Kris Milstead

Author's posts

May 10 2016

Review: Books to TV shows

Having previously done a review on books made into movies, I decided this month to tackle books or book series that are currently in development of or in the midst of their first television season.

Shannara by Terry Brooks begins with the The Sword of Shannara and currently continues through The Darkling Child.  Brooks’ primary work has been the Shannara series, but he is also well known for the Magic Kingdom at Landover series.

The Shannara series takes place on Earth, approximately 2000 years after a great nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of the planet.  Over the years following The Great Wars, mankind evolves into four distinct races:  Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls.  In addition, Elves have emerged after centuries of hiding.

The television series begins with characters and events of the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara.  The novel introduces the reader to Wil Ohmsford, (grandson of Shea, the main character in the first novel)   Wil inherits the Elfstones and through the instruction of the druid Allanon teams up with Amberle Elessedil, (granddaughter of the King of the Elves) and  Eretia, a Rover (a race of humans who live as gypsies).

Together the three, accompanied by Allanon, embark on a quest to save the Elcryss, a magical tree which keeps the Demons locked away from the Four Lands.

Brooks has long been a favorite of fantasy lovers, and the Shannara series makes it clear why.  Long compared to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, Shannara pulls the reader into a world that is every bit as compelling as Middle Earth without the over verbosity for which Tolkien’s work is known.  Readers who enjoy the Shanarra series may also enjoy the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind or The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

 

Rating: 


The Magicians by Lev Grossman has been frequently described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.”  The novel centers around Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn.  Quentin has long been obsessed with a series of books about a group of children who discover a Narnia-like land called Fillory.  On the day of his admissions interview to Princeton, Quentin is instead evaluated for and admitted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  Here he becomes engrossed in learning magic and in the fight against a mythical enemy called “The Beast”.

There are significant changes from the books to the television series, including aging Quentin and the other characters from high school seniors to adults in their mid-20’s embarking on graduate school.  In addition, in the television adaptation, more emphasis is placed on Quentin’s depression.  In the opening of the television series, he is shown being released from a mental hospital. None of that occurs in the books where he is portrayed as simply being more aloof or disaffected than his peers.

The Magicians is at times a brilliant piece of parody, acknowledging and perhaps mildly poking fun at similar books such as the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia.  At other times it drags slightly with the characters appearing overly negative or cynical.  These issues are easily overlooked, however, against Grossman’s excellent use of dialogue and characterization.

Readers who grew up on Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia may find themselves drawn to The Magicians based on the obvious similarities, and indeed, it would be easy to dismiss The Magicians as a Harry Potter or Narnia rip off without deeper investigation, but readers will quickly realize that Grossman has created a darker, more grown-up world which acknowledges the fantasy of the other worlds but which also recognizes that being magical does not guarantee greatness.

Readers may also enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke or Soon I Will Be Invincible by Lev Grossman’s brother Austin Grossman.

 

Rating: 


American Gods by Neil Gaiman centers around the idea that the ancient stories of gods and mythological creatures are real.  Since people have stopped believing in them, they have faded into obscurity having been replaced by new gods of technology, drugs, and celebrity.

The novel opens with Shadow, a convict who, days before he is due to be released on parole, receives word that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident.  Consumed by grief, Shadow takes a job as a bodyguard for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who appears to know a great deal about Shadow’s life without having been told.  Soon they embark on a journey across America where Shadow learns the truth about all the gods, old and new.

Gaiman is an established author known for books such as Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and the acclaimed graphic novel Sandman.  In addition to American Gods, Gaiman’s Sandman spin-off, Lucifer has also been made into a current Fox TV show.

Gaiman shines throughout all of his writing and American Gods is no exception.  From the easily imaginable physical descriptions, to Gaiman’s solid use of dialogue, readers will be drawn into the world of American Gods and Shadow’s life.  As with many of Gaiman’s previous novels, American Gods draws on the idea that ancient legends and fairy tales have a foundation in reality.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman created a world in which fairies co-exist with mortals.  In Lucifer, Satan  has become bored with ruling Hell and has instead taken up residence in Los Angeles as the owner of a piano bar.  In American Gods a world is imagined in which the gods of Norse, Greek, and other cultures co-exist with mortals.

Readers starting with American Gods should investigate Gaiman’s other works such as Coraline, Neverwhere, or Good Omens (co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett).  Readers familiar with Gaiman’s work may also want to consider John Dies at the End by David Wong or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams.

Each of these novels provides a good foundation for their TV adaptations, and readers should find something to enjoy in all of them.

 

Rating: 

Jan 26 2016

Review: Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton is the third in the Humans of New York series.  Preceded by Humans of New York and Little Humans, Humans of New York: Stories was born out of Brandon’s experiences in creating the first book.

The first book in the Humans of New York series is primarily a photographic essay.  Brandon purchased his first camera six months before losing his job as a bond trader.  A weekend trip to New York inspired Brandon with its vast array of eclectic and vibrant residents.  Brandon’s original plan for his blog was to create a map with ten thousand photographs of New Yorkers plotted across it.  Eventually, he begin adding short quotes and captions to the photos.  This new format rapidly increased the site’s popularity and out of this came the first Humans of New York book.

The original book is almost entirely visual.  Stories and captions are sparse, save for a simple location reveal or simple information describing the photo.  This allows the photos to stand on their own giving the reader an opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the scene.

As Brandon collected photos for the first book, he found the camera served as a conduit for people to open up and tell him their stories.  From this, Brandon decided the world would benefit from the sharing of these stories, so he came up with Humans of New York: Stories.

