Monday, April 30, 2012

Bridesmaids (2011)

It used to be that raunchy, rude comedies were primarily dominated by (and for) the men.  You know, the Judd Apatow variety like "The 40 Year-Old Virgin", "Knocked Up" or "Superbad".  Men behaving badly.

But hey now, what is this?  Judd Apatow for women?  Equal opportunity vulgarity?  

I've probably said this before, but I do not tolerate all comedies gladly.  There better be more than cheap jokes and bathroom humor and predictable sap or I am going to climb up on something high up and yell righteously "thou art wasting my TIME!".  

But goodness, we all heard so much about this one.  EW was nearly writhing in ecstasy, the critics LOVED it.  Melissa McCarthy was nominated for an OSCAR!  In a bawdy romp!  I had to see this for myself.  

Turns out, yeah, it is pretty darned funny.  Melissa McCarthy well-earned that Oscar nom because she was HILARIOUS.  She nearly made the entire movie.  I can't even begin to describe her character Megan, so I will quote GQ by describing her as "a self-made woman of great machismo, voracious sexual appetites, mysterious financial resources, and a truly atrocious wardrobe."  They also called her performance "the bravest, most bat-shit, most balls-out performance".  Yep, that about covers it.  So if you are going to watch this movie, do it for her.
But equally as entertaining is the movie's co-writer (screenplay nominated for an Oscar) and leading lady Kristen Wiig.  Kristen plays 30-something Annie whose bakery has gone under, shares an apartment with a creepy British brother and sister duo with an ambiguous relationship, gets an occasional booty call from a good-looking guy that never wants her to spend the night, and is in a dead-end job that she hates.  Things go from bad to worse when her BFF gets engaged, and the perfect, rich and beautiful wife of the fiancé's boss takes over, claiming full control of the wedding and the BFF.  Thus throwing Annie into a complete tailspin.  Good thing a bumbling and adorable cop with an Irish accent casts his eye on the hapless woman.

Some of the funnier moments include a violent attack of food poisoning while trying on pricey, French-designed bridesmaids dresses, a hedonistic trip to Vegas that goes awry, and a Provence-inspired bridal shower where puppies in berets are offered as party favors.  

It is completely, 100% predictable.  But it is in the execution that it stands out above the masses.  The movie has language and sex scenes sans body parts (in fact, there is one that lasts the first 10 minutes of the movie) so I'll just throw that out there.  In case your 14 year-old daughter should go to a friend's house where they are a little lax in the supervisory arena, you should just probably tell her that she is not allowed to watch this SPECIFIC movie.  Just sayin'.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Week of the Crud

 A fantastic morning to all of you my friends!  Well, last week I alluded to the fact that this week would be squirrelly.  (The Sandy definition of "squirrelly" = downright horrid.)  However it was not.  At least not in the way I was expecting.  

I had expected non-stop insanity, with a number of schedules converging into a sort of cataclysmic act of God, but instead both of my kids contracted The Crud.  My son was out for the first four days of the week, and my daughter was out the last two.  Therefore, our number of volleyball games and practices were reduced, the number of nighttime Andre visits were reduced, and dinner was actually served each night BEFORE 8PM!!!  Amazing.  If not for the sickness, it would have been a perfect week.

An all-day meeting at school was cancelled for me, I was able to get four workouts in at Casa Angel of Death instead of the normal three, and I was actually able to sneak in a lunch with Heather (Raging Bibliomania) to trade bookish goodies.  Friday night my husband and I attended our school's annual fundraising Gala, which was a ball.  

So not many squirrels.  Except for the ones that my daughter thinks she needs as pets, and is attempting to catch with a snare.  I don't know, go figure - when it comes to animals and this child, I don't even try to understand.  She thinks she is Katniss.

So I was able to do a little reading.  I finished "The Big Short" in print, and as much as this is a niche book and not what I would consider the greatest for a book club because of its complexity, I enjoyed it immensely.  There was a two hour special on PBS on Tuesday (continued on next Tuesday as well) about the financial meltdown, and it was a nice supplement to the book.  So then I briefly started Lauren Oliver's "Pandemonium", but after my lunch with Heather, who loaned me her copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey", I started that one for my other book club.  Not to spoil anything people, but this has got to be the most horrible thing I've ever read.  My buddy Molly Bumble, she looks out for me, and suggested perhaps I engage in a drinking game while reading it.  Not a bad idea.

On audio, I finished "Swamplandia", and after wallowing in a general feeling of sadness and ick, I picked up "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing" by Jasper Fforde.  I know many of you love these books, but it did not work for me on audio.  It was glib and a little too clever for itself, and only managed to irritate me, so after one disc I stopped.  I turned to my fail-safe alternative, Jack Reacher.  His latest adventures in the novel "The Affair" is keeping me entertained and I should be done with it soon.

For the longest time, I almost couldn't load the audios fast enough into my iPod, I plowed through them so quickly.  Now, between my library requests, loans from friends, and the monthly packages of happiness from Penguin Audio, I am almost swimming in them.  Just this week I loaded "Heft" by Liz Moore, "Catherine the Great" by Robert Massie, "The Informationist" and "The Innocent" by Taylor Stevens, "A Stolen Life" by Jaycee Dugard, and "A Land Remembered" by Patrick Smith.  That is just in the last three days.  I want to listen to them all NOW.  

Hope you all have a relaxing Sunday filled with friends, family and reading!   


