Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Guest Book - Marybeth Whalen

A few words that describe Marybeth Whalen:  spiritual, gentle, genuine.  You really couldn't meet a nicer person.  She is a true Southern girl, married for 20 years to the love of her life and has six (yes you read that right, and they are all gorgeous by the way) kids.  And she writes.  And she contributes once a week to the blog Southern Belle View.  And she directs the website She Reads.  I know at this point you are shaking your head in wonder.

And you have probably also gotten an image of the type of book she writes, and you would be right.  Her books are wonderful, Southern stories about women.  The women may not be perfect...they have had obstacles in their lives, made some bad choices perhaps, but strive to do the right thing, and reclaim their spirituality.  These are stories you can embrace.

Synopsis:  From the time Macy Dillon was five years old, she vacationed with her family at Sunset Beach, North Carolina.  Because she has always been a talented artist, her father encouraged her to draw pictures in the rental house's guest book each year.  And to her delight, an unnamed boy would draw pictures as well, and the two began a unique correspondence.  Until Macy was 16 years old, that is, when her father unexpectedly dies, and her family decides never to return to this place so filled with memories.  Macy has always wondered what happened to that boy, and if he was her soul mate that got lost in bad timing.

Ten years later, Macy's life has gone astray.  She has turned her back against God, had a daughter out of wedlock, and is struggling to make ends meet.  The father of her daughter Emma has recently come back into their lives, but for how long?  And her dream of being an "artist" seems to have been lost in the chaos.  It seems that none of her family has gotten over the death of her father...he mother lingers over a shrine of sorts, and her brother is engaged in a self-destructive battle with alcohol.  One day, though, Macy's mother suggests that the four of them go back to that rental house in Sunset Beach for two weeks.  Perhaps they can face the painful memories and move on with their lives.  

And in the back of Macy's mind is her friend from the guest book.  Is he still around?  If they were able to meet today, would they rekindle their childhood connection?  Or is that just a silly fantasy born from a lonely heart?  In a moment of desperation one night on the beach, Macy prays, asking for Him to bring her the long lost boy.  But you know what they say!  Be careful what you wish for...

My thoughts:  The best way I can describe my reading experiences with Marybeth's books is snuggling down in my comfy clothes in my comfy chair and enjoying myself without fear.  Her stories are not all resolved easily, and sometimes things can get awkward, but I can relax knowing that I am in good hands.  I know she will take care of me and not manipulate me or mess with my head.  

Granted, once in awhile I LIKE to be messed with, but there is comfort in knowing where I can go for safe harbor.  

Years and years ago, pre-kids, pre-everything grown up, my husband and I vacationed at Sunset Beach.  It was magical and beautiful and so untouched by tourism.  The Deep South crossed with the tranquility of the sea and sand.  This story reminded me that I needed to get back there.  This is the perfect location for Macy to find herself.

The idea of retreating to a childhood beach rental in order to battle demons, and to perhaps find one's soul mate was precious and whimsical.  The fact that at one point it seemed to be raining hot men made it even more fun.  It almost becomes a mystery...a guessing game...on which of these men might be Macy's childhood romance.  I'd bet that each reader will be rooting for their own favorite.  The best part is that there really is no wrong answer.  Maybe it is a little fantastical but it will cure what ails you.

What makes this story unique, I think, is that Marybeth weaves some heartfelt spirituality into the story without it ever getting preachy or overbearing.  This is her gift.  She makes it all work seamlessly.

So go read Gone Girl and get your head crushed, then relax and dip into something that will nurse your battered soul.  

4 out of 5 stars  


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: St. George Island #5

St. George Island on a sunrise walk.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Are You My Mother? - Alison Bechdel

I was introduced to Alison Bechdel, and became enamored of her vulnerability and honesty, with her graphic novel "Fun Home", which was a bit of a phenomenon in the literary world.  In publishing this book, she exorcises the demons foisted upon her primarily because of the dysfunction in her family while growing up, her father's closet tendencies, his questionable death, and her coming out as a lesbian.  I so thoroughly enjoyed this book that I was sure I'd read anything she ever published.

Synopsis:  While "Fun Home" is the story of Alison's life, with a focus on her father, "Are You My Mother?" is a type of journal...a behind-the-scenes evaluation of her state of mind while writing that book.  This time, it is focused more on the relationship between Alison and her mother.  How will her mother react to such a brutally honest expose of their lives?  Why has their relationship been so strained?  Why was her mother so distant from Alison while growing up, when she was so doting on Alison's brothers?  

Focusing her thoughts inward, Alison closely examines the works of Donald Winnicott, a famous psychoanalyst who coined the term "the good-enough mother".  She replays sessions with her two different shrinks over the years.  She meanders through the works of Virginia Woolf to study the author's relationships with her parents.  She also reveals her mother's background...a woman bursting with creativity and love of the arts, but sacrificing it all for her husband and children.  A woman who gives up the goodnight kiss and basically all touching after Alison turns seven.

My thoughts:  As much as it pains me to say this, I found this book extremely disappointing.  I admire Bechdel, and I understand what she is trying to accomplish by writing this book, but her navel-gazing and obsession with finding answers about herself and her mother is so intense and angst-ridden it's exhausting.  

