The Glass Castle on DVD

Guest post by Laura

I was hesitant about watching yet another depressing movie about a dysfunctional family but the preview I saw while watching another Lionsgate film was enticing so I gave it a shot.

The Glass Castle is a 2017 movie based on the 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls. Brie Larson plays the author, Woody Harrelson plays her alcoholic father, Rex, and Naomi Watts is her passive, artist mother, Rose Mary. The family moves constantly due to Rex’s debts and run-ins with the law until they end up in Rex’s home town where a family secret is revealed. Rex and Rose Mary are both highly intelligent so the children end up faring well despite their lack of formal education.

Jennifer Lawrence originally signed on as the lead before becoming too busy. Larson was wonderful in this role so it worked out well. I thought all of the acting was great, including the child actors playing the Walls children at various stages.

It was amazing that young Jeannette Walls had the ability to perceive her household situation with the accuracy of someone far beyond her years. She seemed to be the pillar of the family. Despite all of the turmoil, she was able to finally find the shining moments in an otherwise turbulent family.

Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha

Guest post by Laura

This book title, Flat Broke with Two Goats, is one of the catchiest I’ve seen in a while. In this memoir, MaGaha finds herself in foreclosure due to self-admitted willful ignorance of the family finances, which her accountant husband oversaw. My favorite part of the book was the author’s move to Macomb, Illinois to teach at “the University”. I had visited a college friend at Western Illinois University in Macomb decades ago, and more recently spent the day there attending a business meeting for a different job so I was a bit familiar with the place. This section of the book was a bit like a mild version of Eat Pray Love, only with cornfields, a boxcar, and sweltering Midwest heat.

At times I found the author annoying in her unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions and for not thoroughly researching the care and feeding of her animals. I also would have found the cabin less disappointing and more potentially exciting. All of those acres of natural timber and a beautiful waterfall view? Sign me up! Sure, the house was a dump and there were poisonous snakes and wolf spiders, but the couple made the house hospitable with some improvements. As for the critters, I admit I would be treading carefully and somewhat anxiously because of the snakes, but I already deal with wolf spiders in my neck of the woods.

The couple went on to raise chickens and goats and slowly transformed from people who lived beyond their means into rural farm people living a simpler life. I liked how she found making yogurt and soap fulfilling. She realized she’s gone back to some of the practices of her ancestors on these same lands, minus the constant backbreaking work and potential to go hungry with a crop failure. I give MaGaha props for bravery in being brutally honest about her life, which must have been difficult. She’s an accomplished freelancer but in looking at her website it appears this was her first published book. I think she will continue to find maturity in her novel-writing voice with subsequent books.

audio version available through Overdrive

The Big Sick on DVD

Guest blog by Laura

The Big Sick is based on the true story of the early relationship between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani and Gordon fall in love, which is a problem because Nanjiani’s religion dictates that he must marry a woman of his faith in an arranged marriage. Gordon becomes seriously ill and falls into a coma shortly after they break up and Nanjiani and her parents are thrust into a tenuous exchange while they watch Gordon’s condition deteriorate.

I’ve had Muslim friends for decades so I am familiar with traditional customs and the cultural schisms that arise on occasion among Muslim children raised in American culture. This movie accurately captured the essence of such a divide.

Nanjiani portrays himself and actress Zoe Kazan portrays Gordon. They have a great onscreen rapport and quickly develop into amiable characters. Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher play the role of Nanjiani’s parents. Shroff humorously captures the zeal of an overeager Pakastani/Muslim mother who is persistent in her efforts to play matchmaker. Shroff and Kher deliver one of my favorite scenes in the movie when Nanjiani is leaving for New York.

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Gordon’s parents. Hunter is natural in her role of a woman who displays both her ferocity and tenderness as a mother. Romano’s understated, dry humor plays off of Nanjian’s quick and sarcastic wit.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello All!

