July 30, 2015

Cinemascope: The Last Castle

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2001.

Plot line: When three star General Irwin is transferred to a maximum security military prison, its warden, Colonel Winter, can't hide his admiration towards the highly decorated and experienced soldier. Irwin has been stripped of his rank for disobedience in a mission, but not of fame. Colonel Winter, who runs the prison with an iron fist, deeply admires the General, but works with completely different methods in order to keep up discipline. After a short while, Irwin can feel Winter's unjust treatment of the inmates. He decides to teach Winter a lesson by taking over command of the facility and thus depriving him of his smug attitude. When Winter decides to participate in what he still thinks of as a game, it may already be too late to win. 

This is the second time I've watched this one, and seriously people, it is so, so good. Starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, and Mark Ruffalo, this is a really good story with superb acting.

You can see the movie trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a movie worth watching.

July 27, 2015

Recent Reads

84. Lumberjanes, Vol. 1 
This book collects Lumberjanes volumes #1-#4. A group of young girls are at camp, and there are badges to be earned. But all is not what it seems.

This young adult graphic novel for "hardcore lady-types" is a fun romp. I love that comics like this exist - ones that are feminist, embrace girl power and "friendship to the max", and showcase a variety of girls with different strengths. 

As an adult reader, I found the chapter introductions as to how one earns each badge more interesting than the story itself. I did not overly love the art either - seemed rather garishly manga to my eye. Still, I liked it enough that I'll continue reading the series (it has a page on Fibonacci!). This would make a fun gift for the middle grade girls in your life. Rating: 3 stars.

85. Crossing Midnight, Vol. 1: Cut Here
This fantasy/horror graphic novel story is set in Nagasaki Japan, and is an interesting mix of cultural memes. The story starts with the birth of twins - one born just before midnight, the other just after. Unbeknownst to them a promise their father made before they were born will have huge ramifications on the course of their lives. 

I liked this one. It has an interesting story line, introduced me to some Japanese mythology, and the art is good. This volume collects the first five issues of the series, and I plan to read the rest of the series. Rating: 3 stars.

86. Daisy Kutter: The Last Train
Have you read The Amulet graphic novel books by this author? If not, put this one down and go start there. 

I decided to try some of his other/earlier works, and stumbled on this one. This graphic novel is the story of Daisy Kutter, a retired bank robber and legendary gunfighter who has decided to open a dry goods store in the small town of Middleton. But giving up on a life of crime is harder than one might think, and when Daisy loses everything in a high stakes poker game, she is sucked back in. But all is not as it seems.

This graphic novel for young adults is a fun and quick read. The sketchy black and white art conveys the right level of bleakness for this story. I especially liked the section in the back of the book where the author walks through the multiple stages of graphic novel creation. Rating: 3 stars.

87. The Traveler (Fourth Realm #1)
This is the first book in the Fourth Realm Trilogy, and I picked it up because it has an interesting premise. Besides, the author lives off the grid? I'm so there.

Maya comes from a long line of people who call themselves Harlequins — a fierce group of warriors willing to sacrifice their lives to protect a select few known as Travelers. Travelers are people who can move between worlds (think quantum mechanics). Travelers have been people in history who have created world-wide movements, but they have all been hunted to extinction. Or have they? Enter Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, brothers who had a very famous Traveler as a father. Then there are the Tabula, powerful people who have hunted and killed all known Travelers and anyone who helped them. But we do live in a new age, and the Tabula has other agendas now.

How much privacy will we give up for the illusion of safety? Who has access to all that data that is collected on each of us whenever we go online? This story has been billed as a techno-thriller, and while I enjoyed all the action and themes explored, this did not live up to how awesome it could have been. The writing is not very good, the characters rather one-dimensional, and the plot predictable.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Scott Brick, and it was entertaining enough for summer walks, but I'm not sure I'd even have finished it if I had read it in print. Sadly, I'll be skipping the rest of this trilogy. Rating: 3 stars.

