Friday, May 29, 2009

The History of Love

I read this last week when I was on vacation. I had just finished The Golden Compass and wanted something fairly short as a palette cleanser before starting The Subtle Knife. I liked The History of Love a lot, but I never loved it. In thinking about what to write now, I recognize elements that I loved, characters who were well drawn, and ways that it should have really worked. And in looking back, I think that it did really work; I just never felt emotionally moved for some reason.

The book tells the unlikely story of several tenuously connected characters and how a book about love binds them together. There’s Alma, a 14 year old girl who misses her deceased dad, worries about her religious-nut little brother, and wants her mom to stop being so lonely. There’s Leo Gursky, an old man who lives alone with only his old friend Bruno for company, who has lived a romantic half-life since surviving World War II. Leo, especially, is heartbreakingly well depicted, and his story, the story of the book within the book, and the stories of all the other characters come together in what should be a moving if unlikely way.

I wish I could understand why, but I like this book so much more in retrospect than I did while I was reading it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vacation Review

After more than a week of the pampered life, I’m back at work. Reentry has been what you’d expect. Many emails to read and more than a little lamenting over the fact that I’m not at home any more. Overall, though, it’s not too bad overall.

Here’s a little bit more about how I occupied myself during my week off. In addition to a few days in the country, I also did some inter-borough travel: Last Monday I went out to Queens to visit my cousin Colleen who I hadn’t seen in ages. It strikes me as ridiculous that we could live so close to each other but still get together so rarely. Life has a way of intervening, though, and it had been over a year since our last visit. In that time she’s had another beautiful baby, who I got to meet for the first time on Monday. And even though Queens is the epicenter of the New York swine flu outbreak, I seem to have come through unscathed. :)

I went to the Wednesday matinee of Mary Stuart, too. It’s been ages since I’ve been to a Wednesday matinee; even though I knew those audiences skewed older, I was taken aback by how many white-haired-heads I saw around me. And they kept their stereotype alive and strong with much hard-candy opening and wrapper crinkling. Unfortunately, I found the show a bit soporific. I had heard good things about it, but I just couldn’t get into it at all.

I also had a good amount of time to laze about and do very little. I watched some Netflix, read The History of Love and most of The Subtle Knife, and just enjoyed the free time. It was good while it lasted.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

City Mice in the Country

For the long weekend, Todd and I took the kids up to a place called Pinegrove Ranch in the Catskills. With horseback riding, bocce ball, tennis, ping pong, two pools (both with water slides), archery, rock climbing, paddle boats, fishing, marshmallow roasting, and a whole host of other activities, we were never at a loss for something to do.

Not everything was amazing, and most of the facilities get a B-. The place clearly hasn't been renovated in a while, and a coat of paint, at the very least, was in order in most places. And the food...let's just say that vegetables were in short supply and grease was involved in most meals' preparation.

Even so, we all had a really fun time. We swam every day, and I loved the horseback riding. We never progressed past the intermediate level (trotting), but it was so much fun. I discovered I love bocce ball, and Dylan fell a little in love with tennis. Todd taught us both how to cast a fishing line (which is oddly satisfying even though I had no bait and wasn't really fishing — I'm not into the catch and release situation. It just seems pointlessly mean). Sofia was particularly taken with the magic shows that took place in the evenings, and we were all pretty impressed with the guy who did lasso and bull-whip tricks.

We really all enjoyed getting out of the city and our normal routine for a couple of days, and as someone who grew up in Vermont, it was hilarious to see city kids' take on life in the country.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I think I need to break up with Lollibomb. You may remember my love for these all natural, all vegan body products. They smell great, they feel great, and everything about them makes me happy.

Everything, that is, except that they are apparently impossible to get.

I placed a big order several months ago and never got it. I knew from experience that the woman who runs this one-woman business was pretty slow on the shipping, but even after she said it had shipped and provided a tracking number, the post office had no record of it. It took a while, but eventually she said she'd shipped it again, with the same end result. I've never gotten either of the packages she says she's shipped. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she seems really flaky.

