21 September 2014

An Open Letter to Diana Gabaldon

This is my 100th blog post (and my first in about two years), so it seems fitting that it covers a topic about which I am most passionate. How to best convey my emotions on a topic that is so dear to my heart? As that Mad Hatter said, "Start at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop."

In the late Spring of 2005, I was procrastinating. One of my best skills, carefully honed throughout my entire college career. Finals - and graduation - were about a week away, and there was not much for me to do (other than pack my apartment, study for finals, finish my theses, and get my life into something resembling order). As now, one of my most efficient ways to procrastinate is to wander the bookstore, call a fellow reader and ask for a recommendation. I called my mom.

Me: I need something that is easy to read, that won't take too much time. I've got finals.
Mom: Read Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.
Me (arriving in the "G" section): Mom, this book is over 800 pages. Were you listening to my criteria?
Mom: Trust me.
Me: Fiiiiiiiiine.

I don't remember much about French, other than being trés fatiguée at my final. I was up every night devouring Outlander. I could have lived on nothing but the rich descriptive language, the carefully cultivated historical research, the piquant characters, and the obviously mouthwatering relationship between the protagonists, Claire Beauchamp and Jamie Fraser.

When I returned to my parents' home to spend the summer before starting graduate school, I completed Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, and The Fiery Cross in about a week each. I didn't have anything pressing to do (other than find somewhere to live 2,000 miles away, get prepared for the rigors of academic life and worry about my student loans), so I contented myself to while away the days laying in the backyard with a book in my hand.

Then, of course, graduate school in Wisconsin. All books, all the time. Especially in winter. I purchased - and read immediately - A Breath of Snow and Ashes when it was released, and I continued to offer up Outlander to anyone who asked for a great book recommendation. In the Fall of 2009, my husband moved back to California a month before my final semester of coursework was completed, taking all of our belongings back across the country. I was to follow in December, keeping only the most necessary items with me until my departure. Clothes, coats, my laptop and, of course, An Echo in the Bone. I really felt the need to have the large, hardcover tome with me for the remainder of my time in Madison. I said it was because I was only "halfway done" and I wasn't about to wait a month to finish the book (even though I did have to wait until my teaching and student-ing was completed to open it back up). I think, however, that it was reassuring to have it as a keystone to important moments in my life, most of which involve moving through space (and not time). Of course, reading in the backyard isn't the same in a blizzard. But still.

In 2011, now back in Orange County for the first time (really) in basically a decade, I saw that Diana Gabaldon Herself was touring for The Exile (the graphic novel of Jamie's experiences) and she was visiting Vroman's. A mere hour from my home (with no traffic). My in-laws live halfway between myself and Pasadena (for to watch my 8-month-old). My mom works halfway between my home and my in-laws' home (for to accompany me).  Yes, we left early so that we wouldn't hit too much traffic. Yes, we hit no traffic (amazingly) and were there like 3 hours early. No, I didn't mind. I was in one of my favorite places, an amazing bookstore, and I was about to meet one of my favorite people. Yes, there were a lot of people there. Yes, I met her. And, while I had all these things I wanted to tell her, I simply said, "I love your books." I totally choked. She was gracious and wonderful, and I'm sure she doesn't remember me.

Lest you think I'm completely obsessed with the whole Outlander universe, I will say that I did not go to Comic-Con to see her or the cast of the show, and I did not get to see her when she visited Vroman's again for Written in My Own Heart's Blood (I couldn't get tickets to either event, or find anyone to watch my 3-year-old and my 1-year-old). But. I had been looking forward to the book for ages, and I bought it the day it was released. A few weeks later, I was in Pasadena and went to Vroman's, found a signed copy of the new book and obviously bought it. Because, of course I did. So now I have two copies.

I had been really looking forward to the show since the moment I heard it was happening; after reading MOBY (as Diana Gabaldon calls it), I said to myself, "Self, you should really re-read the first book before the show starts, just as a refresher." Two weeks before the show started I decided to read Outlander (again), and I finally convinced one of my kindred-book-spirits to start it for the first time. This time, I finished the book in about three days (thanks to my teething daughter "keeping me up all night"), and I thought, "Okay. I'll just read Dragonfly in Amber again." And then the same thing happened with all the rest, right up through MOBY, which I read for the second time. (I feel like I should acknowledge that, while I do re-read books for my studies, I've never been one to re-read too many books, so re-reading a book less than two months after reading it the first time was definitely out of character for me). Loren, my kindred-book-spirit, is in the middle of The Fiery Cross. You're welcome.

