Thursday, December 29, 2011

What passing-bells for these?

After reading the light-hearted, Riviera-vacationing Lady Georgiana series again, it was back to the legacy of the Great War with Maisie Dobbs.

In Among the Mad, our psychologist-detective heroine works with Special Branch forces in a race to find a terrorist (though I'm not sure they had that term in 1931). With still-shell-shocked veterans being released onto the streets at the beginning of the Depression, someone intends to set off a gas bomb on New Year's Eve at St. Paul's. But, like the anthrax attacks 70 years later, the particular gas used as a warning is military-grade. It's a decent thriller, and sets up the reader for Maisie's involvement with Special Branch or other intelligence-gathering efforts later.

The Mapping of Love and Death actually had more significant character development and drama: Maisie's mentor dies, she strikes up a relationship with her old employer's son, her briefcase (a gift from her fellow servants when she went off to Cambridge, symbolizing her working-class, pre-war past) is stolen. The case at the center of the book is fascinating as well: the role of cartographers in World War I. The remains of a cartography unit listed as missing in 1916 are recently discovered, and an autopsy suggests an American mapmaker in the unit was murdered. One of the characters from the first book in the series also makes an appearance, making the plot ends come full circle. It's as if Jacqueline Winspear is collecting bits of the past in order to set readers up for an entirely new Maisie. I certainly hope so!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Counter rucking

We had to memorize "Invictus" back in seventh grade, and it's a fairly easy poem to keep in one's memory. So when the movie about South Africa's victory over New Zealand in the 2005 Rugby World Cup came out about a year ago, my curiosity was piqued. (My rugby-playing Kiwi bro-in-law also rushed out to see it.)

Since New Zealand won it this year - and I had some free time over Christmas break - I finally watched it. I do tend to like movies about sports teams: in the end, they're about working out differences and cooperating, which is why they also make such great parallel stories about nation-shaping and identity-forging.

But I'll admit, I was a little disappointed with Invictus. I wanted to love it, because the set-up was so great: a Nobel Peace Prize-wining man who spent 27 years in prison becomes president of a country struggling with racial strife and poverty and all the other legacies of apartheid, and an almost-all-white rugby team comes from behind to unite their divided country and win the World Cup. It's a great story. But for some reason, I found the characters to be pretty one-dimensional: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela was always the wise Madiba and only seemed like an ordinary human in a few scenes, when his estrangement from his family is mentioned. Similarly, Matt Damon as the national rugby captain seems to just shuffle along - there's never any insight into his words or actions.

To me, the most compelling characters weren't the rugby team or the history-making President; the motley crew that made up Mandela's security detail were actually the most fascinating. Rugby was irrelevant to their transition from old guard to integrated unit, from pre-apartheid suspicions of each other to trusting each other as a cohort protecting the President. That was the story I was looking for in this movie, with rugby as the metaphor. Turns out, it didn't really need rugby to tell it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

No. 5

Having finished both of the Rhys Bowen mystery series I loved, I can now only wait for new books to come out. So I was ecstatic when, instead of reminding me I had overdue fines, the library notified me that Naughty in Nice was the fifth and newest book in the Lady Georgiana series.

Nice, as in the city in France. (I do love a good pun.)

Coco Chanel, a stolen royal necklace, and fabulous parties and yachts are all part of the plot. All of society are vacationing in Nice, where the Queen sends Georgie to discreetly steal back her favorite snuffbox from a rich kleptomaniac.

It was a good, fun, light read (as much as murder mysteries can be), especially after the heavy slavery double-whammy of March and Kindred.

It's also a bit fascinating to read the Lady Georgiana series at the same time as I'm reading the Maisie Dobbs series: both take place in the early 1930s, both heroines have one Cockney relative and one partying best friend, and both settings emphasize the Depression. But Georgie's world is all glamour and glitz and trying to hold on to the Roaring Twenties; Maisie's world is still emerging from the gray, silent horrors of the Great War. It's a sobering difference indeed.

As harsh as truth

Because I rifled through Mi Cunado's book collection while in Michigan, I ordered March from the library when I got home. Told from the point of view of the father in Little Women during his time away during the Civil War, it was an intriguing tale of idealism clashing with reality.

The protagonist was an incredibly naive abolitionist minister; for much of the book, he worked in Union-held territory teaching slaves how to read. His life story flashes back to his strong abolitionist past, his friendships with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Brown. And as the eager Northern do-gooder encounters the real-world scenarios of his ideals, the reader too has to witness the horrors of both slavery and war.

I appreciated how Geraldine Brooks added more flair to snippets from Little Women. In this alternate telling, the March family were secretly all involved in the Underground Railroad. Marmee's temper - mentioned briefly in Alcott's classic because she tells Jo she learned to master it - takes center stage in many of the chapters (actually, it was a little scary how Marmee's temper in March reminded me of mine).

When I finished the book, I knew there was more to the story of the March family - and more to the story of the war, which would drag on for four more years. In Little Women, the characters on the home front are so removed and sheltered from the war that the story could be feasibly occur out of that historical context; for readers raised on Louisa May Alcott, March finally makes a tangible connection to it.

Back when I was read all of Connie Willis' books because she was a female sci-fi writer, I intended to also read Octavia Butler. I finally got around to reading Kindred, and by a total coincidence it had much the same subject matter as March.

An African-American woman in 1976 is repeatedly "called" back to the antebellum South by one of her ancestors, a slave owner. Without knowing when she'll go back and forth between time periods, she becomes more paranoid in the modern world as her encounters in the 19th century become increasingly violent. What starts as meeting her ancestor when he was a small child slowly turns into watching him learn cruelty and how to be the master of a plantation. Kindred is incredibly well-written; I had to read it in one sitting, into the wee hours of the morning, because I couldn't put it down.

The book ends so disturbingly and violently. With no neat resolution, the reader is left to wonder about the symbolism: is the America celebrating its bicentennial trying to reconcile with its past? Is the woman called back specifically because she's in an interracial marriage in the 1970s? The whole story is a jumble of emotions, but in ways that are more thought-provoking than merely shock-inducing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A pulse in the eternal mind

I love the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Now that I'm halfway through it, I'm starting to get sad that it will end soon.

Messenger of Truth takes our psychologist/detective heroine into the world of art, where she is commissioned to determine whether an artist's tragic death was accidental or connected to any of the controversial scenes he painted.

