Category Archives: reviews

my opinions and personal experiences with books, movies, TV shows, and anything else I deem reviewable.

American Sniper: A Short Argument Against

Yes, I saw American Sniper. I didn’t want to at first because it is essentially about everything I stand against, namely: violence, violence disguised as patriotism, sexism bred by violence, racism bred by violence, and war. Another part of me didn’t want to see it because of the outpouring of ignorant support that followed the movie and bathed the late Chris Kyle in a hero’s infamy. I had very strong doubts about whether there was anything heroic about Chris Kyle or his life and career as a sniper, and I didn’t want to align myself by association (the association of having seen the movie) with such an ignorant stance.

But I ended up seeing it anyway because I realized I couldn’t argue against the movie, or the mindset it seems to perpetuate – if not directly encourage – if I didn’t see the movie myself and know exactly what I was arguing against. The movie was “good” in a Hollywood way – meaning, I was never bored. It was awful in almost every other respect. Many people have written more well-informed and articulate articles than I will about this movie, and they have touched on the many good reasons there are to hate this movie and its inaccurate, more-humane-than-reality portrayal of a man who, from what I can gather, was a black and white thinker and nothing more.

In the movie, Bradley Cooper portrays a man who does see gray areas, who does struggle, at least a little bit, not only with his actions but with their consequences. Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but based on what I’ve heard and read from other, trusted sources about Chris Kyle’s life and thought as described in his memoir, Cooper got the character of Kyle wrong. Cooper allows far too much gray to seep into a strictly black and white paradigm. This seeming inaccuracy, combined with the respect I have for Bradley Cooper as a professional, made it difficult for me to distance myself from the character and dislike him entirely, as I was prepared to do from the outset. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it did allow me to open up my mind and concede (not for the first time in my life) that war is not a black and white thing, no matter what anyone says about it, no matter how black and white its soldiers’ values might be. This fact doesn’t change my staunch pacifism, but it does help me see the gray, and as someone who believes that almost nothing in this world is black and white, an ability to see the gray is very important to me.

There were two major ways in which the movie impacted me after I left the theater.

First, I was left with an itching suspicion that the real-life Chris Kyle, as humane as Cooper tried to make him appear, lacked any degree of critical thought in his convictions and motivations. Some of the questions asked of the character Kyle in the movie – the questions you can tell are supposed to be the “hard-hitting” ones – are answered with such vague simplicity, such automatic and embarrassing machismo, that I couldn’t help but suspect that, as much as Cooper may have gotten wrong in his portrayal, the absolute absence of critical thought in Chris Kyle’s psyche was something he got right. In the numerous articles I’ve read about this movie, about Chris Kyle as a person, and about Chris Kyle’s memoir, the one ringing consistency is that Chris Kyle’s belief system left no room for deep and critical thought or analysis. The biggest problem with a worldview that is black and white is that the people I’ve known in my life who ascribe to such a rigid belief system are people who not only seem incapable of critical thought but actually actively resist what they seem to view as an immoral temptation to examine a given situation beyond its surface. And this appears to be the problem Chris Kyle had. Chris Kyle was clearly and without question a dutiful, honorable* soldier.

Second, I walked away from the theater recognizing the tendency toward violence that violence-centered movies and other media bring out in me. There’s a reason I stay away from movies and media like this for the most part. Killing, fighting, and insulting others is not only a practice that is normalized by media such as this; it is encouraged. And that’s how I found myself, about halfway through the movie, wishing I had my own sniper rifle so I could take aim and shoot the fellow moviegoer on the front row who kept pulling out his or her phone, the bright light irritatingly drawing my eye and my attention away from the movie. Some might dismiss that thought as harmless, a mere snipering joke in the context of the movie; no harm done. For me, however, that kind of thought terrifies me. Only because I had been watching a guy lie on rooftops and shoot the enemy for over an hour – and getting caught up in the emotion of hoping he succeeded in killing his targets – did I have a thought like that. So, yeah, okay. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. On a given day, I don’t wish I could shoot with sniper rifles all the people who annoy me. And, of course, even in the movie theater, I didn’t have a sniper rifle, and it’s not like I got up out of my seat and went down to the front of the theater to dispense some civilian justice. But what scares me is that, no matter how unrealistic the scenario might have been, the thought and desire were there in my mind, however jokingly, after only an hour of watching someone shoot people from rooftops. That bothers me a great deal. And it should bother you too. And what scares me even more is that such a thought doesn’t bother any of the people who have raised this movie and, with it, Chris Kyle, to an undeserved pedestal.

Am I glad I saw American Sniper? Yes. Am I glad the movie was made to begin with? No. Especially considering the cultural climate this movie was released into: Our country is embroiled in a very heated political struggle right now over gun control laws, so a movie like this – one whose message encourages violence under the guise of protection – is the worst possible ammunition (no pun intended) for the pro-gun faction.

A movie like American Sniper isn’t going to aid in moving our country in the peaceful direction it ought to go.

*The word honorable here is used simply to mean that he exemplified the qualities that are most prized in American soldiers, those qualities being discharging one’s duties faithfully and without doubt or question.

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The Existentialist Considerations Inspired by the Movie HER

I watched the movie Her tonight, and there is so much going on inside my head post-viewing – and there was while I viewed too – that I don’t know where to start or even if what I say will be cohesive, but I’m going to try to articulate at least a couple of thoughts that won’t go away.

First and foremost, love. This movie – naturally – made me think about love, and how it is both timeless and evolutionary. Love evolves because society evolves, and society will never leave love behind, so love must evolve too. But love is timeless because love simply is. The mechanisms and social constructs we force upon it to make it work for ourselves may help us make sense of it, at least in a small way, but it will always be, and it will always be bigger than we can ever understand or imagine.

Secondly, technology. Her is set in the future, kinda. It is futuristic, but it’s also very present. No, we don’t really have artificially intelligent operating systems to the level that Scarlett Johansson represents in the movie, nor are we quite at the stage of using voice commands for everything, although I do use voice commands a lot more now than I used to. I compose entire tweets, texts, and emails using my voice, if I want to do it while I’m driving. It’s not as foolproof as Joaquin Phoenix’s system appears to be, but it’s pretty dang good. I’m often surprised at the words my phone seems to know, and it still amazes me that I can say “comma,” “period,” or “question mark,” and get the punctuation I need.

