Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Best of Lisbon by Lonely Planet

This guide book to the capital city of Portugal is adequate…if you want to plan your trip emotionlessly and going only to the big tourist spots. It is a "best of" book, so I guess I can't entirely blame them for focusing on the main tourist sights, attractions, restaurants, and accommodations. Still, this was a bit of a disappointing book.

I've been told by multiple people how beautiful Portugal is, so it's disappointing to have that beauty dumbed down and somewhat erased. There are a few small pictures of some of the places highlighted, but the descriptions are lacking.

And the lack of opinion is frustrating. Everything is charming, beautiful, picturesque, imaginative, etc., but descriptions stop there. There's not much of a sense of what type of beautiful things are. Who would like this, that or the other? How would we know?

Normally, I'd like to find something nice to say. However, I'm really coming up blank on this one. Lonely Planet, how you've disappointed me!


Monday, April 14, 2014

A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This by Robert Coover

Woah… So this is one of those books that is best read in a semi-sober or semi-conscious state. It'll go down much easier if you can turn off your inhibitory processes and just play the text through your mind as though it was describing totally normal action in a movie. Of course, it's not. Not really…

Parts of it actually reminded me of Jean Cocteau's film about the artist…the one where the artist's work sort of comes to life and he travels down a hallway and in one room he sees opium and in one room a little girl is on the ceiling, etc., and eventually he finds himself in some courtyard and there's a gallery of aristocrats looking on from a balcony... That's the level of weird you'll find in some parts of this book.

Other parts seem to be mere parodies. But somewhat twisted parodies. Really the whole thing is twisted, dark parodies and interpretations of classic films or amalgams of classic films. The western where the White sheriff saves the town against the villainous Mexican. The kidnapped/almost-killed heroine, who narrowly escapes a tragic fate while semi-clothed. Casa-freakin'-blanca.

I still don't fully understand the beginning. What's the point of spending so much time telling us that the projectionist is melding pieces of things that don't belong together into new art forms with different meanings? What's the point of setting this all up by showing us how pointless feature films are in the grand scheme of things?

What's the point?


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

So I was re-watching Warehouse 13 for the umpteenth time and I was like, "You know what? I actually don't think I've read anything by good ol' H.G. Wells." He's one of those authors who is so well-talked about in school that you can kind of gather the basic plot information of his works without actually having to read them.

So I started reading The Time Machine, and it was pretty surreal. Actually, what was really surreal was watching the H.G. character on Warehouse on the right while reading the real H.G.'s work on the left. Of course, the real H.G. wasn't a female ex-federal agent wakened after a century imprisoned in bronze. But it was still pretty cool. I was about halfway into the book when the time machine episode started. Radical.

If you haven't read the book, or aren't able to guess the plot from the title, I guess I should give you the low-down. It's about an inventor who is recounting his first foray into time travel to some of his skeptic contemporaries. He builds a time machine (off of some seriously shaky scientific theories) and just zips off one day.
"I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then."
He's travels forward to the year 802000-something, into a world where humans have evolved into two different kinds of beings. One group is beautiful and fragile, stupid and useless--like cattle--and the other is fighting for survival underground. To an extent, this is your typical dystopian novel in that he at first believes he has come to an enlightened utopia, but realizes it's as real a world as our own, with some similar problems.
"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble."
As he tells his tale, the time traveller perceives, comments on and theorizes about everything from the social structure to evolutionary behaviors to the eradication of differences between the sexes. This was perhaps one of the things I was most surprised about--that someone would write such radical ideas of what could be at such an early point in time (1890s). Some of his ideas are progressive or far-fetched even by today's standards. Only a few are clearly products of his time.

Although I'm not a big fan of sci-fi, this was enjoyable to read and intriguing. As an older novella, it can't quite be pigeon-holed into a certain style of writing--it's uniquely, almost freshly Wellsian--so I feel like it's accessible to more people than just those who like classic sci-fi. Also, now I can rewatch Warehouse 13 episodes and totally get the references.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Eyewitness Travel: Eastern & Central Europe by Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.

