more professional. There are many detours in this long and winding path.

The recurring thought, as I was listening to this audio, was "words, words, so many words". We love George for this, as it allows us to read her works as a full-immersion experience. It is like kicking off your shoes, getting on your hands and knees and crawling into the book, and under the skin of a majority of the characters. But there are so many words, so much detail. I questioned whether the story needed a little editing. Perhaps. But I will forgive her. And I will come back for more.

The audio was narrated by John Lee, who was extremely good. He is so very British, easy to listen to, and versatile. I would liken him to a slightly rougher Simon Vance, which is no light complement, coming from me.

Are any of you fans of the series? Would you recommend going back and readin the earlier installments?

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Hidden Gems

This week, the Bumbles have a guest host for the Monday Movie Meme - Terry Kate from Romance in the Backseat. Terry Kate would like us to share our favorite movies that have been overlooked or under appreciated by the public and critics.

I think you will find that most of my gems have a Polish slant to them, as my husband is Polish and we tend to seek these films out. But not all of them! Here are a few that come to mind:

Repulsion - This is a 1965 film directed by Roman Polanski, and was recently remastered and re-released. It was Polanski's first English language film and stars Catherine Deneuve, who plays a young woman descending into madness. This is some awesomely sick and twisted stuff people. My husband and I were making faces and noises of repulsion throughout the movie (which for us is a sign that we loved it!)

Ikiru - A delightful Japanese movie filmed in 1952, we see a grumpy middle-aged man try to make sense and purpose of his life in his last days on earth.

The Best of Youth - Originally a mini-series on Italian television, this is an amazing six hour epic that follows two brothers from their childhoods through adulthood. We were blown away by the acting, the reflection of critical events of Italian history, and the touching and heartbreaking inter-relationships between family and friends.

Strike - This film is based on the life of a Polish woman who worked in the Gdansk shipyards and played a critical role in the strike that helped birth Solidarity. The cherry on top of this one is the soundtrack by Jean-Michele Jarre, whose music inspires you to want to rise up, pump your fist and praise those who had the guts to fight for their freedom.

Poisoned By Polonium: The Litivinenko File - We're not really big fans of the Russian government in our home. We've got excess baggage that stems back for a few generations. Watching this movie gave us just one more reason. Prepare to be horrified when you watch this highly controversial documentary of an ex-Russian spy blow the whistle on Putin and his minions, then slowly die of toxic poisoning. The level of corruption chills your blood.

Movies directed by Andrzej Wajda - I was going to list a few of our favorites, but we love them all. This man started his career in 1955 by directing an amazing movie titled "The Generation", and filmed countless movies about the Polish involvement in WWII as recently as 2007 with "Katyn". Other masterpieces are "Ashes and Diamonds" and "Kanal".

Movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki - I mentioned this last week, but it is worth mentioning again. This man is genius with animation in a way that is all his own. All of his movies tend to focus on man's inter-relationship with spirits and nature, and feature strong female protagonists. If you want to try just one to see if it is your thing, try Spirited Away. It is nothing short of magical.

I probably should have tried to branch out a little more and find some movies that were just good old fashioned indies, but maybe I'll save that for another day!

Sunday Salon: Back Home Again in Indiana

There is no smell on earth that compares to that of fresh, country air, in the middle of corn fields. Growing up, I took it all for granted. Only now, when I come back to these fields in the summer with my kids, do I appreciate it. On Wednesday, the three of us left daddy back in Orlando to work and pay our bills, and headed for my parents' farm in Indiana for three weeks.

Almost instantly, my son heads out on the Gator (a cross between a tractor and a golf cart) with my dad, to look things over, check out the crops or whatever. I crash on the deck with my book. My daughter tames a wild kitten or two.

We shot off fireworks, made smores in the fire pit. We went to Indianapolis one evening to a dinner theater to watch a production of High School Musical, which was a fun experience. We went to a book signing of "Coming Back Stronger" by Drew Brees, Purdue's pride and joy (now the New Orleans Saints' pride and joy). It was looking like every bit of a two hour wait, so I sent my parents and kids on to the mall for power shopping, and I pulled out my Kindle and enjoyed some found idle time.

