Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mixed Media


I love books. And TV. And music. Here's my take on a few offerings from the first two categories. I'm going to save the music piece for a second post as this is getting quite long.


Synopis from Barnes & On a winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry is forced by a blizzard to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy. Yet when his daughter is born, he sees immediately that she has Down Syndrome. Rationalizing it as a need to protect Norah, his wife, he makes a split-second decision that will alter all of their lives forever. He asks his nurse to take the baby away to an institution and never to reveal the secret. But Caroline, the nurse, cannot leave the infant. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child herself. So begins this beautifully told story that unfolds over a quarter of a century in which these two families, ignorant of each other, are yet bound by the fateful decision made that long-ago winter night.

[The book]...explores the way life takes unexpected turns, and how the mysterious ties that hold a family together help us survive the heartache that occurs when long-buried secrets burst into the open.

I was fairly disappointed with this novel. It had a lot of elements that interested me, a very big lie and secret that was carried for a long time, a family member with a disability (who was supposed to go to an institution), photography, etc. However, the book is choppy, mostly because the author skips forward in time four or five times and picks up the stories of the characters again. She beats us over the head with the facts over and over, making sure we don't forget that this girl's mother and brother think she died while the husband suffers the consequences of keeping the secret. One huge element missing from the story is the daughter herself -- while crusading for her rights and education, the author missed the boat by not giving her her own voice amidst the others. Two out of five paws from me.

Synopsis: In this follow-up to his popular debut The Kitchen Boy, Alexander again mines the considerable lore of the Russian imperial family. Rasputin, the legendary mad monk, is also a family man raising two daughters in 1916 St. Petersburg. As he ministers to the tsaritsa and her royal brood during the last week of his life, 18-year-old Maria strives to understand the menacing aura surrounding her father. She is both loving and rebellious, but her adventures are limited to a flirtation with a young man who will betray her in a plot against her father. Alexander's wild-eyed romp through a period much studied for its contradictions and cruelties will be a staple of most historical fiction collections.

I knew going in this was a "young adult" book, but I enjoyed it well enough. I've read and seen a lot of documentaries on the fall of the Romanovs, and Rasputin certainly did his part in their fate. The book was compact in size and scope, covering the last week of Rasputin's life, and written convincingly from Maria's perspective. Three out of five paws.

Synopsis: Just as the smell of popcorn and the allure of fiery sword swallowers and exotic animals once drew spectators to the big top, readers will be drawn to this story of life in a traveling circus during the Depression. After Jacob Jankowski's parents die in a tragic car accident, the bank repossesses their home, which had been mortgaged to finance Jacob's veterinary studies. Jacob jumps a train carrying the Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth and is hired on because of his veterinary skills. The circus world is not all glamour and glitz, Jacob soon learns, but a hardscrabble life where both animals and workers are exploited and often mistreated. The author brings alive the circus culture with historical details and a wonderful menagerie of characters, including Uncle Al, the unscrupulous business manger; Kinko, a bitter dwarf; Marlena, the beautiful horse-riding star of the show; and Rosie, an elephant with personality and a secret. The story is told in flashback, through the eyes of Jacob, now ninety-three years old and in an assisted-living facility. His memory is jolted by the arrival of a circus in the parking lot nearby and his mind wanders back in time. The book's many complex layers-adventure, love, history, suspense, and a surprise ending-and Gruen's sensual prose are enhanced by period archive circus photographs at the beginning of each chapter.

I really enjoyed this book, in fact, it's the best book I've read in a while. The vocabulary isn't extraordinary, but the writing is solid, the characters are interesting and the period details convincing. Anyone who can write in the first person in the opposite gender to their own has some skills in my opinion. Some reviews have said the ending is contrived, but I disagree -- I loved the ending and felt satisfied as I closed the book on the last page, something I've missed greatly recently. Four out of five paws!

Next on my nightstand is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I wanted something I could really sink my teeth into. Last year I read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, my first Eco read (where have I been?) and I discovered many words I never knew existed, never mind knew the meaning of. I'm thinking this is going to beat the pants off of Dan Brown.

What are you reading?


Besides "So You Can Think You Can Dance", my favorite program with my least favorite name (who's the marketing genius who thought that up?), summer television can be a trying mish-mash of insipid reality shows and re-runs. This summer has been better than most. Here are three new shows, none of which are on the big networks, that I think are worth checking out:

Mad Men
The Setting: In 1960, advertising agencies were an all-powerful influence on the masses. Personal and professional manipulation and sexual exploits defined the workplace and closed the deals. The high profile Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency created advertising campaigns – from cigarettes to political candidates -- better than anyone. It was a time of great ferment. Women had barely begun to come into their own. Librium and birth control were on the move. Ethics in the workplace, smoke-free environments, sexual harassment and ethnic diversity were workshops of the future.

The Premise: The series depicts the sexual exploits and social mores of this most innovative yet ruthless profession, while taking an unflinching look at the ad-men who shaped the hopes and dreams of Americans on a daily basis.

I've seen two episodes now and I am hooked. On, of all things, AMC (American Movie Classics), it isn't surprising this series is great, considering that executive producer and writer of "The Sopranos" Matthew Weiner is behind it. They get everything right here, you are in a totally believable Manhattan in 1960, from the hairstyles and wardrobe to the seatbelt-less cars and the incessant smoking and drinking. New episodes air first on Thursdays at 10, but repeats are on almost every day.

DAMAGES is a legal thriller set in the world of New York City high-stakes litigation. The series, which provides a view into the true nature of power and success, follows the turbulent lives of Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) the nation's most revered and reviled high-stakes litigator and her bright, ambitious protégé Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) as they become embroiled in a class action lawsuit targeting the allegedly corrupt Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), one of the country’s wealthiest CEOs. As Patty battles with Frobisher and his attorney Ray Fiske (Željko Ivanek) Ellen Parsons will be front and center witnessing just what it takes to win at all costs, as it quickly becomes clear that lives, as well as fortunes, may be at stake.

My friends at FX have come up with another winner! Only the home of Nip/Tuck could come up with a legal thriller with so much bite. Both Glenn Close and Ted Danson are perfectly cast as the opponents on this battlefield. New episodes air on Tuesdays at 10, but again, repeats are on several times during the week.

Saving Grace
In her television series debut, Hunter stars as Grace Hanadarko, a tormented, fast-living Oklahoma City police detective who, despite being at the top of her field, takes self-destruction to new heights. After seeing tremendous tragedy in her life, both professionally and personally, Grace lives life hard and fast. She drinks too much, sleeps with the wrong men and defies authority. Grace has a tender side with her 22 nieces and nephews, but that is a side that most of the world doesn’t get to see. It all catches up with her one night when, as she’s driving too fast after too many drinks, she hits a man who is walking along the road. In an uncharacteristic moment, Grace asks for help, and she gets it – in the form an unconventional angel named Earl (Leon Rippy, Deadwood). Earl tells Grace that she is in trouble and running out of chances, but he wants to help lead her back to the right path. The journey, for both of them, will not be an easy one.

I'm not sure about this one. I am a huge Holly Hunter fan, and her character is so flawed that it's probably almost as much fun to do the part as it is to watch. Being an agnostic threatening to out myself as an atheist, the fact that the "unconventional angel" is a redneck, tobacco-chewing Billy Bob Thornton lookalike gives me a bit of hope I can keep watching. And Grace is, to say the least, initially skeptical, but by the end of the first episode she's already changed her mind about believing in God. The show is a tug of war between good Grace and bad Grace, but I'm not convinced it works fully. Fans of Hunter's gritty performance will roll their eyes at Earl, and viewers who warm to the show's spirituality might be turned off by all of Grace's drinking, cursing and screwing. I'm hoping they can make this work. New episodes air on TNT (which explains a lot) on Mondays at 10.

What are you watching?

Update: I watched the second episode of Saving Grace and I got bored half way through. I even got all the guys she's sleeping with mixed up, and Earl (the angel) just bugged me. I'm gonna stop watching it. But, I watched the second episode of Damages and liked it even more than the first episode. The third episode of Mad Men is on tonight.


  1. You must have more than basic cable. I don't think we get any of those shows. What we get sucks!

    As for books, I rarely read. I love it but have problems with my eyes that make it next to impossible so I've given up. I sure do miss a great book though.

  2. I couldn't agree more on The Memory Keeper's Daughter. It lost my interest shortly into the book.

    Jack and I started watching Mad Men last night and really, really enjoy it. I'm hooked as well.

    Thanks for the comments on the Sara Gruen book. I am about to leave on a 10 day vacation and need some new books.

  3. For books, I've been re-reading Tanith Lee, finishing not only Heart-Beast, but the Secret Books of Paradys 1-4, and Faces Under Water. Oo, also, Rebels on the Backlot, all about auteur directors Fincher, Jonze, Tarantino, et al. Fascintating stuff.

    TV: Well, since I've been watching so much of it lately...

    Hell's Kitchen: because I love Gordo and cannot wait for the new show this fall, which is based on the UK show of the same name (y'know, the one whose title I can't recall). You'll never look at a restaurant in the same way again.

    So You Think You Can Dance: love. it. My money's on Sabra, Lacey, Neil, and possibly Pasha to be the final four.

    Burn Notice: fab show on USA.

    Law & Order: any of 'em.

    So You Want To Be A Superhero: dude, Stan Lee! It's a show you'll either love or hate...I love it.

    Dr Who: Hello, David Tennant.

    DesignStar: cuz it's cool to see how people design stuff and gives me ideas I'll probably never put into actual practice cuz I'm lazy.

    PBS: Simon Schama's Power of Art, Antiques Roadshow, Mystery, Frontline, and then my brain went blank.

    Iron Chef America, Good Eats, Challenge

    Others I really like but either fell behind in or rarely get a chance to see: Battlestar Galactica (best drama on TV, hands down), The Closer, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations

    Shows I'd like to see: Mad Men, The Wire, Damages

    Popular shows I don't get: Grey's Anatomy, The Sopranos, Men In Trees, Brothers and Sisters, wait, should I just include everything on ABC?

    I swear to the gods I read a lot, really I do...


    PS: Zodiac is a fantastic movie.

    PPS: Maybe I should have put this on my on blog...oh well!

  4. Hey, thanks for the book report! I'm always looking for a good book, even if i dont get around to reading it. (I still havent read Harry Potter!)

    But as for tv, well, what can i say, i get sucked in.

    My latest guilty pleasures have been "Spelling Bee" and also the other Karoke game show on Fox. I think these are my favorite game show concepts--not that i could ever actually play, i forget every third word.

    Oh, but can i just say how wonderful it is not having to worry about what you're watching or reading for the benefit of children?!

  5. Hey girl thank you for saving me from the Memory Keeper's Daughter. I was so tempted to buy it the other day. I am reading the Mermaid Chair right now. I am a fan of Umberto so I know you will not be disappointed. I can not read as much as I used to due to the little one. I am down to only one book at a time...sadly.

    I want to see Saving Grace. I have to check it out. What I see of television lately is HGTV. It is like the black hole of the intellect. You try to run away but it pulls you back. I also see Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. I am in love with him and he is my imaginary boyfriend. Just don't tell my husband.

    When I finish what I am reading I have to read your Elephant book.


  6. Thank you for the book reviews! I was at the store yesterday and almost bought the elephant book...but I just hate dropping $$$ for something I am not going to enjoy! Back to the store I go :) I have so very little time to read (or BLOG, gah!), I try to snatch up only the good books!

  7. Thanks for the reviews! I'm always looking for more reading material. I have 2 "new" books on the way from myself!
    I'm a big, big Holly Hunter fan myself. I remember how much I LOVED her in Raising Arizona...did you ever see that one? I'm skeptical about this new show she's in, though but it's probably the agnostic/atheist in me...

  8. Reading:
    Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond...this is my bookclub assignment and I have 4 days to read it. So far I have read the 32 page prologue:(

    A Bend in the River - V.S. Naipaul, a reread from a contemporary lit course

    The Trouble with Islam Today, Irshad Manji, about 1/4 of the way into it, very interesting so far, written from the author's perspective as a female, lesbian muslim.

    So You Think You Can Dance - watch that with my daughter.

    Waiting for the new season of Battlestar Galactica (used to watch the original series).

    Mythbusters is always good a for a laugh.

  9. Donna--we read all of the same books! I loved Water for Elephants and felt the same way about Memory Keepers Daughter. Have you read The Kite Runner or 1000 Spledid Suns---I love those.

    I am watching Flight of the Conchords on HBO...I just love it and laugh and laugh.

  10. the "Paws"! Very clever!

    I'm not reading a darn thing. I have a book from the library, "I don't know how she does it", but haven't even opened the first page. As for TV, not watching much of that either. Thanks for pointing out Mad Men. I heard about it, but then lost sight. The only show we've been watching faithfully this Summer is The Closer. We record it and usually try to catch up on the weekend.

  11. I finished Water for Elephants a couple of months ago and loved it. In fact, my husband is reading it now. I'm finishing up Harry Potter.

    I think we have very similar taste in tv. We've been recording Mad Men, Saving Grace and Damages. We're woefully behind on our tv watching but we also enjoy The Closer, Psych and Burn Notice.

    Thanks for the reviews. Love the paw icons.