Parts of An Incomplete Revenge reminded me of "The Lottery" - the book takes Maisie to Kent to uncover the thoroughly dark tale of what one small, xenophobic town does during the War in the aftermath of a Zeppelin raid, as well as in the subsequent ten years during annual hop-picking season when Gypsies and Londoners camp in fields to help with the harvest. (It also reminded me that I've been meaning to read a comprehensive history of the Roma for a long time now.)

In these two books, the main character starts to shed her wartime burdens - a rift with her mentor forces her to be more independent; her wartime love, brain-dead for a decade, finally passes away, so she can no longer carry a torch for him; she starts to have hobbies that bring brightness and color into her life. And readers get to see Britain change with Maisie: slowly, book by book, telephones and electricity reach more homes; cars replace horses and carriages; rigid class distinctions fade.

Of course, the tragedy is that readers know that another war is looming 8 years on the horizon.


Between all the reading I've been able to do lately, I also ran two 5K races within 10 days of each other, with a soccer playoff game sandwiched in between.

Aside from the Run for Your Rights, the Ann Arbor Turkey Trot is the only race I've run more than once - and I don't even live in Michigan! I like this new tradition, though I have no idea if Mi Hermana and the kiddos will even be in A2 next year for me to continue it; if Mi Cuñado finishes his dissertation and gets a teaching job elsewhere, they might move.

Mi Hermana the former cross-country runner bluntly informed me that what I've been counting as my watch time was actually my gun time, so I haven't been as slow as I thought. To keep it straight, I made a spreadsheet of all the races I've run in, with both times listed (thanks to Google caching, most records were still online). Fun spreadsheet-making! It was the closest to work that I got over the holidays.

When I returned home after a lovely Thanksgiving holiday meeting my newborn niece, my soccer team's had a playoff game, where I blocked a cannonball kick at point-blank range.
The bruise on my inner left thigh was a big as a soccer ball and shaped like one, too. (I thought it was really bad ass, and took a ton of pictures to show off my war wounds to La Madre, who told me they made me look like I'd been abused. Since the bruise hasn't gone away yet -- 9 days later -- I'm now paranoid about stares in the locker room at the gym.)

Then, with the fresh huge bruise, I ran the Girls on the Run 5K. Another fun race! I've realized I enjoy the family-friendly races where competition isn't the focus on the event.

When I entered my gun time and watch time on my newly-created spreadsheet, I realized I also seem to gravitate toward races that focus on women and girls or on women's rights issues (NARAL, BARCC, Iron Girl, Girls on the Run).


Friday, December 02, 2011

O' both your houses

Because I couldn't stop talking about how wonderful Middlesex was, my bro-in-law said, "I have a few other Pulitzer Prize-winning books too, if you want to read those."

So I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the title of which naturally reminded me of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" ... in fact, it was strangely similar enough to the Hemingway short story, and yet different enough that I liked it.

The book moves back and forth between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, between three generations enduring their own hardships, and from the Trujillo dictatorship to teen angst. From the opening lines, the reader knows it's not an entirely happy tale: the idea of a family curse is introduced and reiterated throughout. References to "the final days" and "the end" are repeatedly mentioned, so it's pretty obvious that the characters are ill-fated. Themes of family, sex, and education each alternate as both nurturing and oppressive.

Most of the book drops Spanish phrases or Dominican slang, with no translation. There are footnotes for historical references. The narrator is hilariously snide and irreverent, relating the stories with a mix of multinational street slang. Each portrait of the cursed family is depicted with and bittersweet emotion. The cultural references are brilliantly and intricately mixed: everything from Dominican slang to comic book geekdom to 80s films to sci-fi lore. Through it all, the reader really did become part of the binational, bicultural, class-straddling, racially-polarized world of the main characters.

Then, on the plane ride back home, I realized I had one more library book to read. I no longer remember who recommended it to me, but 2030 was utter crap. The characters lacked depth, the plot read like a B-rated Hollywood movie, and the science, politics, and economics described (hell, the entire book) could have been written by a 12-year-old.

In a nutshell: the cure for cancer leads to prolonged lifespans in the U.S. Young people start to hate old people to the point that there are suicide bombs at AARP headquarters. When a mega-earthquake wipes out the city of Los Angeles, the government can't afford to rebuild because it's been bankrupted by Medicare. So the Chinese offer to rebuild the city for half of the net revenue produced forever after.

I'm not kidding. It was that bad. It was painful to read on two main levels: as a history major and as a politico-wonk. I had to suspend all knowledge of the political process, election campaigns, community organizing, infrastructure, and geology, among many other things.

But I was bored on a plane for 5 hours with nothing else to do. If I hadn't been trapped in the air sans sudoku or crossword, I would never have read the whole thing. Because in the back of my mind the entire time, I kept thinking that the book was written a few years too late to be relevant: #OccupyWallStreet has shown that young people can protest unfair policies in smart and nonviolent ways, we've been post-HCR for a while now, and the separate ideas of a living will and death with dignity were flashes in the news cycle pan during the Bush Administration. 2030 tried too hard to be a social commentary; in the end, it's too shallow to spark any kind of meaningful conversation.

Not a book to read after finishing a well-written, intelligent novel that won a Pulitzer.

But at least I have more books from the library to help me erase the memories of this one...

Monday, November 28, 2011

London to Grosse Point

The great thing about being on vacation is that, once the nieces and nephew zonk out around 8 or 8:30, I have plenty of time to read.

In the third Maisie Dobbs book, our heroine finally returns to France twelve years after her war injury. Two tough cases (both involving MIA soldiers from the Great War), coupled with her suppressed psychological trauma from the War itself, lead to a near-mental breakdown. (But, of course, she muddles through. As one does.) Two interesting developments for the series that I'll be curious to see in the next few books: that a breach of trust occurs between Maisie and her mentor, so she must start to learn to solve her most intellectually rigorous cases alone; and that since she finally returned to the now-graveyard scene of her greatest anguish, even after a decade she can hopefully start healing and moving on.

Books 4 and 5 are waiting for me at the library when I get back home.

But for now, one great thing about being on vacation in Michigan with a brother-in-law who teaches history is that there are tons of spare books in the basement. So I grabbed Middlesex, erroneously conflating it with both Atonement and March (also on the bookshelf).

