Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Salon: Winding Up the Bird

 Good morning and Happy Easter everyone!  I will admit that I am cheating and writing this post Saturday evening.  For one reason, we are going to the sunrise Mass at 7am, so I'll be lucky to get myself up, dressed and there on time, let alone write a coherent sentence.  

But has been 40 DAYS since I have had a drink of anything wine, no bubbly, not one wonderful concoction that my husband makes for me on a Sunday evening.  And I don't mind saying that it has been a very shitty, stressful 40 days, before considering the absence of alcohol.  A little tipple could have helped my state of mind more than once in this time period.

It has been suggested that I should wait and write my Sunday Salon about 3pm, and add some entertainment in your day, but I don't think so.  I will be happily settled into a comfy spot on my friend's couch, or chaise lounge, with a glass in my hand.  I make no apologies.  

So the kids have been out of school for a couple of days, and will be out all next week.  For all of you that have younger kids, I will warn you that high school sports coaches don't really care if you are on spring break however.  My daughter has a track meet on Wednesday, right in the middle of our break, and heavy consequences have been threatened if anyone misses it.  So we get a shortened vacation starting Thursday morning, when we head out to Key Largo for some snorkeling, fishing and lounging.  I hope to post some pictures next Sunday...we will see.  I cannot wait.

We had a book club meeting this week to discuss "Indiscretion" by Charles Dubow (a book I loved by the way).  I think it was the longest discussion we'd had in quite a few months!  Everyone found the book to be very easy to read, but not everyone could say that they loved it because of some of the characters.  No, not all the characters are worthy of love.  But if a book can make me hide in the bathroom in order to finish it in peace, then it deserves five stars!  

So a few days early, I started "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" for Ti's read-along in the month of April.  I bought the book years ago when my sister, who isn't so much an avid reader but a lover of Asian culture and all forms of media, told me this was a favorite of hers.  But then the weirdness and cleverness of Murakami (and the length of the book) scared me.  But sometimes you just have to get out of that comfort zone!  I'm going for it!  I'm about 150 pages into it, and it is strange but very interesting.  I have no idea where he is going with this missing cat, the psychic with a bad taste in hats, and the mysterious house at the end of the alley.  

I'm still listening to "The Next Time You See Me" by Holly Goddard Jones on audio, and I'm really close to finishing.  What a great story!  Uplifting it is not, but it is all dark and twisty and full of complicated characters.  I love books like that.  All Tana French-y and stuff.

So I wish you all a blessed Easter!  I will be around for the first half of next week but after that I may be a tad bit absent.  And later on Sunday, I shall make a toast to all of you! 

Friday, March 29, 2013

UCF Book Festival Feature: Sunrise on the Battery - Beth Webb Hart

Over the years at various book events, I have come to know all of the Southern Belles, a group of ladies who are Christian authors of Southern fiction.  (They post daily on their blog here.)  They are wonderful women, and a source of inspiration for everyone who comes in contact with them!  Beth Webb Hart is a part of this group, and I was starting to feel left out that I hadn't read any of her books.  When I found out she would be attending the UCF Book Festival, I grabbed this opportunity to read one of her books that I'd had on the shelves for awhile.  

Synopsis:  Mary Lynn hasn't always lived such a charmed life.  She grew up poor, with her single mother, in a small Southern town, and was the pariah of the community because her mama never married her daddy.  She was not welcome in some churches, and was not allowed to be a part of the debutante coming out parties.  Then she met and married an equally poor but determined young man named Jackson, who took a small inheritance, and with the help of a local real estate baron, invested wisely and became wealthy beyond both of their dreams.

Now they live South of Broad in Charleston, and are part of the breed of new money in town.  Their three girls all play instruments, are skilled at multiple languages, and are destined for the best colleges in the country.  Mary Lynn knows that she is just an engraved invitation away from being folded into the most coveted societies in their social circle.  

But just one thing bothers Mary Lynn.  Jackson has always turned away from God, primarily because he lost his mother at an early age.  Her one wish to make her life perfect is that he would learn to accept Him back into his life.  She prays for this.

But sometimes you have to be careful what you pray for.  It just might come true, in spades.

My thoughts:  I know many of you out there are adverse to Christian fiction, primarily because it can sometimes come across as preachy.  But the one thing I can tell you that is while all the Southern Belle books have God in their themes and plots, it is more of an organic thing, and not in the least bit preachy.  

I was really entertained by this story.  I'll admit, I was pretty annoyed with Jackson throughout the book.  First he was the task-master, driving his family nuts with his determination to make everyone perfect.  His oldest daughter was on the verge of making some bad choices under the amount of stress he was applying.  You can't do that to kids!  But then, a man of extremes, Jackson then embraces Jesus and completely goes off the deep end.  Which was crazy as well.  I just wanted to shake him.

I also recognized that whether you are religious or not, this tale applies to everyone.  It is very easy to get wrapped up in image, in unrealistic goals, in having more STUFF.  Everything requires a balance.  If you can't find that balance...if you are driven by material possessions or oppositely, you live by the seat of your pants...there will be repercussions.  This was definitely a cautionary tale for the modern family, with lots to discuss.  

I very much look forward to reading more from Beth!

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe (Audio)

When this one first came out, I saw all the great reviews but I quickly turned and looked the other way.  Obviously someone is going to die!  And I will weep, and it will be ugly, and I might even be angry that my emotions are being manipulated.  I don't take kindly to that.

But then I got the annual e-mail.  J.P. Morgan puts out a reading list each year for their employees...recommendations of non-fiction books that "offer meaningful insights into international politics, culture and art".  Isn't that cool?  One of my husband's colleagues works for J.P. Morgan and I have come to expect his e-mail asking which book he should read.  This book was on the list, and I took it as a sign.  I told him that if he read it, so would I.  Tears be damned.

Synopsis:  Will Schwalbe and his mother have always had books in common.  For Will, books were his life, as he (at the time) was a Senior VP and Editor In Chief of Hyperion Books.  His mother Mary Ann was a world traveler...always on a humanitarian mission of some kind of war-torn country.  Before that she was a working mother when most of them stayed home - a smart, determined, independent mother of three.  

