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27Feb/09Off

Book Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner is a kind of coming of age (and then some) story by Afghan-cum-American author Khaled Hosseini. It tells the life's story of Amir, a native of Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul. The novel starts with Amir's childhood, predating much of the country's civil and international strife with which more modern readers may be familiar. It was actually a pretty nice childhood, most of which Amir spent with another boy named Hassan, who despite being from a lower caste and being the son of Amir's household servant, is a good friend.

Things fall apart, though, after Hassan experiences a brutal attack that Amir might have been able to stop if he had been more brave and able to reciprocate half the loyalty Hassan has for him. This failure and the crushing guilt that comes with it haunt Amir and changes not only his relationship with Hassan but his entire life. To say more would spoil things a bit, but suffice to say that along with exploring some severe daddy issues, the rest of the book is spent seeing Amir's life go around the globe and coming full circle to redress his wrongdoings.

I enjoyed The Kite Runner well enough, and Housseini is a competent author with a good sense of pacing. It's very readable and things zip along quickly enough outside of a few bits where there's too much tromping around Northern Californian flea markets. And Amir is certainly a complex character who swings through a number of development arcs. Most of the book's energy comes from exploring his nature and seeing him pursue dreams and wrestle with the guilt that he can only bury, not shed. And there's some interesting stuff going on with his relationships --with his dad, with Hassan, and with others.

I also enjoyed learning about Afghanistan, its culture, history, and people. It was a new setting for me, and one that the author did a pretty good job of describing. One complaint that I have in this area, though, is that Housseini went WAY overboard with injecting phrases from the Afghani language into the narrative. I can see why he does this: it adds color and authenticity. And it's fine when referring to nicknames, cuisine, places, or anything else idiosyncratic to the culture. But when he injects Afghani words for common words like "souveneir" or "street" then it just gets distracting kludgy. It actually reminded me in that way of how bad fantasy novels will lamely inject phrases from dwarven or elven or whatever made-up language in an attempt at local color. What's worse is that Houssini doesn't really need to do this; he paints the culture vividly enough with other brushes so that he didn't have to over rely on this old trope.

Still, The Kite Runner is on balance pretty entertaining and different enough from stuff I normally read to be interesting.

Filed under: Books 1 Comment
25Feb/09Off

Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

Note: This is #8 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

After watching It Happened One Night I have come to two realizations. First, fedora hats TOTALLY need to come back in style. Second, I want Clark Gable to have my children. I think I only really have a shot at one of these.

The movie felt very much to me like a precursor to modern romantic comedy, only with much less sex. Sheltered socialite Ellie Andrews is feuding with her father over her plans to marry some jerk when she flees the scene entirely by jumping off the family yacht. Since her father is a man of some means, he institutes a massive manhunt (well, womanhunt) to find her. While on the lamb, Andrews meets rakish newspaper reporter Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable). He recognizes her but agrees to help her flee to her fiance in New York in exchange for a sensational story he can sell to the papers. Hijinks and adventures ensue, during which Andrews and Warne gradually fall in love and she has to choose between her millionaire fiance and this penniless but principled newspaper man.

I found the movie pretty charming and very watchable. Gable and Claudette Colbert (who plays the leading lady) give great performances, with sharp dialog and banter that feels mostly natural. Just watching them discuss how to dunk a donut in coffee feels like you're watching real people getting to know each other. The two characters have the standard "opposites attract" chemistry going on, and it's fun to see it at work. Gable in particular is entertaining to watch, and there's something about the way that men and women talked and dressed in that time period that makes me nostalgic for an era I never even experienced.

Like I said: fedoras. And suspenders.

Also this week: Jeremy reviews Nights in Rodanthe.

