Saturday, August 23, 2008

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

"Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and its a way to making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss." From I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron
I totally "grok" that quote, as I feel exactly the same way about reading.
This was one of the best books I've read all year. Ephron, who is known for writing screenplays for some legendary chick flicks like "When Harry Met Sally" is at her best here, witty, brilliant, vulnerable and real. The reader feels as if they're fortunate enough to sit down at a New York cafe with Ephron and spend the afternoon chatting over bagels and tea.
Though she's in her 60s, I could identify with all her comments on the onerous maintenance regimes women are expected to adhere to, or the way that we all find so much fault with our bodies, or the difficulties of raising a child so at the very least they won't be a serial killer or the cell mate of one.
Then there's the moments when Ephron writes about books that make my heart sing, because she puts into words what I feel every time I pick up a new book, hoping for some fine prose and gorgeous storytelling:

"I loved this book. I loved every second of it. I was transported into its world. I was reminded of all sorts of things in my own life. I was in anguish over the fate of its characters, I felt alive, and engaged, and positively brilliant, bursting with ideas, brimming with memories of other books I've loved. I composed a dozen imaginary letters to the author, letters I'll never write, much less send. I wrote letters of praise. I wrote letters relating entirely inappropriate personal information about my own experiences with the authors subject matter. But mostly I wrote letters of gratitude: the state of rapture I experience when I read a wonderful book is one of the main reasons I read, but it doesn't happen every time, or even every other time, and when it does happen, I am truly beside myself." from the chapter "On Rapture" by Nora Ephron

I wanted to shout "YES!" about a million times when I read paragraphs like the above...yes, that's it exactly! She manages to hit the nail on the head of nearly ever experience she writes about. There was even a paragraph when Ephron was talking about losing a good friend, and she says "I want to talk to her. I want to have lunch with her. I want her to give me a book she just read and loved. She is my phantom limb, and I can't believe I'm here without her." Once again, yes! Exactly! This is how I feel nearly every day when I think of my best friend Muff, and her passing this year that was so unexpected and so horrifyingly swift.

Perhaps my experiences are so average that many women experience them as well, or perhaps Nora Ephron just has her lovely manicured fingers on the zietgiest, the pulse of women over the age of 40. Either way, this book is a must read for the baby boom generation woman who is trying to make sense of it all and still keep her sanity. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you will nod in agreement. I highly recommend this book.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I read Loving Frank during the first week of August for my book group at the library.
Though I am aware that the book has garnered a steady buzz over the last couple of years, I don't know that I feel the book was worthy of all the nattering.
Loving Frank is the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a married woman living in the early 20th century in Chicago who falls in love with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and leaves her husband, children and propriety to live with Wright and be his muse, as well as her own. There's a great deal of musing, commentary and discussion of women's role in society, whether women should be true to their husbands if the marriage is loveless, whether they should stay in the marriage for the sake of raising their children in a nuclear family, and whether women have the right to follow their hearts and minds to find fulfillment for their work and their souls. I realize that we're talking about 1910, a time when feminists were called sufferagists and thought to be loose women because they wanted the right to vote. Still, Horan brings up a lot of issues that women still struggle with nearly 100 years later; the whole 'work/family' balance thing, the idea that a career is important to a womans development of values and sense of self.
Still Mamah comes across as a bit too cold and intellectual, in that she seems to have no trouble leaving her children behind with her husband and her sister as she flees into the night to meet up with Wright. Of course as a wealthy woman, she had a nanny and her sister to help raise the children from birth, but I know that I would feel more than a pang of pain, guilt, etc were I to leave my son behind for even a short period of time. Mamah eventually feels remorse for not being there to watch her children grow, but it is only after she meets up with them years later and they do not know her or wish to be with her. Wright comes across as a Peter Pan kind of genius, egotistical and arrogant but childish in his needs and desires. He seems to be charming, but a rogue, a liar and the kind of man who feels its perfectly alright to cheat those he feels are beneath him in talent or intellectual ability. Like most artists, he stinks with money and can't run his business without running it into the red consistantly, and why Mamah doesn't call him on his business foibles earlier is a mystery.
Still, the book outlines Mamah and Franks life in an interesting fashion, and though the ending is chilling and awful, (one reviewer said, "Mamah's life is cut short in the most unexpected and violent of ways, forcing the novel to craw toward a startlingly quiet conclusion" in Publishers Weekly) I still enjoyed the novel and the questions it brought up about a womans place in society and marriage. It was also a refreshingly honest peek into the life of one of America's most celebrated architects.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five Movies

"The Register also noted that owner Bea Dozier-Taylor "doesn't press her
many visitors to buy, but she does encourage them to read. One patron
sat quietly in a corner reading for hours. These quiet readers may not
bring in the bucks, but they represent quiet social change that comes
from the cultivation of the mind."
"Books are life sustaining, they take you past your limitations," said
Dozier-Taylor, who is currently celebrating the bookshop's 20th
anniversary." This is from Shelf Awareness' daily listserve, which is a list about bookstores and books, librarians and authors.
I feel strongly that the above quote is true, that books lead to cultivation of the mind, and are life sustaining entities that help us grow as human beings.

