Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #1

Sunrise at my parent's farm in Central Indiana.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Be Sung Underwater - Tom McNeal (Audio)

 One of these days, I'm going to write a post that is a dedication to every incredible book Jill Broderick has ever "made" me read.  I get regular e-mails from her with lists of books that she thinks I shouldn't live my life without, and you know what? 90% of the time she's right.  

"To Be Sung Underwater" was one such book.  In her e-mail, she briefly said "OMG - still reeling from this one".  Then there was her review, which really says it all in ways I couldn't even begin to match.  So there was really no doubt that I would be reading this one.  I was thrilled that my library had the audio.

Synopsis:  Judith is a 44 year-old woman who has achieved all of her dreams on paper...prestigious film editing job in Hollywood, married to a successful banker, and mother to a teenage daughter.  In reality, though, her daughter is distant and rebellious, her husband is probably having an affair with his assistant, and Judith can only reminisce about her first and most memorable love affair that took place her senior year in high school with Willy Blunt.  Maybe he was the one that got away...although she only has herself to blame, since she turned her back on him once she had moved away to college.  Judith withdraws from her life physically and mentally, until she decides that her only option is to find Willy again.  

The narrative alternates back and forth in time between the miserable now and the magical then.  Back to when Judith was swept away by the eternally happy, ever kind and adoring Willy who introduced her to moonlit cookouts, swimming in the buff, and the kind of love that endures.

My thoughts:  I found myself confused and conflicted for 60% of this book.  In fact, the whole novel was a series of contradictions.  On one hand the writing had moments of total gorgeousness.  Here is one passage that literally stopped me in my tracks and forced me to stop vacuuming to write it down.  Judith asks her father "What are we here for?".  At one point, her father only says "That is the kind of thing no one sober tries to publicly answer".  Later though, he tells her this:

"I am sure one of the things we're here for is to make certain that those whom we love fall asleep each night assured of that love".

I'll probably never forget that line, right?  The characters however, were not all that likable, which is usually a problem for me.  Judith as a teenager had a smart mouth and was aloof.  Judith as an adult was cold and self-absorbed.  The only time she was likable was when she was with Willy.  Her daughter was spoiled, her husband was a cheater, her mother was a spacey hippy.  Strangely, though, as a whole, it all worked.  And the glue that held it all together was Willy.  As a reader, you couldn't help but fall in love with the man.  He was honest to a fault, romantic, smart, but had a little bad boy edge if his back was against the wall.  

Everything outside the realm of Judith and Willy would indicate that love and the institution of marriage is a lost cause.  But between Judith and Willy, there existed a type of love that is enduring and selfless, even spiritual.    

And about two-thirds of the way through the story, I stopped being a passive bystander and became completely immersed and compelled.  Everything became achingly beautiful, poignant, innocent, bittersweet...and probably a whole bunch of mushy, trite words that will make you roll your eyes.  What is important for you to know, though, is that by the end I fell apart into a million pieces, and I was left with an image that will be stuck in my head for, like, ever.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator for this audio book was Susan Boyce, who was new to me.  Based on her resume, she seems to narrate books outside my preferred genres (romances, mostly).  I had some mild issues with her narration of this book.  She came across as stiff and prudish, which may have had some impact on my initial impressions of the characters.  But even so, my love for what was happening in the book carried me beyond her voice.  

4.5 out of 5 stars    

Monday, February 27, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Stop right there.  Don't delete this post quite yet.  I know what you are thinking.  "I hate Westerns".  Well you know, I thought I did too.  But my son has become addicted to them lately...the 12 year old who loves everything that modern technology has to offer film has discovered the beauty of action pre-CGI.  And so we have been on a little bit of a binge.   

We started out with the Dollars Trilogy...A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all starring a young and extremely dude-ish Clint Eastwood.  (Even my daughter thinks he's hot.)  These films firmly established a Western sub-genre called "Spaghetti Westerns" in the US, primarily because they were directed by an Italian (Sergio Leone in this case) and the cast was primarily made up of unknown Italian actors pretending to be Hispanic.  This trilogy is absolutely AMAZING in so many ways.  I will do a post about them someday.  

After the huge success of this trilogy, Leone followed it up with Once Upon a Time in the West.  He wanted to get Eastwood in on this endeavor as well, but he was busy (filming Hang 'Em High I'm guessing), so Leone recruited a killer cast that made us forget about old Clint...Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale.  In the past, Henry Fonda had always been a good guy.  To shock his audiences, Leone cast him as an absolutely despicable character, who takes pleasure in cruelly killing his adversaries in cold blood, even kids.    

