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Airplane Reading

What does one read on a long-haul flight?

It’s a more complicated question than you think. You want a book that isn’t too thick that it becomes cumbersome to carry, but not so thin that you finish it before you land. You also want a book that is entertaining and that doesn’t require too much thought but yet won’t make you feel like you are losing brain cells by reading it.

I tend to go for thrillers, sci fi/fantasy and the occasional bit of chick lit myself.  Here, a few suggestions which, in my humble opinion,  make the time (and the miles) fly by:

THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville

Long before the DaVinci Code, Ms. Neville was writing thrillers about secret societies, lost artifacts, puzzles and codes and the like. There’s a very “movie” feel to her books and that’s a good thing when you’re on a plane because you can kind of forget where you are for a while.

“The Eight”, in particular, is a lot of fun. It involves a chess set that holds a code that unlocks a secret. This chess set is broken up into pieces scattered all around the world. Neville makes us journey through time and continents to put everything together again. Freemasons, the KGB, chess players, a feisty French nun, a fortune teller and a whole bunch of historical figures accompany you through this romp.

STORY OF MY LIFE by Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney is not a name you would normally associate with airplane reading, but this particular novel (written all the way back in 1987 and still fresh as paint today) works really well.

As with most of McInerney’s books, this one tells the story of a young person’s apparently glamorous life and the tragic reality behind it. The young person in this story is Alison Poole, twentysomething postmodern girl, and her crew of life-in-the-fast-lane friends.  What makes it so terrific, though, is that it is told in Alison’s voice and Alison happens to be funny as hell (and if you read McInerney, you know that funny as hell is not a description that generally goes with his work). She’s  so completely candid and real and so likeable in her own twisted way that you’ll be turning the pages praying she gets out of whatever mess she happens to be in at the same time that you are laughing at the absurdity of her situations.  As the train wreck that is her life careens toward its inevitable conclusion, you realize that there are hundreds of Alisons out there to this very day. Victims of time and place whom, you can only hope, will be able to extract themselves from it all. By the time you’ve finished ruminating about that, your plane will be landing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION by Lauren Willig

Here’s a bit of silliness for you. Historical chick lit, or Period Rom Com, if you will.

“The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” is  the first in a series that I am wanting to get my hands on. I picked up the second book in the series (The Masque of the Black Tulip) first, and now I want to read them all.

Set around the time of the French revolution, these books might best be described as romantic spy capers. An odd sounding hybrid, but it works quite nicely. The Pink Carnation is an English spy wannabe who aspires to be the next Scarlet Pimpernel. That’s a tall enough order considering she is a girl, but it is all the harder because she is expected to be coming out in proper society and to make a good marriage match.  Complications abound,  romance  blossoms, bosoms heave and lives are endangered. I love it!

Willig did not set out to write a serious set of books, she did it for fun to relieve the stress of her grad school exams, and FUN is the operative word here. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek as she turns the historical romance and espionage genres on their ears to come up with this madcap hybrid. Lighthearted, fast paced, entertaining and not badly written either, in terms of dialogue, you could do much worse than to pick up one of Willig’s books before boarding that aircraft.

You’re not going to come away with anything deep, but who cares?

WHERE THE TRUTH LIES by Rupert Holmes

I know. I know. RUPERT HOLMES?!?! The guy who wrote the Pina Colada song? (Correct title: Escape, for those of you who nitpick about that sort of thing). The guy responsible for “Terminal” and that answering machine song? HIM?

Although he may be best known as the guy who wrote several annoyingly catchy songs-with-stories in the late 70’s-early 80’s, Rupert Holmes is also the author of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, a Tony Award winning musical.(It was a whodunit where the audience decided each and every night on who the murderer was) The man can write, and his storytelling prowess is evident in this mystery novel. A girl is found dead in the room of a once-famous hollywood comedy duo and while neither is accused, this becomes the cause of the break up of their act. Years later, a young journalist decides to investigate what REALLY happened and finds herself involved neck deep in something likely to make her the next victim. I was surprisingly entertained and found myself gobbling up this book.  And now I find out they’ve made a film! OOH! Rupert, my man, you’ve got skills!