If you are doing a multi-country trip in Eastern Europe, this is a good book to take with you. It contains all the most popular tourist attractions and describes them and their history in great detail. There are also pretty photos, maps, and drawings, which can help you when you're right there, trying to figure out what's what.

What DK doesn't do well is trip planning. They don't really dole out opinions on what's worth seeing and what's worth skipping, and they focus solely on the very popular tourist stuff. They also provide either basic factual or sugar-coated information on each place, so it's hard to tell if it's safe to travel to a certain country or if a country is easily accessible via public transportation or even how long it might take to travel around to some of these attractions.

I do like that they provide you with information on so much of the Eastern European region, broken out easily into countries and color coded. They're very thorough with organization of information.

Furthermore, the pictures and short history lessons make this a badass way to learn about countries torn apart by war and recreated several times. Who needs history textbooks when you have this bad boy?!


Friday, April 11, 2014

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

They don't make children's books like this anymore. This starter chapter book with pictures is--in some ways--a relic from the 1940s, but it's also a great piece of and inspiration for imagination!

In its lack of depth, an almost total absence of greater meaning than whimsy, it really is an outdated example of children's literature. Children's authors nowadays have to tackle important social justice issues, intercultural experiences, or human rights issues to stay relevant. The only issue this book really tackles is slavery.

It does tackle slavery head on, though. A young boy travels to an imaginary world (on the advice of a wise old cat), where he hopes to free a baby dragon held captive by some selfish animals. Yes, literal animals.

The animals are using the baby dragon as a method of transport across a river. The boy, in being genuinely nice to all the animals he comes across, succeeds in distracting them long enough to get to the poor dragonet whom he hopes to free. Have you ever imagined seven tigers chewing bubblegum and looking in each others' mouths to see if the gum has turned green (which of course it never does)? Have you ever imagined a big gorilla with six monkeys clambering over him with magnifying glasses, trying to spot and eradicate fleas? These are the sort of whimsical, nearly hilarious images crafted by Gannett.

I feel like this book really has the perfect combination of whimsy, ease and fun, and plot twists, evolution and detail that make it a great one for young kids. The words and sentence construction are pretty simple, so young'uns can easily understand what's going on. And the book is long enough that, if you're reading it with a younger kid, you could take a few nights to finish it.

It's almost like a much younger version of Le petit prince.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

In this collection of poems written before she finally succeeded in killing herself, Sylvia Plath shows you the world through her eyes. A couple of these poems were actually familiar--we studied them in high school. Read in context of other works she produced around the same time, though, they gave me less of a one-sided perspective on Plath than I had developed in the past.

"Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" are the ones I remember. Looking back, I can't believe we were allowed to address such heavy topics without a serious discussion about mental health and self-care. The first is about Plath's experience in attempting suicide by crawling under her house and laying there until she was found. The second is about her confusing, damning attachment to her father, who killed himself when she was ten.

The collection overall is dark, but in a practical sort of way, and with an ethereal quality that lets you know that everything is going to be okay. Rather than aggression or deep melancholy, there's a feeling of detachment from the rest of the world that seeps out of every stanza. Plath has her perceptions and experiences and we are experiencing a similar world in a completely different way as an "other."

I found I really liked "Getting There" and "Poppies in July." "Getting There" (to me) evokes that moment when you're doing something, but you sort of zone out, and you muse and daydream in your own confined headspace. Often this involves internal dialogue and commentary about your perceptions. I get it. I may not have seen or felt what she did on the train, but I understand the practice. For a while you are able to be in your own reality--dark and stream-of-consciousness as it may be--but then something happens (the train arrives) and you have to snap out of it.

My warm feelings toward "Poppies in July" probably stems from my childhood memories of poppies. Very vivid memories. Plath's descriptions are just as vivid, but I wonder what hides behind them. Are the poppies an allegory? It almost seems that she is disappointed that they are not more alive, that they don't have more power than they do. I get the feeling that she expected them to harm her in a delicious way and they instead fluttered harmlessly like the soft, "bloody skirts" they are.

Anyway, I think this is a great collection of some of Plath's final poems. My only criticism is "What's up with the bees?"