Unlike most Westerns, our leading character is a female!  Ms. McBain (Cardinale), a hooker-turned-legitimate from New Orleans has married a widower.  When she arrives at her new home and her new life, in the undeveloped frontier of Utah, she finds her new husband and step-children all slaughtered. A well-meaning harmonica-toting Cheyenne (Bronson) offers to find out who has committed this heinous act.  However, he may just have an agenda of his own.

This movie is darned close to 3 hours long, which spooked me at first, but in hindsight was absolutely necessary.  Each character in this movie is developed to the fullest extent.  Leone shows us all the little bits of baggage and idiosyncrasies and motivations, revenge being the biggest one.  I particularly enjoyed Cardinale, who is drop-dead gorgeous - with lots of cleavage, but is a strong, clever woman.  I found this curious, because you just don't see these qualities in female roles in Westerns made in the '60's.

I found Leone's directorial skills to be incredibly unique, for movies made back then and even now.  There are some scenes in which the pacing is so torturously slow and deliberate and patient, they are unreal.  And the musical score, written by Ennio Morricone, who also wrote the score for the Dollars Trilogy, almost needs no introduction.  Even if you don't watch Westerns, you're going to know his music.  Leone actually wrote some scenes around the music, instead of the other way around, and it shows.

Many lists have placed this film as one of the top Westerns ever made, and is considered a masterpiece.  On Rotten Tomatoes, it has received a 98% rating.  So if you were ever going to try a movie from this genre, this would be the one. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Salon: How to Save a Life

 Good morning Saloners!  It was a nice shorter week because my kids didn't have school on Monday.  It was like a mini-vacation!  We used the day off to do an early workout (I thought it was fun to work out side-by-side with my kids, although they may not agree), then catch a movie.   We were all pretty excited to see "The Secret World of Arrietty", which is a Japanese anime film written by Hayao Miyazaki.  If you've never seen a Miyazaki film, I might even dare to say you've not lived.  His most famous of movies is "Spirited Away", which won an Oscar, but they are all magical.  We've seen them all.

My daughter and I finished our training at the animal shelter.  Now we will be turned loose from here on out to do our thing.  After spending five hours there yesterday, and four hours there earlier in the week, I have nothing but good things to say about the place.  It is clean, the animals are treated with care and respect, and they have a great volunteer program for families (for kids between 12 and 18 and their parent).  It is hard for me to find words to express the emotion I experienced when my daughter and I were able to match up three dogs and one cat with families that would adopt them, take them home, and love them.  Like this pretty girl here: 

We also started volleyball practice for both of the kids.  I lost a couple hours of sleep one night trying to figure out how, once my parents go back home to Indiana, I am going to juggle the volleyball, personal training, horseback lessons, and animal shelter volunteerism schedules.  But I did figure it out, I just had to get creative.  The end of April can't come soon enough.  

We had our Books, Babes and Bordeaux book club meeting on Thursday night to discuss "This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman.  A couple of people liked the book well enough, but the majority experienced emotions ranging from dislike to disgust.  It made for good discussion!  Next month we will be reading "Finding Salvation at the Dairy Queen" by Susan Gregg Gilmore, who is an adorable and talented author.

This week it became apparent to me that until the current schedule changes, I'm going to get a majority of my books completed via audio, because of all the driving around and not enough sitting.  I did finish "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman on audio this week, and while it took some effort to get through, it was worth it.  It may have been a tad "smart" for me, but I am still sharp enough to recognize a masterpiece when I see one.  I then jumped right into "Cold Sassy Tree" by Olive Ann Burnes, which is the March selection for the Heathrow Literary Society.  I can't say I'm in love with it, but it has been entertaining so far.  I have a feeling this is one that may sneak up on me.  Has anyone read this?  What do you think?

In print, I am still reading Sarah Pekkanen's "Opposite Of Me".  I'm actually only 25% through the book after a week.  Pekkanen is very easy to read, so this is just an indication of the type of week I'm having.  Actually, let me back step and tell you that I did sneak in there and read "The Orchard" by Theresa Weir, which was a wonderful memoir and took only a day for me to get through.  My husband is out of town now for five days, so I may get more traction by reading at night.  

