Monday, May 31, 2010

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell, while working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the wake of 9/11 as a secretary, began the Julie/Julia project.  She was going to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and she was going to blog about it. Her sole purpose in attempting to slog her way through this classic recipe collection is to enliven her dreary life and who wouldn't feel the same? I would be depressed answering phone calls from the victims of 9/11 and people complaining about the LMDC's plans to rebuild the World Trade Center. This blog became the basis of her book and the movie entitled Julie and Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep and serves to commemorate her process. She attempts to weave Julia Child's life in Paris into her memoir as it is during this time that Julia learns about French cooking in almost painful detail. Julie's blog is highlighted in the media, and this leads to a lucrative book deal.

The book was very well written (as opposed to her next memoir - Cleaving - which I read and disliked immensely) but I often got really tired about the whining, stress bucket that was Julie Powell. It gets a little old when you are constantly being told by the author how awful her job is, how awful her life is and why she's better than everyone because she's doing this project.  There were times when she was very witty and pretty funny. I was impressed by the depth of Ms. Powell's research into Julia Child's life in Paris - she never met Julia Child (who died I think shortly after this project was done) so she had to look at letters written by both Ms. Child and her husband, Paul, as well as secondary resources - biographies and articles.  I found that the interludes in which she created the scenes between Paul and Julia were too forced and were unnecessary. Julie could have told her own story without those brief interludes and they did nothing to move any part of the story forward. If I wanted to learn about Julia Child, I would have picked up a book about her.

Generally an entertaining read if you can get past the angst.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Books v. Movies (or Order of the Phoenix movie v. Order of the Phoenix book)

OK, so I know that I haven't posted in a while but there's a reason for that, I swear.  I broke my ankle and had to have surgery. For the first few weeks, I was in a lot of pain and because I am also pregnant, there wasn't a whole lot that I could take for pain management (sorry Tylenol Extra Strength, you just don't cut it for an ankle that's broken in three places). I wasn't reading a whole lot because I was in pain - I couldn't really focus on what I was reading - and then, when the pain became more bearable, I was a tad depressed. Not being able to really leave the house, drive anywhere and to be utterly reliant upon another person to care for you can get depressing. But I'm back on the wagon now and for my comeback post, I wanted to talk about books v. movies generally. The inspiration for this post was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I'm nearly done with reading and which I watched last night as a movie. 

After watching HP and the Order of the Phoenix, I'm a follower of the general rule that books are better than the movies and should be read before going to see their movie version.  There's a satisfaction that I get out of reading a book that I don't often get when I'm watching a movie. When I read a book, I can put it down and think about what I've just read. I can blog about a certain passage or journal about it in a private journal if it's really, really personal.  With a movie, when you're in the moment of the movie, it's often hard, at least for me, to just stop it and think about what I've just seen or a particular scene.  Also, there's something to be said about the act of physically reading a book - I like holding the book and turning the pages.  I find that my adult onset ADHD is satisfied in that way. With movies, I get distracted by other things really easily and sometimes will actually be doing two things at once - watching the movie and doing something else.

But my biggest complaint is that movies constantly seem to sacrifice the details and plot subtleties that make books so wonderful. And sometimes, they even change parts of the storyline to make it more palatable to viewing audiences that may not have read the book or to make the movie move that much more quickly. And that, to me, should be one of the mortal sins that Christianity teaches. It was my biggest complaint with the Order of the Phoenix movie - it left out so much and, because of what was left out now, the future movies were going to be impacted as well (the Half Blood Prince already was!).

What do you guys think?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings

This is the second book in the Belgariad series, written by David Eddings. Belgarath, Polgara, Garion and their companions are continuing their chase of the Orb of Aldur and it's thief. During the course of their search, they add members to their group: Ce'Nedra (the Tolnedran Imperial Princess), Mandorallen (a Mimbrate Asturian) and the Asturian archer, Lelldorin. The group begins by going through Arendia and then through Tolnedra. Eventually, the group winds up in Nyissa, a swamp like kingdom known for its snakes and its poisons. The troupe experiences setbacks and adventures that are expected in a novel such as this and Garion very nearly becomes a "man" very much before he or his Aunt Polgara intended him to.

The characterization in this novel is wonderful, as I noted before.  David Eddings has obviously put a lot of thought into who is characters are and how he wants to portray them to his readers.  The dialog is wonderful and makes it move quickly, even though the plot is somewhat predictable. The novels aren't bogged down in overly descriptive prose. 

Generally a pretty good read.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

I read Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings years ago - I think that I was in fifth or sixth grade.  I had a hankering to read it again now because I'm sort of laid up with a broken ankle that's healing and the thought of re-reading past books that I had enjoyed was comforting to me.  So I picked up this. I actually got the editions that are shown below the top one, because I fully intend to just plow right through the Belgariad and the Mallorean. So far, I've only gotten through Pawn of Prophecy and but I'm nearly done with Queen of Sorcery too, so be prepared for a review coming of that one shortly.

The novel focuses on Garion, a young boy in a world that has been around for thousands of years. He's a simple, normal boy at first blush - he plays with his friends on the farm, hurts himself occasionally, begins to notice girls and gets himself into the trouble that most young boys often do. We are introduced to his earliest memories - his Aunt Pol and the kitchen at the farm (she was the cook), his friendship with the smithy, Durnik, Erastide holidays with Faldor (the owner of the farm) and visits from the storyteller, Old Wolf. One day, Old Wolf (also affectionately known as Mr. Wolf by Garion), arrives at the farm and informs Aunt Pol that a mysterious item has been stolen by an unnamed thief, Mr. Wolf and Pol leave to find that thief, reluctantly taking Durnik and Garion with them. The group is later joined by Silk, a spy from the country of Drasnia and Barak, a Cherek warrior. Garion is dragged along and kept in the dark as he visits lots of different cities, and multiple countries. As the party meets more and more royalty, Garion's confusion increases, especially because, as things begin to speed up, he is left more and more to his own devices. At their last destination in this book, Garion becomes the central player in assisting the leaders in defusing various plans that arise during the course of their meetings, even though he is barely 15.

The plot isn't, perhaps, the most original plot to ever be put onto paper by an author, but the characters are memorable and the dialogue makes it all worth it.  There isn't a lot of flowery prose, so the novels go by fairly quickly and the dialogue itself is especially witty at points. There are often periods of political discourse and history that fill people in on the background, without spending pages and pages of prose to it.  I loved how his characters were very realistic - they all have their good points and bad points. I found myself loving them all, regardless!

Love this book.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

I think that everyone knows who Anne Frank is/was. She is renowned for keeping a diary of her time in hiding during the Second World War. It chronicles her life in hiding in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, which extended from July 6, 1942 through August 1, 1944 (her last entry although her family was arrested and sent to concentration camps on August 4, 1944).

The diary begins before the family goes into hiding. Specifically, it starts with descriptions of her thirteenth birthday and the presents that she received - most notably the diary. Most of the early sections describe her mundane worries and life - grades, schoolmates and her relationships. However, she also talks about the changes that have come about in The Netherlands since the Nazis had occupied the country.The family, comprised of Anne, her sister, Margot, and her parents (Otto and Edith), opted to go into hiding when Margo received a call up for a work camp run by the Nazis.  About a week later, the van Pels family (referred to in the diary as the Van Daans) moved in. The members of their family included a son named Peter, and his parents. A third party arrived much later on. There was very limited contact with the outside world and that contact was limited to the radio and the people that helped the Franks and Van Pels (Miep Gies, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Bep Voskuijl). Most of Anne's writings focused on her relationships with the people that were in hiding with her and with the people that helped them while they were there. She also provides some detail about their daily life - what they ate, the stresses of not knowing where their food was coming from and the fear of being found out.  Anne focused mostly on her relationship with her mother (whom she had much ambivalence and often contempt for), Margot (her sister, of whom she was often jealous, though she did become closer to her later on) and Peter (with whom she initially despised but with whom she then formed a romantic bond with).

For a girl that wrote for herself initially and who was between the ages of 13 and 15 when she wrote, the writing is of tremendously high quality.  It's apparent that Anne had a talent for writing. Anne showed tremendous insight and a tremendous capacity for self-revelation, even at such a young age.  In some ways, though, she was almost too moody and sometimes repeated herself. The most interesting parts of the diary, for me, were the parts where she talked about her day to day life.  I was most interested in knowing what it was like living in hiding. 

