Thursday, December 30, 2010

South City Kitchen - Atlanta, GA


Every time we visit Ken's parents in Atlanta, I like to re-visit old haunts, mostly restaurants we frequented when Ken and I were first dating. Today Ken and I had lunch at South City Kitchen, where Ken made quite an impression on me years ago.

South City Kitchen turned out to be even better than I remembered. Everything about the meal was fantastic, and I am finally going to give a restaurant a full five-star rating! Ken and I both had cocktails which were perfectly mixed, not too weak, not too strong. We split two delicious appetizers, both of which had well-blended flavors: fried green tomatoes made with goat cheese, served with a red pepper coulis and fresh basil, and a bowl of chowder made with sweet potatoes, corn, and bacon. For our entrees, Ken ordered a catfish Reuben sandwich, which I didn't try but which he said was very good, and I ordered a dish of shrimp, ham, and grits. I absolutely loved my dish, which was cooked perfectly on all counts - both the shrimp and ham were tender and not over-cooked, and though there were a lot of flavors going on, nothing dominated, and everything was well-complemented.

When it came time for dessert, I was already full, but Ken was in the mood for a port and something sweet. We decided to split a dessert, but I let Ken choose, since I would probably only have a bite or two. He picked the pecan pie, which we both know to be something that Ken loves and that I am indifferent about. When the dessert came, I was game to give it a try, and I was surprised at how good it tasted! If all pecan pies were made that well, then maybe I would be a fan. The espressos we had to end our meal had a touch of foam, and they were strong enough that even I added half a packet of sugar to round out the flavor. (I usually take my coffees and espressos black.)

Our service was professional and friendly, giving us nothing to complain about. Truly a perfect meal all around!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials #2) by Philip Pullman


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

The author's anti-religous themes become more apparent in this sequel to The Golden Compass. Keeping in mind that Philip Pullman himself says that his books "are about killing God" and that he was "trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief", I'm still trying to approach the series with an open mind. Pullman is a good writer and a gifted storyteller, so despite my apprehension about how he depicts religion, I can't help but be entertained by the story and its characters.

Interestingly, the science-fiction in this book (references to physics, elementary particles, and parallel universes) gradually shifted to what I can only think to call religion-fiction (references to angels and God). As with science-fiction, the fiction part of religion-fiction should be emphasized: Pullman takes familiar concepts of religion and makes up new ways to incorporate them. By using this perspective, I find that for me, the book loses some of its ability to offend.

Leaving behind Lyra's fantastical world, I was afraid this book wouldn't match up to The Golden Compass because much of it is set in our own (dull) world. But Pullman was able to keep the sense of fantasy alive by instilling in Lyra a sense of wonder about all that was unknown to her in our world. He also introduces a third world that I actually found to be the least interesting, but which plays a large part in bringing together the different threads of the story.

Pullman did a great job with Lyra's character development, from a fearless leader in The Golden Compass to a self-doubting and frightened follower in this book. We are led to believe that some of her new-found restraint comes from the nature of maturing and growing up. Could Dust be involved?

Surprisingly, Lee Scoresby was given a greater role in this book, and I grew to like his character quite a bit.

The Subtle Knife answers some of the questions posed in The Golden Compass, but as might be expected, new questions arise, on all levels. What exactly are Specters? If the alethiometer charges Lyra with the task of bringing Will to his father, why wouldn't Lyra simply ask the alethiometer to find out more about Will's father, as Pan suggests at one point? We learn that John Parry became a shaman - but what does that really mean? How does "becoming a shaman" suddenly give him so much power and so much knowledge about so many things, including things in other universes? (I suspect it involves Dust and the holes drilled into his head, but given that John Parry's new-found skills simply come across as being too convenient, I don't think a proper explanation is too much to ask.) And why does he choose to support Lord Asriel in the coming war?

If the war has two sides, clearly one side is God, and Lord Asriel supports the other side. It's unclear what the other side is, but it sounds like it is Knowledge, and not Satan, as one might expect. The book depicts God not as good or loving or in any way supportive of mankind, but controlling and merciless: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." (pg. 50) And if Knowledge is indeed the other side, that implies that knowledge is not a part of God or religion. The book seems to be saying that religion and knowledge can not peacefully coexist, so one must be destroyed.

Even as Pullman sets the stage for a war against God, the book itself doesn't really explain why. God is clearly portrayed as evil, but no real reason is given. We know the Church is an imposing, all-powerful institution in Lyra's world, but we haven't been told what exactly they do that's so bad. (Their research into daemon-cutting was secret, so the hatred of the Church pre-existed that development.) And if John Parry's world is our own world, why is he so against God as well? A reader can imagine what atheists might say to explain why a world without God would be desirable, but the book so far has not provided any such explanations to the reader.

So even as God and religion are lined up as Evil, and Knowledge is portrayed as Good, I am trying not to take that perspective. To limit the offense I might otherwise take, I am trying to think of one side being "an organized institution that doesn't allow people to think for themselves" (NOT my definition of modern religion) and the other side being "knowledge, like science, that helps to advance the human race." Additional questions related to the war include: Why do angels, commonly thought of as God's helpers, support Lord Asriel, too? How can a physical war be waged against God? Will Pullman manifest God in some physical way?

Despite the religious controversy, and all the questions, Pullman has created a compelling story of interesting characters. I'll definitely finish the series to find out what happens next.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Four Christmases (2008)


I don't know, I really like Reese Witherspoon, and she's great in other fun, fluff movies, but this one just wasn't up to par. Not quite cute, not really that funny, very predictable. It wasn't bad, but just not so interesting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Last Olympian (#5) by Rick Riordan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

I was disappointed in this final book of the series. I know it was written for a younger audience, and maybe my expectations were too high, but I just felt it was lacking in so many ways.

As usual, there was too much re-cap in re-introducing characters. I guess there's value in making each book a stand-alone book, but I still think it could have been done more naturally, less explicitly.

