Monday, December 23, 2013

Entertainment Review 2013: Books

I'm a big fan of for maintaining my ever-growing list of must-read books, which currently stands at 252. What's interesting about this fairly substantial list is that, when it's time to choose a new title, I often have no interest in any of them. Or, if there's something I really want to read, it's unavailable to borrow from the library in e-book format.

Ah, the e-book. Having spent more than a decade in book publishing I thought I'd be forever devoted to holding a physical book in my hands, feeling the cover, turning the pages. Alas, I've strayed. Big time. Mostly it's about the convenience. If I can download a book to my iPad, I don't have to head out to the library to pick it up or worry about returning it on time. And when I'm eating lunch --alone, again-- I can pull out my iPhone and read and I feel a little less pathetic. I can't imagine how book publishing in its paper form is going to survive. There's just no reason to make that purchase. The exception is the book that changes your life, or the one you decide your family and friends must read. And frankly, those books are exceedingly rare.

But enough with my depressing prediction for book printers. Let's review the titles that resonated with me in 2013, none of which was actually published this year. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I only read 14 books this year, though I at least started 19. I'll confess to those I gave up on after I share this list of my top 10:
  1. Peace Like a River. My only five-star read in 2013. I loved every bit of this 2001 book. I don't know if would be categorized as Christian fiction, but even if it is, don't let that scare you. If you can appreciate the element of faith in a story, and believe in miracles, you'll like this one.
  2. Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Goodreads doesn't allow you to give 1/2 stars, but this one would have earned 4.5 stars. (I'm stingy with my fives.) Tell the Wolves I'm Home was published as young adult fiction, which I didn't know at the time, but it grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go. It dealt with AIDS and homosexuality, loss, and a young girl's love for the one person in her family who meant the most to her. 
  3. 11/22/63. I'm not a Stephen King fan, but my husband read this book about the day Kennedy was shot, and he highly recommended it. (Unlike him, I don't automatically rule out any book that my spouse suggests.) I really liked the time-travel approach to this story, and found myself returning to it in my head during the recent 50th anniversary of the assassination. 
  4. The Lakeshore Limited. I found the premise of this one really thought-provoking. If someone you had fallen out of love with, but were still intimately involved with, died during a tragic set of circumstances (i.e. 9/11), how would you react to that loss? Here's a description used on Goodreads: "A powerful love story; a mesmerizing tale of entanglements, connections, and inconsolable losses; a marvelous reflection on the meaning of grace and the uses of sorrow, in life and in art." Definitely worth a read.
  5. Cutting for Stone. A popular book club selection, Cutting for Stone is described as "Sweeping, emotionally riveting—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home." Highly recommended if you like literary fiction. 
  6. Running Barefoot. I think I got this one as a free BookBub offer. It's the story of an awkward 13-year-old musical prodigy, and her friendship with the new kid, Samuel, an 18-year-old Navajo boy. It can be considered young adult and/or romance, so it's not a deep or difficult read, but it was lovely and sweet.
  7. Art of Racing in the Rain. I try to avoid animal-related books; they almost always make me cry. This one was no exception. The dog's voice was compelling, but the human story was rather run-of-the-mill.
  8. Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Published in August 2012, this was one of the newest books I read and one that had a good deal of buzz and popularity with book clubs. In my Goodreads review, I described it as, "A fun and easy read that made me feel slightly more sane." Worth a read, but not a "must-read." 
  9. The Age of Miracles. Another popular book club selection, The story line in The Age of Miracles is quite unique and offers an interesting premise: The planet's rotation has slowed and all of human life is being irrevocably changed with each passing minute. To be honest, however, I can't remember how it ends, which makes me wonder how good it could have been.
  10. Grace, Eventually. It's not really fair to compare non-fiction to fiction, but Anne Lamott's book deserved to make the list. If you're not familiar with her, you should be. If the idea of reading a Christian book freaks you out, don't let it scare you away from reading any of Lamott's books. She herself has taken the long and winding road to faith and shares an honest, often irreverent look at its role in her life. 
Now it's time to fess up. I gave up on Jane Austen's Persuasion. I'm bowing my head in shame. While I could appreciate the humor and intelligence, I found it painfully slow, and the style of writing required me to pay serious attention to what I was reading. No skimming if I wanted to understand what was going on. I guess that's just too much to ask considering I do all of my reading in the few minutes before I fall asleep at night.

