50/50 Reading Challenge Update: October Books

I have a confession to make.  Up until a few days ago, I was in a horrible reading funk.  The entire month of October was just brutal.  I only opened books because it was necessary to meet my goal for the 50/50 Reading Challenge.

Normally, I am an emotional reader.  I choose a book based on the mood I’m in at the time.  Because of this, I keep a very long “to-read” list with a variety of genres to use as a reference.  My list has over 200 titles on it at the moment and I’ll still forsake it if I find another book that suits me better.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, moved me in October.  Not my to-read list.  Not suggestions from family or friends.  Not strolls through B & N.  Nothing!

A complete break from reading is what I really needed (and wanted).  However, that slave driver called The 50/50 Reading Challenge wouldn’t let me rest.  My choice of books over the course of October perfectly illustrates my spiraling reading mood.  Looking back now, it’s pretty funny.  I started October with a Man Booker Award winner and ended the month with one of those little square gift books on display in the Starbucks section of Barnes and Noble.  The worst of it all is that I’m not sure if my opinions of these books are truly reflective of the books themselves or my foul mood while reading them.  Take everything with a pinch of salt and then decide for yourself.

October Books

Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  Life of Pi is the tale of Piscine (Pi) Patel: his life as a zookeeper’s son in Pondicherry, India, his 227 day ordeal of survival on the open sea, and his recovery and life afterward.  Although I found some of the descriptions to be graphically gruesome and felt that the book dragged a bit during the middle section, I believe Life of Pi is a very powerful story.  I haven’t had time to really think through all the layers yet, but just the experience of reading this unusual book made it worth my time.  (4/5 stars)

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  In this very long novel, Ms. Morton addresses the story of Milderhurst Castle, the Blythe sisters who live there, and the mystery surrounding the youngest sister’s fall into madness.  I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as The Forgotten Garden (which I loved).  The book seemed overly long for the story and I just didn’t care as much about the characters even though I felt they were well-developed.  (3.75/5 stars)

The Peach Keeper by Sara Addison Allen.  This is another interesting story by Ms. Addison – infused with magic and love and offering very little substance.  Sometimes this is the perfect type of reading for me – pure entertainment with no mental effort.  Of the three Sara Addison Allen books I’ve read (The Sugar Queen and Garden Spells are the other two), the Peach Keeper is my least favorite but still good.  (3.75/5 stars)

1001 Things Every Teen Should Know Before They leave Home by Harry H. Harrison Jr.  I almost feel guilty putting this in my list because it was such an easy read.  However, it’s a book and I read it, so it counts.  Believe it or not, there are great little pieces of advice tucked in this book for parents of teens.  Kudos for the laughs, too.  (3.5/5 stars)

It’s hard to believe, but by the end of October I had read 39 books.  Only 11 more to go!  I’m happy to report that I’ve moved beyond the literary apathy I was feeling and am back on the reading track.  I just read Memoirs of Geisha in two days and will be starting The Thirteenth Tale tonightAfter that, who knows?  I’ll just have to wait and see what kind of mood I’m in.  Perhaps, it will be time for some non-fiction.  I wonder if cookbooks count….

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: September Movies

Unlike books that can be enjoyed for just moments at a time amidst the craziest of schedules, movies require a focused commitment of a few hours.  Even when films are broken into segments, an investment of a chunk of time is necessary.  I didn’t have many chunks to spare in September, so my movie consumption suffered a significant hit.  I only have one flick to add to my 50/50 Reading Challenge list and that was viewed at the eleventh hour, literally  – the evening of September 30th.  But what a treat is was!  Last month was a textbook example of quality over quantity.

September Movies

Rear Window (1954) starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Wendell Corey.  In this Alfred Hitchcock classic, Jimmy Stewart’s character is a photographer with a broken leg which forces him into a wheelchair-bound recuperation in his tiny apartment.  His only company is a no-nonsense nurse who offers unsolicited words of wisdom and his wealthy uptown girlfriend, played by the beautiful Grace Kelly.  He wiles away the endless hours peering into the lives of his neighbors.  It’s this harmless peeping that leads him to suspect one of his neighbors of murdering his wife.  He never actually witnesses a murder, but when the bed-ridden wife suddenly disappears, the clues are easily interpreted as foul play.

Rear Window was a great experience from beginning to end.  The entire movie takes place from the apartment, which gives the film the feeling of a theatrical play.  The suspense builds satisfactorily throughout the movie until the tense climax.  There is just enough ancillary action going on with the other neighbors to add interest to the main plot.  Grace Kelly (the epitome of classic Hollywood glamour) and Jimmy Stewart have great chemistry and are a pleasure to watch.  Raymund Burr, who is best remembered as a lawyer for the right side of the law, is decidedly sinister as the murder suspect.  I’m chalking up another win for the classic movie column.  I would definitely watch this movie again.  It was great fun!  (4.5/5 stars)

If the 50/50 Reading Challenge does nothing else worthwhile for me, it has turned me into a classic movie fan.  Beyond the good acting and content,  I can’t get enough of the fashion and the peek into the popular American culture of the first half of the twentieth century.

