Friday, July 30, 2010

This is a Garden of Make Believe...

Growing up as a child in New Jersey, there was a terrific kids' show on television called The Magic Garden. Starring Carole Demas (who originated the role of Sandy in Grease on Broadway and appeared in commercials for Promise margarine in the 70s) and Paula Janis, the show combined songs, stories, lessons and jokes, along with a chuckling patch of flowers (the Chuckle Patch), a pink squirrel named Sherlock and a toybox called The Storybox, from where the stories came.

I remember watching this religiously in the early 1970s; I seem to remember I might have even had a record of theirs. Anyway, just taking a trip down memory lane and this came to mind.

Here's the opening number:

And here's the goodbye song, which never failed to make me sad the show was ending:

I've said it before and I'll say it again: God bless YouTube!!

Book Review: "The Lovers" by Vendela Vida

When Vendela Vida's The Lovers begins, Yvonne, who was recently widowed, has decided to take a vacation to Turkey and return to the city where she and her husband spent their honeymoon nearly 30 years before. It is the first time she's traveled since her husband's death, and she experiences a bit of a culture shock between her home in Vermont and the village in Turkey she is visiting. Soon she begins to realize her plans for a relaxing and contemplative trip might not have been the wisest thing, as being alone with her memories brings to light the challenges she had with her husband as well as the happy times. Her thirst for companionship connects her with Ozlem, whose estranged husband owns the house in which Yvonne is staying, and Ahmet, a young Turkish boy who takes a liking to her. As Yvonne's trip continues, both relationships face difficulties (one tragically), and she finds herself at odds with what to do next, both while on vacation and in her life post-travel.

This was a well-written book that had a lot of things going for it. The characters of Yvonne and Ozlem are very interesting and far more complex than you believe at first glance. And while the story is compelling and intriguing, as very little you expect actually happens, ultimately it left me a bit disappointed. While Yvonne becomes more frantic as the book draws to a close, the story's disjointed nature was jarring, and Yvonne's actions didn't seem true to her character. The ending also seemed a little abrupt for me, although it had been hinted at.

Vida's previous book, Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name is fantastic. I'd definitely recommend that one; this one, not as much.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Say What You Mean to Say...

As you might have been able to ascertain—either from my blog posts or if you know me personally—I don't have a tremendous amount of tolerance for people. And among my biggest pet peeves are passive-aggressiveness and people who won't tell you how they truly feel.

Now, I'm a fairly direct person. And even when I don't come out and tell a person that they're angering or upsetting me, my general lack of a poker face leads to emotional transparency, so you pretty much know how I feel. But others have this ability (and it's not an impressive skill, IMHO) to tell you they feel a particular way, when in reality, they feel completely different. And instead of taking the bull by the horns and telling a person the truth, they rely on subterfuge, sometimes even going so far as to build a person up when in reality, they cannot stand them.

Yes, the truth hurts sometimes. But what is to be gained by not confronting a person and pretending their behavior doesn't bother you, or pretending that you think their decisions are wise, when in reality, they're completely off-base? While there is value in letting a person discover their own problems, sometimes their problems are much more visible to others. And even if they don't appear to want your help or your advice, in the end, it's actually more valuable, you know?

I've been in this situation far too often, which unfortunately has left me with the inability to trust most people. I've left myself open to people many times, only to find myself stabbed in the back. Clearly I have my own issues, but it's a little unsettling to find yourself questioning everything a person tells you, wondering whether or not they're being truthful.

To my friends—and those who one day aspire to be my friends (how funny is that?)—I have a pretty thick skin. Don't be afraid to call me out if my behavior angers or upsets you. I'll be much more grateful in the long run, rather than discovering somewhere down the road (Manilow!) that you've been stabbing me in the back all along.

Strangely enough, nothing in my own life inspired this post, but once I started typing, it took on a life of its own. That being said, here's my piece of advice to everyone (credit to John Mayer): say what you mean to say. They've stopped giving out prizes to people for being nice to others, ok?

Book Review: "The Nobodies Album" by Carolyn Parkhurst

What a fantastically affecting, thought-provoking book. The Nobodies Album tells the story of Octavia Frost, an author of relative renown, who has just written her latest book, which is a collection of rewritten endings of all of her other books. As she readies to turn the manuscript into her editor, she finds out that her estranged son, Milo, a rock star, has been accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend, Bettina.