I also gave up on Private Life, The Witch of Portabello (a book club selection that was a little too out there on the astral plane for me) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan whose other books I've greatly enjoyed (particularly On Chesil Beach). In my Goodreads review of Sweet Tooth, I note that it would have helped tremendously to better know the state of the world in that time period (early 1970s), and being British would have come in handy, too. The story is intimately tied to time and place making it a tough read.

So that's my Year in Books. As always, I look forward to hearing about your favorites from 2013!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Movies and Television Year in Review

It's time for Freakin' Angel's 2013 Entertainment Review, one of our most anticipated posts of the year (an unsubstantiated claim). I have to confess that this was not a particularly good year in entertainment for me personally. You may recall that just over a month ago I reported a disturbing pattern of seriousness that appeared to be overtaking over my formerly fluffy downtime. Hence, this review may take a different tone than in years past. But let's get started and see where it takes us.

Let's begin with television. As I said in "Finding Light When Life is Heavy," in 2013 I found myself disappointed with my old television favorites. Once Upon a Time became too bizarre. Hart of Dixie lost its sexy sizzle. New Girl didn't feel so new, or funny, anymore. These mindless treats were replaced by Scandal, which at times was over-the-top disturbing. And I remain committed to Homeland even though Sunday's season finale was a heart breaker. I'm really enjoying Masters of Sex for the articles and I keep hoping I'll learn something. And just this past week I dove into the critically-acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black. As a side note, I must say that I'm already desensitized to the material in these programs. When I watched the first episode of Masters of Sex, what I was seeing (and hearing!) nearly gave me a heart attack (it didn't help that I heard one of the kids walking toward the TV room). Yet, when watching the almost equally graphic first episode of Orange is the New Black, I barely flinched. Interesting, right?

Call me sometime, Matt.
As for other television programming, the one show I'm still enjoying after a number of years is White Collar. I tell myself it's a great concept for a series and the stories are engaging, but if I'm being honest, I watch it because of Matt Bomer. Yes, I know he's not interested in me, or any other woman, but he's beautiful. Enough said. This winter I'm looking forward to the start of Downton Abbey, although if they keep killing off family members, I'm going to have to reconsider its place on my DVR. And, I'm considering returning to American Idol only because they brought Harry Connick Jr. to the judges table and I think he's beautiful too he brings a new level of credibility and class to the program. We'll see.

Moving on to movies. This is where I really failed to deliver in 2013. I don't recall another year in which I saw so few flicks. It pains me to think about how much popcorn I missed. Here are the films I  recall seeing. I've ranked them in order from "must see" to "meh."

  1. The Way, Way Back. A great coming of age story with the perfect balance of humor, angst and family dysfunction. 
  2. Don Jon. You may be detecting a bit of a theme here, but this was a really great movie about a guy's obsession with pornography and its effect on his relationships. It brings together family, religion, technology, society and cultural expectations. Once you get desensitized in the first scene with its heavy breathing and related noises, it's terrific. A good one for discussion and debate. Watch it with the marriage ministry group at your church!
  3. 42. Jackie Robinson's story. See it. 
  4. Frozen. I went to see this with my long-time movie companion, Rebecca. Just Rebecca, no kids. And I'm not ashamed in the least. While the story didn't wow me, the music was fantastic, with Broadway's best providing the voices. The visuals were also stunning. And -- spoiler alert -- a man doesn't save the day!
  5. Catching Fire. Not sure I liked this as much as The Hunger Games, but it's such a great story with such good actors and fantastic costuming and sets that you must see it on the big screen.
  6. Iron Man 3. As far as sequels go, the Iron Man movies are much better than most. 
  7. The Internship. Hope you didn't pay to see it like I did. Though I was with Ian, so it was worth every penny to have my 15-year-old son go to the movies with me. The Internship is good for a laugh, that's about it.
  8. Monsters University. I was having stomach issues and missed large chunks (no pun intended) of this one. But I hear it was pretty good. 
  9. The Great Gatsby. I watched it alone at the theater on a rainy afternoon. It served its purpose.
  10. Despicable Me 2. I agree with the critics. It just wasn't as entertaining with Gru as a good guy.
  11. Admission. I'm a big fan of Paul Rudd, but he didn't save this ho-hum flick.
  12. Blue Jasmine. Ah, the irony. I have not seen a single best picture contender all year, except for this one. I'll admit that Cate Blanchett was thoroughly convincing in her role, but the film was depressing as hell. Ain't nobody got time for that.
So that's it. A dozen 2013 movies. I encourage you to comment on the best films you saw this year, and your favorite TV programs.

