Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Talk: *The Night Swimmer*, by Matt Bondurant (Shelf Awareness review)

The Night Swimmer: A Novel
Matt Bondurant
Scribner (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1451625294 / 9781451625295)
Fiction, 288 pages

A version of this review was originally published in Shelf Awareness, Readers' Edition (January 24, 2012); SA's editors provided compensation and a galley of the novel. The cover image links to IndieBound.org. I am an IndieBound affiliate.

The narrator and titular character of Matt Bondurant’s third novel, The Night Swimmer, is Elly Bulkington. When her husband Fred is stricken with survivor’s guilt after September 11--he was supposed to be at a meeting at the World Trade Center, but traded places with a coworker--he enters, with Elly’s support, a Irish brewery’s contest to win a pub on the country’s southwestern coast. Their arrival in the small seaside town offers the couple opportunities--a new business and a stab at novel-writing for Fred, and the challenge of a new ocean for Elly, a former competitive swimmer who feels most herself when in the water.

The pursuit of these separate endeavors strains the Bulkingtons’ marriage, as Elly spends increasing amounts of time on the nearby small island of Clear obsessing over making an open-water swim to its lighthouse and Fred becomes more interested in consuming the pub’s inventory than in its business prospects. The couple is viewed with some suspicion by the natives of this remote, clannish small town, but all the same, Elly is increasingly drawn into local conflicts and intrigues, determined to unravel the island’s mysteries.

The mysteries of The Night Swimmer are not laid out or wrapped up neatly, but it doesn’t entirely matter. What stands out about this novel is its atmosphere and the voice of its narrator. Elly is a bit of an oddball herself and, therefore, not entirely out of keeping with the strangeness of her new home. Her struggles with the elements in storms and on the ocean are vividly conveyed, as are her puzzlement over Clear’s secrets and efforts to unravel them...even as what she learns makes her question whether she and Fred should even be in Ireland at all. Matt Bondurant gives The Night Swimmer a pervasive sense of foreboding and a final act that hits with the impact of an Irish gale.

In a small town on the southern coast of Ireland, an isolated place only frequented by fishermen and the occasional group of bird-watchers, Fred and Elly Bulkington, newly arrived from Vermont having won a pub in a contest, encounter a wild, strange land shaped by the pounding storms of the North Atlantic, as well as the native resistance to strangers. As Fred revels in the life of a new pubowner, Elly takes the ferry out to a nearby island where anyone not born there is called a “blow-in.” To the disbelief of the locals, Elly devotes herself to open-water swimming, pushing herself to the limit and crossing unseen boundaries that drive her into the heart of the island’s troubles—the mysterious tragedy that shrouds its inhabitants and the dangerous feud between an enigmatic farmer and a powerful clan that has no use for outsiders. 
The poignant unraveling of a marriage, the fierce beauty of the natural world, the mysterious power of Irish lore, and the gripping story of strangers in a strange land rife with intrigue and violence—The Night Swimmer is a novel of myriad enchantments by a writer of extraordinary talent.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books Bought, Books Read--January 2012

The Sunday Salon.com

I'd been marveling over the fact that I've made it four weeks into the year without having set foot in a bookstore--not "marveling" in a good way, mind you; it's actually a little distressing to think about!--when I realized that didn't mean I hadn't bought any books this year. They just haven't been printed-on-paper books.

One of my Christmas gifts was a Kindle Touch, and I've been excited to discover that there have been some nice improvements since the 2nd-generation Kindle I got in 2009. The touchscreen is kind of erratic sometimes and not as responsive as I'd like, but the device itself is much more compact and lighter. I don't miss the keyboard, and I really like the fact that it also holds my Audible audiobook files. All of the Kindle content I already had was ready to move onto the Touch, but you won't be surprised that I've downloaded a few more titles since I got it:
I haven't read any books on the new Kindle yet, but I've listened to one Audible book on it so far (Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline), and preferred that experience to the Audible iPhone app.

I also got some Christmas cash--partly earmarked for BEA and Book Blogger Con, but partly just for me--and I used some of it to buy myself an iPad. I am liking it very much...but I really wasn't intending to use it as a an e-reader. However, I re-thought it and decided to use some of my iTunes gift card balance (also boosted by Christmas) to buy a few iBooks. I haven't read these yet either:
I'm interested to see how the e-reading experience compares between the two devices. (I'm afraid I might like the iPad better, to be honest, but we shall see...)

I think that my reading this month may be setting a pattern for 2012:
I don't think the book club/tour slots will be occupied every month, and that should make more room for "for myself" reading. Having said that...February's priority reading is the Biography/Memoir short list for the Indie Lit Awards! I've read one of the five--Bossypants, by Tina Fey--already, but I still have four more:
And a couple of months down the road, closer to their publication dates, I'm looking forward to cracking open a couple of galleys that popped up in my mail this month:
So have you read--or bought--any good books lately? How has your reading year started off?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

At the movies: *The Artist*

The Artist (official movie site)

Comedy/drama, 2011 (rated PG-13)

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo

Written and directed by: Michel Hazanvicius

Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him fall into oblivion. For young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), it seems the sky's the limit - major movie stardom awaits. The Artist tells the story of their interlinked destinies. -- (C) Weinstein
One of the hottest buzzed-about films of the 2011/12 awards season is a black-and-white silent film with an international cast. The Artist snuck up on me, to be honest. A couple of months ago I knew almost nothing about it, but my interest was piqued after seeing Hugo, which shares some themes with it. Both films are valentines to the early days of motion pictures; in Hugo, they’re part of a central character’s history. In The Artist, they’re the central framework of the story.