This quote from my favorite short story writer is also true:

"You've got to love libraries. You've got to love books.
You've got to love poetry. You've got to love
everything about literature. Then, you can
pick the one thing you love most and write about it."

~ Ray Bradbury

Amen and Halelluiah Ray!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog.
I recently saw five movies on DVD, and was honestly surprised at how terrible most of them were.
They were Eden, Losing Chase, Marie Antoinete, The Laws of Attraction and Arms and the Man.

Marie Antoinette, staring Kirsten Dunst, was one of the most dull, boring and ridiculous movies I've ever laid eyes on. Yes, life for royalty was proscribed and rigid, and yes, they married monarchs off at a ridiculously young age, but that's no excuse for film makers to force audiences to sit through long scenes of the daily life of the Queen of France, including embarrasing shots of her naked cold buttocks as the court ladies vie for the honor of putting on her nightgown or her undershift. Nor do we need to watch the Dauphan, soon to be the king, sit and mince away at his food. Snore. When Marie finally gets to take a lover, its short-lived, and then we see her go back to being a dutiful wife and mother with a passion for confections, clothing and gambling that nearly beggars the treasury. Whoo-hoo.
The Laws of Attraction, by contrast, actually had a plot, and starred Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore as competing divorce attorneys who fall in love and 'accidently' get married in Ireland. While they're working on opposite sides of a rock stars divorce case, they learn to love and trust one another, as well as learning to live together and deal with the real work of marriage. Pierce Brosnan, besides being a very hot guy, can also act, and is Irish, so he's shown to his best advantage here, and Moore plays an uptight attorney in an charmingly nervous fashion. I'd just seen Moore play a mother of 8 in "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" so I know she has quite a range, and I admire her red-headed beauty that can be chameleon-like, turning her breathtakingly lovely or wan and fierce. I'd recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a decent romantic comedy.
Losing Chase, though it has the redoubtable Helen Mirren tagged in the lead role, is an abysmal little film, starring the also great Beau Bridges and Kyra Sedgewick. Chase is a lifelong resident of a tiny seaside town like Marthas Vineyard on the East Coast, and she's recovering from what would appear to be a nervous breakdown. Her husband, Beau, hires Kyra's character as a "mothers helper" to watch over the couple's children, help with the household cooking and, of course, bond with Chase and try to help her stop being a mean old harridan, or at least a less insane one. The plot follows the usual route of movies with crazed housewives: the mothers helper is at first reviled, then something awful happens to the helper which gains the sympathy-empathy of the nutty housewife, who then embraces the helper, starts to learn from her and the housewife seems to recover and learn to be a better person via the helper. In this case, they threw in some bizarre sexual tension between Mirren and Sedgewick that lead to Mirren/Chase kissing Sedgewick, her mothers helper, on the beach and claiming to be in love with her. This leads to a tearful goodbye as Beau races to get Kyra off the island and away from temptation. It also leads to Chase telling her husband that this may be why she went crazy in the first place...intimating that as a closet lesbian she found life with Beau and the kids to be stultifying, apparently. One of Chase's sons is a horrible, mouthy and nasty brat, while the other is sensitive and kind.No one ever seems to discipline the nasty kid, however, and for some reason by the end of the movie he's a nice kid who has ceased to vilify his mother every time he opens his mouth. The movie ends with Chase saying that she lives alone now and splits custody with her ex husband, who is now remarried, and that she thinks fondly of her former mothers helper. My question is, so what? Are we, as an audience, supposed to assume that its important to make a movie about women not realizing their sexual preferences could make them insane if they're not acted on or let out into the open? I felt much of this movie was stupid and pointless.
Eden, on the other hand, had a clear agenda from the outset.This movie, which had no real 'stars' attached to it, was about a woman with Multiple Sclerosis finding her self having out of the body experiences and coming to terms with her spiritual self. It's also clear that the movie producers wanted the audience to see that her husband, a hidebound prep school professor, had to let her go and allow her to make the choice to become the person she needed to be. The old "If you love someone, set them free" theory. There are three young prep school students living with the main characters, and one of them develops a crush on the housewife with MS, and in talking to her and learning from her, he also becomes more of his own person, and finds his own path. This young actor is a dead ringer for David Cassidy as a young man, so I found it fascinating to watch him as he followed her around like a puppy. The ending was a bit fantastic, even for an HEA-loving gal like me, but it was still an interesting study of intellectual women of the 1960s who were often in stultifying situations because of societies expections of women at the time. There were some good thinking points in this movie, but it could have used some editing to keep it moving along at a swifter pace.
Arms and the Man was so deadly dull that I only made it halfway through before I gave up completely and took it back to the library. Perhaps it was the over wrought acting of Helena Bonham Carter, or the way the firm appeared too bright, like videotape, but either way the plot moved along at a snails pace and Carter pranced around like a filly on steroids. Bleh.
I would recommend Eden only to those who have a penchant for the 1960s and the spiritual quest of women at the time, and The Laws of Attraction for its fun escapism and romantic theme.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Great Quote from Plan B by Anne Lamott