In Humans of New York: Stories the reader is treated to the same concept of the original book, but this time with the something extra.  Instead of spartan captions or mere location tags, the new book is filled with accompanying text.

From small children to the most wizened of adults, no person is deemed as less or more, nor is anyone portrayed as more important than the others.

Many of the stories are whimsical such as the little girl of about three who gleefully exclaims “You’re taking my picture!”  Next there is the small boy, perhaps 5 or 6 in age, who profoundly describes how he wants to build bridges in Wisconsin because he feels as if there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t have bridges.  The wrinkle in his plan?  He’s not entirely certain where Wisconsin is.  A few pages later is the Sikh boy holding his infant brother who says his favorite aspect of his younger sibling is that “he’s cute.”

Some of the stories are more inspirational in tone.  There is the 20 something year old woman in a wheelchair who wants to become a diplomat in order to make life in China easier for people with disabilities.  She reveals that she lived in a Chinese orphanage until she was 10 and was unable to attend school because she couldn’t walk.  At the end of her story the reader discovers that she has begun with first step with an acceptance to the London School of Economics.

The book is also a study of contrasts.  Across the page from the aspiring diplomat is a middle aged man who states that he served ten years in prison.  When questioned why he responds “…Organized crime.  Allegedly.”  In the span of five short sentences, one gets the distinct impression that even though this man is currently anonymous his face will one day be plastered on the news.

In fact, in the original Humans of New York, Brandon reveals that one couple he photographed later became a national headline after a cache of explosives was discovered in their apartment.

Nothing is off limits in Humans of New York: Stories and Brandon delves into a considerable range of topics.

There are the two teenagers who don’t seem to know yet if they are friends or something more.  There is the elderly couple who cannot agree whether this is their 61st or 62nd anniversary.  Sandwiched in the middle of this mini-essay is the young couple whose nervousness is evident as they reveal they are on their first date.

Many of the stories are poignant reminders of the fact that circumstance and life can change practically on a dime.

This is best highlighted with a three page spread of a young man who talks about how he and his wife were at dinner soon before her due date of their first child.  While enjoying their meal they received a phone call that they needed to get to the hospital quickly as Marwa’s (the soon to be mother) platelet count was low.  At the hospital they are assured that things will be fine, but a a few days later the man finds himself a widower with a newborn baby.  While he describes meeting her as evoking a “finally home” feeling, losing her creates an emptiness in him that he cannot imagine ever filling.

The stories continue on from cute and funny to serious and heart breaking.  The common theme throughout is that our stories connect us.

In keeping with that theme, Brandon has used the visibility his blog grants him to promote and fund humanitarian causes.

Recently he travelled to Pakistan and Iran to highlight stories of residents from those countries.  He also did a lengthy feature on the refugee crisis revealing harrowing tales of escape.

Through stories revealed readers of the HONY (Humans of New York) blog have helped numerous people.  From refugees feeling terrorist attack, to a woman in New York who fled an abusive situation with four children and was facing eviction.  Other fundraisers helped a man who lost his tractor in an accident and a Pakistani woman who also had left an abusive relationship with a young daughter and was in need of treatment for Hepatitis C.  Finally, HONY raised over 2 million dollars for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.

There are few books with which to compare Humans of New York: Stories.  While there are a number of photo essay books, none touch on the human experience in the same manner.

Readers might find interest in life. love. beauty. by Keegan Allen.  Like Humans of New York: Stories, Allen intersperses story and caption with his photos.  life. love. beauty. however is more a personal photographic memoir as it centers around his career and the people he encounters within that setting.

Humans of New York: Stories is well deserving of its best seller status.  The stories pull the reader in causing them to love, laugh, and cry.  In short, Humans of New York: Stories strives to make the world a smaller, better place, and succeeds brilliantly.

Jan 05 2016

Review: Dumplin’ and a 52-Hertz Whale

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy tells the story of Willowdean Dickson, self-proclaimed fat girl.  The story opens with Willowdean telling the reader that all the best things in her life have started with a Dolly Parton song.

It starts in the summer before first grade with Dumb Blonde from the 1967 debut album “Hello, I’m Dolly.”  Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual love of all things Dolly.  As the women sipped tea and gossiped in the dining room, Willowdean and Mrs. Dryver’s daughter Ellen sat on the couch watching cartoons.  Each uncertain of the other, Dumb Blonde begins playing on Mrs. Dryver’s stereo one day, and before the chorus, Ellen and Willowdean are dancing in circles.  So begins the bond that unites them as best friends.

Fast forward to the present where Willowdean (called Dumplin’ by her mother) feels as if her life is slowly starting to unravel.  Willowdean’s beloved aunt Lucy has recently passed away, her mother a former beauty queen is constantly on her about her weight and seems hell bent on removing all remaining traces of Aunt Lucy from their house.  Ellen has taken up company with a new friend who does nothing to hide her contempt of Willowdean, and Bo, the boy she’s had a huge crush on, suddenly seems interested in her as well.

Thinly veiled put downs from Ellen’s new friend and furtive, secret, make out sessions with Bo do little to boost her confidence.  So, Willowdean sets out to reclaim it by doing the one thing unimaginable to her mother and nearly everyone else.  She enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.

What at first is meant as an act of defiance towards Willowdean’s mother, soon becomes a protest against societal norms as several other overweight girls enter the contest with her.

Dumplin’ is a fine commentary on the societal pressures placed on teens today.  Willowdean is an immediately likable character in that she’s a bit sarcastic and sassy, but also in that she is initially happy with herself and her looks.

