31 January 2010

Mary Poppins: the musical

For my birthday, my mother-in-law took me to see Mary Poppins and to dinner in Los Angeles. I love musical theater, and I love it when the tour cast includes people from the original Broadway cast (both Mary Poppins and Bert were played by the same actors from Broadway - though the show originated in London).

We started the evening at Engine Co #28, a restaurant on Figueroa that was originally a firehouse. The restaurant features pretty traditional, upscale American food. It was good - I had a pork chop, Patti had pasta, and we split a Caesar salad.  The service was lackluster, and the next time I'm having a pre-show dinner in downtown Los Angeles, I will probably not return there - you know, it was good but not amazing.

We walked from the restaurant to the theater (we had plenty of time to kill and it was not particularly cold), but we were able to take a shuttle from the theater back to the restaurant for the valet parking, which was a very nice touch.

When we got to the Music Center, I was surprised at how many children were at the Saturday night show, which didn't end until 11:00, well past most children's bedtimes.  But, I remember my love of Mary Poppins as a child, so I can understand why they would want to see it. We had amazingly good seats, which is always a plus, and a lot of the little girls seemed really excited to bring their much-loved iconic film nanny to life.

Disney's Mary Poppins this is not. On the surface, she's very similar to the Julie Andrews character.  But she was much more vain and serious at times.  Much of the music was different from the movie - either adapted or original songs made up the majority of the performances.  And Mary Poppins leaves when the children continue to be bratty.  Which is obviously different.  She returns, of course, but overall I got the feeling that the play was based more on the books than on the movie.

Many of the characters from the play originated in the books, and they were some of the more interesting and energetic characters.  The play made the parents into more three-dimensional characters, which was also a very pleasant surprise. These differences could even leave a place for a remake of the movie, which beyond the main characters wouldn't really even resemble the original.

Highlights of the show were "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Step in Time," both of which were extremely well-choreographed and entertaining.  Overall, the musical seemed to be very old-school, which is appropriate for the material but explains the mixed reception that the play received on Broadway.

I was glad that I got to see Mary Poppins before the wind changed and she blew out of town (the show closes in LA this Sunday), and I was really impressed by the performances of the children in the cast, who are in almost every scene of the musical.  I would give Mary Poppins a "likes it" and 3.5-star rating. It's not the best musical I've seen lately, but it was fun and some of the numbers were awesome!

30 January 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (#11)

My 28th birthday was pretty uneventful. Dinner with the fam, the in-laws, some family friends, my best friend and her husband.  That's the main event of the day. Other than that, everyone was working, so I had a pretty "typical" day. A typical day for me is doing research, reading articles, and trying to make some headway on my dissertation proposal.  

Except the day was not typical at all, because I decided that "Hey! It's my birthday! I'm not going to do work! I'm going to read a book!" And so, I did.

I've been meaning to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for ages. Seriously. Everyone I know who has read it has been telling me to read it. And I've been wanting to read it. But I've had so much else going on with moving, getting married, finishing exams and classes that I hadn't gotten the chance to read it. Until now.

Larsson's book was excellent, even though I did struggle through the first few chapters. I thought that the characters were well-written, and the story was intriguing. I started my birthday on about page 100 and finished it by 5:00. I don't just read any book in one day.  Like Blomkvist and Salander, I felt that I had to know the outcome of the crime, and once I got to a certain point in the book I couldn't stop reading it for the life of me.  The various subplots all fit together really well, and I thought the outcome of the investigation was well-orchestrated and seemed appropriate to the intrigue of the story.

I was a little disappointed in the ending, because I don't know if it was supposed to be a hanging moment to spur the reader to immediately pick up the next book (which I did), or if it is supposed to have its own moment of finality.  If it's option A, then job well done. But if it's option B, it leaves a little something to be desired.

Despite the fact that I didn't love the ending, I still loved the book. I would definitely recommend it for people who enjoy psychological thrillers - and the twist! I didn't even see it coming! Of course, it's already in talks to be made into an American movie (and has already been adapted in Sweden), and I can only hope that they stick to the story, because the story is what made this book so fascinating. The characters are interesting, and I'm excited to see how they develop, but it was the story that made this book one of those I-can't-put-it-down must-reads.

