Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some 2012 Goals

Now that Christmas is behind me and I'm comfortably hanging at home for this week, I've been thinking about 2012. I have a lot of goals for myself in this coming year but I have mainly been thinking about the goals that directly affect this blog. For the most part, I use this blog for my book and movie musings and I'd like to keep that this way. I think I share plenty about myself that way so telling you about what I did at work seems silly (and I have another blog for that).

In July of this year, I got what I called my mysterious illness that it took them until September to decide was TMJ and that I am still dealing with on a daily basis. That sort of threw off my nice groove off on lots of things. However, new year and new goals.

I feel I did well with my reading challenge last year - I got through a lot of books on my list that I felt I should have read by now and found some new favorites along the way. Two of which found their way under my tree this year - yay! I love getting books for Christmas - there is nothing better....except maybe an Amazon gift card so I can do some damage on my wish list.

I also blew my Goodreads challenge for the year out of the water - I clearly underestimated how many books I read in a year - 122 books down last year! So, now I have to come up with a new reading challenge but I am drawing a blank. I thought about reading the books on my to-read list in exact order but I feel like I would cheat on that challenge really fast and it would limit me in a sense. What if I found a new author I really love from one book and want to read the rest of his/her work? I would have to have too many rules or caveats to make that one work. So, I'll have to work on a different idea or maybe just sort of let my reading go wherever it wants this year.

But one goal I am sure of is this year, and I will make it a rule, is to review a book or write something on this blog at least once a week. I like writing on this blog when I remember to so if I set reminders for myself, I am hoping this will become a habit of mine. I have tons of blog post ideas saved up on things I want to write about - I just need to make the time and let's face it, I have lots of time on my hands most of the time. I just need to make the effort and I figure by writing it here, I'll be held to it. 

I head back west on New Year's Day and then the new year will begin. In the meantime, I'm off to enjoy the rest of my time home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What would the world be like with no children’s books?


Among the blogosphere, the debate over children’s books versus young adult book versus adult books seems to have gotten very intense this year. It could just be me of course but it does seem to have erupted into a big “thing” and everyone has needed to weigh in on it. Personally, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. I enjoy reading – whether the book was meant for six year olds or ninety-nine years old, it makes no difference to me. In fact, some of the best reads of my life were meant for audiences much younger than me. Why adults seem so hung up on the latest young adult reading craze is beyond me. At least everyone is reading right?

Personally, some of my favorite books to this day are considered children classics though I didn’t appreciate them until I was much older. Reading Le Petit Prince in 11th grade French class changed everything – never mind I’d read it as a child and not understood what all the fuss was about. Perhaps it is only as a stressed out teen worried about getting into college that the baobab analogy makes sense. Anne Shirley guided me through 6th grade and now, her books take on new meaning as I trudge through my mid-20s with no Gilbert in sight but still plenty of laughs to be had. Doesn’t Anne seem like someone you’d like to be able to go visit with a bottle of wine after a hard day? She would remind me, as she once so comfortingly noted to Marilla, that tomorrow is a fresh day, there are no mistakes in it yet.

So thankfully, I’ve never walked away from what the rest of the world regulated to kids sections of book stores which is why I got to enjoy Harry Potter before my friends found him and directed them eagerly to The Hunger Games once a friend had already steered me in its direction. Sure, parents hem and haw over the appropriateness of these books for kids but even among the violence, these books are discussing fundamental problems all kids face – the search for who you are, who you are going to be and what you will stand for. I’m in my mid-20s and still figuring that out which is why I think these books, designed for kids, have such universal appeal. We never really stop wondering what we’ll be when we grow up and reading stories of brave, smart kids on the same path are comforting.

Especially since adult fiction just seem so depressing in comparison. It’s always a novel about death or depression or divorce. No one ever seems happy in contemporary fiction. There are ambiguous endings and the hero doesn’t always triumph in the end. I have enough of that in reality people; that is not what I like to find when I open up a book to escape for a few hours.

Take for instance the book I just finished, The Mysterious Benedict Society. Four smart (smarter than I will ever be), brave, resourceful kids go into danger to save the world and they win! Against all odds and reality, these four brilliant children do what no adult could do. They solve puzzles, connect the dots and act more bravely than I am (pretty) sure I would be able to in my (what the world thinks) vastly superior knowledge. It is slightly implausible? Sure, but why on earth would I want to read it if it was possible?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nothing like some early 20th century scandal

From Goodreads
The House of Mirth is one of those books I was embarrassed to admit I hadn't read yet. And to be honest, I've been sitting here puzzling as to how I got my English degree without it - it screams like a book that should have been given in one of my classes along the way. However, I seemed to have missed it and that's a bummer because The House of Mirth is one of those books I would have adored discussing in a classroom setting, looking at the character dynamics, symbolism, language etc. As it is, I spent most of the book liking Lily Bart against my better judgment and hoping against hope that the poor girl would make it out of the novel alive. [SPOILERS from here on out] Alas, it was not to be. Though props to Wharton for taking the accidental suicide plot to its conclusion, I kept expecting Lily to simply freeze to death on the streets of New York like other hapless orphans shunned by society.


So, rewinding a little, The House of Mirth is essentially a novel of manners following the beautiful but poor Lily Bart through the upper crust of New York society circa 1905. Lily is proud and vain so she tends to be picky about her marriage proposals which is why she's still single despite being in society all her life with the one purpose of marrying a wealthy man. Because, that is all Lily is good for; her mother and society have seen to that. Through a series of misfortunes and some major backstabbing, Lily finds herself kicked out of the hallowed circles and trying to work for a living. Needless to say, it does not go well. In the end, Lily's pride basically does her in and a series of misunderstandings means the one man who does love her (but has the spine of a jellyfish...wait...that may be an insult to jellyfish) thinks the worst of her for most of the book and only has his flashes of insight when standing next to her cold, dead body.


OK, so in college I took this fabulous class called Working Girls which looked at the portrayal of women as workers in fiction from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. During this class (which allowed me to write a paper on how men were superfluous to the heroine's ultimate goals so you know I loved it), we read Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and as I was reading, I kept comparing that book to The House of Mirth for obvious reasons. Both feature young, down on their luck beautiful girls trying to make their way into New York's high society. However, Carrie triumphs in the end with her swanky apartment and wonderful career while Lily sadly overdoses in a run down tenement house. So, where does Lily go wrong? I think the difference in the two characters is Carrie was not raised in high society, something Dreiser stresses. Carrie simply carries an inborn sense of beauty and refinement with just the right amount of common sense and heartlessness; Lily is born to money and has it ruthlessly taken from her after she's been made into nothing more than a beautiful clothes hanger that men fawn over. In fact, there is a scene in The House of Mirth where Lily is part of a tableaux and the men are literally just staring at her; Seldon, the man who loves her, sees her in her truest form while Gus Trenor, the man who's given her money under false pretenses, sees something he's paid for but isn't allowed to touch. It's a fascinating scene and one where the differences between Carrie and Lily are stark. Carrie is the focus of a male gaze she controls throughout her story, discarding lovers as she outgrows them to end up independently wealthy and single. Lily has absolutely no control over the gaze on her. In fact, she's a slave to it in her belief that if she'd just submit, it will give her what she wants, i.e. a wealthy husband and social power.


So, that's as English major geek as I'll go on you. Honestly, I liked Lily Bart but I'm still trying to figure out why. I admired her moral code - in fact, she impressed me by sticking with it to the bitter end. I kept expecting her to crack, to compromise, to sink to the level of everyone around her but she never did. I also spent most of the book wanting to reach into the book, give her a good shake and yell, "snap out of it!" The same thing that I admired her for, sticking to her moral code, meant it was also the thing that drove me batty about her. She never bends at all or adjusts to her situation - in short, she never grows as a character. The Lily Bart we meet on the first page is the exact same Lily Bart we see depart on the last. Which may be the point for all I know but man was it irritating to read at times. Seldon, her love interest, also fails to change over time. He has potential in the beginning; both characters do but both lack the courage to follow through on anything really. Seldon I may have more contempt for than Lily - he is just flat out wishy-washy. Scared to act, to ask, to do anything but he's often the first person to become angry and turn away from Lily. As a great romance, it left quite a bit to be desired.


However, as this was Wharton, I wasn't expecting a great love story. After all, one of the reasons I avoided The House of Mirth for so long was my unfortunate encounter with Ethan Frome as an English major. Fabulous writing...deathly depressing story. I suppose I should be happy Wharton showed some kindness to Lily and killed her off in the end. What The House of Mirth does have is absolutely wonderful prose, prose you want to linger with - it has been some time since I read a book that I took my time enjoying the language of it, the tone of it, the very atmosphere of the book. It put me in the mood for some fabulous BBC drama with lots of velvet, taffeta and tea. As a movie, I almost worry The House of Mirth would be dull because while there is scandal aplenty, it's only hinted at or explained in reactions from the characters. I wouldn't want a movie to spell it out for me; the idea of everything happening behind a curtain and yet in front of a crowd is almost as delicious as the way Lily and Seldon react to them through the narrative. A novel of manners indeed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thanks to all my Teachers

Recently, an article made me think about the many teachers I've had over the years. Now, I mean literal teachers - I'll return to the metaphorical ones at another time. The article asked writers to talk about an important lesson a teacher had taught them somewhere along the way. As many were science writers, there was a good mix of science and english teachers full of wisdom about revising your work, not being afraid to experiment and to remember to harness what you love to be happy in your life work.

So, me being me, I tried to remember moments like this. I was one of those Students. A person who realized early on that she was good at school and little else. That my natural propensity to read everything I can get my hands on and to be able to remember it made school a walk in the park. Memorize a bunch of facts and spit them back out again? I could do that in my sleep. And did for many years. I had teachers who'd challenge me every once in a while - a hard read in advanced reading group would keep me occupied for a few days, my first research paper would make me nervous and send me into research realms I didn't really touch again until college but honestly? School was a walk in the park until 9th grade. 

A pair of teachers all of the sudden decided myself and fellow honors students had been living the easy life long enough. 9th grade Global History class was unlike anything we'd encountered - our textbook was college level and our teacher treated us like college students. Gone were the nicely organized notes and easy to follow questions where we could cite a sentence from the text and be done with it. Our teacher expected us to know the text enough to fill in the blanks of her haphazard key words scrawled across the overhead - we were there to understand history, not simply repeat a lot of dates. We learned Taoist exercises and wrote essays about surviving stranded in the Amazon rain forest - in short, we learned to apply history, not simply memorize it. It was revolutionary. 

Down the hall, we met an English teacher who wasn't going to give us a bunch of easy-to-answer questions simply proving we'd done the reading. This is when I really fell in love with the study of English literature - the idea that how I responded to a piece of writing was just as important as understanding the symbolism of the same short story. I wrote my first college worthy essay in this class, wrote my first actually decent piece of fiction and also learned that I liked the unconventional for school projects (I picked the one Greek deity who didn't have a myth for a class project that year and adored her - I still see Hestia as the Archivist of Olympus). These two classes combined taught me a valuable lesson - I hadn't liked school because I was interested in it, I had liked school because I was good at it, because it was easy. 9th grade taught me I could love school when it challenged me (I'm weird that way). 

However, I learned how to play that game pretty quickly too and I also learned that as long as I did well on paper, my teachers seemed pretty happy with me. Being a shy person by nature, I only spoke up in class when I needed to and avoid presentations at all costs (barring French class of course - Madame requires her very own blog post someday). I would write a 10 page paper before I would willing open my mouth in class and most teachers let me get away with it. So, let's fast forward to second semester of freshman year of college for the next pair of teachers that changed me. 

I'd pretty much coasted through first semester without too much worry, had carried a 4.0 average without a single late night. Thankfully, I received another one of those double whammy wake-ups calls to make sure I got the most out of college. My Critical Methods professor was tough and opinionated. I was in the class with a lot of English majors in their sophomore and junior years who'd already used a lot of critical theory in class. Our prof was fine with freshmen taking the class but we had to pull our weight. I tried to impress in my first paper and ended up with my first bad grade of college. I'd understood the theory OK but hadn't applied it well to my literature choices at all. So for my second paper I used my favorite theory, Readers Response and fell back on The Little Prince, arguably a children's book. To this day, that remains one of my all time favorite essays of college - I needed to remember that understanding a theory didn't mean I had to complicate it more. 

However, the hardest, and scariest moment was yet to come. I was taking a Survey of Medieval and Renaissance Lit that semester with a bunch of juniors so I was afraid to open my mouth. Not that I would have on my own either but they were kind of intimidating. However, after our first quiz, the professor called me up after class. "You scored one of the highest on the quiz, why don't you talk in class?" I remember stammering out something lame and shrugging my shoulders. Not good enough my prof said, either start talking or I'll fail you. Now, failure is a major issue with me; my college admissions essay had been about my fear of failure. So, you can imagine, I was terrified. So, I started talking about anything and everything. Even the silliest observation I'd made about a poem I'd put out there and something amazing happened, others agreed with me or argued with me but no one laughed at me or flat out said I was wrong. That survey class became one of my most rewarding experiences of my undergrad degree and also finally got me over the fear of talking in class. My classroom experiences became so much more relevant, rewarding, and fun after I learned that lesson and its one that serves me well in meetings today. 

So thanks to the teachers who challenged me to be more than I was - you taught me to write well, speak up, realize a mistake isn't the end of the world and defend my opinions. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

From Children's Book Wiki
I grew up on the 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. I never much cared for it to be honest. It was confusing, lost its own train of thought often and seemed to have no real point. Sadly, it took my wise old self to realize that was sort of the point. I am afraid as a child, I didn't much care for nonsense. I only learned to appreciate it with age. I also think I never quite forgave it for not being the same Alice in Wonderland I watched on the Disney Channel each morning which was just...friendlier. My sister and I even used to pretend that one was the Queen and one the Duchess from that version (I liked being the Duchess -Teri Garr rules).

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass though have been on my to-read list for a long time and I thought perhaps I was in the mood for some nonsense. Which is exactly what Lewis Carroll wrote. Lots and lots of confusing, non-linear nonsense about the adventures of a small child in a world called Wonderland where nothing was as it was supposed to be. All the characters one loves is there: Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Red Queen, the White Rabbit and the hookah-smoking caterpillar. There are even more ridiculous poems (hmmm, might be why I've never rushed to read it) and changes in scene that one can shake a stick at and yet I liked reading it once I embraced the fact that it would never make sense, no matter how many times I read a sentence.

From trailershut.com
After finishing the book, I took another look at Tim Burton's re-imaging of the story with Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter (along with a killer supporting cast) and found it to be even more clever than I had originally thought. Where Carroll gives a reader loose vignettes in chapter form, in order to create a sequel, Linda Woolverton (let's face it, I was going to love it if she wrote it), had to use Carroll's snippets to create a past for the now 19 year old Alice who has returned to Underland to save her old friends, even if she can't quite remember them anymore. Alice, who in the original story is sort of annoying at times, becomes a kick-ass heroine who slays the Jobberwocky and then sails off into the sunset on her own, off to see the world after turning down a rather unfortunate marriage prospect (you go girl!). The movie is full of references to the original story but also builds on what happened between the time Alice was first in Wonderland to the moment she returns. The Red and White Queens have fallen out and Underland is torn apart by their argument so now Alice must save the day. I definitely appreciate the story more now than before.

However, I fear the Walrus and the Carpenter scene in the 1951 version will still creep me out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The history of football is actually interesting...

From Goodreads
I am watching football as I write this.

Those of you who know me may close your mouths now. After finishing a book about the history of the game which ends with the fascinating story of the first "air game" between Notre Dame and Army in 1913, I felt the need to watch the modern-day version of a game that started out more like rugby's ugly younger brother.

Very rarely do I do reading for work during my off-time. I spend a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt during the day, so I like to take a break from the exhausting character when I'm not at work. However, our big annual event is coming up and some authors who recently published works on Roosevelt are planning on attending and I'd like to talk to them about their new books for my blog at work. Which means I need to have read these books. Minor technicality. While two of them do not come out until next month, John J. Miller's The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football came out earlier this year so I started with the one I could get my hands on easiest.

Now, I'm not much of a football fan. I find the game somewhat slow at times - I much prefer basketball or hockey, games which are constantly moving. However, I grew up watching football along with the other two sports. My dad is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and so is my sister. I remember the Super Bowls between the Bills and Cowboys because my uncle would be in the house to see who would win the bet between he and my dad. I vaguely recall going to Syracuse University football games when I was a kid and my parents had season tickets (and the team was, well...decent). So, I know the basics of the game. Which was helpful for reading this book, let me tell you. But I'm not a fan. Perhaps if I hadn't attended Michigan during a football slump (actually, they'd done better since I left Ann Arbor...perhaps it was me...), I would have been a convert to the game.

Miller clearly loves the game and he assumes the reader has some knowledge of the game and how it is played today. Mainly I was impressed that I could follow him at times - apparently I have absorbed more football knowledge than I thought over the years. The book follows the game of football as it developed into a major college sport, using Roosevelt as sort of a thread along the side of the story until his direct 1905 intervention into the game by calling a "football summit" at the White House. Deaths on the gridiron were quite common when football first started being played on college campuses. There were no rules and players wore no safety equipment. However, the game played into a new movement called Muscular Christianity so the early attempts to ban it did not stick as it was popular with students and popular with public figures as a game which produced strong, brave and honorable young men. Miller follows the stories of the earliest opponents to football such as Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. He introduces Walter Camp, the father of football, and his struggle to make it 10 yards for a down and to keep the forward pass out of the game for good (can you imagine?). If you are looking for a book that will give you an overview of football's earliest years, Miller delivers.

If nothing else, I think I have a greater appreciation for the game of football and how it reached the pinnacle of popularity it has enjoyed for decades (something a trip to the Football Hall of Fame as a kid couldn't even instill in me). So, I sit here on a Sunday watching football and marveling at the game that started out as a bunch of young men shoving each other around a muddy field in Cambridge. Pretty impressive, I must say.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Catch-22


From Goodreads
Now that the summer reading challenge is over and my vacation is only a fond memory, I thought I should perhaps get back to my yearlong reading goal of getting around to all those books I should have read by now. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has been on my list a long time. It was one of those books in that genre that I successfully avoided for most of my English undergraduate career. I touched on this when I spoke about Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this year. And yet again, I enjoyed this book for some inexplicable reason.

Well, OK, not inexplicable. Catch-22 is funny. Strike that, it is laugh out loud hilarious at times.  Sure, every character in it is despicable and insane. Sure, it takes making its point to almost annoyingly extreme levels. But it made me laugh. For that, I can forgive it a lot of things.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Catch-22 follows the plight of Yossarian, a bomber stationed in Italy during World War II along with a motley crew of insane colonels, doctors and pilots. I say insane and mean it – there is not a one of them I would trust to see me home safely let alone send up with a plane full of bombs.  Yossarian is convinced there are people out to kill him which, considering he’s in active duty during a war, is perhaps not so insane as it seems. His colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly to go home, there is a major who is a recluse, a chaplain who is being investigated for crimes he may or may not have committed, tent mates slowly building stoves or dead, and a growing list of men who are disappearing, either dead or managed to convince everyone they are. It’s pretty much chaos.

I did find the characterizations fascinating because Yossarian, who starts out seemingly despicable, actually turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Which, perhaps in this book, isn’t saying much but you do end up cheering him along. People I started out liking like Milo, the mess officer who is running an illegal international shipping cartel with the sanction of the US government, turned out to really not be very good in the end. I adored Major Major Major who somehow managed to become a recluse in his own squadron by insisting no one ever see him...until the day Yossarian tackled him to the ground and then after that, no one ever saw him again.  You have Nately who is in love with an Italian prostitute, Arfy, who may be the most clinically insane of them all and Dunbar who is disappeared after he makes one too many common sense remarks.  

The characters helped when the story didn’t. The narrative is often disjointed; making reference to events that the reader hasn’t been told about yet. This seemed clever at first but then just sort of got old. Heller would often belabor a point too long. Yes, everyone is ridiculous and not making sense – the point is made quickly. At times, it was just tedious to read. The chaplain’s interrogation is a major moment where I skimmed because I was just annoyed and bored. The point that there was no point was made within the first paragraph, I didn’t need a chapter going on and on about it. Of course, that is the point; that there is no point. Bother, now I remember why novels of this era and genre are not my favorites.

However, like I said, the book made me laugh and I can forgive it for being a little too in love with its purpose at times. What is its purpose? Obviously, it is a satire addressing the ineptitude and complete disregard for human life that war seems to bring out in people and especially their governments. Heller himself was in the air corps during World War II so he knew what he was talking about enough to poke fun at it and criticize it.

All in all, I am glad I added this novel to my reading list for the year. I think I would have loathed studying it in a classroom but just reading it and being able to enjoy it (or skim it as needed) was entertaining. I wish Yossarian a lot of luck getting to Sweden.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We've lost a dreamer

The rest of the world is doing a much better job than I ever could in paying tribute to the visionary we lost yesterday but for what it's worth, I wanted to pay my respects as well.

Every once in awhile, the world gets a true dreamer. Someone who sees the world in a way most of us would never dream of. Someone who can look at something and say with confidence, "that is the future." Steve Jobs was one of those people. 

Growing up in a very tech advanced house (something I am only coming to appreciate as I get older), I have always been awed by what technology can do and awed by the people who have the creativity and know-how to bring that technology into the homes of millions of people world-wide. I am an Apple girl. I still own my first iPod, a first gen I bought off a friend when she upgraded. It lives permanently on my iHome and probably would have the battery life of a minute if I took it off but it still works perfectly. I got my first Macbook late during my first year of grad school, but I am never going back to a PC again. In fact Darwin, my trusty Mac, is one of my best friends, something I am not embarrassed to admit (well, maybe a little...). I'll get my first iPhone when the iPhone 4S is released later this month. And chances are, I'll never go back from that either. 

Point is, my life has been touched by Steve Jobs. In the biggest way possible. Living as far as I do from home, my computer is my lifeline back and soon, my cell phone will be another link I use to stay in touch with the world. 

So I guess, what I want to say to a man I've never met is thanks. And safe travels to the next stop, whatever it may be.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Under I feared I would lose it...

"Under I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird

From the Dayton Metro Library's Flickr stream
Banned Book week always makes me think. As does the quote above. I only just read To Kill a Mockingbird late last year and fell in love with it. However, the quote above took a moment to sink in. It is true; one does not love to breathe. It is simply something we assume is working the way it should be. It is an essential piece of keeping one alive but a piece we rarely think about until, as Lee notes, it is lost or threatened in some way. Reading is to me, as it was for Scout, as essential as breathing.

I am not sure where that comes from exactly. I was always being read to as a child. I can remember certain books at my grandmother's house that were read to me so often that I could "read" them from a very young age simply because I had them memorized. I remember there was always a bookshelf in my room and it was always filled - I don't remember ever owning an empty bookshelf. My talent for reading though was cultivated when my aunt used me as a guinea pig for her college projects. She was studying to be a teacher if I recall correctly but I don't remember what I had to do for her at all. I do remember the gift she gave me when it was done - a hardcover, gorgeous edition of Beauty and the Beast based on the Disney film version. I still have it to this day. On the first page of the story, the word "majestic" appears - I remember being proud that I knew what that word meant and how to pronounce it the first time I opened the book. I was in second grade.

I always had my nose in a book. I could read anywhere - in a car, on a plane, lying out under the sun, cozy under the covers, in a loud crowded room (essential around my family). Any place was a good place to pull out a book and dive in. I think my family thought I was slightly nuts but they never stopped me and always encouraged me. I am thankful they let me read what I wanted, that they trusted me in my reading choices. I remember Mom reading to both my sister and me in my early elementary school years - Shiloh was one we cried our way through. Encouraged by teachers and what I was reading in school, I got to read some fabulous books in elementary school. Fourth and fifth grades though are when I start to remember classroom reading well - The Girl with Silver Eyes, Farmer Boy, The Iceberg Hermit, Where the Red Fern Grows, Summer of the Monkeys. We read the Tripods trilogy as a class in 5th grade and my love of science fiction was born (much to my father's delight). Dad also made sure I read Jack London's works, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Dove while in elementary school. House rules for school reading challenges: I pick one book, Dad picks the other. The only time this didn't work was when he set me to Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It was one of the first books I didn't much get along with though it would take me years to learn it was OK to walk away from a book I didn't like without finishing it and the world wouldn't end.

My book explosion came in 6th grade when I discovered the Anne books. I had been bored with Babysitter Club books and other series didn't really interest. I went through a Catherine, Called Birdy phase but then somehow, and I don't even remember how, I stumbled across Anne of Green Gables. I don't think it's a day my mother thinks of fondly. For the next few months she was continually running me out to the mall so I could buy the next book in the series. Finally, I bought the last three books in one fell swoop. I adored Anne, and later her kids. I wanted to live in a world like they did. From Anne, I discovered Jane of Lantern Hill and all of L.M. Montgomery's short stories. I also fell into Holocaust literature in a big way in 6th grade - I read everything I could find though If I Should Die remains one of my favorites.

As I got older, reading for fun was regulated to summers as during the school year, I had too much homework, far too many extracurricular activities and other responsibilities that time to read for fun was lost a lot of the time. College was even worse but I was an English major, I had to read for most of my classes. Here is where I discovered Dickens, Austen, and the Bront√ęs in all their glory. I came to them late (well, Dickens I had meat and loved in high school but I never got back around to him), but not a moment sooner than I needed them. At the end of four years of studying English and writing papers, these authors reminded me of why I loved to read in the first place.

But to return to why I started to write this in the first week, Banned Books week. I had never actually looked at the Banned Books list before today. I'd read about books when they were being challenged and I had a vague idea that I'd read a good many of them by now but I'd never actually checked because the idea seemed sort of silly to me. Just a list of books I might not want to read? Why on earth not? Some of the most compelling reads are ones that challenge what you belief, what you think is right and what is wrong and that shows you just how grey our world actually is. Why would someone want to deliberately stay "safe" and not read something that will make them think and defend themselves? So, perhaps, speaks the English major, but it seems to me the very opposite reason I read. I read to be entertained yes, but also to be challenged, to learn to question myself and the world around me. In short, I read to learn about myself and the world I live in and the great thing about reading is, the book doesn't even have to be a realistic setting! It can be on another planet, in another time and I will still learn. Sigh, the joys of reading! May I never lose it!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Back to Reality

I am alive people! Sadly, a mysterious illness (that they finally decided is TMJ) kept me down for a lot of the time before my trip but I am back and feeling better definitely. I am missing the beds at the Walt Disney World Dolphin though.

And Serenity Bay at Disney's private island. Once I found an umbrella to hide under (my northeastern white skin did not take well to the Caribbean sun), it was fabulous. And I finished a book while I was there.
From Goodreads

The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman was a great book to read while traveling though I wish someone had given it to me back in high school. Except it wasn't written then since Rachel was still on her adventures at the time. It was a surreal book to read on some levels. One, Rachel apparently grew up near me and two, she sounds like she was just like me in how she handled school. Because of that, I was impressed by how she grew throughout her book and how candid she was willing to be about her insecurities and fears as she traveled the globe. I would recommend this for people about halfway through college. May all the parents who freak out at their kids taking some time off from college because of it forgive me.

In other news, I finally saw Some Like It Hot and feel like a failure as a human being for not seeing it until now. Seriously, comedic gold. Can we all just take a moment to appreciate Tony Curtis's Cary Grant impression when he is pretending to be a millionaire? Because, I may have laughed for five minutes when he said his first line. Jack Lemmon as always is hilarious and that last line? The reason we watch the classics.

Anyhoo, back to the grind now and the regularly scheduled movie watching and book reading. Bonus, fall TV shows are back!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Can I Move Here?

Seriously. I want to live in that! From Mubi
I've always enjoyed the dubbed animation movies from Japan. I may have watched Kiki's Delivery Service way too many times one summer when Cartoon Network had it on rotation. The style of their animation is so novel and just...cool, one has to enjoy it. Not to mention, they are good with stringing a narrative together that on paper, shouldn't work. I watched Ponyo earlier this year and loved that as well. The sense of whimsy in these films is so refreshing, so pure. They get laughs without a wink to the audience. Often impressive these days. So, I was excited to find Howl's Moving Castle on the library shelf yesterday. I have started my weekly Disney movie watching in preparation for my upcoming trip and since Disney is the US distributor for Studio Ghibli films, I figured Howl's Moving Castle counted. I now...um...don't want to give it back to the library.

The film is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones (which I have an ILL request in for now - because if it's better than the movie, I won't want to get that back either). The story is easy to follow when you watch it but go with me as I describe it. Sophie is a quiet hat maker living in a sort of steampunk world where witches and wizards are common. A war is brewing quietly outside her door but independent Sophie refuses to be cautious which is how she meets Howl, the most feared wizard of them all. Because of Howl though, Sophie is cursed into the body of an old woman. To break the curse, Sophie falls in with Howl's gang, as the cleaning lady of his moving castle. The war escalates and it is left to Sophie to save Howl and her new family.

OK, I kept it simple to not confuse but I cannot explain how much I love the character of Sophie, both young and old. Independent, spunky, clever and willing to work to protect her family, even from themselves. She isn't afraid to tell it like it is. As an old woman, she lets down her guard as she's never seen herself as worthwhile or pretty enough like the rest of her family. Once she's old, she feels free to be herself and truly blossoms. I also love that Howl always sees Sophie as a young woman the few times Sophie is the main focus of the viewer's gaze from Howl's perspective. For the most part, as the story is told from Sophie's point of view so Howl, strange, enigmatic, brilliant Howl, is the main focus of the viewer's gaze.

The rest of the cast of characters are also fun and interesting. The idea of Sophie's world is one with with people who are supposed to be seen as good or bad often operating in the grey areas. One of the reasons Sophie's black and white way of looking at the world is so novel in the world she finds herself in. Calcifer, a fire demon who powers the moving castle, is funny and clever. The Wicked Witch of Waste is one you can never be sure of and Markl, Howl's apprentice, is a child trying to be an adult, often in a hilarious getup of cloak and long grey beard. Then there is the castle...I want to live in it. Seriously. It is right up there with the TARDIS as some of the coolest transportation ever dreamed up. It is a delightful mix of houses, boats and machinery all jumbled together and it somehow just works. Add in a magic door that can open out onto different towns all over the world and it is pretty much awesome. (Actually, the analogy of the Doctor to Howl is quite apt now that I think about it.)

So, I highly recommend you check out this movie for both the fabulous animation (seriously, there is a sea where Sophie is looking out over the ocean, it is fantastic animation) and the wonderful story of magic and love. I have been feeling the need for a dose of whimsy and Howl's Moving Castle more than delivered.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

At least there were no sparkling vampires

From Goodreads
So, I fell in love with vampire lore back in high school when someone gave me one of Maggie Shayne's books. Granted, her vampires aren't the best examples but it was enough for me to want to read more. So, I went to the source, Bram Stoker's Dracula. I love a good source read; it has every cliche in the book and then you remember it's because he came up with the cliche and your mind is blown (I have always been a nerd...). I've read countless vampire tales over the years so you can imagine I was excited to read Twilight. That was a sad day. I didn't make it 100 pages in before I tossed the book in disgust. One: vampires, sun? Two: vampires, celibate? Three: who edited that book?! I was reading it with a red pen to correct grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. And I'm not even that great when it comes to grammar and I could see the problems. So, I crawled my way back to the Underworld movies and re-read Dracula and reassured myself that good vampire tales were still out there.

Sadly, my most recent read isn't one of them. Robin McKinley is usually a safe bet; her fantasy re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast are some of the best ever written. I figured if vampires were safe in anyone's hands, it was McKinley. And, in the grand scheme of things, she doesn't let you down when it comes to the idea of the vampire - they are as evil, bloodthirsty and dangerous as you could want. I mean, the main villain is so bad, his evil has become an idea that can physically poison someone after his death. I was impressed by that level of evilness.  In fact, Sunshine is probably one of the goriest books I've ever read. I mean, there is literally a bloodbath at one point and the two heroes escape from a burning building literally soaked in blood. So, on that front she wins! Sadly, the rest of the book is a mess.

The first issue is the story is told from a first person point of view. Sunshine doesn't know what is happening to her most of the time so how then could the reader have a clue? The narrative is confusing, tends to jump from point to point and never tells you much. Even when Sunshine figures something out, I often was asking "wait, what did you figure out? How did you figure it out? Aren't you going to tell me?!" Also, she's an unreliable narrator since she usually is doing her best to forget everything that happened to her - not someone I can trust to tell me everything then. Maybe McKinley wanted to keep the reader that off balance but an entire book like that? A reader feels like she's suffering from a semi-permanent bout of vertigo.

Sunshine's world is post-apocalyptic (after something called the Voodoo Wars - kudos for a great name) with its own slang and everything but Sunshine never really explains it a lot of it. When she is moved to explain, she usually interrupts a conversation to explain so by the time the reader returns to the conversation, she's forgotten what they were even talking about. It really killed the momentum of the story. In general, I spent the entire book confused and feeling like I was wasting my time. Few authors have the talent to throw you into a world and slowly but surely explain it to the reader without long descriptions and ruining the pace of the story. Jasper Fforde, in my opinion, is the best at this. I realized reading Sunshine, it is is not one of McKinley's.

As I don't really know what I should have known by the end of Sunshine, I find it hard to understand why I think I liked the idea of the story. It has some neat concepts behind it and plays with vampire lore well. The character of Sunshine herself is a neat twist but McKinley fails to develop it so I buy it completely. What remains is a kernel of a good idea in a confusing narrative. But again. like I said, at least the main vampire character isn't sparkling in the sun. I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Quiet Finish

From Goodreads
So, last weekend, I very quietly finished my summer reading challenge through the library with a book which uses film to explain and discuss philosophy. It was interesting and a much better way to tackle some of those writers than either of the two philosophy classes I've taken over my lifetime. The thing with philosophy is I always feel it should be interesting than it turns out to be. It should be sitting around discussing what life is, and there is some of that, but then they have to bring logic proofs and ridiculously long sentences which seem to always contradict themselves somewhere along the way. You'd think with all that, there would be answers in there somewhere but those often seem to be missing too. Using film though I think is a great way to go about it and I recommend Christopher Falzon's book if you're at all interested in diving into philosophy basics. He was quite good about using movies that I had at least heard of, if not seen, for the most part. That was another fear when I started it, that he would cite all these gloriously wonderful films that maybe a handful of film majors could say they had seen.  Quite frankly, when the man used Total Recall as an example, I knew we would get along just fine.

I had finished the film part of the challenge several weeks before when I was finally in the mood for subtitles. Heartbreaker was a refreshingly clever and funny romantic comedy out of France and I recommend for anyone who has a soft spot for ridiculous rom-coms to check it out. If nothing else, I learned that Vanessa Paradis is something other than Johnny Depp's long-time partner. And there is an awesome scene when they recreate the final dance from Dirty Dancing...you'd just have to see it to understand how that fits at all with the plot.

So, reading and film challenges are done! Now, I should get back to my other reading challenge for the year, all those pesky books on my reading list that I should have read by now but haven't (the classics) but I think I'll take some time and clear out a few books I picked up on a trip to Denver. In April. Eventually, I get back around to everything!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reading and Watching a Time Machine

So, by now, you may have gathered I am a bit of a Doctor Who fan. He clearly has the coolest time machine, hands down. Nothing can top the TARDIS. Still, the original is kind of cool. For my summer reading challenge, I chose to kill two birds with one stone and read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a book that was also on my year-long reading list of books I should have read by now. I also, just to cover all my bases, watched the 2002 movie version of Wells' novel last night starring Guy Pearce. Let's just say, the Doc still reigns supreme as the premier Time Traveller in my book.

From Goodreads
Not to say I didn't enjoy this other time traveler. We'll start with the book. It was the first book I had read by Wells and I liked his style. Although he included considerably more science jargon in his work than his counterpart, Jules Verne, I was still able to easily follow the logic of his story. I liked the set up of the book, or novella as it is more rightly classified. It's divided into three main parts. The first section is a dinner party with the Time Traveler (no other name given) and several of his friends where they debate time travel and then the Time Traveler successfully tests a small scale model of his time machine. This section is heavy on the science, with not a lot of plot but it sets the stage for the second, longest section which is when the Time Traveler goes to the year 800,000 AD and successfully comes back and tells his tale to his dinner companions. This sort of retrospective story technique seems to be popular with both Wells and Verne. In a sense, it makes me more comfortable as a reader; if he's telling the story, he obviously survives the peril of the story. That said, it clearly kills the suspense aspect of the plot. The third, quite short, section is simply the narrator saying that the Time Traveler has been missing, along with his great machine, for the past three years and speculates on whether he will ever return.

The main gist of the story is brilliant; remember, Wells was long before Doc Brown strapped a flux capacitor to a DeLorean and even long before the Doctor started traveling the universe in a Police Box. I love reading the root stories of our great mythologies. The Time Traveler is likable enough if a little bland and he certainly travels to a fantastical place far, far, far into our future. At this point apparently, humans have split into two races. The Eloi, simple childlike creatures, live above ground and the menacing Morlocks inhabit caves miles beneath the surface and only come out at night. The Eloi are likened to sheep for good reason; the Morlocks are meat eaters and the only creatures around to eat apparently are the Eloi. So, the element of cannibalism is a major plot point even if Wells never comes right out and states it as such. Pretty gruesome (and the movie takes it a bit further than I needed to see). Also, the Eloi, childlike to the extreme, makes the Time Traveler's relationship with Weena somewhat problematic. I don't think Wells means for the story to have the undertones I was picking up on that relationship but then again, maybe he did. Either way, it was a bit much at times in my opinion. That said, the adventure of the story holds up. The Time Traveler's war with the Morlocks to get his time machine back is fun to follow and well paced. The novella is definitely plot driven; the characters are rather under developed but again, I've noticed this about the early science fiction novels. They are so focused on getting the story out and explaining all the ways it was plausible that the characters sort of fell by the wayside of the bigger agenda of the author.  

From Moviegoods
Now, we move on to the 2002 film. Setting aside the rather cheesy special effects (I was shocked to see the film was made in 2002 when I looked - the budget must have been rather low key), I liked this movie. It in no way resembles the novella it is based on other then there is a time traveler who goes to the year 800,000 where humans have divided into hunters and hunted. However, this didn't bug me and I'll tell you why. If they'd filmed a straight version of Wells' story, most of the time you'd be bored. There are pages of explanation; pages when the Time Traveler is just wandering around aimlessly trying to decide how to act next. The sort of style doesn't make for the most riveting film. However, and feel free to cry foul on me, how they characterized the Time Traveler, or Alex Hartdegen as he's now called, seemed a bit much to me.

In the novella, the Time Traveler builds his machine because he can; he is a scientist and he wants to explore new frontiers and break boundaries. This fits the time, the spirit, of the age Wells was writing in and trying to embody through his story. The pursuit of scientific discovery itself was a big enough motivator for his character. In 2002, we had to give Alex Hartdegen some melodramatic loss to make him so obsessed in going back in time to fix a mistake that he builds the time machine. People, in one word, lame. I was not a fan of this new plot point. Other ones they added were necessary I think to make the other characters flesh out enough so you cared about them. The Eloi become a fully developed people with their own culture and society (in the book, they just sort of lazed around all day). The Morlocks have a supreme leader who, kind of Borg-like, controls the rest of the pack via mind control. Rule number 1 in action film, we must have a single bad guy controlling all the minions. I also liked the inclusion of the hologram librarian who follows Alex through time; it was a clever way to get information to the audience without going overboard with monologues from the other characters. Also, we need to give props to the Props department - the Time Machine was awesome and, according to IMDB, the biggest and most expensive prop built for a film at that time. I see where the budget went now.

It was interesting to be able to compare the two works, novella from 1895 and film from 2002. I think in many ways, they are reflections of their time; of the expectations of an ever-changing audience and both are worth checking out if you're in between seasons of Doctor Who.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Some Thoughts on Princesses

And no, I'm not going all Kate Middleton on you at this late date. I was recently catching up on some Disney podcasts and the last episode of Mouse Lounge was focused on the Disney Princesses. It's a fascinating topic to me because 1) I am a bonafide Disney geek and 2) I was a women's studies student and a proud feminist to this day. I found myself defending my love of Disney often in my women's studies classes.

Still from Disney's Fairy Tale Wedding Line. From Ranker
I never really analyzed though until a fellow WS student asked me a few questions about her senior project. She was looking at the Disney Princesses and their effect on young girls. This was just a few days after the first release of the Disney Wedding dress line and she hadn't heard about that yet so I told her about that and didn't think about it again until her presentation on her work in class. Her findings were telling if not unexpected - Disney Princesses could give girls the wrong impressions, and those imprssions fell all across the board: If I just wait, he'll come rescue me (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella); If I change enough, he'll fall in love with me (The Little Mermaid, might have an argument for Mulan here as well); If I just love him enough, he'll change and be the man I need (Beauty and the Beast). I'm paraphrasing and certainly hoping I remember this well enough but you get the idea - the princesses are passive; beauty objects to which things happen but they themselves have no control over them. I remember listening and getting progressively more uncomfortable. Did I subconsciously take all that in? I was a kid long before the current Princess craze and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques but maybe, a part of me had taken that in anyway? The more I sat there in class, the more I thought back and wondered.

Ariel was technically my first princess. I vaguely recall seeing The Little Mermaid in the theater when it came out and I loved the music but the story was never my favorite. It was Belle and Beauty and the Beast that ruled my world. I had loved to read already; all I had to do was perfect walking and reading at the same time and I was set. However, I don't recall pining for my prince. I wanted to go off and have an adventure sure - wander forests, ride in to the rescue in the end, marry the Beast for his library...sorry, off track. The thing is, I never saw Belle as someone who was fishing for a man; the fact she finds one in the end is just sort of a bonus. I think it helped that my dad focused me on how smart Belle was, on how much she liked to read, on how brave she was. He never pointed out that she got to wear a pretty dress and married a prince. It was sort of besides the point in my world. So, I spoke up in class. I don't think my friend was surprised. I was the girl writing her thesis on Cinderella after all (for WS, I was more into looking at the sexual revolution of women in the 1890s-1920s, but I got Disney in on the English side. Poor Cindy, she needed someone to prove she was a bit more than a perfect shoe model). I talked about my Dad's point of view and how he presented Belle to me. It was true, I was an odd kid but I was just as inclined to love princesses as anyone. I am a born hopeless romantic but for me, Belle was never just a princess, she was first and foremost her own woman, with or without a man in the picture. My class found this interesting and we ran off into the whole nature vs. nurture discussion. But I've never forgotten thinking about my relationships with the princesses.

Fast forward to today and Disney Princess culture is everywhere. Talk about a merchandising mint. But my approach to the princesses hasn't changed. They have their place, most of them accurately reflect the idea of women in society for when they were created (let's all have a field day approaching Sleeping Beauty with that in mind) which is why Belle reigned supreme for me even over the more overtly feminist princesses Jasmine and Mulan. Then came The Princess and the Frog.

I had totally gushed over her dress first
I discussed this briefly when I looked at Tangled; Tiana, the princess for my 20s. Hard-working, practical, secretly funny and a dreamer at heart though she tries to deny it, Tiana and Belle run neck in neck for my favorite princess award these days. "Almost There" is a song that gets me through the hardest days, the days when I forget I do have bigger goals, bigger dreams and if I just keep working for it, with a little dreaming for good measure, than I'm almost there for sure. Mouse Lounge focused on Tiana a lot and how she is a more "modern" princess and has the mentality to prove it and I had to laugh because the little girl they were discussing in the podcast still just loved the music, the colors, the adventure of Tiana's story. She wasn't thinking about how Tiana is a positive representation of women in animation but about how pretty her dress is in the end. Because, let's face it, girls will be girls and even those of us who like to think we're above that stood in line to gush over Princess Tiana's dress at the Magic Kingdom.

The Princess culture is fascinating but ultimately, I think it is a combination of things that make some girls fall head long into it and others just enjoy the ride along the way. One thing is for sure, it's not going anywhere anytime soon and I am sure to see many a little girl happily skipping up Main Street decked out as her favorite princess on her way to the Castle for breakfast with Cinderella during my trip in September. And honestly? I don't see a thing wrong with that.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Medora in the Summer

Living in western North Dakota, the first thing anyone told me anything about when I arrived was Medora, the little town where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is, the town that is all that is left of where Roosevelt lived while ranching here. It had essentially become a ghost town until a wealthy entrepreneur moved in and saved it (I think in the 1960s?). Most of the town is now owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and, I mean this is the best possible sense, has become a quality tourist trap. Because of when I relocated out here, the first time I visited Medora was in the dead of winter when one restaurant and one shop are still open. The rest of the people, quite wisely, have flown south for the winter.

I missed last summer's season as I didn't have any visitors come and Medora in the summer just seemed like I needed to have someone with me to brave. So, the next time I went was during my parents' visit in October of last year. Because of the oil boom in the area, more businesses stayed open longer and I got to hit the stores as they had their end of season sales. Other than that, I have driven in Medora simply to get to the national park, nothing more.

So, when my sister decided to come out in July this year, I was excited. I'd at least have someone to finally go to this Medora Musical I'd heard so much about. So, the day after I'd survived my first trail ride and hit the lunch rush at the Cowboy Cafe, my sister and I headed back to Medora for the Pitchfork Fondue and Medora Musical.
Pitchfork Fondue. Photo: Ally Thomas

The Pitchfork Fondue is not actually a fondue...so I'm not sure where the fondue part of the title comes from. There was, sadly, no cheese involved. That said, this is far and above the best meal I'd had in a very long time. The Fondue occurs next to the amphitheater where the musical is, high up above the Chateau De Mores. You have a killer view overlooking the Little Missouri River from where you sit. When dinner is ready, they ring the bell and everyone herds into line. As the dinner starts so early (two and a half hours) before the musical, there is no need to rush. We were eating on an absolutely perfect night (if a little breezy) so my sister and I waited around for the line to get down a bit. Once in line, you hand in your tickets, grab a tray and fill her up. I skipped the beans (not my thing) but loaded a tray with coleslaw, garlic bread, fresh fruit and vegetables and a baked potato before getting back into a line to pick up my steak. Now, they cook the steaks on actual pitchforks (hence the name), and whatever they season them with, they should sell. This was the tastiest 12 oz rib-eye I've ever had. Nice and juicy, if a bit unevenly cooked, it is the reason to go to the Pitchfork Fondue. The meal also includes lemonade and dessert (super yummy mini cinnamon doughnuts and really chocolatey brownies).

So, my sister and I took our time eating, had multiple desserts and enjoyed the view and still had an hour to kill before the show. We walked over to the Medora Musical Welcome Center and perused the gift shop of a while, which also has displays on the history of the musical (which started out as Old Four Eyes in the 1950s if I recall correctly), dealt with a minor issue with our tickets and then headed down to the theater. The theater is impressive as is the stage which consists mostly of movable buildings re-creating the Medora of Theodore Roosevelt's time. For an amphitheater, on a perfect night, with the added bonus of some wild elk just hanging out behind the stage, it gets you excited for the show. Then the musical started. Now, I wasn't expecting greatness and I figured it would be more revue than musical but to me, they need to work on the flow a bit more - it doesn't quite work at times and also, the corniness level is alarming in sections. What did surprise me was the level of commercialness involved. The Medora Musical is one giant commercial for North Dakota which I found interesting since you're already in North Dakota when watching it, I would assume you're sort of preaching to the choir.  I will forgive the actual commercial done twice regarding buying concessions before the show started and right before intermission, mainly because I'm still in shock they do that (but my sister took a picture so it must be so).

The Burning Hills Singers of Medora Musical. Photo: Ally Thomas
Now, for the most part, the show is half revue and half a history lesson about Theodore Roosevelt. The singing portions of the show are enjoyable and fun; the crop of guy singers this year is much better than the girls and the dancing was well coordinated and fit the style of the show. The clogging (which is actually tapping because they were not wearing clogs) was the best part of the dance sequences though I am still puzzled as to why there is clogging in a western show. I must look up the history there some time. The history lessons were actually a lot of fun especially the "re-creation" of the Battle of San Juan Hill. The use of horses in that scene was particularly effective I thought. I was actually quite impressed with the use of horses throughout the show - they added something to the brief stories rather than just being novelties to bring out on stage every once in a while.

All in all, I am glad the tickets were given to me by a friend at work. I do not think the musical is worth the price you pay to see it if I'm being honest. The Pitchfork Fondue though absolutely is - I'm quite sad I have no more visitors coming this season to give me another excuse to go!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Glamour of Train Travel

From Goodreads
I love traveling by train. We took it down to New York City for my 18th birthday and I fell in love. On my first trip to France, a few months later, we did the overnight train from Paris to Toulouse and even had a berth on that train, sleeping three high in the tiniest room imaginable. It was like an adventure and we had so much fun trying to shove our 6 almost to bursting suitcases into the compartment. When I studied abroad, the train was our way of getting around England and we even took the train to Paris from Waterloo (though the Chunnel was less than cool - I mean, it is just one long tunnel after all). I often did the overnight train from Chicago home during my years in Ann Arbor. This was mostly brought on by cheap train fares and my need to avoid air travel for a bit after several really bad flights in and our of Baltimore during my undergrad years. Plus, there is something so wonderful about the train. Settling into your larger seat with leg room, plugging in your lap top and watching episodes of West Wing as you cross Indiana and Ohio. You can see the landscape too, traveling at Christmas was wonderful; seeing the decorations on the houses, catching glimpses of the trees lit and parties happening as the train goes through people's backyards. There is something wonderfully voyeuristic about train travel in that way.

So, imagine my excitement when I was looking for my Travel/Geography book for the summer challenge when an internet search led me to Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux gets on a train in London and goes all the way to Japan and back traveling as much by train as possible. He does this in the early 1970s so the book is quite dated but the magic of train travel never gets old. Theroux is quite likeable as a traveler and willing to speak to his fellow passengers and conductors, to learn as much about where he is as he can. Something the reader must appreciate because the entire book then feels like you're traveling alongside Theroux.

He crushes a few dreams of mine. Apparently, at least in the 1970s, The Orient Express has lost a lot of the glamour you think it should have and that decades of fiction have saturated it with. You learn that the idea of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world at over 6,000 miles is a better idea on paper than in reality. Or I wonder if doing the Trans-Siberian in the dead of December on your last leg of your journey when all you want to do is get home was perhaps Theroux's problem at that point. Because for the most part, he's an enthusiastic traveler who braves the unstable railways of a Vietnam not quite out of the war yet, who willing goes off the beaten path to see what he can find. He's a lot braver than I would be so as a reader, I get to experience things I wouldn't if I'd tried this trip myself.

I did find myself wondering what this trip would be like now, almost forty years since Theroux made it. Are the cars on the Indian Railways still as posh? Are the dining cars still just noodle booths throughout much of Southeast Asia? What are your companions like on the Trans-Siberian now that communism has failed in Russia? It would be a fun experiment - a lot more expensive these days I imagine than in the 1970s when it seems to have been fairly cheap to travel by rail (and still is in Europe so maybe this holds true everywhere?). Perhaps some day I'll have four months to spare to try to navigate two continents by train. One can only hope. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Story of the Little Company that Could

From Upcoming Pixar
Now, after Super Size Me, I realized I should probably steer clear of food movies for the duration of this illness, whatever it is (My first migraine or a really weird sinus infection...the jury is still out on that), so I looked through my instant watch list after I was becoming bored out of my mind from just lying around and found I still had The Pixar Story in queue. Nothing can make you happier than a bunch of people who clearly love what they do producing some of your favorite movies - you even hate that you have to stop watching to run yourself to the emergency room because your body is rejecting pain medication that is supposed to help you.

However, after you've gotten that taken care of and are at least back to where you were before the experiment with Vicodin, you come back and settle down and watch John Lasseter's contagious enthusiasm fill your screen and you're bummed you gave up on that dream to become an animator on that dark day in 4th grade when you realized you had no drawing ability whatsoever. Because, basically, The Pixar Story is the story of this one little computer animation company that could. That wasn't willing to say something couldn't be done and that was willing to sacrifice everything for a good story. It is a movie of triumphs, of these rebel computer scientists and artists proving to the world that 3D animation could be done and done well. It is clearly a movie of a company that knew they shouldn't have succeeded so quickly once they got their name out there but they did so they ran with it and just kept beating the odds. Completely re-working Toy Story 2 over a weekend when they realized the story just wasn't working. Making up the rules as they went when it came to new techniques needed for Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. If nothing else, The Pixar Story is a testament that if you pay attention to the story and the craftsmanship of the film, the bottom line takes care of itself. A lesson animation studios are still learning years after Pixar has proved it time and again.

The films wraps after the success of The Incredibles so there are no mentions of the Pixar successes since such as Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3,  perhaps the best of the Toy Story trilogy. I wonder also how it would handle Cars 2, arguably the weakest film to ever be released by the whiz kids up in Emeryville. A film that is still heads above the competition but does present a little worrying fission through Pixar devotees. Until one watches the trailer for Brave and you realize every studio gets its one off. Even when that one off is still wildly successful, fun, engaging and leaves you wanting more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not a movie to watch while ill...or if you like McDonald's French Fries

Sigh, I am sick of being sick with some mysterious illness. My new plan is to ignore my headache and carry on as if it doesn't exist. I'll either succeed in ignoring it into nonexistence or ticking it off enough that it sticks around for my sister's visit. I always pick the most inopportune times to be sick. I mean, this couldn't happen during a month when I have nothing going on? I have reams of those around, time to kill but no, I get sick as I have someone actually coming to see me! Whatever body, you're not getting out of the planned outdoor movie, trail ride or outdoor musical complete with pitchfork fondue before hand.

From The Political Film Blog
That said, when one is suffering from nausea brought on by medicine that you have no business taking, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is not the movie to watch when you can't seem to fall asleep. But, it was going to go off Netflix Instant soon and I didn't think it could be that bad so I watched. And progressively got more green as the movie continued. Honestly, it's really two scenes that seem a bit much. When you eat a super sized Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal in less than 30 minutes, you can imagine what your body does with that much processed sugar and fried foods. It doesn't take a genius. And then also, the scene where they show a gastric bypass surgery in all its wonderful glory. No thanks.

That said, this movie was quite eye opening. Granted, I try to keep my McDonald's intake down (but I do love their fries) so I might get it once a month? Even that is probably more than I get on average. I always get a medium (who would need more?) and I figure that isn't sending me to an early grave. Spurlock goes all out - seems to often get the largest size he can and the amount of soda the man consumes is alarming in itself. Soda is one thing I noticed I drank too much of in college so I took that out of my diet early. Now it's more of a treat I buy on special occasions or get when I eat out if iced tea isn't a valid option. Overall, it's disturbing to watch a healthy, normal male live on McDonald's for a month and basically destroy the health he's acquired over the first 30ish years of his life. Because he does manage to destroy it. Notes given after the movie say it takes his vegan girlfriend 8 weeks to get his blood work back to normal and it takes him months to return to his normal weight. Months when it only took him a single month to put on 25 pounds.

Now, this is an extreme experiment and like I said, Spurlock does seem to make matters worse on himself by his menu choices but that's sort of the point so I let that slide. I found the reason he came up with the idea fascinating as well. Two teenage girls were suing McDonald's for their obesity and subsequent health problems. Now, I guess I see this as sad. McDonald's is a part of the American problem; I'll be the first to admit it. But is anyone forcing you to eat there? Spurlock does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument and looking at the American food lifestyle in general and how those two young girls could perhaps come to see McDonald's as the source of their problems (I have to wonder though what their parents were doing when all this was occurring though).

So, interesting film, really, and it made sure I won't be subsisting on McDonald's anytime soon though I'm still baffled as to who would want to do that. However, not a documentary to watch while you're feeling ill. Or on a full stomach. Or if you plan on eating at any time during or after the film. Give yourself some recovery time because he eats a lot of Mickey D's in front of you and I think some of the processed sugar leeches out into the audience.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Cranky Founding Father

From Amazon
For my history movie, I decided to finally watch the entirety of John Adams. I'd caught one or two episodes back when I was in DC in the summer of 2008 but had never seen the entire miniseries. I started it on July 4th after I'd watched all the other "patriotic" movies I own (namely Independence Day and Live Free or Die Hard - I figured start with the explosions and move on to the diplomats). The story of our nation and its origins never ceases to impress me. It never should have worked; we were the ultimate underdogs and yet somehow, we pulled out of it victorious (thanks in no small part to a heaping dose of help from France). I was glad the miniseries kept the cerebral side of our independence, it is the side I find infinitely more interesting.

America, the Great Experiment, comes out ahead in this particular re-telling though they do not shy from the politics and underhanded dealings that resulted in her. I was sad the series skipped over the disaster of the Articles of the Confederation but as Adams was abroad at the time, it made sense in terms of plot though I find it fascinating that the first try didn't take and we were still stubborn enough to try again. If nothing else, the miniseries makes you think on parts of history that were lines on a study guide once upon a time. The years Adams is president make much ado about the Alien and Sedition Acts. I had a vague memory learning a definition for them before my AP American History exam in 11th grade but it was fascinating to watch the consequences of signing versus not signing be argued out by Adams, his wife and his cabinet. They are mostly scorned in American history class if I recall correctly - acts that reduced civil liberties and put a gag on the American people and yet within the context of their creation, I understood why they seemed like a good idea at the time. If nothing else, the miniseries always portrays America as young, impulsive, and still testing her limits in the new world she created. While I can not condone the Acts themselves, I can better appreciate the reason Adams signed them.

However, John Adams is not only a history lesson; it is a series which portrays some of the most remarkable partnerships our country has ever known. Adams and his wife, Abigail. Adams and Thomas Jefferson, exact opposites in every sense whose friendship spans decades. You see the brashness of Alexander Hamilton (and come to understand why they wrote the Constitution specifically so he couldn't become president) and the sage quietness of General George Washington. The kookiness of Benjamin Franklin is especially well portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. If nothing else, the miniseries made characters of names I had read in my history books a thousand times but have never connected them to anything other than their proper place on my timeline. And make me wish to see men and women of their ilk among us again. I feel we had need of them more than ever as we enter our 235th year, a birthday perhaps they could not fathom when they signed a declaration of independence so many years ago.