Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy Feet

I took my four-year-old and six-year-old to see this at the theater. They liked it, but they pretty much like everything they get to see. I thought it was okay. Funny sometimes, and it had some pretty impressive animated scenes of the Antarctic landscape. It's fun to hear the singing voices of actors I only know from regular movies: Hugh Jackman, Brittany Murphy, Nicole Kidman, and Robin Williams.

Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

This is an entertaining but unremarkable remake of a 1965 film with Jimmy Stewart. I haven't actually seen the original, but I've heard that it's really great. This one has a few great songs in it, like "I've Been Everywhere" performed by Johnny Cash and "Angel" by Massive Attack, and you get to hear the songs in their entirety, which I appreciate. I thought the movie was fun. We'll have to see the original sometime.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

While this is ultimately inspiring, it's pretty painful to watch, because it's really about Chris Gardner's struggle, not about his triumph. It made me feel like I don't work nearly hard enough for what I have. Which is certainly true, but I try not to dwell on it. Except that I try to be grateful.

Some of the amazing scenes in the film--like when Chris has to spend the night in jail for parking tickets and shows up at his interview for an internship at Dean Witter wearing the painting clothes he had on when he was arrested--aren't even as amazing as what happened to the real Chris Gardner. He was arrested for parking tickets and spent 10 days in jail, came home to find girlfriend, son and all of his clothes gone, and had to show up at his interview in the same clothes he'd been wearing when he got arrested. He told the truth and got the job.

In every article I read about the real Chris Gardner, there was the same basic information, but the details and stories differed. I think that's because he's one of those driven, intelligent, amazing people who create their own lives and end up with lots of stories to tell. All of the articles are worth reading:

The movie is well-done, not sappy or overly emotional. Will Smith leaves his ego behind and does a great job as Gardner, and his son, Jaden, is great as Gardner's son, too. It's definitely worth seeing. Might also be worth reading his autobiography, on which the movie is based, also called The Pursuit of Happyness.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman

I read this book because of the title. It's young adult fiction, and Jon brought it home from the library (because of the title). "Schwa" is such a cool word, don't you think? It's that little upside-down e in phonetics, a sound that is barely there, like the "i" in pencil, or the "o" in convince. Just a little sound that gets you from one consonant to the next in an unstressed syllable.

So I thought I'd better read something that uses that word in the title. While some of the book was clever, and it was mildly interesting to read, it was just okay. I should explain that I was reading it with our almost-11-year-old in mind, wondering if it would be appropriate for him. (He reads a ton, and I don't try to read everything he reads, but occasionally I'll read something before he does, to approve it or not.) My conclusion is that it's not appropriate--there's a lot of talk about these 14-year-old characters dating each other. That just freaks me out too much (and it would probably freak out my son, too, thank goodness). Seems like 14 is way too young to date, but then I remember how boy crazy I was (even when I was much younger than 14), and then I just don't want to think about it anymore. Not when it has to do with my kids, who are still little. Aren't they?

Anyway, I wanted a more clear-cut moral to this story. Instead, the main character doesn't treat his friends all that well, sort of realizes his mistakes but doesn't do much about it, and then is absurdly rewarded at the end. Not bad, but not thought-provoking or great, either.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eastward to Tartary by Robert D. Kaplan

A few years ago I read The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War by Robert D. Kaplan. I had never heard of him and it just looked interesting (and was a free library discard, so how could I resist?). It was interesting, and presented me with an unconventional approach to the world. It reminded me of what little I'd read of Niccolò Machiavelli (which wasn't a lot): a pragmatic, not idealistic, view of politics and world events.

Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus has a similar underlying view of the world, but is a solid travelogue focused on the author's travels through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Most of those places he'd visited before at least once, so he was partly comparing his experiences in those places during the 1970s or '80s to the late 1990s, close to 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The writing is lucid and does a good job of evoking the places he's visiting. Kaplan also ties in historical events, discussions he had with scholars, old friends, people he meets, etc., and some tentative prognostication for the future. He also notes where his previous expectations were off base.

I mainly enjoyed the closer view of some places that I haven't been, some of the people, and how countries and peoples relate to each other through similarities and differences in government, religion, wars, natural resources, and culture in general. His discussion of Armenia and the 1915 genocide by the Turks was insightful; he does a good job of showing how it differed from the Jewish holocaust, though at the core all the ethnic purges aren't too dissimilar.

Kaplan has written many other books, and I'm not sure I'm in a huge hurry to read them all, but I really liked this and am interested in his other travelogue books.

Links:

Scoop (2006)

This Woody Allen movie is pretty good--funny and entertaining. Woody Allen is annoying, of course, but that's his comedic method. Parts of the movie were even funnier this morning, as Jon and I talked about it. Scarlett Johansson's character was different for her, a young and enthusiastic journalism student who's trying to break away from the dental hygenist profession her family expects of her. And I like Hugh Jackman better all the time.

Monday, December 18, 2006

No Surrender by Hiroo Onoda

I just read this autobiography of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier sent to the Philippines in 1944, and ranking officer in a group of soldiers who didn't believe the war really ended in 1945. He didn't surrender till 1974. The Wikipedia article about him gives a nice summary of his story. I heard about him a few years ago, on Slashdot, I think, but never followed up on it till now. I finally read his book, and it is simply amazing.

It's a fairly quick read, but very engaging, and he gives enough background and explains what they were thinking, so it starts to make sense that they thought the war had not ended. He doesn't ignore the many bad parts about his time on the island, but there's not much self-pity either. He and his fellow soldiers thought they were fighting in a very long-running war, with guerrilla tactics, and evidence to the contrary was thought to be an elaborate enemy trick.

His experience raises some good questions about how you can find the truth behind the information you receive, especially when you consider that superior officers could be captured and forced to give bad orders, or passwords can be intercepted by the enemy.

There were other famous Japanese holdouts after the end of World War II, but Hiroo Onoda seems to have become and stayed a real war hero in Japan, more than any of the others. I was surprised to learn that two more "lost" Japanese soldiers surfaced this year, in Russia and the Ukraine.

Anyway, very interesting how life turns out for some people, and amazing what they make of strange and tough circumstances.

The Love Letter (1999)

I guess there are multiple films with this title. This one stars Kate Capshaw, with Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck, Blythe Danner, and others. The music was good--fun, romantic Italian-style stuff with accordions and violins. I am under the impression that it was nice to look at, but I was wrapping presents while I watched, so missed a fair amount. It was okay--not spectacular, but not as mediocre as some.

I found another movie of the same name that stars Campbell Scott. It's a Hallmark Hall of Fame film, which makes me dubious, but Jon and I might have to see it. Campbell Scott was the main character in The Spanish Prisoner, which is one of the best movies ever. Not that Campbell Scott necessarily had much to do with that, but it's fun to see him in other things every now and then.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rosenstrasse (2003)

This movie is in German with English subtitles. Both Jon and I speak German (or at least I did at one time), and as we started watching, Jon said, all exasperated, "Can't we turn off the subtitles?" I didn't want to, because my German's not what it used to be, and even back then, my vocabulary wasn't very good. Jon's German has always been excellent, though, and I didn't want to be a wimp, so we turned them off. I'm a little proud of myself that I understood most of the movie. In fact, after getting into the German groove, most of it was pretty easy to follow. From now on, I'll be more brave about watching German stuff without subtitles.

Okay. Sorry about that aside. Rosenstrasse is a street in Berlin where, in 1943, thousands of German women held a spontaneous and peaceful protest. For a week, these women gathered outside the building where their Jewish husbands were being held by the Nazis. Apparently, the German officials who had rounded up these men were trying to make it look like they were just going to labor camps, not to the concentration camps where the rest of the Jews went. According to the wikipedia article, it was the only public protest in Germany during the Third Reich, and it worked. Almost all of the men were released. I guess the Nazis weren't quite evil enough to shoot down their own German women.

This film tells the story of one of those German women. The narrative was a little strange at first--the film opens in present-day New York with a Jewish family, then follows the daughter as she looks into her mother's past--but by the end, the intertwining stories had all become interesting and important. It's a fairly long movie (136 minutes, I think), but Jon thought it could have been longer and developed some of the stories even more.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich

Apparently I was in the mood for something that didn't require any thought on my part. Or on the author's part, actually. (That was kind of mean. I'm sure the plot required some fitting together and maybe even a little bit of research. Maybe not, though.) It was a nice rest for my brain, kind of like watching TV. I don't think I'll be reading any more like this, though I like to say "Janet Evanovich."

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Break-Up (2006)

I had read several good reviews of The Break-Up, so I was somewhat eager to see it. While it was certainly deeper than most movies about relationships (it really is about a break-up, so I wouldn't call it a romantic comedy), it wasn't deep enough.

