Monday, August 31, 2015

Manic Monday IX

This week has been little bit crazy for me. I’m the kind of person that tends to have many fingers in many pies all at once, and yet at the same time, I’m not the best multi-tasker. If a project gets into my head, I give it all my focus, and can’t stop for anything. Split-focus is just not something I handle well. This week, having a split-focus was non-optional. From computer problems, to late-night in-house visits from crickets, to clutter that was starting to drown me, I simply felt like didn’t have enough fingers for my pies. I’ve heard that as a rule, women are better multitaskers…I can't even begin to put into words how untrue this is when it comes to me, at least. But somehow out of all the chaos, two very exciting things rose to the surface.

My Garden: Even with all the insanity (or perhaps because of it) I found myself out in the garden every day, babying my ‘crops.’ My tomato has borne and died, but it has given me enough fruit to make one very large batch of salsa, for which my hot pepper plants also will be sacrificing their produce. Hopefully next Monday I will have pictures of lovely jars of salsa. Some part of me is very tempted to try to grow one more tomato plant before the season is over. Heaven knows, the weather is warm enough.

My cucumber plant is massive right now. I trained it vertically, and now it is six feet tall (it would be taller, but I’ve trained it back outward instead of upward) and about twelve feet across. Granted, I’ve only gotten three pickles…er…cucumbers from it, but it’s covered in flowers, and I’m hoping for a heavy crop. I’m planning on making as many batches of pickles as it will produce for. The local farmer’s market may be supplying an extra batch or two.

Our banana trees are taller and greener than ever, in spite of the now near-legendary California drought. The picture below is the start of a banana bunch. The flower-to-fruit process is something that has intrigued neighbors. As the flower ‘blooms’ the ‘petals’ fall off and behind the flower, all along the stalk, little bananas pop out. There may be a water shortage, but we are drowning in bananas right now. After taking an entire bunch to share with people at church, we still have a freezer full, waiting to be made into banana bread when the weather cools a bit. The strange part? These bananas taste exactly like artificial banana flavoring in candy or popsicles. They are sweeter than any bananas I’ve ever tasted, and the candy flavoring carries over even into the banana bread! It’s quite funny to watch people taste them for the first time. The experience of eating a banana flavoring-flavored banana is a little unreal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of bananas, but these are certainly unique.

The only thing I’m concerned about are my pumpkin plants. I’m afraid I started rather late – too late to have mature fruit by Halloween, but we’ll see. My Jack o’ Lantern plant, thought the vines are beautiful, still has no fruit, but plenty of male and female flowers. Hopefully before too long I’ll have one or two pumpkins on it. The smaller variety, Wee-B-Little is also perplexing me. The plant is very large, but it is growing more as bush rather than vines! Unless I’m very much mistaken, it already has one or two babies, so it must not be too unhappy. Overall, for this being my first time growing pumpkins, I’m pretty happy. And if I have to buy pumpkins for Jack O’ Lanterns, it just means there will be more pumpkins closer to Thanksgiving.

Schedules: This isn’t so much something that happened, as it is the realization of a need that arose. My homeschooling mother raised us kids with a very good, albeit flexible schedule all throughout our school years. Every day we knew what time we were getting up, starting school, how long we had for each subject, how long ‘naptime’ was (although it was really reading time), when and how long we were to play outside. The discipline of a schedule is strangely liberating. The last few years I’ve gotten away from that, and I think I’ve suffered for it.

I tend to be a very organized person. I cannot function in chaos. With so many things I enjoy doing, and so many things I need to do, chaos tends to appear whether I’m expecting it or not. So my next big project is to create and stick to a functional schedule. Something to help control chaos, and perhaps make it easier to handle when it comes. You’d think having been raised with one, and preferring an organized way of living and working, a schedule would just be a given for me. But where I’ve struggled is the discipline of making time, instead of waiting for the time to present itself to you. Everything from running laundry, to writing, to exercising requires us to actually want to make the time. Scheduling, prioritizing and the art of making time is something I feel is really important that I learn now, while it’s easy (or easier).

I’m expecting it to be a bit overwhelming at first, considering that I want to come up with daily, weekly, monthly, and semi-annual schedules. Not that I’m trying to plan, every moment and every day of my life, but that I think it will be helpful to keep track of what I need to do and when. I don’t think I’m any danger of becoming an over-planner. And the most intimidating part is figuring out where to start, so I’m starting small. Wish me luck! Are there any resources you’ve found helpful for keeping more on top of things?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Marvel's Ant-Man (2015)

I have to say, when I first heard about Marvel’s Ant-Man, I couldn’t hardly get past the name. Call me discriminatory or just plain judgmental, but really…Ant-Man? However, once I saw the trailer and realized Marvel had the good grace to laugh at their own name? Well, I started to come around. I needed a bit more convincing before deciding whether or not to see it in the theater, and the opinion of a friend always helps me think these things through.

