Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Fotos: Christmas Present, accessories edition

One hat, three heads:

Also: the world's geekiest wristwatch!

Does anybody really know what time it is? All you need to do is calculate it in binary...

However, I do know that it's time to say goodbye to 2010 - that is, 11111011010 - and I wish you all the very best in the New Year!
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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Character Studies, in brief

Both my sister and my husband tagged me with this on Facebook:

Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen FICTIONAL characters (television, films, plays, books) who've influenced you and who will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.  

Forget the "Rule of 15"- after almost three days, I barely came up with a dozen, and I decided to call it quits there. I don't know why I find these things so difficult, but due to general indecisiveness, a reluctance to play favorites, or whatever other reason, I do. Here's my list, such as it is, in no particular order:

Meg Murry
Jo March
Betsy Ray
Nancy Drew
Harry Potter
Katniss Everdeen
Samwise Gamgee
Penny Lane
Buffy Summers
Lorelai Gilmore
Liz Lemon
James "Sawyer" Ford

I'm not tagging, but post your own list if you're so inclined!
My 16-year-old is a big fan of those "Which (TV show/book/movie) character are you?" online quizzes. I don't usually play along, but in the spirit of this topic, I tried out a few.

Which Harry Potter character are you? Hermione Granger No surprise. Harry made my list because I think he's the most-developed character in the series, but I most identify with Miss Granger. However, I'd be Sorted into Ravenclaw, not Gryffindor (although sometimes I'm sure I'm really a Hufflepuff...)

I took the following quizzes especially for Katie, the aforementioned 16-year old:

Which Buffy the Vampire Slayer character are you? Willow 

(favorite question from this quiz: "How many times have you died?")

Which Battlestar Galactica Cylon are you? Sharon Valerii (#8) 
And in the more general "Which BSG Character...?" quiz, I am Boomer/Sharon...or, basically, the same result!

I met a memorable character last weekend - fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, narrator and central focus of True Grit. I'm not a big fan of Westerns, generally - and even less a fan of Westerns associated with John Wayne - and had been mostly lukewarm about seeing the remake of the 1969 movie. However, as I heard more and more favorable word about the new film, I became more interested; my husband, who shares neither my general ambivalence toward Westerns nor my particular aversion to those associated with John Wayne, was already intrigued. We saw the movie the day after Christmas, and I highly recommend it. My understanding is that this version follows the novel that inspired it more closely than the first film version did, focusing more on the girl who seeks to bring her father's murderer to justice than on the U.S. Marshal who reluctantly helps her, Rooster Cogburn (played by John Wayne in the 1969 movie and by Jeff Bridges in the new one) - and now I really want to read the book and meet Mattie in her original form.

Your turn - take a character quiz, or share some favorite characters in comments!
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Talk: *Beautiful Maria of My Soul*, by Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar HijuelosBeautiful Maria of My Soul
Oscar Hijuelos
Hyperion (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 1401323340 / 9781401323349)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: ARC provided by the publisher via LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Reason for reading: Review, sequel to earlier novel

Opening Lines: “Over forty years before, when Nestor Castillo’s future love, one Maria Garcia y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, where her prospects for finding work might be as good - or bad - as any other place; but because the truck driver who’d picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle’s face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn’t going that way, and because she’d heard so many things - both wonderful and sad - about Havana, Maria decided to accompany him, that cab stinking like kingdom come from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and its manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning.”

Book Description, via the publisher’s website:  The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a contemporary American classic, a novel that still captures the imagination 20 years after its first publication. And now, in Beautiful Maria of My Soul, Oscar Hijuelos returns to the story, but tells it from the point of view of its heroine and inspiration, Maria.
She’s the great Cuban beauty, the woman who stole musician Nestor Castillo’s heart and broke it, inspiring him to write The Mambo Kings’ biggest hit, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” And here, she finally takes the spotlight.
Now in her 60s and living in Miami with her pediatrician daughter, Teresa, Maria is still a beauty, still capable of turning heads. But she has never forgotten Nestor, and as she thinks back to her days—and nights—in Havana, an entirely new perspective on The Mambo Kings story unfolds.

Comments: I read Oscar Hijuelos’ award-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love nearly 20 years ago, when it was first published, and never gave much thought to its having a sequel. But when I learned that it had one - told from the perspective of the woman who inspired the fictional Castillo brothers’ best-known song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” - I remembered enough about the original novel to be interested. 

