Friday, July 31, 2009

Spies of Warsaw - Alan Furst

As most of you know, I have a little bit of an obsession with books and movies that take place during WWII. At the beginning of the year, I signed up to read 10 books for the War Through the Generations Reading Challenge, and I've completed 8 of them. The last two books are still up for grabs...I am always excited to discover what the Book Gods are going to throw in my path. So one day, when I was perusing some books featured on the Pump Up Your Book Promotion website, I noticed "Spies of Warsaw". Spies? WWII? Poland? Ah, the inspiration I'd been waiting for! Where do I sign up? Thanks Dorothy, for letting me jump on this bandwagon! Within a few hours of receiving the book in the mail, I had already started it.

I've never read anything by the author, Alan Furst. But after some quick research, I've discovered him to be THE expert on all things espionage in the years leading up to WWII. In fact, based on an interview of Alan on You Tube, he is quite a likeable guy that stays religiously true to the historical facts. Like a master chef, he takes his basic ingredients of documented history, adds a dash of character development of a great protagonist, a pinch of dangerous risk-taking, seasons it up with some romance, and you have a ripping, read-through-the night spy novel.

Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier works as a military attache for the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. A recent widower, a war hero, and a dedicated yet tormented employee, he is the best in the business. That is, the business of recruiting spies to obtain information from the Germans. He has many tricks up his sleeves, and possesses an almost sixth sense of what could motivate a human being to take such to take such drastic measures. Money, perhaps? An affair with a hot "countess"? Or maybe sanctuary from a life on the run, or revenge on a government run amuck. Mercier knows which buttons to push, and he gets results. He is even willing to do the dirty work himself if necessary. After all, it could mean the difference between peace and war, and Mercier believes in his heart that this benefit outweighs any of the necessary evils of the job.

But the French aren't the only game in town. In fact, Warsaw is teeming with Germans spying on Germans, Russians spying on the Polish, and Germans spying on the French, and often sides are switched when the going gets tough. They are literally tripping over each other. It is an era of paranoia, keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, witch hunts and finger-pointing, and figuring out exactly who can be trusted. Mercier learns the hard way that sometimes the enemy isn't necessarily always the dude with the swastika on his uniform.

As any fan of WWII historical fiction would probably agree, I've had my share of concentration camps. For anyone interested in this time period, this book is an excellent diversion from the expected. Another angle, another perspective. Mercier is achingly human and likeable, and Furst does an excellent job of helping us understand what makes him tick. The prose was very interesting - it flowed well (I read the book in just a couple of days), and was written in a slightly formal way, perhaps in order to capture Mercier's European professionalism and personality.

Having visited Warsaw myself, I was just a bit disappointed that the city's essence wasn't more fully developed. I love to read books that make me feel that I've seen it, smelled it, tasted it, and lived it, but this was missing from Spies of Warsaw. Furst instead focused on more of the emotional ambiance of fear and betrayal, which gets your heart racing quite nicely. There were also a few loose story lines that were still hanging unraveled at the end of the story. Small quibbles aside, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will most definitely more of Alan Furst.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Japanese Literature Challenge 3!!!

I know, I know, its a sickness. But when these challenges come along that are truly no-brainers, how can I ignore them?

Enter the Japanese Literature Challenge 3, hosted by Bellezza. All you have to do is read ONE work of Japanese origin between the dates of July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010. She has a special place for you to post your reviews, and she has prizes. Irresistible, isn't it?

I've already decided which book will satisfy this challenge, and that is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This was one of my sister's favorite reads, featured last Sunday on my blog, and the recommendation couldn't have come at a better time.

So come on guys. In for a dime, in for a dollar. It's only one book!

Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

This collection of short stories was my official selection for the 4R's Challenge, recommended by Kristen @ Booknaround and Violet Crush. I had mentioned in my thread that I was on the inept end of the spectrum with regards to the short story genre, and this was the recommendation they bestowed upon me. What made this suggestion even more serendipitous was the fact that I already had it on my list, mentioned months ago by C.B. James. I just couldn't pass it up.

I certainly had heard plenty about the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. This novel, her first, won the Pulitzer in 2000. Can you imagine coming out of the gate and nabbing that award? Or even better yet, writing your second novel, and hoping to match up to the first? You may recall her second novel, The Namesake, was made into a wonderful film a couple of years ago. This girl sets the standard, that is for sure. But I had no idea what to expect when I cracked open the first page. What I found was a group of nine gentle, easy-to-read stories about persons of Indian descent, in various stages of disenchantment, personal growth and discovery, and hope for the future. Where I found the collection of short stories from Say You're One of Them hard to take and without a ray of sunshine, this one delivered the goods. Here are a couple of stories that I especially enjoyed:

In the story entitled "Interpreter of Maladies", a tour guide escorts an American family with Indian ancestory around India to see a few sights. The family is your basic dysfunctional, narcissistic mess, but when the wife pays some special attention to the guide, he swiftly starts to fantasize about his future with her. He comes back around at the end of the story after a traumatic incident reveals the woman's true colors. The author's ability to create such vivid, flawed characters in a handful of pages was a delight. And unlike some short stories, you really weren't left wanting more. This was all you really needed to know.

In "The Third and Final Continent", a young Indian man arrives in America ahead of his new wife to establish himself. He rents a room from a difficult centenarian, lives on corn flakes, and studiously learns American slang. Lahiri delicately unfolds the life of an honorable, determined immigrant who struggles to get to know the stranger that is his wife, and a country that is vastly different than his own, all without complaint. He takes nothing for granted, for this is the American dream, and instills these values in his son. The story is precious, and is a reminder of the ideals and principals on which this country was founded.

From these stories, it is easy to establish that Lahiri is a student of the human condition. The difficulties between man and wife, noise that distracts from one's culture and religion, the need for acceptance and love, the desire to be attractive, the importance of respecting our elders, the feeling of isolation in a foreign matter what the topic, Lahiri portrays it with elegance and grace. This is truly a work of art.

Thanks again, Kristen, Violet Crush and C.B. James! I look forward to the next round of the 4R Challenge!

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - Gdansk #4

This was a beautiful, stoic church built right around the year 1400, located near the historic downtown of Gdansk. The church was closed for renovations, as many are these days. They are literally crumbling down to the ground, as they were neglected during the years of communism. I was especially intrigued by the beautiful door, pictured on top, which was added about a decade ago to commemorate a special visit by Pope John Paul.

For more Wordless Wednesday pictures, click here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters (audio)

Not long ago, Simon @ Savidge Reads reminded his readers of the joys of curling up with a spooky ghost story, especially one that takes place in an old gothic mansion. Man, you've gotta love these types of books. These were the types of stories I read in my youth, and I occasionally find myself hankering for one. His recommendation to fill the void? The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Waters is one of those authors, like Daphne du Maurier, that I've always intended to read but just hadn't gotten around to it. I was delighted to find that my library even carried this one on audio.

At the story's center is majestic Hundreds Hall. Our narrator, Dr. Farraday, has been mesmerized by the estate since he was a young boy, when his mother worked there as a nursery maid. Since then, his parents sacrificed all to put him through college. He received his medical degree, clawed his way out of his lower social status into that of lower-middle class, and now runs his own house call practice as he drifts into middle age, unmarried and frumpish.

When Dr. Farraday has the opportunity to visit Hundreds Hall to treat their housekeeper, he jumps at the chance. To his disappointment, he find the once-stately manor in severe disrepair, overgrown with weeds and crumbling down around its inhabitants. The maid, he finds, is feigning an illness, with the hopes of having a good excuse to leave this house that just isn't quite right, and gives her the creeps. Dr. Farraday passes her off as a silly teenager.

The house is now occupied by the widowed Mrs. Ayres, her son Rod, who arrived back home from WWII burned and crippled, and her daughter Caroline, a plain and big-boned girl, plus two maids. The family, once the pillars of the community, has literally been left behind by the world. Sequestered in the dilapidated, isolated Hundreds Hall, they have failed to adapt to post-war society, shunning anything modern. Farraday endears himself to the family, though, and starts to become not only the family doctor, but a friend - probably the family's only friend. He even goes so far as to believe he has fallen in love with Caroline.

Then strange things start to occur. Ringing telephones with nobody on the other end, mysterious burn marks, scratches in the wall paint, fluttering noises at night...all harmless but perplexing. Then things take a dark turn - an accident with the family dog, a fire, madness and worse. What exactly is going on here? Dr. Farraday describes it all in a doctor's clinical, factual manner, explaining away the occurrences as the side-effects of a neglected house, nerves, and a flighty, mischievous housekeeper. But can we really trust our narrator? Are his motives pure? Is this family cursed, like the Kennedy's? Or is there something more sinister at work?

I must say, I am dazzled by Ms. Waters' writing. While this is a ghost story, she exercises so much restraint in the storytelling that it is more of a subtle mist that creeps into the crooks and crannies of your mind rather than an over-the-top spook fest. She delicately weaves intrigue, social commentary, human inter-relationships, motive and the supernatural together to give us a complete satisfying package. While the story ends with finality and loose threads "officially" accounted for, my mind was full of questions and theories. Boy, what I wouldn't give to participate in a book club discussion of this one!

The narrator of the audio is spectacular. I found myself, as I was with "The Thirteenth Tale", drawn in and immersed up to my ears in the delicious British-ness of it all. I'm told that Ms. Waters has many more treasures in her portfolio, some worthy of Top Books Ever lists. Any recommendations on the next one I should read?

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Movie Meme - Cruising

In the spirit of the Bumbles' vacation this week, our Monday Movie Meme is all about the road trip. We've all been on them, and we can all attest that there is plenty of material on these adventures to make a movie, or two, or three. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Little Miss Sunshine - I would imagine this one would quickly come to mind for many people - it did for me. Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky, slightly raunchy, and the epitome of the dysfunctional road trip. Who knew such wackiness could be Oscar-nominated?

The Motorcycle Diaries - based on the diaries of the young Che Guevara, and starring the ever-mesmerizing Gael Garcia Bernal, I had to watch this one a couple of times in a row. This one I would highly recommend!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - I can remember having a stomach ache from laughing so hard at the antics of the late John Candy and Steve Martin. They are in their peak form here.

The Straight Story - an old man, incapable of driving a car, hitches up his mower to a trailer, and drives hundreds of miles to make peace with his estranged brother. He bestows his wisdom and charm upon people he meets along the way. Only in the midwest. This one will touch your heart.

Vacation - our family is addicted to the Griswold's adventures. Sometimes we even compare ourselves to them (although, to my knowledge, my husband has never swam naked with Christy Brinkley, and we've never tied Grandma to the top of the car.)

Sideways - this one comes up on Mondays almost as much as Jaws. A road trip in wine country? Count me in!

Into the Wild - based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a promising young man abandons his possessions and society and takes off across the country to live in Alaska in search of life's meaning. While I was hypnotized by the movie, I was also left disturbed.

So which ones are your favorites? Are you a Smokey and the Bandit fan? Thelma and Louise? I'd love to hear which ones make you want to take to the road!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sharing the Love

I have been blessed with some great blogger friends who have given me some awards, and I have vowed to pass them on in a timely manner. Over the last 9 months, since I've started blogging, I have been overwhelmed at the friendly and supportive environment of the community. There's so much love flying around, you just can't help but feel good!

My first award came from the Bumbles. If you haven't checked out their blog, you must. They are avid travelers, exceptional photographers, lovers of books, lovers of sports, lovers of movies (hosts of the Monday Movie Meme I participate in) and just your basic all-around cool people. I'm going to pass this award onto C.B. James of Ready When You Are, C.B., as he has his name written all over it. He has the most precious dog that he loves unconditionally, despite his oft half-eaten books. And he is an activist for Gay Equality and the overturning of Prop. 8 in California. We're behind you buddy!

My next award came from Jeane at Dog Ear Diary. Jeane is a new face around my neck of the woods, but she has an incredibly cool blog featuring the sweetest little kitty. I'm so appreciative that she has thought of me! I will pass this award to the biggest bookworm I know, and that is Jackie from Farm Lane Books. How on earth she reads as much as she does, with two little kids, I will never know. But she is THE authority on not only Booker books but just about any award out there.

My last award came from Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit. Serena is a real active member of the blogger community, and excels in the area of poetry (she even writes it herself). You are so kind Serena! I'm not 100% sure of this award's definition, but I will choose to personally think of it as having a spirit of "making lemons into lemonade". And for this, I would like to nominate Susan from Bear Swamp Reflections. Susan's blog is the most wholesome blog I follow. She is an extremely talented photographer, is pure of heart and exudes maternal warmth. Her posts always leave me feeling upbeat and happy, whether she is talking about a hike she went on, her grandkids, her pet hens, or the wedding of her friend's daughter. Go check her out! You'll feel like you just came home!

The Best Of: My Sister's Book Recommendations

You notice I didn't say "Best Reads Ever". I'm finding that dragging a top ten list out of people is no easy task. I thought it was a challenge to get ten out of my mom, but this deal with my sister was no cakewalk either! Straight away, she declared that since I didn't give her fair warning before she left home to visit my parents down here in IN, and that she couldn't peruse her bookshelves in Minnesota, that I would just have to suffice with her more pleasurable reads that she could think of. So before I list them, I will preface it by saying that my sister is not a big book-reader. She is an artist and an indie movie critic (she has a day job, but that just provides cash to support her habits), which I think makes the list all the more fascinating. She has great taste in music, and has her own movie blog here. So here goes:

The Road - Cormac McCarthy: This one stayed with me for a long time as well. I'm very excited to see my Viggo tackle this little project.

Planet Hong Kong - David Bordwell
: All about Hong Kong film, which is my sister's passion.

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom - Slavomir Rawicz
: A true story about three prisoners who break out from a Siberian prison and walk to India, where they find freedom.

Jimmy Corrigan - Chris Ware
: One my sister's favorite graphic novels, differentiated by its incredible sense of detail. Also a bit of quirky humor.

In the Heart of the Sea - Nathanial Philbrick
: A true story about a group of men whose 19th-century whaleship went down in the Pacific ocean, and survived on a lifeboat for 93 days. This same author wrote the amazing "Mayflower", which is probably my favorite historical non-fiction book of all time.

Coming Home Crazy - Bill Holm
: An essayist relays his thoughts about traveling in China in the '80's. The stories rang pretty true to my sister, who spent over a year in China, studying the language and art.

The Unsettling of America - Wendell Berry: One of the greatest thinkers of all time is a farmer. Everyone should be required to read this.

Red Azalea - Anchee Min: A riveting memoir of Communist China in the Cultural Revolution.

In Defense of Food - Michael Pollen: The amazing follow-up to "An Omnivore's Delimma".

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles - Haruki Murakami: "Elements of the fantastic and humor into tales of modern alienation". Haruki's best.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

How to dig yourself out of a rut...

  • Do you ever feel like your life is over-scheduled? Do you know what you are reading for the next three months? Typical to my nature, I seem to have gotten myself into a little bit of a reading rut. Not that what I'm reading isn't marvelous, but I have my reading life planned down to the point where my calendar is filled. So when I saw this challenge pop up, I knew I needed it badly.

    Caribousmom is hosting the Random Reading Challenge, which runs from August 1, 2009 to July 31, 2010. There are several levels of challenges to meet everyone's needs, but I'm taking the Level III, which is a 12 book commitment. Here is how it works:
  • Arrange a large pile of some or all of your TBR books, and number them.
  • Use a random number program to select a number. That is the book you get to read. Books should be selected one at a time, as you read them.
  • Absolutely no lists! This is meant to get you out of your planning rut!
  • No reviews required, but if you would like to share, the host site will add a Mr. Linky after August 1st.
  • You don't need to have a blog to join.
  • There are prizes!

    It really doesn't get any easier guys. We all complain about the growing height of Mt. TBR, and this is the perfect way to force ourselves into the thick of it. Come and join me in the fun, and comfort me in the insanity of joining another challenge!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment - James Patterson (audio)

The Maximum Ride series has been all the rage in my daughter's class and at the Book Fair. There are a total of five books in the series, written by the ever-popular James Patterson, in his first foray into Young Adult Literature. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a good audio adventure with the kids this summer.

The premise has a science fiction flair: There are secret laboratories located on both the East and West Coasts. The labs create genetically engineered creatures with both human and animal attributes. We are not yet privy to the agenda of the lab - is the creation of these creatures for the good of humanity or for ill gain? Most of the "experiments" fail and the creatures die quickly. But the lab has had two astounding successes...the Erasers (human/wolf hybrids), which are the bad-tempered henchmen of the lab, and the Flock (human/bird hybrids).

In this first installment of the series, we are introduced to the Flock. Max (short for Maximum Ride, a name she gave to herself) is the leader of the group, and is 14 years old. There is also Fang, Iggy, Nudge, Gassy and Angel, ranging in ages from 13 to 6. They look like normal kids, but have wings and can fly, plus a few more cool tricks up their sleeves. They escaped the lab four years prior, to avoid the painful and cruel experiments to which they were subjected, as well as imprisonment in dog cages.

They found a safe place to live as a family, until one day some Erasers crashed their party, kidnapped Angel and took her back to the West Coast. When the Flock retrieves Angel from the evil clutches of the "white coats", questions start to arise about their origins, paternity, their potential "expiration date", and the purpose of their existance. They travel to Manhatten in search of the second lab to find their answers, after multiple run-ins with those nasty wolf boys.

I was mildly entertained by this audio. I would not put it in the class of The Hunger Games, but would liken it more to the Pendragon series. The skirmishes between the Flock and the Erasers seemed to happen ALOT and got a bit old for me. However, the character of Max is a positive, strong one...a girl who knows the difference between right and wrong, and stays strong for her family. While the main character is female, there are plenty of boy characters in all their boyish glory as well, so this story would certainly appeal to all kids. There is some language ("crap" and "sucks" seems to be the most used), and a chaste kiss, but otherwise is clean for the 9 and over crowd.

The kids had similar feelings. They were entertained, but often became bored with the predictability of the constant run-ins with the Erasers. They were a bit more ambivalent about Max...Emma even thought she was a bit of a martyr. They actually were drawn more to the younger members of the Flock. Despite their reservations, they still are interested in listening to the rest of the series.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The kids' rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shudders - Various authors

I have a mountain of books I desperately want to read sooner than later. I have review books that are requiring my attention. But when my daughter picked up this book a few days ago and started questioning me about it, I just had to stop what I was doing and read it. You see, I have a history with this book. I bought it through a book fair when I was in grade school, and it somehow survived all of these years (that and Are You There God, It's Me Margaret.) My mom discovered it when she was cleaning closets, and handed it over, yellowed pages, destroyed spine, and all.

I believe this book was my maiden voyage into the creepy supernatural, which later led to my obsession with Stephen Kind and Dean Koontz. I remember my BFF, Tiffany, and I reading it over and over, and scaring the hell out of ourselves. What a great opportunity to travel back through time and see if these stories were really all that terrifying, and whether the writing was respectable or just trash.

The book is a collection of 10 short stories, and was compiled and published in 1972. The stories, however, are written by various authors primarily in the 1940's. The writing is decidedly for adults...big words, cerebral plots, and psychological intensity versus cheap thrills and gore. How on earth did I find this entertaining at an age of 10 or 12? Why was this book marketed to grade school kids at a book fair? Either way, it definitely left its mark on me in my impressionable youth.

A little girl to turns to voodoo to cope with an abusive father. A starving journalist agrees to write a story about his sleepover in a wax museum featuring history's most notorious serial killers. A used car with a odorous stain and a deadly history. A truck driver finds himself stranded in the middle of nowhere with a coffin and a corpse as his cargo. But the best one of all is "The Monkey's Paw"...surely some of you have read this one. You know, the one with the cursed, shriveled appendage that allows its owner to have three wishes? I'm sure the saying "you better be careful what you wish for, or it might just come true" must have stemmed from this story.

I guess I may be a bit more jaded now that I was in grade school, having done my time with Mr. King and Mr. Koontz. These stories certainly won't keep me up at night like they did back then, but they were enjoyable to read again. I love a good spooky story, don't you?

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - Gdansk #3

The Fountain of Neptune, located just beside the old town hall in the historic downtown of Gdansk.

For more Wordless Wednesday pictures, click here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Problem With Murmur Lee - Connie May Fowler (Kindle)

Back yet again with my absolute favorite author. I'm running out of her material though...I believe there is only one other book of Connie's that I have not read. I hope she is working on something. I cannot get enough of her.

Connie May has brought us yet again a beautiful, lyrical tale set in old Florida, this time on a fictional island near St. Augustine called Iris Haven. The island has few inhabitants, but a colorful cast of characters that interact as an enclosed ecosystem. An angry, frigid artist. A talented and eccentric doctor, recently widowed, who cares for the nearby immigrants. An 62-year-old ex-marine who is now a woman, thanks to a recent sex change. A few other old fishermen, farmers, etc. that spend most of their time at the local bar, Salty's. Then there is Murmur Lee. Salt of the earth, lover of all living things, music and literature. Recently divorced and having lost her 5 year-old to leukemia, she refuses to let life get her down. She is a friend to all and the center of the small universe of Iris Haven.

One New Year's Eve, however, something unimaginable happens...Murmur drowns in a freak accident while relaxing with her boyfriend on the river. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but they all have their suspicions. In Iris Haven, lives are destroyed at the loss of their best friend, "her generosity, her chestnut laugh, her humor, her desire to see the best in people, her insistence on making green things grow" that leaves a hole in the heart of everyone that knew her.

The story is told in a way that is classic Connie May Fowler, and in a way not many authors could pull off. We learn about Murmur's life through her grocery lists, diary entries, letters written from Murmur to her best friend Charlee at a young age, letters written by the local priest to the archdiocese about Murmur, Murmur's last will and testament. We are privy to musings and recollections about Murmur from each of her friends, all in the first person. But what is most poignant is when we hear from Murmur's spirit after she has died:

"Here I am, still dead as rain, floating along, scattered one moment, gathered the next. Sometimes I'm hard and tight and fast-moving. But there are other moments when I feel as if the universe has tossed me like a handful of salt just to see how far I'll fly. I'm a little scared. I mean, can this be all there is for all of eternity? Is this what spirits do? Forever? Blow about like pollen in a dimension composed solely of wind, watching from time to time film clips of their lives? Where's God?..."

This is in fact what happens. Murmur's spirit watches portions of her life and the lives of her ancestors, sometimes revealing secrets she never knew when she was living. She learns lessons, only now understanding the big picture. Through these snippets, and the musings from her friends, we learn exactly what happened to Murmur on the night she lost her life.

I cannot even begin to verbalize the beauty of this book. It literally swept me away, similar to my reaction to Fowler's "Remembering Blue". Although the plot may seem dark, you will not find yourself closing this book with a heavy heart. Instead you will feel like you have been reborn, with a fresh outlook on what it means to live life to the fullest, the spirituality of the earth, the community of friendship that helps you heal, and the prose of the author that reads like a song. I will leave you with this quote. It was a line from Murmur's diary as a cure for the blues, and was read while her ashes were being scattered at the beach:

"Find a fern with new growth. Cut the young curled tendril with a knife that has been dipped in lemon water. Place the tendril against your heart. Tape it if you have to. And say these words...I am a gift to the universe. I am loved unconditionally by at least one person on this earth (say their name). No matter this current sorrow, my heart's ease will be the knowledge that, just like the ancient ferns, I am always emerging, growing."

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday Movie Meme - Hated it!

This week's Monday Movie Meme from the Bumbles had to happen. We spend so much time here talking about intriguing movies, movies we love, movies that make us cry, etc. Well, what about the ones we couldn't get through (or wish we hadn't)? I am a pretty tolerant person, and can usually find good in just about anything. I'm also very careful about reading reviews and avoiding the ones poorly rated. A few snuck in and caught me unawares though. Don't you wish you could have this part of your life back?

The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl - Hey, if I have to go see a kid movie in order to go to the movies at all, so be it. I check reviews generally, and at least try to see respectable ones. But now and again, on rainy days or moments of sheer boredom, I am forced to see something like this. It was even 3D, and it was horrible. Painful even.

The Black Dahlia - The book was wonderful, so I rushed out and order it on Netflix. I turned it off about half way through. Pretty pathetic for a movie about a serial murderer! Directed by Brian De Palma, and starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank, it really caused me to question what the hell happened.

Planet of the Apes (2001 version) - Yes, perhaps I had had a couple glasses of wine, but that shouldn't have caused me to fall asleep during the entire movie. Again, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg (yeah baby!), you would think something could have held my attention.

Jaws 3 and Jaws 4 - I can always manage to slip in reference to Jaws. My daughter, at some point, became obsessed with Jaws, and requested that I order all of the sequels, against my grave warnings of potential disenchantment. In the end, I gave in. The girl has to learn her lesson sometime. These movies were so bad. You can tell which actors were struggling to pay their mortgages these years, Dennis Quaid being one of them.

Night at the Museum: The Battle of the Smithsonian - Got caught up on my naps with this one. The reviews were middling, and it had Amy Adams, so I didn't think the risk of disappointment was that high. Wrong. The jokes and tricks just aren't that funny when they are recycled. Luckily, this was a summertime double feature, and our second movie was Up.

Nacho Libre - I like Jack Black. You basically know what you are getting with him. And I will admit that I may have just not been in the right frame of mind, but this movie irritated the hell out of me. My family would be horrified at the inclusion of this movie on the Hated List. They loved it...they belly-laughed through the entire movie.

Barbie movies (Mariposa, Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Thumbelina, Fairytopia, etc.) - Do yourself and your daughter a favor, and don't even go there.

So which bad movies were you bamboozled into watching?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Best of: Mom's Top Reads Ever

Since I'm spending a nice relaxing couple of weeks at my mom and dad's house in Indiana, reading to my heart's content, I thought it might be fun to do a little spotlight on my mom's favorite reads. Throughout my childhood, my mom always had her nose in a book, worked in the school library, and probably influenced me to be the bookworm that I am.

We had all the best intentions. This ended up being a slightly more difficult project that I had anticipated, however. When I asked her for her top 10 books, she gave me two. I said "Oh come on! You read all the time! You have to have more than TWO!". She then replied "Yeah, I do, but I can't remember. Mention some, and I'll tell you whether I liked them." Oh Jeez. So with a bit of brainstorming, we arrived at her top 10 (with the disclaimer that some may still be forgotten), in no particular order:

Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcolm Riley

East of Eden - John Steinbeck

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

The Hour I First Believed - Wally Lamb

For One More Day - Mitch Albom

Roots - Alex Haley

For mom's #10 selection, we decided to list her favorite series, which would be:

The Left Behind Series - Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
The Stephanie Plum Series - Janet Evanovich
The Kinsey Milhone - Sue Grafton
The Jack Reacher Series - Lee Child

Stay tuned for next Sunday, where you will be enlightened by my sister's top reads (she is arriving tomorrow, and doesn't even know the fun she is going to have!).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Anybody out there know where I can find a bookworm????

I am quite honored to receive the Bookworm's Award for Bookfriends from Kaye at Pudgy Penguin Perusals , a fellow Floridian, and an avid, prolific reader. How much cooler can an award get? I'm nothing if not a bookworm. Thanks Kaye - you are the best!

Now, if I could only find another bookworm to pass this award onto.

