Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happiness is...a book that makes you think.

I think I've mentioned my love of books at least a million and a half times so far but I have yet to do a book review. It's high time I changed that!

I've adapted my format from various book blogs I've followed as well as my own wants/needs in what I look for.  I know a lot of people hate the rating system (3 of 5 stars and so forth) but I find it really helps me get a quick grasp on the overall impressions of the book.  I trust the opinions of most of the people I follow and odds are if they didn't like it, I probably won't like it. Same goes for the movie rating idea.  I hate getting part way through a book someone has ranted and raved about only to find a horrendously gratuitous sex scene or having to skip and skip and skip all the blatant swears. (That's not to say I won't read a book that has either of those things, but if I know going into it where things stand and if it's a vital part of the story vs. in it for supposed shock/coolness factors then I have no one to blame but myself.)   And I am a firm believer in judging a book by its cover (as I've mentioned before.)  So, you get the pertinent info for tracking the book down on your own, my general opinions on the cover, my overall opinion of the book as a whole and approximately what it would be rated based on its content followed by a brief synopsis and some thoughts.

Now without further ado, here goes!

Author: Neal Shusterman 
Pages: 335
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2007
Genre: Sci-fi
Cover Score: **
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG-13

The year is some unknown point in the future and the world has evolved scientifically, especially in the biological  field.  There are some leftovers from the modern age (ipods are mentioned as relics but there's no mention of what has replaced them) but other than some changes in government and the medical field most things are pretty much the same as we know it now.  
Several years earlier there had been an all-out war waged between 2 factions; the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers.  The military/medical fields were called in as a supposed neutral third party during negotiations and submitted an idea that they assumed would make both sides see the ridiculousness of their arguments.  Instead, they all jumped at it as a brilliant solution and the Bill of Life was adopted, outlawing fetal abortions.  However, parents were given the opportunity to 'unwind' or retroactively abort their children anywhere between the ages of 13 and 18 if they so chose. Unwinding entailed sectioning off each and every piece of the person for use in accident or disease victims as well as cosmetic/plastic surgery. A sort of extreme organ donor program where not one cell goes to waste.  The idea being that the individual was not killed but rather continued to live on in small part in each of their recipients.  Thus there was still the population control needed, choice involved, but no actual murders being committed.  Or were they?
The story revolves around 3 characters who, for various reasons, are being unwound. 15-year-old Conner is basically a juvenile delinquent.  His parents no longer know what to do with him and decide the best course is to have him unwound.  Risa is a talented pianist but a ward of the state.  With funds shrinking there is not enough room to keep everyone and while talented she isn't exceptional enough to become truly profitable so she is also being unwound.  Lev, on the other hand, has known of his impending unwinding practically since birth. His family belongs to an extreme religious sect that believes in tithing.  He is the 10th of 10 children, bred specifically for the purpose of being unwound as part of the family's gift to God.  His life has been celebrated and honored by all who know him and he is proud, though a bit nervous, of his impending unwinding.  The 3 lives intersect when the bus carrying them to the harvest camp crashes.  They have very different attitudes  and understandings about what is going to happen to them but all find themselves thrust into survival mode, running for their very lives from police, family and religious leaders.  
They end up finding people who help them to an illegal compound (along an Underground Railroad of sorts) where they are given jobs and opportunities to live until they are 18 and free to venture out into the world again.  But there are conspiracies and rebellions even in their small society and the kids eventually are caught in the cross-fire and find themselves again on the road to being unwound. Each, in very different ways, rises up and stands for what they believe while learning to help society as a whole, think of others and think for themselves.

The ending isn't necessarily a happy one but it is a satisfying conclusion. None of the main characters end up being unwound, but they are also no longer whole.  There is deep physical and emotional damage and yet because of their pains they are more alive than they have ever been. They all still have problems, some might argue that they have more than they started with.  But they've helped  to set about making change in their society, change for the better.
The moral arguements abound as you meet characters from each side of the line throughout the story.  What constitutes death?  What is the definition of a soul? When does life officially begin; at conception or birth or somewhere in between? If all the pieces of a person still exist, does that person still live? What happens to that person when the division is complete? Do they linger in a post-world limbo?  What does that mean for the religious who believe in heaven and hell?  Does the soul move on to one of those states?  If it does then doesn't that mean that person is dead, has been killed? Or do they dwell in a permanent purgatory, never able to progress or end?  

