A Lovely Book Exchange

My determination to focus on the books already on my shelves has been going very…um…medium-ly? I am making progress, but rather more slowly than I had planned, and I have made a few exceptions.
We went to a bookstore on our wedding anniversary, so that was one exception, and we bought a few books then.
But then I had a brilliant idea for another loophole (you see the problem)! I had several books on my shelves that I knew I would either not read (based on certain types of content that I know I do not prefer) or had no interest in reading again. Most of them were in very nice condition, so I thought a used bookstore would take them. And they did, in exchange for store credit!
It just so happened that I hit the mark with the books I picked out, using up the store credit almost exactly. I don’t like to get rid of books, and I do it very rarely, but if I ever need to clear a few off the shelves again, this is a very fun way to do so.
So here is what I found!
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s Gilead is probably my favorite read so far of the year. It was so full, rich, and lovely, and sorrowful and heart-breaking (but in a brightening, wholesome way??) that I knew I must read more of her books. This book takes place concurrently with Gilead and includes essentially all the same characters.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
I know nothing about this book other than that it’s an astronaut who accidentally gets left on Mars, but I did hear that it was funny, and I don’t read humorous things very often. I have not seen the movie. I’m just curious. Oddly enough I just finished re-reading Out of the Silent Planet, which is also about a man who gets stranded on Mars, but that is from a more religious/cosmology/philosophical perspective, and I don’t imagine the books will be anything alike.
The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
Okay, I love this book, but getting this one was kind of an accident. We already have it. We knew we were missing one of the Chronicles of Narnia but neither my husband nor I could remember which one. Finally we both agree it must be The Last Battle. We were wrong. The one we’re missing is Prince Caspian. Now we have two copies of one and none of the other…a lack which will have to be remedied eventually!
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
A classic, we did not have it, and now we do! It is a short book and I’m of the notion that if a book was written around the 5th century B.C. and is still considered tactically and literarily relevant today, it really ought to be read.
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
We had this book on our shelves growing up, but somehow I managed to read some of the other books in Taylor’s series (about the same family) but not this one! The story centers around a black family in the south in the 1930s as they deal with family, daily life, and, of course, racism of both the casual and the violent kind. I know for sure that I read The Road to Memphis, which is set several years later, as well as a collection of short stories about the various characters in the books.
I’ve started keeping an eye out for books that I want not just for me, but for my kids. I remember those books I read of Taylor’s being very impactful and loving them, so I want to share them with my kids. I envision this making a good read-aloud for when they get older. I think it’s age bracket ranges between mid-grade and YA.
The Source, by James Michener
I often see this book referred to when I am perusing mid-east or Jewish history or historical fiction. Basically this book is a fictional account of the whole history of the Jewish people, up to the “present” (which is to say 1965, when the book was written). I have never read anything by Michener, but I was very happy to find an actual 1965 copy at the store.
Oh, and we also got two Dr. Seuss books, but I don’t suppose I need to explain those.
And, hey, I still have fifty cents store credit so…there you go : )

The Tortoise and the Hare, Otherwise

I have learned recently, being of a tortoise nature when it comes to projects of all sorts, that slow and steady does not always win the race. Sometimes, yes. Often, even. But not always. The parable of the Tortoise and the Hare is deceptive because it assumes that sprinters never act wisely, and lumberers are always doing all they can. Neither of these are necessarily true. I have found this to be the case in how I approach writing. The Tortoise tactic has its merits, but does not always work.
I learned this the way I learn a lot of lessons in my life–not from the actual experience itself, but rather from going on a run and learning it by parallel. For some reason running seems to parallel so many things that I often use it as a tool to figure out something–some struggle or challenge–in real life. Same as writing, actually, now that I think about it.
So ever since having a baby seven months ago, I have been working hard on distance in running, rather than speed. This was for good reason. I planned to run two half-marathons, and I didn’t have much time after the six-week post-partum recovery period to add mileage except at a very strong, steady rate. Speed would have to wait till later, which was just as well, because I’m not really a speedster by nature, and working on speed is much harder (for me) than simply lengthening my runs. This has always been the case, even before having kids.
