Saturday, December 15, 2012

"Deathstalker" by Simon R. Green

The Iron Bitch - her Imperial Majesty Lionstone XIV - ruled the human Empire with fear. From peasants to masters of the galaxy's most powerful families, all were subject to the queen's unpredictable decrees of "outlawing" and death.

Owen Deathstalker, unwilling head of his clan, sought to avoid the perils of the Empire's warring factions but unexpectedly found a price on his head. He fled to Mistworld, where he began to build an unlikely force to topple the throne - a broken hero, an outlawed Hadenman, a thief, and a bounty hunter. With their help, the Deathstalker took the first step on a far more dangerous journey to claim the role for which he'd been destined since before his birth...

With breakneck action against a backdrop as wide as the universe, this stunningly told tale is Simon R. Green's most extraordinary novel yet.

A long fan of Green's, I first thought about reading the Deathstalker series while working my way through one of his Secret Histories entries (Eddie Drood enlists the help of a Deathstalker, though for the life of me I can't remember which one). The idea sat on a back burner of my reading brain until I found a copy on Amazon for a penny + shipping. Well, why not, I thought? If it's good, great. If it's horrible, not a huge investment, and I could always donate it to the library.

This is a much different sort of work than what I'm used to with Green. Instantly I noticed that this is in third-person narrative, meaning I might get the chance to see a lot more than usual. (Both the Nightside and Secret Histories series are told from a first-person perspective). "A lot more" is putting it mildly. This book has everything - heroes, villains, beautiful women, space travel, an "Imperial Force" which brings up all sorts of thoughts of huge armies and certain space opera movies, cyborgs, regeneration machines, stasis fields, etc. There's even an arena (called appropriately enough, The Arena) where gladiators of sorts fight against each other to the death, just as in Roman times. At over 500 pages in mass market paperback, this thing is truly epic. And of course, now that I'm finished with it, I find myself wanting to continue with the next book in the series - and keep reading until I'm done with the Deathstalker Saga. Hopefully that will happen before the next millennium.

Anyway, back to Owen and his tale of woe. As the story opens, Owen is about to make love yet again to his girlfriend, only to be attacked by her as she tells him he's been outlawed - wanted dead or alive. Owen kills her and begins his life on the run, something he's not very good at, as he's forsaken the usual Empire intrigues for a life as a historian. Rescued by smuggler Hazel D'ark, he continues running for his life, picking up Hazel's friend and bounty hunter Ruby, tracking down the legendary rebel Jack Random, and bringing his ancestor, the original Deathstalker, out of stasis. There's Oz, Owen's lifelong AI friend and protector, who saves his galactic rear end more than once. And there's Tobias Moon, an augmented man aka Hadenman, who leads them to the Darkvoid, hoping to awaken his fellow Hadenmen from their arctic slumber.

While reading of Owen's adventures, the reader is also introduced to several of the clans or Families of the Empire: the Campbells, the Wolfes, the Schreks. The Empress herself and her high court are also introduced, and yes, the similarities between this court and those of Europe back in the day will not be lost on anyone. There are court intrigues galore, as well as costumes that sound like they wouldn't have been out of place in those same European courts. And while I appreciated being able to see all the characters and get all the background, it's a lot to take in, and sometimes a bit distracting. At first, that is.

Green's masterpiece with such a huge cast and what appears to be a sprawling plot is this: as you're reading and reading and reading, you start to see the small, almost infinitesimal, connections. Then those connections become threads, and those become wires, and suddenly - it all makes sense. It takes talent to bring these seemingly separate stories together in a way that doesn't feel like they've just been mashed together. And while I love Green's first-person, snarky narratives, this book is just as good if not better. It's definitely on the more serious side, as befits a tale as epic as this one. There are still a few moments of comic relief, but overall, Green plays it serious here.

I highly recommend this for science fiction fans, and fantasy buffs would probably enjoy it, too. I look forward to the next installment of the series, which I so desperately want to read right now. But I think I'm going to give myself a break and read some shorter, lighter works over the holidays. 'Til we meet again, Deathstalker.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Syndrome E" by Franck Thilliez

Already a runaway bestseller in France, [this book] tells the story of beleaguered detective Luci Hennebelle, whose old friend has developed a case of spontaneous blindness after watching an extremely obscure film from the 1950s. Embedded in the film are subliminal images so unspeakably heinous that Lucie realizes she must get to the bottom of it - especially when nearly everyone who comes into contact with the film starts turning up dead.

Enlisting the help of Inspector Sharko - a brooding, broken analyst for the Paris police who is exploring the film's connection to five murdered men left in the woods - Lucie beings to strip away the layers of what is perhaps the most disturbing and powerful film ever made. Soon Sharko and Lucie find themselves mired in a darkness that spreads across politics, religion, science, and art while stretching from France to Canada, Egypt to Rwanda, and beyond.

With this taut U. S. debut, Thilliez explores the origins of violence through radical science in a breakneck and erotically charged thriller rich with shocking plot twists and profound questions about the nature of humanity.

One of the best things about the Goodreads First Reads contests is winning books that you've never really heard of by authors you're not familiar with. This book certainly fits the bill, as it wasn't on my radar before entering the contest, and I certainly hadn't read anything by the author before now.

What's weird is that I know I read the description for this book, and yet, when I won this copy, I still had the wrong impression as to what it was about. I think it's the whole movie = spontaneous blindness thing; I was picturing something along the lines of the horror movies The Ring, and this is about as far from that as you can get.

The book starts out a bit slowly, as there's a lot of character introduction, exposition, etc. The reader is only allowed as much information as the main characters, so we're trying to figure out the mystery just as Luci and Sharko are. At times, this works really well, and at others, just like the police, I found myself frustrated that I couldn't fit the pieces together fast enough. And as I've found with other translated works, there's a bit of a wall between the work and the reader, leaving it sometimes feeling a bit more like a report than a work of fiction. Thankfully, this starts to subside as the reader becomes accustomed to the translator's style, and that's when the book starts to pick up.

It's hard to describe what this book is about. It works on several different levels: police procedural, dialog on mental illness, thesis on violence, etc. What I can say is that I really enjoyed it, and I highly recommend it to those following this blog. I'm hoping that Thilliez puts out another book soon, preferably one that sees the return of Luci and Sharko. But I will probably read whatever he chooses to put out next.

"My Heart is an Idiot: Essays" by Davy Rothbart

Davy Rothbart is looking for love in all the wrong places. Constantly. He falls helplessly in love with pretty much every girl he meets - and rarely is the feeling reciprocated. Time after time, he hopes in a car and tears across half of America with his heart on his sleeve. He's continually coming up with outrageous schemes, which he always manages to pull off. Well, almost always. But even when things don't work out, Rothbart finds meaning and humor in every moment. Whether it's confronting a scammer who takes money from aspiring writers, sifting through a murder case that's left a potentially innocent friend in prison, or waking up naked on a park bench in New York city, nothing and no one is off limits.

But as much as Rothbart is a tragically lovable, irresistibly brokenhearted hero, it's his funny, insightful storytelling that's the star of the book. He is a true original, with a spirit of adventure and a literary voice all his own - "an intriguing hybrid of timeless Midwestern warmth and newfangled jive talk" in the words of Sarah Vowell. Each essay in [this book] shows how things that are seemingly so wrong can be so, so right.