Filed under: Movies 3 Comments
24Feb/09Off

Week 265: Just Photos

Busy week this time, so I'm going to take it mostly easy and just post a few pictures. Here's some I took:

We also recently had a session with a "real" photographer who came over to our house to snap some shots of us and the girls. This woman is actually trying to get her photography business off the ground, so she cut us a great deal by charging no sitting fee and selling us prints for pretty much cost. In exchange, we agreed to let her use the pictures to build up her portfolio, which you can see on her website at http://www.spiritsbreezephotography.net.

I was surprised that she showed up with pretty minimal equipment -- just a DSLR with what looked like a 50mm prime lens. No assistants, no off-camera lighting, no reflectors, not even a flash. She had us move furniture around to take advantage of natural light, though, and I think the results were pretty great, especially after she did the post-processing. I'd recommend hiring her to anyone looking to get some professional shots, especially in her area of specialization, family photography. You can contact her at the link above or contact me and I can get you her info.

If you want to see for yourself, she also posted a bunch of shots from our session in her public Flickr stream (scroll down a bit until you see Sam). I've included some of my favorite shots above.

Again, more in her Flickr stream.

Filed under: Parenting 3 Comments
20Feb/09Off

Book Review: The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air

In The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, author Steven Johnson calls forth a number of players, but if we had to pick out one main protagonist it would probably be Joseph Priestly. You may (or may not) remember Priestly as an 18th century contemporary of folks like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to whom credit is often given for isolating gaseous oxygen. Interestingly, he was also the first person on the planet to realize that the oxygen that makes air breathable to us isn't something that is de facto just there; rather, it's produced by plants. In this way, Priestly isn't just the father of modern chemistry, but the whole science of ecology --the study of how organisms and environments interact with each other.

But let's back up a little bit. Much like he did in The Ghost Map, Johnson uses The Invention of Air to examine a wider set of interrelated subjects through events that seem unrelated at first. We get information about British coffee house culture, natural philosophers, coal mining in northern England, photosynthesis, burgeoning American revolution, riots over Unitarianism, the blending of religious faith and science, giant ferns from Carboniferous Era, Thomas Kuhn's codification of the scientific method, and the aforementioned founding fathers. Priestly is at the center of most of this, with the unifying theme that all these things interconnect and affect each other --a concept parallel to Priestly's own discoveries about the ecosystem involving oxygen, animals, bacteria, carbon dioxide, and plants.

So far, this sounds a lot like a history of science that you'd think I would enjoy if you were familiar with my reading list. Unfortunately while it's an interesting topic and approach, The Invention of Air falls kind of flat for me. It's just that Priestly either isn't that interesting a person when you get down to it, or Johnson fails in his job at storytelling and keeping things interesting enough. I found the big ideas here to be full of promise, but the execution just left me with my mind wandering off time after time. To continue the Ghost Map comparison, it didn't have a strong hook like a cholera epidemic to really pull you in and keep you there. It really needed something like that to make it both educational and entertaining at the same time.

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18Feb/09Off

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup

Note: This is #7 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

After watching Duck Soup, I think you can add The Marx Brothers to the list of Supposedly Classic Things I Don't Get. It's slapstick, absurd, manic, and strange, but I didn't find it all that funny outside of one or two isolated gags. To me, it seems more akin to an early precursor to the "let's give this popular stand-up comedian a TV show or movie" fad.

The plot, if you want to call it that, is that the small European country of Freedonia is on the verge of financial ruin, and the only person in a position to save it is a wealthy (and rather stuffy) Mrs. Teasdale. Oddly enough, she insists that Groucho Marx (or I guess you could say a character played by Groucho, but there's really not much difference) be named as Freedonia's supreme leader. Neighboring rival country Sylvania employs the mute and goofy Harpo Marx and his brother Chico Marx as spies to work against Freedonia, and the fourth Marx brother Zeppo is also in there somewhere as an adviser or something.

From that premise, the Marx brothers just kind of go their special brand of bat shit insane all over the place and chaos erupts. There's something about stealing some plans, and war finally breaks out between the two countries. There are, strangely, no ducks and no soup actually involved.

