Monday, February 21, 2011

Up in the Air

From News Blaze
I wasn't sure if there was enough to make this its own blog entry but I find, a day after watching this film, I have enough to say I think to make it worthwhile. This wasn't a movie I was particularly excited to see. It was more one of those films that ends up in my Netflix queue because I think it's one I should see. It was critically acclaimed when it came out last year and Clooney earned yet another Academy Award nomination from it.

The story follows Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, as he travels the country, firing people from their jobs. A new college graduate comes in and tries to change his business so he teaches her the ropes, showing her a lifestyle where attachments are a liability and loneliness a deal you make in trying to reach 10 million miles. However, through the course of the film, Ryan starts to realize that perhaps the relationships he'd always avoided might just be worth the trouble.

Honestly, the story was predictable. The great twist of the movie isn't a surprise if you are at all paying attention and the film dragged a bit in the middle it seemed to me. I liked the actors' portrayals of their characters and though you don't exactly want to, you like Ryan and feel for him as his world starts to turn upside down. I particularly enjoyed Anna Kendricks' portrayal of Natalie, the idealistic college grad who becomes Ryan's sidekick on the road as she learns the business. She ends up in his business because she followed a boy and gave up a job offer to do so. Her life hasn't turned out the way she thought it would and it falls apart steadily over the course of the film. She gets a happy ending; Ryan is not quite so lucky though there is hope on the horizon for him as the movie closes. 

I think what intrigued me the most in this film is it is a microcosm of the country at the time it is made. Ryan's business is firing people in one of the hardest economic climates our country has ever known. The reactions of these people and how Ryan handles it is fascinating to watch. Far more interesting than the personal lives of Ryan and Natalie. Ryan notes he never thinks to follow up after the firing, that his job is done. At one point though, the film goes back and check in with people we saw in the beginning. They aren't good but they aren't bad either; some note that it was a good thing in the end, that they landed on their feet. Others were not so lucky but know they will be in time.

Our infernal American optimism is hard to kill and I think that was what I took from this film. We get knocked down but we always seem to get back up. Even the crisis in the end, which happens off screen, doesn't dampen that feeling. In a climate that hasn't seemed to improve since this film as made, it remains a relevant watch and a thought-provoking one.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Now for some British whimsy

From Meg's Book Nook
Spring taunted us for a few days before sending us back to sub zero temperatures and a lovely wintry mix for today. So, I'm finally sitting down to write up a review for a book that just made me cozy up with a hot cup of tea and buttery toast every time I opened it.

Julia Stuart's The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise is full of whimsy and fun. It is a cozy read; comforting it its British quirkiness and zany characters. The story follows the lives of residents of The Tower of London. Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater who collects rain and mourns the death of his young son, his wife, Hebe, who works at the Lost Property Office of the London Underground and is determined to return a lost urn to its owner. We have a priest who writes erotic fiction, a pub owner recently pregnant and a closet historian. An odious Ravenmaster and a grumpy Chief round out the cast of characters. Into all of that, the Queen decides it is time to reopen the Royal Menagerie at the Tower and Balthazar Jones is chosen to run it thanks to the oldest tortoise in the world belonging to him.

Doesn't that just sound like fun? All the quirks and sadness that fills this book (Balthazar and Hebe both are unable to mourn the lost their son in a way that lets them heal), I would still love to have a pint with every single character at the Rack and Ruin (the pub within the walls of the Tower). I want to laugh with them over the ridiculous tourists who daily invade their home; I want to ooo and ahhh over the grand Monopoly games played at the Rack and help them make the canary sing.

The setting of the book adds to its magic. Stuart obviously did her homework on the storied history of the Tower and I feel like I learned more from this book than my visit to the Tower years ago. She avoids the obvious draws. There is only brief mentions of the Crown Jewels and the beheaded subjects that were executed on the Tower Green. She introduces you to the various escapees over the years, dispels some popular myths (the Empire won't fall if there aren't Ravens at the Tower) and makes ghosts characters to the plot.

A perfect read for a wintry day. Just make sure you have a lot of Earl Grey on hand. 

Walking in the Tower, Fall 2005. I now try and figure out where the Jones' live! Picture by Krystal Thomas

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some quick catching up

Photo by Scott Thomas
I turn 26 today peeps. Suddenly I feel very old. I know, I know, I'm hardly knocking on death's door but I've been thinking a lot about what I always assumed I would be doing by 26. This was so not it but I guess it just goes to show that life has a funny way of dragging you, kicking and screaming if necessary, in the direction she wants you to go. (PS - look how I rocked the side ponytail back in the day. You know you are a kid of the '90s when...)

News items:

1) I can see pavement again people! The streets are now slush rivers and my car is parked in a newly minted lake but this is such an improvement I can't get that angry. Nor can I really complain that the roads have become obstacle courses to avoid the massive potholes that seem to have developed over the last three months. This may be the first birthday in a long time where the temperature is over 40 and not a flake of snow in sight. I felt the need to record it for posterity.

2) So, I finally watched Avatar this weekend. It was like Ferngully with more slaughter of the natives and no fun Robin Williams-voiced Batty Koda to make me laugh. I mean, kudos to Cameron and his team, the movie was visually stunning and the world they created fully realized which you can't always take for granted anymore in sci-fi films. But the story was definitely unoriginal and the film was so long! I kept wondering if there was an end. I began to get bored somewhere in the middle which is never a good sign. I enjoyed it but it's not going onto my Amazon wishlist any time soon.

3) I finally got around to reading the Betsy-Tacy books that Julie recommend to me eons ago and I am in love. I started with the high school years since Julie thought I'd find those more interesting. Think Anne of Green Gables without a tragic childhood and moved to rural Minnesota in the early 1900s and you'll have the gist of the story. Why did no one tell me about these before?! I had serious reading withdrawal after I plowed through all the Anne books in 6th grade, these would have been perfect! I am making up for it now though - next one up is Betsy Was a Junior

I think that about brings you up to speed. I am off to enjoy my birthday Sunday :-)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sigh, what to say?

As I sat yesterday and watched the Packers and Steelers in this year's installment of the Super Bowl, I decided it was time to finally write about Slaughterhouse-Five. I finished it early last week but have been avoiding writing about in the blog. I need to as it is part of my reading challenge for this year but I really didn't have much to say. Reading Vonnegut's "Children's Crusade" reminded me of an essay I wrote for a class I sadly had to take my last semester of undergrad. I had avoided Contemporary American Literature successfully up until that point but I needed one last 300 level class to graduate and that was the only one I could fit into my schedule.

I was nervous to hand in my last essay for that class. I basically stated that I didn't get the contemporary American novel, that in fact I found them ridiculous and a waste of my time to read. Re-reading it for this blog post, I am surprised at my strong language and use of my own voice so much in an essay I was handing to a teacher. It was clear I was frustrated with the contemporary American novel and that it was my last paper ever for my undergraduate career. I sort of threw the rule book out of the window and spoke for myself. For the fun of it, here is part of my opening paragraph:

Contemporary American fiction writers are, in my opinion, a difficult lot. Perhaps
I am too much in love with my Dickens, Brontë, and Austen but I do not understand the
contemporary tendency to write in riddles. However, I was beginning to think this was
simply me not getting the point. These contemporary authors were trying to communicate
the great truths of our century and I am apparently too dense to get the hint. Luckily,
through the help of Tom Wolfe and B.R. Myers, I realized that it was not just me. Indeed,
there is something wrong with the contemporary American writer and the works
produced by him/her. In exploring both Wolfe and Myers’s essays, and applying them to
Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I have come to
the conclusion that contemporary literature has little involvement with the reality we
actually inhabit and that there is little opportunity for the reader to connect to the novels
themselves. The result is literature which makes no sense and has no connection to the
actual reader. The distance installed between novel and reader makes for an unsatisfying
reading experience and a frustrating one as well.

I will spare you all the details of my tirade in the essay but reading Vonnegut I was reminded of this class and its experience. Slaughterhouse-Five was a novel that didn't seem to have a point; that had useless sentences, ridiculous segways and pointless observations. I had no connection to the characters or the story. The actions they take are unbelievable and just...odd. Like I wondered in my essay four years ago,  was this really the American experience of someone, somewhere? I wonder if I just have been too sheltered or had too stereotypical an upbringing to connect with the cynicism and disillusionment of the contemporary American novel. Then again, maybe it's not just me that reads novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and respond with a shrug and a 'eh.'

From Lostpedia
What's weird about my experience with Slaughterhouse-Five is I enjoyed reading it, I think. I read it in an evening; it held my interest enough to keep reading but it left no lasting impression. I read it and I moved on. I didn't gain anything from it and I'll never feel the need to read it again. It was an odd experience. One I think I am heading into a lot in the coming weeks as I attempt to read a bunch of novels I have for some reason always grouped together in my mind. Slaughterhouse-Five was always attached to Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange. We'll see how I get along with them. After this experience and reminding me of my issues with the 'contemporary' American classic, I might try and then move along pretty fast.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A force to be reckoned with

From Muse Book Reviews
While I was still processing the awesomeness that is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I was thinking about the literary heroines that inspired me as a kid and into my teenage years. And what if Frankie had been one of them. I don't think I would have quite gone so far as Frankie did when she realized her gender barred doors to her, including the door to her boyfriend, but I like to think I would have had an awareness of the world that I didn't really get until three years of Women's Studies pounded it into my brain.

For those of you who don't know her, Frankie Landau-Banks is, at age 16, a criminal mastermind of the first degree. Because not only is she turning her very elite boarding school upside down with her pranks, she has convinced a secret all-male society on her campus to do all her dirty work for her. Her reasons for this are confusing at times. She justifies her actions as a way to make the men in her life respect her, to see her as something other than a quiet little bunny rabbit they allow to tag along on their adventures. Frankie, very clearly states, that she wants to be a force. Of what or for what, the world will just have to wait and find out as the story ends.

It is Frankie's growing awareness of herself and her role in her world that impressed me. As a teenager, we all struggle to figure out what exactly we want to stand for, to ourselves, to our family, to our friends. Frankie's entire story is the story of her trying to figure out what exactly she wants to stand for, what she wants to be known for once she's left the hallowed halls of her school. I think, that more than I did at age 16, Frankie does have an idea. She knows what she is capable of, and while it is equal parts awesome and equal parts worrisome, that is a lot more than most kids figure out before they leave high school.

Her growing feminist awareness comes from an odd place: the need to prove to her boyfriend and his friends that she is an equal. Yet, where else would a teenage girl learn feminism in a school where traditional roles and morals rule the day? Her sister pipes in from Berkeley every once in a while but Frankie doesn't seem to listen to her. Instead, Frankie is trying to figure out how to make her boyfriend actually see her, respect her, love her. It is convoluted in a sense but that leads her to realize that she has power, that she isn't invisible. The best and worst thing that ever happened to her was that the world found out that she was the mastermind of the "mal-doings." She lost the boys she wanted so much to impress but gained an understanding of herself that was priceless.

Now, I'm not saying a teenager will read this book and get all of that. I think a lot of this is the years of Women's Studies and English lit training coming into play. A teenager will see a girl determined to make her boyfriend see her for herself and the extreme lengths she will go to do so. That said, Frankie doesn't obsess about her weight, spend hours in front of a mirror or offer to sleep with her boyfriend so that he'll see her. Instead, she becomes one of the greatest prank masterminds her school has ever known. And convinced a bunch of snobby, conceited boys to do all her work for her. I don't know about you but I can't help feeling this is a step in the right direction. Girl power indeed.