Friday, April 27, 2012

Where Men Win Glory - Jon Krakauer (Audio)

I am a huge fan of the true story.  Memoirs, true crime, the expose...they are often stranger than fiction.  I have also been disturbingly drawn to 9/11 books as well, although most of the ones I've read were pre-blogging.  I know that it seems a little gloomy and twisted, but my intellectual side really wants to understand how something like that could have happened.  I have to analyze the rational, factual side of that event to make peace with the emotional side I guess.  

So when Jenners reviewed this book on audio, I thought "bingo".  I knew enough about the story that I knew I'd get really mad when I read it, but sometimes that is good for the adrenaline and the bored soul.  It had the right mix of everything I enjoy in a book:  a story about a fascinating person (Pat Tillman), some more 9/11 facts to make my blood boil, and a well-written and well-researched book by a guy known for his investigative non-fiction.  

Pat Tillman is a guy that anybody would be interested in reading about.  Always a kid on the smaller side of athletic, he was single-minded and determined not to let that stop him, and ended up playing NFL football for the Arizona Cardinals.  He was an adrenaline junkie, loved to hike or dive off tall cliffs.  He yearned to read, and pushed himself to a higher level of learning.  He married his high school sweetheart, was fiercely loyal to his family and friends, and was known as a guy that would always do the right thing.  For that reason, against all logic, he walked away from his lucrative football career after 9/11 to join the Army.  He wanted to make a difference, to fight for his country.  He did not want glory, he wanted to do something that mattered, and to go his own way.  This is the way he'd always lived his life.

But soon after entering the Army and making the ultimate sacrifice, he became disenchanted with the military.  He saw what was happening there from the inside...the waste, the disorganization, the political maneuvering, the lack of sound decisions.  Ultimately, Tillman was killed by friendly fire...something that unfortunately is a part of war.  

What the government chose to do with this tragedy, however, is at the heart of the story.  They covered up, and in some cases flat-out lied, about Tillman's cause of death, then immediately awarded him with a medal of honor before an official investigation to divert attention from the Charlie Foxtrot (military slang for "cluster f**k") that resulted in Tillman's death.  A media circus then ensued, in honor of Tillman, presumably to distract the public's attention from a variety of other public relations disasters including the Jessica Lynch rescue and Abu Ghraib. 

Interwoven with Tillman's story is a detailed history of the birth of Taliban, Bin Laden's rise to power, the US's involvement in Afghanistan and resulting conflicts, and the progression of violence that climaxed on 9/11. Upon this examination of the timeline and the imminent threat, it seems like an attack was a foregone conclusion.  Yet the Bush Administration didn't want to be bothered with the warning signs.  (For another excellent and well-documented read about the events that led to 9/11, put your hands on "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright.  There is more there than your sensibilities would ever want to know or may want to handle.) 

Once 9/11 did occur, however, it was all hands on deck to manipulate and misdirect information for their own purposes, both with the overall war against terrorism and on a smaller level, Pat Tillman.  Swallowing this much toxic spew in one novel is enough to make one ill, but as Americans that live with these facts and events as part of our lives, we owe it to ourselves to be educated.

A side note on the format of this review:  Normally, I put together a short synopsis then offer my thoughts on the book.  I tried here, but was unable to keep my opinions separated from the facts.  As a human being, this story leveled me and deeply disturbed me.  I could not for even a few sentences appear impartial.  

A few words about the audio production:  This audio was narrated by the famous and revered and oft-crushed-upon Scott Brick.  The guy knows his way around a recording studio, and you will see his name on many audiobooks.  He had DONE IT ALL.  When it comes to male voice-crushes, however, I'll just stick with Robin Sachs or Simon Vance. 

5 out of 5 stars         

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Day the World Ends - Ethan Coen

I know you are all probably very shocked to see that I've attempted yet another collection of poems in honor of National Poetry Month!  I honestly thought one foray into the world of verse was my limit, but then I was approached by Jonathan at Crown Publishing to read poems written by...Ethan Coen?

Yes, THAT Ethan Coen, of the Brothers Coen, who make seriously, wonderfully messed up movies like Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and The Big Lebowski.  Which, by the way, I would recommend any and all.  I am a Coen girl down to my toes.  If his poetry was as twisted as his movies, then I knew I was in for a ride to a strange land.

And I was pretty much right.  So much that I'm not even sure how to accurately describe this book.  Strange.  Hilarious.  Rude.  Edgy.  Creative.  Not your English teacher's poetry.

Some of the poems are serene and thoughtful.  But a majority of them sound like they are written by someone who is a) male, b) type "a" personality and probably the life of a party and c) a potty mouth.

Not that I have a problem with that.  I've been known for my sailor-esque interchanges myself.  I just found that Mr. Coen's brand of humor is best consumed in small doses.  A genital reference here, a f-bomb there, right before bed perhaps.  I'm not even able to quote my favorite poems for you, lest I offend.

But I will allude to my absolute favorite poem called "On Turning Fifty".  I have not yet arrived at this age, but it is a-coming, and my husband has already arrived, so I found Coen's angst to be very familiar.  He starts out:

Having arrived I send back word
On what to expect,
What not to expect, 
What to avoid, 
What to do.
First of all, don't come here the way I came.
Not through the forties.

He claims that if you just skipped your forties, you wouldn't miss anything.  Just the "medical lightning bolts", the "emotional brownouts", the requirement of reading glasses, and the feeling of taupe.  He decides at the end of the poem that he should have instead called it "Skip your Forties, F-ers".  You see, I am not even capturing the essence, but you get the point.  It is funny as hell.  If you are in the mood for wise-acrey a wisp of grumble.  

