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millennium falcon interior empire strikes back

Recently, the hubs and I saw Rogue One, which was fantastic and heartbreaking. It made me laugh and cry, like The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars trilogy. (We won’t talk about episodes I-III.)

In fact, we loved it so much that we went straight home and watched A New Hope, sitting on the couch with takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant. (This was New Year’s weekend and yes, we do know how to party.)

Watching those two films meant, of course, that we also had to watch The Empire Strikes Back (my personal favorite) and Return of the Jedi. We haven’t rewatched The Force Awakens yet, but I’d like to.

I love so many things about these movies – including the snappy dialogue, the ingenious technological devices, the frequent flashes of wry humor and the way R2-D2 always saves the day. But this time, I noticed something about when, and why, they made me cry.

There are moments in all three original films (and also in Rogue One) when a small, motley crew of rebels, who have usually gathered hastily from across the galaxy in response to a distress call or a preemptive strike by the Empire, must decide to go into battle. It usually looks like a fool’s errand: what chance do a few fighters have against the Empire’s sleek, massive fleet? Or, as a pilot says to Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, “Two fighters against a star destroyer?”

The Rebel forces often seem scruffy and disorganized next to the Empire’s sharp lines of identically clad soldiers, and they know: bravery is no guarantee of success. Sometimes they’re receiving their marching orders when they are already under attack. But they always choose to face down the enemy, and they choose to do it together.

None of these moments are climactic in themselves: they happen before Luke makes the kill shot to destroy the Death Star, before the Millennium Falcon and her crew escape the Cloud City, before the final showdowns (there are several) in Return of the Jedi. They are the small decisive moments before the big battle scenes, when the rebels look each other in the eye and say: let’s do this. Together.

They know the stakes; they know they might not make it out alive. Some of them don’t; the death toll in all four movies struck me forcibly this time around. But they are willing to fight for the cause of freedom and justice, and they will walk into the mouth of hell itself – or fly straight toward Darth Vader’s ship – beside one another.

As C-3PO helpfully points out more than once, the deck is often stacked against them: the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field, for example, “are approximately 3,720 to 1!” But Han Solo and the rest aren’t interested in the odds: they’re going in. Together. And it makes me cry every time.

(Image via Google)

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72nd broadway nyc

Recently, I took off to New York City for three days by myself. My husband was headed to a conference in Texas, and I needed a change of scenery – which New York always provides.

I’ve been to New York several times before, to visit Allison when she lived in Queens or for long weekends with J. But I’d never taken an entirely solo trip there, and I had never stayed in Manhattan. So I took advantage of this trip to rent an apartment on the Upper West Side, and spend three days pretending I was Kathleen Kelly.

silver flats striped skirt

I have a longstanding love affair with You’ve Got Mail – my favorite Nora Ephron film, and one of my favorite movies ever. I love everything about it: the witty dialogue, the gorgeous neighborhood, the whimsical soundtrack, the charming Shop Around the Corner. I love the minor characters: sweet Christina, clueless George, quippy Kevin, wise Birdie. Most of all I love Kathleen Kelly herself: brave, quirky, thoughtful, utterly human.

Although I’d visited a few You’ve Got Mail spots on previous trips to New York, I took the time to visit them all – and linger – this time around. On my first afternoon in the city, I walked down to Riverside Park.

riverside park benches

“There’s a place in Riverside Park at 91st Street where the path curves and there’s a garden,” Joe writes to Kathleen in his last email. “Brinkley and I will be waiting.”

91 street garden riverside park nyc

The 91st Street Garden is lush with late-summer flowers right now, and though I didn’t see Brinkley and Joe, I saw plenty of dogs and their owners (as well as runners, cyclists and nannies with strollers).

91st street garden fence nyc

Cafe Lalo, scene of the famous book-and-a-rose encounter in the movie, is on West 83rd Street, just a few blocks from where I was staying. I’d been there for dessert once before, but on this trip I went for breakfast every morning.

cafe lalo table berries teacup

Delicious pastries (croissants and pain au chocolat), fresh berries, cheery yellow mugs. There’s a whole wall of French windows, and fresh flowers on all the tables. Every time I walked up, I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of Joe Fox: “She had to be! She had to be!”