The problem with this all is that the delivery is so absurd. Don't get me wrong; I can appreciate the absurd and the nonsensical. I loved Dr. Strangelove, for example. But Groucho Marx comes on doing his Groucho Marx thing, delivering sarcastic and insulting lines left, right, and center despite whether they make sense or they're funny. Harpo and Chico are slightly more amusing as a pair of bumbling spies, but even their bits seem injected into the middle of other bits just so that they can deliver some gags that they had come up with involving burning hats, hiked legs, and Harpo's bathing his feet in lemonade. It felt, as I said, like a stand-up comedy act or Vaudeville show crammed into a movie skin.

So, didn't particularly care for it, and I'm not particularly looking forward to the next Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera, coming up on my list. There is one funny bit in the middle where Chico and Harpo fool Groucho into thinking he's looking into a mirror by standing on the other side and perfectly copying his every move, but really I got most of my entertainment from Duck Soup by trying to pick out the lines and gags I remember being repeated by subsequent Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Trailer below.

Also, Jeremy reviewed Guys and Dolls and some other stuff.

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17Feb/09Off

Week 264: Games, Babbling, and Pooka Head

As you may know, I'm trying to turn Sam into a video gamer. So far, this has met with great success, as the chimes of her Game Boy Advance can usually be heard downstairs breaking the morning silence most weekends. I did have one hiccup the other day, though. For her birthday I bought the Lego Star Wars game and a second Xbox 360 controller, which allowed her and I to each take control of one of the game's characters and play cooperatively. She needed help with some of the tricky jumping parts, but otherwise really surprised me with how quickly she picked up on the game.

However, at the end of the Episode I story arc we got to the point where the little Lego Darth Maul kills the little Lego Qui-Gon Jin and gets cut in half by the little Lego Obi Wan. It wasn't gory (there were no little Lego blood spatters or anything), but pretty clear what had happened.

Sam's initial reaction was stunned silence, and a desire to keep playing, but then she had another delayed reaction about an hour later as I was getting her ready for bed. She started crying and describing the above scene, wailing that "It made me feel a way in my head that I never felt before and I can't stop thinking about it!"

It actually took a bit of work to get her calmed down, and I never really did understand what emotion she was feeling. She insisted she wasn't scared, but she lacked the vocabulary to say anything else. Was she feeling sadness? Shock? Regret? Anger? I never really did find out.

It hasn't seemed to dampen her enthusiasm for gaming much, though. Yesterday she had a fever and while Ger and Mandy went over to Grandpa's house Sam and I spent most of the day on the couch. She seemed quite happy to sit and watch me play the new Prince of Persia game, and later that night over dinner she regaled Geralyn with stories about the guy who could run on walls, the puddles of black goo, collecting the sparkly things, Princess Elika's wardrobe (we had a side debate over whether it was "ripped" or simply "tawdry"), the glowing circle things that made you fly, the Hunter's sword that split into three swords, the pit we got knocked into, making the flowers grow, and how good Daddy was at the game.

Geralyn did her best to look interested, but it was clear she had no idea what Sam was talking about --and understandably so. It occurred to me that this is what my parents must have gone through when I babbled on about Star Wars of G.I. Joe as a kid, or what today's parents endure when their kids start going on about Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, or whatever. Only I did know what Sam was talking about, because we had experienced it together. And that was extremely cool.

I suspect that Mandy is also trying to make her mark on popular culture. Though the phrase was originally coined by Sam, Mandy's newest favorite thing is calling things, people, or places "pooka head." She uses this slanderous term at every conceivable opportunity. If you take away a toy, she yells "NO, POOKA HEAD!" If she bumps into the coffee table, she'll glare at it and mutter "Pooka head table."