One of the things I really enjoyed about reading the novels again was a serious appreciation for all of the intersections of the different storylines that can get jumbled across eight years of reading, and an unwavering sense of astonishment at the amount of painstaking work that goes into making everything so bloody authentic.

I've loved watching the books come to life on the show, as have many of my friends (and a few people I got hooked on the books just before it started). The show feels very honest to the books, both in content and in spirit, which isn't something that always happens. One of the aspects of the show that I really appreciate is how dirty people are. Is that weird? I know they're all traipsing through the Scottish Highlands and I appreciate that they look it. It's one of those weird things I really remember about reading the books. Everything didn't constantly seem shiny and clean.

So, I finished the books. Again. And then, I went to pick up the next book on my never-ending pile of books, and I just felt like I wasn't quite ready to let Claire and Jamie - and Brianna and Roger, and Ian and the rest of them - go. Because these books took time to read, and I got so invested in all of them, and I know it takes time to write these books and the next one isn't for a few years. I would never want the books to come out faster and lose any of their magic. And then I realized (sort of) that part of the reason that I didn't want to pick up the next book is because I never really put it out there what I wanted to say to Diana Gabaldon when I met her in 2011. I love your books.

22 September 2012

Read: The Godfather

Full disclosure: my familiarity with The Godfather before I started reading it was limited to popular culture references and that time I watched it in college when I was living in a fraternity. The guys made me watch all their canonical films - Glory, The Godfather, Platoon, and the like. I was happy to watch the movies, but my memories of the film kind of remind me of when something is amazing at the time, but might be less-than-amazing the next day. It's easy to get swept up into the brouhaha of a movie when there are fifteen twenty-year-olds waxing on about how "this is the best movie ever." I was somewhat skeptical about reading Puzo's book until I watched the History Channel's documentary about the book and movies and how they influenced American culture in the '60s and '70s. Inspired by this academic-esque special, I suggested we read the book for my book group.

Mario Puzo's The Godfather chronicles the Corleone family in the decade following World War II. Michael, the youngest son, does not want to enter the family business; Sonny, the eldest son, prepares to take their father's seat as Don; Fredo, the middle son, seems to not really have much of a place in the family. The book opens at the wedding of the youngest Corleone, Connie.

Fredo Corleone,
the original Jan Brady
I won't go into the plot, because it is both straightforward and complex. The characters, too, are straightforward in their actions but complex in their motivations, particularly Don Vito. Reading this book, it's easy to understand how we all suddenly became very interested in the workings of the Italian-American Mafia. The book, at times, reads like a How-To manual; it takes time to show every precaution that is taken in just about any situation.

The most dynamic characters are, of course, those who have the most complicated relationship with the Corleone family. Michael, for one, feels pulled in many different directions, and his actions really demonstrate the uncertainty that (I imagine) many men were feeling when they returned from WWII.  Tom Hagen might be the most complex character, as he is the "outsider" who really managed to make it on the inside. He is neither a Corleone nor Italian, but an Irishman. The relationship that Tom shares with each of the Corleone major players - Vito, Sonny and Michael - reveals the strength of his character as well as the inevitable otherness of anyone who isn't Sicilian.

Like the development of Vito Corleone's various schemes, the story unfolds in a way that never feels rushed or forced. You want to read the book, because you care about this family, even though it is mostly composed of complete antiheroes. You feel compelled to turn the page, as though the Don Himself is sitting on your shoulder, reassuring you that this is the right thing to do, and getting you to see the rationale behind some of the less savory acts in the book. You feel like Michael is resisting the urge to embrace the lifestyle of his family, until the moment when he sort of falls into it. He ends up being so amazing at it, you wonder how he ever thought that he could avoid this inevitability in the first place. And if you can actually read this book without picturing young Al Pacino as Michael, then you've actually never seen any references to the movie (and you're probably living under a rock or in the actual past). Even the casting of Al Pacino as Michael seems to be one of those "duh" moments. Of COURSE he's Michael. He has always been Michael. It's the same with Michael. He has always been the Don.

