Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Decor

This post is part of Jen on the Edge's Holiday Homes Tour.  Thanks for hosting, Jen! 
I participated in 2008 and 2009 as well.

I'd like to start by welcoming you to my home in sunny Southern California!

Come on in!

As you step through the front door, you find yourself in the living room/formal dining room.  Make yourself at home!

Our Christmas tree is to your right, positioned in the front corner of our house, by the windows. 

We have a lot of ornaments, and we love our bedecked tree! 
So many ornaments are associated with a particular memory or vacation!  One of our more recent acquisitions is this ornament from Crater Lake.

As you can see, in the living room portion of this big room we have two areas: a sitting area/fireplace and a console table along the wall.
The nativity was a gift from The Hubby's grandma, and the Nutcracker art pieces on each side of the mirror were made by Middle Girl and The Boy at their after-school art class.  I made the stockings years ago, for each child's first Christmas.  I made The Hubby's one of the in-between years.  My stocking was made for me by my Great Aunt when I was a baby.
The end table is holding our toy nativity set.  When the kids were toddlers, they wanted to play with all of the decorations and ornaments.  I got them their own nativity and their own little tree with safe ornaments, so they could decorate and re-decorate to their hearts' content, leaving my things alone.  The kids are old enough to be careful with the "real" decorations, so they don't need the toys anymore (sob!).  I put the toy nativity set out anyway!

The little tree, however, is serving a new purpose on the console table.  I got lights for it this year, and we decorated it with some of our small, special ornaments. 
Also on this table is Big Girl's advent tree (more on this later), our Christmas card holder, and each kid's little "matchbox"-style music box.
In the dining area of the room, the Santa-hat chair covers catch the eye.  They were a gift from The Hubby's grandma many years ago. 

We also have a table runner made by my mom, and some green glass pillar-shaped candle votives given to me by a friend.  The aesthetic I'm going for here is "bright and cheery!"
The kids love to play with the checkers set. 

In the main bathroom, I put a few small touches.  Our little snowman family, which I just love! 

The ornament towel goes well over my new striped hand towel!

This is the kid art wall!  We are enjoying this display of the art they've done at school over the years...

We have lots of decorative items that "Countdown to Christmas."  This is helpful, because all three kids want to be the one to change the day every day!
We've had the snowman countdown for many years.  The kids love to hang the numbers on!
The kids have been asking for chocolate advent calendars for years.
The Santa circle was a party favor last year at Middle Girl's friend's birthday party.
The "hands" one was made by The Boy at school this year.
I gave the tree to Big Girl as a gift last year.  It's a music box as well!  Each day you take an ornament out of the drawer and add it to the tree.  On Christmas Day you add the star on top.  She cherishes it!  It will decorate her own house someday...

This year, Middle Girl and The Boy each made a ceramic gingerbread house in art class.  I love them! 

Thanks for visiting!  It's been lovely sharing holiday decor with everyone!  As we leave, I see that it's gotten dark.

I wanted to put another string of lights on the garland over the window, but I didn't find the time this year.  Maybe next year, it'll look like this:
(photo edited as an homage to Bossy.)
Multicolored or red & green?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book review: A Band of MiSFits.

Still working on turning my notes about the books I read this summer into blog posts...

I let my inner fangirl choose a book, and she enthusiastically chose A Band of MiSFits by Andrew Baggarly.

Oh my goodness, what a JOY it was to read this book!

This is the story of the 2010 San Francisco Giants' Championship season. Of course, I knew there was a happy ending coming, since I experienced the playoff wins and the World Series wins and the celebrations!!!1! (Well, not live and in person, but on TV and with my family, geographically in Dodger country but proud Giants fans.)

My story as a baseball fan begins when I was six years old or so, when my family began attending California Angels games.  The General Admission seats were inexpensive in those days, so we used to go over there on a regular basis, buy tickets at the stadium, and enjoy the game from the upper deck on the first base side.  My dad taught me how to score games during those years.  I knew all of the players' names, numbers, and positions by heart.  I listened to the radio broadcast every night as I fell asleep.  Girly little me, oh how she loved those Angels!

Fred Lynn, Don Baylor, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew.
I loved these guys.

My favorite player was Fred Lynn.  I drew pictures of him, and I think I mailed them to him at the stadium.  (I think??)  One year in the All-Star Game, he hit a grand slam home run!  You should have seen my celebrating in my family room! 

 Fred Lynn, California Angel.

We were at the game when Reggie Jackson hit his 500th home run.  The Royals beat the Angels 10 to 1 that game:  September 17, 1984, which was not long after I spent two solid weeks attending volleyball and gymnastics events at the Olympics here in LA (another hugely formative experience for me - deserving of a post of its own).

My dad slept in line to get us tickets for the playoffs in 1982 and 1986.  My kids could never picture him doing something like that based on how they know him today, but I keep trying to tell them how many great experiences he gave his children when we were their age.

Fred Lynn went to play for the Baltimore Orioles, which was a loss-of-innocence experience for me.  How can you just go play for some other team?  What was a young Angels fan who loved Fred Lynn supposed to do?  To which would I keep my allegiance?  Then, I hit the teenage years.  I was busy with theater and I seemed to shed some of my "childhood" loves.  I stopped watching and listening to baseball games, and my show schedule meant I couldn't attend the games any more. 

I still hate it when players switch teams, and I know that I have never since let myself love a player like I loved Fred Lynn, because I know that that player might leave in a few years to play somewhere else.  Psychological walls.

After several baseball-free years, which I spent rooting for my high school basketball team (I nourished an unrequited crush on one tall, thin red-headed player in particular), I started college in the Bay Area.  That Spring, someone in my freshman dorm arranged an outing to a San Francisco Giants game.  There, I found a new team to root for, and a new favorite player:  Will Clark.  As he was a slugger like Fred Lynn, I kind of couldn't help it. 

Will Clark, San Francisco Giant.

Also breaking down my baseball-related psychological walls was the guy in our group (from New York) who clearly thought that because I was a girl, I must know nothing about baseball.  I found his 'helpful' lessons about baseball on the drive to the stadium both hilarious and insulting.  I was determined to show him what a jackass he was to be making the assumption.  Somebody had a scorecard (or book), so I proceeded to score the game (thanks, Dad!).  The guy was shocked that I knew how - clearly this blew his mind.  To further prove myself, I talked about my Angels - the players I loved, the games I attended and scored, the nights spent listening to the radio broadcast in the dark in my pink room.  Those feelings came back and I wanted to follow a team again.  The Giants and Will Clark were there for me.  (It also helped that I had recently fallen in love, with a cute boy who was a big Giants fan.)

I enjoyed those first two seasons as a Giants fan very much!  Then there was a players' strike, and I also discovered the NHL and focused my attention on the Sharks - my pro team of choice in those years.  (Underneath all of this is my never-ceasing love for my college teams.  Stanford players don't often leave school early for the draft, and don't leave for other teams like pro players do.  I feel safe being a Stanford fan, and I watch every football game, every year.  Those players make my inner fangirl happy.  Go Cardinal!)

Well, friends, I married that Giants fan, and even though I wasn't terribly passionate about the team anymore, he sure was.  And has been.  And ever shall be.  You know the kind of fan who reads everything he can about his team?  Checks the radio (now the internet) as soon as he can, to get a score update?  Reads about them all off-season?  No?  Well, I sure do.

Then the steroid stuff happened.  Times were ugly in baseball, between the missed season and then the steroid scandals.  Who would want to admit to being a baseball fan?  Not me.

Time heals, though.  I got to the point where I was happy for The Hubby when the Giants were doing well.  I was kind of annoyed when the Giants were not doing so well and it was affecting his mood, but he was okay at hiding that from me. 

