“Blessed are the Meek” by Kristi Belcamino

September 10th, 2014

meek1

Kristi is a friend of mine, and one of my writing buddies, so I am predisposed to like her books. Blessed are the Meek is the second in her Gabriella Giovanni series, which began with Blessed are the Dead.

Gabriella is a newspaper reporter in San Francisco from a big Italian Catholic family. She’s got an Irish Catholic cop boyfriend, so things seem to be looking up from the challenging ending of Blessed are the Dead until the boyfriend’s ex turns up. Then a lot of other people start turning up dead.

In Blessed are the Dead, we knew who the bad guy was, but didn’t know how things would play out. In this sequel, we don’t know who is causing the trouble, or why, so there’s a strong “what happens next” factor that kept me turning pages to the end.

I enjoy spending time with Gabriella. She’s kind of a mess, but tries to keep it together at work and with her family. There’s also a lot of well-described food in the books, and I love a good book with good food. If you’re a mystery fan, this is a compelling page turner.

“Embroideries” and “Chicken with Plums” by Marjane Satrapi

September 10th, 2014

I followed up my recent re-reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis with two of her other memoirs about her family, Embroideries, and Chicken with Plums.

embroideries

Embroideries expands on the life of Marjane’s grandmother, and stories are told by her and her friends in regular women’s gathering for tea. The stories are about marriage, sex, love, and its lack. The intimate setting of a small living room contrasts with the oppressive regime outside in Iran, and makes this small book a real gem.

chicken

Chicken with Plums is the story of one of Satrapi’s great-uncles, a musician in an unhappy marriage. In flashbacks, we learn his history in music and love. This is the second time I read the book, and both times it failed to connect with me emotionally as Satrapi’s other books did. Neither the story nor images remain with me, as they do from the other books.

“Stardust: Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie” by Gaiman/Vess

September 10th, 2014

stardust

After I finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I felt ambivalent, meaning torn, not indifferent. My favorite part of the book was the Hempstock family. A friend told me that the Hempstocks appeared in two other Gaiman works, Stardust and The Graveyard Book. I took my lovely edition of the graphic novel off a dusty shelf and dove in, probably for the first time since I read it in the individual issues when they came out in 19xx, and subsequently earned a World Fantasy Award. After that, Gaiman made a prose novel out of it, and after that it was turned into a movie. But before all that, it was a four-issue comic-book series, and that is what I re-read.

The tale starts with a young man named Dunstan Thorn, but soon shifts to the future and Dunstan’s son Tristan, who makes a rash promise to a pretty girl. An adventure in the land of Faerie begins, which includes murder, mayhem, witches, unicorns, falling stars, prophecies, a weird small farting creature, truth, and lies.

Gaiman and Vess have obvious affection for a good fairy story. Gaiman’s market is straight out of Christina Rosetti’s poem The Goblin Market, and Vess’s illustrations hark back to Arthur Rackham’s classic fairy drawings. While Tristan’s tale is fun and interesting, the only Hempstocks that appear are dull and conventional, nothing like their sparkling sistren in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

This is an entertaining diversion, made better by its illustrations. Thus, I can’t see the value in seeking out the prose novel, but I remember the movie was pretty good.

“Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” by Nina Stibbe

September 9th, 2014

nina

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe is yet another recommendation from my husband via Caitlin Moran, whom he follows on Twitter (@caitlinmoran). He kept laughing aloud as he read Love, Nina, which was recommendation enough in itself. Then he thoroughly qualified it, saying I should only read it if I wanted to, it was good, but not Cloud Atlas or anything.

Love, Nina
is a series of letters written by the author to her sister in Leicestershire. At twenty, Nina moved to London to be nanny for two clever, opinionated boys. They’re sons of a famous film director and the director of the London Review of Books. Nina’s letters feature walk-ons from some of London’s creative intelligentsia, observed through Nina’s her critical eye.

Nothing much happens, and I can see why some readers might be bored with it, but I found Nina’s letters and details of ordinary family life in a creative family both charming and fascinating.

Everyone keeps saying how great yoga is and that we should all go and learn to relax and let go of things that are thwarting us in life (i.e. turkey mince) and breathe properly and stretch and so on…

I’ll think about going (to yoga). But ‘m not sure I want to be that relaxed. I am who I am and I might not do so well as a relaxed person. (86)

It helped that Nina doesn’t gloss over her own shortcomings as a bad cook, a lazy housekeeper, and a teller of fibs to cover her butt, as when she “pranged” the car, or “nicked” a particular towel.

In between the lines we get glimpses of her sister’s life, hilarious as when the neighbor showers outdoors, but also Nina’s own self doubts as she applies to university, begins classes and moves on from being the official nanny and becomes one of the revolving guests at what she calls simply, “55.”

The book reminded me of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. I’m an anglophile, a book geek, and I like letters, so this was definitely my cuppa. If you’re looking for a plot, or a kinder narrator who doesn’t curse so much, this might not work for you.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Bike version

September 8th, 2014
This is not Bridge #9

Bridge #9? Who knows?

Realized yesterday that “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” could work for me as a blog title, blog subtitle, or epitaph.

Things yesterday that seemed like a good idea at the time:

1. Wearing a skirt to ride my bicycle, hoping to demonstrate the triumph of the ‘penny in yo’ pants‘ hack.

Alas, maybe its my skirt, maybe it’s my generous thighs, but I just cannot get this hack to work for me. putting the coin through both layers, back and front, does not stay, then looks like I’m shitting a coin when it falls out plus then my skirt rides up when I’m biking, and while I wear underwear and am thus not flashing my pink parts at anyone, still, it’s not the image I want to project.

2. Taking a long ride for the first time in a long time. Today, I am saddle sore. Not sure that skirt was a good choice there either, though it is dang cute.

3. Thinking I could depend on my phone’s navigation rather than carefully plotting the route to someplace I’d been to years ago, especially because it advised going over a bridge I’d had trouble finding before, PLUS a bridge in the vicinity of an area of city road washed out earlier this year by a landslide and still closed to traffic. Why yes, I am embracing run-on sentences today.

Getting there: followed phone’s directions. Instead of going way I know pretty well, I was confident I could find elusive Bridge 9. Not so. End up on rocky dirt path, and when Google maps (which still insists, years later, that bike directions are in beta, for good reason, I discover, but still, let’s get it together, already!) tells me to turn left on a bridge, the bridge is over my head, with neither end in sight.

I followed detour signs and ended up on the opposite side of river, and thought, this is wrong (which is was) but just kept going. I did finally arrive at my destination, having to re-cross river, after an hour 25 instead of the predicted 50 minutes, sweaty, late and feeling like an idiot.

Then, on way back, directions said to go straight for 5.4 miles and turn right on elusive Bridge #9. Easy, I thought, and maybe road is not washed out. BUT road is washed out, so took detour, and phone kept telling me to do impossible things like turn left into a building. I followed a nice U student who said he didn’t know which bridge was #9, but that he was going across river, so I followed him, got across river, bonus: stayed across river (yay!) and eventually found my way home.

Later, looked at map to determine I’d probably gone across Washington Avenue bridge, and have yet to get to #9.

So, what did I learn?

1. Wear pants. Possibly padded ones.

2. Bike more, so I am not going on a long ride, woefully out of shape.

3. Take a day in which I have no goal and am not hungry or tired or angry or overheated and figure out where the heck this bridge is. I had a similar problem once finding the Cedar Lake Trail entrance off the River Road (because it’s crappily marked, and almost literally a hole in the wall.)

Problems: 1. costs money. 2 and 3 sound fine, but experience shows more biking = less writing AND more eating and money spending. Solution to 2 is to moderate and alternate, and 3 is to just bike and stop biking to food destinations.

And thus, I sit in my coffee shop, writing. Not biking.

Attention, reader Kitty

September 8th, 2014

Dear reader Kitty, who lurks, and is perhaps the first fan of my writing:

I keep getting spam from HostGator. Isn’t the the company someone you know works for? While I adore that someone, I do not adore the spam.

If so, can you find a way to get this site off the spam list? Spam makes me feel bad about the blog, which makes me blog less so I get less spam. But I want to blog more!

Any help with this, from any readers, would be greatly appreciated.

Love,

GD aka KB

“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

September 4th, 2014

cloud

Holy cats, people, why didn’t anyone tell me how awesome David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was?

