Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday 5: Groundhog Day



What’s your favorite Bill Murray performance?

His cameo in Zombieland is one of the best cameos ever, in any movie or TV show.

What’s been a highlight of your winter so far?

I've got some very good news about a couple of creative projects, which I'm being vague about here for multiple reasons.

What’s there to look forward to in the next six weeks?

The return of the sun and an end to the ice. I want to be able to go out running again!

Too early for flapjacks?

Maybe, but never too early for waffles.

If someone in a bar asks to buy you a drink (and let’s just say for the sake of the question you are amenable), what do you order?

A Long Island iced tea. Always a Long Island iced tea.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What I Read: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year's. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don't normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

It's not, at least not entirely (false accusations of sexual misconduct are still a major plot point, things that make you go "Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm"), but if I've understood the chatter around Gone Girl correctly, there's still equivalent gore and gruesomeness. Be prepared for some unflinching descriptions of a triple homicide and some serious violence done to cattle.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my 101 in 1001 goal of "read one book that you've owned for over a year but never read," and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling's Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year's and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix
 Ultimately, I'm glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I'm still not much of a thriller fan, but there's a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It's worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you're writing your own story in a similar genre.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday 5: Returns



What was the last item you returned or exchanged at a store?

I'm generally pretty conservative in purchases and don't need to return or exchange things that often. I guess the last thing was some moldy veggie burgers? You can't exactly see that something's moldy through the cardboard packaging.

When did you last leave the house and then turn right back around and go back inside?

I do this fairly often, because I don't have my life together. The last time I wish I had done that but couldn't was when I realized I had forgotten the right journal page en route to a student.

What’s the latest you’ve ever returned a library book?

I'm a really good library user; I'm never more than a few days overdue, and rarely then!

What location among places you’ve traveled would you most like to see again?

I absolutely loved my long weekend in Indonesia and would love to go back for a longer visit. I'm also looking forward to traveling to South Korea for a wedding in 2019 (knock on wood!) and revisiting all of my favorites there--and possibly making some new ones?

What’s an unlikely movie sequel you’d like to see?

One of my fellow teachers in Korea once joked about "why didn't anyone make a sequel to Titanic" except I wasn't entirely sure that he was joking. I've never seen Titanic, though, and I have no interest in it, so that wouldn't be a sequel I'd like to see (unlikely as it may be). Otherwise, is anything really an "unlikely" movie sequel these days? Anything and everything is up for grabs in terms of becoming a franchise, or at least a trilogy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What I Read: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Or rather, Var blev du av Bernadette, since I read it in Swedish.

Image courtesy Wahlström & Widstrand

Stockholm Library has ongoing book sales (rather than the yearly binge that US libraries seem to favor) and I always check the "for sale" shelves at my closest branch for anything of interest. It's usually spotty, but there have been some bright spots. This Swedish translation of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is one of them. I'm really bad about keeping up my Swedish reading now that I'm not in class anymore, so I figured this would be a cute, easy thing to help maintain my Swedish.

If you were going to run my book reviews through an algorithm to count up the words and phrases I use the most, "I realize I'm late to the party on this one" would probably be near the top. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? was first published in 2012 and here I am, like with so many other books, just getting around to it now.

It's surprising that I didn't pick this up sooner (well, I bought my library edition back in 2016, for what it's worth), considering that the hype is in the sweet spot of "enough to get me interested, not enough to make me cynical." And book bloggers and vloggers I followed seemed to be relatively mixed—Natalie didn't care much for this book, for example. Yes, I'm way more likely to be interested in a book that some people dislike than in a book that everyone loves. That's just how I roll!

Bearing in mind that I read it in Swedish—and I say that not to poo-poo Samuelsson's translation, but rather to highlight my own lack of nuance in Swedish—I had a great time. Some of the complaints that Natalie had might have also bothered me if I'd read in English, but the gauzy veil of reading in a foreign language (even one I understand reasonably well) smoothed out some of those peaks and valleys so that I didn't mind switching back and forth from documents to Bee's narration to documents again. Bee, especially was fun to read. The best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. (I have THOUGHTS about adults who write teenage or child protagonists and make them needlessly stupid.) And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It's like adults who write for teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

I will agree that the one thing that makes the transitions between sections feel sloppy is that, out of necessity, the chronology is out of whack. When the book starts, Bee's mother is still missing, and her little bit about talking to her father about Bernadette's disappearance makes it seem like Bernadette went missing years ago, rather than....weeks? I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that's why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren't that interesting!

The one thing I'm not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin's secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!" meme is fucking tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles" meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I'm sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that's half a point.

It's Soo-Lin's continual gossip-y insufferability that's more cringe-inducing, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don't add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That's one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin's partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just...there. Still kind of a shitty-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by Bernadette.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What I Read: Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life



Part of my 101 in 1001 list is always to try to read one non-fiction book a month. I'm eternally interested in the world around me and reading a constant and broad range of non-fiction helps me do just that.

Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler's Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.

Like other, more historical non-fiction I've received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it's from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna's own correspondence. But for anyone with a committed interest in art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens, it may be a read that is worth the work.

*in exchange for this review

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Talky Tuesday: What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 15 and 16: Albany, NY

Day 15

We're up early to see L  out the door to work. A makes some eggs and toast for breakfast, and we have some of the Söder to go with it and wake up from the late night. After some art and doodles, the oldest wants to have a puppet show, and I keep both boys distracted for long enough with Monkey the Dentist and Giraffe the Doctor that A  has time to jump in the shower and have a few minutes to herself (until the youngest gets some serious separation anxiety and I drop him off to be in the bathroom with Mom).

I also have a fun time reading to the oldest, because I love reading anything, even if it's kiddie picture books for the five thousandth time. I chat with A  over the boy's head when he's deeply involved with a book himself, though we never get back to the topic of friendship and time. Once in a while he wants some quiet, or he wants attention, and he yells at us: "Stop talking!" After numerous incidents, A lectures him a little about having patience and waiting, and that's the last "Stop talking!" for the rest of my stay.

We also read through a book about dragons, and at the end it mentions Komodo dragons. One of my students has family in Sri Lanka and has visited on and off, and told me once about seeing a Komodo dragon on temple grounds, where it was allowed to just hang out and be a Komodo dragon because you aren't allowed to kill anything near the temple. I bring up the story with A,  and she mentions that oh yeah, when she worked at the zoo she got to get up close and personal with a Komodo dragon, close enough to touch it.

Cue the meltdown from the oldest.

"NO MOMMY DON'T TOUCH THE DRAGON"

All the days I'm there, he doesn't go down for a nap in the middle of the day, so as the afternoon drags on he gets a little overwhelmed and fussy (which makes dinners a little rough going, but we bribe him through with alternating reading pages and having bites of food).

While the youngest (still an infant) is down for a nap, I go out for a run in the park across the road.

A concrete bridge spanning a shallow, murky, green-brown stream that reflects the surrounding summer foliage.


I jump in the shower to wash off the sweat and grime when I get back and air out my workout clothes on the porch. A offers to wash them with the family clothes, but I figure they'll be fine with some fresh air. A smart move, as it turns out: a stray crayon ended up in the wash and while nothing was ruined, it made the process a little more stressful than usual. It stressed A enough already; if a guest's clothes had been involved, it would have freaked her out even more.



But the big event, in between books and arts and crafts and puppet shows, is the oldest's favorite TV show: "the moon show." "The Moon Show" is just his name for it, of course; can you guess why he calls it that? A hint:


"Do you know what Miss Koba's favorite TV show is?"

"No, what?"

"The Moon Show!"

I don't understand what about MST3K can possibly appeal to three-year-olds but there you have it. We don't make it through the entire episode before L gets home and it's time to start getting ready for dinner, but enough that I'm satisfied. After dinner and baths and bedtime books, the three of us sit down to a classic MST3K episode (a fond Hamilton favorite: Eeegah!), which ends up being background noise while and I (with input from A) break down how the new season compares with the series and give voice to our assorted little nitpicks (I think Jonah comes across as really nervous in the host segments; A misses how cheap the props used to look). We don't make it through the entirety of Eegah!, either, and this time everyone heads to bed much earlier.

Day 16

L has taken a half day off work the next day so he can be home and hang out with us a bit, and also talk to the guy from the solar panel company who's coming to evaluate the best place to put more solar panels. That means he's also home in time for lunch, which is pierogi, one of my absolute favorites. I'm touched that A remembers—especially when she has absolutely no way of knowing that I haven't had any in ages. What Sweden calls "pirogi" are really pirozhki and now if I want any I have to make them from scratch myself instead of getting an acceptably tasty ready-made version. I read a bit more from Her Smoke Rises Up Forever during the afternoon, while L plays with the oldest. We also putz around outside on the slightly crooked swing set.

Dinner is a bit of a hassle, again thanks to lack of an afternoon nap, but "eat, then read" bribes (tonight's book is The Missing Piece Meets the Big O) get the job done. Everyone is a little rushed because we're expecting my high school friend Fox, along with her boyfriend, for company and board games, so it makes the oldest's fussiness a little extra trying. But everyone gets shuttled off for a bath and bedtime stories successfully. Instead of helping with bedtime stories like I did the last couple nights, I set to work sweeping up veggie burger bits and washing dishes.


Fortunately, Fox and her boyfriend are running a little late themselves, so we have plenty of time for snacks and board games and adult company. This even though L and I have an early morning tomorrow: a four-hour drive to Maine the day off the wedding. We won't have a lot of margin for error!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Friday 5: Just Desserts



What's your favorite breath mint?

I don't have one. I don't use breath mints. I drink copious amounts of tea in the mornings, before I go anywhere or meet anyone, and hope that covers up anything objectionable.

What's your favorite chewing gum?

I was partial to Wrigley's when I was a kid. I tended to chew at least two sticks at once, and had a habit of just popping in another stick once the flavor ran out. Inspired by Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not intended as a role model, I'm sure), one time I actually stuck one of those two- or three-stick wads behind my ear. It's not as convenient as Roald Dahl makes it sound.

What do you like on an ice cream sundae?

Jimmies and crumbled cookies! I don't really care for whipped cream, chocolate syrup, or cherries.


What do you put honey on?

I save honey for my tea when I have a cold.


Where do you go for a good muffin?

I'm rather fond of Espresso House's Choco Fours, even though I am ambivalent at best about Espresso House.