A silent film really needs to draw on the maxim that “a picture is worth a thousand words” to tell its story. The moviemakers really did their homework, and make outstanding use of the film toolbox. The story is told visually, and the look of the film is perfect. It’s beautifully lit in crisp black-and-white and filmed in the proper scale for its time (that is, not in widescreen). The actors are wonderfully cast and skilled in the expressive balance of face and body that makes film acting unique.

However, the most important element in making this work as a film is using those pretty pictures in a compelling narrative context, and The Artist succeeds there as well. The story itself is fairly simple--a classic tale of fortunes lost and found in late 1920s/Depression-era Hollywood--and to go beyond the synopsis quoted above would stray into spoiler territory, so I won’t. The beauty of it isn’t just in the look, though; it’s in the telling. What’s conveyed through physical performance, some lip reading, and a few title cards is complete, often hilarious, and deeply touching.

The secondary theme of the relationship between a man and his dog grabbed me too, of course.

My husband is a movie buff, and here’s what he said about The Artist on Facebook: ‎”The Artist was amazing! If you love old movies, you have to see it! Beautiful film!” I can’t agree more--this is a wonderful film, suitable for all except the youngest children (who would probably be bored, sadly)--very, very recommended!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

(Almost) everyone's a critic. Really.

The adage that “everyone’s a critic” may never have been more true than it is these days, thanks to the Internet. We may prefer to call ourselves “reviewers” rather than “critics.” We may take a less formal, more personal approach than traditional criticism, discussing our subjective responses to a work rather than assessing it against objective criteria. And we may prefer not to “criticize” at all, choosing to discuss only works we feel positive about.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us who blog and tweet about product of all kinds--and that means books and movies and music just as much as it does food and fashion and travel, etc.--aren’t performing at least some of the traditional functions of the critic. On a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Stephen Thompson identified those functions as “5 C’s:”
As a writer and editor at NPR Music, these attributes factor into the “recommendation-based reviews” Thompson writes for the site. That term seems to describe what many of us are writing for our own sites. We probably do have more freedom than most professional reviewers to review only what we choose, and maybe only what we like, but the job may not be as different as we think it is...and I think those “5 Cs” are just as applicable.

Granted, professional reviewers don’t have to do so much of the job on their own; they usually have editors. I do freelance recommendation-based book reviews outside my blog as well, and I receive several galleys each month to consider for those. My editor has already sorted through many dozens more before sending out her picks to reviewers, and plenty don’t get that far. She has a method to let us know if there are any in the batches we get that she’s really like us to review, but the choices from that point on--further culling--are up to us. Once the reviews are submitted, they may be revised and further edited...and sometimes they may be edited so far they don't run at all, which is a form of curation as well, I suppose.

As non-professional reviewers, we bloggers perform some of those 5-C functions ourselves, and we may give some more weight than others. When we decide which review offers to accept, or galleys to request, or books to buy, we’re culling. Some of us don’t review every book we read, and in choosing which ones we think are worth talking about, we’re curating. Our eventual discussion of the book may include some consideration of its place in a larger context--perhaps within a genre, as part of a series, or in its overall theme. And ultimately, we find the most to say about the things we care about the most.

In the nearly five years I’ve blogged here, there’s only one book that I read for personal reasons that I finished and didn’t post about. (I just didn’t have much to say about it, and I was pressed for time with other commitments--ultimately, I didn’t care enough.) I’ve gotten much better at the culling-and-curating when it comes to accepting personal review copies and blog tours, so I’m less likely to end up with books I really don’t want to talk about, or wouldn’t care to recommend.

A survey of consumer purchasing behavior presented at the 2012 ABA Winter Institute had some interesting findings related to the power of recommendations in getting information about books:
“Readers find out about books mostly through personal recommendations (49.2%), bookstore staff recommendations (30.8%), advertising (24.4%), search engine searches (21.6%) and book reviews (18.9%). Much less important are online algorithms (16%), blogs (12.1%) and social networks (11.8%).”
I question those findings, because I think that in the current climate, there’s far more overlap between “personal recommendations,” “book reviews,” “blogs,” and “social networks” than these divisions reflect. If the Internet has allowed everyone to be a critic and has given rise to the non-professional review, the “personal recommendation” may just take different forms these days. I consider the reviews of just about every book blogger I read--and that’s a lot of book bloggers--as personal recommendations (positive or negative), and that totally mixes up those categories.

And when everyone's a critic, we have an additional job: culling and curating the criticism we consume, so that we end up with the recommendations we care about. It's one more thing to consider from a critical perspective, and personally, I think critical thinking is a critical skill. Maybe we should thank the Internet for giving us all the chance to be critics.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BEA and WBN: Two book events to talk about!

I've just put one bookish event on my calendar...and will be taking another one off.

Is it too soon to ask about your plans for Book Expo America 2012

The annual trade show will take place June 5-7 in New York City, and registration is already open! Bloggers may apply for non-editorial media badges or obtain a pass by registering to attend the Book Blogger Convention on June 4.

