Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Reading, 2009 Edition

I can't believe that it is almost August, particularly since I don't feel like I have accomplished anything since summer started (other than the usual routine of classes and work). However, I have been able to do a lot of reading (scholarly and otherwise). Here are some of the best and worst books I have read for fun since the end of spring semester:

Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan - I read this book on the plane back from Nashville, and I found it enjoyable, even if it was a little uneven in places. Murnighan brings up some interesting points about the great books of western civilization, such as the parallelism found in the Bible. Furthermore, I like the argument that there are some passages in great books that need to be skipped. I remember getting into an argument with another English teacher who couldn't believe that my school didn't require students to read all of Walden. Looking back, I wish I had this book to use as my rebuttal.

Where the Girls Are by Susan J. Douglas - Okay, it is a bit of a stretch calling this "leisure reading" since I was planning on using this as part of my dissertation. While I didn't find anything that useful for my proposal or dissertation, Douglas's discussion and analysis of the portrayal of femininity in the media during the 1960s and 1970s was thought-provoking. Even when I didn't agree with her points, I had to acknowledge that she makes some convincing arguments.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs - This is my favorite book (so far) this summer. While I enjoyed Jacobs's first book, The Know-It-All, my very complicated relationship with religion made me reluctant to read The Year of Living Biblically, in which Jacobs chronicles the year he spent trying to follow all of the rules prescribed by the Bible. Luckily, Jacobs undertakes this seemingly overwhelming and somewhat provocative task with candor and humor. His honesty and open-minded approach to the experiment make this book accessible, informative, and entertaining, even for a skeptical person like me.

Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone by Douglas Brode and Carol Serling - The Twilight Zone (the original series, not the later incarnations) is a show that I almost always find entertaining and disturbing. This book looks at how Serling's views, foibles, and ideas helped shape and propel the various themes found in the show. Overall, the book was a good read, but it sometimes feels a little too reverent in its discussion of Serling, comparing his work with that of Frank Capra, William Shakespeare, and Edward R. Murrow. Although these comparisons are often justifiable, I got the impression that the authors were trying too hard to show Serling's genius and his considerable influence on television and American culture. In the end, perhaps letting Serling's work stand on its own would have allowed me to gain a better appreciation of it.

How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose - I really wanted to like this book, and I tried to read it numerous times. However, this is it. I officially give up. While Prose makes some valid points, I just couldn't connect with the book. There are so many other books about reading that I find more interesting and just as (if not more) informative that I can't justify spending anymore time trying to read How to Read Like a Writer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Nostalgia Critic

I am obviously late to this party (what else is new), but last week I found the website That Guy with the Glasses and I have been hooked. I am particularly fond of the Nostalgia Critic, in which Douglas Walker (aka that guy with the glasses) "remembers it all so [we] don't have to." As the Nostalgia Critic, Walker discusses and reviews popular culture from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly television shows and movies that are geared towards kids.

Although he not-so-gently mocks much of what he reviews (most of it with good reason - you try saying something nice about the tv series Full House), he is usually very fair and will acknowledge when a show or movie actually has a good joke or a funny moment. However, the real reason to watch his videos is to see how he mercilessly skewers some of the most memorable moments from childhood. Consequently, Walker combines some of my favorite things: 1980s/ 1990s kiddie pop culture (The Animaniacs! Christmas specials! Addictive theme songs!), humor, and ranting. It. Is. AMAZING!!!

For those of you who are not familiar with Walker, the ultimate place to start is Walker's hilarious analysis/ rant on Titanic - The Animated Musical. While I don't think I could ever watch the actual movie (it is basically a blatant rip-off of the James Cameron film with a rapping dog and cheap animation), this clip may be one of the most hysterical things I have ever seen:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Joys of Literal Music Videos

Thanks to the power of Facebook, I recently found out about the literal music video. While many of them are really bad (just try sitting through the literal versions of "Girlfriend" or "Bye, Bye, Bye" on YouTube), here are three of my favorites.

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" - this is a very screwy video, and even without the rewritten lyrics, it is pretty laughable.

"I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" - words can't even begin to describe how awesome this literal version is. Meatloaf watching the girl in the cup, the Kool-Aid man reference, the shot at Herbal Essences - all of it is mocked here for your listening and watching pleasure.

"Making Love Out of Nothing At All" - this may be my favorite one (it is a toss up between this and the Meatloaf video). Besides the delightfully bad 80's fashion, the singing is actually pretty good and the lyrics are very funny. However, the real winner is the hysterical imagined dialogue.

My favorite pieces of dialogue:
"I'll come back when you put on a shirt!"
"Stupid, stupid non-magic photo!"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: Show Me How

I've always been a fan of "how-to" books. I'm not talking about relationship guides or self-help books; instead, I like the practical how-to books that give advice on everyday scenarios. The only drawback for most of these books is that some tend to be heavy on written instructions and light on helpful illustrations. While some things, like making lemonade or preparing a steak dinner for four, do not need a lot of visual aids, other things, such as tying a certain knot or french braiding hair, need illustrated instructions.

The answer to this problem came in the form of Show Me How. The book's cover says that it contains "Instructions for life from the everyday to the exotic." This subtitle holds true, as the book covers everything from style (applying make up, wearing a suit) to food and drink (making a variety of cocktails, using chopsticks) to leisure and recreation (hanging a hammock). However, what makes this book stand out from the myriad of how-to books is that all of the instructions are illustrated. Although this might seem like a small addition, it is a genius move on the part of the authors. Not only do the drawings provide a much-needed visual tool, they also add a healthy dose of humor and whimsy, two ingredients that are often missing in the dry, pragmatic world of the how-to book genre.

