Monday, March 30, 2009

Keeping the House

image from
It's funny, when I was looking for a good vacation book, I specified that I didn't want to read anything about a woman who wants a new living-room set and a baby. But I guess Keeping the House by Ellen Baker could fall broadly into that category, even though it's so much more than that.

The book weaves multiple stories at once. Dolly is embarking on her career as a housewife in 1950, and her husband has moved her to the small Wisconsin town of Pine Rapids, far away from her family and friends, to start a car dealership with an Army buddy. Dolly's having a hard time fitting in, in many respects. Not only are most of the women in the town old enough to be her mother, but Dolly's not so sure she's cut out to be a housewife. She has dreams and ambitions of her own. She misses her family and friends. Her husband is not much company, spending most of his offtime alone or with his buddies, noticing his wife only when he's feeling hungry or horny.

Dolly's ripe for a diversion, and she finds it not in the Quilting Circle, but in a beautiful abandoned house. The builders of the house, the Mickelson family, helped build the town as well, and have long been a source of envy and gossip. There was supposedly a curse on the house, placed there by an Indian chief who buried his daughter there after her suicide, that anyone who disturbed her resting place would be as unlucky in love as his daughter was. Slowly, Dolly teases out the story of the house and how it came to be abandoned, going back fifty years, when a young, spirited woman (much like Dolly) left her friends and family to marry the son of the man who built it and ultimately colliding with the present day, as Dolly takes it upon herself to become savior and caretaker of the ramshackle home and comes face to face with one of the famous Mickelsons.

Baker was curator of a World War II museum, and her work informs the book beautifully. The book explores war and gender roles, and in a way asks the question: who had it rougher in early twentieth century America, the men who were constantly forced by society to prove themselves over and over, or the women who were never even given the chance? It also explores the very idea of "the curse," and what it means to be lucky in love. At 400+ pages, it's definitely a project, but it's a worthwhile and enjoyable one.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Better Pictures of My Tin Dishes

It's weird. The more I work on this blog's appearance, the more ideas I have for posts and such. I'm pretty excited about the week to come at the moment as far as the blog goes, but kind of feeling like a low-impact post today. So, I realized it had been a while since I did a cool stuff one.

This is part of my collection of old tin toy dishes. I've been interested in them for a very long time, ever since my Aunt Helen gave a bunch to my sister and me to play with when we were kids. Even then, I thought they were cool and different. I always wanted to collect more of them someday. For a brief time, I did, until the market just went right through the ceiling. I officially stopped looking at them on eBay the day I found a set listed at $1000 and bid up to nearly $1600.

But I really enjoy the ones I have. My favorites were produced by the Ohio Art company, generally between 1930 and 1960. Fern Bisel Peat was an artist for them, and her designs are particularly fun and colorful. Sometimes she signs them. I don't think any of mine are signed, though. I love the red and yellow tray with the little boy and little girl. I also like the Humpty Dumpty set because it came from my Aunt Helen, and the little Mexican boy eating the banana (they weren't always PC.) My complete collection isn't pictured here, but this post has inspired me to change out the ones I have on my shelf!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wealth, Power and Tragedy: Behind the (fictional) Scenes with the Kennedys

One of the books I took with me on vacation was Laurie Graham's wonderful
The Importance of Being Kennedy. Because of it, she's made my favorite authors list, as observant readers may have noticed already.

Taking bags and bags of books on vacation is somewhat of a family tradition of mine. When I was growing up, there was a wonderful campground on the Canadian side of Lake Erie that we went to every summer. We'd pack our swimsuits, our beach towels, our sand toys and our books. I still remember one summer, my mom had a book called The Kennedy Women. When I asked her how it was, she said "Don't marry a Kennedy when you grow up."

Graham's behind-the-scenes fictionalized version of the early lives of the nine Kennedy brothers and sisters adds another voice to that particular chorus. Always believing their children were marked for greatness, Joe Sr. and Rose pushed them relentlessly, isolated them socially, and never allowed even a momentary lapse in the high standards they set. You can imagine the difficulties this would have meant for a child with an iconoclastic bent, or worse, one who did not have the capabilities to meet these standards. The book focuses mostly on two like this.