28 January 2010

For Rachael on her birthday

To celebrate Rachael's birthday (and mine, we're only a day apart), I have prepared a very small photo montage to show off some of our shenanigans. Of course, this is a very small sampling of our pictures. 
Rachael and I have been friends since my second year of grad school (and her first).
Three years off ridiculousness, SBCs, secret missions and funnest times ever later,
I want to wish her the happiest of birthdays (even though we can't spend our birthdays together).

Rachael, thank you for being the best friend a girl could ask for. 
You're the best, and I can't wait to see you again soon!

Well done, Steve.

Since everyone is reviewing the iPad, I thought I might add to the white noise. For the first time yesterday, I sat at home and followed along on a techie blog while Steve Jobs and co revealed their new baby, the iPad.

My first thought, "why didn't they run this name by a woman first? Open the doors to the iTampon jokes." Incidentally, I've since seen the MadTV sketch about the iPad, in that exact circumstance, and I'm sure it will have a resurgence on the internet.

But once I got past the name, I tried to follow the various features and see their real-world applications.

Giant games? Okay, I don't do much gaming on my phone and none on my computer, so this doesn't really interest me.
Paintbrushes? It's cool, sure, but I'm not sure I would use it that much. But it's definitely a different kind of application and would be cool until the novelty wore off.
So what was cool?
Giant NYTimes? Definitely digging this application. I think this is one I would use without question.
iBooks? The books seemed a bit cheaper than kindle/sony/nook, and I really like the interface of the iBookstore. This might give the other e-readers a run for their money.

I'm still on the fence about iWork. I've been a mac user for 3 years now, and I've still not made the switch to iWork as my primary platform, because it's not very functional outside the mac world.

The price, of course, is awesome, but there are plenty if hidden costs. $130 extra for 3G? If I'm going to make the investment in a tablet, I'm going to get 3G, and how big are the files for the ebooks?it has a battery life of 10 hours, but I can read for 10 hours with no problem. And movies are 1.5-2 gb each, so the 16gb iPad may still fill up quickly. So then you have to basically go for the 32/64, which is more still. Plus $30/month for the wireless? They should have a way that if multiple people in one household have the iPad, they can get a discounted rate on the Internet. Or if they already use AT&T for their internet.

Overall, I'm pretty impressed by apple's new creation. Of course, I won't be getting it in the first generation (probably not in the 2nd either). I'll wait until you can add Word (because, regardless of what steve & co say, it's still really hard to use other platforms in academia), you can type on a flat surface, and 3G is standard.

I tip my cap to you, steve. Can't wait to see what you think up next.

27 January 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry (#2)

I'm reviewing this book out of order, because I forgot I hadn't reviewed it yet. I hadn't forgotten about reading it, of course.

I really enjoy Niffenegger, and I had been anticipating her follow-up novel for a while. Her Fearful Symmetry was nothing like Tine Traveler's Wife. Which was a good thing, though I loved TTW and everything. I was just glad to see that Niffenegger was not a one-trick pony.

The characters were all well-written, but the pairs of twin sisters all seemed a little incomplete without the other. I realize this may have been a purposeful technique, but not being a twin it seemed a little codependent at times. I also felt like the supporting cast struggled at times, because it seemed like Niffenegger couldn't decide whether she wanted to make them central characters or keep them on the periphery.

Despite these two criticisms, I still thought it was a really enjoyable book. I wouldn't call it flawless, of course, but it was worth picking up to lose yourself in Niffenegger's fiction.

26 January 2010

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5), Rick Riordan (#10)

Oh, Percy Jackson, I have grown so attached to you, your friends and your crazy extended family, the gods of yore.  I've loved every minute of the brief time we spent together, and I'm sad to say that I'm done with the series.  It was only a week, but it was super-fun.  At least you're going to have this movie, which I hope does your book justice.

Big thumbs-up to Rick Riordan, who brought this smartly written, well-planned and extremely enjoyable series to life.  I could read many more books of Percy's hijinks, but I'm intrigued by your note at the end of the book (the first Half-Blood series? Is there something else in the works?) and can't wait to see what else you have up your sleeve. I appreciated that his story had a sense of closure, but also leaves him open for the future.

As for The Last Olympian specifically, I really thought that the series ended very well.  The book took the themes that had been building throughout the series and brings them all to a great few culminating episodes.  The characters are all allowed to have their specific moment-in-the-sun, and are all necessary in order to save humanity. Riordan brings the gods to life in ways that are clever and apropos to the story at hand.