In the summer of 2010, we were at a friend's wedding, chock full of Giants fans (so much so that one of them is a Giants employee).  They were all talking to the Hubby about the team.  What was going on here?  One of the guys told me that my husband was refusing to say they could make a run at the pennant - was he protecting himself from getting his hopes up?  Hmmm.  I started to pay a little more attention.

The end of the season was a nail-biter.  The Giants managed to steal the pennant from the Padres, but it didn't happen until the very last game of the season.  I convinced my husband, who had been staying at home to watch the games to witness it if they did it, that maybe they would win if he didn't watch.  And I was right!  They were headed to the playoffs!

At this point, I became adamant that he be able to watch every Giants post-season game on TV.  I love him, and he has always loved the Giants, so this was important to me!  I did all of the driving-kids-to-practices-and-picking-them-up.  I kept up to speed on all of the games by either checking my smart phone ESPN app repeatedly or listening to the radio in the car.  Somehow, against the odds, they beat the Braves, and then the Phillies, and were in the World Series!

And I had become a fan.  I knew all of the players' names, and I had lots of favorites.  Buster Posey, Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Freddy Sanchez, Cody Ross, Aubrey Huff...

As a family, we watched the World Series games against the Texas Rangers.  The kids made "Go Giants" and "SF" decorations for around the TV.  We won Games 1 and 2 in San Francisco.  We lost Game 3 in Texas. 

Game 4 was Halloween, and the series was 2-1 SF.  My son insisted that he wanted Daddy to take him trick-or-treating, and in the best display of fatherhood I have ever witnessed, Daddy did.   

Mommy stayed home to hand out candy, and watched the heck out of that game.  What a game!  Madison Bumgarner, age 21, gave an amazing pitching performance.  Daddy made it home in time to see the Giants win, making the series 3-1. 

On Monday, November 1, 2010, in Game 4 of the World Series, in Arlington, Texas, was a pitching showdown between Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.  The Giants batters managed to get some guys on base, and Edgar Renteria homered to bring in three runs.  Closer Brian Wilson finished off the Rangers, and it had actually happened!  The first Giants championship since 1954.  The first since moving to San Francisco.  Beautiful!  Glorious! 

The Giants fans called this season "Torture."  This is because the Giants didn't win easily.  They won messily, but they never gave up.  The team consisted of rookies, freaks, has-beens, and waiver acquisitions.  Nobody thought he was better than his teammates, not even Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, or two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, or media-attracting weirdo Brian Wilson and his magical beard.  The clubhouse chemistry was remarkable.  They were good guys, there for each other and for love of the game.  The perfect bunch of guys for that crazy city of San Francisco, and they knew it, and they loved it, too.

I found that the more I watched those guys play, and celebrate, and share it with their fans, the more I felt my psychological walls weakening.  I had to admit that I was a fan, and I had to admit that I wanted it that way.

Just look at the way they support each other!

The 2011 baseball season started, and found that I wanted to watch every game.  No one was more surprised than my husband that every night I wanted to watch the game after the kids went to bed, rather than our usual TV.  Every baseball season of our marriage up to that point, I had rolled my eyes at my husband and told him it was stupid to follow so closely during the first months of a 162-game season, and now I was the one putting the game on.  He just silently enjoyed it, not wanting to jeopardize whatever was going on with his wife by pointing it out.

We knew things weren't going to be easy.  Giants baseball = Torture, after all, and we fans love it.  But we couldn't have foreseen what this season would have in store.  On May 25, catcher and reigning Rookie of the Year Buster Posey's leg was severely fractured during a collision at the plate.  His season was over.  We were watching (of course), and we felt sick.  The Hubby and I were planning to spend the majority of 2011 watching Buster's second season in the bigs, and in one moment that was no longer an option.  Yeah, first world problems, but we were sad, okay?

The Giants soldiered on without Buster, guys were called up and rose to the occasion, but there were more setbacks to come.  Freddy Sanchez's season soon came to an end.  Guys were on the DL left and right.  But the pitchers continued to dominate while the offense was struggling.  Added to my list of favorite players was Ryan Vogelsong, back pitching for the Giants after years playing in Japan and showing that a guy in his mid-thirties can reinvent himself.  Game after game, these guys continued to support one another and were focused on improving.  They played well enough to occupy the top spot in the NL West for most of the season, but injuries and a hitting slump proved to be too much. 

For me, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to call myself a Giants fan this year.  The grit, the integrity, the love for the game, the team mentality, the unwillingness to start placing blame in the face of setbacks:  I am so proud of my team.  They didn't let their difficulties get them down, but came out there every night and enjoyed supporting each other.  This team mindset paid off for them in 2010, and I was sorry I didn't watch that whole season unfold in 2010.  I made up for it in 2011, watching nearly every game (via the internet).  I was quite the spectacle to behold for everyone who knows me!  What also helped was reading A Band of MiSFits - I was able to experience the entire 2010 season through the book!  It was written in such a way that   1) I felt like I lived through the season, and   2) I was able to get to know the players' personalities and back stories.  I had warily noticed that I was starting to feel about them the way I had felt about Fred Lynn, but the book made me want to feel that way!  I let my fangirl love continue to grow.

So thank you, Giants players.  Thank you for allowing me to feel like a kid again, and for helping me to strip away years of cynicism toward pro baseball players and psychological walls, and to remember what baseball used to mean to me.  I am so glad that the Showtime series allowed others to get to know you, and it's no surprise to me that so many of them became new fans.  You already had a huge, proud SF fan base that packs AT&T Park, and you guys have always acknowledged its role in your successes.  What a great example of the right attitude to have as a true team of pro athletes.

I never stopped watching your games, even as you struggled through some difficult losing streaks, and I'm watching game 159 right now.  You've got three more, and I'll be there.  It's not just my way of thanking you.  It's also for me - I just like watching you play!

Buster Posey:  love you.  Miss you.  So sorry you've been away from baseball so long due to this injury (probably the longest time you've ever gone without playing baseball).  Glad you got to spend it with your newborn twins.  Can't wait to watch you again next year!

Cain, Vogelsong, Wilson, Sandoval, and Lincecum:  2011 All-Star Game
Giants pitchers:  You guys were awesome this year.  You know it, the hitters know it, and we fans sure know it.  Because of you, I vastly prefer a game with a good pitching performance over a high-scoring game. 
Panda:  the way you play shows that you are in this sport for the joy of playing the game.  It does my cynical heart good to watch you.

Timmy:  I love the way you pitch.

Brian Wilson:  people think you're crazy.  I say yes: crazy like a fox. 

You want to have a long baseball career, and you believe that having a star personality will help you achieve that goal.

You want to have a long baseball career, and you believe that will take hard work.  You are some kind of goofball (we're not sure what kind), but you take your career seriously.  You put in the discipline and the effort, and you have an intellectual approach to working on your baseball skills.

 (He's smart.  You can tell.)
 (See what I mean?)
And I just like lookin' at ya.

Definitely better with the beard.

But the big question this year is, why did I become such a big Nate Schierholtz fan?  He's not one of the big stars, but I always looked for his name on the starting lineup.

He got a lot more playing time than usual this season, since a lot of guys were on the DL.  And what did he do with his at-bats?  Pretty consistently, he got himself on base.  Plus, he's great defensively - a strong (muscle-y...  :-) ) outfielder.  He gets to the ball quickly and has a great arm. 

And...  I'm a little sheepish to admit it, but...

Look at those shoulders.  The long name highlights them nicely, doesn't it?

And... hmmm... maybe there's something else as well...

Nate batting

Fred Lynn batting

Nate fielding

Fred Lynn fielding

Full circle. BOOM.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Movie review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

I saw Harry Potter 7.2 back when it came out, and jotted down lots of notes. It's taken me a while to get this post together.

I saw the movie by myself, just as I did with Harry Potter 6. I did find myself in tears at times, which surprised me, because even though I love the Harry Potter series of books, I haven't felt sad about the series coming to an end. I'm not sure why I was moved to tears, but I will say that there are times when this film is truly masterful. The poignancy was inescapable, I guess!

The film is magnificent.
There were times when I was blown away by the gorgeous filmmaking:
  • The Battle for Hogwarts
  • Snape's memories
  • Harry's acceptance of his own death and conversation with his dead family members
  • The dream sequence with Dumbledore and Harry
Those last two are masterfully written, as well, and I recognized exact lines from the book. I just can't get over what Jo Rowling has created here. This is certainly hyperbole, but at one point I was thinking about what it must have been like to see Shakespeare's plays when they debuted. Did the people of his time really know how enduring those works would be?

It was interesting that they didn't even attempt to make the movie for non-fans... even I couldn't always remember what was going on and I just watched 7.1!

This film began right where 7.1 left off, with no 'beginning' of its own. As I said recently, I didn't care for the tone of 7.1 (too slow), so I was glad that the tone of 7.2 changed quickly - from the Gringotts bank scene, the pace quickened considerably, and the film remained quick and captivating to the end.

There were so many things I loved about this movie, but there were a few things that didn't work so well for me. My biggest complaint is about the scene after Harry killed Voldemort. He walked back into Hogwarts, where everyone was sitting around tending to the wounded and slain, but everyone just sort of glanced at Harry and had no reaction. That didn't make sense to me - they would have known that if Harry was walking through, something must be going on!

I also have never quite felt the Harry and Ginny relationship. I can't picture what their life together would be like, even after seeing them in the epilogue.

Speaking of the epilogue, I just felt that it needed a bit more. They were kind of just standing there - and there was not much dialogue. It made me wonder about their lives, their jobs, and their friendships. Do the two couples spend most of their time with each other?

As far as relationships go, the Harry/Hermione relationship seemed to trump all others. I could really feel the love of true friends. Perhaps it was that combination of (such fine) actors, although the written material was superb in this area as well. And as I said yesterday, relationships between characters are very important to me!

Ralph Fiennes was superb as Voldemort (although I'd like to see him in something where he looks like Quiz Show Ralph Fiennes once again).

I also loved Neville in this film. That character arc is a really interesting one in the books, and wasn't explored quite as fully in the films due to time constraints, but his growth was a bright spot in this one.

All in all, as I said, this was a masterful piece of moviemaking. Every time I think back on the acting, the cinematography, the production design, and of course the writing, I am in awe.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie review: The Adjustment Bureau

I just finished watching The Adjustment Bureau, a new release we rented.

It is a very complicated, convoluted story, but fascinating. The men in hats (no women in the Bureau, I noticed) -- who are they and who do they work for? The answers to those two questions are made clear during the first half of the story, although it is fun trying to figure it out first. Once we know that, the rest of the story centers around whether the hero (David) will choose to work with them or rebel against them. Working against them seems impossible - will he even try? And if he does, can he possibly succeed? How would he even begin?

I like seeing how talented writer/storytellers tackle the big questions, and this film, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, definitely riffs on some big questions. Satisfyingly. How cool.

There are some big plot holes that must be overlooked. (Huge: If the men in hats can freeze people and change their minds for them, why don't they just do that to David and Elise?) Sometimes, one is willing to overlook the holes, as I was for this film. I asked myself why I was willing to do so? In other films, I can't forgive the holes and they pull me right out of the story.

Self, the answer is:

The acting.

Specifically, the acting by Matt Damon as well as Emily Blunt.

These two talented actors created characters we love from their first moments on screen. Not only that, they created a relationship we care about. In this movie, it is particularly important that the audience care about the relationship itself. Without that investment, the whole thing falls apart. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt did an amazing job of this. Now that I think about it, Matt Damon always has great chemistry with his female counterparts. What a great actor. (I may as well admit it: he is a favorite of mine, and has been for forever.)

It made me realize: relationships between characters are really important to me. That's why I can't forgive Mockingjay (The Hunger Games), and I see that in most of my other reviews, too (including some that are forthcoming).

So if that is the case, why do I love (500) Days of Summer so? Its depiction of a relationship is arresting, but (SPOILER) the relationship doesn't work out. Yet I love love love that movie. The key here is that we end up seeing that we were experiencing the relationship from the point of view of one member. Once we are given the outside perspective, we see that it was not what it appeared. It's a really unique, layered film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Some thoughts about summer 2011

I may not be in a good frame of mind right now, and who knows, might respond differently in a week's time, but today I have been asking myself, "so how would you rate summer 2011?" and I might as well go ahead and come up with an answer.

Summer should be a balance of scheduled activities (with experiences that you don't get at school), unstructured time, visits with friends and family, travel, and special treats (staying up late watching a movie with the kids, walking down the street for frozen yogurt after dinner, etc.). And I have to say, I don't think I got the balance right this year.

I think we haven't had enough scheduled activities and have erred on the side of too much unstructured time. I would say that that is due to not enough pre-planning on my part. It's hard to go do some fun activity when you don't start trying to think of an idea until 10:30 am.

At the start of summer, I had some interesting ideas - plan theme days (such as "microscope day" or "Archimedes day") and invite friends to join in if they just bring the lunch; assign a week to each child and have them plan the adventures - but there wasn't time for that before Oregon. (As is our tradition, we headed up to Portland just after the fourth of July to spend a month with family.) However, there was time for that in Oregon, at least during the second half when the girls were done with acting camp. And then we came home from Oregon, such that there would be almost two weeks left of my summer. I thought it would be best not to put the kids in camps, so we could have a few outings and a lot of friends-over-to-swim days. This would have been a good time to do some pre-planning. Instead, what's been happening is a) the aforementioned trying-to-figure-out-each-day-after-it-has-already-started; and b) it turns out that all of our friends are out of town this week. Add to that the conundrum that I have some work I need to get done for the start of school and some house-organization projects that I'd like to do before the chaotic school schedule starts, yet want to spend my last week of summer actually celebrating summer, and I feel like I just can't win this week.

Maybe we should have divided up our summer differently. Maybe we should have shifted Oregon to later in the summer since all of our friends are away now that we are back. But it doesn't seem like coming back with no time before I have to be at work would be a good idea... although it's not going well as it is, so maybe...

I think I'm also feeling like we don't get to do enough travel. I'd love to give my kids a childhood in which they get to go see and experience lots of different places. Since we live far away from our family, we spend all of our vacation time with them, and it's definitely still not enough time. We never have the time, then, to go anywhere else (nor the funds - another issue entirely). This year, I'm starting to feel the "kids are getting older"/"running out of time"/"gotta start traveling" really start to set in. Maybe it's time to re-think the month-in-Oregon summer plan... but spending less time with their relatives would not be good for my kids either. Obviously, the old question of "should we move to Portland" is weighing heavily on my mind. It's not an easy question. We love our town, and our school, and neither my husband nor I should leave our jobs anytime soon.

It has been a nice summer, though. We started off with soccer camp for Middle Girl and The Boy, and followed that up with Girl Scout camp for both girls and basketball camp for The Boy. Then we had our big Fourth of July party, and my brother- and sister-in-law brought their three boys down from Oregon for a week to join in the fun. We went to Legoland with them and spent a few days swimming, going to the movies, etc. and then we all caravanned up to Portland.

In Portland, the girls went to acting camp for two weeks, and we also enjoyed cousin-time, had fun with Grandma and Granddad, welcomed my new niece to the world, and visited favorite local landmarks such as Multnomah Falls, Pioneer Square, Voodoo Doughnuts, Oaks Park, and OMSI (the science museum). We went to the Oregon History Museum and the Classical Chinese Garden for the first time. We visited old friends from college and high school, drove down to Eugene to see my Grandma, and spent two days in Seattle visiting friends and the music museum. Meanwhile, we fit in books, movies, crafts, baking, jazz concerts, baseball games, and learning how to wash a car.

Once again, I didn't make it to the mountain & alpine slide or to the beach & aquarium.

Since we got home, we have had some friends over and have met some other friends at the California Science Center. So we have done the kind of thing we were hoping to do, just not as much as we hoped. Also bumming me out: we are going to have to miss the big multi-family camping trip this year due to work-related scheduling yadda yadda.

I was trying to end this on a positive note, but since it got chronological and I'm feeling grumpy today, here we are. I'm ready to finish but it's kind of going (((THUNK))) which only makes me grumpier!

Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps I should go attempt some pre-planning...

Movie review: Buck

Earlier this summer, we saw the documentary film Buck.

It follows a horse training expert (Buck) as he travels the country giving three-day workshops. In his workshops, he teaches the horse owners just as much about themselves as he does about their horses.

It is a terrific film, because it is a portrait of a person: a person with a history, relationships, hopes, a future. It got me thinking - you could make a film about anyone. We all have our stories, past experiences, personality quirks, and choices we've made in life that have contributed to the living, breathing people we have become.

Buck spends the better part of each year traveling alone, although his teenage daughter has begun to accompany him during her summer break. (These scenes are a particularly lovely depiction of a parent-child relationship.) Very introverted in his younger days, he has been somewhat alone even when among other people. All of this time spent alone gives him insights into the inner monologues of horses as well as people. There is an interesting section of the film where he sees straight into one woman in particular, and delivers her the tough-love words she so desperately needs to hear. Buck is so gentle, though, because he practices empathy. Maybe that's the way in which this film is something of a gift: as an exploration of an empathy-driven life.

There certainly are reasons why Buck is the way he is. We learn of his childhood, so full of fear and sadness. He knows how a horse feels when it is trained by whips, chains, and deprivation, and he knows how such a horse learns to think. Those are not his methods. His methods meet each horse where it is in that moment and work with its natural instincts. He was the advisor for the film "The Horse Whisperer," and we get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, but this is not a film about a glamorous life. It's more of a peaceful, yet driven, life. A respect-filled life. Buck both gives and receives respect. Is this rare in movies? It shouldn't be, but I think it is. That, in and of itself, is interesting.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Non-fiction Book Review: Mindset

One of the books I read this summer for work-related reasons was Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

I had heard a great deal about this book, and had attended a talk by Dr. Dweck, but this was the first time I read the book in its entirety.

It is about two very different ways of thinking: the growth mindset, and the fixed mindset. People with the growth mindset think that intelligent people work hard to learn: the obstacles are fun challenges and the journey has made the brain smarter. People with the fixed mindset think about intelligence as something you either have or don't have, and the journey through school is a series of tests designed to figure out who the smart ones are.

Chapters are primarily divided by topic, one exploring how the two mindsets affect education, while another explores how they affect sports, another business, and another relationships. In each chapter, Dweck gives examples of people with the two mindsets (celebrities, descriptions of patients, etc), explores how they handle successes and setbacks, and gives tips for "growing your mindset."

For that's the overarching message of the book. The growth mindset is shown to be the "right" mindset. It allows people to try new things without fear of failure or the expectation that they have to get it right immediately, appreciate effort and growth in others, and enjoy a higher degree of success in their chosen pursuits as a by-product of doing it for the enjoyment of the learning process rather than as a need to prove themselves. People with the growth mindset are better able to handle bouts of depression and have more successful personal relationships.

A person can, of course, be a mixture of mindsets. Dweck tells us early in the book that she will only discuss the two extremes of the spectrum for purposes of clarity. A person can also be growth-mindset in some areas (for example, in athletics) and fixed-mindset in others (for example, in the arts). For this reason, Dweck discusses examples in all areas to show that effective people in every area have been growth-mindset. There are wonderful sections highlighting business leaders, basketball coaches, violin teachers, and of course, classroom teachers and parents.

For me, it has been truly inspirational. As a teacher, I am growth-mindset.* I view learning as a life-long pursuit, one with no "winners" and "losers," just fellow travelers on this journey. I see my role as a facilitator, teaching my students how to learn and using assessments as tools to figure out what they can work on next. What I didn't realize was how my fixed-mindset students were seeing my assignments and assessments: as judgements of themselves as people. If they do poorly on one test, they might use that to determine "I am not good at science" and keep that self-label with them always. Being aware of this makes it much easier for me to work against it - deliberately teaching them how to interpret the tasks and test scores they receive from me.

As you can imagine, it is vital that a parent uses only growth-mindset language with their children, and it is so easy to do otherwise. We can do a lot of damage with the well-meaning but wrong kind of praise ("You're so smart! You figured that out so fast!" "You are so good at baseball! You learned to catch the ball without even trying!"). We need to praise their efforts, not their innate abilities. The wrong kind of praise teaches them that we value things that come naturally, and if they have to work hard to master something, it means they are not smart, or not good at it. Dweck recommends "You finished that so fast; you must need something more challenging to grow your brain" and "I like how you have been working so hard at learning to catch; you have been getting better all the time!"

As a parent, even one with a growth mindset, I find it easy to fall into the "you're so _____" trap! Reading this book has been a great reminder. I find I'm seeing fixed- vs. growth- mindset everywhere - while reading other books and movies, I'm thinking to myself "he is really growth-mindset." We'll see how long this effect lasts!

Mindset is a quick and easy read, presenting the psychological research findings in a conversational way. I recommend it - and have recommended it - to everyone. It really does apply in every arena, not just teaching and parenting but the workplace, dieting, attacking your to-do list, marriages, friendships, etc.

*Strangely, I tend to be fixed-mindset about myself, but no one else. I expect that everything I try should come easily and tend to give up too quickly. I vow to speak to myself with the same growth-oriented language that I use with my students and my children!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Live concert review: Sara Bareilles. OR, I wish I had earplugs.

I went to hear Sara Bareilles in concert in Portland, Oregon. Lucky me!

When I bought the tickets, I decided to get four, because my daughters love to sing along to her CDs and the show said "All Ages" (they are 11 and 8), so that sounded like something they would love! We thought the fourth ticket could be for their Auntie Sarah (my sister-in-law), so we could make it a Girls' Night. We were all SO very excited!

What I didn't think through was the start time. 8 pm. With two opening acts.* That means that my 8-year-old daughter was having trouble keeping her eyes open before Sara even came out at 9:45 pm. That was my fault. I really should have thought that through. What wasn't my fault was the language. Apparently, Sara thinks it's titillating to use the F word. I myself don't think it's all that exciting. It's not rebellious, it's not edgy, it's cliche. I'm fine with hearing it, I'm just not impressed by it. Regardless, when the ticket clearly states "All Ages," there may be kids in the audience who don't enjoy hearing it. That's right, they don't think it's 'super cool' to hear it, it makes them uncomfortable. And that's all them, that's not my influence. So using it in every between-song-patter, and having the whole theater emphasize it while singing a song together, and talking about people having sex in the back row... these moments were not fun for the girls. They liked the music, but they had to try and wash those other moments from their minds. As a ticket buyer, I interpret "All Ages" to mean "All Ages."

* What is the deal with opening acts these days? The headliner seems to come on later these days than I remember. Two to three hours past the time on the ticket! That seems ludicrous to me! And I have seen some BORING opening acts lately. Can I start coming to the show two hours late? Does anybody do that, because I'd like to know if it's a viable option. As a musician myself, I don't want to show the opener such disrespect, but come on, waiting two hours through music I don't like is just too much. 45 minutes seems right to me.