However, it seems that I’d forgotten quite a bit as well, particularly that the novel had a lot of sex in it - and that I’d found some of those scenes rather uncomfortable to read. That continues in Beautiful Maria..., but it bothered me differently this time. This review on  Powells.com, originally from The Oregonian, expresses my reaction pretty well:
“There are facets to Maria's life that, if developed, might have made her a truly memorable heroine: her guilt over her sister's death, her affection for the old man who teaches her to read, her ambiguous feelings for the abusive Ignacio, her longing to have a child -- and her ensuing disappointment at her daughter's plainness. Unfortunately, too often Hijuelos depicts Maria merely as an object of physical desire. Her relationships are explored mainly through numerous repetitive scenes of copulation. When men remember Maria, they can only recall moments of sex. More disappointingly, when Maria herself thinks about the men in her life -- even Nestor -- she values them only by how good they were in bed.”
Maria is a woman who seems to exist primarily under the male gaze; her most remarkable quality - not just to those male gazers, but to herself - is her physical beauty. Descriptions of her face, hair, and “traffic-stopping” body abound in the novel - and I’m not sure a woman would have written her that way. As the review quote mentions, there is more to her, though;  the sections of the novel that focus on other aspects of the character - her illiterate country upbringing, her drive to educate herself, her motherhood - were some of the parts I liked most, and I don’t think there were enough of them. There was more than enough about her looks, her desirability, and the sexual aspects of her relationships, though, including the skill and physical attributes of her lovers - and that all came across to me in a male voice, despite the fact that the protagonist is female.

As for the song-inspiring love between Maria and Nestor Castillo - my take on that is that theirs was a hormone-driven connection that they believed must therefore be a romantic one. Even in the midst of it, Maria realized they didn’t have a lot to talk about. Had they stayed together - that is, had she not refused him because she felt his ambitions were too narrow - biology dictates that the fires would have subsided eventually, and I’m not sure they’d have had much beyond that. 

Hijuelos’ writing is vivid and descriptive throughout, bringing mid-century, pre-Castro Cuba to life, and generously sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases; I just would have preferred less description of some aspects. My favorite part of the book was its final section, an amusingly meta twist in which the author becomes a character in his own novel when he writes the novel that first told Maria and Nestor’s story, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Up until then, I’d have called Beautiful Maria of My Soul my most disappointing read of the year; while it kept my attention, I didn’t always want it to. I think it would be of interest primarily to readers who recall the earlier novel, and would also appeal to fans of Latino-American literature for its depictions of pre-revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban-American exile community in Miami. I’m not sorry I read it, but I’m sorry I didn’t like it better.

Rating: 3/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday Tangents: Christmas Present(s)

Christmas Holiday Edition!
Since we're deep in the midst of the 12 Days of Christmas,  it's not too late for some seasonally-appropriate reading...and besides, things were so busy last week you may have missed these posts anyway.

First, an interview with a certain Bethlehem innkeeper (go read the whole thing, but here's a snippet):
So the baby is born, and they place him in the manger.
Which, by the way, I told them not to do.
Because how unsanitary is that? Do you know what a manger is?
As far as I know, it’s the place you put infant messiahs.
It’s a food trough for animals.
Oh. Interesting.
“Oh, interesting” is right. Let me ask you. So your baby is born, and the first thing you do is put him in an open container filled with grain and covered in oxen drool? Does this seem reasonable to you?
You did have them out with the animals. Their options were limited.
I rented cribs. I asked Joseph, do you want a crib. And he said, no, we’re fine, and then sets the kid in the food box. And I say to him, you’re new at this, aren’t you.
In his defense, he was.
And then someone says, look, the animals, they are adoring the baby. And I say, adoring, hell. They’re wondering why there’s a baby in their food.
On the other hand, the image of the Baby Jesus in the manger is a classic one.
Yeah, I mention that when people get on my case about not giving Joe and Mary a room. I tell them that having a Christmas carol called “Away in a Hotel Room” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. They never have anything to say to that.
Next, what really happened on the 12th Day of Christmas (an excerpt - again, go read the whole thing):
Mary: Hey Joey, what’s that noise?
Joseph: There are a bunch of people outside. I know this sounds weird, but it looks like some of them are shepherds.
Mary: Shepherds? What the….? Oh no. Oh nuh UH they don’t.
Joseph: No they don”t what?
Mary: They probably want their stable back. They are not getting this stable. I’ve fixed it up more in the past 12 days than they have in 10 years. I’ll bet they were the ones who put in that horrible fake Pergo floor. No siree, mister. And why are they quaking? That just freaks me out.
Joseph: And there are old dudes who say they are kings out there, too. They said they are here to venerate the baby...Also, they brought some silver and gold.
Mary: A child, a child, shivers in the cold…could they bring a blanket at least? I’ll bet thinking of diapers was beyond them, too. Men, I swear.