Good things: the secondary characters who are supposed to be annoying really are annoying (in particular, Brooke's brother Richard, an a cappella freak, and both of Gary's brothers and his best friend); the main characters, Gary and Brooke (played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston), actually learn from their experiences; a few of the characters (well, I can only think of one, actually) seem to know what what makes a good relationship (and that's debatable, come to think of it).

Not so good things: those secondary characters are annoying; we have to witness way too much bickering and fighting between the broken-up couple before any changes occur (and virtually nothing except still shots from their happy time together); while Gary makes big changes, Brooke seems to barely grasp her own faults, though she is the first to try to set things right by acting selflessly instead of selfishly.

The Break-Up really is a different kind of film, though. Better than most. Sometimes Gary and Brooke say so much just by looking at each other. Even though it's hard to forget Aniston as Rachel on Friends, I think she's a good actress.

And I barely recognized Jason Bateman as the couple's friend. He was also annoying, but funny.

Sahara (2005)

As I think I've said before on this blog, I don't really like Matthew McConaughey, so I didn't have high expectations for this movie. I was pleasantly surprised that it was fun to watch. Steve Zahn is usually funny, and the friendship between his character and McConaughey's is believable and amusing. Otherwise, it's a typical action movie. Just how would the captain's chair on a boat effectively shield someone from machine-gun fire?

Penelope Cruz is beautiful and looks like my sister Ally. Just thought I'd mention that.

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

I have owned this book for a few years, but it took one of my book clubs to get me to read it. I’m glad I finally did. Erdrich seems to effortlessly evoke a place and the people in it. Also, this is not one of those novels where things happen slowly or not at all. There is always something important happening, but it doesn’t come across as unlikely or contrived. The characters are odd, sometimes even kind of crazy, but they also seem normal, at least enough to be believable. Their eccentricities don’t turn them into caricatures, as in some books or movies with quirky characters.

Some details about World War II were fascinating, though I don’t know how factual they are (and I haven’t been able to verify them easily): as young Nazi POWs are being taken to a POW camp in the U.S., they are eager to witness the great destruction wrought by Nazi troops that they’ve heard so much about. Of course, they see an untouched, fertile and relatively prosperous land. Also, the German POWs are well-treated and well-fed in the U.S. camps. I’m used to reading about German concentration camps, which of course were horrible. I had never given U.S. POW camps any thought; I hope the prisoners were treated as well as was described in this book.

A Good Woman (2004)

I enjoyed this movie, which is based on an Oscar Wilde play called Mrs. Windermere’s Fan. Taken at face value, his works are witty and clever, and they usually have a good moral. But it is a little strange to get morals from Oscar Wilde—I always watch or read a little uneasily, as if it might all be a joke, one at my expense (or at the expense of all people who hold traditional values).

A Good Woman is more serious than The Importance of Being Earnest, but it still has some great quips. Like “I like America. Name me another society that's gone from barbarism to decadence without bothering to create a civilization in between.”

Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

I’ve been stewing over what I’d write about these two books for a while now. While I love them and find them very funny, I wouldn’t recommend them to many people I know. There’s a lot of offensive language in them, and Bridget and her friends are constantly trying to “hook up” with people, to use a euphemism that Oprah has surely exposed to horrified parents.

But like I said, I love them. The diary form provides lots of insight into the swiftly swinging moods of a 30-something single woman. One minute Bridget is happily planning how rapidly her career will improve, the next she’s wallowing in self-pity. While I haven’t been in those particular shoes, the mood swings in general are familiar, as is the astoudning talent for procrastination. Yep, I’m a little bit like her.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I really liked this movie, and I’m happy we got to see it in a real theater. It also helped me clarify what I didn’t like about that book I read recently, The Christmas Shoes. Both the movie and the book have basically the same message: enjoy every moment of your life and the people in it. But Stranger than Fiction has a quirky, unique way of getting the message across. (I was going to say it has a novel way of getting the message across, but I just couldn’t do it.)

Will Ferrell plays the serious guy for once, and he is really good: his character, Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose life is suddenly being narrated by a female voice only he can hear, is earnest, shy, tentative, his life dictated by his routines. The other actors are also very good. Emma Thompson is the chain-smoking novelist narrating Harold’s life; Dustin Hoffman is a literature professor (and while he wasn’t exactly like any of my literature professors, he brought back memories of my days as a Comparative Literature major); Maggie Gyllenhaal is the love-interest, who is delightfully anti-taxes, purposely paying only 78% of her income tax, because the other 22% goes for stuff she doesn’t support.

If you’re looking for a science-fiction type of explanation for what's happening to Harold, you’ll be disappointed. But I didn’t miss it. It was funny without being silly and stupid; touching to watch the awkward romantic advances of a (previously) boring IRS agent; thought-provoking and beautiful to watch, with nice cinematography and good music. I’d like to see it again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Ugly American (1963)

Hmmm.... I'm assuming this movie is not as good as the book. It brought up lots of important questions about U.S. involvement in foreign countries, but didn't really answer any.

My favorite line in the movie was uttered by the U.S. ambassador to a fictional Southeast Asian country, played by Marlon Brando, and it went something like this: "We'll support dictators if that's what it takes to keep the free world free!" It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to understand that since Communism was the Greatest Evil during the cold war, there was a lot of harmful and baffling intervention by the U.S. government in various foreign countries. That line summed it up pretty well, and now when I read about some country like Haiti, where the Americans supported crazy, murderous dictators in order to keep out the Socialists, I'll remember that line and think, oh, of course, that makes perfect sense!

The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest by Conrad Anker and David Roberts

George Mallory, one of the first explorers to try to climb Mount Everest, made three attempts in the early 1920s. On his third attempt, in 1924, he and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, never came down. This book is about the 1999 Everest expedition that found Mallory’s body. It’s pretty interesting. How could it not be?

This book reminded me of the weird things about Everest that were hard for me to believe at first. I think I had to be exposed several times to the fact that people who climb Everest actually go up and down it several times before trying for the summit—from base camp, they climb up several thousand feet, set up a second camp, then climb back down, spend the night. Next day climb up past the second camp, set up another camp, go back down to the second camp, spend the night. They’re carrying supplies and getting used to the altitude. Well, after all, they are trying to get to the summit of Mount Everest, which is 29,028 feet above sea level. Next time you fly, and the pilot says you’ll be cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, just think of those people standing on Everest, waving at you.

There are other weird things, too, things that don’t fit easily into my sheltered and comfortable world. Some people just leave their empty oxygen tanks up there? They litter on the world’s tallest mountain? How could they? And guess what? When someone dies up there, they just leave ‘em, even if they know right where they are. That sounds crazy, until I think about the risk everyone up there is taking, every single minute. (In recent years, there have been expeditions to clean up the oxygen tanks and other equipment and trash left up there.) Bottom line is, though, that Everest is a whole different world, and people just aren’t supposed to be that high up. But they go. It’s fascinating and amazing—you have to be a special kind of crazy to try to climb Everest. And if you are, chances are I want to read about it.

Anyway, The Lost Explorer is perhaps a tiny bit longer than it should be, and it’s a short book, so maybe it would have been a better magazine article. Or somewhere between a magazine article and a book. But I appreciated the historical stuff about Mallory and Irvine and what’s known about the 1924 expedition. The speculation about what might have happened to them and whether or not they reached the top was also interesting. (The first known ascent of Mount Everest was in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but the possibility that Mallory and Irvine might have summited before they died is intriguing.) Mostly this book satisfied my morbid curiosity about the discovery of Mallory’s body after 73 years. Definitely worth reading.

Other books about Everest: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Other books about Himalayan mountaineering and adventure: Below Another Sky by Rick Ridgeway; Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer; The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere

I didn’t like this very much. One of the book clubs I go to is reading it for December, and it’s a quick read, so not too much time lost. It’s a touching story, but too sentimental and predictable. I’m kind of dreading going to book club, because I’ll have to admit that I don’t like it. I will say that it wasn’t as manipulative as other sentimental fiction I’ve read, and it wasn't terribly written.

Oh, yeah, and it's based on a song. I don't know if I've ever heard it, but I don't really want to. I'm not sure why I react so strongly against stuff like this. I'll stop now.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life

Somehow I skirted the edges of awareness of Hugh Nibley for a long time, though many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have read his articles and books, or at least knew something about him.

When I was in high school, my mom had a copy of Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless that she read and really enjoyed, and she encouraged me to read it. I only read a little of it, and I don't remember it making much of an impression on me. As a student at BYU I heard his name mentioned from time to time, and around 1994 a friend took a Pearl of Great Price class from him. This friend was not impressed. He felt Dr. Nibley rambled on about seemingly arbitrary topics, and made no sense to the students. (It may have been this very class that caused Hugh to quit teaching in disgust with the students, an event described in the biography!)

