Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year

It's almost 2012. I made it through 2011. When I moved back to Portland, I consulted with a neurosurgeon who was asking me about the history of the brain tumor, the surgery and radiation--he said something along the lines of, "Well, you've already outlived your life expectancy," meaning that I wasn't expected to survive as long as I had after going through the removal of the tumor, back in 2003.

Jerk. Who says that to somebody? Wouldn't it have been enough to say, "You're doing great?" That would've been enough for me.

Anyway. That was back in 2008. I'm still going strong. So poopy on you, Mr.--Dr.--Hotshot Neurosurgeon.

Planning to keep on going strong. Doing what I can, living my life.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Princess Ben

I just read Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock--I love Dairy Queen so much, and the other books about D.J., so of course I wanted to read something else by her. I am happy about how entirely different it is, too. Dairy Queen and its sequels are realistic fiction, then suddenly I was reading Princess Ben, about princesses and kingdoms and magic and there's even a dragon! I see there's another novel set in the same kingdom that just came out a couple months ago--I want to read that one too. Putting it on hold at the library now! (Reading more about that book, Wisdom's Kiss, I discovered that Princess Ben is in it--as the grandma!)

I guess I read a fair amount of fantasy--I started to write, "I don't really read much fantasy" but realized that isn't really true--but I don't feel like I quite understand the conventions of it, and I don't know if this novel would meet all the expectations of someone more well-versed in the genre. I know it doesn't quite work that way--but yeah. I know it's fantasy, so you can set the rules of your world, and you just have to be consistent about it, which I think Murdock does. I don't know. I should look up reviews of Princess Ben.

Huh, Amazon lists it as "Historical Fiction." Wow. Interesting. Google Books has it under "Fairy Tales and Folklore," which seems more accurate. Many other sites list it as both of these, and as "Fantasy" as well.

A fun, quick read. Looking forward to reading the follow-up, spending more time in this world with another generation of princesses.

More YA

I finally read the last two books on Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I talk about the first three here, here and here. Of the five, I really liked three of them (Ten Miles Past Normal, Flipped, and Delirium), really didn't like one (Trapped), and had a lot of problems with one (Karma). I might have found Ten Miles Past Normal and Delirium on my own, but I probably wouldn't've read the other three. So. All in all, good.

Trapped is about seven kids who get stuck at their school when a blizzard starts. The blizzard lasts a week.

Delirium is a dystopian novel about a United States in which they've found the cure for love, and everyone undergoes a sort of vaccine when they come of age. They're then partnered up for marriage. Each chapter has a fabulous and terrifying epigraph from a book of the era, many from The Book of Shhh, which is what everyone calls The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook. Love is a condition known as amor deliria nervosa, and sometimes teenagers have to get their procedure moved up because of it--but "the procedure" is apparently dangerous if you're under 18, though they've mostly got it down now and it rarely causes permanent brain damage. If you don't count the general zoned-out-edness and lack of emotion shown by those who've had it as brain damage. Which Lena doesn't, until she starts to question things, in that way of teenagers in dystopian novels everywhere.

I liked this book a lot. Very well done. I don't seem to have much more to say about it right now.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Emily, Alone

I love Stewart O'Nan. I've read many of his novels, though strangely I've never been systematic about it like I usually am when I find a writer I really like, reading their collected works. I think it's partly because many of O'Nan's books have been really creepy. But it might be time to make sure I've read all his books, because even when they're creepy, they're so good.

Emily, Alone isn't creepy. And apparently it's a sequel--I don't think I've read Wish You Were Here, but this novel completely worked on its own.

I don't feel enough on top of O'Nan's oeuvre to generalize about his writing (beyond saying that I haven't read all his books because lots of them were creepy), but two things that impressed me so much about this novel were how believable the narrator's voice is--and she's an elderly woman, while O'Nan is a middle-aged guy--and how clearly set in Pittsburgh it is, how much Pittsburgh as a place is important to the story.

It's a novel about getting old, about Emily's shifting relationships with her children, about Emily's friends dying off and her dog growing decrepit.