As the series progressed, both Annabeth and Percy became torn between two love interests, and I think Riordan did a good job portraying their feelings. However, Annabeth's hypocritical behavior was nothing short of bitchy. I am loath to use profanity, but that is honestly the best word to describe her. By the end, I was rooting for Rachel (who, by the way, became one of my favorite characters). Even after all the back-and-forth with Annabeth's emotions, the closing scenes didn't give her enough credit - with a repentant Luke dying in her arms, she tells him she didn't love him, even though she pined for him through all five books?! Whatever.

Rachel's new-found clairvoyance was a nice development, but did Riordan have to do it à la Isaac Mendez from Heroes?

All the characters remained too one-dimensional, and Riordan unfortunately passed up opportunities for some real character development. Clarisse is given a soft side via Chris and Silena, but she remained unapologetically hot-tempered, stubborn, and proud. Silena, for her part, made a valiant eleventh-hour push to help the heroes, but her role as spy was completely brushed aside, chalked up to her naiveté and Luke's manipulation. Apparently, since she was otherwise well-liked, there was no need to be concerned about the deaths her espionage caused, including that of her boyfriend Beckendorf.

There was a definite annoyingly Harry Potter-esque moment when Percy wanted to contact Rachel but didn't know how to do it. Apparently, the most common means of mythological communication - the Iris-message - slipped his mind.

Throughout most of the story, the heroes are fully engaged in a war with the Titans, and much of the book describes one battle scene after another. Unfortunately, rather than making the reader feel as if he is caught up in the action as well, the battle descriptions read more like matter-of-fact reporting. And, as usual, there's a lot of being saved at the last minute by an unexpected third party.

At the close of the series, I was unimpressed with the entire story arc. The Titan lord Kronos was re-formed only because of Luke's actions, and in the end, it was Luke himself who saved the world from Kronos. It just seems kind of lame that the potential ruin of the known world, and it's savior, came down to one person changing his mind.

Finally, there was quite a bit of discussion about fate in the book, and how nobody, including Hermes, could have stopped Luke's fate. Love of friends, good education, not even better parenting could have helped Luke to make better decisions. This type of defeatism really bothered me, especially since the intended audience is middle schoolers; I don't like the idea of giving impressionable youth the message that no matter what they do, no matter what their parents do, no matter what path they take in life, they have one undeniable and immutable fate.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

(500) Days of Summer (2009)


I loved the way this American movie was done in the style of French movies, à la the use of a third-person narrator. The multiple references to French music and film also seemed to pay homage to the French. Quirky and clever, this movie is definitely a "romantic comedy", but atypical in that it explores both the positive and negative of how relationships develop and fall apart. Plus, great soundtrack.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Atonement (2007)


I'm a little surprised at myself for giving this movie four stars, since I rated the book five stars, and the movie does a remarkable job of staying true to the book. I actually even liked the movie's ending better than the book's. Reading the book first surely influenced my movie viewing, and I kept thinking that if I hadn't already read the book, I wouldn't have been able to understand what was going on in the movie as well. It jumps around - just as the book did. Also, just like the book, the movie abruptly switches gears at one point, and maybe that's harder to pull off in a movie. Of course, knowing what was going to happen took away the suspense, too.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Battle of the Labyrinth (#4) by Rick Riordan


Probably the first book was rated higher than the others partly because the mere premise of the entire series impressed me. The next two books increasingly disappointed me, but I'm happy to say that this fourth book in the series rekindled my interest.

For the first time, Riordan re-told a significant portion of a Greek myth instead of just making a passing reference. I appreciated how the original myth added context to the story. I also liked how the Labyrinth - like the Sea of Monsters in book two - kept the story focused and provided for a good medium by which the heroes could encounter difference places and different monsters. Finally, I liked the way Riordan incorporated a healthy environmental message.

As with the last two books, there were a few annoyances, mostly involving inconsistencies. Even though pride is supposed to be Annabeth's fatal flaw, her ridiculous behavior putting petty pride before the quest seemed uncharacteristic. Also, somehow Tyson was strong enough to tear the bars off a jail cell, but not strong enough to break through some ropes?

Overall, I'm glad to see the series picking up, and I hope the next book, the last in the series, won't disappoint.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Golden Compass (2007)


My rating may be artificially high because I did enjoy the book as well. For once, I even think the movie is better than the book! The movie simplifies the story here and there to make it work on screen, and frankly, I think the changes make the story tighter. Memorable lines made it into the movie, and I liked the visual translation of all the characters, especially Serafina Pekkala. Interestingly, the movie ends before the dramatic finale of the book; I assume it would be included in a sequel.

Though I haven't yet finished reading the trilogy, my understanding is that while The Golden Compass is mostly harmless, it sets the stage for the religious controversy laid out in the rest of the series. My impression is that the movie is the same - religious authority is never mentioned explicitly, but the Magisterium could easily be interpreted as such.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Titan's Curse (#3) by Rick Riordan


I don't know if there's just "too much of the same" as the series progresses, but I just didn't enjoy this book as much as the first two.

The first book did a good job of not making Percy Jackson too Harry Potter-esque, especially by having Percy understand the importance of keeping Chiron apprised of all relevant dreams and information. The second book started to falter in this regard, and now the third book has Percy Jackson inexplicably and annoyingly withholding information from Chiron.

This book also seems to conveniently forget that Percy is not supposed to fly. In the first book, the heroes need to go out of their way to complete the quest without allowing Percy to enter the realm of Zeus, i.e., the sky, but in this book, Percy is somehow able to fly without issue. Almost even more frustrating is the single line by the author admitting that Percy's flying was dangerous, and then casually dismissing the concern.

The adventure meanders quite a bit, and the many different aspects of the quest make it difficult to see a central, unifying purpose. Some details are so convoluted they are ridiculous even for a fantasy novel. The evil mastermind who chooses to converse with his captured foes rather than killing them forthwith is, of course, reminiscent of James Bond.

