Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I Got for my Birthday

Here is my annual list of books that I received this year for my birthday/Christmas:

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson. I have yet to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but once I do, I'll have the sequel at the ready.

Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, by Laurie Helgoe. I'm always interested to learn how introverts get along in the world, especially since I'm one of them.

Things I Learned About my Dad in Therapy, edited by Heather Armstrong.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby.

Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I loved Freakonomics tremendously - so interesting - so I'm excited for this one, too.

Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses of Salon.com

Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write about Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves, also by Camille Peri and Kate Moses.

A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, by A.J. Jacobs. I fully enjoyed his first two books, which were big-time experimemts, so I look forward to reading about some of his mini experiments. What a life, right? Just live through experiences and then write about them... nice.

And once again, I have a few B&N gift cards to spend, too. Woo!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

How ever you celebrate this time of year, may your days be bright and filled with love.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

by Clement Clarke Moore

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

I meant to post this last week. I'll be seeing Sherlock Holmes in the next week or so, most definitely. But it was so interesting to discover that the largest collection of Holmes memorabilia is located right here in Minnesota. In a basement at the University of Minnesota some 60,000 artifacts are at home, including book volumes, magnifying glasses, broadcast recordings and much more.

I haven't actually read much Sherlock Holmes, but the movie and this article might entice me to check out at least a story or two. Are you a Holmes fan?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay takes place in two different times. Sarah, a young Jewish girl, lives during WWII in occupied France. On morning in July 1942, she and her parents are taken away from their home during a roundup called Vel' di'Hiv'. Thousands of families are taken to a large arena and kept in horrendous conditions for several days, then sent via train to prison camps and later onto Auschwitz. Before the men take her away, Sarah hides her little brother in a cupboard, promising to come back for him. Her chapters are told from Sarah's point of view about how she overcomes her fears, strives to be strong and find a way home to her brother.

These chapters alternate with those of Julia Jarmond, a present-day American journalist who has lived in Paris for 25 years. She's married with a daughter, and is assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the roundup. In her research, she uncovers the story of Sarah, and makes it her mission to find out how it ended up.

I loved this book. I think by alternating the stories of Sarah and Julia in short chapters, de Rosnay keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. I gobbled the story up in less than a week. The story engages you from the beginning and keeps you turning the pages. I had no idea that France went through such a roundup, and that the French police were ordered to ship tens of thousands of Jewish people to the camps over a period of time (and nearly all didn't come back). It's a very dark period of the country's history, and Julia found that many French people would either pretend like they didn't know what was going on during that time or just wanted to bury the past.

A little more than halfway through the book, de Rosnay shifts the entire storytelling to Julia. While I understand this was probably to maintain the mystery of the rest of Sarah's story, I found I missed Sarah's chapters. I wasn't ready to let her go, which in a way is probably better than getting tired of her. I enjoyed all the characters, I loved the storytelling, I was heartbroken by the events of history. This was a very good piece of historical fiction.

I have realized that I'm drawn to fiction about WWII. I've now read WWII stories from several sides: Polish with The Zookeeper's Wife; Russian with City of Thieves; English with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; German with Those Who Save Us; and now France. While they're all fiction, they are seeped in historical accuracy. And while they're all sad, they're all very good as well.

Do you have any favorite books about WWII? Any other war?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Chance

I just finished Second Chance by Jane Green. I've read some of her books in the past. Mostly what you'd call "chick lit," but entertaining and quick reads if that's what you're looking for. Second Chance is about a group of high school friends who have lost touch, but then are reunited around the age of 40 after the tragic death of one of the group members. The death happens quickly in the book, so the rest of the pages are devoted to the grief of the friends and then basically their life stories. They're all in different places in their lives - all at different turning points - and perhaps the friend's death has led them all to look at their lives differently. Will they all get a "second chance"? Ah, yes, cheesy. But entertaining for the most part.

I particularly liked the story line of Holly, a wife and mother who's unhappy but can't figure out why. However, I think the reason I liked this story line the most is because Green spilled the most ink on Holly. She really feels like the central character, and everyone else is just a minor character in the book. You don't really get attached to any of the other characters, which makes you not really care what happens to them. Maybe that was the point? But I don't think so.

And Holly still feels like the main character even though Green uses the technique of writing from everyone's perspective - sort of. It's hard to explain, but sometimes while reading it you feel like you're in the mind of the character and other times you feel like it's just Green telling you what's going on in the mind of the character. This got to be confusing and bit frustrating, and as an editor I would've cleaned this up a bit and made the story feel a little more cohesive.

So, if you're a fan of the green-pink-and-white-covered, female-driven literature out there, this is probably right up your alley. If you're like me and sometimes just want a book that's easy that you can devour in a few days and then forget about - this works, too. Otherwise, nothing to write home about.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

End of the Year Post, 2009

Each December I usually compile a list of five posts of my favorite reads of the year. However, this was a more lackluster year for reading. It started out strong, was mixed with some surprises, but overall, I couldn't really pick five books I loved. At least, not ones worthy of an end-of-the-year shout out. So, in lieu of a series of posts, I'm going to write one longish post, highlighting a couple books I really enjoyed, as well as a few blog posts of which I'm proud.

The Last Lecture
I don't think you'll find a negative review about Randy Pausch's book anywhere. It's engaging, inspiring and heartbreaking. It's short and sweet, but it's a thinker. What if you only had six months to live? What legacy would you want to leave behind? What lessons have you learned that you'd want to pass on to your children? Excellent book.

City of Thieves
This was a fluke. I found this book for free at work and gave it a try. I've since loaned it to three other people who all agreed: extremely good. Disturbing yet real, sad yet uplifting - plus you learn a little something, which is never a bad thing. Good for men and women readers. Definitely one I'll keep on my shelf for awhile.

Pretty is What Changes
While I can't say this is the most impressively written memoir I've ever read, the challenges the author goes through and the decisions she makes about her body are truly thought provoking, especially for women. It forces you to ask yourself some tricky questions, and the story has stuck with me all year.

Dreams From My Father
(three parts)
This was also an impulse read. I never really planned on reading Obama's memoir. I'm not like that with politicians and their books. But, for some reason I gave this one a shot. It's completely different than a memoir written after a presidency (or first lady-ship or rogue-ish VP run) because Obama wrote this before the political "machine" started for him. As I said in one of my posts, the absolute coolest thing about our president - whether you agree with his ideas or not - is that he's really one of us: raised by a single mom, middle class, worked hard to go to college, etc. (He's not some entitled kid who grew up in a wealthy family that had political connections from day one.) And he became President. It proves that if your kid says he or she wants to be president one day, you can actually say with some confidence now, "Yes, that's definitely within reach."

So, those four books stood out the most for me in 2009. Sure, I read some others that were cute, or fun, or interesting, but nothing that really grabbed me. I did, however, write some posts about books and popular culture that I thought were good conversation starters (whether they started conversations or not).

How Young is Too Young?

Does Pop Culture Make Us Feel Safe Again?
For the Love of First Grade
My Rant on Journalism Today

Here's to a great new year of reading. Though with a baby on the way, I'm guessing, perhaps, a little less reading than I'm used to.

So, what were your favorite books of 2009?

