Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Music Video

Placebo - Every You Every Me

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book 58: Mystic River

Mystic River by Denis Lehane

Considering how much I enjoyed Shutter Island, I decided to order another book by Lehane, and as much as I want to read The Given Day, I'm not willing to pay for the hardcover. Mystic River is probably his most famous due to the movie which I never saw (not big on Eastwood, what can I say?).

Actually, now that I've read the book I'm really curious to see the movie. However, I couldn't quite remember who all was cast in the film, so I thought Penn was Sean Devine, the cop, not the former thief and father of the victim. Also after seeing which actresses portray the wives, I almost think I would have put them in the opposite roles - of course, I haven't seen their portrayals and they are both very talented actresses (Laura Linney and Rebecca Gay Harden).

All three men, Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum and Dave Boyle were rather well-developed, though the focus definitely seemed to be more on Sean and Jimmy. Lehane threw in a few red herrings but while I've never seen the movie I vaguely remembered hearing about certain aspects of the ending so they didn't generally throw me off too much.

Even though I vaguely knew what was going to happen, the book was still riveting enough where I wanted to know what was going to happen and couldn't put it down. I haven't really gone into too much detail about the story, possibly because I just assume that the movie came out recently enough for everyone to know the basics. Even with that, however, I was surprised: I knew that all these childhood friends are brought together by Jimmy's daughter's murder but I'd thought his daughter was much younger than the nineteen years she actually was in the novel.

Book 57: Of Love and Shadows

Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende

In ways, this book was a little different from what I'm used to from Allende: most of her novels I've read tend to be set in slightly more historical times or they are sweeping stories spanning over several generations, beginning in the past and ending in the present (or close to the present). This novel, however, took place in a much more modern era in its entirety: the mid to late '70s or possibly early '80s. The other main difference is that while most of Allende's novels have political views and commentary in them, they are also mostly character driven with a certain amount of romance. This one tends to be driven mainly by the political event and action with the characters and love story taking second place rather than center stage.

Of course this doesn't mean that Allende doesn't develop a variety of strong characters as usual, just that they seem more driven by political events than usual perhaps - and simply that the main focus of the story is the uncovering of a political scandal.

Her main characters Irene and Francisco, a journalist and photographer from very different backgrounds, stumble into the middle of a story while out for a common interest story about a newly found saint. The girl disappears, and Irene and Francisco are trying to find out what exactly happened to her. Francisco who is middle class and has a Marxist father is already aware of some of the outrages committed by his government and already secretly helps people escape the country. Irene on the other hand has been sheltered coming from a well-to-do background and especially in the beginning of the book she has an innocence and naivete about her that seems almost frail and obnoxious. As they investigate the case of the missing saint, Irene's eyes are opened, and she and Francisco discover something far more horrific.

Allende also refers to the desaparecidos, or all the disappeared, people that went missing after going into police custody during the regime of Pinochet. Once I saw the term, I vaguely remembered learning about them in 9th grade history class although for some reason I'd confused Chile and Argentina.

Book 56: The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson

Eh. I'd read a review of this over at Bibliolatry and I thought the premise sounded very interesting. The main character, a dancer, is kidnapped by three women for eighteen days and held against his will. While in their captivity, he both hates them and sometimes questions himself, wondering if he is too cooperative with them, asking himself what that says about him. Obviously, he doesn't have a choice but to cooperate but he still blames himself to an extent. After they release him, he returns to his old life, but can't deal with it and ends up leaving Amsterdam behind for three years.

Once he comes back, he becomes obsessed with finding his old captors. Since he only ever saw their bodies but not their faces, he believes the only way to do this is to sleep with a bunch of women and see them naked. Of course, given that his captors know this, why he would think he'd ever be able to seduce a single one of them is beyond me. Despite that stupidity on his part, I actually liked this part of the novel, especially once he begins to reach his senses and begins putting his life back together.

And then the ending happened, and just made me angry. I was rather impartial to the first half of the book, and then I really disliked the way it ended. Since the narrator never shares his story with anyone except for his ex-girlfriend right when he is released and trying to convince her he hadn't left her, it eats at him and no one understands his change in behavior. He is obsessed and even when it looks like he is beginning to let go of that obsession, it still takes control of him. Since he doesn't explain his motivations, he looks like a monster; however, even with his motivations, his behavior has become despicable. He realizes this but can't stop himself, comparing what happened to him to vampirism.

Book 55: The Feast of Roses

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan

This is the follow up to the novel The Twentieth Wife that I recently read. In this book, Sundaresan takes up where she left off in the first novel, and tells the story of Mehrunnisa and Jahangir's marriage. She quickly gained political power and say, and became the most important of Jahangir's wives. She was definitely rather astute politically but her presence as a woman of course raised quite a few eye brows and made some men at the court rather unhappy and uncomfortable. While Mehrunissa usually made smart decisions, she also realized that all her power came from her husband, and both he and she realized that with his death, she would be on her own unless she could somehow bind herself to his successor. It is in this case where Mehurnissa makes a few political misjudgments and gambles on the wrong people, and makes a few enemies she shouldn't have.

When it comes to money and power, family loyalty plays little role in this novel. The novel also talks about some of the Portugese and English visiting India and attempting to make alliances, some more and some less successfully. Mostly, however it is focused on internal politics and Mehrunissa's partnership with her husband.

Book 54: Affinity

Affinity by Sarah Waters

As the novel begins, the narrator, Margaret, makes a few references to an event that had happened two years ago around the time of her father's death. As a result, for most of the book, I doubted how reliable she was as the narrator since I felt like she was hiding something from the reader and merely hinting at "her illness."

It takes place in Victorian England, in the 1860s, and Margaret, coming from a rather well to do family, decides to give up some of her time to volunteer and visit inmates at the women's wing of a local prison. While there, she quickly becomes fascinated with one particular inmate, Selena Dawes, whose short journal entries are interspersed with Margaret's writings. Selena is in prison for fraud and assault, the event having been described in the first few pages of the novel. Before going to prison, Selena worked as a spiritualist, holding seances and so forth for some bored rich people. Margaret, who generally seems to be very rational, quickly begins to believe Selena's story and in the existence of spirits.

Since I had my doubts in the narrator, I kept looking for the logical explanation, and waiting for the mystery to finally explain itself, and the ending definitely didn't disappoint. Margaret is very smart and educated but given her restrictions as a female in her society, it is no surprise that she feels isolated and disconnected from her surroundings. Her loneliness thus makes her even more susceptible to any interest others might express in her.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Travel Advice

If you ever find yourself in Rome, you might think it's a good idea to hit up all the ancient Roman stuff in one day, and then do the Vatican stuff the next - especially since the Vatican is closed on Sundays and the other museums tend to be closed on Mondays.

Guess what is actually a really bad idea? Seeing all the ancient Roman stuff in one day. While it is relatively close together with a few exceptions, it still involves a lot of walking - no big deal, I'm used to my feet hurting by the end of the day when I'm traveling. More importantly, however, a lot of that stuff is outdoors, or at least has large outdoor sections, such as the Colosseum, the Forum/Palatine area, Trajan's Market etc. In other words, I'm in serious pain right now. I didn't expect Rome to be as hot as it is, I didn't even think to pack sun screen, and I'm rather fair skinned and avoid the sun. I can't remember the last time I had a sunburn but I've definitely got one now. (In Iraq, I tended to be rather more fully clothed, and for some reason, even the parts of me that were revealed to the sun just got darker - granted, I usually burn on my back and chest area, not my forearms.)

Besides that, Rome is gorgeous and I haven't even needed to use a bus or a subway to get anywhere yet, though given the condition I'm in right now, I'm seriously considering calling a cab in the morning to get to the Vatican. Not really. I also can't decide if I should be sightseeing or shopping because they have so many stores. I had dinner at the Piazza Navona last night, and a midafternoon snack there this afternoon when my feet couldn't take it anymore - so pretty.

Sunday Music Video

Smashing Pumpkins - Disarm

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Music Video

The Veronicas - Untouched

Book 53: Brother, I'm Dying

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

I've read one other book by Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory which I mostly liked but also thought tried to do too much. In that slim novel, her protagonists dealt with breast cancer, suicide, rape and several other calamities that got to the point where they just seemed like they were tossed in for dramatic effect with none of them being completely dealt with. However, since it was her first novel, I figured any follow up would probably be worth looking at.

Brother, I'm Dying is actually nonfiction, and serves as a kind of family history, detailing the relationship between her, her uncle and her father. In the beginning chapter, Danticat finds out for sure that her father's illness is terminal and that she is pregnant. The title actually comes from an earlier episode when her uncle Joseph had come to the States for treatment of his throat cancer, and called his brother with that statement. However, a ambulance arrived in time to get him to a hospital and remove the cancer.

When Danticat was two years old, her father left Haiti for the States, and her mother followed two years later. Danticat and her brother Bob lived with her uncle Joseph and his wife for eight years before her parents were able to bring them to New York. Danticat discusses the hard lives that both her father figures had and the love she had for them. Additionally, she addresses how political upheavals and immigration laws impacted them. Joseph chose to stay in Haiti, and mostly made a good life for himself. Danticat's father, while younger, in ways seems to have had a harder life, aging much faster than his brother but when asked by his son, said he had a happy life.

While the novel is an interesting portrait of a family, it also serves as a critique of immigration policies, racism and classism in the United States. The final chapters devoted to Joseph are heartbreaking, and it is unbelievable how callously some people treat other human lives.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I know I don't generally talk about work on here anymore. Despite the fact that I don't have my full name anywhere on here, I still don't want my Soldiers to accidentally find it. Besides which, my chain of command all know about this (downrange blogs and webpages have to be registered). When I first got to the battalion I was told that if I'm too negative or critical that can also be seen as insubordination as well as a sign regarding the unit's morale for the enemy. However, this was just too cute/amusing not to share.

One of my specialists, well former specialists since I'm no longer his platoon leader having taken over the XO slot, had asked me a few months ago to give him the oath when he reenlisted. Shortly after this, he'd realized he wasn't in his window yet, but asked me if I would still be here when it did open and if I'd still be willing to do it down the line no matter what. Well, we finally got to the point where his window was going to open this week. He came up to me and told me, "Ma'am, I'm not going to reenlist after all. I didn't realize that if I reenlisted for stabilization, I'd have to add a year to my contract."

Now when people reenlist, there are usually a few incentives, especially for those doing it the first time: money, choice of duty station, reclass (change of job) or stabilization, which means they will get stay with the unit they're with for an additional year beyond the time they were already supposed to. The only reason this particular Soldier had even wanted to reenlist was to stay in the unit, so it is very unfortunate that his plans didn't work out the way he'd wanted them to, however that comment was just classic from that individual. He's nice, accomplishes his tasks but like many other young Soldiers his age, occasionally is a little naive. Naturally, the whole reason the Army has reenlistments and gives people these incentives is as a reward/bribe to get them to add time to their initial contract. Granted there are the occasional people that get lucky or time it just right: for example, downrange I had a Soldier that reenlisted for stabilization but the way the timing worked out, she only added a month or less to her contract. That's not the norm, though, and she also wasn't a first term Soldier, meaning she had reenlisted already once before.

Anyway, just thought I'd share - also if there are any cadets or new platoon leaders out there reading this, just make sure your Soldiers always read the fine print/understand what exactly they are committing themselves to - in this case, at least, he realized it before he signed on the dotted line.

Book 52: The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Marina, the main character of The Madonnas of Leningrad, is a 82 year old woman suffering from Alzheimer's. The author attempts to get inside Marina's brains, and shows that while Marina often does not quite know or remember what is going on around her, she still vividly remembers her past, more specifically the winter of 1941 in Leningrad when she worked at the Hermitage Museum and lived in its basement.

While the novel does not exactly bring anything new to the table, I still enjoyed it. It is doubtful that this novel will teach anyone something about the siege that they didn't know or about the living conditions. Dean also uses some of the usual cliches that seem to abound in novels with mothers who have survived events in World War II: just like in A Thread of Grace, Those Who Save Us and various others, the children have very little idea of what their parents were once like since they do not discuss the war. A few scenes in the present are told from Marina's daughter Helen's perspective who has not seen her mother for a while, and is now seeing how much her mother has deteriorated.

Despite these cliches and possible weaknesses, the novel was still a good study of one particular person and what happened to her. Also, as the reader, it was interesting to see some references Marina would make to her past and see how in her state, she had slighlty confused and muddled them. Her family of course does not know what she is referring to and think it is simply the Alzheimer's while the reader knows exactly where her brain is getting some of these images that it then confuses. For example when she tells her daughter in law about a young woman that tried to save her father's life with her breast milk, she is actually confusing real life with one of the paintings that used to hang on the walls of the Hermitage.

The novel does not wrap everything up tightly: we find out from Dmitri how he and Mirina met again after the war in what sounds like something straight out of a movie, but we don't get too many details beyond a certain point in Marina's life. However, while there are loose holes and questions unanswered, it makes sense since all we know of the past is from inside Mirina's memories and she is focused on a very particular time. As a result, the book never dives into a point beyond that.

Basically, while the novel may not be the most in depth or illuminating about either the topic of Alzheimer's or the Siege of Leningrad, it was still a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. While I wouldn't tell anyone to run out and buy this book, I also wouldn't tell anyone not to read it.

Book 51: The Sum of Our Days

The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

While I've read most of Isabel Allende's fiction, this is the first time I've read any of her nonfiction. Naturally, I'd heard of her first memoir, Paula, so I knew that she'd had a daughter who died. Allende wrote Paula to cope with her daughter's death, part memoir and part description of her daughter's final days. In The Sum of Our Days, Allende tells of her life since her daughter's death, the tragedies and the joys that make up a daily life. She adresses it to her dead daughter, Paula, as a way of catching her up on what has happened to everyone that loved Paula since Paula left them.

While Allende manages to have a very large group of supportive friends and families, it is also amazing just how much one family can go through. Shortly after her daughter's death, her step-daughter, a drug addict, disappears and is presumed dead. While all the upheavals take their toll on her marriage to Willie Gordon, in the end, their relationship ends up stronger as a result. Allende also shows her own flaws, how overbearing and protective she can be as a mother, since she states several times that her goal is to get all her children and the people she sees as her family together, and through the strength of her personality and their bonds, she succeeds.

Of course, there are also funny and entertaining episodes with all the varied and eccentric characters in Allende's life. She describes a evening out with the women of the family during which they all decide to smoke pot, including a woman in her seventies or eighties, though it doesn't affect any of them. I didn't even realize that Allende's books had been made into movies until I read about her description of going to see the film premieres, though honestly I think some of her books, such The House of the Spirits, would work better as TV miniseries than a film.

Occasionally, there'd be moments when I disliked something Allende said or did, but that's part of the reason this book works so well - she shows herself as is and doesn't try to make portray herself in a better light. Overall, it was a nice way to gain insight and maybe partially get to know a person whose novels I love.

Friday, May 15, 2009

3 Years

They finally released the sequence numbers for June and I'm on it! Along with about two thousand other people, but still, I'm excited. I thought I was going to have to wait until July. In about sixteen days or so, I am going to make captain. Along with that, I also hit my three year service date on 30 May, so I'm getting two pay raises within three days of each other.

For non-military folk, in February they released the list of people making captain this year, and each of them was assigned a number. In the middle of each month after that, the Army then releases the sequence numbers for those getting promoted on the first of the following month. It's mainly based on date of commissioning and that kind of stuff, so most of us get promoted in the same month, right around when we hit our three year mark.

Actually speaking of which, I commissioned exactly three years ago today. I can't believe I've been out of college for that long already.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book 50: The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Given the title, and the fact that this is historical fiction, the fact that Mehrunissa will eventually achieve her goal set out early in the novel is not a surprise. Not that I'm very familiar with large parts of Indian history, but the cover of the book even explains that this novel is about Mehrunissa and Prince Salim/Emperor Jahangir. This is actually the first of two novels based on them: this one focuses on Mehrunissa's life before her marriage to the emperor, and the second will explore her reign as empress, during which she apparently managed to be one of the most powerful women in Indian history.

Knowing the outcome, I enjoyed reading to see how exactly everything would end up that way, since at times it seemed like it would be impossible. Mehrunissa definitely was an interesting character, and while her fascination with Salim was well portrayed, there were times when I wondered about whether he deserved it. Using historical fact, Sundaresan does not try to make Salim/Jahangir better than he was: he had an alcohol problem, he was easily influenced by courtiers as a young man, and he rebelled against his father in his desire to come to the throne. He also seems to mature as he grows up, however, and eventually becomes emperor, trying to make good decisions. I'm definitely interested to see how Mehrunissa gained and used her power once she had married him, so I've already ordered the second book.

Book 49: Shakespeare's Philosophy

Shakespeare's Philosophy by Colin McGinn

I wanted to read a book on Shakespeare's plays but didn't feel like making a huge commitment, so I went with this option. A few of the others I looked at were over 800 pages long, and while I might get them later, I figured this would be a good starting point. I guess my problem is that I can't read a few books simultaneously; the other Shakespeare critical analysis books would probably be perfect for a chapter a day intermixed with other books, but once I'm into a book, I am not going to put it down until I'm done with it.

McGinn chooses six plays to discuss and analyze, devoting about 20 to 30 pages to each play, and then writes chapters discussing different topics, such as gender, psychology, ethics and tragedy. As he stated in the beginning, McGinn is a philosopher with an interest in Shakespeare, not a literary scholar with an interest in philosophy. While I'm generally not much on philosophy, and find it rather boring, I actually really liked this book. I'd read five of the six plays he discussed though I don't like King Lear or The Tempest very much. In these, McGinn focuses on the themes of self, knowledge and causation as seen in these plays and Shakespeare's worldview. I enjoyed the analysis of Othello the most and also thought his views and insights into Hamlet were rather interesting. Additionally, the concluding chapters were very thoughtful as well, especially his definition of a Shakespearean tragedy - he argues against the fatal flaw idea, saying that these flaws hadn't been an issue until these characters were placed in that exact situation and that they were more than just flaws but actually those people's defining character traits. Additionally, it wasn't as if most of Shakespeare's heroes were necessarily great men with only one flaw to begin with: "morally, these men men are at best mediocrities; so the sense of the tragedy we fell cannot stem from seeing men of exceptional moral quality brought low and destroyed" (193), referring to Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear.

It was definitely nice to read some critical analysis of literature again. I always enjoy seeing what other people think about things I've read, especially when they point out views I might not otherwise have even considered.

Sunday Music Video

Rihanna - Rehab

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Playing with Needles

One course that basically everyone in the Army has to take is CLS, or Combat Life Savers. As with most Army training, I've come to slightly dread it, although this time, for once, it has nothing to do with my incompetence. Actually, it's not so much the class I dread, which I generally think is useful as that I hate the IV portion. Once you've taken the class, you have to recertify yearly to make sure you haven't forgotten anything, get refreshed, and also learn if there have been any changes in protocol.

The first time I went I was nervous about the IV portion because I was really worried about messing up, and hurting the person I had to give an IV. And, yes, as always, I imagine the worst things possible happening, things that probably can't even happen, such as the needle getting stuck in my arm. Anyway, that first class and first stick went pretty well, so when it came a year later to recert, I wasn't too worried. I'd already picked my partner and everything. Well, it turns out that somehow my already tiny veins had apparently gotten worse in a year's time. My partner couldn't find a vein, and then when the medic finally told him an area to stick, the catheter ended up bending in my arm so when he started pushing in fluids, they were actually causing a small bubble under my skin. He didn't even try again after that. (I got my revenge, though - I successfully gave him an IV with one stick, but it turned out he was a bit of a bleeder.)

We had recert again this week, and one of my former platoon members (he's still in the platoon, I've just moved up to the XO/Ops officer slot) ended up being my partner. He couldn't find a vein. The medic tied the little rubber bands around both my arms in search of a vein with little luck, except that it made me cringe. I actually ended up with a bruise on one arm because they were so tight (I have sensitive skin). He finally picked a place to stick and while the needle was already in my arm, the medic started telling him to change directions. While I'm sitting there with someone digging a needle around in my arm, another NCO (my partner from last year, actually) was standing in front of me, taking pictures with the CO's camera, laughing at me. I have to say it did distract from the pain, but the fact that I was trying not to shake from laughter probably didn't help at all with the vein finding. The thing is people have always made fun of me because of my face expressions. I don't hide my emotions or opinions very well, and I'll generally make an expression to show exactly how I feel. So I'm kind of scared to see where these pictures might show up now. I've actually had a specialist just randomly tell me that I make the weirdest expressions. I used to get mad at one of my ex-boyfriends a lot, and a lot of times if he didn't feel like arguing, he'd just start mirroring my expressions while I was either yelling or glaring at him until I was trying too hard not to laugh to maintain my completely justified anger.

He never found a vein; once again, I didn't get an IV; the Soldiers are accusing me of being an android due to my lack of veins; and if we're ever in life or death situation, it looks like it better not be me that needs the IV. Although, they think they might be able to get one in my hand. On the other hand, when I gave the IV, I got it in right away, and there wasn't even that much blood.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Book 48: Slammerkin

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

A friend/professor of mine recommended this author to me, and it was a very enjoyable read. Using a reference to Mary Saunders, a servant who killed her mistress as inspiration, Donoghue weaves an almost four hundred page novel based on that simple, true historical fact. Knowing that in the end Mary will kill her mistress might make her a hard character to like, but despite that knowledge she is easy to sympathize with. Born in a working class family, Mary is attracted to the finer things in life, and after her mother kicks her out, Mary turns to prostitution.

While overall it is an entertaining story watching a girl's rise and fall and her chance at redemption, there is much more to it. Donoghue explores class issues and how truly impossible it is to rise above one's station in the world, so that Mary is trapped no matter what. She is intelligent, and ambitious but in her world there is nothing for her to do with that ambition. While Mary may at times seem superficial, her struggle to rise above her class is about more than just that. Objects are simply the way she knows how to measure one's station, and that's part of the reason she desires them. Also, she simply appreciates nice things but since she is simply a servant, this is a bad thing for her.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book 47: People of the Book

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I wasn't sure if I'd like this book - the only reason I'd ever heard of this author is because she wrote March, and I've never been into Little Women (then again, I've never read it). I also was a litte skeptical when I noticed the comment "based on a true story" on the front cover of the book. As far as that is concerned, there really is a book called the Sarajevo Haggadah which has survived through several centuries and countries but none of the people were real. I was actually surprised by just how entertaining and good this novel was.

Generally, when I read novels with flashbacks to the past and different characters, I prefer the past to the present, and can't wait for the author to get done with the more current character and back to the past. In this novel, while I definitely enjoyed the flashbacks (the first and last two probably being my favorites, and the Venice one my least favorite), I also found myself looking forward to returning to Hanna Heath, the book conserver. Brooks makes Heath's job sound interesting, and also develops the complicated mother-daughter relationship rather well. The only part of the novel that I felt was a misstep was towards the end, adding an extra twist of mystery and intrigue when it wasn't necessary. However, it was small enough that it didn't affect my overall feeling for the book which was overall a pleasant surprise.

Book 46: Eva Luna

Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

Ever since I started reading Allende's novels last year, I'd consider her as one of my favorite authors. While some of her novels are better, I enjoy them all. Despite that, it tends to take me at least twenty pages to really get into any of her books, and until I reach that point, I generally just don't feel like even picking up the book. I'm not even sure why. It's just when I first start her novels, it takes some time for me to get excited about them even though I know I won't be disappointed.

As usual, Isabel Allende weaves an entertaining and varied cast of characters into her novels with just the right amounts of political drama and romance. Eva Luna, the main character and narrator of the novel, is orphaned at a young age, but remains optimistic throughout her life. She works as a servant in various houses but her true skill is her story telling ability, which fascinates many. Despite many set backs, Eva always manages to land on her feet or find another person that is willing to help her through her adventures. As with all Allende's novels, political upheaval also plays a role, and some other key characters include Rolfe, Mimi, Riad among others.

Sunday Music Video

Michelle Branch - Are You Happy Now?