Monthly Archives: August 2014

Have You Seen These?

PopcornI love movies! Since it’s part of my job to keep up with the latest books being made into movies, I usually have my finger on the pulse of what’s in production or about to appear at the box office—not to mention that I am a devout Netflixian. Every once in a while, though, someone will tell me about something that managed to sneak by me while I was watching reruns of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Here are two really good movies that you may have missed.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris movieMy brother, who recommended this film to me, is a Woody Allen fan. I used to be, but as the years went by, Allen seemed more and more to be part of a very small club made up of neurotic people who live in Manhattan. This film, though, is nothing like that. It’s about neurotic people who visit Paris, so that’s much better. An engaged couple and her parents visit Paris, and as the groom-to-be (Owen Wilson) wanders the streets late at night, he somehow travels back in time to the 1920s heyday of writers and artists from all over the world who called Paris home. What a thrill to meet Hemingway, Salvador Dali, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, and many others.

Running around with the cool people at night causes this young man to look at his own life differently, and to make some radical changes. In case you’ve never noticed it before, Woody Allen writes dreadful female characters. Not that the writing is anything less than sterling, but the women themselves are manipulative shrews. Good thing all such women live in Allen’s world, since all of us down here are sweet magnolia blossoms.

If you love Paris, writers, artists, or just a great story, you will savor this movie.

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals movieI mentioned to my colleague, Janet, that I really enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and she suggested this small-budget film. It’s based on Alexie’s adult novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Two teenage boys living on a Coeur d’Alene reservation have known each other all of their lives, through tragedy, family difficulties, and just plain boredom. Thomas is a nerd, and Victor is a troublemaking jock. Victor’s father, who saved Thomas from a fire when he was an infant, left his wife and child long ago. When they find out that Victor’s father died, Thomas offers Victor the money to go collect his father’s ashes if he will take him along. Since the young men are rarely together for five minutes without irritating each other, this promises to be a wild road trip.

Sherman Alexie writes unflinching novels and poems about Native American life. Although he deals with grinding poverty and widespread alcoholism, he does so with sympathetic characters and a dark sort of humor. Smoke Signals explores the relationship between fathers and sons, a universal theme, in the context of an entire culture that is collapsing from oppression without and corruption within. The film ends with a quote from a Dick Lourie poem:  “If we forgive our fathers, what is left?” While this sounds thoroughly depressing, it is not. It is thought-provoking, to be sure, but the movie is endearing and funny and sad, and although the ending is not cheerfully happy, it is just right.

If you love road trips, quirky characters, Native Americans, and stories of personal growth, this is a great movie for you.

Both of these movies have some strong language. Smoke Signals is available on Netflix streaming. Enjoy!

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Dispatches on Race from North Carolina

Esther Meg Josie India

Sweet Cousins

As a long-time resident of flyover country, I am often stunned by the off-hand comments of media types that are accepted as fact. These people are cloistered into large urban areas such as New York and Washington, and learn about the South by watching Duck Dynasty or Deliverance. Perhaps they have a friend who knew someone who once had a layover in the Atlanta airport. In other words, they are as knowledgeable as someone who considers himself an Egyptologist because he has danced to “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Ferguson, MO

Ferguson, Missouri

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was watching the news while getting ready for a funeral. Like the rest of the country, I was horrified at what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. A young, black man was shot by a police officer, and the town erupted into violence, looting, and rioting, which the police, the Highway Patrol, and even the National Guard seemed unable to quell. One of the commentators on the news panel flippantly opined that we can’t expect anything else from the South, since they’re all racists down there. Wait.. what? The discussion continued, but no one even blinked an eye at this comment, let alone challenged it.

What a tidy way to distance oneself from the situation, though. “We” could never be “them.” We don’t live in the South. It’s all a matter of geography. No, it’s not. It’s all a matter of the darkness of the human soul, and there’s plenty of darkness to go around. The most startling racist remark I’ve heard in the past year or so came out of the mouth of a visitor from the Northeast. (I recently learned from Colin Cowherd that he is offended by the term “Yankee,” bless his heart, so I’ll refrain from using it.) She was expressing distaste at the generous diversity of our area, as if we lived in a bad neighborhood. We all stood there with our mouths open. This is our neighborhood, thank you, and we like it.