Third, the confluence of love and technology. As I mentioned before, love evolves to fit our societal constructs, and right now, in 2014, one of our societal constructs is online relationships, online dating, and the like. Online dating in and of itself isn’t a new thing by any means. Chat rooms have been around almost since the internet was invented. Their societal acceptability has changed a lot, though. People no longer bat an eye when they are told that two people met online, but fifteen years ago it was cause for social leprosy and high skepticism. That’s  because, fifteen years ago, the internet was not as integral a part of society as it is now. Fifteen years ago, a few middle-aged perverts used the internet to prey on unsuspecting people, and something I like to call Internet Stranger Paranoia was born.

Internet Stranger Paranoia (ISP) is the idea that a person “from the internet” is not a normal, functional person, and even though it’s 2014 and the internet has changed a billion times since its advent, there are still some people who cling to the idea of ISP. The funny thing about ISP is that it isolates everybody except oneself. It asserts that everyone using the internet and contacting people on the internet is a weirdo, and not to be trusted, except for oneself. Self is the exception. The only one. The interesting thing, though, is that the weirdos and psychopaths and internet predators have become outnumbered by all the normal people using the internet, and that’s because now everyone uses the internet, and statistically, there are more functional and normal people in society than there are deviants, weirdos, psychopaths, and predators. Therefore, Internet Stranger Paranoia just doesn’t make sense anymore, and I wrote about this once before, when I discussed Twitter specifically.

And Twitter is a great example, in fact. Yes, there are dysfunctional human beings on Twitter. But so are there also functional ones, real people who have no reason or cause or motivation to assume alternate identities and trick you. I know this because I’ve met plenty of them. I also know this because I am one of them (one of the functional, real people, that is). The detractors of internet dating still champion the outdated idea that you don’t know a person you haven’t met in person, and this is what I particularly like about the movie Her. It validates an opinion I’ve had for quite some time now, which is that two people can get to know each other without physically spending time together in the same space on the earth. Two people can get to know each other without making eye contact, without touching each other on the cheek or the knee, without hugging. And not only get to know but simply, eventually, know.

There are two reasons I’ve suspected this for a long time now: 1) I’m a writer; 2) I’m a naturally open and vulnerable person. In person or online, in written communication or verbal, I am the type of person who doesn’t hide much, if anything at all. I don’t find it difficult to open up to people, I’m not afraid of my own emotions, and I’m not afraid of being judged. On the other hand, what I do find is that writing my thoughts is so much easier and more natural for me than speaking them. I’m not an introvert – or, at least, not a full one – but neither am I a spotlight, life-of-the-party type of person. I am comfortable in social situations, and with other people, but if you want to dig into my psyche and consume my most articulate, my most intelligent, and my most well-thought-out, well-stated ideas? Well, you can do that by consuming or experiencing my writing, not my in-person conversation. So I myself am the reason I believe that someone can be known through a computer. I know it because I can be.

On the other hand, the movie brings up another point that has been circling my brain for at least five years now, which is: Can we ever fully know someone? Perhaps, for a short time. But people grow and learn and change all the time, and if we don’t let them, then we lose them. Sometimes we lose them even if we do let them, which is what happens in Her. Some of my romantic relationships have ended because I needed to grow and change, and my partner couldn’t handle that. Every time I think about how different I am as a person now than I was in 2002-2003, or from 2004-2007, or in 2010, or 2011, I realize it’s good that I’ve never married. Those time periods represent the years I’ve spent in serious relationships, and with men who knew and understood the core of who I was at one point in time, maybe. But the Audra I am now might be unrecognizable to them because I’ve changed a lot. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop learning and growing and changing. So far, that’s been the core of who I am, and it’s possible that I’ll always be this way. I don’t know.

As this has to do with Her, what is this movie really about, anyway? I don’t know if I’m even sure, but I certainly don’t think it’s about one particular thing. I don’t think it’s about technology any more than I think Brokeback Mountain is about homosexuality. I’m not even sure I would say it’s about human connection. I don’t know if I’d say it’s about love either. Considering the concepts it’s made me ponder, maybe it’s about consciousness and identity. Maybe it’s about freedom. Maybe it’s about being open-minded. Maybe it’s about evolution and progress and change, or maybe it’s about connection and love after all. I don’t really know.

One line that keeps ringing in my head – mainly because Joaquin Phoenix said it a couple of times, or maybe because I can’t figure out what it means – is what he said about his job: “They’re just letters.”

Are they? I don’t know. In some sense, I guess they are. And we’re just people. And this is just life. And there’s something bigger than all of it out there that we cannot grasp.

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A GAME OF THRONES, by George R.R. Martin

Normally, if someone handed me a book and told me before I read it that some of its key components included gratuitous sex, adult language, a fantasy/mythical world, more characters than I’d care to count, a narrative that employs not one, not two, but actually eight alternating points of view, an excess of violence, gross misogynistic treatment of women, and a plot the main thread of which follows a bunch of testosterone-filled Arthurian wannabes fighting for control of a kingdom… Well, I’d probably throw that book back in the person’s face and walk away muttering about how said person does not know me at all.

So you might be surprised to hear that, at the end of a whirlwind seven-day reading period, during which I averaged the consumption of approximately one hundred pages per day to finish this monstrous book, the following words are some of the descriptors I choose to sum up A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire:

Suspenseful. Edgy. Thrilling. Complex. Realistically fantastical. Gripping. Moving. Heartbreaking. Page-turning. Hilarious. Surprising. A classic waiting to be crowned.

The main reason I can provide these unqualified descriptions is that A Game of Thrones, as a book of mechanics, would appear to have a lot of obstacles to overcome. Everything I list in the first paragraph is true, so the fact that Martin manages to yank me into the story anyway, beginning with chapter one (which is not the very beginning, since the book begins with yet another unnecessary prologue), is a feat unto itself.

This is the kind of book that separates the men from the boys when it comes to authorial talent. I have edited some truly awful books that included everything listed in the first paragraph, all of which subsequently became targets for editorial revision suggestions. But Martin proves that these techniques can be utilized well, when done with the ink of a good writer’s pen. Martin crafts a tale so pregnant with the third-paragraph traits that the issues in the first paragraph either become non-issues altogether or actually become strengths of the narrative.

Our world does not want for fantasy literature, but it is lacking in quality fantasy writing and stories, perhaps because of the nature of the limitations of the genre itself. It’s weird to think that a genre called fantasy – which, by definition, should be the opposite of limited – would have restraints, and yet it does. There are only so many mythical creatures one can dream up, only so many magical qualities a world can have before it’s overkill, or before the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is unwillingly suspended.

