Monday, April 27, 2009
Wow. This novel is really good, a lot better than I expected. I knew the author had written Mystic River, which was turned into a film I have no interest in seeing so despite reading recommendations for this, I thought it might be a little boring. I was wrong.
After an intro by Dr. Lester Sheehan, the novel starts in 1954 with two federal marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, on their way to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of an escaped patient. Shutter Island is the location of a mental hospital/prison, housing some very violent offenders and mass murderers. Rachel Solando has escaped from her room, and Teddy and Chuck keep being gently blocked in their inquiries, leading them to think that there is something off about the whole institution. There are hints of extreme medical surgery, and Lehane keeps it interesting the whole time with many twists thrown in. Additionally, it is a study into the brain and psychology since obviously, that kind of stuff is going to come up at a mental hospital.
I started it last night, kept reading longer than I'd planned, and then when I'd actually put the book to the side, kept expecting something to jump out of the shadows. As I said very well-written, and suspenseful.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Something about this novel just didn't quite do it for me. While I liked the idea of seeing the Cultural Revolution through Madame Mao's eyes and basically hearing the story of the famous man's wife, perhaps I should have read up on my Chinese history since I'd forgotten many of the details surrounding it, and her role in particular.
In some ways, I was actually reminded of Anne Boleyn (possibly because the second season of The Tudors is sitting in my living room but I wanted to read rather than start watching it). Like Anne Boleyn, she seduces a powerful man away from his previous wife, but eventually gets caught in political drama that makes her fear for her life. Of course, Madame Mao doesn't get beheaded by her husband though she does have to tolerate a few concubines. In ways, as involved as Madame Mao may have been in the persecutions, and I feel like the novel hinted at it but didn't quite explain everything she was responsible for, it seems like she was also just a pawn being manipulated by more intelligent and powerful men.
I also find it interesting how Madame Mao even came to have power since in the novel she has clearly fallen out of her husband's favor when suddenly, he turns to her and she uses his paranoia to come back into his good graces and actually gain some political power and prominence.
The novel alternates between first and third person narration. While I think this could have succeeded, the author switches voices every few paragraphs, leading to a slight disconnect. I feel like if she'd alternated chapters, or chosen simply one voice, it would have worked better. I understand her reasoning since the third person often added insights and knowledge that the character Madame Mao may not have admitted about herself, but it just didn't quite flow as well for me that way. I think perhaps I would have been better off reading a slightly sympathetic biography than this.
My senior year of college I took a class called "American Narratives of Passing" and as part of that class, I read Stone Butch Blues, and an article by Sandy Stone called "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto." This book called those two pieces to mind.
In her article, Stone critiques some previous pieces and memoirs written by transsexual and transgendered people. Some of her issues include that the narratives "reinforce a binary, oppositional mode of gender identification. They go from being unambiguous men, albeit unhappy men, to unambiguous women. There is no territory between." Stone also suggests that the "authors replicate the stereotypical male account of the constitution of woman," such as "fainting at the sight of blood." In some ways, Stone Butch Blues fell into the same trap, in other ways it did not.
What I really enjoyed about Boylan's account is that she doesn't have a definite moment of "now, I am truly a woman." While she feels that she is a woman her whole life, when she begins her transition, it is faster than expected but still gradual. There is a long period where she can go back and forth between man and woman, and depending upon who is around her, she might be identified as either. Additionally, as an English professor, Boylan has perhaps more tools to truly reflect on her actions. She recognizes that she starts acting in oddly stereotypical feminine ways, to the annoyance of the women around her and herself as well. She admits that perhaps her desire to suddenly lose five pounds was a way of trying to belong. She also compares transitioning to puberty - even though she is over forty, being a woman is still new so in ways she acts like a teenager, taking time to paint her nails and other things that her wife has long since moved on from. Boylan even addresses some of the issues with other transsexual/transgendered memoirs, and states this as a reason that perhaps some of them can occasionally seem a little adolescent with certain descriptions.