Mike and Bekah

Mike & Bekah

I had to turn off the television so that I could get to the funeral of a man from our church. It’s a good thing I was early, because the church was packed. Although I had not known Mike well, I had taken classes from him and chatted with him a few times. He was brilliant, of course, but also warm and friendly, and his wife, Bekah, is smart and fun. What I did not know until the representative from the C.S. Lewis Institute (the C.S. Lewis Institute!) spoke was that Mike was a major scholar who had taught in loftier places than our little church. He also composed music and founded a company. All these accomplishments were wonderful, of course, but that’s not what drew us to the church that day. It was our love for Mike as a brother in the Lord, and our love for his wife and kids. As Mike’s African-American family and Bekah’s white family filed into their seats that day, and as different mourners from our diverse congregation came up to honor him with music or memories, I looked around at our grieving members and wondered, “Could this much love and sorrow heal Ferguson, Missouri?”

One of the eulogists spoke of conversations he had had with Mike, who grew up in what he called “the worst zip code in the nation for young, black men”— somewhere near Washington, D.C., I gathered. Mike had been a gang member and a drug runner, a fact that most of us had a hard time reconciling with the quiet father of four that we knew. One day, the family came home to find that their house had been broken into and ransacked, and Mike was ready to run out and avenge himself on the perpetrators. His dad looked around and calmly said, “Let’s go get some dinner.” He refused to resort to violence and vengeance, and that was a turning point in Mike’s life. He learned that he did not have to act on his anger, but could rather choose peace. Mike became a Christian, went on to college and seminary, and… well, you know the rest. We are not doomed to act out a role in the play that our culture has written for us. We can choose the better way.

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Our son, Michael, and our foster daughter, Tiffany, in 1995

You may or may not remember the media guffaws and slurs over the photograph of the Romney family with their biracial grandchild. Their assumption was that the conservative grandpa was quietly having a stroke over this adoption. Now, I do not know the politics of our church members— since our elders wisely focus on the gospel, not temporal endeavors—but most people assume that evangelical church members are conservatives. In my thirty-some years as a Christian, I have never known a Bible-believing church—all over the South, mind you—that did not have at least one family who had adopted across racial or ethnic lines. Sometimes it is very deliberate, an effort to break barriers. Most of the time, though, it’s just a couple, overflowing with love, adopting kids who need their open arms. They know the challenges, and they joyfully accept them, because Jesus tells us to care for “these little ones in my name.” Diversity in our families and in our churches is a tremendous blessing to all of us, as we have the opportunity to dwell on our shared faith and all those things we have in common, so that we begin to see beyond race, to see that we are all just children in need of grace.

In the larger community, too, though, we normally live and work in peace and cooperation. When I left the funeral that day and made my way back to the library building, I mused a bit on our workplace. We are men and women, black and white, who spend eight hours together every day. We don’t tolerate each other; we like each other. We talk about our work, our families, and our rival sports teams. We complain about the weather and exclaim over cute shoes. We continually ask, “How are your kids?” We are exasperated with cranky computers, and of course, since we’re in a library, we spend hours talking about books and authors. Rarely do we consider race. However, on that day, I thought about the maybe-not-so-young black men that I worked with and realized that all of them were wonderful husbands and fathers. Did they come to a decision point in their lives and choose to rise out of poverty, or did they grow up in happy, middle-class homes and just followed in their father’s footsteps? I don’t know, but here they are now, making everybody look good.

Eli Mzee

Father and Son

Perhaps I am Pollyanna. I am a middle-aged white woman working in a quiet profession. I’m not a poor person living in the inner city, but neither am I a wealthy elitist, solving the world’s problems at a sanitary distance. I’m just an ordinary person, but I think that is the point. There are pockets of real problems in cities, sure, including the cities near me, and the media will always throw gasoline on any fire they can find. It’s what they do. But the civil rights movement happened more than fifty years ago, and although we need to remember its lessons the way we remember the Holocaust, we get it. I believe that most people are like me. We’re working for a living, raising our kids and grandkids, and participating in our communities. We’re ordinary people, and we’re doing okay. We are the ones who can make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream a reality. We really can judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. We do it by living our ordinary lives together, day after ordinary day.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else. Photos of individuals are used by permission.

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Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and the Happily Ever AfterFirst of all, I will clear up the burning mystery of this book, the answer to the question that everyone is asking: it’s pronounced EYE-la. Stephanie Perkins establishes that on page two. What a relief! Now we can move on to the story.

Isla just had her wisdom teeth out at home in New York the summer between her junior and senior years, and she’s under the influence of painkillers when she sees her long-term crush, Josh, at a favorite café. In a cringe-worthy scene, Isla gets the courage to speak to him, something that she would never do in her normal state of mind. The next day, she broods over the episode with her best friend, Kurt, an autistic young man one year behind her in school. They decide to return to the café the next day to see if Josh comes back to see her, but he doesn’t. Nor does he return the next day or the next.

Crushed, Isla arrives back at her exclusive prep school in Paris for her senior year, but Josh is only there infrequently. However, it begins to look as if he is truly interested in her! Could it be?