Even with the cinematic slacking I engaged in last month, I’m still pretty much on target to reach my goal by the end of December.  Rear Window takes the year-to-date count to 34 movies.  An average of five movies a month for the next three months should get me to the finish line.  It feels good to be coming down the home stretch.

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: September Books

With the start of school at the end of August, the pace of my life transitioned from a leisurely Sunday drive to a Formula One race.  Football, fall baseball, marching band, and a new full-time job conspired to send the Whimsey family’s schedule careening into overdrive.  When I say September is a blur of shapes, colors, and dream-like memories, I am not exaggerating.

It would be easy to surmise that all the endless mad dashing around would have obliterated my leisure time for reading books.  There certainly wasn’t time to cook a nutritious meal, wash a go of laundry, clean a bathroom, or mow even one blade of grass.  And forget about time to engage in any blogging activities, which accounts for the dirth of posts here at Whimsey Pie.

Surprisingly, though, I found ample pockets of time for reading – while I was waiting for football or baseball practice to end, during orchestra rehearsal, waiting for the band bus to return from games and competitions, during my lunch break, etc., etc., etc.  So much waiting time was mixed in with the craziness that I was able to finish five books in September and begin a sixth one.  There’s nothing like a little schedule overload to focus my priorities – I can’t possibly make a proper supper for my family, but I sure as heck can find time to read one more book.

Just because I’ve read five books doesn’t mean I have hours to write lengthy reviews for each one.  (Yes, it takes me hours.)  But I really want to give these books the thoughtful attention they deserve.  My plan is to review each book in three sentences or less.  Wish me luck!  Breviloquence is not my writing forte.  (How is that for a twenty-five cent word?)

September Books

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  By simply naming the 1,000+ things she loved, Ann Voskamp comes to a deep understanding of the goodness of God and His desire for relationship with us.  Her strange phrasing and overly descriptive style of writing tested my patience and my attention span several times to the point of almost throwing in the towel.  This was a slow go for me, but well worth the effort.   (3.75/5 stars)

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  After his family is murdered, Nobody Owens is raised by two ghosts, has a guardian named Silas who may or may not be a vampire, is educated by a Hound of Hell named Miss Lupescu, and spends his childhood in the protection of a graveyard.  Neil Gaiman offers an incredibly imaginative take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and creates a compassionate and, believe it or not, relatable tale of the struggles of growing up.  I loved it!  (4.5/5 stars)

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  The author tells the story of Achilles and the battle of Troy through the voice of Patroclus, Achilles’ constant companion (presented as his lover in this version).  Patroclus is a far more admirable and likable character than most of the other players, including Achilles, whose hubris is his ultimate downfall.  Madeline Miller offers a vivid retelling of the Greek myth, seamlessly meshing human experience with legend.  (4/5 stars)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Ender Wiggins, a seven year old genius, is believed to be the one person capable of defeating the aliens that almost destroyed the earth in earlier battles.  Ender’s intense training experiences often led me to forget he was only a child.  I understand why Orson Scott Card’s book won so many awards and is well on its way to becoming a much-anticipated movie.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Children’s Story by James Clavell.  Buddy read this book in his eighth grade English class this year and wanted to talk with me about it.  In less than a half hour, a newly appointed teacher from a new government manages to sweet talk the children in a classroom to tear up the American flag, question their parents’ authority, give up their individuality, and disregard God for government.  Quite a thought-provoking read on what we really believe, the values we hold dear, and the insidious nature of brainwashing.  (4/5 stars)

Breviloquence accomplished.  Who knew I was actually capable of it?  My book tally for 2012 is now at 35.  If I read five books a month for the rest of the year I will meet the reading portion of the 50/50 Reading Challenge.  I already have one book finished for October and am well under way on the second.  I’m really feeling the need for some light entertainment – perhaps some Kate Morton or Sara Addison Allen.  Life is too stressful right now for books that struggle with the big issues of life.  Please don’t judge….  We all need a marshmallow of a book every once in a while.

50/50 Reading Challenge: August Movies

This is a brief little post to highlight the few movies I watched in August for the 50/50 Reading Challenge.  My offerings are meager – August was surprisingly busy – but interesting.  The kids and I have been enjoying the classic horror offerings on Netflix.  Much of the time we are entertained for the wrong reasons (i.e., over-acting, rudimentary cinematic techniques, use of language, prejudices, political incorrectness, etc.).  However, it has been educational and enlightening to experience first hand the foundations that modern thrillers, horror films, and cinematography in general are built upon.