It's a novel about Emily and what is important to her--and music is so important, classical music on the radio or on the stereo not often center stage, but often present and noted, a big part of her world.

She "married up," and she notes about her parents that
They had struggled to achieve and maintain their middle-class respectability in the face of a depression and a world war, a feat Emily thought was lost on her own children, accustomed to an affluence that must have seemed their birthright as much as it had been Henry's [her late husband] and Arlene's [her sister-in-law--and one of her few remaining friends], born to fortune.
The book is set during the 2008 presidential election, and Emily, a life-long Republican, votes for McCain almost in spite of herself. Her sister-in-law is excited to vote for Hillary Clinton:
Early on, Arlene had made it plain she was voting for Hillary, and, as a woman, was thrilled to have the opportunity. Emily, who saw the Clintons' marriage as the very worst kind of compromise, regarded Hillary as the opposite of a role model. She understood Arlene's excitement in finally having a viable woman candidate. Too bad she happened to be Lady Macbeth.
Ha, ha, ha.

She's dubious about Obama--"He'd been a senator for less than two years, and all Emily heard out of his mouth were platitudes. What maddened her was how the media compared him to Jack Kennedy, as if that were a good thing."

But she has her reservations about McCain, too:
She would have been happier voting for John McCain if he wasn't so gung ho about the war. And if he hadn't been one of the Keating Five. And if he hadn't run out on his first wife after her accident.

The novel ends with Emily and Arlene (and Rufus, the dog) going to Chautauqua for their week in the summer. It ends with Emily keeping on trucking, a nice ending for a book that is so much about mortality and Emily wondering why she's still around when her children are grown, her husband is dead, her friends have mostly died. But in the midst of these moments of wondering why she's around, she is still enjoying her life, and we see that here: her weekly trips with Arlene to the breakfast buffet with coupons, her phone calls from the children and their occasional visits, her reading, her love of her summer garden.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Hugo Movie Companion

I love the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret so much--I was very nervous about the movie, but knowing that the author, Brian Selznick, liked the movie, made me less nervous. Then it came out and I saw it and I did really like it. I blogged about it here.

I heard there was a book about the making of the movie, so I put it on hold at the library--now that I've read it, I want my own copy. Plus I want to put a copy in my classroom library. It's got a $19.99 sticker so we'll see when that happens, but not only is it a beautiful book, but Selznick wrote it so it's beautifully written, and it would be of more interest to someone who'd read The Invention of Hugo Cabret and seen the movie, but the subtitle is "A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture," and I think it would be of interest to many people who maybe even hadn't seen or read Hugo Cabret.

First of all, like I said, it's a beautiful book. Tons of full page photos of scenes from the movie and the filming of the movie, of the fabulous double page illustrations from the book, of sketches and floor plans and pages from the script and the score and from people's notes related to the movie--including lots of images related to the automatons: photos and blueprints and related images (there were fifteen different automatons used in the film! I had no idea. There is so much I'll look for when I see Hugo again), and of other images related to the images in the books--old automatons, and stills from related films, and the real George Méliès in his toy booth, and a diagram from the Cinémathèque Française showing exactly the angles and placement of the fish tank to film through the tank so that the mermaids appeared underwater in Méliès' Kingdom of Fairies. At first I thought maybe there were too many photos, but then I didn't think that anymore. Also, the book is so perfectly designed--I love the full bleed printing, sheer to the edge of the page--and it's great to get to see some of these images in such proximity to each other.

But it's a book about how a movie is made, including profiles of/interviews with the Production Designer, Set Decorator, Props Master, and many others. I also love the "Biographies" section at the end, especially seeing what other films some of the behind the scenes people worked on. For instance, many of them were involved with the film of Sweeney Todd, which made me smile. Anyway, I imagined lots of, "Oh, Helen! Haven't seen you since the last Harry Potter opening in London!" when shooting began on Hugo. It was also cool to see how many people have worked on so many projects with "Marty" Scorsese. He has a team, for sure. A hell of a team.

I'm even more eager to reread the book now. The last chapter of The Hugo Movie Companion focuses on the shooting of the final scene of the movie, which is a great idea for many reasons, not least of which it's the scene Selznick had a cameo in (and a line!)--but he talks about how the ending of the book is different from the end of the movie, which registered, but I want to look at them both more closely.

