Baryshnikov At Work Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

If you have even the slightest interest in ballet, you’ve probably heard the name of the legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 and has lived and worked primarily in the United States ever since. First published in 1976, while he was still in his prime as a dancer, this big, coffee table book includes black and white photographs of 26 of Baryshnikov’s roles, taken during rehearsal, performances, and in the studio. Some of the pictures are higher quality than others, but there are many excellent ones. As someone who took ballet classes for many years myself but could not be said to be naturally talented, a bunch of them made me want to weep with envy over the perfect technique and form on display by both Baryshnikov and his partners. Also – not going to lie – some of them are sexy as hell. Heck, most of them. Dancers have the most beautiful bodies.

The photos are accompanied by text written by Baryshnikov himself (with Charles Engell France), discussing each role and some of the thought processes that went into his interpretation of it. I found this a very interesting peek into the mind of a great dancer, but it will likely be more interesting to people with at least some dance experience, as he does use some technical terms. Some of his comments are even pretty funny. For example, he describes his early efforts to prepare for “Pas de Duke” with Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison as “a cow on ice.”

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Buy at Amazon

John Denver Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits Album Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

John Denver is one of relatively few singers that both my parents like (their tastes are not very compatible at all in general – my mom is all about classical music and opera, while my dad’s favorite genre is 60’s and 70’s folk-rock), so we listened to quite a lot of him when I was growing up and he’s been one of my favorite singers for pretty much as long as I remember. This album is a fantastic collection and contains almost all of my favorite Denver songs (the main exception being “Grandma’s Feather Bed”), so it was a must-buy for me. I also managed to convert my husband and a bunch of his family members into fans, so this album is a regular in our car rotation, especially on long trips. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a special favorite for us, as it was the first English language song my husband’s nephew loved when he came to live with us in the United States, and he’d always get the whole car singing along.

I imprinted so hard on Denver’s music that it’s practically a part of me and it’s hard to consider it objectively enough to write a good review. He certainly has a pleasant singing voice, but I think the real magic is from his beautiful and evocative lyrics. He also handles a range of emotions very well – from the achingly romantic “Annie’s Song,” to the melancholy “I’m Sorry,” to the just plain fun of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I do think a few of the songs go on a little too long (“Sunshine on My Shoulders” in particular always stands out to me as a song that’s beautiful but should be about half as long as it is), but these are relatively few.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Puccini: La Boheme Album Review

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (5 / 5)

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (5 / 5)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Movie Review

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (5 / 5)

[Read more…]

Rascal Book Review

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.

Buy at Amazon

Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons

Buy at Amazon

The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons

Buy at Amazon

A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”

Lego Castle King’s Castle (70404) Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

I nearly bought this set on the spot when I saw it in Target for the first time. Lego Castle was my favorite theme as a child and King’s Castle reminded me so much of the great classic sets like Black Knight’s Castle that I grew up with.

As it was, I held out until, er, the next day. But near-impulse purchase or not, it’s not one I’ve regretted. It took my daughter a couple days of working on and off to finish and it’s one of her favorite sets to play with (along with her Lego Friends sets Olivia’s House, Summer Riding Camp, and Adventure Camper.)

King’s Castle comes with seven minifigs, plus a horse, and a bunch of cool features reminiscent of the classic Castle sets, like a working drawbridge, portcullis, and catapult. It’s a large set with plenty of room to add minifigs from other sets (and even themes – the Lego Friends girls and their horses spend a lot of time hanging around, as does the Golden Dragon) for more elaborate scenarios, and it also makes an attractive display piece.

Eventually, I’m hoping to get a whole medieval theme going with Medieval Market Village and Kingdom’s Joust, and this castle will be the centerpiece.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Lego Friends Summer Riding Camp (3185)

Buy at Amazon

Review:

My daughter isn’t as horsey as I was as a girl, but she loves animals in general, so this set ties with Olivia’s House as her favorite Lego Friends set. Like Olivia’s House, the compact design packs in a lot of cool details and she really enjoyed both building it and playing with it. Our only complaint is that a couple of the shutters were missing in the package (and I haven’t gotten around to requesting replacements from the Lego company).

Note: This set will soon be discontinued, so if you want it, now’s the time to snag it before the price goes up! Otherwise, check out Sunshine Ranch (41039)  as an alternative.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)