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou

This book of poetry by the prolific Maya Angelou covers everything from racial issues to women's issues to economic issues. She also just writes about the human experience--being sad, happy, lost, inquisitive, etc.

Other than the title poem, which is obviously important, forming the backbone of this collection, my favorite poems were "Known to Eve and Me" and "The New House."

I think "Known to Eve and Me" is great because it tells multiple stories in one telling. Ostensibly, she's talking about loving the snake, being used by him, then being left by him. Of course, more than the Eve-serpent pairing, she's talking about a woman who became dependent on a man. There's a lot you can delve into in the imagery in that one, too.

"The New House" is probably one of the tamest poems in this book. But it's relevant nonetheless, proving that art doesn't always have to push boundaries to be good. It's about how a place or an object (in this case a house) can pick up something of the person to whom it is bound. Your experiences, your emotions, and your actions leave traces of you in your house. Well, I was raised in a house with character, so maybe that's why I liked this one so much.

Anyway, altogether a solid, pleasant volume of poetry. Not super life-changing, but strong.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley

This is the first book in a series "Everybody [cooking verb] [food item]." In this fun children's book, a little girl is told to go fetch her younger brother, who often wanders around the neighborhood before dinnertime. As she follows in his wake, she briefly recounts her experiences in each house as each family prepares their evening meal. They are all eating dinners that involve rice--yum!

The cool thing about Everybody Cooks Rice is that all of the families come from different cultural backgrounds and are cooking rice in different ways. Even though the rice dishes do adhere to stereotypes of the cultures, I think it's a great way for young children to start thinking about how they do things and how other families do things. (And I'm saying this as someone whose family favorite rice dish--a dish to which we are very attached--is bastardized from a culture with which I have no connection.)

Of course, the book also shows you that even though we all do things differently, we all have a lot in common. And the book seems to celebrate both the commonalities and the differences, encouraging healthy neighborhood building and community spirit.

And really the best part of the book is the end… I won't give away the surprise, but let's just say that you get to put into practice what happens in the story, teaching your children about diversity not just through the sense of sight (viewing words and pictures), but through the sense of taste as well!

If you like this book, you should look up Everybody Bakes Bread. Insane!


Monday, April 7, 2014

L'Ecole des femmes par Jean-Baptiste Molière

In this classic Molière play from the 17th century which is not at all offensive to women…

Arnolphe is at first super pleased with himself because he has managed to raise his ward, Agnès, to be a silly idiot. In his opinion, the more ignorant and naive the woman, the better the wife she will make. He has essentially raised Agnès to be his "perfect wife."

But his plan goes awry when he is off on vacation or something and Agnès happens to meet a young, good-looking man named Horace. Horace is actually the son of one of Arnolphe's oldest friends. So when Arnolphe returns to the city, Horace meets him in the street and tells him all about his new amante.

Arnolphe is no idiot (she said sarcastically), so he quickly puts two and two together and endeavors to stop Agnès from loving Horace. It's harder than he thinks. It turns out that really ignorant, naive women aren't so good at picking up on subtle hints (or orders) to not fall in love with good-looking young men.

Suffice it to say that even while Arnolphe runs around trying to prevent the loss of his perfectly trained wife, he is pushing her further into the arms of Horace. So Arnolphe, in a sense, gets his just desserts.

Or does he? Poor Agnès is not really vindicated. The damage to women is pretty much done. And we all know that it's a farce--the play is actually dedicated to a woman. We know that Molière is critiquing men like Arnolphe, and even men like Horace and some of the other men in the play. But he doesn't really give Agnès her due either.

I understand why this was popular back in the day. It is hilarious half of the time. But the other half, it's just sad and pathetic. Classic Molière.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

La reine morte par Henry de Montherlant

This is one of those many French artistic works that came out of the Comédie-Française during the Vichy regime, so it's hard to tell exactly how much of it is meant, or rather, how much more is meant than what is written. De Montherlant actually wrote this play as a bit of an amalgam of several other, older Spanish plays, an assignment he was given by the head of the Comédie-Française at the time. It sounds like it was, to an extent, a fairly innocuous assignment, which is perhaps why the subject was chosen.