That’s why we see so many of the same types of creatures over and over again in fantasy: dragons, goblins, trolls, wizards, giants, birds that carry mail, and – of course – a “normal-world” creature that becomes otherworldly and mythical simply due to its monstrous size. In Lord of the Rings, we see this with spiders; in Harry Potter, with spiders, snakes, and dogs; we even see it in the parody fantasy story The Princess Bride, with rodents. George R.R. Martin’s rendition of the oversized normal animal is a wolf, called – in his book, to differentiate it from the regular wolf – the direwolf.

So what, exactly, does Martin’s writing possess that makes it so devourable, even when the bare components are stripped down and it appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy story, if a little (or maybe a whole lot) on the adult side? Honestly, the element that kept me turning pages was the characters. The diversity and complexity of each character simply astounded me. I mentioned that the story is told in alternating fashion from eight different characters’ points of view. But these are not the only eight characters we come to know intimately, nor can these eight characters all necessarily be called the heroes or, to oversimplify it, the good guys. There are also the minor characters, as well as the villains – none of whom, so far, have been given POV rights – to get to know, and the narrative weaves in their motivations and characteristics and personalities seamlessly alongside the principal characters whose POVs we are actually treated to.

The strength of the alternating POV tactic (which is also a huge risk, if an author doesn’t know how to do it right) is the third-person-limited perspective. With each character, the reader is privy only to information which that particular character would have access to. The advantage of being the omniscient reader, of course, is that we get to see how all the limited perspectives work together to create the bigger picture of the unfolding story, but of course the kicker is that we do not have the power to change the course of events, or warn any of the characters of what’s coming. (This is probably as close as any of us will ever get to understanding what it’s like to be God, with the exception that the God I believe in does have the power to change the course of events; he just rarely does it in ways we would see fit; but, of course, that goes back to the big picture and limited perspective issue.) On the whole, these characters feel alive and real, and so do their actions and the consequences of their actions. Martin employs no deus ex machina here. The characters reap the consequences of their decisions; bad things happen to good people; ordinary people make terrible decisions; and nobody is safe or exempt from the forces and obstacles of the natural world, which makes this genuinely fantastical world feel eerily like the world we know and live in ourselves.

The unexpected plot twists are probably the aspects of this book that left me the most frustrated as a reader. I got so settled into the everyday features of the world itself that I had trouble acclimating to the twists and turns the characters have to follow. In remedial writing classes, one of the very first things students learn is that the basic arc of a story involves a character pursuing a specific goal and encountering obstacles that must be overcome on the way to that goal. I hope even the most under-qualified writing instructor would tell students that characters must experience conflict; otherwise, there’s no story. What do TV shows do when their ratings drop? Introduce new and dramatic conflicts. The idea is, nobody is allowed to live happy, peaceful lives if you want your story to be consumed and enjoyed.

The reason I had a problem with this basic rule in GoT was that I liked the characters and the details of the world itself so much that all I wanted to do was follow the Stark family around their castle and the woods and be a fly on the wall in their everyday lives. That’s how well these characters and this world are written. Every time there is a hope of one or more of the characters going back to settle at the family’s castle, I got excited and hopeful that life would resume as it began at the start of the book, and every time a plot twist thwarts this goal, I got disappointed and frustrated. My frustration lasted only momentarily, though, because each diversion and plot tangent is more interesting and exciting than the last, all leading up to a wrenching and emotional climax that I wouldn’t have seen coming if it had not been spoiled for me beforehand. (That didn’t make the event any less emotional for me, though; only less surprising.)

A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, so you might be wondering why it is just now on my radar. There are a few reasons, the most obvious (and most wrong) being that HBO has started serializing the books in television form. The advent of the HBO series did remind me that the books were on my to-read list, but they were on my to-read list long before HBO took it over. I have a solid group of (mostly) trusted reading friends in Oklahoma who have all torn through the series and pledge loyalty to George R.R. Martin until the end of time, so it has been on my radar since about 2008.

I guess the only reason I decided to pick it up now, allowing it to usurp the numerous other books in line and patiently waiting, is the same reason I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last January: It’s a new year, and I wanted to give my reading life a jump start with something I wouldn’t be able to put down, so why not start with a series people can’t seem to stop talking about? Obviously I didn’t know for sure that I would like either book at all, but luckily both times I did, and luckily – just like last year – it will lead me into a series and a world that will occupy me for the next few weeks, at least.

As with GWTDT, I likely won’t post follow-up reviews about the subsequent books in the series, but you should take my word for it that at least A Game of Thrones is worth reading, and then you can decide from there whether you want to continue. As for me, I will most certainly be moving on to the second book, A Clash of Kings.

As I continue, I hope to find that some of the characters I intensely dislike in the first book will be redeemed later on; I hope that some of the most despicable characters will meet poetic justice, whether in death or torture or slavery or exile; and, lastly, I hope that some of my favorite and most heroic characters will be rewarded with peace and happiness, or, at the very least, fewer tragedies.

As for Martin’s misogynistic characterizations, he’s not off the hook, and I do find it offensive and appalling that the women are so far either one of two extremes: weak or completely evil, with almost nothing in between, but for now, I’m letting him get away with the excuse that the world he’s created is an ancient one, and everyone knows that the ancient worlds did not appreciate or revere women as they should have.

Overall, though, I am pleased with this book, and if you have recently found yourself in need of something to occupy your reading hours, I suggest trying this one, if all the adult aspects of it won’t bother you. It may not be for everyone, and I’m certainly no fantasy expert, but of the fantasies I have read, GoT is certainly the cream of the crop.

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On Knowing a Published Author

It can be difficult to be a writer sometimes. Not just because one’s prolonged ability to stare at a blinking cursor seems to improve and lengthen with each looming deadline. What if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t have deadlines? you ask. I would venture to say that all writers have deadlines. Some are mandated by a publisher, like the end of the year, or month, or week, or day.

Other writers, like freelancers, or those whose income doesn’t depend upon their turning in (or even finishing) their work, have less concrete deadlines. These types of writers might feed their ambition by setting personal goals for themselves, like so many words per day, of anything, no matter what; or to finish a novel by the time they’re thirty. I am the type of writer who employs these more flexible deadlines for myself. My deadlines hover in the realm of, Write that blog post about the upcoming election sometime before whoever gets elected finishes serving his/her full term. Or, Finish your novel before you are dead (but maybe after Grandpa dies, so as not to offend him with your copious use of the d-word).