She was vending at a craft show in Brooklyn this past Sunday, and I hoofed it all the way out there with the plan of basically buying her entire stock of my favorite scent and never having to deal with her again. When I got there, she had about 4 things out to sell. That's it. There was really nothing--and nothing at all in my favorite scent. It was a major bust (ironically, also the name of the magazine hosting the craftacular).

I'm tempted to try to order through her site one more time, but I know I have to face reality and recognize that I need to find a new favorite body product line. Any recommendations? I like stuff that is all natural, smells great, and also doesn't break the bank.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Some Things Shouldn't Be Fried

I love the Food Network. We don't have cable, so among my limited options it's definitely my go-to channel. I checked it out the other day and saw one of the most disgusting things ever: DEEP FRIED BUTTER. Seriously? Seriously?! There are some things, delicious though they may be, that don't need help to be unhealthy.

I'm shocked that there doesn't seem to be a video of this horror online, but you can read the recipe on the Food Network site. Suffice it to say that in addition to butter, there's cream cheese, eggs, and hot oil involved. So gross.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Be Fresh. Be Creative. Be Good.

“Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
— Officer Lockstock, Urinetown

Too much exposition wasn’t the only nail in the coffin of Coraline: The Musical, but it was certainly one of the big ones. Neil Gaiman’s novella was adapted for this Off-Broadway production by Stephin Merrit of The Magnet Fields fame and David Greenspan. I wish I could compliment them on a job well done, but I may have never seen so many missed opportunities in a single show.

The show is very Hey! Hey! Look at what we’re doing! all the way through, starting with the casting. Coraline was played by Jayne Houdyshell, a gray-haired, middle-aged, zaftig woman. In a better show, with an amazing performance, the audience may be able to suspend their disbelief better, but I never, for one moment, forgot that I was watching an actress play the part. Houdyshell really won me over in some scenes, especially when Coraline was bored. But as soon as I started to think that things might gel, Houdyshell would start mimicking childlike behavior rather than actually acting like a child.

The director was at least partly responsible for my problems with the Houdyshell. Both her performance and the show as a whole suffered from some serious schizophrenia. Is Coraline winsome? Plucky? Introverted? Mature? Brave? Foolhardy? You’d never know from this show. And is Coraline: The Musical meant to be a bit scary? Or is it funny? Again, it’s anybody’s guess. Rather than building suspense, Coraline seems to go task to task in a tedious this happened, and then that happened manner. And in the climax when she tricks Other Mother’s hand, we’re treated to a long, drawn out, and so over-the-top as to be funny song from Other Mother about how long it takes to fall to the bottom of the well. Seriously, one of the lines in this song was something like, “when a second feels like it lasts for a thousand years.” I knew the feeling very well by that point in the show. It didn’t help that most of Merrit’s songs had the same forgettable sound, either. I couldn’t have hummed a snippet of a single song on the way out of the theater.

And back to all that exposition: the audience was trusted to interpret almost nothing on their own. At the part where Coraline threw the cat at Other Mother, for instance, Other Mother faced the audience, face in hands, and said something akin to “The cat clawed at my face! I’m bleeding black tar!” The creative forces either didn’t trust their material or their audience enough to figure things out without stating everything outright. They seemed to suffer from a serious dearth of creativity in terms of how any action was staged, choosing every time to just tell us what happened. Lame.

I try to find something good in any show, and there were definitely a few highlights here. Francis Jue was particularly excellent as Father and Miss Forcible, and the stage design was effective. I wish I could say the same for the lighting, the music, the casting, the book, etc.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My List

At long, long last, my two coworkers and I were able to sneak away from the office for an “executive meeting” (aka, we went out for coffee at the Italian place around the corner) and exchanged book lists. It took us about a week and a half to find a time that all three of us were able to spare 20 minutes, which I find a bit pathetic. Nonetheless, it was very fun to exchange reading recommendations! I loved getting their suggestions just as I’ve loved getting all of yours. I’m going to do a big wish list update with everyone’s suggestions this week. :)

Before we each shared our lists, we described how we came to include the selected books. As I told them, I chose books that I thought they hadn’t already read and that I thought were both enjoyable and worth reading. I wouldn’t call this a list of “bests” or even “favorites.” Those lists are way too hard to make. But this list does represent a small portion of both those grander lists.

Without further ado, here’s my list in no particular order.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers: I discovered Carson McCullers in high school. As a final English assignment either sophomore or junior year, everyone in the class had to read several books by a single author and write an analysis of that author’s offerings. I wasn’t sure which author to select but told the school librarian that I had really liked To Kill A Mockingbird. Since Harper Lee hadn’t written other books, Mrs. McElroy suggested McCullers. All told, I read The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Clock Without Hands, and The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©. All are worth reading, but this one affected me the most, so it made the list.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih: This is my most re-read book. I read it first during my junior year of college for a course titled Love, Hate, and Sexual Desire Under Colonialism. You just know that a class with that title is going to be awesome. My professor was one of those incredibly engaging academic types who was fascinated by process and how we thought we knew what we knew or why we believed the things we believed. Reading this book in concert with a class that made me question everything I claimed I understood was a powerful combination. The book is short but very, very rich, and I always discover something new when I revisit it.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf: I’ve written before about the beauty of Haruf’s writing. I don’t know any other authors who say so much with so few words. I find his writing simultaneously male, spare, moving, and beautiful.

Straight Man, Richard Russo: Since I just wrote a review of Mohawk in which I referenced my love for Straight Man, this inclusion is probably no surprise. It’s very funny, and I just love a novel that skewers the academy. Russo has slowly but steadily climbed into the upper echelons of my favorite authors, and this is still my favorite of his offerings.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke: This behemoth of a novel is more than just a single story. Through a fabulous use of footnotes, Clarke weaves together many, many supporting tales into her novel about magic in historical England. In recent years I’ve opened myself up to new genres more than ever before, and this fantastical book certainly helped usher me into this new, more open-minded position.

Books that almost made the list:

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore: I loved this irreverent and hilarious take on what J.C.’s life was like from the perspective of his BFF, Biff. Straight Man took the humor slot on the final list, but Lamb was a close second.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
: This is McCullers first novel and another excellent read.

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson: Though my list ended up being 100% fiction, I did have plans at the outset to include some nonfiction. This true account of the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial murderer is a captivating read and both sides of the story fascinated me.

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer: I would recommend this book about fundamental Mormonism to anyone and everyone. I ultimately didn’t include it on my list only because I thought my two friends would have already read it (and I was right; they had).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Weekend Update

This past weekend was a very full one. In addition to seeing Next to Nothing, Todd and I had drinks with some of my classmates. I thought I should go and network, but it ended up being a small group and I definitely could have skipped it. Todd was a trooper, though, and made nice with everyone there, even though he was probably bored to death. It was good that about half the people who were there also brought S.O.s, so it wasn’t all school talk all the time.

Saturday morning we lazed about and then hit the mean streets of New York (ok, the perfectly lovely and verdant loop in Central Park) for our first bike ride of the season. We were temporarily derailed by a flat tire on Todd’s bike, but one visit to the bike repair shop later we were on our way. It was a great day to be out and about, and we felt lucky with the weather. Rain was predicted, but as usual, the forecast was wrong.

That evening we headed downtown and saw The Thermals play at Bowery Ballroom. Todd loves concerts and has been to many in his day. He hasn’t been to many, though, in the last two years, in part because I’m sort of a dud when it comes to music. I just don’t pay that much attention to it. I like good music, but given the choice between spending my time with friends, a new book, watching a movie, etc. or a new album, I consistently don’t choose the album. It means I’m not up on many bands and definitely don’t make it to many shows (I think I’ve been to about 5 in my life). I also find concert behavior a little off-putting. Yes, I realize I’m an old lady in a 31-year-old body, but I just don’t enjoy being bumped into that much. Luckily, The Thermals put on a great show, and I had a really good time. Their energy was great, the music was excellent, and it was so much fun to see Todd enjoying himself so much. He goes out of his way to do things that I like all the time, so getting bumped into a little bit isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things.

We also fit a viewing Star Trek movie into the weekend, which I really liked. I’ve seen episodes here and there over the years, usually with my dad, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’d heard nothing but positive buzz about the movie, though, and it really was enjoyable. Live long and prosper.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Best Show I've Seen in Ages

Michelle and I went to Sunday's matinee of Next to Normal, which started out off Broadway and just received 11 Tony nominations. I have been pretty lax in following theater lately and have missed the buzz on many, many shows. Somehow this one filtered through, though, and I heard from several people that this show was amazing. I tried not to take it all too much to heart; I didn't want to set my expectations so high that the show would naturally disappoint.

This show does not disappoint!

Next to Normal gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Goodmans: Dan, the hardworking father; Diana, the struggling mother; their son Gabe, Diana's favorite; and Natalie, their overachieving and high-strung daughter. When it opens, the show suggests that disfunction is the constant state of being for the Goodmans. Before the end of the first act, though, we know that a constant buzz of anxiety and disfuction would be a gift to them. They are dealing with something much more severe, and things are not what they seemed at first.

To say too much more would give away the show's twist. The surprise caught me completely off guard, and my experience was the better for it. So instead of more plot summary I'll say that at intermission I told Michelle I felt like I needed to see the show again. When it closed, I said it again, with even more emphasis. Every member of the cast was uniformly excellent. Alice Ripley was intense, powerful, and heartbreaking as Diana. Aaron Tveit, as Gabe, was superb. J. Robert Spencer, who plays Dan was out, and we Michael Berry, his understudy. It's always disappointing to see that slip of paper in the playbill noting that a major member of the cast is out, and while I don't know what I missed from Spencer, I will say that understudy Michel Berry was excellent.

The show provides a few laughs, definitely some tears, surprises, many good songs, and a story that is incredibly moving. If you have the chance to see this show, I'd really recommend it. I'll even go with you. Seeing it again sounds pretty good right now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Recommendations

Two friends at work and I were chatting about books the other day and decided to each make a list of 5 books that the other two should read. I’m not ready to reveal my list because a) I’m still whittling it own and b) one of the two friends sometimes reads my blog and I don’t want her to get a sneak peak. I’m curious, though, what five books would each of you recommend I read? You can personalize it as much as you want (e.g., I know Tori loves X author, so she should totally read Y) or as little as you want (e.g., These are the 5 books everyone should read before they die). Don’t feel compelled to impress — I like trash as much as the next reader. For proof, you only need to look in my bag right now: I’m 3/4 of the way through the Twilight sequel New Moon.

If you’re interested, I’ll post my list of recommendations later this week.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Extremely Productive Weekend, Plus A Couple of Mediocre Movies

Todd and I cranked it out this weekend. We've been living in something of a mess, in part because our schedules didn't leave us a lot of mid-week time to continue unpacking my stuff and in part because several large items / boxes were going into storage. Until those things were out of the way, it was just impossible to put some stuff away or feel like we were making a lot of progress. Yesterday, though, a bunch of stuff went into our storage unit. We can now walk around the apartment without it feeling like an obstacle course! I also got my books more organized (Todd says I'm obsessed, but I really feel like it's disconcerting to have my copy of Twilight next to my copy of Feminism/Postmodernism). Todd put up two more shelves, in the bathroom this time. Everything is coming together.

And in between all of this, we even snuck in a couple of sort-of-funny movies. Friday night we watched Pineapple Express; we made the mistake of watching the extended cut, and boy did we feel that extra length. Yesterday we took a work break to eat and watch Role Models. Both movies had moments that were funny, but both also lasted too long, were kind of stupid, and wore out their welcome.