Zabar’s, the famous deli, also appears in the movie, and I popped in to browse the displays of gourmet treats and buy some Earl Grey. I also grabbed a hot dog at Gray’s Papaya, and spotted a eucalyptus candle at a housewares shop on Broadway. (As George knows, they make an apartment smell “mossy.”)

eucalyptus candle

I didn’t find the Shop Around the Corner, of course, but I did stumble onto Book Culture‘s newest location. The children’s section, in the basement, is a wonderland, and the entire store is enchanting.

book culture childrens department

Mostly, I spent hours wandering the West Side, stopping often to snap photos of beautiful brownstones and light through the trees.

upper west side brownstones nyc

On my last morning in the city, I bought a chai latte and wandered back to Riverside Park, under a bold blue sky. I could almost hear the Cranberries playing as I walked down West 86th, toward the park.

upper west side view

(Then I slipped and fell on some stairs and spilled my chai everywhere, proving that my life is not a romantic comedy after all. But at least it makes for a good story.)

I relish the love story in You’ve Got Mail, of course, but more and more I also appreciate its other main plot thread: an unexpected career turn and what happens afterward. That storyline doesn’t resolve neatly, but that, too, rings true – many careers are not a straight line, and most of us have a few bumps we didn’t choose along the way. I like to imagine that Kathleen found happiness in another book-related career, even as she found personal happiness with Joe Fox.

I had other adventures in New York – including visits to several (more) bookstores, of which more soon. But for now, I’ll leave with you with a few daisies from Central Park – because, after all, they are the friendliest flower.

central park yellow flowers nyc

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cosmo brown don lockwood singin' in the rain

I’ve been thinking lately about heroes and sidekicks.

I realize it’s a somewhat simplistic way to break down a cast of characters, and not all stories fall into this mold. (So many of my favorite stories center around heroines instead of heroes, but that’s a post for another day.)

I’ve done my fair share of swooning over traditional heroes, literary and cinematic: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, Jack Kelly from Newsies, Han Solo from Star Wars (I love a man with a cheeky sense of humor), and – forever and always – Gilbert Blythe. But when two (or more) men get equal attention in a movie or a book, I often find myself falling for the sidekick.

Take the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Like everyone else, I adored Captain Jack Sparrow and howled with laughter at his antics. But I developed a crush on Will Turner: hard-working, dark-eyed, honorable. (At least in the first two movies. We won’t talk about what happened later.)

Or take a classic film I’ve loved for years: Singin’ in the Rain. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the ostensible hero, and he certainly charms Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with his smooth voice and dancing feet. But my favorite character has always been wisecracking, loyal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). He never misses a chance to make a wry quip, but he’s much more talented (and much less egotistical) than Don. Cosmo comes through for his friends when the chips are down – and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” comedy routine is one of the best scenes in the movie.

From the same era in Hollywood, see also: Phil Davis in White Christmas, played by Danny Kaye. Funny, kind, a gifted comedian and dancer, and considerably less conceited than Bing Crosby’s character. I could watch “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” over and over.

In The Holiday, Eli Wallach’s character (a wise old Hollywood screenwriter) tells Kate Winslet’s character, “In the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”

I know what he means by that: it’s time for Iris to step up, take control of her life, believe she’s worthy of being loved by a good man instead of that sleazy Jasper. But I think the best friends (Cosmo, Phil, Ron Weasley) sometimes get a bad rap.

In the best stories, the sidekicks are complex, wonderful characters in their own right. And sometimes, when the heroes hew too closely to type, it’s the sidekick who shakes things up, saves the day, or has more freedom to be an individual. (I’m thinking here of A.C. Gaughen’s recent Scarlet novels, a YA retelling of the Robin Hood myth. Scarlet herself is the center of the story, but I preferred Gaughen’s nuanced portrayals of two “merry men” – John Little and Much Miller – to her moody, troubled Robin Hood.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll always love Atticus Finch, Lord Peter Wimsey, Joe Willard (from the Betsy-Tacy books) and Rick Castle. But you can also find me swooning – just a little – over Legolas, Mr. Bingley and Sirius Black. And if I had to choose between the stars of Singin’ in the Rain? I’ll be backstage cracking jokes over the piano with Cosmo.