I don't even know what "pooka head" means, but it's got that certain quality endemic to all catchy things. I've started using it myself, and honestly I won't be surprised the day that I wake up to find that it has spread virally across our culture. It'll then become a Saturday Night Live catch phrase, and perhaps the Pooka Head Dancers will appear on some Spike TV awards show. It'll happen. Just you wait and see.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
13Feb/09Off

Book Review: Losing It

Losing It

The full title here is Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time by Valerie Bertinelli. Yes, that's right. I read an autobiography by Valerie Bertinelli, she of One Day at a Time fame, countless made-for-TV movies, and a marriage to a certain Van Halen member. Let's chalk it up to expanding my horizons and stepping outside my usual reading comfort zone.

And actually, it's not a particularly BAD book. Bertinelli tells her life's story (so far), following what I can only assume is the typical celebrity autobiography template: she talks about her parents, her roots, her childhood, her coming of age, the train wreck her life becomes, and how she stepped up to pull things back together and be happy (and thin). All through the narrative is the theme of her obsession with her weight, and she sprinkles numbers throughout that serve as both measures of her weight and sign posts to various crises in her life. Personally, I'm surprised that she could remember with such precision how much she weighed 20 or 30 years ago, but apparently she was obsessed with that kind of thing.

The most interesting parts of the book were the early chapters where she talked about her childhood and how she broke into acting through a stumbling start with a few commercials and eventually landing her role as Barbara Cooper on One Day at a Time. The middle part of the book where she describes juggling a TV acting career with a doomed rock star marriage was actually pretty boring, and only served to make me realize that I'd actually rather be reading a biography about Van Halen. But Bertinnelli really only lived on the periphery of that story, so we got very little gossip or insight there. The last 20 pages are so are dedicated to her joining the Cult of Jenny and becoming a spokesperson for the Jenny Craig weight loss system.

The book isn't helped by the fact that Bertinelli isn't a particularly great writer, though I've certainly read worse. The theme of how her weight related to her self-esteem provided a common thread to all parts of the story, but personally I got pretty sick of hearing numbers tossed around and all the constant "BLECK! Jalapeno cheddar poppers! I WAS SO FAT! Jordan almonds! AAACK!" At times it felt less like a real story and more like the extended script for that Cathy comic strip I used to always think was not funny as a kid. She also breaks off into non-sequeter screeds against poparatzi and George Bush that seemed to come out of nowhere.

So, on balance the book wasn't bad, but it's the kind of itch that could probably be scratched by watching any random episode of E True Hollywood Story or possibly VH1 Behind the Music. If you're there for some kind of personal insights or triumph, you're going see them coming far before Bertinelli gets them, and get tired of them well before she's through with you. But if you're particularly interested in her as a person, go for it. She seems like a pretty nice person and I was left feeling glad that things seem to have worked out for her.

Filed under: Books 4 Comments
11Feb/09Off

Movie Review: King Kong (1933)

King Kong

Note: This is #6 of my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

When I popped in the original 1933 King Kong movie, I thought that this 52-in-52 project had finally brought me to some familiar ground: a genre movie. A big, special effects laden monster movie full of action and a giant ape who fights dinosaurs and possibly rides a giant motorcycle. And I guess I got that, it's just unfortunate that King Kong was such a bad movie as to be almost unwatchable.

Of course, the story of the eponymous ape is pop culture touchstone for Americans, and most of us probably know the gist of the story: film director and thrill seeker Jack Denham and his crew travel to Skull Island in search of something really amazing for their next movie. There they find lots of danger, half of which is in the form of a giant ape named "Kong." The beast absconds with the film's leading lady, but through the heroics of the humans she's rescued and a subdued Kong is hauled back to New York to be part of a a Broadway show. Only that doesn't turn out well and there's a big shootout atop the Empire State Building.

