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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 1

Last year I could only scrape together a measly five books for my list. This year it was easy to find ten books that I loved, and I probably have my bookstore job to thank for that. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I don’t read much fantasy these days, but Neil Gaiman is a living legend. When I saw Stardust at the library, I decided that it was worth a read. The movie was also a distant memory, so I figured it wouldn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book too much. In fact, the two are such different entities that it’s easy to avoid comparisons. Gaiman performs an impressive feat by writing a fairy tale that feels unfamiliar. At the same time, his unsentimental tone reminded me of the original fairy tale texts that I studied in college.

9. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

It took some time for me to warm up to The Help. Eventually I fell in love with the characters, and there was no going back. As most readers probably know, it tells the story of a young Southern woman who wants to write a book about the lives of “the help.” The point of view alternates between Skeeter, the young white writer, and the two black maids who collaborate with her. I loved the descriptions of Skeeter’s experience writing for the local newspaper and her complicated relationship with Aibileen and Minny.

8. Seer of Sevenwaters, by Juliet Marillier

I may not read much fantasy, but Juliet Marillier is too superb to quit. I’ve been reading the Sevenwaters series since high school. If you want an epic romance/adventure set in ancient Ireland, well, they don’t come any better than this. I thought the series was going downhill with the fifth book, but Seer of Sevenwaters was a return to form. Although Marillier has a talent for plucky heroines, this time she offers a more thoughtful protagonist. Of course, there’s enough inner turmoil and outward adventure to keep things interesting.

7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

Sometimes the truth is more fascinating (and more frightening) than fiction. Erik Larson specializes in detailing historical events that make the reader say, “I can’t believe that happened!” This month I also read his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. It was entertaining and probably an easier read, but I ultimately prefer The Devil in the White City because I learned so much about turn-of-the-century America. (My full-length review can be found here.)

6. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The story of Oryx and Crake continues with The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s precise narration is perfectly suited for speculative fiction. The details of her not-too-distant future are inventive while still feeling like a plausible extension of the world today. I enjoyed this female-centered installment, which focuses on God’s Gardeners, a religious splinter group that is peripherally mentioned in Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood makes clear the complexity of the world that Atwood has imagined. I can only read and be amazed — and wait impatiently for the final book.

It was hard to narrow them down, but I did it. Tomorrow I will unveil the illustrious top 5!

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Where Have All the Movies Gone?

When I first started this blog, I wrote a lot about movies. In 2012 I have written almost no film reviews or musings. My current theory is that 2011 was not a great year for movies.

I first got Netflix back in January 2011, and I used it to catch up on films from the past year. I worked my way through a slew of Oscar nominees, wonderful films like The Social Network, The Town, and True Grit. Maybe I got a little spoiled. When 2012 began, I figured that Netflix would serve the same purpose:  allowing me to enjoy the best films of the previous year.

Then something strange happened. Months went by, and I found myself feeling lukewarm toward almost every movie I saw. The trend continued this week when I watched My Week with Marilyn and felt mildly entertained but not truly impressed. What can be the cause of these symptoms? Have I just seen too many movies in the past year? Working full-time allows me to watch a new Netflix DVD less than once a week, so I find that explanation improbable. Maybe it has something to do with my state of mind. Even if that’s a contributing factor, I can’t deny the fact that the main cause is probably the movies themselves.

Drive grabbed my attention with its cool vibe and unexpected music choices, but the protagonist’s life quickly dissolved into senseless violence that was incredibly difficult to watch. Crazy, Stupid, Love had its moments of humor and sweetness, but one too many storylines took screen time away from the characters that were actually interesting. Despite its fragmented structure, The Tree of Life had me on-board for the first hour, but I never felt the pieces come together in a satisfying way. The Help was a decent adaptation of the novel, but I expected more from Viola Davis in her much-nominated performance. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 . . . well, I didn’t really expect that to be good.

Of course, there’s an exception. One film that I really loved was Moneyball. It’s a sports movie in which you see almost no sports being played. All the action is behind the scenes, the deals and deceptions that keep Major League Baseball running. As a girl who was raised on baseball, I was riveted every step of the way. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are a perfect one-two punch. I love to see Jonah Hill taking on a meatier role and receiving some recognition as an actor.

Time to step it up, 2011. Maybe the good movies are out there, and I just haven’t found them yet. As long as the little red envelopes appear in my mailbox, I will keep trying.

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Life Without a Laptop

Just days before the start of spring break, my laptop officially died. It had been in its death throes for weeks, but would still work if I never, ever moved it. Then one evening it inexplicably powered off for what would be the last time.

My newly computer-less state presented some challenges, particularly in a week with no access to work computers. Most of my files are backed up, so there wasn’t any anxiety over losing all my photos or music. My phone allowed me to check email and Facebook with relative ease. The biggest problem was that most of my recreational activities involve the computer — especially the internet. So what did I do for five days without my laptop? Well, I used the internet on my phone more than usual, but I only find that convenient for quick visits. Mostly I have to rely on other forms of entertainment.

One of my spring break goals was to be crafty. (Another was to write at least two blog posts, but that obviously went out the window.) With the roommates off on vacation, I could take over the living/dining room with scrapbook supplies and feel no guilt. This is not to say that my roomies don’t support crafty pursuits, but I tend to get self-conscious when I’m trying to be creative. I was able to get three or four scrapbook pages done. The paper for these layouts had been purchased back in December, so I felt like I was really conquering my procrastination.

Thankfully the weather cooperated enough for me to take walks. After walking around Lake Harriet two days in a row, I began to worry that I was becoming one of those people who are addicted to exercise. Okay, in my case it would be only to a very specific kind of exercise. I’m here to tell you, there’s a big difference between a Sunday walk and a Monday walk. That is, weekends are very crowded and weekday afternoons are not. I wondered what kind of jobs people had to allow them to go walking on a Monday afternoon. By the end of day two, my feet were displeased with me.

I also finally made progress in The Help, which I started a couple of weeks earlier. Having heard the criticisms about the movie (i.e. white woman fixes racism!), I may have been reluctant to immerse myself in the book. Now that I’ve finished it, I can see why it’s popular. The characters are extremely vivid and also distinct from each other, which is important when switching narrators as it does. I tried to add the movie to my Netflix queue, but there’s currently a “very long wait.” Oh Netflix, I can’t pin you down.

So there I was, writing a blog post in a notebook while sitting at a coffee shop. It certainly beat my bedroom for people-watching, but the hand cramps were a definite drawback. I wonder what J. K. Rowling does to combat hand-crampage?

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