I won this as a Goodreads First Read. Good thing, as I have to say I'm not overly impressed with Rothbart. Oh, his writing isn't bad at all; he's quite good at setting the scene, describing the events, etc. But these essays come off as the whining, "life owes me" plaints of a 30-something hipster. Everything comes across as larger than life, with Rothbart creating a persona that I, quite frankly, didn't enjoy.

The author keeps talking about his pitiful love life, and yet, in "Shade", he writes about the various girls he's dated in an attempt to find someone that matches his "dream girl" - Shade, a character in the movie Gas, Food, Lodging. Wow, no pressure for these girls, huh? Of course he's unsuccessful in his quest - she's a fictional character!

The only piece that I felt the slightest connection to was "New York, New York", a wonderful bit of writing about the author traveling across the country to New York City to see the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. My guess is that this voice is the real Davy Rothbart, and this guy, I like. I just wish he'd shown up in more of the collected essays.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"What My Best Friend Did" by Lucy Dawson

For Alice, life's a bit too boringly grown-up lately - weekends at weddings and baby showers; celebrating friends' transitions to a life she isn't quite up for yet; and a sweet, stable boyfriend she suspects she's outgrown. So when she meets Gretchen for the first time, it feels a bit like falling love. Gretchen, with her air of impulsiveness and intuitive style, is that rarest of treasures: a true friend who knows how to have fun. Plus there's Gretchen's gorgeous brother, Bailey, who might turn out to be exactly what Alice needs. Before she knows what's hit her, Alice's brilliant new best friend is turning her world upside down - seemingly for the better.

But Gretchen has a dark secret, which, like a time bomb, won't stay hidden forever. There explosion may teach them both more than they ever wanted to know about how female friendships can go frighteningly wrong.

I intend to discuss this book as if all readers have read it. If you have NOT read this book and think you will sometime down the road, I would stop here. SERIOUSLY.

This was a rough read, folks. The book has some issues, the characters have issues, the editing has issues... I'm reminded of a line I once heard by a comedian, something along the lines of "Let's get them a magazine rack - they've got a lot of issues." That would definitely apply to this book.

OK, the book/plot first. I am not a fan of the present story framing the past story. Dawson does a good enough job of making it clear what time period we're in, which is good. However, it still feels "jumpy" overall, leading to some of my displeasure. Also, the book starts off with Alice at the hospital, the emergency with Gretchen, the angst of trying to reach others (Tom, Bailey) - then goes back to when Alice first met Gretchen. We, the reader, don't even know what exactly has happened to Gretchen when the flashbacks begin, only that it must be something terrible, possibly life-threatening, for the opening to be so dramatic. Once we go back in time to that fateful meeting, the story starts dragging, becoming the typical "I'm comfortable with my life but boy I wish something would happen" sort of tale. We're properly introduced to Alice and Tom, and immediately we find out that Tom sees their relationship as long-term: buying a place together, getting married, possibly even having children. Alice freezes up, realizing that while she loves Tom, she's not ready for that sort of commitment, and why, oh why, must he try to have this sort of conversation right before she leaves for the States?

The back and forth continues as we see Alice's friendship with Gretchen blossom at a rapid pace. Perhaps the only thing I did like was the reaction of Vic, Alice's best friend who moved to Paris to be with her handsome love, Luc; Vic is naturally a bit jealous of Alice's "new best friend", feeling a bit off herself in a foreign land with no new best friend herself. Of all the characters in this limp moral tale, I liked Vic - and she's the only one. That's problem #2 - character development. Honestly, these people are rather harsh, almost none of them likeable, and often not what I would consider to be fully-developed. I will grant the author that there are a lot of characters on the canvas, but still, wouldn't it have been more interesting if Paolo, flatmate to Tom and Alice, has been fleshed out a bit? As it stands, he's merely the hot roommate who happens to have sex with Gretchen at crucial moments. Also, I thought Bailey needed to be more than the guy that lured Alice away from Tom (not hard to do, grant you, but still...). There is some back story given by him during a scene with Alice, one where he describes the first time Gretchen goes off the meds and tries to hurt herself. I knew I was supposed to pick up on the fact that he feels responsible for her, but wouldn't it have been better to have him tell me that? And to see it more than once? Again, I would have been much more invested in his blossoming love affair with Alice with more development of his character, or at least, I think I would have.

Then there's Alice herself. This novel is told from the first-person perspective, so everything we know is from Alice's POV. That is, until chapter twenty-nine, when the author suddenly shifts and has different scenes from a third-person POV. Here's Gretchen's doctor coming in to work, amazed that the "overdose girl" is still alive. Suddenly we go back to Alice's first-person POV, then we're watching Bailey as he wakes and gets ready to go to the hospital (everyone had left to get some rest, reassured that they had time before Gretchen "woke up"). Then we see Tom, then it's back to Alice, and oh my - I'm getting dizzy. Anyway, back to Alice. Even while she was getting to know Gretchen and gushing to Vic about how wonderful it is to have someone to hang out with again, I didn't like her. There's just something off about her; maybe it's the way she doesn't want to take responsibility for anything that's happening to her (her wanting to lie to Tom about being attracted to and kissing Bailey, for instance, even though it's clear she sees no future with Tom), maybe it's because it's obvious from the start that she's hiding something major from everyone at the hospital. In any case, at one point I was really hoping she'd get her comeuppance, and I don't know that that's what the author was going for.

I also had a hard time with how mental illness was portrayed in this book. What could have been a very touching, yet difficult subject comes across more as a simple plot device. Yes, Gretchen and her brother both explain to Alice what it's like for Gretchen, how scary it is to be "ill", and I thought the author did a great job in the scenes where Gretchen tells Alice how she feels when she's on her lithium, and off it. There could have been much more said on this subject. What really bothered me was Dawson's decision to have Gretchen be a completely manipulative witch, one who seems to blame her illness for her actions. Instead of a frank look at manic depression, we get something more along the lines of a bad movie plot. I think it would have been brilliant if Gretchen had explained why she pretty much stole/destroyed Alice's life; was Gretchen doing it because she couldn't stand to see someone be happy? Or did she do it because she wants that sort of life so badly herself?

Finally, there are some editing issues that will seem nitpicky to a lot of readers. But keep in mind, anything that basically pops you out of the story is bad, be it editing or character development or whatever. In this case, it was quote marks - specifically the use of double quotes within double quotes. I would have written it off as some British thing, or perhaps a peculiarity of the publisher, but half-way through the book, the correct way to quote someone within dialog started showing up, the old single quotes within double quotes. To this reader, it was like nails on a chalkboard. And it had me wondering - with tighter editing (which not only includes basic grammar and such, but also spotting plot holes, character weakness, etc) would this have been a better book? Possibly. We'll probably never know.

Now, having said all this, here's the weird thing: I found myself racing through the last 50 pages or so to find out how this would end. Not in a skimming-so-I-don't-have-to-read-it-all way, but in a biting-my-nails-because-I-can't-wait-to-see-how-this-ends kind of way. I know, right? How did that happen? I honestly don't know. I can say that when I finished the last page, I was sort of glad at how it ended, and also a bit disappointed as well. It's one of those books that leaves you hanging, as you'll never really know what happens. Sigh.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Personality: What makes you the way you are" by Daniel Nettle

What determines your personality? Which is the best personality to have? Are you stuck with your personality, or can you change it?