Shortly after that time, Erin and I noticed our friends Mike Haire and Theron & Valerie Harmon were reading a bit of Nibley. Mike had read Approaching Zion, while Theron & Valerie were reading individual Nibley article reprints from FARMS. In the late 1990s I finally read Approaching Zion and then Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, and they gave me a lot to think about and ultimately influenced my views significantly. They enhanced the way I viewed wealth (not inherently good or bad, but just a tool; however, a very dangerous one to the steward of that wealth), and gave me a much greater appreciation of Brigham Young and the complexities of our stewardship of the earth.

Still, I wasn't interested in Nibley's studies of ancient culture, religion, or documents. When I saw Nibley speak in 1999 or 2000 at the new Joseph Smith Building at BYU, it was a good experience for me to hear the man's voice and manner, but didn't draw me into his other writings.

Then this summer while staying at Jon & Amy Krause's house (my brother- and sister-in-law), I needed something to read and found Jon's copy of Since Cumorah in their guest bedroom we were staying in. I read the first 4 chapters and was completely engrossed, and bought a copy for myself. The further I read, the more silly I felt at not having read the book earlier. It is, after all, about 40 years old. Nibley had raised many useful questions and made interesting observations about the Book of Mormon text and its ancient setting, and his style was aggressive and cheeky, though forever tentative, and enjoyable to read.

All this is an introduction (and likely an exasperatingly long one to you, dear reader) to my background as reader of this biography of Hugh Nibley. I'll summarize my review first: It is an excellent biography. It's well researched, with an enjoyable pace, tone, and point of view (which the author says is not objective, which isn't really possible, but fair and candid). It is not a hagiography, but the biographer (Nibley's son-in-law) does not hide his admiration for Hugh when the final assessment is in.

It was fascinating to learn about Hugh's grandfather, Charles W. Nibley, presiding bishop of the Church and later, second counselor to Heber J. Grant in the First Presidency and a successful businessman in the timber industry. Hugh grew up surrounded by wealth, but his grandfather had serious doubts about even the possibility of being an ethical businessman, and his own standing before the Lord. Hugh saw his own parents' marriage weakened by wealth and subsequent failure of risky investments as the Great Depression wore on. Yet his grandfather and parents were very generous people. His grandfather was a supporter of limited work weeks and holidays for his workers, and due to this was always running into opposition from chambers of commerce. His mother never turned away transients who wanted a meal, following her parents' policy on helping those in need. This all was part of Hugh's ambivalence and later hostility towards money. Even people trying to do the right thing with their wealth could be seriously harmed by it.

I enjoyed learning a bit about Hugh's childhood, his self-confident yet self-effacing personality, his 6-week solo wilderness adventure in Oregon, his studies, and his time in the military (he drove one of the first Jeeps onto Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of France). His amazing aptitude for languages did take time to develop into the almost absurd capability he later had. (It was reassuring to learn that even with his talent, his enthusiasm outstripped his ability early on, as I believe it does for most people who learn languages very well. You have to care more about trying than about making mistakes.) His dislike of war, any war, was no distant, detached complaint, but a first-hand observation. (One of the things Hugh would never discuss was what he saw at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany after it was liberated.)

The list of interesting points goes on and on: Hugh's courting a German emigrée and later an Armenian woman, both of whom rejected him. The discussion of urban legends about Hugh (some true, some perhaps, some definitely not). His good friends made during his studies of Arabic, Coptic, Egyptian, and more. Quotations from his letters and interviews of friends and acquaintances. His publications in the Improvement Era (the Church's official magazine, equivalent of today's Ensign) and his involvement with the Church's general authorities (for example, Spencer W. Kimball as an Apostle), which was closer than I had known. His political opposition to Republicans and to the John Birch Society and its support by Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen, combined with common cause in so many areas with those same people. His visits with the Hopi Indians. His wilderness adventures. His family life. His teaching. And so much more.

Especially enlightening for me (and heartening) was the clear impression that Hugh Nibley was in no way perfect, nor even a model for me in many areas. He was his own person, filling important roles in certain places and times. As Elder Boyd K. Packer said of him, "He is one of a kind -- it is a very good kind." We can learn so much from Hugh Nibley, and find so many useful and inspirational ideas, yet need not worry about becoming fanatical followers -- he really didn't leave much room for that, constantly focusing on the Gospel instead of himself or any other individual.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the book was not particularly big: The typesetting was not all that well done. The writing itself was very good, and the editing of the text was good, with just a few mistakes. But the typesetting seems to have been done by someone with little experience and no eye for detail. Not only were there two annoying spaces between sentences, but indeed two spaces after every period, including in names. Ending quotation marks appeared at the beginning of quotations in some places. "Jeredites" appeared instead of "Jaredites" frequently in footnotes, though not in the body of the text. And so on. I hate to belabor such points, but as a former typesetter they drive me a bit crazy, and they don't do justice to the excellent writing.

The main annoyance I found in the writing was the occasional mild repetition due to the topical rather than chronological organization of the book. The author explained this organization up front, but it still was a little distracting. I think it grew out of the fact that the chapters were originally individual articles presented at conferences (Sunstone symposia and a few other places), rather than any inherent superiority of such a topical organization. But it's probably too much to ask that this be changed.

This is such a valuable and enjoyable book, that my main suggestion to the author is to someday publish a second edition that covers Hugh's last years (the book was finished in 2002, and Hugh died in 2005) and is re-typeset more competently. I enjoyed the couple of source texts included in the appendix, and wouldn't mind seeing more of those, though that isn't essential.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Hugh Nibley himself; in Church history; in gospel approaches to wealth, war, priesthood leadership, or the environment; or in studies of the Book of Mormon or Pearl of Great Price.

Other references:

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

This is not the sort of book I normally pick up at the library. But I liked the movie so...

First of all, it's a lot different from the movie. And longer. It sort of went on and on, repeating a lot of phrases which got sort of annoying. Okay, I know the guy was an amnesiac, and he had to repeat phrases to himself to try to stir his memories or whatever, but if I had to read "Cain is for Charlie, Delta is for Cain. Get Carlos. Kill Carlos.." again, well....I would have skipped it like I did that last few times it was repeated.

The plot was really long and really confusing (I missed a lot). And THEN, after all the plot twists, all the chasing, fighting, running, excitement, the bad guy gets away!! Setting up for more books, I'm sure (which there are. More books, that is). The author was good at describing fight scenes, but my imagination has a hard time picturing it. Movies are much more intense. Now I have to watch the movie again. It was so different and I wonder why. They changed practically everything except for the basic storyline: amnesiac assassin trying to figure out who he is.

All in all, I picked up the (very fat) book and thought I'd start it, not finish it. But it sort of hooked me and I read all 500+ pages. Pretty good. Do I want to read the sequels? I haven't decided if it's worth the time yet. I do want to see who "Carlos" really is and see him die. However, there sure are a lot of pages to get to those answers.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Clueless (1995)

I think this is very funny, especially for fans of Emma. It's a pretty good modern interpretation of that book: Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is privileged, popular, and well-intentioned, but she ends up causing various problems while trying to help others find love. Her lawer father is hilarious (to Cher's slick, smooth-spoken and cocky date, he says, "I have a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you").

Jon watched it with me. He hasn't said he hated it, and he laughed several times, so that's good. (I'm very grateful to have a husband who will watch chick flicks with me. And without making gagging noises or anything like that.)

One of the reasons Clueless works so well as a Jane Austen adaptation is that the high school is an excellent parallel to class in pre-industrialized England. In Austen's time, income, titles, and background meant everything; in high school, it's how you dress, talk and what you do for fun ("the loadies hang out on that grassy knoll"). Maybe it's easier to move between the "classes" in a high school, but I think the comparison works pretty well.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Emma (1996)

This is another delightful adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but I confess that it's my least favorite. Actually, the novel itself is my least favorite, because Emma annoys me. I think she's supposed to be annoying, or to put it differently, she is an immature and flawed character, and her actions have sad consequences for others (though everything turns out well in the end, of course).

I am also annoyed by the whole husband-as-teacher-and-guide thing. Knightley is so condescending towards Emma, at least in the film. I can't remember the book well enough to compare, but I hope I don't ever fall in love with someone who would hiss at me "Badly done, Emma! Badly done!" Of course that would be extra weird if it happened to me, since my name isn't Emma. Sorry. Couldn't (or didn't) resist that obvious joke.

The secondary characters are well-done and often very funny, but I seem to be experiencing an overdose of Gwyneth Paltrow, even though I haven't seen her in that much lately. Maybe I liked Bounce even less than I thought.

A thoroughly entertaining modern adaptation of Emma is the 1995 movie Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. It's a teen flick, but cleverly written and funny. I'm planning to make Jon watch it with me pretty soon, so stay tuned.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

The Prestige

This is a nice movie to see on the big screen. I loved Batman Begins, which also starred Christian Bale and was written and directed by the same guy. That would be Christopher Nolan.