So yeah. Read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, see the movie, and read The Hugo Movie Companion. Ideally in that order, I think, but not necessarily.

Chuck Klosterman

Friday was the last day of our non-fiction unit, and we read Chuck Klosterman's great essay "Me, On Shuffle."

We read it out loud, then listened to excerpts of some of the songs he talks about: Humble Pie's "I Don't Need No Doctor," Motley Crue’s “Ten Seconds to Love,” AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To the Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll)" (OMG if I never hear those bagpipes again it will be too soon!), Guns N’ Roses "Rocket Queen," Kate Bush's "Heathcliff," the Pet Shop Boys' "Always On My Mind," REM's "Nightswimming," and The Carpenters, "Superstar." We talked about it a little, then listened to the clips again.

The first time I did this, I made the mistake of leaving enough of the YouTube screen visible on the InFocus (go here if you haven't been in school in a while, or are somewhere without the access to technology I'm so lucky to have this year--basically, instead of an overhead, I can project my computer screen up onto where the overhead would've projected!) and of course my students said, "Let us see the videos! We wanna watch the videos!" I said, "The essay's about music, not about videos, we're not watching the videos" but yeah, damage done, huge distraction created. So the next classes got fewer glimpses, and they were especially curious about the "Heathcliff" video. So I ended my classes on the day before break with a showing of a really old Kate Bush video!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Toy Dance Party

My insomniac self just finished reading Toy Dance Party, by Emily Jenkins (illustrated by the fabulous Paul O. Zelinsky). Toy Dance Party is the sequel to Toys Go Out, which I read back in October. I loved this one too. Toy Dance Party is about a lot of things--the washing machine is a major character!--and among them, it's about the little girl of the house growing up, showing more interest in her Barbies, which don't even talk to the other toys, than in the stuffed animals and plastic ball who used to mean so much to her.

Fun, strange, excellent books.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ready Player One

I crashed my motor scooter Monday, requiring some emergency dental surgery (I broke a tooth) and lots of rest. I did need the rest, but I was also in no rush to go back to school and have my students make fun of my split lip. So I slept for a couple days, got the tooth fixed, and now it's Thursday and here I go.

I also read a ton while I was lying around. That was the only good thing about this experience, frankly. No--I'm sure my sunny self could find other good things, like the awesome guy at United Fire, Health and Safety, the business I crashed in front of, who took me and my scooter in and took care of us. Etcetera. But anyway--the reading part was great too. I finished A Better Angel on Monday, Flip on Tuesday, and read all of Ready Player One yesterday. Maybe I started it Tuesday night--it's long--but yeah.

This is not the kind of book I'm usually into--I guess it might be called "hard sci-fi." Last year I read all of Pat Murphy's books--this was akin to those, I suppose. Except different. Written in 2011, feeling very written in 2011, and about a multibillionaire who was a teenager in the 1980's. It feels as though it's by someone of my generation but a couple years older--and yes, it was. I googled him--Cline was born in 1972. I was born in 1976. So this explains how his view of the 1980's is more firmly set in the earlier part of the decade, before I discovered pop radio in middle school in 1987. My 1980's were more about George Michael and Madonna than Oingo Boingo and The Alan Parsons Project (I forgot about this awesome blog, that features The Book Notes series, where writers create and discuss music playlists that relate in some way to their books). Also, video games were barely on my radar. I remember occasionally playing with someone's Nintendo at a slumber party, but I never had a Nintendo or anything of that sort, and I didn't care so much. I might have played a video game once or twice at a bowling alley or something, but eh. And this book is maybe 55% about video games? Maybe 65%? Anyway, Cline is reading on December 17 at Ground Kontrol, which I have grown to love thanks to my obsession with pinball, but I don't play many video games there, except with Sierra and Miles--watching them playing the driving games is almost more fun than pinball, and the PacMan cocktail table game (lingo I have added to my vocabulary thanks to Ready Player One) with them is a blast.