But then Mary Ann was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, spending all of her time at the hospital, often with Will at her side.  To pass the hours, Mary Ann and Will established a two-person book club, and shared insightful conversations about everything from Gilead to Olive Kitteredge to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  This was the connection and the common ground that brought mother and son together for the remainder of Mary Ann's days.

This is a tribute to book lovers.  It is a tribute to mothers and sons.  And it is a tribute to the human dynamo that was Mary Ann Schwalbe.

My thoughts:  Despite the inevitable, I was incredibly pleased that this book did not attempt to force my tears.  Nor does Will wallow in self-pity.  He has managed to write a memoir about death that is actually uplifting and inspiring.  This was a woman who faced a very scary situation with courage, surrounded by her books and her family, and even raising money for a library in Afghanistan up until the very end.  I finished the book thinking "when I go, I want to go down like Mary Ann".  

I was equally as impressed with their reading list.  It was seriously high octane stuff that any book club would be proud to read.  Some I'd already read, but most I hadn't and I found myself adding to The List That Lives on in Infinity.  I found it clever that Will was able to take their current reads, and relate the various plots to their lives.  It seemed that each book was chosen at the perfect time and served a specific purpose.  

My only disappointment was that the discussions of each book were fairly top level, without much depth.  Still, they read so many books in those last two years of Mary Ann's life, it probably wasn't reasonable to talk at length about each book.  (That is the problem with bookworms...we always want more.  Until we get more, then it is too much.)  Anyway the real treat here, besides just reading about people who love books as much as "we" do, is learning about a truly remarkable woman who found comfort from them in her last days.

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this audio was Jeff Harding, a new voice for me.  This is not what I would call a challenging listen in the scheme of things...the book is written by Will in first person, there aren't too many characters, and is basically conversational.  The audio version did not particularly knock my socks off, but I did find Jeff's voice pleasant to listen to.   

Audio book length:  9 hours and 40 minutes (352 pages)

4 out of 5 stars    

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Fenway Park

I had to include a picture of Fenway Park from our Boston field trip.  Because Fenway is just as much a classic institution and part of history than anything on the Freedom Trail, if you ask a Bostonian.  It is the oldest operating Major League Baseball stadium, and has had it's doors open since 1912.  If you ever visit Boston, you owe it to yourself to take a tour, whether you are a baseball fan or not.  It is insanely cool.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wild at Heart - John Eldredge

Raising a teenage boy is something that defies adequate description for me.  I am close with my son, but he can be difficult.  He is highly intelligent, but twitchy, angsty, disorganized, defiant, and often a mystery to me (like...where did his brain go?).  Sometimes I just shake my head.  I took it as a SIGN, then, when several people in my life all independently recommended that I read this book.  

It is not my typical type of read.  It is non-fiction, written with a Christian self-help angle to it.  And while I am a Christian, I find that these types of book can often be preachy.  But I was willing to give it a try.

Eldredge's premise is this.  The spirit of a boy or a man is a wild need of action, adventure, slaying bad guys, conquering elements, and rescuing damsels in distress.  It is born in their blood.  Deny a boy guns or a sword to play with?  Give it up...they will find sticks, eating utensils, or use their fingers to destroy their enemies.  To prevent your son from playing football, learning to rock climb, or just being boys, in order to protect him, is going against everything that he needs in his soul to flourish.  When boys grow up into men, often they leave this sense of adventure behind, sit behind a desk and increasingly grow unhappy and angry.  

The book also stresses the importance of a male figure in every boy's life.  If not a father, then a grandfather, uncle, coach or neighbor.  Boys need affirmation that they are becoming a man, and that affirmation cannot come from a mother or girlfriend.  So many boys carry a wound in their hearts through adulthood that was inflicted by a male figure...a disconnected father, a careless comment that they were unworthy/weak/not man enough.  Often this causes men to wear a mask to hide their true selves, bluffing their way through life, fearing they will be exposed as an imposter.  

Eldredge then brings faith into the picture in order to overcome these obstacles.  My eyes went slightly unfocused through this section.  I agreed with everything he was saying but it started to feel a little like a sermon.  One thought did stick with me, however, and that is the danger of allowing negative thoughts to creep in and take over.  Eldredge calls it the devil (and so does my priest), but basically it is the human tendency for "stinking thinking" (my term).  I'm not thin enough, I'm not smart enough, we don't have enough money, nobody cares about me, my kids aren't perfect enough, my spouse makes me crazy, blah blah blah.  You have to recognize these thoughts when they slide in and try to undermine your happiness and your sanity.  Denounce the lies.

I think this book is a worthwhile read for both men and women, parents and non parents.  It applies to everyone, and provides a great deal of insight into emotions that we or our loved ones may be struggling with and don't even realize it.  And with respect to my teenage son, I better understand what he is going through as he becomes a man, and the things that he needs to feel good about himself.  I have to resist the urge to protect him and hide him away so nothing bad happens to him, even though that is my instinct as a mom.  No hovering and helicopter parenting allowed.  

If you are interested in the premise but are concerned about the Christian push, I wouldn't let that stop you from reading it.  There are good things here that could make this book one that is passed around in the family.

4 out of 5 stars


Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday Matinee: Rock of Ages (2012)

So I did an experiment.  My husband and I saw Rock of Ages the Musical first, on Broadway in December 2012.  We hadn't seen the movie yet, but we knew this was a show that creatively threaded 80's hair band music throughout a relevant plot.  Sort of the way it worked with Mamma Mia...the words to each song made sense to what was going on.  And friends, I grew up on this music.  I HAD that kind of hair.  I drove to my first year of college tossing that hair around to Def Leppard.  

So hubby and I saw the show and loved it.  It was a tiny bit strange to see a theater full of old farts playing air guitar and singing every word to Twisted Sister and Poison.  (In my mind, I'm not an old fart, I'm still not so far away from Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers and Jordache Jeans.  Ha!)

The plot was thin and predictable, but extremely fun on stage.  I wasn't sure how all this would translate to a full-length movie.  The musical DID come first after all, and not the other way around.