Right. Fine. Sounds like fun. And from what I've read the special effects (mostly stop motion model animation) were truly ground-breaking and amazing back in 1933. They're laughably "bad" now, of course, with Kong and the other denizens of Skull Island looking more like a child's toys having epileptic fits than menacing monsters. And I mean "laughably" literally here. There was this one gimmick that the film makers used where Kong would pop an innocent bystander into his mouth and chew. The camera would cut to a close up of a fake, expressionless Kong head whose jaw worked mechanically up and down on an actor who was sticking halfway out of the maw and gesticulating comically. They did this twice, and I couldn't help laughing and shouting "OM NOM NOM!" at the screen each time.

Of course, judging special effects from the 1930s against today's standards seems a bit unfair, and I get that. But the problem is that once you strip away the velour of King Kong's special effects, there isn't much else of merit there. The acting is simply atrocious most of the time, with pretty much all the actors delivering their lines like they're seeing them for the first time at a cold table read. It's wooden and painful, and there was no real spark or chemistry between any of them. The directors also seem to have this weird way of arranging the actors in a shot so that they were standing extremely close together.

Finally, what the movie seemed to get really wrong was that there was no relationship between Kong and Ann, the blonde woman whom he kidnaps. She's really just a shiny object to him, and she spends the entire film being understandably terrified of him and screaming her lungs out. Kong is just a dumb animal, and this absence of empathy robs the audience of any potential pathos when Kong meets his end. He wasn't misunderstood or tragic. He was just a marauding ape that had to be put down. This is one of several things that Peter Jackson's 2005 remake vastly improved upon. That film had its problems, but it was a a MUCH better movie than the 1933 original in every way that didn't involve just being the first to do something technically impressive.

Also, Jeremy reviewed Doubt (2008) this week.

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9Feb/09Off

Week 263: High, Low, and Robe

We've developed a new family tradition that I think is kind of fun. One night at the dinner table Geralyn suggested we play a game called "High/Low" where we would go around the table and say what the high point of our day was, and what the low point was. Sam seized on this as a chance to be the center of attention, and now we can barely get ourselves seated at the table before she demands that we begin reciting our joys and sorrows for the day. She also gets to determine in which order we go, which ranges from a circle to an utterly random series of jagged lines.

This has led to some interesting stories, which is kind of the point. One day Sam described the low point of her day as when her frienemy from school was hitting her. I asked if she wanted me to track this kid down and beat the tar out of him, an offer to which she demurred. Besides, she said, her high point of the day was when her other friend, Michael, stepped in and shouted "STOP HITTING MY FRIEND!" and basically pounded on the offending kid. I like Michael. I told Sam she should keep him around. She said okay.

Mandy is often called upon to participate in High/Low, but even when we coach her along by saying "What made you cry today?" her answer is always "I wanted to ride the escalator but you wouldn't let me." This hearkens back to a day several weeks ago to a trip to the mall where Geralyn did just that. This is Mandy's answer to the "What was your low?" question, EVERY DAY and seems to illustrate how this child seems to really hold a grudge. I can only hope that many years from now when Her Holiness Sister Amanda Franchesca accepts her nomination as Space Pope that she will finally forgive Geralyn for this terrible wrong.

You may have noticed several pictures of the girls appearing extra snuggly this week. This is due to an extreme robe obsession that has set in for some reason. It started when my sister Shawn gave Sam one for Christmas, and then Mandy demanded that we get hers out of the closet, and now it's an evening ritual. One that adds 19% to the time it takes to get them ready, but which makes them 23% happier so it's okay.

Filed under: Parenting 3 Comments
6Feb/09Off

Book Review: Ender’s Shadow

Ender's Shadow

Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card is a "companion" novel to one of Card's other science fiction novels, Ender's Game, in that they follow the same events but are told from different points of view with different protagonists. Ender's Game tells things from the perspective of Ender Wiggins, a fantastically intelligent child and natural leader who is tapped by the International Fleet to receive the crash course training needed to protect humanity from an alien threat. Ender's Shadow, published years later, tells the same story, but focuses on Ender's fellow classmate Bean, a character that was ancillary to the first book.