I have been (relatively) fast in the past, but there were two major causes for this that came somewhat from outside of my own motivational capacity: first the Marine Corps, second my husband. When I was in the Marine Corps, how fast I ran determined what class of Physical Fitness Test score I had (ideally a “first class” score) which, in turn, influenced promotion. Also, nobody wants to be the one to fall out of a run and look the fool. It was to my absolute advantage to be as fast as possible.
Then, after finishing my service, I still ran a lot, but was often shy of really challenging myself speed-wise. Then one day my husband said “I bet you could do such-and-such a distance at such-and-such a pace” and I scoffed. That was way too fast! I’m not that fast, and probably never could be!
But I tried it for kicks. And, ladies and gentlemen, I was that fast. I wish I could say I’m just a ball of raw, self-sustaining motivation and discipline, but that is not the case. Sometimes I need a firm shove, a little extra fire on my six, to stay in gear.
Now that I have completed my planned long-distance races, I’m working on speed and I am out of practice. I start running and I want to slip into that casual, comfortable, just-for-the-sake-of-finishing kind of pace, and then I remember I’m supposed to book it. Or at least shoot for some kind of specific goal. I feel resistant. I try to bargain and say, maybe I’ll do that next run. Next time. Tomorrow. When I feel more like it.
This is no good. And this is how I’ve been with writing lately. I finished this mega long distance run (writing and revising my book and its sequels) and I’ve sort of taken a break. I let my muscles tighten up, and then even atrophy a bit. Now that I want to get back into it, and try new “races,” slow and steady isn’t working anymore. If I approach writing with a “let’s keep a casual pace” mentality, as I have been, I just end up doing almost nothing at all. The equivalent of going on a few short walks. I like walks. But it’s not getting the job done.
I need to do sprints. And I need to combine distance with speed. I need to do a strong tempo pace over some hard terrain. I’ve seen other authors do this and, yes, sometimes they burn out as a result. Then they have to ease back and do some slow/steady work. And that’s fine. You can’t sprint all the time.
But sometimes, if only to get those fires stoked, you just have to grab yourself by the collar, whisper in frustration under your breath (“But I don’t want to do this right now”), and just go hard until your muscles get watery.
Others may have trouble slowing themselves down to take needed breaths, but–at the moment–I’m the one who needs to shed some of that lumbering tortoise mentality and learn how the hare does.
When my husband and I run together we have always had opposite tactics. He goes all out from the beginning, then just keeps pushing himself and sometimes he runs out of gas towards the end. He is much faster than I, as a side-note. I always start very slow, then warm up, and usually blast out all my “conserved” energy at the end. Both these methods work better or worse depending on context and what you’re intending to do.
But my usual method isn’t getting me anywhere right now, in running or writing, so I’m going to have to learn how to push myself again, not later, not further down the road, not when I’m feeling more up to it, but right now. Because, the truth is, my method can be (and in my case probably is) nothing more than a fear of failure. What if I push hard at the beginning and then have to stop and walk? What if I start this new story and I can’t figure it out and it goes nowhere?
What if I start feeling awful and have to slow down? What if I get halfway through the story and realize I’m going in the wrong direction? What if I can never get fast again? What if I just don’t know how to tell this kind of a story?
Well, so what. That’s what I’m telling myself right now. So what if it fails. I’ll have learned something, at the very least.
Whatever keeps me from getting out the door has to be done away with. It’s time to cover some new ground and learn to set a more challenging pace. So what if I have to stop and breath. So what if I get a little lost. In running that can be part of the adventure, why not in writing?


The Third Way

I just finished reading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis, On Stories, and it was fascinating for addressing some of the same literary arguments we are still engaged in to this day. It’s important to say at the outset that no argument for or against a certain type of literature is new. We’ve been ’round this mountain before.
In Defense
There is a lot to be had in these essays, but the general tendency of them all is a solid, reasonable defense of children’s literature, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and other such stories as are often written off as “juvenile.”
For this reason I occasionally combine SFF and YA in this post, not because they are interchangeable (obviously they are not) but rather because they are beset by the same criticisms, namely that they are not mature or serious genres of literature. That they are shallow waters for a simple palette.