Even with my own religious understandings there were a lot of questions running through my mind and areas of ambiguity. And I'm always amazed at the cunning deception that can lead people to have so little value for human life.  The arguments are often very convincing and without a bit of knowledge and/or faith, you can almost see the truth in what is being said. 

This isn't a book I will probably ever read again but I am glad I read it once.  It was well-written, thought-provoking and emotionally gripping. (I prefer my re-reads to be a bit more on the light and fluffy side!) But if you're looking for something that makes you question what you know and understand,  or one that makes you appreciate our own (imperfect and seriously flawed but infinitely superior) society, look no further than this chilling yet hopeful read.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Happiness is...a beautiful violin piece.

I have a love/hate relationship with the violin.  I am by no means a musician or music expert, I only know what I like.  And very rarely do I like the violin.  Most people (no offense to anyone I know who plays, you are far more talented than I could ever hope to be) just don't have the right touch and instead of pulling tunes and melodies from the strings it is more like pulling teeth.  There's a bit of the dying cat quality to it, if you know what I mean. Few notes are strongly hit straight on but everything is slid into and over and on and around; like a wailing banshee or stuck pig or fingernails on a chalkboard.  Sometimes it's all I can do to sit still in a performance without squirming or running out of the room with my fingers in my ears.

Usually I only suffer during solo pieces.  In a symphony or orchestra piece there are enough other sounds going on that the screeching blends or is covered up and so the agony isn't the same.  And it's only violins.  Fiddles are a completely different story.  I love me a fiddle! The difference being that fiddles are played so fast and rambunctiously that the precision isn't needed in the same way.  It's the drawn out, slow, mournful pieces so often given to the violins that are the worst offenders.

However, the rare artist comes along every now and again who can play a violin in such a way that it brings me to tears.  Not tears of pain and anguish, but tears of awe and joy and respect for beauty and talent and truly God given gifts.  One of those artists is Itzhak Perlman. Everything he does is precise and accurate and so incredibly spot-on that he honestly makes me weep.  I had the privilege of seeing him live at the Kennedy Center a year or so ago and his performance was breathtaking.

Here's just a tiny sample of what he can do...

Even with the speed and all the high notes there is absolute precision.  There is no sliding, no whining, no screeching to be heard.  Just clear, individual notes.  And he plays this way consistently.  I love it!

Well, today in Sacrament Meeting we had the pleasure of hearing Jenny Oaks Baker and her daughter do two musical numbers for us. (For those of you who don't know, she is the daughter of Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)  Her daughter Sarah was darling, about 7 probably, and played the cello beautifully (somehow the cello isn't nearly as offensive as the violin, I think because of the lower register, the opportunities for squeaking are much more limited....regardless, she is a VERY talented little girl.) She played a lovely rendition of "Our Savior's Love" that had all of us smiling and uplifted. And then Jenny played "I Need Thee Every Hour" and I was moved to tears and awed at being in the presence of one with such an amazing gift.  I can't vouch for her continuity and consistency as a performer, I've only heard her on recordings a handful of times, but her performance in our simple church meeting today was incredible.  Not only her talent but the spirit with which she played was like a testimony in music.  You could feel her conviction of the truthfulness of the message of the song, despite the fact that there were no words vocalized.  It was an amazing meeting.

Here is a sampling of what she can do.  I wish I could have found the song she played for us today but this will have to suffice.

I'm grateful to the Lord for blessing people with such great gifts and to the people blessed with them for nurturing them and sharing them with the rest of us who aren't quite so gifted!  And for the variety of ways we have to recharge our batteries, feel uplifted, praise God and touch others.  Hope you've all had a splendid Sabbath.

How could I be so remiss?  I didn't give you any fiddle music to listen to.  What was I thinking?  Take a gander at these fellas.  Man I love me some bluegrass!  Look at those fingers fly!


The end

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Happiness is...a good yarn!

The story kind, not the knitting kind.

After a rough week (not on my end this time, thank goodness) a few friends and I went out to dinner and then to see the new Jane Eyre movie (eh-nicely done until the end when it is abruptly over without enough closure...but moving on) and then out for dessert.  While trying to distract my roommate, 'M' from her miseries and get her to stop crying (though she had really good excuses), my friend 'P' and I began to tell a story each telling a sentence or so at a time. Funny enough, it did the trick.  While the rest of us had tears streaming down our faces, 'M' was dry eyed and shaking her head at us all.  Good times.