Mike reminded me of this:
"The War on Christmas. I'm tired of hearing about this supposed problem. Is it really that big of a deal when people, or stores, say Happy Holidays when you are in the middle of at least three holidays? What about the war on Chanukah? I don't hear anyone wishing people Happy Chanukah in the stores or anything (When it is going on that is). I don't hear Jewish people complaining. You know who cares about this? The idiots on cable TV news. It's a (moderate) ratings grabber. You know, the poor people aren't going to enjoy Christmas because some one wishes them Happy Holidays. Won't somebody think of the children? "
I've said "Happy Holidays" since before it was controversial, and I plan to keep saying it. In my mind, it covers the period between Christmas and New Year's, which is "holiday" - as in "vacation" - time for many people. But I like that it also recognizes that not everyone celebrates Christmas; they may be celebrating other holidays for religious (Chanukah) or cultural (Kwanzaa) reasons, or their own observation of Christmas may leave out the religious elements. And I think acknowledging that is actually a positive, open-minded thing. Happy Holidays to everyone!

How was your Christmas, by the way? Did you find some goodies under the tree? I did - books, DVDs, and gift cards (some of which will be used to buy more books):

We had my stepkids and my mother-in-law in our living room with us as we opened gifts, and my son joined us via Skype:

 He got a bunch of DVDs too, but only one book - and I got a new appreciation for 21st-century technology!

This will be a light posting week here. Then again, I expect it'll be a light blog-reading week just about everywhere, so it's not like anyone will miss much.

I've been working on my 2010 Year in Review posts, which I was originally going to post this week - until I realized what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, that is. I rescheduled them for the first week of 2011, as follows:
  • Monday 1/3/11:  Reading, including final Bookkeeping stats and my Books of the Year picks
  • Tuesday 1/4/11: 'Riting - the year's most popular posts 
  • Thursday 1/6/11: Randomness - reflecting on the year via meme, plus assorted number-crunching
(Hey, I have to hit all three R's, don't I?)

Are you vacationing this week? Stop in and say hi if you're not too busy! I'm only working three days, and I'm looking forward to a four-day New Year's weekend. We're planning a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. Some of us really know how to party...and some of us are Tall Paul and me.
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Fotos: Christmas Past

He (Younger Nephew) is a little bigger this Christmas...

...and this is my first one without her in a decade...
...but I wonder if we'll see Gangsta Snowman again this year?

For those of you who are celebrating, Merry Christmas to you and yours - and if this isn't your holiday, have a great weekend doing whatever you do!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Talk: *The Stupidest Angel*, by Christopher Moore

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher MooreThe Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
Christopher Moore (blog)
William Morrow (2004), Edition: 1st, Hardcover (ISBN 0060590254 / 9780060590253)
Fiction, 288 pages
Source: Personal/purchased copy
Reason for reading: Seasonally appropriate re-read (not previously reviewed)
Note: There’s a second edition of this novel available with a new chapter added (ISBN: 0060842350) - that’s not the edition I have.

Opening Lines:Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe.

“Pine Cove, her pseudo-Tudor architecture all tarted up in holiday quaintage -- twinkle lights in all the trees along Cypress Street, fake snow blown into the corner of every shop's windows, miniature Santas and giant candles hovering illuminated beneath every streetlight -- opened to the droves of tourists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley searching for a truly meaningful moment of Christmas commerce. Pine Cove, sleepy California coastal village -- a toy town, really, with more art galleries than gas stations, more wine-tasting rooms than hardware stores -- lay there, as inviting as a drunken prom queen, as Christmas loomed, only five days away.”

Book Description, via the author’s website: 'Twas the night (okay, more like the week) before Christmas, and all through the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, people are busy buying, wrapping, packing, and generally getting into the holiday spirit.

But not everybody is feeling the joy. Little Joshua Barker is in desperate need of a holiday miracle. No, he's not on his deathbed; no, his dog hasn't run away from home. But Josh is sure that he saw Santa take a shovel to the head, and now the seven-year-old has only one prayer: Please, Santa, come back from the dead.

But hold on! There's an angel waiting in the wings. (Wings, get it?) It's none other than the Archangel Raziel come to Earth seeking a small child with a wish that needs granting. Unfortunately, our angel's not sporting the brightest halo in the bunch, and before you can say "Kris Kringle," he's botched his sacred mission and sent the residents of Pine Cove headlong into Christmas chaos, culminating in the most hilarious and horrifying holiday party the town has ever seen.