The play is a debate over succession and marriage in a once-upon-a-time Portugal. The king, who feels tired of pushing his son to greatness only to have him disappoint, wants the prince, Don Pedro, to marry the Infanta of Navarre. This probably wouldn't be a problem, except that she hears that Don Pedro has a lover, Inez.

The king approaches Inez and pressures her to encourage Don Pedro to marry the Infanta and keep her on the side as a lover. No one really likes this idea, as you can imagine, and we learn that on top of their elicit love affair, Inez and Don Pedro are also secretly married and are expecting a child.

What follows is a everyone's last-ditch efforts to salvage an unsalvageable situation. Of course, as you can tell by the title, someone dies, and that death pretty much puts the rubber seal on this being a tragedy.

This really is a good play, but I can't help but wonder more about the subtext. The playwright did write a short essay on why and how he crafted the play, but unfortunately it tells us little about the motives behind it or the themes on which he focused. I don't know enough about the author or his part in Vichy-run France to know where he stood Nazi-wise, and how this play got through their censorship. I suspect, due to the ties to Portuguese history and folk tales, it was not a boundary-pusher and provided no threat to them.

Anyway, worth reading, I think; although perhaps more moving if enacted.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Airman by Eoin Colfer

Dude, who discounts Eoin Colfer books?! Seriously, getting this for a couple of bucks was a steal. As long as your expectations are in the right place (usually a juvenile lit place), Colfer never disappoints. And with Aiman, I was actually pleasantly surprised. I did not expect some of the mature dialogue and semi-graphic violence that involved our hero, Conor.

The thing you have to know about Conor is he was born in a capsizing hot air balloon. (Oh, yeah, by the way, most of what happens in this book is pure fantasy/ridiculousness.) So he was pretty much destined from the get-go to be an odd duck. And in fact, he finds himself with an affinity for mechanics and heights…Flight!

After playing with his best friend, Princess Isabella, one day he comes across a conspiracy. Okay, not just a conspiracy…A murder. He watches one of the most evil, powerful men in the land murder his king and his mentor. Before his mentor expires, he whispers to Conor that he must go find a tower and destroy all that is inside so that their inventions won't be used for evil.

But poor Conor is arrested, renamed, stripped of the love of his family and friends, and dropped off on Little Saltee, an island with two main purposes--imprisonment and mining. There he meets some seriously interesting (far-fetched) characters and he hatches a plan to not only escape, but save the country from the man who murdered the king. Predictable, but there you have it.

As with the Artemis Fowl books, the true gems in this novel were the characters. The plot was pretty run-of-the-mill, but the characters are each so different. You've got different people who are serious, loopy,  zany, wise, cantankerous, eager, rough, loving, etc. And the dialogue is the best. Do people really talk like that in real life? No, it's more like when you're watching Gilmore Girls and you're in awe of how cool they are because they can banter like nobody else. That's what Eoin Colfer is good at producing, and that's what you get from Airman.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Token of Darkness by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes can be a little iffy. And by iffy, I don't mean that her books are inconsistent in quality of dialogue or tone. Rather, sometimes plot lines and character development are completed more choppily or pieced together in a way that seems more amateur than others.

Unfortunately, this was one book that, while on a detail level was well-constructed and intricate, as a whole was a bit unfocused and immature.

A teen football player had a mysterious car accident and is now followed around by a specter who can't color coordinate to save her life. He's trying to deal with his injuries--both physical and mental--but also has to deal with her drama and her pathetic desire to be a living, solid human being.

Luckily, he bumps into a telepath at his local library who takes him to a warlock (or two), and they discover that this specter is not all she seems. It takes some magic, deadly weather, and a bit of body-swapping, but they finally put things as right as they can, giving the being the body she wanted and repairing their own flawed relationships.

All this crammed into this tiny book? That's because it was written for NaNoWriMo. You can tell. If you're an AAR fan like me, I think it's just about worth reading, if only so you can ponder the differences between this and her vampire books and shapeshifter series. The premise really isn't bad; she just rushed through it all too fast. This would have made a much better 300-350 pager.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Une vie de boy par Ferdinand Oyono

Finally, I buckled down and read something in French! And I actually have been meaning to read this book in particular for over a week.

To the best of my knowledge, it was written back in the 50s and is one of those many pieces of francophone literature that highlights the social and institutional problems initiated by colonialism. It's a book about the experience of a young, black African man who learns and lives harsh truths in both the upper class, white world of "la Residence" in an unnamed colony and the lower and/or peasant class that serves the white masters there.

Toundi, as a boy hitting puberty, fights with his father over his "gourmandise" (which represents his excessive aspirations), which repeatedly gets him into trouble. He feels disrespected enough that he actually runs away to a priest visiting the area, and he stubbornly refuses to go home, instead following the priest into a world that he hopes will be better, fuller, and richer, satisfying his metaphorical hunger.

After taking him back to a Catholic mission, the priest does teach him a lot, but even Toundi (who is devoted to the priest) can see that he wasn't paid or respected, though he waited on him hand and foot. When the priest dies, Toundi finds himself detesting mission life, so when he is offered the chance (or rather told) to be the "boy" (servant) for the local "commandant," a social and political leader of the colony, he readily accepts the position.

It doesn't seem like much of a position. Toundi enters yet another world of colonial intrigue, where things are not what they seem, and people can look beautiful but act cruelly. Time and time again he becomes disillusioned with the life of the white people which used to seem so exotic. He also becomes disillusioned with his own life. However, he never rebels. He's the perfect servant. And it comes back to bite him in the derrière.

The beginning of this book is a prologue about Toundi on his deathbed, so you know where the story is headed, but it's still moving, and the final few pages are hard to read. Especially since there is a (tiny) smidgen of hope in them. Hope that you know is misplaced. It's those damned naive aspirations, surfacing again!

This is a pretty good book and an easy read grammatically, so if you're a novice French reader, this would be a good novel for you to check out! Also, it's a francophone classic. You can't not read it!


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Off the Beaten Path Ohio by George and Carol Zimmerman

Do you know what there is to see in Ohio? Houses. A lot of historical houses. A plethora of historical houses. And you can read all about them in this book.

But you probably won't want to. The thing is HORRIBLY formatted. It is literally the oddest formatting I've ever seen for a travel guide. It essentially reads like one long book.

If you are an Ohio native, it's probably not that bad, but if you're a potential tourist from out of state, do NOT use this guide. It's just not user friendly in the least.

If you ignore my advice and do use this book, the silver lining is that it does actually include some cool museums and sights that are not all old, rich, white, male entrepreneurs'/military hotshots'/presidents' houses/estates/birthplaces. Some. And it does ignore the obvious tourist traps (which I appreciate), like the Columbus Zoo or the Cincinnati Art Museum.

But overall, it's confusingly written and information is displayed in a really inefficient way. And it's pretty boring.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Romania & Bulgaria by Lonely Planet

Okay, I now officially probably know 95% more than you do about Romania, all thanks to this Lonely Planet guidebook. And this isn't even supposed to be the best one out there.

As a guidebook, it's not bad. It doesn't list a ridiculous amount of travel resources--they keep their recommendations short, sweet, and to the point. That being said, they do tend to highly recommend the popular tourist spots first, then the lesser-known places. One of the benefits of Lonely Planet's competitor Rick Steves is that the latter doesn't pander as much as typical tourist resources do. He tells you exactly what's what, regardless of whether that's what the destination wants you to think about their fill-in-the-blank.

Still, I think the brief historical background included in this book for each region and background information on each city and town was really helpful. Or would be helpful if I ever go to Romania. I also liked the blue highlight boxes that popped up every few pages. I got to learn about a lot of cool things.

Romania in particular is a bit of a tricky country to understand, geographically, since pieces of it have shifted around so much over the centuries--even in the last century! So I feel like Lonely Planet did a good job of clearing up a lot of that confusion. They were really hesitant to talk about Roma culture though…I found that fascinating considering how they are discriminated against by most Romanians and other Europeans.

I'm not saying this is the best guidebook ever--it's certainly a bit stiff and it lacks pretty pictures--but I think it's useful.