Yes, it’s difficult to be a writer. Especially when there are so many times that I come home planning to spend my evening writing but then am met with any number of obstacles that would wear upon my conscience and motivation until I shelve the laptop and succumb to temptation. These temptations, of course, manifest themselves in the form of tasks and responsibilities such as cleaning the bathroom, snaking the basement drain, clearing my attic of squirrels’ nests, or promising social enticements like the conversationally awkward, unable-to-grow-facial-hair guy in his mid-thirties who’s been pestering me for a date for the last six months, or going with Grandpa to pick out a cemetery plot.*

Last but certainly not least, being a writer can be difficult when you have friends who also fancy themselves writers. Because sometimes your friends end up being funnier than you, or more eloquent, or more concise, or more published. Such is the case with my recently acquired friend Katie Savage. Now, to be fair, Katie has managed to do a lot of things before me in life, such as be born, get married, have children, reach the age of thirty and still wear makeup, etc. So she’s obviously superior to me in many ways, and I shouldn’t take it personally that writing happens to be one of them.

But (as briefly as possible because I know I’m losing those of you who don’t even know me and are only here for what you thought would be but are now beginning to suspect is not a review of Whirlybirds) I did take it personally, at least at first. Before I even knew Katie, people were telling me I needed to know her. Mutual friends of ours told me on multiple occasions that we had a similar sense of humor and similar writing styles. I was not closed off to these comparisons or (what I would learn later were) compliments, but the fact remained that there existed no feasible way in the course of normal life to get an introduction to this mystery person, so I shrugged it off.

Until one day. On that day, I walked into my boyfriend-at-the-time’s apartment to pick him up for whatever we were planning to do that night. He was in a particularly good mood and couldn’t wait to tell me why. He had just finished reading his friend’s “thesis,” I think he called it. I’ll let you eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.

“Oh? You read someone’s thesis?” said I, mentally calculating how long a legit thesis would have to be in comparison to my fledgling and surely-not-thesis-length novel, which had been in his possession for some months now, and which he had not yet finished reading.

“Yeah, it’s my friend Katie Savage’s. It’s more of a collection of essays, really. I think she’s going to turn it into a book or something.”

Of course I recognized the name. I also felt slightly deflated by all this information but nodded, smiled, and did all the supportive-girlfriendy things a woman will do, as congenially as she possibly can, when her boyfriend is praising another woman.

However, I was also ready to drop it and move on. “So. You ready to go?”

“Yeah. You know, I really think Katie is probably the best writer I’ve ever known.”

And there it was. Heart: cracked. Balloon: deflated. Self-esteem: vanished.

Some of you might want to defend this mistake, but before you do, let me just try to explain why his parting comment was so hurtful.

My identity as a writer is everything to me. Absolutely everything. If I don’t have my writing, what do I have? Nothing. And if I don’t have the support of the person I’ve given my heart to, what do I have? Nothing. To be compared to a peer by mutual friends and thereby feel in immediate competition with her was bad enough, though tolerable. To be told, however, to my face, by the love of my life, that she was better than me was insufferable. Even if it’s the truth.

If you occupy the role in my life of Holder of my Heart, then you can tell me any truth you like except this one. Tell me I’m too short, too plain, too weird, too stubborn, too rude, too blunt, too emotional, too callous, too poor, too smelly, too unkempt, too attached to my dog, too crass, too analytic, too obsessed with baseball, too Democrat, whatever. I can take all those truths. But – and I’m sorry if this is asking too much of any potential suitors out there who might be reading – if you claim the title of my boyfriend (or someday husband) and don’t think I’m the cleverest, most articulate, most fun, most talented writer you’ve ever personally known, well, then, my heart just won’t be able to withstand that.

Now, I didn’t bring you through all of that to focus on what a poor decision that particular boyfriend made on that particular day. I brought you through it to help you understand the jealous, competitive obstacle I had to overcome in my heart when I actually, finally met Katie for the very first time. Luckily, to be concise, her writing is as good as everyone says it is, and she is as cool a person as I had been told, so it wasn’t easy to dislike her, even though I tried very hard. (Sorry, Katie – both that I tried to dislike you and that you’re finding this out for the first time in a public blog post.)

I’ve also brought you all this way to set up the proof that you can trust me. Katie and I have known each other for about a year now, and though I think we can legitimately be called friends, I don’t think we can legitimately be called close. Therefore, you know now that whatever I have to say about her book (which I swear I’m getting to) will not be driven only by my sappy desire to praise my friend.

So, if anyone besides the author-in-question herself is still reading, I shall thus commence my review of Katie Savage’s first published book, Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times: Reflections on Faith and the Changing of Seasons.

Quickly, I’m going to get out of the way the things about the book that did not particularly push my happy-reader (or, as the case may be, happy-editor) buttons. And then we’ll get to the flowery stuff. First, without knowing much about the book beforehand, I wasn’t exactly enticed by the vague, wordy title. Without the cover design (which I’ll get to in a second), I wouldn’t have even been able to deduce what the word whirlybird refers to. I’d never heard that word. On the cover, however, is a framed depiction of what I grew up calling a helicopter. Not an actual helicopter, mind you, but one of those seed-pod things you throw up in the air as a kid and watch as it twirls down to the ground, much in the manner of (duh) a helicopter. So there was that mystery solved.

But I didn’t particularly love the “ordinary times” part of the title either. It just seemed so bland, and to be perfectly honest, a book that purports to be written about one’s personalized reflections of faith already isn’t likely to be one I’m gonna pick up off the shelf unless I happen to know the writer in real life because I’m just not that interested in very many people’s personalized reflections on faith. That is an aspect about my personality and reading self that many may view as a character flaw, and I guess that’s fine. We all have our literary preferences. But the point is, I was disappointed with the term ordinary times. Until, that is, I received the book in the mail and opened it up to the table of contents, wherein I discovered that Katie has organized her essays in a manner that follows the calendar of the Christian church – a large portion of which includes something we call Ordinary Time.

Ah, of course! I thought. It’s a play on words! How clever! And so, I came to quite like the title, and all the more for the fact that I greatly respect titles that seem vague and meaningless until one has read some portion (if not all) of the book. It’s like a reader’s reward, or something. It’s nice.

As for the cover design, it’s cutesy and pretty-looking. But it’s not the most engaging, most compelling, most tempting cover I’ve ever come across. Part of the reason for this is that, though I’m not exactly a design specialist, I have had the luxury of knowing some really amazing cover designers. My former coworkers Joey and Tyler, and my personal friends J.R. and Arthur, are all better designers than whoever designed the Whirlybirds cover, and that’s not Katie’s fault at all. That’s the fault of Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), for not employing more creative, more talented designers. (If any representatives from Howard Books are reading this, please click the links from J.R.’s and Arthur’s names above. They really are very good designers, and you could use their help; I’ve seen your other covers.)

