Monday, December 04, 2006

The Season of Greed Continues...

I love just about everything about the holiday season EXCEPT the daily avalanche of catalogs that spill out of my mailbox!! Today alone, I got the latest from Norm Thompson, Soft Surroundings, Harry and David, Solutions, Hammacher Schlemmer, Coldwater Creek, Victoria's Secret and Sahalie!

Anyone out there know of an easy way to get your name removed from catalog mailing lists, without having to call each and every merchant up individually??? I welcome any and all suggestions. I am fed up!!!!!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Let it Snow, Let it Snow - OK, STOP!!!

I normally start putting up my Christmas decorations on Thanksgiving weekend, but this year, I couldn't get in the mood. How can you put up a tree and hang tinsel and play Christmas CDs when it's 65 freakin' degrees and sunny out????? The Xmas boxes came up from the basement storage and mostly sat on the floor unopened throughout the past week - although my boyfriend and I did manage to put up the pre-lighted artificial tree, no decorations were hung till Thursday.

Then, of course, the midwest was paralyzed by a huge, nasty winter storm, and so here I sit on Saturday morning, with approximately 13 inches of snow piled up outside my window. Yep, it's definitely time to finish the Christmas decorating.

I love Christmas music and have an ever-growing collection of Christmas CDs. This year, I've added Bette Midler's "Cool Yule."

I'm a huge fan of the Divine Miss M, and as a lover of '40s and '5os standards , I've spent lots of listening time with her recent collections of Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee classics. "Cool Yule" is the same vein - lovely covers of holiday standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "What are You Doing New Year's Eve" and "I've Got my Love to Keep Me Warm." There's also a special Christmas version of "From a Distance'" - not my favorite track on the CD by any means, but it's growing on me. The only real stinker - "Oh Come, Come Emmanuel": Midler turns this spare, melancholy Advent hymn into just another sappy, "Wind Beneath My Wings"-style ballad. A low point - but not the worst Christmas album cut ever. (That honor would belong to Barbra Streisand's whacked-out, everywhere-but-on-the-actual-melody cover of "My Favorite Things" on her first Christmas disc back in the '60s. )

Finally, nothing rings in the holiday for me like a little Christmas baking. In my search for new cookie ideas, I found this great site: There are hundreds of yummy recipes to try - personally, I'm going to bake up a batch of Cranberry Decadence cookies this afternoon (chocolaty cookies full of dried cranberries and white chocolate chips.)

(Midler CD cover photo from

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In Memoriam: Robert Altman 1925-2006

The window opens. The window shuts. The window opens... again.

I uniwttingly pulled down the shade on Joni's Window about 4 months ago - my life got in the way of my writing. I never intended to shut down my blog, but my life picked up speed, and I found less and less time to sit down and write about it. More on that in a future post.

It took the death of Robert Altman to lure me back into the blogosphere. The announcement of his death today took me completely by surprise. Although he was 81, he still seemed so sharp and robust, his latest film ("A Prairie Home Companion")so delightful and accomplished - that I believed he would live to make movies forever.

This blog originally started out as a series of movie reviews. I've been writing reviews since I was in my early teens - sometimes for my own enjoyment, sometimes for publication. One of the seminal events which shaped my love of films and of writing about them was seeing Altman's masterpiece "Nashville" for the first time.

How to explain the impact this film had on me? I was fifteen and trapped in a tiny Indiana farm town. "Nashville" played for one week in our local movie house.
It took my breath away. It was big and sprawling with a huge ensemble cast and mutliple intertwined story lines. It was funny and sad and filled with trenchant observations on American greed and ambitiion (yes, even at 15, I could pick up on that.) It was technically dazzling (my first experience of Altman's fabled "overlapping dialogue" technique, with up to eight conversations audible simultaneously in some scenes), yet it packed a huge, emotional wallop. It was unlike any movie I had every seen before.

As a teenager, I rarely saw a movie in the theater for a second time. For "Nashville," however, I used my saved allowance to see it no less than three times. I wrote a rapturous review which I submitted to the Scholastic Magazines student writing competition; it won second place in the Arts Reviewing category. I fell in love with a movie,and I subsequently fell in love with act of writing about it.

To this day - 31 years, many viewings, and one 25th anniversay DVD laster - I still treasure many of the characters and scenes:

SueLeen - the starry-eyed waitress played by Gwen Welles, with her hilarious, godawful, just-below-pitch singing voice and her unshakable dreams of stardom

Barbara Jean - the fragile country singer played by Ronee Blakely (where IS Ronee Blakely these days? ) - who can forget her delirious, cuckoo-bird meltdown on the Opryland stage before an audience of booing, confused fans?

That amazing scene where Keith Carradine sings "I'm Easy" - ostensibly to Lily Tomlin, but nearly every other woman in his nightclub audience believes the song is dedicated to her, and Altman makes a neat round of close ups as each of Carradine's recent one-night-stands respectively beams with pride, trembles and blushes with passion, or squirms in painful humiliation. The brilliance of that scene, I believe, got that otherwise insubstantial song its Best Song Oscar.