Oh, right, everyone did, including my husband. He doesn’t urge books on me often, thus he gets really annoyed when I put him off. Cloud Atlas I put off because it’s over 500 pages and looked dense and intimidating. Imagine my surprise when I tore through it in less than a week, a busy week at that. It’s the kind of book that makes me resent anything and everything that makes me put it down

There are five novellas that stop mid-story on cliffhangers, with a sixth one in the middle before returning in reverse order to the previous five, taking up where each left off. I could begin to detail the many connections and overlaps, but I’d be here all day. I have a whole list of sites to visit to nerdishly obsess over this book once I get various deadlines met. I don’t nerdishly obsess over just any books, you know. If you, like me, have started it before and put it down pick it back up, and keep going. Once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

The novellas are written in different styles, with different but overlapping characters. This book is clever, thoughtful, intelligent, and a great, great read. Which means I’ll want to go back and read everything he’s written, because apparently all his books together overlap, just like this novel.

Oh, this is going to be a fun ride. And Cloud Atlas has earned a spot on our “books we like so much we own multiple copies” shelf. Because we are obsessive nerds.

“Seconds” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

September 4th, 2014

seconds1

Seconds is a standalone graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, author/illustrator of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. Scott Pilgrim was about a twenty-something Canadian slacker boy. Seconds features Katie, a 29-year-old chef on the verge of opening her own restaurant.

Katie has a gorgeous ex named Max, a weird server working for her named Hazel, a money pit of a new restaurant, and a hot affair going with the new chef at Seconds. Katie starts having weird dreams, and after a rough night, she finds something weird in the dresser that came with the house. If she eats a mushroom and writes down something she regrets, she gets a second chance to make it right. Then things get really weird.

Seconds is funny and charming, with manga-influenced art and its Japanese folk mythology.

One of my favorite aspects was when the narrator of the story would argue with Katie, and the words would clash with the pictures. From page 11, which you need to see to get the full effect:

Narrator: Katie was stressed out.
Katie: I’m perfectly fine.
Narrator: She was sleeping too little, worrying too much, feeling old.
Katie: She was in her twenties and young and totally great.
Narrator: At 29, she felt like everything was slipping away.
Katie: Um, no.
Narrator:…and she was talking to herself more than usual.
Katie: [scribbly ball of frustration or cursing]

It’s also a lovely coming-of-age tale about that liminal time of 29 when big, scary things often happen in life, and an entertaining, sometimes scary meditation on the old adage of “Be careful what you wish for.”

“Fortunately, the Milk” by Neil Gaiman

August 29th, 2014

See my most recent post on The Ocean at the End of the Lane for my complicated reader “relationship” with Gaiman. I’m not anti-Gaiman. I’m just anti-pedestal-i-zation of Gaiman. And Fortunately the Milk illustrates why.

It’s a charming, lovely little book. Little in size, little in scope and ambition. A family is out of milk, Dad runs to the store, comes back long hours later to tell a tale fantastic. The illustrations by Skottie Young are funny, though they don’t always match the text. And the story the dad tells is also funny. Both my 8 and 11 year-old sons read and enjoyed it, as did I. But we don’t feel moved to add it to our permanent collection. An entertaining diversion. That is all.

“We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

August 29th, 2014

liars

E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is a young-adult mystery novel. Every review of it mentions its twist of an ending (see, and now this one has, too). As I read, there were many times I thought I knew exactly what was coming. I didn’t.

The book is narrated by Cadence Sinclair, a privileged girl who spends her summers on her family’s private island off Martha’s Vineyard.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.

The novel moves back and forth in time, but does a good job of grounding the reader in the when. We know immediately that Cadence had an accident, and the rest of the book is both Cadence and the reader piecing together what happened. My theories changed as I went along, and I dreaded being right. But hats off to Lockhart. All my guesses were wrong, and the answer not only surprised me, but held up supported by all that had gone before. My one tiny quibble was the absence of an explanation about the name “Liars” for Cadence and her cousins.

In any case, it’s a heck of an ending, and a thumping good read, with some nice meditations on white privilege to make it more substantial that just a beach read.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

August 29th, 2014

I have a complicated reader “relationship” with Neil Gaiman. Gaiman authored Sandman, my gateway title into comic books, where I’ve been romping happily for the last 24 years. Over the last 24 years, his status has a geek icon has grown. While I appreciate some of his later works, I think the comics writing was better, and the praise far outstrips the work its heaped on. I’m not anti-Gaiman, just anti-pedestal-i-zation of Gaiman.