Those who pick up this book to learn fictional nanny Nora Brennan's take on the more famous brothers, Jack, Bobby and Teddy, will be disappointed. They're in there, all right, but they're minor characters. Nora left Ireland as a young woman to seek a life in America with more options than marrying a farmer and having lots of babies. She got a job as a nanny with the Kennedy family, and there was lots of work to do. The two children that especially captured Nora's heart were Rosemarie and Kathleen. I've never really read much about the Kennedy family -- like the royals in England, it's sort of the story every American just knows -- but I was always under the impression that Rose Kennedy was well-liked. It was surprising to me that Nora reserved a great deal of vitriol for her, painting her as an overbearing cheapskate with a cold heart, who only loved based on potential.

I didn't know much at all about the early lives of the Kennedy children, so it interested me to know exactly how many there were, and where the family got their money and fame. I'd always viewed Joe Sr. as a notorious womanizer with some questionable business associations, but Nora (and Graham) paint a surprisingly forgiving picture of him. He's largely absent, though, and a catalyst to the story. Maybe that's how the children primarily experienced him: the man who came around once in a while and handed out candy and told them how proud he was of them and how they were shaping up to be winners already, then whisked them away to Hollywood or to England.

The story really picks up when the family moves abroad. Joe Kennedy had been given the post of Ambassador to England, and the family went along. This is also where Nora begins to get a story of her own, as she meets a man who works at the country house of a duke in the course of chaperoning the energetic Kick (Kathleen). I liked this aspect of the book. It made the story more believable. It's a common device in historical fiction, to invent a character that was privy to the events the author wants to relate. It's less common to see them as characters with lives and desires of their own, rather than human camcorders switched on at an opportune time.

World War II keeps coming up in my reading lately, and I may do a Books of a Feather on it sometime soon. Graham captures much of the chaos, the fear and excitement existing simultaneously, and the feeling that one could do whatever one wanted to do because soon it wouldn't matter anyway. Some of the Kennedys get caught up in these feelings. Others, particularly the parents, do not. This is where the title of the novel really starts to take force. The kids were raised with certain beliefs about what Kennedys do and do not do. As they blossom into adulthood, the beliefs start to conflict with their personal desires and (in the case of Rosemarie) their own capabilities. At the start of the novel, Nora's nephew explains that Nora never believed in "the Kennedy curse," that Joe and Rose brought the calamities upon their kids with the attitudes they raised them with. In some cases, proving their Kennedyness led to disaster, other times to glory, and in the case of Joe Jr., both simultaneously. If you're interested in the Kennedy family or in World War II, this book is a good read, and offers a bit of a different perspective.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Font is Fixed!!!!

Thank you, Jeff, for your help!

Treasure Trash: A Great BTT

This week's question:

Best Bad Book? March 26, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:36 am

Suggested by Janet:

The opposite of last week’s question: “What’s the best ‘worst’ book you’ve ever read — the one you like despite some negative reviews or features?”

I have a lot of best 'worst' books, both in my personal library and on my list of favorites. Probably the ultimate one is The Dirt by Motley Crue. I've written about this one several times as being the ulitmate sex, drugs, and rock n' roll memoir. I think it's because the people who generally write books on these topics are repentant to some degree. The memoirs of Tatum O'Neill and Danny Bonaduce cover how they got into drugs and alcohol and how it messed up their lives. But they don't cover the fun parts, at least not to the gory detail that the Crue does. I should probably be ashamed of liking this book. But I can't help it. I love it.

The works of V.C Andrews were a force in the young lives of many women my age. I remember when that travesty of a film came out, and how scary it looked (I rented it in high school and laughed at it). I felt really brave and mature reading the Flowers in the Attic series, although they weren't so much horror as "gothic" in a way. Flowers in the Attic is still my favorite series, although I read all the Heaven and Dawn books too. I got tired of the repetition, and the ones that weren't actually written by her look to be even worse, so I believe I stopped there. But the Flowers in the Attic books are definitely captivating reads. The one about Cathy's son flags a little, and the final book is almost all denouement. But the title book in the series, the book chronicling their attempts to fit back into society and put their past behind them, and the prequel book explaining why the grandmother was such an evil bitch are full of suspense and tension.

They're also not terribly well-written, I know that. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is bad, and many of the scenarios strain credulity. If I read them now for the first time, I'd probably hate them. But as it is, I think they provide hours of entertainment!

Incidentally, does anyone out there know how to change font size in html code? This is way too small throughout, I think.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Under Construction

Upon reflection, I decided that my most recent look was, in fact, too pink. It wasn't a bad template. If there was any way at all to tone down the Pepto Pink on the sides, I would have done it and hung on to it for a while. I liked the pink/grey scheme I had going, but it was just way too much.