The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, and William Harrigan.  The Invisible Man, based on the same-titled book by H. G. Wells, chronicles the downward spiral of a scientist who discovers how to disappear using a drug  with the undesirable side effect of madness.  The general consensus among the Whimseys was that this was a pretty good movie.  It offered humor, tension, and an interesting plot, while addressing some heavy issues like the corruptible nature of absolute power.  That’s not bad for 71 minutes of film.  Seeing the movie has tempted us to read the book.  Anything that entices Buddy to read receives kudos from this mom.  (3.75/ stars)

North and South (2004) starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage.  I always feel the need to give some kind of disclaimer when I discuss period movies like The North and the South.  I love this stuff, so expect the review to be colored by that bias.  I also haven’t read the book by Elizabeth Gaskill (yet) so I won’t be able to discuss the movie’s fidelity to the plot and characters.

I watched this movie late one evening after everyone else was in bed.  Because I enjoyed Gaskill’s Wives and Daughters (both the movie and the book), I thought North and South would be a good bet for some “me” time.  Oh. My. Word.  How did I miss this BBC mini-series?  Four hours of my life passed in the blink of an eye as I lost myself in the world of Margaret Hale and John Thorton.  The social and economic climate of Milton, a northern cotton mill town in England, is the back drop that showcases the antagonistic but passionate relationship between Margaret and John.  The performances are spot on, especially Richard Armitage portraying the brooding and complicated John Thorton, and the chemistry between the main characters is palpable.  I’ve put the book at the top of my to-read list.  And the movie?  Without a doubt, I’ll be indulging again and again.  Yes, it was that good.  (5/5 stars)

Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, and David Manners.  I wasn’t expecting much from this movie and that’s exactly what I got.  My modern expectations of who or what Dracula should be ruined my experience of the film.  Everything just seemed over-acted and hokey.  Why was Bela Lugosi doing that thing with his hands whenever he was about to bite someone? Instead of looking sinister, he just looked disabled.  The costumes didn’t fit with the time period/setting of the story, either, which bothered me for some unidentifiable reason.  Believe it or not, I feel the need to reread Bram Stoker’s Dracula just to refresh my memory.  When I read the book as a teenager, it scared me to death and I’m curious to know if I’d feel the same way now.  The movie certainly didn’t have that effect.  (2.5/5 stars)

After August’s batch of movies, I’ve added three more books to my already cumbersome to-read list.  I’m going to have to read fifty books for the next ten years to whittle that pile down to nothing.  Adding these last three movies to the the 50/50 Reading Challenge list brings my total movie count for 2012 to 33.  I’m right on par heading into to the last quarter of the year and with so many good movies coming out – The Great Gatsby, Les Misérables, and The Hobbit to name a few, meeting my goal should be very doable.  Oh, and Anna Karenina.  How could I forget that one?  Bring on the popcorn!

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: August Books

Considering the fact that we are a full week into September, a discussion of the books I consumed during the month of August is well past due.  It will become apparent momentarily that there was no rhyme or reason to my choices last month.  I can offer no explanation other than my reading preferences seem to be rather eclectic and haphazard lately.  Dragon’s Lair and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter were library finds.  Artemis Fowl and out of my mind were recommended by my kids.  My sister-in-law thought I needed to read The Same Kind of Different as Me (she was right) and loaned me her copy.

It was a good month.  I spent some time in the Middle Ages, one of my favorite historical periods.  I enjoyed an indirect peek into the brains of Ace and Lovey by reading the books they love.  A candid non-fiction account enlightened me and inspired me.  And I am still pondering The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, even though I finished it a few weeks ago.  Yes, August was definitely a good month for reading.

August Books

Dragon's Lair (Justin de Quincy, #3)

Dragon’s Lair by Sharon Kay Penman.  As a lover of historical fiction, I’d heard many good things about Sharon Kay Penman but had never gotten around to reading any of her books.  When I saw Dragon’s Lair at the library, I scooped it up not realizing it was the third book in a series of mysteries.  My enjoyment or understanding of this book was not hindered in the least by my lack of background knowledge.  It only whetted my appetite for more of Miss Kay’s writing.