So in the area of poetry, I now consider myself anointed.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Chicago #4

Various perspectives of the Chicago skyline.  The top picture was taken from the very tip of the Navy Pier, the second picture was taken from Lincoln Park, and the bottom picture was taken from the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home - Wiley Cash

This book.  I've been waiting to read this book since last September, when I met Wiley at SIBA.  But FINALLY the day has come..."A Land More Kind Than Home" is now for sale.  I'm so excited I almost can't stand it.

Because here is the deal.  Wiley Cash is the bomb.  He is a Southern gentleman, he is adorable, he loves his wife.  So nothing could please me more than to add to that list that he is an amazing writer.  Amazing.

Let me tell you a little about the story first.  Then I shall gush.

Synopsis: In a small town in North Carolina, two brothers live the life that all boys would want.  They have a loving mother and father, they hunt salamanders, they play in the nearby creek, and they help their father with his tobacco crops.  It is clean living.  It bears little concern that the older brother, Christopher (nicknamed Stump) is mute.  He was born that way.  Jess, the younger of the two, has always watched out for him and thrives on his companionship.

But there is an insidious evil nestled in the town in the form of a local preacher.  He runs a church where all the windows are covered with newspaper, and there have been hushed stories about what happens out there during the prayer service.  When Jess, always curious, does a little snooping one day with Stump, it sets loose a series of events that will destroy the lives of many.

In a story narrated by Jess, Clem Barefield, the local sheriff with a painful past, and Adelaide Lyle, the town's midwife and guardian angel of the children, written with an authentic and earnest Southern voice, the reader will in turns be charmed, electrified, and overwhelmed at this debut masterpiece.

My thoughts:  I feel like I have been given the temporary gift of precognition.  While reading Wiley's book, I just kept shaking my head and saying to myself "Damn this is good.  This is so good.  This is going to change his life."  I couldn't stop reading.  The story is so rich, so evocative, so gripping.  This is going to launch Wiley's career.  I feel lucky, I guess, that I met him, and had an engaging conversation about the merits of stretch jeans.  

It seems that I am not the only one to think this, because I've seen the book featured both on a Barnes & Noble e-mail I just received, and on my library's website.  

My first reaction is that Wiley has such a unique literary voice.  It is very Southern, and very easy to read.  You feel like the characters, who are each unique, living, breathing, bleeding human beings, are sitting on the porch next to you in a rocking chair, telling you their story.  As they are sitting there, they cry, they raise their voice, they grab your hand.  That is how it felt.  

And what a story.  After I finished Chapter 1, I had to send out a tweet and just exclaim something (for the record, I think it was Holy Crap).  Right out of the gate, you are blasted into a quagmire of corruption and heinousness.  He doesn't mess around.  And he drags you right along with him right up to the very end.  And I'm making it sound all violent and terrible, and yes there is that.  But there is also an innocence and a nostalgia where you can find redemption, resolute strength and love. 

Waste no time my friends.  Read this one.

5 out of 5 stars       

Monday, April 23, 2012

Margin Call (2011)

 I've been wanting to see Margin Call for quite a while, for a couple of reasons.  First, just LOOK AT THAT CAST.  I'll talk about that in more depth in a minute.  I almost got a tremor thinking about it.  And second, because the movie was about the Wall Street collapse, I knew my husband would be an eager participant in the watching (usually there is some kind of arm-twisting involved in the movies I select).  

For some reason, this film was not widely released, and I believe never came to Orlando.  So Netflix it was.

The actors and the corporation represented are fictitious, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that it is pretty closely based on the Lehman Brothers.  The film covers what I would think would be the most catastrophic 24 hours of the financial disaster of 2007 and onward.  

In the midst of a massive layoff, the head of Risk Management (Stanley Tucci - Julie & Julia, The Lovely Bones) is escorted out of the building.  But before he leaves, he hands a USB stick to one of his analysts (Zachary Quinto - Star Trek) and tells him that it is an unfinished project, and to "be careful".  The analyst takes a peek at the information on the stick, and after burning some late hours, realizes that it is a model that basically (I'm cutting through some brainiac financial globbity gook) the company has overextended itself and is perched on total ruin.  The analyst calls his immediate boss (Paul Bettany - hottie) and his colleague (Penn Badgley), who then calls the next boss in the food chain (Kevin Spacey - too many great movies to list), who calls the next guy up (Simon Baker - The Mentalist), who calls the Big Poobah (Jeremy Irons) who arrives on a helicopter.  Emergency meeting at 2:00am.  The ship is going down.     

 What results is, in layman's terms, a sell-off of the entire company's assets, which are worth nothing.  This is an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful, if we are to draw comparisons to Lehman and Bear Stearns) to get out first and grab as much cash as possible on the way down, and all the while ruining everyone else who bought their "toxic assets" as well.  

It may sound like a huge downer.  And it is, but in the same way that it is a downer to watch the Titanic go down or an earthquake turn the Earth into a wasteland.  It is fascinating to watch from the safety of your living room. 
 Because the hubby is a financial guy, and he literally came home for weeks (months?) on end talking about the financial collapse and why it happened, I felt like I understood most of what was going on here.  What I didn't understand, he explained.  I'm not totally sure everyone that watches this movie would get the finer points.

But you don't have to understand how a tectonic plate moves or how to measure seismic waves to understand that whole cities are being swallowed, or that tsunamis just took out California, right?  You just know it is BAD.  Even if you don't know a derivative from your derriere, you know that when a company this big goes down, it is going to suck for everyone.  I think we have living proof of that at this point.