The last thing I was disappointed with (which, again, is not Katie’s fault) was some of the editing. There are a few minor, fairly inconsequential things I would’ve done differently, and that’s okay. But the one thing I could not abide through the entire book was the capitalization of pronouns referring to God. It is a common misconception in Christian writing circles that God pronouns (he, him, his, himself) ought to be capitalized. The truth is, they’re abysmally distracting, and nothing uglies up a layout faster than a page full of capital H’s. Plus, it’s a basic tenet of the Chicago Manual of Style.

So, Howard Books, you’re 0 for 2 on your book production staff. Might want to do some hiring in the near future. I am available, if you’re handing out jobs. Oh, and if you are handing out jobs, you might want to hire new layout designers too. The layout of this book employed a magazine-article style, which is intolerable. There are pull quotes on almost every page, which is, again, so distracting. Helpful in a magazine article – when you’re skimming because you only have five or ten minutes in a waiting room. But this is a book. People are reading every word. Release the pull quotes. (I did end up not hating them, though, at certain times when I wanted to write a long comment in the margin next to one and they afforded me extra space for doing so.)

Okay, so now we get to the stuff I like about this book, which is, honestly, everything else. Everything that Katie did herself, in fact. Since I am a woman, I can’t comment on an audience for this book. I mean, she does talk about things like the relative size of her breasts, and breast feeding, and breast pumping, and squashing her sore, milk-filled breasts with the strap of a heavy bag. (Don’t worry, if you think you’re sensing a theme. If I remember correctly, all of the breasty references are constrained to one chapter…two, max.)

Katie writes about other stuff too. Like a difficult summer she experienced as a teenager when a friend died at church camp. And a harrowing, riddled-with-misadventure trip through Europe one Christmas holiday. And the hilarious shortcomings she views in herself (such as the fact that, for a long time in her life, she never cleaned underneath her oven knobs). And an awkward evangelism experience she had to participate in one time, in which she was to play a drunken demon, even though she had never actually been drunk and wasn’t sure what it looked like.

The best thing I found about Katie’s book is that, despite the subtitle potentially scaring off certain readers, with all its mentions of faith and reflections, it’s really just a book about the human experience. And it just so happens to be written by someone whose experience includes believing in Jesus. It’s true, there are references and allusions to Christian-y things that might escape a non-well-read, non-Christian reader, but that won’t really detract from the quality of the reading experience. Katie writes with both a depth comparable to theologians and an accessibility that will invite and welcome anyone who isn’t actually interested in all the God stuff. She spends enough time talking about non-God stuff that anyone who is not drawn to those parts will still remain engaged and interested, but for those who are drawn to them, she also ties everything together beautifully in a way that any author I’ve edited could only hope to do.

The margins of my copy of Whirlybirds are filled with my notes, mostly of laughter. But there’s also a fair amount of assent and agreement because, as it happened, the further I got in Katie’s book, the more convinced I became that we are twins separated at birth (never mind the fact that she’s two or three years older than me). There were even a couple of times when I read my own thoughts on the pages. Sometimes I loved this. However, the third or fourth time it happened, I began to feel I was running out of material for my own future book. When that happened, I underlined the sentence and wrote in the margin: Dammit! She’s stealing all my lines!

Which brings me to the d-word I alluded to before. Which I finally feel comfortable admitting that I (sometimes) like to use in my writing, and Katie is the reason I’m finally willing to admit it publicly, in front of Grandpa and the world. See, Katie uses this word no fewer than four times in her book, and once, at the very end (when she must’ve thought we all stopped reading), she uses the s-word! So, I’ve succumbed to this self-inflicted peer pressure and have decided that if Katie can do it publicly, then by golly, so can I, dangit. Well… I’m still getting used to the idea.

Anyway, the point is, this book is really good, and if you know Katie, you should definitely read it. Heck, you need to buy it! If you don’t know Katie, I still think you would enjoy it. And if you are not a Christian and don’t know Katie, well, I still think you’d like it. If for no other reason than the abundance of one-liners, or, as stand-up comics like to call them, zingers. There’s a lot of them, and I’ll just give you one because one of the Amazon reviews quotes a whole bunch, and that made me mad because I felt that those particular lines were spoiled for me, even though they really weren’t, and even though the book is pages and pages full of them, so it didn’t really spoil anything at all.

The one I liked in particular is actually one of the ones having to do with breasts. It’s near the beginning, and Katie talks about the changes her body went through during her first pregnancy. It reads thus:

My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage – even cleavage that lasted only a few months – rapidly faded.

The reason I liked this line so much was that it produced this margin note: And now, so have mine! :(

And those delusions of mine have faded even more now that I’ve finished the  book and realized just exactly how similar Katie and I really are. So, that’s a bummer (about the breasts, not the similar personality thing). But here’s the thing: Katie’s a damn good writer, and everyone should know it. And now, I can agree with that old ex-boyfriend of mine. She probably is the best, most talented writer I have the pleasure of personally knowing. And, it’s actually pretty cool that now my shelf reserved for Authors I Personally Know has two books on it!

Thanks, Katie, for being brave enough to publish a book. You’re a great author. And thanks also for making it all the way to the end of the Most Tangential and Off-Topic Book Review Ever. By the by, can I come to dinner sometime soon? I’d love to get my book signed.

*Apologies to my grandpa, who took a few hard hits in this post. For the record, he neither bases his love for me on the foulness of my language nor lies at death’s door. On the contrary, he’s really quite genial and hospitable and still has an impressive spring in his step. I do hope he’ll forgive me.

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“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.

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Filed under bloggy, books, classics, experimental, movies, reviews, writing exercises

The Wisdom of French Parenting -OR- Americans Are Doing It Wrong. Again.

I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.

This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.

Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.

The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.

The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?

The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.

The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).

Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.

I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.

Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.

In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)

At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.

So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.

Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.

Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.

I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)

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Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, nonfiction, reviews, sentimental

I Pledge Allegiance, to William Shakespeare

Kansas City, like many thriving metropolises (is that the correct plural form of that word?), has an annual Shakespeare in the Park to-do that’s kind of a medium-size deal. I have only been three times. I went to see Macbeth last year, and then this year, with the return of the double-performance feature, I saw both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony & Cleopatra.

