Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Better Homes and Husbands by Valerie Ann Leff

I need to say up front that this will not be a typical book review for me. Valerie is a writer who lives in Asheville and joined my book group after I moved. Book Group read the book last fall, and I finally got around to it in the last couple weeks.

And my first thought upon completing the book was, "Why on earth have I waited 3 months to pick up this book?!" It was just a really, really good read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had difficulty putting down the book.

The premise is this - it is the story of a high end apartment building on Park Avenue in NYC and its inhabitants. The story unfolds over 30 years and from a variety of perspectives. There is not a narrator who knows everything and part of the joy of the book is trying to piece together the story. The characters are people whose lives are very different from my own, but they are presented in such a way I feel as if I know them. They are full, interesting, and developed characters who seem quite real. Just when I am ready to despise a character, I see another side of them. They are truly complex, sympathetic people.

The storylines are compelling and intertwine in wonderful and surprising ways. I appreciate the handling of issues of wealth and justice. The understanding of love, friendship, and companionship is well done. It is a story that will stay with me for a long time. I fully recommend the book to everyone!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Happy Chinese New Year!

"Kung Hei Fat Choy!" (or - "Congratulations and Be Prosperous!") Sunday begins the Chinese New Year, a 15 day celebration observing the beginning of a new year in China. Today, children will receive red envelopes (just like the one above) with money (it should be a multiple of 2, so $2 would definitely do it!). Lots of great foods will be eaten, and friends and family will visit and wish each other good luck.

For these two weeks, family, friends, and ancestors are remembered. The gods of the household are honored. Government offices are closed. All sorts of symbolic foods are served (and please let's remember that fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco to make all the white people coming to Chinatown happy).

It is the year of the Dog, a loyal, happy and tenacious creature. (I do find it ironic that Sonny Boy (given name Caleb, Hebrew for "faithful like a dog") seems to fit his Chinese birth year.) So go find a dog to pat, eat some Chinese food and celebrate!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

I had heard about this book for some time before I finally purchased it last summer. It seemed interesting for a number of reasons - primarily because it dealt with women under an Islamic regime, and also because it seemed to be about a book group (and I do love my book group!). The author is an English professor, a talented and educated woman who taught in Tehran while attempting to deal with a regime that was extremely oppressive to women. She was educated in the States, and has now lived here for a number of years. She lived in Tehran through times I vaguely remember of the seizing of the consulate and an ill-fated rescue attempt. With all the recent discussion of Iran and its regime in the news, the book once again could find a new audience (it was first published in 2003).

Dr. Nafisi centers her memoir around several works of fiction and authors - Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. I have read much of these works and felt that gave me a leg up in working my way through her book. I can see where it might be a challenge (though not fruitless) for those unfamiliar with these works and authors. The memoir is not only centered around these books, but also the "book group," seven young women who loved fiction and met regularly with their former professor to discuss such things. As with many book groups, the discussions began to center less and less on the book and more and more on personal lives.

I found the book quite informative about the Islamic regime. It was quite interesting to have such a fresh perspective on living there - in a country that she and many others love, but with a government that seemed hell-bent on making it impossible for one to live there. The perspective and memories were enlightening and created beautifully.

However, the book seemed to ramble much of the time. Not knowing the history of Iran as Dr. Nafisi does, I would struggle to keep track of where she was in her memoir. Her "girls" in her book group I also had difficulty separating one from the other. They certainly had very different stories, but with the lack of linear progression and oftentimes focus in the book, I had to keep turning back to the first explanation of who the girls were to attempt to keep them straight.

Dr. Nafisi writes beautifully, if not always cohesively. Hers is an important voice to hear in today's world. Here are some quotes that I particulary enjoyed -

(in describing a colleague) I used to tease her that the word immaculate had been created for her. When I got to know her better, I came to see that all this orderliness was a camoflage for a passionate nature matched by insatiable desires.

Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the word - not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires....(M)y girls,...by refusing to give up their right to pursue happiness, had created a dent in the Islamic Republic's stern fantasy world.

Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe...if you're forced into having sex with someone you dislike, you make your mind blank...We are constantly pretending to be somewhere else.

It becomes clear that the oppressive regime could not take away imagination, even with the burning and banning of many books. For Dr. Nafisi and others like her, it is places like the Roaring 20's in America, Regency England in the country, Victorian Europe and others created in fiction, that give them the ability to live. Dr. Nafisi's great love and understanding of fiction, and how that functions in her life, is truly the driving force in this memoir. The conclusion is strong. The last chapter is easily the best in the book. I recommend a read - and just remember when you find yourself struggling through some of the confusion of the earlier chapters, the best is yet to come. My grade - B-

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Brokeback Mountain - the movie

Beautiful. Enthralling. Compelling. Heart-wrenching. Just as the main character, Ennis del Mar, has difficulty finding words to express himself, it is difficult to find words to express how powerful this movie is. I don't normally go for serious love stories (be it straight, gay, or a child and their dog), but I am so glad I made an exception this time. On Sunday afternoon I entered a fairly full theatre with my friend Alice to see this long awaited movie. Why did I want to see it? One - I think director Ang Lee is incredibly gifted (as seen from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility). Two - I have always liked Heath Ledger (from the days he was 18 years old and starred in Shaun Cassidy's short lived Celtic fantasy series, Roar) and felt he has not received the credit or roles he really deserves.