 And you can just sit back and ogle the amazing acting going on here.  This movie is seriously loaded with it.  I can't even single out the best acting - it was all good.  With one exception.

One of the few complaints I would have is the casting of Demi Moore as the Chief Risk Officer.  Really?!  I'm sorry, she just doesn't pull it off.  I cannot watch her try to act smart and find it believable.  Other than that, you are going to have a field day watching these guys.  Even if you care nothing about the financial crisis (which really, affects every person in the US, and beyond, just sayin) it is worth it to watch this movie for the acting.  

Highly recommended.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: The Spring Readathon Edition

A slightly groggy Sunday morning to you all, especially if you participated in the Spring Readathon like me.  I always really look forward to these things, and usually the one held in the spring is the one where I can really invest.  That was not the case this time around.  On Thursday I caught some kind of ugly virus that involved sweating and chilling and exploding heads, and it was still going on Saturday morning.  I had to take my son to Andre's for a workout Saturday morning, and while he worked out I spent an hour on the elliptical, and what do you know?  It did sweat out some toxins.  I had a girl's volleyball game after that, so I didn't start the reading in earnest until about 3pm.  

The anti-readathon gremlins were still working to derail me though, even at that point.  My daughter had a friend over to work on a year-end project (one of several in progress right now that would like to drive me to the bottle), and at one point they were testing their homemade mousetrap car in my reading space.  They all demanded dinner at one point.  My husband and son kept begging me to watch movies, and a thunderstorm was raging.  But I stuck to my guns.  I finished "Divergent", as well as the first in the "Fables" graphic novel series, and a decent chunk of "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis.  I did not participate in any mini challenges, because that just disrupts my mojo.  I have so little time to just sit and read and I totally relish in it.  I crashed about 1am.  I don't think I've pulled an all-nighter ever, not even in college.   

By the way, I have pre-ordered "Insurgent", the sequel to "Divergent", which is released on May 1.  My daughter and I are pretty darned excited about it.

As for the rest of the week, all I can say is that except for Friday, when I was home sweating and moaning and groaning, I was on the go.  And I can't even tell you why exactly, it is a blur.  Errands of all sorts, hairdresser, getting crap from Lowe's for these damn projects, eye appointments, volleyball, golf, school stuff.  I don't know anything about writing reviews or reading blogs.  

I was able to finish "Killing Lincoln" on audio, and I can't say I was overly impressed.  Once I heard that a lot of this stuff was inaccurate (according to the experts) I became distracted with how much to believe and how much to ignore.  I am now about halfway through "Swamplandia" which is just...strange.  I really assumed I would love this, because I am drawn to anything old Florida.  But it is not what I was expecting, and the narrators aren't quite right.  I could change my mind before the end, though.  It has happened.

In print, before the readathon, I read Wiley Cash's "A Land More Kind Than Home" and I was completely BESOTTED with it.  It drew me in from the first chapter.  I couldn't be more pleased because Wiley is a stand-up guy.  

One irritation I've had this week is Blogger.  All of my prescheduled posts have not been posting!!!  I have to post them manually.  Has anyone else been having this problem?  I remember a couple of years ago when this happened (I was in Poland and could do nothing about it, thanks Blogger).  Or is it just me? 

Today we're looking at church, horse (if it doesn't rain, which it probably will) and a couple hours at the animal shelter.  And sleep.  And fortifying myself for what I view to be a particularly squirrelly week ahead.  

Friday, April 20, 2012

Every Last One - Anna Quindlen (Audio)

Ever since this book was published, which was about two years ago, I've known that something REALLY BAD happens about halfway through.  All the reviews are clear on that point.  But no one talks about what that bad thing is.  It is the most perfectly-guarded secret I've ever seen in the literary world (if you don't dig too deep on Amazon).

This is as it should be.  The only way to read this book is to go into it uninformed and unaware, and allow yourself to become consumed by the story.  Allow yourself to be haunted by the story.

Synopsis: Mary Beth Latham is the kind of mother that relishes in the chaos of having a 17 year-old daughter and twin 14 year-old boys.  She loves the constant noise, the bickering, the steady stream of friends in the house, and her role as the nurturer and guardian.  She believes, like most parents, that if she is involved in her children's life, that if she provides safety and security of a stable family environment, that it will be enough.  

It is not that there have not been trials.  Mary Beth's relatively happy marriage has had its bumps, her daughter Ruby had that eating disorder for awhile, and now one of the twins Max seems to be depressed.  But this is the nature of raising teenagers, and Mary Beth will move heaven and earth to make things right.

But sometimes, no matter what you do to protect your family, it is not enough.  Small actions have devastating consequences, and random factors outside your realm of control impact you in ways you would never imagine.  This is the story of how one woman comes out the other side, and deals with the unimaginable.

My thoughts:  My first thought, after I'd finished this book and settled down to analyze my thoughts and emotions, was "Nice.  Another thing for me to worry about."  I am a quiet worrier and an over-thinker by nature, so when I witness (even fictionally) the implosion of a normal family through an unthinkable act of violence, the ground beneath me shifts.  

I originally had avoided this book because I am never really in the mood for depression.  But I was wrong.  This goes beyond just your run-of-the-mill downer.  It is thoughtful.  It is shocking.  It is gorgeously written.  It is compelling.  It is tragic.  It rocked my world.  

