Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mini Reviews: "Bossypants," "Goodnight June," "The Catcher in the Rye" & "Bunnicula"

My, oh my, where did the summer go?! I've read tons of books in the past couple months but have been a total slacker about writing reviews. (You can blame our unusually mild weather and my ridiculously comfy hammock for that!) My cheater's solution? Some mini book reviews! (Part 2 coming soon.)

"Bossypants" audiobook by Tina Fey
First publishd in 2012
My rating: 4 out of 5
After hearing a few people rave about it, I listened to the audiobook version of Tina Fey's memoir. It was smart, funny and witty, and it was really enhanced by the fact that Tina voiced the audiobook. It's got everything from awkward childhood stories to bad dates to Tina's stint as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, with some feminist and be-true-to-yourself undertones. Definitely worth a listen if you like Tina Fey, SNL, funny stories and/or celebrity memoirs.

"Goodnight June" by Sarah Jio
First published in 2014
320 pages
My rating: 3 out of 5
I was really excited to read "Goodnight June," a novel that involves old letters, an independent children's bookstore, Seattle, family secrets, and a little romance. Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a quick, easy, light read. But something about Jio's writing style bothered me, and I also didn't love June, our protagonist. It reminded me a little bit of "You've Got Mail," but not as good.

But still. This novel is worth a read, and I did like the plot. It reminded me of something I'd write if I were an author. June has a fast-paced and stressful life as a bank vice president in New York City. When her aunt dies and leaves June her Seattle bookstore, June immediately knows she'll sell it. But once there, she discovers a scavenger hunt her aunt has left for her in the form of letters between herself and children's book author Margaret Wise Brown (of "Goodnight Moon" fame). The letters may help June save not only herself and her fractured relationships but also the struggling bookstore.
"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
First published in 1951
277 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5
"The Catcher in the Rye" is a classic, and as such I expected it to be dry and hard to get through. But instead it was interesting and quick and easy. Salinger did a masterful job giving our narrator -- 16-year old Holden Caulfield -- a distinct voice, and I really felt like Holden was sitting next to me, telling his story (which is about the few days he spent bumming around New York City after being kicked out of boarding school -- again). It's definitely more of a character-driven tale, but Holden's worldview is so fascinating and real that I didn't mind that it wasn't action-packed. This is one classic everyone should read, teenagers and adults alike!
"Bunnicula" by James Howe
First published in 1979
My rating: 4 out of 5
This was a childhood favorite of mine. I see it all the time at work and checked it out on a whim one day this summer. It's a super-fast, adorable read and I remembered why I liked it so much as a kid (I'm sure my obsession with rabbits factored in, too). Narrated by Harold the dog, "Bunnicula" is about a vampiric rabbit adopted by the unsuspecting Monroe family. Chester the cat is on to Bunnicula and makes it his mission to rid the house of vampire-bunnies! 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Review: "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver
First published in 1998
543 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5
(image source)

"The Poisonwood Bible" is long and complex and daunting and a bit hard to get into -- but I'm so glad I stuck with it because this riveting, lyrical novel is one of the best I'll read this year.

Kingsolver takes us on a journey to "darkest Africa" in 1959 alongside American missionaries -- the poor, unsuspecting Price family of Georgia. Wife Orleanna and her four daughters have been dragged to Africa by their patriarch Nathan, a fiery evangelist hell-bent on baptizing every child in the Congo.

The Prices could hardly have picked a worse moment in history to go to Africa. It's a time of political unrest, upheaval and corruption as the Congolese gain independence from Belgium only to fall under an even worse dictatorship. Poverty, disease and hungry bellies rule the day as all of the Congo's abundant natural resources are trucked out daily, putting money in the pockets of white Europeans and Americans.

It's intimated from the very first page that tragedy and disaster will befall the Price family. Tensions rise so much and so quickly that I was captivated waiting for the bottom to fall out -- and indeed it does. We're with the Price girls as they pack to leave Georgia for the unknown, as they witness their father's catastrophic failure to gain the trust of the local villagers, when a horrific event splits the family apart, and eventually on into adulthood where we can see the unique and lasting effects the Congo had on each woman.