My main reaction to the concert itself? Loud. PAINFULLY loud. Fingers-in-my-ears loud. I-can't-hear-any-actual-notes-I-can-only-hear-distortion-loud. Weird, because Sara is a musician. Not a 'rock star,' a beautiful musician. I'd like to be able to hear the music she is making, along with her talented band mates.

And now we're at the part where I gush.


She is so funny, and so beautiful, and WOW does she have an impressive vocal command, and HOO BOY the girls and I loved that she plays instruments (mainly a grand piano) as well. (We did already know that, but still it's such fun to watch live!)

I loved her audience rapport and stage presence. She had COMMAND of that big, historic concert hall! She played to every corner!

There were a few moments that were particularly memorable. I loved the different arrangements she did on some of the songs. I loved the creative uses of the band members (they are all so versatile!), for example, starting one song with all of them on various pianos/keyboards while she banged the bass drum and sang.

At one point, she and the band appeared in the first balcony (we were sitting near the front of the orchestra - Row M - so we could turn around and see them) and sang a capella with no microphones. The theater was so quiet, listening to their rendition of "Little Lion Man" by Mumford and Sons (I love that song) (also, though, this was one that has the prominent and repeated use of the F-word). Then we all started to sing along, although we could still hear Sara's killer voice through it all, and the sound was beautiful. (I also enjoyed the break from all the LOUD!)

There was the audience participation - teaching different parts of the audience how to sing the "ooo ooo" parts for "King of Anything" as well as provide the hand clap percussion section.

Not to mention the part when Sara commented that she loved it when the audience sang and then joked "you all can just sing and I'll just listen... actually you can play the piano for me too!" and a guy in the audience yelled, "I'll play the piano for you!" and then she invited him up to play. He was great. He played "Love Song" (even though she pointed out that song was coming later in the show; she said, "let's just do it twice!") and she sang. Then she pulled a few people up on stage to sing. When they all left, she said, "that was amazing. I've never done that before. That was something we'll all remember, so thank you."

I've since read that this has become extremely common - this letting someone from the audience come up and play/sing. I read a piece on NPR that said that celebrities basically can't say no, because they will incur the wrath of the internet if they do. I will point out that later in the show, someone else yelled out "can I come sing with you too?" and Sara said "I'm sorry, no, don't hate me" in her adorable way, and the person yelled, "that's okay, I love you!"

All in all, I'm very glad I went! I've now seen my two favorite female singer/songwriters this year (saw KT Tunstall in May - awesome)! The girls were so very tired, that we left when the encores began, but they were feeling happy. I hope that when they look back on this, the memories they have are of that young female musician, perfectly comfortable on that stage up in front of that crowd.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Three Movie Reviews: The '2' movies of summer 2011

So far this summer, I have seen three new ‘2’ movies:

Kung Fu Panda 2

Cars 2

The Hangover 2

Kung Fu Panda 2:
Of the three, I’d say I liked this one best. It is in keeping with the artistic style of the original, and it advances the story of Po’s development into a Kung Fu master while simultaneously exploring Po’s back story. Into the future and into the past: a neat feat.

Just as any good sequel should do, certain things about the original were ‘bumped up a notch.’ The kung fu action sequences were more amazing and exciting, and the Asian Art – inspired visual choices were even more beautiful.

It left us with an intriguing premise for another sequel; and when I say intriguing, I mean clever, surprising, and exciting!

Cars 2:
Of the three sequels, this one was (no contest) the most different from the original. It is completely different in tone, pace, type of story… it just happens to have some of the same characters in it. Most of them are in what felt to me like the ‘B’ storyline, though. The ‘A’ storyline only utilizes one returning character – Tow Mater – and many new characters. It’s a LOT of Mater, and even in the first film I definitely felt that he is a character best appreciated in small doses. This one had Too Much Mater for me, for sure!
This movie is a spy comedy, a genre that I really like, so I'm on board with this re-booting of the franchise. I also liked the racing sequences, and thought the animation therein was eye-poppingly gorgeous. My particular favorite was the Italy scenery.
I did have a few problems with it other than Too Much Mater (and its accompanying Not Enough McQueen). I thought it was too fast-paced. We didn’t get any scenes where we could just enjoy the characters – everything was coming at us fastfastfast.
I thought the plot resolution was too confusing for the target audience. The bad guy is who again? And why was he masterminding all this? Pretending to promote alternative fuel while secretly sabotaging alternative fuel in order to drive up oil prices because he actually is trying to sell oil even though we thought he was out of the oil business? There’s one too many twists there, I think, and Sarge’s statement of “once big oil, always big oil” doesn’t make things any clearer!
I also thought the main moral, which seemed to be ‘stand by your friend no matter what,’ wasn’t terribly effective. McQueen felt bad for snapping at Mater when he acted like an obnoxious fool at a public event for McQueen’s professional career. We seem to be telling kids that obnoxiousness should be excused if we really love someone. I’m not on board with that message. How about 'I will always love you, but this behavior is not appropriate and I believe you can learn how to behave?' Not a terribly appealing moral, but that's one I would support.
My mom loved the idea that we should love our dents because they represent memories – I’ll agree with that one. That was cute.

The Hangover 2:
I thought this movie was AWFUL. It was trying to be exactly like the original, but it didn’t even come close to being a poor imitator. It had none of the magic of the first movie. Such a disappointment.
What’s worse is that I don’t think I laughed once!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: The Eyre Affair

I finally have a chance to report on the next book I read in my "Summer of Reading!"
This summer project is explained here.

Book Review:
The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde

This book seemed like it was written particularly for me!

It’s witty, smart, literary, and has an element of mystery. There are many literary references (I’m sure I didn’t catch them all), but the main one is, of course, Jane Eyre, which is one of my top TWO favorite books of all time.

There is so much going on in this book! There are fantastical inventions, time travel that has changed the history and governments of the world, a society that worships Shakespeare and other literary figures above all, a secretive series of governmental departments (kind of like if there were lots of CIAs), people with mysterious abilities; I could go on and on.

There is a fascinating heroine: Tuesday Next. She is strong yet vulnerable, as well as undaunted by risks and danger. She takes us on an exciting ride, yet provides us with a love story so we can root for a happy ending.

There are several sequels, and I look forward to enjoying them! I’m not sure that they will feel quite as close to my heart as this one (the only book I love as much as Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice), but Tuesday’s adventures are so fast-paced, thrilling, and above all, cleverly written!

What did I love most about this book? I have to single out two things in particular. One is the pace at which we learn new things about this society - it’s exercise for the brain! The second is the giddy joy the author takes in wordplay. It’s clear he loves the way words sound together – and that he expresses that love more playfully than reverently. It’s just such fun to read!

I also loved that Tuesday’s life was mirroring the story in Jane Eyre, even outside of Jane Eyre itself! (Yes, I’m saying that part of the story takes place inside of ‘Jane Eyre’!)

Did I have any problems with the book? Well, in this world, Charlotte Brontë originally wrote a different ending to Jane Eyre, and it’s the characters in this book that change it to the ending we now know. I found that a little disappointing, being asked to believe that Brontë would have written the inferior version. My love for the classic novel is just too strong… It was definitely worth it, though, because the climax is so thrilling! In the end, I certainly didn’t hold it against this book. I still wanted the characters in this book to find out that Charlotte Brontë had intended this ending all along, and the time travelers had changed things, or something, but I admit that this approach made for a rip-roaring thrill ride of an adventure!