Octavia struggles with trying to rebuild a relationship with her son, despite all of the baggage both of them carry, having not spoken in more than four years. Interspersed with Octavia and Milo's story are the original concluding chapters of all of Octavia's novels as well as her planned rewrites of each. And as you get to know more about her life and her relationship with Milo, reading excerpts of each book becomes a more fascinating meditation on whether art truly does imitate life.

Carolyn Parkhurst is a terrific author. Her first book, The Dogs of Babel, is one of the most memorable books I've ever read, and this book proves she hasn't lost her touch. Octavia and Milo are fascinating, multi-layered characters, imbued with all of the foibles of real people struggling with life. There were several times I worried this book was veering into amateur detective territory or some other cliche, but happily, Parkhurst didn't steer me wrong. This is a beautifully written book which takes you on an emotional and intellectual journey, and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran" by Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield and I have a few things in common. Music is a defining characteristic in both of our lives (although he's a writer for Rolling Stone and I just have 15,000+ songs on my iPod) and we're both children of the 80s. (Ok, so the similarities end there.) Both topics are at the forefront of his funny new book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut.

Sheffield, who wrote the absolutely fantastic Love is a Mixtape (one of the best books I've read this year), truly loves music. While that book chronicled his ultimately tragic relationship with his first wife, told through mix tapes (remember them?), this book paints a completely accurate picture of teenage angst, the need to be "cool" and the desire to find true love, all against a backdrop of some of the most (and least) memorable bands of the 70s and 80s. From Sheffield's obsession with all things David Bowie to his passion for "new wave" bands like The Human League and Flock of Seagulls, this book even has a chapter dedicated to "cassingles" (cassette singles), which I had more than my share of! And as a reviewer said in Entertainment Weekly, how many books do you know that have a chapter dedicated to Haysi Fantayzee? Of course, given the title of the book, he often touches on the enduring popularity of Duran Duran, and how they are a band that seems to have an unending supply of female fans. (Sheffield's theory is that while they appreciate their male fans, they cater to girls and women. And most of the men who follow their music do so for the women in their lives.)

If you enjoy music commentary as well as a healthy share of humor, pathos, anxiety and angst, pick this book up, especially if you're a conoisseur of 70s and 80s music. And definitely read Love is a Mixtape too, as that one will make you laugh, cry and want to download a ton of songs from iTunes!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Am a Sap, Exhibit B...

I mentioned that the latest book I read, One Day by David Nicholls, left me emotionally unhinged, furthering my status as a sap.

Here's one way my emotional trigger-finger of sorts got nurtured. The commercial below is from the 1970s and 80s, for Bell System (the days before Verizon and AT&T). If this doesn't make you cry, you're an emotional iceberg.

Book Review: "One Day" by David Nicholls

My name is Larry Hoffer and I am an absolute sap. Seriously. I get teary-eyed when people win sports championships or awards; even some songs and television commercials make me cry. And so while it shouldn't come as a complete surprise to me, David Nicholls' terrific book, One Day made me sob. I mean, I came completely unhinged. Egads.

Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew connect at a party the night they graduate from college in Edinburgh. Dexter is good-looking, popular and privileged, fairly unaware of the world around him except where it directly affects him; Emma, of middle class origins, considers herself to be a bit non-conformist, although she has had a bit of a crush on Dexter throughout college. They nearly sleep together, but spend about a day and a half in each other's company. And this sets in motion a connection that spans nearly 20 years. One Day follows the peaks and valleys of Dexter and Emma's relationship on the same day—July 15—each year. Sometimes they're close friends; sometimes they're not. Sometimes one is romantically involved while the other isn't. Sometimes one experiences career success while the other struggles. One of the characters refers to Emma and Dexter as "Harry and Sally," and there is definitely elements of that film relationship in theirs. But the book is funny, thought-provoking, emotionally charged and even a little maudlin from time to time, especially if you're a sap.

This is a book about love, in many forms—friendship, romance, sexual attraction, marriage, parent/child relationships, unrequited crushes, etc. As Emma says at one point, "Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance." The book may be a bit predictable at times, and sometimes the characters aren't completely likeable, but I found this tremendously compelling and gripping. It has been optioned into a movie, and as much as I hate most film adaptations of books I love, I will definitely need to see this one, because much as its main characters felt about each other, this book has gotten hold of my heart. If you're a romantic—or just a sap like me—read this book.

The Kids Are All Right; Is the Message?

We saw a fantastic movie earlier today, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. (No, this one doesn't star Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend.) This is a brilliant film about Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a lesbian couple dealing with all of the usual struggles couples and families with children deal with, until Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor they used for both of their children, comes into their lives. His presence brings a number of hidden issues to light, especially when he begins an affair with one of the women.

I loved this movie. The acting is stellar; the story was humorous, heartbreaking and thought provoking. However—and I know I'm not alone in voicing this concern—I can't help but wonder if the affair that occurs between one of the women and Paul helps reinforce the oft-voiced view that homosexuality is a choice, not something you're born with. While the relationship in this film isn't viewed as a cure-all or even a temporary solution, and it illustrates the fluidity of human sexuality, I think those opponents of homosexuality who choose to see the film may use this as a palette from which to paint gay people as having control over whom they choose to love, that it is a psychological imperative rather than a genetic one.

I know I am more than happy with my life and am deeply in love with my partner. But I also know that if my sexuality truly was a choice, I certainly wouldn't have chosen the path that travels daily through discrimination, hatred, inequality and ignorance. Sexuality isn't a choice, although there are many in this world who choose to sublimate their true feelings to live an easier life—albeit not necessarily a happier one.

I hope more movies celebrating the relative normalcy of "non-traditional" families are made, but I hope that they illustrate that normalcy doesn't always include promiscuity; in fact, it does less than the "traditional" family does.

Friday, July 16, 2010

When the News Isn't Quite Newsworthy...

If you've ever read this blog, or even if you just know me, you're probably familiar with my general frustration with the media. Whether it's the general laziness I've seen in the mainstream media's not fact checking or at least providing counterpoint to outlandish political claims, or the media's unexplained fascination with so-called celebrities who do nothing celebrity-worthy, there's a reason I watch very little television and only listen to the radio for traffic reports.

I know, they're just doing their job. But here's why I am a bit frustrated.

The Un-Newsworthiness of the News
When I was putting out newspaper for the dog this morning (don't ask), a headline on the sports page caught my eye: Tiger Woods's on-course struggles may be rooted in his problems away from the game. At first I looked to see how old this newspaper was that I was putting out; after all, Tiger's problems started around Thanksgiving and he's been sporadically back on the tour for several months. But this story is from earlier this week.

Really? Is this still a story? Are there still people who think Tiger's struggles have nothing to do with the sinkhole his personal life has fallen into? How is this still newsworthy?

Relationships That Make You Go "So?"
The other story the media just can't get enough of this week is the engagement of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston. On the surface, this isn't such a big deal: he is the father of her child, after all. But what ups the ante here is that Johnston bashed Bristol's mother like crazy following the 2008 election, even promising to write a tell-all book about the Palins.

Now they're back together. And while I know I shouldn't care, I can't help but believe all of this is somehow orchestrated by the Palins to keep Sarah in the spotlight (not that she doesn't do a good enough job of this by herself). And more than that, I don't understand why this really is news. Is there nothing else out there?

Well, nothing super earth-shaking in this post, just a rant. I can do that. It's my blog...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: "The Passage" by Justin Cronin

Wow. This was quite a book. Many in the publishing world have labeled Justin Cronin's The Passage a great "beach read," but at nearly 800 pages, you'll need to work out a little first in order to hold the book up for such a long period of time! (Books like this are the reason I love my Kindle...) I've been a fan of Justin Cronin for a while, but his first two books are tame compared to this. Cross Stephen King's The Stand with a little of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain and Stephenie Meyer's vampires (although not the sensitive, brooding ones) and you've just scratched the surface of the book.

This is a gigantic, compelling story that starts in the not-too-distant future with a sense of foreboding, as a team of scientists and researchers travel to South America to research a vampiric bat virus. Only a few make it back alive. Fast forward to a Colorado laboratory, where a researcher has harvested the virus to create a more invincible soldier in the wake of the world's problems. The virus makes people immortal and indestructible, but of course, those are good things only in the right situation. The 12 human test cases—criminals rescued from death sentences—become a race of vampire-like creatures called virals. And then all hell breaks loose, as the virals escape and the virus sweeps the US and the world, and mass casualties, war and destruction ensue. Only a young abandoned girl named Amy holds the key to saving the world.

My description oversimplifies the book a bit, because in its nearly 800 pages, there's so much amazing plot and character development, I'd be sure to spoil some of the frightening and heartbreaking discoveries if I gave more information. While at times the book runs a little slowly, this is a phenomenal story, filled with characters you'll love and those you'll hate, situations that will make you cringe and those that will make you think. Of course, like all good books, Hollywood has already optioned the film rights, but I'd definitely recommend you read the book first. It may keep you up a few nights, but unlike The Stand you won't worry you're in trouble every time you cough! (Or maybe that was just me.) Seriously, read this one!