I started hunting for a new template before I went on vacation. I looked at a bunch, but my search was really over the minute I found this "Colibri" template. It was at, the very first thing that will come up if you just google "blog templates," like I did. It's still a work in progress, but I hope you all like it as much as I do.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite realize that this change was going to completely wipe out all of my sidebar stuff. All my links, my TBR vanquished list, everything, gone. But maybe it's for the best. There was quite a bit of dead wood on the TBR, I know, and perhaps the links could have used some pruning and updating as well. So if you used to be linked here and now you're not, I'll get it back up shortly. If you notice it's been a week or so, though, a reminder wouldn't go amiss.

Back from Vacation, with an E-pisotlary delight of a novel

It turned out that my choices for vacation books were pretty decent! The first one, which I finished on the plane ride down, is Matt Beaumont's E. I checked it out because I'm interested in the internet in literature. It's hard to believe the book is almost ten years old, as it still feels current. The book is set in an ad agency in London and has our protagonists staggering to work nursing hangovers on the first day of the new millenium. Things at the agency are generally in a state of general chaos threatening total disaster, and the beginning of the new millenium is no exception. One of their accounts hangs in the balance as two creative teams duke out a strategy. Another is all aflutter with activity as they prepare for a commercial shoot on location in Mauritius. But everyone's primary preoccupation is winning the mother of all accounts: Coca-Cola.

The entire story is told through emails, and the devices have only become more familiar as time wears on: the passive-aggressive emoticons ("Hope you don't mind staying through until 9 tonight to work off that long lunch :)"), the pretentious signature lines, the outbursts of playfulness in the subject line, and the "bcc" feature for all your backstabbing needs.

Beaumont draws vivid, if familiar, characters through mere emails. There's the tempermental CEO; the anal-retentive secretary, the ditzy secretary, and the slutty secretary; the horny young men who can most often be found hiding out at a nearby bar, if not in an elevator between floors with the Slutty Secretary; the Closeted Married Creative guy; the nerd; the hippie; the naive, starry-eyed recent grad, etc. I'd recommend this book as an excellent vacation read, especially since the terse emails provide an average of three logical stopping places per page. It's very enjoyable and funny, but also a decent picture of what corporate e-life is like.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Too Pink? LD's new look

In search of books to bring on my vacation, I took a trip around the blogosphere. And it made me feel like a small-town schoolteacher at New York Fashion Week. I have to admit, I don't really think much about the look of this blog. I think about what I'm going to write on it a great deal, but I don't give a whole lot of thought to how it all looks.

Some people have really beautiful pages. I would love to know how people did the scanned-in lacy sidepanels and richly textured backgrounds. I don't think mine will ever be that nice to look at. But I at least dug out a new template. Why does blogger only give you like seven options?

I want to work harder at making it look nicer. That's one of my goals for when I get back from vacation. If anyone has any advice for me, I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Need Help!!!!!

I'm going away for a week next week and have a very big problem: I don't know what books to bring.

I mentioned that I visited the library a couple of weeks ago and checked out an array of random, interesting-looking books. Well, I got them home and found out that none of them really appealed to me that much. So today, I brought them all back with the intention of starting over. And nothing!

I didn't go home empty-handed. In addition to experiencing the worst BO ever -- twice -- from my fellow patrons, I got four books. One was David Copperfield. One was by Ana Castillo, who wrote a great book that I read in college and was featured in their staff picks. The other two? I picked them out less than an hour ago and I'll be damned if I can remember. Doesn't bode well for my actually reading and enjoying them.

I thought that looking at my TBR list would help. It didn't. In fact, all it did was convince me to reassess the list. There are several books on there that only made the list because I wound up with them somehow. I'm not sure how much I actually want to read them.

So, I'm looking for recommendations from anyone reading this blog. My criteria are as follows:

1. It can't be a brand new book. Those are 7 days and will be overdue by the time I get back, even if I wait until the very last minute to check them out.

2. It should be a decent vacation book. Not too heavy in either subject matter or in..errr...actual matter.

3. But it has to be decent. Something a little bit different. I don't want to read another book about a girl with a shitty job who wants Laboutin shoes and a boyfriend. And I'm not yet at the phase in my life where a book about a woman with a decent job who wants a new living room set and a baby would interest me either.

4. It can also be a good biography or autobiography. By "good," of course, I mean "bad." Any celebrities who've led interesting or colorful lives that you can recommend, I'll check out. Unfortunately, someone broke the only copy of Slash's autobiography. That would've been just the thing, but it showed as "under repair" in the library's database.