July 23, 2015

Cinemascope: Bloodline (Season 1)

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2015.

Plot line: The series focuses on the lives of the Rayburn family, who own and run a hotel in the Florida Keys. When the eldest son and black sheep of the family, Danny, returns home for his parents' 45th wedding anniversary, he quickly causes turmoil amongst the family who have a dark past–the death of one of their siblings when they were younger. When Danny gets caught up in the criminal world, he threatens to bring down his entire family and their legacy.

I've been binge watching this Netflix Original thriller-drama TV series. The acting is good, and my fave part might just be that Sissy Spacek plays the mom. If you like family dramas, in a lovely setting, give this one a try.

You can see the Season 1 trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a TV series worth watching.

July 20, 2015

Recent Reads

81. The Architect's Apprentice
This is historical fiction set in Istanbul in the time of the Ottoman Empire. I did enjoy the sense of place, what with slaves, harems, eunuchs, and a white elephant, and while the writing is not bad, I found myself rather bored with the story. So after 131 pages, I'm bailing on it. I really enjoyed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, but this one missed the mark for me. Rating: 1 star.

82. Shadow Divers
This nonfiction book lives up to its subtile: The true adventures of two Americans who risked everything to solve one of the last mysteries of World War II. 

In order to fully appreciate my review of this book, you need to know that I am not a World War II (or WWI for that matter) buff in any shape or form. Yes, I've watched loads of war movies, and was that person; the one asking are those the Germans or allies? Am I the only one who did not know that you could tell them apart merely based on their head gear? 

I had never even heard of this book until a I read a review by a Goodreads friend, Carol K. It sounded interesting, so I immediately got it on audio, which is wonderfully read by Michael Prichard, and started listening to it on my walks. I was immediately hooked. 

This story of deep water wreck divers stumbling across a sunken German U-boat off the New Jersey coast in 1991, and how they go about trying to determine its identity is a fascinating and gripping read. This is my fave kind of narrative nonfiction, and the cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission. I have always been fascinated by people who push their bodies and psyches to the extremes. I think it is their obsession that I admire - that single minded focus, damn the consequences. 

I learned much about many things, and plan to watch some U-Boat movies in the near future. The only reason this book did not get the additional star is because the writing is choppy and repetitive at times, but even if you are not a history-war-diving buff, check it out for a fascinating ride. PS. My audiobook had a short interview with the two main divers in this story which was quite fun. Rating: 4 stars.

83. Flight, Vol. 2
I've been dipping in and out of this collection of short graphic novels over the past week, and as with any anthology, some stories are way better than others. Still, I quite appreciated the diversity of artists and styles represented in this one. It is a much fatter book than Volume 1, and a stronger collection overall. Rating: 3 stars.

July 13, 2015

Recent Reads

78. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Book blurb: What is it like to be a child in the world's new education superpowers? In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

I listened to the audiobook well narrated by Kate Reading, and this is the second book by the author to receive a 5 star rating from me.

There are some fundamental questions one could and should ask about education:

1. What is the point of education?
2. Do we think education is important? On a personal level? On a national level?
3. What are educational best practices, and do we implement them in our schools?

This thought provoking book reads like a thriller, and I for one found this a fascinating read. Some interesting things to ponder:

1. Can a teacher teach something they do not know? If we believe education is important, then how is it that we don't tap the top 1/3 of graduating seniors and funnel them into education?
2. Does it make sense that athletes and celebrities get paid so much more then teachers? How would it be possible to recruit the best and the brightest talent, when compensation numbers are so skewed?
3. For learning to happen parents must be involved, and there is a huge difference between a parent-coach and a parent-cheerleader. It turns out that the mere act of reading to children has a huge impact on the child's test scores a decade later. Also, interestingly enough, the stats show an inverse relationship between a child's test scores and parental involvement in none academic activities (see # 5).
4. The best countries in the world have rigor built into the system; everyone from students, to teachers, to the media is bought in. Imagine how different it would be if there was as much emphasis and celebration of high achieving students as is currently placed on March Madness and the Superbowl.
5. If the main purpose of school is education, then we seem to be sending mixed messages to kids, what with high visibility sport programs, selling girl-scout cookies, etc. 
6. The practice of tracking is so very harmful to kids, and I know from personal experience that kids rise to or lower themselves to expectations set for them. So imagine a kid tracked into the "dumb" class in 3rd grade; sure it is not called that, but every student knows that is what it is. What message is sent to that kid? If we insist on tracking, do so much later - 16 years.