In that vein, this week we have a visitor! Sharing her review of Ant-Man, is guest reviewer and friend Sascha H.

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I’ve been hooked on Marvel movies since seeing Thor for the first time. My favorite heroes are always the ones that actually act heroic, humble and, sometimes, nerds. From what I knew of Ant-Man he was one of the humble nerds.

I was thinking of Hank Pym.

The original Ant-Man.

Regardless, I was happily surprised by this movie. While there is an annoyingly high amount of foul language, I was able to ‘skip’ my brain past most instances and enjoy the movie in spite of it.

The gist of the story is this: Dr. Hank Pym, a brilliant scientist for S.H.I.E.L.D, confronts the founders of the organization for attempting to replicate one of his experiments. He quits, and we move to the main character Scott Lang. Scott is an ex-convict desperately trying to find a job so he can help support his daughter and see her again. After being rejected and fired multiple times, he finally gives into his friend Luis’s convoluted robbery. This eventually leads to meeting Dr. Pym and training to become the Ant-Man so that he may finally see his daughter again.

I tried not to give too many spoilers in there… So if the story doesn’t make sense yet, that’s fine.

The main theme of the story is father-daughter relationships; Dr. Pym and his daughter Hope, and Scott and his daughter Cassie. Cassie is an adorable character where when her daddy gives her a birthday present she says:

“It’s so ugly! I love it!”

There are so many things to make you laugh in this story as well! The fight scenes are both intense and ridiculous, training is serious, but with funny awkward moments, and the comments about the Titanic were hilarious!

I rate this among my top 5 Superhero movies. The plot is fairly fast-paced and the humor (and cameos!) keep you engaged, distracting the viewer from the foul language. I loved it and hope you do too. Be sure to stay for the mid-credits AND the after credits scenes!

* * *

Thanks, Sascha, for the review! I have to say, after hearing so many people’s opinions on this film, I’m pretty excited to see it. Will I make it to the theater? Maybe, but I’m not quite sure yet. I tend to prioritize my theater trips according to how excited I am about a movie beforehand, and pare down to one or two trips a year. This one has only lately hit my radar as something I would probably really enjoy.

Theater or not, though, I am very much looking forward to a new (to me) Marvel superhero. Marvel was won a certain amount of trust from me with the Avengers series of films. Their characters have been exciting and unique, and taught many valuable lessons that seemed to have disappeared from superhero films – the value of honor, trust, bravery, self-sacrifice and yes, humility. And of course, the most important lesson of all:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

Let’s jump right in, shall we? Here’s the cover description:

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more ‘normal’ than she ever has as part of the popular crowd…until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.

What drew me to this one was the poetry angle. I love reading poetry, I love writing poetry, I love reading about poetry. I didn’t really think about the OCD side of it much, kind of shrugging my shoulders and telling myself, “Well you liked that TV series ‘Monk.’ Maybe this will be like that." Spoiler: It’s not. The ‘Pure-O’ (as it’s called) OCD is VERY different from the stereotype of OCD I was familiar with and it kind of unsettled me, primarily because of how much I identified with it. I’m an overthinker. Pure-O is overthinking on steroids. It’s being obsessed, uncontrollably consumed by something. It’s ‘thought spirals,’ as Sam calls them, where one thoughts leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another – sometimes rationally, sometimes not, and always consuming and destructive. Thoughts that snowball and take hold to the point she has perpetual insomnia because her mind never stops thinking. At times, it did not make for a comfortable read. But it made for an interesting read.

Let me ask you something. “Raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.” Over and over as Sam was spending time with her girl"friends", that was all I could think of – the 2004 film Mean Girls. It didn’t quite go as far as “On Wednesdays we wear pink,” but very nearly. Now, I like Mean Girls. It absolutely cracks me up. But the difference is that was a comedy. This is definitely not. And where Mean Girls makes me laugh, this had me really annoyed at times that Sam would put up with their cattiness and even cruelty. I’m sorry, but at a certain point self-respect and respect for others trumps comfort and demands that you change a situation.

Granted, Sam did finally snap out of it, but the popular cheerleader types grate on my nerves very badly, so it seemed to take awfully long. Do I wish it had happened sooner? Actually…no. It took forever, yes. But it also fit Sam’s character growth. Because she did actually grow. In so many Young Adult novels, that never happens. The main character changes, yes. But for the better? Not usually. But Sam did. She confronted her past, admitting that she had been wrong, that she had become someone she didn’t really want to be and that she needed to change. She changed, and she changed her life.