I shouldn't say it's a nice film, though. It's not really "nice." Interesting, dark, entertaining, well-acted and well-told, beautiful to look at, yes. The movie starts at the end of the story, and I like that particular narrative trick. All of the acting was very good: Hugh Jackman, who has seemed run-of-the-mill until I saw him in this; Michael Caine, who's always very good; Christian Bale; even David Bowie, whom I forgot to recognize during the film. (I'd read somewhere that he was in it, but then I forgot, remembered during the credits and had to look at the cast listing to find out who he played. He played Nicola Tesla, who was a real person, of course, inventor of alternating current (AC) electric power and lots of other things. Tesla in the movie was interesting and weird enough that I went and read about him on Wikipedia. Pretty interesting guy, to say the least.)

However, I do wonder why the big question in the early on-screen death is "Which knot did you tie?" Wouldn't they all have been able to see which knot it was? Or did I miss something? I did miss a few minutes towards the very beginning of the film, because I was receiving the sad news of our dog's death. But I think that was well before the death in the film. Maybe that's explained in the novel, on which the film is based. I'll have to read it someday.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I had a slow start with this book--there's a lot more literary criticism than I expected, and I got bogged down feeling like I should read all the books the author had her students read. Nabakov and Henry James, mostly. But then I just plowed through it. I had trouble keeping the characters straight, but that might have to do with the names, which are unfamiliar to me.

It is fascinating to read about these Iranian women and to try to get a picture of what things are like in Iran. The last paragraph, written by one of Nafisi's students who is still in Iran, made me cry:

Five years have passed since the time when the story began in a cloud-lit room where we read Madame Bovary and had chocolate from a wine-red dish on Thursday mornings. Hardly anything has changed in the nonstop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put on my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know of another "I" that has become naked on the pages of a book: in a fictional world, I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers.

I don't know what it's like to live under an extreme religious government, or what it's like to never show my face in public, to never feel the sun or wind on my skin. I don't know what it's like to regularly walk past giant posters that say "Death to America!" But reading a book like this helps me begin to imagine it. As Nafisi says several times in the book, one reason we read fiction is to learn how to have empathy for others, especially others we would normally not understand. This book makes me want to keep these women in my eyes, to remember their world. I hope it'll change.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Bounce (2000)

There were parts of this that I enjoyed, but after it ended, it seemed much less important than it had seemed while I was watching it. Which is a bad thing, I guess. Gwyneth Paltrow is a good actress and even managed to look almost dowdy in this role. But in retrospect, the main characters were too close to tears too often and the Ben Affleck character was kind of annoying: sometimes the advertising executive jerk, sometimes the eloquent potential lover, most of the time incapable of saying anything really meaningful. There are several scenes where he opens his mouth, about to say that really important thing, and instead he says something really inane. By the end of the movie, I think it's supposed to be some kind of code for how he really feels, and I'm supposed to be moved and want them to get back together. But I wanted her to say, "Not cute! Immature and stupid! Grow up!" or some variation thereof.

As an amusing (to me, at least) aside, a friend of mine who grew up in Boston had this to say about Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (who are fellow Bostonians, of course), waving her hand in a dismissive gesture: "They look just like every other guy from there."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Introducing Ivy!

Okay, if you've read any comments, you've already met her. Ivy is my sister (one of my six sisters, that is), and she has agreed to post occasionally on this here blog, which makes me very happy. Like me, she likes to avoid housework by reading, so why shouldn't we benefit?

I'd like to clarify, though, that while Ivy does let things get messy around the house sometimes, she's way better than I am at getting things done. She makes beautiful, pieced quilts, paints walls and furniture and stairs, re-covers furniture (two of my couches, even!), and is otherwise more industrious than I am. Recently when she visited me, she scrubbed my stove, cleaned my washer and dryer (they're like new!), helped me fold laundry, cooked, and cleaned up the house several times. I love her! I'm glad she'll be writing here sometimes.

One Night With the King

This movie brings the Biblical story of Esther to the big screen. Of course, Esther's story would make a great movie--powerful king, beautiful queens, intrigue, drama--it's a great story! Unfortunately, the movie was not great. I was almost constantly annoyed by its cheesy-ness. And when I briefly forgot the stuff that was annoying me, I was reminded almost immediately. Like when Esther utters those amazing lines from the Bible account as she decides to go before the king to try to save her people, and her statement is punctuated by lightning and thunder. Because of course we won't understand that something important and dramatic is happening unless we have lightning and thunder. Or slow-motion. Or a piece of a scene repeated several times. Or all of that at once. So, yeah, I was disappointed. I guess I'm glad that there are more of these religious movies being made, but I hope they get better.

Fun With Dick and Jane (2005)

I haven't seen the original 1977 version of this movie, but now I want to. I've heard that the original is better, and this one was pretty good. I laughed several times. I appreciated the downward financial spiral of the couple, where they didn't just live on credit and act like nothing had happened: it was hyperbolic but also strangely realistic. Of course your house isn't an asset if you don't actually own it, and it seems like people have forgotten that nowadays.

I think I've said before that I like movies in which married couples are on the same side instead of pitted against each other. Fun With Dick and Jane has that going for it, too. Dick and Jane like each other, and they make a good team.

I loved their son who spoke with a Mexican accent (because he spent all his time with their Mexican housekeeper/nanny), the nods (and "Thanks to" credits at the end) to all the recent corporate criminals, the almost-sex scene between overscheduled spouses. And if you want to see something really hilarious, watch the deleted scene on the DVD called "Let's Be Spontaneous" (I think), which continues that scene. I thought it was, well, hilarious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Legally Blonde (2001)

I love this movie. I saw it a couple of years ago with my sister and last night I got Jon to watch it with me. He hadn't seen it before, and I was nervous that he would think it was just stupid. But I think he liked it, too.

Reese Witherspoon is a fine actress, as she has lately proven in Walk the Line. (I think she was really incredible in that.) In Legally Blond, she's Elle Woods, shallow (seemingly) and materialistic and way too cute. But she's also smart, funny and consistently kind. I love that about this movie. The sorority sisters look like Barbie dolls, squeal and giggle, decorate everything with faux fur and lots of pink. But they're nice, unlike the judgmental Harvard Law School crowd, with their brown and grey sweaters and identical laptops.

On the West Coast, in her sheltered, rich-girl world, "everyone loves me," as she says. But at Harvard, she's mocked and targeted by almost everyone she meets. I love that she's brave and confident and doesn't take the crap. But she's not into revenge, either, and at the first sign of friendship from those who have treated her so badly, she's just nice. Of course, Elle wins over the Harvard crowd in the end, but she, like, totally deserves it. I think it's a great movie--funny and with a good message about succeeded as yourself, and not becoming one of "them."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On a Clear Day (2005)

What an uplifting movie. I liked it very much. It's always delightful to hear Scottish accents, of course (I'm revealing how shallow I am), but this is also a good story. A middle-aged man loses his job and decides to swim the English Channel. A family tragedy has caused some issues between him and his son. Brenda Blethyn, who was wonderful as a more-sympathetic-than-usual Mrs. Bennett in the latest version of Pride and Prejudice, plays his wife, who is secretly learning to drive a bus. It's all about family relationships and friendship and other worthy things, and it's really good!

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter

I can't decide how much I liked this book. On the one hand, I enjoyed getting a perspective I don't think I've ever had before--the narrator, like the author, is an African-American law professor at a prestigious law school. He is firmly entrenched in the black upper middle class, which apparently is pretty elitist. The book is very well-written and has lots of interesting characters, including a pro-life libertarian lesbian. Descriptions of the different but overlapping worlds of law professors, D.C. lawers and judges, black Baptist preachers, shadowy, unscrupulous mob types, and an extended family with various hang-ups and quirks are detailed and believable.

Basically, though, it's a very long murder mystery (although part of the mystery is whether or not the dead person at the beginning was really murdered), and I'm not a big fan of mysteries. This novel has much more going on than your typical mystery, but there were times, especially near the end, when I thought, "Isn't this over yet? Did I have to witness that entire conversation that didn't reveal any new information?" The book is over 600 pages long; maybe some of it could have been cut?

I think it would be really fun for a law student to read, or someone who really loves chess (there's a lot of chess talk). I guess I liked it, but I didn't love it.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

This is an incredible book. I borrowed it from a friend, read it in a few days, then went and bought it at our local bookstore and made Jon read it. He read it in about 24 hours. It's about Dr. Paul Farmer, medical doctor and anthropologist, who practices at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, teaches at Harvard Medical School, and influences international health policies. But mostly he lives in Haiti, where's he's been providing basic medical services to the extremely poor and fighting drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS for about 20 years now. He's one of the most fascinating people I've read about for a long time.

Farmer's way of looking at poverty, medical care, and life in general is enlightening, to say the least. There were several times while reading when I probably should have made some notes about ideas of mine that were challenged, but I just wanted to keep reading. I'm planning to read it again in the near future, because I don't want to forget what I've learned. Or I want to make sure I really learned it.