It is during my trips to Indiana that I become semi-productive with my reading. I finished "Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri (breathtaking as always). I started and finished "Cape Seduction" by Anne Carter (Pam Ripling), an author I adore personally and professionally. Dudes. She writes paranormal romances with LIGHTHOUSES! What's not to like? Influenced by the ever-persuasive Jen at Devourer of Books, I just started "The Nobodies Album" by Carolyn Parkhurst. I'm already tickled and giddy with the cleverness of it all.

And audios! You know I am up to my knees in those too. The kids and I finished The Hobbit just in time, before we left, and raced back to the library to get The Fellowship of the Ring. Here where my parents' live, it takes an hour round trip just to go to the grocery store, so I have high hopes of cranking through a nice chunk of this one.

But here is the real fun. Every morning, I get up and walk the country roads, and listen to The Passage. All alone on the roads, hearing about Apocalypse-By-Vampires. I keep nervously glancing at the tree-tops. It totally ROCKS. Yes, it is long-winded but this is really my thing. I cut my teeth (ha) on The Stand, after all.

We have a very full agenda over the next two and a half weeks, but I won't spoil the coolness of our plans. I shall slather you will pictures instead. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 9, 2010

101 Things I Learned in Film School - Neil Landau and Matthew Frederick

If you are a follower of You've GOTTA Read This, then you know I am a lover of more than books...I also love my movies. I don't claim to be an expert (like my film critic sister, who has seen more movies than just about anyone I know), but I like them and I watch them. I have opinions. I pay attention to plot, dialogue, soundtracks, setting, and I hate predictability. You can't win me over with car chases and explosions, or when the guy gets the girl in the end. It really isn't so different from books, is it?

So anyway, I was thrilled when I won a giveaway from the lovely Trisha (eclectic/eccentric) entitled "101 Things I Learned in Film School". It is possible that someone like my sister would know all of this already, but I might just learn something! I found the book on my doorstep when arrived home from my trip out west, and even though it was close to midnight, I had to start reading it that very moment.

It is one of those books you could keep in the bathroom (truly no offense) because you can easily pick it up and read a few pages at a time. It provides all kinds of insight to movies, from the development of plot, casting, budgeting, etc. I found it truly fascinating, to the point where during the next movie I watched (Disturbia), I was viewing with a whole new perspective. But more than that, it also dawned on me that many of the insights also applied to novels as well. Here are some things that caught my eye:

* A flawed protagonist is more compelling than a perfect protagonist. Absolutely! Perfect is not realistic. I want to see moral struggles, the fighting of demons, and bad decisions.

* Practice perfect pitch. There is a whole list of things to keep in mind if you pitching a movie to a director (how to get to the point quickly and succinctly). I suppose this would come in handy if you have a movie idea you are trying to sell. But what about book reviews? Seems these tips would work there as well.

* Act 2 is where poorly structured film goes to die. I bet we all could come up with a nice, healthy list of books that died somewhere in the middle.

* Make setting a character. I've always said that using setting in a book is an opportunity to make a good book great. Those are the books you don't forget.

* Make the conflict existential. In other words, midpoint through the story, an unexpected curve or reversal of fortune deepens the conflict and provokes a dilemma, causing the protagonist to evolve. Fingersmith, anyone?

* Dig deeper. Good movies are about simple things explored with depth, nuance, and attention to detail and meaning. Clutter confuses. Do fewer things, but do them better. Hallelujah! This was exactly my frustration with the last Harlan Coban book I read.

* Film, novel, television or stage? How often have we talked about books that worked on film, and ones that fell flat. This page offers advice on what works where.

* A movie is a novel turned inside out. Cool idea, huh? Novels describe inner motives and emotions and leaves it to the reader to formulate a mental picture of the physical world. Movies depict the visible and implies the unseen. Thereby making an adapted screenplay a tricky inversion.