In fact, most of Willowdean’s unhappiness stems from the expectation of others that she should not be secure and confident in her own skin.  Her mother, who peaked when she was not much older than Willowdean, continually nitpicks about Willowdeans weight telling her she’d be happier if she was skinny.  The only one who seems to understand Willowdean is her Aunt Lucy.  Unfortunately, she recently passed away from complications of extreme obesity.  Willowdean’s relationship with her mother was already strained at best and has now become outright hostile due to efforts on the part of her mother to clean out Lucy’s bedroom and turn it into a craft room.

Bo, the former football star from a local elite private school, seems to enjoy making out with Willowdean behind the dumpster and in the parking lot of an abandoned school, but shows no signs of wanting to go public with their relationship.  Upon this realization, Willowdean dumps him rather than stay in a relationship that diminishes her self-confidence.

 

Rating: 


In A 52 Hertz Whale by Bill Sommer and Natalie Tilghman, James is a 14 year old loner with two primary interests:  humpback whales (particularly a juvenile named Salt whom he sponsors) and avoiding interaction with his peers as much as possible.  When Salt appears to separate from his pod, and James’ only friend gets in with the cool crowd, James looks for advice from the only place he knows, Darren an aspiring filmmaker who once volunteered in James’ class.
Darren knows nothing about whales, but after being dumped by the one true love of his life, he has little but time on his hands.  Recognizing a kid in need of a listening ear, he fires off a quick reply.  This sets off a chain of emails between the two setting them on a course neither could have predicted.

A 52 Hertz Whale portrays the developing friendship between James and Darren with quirky humor but also has a serious side that deflects the humor just enough that neither element is too little or too much.

The novel is written entirely in email format, the majority of which are between James and Darren but some also introducing other characters giving the reader insight into their lives and interweaving them with the main characters with subtle finesse.

Both Dumplin and A 52 Hertz Whale deal center around characters whose misfit status comes not as much from the fact that they don’t quite fit in anywhere, but more from the fact that it doesn’t bother them as much as it bothers those around them.

In the case of Willowdean, it is not her weight that sets her apart so much as the feelings of others about her weight.  To her mother, her best friend, and a town obsessed with beauty pageant culture, Willowdean is an outsider because she simply doesn’t care.  She is comfortable in her own skin and wishes others could accept her as she is not who they want her to be.

Like Willowdean, James doesn’t particularly care that he is different.  He admits to missing his friend, but can’t fathom why he should be expected to conform to society.  Through his exchanges with Darren he learns a little about being true to one’s self while also being willing to compromise.  Darren, through his exchange with James, learns about chasing his dreams and being less afraid to take risks.

Both books share a common theme of loneliness, acceptance, and the horrible awkwardness of being a teenager. James and Willowdean both experience a period of learning that asking others to accept you as you are, means being willing to accept them in the same manner.

Dumplin’ ties together it’s storyline in a neat and cohesive manner while A 52 Hertz Whale leaves some minor plots dangling.  The latter might frustrate readers looking for a clear resolution, but it works within context of the main plot.

A 52 Hertz Whale and Dumplin’ are vastly different stylistically and in their settings, but the books compliment each other in such a way that one could imagine a universe in which James and Willowdean might recognize each other as kindred spirits.

 

Rating: 

Sep 01 2015

Review: Books centering around LGBTQ teens

With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”

Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed.  His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high.  Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other.  Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those.  Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.

One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will.  The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued.  On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus.  A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.

As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him.  It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.

Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching.  Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style.  Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.

Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex.  Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.

Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.

Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.

Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways.  Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life.  In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.


Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.

The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family.  The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”.  The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.

One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation.  Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.

Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.

Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style.  Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured.  Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.

I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.

For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.”  As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.

In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.

Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence.  This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.

In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age.  Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately.  Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity.  He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce.  He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.

Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.

 

Aug 01 2015

Offbeat Almanac – August 2015

August 1 slides smoothly into a new month with National Raspberry Cream Pie Day.  I confess, I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Raspberry Cream pie, but I admit it does seem a solid use for the fruits of your labor!

August 2 finally gets away from anything fruit related with Ice Cream Sandwich Day.  Share one with your sister as it is also Sister’s Day.  I know you’re thinking this sounds like a great idea because it’s also Psychic Day!

August 3 is the perfect holiday for a hot summer day: National Watermelon Day! Watermelon is over 90 percent water making it an excellent cooling down food.  Plus it’s healthy and low calorie which allows a sweet taste that doesn’t go to the waist!

August 4 is a day for dog lovers: Assistance Dog Day.  My cat would like to know why there isn’t an Assistance Cat Day, but tell me honestly, when’s the last time you heard of a seeing eye cat?

August 5 has you stuffed from watermelon and junk food, but it’s still oppressively hot and humid.  Fear not, I’ve got you covered – sort of.  Strip down to your skivvies and proudly announce that you are celebrating Underwear Day!

August 6 continues the nudity trend with Wiggle Your Toes Day.  I think the perfect way to celebrate is to attend a JAWS on the Water event!

August 7 is a beacon of holidays with Lighthouse Day.  Fun fact: the world’s oldest lighthouse is in Spain.  What better reason do you need to plan that vacation?

August 8 gives you the perfect reason to finally clean your basement or attic: Garage Sale Day.  It’s also International Cat Day.  Honor your cat by finally getting rid of that painting of the dogs playing poker.

August 9 might be my favorite holiday next to Christmas: Book Lovers Day. Since it’s better to give than receive, you can celebrate by giving your favorite book lover (or columnist) a new book!