For the record, the BBC registration costs less than the three-day BEA pass and allows the same show access, but if it means you’d be in New York City for an extra day, it could end up costing you more overall. You and your personal budget are the only ones who can make that call.

I’ve been looking for announcements about the BBC programming, and haven’t seen any yet--if you have, please share any links! But I’ve known since I came back from BEA 2011 that I wanted to go again in 2012, so I registered this week.

Registering is the easy part, though--I have travel plans to make now, and that's where it gets interesting! Right now, I’m thinking that I’ll fly into New York on June 2 (the Saturday before) and have a free day on Sunday before BBC on Monday. I haven’t decided whether I’ll stay all the way through BEA or leave before Thursday. I also haven’t booked a hotel yet, and I’d really like to have a roommate this year--so as you make your plans, keep me in mind, and e-mail me if you’d consider that!

It's not too late to ask you about your plans for World Book Night.

You’ve probably heard about this already, but just in case you haven’t, the deadline to apply to be a book giver for World Book Night--to be held in the US and UK on April 23--is just a week away! WBN is looking for 50,000 volunteers to hand out books for the first time in the USA.

I love the idea of World Book Night. Each volunteer book giver will distribute 20 copies of one of 30 specially-selected books within his or her community, ideally to people who don’t read very much. The books are a mix of popular fiction, a few modern literary classics, accessible nonfiction, and young-adult favorites, and in keeping with the event’s mission, givers must have “read and loved” the title they are asking to hand out:
“World Book Night launched in the UK in 2011 and saw passionate readers across that beautiful country, give 1 million books to light or non readers to spread the joy and love of reading. Reading changes lives and at the heart of World Book Night lies the simplest of ideas and acts - that of putting a book into another person’s hand and saying ‘this one’s amazing, you have to read it’.”
Prospective givers list their first, second, and third giveaway choices on the application, and givers will be chosen based on “Where, to whom & why (they) want to give books away.”

And ultimately, those criteria are why I’ve decided not to apply to be a WBN book giver. I’ve started the application two or three times, and I may be overthinking things, but when the organization states that these are their selection criteria, I take them at their word. And it is painful to admit this, but I don’t have good answers for any of those questions. Besides that, the idea of physically handing a book to a non-book-loving stranger and telling him or her that they’ve got to read it is just a bit terrifying to this particular introvert; without solid motivation in the where/whom/why categories, it’s really hard to make a case for my doing this...aside from my aforementioned love of the idea, that is.

I’ll keep loving the idea, but I think it may be best to leave the execution of World Book Night to others. Have you applied to be a WBN book giver? What book do you want to give...and where, to whom, and why?

Monday, January 23, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *Ready Player One*, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One (book website)
Ernest Cline
Audiobook read by Wil Wheaton
Crown (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 030788743X / 9780307887436)
(Audio edition ISBN 9780307913159)
Fiction, 384 pages (Audio length 15 hours 46 minutes)
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible.com)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines, Chapter 1: “I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire in one of the neighboring stacks. The shots were followed by a few minutes of muffled shouting and screaming, then silence.

Gunfire wasn’t uncommon in the stacks, but it still shook me up. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I decided to kill the remaining hours until dawn by brushing up on a few coin-op classics. Galaga, Defender, Asteroids. These games were outdated digital dinosaurs that had become museum pieces long before I was born. But I was a gunter, so I didn’t think of them as quaint low-res antiques. To me, they were hallowed artifacts. Pillars of the pantheon. When I played the classics, I did so with a determined sort of reverence.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig. 
And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.
Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
Comments: I was never much of a gamer--unless the game was Trivial Pursuit. The only video game I ever enjoyed was Frogger, but I wasn't good at it. And until just a couple of days ago, when it came up as a plot point in this particular novel, I had no idea that Pac-Man had 256 levels; I don't hink I ever made it any further than the third. Having said that, I did spend a little time in arcades during my college years, and more often than not during the last couple of decades, I've had a videogame system in my house. In addition, there's no question that I'm a pop-culture addict--movies and TV and music--and I consumed plenty of it during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. In more ways than not, Ernest Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, is written in my language.

Cline's deep understanding and affection for nerd culture was evident in his screenplay for the cult-favorite movie Fanboys, and it fully informs his first novel. The plot momentum of Ready Player One--which is a highly plot-driven novel--relies on a slew of geeky details. Set in a not-too-distant future in which the current recession has yet to end and natural resources have been even further depleted, the characters here are just a few of the millions who choose to spend most of their lives in the virtual reality of the OASIS--so much more than a video game--rather than in the difficult and unappealing real world. Some go into the OASIS with a specific purpose, though; they're "gunters"--a contraction of "egg hunters"--searching for the "Easter egg" that its creator, James Halliday, programmed into it. For years, they've been trying to unravel the puzzles that leads to it, because the first person to find that secret will be the sole heir to Halliday’s fortune...and now that 17-year-old Wade Watts, known within the OASIS as Parzival, has become the first gunter to get within reach of the prize, the OASIS exerts a greater, and more dangerous, allure than ever before.