My prior exposure to MND was seeing that horrid movie version that came out around, oh, I don’t know, 2000? 2001? (IMDB says 1999. I was very close.) And then of course I read the play in my undergraduate Shakespeare class – begrudgingly, since my memories of the movie were so negative. (And I’m sure in that class we watched – if not the entire thing, at least some clips from – one of the myriad movie adaptations out there.) Luckily, I enjoyed reading it rather more than watching the movie, but I still didn’t have a positive overall memory of the play.

My expectation for Kansas City’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was thus: I would enjoy it only insomuch as I enjoyed the company I saw it with. To that end, I  gathered up some of the best metro company around, in the form of five friends and a baby, and we shared blankets, refreshments, and lots of mirth as we gathered on the lawn for the play.

Before we went, I had flipped through my copy of the well-chewed (thanks to the dog) THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE (which, due to its size, caused a friend of mine, upon recently seeing me reading it from a distance, to ask if it was a science or medical textbook). I wanted to skim through my margin notes on this particular play, just to give myself a quick reminder of the basic plot. My refresher course went like this: Play inside a play. Pyramus & Thisbe. Some forest confusion involving ribald fairies and nymphs and unrequited love and…an ass? There’s a particularly obnoxious mischief maker named Puck. Then back to the castle for the rest of the frame play, happy ending, lots of laughter and delighted tears. Whether one’s previous experiences with a single play are positive or negative, that sort of bare-bones recap isn’t going to do much to persuade one’s expectations in either direction.

Even so, sharing the company of good friends really can add a glossy sheen to any occasion. So, given my companions, the outdoors, and the refreshments, I was already pleased with the outcome of the event within half an hour of having left my house. And then the best part of the whole evening happened: The play began. I witnessed, hands down, the best adaptation and performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever had the opportunity to see. The speech was easy to follow, the story line a cinch to pick up. Things flowed along smoothly, and the opportunities to laugh were frequent and numerous.

The actor I was most impressed with was the one who played Puck, coincidentally. He flew, jumped, somersaulted, and acrobatted all over the stage, and he perfected this sycophantic, servile facial expression that he adopted whenever he spoke to Oberon, his master. In fact, in these interactions with Oberon, the expression on Puck’s face consistently reminded me of Ed the Hyena from The Lion King. And, somehow, this was just fitting.

The entire performance was laced with an air of merriment that the actors could not have faked. It was raw and contagious, and of course it was catalyzed early in the first act by the sole canine thespian breaking free from its leash and bolting from the stage (clearly not part of the script, but the cast handled it and the audience’s reactive laughter and resultant momentary distraction well). The actors got a standing ovation at the end, and they deserved it. The energy between the audience and the stage was palpable, and it was a good night to be at the theater (in the park). And, no offense to my awesome friends, but I rather think I would’ve enjoyed the play whether they’d been there or not!

I can’t say the same for Antony and Cleopatra, though. My prior exposure to A&C before a couple of weeks ago was zero. Before I went to see the Kansas City version, I once again used THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE to read the whole play so I could get a head start on following it live. As I read, I didn’t think I disliked it, although Act IV does get tedious. So, I don’t know if it’s this particular acting company’s approach to tragedies or if I truly don’t love Antony & Cleopatra as a piece of literature/art in and of itself, but I was not moved by this performance. That night, it was almost exclusively the friends I was with who helped me immensely enjoy the night, rather than the acting. I got bored before intermission (whereas I was genuinely surprised at MND when it was time for the fifteen-minute break).

The reason I say it could be the troupe’s interpretation of tragedies is that I felt the same way about Macbeth last year, and normally I appreciate and enjoy Macbeth. They took a lot of sexual liberties with the Macbeth adaptation last year, even going as far as to make us all gasp in shock when Lady Macbeth jumped Macbeth in the middle of the stage, and they both went crashing down to the floor; then proceeded to hump for several awkward seconds. Thinking this might be an impromptu ad-lib added as an especial treat for our performance only,  I checked around with other friends who saw the play on different nights, and they gave the same report. For me, this bold addition cheapened and perverted (pardon the pun) the core of Shakespeare’s message, as if they were implying that his writing wasn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, or else that the audience wasn’t elite intelligentsia enough, and they must add these bawdy interludes to keep us from nodding off. (Now I’m not only insulted on Shakespeare’s behalf; I’m enraged on my own!)

Back to Antony & Cleopatra. Setting aside the fact that the titular characters were played by the same lead actors who so offended me in Macbeth, one thing that could let this acting company off the hook is to consider the possibility that I just don’t love this particular play. And that is indeed possible. After all, the story centers around a middle-aged couple who act with less sense than the adolescent Romeo & Juliet (don’t even get me started on them). And there’s a secondary story featuring four men who are essentially in a machismo contest, all trying to conquer the world and all unable to swallow their pride long enough to figure out how to share the pieces of that world. To be frank, it’s embarrassing to watch such a juvenile plot be played out amongst characters who are supposed to be grown adults.

It’s embarrassing fictionally and historically speaking. Where, after all, would Shakespeare get the idea for such a silly story? Well, from real life, unfortunately. The leaders of Ancient Rome were a lot of good things, but I don’t think mature, play well with others, and morally sensible were on the list. The only welcome bits of this play were the blunt sexual innuendos (for their comic relief factor and shock value) and the beginning of all the deaths (since that meant the play was nearing its end).

Kansas City’s Shakespeare in the Park is a cultural touchstone that should be experienced, I’ll warrant. But this year, if you’ve only got time to get to one of the plays, make sure it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whatever your feelings are about the theater, or parks, or various Shakespeare plays, one thing cannot be denied: Will was brilliant, and exposure to his work can only make us better people.

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Classic #5: FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J.D. Salinger

Even though I wasn’t able to get 12 classics read in 12 months, I liked my original idea of reviewing each classic I read, and I still want to record my thoughts on any I happen to read from here on out. So perhaps this will simply become my first blog-post series: reviews of classics. I can live with it if you can. (PS – This might be my shortest review yet!)

My experience with Salinger is limited. I hated The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect I would still dislike it if I read it again, though I don’t know that I would hate it. A few years have passed since my first reading, and I have experienced different parts of life, so there might be portions of the book I can better understand or more readily identify with. On the whole, however, after finishing Franny and Zooey, it seems that existential crises are Salinger’s specialty and not mine at all. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to have an existential crisis (but we’ll get to that).