Top 5 Books of 2007
A Look Back 2008

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What No One Tells the Mom: Surviving the Early Years of Parenthood with Your Sanity, Your Sex Life and Your Sense of Humor Intact

There are many things I liked about Marg Stark's What No One Tells the Mom.

1. It gives you permission to be scared about what you're about to embark on.

2. She uses frank, funny language that's engaging to follow and quick to read.

3. She's not afraid to show her faults and the faults in her marriage, even if it means telling us how disappointed she was in her husband for a very long time (he's a saint by the way, if he's OK with her airing their dirty laundry like that), about how she almost drove away and never came back...

4. ...but then she doesn’t forget to explain how it all got better: her husband started helping out more, how they found more time to be together as a couple, how sweet and special her kids are a majority of the time.

5. The book takes away any preconceived notions, letting you know that things won’t be perfect, and you shouldn’t expect them to be, and that’s OK.

6. Stark and her army of friends and interviewees provide helpful tips for keeping your sanity during an insane time.

A few quotes I enjoyed:

“The standards to which we hold ourselves contribute to the enormous tension we feel, and underestimate a child’s fervent desire to be team player and to help manage family life and its complications. Most moms I know don’t think to delegate chores and they try not to bore kids on weekends with grocery shopping and errands. We’re managing motherhood with white gloves when even in the roughest, dirtiest of circumstances, kids are astonishingly smart, sometimes even prescient.”

She also pulled from another book (The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner) these valuable lessons:

“Venting anger may not help. It tends to protect or solidify, rather than challenge, the existing rules or patterns of a relationship; the only person we can truly change or control is our own self; blaming and fighting are often ineffective methods for exacting change, and ways to avoid the more threatening job of changing yourself.”

One thing that I started to get to me though, by the time I read the 250 pages, was her downer attitude. Stark sought counseling and she suffered from a bit of depression. While this is all fine, and I appreciate her sharing that with her readers, I do think the depression probably made motherhood and marriage seem a little more torturous for her. While I can definitely see the fighting, the resentment, the frustration all coming to fruition in any new family of three (or more), I hope for most it’s much easier to find the happiness than it was for Stark.

So, in the end: loved the lessons, loved the advice, loved hearing from all the other moms. Laughed out loud. Dog-eared pages. I could’ve just used a little more positive words from the author herself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Moon: A study in male aggression

I saw New Moon last night with my two bffs in a theater packed with females. (Case in point: When Jacob first took off his shirt, the gasps and sighs were louder than the movie.) Reviews about the movie have been mixed. I was surprised to see Entertainment Weekly give it a B+, but other reviewers have said the movie was slow. It was a touch slow, but so was the book. However, the second book plays a very important role in the series. The werewolves have to be entered into the story somehow and there has to be set up for the love triangle between Jacob, Edward and Bella.

I thought the movie was very well done actually. You could instantly tell there was more money to work with this time around. When I first saw the previews, I wasn't sure about the werewolves - I couldn't tell how big they were. But watching the movie, I thought they were actually perfect. They were huge and they were scary, but you could also see the cuddliness of the humans on the inside. I'm glad they weren't depicted like the werewolves in Harry Potter, which are more based in fantasy and very creepy. All the main actors have wonderful chemistry with each other, and once again (as reviewed from last year), Bella's dad just makes the movie. Billy Burke was fabulous. One disappointment however is Victoria. I think Rachelle Lefevre does a fabulous and beautiful job as bad vampiress Victoria in both Twilight and New Moon (if I could only have hair like that!), and while I do enjoy Bryce Dallas Howard, I think it's a mistake to change the actress in the third movie.

The theme that really stuck out to me throughout the movie was male aggression. It makes me wonder about the men in Stephanie Meyer's life. Does she know many aggressive men? Maybe not. Maybe Edward and Jacob's anger and angst is based on pent up teenage emotions, but I don't think so. After all, Edward is far from a teenager. I found it interesting that several times during the movie, when the men become angry they turn into their worst part (and they warn people, too: "don't make me angry," "I might not be able to control myself"). Is this a message that all men have a monster (vampire) or an animal (werewolf) inside of them? A part of them that they always have to work to control so as not to maim or attack loved ones or potential competitors? And are females always supposed to put up with it, always supposed to be the caretakers who reassure the males that they're worthy and that everything is going to be OK?

This isn't a criticism of the book, but an observation of how the gender roles are portrayed. (I can only imagine the awesome Women Studies classes out there using these books as resources!) While I do believe the series of books is about Bella's journey...and self denial, and good and evil...I think it's just as much about the journey of Edward and Jacob becoming the men they're supposed to be. And as in real life, it usually takes a woman to help a man figure it out. :)

Monday, November 16, 2009

What No One Tells the Bride

I know, I know. I'm not a bride. I haven't been a bride is nearly four years. However, I am currently reading Marg Stark's What No One Tells the Mom (a gift from bff Maega) and since I'm not ready to share thoughts on that book, I decided to start with Stark's prequel (also a sweet gift from Maega when I got engaged in June 2005).

Going into any book of this nature (self-helpish, advice-giving, etc.), you obviously need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Not every situation in this book applies to every bride. However, while I think that there is such a thing a too much information (especially during marriage and pregnancy - oy), I think that if you're interested in reading about your current life situation from others who have lived through it, then by all means go for it. Plus, when someone is as humorous and easy to read as Stark, the pages basically turn themselves.

Stark gets into the nitty-gritty of engagement and newlyweddedness. Obviously, there's going to be a transition period between single life and married life. For different people this transition could be tiny. For others, it's huge. Family traditions come into play. Family names become of uber importance. Money. Sex. All these issues come up - and if they don't come up in the engagement period, they come up in early marriage. Stark wants brides to be ready.

Many brides think engagement will be blissful. Everyone will be happy for you. (Actually, some won't and it'll be surprising.) You'll be utterly thrilled and happy planning a party for a hundred people or more. Thing is, Stark says, in reality you may not be so happy. And guess what? That's OK.

Again, not every situation applies to every woman. My hubby and I have never, ever had a fight about money, so chapter five didn't stick with me. But, other chapters did. And if anything, it's the overall message that I hold on to. Women have been led to believe that they must act happy about things that should make them happy: engagement, marriage, children, etc., even if they're not. Many of us continue to perpetuate this phenomenon by refusing to admit when things aren't going our way and not asking for help.

In reality, we should share our struggles and fears with each other. It feels so good to know other people have your same fears, share your same hopes, and that you're not alone. And even if what these books or the things other women share don't apply to us currently, it doesn't mean it won't later on. And we'll be glad we learned now.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Bell Jar

This book was borrowed to me by my good friend CMS. I was a little reluctant to read it, because I thought it would pretty depressing. And it was, but not in an awful way. Just sad. I don't know much about Sylvia Plath, but I did know she suffered from mental illness and killed herself and I was pretty sure The Bell Jar told her story, or at least mirrored her real life.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther, a college student and talented writer who receives a great opportunity to intern at a big magazine in 1950s NYC. During that summer Esther's mental illness begins, and the story then follows Esther back home and eventually to a mental hospital. (From the mini biography in the back of the book and from other sources I've read, this is pretty much what happened to Plath.)

