Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book #22: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I almost gave this five stars, and then I decided to pull back a bit. I think I might overdo it on the reviews sometimes. I don't think books should get five stars unless I feel the need to press it into someone's hands or tell someone it will be required reading someday.

But this is one of those books you just can't put down. I started reading this book in the Belize airport and finished it about 15 hours later after I got ready for my flight out of DFW in the morning.

I was instantly drawn in by the narrator. I was surprised that a female writer was using a male narrator, but she did a great job creating the character and making him totally believable.

It's a rarity, but I really enjoyed the how the author told the story from the narrator's perspective in his 20s and then in his 90s. Maybe because I have a soft spot in my heart for old guys.

I loved the author's voice in this book, and I loved how she used real-life events (or at least what are believed to be real-life events) throughout the book. When I read the author's note after the fact it made the book all the more charming.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book #21: A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Thanks to my honeymoon I finally finished this book. And even then it took nearly the entire trip.

I received this book as a birthday present prior to my depart for my first-ever trip to Israel in March. My friend promised it would be good and the book had great reviews. I admit I had never heard of Amos Oz before reading the book, but I am not well-versed in Israeli culture.

I wanted to like this book from the get-go. I was excited to use it as a window into Israeli life. But I hit numerous speed bumps on the way that made me put the book down several times.

Oz's writing style, while melodic and moving, made it hard to follow at first. The story is not linear, but starts in one place, then jogs back several decades, then forward, then back again. Several time he even repeats anecdotes but in different ways. The story finally ends somewhere in the middle at a true tipping point in his life.

This is a must-reread for me as I did so many starts and stops with it — more than two months' worth. By the end of the book I was smiling, truly fascinated.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book #20: The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife, 15 Cds [Unabridged Library Edition] The 19th Wife, 15 Cds [Unabridged Library Edition] by David Ebershoff

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I loved this book a lot at first. I got the audiobook from the library to make a long journey bearable. This audiobook is loooooong. Fifteen discs unabridged so be prepared for a journey.

Like I said, the book was great at first. I was enraptured, not wanting to get to my final destination. The story goes back and forth between the present set in a fundamentalist polygamous sect in fictional Mesadale, Utah, to the origins of the Mormon church and the story of Brigham Young real-life 19th wife. The author weaves in research of a college student at BYU to connect the two.

As with all books that are set in two different eras, I eventually grew weary of one part of the plot and just wanted to finish up the other. I didn't feel like the author totally tied up the story well enough at the end to make the long journey back and forth between the two worth the wait.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

You Better Belize It!

So this morning Ryan and I finally made our way back from our much-delayed honeymoon to Belize.

It's hard to remember how we ended up at Almond Beach near Hopkins, Belize. I think I remember Ryan and I were frustrated at the lack of funding and American Airlines flights available to Europe. Greece and Italy (either not both) were our first choices of honeymoon destinations, but with the economy still declining daily, the notion of taking the most expensive trip of our lives during a time the dollar was worth practically nothing didn't sit well with us.

To cheer Ryan up, I started searching the Web for popular destinations for the months of April and May. Belize came up frequently. I mentioned it to Ryan, who thought I was crazy. (I think mostly because he had never heard of it — he may deny that but I'm pretty sure it's true.) Truth be told, I had to look at a map to clarify its location.

When I finally got Ryan on board, I let Trip Advisor do the work. Almond Beach got great reviews, and the price was right (or close enough). It was one of the few resorts I found that was truly all-inclusive. House beer, wine and cocktails and gratuities were included. Our "Ultimate Honeymoon" package also included all of our meals, almost exclusively private tours, access to a car for two days, golf carts, bicycles, several spa treatments, $100 credit at the gift shop and a fabulous beachfront casita. Our room featured a king-sized bed, large bathroom with a big shower, a private outdoor shower and a nice veranda right on the beach. Also included in our package was the option of having all of our dinners privately on our veranda, which we took advantage of three times.

We arrived at the Belize City international airport on Sunday. It is no bigger than the Northwest Arkansas airport. Because our next flight was domestic, we went to a very small check-in that was humid, noisy and grimy. Our gate was just a series of benches and our view was a bunch of small propeller planes. I was nervous, so I popped a few of the anti-anxiety pills I had convinced my gynecologist to give me for this very occasion.

The flight itself was smoother than our American Airlines trip on the 737. We took a Cessna 208, 12-seater, to Dangriga, about a 15-minute flight. We were scheduled to arrive at the Dangriga airport, but because of ongoing work on that airstrip we landed at a private airstrip that was not much more than years-old asphalt in the middle of the jungle. The "terminal" consisted of two tarps set up around a few trucks. The attendants were playing cards as we landed.

We were quickly ushered into a old van (complete with tape deck) and were transferred 45 minutes to our resort. The drive was bumpy to say the least and our driver swerved every few minutes to avoid potholes on the two-lane highway. We finally pulled onto a red-dirt road that led through Hopkins and to our resort.

My first site of Hopkins was eye-opening, but not all that surprising. Hopkins is a beach village of about 1,200 people (though the locals claim that children must not be counted in that number). Most of them work at nearby resorts, in neighboring citrus fields or by selling souvenirs, food and other things to travelers out of their homes. Most of the houses are built on stilts and have survived almost annual floods. Some of them are painted bright colors; others haven't been touched in years. The town is full of character, with signs for souvenir shops "dis way" and lots of little drum and karaoke bars with sand for the floor. Our guide told us they'd only gotten electricity there within the last 20 years.

We arrived at the resort (at last) right before dinner. It gave us enough time to settle in, take lots of photos of the room and sip on our welcome drink, a Belizean Breeze. We had our first meal on our veranda in our robes with champagne, which was a welcome gift for honeymooners. Between the anti-anxiety pills, the welcome drink and the champagne, we were ready for bed by 9 p.m., which was nearly the latest we would stay up all week long.

We spent Monday lounging around and avoiding our first (and thank goodness only) rain storm of Belize's "wet season." We were awake by 6 a.m., and instead of going back to bed we deposited ourselves under the hut out in front of our room. We laid out and read until it was time for my manicure and pedicure and Ryan's massage. The day was finished with napping, reading and pool time.

Tuesday was the first of our many excursions. We took a private tour with Cipi to the Mayan ruins near the border with Guatemala. When I say private, I really mean a double date, because Cipi brought along his girlfriend who had just had her appendix out. He thought she needed the exercise, he said, because village life was getting to her.

We drove nearly two and a half hours in a Mercedes Benz van (again with a tape deck) that lacked an interior door handle. The route was almost entirely paved, but also was riddled with potholes. We took Hummingbird Highway most of the way through the mountains. Cipi said (I think jokingly) that the highway got its name from the tankers and tractor-trailers "humming" up and down the mountains. We saw a lot of the country this way. Schoolhouses overflowing with children clothed in uniforms. Amish men with their watermelons and donkeys. Acres of citrus tree and scores of hurricane shelters.

The trip was exhausting but the destination was worth it. We first went to Cahal Pech, which were pre-classic ruins near the city of San Ignacio. Activity there is thought to go back to 900 BCE. Excavation continues there yearly. We took a quick lunch at a local rice and beans joint where we sat below the fan on a sweltering day. Then we went to Xunantunich and climbed El Castillo, which is about 130 feet. From the top we saw into Guatemala. That ruins site was active from about 200 to 900, so the structures were more intact.

Wednesday brought the most challenging day of our trip. We hiked to Antelope Falls in the Mayflower National Park near our resort. It was a strenuous hike. The ascent took about an hour and we had to use ropes to climb steep areas. The journey was rewarded with a refreshing waterfall pool at the top. The waterfall is about 100 feet tall. Ryan climbed some rock with our guide and dove in from about 15 feet up. I found the descent nearly as challenging because I'm not too coordinated. We didn't see many wild animals, but we did see fresh jaguar paws.

As a reward, we took Thursday off but we still got up very early. We set our alarm for 4:45 a.m. and kayaked out onto the sea for a look at the beautiful sunrise. We were kind of disappointed because a cloud delayed the sunrise for a bit, but it was still beautiful. We spent the rest of the day napping and sunning.

After dinner, we went with a few couples to King Kassava's bar in the nearby village for drumming and apparently watching the Lakers-Nuggets game on a tiny television in the corner. We had a good time visiting with the locals and getting to know the other guests better. Another couple had just married at the resort the day before so they treated the outing as their reception and the drummers played celebratory songs for them. Karaoke was promised, but because the game was on that didn't materialize. I don't think Ryan minded.

On Friday we went zip lining and cave tubing at Jaguar Paw Resort, which was about a two-hour drive. This time we went with a large group, which was a lot of fun and made the long drive not so monotonous. We at first weren't going to go zip lining out of fear, but a couple we met early in the week went their first day at the resort and they convinced us it was worth it to get over our fears. They were totally right. This was above and beyond my favorite excursion on the trip. We had seven platforms and five passes. Most of the passes were no longer than 10 seconds. The scariest part was the 50-foot drop at the end.

The cave tubing was a bit of a letdown because the river was low and we had to do a lot of paddling. I struggled because I was in a large tube and my wingspan wasn't really made for paddling for an hour. On the trip we passed through Belmopan, which has been the capital city since hurricanes proven deadly to the coastal Belize City.