Any other thoughts or ideas? I'm open-minded at this point.

At the Movies With Books: This Week's BTT

Movie Potential March 12, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 7:10 am

Tami inspired this week’s question:

What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?

Unlike a lot of the BTT's, I knew what I was going to write about immediately when I read this.

I've mentioned my beloved Prydain chronicles many times on this blog. The storyline is rooted in Welsh mythology and in general mythological tradition. I always thought it would film well. As an adult, it seems a bit more "kiddish" than a lot of young adult novels, but I still believe that a decent treatment of the books would be worth watching. One of Disney's worst animated films was a hatchet job of the second book, but thankfully, it's rarely viewed anymore. As a kid, The Black Cauldron was my favorite of the series, with its colorful characters, its dark undertones, and its thought-provoking (to an 11-year-old) theme of the nature of heroism. As an adult, though, I prefer the quieter Taran Wanderer, in which the protagonist sets off first in search of his true parentage but ultimately in search of himself. This book would probably make the worst movie out of the five, but I'd love to see someone take another crack at filming this series.

The Stephanie Plum books also strike me as ripe for the plucking, full of action, humor, romance and crazy characters. There's no way anyone would make allfifteen (or whatever we're up to now) of them. In fact, maybe the books should be inspiration for a movie rather than the basis of the script: a brand-new Stephanie Plum adventure, with her loyal but reluctant sidekicks Lula and Connie and the two sexy men in her life. I'd go.

As for movies that should never be made? For years, the idea of a movie based on Donna Tartt's The Secret History has been kicked around. At one point, Gwyneth Paltrow was rumored to have been cast (presumably in the Camilla role, although she's the wrong age and type entirely). I always thought it was a terrible idea. There's something unfilmable about that book. Several of the main characters, including the narrator, are very difficult to get a sense of, and it adds to the book and the suspense rather than detracts. Just the act of putting them in flesh and blood would change the story irrevocably. Perhaps the people attached to the project agreed with me, for it no longer appears on IMDB.

My sister disagrees with me, but I also don't think the Thursday Next books would translate well to the screen. Part of their humor comes from the printed format. How would you express the Footnoterphone and the mispeling vyrus on screen? How would you deal with The Generics from the second book, who are still going through character training and don't even have genders when you meet them? Nah, they should keep the Thursday Next books in their original format. They'd need a truly exceptional filmmaker to make them any good.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On The Lighter Side: The Return of Lizzie Miller

After finishing two "projects" back-to-back, I wanted something a little lighter. And I had just the thing: The First Assistant, by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare. I read the original right around this time last year. In re-reading that post, I was a little surprised at all I had to say about chick lit in general. I still think I'm right, I'm just a little surprised that that book was my case study, because I liked it more than I let on.

Lizzie is a little more settled in at her job as First Assistant now. Her former immediate boss has left The Agency to marry their real boss and have his child. Lizzie's still not all that wonderful at her job (the book opens with her admission that she just burned six months worth of filing because she wanted to play Sudoko instead. Oy!), but she enjoys it, for the most part. Things are rocky with her boyfriend Luke (still an asshole), as he's gone more often than he's in town. Lizzie's decided now that she wants to work her own way up the Hollywood ladder and produce. Her friend from the coffee shop screwed her out of a production credit when his movie got signed, but panicked after a bad screening. In one of the funnier scenes in the book, they both visit his agent, completely hammered, and get her reinstated as producer (this is important to the rest of the book).

The best part of the book comes when Lizzie winds up getting "traded" to a hot teen star for an on-location shoot in Thailand. Lizzie's vehemently opposed to going (her boss is getting a rare sports car in exchange) until her current boyfriend appears on the cover of People magazine with who she thought was his ex-girlfriend, in a story about the rekindling of their romance. I was going to say first that Emerald Everhart was obviously supposed to be Britney Spears...then Lindsay Lohan, but depressingly, she could represent any number of young, allegedly "wholesome" teen stars.

Lizzie's first task is to get a drunken, half-naked Emerald to stop stripping on the bar in the first-class airport lounge at 10AM, and it's pretty much all downhill from there. Emerald's an intriguing character. Her sex life and drug use would put the members of Motley Crue to shame, but she also clearly needs boundaries and a genuine friend in her life. She's extremely confused, gets good advice from no one, and needs someone to trust. Lizzie rises admirably to the occasion during her month with Emerald, and it's the part of the book that has the most heart (as well as being the funniest).

