Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reading Rainbow

It is once again time for my Best Of Books list. This year, I read 65 books, a good dozen of which were re-reads at the end of the year, when my brain cannot handle anything new, but I still need to read something. I'm weird that way. I know some people never read the same book twice. I am not one of those people. I have my go-to books the same way others have go-to movies. I did experiment with a Kindle this year and while I understand its appeal, it isn't my thing. Reading a new book on a Kindle made me feel like I was trying to read with only half my senses. You can't feel the weight of the book or the texture of the pages. I also have a very visual memory. I can look at a book, turn to roughly the right section, and know which side of a page, then how high up or down in the paragraph a remembered sentence or section ought to be. All that is lost on a Kindle since it is akin to reading on a computer screen. Also, I need to know how long a book is, how small the font, to help me decide if I am in the mood for it. But my Kindle came preloaded (Thanks A!) with lots of awesome books I have already read, which makes it perfect for waiting rooms, dance class, etc. and my daughter already likes to borrow it for car trips.

In no particular order, the top five:

1.  We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Schriver Why this author isn't more popular is a mystery to me. Her book The Post-Birthday World is one of my top reads of all time. This book is much darker, but equally excellent. The subject matter is horrific (mass murder at a school), but the book asks the most basic question of what makes a child, nature or nurture, in a truly revelatory way. Every sentence is a jewel, hand crafted, and complete all on its own. There are no throwaway words. This is not a light read, but it is a really, really good one.

2. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon  I always take recommendations, especially from people whose taste I trust. In the Raleigh NC airport is perhaps the best used book store I have ever seen, so I trusted the owner when he recommended this book. Set in Barcelona, it is both a mystery and a coming of age story and has, by far, one of the best imaginary locations of all time as a set piece. There is wonderful atmosphere just oozing off the page that once you start, you will find it very difficult to stop reading, and when you do look around, will find yourself surprised to be anywhere as ordinary as your living room.

3. The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern Maybe I just like atmospheric books, because this is another one where you are dropped into a fully realized world where you can practically taste the caramel popcorn and smell the scents that waft out of tiny glass bottles. An tale of magic and love, both twisted and neither very clear, is set among a Night Circus, a roving amusement filled with both the mundane and the fantastic.

4. The Passage - Justin Cronin Part one of a trilogy (part two, The Twelve is already out), it set in a world destroyed by a sort of vampire never before seen in fiction. Part vamp, part zombie, it exists only to feed. Often, books like this feel like fleshed out screenplays, just ready to be made into a movie. And while this one has some truly terrifying sequences (there is a train chapter that will rival the Lincoln Tunnel scene in Stephen King's The Stand) it is the littlest details that are the most riveting.

5. Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill. This is an excellent book to read in the darkness of winter. However, if you actually want to go to sleep at night, perhaps a midsummer day would be a better time. It is horror at its finest (the author learned at the knee of a former master). Our protagonist finds himself owning a dead man's suit and things go from bad to worse very quickly. The best part for me was the main character, a complete bastard who is richly detailed and not just a foil for the action.

This year, I don't actually have a bottom five. While I still shake my fist at the heavens to rail against the fact that in a year with no Pulitizer Prize in fiction, 50 Shades made millions, I will allow that it was a gateway book for a lot of people who had stopped reading and/or stopped having sex and that this book helped people come back to both. The rest of the books were good, maybe even very good, but each had one central flaw that kept them from being great.

Angelology - Danielle Trussoni  - Not once, in an entire book set in the real world, with characters who were being introduced to the idea that angels were real and evil, not once did any character ask, "Really?"

Broken Harbor -Tana French  - This book is supposed to be mystery. However, since each "clue" is practically highlighted and bolded on the page, that part falls short of the mark. Instead, read for the excellent interrogation scenes, her gift for characters, and the Irish setting.

There are several others that I would complain about, but to do so would be to give away important plot points and I firmly believe in not spoiling books. Suffice to say that I wouldn't be one of Michael Connelly's clients, I'm tired of long lost loves being reunited at the expense of the memory of the people they loved in between, and while George R.R. Martin is not my bitch, I would highly appreciate it if he actually merged character arcs here and there so that every single character wasn't flailing about in their own storylines with little to no interaction with each other.