I think the reason why it resonated with me so is that I could fully relate to Mary Beth's life.  I could be her.  I liked her, and respected her as a wife and a mother.  She made some errant turns in her life, but her voice was so real and earnest to me, I couldn't fault her.  I also liked the myriad of discussable topics that arise.  I'm not even sure I'd be able to list them all, but this would be a peach of a read for a book club.

A few words about the audio production:  Hope Davis was the narrator for this book, and it could not have been placed in more capable hands.  Hope also narrated "State of Wonder", so I knew I was in for a treat.  But she is so much better than a treat.  She is the perfect example of a narrator taking a really good book and making it exceptional.  I truly believe that this novel, in addition "State of Wonder", was propelled to a five star read because of her incredible talent.

5 out of 5 stars


Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Odds - Stewart O' Nan

Last fall I listened to the audio of my first book by Stewart O' Nan, "Emily Alone".  It didn't knock my socks off, but it was a gentle, well-written testament to aging.  I was impressed by O' Nan's ability to bring the protagonist to life right before my eyes...especially the character of an elderly woman, which is basically everything opposite of O' Nan.  

Boy this guy sure has a fan base.  If you go out and read some reviews, tell me if he hasn't been elevated to the status of rock star, or maybe even Santa Claus.  You won't hear me say this often, as I am always one to speak my mind without hesitation, but I was scared to death of reading one of his books and not liking it.  And then having to TELL you I didn't like it.  And that is pretty much what happened worst fear.  But it wouldn't be right if I weren't honest.  So let me tell you about the book.

Synopsis:  To the innocent bystander, Art and Marion Fowler are your typical, middle-aged couple: they live in a Cleveland suburb, in a gorgeous old home, and have a son and a daughter who have been raised and left home.  Both however, have lost their jobs, are on the verge of bankruptcy and foreclosure, and whose marriage is in utter ruin.  So on Valentine's weekend, they leave for Niagara Falls, where they took their first honeymoon.  Maybe they can salvage their relationship, and at the same time, gamble every penny they have (stuffed in a duffel bag) in the casino and win big so they can remain solvent.

My thoughts:  I'm once again amazed at the author's ability to create believable, three-dimensional characters.  In just under 200 pages, O 'Nan describes Art and Marion in such detail, you know them as you would yourself.  He allows us into their minds and hearts by using a first-person point of view for both, which I think was a smart move for the story.  When a marriage is failing, there are always two sides to the story.  To get both sides, and understand the motivations and hidden agendas and baggage carried by Art and Marion was...insightful, I guess, but at the same time distressing.

And here was my biggest issue.  While this may be a portrait of the American marriage, I did not like it.  I didn't like the portrait.  I didn't like Art or Marion.  Art wanted so badly to please Marion and make it work, he was pathetic and spineless.  He was like a whipped puppy.  I understood where Marion was coming from, but she was a bitter bitch.  She was negative, and would be the last person I'd want to spend more than five minutes with (well, except for when she got stoned at the Heart concert).  Although the story ends on a note of hope, there was very little here that seemed like a love story.  In fact, every time I picked up the book I felt ill at ease, and could only read for a few pages before setting it down and looking for something else to do. 

I have heard a few people mention their disappointment with this book, but overall, the love for the story and O 'Nan is overwhelming.  So if you are a fan of O' Nan, you may love it too.  I would like to give him a third chance, but I will be very careful about which one I will choose.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Chicago #3

A bronze statue at the entrance to the Navy Pier.  Unlike many statues, this one seems to be in perpetual motion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bad Marie - Marcy Dermansky

The novel "Bad Marie" had gotten its hooks into me way before I ever read it.  Just about every blogger I follow had been reviewing it when it was first published a couple of years ago.  I'd heard Marie compared to Lisbeth Salander, and much was said about her badass personality that you couldn't help but admire.  So I had to laugh at myself when one night I even had a dream about Bad Marie (she came up to me in a bookstore and bullied me).  It was kind of a foregone conclusion, then, when it was part of a 99 cents sale on Kindle awhile back and I snatched it.  

I hadn't really had the book on my priority list, but I found myself one Sunday at the dreaded Florida Mall with my daughter, and I was sitting in my own little eternal hell of waiting outside the dressing rooms without a book.  So voila.  I pull Marie up on my Kindle app on my phone and I was instantly transported to her messed up life (which was way worse than the dressing room and made me feel better).

Synopsis:  Marie fully understands that she is bad.  Sometimes she drinks while she is acting as live-in nanny for the daughter of her childhood friend Ellen.  One time she even passed out while in the tub with the little girl.  And she can't help that she wants to sleep with Ellen's husband Benoit Doniel - he is the famous French author of her all-time favorite book that she read over and over again while she was in prison.  Ellen isn't that great of a friend anyway...she always treated Marie like a charity case in high school because of Marie's dubious upbringing.  

But when Marie actually skips town with the esteemed husband and daughter, maybe to even claim a little happiness of her own, she knows she has crossed the line.  How wonderful of a fantasy, though, to hide in a small villa in rural France with the man and little girl who she adores?  Except that the fantasy turns sour before her feet touch French soil.  Marie discovers her author is really an irresponsible, narcissistic, playboy jerk.  And caring for a 2 1/2 year old is a lot of responsibility.  How is Marie going to get out of this one without landing herself back in the slammer?

My thoughts:  So how does one classify such a novel?  A dark comedy?  A character study?  A cautionary tale?  Probably all three.  

Marie does have a bit of Lisbeth in her.  She is alluring in a dangerous way, she is damaged, and has been taken advantage of her entire life.  She is completely, apologetically self-absorbed.  She is a survivor.  But unlike Lisbeth, Marie has a grounded, cautious optimism that someday things are going to turn for her.  If things DON'T go her way, she shrugs her shoulders and carries on.  Maybe tomorrow will be better.  She was really a deplorable human being, but I still liked her.  Her persona was the best part of the book. 

The plot took some crazy turns.  I literally had no idea what to expect from one moment to the next while Marie was busy having her adventure.  At some point, I might imagine some readers might throw their hands in the air and exclaim "enough already".  

The prose was a bit on the abrupt, simplistic side, but the pace of the storytelling carried me along in its current.  Given the right circumstances, I could see this being a one-sitting read (perfect for a readathon).  A classic this is not, but it made for an entertaining day at the mall.  

3.5 out of 5 stars    

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Island (2006)

The Island (Octpob in Russian) is a movie I never would have watched on my own.  I love foreign films, but this is way off the foreign path, even for me.  However, it was the first selection for the Film Club that is being hosted by Amy and Carrie and it was easily accessible on Netflix streaming.  So my husband and I watched it.  (The Film Club discussion actually took place at Amy's blog on March 29th, but of course here I am plodding behind - apologies.)

This is a story about an old Russian Orthodox monk who lives in the cold, bleak far reaches of Russia in a monastery with a few other monks.  He has always been an enigma.  He is a perpetually distressed, self-flagellating fellow, haunted by sins from his past (the first scene actually shows his biggest sin, but I'll let you discover it for yourself).  Yet at some rare moments, he is a bit of a prankster and loves to break the monastery's rules.  He has a reputation on the mainland that he can exorcise demons, heal physical ailments and predict the future, and he is happy to do so, in return for the healee to spend a little time praying and taking communion.  Unfortunately most people, once they are "fixed", turn tail back home, much to this man's distress and anger.

For the most part, the movie progresses slowly, almost painfully, as if we are paying for his sins too.  The hauling of coal every day.  The stark landscape.  It was like watching Job.  My husband fell asleep, and we had to watch the second half the next night.  

In the last half of the movie though, this monk started to become endearing to us.  He made a positive impact on everyone he came in contact, including the other monks.  He taught them sacrifice, dedication to God, and humility.  It was just distressing to watch the man suffer so.  You want him to find peace.  And in fact, towards the end, you find your spirits lifting because he does find peace, only in ways you don't expect. 
This movie apparently was all the rage in Russia back when it was released.  I'm a little surprised at this, because the movie is incredibly spiritual and powerful, but not what you would call blockbuster material (at least by American standards).  The fact that is WAS so successful certainly says something about the Russian people.  First and foremost, I think it says they have better tastes in film!  Ha!

I don't say this often, but I think the movie would warrant multiple watchings to better appreciate the subtle messages.  This is a movie experience that requires one to sit back and relax, resist the craving for action and car chases, and open your heart to a deeper message.  

Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Wrapping Up Spring Break, and Saving Lives Again

This is the last day of Spring Break, and while I am sad (it is nice not getting home every night at 8pm) I am also looking forward to getting my routine back.  It also means that there is only seven weeks of school left!  Yeah baby!  It would be right about now when I start to retreat into my shell and avoid everything to do with school.  I max out in mid-April.  I'm sick of volunteering, the meetings, the homework, everything.  It is a predictable cycle for me.

We have had a busy week.  Just to update you, Easter brunch was splendid.  I did not count calories that day.  I drank champagne and ate dessert, and passed out on my floatie in the pool and got a sunburn.  What a glorious day.  We filled the week with an additional horse lesson, mom/kid workouts at Andre's, an eye doctor appointment to get my daughter contacts, a second viewing of The Hunger Games (while I sat outside and read Nesbo), a day trip to the beach, shopping, and an extra-long day of volunteerism at the animal shelter.  I need to share an animal shelter story with you.

There are two sections for the cats at the animal shelter.  One is the adoptable cats (ones that aren't sick or wild), and then the "back" section, which are the ones that are labeled as "people aggressive".  Nine out of ten times, these cats are put down after the waiting period has passed.  Nobody wants them.  I hate saying that, but it is true.  So that is exactly where my daughter spends her time.  She is a cat whisperer, so if a cat can be tamed, she'll be the one to do it.  This past Thursday, she fixated on a 6 month old tiger kitty that was labeled as "people aggressive", and within 10 or 15 minutes, had it cradled in her arms like a baby.  It was probably just terrified when it was brought in.  I summoned an employee to show them what was happening, and they changed the label to "friendly" and moved the kitten up to the adoptable section.  You see, THIS is why we are there.  We made a difference that day.

*collecting myself*

I did miss both of my book club meetings.  I just couldn't get there.  I was sad because we were discussing "Looking For Salvation at the Dairy Queen" by Susan Gregg Gilmore, and "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand, and I loved both.  The Books, Babes and Bordeaux have chosen our next read to be "Fifty Shades of Grey" (yes THAT one) and I'm not real happy about it.  I do not want to read this book.  I'm highly annoyed.  But I will try for the sake of keeping an open mind.  I am not a prude, mind you, but I really prefer not to spend my time reading pandering, erotica trash written for shock value.  Sorry about the attitude.  I'll settle down now.

