Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Reviews: The Black Cauldron and The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander's saga, begun in The Book of Three, continues in these two books.  Life has been getting busier, so again each of these books took a good two months for us to get through reading aloud, and required some recapping and reminding each time we managed to pick them up.

The Black Cauldron was one of my favorites of the series growing up, likely because of the high action plot and possibly because of the animated Disney version.  (Though even in those tender years I recognized that the book was way better than the film and bristled at the changes made to adapt the story to the screen.)  My boys had a similar response, having seen the movie a while ago.  I think having a general idea of the storyline beforehand helped them stayed focused especially through the breaks in our reading. 

Gurgi is a favorite, of course, and in an incredibly magnanimous statement, the boys allowed that my "Gurgi voice" has improved as the series has gone on.  High praise, indeed.

Ellidyr, the proud youngest son of a noble, joins the quest for the Black Cauldron and rubs Taran wrong from their first interaction, but he also provided some great material for conversations with my sons about people's motivations for rude behavior, the importance of withholding judgment until you know all the facts, and how people who make bad choices - even really bad choices sometimes - can make good ones, too.  This was particularly evident when contrasting Ellidyr with Morgant whose trajectory leads in the opposite direction.

As for The Castle of Llyr, it's the most Eilonwy-centered of the books, which I appreciate.  However, on this reading through I was disappointed to feel that she is presented as almost a caricature of herself yet again, at least until the final chapters.  Taran's feelings for Eilonwy are more apparent to both him and the reader - and less interesting to my boys than just about any other aspect of the story.

Glew is an interesting addition to the cast of characters and my boys were very interested to meet him and learn his story.  And that of Llyan as well.  I love the changes in Achren and am excited to re-read the next books as that journey continues.

The Black Cauldron
by Lloyd Alexander
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

The Castle of Llyr
by Lloyd Alexander
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 89


Jennifer Garner
Photo credit
I've been a Jennifer Garner fan since the first season of Alias. Not only is she a fun actress to watch whether doing action, drama, or comedy, but she seems to really have a level head on her shoulders.  I love what she had to say recently at Elle's annual "Women in Hollywood" event.
The fact that there even needs to be a Women in Hollywood event is a little bit sad...I mean, the men in Hollywood event is every day—it's called Hollywood. Fifty-one percent of the population should not have to schedule a special event to celebrate the fact that in an art that tells the story of what it means to be human and alive, we get to play a part.

The disparity between men's and women's roles on the big screen has been a topic I've mentioned before.  But it's not only the treatment of women on screen where inequality is seen.  Check out this comparison Jennifer pointed out during her speech:
I told him [her husband Ben Affleck] every single person who interviewed me, I mean every single one, and this is true of the red carpet here tonight Elle, asked me, ‘How do you balance work and family?' and he said the only thing that people asked him repeatedly was about the tits on the ‘Blurred Lines' girl [Affleck's Gone Girl co-star Emily Ratajkowski]...As for work-life balance, he said no one asked him about it that day. As a matter of fact, no one had ever asked him about it. And we do share the same family. Isn't it time to kinda change that conversation?
Yep.  It's past time to change the conversation.


Another woman I've admired for years is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a brilliant scholar, feminist, Mormon, and writer who coined the famous phrase:

First of all, I loved this book.  Laurel teaches at Harvard, has won a Pulitzer Prize, and generally just says brilliant things about women and history and religion.

So I was excited to see this in-depth interview with her on Harvard's website.  Great insight into how she got her start and her early influences as well as what she's up to now.


It's a week before Halloween, so I'm seeing lots of the obligatory posts about awful "sexy" costumes that objectify girls and women.  There's really no excuse for "sexy nun" or "sexy crayons" or "sexy French fries" or "sexy Darth Vader".  I mean, really.


Language warning:

This.  So much this.

A whole lot of people are hollering about the First Amendment lately, so I thought a little refresher course appropriate.  The First Amendment does NOT mean that you can say and do anything and everything you want without any consequences.  It simply says that the federal government can't make laws that prohibit free speech.  (And even then, there are still some limitations: libel, slander, fraud, the infamous yelling-"Fire!"-in-a-crowded-theater example.  But I digress.)

It does NOT say that other people have to agree with you or that if other people express their disagreement they have to do it nicely or that others have to support what you say, or even give you space to say it.  And it doesn't absolve anyone of the requirement to follow other laws, like, for example, anti-discrimination laws that govern for-profit business operations.

People are acting like these issues are all cut-and-dried, black-or-white, but this is the real world and things are messy, particularly when one person's exercise of their right to free speech or religion starts to encroach on someone else's exercise of their right to free speech or religion.

