Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Writing Challenge - "A lady I barely know just saw me practically naked."

Write about your most embarrassing/funny parenting moment....if you dare. Either post your own or paste it into the comments, and I'll post it, probably against your will or without your knowledge like I just did to poor Stephanie here. It was just so stinking good, I couldn't help myself.

A lady I barely know just saw me practically naked.

So, as you know, I was pretty stinky today, and badly in need of a shower. My kids were quietly watching TV, and I thought, "Now's my chance!" and off I scurried to the shower. Because nothing could possibly go wrong.

I was almost done, and I heard J screaming. This is normal around here. I yelled, "What's wrong?!?" repeatedly, but he finally stopped and I figured he and K were just beating the tar out of each other again. As usual.

I was drying myself when I heard an unfamiliar voice saying, "Stephanie?" I hastily wrapped my towel around myself and burst out of the bathroom. There was one of K's Kindergarten classmates and her mother. They had come by to deliver a birthday party invitation. When they knocked at the door, my children couldn't figure out where I was, naturally assumed I had utterly abandoned them, and began the screaming panic. This lady logically concluded that I was lying in a pool of my own blood (can't say I blame her) and talked K into opening the door.

Some days, I really hate this gig.

Edward vs. Buffy---Does it get any better than this?

Thank you Stephanie for bringing this to our attention. Let the mayhem begin!

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Sorry this is going to be a long one, but I love amusement parks!

I love their smell, all warm caramel corn and hot sticky tarmac. I love the butterflies and excitement in my stomach, super full of candy apples and cotton candy, as my hands clench the bar across my waist and my dangling feet feel twice their size and somehow heavier when I’m suddenly flung into the air, so quickly at first that at the climax of the ride I almost experience a moment of zero gravity, a moment of suspended animation, like slow motion. For a brief second time stops and I’m thrust back into my seat only to begin again on my way back to the top.

You probably wouldn’t even notice me with my hands up in the air, squealing with the zeal of a twelve-year-old, because I’d be one of thousands that frequent these kinds of parks everyday. With me the funny thing is: normally I’m mortified of heights. With one exception, for some reason my mind gives me a free pass when I want to go on a roller coaster or the Octopus of Terror.

What’s the one exception? The Ferris Wheel. That ride has always terrified me. Could it move any slower? And the way down makes me feel like I’ve been tossed off a 4 story building. But the tiny, itty-bitty Ferris Wheels of today are nothing compared to the monolith that was built by G.W.G. Ferris for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The first of its kind and built to rival the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Paris Exposition, you can see from the following picture it was meant to be the focal point of that great fair, America's first amusement park.

At 26 stories high, and with 70 tons of steel, this marvel of engineering at the time had 36 cars and could hold up to 2160 persons, 60 to a car. It took 20 minutes to make two revolutions. The cost of what for me would’ve been unadulterated terror was 50 cents a ride. People had never seen anything like it before.

According to Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, this was the fair that changed America. Thought up and designed by that great architect, Daniel Burnham, and with a team of thousands, it took less than two years to finish. Miles in size and built along the cusp of what was then the second largest city in the country, battling bad weather, disease, death and fire, after reading this book I’m inclined to agree with him. This team of architect wizards were some of the first to think up using hundreds of electric lights at night (hence the name, the white city), a decent water purification system, beautiful landscaping, Cracker Jack popcorn, Juicy Fruit gum and hamburgers, just to name a few.

This fair was a slice of Americana at the time, an engineering wonder. People came from across the country to see it, even during an economic crisis. Some traveled with their families; some alone and looking for a new start. Hundreds of people unloaded from the trains in Chicago never to be heard from again. Easy prey, for a determined predator - Herman Mudget, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes. The devil.

A small part of this book is about him, one of our nation’s first documented serial killers and one of the reasons we now have the term psychopath. He preyed on helpless, obviously insecure women and children. Yes, children. He killed them too. The man was the hidden monster under the bed, the one parents always deny existed; the World’s Fair his playground. Reading about him was dark and chilling, his behavior almost so preposterous, his victims so naive, that I thought I was reading fiction.