As she says, it is difficult to find a balance, describing some of her activities:
Had I been born female, no one would remark upon these things - but since I was not, any masculine affect is considered a vestigial link to a previous life; conversely, any feminine affect that seems excessive can be hauled out as evidence that I, like Morris, have arrived at middle age just in time to be fourteen years old. (247)
It was an interesting story, and Boylan herself shows that in many ways she was fortunate - her background and her family support her through this and while I'm sure she glosses over some of the more unpleasant issues (for example, her sister refuses to speak to her), for the most part, she seems to have had a lot of support with her decision, even if it was painful for some, such as her wife. Additionally, as she herself states, since she works at a liberal college with a focus on diversity, she didn't need to be as worried about losing her job, and could afford to get the transition done with the best care available.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
While I was in Vienna, I "discovered" the artist Alphonse Mucha, and further research revealed that he had a museum in Prague, so that was my one goal for the weekend, to see that museum. There weren't any pictures allowed but Mucha also designed a stained glass window for St. Vitus Cathedrale (which is on top of a really high hill that I got to walk up twice in one weekend), so I got a few pictures of that. I just love his designs and he may have replaced Monet as my favorite artist though they have very different styles.
I am afraid of heights, and also have a thing when it comes to tight, spiral stair cases, especially going down or when wearing sandals. I don't know, I guess I'm afraid my shoe will get stuck, and then I'll fall down. Generally, I avoid going up towers like at Notre Dame, though I went up the Arc de Triomphe, though this was partially because I didn't realize what the ticket I was buying was for. However, once I was told that the tower to the old city hall/clock tower had an elevator, I was willing to go up. It also turned out there wasn't actually a spiral stair case but instead a ramp all the way up so I was okay walking up - the very last portion was a stair case which was fortunately only about a story high , but my friend Katie lost her shoe on the way so it's not like I have a completely unfounded fear. Anyway, I'm actually glad I went up there because I got some pretty amazing pictures out of it. The Arc de Triomphe for example is far enough from anything high (which I think is actually a law to keep the appearance) so that when you try taking a picture of the view, they all look kind of boring (however, pictures of the Arc de Triomphe look pretty damn cool). The clock tower was in the middle of a down town area and near a few churches so I actually got some cool shots. There was also a huge Easter market going on in the square (last time I was in Prague, there was a huge Christmas Market in the same spot).
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I probably shouldn't buy books based on their setting anymore. Once again, the title attracted my attention because, "hey, I've been there." The description of the book also sounded interesting - murder mystery with psychology. However, and this isn't even the author's fault, the back flap was a bit deceiving: "As a team, they must use both hard evidence and intuitive analysis to solve a medium's mysterious murder . . ." Except for the most part, it isn't really much of a team effort in my opinion. Basically, it's Lieberman, the psychologist, acting incredibly superior and smarter than everyone else. Not that he solves the crime very quickly. And that's when I remembered that while I find Freud's theories interesting, especially when used to analyze literature, actually reading Freud pisses me off. His methods are fucked up (you can't base a theory on nine case studies!), he's sexist (penis envy, anyone?), and has too high an opinion of himself (because, you know, all his patients fall in love with him) and Lieberman obviously gets his superiority complex from him.
Lieberman also takes a rather condescending view towards his fiance in the novel because she's too shallow in his opinion. He seems to see her as more a of a cute plaything to brighten his mood, and as the novel progresses he starts to have doubts about their engagement. That's really the only place I felt any sympathy for him. Everything else about him and even his cop friend just rubbed me the wrong way, especially their hour long music sing alongs and concerts - too pretentious.