The writing itself also seems lacking. It's even more informal than previous books - at times even conversational - and the author tries too hard to be funny. The book comes across as more immature, more targeted to a young audience than perhaps the first two books.

I did like the way the author began to explore Percy's emotions in this book, and the way he incorporated the Mythomagic game. But overall, the few positives didn't outweigh the many negatives enough for a higher rating. I still plan to finish the series, though, and I hope I'll find at least a couple of the books down the line more enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)


I've been known to appreciate quite a few romantic comedies, but very few straight-up romances. Even with the sci-fi component, this movie didn't pull me in. A few good scenes, but mostly kind of slow. The problem with time travel is that unless you are meticulous in story-telling (which is rarely the case), there's always something that will make you think, "Why can't he just do blah blah blah?" to solve a problem. The implication of fate and lack of free will is disturbing, too. I was turned off by the older man / little girl relationship (innocent, yes, but still creepy), and my favorite character, Alba, didn't show up until the end, and then I didn't get enough of her.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1) by Philip Pullman


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

When Ken Netflixed this movie, I had zero interest in it, so Ken watched it on his own. Recently, when I told Ken I was in the mood for some light reading, he picked this book up from the library for me. Well, I liked it so much, I will certainly be re-Netflixing the movie for myself.

The book's plot is centered on mysterious particles called Dust and their relation to humans. As the book progresses, the reader begins to understand that characters in the book believe Dust is a physical representation of sin; adults attract Dust, but children do not. It becomes clear at the end of the book that while Mrs. Coulter - with the support of the Church - is researching a way to prevent children from ever attracting Dust, Lord Asriel - without anyone's support - is concerned with finding a way to eliminate Dust entirely. I know there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding this trilogy in regards to its position on Christianity, but so far - keeping in mind that this book is set in a fantasy world - there isn't anything that offends me. (It may or may not be worth noting at this point that the author is an atheist and Humanist.)

What I really enjoyed most about this book was the fantasy aspects. Each person has a daemon, a physical representation of his/her soul. The daemon takes the form of an animal, one that reflects the person's character, and stays by the human's side at all times, never being more than a few yards away. They can speak and they have their own thoughts, and they can also act on behalf of their humans. They are constant companions, confidants, sounding boards, and even protectors. Who wouldn't want one of their own!? I very much enjoyed imagining this world in which daemons were as much a part of human life as humans themselves.

I also really enjoyed the existence of armored bears. These massive animals were bears in every way, but they also talked and were skilled metal-workers. At first I thought talking bears might be too silly to take seriously, but they really grew on me, and Iorek Byrnison became one of my favorite characters.

While I liked the author's style of prose, I was bothered by the way he minimally introduced characters and ideas, not fully explaining them until later. Of course he was droppings hints as a way of foreshadowing, but in addition to having my interest piqued, I also just got plain annoyed. And, sometimes coincidences seemed to propel events forward in a too-convenient type of way.

I also felt like the book left me with unanswered questions. Why did Lyra take the spy-fly from Farder Coram in the first place, instead of just letting him keep it? Of course it turned out to be useful that she had it, but she couldn't have known that in advance. Why is it, exactly, that Lyra can read the alethiometer without any training? And as Lyra was captured multiple times by other groups, it was clear why she didn't feel safe giving her real name to the Tartars, but why did she give her real name to the armored bears? What is the author getting at when he says that even though Lyra frequently tells complex and fantastical lies, she actually has no imagination? And finally, why did Lyra even bring Roger to Lord Asriel in the end? Why didn't she just leave him to rest comfortably in Svalbard?

The ending was not entirely satisfying, but I think that can be forgiven because this book is only the first in a trilogy. I was, however, especially confused about the way Mrs. Coulter was portrayed at the end. The entire book painted a certain portrait of her character, and then seemed to introduce a whole other side to her just in the last few pages. Still, I definitely look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, and maybe a few of my questions might even be answered. I have, however, been forewarned by other reviews that the author's atheism takes a more prominent role in the sequels.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Up in the Air


The ultimate message was comforting and familiar, but the opposite of what I thought this particular movie's message was going to be. (I thought it would unapologetically celebrate the freedom and luxury of travel.) The 23-year-old character of Natalie was a caricature, but that's what made her entertaining. I thought George Clooney's character's behavior at the Dos Equis seminar was over-the-top dramatic, but whatever. Overall, the entertainment value is why I gave it 4 stars.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters (#2) by Rick Riordan


Like The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters incorporated an impressive number of characters from Greek mythology, and the quest du jour took Percy Jackson and his friends on an unpredictable journey with many twists and turns.

As the second book in a series, though, The Sea of Monsters didn't start off as smoothly as I would have liked. While I can see the benefit of making each book a stand-alone book, the explicit explanations of character backgrounds, plot summary, and the premise itself were forced and awkward. And for some reason, even though I was okay with the first-person narrative by the end of The Lightning Thief, it still came across as too informal, and perhaps even a bit lazy, in this book.

Another underwhelming aspect of this book was the manner in which Percy and his friends were frequently saved from imminent doom at the very last minute completely out of the blue by a third party. Other times, Percy conveniently discovered and immediately mastered a sea-related talent just in time to put it to use in some heroic fashion. It seemed almost as if Riordan kept writing himself into corners just so he could resolve them with dramatic rescues. Hopefully this is not the beginning of a pattern for the rest of the series.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (#1) by Rick Riordan


This book has a lot to offer its middle school-aged audience. As one might expect, it is significantly better than the movie, which deviates from the book quite a bit.