Daniel Nettle looks at the science of human personality, exploring the rich variety of our natures, how they might have evolved, and how all personalities can be defined remarkably accurately against five simples measures. This book will make you look afresh at yourself and at those around you, and give you new insights into your own personality. It won't tell you how you should live, but it might just help you life life to your strengths.

What I thought would be an interesting book turned out to be far more clinical than I had anticipated. I think it took me nearly a month or more to finish this, and it's really only about 250 pages long (once you skip the notes and bibliography). In fact, I think the best part of this book is the personality test that the reader is encouraged to take before really getting into the meat of the book.

Here's what I learned after taking the test: my score of 8 on the Extroversion scale is considered medium-high. Not overly surprising to me, especially when I read that extroverts have a lot of "positive emotions" - something I already knew about myself. I scored a 3 on the Neuroticism scale, which is low; in this case, neuroticism isn't so much what we normally think of but rather an abundance of negative emotions. Again, not a surprise for me. And I scored a nice high 9 on the Conscientiousness scale, which would come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.

What did surprise me was my score of 13 on the Agreeableness scale. It seems pretty high, right? But according to Nettle, it's not, since I'm female. It's a low-medium score. If I was a guy, it would be a medium-high score. Well, that just seems weird (and unfair) to me, as the chapter that discusses this trait is called "empathizers" - something that I definitely think I am. I'm still not entirely sure I understand why my score isn't considered better; again, think it's due to the dryness of the bulk of this work.

Finally, I scored a 9 on Openness, which is a low-medium. What, exactly, is the trait of openness? That's a great question, one I'm still pondering. The chapter is titled "Poets", and talks about what I consider to be artistic people. I'm not one of those people, even on my best day. I would have thought I would rate much lower on this scale, as I don't paint, write, sing, or do anything that I would consider to be "creative". I do read a lot, which might account for my score, as some people equate the "openness" trait with intellectuality. Nettle argues that your intellectual level is something that's more a physical thing, not an emotional thing. I don't really know.

Overall, I found this book boring. And I think what surprised me most was that, if I understood the author correctly, he believes that your personality is pretty much set at birth. I beg to differ. I know I am not the same person as I was 10, even 20 years ago; in my high school days, I was extremely shy and would never volunteer to talk to strangers on a daily basis, which is what I do now in library work. I was also a lot more of a pessimist, and today I'm very much an optimist. Also, I look at my husband, whose personality is almost completely different than it was just a few years ago. He had a near-death experience (or as he puts it, circling the drain with intent); he's certainly much different now than he was before his illness, much calmer. Before he got sick, I affectionately referred to him as "my curmudgeon"; now he's the one telling me to keep my chin up, that things aren't as bad as they seem. Talk about a 180! In my humble opinion, a person can change his/her personality. And therefore, I think that's why I didn't get much from this book.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"The Ritual" by Adam Nevill

When four old university friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise. With limited experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millenia, Luke figures things couldn't possibly get any worse. But then they stumble across a derelict building. Ancient artifacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. As the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn't come easy among these ancient trees...

It's taken me a long time to get around to reviewing this book. The basic reason is that I'm still trying to decide if I would recommend it. I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with it: loved the first part, not so crazy about the second part.

OK, if you think you want to read this book, I would stop here. Seriously.
SPOILER ALERT!! Turn back now, foolish mortal. Wait. Stop. Don't.

Still here? Alrighty then, let's get into the meat and potatoes of this novel.

The first part is your standard camping-group-in-mortal-danger work. Four friends that went to university together have decided to take go on a hiking trip in the forests of Sweden. They used to be best pals, but of course, time has caused them to go their separate ways, drift apart, etc. Hutch, the experienced hiker and leader of the pack, has a nice life leading such expeditions. Dom and Phil have both gone on to get married, have children, and build careers in business. Only Luke seems to be living the same sort of life he lived in university: bouncing from job to job, girl to girl, drug to drug. When the gang gets together, it becomes obvious that Phil and Dom are thick as thieves - and thick around the middle. Neither man has prepared himself for this sort of physical journey, even though Hutch had been urging them to. And you know what that means...

Yep, as soon as the book opens, we've got an injured player. Dom has done something to his knee, something that has swollen the joint and is slowing them down. Hutch makes the fateful decision to take what appears to be a shortcut. Yes, it's the infamous "let's take this trail that isn't very well-marked so that we can get there faster" plot. Cliche? Trite? Been there, done that? Sure. But in Nevill's hands, it works. As soon as the group gets on said trail, you know they're done for. The woods are suddenly darker and thicker; progress is all but impossible. Dom's knee is getting worse by the minute, Phil is whining all the time, Hutch feels responsible for his friends, and Luke feels disconnected from all of them.

And then one of them is killed. Not only killed, but strung up high in the trees, gutted like the proverbial fish. The remaining three friends know there's no way this was an accident, and they're also fairly sure that it can't be the work of an animal. One by one they are picked off by this thing in the woods, until there's only one of them left. He's at death's door, fading fast...

And suddenly rescued by three goth teen/young adults, taken to a small cabin, and held there for the ritual. Yep, we go straight from one line of horror to another. Sadly, this is the section that had me struggling to finish the book. I wasn't crazy about the lone survivor in the first place, and then he's "saved" by three of the most repulsive characters I've read in a long time. This is also the section where things bog down as far as what the thing in the wood is, what the ritual is all about, etc. Nevill makes the mistake of trying to show/explain what the horror is, and when I read his version, I just sort of lost interest. As one of my all-time faves would say, I - the reader - can always come up with something way more horrific than what he - the author - can write. There's also a lot of philosophical questioning going on in the second half of the book, and I really didn't understand why.

So, sort of a thumbs up, thumbs down on this one. Also, some parting thoughts. Many of the reviews on Amazon said that they gang were crazy to go hiking without cell phones or a GPS unit. Perhaps, but the way Nevill wrote this, I have no doubt that if they had had those items, said devices would not have worked. These woods are ancient, and they are evil. Modern gadgetry wouldn't have saved anyone's hide in this story. What bothered me more was the condition of the lone survivor and how long he lasted, despite some traumatic head injuries and open wounds. The cottage he's taken to is not a sterile environment by any stretch of the means, and all I could think was "This guy's gonna die of a staph infection or worse" - and yet he doesn't. Having had someone in the hospital more than once, I just couldn't suspend disbelief on this count. The guy might not have made it even if he'd been taken to a hospital right away, but I'm supposed to believe that he's OK after lying in this filthy cottage for days, in a bed soaked with his own urine, not having bathed by any stretch of the imagination? Um, no. Just not working for me. Maybe I was supposed to believe that the evil thing in the woods wanted him to stay alive, but again, not buying it.

I wouldn't mind trying another one of Nevill's books at some point. Just hope I enjoy the next one more than I did this one.

"101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die" edited by Steven Jay Schneider

From the classics of George Melies and F. W. Murnau to the blood-fests of Tobe Hooper and the great David Cronenberg, [this book] explores the enduring popularity of the horror flick. Fascinating and disturbing, these films expose our most primal fears: our nightmares, our terrors, our vulnerability and revulsion, our terror of the unknown, and our fear of sex, death, or loss of identity. With insight from critics, film historians, and academics, [this book] applies knowledge and passion to over a century of vampires, zombies, killer clowns, invasions from space, homicidal preachers, vacationing Satanists, tongue-slurping cannibals, murderous children, disturbed Vietnam vets, and sentient machines. Will you ever sleep with the light off again?

A fun little book that I perused a while back and am just now getting around to reviewing. Considering that yesterday was Halloween, the timing seems appropriate.

There are several of the usual suspects here, such as the version of Dracula directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi. Also White Zombie, The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, the silent-movie version of Nosferatu, etc.

What surprised me was seeing Suspiria, The Descent, Re-Animator, Carnival of Souls (and I just do not understand why it's "groundbreaking"), Audition, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (LURVE Vincent Price!), Hellraiser, Candyman, and more. Also fabulous to see The Haunting in here, one of the most overlooked horror movies of our time, in my humble opinion. And I'm talking about the old black and white version with Julie Harris, not the cringe-inducing "remake" with Liam Neeson.

I must, however, ding this book for the editing. There are the usual little mistakes that I'm willing to let go. But in the review of Hellraiser, the contributor keeps referring to Frank's brother Larry's daughter "Kristy". Anyone who is familiar with that movie and has seen it many times, such as myself, knows that her name is "Kirsty". At first I thought it was just another typo, but no, it's spelled that way the whole review. ARGH! The contributor is listed as "JM" and the book lists that as "Jay McRoy" who has written his own book. I hope he got his facts right in that work.
Not included is my all-time fave, The Changeling, starring George C. Scott. This was released in 1980, a perfect mix of spooky/scary ghost story with mystery-thriller tied in. Scott's character is not only haunted but must solve the mystery to help the spirit rest, etc. Very atmospheric, very scary at times, and yet, very little blood/gore. Just a good old-fashioned scary flick that has stayed with me to this day.

And for those who are curious, I've seen approximately 57 of the movies listed. I didn't count some that I thought I might have seen but wasn't totally sure.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"The Aqua Net Diaries: big hair, big dreams, small town" by Jennifer Niven

For anyone who has ever endured the relentless shame and soaring excitement of adolescence, critically acclaimed author Jennifer Niven shares her own hilarious and touching tales of teenage life at a Midwestern high school in the 1980s.

If you had found Jennifer Niven roaming the halls of the lone high school in Richmond, Indiana, in 1985, she would have had enormous hair. She would have been flirting with Tommy Wissel, and passing notes to her best friend Joey about whether Dean Waldemar was going to ask her to the dance. And her last name would have been McJunkin, because Niven is the pen name she planned to use whenever she finally graduated and became a famous writer/actress in some big city far, far away.

In her irresistibly charming and utterly true memoir, Jennifer takes readers back to that thrilling, excruciating, amazing, unnerving, awkward, and unforgettable time - high school - when life's greatest problems revolved around saying and doing the right thing, wrestling with geometric theorems, fretting over a bad hair day, waiting for the weekend's parties, trying not to die of boredom, and dying to be noticed by the most popular boy in school. Unique yet undeniably universal, [this book] is one girl's survival story of the best years of her life.

I wanted to read this book because it looked funny. I wanted to read it because it was set in Indiana, although not in the town where I grew up. And I really wanted to read it because the author and I were both high schoolers in the mid-80s, not to mention that it seemed we were both products of that decade. Her mother was born and raised in North Carolina, so we sort of have that in common (the author moves back to N.C. with her mom after her parents get divorced). It really seemed like a no-brainer - what's not to love about this?

Well, a lot, as it turns out. While I got nostalgic for my 80s, I quickly realized that Niven and I had very different high school experiences. She kept all her diaries/notes/pix/EVERYTHING from this time period (which makes me think that she's not really over high school), whereas I trashed stuff pretty fast. She was obviously WAY more popular than me, even though she claims to be an outsider. I really was an outsider, a band geek, a theater kid, etc. How do I know the difference between popular and not? Um, Niven had dates. Yes, dates, plural. And not with nerdy guys; she was dating some of the more popular guys. True outsiders don't date, and certainly not anyone that one would admit to. I had exactly ONE date my whole four years of high school. And I usually had only one or two friends each year, whereas she had her two closest friends, plus a good-sized circle of other friends.

I think that's why this book reads the way it does. I think the author's high school days really were the best years of HER life. But mine? HELL NO. I love my life now way more than I did in high school - you couldn't pay me to go back. I don't keep in touch with old classmates to see what everyone's doing (I don't care) nor have I been to the reunions. I think it's kinda sad that some people peaked back then and have been longing for those days since.   Overall, disappointing. I did, however, find myself wanting to dig up a good 80s mix tape when I finished. :-)

"The Case For Books: past, present, and future" by Robert Darnton

The invention of writing was one of the most important technological, cultural, and sociological breakthroughs in human history. With the printed book, information and ideas could disseminate more widely and effectively than ever before - and in some cases, affect and redirect the sway of history. Today, nearly one million books are published each year. But is the era of the book as we know it - a codex of bound pages - coming to an end? And if it is, should we celebrate its demise and the creation of a democratic digital future, or mourn an irreplaceable loss? The digital age is revolutionizing the information landscape. Already, more books have been scanned and digitized than were housed in the great library in Alexandria, making available millions of texts for a curious reader at the click of a button, and electronic book sales are growing exponentially. Will this revolution in the delivery of information and entertainment make for more transparent and far-reaching dissemination or create a monopolistic stranglehold?

In [this book], Robert Darnton, an intellectual pioneer in the field of the history of the book and director of Harvard University's library, offers an in-depth examination of the book from its earliest beginnings to its shifting role today in popular culture, commerce, and the academy. In a lasting collection drawn from previously published and new work alike, Robert Darnton - author, editorial adviser, and publishing entrepreneur - lends unique authority to the life and role of the book in society. The resulting book is a wise work of scholarship - one that require readers to carefully consider how the digital revolution will broadly affect the marketplace of ideas.

Too boring in a lot of parts, too academic (and aimed primarily at academia in general, with university libraries primarily - not public libraries). While I appreciate Darnton's endeavor, I just found a lot of it dry as toast, and since it didn't apply to my sphere, I skipped a lot of it. However, I really did like the following paragraph, so I'll share that with you.

"Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a marvelous machine - great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for thousands of years, even when it had to be unrolled to be read..."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Masques" by Patricia Briggs

After an upbringing of proper behavior and oppressive expectations, Aralorn fled her noble birthright for a life of adventure as a mercenary spy. But her latest mission involves more peril than she ever imagined.

Agents of Sianim have asked her to gather intelligence on the increasingly popular and powerful sorcerer Geoffrey ae'Magi. Soon Aralorn comes to see past the man's striking charisma - and into a soul as corrupt and black as endless night. And few have the will to resist the sinister might of the ae'Magi and his minions.

So Aralorn, aided by her enigmatic companion, Wolf, joins the rebellion against the ae'Magi. But in a war against a foe armed with the power of illusion, how do you know who the true enemy is - or where he will strike next?

Briggs, perhaps best known for her Mercy Thompson series, writes an introduction to the reissue of this, the very first of her novels to ever be published. In said into, she says that she didn't think much about this first book, not until she found out that it was fetching some rather high prices on various websites (since there weren't many copies to start with, and it was out of print). She was preparing to release the second book in the series and wanted to reissue the first, but when she went back and looked over it, it was a bit cringe-worthy. However, the more she read, the more she realized that she couldn't change nearly as much as she wanted without having to change a lot of the next book, too. So she pretty much left things alone, and asks the reader to be kind and keep all this in mind as the story opens.

She really shouldn't have worried about it so much.