In any case, for those who aren’t aware (I wasn’t), this book is comprised of a short story (“Franny”) and a novella (Zooey). The two pieces were actually published two years apart originally, but in the fictional timeline of the characters, they take place within just one or two days of each other. I rather enjoyed (and flew through) “Franny” and was therefore excited to dig into Zooey, but I was less enamored of the novella, even though it did make me laugh a few more times.

F&Z is an excerpt from the life of the Glass family, a family Salinger apparently wrote about a lot, in numerous other short stories and (possibly?) novellas. This family, as seems to the be the case with most large families, is dysfunctional to the highest degree. (Why does it seem that, the more family members you add to the pot, the higher the level of dysfunctionality rises?) The Glass children are a product of a wealthy, privileged, even spoiled existence. They were all radio stars through their childhood years, and now two of the seven siblings are dead; one by suicide, one from war.

The primary focus of the story is Franny’s internal crisis that seems to cover three different dimensions: existentialism, spirituality, and identity. The secondary focus is Franny’s and Zooey’s relationship to each other and to the rest of their family. Zooey and Franny are the youngest of the Glass children, with Franny being five years behind her brother. Both pieces are almost entirely dialogue, and the entire arc of the story begins and resolves over the course of four scenes. There is a lunch, a bath, a living room discussion, and a phone conversation. This aspect is what LF says makes the work brilliant. I disagree because it was exactly this aspect that made it borderline boring for me. Dialogue does propel a story, but so does action. As with everything, there should be a balance.

However, that being said, even though the constant dialogue creates a stream-of-consciousness style that I usually hate, I somehow found it less hateful in this instance than in others. When it’s Faulkner, for instance, you just get this exhausted feeling, drained further by a need to follow a train of thought that isn’t even following itself. The effort it takes to connect the beginning of a Faulkner sentence to the end of one is so tiring and completely infuriating once you finally realize it can’t even be done. However, that’s Faulkner narrating. In Salinger’s work, the stream of consciousness comes directly from the characters, so that makes it somehow excusable. When Salinger does narrate, it’s either to provide some character context that is either enlightening or funny (or both, in the case of almost all descriptions of Mrs. Glass), or to poke fun at himself as an author, which is also funny, but also respect engendering. I can get on board with any author willing to make fun of himself or his craft.

Overall, I didn’t love Franny and Zooey, but neither did I hate it. I didn’t even come close to hating it, in fact. But it left me with the feeling at the end that I had missed something huge, something important and significant, something deeply intelligent. So, even though I can’t say I disliked it, neither can I say I loved it because I feel so unsettled in its wake. And that is why I haven’t ventured a more complicated analysis than I have, as I usually do in my reviews. I just feel so ill equipped to address the complexities of the work that I’d rather not attempt it at all.

A non-surprising fact is that LF loves this book. I say it’s non-surprising because he always seems to love literature that I find to be too smart for me. When he asked me if I had anything to say about the book as a whole, I said no. And then I talked to him for a good 20 minutes about various parts I liked or didn’t like or appreciated or didn’t understand. So I guess I had plenty to say, but I’m not sure much of it was coherent. Suffice it to say, I would recommend the book to pretty much anyone but mostly because it just seems like one of those books that it feels good to have experienced. I will probably read it again someday, since it is so digestible, and I hope I will understand and enjoy more of it when I do.

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I Can’t Help it if My Personality is Chocolate

A confession. I am one of those people who gives credence to personality tests. In fact, I may or may not have just wasted a half hour taking mini tests at each of those sites to confirm what I already know about myself: that I am an ESFJ; that my love languages are equally words of affirmation and physical touch; and that I am an 8, alternatively labeled ‘challenger’ or ‘boss.’

I didn’t used to think much about personality types, but then one day, something like eight or nine months ago, I gave in and admitted (to myself and at least one other person) that I liked a certain member of the male population. And this certain male also admitted to himself (and at least one other person) that he liked me. And, after a conversation or two of the type that the young people (and by “young people,” I of course mean my own generation) refer to as DTRs, this male presented me with a book called The Enneagram in Love and Work: Understanding Your Intimate and Business Relationships.

After I got over my surprise at this unusual start-of-relationship offering, he asserted his desire for me to read the book and figure out my personality type, and then he pointed out the section that detailed his personality type and asked me to familiarize myself with it too. Our relationship has since involved many conversations that reference this book as well as our love languages and our MBTI profiles. We make these references not as excuses for our actions (I hope, at least) but more as clarifications so that we remember to cut each other (and ourselves) a break every once in a while. When he does something that I cannot empathize with, relate to, or even begin to understand, I can usually be brought around to sensitivity and patience when reminded that he’s wired to operate that way, and of course the reverse is true.

In fact, I still often forget about personality type until I do something that confuses even myself, and LF is usually the one who swoops in with, “Remember, one of your personality tendencies is…” He reminded me of this a few days ago, while I pontificated on my apparent penchant for self-deprivation. I had just finished listing four things for which I am currently on official hiatus. I wondered aloud why I would set up a pattern of deprivation in the first place, and then I chastised myself for not being able to stick to my self-imposed restrictions 100% of the time. He reminded me that one of the traits of an 8 is a pattern of drawing clear lines and then intentionally crossing them.

As I think about this particular characteristic in relation to my reading habits, I wonder if setting goals that I do not (and perhaps even cannot) achieve is a variation of this personality trait. In case you didn’t follow my progress on reading the classics or forgot about it, I managed to get through a whopping four classics in twelve months last year.

At some point near the end of the year, I tried to figure out how many total books I read in 2011, and the number came in somewhere around 34 or 35. That’s an average of just under three books a month. So far in 2012, I have finished 8 books, an average of just under four books a month, and that is only counting half of March, which means I am on pace to increase my total count from last year by a pretty wide margin. So I think I can conclude with confidence that my underachievement problem is not with reading in general; rather, the difference is determined by what I’m choosing to read.

I realize that sounds like an obvious conclusion. And yes, the truth is, sometimes I feel like a sellout when I recognize Harry Potter references faster than a reference to Walt Whitman. Sometimes I feel like a literary failure when I realize I can discuss the themes, motifs, and characterizations in The Hunger Games better than I can for Jane Eyre. And I’m exceedingly embarrassed when it becomes evident that I can claim either Team Edward or Team Jacob more confidently than Paris or London.