No one writes a sweeter teen romance than Stephanie Perkins. Readers will be glad to see all of the main characters from her previous novels, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, reappear in minor roles in this new work. I was surprised that the usual romance arc seemed to be all wrapped up early in the action, but of course, true love has to have some tragedy and misunderstanding for readers to be able to agonize over Isla and Josh’s relationship, so that we can really appreciate the satisfying conclusion.

If I had a quibble with the book, it would be the treatment of Kurt’s character. Perkins seems to expect the reader to assume that he is not available for any other role than Isla’s sexually-neutral buddy. This is a sort of cardboard slot often occupied by the gay sidekick, as in Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” series, for one example. On the other hand, I kept on dreading the equally artificial plot twist in which Isla rejects Josh and suddenly realizes that she’s been madly in love with Kurt (or he with her) all along. Kurt’s character is fleshed out a bit, but I was somewhat offended by the assumptions inherent in his portrayal.

Otherwise, Perkins’ usual interesting characters carry the story. Her heroes and heroines have pursuits of their own and lead independent lives, so they are not pathetically dependent upon one another. Neither Isla nor Josh is perfect, although Josh’s broody rebellion is often more attractive than Isla’s driven perfection. Isla overthinks everything, and since Josh is an artist, the reader is never sure if he will be able to bear the emotional strain.

I can happily recommend all of Stephanie Perkins’ novels to teens and adults who enjoy a fun, well-written love story. All of the books contain non-graphic sex scenes. Particularly recommended for Francophiles.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Spartan Up, Y’all!

As you know if you’ve been here for a while, David and I lost weight a couple of years ago by walking on a treadmill—and starving, of course. Well, the treadmill broke and twenty of the thirty pounds that I had lost have come creeping back. I’m not saying which of the three people in this house broke the treadmill, but I will say that it took me by surprise when I went to walk on it one day and nothing happened. We kept on meaning to fix it, but it needed the entire electronic console, and the treadmill was so old that they didn’t make it anymore.

Spartan Up

Yes, that is a duct tape spine.

Well, last week was quite eventful. I had an annual physical that did not go well, and David had a similar experience with his physician. Furthermore, I had yet another birthday, and to go along with this whole concatenation of events, the library received the book Spartan Up!, by Joe De Sena. In case you haven’t heard of Spartan Races, as I had not, they are events in which Joe tries to kill you so that you can feel better about yourself and life in general. Seriously, the runners have to sign a waiver that states that they might die, and they need to be OK with that. This interests me not at all, but the subtitle, A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life, got my attention. I was exactly at a point in my life where I needed someone to kick me in the backside (to be nice about it), and Joe is an undisputed expert at that. He is extremely motivational, and he gives his opinion as to what makes some people winners in life. First, just plain ol’ grit, the ability to endure pain over the long haul. Secondly, the ability to delay gratification (so hard!). Thirdly, the ability to constantly change your frame of reference. That one was tough for me to understand at first, but he spent some time on it. Simply put, for De Sena, the Spartan Race is created to be so long and difficult, and to be filled with so many surprise obstacles, that your brain and body will be pushed beyond their limits. If you do this sort of training often enough, you will be so tough that you will not whine as if your life is over if the barista makes your latté wrong. Your frame of reference will have changed.

De Sena is incredibly hard on himself. He has not always been an athlete, but rather had a desk job and was bored with life and unhappy with the shape he was in. He and a friend started staging races, began researching health and exercise, and eventually founded a huge company that hosts races around the world. He spends a lot of the book describing the events, most of which I skimmed, but if you like that sort of thing, they do seem amazing. His coaching, though, is what I was after, and he is so tough! If you hit the snooze button, you’ve already lost for the day. Run first thing every morning, so that everything else is easier. He is particularly fond of burpees, which I thought was a seed catalog, but I Googled it, and they are a particularly torturous type of exercise. Look it up; I could never even do one. Maybe some day. However, his training advice covers all areas of life, not just the physical, and I have reread those sections a couple of times. Good stuff, if you need some motivation.

Skechers Go Walk

My Skechers are not pink, but these Go Walks are just so cute!

Back to the birthday. I had unashamedly asked for money for my birthday, since I have needed a new winter coat for a couple of years. I had saved up a bit, and my givers were very generous (especially my husband), so after I ordered the coat, I looked up some walking shoes I had seen in a TV commercial just a few days earlier. Skechers Go Walk shoes are supposed to be very light and lined with a wicking fabric so that you can wear them with no socks. They have a finger loop in the back so that you can just pull them on. I immediately wanted some, since I need to remove all barriers that get between me and exercise, including putting on socks and lacing shoes. Plus, it may be a Southern thing, but I love to be as close to barefoot as possible as often as possible. They had lots of styles, and I got myself a pair of Skechers Go Walk Ultimates. Woo-hoo! I had a big plan to get up earlier, drive to work in my walking shoes, and walk in the lovely park behind our office building every morning. Getting up earlier would just about kill me, but I had read Spartan Up! by then, so I thought could do it.