The colorful illustrations and helpful subject matter make Show Me How an excellent gift for people just starting out on their own, such newlyweds and recent college grads. Furthermore, the book's quirky appeal and large size would make it an unexpected, fun addition to a coffee table. Plus, it is much cooler and infinitely more practical than a hardcover tome featuring Anne Geddes photos.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Web Site Story" from College Humor

Okay, you have to overlook the questionable lip-syncing and the somewhat flat ending. However, those issues aside, this is a pretty funny parody of West Side Story.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels

Like many things in life, I have a love-hate relationship with romance novels. While some of them are cheesetastic fun (the covers and titles alone can be hysterical), there is also a certain amount of shame that overcomes me when I stop to look at them in the bookstore or pick one up at the library. Are they just porn for women? Aren't they all just the same predictable story over and over? And aren't the readers just bored, uneducated housewives in the Peg Bundy tradition?

In order to answer these questions and to give some loving mockery to the genre's more egregious tropes (the covers! the secret babies! the eeevilll mistresses!), Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, the founders of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have written Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. This book is an extension of the website, in that it mixes intelligent analysis, humorous asides, and a good deal of snark and profanity in its discussion of romance novels. It is not unlike a book co-written by an English professor and the late George Carlin, and I mean that in the best way. At the book's strongest points, it is funny, candid, honest, and thoughtful.

Ultimately, one of the best attributes about the book is that the authors challenge the popular stereotype of the romance novel reader. In contrast to the book's illustrations of a frumpy, sweat suit-wearing housewife, the authors contend that many intelligent women (with jobs and advanced degrees) read romance novels. As Wendell and Tan state, "We're smart women with sharp intellects and a love of discussion and debate. And one does not cancel out the other. Romance novels do not make you stupid." To further the argument, they even provide a list of reasons why smart women read romance. My favorite reason is that "happiness is good. Emo may be chic. Angst is undoubtedly chic. Happiness is definitely not chic. But happiness is good." If this isn't a great defense of the romance novel and the happy ending, I don't know what is.

Despite their assertions that romance novels can be enjoyable and that some romances can be very good, do not mistake Wendell and Tan for fan girls who see any and all romances as equal. Besides acknowledging that there are some spectacularly bad romance novels gracing the shelves of bookstores, the two authors often scathingly ridicule some of the genre's insane cliches. For instance, when deconstructing the romance novel hero, they devote some time to the alpha (or alphole) heroes who do things that are less than noble. Wendall and Tan go so far as to offer a list of despicable acts by actual romance heroes. These acts include deliberately raping the heroine for a variety of inane and complicated reasons (most of them involving a revenge scheme that would make Rube Goldberg's head spin).

The only part of the book that fell a little flat was the section on "Controversies, Scandals, and Not Being Nice." Although the chapter addresses many of the recent issues that plague romance novels and the romance industry, such as the distinct lack of minorities and the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal that SBTB uncovered, the chapter's tone is a little jarring when compared to the humorous feel of the rest of the book.

This small quibble aside, Beyond Heaving Bosoms is an enjoyable and enlightening look at romance novels and the people who read them. If you love to hate (or hate to love) romance, you should take the time to read this book. It might just give you a new outlook on the romance novel or it might give you the courage to take that book cover and read your romance in public, embarrassing cover and all. Either way, it will definitely change your view of the genre and give you a greater appreciation for the books and their readers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Favorite Children's Books, Part I

Several days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed column on one person's take on "The Best Kids' Books Ever." Although I found the list to be pretty good (I definitely agree with the inclusion of Anne of Green Gables and Charlotte's Web), but like the 2,000+ commenters to the article, I have my own suggestions. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - I haven't had the chance to read all of the books in Baum's Oz series, but this one is so magical and filled with possibility that I don't know if I want to read the remaining books for fear that they won't live up to the first book in the series.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh - Although Pooh and his friends are perhaps best known because of Disney's continued reinvention of them (does the world really need a series where Tigger and Pooh are detectives? Really?) , the original stories (and the first set of Pooh films) are surprisingly funny and sweet, with just a touch of sly humor in places to keep the entire experience from getting too saccharine.
  • Mary Poppins - The Mary Poppins books might come as a shock to those who are only familiar with the Disney film. Unlike sweet Julie Andrews, the literary version of Mary Poppins is far from sentimental or soft. In some instances, she is downright scary. However, she keeps her charges (and us) coming back. She still has magical adventures, but she is decidedly tarter (and more complex) than the film suggests.
  • The Ramona novels - I was a pretty obedient child, but I lived vicariously through Beverly Cleary's rambunctious heroine. Ramona Quimby was an accessible, realistic character who had problems that most children could relate to, such as worrying about her family's financial situation or trying to get along with her older sister. I sometimes revisit the Ramona books, and they always make me smile.
  • Love That Dog - Sharon Creech's book of verse manages to combine allusions to great works of poetry while also maintaining the pov of a reluctant poetry student. Funny, charming, and surprisingly moving, this book is the perfect book for any child (or teacher) struggling to get through poetry.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Good Songs for a Rainy Day

With this constant rain, sometimes all you can do is embrace/ accept it. However, that doesn't mean you can't have an awesome soundtrack to go with it. Here are some rain-inspired tunes that might help you accept what you cannot change (even though global warming might just change things for us):

"Singin' in the Rain" by Gene Kelly - It doesn't get any better than this.

"Rain" by Madonna

"Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by B. J. Thomas - A random piece of trivia I learned from NPR: this was President Lyndon Johnson's favorite song. He would listen to it whenever he needed a boost, and the song was part of the tour of the LBJ Ranch at one point.