Over the years, I sought out Altman's movies. My first trip to a movie theatre after arriving at college was to see "Three Women," his strange, arty film in which Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule sort of swapped personalities. I treasured "A Wedding" for its big, messy, sprawling story and cast, and its weird, off-kilter, dark moments. Altman's films got smaller and stranger, then bigger and better("The Player," "Gosford Park"). But although I always loved him for his renegade attitude towards Hollywood, I never had another of his movies affect me the way "Nashville" did.

Just one other thing, though - one of Altman's recent films, which I loved, but which isn't mentioned often is "The Company" - a look at young dancers in the Joffrey Ballet. It has one scene that I absolutely love in which Neve Campbell and a male dancer (whose name escapes me) perform an unspeakably beautiful pas de deux to "My Funny Valentine." On an outdoor stage. During the early stages of a horrendous rainstorm. The wind gusts, rain pelts the stage - they dance on, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around one another, too consumed with the emotion of the dance to stop for the inclement weather. I don't know if that rainstorm was planned, or a happy accident of the shooting schedule - but that scene is gold.

Farewell, Mr. Altman. You will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 2

Continuing my list of books that mattered to me.....

4. The World According to Garp by John Irving

When I was in college in the late 70s, John Irving was HUGE, and none of his books was more loved than "Garp." His literary star has fallen a long way since then (IMHO, he hasn't written a good book since "The Cider House Rules", but I still love this book, and I still pull it down from the shelf and re-read it periodically. The opening sentence always grabs me - "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - and every character is amazing and original. I've flippantly summed up Irving's work as being about "hot sex and freak accidents" - there are plenty of both in "Garp," but there is also evidence of Irving's power as a storyteller. (The movie version is cute enough, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.)

5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

As a senior in high school, I was given a list of "100 Books You Should Read Before You Go to College." "Madame Bovary" was on that list, but I didn't manage to read till several years later. I now wish I could regain the hours I spent trying to stay interested in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" or "Moby Dick" to spend them on Flaubert's masterwork. I'm endlessly intrigued by stories of women whose appetites for drama,passion and beauty far exceed what their ordinary lives can provide them. And Emma Bovary - trapped in a marriage to a dull, provincial doctor; spending money and chasing lovers with foolish and reckless abandon - is the prototype of all such doomed seekers. Many 19th century novelists are a tough read for me these days. Even Jane Austen, who I adore, takes powers of concentration that my hopelessly Googled/Tivoed/21st century brain can't always summon. But Flaubert's prose remains sharp,engrossing and modern. (Skip the movie version with Isabelle Huppert - it's even duller than Emma's husband.)

6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the writer I want to be when I grow up - wickedly funny, painfully honest, smart-assed and heartbreaking all at once. She's about the only Christian writer I know who can write about Jesus without being all prissy, drippy and Sunday-schoolish. But "Bird by Bird" precedes her writing on faith - it is, in fact, a book about how to write. And Lamott doesn't pull any punches about how hard it is to write - at all, let alone to write anything good. Or how pointless it is to focus on getting published at the expense of doing the work well. But when you put her book down, I guarantee you'll be motivated to get to work on your own prose. (I'll bet you think there is no movie version of this one. WRONG! There is a video called "Bird by Bird with Annie." If you're an Anne fan, it's compulsory viewing.)

7. "Saturday" by Ian McEwan

This was a tough call. For the sake of space and brevity, I had decided to limit myself to seven books. And choosing McEwan's latest novel meant I had to forgo some other favorites like "A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt or "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd.

BUT having said that - I now praise this fine novel by one of my most recently discovered favorite authors. "Saturday" chronicles one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon - a day when the streets are filled with anti-war demonstrations and a day on which his own family members will face a serious threat to their own safety. It's a cliche to say "I couldn't put this book down" - but, really, I couldn't. McEwan evokes a growing sense of unease and foreboding as the story unfolds, while masterfully engaging us in the daily details of affluent Perowne family's lives. I can only hope the movie that is inevitably made from this book will be half as good as its source material.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 1

One of my recurring fantasies is that someday I'll become famous and Oprah will ask me to contribute to her magazine's "Books that Made a Difference to..." column. Since this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I've decided not to wait for Oprah's invitation, but to go right ahead and share my list (or at least the first part of it, for now):

1. "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh
This was absolutely my favorite book as a child. (If you've seen the dreadful 1997 film version with the badly miscast Rosie O'Donnell, please banish it from your mind immediately. The source material is SOOO much better.) Harriet is an aspiring writer who carries a notebook everywhere to record her observations about friends, family, and the assorted, colorful strangers she scopes out on her after-school "spy route." When her classmates find her notebook - and read her painfully honest assessments of them - Harriet becomes the sixth-grade pariah and the target of a "Spy Catchers" club. In her quest to regain the trust of her friends, she learns a little about life, writing, loyalty and tact (and eats a lot of tomato sandwiches), but the story never devolves into anything preachy or "after school special"-ish. Ms. Fitzhugh is far too canny for that. Even as a adult, I find this book charming and wise, and Harriet remains one of my favorite heroines of fiction.

2. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
I discovered this book in the school library when I was in 8th grade. At the time, I identified strongly with Francie Nolan, a young girl who lives in a Brooklyn slum with a hard-working mother, a loving, alcoholic father and dreams of becoming a writer. (That aspiring writer theme again....) The circumstances of Francie's life were, in fact, pretty different from mine, but something about her writing aspirations and the dynamics of her family situation really reasonated with me. Re-reading this book as an adult was a revelation - there is so much loving detail in Francie's story - she's too beautifully and carefully drawn a character for a 12-year-old reader to fully appreciate. And, unlike "Harriet the Spy," this book was made into a beautiful and heartbreaking film by Elia Kazan in 1945.

3. "Nine Stories" by J. D. Salinger
I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger as a teenager, and still have the four battered, paperbacks that I bought for $1.95 each in the late'70s that comprise his entire ouevre. Their pages are now fragile and brown-edged, betraying a lot of reading and handling. Either "Catcher in the Rye" or "Franny and Zooey" would have been the more obvious choice here, but every third contributor to "Books that made a difference to..." picks one of those. "Nine Stories" fed my fascination with Salinger's oft-recurring characters: the Glass Family - Les, Bessie and their seven offspring,all of whom are precocious and most of whom are far too sensitive for their own good. This is particularly true of the eldest son, Seymour, who commits suicide on his honeymoon in the keenly observed opening story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (The other stories have equally whimsical titles - "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" and so on.) I don't read Salinger anymore, but I have lots of intense, happy memories of being curled up with these paperbacks as a teenager and feeling terribly sophisticated and thrilled by lives and viewpoints that were far outside my own experience. (RE: film versions - "Uncle Wiggly" from this book was turned into a mediocre Hollywood tearjerker with Susan Hayward called "My Foolish Heart" - Salinger hated it and vowed never to let another of his works be filmed. This is why we have never had a film version of "Catcher in the Rye." Probably a good thing, too.)

In Part 2 of this blog entry, I shall express my appreciation for Anne Tyler, Alan Bennett, Anne Lamott, and - possibly - others. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Reason for the "Season"

At Christmastime, many Christians are fond of reminding us that "Jesus is the reason for the season."

In the midst of the cookouts, parades and fireworks today, pause for a moment to remember the reason for this "season" (OK, this holiday - although four days of fesitivities might qualify as a 'mini-season'.) Click on the link below to read the magnificient, eloquent document drafted by our founding fathers and remember how this glorious nation came to be. And let's keep the spirit of our founding fathers alive.

Happy Independence Day to all!!!!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Few Thoughts from Joni's Scrambled Brain

Warning: What you are about to read comes from the brain of a woman who is sleep-deprived and creatively drained, yet has a compulsive need to blog. It may contain misspellings, grammatical errors, run-on sentences or baffling non-sequiturs. It is not likely to have a point -

Five of the last seven nights of my life have included some combination of dinner/drinks/movies with friends old and new, followed by inadequate amounts of sleep.

I have dined at a hip, trendy suburban spot with a drink special called "The Pama-tini." The complete ingredient list for this misguided cocktail escapes me now, but pomegranate liquor was somewhere near the top. I won't pretend I didn't lap it right up (for $8.95, I was DETERMINED to enjoy it), but it was a poor substitute for the mojito I had craved. Mojitos, sadly, were not on the menu. So much for "hip"!

On the bright side, however, I had some amazingly good fish tacos at the Cheesecake Factory, and a dependably delicious Ruben sandwich at my local Irish pub. This ends the restaurant review portion of the post.

I spent a night out at the 2-dollar movie house, watching Antonio Banderas teach ballroom dancing to inner-city high schoolers in "Take the Lead." And I spent two rather sobering hours hearing Al Gore outline the consequences of global warming in "An Inconvenient Truth." I think everyone in American should see the latter film and take it to heart. I have tried to tell people about the movie, but I've found that some of my friends just don't like - and won't listen to - Al Gore. (It always makes me sad when people dump on Al Gore - I don't know why I take it personally, but I do. I never minded when Gore would heave those disgusted sighs and roll his eyes at Bush during the 2000 presidential debates. Frankly, I thought that was an entirely appropriate response.)

All I can say to anyone who thinks this global warming thing is no big deal: See the movie, and then decide. Look at the pictures of glaciers taken 40 years ago next to recent pictures - and witness how dramtically they have receded. Take in the fact that, for the first time in history, polar bears are drowning in the Arctic Ocean because the ice floes they depend on are sometimes 60 miles apart and the bears die trying to swim to them. See the dramatic reduction in the ice mass of Anarctica and Greenland. Get the many other facts that my poor, addled brain is too tired to remember right now. Then decide.

On a lighter note: I would like to close by declaring my undying love for Anthony Bourdain. I've been reading his newest collection "The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones." Culled from his magazine writing of the last few years, these are Bourdain's highly entertaining takes on celebrity chefs, chain restaurants, fast food, the rigors of travel and shooting his peripatetic show for the TravelChannel. AB is a a bad boy - ribald, profane, and - by his own admission - "testosterone fuelled." He is also self-deprecating, generous, charming, and never, never boring. His TV show - "No Reservations" - is a standing, Monday night date for me.