How is your month of 1800s era reading going? Have you found anything particularly wonderful? Please share what you’re reading!

I, sadly, am not faring too well. I’ve tried a couple Victorian-times mysteries and could not get caught up in either one. Admittedly, I usually don’t read mysteries, so it’s not a big surprise that they didn’t work for me. I’m still searching, but I may decide to simply indulge myself a bit and re-watch some favorite Jane Austen movie adaptations. It sounds lovely (to me!).

If you’re still looking, here are a couple more suggestions for the 1800s.

A new book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Fitzharris Lindsey should be creepily fascinating. Medicine was still pretty primitive in the 1800s. It’s thanks to the efforts of John Lister that many, many more people didn’t die and that medicine advanced to much safer measures. Lister introduced anesthesia for use during surgery, pasteurization and a greater understanding of bacteria and infection. A fascinating, gory look at the history of medicine!

If you are having trouble untangling the manners and customs of Austen and Dickens and the Victorians of England, be sure to pick up a copy of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Danial Pool. This book is great fun, easy to dip in and out of or read cover to cover. All kinds of subjects are covered including society, fashion and the home. There’s also a handy glossary at the back to explain the more obscure (to us) terms like quadrille (a card game) or camel leopard (a giraffe). This book really helped me to understand primogeniture, a law which prevented the Bennet and Dashwood sisters from inheriting from their father. It also helped explain the restrictions and limitations put on women.

And now over to you – what are you reading this month?

A Ghost Story on DVD

Guest post by Laura

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play the main characters in this movie that is unlike any other I’ve seen. The music, lighting, and nonverbal actions are almost characters in and of themselves because of the scarcity of dialog. In stark contrast to the last several years of blockbuster films I’ve seen, (I live with action and adventure fans), this was so slow and subtle I can imagine many viewers, such as the one who sat next to me on the couch, and critics alike panning it.

It’s difficult to discuss A Ghost Story without spoilers so I’ll tread carefully in this paragraph but don’t read the last paragraph if you don’t want the ending to be spoiled. What begins quietly and ordinarily voyages into questions of the afterlife, the concept of time, and the human desire to leave a vestige of existence in order to not be forgotten. Affleck, as the main character would seem at first to have an easy job as the actor wearing the sheet, but as I watched, I thought it would likely be very difficult to convey emotion without the usual facial or hand gestures. He did well, showing surprise, sadness, and anger.

The final scene leaves us not knowing something I had assumed we would eventually learn. Open-ended conclusions frustrate many viewers and a Google search about this scene finds many viewers seeking the answer. I have my own thoughts about what happened but like this enigmatic movie, I’m not telling.

The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Guest post by Laura

Gardening and mixology are two hobbies in my household. I’m the gardener and my significant other is the bar-builder and cocktail-crafter. We both dislike drinks with inferior and artificial ingredients. This book seemed to be perfect for the two of us. In The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart provides historical and geeky botanical details about the plants around the world used to create drinks. She includes a multitude of cocktail, syrups, infusions, and garnish recipes as well. At home, we sometimes bring our personal copy of this book out to entertain our guests with trivia about some of the ingredients in the libations my S.O. creates and serves.

On a different botanical journey, Stewart tackles poisonous and intoxicating plants in Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Over the years I have found lily of the valley, pokeweed, and snakeroot (see page 213 about Lincoln’s mother) in my backyard. They’re all poisonous when ingested and I wear gloves when pulling the first two. Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ illustrations are gorgeous and perfect for this subject.

From the origins of current illegal drugs to the possible botanically-related cause behind the Salem witch trial, Stewart explores the varied use of plants, including as murder weapon, judge and executioner, recreational, and religious. She provides a list of poison gardens but didn’t include the one I unexpectedly visited on the Blarney Castle grounds in Ireland. It was fascinating. Stewart also name-drops some well-known historical figures along the way in this book.