Despite all that kid entertaining and running around, I did do some reading.  After finishing Jenny Lawson's memoir "Let's Pretend This Never Happened", I spent most of the week listening to "Chasing Midnight", a book in a mystery thriller series that takes place in Florida.  I can't say I loved it, but I still need to process.  Now I am slogging through the fact-dense "Killing Lincoln" by Bill O'Reilly.  Everything you'd ever want to know about the Civil War battles, but I'm wondering when we're going to get to the assassination plot?

And HEAR YE!  I finished "The Leopard" by Jo Nesbo in print!  It seemed a bit long and wandering, but I do love his books and will probably never stop reading them as long as he writes them.  I am now deep into "A Land More Kind Than Home" by the most charming Wiley Cash, and I am gripped, GRIPPED, I tell you.  This book is coming out in early May and should do incredibly well.

Hope you all have a wonderful Sunday filled with family, relaxation and reading!     

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Winner of The Taker Prize Pack!!!!

 My apologies for being a little slow in this announcement, but I am excited to announce the winner for the AMAZING PRIZE PACK that includes:

*  A copy of "The Taker" (guaranteed to make a mark on you)
*  A spoofy wine label of "The Reckoning"
*  Bookmarks
*  Post-it notes
*  A Reckoning ink pen
*  A proof of "The Taker" paperback cover

And the lucky winner, chosen via is...

Jenners @ Life...With Books

(Jenners, just don't blame me if you end up losing sleep after you read this one!)

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Last Child - John Hart (Audio)

This book has been vying for my love for a long time.  I originally got my hands on a signed copy at my Adult Literacy League auction (originally donated by Rhapsody Jill).  The book had gotten rave reviews and had just won an Edgar in 2010.  

I read John Hart's more recent book "Iron House" and enjoyed it.

Then recently, Carrie talked about her experience with the audio version.  I find it funny how, if I have a book in print on my shelf, I don't even consider the option of listening to the audio.  But that is exactly what I did.

Synopsis:  One year ago, 13 year-old Johnny's twin sister Alyssa was abducted while walking home and has never been seen again.  Johnny's father assumed the responsibility of the tragedy, since he had forgotten to pick her up, and presumably burdened with guilt, has left Johnny and his mother.  Johnny's mother has since taken up with an abusive but wealthy local businessman, who allows her to live in one of his dilapidated rentals, and keeps her supplied with drugs.   Investigating detective Clyde Hunt has also suffered, allowing his failed attempt at recovering Alyssa to break up his marriage and alienate his teenage son.  

Johnny spends his time searching for his sister, since the police are of no use.  He tracks child molesters and hardened criminals, looking for the mysterious person who stole his sister and his life away.  Then another child goes missing.  And Johnny witnesses an accident, one in which a motorcycle driver is run off a bridge by another car, and the dying victim claims to have "found the lost girl".

In his determined quest to discover the fate of his sister, Johnny and his best friend meet a giant who has escaped prison and is on a mission of his own.  Not only will this man reveal truths about the sordid history of their hometown, but about Alyssa and themselves.  

My opinion:  When it comes to the thriller genre, it really doesn't get any better than this.  This story was so rich and complex, it almost defies a category.  The characterizations are incredibly complete, all the way down the line of the supporting cast.  Real, flawed, authentic personalities are not just saved for the main protagonists.  

But if you want to talk about the lead characters, Johnny and Clyde were worthy of their roles.  Johnny has been described as a cross between Opie Taylor, Scout Finch and Huck Finn, and I don't think I could do any better.  He is innocent yet wise beyond his years.  He is smart but doesn't really care about the rules.  He will do whatever it takes to protect his mother and find his sister.  Clyde would have been an easy person to dislike - he has completely failed his son for the sake of his job.  He also has an unhealthy obsession with Johnny and his mother. But we, as readers, are allowed to understand that he is nothing if not earnest.

This is not a one-dimensional mystery.  We care about Alyssa, we care about the newest child taken, we care about the poor guy on the motorcycle, we care about the suffering giant.  We care that Johnny's mother is going to lose Johnny to the authorities if she isn't careful.  But we know early on that the issues aren't necessarily all connected to the underlying plot thread, nor is it necessarily going to resolve all questions with a happy outcome.  It is about real life, and life is messy and unpredictable.  So prepare to have your heart broken.  Maybe more than once.  

Despite the darkness, the disturbing images and senseless death, you will exit this experience satisfied in ways you didn't think possible with a book from the thriller genre.  

A few words about the audio production:  With any novel based in the South, I feel it is critical to nail your accents.  The narrator, Scott Sowers (who has narrated three John Hart books), overall did a wonderful job in this area.  But there were a few issues that just kept bothering me throughout the experience.  Certain words were pronounced distinctly un-Southern, like saying "bean" instead of "been", or "agayn" instead of "again".  I don't seemed very Canadian or something, and it drove me to distraction.  I've asked several people who have spent time in North Carolina, which is where this story is based, and they have never heard such a thing, so I'm not sure where this is coming from.  In the midst of an incredible book, this was my only complaint.

4.5 out of 5 stars  


Thursday, April 12, 2012

The House I Loved - Tatiana De Rosnay (Audio)

Several years ago, my book club read Tatiana De Rosnay's "Sarah's Key", a popular selection.  There were parts of that story that I loved...WWII, little Sarah and her heartbreaking story...but parts I didn't like.  While most people undeniably loved it, I was ambivalent about reading more from the author.  

But recently she published this, and I thought the premise was intriguing (Paris in the 1800's).  The audio was only five discs long (a long walk and a thorough housecleaning), and Heather loaned it to me, so I was convinced.  