Sure, the PISA test is not perfect, but it is an interesting benchmark that shows how poorly US students do against the rest of the world. Sure, the USA is huge compared to other countries, but when we still have students who reach the age of 16 and have never heard the word evolution mentioned in school, how is do we expect our kids to compete in this globalized economy?

I grew up in a country and family where there was nothing more important than education. There were no mixed messages; everything else paled in comparison. As a freshman in a US college, it blew my mind that so many students seemed to have little grasp of some of the fundamentals of math and science. Imagine my shock and consternation when I taught for a couple of years in an urban middle school to learn that 7th grade is the first time that my students had ever encountered any "hard" science - it had all been cuddly animals til then. Most of my students had math and reading skills below grade level, and yet got promoted year after year. I've met many wonderful and competent teachers of course, but I've also met plenty of teachers who did not know the material they were teaching. I'll never forget the science teacher who did not know several of the answers on the 8th grade MCAS test. 

This book covers topics that are near and dear to my heart, and while no one country's education system is perfect, does it not make sense that we would learn from the best? We do that in business all the time, so why not in our schools? If you are an educator, parent, or interested in education, I would highly recommend this book. PS. Parents, there is an appendix with questions to ask about your kid's school. If nothing else, I think you'd find that most illuminating. Rating: 5 stars.

79. The Running Man
I save up all my unread Stephen King books for the summer. I get the audiobook, jack in for long walks, and love every minute of it. Summer does not feel like Summer until I have a King story playing in my head.

This book was written under the Richard Bachman pseudonym, and I do think it might be the first Bachman book I've read. Unlike the usual King tomes, this one is a much shorter book, and I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Kevin Kenerly.

First published in 1982, this story is rather scarily prescient of society today - turns out King does not have to find alien bogeymen to scare us, all he needs to do is look into his crystal ball 20 years into the future. As one might expect, humans have continued our downward spiral: the gap between the poor and rich is an unbreachable gulf, the environment is so degraded that the very air we breathe kills us, people are zoned out watching reality TV shows, and there is a terrible sense of apathy. 

Ben Richards has a very ill daughter, and no money for food, let alone medicines for his little girl. He decides to try out for one of the reality shows - if he gets selected, his family gets money. What happens next is part of the fun ride, so I won't spoil it for you. Speaking of spoilers, my version of the book has a introduction by King in which he drops a huge spoiler - so save that for the end. 

I remember watching the movie based on this book ages ago and plan to watch it again soon. If you are looking for a fun, political, social commentary, thriller of a ride, add this to your summer reads. Rating: 4 stars.

80. An Iranian Metamorphosis
Could a cartoon spark riots? One published in the children's section of the paper at that? Well, the modern reader is all too aware of how badly things can go for the artists and their publisher when some people take offense.

This is a wonderfully illustrated graphic memoir with a strong narrative arc, and the black and white art captures well the bleakness of the story. The author is an Iranian cartoonist, and when his cartoons do in fact start a demonstration, his life takes a Kafkaesque turn. One does not need to be turned into an insect for life to become horrifying and unrecognizable after all. This memoir is the story of what happened to the author, and is a stark portrayal of life under a totalitarian regime, especially for those who criticize it. The news often tells stories from a foreigners point of view, and I loved that this one is told from an insider perspective. Rating: 4 stars

July 10, 2015

Roxane Gay: Confessions of a bad feminist (Video)

Have you read Bad Feminist yet? The author reads the title essay from that collection.