Many of the same movies were important to me as figure largely in Ready Player One: the John Hughes oeuvre specifically. And Ghostbusters. Though Ghostbusters was more important to one of the characters in this novel than it ever was to me. And many of the same writers: Vonnegut specifically, Douglas Adams, Bradbury, Tolkien. Plus lots of more sci-fi and fantasy writers I was never into: Neal Stephenson, Terry Brooks, Heinlein...

Anyway, the book was so much fun. It's basically about a future (2044) that is even grimmer and poorer than today. James Halliday, a very rich guy--one of the designers of OASIS, basically the next generation of the internet--dies and leaves his entire fortune to the person who can solve the series of puzzles he's left behind. Our hero, Wade, who lives in a stack of trailers twenty-two trailers high (gas got too unreasonable, so people "desperate for work, food, electricity, and reliable OASIS access--had fled their dying small towns and had used the last of their gasoline ... to haul their families, RVs, and trailer homes to the nearest metropolis"), is one of the "gunters" obsessed with solving James Halliday's puzzles.

It's a good story. Even if you're not into sci-fi and/or video games, it's compelling and fast-moving and well-told. The one thing that annoys me is when Wade finds out that another gunter, also one of the leaders in the contest, and someone who's been a close friend of his for a long time in OASIS, although they've never met in real life, is different from how he's presented himself online. When Wade learns this, the reader is told that he "loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation." I just don't buy that. I'd like to, but I'm not sure I can.

But this huge revelation is never any kind of issue ever. Not sure how much it would fit into the narrative if it was, but still.

Otherwise an awesome, fun book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Better Angel

As I discussed in an earlier post, I read a great collection of fairy tales retold, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and I went on to look for more work by several of the writers who had stories included. One of these was Chris Adrian, who got his MFA from Iowa, went on to med school, then got a master's at Harvard Divinity School. So he writes, but he is also (primarily) a pediatrician. I liked his story a lot in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but I was also just curious about him. I liked this interview, in which he says, among other things, "I think I sound fancier than I actually am. I’ve just tried a lot of different stuff, but I’m not necessarily very good at any of it," when the interviewer says, "Well, I thought we should get out of the way that you’re probably self-conscious about how accomplished you are in general. I read a quote somewhere that you were cautioning people not to think that you were smarter than you are."

I read a collection of his stories that came out in 2008. It was nice to read a collection of stories. I should do that more often. I liked these stories a lot--many of them concerned hospitals and illness, many of them were somehow about children, and many of them had things in them like angels and visions and the anti-
Christ. They are strange and wonderful. I'm looking forward to reading more of his stuff.


Just finished another book on Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." So now I've read three of the five: Flip, Ten Miles Past Normal, and Karma. I'd put the other two on hold from the library, but I picked them up then had to bring them back before I had a chance to read them because they both had holds on them and I was busy with other books. I'll try again with both of those--the others have been great. I loved Flip. It's a boys-switching-bodies story that I found to be completely convincing and moving. It rings true, and I feel like it does a nice job of addressing the sorts of questions that aren't always addressed in such situations. Questions I'd have about what happens when friends or family reference common memories that the body switcher wasn't around to share... the relationship between the people who switched... I don't know. Just questions.

A fun book that wasn't nearly what I'd expected, in many excellent ways.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Laurel and I saw Hugo this week--and it was frankly pretty great. I love the book it's based on--The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick--so much, and I was very nervous about one of my favorite books being made into a movie, but I heard that Selznick was really happy with it, plus it's such a book that's asking to be a movie--it's so visual, and it's so about film. The movie does a lovely job of using footage talked about (and pictured in drawings) in the book, and it makes me happy to have that footage in a movie that people who might not have seen it will see (and those who have seen it will be happy to see it again)--Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of the clock in Safety Last!--which fits into Hugo in many ways--several clips and references to The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, and plenty of others including lots of Melies. The actors are great, the script is great, of course it's not the same as the book and I'll always love the book, but the movie does a fabulous job of telling the story of the book, but telling it as a movie. If that makes sense. I guess the movie isn't really quite telling the story of the book--it's telling its own story, closely related but well suited to its medium.