So, yes, I am going to dip a tiny toe into some mildly controversial waters here, but only now that the subject is not in any way trending. I really hope no one writes a viral “Why YA is so dumb/How dare you criticize YA in any way” article any time soon.
The problem I have is that I do not think the defenders of YA (in particular) are making very good arguments, largely because they fail to give their detractors the time of day, or respond to their criticisms as if they were made in good faith, which I believe most are.
When someone writes an article to the effect of “YA readers are staying in the shallow end of the pool, they must move on to greater depths” the response is often (though not always) a knee-jerk “Oh stop it with the stupid pearl-clutching, you snob!” If the first-line defense against an accusation of immaturity is an immature response, I don’t think that does the cause much good. And that’s a pity, because there are very good defenses out there!
It actually reminds me an awful lot of the whole Millennial argument. One would think the only two options are either “Millennials are awful and it’s all their fault!” or “No, Millennials are awesome, and everything is definitely everyone else’s fault.” I think plain reason can find an workable answer that avoids these two extremes. Likewise with these literary controversies, which come from the same core concern.
In many cases I think both sides of the argument are wrong, and both sides have turned the whole conversation about the value of youth literature into a zero sum game wherein certain types of literature must either be defended at all costs (even if they don’t deserve it) or disdained at all costs (even if they are clearly valuable and praiseworthy).
(Side-note: There is a whole other aspect to this conversation which is a lose-lose scenario of either venerating literary works above all else, or deriding them as pure snobbery and refusing to touch them. But that is a different part of the issue, which I am not going into today.)
In Lewis’ essays, he argues not only that youth literature and SFF may be enjoyed freely by people of any age, but that they are often of great and lasting value. I wholeheartedly agree. First, he claims that an obsessive fear of touching anything marked “for children” smacks of, ironically, a very childish mentality. Only the youth fears being thought young.
He also states that it is looking at the whole issue wrongly to think we graduate from one type of literature to another, as if they were train stations to be hurried past. We do not graduate from the good stories of our youth, we add to them.
And, ultimately, he takes serious issue with the notion that all “worthy” literature must be buried in realism, saying what we who love SFF in particular know very well: sometimes it is absolutely the best medium to tell a certain story.
So that settles the matter, right? No more argument needed!
In Criticism
Well…not quite. That addresses the defense of youth and fantastic literature very nicely, but does nothing to shed light on the other side of the argument. Why this constant suspicion surrounding these youthful or “unliterary” genres? Can every single attack, (on YA particularly, but genre fiction broadly), be reduced to an outsized fear of being seen to have or to cultivate “immature tastes”? I don’t think this can be so. It cannot be as black and white as that.
Lewis’ very helpful arguments must be put in context.
First, it must be remembered that Lewis was absurdly well-read, so he made his assessment from having experienced a very wide range of literature from the works of his contemporaries, to Greek classics (read in Greek), to Medieval works, to all manner of philosophy and theology. He defended youth literature and Fantasy and Science Fiction (which was called scientifiction back then, apparently) from the strong platform of having delved deeply into nearly all other forms, particularly the ancients and the classics.
So I suspect when some people criticize YA or SFF they are doing so not necessarily from a place of condescension but rather from worrying that people will reside solely in those genres and fail to travel other enriching roads roads…roads which may well lead right back to their original beloveds but now with enhanced perspective and better ground underfoot. We will not only love our myths, but we will be able to see their roots and be better nourished by them.
Secondly, Lewis made a few curious assertions regarding what makes art good or bad. Anyone may feel free of course to disagree but, personally, I find his arguments compelling. He first stated that a literary person is someone who re-reads, with the implication also being that a work of literary value ought to be re-read. There’s accounting for personal taste, of course, but you get the idea.
The main criticism there is not of a certain genre or age-category, but of those types of literature that constitute a once-only thrill. You find out what happens and that settles the matter, and you never really think about it again.