August 10 is Lazy Day. The perfect excuse to do nothing! If you must break it, I suggest you do so by celebrating S’mores Day!

August 11 reminds us that summer is starting to wind down with Play in The Sand Day.  Take a personal day, hit the beach and build a sand castle.  Fall is coming and you don’t want to to look back with regret!

August 12 gets a little retro with Vinyl Record Day.  Bust out the turntable and dust off your old LP’s!  Then bang your head against a wall when your kids ask you what those funny looking CD’s are!  It’s also Middle Child’s Day, but we don’t really need to worry about that.

August 13 happens to be one of my favorite holidays with International Lefthanders Day.  If like myself you’re left handed in a right handed world, don’t despair: some of the coolest people in history have been left handed such as Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Stewart and Richard Simmons.  Well OK, two out of three ain’t bad.

August 14 brings us back to food holidays with National Creamsicle Day.  Take an opportunity to relive your childhood and chase down the ice cream man.  Or if you prefer a more adult approach, mix orange soda and whipped cream flavored vodka.  And if you drink too many, you’re in perfect shape for Relaxation Day on August 15!

August 16 might be a day you want to sit out after the revelries of the 14th and 15th, but if you’re feeling up to it, go check out the Cyclone on Coney Island for Rollercoaster Day.  Just do yourself a favor and skip the pre-ride hot-dogs.

August 17 seems like it should be closer to Halloween with Black Cat Appreciation Day, but those in charge obviously aren’t reading Offbeat Almanac!  Even so, black cats have lower adoption rates, so consider taking one in.  Trust me, they’re not plotting to kill you – well, no more than any other cat.

August 18 is the perfect chance to show your affection with Bad Poetry Day.  Write some awful prose for your loved one (or your new black cat). Here’s a head start:  Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Some poems rhyme, This one doesn’t.

August 19 is one for the shutterbugs with Photography Day.  If you’re like me, you might try to use this as an excuse to convince your spouse to get you that new lens you’ve been coveting,  or maybe you’d like to see my 1500 cat photos?

August 20 is a holiday I would just as soon not think about: World Mosquito Day.  Sadly, I feel certain some mosquito out there is just dying to celebrate by having me as a snack!  I can hear him now inviting all his friends and family.  Who thinks of these days?!

August 21 caters to the sweet tooth again by celebrating National Spumoni Day. Spumoni is apparently a frozen desert that originated with the Italians.  In Canada, they celebrate this day on November 13.  I call it “Macy’s puts up their Christmas decorations day!”

August 22 reminds me of an old joke: two men are sitting on a bench, one comments “my wife is an angel.”  The other sighs and says “You’re lucky, mine’s still alive.”  Do a good deed today and honor Be An Angel Day.  Just don’t take it too literally.

August 23 is a holiday in which I’m certain calories don’t count:  National Sponge Cake Day.  With a dessert as light and fluffy as sponge cake, most of the calories are just floating around in the ether, right?  If you need full justification, tell yourself you’re honoring Queen Victoria.  Rumor is that spongecake slathered in jam was her favorite teatime snack.  Don’t you deserve to treat yourself like a queen?

August 24 marks the 9th anniversary of a very sad day in history: Pluto Demoted Day.  Didn’t we all grow up learning “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”?  All hope is not lost though as recent discoveries may vindicate us all.  If not, we will just have to write songs for our dwarf planet in honor of International Strange Music Day.

August 25 is Kiss and Make Up Day.  Sure, we both know that your partner was wrong, but on this one day maybe we can both overlook that and well, kiss and make up.  I’m certain they’ll be wrong again tomorrow.

August 26 proves that it’s true that every dog has his (or her) day.  It happens to be today!  I’m pretty certain this was included because August holds not one but two cat holidays, but hey we’ll throw ’em a bone anyway!

August 27 I’m fairly certain exists simply to fill a gap as it is literally Just Because Day.  In thinking about it though it’s the perfect day to do something random.  Send a friend a funny card.  Jump in a puddle.  Stand in the back of the elevator and sing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of your lungs.  Just because.

August 28 seems like the sort of holiday made for nerds, but I beg to differ.  Bow Tie Day is actually the perfect day to tie on (or clip on) your best bow tie and show it off to the world.  It would be more perfect if it was Matt Smith’s (the Eleventh Doctor’s) birthday, but sadly that is October 28.  Even so, bow ties really are cool.

August 29 lures us back towards food with More Herbs, Less Salt Day.  Cutting one’s salt is almost always a good idea. For herbs, I recommend parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  I don’t have a cure though for the Scarborough Fair ear worm I just put in your head.  Sorry about that.

August 30 contains what I believe are two of the best holidays in existence:  Toasted Marshmallow Day and Slinky Day.  Just be sure not to toast your slinky, because I’m pretty sure that’s an environmental hazard!

August 31 wraps up the month of August and sadly, the summer, with National Eat Outside Day.  For those in cooler climates, the days are getting noticeably shorter, and there’s beginning to be a nip in the air.  You can help the mosquitoes celebrate too by being their last meal of the summer!

Jul 01 2015

The Offbeat Almanac – July 2015

Everyone is aware of the major holidays.  Sure, people observe things like Canada Day, the Fourth of July, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc.  What often goes unacknowledged, however, are the more unusual holidays.  When is the last time you observed Manatee Appreciation Day or Tolkien Reading Day, (March 25th) or even Elvis’ birthday (August 8th)?