True, this isn't as polished as her later works, but the heart of the story is there, and if you're like me, that's what pulls you in. Aralorn is perhaps at times a bit too headstrong, but she's young, and that makes sense. She is not, thankfully, one of those too perfect heroines that one can find in books such as this, nor is she too stupid to live. I found her to be someone I could see myself being friends with, and that's exactly what I was looking for. (I've been reading more nonfiction lately, and I wanted something a bit lighter).

The book opens with her meeting Wolf for the first time, then skips ahead about four years, to her involvement with the ae'Magi. It's obvious to Aralorn, and of course, to us, that he's pretty much evil personified. What's worse is that his dark magic has pretty much everyone snowed; only the small handful that finally come together to make up the rebellion seem to be immune to his illusions. The band of misfits includes royalty, children, cooks, and others, and what's nice is that even most of these peripheral characters are developed - enough so that you care about them when the inevitable attacks begin.

Adding to the mix are the Uriah, which I took to be some sort of magical zombies, and you've got a good little fantasy tale on your hands.

Of course, Briggs excels at the relationships between damaged individuals, and Aralorn and Wolf fall into this category. Their story develops at a nice pace - not too fast, not too slow - and now I've requested the sequel to this, "Wolfsbane" to find out what happens with these two. Overall, I would definitely recommend this, and again, I think Briggs was far too hard on herself. Then again, I don't think many writers enjoy reading their first works, as they're often their own worst critics.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Book Lust to Go" by Nancy Pearl

Adventure is just a book away as America's favorite librarian, Nancy Pearl, returns with recommended reading for more than 120 destinations around the world. [This book] connects the best fiction and nonfiction to particular destinations - whether your bags are packed or your armchair is calling. With stops from Texas to Timbuktu, this informed literary globetrotting guide points readers to the literature of place of destinations near and far. Whatever your port of call, Nancy Pearl's reading recommendations will send you on your way.

The subtitle for this book is "recommended reading for travelers, vagabonds, and dreamers" - and much as I admire the author, I think this book misses the mark a bit.

Don't get me wrong; there are tons of recommendations in here for just about every place on the planet. Pearl obviously did her homework finding works that work for this book. She has recommendations for countries I've never even heard of. But the style of this book didn't make me long to visit any of those places, let alone pick up any of the books listed here to "explore" these places. In that sense, the book doesn't succeed in its mission.

I started reading this just like every other book, word for word, straight through. I quickly got bored and started skimming, so that should tell you something. I read more about what she said about each country/place than I read about the recommendations.

And there were, in my humble opinion, some glaring omissions. In her chapter "Hiking the (Fill in the Blank) Trail", there's no mention of Bill Bryson's hilarious "A Walk in the Woods", which really did have me considering if I could hike the Appalachian Trail (I'm about 99% certain that I could not). And I was disappointed not to see "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes in the chapter "So We/I Bought (or Built) a House in..." I so wanted to move to Italy after reading Mayes' book, and I laughed right along with her as she not only re-built the house, but also the olive groves and the grounds. Granted, this is Pearl's book and not mine, but these two books just beg to be included.

Before it sounds as if I've lost all faith in the nation's most famous (or infamous) librarian, I will say that she gives a major shout-out to one of my favorite authors, Ian Rankin. In the chapter "Scotland: More than Haggis, Kilts, and Ian Rankin", she shows much love to Rankin, author of the John Rebus series. Everything I think I know about Edinburgh, I learned from Rankin's books. Pearl highly recommends the series, and thankfully recommends that readers start at the very beginning, reading them in order. I very much agree; the mysteries themselves could probably stand on their own, but so much happens in Rebus' life that it's best to read them chronologically.

I haven't given up entirely on Pearl, as I just picked up "More Book Lust" as the library the other day. But this book didn't make me want to pack my bags.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sunrise on Cedar Key by Terri Dulong

For the second time in ten years, Grace Stone is starting over on Cedar Key. Grace first moved to the serene island to escape a disastrous relationship. Now a visit with her Aunt Maude is interrupted by unwelcome news: Grace's apartment and coffee shop have been destroyed by fire. Grace is devastated, yet ever-practical Maude has a plan. While she helps Grace resettle, Maude even has a business venture in mind - weekend knitting retreats where women can craft, chat, and support one another. But other surprises await, including the return of Grace's estranged sister, and a tentative romance with the local bookstore owner. Knitting together her past and future will mean untangling the painful threads Grace left behind. But the result could be a vibrant new life - and the courage to live it fully...

This is the first book I've read by Terri Dulong, and probably the last. The story overall isn't bad. But this book wasn't a page-turner for me. I read it because I saw it listed somewhere (probably one of our professional book review magazines for the library) and the description sounded like it might be something we would want for our library system. However, having read it, I know I wouldn't list it as one of my go-to books when making recommendations to patrons. And with an extremely limited materials budget this year, I know I'm not going to recommend we purchase it for our collection.

So what's wrong with it? Well, nothing...nothing that I can put my finger on, that is. The characters aren't cliche, but they're also not as well-rounded as I would prefer them to be. There's some tension between characters, but again, not nearly as much as I had anticipated, especially where Grace and her sister Chloe are concerned. Most of the conflict arises in the last quarter of the book, and that's pretty late in the game as far as I'm concerned. Characters are introduced, and while not forgotten, aren't really there either. Sigh. It's so hard to explain this well!

I suppose what I can say is this: I finished almost half of this book yesterday while I was home sick from work. It didn't take a lot of thought, or energy, to read it. I guess you could say it's like the yarn they describe at the knitting retreats - soft, or fluffy, or pastel. There's no "oomph" to this novel. Not even the romance lured me in, and he was French! And before anyone comes down on me for dissing the romance, no, I am not complaining that there aren't really any sex scenes here. What I am saying is that there is no heat to the romance, and you can write good love scenes without using sex. What it lacks is the sexual tension, the whole "will they or won't they" feeling. I'm fine with having that tension for almost the entire book, if it's written well and has me turning pages, hoping for the next kiss, the next caress.

Finally, I was really bowled over by how much people seem to love Cedar Key. It would appear that every person who sets foot on the island wants to relocate, which seems nice at first, but then it had a creepy, almost Stepford-like feel to it. And all these extremely successful business people! Granted, I don't read to be reminded of what's going on in the real world, but it would seem that everyone who opens up a shop on Cedar Key does just a bang-up job of it! That felt off to me, as well as how little it seemed to take to get said businesses open. That and the fact that other people fill in as needed when someone has an emergency, even if that person doesn't actually work at that shop. How does that work as far as taxes and such go? Is everyone an independent contractor? It just wasn't realistic, in my humble opinion. Surely someone has visited Cedar Key and thought it was too small for their liking, that with a town of only 900 or so, everyone would know your business. And with such a small community, again, how can all these businesses thrive as they do?

If you want a light read, something where nothing bad really happens, then this will be the book for you. But if you'd like a dash of reality with your fiction, I would look elsewhere. Cedar Key isn't for you, my friend. And it's not for me, either.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Professor Gargoyle: Tales from Lovecraft Middle School, book 1" by Charles Gilman

Cute book! Had an ARC in the staff lounge at our Main branch, and as I had to work there today and had forgotten to bring any of the FOUR books I had started at home, I picked this up.

Robert Arthur is a victim of redistricting; all his friends will go to Franklin Middle School on the north side of town. Robert must attend Lovecraft Middle School on the south side of town. He knows no one there, no one at all - except Glenn Torkells, the bully who has tormented him since he started his academic career.

Robert quickly learns that something is not right with his new school. After all, there are rats in the lockers - and it's a brand new building! There are some very strange teachers. Then there's the day some tentacles come oozing out of his locker, grabbing his sworn enemy.

As I said, nice twist on a scary story for kids. As an adult, I know enough of the Lovecraft lore to appreciate where the author is going with this. Who knows? Maybe some of today's kids will discover the Master...of Horror. My only disappointment was that as an ARC, my copy was a paperback and lacked the "terrifying lenticular cover portrait", the one that morphs from normal looking teacher to creepy evil thing from beyond. Can't wait to see the hardback version!

"Read This Next: 500 of the best book you'll ever read" by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

Ever been betrayed by a pretty cover and a pair of alluring blurbs? Read assured: [this book] will never hurt you. The 500 book recommendations contained within these pages have all been carefully vetted and approved by two literary professionals with discerning taste and witty wit. Arranged into delightful thematic lists, these suggestions cover the best of literature high and low, from page-turning classics to mind-expanding fluff; from murder mysteries and post-apocalyptic visions to historical fiction and bathroom books. Each book is paired with deeply insightful, deeply hilarious discussion questions, perfect for book groups or for readers who just enjoy talking to themselves.

In a world where so many books disappoint - robbing you of your time and money, promising more than they can deliver - [this book] is the wickedly smart, faithful, and attractive partner you've always dreamed would bring you true and lasting reading happiness.

This was just a fabulous book! If you've ever wondered where you should start your literary adventures (say, for example, if you haven't read in quite a while, or you're wanting to take yourself in a new direction), I would highly recommend this. The authors have done a great job making this simple to use, as well as incredibly entertaining to read. I mean, honestly, when you find yourself not only reading the titles and book descriptions but also the book group questions and any other little tidbits they give you. And this isn't a short book - it's just a bit over 400 pages, and the copy I checked out from my library is also a bit on the heavy side. So they packed a lot of info in that 400+ pages!

I won't say I totally agree with every selection that the authors pick here. But there are so many to choose from that if something isn't striking your fancy, move on to another title. Life is too short to slog through a book you're not enjoying!

Definitely worth picking up. In fact, I've been wavering on getting my own personal copy, and that's really saying something, as I rarely buy books anymore. But I keep thinking how nice it would be to have this as a reference to consult when I'm in one of those moods. You know, the one where you're just not sure what you want to read? In fact, I think I've pretty much decided yes, I will get my own copy of this book. That's how much I enjoyed it, and yes, you will too!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"The Girl's Guide to Homelessness" by Brianna Karp

"If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn't assume I live in a parking lot. I am just like you, except without the convenience of a permanent address." Brianna Karp entered the workforce at age ten, supporting her mother and sister throughout her teen years in Southern California. Although her young life was scarred by violence and abuse, Karp stayed focused on her dream of a steady job and a home of her own. By age twenty-two her dream became reality. Karp loved her job as an executive assistant and signed the lease on a tiny cottage near the beach.

And then the Great Recession hit. Karp, like millions of others, lost her job. In the six months between the day she was laid off and the day she was forced out onto the street, Karp scrambled for temp work and filed hundreds of job applications, only to find all doors closed. When she inherited a thirty-foot travel trailer after her father's suicide, Karp parked it in a Walmart parking lot and began to blog about her search for work and a way back.

Karp began her journey as a homeless person terrified and ashamed. Fear turned to awe as she connected with other homeless people whose remarkable stories inspired her to become an activist for the homeless community.

Deeply compassionate and darkly funny, this unforgettable memoir celebrates the courage and creativity of lives society would otherwise stigmatize.

OK, full disclosure first. The version I was trying to read was an Advanced Uncorrected Proof. So perhaps some of the problems I had with this were fixed before the final, official version. But I sort of doubt it. And yes, if you read all that carefully enough, you'll know the second thing I'm going to say...

I couldn't finish this.

This is upsetting to me on several levels, the main one being that while helping choose selections for my library system, I saw the professional reviews on this title and said we had to get it. Even got a copy for my little branch as well. Now I wonder if it was the best way to spend some of our very limited materials budget. The reviews were very positive, the blurb sounded extremely interesting, and the subject matter couldn't have been more timely.

So what's the problem? I wish I knew. I made it to the fourth chapter and just couldn't get any further. It took me a good month or more to read even that much, and that should really tell you all you need to know right there, shouldn't it? That fourth chapter opens with her talking about losing her job, figuring out how much she would be getting from unemployment, and trying to reconcile how she was going to pay her rent ($1500/month), feed herself, her hungry dog (a Neapolitan Mastiff), and - wait for it! - her horse. Yep, a horse. That was the moment I realized I just didn't care about this girl, not the way I should have. It's one thing if you're struggling to make ends meet and you lose your job and everything falls to sh*t almost immediately because you have no savings to speak of. It's entirely different when you're that young (23), you've come from a hard-scrabble life (don't forget, she's been working since age 10), you've suffered physical and mental abuse (so you know you should have an emergency plan, right?) and you go out and start spending money on beach apartments, very large dogs, and something that often should just remain a young girl's dream.

The pages before the final straw weren't much better. The narrative was all over the map, which didn't help. The author would start to tell something about her life, jump back to her childhood, go back to the present, go to a different part of her childhood, etc. Very disjointed, often with no clear sign that we were about to time-travel. The abuse is horrible, but she sounds very nonchalant about it, which really, really bothered me. If my mother had treated me the way her mother did, I don't think I could remain detached while I described it. We won't even talk about her father. Maybe that's what therapy does, but it just didn't work for me as a reader.

And I had a hard time believing that much of what she said happened to her in those first 23 years happened the way she said it did. Now, before anyone decides to blast me and say I'm being one of those awful reviewers that's slamming the author, let me clarify: I am not saying this author lied - not about anything. What I am saying is that the way it comes across on the written page, it sounds embellished. That's just my personal opinion, and it's a big part of why I couldn't finish this book. I kept finding myself reading something and saying "Really? REALLY? No one noticed this 12-yr-old driving herself to work? No one on the freeway noticed her mother bashing her face into the steering wheel when she almost side-swiped another car?" I mean, this is a young girl, and these are recent events, so I just hard a very difficult time believing that no one would pick up a cell phone and report anything like this. People seem eager to rat out others behaving badly, especially where children are involved, or so it seems.

Maybe someday down the road I'll pick up the version that was published, the version that sits in my very own library branch. Perhaps some of the issues I had with this work will have been addressed between the AUP and that version. If anyone out there has read the "official" version, please feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you thought. I really would like to know if this is just me reacting to this AUP.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages" by Michael Popek

It's happened to all of us: we're reading a book, something interrupts us, and we grab the closest thing at hand to mark our spot. It could be a train ticket, a letter, an advertisement, a photograph, or a receipt. Eventually the book finds its way into the world - landing in a library, a flea market, other people's bookshelves, a used bookstore. But what becomes of those forgotten bookmarks? What stories could they tell?

By day, Michael Popek works in his family's used bookstore. By night, he's the voyeuristic force behind, where he shares the weird objects he has found among the stacks at his store.

[This book] is a scrapbook of Popek's most interesting finds. Sure, there are actual bookmarks, but there are also pictures and ticket stubs, old recipes and notes, valentines, unsent letters, four-leaf clovers, and various sordid, heartbreaking, and bizarre keepsakes. Together this collection of lost treasures offers a glimpse into other readers' lives that they never intended for us to see.

What a wonderful little find! I've had this on a to-be-read list forever, and while at work yesterday at our main branch, decided it was about time I check it out. If you love history, you'll love this book. Yes, there are some "modern" finds here, too, but the majority of the items presented here are from the early 1900s, if not earlier (some date back to the 1800s!).

Popek has done a wonderful job of simply showing what he's found. There is a picture of the item, sometimes a translation/typed version of what's written on the item, and a picture of the book in which the item was found. He doesn't try to interpret what was going on with the reader, nor does he make any comment about what he's found. The only time there are "extras" is when the item in question has something related to his general area or to a real-life famous person.

The letters are fascinating (and it's somewhat heartening to realize that our ancestors were just as guilty of "bad" writing as we are today). I think my favorite was the letter from a what appears to be a vendor of meats written during the Great Depression; he apologizes for "the delay" of his payment but feels "very much encouraged having paid five thousand dollars since May 1 in this year of great depression." Yes, you read that correctly - five thousand dollars. During the Great Depression, that might as well have been a million dollars! And how wonderful to read that this businessperson still feels guilt over being late with his payment. Just amazing when you consider how a lot of businesses are regarded these days.

If you have a chance to check out this book, take it. It's not a long read, mostly pictures and such, but well worth the time to look through and enjoy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags: relationship warning signs you totally spotted...but chose to ignore" by Natasha Burton, Julie Fishman, and Meagan McCrary

Red Flag (noun): 1. a sign of danger. 2 The points in time when you notice something is a tad off with the guy you're dating, but decide to let it go because you really like him, you're tired of being single, you really really want to get laid, whatever. When things start going downhill, you look back on that seemingly insignificant moment you dismissed and think: That's when I should have known.

You've done it before. Saw something wrong with him - whether it was suspect grooming habits or ridiculously childish behavior - but let it slide. It's not the big of a deal. Except it totally was. You wanted to fall in love, but ended up going insane. You swore you'd never do it again. But did. Don't beat yourself up. In the search for love, we've all either blatantly ignored or completely missed red flags. Instead, smarten up. It's time to figure out what you missed and learn how to avoid similar flagtastic fiascos in the future. If you raise your red-flag awareness now, you'll be able to greenlight a real relationship down the road.

Again, another fun find at work! This book reminded me a bit of "He's Just Not That Into You" but from the girlfriend perspective, which means this book is a lot more honest and much less "you're so fab, and you know you deserve more". Don't get me wrong; I loved Greg Behrendt's book (and totally wish I'd had it when I had really needed it, as I was happily married when it came out), but his book had a lot of "you go girl!" attitude in it. Looking back, I felt like he was trying to warn while giving a pep talk. Red Flags is much more "holy crap, girl! What the f*ck are you thinking!" - the sort of things you'd expect your girlfriends to tell you when you're out dissing on your boyfriend and his foibles.

The flags are pretty much all here, everything from him being childish (ie, loving his farts, belching, not being able to mention lady parts without bursting into fits of giggles) to the narcissist who just loves himself. I loved the sections about how he and his family interact because that dynamic really can tell you a lot. Also watch out for guys who obviously see you as more of a friend, will not admit you're the girlfriend, and make it perfectly clear that they're not looking to be committed long-term or be married (I was "involved" with a guy that hit almost every red flag in this section, which of course, makes me wonder about my own sanity at the time).

What's great about this book is that it's not just a man-bashing, run-while-you-can book, which it totally could have turned into. The authors are always quick to point out that a red flag doesn't necessarily mean it's time to cut and run; it just means that you need to stop and think long and hard about the fact that this flag exists. Is it something that you can talk to him about, perhaps something he isn't aware of? Is he receptive to your observations? If so, then great - you two can work on this issue and come out a stronger, happier couple. If the guy looks at you like you just grew a second head, you need to watch out. And if he turns it all around on you, especially if he becomes abusive in any way, then yes - RUN. Some things just cannot be overcome and it's better to get out while it's still possible.

Overall, I would say this is excellent little advice book. And don't be fooled by the rather-young ages of the authors; these red flags can happen to us at any age. Men can and do behave badly well into adulthood - just look at the classic "mid-life crisis" type of guy!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: more movies that suck" by Roger Ebert

No need to go into a plot summary here as this book is a straight-forward as it gets. Film critic Ebert has collected over 200 of his reviews dating back to 2006 and published them in this fun book. The title comes from his review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I don't know if he purposely used this phrase or not, but I was immediately reminded of a movie and a book title fused together to come up with the phrase: the wonderfully cinematic The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. In any case, it is a great phrase, and as someone who has found it difficult to sit through movies lately, I completely understand what Ebert is talking about.

The movies run the gamut from the popular flicks of 2011 to lame comedies to foreign flops. Most movies get 2 stars, some 1 and a half, several only earn 1. The most interesting reviews are the no-star reviews, of which there are very few. Interestingly, one of the films that earned his harshest criticism is a remake of a movie I've actually seen, I Spit on Your Grave. I thought his take on the movie was spot on, at least for the remake, which I admit I haven't seen. The original is a very controversial movie due to its content, and if I hadn't read an extremely interesting book about women in horror movies, I probably would have never watched it myself. (And no, I can't remember the name of that book for all the tea in China, which saddens me, as I would highly recommend it to those interested in horror films and the issue of whether or not they exploit women). The original ISOYG is very difficult to watch and I think one of the biggest reasons why is the complete lack of a soundtrack; it gives the movie more of a documentary feel, not to mention that music often gives us clues as to how the director wants us to feel/respond to a scene. There are no such clues in the original version, so you're not sure if you're supposed to be upset at the woman's rape (although why you wouldn't be is beyond me), if you're supposed to feel sorry for her, or if you're supposed to cheer for her when she starts getting her revenge. As to the other no-star reviews, I haven't seen or heard of those movies, but two of them have been alluded to on a certain episode of South Park. Either that or the SP creators are just that sick-minded, which is entirely possible.

Ebert does an excellent job of pointing out why movies just aren't all the much fun anymore. Action movies are just that - ACTION. There are few directors out there trying to make sure that the audience has a plot to follow. Comedies have become incredibly syrupy or raunchy, and neither formula is overly successful. And finally, the 3-D invasion is really weighing on Ebert's nerves. One of the things that I did not know about 3-D filming is that when you take your 2-D movie and convert scenes into 3-D, you lose a lot of the "brightness" of said film. One of Ebert's biggest complaints is movies that are filmed in a "dark" way to start with that are also in 3-D; as he explains, it's adding insult to injury to make a dark movie even darker and harder to see (think all of the horror movies that have 3-D versions). Maybe it's why I don't enjoy the 3-D films myself. As he says in several reviews, "I dunno."

Overall, a fun look at some rather blah films. I'm do know I'm glad I spent my time reading these reviews rather than watching these movies!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Flow: The cultural story of menstruation" by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Go with the Flow! In this hip, hilarious, and truly eye-opening cultural history, menstruation is talked about as never before. Flow is a fascinating, occasionally wacky, and sometimes downright scary story, covering everything from mikvahs (ritual cleansing baths) to menopause, hysteria to hysterectomies - not to mention the Pill, cramps, the history of underwear, and the movie about puberty they showed you in fifth grade. Flow answers questions such as: What's the point of getting a period? What did women do before pads and tampons? What about new drugs that promise to end periods - a hot idea or not? Sex during your period: gross or a turn-on? And what's normal, anyway? With color reproductions of (campy) historical ads and (excruciating) early femcare devices, it also provides a fascinating (and mind-boggling) gallery of this complex, personal, and uniquely female process. As irreverent as it is informative, Flow gives an everyday occurrence its true props - and eradicates the stigma placed on it for centuries.

I love the cover of this book, and let's face it, it sounded like it might be interesting. This time the cover art and the description did the book justice; it was interesting, and fun to boot.

The authors are women, and often I found myself thinking this sounded more like a day out with the girls than a primer on the history of menstruation and all things associated with it. The writing has a very nice, easy "you-are-there" style, which helps as sometimes the subject matter is just - well - yeah, it's a bit on the "icky" side.

The history of "femcare" as the authors dub it isn't all that long, surprisingly enough. Way back in the day there was no such thing. What did our intrepid ancestors do, you may ask yourself? Um, bled. Sorry, but that's the truth; our foremothers pretty much bled on whatever it was they were wearing. Yes, some of them tried to use various things to handle the flow (some of them what you'd expect, like wads of cotton) but most just bled onto their clothes. As the authors are quick to point out, why do you think our clothing back then had so many petticoats and such? It wasn't to look feminine after all; it was to hide all that icky stuff going on down there.

Perhaps the authors' biggest complaint is that femcare is almost always presented as a problem, and thus, a solution. But pretty much every woman is going to need it at some point in her lifetime, so it's really not a problem so much as it's simply a matter of biology, and the authors want to know why it can't be presented as such. Think about it: have you ever seen an ad for tampons, pads, douches or the like that didn't talk about making your life better somehow? And keep a close eye out for the "not-so-fresh" type comments, as almost every ad has one of some sort. Women's flow is almost always presented as an obstacle to overcome, and a very yucky one at that.

Then we get to the whole idea of not having a period at all, which is now possible through the miracles of modern medicine. And the authors want to know two things: is this really a good idea and why is it being pushed on us? Well, it's sort of a good idea if you're concerned about ovarian cancer. The Pill gives a woman a leg up (so to speak) on cutting down her chances of ovarian cancer due to the fact that the eggs don't burst out of the ovaries as they normally would every month. No bursting means no repairing the ovary which means less chance of the cells going haywire and becoming malignant. And yes, I had pretty much forgotten everything they taught me in my sex-ed class and was fascinated by this information. It makes sense to me now why some of my friends know when they're ovulating, as they feel the discomfort/pain of that little tiny egg kicking its way through the ovarian wall. And if you're on the Pill, you don't really have a period, either. You have a pseudo sort of thing happen every month, something that mimics a period but doesn't supposedly have all the usual aches/pains/icky stuff that those not drugged up experience.

To that I say, my sweet a**! Sorry but in the name of full disclosure, I've been on the Pill since I was eighteen. Most months I would say I'm pretty OK, no PMS or anything to really clue anyone in that "Aunt Flo" is visiting. But sometimes, look out - it's love you one minute, hate you the next, and where's the damn ice cream?! I do get some pain (cramps, occasional backache, etc) and I still have some bloating. So if my body isn't having a "real" period, what's all that about? Is it all in my head? Sure doesn't feel like it, and sadly, the authors don't explore this enough for my taste.

Overall though it's an interesting, and yes, fun, book. Even if you have no intention of reading it, pick it up for the pictures alone. There are some fabulous old ads for the various products. My favorite are the ones used for the "Modess...because" campaign: high fashion photography that look more like artwork than femcare ads. In fact, if you saw them elsewhere you'd never know they were hawking tampons/pads!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's little lessons for making it work" by Tim Gunn

On the runway of life, Tim Gunn is the perfect life coach... You've watched him mentor talented designers on the hit television show Project Runway. Now the inimitable Tim Funn shares his personal secrets for "making it work" - in your career, relationships, and life.

Filled with delightfully dishy stories of fashion's greatest divas, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Runway's biggest drama queens, and never-before-revealed insights into Tim's private life, [this book] is like no other how-to-book you've ever read.

In the world according to Tim, there are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, creativity, and skill are just the beginning. By following eighteen tried-and-true principles, you can apply Tim's rules to anything you set your mind to. You'll learn why Tim frowns on displays of bad behavior, like the vitriolic outburst by Martha Stewart's daughter about her mother's name-brand merchandise. You'll discover the downfalls of divadom as he describes Vogue's Andre Leon Talley being hand-fed grapes and Ann Wintour being carried downstairs by her bodyguards. And you'll get Tim's view on the backstabbing by one designer on Project Runway and how it brilliantly back-fired.

Then there are his down-to-earth guidelines for making life better - for yourself and others - in small and large ways, especially in an age that favors comfort over politeness, ease over style. Texting at the dinner table? Wearing shorts to the theater? Not in Tim's book. Living a well-mannered life of integrity and character is hard work, he admits, but the rewards are many: being a good friend, being glamorous and attractive, and being a success - much like Tim himself!

He is never one to mince words. But Tim Gunn is always warm, witty, wise and wonderfully supportive - just the mentor you need to design a happy, creative, and fulfilling life that will never go out of style.

So the secret is out. No, not about Gunn being gay. No, not the one about him not having had sex for decades after a bad breakup/AIDS scare. Nope, the biggest secret that I think Gunn has been keeping is this...

Tim Gunn is a genuinely nice guy. Really!

While reading this book, his tips for life, that's the one thing that keeps coming through again and again. After all, we've got chapters here like "Take the high road" and "Niceties are nice". Gunn is never the snarky queen that most would expect here. He is sincere in his offerings of how to make one's way through life, but he's also honest as well. (I love the title of the 2nd chapter, "The world owes you...nothing"!)

Gunn gives some background regarding his trials and tribulations, and those are nice examples of what he's talking about. He has taken the high road himself several times, even though he's been sorely tempted to be just as nasty in return. He's just got a nice style to his writing, one that makes it seem as if you'd totally be able to have a conversation if you happened to meet him on the street. He's the gay everyman, I suppose. And he's just about as worried as I am about where the youth of today are headed. In Chapter 5, he's talking about students who say they're not "inspired", and that they need "inspiration" but don't know where to find it. Gunn responds "Look around you!... Look out the window. Go for a walk. Go to a movie. Go to a museum. Go see a show. Read a book. Go to the library.... Have a conversation." THANK YOU. It seems like too many young people today expect the world to just give them what they need. Wake up! You need to look for these things yourself - which makes them more meaningful in the long run. Sigh.

I definitely recommend this book. It's short, it's sweet, and he's got some very good advice. If you're not going to pick it up, here are the rules to live by, and I would agree that they are some very good rules for life.

1. Make it work
2. The world owes you...nothing
3. Take the high road
4. Don't abuse your power - or surrender it
5. Get inspired if it kills you
6. Never underestimate karma
7. Niceties are nice
8. Physical comfort is overrated
9. Talk to me: there's always another side to the story
10. Be a good guest or stay home (I won't judge you - I hate parties)
11. Use technology: don't let it use you
12. Don't lose your sense of smell
13. Know what to get off your chest and what to take to the grave
14. When in Rome... I still wouldn't eat monkey brains
15. When you need help, get it
16. Take risks! Playing it safe is never really safe
17. Give back (but know your limits)
18. Carry on!