To say that the diminutive Bean is smart would be a drastic understatement. He has a perfect memory and perfect, at-will recall of anything he's seen or heard. He was talking before he was a year old, and by age six he was reading the works of history's great military leaders and authoring scholarly articles with insights so piercing that they put Earth's greatest adult thinkers to shame. Bean also has a great capacity for what's known as "emotional intelligence" --he can immediately read people, intuit things about their motives, understand how they relate to each other in even the most complex social webs, manipulate them, and accurately predict how they will act and react.

Yet for all his mental prowess, Bean's upward mobility in Battle School is hampered by the fact that he's not only younger than any of his classmates, but he's freakishly small for someone even his age. He also finds himself overshadowed and pulled into the gravity of Ender Wiggens, who while not up to par with Bean in terms of sheer intelligence, is much better at leadership, developing his subordinates, and coming up with creative battle tactics. In a lot of ways, this book is about how Bean grows up and defines himself while existing in the shadow of his gifted contemporaries and in the light of not only one word wide threat, but also the one that's sure to follow it.

I liked both Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow because I'm always attracted to characters who are smarter than they are strong. I like to see characters use their mind, wits, and creativity to get out of problems, and Card has a real knack for writing that --especially in children. It's hard to do, because in the end a character can't be more intelligent, insightful, or clever than the writer who created him. But Card pulls it off, and it's great to see Bean use a combination of intelligence, insight, self-control, and drive to persevere. He's just a great character.

As far as how this book relates to Ender's Game, I'd say they're both worth reading. It doesn't feel like a cash-in, and while it lacks that great twist ending that Ender's Game had (Bean deduces the twist ahead of time and tells the reader about it), it still has enough other things going for it. I really didn't like the other two follow-ups to Ender's Game that Card wrote and I read, but that was because they were very different kinds of books. If you liked Ender's Game I think you'll like Ender's Shadow.

Filed under: Books 2 Comments
4Feb/09Off

Movie Review: City Lights (1931)

City Lights

Note: This is #5 of my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

After seeing The Gold Rush I was somewhat enamoured with Charlie Chaplin's brand of silent comedy films. So when this 1931 movie, City Lights came up on my list, I dove right in. I don't think it's quite as good as The Gold Rush, but it's still pretty enjoyable.

The movie stars (again) Chaplin's Little Tramp character, who is penniless in the big city when he swoons for a poor blind girl selling flowers on the street. The girl mistakes Chaplin for a millionaire, and he is too stricken with her to tell her the truth. Chaplin actually befriends a real millionaire by talking him out of suicide (it's not as grim as it sounds the way it's played), and while his new friend is drunk he's Chaplin's best pal, but once he sobers up he amusingly can't remember a thing about him and continuously kicks him out. The balance of the movie is spent with Chaplin living it up with his new friend and pining after the flower girl who thinks Chaplin is rich himself and is about to be evicted for not being able to pay her rent.

Again, the movie is funny in spots as well as sweet. My favorite series of scenes is when a tipsy Chaplin and the drunk millionaire are partying it up at a swanky night club. There's lots of great visual gags involving cigars, chairs, noodles, and party streamers, and Chaplin's impeccable timing and subtle comedic acting is on full display. There's also a great sequence where Chaplin enters a rigged boxing tournament in order to earn money for the flower gir's rent. The jokes aren't quite as densely packed in as they are with The Gold Rush, but it's still good stuff.

And with this, I think I'm done with the silent era. Bring on the talkies!

Also, Jeremy reviewed Meet Me In St. Louis this week.

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3Feb/09Off

Week 262: Snow

I'm taking it easy this week. Here's some pictures of the kids playing in the snow!

Mandy actually did pretty well on the sled. She held on and made it all the way to the bottom. She wouldn't keep her gloves on, though, so after not too long she was shouting "I'm cooooold! I'm coooooohhahahaawhahahwhwaa!" And then there was hot chocolate.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment