Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I admit I am completely pathetic but this is so cute:

I want a cat!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Book 73: Paula

Paula by Isabel Allende

It’s hard to say how I felt about this book – when I first started reading it and she described her grandmother, I was afraid that I was basically going to get The House of Spirits: The Real Life Story. It didn’t quite go that far, but it’s definitely easy to see the characters that inspired others in her first novel which does have quite a few autobiographical elements.

I don’t know how to critique this book – after all, it’s a woman writing about watching her daughter die. Especially after reading the reviews, and knowing how much acclaim and response Allende got for this memoir, I expected something more. I honestly don’t feel like I ever really got to know Paula from the pages of this book (passing acquaintance, maybe, but not much deeper insight). It was Allende’s story, of course, telling her daughter about her family background and mixing it with scenes from the present, of Paula comatose in a hospital bed.

Allende has no problems portraying herself with all her flaws in this book, and poking fun at herself. I think my favorite passage was when Pablo Neruda told her she was the worst journalist in the country. It took me a few minutes to sort out all the grandparent figures. Many of the people in her life have since become the inspiration for characters in her novels, and as a result, I didn’t necessarily feel like I learned much that was new. I’m amazed by all the places Allende has been, partially due to the fact that her stepfather was a diplomat, making me wonder what his or her mother’s memoirs would be like. Also, I probably shouldn’t have read The Sum of Our Days until after this memoir. I might have enjoyed it more that way.

As a straight up memoir, it was entertaining, though Allende definitely came from a priviledged family even if they didn't necessarily have a lot of money. As a book on grief, well, I preferred Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

I Love Buffy

I believe when I first reviewed Twilight, I made a comment about how Buffy would kick Edward's ass - well, here's my proof:

I really enjoyed this - saw it over at The Film Experience a few days ago, and have been meaning to post it ever since.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Music Video

The Bangles - Hazy Shade of Winter

Book 72: The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The premise of the novel is that Grace, a 98 year old woman in a retirement home, is contacted by a movie director, Ursula who is making a film about the 1924 suicide of a World War I poet, Robbie Hunter. At the time of the suicide, Grace was the lady's maid at Riverton, and her employer Hannah and Hannah's sister, Emmeline, both witnessed the suicide. While Grace doesn't tell Ursula what happened, she finds herself reminiscing about the past more and more, and begins recording her story to give to her grandson Marcus, a mystery writer who has disappeared following his wife's death.

So I admit I enjoyed reading the novel but I'm not sure if it was necessarily a very good one - some things were incredibly obvious from the very beginning that Grace apparently didn't figure out till much later in her life. Maybe part of the reason some things were so predictable had much to do with the fact that I've read this novel before. In this case it was told from the perspective of the maid, but other than that, much of the plot reminded me of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (which Morton goes on to recommend in her "Author's Note") - the elements of the plot that weren't from that novel seemed like they were from The Thirteenth Tale. Between those two novels, you've pretty much got the story for this one without some of the darker themes. Here are the opening lines of the novel: "Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again." Compare that to Rebecca's opening line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." As I said, very derivitative.

However, even with her more or less copying plots from other novels, she still wrote a better story than I could have - it's hard to come up with an original idea these days, and there are definitely worse books to copy. For anyone that likes the mysterious past intermixing with the present (I guess these are called gothic novels :p ), I'd also recommend Shadows of the Wind. Unlike this one and the other two I mentioned, it isn't about sister relationships, but it still has a tragic love story at its heart.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book 71: Kinky Gazpacho

Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain by Lori L. Tharps

I read a review of this memoir over at Womanist Musings, and decided to get it. I'm not sure if there is much to add to that review, but I definitely enjoyed the book a lot. As Holly says, it is a easy, light read that addresses deeper issues.

Lori, the author, grew up surrounded by white people - she generally fit in, but every once in a while she would hear jokes that were racist - they were never directed at her, but it made her feel like she was somehow inferior. However, when she tries to fit in with the black community in college, it doesn't quite work out.

Lori has an idea that travel could change her life - she spends a few months in Morroco while in high school and studies abroad for a year in Spain. In Spain, she notices signs of racism in the culture, but her arguments are denied or ignored. After her marriage to a Spanish man she met during her study abroad, she spends her summers in Spain. However, she begins to feel more and more disconnected from the culture until finally she starts wondering if there is a history of slavery in Spain that has simply been forgotten in the hopes of finding a connection to Spain's past. She gets a magazine to pay for her research, and actually finds a few clues and articles about the forgotten blacks in Spanish history.

Living in Germany, every once in a while I'll see an older sign for a store that just strikes me as completely off - obviously, Germany doesn't have the same racial history so the concern over here is more about anti-semitism but it's definitely interesting to see. In that way, I can definitely see where Lori is coming from, even though I have on occasion been described as the "whitest white girl" he knows by a friend of mine. I haven't been in a music store in ages, but Germany used to have a section titled "black music" - not rap or hip-hop, but black music. Which included Janet Jackson as well as Blackstreet etc. It was based completely on skin tone and not at all on music genre.

She also addresses some problems her marriage and relationship with Manuel has experienced, between her sometimes feeling like she should be dating her "own kind," and being alienated from his homeland and culture. Additionally, she admits that Manuel can get frustrated when she turns everything into a race issue, but despite all the obstacles, they have managed to create a lasting and supportive relationship. Some of the points she brought up were also raised in the film Something New, so obviously she is not alone with some of her dilemmas.

Book 70: A Drink Before the War

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

I didn't enjoy this novel as much as Shutter Island or Mystic River, but it's his first novel, so obviously he was still developing. Having said that, it was still entertaining and much more developed and thoughtful than other murder mystery series. I mean how many other detective series really have any attempt at racial analysis? I'm not saying he comes to any conclusions or draws the proper ones, but the narrator actually questions his actions at the end and asks himself if he behaved differently towards two people based on their race.

He acknowledges the beliefs of those around him that he in fact occasionally echoes without trying to make himself look better or justify himself. As far as the actual story, Patrick, the narrator, and his partner Angie are private investigators in Boston, and are hired to find a cleaning woman who has disappeared with certain documents. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, and the two quickly finds themselves involved in political intrigues and a gang war. With the gang war, some of the action towards the end of the novel got a little over the top for my tastes, but mostly it was an intelligently written mystery, which is impressive since so many of them tend to be fluff.

Book 69: City of Thieves

City of Thieves by David Benioff

I don't remember how I heard of this novel, but I think reading The Madonnas of Leningrad made me want to read another novel about Leningrad during the siege. And damn. This was a really good book.

In the first few pages, Benioff describes his family and his grandparents, and tells of how he wanted to learn about Leningrad from his grandfather. Using his stories, Benioff writes this story - while it appears to be based on these stories, Benioff never claims it to be completely truthful or correct - as his grandfather says, "You're a writer. Make it up."

The rest of the novel uses the grandfather, Lev Beniov, as a narrator. While on guard in Leningrad, he and his friends see a German parachutist land in Leningrad, and rush to find the man. They are discovered going through the dead man's possessions, and the authorities arrest Lev for looting since the corpse is the property of the State. All his friends escape, and don't look back. Looting is punishable by death but Lev is instead singled out to execute an important mission for a local colonel - find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake by Friday. He has another prisoner, a soldier charged with desertion as a side kick, and together they must find a dozen eggs in a city that has been under siege for months and where some people have taken to cannibalism.

In their search for eggs (if they don't find them, the colonel will kill them, and he has requisitioned their rations cards), they decide they must leave Leningrad for the countryside where they hope to find eggs. They end up behind enemy lines, and become involved with a group of Russian girls that are being held as prostitutes by the Germans and later meet up with a group of partisans.

The novel portrays the deprivations of the city, and the surroundings as well as the devastation that the war has caused. Lev also discusses political issues in the State, since his father, an author, was one of many taken away by the secret police. With all this going on, this novel could have been very dark and depressing. And certainly, Benioff critiques the people with power such as the colonel in this novel and various institutions, but it never got depressing. In fact, I was surprised by how funny the novel was. Even in these horrible situations, Benioff and his grandfather were able to find humor, maybe only in hindsight, but the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy worked incredibly well in this novel.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Music Video

The Cars - My Best Friend's Girl

After I got my first CD player when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I'd always ask my dad what CDs to buy since I didn't know much about music. Some of the ones he recommended where odd (Lionel Ritchie, seriously, Dad?), but most all of them were definitely classic '80s, including The Cars - Greatest Hits.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book 68: Brooklyn

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

A friend of mine recently spent her four day weekend in Dublin, and picked this up while she was over there - I ran out of books in the field so she lent me this one.

This novel definitely doesn't have any huge plot developments, the main character isn't going to go out and change the world, and all in all, probably leads a rather average existence. However, it was a short, steady novel and while maybe not groundbreaking or super exciting, Eilis was relatable and reliable. In ways she reminded me very much of an old friend of mine that I've lost touch with. Occasionally, I would wonder if she's really making any decisions on her own, or if she's just going with the flow because she doesn't know what else to do/ doesn't think she has other options (might be referring to my friend more), but her decisions are easy to understand.

Set in the '50s, Eilis, the main protagonist, has always expected to spend her entire life in the same city she was born and grew up in. She expects to have a traditional life: work until she marries, give up her job and have children. The only problem is that there are no jobs in her home town of Enniscorthy, Ireland, so when a priest, Father Flood, comes back home to visit from New York, and hears of her situation, he offers to help her emigrate. With her mother and sister's blessing and support, Eilis takes the long trip across the Atlantic, and slowly begins to adjust to life in Brooklyn as a shop girl while taking night classes and dating a young Italian.

Eventually she returns home for a visit, and suddenly the life she expected to have before she left is available to her - everything she could have possibly dreamed of is now a possibility, but she still has obligations in Brooklyn so she has to make a decision.

One of the reasons I felt like Eilis just went along with things had very much to do with her relationship with Tony, and that's the part reminded me most of my former friend. While she obviously likes Tony, he seems much more involved in the relationship than she does, and at times, I couldn't help but wonder if she really liked him, or just felt like she should, or just went along with it to be agreeable. She herself struggles about the pace of their relationship but mostly just goes along with him. Part of it probably is that she is more reserved with her emotions; however, as I said when my friend first started dating this one guy, I had a similar reaction to that relationship since whenever she talked about the guy she just didn't seem excited. At all.

Book 67: Away

Away by Amy Bloom

While I'd read the backflap of the cover, and knew that eventually the protagonist, Lillian, was going to go on a trip across the United States, I was enjoying the first third to half of the book about her new life in New York, describing her struggles and luck as she started over in a new country. I actually got to the point where I'd much rather continue reading that kind of story then have to watch her leave everything at the faint hope of finding her daughter. And the novel got so much less exciting once she left - first off, I guess I didn't quite understand her strong motivation since I'm not a mother, but also just how unlikely and impossible it would have been for her to find her daughter even if she had still been alive. I guess I'm too rational. With that, I also don't see how Lillian could have made such a large impression that people reacted to her departure the way they did.

Once Lillian leaves, she becomes harder to relate to, and I don't mean that due to her motivations - it just seems like she is not as well written or developed while she's traveling as she was in New York. Some of the people she meets on the road are definitely interesting, such as the ambitious and determined prostitute Gumdrop, and the con artist Chinky, but during those parts of the story I actually preferred them to Lillian which probably isn't a good sign for a novel. However, in a way, the scenarios in which Lillian meets these people are almost too far fetched, and it feels like they shouldn't necessarily be in this novel.

And finally, the very end was sweet, but the way it got to that just seemed a little off to me - once again, probably because I'm too cynical for the love at first sight thing. It's not necessarily what Bloom was trying to portray, and two lonely people's need for each other is definitely understandable but after Lillian's focus throughout the rest of the novel, it just seems like she let go rather quickly at this point.

Parts of it were definitely well written but the author tried to throw in too many different oddball elements and the characters weren't always that convincing. If I get bored, I might give this author another shot, but probably not anytime soon.

Four Day* in Rome

I loved Rome. I had a few more mishaps than I usually do while traveling but nothing big enough to make me enjoy my weekend any less. When I first started looking for my hotel, I looked across the street saw the number on the building which was something around 285. My hotel was something like 46, so I started walking down to the end of the road. Towards the end of the road, I realized that while the buildings on the opposite of the road were descending, the ones on my side were ascending. I’d actually already passed my hotel very close to the beginning of the road which was of course awesome. The window shopping in that area is pretty impressive, though (my hotel was very nice, by the way – the bed took up most of the room but the bed was huge, and I was very impressed by the bathroom). I’m not sure if all the streets are numbered in that way so that the highest and lowest number are actually right across from each other or if I was just on a special street.

On my way to the Colosseum, my strap on my bag broke, and I’m very attached to that bag. I picked it up at the British Museum while I was in London two years ago and it’s perfect for traveling – it’s a good enough size for a camera, a novel and a guide book without being super bulky and it zips shut so no need to worry about theft. I replaced it with a cheap “Roma” bag which is about the same size but it’s not water proof, and while it zips, the zipper isn’t completely sown on at both ends so there are two places with openings. Probably should be okay. I just hope the British Museum still has these kinds of bags because I now have another reason to go back to London.

I was surprised by just how much space the old Forum took up – not that I didn’t think it was going to be large, but I just didn’t think so much of it would still be preserved/open to tourists. I also didn’t realize just how close the important, rich Romans actually lived to the Forum. That was one nice thing about Rome – the city is large and there’s so much to see but all the major sites are basically within walking distance to each other. Some of them are further away from each other, so I was surprised to discover I’d actually walked so far but since there were so many things to see enroute, it didn’t feel that far.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned the sunburn I got. However, since I was getting tired and hot, it encouraged me to sit at a café and enjoy a little bit of rest, and the cafés there are very nice. The food is expensive but that was basically the only thing I really spent money on. The ticket prices were rather reasonable compared to other tourist areas – the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine area were 12 euro all together, and even the Vatican Museum which was the most expensive was only about 14 euro. I hadn’t ever heard of the Castel Sant' Angelo, and hadn’t really planning on going there originally, but it was pretty cool as well.

When I first got to Rome and after looking through the guide book, I was worried – besides the Roman ruins and a bunch of churches, what was there really in Rome? And I will go into the occasional interesting sounding church but I wasn’t about to go into every single one. I actually ended up visiting a few on my last morning in Rome, and they were gorgeous. I’m not religious at all, and would probably be an agnostic or atheist if I cared enough about the subject to put more thought into it. Still, being inside those churches, I could see how easy it would be to be inspired to believe in the greatness of some higher being. However, after a few minutes of awe, if anything these buildings and monuments are reminders to the greatness and creativity of man, not God. After all, it was humans that built and designed these churches and created the paintings. A divine being may have been their inspiration but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The church and religion might be credited with inspiring its followers but that still doesn’t mean it’s the truth. That’s why when people start engaging in conversations about how evil the Catholic Church is I tend to ignore them (especially since they try to make Catholicism sound worse than the other branches of Christianity). Obviously there are a lot things wrong with Catholicism, and they’ve abused their power in the past, but what religion hasn’t abused its power? Especially when they’d had that much power? At least the Catholic church used its power to create some gorgeous art (granted, at points they also destroyed old, “pagan” art and suppressed things that disagreed with them, but still).

However, I was surprised by how some things were presented as fact. While on a bus tour, the guide said that a certain church contained a relic with pieces of the cross, and told the story of St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, who traveled to Jerusalem in search of the cross. She had some people dig up some crosses on that one hill, and had them laid upon her, and she knew which one was the one Christ was crucified on. Yeah, okay. While I can possibly believe that the chains in a church were the ones used on St. Peter, I can’t believe that story. And the reason I can buy the other one is that by the time Peter was put in chains, he already had followers that may have tried to preserve the chains and then continued to pass them on/keep them safe (as I said while I’m not religious, I don’t have a problem believing that there may have been a guy named Jesus walking around preaching a message of peace – it’s the mystical and supernatural part I’m not going for); however, being divinely inspired to realize which three hundred year old piece of wood was used to sacrifice Jesus? Yeah, not buying that that’s the real cross.

Also, someone want to explain to me why there is a St. Peter’s Church and St. John’s (Giovanni) but St. Peter’s head (or what is passed off as it) is located in St. John’s while St. Peter’s merely has possession of one of his fingers? Now, I learned that St. John’s used to be important church before St. Peter’s was built, and continues to be of special significance to the Pope and certain traditions but I still think it’s kind of funny.

I’m a horrible tourist, though – there were a few times I wanted to tell people to stop climbing around on the ancient Roman ruins in the Palatine and others to stop leaning on/touching the antique marble statues. Also, the Sistine Chapel was incredibly busy. I didn’t realize that the Sistine Chapel was actually inside the Vatican Museum and originally assumed it was its own building (actually I thought the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter were the same thing, or that the Sistine Chapel was a side chapel of it). I expected the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum to be busy, but there were a lot of rooms in the Vatican that were on the way to the Sistine Chapel, and the only way to the Chapel was through all those other rooms. All of these room were interesting in their own right, and had incredible paintings as well. I’m sure they would have been busy no matter what, but I feel like they would have been less busy if they hadn’t been on the route to one of the most famous chapel ceilings in the Western world and an obvious tourist attraction. Also, I was a little disappointed with the gift shop at the Vatican Museum. There was one when you first walk into the museum, and there were a few stands throughout the museum but I usually wait till I’m done to go the museum shop because I don’t want to carry all that stuff around. The shop at the end of the museum was smaller I think than the one at the beginning, so I didn’t get a coffee mug (I have one from the British Museum and one from the Louvre). I can't wait to go back to Italy in the fall - my plan right now is to take a week of leave to explore Florence, Venice and Milan. And yes, Milan is mainly on there for the shopping, or in my case window shopping.

*Yes, I know grammar. I'm using the term "Four Day" as in Four Day Weekend, so I'm not actually missing the s. We get a four day once a month in Europe, and trust me, they are definitely needed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book 66: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I bought this book a while back, but every time I picked it up, I couldn’t get past the first chapter or two. I’d liked The Kite Runner but felt like maybe it wasn’t worth all the acclaim it had received, and thought the ending was rather ludicrous. A friend of mine has also read both books and she thinks The Kite Runner is the better of the two. However, I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns. I mean, in The Kite Runner, the protagonist returns to Afghanistan to save his childhood friend’s son from an orphanage only to discover that their neighborhood bully and arch nemesis had already taken him out of the orphanage to torture him. There’s a part towards the end of A Thousand Splendid Suns that might ask for a certain suspension of belief but it’s not unbelievable and completely farfetched; it’s the kind of thing that can happen, just not that often.

Also, since this novel focused on characters that remained in Afghanistan, it taught more about the various regimes that have occurred over the past thirty years in Afganistan, while The Kite Runner was about the expatriates’ experience.

In ways, the occurrences are similar to many novels with women taking place in Muslim countries – after a period of greater freedom for women, the religious fundamentalist become more powerful again, and women once again find their movements and choices restricted. Reading Lolita in Tehran showed similar themes of nationalism and patriotism that the whole country agreed with that suddenly carried a very negative anti-Western, anti-woman backlash with them.

A Thousand Splendid Suns starts with Mariam, a young girl, who is the illegitimate daughter of one of the most prominent men in her small area. After her fifteenth birthday, Mariam finally demands some kind of recognition from her father, and in the subsequent events, she is married off to a man 30 years her senior. At first, her marriage is more pleasant than she would have expected but as time passes, her husband shows his true colors, and her life becomes dominated by fear and condescension.

Born nineteen years after Mariam, Laila is the daughter of their neighbors whom Mariam has little to no interaction with. Laila’s father was a teacher and much more progressive than Mariam’s husband Rasheed, and Laila is raised with an education. Laila’s childhood witnesses several changes in regime, beginning with the Soviets who are hated but have one advantage to them as far as Laila’s father can see: they have given women the best opportunities they have ever had. After the Soviets are defeated, several factions wage war against it for power, hurting the civilian population. Many Afghanis become refugees, including Laila’s best friend and childhood sweetheart Tariq.

After years of infighting, the population greets the Taliban with enthusiasm, and it is only later that the women realize how badly things will now be for them. However, even before the Taliban, women like Mariam had no say in their lives, and even Laila who is from a more progressive background finds herself with no options.

While the novel ends somewhat positively with the UN and various organizations trying to provide aid to the country, I am not sure if the future is really going to be much better. I know recently the constitution that was voted on in Afghanistan basically legalized marital rape, although I believe that has since been changed again. Also after eight years of war, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another backlash against all things Western after the occupation ends – it’s a logical enough reaction, but unfortunately it also becomes an excuse and a reason to oppress women.

Book 65: Carrie

Carrie by Stephen King

The back of the novel described this as a horrifying tale. It’s hard to be truly horrified or scared by a story that has since become so famous as a novel and in its film version that everyone knows the story. Having read several Stephen King novels, it is definitely easy to tell that this is his first. I liked the way he interspersed the story with reports from later on, inserting excerpts of books that have been written on the subject of Carrie White and the event. Obviously, even if I didn’t know the ending ahead of time (granted, I’d seen the movie so the ending I knew was slightly different from the novel ending which was much more destructive), I would have had a lot of foreshadowing and foreboding although without foreknowledge it probably would have helped build the tension.

As I said, it is obvious that this is King’s first novel. He used parentheses to denote thoughts which I didn’t really like that much. He also messed up a few minor details as far as time line such as when Carrie’s mom said, “I was going to kill you but Ralph wouldn’t let me” when it had long been established that Carrie’s father died before her birth.

I know there has been much criticism of King and misogyny, especially in this novel. Given that this was written in the ‘70s, I’m not sure if King is any worse than anyone of his contemporaries may have been. He does describe teenage girls as vicious, and much worse when it comes to tormenting a misfit than boys and also makes comments about how menstruation brings out the worst in women, which I think is bullshit. Carrie was incredibly conflicted, both hating and loving her mother. She desperately wants out of the life she has but doesn’t know how. When she first discovers her powers she seems ready to use them for destructive purposes very early – when she is afraid that her date might not show up, her first response is that she will tear up the house. Perhaps King was simply using this to demonstrate how much built up rage Carrie had suppressed just waiting for that final straw to push her over the edge. For the most part, King turns Carrie into a victim of her upbringing and her surroundings – her mother was crazy (how very Freudian – let’s blame the mom), and the children tormented her, often due to things her mother had forced her to do. I think that part is rather accurately done, the way group mentality and conformity cause help lead to Carrie’s isolation and outsider status. However, while it is easy to feel pity for Carrie, she isn’t necessarily a very likable character – however, as said before, who can blame her for having an “I’ll show them” kind of attitude after years of abuse?

Book 64: Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

This novel is of course the sequel to Asimov’s Foundation. The first novel dealt with three different crises in the development of the Foundation, while this one deals with two separate ones. By the time of the first crisis in this novel occurs, the Foundation is starting to come to the attention of the Empire, and one particularly ambitious general decides to conquer the Foundation for the Empire. In addition to this, the forces that will eventually lead to the next crisis are beginning to show themselves although they won’t come to a front for a long time. As the Foundation’s power and wealth has increased, its old establishment leadership has fallen into the same types of stagnation as the original Empire.

The second part of the novel addresses a crisis that Seldon did not predict for the future because his science is based on the forces of the masses, and does not take into consideration the power an individual alone could have. In this case, one person had a genetic mutation that gives him considerable power and allows him to conquer worlds. Personally, considering how scientifically based the rest of the series was, I wasn’t exactly too into this shift to more fantastical elements; however, the second half of the novel was definitely a better read than the first half.

The first half just wasn’t really holding my attention. The second half was more able to do so, and there was finally a female main character. Of course, she was introduced as a young bride, but eventually we discover that she graduated with honors (or the equivalent) with a history degree, and at one point, Asimov mentions a few women as factory workers. From the reactions of the remains of the Empire upon meeting Bayta, Bayta does seem to have more freedom and independence as a woman from the Foundation than women in the Empire. Bayta is actually the only character intelligent enough to piece everything together and figure out the source of the threat. Of course, having one incredibly intelligent woman does not make up for the lack of females in other areas, or the fact that the few other women in the series are either shrewish or weak, thus implying that Bayta is an exception to her gender.

Book 63: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

This novel is loosely related to American Gods since it too is about gods, and mentions Anansi who may or may not be the same Anansi that appeared in the previous novel. It is, however much lighter and funnier. I like American Gods, it’s just this one definitely has a different flavor to it. Actually, in a way, it was almost a mix of Neverwhere and American Gods since it included the god part but the main character had more in common with Richard than with Shadow. Like Richard, Fat Charlie is portrayed as rather average, working a normal job with a girlfriend that just doesn’t seem quite right for him and then finds himself involved in a fantastical world he never would have imagined.

After his father Anansi dies, Charlie’s old neighbor tells him that his father was a god and that he has brother named Spider. After he returns to London, his brother decides to visit him. At first, Charlie is impressed with how cool his brother is, but after his life starts changing and his brother seduces Charlie’s fiancé, Charlie desperately wants Spider back out of his life. At this point, Charlie involves other ancient gods, there are a few episodes in the novel that are reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and there’s also a plot involving embezzlement and murder, all of which collide together in St. Andrews.

While the plot is entertaining although at points kind of crazy, Gaiman has several passages that are simply hilarious. Charlie has an intense dislike of his future mother in law to be, and his thoughts when she unexpectedly drops by his apartment had me laughing out loud (fortunately I didn’t get any weird looks from the people with me):

Fat Charlie wondered what Rosie’s mother would usually hear in a
church. Probably just cries of “Back! Foul beast of Hell!” followed
by gasps of “Is it alive?” and a nervous inquiry as to whether anybody had remembered to bring the stakes and hammers. (96)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Music Video

Garbage - Why do you love me

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Book 62: Foundation

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

As I’ve said before, as much as I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, those two genres can also very easily get hokey or just be badly written, so I’m usually hesitant. Obviously, Asimov is one of the classic science fiction writers, but I guess I also like more modern science fiction generally. While good science fiction has a message about society and isn’t just about technology, I didn’t really want to read about a futuristic world that was actually already antique seeming. This is especially noticeable when watching older movies or shows.

Foundation is the first of a trilogy to which Asimov eventually added several prequels and sequels. While this novel was written years before Star Wars, there were definitely parts of it that reminded me of it – there is a large galactic empire spanning thousands of planets and star systems. No aliens, though – these planets have all been colonized by humans over the past few millennia (like Firefly). However, Trantor, the main planet, sounds like a precursor to Coruscant – the entire planet is covered by buildings and sky scrapers, and there are inhabitants that have not seen the sky in years (in one of the Star Wars books, the author portrayed the lower levels of the planet as slums while the levels became more prosperous as they became higher).

As for the actual story, the Galactic Empire has been successful for several millennia but is slowly starting to weaken and decline. For example, science and technology is resting on laurels of years past and the people are too focused on the past to make any more discoveries. In this way, knowledge is starting to stagnate and also be lost. Hari Seldon is the head of a science termed psychohistory which basically sounds like very complicated mathematical probability. Using this theory, he can basically predict the reactions of masses for several years ahead of time. Of course, knowledge of historic trends probably would help as well. After the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a period of chaos and ignorance in that area of the world, and Asimov applies this on a much grander scale to his novel. Seldon predicts the fall of a the empire within three hundred years, and a dark age lasting over 30,000 years unless he can set up a scientific Foundation to preserve the knowledge and serve as a new beginning which would lessen the dark ages to a mere millennia instead of 30. However, his theory relies on the subjects not knowing the future, so he makes sure not to divulge this information beyond a few personnel, and does not send any trained psychohistorians to the Foundation.

The novel charts the first 150 years of the Foundation and how they maintain their hold and some power on a planet with limited resources surrounded by planets that have taken control of their domains, no longer fall under the Empire and are ruled by war lords.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I already picked up the second part of the series at the PX. However, while the politics and rise and fall of nations was well done and interesting, his treatment of gender was disappointing to say the least. After 1000s of years of development, Asimov couldn’t imagine women in a role other than wives. In fact, the only woman that even made an appearance in the novel was someone’s shrewish wife whom the husband had married to make an alliance with her father. While I could definitely buy the idea of societies taking away women’s rights and retreating back to a kind of medieval set up, there’s never any suggestion that women had any type of power before nor do they seem to have any prominence on Terminus, the heart of the Foundation which is supposed to be the most advanced planet around. When Seldon sets up the Foundation, a court asks him about the number of people, and he said they were including wives and children in that number. The only other time women are mentioned is when Mallow talks about economic warfare, and someone sarcastically responds, “so the war is going to end because of disgruntled housewives?” (Not an exact quote, I don’t have the book near me). While I’m willing to give him some leeway since this novel was published in 1950 or 1951, it is still rather irritating – it’s not like WWII hadn’t just ended during which many women took on roles and jobs that were traditionally done by men. They may have had to give them up again right after, but they’d definitely proven themselves. I’m hoping there will be an improvement in the next parts of the trilogy.

Book 61: The Body Project

The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

When I took "Girls and Popular Culture," the professor occasionally referenced The Body Project. Since it was written in the ‘90s, parts of it seemed dated. Using various diaries, journals and other sources, Brumberg charts the changes in adolescence and being a teenage girl. She argues that in the 19th century, there was a larger focus on internal beauty, and as the 20th century progressed, this shifted to external much more. Instead of girls saying they wanted to behave in certain ways to improve themselves, they started talking about changing their appearance.

One of the points that she discussed which I think would probably be worth a book in its own is how these changes all coincided with commercialism and consumer culture – advertisers convinced girls that their products could help them with their flaws but also helped them realized they had these “flaws.”

Her main areas of focus are menstruation, skin, “body projects” including weight loss among other things and sexuality. At times I worried that she was going to start talking about the good old days and how teens were so much more protected but her conclusion didn’t argue for that. She does, however, believe that there needs to be more involvement considering the mixed signals girls get.

Brumberg continues a problematic trend present in many feminist writings: there are a few mentions of black girls and other ethnicities, but for the most part, it is very much about white middle class girls. I also felt it was dated in some ways, especially when she mentions popular trends like piercings and tattoos (granted I may be thinking more about college and early ‘20s than teens). Since she wrote this during the Clinton years, I’m sure the Bush administration’s policies have also affected some of the trends she was discussing, such as sex education. She doesn’t get into anorexia too much, but has written a separate book on the subject. Overall, she has some interesting things to say about female adolescence and its development over the past century, and the book has some good insights into the history of girls. However, for a more recent analysis of girlhood or young women, I would suggest Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

Quick Update

The last few weeks have been insanely busy. I was in the field for a week in May, followed by a four day in Rome, three days of work, a short weekend during which I spent most of Sunday baking cakes and cup cakes for my promotion ceremony. I got promoted to captain on Monday, and have been busy at work due to USR and field prep. The rest of the company went to the field yesterday and I saw them off, and then dealt with Soldier issues that came up in the rear. I will be joining the company in the field tomorrow after I finish USR turn in up at brigade. I'm not going to have internet access while I'm out there, but it's going to be too busy out there anyway. I've seen a few people make comments about how they're going to use the summer to catch up on their reading; I'll be using mine to fall behind on my reading.
I do want to post some pictures from Rome since I loved it but it looks like that's definitely going to have to wait. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do it after I get back from the field and before my trip to Istanbul.
Here are a few pictures from my promotion, though. As a surprise, the commander and headquarters moved my office into the old PAC office so I now am no longer in the conference room.

Sunday Music Video

Lily Allen - Not Fair

Go here for the lyrics.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Book 60: Bombay Time

Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar

In ways, this novel has a similar set up to Olive Kitteridge, since it is about many intersecting characters and told from several different view points. In this case, however, Umrigar uses one event to tell the story of a community, or more specifically neighborhood/housing area.

The wedding of an young Parsi man brings together a group of neighbors, and the wedding reception serves as a time for the older attendants to reflect on their lives. Some, such as the groom's father, Jimmy, can look back at a successful life, while others wonder if perhaps they made the wrong choices and wasted their life. Rusi, who is the closest thing to a main character in the novel, has seen many of his dreams fall apart and suffered many other disappointments. Despite the passion he and his wife initially felt, he has watched their marriage disintegrate over the years.

While these characters of the Waudia Bag have faced many hardships and tragedies, Umrigar also reminds the readers that they are still very well set up compared to many in the city. Juxtaposed with these middle class men and women who have doubts about the future are the poor of Bombay who can't even feed themselves and whose lives can be determined by a word from people like Jimmy. She also uses one character to explore the situation in some rural communities and how landowners continue to have extreme power over the workers. While Umrigar mainly reminds the readers and her characters of the other side of Bombay in one of the later chapters, the poor she portrayed reminded me of the novel The White Tiger. While I definitely enjoyed this novel, if anyone is interested in how the other half lives, that book is also worth the read.

Book 59: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I recently heard about this novel when it was mentioned as a Pulitzer Prize Winner on Bibliolatry. I waited a while to order it because her review mentioned that the book was set up as a series of short stories, and generally, I'm not a big fan of short stories. However, since the short stories all revolved around the same character, Olive Kitteridge, in one way or another, I figured it would be a little different. The usual reason I don't like short stories is because I feel like by the time I start really getting into the characters and the story, it's already over - a collection of stories about the same person would basically prevent that from happening. Also, since they are told from different perspectives, and all the characters have different relationships, I liked seeing how that would affect my views. I always like seeing how characters fit together, even ones that one wouldn't necessarily expect to know each other (which is one thing I like about Louise Erdrich's novels - they are all about different people but since they take place in the same community, you keep running into certain characters again and again).

While the book, of course, showed how one person's life might affect a community or be affected by a community, I also enjoyed getting to know some of the other characters, and wish there had been more follow up to their stories (such as whether or not that one guy left his wife or not; it doesn't come up later, so I'm not sure if it didn't happen or no one cared enough to gossip about it, though it was probably the former). A few of the stories are from Olive's perspective or others close to her, while she barely appears in others. For example, in one of them, she is simply remembered as the math teacher that once told her students something inspiring they were too young to understand. Of course, years later, her student remembers this, and it helps her come to an important decision.

Olive definitely isn't an easy person to get along with and has very strong views and opinions. Her relationship with her son is difficult, and while she isn't always likeable, at least Strout portrays her in a way where it is easy to understand what makes Olive tick.