June 29, 2010
Try this on for size: a Cinderella coming-of-age tale dressed up in roller skates, eyeliner, and fishnet stockings. Welcome to Whip It, the debut work from director Drew Barrymore. Suffocated by her overbearing mother and small-town home, Bliss Cavender relies upon blue hair-dye and indie music for some semblance of independence. That is, until she stumbles upon a flier for the Texas Roller Derby in nearby Austin. Bliss convinces her best friend to go with her, and the girls are introduced to the elbow-butting, fast-paced world of roller derby.
Bliss tries out for the local league, adding five years to her age in order to play, and makes the team. What follows is Bliss’s exploration of freedom, success, first love, and, of course, roller derby. She ultimately becomes the poster child—quite literally—for the league. Yet having lied numerous times about her age and hiding her new sport from her parents, we watch knowing that it is only a matter of time before her secrets are exposed to everyone she cares about. And this all happens right before the League Championship Match, which also happens to be held on the same night as the Bluebonnet Beauty Pageant that her mother has been grooming Bliss for the past several weeks. What’s a roller derby gal to do?
What makes Whip It truly great is the reinvention of an age-worn plot. We have all seen movies about rebellious teenagers finding their version of freedom. But not in the world of roller derby. I will not lie: I love roller derby. It is gritty, savage and fierce. The atmosphere within the movie is exhilarating, and I find myself wanting to know where the Rose City Rollers play here in Portland. Whip It gives newbies enough information to follow and enjoy the film, while still leaving plenty of action to thrill the most die-hard of fans.
Yet even more than the chaotic and competitive derby scene, it is the relationships in Whip It that form the emotional lifeblood of the story. Ellen Page performs well as the awkward, angst-ridden teenager, which is becoming something of a theme in her roles. Marcia Gay Harden, as Bliss’s overbearing mother, gives a tremendous performance, as does Daniel Stern who plays Bliss’s father. The relationship between these three illustrates the typical ups and downs of family life. Bliss acts abominably to her parents at times. (Her newfound friend and teammate, Maggie Mayhem, correctly calls her a selfish brat at one point.) Yet her parents present one of the most genuine and refreshing examples of love and forgiveness I have seen in recent film. It is a love despite being hurt; a love that simultaneously exists with disapproval and disappointment. Whip It holds no screaming matches, no high-end drama. Just real life family stuff. Adolescent stuff. The fear of disappointing your mom. The devastation of witnessing your daughter make mistakes in the pursuit of love and having her heart broken. Whip It ends on an upbeat note, but it is muted with the understanding that family disagreements and issues will still continue once the credits leave the screen.
Kristen Wiig, as Maggie Mayhem, steals the screen whenever she appears. She is a delight to watch, a first-rate balance of derby grit and warm-hearted compassion for Bliss. Whip It presents a cast of strong women. They may not have all the attributes of ideal role models, but the spirited, tough women offer young female viewers tenacity, friendship, self-expression, and independence in spades. And those are fantastic traits for teenage girls to see in popular cinema.
I definitely recommend Whip It. The film is offbeat, even kooky at times. But then, that is Barrymore and Page. There are two scenes that come off as poor attempts at creating artsy avant-garde, and the Bliss-Oliver romance feels a little contrived. Yet this is Barrymore’s first film, and those aspects can be overlooked for the sake of this overwhelmingly enjoyable movie.
Five out of five stars.
June 24, 2010
Praise the heavens, it is finally finally summer. Warm sunshine infuses the air, and my skin is lovin’ the long-overdue vitamin D treatment. For me, sunshine equates with lightness. The world becomes more buoyant, weightless. And that sensation wanders into the realm of food as well. Light, refreshing ingredients are in order during summertime.
With the temperature arching its back into the 80′s, I decided upon making that classic summer imbiber: lemonade. But I could not make plain lemonade; it needed a twist. I recently found a recipe for watermelon lemonade. I adjusted the ingredients and added a couple of my own. The result was satisfying and…unique. Tart. But then, I love tart flavors.
5 lemons, halved
2 cups chopped watermelon
1/3 cup sugar
handful of berries (strawberries or raspberries)
4 cups water
~ ~ ~
1. Squeeze the lemons with a manual, orange juice squeezer. You want 1 cup of lemon juice.
2. Transfer the lemon juice to a pitcher and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
3. Puree the watermelon and berries. Add to the lemon juice.
4. Add water. Strain the lemonade for any excess fruit. If you like pulp, you can keep the fruit fibers.
5. Adjust for personal taste. If you want it more tart, add more freshly-squeezed lemon juice. For a sweeter drink, add more sugar. Drop in a few ice cubes and enjoy.