Young readers who have been diagnosed with a learning disability, and who consequently might feel inadequate or marginalized, might find refuge in Percy Jackson, a protagonist who thinks and feels like them. The book takes his dyslexia and ADHD and turns them on their head, using them to help define Percy Jackson as a demigod. For those who do not have learning disabilities, this book may be a first step in helping them to understand how their friends and classmates might feel. Rick Riordan does a good job of keeping the dyslexia and ADHD relevant to the story; he doesn't just mention them once and let them drop.

I was impressed with the extent of Greek mythology that was interspersed throughout the book. Percy Jackson has many more adventures in the book than in the movie, and he puts his knowledge of Greek mythology to much greater use in the book. Having never taken a course in mythology myself, I cross-referenced every mythological character with Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Interestingly, I found that The Lightning Thief sometimes had more detailed accounts of myths than Hamilton's book! When Hamilton didn't have what I was looking for, the Internet filled in the rest, and always Riordan was true to the the original myth. Even if there is more than one version of a story, Riordan always had a legitimate basis for his interpretation. Granted, sometimes his representation of a god or other character may have been over-simplified, but that can be forgiven, given his target audience. I can easily imagine young readers of Percy Jackson getting excited about mythology and wanting to learn more.

At first I was disappointed in the use of the first person narrative, as I always feel that at this level, in modern fiction, the main character's voice tends to be too informal. I have to admit, though, by the end of the book, it didn't bother me anymore.

There were a few Harry Potter-esque moments, when Percy didn't tell Chiron everything he should have, but somehow Percy didn't come off nearly as annoying as Harry. I'll chalk that up to Riordan's good writing. The chapters were well-defined, and the book progressed at a good pace. Towards the end, I knew to expect a twist, but I didn't know exactly what that twist would be, and it didn't bother me that I didn't know, because I trusted Riordan would tell me in due time.

Overall, good writing, good stories, and I'm looking forward to reading more in the series.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cars (2006)


I must have watched the first half-hour of this movie at least a dozen times with my kids. Sebastien loves Lightning McQueen, but he would always eventually lose interest. Finally one day I was able to see the movie all the way through by starting it with Sebastien and then finishing it with Isabelle. I love it! Reminiscent of more than one Michael J. Fox movie, but it works for me. It had a couple nice surprises, and I actually teared up towards the end.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Queen (2006)


I went into this movie having no idea that it centered on Princess Diana's death. I was in college when she died, and I remember a big deal being made in the news, but I didn't really follow the story. I certainly didn't know that the event marked a turning point in the public perception of the Royal monarchy, nor did I know about Tony Blair's role in the aftermath. A fascinating account, and one that left me thinking that a little more old-fashioned dignity in this world wouldn't be a bad thing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Knowing (2009)


It was fun to see the names of places I know as settings in the movie, even though it was obvious that indoor scenes were not shot on site, and it was weird that events in the movie depended on a fictional geography of MA. It started out good, more like a straight-up drama/thriller; it wasn't until the end that you were hit with a sci-fi whopper. Lots of scenes seemed contrived for dramatic effect. I don't like horror movies, and at least a minute or two of this movie felt like one.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


Certainly visually entertaining, but some of the plot elements seemed random. Even taking into consideration the fantasy realm, a couple points confused me, leaving me with questions like, "How can it be that...?".

The International (2009)


The plot was decent, but the movie just wasn't there. Clive Owen was one-dimensional and unconvincing. Naomi Watts was good, but her character was peripheral. The whole movie seemed like it belonged in the middle of a series, picking up in the middle of an investigation, and without a satisfying ending. The use of the Guggenheim Museum, however, was pretty cool.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Pongal - Billerica, MA


Limited lunch buffet selection that offers interesting choices, but lacks the comfort of familiar dishes. A couple dishes looked better than they tasted, but the lamb and chicken were both cooked well - tender, not at all dry.

Creation (2009)


It's a given that Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species would have created a huge public debate on science vs. religion, but I had no idea that he suffered inner turmoil just trying to write the book and decide whether or not to publish it. The movie is based on a book, and I don't know how much of it is true to fact, but it does provide a humanizing portrayal of Charles Darwin as husband and father. It has a number of touching scenes.

The Book of Eli (2010)


Very slow beginning. Gary Oldman is in usual form, overacting. Early on, I thought for sure I wouldn't rate this movie higher than 3 stars. Just a few minutes in, Ken - a big fan of this type of movie - predicted the ending correctly. At times it's basically a post-apocalyptic western, though I'll admit that the world degenerating into a lawless wild west after a nuclear holocaust isn't too unbelievable. Anyway, there were definitely some unexpected and satisfying twists, and it leaves you with stuff to think about. Plus, a lot of cool details and cinematography.

A Prophet (Un Prophète) (2009)


Kind of long. A disturbing, sometimes confusing, peek inside a French prison ruled by Corsican mafia.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Atonement by Ian McEwan


I was torn between rating this book 4 1/2 stars or 5 stars. Had the book ended after Part Three, I would have had no qualms giving it 5 stars. Unfortunately, there followed an afterward, and I wasn't crazy about the content; when I put down the book, I didn't have that final sense of satisfaction that I would expect from a 5-star book. That said, I can appreciate the inventiveness of the ending, and as a piece of writing - as opposed to entertainment - I can see its value.

In my opinion, Ian McEwan is easily one of the most talented modern writers of fiction I have read. He writes beautifully. His prose is clever, at times humorous, always full of imagery. Sentences are well-constructed around carefully chosen words, and I frequently found myself re-reading excerpts just to appreciate the full effect of his writing.

McEwan creates interesting, well-developed, complex characters. I was impressed with his convincing ability to get inside the head of his characters, and his keen insight into the different perspectives of a young girl, a middle-aged mother, or a grown man, even as they all experienced the same events.