(Image from Well Did You Evah)

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The evenings are stretching out, long and lazy and golden. My balcony garden is putting out leaves. Another Commencement has come and gone, as has a delightful Memorial Day. And I’m craving ginger peach tea, blackberry cobbler and bright sandals (with a fresh pedicure, of course).

sunset cape cod

It’s officially summer, no matter if the weather in Boston occasionally veers back toward crisp or downright chilly. So here’s my list of what I plan to do, see, taste and savor this season:

tomatoes corn farmer's market

  • Visit the farmers’ market at Harvard – every week if possible. Buy loads of fresh produce, especially berries and tomatoes.
  • Go to Shakespeare on the Common – they’re doing Twelfth Night this year.
  • Visit Prince Edward Island and go see Green Gables, which I’ve wanted to do for years.
  • Host my parents for a visit, and take them up to Cape Ann, north of Boston. (My dad will love the fresh seafood.)
  • Dig into some summer reading. (Maybe I’ll make a syllabus like Anne.)
  • Drink fruity summer teas, eat Ben & Jerry’s, and balance it all with salads.
  • Go to an outdoor movie.
  • Tour the Longfellow House, which is right down the street from my office.
  • Spend lots of time outside – reading, lounging, walking, relaxing.

What’s on your list for this summer?

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Exceptions

Valencia 116

I love both tea and chocolate, but I don’t usually like tea with chocolate in it. But I am loving the Read My Lips tea I bought at David’s Tea last month. Rich, satisfying and slightly minty. (I bought it when I ran out of Santa’s Secret, their holiday black tea blend with peppermint.)

I don’t usually care for crude humor, but Tommy Boy makes me laugh so hard I weep. (Partly because I first watched it with my cousin Andy – and watching him crack up was even funnier than the movie itself.)

I’m not a coffee drinker, but on a trip to Spain a few years back, I tried cafe con leche and savored every sip. (See above for photographic evidence.)

I’m not a devotee of fantasy lit in general, but it is difficult to overstate my love for both the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Pure magic, these books, in all the best ways.

I didn’t think I liked hot pink (my sister is the pink-obsessed one), but a college roommate brought me a bright pink scarf from a trip to New York long ago and I still wear it all the time. (That one wasn’t so much an exception as a misperception.)

I grew up with spontaneous prayer, so a lot of memorized prayers feel forced in my mouth, but there are two that come easily: the Lord’s Prayer and the table prayer of my grandparents.

I’d almost always rather read a novel than short stories, but I’ve loved this collection of stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes canon. Really fun and clever.

What are the exceptions in your life?

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Election season is upon us with a vengeance – a vengeance more bitter than most elections I can remember. I am planning to vote, because I believe in exercising my right to have a voice in my government, however small. (I am also mindful of the decades when women could not vote in this country, and of the millions of women around the world who still have no say in either their governments or their lives.)

But I spent a recent evening enjoying a different angle on politics. J and I watched The American President, the witty and romantic 1995 film in which Annette Bening plays a sharp-tongued, sparkling-eyed lobbyist who falls in love with Michael Douglas as he plays the sober, thoughtful and warmhearted President of the United States.

american president poster movie

(Image from imdb.com)

I watched this movie as a teenager, when some of the political commentary went over my head, but I loved the clever interplay between the President and his staff members, and the tender (if complicated) love story. Watching it as an adult, I’m struck by how not dated it is. The banter is still brilliant and utterly quotable; the power suits are still (mostly) the style in the halls of power; and the overarching concept that “politics is perception” has never been more relevant.

The movie is set in an election year, with the President trying to keep his job while sending two important bills to Congress (the issues at hand are gun control and the environment). A likable, urbane widower (with a teenage daughter whom he adores), he has been consistently popular, until he starts dating Sydney Ellen Wade, a lobbyist hired to help the environmental folks push their agenda on the Hill.

Despite his attempts to keep his personal life private, the President finds his ratings sliding, and as congressional votes on his bills also start slipping away, he must decide which issues to support. Sydney isn’t sleeping with him to get votes, but the pundits – and his opponent – pounce on the potential for scandal.

This President is an intelligent, well-informed man who carefully considers his decisions (the scene involving an attack on Libya under the guise of “proportional response” is one of the film’s best). He struggles, privately and deeply, with the power and influence accorded him as the leader of the free world. He listens to his staff’s advice (the supporting cast, including Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, is outstanding), but in the end he makes his decisions alone. And crucially, he has the courage to admit his mistakes.

The movie’s climax comes when the President finally steps up to address the White House press corps, refuting multiple accusations brought by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Whether or not you agree with the political statements herein, it is an incisive, rhetorically dazzling speech, and it begins with this statement:

For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being president of this country is entirely about character.

 

I am more weary than I can say of the mudslinging, name-calling, pandering, dodging and mean-spirited comments that pervade the political ads, debates and social media sites in this country. I am not suggesting that a romantic comedy holds the solution to these problems, nor am I suggesting that it is quite that simple.

But I do believe we would all benefit by remembering that this country can be best led by people of character, whatever their political affiliation or stance on certain issues. And I also believe we ought to act as people of character toward our friends, coworkers and fellow Americans, even (or especially) when their political views don’t agree with ours.

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kramerbooks interior washington dc

Kramerbooks in D.C., which I recently visited

Paris in Love, Eloisa James
This memoir of a year in Paris sparkles with delightful anecdotes and wry commentary. It’s no easy feat to move your family across the Atlantic, and James and her Italian husband managed it rather well. (Their 11-year-old daughter, Anna, is particularly hilarious.) James admits that living in Paris has its challenges, but she loves this city and it’s such fun to walk with her through it. Utterly charming, and the bite-size bon mot format is addictive.

Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, Ty Burr
Burr, the film critic for the Boston Globe, examines our culture of stardom in the U.S., from early silent actors to the talkies, all the way up to the Internet and our current obsessive celebrity culture. His anecdotes about stars past and present (Chaplin, Wayne, Stanwyck and many more) are fascinating, and his questions about why we have stars – why we need stars – are insightful, timely and rather unsettling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 18).

A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie
When a wealthy financier is poisoned, police inspectors are surprised to find cereal in his pockets. Then his wife and the maid are also killed, with each death containing a link to the “Sing a song of sixpence” rhyme. Enter Miss Marple, who (of course) befriends nearly everyone in the household, picks up bits of useful information, and helps Inspector Neele connect the dots. This is classic Christie, clever and fun, with a fair dose of coincidence and a tidy wrap-up at the end.

The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie
I loved this first novel in Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence series, featuring two young adventurers in post-World War I London. They set up a detective agency and quickly find themselves drawn into a web of political intrigue. This era fascinates me, and the easy banter between Tommy and Tuppence reminds me of Castle. Lots of red herrings, as usual, with a chilling twist near the end. (Bought during my D.C. indie bookstore crawl.)

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt
Turner Buckminster, minister’s son and new transplant to Maine, has a tough time fitting in – but then he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, who lives on a nearby island. Lizzie teaches Turner to dig clams and hit a Maine baseball, but their friendship is threatened by the town’s elders, who are trying to evict Lizzie and her fellow African-Americans from their island. Based on a true story and told in Schmidt’s skilled prose, this was a moving story and a gorgeous evocation of the New England landscape.

So Far Away, Meg Mitchell Moore
I enjoyed Meg’s debut, The Arrivals, but I loved So Far Away. (I couldn’t put it down even when watching Olympics diving – I had to know what happened.) Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher, who is dealing with her parents’ divorce and cyberbullying at school, is a proud, strong, confused, completely authentic teenager. And archivist Kathleen Lynch, who helps Natalie decipher an old diary she unearthed in her basement, is also a great character. So much heartbreak – Kathleen’s runaway daughter, Natalie’s mom’s depression, and the struggles mentioned above – but also hope. (And it’s set in and near Boston, which I enjoyed.)

Whew. So many books in July. I’m slowing the pace a bit in August, but still digging into the to-read stacks with enthusiasm. What are you reading these days?

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