My friend, Darci, sippin' a tart glass of lemonade at dinner.
June 21, 2010
AMC's 'Mad Men' is not technically a dystopia, yet its depiction of 1960's America is often dark, highlighting the dissatisfaction and emptiness within its characters' lives.
I came across this article last week. NPR blogger Linda Holmes writes on her dystopia fatigue
and the apparent saturation of all things cynical and dark. She argues that adults enjoy shows like Glee
and movies (such as the new Toy Story 3
) because they offer some warmth and joy in an overwhelmingly “miserable” world.
I encourage you to take a gander at the article and share your thoughts. My friends sometimes joke that I cannot enjoy a film with a happy ending. And yes, I do admit that I like darker, meatier plots. For me there is more substance to heavy material than song and fluff. Human beings are complex creatures, and we often carry shadows within us. Life is not necessarily a happy adventure, especially if we take it upon ourselves to be responsible to our neighbor and those who suffer from injustice. However, I also believe that hope is an integral piece. I tether my experiences to hope, however thin that might appear at times.
Dystopias can offer illuminating insights into the human condition and cultural society. I appreciate their commentary; they serve the purpose of holding a mirror to society. But even more than the commentary, I like to see counter-offers of redemption or rectification. Otherwise we are indeed bombarded with depressing portraits of the world without a voice on how to better the situation. How we can do something about the sometimes-ugly nature of this shared world.
I’m curious. Are you tired of dystopias? Is a happy ending truly the “braver” choice in today’s literature and cinema?
June 17, 2010
For those who prefer nonfiction, here are eleven of my summer reading recommendations. They range from fashion to neuroscience, Amazonian explorations to Shakespeare. Pour yourself a glass of iced lemonade and refresh your literary brain with these summer picks.
1. The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
Here is a book sitting on my bookshelf, eagerly waiting to be read. The Lost City of Z holds all the components of that “perfect summer book”: adventure, historical mystery, and ancient legends. Author David Grann happened upon a set of hidden diaries, which then propelled him into the quest of solving “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.” In 1925, Percy Fawcett—British explorer and adventurer—ventured into the Amazon to search for an ancient civilization and its legendary city, referred to only as “Z.” He and his two companions never returned.
The Amazon has always held an allure for me, and David Grann’s gripping narrative does not disappoint. An accomplished writer for the The New Yorker, Grann’s masterful treatment of the topic results in a thrilling and accessible piece of history. The New York Times hails the work as a novel that “reads with all the pace and excitement of a movie thriller and all the verisimilitude and detail of firsthand reportage.”
2. A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
Howard Zinn is one of those figures that I wished I could have met. (He died this past year.) I so appreciate and agree with his approach to history—that of examining history from the perspectives of the “losers.” Of those that did not have the privilege or ability to include their voice in the documentation of mainstream U.S. history. Of the people who have been politically or economically exploited—and then omitted from our history textbooks. Zinn goes back to 1492 and moves through history, telling America’s story from the viewpoint of women, Native Americans, factory workers, African-Americans, immigrants, and the working poor. There is enough material within this book to make one’s blood burn from the past injustices, ignorance, and manipulation. Yet it is also a vivid—and necessary—portrait of all Americans, not just the ones wealthy and privileged enough to write their version of history. This is on my Required Reading shelf.
3. Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt
Summer seems to be the time for Shakespeare festivals. I just recently watched my friend perform in Merchant of Venice in The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City. Will in the World provides a lucid and fascinating account of Shakespeare—and how he became the masterful Bard. I am admittedly a complete Shakespeare nerd, but even the vaguely curious will find Stephen Greenblatt’s research and hypotheses interesting reading. I know what you might be thinking. Another book about Shakespeare? As someone who taught a Shakespeare class, I skimmed through dozens of books—most of them trite, under-researched, mind-stiflingly dry or stuffed with absurd conspiracy theories—and Will in the World is a winner. Greenblatt knows his stuff, and he transports his readers to the Elizabethan England with style.