This is a must read.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang

This book is the first real look at the everyday migrant population in China - the folks that work in the factories that usually make the products that we consume here in the West.  It specifically looks at female migrant workers and was originally conceived as a series of articles that would appear in the Wall Street Journal.

In this book, Leslie Chang journeys to Dongguan, China and follows two women as they attempt to rise through the ranks in industrial factories, starting with the assembly lines to management. In addition, she follows them through their journey into self-improvement and dating.Interspersed in between the stories of the two women that she follows, Chang also tells the story of her own family and their migration from farm to city and from mainland China to Taiwan to the United States.

Chang does a remarkable job painting this world.  It's a world where just about everyone  that has "gone out" to the city from their rural village is under 30 and where friends and boyfriends are lost when a person loses their cell phone (because cell phones are the only reliable way for migrant workers to keep in touch with each other). It's also a world where changing jobs every month or so isn't unusual - people seemingly changed jobs as easily as they changed their clothing.  It's also a world where a small amount of knowledge of English and computers carried you from the depths of the factories to their offices and lies about your qualifications led to you getting jobs, and where employers never took five minutes to verify that. It's also a world where there are factories so large, that they have their own hospitals and own fire departments.

The more interesting parts of the book, for me, focused on the migrant workers, their lives and their motivations.  I found the sections about Chang's family to be a little bit slow and sometimes uninteresting. I appreciated that Ms. Chang didn't draw any moral conclusions (at least not explicitly) so that I, as the reader, could attempt to draw my own conclusions.  I also really appreciated how Ms. Chang didn't seek to propose any solutions.  She envisioned her role as providing information to the reader and she did that adequately, although one shouldn't expect a comprehensive guide to migrant workers going in. I think that a book lie that would take more than the approximately 440 pages that this book was. Her prose is very accessible and very readable; the book moved pretty quickly (even the parts that I wasn't particularly fond of). You should also not expect her to delve into the controversies surrounding factories - unions, human rights violations, etc. - again because I think that this wasn't the point of the book and also would have made the book much, much longer than it is.

This was a really wonderful book that deserved the accolades given to it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This book was published in 2007, written by Dominican author Junot Diaz and takes place in both New Jersey, where Diaz grew up and in the Dominican Republic, where Diaz was born. It won the Pulitizer Prize for fiction among many other awards and other nominations for prizes.

The novel's namesake is an overweight (as in 300+ pounds) "lovesick ghetto nerd" who falls woefully inadequate in the wooing of the opposite sex.  The only things that he really likes and excels at are role playing games and writing his science fiction/fan fiction stories.  Oscar and his older sister Lola were born in the United States but their family has immigrated from the Dominican Republic.  Most of the family believes that they suffer from "fuku americanus," the curse or the doom of the New World and which seems to be passed down from generation to generation in this family.  The curse began with the family's patriarch, a successful doctor - Dr. Cabral - , in 1946 when he was cursed by the high priest of the malady - Rafael Trujillo (the dictator of the Dominican Republican) and which ended up with him being put in jail. Embroiled in this entire thing is Yunior, another Dominicano, who was Oscar's roommate during their college years and who actually was involved in Oscar's failed attempt at suicide. His experiences with Oscar will forever scar him and follow him for the rest of his life. This novel is intended to follow Oscar's life, albeit a short one.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was just as much a snapshot of the history of the Dominican Republic during Trujillo's dictatorship as it was a novel about the family of this geeky boy. Diaz also manages to show us a snapshot of the political, psychological and emotional issues that the diaspora - the immigrants from the Dominican to the United States specifically - effectively in around 300 pages. The prose used is captivating and I loved the geeky science references and other literary references that were sporadically dropped throughout the novel; it made it feel like I was sharing a part of Oscar's obsession at the least and living in a part of his psyche at the most. I enjoyed the more contemporary parts of the book as opposed to the historical parts, but both parts were really well written and very effective.  The story itself is a very sad, sad story so don't expect to feel great after reading this book.

Generally a really good novel!

Friday, May 7, 2010

With Honors starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci

This movie is a comedy/drama that was released in 1994 (you can tell by the hair styles!!) and was directed by Alek Keshishian. I don't think that Mr. Keshishian had directed any movies prior to this - he was most known for directing music videos for singers like Madonna. It stars Brendan Fraser (as Montgomery "Monty" Kessler), Joe Pesci (as Simon Wilder), Moira Kelly (as Courtney Blumenthal), Patrick Dempsey (yes, McDreamy, as Everett Calloway) and Josh Hamilton (as Jeffrey Hawkes).