One of the greatest aspects of this book is that Percy can't do it alone. In other sagas, it seems to all come down to the hero as an individual character, but in the Percy Jackson series, Percy relies on his peers and friends to help him overcome all obstacles, which is a really good message for the 5th-7th grade target audience.  Percy also never loses sight of what is really important in the world, and he does not compromise himself in order to accomplish what is necessary.

I won't give any synopsis of the book, because I think that this series is something that everyone can enjoy, and I don't want to spoil the twists and surprises at the end of the book.

25 January 2010

100+ Books...

I recently signed up on this "100+ Books in 2010" challenge. The challenge, essentially, is to read one hundred books in a year. So far, I'm off to a good start. I'll keep my list in this post and update it as often as I remember, but the books I read I also review (for the most part) in the blog, so...

1. The Likeness
2. Her Fearful Symmetry
3. In ricerca delle radici (re-read)
4. Lezioni americane
5. The Lightning Thief
6. The Sea of Monsters
7. The Titan's Curse
8. The Battle of the Labyrinth
9. Heat Wave
10. The Last Olympian
11. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

12. The Girl Who Played with Fire
13. Hunger Games
14. Catching Fire
15. Castello dei destini incrociati (re-read)
16. The Book Thief
17. Il sistema periodico (re-read)
18. I sommersi e i salvati (re-read)
19. Shiver
20. The Language of Sand
21. Man Without a Country
22. Se questo è un uomo (re-read)
23. Maus I (re-read)

24. Ireland: a novel

Heat Wave (#9)

Heat Wave was published to coincide with the same event happening on the TV show Castle. I watch the show, so my husband thought it would be a good gift for me. Isn't that funny?

I enjoyed the book. I wasn't expecting too much out of it, even though Rick Castle is supposed to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning author on the show. Heat Wave was entertaining and a relatively quick read.  The characters weren't too developed, probably because they are characterizations of the characters on the show, who are developed and if you watch the show then you're going to think about these characters and all of their characteristics while you read the book. At least, I know that I did.

Jameson Rook and Nikki Heat are almost identical to Castle and Beckett (though Rook doesn't have a teenage daughter and his mother living with him - at least, it isn't explicitly mentioned).  But here, in the pages of Castle's fantasy, he and "Nikki" get the opportunity to act upon the sexual tension that the show depicts so well.  It makes it seem like it would almost work on the show, but what would be the fun in that?

I give this book 3.5 stars, because it was entertaining and fun; I could've used a bit more meat in the book, but I was still happy with it because I still get that substance from the tv show.

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4), Rick Riordan (#8)

The same thing happened when I read Harry Potter. I got sucked into a series and I'm can't put them down. When I get through the next book, I'll be really sad, but at least I won't have to wait for another book to come out. I didn't start reading HP (or Twilight, for that matter) until the last book had been released, so I haven't had to go through the waiting for the next book feeling.  Instant gratification.

So far, this has probably been my favorite book of the series, because all of the things that I've loved about the previous books, but also because of the great detail of the labyrinth. The insertion of the new mythological characters, and the great effects of all the characters on the others, really makes this book an enjoyable one, and the final book is certain to be a great ending to the series.  

The gods are, at times, portrayed as elusive, overwhelming characters who exist in a realm beyond that of the lives of those on Earth below them, but most of the time they appear as remarkably humanlike, with many of the characteristics you would expect any mortal to have.  These gods offer much to the kids as they make their way through the labyrinth, but they oftentimes have their own agendas, just like mere mortals. One of the reasons that the mythological gods are so intriguing is this, their mortal qualities, and the stake that they have in our lives and our humanity.  

22 January 2010

The Red Thread

I'm having trouble finding what Italians call the filo rosso - the read thread. The thing that connects your thoughts together in a coherent manner; that goes from one page, one author, one century to the next.  I embarked on my proposal journey with the intentions of, initially, writing one chapter each on four authors; then I found myself in the weeds, considering writing on only one author, but I felt really uncomfortable doing that; now, I've decided to write on two different authors, four aspects or relationships of their writing that can be shared to a certain extent.

But that red thread...continues to elude me. Well, not entirely. I feel like I have the thread in my hand, and I'm just having a hard time threading the needle. It looks like I've perfectly lined up the end of the thread with the eye of the needle, but I keep losing it right at the moment that I should make contact.