Early on, I thought I would certainly not give the book 5 stars because of the constant anxiety I felt for an impending doom. While a bit of "Oh! I wonder what will happen next!" type of suspense is desirable in a good read, this book instead gave me a "Oh, no! Something terrible is going to happen! I can't stand it!" feeling of dread. Ultimately, when unfortunate events finally did unfold, I forgave the author the uneasy tension he caused in me - after all, the fact that he could elicit such strong emotion, pleasant or not, while keeping me thoroughly enthralled in the story is surely a sign of good writing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)


Very Harry Potter-esque. Highly derivative, but maybe that's a function of the fantasy genre. I half-expected the closing line to be, "Every time a bell rings, a Satyr gets his horns!" That said, the premise is good, and so is the story. Maybe I'll even read the books. And any movie that gets kids motivated to learn about Greek mythology can't be all bad.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Green Zone (2010)


I think this movie would be hard to take if you in any way agreed with the way the Bush administration handled the Iraq war. If you opposed the war, and believe that the war was unjustified in part because of the lack of evidence of any WMDs, then this movie is for you. At times, I heard lines I used myself while debating the war echoed in the script. It's "inspired" by a non-fiction book, but I think the events in the movie were fictional. Action happens at a good pace, events and conversations are easy to follow, and nothing distracts from the plot.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010)


I liked the ending. And I liked that the family was portrayed as normal; the fact that the parents were lesbians - aside from being central to the plot - was not a factor in the family dynamics. I also liked that Annette Bening and Julianne Moore actually looked the age of parents of high schoolers, and their performances were great. Mark Ruffalo's character was a bit too much of a caricature, and I think the movie would have had enough dramatic tension without the additional complications involving his character.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Invictus (2009)


Finally! It feels great to see a good movie again. Even though I was in college during Nelson Mandela's presidency, I'm embarrassed that I know so little about him. Ken says he remembers talking about South Africa a lot in school, but I can hardly recall any conversations at all - in or out of the classroom. This movie was not only inspiring - at times, I got goosebumps and/or tears in my eyes - but educational to boot. Makes me want to go out and find a good book about Nelson Mandela. Rugby players grunting in slow motion was a little weird, but the musical soundtrack made up for it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


I don't think this book lived up to its potential. Considering the detailed descriptions of the streets and neighborhoods of Barcelona, plus the explicit mention of Victor Hugo (who masterfully wrote of Paris in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as if the city itself were a character in the novel), I kept waiting to feel immersed in Barcelona - but it never happened. The author seems to try too hard in his efforts to paint the image of a city full of mystery; shadows are mentioned excessively, even for a book with the word "shadow" in its title.

The book seems to have been written for an audience that prides itself in being well-read. A reader who understands all the literary references will feel smart for recognizing names and titles. At times, the book seems to speak specifically to readers who secretly want to be published authors themselves.

I wasn't fond of the manner in which the story's mysteries unfolded. The main character, Daniel, repeatedly found no shortage of strangers who were willing to reveal to him everything they knew about third parties, even though they knew nothing about Daniel or his motivations for poking around other people's business.

I did enjoy the character of Fermin Romero de Torres, who was, in my opinion, the most developed and most interesting character. There was humor in his description as well as in his dialogue. If this book were a movie, he would have stolen every scene he was in.

The story itself was not uninteresting, but it stopped short of being intriguing or riveting. There is so much foreshadowing and dropping of hints that I was rarely surprised when a revelation was made. On page 56, I made a prediction that came true on page 421. It wasn't until 2/3 of the way through the book that I finally read something that made me want to read more to find out what happened next. About 40 pages after that, the melodramatic stage that had been set finally seemed justified. After 400+ pages of storytelling, the last 40 pages were the best.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

2012 (2009)


An end-of-the-world movie that relies primarily on one visual effect for action: the main characters repeatedly stay one hair's breadth in front of natural disaster. It happens so much, it's comical. Nothing too surprising about the plot.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Very National Treasure-ish, but not nearly as good. Goofy enough to get a few hearty chuckles out of me, but just too corny. I probably missed out by not seeing it in 3D, and I imagine the whole movie experience would have been better if I had.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirshler


After reading about this book in The Boston Globe, I was thrilled to be able to pick up a copy while visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It's not exactly a page-turner, but it certainly shed light on the painting, the artist, and the subjects.

As titled, the book is a biography of the painting, not the artist, and so we learn only as much about Sargent himself as is necessary to describe the context of the painting. The book includes many quotes from contemporary art critics, both positive and negative in response to this specific painting, and I was left wondering what Sargent might have thought of the mixed reactions.

I did learn quite a bit about the Paris Salon, the differences among French versus English versus American tastes in art, and the evolution of art appreciation. The book provides a thorough biography of the Boit family (whose daughters are portrayed in the painting), and I found it quaint that much of the personal information was gleaned from diary entries written by Bob Boit, the four girls' uncle. While the artistic analysis of the painting was educational, I most enjoyed the "Afterlife" chapters, which told the stories of what became of Edward and Isa Boit (the girls' parents), each of the girls, and the painting itself, whose provenance is thoroughly traced.

I was, however, sorely disappointed that the full provenance of the two large vases (that appear in the painting and which are displayed alongside the painting at the MFA) was not provided. The book describes their home in Edward Boit's Brookline (MA) house in 1903, and states that the vases stayed there until they were moved to the MFA in 1986. But if Edward Boit put his house on the market in 1911, and returned to Europe, then who owned the vases for the greater part of the century? And who decided to donate them to the MFA?

My only other complaint is that I wish all paintings that were referenced in the book were reprinted for reference, but I suppose there are copyright issues, and I guess it's not too much effort to look up paintings on the internet.