When Bechdel reveals her mother's background, I was intrigued and entertained.  And a little sad, for so many reasons.  The sudden decision to stop kissing her daughter goodnight at such a young age made me want to cry.  Granted, the reader gets very little insight into what made her mother tick, but was an interesting examination of family dynamics.  And you further understand why Alison suffers so as an adult.  What became laborious was all the probing into the theories of various scientists, the dream analysis, the self-flagellation, the rolling around in the muck of unresolved childhood psychosis.  Often it is stream-of-consciousness, the train of thought wandering and alighting on any topic that has haunted Bechdel in her lifetime.  I felt bad for her, but at the same time, it was more than I signed on for when I picked up the book.  

This is not the same book that "Fun Home" was.  Not even close.  With respect to Alison, I sincerely hope that writing this book was cathartic for her.  But it is not something I would recommend.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Matinee: Three Colors Trilogy - Blue, White, Red (1993, 1994)

Years and years and years ago, pre-children, my husband and I watched two of the three movies in this trilogy.  And completely fell in love with the artistry and style of the decorated Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.  We also were able to watch his most famed and ambitious work "The Decalogue", which is 10 short stories based on each of the Ten Commandments.  His work is thoughtful and artistic in a way that makes you want to watch the films more than once, just to better read between the lines and catch little signs and clues you may have missed in an earlier watching.  In all of his work, his characters are always faced with moral dilemmas, and there are subtle themes of the interconnectivity in life.  

Two seconds after I learned that this trilogy had been released on Blu-Ray, I whipped out my credit card and purchased the set for my husband for Christmas.  

There was absolutely nothing random about the way Kieslowski planned this trilogy.  He constructed the themes of each around those of the French Revolution AND around the colors of the French flag:  Liberty (Blue), Equality (White) and Fraternity (Red).  

In Blue, a young wife and mother (Juliette Binoche) is the sole survivor of a car accident that took the lives of her daughter and her classical composer husband.  At first, her survival drives her to attempt suicide but she can't go through with it.  So instead she attempts to kill herself psychologically by erasing all evidence of them from her life, moving from a wealthy estate to a run-down apartment, and deadening her soul to any outsider.  Throughout the movie, however, she transforms and strives for that liberty to break free of the shackles that keep her from truly living.  This film is the most quiet of the three, the most subtle, and the least evocative, barring Binoche's graceful beauty.

In White, a rumpled, pathetic Karol has been reduced to an all-time low.  He has been divorced by his icy, materialistic wife (Julie Delpy), and is unemployed and penniless.  He leaves France and returns to his homeland Poland, and as a result of a single-minded goal of wreaking revenge on his ex-wife, rises to an entrepreneurial success.  It is all about getting even, and does he ever.  At the same time, he will always be in love with this horrid woman, and seeking her approval.  This filmed has been deemed a comedy, and I guess I could see that, assuming you clarify it as a black comedy.  I didn't do much laughing, but oh, it was sharp and clever, and I felt a huge sense of satisfaction to see the underdog get his day in a slightly disturbing ending.  

In Red, the third and final installment, we follow the life of a beautiful, single model in her daily comings and goings...her photo shoots, her ballet classes, her obsession in being near the phone to receive calls from her controlling boyfriend.  One day, she hits a dog with her car, and in delivering the wounded animal to its owner, meets a reclusive old judge.  The judge, she learns, likes to eavesdrop on his neighbors phone calls, which offends the young woman.  Still, a friendship develops between the two that is based on matters of morality.  They are both good for each other.  More than in the other films, this one explores the threads that connect us all.  And in a final scene, we get a tiny glimpse (watch closely or you will miss it) of characters from all three films, that provide a suggestion on how all of their lives have turned out.  It was definitely an "Ooooohhhh!  Cool!" moment, where everything comes together and kind of gels.

By the descriptions, you probably can figure out that these are not movies that employ high action scenes and mindless running around.  This is artistic indie film at its best.  It is important to note that you watch these movies in order.  But if you are up for something smart and thought-provoking, I think you will find this trilogy extremely satisfying.  (And if you do, I highly recommend "The Decalogue"!)    

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Salon: Running

 Well, I almost bagged the idea of a Salon today.  I feel like I'm starting to sound like a broken record, and I'm not sure I have anything mind-shattering to tell you about my week that has just passed.  Except that in my memory, I've never had such a week.  My husband was out of town.  Five of the last seven days, I've gotten up between 4:30am and 4:45am, and the other two by 5:30am.  One day I was in my car for 4.5 hours.  I never consumed my dinner before 8:00pm.  It was just unbelievable!  I offer a humble and reverent admiration for all single parents of teenagers out there.  I'm not sure I could keep up this pace for the long-term.  When my husband got back home last night, I was laying on my bed talking to him while he unpacked, and I fell asleep mid-sentence.  It was that kind of week!  And he leaves again for three days this week, but I'm choosing not to think about that right now.

So lots of running around.  Including the kind that involves my legs moving and pounding the pavement.  The stress is better managed when I am physically exhausting myself.  My routine seems to be holding fast at three days with Andre and four days running primarily with my running partner, who is also named Sandy.  In order to fit in our "long" run of the week, I got up at 4:30 yesterday morning and met her in her neighborhood (whose streets have better lighting than mine) and we put in 7.5 miles.  Yeah! 

So, a Tropical Storm or Hurricane?  I don't think it is going to hurt us too much.  We will see some rain, and I think the best I can hope for right now is that we have a day off from our activities.  I did allow myself a few minutes of fantasizing about what we would do if we had a day off from school.  Lay around and read?  Yes!  Go to the movies?  Yes!  Sleep?  Yes!  

I do have to tell you all about the highlight of my week.  My son's first official football game of the season was yesterday, and we played a team that is a division above us.  A team that handed us our asses last year (actually our only regular season loss).  But we are back stronger and madder in 2012.  These boys walked out onto that field yesterday thirsty for blood, and they got it.  We beat them 8-6 in a nail-biter, that ended with us sacking their quarterback.  REDEMPTION!  Yes we take our football seriously down here.  It was awesome.

I was really disappointed to have missed our book club discussion this week of Alma Katsu's "The Taker".  I don't take kindly to missing book club, and at this one, Alma was actually calling in to talk to us!  The ladies that attended had a ball.  Alma is the nicest, most interesting woman you will ever meet, and they were totally enthralled with her.  Next month we are reading "Code Name Verity", which I've had on my Kindle all summer.  I really hope I can make that one.

Last week I whined about my reading, and I guess it is fair to say that it has picked up just a smidge.  All the time in the car does help with the audio consumption.  But here is the deal.  I had agreed to participate in the TLC tour of "The Orphan Master's Son" because I already had it loaded on my iPod.  So happily I went, listening and doggedly attempting to get through it.  Then I realized that it was OVER 19 HOURS LONG!  OMG!  Holy Moses.  This book has me totally perplexed.  For the first 5 or 6 hours, I even considered DNF-ing it.  I was confused, didn't always understand what was going on.  But now I'm mesmerized.  I'm glad I persevered.  Anyway, Lord willing, I will finish this week.  I think I have four or five hours left.

After two weeks, I also finished "The Meryl Streep Movie Club" which was nice.  Predictable novel about angst, love, girlfriend power and the comfort of a Meryl Streep movie.  I enjoyed it.  I just now started a true crime book for TLC called "Wilderness of Error", and it is like a million pages long.  True crime is my brain candy, so I am hoping that I can dig in and get some momentum with it.

So I'm off today at 7:15 for church, then some time at the animal shelter to hold kittens and walk puppies, then probably grocery store and a shorter run later this afternoon.  Hopefully a little reading and a nice relaxing Sunday dinner perhaps?  A little blog visiting?  Hope you all have a wonderful Sunday!


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Chaperone - Laura Moriarty (Audio)

I'm not sure what review or what description actually was the tipping point to make me read this book.  I like books that are set in the early 1900's...such an interesting time for women...but there are so many, you have to wade through them all to find the good ones.  I will tell you that initially, the synopsis did not reach out and grab me.

But then the reviews flooded in.  A tidal wave of love is what it was.  I was offered a review copy of the audio from Penguin, and I was soon on the bandwagon (or surf board?) myself.

Synopsis:  It is the year 1922 in Wichita Kansas.  Cora Carlisle is a middle-aged, married woman whose twin sons will soon be off to college, and has accepted the task of chaperoning the willful and spirited 15 year-old Louise Brooks to New York City for a month to study with a prestigious dance school.  Not only does this give Cora a chance to feel productive, but also offers her the opportunity to do a little fact-finding at the orphanage where she spent her childhood.  Will she be able to track down her biological mother, and if she does, will this resolve all the unresolved questions Cora has had her entire life?  Or will it be a devastating disappointment?

Once in New York, Cora finds herself in way over her head on so many levels.  Louise is impossible to control, and seems intent on destroying her reputation.  Cora confronts multiple obstacles in the search for her mother as well.  On all fronts, the events that occur in her five weeks in New York will have impacts on Cora for the rest of her life. 

We also slowly delve into Cora's background.  Her trip on the orphan train from New York to Wichita as a young girl, her adoption by kind country folk, and her courtship with her husband.  At first glance, it seems that Cora's life is typical, maybe even mundane, with a grounded sense of propriety.  But as we learn more about her, we find that she is anything BUT ordinary.

My thoughts:  I suspect that nothing I would say to you in a synopsis of this book would come close to the full impact on your heart and mind when you turn the last page.  And I have been intentionally vague because the plot must be explored blindly.  The story starts out nice, interesting, la la.  But two-dimensional.  Then it slowly unfurls, opening like a gorgeous, blooming flower.  It sounds corny, I know, but that is how it felt.  Everything became complex and rich and layered and big.  

There are so many topics addressed in this book, I wouldn't even know where to begin.  Just simply the expectations of women during this time period offers limitless treasure to be mined.  But there is an immigrant story, homosexuality, adultery, birth control, schadenfreude, prohibition, pedophilia, unwed mothers...and that is just off the top of my head.  This story has got it all.  

Did it all seem like too much?  Not really.  It all blended effortlessly because the author allowed it to unfold slowly - just excellent story-telling.  It did occur to me, somewhere in the last quarter of the book, that the story seemed to have wandered off the path.  Like after being absorbed for ten hours, I looked up and noticed I was lost!  How did I get here!?  It starts off about Louise Brooks (who was a real person BTW!), sort of, but ultimately is only a vehicle for Cora's transformation.  But I didn't mind all that much.  The journey was fun.

I loved Cora.  She is an evolving woman who recognizes where she has been, where she may have been wrong in her preconceived notions, and where she wants to go.  She adapts, she is practical, and she is a survivor.  I loved watching her come into her own in her mid-life.   