Monty, Courtney, Everett and Jeffrey are seniors and roomates at Harvard University.  Monty is dead set on graduating with honors in his chosen major - political science. He has opted to write his senior thesis on economics.  The thesis is decidedly conservative and espouses and subscribes to the theories put forward by Ronald Reagan during his tenure as president. One night, after returning from a long day of classes and research, Monty goes to work on his thesis but all of his data and the thesis on his hard drive are lost when power in the house is lost. Understandably, Monty freaks out because his hard drive is fried but luckily, he has a number of chapters printed out as back up, so he opts to go down to the library to make copies that evening, instead of waiting for the morning, as his much cooler headed roomates advised.  On his way, he breaks his ankle and loses the remaining hard copy down a steam shaft. When he finally gets into the library and finds his hard copy, it is in the possession of Simon Wilder, a homeless man that lives in the boiler room of Harvard's Widener library in spite of being a former Merchant Marines. Simon also has a lot of health problems, including asbestos inhalation that was never identified and treated.  This movie details the impact that Simon, Simon's experience and his knowledge has on the four roomates, and, most notably, on Monty, whose entire worldview changes as a result of this interaction.

I enjoyed this movie, not because it really packed a punch or was a movie with a message (a la Hurt Locker) that was being forced down my throat but because it was a pleasant, easy to watch movie.  It's one of those movies that you can watch that is comforting in the sense that it doesn't really push the viewer but is really high in entertainment value.  I enjoyed watching the actors and, quite frankly, I enjoyed the nostalgia of seeing Harvard, Cambridge and the Charles River in some scenes because those days were a little easier for me. And I loved Cambridge very much. Still do. The cast was wonderful, even though the movie itself could get a little saccharine and cheesy and the plot a little predictable. I also really appreciated that this was a college movie - a movie about college students - where the students seemed to try to figure themselves out as people - to increase their depth and figure out their roles in the world, instead of just trying to figure out how to get beer, more money, more pot or how to get to White Castle. They tried to navigate the moral battles that they were given and to learn from them, and I appreciated that this happened in this movie, whereas in other movies, that doesn't always happen. I really enjoyed it in general, even though it wasn't a critically acclaimed movie.

This is one you should add to your collection.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Lovely Bones starring Mark Wahlberg

The Lovely Bones is a 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, based upon the 2002 novel of the same name authored by Alice Sebold. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Suzie Salmon (the lead role), Mark Wahlberg as her father Jack, Rachel Weisz as her mother, Abby, and Stanley Tucci as George Harvey. Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver put in appearances as Lynn (Suzie's grandmother) and Lindsey (Suzie's older sister).

In 1973, Suzie Salmon was fourteen, living in Norristown, PA, a nice suburban town and was dreaming of becoming a famous photographer. She lived with her mother, father, older sister and younger brother. The best parts of her life were the camera that she received for her birthday and the crush that she had on a boy that she went to school with (and who was appearing to return her affections). Suzie narrates the film - it's almost entirely in her perspective - and she tells of her murder by a neighbor (Harvey, played by Stanley Tucci) as well as the impact that it has on the people that she loves. The murder happens early in the movie, so it's no surprise. We also learn a lot about her killer - a scary, single man that has an obsessive interest in making dollhouses and big glasses. This guy gave me the creeps as soon as I laid eyes upon him, even before the homicide occurred - just by his appearance. After she is murdered, Suzie wanders around the afterlife in an attempt to figure out how to close things out on Earth so that she can move on to eternal bliss in Heaven because, apparently, one cannot move from one realm to the other without that closure.

There were two shining glories in this movie - the performances of Stanley Tucci and Saoirse Ronan.  They both added to their roles in a way that the rest of the cast didn't really even come close to.  Ronan was an eager and likeable actress that brought these qualities to her vision of Suzie Salmon.  I think that a big part of the reason that I liked Suzie was because I also liked Ronan.  Tucci was rightfully nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That nomination was well deserved. He WAS the character (well, I hope not really in real life. I'm assuming he's not, which is why his performance as so amazing).