The writing is fairly good, but parts of the New York story line dragged for me. For me, the story picks up more when she really starts to falter mentally. Which is weird; why, when I knew it would be depressing and when I was actually sad reading the book, would it "pick up" for me when the character's at her worst? I feel awful for this woman (Esther, Sylvia, whomever). How lonely must it have been?

The most important thing about the book, though, is it shines light on mental illness and health care, back then and in general. And to me, this is interesting to think about. There has always been mental illness. Since the dawn of time. And yet still, there's a stigma. Back then, the electroshock treatments, the lobotomies - it's all incredibly disturbing. How could doctors really think they were doing the right thing? But then, perhaps people will look back at our current medical methods and question just what the heck we were doing with some of our therapies? But anyway, people have always, always suffered with depression in all forms. And you always have the people who just want them "to get over it." There will always be those of us who don't quite understand, but hopefully more and more of us learn empathy and sympathy instead of denial and frustration.

For another wonderful take on this book, see Bending Bookshelf.

Monday, November 2, 2009

One Year Ago

Last year at this time, I was on day two of National Novel Writing Month. I was nervous about it and I really didn't know if it was something I could complete. As the month went on, I went through a series of emotions from happiness to frustration, but in the end I finished a 50,000-word young adult novel. (You can review my progress in the few posts I wrote last year.)

Well, with it being NaNoWriMo time again, I'm feeling some nostalgia. I went into this month knowing it wasn't a task I could repeat this year. We have some other things going on, plus the hubby is in school and many of his nights and hours on the weekend are spent in his office studying and using our computer. Last year we didn't have to share the space. This year, I just didn't foresee that working out, even though he said over and over we could make it work.

I'm fine with my decision. I'm tired often and have lots of odds and ends (cleaning, organizing, shopping, painting) that I'm looking to complete before the new year. Adding a 50,000-word novel to that mix, well, I probably don't need the extra "thing" to do. But, I do miss it a bit. I'm very proud of my book I wrote, even if it's just a silly little story about a high school girl and the mystery she solves. But, I wrote a book. With a beginning, middle and end. I bound it so it can sit on my shelf, with my name on the cover and the spine. I'll always be proud of it, and I'm so glad I participated last year.

I also know I would never have written a "first" novel any other way. NaNoWriMo pushes you to get that story out, no matter how awful (or fabulous). So many people say they'll write a book someday, but when they look at it as the daunting task that it is, most never try. With NaNo, you can do it. And it's daunting, sure, but only for a month. Then you can quit. And hopefully you quit with something resembling a full-out novel.

Then it's just editing that you can choose to put off for as long as you want.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Honestly, I can't believe it took me this long to read this book (I got it for Christmas last year), especially since you can read it all in about 45 minutes. But it was perfect for a few short bus rides, and I really enjoyed it.

J.K. Rowling wrote and illustrated this book of fairy tales last year and the proceeds go to a children's charity. The book contains five fairy tales that revolve around the wizarding community, but they're just like Muggle fairy tales; they can be scary, they hold a lesson and they toy with good and evil.

The tales themselves are cute, but it's the included notes that were my favorite part. Supposedly, Dumbledore himself was studying The Tales of Beedle the Bard (he also posthumously gifted it to Hermione in the final Harry Potter book and it helped them solve one of their missions) and left copious notes. Dumbledore offers up extra history about each tale (for example, one story was offensive to Death Eaters so they tried to get it banned from the Hogwarts library; banned books being something of which the Muggle world knows plenty) and he also offers up his analysis for each story - what it may mean, why it's improbable it's more than just a story, where Beedle may have come up with the ideas, etc.

I love Dumbledore. He is one of my favorite characters in the series. I love his wisdom, but more I love his wit. His wit shines through in the notes in this book and it reminded me of my love for Harry Potter as a series. The Tales of Beedle the Bard is just more evidence at how talented and imaginative Rowling is, too, to come up with unique fairy tales that continue the magic and traditions that she started with the very first book.

Simple and short, but a classic read for Potter fans.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I finished this book over the weekend. It was another lucky find on the free counter at work. It was already on my wish list, so I couldn't believe my luck when I saw it just sitting there waiting to be read. The book is set up as a bunch of letters, which at first was hard to get used to. Would I really enjoy reading an entire book through letters? But as I got used to the technique, it faded into the background.

Juliet is an author living in London after WWII. She receives a letter from a man who lives on Guernsey Island (off the coasts of England and France) because he by happenstance bought a book she used to own (her name was in it). They begin corresponding and Juliet learns about how the island was occupied by the Germans during the war and how the residents formed a pretend book club- which didn't stay pretend for long - as a way to get around curfew rules.

The story is unbelievably sweet. Even just through letter form you fall in love with all the different characters - and what characters they are! You learn of sad stories of the war, but you also learn of heartwarming stories of hope, courage and perseverance. Some of them are really touching.

While I say the letter technique fades into the background, I did try to consciously study the technique and how it works. For example, when Juliet decides to visit Guernsey, how are we going to learn what she's up to? She's obviously not going to write letters to the residents of Guernsey while she's there. Hence, the placement of other characters in the story who live elsewhere. It's very interesting, and I don't think could always be as well done if not done carefully.

I really enjoyed the story, and it ended just the way I wanted, if a bit abruptly, so that always makes for a good book, too.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

We saw Where the Wild Things Are over the weekend. I've been anxiously awaiting this movie ever since I saw its first preview months ago. I have memories of reading the book as a kid, and the images that splashed across the screen during the previews - and the music! - looked so magical.

As the release date approached, I had some worries. Was I expecting too much? Would I be disappointed? How could Spike Jonze turn a 300-word story into a 90-minute movie? But in the end, I wasn't disappointed. I really, really enjoyed the movie. I won't say I loved it, but I did love parts of it.

I thought the actor who plays Max (Max Records) was well cast. He was a sweet, lonely boy aching for attention. And as any 9-year-old would behave, he didn't always know the best way to get that attention. But the kid had quite the imagination, and that's something I appreciate. (My imagination ran wild, no pun intended, when I was a kid.)

When he arrived on the island where the wild things are, it was pretty magical. I loved the monsters. I loved how you could see the personalities of the actors shine through the big, furry costumes. (Seriously, KW actually looked like and had the mannerisms of Lauren Ambrose.) Some critics thought the CGI facial expressions and mouth movements didn't come through that well, but I disagree. I didn't think anything about the monsters was distracting from the story.

I also loved how the monsters represented parts of Max's real life. Carol didn't want things to change, and when they did, he destroyed things and threw tantrums (see Max in the first 15 minutes of the film). KW wanted to love Carol, but found it very difficult when he acted that way (ah, see moms everywhere). I loved how Max learned from this. I loved the Rumpus, I loved the sleep pile, I loved the scenery.

I do disagree with some who say it's not a kids movie, though. I definitely think you could take an 8 year old to see this movie and he/she would be fine. There's maybe one or two frightening parts, but they're no more frightening then some parts in the Pixar movies. And because I disagree, this means that some parts of the movie were just a little childish for my taste. Just a few parts dragged - only a few. But in the end I cried because I was attached to the characters and I was quite pleased with the movie as a whole.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Lost Symbol: Minneapolis Connection

How awesome is this? A huge clue in the mystery of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is actually at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. To solve part of the puzzle, Robert Langdon has to look up on a computer a piece of art by Albrecht Durer. In that piece is a magic square with numbers relevant to the mystery. Well, that piece of art is owned by the MIA. The Star Tribune reports that the museum's print curator heard about this, pulled the piece out of storage and hung it up. (Head over to the Strib post to see the painting.)


Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Go Twins! You scrappy little team - you make my heart bigger.

Photo courtesy of Star Tribune.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Yes, I was one of the millions to read this book within the month it came out. I borrowed it from my mom and read it in less than a week. (If I had a little more energy, I could've read it much faster.) I'm feeling a bullet list coming on, but first I can say I enjoyed the book. It wasn't fabulous, but it was typical Dan Brown: action packed, twists and turns, short timeline (this one took place in less than 12 hours), and cheesy but fun.

+ When I first had the book, I skimmed through the super short chapters (his effective technique to keep you reading) and read some of last lines in different chapters. Most of the chapters end in cliffhanging lines like, "But she was no longer on her feet. She was airborne," or "And then he started screaming and pounding on the walls once again," and so on. I was laughing because it so reminds me of every David Caruso line before the opening theme of CSI Miami. So dramatic, with the gruff voice, the putting on of the sunglasses, and the scream into The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Effective, yet so cheesy.

+ I enjoy Robert Langdon as a character. Even though he's been around for three books (and now Hollywood movies), I do still find it refreshing that a geeky professor can be the hero. Sure, it makes for a little less thrilling of a film, but in a book it works. You can also totally tell Brown bases parts of Langdon on himself. Langdon gets crap for his turtlenecks and elbow-patched blazers. Funny, do does Brown.

+ The premise was interesting. I liked that the book took place in D.C. We were there a couple years ago, so the landmarks and the architectural elements (for example the painting on the ceiling of the Capitol building) were very familiar to me. It was also interesting to learn about the Freemasons, on who the book's central mystery surrounds.

+ The symbolism references can also be interesting, but sometimes too intense. I found myself skimming over some of the long-winded explanations for different things. While it's cool to learn that our founding fathers had a very specific plan in mind when designing D.C., I don't need to read on about it for five pages. Get back to the action.

+ The ending was just OK. The mystery and the revelation at the end was nowhere near as fascinating or intriguing as The Da Vinci Code. Sure, Brown messes with religion (and science) once again, and I could see some people balking at his musings, but the end result was anti-climatic. I half-read the last 40 pages while watching the Vikings game, and I don't feel I missed much.

End thoughts: Not worth $25, but if you liked his previous novels, this one falls right in line with those. Borrow it or get it from the library.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What to Expect When You're Expecting

So yes, this is what I've been reading for the past 12 weeks, which can only mean one thing. Come April, things are going to change around our house.

But, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I'll fill you in on my thoughts of this book. I think it's just OK. When you find out you're having a baby, at least for me, this seems like the must-buy-first book. Everyone reads it, right? I find the first page of each month interesting, because they tell you how big your baby is each week and what part of them is developing that week (though sometimes that can be a little gross, too.) I also have gotten some helpful advice from the Q&As, learning when certain feelings and experiences are normal, etc.

However, I find the book a bit preachy, as well. The authors can take a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude about certain topics, such as organic foods, breastfeeding - you know, all the hot topics of pregnancy and parenting. I don't respond well to that - I try to be more of "to each their own" type of person: you make your choices and I'll make mine. So, I've found that I only read those parts of the book that I enjoy and I skip the rest. Same goes for other parenting books, magazines and Web sites that I come across.

My husband has read So You're Going to Be a Dad and The Expectant Father and he enjoyed both very much; the first is very humorous and the second more serious.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My rant on journalism today

I'm a journalist. But I'm not the kind of journalist that goes out and nabs the "tough stories." I write and edit for consumer and business magazines. Very little controversy there. However, as someone who went to journalism school and feels she knows a lot about her profession, I feel I can say this: I hate the news.

My hatred for the news has grown consistently and exponentially over the past several years. Why do I hate it? Because those reporters, those network anchors - they're lazy and they're scared. Nearly every time we watch the news at home, which is more and more infrequently lately, I turn to my husband and say:

"Being objective DOES NOT mean you can't ask tough questions. Come on."

I'm tired of network and cable news channels just replaying snippets of the president, republicans in Congress, whomever, spouting the latest crap and then leaving it at that. What? Where are the follow up questions? Where is the research to prove them wrong or right? Why don't you point out how they're being hypocritical? Doing these things does not make you a biased journalist - it makes you smart. It makes you act like a watchdog for the people, which by the way is your job.

You know who was the best watchdog for the people? Tim Russert. That guy didn't care who sat at his table each Sunday morning, he asked the tough questions. He listened to his guest (democrat or republican) and then proceeded to show them a clip of themselves months earlier saying the exact opposite thing. Did this make him biased? No. He was holding our leaders accountable and he was searching for the truth. And I liked that about him. (I have to admit I haven't watched David Gregory in this role. Maybe he does the job just as well, but I don't know.)

(There's another man who shines in this area, though he doesn't call himself a journalist. Jon Stewart. Sure, he may lean left politically and be a comic by profession, but he's not afraid to throw up clips of the president when he's screwing up or Nancy Pelosi when she stumbles over her words, just as he's not afraid to devote 10 minutes to the grossness that is Glen Beck.)

I think I really started turning off the news when the health care stuff kicked into high gear over the summer. The whole "death panel" conversation had me in a tizzy. To me, it didn't even seem like the reporters had actually read the bill. The American people are not going to read this bill for themselves. It's the responsibility of reporters (both print and TV) to spell it out for us. Tell us the truth, and if the truth comes out in favor of the president, that doesn't mean you're biased. Or vice versa. (This was also around the time Obama's citizenship was being questioned. I was so disappointed that story made it on TV news so many nights that it did. Why is that even a story? He was born in Hawaii. Done. Over. Next.)

Anyway, long rant longer, Eric Black of MinnPost has an awesome column that talks about just this stuff - the responsibility of journalists and how they're failing. He points to an amazing article in the Columbia Journalism Review about how journalism is becoming irrelevant. It is. Either people think all news organizations are biased, or they're like me and just sick of the laziness. The author, Brent Cunningham, says some wonderful things and makes valid points. For example:
Meanwhile, American journalism, too, is in a protracted moment of painful change. Both its business model and its sense of mission are in full retreat. Much experimentation is under way, with different financial-support structures, narrower editorial missions, collaborative projects, etc. There is an urgency, a humility, at news outlets about the need to rethink things that is long overdue.

So the press needs a new mission, and the nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century. It is not at all clear that our best news outlets have the will to become true arbiters of our public discourse, but given the increasing inadequacy of the journalistic status quo, and the nature of the challenges facing the country, such a mission shift could offer a crucial way forward for both the press and the public.
If you don't want to read the long Cunningham article, Black does pull some other great snippets in his own column. To all of it, I can only say: Right On. And then hope for a change.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blogfest 2009

Thanks to PopCandy I discovered Blogfest 2009: 40 authors, 14 questions, 2 weeks, 1 blog. Simon and Schuster got together several of their young adult authors to answer different questions every day for two weeks. The questions range from "Have you ever just wanted to give up?" to "Is it harder to write the first book opposed to the second?"