When writer Roxane Gay dubbed herself a "bad feminist," she was making a joke, acknowledging that she couldn't possibly live up to the demands for perfection of the feminist movement. But she's realized that the joke rang hollow. In a thoughtful and provocative talk, she asks us to embrace all flavors of feminism — and make the small choices that, en masse, might lead to actual change.

If the embedded video does not work, click here.

July 7, 2015

Journal page

I've decided to simplify my journal and art supplies for the summer. You can see a video of my current kit here.

The page above was inspired by Graham Rounthwaite, another fashion illustrator whose work I really like. In the pic below you can see the supplies I used. 

Double page layouts are a little harder to do with spiral bound books, but I can live with that inconvenience for now.

The quote on the page reads: Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not in fact just surrounded by Assholes. (via Elizabeth Gilbert)

These pages were created with pen, watercolors, and a watercolor pencil. As always, click on images to view larger.

July 6, 2015

Recent Reads

75. Mr. G: A Novel About The Creation
I grew up with the first line from Genesis hardwired into my brain: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. This became an issue for me once I started learning about science. Well, this book is the scientific bedtime story version of the creation myth.

Mr. g (lowercase, and not once does the author use the word God), exists with his bumbling Uncle and crabby Aunt in the Void. What, you believe the Bible stories, but are going to questions this premise? Mr. g is bored, so decides to tinker and creates time, space, and matter (the quantum physics kind). Well, as any creative person will tell you, things quickly spiral (pun intended) in manners unforeseen. 

I loved the first half of this book - the science is accurate, and reflects current modern knowledge. As Mr. g stated many times, both inanimate and animate objects were subject to the fundamental three laws, and he was a mere spectator in what unfolded. I loved the dance of this creation story with that told in Genesis. I also appreciated the humor in adding Belhor and his companions to the story, but interestingly enough, I found myself rather bored once the intelligent beings appeared in the Universe. Yes, the story explores many of the philosophical questions that a self-aware mind conjures up, but I found myself not as enamored with the second half of the book as I was with the first. Still, this is a fun and worthwhile quick read, and the audiobook was well narrated by Ray Porter. Rating: 3 stars.

76. Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are
I'm a fan of the author, but if you've read his other books, there is nothing new in this one. If the last time you made any art was in Kindergarten, this might be the book for you. This little book, while delightful to peruse, seems rather like the author had all these journal pages, and decided to create a book around them. Check out of the library rather than buy material. I'd highly recommend two of his books - The Creative License and Everyday Matters - to anyone interested in being more creative. Rating: 2 stars.

77. Cairo
Book blurb: A stolen hookah, a spiritual underworld, and a genie on the run change the lives of five strangers forever in this modern fable set on the streets of the Middle East's largest metropolis.

If that does not suck you in, how about the first line: "So, today I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." Move over Dickens. This might just be the best first line ever.

This graphic novel is beautifully illustrated, has a really good story, and has some of the most creative curses I've ever read - I kept repeating them out loud while reading. Politics, mythology, human drama, philosophy, with some romance thrown in for good measure, this wonderful story is set in a part of the world we often only hear about on the evening news. I loved everything about it, and GWW is quickly becoming my fave woman graphic novel author. Rating: 5 stars.

July 3, 2015

Cinemascope: Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2014.

Plot line: A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, BORN INTO BROTHELS is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in Calcutta's red light district, where there mothers work as prostitutes. Spurred by the kids' facination with her camera, Zana Briski, a New-York-based photographer living in the brothels and documenting life there, decides to teach them photography. As they begin to look at and record their world through new eyes, the kids, who society refused to recognize, awaken for the first time to their own talents and sense of worth. Filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski capture the way in which beauty can be found even the seemingly bleakest and most helpless of places, and how art and education can empower children to transform their lives.

This is the second time I've watched this documentary. What I really love about it is that we hear the children's stories in their own words. Delightful and heartbreaking, this one continues to stay with me.

You can see the trailer here, or watch the entire documentary here. If you have yet to see it, this is a movie worth watching.