I also appreciated the male lead, AJ. He was different from most of the males I’ve read lately in YA. He actually wasn’t a mysterious, brooding emo! Imagine that! He was kind, forgiving in the face of great hurt, interested in people other than himself and his girlfriend. Actually, a really nice, decent guy. It was a really pleasant surprise and stood out refreshingly from some of the others I’ve read recently. Along with an unusual male lead, there was also an extremely unusual parental relationship. Sam actually (are you sitting down?) had a good relationship with her parents! Sarcasm aside, I loved the fact that for once a YA novel didn't have either the dopey-dad or the meanie-mom stereotypes. Her parents love her, take care of her, and she actually even likes them. This is unfortunately rare in YA these days, and earned this book major brownie points.

The poetry angle did not disappoint. The vividness with which Stone wrote about the characters writing was really neat (confusing, I know). And it did what I needed it to, which was to remind me how much I love writing/reading poetry and encourage me to get back to it again. It’s been too long. Thank you, Ms. Stone.

What really stood out to me though was the way the plot came full circle. Elements of the story reminded me very much of Made You Up, but where Made You Up was a fairly linear story that ended, Every Last Word comes completely full circle and shows with amazing clarity where it all began, even before Sam 'hit the scene'. It’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but let’s put it this way: I unfortunately found out a major spoiler ahead of time, and the ending still really impressed me, and even moved me. The writing style and plotting both showed the marks of a really excellent writer.

All that said, I have to add a caveat. It was an excellent YA novel. But it wasn’t terribly different from other YA stories like this that I’ve read. Better than most, yes. But still very typical. The populars versus the misfits, the smattering of language, the one requisite make out scene, the same high school I think I’ve read a dozen times. BUT if you enjoy these sub-genre of YA, this is definitely one to add to your list, because as I said it is quite good, and has a few things that were unique (the male lead, the full circle plot, etc.). It was quite the breath of fresh air and I know I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Manic Monday VIII

This past week was filled with the average ‘stuff of life’ for me, but with one new twist. I spent a good part of this week studying, researching, and actually beginning a new interest. Something called Thrift Flipping. I had no clue what it was either, but when one of my sister-in-laws began explaining it to me, I realized it was something I could really get into.

The concept is that you go around to thrift stores, consignment stores, and used clothing boutiques in search of high-end designer brand clothing (all that stuff I would never in a million years buy myself? Yeah, that.), buy it cheap, and sell it for a profit on eBay. Sometimes a really, really good profit.

This is totally made for me. I love shopping (yes, I’m one of those girls), and I love thrift stores. Most of my purchasing is done at thrift stores. Especially books, but that’s a subject for another post. As my SIL began giving me names and brands to look for, the entire store opened up to me, and I saw it for what it really is. Not just a cheap place to shop, but a virtual goldmine.

I’ve already made a few rookie mistakes, but this was quite literally my very first week of doing it, so I feel like I’m actually doing pretty good for someone who didn’t even know what it was. The notebook in my purse is getting more and longer lists of things to look for, as well as a much-needed list of brands that keep tripping me up and that I need to stay away from.

Right now, I’m pretty much at the hobby level. Could it become something more? Very definitely. One blogger is practically bringing in a second paycheck at it. I’m quite excited about it, and at the very least it’s an exciting profitable hobby, with a chance of something more.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

When I was about eleven Mom was a bit concerned about how voraciously I was consuming novels. She wanted to encourage me to read with a bit more variety, specifically more nonfiction and biographies. Because I loved the Dear America series of fictional historical diaries, so much she said I should try The Diary of a Young Girl. Just a few entries in I wasn’t enjoying it very much, and I knew there was stuff in it Mom wouldn’t appreciate me reading. So I took to her to preview, more because I didn’t want to have to read it than anything…I was a bad child. Long story short, Mom read it (with a bit of dismay, I might add) and kept it her room until it was time to return it to the library.

Now an adult (HA!) I decided I should give it a fair shot. After all, it is one of the most acclaimed books in history. I have to say, I was disappointed. But first some background. For those of who may not know Diary of a Young Girl exists in multiple forms. What Anne originally wrote in her diary while in hiding from the Nazis was not what appeared in print. Her father, Otto Frank went through her journal,  excising sexual matters and particularly venomous statements about the people they were hiding with. This was the first manuscript that was published. But after he died, he willed the originals to The Anne Frank-Fonds (Anne Frank Foundation) and they published a more complete journal. Then years later more pages were discovered, and once again a more complete manuscript was published.