The idea he puts forth is that “bad art,” as he phrases it, is filler. It is background noise. The argument is best understood in the realm of music. We have what we call elevator music or muzak and the whole point of it is to be a faintly distracting, but not at all arresting, background element. It’s there to keep the silence from being too profound. It’s there to hush thought, not provoke it.
Then there is music that stops us in our tracks and nearly knocks us over. A second listening does not render the song weaker, but more powerful.
The Thing is not the Thing
We’re missing the point. The question is not whether we’re reading literary fiction, or non-fiction, or YA, it’s not whether we love Anne of Green Gables, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Perelandra. It’s whether the book is hearty and flavorful or it’s a scant distraction that, once the plot is resolved, means nothing.
And if you say “Now, wait. I have this one super fluffy book that I really love to re-read!” I would ask you to think about what draws you back to that book again and again. However light the tone or subject matter you’ll likely find that the book is not just filler, that there is something there that reaches out and enriches. An atmosphere, character, humor, charm. A book certainly doesn’t have to be dark and moody to be taken seriously. That whole thing is a false dichotomy, and part of the problem. Lightness of tone does not equal a lack of substance.
Thinking on this, I perused my shelves to see which books I re-read, which I want to re-read, and which I have no intention of ever picking up again. The results were interesting.
For one, I have not found Harry Potter to be quite as evergreen for me as it seems to be for many others. This surprised me. I truly enjoyed them when I first read them, all between age 14 and age 21, and I have re-read the first four a few times and perhaps I read Order of the Phoenix twice, but only while the series was ongoing. I have certainly never felt any desire to reread the last two. Compare this to The Blue Sword or Mara Daughter of the Nile, or Anne of the Island, each of which I feel positively compelled to re-read every few years, and I expect this to continue to my dying day. In fact I am having an Anne of the Island craving at this very moment just thinking about it.
All of these are easily categorized as YA, even if they were written before the genre solidified into what it is today.
Books I want to re-read run the gamut from a serious WWII historical fiction (John Hersey’s The Wall) to Dorothy L. Sayers metaphysical The Mind of the Maker, to Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (A YA book). All over the map.
The Heart of the Argument
The problem seems to be that no one is saying quite what they mean. When the anti-YA crowd worries about the popularity of the genre among adults, what they are really worried about (I think) is whether this cultivates a loss of willingness to challenge oneself, to venture into rough terrain, to read slow, to suffer difficulty, to provoke thought. This is not wholly unfair, because the current broad obsession with books needing to be compulsively readable, going at breakneck speed, dragging you almost against your will to the next page, is sometimes especially applicable to the bulk of YA.
One must sometimes slow down and tread paths that require more careful footing than that.
What the pro-YA crowd says usually amounts to an underlying frustration and genuine woundedness at having something they love–something that has brought tremendous joy and comfort–attacked as being invalid, stupid, or otherwise inferior. Something that lit a warm fire inside them and gave them hope is being derided which is almost to say that “something is wrong with you for so loving this silly thing.” Whether the criticism is meant personally, it feels personal because it often attacks not the literature itself on a case-by-case basis, but the very person who might enjoy such literature in any of its manifestations.
No small wonder that the reaction is often swift and angry. No justification for mockery or meanness, in my mind, but still…no small wonder. I remember flinching a little to see a book that has meant more to me than I can say (Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword) given a 2 star rating by a dear friend of mine whose literary tastes are quite different from mine. She did absolutely no wrong and no unkindness, but none of us like to have our lighted treasures go dim when passed into other hands.
A confession: I have sometimes found myself agreeing with some of the critiques made of the YA genre, NOT because I think it inevitably bad or dismissible, but because many of the conventions of the genre encourage (but certainly do not require) a hurried or shallow treatment, and because I think we should all read widely regardless. But I do not agree that this type of literature is something one must graduate from and eschew. I think it is something one adds to. When we are young we are especially voracious, which is a gift, but time will act the sifter and tell us which works stand up to multiple readings. And they may be in whatever genre and for whatever age. Quality does not really notice these categories. It graces them all.
So read on, and then…re-read : ) That will tell us all we need to know.

Half Marathons and what-not

So I managed, through happenstance, to sign up for two half-marathons taking place less than one month apart. I am happy to say that, while I enjoyed both, this last one was a solid improvement pace-wise. The weather was much more amenable (60s and overcast) and the much-dreaded hilly spots were not as hilly as they were made out to be. I shaved sixteen minutes off my overall time!
All this in the midst of a 3-week visit to see my eldest sister and her family. In order to have that visit, I had to pack the two kids and the dog into the car and do a 10-12 hour drive (the 12 is because even a restroom stop takes 30 minutes when you are traveling with two kids and no other adults). At my sister’s house there was happy chaos aplenty: she and her husband and their five kids, plus my parents (also visiting), and my sister’s father-in-law, not to mention the grand total of animals present as a result of all these visitors (2 Great Danes, 1 Collie, 1 Terrier-mix-something-or-other, 1 Wolf, and 1 um…ridgeback mix? Plus 2 cats, 3 very unexpected kittens, and some fish).
In any case, I’m glad to be home, glad for my husband to be back in town, and glad to have managed both half-marathons without undue complications.
In celebration of our anniversary, my husband and I went to an indie bookstore yesterday and I did actually buy some new books. Since it was a special day, you see. The cashier commented on my varied (read: random) picks, and seemed genuinely pleased with my selection…just as I myself was : ) I love it when the people who work at the bookstore have opinions on what you buy, or make suggestions. Either way, it’s nice when the experts think you made a good call.
Anyhow, I got the following books:
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
So I actually know precious little about this book beyond it being sci-fi, but have heard that it is excellent from multiple and varied sources. Aside from that, the translator is Ken Liu who is an author in his own right and whose fantasy novel, Grace of Kings, I read and enjoyed. Quality of translation desperately matters, and since I appreciated Ken Liu’s writing it gave that added incentive to check out Cixin Liu’s much-lauded work.
All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
I also know very little about this book (I find that is best these days) except that it is WWII historical fiction…right? I think so. I am determined to go into it cold and see what all the acclaim is about.
Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys
I kept seeing this pop up in recommendations here, there, and everywhere. I know nothing other than the jacket description which mentions internment of the main characters by Soviet secret police. But when I see a book that just keeps showing up, keeps being referenced, long after the initial hype of release, I’m interested.
On Stories, by C.S. Lewis
I will never pass up anything of Lewis’ and I’ve never read this one. It is an essay collection about literature, which includes his reviews of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and–as I understand it–shows his perspective on why fairytales and other forms of “easily dismissed” literature are so important.
So, while I am falling behind on my reading for this year, now that this crazy month is over I will hopefully catch up and maybe throw these new books in the mix!

Lewis and a Llama

There is a narrative device that I dearly love, but of which I have only found two clear instances. (No doubt there are many others, but these are the only ones I know of.) I’m going to talk about C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I have written about several times before, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
You wouldn’t think the latter was a subject for intense analysis, but you guys, this is what happens when your two-year-old wants to watch “Llama, New Groove!” all the time.
Either way, these two sources are so drastically different, it’s a bit of a comedy to talk about them together, but they both have brilliant examples of a self-deceived narrator slowly, accidentally telling themselves the truth.
The Stories, One Silly, One Grave
It is not the same as an unreliable narrator, because they are showing you the real story as it really happened BUT their feelings about the story change drastically. Basically, as they tell their story, they start to see where they were wrong about what was really happening. The very act of telling the story brings them to humility, and then to the truth.
-In Till We Have Faces, Orual starts her book as a testament against the gods, who she believes have wronged her, and caused all her woes. In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco begins his narrative with a desire to explain why everything that has happened to him is everyone else’s fault. Importantly, as Orual blames the gods (who are shown to be right), Kuzco blames Pacha, who is also shown to be kind and right.
-Orual is (eventually) Queen of her land, and Kuzco is Emperor of his. Both have power and are the sole source for information in the story, so they get to tell it their way.
-Orual’s unbelief and selfishness cause great harm to everyone around her, soaking up their lives, while Kuzco’s selfishness is what sets off the whole plot and causes both friends and enemies to lash out against him.