The historical setting for this mystery is England and Wales in 1193.  Richard the Lionheart is held captive in a German prison and his only chance of freedom is dependent upon the acquisition of a hefty ransom.  To free her son, Queen Eleanor is gathering the ransom payment from every corner of her kingdom. Prince John, on the other hand, is scheming to make sure Richard never returns to England.  A large allotment for the ransom is supposedly stolen in Wales and the queen sends her man, John de Quincy to find out what happened to it.  What unfolds is a very well written piece of historical fiction with fascinating characters, a detailed setting, and a rather complicated mystery that was an easy and pleasurable read.  I’m looking forward to more!  (4/5 stars)

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.  What a fun, action-packed book!  I completely understand why Ace would love this book and the series that follows it.  Artemis Fowl is a wealthy twelve-year-old criminal master-mind.  At his side is a deadly bodyguard named Butler, a huge man who carries a Sig Sauer and knows how to dish out a big helping of pain.  In this first book, Artemis schemes to kidnap a fairy (or leprechaun) to gain the ransom of gold at the end of the rainbow and to demand the granting of a very special wish.  The fairy they finally trap, Holly Short, is no ordinary sparkly wish-granter.  She’s part of LEPrecon, a special force of highly trained fairy police.  Artemis has his hands full trying to out-maneuver her combat-trained comrades with their special combination of technology and magic.  The book is filled with high-tech crime-fighting fairies, a dirt-eating dwarf, a fierce troll, and – I can’t believe I am saying this about a kid’s book – violence (although I grudgingly admit it is appropriate to the story).  Artemis Fowl is non-stop action and loaded with enough weaponry and explosions to satisfy any boy (and more than enough to satisfy his mom).   (4/5 stars)

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.  Preface: I’m afraid I’m not going to do this book justice, mainly because I’m still trying decide what I think of it.  I’m not even sure whose story Miss McCullers is telling.  The fact that she wrote such a complicated, layered novel in her early twenties simply blows my mind.

The story takes place in a Georgia mill town in the 1930’s and revolves around a deaf-mute named John Singer and the people who use him as a confidante.  Some of the best qualities of the book are the unflinching portrayal of the almost universal poverty of that place and time, the blatant prejudice, discrimination, and abuse of the African-American population in the south, and the deep, deep need for humans to be heard, understood, and accepted.  If I had to choose a main character, I would pick Mick Kelly, a teenage girl growing up in a dirt poor family that owns a boarding home.  In a sense, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a coming of age tale that follows Mick’s transformation from skinny girl with big dreams of making her own music to a young woman of fifteen who drops out of school to work at Woolworth’s because her family desperately needs the money.

To say The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is just a tale of growing up is selling the author and the story short.  I think Carson McCullers gives an intimate portrayal of small town life in the South in the 1930’s, of the striving, limited opportunities, and disappointments of that life, of the racially unequal culture, and perhaps of the hopelessness and loneliness felt by many who cannot escape.  Although the book is well-written and thought-provoking, it often seems to meander through somewhat unrelated scenes and dramas.  Also, the ending is flat and left me questioning, “If that is all, what was the point?”  And yet, here I sit, still thinking about it.   (3.75/5 stars)

Same Kind of Different as Me

Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent.  This non-fiction account of the development of an unlikely friendship between a wealthy art dealer and an illiterate homeless man was an unexpected blessing for me.  Ron and Denver take turns narrating chapters, sharing their story with candor and authenticity.  Even though much of the book focuses on difficult circumstances, a feeling of hope and the very real presence of God emanate from the pages.  This is not an emotionally easy book to read.  Living conditions of poor African-Americans in the south in the mid 20th century, the homeless culture, and a heart-wrenching battle with cancer make the material difficult but very worthwhile.  I was reminded that we often most fully experience God when we honestly reach out and love others, and that beautiful things can grow from searing pain and loss. (4/5 stars)

Out of My Mind

out of my mind by Sharon Draper.  The main character of this middle grade/ teen fiction selection is Melody, a brilliant fifth grade girl with a photographic memory.  Because she also has cerebral palsy, which confines her to a wheel chair and robs her of the ability to speak, very few people recognize her gifts.  Even when Melody finally acquires a computerized speaking device which enables her to communicate effectively, she still faces the obstacles of ignorance and prejudice.  The author does an excellent job of portraying what life is like for someone with a significant disability, both for the individual and her family members and caretakers.  She also effectively illustrates the frustrating situation of a fully functioning mind trapped inside a severely disabled body.  out of my mind was an easy and satisfying read and I’m glad Lovey, (my 15-year-old daughter) recommended it to me.  (4/5 stars)

In an ideal world, I would be celebrating the accomplishment of thirty-two books read by the end of August.  In my real world, I’m celebrating thirty books, which is still a good place to be.  I have time to make up the difference before the end of the year.  The book borrowing I did in August did nothing to reduce the stack of to-be-read books in my closet that Mr. Whimsey keeps knocking over while he’s getting ready for work.  The goal for September should be to take a chunk out of that pile.  What I really want to do, however, is devour several recently purchased books on my Nook and read Life of Pi and Ender’s Game before the movies are released.  I suppose Mr. Whimsey is just going to have to fight with that mountain of anticipated reading bliss a little while longer.