On Friday night, we stayed up late in the "not so hot" tub with friends and Belikins, the local beer. On our trip we met couples (every one of them had married within the last week) from Warsaw, Ind., Charleston, S.C., Valdez, Alaska, Charlotte, N.C., Toronto and Fresno, Calif.

Saturday we had our last excursion. Our guide took us about 15 miles off the shore to snorkel. Belize is home to the second-largest continuous coral reef in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef. We saw lots of fish, schools of sergeant majors and even a barracuda, and some beautiful coral.

When we returned we spent the afternoon at the spa to finish up the last of our credit. I had orange blossom wrap and cucumber facial and Ryan had another massage and a facial. Afterward we spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool and then had a large dinner with friends. We stayed up late again (about 11 p.m.) playing Phase 10 on a nearby veranda. We had a good time with all of the couples we met. I think meeting new people really added to our honeymoon.

We woke up early on our last day to have an early breakfast, some pool time, pack and have lunch before we left. Cipi took us back to the "airstrip" and Ryan got to fly up front with the pilot.

And just like that we were back in Belize City, ready to board our flight from DFW. And this is the end of the longest blog post in the history of Baleboosteh in Training.

Click here, here, here, here, and here for more photos.

Check out video of me zip lining here:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book #19: Chasing Harry Winston

Chasing Harry Winston: A Novel Chasing Harry Winston: A Novel by Lauren Weisberger

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I prefer Weisberger's Everyone Worth Knowing to this latest book.

At first I was pretty sure I was going to hate this book. The characters didn't appeal to me and I didn't find the trio believable as best friends.

I warmed to the storyline eventually, however. Weisberger is definitely not to make you think, but I chuckled a few times and thought the book had its moments. Some of the moments seemed "borrowed" straight out of Sex and the City. Good thing I liked SATC, I guess.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book #18: A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol : With 45 Lost Gustave Dore Engravings (1861) and 130 Other Victorian Illustrations Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol : With 45 Lost Gustave Dore Engravings (1861) and 130 Other Victorian Illustrations by Charles Dickens

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Charles Dickens and how witty his prose was. I chose this book because it is on the MLA Must-Read List. It was the shortest Dickens' work on the list, so I figured it was the place to start. I hadn't read Dickens since high school (Hard Times) and his writing style was now unfamiliar to me.

I can't say I loved this book, but I did enjoy it. The story is well-known to most of us, so it was interesting to read the original version. Next Dickens books on the list are Great Expectations and David Cooperfield.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Book #17: City of Thieves

Note: I promise someday I will actually blog about something that doesn't involved reading...

City of Thieves City of Thieves by David Benioff

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I really loved this book. It was compelling from the get-go. It is a war novel that manages to have a charm about it.

It is the story of an unlikely pair, a Red Army deserter/lothario and a Jewish boy/virgin, who are on an equally unlikely quest into German territory. It is a crass book — filled with gruesome images of cannibalism, rape, torture and murder — but the images are at home in this book. The crass candor of the author gives the novel a touch of realism to balance out the unlikely charming relationship that blossoms between the pair and their cohorts along their journey.

I picked up this book at the library, but wish I had purchased it so I could loan it out among friends.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Book #16: Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons Angels & Demons by Dan Brown

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have a hard time giving a book a bad review, because if I really hated the book I wouldn't have finished it. I'm usually good at deciding whether to invest in a book. I read a lot of reviews first (both lay readers and "the experts") because I don't want to waste my time.

That said, I only moderately enjoyed this book. I actually didn't set out to read this book. I saw the preview for the movie, and when I was at the library last week, I randomly checked the shelves to see it was there. I figured it wouldn't be, because I'm still used to the avid readers in Johnson County (outside of Kansas City) who keep popular books checked out for months. But apparently in Springdale this isn't the case, because sure enough it was there.

I have been struggling with my reading lately, so I figured some pop literature would be just the pick-me-up. So I picked it up and fell right back into Dan Brown's formulaic writing style. This book is basically a rough draft of The Da Vinci code, his more recent and more popular work. It's the same character and the supporting characters are "different" but the same basic characterization.

The ending was trite, and reading the book made me not want to invest the $8 to see the movie.

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Book #15: 1776

1776 1776 by David McCullough

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I will never again to attempt to listen to a narrative history book on long car trips. It just didn't work.

I think some of McCullough's greatness must have been lost in the edit of this book, which I've always heard great things about. I have a feeling I might like his other books that focus on individual characters much better. Maybe it was because I hadn't recently studied revolutionary history or because I was distracted by, you know, driving, but I found it hard to keep all of the players in this book straight.

I'm adding this to my "I probably should re-read this at another time" pile.

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