Easily one of the best books I've read this year, and possibly one of the best books that I've read in a long time, I would enthusiastically recommend that you read this book. It really is an offer you can't refuse. Unlike when the Don makes you that kind of an offer, I really think that you'll be happy you agreed to this one.

16 June 2012

Seen: Snow White and the Huntsman

When you're a stay-at-home-mom to a toddler, the prospect of a night at the movies with your girlfriends is enough to get you through the longest of days. The moment you wake up, you think, "I'm going to the movies tonight!" When he strategically chucks his spaghetti lunch on the floor (walls, kitchen, or you), you think, "I'm going to the movies in seven hours!" When 5:45 rolls around and you find yourself counting the minutes (seconds) until relief comes in the form of whoever will watch your Gremlin/Troll/Toad/Whatever-your-child-turns-into-at-the-end-of-the-day, you think, "I'm going to the movies in one hour!" The most you can hope for is that the movie you've agreed to see with your similarly-situated friends is going to be amazing. The least you can hope for is sitting quietly in the dark for two hours. So it's already a winning situation. 

When we decided to see Snow White & the Huntsman we figured that, at the very least, we would get to see Chris Hemsworth flex his particular brand of awesome and behold Charlize Theron's outrageous costumes. The movie poster kind of sets us up for just that: see how The Huntsman looks totally kickass wielding that axe, while the Evil Queen's collar explodes into crows. What about Snow White? If you've seen Kristen Stewart in anything other than Twilight, you know that she actually can act. In this ad, however, she almost seems to be a non-character. She has a certain reluctance about her (a skill she honed during the press tours for her tween-driven franchise that she still seems sort of uncomfortable with); I was prepared to have to tolerate her (similar to the feeling I had about Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers) but not particularly care for her. And, while I can't say that I completely understand what that white horse-deer creature saw in her, I was pleasantly surprised by her performance.
At least the pale skin can be attributed to
being locked in a tower, rather than being undead.
And no sparkles.
In other news of random casting, I think the biggest disappointment was William. Not because I hated the actor. But the character was such a throw-away. Sure, it seems like he is supposed to fill the traditional role of "Prince Charming." He's got the pedigree to back it up. But there is very little that is actually charming about him. 
Hollywood's newest obsession?
The bow-and-arrow.
And the medieval mullet.
It seems like everyone is in love with Snow White - something with which anyone who has seen any version of the story is familiar. I appreciated the twist on the Evil Queen, whose sociopathic desire to stay young and beautiful leads her to consume the young beauty out of everyone. Charlize Theron's over-the-top  Ravenna offered something that previous Evil Queens have lacked - being actually crazy. Like, delusional. But at least she looked amazing while being completely bat-shit crazy.
You don't bathe in a mixture that is equal parts
porcelain, white-out and unicorn tears? More for me.
One of the best parts of the movie was the co-headlining Huntsman. And not just because Chris Hemsworth managed to balance the almost-palpable booze-soaked-grief with the ability to bring some much-needed levity to an otherwise serious and dramatic movie. Without him (and the dwarves), the movie seemed to take itself too seriously. 
Of all the people Snow White could have hunting her,
this seems like a pretty good option.
Aside from the characters themselves (and the creepy and seemingly Targaryen-inspired sibling relationship), the movie itself was pretty entertaining. Kristen Stewart's reluctant heroine was almost believable - but where did she learn to wield a sword and ride a horse bareback while she was locked in a tower for twelve years? Is riding a horse like riding a bike? The outcome of her resurrection (I don't want to completely spoil it, but you already knew that she was going to live because I'm assuming you've seen/read at least one version of the story) was actually satisfying. I appreciated that she ran headlong into her situation once she was literally given a second chance at life. I hope that in the sequel they don't try to turn the movie into another Twilight-triangle. We've been there and done that with K-Stew, and that's where she flounders. I felt like that who-will-she-choose moment at the end was one of the most forced moments of the movie, because it was pretty clear who she wanted to be with, and why he was the right choice for her (spoiler alert: the title of the movie isn't Snow White & Her Long-Lost Childhood Friend Who Is Now An Archer). 