And admit it…you’ve all sung that Pina Colada song with gusto at one time or another.

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I know it sounds like a bad joke, but there you go. I first stumbled upon the trailer of the film version of “Let The Right One In” sometime last year. It looked eerie, with a very European film festival feel (hazy, stark and  subtitled). Later on, I found out it had been based on a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist. This week, I finally got to read it and I have to tell you…it was creepy.

Any horror story becomes ten times more horrific when there are children in it. Remember the Omen? The Exorcist? The Bad Seed? Lindqvist’s book is no exception. The story revolves around the friendship between 12-year-old Oskar and his strange next door neighbor, Eli. Oskar lives with his mother, is bullied at school and occasionally visits his alcoholic father. Eli only comes out at night, is highly intelligent and can see in the dark. As the two become closer, Eli helps Oskar deal with his tormentors and Oskar becomes privy to Eli’s strange past and bizarre condition.

As vampire books go, it strikes all the right notes. It stays true to the conventions of the genre and does not glamorize the vampire in any way. Eli is not a beautiful, sexy, invincible vampire. Though she has extraordinary strength, in many ways she is vulnerable. She is often smelly because she forgets to bathe. When she is not able to feed for a few days she begins to look weaker and her hair whitens. When the vampire instinct overtakes her, she yells at Oskar to flee because she knows she cannot help herself. There is also plenty of gore and a lot of don’t-go-out-in-the-dark moments if you are into that kind of thing (and if you dig horror novels, you probably are).

What makes “Let the Right One In” shine to me, though, is its ambiguity. I love books where things aren’t black and white. It’s not always easy to tell who is truly good and who is truly evil here. Everyone is defined by their motives and in many cases, the humans are less humane than the vampires. When Oskar finds out Eli is a vampire for instance, he is horrified. But Eli reminds him that he would kill people if he could, because he wants to. She does it because she has to. You get the sense she wouldn’t, if there were any other way.

Read this book when you want a good scare creeping up your spine, then double your pleasure by seeking out the film. It’s been very well reviewed and the clips I’ve seen online look terrific.

Ah Sweden, you fascinate me.

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Book Club Day!

After a considerable hiatus, our Book Club finally had a meeting today! It was the first one for this year and I had a great time.

There are lot of really tall girls in our club and then there are some very petite ones (myself included) and when we are together it kind of resembles a meeting between Hobbits and Elves (the tall ethereal Tolkien kind of Elves). It’s a group of 10 when we are all there (which has happened maybe twice in our history) and we’re all roughly the same age. We like our discussions to be light and lively and always accompanied by good eats! Our goal is to pick up books we might not ever have thought of reading otherwise and so we tend to be eclectic in our choices. We haven’t done too many of the Book Club standards but we HAVE read Antonia Fraser’s “Marie Antoinette”, David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (whose reading we all trooped to hear when he was in town) and  “Twilight” (many of us have young daughters and wanted to see what the fuss was about). Go ahead and try to figure out what those titles have in common!

At the discussion today, we worked our way through a set of guide questions and a bottle of rosé and then we gave the book our star rating (it averaged 4 out of 5 stars) and cast our own hypothetical film version (votes for Kalle Blomkvist included Liam Neeson and Leo di Caprio and for Lisbeth Salander we were thinking a younger Bridget Fonda or Natalie Portman or any other waifish girl who has played a young assassin in her career). This is generally how all our discussions go, whatever we are reading, although sometimes a book inspires us to be creative. Hence, we have gone dancing barefoot in the moonlight (Mists of Avalon), donned disguises at lunchtime (Garlic and Sapphires) and eaten all sorts of themed meals (Persian for The Kite Runner, high tea for Pride and Prejudice, Chinese for Empress Orchid).

The book for discussion was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and for once, everyone at the meeting actually read the book. This is a rarer occurrence than you would expect although I have found that it is the same for book clubs the world over!  Theming our meal this time would have meant Swedish meatballs OR boxes and boxes of frozen pizza (Lisbeth Salander’s meal of choice) so we nixed that idea, thank goodness. Next month, we’re doing “Alice in Wonderland”. I am planning the mad tea party as I speak!

It sounds a little nerdy but a book club can really be a great way to share the reading experience. I’m quite happy that I’m in one. Just thought I’d say that. 🙂

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In the wake of “Alice”, a few more film versions of some of my favorite books which I found lacking. Have you got any more to add to this list?

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Based on the novel by Philip Pullman)

If you never read this first book in the  brilliant, beautiful “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman, the film’s plot probably won’t make any sense to you. The books deserve a post all their own but the film? Eh.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore)

Nemo’s got the Nautilus. Quartermain’s got that Indiana Jones vibe around him, Mina Harker has seen Dracula and lived to tell the tale. The Invisible Man and Jekyll/Hyde…obvious candidates. Dorian Gray? For me, an unecessary addition but fine, fine. He’s got that thing going with his portrait. But TOM SAWYER?!?! COME ON! Someone tell me how on earth he qualifies as extraordinary, especially beside THIS cast of characters. The graphic novel was way, way better.

THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (Based on the novel by Tom Wolfe)

This is why we should never make films out of Tom Wolfe books. They are big, juicy things meant to be savored and enjoyed for the richness of the writing. For terms like “social x-rays” and “masters of the universe”! For characters so excellently developed that they just jump off the page! For the way that all these characters’ lives somehow twist and turn to come together! A Tom Wolfe novel comes out about once every 10 years and each one is cause to celebrate. Each one is also crazy thick, making it well near impossible to condense any of these books into a 2-hour movie, no matter how much star power you use.  This film featured Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Melanie Griffith. And it STILL sucked.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Based on the book by Maurice Sendak)

This is actually a beautifully shot film with a soundtrack that I’m dying to buy. The problem is, it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book upon it was based. “Where the Wild Things”, the book is a positive, upbeat adventure…it’s a joyful thing, really. Max, the book’s protagonist is a naughty boy to be sure. But somehow you know his naughtiness is more the standard-issue rambunctiousness of a little boy, and that he is generally happy and content, sometimes quite nice and always loved. The Max of this film is a kid with issues. He misses his dad, his teenage sister ignores him and his mother, although loving, has her own problems. Too much angst, not enough wild rumpus.

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We’re All Mad Here

I love “Alice in Wonderland” and I love Tim Burton so I fully expected his new film to be a match made in heaven. I finally got to see it today, in glorious 3D. It looked marvelous and I had as good a time as I always have when watching a Burton film. Yet I felt a little underwhelmed. Curiouser and curiouser.

The book is a Burton film waiting to happen and if he had stayed true to the text, it would have been a match made in heaven. Instead, he sets his film several years later. Alice (Mia Wasikowka) is now 20 years old and returns to Wonderland to save everyone from the tyrannical Red Queen (played marvelously and maliciously by Helena Bonham Carter). She is aided in her quest by her old friends, the Tweedles, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the White Queen (Ann Hathaway who wasn’t half bad. Her Disney-princess-gone-awry aura is slyly funny and more than a little creepy) and of course, the Mad Hatter (no one plays Mad  like Johnny Depp, although maybe he should lay off playing the loonies for a bit as it is all I remember him doing in the last few years). There are also some really cool CGI cast members including the spot-on Cheshire Cat and Absolom the Caterpillar (voiced very wisely by Alan Rickman). Individually, I loved them all. However, you can have all the terrific characters in the world but without a good story the point is moot, and the story here is as weak as the March Hare’s tea. I’m not an Alice purist by any means. I read and watch every single Alice-based story I can get my hands on and truthfully, there are far superior ones out there. This screenplay has, as the Mad Hatter says, made  the Alice story lose a lot of its “muchness”.

Three things I liked about it, in no particular order:

1.) The excellent cast, as mentioned above.

2.) The film’s wonderful look and feel. Burton’s vision is like no other and this is a visual treat.

3.) Danny Elfman’s score.  He is the musical equivalent of Burton and together they are unstoppable.

And some things I disliked, again in random order:

1.) The fact that the Red Queen is actually the Queen of Hearts. In the book, she is a chess piece. She and her sister the White Queen figure in “Through the Looking Glass”, which takes place on a chessboard.  The Queen of Hearts, she of the tarts and card soldiers and rose garden, is from the first book. These things bug me.

2.) The Mad Hatter in this film seems to have both a conscience and a heart. His madness is the thing that makes him HIM.I don’t like my hatters even slightly lucid at any time. Nor do I want them sentimental. I like them gleefully mad. Or sinister and mad. But please, just mad!

3.) The general lack of wit and wordplay that was so prevalent in the books.

I  waited an entire year for this film and while I had a good time,  in the end it did not make me feel as satisfied as a really good film should. Three out of Five teacups for this one.

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What’s in a name? Plenty if you are talking about sequential art. I get this a lot:

“You’re reading COMICS?!?! Aren’t those for kids?”
“They’re not comics! They’re graphic novels!”
“Oh, okay!”

I don’t really know what the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel is, other than size and format, but apparently if you say something with enough conviction people will believe it is so. Having said that, I love the stuff.I’m not a superhero loving, slap-it-onto-a- backing-board-wrap-it-in-mylar collector. I just really love reading comics. Graphic novels. Whatever. There’s something out there for everyone in this genre and all you have to do is keep an open mind and look around.

Here, some of my favorites.

ps. For this post, I am leaving out the manga, the alternative super heroes and the more esoteric titles, all of which I read and love. Those are for another day. Here I tried to concentrate on titles most accessible to everyone.

BREAKFAST AFTERNOON, SLOW NEWS DAY and DUMPED

by Andi Watson

I love Andi Watson and hope to one day read everything he has ever written. These three are particular favorites. They’re stories about ordinary people just trying to deal with what life throws them, whether it be unemployment, an unexpected romance at the office, or  of the art of letting go (of things, of people, of whatever).   Watson understands it all so well and tells it in such a beautifully simple way. Plus I really love his drawing style. These books are like little movies that you can finish over a cup of coffee.

CASTLE WAITING by Linda Medley

This was out of print for quite some time before it finally got rereleased in a thick hardcover edition. Buy your own, I’m never lending mine out.   It’s about an enchanted castle, and the creatures that inhabit it, and about a girl seeking sanctuary. It’s got fairies,pixies,talking animals and a religious order of bearded ladies…it’s completely magical and completely real. It’s so well-told and it’s funny and very wise. It’s simple enough for a 9-year-old to enjoy and complex enough for adults to savor. Just read it. Trust me!
(note: “Castle Waiting” is the only book on this list suitable for children. comics are for kids? pshaw!)
DEATH: The High Cost of Living and DEATH: The Time of Your Life
by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is an amazing writer and Death is by far his best creation in my mind. She eclipses her brooding brother Dream (aka Gaiman’s enormously popular Sandman) and all the other immortals in her family because she is just so gosh-darned cool. Doing away with all that grim reaper nonsense, Gaiman’s Death is a young girl who becomes mortal once a century  that she may better understand the lives of those she takes. She is not something (or someone) to fear. She’s beautiful and friendly and seems to have a real zest for life, and somehow it makes perfect sense that it is her job to take people when it is time to die.  These books were my introduction to the world of Gaiman. I’ve been quite the fan ever since but these remain my favorites.
BLANKETS by Craig Thompson
This hefty book is impossible to read in bed, but I can’t imagine removing a  single word. It’s a memoir and it follows Thompson’s struggle growing up in a strict, fundamentalist Christian household, his first love and, ultimately, his first heartbreak. It’s poignant and it’s bittersweet and you kind of grow up with Craig as you read the book. You might even find yourself pondering questions about faith (or the lack thereof).
Now that I’ve started, I can’t quite seem to stop. There are at least a dozen other titles in my head! But let’s leave this list short and sweet for the meantime and avoid sensory overload. More graphic novel posts in the future. In the meantime, I’m going to go read me some comic books! 😉


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Really Smart Kids

Harry’s got a wand.  The Pevensies have Narnia. Percy just happens to be descended from Greek Gods. With all the fuss about kids’ fantasy novels, many might overlook these three classic and perfectly wonderful titles about kids who are just…well…kids. They are smart and sassy but also annoying and weird. Some of them are brats…almost. None of them are popular at school. They’re mere mortals for sure, but they are anything but ordinary and their stories are immensely re-readable. Give these to your favorite young reader or keep them for yourself, I’ve done both several times over.

THE WESTING GAME

by Ellen Raskin

This Newberry Award winning mystery is a whodunit covered in riddles and wrapped up in a puzzle, and never before and never since have I read anything quite like it. It begins, like all proper mysteries, with a corpse and a reading of a will. Not only does the deceased claims one of the heirs is a murderer, he also informs everyone in the room that one of them has been chosen to inherit millions! Provided he…or she…wins the Westing Game. The prospective heirs are a bizarre bunch and include ” a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.” Armed with nothing but paper clues, they race against time, and each other,  to find the murderer AND win the money. What do i like about it?

FIRST-You have to THINK to get through the Westing Game and in this day and age, I think that’s a good thing. SECOND-It’s not age-bound. Yes it’s for kids, but believe me…it’s more Agatha Christie than Nancy Drew. The language is easy enough for a tween to understand, but the plot (and its solution) will confound everyoneTHIRD-I love Turtle Wexler. She’s thirteen, she kicks people in the shins (usually when they really deserve it) and she’s so ornery but she never backs down from a dare, she could probably hold her own in a fight and she’s just so smart!

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh

If Harriet were a contemporary heroine, she’d be a blogger for sure. How lucky we are, then, that she was created in the pre-internet days! Our intrepid spy traipses around her neighborhood observing people and jotting it all down in her notebook. When her friends get a hold of the notebook, all hell breaks loose.

I loved this book growing up, although I’d be hard pressed to tell you why. It was only when I got older that I realized why it struck such a chord with me. It’s because it’s so realistic. Eleven is an age where everyone can turn on you at the drop of a hat and, just as quickly, decide they like you again. It’s an age where everything and nothing make sense at the same time and it’s probably the age where you are most likely to be ignored (too old to need constant watching, and also too young to need to be watched constantly.There’s a difference. Think about it). It’s also the age where things start going all grey instead of black and white and where you learn that sometimes, the truth is something best kept to yourself. A very wise book, and truly funny too.

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg

Like Harriet, Claudia Kincaid is eleven years old and like Harriet, she feels misunderstood and confused. Claudia, however, is pro-active. Not happy where she is, she decides to run away and she takes her kid brother Jamie with her too. Where does she choose to go? The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their survival there is a great adventure all on its own. The children hide out in the bathroom at closing time,  sleep on period furniture and take their allowance from the coins in the museum fountain. Then they also manage to get mixed up in a mystery involving a Michelangelo sculpture and a very special old lady. You’ll never see a museum quite the same way after you’ve seen it through Claudia’s eyes.

To this day, I re-read these books every few years and there is never a time these titles were not in my possession. They never get old and they never feel dated. When you think about it, that’s really kind of magical.

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