"My parents, and librarians along the way, taught me about the space between words, about the margins, where so many juicy moments of life and spirit and friendship could be found. In a library, you can find small miracles and truth, and you might find something that will make you laugh so hard that you will get shushed, in the friendliest way.
I have found sanctuary in libraries by whole life, and there is sanctuary there now, from the war, from the storms of our families and our own minds. Libraries are like mountains or meadows or creeks. Sacred space." Anne Lamott

AMEN to that, fellow bibliophile.

Plan B, or Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott was another book I wasn't going to read.
I'd read Bird by Bird, Lamott's book on writing that was so popular, and I was disgusted and embarrassed by her immaturity, jealousy, cruelty and lack of morals or integrity. Again, I like my protagonists to be people I can identify with, people whom I aspire to be like, people who are honorable, brilliant, compassionate and loving human beings who can illuminate the dark corners and teach me something important about humanity.
Lamott has more baggage than SeaTac airport on a holiday, and she has this vile habit of telling us, in detail, what an awful person she is, how she'd like to kill her son most days, how immature she is about parenting and relationships, though she's in her 50s, for heavens sake. I found myself wanting to fling Bird by Bird across the room, in hopes that it would make a better door stop than writing guide.
Yet Plan B has moments of sincere beauty, paragraphs that shine with faith, hope and honesty that make you want to embrace the author and read more of what she has to say.
Though she admits she's not quite sane, and that politics make her crazy, Lamott spills less bile than she's capable of, and manages to wrestle with her demons of alcoholism and fury at her mother, now deceased, in a surprisingly decent manner. I lose patience with authors, generally, who use books as a means of garnering pity and who are selfish enough to use books as a means of therapy, letting all their problems out for the reader to deal with. As a reader, I don't want to deal with another persons mental and spiritual baggage, I have enough of my own problems, I don't need your bucket of slugs, too.
But unlike Bird by Bird, Lamott gives the reader some hard-won spiritual insight and wisdom, and doesn't stint on her discussions of triumphs as well as tragedies, though they seem to be few and far between. In other words, I learned something by reading Plan B, and found it worthy of my time. I'd recommend it to anyone who is on a lifelong spiritual quest, and those who are middle aged and wondering why...though those might be the same things.