There were other parts of the move that were difficult to deal with - sometimes, it was tedious.  The movie itself was way too long for what the characters' motivations were - the movie could have been much shorter than it was. Jackson also made the afterlife a little too literal - almost everyone that believes in the afterlife has an opinion as to what it looks like on the other side and Jackson threatened to isolate many people. Also, if you're looking for a murder mystery/police procedural then this isn't the movie for you because the murder and its perpetrator are identified right off the bat.

Generally, an ok movie.  I enjoyed it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I was browsing at the library last week, before I broke my ankle, and saw this book. I picked it up because I adore Kingsolver - have ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible way back when (I think that I was in high school).

The Lacuna is Kingsolver's first novel in nine years!!!  I couldn't believe that it had been nine years since her last novel. Kingsolver's main character is Harrison Shepherd, a young man that has a Mexican mother and American father - as such, he's got dual citizenship with the States and Mexico. In 1929, when Harrison is 12, his mother takes him to live with her in Mexico, because she has fallen in with a wealthy Mexican landowner. Harrison is there, somewhat aimlessly and passively (which seems to be his theme throughout the whole book), and while there, swims and learns to cook from the staff. When he meets Frida Kahlo at the market, he opts to go home with her, where he becomes employed initially in the kitchen and then as a plaster worker for Diego Rivera, her muralist husband. Lev Trotsky eventually moves into the household and Harrison becomes his personal secretary. During that time, he bears witness to the work that Trotsky does as well as his assassination by one of Stalin's agents. After moving back to the States, Harrison becomes a hugely successful writer, creating works of fiction mostly about Mexico's history and some of which provide political commentary. He also is targeted by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee because of his interactions with the revolutionaries in Mexico. From the time that he lived in Mexico, he kept a journal/diary of sorts, which is what most of the novel is based upon and excerpts from.

I really enjoyed this novel. Where some reviewers were turned off by the ordinariness (what some others called the absolute apathy) of the main character, I was actually very much attracted to it.  The perspective of the average Joe to the historical events portrayed in this novel was very refreshing to me - I mean, we always hear how the major players felt (by their own paintings, journals or letters) but never how the average person really felt about the major events that were occurring. The characters were wonderfully and beautifully drawn and I really enjoyed reading about them and wondering what would happen to them.  The prose was, as usual and in the typical Kingsolver style, wonderful.  It was a breathtaking and poignant novel that I would recommend to anyone.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford

So, one of the benefits (I guess that you can call it a benefit) of having a broken ankle is that you get to watch a ton of the movies off your Netflix queue that you wouldn't normally have the time to watch and, in my case, to do it in a relatively sober state because I can neither drink or take the "good" pain medications. 

Blade Runner is a 1982 science fiction/dystopian future type of film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott. Ford plays a semi-retired Blade Runner in LA in 2019. Blade Runners are police officers whose sole job is to chase down and "retire" (a synonym for kill) replicants. Replicants are humanoids that are visually indistinguishable from adult humans, created by the Tyrell Corporation, but which have been banned from Earth due a violent uprising that occurred in the years before the events in this film. They are now limited to off world colonies, doing dangerous work that humans can't or won't do. At the beginning of Blade Runner, we learn that a group of 4, cunning replicants have returned to Earth and are going on a rampage.  Ford's character - Rick Deckard - is a retired Blade Runner who is called back into service to help track down and retire these out of control replicants. During his quest, Ford comes across Rachel, a replicant that is employed by Tyrell company as the CEO's personal assistant, that is somewhat of an anomaly - she's called "an experiment" - because, unlike the other replicants that Tyrell has produced, Rachel actually has memories, albeit ones that come from Tyrell's niece. As the movie progresses, Ford develops feelings for Rachel that he struggles with periodically during his quest.

I had never seen this movie before, ever, even though we have the DVD at my home and my husband absolutely adores the movie.  It apparently also has a cult following - now not so much a cult following as a mainstream following.  And I can see why - it's a pretty good movie. What shocked me is that people agreed that when this film was released in the theaters in the early 80's, it was a complete and utter flop. People hated it.  No clue why because Scott created a really good movie with Harrison Ford as his lead man. Thematically, the movie was attractive because it dealt with themes of memory and identity and how they are intertwined: are they intertwined, how much does one impact the other if at all, etc. I really enjoyed how the scenes were shot and the sets themselves. The darkness, with some brief interludes of light, fit in very well together and added to the overall feel.

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are ent...