Given that July has two of the aforementioned major holidays, it seems appropriate that it is also National Picnic Month, National Hot Dog Month, National Ice Cream Month and most importantly, National Anti-Boredom Month.

July 1 is Canada Day.  Oddly enough, National Poutine Day is April 11.  One would think that those in charge of these things would have planned better, but alas, no.  According to Ottawa Magazine, the best place to picnic in Canada’s capital city is Watson’s Mill.  Slightly off the beaten path, it provides a quiet spot to spread your blanket and enjoy your maple spread.  While there, perhaps you can take a couple of hours to pull out your tablet and stream any of the many movies with Ottawa’s beloved native son, Dan Ackroyd.

In addition to Canada Day, one should also be certain to observe International Joke Day with your favorite bad pun.  (What kind of flooring do lizards have?  Reptile!)

Moving on to July 2nd, we have World UFO Day.  I’ll pass on your regards to my favorite Martian.

July 3rd is a little less exciting with National Disobedience Day.  I demand that you refuse to celebrate this one.

This brings us to July 4th.  Of course, everyone recognizes this day as American Independence Day, but did you know that it’s also National BBQ Spareribs Day?  Sounds like the perfect meal while also celebrating National Hillbilly Day and National Country Music day!

If you’re not too exhausted after your Independence Day celebrations, you can celebrate National Apple Turnover day and National Graham Cracker Day on July 5th.  I don’t know how graham crackers and apple turnovers would taste together, but what better day to find out?  Just be careful how many you eat since it is also National Bikini Day!

July 6 happens to be one of my favorite days in the Offbeat Almanac as it is National Fried Chicken Day!  As with National Poutine Day, you would think those in charge of these things would have made it coincide with Colonel Sanders birthday (September 9), but unfortunately we were again not consulted on these matters.  No one is completely certain when the idea of frying chicken came about, but it is known that the Ancient Romans used to fry chicken with olive oil, fish sauce, and various herbs and spices.  Sounds delicious and the perfect dish to take along with you while you’re in the park still observing National Picnic Month!

July 7, marks both Chocolate Day and National Strawberry Sundae Day which seems fitting in a month that celebrates, in part, ice cream.  July 7 also marks the birthday of Otto Rohwedder, who invented sliced bread.  Which I suppose makes every July 7th since the best thing that’s happened since sliced bread!

July 8 has another of my favorite holidays:  Video Games Day.  If by this time you’re sick of the summer heat and humidity, then what better excuse to cancel all your plans and stay inside? While you’re playing, you can snack on a candy bar in honor of National Milk Chocolate with Almonds Day!  Or, if you prefer, you can queue up your favorite comedy on Netflix as a way to observe SCUD Day! (Savor the Comic, Unplug the Drama Day) Come to think of it, that sounds like a great way to celebrate nearly every day!

If you’re not a chocolate fan or your sweet tastes run of a simpler nature, then July 9th – National Sugar Cookie Day – is for you!  Give some to your favorite little kid, send them home to their parents and enjoy the show!  Don’t worry, you can thank me later.

On July 10, after you’ve binged on Netflix and played all your video games, you might feel a need to venture outside again.  What better day for that than Teddy Bear Picnic Day?  Grab your beloved teddy bear, pack a lunch, and embrace the day.  Don’t worry about getting strange looks. It’s also National Pina Colada Day so just raise your glass and smile!  Perhaps you’ll make a new friend in time for Cheer Up The Lonely Day on July 11!

Skipping ahead past World Population Day (July 11) and National Pecan Pie Day (July 12) to July 13 which has two holidays that go well together:  Embrace Your Geekiness Day and Barbershop Music Appreciation Day.  Let your geek flag fly and join a barbershop quartet!  Ask your new friend and your teddy bear to come along for support!

July 14 is most noted for Bastille Day, but did you also know that it’s Pandemonium Day and National Nude Day? You can celebrate by creating a little pandemonium streaking at a baseball game!

July 15 has three holidays that are especially important to animal lovers:  National Pet Fire Safety Day, National I Love Horses Day, and Cow Appreciation Day.  Go hug your cow or horse while checking their fire safety plan.  One can never be too careful!

July 16 is National Corn Fritters Day and Fresh Spinach Day.  While I’m all for corn fritters, I’d just as soon skip over the spinach!

Find some respite from the heavy foods and summer heat on July 17 with National Peach Ice Cream Day!  Sprinkle a little cinnamon on top and share it with your pet pig for Yellow Pig Day!

On July 18 get away from all the sweets with Caviar Day.  Sure it’s expensive and kind of gross, but never fear it’s also Toss Away the Should Haves and Could Haves Day!  So for one day kick back and live like one of the 1%!

July 19 tells us that having days dedicated to specific ice cream flavors isn’t good enough.  Thus we have National Ice Cream Day!  It’s also National Daiquiri Day so I suggest a little experimentation:  Daiquiri ice cream!

Next, we come to July 20 in which we have National Fortune Cookie Day and National Get Out of the Dog House Day.  Maybe you can take your spouse to their favorite Chinese restaurant as a token of goodwill.  Hopefully your fortune cookie will have some sage advice on how to fix whatever you did wrong!

July 21 kicks off National Junk Food Day.  Finally, a holiday that I can really get into!  Of course, this begs the question of what is junk food precisely?  Obviously it’s food that is considered bad for you but almost anything in excess is bad for you.  Just ask the guy in China whose eyes turned green after eating too many river snails! (Seriously, look it up!)