For the most part, I liked this book. It was interesting, and included a lot of detail about the building of the fair. It started out tedious but got better as it forged on. The stories of what went into building the fair, Dr. Holmes descent into Hell, and the murder of Mayor Harrison, interconnect effortlessly throughout the book. Early American history at its finest. 3.5 stars

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

By Anne Fadiman

It’s tempting to think that everyone in the world thinks pretty much like we do – people are people, after all – particularly if they live here in the United States and especially if they dress like us. A little careful reading, however, can show us just how wrong that assumption is. In The Caliph’s House, author and protagonist Tahir Shah bumbles his way through Moroccan society with hysterical results. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down also examines what happens when cultures collide, but it is more likely to make you cry than laugh.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down tells the story of a young Hmong (pronounced mong) girl named Lia Lee. You’ve never heard of the Hmong? Neither had I. In a nutshell, the Hmong are an Asian ethnic group that live in southern China and the mountainous regions of southeast Asia. (Fadiman explores Hmong culture and history in great depth because it is impossible to understand Lia’s story without understanding the Hmong.) The Lee family is from Laos, but fled to the United States after that country fell to Communist forces in 1975. The family eventually settled in Merced, California.

In 1983, 8-month-old Lia was diagnosed with epilepsy. Fortunately, Merced was home to an excellent hospital with excellent doctors – devoted, hard-working doctors that didn’t care that the Lee family was on welfare and had no insurance. Any Westerner would say that Lia’s prognosis was good. That’s because we Westerners don’t understand the Hmong at all.

“The language barrier was the most obvious problem, but not the most important,” said said Dr. Dan Murphy, one of the many doctors that treated Lia. “The biggest problem was the cultural barrier. There is a tremendous difference between dealing with the Hmong and dealing with anyone else. An infinite difference.”

Some of those barriers? For one thing, among the Hmong, epilepsy or quag dab peg (which translated is “the spirit catches you and you fall down”) is not a physical problem. It is a spiritual problem caused when an evil spirit, a dab, steals one’s soul. For another, quag dab peg is an illness of some distinction. Hmong epileptics often become shamans, people of consequence. Then, too, the Hmong have little trust in medicines, particularly those with side effects. A medicine should not make a person sick, after all. These and other cultural differences conspired to make Lia Lee’s treatment particularly complicated.

It becomes evident early on that, in spite of everyone’s good intentions, Lia Lee’s tale is destined to end badly. This is a truly heartbreaking story, made all the more so because there are no good guys or bad guys, only misunderstandings and well-intentioned mistakes. At the same time, I found the Hmong culture fascinating, yet often exasperating (to my shame; I guess I’m as much a slave to my Western mindset as anyone). With a deft hand and a balanced view, Fadiman shows us the dangers inherent in assuming that we all think alike, a valuable lesson for all.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

by Rick Riordan

I have truly enjoyed these books. They became books I couldn’t put down (apologies to my family for my irritability as I plowed through book 5). I think perhaps I enjoyed them even more because I was able to read the series from start to finish rather than having to wait on pins and needles for the next book to come out, although that anticipation is kind of fun, too. But at any rate, I can say that I loved the whole series!!

The first book, The Lightning Thief, introduces us to all the main players. Percy Jackson is a twelve year-old boy in Manhattan who just can’t seem to fit in at any school he attends. He is dyslexic and has ADHD and he struggles with both of those. (The author started these stories to help his own son, who is dyslexic and has ADHD, by capitalizing on his son’s interest in Greek mythology). After being booted out of several schools, Percy finally learns that he is actually a demigod, the son of one of the Greek gods and his mortal mother. He goes to Camp Half-Blood and eventually learns who his other parent is and therein all sorts of adventures begin. The other books are The Sea of Monsters (a Cyclops in a baby-blue tuxedo/kilt for his wedding—good stuff), The Titan’s Curse (this one made me cry), The Battle of the Labyrinth (probably my favorite of the series), and The Last Olympian (non-stop action, probably the funniest of the series).

