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Jennifer Haigh, Dennis LaToya, John Green, and Zombie Awesomeness

November 23, 2010

I’ve quit lying to myself — after my latest, totally unplanned blogging hiatus, I’m never going to catch up. I decided to do a quick “catch up” post reviewing what I’ve managed to read lately. 😉

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The Condition by Jennifer Haigh
My daughter chose this book for me as a birthday gift. She and I share a terrible weakness for books and movies about dysfunctional families. 🙂 What makes this novel unique is that is concerns a little known condition, known as Turner Syndrome, in which a woman doesn’t reach sexual maturation.

The novel opens in 1976, as Paulette Kotch’s family gathers at the New England beach house that has been in her family for generations. She is joined by her husband, Frank, a research biologist, and their three children, Billy, Gwen and Scotty. Their marriage is vulnerable. Paulette, uncomfortable with her husband’s sexuality, is plagued with doubts about his fidelity. Frank is deeply absorbed in his work. That summer, looking at his daughter beside her much taller same-aged cousin, Frank suddenly, irrevocably realizes something is terribly wrong. After that the fissures in Frank and Paulette’s marriage widen, and it will soon crash around them.

The story leaps forward 20 years in time, as Frank and Paulette try to reconnect with their three adult children. Billy, a New York cardiologist, keeps the family at a careful distance. Gwen, 20 years after her diagnosis with Turner’s Syndrome, lives a solitary life as an anthropologist. Scotty has basically become a “stoner.” He’s in a marriage he seems to feel is beneath him and dislikes his teaching position at a third-rate private school. Shifting among these five characters’ points of view, the author gradually moves in closer and closer, letting us get to know them, glimpse their secrets, and feel their agonizing loneliness and vulnerability.

This is a lovely novel and for me, it was a page turner.  I actually disliked many of the characters; I saw them as pretentious and infused with a sense of superiority. This is probably one of my “hot buttons.” Humility and respect for people, whatever their education, intelligence, and socioeconomic status, is very important to me. It is a tribute to this author’s skill that although I never completely warmed up to these characters, I found them complex, rich, and compelling, and I couldn’t put their story down.

The Wolves of  Fairmount Park by Dennis Tafoya

Two teen-aged boys are shot in front of a house known as a haven for drug dealers. Neither of the boys is a known drug user. Why were they there? Who shot them? And the strangest question of all: why did the victims have handprint-shaped bloodstains on their cheeks?

This complex, character driven mystery weaves among the points of view of many players. These include Danny Martinez, the investigating officer, Brendan Donovan, a police officer and father of one of the victims, and Brendan’s brother, Orlando, a heroin addict who happened to live near the scene of the crime. We also see the story through the eyes of other characters, including grief stricken parents and violent criminals. We’re drawn into a world of criminals and drug addicts. One of the novel’s strengths is that it delves into the psyche of each character, and most of them are treated with empathy and respect. 

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Though he has loving parents, Miles’s life feels hollow.  His high school classes don’t interest him, and he has no real friends. He spends his time reading biographies and collecting the last words of famous people. Inspired by the last words of French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais, Miles decides to start a new life at an Alabama boarding school, seeking “the Great Perhaps.”

There he befriends “The Colonel,” Takumi, and Alaska, four highly intelligent, quirky, rebellious kids. He is especially drawn to the beautiful, mercurial, poetry-loving Alaska. As the four students engineer pranks, get drunk, and study French and world religions, they form a complicated bond.

God, I loved this book. It’s light and funny, and at the same time, incredibly serious and complex. On one level, it’s a coming of age novel, but it’s really ageless. It’s about life and what it is to be human. It’s about love and friendship, struggling through grief and guilt, and finding a reason to live. It’s also about spirituality, and how one makes meaning of life and death, with or without religion.

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

I didn’t finish this book, though I was enjoying it. Manhood for Amateurs is a loosely connected collection of essays drawing on various parts of the author’s life. It reflects his coming of age, his unsuccessful first marriage, and his roles as a husband and father. Chabon’s writing is witty, articulate, and often funny, and he has interesting insights on parenthood.

I’ve also watched a few movies and shows. My hubby and I made a bee-line for Harry Potter VII (Part 1) the day it premiered. Loved it! I also saw Sleepwalking, an indie film about a quiet, diffident young man who bonds with his niece after her mother leaves and begins to come to grips with his painful childhood. And I’ve bee totally into The Walking Dead, a new series on AMC. I am usually squeamish about blood and violence, but I immediately got hooked on this show. I thought Andrew Lincoln was adorable in Love Actually, and now he’s fabulously Bad-Ass in The Walking Dead.

Delinquent Blogger, John Green, and Steam-Punk Bad-Ass-ness

November 15, 2010

I’ve been delinquent in blogging and in many other things. I set out to do NaNoWriMo this month, but that’s been an epic fail. 🙂 I hit a wall. For some reason, I don’t want to write fiction, I don’t want to blog, and I don’t want to review books. I haven’t even felt much like reading. It’s very odd.

Our recent car troubles have left the Chief Chauffeur of the Monkey House with some unanticipated free time on my hands. I work from home and raise three homeschooled heathens :-D, but the main bulk of my time is spent on the road. Classes, field trips, playdates, sleepovers … you get the picture. Lately all this has been off the schedule. I’ve been using the extra time to revisit an old hobby — scrapbooking.

I did pick up a new novel. I was in the mood for some YA fare, so I started Looking for Alaska by John Green. This is my first encounter with John Green, but everyone says he’s wonderful. Also my son and I are eagerly awaiting Behemoth by Scott Westerfield, sequel to Leviathan. According to DS, Leviathan is BAD ASS and almost as cool as his video games. We decided to re-read it while we’re waiting for the sequel to arrive. Then I decided it would make a good family read-aloud. I try to read a few chapters to the whole gang after dinner, if I can pry my hubby away from football. 😉

Scrapbook Pages

November 11, 2010

Being home without a working car left me with some unexpected free time today. 🙂 Obviously there is no chronological logic to my scrapping efforts.

This is from December, 2004:

Seriously … It’s Already Monday Again?

November 7, 2010

This weekly meme is hosted by the lovely Sheila at Book Journey.

What I’m Reading Now:

from Publisher’s Weekly: dysfunctional New England family struggles toward normalcy in this poignant novel from PEN/Hemingway-winner Haigh, who follows the children of resentful, controlling, Paulette and distracted, needy Frank. Even during a childhood in idyllic Cape Cod, there are hints of a rocky future. When that future arrives, Billy, the most successful of the children, keeps a secret about his sophisticated New York life from almost everyone. Scott, formerly the uncontrollable brat of the bunch, sees himself in his own troubled son. Meanwhile, Gwen suffers from a genetic condition that prevents her from developing into womanhood. The story starts slowly, and while the setup feels familiar (a fractured New England family), the children take unexpected turns that shake up the narrative, leading to the most surprising twist of all: despite the sobering events chronicled, there’s a strong nod to the healing power of love. Haigh allows the reader to sympathize with each of the family members, and, in turn, to see their flaws and better understand them.

My daughter chose this book for me; it was a birthday gift. I guess she knows I have a weakness for dysfunctional families. 🙂 In movies and literature, that is — in real life, they’re not so much fun. So far, I’m finding this book hard to put down. It’s a testament to the author’s gift that I have been so sucked into this story when I kind of dislike the characters. There is a certain thread of snobbery and superiority that runs through this family. And although I’m pretty tolerant, that really pushes a button with me. I’m looking forward to reviewing this novel.

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Mom-Bloggery:

The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man

November 7, 2010

The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man by Lloyd Alexander
Genre: Fantasy
Age Level: Amazon rates it for ages 9-12; in our house, it’s good for ages 6-44. 😉
Published: E.P. Dutton & Co., August 8, 1973
I Chose It Because: My kids picked it.
Discussion Points: greed; abuse of power; love; the mixture of good and bad qualities in people

Review:

Lionel is Magister Stephanus’s cat, and the eccentric wizard has granted him the gift of speech. Now Lionel wants to take it a step further; he begs his master to transform him into a human. Stephanus is opposed to this plan. He distrusts his fellow humans, and naturally, he is reluctant to give up his cat.

“Be glad you are a cat!” Stephanus cried. “Let me tell you about men: Wolves are gentler. Geese are wiser. Jackasses have better sense.” (p. 2)

Nevertheless, he grants Lionel’s wish, on the condition that he go to town, explore, and come right back. Secretly, he probably doesn’t expect Lionel to make it past the toll bridge at the town entrance.

When Lionel comes to the  town of Brightford, as a green eyed, tawny haired young man, Lionel faces many challenges. Having never lived as a human, he is naive and accepts everything people say at face value. Yet he is surrounded by rogues who want to rob him. To make matters worse, he finds his feline abilities ebbing. And when he meets the inn-keeper, beautiful  young Mistress Gillian, he may lose his heart as well.

This light fantasy, by the author of the Prydain Chronicles, seems to be in a medieval European setting. It explores what it means to be human, both the good and bad, in a sweet, funny way that will appeal to even young children. We enjoyed the colorful secondary characters, including the avaricious Mayor Pursewig and the illustrious Dr. Tudbelly, good-hearted charlatan who speaks mangled Latin. The story also offers a bit of action and adventure.

This is a delightful, funny story for middle grade readers and a wonderful family read aloud.

Broken Birds

November 6, 2010

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila by Jeanette Katzir
Genre: Memoir
Age Level: Adult
Published: Jeannette Katzir, April 2, 2009
I Chose It Because: I enjoy memoirs, and though I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, I’ve read little about survivors’ later lives or the effects of their experiences on future generations.
Discussion Points: The Holocaust; prejudice; post-traumatic stress; dysfunctional families

Review:

Katzir’s articulate, well written memoir is really three separate stories. The first two stories tell how each of her parents survived the Holocaust. Her mother, Channa, joined her brother in a band of Partisans when she was just 12 years old. They lived in the forest, waging guerilla warfare against the Germans. The author’s father, Nathan, survived the ghettos and two concentration camps. They met in New York after the war and began a family; their surivial, and the births of their five children, was an affirmation of life and a triumph over Hitler.

The third story was about the life of the author, Channa and Nathan’s second child. Most of it focused on the long, grueling legal battle that followed their mother’s death. This enmeshed family, including the author, her father, and four siblings, fought over Channa’s estate, churning up a lifetime of rivalries, heartbreak, and pain.

The effects of her parents’ wartime experiences, particularly Channa’s, run throughout the story. We see how their family’s life was shaped, in part, by the lasting terror and insecurity this imprinted on Channa. She is terrified her husband will abandon her, and this warps their relationship. She hides large amounts of cash in various places. After all, when her family was seized by the Nazis and forceably moved to the ghetto, they could carry only what they were able to hide in their clothing. And she conditions her children to expect the worst from life and distrust anyone outside the family.

I enjoyed this book, however the parts at the beginning and near the end, which dealt directly with the Holocaust, were by far the most powerful. I was absorbed in Channa and Nathan’s experiences during the Holocaust. Near the end of the book, Nathan returns to his homeland with three of his children. They look at places where he lived his early life, where he was imprisoned, and where he escaped. They face baffling denial in modern day Germany about the Holocaust. This part of the story was riveting.

The author’s account of her life, and of battles fought with her siblings, were not as compelling. She makes a case that everything that happened stemmed from her parents’ experiences in Europe; they were deeply scarred, and they handed these wounds down to their children. I don’t challenge this. The author knows her family best, and I believe family history causes ripples that last for generations. Yet while I find the impact of their suffering on their children and grandchildren an intriguing topic, this didn’t fully come together. A great deal of the conflict was about money and business squabbles, and this thread wasn’t enough to hold the whole narrative together.

However, there are many things I liked about this book. In addition to the parts exploring the Holocaust, there were many things that moved me, including the author’s description of her mother’s deterioration and death. And I was intrigued with the way she came to understand her troubled, complex parents, loving them even as she faces their flaws. For most people, this is a complicated, ongoing journey that doesn’t end after childhood, and Jeanette Katzir explored it eloquently.

Other Reviews: The Bookworm; The New Podler Review of Books

Cinematic Saturday: 20 Movie Characters I’ve Liked

November 6, 2010

I’m not sure these are my absolute favorites, because I’ve loved so many movie characters, it’s difficult to narrow it down. These are 20 that stand out for me, in no particular order:

1. Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) The GiftThere’s something both mysterious and down-to-earth about Annie, a young widow in a small Southern town. She works out of her home as a psychic while raising her two boys. While Annie’s psychic gift provokes fear and derision in some, especially after she finds herself in the middle of a murder trial, she is the heart of her community as well as the heart of her family.

2. Shelby Eatenton Latcherie (Julia Roberts) in Steel Magnolias — This unapologetically sentimental, funny chick-flick may not be one of the all-time cinematic classics, but my friends and I enjoyed it tremendously. Shelby, a newlywed yearning for a baby, has a certain open-hearted charm. She also offers the movie’s most memorable quote: “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”

3. Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) As Good As It Gets — I’ve always loved this movie.  Melvin Udall, a misogynistic, bigoted author, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, is virtually impossible to like. In fact, he’s loathsome. But Carol the waitress sees a glimmer of something in him, and they develop a tenuous friendship and a romantic attraction. She’s the single mom of a high-needs little boy who struggles tirelessly to get her son the treatment he needs. I can’t help but love her.

4. Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) Sense and SensibilityEmma Thompson was also wonderful in this role. I loved both the Dashwood sisters, in Jane Austen’s novel and its film adaptations, but Elinor, with her quiet strength and unconditional love for her family, is my favorite.

5. Elizabeth Bennet (Kiera Knightly) Pride and Prejudice — Kiera Knightly plays this role in the most recent adaptation of this Jane Austen novel which I’ve seen. Sharp-witted, bookish Elizabeth is a perennial favorite. I love her!

6.  Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) Magnolia — O.K., this one is a double play. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, but it’s unforgettable. Phil, a gentle nurse who comforts a dying man and tries to reunite him with his son, and Jim, a straight-laced cop who falls for a troubled cocaine addict, are — in many ways — the heart of this film. Tom Cruise, who I don’t usually particularly like, was also memorable as an over-the-top misogynistic motivational speaker. There were other great characters, as well.

7.  Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) Lord of the Rings — Sam is, hands down, my favorite LOTR character. His perseverance and loyalty make him, in many ways, the heart of the story.

8.  Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) Michael Clayton I had to include something by this actor, because he happens to be one of my favorites. I loved his role as a whistle-blowing attorney, whose conscience has just been awakened after meeting a victim in the class action suit  from which he’s defending a large corporation. He also happens to have bipolar disorder and is going off the rails.  For me, he’s the highlight of a great movie.

9. Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) in Two Men Went to War There’s something so delightfully nerdy and quirky about British actor Leo Bill. His characters run the gamut from  insufferably uptight British aristocrats to a young man who’s stark raving mad. I think Bill is terrific, and he ought to be given more diverse roles. Two Men Went to War is the true-ish story of two members of England’s Army Dental Corps in World War II. Sgt. Peter King (Cranham), a World War I veteran looking to keep fighting, and Private Leslie Cuthbertson (Bill), a wet-behind-the-ears trainee, leave their posts and strike out on their own in an attempt to join the war effort in France.

10. Karen (Emma Thompson) Love Actually — I have such a soft spot for this movie, which explores the tangled connections among friends, spouses, and lovers. Emma Thompson is one of my favorite actresses, and she was magnificent in this role. The scene where she hides her broken heart, cheerfully taking her children to their Christmas pageant, was unforgettable.

11. Ashley Johnson (Amy Adams) JunebugI couldn’t help but love this young woman, living with her husband and quirky in-laws in rural North Carolina. Her determined enthusiasm and joy over her pregnancy, despite her husband’s indifference, broke my heart.

12. The whole dang cast of Firefly because of their sheer awesomeness. Try as I might, I just can’t pick a favorite. This popular T.V. Science Fiction series is a huge favorite in our house. It’s imaginative, funny, complex and full of crazy action. Plus Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk offer serious eye candy. Who could ask for more?

13.  Norma Rae (Sally Field) — This was Sally Field’s best role ever. She was terrific as the eponymous character in Norma Rae, a young single mom who agrees to help unionize the textile mill where she works. This movie is based on actual events in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.

14.  Glory (Frances McDormand) North Country — Speaking of unions, I loved Glory, the tough, compassionate mine worker and union organizer in North Country, a fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States. Have I mentioned that I love Frances McDormand?

15. Inigo Montoya (Mandy Pantinkin) The Princess Bride — There was no way I was going to finish this list without including this movie! “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die …”

16. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) Zombieland ‘Cuz I love the fact that an obsessive-compulsive geek can be a bad-ass zombie killer. I really like Jesse Eisenberg, and while his role in The Social Network was a stronger one, Columbus has a special place in my heart. He and Woody Harrelson did a terrific job of playing off each other. And Zombieland is a huge favorite in this house.

17. Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) Juno — I do love this movie. And Ellen Page is amazing as a precocious, wise-cracking pregnant teen.

18. Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) The Sixth Sense — I really like Toni Collette, and I love her as Lynn Sear, a tough, nurturing single mom trying to help her troubled son. She’s both incredibly strong and vulnerable, and her love for her child shines throughout the movie.

19. Dug in UpUp is one of my favorite animated films, and I just can’t resist Dug’s gratuitous goofiness.

20. Toto in The Wizard of Oz — I remember when we had to wait ALL YEAR for this movie to come on television? Oh, the anticipation! And we went to a friend’s house to watch it, because they had color television, and that made it so much more exciting when Dorothy opens the door to Oz. Am I showing my age here? Toto may very well be the best character in the movie. He’s intrepid, smart, and irresistably cute.

Honorable Mentions:

Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) True Blood – ‘Cuz True Blood is one of my guilty pleasures, and who doesn’t love a fabulously flamboyant “queen?


Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) The Rocky Horror Picture Show — I’m not a big fan of this movie, but Tim Curry was hilarious in this role. This was the first really “inappropriate” movie that, with some trepidation, I let my older daughter watch. I don’t remember how old she was. Her reaction was “My eyes have seen too much! I have lost my cinematic virginity!” 🙂 and (loosely paraphrasing) “What I learned from this movie is that with enough leather in your wardrobe, you can seduce people of both sexes in five seconds flat!” 😛

What are some of your favorite movie characters?