For me, celebrating National Junk Food Day is likely going to entail a juicy hot dog, some onion rings, maybe some chocolate, and then later that night, lots and lots of regret with a nice helping of heartburn!

July 22 was surely invented as the perfect follow up to National Junky Food Day, for today is Hammock Day!  What better excuse for resting off all the junk food you ate yesterday? Don’t forget your sunscreen of course, since it’s not National Lobster Day (June 15)!

July 23rd may seem repetitive in that it is Hot Dog Day, but who says we can’t spice it up a little?  Bratwursts are technically a hot dog, right?  So fire up the grill, relish in your favorite bratwurst, lay back in that hammock and ketchup on a good book!  (Get it?  Relish? Ketchup? Sorry I’ll save that for Tell an Old Joke Day on July 24.)

July 24 is a great day in a week that contains National Junk Food Day and that is Drive Thru Day!  It is also National Tequila Day and National Cousins Day so call your favorite cousin, confess your recent junk food binges, and drown your regret!

July 25 gets slightly away from the junk food theme with Culinarians Day.  You don’t need to be a chef or enjoy cooking to celebrate this day.  Go visit your folks (or parental figure) a day early for Parents Day, and enjoy their culinary skills.

July 26 in addition to being Parents Day also happens to be Aunt and Uncle day.  On top of that it happens to be National Bagelfest Day.  Celebrate by checking out that new bagel shop you’ve been wanting to try with Mom, Dad or one of their siblings.

July 27 will definitely be a fan favorite as it is National Scotch Day.  Some trivia:  under the Scotch Whiskey Regulations of 2009, scotch must be produced and distilled in Scotland, have a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40 percent (which means it’s 80 proof), and be aged at least three years in Scottish oak casks.  Wow, people take scotch seriously!  Just don’t imbibe too much or you may be faced with a police officer explaining to you that wearing pants is still required for Take Your Pants for a Walk Day!

July 28 offers the perfect follow up to the exercise and drinking you did yesterday with National Milk Chocolate Day.  Milk Chocolate is one of my favorites so I’ll be celebrating this day.  National Hamburger Day is also celebrated on this day, but I’m not sure how a hamburger made of milk chocolate would be so I suggest you don’t combine your festivities.

July 29 I predict is going to be another favorite for many:  National Lasagna Day.  I’m not a fan of lasagna myself so I won’t be marking this occasion, but it just so happens to also be National Chicken Wing Day which is a holiday I am absolutely in favor of!

July 30 presents an excellent way to wrap up a month of food with National Cheesecake Day.  Cheesecake is the one thing I’ve heard many people say they love almost more than they love their spouse or significant other.  In fact, if anyone has an amazing recipe for gluten-free cheesecake crust, my own husband might well love you forever!

July 31 ends the month on a slightly healthier note with National Raspberry Cake Day.  I think cheesecake counts as a cake, so celebrate by eating some of the leftovers from yesterday!

May 19 2015

Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, a Southern transplant to the North.  The book opens with Charlie Garret’s first day in a new job.  The son of a younger widow, Charlie’s mother re-married into an elite family and she and now has young son Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.”

Feeling as if he doesn’t belong within his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at The Abbot, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school.  Even though he continues to feel out of place among his high society colleagues, Charlie finds true contentment in the classroom.

There he meets May, the headmasters young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his.  As May comes into her own as a woman the attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.

In the midst of all this, Charlie’s mother Anita hovers in the background like a specter.  At first she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and eventually to Abbot.  Then, she becomes the constant reminder that it is his brother, and not he, Charlie, who is the beloved son.  Her continual worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan, drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.

Meanwhile May finds her first source of true happiness in her relationship with Charlie.  Happiness, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends their relationship almost immediately after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.

Told entirely from the perspective of Charlie, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story.  The book shows initial promise, but relies too much on the prep school environment and quickly falls into predictability.

As the story progresses, we learn that each character holds secrets that all intertwine with each other’s lives.  For Charlie it is at first the feelings he harbors towards May, his student.  It then expands into his buried resentment of his younger brother who instantly charms everyone he meets.  For Nick it is the realization that despite his brilliant mind and his ability to draw people in, he can only feel alive within the chaos of a third world country.  For Anita it is the truth of her first marriage and how it has impacted her relationship with Charlie.  Finally, for May it is the longing she feels to be loved by her own mother while simultaneously pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection.

Each of the character’s secrets has a ripple effect changing not only their own relationships but also the relationships of those around them in severe and life altering ways.  In the midst of this, LeCraw creates a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.

Lecraw’s writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested, but the storyline never completely finds its stride.  The primary plot twist while dramatic, comes off as somewhat contrived and unsurprising.  As a reader, I found the storyline mostly interesting, but I did find myself struggling at times to remain engaged.  The story starts out at a brisk pace and quickly draws the reader into the plot and the ending pulls the reader back into the story with a bittersweet twist and well timed pacing.  The middle section drags however, and readers may find themselves in a position where they are ready to give up.  I would encourage readers to stick it out, though admittedly skipping a few small sections in the middle have no impact on understanding the book as a whole.

The Half Brother’s characters show great potential to be interesting people.  The potential however is never quite reached as LeCraw fails to develop them to full understanding.  Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment which stems from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess at times.

Nick, Charlie’s brother has no complexity at all.  Like Charlie he shows signs of struggling with feelings of abandonment as his own father (Charlie’s step-father) drinks himself together while he is still young.  These feelings however are expressed as one who is an egotistical and self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.

Anita, Charlie and Nick’s mother hovers in the background where Charlie is concerned and is over-bearing where Nick is concerned.  Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with her, and her presence becomes necessary only when used for a not entirely shocking plot-twist.