I enjoyed Wicked Plants but I have one major complaint. I understand using the terms “wicked” and “evil” are provocative and great promotional terms, but I strongly disagree with that characterization. Just as a wolf or other predator is not wicked, but rather has a natural role in its ecosystem, these plants are creations of nature and they evolved these defenses against predators. They shouldn’t be villainized because people are using these plants in ways that are wicked or illegal in our human cultural context.

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

I stumbled upon The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd when scrolling through RiverShare OverDrive looking for my next read. I spend a lot of time commuting for both my work and my fiancé’s job. Having books easily accessible whenever I need them is one of the major reasons that I use the RiverShare OverDrive app available through the Library. (It sure beats having to haul a backpack full of books when a weekend work trip for my partner pops up at the last minute!) Anyway, I found The Innocent Wife on our last road trip and decided to give it a try.

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd tells of the burgeoning love between Samantha and Dennis. Their love isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and flowers though, as readers are quick to realize. Samantha lives in England and spends her time outside of work obsessing over the case of Dennis Danson. Dennis is a prison inmate who, over twenty years ago, was arrested and thusly imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl in Florida. Dennis’ case is full of mysteries as it comes out that multiple other girls disappeared in the same area around the same time. No one was ever arrested for those disappearances though, nor where any of the missing girls’ bodies found. Many residents of the area believe that Dennis abducted and killed the girls, but that police only had enough evidence to convict him of the murder that landed him in prison.

Dennis is now the subject of a true-crime documentary that has succeeded in grasping the attention of the  national media and social media. People online and in person have come to believe that Dennis was wrongly convicted and that they are the only ones who can uncover the truth. Samantha finds herself on these message boards and reaches out to Dennis to talk to him about his case. As the two communicate through letters, Samantha quickly finds herself wooed by his charm and kindness towards her. Uprooting her entire life, Samantha decides to travel to Florida, meet Dennis in person, and begin campaigning for his release.

As soon as Samantha steps out into the balmy Florida heat, she begins to feel uneasy. She continuously pushes her feelings to the back burner in order to put Dennis and the campaign for his release first. After all, everyone would have cold feet meeting someone in person for the first time, right? That would be awkward for anyone. Nevertheless Samantha decides to marry Dennis(NOT A SPOILER, GUYS! It’s called The Innocent Wife after all…). After they are married, major developments happen in Dennis’ case and Samantha is forced to face some uncomfortable realizations about both Dennis and herself. Her confidence in Dennis’ innocence begins to waver, but with the intense media scrutiny and their marriage, she still feels the need to stick by him. Samantha doesn’t know Dennis as well as she thought she did despite her initial unwavering support of his innocence. The more time she spends with Dennis, the more she realizes that she might not want to know the real truth about his past.

Give this book a read and let me know what you think. I had complicated feelings toward Samantha as a main character that almost made me want to read something else. There are also several other characters that both intrigued and slightly appalled me. I’m curious about your opinions.


This book is also available in the following format:

Girls Trip

Guest post by Laura

After several thought-provoking independent films, I wanted some entertainment that was sheer fun. Girls Trip was just the flick. Regina Hall, Queen Latifa, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish play lifelong friends who attend the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Truths are revealed, a blowout ensues, bonds are reestablished, and much drinking and mayhem ensue throughout. The movie might have been set in Las Vegas, as one popular male-friend-escapade movie was placed, but New Orleans was a fine choice for the backdrop of architectural eye-candy and no-holds-barred atmosphere of the French Quarter at night.

In the vein of Bridesmaids, the ladies at times abandon all decorum and end up in some hilarious and one super-disgusting situation. The women are all good actors but I adored Tiffany Haddish’s performance. Her character was quite dysfunctional but was so loveable, funny, and brutally honest, that I could see why the others would continue to be friends with her anyway despite her foibles.

There were some lessons about being true to one’s self and about the importance of female friendships but those were just backstory for me. The ladies just having a great time in each other’s company was what I enjoyed most.

Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.