I've read through the first two days of answers, and they're pretty cool. I'm not familiar with many of the authors as I don't read too many young adult novels, but I like how their answers really vary. I also like how some are long-winded as you'd expect a writer to be, and others have really short answers.

My favorite answer so far came from Neil Shusterman on "What was the first thing you wrote?"
The first thing I remember writing was a Halloween story in third grade. My teacher (who didn’t like me very much) gave me a D-minus on it, because in this story, the ground opened up, swallowed my third grade teacher, and closed up again, squirting blood everywhere (I didn’t like her much either.) She used to get so annoyed at me, she would throw me out of the classroom, and send me to the library just to get rid of me. That’s where I developed a love of reading, and eventually writing.
Hilarious! I plan to keep reading for the entire two weeks. I'm especially interested in the answers to the questions "Is it difficult to get a book published" and "Who are your favorite authors and what are your favorite books?" I can only imagine how different the answers will be.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Headlines

Here's a list of book-related articles I've discovered recently:

+ A few weeks back I happened upon this article where the world's second-largest publisher says eBooks will kill the hardcover. It's an interesting discussion because when Amazon can offer books for your Kindle for just $9.99, and you're the type of person who reads on a Kindle (I am not), why would you ever actually purchase a book again? I find it more interesting of a discussion as to how $9.99 was established as the price (similar to how did iTunes establish $0.99 for a song?). Because once that price is established, no other seller can really dare to charge more than that. (We can get into why this is a problem with the Internet, too: can't start charging people for online content when you've been offering it up for free for so long. But I won't go there.)

Some can suggest that physical books may go the way of the cassette tape, VHS or perhaps soon the CD or regular DVD, but I believe books will be around for a long time. Sure, publishers might have to renegotiate the ways in which they work, but who doesn't these days (i.e. newspapers/magazines)? Because, like the end of the article says, books have been around for hundreds of years, and you can't say that about the VCR or the CD player. I bet we won't even be able to say that about the iPod.

+ If you're into cooking, here's a list the Star Tribune put together: 20 cookbooks every cook should have. I don't own any of these, but then, I'm nowhere near a cook.

+ Minnesota Monthly has a nice Q & A with locally based, but nationally known author Vince Flynn. He offers up some great stories about the White House and other political figures. It's an interesting, quick read.

+ This was a big week in books because Dan Brown's sequel to Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol arrived on shelves. It broke a first-day record, selling more than 1 million copies. If you pay attention to big-time book news, it's no surprise that publisher Knopf Doubleday was counting on this book to make its year. I even heard rumors that a delay in the book's publishing actually caused the hurting publishing house to layoff a bunch of people several months ago. Can you imagine if your book was the lone book that was possibly keeping a publisher afloat? That's insane. What tremendous pressure. EW's review wasn't stellar, but I don't think that matters to Robert Langdon fans. I enjoyed the first two books, as quick, suspenseful reads, so I'd read this one too, though I don't think I'd purchase it for myself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Clubs

Yesterday, local online news source MinnPost launched its Book Club Club (BCC), a place where Minnesota book clubs of all shapes and sizes can register (for free) and be part of an online community. From the looks of it, BCC will feature different reading-related posts on which book lovers can comment. One of the first posts provides a timeline for the evolution of book clubs in the United States. It's very interesting; some of the highlights:

+ While it would be silly to believe Benjamin Franklin didn't have something to do with book clubs back in the day, I love that a majority of book-club history revolves around women.

+ I also love that in the late 1700s, Hannah Mather Crocker took the position that the study of science and literature was much more important for women than other "frivolous" activities. I can only imagine what activities she was talking about.

+ Mail-order book clubs (ex: The Literary Guild) began in the 1920s. By the 1980s, when big-box discounters really flourished, these mail-order clubs felt the hit.

+ And the best line from the timeline: "It is estimated that there are more than 5 million book club members in the United States. Most clubs have 10 or more members. 70 to 80 percent of clubs are all-female." It goes to show you that women love to learn, we love to socialize with each other, and we're all about putting those two things together.

You can also catch part I of an eight-part series on book clubs in Minnesota.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lack of reading inspiration

I'm not sure I've ever gone a full two weeks without a post. But the past month and a half have seen a lack of reading on my part. A big reason for it is because the book I've been reading hasn't been all that fun of a read for me and it took me a long time to get through. I also don't have any unread books on my shelf right now that peak my interest. My mom just loaned me Pillars of the Earth (which numerous people I know have read and have loved), but the thing weighs 10 pounds and is 1,000 pages - so it's a bit daunting to try and start it.

I have been reading lots of magazines though. My husband had like 6,000 Northwest Airlines frequent flier miles and when NWA merged with Delta, his miles were no good. So, to "make up" for it, they offered us the opportunity to get magazines for his miles. So we ordered like six new magazines for free. We had just purged and stopped subscriptions a bunch of magazines to save money, but these were free, so why not? We now get Health, Fast Company, Allure, Travel + Leisure, Details and Esquire (again) - this is on top of Entertainment Weekly, Motor Trend, Playstation, Wired and Sports Illustrated. (I also get Glamour as a replacement for the defunct Domino, and I'm sorry but Glamour sucks - bad design, bad edit, bad everything.)

So, we've found ourselves surrounded by piles of magazines, trying to read them all. However, if I just flip through Allure and Glamour and recycle after 10 minutes, I don't feel so bad, since we're not paying for them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

POTUS and Reading

Because the Obama's took a vacation last week, it was necessary for the White House to release a list of books the president was bringing along. I find it all pretty ridiculous, and as the Slate column eludes, it just leads to an over interpretation of his leisure reading material. Can you imagine the thought that goes into this list? There has to be meetings about it, right? "He should have a couple of novels, so he doesn't look too snooty..." "Oh, but he has to read something pertinent to present day, like the environment..." "Something historical, too!" But if this is the case, according to Slate (who is going along with the over interpretation), the meetings weren't completely successful:
But his list is also clearly not poll-tested. Women played a key role in Obama's victory in 2008. They're swing voters. And yet all of Obama's authors are white men. The subject of the longest book, John Adams, is a dead white male. Obama couldn't get away with that in an election year, and, given his aides' penchant for cleaning up little things like this, we'll soon see the president with a copy of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women.
In the end, do we really care? Does it really matter? Nah. I just want a president who reads, period. And I have no doubt our president has done a little reading in his lifetime. I actually think less of the publicized lists because I think they're manufactured. Maybe Obama really doesn't want to read those books. Maybe he's a closet Twilight fan (doubtful, but fun to imagine nonetheless). Or maybe he just wanted to take this vacation as a break from all the crazy and just spend time with his ladies. Perhaps instead reading bedtime stories to the girls, and spending the evening talking to his wife.

What do you think? Do you care what our president reads? Or does it just depend on who our president is to care what he reads?


I have to geek out for a second and summarize what comes to mind whenever I see the acronym POTUS: The very first scene in the very first episode of The West Wing, when Sam Seaborn is awoken out of the bed he shares with a beautiful woman to a text message: "POTUS fell off his bike." (Or something like that.) "POTUS?" asks the woman, wrapped in a sheet, looking over Sam's shoulder. "Who's POTUS?" As he dashingly hops out of bed and starts to dress, Sam says in all seriousness with a hint of a self-important tone, "The President of the United States." Gosh, I miss that show.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Defense of Food

Editor's Note: I'm happy to present a guest post written by my co-worker and friend, Marni. She's our foodie in the office, and her knowledge of Twin Cities restaurants and all-around food facts are greatly appreciated. She recently finished In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. (She read The Omnivore's Dilemma a while ago as well.) I have yet to read these books, but I know many people are interested in this theme, so I wanted to share Marni's educated and thoughtful comments. Thanks Marni!

I know it’s the fashionable thing to say now, but seriously, Michael Pollan’s writing in this and The Omnivore’s Dilemma has changed the way I think about food. I no longer pay attention to the “nutrition facts” (you’ll read in the book how we can’t really prove half of what we think we know about nutrition) on a bag of bread or box of crackers—I read the ingredients. I hear Michael Pollan’s voice in my head: “Does this item have more than five ingredients? Would my great-grandmother recognize this item as actual food? Would she ever have cooked with guar gum?”

Of course it’s impossible to expect all Americans to fundamentally change the way we eat—our way of life is dependent on the fact that we can purchase goods that are shipped from far away, that are pumped with preservatives, that last forever in storage and only take minutes to prepare. So while I think Pollan’s general rules of thumb are helpful, most people aren’t going to follow them religiously. At some points he gives some pretty pie-in-the-sky advice too, like how eaters should “involve themselves in food production to whatever extent they can, even if that only means planting a few herbs on a sunny windowsill or foraging for edible greens and wild mushrooms in the park.”

Foraging? For mushrooms? In the park? I think at one point he also recommends people buy a whole pig or sheep and freeze the different parts to make it more cost-effective to purchase grass-fed, organic meats. And while I don’t think there’s any inherent problem with this advice, it’s the best of all possible worlds he’s talking about here. Like I said, too many other things in our lives prevent us from living like this any more. Other parts of our culture—driving to work on highways, telecommuting to get more done, sitting in front of the TV and computer—they’ve all coevolved with this food system that we have today. We would no longer know how to function if we actually had to cook every single meal with natural, in-season ingredients, when really it wasn’t so long ago that that was the case. In that sense, the book causes you to think not just about how you eat, but about how you live. Because Pollan shows you how inextricably the two are linked.

I suppose Pollan can assume a level of commitment to quality food in his audience because of the very fact they have picked up his book. But I think the best of this book lies in what you personally decide to take away from it—not in following everything he says to do. Like tonight, I had a tasty frozen pizza from Target’s organic-imposter Archer Farms brand. It was delicious. But those are more of a treat for me now than a norm. When I go to the grocery store I really do think of the book’s mantra, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” And once you read the book and understand what that means, you can pretty easily begin to apply it in small ways that I think, at least for me, actually make a difference. I cook more now. I eat more fruits and vegetables. Of course I still indulge in frozen pizza, Cheetos and other “edible foodlike substances” from time to time, and I have yet to start an adorable windowsill herb-growing operation or forage in the park for mushrooms, but I guess you’ve gotta start somewhere.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer of Movies, Part II

I didn't plan to write a second act to my first post, but I've seen another handful of summer flicks (and I'm lacking in book posts right now) that I thought were worth mentioning.

Public Enemies: We saw this movie over Fourth of July, I believe. There were reasons I liked it, and some things that were disappointments. Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard were wonderful. I absolutely believed him as John Dillinger, and their love story was sweet and sultry. I thought the action scenes were pretty well shot. It was interesting to learn about the beginnings of the FBI, bank robbers' lifestyles and the mixings with the mob. It was also amazing to see them have shoot outs in plain daylight and get away. Crazy. However, I thought the movie's cuts between scenes were poorly done and the swelling music was rather cheesy. The sound and the coloring seemed off too, and because I talked to others who saw the movie at different theaters and said the same things, I don't believe this was just at my viewing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: I already made some comments about the movie in this post, but I'll just reiterate a little bit. I still love these characters to no end, even more so now that they've grown up. While it's hard to condense these books down for screen, I think the film did justice to the book. The only part that lacked for me was the ending. I think the drama could've been played up so much more here. It kind of fizzled. But that's just a small part of the entire film, which I greatly enjoyed. Ron during the quidditch match was hilarious - well played!

500 Days of Summer: This was a trailer I watched at the same time as the Away We Go trailer back in April. I knew I had to see this movie, too. While she tends to play similar characters, I have a tiny love for Zooey Deschanel. And I loved this movie. It's not your typical romantic comedy in any way, and it really gets to the heart of the relationship. The time-shifting technique works well here, and the writing is so funny. I'm not unique in saying that my favorite scene is Tom's post-intimacy song and dance: Who doesn't love Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams," and when Tom looks in a store window to see a historical movie stud staring back at him, I almost died laughing. Fabulous and fun this movie. (For the boys out there, the hubby loved this one too.)

District 9: This was the hubby's choice, and he loved it. I thought the movie was interesting in its obviously "bigger meaning" ways. To think about how we separate those different than the majority is pretty sad. It also makes you wonder what we would do if beings from other worlds were to enter ours. But because of the deeper issues it raises, the movie depressed me, which means I didn't enjoy it very much. I have trouble enjoying depressing movies, but that's just me. The effects were great for such a small budget and the main actor, Sharlto Copley (who has never, ever acted before), was pretty bloody brilliant, especially when you know he improvised quite a few of his lines.

We don't have any movies on the list currently (I think I'll keep The Time Traveler's Wife for rental), but I know fall will bring several more we want to see including New Moon, The Informant, Shutter Island, Couples Retreat, Whip It, Where the Wild Things Are, and Sherlock Holmes. How about you?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Clutter

One of my bffs put me on to Unclutterer, a blog about getting and staying organized. I try to check it a couple times of week, and one post from last week fits right along with this blog: Clear Bad Book Clutter From Your Life and Your Bookshelves. Not only does the author say it's perfectly OK to put down a bad book, but she also encourages us to abandon bad books from our homes entirely.

I've talked about my thoughts on "bad" books before. I said that as I get older, I find it an awful waste of time to keep reading a book that can't seem to hold my interest. This has happened more and more lately, and I'm happy to hear someone else (Unclutterer, as well as the Washington Times article she references) say it's OK.

Also, I tend to go through my bookshelves once or twice a year and pack up a bag for the half-priced bookstore. I have one paper bag full now, but I think it's time to do another go round. I only want to keep the classics in my mind (Harry Potter, David Sedaris), my absolute favorites (see sidebar), and those I think others might want to borrow someday (Twilight, most recently). It can be hard to part with books, but I find if I go in with little emotion about it, it can be a quick and easy task.

How often do you purge your bookshelves? What books must stay on your shelves, whether considered "clutter" or not?

Monday, August 10, 2009

I Was Told There'd Be Cake

I just finished Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd be Cake, a book of essays of her "coming of age" in Manhattan. Essay compilations can be hit or miss. You have authors who consistently knock your socks off (Sedaris) and others who don't. I'd say Crosley falls in between somewhere. I wasn't too entertained by a few essays, but others made me smile and nod in agreement. [Added 8-12-09: Crosley has been nominated for the Thurber Prize for American Humor - congrats!]