May is the most complex character of them all and I found myself wishing LeCraw would explore her more.  After her break up with Charlie, May travels through France and other parts of Europe.  Her strength is a testament to the fact that she can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, and yet she continually pushes herself towards both.

Finally, the sub-plot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting something more.  The impact that it has on each of the main characters leads to a too neat resolution as if LeCraw got to the end of writing and realized she had forgotten to resolve that aspect of the book.

Fans of The Secrets of Midwives will likely enjoy The Half Brother.  Though The Secrets of Midwives centers on the lives of the three women, The Half Brother is similar in its theme of secrets and feelings of displacement within one’s own family.  Unlike The Secrets of Midwives which allows the reader to see events from each of the characters points of view, The Half Brother is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie who comes off as an unreliable narrator at best.

Readers looking for a strong book about family and the impact of long kept secrets would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler.  Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw tries for but never actually reaches.

Apr 28 2015

Review: Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win.  With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.

The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material.  Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online.  He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be.  Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works.  Trigger Warning, however, collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults.  In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the forward:  “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them.  Consider yourself warned.”

Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”.  In the simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warnings a chair does.  “Do not use as a stool or stepladder.  Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings.  Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking.  Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society.  Gaiman takes a similar approach.  He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow.  With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange”, written completely in questionnaire form, is a brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion.  While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time.  The little boy takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story.  Specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story.  As the story unfolds the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side.  “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement.  “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.  It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who.  Gaiman is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”

 

Rating: 


Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning.  A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”  He then adds “…it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version:  the mother.  At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother.  Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings.  In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children.  In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. Initially the black and white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive.  Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail waiting his execution.  Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader.  Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman’s work.

 

Rating: 

Feb 24 2015

Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler recalls the relationship between Isabelle McCallister and Dorrie Curtis, her hair dresser.  The novel begins with a brief introduction by the main character Isabelle.  She confesses that she feels she acted horribly towards Dorrie on their first meeting: her regular hair dresser had quit and Isabelle is not a big fan of change.  As the years pass, they form a friendship which on the surface seems unlikely.  Isabelle is 89 and white, whereas Dorrie is in her mid-30’s and African American.  Although neither woman says it out loud, they come to depend and rely on each other and their bond deepens to that of a mother/daughter relationship.

Still, Dorrie is taken aback when Isabelle approaches her and asks Dorrie to drive her from their home in Texas to a funeral in Cincinnati.  Isabelle does not initially say who the funeral is for, and Dorrie, in an effort to respect her privacy doesn’t ask.  As the two travel, Isabelle begins to recall events from life as a young woman of 16 to the present.

Told in alternating perspectives, starting with Isabelle in 1939, the reader discovers alongside Dorrie how Isabelle fell in love with and married Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s “colored” housemaid.

As the story unfolds, Kibler allows the reader to experience Isabelle and Robert’s relationship almost as an intimate participant.  We learn of Isabelle’s overbearing mother, her good old boy brothers, and her caring but ineffectual father.  Interspersed in this, we also see Dorrie’s reaction and how it impacts her dealings with her own family and romantic relationships.

Calling Me Home will draw immediate and obvious comparisons to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  Both are debut novels which deal with race relations in the United States during the early and mid days of the Civil Rights Movement.  In contrast to The Help, which takes place in the 1960’s and surrounds the lives of an extensive group of people, Calling Me Home focuses primarily on Isabelle, Robert, and their immediate families.

In addition, The Help touches on the impact people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X have on the characters’ lives, whereas Calling Me Home takes place before those figures rose to prominence.

Finally, in Calling Me Home, Isabelle is a naive and idealistic woman in love, whereas in The Help, Skeeter views herself as an activist.

Calling Me Home drew me in from the beginning and even now, weeks after finishing, has not fully let go.  I became so fully immersed in the book that I had to stop in the middle of a shopping trip to find a place where I could sit and finish it.  In the end, I felt as if I had been put through an emotional wringer.  While the book ends on a positive note, it does not neatly tie up all the loose ends – much like real life.

Calling Me Home is likely to prompt considerable discussion among readers.  The novel does an excellent job of showing the reader that while society has progressed considerably since 1939, things are still not where they should be in the year 2015.  Seeing the characters dealing with concerns such as where their marriage will be legal or clergy who tell them their marriage is an abomination or un-Biblical, drew significant parallels for me in the current struggle for gay rights and marriage equality.  In addition, reading this novel in light of the recent events of Ferguson and elsewhere shows the reader how little certain things have changed.

Kibler writes with a style that draws the reader deep into the story in a subtle and eloquent manner.  I found the story so engrossing that I experienced a certain element of culture shock coming out of the novel.  The slow but natural development of Isabelle and Robert’s relationship over the course of many months felt neither rushed nor drawn out.  Many moments of their transition from passing acquaintances to newlyweds had me waiting with a sense of anticipation to see what would bring them together and what would be the factor that tore them apart.  Isabelle and Robert both read as true to life characters.  Robert is cautious where Isabelle is spontaneous, which is in keeping with their respective roles in society.  At first I struggled with the idea of Isabelle as the pursuer in her relationship with Robert, but as the book progressed, I began to see how Isabelle would be drawn to Robert’s quiet personality.  Both are intellectuals and voracious readers, are misfits within their own families, and have an idealistic desire to change the world in which they live.