The Eyre Affair defies classification. Since it is an exciting combination of action and intelligence, I’d say that its uniqueness is a definite selling point!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie review: The King's Speech

The King's Speech well deserved its Oscars.

What a finely crafted movie, making speech therapy enthralling.* Employing masterful cuts to make a halting political speech gripping. There were lots of pauses in each sentence of the speech, while the stammerer worked through his techniques, but the pauses were well utilized. The same was true of the earlier speeches, where we could experience the discomfort of listeners and speaker alike.

(* It's quite a feat! I can say that because I have been through speech therapy.)

I cannot say enough about the work of Colin Firth. This was acting, tremendous acting, acting with every muscle, without a hint of scenery-chewing. Bravo, sir.

I found the story fascinating as a history, and also as a portrait of a unique friendship.

A remarkable film!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Audiobook review: Bossypants

written and recorded by Tina Fey

This was the first audiobook I have listened to in 15 years or so.

Bossypants is a memoir. I thought it was going to be more of a humor book, but it is definitely a memoir: it starts with her childhood, and tells us about her life in chronological order.

It is, as expected, funny. It's like hearing a friend tell you her life story, and isn't that what we love about Tina Fey? There are many little gems included when comedy-writer Tina shines through, from her responses to internet commenters to her fashion advice. Ah, Tina. She is a treasure!

My absolute favorite excerpt is "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter," which I had seen on the internet before I read (well, heard) the book. It's gold; it's just absolutely perfect. I hope it's okay (since it's all over the internet) to post it here at the end of the post...

While listening to Tina Fey's recording, rather than reading the book, was fun, I actually think I would have laughed more if I had been reading it myself. I'm back to books! With paper!

"The Mother's Prayer For Its Daughter" by Tina Fey:
First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her

When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, For childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day – And adulthood is long and dry-humping in cars will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

“My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Stage review: Les Miserables

We went to see the 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables. We both love this show, and while we weren't sure the younger kids are quite old enough, we didn't want to pass up this opportunity for them to see it. So we bought enough seats to take the whole family, which cost a pretty penny. It cost so much that it was a major decision for us! It was like, "vacation or Les Miserables?"

We were able to have this event serve as Big Girl's birthday present as well, so that was nice! She learned about the story (which made her nervous- she's squeamish about death and fighting) and listened to the soundtrack. She ended up being VERY excited about seeing the show!

I did not realize that it would be a restaged production. Instead of having the iconic turntable stage, it has a more traditional set and staging. I did like the new backdrops, based on watercolors by Victor Hugo. They were beautiful and really did set the mood. The backdrops were animated at times, moving us through Paris, which was really cool.

Overall, it was wonderful. I mean, it's Les Miserables after all! I loved how the audience cheered for the opening BUM, BUM BUMMM! by the orchestra - definitely an audience of theatre fans! The music was exhilarating and the ending made me cry. A great Les Miserables experience.

Big girl loved it. Middle girl liked it very much, but had bad dreams of battle scenes that night. The Boy was bored, so I whispered the plot in his ear during the second act. He enjoyed it more that way.

In general, aside from the cool backdrops, I liked the original version better. It's more iconic with the revolving turntable and the minimalist sets - this one was more like other shows. I also felt the battle scenes were less impactful without seeing both sides of the barricade.

The singing was very shout-y in this production. It must have been a direction, because everyone in the cast was turned up to 11. I don't agree with that choice. If you have quiet moments in the song, it gives the powerful notes so much more impact. These songs were sung with such intensity on EVERY NOTE that it all ran together. A shame.

The exception to this was Eponine. I really enjoyed her interpretation of the songs; it's interesting that she was the understudy. I also enjoyed the performances of Marius and Cosette more than I usually do.

The most shouting was done by Fantine. EVERY SYLLABLE!!!

I recommend seeing Les Miserables. It does a good job of being Les Miserables! But you might want to bring earplugs...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Hunger Games trilogy: Catching Fire and Mockingjay

Today I continue discussing the Hunger Games trilogy, the first book of which I discussed so exhaustively yesterday. This is part of my Summer of Reviews, explained here.

Book review:
Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins

Book review:
by Suzanne Collins

As I concluded yesterday, The Hunger Games sets us up to follow the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, on two character arcs.
One - The journey toward self-awareness in terms of her emotions. Katniss has been living in survival mode for all of her formative years, and her emotional maturity is stunted. We are set up to expect growth from her in this area, as she learns to identify the way she feels toward Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Cinna, and her mother.
Two - The journey toward self-awareness in terms of her unique talents, and her discovery of how she can use those talents. Everyone in Panem is captivated by her inner fire. We expect to see her becoming the leader of a noble cause: the toppling of this horrifically unjust society.

The titles of Books Two and Three in the trilogy give us an inkling of how the story will play out:

Book Two is called Catching Fire. Throughout The Hunger Games, fire is a symbol of Katniss herself. Therefore, naming the book Catching Fire indicates that the ideals she stands for will start to take root in the hearts and minds of the people in the districts. Not only that, but Katniss will start to see that she has these gifts for inspiring people, and that she may be able to use them to cause change.
(She does not yet know what ideals she stands for, but the way she instinctively reacts to situations makes it clear what they are. In addition, she has Peeta and others in her life who are more aware of what they stand for, and can help her explore her own positions.)

Book Three is called Mockingjay. The mockingjay is an important symbol in The Hunger Games as well. To Katniss, it is a reminder of her father. To Katniss and others, it symbolizes the limitations of the Capitol's seeming omnipotence. To those inclined to see it, it can symbolize the hope that, like the mockingjay, an alternate society can find a way to survive despite the efforts of the Capitol. Therefore, it seems that this book will tell the story of the overthrow of the Capitol and triumph of a new society, one based on the humanistic ideals of both Katniss and Peeta.

As I have argued, this is the story foreshadowed by the character development in The Hunger Games as well as the titles Collins gave to the rest of the trilogy.
Now that I have actually read them, I see that that is not the story Collins intended to tell after all (assume for the time being that she had the whole story planned all along). Catching Fire seems to continue along that path, and then Mockingjay throws various curveballs in the story's way. The curveballs could be interesting ways to ultimately arrive at the same conclusion, so I held out hope until the very end.
It saddens me to report that the Hunger Games trilogy does not get there. It goes someplace else entirely. Instead of being a story about teenagers using their innate gifts and idealism to change their world, it is a story of how war ruins lives and destroys even the seemingly strongest survivors. I am not exaggerating when I say that Collins completely destroys every single character she so effectively made us care about. She utterly tears them down and leaves them in ruins. Had I known that, I would not have signed on to invest my time and emotions in taking this journey with Katniss. And because I feel so strongly that we were set up to take another journey entirely, I actually feel angry.

That's right. I vehemently dislike Mockingjay, and therefore the trilogy as a whole, and therefore I do NOT recommend reading these books. Unless they completely rewrite the story for the movies, and I hope they do (but with Suzanne Collins so centrally involved, they probably won't), I can't recommend them either.

Final verdict: this trilogy fails, because the reader is blindsided. That's not good writing, and it's not good storytelling.

(may contain spoilers)

Well, I wrote up my thoughts about each book, but blogger lost them, and now ... I just can't.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games

This is my Summer Of Reviews. Explained here.

Wow, this review is LONG. I won't have this much to say about the other two books in the Hunger Games trilogy. I felt like I had to cover both my review of this book and the expectations it built up for the trilogy as a whole. It's a pretty unwieldy blog post (!), but the basic portions are as follows:

BACKGROUND - why I read it

TRANSITION TO REVIEW - should kids read it?



REVIEW: THE CHARACTERS - they are why I cared... why I am writing so much!

REVIEW: THE MAIN ARC OF THE STORY - what is this book trying to say?
(or, What should the point of the trilogy be? / What does the point of the trilogy seem like it's going to be?)



The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Last fall, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy (Mockingjay) came out, and there was a lot of buzz about its release. As they had done with the Harry Potter and Twilight installments, bookstores arranged special events for the official release time and young people planned to stay up all night reading. Through blogs and facebook, I saw that there were many people my age who were excited about the series as well.

Then in the spring, my fifth-grade daughter mentioned that her school library had re-classified the Hunger Games books, and were allowing fifth graders to check them out. Many of the fifth-graders had already read them and the talk seemed to be that this series was the thing to read.

My daughter had heard the premise: teenagers sent to an arena and required to fight to the death. The mere thought threatened to give her nightmares, but her classmates told her it was really good. She asked my opinion. I told her that I, too, was a little bit trepidacious about the premise, but that I was interested in reading it. Her response was, "I'll check it out for you to read, and you can tell me if it is scary." (My report back: "definitely scary." She actually seemed relieved to decide "not gonna read it.")


Violent. Gruesome. Brutal. The basic set-up of the story insures that upwards of twenty teenagers will be killed. Not "will die," but "will be killed." By each other. Teenagers killing each other while a country watches on TV. Does this sound to you like something eleven-year-olds should be reading? It sure doesn't to me. But maybe this book is not intended for eleven-year-olds, and their parents, teachers, and librarians should be instructing them to wait a few years. Just because a child is at an 8th-grade reading level doesn't mean he or she should be reading books written for 8th graders... Let's be careful with our children. Once they see, hear, or read something, it can't be un-seen...

Putting that aside, since I hope it's clear where I stand on that, I asked myself a different question: does this sound like something an 8th-grader should be reading? After reading this book, I felt strongly about my answer. That answer was "it depends."

It depended on where this story went in the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this could be a fantastic trilogy for middle schoolers (not to mention older teenagers and adults), *** IF *** it went in a certain direction. I was so excited to read the other two books and see if that was the author's plan all along. I had to wait until school was out to have the time, but I found it so hard to wait!

As The Hunger Games begins, we meet its central character, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen. We also learn about the country of Panem, the North America of some future time period. Panem consists of thirteen districts and a central governing region called the Capitol. Each district has a certain industry (for example, District 3's is electronics and machines, District 4's is fishing, District 8's is textiles, District 11's is agriculture, and District 12's is coal mining). The Capitol takes the products from the districts, and although certain districts are favored by the Capitol and have strong and healthy citizens (Districts 1 and 2), most districts are places of poverty and hunger. The Capitol citizens live lives of luxury and excess.

At some point in Panem's history (roughly 75 years ago), the districts attempted to overthrow the central government. In retaliation, the Capitol blew District 13 off the map to scare the other districts and keep them in line. After the failed revolt, the Capitol was more determined than ever to weaken the districts. One of the steps they took was establishing the annual Hunger Games as a symbol and reminder to the people of Panem that the Capitol will spare no one, not even children, in order to keep its control over the districts.

One boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts, between the ages of 12 and 18, are sent to the Hunger Games each year. They are put into an arena and must fight until only one child remains. That child is crowned the victor, and is rewarded by never having to go hungry again.

The Hunger Games are televised, as are the various ceremonies, interviews, and events surrounding the Games. All citizens of Panem are required to watch. Unlike the fanatical Capitol residents, the residents of the districts hate the Games, but have to act like they enjoy them. (The exception is the "Career" districts, which have the resources to train their children for the Games, so that by the time they are old enough, the children most likely to win volunteer for the Games.)

Okay, so we've got a dystopian society, and the ultimate version of a horrific reality competition show. Don't put too much thought into this world, however, because it doesn't stand up very well to analysis. For example, how big are these districts? Panem is supposed to cover all of North America, and is divided into thirteen districts. We are given some ideas about the geography: Twelve is in Appalachia, Seven is in the Pacific Northwest, the Capitol is in the Rocky Mountains, etc. However, they seem to be the size of a city, both in mileage and in population. Also, there are inconsistencies in terms of the technology of Panem. They are advanced in some ways and old-school in others.

It's not hard, though, to put the analysis aside and just 'go with it.' We readers are drawn into the story when Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister Prim's place in the Hunger Games, and we turn the pages in breathless anticipation of the outcome. Katniss is certain that she is being sent to her death, since there has only been one Victor from Twelve in the history of the Games. Twelve is the poorest district, and its undernourished, underprepared tributes never survive long in the arena.

Katniss is not going alone, however. With her are the boy tribute from Twelve, her mentor (the previous Victors mentor the current tributes, and since Twelve has only had one Victor, he must mentor all of Twelve's tributes every year), and the chaperone assigned by the Capitol. Katniss also soon meets her stylist and prep team, who are in charge of her 'look.' All of these characters are exceptionally well-drawn, and by the start of the Games itself, the reader really feels like she knows these people. This is, by far, what I thought Collins did best in writing this book.

Here is what I know about the main characters:

Katniss Everdeen:
Katniss has been in pure survival mode for many years. She had a wonderful father who taught her to hunt and forage in the wilderness outside of the district fence (Twelve is thought to be such a weak district that the rules are not really enforced very strictly), but he was killed in a mine explosion. Katniss' mother had a mental breakdown when her husband died, and Katniss had to provide for herself and her younger sister, Prim. She almost did not manage to keep them alive. She has never forgiven her mother for 'abandoning' them, and as a result, has two core beliefs. 1) She will do anything to protect her sister; 2) The only person she can rely on is herself. Katniss doesn't think about anything more complex than that. It's just "survive," one minute at a time.
Her only moments of happiness happen when hunting with her friend Gale Hawthorne, a boy who also lost his father (but, in contrast with Katniss, not his mother) and provides for his siblings. They understand each other instinctively after all of this time spent hunting together. Gale is more reflective than Katniss, however, and has strong opinions about the Capitol and the Games. He seems like a budding revolutionary.
Katniss' mother, now that she is 'back,' is a healer. Katniss gathers the herbs, or trades her pelts/meat for the ingredients, and her mother treats the sick and injured of the district. Prim has a knack for healing, as well.
More of Katniss' qualities are revealed during the lead-up to the Games. She has a fiery temper, and tends to lash out instinctively. She also has a certain captivating quality about her that her stylist Cinna highlights by dressing her in "fire." On the other hand, she also gives off an impression of purity and innocence.
She also has impressive survival skills and is deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. She is, by far, the most interesting tribute Twelve has sent in a long time, and her mentor is changed by the realization that she may actually have a fighting chance.

Peeta Mellark
Peeta is the male tribute from Twelve. He is from the merchant class (his father is a baker), rather than the mine-worker class. Peeta is going into the Games sure that he will not survive, but determined to die on his own terms. He is not willing to play the Games the Capitol's way, brutally killing his competitors, but is trying to figure out how to survive while maintaining his sense of right and wrong. He is sensitive and intelligent, with a gift for public speaking. He and Katniss have a bit of history, as he took a beating from his mother in order to sneak Katniss some bread when she was at her most desperate. He has always admired her (for her inner strength, or something), but Katniss, of course, hasn't given him much thought (again, she can only think about surviving).
During the pre-Games interviews, Peeta reveals that he has been in love with her for a long time. This, along with the way her stylist has highlighted "that certain captivating something about Katniss," ensures that the pair from Twelve are the main focus of the Games audience. Katniss doesn't know if she trusts Peeta and thinks that he is faking it to 'play' the audience. She keeps him at a distance because she knows that one of them will have to kill the other during the Games.
Peeta has decided that his way to defy the Games is to put Katniss' survival above his own. His only goal in the arena is to keep Katniss alive. Like Gale, Peeta wants to see the Capitol overthrown and the Games abolished, but believes that that is best done by changing popular opinion (whereas Gale's approach is warfare). If the audience loves these two tributes, and doesn't want to see them die, they may rebel against the Games themselves.
Incidentally, I think this often gets overlooked by people, but Peeta is portrayed as physically strong in this book. He scores well in training, the Careers are willing to have him join them (although they mainly want him to get at Katniss), and early on he is able to fight off other tributes when he needs to in order to protect Katniss. I felt that his character shows that a person can be strong and able to physically overpower an opponent, but they can still have humanistic ideals for how people and society should behave.

Haymitch Abernathy
Haymitch is the sole Victor from Twelve, and is therefore Katniss's and Peeta's mentor during the Games. It is his job to help each come up with a strategy, as well as send them help (food, medicine, etc) if the viewing audience sends money (people can 'sponsor' tributes they are rooting for). Haymitch is a great character, showing how the Games breaks even the Victors. Even though he survived physically, he did not survive functionally. He spends every day in a drunken stupor, unable to reconcile what he had to do when he was in the arena, as well as the toll mentoring dozens of doomed children has taken on him over the years.
Haymitch is an extremely smart mentor, but very difficult to get along with. He sees that Peeta is genuine and will win the audience's affections just by being honest. He also sees Katniss's nature, and they have a sort of instinctive way of communicating with one another.

Katniss is confused by how to play the pre-Games pomp and ceremony, but nevertheless her "certain something" captures the fancy of both the audience and the gamemakers*. Once inside the arena, however, her well-honed survival instincts take over. Again, we see how un-self-aware she is, but despite the fact that the POV is inside Katniss' head, we get some glimpses of her character through the behavior of other characters. We see that she has feelings, skills, values, and a certain specialness to her, even though she doesn't see these things in herself.

(*There are booby traps in the arena that are controlled by the gamemakers - they use them, as well as supplies and weapons they may or may not make available, to manipulate the game the tributes can play. They can flush them out of hiding with wild animals, fire, rain, etc. They can use those same things to make them move toward more aggressive players, or they can use them to just kill the tributes themselves if the Games get "too boring" for the audience.)

Katniss' game play only continues to captivate the audience, as she shows cunning and skill. More importantly, she shows mercy and tenderness- particularly toward Rue, the young girl she befriends. These displays of humanity must not be seen often in the Games, because Katniss knows they will provoke the ire of the gamemakers and are therefore risky. However, she is willing to risk it, showing how fiercely she holds onto her humanistic ideals. Of course, this is instinct: she doesn't realize any of it because her psyche is too busy surviving to spare the time for self-examination (unlike Peeta, who is far more self-aware).

And the Games play on, gory and violent, deeply disturbing in the graphic portrayal of teen-on-teen brutality. Because the arena is an engineered place, Collins ups the goriness of the deaths far beyond what they would be if this were a depiction of kids fighting in the woods (which would be hard enough to read; this is far worse).

WHAT'S THE BOOK TRYING TO SAY? (or, What should the point of the trilogy be? / What does the point of the trilogy seem like it's going to be?)

To remind you, my overall impression was that I'm very uneasy about this level of violence in a YA book (I would feel this way regardless of the YA classification, to be honest), but that this could be all worth it IF the other books take this story to the right conclusion. And what would that conclusion be?

The thing I kept thinking as I was reading was, "why wouldn't these children just decide, as a group, to refuse to fight?" Simple, right? Nobody kills each other, nobody has to die, Hunger Games over. Collins handles this issue in a few ways. For one, there are the Career tributes. Their districts view the games as an honor and, since they usually produce the Victors, are willing to train their whole lives and then volunteer. Their entire belief system is based on proving themselves as the best player in the arena, and they would never agree to some kind of 'truce.' In fact, they would quickly 'take care of' any tribute that even approached them to discuss it. For another, the tributes know that the arena itself (through the gamemakers) will kill them anyway. And finally, this is the 74th Hunger Games. This has been part of the culture for generations, and they have been indoctrinated into its value system.

Okay, so I was able to 'go with it' that the children wouldn't just refuse to kill one another. But that has to be where this is all heading, right? These teenagers, with their carefully constructed characters and philosophies about the world (and Katniss's innate 'special something' the audience senses in her, even though she's not aware of it; and Peeta's innate ability to verbalize these ideas without the audience really knowing what they're hearing), must be destined to change this dystopian society. There's no other way for this to turn out, right? I mean, everything was so carefully laid out in this book. And if that's the point of the trilogy, that young people's ideals can catch on and change the hearts and minds of an indoctrinated populace, then this series could be truly great... a wonderful thing for teens to read, despite the violence that I found brutally excessive.

With this overall impression, I couldn't wait to read the sequels and find out how Collins planned to take the story to that eventual ending. As I said, I felt like I really knew these characters and understood them, and when I stumbled across an article in Entertainment Weekly about the casting of the forthcoming movie, I realized just how much I cared about these characters. I think the casting has been inspired and definitely in agreement with the way I saw the characters. I was getting excited about the movie as well as Books Two and Three! The Hunger Games was frequently on my mind. As soon as school was over, I dove into Catching Fire (Book Two); that review is coming. (It won't be as long as this one... not even close.)


What I liked:
I liked the contrast between Peeta's way of changing the world (ideas), and Gale's (rebellion). I liked the way Katniss couldn't help but be drawn to Peeta and his innate goodness, although she fought against it because she thought it was just a Games strategy on his part, and then she gave in but is such an un-self-aware person who has never allowed herself to feel anything that she was completely confused by her own feelings for him. She didn't know that what she was feeling was love, but we knew. I thought that was setting up a nice arc for Katniss throughout the trilogy - she will grow to become more in touch with her thoughts and feelings, and become capable of operating as a more complete human being. Eventually, this journey would allow her to realize that she loves Peeta with her whole body, soul, and mind, while she loves Gale as an essential piece of herself, the way you love a best friend you grew up with because you shaped each other; you ARE each other. I was looking forward to going through that realization process with Katniss.

(Actually, I found Katniss' confusion pretty frustrating. You love him, you idiot! I didn't really like the love triangle being set up and wasn't looking forward to Katniss playing with the emotions of both boys while she became self-aware. As I said, though, I was looking forward to her getting there and was willing to put up with it for the eventual payoff.)

I also liked how the ultimate defiant act that ended the Games was not clear in Katniss' mind - was she doing this because of her love for Peeta, or as a way to defy the Capitol and ultimately refuse to play their game? Of course, we see that it serves both functions. Katniss can take both journeys during the rest of the trilogy.
I liked the set-up of Katniss as orchestrator of a new Panem, the cause symbolized by the mockingjay pin. Clearly, all this time spent describing her 'certain something' so clear to the citizens, Peeta, and Haymitch as well as her ability to demonstrate humanistic values on pure instinct (her fiery temper, her mercy, her placing the survival of Prim, Rue, and Peeta over her own...) are setting her up to realize her role in changing the mindset of the populace and changing the rule. With Peeta as the voice of the ideals, and Katniss as the untamed emotions growing into being the voice of action, this was looking to be a fanstastic story of a good society rising up out of the ashes... led by teenagers, so often the voice of idealism in society - even better.

*** IF *** that's where this trilogy is going. If not, it's just an excuse to sell books using shocking violence.

Only if the trilogy turns out to be satisfying in the ways I mentioned, because this book ends in a way that leaves us hanging. So much so, that it would be frustrating to read ONLY this book, and even MORE frustrating to read all three if the trilogy as a whole doesn't live up to what has been so effectively set up and foreshadowed.
Sorry to leave it hanging like this, but that verdict will have to wait...