It’s true that I am 27 years old and have not read nearly the volume of so-labeled classic literature that I would have liked to be able to boast by this time in my life. But, for me, it’s akin to choosing between chocolate cake and fruit in the middle of the afternoon. Most of the time I will choose chocolate cake because that is more immediately gratifying, and it’s just so much fun. Besides that, most of the time I honestly have very little power to deny myself chocolate cake anyway. And even if I do stop myself and choose the fruit over the chocolate – discipline over fun – I’ll do so grudgingly, thereby zapping all enjoyment from my afternoon-snack experience. Suddenly, having a snack feels like a chore, not a reward or treasured escape.

But every now and then, on a rainy day or perhaps during a full moon, I will actually crave the fruit instead of the chocolate. And on these days, I will eat the fruit, and I will appreciate it, and I will suck every last drop of juice from it. And afterward, I will feel gratified, not only because the experience was pleasurable but also because I feel good and healthy about what I just consumed. But the next day, it’ll be back to the chocolate without remorse.

When it comes to books, maybe I will always have more contemporary reads in my repertoire than classics. But the cool thing is that, eventually, some of those may become classics too. Of course, I probably won’t be alive to see that happen. But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Life is too short not to choose chocolate.

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11/22/63, by Stephen King

The first question anybody asks upon finding out that I finished Stephen King’s newest novel is some version of inquiry implying that what they really want to know is whether I would recommend they read it themselves.

Unlike with Unbroken, I could not give it a sweeping recommendation. Nor could I give a sweeping, neon-flashing-lights warning not to read it, as I did with the Twilight series. The best I can do is the same type of qualified recommendation I gave for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book 2 of which I’m currently reading), although I’m willing to be a little more liberal with 11/22/63. (By the way, I’ve had a few questions about the pronunciation of the title, stemming mostly from what I assume to be people’s ignorance [mine included, at first] of what the title actually references. As far as I’m concerned, you can pronounce it Eleven Twenty-Two Sixty-Three or November 22, 1963 or whatever makes you feel comfortable. It is a reference to a historical date, however, and I prefer the former pronunciation.)

If you’re new to Stephen King, 11/22/63 is possibly both the best and worst book for you to cut your teeth on; best because, as far as I’m concerned, this is his magnum opus and by a large margin his easiest read, even trumping some of his shorter ones, such as Cujo and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; worst because, when it comes to getting a good feel for King’s narrative style, this book isn’t going to do it for you. If you’ve never read Stephen King before because of a preconceived notion you have about his typically well-known genre, cast aside your assumptions and pick up 11/22/63. If you love it, do not assume, however, that his other books will be so enjoyable (they might be; but in a very different way).

If you are a Stephen King fanatic, you’ve probably already read the book and therefore don’t need a recommendation, but just in case you’re looking for one, my advice is to be careful. I hesitate to say King loyalists will love this book, only because there is very little in it that makes it similar to all he’s done before. Of course, I’m not an expert and certainly haven’t read the King Canon in its entirety, but I’ve read my share and can speak with a fair amount of confident authority on the matter. I’m not saying loyal King readers won’t love it; I’m just saying it probably won’t be for the same reasons they love all his other stuff, unless a principal reason is his demonstration of diverse talent and skill, which this book certainly reveals.

In an attempt to sum up without actually spoiling the plot (sometimes I care about this and sometimes not; this time I apparently do), those who haven’t already figured it out should know that 11/22/63 is the date in history of JFK’s assassination. The premise of King’s novel, therefore, is a basic (ha! or, rather, anything but basic) time-travel scenario in which protagonist Jake Epping uses a portal to travel to a specific day in 1958. He lives from 1958 to 1963 as George Amberson, a (literally) prescient but basically ordinary-seeming high school English teacher. His aim in spending five years in the past (which, in true Narnia style, always amounts to a mere two minutes of passed time in present-day 2011) is to research and prevent the president’s assassination – a mission that Jake/George isn’t even all that passionate about. He has agreed to attempt to finish the job a friend of his started and died trying to accomplish.

What follows is a delightfully page-turning account of his progress in this endeavor, which is chock full of misadventures spanning a wide range of reader interest, such as politics and plenty of historical context for the poli-sci geeks and history buffs; baseball, horse racing, and boxing recaps for the sports lovers; mafia-related action and violence for the thrill seekers; and a good-ol’-fashioned love story for the hopeless romantics.

For those who are looking for a little bit of consistency, 11/22/63 includes all the Kingian elements that make his writing so unique. The book contains a strongly masculine (and sometimes cynical) narrator; a feel of the mystical, that otherworldly yet absurdly realist quality that is King’s trademark specialty; a dry and brilliant wit; references to his other works (most notably It, in this case); and – book-ending the main character’s stint(s) in Dallas – a Maine geographic setting that includes Derry and the Barrens, those memorable landmarks that show up so frequently in King’s work.

On the other hand, despite all these familiar elements, King has also proven that he isn’t too old to try something new, adding experimental pieces that give the book that special punch – like the obviously well-researched historical backdrop, a romance that takes center stage (not something I’ve ever experienced in a King novel or short story), and a plot that never. slows. down (thereby transforming a monstrous tome into an unbelievably quick read).

The end is predictable in some ways yet somehow still fully satisfying. The book as a whole is a testament both to the largeness and the smallness of humanity. On one hand, it makes the point that one person can have a singular and life-changing effect on history and the world just by performing one small act. On the other hand, there is what I would consider to be an even more significant message that it’s ridiculously arrogant and small minded for one person to presume his opinions and puny existence could leave any lasting impression on the world whatsoever. The thread that reconciles this dichotomy is that you never know which case it will be or when. One person in history will change the world forever while another who stands right next to him will be blurred out of the world’s collective memory forever.

The believability of King’s time-travel scenario is downright eerie and is probably the skill that impressed me most in this novel. Of course, as with any novel that pushes boundaries of reality or borders on magical realism, there are inconsistencies and holes in the plot, some of which finally get explained in the end and some of which do not. But then, I’m not positive that any author has ever been able to cover all the holes and gaps in a given plot. If I had been SK’s editor, there are a few more details I would have pushed him to hammer out, but as they say, writing can be finished but never complete… In any case, King has crafted a commendably better and more compelling read than Audrey Niffenegger did with Time Traveler’s Wife (which was ragingly popular a couple years ago), so for that, he is to be, at the very least, applauded.

So are you convinced to pick it up? If so, let me leave you with this caution: I began this book on a night I intended to turn in early. I crawled into bed, bringing the book with me, and said out loud (ask my dog if you don’t believe me), “I’ll only read for five minutes unless the first page can somehow manage to hook me completely.” Famous last words because that’s exactly what the first page did, and I groaned when I reluctantly turned out the light an hour and a half later. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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