While Kibler did an excellent job of developing the primary characters of Robert and Isabelle, I did find myself connecting less with Dorrie and some of the secondary characters.  Dorrie came off as unnecessarily angry and while Kibler adequately explained that Dorrie had been deeply hurt by her ex-husband and other significant family struggles, I did not feel they warranted her hostility towards society as a whole.

I also wanted to understand more of Isabelle’s father.  It is clear by his actions that he did not agree with the societal view towards African-Americans.  He encourages Robert’s aspirations of becoming a doctor, takes time out of his own schedule as a physician to tutor Robert, and contributes funds in order to ensure Robert’s proper education, but is completely ineffectual when it comes to his own daughter.  In contrast, the characterization of Isabelle’s mother was solidly written.  The reader came to discover how her lower class background drove her fight for a place in “proper society”, and the lengths to which she would go to keep up her carefully crafted appearances.

Calling Me Home is a compelling tale that handles decades of race relations with sensitivity while not shying away from harsher elements.  Certain scenarios are predictable and familiar, but Kibler doles out the story in small enough increments to keep the reader hanging until the surprising end.

Jan 13 2015

Review: As You Wish and What If?

Nearly everyone who grew up during the 1980’s has a special fondness for the movie The Princess Bride.  Adults who would have been in their teens when the movie was first released understand the special meaning of the phrase “As You Wish”, are perhaps just a little suspicious of anyone with six fingers, and know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia.

In honor of the movie’s twenty-seventh anniversary, Cary Elwes, best known as Westley, has released a behind the scenes retrospective.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride recalls Elwes’ memories of landing the role (a Bill Cosby impression is involved) and working with director Rob Reiner and writer Bill Goldman.  Elwes also discusses working with actors such as Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Billy Crystal, all of whom he interviewed for the book.  In addition, Elwes recounts the various challenges and setbacks that went into getting the film to the screen.  Since the book’s publication in 1973, a number of big names from Robert Redford to Francis Truffaut had toyed with trying their hand at a film.  The issue was that no one quite knew what to do with a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes satirical swashbuckling romance.  Finally, Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of Stand By Me was offered a carte blanche choice by Columbia Studios.  By that point, The Princess Bride had earned a reputation as unfilmable and did in fact meet with a mediocre response at best upon opening.  Thanks to the advent of the VCR, however, The Princess Bride found it’s way into the homes of millions and became a sleeper hit.

Elwes’ writes as if he and the reader are two chums recalling old times while sitting in front of a fire.  Each knows all the stories of the other but still can’t resist repeating them just one more time.  His narrative style is casual with a few previously unknown bits of trivia thrown in for good measure.  As a reader, I found myself wanting just a little more, while as an avid fan of the movie I found myself enjoying the sidebar bits from others involved in the movie.

Casual fans of the movie or those looking for a sensationalistic soap opera will be disappointed.  Hard core fans who can recite every line on a whim, will find enjoyment.

Interesting bits of trivia include Elwes detailing the intense training he and Patinkin endured in order to pull off “the sword fight to end all sword fights”, Billy Crystal’s ad-lib “have fun storming the castle”, and Shawn’s constant fear that he would be replaced by Danny DeVito.  One is left with the feeling that perhaps Elwes is holding back even as his praise of his co-stars is ebullient.  Overall, As You Wish makes a nice book for the more earnest of fans, but will fail to impress casual readers.

 

Rating: 


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe does exactly what the title says.  Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, is best known for his webcomic xkcd.  Drawn primarily using basic stick figure characters, xkcd address issues from love and life to scientific or mathematical in-jokes.  Occasionally the strip features intricate landscapes or mathematical patterns.  In July 2012, Munroe launched a secondary website entitled What If? in which he answered reader submitted questions.  This book is compiled from those questions.

Though a math and science book at it’s core, What If? presents its subject matter in a light hearted, easily accessible manner.  Questions range from the reasonably serious “How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool during a thunderstorm?”  (Answer:  Pretty dangerous) to the more silly such as “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?”  (Answer: you can’t really.)  Interspersed among the explanations, Munroe has inserted xkcd-style illustrations which create a better understanding for the reader.

Sprinkled throughout the book are twelve questions that Munroe decided not to answer or gave very abbreviated answers.  Labeled “weird and worrying questions from the inbox”, these include questions such as “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?”  or “What if I swallow a tick that has Lyme disease?  Would I get Lyme disease from the inside out?”  In some respects I found these more entertaining than the rest of the book, in that they are of a more personal nature.

Non scientific or mathematically inclined readers should not be put off by the subject matter.  Although some of the explanations involve equations and scientific premises with which I was unfamiliar, they are presented in an easily understandable and accessible manner.  In addition, the book presents some interesting real life application to the science fiction or fantasy world.  For example, the Death Star in Star Wars essentially created a 15 magnitude earthquake on Alderaan.  (This segues into an explanation of what it would be like if earthquakes with a negative magnitude hit your house.)

Readers familiar with Munroe’s work will find the same dry humor in longer form.  With more room in which to create his explanations, Munroe is able to stretch the humor and create a better set up for the sketches.

Newcomers or casual acquaintances will find themselves hooked from the disclaimer gracing the first page.  Even the book itself maintains the xkcd style in that the inside cover is actually a full-size infographic of what the Earth would look like if the oceans were drained from the bottom of the Marianas trench.  Instead of the normal praise from other authors, the back of the book is a collection of things the reader might want to know before making their purchase.  For example, “Humans can’t digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories.”

What If? is a highly entertaining book which will make the reader laugh at least as much as it makes them think.

 

Rating: 

 

 

 

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