The final conclusion was beautifully written. The author suggests that "as with all masterpieces, the facts behind it can add to its allure" - and it's true. After reading Sargent's Daughters, I can't wait to visit the MFA again and view the painting in light of what I've read in this book.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New Moon (2009)


I had forgotten quite a bit of the backstory from the first installment of the Twilight saga, but I guess the details weren't so important anyway. I have to admit, I can see why teenage girls love this movie - and not just because of the superfluous shirtlessness. What girl wouldn't swoon over imagining herself being wooed by two boys - one brooding and dangerous, yet sensitive, and the other buff and dangerous, yet sensitive? I enjoyed the soundtrack so much that I regret not being hip enough to actually know any of the songs.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)


With an all-star cast and an original conceit, I had high hopes for this movie. But, it wasn't as funny or as engaging as I thought it would be. "The Invention of Lying" is a bit of a misnomer, because the characters in the movie weren't just incapable of lying, they were also incapable of internal monologues and instead blurted out whatever thought came to mind, whether or not they were asked for their opinion.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Informant! (2009)


It just wasn't as funny or as interesting as I thought it would be. Matt Damon plays a bit of an odd duck. No one in the movie elicits any kind of sympathy from me, so I had no one to root for or side with. Events just kept happening and changing, without any real sense of plot.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters (#2) by Lenore Look


Isabelle allowed me to read this book to her, and she liked it so much she wanted to go back and read Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. As a sequel, it felt like "more of the same", but it's a formula that works for me, so that's okay. (Although, the part when Alvin befriends a boy who is wearing the same night-vision goggles as he's wearing is a bit TOO reminiscent of Ruby Lu meeting her cousin for the first time and finding that they share the same love for reflecting tape.) It won't stop me from reading Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-made Catastrophes once I can find it at the library. I like Alvin Ho more than Ruby Lu, maybe because Alvin Ho elicits some sense of sympathy, and also, I can relate to at least some of his anxieties.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things (#1) by Lenore Look


Thanks to an update from Grace Lin's Facebook fan page, I learned that Lenore Look also wrote a couple books featuring an elementary school-aged Chinese-American boy! I was thrilled because while I do love Grace Lin's books, they mostly feature female main characters, and I wondered if that might seem less appealing to Sebastien when he's older. Interestingly, though, when I picked up this book at the library and told Isabelle it was by the same author as Ruby Lu but is about a boy, she said she didn't want to read it! I decided to read it myself anyway.

The humor in this book is even better than in the Ruby Lu books. A few times, Lenore Look's ability to take a slice of Chinese culture and reference it with a twist reminded me of a Chinese Sherman Alexie writing for a young audience. Alvin Ho, the main character, is first and foremost a 2nd grader, and, even more so than Ruby Lu, he just happens to be Chinese.

As with Ruby Lu, Lenore Look was really able to channel the voice of the young Alvin Ho, imaginative and creative Firecracker Man (his superhero alter ego) at home, mute and friendless scaredy-cat at school. While being entertained by Alvin's antics, most of which are motivated by his efforts to make friends, the reader finds that Alvin is able to learn and grow, despite his fears.

Again, I really liked the way Lenore Look casually incorporated a person with disabilities, as she did in Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything. This time, it was a classmate of Alvin's with an eye patch and a limp who was no different from his other classmates except for the apparent piracy that ran in her family.

As usual, I enjoyed the fact that the book was set in Concord, Massachusetts - references to names and places that I know well always makes a book more appealing to me.

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything (#2) by Lenore Look


In some ways this book seemed a bit too much like Ruby Lu, Brave and True, and sometimes felt like "more of the same." However, I really liked the way Lenore Look incorporated a person with a disability - a deaf cousin who is super cool in Ruby's eyes. Like Grace Lin's The Year of the Rat, immigration is also addressed at a level appropriate for young children.

Sometimes the stories in this book, as compared to those in Brave and True, seemed to be less well-meaning-but-misguided-behavior and maybe just a bit more straight up misbehavior - which made for less comfortable reading with Isabelle. I had to sort of explain away some actions, or use them as opportunities to teach: "Do you think that was good behavior?" I do think that an actual school-aged child reading this book on his/her own would find humor in Ruby's antics.

Ruby Lu, Brave and True (#1) by Lenore Look


I discovered this book at the library and was thrilled. Like Grace Lin's The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, Ruby Lu, Brave and True features an elementary school-aged Chinese girl, and references to Chinese and Chinese-American culture are strewn throughout the book. The reading level is the same, too - a chapter book with short chapters and frequent drawings. I read it out loud to Isabelle (4-years-old) at bedtime, and she really enjoyed it.

I shouldn't draw too many similarities, though, between this book and Grace Lin's books. I don't know exactly how old the main characters in Lin's books are supposed to be, but I think maybe they are in 4th or 5th grade. Ruby Lu is younger - 1st or 2nd grade, I think - and Lenore Look was definitely able to capture the perspective of a bold, imaginative, and adventurous little girl. It was funny at times, but I'm sure most of it went over Isabelle's head. Whereas Grace/Pacy (the main character in Lin's books) struggles with some big questions (e.g., how to reconcile her Chinese-ness and her American-ness, what she should be when she grows up), Ruby Lu simply has one interesting exploit after another, sometimes learning a thing or two along the way. Also, while Grace/Pacy's Chinese-ness is more front-and-center in Lin's books, Ruby is more the picture of an average 1st-or-2nd grader who happens to be Chinese.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Emergence: Labeled Autistc by Temple Grandin


I was inspired to read this book after watching the HBO movie Temple Grandin, which I highly recommend. The movie takes some artistic license, but overall, it really seems to portray Temple Grandin well.

This book is written mostly as a memoir, with information about autism studies, and Temple's own opinions about autism-related matters, interspersed in relevant places. Though Temple Grandin is neither a doctor nor a researcher, she writes with authority on a wide range of topics related to autism.

It was interesting, too, to read about Temple's mother's perspective, which was provided through the inclusion of a couple letters that she (Temple's mother) wrote to Temple's doctors.

Having no formal training in autism, I learned quite a bit from reading this book. More notably, I was surprised at the language (particularly in the book's forward) that referred to Temple Grandin as a "recovered" autistic person. I know that early invention is considered key in treating autistic children, and that the goal is to help the chidren "overcome" their symptoms, but I guess I never realized that autistic people could "recover" from autism.