In my opinion, each book gets better as Percy gets stronger and more characters come into play. There are monsters galore and information about all the Greek Gods, Titans, minor gods, heroes, it’s all there. But this is not your high school teacher’s Greek mythology. The author has catapulted these characters into a modern setting which makes each book so enjoyable to read. Each of the gods has a modern personality like Zeus in a pinstripe suit, Poseidon as a beach comber, Ares as a total biker dude, Aphrodite looking like a Marilyn Monroe type movie star and I won’t spoil any more for you. The books are all very funny and the dialogue is clever and witty.

Are they quite similar to the Harry Potter books? Yes, quite. But that’s what makes them fun! I was totally ready for a new series that was funny and exciting like Harry Potter. I can’t wait for the rest of my family to read the series. My teenage son read them all before I did, and he aced the Greek mythology unit in his English class last year because he was familiar with all the characters, monsters and events thanks to Percy Jackson. This is a great series for families with children of all ages.

I give all the books 5 stars because the author succeeded in creating a fabulous story that sucked me in completely. Hooray for Percy Jackson!!

(The books are all available in audio form with a reader who does pretty good voices for all the characters—a nice thing to have for a summer road trip!)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Independent People

By Halldór Laxness

Independent People tells the tale of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man that has worked for the wealthy Bailiff for eighteen long years and has at long last earned enough money to purchase his own small homestead. He wishes only to live a life unbeholden to any other, to be completely independent. Bjartur is proud, stubborn, and surly. He has no time for either religion or superstition and is impatient with idleness and fools.

Bjartur is also a blockhead. In his mulish quest for independence, he destroys almost everyone and everything he comes in contact with: his sheep, his farm and especially his family. He refuses to accept that he can never be fully independent. He may not be a slave to the Bailiff any longer, but he yet remains a slave to poverty, to Iceland’s cold and unforgiving climate, to his lack of education, to his own stubbornly-held ideals. Bjartur can never be free.

If my description has you expecting a long string of tragedies and heartbreak, you’d be right. The book can be bleak, very bleak. In truth, it was a difficult book for me to read. I found it rather depressing, especially as most of the misfortunes were self-inflicted, a direct result of Bjartur’s pigheaded decisions.

What kept me going? My conviction that something good or meaningful must arise from the mire. To some extent, I was right. In the end, in the last few pages of the book, Bjartur does find a small (but largely unsatisfying) measure of redemption. I was also left with the conviction that an independent life is a poor life indeed. Our lives are made richer by fostering an interdependence with friends and family.

Don’t get me wrong: Halldór Laxness is a truly gifted writer, and I think the book has a fine message. This is probably as great a book as its introduction and its numerous fans would have you believe. But not all great books are easy or fun to read, and Independent People was neither easy nor fun for me. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? I honestly don’t know. Ask me again in a couple of years.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Writing by Stephen King

Sometime in 1983, 84’ maybe, in a darkened musty theater that smelled of stale pop corn and spearmint gum, I saw the movie Cujo, a cinematic tale of a rabid, gigantic dog that terrorized a family trapped in a car. Only two things stand out in my memory of that event long ago: my first R-rated movie wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (Did all that blood really look like strawberry jam?), and sometime before the end I became monstrously ill in the barely lit girls bathroom located in the bowels of that old theater.

I ask myself now, was I sickened by the lack of Oscar-worthy performances, excluding the dog - he was an excellent actor, or was it just bad luck to catch an untimely flu when undoubtedly boys must’ve been present? I can’t remember much about the story so the latter must’ve been the case. Stephen King can’t remember it either, not the story itself, but writing it. A whole novel writing process, forgotten, obliterated in a drug-induced haze. Amazing. That’s just one of the little tid-bits King reveals in his memoir, a book I thought because of its title would be about writing, but is really a peek into the mind of a great story teller. And, did I mention, I don’t remember reading one of his thirty-plus books.