Also, the award for authors who really have to stop destroying their characters is a tie between Steig Larsson (posthumous) and Charlaine Harris. Larsson gets it for the ridiculous choice of relegating Lisbeth Salander to a tertiary character in The GIrl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and since that book was so bad, I can only hope the two other books supposedly hidden on his computer remain there forever. Charlaine Harris get the whip for apparently forgetting that her main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is a telepath, and perhaps should stop walking into trouble she should have known about long before she entered the room and for writing entire books where no one has any sex.

So, my friends, the new year is almost upon us. My to-be-read shelf is newly stocked, my brain is just about ready to take on new fiction, and the good rocker by the fire is calling. As my buddy Levar says, "Butterflies in the sky/I can fly twice as high/Take a look/It's in a book."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ritzy's House of Horrors

I consider myself a cultured woman. I've seen everything from Broadway to Cirque de Soleil. I've been to the ballet, to musicals, to Shakespeare in the Park, and to countless dance recitals. In this past week alone, I've seen The Nutcracker (twice) and Scrooged! But, good Lord in Heaven above, save me from local children's theater.

Years ago, I went on the preschool class field trip to see Frosty at, you guessed it, the local children's theater. About ten minutes into the "show", the little girl sitting next to me asked when it was going to start. You see, a bunch of adults wandering around the fully lit theater wearing sweats wasn't exactly her idea of a production. It wasn't my idea of one either, but I did try to keep that to myself.
This year, same preschool, but a different kid and a different show. Instead of Frosty, We were treated to what my husband refers to as Mrs. Tinkerton's Toys of Terror. The plot is simple, a bunch of broken toys are sad that they are relegated to the back of the toy shop, the toy shop owner realizes that they are alive, and one by one, teaches them that they all have different talents that make them lovable. Blah blah blah. What makes this show horrifying is the lead character, Mrs. Tinkerton.

In an artistic choice that leaves me baffled, the sweet (female) toyshop owner is played by a wolf in woman's clothing.

The mascot, as it were, of this theater is a wolf. He is, quite possibly, the most demented looking thing I have ever seen. Red sweat pants, a spangled red sweater stolen off the back of a chair during the annual Boca Raton Senior Citizen Home Christmas Gala, stage makeup more reminiscent of Kabuki than cannibal, and as a final touch, two wolf ears, one of which (I swear) was on backward. He kicks off the show by chatting with the audience and waiting for Mrs. Tinkerton to arrive. Very quickly, we learn that Mrs. Tinkerton is out sick and the wolf has to play her part. He happily dons her apron, capelet, and bonnet (with the already pale and strange makeup, turning himself from a deranged wolf into a zombie Mrs. Claus) and we proceed with the show.
So, to clarify: there is now a guy wearing both a crappy wolf costume AND a crappy knock-off Mrs. Claus costume AT THE SAME TIME pretending to be a woman.

Moving on.
There were other strange artistic choices through the production that I just couldn't wrap my head around. A drummer toy, who had a broken arm and only one drumstick (the other one and the drum itself were the casualty of a what must have been a short-lived but particularly violent war), spent the entire show up on a pedestal conducting the other toys in their various songs and dances using his drumstick as a baton. Yet, when it came his turn to learn his true worth, it wasn't for his skills as a maestro, but for being a one-armed drummer. But! But! He already WAS a one-armed drummer! WTF dude!

The ballerina with a broken foot (who spent the entire show twirling on the one with the cast) learns that she is very good at making funny faces and the dancing bear who can't dance learns that he is an excellent comedian. Well, funny thing that, since they are both toys, I imagine they won't get to make faces or tell jokes to anyone since, you know, they aren't supposed to move! Wouldn't it have been better to teach the ballerina to twirl on her non-broken foot? (Which the actress can't seem to remember to do for love or money.) Or, this being a toy shop and all, actually fix the foot? Also, since the only reason the dancing bear can't boogie bis ecause his batteries ran out, you know, maybe insert new batteries?
I am going to ignore the rest of the toys because, let's face it, a good toymaker could have just fixed them all. Instead, Mrs. Tinkerton finally confesses that she keeps these broken, beaten toys in the back of the shop because she loves them best of all. Isn't there a word for someone who prefers consoling the sick instead of healing them? Munchausen by proxy anyone?

Thankfully, the show itself is short and ends, as everything must during the Christmas season, with a visit from Santa Claus. And while I want to put both preschool teachers on the naughty list for subjecting all of us parents to this little slice of madness, the kids laughed, sang, and enjoyed themselves immensely. They didn't notice the bad puns, the bad cross-dressing, and the even worse singing. But I did. Oh, I did indeed.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is There a Santa Claus?

At this time of year, my goal is to keep my children out of stores as much as possible. It isn't because they are whiners and beg for all that they see. Put them in a toy store, and they will simply ask for me to take pictures of stuff to put on their birthday or Christmas list, depending on which is closer. I'm always very proud of their behavior - which, because I am nothing but truthful here - is a direct opposite of their behavior in a bookstore, where they act like circus animals until they get a new book. Yeah, I created my own monsters there, I know.

Anyway, the main reason I keep my kids out of stores is all the explaining I have to do.

"Mommy, why doesn't our Elf look like that one? " (pointing to stacks of Elf on the Shelf boxes)

Those Elves are tricky bastards. Last year, a kid in my daughter's class told her she didn't have a "real" elf because he wasn't the standard issue one sold in stores (proving irrefutably that little girls are bitches pretty much right out of the cradle). This question was relatively easy - my daughter has a private, family nickname and our Elf references that name. The next one was harder, "Why do people buy Elves when Santa sends one to your house?" Hmph. I think my answer here was something about wanting the book that came with it, so people understood what to do when their real Elf arrived, and that the Elf included was just a stuffed animal. This of course led to a long discussion about what the elves do the rest of the year. (Just so you know, they work from February to November in Santa's workshop, are sent to spy on families for the month of December, then get January off. They like to vacation in Bali.)

"Mommy, why doesn't Santa bring toys to everyone?" (after listening to a Toys for Tots commercial)

Toys for Tots is an excellent organization and one that has received many a toy from me (especially if there is a Marine doing pushups in the front of the store. YUM!) However, in my son's world, Santa brings toys to all good children. Period. End of story. There are no parents involved. No money. No midnight sales or online shopping. Elves help Santa build all his toys at his workshop in the North Pole, then delivers them on Christmas Eve via sleigh and reindeer.

So, who, exactly, are these children who aren't getting any toys? As an adult, I realize that many situations can occur that keep kids from getting toys -but they all involve parents and/or money. But as a kid, the only way you don't get a toy is if you are bad. Luckily, the little guy got distracted and I didn't have to answer the question, but woe is me if my daughter gets hold of that train of thought. She's got a little streak of evil in her and would see the loophole immediately; i.e., if Santa doesn't bring you toys, then the people at Toys for Tots will, regardless of the good vs. bad question.

"Mommy, why are those stores so busy?" (in Toys R Us, buying a birthday present for a party)

See above about the Santa myth. No parents. No money. No shopping necessary. I told her there were a lot of birthdays in December.

And finally, "Mommy, we've seen six Santa's today. Which one is the real Santa?"

That one led to an explanation of how Santa has helpers, dressed just like him that he sends all around the world to keep an eye on kids and to visit with them to find out what they like and dislike. The helpers report back to the one true Santa. But then, to make sure they kept waving and giving all those hard-working Santas the respect they deserve, we told the kids that the real Santa does spot checks. He likes to nip out during his lunch break and randomly show up on street corners waving a bell, or at the mall to take pictures, or to preside over a breakfast at a firehouse. Today, he may decide to visit our town, tomorrow, he may be in Guam. Or Hawaii. Or the Netherlands. You never know which one could be the REAL Santa, so better be nice to all of them.

One day soon, Santa will be a mystery no more.

One day, some nasty child will share that he isn't real, or I'll slip and talk about buying a gift that was supposed to come from Santa, or she'll finally figure out that all the boxes that arrive in December aren't all for Daddy's job (a hide-in-plain-sight trick that still miraculously works), or she will catch us in the act of either moving an Elf or the gifts. I know that I'm tap dancing on quicksand trying to keep the magic alive for another year for my daughter and hopefully another few years for my son. I know that while I bitch and moan endlessly about the Elf, and all the running around I do during this season, that the magic of Santa really surrounds the entire family. I love hearing the kids giggle as they find the Elf in a different hiding spot every morning. The serious discussions about what Santa does with his time, the look of utter delight as Santa talks directly to them (via video), or when they receive a personalized letter from Santa in the mail. Their eyes really do shine, their faces really do glow. They really, really do believe. And I'll do anything in the world to keep that going as long as humanly possible, even if it does mean shopping at 3am on Black Friday or racing around like a lunatic the one day per week my son is in school til 2pm to get all everything on my list. Helping Santa may be hard work, but it really does pay off.

"A thousand years from now Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." - editor, The Sun of Chicago, 1897