Bookworming, Picture Perfect

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The 50 States

In case you didn’t know this crucial thing about me: I love picture books!

er-the50statesThe 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero

Category: Books

Find it on: see nice pictures on our design blog

What it is:
A collection of illustrated maps of all the states in the United States, filled with facts and curios. For each state one gets to know basic data, important(ish) dates from history, location, famous people and a whimsical selection of things worth seeing in the state. Everything is gorgeously illustrated and very entertaining. And yes, technically it’s a children’s book but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

How I found it:
I think it might have been some random Amazon recommendation which my husband then bought for my birthday.

Summary judgment:
It’s both lovely to look at and quite educational, I kid you not.

Best things about it:
How lovely it looks. Sol Linero and the graphic designer Nicola Price have created a pretty object which gives joy to look at. It is especially impressive when you do a search for other books on the similar subject (spoiler: they’re ugly). The book uses a lovely color palette and charming, whimsical typefaces, plus many inherent design problems in page layout etc. are very well solved (I’m not going to get technical, just trust me). Learning about states becomes an aesthetic pleasure.

Worst things about it:
One, infinitesimally small thing: too many exclamation marks. They start irritating after a while.

Other pluses:
✤ The illustrations are charming in their simplicity and use a unified style, which is worth underlining because I’ve seen some books with a similar idea that didn’t manage to be stylistically consistent.
✤ Again, design is also very good, including typographic choices.
✤ I like the progressive politics of the book which mentions many important moments from the history of American struggle for social rights.
✤ The selection of facts manages to create a positive image for each state and convey its (sort-of) uniqueness.

Other minuses:
✤ This is an observation, not a minus: the book refers to so many children’s books that I never heard of. But, probably, American children, who are the real target of the book, will know them (especially those children who are into books in general) and it will even make them like 50 States more because it mentions their favorites.
✤ I guess the portraits of famous people are rarely recognizable. Cute, though.

How it enriched my life:
You’re going to laugh but I have actually learned a lot: I now know where all the states are and what their capitals are (seriously, you may quiz me). And before you conclude that I sound like a simpleton, this is not something generally required from an educated person here, some distance away from the US and I forgot all I learned about the geography of the US in the elementary school. It was actually fun to re-learn.
A completely different thing: this is certainly an inspiring standard for picture books. If I ever get down to creating one, I hope it’s not worse.

Fun fact:
If I had a bucket list it would be one thing: Making a picture book. This is only tangentially relevant but still worth sharing.
More to the point, I’ve always wanted to do a road trip across the US but this is so unlikely that’s not even on the bucket list.

Follow-up:
There is another book by the same authors, about American cities, and while it feels less essential, I will probably be getting that one too for some special occasion when nobody knows what to get me.

Recommended for:
Children interested in American geography and/or good illustration. People who love pretty, interesting books, even if they’re no longer children.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The Magicians

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Rotten Tomatoes

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Song of the Sea

Some things are made of pure beauty.

er-songoftheseaSong of the Sea

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A traditionally animated tale of Irish folklore come to life. Ben’s mother dies, giving birth to his sister, Saoirse, who can’t speak even at the age of six. But magical things are happening around the girl: as if all the tales Ben’s mother used to tell him weren’t just tales.

How I found it:
I saw The Secret of Kells by the same creators and while I didn’t entirely love it, I admired it. So the trailer of Song of the Sea made me excited to watch it (and it usually takes me four years or so to watch a movie I’m excited about, apparently).

Summary judgment:
It’s a delightful work of art.

Best things about it:
Many things work great in this little jewel but my personal preference is for the art. You can just stare at those lovely painted backgrounds and the details of animation and forget about the story altogether.
It wouldn’t be a wise move, though, because the story enchants – even more, I think, on the human, personal level than on the purely mythical one. I loved the way Ben has to embrace Saoirse and get over his initial hurt.
The mythical part is solid, too.

Worst things about it:
I suppose I would’ve gained even more from the movie if I knew more about Irish folklore but that’s on me.

Other pluses:
✤ I liked the contrast between the more mythical countryside and seaside and the city with its different look.
✤ As often, I appreciate the lack of any actual villains. The antagonists work according to their own sense of justice and manage to change. The hero struggles against his own limitations instead.
✤ It bears repeating: the gorgeousness of the texture of the whole movie. How poetic it is and how much it proves that on the purely visual level traditional animation will always have an advantage over 3D. Feel free to disagree but know that you’ll be wrong.

Other minuses:
Maybe I wished a little bit for the mother to stay with them. I’m just sappy like that. It’s probably a right decision from the narrative point of view that she didn’t.

How it enriched my life:
I learned to pronounce Saoirse (came in useful around Lady Bird). I gathered bits and pieces of Irish folklore. I admired the visuals so much you can hardly admire anything more.

Fun fact:
The first few scenes of the movie is the first animation our son ever watched (we keep him away from screens because we want to bring up a wild child) and he loved Saoirse swimming with seals.
Also, it’s super hard to keep a two-year-old away from screens when all you do all day is stare at them. Our son has already learned typing in Notepad (sort of).

Follow-up:
I’m interested in anything else the creators come up with.

Recommended for:
People who can appreciate beauty and tenderness in any form.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Guilty Pleasures (it’s a title)

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Glass Castle

Memoirs are not among my favorite genres but I read one every now and then. Like

er-theglasscastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional but exciting family. Jeannette and her three siblings are carted around by their extravagant parents: an artistic mother who refuses to make sacrifices and a charismatic drunken father. They live in several states, fiercely independent, but often with nothing to eat and nowhere to wash.

How I found it:
I saw a trailer for the movie adaptation and then heard a casual reference to the book somewhere and it was enough to get me interested.

Summary judgment:
I admire the tone of the book and it reads really well.

Best things about it:
While some facts from Walls’s childhood shock, she manages to recreate a child’s point of view that only slowly grows more judgmental of her parents, replacing perfect trust with disappointment. I read criticism of the dispassionate tone of the book but I actually find it believable and engaging: at some moments you want to shake the parents awake for the children who love them too much to do that.
And even though Walls grows in disillusionment as she matures, the underlying love for her misfit family never disappears, elevating the book from a tearjerker to a head-scratcher: despite everything, there are positive things about the Walls parents values.

Worst things about it:
A few times I found the anecdotal style of the book, with the memories mostly disjoined into separate snippets a bit mechanical. But it’s a minor complaint.

Other pluses:
✤ Walls manages to paint very vivid pictures of the different places where she lived, particularly the desert and Welch. You easily see yourself there.
✤ It bears emphasizing: it would be so easy to presents parents like these as monsters. It’s a testament to a child’s devotion, but also to the strength of human spirit, how Walls never condemns them, even when the reader has, and so makes you see positive things about them: their courage, their optimism, their free spirit.
✤ I found Lori the most interesting of the siblings but all the family members except for the youngest child make such strong characters.

Other minuses:
Of all the places, I found the description of New York least compelling.

How it enriched my life:
Despite everything it’s an enjoyable read and more than that, it makes you wonder about people who choose very different lifestyles.

Fun fact:
I can’t imagine anything less fun than having your grown-up child write a memoir of how you raised them, even if you did your best to strive for perfection. The more do I admire Mrs. Walls for her alleged support for the book.

Follow-up:
I’m interested in Walls’s other book, Half-Broke Horses, about her grandmother.

Recommended for:
People with perfectly (or at least mostly) conventional childhoods curious about different experiences. I have no idea how it might work for people who got traumatized in dysfunctional families themselves.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Back to True Blood

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Stranger Things (S2)

When we finished the first season of Stranger Things, with all the sleep it cost us we decided to take a break before starting the second one. But it just wouldn’t do. As soon as we could, we plunged right back in into Hawkins.

er-strangerthings2Stranger Things (season 2)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Netflix

What it is:
The second part of the instant classic focuses more on the characters we got to know and loved in the first season. Mike is getting rebellious, Eleven is missing and new kids come to town, while pumpkins all over the town are rotting – and it’s almost Halloween.

How I found it:
You just couldn’t miss it with the whole internet waiting for the second season. And even though we watched it relatively soon after it was released, people still threatened to spoil it for us.

Summary judgment:
I liked it even more than the first season.

Best things about it:
People said it didn’t reach season one’s heights but I disagree with you, people. It focuses more on characters, capitalizing on the audience’s attachment to them. It gives them more sweet moments and space to change. It holds the action off till the last episodes, which I imagine might be a problem to some viewers but it only added to my enjoyment.

Worst things about it:
I appreciated that the fighty part was much limited but still the climax had too many ferocious monsters for my taste.

Other pluses:
✤ I loved Hopper and Eleven. You might’ve inferred that already but Hopper is my favorite character and I liked seeing him in this new role.
✤ The conspiracy journalist worked for me, particularly when lampshading Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship.
✤ I loved doctor Owens. I kept waiting for him to turn out evil but was glad when he didn’t.

Other minuses:
✤ I don’t feel that the new Californian characters, Max and the douche, add much to the story. Her, maybe, but so far he didn’t justify his appearance.
✤ The Chicago adventure didn’t feel exactly like the same show. But I would watch it as a spin-off.

How it enriched my life:
We spent another couple of evenings watching exciting adventures – but then we lost so much sleep again.

Follow-up:
I’m not losing sleep, waiting impatiently for the next season but I will watch it gladly.

Recommended for:
Everyone who fell in love with the characters and the setting during the first season.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Holiday break. I need to recharge. I might be back already after Christmas but the new year sounds good, too.

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Stranger Things (S1)

I’m a bit late to the bandwagon but I’ve finally watched

er-strangerthings1Stranger Things (season 1)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Netflix

What it is:
An adventure story rife with monsters, conspiracies and friends for life. It takes place in 1983 in a small town called Hawkins where children bike and play DnD while the government runs illicit experiments. The first season lasts eight episodes and tells the story of a child who disappears and all those who will fight to get him back, facing both human and supernatural monsters.

How I found it:
I’ve been aware of everyone watching this show for a while and I promised myself to catch up some time but there was always something else to watch. But then my student wanted to do a project on the show and I felt obliged to watch it in the end.

Summary judgment:
Surprisingly, it’s not overhyped.

Best things about it:
It’s a charming, expertly done period piece, which adeptly juggles recognizable motifs and allusions. It uses my by-far favorite character archetype: the protective brute in the character of Hopper (it’s also the archetype of the best versions of Wolverine, so there). And it succeeds at the almost impossible: utilizing well child actors, who are neither obnoxious nor unrealistic. All the romances and friendships are drawn with delicate, sweet lines and to me matter more than the monsters and scares.

Worst things about it:
It’s not an objective fault, just a big one to me specifically: I hate horrors and so everything that recalls horror aesthetics, like a shaky camera and jump scares is a big turn-off for me. I could do without any of that but I see why these things were used on the show.

Other pluses:
✤ Winona Ryder’s character (I didn’t even recognize Winona until I read the cast list) marries vulnerability and strength.
✤ Have I mentioned that child actors are believable? That’s an achievement by itself.
✤ The interiors look great and so does everyone’s hair: it’s the picturesque kind of 1980s. But it’s the exteriors and the one-storey buildings that I find particularly memorable.

Other minuses:
Like everyone else on the internet I wish Barb had more scenes to shine in.

How it enriched my life:
We spent a few pleasant evenings and I got a few character ideas and some sleep deprivation.

Fun fact:
So the design project was for students to present a known story in four black and white icons and the student who wanted to do Stranger Things did a smart work dividing her design into black and white areas, with Will and Eleven placed on fields cut in halves, the boys on a white space and the demigorgon on a black square. But she was kind enough not to spoil the show for me so I only fully appreciated her design after I watched it.

Follow-up:
The next season.

Recommended for:
Everyone who grew up in the 1980s in small town America or wishes they did but with more adventures. Everyone who likes the movies about 1980s small town America with adventures.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: A sentimental journey to the world of True Blood

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Fantastic Beasts

I like most things Harry Potter and so, even though I wasn’t really waiting for it impatiently, I was quite ready to enjoy Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while it was pleasant enough to watch, I must say I expected more.

er-fantasticbeastsFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A Harry Potter movie spin-off from 2016, written by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates. Newt Scamander, the author of the fictional textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives to New York with a suitcase full of fantastical animals. He plans to go to Arizona to release one of his beasts into his natural habitat but he gets sidetracked by local politics, the beasts’ escape and his own budding love – and somehow saves NY magic community, too. Ah, and it’s the 1930s so we get some allusions to the original HP series but no real players make appearances.

How I found it:
The usual way, IMDb trailers – plus all the buzz online and posters in the streets. You know, millions-worth marketing.

Summary judgment:
It looks so good but the story leaves much to desire.

Best things about it:
The visuals work great, particularly the presentation of New York: it’s very pretty in its sepia colors inspired by old photographs. I liked the look of the streets and of people (even if some of the streets looked a bit sleepy for such a huge city). The beasts didn’t excite me quite as much but that’s my personal indifference, they are probably very competently CGI-ed.

