Breaking Away

breaking awayThere’s lots of bicycling in the news this week – RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is at the halfway point and the Tour de France will finish on Sunday (can Lance Armstrong pull off his comeback?) Keep the bicycling theme going and check out the movie Breaking Away, one of the best sports movies ever made.

Set in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, four friends are caught in limbo after finishing high school, not know what they want to do next. The college kids derisively call them “cutters” (for the stone quarry where most of their blue-collar fathers work). Dave escapes into his dream of becoming a bicycle racer for the world champion Italian team by training rigorously and even learning to speak Italian (much to his father’s chagrin). After one dream is shattered, an unexpected opportunity opens when a local team (the “Cutters”, led by Dave) is allowed to compete in the famous Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. What follows will have you cheering for what’s possible against impossible odds.

Loosely based on a true story (there really is a Little 500 race at Indiana University) this heartwarming (in the best sense) movie is more than a story about a bicycle race – it’s also about family and home, about loyalty and friendship, about accepting and embracing change, about finding your perfect place in the world. Beautifully acted (Dennis Christopher, Paul Dooley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie) this inspiring film will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

Enchanted April on DVD

Enchanted AprilLong available only on VHS tape, Enchanted April has finally been released on DVD. Fans of beautiful scenery, charming stories and happy endings rejoice!

Two middle class English housewives, feeling downtrodden and forlorn, decide to rent an Italian villa for the month of April. To help with expenses they include two strangers – an elderly woman and a beautiful socialite. Leaving England in the rain, they are somewhat discouraged to find it still raining when they arrive in Italy, but the next morning reveals the countryside in all its beauty.  Soon the sunshine, warmth and quiet solitude work their magic; friendships are forged, marriages healed, memories made.

This is a light – and yes, enchanting – movie filled with humor and heartfelt stories. It is beautifully made (filmed on location in Portofino) and the cast is stellar (Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence) This is the perfect ancedote to a hectic or rainy day, or any day that you just want to feel good.

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

belong-to-me

Having grown up in Philadelphia and lived in New York City, Cornelia Brown believes the suburbs will be a piece of cake. Turns out the slice of the American dream that Cornelia and her husband Teo move to is just as full of drama, heartache, secrets and joys as anywhere else.

Early on in Belong to Me, Cornelia struggles to find a place among the women and families of her new neighborhood. When Piper, the “leader” of the local social network, takes an instant dislike to her, it looks like things will get ugly. But then by chance Cornelia meets Lake, also new to the area and they begin to form a bond. Not everything is as it seems – we learn that Piper is caring for her terminally ill best friend and is not quite the dragon she presents to the world, that seemingly perfect marriages have cracks and that Lake has secrets that will affect them all.

de los Santos writes about the daily living with family and children and events both large and small with grace and clarity, but she is especially good at revealing the intricaces of the friendships of women; there is a lot of emotion here, but no sentimentality. Characters are complex, with flaws, but also hugely likeable, people that you’d like to know and have over for coffee.

This is a follow-up to de los Santos first book, Love Walked In where we first meet Cornelia and Teo and learn how they got together.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

snowflowermedIn today’s  world the main character in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would perhaps be categorized simply as a “senior citizen”. In Lily’s unforgiving world at 80 she is known as “the one who has not yet died”. Pretty telling about how the elderly and or women are portrayed in this story. Lily tells her challenging life story and what it was like growing up female in a 19th century Chinese village. Women in particular at this time lived excruciatingly difficult lives. Their feet were bound rendering them all but crippled yet was neccessary to procure a husband. They were married off and forced to take the position of lowliest person in the household. Essentially, women were deemed responsible for anything that was bad or went wrong in their culture. Although their customs, folklore and traditions were fascinating, this was a difficult read at times.

I was amazed at how these women managed to survive such physical and emotional hardships. A beautiful way in which they escaped was through the ancient art of women’s writing called nu shu. Some young girls participated in a sort of arranged friendship called laotongs through which they communicated in this secretive fashion – writing on fans, in letters or embroidering handkerchiefs. Snow Flower and Lily had just  such a relationship in which their remarkable lives are chronicled through their nu shu correspondence.

Explore Darwin in Fiction

evolution-of-janeHave Darwin’s birthday celebrations piqued your interest in natural selection and evolution? One painless way to learn about a complex subject is to explore it through fiction.  A funny, easy-to-read example is The Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine. While on an ecological tour of the Galapagos Islands, Jane  begins to apply Darwin’s principles to her own relationships – in particular, the unexplained break with her childhood friend, who(coincidentally!) is leading the tour.

Barbara Kingsolver calls the book  a “beautifully descriptive travelogue of the Galapagos, loaded with mini-lectures on natural history, evolutinary theory and Darwiniana, wrapped around a rollicking family saga tinged with hints of sexual intrigue….My hat is off to any writer who can render such complex ideas comprehensibly in English…”