A few words about the audio production:  Here was the cherry on top for me.  The narrator was Elizabeth McGovern, the actress.  I've heard some say that her British accent (which she used for the general narration, and then switched to her native Midwest accent for character dialogue) as fake.  And it IS fake...girlfriend grew up in Illinois. But she currently lives in London, she is on Downton Abbey, and I had no issue with it.  I love it when seasoned actors and actresses narrate an audio, because the story comes to life.  It feels natural.  McGovern was absolutely delightful.  

Listening time:  13 hours, 14 minutes (384 pages)

5 out of 5 stars  


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: St. George Island #4

Here are a couple of examples of me trying to be artsy in my photo taking (I had to lay down in the sand to take the second one).  I felt though that it captured the simplicity and the untouched nature of the island.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


 You all know by now how much I love Jo Nesbo?  Yes you do.  You have all listened to me rant and rave over every Nesbo book I've read over the last year...all six of them.  You may or may not know that he has a new one coming out here in the US in October called "Phantom".  Exciting stuff for this Nesbo junkie, I'll tell you. 

So about two months ago, the lovely fairy godmother Pamela Cortland from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, contacted me about offering all of you the BEST NESBO GIVEAWAY EVAH.  In honor of the upcoming "Phantom" of course.  And in honor of my 20th wedding anniversary, which is today.  (I figure why not pick today for the festivities?  It is a good day when two people have been married to each other for that long!)

But this is not just one giveaway of one book.  I will be offering two ARCs of "Phantom" (in time for you to receive them and read them before the release date).  

But that's not all!  There is a GRAND PRIZE giveaway as well.  The grand prize winner will get an ARC of "Phantom", plus a paperback copy of "The Leopard" and "The Snowman", the two books that precede "Phantom". 

To enter to win, you must live in the US, and express your interest and your e-mail in the comments before August 30.  I will announce the winners on August 31.  I truly wish you luck because if you have never read Nesbo, he is addictive.  If you have read him, you already know he is addictive, and probably that he is quite handsome, and you will need all of these books.  

Just sharing the love, my friends!   

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Matinee: Horrible Horror

Much like me when I was a teenager, my daughter is the maven of horror movies.  In my case, the slashy-er the better.  In her case, she doesn't need sharp kitchen knives and blood.  She'll watch anything.  

When we were visiting my parents in Indiana, one of the kids' fun activities is to rent movies from the local rental shop (they are a dying breed).  You can rent what seemed like about 30 movies for about $7.  My son grabs all the Westerns, mob and war flicks. My daughter gets cheesy horror.  I can't watch them all, but I did get sucked into a few.  I figured, why not share a couple of them with you?

Quarantine:  The premise is this.  Chirpy, ridiculously skinny and unprofessional reporter is assigned to shadow a fire department for an evening of "behind the scenes" footage.  They get called to an apartment building where something has run afoul.  They discover that a number of the residents are running around insane, frothing at the mouth and biting people, zombie-like.  Soon the entire building, including Chirpy and the fireman, are locked inside, as the "virus" is considered infectious.  They will be shot and killed if they attempt escape.  Everything goes from bad to worse, as you might expect.  

This movie actually did get some marketing behind it.  I saw enough showings of the trailer to wonder if I'd get dragged to it at the theater.  I'm glad I didn't.  This is one of a billion movies that spawned from The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, where they think it is still cool to shoot the movie as if by handheld camera.  Yes, that does give a sense of being IN the action, but in this particular instance, especially towards the end of the film, you have no clue what is going on.  It is just a big blur with a lot of screaming.  The only interesting takeaway for me was that the symptoms displayed by the apartment tenants are actual symptoms of rabies.  Beyond that?  Don't even waste your time.

1.5 out of 5 stars

The Ward:  A young woman, Tammy, who burns down an abandoned farmhouse, is captured and put into an asylum because she is acting all wackadoo.  She joins a group of other young women who all look like they walked off the pages of Teen Vogue...all cute and clever and very lucid.  Soon Tammy is convinced she is being stalked by a girl demon/ghost who used to be a patient.  Girls keep disappearing, in theory being picked off by the ghost, and Tammy constructs a plan to fight back.

OK, this movie was directed by John Carpenter so I figured it HAD to be good!  But between the snappy mean girls and an ending that has been so overused I had to laugh that someone thought it should be used AGAIN, this film was pretty lame.  If you like overused twists and psych wards, though, you might be entertained.

2.5 out of 5 stars


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Salon: Write It Off

 Write it off is exactly what I intend to do to a majority of this week.  My weeks are always generally busy, and sometimes crappy, but this one really took the prize.  

Before we enter The Week That Nearly Did Me In, please bear in mind that I was already hanging on by my fingernails.

My daughter started high school on Monday morning.  She also decided to try out for Cross Country, which required her to start her high school career at 5:30 in the morning with a 6 mile run (that means that she and I get up at 4:50).  My heart went out to her, knowing that the rushed, cold shower and the wet hair in her first class wasn't what she had in mind when she imagined this day.  But I am proud of her.  Guarantee I wouldn't have done it at her age.