As far as the murder mystery is concerned, it wasn't really that intriguing. Murdered woman in a room locked from the inside - possibly could have been interesting, but I never became invested enough in any of the characters to care one way or the other. Also, it seemed like every other chapter was supposed to be a red herring - ooh, maybe he did it. Or him. Plus, the solution seemed pretty simple. Granted the novel was set in a pre-CSI time, but it was written during it, so as an author, you need to come up with something a little more complicated if you don't expect everyone to figure out the method of the murder if not the murderer early on in the novel.
One cool thing was when they mentioned the confectionary Demel, because I've had coffee and cake there; in fact, I brought my parents cake from there when I went on leave (also, that picture from yesterday is from there). There are apparently sequels to this novel, and the only thing I would possibly be interested in knowing is the progression of Lieberman and his fiance Clara's relationship because I'd rather not see him bore me through another murder case.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It's my 25th birthday today. It's the first time in three years that I haven't been deployed or in the field for my birthday. Unfortunately, almost all my friends are one of those two, or in the States. This weekend, my friend and I are having a barbeque for our birthdays (hers is next week), but it should be a rather tame affair. She bought Guitar Hero World Tour for the Wii yesterday so that part should be fun. I was tempted to get it as well but I'm just not willing to shell out the $200 right now. Plus, it would probably be more fun if I ever got a router and hooked it up to my internet but that involves work . . .
Two years ago I was making fun of someone turning 25, telling him he was now a quarter of a century old. I got to hear that line today.
Picture of a cake at a 200 hundred year old Viennese bakery
Monday, April 20, 2009
The really ironic part was when he started talking about finding a balance between family and work - because he definitely didn't. The mayor of his little village came to congratulate him and referred to him as half an angel - my uncle and I were laughing our ass off about that one. Neither one of us can fathom how this man can be so loved by everyone but his family. It's like he's a completely different person around them.
I dragged a friend of mine with me, which was good since sitting over in my corner (I was at the children's section of the table!), I otherwise would have been completely bored out of my mind - the only people I knew were my uncle and aunt, my grandfather and his new wife, and I had met my grandfather's sister before but didn't remember her (the Munich side of the family was always a little too stuck up to deal with the rest of us - that's the other thing, my grandfather has spent his whole life trying to be on good terms with these people that never really quite saw him as completely part of the family and would use him for their benefit, but then made sure he didn't receive the same share of the inheritance when their father died - he's the half brother). While watching all the toasts and the random stuff going on, my friend compared the gathering to Rachel Getting Married, except the room was full of old white Germans, and the only diversity was that there were some people from Czech. There was even a random twenty something white girl doing a belly dance. Which seriously, creepy. I don't see how that could be comfortable - doing a dance for a seventy five year in room filled with a bunch of other men above sixty while wearing some rather revealing clothes. Also, for someone who is has old fashioned and German as my grandfather, I've really got to ask: there wasn't some traditional German folk dance they could have performed?
Basically, I want to have an important career, and be acknowledged for it. But if I have a family, and since right now I'm not planning on having children, that will really just be my partner/husband or whatever comes along, that person isn't going to be so reduced in the background that it looks like all I had in life was work. Even if it is a fulfilling career, I don't want to be completely defined by it and alienate my friends and family in its pursuit.
One of the things that bothered me the most was the way they handled diversity. Considering how often films simply have a white cast, it is a good thing when a movie has diversity in it. It almost seemed unrealistic in this film, though, or as if they were intentionally trying to say, these are good people, they have all kinds of friends. Actually, it wasn't so much the diverse cast that bothered me but some of the other stuff. Explain to me why a white woman marrying a black guy would wear a sari to her wedding? Am I supposed to see her as open minded, or am I supposed to see her as some Westerner who's appropriating some other culture's symbols because she wants to be hip and think they look nice? Because I was definitely leaning towards the later. If at any point in the film there had been even the slightest explanation, such as "Rachel studied abroad in India for a semester" or "Rachel converted to Hinduism," I wouldn't have had an issue with it because there was actual meaning to it. This way it just seemed like a way for the movie to make her more "cultural." Also what Army E-4 is going to own both Class As and dress blues? Most E-6s I know only have Class As.
I also could not deal with the pacing of the film. I know they were going for a realistic/documentary style look, but seriously, the wedding reception? I didn't need to see every single song they played nor did I need to see a minute worth of dancing to each single song. I don't care. I want to see more of the story line and plot, not random filler.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
I admit that half the reason I picked this book up is because it was set in Berlin, and I've been there. The novel begins in Berlin in 1922. Esther, a young Russian Jewish woman with a mysterious past, is working for an "entrepreneur" who believes he has discovered one of the Grand Duchesses in a mental institution, Anastasia. Partially because he truly believes his assertion, and partially because he thinks there's money to be made, he takes her out of the institution, and sets Esther and her up in an apartment along with another one of his employees who used to work for the Romanovs as one of many servants.
Anna Anderson, as they call the Anastasia wannabe, believes that there is a murderer out to get her, and after an attack and two deaths in her surroundings, Esther does not doubt her. At this point, Detective Schmidt becomes involved and he traces the killer to a subdivision of the new political group, the Nazis, or specifically Ernst Rohm's SA. Esther knows this entire time that Anna is being targeted because of something she knows about the killer, not because she's the last surviving Romanov heir. Whatever the killer has done is so horrible that it would ruin his ascent in the party.
Due to circumstances, the investigation is halted, and the novel picks back up in 1932. Schmidt has been in Dusseldorf during these years, and the growing influence of the Nazis is surprising on his return to Berlin. Another death leads Schmidt and Esther back together to figure out everything. At this point, the book begins to overstay its welcome a little bit. First off, once Schmidt and Esther figure out what exactly the killer was hiding, it was a little disappointing - given what a monster he was supposed to be, it seemed like there should have been more to it. Additionally, once they knew who he was and what he'd done, I could have cared less if they caught him. I was much more interested in the Anastasia part of the story than the murder investigation once it was solved. Despite the fact that the last fifty to a hundred pages went on a little longer than I felt necessary, I still enjoyed the first half and the ending enough for the novel to be worth it. I was looking for an entertaining, light read and that's what I got. I'm not taking any of the historical stuff for a fact, although it was interesting, and maybe I will eventually read more about the topics it discussed.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The Verve Pipe - The Freshmen
It's been kind of crazy around here ever since I got back from leave. I definitely need a weekend to myself at home which won't be happening this weekend unfortunately, since I have to go to my grandfather's birthday party.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Between being busy and not really knowing what to say about this novel, I've been pushing off writing about it online. As I said about the last Gaiman book I read, apparently, I'd chosen the wrong books of his to start with since I never got the big deal. I've quite enjoyed the last two novels of his I've read, though.
In Neverwhere, Richard helps a young woman, and as a result, gets sucked into a life in London Below, losing his entire existence in London Above. In London Below, many things can be taken literally, such as Baron's Court actually contains a Baron on its tube. In order to regain his normal life, Richard finds himself on a quest with Door, who is in search of her family's killer. Many of the supporting characters are very entertaining and colorful.
In the afterword/back of the book interview, Gaiman said he's wanted to create a magical city novel about London, and he definitely succeeded. Of course, between Harry Potter and His Dark Materials Trilogy, there are a few other novels with that theme, but those are all children/young adult.
I also got to work only to discover that my computer wouldn't let me log in and one or two other computers wouldn't even read my card. After a trip to the ID card center to reset my pin, my computer still wouldn't recognize me - turns out the computer had been accidentally deleted from the network. Only took me two and a half hours to finally check my email! And discover a deadline was a bit earlier than I'd expected. I spent the rest of the day in the vault at battalion.
This book wasn't quite what I was expecting. While I knew it was a true story, I still thought it would be more like a novel with a linear narrative and plot. Instead, it was written much more like non-fiction or a history book. It seems like many true stories or memoirs occasionally pick one day to start their story and then go from there. The Zookeeper's Wife never does that, and it is actually refreshing - after all, how often is it possible to pick one day in a life where everything just starts - life doesn't work like that. Rather, the first few chapters, Ackerman describes the day to day life at the zoo, based on interviews, journals and other books.
Ackerman also supplies many stats about life in the underground and the amount of effort that was necessary to help Jews and other Poles wanted by the Germans from getting caught. For every person saved, perhaps a dozen or more were involved in saving them. There were intricate nets, and somehow they managed to keep in touch with the people in the ghetto through much of it.
I enjoyed reading about this rather unique family, and all the animals and people they surrounded themselves with. I had no clue about the Nazi breeding program for animals before; in an effort to recreate the extinct animals such as auerochs and so forth, Nazis took animals from conquered countries to help with their success. Obviously I knew about the art the Nazis stole from different countries, but animals?
I am not sure if I quite agree with the title of the book, however. While Antonina obviously plays an important role supporting her husband's work in the underground and resistance, she also actively participates. Much of the family life and the reason that their place was perhaps less depressing than some other hiding places was due to Antonina's personality but I don't think she was the main character. Jan was just as prevalent in the book and the animals and the city also were rather important parts of the narrative. Perhaps, Ackerman chose the title because much of the book was based on her journals, and while Jan was in the book as much as Antonina, her voice may have been a little more prevalent.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Part of me is actually surprised I liked this book as much as I did. Obviously, I didn't buy a book expecting to dislike it, but once I'd started it, I thought I might have some issues with Perrotta. One of his main characters, Sarah, was a women's studies major in college, and in ways I felt like he used her to make fun of gender studies. It's not that I'm a humorless feminist, I can take a joke, but he goes for the stereotypes a little bit too much for me: Sarah discovers feminism, has a lesbian affair and takes classes like "Sexism in Literature," hating all those horrible male authors of the 18th and 19th century. Obviously, gender studies analyses gender dynamics in novels, but it's not like any of my professors ever said "you must hate this author because he's racist/misogynist" - often teachers taught these authors because they enjoyed their work despite their flaws, and saw it as illuminating of the society at that time as well. So yeah, I could have done without the few little crazy, man-hating radical feminist jabs.
Other than that, I actually liked the novel. Sarah is disappointed by the life she has somehow ended up in, and finds escape in an affair with Todd, a stay at home dad who is equally unhappy. In addition to the usual stuff about the suburbs and soccer moms, a local sex offender has recently been released from prison and moved back in with his mother. While the stats of course show that many sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, his presence still raise issues and a certain amount of sympathy even. Despite what he has done, and what he may do again, men like Larry do not have the right to harrass him or his mother. As the instructor in my UVA class said, the registered sex offenders are at least known; the thing to worry about is the people who might be molesting children and just hiding it much better.
Basically, everyone in the novel is dissatisfied with their life. Todd's wife, Kathy, is tired of working and wants Todd to start making money so she can stay home with the kid for a while (personally, I wished she'd just embraced the idea of being a career woman) while Todd feels pressure from her but actually likes the stay-at-home dad thing. Given today's economic situation, it is a little weird to be reading about a bunch of rich people that can afford to stay home talk about their dissatisfaction but some of the characters were portrayed as ridiculous so the reader wasn't necessarily supposed to feel sympathetic with them. Between Sarah and Todd, Sarah may have been more willing to put everything on the line but she was also the stronger character to me, not more ridiculous. Perrotta actually throws in a parallel to Madame Bovary (never read it; I haven't spent much time with French lit) since Sarah has to read it in her book club.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
I used my leave as an excuse to pick up books I might normally not, meaning anything that sounded even remotely interesting was added to the large stack in my hand and purchased. This is one I actually hesitated over and kept coming back to, and I was pleasantly surprised. The subject matter was new to me, and I actually learned something from the novel: I didn't know that leprosy is now more correctly known as Hansen's Disease, and that there had been a leper colony in Hawaii. Native Hawaiians were especially vulnerable to the disease which makes sense since it was new to the environment and they hadn't developed antibodies naturally already.
Moloka'i tells the story of a young girl, Rachel Kalama, who is diagnosed with leprosy (since this is what it was still known as in 1891 when the novel begins), and separated from her family, being forced to live in exile at the leper colony on Moloka'i. While there, Rachel is one of the lucky ones whose disease progresses slowly so she is witness to many events and changes on the island. She also forms important and close relationships with several people in the colony, creating a new family of her own. Meanwhile, the reader gets hints of the stigma that accompanies the disease and the discrimination her family faces due to Rachel's unfortunate illness. Other important characters include Sister Catherine, one of the nuns that devotes her life to helping the children on the colony and sees Rachel as the closest she comes to ever having a daughter. While certain parts of the story may seem familiar or at least the blurb is (strong female character lives an interesting and varied life), Brennert chose a unique setting as a backdrop, which helped his novel a lot. The characters were interesting and likable enough, rolling with the tragedies and heartaches while still living a full life. While this isn't great literature or a modern classic, it was a good story, and at least teaches the readers about a topic they may know little to nothing about.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
I've seen this on several blogs now, but I think the first place that had it up was Shakesville.
This was posted on one of the daily Pajiba Love posts over at Pajiba. I'm not about to dig through to figure out which day; really, just go check out the entire website.
I went to see The Reader last week with my mom, and then this week noticed this post on Racialicious about Defiance and the portrayal of Jews in film. The writer also addressed Holocaust films, and specifically discussed two of the most recent ones, Valkyrie and The Reader. One of the articles he linked to was also especially interesting. The author, Ron Rosenbaum, argues that films like The Reader and Valkyrie are trying to rewrite history and more or less excuse the German people for the Holocaust while placing the blame on a few high ranking Germans. Valkyrie, for example, turns von Stauffenberg into a hero when really he was just as anti-semitic as any other powerful German. He tried to kill Hitler because he didn't think he could win the war, not because he disagreed with his other policies.
His argument about The Reader is that it in ways tries to excuse Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet's character, due to her illiteracy, and that the film tries to pretend that ordinary people didn't know what was going on. I'm not sure if I quite agree with his assessment in that respect, but certainly as he points out, the fact that her illiteracy was used to make her sympathetic is problematic.
I, however, got a slightly different message from the film. I didn't think that the film was trying to say that no one knew what was going on; rather, I felt like it was saying that everyone was guilty but a few became scape goats for everyone else, as the one student said during the trials. All six of the guards were guilty, they all participated but Hanna received the most punishment. Similarly, all of Germany was more or less aware of what was going on, saw their neighbors disappearing but said nothing. Everyone was culpable but only a few citizens were selected to pay for what the entire country had done.
Additionally, Rosenbaum makes the argument that Schmitz was completely unrepentant. I'm not sure if I agree. I think it all comes down on how to interpret the statement that she makes towards the end of her prison term (it's been over a week, and IMDB didn't have the line I was looking for so the wording might be off): "You want to know if I'm sorry? The people are dead, it doesn't matter how I feel or if I'm sorry." Obviously, this could mean she doesn't care about what she did. On the other hand, couldn't it also mean that she is sorry but she doesn't think she has the right to talk about her emotions or feelings because as she said, her regret now won't bring them back? Hanna never talks about her emotions in the film so it would be rather uncharacteristic of her now to share them. Given her messed up pride, even if she felt sorry, maybe she didn't want to say it to others, thinking it was a personal matter, and that it would sound false if she said since it would be what Michael wanted to hear.
Still, there are definitely some issues with the film and the story in general. I'd read the book a year or two ago after seeing it recommended somewhere, and I honestly was kind of apathetic to it. I'd heard it was this great novel and yet when I was done, I had a kind of "and?"/ "so what?" reaction to it.