The book had a similar bizarre, deus-ex-machina ending as the first one. The Fates set Lizzie up once again for the same kind of hollow success. She gets the surface of everything she wants -- the job and the guy -- but not the reality. It has a seeminly happy ending, but does it really? Will her new job as part of Hollywood's Power Elite make her happier than she was at The Agency? Is she even prepared to take on such a task, given the roundabout way that it came to her? And will her relationship be any better on the second try? I guess we'll have to wait and see if the authors choose to continue Lizzie's saga.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where I've Been: Project II

After I finished Helen of Troy two weeks ago, I went to the library. I was following up two excellent suggestions from my sister, but as neither of them were in stock, I proceded to rampage through the stacks like a drunken sailor (or drunken English major at least), checking out books as lofty as The Iliad and as earthy as The First Assistant (sequel to the chick lit masterpiece The Second Assistant). When I got them all home, though, I realized that what I really wanted was something like what I'd just finished.

It's a familiar feeling to me as a reader, and most of the time, I wind up being S.O.L. Part of the charm of Donna Tartt's The Secret History is that there is nothing else like that book. Harper Lee, Olive Ann Burns, and Ross Lockridge have written one book each. The latter two are dead now, so there will never be any more. And I've read everything by Fannie Flagg and Tawni O'Dell to date. In this rare instance, though, I had a TBR lurking on my shelves from Margaret George, so I blew the dust off it, settled in, and finished it the other day.

Mary, Called Magdalene is the most surprising thing: a fresh twist on The Greatest Story Ever Told. It almost doesn't seem possible. If you grew up in a Christian nation, the story of Jesus is as familiar to you as the sun in the sky, whether you grew up going to church every day or whether you only hauled your butt there for weddings and funerals. I grew up with the latter tradition and still know the story fairly well. For a time, we were attending candlelight services at a local church on Christmas Eve. I loved the music and the candles, but when it came time to tell the story, I found it thought-provoking. I wondered what it must have been like to live through that. I thought about how awful it must have been to have your baby outdoors in a barn, with the animals. I wondered if Joseph felt ashamed that that was the best he could do for his wife and son, and how odd it must have been to have the shepherds and kings and everybody coming out to see you.

Margaret George must have had similar thoughts, because the book is a very human perspective on the lives of Jesus and of Mary Magdalene. There's only slightly more primary evidence for Mary Magdalene's life than for Helen of Troy's, so this is very definitely fiction. The first half of the book doesn't involve Jesus at all. It describes Mary's life in Magdala, growing up in a religious family that dries fish for a living, becoming a wife and mother at a young age. As with Helen, it's a richly detailed account of daily life during the first century (Mary and Jesus are roughly the same age). Mary's story takes a darker turn as she becomes possessed by demons. They talk in her head, they attack her physically, and they invite more and more of their fellows in until she overcomes her pride and seeks help. Everything fails -- until she meets Jesus, who drives them out easily.

It's at this point that the story becomes more familiar to readers. We meet all of the apostles, we hear the Sermon on the Mount, and we're present for the final, awful betrayal and crucifiction. But we get it all from a very human standpoint. There's jealousy over which of the disciples are most favored by Jesus, although he does his best to quash it. There's a subtle attraction between Mary and Jesus. Judas himself even develops an interest in Mary.

And there's plenty of doubt, confusion and sorrow over what the disciples sacrificed to follow Jesus. One thing I'd always wondered is how the disciples could have been so certain, and how they were viewed by their families and friends. After all, the followers of so-called Messiahs in my lifetime haven't met good ends: they generally wind up drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, serving multiple life sentences for the murders they committed in the name of their leader, and what-have-you. In George's novel, the families of most of the disciples had similar concerns. Mary's family disowned her and kept her from her daughter. Jesus's brother James was furious that he was now charged with the sole management of the family business while Jesus got to tramp all over the countryside. In the case of Peter, it was his eagerness to repudiate his family that caused the permanent rift. There were false Messiahs back then, too, and only over time did people come to follow Jesus.

Many times in the book, Mary and her fellow disciples doubt their ability to keep going. Sometimes they don't understand the message they've been given. Other times, they despair of making a difference at all. Towards the end of the book, in a letter to her daughter, Mary suggests that the true miracle was what Jesus brought out in the people whose lives he touched. All in all, the book is an amazing look at a familiar story, one that I'd imagine would please the faithful as well as semi-agnostics like myself. Winter's not over yet, and this would make an excellent per-Easter read.