Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dead Wake


Several years ago, my good friend Jim recommended the book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I'm not a big fan of nonfiction so I put it aside, eventually picking it up when I had nothing else to read. I should have known better because Jim has never yet disappointed me! I loved the story about the search for a mass murderer during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and I loved how Larson was able to bring these historical characters to life so vividly, almost like a fictional narrative. I immediately read In the Garden of Beasts, Larson's account of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power, next and it was so riveting I couldn't put it down. (I just learned that a film adaptation is in the works starring Tom Hanks and Natalie Portman!) Larson is a brilliant storyteller so when my book club chose Dead Wake for its May selection I was thrilled (I had already pre-ordered it from Amazon)! Larson's latest offering is an enthralling account of the sinking of the Lusitania which precipitated the U.S. entry into World War I. After conducting an almost staggering amount of research, Larson uses numerous primary sources to present the perspectives of Captain William Thomas Turner (of the Lusitania), Kapitanleutnant Walther Schweiger (of the German U-boat, U-20, which sank the Lusitania), executives from the Cunard Line, President Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty), secret intelligence operatives in Britain's Room 40, as well as passengers aboard the ship (both famous and lesser-known).  He gives a thorough day-to-day account, from the preparations for the voyage to the aftermath of the sinking, and I was particularly struck by the descriptions of life on board a German U-boat. Much has been written about the purported conspiracy that the British failed to protect the Lusitania to hasten America's entry into the war and, while Larson alludes to that, I appreciated the fact that he presents certain facts and then lets readers come to their own conclusions.  Absolutely fascinating!  Dead Wake is definitely not some dusty scholarly tome but a suspenseful thriller that, despite knowing the outcome, had me on the edge of my seat.  I highly recommend it!

Note:  I highly recommend The Devil and the White City and In the Garden of Beasts as well.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I Heart Road Trips

Recently, I took my car to the dealership for some routine maintenance and the technician recommended that I replace all four of the tires.  Since I replaced all four tires less than two years ago, he thought that they would certainly be under warranty...until he looked at my mileage!  The poor man was incredulous that one person could put so many miles on a private vehicle!  I wasn't surprised in the least.  I absolutely love going on road trips.  There is something so invigorating about taking to the open road for an adventure.
In the span of one year, I've driven to southern Utah three times (for a spring break trip to the national parks, for a leadership conference at Dixie State University, and for my annual trip to the Utah Shakespeare Festival), to Denver twice to see the Colorado Avalanche play the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames, to Las Vegas to see the Cirque de Soleil show Love, to Montana for an incredible week at Yellowstone National Park, and to South Dakota to satisfy a whim to see Mount Rushmore, not to mention all of the weekend trips here and there.
I suppose my love of road trips stems from my childhood.  My Dad thought nothing of making a few sandwiches, playing the Beatles as loud as he could, and strapping us in for extended adventures.  Just about every summer we would drive to Canada (it takes three days there and three days back) to visit my Dad's family and we would always stop anywhere my Dad thought noteworthy (Devil's Tower in Wyoming, Wall Drug in South Dakota, the Corn Palace in Nebraska, just to name a few).  Oh, the memories and the stories I could tell (ask me about the Canadiana Motel).  I guess my thirst for adventure was inherited!
The school year is almost over (seven days, but who's counting?) and my car will soon have four brand new tires so I am itching to get out on the road.  I have a trip to Denver planned (to see a U2 concert and the Colorado Rockies), I've registered my new SBOs for the leadership conference at DSU, and I just bought tickets for the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  I may have a few more trips in the works and I couldn't be more excited!  Now, can anyone give me a good deal on tires?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memorial Day Weekend 2015

Over Memorial Day Weekend, my family went camping at Jordanelle State Park, which is one of our very favorite camping spots (see other camping trips here, here, and here).
Marilyn and I stayed at one campsite in her cute little trailer.
My parents were at another nearby campsite in the motor home.
Some views of the reservoir from our campsite.  There weren't many boats on the water this weekend.
I think the reservoir looked incredible after a rainy night. (I loved listening to the rain on the roof of the trailer while we watched movies and ate microwave popcorn).
Even though it rained a few times, we were able to have a fire every night.  I think sitting around a campfire is my favorite part of camping!
This is how we spent a lot of our time:  sitting around the campsite reading and relaxing.
Packing up!  Marilyn's trailer is seriously cool.  It took her about a minute to take it down and then the two of us were able to hitch it to the Jeep by ourselves (if you knew the backstory on this you would be amazed).   It was such a wonderful trip!  Where are we going next?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tomorrowland

Late Thursday night (early Friday morning?) my sister and I took our parents to see the movie Tomorrowland.  Marilyn paid for the tickets and I paid for all of the concessions.  Usually the concessions cost more than the movie but Marilyn got us IMAX tickets so I totally came out on top!  We all had so much fun!  I love the atmosphere at first screenings and my parents were positively giddy (My Dad took a nap so he could make it all the way through).  The movie itself was also a lot of fun.  It didn't get very good reviews but all four of us really liked it!  Frank (Thomas Robinson), a young boy, is given a pin by a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) which takes him to a world of innovation, imagination,and invention.  Many years later Casey (Britt Robinson), a precocious teenager, is also given a pin which gives her a glimpse of the same utopia.  She wants to return and eventually finds Frank (George Clooney), now a disillusioned and bitter man.  When they return to Tomorrowland with Athena, Frank reveals that he was exiled for inventing a device to travel into the future where he learned the exact date that the world will end.  Athena believes that Casey is the one who can change the world's destiny, but can she?  This movie is visually stunning, especially Tomorrowland itself.  There are some great action sequences and I particularly enjoyed the secret way back to Tomorrowland through the Eiffel Tower and the sequences where the young Frank explores Tomorrowland  via his own new and improved jet-pack are incredible!  I loved the message that hope and optimism can save humanity but I sometimes felt that I was reading an Ayn Rand novel about objectivism.  Director Brad Bird definitely emphasizes the superiority of certain individuals and that nurturing such people should take precedence over the needs of the rest of society.  However, I do think that the world needs more people willing take action today to secure a better future tomorrow.  Tomorrowland is a great movie with a positive message and I definitely recommend it (Don't listen to movie critics!).

Friday, May 22, 2015

SBO Luncheon 2015

Just like last year, the administration took the Student Body Officers to a special lunch at the Little America Hotel downtown yesterday afternoon.  It is a beautiful hotel and my students looked so nice all dressed up for the occasion!  I really loved listening to the students reminisce about all of the fun they've had this year.  I think my favorite memory is when we ordered a really expensive red carpet for our Hollywood-themed Homecoming Dance.  It said "some assembly required" but we assumed that meant we had to snap some pieces together.  As we were decorating for the dance, we opened the boxes and discovered that we basically had to put the entire thing together and that we required some specialized tools, including a bolt cutter.  I have never been more frustrated in my life but we somehow got it put together (it did look quite spectacular as students arrived to the dance) and we can laugh about it now.  Also, whenever I hear the song "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea, I will always think of them and their over-the-top dance routine for the Hello Assembly!  There are so many fun memories!  It has been an incredible year and I am glad I had the opportunity of working with this amazing group.  I will miss them but I know they will all go on to bigger and better things in the future!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sing

A couple of years ago I saw Snow Patrol's Fallen Empires Tour at a club in SLC and the opening act was Ed Sheeran.  I didn't know anything about him but I was transfixed by his performance.  It was just him, a guitar, and a loop pedal and it was amazing what he was able to produce by adding layer upon layer of sound as he sang.  I became an instant fan of his and immediately bought a ticket to his show at the ESA as soon as they went on sale (in the middle of one of my classes).  Aside from the larger venue, longer set list, and sliding video panels behind him, Tuesday's concert was a lot like the previous one.  Sheeran, alone on stage, managed to turn the cavernous ESA into an intimate club.  He began with "I'm a Mess" and continued to play many selections from his brilliant album x (read as Multiply), including  "One," "Don't," "Nina," "Photograph," "Tenerife Sea," and "Runaway."  He also included "The A Team," "Drunk," and "Lego House" from the album + (read as Plus) as well as "I See Fire" from the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Sheeran began every song quietly with a beat created by tapping his guitar.  Then he would layer in guitar riffs followed by backing vocals until the song exploded in a crescendo of sound accompanied by a frenzy of video images behind him. It was amazing!  Sheeran was very charismatic with the large crowd, commanding us to put our hands in the air and bounce when the beat dropped during "Bloodstream" and to be totally silent during "Afire Love," a beautiful ballad about his grandfather.  My favorite moment was when the entire audience sang along with "Thinking Out Loud."  It gave me goosebumps!  He ended his set with an ethereal  rendition of "Give Me Love" then came back for an encore with the lyric-spitting "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" (which, to my delight, turned into a version of "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea).  The evening ended, appropriately, with "Sing" and sing we did even after Sheeran left the stage!  It was one of the best concerts I've seen!