I also learned about how wide the autism spectrum is, how each autistic person may suffer from their own unique combination of symptoms, and how each person responds differently to different kinds of treatments (much like Parkinson's Disease, with which I am more familiar). Included as an appendix was a copy of a diagnostic survey that Temple's mother filled out, and the questions listed there really shed light on the many symptoms of autism.

I don't know how much help or editing Temple Grandin got in writing this book, but the writing was good enough that it surprised me, because there was a level of self-awareness that I thought autistic people lacked by definition. Even as a young adult, she seemed to understand the importance of self-motivation and responsibility, realizations that would be mature lessons for any teenager, let alone one with autism. In describing how she, as an autistic person, was able to cope with life's stresses, she provides keen insight that would be useful for any person - with or without autism - to know.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini


I weeped at the end of this book. Simply weeped.

Before I get into its praises, let's get a few shortcomings out of the way. There are a few aspects to Hosseini's writing style that I'm not fond of, and the same minor complaints I had in The Kite Runner also apply here, except to a lesser degree. He still did some explicit foreshadowing, but only a couple times, and in at least one case, I do think it added a bit of suspense rather than detracted from the current narrative. Later on, when foreshadowed events occured, characters undoubtedly conjured up old memories that reminded the reader that said event was foreshadowed - as if Hosseini didn't trust the reader to be smart enough to remember on his own. But, in most cases, it seemed natural that if these events were really occurring, the characters would remember these old conversations with fondness, regret, or poignancy, so it wasn't really out of line to write about such memories. Overall, I think Hosseini's writing is more developed in this book, and ultimately, my rating of a book depends a great deal on how much of an impression it left on me, which is why I gave this book 5 stars despite these minor annoyances.

If The Kite Runner was, in part, a gentle and lovely portrayal of a peaceful, bygone time in Afghanistan history, then A Thousand Splendid Suns is its natural successor, telling intimate stories of women who endured the recent decades of multiple wars that tore the country apart and made it unrecognizable to its own citizens. On one level, this book serves a purpose by informing readers of Afghanistan's political turmoil and the nightmare of living in a war zone. But, it is also a book about motherhood, self-sacrifice, endurance, grace, and unadulterated love for one's homeland.

The book is filled with interesting characters. A woman who, to a stranger, may look like the embodiment of weakness and servility, but proves to be a fountain of admirable grace, wisdom, and strength not in spite of, but because of her sufferings. A man who mistreated women with shocking cruelty out of a misguided sense of tradition and conservatism, but also not unintelligent and still capable of affection and tenderness. Another woman who has enormous potential as a child, who is raised to value education above all else, but who must succumb to the draconian laws of the Taliban.

I was so invested in the characters that two-thirds of the way through the book, I started to fear that an undesirable conclusion would ruin the book for me. Without giving anything away, I'll say that I loved the ending.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Masa - Woburn, MA


Steve introduced us to Masa, and we loved it! We didn't order entrees, though, so my rating may be skewed. (There are always "those" restaurants that have excellent appetizers and desserts, but only mediocre entrees.) We knew we wanted to try their tapas, which are only served at the bar, so we waited around for bar seats to open up. Someone who might have been the manager saw us waiting, surveyed the dining guests, and gave us some tips on where we might want to hover in order to get the next available seats. Once we found seats in the bar area, he quickly brought us some menus. The bartender was pretty friendly, too; by the time our dinner was over, Ken had developed a rapport with him. Ken thought our mojitos were perfect (lots of fresh mint), but I thought mine was a little dry; I think I do like my mojitos to be just a little sweet. We ordered the combo platter of 10 different tapas, and 7 out of 10 were really fantastic. The remaining 3 weren't bad, they just didn't stand out as being as interesting or as flavorful as the other 7. We also got 3 out of the 4 available small dishes (I forget what they called them, they were somewhere between tapas and appetizers.); I loved the BBQ mac 'n cheese with chorizo, and Ken said the tuna tartare was great. For dessert we got the two menu items with chocolate; the "chocolate truffle tamale" (kind of like a molten chocolate cake) was yummy, and Steve said the bourbon pecan pie had a good filling, but a weak crust. (I'm not into nuts, so I don't think I can judge nut-based desserts fairly.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Summer Winter - Burlington, MA


I heard about Summer Winter a while ago, but since it's on the pricey side, we decided to wait until Ken's birthday to go. Thanks to Facebook, I found out that a high school classmate of mine is a server there, and when I told her about our reservations, she managed to pick up the shift and put us in her section. Needless to say, our service was excellent! The food was wonderful, from the "Strange Flavored" Eggplant (on the "Small Bites" menu, which is kind of like pre-appetizer tapas) to my avocado and polenta appetizer with goat cheese, tomatoes, and basil (a unique dish, I think), to Ken's crab cakes appetizer. My ginger and coconut fried chicken with curry sauce was tasty, and the chicken was especially juicy. Ken says his rib-eye steak was cooked perfectly. For dessert we had a nut tartlet - Ken's birthday choice. I'm not a fan of nuts, so I guess it wouldn't be fair for me to judge this dessert. I wanted to give this dining experience 5 stars, but Ken said it wasn't perfect because his sangria had too much ice in it. Ah, well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This Is It (2009)


Wow. To call this the "comeback tour to end all comeback tours" would not have been an overstatement. A touching opening scene, which showed dancers who were moved to tears by the mere thought of just having a chance to dance with MJ. I got goosebumps watching him dance "Billie Jean" again, hearing him sing "Man in the Mirror". Whatever you think about his personal life, there's no denying that Michael Jackson was a brilliant artist, performer, and entertainer. And to do all that he was doing at age 50! His premature death was such a tragic loss; he still had so much to do, so much to give.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Temple Grandin (2010)


A great feel-good movie. Very eye-opening, not just about autism, but, interestingly, about cattle, too! Really gives the viewer a feel for how at least one autistic person perceives the world. Also, the mother's struggle to deal with Temple's autism was well-portrayed; if it's difficult to raise an autistic child now, in an era of autism awareness, imagine how challenging it must have been in the 1950's, when even the "experts" didn't know what they were talking about. Temple Grandin's life is inspiring, not just for people with autism, but for all people.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie


As an adult who is already a Sherman Alexie fan, I don't think this book offered much that can be considered "new". In many ways, it's more of the same, except it was written for a teenage audience. In that sense, it makes for a good introduction to Sherman Alexie for early teens.