In the next post we'll review my 2013 reads (books I read in 2013 versus books published in 2013). Till next time...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I'd heard good buzz about this book, which recounts Strayed's 1,100 mile solo hike on the PCT. A few chapters into it, however, I questioned why it made the best seller lists. Here was a woman who suffered the loss of her mother to cancer at the too-young age of 44, whose remaining family drifted away, who sought solace in the company of men despite her marriage to a good man, who gave heroin a try one-too-many times, and who had an abortion just days before she began her hike. If you watch television, you know that this is all fairly typical stuff. The hike itself was full of challenges, the biggest being that Strayed had no real experience that prepared her for such an arduous journey. One could say that she was a dumb ass for considering it. When you look at all the heartbreaking memoirs out there, Strayed's is just another in a long line of stories of redemption. Interestingly, it took a day trip to NYC to help me see Wild in a different light.

Rob and I were in the Big Apple on Black Friday to see Big Fish, a Broadway musical with its own story of redemption. That's not what triggered the connection for me, however. It was the ride home, beginning with the PATH to Journal Square where we'd parked our car. The train was packed, standing room only, and I was bundled up against the cold from our walk. Now inside, I felt like I was melting. I couldn't easily remove my coat and scarf and didn't want the burden of carrying them, so I "suffered" in relative silence. Then, just a couple stops into our route, a very intoxicated and/or mentally ill man boarded the train talking loudly to anyone and everyone. I was relieved that I wasn't the unfortunate individual standing right next to him, and I was quite glad that the train was full and that I wasn't alone, feeling anxious and concerned for my safety.

With the exception of the heat and the somewhat sketchy company, the ride to our station was otherwise uneventful and Rob and I walked to our car, happy to be out in the fresh air, about to head home. Soon, however, I became exceptionally hungry. We'd eaten lunch at noon and it was nearly 6:00 p.m. Anyone who has spent a day with me is well aware that I have to be fed at more frequent intervals. I'm like a zoo animal. My hunger had given me a headache and made me irritable. It doesn't take much to make me irritable. And that's when it hit me. I am a chronic complainer who could never in a million years take on a challenge like Cheryl Strayed's. This past Sunday I got a blister while trudging through the snow to meet my son who'd picked one hell of a day to run away from home. Limping with that blister reminded me that I needed to write this post. Ian running away during a snow storm reminded me that I need to get him boots and gloves and possibly have his head examined.

As I reflect more on Strayed's book, I believe one of the reasons I didn't think it was all that it was cracked up to be was because she didn't tell it right. She didn't make it sound exceptional. She didn't lay it on thick enough. She forgot the gratuitous play-by-play of her drug-fueled liaisons. The gory details of her every misstep on the trail. The book was terribly light on the melodrama, opting instead to communicate in honest and reasonable terms the realities she faced both before and on the trail. The news media is way more salacious in its story telling. But that's a post for another time.

With Strayed's story in mind and my Black Friday + Sunday revelations, I decided to challenge myself. I needed to see if I could survive something that would test me and push me to my limits. I wanted to prove to myself that I am stronger than I think I am. That I can do anything I put my mind to. And so...

I've given up soda for the month of December.

I know you think I've lost my mind. I should have started small, taken baby steps. But it's time to go big or go home. No more gliding through life with nary a care in the world. I am woman, hear me roar!

While it's still early in the month, I'm proud to say I've only broken down in tears of frustration on three occasions and only once have I become verbally abusive with my coworkers (it was during my lunch hour when I used to enjoy my daily Coca-Cola). The good news is that I think the candy bars are helping. I no longer shake uncontrollably or glaze over around 3 p.m. each afternoon. I've gained five pounds in less than two weeks, but at least I'm sticking to my commitment.