Next week's Sunday Salon should be a doozy.  On top of the weekly stuff, I've got my Adult Literacy League event on Thursday, I am sitting on a panel at Sleuthfest on Friday, and my daughter's birthday is on Saturday.  Bring on the energy drinks!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Perfect - Ellen Hopkins (Audio)

Back maybe a year ago I was persuaded (by my daughter no less) to try a book written in free verse.  This was a HUGE leap of faith for me, and all of you doubters out there, you need to hear this.  I have never "gotten" poetry, I'm resistant to it, and generally avoid it at all costs.  So to me, free verse = poetry = something awful.  

However, please trust me on this one.  Free verse is not poetry.  It is normal prose written in a pretty way on the page, with some rhythm to it, nothing more.  So drop that baggage where you stand and come walk with me for a few minutes.

Ellen Hopkins is known for her edgy YA material, written in free verse.  Since I know now that free verse is totally my thing, I made a vow to check her out this year.  This was my first stab at her work, because a whole bunch of you pointed me in this direction.

Synopsis:  "Perfect" is narrated by four individuals, all teens nearing the end of their high school years, all struggling with the pressures placed upon them by society, peers and parents. 

Cara is your classic over-achiever, with the pressure of the world's future placed on her shoulders by her parents...she must excel at her grades and get into Stanford.  She has the perfect boyfriend, she is a cheerleader.  The fact that her twin brother just attempted to kill himself and is now into a psychiatric hospital just adds to the stress.  When Cara begins to doubt who she truly is, she fears the new Cara will never be acceptable to her peers or her parents.

Kendra has the perfect face and perfect body.  Who cares about college when everyone has told her she will be on the runway someday, making millions.  But how far will she go to make this dream come true?  Starvation?  Drugs?  Surgeries?

Sean, Cara's perfect boyfriend, lives his life for two things.  His future with Cara, and to fine-tune his body so he can get a full-ride scholarship for baseball.  He knows that his mother and father, who have both passed away, would approve of his plans for the future.  But when his God-given gifts are not enough to suit him, he turns to steroids to give him that extra edge, not realizing all the repercussions that come with it.

Andre, although probably the most level-headed of the bunch, still has battles to fight.  His parents have high expectations for his future, but his passion lies in dance, something completely unacceptable and even deemed "gay" to his father. Plus, he is in love with a white girl who doesn't really share his interests.  

My thoughts:  I know this sounds like a lot of teen angst, something we get in nearly every YA book published.  But there is something special in Ellen Hopkins literary voice that makes these four interwoven stories totally compelling.  Yes, these are fairly affluent kids and could be viewed as spoiled.  But at their core, they are good kids.  They are real, they have fears and dreams and feelings.  Their voices were authentic and full of emotion.  

I understood that these were modern teens with problems that many of them face these days, and this terrifies me.  I felt like I was hiding in a high school bathroom and overhearing things I didn't want to know.  We have a regular smorgasbord of issues to pick from...eating disorders, homosexuality, drugs, depression, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, promiscuity.  I immediately could empathize with why they were feeling the way they did, and reacted the way they did.  But at the same time it's horrifying.  It was like seeing a devastating automobile accident on the highway and not being able to avert your gaze.      

As a parent, I know that it is my inherent nature to want the best for my kids.  I want them to find their passion and succeed at it.  If I set my expectations high, then they will know no other way.  Hey, I don't want them living with me when they are 40, I want them to be responsible, contributing members of society!  However, this book was a nudging reminder that parents can push it too far.  The genius is finding that middle ground.  This book really made me sit down and ponder a few things.

So about this free verse thing...

A few words about the audio production:  Free verse is invisible on audio.  Which just proves what I said at the beginning...normal prose made pretty on the page.  

There was a cast of narrators, one for each of the main characters, which is the way is should be.  Aya Cash (who I heard recently on The Dovekeepers and is wonderful), Heather Lind, Aaron Tveit and Tristan Wilds made for an incredible listening experience.  I don't know their ages, but they sounded young and embodied youth.  Every one of them held their own, and I'd eagerly listen to anything else they do.

5 out of 5 stars    

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began - Art Spiegelman

On Tuesday, I reviewed Maus I:  My Father Bleeds History.  As I stated in that review, the ending leaves you hanging mid-air, just as the author's father and mother have finally been captured by the Germans and transported to Auschwitz.  It isn't hard to figure out what comes next, but seeing it come to life in Spiegelman's illustrations is an experience unto itself.

Synopsis:  In this sequel, Art continues to interview his elderly, crotchety old father Vladek about his experiences in the Holocaust.  Vladek and his wife Anna have spent months outrunning and outsmarting the Germans, scrapping for food and shelter, but eventually they are captured and sent to the extermination camp.

There are no surprises here.  Humans are killed randomly and en masse.  The mentally and physically infirm die, and the strong survive.  Vladek and Anna are separated and Vladek fears for his wife's life because she is mentally fragile.  But Vladek does his thing.  He learns various trades to be of value to the Germans, he teaches the guards English, he bribes the guards for favors, all the while watching his friends die.  We learn of how Vladek and Anna are reunited against all odds after the liberation, only for Anna to commit suicide years later.
Meanwhile Art must cope with the success of Maus I, with the increasing frailty of his father (especially after his wife left him), and with his conflicted emotions surrounding their relationship.  

My thoughts:  I discussed this at length in my review of Maus I, but it bears mentioning again.  Spiegelman cleverly uses animals to portray the distinctions and divide between race and class...Jews are the mice, Germans are the cats, Poles are pigs.  When a character is putting forth a false front, pretending to be something they are not, they wear masks of a different animal.  It is jarring and thought-provoking when you see it.  Days could be spent discussing the implications.

This installment was no easier to stomach than the first.  The graphics are horrifying and incredibly intense, as you would expect when talking about the extermination camps.  But there are other topics in the mix here which are just as disturbing and confusing.  Vladek's hate towards blacks and homosexuals.  His cruelty towards his current wife.  The complicated relationship between father and son.  The son's difficulty in coping with the demons that originally haunted his father.

The flow of this book was not as seamless as the first.  There is some jumping around in times Vladek has already passed away, other times Art is still interviewing his father, and other times it is an account of Vladek's experiences in the camps.  It isn't impossible to follow, but makes it seem jerky at times.  

Overall, however I think this set of novels is unmatched when it comes to the history of WWII from the perspective of the common Polish Jew.  I will be forever marked by it.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Exiting Poland...

We will now be exiting Poland for another two years.  On our last day in the Motherland, I experienced two things that made all that lack of Internet worthwhile.  A shopping spree at a bookstore (top picture) where they had all English books on sale (!?) and a plate full of my mother-in-law's homemade pierogies (and a bit of wine on the side). 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History - Art Spiegelman

Ever since I started dabbling in graphic novels (and maybe even before) I've been hearing about the Maus books.  I knew they were about WWII, and they were critically acclaimed.  In fact, it is the only graphic novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize.  

My husband usually pays very little attention to what I am reading, but when he saw these books sitting on the counter, he did a double-take.  Even HE had heard of them.

Synopsis:  Art Spiegelman, who has been known for his underground comics in the '60's and '70's, has always struggled with his home life.  His mother Anna committed suicide when he was a young man, and he has always had trouble connecting with his father Vladek.  To remedy this, he decides to interview his father about he and his mother's experience during the Holocaust.  Art then deftly translates this experience into illustrated drawings.  Throughout the book, in an earnest attempt to show race and class stratification, Spiegelman depicts Jews as mice, non-Jewish Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs.

His father begins his story telling about how he met Art's mother, and how, before the war, was a resourceful man of many talents.  Vladek was always able to make a living, learning any trade quickly.  After the Nazi's began their movement against the Jews, however, everything was taken from Vladek, his friends and family, and were forced to move from city to city, hide in cellars or attics, and scrap for food to survive.  

At the same time, Art delves into his relationship with his father, his father's idiosyncrasies.  Vladek is stubborn, emotionally needy, and insanely frugal, which drives his new wife Mala crazy.  Vladek is also a shrewd survivor.  Ironically, although Vladek has experienced the worst type of racism possible, is a racist himself, expressing hatred towards African Americans and homosexuals.

The book ends when Vladek and Anna are finally caught and transported to Auschwitz.

My thoughts: Reading about the Holocaust will never be easy.  I know this.  So why do I constantly surround myself with these books?  I like the stories of survival, and I like to hear about this survival from all perspectives.  I also feel a kinship with these stories because of my husband's family history.  

It does seem counter-intuititve, though, to think that a graphic novel filled with animals would be a hard thing to read, but it was.  I actually mentioned this when I was reviewing a graphic novel recently about the Green River Killer.  Put it in pictures and the images are forever burned into your mind.

I thought that using animals to symbolize different races and ethnicities was brilliant.  At this point, we have all seen pictures of Holocaust victims, and in order to protect our own mental stability, I think we have trained our eyes to blur out the images.  Seeing them in the form of mice is jarring.  It is something we are not used to seeing, and it forces you to view it as if it were the first time.  

When the Jews are attempting to blend into the crowd and avoid German detection, Spiegelman illustrates the mice wearing pig masks in order to look like Poles.  I was blown away by this image.  Totally blown away.  I can't explain WHY this affected me like it did.  My words aren't forthcoming.   

The story is as intense as it comes.  This is street-level survival here, and nothing is held back.  I've read it all before, over and over again, but seeing it in pictures, seeing the hangings, the beatings, the is physically sickening to see.  

I experienced a strange reaction to Art's father Vladek.  The man was scrappy and resourceful, and a survivor to his core.  I shook my head in admiration for his ability to keep running, keep thinking of ways to outsmart the Germans.  At the same time, in old age, he was thoughtless and rude and obnoxious.  He was a bigot.  He was cruel to his new wife.  I couldn't imagine the amount of therapy the author needed to come to terms with their relationship.  

The book ends suddenly with Vladek and Anna entering Auschwitz - a cliff-hanger if you will.  I'm not sure why Spiegelman chose to handle the story in this way, but obviously one must immediately turn to Maus II to see it through.  It isn't hard to imagine what is coming next, but if I learned anything in the process of reading this book, it was that things were going to get rough.  I'll be back on Thursday to talk about it.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 20, 2012

Paranormal Activities

If I know that 80% of you HATE scary movies, why do I persist?  In the last four weeks, I've posted on three different films designed to keep you awake at night.  I don't have a good answer for you, except that we here at the Nawrot household seem to be in the middle of a horror binge.  

We have always enjoyed the Paranormal Activity movies.  Actually let me rephrase that.  My daughter and I enjoy them, but my husband finds them dull.  Emma and I just recently watched the third installment on Pay Per View, so I thought I would do a little PA Roundup.

 For those of you who don't know, this is the premise.  Home videos and security camera videos capturing various members of the same family being terrorized by a demonic spirit.  We're not talking about just slamming doors and such, but this invisible presence drags people, invades and steals souls.  People die.  

Each PA installment goes back in time, exploring the genesis of the demonic spirit, why it is here, and to whom it is attached.  All three movies however revolve around sisters Katie and Kristi and their troubled background.   

 All the movies start out slow, the various home footage sometimes running for days without any strange occurrences.  That, by itself, builds incredible tension.  When is something going to happen?  When things DO happen, sometimes it is subtle.  It is like reading an "I Spy" book, your eyes watching for the tiniest movement or the smallest thing out of place.  (Alas, the beauty of NOT seeing this in the theater is that you can rewind and scrutinize.)  With each movie, however, I will warn you that the demonic interference is more and more alarming.  Unlike most films with sequels, these keep getting better.  

Certainly the folks that birthed this lucrative franchise didn't invent the genre.  That honor goes to the Blair Witch kids.  Still, it only cost $15,000 to make the first movie, and it grossed $9.1 million.  Yes you read that right.  An unknown cast, no big special effects, and a handheld camera filming everything inside some dude's house with dirty carpets.  After that little hat trick, the budget did go up to $3 million for the second film, but made $178 million worldwide, and the third movie is well on its way to something similar.  Not a bad investment, and I don't blame these people one bit if they just keep making more until the audience decides they've had enough. (FYI, they have announced that there WILL be a fourth.)

As a student of the horror film, I believe that less is more in this situation.  I find these movies scary and intense.  My stomach hurts by the end, my heart palpitates, but I have a big old grin on my face and I keep coming back for more.  It is my corny, guilty pleasure.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Salon: Dad's Valentines

 A happy Sunday morning to you all!  All of my weeks are busy, but I must say that this one was definitely on the less hectic end of the scale.  Oh I had things going workouts, yard work, window cleaning, house cleaning, some Adult Literacy League work, blah blah.  But overall we were able to eat dinner together at a reasonable hour, and I didn't feel like I was chasing my tail.  That is sure to end in the next week when both kids start volleyball with different practice schedules.  And when my daughter and I begin to volunteer at the animal shelter, which starts next week as well.  I will once again be serving meals out of the crock pot at 8pm once all that kicks off.

Although Valentines Day was on Tuesday, we chose to celebrate on Wednesday because my daughter had horseback riding lessons on V-Day.  My dad offered to take the whole family out to dinner, and we chose Le Coq Au Vin, a little local mom and pop French place right up the road where the food is DIVINE!  Even in my dietary mode, I left there euphoric.

But that wasn't it for dad.  He also bestowed Valentines gifts on us.  He gave me a heart-shaped necklace that has an inscription on the back that says "My little girl yesterday, my friend today, my daughter forever".  How precious is that?  And my dad is not a shopper, he is a simple farmer.  I was touched.  He also built me this Adirondack chair for my front porch:

I even got a chance to SIT in it for awhile this week and read!

Speaking of reading...I did finish River Jordan's "Praying For Strangers" this week, and it made such a big impact on me.  In fact, I approached a number of women in a prayer group at school and demanded they read it.  I just did start Sarah Pekkanen's "Opposite of Me" to complete my Pekkanen binge until her new book is released.  

On audio, I finished the delightful "A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty" by Joshilyn Jackson, and readers, it is GOOD.  Maybe not quite as perfect as "Gods in Alabama" but darned close.  Then I dug in and am attempting to finish "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman.  I didn't share this with you originally, but our Skype book club is discussing this one at the end of the month, and the only audio format available at the library was MP3.  So I attempted to just listen to it in the car, but I ran out of time before it had to go back.  This is such an arduous listen.  My library then picked it up on regular audio discs, so I'm back on the case and working my way through it.  Jury is out on my opinion.  It is interesting, and the writing is beautiful, I can say that.

I just signed my daughter up for high school.  OMG help me.  I just had to get that off my chest.  

We have little planned for today, except for horse.  The kids actually have Friday and Monday off, so the kids and I may take in a movie tomorrow.  I'm hoping to do a little reading and get caught up on some reviews.  Anything exciting happening in your world?

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Beautiful Life - Helen Schulman (Audio)

In choosing a book for Books, Babes and Bordeaux for February, we had two goals:  a discussable topic, and short in length.  We have several members with babies, and they are finding it challenging to get through anything longer than a couple hundred pages.  One of our members came up with this:  the negative consequences of sexting, and 240 pages (6 discs).  Bingo.

Synopsis:  The Bergamots are living the good life.  Richard is the golden guy, a superstar executive at a large university, and his wife is an attractive, hip stay-at-home mom.  They recently moved their family, 15 year- old Jake and 5 year-old Coco (who they adopted from China) from rural Ithica NY to New York City for Richard's job.  Their days are spent rubbing elbows with the affluent, the botoxed, and the martinied.  

But when Jake attends an unsupervised party one night at a (rich) 13 year-old girl's house, Jake becomes the object of this misguided girl's attention.  She makes an explicit video showing him that she isn't too young for him, sends it to him, and with the click of the forward button, the video becomes viral.  And the Bergamots' life implodes, with far-reaching implications.

My thoughts:  The story starts out engaging and in some ways familiar.  The busy dad, the chauffeur mom, the private school, the over-indulgent birthday parties of the prosperous.  The oldest son who can do no wrong, and the slightly spoiled younger daughter.  

Even the graphic sex video.  If you have teenagers, I don't need to tell you that this stuff happens.  The description of said video turned a few of my hairs white, but I've a number of friends whose sons have received things like this, or at least the picture version.  Cell phones are the perfect tool for the ill-behaved passive-aggressive.  

I began to have issues, however, with the implications of the video on the Bergamots' life.  Don't get me wrong.  I think that there were many victims in this story, and it was all stomach-turning.  I won't go into the details, but this family completely falls apart.  I didn't like these people, I thought they were all completely detached from reality and spoiled rotten, all of them.  Some, who shall remain nameless here, had serious problems that were uncovered, if you will, because of the difficulties brought on by the video.  I finished the last half hour of the story disgusted by it all, and not really caring much about any of the characters.

It WILL offer some good discussion for our book club though.  And, in its own misguided way, is a cautionary tale.  I did have a discussion with my kids about the dangers of forwarding inappropriate pictures and videos (they were both giving me their best gross-out faces). So there is that.

A word about the audio production:  Our narrator Hillary Huber did an excellent job of channeling the self-absorbed.  I've never heard her before, probably because she seems to have done quite a bit of work on a vampire romance series, which is not something I would read.  But I would listen to her again.  She was easy on the ears, and probably the main reason why I was able to get through this book.

2 out of 5 stars     

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman (Audio)

"The Zookeeper's Wife" was a book that was highly-endorsed by a gentleman in our book club and selected for our February read.  Really, all I knew was that it was story about WWII, and assumed it was fiction.

After nearly a disc of listening, it dawned on me that this was NOT fiction but a true story!  When it comes to WWII, I actually prefer the true stories because there are so many, and they generally are bigger, bolder and more horrendous than anything that can be imagined.  

Synopsis:  In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, one of the casualties of the bombing was the Warsaw Zoo.  Many of the exhibits were destroyed, along with some of the animals.  But the zookeeper and his wife, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, did not abandon it.  Instead, they chose to remain there with their young son Ryszard, protecting the remaining animals and collecting a Noah's Ark of wayward creatures, such as lynx cubs, a badger, an Arctic Hare, a pig, and otters.  

And hiding and smuggling Jews under the protection of the Underground movement.

A story that is bigger than life, we are told of Jan, who was the mastermind of the dozens of ways Jews could be smuggled out the ghetto, of his determination to fight back, of taking chances.  Antonina was the nurturer of all living things, human and animal, and courageous in her own quiet way, maintaining even during the worst times the spirit of merriment for those under her care.  Through Antonina's diaries, we experience the day-to-day struggles through her eyes, experience her fears and frustrations.  

Setting itself apart from all the other WWII novels, "The Zookeeper's Wife" not only appeals to our yearning for stories of hope and the human spirit, but also includes the role of the animal kingdom into the effort to survive.    

My thoughts:  If there was ever a book written just for me, this would be it.  If I thought I'd heard it all, I was wrong.  I was equally enchanted and horrified at how animals...even INSECTS...played a part in the Jewish underground resistance.

The stories about the various ragtag group of animals living with the Zabinski's were adorable...and heartbreaking.  I loved hearing about the adventures of the pet pig who liked to play chase, or the Arctic hare that turned carnivore in order to adapt and liked to give kisses.  Not all the stories of the animals turned out happy though, and this ripped my heart to pieces.  I was truly moved by the idea of man and beast, side by side, doing whatever they must to survive.

The Jews that the Zabinski's aided were also touching. A sculptor, a fox farmer, mothers and children, each with a story and each given a chance at life because of the Zabinski's determination and bravery.  

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this audio was Suzanne Toren.  I've not experienced her work before, but she did a good job at managing the German and Polish accents.  However, I found her voice to be cold and fairly unemotional, maybe even harsh, which was unfortunate.  I believe this book had all the potential to be a five-star read for me, all things considered.  Instead, it kept the material at a distance.  While I tried to close my eyes and imagine the words without the impact of the voice, I just couldn't do it.  I found myself more moved overall by reading summaries and reviews on Amazon.  I would definitely recommend reading this one in print.

4 out of 5 stars    


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Krakow #5

If you ever visit Krakow, Poland, you will hear people talk about touring Kazimierz district, which is the Jewish quarter.  It is heartening to know that the city pays homage to this section of town, which was once a bustling center of Jewish trade and activity, but became the ghetto during WWII.  This area was decidedly more run-down, but was also rich in culture. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What I Hate From A to Z - Roz Chast

In the middle of a reading slump, the best thing you can do for yourself is read a graphic novel.  They are visual, they are short, and generally entertaining.  Jenners' recommendation of this one came just at the right time.

Roz Chast, a cartoonist whose work as been featured, like EVERYWHERE, has humorously given us her list of things that make her uncomfortable, frightened, or just inspire a full-blown hate.  

Perhaps this attitude could be construed as somewhat negative, but these things are real people!  Most of the items on Roz's list would be on mine.  We are soul sisters.   

I commiserate with her fear of elevators, as shown here.  Does anyone else out there mentally think through how, if the elevator suddenly careens to the bottom floor, they will jump at the exact right moment to prevent injury?  I do.

I also share her irritation with doctors, heights, getting lost, and nightmares.  She eases my mind a bit with her hilarious illustrations of these maladies.  I am not alone, thank God.

After I finished her book, I gave some thought to my own list of things I hate.  I didn't want to make a list of normal things, but the subtle, insidious ones that I'm almost afraid to voice aloud for fear of bringing on a curse.  As a public service to you, though, I will share:

Not just bugs, or just cockroaches, but Palmetto Roaches, which can be found in warm tropical climates.  These little demons from hell are about three to four inches long and FLY.  You can rope and ride them.  They spring out of drawers, hang out in your shoes, and get in your hair.  They like to eat toothpaste and glue.  If this is what is left after the nuclear holocaust, I myself prefer not to survive. 

 Clogged drains:  I have a daughter with long, dark hair.  If I notice that my shower is beginning to drain slowly, or even failing to drain at all, I would rather take a sponge bath from my sink than clean it out.  This responsibility falls solely with my husband.  I just know it is going to look like something from The Grudge, and will have no part of it.

 Gas grills explode and incinerate homes and families.  I shall not touch one or cook on one.  Again, husband gets that duty.

Yes, like half of the world, I am afraid of heights.  Specifically, though, I live in mortal fear of sky trams.  If they stay, let's say, one or two stories off the ground all the way up the hill, I'm fine.  It is when they span deep, rocky canyons that I begin to hyperventilate.  Just ask my family about the one in Poland sometime.  They thought I was dying.

 Let's explore the heights thing a little closer.  I also do not like bridges of any kind.  This bit of baggage was bestowed upon me when I learned about (then later saw with my own frightened eyes) the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg FL.  In 1980, a boat rammed through this bridge one stormy morning, sending a Greyhound bus and ten cars plummeting 150 feet into the water, killing 35 people.  OK, just think about that for a minute.  Thus I present to you the triple-duty phobia of heights, bridges, and the fear of being trapped in a car underwater.     

 Tires:  Like Chast's fear of balloons and their imminent popping, I view tires as an imminent blowout.   Thus hurtling my car, containing my loved ones, off the road, into oncoming traffic, or the worst possible scenario, off a bridge.

Runner-ups:  The pool skimmer (lest I find live and dead critters, including snakes, frogs, or baby possums), my cable company (because they require me to sit home and wait for them, and once they come they can't fix anything), and hurricanes (goes without saying).

So probably by now you think of me as a slightly psycho person.  But if you share these hates, then please know that I'm here for you.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Devil Inside (2012)

 After I saw that this movie got something like 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, I swore I would not go see it.  I find myself extremely annoyed at the abundance of trashy low-budget horror movies that pander to teens.

But a teen I have, and she loves these types of movies.  You can't convince her that she should discriminate.  After all, she has seen the best the genre has to offer...The Exorcist, The Ring, Halloween, and even the Paranormal Activity series is pretty good.  

As a family, we went to the movies on Martin Luther King Day.  The boys voted for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which I had already seen) and this thing was on at the same time, so you guessed it.  The boys got intrigue, the girls got demons.  

I know 99% of you out there hate these movies, so I apologize for even talking about something that makes you run the other way.


In 1989, a woman was accused of murdering three people in her home (two priests and a nun) while undergoing an exorcism.  The woman was deemed incompetent and placed in an asylum in Rome.  

In the present day, her daughter Isabella is interested in finding out what happened to her mother, and has enlisted a boyfriend/camera man to do a documentary.  They travel to Rome, meet some people from an exorcism school, and try to determine if her mother is inhabited by a demon or just mentally ill.  This just happens to be the biggest debate between "the industry" and the Catholic Church.

In order to appreciate the finer points of demonry, the exorcists take Isabella and her man to see a real example (see above photo).  Then they tackle mama (see photo below), who seems to have not just one evil dude inside her but a community.  And they like to body-hop, or soul-hop, or whatever.  Once that happens, things get ugly, and events include attempted baby-drowning, suicide and car accidents.  

Oh and the ending is left wide open for sequels.  The fantasy of every low-budget horror film director.  Go talk to the Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity people if you don't believe me.

Do I think the movie deserves it's 6% approval rating?  No probably not.  It was better than that.  But I do think that the fake documentary sub-genre has run its course.  They even have added a website where there are files about Isabella's mother, just to make it even more believable.  Kids dig that stuff - that is why this movie has been at the top of the box office.

I also think the director or the screenwriters or someone involved was a bit heavy-handed with the anti-Catholic Church agenda.  Hey, we have enough problems without some Hollywood goofball implying that we are allowing evil to exist because we ignore demonic possession.  Please.

If you are into creepy horror, I'd encourage you to see this - why not?  Just rent it on Netflix.