2014-08-12 21.46.52

Facing the TV, so I don’t have to think too hard.

Just for fun, I clicked onto Craig’s List to see if I could find anything decent in the way of exercise equipment, and lo and behold, someone had just posted a Vision Fitness treadmill for a great price! It was a gym-quality machine, which we need because some of us might put too much stress on a small, folding treadmill. Maybe. David and I counted our pennies and leftover birthday money, and we could get it without being late on any bills, so I immediately texted the seller. We met him the next day, and he even had a big van so that he could deliver it despite the threat of rain. He was a really nice guy and was interested in our old treadmill. I told him he could have it if he took it away. So he, David, and Michael struggled to get this monster machine down the winding stairs and out the door with just a moderate amount of damage to the house and their backs.

I am still marveling at how all of these events came together. We have cleaned the annual birthday carbs out of the house, and I have walked on our new treadmill two days in a row now. My new shoes should be here within a week, and I hope they are as fabulous as they seem. I will go to see my doctor again in February, and I hope to wow her with my amazing progress. In the meantime, I am going around my house saying, “Spartan up!” to pretty much any situation that’s not meeting my expectations. Since neither of my guys have read the book yet, they just patiently sigh and say, “Yeah, whatever.”

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Two Hundredth Blog Post!

200 redWordPress has informed me that this will be my 200th blog post, and since I have also just had a birthday, it seems to be a good time to take stock, ponder, and set goals.

Fifty-seven of my last one hundred posts were book reviews, and another eleven were book-related. On the one hand, that is great, because it means that I am keeping up to date with my reading professionally and personally. It also helps me to think that I’m giving my readers good information so that they can find some great books that will suit their tastes and needs. On the other hand, I established this blog so that I could write more, and while book reviews force me to keep putting black squiggly marks on the screen, they are a very narrow form of writing.

2014-08-08 15.10.10Furthermore—and this is earth-shattering—I would like to read less. I do not review everything I read, particularly picture books and books that are just dreadful, so there is a lot more reading going on than is expressed online. This year, I do not plan to keep up with Newbery and Printz reading, and I hope to read more practical nonfiction and fewer novels, whether adult or children’s. 2014-08-08 15.11.04Of course, I will still read the children’s and teen books that rise to the top or are just favorites for me, but I don’t plan to read as many books, youth or adult, because I “should.” Here on the right is the stack of books that I decided to return to the library today.

On the other hand, here on the left are the three stacks that I decided to keep. I think the trick is to read the thick books first, so that the stacks look smaller. Stay tuned to see what actually happens with this resolution.

Charlotte with her plant

Eight of my posts this past year concerned the fight for the legalization of cannabidiol for the children who have intractable epilepsy. The blog posts were just the visible part of dozens of emails and phone calls to state legislators and their staff members, and I hope they motivated you to do the same. By the grace of God, we were able to see that legislation successfully passed, but now we are finding out that legalization does not necessarily translate into availability. I will probably have more to say on this topic in October. Please keep praying for these children.

My other posts this year have been wide-ranging conversations about my favorite music, movies, recipes, my trip to New York, and the view from the South. I’m still working on defeating diabetes through diet and exercise, and I hope to write a lot about that this year. If I don’t, it will be a dead giveaway that I’m not doing as well as I should. We’re all getting older, as my birthday reminded me, but the fun never stops. I am committed to learning and growing every day, and I hope to let my readers in on my latest interests. Part of the fun of working in a large library system is watching all the new books arrive on every conceivable subject. Someone out there is always thinking up something entirely new and fascinating, and other people are writing about something you’ve always cared about, but they say it in such a way that you want to yell, “Yes! That’s what I meant!” I cannot understand boredom. There is so much to explore!Blog reach 8-14

As you can see, I am still waiting for a reader from Greenland. Africa and South America filled in a good bit this year, and I’ve given up on China, of course; however, there must be some people who speak English in Greenland, right? One reader! That’s all it takes!

gamcock-logoAnd just in case you’re keeping track, I am still committed to joining my husband in his love of football. Maybe I’ll add another team this year, and maybe I’ll keep the tailgating part to a healthy level. In the meantime, I am looking forward to the very first South Carolina Gamecocks game on August 28th! Mark your calendars!

 

 

 

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