After I read the book, I listened to a Barnes & Noble podcast that interviewed the author. Listening to her speak about her work, it made me appreciate it more. The book actually stemmed from an e-mail. Crosley decided to compose a humorous e-mail on her adventure in moving from one Manhattan apartment to the other, basically just a rant about her experience with lots and lots of detail. A friend at the Village Voice saw some potential in it, had her add an introduction and, bam, she’s writing for them.

She said the book is about “dashed expectations,” which makes perfect sense and is completely relatable (how often do you expect something, anything in life to be awesome and it turns out not to be?). For example, she was disappointed by her first apartment, her first volunteer job, her first real job, her first bridesmaid experience, her first non-one-night stand. That’s what these stories are really about and once I heard that, more of them became relevant to me and I understood the book a bit more – and found I liked it more than I thought.

I also liked that she didn’t focus on what a lot of female writers focus on: dating. She had maybe two references to dating/sex in the book, but otherwise, she said she purposely tried to sidestep that stuff. While dating mishaps are funny, too, sometimes it's nice to read about other things, like turning 16 or moving to Australia. In the interview she says, “You just jump into it and hope your weirdest, more bizarre experiences someone can relate to.” Overall, more hits than misses in this book.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single

A couple weeks ago I read Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton (another freebie from work). The novel follows the path of Jen, a single Minnesota girl who works downtown at a Macy’s-like department store (in marketing). She has a love-hate relationship with her sister, a gay best friend, a big mouth, an infuriating boss and a long string of bad dates. The book has all the ingredients for a typical, ho-hum chick lit novel. But I give McElhatton some credit, because this one is a bit different.

Her characters are hilarious. I laughed out loud quite a few times. I loved all the Minnesota references. Jen does meet a man and “nab” him, but the way their relationship goes from there is not like every other female-centered novel. There are no cute little jealous misunderstandings, the man is far from Prince Charming, and though she always wanted to meet the man she’d marry, Jen remains, in the long run, slightly ambivalent about it.

It really is a different type of novel masked at chick lit, starting with the Barbie doll on the cover. You can even read nearly the entire thing and think you’re reading a Bridget Jones or Jennifer Weiner book (though this is written better), but you get to the end and…whoa. Threw me for a loop and I closed the book with some shock, some sadness, but then some pleasure because, jeez, I didn’t know that was coming.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Lovely Bones trailer

You can click here to watch the trailer for The Lovely Bones. I really enjoyed this book, and I was anxious to see how they would make a movie about it. But after watching this, I'm not sure. The heaven scenes look a little too trippy and the suspenseful music and scary scenes at the end don't really remind me of the book I read. I'm sure I'll still see the movie, and I'm sure different trailers will come out that I'll probably feel differently about, but after first viewing, I have my doubts.

Monday, August 3, 2009

For the Love of First Grade

When we were at the theater waiting for Half-Blood Prince to start, we saw a “first look” at the new animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It’s based on a children’s book by the same name. [Description from Amazon: “If food dropped like rain from the sky, wouldn't it be marvelous! Or would it? It could, after all, be messy. And you'd have no choice. What if you didn't like what fell? Or what if too much came? Have you ever thought of what it might be like to be squashed flat by a pancake?”]

I loved this book as a child, however, most everyone I know has never heard of it. I gave it to my nephews for Christmas, and no one there had ever heard of it. The friends we were at the movie with had never heard of it either. I’ve had the same experience with other books and authors from my childhood: William Steig (he wrote Shrek, by the way, but also lovely books like The Amazing Bone and Dr. De Soto), James Marshall (Miss Nelson is Missing, Miss Nelson is Back - hilarious), Tomie dePaola (Strega Nona = love for me), Nancy Carlson (meeting her was an elementary school highlight) and so many more.

The one thing all these books have in common? My first grade teacher, Mrs. Larson. I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Mrs. Larson. I think her class is where I got my love for reading. Also writing. She had us write about our weekends every Monday and I loved those assignments (Over the weekend I…). She was encouraging. You always wanted to get your paper back with a little pop bottle drawn on it, because that meant she’d buy you one from the teacher’s lounge for doing such a good job. She was fun. I always wanted to make her proud.

I owe a lot to Mrs. Larson, perhaps more than any other teacher I had, and she taught first grade. First grade. It goes to show you how experiences when we’re young can truly shape us.

Do you have a teacher or another adult who shaped who you’ve become or who guided you toward who you are now?

Friday, July 31, 2009

NPR Audience Votes: 100 Best Beach Reads

Thanks to the always helpful MinnPost, I came across NPR's Audience Picks for the 100 Best Beach Reads Ever. Yes, ever. It's quite interesting to peruse the list. (Feel free to do the same and come back if you'd like.)

Out of the top 10, I've read seven (and have at least started, but not finished, two others). Out of all 100, if my memory serves me correctly, I've read 20. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Pillars of the Earth are on my Amazon Wish List already. I've also enjoyed several of these books (Under the Tuscan Sun, The Princess Bride, Cold Mountain, etc.) as movies.

I enjoyed MinnPost's Amy Goetzman's column about the list. She's a bit surprised more Minnesota authors didn't make the list. I agree with her suggestions, particularly Shannon Olson and Lorna Landvik. They'd make my summer reading list (and have) any day.

What about you? How many have you read? Any arguments for those books MIA?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Does Pop Culture Make Us Feel Safe Again?

Through my Twitter feed at work, I discovered this New York Times article, “Harry Potter is their Peter Pan.” It talks about how Generation Y, roughly those born between 1980 and 2003 (though other articles say Gen Yers are born between 1977 and 1995, which I personally prefer. It’s hard to imagine I have anything in common with someone born in 2003), are latching on to nostalgic movements, i.e. Harry Potter, late- or early-‘90s reunited bands, etc. [Note: I also wrote a bit about Generation Y here.]

The reason? The current state of the world has us searching for the security blanket of pre-9/11 life, when we weren’t at war, our jobs (or our parents’ jobs) were secure, and everyone was just happier.

It’s an interesting theory. I could maybe chalk up my love for Harry Potter and Saved By the Bell (Zack Morris on Jimmy Fallon was more than funny; it was brilliant) to a return to innocence. It’s soothing to think about the time in my life when those things were new to me. When New Kids on the Block got back together last year, it gave my best friend in third grade and I a chance to be those screaming, sighing girls again – however, this time over e-mail: “Did you see them sing on the Today show” and “Donnie hasn’t changed a bit” – and remember our childhood of Jordan Knight t-shirts, collecting stickers and all-around elementary school fun. I connected with her on a level I haven’t been able to in a long time.

And that’s just it. I don’t think it’s necessarily all about remembering better, safer times. I think it’s more about reconnecting. It’s more about reliving, and not because our current lives are lacking, but just because it’s fun. It’s why I still watch Friends reruns. It’s why I can’t believe Ally McBeal could just be coming out on DVD. It’s why I love any reference to The Princess Bride. It’s why I’m nearly exasperated when little kids don’t know who Ramona is or the Muppet Babies (or why I love my brother and sister-in-law because my niece and nephews love Tom & Jerry reruns).

Those bands, books, TV shows made me who I am. And if I like who I am, then of course I’m going to like revisiting how I got here. And while I can somewhat push my favorite things on the little kids in my life (Christmas and birthday presents), I’m also curious to see what will form their personalities and who they become.

What bits of popular culture do you look back on fondly? What will the kids of today have to look back on, do you think?

Monday, July 27, 2009

How Young is Too Young? Plus, Half-Blood Prince.

I liked this story in our local Star Tribune (courtesy of Associated Press). It talks about how second-generation Harry Potter fans don’t get the chance to “grow up” alongside Harry. If you were 10 when Sorcerer’s Stone came out, then you were 20 when Deathly Hollows hit shelves. At 20, you’re prepared for the darkness of death and war that takes place in the seventh book.

However, if you’re a parent interested in starting your kids on Potter now, and if they really enjoy them, you could end up going from book one to book seven in as little as a year or two (or less). Would your 8-year-old be ready for Deathly Hollows? Your 10-year-old? And if not, how do you tell them, “I know you love Harry, but we have to wait until you’re older to keep going…”

But, as the article says, maybe that’s exactly what you have to do. I loved the story of the 9-year-old boy who was reading Half-Blood Prince before the movie came out this month. Before he gets to the end, he’s so upset he stops reading and tells his dad to sell his movie ticket; he’s not going.

I completely understand, kid. Half-Blood is brutal. I’m surprised he even got through Order of the Phoenix. That ending just about killed me. And I was 22 when I read it.

There are plenty of books like this out there, too—series that grow as their characters grow (Traveling Pants, Twilight). From innocent kisses to sex. From talking it through to major violence. So, if you’re lucky to be there at the beginning, the transition is usually seamless. But if you’re second-generation readers, or parents who can’t wait for your kids to love Harry or Carmen or Bella as much as you did, then you have some thinking to do.

What do you think? How do you rein in little readers if they’re diving into territory they shouldn’t be? What other books offer up this conundrum?


I saw Half-Blood Prince over the weekend and I really enjoyed it. Big surprise, huh? I did think it was a touch too long. I can imagine how hard it is to cut down one of those books to fit a movie, but I think even if it were just 20 minutes shorter, that would've made a difference, and maybe left a little more time to make the ending a bit more impactful. Overall, the movies have come a long way. They keep getting more exciting, more humorous and more mature. It's probably because the kids keep growing up, but I like the movies more and more as the series goes on.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Believe Me

As I mentioned previously, Believe Me by Nina Killham, is about a teenage boy who, despite being raised by an atheist mother, starts going to bible study and church with some kids from school. This really throws his mom for a loop, and like you’d expect, many conversations about the universe and heaven take place.

I thought Killham’s portrayal of a teenage boy was pretty spot on. Nic is moody, interested in girls, confused all around. He seemed a touch too smart for his age, but his parents are both college professors, so maybe his high intelligence is probable. I found it interesting that Nic was suddenly so interested in God, but I think the reason he responded to it had less to do with “religion” and more to do with having someone to talk to and believe in (God), knowing there is a place to go when you die (heaven) and just fitting in with a group of kids (his fellow students).

The book brings up the question: How would you react if your child decided to go against all you raised him to be? I actually think his mom, Lucy, handled the situation pretty realistically. Shock, at first, some anger, but then she just let him do his own thing. She was a bit judgmental toward his church friends, but I think his church friends were actually way more judgmental of her. His friends would actually say to Nic that his mom was going to be damned to Hell. Who says that to a kid? Nice.

The book was predictable in the end because (obviously) some sort of tragedy will strike so everyone’s faith comes into question. Is it enough of a tragedy to make either Nic or his mom change their beliefs? As I was reading I thought to myself, if that’s the case, I will not enjoy the ending. Too easy.

The book is quick, funny (Nic is pretty hilarious) and a decent story. There were some parts I thought were a little far-fetched or convenient, and some of the characters weren’t as fleshed out as I would've like. But overall, a decent read. I’m going to look into Killham’s first novel, How to Cook a Tart. I’ve read some good things about that one.

Monday, July 20, 2009

RIP Frank McCourt & the Moon

I loved Angela's Ashes. While it tells of his quite depressing childhood, and made me very sad at times, the book is a lovely piece of literature. Here is an obit from CNN.

Also, even if you're not that into it, please take a moment to realize how freakin' amazing it was that 40 years ago today, two men walked on the moon. The moon. It's a shame we haven't been back.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey

My bff wants to start a book club, so she charged a few of us with reading Jane Austen. I have to say, I felt this was quite ambitious for a book club start out. Though, maybe it’s just me. I read Pride & Prejudice in college because my roommate at the time loved it and the women in my office raved about the Colin Firth movie. The book is good, don’t get me wrong, but it was my first introduction to Austen – or really any book written from that time – and, well, it made me feel kind of stupid. I’m not sure I understood half of what was going on. What the hell is she talking about, I kept thinking. It takes them a paragraph to say something I could say in a sentence. I’d get snippets of the story eventually, and could piece together what was happening, but it was so wordy, so involved, so old-fashioned. In the end, I enjoyed the story, but I felt it took way too much effort to get through.

So, I was apprehensive to say the least about diving into Northanger Abbey, our first Jane Austen book to read. I found the book on sale at Barnes & Noble (they have really good deals on the classics) and, luckily for me the book came with notes and an introduction by a present-day scholar. I read the introduction and got a really good idea of the story line, which helped me out quite a bit while I was reading it. He also created footnotes to explain the old-fashioned words. Those I didn’t need too much because with the context of the sentence you can figure it out, but still, helpful.

And I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I was able to get through it easier than P&P several years ago, and I felt like I comprehended more of it than I thought I would. There were still plenty of times I thought, Seriously, what are you talking about and please get on with it, but maybe that’s just another Austen trait. (Maega and I were talking about this book the other day, and mentioned how Austen tends to use her books as platforms for what she believes. She doesn’t follow the “rules” that the author should remain anonymous, but instead puts her feelings right out there in the pages. Interesting.)

Her books are also filled with misunderstanding. I think that’s her humor style. It probably sounds weird, but they remind me of episodes of Frasier. Each episode of that show revolved around some stupid misunderstanding. (Daphne hears one thing, Niles hears another, Frasier acts weird, shenanigans follow.) It frustrated me so much! Just figure it out! So, I find myself feeling that way with this book (and P&P) – a little frustrated.

The structure of the story was odd. It took quite a long while, more than half the book, to get to what the back cover said the book was actually about – and even then, it was just a minor part of the story. The book is more about the main character, Catherine’s relationship with two different sets of siblings. It’s not really about Northanger Abbey and “its secrets.” Though, maybe I’m missing some symbolism here, which is quite possible. So, I felt the ending was very abrupt. However, this book was published posthumously and Austen never actually had it properly edited. A good edit could do this book wonders. Tighten things up, fix contradictions, etc. (This is also one of the shortest of her works. I’m worried about getting through the longer ones like Emma and Mansfield Park.)

So, what Austen books have you read? Does anyone else have trouble reading books from so long ago? Or is it just me? I felt really great about myself when I read some customer reviews and the women were saying they read Jane Austen at age 10. Are you kidding?! I read a ton at age 10, but not Jane Austen.

What other classics do you enjoy?