Old Man's War/The Ghost Brigade by John Scalzi

I was not going to read Old Man's War, though it has garnered a lot of buzz since it came out several years ago. I am not a fan of military science fiction, especially MSF that has more male protagonists than you can shake an Uzi at, because any women found in such novels are usually prostitutes or wives with little or no impact on the plot.
I have to have a protagonist I can believe in, identify with, find honorable and intelligent. Such people are also usually hard to find in MSF. There's also politics in most military novels, and I loathe politics.
Yet there I was at a garage sale on August 2, chatting with a guy who looked about 65 or so, who was trying to convince me that I really needed to read Old Man's War, and the sequel, Ghost Brigade. He claimed that the science was fascinating, the characters robust, interesting and empathy-inducing and that the plot ripped along at warp speed. He also agreed to sell me 5 books for 2 bucks, so I took him up on Old Man's War and Ghost Brigade.
Imagine my shock when I found myself staying up until 2 am reading Old Man's War, praying that John Perry survives his first year in the CDF.
Scalzi was recently awarded a Hugo for writing what amounts to fan fiction, which puts most authors way down on my list of folks whose work I must read. Yet in this trilogy, he's managed to write top notch science fiction that keeps the reader gasping at the breakneck speed of the plot. In Scalzi's future, humankind has moved out to colonize the stars, but there are so many other species vying for the same real estate that a Colonial Defense Force is needed to keep the colonists from being obliterated before they're able to create homes on any given world. Some brilliant scientists come up with a way to take 75 year olds and move their mind/spiritual essence into an amazing engineered soldier body that is green skinned and full of nanotechnology, including a device called a BrainPal that links all the soldiers together mentally. Soldiers are also grown using DNA from the dead, but those soldiers are fully functioning when they're only hours old, and have no memories or thoughts beyond battle. They're the Ghost Brigades, and they're also the guinea pigs for all the new types of tech the military comes up with to battle stronger alien forces. The catch to getting a new body and a new life at age 75 is having to leave earth forever, never contacting anyone you've known or loved again, and serving for 10 years. Unfortunately, the mortality rate for most new soldiers is extremely high (80 percent), because the aliens are either technologically more advanced or have greater numbers.
John Perry, who was a peaceful guy in his life on earth, brings his love for his long-dead wife with him to the CDF, and his values and morals that give him an edge in a chaotic universe. When he discovers that his wife's DNA has been used to create a soldier for the Ghost Brigade, Perry does his best to develop a relationship with "Jane," though he's beaten, discouraged by other officers and friends, and though he knows she doesn't have his wife's memories. There is something so touching and poignant about the enduring power of Perry's love for his wife, that I was amazed a man could write about it. I know how sexist that sounds, too.
Fortunately, Perry survives his first year, though most of his friends do not, and we are left with a somewhat happy ending for him. Old Man's War leaves readers wanting more of this world and its fascinating technology, and yet Ghost Brigade, though its touted as a sequel, doesn't really delve back into the life of John Perry or his wife's new body, Jane. Though its set in the same world, Ghost Brigade is about the special forces clones/perfect soldiers and their often brief lives. The story focuses on one soldier dubbed Jared Dirac, who was cloned from the DNA of a traitor Charles Boutin, so that Boutin's consciousness could be transferred to Dirac and the CDF honchos can figure out what made Boutin turn traitor and what he's up to with the alien enemy. Unfortunately, Dirac doesn't seem to be able to access Boutins consciousness, and is given to the Ghost Brigades as a throw away. Memories start to surface, however, when he grows older and gains sensory experiences, and suddenly is required to hunt down Boutin and keep him from wiping out the CDF and leaving humanity defenseless. I found this book not quite as exciting or engaging as Old Man's War, mainly because the characters were all hours, days or only a few years old. There's not a lot of depth to a person, even a cloned person with an embedded computer in their skull, when they haven't lived or done anything besides train for war. There was also a lot more science, with long and detailed descriptions of new inventions, along with lots of political blather going on that just bogged the book down in the middle. It geared back up and was great by the end, however, so Scalzi did recover just in time to save the universe and humanity in general.
Scalzi's prose is dialog-heavy and entertaining, but there's a lot of swearing and ribald sex scenes, so these are not the kind of book you'd want a kid or a teenager to read.
There is a third book in the series that I'd like to read called The Last Colony, mainly because its about Jane and John Perry, the characters from Old Man's War that I found so interesting.
I'd recommend these books to science fiction fans who enjoy space adventure, cool scientific advances and cynical politics and skulduggery within the military. Scalzi managed to convert me with just one book, as a non-military SF reader, and he will probably convert many others with this charming series.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Shades of Dark by Linnea Sinclair