Comments: If the dead rise up again at the end of the world, do we have any guarantee that they’re not going to be zombies? Let’s just hope the Archangel Raziel isn’t in charge of that - he’s easy on the eyes, but not so much in the brains department, so it’s best that he not be given any important jobs. And the “not so much in the brains department” thing would make him pretty useless as zombie food....

Raziel - previously introduced in Christopher Moore’s Lamb - is the title character of The Stupidest Angel, but he doesn’t actually appear very often in the novel. He does make an impact when he shows up, though.

This seriously funny short novel is one of my favorites by the author, partly because it’s a greatest-hits collection of characters - including one I’m especially fond of, “geek in a cool guy’s body” Tucker Case - and a return to the setting of his earliest books, the postcard-pretty Central Coast town of Pine Cove. But like many postcard-pretty small towns, it’s occupied by some less-than-pretty people. Pine Cove’s notable residents include a former B-movie actress best known for her “Warrior Babe” character - she may lapse on her anti-psychotic meds, but she keeps up her martial arts training; her husband, the pot-smoking town constable; and, of course, the evil developer. When said evil developer has an unfortunate mishap during a disagreement with his ex-wife after a Christmas party, and a small boy accidentally witnesses said mishap, events are set in motion for the weirdest, scariest holiday this town - which has seen a lot of weird, scary stuff - has ever had.

I keep my copy of The Stupidest Angel with our Christmas decorations; I put it out, along with several other holiday-themed books, every year. I decided that this year it wouldn’t just go on display, though - it was time for a re-read. There’s not a lot of substance here; while novels like Lamb and Fluke (and even, to some extent, A Dirty Job) show that Moore does sometimes weave bigger themes into his fiction, this one’s just good, quirky fun - a fast and frequently laugh-out-loud funny read. If there’s any lesson here, it’s a twist on “be careful what you wish for:”
“Be careful to tell your wish to someone who won’t misunderstand what you’re wishing for, or else your Christmas miracle could go very, very, wrong.”
Rating: 3.75/5
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Talk: *Stiltsville*, by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville: A Novel by Susanna DanielStiltsville: A Novel
Harper (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0061963070 / 9780061963070)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Provided by publisher
Reason for Reading: Participation in online book club discussion (today), hosted by Gayle at Everyday I Write the Book

Opening Lines: “On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I’d met the day before.”

Book Description, via the publisher’s website: One sunny morning in 1969, near the end of her first trip to Miami, twenty-six-year-old Frances Ellerby finds herself in a place called Stiltsville, a community of houses built on pilings in the middle of Biscayne Bay. On the dock of a stilt house, with the dazzling skyline in the distance and the unknowable ocean beneath her, she meets the house's owner, Dennis DuVal—and a new future reveals itself.
Turning away from her quiet, predictable life back home, Frances moves to Miami to be with Dennis. Over time, she earns the confidence of his wild-at-heart sister and wins the approval of his oldest friend. Frances and Dennis marry and have a child—but rather than growing complacent about their good fortune, they continue to face the challenges of intimacy and the complicated city they call home.
Stiltsville is the family's island oasis—until suddenly it's gone, and Frances is forced to figure out how to make her family work on dry land. Against a backdrop of lush tropical beauty, Frances and Dennis struggle with the mutability of love and Florida's weather, as well as temptation, chaos, and disappointment.
With Stiltsville, Susanna Daniel weaves the beauty, violence, and humanity of Miami's coming-of-age with an enduring story of a marriage.

Comments: When Frances Ellerby makes her first visit to Miami, Florida in the summer of 1969, she expects to spend the weekend seeing a little of the city and attending the wedding of a college friend, returning to her life in Atlanta after it’s all over. Weddings have a way of changing people’s lives, though. Frances meets her own future husband that weekend, and discovers the place where she’ll spend the next twenty-five years of her life.

Susanna Daniel’s first novel is the story of a marriage and a family, growing and changing along with the city around them. Miami began to become the city it is today during the 1970s and 1980s, shifting direction when it was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, but never going back to what it was. “What it was” is symbolized by Stiltsville, a collection of houses built on pilings about five miles offshore in Biscayne Bay, reachable only by boat. Frances meets her husband at one of those houses; his family has owned it for years, and it soon becomes a constant in her life, as well as that of her daughter and the couple’s friends. (Stiltsville is a real place - what’s left of it, anyway.) 