To sum up, the First Amendment is not a blank check.

/rant over


(Happy birthday to my favorite sister in the whole wide world!  Our mutually supportive rants and raves have gotten me through the rough parts of life more times than I can count.  It's wonderful to have a partner in heretical thought and pot-stirring who's unfailingly got my back.  Love you, Dith!)

Imma have to get this book...
We totally could have written it ourselves.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 88


So Gene and I decided to join a gym.  Now, I'm not the kind of person who just drops in and pumps iron or jumps on a treadmill; I need a scheduled time and a specific purpose to get myself motivated to get into workout clothes and actually go.  Fortunately, the gym we joined has classes: weightlifting, step, kickboxing, and...Zumba!

In my younger years I danced - ballet, jazz, and Latin ballroom - so it's fun to get back to those roots in a small way.  Of course, I'm not in nearly the shape I was back then, so this is pretty accurate:



It's fall premiere season and I've been getting sucked in to waaaaaaay too many shows.  Some are old favorites - like Castle and Modern Family and Person of Interest and Parenthood - and some are brand new this year - like Gotham and Scorpion and A to Z.

What are your favorites so far this year?  If you could only watch one - ok, let's say one drama and one comedy - what would it be?


This is the stack of books that taunts me every time I pass by my kitchen table.  All read, just needing to be reviewed.

That stack doesn't include two more books that I read on my kindle and haven't reviewed yet or the new children's book that's on my kids' bookshelf.  How is it possible that I feel more behind now with all three kids in school for six hours every day than I ever did when I had kids at home?  Sigh.


That's really all I've got for you this morning.  I woke up with a stuffy head and sniffles, so I'm going to take a hot shower and try to clear my head.  Here's hoping that's all it takes!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear excels at re-creating the feel of the time period.  Reading this - and every Maisie Dobbs book so far - I've felt immersed in post World War I England.  Nothing, absolutely nothing rings false or anachronistic.  Masterfully done.

Leaving Everything Most Loved adds some additional nuance to Maisie's world, opening a window into the struggles of Indian immigrants in London during the 1930s.  The discrimination and prejudice, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, are shown in realistic ways, neither sugar-coating, nor reveling in the hatred.

I also appreciated Maisie's frank survey of her "several threads of reticence" to marrying James Compton, including the long-lived effects of her experiences during the war.
But more than anything, Maisie had established within herself a strength, a sense of her own worth, and an independence.  At the same time, though she had long recovered form the wounds of war--wounds of both body and mind--there were times when the ice still felt thing beneath her feet, and she retained a fear that she might crash through into the cold waters of her most terrible memories if events conspired to make her fall.  She feared that in marrying she might give up that essential part of herself, the resilience that kept her skating above the ice.
The Maisie Dobbs series calms me.  The rhythm of the words, Maisie's calmness, slow me down and help me truly absorb every word.  I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Leaving Everything Most Loved
by Jacqueline Winspear
ISBN: 9780062049605
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 87


Early October is a busy time for our family with two birthdays within three days of each other.

First this charming youngster turned 6.

And then his charming older brother turned 9.

Practically two peas in a pod, no?  I'm really rather fond of them both.


As I'm staring at the stack of 13 books I've read in the past few months but haven't written reviews for yet, this article gave me food for thought.  Much as the article suggests, the reviews I have managed to get done recently all had deadlines attached to them, whether it was I needed to get the book back to the library because I finally couldn't renew it any more and didn't want to rack up the late fees, or because the movie was coming out that. very. day.

Of course, there are sick kids, a time-intensive church calling, multiple volunteer commitments, and trying to maintain some semblance of an orderly household that draw my attention as well.  So it's not all about unreasonably high expectations of perfection.


Photo credit: wikipedia
Meet another hero I recently learned of: Chiune Sugihara.  A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania at the beginning of World War II, Sugihara issued thousands of exit visas to help Jews escape the country, in direct defiance of orders from his superiors.  It's estimated that the visas he issued saved more than 6000 people, many of them families that were able to escape together.  Toward the end of the war, Sugihara and his family spent a year and a half in a Soviet POW camp, and after returning to Japan in 1947 he lost his job and diplomatic career as a result of his insubordinate actions.  He spent many years working menial jobs to support his family.  In 1985 he was declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel in recognition of his efforts. I love this quote from a great post (really - you should read the whole thing) on By Common Consent:
When Jews showed up at the gate of the consulate in late July 1940, Sugihara faced a perplexing conflict between his traditional Japanese values of strict obedience to authority, on the one hand, and Samurai moral obligations of courage, honor, and kindness, as well as the moral pull of his Christian conscience in deciding how to proceed, on the other hand:
"He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again. This would result in extreme financial hardship for his family in the future. Chiune and his wife Yukiko even feared for their lives and the lives of their children, but in the end, could only follow their consciences. The visas would be signed." (

Last week, on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, a synagogue in Spokane was vandalized with a swastika.

I was - and still am - horrified and disgusted by this heinous, hateful act.

But there has been a heart-warming outpouring of support for the synagogue and our Jewish neighbors here in Spokane, so much so that they have organized a special service for this evening as an opportunity for friends and neighbors to gather together in solidarity against bigotry and hatred.

So tonight, with my husband and three sons, I'll make the trek to the south hill to attend a service at Temple Beth Shalom.  Fittingly, it's also Sukkot, or the Feast of the Tabernacles, traditionally a time to welcome in friends, neighbors, and strangers alike.

May this be a chance for us to come together regardless of our different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and demonstrate our categorical rejection of such evil and intolerance and "instead champion respect for diversity."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Movie review: Meet the Mormons

Because I write for SpokaneFAVS, I had access to a screening copy of the film Meet the Mormons, which opens in a handful of theatres across the country tonight and tomorrow.

The film has excellent productive values and tells touching stories of six real people and how the gospel of Jesus Christ informs their daily lives in ways big and small.

Occasionally it's a bit heavy-handed with "telling" rather than "showing," and the narration, which is very effective during the introduction, seems obtrusive at later points in the film.  It's kind of like six extended "I'm a Mormon" pieces strung together - and that's not necessarily a bad thing as I think those shorts are very effective pieces.  The film comes across as more marketing than documentary - again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes the expectations a bit.  This is not a film to watch to gain an understanding of deep LDS doctrine or even basic LDS beliefs beyond very general, common-ground ideas like follow Jesus, serve others, be kind.  It aims instead to demonstrate how members of the Church put those ideals into practice.

Despite the title, I think Meet the Mormons is perhaps more valuable viewing for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than those not of our faith.  It's very easy to get comfortable with conformity and to start to see diversity of any kind as something uncomfortable and even wrong.  This film showcases quite a bit of the diversity to be found in this worldwide church, though I would have liked to see even more women and international members featured as well as other kinds of diversity. It's a reminder that there are many — both LDS and those of other faiths — who choose to live the gospel in ways that are different, but no less valid, faithful, and righteous than our choices.

Read my full review on SpokaneFAVS and then let me know what you think!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Review: The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

I was looking forward to reading this award-winning book, especially after viewing the moving documentary Waste Land which, though set on a different continent, also tells the story of people who make their living scavenging through mountains of other people's trash.  But while I appreciate the author's intent with The Rent Collector, I didn't find it effective.

The Rent Collector centers on Sang Ly, a young mother, and her family who live at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia.  Her husband Ki Lim works long hours every day in dangerous conditions to scrounge enough scrap metal and other items to sell to feed his family.  Their son, Nisay, is very ill and every treatment they've tried has failed to restore him to health.

The titular character is Sopeap Sin, a perpetually drunk, angry old woman who appears every month to gather the rent payments and is impervious to sob stories of medical expenses or stolen money.  By accident or serendipity, Sang Ly discovers that Sopeap Sin can read and begs Sopeap to teach her.  At first resistant, Sopeap agrees and Sang Ly learns not only the mechanics of reading but how to draw meaning from literature, as well as Sopeap Sin's tragic history.

The message of hope and redemption and persistence and finding beauty everywhere is a wonderful theme, but the execution is lacking.  Simply put, the book felt rushed and not fully fleshed out.  Relationships weren't developed so much as spontaneously bursting into existence.  Set-ups were truncated and their pay-offs were trite or contrived; events seemed to happen because it was time for something to happen rather than because they were a natural progression of the story. There was more "telling" than "showing" about the characters and how they interacted with each other and that led to an emotional distance between the reader - or at least this reader - and the characters.

The tone and diction also seemed out of place, perhaps exacerbated by the choice to write in the first person as Sang Ly; an uneducated woman from Cambodia is unlikely to use phrases like "obvious issues with trust" or "Model Parent Award".  Conversations often felt inauthentic, like something I'd hear on an American television show instead of in a Cambodian waste dump. Sopeap Sin's epilogue describes the important and horrific historical background of the Khmer Rouge that should have informed the entire book rather than being almost an afterthought to explain a single character's actions.

However, the stories and particularly the poems included were touching.  And you'll get no argument from me that, as Sopeap Sin teaches Sang Ly, literature is "a handbook for the art of being human" and "good stories teach!"

The Rent Collector
by Camron Wright
ISBN: 9781609071226
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, audiobook, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).