I went out of my way to find the most complete, least excised manuscript. I’m still not sure whether that was the best idea or not. On the one hand, I read it as Anne first wrote it – and wrote it knowing one day the public would read it. On the other hand, there was a very good reason her father and other censors left out the things they did.

Anne Frank wrote her journal from the time she was 13 until just after she turned 15. Not to put too fine a point on it, things happen to a girl’s body around that time. Anne writes about it…in detail. With a dramatic excitement and longing I cannot identify with. Not only that but she becomes interested in sexual matters, discusses them with a boy two and a half years older than her, and indulges in fantasies of one sort and another, all varying degrees of perverse. One passage that was excised until after Otto Frank’s death even had lesbian tones. And it came out of nowhere. SURPRISE! Not at all what I wanted to find in a 13-year-old’s journal.

But beyond the sexuality, I’m afraid I didn’t expect the entire book to reek of teenage angst quite as badly as it did. That was my own fault. After all, she was 13-15 – a certain amount of teen angst is to be expected. I even related to  some of it. Entire passages of drama and “no one understands me” statements almost exactly mirror my own journals from the time I was 12 to 14. And I mean, exactly. It was actually creeping me out a bit. It embarrassed me both for her and for myself. The entire book can summed up in two sentences. “I’m all alone. No one understands me.” And while I do not doubt that she was sincere in those feelings, I do think they came out of a great deal of emotion and drama, the heat of the moment so to speak, and have to be taken with a grain of salt. Writing about negative experiences has the bad habit of concentrating and amplifying them and the emotions associated with them.

The entire book actually ended up reminding me why I decided a few years ago to stop trying to keep a diary. After I turned 15 I tried several times to start journaling again, and I couldn’t do it. I’d try for a little while and then stop because it just didn’t feel right. It took me until recently to figure out why. For some people (not all, but for me and maybe for some others) a diary, if not carefully used turns into a platform for self-absorption and obsession on the faults in others and our circumstances. This book reinforced that feeling.

In the first two-thirds of the book, the best sections are when she’s talking about the other people in the Secret Annex, both those in hiding with her family, and those hiding them. She describes them and all their doings, the good, the bad and the ugly. She’s extremely negative about the other family hiding with them, but even more so about her mother. She clearly had no relationship with her mother, and it’s rather sad, if not even angering at times. But all the same, she had a knack for capturing people’s personalities and characters in her words, and even their simple hum-drum goings-on came alive. There’s not too much about the actual war and the Holocaust, hiding as they were in almost total isolation from the world, but what they did hear clearly affected them deeply. Hearing about the suffering of the Jews who were not as fortunate in their friends and circumstances as the Franks especially impacted Anne. She seemed to have a bit of survivor’s guilt, especially when thinking of her friends that she knew had not escaped.

But toward the last third something happened to change Anne. Suddenly she seemed much older, a bit more mature, and her way of looking at the people and world around her was very different. Even she noticed it. She said she even felt different. She attributed the change to a dream she had, but frankly I think that’s nonsense. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe a physical change, maybe a mental change, maybe simple growth. Whatever it was, all the quotes that stood out enough to me that I saved them were in that last third.

I think my favorite happening of the book was in this section as well. Anne writes a letter to her father in which she says everything she cannot bring herself to tell him face-to-face. She thinks it’s a particularly wonderful letter, and as soon as I read it, I facepalmed and writhed in anguish at her stupidity. Suffice it to say she made a fool of herself and was taken to task for it. What I loved about this section? She realized how foolish she had been, abhorred what she had done, and herself for having done it. Earlier in the book she had constantly defended herself and excused herself from any wrong. But in the last third, and particularly in this one event, she sees her faults, regrets them, acknowledges them and seeks to change.

There were quite a few quotes in this last third that I really loved. Loved enough to share.

About the people that are helping them hide:

It’s amazing how much these generous and unselfish people do, risking their own lives, to help and save others. The best example of this is in our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so face and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble. They come upstairs every day and talk to the men about business and politics, to the women about food and wartime difficulties and to the children about books and newspapers. They put on their most cheerful expressions, bring flowers and gift for birthdays and holidays and are always ready to do what they can. That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove their every day by their good spirits and affection.

A note to the only young boy in hiding, with whom she has just spent an afternoon looking out the attic windows at the world they can no longer touch:

This morning, when I was sitting in front of the window and taking a long, deep look outside at God and nature, I was happy, just plain happy. Peter, as long as people feel that kind of happiness within themselves, the joy of nature, health and much more besides, they’ll always be able to recapture that happiness.

Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.

Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the lost on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.

One of her many complaints about her mother, but the only one I actually liked:

This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: “Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not part of it.” My advice is: “Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty…in everything around you and be happy.”

I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who’s happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!

I have to say about that last one, I see the wisdom in both positions, and I do not consider them mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. And as Anne said she ‘became part of the suffering.’ I wonder whether she found beauty and happiness in the concentration camp at all. It seems impossible, but then humans have found happiness in the darkest places.

No matter how I feel about her attitude Anne was an excellent writer, or would have been had she lived through the war. The most painful part of the book was knowing how the story ended, and yet having to read all her dreams for ‘after the war.’ As self-absorbed, obnoxious and dramatic as she could be, I still found myself interested in her, her voice, her stories, and the people she was with.

I can’t tell you to read this book, or not to read it. I can only say what I thought of it. It was interesting, well-written and alive. But it was also pretty adult, and at the same time very teenager-y with all the angst. Perhaps an earlier edition before the excised portions were added back in would be more YA appropriate, but that’s a call for others to make. Would I read it again? Probably not. Do I regret reading it? Definitely not. Do I think it deserves to be one of the most popular books in history? Honestly…not really. But still, it is a true story, a living story from one of darkest chapters of human history. And having an inside look at a side of life back then that we might never have had otherwise…well, that is worth something.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

I remembered The Voyage of the Dawn Treader being my favorite of the series when I was little and it did not disappoint this time either. I think I know why, too. It’s a straight up quest-style adventure. You’re not so worried about evil men (or witches) ruling over Narnia, and how the kings and queens will be able to reclaim their thrones. In Dawn Treader all you care about is surviving one mysterious island so you can move on to the next and ultimately arrive at the Utter East. Add to that the introduction of a new character who is very different from any other we’ve met up until this point, a sea monster, a dragon, and a heavy dose of Reepicheep and you have a truly excellent book… Or at least excellent in my opinion, but then while most little girls were playing with ponies and unicorns I was reading books about dragons and dreaming about flying on them. This one struck eight-year-old me just right.

As with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, a couple things stood out to me in this book as well:
First of all it has one of the best opening lines ever.
But less comically, there were others.
“Tender as my years may be,” said Caspian. “I believe I understand the slave trade from within quite as well as Your Sufficiency. And I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armour or anything else worth having. But whether it does or not, it must be stopped.”

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasped the governor. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. ”We call it ‘Going Bad’ in Narnia. This trade must stop.”

I love this passage. At first it made me laugh, but there’s so much more there than a wisecrack on Caspian’s part. This conversation is about more than slavery. It’s about pragmatism, the ends justifying the means, and progress for progress’ sake. Caspian clearly is saying that it doesn’t matter if good comes out of something evil or not – that something is still evil. If only our politicians understood that. Caspian For President!

But my particular favorite point here is that something is not necessarily good and wonderful because it’s new and ‘progressive.’ We’ve become a culture obsessed with the latest, greatest, newest…who cares about what’s good, and right, and best. We’ve barely used our SmartPhone 11 before SmartPhone 12 comes out and we demand that. Why? Is it better? Not always, but sometimes. And even if it is, is it so much better that we need it NOW? And it’s a problem deeper than how we look at technology. Progress has made it so we can alleviate pain and suffering, yes. But we can also euthanize ‘better’, give ‘better’ abortions…play God ‘better.’ And it’s progress! Because it’s progress it’s inherently good…right?

Climbing off my soapbox now.

The other passage I loved:

“…we must do something,” said Lucy. “[Eustace] may have got lost, or fallen into a hole, or been captured by savages.”

“Or killed by wild beasts,” said Drinian.

“And a good riddance if he has, I say,” muttered Rhince.

“Master Rhince,” said Reepicheep, “you never spoke a word that became you less. The creature is no friend of mine but he is of the Queen’s blood, and while he is one of our fellowship it concerns our honour to find him and to avenge him if he is dead.”

I love this because even though Eustace had tortured, tormented and bullied Reepicheep mercilessly, Reepicheep shows him mercy. And mercy ‘behind his back’ so to speak. It’s not so hard sometimes to show mercy to someone suffering right in front of you, in need of help here and now. It’s a bit harder to stick up for someone you have every right to intensely dislike when they’re not even there to ask for it or see it, when you really may feel more like not saying or doing anything. But Reepicheep had no such failing. He saw that even his treatment of his worst enemy was a matter of honor.
And last of all, I couldn't leave this book without something about dragons.