So, why did I read this one? Good question. I guess he's always been such an opinionated old fart that I wanted to learn more about him, and even though I’ve never been much interested in any of his novels, there is no doubt this man’s imagination is off the charts. I’ve always thought him a down-to-earth sort of writer, not afraid to get his hands dirty. I can tell that just by looking at his picture. He looks like a man who has never had an easy time of it, his face weathered and beaten by the gale force wind of life. Even with his monumental success, there’s nothing snooty about him. A straight shooter, if you will. For the good, and bad.

Two parts auto-biography, one part writing advice, On Writing is an honest look into who Stephen King is, as if he were conversing with you from an easy chair in his study; his voice raspy and deep from years of smoking; his eyes a bit dimmer from that accident that almost claimed his life while he finished this book. He rambles like a cantankerous old man whose life experience he believes begs him worthy to offer advice, whether you want to hear it or not. This memoir, like that type of conservation is really just a collection of random informal thoughts collected on paper, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes not.

I’ve always thought Stephen King didn’t care if anyone liked him, or his books. I don’t think that now. Perhaps he, like everyone else, does need vindication after all. 3 stars

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Grand Sophy and Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer

If I was a doctor (other than a Doctor of Love that is), I’d be one of those self-help know-it-all types like Dr. Oz, ugh, and when someone came to me with a problem, like an in-grown toenail, or a eye twitch that began when those economy birds flew South, I’d recommend this for the pain: Take two Georgette Heyer pills and call me in the morning.

As I continue up her ladder of Regency romance novels, I swear this woman is the magic tonic that cures all ills. Sorry if I’m gushing all over the computer screen here (and yes my tears of joy squirt outward instead of downward), but I love these books! They’re like discovering a newer version of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Capt. Wentworth and Anne, or Emma and Mr. Knightley, all over again. Right down to the food, the dress, the society, and even the arched eyebrow!

In the Devil’s Cub and The Grand Sophy, Heyer has once again nailed down the perfect hero and heroine. The story’s themselves are unrelated, not even taking place in the same time period, but the plots are so well-written I didn’t even care that it once again remained the same: a strong, witty female enters the picture, she unknowingly attracts the unwilling alpha male - in one case shooting him, he of course falls in love with her because of it, an entanglement occurs, then somehow they end up together on the last few pages and you are left sighing and turning over the air to find out what happens. I’m discovering that Heyer was a master of the cliff-hanger. It must’ve been her own private joke, leaving you salivating for more at the end of every book.

So, if you’re feeling a bit down, these books are the perfect fix. I can’t wait to devour another one. Take that Dr. Oz! My cure was so much cheaper than yours! And speaking of him, what exactly is up with his Erik Estrada hair anyway? 4.5 stars

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

“Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Mel Brooks

I love Mel Brooks. What a great line. Anne Lamott must like him too, because she brings up this interesting point in her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, an ode to anyone who struggles with one or the other, or both, period. It’s easy to lose our inner broccoli. As children we have it in spades. We’re born with no inhibitions, no preconceived notions as to what’s good and what’s not good. Like with broccoli for instance, we automatically assume it tastes great, after all it’s such a pretty bright green even if it does look like the bush next to the front porch.

The loud voice in our little head is open to new ideas like a sponge, something we adults sometimes call truth. For children, truth is like water vapor in a room on a humid day, it spreads to every corner of the empty space. As adults we gather that water like a fierce unforgiving rain cloud. Then we stomp it into the corner with our boot, and turn up our nose and say, “I wouldn’t eat that, it tastes like a tree,” or “You don’t need to know that,” or “Because I said so, that’s why,” until the loud voice becomes softer, a sound wave headed away from us, until eventually we hear nothing at all.

Welcome to adulthood.

“So,” she says, “try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.”
What good advice. This whole book is full of it. I laughed and cried at the same time. A child of hippy parents, Lamott is very philosophical and wise. She’s experienced a lot of sadness in her life. What she says rings true, sometimes in a painful, even funny way, if that’s possible. Doesn’t everyone know someone like that? Someone who has had deeply moving and sad experiences in their life, usually revolving around death, and who somehow come out shiny on the other side of the abyss? These are the people who hold the magnifying glass a little closer to our eyes and say again, “You’re missing it. Look and see.”

If you’re looking for writing advice, you should read this book. If you’re the kind of person who never dots their i’s or crosses their t’s because you’re in such a hurry, you should read this book. If sometimes you feel like a “treadmark on the underpants of life,” you should read this book. Because according to Lamont, “You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on the ship.”

I liked having her for a shipmate for 236 pages. It made my daily walk to the plank that much easier. 4 stars

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray is no ordinary teenage girl. After she witnesses a murder in a New York City nightclub, everything goes awry in her life: her mother disappears after leaving her a cryptic message, she can suddenly see dead people – oh, no wait, they might be alive, but with weird markings on their arms, oh yeah, and one of them is really hot – and demons want to suck out her brains, vampires want to drink her blood, and werewolves want to just end her life. Clary’s had a bad week.

If you want to read some really good reviews of this book, check it out on goodreads. The first few on the list mirror my thoughts so exactly, that I don’t want to just repeat what they said here. Instead I’ve made a little overview list of my own, and if I ever decide to write a book, I’ll have something to refer to as a quick guide to unbridled success in the current teenage fiction market.

- Name the main character after yourself. --Check

- Use italics for emphasis on almost every page. --Check Check

- Compare everything from the taste in your mouth, to the smell in the room to old paper. (I’m not exactly sure how old paper tastes. Is anybody sure? Is there a Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean with that flavor? If anybody would know it’d be this author, because she obviously likes Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Wars.. a lot) --Check

- Be sure to have one extremely long 'how I became a werewolf and why' scene description similar to another book that I too found way too long.. --Check

- Make everybody smell like blood and sweat at some point in the story, and yes they are a stinky lot because of it. --Check

- Make the bad guy (or at least I assumed he was bad, because by the end I wasn’t so sure) Voldermort, Darth Vader, and your dad on any given bad day rolled into one and you’ve got your villain! --Check

- Reveal a plotline in the end that made me say aloud, “Eeeww!” --Check

- Have everything have a convenient fix, whether it’s a quick, as yet unknown magical fix or good-guy-gone-bad fix, for no reason whatsoever other that to drive the plot to some end. --Check

- Make the anti-hero/love interest so much like Spike in Buffy that I wanted to watch him in his original form again. Sigh…. (Did you catch that word, original? It’s a new concept here.) --Check

- Am I being a little harsh? --Check, Check, Check. Oh well, you don’t have to read this ramble if it was your favorite book. Oh, but wait, it's too late! You've already read it if you've gotten this far! Hee-hee (insert maniacal sounding Dr. Evil laugh here). 2 stars

~~As a side note, I hear the author improves a little, and that the other two in the series are better. So, if I have nothing better to do, like say cleaning my house, I’ll probably give the series at least one more try just to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because in a battle between cleaning my house and reading, which do you think wins? Hmm...

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts

by Lilian Jackson Braun

This is one of the many "Cat Who" books starring Jim Qwilleran, a newspaper reporter who lives in a small town with his two siamese cats.

In this installment Qwilleran receives a late night phone call from Iris Cobb, the curator of the local historical museum who lives in the home attached to the museum . She tells Qwill for the past few weeks she has been hearing eerie noises and thinks there are ghosts in the museum and her home. She seems so frightened that night that Qwill offers to come out to her home and take her to a friend's house. Qwill races to her home and finds it with every light off and Iris lying dead on the kitchen floor.

Qwill offers to move into the museum home while they look for a replacement for Iris. While there he is determined to find out what happened to Iris. Was she really frightened to death by ghosts?

I enjoyed this book. I love mysteries and it was a quick read that I found entertaining.

3 stars