Care to hear the story? No? You're in luck. There's no way I could remember it all.  But here are the highlights.

Once upon a time...

Due to an unfortunate case of lactose intolerance, our nameless young heroine is unable to partake of poutine (a Quebec-ian french fry concoction covered in gravy and cheese) with her friends and instead finds herself being whisked off to 1873 (over the rainbow bridge, past the swirly twirly gumdrops) with a French waiter-turned-pilot named Captain who has a magical fake eye made of walrus tusk (which can see into the future but not to the left) and wears a poufy white shirt and bears an uncanny resemblance to Colin Firth.  After their jet crash lands and the heroine kung-fus her way out of the wreckage they meet the walrus  looking for his tusk and revenge.  Captain whips out his trusty magical matchbook which grants wishes to the person who wishes at the exact moment the match is struck.  The walrus, knowing the trick, wishes Captain dead.  The girl, stunned and standing over the dead body of her supposed beloved, then wishes that the walrus had never existed and eventually flies home with the Delta pilot who'd been on board the plane the whole time but knocked unconscious (and is also mysteriously named Captain.)

The end.

More or less.

Yep, our ending was about as abrupt and unsatisfying as the ending of Jane Eyre.  But the middle had a lot of good bits, eh?  Okay, so it was pretty terrible.  But I haven't laughed that hard in a long, long time.

Who says you have to be drunk to enjoy yourself on a Saturday night?

P.S. My goal had been to try and post one of my photos with each entry but I really have nothing that could do this justice.  This will have to suffice...feel free to swoon!

(image courtesy of

Hope the rest of your weekend is filled with a bit of silliness, some tear-inducing laughter and great friends.  Sweet dreams all!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happiness is...a package in the mail!

There's something magical about the possibilities contained within a plain brown box or mailing envelope.

I love to speculate for just a moment or two before ripping into the thing about just what might be inside (yes, I do this even when I know what is inside, somehow most of the magic is still there!) It's akin to the excitement you feel coming across in the old song from The Music Man where they sing about the Wells Fargo Wagon.  It could be something as banal as a magazine, a bundle of letters, tickets to something or someone you've been longing to see, homemade goodies from a loved one, a semi-selfish splurge of something fancy yet frivolous, or (and this is my dream and I have this book to thank for it) even a penguin!

While I'm not looking for raisins from Fresno or a cannon for my courthouse square (though how cool would that be!?) "It could be something for someone who is no relation [packages for my roommates are almost as much fun] but it could be something special just for me!"**

Almost as exciting as getting a package however, is sending one off.  I love to put together fun little surprises to (hopefully) boost someone's day; cards, candy, silly toys and totally unnecessary items as well as little things I know the givee will love and appreciate.  I love the anticipation of waiting to hear back about how it was all received.

Just take a look at some of the goodies that came (and went) through my mail this past week...

Some I ordered for myself (James Roday, I'm looking at you!), some were sent to me and some I sent off to others.  But each one did their part to make my day a little bit brighter and add a tiny bit of excitement to my generally humdrum existence.

What's the most exciting thing you've ever gotten in the mail?  Are you expecting something soon?  Have you ever sent something absolutely wonderful to someone else?

With the art of letter writing a quickly dying art thanks to email and skype and all, packages are the best things to come to most people's mailboxes anymore.  (Hmmm, handwritten letters need a post of their own I think.  Love, love, love getting letters in the mail too!)  So, give your mail person a hug.  Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor...well, you know, and God bless our US Postal system!

**With a grateful nod to Meredith Wilson!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happiness is...driving with the windows down!

When the world begins to look like this

and it's warm enough for my constantly icicle prone feet to be comfortably decked out like this

then it's officially time to drive with the windows down, the crisp spring breeze making a rat's nest out of my hair, while singing at the top of my lungs.

My current windows-down playlist:

  1.  Last Train to Clarksville              The Monkees
  2.  Baby Driver                                Simon and Garfunkle
  3.  Going the Distance                      Cake
  4.  Don't Rain on My Parade             Barbara Streisand
  5.  It's My Life                                  Bon Jovi
  6.  Joy to the World                          Three Dog Night
  7.  Bad Romance                              Lady Gaga
  8.  Happy Together                          The Turtles
  9.  The Ascent of Stan                      Ben Folds
  10.  Gives You Hell                            The All-American Rejects
  11.  I'm Gonna Be                              The Proclaimers
  12.  Somebody to Love                      Queen
  13.  Everything                                   Michael Buble
  14.  Pink Triangle                               Weezer
  15.  I Think I Love You                      The Partridge Family
  16.  Workin' At the Car Wash Blues    Jim Croce
  17.  Mr. Brightside                              The Killers
  18.  Hard Days Night                          The Beatles
  19.  Falling for the First Time              Barenaked Ladies
  20.  Say Hey                                       Michael Franti

It's a pretty eclectic list but I'm definitely lacking in the more current hits.  Any suggestions?  What are your favorite, crank-it-up, sing like no one's listening tunes?

Here's to spring and many more days of opening the windows and airing out the winter blahs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happiness is...leaving work while it's still light out!

Thanks to the glories of Daylight Savings Time (we won't talk about what it does to my sleeping and eating patterns), instead of the inky blackness and/or oncoming twilight that I usually see as I'm leaving, today this was the view from my windshield...

Ahh, Spring is finally on its way.  Hooray!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happiness is...a pretty book cover!

I am very much a believer in judging a book by its cover. I love to wander up and down the stacks in the libraries and book stores just waiting for a book to call out to me from the shelves...'pick me, take me home.'  I've had some great experiences with books I've heard nothing about but practically jumped from the shelf and into my arms.  (Yes, I've also had some pretty terrible experiences as well, but the good ones far outweigh the bad.)  But sometimes I appreciate the book just as much (if not more) for its aesthetic value as its educational worth.  Often what is on its cover is more appealing that what is contained within it.

Here are just a few I've picked up or added to my TBR pile more because of the image on the cover than anything I've known about the story.  Most are richly colored, lushly decorated, mysterious or enchanting; the kind of places you would love to at least visit if not get hopelessly lost in. 

Enjoy the beauty!

What do you judge completely by its looks? Do you find you are more often disappointed when you do?  Have you ever been pleasantly surprised?

(Does anyone know a better way to load photos?! ie, without the ugly white borders and with control over exactly where they are placed?)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Happiness is...this quote!

A room without books is like a body without a soul.

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

I completely and whole-heartedly agree, as you can see from this snapshot of one of the bookshelves I have currently in my room; four shelves, chock-full, 2 deep in most places.  And we won't even begin to talk about the boxes and boxes and boxes of books I have in a storage unit back home in Utah.  Yeah, it's a sickness. I admit it.  But I hope I'm never cured!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Happiness is...making a list!

I've always been a list maker.  There is something satisfying about organizing your thoughts into neatly ordered columns. To Do lists are even better.  The satisfaction quotient grows exponentially when you can turn around and cross something off of the list you created.  Well, today's list isn't a To Do list but rather a list of the things that have brought me a little bit of happiness in the past week.  So, without further ado...

Happiness is...

  • Reading this book  (I love the quirky characters, they're so charming!)
  • Catching up with friends
  • Baby kisses
  • A brand new razor and freshly shaved legs
  • Watching this movie ("I don't want diamond sunbursts or marble halls, I just want you." *sigh* I'm destined to be forever thwarted in love for no real man will ever be able to compare with Gilbert Blythe.)
  • Eating a bison burger, onion rings, a vanilla Coke and tasty pickles at this restaurant (makes me feel sorry for vegetarians...oh my, sooo delicious!)
  • Spending a day getting caught up (well, more caught up than before) on my scrapbooking
  • Being in the audience of a performance of this Opera at the amazing Kennedy Center (beautiful, tragic, breathtaking) 
  • Finally saying good-bye to February (why is it that the shortest month always seems to drag on the longest?)
  • The first signs of spring

you totally can't see this on the small photo, but this is a cardinal and he's been chattering cheerfully outside my window all week

  • A plan
  • An entire day without coughs or sniffles
  • Listening to this music
(this isn't the best recording but I love his little lead in in the beginning, this is exactly why I love this song, I am not a scientist but I am definitely an over-thinker)

And there you have it.  Just a small taste of some of the wonderfully happy things in my little corner of the world at present.  Readers, what happiness have you had in your life this past week? Is Spring showing its face where you live? Take a few moments to head outside and stop and smell the roses (or build a snowman if that's more appropriate :)