The story is simple - in 1963, two cowboys are hired to look after a herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. They fall in love, but know that this kind of love is dangerous. Their affair ends with the end of the job and they attempt to live their lives as best they can. The movie tells the story of these two men, their families, and their love over a 20 year period.

The story is real and compelling. The actors use their bodies and faces more than words. Each nuance of body movement, be it an eye flicker or nod of the head, or a violent wrestling scene, conveys much more than pure dialogue could. The four primary actors use their bodies to act in wonderful ways, but especially Ledger. As Ennis, his body expresses what he cannot quite understand and could never verbalize. And when he does speak, he says far more than the actual words spoken from his mouth. Truly an Oscar worthy performance.

The symbolism of Brokeback Mountain is the focus of the movie - something that is beautiful beyond words, magnetic, peaceful, fulfilling; yet also isolating, unpredictable, lonely, frightening, and unable to be possessed. Some of us have known a love like that - definitely heart-wrenching. Add into that the danger and threat of such a love between two men, and the place of deepest joy and refuge becomes even more unattainable than ever.

The cinematography is spectacular. It makes me want to travel to Wyoming one day. The direction is incredible - each shot of the film is valuable, important and integral to the story. The music complemented the moods of the story and expanded it (instead of taking it over as it does in so many movies and tv shows today). The story and the acting could not be better. This is a truly great movie on a number of levels - emotionally, critically, and politically. And speaking as one who always looks for a redemptive note in the world, and knowing that sometimes there just isn't one, I felt the story arc and ending were fitting and perfect. I would not have changed one thing. My grade - A

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia - the movie

I had been anxiously awaiting The Chronicles of Narnia to hit the big screen since last summer. The C.S. Lewis series is an old favorite of mine and one we have read to our children. Over Christmas break, I made sure we had an opportunity to see this long awaited movie.

And yet it has taken me over two weeks to write my personal little review. I am usually so anxious to share my opinion with the world, and so I couldn't understand why I wasn't ready to turn on the computer the minute I got home. Then I realized why - the movie did not meet my expectations. I was disappointed.

Now I need to say that my children were not disappointed at all. They loved it - as have most the people I know who have seen it. So why did I find myself looking at my watch several times throughout the movie and then not even staying for the credits (a sacrilege in my book)? The movie did a number of things well. It stayed close to the story. The cinematography was incredible, and the final showdown between good and evil was quite well done. The actors were believable and engaging. So what was my problem?

It all just felt so flat to me. Despite the big budget extravagances, the movie seemed one-dimensional. There was no trepidation as to what might happen next. (Even in a Harry Potter movie - when I know exactly what will happen - I find myself on the edge of my seat.) The storyline seemed ho-hum, - oh yeah, now's the time the brother is going to be really stupid and go to the witch; yeah, the lion is sacrificing himself; yada, yada, yada. I was not invested in the characters (despite the quality acting job). There was no mystery, little magic, inspite of the incredible special effects and various creatures. I have asked myself why several times in the past couple weeks. Was it the storyline itself? Was it the original book or the screenplay? Is this a book that is better left on the written page?

I'm not sure about the answer, but I am sure about my disappointment. I know this movie will win some awards - and deservedly so in some cases. Yet, it left me wanting more. I think I'll have Hubby take the kids to the sequel. My grade - B-

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

B4B entry - The Girl Scout Cookie boyfriend

This is a Blogging for Books entry - entries are to be about an ex this month. In honor of Girl Scout Cookie sales (going on now!), I wanted to share this particular story about an ex.

I was getting tired of being in the car. Mom had been driving me around for while, with my younger brother staring out the window in the back seat. We kept stopping every few minutes at a different house. I would check my list about which boxes I needed to take to the door, and then Mom and I would get them from either the back seat or the trunk. After delivering the boxes to the family, I would take my leave by perkily saying, "Thank you so much for supporting the Girl Scouts! We are going to have a great Spring trip and do lots of great things thanks to you!!"

There were several times when I slid back in the car that I thought I heard Mom mutter something like, "238 boxes..." and "just HAD to sell more than anyone else."

We were making serious headway as we took the road to Robbie Owenby's house. I planned to deliver the boxes to his mom, collect the money, and then spend a few minutes imagining walking through his door with him holding my hand. I would have to look up at the tall, older basketball player and gaze into his beautiful light brown eyes as he invited me to share some pizza and coke with his family. We would then go to the church parking lot across from his house where he would shoot hoops, only touching net every time, as I clapped and praised his athletic ability. He would take a break from practicing and decide to give me a lesson. Robbie would put his arms around me as he showed me how to shoot the ball perfectly every time. I would try to defend the basket while he dribbled, fail miserably, and we would end up laughing on the grass of the green lawn. He would then tell me how wonderful 8th grade would be for me in a couple years, and that even when he was in high school next year, he would always love me and wouldn't even notice other girls.

"Oh - there's Robbie walking to his house," Mom interrupted. "Amy, just roll down the window and ask if his mom's at home. It would save some time if she's not there." It was only in retrospect that I remember the slight smirk on my dear mother's face.

Panic quickly set in. I didn't know if he even knew who I was - small community, granted, but I was an insignificant little nerdy Girl Scout 6th grader! Mom stopped the car while I was hurriedly saying, "Please! Please go on to his house!" As the car stopped, I knew I had no choice but to roll down the window - Robbie was standing right outside it looking in. I took a deep breath. Now was THE opportunity. He'd notice me and all my dearest dreams would come true.

"Uuh...uuhhh....uuuuuhhhhhhh....Rooooobbbbie. Uuuuhhhhh....is your.....is your uuuhhhh...mom home? I...I have cookies." I tried to tear my eyes from his beautiful face, but the horror of it all was just too much to turn away.

"Nope, she's not there."

Mom leaned across the seat. "Here are the boxes. You can just give them to her and she can pay Amy at church on Sunday."

The car drove off. My brother snickered and then laughed for a long time. Mom kept trying not to grin. Barely a year goes by that my brother (especially when we have GS cookies) does not look at me with big eyes and stutter, "Uuh...uuhhh....Rooooobbbbbie!"

And every year at GS cookie time, I think of the best ex dream boyfriend I ever had.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, by Maureen Dowd

You have to hand it to Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. She definitely knows how to create an eye-catching book title. Yes, many women have asked this question over the years, so why not create a book to explore the issue?

Dowd states up front that this is not a systematic treatise on gender issues, but simply her thoughts and observations. I appreciate the disclaimer, because the book does feel choppy and disjointed at times. Yet, if one is expecting that, then it makes it the easier to encounter. Dowd is the queen of one-line zingers and pithy pronouncements. I appreciated the laughs and thoughts that were created by them throughout the book. Some favorites -

"...women move from playing with Barbie to denouncing Barbie to remaking themselves as Barbie."

"Whether or not American feminism will be defeated by American conservatism, it is incontrovertibly true that American feminism was trumped by American narcissism."

"From my own unscientific sampling, I think it's far rarer for women to ask men to read their stuff than it is for men to ask women to read their stuff. Poor Condi Rice couldn't even get George W. Bush to read her presentation of his foreign policy goals in Foreign Affairs magazine during his 2000 campaign."

"In sport and war, the big fear of men is to be feminized. In the workplace, the big fear of women is to be diabolized."

"Women are affected by lunar tides only once a month; men have raging hormones every day."

Dowd is of the age to have lived through and experienced the feminist revolution, and to see the pendulum swing back. She understands that the feminist rhetoric of the 70s and 80s is ancient history to many of today's young women and men. While many strides have taken place, women are spending more time, money and effort on "trying to look like Barbie" than seeking equality and opportunity on par with men. Dowd also offers observations on women who are trying to use their intellect and natural gifts, and find themselves without a family or partner in life. The stats for professional women over 35 who have families (or will have) are dim - at a time when many of these women would like to do so. The chapter after Dowd glorifies the sexiness of an intellectual male, she bemoans the scarcity of men available for successful women. I would like to ask her why a "successful" woman has to have a man who is on par or more successful than she is. Men have married less educated, less professional women for years - and many have found happiness. Does feminism not include a woman broadening her horizons, looking for men who might not have a Harvard MBA, but might be very genuine, true, supportive, and proud of a "successful, professional" wife? Dowd is correct that feminism is about having options - but we shouldn't limit what those options are. (And yes, there are men out there proud to be married to a woman who is seen as more successful than they are.)

Another interesting aspect of Dowd's book was how successful women are only likable after taking a fall (Hillary, Martha, etc.) I had not thought about this - but how true! Only after public humiliation can an intelligent, highly successful woman find a likability factor. Perhaps Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter really is the great American novel, after all.

Throughout the book, Dowd not only offers her own insights, she also gleans information from science (about that elusive Y chromosone and its degredation), politics (both sides take a hitting, which I respect), and societal culture. It is an honest book, capable of producing much conversation. The ending is thin - she could have wrapped up her thoughts more succinctly and powerfully. For people interested in gender issues, I recommend a read. It's not the ultimate feminist treatise, but it is thought-provoking reading. B-