Worst things about it:
It feels like an adaptation of a book you didn’t read. But there is no book! However, the movie is created as if there is a story behind that you don’t quite follow. In other words, for a while there I wasn’t sure what – or why – was happening.

Other pluses:
Casting was partly great: Jacob and particularly Tina’s sister (I had to google her: Queenie) worked for me and I’d prefer them as focal points.
I liked glimpses of the stories that could’ve been fascinating were they in any way available to us. I feel like there is an untapped potential in the story.
I liked how real the actress who played Tina looked, much as I found her character bloodless and forced.

Other minuses:
I don’t quite get the idea behind this story. It feels like a patchwork of  different elements desperately sawn together. There’s no great reason for Newt to be the hero of the main events (other than the metro scene where the frightened boy is pictured like a wild animal?) – pretty much anyone else would have a better reason to get involved and his expertise is almost useless for the main plot, until he suddenly and unexplainably knows who the main villain really is. (I guess his knowledge of clichés told him?) All the escaped animals feel like a filler and distraction without any real bearing on the story. Many of the developments thus appear incidental and unmotivated.
And I had a real trouble understanding Eddie Redmayne’s speech, which tired me and made it impossible to relate to his character. Not the greatest character choice.

How it enriched my life:
I spent some relaxing moments watching it with R just enjoying the movie night(s) but that’s just about it.

Fun fact:
While I’ve read Harry Potter series many times (and some books in a few languages just for practice) and I even suffered through Cursed Child, so far I’ve drawn the line at Fantastic Beasts and Quidditch Through the Ages. Restraint.

Follow-up:
Even if they tap into the potential I sense here, I don’t really expect to be watching the second instalment. It would have to get some soaring reviews, I think. However, I feel another HP re-read coming on.

Recommended for:
Die-hard fans of Harry Potter (but you might be disappointed). People who like period pieces mostly for their pretty looks.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Musée Jacquemart-André

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Gaming Night

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Harry Potter Hogwarts

I am a fan of Harry Potter, board games and Lego blocks. And so today’s game was made specifically for me.* Let’s talk about

er-hplegoboardgameHarry Potter Hogwarts: a Lego game

Category: Games

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
It is a Lego board game where you build the board out of Lego blocks and then play a game with Lego figures (but those smaller than regular ones). You play as one of the Hogwarts houses, trying to complete four homework assignments (which basically means collect four objects) and return to your homeroom before anyone else. The difficulty lies in the fact that throwing dice is inherently hard and that corridors are constantly moved by players so you often find yourself on a blocked path.

How I found it:
I guess I saw it in a store? We got it as a Christmas present a couple of years ago and play every now and then when we want to play something silly and fun.

Summary judgment:
It’s a fun game that most people enjoy, with just enough competition and a lot of Hogwarts atmosphere.

Best things about it:
We are pretty sure this is the best Harry Potter Lego set and Lego board game set that was released (not that we have any others). Its depiction of Hogwarts, while symbolic and minimalistic, allows you to feel its atmosphere like the books do.

Worst things about it:
This feeling when you don’t know how to move the corridors to get where you want to and to stop Slytherin from getting to their destination. (I’m not great at strategy or spacial planning.)

Other pluses:
The game is quite intelligently designed in that the mechanics fit with the fact that it is built of blocks.
Like Lego tends to be, the components are of good quality and building the board is simply fun, like assembling any other simple set.
You can change the rules of the game by changing sides on the die, which we do happily every time to make for a more varied – and meaner – game.
I’m not normally into competitive playing but here it’s a lot of fun and I’m sure it would also work with kids.

Other minuses:
I guess the instruction booklet could use a bit better visual design. But it works, which means I’ve seen worse instructions.

How it enriched my life:
It’s a great addition to any evening with people who don’t take themselves too seriously and don’t irrationally hate on Harry Potter.

Fun fact:
Whenever we play no one wants to play Hufflepuff and everyone gangs up on Slytherin. I usually play Ravenclaw (and managed to lose badly the last time).

Follow-up:
I would play another Lego game if I had a chance though not necessarily buy one.

Recommended for:
Fans of any of the following: family board games / Harry Potter / Lego blocks. Which is to say: everyone?

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

* No, it wasn’t.

Next time: Holiday break. But I’m sure I’ll be back with a lot of new stuff to review

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