While there's really no profound statement at the heart of Ready Player One, it's an ambitious novel, largely because it has so much packed into it. It can be risky to reach so far, especially with a first novel, and at times it doesn't quite make it. While I found some of the delights of the novel in its details--for the most part, they are well-chosen and effectively deployed--at times it felt like were just too many of those details, and they threatened to weigh things down, particularly in the audio production (I might have just skimmed some of those sections in print, to be honest.) On the other hand, and particularly when considered in light of Cline's background as a screenwriter, the precision of description makes for very effective world-building, and I appreciated how easy he made it to visualize the story. And for the record, this story will make one heck of a movie (yes, the rights have been acquired, although Cline's screenplay will be rewritten by someone else).

I read this in audio, since it’s been awhile since I listened to fiction and wanted to give it another go. Although there were times that I felt that the format unfortunately emphasized some of the weaknesses in the prose and made the novel feel longer than it needed to be, I think it was a good call, and the choice of reader for the audiobook is perfect. Wil Wheaton doesn't just get nerd culture; he's a participant in it, and as a former cast member of a Star Trek series, he's a component of nerd culture. He sounded like he was genuinely enjoying himself, even during some of the less-compelling instances in the story, such as recitations of the the standings in the egg hunt (some of the details I'd have skimmed in a print copy). That enjoyment was contagious. Despite its imperfections, and not just because of the nerdy and period-specific details, I was thoroughly engaged and entertained by Ready Player One--it deserves its place on the Speculative Fiction short list for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards.

Rating: 3.75/5

This book counts for the 2012 Audiobook Challenge (1/6)

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Talk: *The Underside of Joy*, by Sere Prince Halverson (BlogHer Book Club)

The Underside of Joy
Sere Prince Halverson
Dutton Adult (January 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0525952594 / 9780525952596)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Publisher (ARC)
Reason for reading: BlogHer Book Club

I was compensated by BlogHer.com for writing this review and participating in discussions about the book; all opinions are expressed are my own.

Opening lines: “I recently read a study that said that happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics--a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can only be as deep as your gene pool.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website: To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule-never turn your back on the ocean-and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets. 
For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth.
Comments: I’ve been a stepparent for several years, and in my experience, it’s a relationship without all that many hard-and-fast rules; it can vary as much as stepparents and stepchildren do themselves. In the best cases--and I hope that mine is one of them--genuine love and familial bonds develop. However, in many cases, no legal bonds are formed, especially when the children’s other parent is still a major presence in their lives. My legal relationship is with my husband, my stepchildren’s father. There’s a shared-custody agreement between him and their mother. If something should happen to him, I would technically have no relationship with these kids--with whom I’ve lived, traveled, and shared major life events for over half a decade--other than one based on goodwill. That might not be enough.

Sere Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, explores a family where it’s nowhere near enough. Having arrived on the scene just a few months after Joe Capozzi’s wife left him and their two small children--one just a baby--Ella Beene falls very easily into their lives, and a near-instant family is born. Three years later, that family is almost as instantly broken when Joe is suddenly swept into the ocean and drowned. Ella’s struggles with her own grief, and that of the daughter and son who feel like her own, are complicated by the unexpected discoveries she’s making about things Joe never told her...especially the ones about the family business that’s barely surviving and the children’s mother who wants to re-establish her relationship with them. Paige Capozzi left her kids while in the depths of major postpartum depression, fearful for their safety with her; she’s recovered now and rebuilding her life, and wants them back in it. The fact that her children have just lost their father and have little recollection of her as their mother isn’t going to deter her from pursuing that goal.

One dead parent and a custody conflict would be enough domestic drama on their own, but Halverson adds in a history of family secrets and Things Not Discussed to raise the stakes. Some of the Things Not Discussed were between Ella and Joe, and as she starts digging into them after his death, she’s forced to recognize her own complacency and willingness not to know. Willful denial plays at least as much of a role in this family’s lives as does deliberate secret-keeping, and things don’t begin to change until Ella pushes herself past her own denial and begins to dig for the truth.

There is a lot of story packed into The Underside of Joy, but little of it feels extraneous. Having said that, there were a few plot points that felt a bit contrived and Lifetime-movie-ish to me, most notably one dramatic episode near the end of the novel; I was invested enough in this family’s story by then that I found it unnecessary. Author Halverson is both a mother and a stepmother, and although she chooses to narrate the story through stepmother Ella’s first-person perspective, she deals with the complex nuances of the relationships here with great empathy and effectiveness, and I was very impressed by that. The Underside of Joy looks at the blended-family relationship under fairly extreme conditions, but within that framework, it explores some broader truths, both factual and emotional.

Rating: 3.75/5

The BlogHer Book Club will be discussing The Underside of Joy for the next few weeks--please join us, and check out some of the other reviews!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Today's post doesn't count, because I'm sending you elsewhere

I'm not officially "going dark" today, but since I'm sending you to read someone else's post somewhere else, I'm not really counting this as a post...