-Even when the gods have shown themselves, Orual harbors bitter anger against them for quite some time. Even when Pacha has proved himself a good friend, Kuzco doubts him at the drop of a hat.
-THEN we get back to the beginning, because both narrative stories basically start in media res: Orual telling her story up until the end of her reign in Glome, having all but given up on understanding the intent of the gods, and Kuzco until he is alone and abandoned in the forest, having given up on ever returning to human form.
-THIS IS THE GOOD PART: They both essentially interrupt themselves and tell themselves what’s really going on. In The Emperor’s New Groove, it is a little more straightforward. Kuzco’s narrative voiceover proceeds with his initial treatise–blaming Yzma and Pacha for his situation–but the in-story Kuzco shouts back at him telling him to stop, and that the audience already saw what happened…implying that they know it’s all really Kuzco’s own fault.
In Till We Have Faces there is a separation in the narrative. Orual says that she has read back over everything she has written and feels very differently now than she did at the time. She experiences new compassion for those she had written off. She reevaluates her choices and her sense of self-justification.
“What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant.”
“The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning; only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.”
It’s like when we record our voice and then play it back: “Do I really sound like that?”
Or when we remember some intense argument we had with a loved one where we were world-class jerks, and can now acknowledge that, but at the time, we were so convinced of our own rightness.
The Point
I love this type of story because it shows real development, real change, and it matters so intensely in real life.
When we write our last testament–our great diatribe against whoever or whatever we blame–would we have the courage to tell the story in a way that will force us to reexamine our prejudices, our angers, our hates? Would we have the courage to question our original conclusions? Or do we rush past the story, hurry through the conflict, desperate to make sure we don’t see or hear or read anything with which we might be able to indict ourselves?
There are stories where characters gain pride and power, but this is a story of humility and surrender. It is a story of hearing our own voice and learning how we really sound, what we’re really saying.
Both Orual and Kuzco look their past selves right in the eye and tell them off. With Kuzco it’s easy because we, the audience, could see all along that he was wrong. But with Orual…there is plenty of room for us to agree with her anger, her lament, her grievance. Indeed the first person I recommended this book to came away with precisely that conclusion: everything that happened to her was so tragic and unfair.
But the point of that story is that maybe it’s not just Orual who isn’t seeing it right. It’s us. Maybe there was a window for us to make the right choice, to be kind in the face of meanness, or have belief in the face of grave doubt, but the window was narrow, and we were wrapped up in our own perspective, so when we saw it we hung back. And blamed everyone else.
“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered…When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
For the characters in these stories, that had to be a face first lowered to the ground with humility, then lifted up with new and bright understanding.




Not That You Asked: Mini Movie Reviews

So I don’t get to watch new (or any) movies very often. By the time I manage to get to a movie, all the buzz and hubbub is over. But I did watch a few movies lately…usually in 45 to 60 minute portions over the course of two nights. I can’t watch too much tv all in a row, I like to read right before bed, and the time between putting the kids to bed and putting ourselves to bed is rather short in the grand scheme of things.
So here are my thoughts (good and bad) on moves everyone else either decided not to watch a long time ago, or already watched and enjoyed and reviewed! No spoilers.
  1. Kubo and the Two Strings
My husband and I watched this on the recommendation of one of my brothers. He has a good eye for things, and an even better ear–a true music lover. It is no surprise that he loved and touted this fantastic movie about a boy who wields his power through music. And, I’m glad, because I loved it too.
This is a stunning stop-motion film that will have you asking “what on EARTH is going on?” while fully riveted to the screen. Kubo is the son of a mysteriously powerful and troubled woman. He tells the stories about his heroic dad and evil grandfather that she tells him, and he is such a…good-hearted character. In the era of anti-heroes, it is very refreshing. He loves his mother, takes care of her. He relishes telling stories and is full of creativity and joy. He longs for his family to be whole again.
There is sadness in this movie, but it is very beautiful. It may, due the unbelievable visual detail and complexity, make you question the sanity of stop-motion film-makers. Man, you gotta love something bad to put in that kind of time and slog through that much tedium.
But it was worth it, on this end. This is a gorgeous, sweet, weird, fun film.
  1. Dr. Strange
Let’s be plain here: I did not like this one. It was also meant to be a “visual feast” of a film, like Kubo, but a million CGI lights and colors and thingamajigs does not a beautiful movie make. There is usually an inverse relationship between how much CGI a movie has and how much I like it. It’s as if my brain just writes it all off as fake, and therefore doesn’t even register what it is supposed to be. It’s not CGI stuff altogether, but what feels like unnecessary or excessive CGI, like excessive explosions in an action film. It loses its meaning.
Maybe if the characters or storyline had been less generic, then the ultra-CGI-ness of it would not have been so irritating, because that was all that was left. People have mentioned that Dr. Strange is basically a Tony Stark knock-off, and nothing that stands out among the crowd, and I’m inclined to agree. The villain is also “intergalactic uber powerful purple baddie #47” and that just bores me. In Marvel’s attempts to make every single movie apocalyptic, they’ve made the Big Bad’s very, very dull and uncomplicated.
All in all, the movie seemed to rely more on the visuals (for which I did not care) than on characters or interesting plot. So unless you feel you have to watch it to keep up with your MCU cannon or whatever, I wouldn’t bother.
  1. The BFG
This one was a very pleasant surprise, especially since it too relied heavily on CGI characters and visuals. But this one got it right.
I have a weird thing about Roald Dahl. There is a sort of dark, mean, grotesque edge to a lot of his works, and I loathe anything to do with Willy Wonka so fiercely, I do not wish to go within ten miles of that book. My sisters had to but hum the oompa loompa song to send me into a horrified, hands-over-ears rage as a child. I still hate that movie despite my love for Gene Wilder.
But the two Dahl books I have read, I adore. Matilda…and the BFG. For all it’s talk of nasty snozzcumbers and giant blood-bottlers, the story is terribly sweet. I haven’t read it in quite some time so, while watching the movie, I kept questioning whether or not certain things did or did not happen in the book.
Turns out they kept pretty true to the story. The animation of the Big Friendly Giant himself was somehow really rich and humanized, so it just worked. His lumbering movements, and word-bungling were all just spot on, and I honestly didn’t believe that they could have got it right like that. I came in expecting it to be odd, or cringe-worthy, or Tim Burton-ish.
But it was simple, sweet, and lovely. The girl who played Sophie did very well, and it all came together just so. They did change the ending a bit, but all told, I quite liked it. Recommended.
  1. Hell or High Water
I LOVED this movie. I knew the basic premise–two brothers hit up banks in order to pay off debts on their land before the bank can claim it, and two Texas Rangers are assigned to their case. Thematically, the movie makes the point (almost too heavy-handedly) that it’s easy for banks to push struggling people off of their own land. Hard times. Easy, high-interest loans for desperate people. Bail Bonds. Etcetera.
There are a lot of things in this movie that are…just these sad little details: one of the brothers is of a very criminal nature, and does this job for the love of it. He messes things up, he makes it harder, and there both is and is not redemption for him (I cannot explain without spoiling). The two Texas Rangers have this weird, uncomfortable, antagonistic relationship. At first I thought it felt like forced banter, but later it just seemed like the Jeff Bridges character was so lonely and uncertain about his future that he antagonized the Gil Birmingham character, Ranger Alberto Parker, out of sheer desperation. Alberto did not banter back, because he was not lonely. He has a family, and work is not his whole like the way it was for the Bridges character. Just, a little thing, but it stuck with me. An imperfect relationship that never got fully resolved or bettered.
This movie made me like Chris Pine a lot more. He did a very good job in this.
But, now, onto the real reason I loved this movie so much. This movie so fully and viscerally places you in its setting. Now maybe this is just because my dad is from Texas, my mom a Kansas/Arizona mixture, and I’m from Oklahoma, but I could feel blazing hot summer on my skin and hear the bugs cracking, the cicadas humming. I could feel the wind, the open lonely road, the endless longing horizon of flat country, the dusty, half-empty downtowns of small towns. I could feel it so keenly it could almost make me cry.
There was this one scene, at the very end (no spoilers), where two characters are talking on a front porch. Usually in a scene like this, noises that could distract from the very important conversation taking place are deemphasized. Too much ambient sound and it’s going to draw away from the dialogue. Cicada snapping is a LOUD noise. Like little popper fireworks going off. But usually the sound editors wouldn’t allow that to be so loud on screen. They tone it down.
But in that last scene there was all this natural, very real, ambient noise and it was kinda loud. Almost, but not quite, distracting. But it just made the whole thing feel real to me. Homey, but in a sad way, because so much of it is roughed up, lonely, or abandoned. But man, I can just hear those cicadas and feel that warm dusk wind.
Did this film do for those not from my region what it did for me? I wonder. But I really, really liked it.


Reading Goals and Road Races

Reading Goals
So first of all, I made a list of five books I wanted to read in April (my first non-haul book haul) and I almost made it! I’m halfway through book five. Considering the circumstances (toddler entering solid “terrible twos” territory and 6-month-old having napping troubles) that’s nothing to sneeze at.
So I still haven’t finished The Brothers Karamazov and I’m halfway through Saddam’s Secrets by Georges Sada. So those will be my first two books for the month of May, and hopefully I will wrap them up quickly, and move on to the following four books that I pulled from my bookshelves. It may be tough because I’m doing some traveling this month (road trips with two kids and a wolf, not so easy), but I find that good habits beget good habits, so I’m going to keep this up as best I can. Then, when I finish off the books I already own, I might feel a bit more justified to buy new books here and again.
  1. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I’ve had this on my shelves for a couple of years, and I’m in this perpetual state of really wanting to read it and not doing so. Well, now to it! It’s a modern classic, and supposedly very funny, so I’m looking forward to it because I don’t actually read a lot of humor, dark or otherwise, and that sounds very agreeable to me right now.
  2. Firehorse Girl, by Kay Honeyman. This is historical fiction (It’s YA, maybe?) about a young Chinese woman who immigrates to the United States. I know little more than that, but I love immigration stories, so I’m looking forward to it.
  3. A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor. Is exactly what it says on the tin. A dear friend recommended this to me. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read anything by Flannery O’Connor, but I’m expecting I’ll enjoy this one. It’s also very short, which is why I’m putting four books on this list instead of only three.
  4. Fool’s Talk, by Os Guinness. This book is about discussing Christian faith in a way that is meaningful and not “one-size-fits-all”, as well as approaching apologetics with intellectual finesse, acknowledging complexity. With a keen interest in apologetics and theology, and as a huge fan of C.S. Lewis (he is referenced in the jacket description), this title intrigued me, so we’ll see!
Road Races
So when I had my first son, I immediately signed up for a half-marathon and some obstacle races to set as goals for getting my strength and fitness back postpartum. I had a snag–an emergency surgery that put a damper on my training–but still managed to do the half-marathon and one of the obstacle races.
I decided to do the same thing this time. It’s tough to make this stuff happen with littles and with my husband’s very busy schedule, but we like to try and do it anyway. So, this last weekend, only six months postpartum, (and with help from my parents who came to visit!) my husband and I ran a rock’n’roll half marathon. It was a hot muggy day and there were a lot of people who had heat exhaustion, lots of people laid up on the side of the road getting medical help, because the heat was rather unseasonable, and the humidity was thick right of the bat.
Both my husband and I did about 20 minutes slower than our respective goals (so, I think, did everyone else), but we did complete the race! I had to do some walk/run intervals after mile ten, and I did not feel so good afterwards, but we made it.
I have another half marathon coming up in three weeks, after which I think I’ll just focus on speed and strength rather than distance. Then I’ve got an obstacle race in July. It helps to have these goals, to encourage myself to be disciplined in these areas, but it also helps to hold them loosely…not to get uptight if I don’t reach a certain time bracket, distance, or book number. I have to strike the balance to keep my head. So far, so good.
That being said, I do aim to fare better on race times and reading goals this month. Even if I only beat my last time by a handful of minutes, and make just it a few pages further in my reading goals, then I will be just that one step improved, the good habit etched just a bit deeper.