Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Foto (Edit): Getting From Here to There

I've been getting much more into photo-blogging this summer, and in the process, I've become more comfortable with photo-editing techniques and technology. Participating in the #photoaday meme has certainly encouraged me to play around with pictures, and every now and then, I like to share how I create a particular post. All of my editing is done on mobile devices; in order to replicate my techniques precisely, you'll need the Apple iPhoto app for iOS, but I'm sure there are suitable apps for other platforms as well.

The #photoaday prompt for Sunday, August 26 was "Dream." While there are a number of ways to approach this, I thought I'd search my photo library for a landscape that looked like it could be dreamlike. I chose this one, taken at the Grand Canyon in June of 2008, and opened it in iPhoto to edit it.

original photo: Grand Canyon National Park, June 2008

My first step in preparing a shot for #photoaday is cropping it square, so it will optimally display in Instagram. I cropped this one below the horizon level and narrowed it, focusing in on the foreground.

I increased the contrast with the Exposure edit tool, and tweaked the colors using the "Blue Skies" and "Greenery" sliders in the Color tool.

Next, I opened the Brushes tool. I used "Soften" on the background and the shrubbery in the foreground, and "Sharpen" on the rock formation. My final change was applying a "Saturated Film" effect, with Vignette, from the Vintage selection bar in Effects.

I didn't have any other iPhoto adjustments I wanted to make, so at that point I saved the edit picture to the Camera Roll and re-opened it in Phonto, where I added tagging text. When I finished that, I was ready to post to Instagram.

edited photo: #photoaday August 26, 2012--"Dream"

Some of my photo posts don't get nearly this much alteration, but I thought the "dream" prompt lent itself to a bit more creativity.

If you've been thinking about joining #photoaday, take a look at the September prompts and see what inspires you!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Picturing August, part 2: #photoadayaug

A few of my favorite #photoaday posts from the second half of August--you can see all of them here, if you'd like to.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *The Barbarian Nurseries*, by Héctor Tobar

cover: THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES by Hector Tobar, via IndieBound The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel
Héctor Tobar
Audiobook narrated by Frankie J. Alvarez
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0374108994 / 9780374108991)*
Fiction, 432 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio via Audible.com--Audible ASIN B005PTOP5M)
Reason for Reading: personal interest, local/topical, "LA’s Summer Reading Guide" on CBSLA.com
*paperback release scheduled September 2012

Opening lines: “Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn't start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn't begin to roar. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website:Araceli is the live-in maid in the Torres-Thompson household—one of three Mexican employees in a Spanish-style house with lovely views of the Pacific. She has been responsible strictly for the cooking and cleaning, but the recession has hit, and suddenly Araceli is the last Mexican standing—unless you count Scott Torres, though you’d never suspect he was half Mexican but for his last name and an old family photo with central L.A. in the background. The financial pressure is causing the kind of fights that even Araceli knows the children shouldn’t hear, and then one morning, after a particularly dramatic fight, Araceli wakes to an empty house—except for the two Torres-Thompson boys, little aliens she’s never had to interact with before. Their parents are unreachable, and the only family member she knows of is Señor Torres, the subject of that old family photo. So she does the only thing she can think of and heads to the bus stop to seek out their grandfather. It will be an adventure, she tells the boys. If she only knew . . .

With The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar gives our most misunderstood metropolis its great contemporary novel, taking us beyond the glimmer of Hollywood and deeper than camera-ready crime stories to reveal Southern California life as it really is, across its vast, sunshiny sprawl of classes, languages, dreams, and ambitions.
Comments: The blurb at the head of the publisher’s page for The Barbarian Nurseries suggests that it is a “a twenty-first century, West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities--Los Angeles’ great panoramic social novel.” Sometimes that catalog copy is effective shorthand for what a book offers and sometimes it’s not, but in this case it’s not far off the mark--and not just because “bonfires” (of various origin, but usually due to natural causes) are probably much more common in the reclaimed desert of Southern California than they are in New York City. Ambitious in scope and specific in its details, The Barbarian Nurseries also captures a particular moment in time across various socioeconomic strata in an American metropolis, and like Tom Wolfe, Héctor Tobar comes to fiction from a background in journalism. That said, Tobar’s satire isn’t quite as biting as Wolfe’s can be, but neither is his writing subject to Wolfe’s over-the-top, hyperbolic tendencies.

The central plot of The Barbarian Nurseries involves the family of Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, who bought their home in an exclusive Orange County gated community when the software company they launched was acquired several years earlier, enabling a new lifestyle maintained with the help of three Spanish-speaking domestic employees. But now the recession has come to their single-income household, and they’ve had to let the gardener and the nanny go, adding to the work of their live-in housekeeper Araceli Ramirez--not that anyone discussed this with her. There’s not much discussion of anything in the Torres-Thompson home, really, but there are increasingly frequent arguments about money; the morning after an unusually vicious one of those arguments, Araceli discovers that both Scott and Maureen have left the house--but their sons, 11-year-old Brandon and 8-year-old Kenan, are still at home. Two days and assorted miscommunications later, neither parent has returned, and Araceli is weary; she wasn’t hired to take care of children. The only extended-family member she knows about is Scott’s father, and the only clue she has to his whereabouts is an old photo taken years earlier in East Los Angeles--but Araceli’s people don’t move around much, so she has no reason to think he wouldn’t still be there, and she decides that the best course of action would be to deliver the boys to their grandfather until their parents return. And when the parents do return--separately, as they left--they’re distressed to find that both their sons and their maid are missing.