4. The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine
Put away the magazines that describe the best swimsuit for your body shape. Yes, bikinis are as abundant as iced tea during the summer. But let us move up fourteen inches from the bikini zone to the brain. And there, let Dr. Brizendine regale you with everything you have ever wanted to know about the female brain. This is not a treatise on the superiority of the female psychosis. In fact, it is her equal, scientific treatment of the brain and neuroscience that caused this book to leap into my all-time favorites. Dr. Brizendine uses her knowledge as a neuropsychiatrist to show how the structure of the female brain determines “how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they love.” The highest praise I can give this book is that I learned so much. Brizendine’s obvious lens of evolution might be difficult for some to swallow, but her overall findings—regardless of personal belief—are fascinating. She has just published another book The Male Brain, which I plan to read quite soon.
5. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf
Staying in the brain vein, check out Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist. I have picked up this book countless times at the bookstore, never bringing myself to purchase it. Well that time is over. This book chronicles the development of the individual reading brain. How do we read? How do those characters on a page suddenly transform into ‘Midway upon the journey of life I found myself within a forest dark’ ? What happens within our brains when we read a line of text? Wolf gives a tour from the brains of a pre-literate Homer to a literacy-ambivalent Plato, from an baby listening to a storybook to a scholar on Proust. Psychology students and avid readers alike are bound to enjoy this book.
6. Dogtown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption, by Stefan Bechtel
This one is for my mom. She is whole-heartedly a dog lover, as are over 37% of Americans (according to the American Veterinary Medical Association). Dogtown is the canine section of the nation’s largest companion animal sanctuary, run by Best Friends Animal Society. There is now a National Geographic Channel show entitled DogTown, in which people can learn about animal behavior and hear heartwarming stories. Dogtown is well-written, though it can sometimes sneak into the realm of over-sentimentality. Bechtel balances stories of dog rehabilitation with thoughtful research and information about animal health, behavior, and affects of trauma. The stories of fifteen dogs are showcased throughout the book—a definite recommendation for dog lovers everywhere.
7. Dreaming of Dior, by Charlotte Smith
If you enjoy fashion—or merely looking at sketches of beautiful dresses—this book is for you. This 292-page book is filled with drawings of vintage dresses, a delightful feast for the eyes. Yet Dreaming of Dior is not just a picture book. The story behind the book is the truly captivating part: Charlotte Smith inherited a vintage clothing collection from her Quaker godmother. Boxes of dresses, totaling over three thousand, arrived to Smith’s address—the pieces dating from 1790 to 1995. Rather than just exhibiting the dresses, Smith located her godmother’s book of stories. The dresses in Dreaming of Dior are not just fashion pieces; they are a collection of snapshots from women’s lives. Each dress in the book includes the real-life story of the woman who wore it. As one bookseller put it, Dreaming of Dior is utterly charming. The perfect escape on a hot, summer day.
8. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
Summertime abounds with farmer’s markets. Fresh produce, local vegetables, simple cooking. Something within me feels so good—so clean—when I use local, healthy food to create meals. There are several cookbooks to help you transform those veggies into luscious entrees (such as Fast, Fresh & Green, by Susie Middleton and Eating Local, by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher). So how about some theory as to why we should be eating all those greens—and supporting the environment while doing so? In Defense of Food is the follow-up to Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In case you have not heard them before, Pollan’s advice for eating comes down to seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. If you’re interested in food movements and health, this is a good book to check out.
9. A Monk’s Alphabet : Moments of Stillness in a Turning World, by Jeremy Driscoll
I discovered this enchanting book during one of my recent excursions to Powell’s. It was tucked away, somewhat hidden behind larger, hardcover books. I felt as though I had come across a secret treasure, and I’m almost hesitant to share with others. It is a collection of short essays (ranging from a single paragraph to three pages), written by a Benedictine monk. The format is flexible; you can read from front to back or search for a word that resonates with you on a particular day. The essays are all centered around a single word, and they are arranged alphabetically…perfect for daily meditation. Summer can get crazy, despite its best intentions of relaxation. A Monk’s Alphabet provides an exquisite antidote the daily stresses of life.
10. Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz
There are summer days where it is far too hot to venture outside, and all we want is to splay our bodies on a slab of cold concrete and lazily flip through magazines. (At least, that’s what I want when the thermometer passes 100 degrees.) Here is one better than the July issue of Vogue: the 240-page compilation of Annie Leibovitz’s photography. I greatly admire Leibovitz and her work. She is innovative, sharply creative, provocative…a master in her field and art. She has captured iconographic images of such figures as Queen Elizabeth, Kate Moss, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rolling Stones. In this compilation, she shares how her pictures were made, along with topics of reportage, fashion photography and portraiture. Drink in the pictures. Your blistering summer day will fade to the back of your mind.
What is your nonfiction recommendation?
June 13, 2010
The days are getting longer – and warmer. While I am a book addict year-round, there is something exhilarating about summer reading. Below are fourteen of my all-time favorite summer reads. They span the decades and the genres…take whichever one suits your fancy.
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
The “girl-with” literary phenomenon exists for a reason. Stieg Larsson created wonderfully complex and flawed characters in his mystery-thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the following two novels). Set within the harsh, brittle landscape of Sweden, Larsson delivers an absorbing and suspenseful story that primarily follows a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who disappears to a small village after being convicted of libel. There he becomes involved with a forty-year old murder mystery that turns darker and more disturbing with each discovery. The best part of Larsson’s work, however, is the introverted hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who ultimately joins Blomkvist in his investigations. Even when Larsson’s feminist commentary weighs down the plot, my connection to Lisbeth keeps me turning the pages until the last one.
You might also enjoy: The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
2. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Epic. This book is breathtakingly epic. And I do not use that word often. The Pillars of the Earth has been around for awhile now; it was published in 1989. I stumbled across it three years ago, and I have searched for another book like it ever since. Spanning five decades, The Pillars of the Earth circulates around the town of Kingsbridge, as it witnesses the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England. There is Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, driven to “build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has known.” There is Tom, a mason and architect, who returns from tragedy only to live a conflicted life. And there is Aliena, a lady whose secrets and power force her to nimbly navigate the ruthless world of ambition and greed. The Pillars of the Earth has history, suspense, love, revenge, ambition, sacrifice, tragedy and triumph. What more can you ask for in a book?
3. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
I cannot think of a novel that better captures the sweltering, lethargic days of summer that Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The first third of the novel introduces the three main characters—Robbie, Cecelia, and Briony—and stands witness to the fragmented events that unfurl over a single summer day…and of the devastating consequences of misinterpreting one assignation. Atonement moves over the years—through World War II and beyond—and delivers a tragically beautiful commentary on the nature of jealousy, regret, memory, and the nature of Story.
4. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Forget the Twilight-saga and the other breeds of paranormal YA fiction. If you’re tired of vampires and angels—yet you still love that hint of the extraordinary—check out Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The novel takes place in an alternative version of America (called Panem), where states no longer exist and the land is divided into 12 districts. Every year, the Capitol hosts a televised event called The Hunger Games, as a means to keep the twelve districts under control. Each district sends one boy and one girl to the Games, and while the rules and terrain might change from year to year, the contestants know that they must kill or be killed. The Hunger Games provides a fast-paced, gripping novel that is impossible to put down. Collins has created a dazzling and fresh world with her Panem, and she blends futuristic fiction with suspense and romance. Moreover, The Hunger Games throws into question the ethics of war and media, notions of sacrifice, and the affect of violence upon children. One of the best books I have read all year.
You might also enjoy: The Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld and Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
5. Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin
I usually do not read chick lit, yet Emily Giffin is an exception. She crafts delightful and heart-warming stories that still prove satisfying. Her fifth novel was just released (The Heart of the Matter), but if you haven’t read her work, pick up a copy of Something Borrowed. What if—on your thirtieth birthday—you had too much to drink and slept with your best friend’s fiancé? Worse, what if you have been secretly in love with him and there is a possibility that he loves you in return? Not only is Something Borrowed a delicious romance, but it also highlights the often up-and-down relationship between best friends. This is a story whose heroine decides to take the front seat—for the first time in her life—and of the freedom and heartache that accompanies it.
6. Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones
You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.
For those who enjoy philosophy and literature, the exquisite Mister Pip is a must-read. Lloyd Jones’s novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2007 and trails the life of Mr. Watts, the only white man who chooses to stay behind on a tropical island, shattered by war. In a ruined schoolhouse, Mr. Watts begins to share the story of Great Expectations with the children and teaches the students the strength of imagination. The masterful use of Dickens within Mister Pip is an almost exhaustive experience, so poignantly has Jones written his tale. This book is a testament to the power of narrative. At 256 pages, Mister Pip is the perfect novel to slip into your beach bag (or purse) and read at your leisure.
7. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Chill down with this creepy, alternative reality by Margaret Atwood. When I was in New York last week, I perused my friend’s personal library and came across Oryx and Crake. From the first page, you are introduced to a strange, post-apocalyptic world that has seen the terrifying extremes of technology. I brought the book to the beach, which felt weird. It is hardly a typical summer read, but if you’re looking for a chilling, futuristic tale, Oryx and Crake will fully deliver.
8. Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
My summer cannot exist without Agatha Christie. Ever since I was eleven-years old, I sought for used copies of Christie’s novels and consumed them with a zeal that probably frightened my mother. Then I discovered the Agatha Christie section at Powells Bookstore, and my world forever changed. Agatha Christie is my guilty pleasure. One of the best aspects of her novels is the length; you can read one in an afternoon. When I fancy an old-fashioned murder mystery, I tuck an Agatha Christie book into my back pocket and head to the park. (Or the nearest armchair.) Death on the Nile is merely one amongst dozens that I would recommend. Written in 1938, Egypt and the Nile still had that thrilling sense of the exotic. It seems to aptly suit the warm, lazy days of summer. Other Agatha Christie novels I recommend: The Secret Adversary, Hickory Dickory Death, Cards on the Table, They Came to Baghdad, And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders.
9. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
I return to Swann’s Way each summer. I have yet to finish the novel because it is easy to drown in Proust’s loquacious language. I would never recommend reading Proust all at once. I like to consume Proust, much as one does a decadent dessert. Lazy summer days provide the perfect environment to nibble on Proust a little bit at a time. And with sentences such as this, it is no wonder: “What delighted me was the asparagus, steeped in ultramarine and pink, whose tips, delicately painted with little strokes of mauve and azure, shade off imperceptibly down to their feet—still soiled though they are from the dirt of their garden bed—with an iridescence that is not of this earth.” Needlessly wordy? Perhaps. But for me, Proust provides a beautiful interplay of language. Lovers of words will enjoy Swann’s Way, if only for Proust’s slow, delicate treatment of the written word.
10. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Return to your childhood with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Dragons, trolls, golems and, of course, hobbits. Bilbo Baggins must journey to the Smokey Mountain and slay the ferocious dragon that threatens Middle Earth. The Hobbit offers an escape to a magical world while still providing meaty themes of courage, resourcefulness, and the pursuit of discovering oneself.
11. Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin
The world experienced Carroll-craze this past spring with Tim Burton’s film rendition of Alice in Wonderland. Melanie Benjamin’s novel, Alice I Have Been, looks to the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s trippy tale of mad hatters, tea parties, and cheshire cats. Alice I Have Been is historical fiction, yet provides an interesting faux-biography if Alice Liddell had decided to chronicle her life and the ways in which one book—one character—shadowed her for the rest of her days.
12. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
I first read Gone with the Wind in high school, and I fell in love with Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. I loved to hate them, for they are truly despicable characters. Yet they are human and placed in one of the most turbulent time periods for the United States—the Civil War. Nothing encapsulates the heat of summer more than the passionate love affair of Scarlet and Rhett. And who doesn’t want a bit of the South during summertime? Do not let the 1,037 pages deter you. If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind yet, do it. Seriously.
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
I still cannot decide if I admire or hate this book. I will leave the final decision to you. Meet Blue van Meer. Miss van Meer is overwhelmingly intelligent but friendless. So when she enters an elite high school, she awkwardly finds her way into an eccentric clique, headed by the vibrant and equally eccentric teacher, Hannah. What then follows is a disastrous senior-year, murder, and betrayal. The book can appear self-important, showy and intellectual for the sake of being smart. Yet the mysterious aspects woven throughout Calamity Physics hold your attention, as does the quirky—and sometimes infuriating—cast of characters. Fair warning: if you do not like abrupt or seemingly unfulfilled endings, save yourself the time and not read this book. But if you’re looking for something a shade different—a twinge of the weird—then give Calamity Physics a try.
14. One Day, by David Nicholls
Admittedly, I have not read this novel yet. But after the first chapter I was hooked. I need to get my hands on a copy of David Nicholls’s One Day and vanish to the beach for a solid weekend. The novel starts in 1988, the year in which Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley met for the first time. They only spend one day together, but over the next 20 years, they cannot stop thinking about one another. The book traces their relationship – as they live their individual lives – on the same day, each day, for 20 years. The Library Journal described One Day as “A coming-of-age story for all of us who might still be wondering what we want to be when we grow up.”
You might also enjoy: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby.