Monday, June 29, 2009

City of Thieves

I finished City of Thieves over the weekend, and I loved it. Like I mentioned before, author David Benioff, wrote The 25th Hour and was the screenwriter for Wolverine. City of Thieves is actually a novel based on the events of a week in the life of his Russian grandfather when he was 17 years old.

In the midst of WWII as the Germans are closing in on Leningrad and several other Russian cities, Lev is taken prisoner by the Soviets for breaking curfew and stealing. To keep his life, he must find a dozen eggs for the colonel, with the help of fellow prisoner Koyla. The story follows the two boys (they’re so young, I can’t call them men) as they make their way across enemy lines to find eggs.

I loved the book for its different look at the war. I don’t believe I’ve ever read about it from the Russian side. The people were starving and wasting away. They couldn’t find bread, let alone anything else good to eat. So, obviously, eggs were nearly impossible to come by. The book is full of action, Koyla is a welcome comic relief, and the boys’ relationship grows more over five days than they probably ever expected. While it’s quite sexually explicit – they are boys, so what else would be on their minds, even in the middle of war? – you can glide over that if necessary.

I thought the book was extremely well written, engaging, quick, realistic and actually sweet in some parts. And to know that it might be based in a lot of truth makes it that much better. Here’s a quote that doesn’t give too much away, but offers a glimpse at the adventure these boys went on:
The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers. I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities. I just kept moving, hoping to find another half slice of bread for myself and a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Best Picture, 10 nominations

I know this isn't book related, but I'd love to get some opinions. The Academy has announced that starting for 2009, 10 films will compete for the Best Picture Oscar. With only one winner.

I can see what they're doing. Several times there's been uproar over films absent from the Academy's top category (The Dark Knight, for example, as well as numerous noteworthy comedies that never make the cut. For some reason Best = Drama.). So, increase the number of nominees, and people/studios will be happier, right? After all, it's just an honor to be nominated.

With that in mind, sure, 10 noms sounds like a great idea. However, I stumble on the fact that there will still only be five slots for best director, actor and actress (supporting, screenplay, song, etc.). Does that seem fair? Particularly in the director category? How can you claim a film is one of the best, yet its director is not. (Granted, this still happens with just five slots. Directors get left off all the time. That doesn't mean it makes sense to me.) And, if a wider range/number of films can be up for the honor, why not the actors who starred in them? But then, it would be pretty ridiculous to make every category 10 nominations long, wouldn't it?

My quick opinion: Leave well enough alone. Your thoughts?

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

I've known for years that Danica McKellar, aka Winnie Cooper, love of Kevin Arnold, on The Wonder Years, was more than just a pretty face. She studied math a UCLA and she's written two books, Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss.

When I first heard about her cutesy titled, but brilliant-idea books, I thought how cool it would've been if those were around when I was learning math. Here's a gorgeous, semi-famous woman who actually likes math and is taking the time to explain it in a fun, girly way. It's just what seventh/eighth-grade girls need.

Kiss My Math was the latest book on the counter in the kitchen at work and I snatched it up. I don't plan on reading it cover to cover any time soon, but I don't doubt I'll pull it out at different points in time when I need a little pre-Algebra refresher. Just flipping through it and seeing an x-y axis, negative numbers and integrals made me break out in a bit of a sweat. But the cursive and handwritten fonts, fun preteen quizzes and cute chapter titles make it all seem a little less scary.

McKellar's hit on something here - a child star who's successful, smart and with it, go figure - and I hope she writes a few more books, too. Maybe take on Calculus? Because that crap's hard.

And, for a little nostalgia - a Winnie/Kevin montage:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fortune Cookie Chronicles Fun Facts

As promised, though a day late, here are some cool tidbits I learned from this book.

1. There are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. More than McDonald's, Burger King and KFC combined. I like what the author says: Think about how many times you eat apple pie. Then think about how many times you eat Chinese. What do you think is more American?

2. A Chinese restaurant in Virginia had to install bulletproof glass around one of its tables - it's where both Bushes liked to eat while President.

3. During the Gold Rush, thousands of Chinese flooded into the West. Americans used the way they ate to help persecute and discriminate against them: "Real Men Couldn't Live on Rice Alone."

4. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed between 1882 and 1902, was the only law in the history of the U.S. to exclude a group by race and ethnicity. When the jobs and opportunities for them disappeared, the Chinese enterprised and opened laundromats and restaurants.

5. There's an interesting chapter in the book about how "chop suey" was actually one big joke started in the early 1900s. However, Americans loved it and women would try their hardest to make it themselves at home. Soon Chinese dishes could be found in The Joy of Cooking.

6. Because the Chinese (in China) love parts of food that Americans don't (i.e. chicken feet, pigs ears, etc.), these American leftovers are some of our biggest exports to China.

7. Approximately 300,000 Fujianese (from Fuzhou, a southeastern region in China) have come to the U.S. in the past 20 years. If the immigrant paid to be smuggled in, the going rate this decade is some $70,000. I like this quote (and it's why I will now think differently when I go to my local Chinese restaurant):
"There is a fairly good chance that the Chinese restaurant worker who cooked your roast pork fried rice, or the woman who took your order on the phone, or the deliveryman who showed up at your door paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so."
8. Because it contains vegetables, busy moms across the country choose Chinese over other takeout options because it's considered more healthy.

9. While this isn't Chinese related, I learned that the nascent restaurant industry boomed after the French Revolution, which is why our vocab is filled with words like "hors d'oeuvres" and "menu."

I'm nearly done with the book. At the end of the book, Lee is traveilng around the world, from Brazil to Vancouver to Korea, trying to find the "greatest" Chinese restaurant in the world. Must be rough, huh?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

In 2005, more than 100 people won some sort of money through the Powerball lottery. This was an unprecedented amount of winners, sucking up a majority of the Powerball's reserves. How did this happen? Nearly every winner found their numbers from a fortune cookie. This led Jennifer Lee on a search for the history of the fortune cookie and the story behind Chinese food in America.

I've found this book pretty interesting throughout. Lee travels all over the world in search of the origins of the fortune cookie (hint: not China), and she travels all over the world looking for the best Chinese food. Chinese people pay tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into America just to work in Chinese restaurants - the only place they can work and not have to learn English. Chinese restaurants have exploded in this country, and they change hands between families often. Not only do you learn about the food, but you learn a little bit about Chinese history as well. If you're interested in that, I recommend the book. Just be warned: it'll make you hungry. And even more so, it'll make you look at your favorite Chinese place differently.

Tomorrow I'll post some fun facts that I learned throughout the book. I won't give anything major away, but some of the facts are just too amazing or cool not to share.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Can't Say No to Free Books

I work in a magazine publishing house. With an office full of editors, we tend to receive complimentary copies of new books or unedited copies of soon-to-be published books for review. Unfortunately, if I receive any free books in the mail, they're not necessarily on subject matter I'm all that interested in - especially for leisure. But fellow editors in other departments do receive novels from time to time, and every so often the counter in the kitchen will have a pile of books sitting there for the taking. Again, some aren't interesting at all, but sometimes, if you come across the pile first, you can get lucky. Last week, I think I got lucky:

I'm Sorry You Feel that Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog, by Diana Joseph. I actually read a good review of this book in Entertainment Weekly a few months back, so I recognized the cover and the title as a book I was interested in reading at one point. Synopsis:
Meet the men in Diana Joseph's life: "The boy," Diana's fourteen-year-old son, who supports the NRA and dreams of living in a house with wall-to-wall carpeting; Diana's father, who's called her on the telephone twice, ever, and who sat her down when she was twelve to caution her against becoming a slut (she didn't listen); Diana's brothers, or, as her father calls them, "the two assholes"; Diana's ex-husband, a lumberjack with three ex-wives, yet he's still the first one she calls when she's in a jam; and Diana's common-law husband, Al, an English professor who's been mistakenly called mentally challenged. Ostensibly organized around the various men in Diana's life, this is really a memoir about what it's like to be a modern, smart woman making her way in the world.
Believe Me, by Nina Killham. I've never heard of this book, but I read the back cover and it sounded interesting enough to try (since it's free). Synopsis:
In the tradition of Jodi Picoult—a fresh, smart, and deeply moving novel about the power of faith, love, and family. Thirteen-year-old Nic Delano has a lot of questions. Like why does he have a babysitter at his age-and where did she get such long legs? But mostly, what exactly is the meaning of life? His mother, Lucy, an astrophysicist and atheist, has always encouraged Nic to ask questions. But lately she doesn't like the answers he's getting. Nic has been hanging out with a group of devout Christians and is starting to embrace the Bible—and a very different view of the heavens. But when unexpected tragedy strikes, Nic and Lucy's beliefs are truly to put to the test. And they need each other now more than ever. But will a mother and her son be able to find a common ground where faith meets understanding and love is, ultimately, what endures?
City of Thieves, by David Benioff. I picked up this book, very unsure about it, but when I saw it was written by the man who wrote The 25th Hour (and adapted his book into Spike Lee's screenplay) as well as wrote the screenplay for The Kite Runner, well, frankly, that's a talented man. Synopsis:
During the Nazis' brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible. By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.
Has anyone read any of these? When, if ever, do you come across free books?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

House of Happy Endings, Finale

I finished House of Happy Endings over the weekend and I'm on the fence. The book mainly focused on Leslie's father's depression and how it affected the rest of the family. At certain points she was just relaying information from her father's medical records. Other times the story felt repetitive: he's depressed, he collapsed, he's addicted to barbiturates, they have no money, he can't get out of his own father's shadow...Repeat. In this case, the story could be a little boring.

However, I do think the book can be considered an interesting case study in depression. The book demonstrates that while depression may be an individual's disease, the disease does not affect only the individual. Leslie, her brothers and her mother woke up each day not knowing what to expect. Would dad get out of bed today? Would he spend their nonexistent money on a new car? Would they need an ambulance? With most everything they did they had to consider the father's mental health and well-being. The fact that the children grew up a bit different than other children, or the fact that by the time she was 50 years old the mother was at her wit's end, is no surprise - and actually quite sad.

So, if what the book accomplishes is to get readers to look at depression differently and understand it's OK to ask for help (because life is too short), then I think it's met its purpose.

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Moon Trailer

How very exciting:

The special effects look so much better already. My heart broke as Edward said goodbye, and I got goosebumps at Jake's transformation. Woo!