It's inspiring to read about people who are so extreme. Crazy, even. Farmer knows what is most important to him; his life is totally dedicated to his ideal--getting competent medical care to the poor. He's amazing. This is a lame review. But it's a great book, and you should read it! And I am officially inviting Jon to write about it, too.

Monday, October 2, 2006

The Height of the Sky

I think it's fair to say that I hated this movie. Maybe it's not as bad as I think, but it was recommended to us, and I can't figure out why. The screenplay was horrible, the acting also, and while the filmmakers tried to make things look authentic for Arkansas in 1935, there were just too many oversights. All the tenant farmers were wearing the same brand-new overalls. Some fastened only one shoulder strap, but they were still the same overalls! I think some of them had been ripped, and they were dirty sometimes, but they still looked too new. The inside walls of their house/shack were papered with ... paper. I've seen old cabins papered in newspaper, and maybe that's what this was. But it was way too bright inside, what with the bright white paper and lots of overhead lighting. Maybe they had overhead kerosene lanterns? Also, they keep talking about "gettin' a handle on these crops" and "bringin' in the crops," but all we see is the men hoeing in a big field of dirt, and the women scattering what looks like dust. I think it's supposed to be the dust bowl, but it just looks confusing and weird.

Did I say the acting was bad? And the screenplay? Several of the characters made furious, defensive speeches, apparently provoked by ... nothing. Or maybe the provocation was that almost sullen look given by that other person.

Apparently this won best feature film at Telluride in 1999, which is completely baffling to me. Some reviews that I found on the internet mentioned beautiful cinematography, but if it was good, I was blinded by the rest of it. The more I think about it, the more I hate it. There are plenty of other ways to learn about the South in the 1930s.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Shanghai Noon

Every time I go to my sister's house (Hi, Ivy!), we briefly consider watching Shanghai Knights, but then we don't because I haven't seen Shanghai Noon yet. Well, now I have! It was pretty funny sometimes. My favorite part: a dusty pioneer couple gazes in astonishment at the three Chinese Imperial Guards in their strange get-up, practicing sword play. The wife says, "They're not like any Injuns I ever seen, Jedediah!" and he says, "That's because they're not Injuns, woman. They're Jews!"

I think I would have liked it better if I'd seen it when it was still new, but Jon and I had already gone through our Jackie Chan phase when it came out. (At least a couple of times, we took our two babies to a movie theater, hoped they'd fall asleep, and watched some Jackie Chan movie.) My exposure to martial arts films is extremely limited, but Jackie Chan is fun and easy to watch. And of course, I love that he does his own stunts.

Owen Wilson is funny, but by now, his method of funny-ness (funniness?) is not as surprising and refreshing as it probably was six years ago.

I enjoyed watching it. Sometimes I think I might be getting too old for the sillier comedies, though, which makes me kind of sad. Maybe I'll appreciate them again when my boys get a little older.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley

Okay, I admit that I sort of skimmed the last couple of chapters of this book. Also, while I was halfheartedly trying out some of the techniques in the book, trying to get my youngest to sleep better (she's 13 months old! It's time!), she seemed to get worse and worse, until she was waking up every hour and expecting to sleep on me. So I did something more drastic, not "no-cry" but also not "cry it out." And it's working well. (Rejoice!)

I don't mean to disparage the book, though. I think it's a great alternative to the two prevailing ideas out there right now: let your baby "cry it out"; or buck and up and let the baby wake up as much as he/she wants to. I think if I'd been more consistent with Pantley's ideas, I could have been successful. She uses a lot of the techniques I used on my first few but was too tired to remember. And she has it systematically arranged, with worksheets and logs, so you can see how well her system is working. Worth looking into if you don't want to listen to your baby cry, but the all-night waking is making you crazy.

It helped me because after spending $15 on a book, I was more motivated to finally get my baby to sleep through the night. And now, instead of waking every 1-2 hours, she's waking up once (usually) or twice (occasionally) a night. Again, I say rejoice!

Unconditional Love

Kathy Bates, Dan Akroyd, Rupert Everett, Jonathon Pryce, Julie Andrews, Barry Manilow, etc. Kind of a bizarre movie, but Kathy Bates is a joy to watch. I've loved her ever since seeing Misery. (I went with a friend, who was pretty freaked out by the movie, and later, it was so fun to call his house and leave messages for him from Annie Wilkes.) She is really a great actress. She sings in this movie, too, and her voice is great. All of the acting in this movie was very good, actually.

Not necessarily recommended viewing, but it was entertaining.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This is a fun classic novel. Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie in 1940. I haven't seen it for a very long time, but I think it was his first American movie, or something like that. He probably played up the spookiness a lot, but the book is just spooky enough to be fun. (For me, I mean. I don't have much tolerance for scary stuff.)

I've read it before, possibly twice, but I really enjoyed it this time around. I knew what was going to happen, of course (Jon and I watched a long Masterpiece Theatre production of it fairly recently, which had reminded me of forgotten details). But the writing is delightfully descriptive, and this time I noticed how much of the story happens in the narrator's head, as she imagines different scenarios. In fact, her swings from euphoric happiness to deep despair reminded me of Bridget Jones's Diary--silly, uniquely female, somewhat immature, and totally believable. It's really fun to read.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Le Divorce (2003)

I don't think I liked this movie. I don't mean to be indecisive, but it was kind of weird. There were several subplots and extra characters who turn out to be pretty important, but they overshadowed the main plot, if it was indeed the main plot. I don't think it should be called a "romantic comedy," either. I guess there was romance if you think it's romantic to watch a young, hip American girl (Kate Hudson) sleeping around--towards the beginning of the movie, she meets a French guy, Yves, and they shake hands and make eye contact, and in the very next scene, they are watching TV together in bed, half dressed. And that's it for that romance! Then she becomes someone's mistress. While continuing to carry on with Yves.

There were some interesting contrasts between French and American culture, which made the movie a nice companion to a book I recently read called Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. Also funny and disturbing to watch the English guy towards the end eating and talking disparagingly about the French.

It seems like everything with Kate Hudson in it features her in an infinite number of extremely hip, endlessly varying outfits, as if she's not a real person, but a life-size doll/chameleon who tempts the costume people way too much. Tailored suit and heels? Yes! Flowing hippy skirt and scarves? Yes! Jeans, T-shirt and over-sized sweater? Yes! And let's change her hair in every scene! She is pretty beautiful, though. And cute. Beautiful and cute!

In general, the movie wasn't funny. It was more of a drama. It had beautiful people and scenery, interesting characters, intelligent dialogue, art and food, lots of French, which I enjoy trying to understand. But I still didn't like it that much. It may be that it was just too amoral for me. Or just immoral. I don't know.

The In-Laws

Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks play fathers whose son and daughter are about to get married. It's mildly funny, but just an okay movie. I like Ryan Reynolds, who plays the groom-to-be. Albert Brooks is also funny, though in a whiny, annoying way, kind of like Woody Allen. I'm not a fan of Candice Bergen, who plays the ex-wife of Michael Douglas' character. Yep, pretty much run-of-the-mill.

Running With Angels by Pamela H. Hansen

The subtitle of this book is "The Inspiring Journey of a Woman Who Turned Personal Tragedy into Triumph Over Obesity," and it is inspiring. After losing two babies at birth and dealing with the serious diseases of two of her daughters, the author took control of something she did have control over and lost 100 pounds. While she was losing the last 60 pounds, she trained for a marathon. In nine months, she went from running ten steps during her by-then habitual walks to 26.2 miles. Amazing and inspiring.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Danny Deckchair

I liked this a lot. Funny and not run-of-the-mill. (You could call it a romantic comedy, even, but it takes place in Australia with real Australians, which makes it a refreshing romantic comedy.) It's about a guy who accidentally flies away in a deckchair attached to huge helium-filled balloons. He ends up far away and starts a new life.

I won't address here the problem with many romantic comedies, namely the question of why we should believe that the old relationship is so wrong and the new one so right; and what is going to make the new relationship work--forever! or for a year or so, if it involves high school kids--when the old one didn't? Perhaps I'm overthinking the romantic comedy genre, which is about the beginning of a relationship, and only incidentally about the end of one, sometimes.

Anyway, recommended, especially if you enjoy Australian accents, watching people drive on the wrong side of the road, and hearing lots of strange shortenings of words. We are all familiar with the Australian "barbie," as in barbeque, but what about "footy" for football and "brecky" for breakfast? My kids would fit right in; they call tennis shoes "tennas."

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

There's always something that makes me sad in Anne Tyler's books. In this one, it was how generally well-intentioned the characters were, but how easily they misunderstood each other. Also how thoughtlessly the characters spoke sometimes. But what I love about Anne Tyler is how true to life her books are, maybe more in this one than in previous novels. The characters aren't quirky and weird, as in many of her other books; they're more subtly complex and ordinary.

It was one of those books where, days after I've finished it, I suddenly wonder, "What's going on with so-and-so?" And I'm sad to discover that the story is done. I don't know what else will happen to so-and-so, because she's not real.

My mom used to want me to write our family history. She thought it could be like an Anne Tyler novel. It probably could be--we'd fit right into her world, except for the Baltimore setting--but I'm not sure we'd be pleased to see ourselves so honestly rendered. Anne Tyler is good at the flawed protagonist.

South of the Northeast Kingdom by David Mamet

This short book by playwright David Mamet is a National Geographic publication about Vermont, where Mamet lived for forty years (I think). Jon and I have been fans of Mamet and of Vermont for several years now, so this was a treat.

Mamet's writing is almost like poetry, it's so concentrated. There are no meandering descriptions that invite you to get lost in the text. You have to pay attention to every word (or at least I did)--there's nothing extra. I liked it a lot.

In many travel books I've read, the author's descriptions of people and towns, especially small towns, are cute and quaint. They often end up sounding like caricatures instead of real people. (See Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, for example; I couldn't finish it, he seemed so condescending to those he was describing. I started to imagine how he'd describe me, and it wasn't good.) Mamet's characters, real people he lived and did business with, were respectfully and realistically portrayed. Mamet also describes himself honestly, or with some self-deprecation or humility. I don't know what to call it, but it makes him a trustworthy writer. Someone to listen to.

I shouldn't be surprised, though. His plays and movies (the ones we've seen) are amazing and important. But that's a topic for another time. Or for several other times.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Spencer's Mountain

This movie from 1963 was apparently the inspiration for the TV show The Waltons. We just wanted to watch it because it was filmed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is near where we live. In it are Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, and the guy who played the oldest brother in Swiss Family Robinson (James MacArthur, IMDb tells me).

We watched it with our kids and were surprised at the sexual references throughout the movie. (Maybe it's naive to think that a movie from 1963 about a homesteading family would be devoid of that kind of thing; maybe sexual references were all the rage in 1963. Then again, we recently watched Gone With the Wind with the kids. It has relatively recently been rated G--in spite of all kinds of things that I wouldn't normally consider appropriate for "General Audiences." Like the violent death of a child; a silhouetted amputation with plenty of noise; a heroine with nearly exclusively self-serving motivations; a few really screwed up marriages; murder and murder threats; several scenes with wounded soldiers, etc. And the d-word, of course! Damn, that would be. Maybe it's naive to think old movie are always good and wholesome.)

Anyway, there were a couple of very aggressive young women in Spencer's Mountain and plenty of kissing, which my older boys cringed through, because kissing is gross, you know. And I must admit that it was lengthy kissing.

Pretty entertaining, though. Clay (Henry Fonda) and Olivia Spencer (Maureen O'Hara) are the parents of nine children living in 1950s Wyoming with an amazing view of the Tetons and the valley at their feet. Clay is one of nine brothers, whose parents homesteaded in the area. They want education for their children, and the movie's about their struggles to get their oldest son Clayboy to college, so he won't end up working in the quarry like his dad. There's certainly beautiful scenery, and there are several amusing scenes with various small-town characters. Also one scene of the family's house in the distance while family members call out their good nights, just like in The Waltons.

So that's where the name "Johnboy" came from. Clayboy! I'm so smart.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What the Deaf Man Heard

A unimportant but mildy entertaining movie about a kid whose mother disappears en route to a new place, and when he gets to the end of the bus line, sans Mom, he refuses to respond to people and they assume he's a deaf-mute. He keeps it up for twenty years and then has some dilemmas because of what he overhears.

I guess it's interesting to think about what people say around those they believe can't hear or understand. Overall, just standard Hallmark Hall of Fame stuff. (Hey, it was free at the library, and the selection there is not really extensive.)

Friday, September 8, 2006

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This is a novel for kids 8 and up, supposedly, though it seems too mature for that young. I really liked it. The main character is obsessed with Catholic Saints and being good, and sometimes he sees and talks to them. There's also a bizarre portrayal of Mormons in their neighborhood (the kid's intrigued, because they're Latter-day Saints, you know), which makes me really wonder if the author has met some LDS missionaries who were kind of odd. Or maybe he just made it up. Or maybe missionaries in England go by their first names (all Biblical) and live in suburban homes in threesomes eschewing material possessions.

There's a very good movie version of this, too, but it also may be too mature for young kids. We watched it with ours, but it won't be one of those that gets oft-repeated viewings.

Firewall

This is the first movie I've seen with Harrison Ford in it since I met him. (Yes! I met him! How cool is that? We did not have a meaningful conversation or anything, but it was still pretty neat. And my kids' got his signature. Han Solo's signature! Sorry to all of you who've heard enough about this already.)

This movie totally sucked me in. I was tense pretty much the whole time, even during the opening credits, which is a montage of black and white surveillance photos of main character, Jack, and his family. (I also felt a little uncomfortable watching these creepy photos and realizing that I was doing the same thing when I took pictures of him at our little airport here. I'm not planning to use them for some evil purpose, but wouldn't it be weird if everybody wanted to take pictures of you? Weird and creepy.)

Yeah, so like I said, it totally sucked me in. For an action movie, it was surprisingly believable, with a minimum of "yeah, right" moments. And as Harrison Ford and the director pointed out in an interview on the DVD, they didn't resort to ridiculous space-age graphics on the computer screens. There was one important-to-the-plot shot with Jack's face reflected in the screen, which must have been somewhat manipulated into being, but no numbers and letters swirling around or anything stupid-looking like that. Which I appreciated.

Jon saw this on an airplane, but I think I might have to make him watch it again on a bigger screen someday. There are lots of movies with similar plots, where the bad guys hold the hero's family hostage and make him do bad stuff for them (like in the first season of 24), but Firewall was particularly good at getting me to alternately root for Jack against the bad guys and then Jack with the bad guys as he's actually committing the crime. It was good.

Cheaper by the Dozen 2

The kids and I watched this together. I know I'm not supposed to, but I think I actually liked this better than the first one. The first Cheaper by the Dozen (with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt; not the old one) seemed to have even more ridiculously chaotic moments than the second. Though I admit that Steve Martin was physically sillier in this one. Okay, maybe I can't defend my preference for the second one very well. It's true that these funny depictions of large families do no service to large families. But this one had two large families, one with twelve kids, one with eight, and one of the points of the movie is the nearly opposite parenting styles, and how both families turn out good kids (although kids from both families get into trouble).

Also, I liked that the trophy wife of the "competing" family turns out to be pretty cool. And that the kids are all nice and like each other. And that it's just the dads who are lame and overly competitive. Okay, I do find the dad-is-stupider-than-mom characterization annoying and harmful (Everybody Loves Raymond and just about every other sitcom around, for example), but it could so easily have leaked over into the kids in this movie, and it didn't.

I always criticize birth scenes in movies, and this one's no exception. But the criticisms are minor: I don't think the family has to wear scrubs in the delivery room nowadays (though I suppose it's possible in a small resort town hospital), and the labor went pretty fast for a first-time mom. But who cares about that? I'm writing it, but I don't think I care that much anymore.

Elizabethtown

Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom in a fairly decent romantic comedy (or if you want to be cool, you could call it a "rom-com," a term that disturbs me; I used it jokingly for a while, but it kept disturbing me, so I quit). The back of the DVD case claimed that the soundtrack was "great" or something, which made me suspicious that the rest of the movie might suck. But it was a pretty good soundtrack, until they started playing too much Elton John. Or maybe it was just a couple of Elton John songs played too close together or someone who sounded like Elton John. Anyway, still a good soundtrack.

It was nice to see a movie not set in New York. In fact, this one took place in Oregon (briefly) and in Louisville, Kentucky. The end features many and sundry places of interest between Louisville and somewhere west of there (maybe in Kansas?), I can't remember where. And I liked that part. I'd really like to visit the World's 2nd Largest Farmer's Market now, but I don't think it exists. I couldn't find it online, anyway. So maybe the other places are fabricated, too? I don't know.

I just realized that of the three movies I've watched in the last two days (Jon's out of town, and that's what I do when he's out of town), none of them was set in New York! I think that's a movie-viewing miracle, considering that I wasn't intentionally selecting them based on setting and they were all pretty mainstream stuff.

Anyway, if a movie like this is not completely stupid and the characters seem realistic and varied, I usually find it to be enjoyable. (An example of a romantic comedy that I did not enjoy is The Wedding Planner. Ew.) This was enjoyable.

Friday, September 1, 2006

The Recruit (2003)

The back of this movie's DVD case claims that you'll want to watch it again and again to see what you missed the first time. Because it's so convoluted and full of twists and turns, you see. But it's not really. (If you want something to watch repeatedly, try The Spanish Prisoner, and then talk to Jon about it.)

It was entertaining, however. And that's what I wanted last night--something fun to watch, that wouldn't make me think too much, or at least not beyond trying to figure out who's really the bad guy. That's what I got.