I was also (as usual) feeling antagonistic towards supporting anything that featured Tom Cruise.  I don't like the man, he is a freak show.  But I'll get to that in a minute.

So before I talk about the movie adaptation, let me just briefly fill you in on the general story.  Small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) shows up in LA to make it big.  Meets a boy (Diego Boneta) who waits tables at a famous institution called The Bourbon Room, and completely smitten with Sherrie, gets her a job there.  The bar is owned by Dennis Dupree, an aging hippie (Alec Baldwin) and is managed by his right-hand lackey Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand).    

At the same time, conservative Mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his church-lady wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) decide to clean up Sunset Strip and put The Bourbon Room out of business.

The third variable in the equation is larger-than-life drugged-out prima donna rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who decides to do one last show with his band at The Bourbon Room before he goes solo.  

Mix all that together and there is love and trouble, scandal and misunderstanding, tough lessons learned and a happy ending.

I would compare this movie to Magic Mike.  Incredibly LAME premise if you are looking for...let's say...character development?  Surprises?  Clever twists?  But there is so much entertainment on the screen, you are willing to just be happy for a couple of hours in the dark eating your Junior Mints and enjoying the show.  Julianne Hough, who starred in the Footloose remake and more recently Safe Haven, is adorable.  She can dance, she can sing, and she is cute as a button.  Diego Boneta (Pretty Little Liars) is equally as cute.  They had good chemistry.

Equally as enjoyable are all the side characters...Baldwin and Brand let it rip, with all their quirkiness and goofiness, and even have a steamy kiss or two.  Cranston and Zeta-Jones are great antagonists - you just HATE them.  You want them to crash and burn.  

But I HAVE to say...and I feel like I keep repeating myself here, movie after that Cruise stole the show.  As much as I loathe that man, he ALWAYS steals the show.  His portrayal of Stacee Jaxx (a character compared accurately to a mashup of Axl Rose, Keith Richards and Jim Morrison) was jaw-dropping.  He even did his own singing which wasn't bad.  Please trust me...your time is well-spent just watching his performance.

All that said, however, this is just not a great choice for a movie adaptation.  It should have stayed on was too long and didn't have enough punch to justify a two hour run time.  

But if you still have your leg warmers and acid-washed jeans, have a thirst for a Bartles and James, and feel like a trip down memory lane?  Leave your expectations on the shelf with Citizen Kane and have some fun.     

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Salon: Tears

 Good morning my friends!  Well, I know I'm not supposed to wish my life away, but I am glad this week is done.  Things were completely chaotic and my husband was out of town, which never helps when you have to be in three places at once.  It was certainly an emotional week, more than normal.

I don't like to belabor a lot of sadness on the blog, but I have to just say something about an event that happened on Wednesday.  At our school, we lost one of our dads, a 42 year-old who left behind an amazingly courageous wife and two little kids.  He had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma years ago, and fought a great fight, but his passing was not a surprise.  Our school community came together to support this family like I've never seen in the 12 years I've been there.  It was incredibly humbling to see the mountains of food and volunteer hours put forth to pull off a funeral reception in a very short amount of time.  I was so very proud of our community this week, and truly touched.

My foot is not healing all that well, and I am continuing to run, but it is frustrating and pathetic to hobble around, dragging one side like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  I should probably just stay off my foot totally, but it is so hard to give up the one thing that is keeping me focused right now!  Anyway, I shed a few tears of pain and irritation over that this week as well.  It just pisses me off is all.  I know I need to put things into perspective.

My third source of waterworks this week was THAT DARNED FABULOUS BOOK "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes.  I listened to it on audio...amazing production by the way...and I honestly thought I'd never recover.  Incredible book, just prepare yourself for an emotional meltdown of the best kind.  

After that adventure in total loss of control, I have recently started Holly Goddard Jones' "Next Time You See Me" on audio.  She is going to be at the UCF Book Festival, and time is ticking so I will have to blast through this one quickly (there was a serious wait list at the library).  In print I finished the new Patti Callahan Henry novel "And Then I Found You" (another UCF highlight) and snuck in the graphic novel "Friends With Boys" before starting my last UCF Book "Sunrise on the Battery" by Beth Webb Hart.  I have been a busy bee.

Is anyone involved in the March Madness?  We have been taking in a game or two, but it was much more intense when we lived in the Midwest.  I mean, in the CPA firm I worked at in Indiana, there would be a TV on in the conference room all day, every day of the tournament.  It was crazy!  I think Indiana University is going to be the Big Ten's best chance this year.

Next week the kids start their spring break on Thursday, and we are out all the following week.  This should be good, once they get past a few pesky tests that mark the end of the quarter.  Do we have plans for spring break?  Yes we do!  But I will wait for next Sunday to tell you about them.  In the meantime, I wish everyone a peaceful day of rest on this Palm Sunday.


Friday, March 22, 2013

UCF Book Festival Feature: The Memory Thief - Emily Colin

I was particularly excited to see that Emily Colin was going to be attending the UCF Book Festival in a few weeks, and more than enthusiastic to read her debut novel.  I had the pleasure of meeting her at SIBA in Naples last October.  Actually, I didn't know who she was a first, just that we were both involved in a bit of humiliation one night while playing pub games at one of the SIBA events.  It was the next day, when Emily showed up at my table for The Moveable Feast Luncheon, that I learned that she was an author.  (So much for me making good first impressions!  Ha!)  Not only was Emily very personable, but she had a very compelling premise for her first novel.  

Synopsis:  Maddie Kimble has always known the risks.  On any given expedition, her mountaineer husband Aidan may or may not return.  Maddie knows that climbing is Aidan's passion, and generally keeps her concerns to herself, until he prepares to travel to Alaska to climb the south face of Mt. McKinley.  She has a bad feeling, and begs him not to go.  Aidan would just as soon not breathe, though, and makes a solemn promise to return home to Maddie and their son Gabriel.

It is a foregone conclusion, when Maddie gets the call from Aidan's climbing partner and best friend avalanche, the unsuccessful rescue party, the survivor's guilt, the determination to take care of Maddie and her son.  But strangely, Gabriel already knows his daddy is dead, because his daddy came and visited him in his bedroom and told him.

Across the country, Nicholas, a young man whose life is going nowhere, is in a motorcycle accident and wakes up in a hospital without any personal memories.  He doesn't remember his friends, his fiance, or anything about his likes and dislikes.  Instead he remembers being trapped in snow, suddenly smokes cigarettes, and is haunted by the image of a beautiful woman and her young son.  He decides that he cannot move forward and reclaim his real life until he resolves the one that is living inside his dreams, and sets out to find some answers.

This emotional novel explores guilt, the depths of grief, love, loyalty, passion and the sacredness of a promise, and their lingering power even after death.

My thoughts:  I went into this book knowing very little bit about it - my only information was what Emily told us at lunch.  A love story of sorts, a tragedy, mountain-climbing.  That was it.  Was it a mystery?  Was there a bad guy?  What about the supernatural stuff in there?  I tend to cautiously read books like this, waiting for things to surprise me, always looking for trouble.  I read WAY too many murder mysteries.

All I can say is that the book was incredibly easy to read, compelling, and I found 90% of it mesmerizing and pleasurable.  Agreed, a man has died, leaving a grieving family and friends, and that is heartbreaking and terrible.  So you would think this book would be a huge buzz kill.  But it isn't.  Colin frames Aidan's death with a gentleness that is hard to explain.  We get to know Maddie and Aidan's story through dreams experienced by both Maddie and Nicholas.  And while Aidan is dead, he has unfinished business so he isn't quite gone yet, and that offers the reader some comfort.  The chemistry is palpable, the bonds are strong, and the book left me feeling like I was wrapped in a warm blanket.

The supernatural twist did not bother me in the least.  Like I said, it gave me comfort and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Also I have to mention this.  Colin was blurbed by Joshilyn Jackson, AND she mentions Marisa de los Santos' "Belong To Me" in the book.  Two of my favorite authors ever.  Major points Emily.  Big time.

So why was it only 90% mesmerizing and pleasurable?  I had one nagging issue with the plot.  I won't be spoilery, so I will just say that Maddie does something after Aidan's death that made me feel really BAD.  Was it realistic?  Probably.  But I was a little bit mad at her.

I think Colin has tremendous potential as an author.  Her prose flows so smoothly, and she expertly captures the essence of chemistry and relationships on the page.  I look forward to more from her!

4 out of 5 stars    

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Level 2 - Lenore Appelhans (Audio)

It isn't often that "one of our own' becomes a published author, but that happened with Lenore.  I first found Lenore through her blog.  Her reputation precedes her in this world, not only for her love of YA novels, but also because she and her husband write illustrated children's books.  Oh, and also because of her adorable, fluffy, personality-packed kitty cats. 

We were all pretty proud of her when she announced that she had a new book coming out (YA of course) that was the first of a trilogy called the Memory Chronicles.  

We followed her through the process...the editing, the translations into different languages, the photo shoot for the book, and her publicity tours.  It was almost surreal!  

Since I adore Lenore and consider her a cyber friend, I don't think it would be fair of me to post an official review of her book.  The lines are blurred and I'm not sure I can be unbiased.  But what I will do is tell you about her book, and the things I enjoyed about it.

Synopsis:  Felicia Ward died in a tragic accident right before she turned 18, and is now existing in what is called "Level 2", an afterlife that is caught in between earth and heaven.  Inhabitants of Level 2 spend most of their time in individual pods, plugged in and re-experiencing their lives on earth through accessible memory files, missing their loved ones.  Felicia particularly has a hard time letting go of memories of her true love Neil.  Will she ever see him again?

But then the stark, sedentary routine is disrupted...a girl is found "dead" in her pod, and Julian (a boy Felicia had a love/hate relationship with on earth) charges in and offers Felicia an opportunity to leave the in-between world she knows and embark on a quest to fight in a war of good versus evil.  And maybe get to see Neil again.  A million questions are haunting Felicia.  Can she trust Julian?  She sure couldn't on earth.  Is she really dead?  Who is on the side of good, and the side of evil?  And what will she find if she DOES see Neil again?  Will he even remember her?

Highlights of the story:

*  Throughout the book, we access files from Felicia's memory, which provides us the background on her life as a teenager, her relationship with her friends, with Julian, her parents, and her courtship with Neil.  I thought this was an incredibly creative way to handle something that is usually just a series of flashbacks in other novels.

*  I always like the presence of good and evil, in its most basic form.  I don't have a good feel yet for who is on which side, and the severity of evil of the bad guys, but the battleground has been established.

*  I appreciated that Felicia's lifestyle included faith (she meets Neil in church).  In no way is this Christian fiction, or is preachy, but is a part of her routine.  And it made sense to me once I realized that most of the book takes place in a type of purgatory.  

*  I normally roll my eyes at yet another trilogy, but I understand the need in this case.  I do appreciate that while there was a climatic ending, it wasn't an obvious cliffhanger ploy to drive the reader mad.  That always feels like a dirty trick!  

*  The story is definitely aimed at teenagers, but is layered and complex enough to entertain and adult.

A few words about the audio production:  Lenore actually sent me a sample of the narrator before the audio was released, so I knew enough to be excited about Jenna Lamia.  She is an incredibly seasoned narrator (Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, Moon Over Manifest, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, just to name a few), and she is also an actress.  Her voice is youthful and clear and energetic, and was perfect for this project.

Audio book length:  8 hours 19 minutes (288 pages)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Bunker Hill

Another stop on our Boston field trip was the Bunker Hill Memorial.  (As you might be able to tell, this picture was shot through the window of the bus.  I was not interested in getting out in the cold and rain.)

I grant you, this is not a photo that's going to win any contests.  But I remember a story that our guide told us, and at the risk of getting some of it wrong (someone please correct me if I'm wrong) I had to share.

Well, you notice that it looks a heck of a lot like the Washington Monument, right?  Actually this monument was built first.  There was a contest for the design, and it came down to two guys (one designed this obelisk and the other designed something more ornate).  The obelisk won, obviously.  So then the loser of the contest, probably highly annoyed, when over to Washington D.C. and submitted an obelisk design for the Washington Monument and won that one.  But that one was bigger.  Ha!  

I thought it was a funny story.  I imagined lots of drama.  It doesn't take much to entertain me.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers (Audio)

About two and a half years ago, I picked up the novel that defined Vietnam, "The Things They Carried", and it ended up being one of my favorite reads that year.  The book was powerful, visceral, and traveled into the dark recesses of a soldier's soul.  I will never know what it was like to fight in that war and return home, but this book gets you in the neighborhood.  It left me feeling humbled, and in awe of these young men who fought for our country.

In many reviews, this book has been compared to "The Things They Carried", except that it addressed the issues experienced in Iraq.  I feel like I have spent most of my adult life knowing we have our troops over there, so I felt like it was my duty to read this.

Synopsis:  21 year-old Private John Bartle has recently signed on for his first tour of duty in Iraq, much to his mother's distress.  He meets 18 year-old Private Murphy in basic training, bonds with the young man, and impulsively promises Murphy's mother that he will bring her boy safely back home.  The two men go on to experience everything Iraq has to offer...the heat, the exhaustion, the bloodshed, the shocking surprise attacks and violent death all around them.  Slowly Murphy becomes unhinged, and Bartle wonders how he will ever make good on the promise that he made.  

Once Bartle returns home, another battle must be fought...the fight to rejoin the human race and suppress the demons in his head and heart.  Unfortunately those demons come in many forms, and they not be done with him yet.

My thoughts:  Let me start with some easy observations that I made.  The writing is phenomenal.  The author is a veteran so he brings with him all the gritty experience that makes this novel feel so real, complete with a naive bravado of a young man trying to do his manly duty.  But the prose is also very poetic as well.  It is mesmerizing almost.

Beyond that however, I wander in murky territory.  First just let me say that I KNOW what these soldiers are facing over there and what they are facing once they return.  I've talked to enough people, seen enough interviews or movies, read enough articles to know.  I do not have blinders on.  Still.  I felt nauseated for most of this audio book.  Maybe it is because I have a son?  Who is the type of kid who might just decide to up and join the Marines or Army?  The mess that these boys, barely adults, were wandering into made me ill.  The confusion, the violence, the corruption, the mental stress and anguish...this is not something I would wish on any mother's son.  The book made me angry and scared and sick.  I suppose that was the intent, but it was not enjoyable.  The whole thing kind of put me into a funk for a day or two.  Just be warned.  

So while I would definitely re-read "The Things They Carried", I'm not sure I could say the same for this one.  It is hard for me to pinpoint WHY...I've thought about it for some time.  There is just a different feel here in this one.  More in-your-face, more personal, and much darker.  

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator was Holfer Graham, a new voice for me, but one I will probably run across again based on his wide array of audio books.  He was a good choice for this novel because he has that war-torn, jagged feel to his voice that conveys an emotion that you would expect from a soldier. 

Audio book length:  5 hours and 23 minutes (240 pages)

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 18, 2013

Monday Matinee: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

What an amazing year we have had with movies, no?  I can't remember the last time I'd seen so many of the Oscar many films that I actually wanted to see.  But it was the day of the Oscars, and this one was still on my list, so my mom, son and I raced out to see it.

It was impossible to go into the movie not knowing anything about it, there has been such an overwhelming amount of coverage and hype.  There were some experts in EW that honestly felt this movie should win EVERYTHING it was nominated for (SEVEN major categories!).  Best Picture.  Best Director.  Adapted Screenplay.  Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro) and Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).  So.  Obviously well-acted.  Obviously a good flick.  I walked in assuming "a smart rom-com".  

For the most part, that would be correct.  But there is some heft here that I didn't expect.  The story centers on Pat, a man who, upon finding his wife in the shower with a co-worker, beat the man nearly to death and was hospitalized for bi-polar disorder.  Now he is out with a new lease on life, determined to convince his estranged wife that he is worthy of her.  It is an uphill battle.  He is living at home with his hovering, nervous mother (Weaver) and obsessive-compulsive father who is completely absorbed with the Philadelphia Eagles (DeNiro).  Pat's strength is tested daily, and sometimes he fails.

Enter the damaged young widow Tiffany (Lawrence) who is looking to make a connection.  She is sexy and edgy, he is attracted but the wife, and they both circle each other cautiously in a haze of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.  She invites him to be her dance partner in a contest, and...there you go.  You can take it from there.

The plot is actually very predictable, in the way that, let's say, When Harry Met Sally is predictable, but I'm not sure I would want it any other way.  Like my son said "Well, heck mom, what would you want to happen?  Have Tiffany get hit by a bus?".  Point taken.  The film rises to a higher level because of the acting.  Everybody in here, from Pat and Tiffany, to Pat's parents, to the nutty side characters (Pat's boyhood friend stifled by a baby and marriage, Pat's happy-go-lucky friend from the psych ward, Pat's Eagles-crazed shrink)...they are all a little bit messed up.  But these are endearing issues that rarely go down a darkened path.  It's happy nuttiness.  

There are a few moments of sobriety...I think Pat's mental illness was pretty realistic.  But most of the movie has a subtle tongue-in-cheek humor.  Not so much laugh-out-loud, but more a light-hearted ode to the complexities of modern love.  Unlike most Oscar movies, which always seem to be floating in death and angst and pain, you will walk out of this one feeling good.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Salon: Answers

 I know, I am showing up a little late this morning!  I usually get my posts up and ready to roll on Saturday nights, but yesterday about mid-day I was hit with one of my weird stomach spells that happens about once or twice a year.  They come on without warning, and last about a day or two, so I was in bed from 3pm on.  I did drag myself up for church this morning, but haven't touched the computer until now.

So!  This was a week where we got some answers.  Not all good, but at least we know what we are dealing with.  I got an official diagnosis of plantar fasciitis on my foot...pretty much what I expected.  Anti-inflammatories, stretching, icing and patience for this damn thing to heal.  Could take months, but that isn't going to stop me.  Hey, I gave up alcohol for Lent, so I have to have something to take the edge off. The running will not be denied!  We got the results on my son's MRI on his back and he has been cleared!  This was great news, and serendipitously at the same time made the volleyball team.  All is well when the boy is active.

My parents are currently headed back to IN, and my husband flies out today for San Francisco, and there couldn't be more stuff going on in the next three days if I tried.  Keep me in your prayers!  Anyone want an over/under bet on how many tanks of gas I burn or how many times I am late for something?

On the reading front, I didn't do half bad this week.  In print, I finished "The Memory Thief" and I really enjoyed it.  I look forward to seeing Emily Colin again at the UCF Book Festival.  Then I started Patti Callahan Henry's latest "And Then I Found You", which is the She Reads feature in April and also a UCF Book Festival highlight for me.

On audio, I finished "January First" by Michael Schofield, and I should have lots to say about that when I get the review written!  Holy moly, what a train wreck.  I also finished the Rod Stewart Autobiography (narrated by Simon Vance, who defies description) and can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.  What a great listen!  I am now just starting Jojo Moyes' "Me Before You", which is a book that has received nothing but stellar reviews.  

I am hoping to lay low today honestly.  If my daughter decides to work at the animal shelter, she will be on her own this time around based on my stomach and her lovely attitude lately.  The boy has a poster project to complete (ugh). I'm thinking I might need a nap.  What does everyone have on their agenda today?

Friday, March 15, 2013

UCF Book Festival Feature: The Lighthouse Road - Peter Geye

This is definitely an author whose reputation precedes him, at least in the blogger universe.  His first book, "Safe From the Sea" received some insanely glowing reviews that called his debut heartfelt, introspective, and deftly-written.  Why didn't I read it?  No reason but pure lack of time.

But Peter did attend SIBA last October, and I was able to get a copy of his second book "The Lighthouse Road".  And it was the first book I picked up to read when I saw his name on the list of authors to attend the UCF Book Festival.

I live in a permanent state of perspiration here in Florida, so I can always use a book to help inspire a chill.

Synopsis:  Alone and speaking only her native Norwegian tongue, young Thea Eide arrives in the frozen wasteland of Gunflint, Minnesota in the late 1800's to start a new life.  Assisted by the local mover/shaker/opportunist Hosea Grimm, Thea is provided a job as cook for a camp of lumberjacks and bears her burden bravely and stoically under a watch salesman, smelling of whisky and trouble, comes to town and seals her fate.  She gives birth to a son named Odd, and before he is a toddler, finds himself an orphan.  

Odd is taken in by Hosea Grimm and his adopted daughter Rebekah, as well as the entire town of Gunflint.  Odd learns the life of a fisherman and occasional hootch smuggler, navigating the cold waters of Lake Superior, but longs for the loving arms of a mother and the roots of a real family.  He longs to fill the empty space in his soul - to belong somewhere - and thinks he may have found the answer, but actually is living out a predestined fate that was written in starts before he was even born.

This is a story told in a non-linear narrative, bouncing back and forth between Thea's life and her son's, emphasizing the same path on which they travel.  The bleak landscape of a frontier built with the sweat and muscle of immigrants, the harsh unforgiving elements, the blood-thirsty wolves, the opportunities and pitfalls, the love and heartbreak.

My thoughts:  If I was looking for a little chill in my sweaty day, I got it.  I can't recall a book that has evoked such a sense of place, of emotion (or lack of), of atmosphere.  This is time travel at its best.  

The prose is stoic and spare, which feels right based on the landscape.  These were hard lives lived.  I could almost feel my heart freezing over, reading about Thea sleeping in a root cellar, of trying to communicate with her new world with a handful of words, of praying for better times.  But the better times never came, neither for her or her son.  There is aching, wanting, emptiness, and a desire to drag oneself out of this condition, but few opportunities to do so.  But there are small pleasures...a kind gesture, a boat full of fish, the loyalty of the Ovcharka dogs that protect the camp from wolves.  

This is not a happy book, but a realistic one that stays with you.  This is an ode to the immigrants that built this country.  

4 out of 5 stars     


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Night Shift - Stephen King

For probably six months, my son has been prodding me to read this book.  My son, you should know, is a NON-READER.  Kid cannot sit still, except to play video games of course.  But when it comes to Stephen King, he has a soft spot.  He has plowed through several of his tomes.  

I HAVE read this book before, mind you, in high school.  I had vague recollections of which stories scared me to death, and others I didn't remember at all.  So when my son wanted to discuss them, I really couldn't do so intelligently.  So I figured, why not?  

I'm not going to write up a formal synopsis on this one, because it is a collection of 20 short stories.  Most of these stories went on to become full length novels or movies for film and TV.  Some were previously printed in magazines, and some were seen first in this book.  Some of these stories were written before King wrote his first novel (Carrie), and others came later.  Some are paranormal...vampires, aliens, a possessed laundry machine, possessed trucks, a boogeyman that lives in the closet and eats children.  Some could be plucked out of the news today...a serial killer, a homicidal mob boss with an offer that can't be refused, a bereaved brother wondering if he is to blame for his sister's suicide, or the act of putting a loved one out of their misery.  

That is the beauty of Uncle Stevie.  Fear comes in so many forms.  And he is an expert at finding them all, bringing them to life on the page, and challenging us to face these fears.  

I found my reactions this time around to be curious, compared to my high school self.  I wasn't nearly as creeped out by "Gray Matter" for instance (a story about an alcoholic that drinks bad beer and turns into a gelatinous mass). Nor did I get the chills over "The Mangler" - a laundry machine that eats people.  I found the more realistic stories to be the scariest and thought-provoking.  Maybe that is what happens when you grow up?  

One story that did affect me almost as much now as it did then was "I Am the Doorway".  This is a story about a crippled ex-astronaut who has been exposed to something alien while on a mission, and the invading THING begins to take over the man's body.  Eyes begin to form on his hands, through which the THING can see, and then he begins to commit acts of murder per the will of the THING.  It sounds much more asinine now than it does on paper.  It was pretty creepy when I read it in 1981, and still is.

For fans of King, this is an essential read.  He has progressed since the days of these stories, but they all have that feel that make his works so identifiable and irresistible.

4 out of 5 stars     

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Plymouth Rock

So continuing on from my discussion last week...Boston field trip, nor-easter.  Another stop on our tour of history was Plymouth Rock.  This symbolic monument to the landing of the Mayflower and Pilgrims is right on the water, and with winds so fierce we could barely walk, we scurried off the bus, snapped a picture, then ran back to the bus.  

Still, our guide did inform us that this is more a symbol than the actual rock that the Pilgrims hit coming into shore.  There was no written reference of any such rock until 121 years after the fact!  I guess there were a lot of claims made, but who knows?  Anyway, it is old, it looks important, and it is stamped with the year 1620.  We braved the weather and saw it.  That is good enough for me.     

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert Massie (Audio)

I think you probably all know by now that books CAN be too smart for my brain.  Usually included in this category are books dense with history (I rarely even read historical fiction).  But for some reason this book called my name.  

Someone must have mentioned that it was good on audio, because this is a bit of a doorstop...672 pages in print!  I figured, what did I have to lose but a couple of weeks?  I might even learn something.

Synopsis:  Written by the man with a Pulitzer to his name and who has spent his whole life studying the Romanov dynasty, Robert Massie brings to life the story of Catherine the Great.  As a 14 year-old, low-level German princess, she was betrothed to the immature and self-absorbed nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Peter III.  Not only was Peter more interested in playing with toy soldiers than creating an heir with Catherine, he was unworldly and uneducated, and completely incompetent to one day take over the throne.  Catherine on the other hand, spoke many languages, was a lover of literature, the arts and politics, and had ambition.  It was this ambition that, once Empress Elizabeth passed, propelled her to stage a coup and take the throne from Peter, and go on to act as one of the most influential leaders in Russian history.

Through letters and journals, Massie allows the reader total access to Catherine, her family, her confidantes and cabinet members.  Once it becomes apparent that Peter won't be fathering an heir or providing companionship, Catherine takes lovers to do the after the other up until the day she died.  She builds comprehensive libraries and art collections, creates orphanages, improves education, promotes religious tolerance, civil liberties and public health with the small pox vaccine.  Also, to gain control of water access, she colludes with Prussia and Austria to partition Poland almost into non-existence.  

She was one powerful ruler, but also a woman with frustrations, sadness, passions and fears.  This well-researched masterpiece of a novel takes the pages of history and bring them alive in a saga that leaves the reader enthralled and breathless to the very end.

My thoughts:  All I have to say is WOW.  If my history books would have been half as good as this novel (and why the hell CAN'T they be???) I would have been a History major!  This was some amazing stuff.  The soap operas of today have nothing on Catherine.  Volatile mother-in-laws, lovers sneaking in and out in the middle of the night, jewel-encrusted EVERYTHING, a coup against and murder of the whack-job husband, revolutionaries, wars, beheadings.  Goodness!  

The planned coup to get the throne away from her husband Peter was particularly exciting.  I am woman, says Catherine.  She had some serious cojones...a ball-buster way ahead of her time.  I was impressed, and in awe of her courage and ambition.  But over time, I could see where she might be a handful.  And I found it particularly ironic that the injustices shown to her in her early days were injustices she thrust upon others when she was in power.  She also threw so much money around.  Silly money.  Sort of like our government now.  

I was also immersed in the story of one of Catherine's early lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowski.  Stan the Man was two years younger than Catherine...a ripe and innocent 24 year-old member of Polish nobility when they hooked up.  He fell hard for the future Empress, and was eventually run out of the country before there was a huge scandal.  But Catherine stayed in touch, and once she was Empress, she "arranged" for Stan to be the King of Poland, knowing that he was weak and in love and she would be able the partition him into oblivion.  I had some interesting discussions with my husband over this one.  

So...based on my babbling you can tell that I was quite taken by this novel.  For someone like me, who loathes anything lacking action and gets restless with history, I found the prose to be very accessible and fascinating.  I will admit that it often was dense with all these Russian names, and I wasn't able to keep some of them straight.  But the important ones stood out, as they always do, so I was able to keep up.  I would recommend this book to anyone.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator in this production was Mark Deakins, someone who is new to me, I am ashamed to say.  This man has narrated a huge number of books, many of them on my TBR list.  So I am sure I will hear him again someday.  I thought he did a respectable job in this situation, with accents from various countries, of men and women.  He is a restrained narrator, but one that is easy to listen to over a long period of time.

Audio book length:  23 hours and 52 minutes (672 pages)

5 out of 5 stars            

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday Matinee: Silent House (2011)

 I think at this stage, I realize that I am posting my thoughts about a scary movie and am pretty much doing it for my own health.  98% of you out there LOATHE scary movies.  So I am sorry, but lately this is the type of thing I've been watching.  

We viewed this particular movie on Halloween night.  I was all for seeing it based on the decent reviews I thought I remembered in Entertainment Weekly.  My daughter, scare extraordinaire, deemed it "stupid".  One of these days I will listen to her.

A young woman (Sarah) is at a family lake cottage with her dad and uncle, preparing it for sale.  The place is a complete wreck, having been the victim of many vandals and trouble-making teenagers.  The windows are all boarded up, there are holes in the wall, and all the furniture is covered in sheets.  As night approaches, Sarah finds that she has been locked in the house, her father and uncle disappear, with clues that imply they may have been injured, and something or someone is coming after her.  

The movie has all the requisite spooky elements.  The house is pitch dark, even during the day because the windows are boarded.  There are a million doors and closets.  There are questionable things behind the walls and in the basement.  We know that we have to figure out what is going on, and what is stalking Sarah.  So we play along, we allow ourselves to jump when Sarah screams, stuff like that.  