Most importantly, I now have confidence in my "wild" side, and the next time I set a challenge for myself, I'm going to go even bigger and braver. I may start making my bed and making dinner. I may stop cleaning up after my children and refuse to take them to school when they're running late. I might go crazy and start following through on all the idle threats that have been dramatically diminishing the effectiveness of my parenting. Perhaps I'll commit to a sport or activity that I've never been good at (which gives me many, many options). Maybe I'll vow to meditate and read the Bible daily. Oh, the choices. I welcome your suggestions as I prepare to face yet another challenge in my already dramatic and remarkable life. Be gentle.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pieces of Home

Before I begin, I have to apologize to all my Southern friends and friends with Southern friends. Last week's post about my social awkwardness offended more people than anything else I've written, including thoughts about race, sexuality and religion. That's saying something! Those of you who know me best know that I was aiming for humor when I commented on the geographic differences between women. It should go without saying that there are millions of intelligent and accomplished women across the country. When it comes to a sense of humor, however, well, that's another story. KIDDING! Let us stand united in our awesomeness! And now, let us give thanks for Thanksgiving ...

I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner last week the same way I have enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner for all but one of my past 40+ years -- at my parents' house. There was one year in which I temporarily lost my mind and decided to host the meal myself. Thankfully, I regained my senses and that never happened again.

My mom and dad have lived in the same house on Old Orchard Drive practically since the day I was born. There was something about being there this year that felt different, however. It wasn't just the newly refinished hardwood floor and a new look for the old coffee table. It wasn't the fact that my mom didn't make her traditional lettuce with bacon dressing (which I never liked anyway), or that I discovered there have always been onions in the filling (not to be confused with stuffing). No, this year was different in the way I saw my childhood home. It was as if I was looking at it from outside myself. Like I was seeing it through the many stages of my life and my parents' lives. Alright, I can't put it into words. Just work with me.

I'm sure the loss we experienced in 2013 was a major contributor to the "visions" I had on Thursday. Most of you know that two of my aunts, my mom's sisters and best friends, passed away within six months of each other. And other older relatives dealt with their share of health-related issues. These experiences were an unwelcome reminder of my parents' age, a fact of life that many of my friends are also facing. While I generally prefer to ignore all the signs that tell me they won't live forever, my parents are pretty matter of fact about their stage of life. For years, my dad has had a hand-written letter prepared with his "wishes," along with a "guest list" of names of those who are to be invited to his funeral (you better not piss him off if you want to make the cut). He's currently working on handcrafted wooden boxes for the cremated ashes of my mom's two living sisters, and I think my mom has put in a request for hers as well. Yes, it's definitely becoming harder to ignore.

In light of this new reality I'm being forced to acknowledge, everything at "home" came with layers of meaning and memories this year. I didn't just pull a glass from the cupboard. Instead I opened the cupboard and noticed the variety of glasses and recalled them being in those very same locations 30 years ago. It meant trying to remember if those Philadelphia Eagles glasses were a collector set from the supermarket or the gas station. It meant looking at the characters on those colorful kiddie cups and having no clue who they are. This year, there was more than a touch of nostalgia in the selection of serving dishes and trivets.

This year, playing Monopoly with Ian and my sister wasn't just about beating her as payback for more than a decade of Monopoly abuse. This year there was something sentimental about how worn the board and the money had become from years of use. There were memories of painting the little green houses and gluing them to a poster board for a school project. There was the annual reminder from my mom that she hates playing board games because I never gave her a break from them when I was a kid.

Though every room on the main floor of my parents' ranch home has been redecorated since I moved out
nearly 20 years ago, the basement is exactly as I left it. The same wood paneling and the bar that my dad built. The old fashioned ice cream table and chairs that had been my grandparents'. The same archery trophies on the shelves. The same muzzle loader and deer antlers on the wall, albeit with a couple new deer and fox skins. The same furniture, including the couch that Rob and I destroyed with a few years worth of premarital snuggling. The same gazillion-page Volume Library from 1977. It was like stepping back in time.

More than just the flashback of memories, I found myself wondering, "What will we do with all of this when the time comes?" My ever-prepared dad has given me directions for a number of things, but what about the rest of it? Will I ever be able to get rid of that dish, this game, those photos, that table, this bed, those records? I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to toss the plastic floor plant and that useless downstairs couch, but what about the hundreds of other little things that each hold some kind of meaning? I was both nostalgic and miserable just thinking about it.

Hopefully I'll have my parents for another 20 years and I won't have to deal with any of this for a very long time. For now, I'm just thankful to have a childhood home filled with countless good memories.