Perhaps Love Album Review



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Review:

This is a rather interesting collection of English pop songs as sung by the great Spanish operatic tenor Placido Domingo (my favorite). My mom had this album and played it often while I was growing up, so my feelings about it are colored by nostalgia. I know that some of my non-opera-loving college friends, for example, found the operatic technique a little overblown and Domingo’s accent too thick, especially in his rendition of “Yesterday,” while as a bit of an opera snob myself, I found some of the other songs not quite “worthy” of Domingo’s incredible voice. However, there are several songs on the album that are so knock-your-socks-off gorgeous that I have to recommend it. My favorites include:

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Puccini: La Boheme Album Review



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Review:

A brilliant recording of my favorite opera. La Boheme is one of the world’s most accessible operas for beginners. Nowadays, when opera is widely regarded as some sort of snobby, elitist thing, it’s easy to forget that 100 years ago opera composers and stars were the rock stars of their day. Puccini was one of the biggest, and when listening to La Boheme, it’s easy to see why. Seriously, every damn tune in the whole opera is hummable.

Like most great operas, La Boheme is a blend of the ridiculous (she’s dying of tuberculosis and she sings like THAT?) and the sublime. This particular album reaches more towards the sublime. Although Pavarotti wasn’t my favorite tenor, his voice blends beautifully with that of Mirella Freni as Mimi and Rolando Panerai as Marcello. The other performances are also top-notch.

Here’s the great love duet from Act 1: “O Soave Fanciulla”:

My rating: (5 / 5)

Macdonald Hall Series Review



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Review:

When I was about 12, my mom attended a reading conference where Gordon Korman was a guest speaker. She was so impressed, she brought home a bunch of his books. We read This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! out loud together, and my sister, brother, and I have been Korman fans ever since.

The incredible thing is that Korman wrote the novel in 7th grade English class, and it was published in 1978, when he was just 14. Although not as polished as his more recent works (the man is ridiculously prolific and has written more than 85 books total), This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! is shockingly good for a novel written by a kid, and absolutely hilarious.

The Macdonald Hall series revolves around two roommates at an all-male boarding school in Canada. Melvin “Boots” O’Neal is the more studious and well-behaved of the two; his friend Bruno Walton might best be described as a hurricane in human form. Despite their differences, the two are inseparable friends, but in the first book, the school’s headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka The Fish) decides that Bruno is a bad influence on Boots and decides to split them up. Wacky hijinks ensue as they try to get back together.



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It is exactly as bromantic as it sounds, up to and including sneaking out at night to meet up, but despite the powerful central bromance and the single-sex setting, the series also does have several fun female characters, including Diane Grant and Cathy Burton, two students at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the road, the grandmotherly Mrs. Sturgeon, and Miss Scrimmage herself.

None of the characters in the Macdonald Hall series is especially well-rounded or complex. In fact, many of the secondary characters are little more than a single characteristic come to life. For example, Sidney Rampulsky’s personality is “clumsy” and Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s is “obsessed with food.” However, the different personalities bouncing off each other make for lots of hilarious dialogue and misadventures, and despite their simplicity, you get attached to all the characters, from Bruno and Boots themselves to crazy old Scrimmage.

Although the series is currently out of print, copies of the books can still be purchased on Amazon and other websites. My favorite novels in the series include:



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This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!

The book that started it all. I recommend starting with this one, but the rest of the series can be read in pretty much any order.

Go Jump in the Pool!

Macdonald Hall keeps getting creamed in swim meets, so Bruno and Boots decide to raise enough money to build the school a pool. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The Zucchini Warriors

A wealthy former student donates the money for a fancy new football stadium, but unbeknownst to him, his star quarterback is secretly a girl! More wacky hijinks ensue.

Beware the Fish!

Bruno and Boots accidentally set off a police investigation into the activities of an operative known only as “The Fish.” Seriously, this series is basically the embodiment of “wacky hijinks ensue.”

Have fun!

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review



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Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

Book 1Book 2


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Book 3Book 4


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Book 5Box set


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My rating: (4 / 5)

Russian Music: Любэ

Review:

Любэ, most commonly transliterated as Lyube, is my favorite Russian band. I was first introduced to them in one of my college Russian classes, when a professor played their song “Не валяй дурака, Америка” (Don’t Play the Fool, America) for us. It’s all about how Alaska rightfully belongs to Russia and Catherine the Great never should have sold it to the United States, and it ends with them screaming about caviar in the background. It is, quite frankly, hilarious.

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That evening on the phone, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed it to my USSR-born boyfriend (now husband) and discovered that he not only knew the song well, but considers Любэ his favorite band. He recommended a few more songs to me, but this was years before the arrival of helpful sites like YouTube and I didn’t get the chance to really investigate them more until my semester abroad in Russia, when a compilation CD of their greatest hits was one of the first things I bought.

The band was formed in the final years of the Soviet Union and is led by lead vocalist Nikolay Rastorguyev. The other members include: Aleksey Tarasov (backing vocals), Sergei Pereguda (guitar), Pavel Usanov (bass), Vitaliy Loktev (keyboard, bayan), and Aleksandr Erokhin (drums). Many of their songs have military or patriotic themes (in addition to mine and my husband’s, Любэ is also apparently Putin’s favorite band), but they sing in several styles, including rock, folk, and ballads. My Russian is a little short of the vocabulary necessary to appreciate some of their songs in full, but the lyrics of those I can understand are often beautiful. (Though they have several humorous songs besides “Не валяй дурака, Америка,” it’s not their standard style.) I also love Rastorguyev’s voice, which can be both gentle and harsh.

Here are some more of my favorite songs. Note: I’ve done my best to find versions with English subtitles, but some of the translations are better than others.

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The Amelia Peabody Series

"I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing." Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons

“I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing.” Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons)

Review:

One of my favorite series! Though I had issues with some of the later books, overall this is an extremely fun and enjoyable historical mystery series, starring a female Egyptologist and her family in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. The mysteries themselves are mostly pretty good, but I love the series most for its humor. Expect to laugh frequently and loudly! The novels are among the most quotable I’ve ever read, from recurring catch phrases like “Another shirt ruined!” to Amelia’s pithy observations on life. (There are good collections of quotes here and here.)

Correction: I love it for the humor, and the characters. Amelia, Emerson, Ramses, Sethos, and the rest are larger than life, but so entertaining and (frequently) adorable that they’re irresistible. Reading about their latest adventures is like catching up with old friends. Amelia and Emerson in particular are rumored to be part of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones, as well as Rick O’Connell and Evy Carnahan in The Mummy.

Series author Elizabeth Peters, who died in 2013, had a Ph.D in Egyptology, so you’ll also learn interesting stuff about Egyptian culture and archaeology along the way.

Here’s the complete series, with my commentary:

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Dave Barry Slept Here Book Review



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Review:

As a lifelong history nerd, Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States is my favorite Dave Barry book. It’s the type of parody that gets funnier the better you know the original, and as someone reasonably knowledgeable about US history, I found it hysterical!

Though his use of footnotes doesn’t quite beat Terry Pratchett’s, definitely make sure you read them! I also enjoy the chapter headings. A sampling:

  • Deflowering a Virgin Continent
  • The Forging of a Large, Wasteful Bureaucracy
  • Deep International Doo-doo
  • Severe Economic Bummerhood
  • The Sixties: A Nation Gets High and Has Amazing Insights, Many of Which Later Turn Out To Seem Kind of Stupid

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review



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Review:

One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating: (5 / 5)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Movie Review



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Review:

I don’t think of myself as being a big fan of Westerns in general, but ironically enough, two of my all-time favorite films are Westerns. Since they both happen to be written by the same guy, it might be more of a William Goldman thing than a Western thing, but even so, I probably shouldn’t discount the genre quite as much as I tend to do.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my parents’ favorite movies and is probably second only to My Cousin Vinny in the frequency with which it’s quoted at family get-togethers. Based loosely on the lives of real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, it’s one of the greatest buddy comedies ever made, and is loaded from start to finish with laughs, mainly from its witty and memorable dialogue. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are in their prime, both as actors and heart-throbs (luckily, the film is color, so you get the full effect of Newman’s incredible baby blues), and there are also some enjoyable action sequences.

A well-deserved classic and must-see film.

My rating: (5 / 5)

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Rascal Book Review



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Review:

Rascal is the author’s Newberry award winning memoir of his experience raising a baby raccoon as a boy in World War I era Wisconsin. It is one of my mother’s favorite books, and one of mine as well. The writing is beautiful, and the adventures of boy and raccoon both funny and touching.

It will also give you new appreciation for the cleverness of raccoons, though beware of actually trying to keep one as a pet! Raccoons are wild animals, not pets, and keeping them as pets is against the law in many states. If you find an orphaned raccoon, make sure it actually is orphaned before you intervene. Sometimes mother raccoons leave their babies alone temporarily to gather food or take a nap. If you believe the raccoon genuinely is orphaned or injured, the best option is to contact a wildlife rehabilitation organization. If there aren’t any local organizations in your area, check out these websites for additional help:

My rating: (5 / 5)