Note:  The opening act was Ben Kweller and, at one point, Sheeran called him to the stage and the two of them performed a fantastic rendition of "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King.  It reminded me of when Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol called Sheeran to the stage for an incredible performance of "New York."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

When I was in college I grew weary of Thomas Hardy.  I studied most of his major works (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and The Mayor of Casterbridge) and it seems to me that fate controls all of Hardy's protagonists and that love always leads to tragedy.  Tess, especially, is a helpless victim to a cruel and indifferent destiny and I actually cried at the end of her story.  I decided that Hardy was too depressing and returned to reading the novels of Jane Austen, where happy endings abound.  A few years ago I found a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd in a used bookstore and, surprised that I hadn't read it before, decided to give Hardy another try.  This novel redeemed him in my eyes because, while Bathsheba chooses poorly and this choice leads to misery and ruin, at least she has a choice!  She, unlike Hardy's other heroines, is also able to change her circumstances and find love at the end of the novel.  A happy ending from Thomas Hardy!  Since it is my favorite of his novels, I have long been looking forward to the sumptuous new film adaptation by Thomas Vinterberg and I was able to see it on Sunday night.  It is an absolutely beautiful film.  Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a headstrong and independent woman with her own farm in Victorian England.  She has three very different suitors vying for her affections:  a lowly shepherd in her employ (Matthias Schoenaerts), a wealthy middle-aged landowner (Michael Sheen), and a dashing regimental officer in a scarlet tunic (Tom Sturridge). The cast is excellent but I was particularly struck by Mulligan's performance.  Her understated portrayal of Bathseba during the first half of the movie is in sharp contrast to the passion she displays during her scenes with the cad, Sgt. Troy, and I found this characterization to be most effective. The scene where Troy displays his swordsmanship to her is highly charged, to say the least!  The screenplay is much more concise than the novel and I was a little bit disappointed that the role of Fanny Robin is so reduced because Juno Temple is absolutely luminous as the ill-fated serving girl (Hardy doesn't entirely abandon the notion of fate). However, I liked the adaptation, overall.  The film was shot primarily in Dorset, England and the scenery is incredibly beautiful.  The movie is worth viewing for the cinematography alone!  I really enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd and I would recommend it to fans of period dramas.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pitch Perfect

For the past few months Tashena has had a paper chain in her bedroom counting down the days until Pitch Perfect 2 opened.  Of course Marilyn and I had to take her to see it on Saturday night because, after all, we are seriously cool aunts!  (Tashena actually forced me to watch showed me the DVD of the first movie over Christmas break so I was looking forward to the sequel, too.)  The antics of the Barden Bellas continue after they are suspended from collegiate competition for an unfortunate incident during a performance for the President at the Kennedy Center.  Let's just say it involved Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and the song "Wrecking Ball" and leave it at that!  To be reinstated, they must win the A Capella World Championships.  However, no American team has ever won and their biggest competition is Das Sound Machine, a formidable team from Germany.  The Bellas lose their sound trying to add flashy gimmicks and have to go back to basics if they hope to win.  Some of the big song and dance routines are quite random (a performance at a car show and a riff-off at a creepy and eccentric millionaire's house) but it doesn't matter because they are so much fun to watch.  A lot of the humor is a bit crude and ethnic stereotypes abound but I have to admit that I found it to be absolutely hilarious.  I loved the thick German accents of Das Sound Machine (my favorite line was, "Your team is like a heated mess.  A mess where heat is applied to it so what once was a little messy is now even messier.") and I especially loved that the female leader of the group was named Kommissar (If you grew up in the 80s, you will understand the reference.  If not, search iTunes for "Der Kommissar" by After the Fire.  Good stuff!)  I think Anna Kendrick can do no wrong (reprising her role as Becca) and I liked the addition of Hailee Steinfeld as Emily, a new legacy member of the Bellas.  Don't think about this movie too much.  Just take a group of friends and have a fun night out!  Marilyn and I had a blast with Tashena (mostly because we loved watching her reaction to everything) and we even bought tickets to see it again immediately after we walked out of the theater!  As I said, we are the coolest aunts ever!

Note:  I also really loved that the uber popular a capella group Pentatonix played Team Canada at the World Championships!  Where can I get one of those maple leaf vests?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max

I have been a huge fan of the Mad Max franchise.  The first movie was an obscure Australian cult classic that I watched over and over on cable when I was in Jr. High because I had a major crush on the young Mel Gibson (I loved the movie Gallipoli).  I was very intrigued about this new installment and, when my Mom mentioned that she wanted to see it, I eagerly bought tickets for Saturday afternoon.  My Mom is so cool!  Mad Max: Fury Road is an adrenaline rush that never lets up from the opening credits to the final scene and let me tell you now that it is intense!  I loved it and so did my Mom who kept saying, "Wow!"   Like its predecessors, the movie is set in a post-apocalyptic future in Australia where resources are scarce and small communities run by overlords exist throughout.  Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy replaces Mel Gibson in the title role) is captured by the War Boys who serve Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  Max is designated as a universal blood donor and is needed by the dying War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult).  Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who drives a War Rig to other communities to barter for gas, veers off course while on a routine run and Joe soon discovers that his five wives, selected for breeding purposes, are missing.  Assuming, correctly, that his wives are with Furiosa, Joe sends his War Boys after her.  Lux, needing his blood, brings Max along on the high speed chase.  After an incredible battle in a sand storm, Max escapes and tries to steal the War Rig; however, Furiosa created a kill switch which means it is inoperable without her so Max reluctantly joins forces with her.  They then battle other gangs who are loyal to Joe in some of the best action sequences I have ever seen (of which, the vast majority were practical effects rather than CGI and many of the stunts were performed by members of Cirque de Soleil) as they search for the "Green Space" Furiosa remembers from her childhood.  While the action sequences are incredible (there were times when I couldn't catch my breath), the story of hope and redemption is compelling and the performances of Hardy and Theron are fantastic!  The bar has been set very high for the rest of the summer blockbusters! 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Rake's Progress

I am certainly glad that I took a chance and saw the opera The Rake's Progress Friday night.  It was a bold and innovative production unlike anything I've ever seen before and the music by Stravinsky was exquisite!  In the English countryside during the 18th century Tom Rakewell (Norman Reinhardt) laments the fact that he doesn't have any money but turns down an opportunity offered by Trulove (Branch Fields), the father of his fiancee Anne (Joelle Harvey), because he doesn't want the same monotonous job for the rest of his life.  A strange figure named Nick Shadow (Mark Schnaible) appears and informs him that he is heir to his, heretofore unknown, uncle's fortune.  Nick offers his "services" to manage Tom's fortune telling him that they will have a reckoning in one year.  Tom agrees and Nick whisks him off to London where he leads him down a path of debauchery.  Nick even convinces Tom to marry Baba the Turk (Jill Grove).  Anne, worried that she hasn't heard from Tom, comes to London in search of him but is in despair when she learns of his marriage. Tom, miserable in his new life, sinks all of his fortune into a dubious business deal proposed by Nick and loses everything.  While all of Tom's possessions are being sold at auction, Baba the Turk leaves him but Anne vows to remain true.  Nick the Shadow leads Tom to a graveyard where their reckoning must be made and demands Tom's soul as payment.  As Tom begs for his life, Nick offers a wager on a game of cards.  When Tom wins, Nick curses him with madness.  The story ends with Tom in an insane asylum while Anne sings him to sleep.  During the Epilogue, the cast warns that the Devil will find work for idle hands. The staging is based on a series of original etchings by William Hogarth which were Stravinsky's inspiration for the creation of the opera.  It is incredibly stylized and dramatic, almost as if the actors are inside of a drawing.  I thought it was highly effective. The costumes, also based on Hogarth's etchings, are superb.  I particularly loved the black and white costumes during the auction scene.  All of the actors sing their roles beautifully and I especially loved Anne's aria, "No word from Tom."  The orchestral music by Stravinsky is very dramatic (I love the Russians) and this opera featured the conducting debut of Thierry Fischer, the Music Director of the Utah Symphony, and I thought he did a magnificent job.  I loved the harpsichord throughout the piece!  This opera was over three hours long but, much to my surprise, I enjoyed every second of it!  Bravo to Utah Opera for bringing such a stellar production to Capitol Theatre!

Note:  I am beyond excited for the 2015-2016 Utah Opera season!  Go here for information because you won't want to miss a single production!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

I have wanted to see Clouds of Sils Maria for quite some time.  Kristen Stewart is not my favorite actress but she has garnered quite a bit of buzz (not to mention a Cesar Award for Best Supporting Actress) for her performance and I wanted to see what all of the hype was about!  Also, Juliette Binoche is one of my favorite actresses and I usually enjoy all of her films.  I was finally able to see it last night and I am still thinking about it (because of the ambiguous ending).  Binoche plays Maria Enders, a celebrated stage and screen actress who is approaching middle age and contemplating her legacy.  Stewart plays Valentine, Maria's personal assistant upon whom she depends for everything.  A young director approaches Maria about reviving the play which launched her career.  When she was eighteen, Maria portrayed Sigrid, a young woman who seduces and then ruthlessly abandons an older woman, driving her to suicide; now the director wants her to play Helena, the older woman.  She reluctantly agrees to the role and travels with Valentine to a remote mountain retreat in Switzerland to rehearse.  As Maria and Valentine read through the play (while hiking through the beautiful mountains of Switzerland), the lines spoken by the characters in the play also reflect the relationship between the two women.  During a particularly heated scene, which  seemingly depicts the tension unfolding in their lives, Valentine reveals the script and reads the stage direction.  When the role of Sigrid is given to a young actress (Chloe Grace Moritz) known for her superhero movies and her bad behavior off camera, Maria becomes increasingly insecure.  It is an intense psychological drama exploring the themes of life imitating art, youth vs. experience, and talent vs. celebrity which reminded me a great deal of the movie Birdman.  Both Binoche and Stewart give incredible performances.  Stewart, especially, is captivating and I found it highly amusing when the two main characters do a Google search of the young actress and discover scandals which mirror Stewart's own personal life.  The expansive mountain scenery is incredibly beautiful (I love Switzerland) and forms the perfect backdrop for the almost claustrophobic tension.  I  also loved the juxtaposition of the music (Pachelbel and Handel for Maria and Primal Scream for Valentine) which reinforces the division between  Maria and Valentine.  While I loved the film, it is very slow moving and cerebral so I wouldn't recommend it for everyone.

Note:  My favorite scene is when Valentine defends superhero movies to a somewhat snobbish Maria by saying that the action is just a convention to communicate a deeper truth.  As someone who can appreciate both blockbusters and independent films, I really loved that!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

District Champion

Yesterday I got to see my beautiful and talented niece compete at the Jr. High Track and Field District Championship.  She qualified in three events: discus (she had a new PR of 119' 1/2" in the qualifying tournament), shot put, and long jump.
Tashena's first event was discus.  In her preliminary flight she didn't throw very far.  At one point she threw 71' which was farther than most of the other girls but it was almost ridiculous for her.  I think she was just messing with all of the other girls because they all fell apart during the final when she got serious!  Tashena's final distance was 111'6" to easily win first place!  She was quite disappointed with that distance (they were all throwing into the wind) because she wanted to set a record but no one was even close to her.  I am so proud of her!
In the shot put she had a new PR of 29'6" but she was still really disappointed to place fifth overall.  Her coach was really pleased because she improved over two feet during the season which is very unusual.  Most of the girls who placed ahead of her were ninth graders.  I am glad that the winner of the shot put was the girl from Kaysville who has been Tashena's biggest competition at the preliminary meets.  I've gotten to know her a little bit and I like her.
Tashena struggled a little bit in the long jump.  In the middle of her flight she had to compete in the final of the shot put and she had to go to the discus medal ceremony.  I think she was a bit distracted.  She made it into the final but she ended up scratching on two of her jumps.  She was disappointed but I am so proud of her!  It has been so much fun to watch her this season and I can't wait to see what she does next year because I know that she will be very determined!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Big Win!

Last night I watched another baseball game with Sean's team, the Hot Rods.  There was a huge rainstorm right before the game but I am really glad I stayed because Sean played so well!  Sean usually gets on base with a walk or he strikes out but tonight he got a huge hit which resulted in two RBIs!  He has been feeling a little bit discouraged so this was a great moment for him!  He had another run (with a walk) and he made a great play on first base which resulted in an out!  His entire team played really well and when one player got a home run the whole team ran out to home plate to congratulate him!  I loved that!  The Hot Rods won the game 13-4.
I got another "look" for cheering too loud!
He was all smiles after the game!
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