Turns out, the books are very, very different. I haven't (yet) read the two I mentally confused with this one, but Middlesex is sheer, utter brilliance. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about a hermaphrodite growing up in a changing Detroit is extremely well-written. The narrative voice pulls you in from the first couple of lines, hinting at intertwined family scandals and historical flashes and self-discovery spanning 70 years, all with teasing details that aren't fully revealed for several more chapters.

The book's genius is that it also draws on so much literary and historical richness: it starts on the slopes of Mount Olympus in 1922 and moves across violence and Depression to the streets of the Motor City. (Yes, I did feel like re-re-re-watching the Chrysler SuperBowl ad.) The protagonist's grandparents' flight from Smyrna also had me recalling the first vignette from Hemingway's In Our Time; and a chapter that involved the fledgling Nation of Islam had me running out to google-verify that it did, indeed, begin in Detroit. Storyline transitions in Middlesex flow from Old World to New, superstition to science, immigrant to assimilated, rags to (middle class) riches, rural to urban to suburban, east to west, parent to child, girl to boy... and the reader (at least this one) is left with an awe-inspiring, incredible, complex tapestry of overlapping identities, sexualities, and families.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fear factor

I'd never seen Monsters, Inc. - but a post-turkey Thanksgiving stupor was as good a reason as any to watch it.

I thought it was clever, though I suspect much of it was too sophisticated for smaller children. (Monsters are deployed through doors in the monster world to scare kids in the human world. An energy company, Monsters, Inc., harvests children's screams as energy. One day a little toddler accidentally crosses the threshold to the monster world.)

Boo, the little girl, was adorable. And the ending was wonderfully environmentally positive: instead of relying on energy based on fear and the collection of children's screams, the monsters make a complete U-turn and change to energy consumption based on laughter and fun. I approve.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dulce et decorum est...

On to the next mystery series featuring a smart female detective! The latest one I've found takes place in the aftermath of the Great War, so naturally it's right up my alley.

Maisie Dobbs makes her debut as a detective in the first book, which details the title character's story: a working-class girl with a keen intellect is given a chance to study and go to university; then World War I breaks out and she becomes a nurse on the frontlines. The reader learns of her story ten years later, when the immediate legacy of the Great War sets the backdrop for our new sleuth's first case. The book is a poignant tribute to the Lost Generation as well as a testament to survivors and strength to rebuild both personal lives and a more egalitarian postwar society.

In Birds of a Feather, Maisie is hired to find a missing heiress whose three friends have just been murdered (and white feathers left hidden at each crime scene). I must admit, the feathers were an immediate clue early on, and I guessed both the motive and the guilty party long before the final chapters revealed them. However, while that usually discourages me from continuing a series for very long, it seemed rather trivial in this one. I love the psychologist-as-detective aspect of the two Maisie Dobbs books I've read so far, I love the fact that the heroine is my age, and I love that the series takes place in my particular pet period of history.

But the real reason I'm drawn to this series is because the main character lives on the edges of identity: a working-class family and childhood erased from her future by a Cambridge education; a woman in a traditionally male profession; a nation desperately trying to forget the War to End All Wars while being constantly reminded of the incredible loss it suffered from it.

I've ordered the rest of the books from the library!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

If I can make it there

It's always sad when a good series comes to an end. I've enjoyed Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mystery books, and finally finished the last two.

In The Last Illusion, Molly goes undercover as Harry Houdini's assistant after several gruesome accidents during his shows. I was unaware that Houdini may have been a spy, but the book runs with that premise - Molly not only helps NYPD solve a few cases, but the Secret Service as well. What I did find particularly interesting were the descriptions of a few illusionists' secrets.

Bless the Bride
ends the series with Molly's wedding to her NYPD captain (a dance which started with Book 1) . Before the nuptials, however, she gets in one last case: finding a runaway Chinese bride in Chinatown, in an era when the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese women from entering the U.S. I've always appreciated how each book in this series makes Molly interact with so many of the different communities that made up New York City circa 1902, and this one was no different. From settlement houses to "paper sons", I re-learned and re-lived a lot of lessons from my women's history and Asian American history classes!

And by complete coincidence, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Chinese Exclusion Act last month.

There aren't any more books in the Molly Murphy series, but I hope there will be more! Of course, I have half a dozen mystery series where I hope there will eventually be more books... Ah, well. On to the next!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

La ville, la vie, la veille

I lovelovelove this video. The song is so beautiful too, no matter how slightly objectionable (and probably bad for me right now) the lyrics are.

But it's Paris, the eternal city for love, in a highly temporal world. I'm drawn to the bittersweet melody and the single-camera viewpoint that simultaneously moves forward but flashes back.

In unexpectedly related news, the #OccupyOakland protestors have managed to shut down the Port of Oakland. (How can a proud Seattleite not hear that and think of the 1919 General Strike?) Meanwhile, I have friends at #OccupySeattle, where earlier today SPD pepper sprayed some demonstrators.

It feels like the eve of something big, the proverbial crossroad where you choose to be a part of history or not. But then, maybe it's just the effect of the rain tonight.

Monday, October 24, 2011

If your colors were like my dreams

A friend of a friend was in "Year Zero" at a local theatre, so I went to see it. The play focuses on young Cambodian Americans growing up in Southern California and the legacy of the Killing Fields in their lives.

It's definitely a drama, but it's interspersed with many moments of comedy - which, I think, made it more real. Aside from the incredibly heavy topic of the Killing Fields, the play also addressed school bullying, gang members, prison terms, reincarnation, and the death of a parent. And amid all that, it managed to capture the funny and tender moments of sibling relationships, teenage angst, and old flames rekindled.

One of the central themes that struck me was the idea of running away in order to survive. Each character runs away from something (bullies, repressed memories, a gang war) - even going back to their parents who fled a genocidal regime. But they're also running toward a slightly more stable, if uncertain future: college, a new home, the promise of financial stability, or simply being alive.

It reminded me of high school, where second-generation peers from immigrant families faced a lot of the same push-and-pull waves of culture, memory, and dreams.

At one point in the play, two characters debate reincarnation and how they would like to be reborn: with absolutely no memories of their previous lives, or knowing and remembering everything from the past. In the end, their "Year Zero" is reset mid-stream - and the only choice they get is to decide whether or not to run towards rebirth.

It's a sobering thought, to think that survival can be so similar to reincarnation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's not right, but it's okay

About a year ago, I watched the Eminem/Rihanna "Love the Way You Lie" video. I'd heard the song everywhere - it was certainly a pretty enough tune, thought the lyrics were a questionable. So I googled to see the video. And then I watched in horror as I recognized parts of my own behavior and dependencies. In fact, I watched it about a dozen times in a row, not wanting to admit that I could relate emotionally to a song and video that, in effect, glorifies mutually abusive relationships.

Because Wehrenberg's book on anxiety management was somewhat useful, I decided to read her book on depression. And while some of the same issues I had with her other book are in this one as well, I've actually found most of the tips to be more helpful - especially the ones about getting out of cycles of negativity and despair and lashing out.

It's a very weird thing to stop feeling extreme emotions but not stop thinking them: for instance, pain manifesting itself as anger. Pre-meds, I'd get flushed and jittery and my heartbeat would pump up and I'd be thinking the stereotypical "Oh HELL NO" thoughts. But establishing a stabilized mood has eliminated those visceral reactions almost entirely, and what I'm still left with are the thoughts. And changing decades of the thought patterns about emotions is what I know I need to begin in order for an unhealthy cycle to stop. Despite great strides in the past year, there are still occasional lapses.

And there's still that damn laird's lug... the one that makes it seem like I'm invisible and watching my own life from a distance and can only watch helplessly as things fall apart and someone posing as me is complicit in it. But "hologram" is the only word I can find to describe the walls it seems like I'm trapped behind. It takes a lot of effort to realize they're not real, and that I can wrestle for control.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Light up, light up

Another day, another 5K - unlike last time, I didn't randomly sign up the evening before having to run 3.2 miles. This time, I'd also been playing in my soccer games and hadn't been drinking at weddings and birthdays for a week straight.

Luckily (though ironically), because I didn't drink beer at a friend's Oktoberfest birthday celebration the night before (though I did try to carbo-load on crackers), I did fine in the race and even beat my time from September. Didn't beat my personal record, though.

Next goal: to beat last year's Ann Arbor Turkey Trot time this year. It will be done!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Step around the heart of it

In the current mystery series I'm hooked on, the detective is an enterprising Irish immigrant in New York at the turn of the last century.

In Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, Molly Murphy is juggling five different cases - everything from an amnesiac woman to a haunted theatre - and of course most of them end up being connected in some way.

In previous books, real-life people (like President McKinley's assassin, the police Commissioner in 1901, and one of the first female NYPD officers) leap out of the pages of history and into Molly Murphy's world. In this one, Nellie Bly features prominently. (My grandparents gave me a biography of Nellie Bly for my twelfth birthday. I loved it.) And like Bly, Molly ends up going undercover in a women's mental institution to solve a case. She also jets down to Yale to dig up the truth about a missing student and joins the cast of a new risqué musical to find out who is the "ghost" scaring the performers in it.

In a Gilded Cage has less gallivanting around: Molly investigates several suspicious and sudden deaths during an influenza outbreak in the city. I guessed the identity of the murderer - that marks a first for me for any Rhys Bowen book. (I didn't, however, figure out the motive.)

The thing I love about this series is that there are so many different social movements and political undercurrents during this period in American history, and New York is a perfect melting pot for all of them. Each book has Molly encountering some new community or subculture; in Cage, it's the suffragist movement, as Molly joins a group of Vassar alumnae who march in support of votes for women.

I've already reserved the last two books in the set at the library - it's going to be so bittersweet when I've finished them! This series has been such a delight.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

They don't love you like I love you

I found myself having to give a glowing introduction at a recent community screening for a documentary I hadn't yet seen. As it turns out, Gerrymandering was a good primer on the use and abuse of drawing political boundaries in America. It does a pretty fair job of pointing out that both Republicans and Democrats have redrawn political maps to their own advantage. And it did an equally fair job of pointing out that while gerrymandering has historically been a tool to break up and disenfranchise blocs of voters (African Americans, Latinos) or even individuals (challengers to incumbents), it has also been a good way to elect people that would otherwise never have a chance at winning in existing districts (African Americans in the South, for instance).

The film heavily favors independent commissions as the solution to creating a fair redistricting process: it lauds Iowa's existing (and extraordinarily geeky) process and tells the story of California's successful 2008 ballot measure.

And because I nerded out two years ago over the Washington State redistricting board game, I could barely contain myself at the screening when the film highlighted the USC Annenberg Center's online redistricting game.

In an effort to gerrymander (of sorts) my own brain, I read a book recommended by a friend. The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques had lots of great tips for breathing exercises and getting out of the mental ruts and agonizing, circular thought patterns that characterize anxiety. (On the other hand, it also had a lot of fairly unhelpful tips too.) And I appreciated the chapter on neurology that explains some of the basic science behind anxiety.

At some points, I started to have minor hyperventilation episodes just reading about some situations and realizing I exhibit some of the same mental loops and behavior patterns. In the end, though, I'm glad I read the book.

Even though the author (a practicing psychologist) favors management techniques independent of medication like SSRIs or SNRIs, I'm actually grateful for the drugs. I like the idea of "using your brain to change your brain" by overcoming destructive and debilitating thoughts caused (in part) by chemical imbalances, but I also understand how drugs work on the same neurotransmitters. With or without either techniques or prescriptions, or using a combination of both, managing anxiety so that it doesn't overcome you is still a difficult and sometimes exhausting challenge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Leader of the pack

I loved Kathryn Miller Haines' Winter series, so when I saw that she had a new book out, I immediately reserved it at the library without knowing anything about it.

It didn't take long to realize that it was intended for young adults. The heroine is 15, for starters; and all the drama revolves around different cliques at school, staying out past curfew, and getting in trouble with parents who don't understand what it's like to be an almost-grown up in wartime NYC.

And, despite the title, it turns out it isn't a murder mystery. (The term "murder" is 1940s tween slang equivalent of "the bee's knees", which the reader learns almost 2/3 of the way through the book.) The story is about the disappearance of a high school kid from the Lower East Side, whose school the heroine just transferred to from her posh private school on the Upper East Side after her mother dies and her father is injured at Pearl Harbor. Her dad is private investigator hired to find the missing boy, but because he won't let her help him with his work, she goes ahead and does it anyway. Teenage drama, heartbreak, and rebellion ensue.

As a story about teenagers navigating their independence, it's not a bad book. It feels like it might become a series: a lot of the sub-plots aren't wrapped up, and a lot of tiny questions about characters aren't answered. As a mystery, though, there wasn't much to keep me reading. The end was a little anti-climactic, and the heroine doesn't really have anything to do with solving the case.

What the book did a good job of capturing, though, was that awkward in-between phase of the teenage years, where high school is its own social realm of mini-cultures and where adults just don't get how clueless they are about how capable and responsible teens can really be if they'd only be given opportunities to be independent. That adolescent mentality pervaded the book so naturally, it was brilliant.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Milepost X

Another 5K down!

A friend (in town for only 5 hours) convinced me to sign up last-minute for a 5K before she got on her flight to DC. We saw a bunch of tents while walking around Green Lake and wandered over to see what was up. With 6 minutes left for last-minute registration an 14 hours left until the race (and having done no cardio workouts in 2 weeks since I left for SoCal), I registered spur-of-the-moment. It was a women-only race, with an emphasis on mother-daughter teams, and that was definitely part of the appeal.

This might be the first year I complete three 5Ks! I really do need to start doing 8 or 10K races. I've already done two 5Ks this year, and am planning to participate in the Ann Arbor Turkey Trot again this fall.

Also, I might have to become a corporate sellout. This was my first race sponsored not by a nonprofit but by an athletic clothing line. The free swag and free post-race food were seriously pretty cool, as were the heavily, clearly branded items for sale. I think the race fee alone was worth it for the quality T-shirt. ( Causes, meh. They only give you water and a banana afterwards, and the T-shirt is generally bulky and unisex. Was my soul bought so easily by cute tops, stylish running shorts, and yoga pants? Yes, yes it was. Because I finally found a quality purse hanger! It has the Iron Girl logo on it, of course, but whatevs. It's a cute logo with purdy colors. Squeeeeee.)

Commercial stuff aside, it was incredibly fun. And I think it got me back on track for being active. The past couple of weeks, with travelling and a slight post-vacation cough and a general bout with depression, have made it a little difficult to get back into my active routine. Too bad I'll miss soccer this week for a nonprofit dinner!

Immediately after the race, I went blackberry picking with some friends. Gotta love summer in Seattle!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Alive, alive, oh!

When post-vacation, possible airplane-induced coughing fits and a sore throat prevent nighttime sleeping, reading is always a key part of recovery.

In the next Molly Murphy installment, our feisty heroine is hired to locate a long-lost relative of a wealthy New Yorker. She is sent back to Ireland, where she accidentally swaps identities with a gun-smuggling actress and gets herself wrapped up with the IRB. I liked how the book connected the wave of Irish immigrants from the Great Famine to the ones from the turn of the century, as well as the 19th-century Irish freedom fighters to the increasingly successful ones at the turn of the century. The book spanned incidents and events across two generations. And of course, it being an Irish story (not an American one), it's largely tragic and sorrowful.

I found myself reflecting that I was glad I ditched my tour cohort and went to the National Museum of Ireland instead of the Guinness Brewery when we were in Dublin.

And yes, I had "Forgotten Hero" stuck in my head while reading the entire book. (Teenage Rainster loved that song. She was an odd duck .)

Not the HTML kind

Being so near to the Dream Factory made me realize I hadn't watched any movies in a really long time (since I cancelled my Netflix subscription when they separated the online streaming from the DVD rentals).

While in SoCal, I visited my aunt, uncle, and cousins. We watched Source Code as a compromise between no horror films (me) and nothing "boring"(19- and 21-year-old male cousins).

I'm partial to both time-travel and alternate-reality stories, and this was a bit of both. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an Army vet who is part of a government security experiment: he must re-live the final 8 minutes of a doomed train until he finds its bomber and prevents a second attack. At the same time, he's trying to find out how he got to be part of the situation. There are some pretty big, gaping holes in the plot - but other than that it's a decently engaging (if somewhat predictable) movie.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A pocketful of mumbles

I read the next two Molly Murphy books in lieu of packing for a trip to Southern California. (As a result, I forgot flip flops and a swimsuit, which are rather key for any stay in 90-degree weather.)

n Like Flynn takes our detective heroine to a countryside manor to investigate fraudulent spiritualists. (Doesn't there have to be a fake seance in every mystery series? Did Agatha Christie set that standard?) Naturally, there are a few murders that she has to solve along the way. A few of the plot twists seemed hastily thrown in and a bit improbable (like the sudden reappearance of the would-be rapist she thought she killed back in Ireland), but then others were definitely welcome (she and the police captain finally get it on, after three books of too-proper behavior).

In Oh Danny Boy, though, we are soberly reminded that those too-proper behaviors often prevented unwanted pregnancies in an era when women had extremely limited ways of supporting themselves or a child. The book focuses on an NYPD bribery scandal, and Molly attempts to prove the innocence of her somewhat selfish police captain and future baby daddy. In between bouts of morning sickness, she stumbles upon a missing heiress and a Jack the Ripper-esque string of killings; of course, the two cases end up being connected.
And because the Irish family she shares a home with is conveniently out in Connecticut recuperating from typhoid, Molly is alone to grapple with the drama and trauma of a potential abortion and miscarriage. One other very interesting introduction in this book is the (real-life) character of one of NYPD's first female officers. I love how, after a few books of Molly stumbling around to find her way as a female private investigator, Bowen has managed to find her a female mentor.

Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that I was pulled over for speeding on my way to Santa Barbara by a female California Highway Patrol officer. She kindly informed me how fast she believed I was going, as she wrote me my first-ever citation. (In fact, it was the first time I've ever been pulled over. Oh, firsts! I'm bizarrely relieved.) At any rate, Mi Cuñado's sister is a cop too; she loves her job but also has acknowledged the glass ceiling and social double standards.

Though a lot has been achieved in women's rights in the 109 years between Molly's time and mine, there's still a long way to go.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Where the ragged people go

Unlike Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgiana series, which it took me two books to start to appreciate, I instantly loved the Molly Murphy series. Maybe it's the simple difference between a destitute immigrant protagonist and a royal one, even if they're both intelligent and plucky. Whatever the reason, I really like this mystery series.

Books 2 and 3 have our heroine attempting to start her own detective business.

In Death of Riley, Molly manages to convince a local detective to hire her as his office assistant, though she wants to be his apprentice; when he is murdered, she takes over his business and hunts down his killer, who also turns out to be President McKinley's assassin. (She couldn't stop him in time, though part of me wonders what if? How would the 21st century have panned out if Teddy Roosevelt hadn't first inherited the Oval Office?) While chasing crooked cops and retracing her boss' last footsteps through the seedy parts of the Big Apple, Molly manages to ingratiate herself with the counter-culture Greenwich Village artist, feminist, socialist, and LGBT crowds.

In For the Love of Mike, Molly gets her first two legitimate cases as a detective (which of course turn out to be related): find a missing Irish heiress, and figure out which garment factory worker is stealing clothing designs and giving them to a rival shop owner. In the process, she helps organize a strike for better working conditions in factories - my kind of chick!

I think I love this mystery series because I like how Molly's investigations lead her to all parts of New York, which reflect all parts of America. As an Irish immigrant, she finds herself connected to the power structure of Tammany Hall and the police beat but also the hard labor experiences of the fish market, garment factories, brothels and bars, and gang protection; unlike Italian or Jewish immigrants at the time, she has a jarring but believable ability to move fluidly between social classes and neighborhoods - as a maid, a lady's companion, a garment worker, a union striker. In the third book, she goes to jail several times (mistaken as a prostitute, mistaken as a murder suspect, and for striking) - and I'm enjoying reading her character development as a somewhat naive but also somewhat privileged immigrant (she's educated) who is slowly learning the ropes of American justice, American double standards, American determination, and American dreams.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Brains in your head and feet in your shoes

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along. You’ll start happening too. . .
- Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You'll Go
Today was one of the most awesome, unplanned adventurous days I've had in a very long time. I got out of my comfort zone; I challenged myself; and I surmounted unexpected obstacles.

A friend suggested paddleboarding - which I mistook as pedal boating and didn't find out until we got to the lake. Since I was prepared to sit on my ass and pedal leisurely (not stand and balance on a surf board and paddle), it was quite a leap for me to go along with the activity. Once on the water, though, it proved to be incredibly fun - I was first to climb aboard and the last to disembark!

Next up, I climbed in a 60+-foot rock wall. Because the past two weeks have been intensely emotionally draining, it was something I felt I needed to do to symbolize moving forward - alone and whole. It freaked me out, but I worked through the anxiety and fear and my perceived inability to complete the task. Once I broke past the paralyzing "ZOMG I can't do this" attitude, I powered through, rang the bell at the top of the wall, and belayed down to the bottom.

I'm not going to lie, it was scary until I reached the bottom. I was shaking when I took the gear off, but ultimately I was proud of myself for finishing the course and trusting myself to accomplish something scary and new.

Then I packed bread and cheese and met up with some friends to watch the sun set at a woodsy, isolated park in Seattle. We walked around the trails and on the beach, ate, and then promptly got lost in the dark once the sun went down. We ended up wandering around the trails, lost in the forest in complete darkness. (Luckily, we had a headlamp.) We were three safety-conscious women alone in a huge, pitch-black park where bad things have been known to happen. We meandered around for about 6 miles, but in the end found the correct dark, sketchy, after-hours parking lot and drove home, safe and sound.

I generally dislike it when people use the phrase "at the end of the day" in a sentence. However, it's entirely appropriate in this context.

The last half of this summer has not been what I anticipated or hoped it would be. The next few weeks will be immensely difficult, both professionally and personally, and I have no idea where I will be in a month or two or six.

But at the end of the day - after trying new things, having faith in myself, and trusting friends - I know I have an incredible amount of strength and courage that I don't always recognize or utilize. I''ll be okay. I'll survive.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

In the last of Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgiana mystery series, the entire cast is trapped in a blizzard in a creepy Transylvanian castle for a wedding. Like the third book (which over-cheesed the Scottishness), this fourth one is pretty campy: vampire tales, trap doors in staircases, Balkan feuds, a Robespierre-like head of the secret police, and superstitious townspeople. And just like the third book, I loved this one too. It was horribly delightful; the cast of characters was Christie-esque. And unlike the previous books, the plot finally didn't revolve around spying on Wallis Warfield-Simpson for the Queen of England.

Since I finished the Lady Georgiana series, I moved on to another one by Rhys Bowen: the Molly Murphy books. And though I like both protagonists from the two series, they couldn't be further apart on the social scale: one is 34th in line to the British throne in the 1930s, and the other is an Irish immigrant to New York City at the beginning of the 20th century.

It's like the adult murder mystery version of American Girls... except that the heroines all hail from the British Isles.

Having finally visited Ellis Island myself a few years ago, I could visualize the processing procedures the characters had to endure. The most heartbreaking part of the story was that a fellow Irishwoman gives Molly her identity and boat ticket to take her two small children to America to be with their father; the woman is dying of tuberculosis and would never be allowed into the U.S. It did, actually, remind me of a lot of the heartbreaking stories you can read on Ellis Island - of refugees turned away or families split up if not everyone passed through the immigration inspection.

At any rate, it's a good start to a murder mystery series. The main characters are all lovable and colorful and believable. As an immigrant tale, it's not so bad, either - the plucky heroine tries to apply for jobs everywhere but discovers that immigrants are divided in the labor market by ethnicity, and that Tammany Hall sometimes makes being Irish a benefit.
There are certainly little impossible and improbable twists and turns as the characters try to solve a murder amid Irish home rule sympathizers, tenement housing, and rigid gender expectations... but then what's a New York story without a little suspension of the rules?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hold the world but as the world, Gratiano

In particularly difficult personal times, I've always turned to this poem by Robert Frost.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain --and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

I think it appeals to me because of the emphasis on binaries (in/out, wrong/right, stay/go, dark/light, up/down) as well as reflective pauses (the silence of footsteps, the glance at the clock). It reminds me that shifting borders can be home, that existence and presence can slip between discrete concretes.

Living with both anxiety and depression has been similarly fluid. One comes, the other goes, and vice versa. Having grown up with several bipolar and anxiety-ridden family members, "manic" is my default standard for acceptable human interaction... so it took me years to recognize that emotional ping-pong tournaments are not the norm for everyone. Though they're inherently a part of me, what has proven incredibly difficult is the process of un-learning it.

At one point in my life, being biracial defined my worldview - explaining identity in terms of (but inherently against) a constructed binary, and rejecting everything that demanded a monochromatic tone. I've moved past that introspective period of my life to a firmer, confident identity - but the underlying acceptance of fluidity and shifting states of being doesn't seem to go away.

Both the anxiety and depression are manageable, even when triggered unexpectedly. For starters, medication helps alleviate some of the agonizing and destructive mood spikes.
Coping with just thoughts and emotions but not the chemical, tangible feelings and visceral reactions is rather bizarre, though, after living with mental chaos. I described it to someone I once counted as a friend as feeling like Super Mario: running along on a level path, jumping up slightly, but unable to skyrocket, fly, or plummet erratically. (It wasn't a perfect analogy, given that I don't play video games, but it's what my brain gave me in order to explain itself and its chemical changes.)

I love my family. I love my friends. I have many close friendships, and every day I am stunned by how many amazing people I am privileged to include in my life. I enjoy writing and singing and dancing, and am told I do all three incredibly well. I prefer to have philosophical conversions with a few people over wine, beer, or good food rather than loud times at popular, crowded places. These are the moments and pieces of beauty that make me happy and give me strength.

But still, there's that little stone room, that damned laird's lug, that sees and hears and senses and feels that very full life from a distance. Voices echo in it. Sometimes it's a struggle to breathe inside, and sometimes it's a struggle to realize that the walls themselves are a mere hologram.

In one of my favorite movies, one protagonist says to the other,
"I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Brown heath and shaggy wood

Between toddlers visiting, weddings, baby showers, bridal showers, and accidentally hiking steeper trails, July has been a fun whirlwind. I haven't had much time for reading until recently.

It took me a while to get into Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie mysteries (see below). But the third book is easily my favorite: for starters, the heroine's "spy" activities are no longer reporting the Prince of Wales' activities with Wallis Simpson (silly) - this time, she's sent by the Home Office to figure out why members of the royal family are prone to life-threatening "accidents" near Balmoral (definitely more spy-like). Plus, the Loch Ness Monster is part of the plot, as are conspiracies involving Queen Victoria's son the Duke of Clarence, a record-breaking aviatrix, haggis-eating, caber-tossing gaffes, and hiking in the Highlands. What's not to love? Lastly, Georgie's debonair-and-possibly-secret-agent romantic interest is finally resolved, after two books of the "Will They or Won't They?" game. (One doesn't like to be led on.)

Totally worth both the overdue fines at the library and staying up until 3am to finish.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Once I built a tower up to the sun

On to the next historical mystery series, of course! This one took a while for me to get into, but now I'm kind of charmed by it.

It's the early days of the 1930s; Rhys Bowen's erstwhile sleuth, Lady Georgianna, is 34th in line to the British throne. The Queen asks her to spy on Wallis Warfield Simpson and the future Edward VIII, and in the process of doing so she solves several murders.

The reason it took me so long to get into the series was that it's a bit like reading Georgette Heyer - complete with a dashing and mysterious Peer. The plot is high society party after high society party with a few nods thrown in to the working poor. Though living in genteel poverty, Lady G cannot be seen working, so she sneaks around London as a cleaning service to members of her own social class. Though her father is cousin to royalty, her mother is a social-climbing actress and her grandfather is a Cockney former copper. Though she visits Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen regularly, she also slips around the South End solving murders.

At first I thought the series tried too hard to be too inclusive of every possible class of Briton during the Depression. But after a while, it grew on me. They really are very good murder mysteries - all the gallivanting from Palace to poorhouse made for some good twists that kept me on my toes.

Naturally, the books are currently overdue at the library. And the next two in the series are in my queue!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big lights will inspire you

Coincidentally following the recent "Rah Rah New York" theme, I finished the next (and sadly, last) two books in my current mystery series. Set against the backdrop of the World War II home front, the Rosie Winter mysteries are pure joy - though it seems a bit disrespectful to say that, given that the overall tone is noir-esque and the author convincingly paints wartime society as an anxiety-ridden and depressed collective consciousness taunted by ghosts of hope.

Like the first two, I loved the sarcastic, plucky, crime-solving, struggling-actress main character. Unlike the first two, I had no clue who the culprits were until the heroine did - something every mystery fan secretly loves, especially if they've been catching on to the clues way too early in the capers lately.

In Winter in June, Rosie and her pal Jayne join the USO and tour the South Pacific with a performance troupe, lifting the morale of servicemen and women. Then in When Winter Returns, they go home to NYC as war veterans who saw combat as civilian entertainers. Murder and mayhem ensue, on top of all the stress caused by wartime food rations and saboteurs.

What was impressive about these last two was that characters and stereotypes from some of the previous books were completely upended. There was definitely continuity, but since the contexts and settings changed, so did new and shocking developments about some of the protagonists. Each book didn't neatly wrap up a chapter in the lives of all the colorful characters; it picked up with their personal drama in the next few books. And since actors and actresses (as well as mobsters) are the focus of these addictive whodunits, it all worked as great theater - not in an unbelievable soap-opera manner, but in a small-town-with-some-serious-skeletons kind of way.

And the subtle way the author addressed racism and sexism in the 1940s (both in and out of the armed forces) is definitely appreciated by a modern reader.

Looking forward to whenever Book 5 comes out!

Friday, June 24, 2011

These streets will make you feel brand new...

Earlier this week, at a karaoke function for a conference in DC, I discovered I could sing the Alicia Keys part of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind".

I can't get the song out of my head now, after the State Assembly voted to make New York the 6th and largest state to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Great image from Manhattan tonight, via ThinkProgress:

Sunday, June 19, 2011

When the lights go on again

After finishing the mystery series set during the Depression, I've found a new series set in NYC during WWII. I like it better than the first, despite the same problem of guessing the murderers' identities in the last few chapters before the sleuth does.

The heroine, for starters, is hilariously witty. She's a struggling actress whose sort-of boyfriend is missing in action in the South Pacific and whose roommate is dating a guy with mob connections.

Before ordering the entire series from the library, a few reviews I read claimed that the books have many historical inaccuracies. There are so many references to wartime New York and 1940s popular culture and slang that there's no way I would catch most of them. Besides, they don't really affect the plot or distract from the tale.

I appreciate how the changes the war caused in everyday life, relegated to history books, are the central backdrop for these whodunits. In The War Against Miss Winter, a pervasively patriotic entertainment industry is the main focus of the mystery; in The Winter of Her Discontent, it's wartime meat rations that take center stage. Though I (disappointingly) pinpointed the murderer in each book, each one had an important plot twist that was impossible to foresee. What I loved was that the unexpected turns highlighted gray ethical areas and the irony of making sub-moral choices on the home front of a "Good" War.

I also really, really like the heroine. Aside from being sarcastic and perceptive, she also has an overly active, sometimes damaging imagination and a sort of war-induced social anxiety ... and I can definitely relate to both of those things.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

El tiempo de la isla

In the first "real" vacation I've had in a very long time, I finally made it to the Caribbean. I spent a few days in San Juan, Puerto Rico before joining 8 friends on a 45-foot catamaran to go sailing around the British Virgin Islands. The two parts of the trip are distinctly different, but enjoyable in their own ways.

I loved loved loved San Juan. I never left the old walled city, but that was definitely enough to captivate me. Next time I visit, I'd like to see the rain forest, caves, and beaches, but for the few days I was there, two Spanish forts, the old city wall, a cathedral, parks, a ton of museums, and various ruins held my fascination and imagination. At night, I loved the sounds of live bands and music coming from clubs, apartments, and street corners.

And the food was amazing! I think my favorite was a sweet plantain "lasagna" ... actually, all the plantain dishes I had were delicious. I ordered mofongo at one restaurant not knowing what it was, and it turned out to be a tasty, uniquely Puerto Rican dish. I also discovered a new appreciation for piña coladas.

My adventures in Spanish are an ongoing saga - and of course, everyone thought I was Boricua. Which was part of why I think I felt immediately at home in San Juan: it struck me as a multilingual, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society with rich traditions spanning several continents, and I'd love to explore it more.

Sailing around the British Virgin Islands was also beautiful and fascinating! We sailed from island to island, docking or mooring every night in a different harbor. (One yacht club where we stayed played Pirates of the Caribbean, which we giddily watched because we were in the Caribbean.)

I've never been a big rum fan, but after having Pusser's Rum, I think I've changed my mind - what better way to start a new beverage experience than with the very rum the Royal Navy served its sailors daily for over 300 years?

After San Juan, the food couldn't really compare - I thought the best food of the trip were dishes we prepared on the boat (like bourbon-marinated pork chops with marmalade glaze). I had conch ceviche at a beach cafe, though, which was interesting and different.

I tried snorkeling for the first time; unfortunately, I jumped right in and tried it in fairly open water. Three daily attempts and three panic attacks later, I finally plunked my head
down in 3-feet deep water on a beach until I got used to the snorkel.

One couple on the boat got engaged during the trip! The next day, they lost the ring; hilarity and heartbreak ensued as we tore apart the boat trying to find it. Ultimately, it wasn't found until about half an hour before we had to leave for the airport.

One thing that haunted me the whole time was the role of tourism and the legacy of colonization. There was something perpetually jarring about a majority-black native population serving majority white, super-wealthy vacationers in the yacht clubs, marinas, and resort towns across the islands. The fabulously gorgeous houses, restaurants, and harbor buildings sometimes seemed like the facades in an Old West town - a block or two inland past the tree buffers, there were actually a lot of poor, destitute-looking areas. This is what struck me the most about my first trip to a Caribbean paradise, and it was rather depressing; I spent many nights on the boat reading up on the history of the Virgin Islands and pondering economies of complicity.

All in all, though, the trip was very relaxing.

The transition back to work has been difficult, especially with a new medication regimen I just started (courtesy of the snorkel-inspired anxiety attacks). It's heartening to realize, however, that I do have good friends - from San Juan travel buddies to the BVI sailing crew to someone willing to drive me to my doctor's office post-vacation.

I have no idea if my impressions of my trip would be different if I hadn't been in the middle of some of my worst bouts with depression and anxiety, but all's well that end's well. It was a beautiful two weeks, and a refreshing break from the hectic rhythms of my busy brain and busy life.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Pacing, pacing, pacing

The first 5K I've actually run twice, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington's annual Run for Your Rights, was today. Continuing the all-jogging-no-walking trend from Thanksgiving, I also ran this entire stretch. (It helped that the course was entirely flat, unlike the surprisingly hilly route for the Ann Arbor Turkey Trot.)

I even beat my Ann Arbor time by almost 9 minutes.

w00t, yo. w00t.

Next up: maybe an 8K or 10K. Sometime...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Netflix keeps suggesting really quirky, insightful films that I end up appreciating.

The Opposite of Sex is narrated by a sarcastic, manipulative, 16-year-old pregnant runaway who seduces and then absconds with her half-brother's bisexual boyfriend. Throw in the thousands of dollars she also takes off with, a false molestation charge against the brother (who is a teacher), and the neurotic and meddling sister of the brother's former lover, and it's a head-swirling recipe for an edgy and enjoyable comedy.

It did get to be a little tiresome, though, the way the whole entourage of characters kept trotting across the country and over the northern border - Indiana to LA to Canada. That may have been symbolic, however; though the traipsing about North America wasn't very realistic, what was real was the range of characters' reactions to and relationships with "traditional" setups involving sex and love, and the defenses they put up to cope with both. From the media and political frenzy over a gay teacher to ignorant comments about "deserving" AIDS to judge-y comments left and right that are turned upside down, the snapshots are all definitely art parodying life. Even the narrator toys with the audience, telling them what they're probably expecting in the plot twists, what they should be foreshadowing, etc. It's a clever and tactical mirror for the social scenarios playing out in the storyline.

Based on the Netflix description, I expected to somewhat dislike the film, but I actually ended up liking it. And apparently I didn't learn my lesson about not judging a film by its Netflix description, because I expected to be somewhat bored with Me and You and Everyone We Know, but ended up really liking it too.

The focus of Me and You and Everyone We Know are the little eccentricities everybody has that make up their identities. So the whole film is basically about finding beauty in everybody's weirdnesses. Which is kind of appealing, given that the uber-OCD freak in me has been coming out a lot lately due to stress and anxiety.

There were also the themes of not taking anyone at face value, about technology both giving people the courage to be themselves and giving them the anonymity to pose as anything they want, about innocence and cynicism in navigating social facades, and lastly (but crucially) about misinterpretations. Naturally, I appreciated the "new" communications (chat rooms, video messages) both complementing and working at odds with "old" communications (phones, notes left in a window). Then there were the images of self-presentation - the shoes people wear, the makeup they put on, the large magnets that change a motor vehicle from a car to a cab.

I really liked how all the fragments and idiosyncrasies made a believable patchwork of a neighborhood and people's lives - and how the film ended with a generational torch-passing of sorts.