The Barbarian Nurseries is primarily a plot-driven novel--and that plot progresses based on a number of misunderstandings--but much of the story is underpinned by contemporary themes that have particular resonance in Southern California: socio-economic and class conflict, notably that involving recent Spanish-speaking immigrants, political and media opportunism arising from those conflicts, and exactly how “assimilated Latinos”--long-term or native-born residents who look “white” and whose only daily use of the Spanish language is their own last names--fit into the picture. A less weighty, but equally SoCal, theme concerns keeping up appearances--a lifestyle you really can’t afford, a persona and self-presentation that overrides genuine intimacy and connection.

By shifting perspectives between Maureen, Scott, Araceli, and various secondary characters, Tobar is able to explore a range of attitudes and experiences of modern life in and around Greater Los Angeles, as well as reflections on how it’s changed in recent decades. As a non-native who married into an assimilated-Latino family, I found some of the perspectives quite insightful and enlightening. However, a trade-off of presenting such a varied cast of characters can be that development of individuals suffers, and I think that’s an issue here. I couldn’t sustain much sympathy for Scott and Maureen, and I felt that Maureen in particular was more of a “type” than an individual. That said, the novel hinges on Araceli, and I thought she was brought to life with complexity and humanity. I also enjoyed Brandon Torres-Thompson, the 11-year-old. He’s bright, bookish and imaginative, and has been sheltered to the degree that he seems to give fiction and fact equal weight as he encounters the world; I’ve known a few kids like him. (I’ve lived with a kid like him.)

I began The Barbarian Nurseries on audio at the same time I was reading Bridget Hoida’s So L.A., and they provided interesting counterpoint to one another. (It seems that the only way I can successfully two-time books is if I’m listening to one of them.) It was a good choice for a commuting book (particularly for this Los Angeles commuter), but unlike some audios where good narration seems to bring out weaknesses in the writing, I felt that the quality of Héctor Tobar’s writing wasn’t always well-served by Frankie J. Alvarez’s reading. His handling of the prose passages was fine, but I didn’t care for many of his character voices. That said, it wasn’t problematic enough to make me sorry I read this in audio format, as the print version is a chunkster--but if you’re up for chunksters, you might want to go the print route instead.

The Barbarian Nurseries came to my attention as a “read it soon” book when I was compiling the "Summer Reading Guide" for CBSLA, and I think it could provoke some thoughtful and spirited discussion, particularly among Southern California readers and their book groups.

Rating: Book--4/5; Audio--3.5/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Salon: All in the Timing

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Thanks to everyone who joined in the "bibliotherapy" conversation in last week's Sunday Salon, and I'm very sorry for not participating more with replies to your comments, but it really was that kind of a week, I'm afraid.

(No) thanks to an unanticipated explosion of the work-related kind--not a literal one, fortunately, but the kind that required long days at the office and taking work home--I've been a very scarce presence in the blogging world for a few days. My fingers are crossed that this week will lighten up a bit, but I am a little nervous about what Monday morning will bring---and there's another big project looming at the beginning of September. I've just about reached a comfort level with posting just three or four times a week...and everyone can use a little time off from blogging once in a while, I suppose, but I prefer mine to be planned, not an accident caused by lack of time.

Sometimes timing accidents are fortunate, though, and apparently I was out in front of a little bibliotherapy discussion trend. The Huffington Post Books section had an item up on Tuesday about the School of Life program I blogged about here last week; and although she never actually used the term in her Book Riot post "Why What You're Reading Matters," I think it's what Wallace was talking about:
"...(R)eading books that show what life is really like doesn’t make anything in your life worse than it was before; instead, it shows you how very not alone we are, and how very unrealistic our expectations can be when we surround ourselves in a culture that only represents an ongoing, unrealistic happiness."
Somehow--and surprisingly--I had time to finish two books (one print, one audio) and start one more last week, and with luck, I'll spend more time with that book today (a review title for Shelf Awareness). And my hope for September--I hesitate to say "plan," because that implies a commitment I'm not sure I can keep--is that I'll get to read a few of the ARCs I brought back from BEA as their pub dates are coming around.

SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer--image from LibraryThing via Amazon.comTELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon--image from LibraryThing via Amazon.comONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO by Jonathan Tropper--image from LibraryThing via Amazon.com

They will have to work around October Shelf Awareness review reading and a TLC Book Tour at the end of the month...and contend with my growing desire not to be the last person on earth to read Gone Girl, which is waiting for me in the Nook app on my iPad.

And on top of that, I want to read something suitable for Banned Books Week in late September (Sept. 30--Oct. 4), which I couldn't manage last year--I'm thinking The Outsiders, which I haven't read since high school (thanks to that Rob Lowe audiobook I listened to last month).

New books to read, an old book to re-read, review commitments to keep...and when, if ever, will I get around to the new-to-me books that have been hanging around my house for so long that they're growing old unread? Kim has had a copy of Atlas Shrugged waiting on the shelf for twelve years; The Corrections has been sitting in my TBR Purgatory for almost as long, and I don't see it coming out any time soon.

Do you know what book on your shelf has gone unread the longest? And what book(s) do you plan to make time for this week?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Talk: *The Baker's Daughter*, by Sarah McCoy (TLC)

The Baker’s Daughter: A Novel
Sarah McCoy (blog) (Facebook) (Twitter) (Goodreads)
Crown (January 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0307460185 / 9780307460189)
(paperback edition publishing August 2012)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for Reading: TLC Book Tour

Opening lines: “Long after the downstairs oven had cooled to the touch and the upstairs had grown warm with bodies cocooned in cotton sheets, she slipped her feet from beneath the thin coverlet and quietly made her way through the darkness, neglecting her slippers for fear that their clip might wake her sleeping husband. She paused momentarily at the girl’s room, hand on the knob, and leaned an ear against the door. A light snore trembled through the wood, and she matched her breath to it. If only she could halt the seasons, forget the past and present, turn the handle and climb in beside her like old times. But she could not forget.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger. 
Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine. Reba is perpetually on the run from memories of a turbulent childhood, but she’s been in El Paso long enough to get a full-time job and a fiancé, Riki Chavez. Riki, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, finds comfort in strict rules and regulations, whereas Reba feels that lines are often blurred. 
Reba’s latest assignment has brought her to the shop of an elderly baker across town. The interview should take a few hours at most, but the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery is no easy subject. Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of darker times: her life in Germany during that last bleak year of WWII. And as Elsie, Reba, and Riki’s lives become more intertwined, all are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.
Comments: Elsie Schmidt Meriwether, the baker’s daughter--a successful baker and businesswoman in her own right--has carried many secrets with her during the sixty-plus years since World War II ended and she left Germany with her American army medic. Although Reba Adams is decades younger, the magazine writer has long-held secrets of her own. When the two of them meet for an interview about old-country holiday traditions, neither expects it to be the catalyst for the unwrapping and release of all those suppressed stories--and the feelings that accompany them.

In The Baker’s Daughter, Sarah McCoy covers an impressive amount of story within an economical 300 pages. In brief chapters that shift between past and present narratives, she explores the life of a German baker’s family during the last months of the Third Reich, the modern-day personal conflicts of an El Paso-based feature writer, and the unexpected friendship that grows out of the intersection of their stories. McCoy also weaves larger themes of cultural conflict into both the historical and contemporary threads of her story, via the Schmidt family’s Nazi connections and Reba’s Mexican-American fiancé Riki’s work with the Border Patrol, and makes a lesser-known component of the “master race” plan, the Lebensborn project, a significant part of Elsie’s family’s story. Between the history, the social issues, and the interpersonal relationships, this novel has quite a reach--and more often than not, it connects.

That said, at times The Baker’s Daughter felt a little overstuffed, and personally, I don’t think it would have suffered much from dropping a subplot or two. Although I appreciated the way that McCoy mirrored elements and themes in both of the novel’s timeframes, I’m not sure the illegal-immigrants thread was terribly vital, and I was probably close to halfway through the book before Reba and her story really engaged me. However, Elsie is the title character who carries the bulk of the novel, and in both the past and present, at seventeen and in her eighties, she was resourceful, caring, and affecting, and she thoroughly held my interest.

I don’t read much historical fiction and I’m not sure I’ve read any that has this particular perspective on the latter days of World War II, but I was engrossed by McCoy’s depiction of the struggles of ordinary Germans, coping with privation they begin to realize they’re on the losing side of history. I was also fascinated by Lebensborn; I’d never heard of it and don’t know how accurately it’s portrayed here, but the whole idea of a corps of young unmarried women who effectively served as both courtesans to select Nazis and producers of “perfected Aryan” children is all at once repugnant and surprisingly open-minded.

The Baker’s Daughter is “about” a lot of things--war, sisterhood, secrets, friendship, food--but ultimately it’s about Elsie Schmidt, and she’s got a great story. I’m not sure how much it really needs to be mixed with so many other stories here, but Sarah McCoy blends all the flavors together well, and in the end, I found this novel pretty satisfying.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Monday, August 6th: Rhapsody In Books
Tuesday, August 7th: I’m Booking It
Wednesday, August 8th: Girls Just Reading
Friday, August 10th: Life In Review
Monday, August 13th: The Book Garden
Wednesday, August 15th: Literary Feline
Thursday, August 16th: Luxury Reading
Monday, August 20th: I Read. Do You?
Tuesday, August 21st: A Novel Source
Thursday, August 23rd: The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Friday, August 24th: A Chick Who Reads
Monday, August 27th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, August 28th: Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, August 29th: Life is Short. Read Fast.
Thursday, August 30th: Drey’s Library
Monday, September 3rd: Twisting the Lens
Tuesday, September 4th: Walking With Nora
Wednesday, September 5th: Bookstack

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Talk: *ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World*, by Sabina Berman (SA)

ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
Sabina Berman (Blog) (Goodreads)
Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Henry Holt and Co. (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0805093257 / 9780805093254)
Fiction, 256 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (August 17, 2012). Shelf Awareness provided an Advance Reader's Copy (via the publisher) and monetary compensation.

Opening lines:

… the sea …
… and the white sand beach …
The sea flecked with sunlight all the way out to the horizon.
* * *
Then the white sand beach, where the waves roll in, dissolve into foam. And, up in the sky, a sun full of white fire.
* * *
I’m thirsty.
I’m going to stop writing and go get a glass of water.
* * *
And then, suddenly, 1 day, a girl, wearing socks and huaraches, sitting on a red blanket on the white sand."

As a college student, Karen Nieto was tested by a psychology class--that is, the class studied and tested her, and ultimately rendered a diagnosis: “highly functioning autistic.” In 90% of the areas they analyzed, her scores were those of a young child; in the other 10%, she was a certified genius. With the support of her aunt and an unusual business partnership, Karen is given unexpected opportunities to develop that 10% as she works with creatures who rarely test her--deep-sea tuna--and finds ways to cope with creatures who nearly always do--other humans.

Karen Nieto is a remarkable character, and Mexican playwright/poet Sabina Berman’s rendering of her unusual voice and personality in this, her debut novel, is equally remarkable. ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World wouldn’t work well as anything other than a first-person narrative; a large part of its success depends on making the reader engage with the world of the novel as Karen does, and Karen’s ways of engagement are very particular, beginning with the fact that animals and nature make far more sense to her than people do. In that context, it might seem paradoxical that the work that saves her family’s fishery business and ultimately brings her renown and riches involves developing more humane ways to cultivate tuna for the high-end consumer market, but she doesn’t see it that way. However, it does attract the unwelcome attention of a militant animal-rights group.

Through Karen, Berman explores some of the complicated issues surrounding modern agriculture in a way that never feels heavy-handed, and more importantly, she makes a potentially off-putting character sympathetic. ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World is a beautifully-written. emotionally affecting debut featuring a protagonist whose “different abilities” include surprising and charming the reader.
Book description, via the publisher's website:
As intimate as it is profound, and as clear-eyed as it is warmhearted, ME, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World marks an extraordinary debut by the award-winning Mexican playwright, journalist, and poet Sabina Berman. 
Karen Nieto passed her earliest years as a feral child, left alone to wander the vast beach property near her family's failing tuna cannery. But when her aunt Isabelle comes to Mexico to take over the family business, she discovers a real girl amidst the squalor. So begins a miraculous journey for autistic savant Karen, who finds freedom not only in the love and patient instruction of her aunt but eventually at the bottom of the ocean swimming among the creatures of the sea. Despite how far she's come, Karen remains defined by the things she can't do—until her gifts with animals are finally put to good use at the family's fishery. Her plan is brilliant: Consolation Tuna will be the first humane tuna fishery on the planet. Greenpeace approves, fame and fortune follow, and Karen is swept on a global journey that explores how we live, what we eat, and how our lives can defy even our own wildest expectations.
Somewhat Related Reading: Shelf Awareness review of
American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food, by Andrew F. Smith

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books--they're good for what ails ya!

I suspect that the idea that books can help us through challenging times in our lives is not exactly a revelation to most avid readers. We’re conditioned to turn to books in times of crisis--for the solace of familiar “comfort reads,” for information, for ideas that may shift (or strengthen) our perspectives. We’ve probably been practicing self-administered “bibliotherapy” for much of our lives, and we know it works:
"As generations of book lovers will tell you, literature transforms us. If pressed to say exactly how, most of us will mutter something about perspective or the experience of entering another person’s consciousness. But all would agree that our best-loved books have in some significant way changed us for the better.”
Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a memoir of the year she spent reading a book a day after the death of her sister, is essentially a record of her own personal course of bibliotherapy. Thinking about it a little more broadly, it seems to me that many memoirs of a “life in books” probably also chronicle some element of the reader/author’s turning to books in a difficult time, although it’s not necessarily as deliberate as Sankovitch’s.

But for those who may be less self-directed about seeking a reading cure, bibliotherapy has been codified:
“(T)he London-based School of Life (has) taken this intuition a step further. Their 'bibliotherapy' program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems... 
“…(T)here’s no objective measure of the results – all the (abundant) evidence of bibliotherapy’s efficacy is anecdotal. (Bibliotherapy offers) distance from and perspective on your troubles as you view them through the lens of other people’s lives. The people are mostly fictional (though some non-fiction is also prescribed) but they’re dealing with issues just like yours and almost certainly approaching them differently.”
The School of Life offers bibliotherapy for individuals, couples, and kids, and if you’re not in London, they offer remote sessions via Skype. In any case, the approach is the same: the client completes a pre-session questionnaire, and after discussing their reading history and current issues with a bibliotherapist, receives a personalized reading list designed to address their problems. The bibliotherapists have no special training; they are an author, an artist, and a bookstore owner, all avid lifelong readers, and their mission is to create the perfect “reading prescription” for each client.

The prescription reading lists don’t take the obvious route of self-help books; the bibliotherapists specialize in fiction, but may also recommend poetry, philosophy, and other creative nonfiction.

One of the things I love most about being a reader is that sometimes the best way to sort through what’s inside your own head is to be given a free pass into someone else’s, and I believe that nothing does that like reading fiction. That said, I’m not sure what’s being offered at the School of Life is particularly “biblio-therapeutic;” what it sounds like to me is a very personally curated, specifically targeted (and rather pricey) personal-shopper service for books (although it isn’t clear to me whether clients actually receive the books themselves, or just the recommendations).

During my own time of need for bibliotherapy a decade ago, my preferred treatments were memoir, history, and biography rather than fiction; I still wanted stories, but I wanted those stories to be real. And I still read those forms of nonfiction, but now it’s because I’ve discovered that I like them. Yes, books can transform us.

"Thoughts From My Reading" badge/ www.3rsblog.com

What are your favorite forms of bibliotherapy?
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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Picturing August, part 1: #photoaday

I'm doing the #photoaday meme again this month, and since we're halfway through August, I'm posting a few of my favorites here. My daily updates for the meme are on Instagram and shared to Twitter and Facebook, should you be interested in seeing them as they happen rather than in blog roundups.

Fountains at The Americana at Brand, Glendale, California

Spare change in the cupholder of my car

In my mother-in-law's patio garden

A sneak peek through the open door of an apartment down the street from my office. I do gripe about my daily commute into LA, but at least the scenery's more interesting than a suburban office park.

I took the next picture the same morning but didn't end up using it for #photoaday; I think it came from this apartment, and seeing it on the street was what caught my attention in the first place.
(Should this have a sign on it saying it's not open to the public?)

This was taken at the Memphis Zoo in May 2007, and is the first #photoaday I posted after editing with the iPhoto app on the iPad. The big white arrow points to the Administration building, where I had an office for four years. When I describe a place as "a zoo," I know from personal experience.

I've gotten a few questions about how I'm adding text to my photos. I'm using Phonto, a free mobile app for iOS (iPhone/iPad) and Android devices. It's well worth the price!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

At the movies: *The Campaign*

THE CAMPAIGN promo poster, via the movie's Facebook page

The Campaign
Comedy, 2012 (rated R)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, Katherine La Nesa, Sarah Baker
Written by: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell
Directed by: Jay Roach
Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
When long-term congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) commits a major public gaffe before an upcoming election, a pair of ultra-wealthy CEOs plot to put up a rival candidate and gain influence over their North Carolina district. Their man: naïve Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), director of the local Tourism Center. At first, Marty appears to be the unlikeliest possible choice but, with the help of his new benefactors' support, a cutthroat campaign manager and his family's political connections, he soon becomes a contender who gives the charismatic Cam plenty to worry about. As Election Day closes in, the two are locked in a dead heat, with insults quickly escalating to injury until all they care about is burying each other, in this mud-slinging, back-stabbing, home-wrecking comedy. -- (C) Warner Bros.
We’re just weeks from the quadrennial madness of the national political-party conventions that kick the election season into overdrive, and the madness seems to get madder--on multiple levels--every four years. The election-themed comedy The Campaign couldn’t be more timely or topical, and mines a lot of its humor without hugely exaggerating modern political campaigning. I’m not sure whether that’s funny or not, to be honest. Much of the 21st-century political process is as much fodder for horror as it is for satire.

In all honesty, I’m not a huge fan of either of The Campaign’s stars, Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis, but I liked the concept and there were some great scenes in the trailer, so I was open to giving it a shot. There’s plenty of the outrageous, outlandish, occasionally cringe-inducing humor one might expect from a vehicle with these two actors--and again in all honesty, I laughed a lot, and probably at plenty of things I shouldn’t have. That said, The Campaign also reflects some smarts about how the process it’s lampooning really works, and the more interest you have in politics--or, at the very least, you’re a fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart--the more you’ll appreciate that.

The specifics of the political shenanigans in The Campaignn are clearly exaggerated for comic effect, but much of their inspiration is stone-cold fact, and certainly cause for consideration (if not outright cynicism). It’s money that matters, now more than ever, and it’s in the hands of fewer than ever, steering things to their liking; public service to any “public” aside from the bankrollers is probably incidental, and it’s all more about the horse race than "service" anyway.

As the ridiculously wealthy and powerful Motch brothers tell a prospective candidate early in the film, “We’re job creators. So we’re also political creators.” When that candidate won’t play by their rules, they find another, Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, who doesn’t even grasp that these guys are the ones making the rules until it’s almost too late. Marty’s opponent, four-time Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), gets the rules, but doesn’t quite get--again, till it’s almost too late--that he may be undone by them. The stakes are pretty serious in real-world terms, but because The Campaign is a movie comedy, hijinks must ensue, and they do. Fortunately, they’re accompanied by some on-target observations and a satisfying fairy-tale ending. Real-world politics seem short of both these days.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Talk: *So L.A.*, by Bridget Hoida

cover of SO L.A. by Bridget Hoida, via publisher (Lettered Press)
So L.A.
Bridget Hoida (Facebook)
Lettered Press (2012), trade paperback original (ISBN 0985129433 / 9780985129439)
Fiction, 384 pages
Source: publisher
Reason for Reading: TLC Book Tour, CBS LA’s Summer Reading Guide