The first time I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was soon after I’d read Julian Barnes’ Man Booker prize winnerThe Sense of an Ending. The books share a common theme of a middle-aged man with a bad memory looking back on an encounter with a vibrant female in his youth whom he grievously harmed. Gaiman’s book is full of magic and myth but only serviceable prose. But for two scenes, it could fit with his works for children. Barnes’ is meticulously crafted, with stop-in-your-tracks prose; it is decidedly adult both in theme and craft. Reading the two together made me like Ocean less.

On a second read for one of my book groups, I found The Ocean at the End of the Lane compulsively readable, even though I knew the end. It has a terrific need-to-know-what-happens-next factor. I think people misidentify it a fantasy. I find it contains more elements of horror. In the end, though, it felt like empty calories, spent with one of my least favorite character types, the regretful middle-aged white man. I was glad to leave behind the book and its narrator, though I’d happily spend time with the Hempstock women again, which I tried to do by re-reading Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Stardust graphic novel. It does contain Hempstocks, but not the interesting ones.

I end this entry no less conflicted than when I began.

Draw your own conclusions. And please comment if you’ve read it.

“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

August 27th, 2014

persepolis

I read Marjane Satrapi’s two comic-book memoirs, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, years ago when they were released in the US. I recently selected them for one of my book groups, as some members had never read a graphic novel or memoir. Not only do I think they are accessible and compelling, but I think they’re great examples of the comics medium, showcasing how deceptively simple black and white art can convey a story with multiple layers and meanings.

Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood, is about Marjane’s youth in Iran, where her parents are wealthy intellectuals. She provides history of the country, as well as numerous small but telling details of her life, and her parents lives, under the increasingly repressive religious regime of the Ayatollah after the Shah was deposed.

Satrapi and I are nearly the same age. Some of my first political memories are of the hostages in Iran, and the US media’s portrayal of heroes and villains in the uprising. I only wish I’d had a book like this when I was younger, but it’s better late than never.

Persepolis 2:The Story of a Return, is harder to like, but a more complicated book. In the first book, Marji is a charming child, and a pawn of the history happening around her. In book 2, she grows to adolescence, and adulthood, making flawed and human mistakes while still portraying the evolving political environment and oppression, as well as her and her friends and families small rebellions within it.

The volumes are available separately, or together in a collected version. Additionally, there is an animated film for which Satrapi was a collaborator. It is lovely and evocative, both similar and different to the books, but leveraging motion and sound to tell the story in different ways. If you haven’t read the books, do so, then see the movie.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

August 26th, 2014

abc1

A friend invited me to a book discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic historical novels Boxers and Saints, so I figured I’d finally seize the synchronicity and pick up Yang’s highly acclaimed, award-winning first graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

The stories of three beings interweave: the ancient Monkey King of China, a boy named Jin Wang moving to a new school in the US, and an American white boy named Danny whose cousin, Chin Kee, visits and embarrasses him on a regular basis.

I enjoyed the exploits of the monkey king and Jin’s story. Less clear to me, and far less enjoyable (though not intended to be) were the episodes with boring Danny and his offensively caricatured cousin Chin Kee, embodying numerous American stereotypes of Asians, and set to a visual laugh track. These sections were discomforting, deliberately confronting racist stereotypes, and felt less balanced than the other two storylines when all three intersected.

I wanted to really like this book, I can see why it’s so highly praised, I question my reasons for merely liking it but in the end, that’s what it was: I liked it.

“Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction

August 25th, 2014

sexcrim

As I try to catch up on my book blogging, I keep an eye out for opportunities to condense and collapse, two books by an author, or graphic novels. Should I pair a graphic novel with the novel that spurred me to re-read it? Or should I pair it with the other graphic novel I read near it, which was superficially very different, yet perhaps lurkingly the same. As I type this, I’ve gone with the latter, but we’ll see how things end up. I may have to give each of them their own entry.

Let’s just get this out of the way, then, especially for you kind readers who visit from Semicolon’s Review of Books. One of the graphic novels is a collection of the series Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It was recommended by a friend who leads a local book group. I had passed on it because of its title both when I saw the comic coming out monthly and when I saw it collected, but my friend was adamant that it was great, so I gambled the $9.99 (well played, Image Comics marketing) for the collection, and ended up glad I did. While it is definitely weird, and about sex, it isn’t depraved. In fact, it’s often kind of sweet. Really!

Suzie is an average young woman who works in a library about to be bought by a large corporation. There is one weird thing about her, though. When she has an orgasm, time stops, and she can wander around in it while others are frozen. One night at a party, she and a guy named Jon hit it off, and she is startled to learn he has the same ability. Jon is a book-loving geek, and he and Suzie are quickly fascinated and infatuated with one another. With their rising passion, they conceive the idea to rob the bank that’s destroying the library and buy back the books with what they steal. They’re like Robin Hood, with orgasms. Unfortunately, they’re alarmed to find there are some sort of sex police who can also move in stopped time, intent on stopping Suzie and Jon, no matter how well intentioned.

Sex Criminals is one weird trick, indeed. Suzie and Jon are so charming, though, and the questions about who and what the time police are, have me waiting eagerly for the next collection. So eagerly, in fact, that I am now reading it monthly, not waiting for the trade.

OK, well, there you go. Apparently, I think Sex Criminals deserves its own entry.

“Rat Girl” by Kristin Hersh

August 20th, 2014

rat_girl

Every once in a while, my husband urges a book on me. He doesn’t do it often. This might be to his credit, but he admitted recently it’s a comparative scale. He really wants me to read Cloud Atlas so he can re-read it and we can watch the film together. So everything he reads that he wants to recommend, he asks, do I want her to read it more than I want her to read Cloud Atlas? In rare cases, the answer is yes, as with Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh.

If Americans thought music and art belonged together, they wouldn’t have the Grammys.

Rat Girl is Hersh’s memoir of 1985. She was enrolled in college but homeless by choice, and a member of a rising band in the Boston punk scene. She also had increasing mental difficulties tied to a childhood car accident.

She refers to her half sister, Tea, who in real life is her stepsister Tanya Donnelly, who went on to The Breeders and Belly. We also get to meet Betty, Kristin’s classmate at college before she moves to Boston with the band. Betty is older and claims to have a colorful Hollywood past. The reader, like Kristin, wonders throughout if Betty is crazy, a liar, or telling the truth.

Two significant things happen in the last part of the book. Unfortunately, I found them detailed on the book cover, and would much rather have been surprised by them unfolding. So if you read the book, try not to read about it.

With its evocative prose-poetry, detailing of the rising punk scene, and magical realism, the book reminded me strongly of Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels series of young-adult novels, which began with Weetzie Bat.

I am abashed to say I dragged my feet when my husband suggested it. I didn’t particularly care for the music of Throwing Muses, or Hersh’s voice. So it was interesting to read that Hersh doesn’t think she has a good singing voice, and is surprised by the band’s success. They wrote songs for themselves; that other people liked them too was a bonus.

I enjoyed getting insight into Hersh’s post-trauma brain, and her lovely and disturbing creative process.

“The Great Work of Your Life” by Stephen Cope

August 8th, 2014

Little did I know when I picked up Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing in April what a rabbit hole it would send me down. I’ve since read two more of her books and two by Stephen Cope, whose books she mentions.

Cope is a director at the Kripalu Institute in western Massachusetts. He writes about yoga and the ancient text the Bhagavad Gita. In The Great Work of your Life, he details part of the Gita about dharma, or one’s work in life, and gives examples both of people throughout history who demonstrated the tenets, as well as case studies in real life.

This is a book about dharma,–about vocations and cllings. It contains many stories of illustrious lives—true stories of lives that many of us already know and admire. It also contains stories of what I have called “ordinary lives”–lives that are in many ways jut like yours and mine.

I found this book similar, but more accessible than, the previous book by him I’d read, The Wisdom of Yoga, which delved more deeply into the esoterica of the Gita. Yet both have galvanized me to take a hard look at my life, what I’m doing (or not) with it, and what deserves my attention, and what should go.

Near the end of the book, Cope quotes Thomas Merton:

We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drain every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retrain the one thing necessary for us–whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.

I was so moved by the quote I’m going to read the original, so my literary journey, begun with Shapiro’s Still Writing, goes on.

“Playing with Fire” by Dani Shapiro

August 8th, 2014

After I read and admired Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, I wanted to read her fiction, to see the works she referred to in that book. I had to resort to an inter-library loan to get my hand on Dani Shapiro’s first novel, Playing with Fire, which is out of print and not available electronically.

Lucy Greenberg leaves for Smith College, and meets Carolyn, her assured and mysterious roommate. Lucy grew up in an observant Orthodox Jewish home. Carolyn’s mother is glamourous, and her stepfather is wealthy and powerful. As the two families intersect, Lucy’s world gets blown apart. Then something truly terrible happens. The format, in which Lucy writes her version of the story to Carolyn, didn’t always work for me, but the story itself utterly enthralled me.

There are many versions to this story, Carolyn. You have yours, I have mine, he has his. I never meant to hurt you, but this, of course, is a moot point.

You are somewhere in New York City. You are in restaurants, at the opera, in seedy Irish bars, on the subway Even though I am thousands of miles, light-years away, I imagine I see you on every street corner

Carolyn, if I never ask you anything else, I must ask you this: is this what you wanted, perhaps from the very beginning?

I tore through this book. It reminded me of a female version of Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It’s a coming of age novel about a girl whose world goes from small to huge to unimaginable in a short space of time. There are so many things touched on here: family, religion, sex and sexuality, education, loss, and finding oneself. I’m sorry the book is out of print, because I wanted to give a copy to my sister, to whom I had recommended it. I look forward to reading Shapiro’s later book, Slow Motion, her memoir about many of the things she fictionalized in Playing with Fire.

55 Essential Movies for Kids?

July 23rd, 2014
My Neighbor Totoro: Best All-Ages movie ever?

My Neighbor Totoro: Best All-Ages movie ever?

Recently, Entertainment Weekly posted a list online and then in print, of 55 Movies Every Kid Should See.

It’s an interesting list, and like all lists, not unproblematic. I like how it’s grouped for all ages, then 8, 10, and 12+. I agree with many of the movies on the list, demonstrated by how many of those my 8 and 10yo kids have seen.

[quick break while I count... 35.]

Like all lists, it has some questionable inclusions and some inexplicable omissions. I had two main problems with it.

The first is unforgivable, which is that no film by Hayao Miyazaki is on the list. Adding insult to injury is that sexist crap with phallic imagery like The Little Mermaid is. I’m pretty sure that even Miyazaki’s worst film is better than The Little Mermaid. The Miyazaki films should be a subset of their own, and put in order of excellence and age appropriateness.

In fact, maybe I’ll do just that for a future post.

The second flaw is an organizational one. Putting Christmas movies in with the Gen Pop makes no sense. We binge watch the age-appropriate ones every year. Like Miyazaki films, they deserve their own ordered subset, and perhaps I’ll do that come December.

After the usual post-list outrage was vented, EW posted a follow up of 12 Reader Suggestions, which did give a nod, but only that, to Miyazaki.

A few others that came to my mind that we’ve watched with our boys: The Great Escape, The Right Stuff, The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo.

This illustrates another problem, though with films, not with the list, which is a woeful lack of films by and about women and girls, yet another reason why all the Miyazaki films should be on the list, since they all have strong female characters most of whom are the protagonist.

How about it, parents and cinephiles. What do you think of the list, what’s on it you disagree with, or missing?

“Just Let Me Lie Down” by Kristin Van Ogtrop

July 19th, 2014

ogtrop

A friend recommended Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom by Kristin Van Ogtrop. I hesitated, because Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple magazine, of which I’m not a fan.

I call it Fake Simple, because it purports to make life easier by recommending things that either cost a bunch of money (buy a bunch of organizers from The Container Store!), are actually work intensive (clean your bookcases in 12 easy steps!), or are lame (5 different uses for a dryer sheet!).

To its credit, Real Simple has some good articles, and it’s pretty to look at. Similarly, while I had some problems with the book, there was also some stuff that made me laugh, or want to shake my fist in the air and yell, “Yessss!” Structured as a dictionary of terms like “Ignore the Tray”, and “Que Sera Sera-ism”, it’s really a series of short essays. It would be an ideal bathroom book.

The main problem I had is Van Ogtrop is clearly conflicted about working and parenting. It reminded me of that line in Dead Again, where Robin Williams says

Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.

Parenting cannot be the either/or that smoking can. She wants to be a parent with a job? Great! Be that. Don’t waver among celebrating your accomplishments, envying what you imagine the opposite is, then sour-graping that it wouldn’t work for you anyway.

Here’s my advice: Life is complicated. Make your choices and the compromises they entail, live with them, and embrace the messy rich life that results.

On the positive side, there were many things that worked for me, and I could relate to. I gave up the corporate rat race when my elder son had three ear infections in five months of daycare, before he was nine months old. I’m not a “working mother” by most people’s definition anymore, since I am a freelance writer who works from home. But every parent is a working parent, whether they have the luxury to choose to have a job or not, so there’s lots of empathize with and appreciate.

I love that in her entry on “Having it All” which is appropriately in quotes, she says it would include:

Coworkers who never use “reply all”

I also love that her entry to First Do No Harm begins:

What you must constantly remind yourself when you’re tempted to kill one of your children.

Because, while I know there are some parents out there who are horrified by that sentence, I am not one of them. I say, Amen, sister.

every boy between the ages of five and fifteen thinks that putting the clothes next to the hamper is the same thing as putting clothes inside it.

I have a 42yo in my house who also can’t always quite get the clothes in the basket.

List Paradox: The Catch-22 of managing your life. You make a to-do list because it enables you to feel as if you are in conrol of your life and helps you see what you can accomplish. Therefore it boosts your self-esteem. However there will always be more items on your list than you can actually cross off, which makes you feel worse.

I periodically swear off lists. Currently, I’m off the list wagon, but I sense a renunciation coming soon.

Mission Statement: The explanation you are forced to provide to children or coworkers whenever you want the group to do something that is meeting intense resistant. Examples include family trips to museums, budget cutting.

This exactly describes my attempts to institute No-Screen Sundays in our house.

Vanishing Act: The fantasy-life maneuver in which you suddenly disappear.

When I was expecting, a new-dad friend of ours, a stand-up guy with a steady job and a suit, told us about his Vanishing Act fantasy. It was useful advice to know that even someone like him struggled with parenthood and the non-Hallmark-Card-ness of it.

In the end, the best part of this book was it made me look hard at my own choices, and embrace them all over again.

“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

July 2nd, 2014

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Earlier this year I visited Walden Pond with my family. It was early April, there was still ice on the pond, and the day was quiet, cool, and lovely.

In the adjoining bookstore, the standing contradiction to Thoreau’s own “Simplify, Simplify,” which you can get on a T-short or a mug, my husband G and I decided it was long past time to actually read Walden, so we hemmed and hawed and finally bought the lovely Everyman’s edition.

G tried to read it. Gave up. Said it was boring. I chose it for one of my book groups, determined to read it.

G was not wrong. There are parts that are really boring. In fact, I had trouble reading this and staying awake. Given that my two key reading times are after lunch and before bed, that became a problem.

I was also surprised to find him often braggy and insufferable, especially in the opening long section “Economy” as when he said

I have lived some thirty days on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. (8)

The passage in which he exhorts a young farmer to not work so hard and buy less food was also irritating.

In his defense, he was 28 when he began this book, and it’s easy to feel superior when you’re young, white, male, healthy, and can dinner at your mom’s or your friend Emerson’s all the time. A sobering fact was realizing that I’ve lived a few years longer than he did. And his book was full or some beautiful nature writing, as in the ant-war passage in Brute Neighbors, as well as stunning sentences that made me stop to chew them over.

One of my favorites of all: Beware of all enterprise that require new clothes. (21)

There the usual suspects:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (7)

and of course,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (80)

Part of the beauty of the book is getting a fuller picture of what he means by this, but also knowing that his 2 year experiment was just that–he didn’t (couldn’t?) live his life that way.

Some more worth pondering:

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high. (24)

the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it (27)

Our life is frittered away by detail. (81)

this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxtury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while but what we have to stand on tip to to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to (93)

rather as I had to do to read Walden.

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. (187)

and, expanding on this a few pages later:

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own that we may be well, yet not pure. (195)

As for why his nature writing has endured, this passage spoke to me:

I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlour of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. (252)

This combined both nature and philosophy:

our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it, and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. (278)

And of many parts of the conclusion, I’ll select this, though there are many more I flagged:

if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (286)

In conclusion of my own, Walden is not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one. If you can sift through the dross and stay awake, there are treasures aplenty.