Underground Books: American War by Omar El Akkad

Underground Books is a monthly book club that meets at 6:00 pm on the second Monday of the month at Main. We’re readers of books that are not typical book club fare – the subversive, the under-the radar, and the controversial. Every month, I’ll give a preview of what we’re reading, questions the book raises and start a discussion online for those who can’t make in person. Welcome to The Underground!

Hello readers! This month’s book is the 2017 novel American War by Omar El Akkad. Set roughly 60 years in the future in an America ravaged by climate change and a second civil war, it’s a story about the destruction of a nation, a family and a person by war. A cautionary tale that raises serious issues about our current national and global state of affairs, and what the future may hold. A heavy subject, yes, but worth the journey.

Opening in 2075,  the earth has warmed, the oceans have enveloped the coasts and submerged what little is left after increasingly severe storms batter the land. In response to multiple environmental disasters across the continent, the federal government – now based in Columbus, Ohio – bans the use of fossil fuels. The southern states defy the ban, and after a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the assassination of the president, the U.S. is again plunged into civil war.  This is a war of modern times –  out-of-control drones, homicide bombers, guerilla warfare, detainment camps and biological weapons deployed against an entire state.

The novel follows the Chestnut family of flood-prone Louisiana, displaced from their home by the Battles of East Texas to an overcrowded refugee camp on the border of Tennessee. Here Sarat Chestnut comes of age among the mundane cruelties of war.  She and her family – her older brother Simon, twin sister Dana, and mother Martina – try to make a life for themselves while waiting for the end of the war.  Sarat, already considered an outsider because of her tall and awkward build, grows rebellious and is befriended by a mysterious older man who once fought overseas for the North, or, at least, the North when the country was whole. He feeds her a steady diet of Southern mythos, sending her on a path to become an instrument of revenge.  As the narrator says in the prologue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

Assorted musings:

  • When I chose this book, I based it on, of course, the numerous good reviews it had received, and I was intrigued by concept. Given the current political climate, the possibility of another civil war in the U.S. has been raised more than once. What surprised me, however, was that the crux of the war was fossil fuels. I can understand the idea of Southern states objecting to the exercise of broad federal power, and a desire to protect mining and off-shore drilling, but what I noticed most was the absence of any mention of race or ethnicity. At the start of the novel, Sarat is described as having “fuzzy” hair, and that her father had immigrated from Mexico, but that’s the only mention of race in the entire novel. I suppose the argument could be made that by 2075, race is no longer an issue, but if we’re still arguing about red vs. blue and states’ rights vs. federal authority, I have a hard time suspending that disbelief.
  • The author is an award-winning journalist born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, now living in Oregon, and he reported extensively on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring. El Akkad’s journalistic expertise is apparent in this novel, as major aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are transported to America. In many cases, it’s a note-for-note transcription. I wonder if that works for everyone? While the purpose of the novel is, arguably, to create empathy for the very real wars happening now and to also serve as a cautionary tale, could the novel have taken more liberties? I don’t mean that it should have been a Hunger Games-esque battle royale, but something more adapted to the setting.

Quotes I would have underlined if it wasn’t a library book:

“How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Must have been around ’21 or ’22,” said Gaines.  “Around the time they sent us over there for the third time, right around the Fifth Spring.”
Joe leaned close to Sarat; he looked at the photograph again. “That’s right,” he said. “I remember, I remember when it was still your guns and our blood.” (p. 139)

She remembered something Albert Gaines once told her all those years ago in Patience. He said when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for, you can agree or disagree, but you can’t ever call it a lie. Right or wrong, he said, a man from our country always says exactly what he means , and stands by what he says.
Even that, it turned out, was a lie. (p. 278)

You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories. (p. 280)

What do you think? Let me know in the comments! And join us on April 9th at 6:00 at Main to discuss in real life! Next month, we’ll be reading Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – copies available at Main, or pick one up wherever convenient!

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