I had a little trouble getting into Stiltsville - the opening of the book felt a little choppy to me, and I kept wondering if I was missing something. The author writes in Frances’ voice, and I wasn’t sure I understood why she chose to emphasize some of the details she did at first. However, I adjusted fairly quickly, and had a hard time putting the book down once I did. Daniel covers a lot of narrative ground in a relatively short novel - just over 300 pages - and conveys the dramatic effects of both interpersonal and environmental events on relatively ordinary lives. Much of it works because she’s using an effective storyteller; Frances is flawed, sometimes frustrating, and authentic, growing more so as she ages over the span of the novel. And while there are hints about how the story will end, the specific direction in which it turned took me by surprise.

Among the details emphasized throughout the story are those that place it very specifically in South Florida; those narrative choices are understandable, and significant. I lived in Florida for ten years (not that far south, though - I attended high school and college in the Tampa Bay area), and Daniel’s descriptions of tropical foliage and equally tropical humidity, smooth, flat beaches, homes on canals with boats docked behind them, and year-round swimsuit weather and bright clothing evoked it all clearly. (A backyard wedding with the bride in a lime-green sundress and the groom wearing a guayabera is quintessentially Florida.) The sense of place and Frances’ narrative voice came together and made Stiltsville work for me. I think it would appeal to readers who enjoy realistic, contemporary women’s/domestic fiction, and it’s a fine debut for Susanna Daniel.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Tangents: Early Christmas Gifts!

I set it under the tree for a few days, but in the end, I couldn’t hold off on opening the package I received from my Secret Santa in the Book Bloggers’ Holiday Swap! Santa checked my list and chose one of the books on it to send me, along with a some Christmas-themed decor (if I don’t use the cookie cutter for its intended purpose, it could always be an ornament).

Many thanks and best wishes for the holidays to Alyce of At Home With Books!

Last Wednesday, I received what I think I wanted most for Christmas this year - a right shoulder freed from a sling! I returned to my orthopedist that day for a follow-up appointment - exactly four weeks after he re-located my shoulder and had me start wearing the sling for 20-plus hours per day - and he told me I no longer needed to wear it unless I wanted to. Guess what I chose?

However, it’s a gift with conditions, and the Ultrasling and I will be having a reunion next month.

We also talked about my MRI results at that appointment. They showed three injuries to the shoulder, including a tear in the rotator cuff; fixing that means surgery. It’s arthroscopic, outpatient surgery, but surgery nonetheless, and it’ll be followed by another six weeks in the sling, a couple of months of physical therapy, and a full recovery period of six months to a year. We’ve tentatively scheduled the procedure for January 21, 2011 - a Friday, so I can start recuperating over the weekend, but I should probably take a few days off work the next week for that too, huh? (A few Facebook friends reminded me of the compensation of some good reading time...)

But if all goes well, I’ll be long out of the sling and recovering nicely by late May, when I’ll be traveling back to New York City for my first trek to Book Expo America and attending the second annual Book Blogger Convention! Speaking of which...

I received a gift (of sorts) from the BBCon organizers shortly before Thanksgiving, but I’ve had to keep it to myself until the official announcements were made last week. Check out their website if you missed them, but I’ll share just one:

I have been invited to moderate the workshop on Blogging for a Niche Market. The organizers have assembled a panel of bloggers from nearly every book-blogging niche you can think of for this session: 

Katie [Babbling About Books and More] – Romance
Sarah, Erin & Jenny [Forever Young Adult] – Young Adult
Amy [Passages to the Past] – Historical Fiction
Thea [The Book Smugglers] – Sci Fi/Fantasy
Rebecca [Rebecca Reads] – Classics
Jen [Jen's Book Thoughts] – Mystery/Crime Fiction
Jill [Rhapsody in Books] – Non-Fiction
Jennifer [Reading Rants] – Kidlit/Librarianship
Mitali [Mitali's Fire Escape] – Diversity
Cass [Bonjour, Cass!] – GLBTQ
Tanya [Dog Eared Copy] – Audiobooks
Florinda (me!) [The 3 R's Blog] – moderator

As a book blogger without a particular niche, I’m thrilled to be moderating this panel, and I’m excited about developing this into a great session! Other workshops at the BBCon:

Navigating the Gray Areas of Book Blogging
Meet the Publicist
Technology for Blogging
Practical Challenges of Blogging   

And in related news - registration for BBCon is now open - and it includes your pass to BEA. Be sure to subscribe to Book Blogger Convention feed to stay up-to-date on all the exciting plans that are afoot!

Are you planning to go to BEA (May 23-26, 2011) and/or BBCon (Thursday evening, May 26, and Friday, May 27)? If you are, I hope we can meet up!