The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3), Rick Riordan (#7)

The Titan's Curse picks up where The Sea of Monsters left off: Percy Jackson and his friends Annabeth, Grover and Tyson (plus some others) are trying to stop Kronos from rising and wreaking havoc on Humanity.  New book, new quest, and for Percy and his friends there are plenty of moments that they have to rely on their belief in themselves, use their various gifts and trust each other to get out of sticky situations. I've liked all the books in this series, and I'm continuing to learn more about the Greek myths through my foray into the world of the Half-Bloods.

If this review seems really short, that's because it is.  I think that Riordan does a great job at keeping people invested in his characters, his storylines, and the development of the overall experience of reading these books. Every character is memorable, from Blackjack to Percy's mom, and every character gives Percy something he needs in order to succeed. 

21 January 2010

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2), Rick Riordan (#6)

The second book in the series makes me believe that the series of books could potentially rival other series (HP, ahem) in its ability to stand the test of time. The books are shorter than HP, and they incorporate the mythological stories that we grow up sort-of learning about, but aren't forced to really remember how they are connected or remember them.  The series brings a whole new light to this, and it is just a pleasure to read.

The Sea of Monsters finds Percy and his friends on a new quest, which leads them into the Sea of Monsters (not to be redundant). I don't want to give anything away, so I'm going to just leave it at that. One aspect I really enjoy about this series is that Percy's mom is really supportive of him, and from his mother he learned the value of love, friends and family.  It's a really positive message, and the books seem to be full of them.

This book was equally enjoyable, quick-paced, easy-to-read, and overall just continued the good thing that Riordan started with his first book.

20 January 2010

Happy first week of classes!

For the first time in my life, I am not taking classes.  The semester started on Tuesday, and I remember the anticipation I would have at the beginning of each semester – which classes would be interesting, predictable, or surprising.  But now, as a dissertator, I have no classes to anticipate. The burden of learning has been thrust onto my shoulders, something that I think is going to really challenge me throughout the coming months.  My days are going to be full of sitting in libraries, cafés and my home, searching for that moment when everything comes together – I feel like I’m in A Beautiful Mind, when the patterns jump off the blackboard, but my patterns jump out of books, and are much fewer and farther between. 

Of course, this semester is different for more than just the fact that I’m not taking any classes. I’m also not teaching any classes, something new and different; nor am I on campus, since I’ve moved 2,000 miles away from my university (though I’m not that far from any university). 

For those still taking classes, or teaching classes, or just spending time on campus, cheers. Enjoy your proximity to the fonts of knowledge, because it’s hard to find the discipline to carry on without all of you motivating me to keep on going.

19 January 2010

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1), Rick Riordan (#5)

Disclosure: I read this book because I know I want to see the movie, which comes out soon.  I don’t think I would’ve just picked up the book to read it. That being said, I’m really glad that I read it, because it could be the most fun series I’ve read since Harry Potter.  Rick Riordan’s saga, about an adolescent boy who discovers he is a demigod fathered by Poseidon, has all the makings of a good series: a clear narrative voice, intriguing storylines, and an enjoyable supporting cast.  What this book has that other series lack is a strong presence of teaching.  Teaching the mythical stories and histories of various mythological characters, that is. I’m not trying to argue that Percy Jackson’s story is based on facts, but that Riordan finds a way to give the information of the myths without making it feel like you’re sitting in a classroom.  I think this book is great for its intended audience in that way, because finding interesting ways for young people to learn is a serious challenge.  But, if you’ve never taken a class on classical myth or anything like that, it’s still a really enjoyable book because you get the one line synopsis of the various characters, and the story flows so you don’t even realize you’re learning.  Love the story, love Percy Jackson, and am really excited to read the next book in the series (which I immediately went out and bought).

14 January 2010

Lezioni americane (Six memos for the next millennium), Calvino (#4)

Calvino’s collection of essays, written as lectures and published posthumously and unfinished, examines different aspects of storytelling: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility and Multiplicity. The sixth one, which was actually supposed to be the eighth one, is entitled "Cominciare e finire" (Beginning and Ending).  The collection was to be presented in New York, and Calvino's wife worked with his translator to bring these five essays to his English-speaking audience.

One interesting aspect of these essays is the fact that they also examine the opposite quality that each of these essays implies, and Calvino praises both equally.  One of my favorite lines from Lightness (which I include in English since I think more people will understand it): "Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as  a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy."  I have returned to these essays many times over the years, and they highlight Calvino's awareness of his legacy as an author, a person in the publishing world, and a critic. 