* If you want to write, read. If you want to make films, see films. Makes all kind of sense. I believe this was the sage advice given by Stephen King to a group of writers.

* Deus ex machina. Literally, "god from the machine", refers to any plot contrivance that miraculously emerges to resolve a dilemma. (Which disappoints viewers, and I daresay readers, every time.) We want our protagonists to solve their own problems and become empowered, not to have the answers plop in their laps. I see this all the time in books. Nice to know the official name!

Well, you get the point. This is a treasure trove of little gems that give me just enough information to be dangerous! For anyone who likes a good movie now and again, you are going to enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Columbine - Dave Cullen (Kindle)

There are a handful of events in our lives that we use to mark time. When JFK was shot, when Lennon was shot, 9/11...and Columbine. We will forever remember where we were and what we were doing the moment we heard the news. I was on an out-of-town job, pregnant with my son and a toddler at home when I saw the bloody, hysterical students running out of their school, when I saw Patrick Ireland fall out of that window. I was devastated; I was terrified. How could two boys go so wrong? How could I raise two children into a world like this?

I've read two other works of fiction that heavily reference Columbine - We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) and The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb). And while I am a true crime junkie, I still hesitated to read this one. Could I handle the truth? Ten years later, my heart still hurts. Eventually, the need to understand won out over my fears.

I don't think I need to say much about what happened. April 20, 1999, two troubled boys, an arsenal of weapons, and a grand master plan to kill hundreds at their school. Ultimately, 13 were killed and dozens injured, some permanently. Their plan ultimately (thankfully) fell short because their home-made bombs failed to detonate. At the end of the spree they killed themselves, but they left behind notes, diagrams, journals and videos to paint a very specific picture for the public. They had nothing to hide. They were proud.

Cullen has done an exemplary job of collecting the facts. He has accumulated hundreds of hours of interviews, read the police documents, read newspaper articles, read Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's journals, and viewed the "Basement Tapes". It was his mission to set the record straight on the facts, as they had been skewed by the police department and the media from the second the first shot was fired. It was also his mission to better understand the why, through the help of the FBI clinical psychologist and Columbine investigator Dwayne Fuselier.

The facts were heartbreaking. Prepare yourself for some disturbing reading while Cullen recounts the actual shooting at the school. The students who were shot, killed, but left uncovered on the sidewalk for 28 hours. The teacher who bled to death because the SWAT team did not want to risk entry. The ultimate blood-bath in the library.

The facts are perplexing. The boys came from respectable, middle-class families, who may have been out of touch and allowed too much unsupervised free time, but were loving caring parents. Both boys were exceptionally bright.

The facts were twisted. The boys did not target the jocks. They were not part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They were not influenced by Marilyn Manson, they were not "goth", they were not loners.

But the warning signs were there. The boys started getting into minor mischief that escalated into vandalism, theft,building bombs, and eventually were arrested. They wrote essays that fixated on murder and violence. A search warrant, which would have uncovered their arsenal, was written but never filed.
Did it happen because of bullying, as many claimed? Fuselier does not believe so. In fact, he has declared Harris to be a full-blown psychopath...a kid who hated the world. Eric killed to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it. Klebold adversely was a depressive...he hated himself. He followed Harris as a way to end his misery.

It is mind-boggling to imagine the volume of data that Cullen had to assimilate to tell the story. But he has, and has done it well. He jumps back and forth between the event and its aftershock, and the background of Harris and Klebold leading up to the event. He examines the effect of the event on the community, on the survivors and where they are now, the lawsuits, the role of religion in the healing, the myths, the cover-ups, the steps taken to reopen the is all here. It is the most complete true crime novel I've ever read, all written in an easy-to-read prose.

It is also important to emphasize that this is not an attempt to sensationalize the tragedy. It is tactful and factual - a real testament to the victims. A must-read.

5 out of 5 stars