The teenage voice of the narrator, Arnold Spirit, took some getting used to. It was so informal that I imagined I was listening to a teenager telling a story, not so much reading a novel. But since Arnold is a funny kid, it was certainly an entertaining story.

In the book, Arnold tells how, as a freshman in high school, he transfers from the economically depressed reservation high school to an all-white middle-class high school off the reservation. His quick turn-around, from a loser on the reservation to practically a superstar in the white dominated school, was a little much. But despite that one seemingly out-of-character development, Arnold quite effectively describes his inner turmoil of trying to succeed in the world outside the reservation and what that means for people who seem destined to live and die on the reservation.

The lessons of the book are sometimes made obvious to the point of triteness, even for a young adult book. In one case, the narrator explicitly emphasizes "the power of expectation", and in another case, "You can do it!" is used like a mantra.

Still, there are other times when, in pure Alexie fashion, wit, insight, and humor collide. The comic-style illustrations by Ellen Forney, far from being superfluous, really added another level of humor and understanding.

As you might expect from Sherman Alexie, there is no shortage of tragedy in this book. Thankfully, I really enjoyed the ending. I think another reviewer (I can't remember where I read it) put it best when he/she said that Alexie is somehow able to make you laugh, even while breaking your heart.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wintry Night by Li Qiao


Translated from a Taiwanese trilogy, this book has two parts: Part One is the first book of the trilogy, Part Two is the third; the second book of the trilogy was omitted. Unfortunately, an unabridged translated version isn't available.

A few pages into the book, I had to draw a family tree. Part One of the book focuses on the extended Peng family, and without writing it all down, the names and relationships would have been a big jumble to me. Part Two shifts the focus onto the extended family of one branch of the Peng family, and I had to draw a whole new family tree to keep up with the story.

Though it tells a fictional story, the book is an educational introduction to Taiwanese history. Part One describes the hardships of those who first opened up aboriginal mountain lands for farming (a period of time that reminded me of the harsh life of American pioneers who moved West into Native American Indian territory). Part Two tells of the difficulties faced by Taiwanese men conscripted into the Japanese army towards the end of World War II. Frequent references were made to the anti-Japanese resistance movement (which reminded me of the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France). I would have liked to have read more about the anti-Japanese resistance, but alas, it was the omitted second book of the trilogy that focused on that part of history.

Despite finding similarities to other more familiar histories, the stories in Wintry Night are entirely Taiwanese. While the book at times read like a non-fiction account of one family's history, the author interspersed the story with poetic descriptions of the Taiwanese mountains and the spirit of Taiwanese people. One understands how much the environs were an integral part of the lives and livelihood of the early settlers, and how much being Taiwanese (and more specifically, Hakka Chinese) was at the heart of their identities.

While Part One told of hardships and struggles, it's clear that hope existed, and perhaps the Peng family would one day prosper. In this part of the book, people seemed to act rashly, and I didn't always understand a person's motivations. I wasn't sure if I was missing something, if the author wasn't developing the characters enough, or if some important detail was lost in the translation.

Part Two, meanwhile, was somber and depressing, with graphic descriptions of the casualties of war. Even the rare faint glimmer of hope felt more like a yearning, blind faith rather than a practical possibility. The endings of both parts were poignant and artistically beautiful, but left me feeling empty. As the reader, I knew the family would survive - as they did after every setback - but I still wanted to read more, to find out how they fared.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mamma Mia! (2008)


Total chick flick, complete with women who squeal hello and sing into hairbrushes. Having Greece as a backdrop made the movie beautiful to watch, but since the storyline and singing were corny, maybe it's best seen on stage. Also, I had to get over the fact that the bride-to-be, who was supposed to be 20, looked more like 14.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Kite Runner (2007)


I really liked the book, and since the movie was closely aligned to the book, I guess that made me partial to liking the movie. My favorite parts of the movie were when the dialogue was taken directly from the book. In fact, some disappointing moments were when I expected to hear a good line from the book in a particular scene, but it wasn't included. Many details, big and small, were left out, changed, or added, probably for the sake of the movie's flow, but I can't imagine why other details that made a strong impression on me in the book were omitted (e.g., Baba was not as "larger than life" as he was in the book). I suppose my rating is less of a judgment based on the movie's own merits, and more of one based on how the movie compares to the book. Oh, I did think the movie felt a lot longer than it really was.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

T. W. Food - Cambridge, MA


I think my rating is artificially low because I didn't order well. My squash soup was good, but nothing special, while my friend Sarah's charcuterie was excellent. My gnocchi with capers and cauliflower was flavorful, but not as flavorful as Sarah's cod. Also, the gnocci was a bit too "browned" for my taste. The wait staff forgot about us between clearing our dinner plates and giving us the dessert menu, but I actually don't hold this against them because Sarah and I had plenty to talk about and weren't in any rush, plus the server apologized once she realized what had happened. The hostess was actually very helpful even before I entered the restaurant, telling me on the telephone, as I looked for parking, that I could park anywhere that required a permit, and if I got a ticket, they would pay for it. Finally, I don't know if it's my own personal poor eyesight, but I felt the restaurant was very dark - I actually had a difficult time reading my credit card receipt.