But towards the end, a feeling starts to sneak into your head, and the feeling tells you that you have been here before.  Really?  AGAIN?  My memory is not what it used to be, but I could easily tick off a half dozen movies with the same hokey twist.  (Sort of like when all these shaky "handheld camera movies" exploded into theaters after the Blair Witch Project.)  Frankly it is getting very old.  It is clever only the first time you see it.

So.  If you don't watch many scary movies, and you find yourself with the opportunity to watch this one, go for it.  It isn't bad if you aren't familiar with the sub-genre.  (Yes, there are THAT many of them that I think it could be a sub-genre.)  But if you require something different and unique, I'd skip it.

2 out of 5 stars    

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Salon: Mind the Bouff, Mate

 Good morning my friends!  Did we have a good week?  I am thrilled to say that mine was COMPLETELY FREE OF DOCTOR APPOINTMENTS.  That was by design I might add.  Sometimes you just need a break, so we took one.  Next week is a different story...we have at least four in the queue with results coming in on my son's MRI, some attention to my foot, and other things.  Well, it was good while it lasted.  

My parents, who come down for the winter each year, are about to pack up and head to their home in Indiana in a week or so.  They do their fair share of hauling my daughter while I run to these various doctors with my son, so I am playing a Scarlett and deciding that I will think about managing transportation issues some other day.  I'm terrified for my daughter to start driving but...

And also speaking of my parents, last night we went out to Emeril's to celebrate my dad's 70th birthday and my parents' (early) 50th wedding anniversary.  My dad got my mom the most beautiful diamond ring, his appreciation for 50 years of marriage.  I thought it was totally cool.

On the reading front, I finished "The Lost Art of Mixing" by Erica Bauermeister on audio, and between the author's grace and Cassandra Campbell's narration, was lulled into a kind of peace.  But that was short-lived!  Because then I started listening to "January First" in the car...this is the memoir about the little girl with schizophrenia?  Holy cow, I'm about to jump out of my skin for a million different reasons.  A kid I could not handle.  Enabling parents that are half nuts.  That should be a fun review to write.

I also started Rod's Stewart's autobiography on the iPod...narrated by the most amazing Simon Vance.  Now I grew up listening to Stewart's music, but I never would have called myself a huge fan.  But as I hear his incredibly hilarious words (the guy truly has a comedic knack) come out of the mouth of Simon, I think I've got a little infatuation going on here.  Especially when he started talking about his "bouff" (his iconic hair).  "Mind the bouff, mate.  I just spent hours on it."  I think he may be my bouff brother (as my kids sometimes call my hair the "spike-fro").  From now on my hair is officially called my bouff.  I'm having way too much fun with this.  

In print, I'm reading my next UCF author book called "The Memory Thief", written by Emily Colin.  I actually met Colin at SIBA last fall, played some embarrassing pub games with her.  She is really a personable lady, adorable too, so I am glad to report that this is a really good book.  I should have it wrapped up soon.

So today we turn our clocks forward an hour, which always irritates me.  I feel like I lose time as it is!  I'm planning on a day of scratching furry tummies at the animal shelter, some church, no sullen teenagers, and a nice relaxing Sunday night dinner.  What is everyone up to today?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Comfortable in the Kitchen - Meredith Laurence

My mom knows how much I love to cook, and she also knows  I'm a sucker for good olive oil.  So it was a pretty easy bet when she saw a cooking show on QVC that featured both a cookbook and olive oil that this would be the perfect Christmas gift for me.  

The cookbook is written by Meredith Laurence, a personality I was unfamiliar with.  Apparently she has been in the industry forever, running restaurants, teaching at a culinary school, and now featuring her own show on QVC.  Every cookbook has an angle, and hers is that everyone is capable of being comfortable in their kitchen.  It just takes practice.  So she introduces a basic recipe, then provides several others that use the same technique but with different ingredients, to give you practice without boredom setting in.  

Meredith's recipes are extremely easy to follow, with a short list of simple ingredients for each.  Most of the recipes have big, bright photos, with tips and comments along the way.  

Meredith has four rules that she has taught to many culinary students that contribute to success and happiness in the kitchen.  They are:

1.  Read the recipe start to finish before you begin cooking.  (Ever get elbow deep and hours into a project and realize you don't have ginger, for example?  Yeah.  I've been there.)

2.  Buy the best ingredients you can.  

3.  Do all your prep work first.  Chopping, measuring, etc. done in advance makes things a lot less stressful.  (And allows a leisurely glass of wine along the way.)

4.  Taste your food before you take it to the table.  

I have cooked my way through this wonderful cookbook, but here is one of my favorite (and my family's favorite) recipes.  (Please note that the picture is not is something I found online that very closely resembles the finished product.  I am horrible about taking pictures of my food!)

Orange Braised Beef Short Ribs

2 TBL olive oil
4 pounds beef short ribs
salt and pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups orange juice
2 TBL soy sauce
2 TBL chopped fresh chives

1.  Pre-heat large sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add olive oil.  When oil is hot and almost smoking, season the short ribs with salt and pepper and sear them in batches, until browned on all sides, about 15 minutes per batch.

2.  Once the ribs are nicely browned, remove them to a side plate and set aside.  Pour off the discard the fat that has accumulated in the pan.  Add onion and celery and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf and continue to cook for another minute.

3.  Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  Let the wine simmer and reduce until it has almost entirely disappeared.  Add the orange juice and soy sauce and bring the mixture back to a simmer.  Return the browned short ribs to the pan, reduce the heat to very low and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid.

4.  Let the ribs simmer on very low heat, or cook in the oven at 300 degrees for roughly 5 hours.  The meat should be so tender that it falls off the bone.  Remove the ribs from the pan and set aside, loosely covered with foil, increase the heat under the pan and reduce the braising liquid until it has thickened slightly and is almost syrupy like a glaze.  Return the ribs to the pan and turn them to coat.

5.  Serve the ribs over smashed potatoes, spoon a little sauce on top and garnish with chives.  The sauce can also be strained if you prefer a smooth finish.  

This recipe elicited groans from my husband and son.  You would have sworn there were dogs in the room because it seemed like they were even trying to eat the bones.  


Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.