Ultimately, I found the movie completely watchable. I didn't even want to get up to go to the bathroom, because I was worried I'd miss something. And, I would gladly see it again.  For this, if nothing else:
After all, the most reliable way to grade a movie is to decide if you would see it again, and what you would be willing to pay to see it at all. There are some movies that should be relegated to the $2 theater, and others that might get a matinee for $6 or $7. But I'd see this movie again in the evening - at $12, that's saying something. 

Snow White & the Huntsman wasn't necessarily the best movie of the summer (that would, so far, be The Avengers. Your move, Dark Knight Rises). But it was a pretty close second. And it was one of the better princess movies I can remember seeing in recent years. Your move, Brave.

28 May 2012

Seen: The Avengers (a huge helping of awesomesauce)

A couple girlfriends and I had been itching to see The Avengers since well before it came out - we talked about it for what seemed like ages. We decided to take advantage of our built-in babysitters (our husbands) and head out to the movies and welcome in summer as it was meant to be welcomed. The Avengers was one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer - with a huge budget and a huge cast, the stakes could not have been higher for this movie. Joss Whedon had to balance the existing franchises of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, as well as incorporating the rest of the cast and adding in a believable (to whatever extent comic-book movies are believable) AND all the while making a kick-ass summer movie. I've seen all of these movies. I loved them all. Even though the bar was set pretty high for me, I would probably like the movie regardless. I even liked Eric Bana's Hulk (though I preferred Edward Norton's by far). At the end of the day, did The Avengers usher in the summer movie season with the power of Thor's hammer and Hulk's smash in a giant serving of awesome with a side of kick-ass?

In a word: YES.

In more than a word, it was possibly the best comic-book movie I've seen; it was definitely the most entertaining movie of the year and one that I was happy to see twice.  This movie had everything that I could have wanted in it: action. banter. and this:
That's one powerful hammer
The movie had plenty of chances to stumble. The Incredible Hulk has a spotted history (at best), and I was apprehensive about Mark Ruffalo taking the job. I really liked Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and didn't really get why he didn't translate into The Avengers. And I enjoy Mark Ruffalo, but didn't know if he had the ability to Smash.
My secret? I'm always angry
He did a fantastic job, of course. And I don't think that I could even see Edward Norton alongside the rest of the cast; Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner fit in so well with the rest of the cast that I thought he might change his name to Bruce Banter. 

The only thing that I didn't get about the movie was the standard tease of the next movie during the credits. I had to consult one of my comic-book aficionado friends to figure out who it was. Now that I know who this "cosmic warlord Thanos" is, I'm pretty pumped for The Avengers II.

And not just because of this:
Though more Thor is definitely worth looking forward to.
Or this:
Poor Captain America has the reputation of such a
But, actually, because of this:
The Avengers worked because all of those things that could've gone wrong (but probably wouldn't and definitely didn't) went absolutely right. Ultimately, if the writing and acting didn't work, the movie wouldn't have worked. I was just glad to see that all of the characters and actors meshed so well. Even ScarJo. 

22 January 2012

Book Group News: January 2012

This week, we had our year end Book Group dinner. Each month, we contribute $10 to the kitty, and then at the end of the year we go out to a nice restaurant for a "free" dinner. This year, as with years past, we went to Citrus City Grille at the Orange Circle.
CCG, 122 N Glassell St, Orange CA 92866
(714) 639-9600 
The food at Citrus City Grille is excellent. I had the stuffed dates and the rack of lamb with butternut squash risotto, and I also tasted the beet salad and the tiramisù. They have a great Happy Hour that lasts until closing (Sun-Thurs), so it's affordable to have a cocktail or a beer. The only downside to the restaurant is the noise. I don't remember it being this noisy any of the times I've gone there in the past, but it was loud like a crowded bar - and we were sitting outside. It was very difficult to hear each other, especially to hear the ladies at the other end of the table.  I think this could be attributed to the group of 20 women sitting near us (baby shower or birthday party, perhaps) and the group of six businessmen sitting behind us. Safe to say, I think next year we will try somewhere new.

Our other "year-end" tradition is to have a book exchange. This year there was a lot of stealing of books to be had, so I take that as a sign that everyone brought great books this year.