Calvino says, in Quickness, that the function of literature "is to communicate between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language."  Well said.

13 January 2010

In ricerca delle radici (In Search of Roots), Primo Levi (#3)

Primo Levi, along with other various Italian authors of his time, was asked to compile and anthologize various writings that shaped him as a thinker, writer and man.  He pairs classical and contemporary, scientific books with fictional ones, and somehow it all makes perfect sense. Levi was not solely a writer. He was a chemist first, but always a reader. It was his experiences during the Holocaust that made him become a writer.

The project was unfulfilled by the publishing house (and, incidentally, Primo Levi is one of the only writers to take the task to heart), but the book speaks volumes about how Levi creates himself.  The passages from the books he chooses are not the most recognizable in all cases, but they are all very telling. Levi wrote that the project was not that diffcult for him, at least finding the passages, because they were the ones he had already marked up over and over.

The book is definitely helpful as I go into the dissertation, but it also made me think about the books that I would say have shaped me as a reader.  I've been thinking about it, and when I have an idea I'll share it.

06 January 2010

The Likeness (#1)

The Likeness is Tana French's second novel, and it kind of takes Cassie Maddox, Rob Ryan's partner from In the Woods, and gives her a story of her own. The Likeness is much richer, both in characters and in story, than its predecessor.  As in French's previous work, the protagonist is possibly too connected to the case she is trying to solve, but Cassie's story is almost more intriguing than Rob's was, because she is more willing to let us in to what happened to her than Rob was.  Sure, there were still some minor hiccups in the story, but overall the book was a much better read.

Where In the Woods failed to give a collection of well-created, multi-dimensional characters aside from the two principals, The Likeness is full of them.  Most of the characters manage to get under your skin and pull you into their narratives, even though we only get these narratives in bits and pieces.

Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much is that the core group of characters are all literature grad students, but I think that was just part of it. The ending was appropriate for the rest of the story, French never lost sight of the end game throughout the novel (one of her mistakes in the first book) and the unfolding of the mystery was also well thought out and well-written.

Where I was a bit hesitant to recommend French's previous book to friends, I have no reservations with this one.  A good friend and fellow bibliophile/gradstudent/bookworm, who had recommended I read In the Woods, when she found out I was about to read The Likeness, said, "Let me know what you think of it. I need to talk about it with you." We both reached the same conclusion: the second book was just, at the end of the day, way better than the first.

The Likeness, Tana French (2008)
Writing: 9.5
Story: 9.5
Overall: 9.5

04 January 2010

New Year, new location...

Someone once said, "You can't go home again." And someone responded with, "Home is the place where they always have to take you back." So, who was right?

My husband and I recently moved across the country. Since I'm not taking classes anymore, and he received a job offer that was exponentially more lucrative than the dried beans they pay in graduate school, we packed up everything and moved. He moved before I did, as I was teaching and taking classes and needed to be in the Midwest long enough to experience the first snow day in university since I've been there (and much before, as well, actually).  When he moved, he moved in with my parents for a number of reasons: because they live closer to his new jobs than his parents; I didn't want him to rent an apartment without me there; I thought that saving that first month's worth of paychecks would be a good idea, since I didn't know what my job situation would be when I moved out west.

We spent a day last week looking at apartments, and found one that we really liked, that was in our price range and was even closer to his work and therefore wouldn't involve living with my parents any longer than necessary. We were thinking about moving in late January / early February. Two days later he springs on me the idea to just save up money and live with my parents. A lot of people are doing this these days. One of the people showing us apartments was doing this, even, with his wife and infant.

I'm trying to make it as different from the last time I lived here (10 years ago) as possible, but it is really challenging, because there is so much past in this place. I'm trying to make space for the present - writing, researching, being not-just-your-daughter-anymore - but I can't seem to get through to the other side. I'm attempting to make something that resembles a workspace, but am finding that every place I sit to work makes me feel like a teenager again.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to sound ungrateful. I'm very lucky that my parents have the space for us, that they are willing to let us live here and are enthusiastic about letting us make as many changes as is necessary for it to work for us. But I think that the dueling quotes about home are only accurate when they are taken together. You can return to your home, to the place where you grew up, and be welcomed back with open arms. At the same time, however, you can't expect to be able to completely break from the past. Nothing has changed, really, except for me. And it's changed a lot.