I found Kingsolver's writing to be superb -- beautiful, lyrical and full of voice. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different Price daughter and Kingsolver infused so much personality into each passage (including clever, deliberate misspellings like false-eye dolls instead of false idols). And the author's descriptions of the jungle -- from its flora and fauna to its plagues to its people -- was immersive and fascinating.

"The Poisonwood Bible" centers around a dark time in Africa's history, a period that seems to have been meticulously researched by Kingsolver. I love novels that can teach me something, and this book certainly fits the bill. I read "The Poisonwood Bible" with a reading buddy from Goodreads and it was wonderful to be able to share my thoughts and gain insight from her perceptions and viewpoints. This is the kind of complex novel that will likely mean something a little different to every reader, which would make it an excellent book club pick.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Exploring Ohio: The Mansfield Reformatory (filming site of "The Shawshank Redemption")

From the outside, you'd never guess this chateau-like Victorian structure is actually a historic prison! The Mansfield Reformatory was open from 1896 to 1990. It's hard to believe prisoners were still housed there 25 years ago... it's pretty dilapidated!

"The Shawshank Redemption" was filmed at the prison and it was pretty cool to see a few film sites from the movie. A cell block movie set was constructed in a nearby warehouse because they wanted the cells to be facing each other across a hallway, but the rest of the prison scenes from the movie were filmed at the Mansfield Reformatory. Parts of "Air Force One" were filmed there too!
 A peek at the warden's quarters.
So many different layers of paint and wallpaper! Kind of a pretty tableau. It's so strange to think about a family living at the prison.
 This room was used as the warden's office in "The Shawshank Redemption." Above is the warden's safe, and below is his desk.
"Brooks was here. So was Red."
And now we start to get to the creepy stuff. You can see why the reformatory is popular with ghost hunters!
This block held 1200 prisoners in 7x9 cells.
This room was set up like it would've been for prisoners, but most of the cells were dark and empty with just metal springs for beds, peeling paint and toilets and sinks in various states of disrepair. There was a bit of an eerie air to the cell blocks, especially when you imagine all the awful things that must have happened there.
A bit of irony. There's no exit for the prisoners!
In case my job at the public library doesn't work out...
This is the prison's original cell block. Eventually these were considered the cushy accommodations given to favored prisoners because the cells were slightly bigger.
Katie with Andy and Red.
This is the movie prop tunnel that Andy climbed through to escape.
And we'll end on this pleasant note, a replica electric chair. It gave me the willies -- and it wasn't even used for any executions!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Smoky Mountain National Park: Bears, Waterfalls, Relaxation

Back in May we took a long weekend getaway to one of our favorite places, Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. Other than sitting on a stunningly beautiful mostly-deserted beach on Kauai, I've never felt more at peace than in the Smokies. There are rivers everywhere, and this time we stayed in a historic cabin that was directly situated on Roaring Fork River. Falling asleep to the rushing of the water every night was such a treat. I meant to post these pictures a few months ago, but better late than never!
We were lucky to see a black bear happily minding his own business while we were hiking back from Grotto Falls. It was the most exciting part of our trip by far! Last time we visited the Smokies we glimpsed a bear in the middle of the night when he was attempting to raid the trash can at our cabin, but it was thrilling to see a bear during the day, not that far off the trail.
Roaring Fork Motor Trail and Cades Cove boast tons of historical structures.
Cades Cove. We like to bring a picnic lunch and find a scenic spot to stop and eat while we're driving around the beautiful loop.
I was hoping to spot some wildflowers on our trip. We didn't see a ton, but I was thrilled to find this pink lady's slipper. What a cool flower!
We did the 5-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls and I definitely recommend it. The falls, while only 20 feet tall, are stunning in their pure volume of water.
One of a couple old grist mills in the area.
We rode the Gatlinburg Sky Lift -- what a fun time! While I wouldn't suggest bringing dogs or infants on the lift like some people did (!!) it was a fun and relaxing little diversion. The views from the top are great.
One of Jarrod's goals for the trip was to catch a rare brook trout. Rainbow trout are stocked weekly and are fairly abundant, and brook trout are all native and much more elusive. Jarrod ended up catching four or five -- and of course he let them all go. They're such pretty fish -- I love the red and yellow speckles!
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