Finally, we read and discussed 
A Game of Thrones: Book One
"Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave."

Overall, the book was a huge success (see my personal review here), and we gave it an average of 4.6/5 (pending a couple of to-be-finished scores).  About half of us have watched the show (I haven't personally seen it - how I long for the days when I had HBO!), and we generally agreed that one thing the show really offered was an excellent, almost to-the-letter adaptation. This seems to be something that is unique to adaptations in the fantasy genre, because the fans of fantasy tend to be very vocal about keeping everything exactly the same.
Collectively, our favorite characters were Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister. The most commonly held issue with the book was the lack of a family tree chart at the beginning of the book. Yes, there is a list with the different families at the end of the book, but there isn't anything that's a quick and handy reference for when you are reading the book. By the halfway point, I assured the women who hadn't finished the book yet, the characters are clear and you don't constantly find yourself checking who a person is in your head. I promised to report on the second book (which I've already started).

Tune in again next month, when we'll be reading "The Paris Wife" (Paula McLain).

07 January 2012

Resolutions - lost

Last week I penned (typed) a long post about how resolutions were somewhat silly, because if you really want to change then you will make it happen regardless of the day, and then began listing my various resolutions (because I'm a contradiction).

And then I saved the post, I swear, because I wanted to include some pictures.

Only either I didn't save the post or it got lost somewhere in the series of tubes that is the internet. And now I'm trying to remember what I resolved to do...

So here are my (lost) resolutions:
1. Blog more: this really speaks to my desire to get my opinions out there (even though I don't typically plug my blog on facebook or anything). I almost always INTEND to blog, but I don't always have a chance to get my computer out and write it, and I find it somewhat tedious to blog on my phone.
2. Prepare one new dish each week: I really want to make sure that Liam has an open mind about eating, and he is willing to try new things. So far, so good. He'll eat basically anything that I give him, and he seems to like just about everything (of course, this can change at any moment).
3. Learn to sew: I don't own a sewing machine, and I don't want to sew clothes, but I would like to have the ability to hem things, or repair seams, or even (gasp!) make a quilt out of my favorite items of Liam's clothing from his first year on this planet. That's my "2012 Project." I would also like to be able to make blankets for my million friends who are having babies this year (okay, really I just want to make blankets for a couple of them), and I saw this awesome project on Pinterest for a Kindle cover that I think is super cute.
4. Become a better corresponder: yes, that's a made-up word. But the "Art of Correspondence" is something I'd really like to participate in more. There's something nice about just receiving a note from someone to say hello, but I think it might be equally gratifying to write a note to someone.
5. Try something new, professionally: I'm adopting a new book for my Italian class, and it's totally different from the books that I've used thus far for my classes. It promises to be a challenge (at first) but I think that it will be a good choice in the long run.
6. Get organized, both personally and professionally: My desk became a catchall during the holidays, and it still hasn't recovered. I would also like to get my lesson-plans somewhere digital so that I can just access them and print them out, with (ideally) links to the files I need for each day, or else a very easy-to-use folder system that I clean out and update regularly. My personal desk can probably be tackled in a weekend (and will include a trip to the organization section of a couple stores, since there are no shelves or drawers in this desk, which is really more of a secretary). My professional organization might prove a little more challenging, but I'm willing to give it a shot. PLUS, I have sort of a clean slate since I'm using a new book, which is organized completely differently.

Okay, so that is my best estimation of what my 2012 Resolutions were. I'll try to check back once a month to see how I'm progressing on each of them.

08 November 2011

Reading, lately

Lately, the majority of things I've been reading has limited to Liam's board books (Fifteen Animals, Goodnight Gorilla, and other similar books), but I have also been enjoying the Eragon series of books (I'm currently on Book II - Eldest). The stories are fun, but feel a bit juvenile. Yes, I know that they are Young Adult books, but they lack the sophistication of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games books. Perhaps it's because Eragon was written by a teenager.

Liam is keeping me busy, though, so it's taking me much longer to get through the second book than the first.

My book group is currently reading The Ice Princess (Lackberg), which I've already read and really enjoyed, so I'm thinking about reading / hoping to read The Preacher, which I believe is the next in the series from Lackberg.