On Tuesday, after dropping her off at the 5:30 practice, and going for a run myself, I raced to my jury duty.  I nabbed a good seat next to an outlet and settled in for some blogging time and reading.  15 minutes into it, however, I was called to come up to the "Penthouse Courtroom" on the top floor (the Casey Anthony courtroom) for jury selection.  Uh oh.  I soon learned that selection could take days, and if I were selected, the trial would take four weeks.  That's right...FOUR WEEKS.  I started waving my arms and whining that I had busy kids, no family in town, and a husband that will be gone for the next 9 out of 14 days.  However I was surrounded by people who were probably going to lose their house if they sat on this jury, so my complaints were ignored.  At least for the next three days.  It took me that long to get my head around the idea of HIRING someone to pick up and drop off my kids at their various activities, and begging friends to pick them up if they get sick or fall down and have a head wound.  I almost had a nervous breakdown.  After three long days (four long days for some potential jurors) all but 6 of the 104 jurors were gradually excused, and I reclaimed my life.  It was a totally surreal experience.  And so much for blogging and reading.

So this is what it would be like if I worked full time.  Interesting.  I know I did it once when my kids were little.  Not sure how I would cope with it now.  I guess it would take a village.  I missed my son's "meet the teacher" (my BFF covered for me there), his first day of school, and hired our old babysitter to pick up my kids after school.  

But it kind of imploded my week and put me even further behind where I was on all counts.  Reading?  Are you kidding me?  I DID finally finish "The Snow Child" on audio, and have just started "The Orphan Master's Son" for a tour.  In print, I am reading "The Meryl Streep Movie Club" which is nice and I'm totally sure I'll probably cry because it is that kind of book.  But it is all rather slow and pathetic and unblog-like.  I'm distracted and still playing catch-up from vacation in July.  Don't be surprised if at some point I go from cutting off my Friday posts to just cutting everything off.  I've made my peace with this possibility. It would probably do me some good.  

So enough with the complaining.  That is what this entire post is about!  On a rather positive note, yesterday my husband and I ran with my daughter's Cross Country team for 7 miles, which was a pretty big deal for the old farts.  And last night, my hubby and I celebrated our 20th anniversary (which is actually on Tuesday...prepare for a special event on the blog for that day) at a very nice restaurant.  Amazing food and wine.  Today is action packed, from 7:30 Mass, animal shelter duties, to my daughter having more driving lessons.  Cross your fingers that things maybe turn in a good direction this week, I get caught up on my real life duties and blogging, and I find some peace in my heart.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta

A number of months ago, I got what I would call a regularly scheduled ultimatum from my literary conscience Rhapsody Jill, telling me I had to read this book.  It wasn't a suggestion.  She said I HAD to.  This usually means I have something special waiting for me between these pages.  So I dutifully bought it on my Kindle and earmarked it for summer reading.

She told me that I needed to pay attention, and that I may be inclined to re-read it as soon as I finished it...sort of a "Sixth Sense" kind of thing.  I considered myself warned (often I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to complex plots) and proceeded cautiously.

Synopsis:  Taylor Markham is a seventeen year-old orphan of sorts who attends an Australian boarding school out in the bush.  She is the newly appointed leader of the school, and everyone is relying on her to navigate the precipitous rules of territory and war between the kids at school, the townies, and the cadets that train in the area each fall.  She doesn't have much time to dwell on the fact that she was abandoned by her mother when she was eleven, and longs to find her again...but it is always in the back of her mind.  She relies on Hannah, a local woman who has mentored her since she arrived, but she recently disappeared without a word.  Then in struts Jonah Griggs, a cadet with whom she has a history.  

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, we are told a story of a car accident with three survivors.  A tale of five children who forge an unbreakable friendship that can't be broken, even by separation or tragedy.  

Slowly, these two stories mesh together, like a beautiful, mysterious dance.  A dance that celebrates motherless daughters, fathers and sons, best friends, young love, keeping some traditions and breaking others, and finding the answers that explain who we are.

My thoughts:  This book was an absolutely gorgeous read.  The world that I was plunged into was one I didn't ever want to leave.  And yes, if I didn't have three thousand books calling for my attention, I'd read it again right now.  Never mind that it is officially labeled as Young Adult, this book is for HUMANS WITH A BEATING HEART.

It wasn't initially easy to understand, and it is important you know that up front, lest you get frustrated and stop reading.  Jill had told me to pay attention, so I did, and immediately treated the two stories like a puzzle or a mystery I needed to solve.  It was complex, well-developed, expertly-paced and extremely satisfying.

I fell in love with the characters.  Taylor wasn't your typical angsty teenage girl.  She is strong, fierce and passionate, but reserved in order to protect herself from heartbreak.  Jonah Griggs, the ying to her yang, blasted into town all intimidating and badass, but had his own defense mechanisms that were put in place for the purpose of demon-fighting.  Jonah was ultimately adorable once you see his soft underbelly.

The supporting cast of characters, both the adults and kids, were equally as unique and precious.  As unique and precious as your own motley crew when you were in high school.  A big group hug was what I wanted most at the end of the book. 

So yet again I find an author who I feel compelled to make into a project, reading the back list (the other was Gillian Flynn).  Marchetta's writing is edgy and smart, her structure unique.  I need more of this in my life.