I'm going to take the approach that my friends the Bumbles have taken with awards. Of course, I could list dozens of my wonderful blogger buddies, but will instead limit it to one, just to make it special. I have recently found a fellow blogger that actually lives in Orlando, my hometown. She reads and reviews some great books, and has recently announced that she is going back to school to get her degree in library science. We have a wonderful library system in Orlando, so she should have some great opportunities once she graduates. Please hop on over and check out:

Lauren at Half-Deserted Streets

Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wicked Prey - John Sandford (audio)

Most of you already know that I cannot resist a dose of the dude-ish Lucas Davenport, having read every single one of Sandford's nineteen Prey installments of this adrenaline-jacked crime series. These books are always consistently fast-paced, with some testosterone (maybe a little less now that Lucas is married), a respectable body count, some tough talk, driving at high speeds in Davenport's hot Porche, and, if you're lucky, references to some classic rock and roll. It's like catching up with a favorite bad-boy older brother.

In novel number nineteen, Lucas is dreading the upcoming Republican convention about to descend upon Minneapolis/St. Paul. Everyone is on high alert for any number of potential disasters...angry demonstrators, psychos with sniper scopes, Democrats run amuck. When Lucas gets word that a group of serial robbers and cop killers may have their eyes on the money flowing into the twin cities, primarily through political movers and shakers, Lucas gets in on the chase. But even he can't prevent the chain of events that leave many injured and killed.

At the same time, another plot brews, and at one point, even merges with the first one (which is always fun). Lucas' legal ward and soon to be adoptive daughter, 14-year-old Letty, gets into a spot of trouble herself. She is being stalked by Randy Whitcomb, a character from Lucas' past and a prior novel. Randy is wheelchair-bound and blames Lucas, and decides the best way to get his revenge is to take it out on Letty. Letty has been around the block in her former life and is no pushover, and soon is onto Randy and his transparent motives. She befriends Randy's 16-year-old "ho", and orchestrates a scheme to get rid of Randy for good. Sheesh. You'd think she was Lucas' actual offspring.

I love this series and I will continue to read them until Sandford dies or retires. And I will cry when that day comes. The books are entertaining and very tough to put down. But with the exception of a few, most of the installments are fairly forgettable. I couldn't tell you which was the last Prey I read, even though I know I read one early this year. I couldn't tell you what happened. I've been known to buy a Prey book I've already read. That being said, I can't wait for the next one to come out.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl (Kindle)

In a comment from my last novel read and reviewed for my WWII Reading Challenge, "Night", I received a recommendation from my blogger buddy C.B. James to give "Man's Search for Meaning a try. In doing a small bit of research, it seems that this novel, written in 1956 by Holocaust survivor Frankl, has sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages, and has been deemed one of the most influential books of our time. OK, good enough for me.

Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl, with a an MD and PhD in psychology, was interred in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Similar to a heart surgeon having a heart attack, or a brain scientist having a stroke, this experience allowed Frankl to observe and understand first-hand how, in a nutshell, attitude is everything, and that life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.

Frankl explores three specific stages that the prisoners went through as a result of their imprisonment. The first stage is shock and denial. These people truly believed that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that they weren't really going to be shot or gassed, even though they were well aware of many before them had suffered this fate. Once they saw their mothers, fathers, wives and kids led off to the gas chamber, they quickly progressed in the second stage, apathy.

In the second stage, prisoners were "insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell." A self-defense mechanism, if you will. If a prisoner exhibited any sign of revulsion, anger, or annoyance, they were beaten within an inch of their lives, so apathy was reinforced.

Frankl began to notice other differences between those that survived and those who did not. It wasn't always the physically strong ones that was the ones that found meaning in their lives. A loved one that was waiting on the outside, an unfinished novel, the desire to travel the world...when the deep spirituality of these motivators were lost, the person soon died. Humor was also another of the "soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation." Gratefulness for the smaller things, like having time to delouse before bed so they could sleep in peace, pulled them through the day. One of the most memorable quotes that I came across was this one - one that each one of us needs to remember on a daily basis:

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Paramount to all these other shifts in attitude was the ability to suffer with purpose and dignity. It is best described in this quote:

"When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden."

Whoa. This makes you stop and think, doesn't it? Can you imagine going through the day, with the highlight of being given the gift of time to pick the lice out of your head? That your destiny could possibly be to suffer, and that you should take the opportunity to do it right? I'm liking this guy more and more. There isn't a human being alive that couldn't learn a lesson here. It makes me ashamed for feeling depressed over the mountain of laundry waiting for me, or my complaining about my jet lag.

The last phase experiences by the victims was liberation, and how it was handled by the individual. Surprisingly, many prisoners did not handle freedom well at all. Likened to a psychological version of "the bends", getting freedom too quickly can cause a person to implode. Many were aggressive and angry. At a minimum, the victims had "lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly."

The last half of Frankl's book applies what he learned in the camps to his psychiatry practice of "logotherapy", where he explains that many of the afflictions and neuroses suffered today can be alleviated by finding the meaning to your life. In the words of Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Alcoholics, drug addicts and suicide threats often have resorted to such actions because they think they have nothing to live for. He says that "a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy." It may seem a little simplistic, but to me, makes a whole hell of a lot of sense. It inspired a long discussion between my husband and I about what we live for now, and what we will live for in our later years. We talked about how certain troubled individuals in our lives could really use some of this logotherapy.

The book is relatively short, but not the easiest to read in one sitting. It is compelling, though, and I believe has worthy of its reputation for making differences in people's lives. The latter half of the book on logotherapy could be considered a bit dry in parts (although I was somewhat sleep-deprived when I was reading it!), but I pulled through it and was glad I did. I doubt that I will ever view hardship the same again, and hope it serves as a permanent attitude adjustment that it was meant to be.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - Gdansk #2

This is the town hall in downtown historic Gdansk.

For more Wordless Wednesday pictures, click here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates - Sarah Vowell (audio)

Let me describe for you the setting…my children, my husband, my in-laws and I are traveling for hours in a small car to visit the world-renowned Wieliczka salt mines. The kids are fighting in the back, the family pet wiener dog is barking at people walking along the side of the road, and my husband and in-laws are all shouting at once in Polish (the only way they can hear each other above the din), and the navigation voice, deemed Carmen, giving me convoluted directions. Reading my Kindle just doesn’t cut it. I can’t focus. I feel like my head is going to explode. The solution? A good audio book on my iPod, volume turned way up, to take me away. Enter “The Wordy Shipmates”.

This audio was recommended by ds @ Third Storey Window. Her review was so compelling, I spontaneously ordered it from the library. I had no idea, really, what I was in for, but it ended up being the perfect antidote to what ailed me. The audio was narrated by the author, Sarah Vowell, and supported by a star-studded cast. In these situations, when the author excels at narration, this is the way to go. It is like multi-dimensional literature…the author’s personality not only comes through in the written word, but through their actual voice as well. The story is delivered in the spirit in which it was intended, which is the case here.

Vowell’s smart-alecky, dry, sarcastic but childlike voice delivers a delightful recounting of the adventures of the shipload of Puritans, led by John Winthrop, that came over to American in 1630, ten years after the Mayflower. How can this possibly be close to entertaining, you ask? I promise you, you have never heard the story told quite like this. For those of you that know me in real life, this story would be like me, with my colorful, unchecked vernacular, telling you the story over a glass of wine.

Vowell does an excellent job in giving us the historical facts, including excerpts from diaries, letters and documented sermons. She explores a whole cast of characters, starring Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and several tribes of Indians. But she also injects her own interpretation, boiling it down in lay terms, telling us who was thought to be full of crap, linking the settlers actions and theories with current flawed political figures, and tying in our preconceptions of the Puritans from what we learned on the Brady Bunch and Happy Days.

Vowell’s comedic timing is dead on, and despite the ruckus going on around me, I found myself laughing out loud through the entire book. I wish I had had a notepad handy to write down some of her one-liners. There were hundreds of them. So many that I’m thinking I will keep this audio around for awhile on my iPod for a repeat listening. It is plain to see that Vowell is deeply fascinated with the topic at hand, and finds great joy in laying it out for us to enjoy as well.

The one caution I would offer is that Vowell isn’t shy about expressing her religious and political views. If you are a staunch Republican or deeply religious and are highly sensitive about either, you might get your feelings hurt. Chances are, however, you will receive this book in the same spirit I did…a really fun way to learn a little about our forefathers.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday Movie Meme - Waterworld

Today's Monday Movie Meme from the Bumbles was inspired by their trip this weekend to see the Tall Ships in Boston. It was like a trip back through time, and the only thing that would have made it better was to see that dashing Jack Sparrow hopping around on them. This sent their imaginations down the path of movies filmed on or near water. Here are some that came to my mind:

Open Water - this movie was shot as if someone was holding a video recorder, which made it seem all the more real. A group of 20-somethings go scuba diving, and two get accidentally left behind out in the open water. You can only imagine what happens at that point. I liked the movie fine for the shock value, I would just recommend not to eat before you watch it.

Knife in the Water - nominated for Best Foreign Language film in 1962 and directed by Roman Polanski, this movie is about a couple who invite a hitchhiker to go sailing with them (not too different from Dead Calm, which is another good ocean movie). My husband made me watch this movie for its Polish origins, and I gave him alot of trouble for it, but is really very good.

River Wild - a madman (Kevin Bacon) and his buddy kidnap a family on a white water rafting trip. Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal as a bad guy, and of course I enjoy anything that Meryl Streep is in. This one is a nail-biter!

Castaway - well, I know he isn't IN the ocean per se, but he's really damn close! I recently rented this movie on iTunes and the kids watched it while we were in Poland. What a great movie! Wilson!

The Poseidon Adventure - I've seen both the 1972 version and the 2006 remake and frankly, they are both pretty cheesy. But the idea of a rogue wave knocking over a cruise ship does send a little ripple of fear down our spines, doesn't it? The movie gets extra points for that.

The Abyss - a little bit thriller, a little romance
, and some unknown underwater beasties makes this one movie I will watch whenever it comes on the tube. The book wasn't half bad either.

Jaws - so how many times can I mention this film in one year's worth of memes? Stay tuned and find out. I just couldn't NOT list this one, could I?

I just want to acknowledge that Titanic is probably one of the biggest water movies of all time, but I'm not putting it on the list just because. Isn't it great to have your own blog and can do what you want? The power!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An Observation...

I have been blogging for about 8 1/2 months now, so I am guilty of still checking (and caring) about my stats on a daily basis. Up until mid-June, my daily hits have been steadily increasing, which is encouraging! People are actually reading my drivel!

When I left for Poland for 2 1/2 weeks in mid-June, I scheduled almost daily posts to publish while I was gone. Now, granted, Blogger put the old screws to me and failed to post at the scheduled times, but I was able to manage through it without too much lost. Since this time, I've noticed that my stats are waaaay down, by at least 20% or more. And they have not rebounded since my return.

So for all you veterans, my question is this: Do readers abandon blogs when they know the author is not at the other end participating in two-way communication? Is everyone on vacation, and the timing just a coincidence? Or did everyone decide en mass that I really didn't know what the hell I was talking about and decide to move onto greener pastures? My loyal commenters have not gone away, so it must be the lurkers that jumped ship.

Any ideas?

Friday, July 10, 2009

When Katie Wakes: A Memoir - Connie May Fowler (Kindle)

Have I told you lately that I love Connie May Fowler? I suppose I have. Are you tired of hearing it yet? Are you going to break down and read something she has written? As my civic duty, I must link you back to some of my reviews of her novels that you may have missed…Sugar Cage, Remembering Blue, and Before Women Had Wings. You may be surprised to hear that after I waded my way through the dark hallows of “Sashenka” and “Say You’re One of Them”, I reached for Connie’s memoir about her life as a battered woman as an uplifting change of pace. This was no mistake though. Everything this woman writes, even the dark stuff, is a special treat.

Her prose is amazingly easy to read. At times, she brings the real Florida, the one beyond the walls of Disney, to life. She describes it almost to the point where you can smell the humidity, the sea air, and the local fish camp. Other times she will tell heartbreaking tales of prejudice, abuse, spirituality, and of a phoenix-like rising up from the ashes of dysfunction. She is able to give us these gifts because of her own personal ghosts and demons, combined with her humility, creativity and goodness of heart.

As with most memoirs, this one must have taken a huge amount of courage to write. Her first stab at finding closure was her early novel “Before Woman Had Wings”, which was very close to being autobiographical. But through the support of a loving spouse and her loyal dog, Katie, and years of healing, she has bared her soul to us with this novel.

Connie is the third generation of battered women in her family, a difficult pattern of enabling behavior from which to break free. Connie suffered physical and mental abuses from her mother and father that have instilled her belief that she can never be worthy of love, never be a good enough daughter/friend/wife, never be beautiful. Predictably, as a young adult, she enters into a relationship with a local celebrity has-been, thirty years her senior, who is addicted to alcohol, abusive, jobless, and a complete ass and waste of skin. The description of this toad’s character made my skin crawl. I also wanted to personally beat the crap out of him:

“His method of schooling me is harsh, unkind even. And though I resent it, I cannot dissolve the feeling that I have brought this curse on myself, that I was born helpless and ignorant, and that he is simply fulfilling a cosmic will. For instance, just last night he accused me again of being a stupid, ungrateful c***. My mind, as it always does in the heat of this accusation, split in half. In a single instant, one side of my brain thought ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right. I deserve your wrath. Go ahead. Beat me. Please. Lay bare my shame.’ But the other side shouted, ‘Ungrateful for what? Doing your laundry? Paying your bills? Cooking your meals?’”

Through the adoption of her lab Katie, a new, empowering editorial job, new friends, getting braces to fix her buck teeth, and meeting Mika, the love of her life, she begins to gain the self-confidence to walk away:

When Katie wakes, the night will have vanished. And we will leave.”

I found myself cheering for this lovable, human woman. You want the best for her, and you know she’s going to get it. Today she, with her beautiful teeth, lives with Mika and her various pets up in the panhandle in Paradise (at least until hurricane season) near my favorite vacationing spot, St. George Island. I follow her blog, on which occasionally she will post. Just recently, she wrote a very touching tribute to her dog Katie, now in doggie heaven, for being her lifeline in the worst time of her life. The dog that slept by her side, even on the nights when they were on the kitchen floor, locked in to avoid a beating. The dog that even accompanied Connie and Mika on their honeymoon. As she says in the book, “How does one repay the loyalty, the goodness, the love of a dog?”

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Say You're One of Them - Uwem Akpan (Kindle)

I’m beginning to think I had some subconscious desire for a depressive state when I chose both Sashenka and this novel for two of my twelve selections for my TBR Reading Challenge. The continuation of my summer reading rampage finds me in desperate need of some lighter fare.

“Say You’re One of Them” is a collection of five short stories written by a Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest born in Nigeria. They are evidence of Akpan’s experiences, research and imagination that has traveled down the dark path of a continent torn apart by war and religious prejudice. To make the stories more harrowing, they are all told from the eyes of a child.

In “An Ex-Mas Feast”, an 8-year-old Kenyan boy struggles with the knowledge that his 12-year-old sister will put him through school with her earnings as a prostitute. This story takes place in Kenya.

In “Fattening for Gabon”, 10-year-old Kotchikpa and his little sister have been sent to live with their uncle because their parents are dying of AIDS. The uncle soon starts to receive money and a certain motorcycle for which there is much familial obsession and dreams of grandeur. It doesn’t take Kotchikpa long to figure out that he and his sister have been sold to human traffickers.

The shortest story, “What Language is That?”, describes two girls, BFF’s, that are torn apart because of religious differences, but bridge their physical separation with a innocent, visual secret language.

If the stories have not been troubling enough so far, then we are presented with “Luxurious Hearses”. Jubril, a 16-year old Muslim, must run for his life when the conflict between his people and the Christians in northern Nigeria reach devastating proportions. To escape, he must travel on a bus full of histrionic, psychotic, schizophrenic Christians, aka the Luxurious Bus.

Our last little ray of sunshine is “My Parent’s Bedroom”, where 9-year-old Monique and her toddler brother must witness an ethnic war between the Hutu and Tutsi occurring within the four walls of their Rwandan family home in the most horrible way imaginable.

I vaguely remember reading the reviews for this book, ranked as one of the top books of 2008 by EW, which stated there were glimmers of hope buried amongst the horror in the short stories. With the exception of perhaps “What Language is That?”, I saw very little hope. In fact, each story left me feeling hollow and shocked at the violence, disillusionment and fear experienced by each of the children in these tales. The writing is fabulous – it captures the voices, the dialects and the innocence of the children so perfectly. I, however, of the insulated, pedicured, excess world that I live in, found the stories eye-opening and uncomfortable. Yes, of course I saw Hotel Rwanda and I read the news, but never from the viewpoint of little kids. This is another good one to read when you need reality to give you a big kick in the dupa.

4 out of 5 stars