Shades of Dark is the much-anticipated sequel to Gabriel's Ghost, one of my favorite of Sinclairs SF Romance hybrids.
Gabriel's Ghost introduced us to the gorgeous kyi-ragkiril (kind of an uber-psychic-telepath), mercenary Gabriel Ross Sullivan, ("Sully") and the love of his life, Captain Chasidah "Chaz" Bergren, formerly of the Sixth Fleet. Tempestuous barely covers their relationship, as the two lovers are on the run from the corrupt officials trying to take over the empire, while simultainiously trying to locate the illegal labs breeding 'jukors' which are monstrous beings dedicated to destroying everything they touch.
Meanwhile, Sully enlists the aid of Regarth Serian Cordell Delkavra, a Stolorth kyi ragkiril prince known as "Del." Chaz's ex-husband Admiral Philip Guthrie also comes to the couple's aid, and the supporting cast, Marsh and Dorsie, Verno, Ren, Gregor and Aubry keep Chaz and Sully hopping.
I loved this novel, and spent the last three days reading it slowly, so I could savor the joy of reading the prose of a master wordsmith.
I want to pause for a moment here and discuss prose and the writers who create it. Writing is a craft, and skill that can be learned, but only successfully deployed when there is storytelling talent behind it. Like all crafts, there are those less skilled and those highly skilled wordsmiths going to the forge of creativity, day in and day out, trying to hammer out a novel or two. There used to be authors whose genius with words was augmented by brilliant editors who molded the talents of the authors, driving them to create their best work. Harold Ross, or Malcom Cowley are examples of that era of editors who captained their publishing houses' ships with a great eye for talent and fine writing.
Not so today, in this era of publishing conglomerates that seem more interested in quantity over quality, churning out books by people with little skill and no worthy stories to tell. In my own realm of journalism, I've seen semi-literate bloggers pretend to be journalists and churn out gossip and slander as news. So all forms of writing are under attack from the hordes of mediocre minds who assume that they are real writers because they can pick at a keyboard and opine on subjects of which they have little knowledge or background. In short, there is a lot of crap published out there, and it doesn't look like readers will get a break from having to wade through piles of poop to get to the diamonds anytime soon.
Thankfully, science fiction fans are blessed with writers like Linnea Sinclair, who never disappoints with baggy prose or sluggish plots. Her prose is so clean you could eat off of it, her plots swift and sure and her characters gleam with robust life. She is the queen of the science fiction romance genre, which is saying something when you consider the number of pretenders to the throne. As a former journalist and PI, I believe that Sinclair gained her writing chops the hard way, by working jobs that put her into contact with all the varieties of human, from scumbag to saint, and then having to get the story to the public on a deadline, without any fuss or supposition. She knows what a good paragraph looks like, just as she knows that characters can't be all bad or all good. They have to be that mish-mash of qualities that make us human. So Chaz Bergren carries a chip on her shoulder the size of an evergreen, and Sully is immature and in constant need of affirmations and ego boosts, and he trusts Del, who is putting the moves on Chaz, way too easily. But readers know that Sully is also a good man with strong values who loves Chaz with all that he is. And we know that Chaz, though she has a short fuse, will put up with more than she should for the sake of her beloved Sully. We see them interact through some zingy dialog that never lags, and we read of their love growing stronger through the ties of the ky-sara mind-link that they share. It makes for some fabulous sexual encounters, as well as keeping 'info-dumps' and repetitive updates to a minimum. Sinclair also makes sure that there are a variety of sizes, shapes and species to her characters, unlike many authors whose worlds seem populated only by perfect blondes and beautiful people from Central Casting in LA. Sinclairs people are short, round, tall, thin, furry, gray-haired, and realistic. She has a gift for making worlds you want to visit, ships you want to fly on, and people you'd love to share a cuppa tea with in space dock. In fact, I found myself, after reading Gabriels Ghost, wanting to share more than tea with the hottie mercenary, Sully. Mild snogging would do, I suppose, if I could get by Chaz and her grizini wrist knife.
At any rate, Chaz and Sully must navigate the emotional space of losing a brother, having the crew learn of Sully's special powers, and trying to keep their relationship intact when Del seems determined to develop a mental menage a tois, with or without Chaz' permission. Add Philip Guthrie and his guilt over his failed marriage to Chaz, and you've got quite an emotional stew to digest. Thanks to Sinclairs skill at whipping the characters destiny into a fine froth, it goes down easy as pie. (Apologies for the silly cooking metaphors, but it's almost lunchtime).
Though I would have liked to have seen more of Ren and Dorsies relationship blossoming, I have to say that this was a very satisfying sequel to Gabriels Ghost. There was enough action and adventure to keep readers turning pages into the wee hours, and several sizzling love scenes to keep romance readers eager for more encounters between Chaz and sexy Sully. Though most loose ends were tied up in the HEA, I believe Sinclair left things up in the air with Philip Guthrie so readers might segue into her next novel, "Hopes Folly" which follows Guthrie into his new role as leader of the rebel band.
Finally, I'd recommend this book to all who enjoy good science fiction adventures with some saucy romance woven throughout, giving the story spice.
One small postscript nitpick, I found the cliche "throbbing hardness" used to describe Sully's penis, and found myself wondering why this particular trope made it to Sinclairs otherwise wonderful novel. I've seen more than a few penises in my life, as I used to work as a CNA in my younger years, and, as a married woman, I can honestly say I've never seen a penis throb before. Were all the men I've dated defective? I've seen a penis grow engorged with blood, become erect, change color (slightly) due to the increased blood flow, and there is a certain amount of movement that goes along with having intercourse, but throbbing? Not really.
NOTE: Please see comments for an update about this nitpick.