5 out of 5 stars 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: St. George Island #3

This is the undiscovered side of St. George Island.  We would have never known it was there had we not ambled down a dirt street on our bicycles and happened upon this bird estuary that is located over on the bay side.  This is why we love this island so much.  No high rises, no throngs of traffic, and hidden little gems like this.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stiff - Mary Roach (Audio)

I recently had my first Mary Roach experience with "Spook", and finally got to see why so many people love this woman's work.  I found this mixture of science and snarky commentary enlightening and entertaining!  This is the kind of book that makes you want to run around spewing crazy facts to your family and friends!  Which is the best kind.  

So my library only had one other Mary Roach book on audio (my format of choice), and that was "Stiff".  The subtitle is "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers", which made me chuckle.  I knew I was in for another fun ride.

Synopsis:  Mary Roach is back with her Nosy Parker hat on, and dives head first into the research of dead bodies, and all the action that these bodies get once they are no longer breathing.  She leaves no stone unturned, with some of her topics including the study of decomposition (you've heard of the Body Farm?), bodies used as crash test dummies, practice for plastic surgery, or army ballistic experiments.  She pokes into early practices of body snatching, and use of dead body parts to cure various ailments.  Or analyzing body parts that fly out of an airplane to determine exactly why the plane crashed.  Decapitation and head transplants!  Crucifixion experiments! Options for burial and cremation!  Everything you ever wanted to know...and more.

My thoughts:  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, decidedly more than "Spook" even.  I know it sounds pretty morbid, reading about dead bodies.  But it was impossible to be saddened or creeped out because Mary approaches her topic with a healthy attitude of respect and fascination, and of course, humor.

With "Spook" there seemed to be times when the author slipped into a mire of fact now and again, and I felt my mind wandering.  This did not happen here.  It is impossible not to be completely absorbed with talk of studying plane crash sites, or how there is an option to have your dead body freeze-dried, or the mean lady who cuts off heads so they can be used by medical students.  I can't even BEGIN to tell you how bizarrely amazing this all was.  

At the same time, I found this book had fewer laugh-out-loud moments than "Spook".  The humor was more subtle and sarcastic, maybe in deference to the dead?  I don't consider this a fault though.  Shaking my head and muttering "wow" under my breath every 2.5 minutes is just as good as laughing about ectoplasm coming out of a medium's lady parts.  Here are some examples of what was going on in my ears:

“I walk up and down the rows. The heads look like rubber halloween masks. They also look like human heads, but my brain has no precedent for human heads on tables or in roasting pans or anywhere other than on top of a human bodies, and so I think it has chosen to interpret the sight in a more comforting manner. - Here we are at the rubber mask factory. Look at the nice men and woman working on the masks.”
“Here is the secret to surviving one of these [airplane] crashes: Be male. In a 1970 Civil Aeromedical institute study of three crashes involving emergency evacuations, the most prominent factor influencing survival was gender (followed closely by proximity to exit). Adult males were by far the most likely to get out alive. Why? Presumably because they pushed everyone else out of the way.”

Small digression:  One surreal moment that I had while listening to this book is worth sharing.  While enjoying this audio, I was also reading Jeff Ashton's "Imperfect Justice:  Prosecuting Casey Anthony".  The doctor that was supervising the decomposition experiments at the Body Farm (Doctor Arpad Vass) and was interviewed by Mary Roach was the same doctor that testified at Casey Anthony's trial with regards to the smell of death in her car trunk.  These two worlds, separated by 8 years, collided before my eyes.  Even more poignant was that in Roach's interview of Vass in 2003, they were discussing the development of the technology (chemical analysis of smell) that would ultimately be used in Anthony's trial.    

A few words about the audio production:  Shelly Frasier was the narrator for this audio, and is a different voice than the one in "Spook".  While I didn't mind listening to "Spook", I thought Shelly did a better job of capturing the essence of snark and dry humor.

Listening time:  7 hours and 59 minutes (303 pages)  

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday Matinee: In Darkness (2011)

My movie antennae has been up and twitching ever since I heard about this movie.  It caused quite a stir when it first released, and ultimately was nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category.  I think the biggest attraction for me was that it was directed by the acclaimed Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden, Blue). We are big fans in the Nawrot household.  We must have solidarity with the Polish folks.

The movie is based on a true story, and has a similar feel to "Schindler's List".  Leopold Soha lives in Nazi-occupied Lvov, a Polish town that today is located in Ukraine.  He is a sewer worker, and since the invasion of Poland, has become an opportunist who creeps through the bowels of the city, sneaking into evacuated Jewish homes and looting them for profit.    

When the Lvov Ghetto is liquidated of all Jews, who are deported to the extermination camps, Soha is offered a large sum of money to sneak a group of Jews into the sewers to hide.  Sure, why not?  His family has to eat, after all.

What he did not count on was becoming attached to this ragtag group of men, women and children.  They cease to be an income stream and become human beings  He begins to take chances when there is threat of discovery, spiriting them off to the next hiding place below the streets.  He smuggles them food and clothing, and worries for their well-being.  

We are also offered a peek into the conditions in which these Jews lived.  The sewers are cold and damp and rat-infested.   The quarters were claustrophobic and they had to invent ways to entertain themselves.  One woman even had a baby while they were hiding, but the baby died.

The story is compelling.  You all know I love stories of survival during WWII, especially true stories.  The acting is good, especially Robert Wieckiewicz, who plays Soha.  However, I did take issue with the gratuitous sex scenes that were shoehorned in there.  I mean, I know people had their NEEDS while trapped in the sewers, but did we really need so many examples?  Especially the one where one woman had a Flashdance moment in her negligee?  It was overkill and a Hollywood sellout.     
The movie was based on a book entitled "In the Sewers of Lvov" by Robert Marshall, written in 1990.  The only living survivor of Soha's Jews also wrote a memoir called "The Girl in the Green Sweater:  A Life in Holocaust's Shadow", but was published in 2008 and was too late to use as a source for this film.  

Unfortunately, while this was a decent movie, you can't help but compare it to "Schindler's List" and in that way it pales significantly.  I imagine it was added to the ballot because of Holland's influence (pictured above).  It did not win the Oscar and rightly so.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Salon: My week as Groundhog Day

 I'm not completely sure if I can nail down my mood at this point.  I'm a little grumpy.  I've been running from place to place, all bug-eyed, like my hair is on fire, with a schedule that is just a little insane and requires me to be in two or three places at once.  I'm tired, in a good way, and am really pleased with my workouts.  I'm in transition, and anxious for life to settle down into a manic routine.  It is the same song that I've been singing for weeks.  So you know what I said about last week?  Ditto for this one.  It is like Groundhog Day.  I keep expecting to wake up in the morning to Sonny and Cher singing "I've Got You Babe".

School starts next week for both of my kids.  My daughter begins high school (o_O), my son starts his 7th grade year.  My duties as the Treasurer for Home and School crank up for the second year of my two year commitment.  Football every night, a new horse schedule (yet to be figured out), 5:30am cross country practices, and...haha!  Get this!  Jury duty on Tuesday.  Couldn't have picked a shittier time, but whatcha gonna do?  I am working myself up to be the biggest bigoted bitch of all time, and pray they don't choose me for a trial.  I'm told that bigoted bitchiness isn't enough to be excused, but I'm going to give it my best shot.  The (only) upside is undisturbed reading time. 

So who is tired of the campaign crap?  I'm tired of it already.  It is going to be a looooong 2 1/2 months.  Florida is one of those states that after an election year, all that remains is a bloody, corpse and sign-strewn battlefield.  Just had to get THAT off my chest.  

Reading schmeading.  Blogging schmogging.  If you notice one day that it seems I have dropped off the face of the earth?  Worry not, I'm not dead.  I've only melted into a gelatinous mass of pooh.  You know, I try, I really do, but that isn't good enough.  I did finish Marybeth Whalen's "The Guest Book" and it was lovely and comforting.  I am now rolling around in the last three editions of the graphic novel formats of "The Stand".  So much indulgent fun!  It isn't exactly the same as King's Magnum Opus, but it is good stuff.  I also just did finish "The Discovery of Witches" on audio (it took me awhile, but I liked it) and am now listening to the subtly impactful "The Snow Child".  I don't run with my audios, I have running partners or I listen to music, so...who knows how long it will take me to get through this one.  There is always house-cleaning and weed-pulling!  Woo hoo!

So today, I'm going for a nice chunky run with my husband, go to church, flip a coin to see who goes to horseback riding lessons, then send my daughter off for driving instruction with a more sturdy, saner person than my husband and I.  (It is a true and good friend who does such a thing.)  Pray, my Christian soldiers.  Hope you all have a peaceful, non-eventful Sunday!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

I noticed in Entertainment Weekly last week that "Gone Girl" was number one on the Hardcover Best-Seller list.  Rock on cool girl.  As a result of my total love affair with Flynn's latest novel, I decided that it would be a crime if I didn't go back and see what other kinds of awesome this lady had created prior to The Book That Would Change Her Life.

Synopsis:  As part career-development, part therapy, Camille Preaker has been sent back to her small home town of Wind Gap MO to investigate and report on the murder of two pre-teen girls for her second rate Chicago newspaper.  Camille isn't so sure this is a good idea, however.  She has just been released from a psychiatric hospital because of her depression and compulsive cutting, and in her heart, feels she owes it all to the demons that wait for her at the childhood home she is now facing for the first time in many years.  Just some of the fun waiting for her includes an emotionally absent step-father, a hysterical and hateful social-climbing mother, a disturbed half-sister, and a town full of men who remember a promiscuous Camille.

Once she rolls into town and starts looking into these two seemingly related deaths (both of the girls' teeth were pulled out of their mouths post-mortem), she joins forces with a profiler with Kansas City who also just happens to be quite handsome.  As she begins navigating the small-town politics, the insidious alcoholism, and dysfunctional, evil undercurrents, Camille is afraid that if she doesn't get out soon, the town may suck her in and take her down for good.

My thoughts:   For a debut novel, this baby has some teeth.  It doesn't quite provoke insanity on the reader's part like "Gone Girl", but it is very dark and carries with it a sinister creepiness that you just can't put your finger on.  You walk into Wind Gap with Camille and a chill goes down your spine, and things don't feel quite right.  Everything is off by a step or two.  

Unlike "Gone Girl", where you hate everyone indiscriminately, you can get behind Camille.  The girl is seriously troubled, but you soon understand WHY.  And before you realize it, you find yourself praying that Camille just gets the hell out.  Just run, Camille.  Nothing good is going to come from this.

Flynn has an incredible way with descriptions.  I would stop my friends and my husband, and read snippets to them, and gesticulate like a crazy woman saying "Isn't that just brilliant??".  Here are a couple of examples.  See if this doesn't say it all:

"I was hoping Betsy Nash would disappear.  Literally.  She was so insubstantial, I could imagine her slowly evaporating, leaving only a sticky spot on the edge of the sofa."

"The pretty girl might do all right.  But the piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake bingeing.  The boy was the type who'd end up drinking in gas-station parking lots."

Who describes people like this?  As soon as I read both of these descriptions, I knew exactly what she was talking about.  Not only did her characters feel like real flesh and blood and ready to materialize before your eyes, but the mystery itself was intriguing as well.    

So she does throw twists in here, but they are not complex ones.  And you can kinda see them coming, if I were to be honest.  It doesn't lessen the sick feeling in your stomach when it all goes down, but you can get your head around it.

This is definitely a worthy read for any newly-minted Flynn fans.  Very fast-paced and easy to read as well.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: St. George Island #2

If you visit St. George Island today, you can't miss the St. George Island Lighthouse as you come over the bridge.  This gorgeous lighthouse hasn't always been here though.  The original was located on an uninhabited island accessible only by boat, built in 1852.  It finally succumbed to erosion and hurricane damage and collapsed in 2005.  The locals were devastated, as you can imagine, and relocated its pieces here and had it rebuilt.  You can walk up the 92 stairs and have a great view of the island.  

The cool thing is that years ago, when we were vacationing here, a local fishing guide took us shelling on his boat to this uninhabited island and we saw the lighthouse before it fell.  I know I took pictures, but I'll be darned if I can find them.  I feel blessed that we saw this historical landmark in its natural state. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony - Jeff Ashton

Is there a human being in the US that wasn't affected by the story of Caylee Anthony, who (sorry but I'm going there) was murdered by her mother Casey?  By the end of the trial last summer, the entire nation was watching, wondering how on earth a mother could do such a thing, and wondering how the hell a jury could have found her innocent of everything.  It was shocking.  

It is hard for me to be impartial or unemotional about the case because the evils inflicted on this two year-old happened IN MY BACK YARD.  While the rest of the nation might have gotten occasional updates over the three year period of investigation into Caylee's death, we got it EVERY DAY.  I'm not exaggerating.  Every day for three years.  There was a special time slot carved out in the local news each day for breaking updates.  Videos of Casey in prison talking to her family, videos of the swamp where Caylee's body was found, speculation on evidence, photos of Casey partying while her daughter was missing.  Central Floridians were more invested in this case than anything I can remember.  My mom and son were actually on the news during one of those updates, when they had gone out to the discovery site to leave flowers.  

The facts are insane and complicated, but the jist is something like this.  Little Caylee was missing for 31 days before her grandmother got suspicious and called 911.  Over those past 31 days, Caylee's mother Casey had been shacking up with her boyfriend, grinding at a hot body contest at a bar, getting a tattoo that says "Bella Vita" (beautiful life), and had been telling elaborate lies and making excuses for why Caylee wasn't around.

Once grandma blew the cover, Casey claimed that her daughter had been abducted by a (non-existent) babysitter, and later that she had drowned in the family pool and hidden by grandpa.  She was one proficient liar.  Her car had been found parked in an abandoned lot, reeking of death in the trunk, and bearing evidence of chloroform and a long brown hair from a dead body.  A massive search was launched to find the child, but it was 5 months later, once the summer waters had receded, that her body was found right around the corner from where Casey and her parents lived, in a swampy wooded area.  

It seems all cut and dried, at least to me.  But unfortunately because the body had lain in the elements for 5 months, much of damning forensic evidence was destroyed.  The case against Casey was reduced to something more reliant upon common sense.  After the biggest, most sensational trial since OJ Simpson, and after Casey walked away scot-free, the outraged public was left with more questions than answers.

Jeff Ashton, one of the prosecuting attorneys on the case, has come forward to outline all the facts, offer his personal observations and opinions, and provide some important information about the case that was suppressed in the trial for various reasons.  It is true crime in its most pure, spectacular form, told from a primary source.  It is well-written, never over-wrought (even though there are some aspects that will bring the average human being to their knees), and forthright.  The author who assisted Ashton in writing the book, Lisa Pulitzer, did an excellent job of organizing the multitude of facts into a logical order that is easy to understand.      

For anyone who watched the trial, especially towards the end, they will remember that Ashton got into a bit of trouble for outwardly sneering at the defense, Jose Baez.  Ashton IS a little cocky in his skills, but rightly so I think.  His record is impeccable...out of seventy homicide trials, all but two were returned with guilty verdicts.  He won convictions in all twelve of his capital murder cases.  Ashton apologizes for his behavior, but really REALLY loathes Baez.  The man had virtually no experience in criminal trials, and it showed.  He was a boob, but a boob with good salesmanship.  He never met his deadlines, was unprofessional, and his only defense strategy was to throw everything at the wall and hoped something stuck and caused some doubt.  I guess it worked.  It was the last case that Ashton worked prior to his retirement as a prosecutor, and while it must be a bitter pill to swallow, he offers words that helped him get past it, and it is his hope that it helps us too.

This novel is utterly gripping from beginning to end, whether you were invested in the case at the time or not.  It is a shocking and outlandish tale of injustice, along the lines of "you can't make this shit up".  It is chilling and sickening.  There were times when I felt like my head would explode.  I'm not sure I will ever be right with the outcome, but Ashton has given me words of comfort.  Plus, I do believe in Karma.  

5 out of 5 stars