Three down, four to go. Up next on my Narnia list, The Silver Chair.

Friday, August 14, 2015

West Side Story (1961)

Where to begin…On the surface I should have loved this movie. Classic film? Yes. Musical? Yes. Natalie Wood? Yes. Stephen Sondheim? YES yes. Romeo and Juliet set in in the 1950s between feuding gangs of greasers? YESYESYES! In the end though, the actual movie? Eh.

Here’s the story as described on A love affair is fated for tragedy amidst the vicious rivalry of two street gangs the [American] Jets and the [Puerto Rican] Sharks. When Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) falls for Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Sharks leader, it's more than these two warring gangs can handle. And as mounting tensions rise, a battle to the death ensues, and innocent blood is shed in a heartbreaking finale.

First, I should say right up front, this is not exactly a family movie. Between the double entendres, themes of racial violence, and occasional brutal attacks between the teens, it is probably about a PG-13 movie. The teens substitute squeaky-clean euphemisms for their cursing, but it is usually pretty clear something else was meant. I know all of this could bother some viewers. I include a couple videos of my favorite songs from this film later in this review, and the statements above apply to those as well (although not so much the warnings about violence).

I love musicals, but this wasn’t like any of the musicals I know and love. The choreography was much more flamboyant than I’m used to, and at times this worked. But you just don’t really expect gang members to be utilizing polished ballet steps. Frequently the dance style clashed really badly with the hardened characters of the gang members. And while the soundtrack is generally amazing, most of the Jet’s songs were pretty mediocre. None of them made much of an impact on me. The only one that really stuck out to me, was the comedic number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” where the teens mock the contemporary pseudo-psychology that tries to diagnose the source of their maladjustment. It was roll on the floor hilarious to me, because I’ve heard all that reasoning before, and hearing the teens themselves mock the grownups’ fabricated excuses? Perfection. But then, I’ve always had a strange sense of humor.

The Sharks’ numbers were better, with Spanish-style dancing, but still what ended up standing out were the romantic numbers – songs like “Tonight” and “Somewhere.” I was probably the last person on earth to hear these songs, and they lived up to the hype. “Somewhere” is a truly beautiful song of longing and seeking for a safe place to be together.
But even better than “Tonight” was its reprise, known as “Quintet.” Five separate characters or character groups are all gearing up for a big night – the Sharks and the Jets for the fight, a shark moll for her boyfriend’s victorious return, and the main lovers for a romantic rendezvous. And all of them harmonizing together. Simply beautiful…if you can get past the fact that neither gang is made up of polished singers.

Another song that really made an impression on me but for mixed reasons was “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Maria and her best friend Anita are arguing over Tony, specifically why Maria shouldn’t be going with him. The song itself is beautiful, the two girls’ unique voices playing off each other and harmonizing wonderfully. But something about the lyrics bothered me. Warning: if you intend to watch the movie, this song contains spoilers – spoilers I won’t repeat, but you may not want to hear the song.

Notice anything strange? Instead of telling Anita she is wrong for keeping them apart simply because they are different races, Maria tells her she doesn’t care whether it’s right or not. “I hear your words and in my head, I know they’re smart, but my heart, Anita, but my heart knows they’re wrong…Right or wrong what else can I do…When loves comes so strong, there is no right or wrong.” This is the “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” that’s so popular in movies and culture today, particularly when we’re dealing with teenagers.

Beyond the excellent score, the story just didn’t do much for me. I generally love this time period and the movies and shows that come out of it, teenage angst and all – movies and shows like Rebel Without a Cause and Happy Days. But this one reeked so heavily of teen angst that it was almost too much even for me. Without the extreme seriousness and heaviness of Rebel Without a Cause or the hilarity of Happy Days it ended up feeling rather schizophrenic. Some scenes were quite funny, lighthearted and ridiculous, while others were brutally sad, and the two styles warred very strangely. I couldn’t decide whether it was a serious drama, or more farcical.

That said, it was an interesting watch, and I do plan on watching it again. I have a feeling it may be one that grows on me. The music alone is worth watching it, if you enjoy musicals. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular musicals ever. It’s definitely not one of my favorites, but the score and Maria and Tony’s sweet, innocent romance against the dark and violent backdrop of gang violence made it a very unique and generally enjoyable film.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Things You Either Hate or Love by Brigid Lowry

I love Brigid Lowry. I discovered her when I read Juicy Writing, my favorite non-fiction book of writing tips. Everything I’ve read by her has the same entrancing almost-poetical feel. She has a trick of spinning words, using them in unique ways, and creating a magical ambience that’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever read. Her distinctive turn of phrase may have something to do with the fact that she’s Australian, so even though her books are English, the unique phraseology almost seems like a foreign language. But the frustrating thing is that because she’s Australian and my local library is not exactly international in scope, they have hardly any of them. But they had this one, and I jumped on it like a four-footed animal.

As usual, I enjoyed the author’s conversational tone, and the little world she builds over the course of a book. The little lists and creative sidenotes were classic Lowry, and gave a great flavor to the story. But I didn’t like this book as much as some of the others.

Georgia is self-centered, melodramatic, rude, hypercritical and hyper-sensitive. She constantly assumes the worst of those she comes into contact with. And quite often things that absolutely devastate her aren’t that big of a deal. Maybe it’s meant to be endearing, but she really just seems like a brat. She lectures her mother, mentally and verbally. She’s the kind of girl you’d either (wait for it) hate or love. Ahem. Sorry. Had to.

The relationship between her and her best friend was sad to me. The book only covered the period of time during which they’re growing apart, so I never felt like they actually were best friends. They spend time together, and talk together, but they also put self first and rarely share life with each other. Maybe if I’d believed they really were best friends it would’ve been more bittersweet watching them grow apart, instead of just depressing.

I don’t regret reading this book, but that’s about the best I can say. Maybe if I was younger I would’ve enjoyed it more, but the cursing keeps me from recommending it to a younger audience that might appreciate it more. If you already like Brigid Lowry, it’s worth reading just because. But if you want a better sample of her work or are looking for a fun read, I’d pass this one by.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Accidental Feminist

I’ve read quite a few books like this one…or so I thought. Books on practical womanhood have always appealed to me but frequently they leave me feeling rather ambivalent at best. So many of them fall to one extreme or another. Some are hyper-conservative, patriarchal-focused, legalistic to-do lists that boil down to submitting to a man, any man or else you are not a complete woman because you are a rib that has not ‘returned to Adam’s side’ (don’t laugh – that’s a real example). Others are very liberal, contemporary, and ‘hip,’ using the most modern best-friend language to encourage you to be ‘fierce and mighty.’ The Accidental Feminist is like neither of these.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of amazing ones. I have some of them on my shelves. But that doesn’t change the fact that, like any other genre, there’s an awful lot of garbage mixed in with the gold. And because a woman’s role is such a hot-button topic, there seems to be more garbage than in most other genres.

When Carrie over at Reading to Know said this was in her to-read pile, the title instantly grabbed me, and I couldn’t wait until she wrote up a review. After reading her two-part review I did something I almost never do – I purchased it without having read it first. My Mom was also interested in reading it, and as I was in the middle of something else she read it first. My mother is a pastor’s wife. She has read countless books like this one. I’ve watched her read some, read others with her, and I can honestly say that when she finished reading this, it was the first time I ever saw her so excited about one. She urged me to set aside my other book and move this to the top of my pile. And I did. And this is the first time I have ever been excited about a book in this category.

The Accidental Feminist is not what you expect. It is not excusing Christian feminism, or defensively trying to support anti-feminism. It is simply addressing the struggles women go through as they ask questions about their purpose and role. It does not dismiss those questions, nor does it provide cutesy, popular slogans to help you feel better about them. Instead, Reissig openly addresses them, and answers them from facts, Truth, and a biblical worldview.

It’s also not what I expected in terms of the audience she’s addressing. It’s not written for either married women or single women. Rather, it’s for both. She specifically addresses women in all spheres of life. Married women with children, others with empty nests, childless wives, women who don’t want children, happily single women, unhappily single women, feminists, anti-feminists, Christian and non-Christian. And she addresses all of these in such a way that I can say, no matter where you are in life, as a woman this book is for you.

Reissig is encouraging, open with her own life and struggles, and always seeks to provide answers for our deepest questions, and help for our hardest battles. If there was one book I could encourage all women to read, it would be this one. At worst, it doesn’t do much for you and you move on. But it did so much more for me.

Reissig takes old familiar truths and opens them up in ways I had never thought of before. For an example, I had never before realized that a ‘gentle and quiet spirit’ is not a personality type. The woman with a ‘gentle and quiet spirit’ is not necessarily the meek and dimunitive woman. As Reissig says:

…the spirit Peter refers to is not a personality. It is a disposition toward God. Sarah ‘s spirit was praised because she hoped in God, not because she checked off a personality trait in a box.

…Emma, with her outgoing and talkative personality, is just as able to possess a gentle and quiet spirit as her quiet and reserved sister, Abigail, because a gentle and quiet spirit is rooted in trusting God, not personality.

Reissig is far from being one of the women who says all women must be one hundred percent in the home all time, submitting to a man (whether they’re married or not) to find fulfillment. She does not think the be-all and end-all of womanhood is keeping a perfect home and cooking gourmet meals. But neither does she simply dismiss the Proverbs 31 woman. Instead she treats such a woman as what she was intended to be – an ideal model woman…something we will never be, but something set before us show us certain traits lived out.

She speaks to all women about the purpose of who they are what they do. The childless woman or empty-nester can be just as valuable, godly, and virtuous as the married woman raising a slew of children. The married woman with the slew of children has just as important a ministry as the ‘unencumbered’ single woman living a life of ministry. And in the long run, isn’t that what the real ideal is? A body of members, all with important tasks, all different, but all equal, and all working together.

If there is only ever one book I review on Close to Heart & Home that you add to your to-read list, I hope this is the one.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Manic Monday VII

Spring Summer Cleaning: I am an organizer. I am not a cleaner. Many people mistakenly believe these traits go hand-in-hand. Maybe sometimes they do, but not in my case. I sincerely enjoy organizing and arranging things. Putting a drawer in order is easy and fun for me. Cleaning out that drawer and getting rid of some of its contents? Sheer agony. Especially if clothes are involved. I am also not good at working by a calendar. So while most people are completing their spring-cleaning, I’m running around in my garden, barefoot and muddy. My spring-cleaning waits until my closet dumps itself on my head, and I come running out of my room screaming at my mother, “I can’t live like this anymore!” At which my mother laughs and hands me a garbage bag. This week? Well let’s just say my room is a bit emptier, and the local Salvation Army is a bit fuller.

Mini vacation: Sometimes just taking a break from routine is all the vacation one needs. Not always, but sometimes. Even better if the break from routine includes a first time-trip to a water park. Last week, I didn’t write much, I didn’t read much, but I did an awful lot of other things that were just as important and enjoyable, I worked on things that have been neglected and played in ways I’ve never played before. And now I feel reenergized and ready to play with words again.

Fall Fashions: The beginning of my week involved beach towels and sunscreen, and the end of it involved flannel and “Autumn Orchard” candles. The local stores and malls have all their fall gear out and I couldn’t be happier. There’s a reason I have a piece of wall art that says, “I’m ready for hoodies and cold nights.” I am perennially ready for fall. I’m sure many of you are groaning at me and hanging your heads, moaning the typical moans about “It’s only August!” But we are coming up on my favorite part of the year and I am unashamed and unapologetic. I will try to refrain for sharing Christmas music until after Halloween, but I make no promises.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pen & Sword: Introduction

One of my goals for this blog, was to eventually expand and write more than just book reviews. I’ve been trying to take it slow and give myself time to get my footing, and the reviews I’ve been writing are perfect for that. But I’m starting to get an old familiar itch again. I love to write. I have for a long time now. And even though sometimes I’ve lost the drive and had to take a break from it, I’ve always had to go back again. Something would trigger what I’ve always thought of as ‘the ink in my blood,’ and I’d be back to writing like crazy.

While that has always worked for me, I think it’s time for me to get a little more serious about it, and settle down into the habit of writing more diversely and regularly – try to direct the fits and spurts. When I started Close to Heart & Home, I saw one the perks being an incentive and a push to write, something that would force me to channel the ink in my blood regularly and purposefully. I’m not terribly good at self-discipline, even in areas I enjoy, but that just means it’s even more important.

I love to write so many different things – stories, poems, essays, reviews, topical thoughts, and pretty much any other kind of random writing. My problem is self-motivation, and making myself actually put all my ideas and thoughts into a coherent, presentable form. This blog has helped with that, but I’d like to introduce a little more diversity.

So this is the ‘official’ introduction to a new section for the randomness I love so much…albeit controlled randomness. I’m not big on chaos. For lack of a better name, I’m calling it Pen & Sword. I’m honestly not one hundred percent certain what all is going to find its way to this new section, and that excites me. I do know that I want to make it count, and use it for the absolute best. I’m hoping to post quotes I like, pieces of my non-review writing I’m not too embarrassed by, and occasional topical pieces. I feel like I need a little time to get my sealegs with Pen & Sword, so I’m not putting myself on a schedule yet.

As I try this new section, please, feel free to comment on anything and start conversations. We’re all friends here…almost literally. I’m very excited about this new venture, and hope I don’t put you all through too much misery as I try to figure out what exactly it is I’m trying to do. But as most of you are dear friends, I know you’re more patient with me than I deserve.