Synopsis: It is 1860 and the old Paris is being razed for the sake of progress.  Entire neighborhoods are being destroyed to make room for wider boulevards and improved sewer systems, per the orders of Emperor Napoleon III.  Amidst the destruction sits an old house occupied by Rose Bazelet, who refuses to give up her family home and her memories to this movement.  She takes refuge in the basement, and writes a long letter to her dead husband Armand.

Rose reflects back on everything that the house on rue Childebert has witnessed.  It saw the rise and fall of various political parties, it saw the French Revolution, the new democratic institutions, and Belle Epoque.  It was originally in her husband's family for generations.  Rose made a life there with Armand, had two children, made lifelong friends, and lost loved ones in this house.  The house also closely guarded a secret of Rose's that she has never told a single soul, until she reveals it in a last confession in her letter.  

As a testament to De Rosnay's time spent living in Paris and her love for all things French, she brings this time period to life for us, and into one life that was destroyed by its modernization.

My thoughts:  Even though I have never actually visited the City of Lights, I find Paris an intriguing setting.  It has so much potential in a book to become its own character, with its culture and its food and its reputation of romance.  (Coincidentally, while I was listening to this book, I watched the movie "Midnight in Paris"...strange how your life finds themes serendipitously).  In this sense, the book charmed me, and educated me about a part of Paris' history I knew nothing about.

The characters, however, mostly felt two dimensional to me.  Perhaps this was because most of the novel was an older woman sitting in a basement reflecting back on her life, most of the characters failed to come to life for me.  I did appreciate Rose's best friend, Alexandrine, who was headstrong and tenacious...a  feminist before her time.

In the end, this was an enjoyable and sweet read.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator for this production was Kate Reading, who has a lovely accent and has a resume filled with classics, which is a good fit.  I wouldn't describe her voice as distinctive, but is pleasant to listen to.

3.5 out of 5 stars    


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Chicago #2

For anyone who has read "Devil in the White City", you are very familiar with the fact that the Ferris Wheel was invented for and debuted at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago.  As a testament to that fact, there is a huge 260-foot Ferris Wheel at the Navy Pier that you can ride.  It is the perfect way to see the skyline of the Windy City.  Just don't look down. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

View With a Grain of Sand - Wislawa Szymborska

 At the end of January, I read a post written by Gavin at Page 247 about a Nobel Prize-winning poet named Wislawa Szymborska.  My interest was piqued.  She was obviously Polish, and she was obviously a good poet.  I am about as far from the poetry type as a body can be, but I'm always trying to push myself in new directions so I figured why not?  I ordered her most famous collection of poems called "View with a Grain of Sand" from my library and steeled myself for the Grand Experiment.  I muttered to myself that I might need a "Poetry for Dummies" book to ease me into this project.  

Sadly and coincidentally, the very next day, Wislawa passed away in her sleep at the age of 88.

Poetry idiot or not, I was fascinated with the woman.  She is a bit of a rock star in Poland.  My (non-reading) husband had even heard of her.  She was only 16 when WWII broke out, and at that time she went underground to continue her education.  In 1943, she began to work for the railroads and avoided being deported by the Germans.  After the war, she attended a university in Krakow, but never finished due to financial constraints.  Her first poem was published in 1945, and her first book in 1949, although it was censored because it didn't meet socialistic requirements.  She was a fighter though, and throughout her life was an activist for the freedom of speech.  
So what of her poetry?  This collection consists of 100 poems written between 1957 and 1993. Some of them went right over my head, and that is probably my fault.  I read print before volleyball games, in the car waiting to pick up children, and while cooking dinner.  Probably not the best environment to appreciate inferences and symbolism and deeper thinking.  

But other poems I loved.  I found that her personality shone through the words.  The prose seemed noticeably lighter towards the beginning of her career, like when she poked fun at an ill-attended poetry reading:

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare - 
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining, 
the rest are relatives.  O Muse.

Later she turns contemplative and a little snarky in "True Love", when she asks if it is practical, and why are some allowed to experience it and not others?  She wishes the happy couple would try to at least hide it, and fake a little depression for their friend's sake.  She ends the poem with this statement:

Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there's no such thing.

Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.

Later in the book, things take a definite turn to the darker side of humanity.  In "The Terrorist, He's Watching" she counts down the seconds to a bomb detonation, describing the folks who narrowly escape it.  Or not.  

Or "Hitler's First Photograph", calling the future homicidal maniac a "precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honey bun."  The last paragraph (stanza?) turned my blood to ice with this:

The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunen.
And Braunen is a small but worthy town - 
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soup.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.

At this point I'm drawn in completely.  Why is it that every book for me comes down to WWII?  Funny how it always finds me.  Her work just got more and more compelling.  She describes death as "Preoccupied with killing, it does the job awkwardly, without system or skill.  As though each of were its first kill."  She laments how a resume will always fail to capture a life, a spirit.  She describes various inane conversations at a funeral.  Or how life moves on, no matter the tragedy that occurs in a city or location.

Her descriptions are rich and complex, and it is obvious to me, despite my lack of experience, that she is incredibly talented.  

I found myself wondering how on earth an author can write a poem (especially the ones that rhyme) in their native tongue - in this case Polish - and still work when it is translated.  I don't get it, but it feels like something close to magic to me.

Am I a convert?  Eh, probably not.  But this experience was actually quite pleasant, and I'd be willing to pick up another book of poetry again someday.  I have no basis of comparison, but Ms. Szymborska's work seems like it might be as good as it gets.

4.5 out of 5 stars