Some major websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, are taking themselves offline in a one-day protest against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), two pending Congressional bills that could change the Internet as we know it--and not necessarily for the better. Social-media wise woman (and my friend) Jessica Gottlieb breaks it down at MomsLA, and points out:
"Politicians aren’t known for being web savvy. In addition to dealing a deadly blow to just about the only part of the US economy that is actually flourishing, the House of Representatives appears confuddled about what the internet actually is."
Go read the rest--we're all on a need-to-know basis with this.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

At the movies: *The Descendants*

The Descendants
2011, Drama/Comedy (PG-13)
Starring: George Clooney
Drected by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar-winning Sideways, set in Hawaii, The Descendants is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney) an indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. The event leads to a rapprochement with his young daughters while Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family's land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries. -- (C) Fox Searchlight
After seeing The Descendants, I’m putting the novel it was adapted from on my wish list (despite the fact that the novel won’t have George Clooney). This is the sort of domestic fiction that I just eat up.

The “descendants” are the sprawling King family, whose deep roots in Hawaii include one of the last members of the islands’ royal family and the largest undeveloped tract of land on Kauai. The land, now worth many millions of dollars, has been held in trust for decades, but that arrangement is a few years from ending, and the numerous King cousins are entertaining sales offers and debating whether to sell it at all. Cousin Matt, a real-estate attorney, is the official trustee and will eventually act on the family’s vote, but he’s a little distracted right now: his wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident, and he’s just been told she won’t come out of it. Matt hasn’t been the most dedicated family man, but now he has to try to connect with his children and prepare everyone to say goodbye--a prospect complicated by a revelation his elder daughter shares about her mother.

The family drama that fuels The Descendants is leavened by some very funny character-consistent dialogue, particularly from Matt’s daughters Alex and Scottie; as Tall Paul observed, at least one of the writers must have kids. Some reviewers have criticized the frequent shifts in tone between comedy and drama, but they feel consistent with the story and the emotions are honest. The Hawaiian scenery is as gorgeous as you’d expect, and Clooney’s portrayal of a rather overwhelmed suburban dad is getting well-deserved awards buzz.

The Descendants is best described as a “slice-of-life” film (which usually make you appreciate that it’s not your life being sliced)--it might not be the most fun thing in theaters right now, but if you’re into Movies for Grown-ups, it’s one worth seeing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Magic on Wilshire Blvd.: Whimsic Alley at CBSLA.com

Until the new Harry Potter attraction opens at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2015, Hogwarts-craving locals can make their way to Whimsic Alley. This popular outlet for all things Harry Potter has moved from its original home in Santa Monica to a roomy new location at 5464 (and ¾) Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. In addition to an expanded sales area, the new store features an event space modeled on Hogwarts’ Great Hall (although its windows are a bit less imposing) and a staff who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their merchandise and its mythology.
Read more about this magical shop in my recent feature for CBSLA.com.

We made a visit to Whimsic Alley on the last day of 2011. It had been a couple of years since we were last there--so long ago that we hadn't even realized it had moved somewhere else! The new space is bigger, and so is its range of merchandise, but I was especially impressed by the young, enthusiastic, and unapologetically geeky staff who assisted us with our shopping. And shop we did--and if we manage to get tickets for Comic-Con 2012, I will actually have a costume to wear. Look for me at the San Diego Convention in my Hufflepuff house robes! (That's where the Sorting Hat put me--although it was a close call with Ravenclaw--and it is not my place to question the Sorting Hat.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Talk: *The Western Lit Survival Kit*, by Sandra Newman (TLC Book Tour)

The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner
Sandra Newman
Gotham (January 2012), Paperback Original (ISBN 1592406947 / 9781592406944)
Nonfiction/literary criticism, 304 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour

From the Introduction: “This book treats Western lit like an amusement park. It offers a guide to the rides, suggesting which ones are fun for all ages, which are impossibly dull for all ages, and which might take a lot out of you but offer an experience you simply can’t get anywhere else.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: To many, the Great Books evoke angst: the complicated Renaissance dramas we bluffed our way through in college, the dusty Everyman's Library editions that look classy on the shelf but make us feel guilty because they've never been opened. On a mission to restore the West's great works to their rightful place (they were intended to be entertaining!), Sandra Newman has produced a reading guide like no other. Beginning with Greek and Roman literature, she takes readers through hilarious detours and captivating historical tidbits on the road to Modernism. Along the way, we find parallels between Rabelais and South Park, Jane Austen and Sex and the City, Jonathan Swift and Jon Stewart, uncovering the original humor and riskiness that propelled great authors to celebrity.
Comments: I’m (probably) in the middle of my “middle-age years,” and I’ve definitely been feeling the “so many books, so little time left (SMBSLTL)” pressure, particularly when it comes to classic literature. Outside of educational settings, the Western canon hasn’t played much of a role in my adult reading life--mostly by choice. And now, how likely is it that I’m going to spend some of that little time on books I’ve either had little interest in reading, or have actively avoided reading, for lo these many years? Let’s be honest--it’s probably not going to happen. I appreciate the cultural and historical literacy value in knowing about those books and their influence, but I don’t necessarily feel the desire or need to experience many of them for myself. And apparently I’m not alone. As Sandra Newman notes in the Introduction to The Western Lit Survival Kit, “Even people who don’t want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books.”

Newman really does mean to encourage reading of the Great Books themselves, although she’s well aware of the obstacles. As she acknowledges in the Introduction, “Literature is a pleasure. It should be emotionally satisfying, intellectually thrilling, and just plain fun. And if it isn’t, you shouldn’t feel bad about not reading it.”

Over the course of fourteen breezy chapters, Newman hits the literary milestones of over two thousand years with discussions of authors, works, and literary trends and styles. As might be expected in this format, most topics don’t get much space (and only Shakespeare gets a full chapter to himself), but there’s a surprising amount of depth in some sections, particularly as the book moves into last couple of centuries. The standout feature of the book is the charts that Newman uses to summarize each discussion, in which she assigns works ratings from 1 to 10 for Importance, Accessibility, and Fun (an assessment of how much enjoyment the reader may expect from the experience).

The charts are an excellent tool for making those SMBSLTL choices, particularly when all you want is to sample a book or two within a particular style or by a certain author. The rating criteria can be considered in combination or individually, since they recognize that different things matter to different readers. Some readers may prefer a less Important book that’s more Fun, for example. Others may be primarily interested in the books with the highest combined ratings (that would be Pride and Prejudice, which scores a perfect 10 across the board--and which is one canonical work I have read).

Newman’s tone throughout the book is In keeping with her contention that literature should be a pleasure. I found reading The Western Lit Survival Kit to be satisfying, thought-provoking, and a lot of fun. Some bits, especially in the early chapters, were laugh-out-loud funny, although perhaps less so if you’re not fond of snarky humor. Personally, I’m quite fond of snarky humor, so it was just one more reason for me to like this book very much. The Western Lit Survival Kit is going on my keeper shelf--I just might be making use of some of those charts. On its own scale, I rate it:

Importance - 8
Accessibility - 10
Fun - 9

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:
Monday, January 2nd: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Tuesday, January 3rd: Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, January 4th: DBC Reads
Thursday, January 5th: Book Hooked Blog
Friday, January 6th: Bibliophiliac
Monday, January 9th: Bibliosue
Tuesday, January 10th: Unabridged Chick
Thursday, January 12th: Library of Clean Reads
Friday, January 13th: Books Distilled
Monday, January 16th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, January 17th: Shooting Stars Mag
Wednesday, January 18th: Luxury Reading
Thursday, January 19th: Joyfully Retired
Friday, January 20th: Book Snob
Tuesday, January 24th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, January 25th: Literary Musings
Thursday, January 26th: Between the Covers

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

This is what "obese" looks like

Eight years ago, I lost over 25 pounds on a Weight Watchers plan. That may not sound like all that much in and of itself, but on a body that's only 4 feet 8 inches tall, it's pretty significant. And it's a lot of work to keep it from coming back. As 2012 began, I had to confront the fact that I haven't been doing that work very well.

I've been fighting the knowledge for some time that it’s not working any more, but it was confirmed a couple of weeks ago when I had my first appointment with a new primary-care physician; on the BMI (body-mass index) scale, I'm at 32, which means that in clinical terms, I am obese. Is it obvious? (You don't have to answer that. Actually, please don't answer that.)

Granted, BMI is a rather controversial measure, especially at the extremes of the height scale; I'd have to be at least 8 inches taller for my current weight to be in the "normal" BMI range. (As Garfield the cat said, "I'm not overweight, I'm undertall.") But other numbers support the verdict, particularly my blood pressure and measures of my general fitness levels. My self-image isn’t doing so well either. I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I can still wear many of my clothes that are size S or 8--which was not the case the last time I weighed this much--but now I think all that really means is that I’m carrying the weight differently this time. Either that, or I just don’t want to bury myself in oversized clothing like I did a decade ago. (Besides, the oversized clothing just provides more room to grow into it, and realistically speaking, that isn’t helpful either.)

My eating habits aren’t as good as they were when I was doing Weight Watchers and taking my maintenance seriously, but they’re not terrible; I’ve mostly gotten lazy and inattentive to the food choices I'm making. And speaking of lazy, what’s truly undone me is the lack of regular exercise for close to two years. When Gypsy died, I no longer had my prompt to get out and walk twice a day, but dislocating my shoulder six months later really derailed me. Two dislocations, shoulder surgery, and getting to full recovery put me out of commission for close to a year. However, it’s been well over half a year since I could truly claim that as an excuse--and it’s not like it affected my legs. I still could have been walking.

My last medical checkups were more than a wake-up call; they were a slap in the face. I’m getting back to work on this now, but it’s definitely work, especially the exercise. It does help that I have company at home, though; Tall Paul is also trying to get healthier, and we’re supporting each other. Technology is also supporting both of us--we’ve both put pedometer (free version) and food-tracking apps on our iPhones, and we’re using them daily. We’re recording our food intake and making time for walking a few days a week (Tall Paul’s also doing some running, I do not run). I know from my WW experience that food tracking works, and as an accountant, I understand working with a budget...but my calculated daily budget of just 1153 calories (based on current weight, height, age, goal weight, and a plan to lose a reasonable one pound per week) is often intimidating at this early stage, especially since I'm trying not to fall back on some of the "tricks" I learned in WW. Part of my goal this time is to do this eating real foods in appropriate portions and not resorting to a lot of specialty diet-brand stuff.

I hope it will become less intimidating after a few weeks of this. I’d forgotten how enlightening it feels to know about what you’re consuming and make smarter eating decisions based on it, and I hope I’ll soon be enjoying challenging myself by walking farther and faster (I’m not there yet). But I need to keep my brain wrapped around the idea that this is for the long haul, because at some point I let that slide.

I've initially set a weight goal for myself that's still in the "overweight" BMI range; if I can achieve that, I'll probably set a new one. Or I may not, if I feel like I've reached a level I can maintain fairly easily. But in all honesty, as long as my vital numbers are improved, I think I can live with a little “overweight,” especially at this stage of my life--I kind of like having some curves now. But “obese” is difficult for me to accept, and I’m doing this so I won’t have to accept it. I hope it works.

Monday, January 9, 2012

At the movies: *Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol*

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 
Mystery/Suspense, Action/Adventure (2011), rated PG-13
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec

Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
This is not just another mission. The IMF is shut down when it's implicated in a global terrorist bombing plot. Ghost Protocol is initiated and Ethan Hunt and his rogue new team must go undercover to clear their organization's name. No help, no contact, off the grid. You have never seen a mission grittier and more intense than this. -- (C) Paramount
When you’re part of a super-secret government mission force to begin with, how secret do you become when the government cuts you loose? You don’t officially exist, and if you continue carrying out your mission, it’s under a “ghost protocol”--official rules of operation for those who don’t officially exist that go well beyond “plausible deniability.”

(There’s my explanation of the title of the newest film in the Mission Impossible series, extrapolated from the actual explanation one character gives to another about halfway in.)

This isn’t a movie franchise I’ve kept up with; I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since the first one, and I don’t remember much about it except for all the masks. But in any case, the trailers for this one looked intriguing and Tall Paul and I are Simon Pegg fans, so we decided to accept this mission.

Ghost Protocol is the first live-action movie directed by Brad Bird, best known for his work in animation (including Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille), and it’s highly entertaining without being cartoonish or overly convoluted--the pace is good, there are some riveting action scenes, the plot isn’t confusing for confusion’s sake, and the masks are not overused.

I tend to appreciate non-superhero action movies where the hero ends up looking very beat-up by the end (Die Hard/Bruce Willis style), and I especially appreciated seeing that happen with a hero as well-known for his good looks as Tom Cruise--turns out he does bloodied-and-grubby pretty well.

However, I think what entertained me most here were the elements that reminded me of other J. J. Abrams projects (he directed the previous MI film and is a producer here). There’s a Lost connection: it was lovely to see Josh Holloway (speaking of the good-looking--I miss you, Sawyer!), but his part was too small. Simon Pegg is the obvious Star Trek link, and a reminder that the next movie in that series needs more Scotty. It was the Alias references that I especially enjoyed, though. That spy series definitely shares some DNA with MI--the gadgets, the disguises, the foreign intrigue--but for me, what stood out were the ways in which Paula Patton’s Jane sometimes channeled Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow at her butt-kicking best; there’s even a slight physical resemblance. (Come to think of it, I kind of miss Syd, too.)

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol doesn’t do the impossible, but it did accomplish something remarkable--it engaged and entertained me far more than I expected it to.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Salon: Kicking off 2012 by looking back at 2011

The Sunday Salon.com

It's usually both fun and challenging to come up with my annual Books of the Year list, and 2011 was no exception. It might have been easier if I'd read more books that weren't very good, but that was not the case; the overall level of my reading last year was pretty high. 

Having said that, my year-end picks aren't necessarily the books that I rated the very highest--they're the ones that have stuck with me over time and kept me thinking. In the first year I've listened to audiobooks, two of them ended up on the list, and it was an especially good year for my nonfiction reading. 

If I've piqued your curiosity, please check out 2011 In Review, The Reading (Part 2)--Books of the Year. (Part 1 was the year in book stats, and a list of some of the books I didn't get around to reading in 2011.)

One of my 2011 Books of the Year was a winner in the 2010 Indie Lit Awards, and another is a nominee in the 2011 Awards! The short lists were just announced. As a judge on the Biography/Memoir panel, I'm excited about reading and discussing the books on our list and choosing our eventual winner, but there are some great titles up in every category, including the two newest, Mystery and Poetry. Thanks to everyone who submitted nominations, and here are the contenders. (Panel members will not be posting reviews of the books they're considering until after the winners are announced in March.)

Biography/ Memoir
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin)
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books)
  • I Pray Hardest When Being Shot At by Kyle Garret (Hellgate Press)
  • Little Princes by Conor Grennan (William Morrow)
  • Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch (Harper)
  • Well With My Soul by Gregory Allen (ASD Publishing)
  • Swimming to Chicago by David Matthew Barnes (Bold Strokes Books)
  • Songs of the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout (Circumspect Press)
  • Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender by Nick Krieger (Beacon Press)
  • Huntress by Melinda Lo (little brown books for young readers)
  • Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney (Syracuse University Press)
  • Cross Currents by John Shors (Penguin Group: NAL Trade)
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group)
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
  • The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene (Penguin Group)
  • Missing Daughter, Shattered Family by Liz Strange (MLR Press)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/LIttle, Brown)
  • A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (St. Martin’s Press)
  • The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes by Marcus Sakey (Dutton)
  • Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown)
  • Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe (Putnam Adult)
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (Crown)
  • Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper)
  • Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku (Doubleday)
  • The Social Animal by David Brooks (Random House)
  • Beyond Scent of Sorrow by Sweta Vikram (Modern History Press)
  • Catalina by Laurie Soriano (Lummox Press)
  • What Looks Like an Elephant by Edward Nudelman (Lummox Press)
  • Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems by Ramos, Emma Eden (Heavy Hands Ink)
  • Sonics in Warholia by Megan Volpert (Sibling Rivalry Press)
Speculative Fiction
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick)
  • The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking)
  • 11/22/1963 by Stephen King (Scribner)
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor Books)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown)
Looks like there are some busy weeks of reading in some people's futures...but before I get into mine, I'll be finishing up some review reading for Shelf Awareness and preparing for my next round with the BlogHer Book Club. What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 in Review, The Reading (part 2)--Books of the Year