Opening lines: “The nine people I know in Los Angeles—and by know, I don’t mean people I lunch with, I mean the nine people who have seen me naked—those nine people would never believe it, but sometimes in the San Joaquin Valley it gets so hot the fields spontaneously catch fire. Just lick and burn and an entire crop of asparagus, Tokay seedless, rutabaga, hothouse or what have you are quite literally up in smoke. They didn’t believe it the first time and they won’t believe it the second, when I tell them about the ash that folds like walnuts into the swimming pool and the radio warnings to keep the dog off the asphalt. People from Los Angeles aren’t too good at willing suspension of disbelief, unless of course it involves Hollywood-celebrity-cellulite-secrets and million-dollar-mascara-wars, so I don’t much expect them to empathize with the Lodi fireman, dressed in yellow gear and aiming a single hose, not at the blaze, but at the sky. Firing water upwards into the clouds and watching it waterfall against the air and onto the charred umber.

“But, before I go too far, I suppose you could say the reverse is also true.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Magdalena de la Cruz breezed through Berkeley and built an empire selling designer water. She’d never felt awkward or unattractive… until she moved to Los Angeles. In L.A., where “everything smells like acetone and Errol Flynn,” Magdalena attempts to reinvent herself as a geographically appropriate bombshell—with rhinestones, silicone and gin—as she seeks an escape from her unraveling marriage and the traumatic death of her younger brother, Junah. 
Magdalena’s Los Angeles is glitzy and glamorous but also a landscape of the absurd. Her languidly lyrical voice provides a travel guide for a city of make-believe, where even Hollywood insiders feel left out.
Comments: The construction of Bridget Hoida’s debut novel, So L.A., consciously mimics that of the art form for which the city is best known: the movies. The book’s five sections are “takes,” the chapter titles would be appropriate to a screenplay, the physical descriptions are vivid and detailed, and the acknowledgements pages are (cleverly, I thought) presented in the style of film credits. And like some movies, the tone veers abruptly from comic to dramatic, and from down-to-earth to “what planet is this?”--it’s frustrating at times, and you wonder what it might have been if it had just settled down. But it’s compulsively watchable (or in this case, readable), and there’s enough good stuff in it that you’ll be interested to see what this writer/director does next.

Los Angeles is a city whose biggest industry is built on make-believe (and yes, that includes “reality” TV) and whose related mythology is based on self-reinvention, and Hoida’s Magdalena de la Cruz seems to be embracing it. She inhabits the glittery, status-conscious, idle-rich world that both promotes and feeds that myth--the “L.A.” that many people who know this city only from its entertainment products may think is the real thing, but that relatively few of its residents ever approach. Unlike many, Magdalena didn’t come here to act; she and her husband Ricky struck it rich in bottled water, and they moved from their home in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley to cultivate (no pun intended) this prime market. But there’s no question that during most of the time they’ve lived in Southern California, Magdalena has been acting out--transforming herself physically and behaviorally--driven by deep emotional conflicts perpetuated by the sudden death of her beloved brother two years earlier.

The sources of Magdalena’s conflicts are gradually revealed; they’re also responsible for the novel’s frequent tonal shifts, which I confess aggravated me at times. At one point I decided Magdalena just might be an unreliable narrator--I’m not completely sure Hoida intended her to be (although there are some self-aware passages suggesting that she did), but I enjoyed the novel more once I stopped fully trusting what the character was telling me. Oddly, it made her voice more authentic to me.

I’ve lived in the Greater Los Angeles area for a decade. It’s made me aware just how LA-centric many of the references in popular entertainment are--not just the geographical ones, either--and often caused me to wonder how those references are taken in by viewers and readers who don’t know this place. I suppose they’re what shapes the perceptions of the outside world--that is, they frame the concept of what is “so L.A.”--and I sometimes think they’re portrayed most effectively by those who bring their outsider perspective here. NorCal transplant Hoida accomplishes that, even as she furthers the myth-making.

Bridget Hoida shows talent and promise as a novelist, but So L.A. is a bit of a misfit. It seems to want to be a lightweight, breezy beach read, but it’s got a bit too much darkness and complexity underneath for that. I found it a sometimes frustrating, deeply moving in spots, occasionally nonsensical, and consistently interesting...come to think of it, it really might be pretty L.A.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Wednesday, August 15th: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, August 16th: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Monday, August 20th: Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, August 22nd: Sweet Southern Home
Thursday, August 23rd: Book Chatter
Monday, August 27th: Reviews by Molly
Tuesday, August 28th: Travel Spot 
Wednesday, August 29th: Book Club Classics!
Thursday, August 30th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, September 4th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, September 6th: Bookish Whimsy
Friday, September 7th: In the Next Room
Monday, September 10th: Colloquium
Tuesday, September 11th: Oh! Paper Pages
Wednesday, September 12th: Conceptual Reception
Thursday, September 13th: Seaside Book Nook

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Opportunity, community, and blogging's midlife crisis: Reflections

Ellis Island reception hall, June 2012
You might think that after doing something for four or five or seven years, or even longer, you’d have a pretty good sense of how it works and how you’re doing with it. You might even feel pretty sure of yourself in comparing yourself with your peers. Or you might not. Even with all your experience, you may feel uncertain of your place in the landscape. Then again, maybe the landscape itself has changed, which means you may have to reconstruct your place within it...or reconsider how much you even want one.

In some contexts, we might call this a midlife crisis. And based on the public reflections and re-evaluations I’ve been seeing for a while, I’d say blogging--at least, blogging as I’ve known it since early 2007--is deep into one. It crosses topical fields and has affected even the most well-established bloggers.

Many of us who consider ourselves “veteran” bloggers recall when it was a smaller world. We were interested in openness and honesty and thoughtful self-expression, no matter what we were expressing ourselves about. And because there weren’t nearly as many of us expressing ourselves, we found each other much more easily, and connections and community grew pretty readily as we did. We were figuring it all out as we went along, and when we did occasionally catch the attention of those outside our realm, they weren’t really sure what to make of us.

But the outside world caught on, eventually, and they saw opportunity--a new market. And in return, they offered opportunity--and when opportunity knocked, many of us answered, eagerly. And the doors of opportunity opened wider, and more bloggers came for the opportunities. Most of the later arrivals shouldn’t be called “opportunists,” in all fairness; plenty still came for the self-expression and stayed for the community. But still, opportunity expanded all around, and the balance of give-and-take began to shift back and forth at increasing speed. A free-for-all began to sort itself into winners and losers--and although it’s never been entirely clear how the cuts are made, the marketers (and the self-marketers) seem to come up on the winning side more often than not.

Certain events can crystallize the feeling that it’s all gotten out of hand, and no event does that like an off-line gathering of bloggers. The aftermath of BlogHer--attended by 5000 bloggers this year--usually brings on a round of post-conference reflections, and one of the recurring themes this year is that long-term bloggers are questioning whether the conference--and by extension, the world of blogging in 2012--is a place where they still have a place. I’ve collected some of those reflections into a Readlist I've titled "Blogging vets and the midlife reassessment.".

The book-blogger sector went through this self-assessment a couple of months ago. There was a strong sense that this year’s BEA Bloggers Conference offered very little to veteran book bloggers for whom being the object of marketing has lost its allure; we’ve learned that “free books” do have a cost. We’ve also learned that “working with” publishers and PR folks (and trying not to work directly with authors, because that can get overly personal and awkward) leaves us less time to do things with each other. But there are so many of us now, fragmented into ever-more-specialized niches, that there are times when it’s very difficult to see us as one single “book-blogger community” doing things together any more.

And there are times I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The whole community may be too much for one individual blogger to navigate, but within that whole, most of us manage to find our tribes. Andi and Heather are about as “veteran” as book bloggers get, and their new collective venture, The Estella Society (launching next week!), aims to help us through this midlife crisis by reconnecting with our tribal roots.
“(T)he truth of the matter is that the book blogging community is a very confusing place to be these days. Early adopters in the mid-2000s were tickled to find one another. Most of us were searching for other readers such as ourselves and we found each other online in Yahoo! Groups and eventually via blogs. We didn’t fight or quibble. We enjoyed each other and we enjoyed our community. 
In light of the state of book blogging now, Heather and I have arranged an Estella rebirth. This time, as… 
The Estella Society…a reading playground by book bloggers, forbook bloggers. Our goal is to build community. 
Much like Estella’s Revenge E-zine did back in the day, we’ll ask book bloggers to come together to provide the content for this site. We envision feature articles, regular columns, reviews and reactions, original content and syndicated content, read-alongs, readathons, polls, news, humor, and artwork. Your imagination is limitless and we want to know your ideas and have your participation. We urge any and all bloggers to come up with their own dreams to throw into the mix.”
I’m curious to see how this back-to-basics approach will pan out in the current blogging landscape, but I’m excited that the Estella gals are going for it, and I fully intend to be in their playground. I wouldn’t say that my blogging’s in a full-blown midlife crisis, but I am self-assessing. I know I miss the old sense of community, and getting back to at least some of the basics sounds pretty good to me sometimes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pictures from the Past: sketches by my mother

Before I wrote, I drew pictures. It runs in the family. My ability and my style both came from my mother, and my sister and I both loved flipping through her old sketchbooks when we were kids.

Most of those books have been lost during the years (and moves) since then, but my sister does have thirteen pages of Mom's drawings, and she recently scanned them so we'd have copies to keep. I thought I'd show y'all a few of them. None are dated, but I think most may pre-date marriage and children (mostly because I have more memories of seeing her reading than sketching--I got that from her, too).

My mom was legally blind, and had almost no formal art training. In light of that, I wholeheartedly agree with my sister's comment that "(A)s bad as her eyesight was, I always marveled at my mom's ability to show perspective and her attention to detail."

Given the subject matter of this one, we think it may have been drawn during her Catholic-school years (she graduated high school in 1947).
"The Annunciation," undated sketch by Mary Ann Corsino

This may be a later drawing (possibly from the 1960's or even the '70's), based on the lighter pencil strokes. I don't know whether it was due to her declining vision, having less time to work on her art, or something else, but my impression is that her style became more tentative over time.
pseudo-portrait, undated sketch by Mary Ann Corsino Lantos

My sister commented "I find it interesting that my mother, who was an introvert, drew a lot of party and social pictures." I suspect some of them were meant as illustrations of scenes from books she read (but I may be projecting, because I liked to draw those). I think the color may have been added later, and she doesn't seem to have gotten around to finishing it.
social scene, undated sketch by Mary Ann Corsino Lantos

This one seems unfinished, but what's completed is so beautifully detailed; I think it's my favorite of the bunch.
undated sketch by Mary Ann Corsino Lantos

Thanks to Teresa for scanning Mom's drawings and sending them to me, providing both an archive record and blog fodder. And just in case you were going to ask: My old sketchbooks are lost to...somewhere, so I doubt you'll be seeing any of my drawings here. Hers are better anyway, trust me. Besides, these days, I'd rather take pictures than draw them.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Motherless Child*, by Marianne Langner Zeitlin

cover of MOTHERLESS CHILD by Marianne Langner Zeitlin (via IndieBound) Motherless Child
Marianne Langner Zeitlin
Zephyr Press (July 2012), trade paper original (ISBN 0983297053 / 9780983297055)
Fiction, 300 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (August 3, 2012), which provided an advance reader's copy and compensation.

Opening Lines: "At nine-thirty on a cool November morning in 1977, Elizabeth Guaragna picked up a copy of the New York Times from a a vendor at her subway station and, in anticipation of cramped subway space, opened it to the entertainment section, folded it back in double, and turned to go. The announcement that Alfred Rossiter had left the music conglomerate he had founded to open a new agency hit her between the eyes."

Comments: Marianne Langner Zeitlin’s third novel, Motherless Child, draws on her background in the “business” side of the music business (classical division) to frame an engrossing tale of family secrets, seasoned with elements of psychological mystery and a touch of romance.

The Guaragna family knows loss all too well--the death of a child, the abrupt decline of a musical career, the disappearance of a mother--and for decades, they’ve placed the blame for those losses on music impresario Albert Rossiter. Now, in what one might expect to be the declining years of his career, Rossiter is instead launching a high-profile new management firm, and the youngest Guaragna child, Elizabeth, sees an opportunity to learn more about her family’s nemesis. While she lacks management experience, she possesses the musical knowledge to land a position as Rossiter’s assistant, and--calling herself Lisa Sullivan--begins to know her enemy. Rossiter’s would-be biographer, George Wentworth, is also getting to know him, and what he is learning could reshape Elizabeth’s entire understanding of her family’s history.

Shifting perspectives between Elizabeth and George until she ultimately brings them together, Zeitlin’s narrative draws the reader into both characters’ search for the truth about the complicated and powerful Albert Rossiter and immerses them in the culture business of the late 1970s (a time that makes Eizabeth/Lisa’s charade more plausible than it might be now). With a plot that takes some unexpected turns--and characters who do the same--Motherless Child should appeal to fans of thought-provoking women’s fiction.

Rating: 3.25/5
Book description, from the publisher's website:
Set in the world of classical music, Marianne Langner Zeitlin’s third novel is a suspenseful page-turner that takes us on a young woman's quest to understand her family’s difficult past. Under an assumed name, Elizabeth Guaragna takes a job with the famed music manager Alfred Rossiter, who was once her late mother's lover. Rossiter’s name was synonymous with evil in Elizabeth’s home: he had lured her mother away from the family, and then used his power to squelch her father’s career as a concert pianist. After Elizabeth meets the writer George Wentworth, who is writing a biography of Rossiter, she begins to learn that the truth she is seeking is far different from what she had been led to believe. 
Motherless Child contains a Book Group Discussion Guide.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Miscellaneous Monday Mentions and Intentions

You may have noticed I wasn't around here much last week. Or maybe you didn't. Lots of folks were doing the "bloggers IRL" thing at BlogHer'12 in New York City, which usually means that blogging is the last thing they have time for. We're deep in the "dog days" of summer, and those vacation days are dwindling; most schools here will be back in session in another two or three weeks, depending on the district. And I'm seeing an end to my project-heavy summer at the office, but haven't reached it yet. That said, I've been finding more time for reading blogs, but not so much for interacting--or writing my own posts.

And with that said, it should be noted that writing is, in its way, an exercise--and when you get out of the exercise habit, sometimes it's best to ease back into it a little at a time. When I do get time to read posts, I save those that I want to respond to in my Readability list. That list is getting pretty long these days, but making those responses--even if they're briefer and less timely than I'd like--is on my "exercise" agenda. In the meantime, we have this: a declaration of intentions.

I'm taking a long weekend off this Friday and Monday. It'll definitely be a staycation--Tall Paul's office is moving and he couldn't get the time off, but that gives me time at home on my own. I will be indulging in a mini-readathon, and depending on how that goes, I have hopes for a mini-writeathon too. I miss having posts stockpiled! (And in the meantime, we have this.)

I've been keeping up the photo-posting, though, even as the blogging lags--I'm participating in #photoaday again in August. It's much more fun than I expected it to be...

highlights of my hair appointment

I took this hair-appointment-in-progress picture just for fun, but I I don't intend to make a habit of this sort of unflattering self-portrait. I really hope there's never any reason to use it for a #photoaday prompt.

Do you have any intentions for the week ahead that you'd like to mention?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad