Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer Reading: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller that will keep you up late into the night trying to figure out what happened!  Nora hasn't talked to her former best friend Clare for over ten years so she is surprised when she is invited to Clare's hen-do (bachelorette party) over a long weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. She is initially wary about accepting the invitation but, ultimately, her curiosity overtakes her good judgment and she accepts.  She begins to feel uneasy almost immediately upon arrival (no cell service, an atmospheric location, and party guests who are not what they seem) and there is definitely an undercurrent of unfinished business between Nora and Clare. The narrative alternates between the events at the cabin and Nora waking up in the hospital after a terrible accident which she cannot remember (amnesia is such a tiresome plot device but it works here). The suspense builds and builds (I was holding my breath for the last few pages) to a dramatic conclusion back in the woods. I definitely wasn't expecting the outcome (in fact, many of the twists and turns in the novel caught me off guard) which is high praise for a thriller. I could really relate to the characters of Clare, the golden child who seems perfect, and Nora, who was always in Clare's shadow. Trying to figure out what caused the bad blood between them was very compelling and it was interesting to see how easily they fell back into earlier patterns of behavior. The narrative is fast-paced and kept my attention throughout so I highly recommend it.

Note:  I hear there is a movie in the works and I can't wait to see what the glass house in the middle of the woods looks like!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Reading: The Paying Guests

World War I is a particular interest of mine so I was very eager to read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters which is set just after that tumultuous period in history. The war is over and many in England are trying to adjust to a much different life than before the war. Husbands and sons are dead and servants have found work elsewhere. The aristocratic Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are finding it difficult to keep up their rambling mansion and their finances are in disarray because of some bad business decisions made by her husband before his death (from apoplexy when the details of his mismanagement became known). They are obliged to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Lilian and Leonard Barber are less genteel than the Wrays and belong to the rising middle class.  This makes for some awkward encounters between them until Lilian and Frances begin an affair which leads to terrible consequences for both families. This novel is beautifully written and the atmospheric prose perfectly captures that era. However, I didn't entirely like it. The build-up to the affair between Frances and Lilian seems to take forever (a full two-thirds of the novel) with the accretion of tiny detail after tiny detail. I had predicted this relationship early on so I just kept waiting (and waiting) for it to happen and I became increasingly impatient. Then a plot twist happens which disrupts the fragile relationship between them and they both become so overwrought that they cannot come to a decision over what should be done. Frances contrives to visit Lilian, they have an emotional discussion about their situation, and then resolve to wait and see. Repeat, repeat, and repeat again. I feel like the characters had the exact same conversation at least five times! By the time the situation is resolved (which was rather abrupt considering the build-up) I almost didn't care any more. At least 200 pages could have easily been omitted without changing the outcome. Even though I usually love psychological dramas set during interesting historical periods, I was quite disappointed with this novel which had so much potential. I can't really recommend such a boring book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Leadership Conference 2016

Less than an hour after I got off the plane from Chicago I was on the road to St. George to meet my student body and class officers for a leadership conference at Dixie State University.  I have never been more tired in my life but I had so much fun with this amazing group of students!  I had a great group of kids last year but I was in the middle of selling my house and my head just wasn't there.  This year I soaked it all up!  We had keynote speakers, workshops, activities, and service projects (and one or two midnight runs to McDonalds).  One night we were able to see Peter Pan at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre which was amazing, another night we had a barbecue and pool party at the Washington Rec Center, and on our last night we had a black light dance.  We dominated every roll call with our loud cheers and, by the end of the week, every other school knew who we were!  It was a wonderful opportunity for my new officers to get to bond with each other and plan for the 2016-2017 school year.  I am really looking forward to our year together.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Day at the Art Institute of Chicago

Whenever I am in a big city for a few days, I always like to visit a major art museum (like I did in New York City).  Marilyn and I had a morning free in Chicago so we decided to visit the Art Institute of Chicago.
Because we are such tourists we had to find what is arguably the most famous painting in the museum:  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.  This painting is featured in the movie Ferris Beuller's Day Off and because I love that movie it was really fun to see this.
Another really famous painting in the collection is American Gothic by Grant Wood.  It took us quite a while for us to find this painting but it was absolutely spectacular to see it in person.

I am a huge fan of Impressionism and I was thrilled to find a huge collection of paintings by some of my very favorite artists.
Cliff Walk at Pourville by Claude Monet
Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet
Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset) by Claude Monet
Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect) by Claude Monet
Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn) by Claude Monet
Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Venice, Palazzo Dario by Claude Monet
Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather by Claude Monet
Woman at the Piano by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazarre by Claude Monet
Poppy Field (Giverny) by Claude Monet
Drapery, Pitcher, and Fruit Bowl by Paul Cezanne
Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh

It was incredible to see all of these paintings, which I had studied in college, up close and in person.  I highly recommend a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Adele in Chicago

I absolutely love Adele!  I love her music but, more importantly, I love the fact that she is unapologetically herself and refuses to conform to anyone else's idea of what a pop star should be. When her album 21 was released, I was basically obsessed with the song "Rolling in the Deep" and I played it over and over.  When the song "Hello" was released, I was even more obsessed with it!  I downloaded 25 the first day it was available and listened to it on repeat for days.  Adele is not usually a touring artist but I really hoped that she would tour with 25.  I vowed that I would go to any city so that I could see her live!  When her tour was announced, I thought briefly about Denver (I've done that several times) but Chicago worked better for my schedule.  The tickets went on sale during one of my classes so I gave my students a big assignment to do on their own so I could get online.  It took forever and all three concerts in Chicago sold out in minutes.  Of course, I went to StubHub and was able to get two tickets for a lot more than Ticketmaster but such was my mania to see Adele!  It was worth every penny because it was an incredible concert and I'm still on a high from it.  She began with "Hello" on a platform in the middle of the floor and the crowd went absolutely crazy!  For "Hometown Glory," she walked up to her stage which was shaped like a diamond with two large screens in the back and a platform in the front.  She stood on the platform most of the time wearing a long black sparkly dress and her band, including a grand piano and strings, was behind her.  During "Hometown Glory" she had images of London on the screens and at the end she put up images of Chicago which got the crowd cheering once again!  Then she sang "One and Only" and pulled people on the stage for selfies with her!  One older man was so flustered to be on stage with her that he couldn't remember where he was from!  In between songs, she would tell stories and go off on funny tangents.  I thought she was hilarious!  She told the crowd that she had two upbeat songs, which she would sing next, and then after that we could all be miserable together!  The two upbeat songs were "Rumour Has It" and "Water Under the Bridge."  Next she sang "I Miss You," which is one of my favorites from 25.  Then she talked about being asked to write "Skyfall" and how excited she was to win an Oscar!  I loved the staging of it because she had very dramatic lighting.  She did an acoustic set for "A Million Years Ago," "Don't You Remember" (which had a new country-sounding arrangement because she is now obsessed with Alison Krauss), and "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)."  She talked about recording her first album 19 and how much she wanted to cover Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love."  She sang it with so much emotion!  Before singing "Sweetest Devotion," she talked about her son which was really endearing.  Then she walked back to the platform in the middle of the floor to sing "Chasing Pavements" and "Someone Like You."  She had scrims around the platform with images of her projected on them which was really cool!  She complained that the cameras got too close to her face and showed her "spots."  Did I mention that she was hilarious!  During this set, she thanked the crowd profusely for supporting her and waiting so long for her new album.  She said she had to live a little bit so she could have something to write about!  I love her!  For "Set Fire to the Rain" it looked like it was raining on the scrims then she disappeared into the floor!  For the encore, she sang "All I Ask" and talked about the sound issues she had at the Grammys.  After her performance she told her manager that she thought it went really well and he said, "Ummm..."  She had to get In-and-Out Burger to recover!  When she sang "When We Were Young," she had images of her childhood on the screen.  She was a sassy little girl!  She ended the concert with "Rolling in the Deep" which got the whole audience up dancing!  I loved that she began with "Hello" and ended with "Rolling in the Deep" which are my two favorite songs!  This is definitely one of my top five concerts of all time because, not only can she belt out a song (which I expected), but she is so funny and personable!  It was a great weekend in Chicago!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Weekend in Chicago

Last weekend Marilyn and I went to Chicago to see Adele at the United Center.  Chicago is one of my favorite cities and, even though we were only there for two days, we were able to see and do quite a bit.
Willis Tower (Sears Tower)
Chicago Skyline
Navy Pier
Navy Pier
Chicago River
Chicago River
One of the many skyscrapers in Chicago
Pumping Station (One of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871)
Cloud Gate in Millennium Park
Another view of the famous "bean"
Chicago Skyline and Lake Michigan
More views from Lake Shore Drive
The Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago Skyline at night
Trump Tower
Chicago River at night
Skyline at night

Friday, July 15, 2016

Summer Reading: The Girl Next Door

I was expecting a typical murder-mystery when I first picked up The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell. Instead, I got a psychological drama about a group of people trying to recapture their youth. The novel begins with the cold blooded murder of a young woman and her lover by her jealous husband.  The murderer discovers their affair when he sees them holding hands so he ruthlessly severs their hands, places them in a biscuit tin, and hides the tin in an underground tunnel where his son and his friends play during World War II. Sixty years later, the biscuit tin is discovered, and in a half-hearted attempt to solve the crime, the police gather the people who played in the tunnels as children to question them. I thought it was odd that the murderer is revealed in the first chapter but the novel is less about the murder than about the effect the murder has on those involved. In fact, the murder is only relevant in that it brings a group of people back together after a lifetime apart. Memories are stirred. Relationships are rekindled. Truths are uncovered. When the murder is solved, it is almost anticlimactic compared with the upheaval is has caused in the lives of the characters. There is an almost bewildering number of characters (including a bevy of brothers whom I could never keep straight) but several emerge from the field.  My favorite character is Rosemary, whose husband leaves her when he is reunited with the proverbial girl next door. She is completely undone by his betrayal but eventually creates an exciting life for herself and refuses to take him back when the affair runs its course. Even though this is a very unconventional murder-mystery, I enjoyed the character development and I particularly liked the fact that the characters, who are in their 60s and 70s, have complicated and interesting lives. Give it a read.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Lobster

No other film that I saw at Sundance this year generated more conversations than The Lobster.  Most people that I talked to didn't quite know what to make of it and that is probably how I would sum up my feelings about it as well.  I knew that I definitely wanted to see it again and I had the opportunity Thursday night.  Hmmm.  In a dystopian future everyone must have a mate and anyone who is single must report to a hotel to find one within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice. A recently divorced man, David (Colin Farrell), reports to the hotel and attempts to find a mate, preferably someone who shares his defining characteristic which is shortsightedness.  There are many rules and rituals involved in finding a mate (I especially enjoyed the fact that everyone is required to dress exactly alike). Periodically the guests at the hotel are sent into the woods to capture loners who are hiding.  They can receive an extra day to find a mate for every loner that they catch.  Eventually David decides to escape into the woods and join the loners where, ironically, there are even more rules to follow.  They are punished if they attempt to form attachments with other loners.  Of course, David finds his soulmate (Rachel Weisz), who shares his defining characteristic, but they are soon discovered and punished.  There are many funny moments in this film, such as the propaganda plays put on by the hotel staff advocating the benefits of being a couple and the electronic music played by the loners to encourage people to dance alone.  However, underneath all of the humor lies a scathing indictment of social norms.  It is weird and sometimes disturbing but it is entertaining and I recommend it with that in mind.

Note:  Even after seeing it a second time I'm still not sure about the ending...

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Shakespeare Festival 2016

I had only been home from my road trip with Sean less than 24 hours when I was back on the road to spend a couple of days at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  I was really looking forward to seeing the new Engelstad Theatre and it is quite impressive.  The stage itself is very reminiscent of the Adams Theatre but the facility is state-of-the-art with restrooms, concessions, and a covered foyer.  I think it is amazing.  My very first play in the new theatre was Tuesday night and I couldn't have picked a better one!  I have been waiting for three years to see Henry V having seen Henry IV Part One in 2014 and Henry IV Part Two in 2015 all with the same actor, Sam Ashdown, in the lead role.  I was so excited to see the play where Henry earns his crown and it was amazing! After succeeding to the throne of England, Henry (Ashdown) learns that, under Salic law, he is the rightful heir to the throne of France and, knowing that a foreign conquest will solidify his popularity with the people, he begins war with France.  Weakened by sickness and outnumbered five to one, Henry rallies his troops for battle with the famous St. Crispin's Day speech (which gave me goosebumps) and, despite overwhelming odds, achieves a decisive victory.  He wins the throne of France and the hand of Katherine and thus begins the reign of one of England's greatest kings.  There were moments in this play that took my breath away, particularly the aforementioned St. Crispin's Day speech and when Henry hangs one of his friends from his wild days, and the performances were incredible, especially Ashdown (who has done an amazing job with the role of Prince Hal and King Henry) and Eddie Lopez as the Dauphin of France (so cocky).  I loved the giant wax seal with Henry's monogram in the middle of the stage as a representation of Henry's reign and I loved the large banners representing the English and French flags.  So dramatic!  The battle of Agincourt was staged very well and I especially loved the archers in the balcony.  This production was excellent and I highly recommend it!  Wednesday afternoon I saw Mary Poppins and it was a lot of fun!  It tells the well-known story of how a practically perfect nanny saves the Banks family.  The two leads, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Mary Poppins and Eddie Lopez as Bert, were outstanding.  The big productions numbers, "Jolly Holiday," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and "Step in Time," had very innovative choreography and colorful costumes and I especially liked the kites flying through the audience.  There were lots of children in the audience who were mesmerized by Mary Poppins flying through the audience (although the little girl next to me said that she was glad that it was over at intermission) so it is definitely one I would recommend for kids.  My last play on Wednesday evening was The Three Musketeers and I loved it!  D'Artagnan (Luigi Sottile) wishes to become one of King Louis' famous musketeers and joins Athos (J. Todd Adams), Porthos (Todd Denning) and Aramis (Tasso Feldman) on an adventure to save the Queen's honor from the unscrupulous Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Lohnes).  All for one and one for all!  This show was a lot of fun because of all of the sword fighting (even in the aisles) and I loved Ben Livingston's performance as the silly King Louis XIII.  This is another show that kids will enjoy.  Even though I was only at the festival for two days, I certainly enjoyed myself (and had my fair share of tarts).  Go here for more information.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summer Reading: Life After Life

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you got it right? That is the premise of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and it is so good! I started reading it while waiting to get my car serviced. The dealership was unusually busy and I had to wait for quite a while but I didn't even notice the time because I was so engrossed. I was genuinely surprised to see that three hours had gone by! When I finished the novel in the wee hours of the next morning, I was quite sad to be finished with such an absorbing story. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in England in 1910 but she dies before she can take a breath because the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. In the next chapter, Ursula is born and lives because, this time, the doctor is able to make it through the snowstorm and is able to save her. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Ursula Todd. Every time she dies (from influenza, from an abusive husband, during the Blitz), she returns with an innate ability to save herself from peril (although it takes her a few tries to save herself from the influenza). She always returns to that snowy night but, lest you think that it becomes tedious, her birth is described differently every time from the perspectives of different characters. It is an interesting device because you become intimately acquainted with everyone in Ursula's life. She leads many vastly different lives, often because of one small decision, but there are common threads in her life (all of the main characters are recognizably the same) which is fun to look for as you read. Ultimately, Ursula realizes her ability and decides that she has a higher purpose. It is absolutely brilliant! Atkinson's writing is beautiful.  Her attention to detail and her descriptions of historical events, especially the Blitz, are incredibly powerful. The theme of this book is so intriguing in that even the simplest decision can have far-reaching consequences.  I'll admit that I have been thinking about this idea non-stop since I finished it.  I highly recommend this beautifully written and though-provoking novel.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Zion National Park

Since we drove to St. George after visiting the Grand Canyon, we decided to drive through Zion National Park on the way home.  It is one of my very favorite places on earth and Sean had never been there.
Even though it was the Fourth of July, it was not as crowded as I feared (after our fun in the Grand Canyon).  We went pretty early and found lots of parking.  Sean really liked the tunnel (we always honk the horn when we go through a tunnel) and he loved climbing the rock formations.
I have so many memories of taking road trips when I was Sean's age, especially to Zion, and I hope that he has fond memories of this road trip with his crazy aunts!
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