As an aside, I'm going to start linking movies to imdb.com, unless I think they're really worth buying.

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

This was pretty good, though maybe not as compelling as The Giver. I'm eager to read the next somewhat-related book, Messenger, and see how it ties the two novels together. I look forward to reading these with my kids when they're older.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Halide's Gift by Frances Kazan

I am grateful that the author of this book explains that while the novel is about a real person (Halide Edib, a famous nineteenth century Turkish woman), she has taken the liberty of changing many of the "details" of her life. But why!? Why must she do that? Why change what's already good, great, interesting? And while I'm at it, I don't think the time of death of Halide's stepmother, to whom she was supposedly close, is a "detail." Well, I should calm down. The premise of the whole book--Halide's "gift" for seeing dead people, which later turns into an ability to write really good fiction, if that makes sense--is a "detail" that's made-up.

Halide Edib sounds like a pretty interesting woman, in spite of how boring she is in the book. I'd like to read her memoirs someday, House with Wisteria: Memoirs of Halide Edib. Or one of her twenty-five novels. She lived at the end of the Ottoman empire, her family members were both devout, traditional Muslims and pro-European progressives. She was the first Turkish girl to attend the American Girls School in Constantinople, and she taught English literature at Istanbul University.

Obviously, I didn't like this novel that much, though. The quote on the cover of the book says it's a "complex tale of intrigue, secrets, superstitions and veiled passions." Yes, it contains all of those elements, but somehow it wasn't as gripping as it should have been, especially when the author was making up a lot of stuff. I suppose I learned a few things, though. Kazan's brief history of the Ottoman Empire was just right for me, right now, knowing next to nothing about it. (Though I do know, from the They Might Be Giants song, that Istanbul used to be called Constantinople!)

A half-formed theory of mine is that if a good portion of the praise quotes on a book's cover come from other authors, it's probably not that good. I'm still testing the theory, but it holds true for this one.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999; TV edit)

Finally got around to watching this, which I taped off TV back in ... well, a while ago. Back when we had cable and I was a Human Tivo (Extreme Time-Shifting, Jon says). (Jon and I have avoided watching rated-R movies for years, but I've taped many of them when they were on channels that aired edited-for-TV stuff.) It was the Kate Bush song "Joanni" from Aerial that inspired me to watch it already.

I wasn't sure about it in the beginning, and whenever I watch something "historical," I spend a lot of time wondering just how much of it is really historical and how much is thrown in to sate the hunger of the masses for soap opera story lines. Of course, if I just knew more stuff, I would know, right? But anyway, at first, the movie seemed like it might be sort of weird--her visions featured a lot of fast-moving clouds and choppily edited scenes of things. And there was too much music.

But I am always interested in people who see visions. I believe in visions, but I don’t believe everyone who’s claimed to have them. I wonder how many of them question their own sanity. And I wonder about their sanity. There are a lot of people throughout history who’ve claimed to have visions, and someday I’d like to know who really did have them, who was insane, and who fabricated them in order to get power over others. I guess there might be some other categories in which to put vision-having people. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But those were dreams, I guess.

The Messenger doesn’t answer this question about Joan of Arc, but it explores the idea, mostly through Dustin Hoffman’s character (listed as “The Conscience” on IMDb.com). Joan doesn’t seem to question her sanity so much as her own motivations. This part—after she’s arrested until the end—was my favorite part. Interesting stuff to think about.

It’s pretty violent, of course, but fortunately there’s plenty of comic relief. It’s not inappropriate, though; it’s mostly from the military leaders and soldiers who were following Joan. They’re coarse, career army guys who adore her and are exasperated by her.

And it turns out that the movie is fairly accurate historically, though the murder and rape of her sister at the beginning is apparently made up (her village may have been burned, though). However, considering the times, I think it’s likely she saw things like it, even if it wasn’t her sister. Apparently, Joan of Arc is one of the best-documented people of the Middle Ages, and much of what happens in the movie probably did happen.

So it was worth watching. The acting was good, especially Milla Jovovich and Dustin Hoffman, and John Malkovich and Faye Dunaway were great as the Dauphin and his mother-in-law, using Joan as long as they needed her and then dismissing her with the wave of a hand. In the end, I was glad her visions weren't more developed in the movie (and the real Joan heard voices, I think). Since Joan never described her voices or visions, it's good they were left ambiguous.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling

I believe this book is the first book on homeschooling I've read cover to cover. Apparently John Holt's earlier book Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education is a homeschooling classic (specifically about what is perhaps unfortunately named unschooling). His protégé Patrick Ferenga has taken that book and updated it. Overall, I enjoyed it, but as I read it, I was glad I hadn't read any until we'd already been homeschooling for years. I came to basically the same conclusions, but in my own way.

I'll start with a few small and probably petty annoyances. One of the authors commented that nobody would need to "learn computers" at school because it's easy to teach yourself or take a community class. But what he actually meant was learning to use spreadsheets and word processors, hardly what I think of when someone says "learn computers". Programming, troubleshooting software or hardware, etc. are far beyond mere user semi-competence. Mind you, many of the best hackers are self-taught, so this is no endorsement of formal computer education (of which I have next to none anyway). But it's like the sizable difference between "learning to drive a car" and "learning how to maintain and repair cars".

On page xiv of the preface, I read: "It wasn't a single homeschooling encounter, book, or research paper that convinced my wife and I to try homeschooling ..." Yes, convinced my wife and I. Well, that was Patrick. Somehow I think John Holt wouldn't have made that mistake!

In general I feel the book oversimplifies a number of things, and is overly dismissive of formal schooling methods in general. I don't think (and the book doesn't present much evidence) that formal schooling is in all places and times inherently broken. I prefer to narrow the focus to the inappropriateness of formal education for children younger than somewhere around age 13-16.

But I'm sounding too negative. The book is actually quite good, and I particularly appreciated that it didn't advocate any narrow ideological point of view (religious focus, or highly secular, or elitist). Many homeschoolers seem to have a highly rigid approach that focuses on their chosen curriculum or methods, and finds all others inferior. This book is narrowly negative and expansive, in the sense that it explicates the case for keeping kids out of formal schools, but otherwise leaving the field of possibilities wide open. And that is the approach I too have come to feel is best.

I found Patrick Farenga was in his finest form here in the book's conclusion:

To repeat once again the idea with which I began this book, it is a most serious mistake to think that learning is an activity separate from the rest of life, that people do best when they are not doing anything else and best of all in places where nothing else is done. It is an equally serious mistake to think that teaching, the assisting of learning and the sharing of knowledge and skill, is something that can be done only by a few specialists. When we lock learning and teaching in the school box, as we do, we do not get more effective teaching and learning in society, but much less.

What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent--in the broadest and best sense, intelligent--is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgment, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. (pp. 278-279)

and later ...

... education is changing the definition of citizenship with very little debate. John Holt, in an unpublished talk to students in 1971, observed:

Thomas Jefferson felt that education was needed to help become and be what he called citizens. By "citizens" he did not mean what most of us mean when we call ourselves "taxpayers" or "consumers." A citizen was not someone who worried about how to "fit into society." He was a maker and shaper of society. He held the highest office in the Republic; public servants were his servants, not his bosses and rulers.

Being a citizen seems to mean merely being an "employed consumer" today. It is popular among today's educational policy makers to refer to children as "resources" to be developed, rather than as individuals to be nurtured. It is hard to imagine how teachers and students are expected to become citizens who "make and shape society" when so much of their time together is spent trying to "make and shape" the kids to fit the demands of twelve to sixteen or more years of school. (p. 285)

This book is not essential reading for people already homeschooling. But it's nonetheless worthwhile, and I especially recommend it for people who aren't familiar with homeschooling at all, or for homeschoolers whose teaching approach mimics the formal schools.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

Entertaining. Meryl Streep is great as Miranda Priestley, the feared editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine. We've all seen this type of boss portrayed in movies and on TV, everyone scurrying to meet impossible demands, but this one does it without the screaming temper tantrums. In fact, her voice stays low and reasonable-sounding throughout, and it's fun.

Anne Hathaway, as the new number two assistant to Miranda, Andrea somebody, sometimes looks great and sometimes looks like a Disney Princess (maybe Snow White), which doesn't mean she looks bad, necessarily, just a little like a cartoon. You know, skin like snow, eyes like coal, lips like blood, or whatever it is. And I was sometimes confused about who (old boyfriend or new famous writer boyfriend?) or what (stay in fashion job and dress amazingly or return to old dream of writing for The New Yorker?) I was supposed to be rooting for. I don't know if this was a weakness of the movie or a strength--maybe it's good not to show choices as Good or Bad, since they often aren't Good or Bad. I suspect that it was actually a weakness, though, perhaps caused by too little time given to Andrea's old friends, boyfriend, ambitions. Or maybe they were given enough time, but they just seemed boring compared to the cut-throat world of fashion where size 6 is the new 14.

Some secondary characters were very good: Miranda's number one assistant, a bratty English girl who reluctantly helps Andrea along, and Miranda's right-hand man who is kind to Andrea but doesn't pander to her whininess.

Also, I liked the music a lot.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Osama (2003)

Filmed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, written and directed by an Afghan filmmaker, this is a film about a young girl who dresses up like a boy in order to get work and support her mother and grandmother. I've read a few books about Afghanistan in the last year or so--they've been enlightening, but I still don't really understand the culture there or in surrounding Islamic countries. This movie gave me more to look at than the books (and the cinematography is really beautiful), but while I can explain that women there are oppressed and treated as second-class citizens, I have the feeling I'll never know what that's really like.

What strikes me about the Muslims portrayed in this movie and in the books I've read is that they are extremely religious--praying five times a day and constantly referring to God and His will--and at the same time some of the meanest people I've had to think about. Especially interesting to me is how the women, very often treated badly by their husbands and other men, try their hardest to oppress and belittle each other.

Now I know my exposure has been limited to a movie and a few books. Here are the books I've read that deal with Afghanistan:

  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (a disturbing novel that I didn't really like but made me read more about Afghanistan and other Muslim countries)
  • An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot (nonfiction about a guy's travels to Afghanistan. The first visit he snuck in and lived with the mujahedin during the Russian occupation--when he was 19! because that's what everyone wants to do on Spring Break!--and the second time he traveled around the country ten years later, when the Taliban was beginning to take control. Beautifully written and fascinating.)
  • The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (another fascinating nonfiction book by a female Norwegian journalist who lived with an Afghani family for three months. Really interesting, though also disturbing.)

Others that are related:

  • House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (interesting because one of main characters is Iranian; it's well-written and seems to characterize the Iranian family really well. Otherwise, I hated this book, because how could the characters do so many stupid things?)
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (I haven't finished this book yet, but it's good. Much more literary criticism than I expected, it's a memoir by an Iranian literature professor who holds a sort of underground book club for women after she resigns from her University of Tehran position because of political oppression.)

Anyway, I've barely begun to learn about Islamic culture and countries. There are certain topics that scare me because I know so little and there's so much to know, so I avoid them as much as possible until something makes me finally start to learn. And even though I didn't like the book, The Kite Runner inspired me to jump in, and that's something. (You'd think 9/11 might have gotten me started, but no.)

Monday, July 31, 2006

Down and Derby (2005)

Having participated in three Pinewood Derbies, the last one with two sons racing cars, and with many to come in the future, it was fun to watch this movie. It's nice to watch a comedy that isn't determined to be crude and inappropriate, too. I enjoyed it.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Better Life, whirligig mullet

Spam has gotten so obnoxious, intrusive, and time-consuming. Especially if you're the domain contact and postmaster at a large number of domains. And even with spam filtering.

But then every once in a while, the infinite number of spam monkeys strikes paydirt, and I receive a spam with a subject like "Better Life, whirligig mullet", and I don't even have to open the email because my life is better already thanks to the deep beauty of their word-art.

Ah, pink quivering meat product.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

I read this over the weekend for a local book club, mostly motivated by a desire to refute someone's suggestion that it might be a "man's book." I'm not sure why I felt so compelled to argue about that particular issue, but whatever.

It's a coming-of-age story about a white kid who grows up in an igloo in Northern Alaska, uncool with the local Eskimos, who live in a village, and later uncool in the city of Anchorage. (He does become cool later, though.) It was really an amazing book: the writing was very good (it reminded me of the great writing in Peace Like a River, another excellent first novel), and it's a good, though sometimes depressing story (depressing mostly because of how the government so easily ruins native communities, just like in the old days, but with money and alcohol and free houses instead of guns and alcohol and jes' killin'em).

Anyway, it's amazing to read about life in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. And probably accurate, since the author grew up that way himself (and still lives in Northwestern Alaska). Worth reading.

Monday, July 24, 2006

More on The Omnivore's Dilemma

I discovered an interesting exchange of letters between John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, and Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Mackey defends his company against Pollan's portrayal of it in the book, and Pollan almost apologizes, but not quite. Then Mackey replies again, but that's linked on Pollan's website. They're long but worth reading.

Cast Away (2000)

Watched this last night on DVD, causing Jon to stay up later than he wanted to. Probably one of the scariest airplane crash scenes I've ever seen. I really liked the part on the island, which had no music and very little talking (until the Tom Hanks character starts talking to a volleyball he calls Wilson). The end was less satisfying than I was expecting; I wanted people to show some interest in how he managed to survive for four years alone on a island. I'd want to know all the details!

What are we supposed to learn from a Robinson Crusoe-like story, though? To appreciate what we have, I guess. And maybe to marvel at the survival instincts of humans? I'd like to learn to tie more knots.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Nacho Libre

Or as our drive-in has it, Nacho LEBRA. I don't know if they ran out of letters or if they're creative or what.

We laughed. Jack Black using a Mexican accent is funny, it turns out. Professional wrestling is always weird, even when it's funny. I liked it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Giver by Lois Lowry

What a great book! Targeted at young adults, it's about a young boy in a utopian society. This is, I think, the third time I've read it (for a book club this time), and it was still good. Some of the surprises were still chilling and horrific, even when I knew what was coming, or maybe partly because I did know what was coming.

There are apparently a couple of companion books to this one, not exactly sequels but somehow associated. They are Messenger and Gathering Blue. I'm looking forward to reading them, especially after an article in Reason magazine recently, which was about children's literature with libertarian themes.

Brazilian Lounge

Putumayo is a recording label that specializes in world music. All of their CDs guarantee "to make you feel good." So far I have found this to be true.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was showing my mom and two of my sisters some of the cool shops in our area, I bought Putumayo's Brazilian Lounge. We like various kinds of electronic music (or techno or whatever; I am easily confused by labels), especially lounge stuff by groups like Thievery Corporation), and I admit that I thought if I bought something Jon would like, he might not notice the money I was spending. (I also bought a floral mat made from recycled plastic, which I love very much and used as a sort of porch to our tent when we went camping recently.) Anyway, it was another successful music acquisition: groovy and mellow with cool Brazilian melodies and words. Shortly after I bought it, Jon said we needed to get more because he was in danger of making himself sick of it by listening to it too much. Now that's a good sign.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

This is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. The author tracks four meals from production to table: one from McDonald's, one purchased at Whole Foods Market, one from a sustainable farm in Virginia, and one he hunted and gathered himself. The writing is delightful, sometimes funny, always interesting. I felt like I read much of the book with my mouth hanging open in astonishment, even when it was about processing corn.

Pollan's travels and studies revealed that there's an organic "industry" nowadays, which I suppose shouldn't have surprised me, but it kind of did. He's not preachy about his findings and doesn't insist that everyone become vegetarian or vegan (in fact, after visiting feed lots, killing chickens at a farm in Virginia, and having his first-ever hunting experience, he continues to eat meat). He does encourage us to think about where our food comes from and what it really costs, in terms of our environment, health, etc.

I want to go on and on, but I have a feeling I'm being very boring, so I'll just mention some of the other stuff that crops up in this book: mushroom and pig hunting; the statistic that 1 in 3 American children eat fast food every day (how can that be?); government regulations that are screwed up at best; an entertaining Italian guy; good cooking; and happy chickens. (By the way, did you know that "free-range chickens" turn out to be not so free range? Oh, they have access to a door to the outside. For two weeks at the end of their seven week existence, and even then, they don't usually use it.)

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Love Potion No. 9

After bad-mouthing this movie (or at least implying that it wasn't good), I thought I should watch it. It was pretty dumb. I guess that's what happens when you write a script based on a song like "Love Potion No. 9."

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Work and the Glory: American Zion (2005)

Everyone seems too modern and sentimental in these movies. Having said that, I kind of enjoyed the first Work and the Glory movie. This one not so much. I may have been more critical because I was in a bad mood (dealing with broken appliances made me crazy last night). I thought the movie might make me appreciate my modern and convenient life, but instead I was annoyed by the actor's facial expressions. I do like Joseph Smith in these movies for some reason, though he's nothing like I imagine he really was.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

I just discovered that I don't know how to spell "Caribbean." It still looks weird to me.

I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean. That was one of my favorite rides at Disneyland when I was a kid, and while I'm not a fan of Disney nowadays and I know it's a marketing gimmick to make movies based on their rides, I loved it! It was fun and funny, the story was good, and Johnny Depp was great. It even withstood a third viewing recently.

Anyway, I hardly ever see first-run movies, but I took my visiting sister to our local drive-in for the second Pirates of the Caribbean. For a few minutes at the beginning, I thought it might be really stupid, but then I started to enjoy it. The crazy action scenes are crazy and unbelievable, even cartoon-like, but the dialogue was again hilarious and clever, and the story interesting and good. I enjoyed it very much and look forward to seeing it again.