Books of the Year

Since I did rate so many of the books I read in 2011 at the higher end of the scale, it was especially challenging to choose the standouts. My “Books of the Year” selections are not strictly the highest-rated reads, however, although none received less than a 4/5 rating. They’re also the books that have stayed with me best, and have continued to come up in conversation. Since my nonfiction reads were especially strong, I’ll lead off with those.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This was the thoroughly deserving winner of the first Indie Lit Award in Nonfiction.
“When we talk about the mid-20th-century civil-rights movement, we're usually thinking of the struggles to end legal segregation in the American South. But Wilkerson's book demonstrates the ways that black people who left the South and its Jim Crow system for city life in the North and West changed that system from the outside - not by political means, but by the very fact of making lives away from it. It also illustrates that racist systems are more than capable of developing on their own, via cultural forces rather than force of law.”
Bossypants, by Tina Fey (audio)
The book that initiated me into the pleasures of reading by ear would be on my Books of the Year list for that reason alone, but it would still be here if I’d read it in print.
“Tina Fey's autobiography isn't terribly remarkable. She had a middle-class upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs as the younger child and only daughter of parents who are still married to each other; college; a move to Chicago to work, study improvisational theatre, and eventually join the Second City comedy troupe, which led to another move - this time to New York and a job as a writer for Saturday Night Live; creation of and a starring role in a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning sitcom inspired by her experience on SNL...and marriage and a family. Okay, some parts of her autobiography are pretty remarkable.”
Just Kids, by Patti Smith (audio)
This book made me a Patti Smith fan.
“Smith and Mapplethorpe were far more than best friends. As struggling young artists, they were roommates and, for a time, lovers (until they both accepted Robert’s homosexuality). And as their artistic paths diverged - Robert’s toward photography, Patti’s to poetry and music - they were one another’s muses. In Just Kids, Smith doesn’t over-analyze their complex relationship; she simply shares it intimately and openly, and makes it absorbing and engaging.”
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired CHICAGO, by Douglas Perry
“Within this framework, Perry delves into the stories of several other Chicago murderesses of the time, the reporters who told those stories to the public, the way things operated and the challenges faced by women at the newspapers where those reporters worked, and the unrestrained climate of Prohibition-era Chicago, where underground jazz clubs flourished and illegal liquor flowed freely. He’s got great material to work with, and he crafts it into a page-turner with a firm sense of its time and place. The pace is brisk, and the writing is vivid and occasionally breathless, but Perry succeeds in putting the reader right in the midst of events, including Watkins’ application of her satirical eye to shape them into a hit, prize-winning stage comedy.”

You Are My Only, by Beth Kephart
You Are My Only explores attachment from a number of perspectives; the fierce protectiveness of mother love is a primary theme, with the unconventional family across the alley--two elderly lesbian aunts and the teenage nephew they are raising--considered in counterpoint. These themes largely emerge between the lines, which is a hallmark of this author's storytelling style. Kephart’s writing is poetic and evocative, and it rewards attention paid to it...and to the things she doesn't actually say. One of her great strengths is that she can tell a powerful story without hammering all the points home. And this is a powerful, memorable story, ambitious in structure and emotionally affecting.”
Faith, by Jennifer Haigh
“I was quickly drawn into the story, and despite feeling that being filtered through Sheila’s perspective keeps the other characters at a slight remove from the reader, I still found them complex and convincing. The story’s path wasn’t entirely predictable, and I appreciated being surprised by some of the turns it took. But Haigh’s strength in this novel, as it has been in her previous ones, is depicting the complications of family relationships - here, they’re colored by the multiple meanings of the title. Religious faith, as reflected in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, obviously plays a large role, but so does the concept of “faith” conveyed through belief and trust in those we know and love.”
Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
“Drawing on her own experience as a late 20th-century child immigrant from Hong Kong, Kwok creates a memorable character in Kimberly Chang, who arrives in Brooklyn with her mother, few possessions, rudimentary English-language skills, and a lot of pressure to succeed. Kimberly was a stellar student in China, and knows that repeating and exceeding her achievements in America is the best hope that she -- and her mother -- have for making a good life in their new country.”
Fathermucker, by Greg Olear
“Much of Fathermucker sounds like everyday conversation, actually--everyday right now. I’m torn over whether this is a strength or a weakness. Olear uses some very specific pop-cultural references and gives his characters dialogue that places them firmly in the 2010s. I appreciated that the novel was so current, but wonder if those details might cause it to become dated quickly--can a book be too contemporary? Then again, Fathermucker could just as easily turn out to be an artifact marking and elaborating on a particular point in our social history.”