Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The good is oft interred

If there are two films you should absolutely NOT watch back to back despite being bored on an airplane, they are The Book Thief and 12 Years a Slave.

They are both excellent films.  They are, however, depressing as hell.

The Book Thief, based on a book I will likely not read because the movie had me sobbing in front of strangers and fellow plane passengers, is about a little orphan girl in WWII Germany. Aside from the German accents done by British actors being pretty bad and some of the characters being rather one-dimensional, the story brutally plays with your emotions. It's narrated by Death, so that kind of sets the tone from the beginning; also, it takes place in the middle of a war, so you know at least some of the main characters won't survive. You just have no idea whether it's the Jewish guy hidden in the basement, the boy next door being shipped off to military camp, the retired father being shockingly conscripted, or anyone else you grow fond of.

So I have no idea why, after wiping the salt and tears from my cheeks and eyes and choking down my sobs, I thought I should follow up a story about WWII bombs with a story about the horrors of American slavery. But I did!

12 Years a Slave was one of the books I could have read in a sociology class in college but chose to re-read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl instead. The movie has a stilted feel to it, and it takes a little while to get used to the speech patterns. As the true story of a free black man sold into slavery,
at least you know he's eventually rescued and returned to his family in the North. Like the protagonist, the viewer sees the institution of slavery through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with its daily horrors and who at the end of the story can close that chapter of history.  I couldn't help but compare the narrative device to Kindred, which also uses the lens of an outsider to illustrate the evils of slavery.

Unfortunately, after watching back to back films about the horrible things humans do to each other, I had no opportunity to watch anything with puppies and rainbows.  The plane landed, and I arrived home in Seattle to our sobering gray and rainy weather.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn

Mt Snowdon - My first
summit outside the US!
It's been three months since I got back from the Great Welsh Hiking Adventure.

It wasn't life-changing in the sense that mental fireworks went off at the top of each summit and I descended with Zen-like universal truths. But it was substantially personally introspective and incredibly fun... despite the fact that I got rained on, mud-slogged, and then horribly sunburned at various points.

Several things contributed to my obsession with making the trip possible:
  • Reading too much about King Arthur as an impressionable tween
  • Reading the entire Brother Cadfael series as a teenager
  • Having my only experience in Wales (as a solo traveller during my study abroad Christmas holiday) involve staying at a sketchy Cardiff hostel and then getting crapped on by a bird and having to wash my hair in a public restroom at a mall packed by January sales shoppers
  • Seeing Jasper Fforde post about hiking multiple Welsh peaks in one day
  • Reading about the British Special Forces training in Wales
  • Reading a popular but not-so-amazing book about a female hiker
  • Knowing The Planning Committee & Co. would only be expats in the UK for a few more months 
Breacon Beacons - Stopped 
here to have lunch. Also
realized exactly whyso many
of the mystery series I used
to read had so many people
fall off mountaintops in
Wales: the slopes were
incredibly steep and strewn
with boulders, with nothing
to grab ahold of except
blades of grass.
Brecon Beacons - View of the 
first 3 peaks (Corn Du, Pen Y 
Fan, Cribyn) from the 4th (Fan 
Y Big).
The trip started with Mt. Snowdon - my first summit outside the US! With no tree cover, slippery rock trails, hail, 40mph winds at the trailhead and 55mph winds at the summit, and rain coming down nonstop in sheets, the weather conditions were the worst I've ever been hiking in (and if I had been in the PNW, I wouldn't have even gone). Though my phone and camera got horribly waterlogged during the hike, I have so many cheesy selfies of me looking like a drowned rat all over Snowdonia. And even after traipsing around the mountains for seven hours, when I found out the town where I was staying had the ruins of a keep built by Llywelyn the Great, I strolled the extra two miles to check it out.

After a few Bristol-based days with the coolest hosts in the world, I set off to walk around the Brecon Beacons: 4 peaks in one loop!

Wales Coastal Path
Then I hopped on a lot of public buses to get to the ocean to start hiking the Wales Coastal Path in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, ending up in Aberystwyth.

From there, I hopped another bus to Dolgellau via Machynlleth (where, due to an unexpectedly missed bus, I spent a pleasant few hours at the Owain Glyndwr Centre learning about the last Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales).

Wales Coastal Path
Trusty shoes and backpack!
My last summit was Cader Idris. It dumped rain on me for the first hour, then alternated clear skies and thunderstorms for the next five. I was the only person on the trail (which was one of two to the top), slogging through muddy, hilly sheep fields. But I couldn't stop grinning the whole time! It was so beautiful and green and rainy, I couldn't help thinking that maybe Gwynedd was a magical place after all and that if Arthur is sleeping somewhere in Britain awaiting her hour of need, it would definitely be somewhere in Wales. It was a great end to my trip.

walking up Cader Idris
Such a gorgeous green (rainy, muddy) hike!
I estimated that I walked or hiked 53 miles in the 10 days I was in the UK. I wish I could have had a longer trip, but I'm pretty satisfied that I still got to see quite a bit of Wales.

Though I still couldn't seem to grasp the basics of Welsh. It was cool hearing it everywhere (more so in Snowdonia), but I totally butchered the names of most of the towns where I stayed.

And then, because I indicated on my customs form that I'd crossed numerous cow pastures, I even had my hiking boots cleaned and disinfected by U.S. Homeland Security in Dublin.

This was my meal every
morning at every B&B.
Glad DHS did it instead of me!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The mettle of your pasture

Trying to rush and finish The Killer Angels before it was due at the library, I ended up coincidentally finishing the Pulitzer-winning book about Gettysburg on the 151st anniversary of the battle's end. Because it's a fictionalized version of the conversations and thoughts of generals and other military men in the days leading up to the final battle moments, I never had to read it in any American History class.

So I figured I should.

It's a highly captivating telling of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. Honestly, I didn't expect it to be so compelling. But Shaara manages to humanize the historical (and now mythologized) figures: chapters alternate between the points-of-view of General Robert E Lee, General James Longstreet, General Joseph Chamberlain, and other key decision-makers. One thing Shaara illustrates elegantly is the West Point or Army brotherhood of the military leaders on both sides of the War: that they were comrades who fought side by side in the Mexican-American War and elsewhere across the North American continent until the War Between the States forced them to splinter and then lead campaigns against each other.

And as I read about celebrated Down Easter Chamberlain and his famous bayonet charge, and then read about General Pickett's tragic charge the next day, I remembered a conversation from junior year in college (coincidentally in Chamberlain's home state).  In class one day we somehow started talking about high school visits to the Gettysburg battlefield. Having grown up on the west coast away from Civil War immersion, I had nothing to contribute. (I was sooooo jealous that they got high school field trips to Civil War battle sites, while we only got to visit Mount St. Helens!) One thing that emerged from that conversation was that students from New England and the Mid-Atlantic remembered re-enacting Chamberlain's July 2 bayonet charge down Little Round Hill, where a Maine regiment held the Union Army's south line and ensured the eventual victory.

The one Southern student we had in class recalled re-enacting Pickett's futile July 3 charge across the western part of the battlefield.

One state, two states, red states, blue states...

One thing that vaguely irritated me was that Shaara described Chamberlain as an alum and rhetoric professor of Bowdoin "University" instead of "College."  I'm pretty sure Bowdoin was never a university; like my alma mater and its biggest in-state rival, I'm pretty sure Bowdoin was chartered as a College. But whatevs. Poetic licence.

I also wondered whether or not Shaara stuck a totally random black dude in the storyline purely to have the Northerners question their reasons for fighting. In the foreward he claimed to have gone through archives and journals and innumerable accounts of the battle, and tried to be faithful to what was known to have happened. So maybe there really was a runaway slave hiding in the forests near Gettysburg. But it seems too cliche and a little too convenient for a modern audience.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address  --which I still do have memorized all these years after middle school and which Shaara thankfully doesn't mention because Angels is a story of the battle itself--  has often been compared to Thucydides' chronicle of a funeral speech by Pericles.

By total coincidence, I finished the fourth book in Gary Corby's ancient Greek detective series (also in order to avoid overdue library fines). Like the first three murder mysteries, our hero detective is Socrates' older brother and Pericles' private investigator. The first books took place during Athens' fledgling democracy, behind enemy lines in Persia, and during the ancient Olympic games; this latest revolves around the legacy of Marathon, and was as thoroughly as enjoyable and hilarious as the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to more in this series from Corby!

I also find it kind of cool that I had to finish these two books, of all books, before their imminent due dates: two vastly different stories and tones but both addressing experiments in --and interpretations of-- democracy.

The Marathon Conspiracy has stayed with me in two ways largely unrelated to its plot:
1) I have a renewed interest in reading up on the Greco-Persian and Pelopponesian Wars.
2) I really really really need to start training for that 10K I'm running in October.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Of a mingled yarn

Because I've had it in my Netflix queue for a while now, I finally watched the cult classic Harold and Maude without knowing what the storyline was. It actually cracked me up. Taking the issue of age difference to an extreme, it tells the story of a friendship-turned-romance between a death-obsessed young man and an 80-year-old free-spirited Holocaust survivor. It's super campy -- and I normally don't like camp. But it worked well for the story, and the dark humor had me laughing more than I expected I would. It's a heartwarming, bittersweet story about enjoying life, and I appreciated its stark honesty. It also had an awesome soundtrack almost entirely by Cat Stevens.

In a way, it reminded me of The Magician's Assistant, which I'd just finished reading. One of the few Ann Patchett books I haven't read, it was kind of a depressing story about the widower of a renowned magician. After his death, she flies from LA to Kansas to find out about the past he never discussed, and his family find out about the person he became after leaving them and never looking back.

Essentially, both have the same underlying "lesson": let go of restrictive social norms, carry departed loved ones close to your heart, and live life to the fullest.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind. 
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends. 
(Shel Silverstein)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

To liberty, and not to banishment

Before I left to go hiking around Wales, I did some serious vegging out and overdosing on brain candy.

Because IP lawsuits will always pique my curiosity and The Legend of Sarila was on Netflix Instant Viewing, I watched it one late night/early morning. In general, it's a cute story about a group of Inuit teenagers trying to save their tribe from a curse of starvation by going to the ends of the earth. I wasn't sure how much was actually based on Inuit spiritual beliefs and how much was completely made up, but I liked the general storyline and characters. It was also nice to see indigenous characters front and center, in a non-Pocahontas embarrassing kind of way.

It was definitely better than The Emperor's New Groove, which I watched in my newest hare-brained endeavor to see all the Disney films I missed between Mulan and Brave. I didn't care much for any of the animated characters (I was, for better or worse, completely indifferent about the selfish emperor being turned into a llama). But the fact it takes place in the Andes kept reminding me that my next international hiking trip is likely to be Machu Picchu for a friend's 40th birthday next year.

Because The Thin Man was included in a Dashiell Hammett volume, I felt compelled to read it. Never having seen the film classics with Myrna Loy and William Powell, I had no idea what the storyline entailed. Like The Maltese Falcon, there's a lot of boozing (if the story took place now, Nick and Nora might have to check in to AlAnon). In general, I liked it better than Maltese if only because there's at least a female character who is somewhat an equal in the whole mystery-solving process. But by the end, I was just glad that most of the seminal aspects of the book have been left to the annals of history.

What hasn't been relegated to the list of arcane social practices is making animals perform in circuses or other forced entertainment facilities. I'd been reading about the Blackfish controversy so much on Twitter, that I decided to watch the documentary. (Years ago, La Otra Hermana dragged the entire family to watch Free Willy in theatres.) And the film definitely presented a compelling case to #FreeTilly (an orca involved in the deaths of three trainers) and all other orcas in captivity. What was even more interesting was SeaWorld's glammed-up video propaganda response, promoted as a Twitter ad to try and combat the claims in Blackfish. Except that SeaWorld's response was to try and paint the filmmakers as animal rights extremists and call their former animal trainers featured in it liars, rather than address the valid concerns about the treatment of captive orcas. Luckily, they got called on it by the Twitterverse.

Watching Blackfish did remind me that I've lived most of my life on Puget Sound and haven't seen an orca yet. But rather than go to SeaWorld or some other marine life theme park, I'd rather try and see a pod of whales out on the water.

Ooooh, I should put that on the bucket list...

Saturday, April 05, 2014

What plighted cunning hides

It took me a few tries to get into Cloud Atlas; the first of six stories was rather boring and written using too-colloquial styles. But once I got past it, I really enjoyed the rest of the book. Weaving together 6 stories across time, David Mitchell illustrates how power and identity are shaped and shifted and endure.

The stories are dystopian: they involve the struggles of individuals against forces of society and hegemony that are pitted against them. From racism and greed in the 19th-century South Pacific, to corporate environmental destruction, to containment of undesirable old people, to a future filled with clone slaves, to a Lord-of-the-Flies-like anthropology exercise ... the stories are so captivatingly written and the underlying themes so compelling that I couldn't stop reading. Humans subjugate other humans across time, create feudal roles for each other, and draw inspiration about hope and human identity from previous ages.

As a history nerd, I love how primary sources become a daisy chain throughout time: the diary from the 19th century South Pacific adventurer is read by the composer in 1930s Belgium, whose musical masterpiece is bought and listened to forty years later by an investigative reporter, whose experience taking down a nefarious corporation is told in a detective story read decades later by a prospective publisher, whose harrowing ordeal in an abusive nursing home is made into a movie watched years in the future by a clone slave, whose testimony about oppression is later revered by inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

It's like The Pinball Effect, only darker and more philosophical.

Pinging around the globe is also something I'm trying to plot out for the next year. I'm patching together a hiking trip to Wales later this spring or early summer, and trying to figure out if I can finally make it to New Zealand this winter to visit La Otra Hermana y los Sobrinos.

For some reason, I've become obsessed with stopping by the Isle of Anglesey on my trip. Maybe it was the Medicus series that did it. At any rate, since I'm trying to swing a trip to where the Druids made their last stand against the Romans, my interest was naturally piqued when Netflix oh-so-helpfully suggested Centurion for Instant Viewing.

It was so predictable, in a "this is where your heritage comes from / everybody dies / Saving Private Ryan" kind of way, with overdone tints like Gladiator, except gray instead of sepia. (Like Gladiator, it also assembles a racially diverse array of fighters that most likely reflect current 21st-century viewing demographics rather than an actual 2nd-century legion. But whatevs. It was believable enough.)

Though it's obviously a work of fiction and a larger parable for British national identity, at least it has a somewhat decent basis in Roman British history: it tries to answer the millennia-old mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion. (I geeked out at the end when this became apparent.) But up until that point, it basically just follows the survivors of an ambush as they're hunted across Scotland by bloodthirsty, vengeful Picts.

And I liked it. It was exactly the sort of entertainment I needed for a windy Northwest night.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions

I knew Disney's Frozen was loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen". Coupled with the fact that the snow pack in the mountains in Washington State had been crappy until recently, I missed being in the snow and eagerly headed to the theatre to live vicariously through its animated simulacrum.

It was thoroughly enjoyable. The songs aren't amazing, but they are catchy. The images of ice and blizzards and powdery banks did make me miss the snow and the mountains even more, though.  I saw the "twist" at the end coming a mile away; but a princess' (SPOILER ALERT!) life-saving act of "true love" being for a family member rather than for some random contrived romantic interest was a very welcome difference in the cartoon fairy tale world, even if it was predictable.

The film also features a kick-ass female character who stays single throughout the film and isn't defined by her lack of a spouse; in fact, half the movie is her quest to accept herself and her perceived "flaws" (y'know, minor things like turning everything you touch into ice). As my nieces are going through princess stages right now, I hope there will be more messages like this one for them as they keep growing up. Especially since last time I was in Ann Arbor, my 6-year-old niece asked me (with complete innocence, of course), "Tia, why do you not have a husband?"

In the same theme of children with bizarre magical powers...

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children started out as an incredibly dark, kind of scary book about a teenager who witnesses his grandfather's violent death and goes on a journey to come to terms with the truth behind unbelievable family stories that he long assumed were made-up. Until about halfway through, when our teenage protagonist finally finds the abandoned orphanage in Wales where his grandfather lived during World War II, the story is mainly a mystery about family history. But the last half veers off completely into X-Men territory.

The book is peppered with vintage (if anachronistic) photographs, which help tell the mysterious story of people with inhuman powers. But the photos are pretty freaky and creeped me out for the first half the book.

The story itself is great, though. What's not to like about a group of kids with supernatural powers banding together to protect their time-traveling headmistresses and fight evil quasi-demons?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The envy of less happier lands

Despite rave reviews from everyone I know, I resisted the call of The Lego Movie until one day I finally gave in. Movies about toys are not generally my thing -- and it did take me over half the movie to get into it -- but in the end I liked it. Mainly because it's partially geared toward adults, but in a way that's palatable to children. And it emphases creativity over conformity, revolution over resignation. But it managed to bring out the anti-Type A facets of my OCD nature.

I knew nothing about the film going into the theatre, but the general plot actually appealed to me: a seeming nobody in a world of automatons supposedly fulfills a prophecy for rebellion and leads the movement toward a free society where individuals actually have agency and an identity of their own choosing.

The Matrix is, after all, one of my favorite movies.

Also, the Legos had a catchy techno theme song.

In a weird way, it reminded me of The Giver, which I finally read because I've been going in and out of my "read the Newberry- and Pulitzer-winning books" phase.

It's kind of a dreary setting, but the underlying principle is the same as the Legos and Matrix: homogenous lifestyles and identities are imposed on communities in order to control them. Since the main character is a kid and is in the middle of being socialized to obey the rules in a colorless, predetermined order.

When he's twelve, he's given his future job: to receive the memories, good and bad, of all humanity. And -- surprise, surprise-- what he learns about what it meant to be human inspires him to seek out the missing links in an Ethan Frome-meets-Pleasantville-meets-1984 kind of way.

Fallaces sunt rerum species... but here's to hoping hope isn't deceitful.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Wee bit hill and glen

Fourteen years after I first started it (because it was recommended to me before I shipped off to study in Scotland), I finally finished Trainspotting. (I don't think bright-eyed 20-year-old me had the stomach for all the heroin use and abuse.)

While I didn't fall in love with the film, I'm glad I finally watched the whole thing. It's an insightful and darkly comedic look at the cycle of addiction and co-dependencies, set against a backdrop of post- deindustrialization and a coming devolution:
"Some people hate the English. I don't! They're just wankers! We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers!"
Because I've always been a fan of Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting was her debut film) and because I'm midway through the Doctor Who series with David Tennant, I naively took up Netflix's suggested that I watch The Decoy Bride. Let's just say Macdonald and Tennant tried valiantly to save this unforgivably bad rom-com about a movie star's wedding in an isolated village in the Hebrides. I really, really, really wish to forget that I ever saw this movie.

To make up for an incredibly bad B-rate movie about a little village in Scotland, I watched a slightly better B-rate movie about a little village in Scotland. Except The Match had a 100-year-old soccer rivalry as its central plot, so that made it a bit more palatable. It was a cute and predictable story about a rag-taggle group of locals trying to save their favorite pub by beating the town rivals and chasing out the English. I also laughed out loud almost every time David O'Hara's character made an appearance.

And it made me feel a lot better about some bad plays I've made on the soccer field!

Tae think again...

Saturday, March 01, 2014


I finally got around to watching Sherlock, and the minute I started I couldn't stop. My tween self read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories over and over and over again. So I absolutely geeked out watching the BBC show because it does actually adhere to the central details of the books and the core of the characters.... just with clever modern twists.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are wonderful, of course, as Holmes and Watson, and their relationship playing out is half the fun of watching the show. But more fun, to me, is watching the witty bantering between Sherlock and his brother. Mycroft gets much more airtime in the series than he has appearances in Doyle's books, but it's brilliant.

I can't believe I have to wait until 2016 for Season 4!

So I consoled myself by re-re-re-watching The Great Mouse Detective, another brilliant and hilarious homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless character.

Then, perhaps because I was feeling so inspired by archetypal detectives, I read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. I watched the Humphrey Bogart movie as a teenager, but the only thing I remember is that I found it rather boring. I don't even remember how it ended.

It was an incredibly fast read, maybe because pulp detective novels aren't intended to be literary beacons that draw in readers with their nuanced sentences and deeply complex character portraits. I could go on longer than necessary about the overtly sexist and patronizing tendencies of private dick Sam Spade (pun intended). But I'll rein in those particular reactions because the book was, after all, written in 1930.

I realize that part of the appeal of noir is that the reader/viewer is in the dark as much as the protagonist, but it was really over-the-top in Falcon. After a few chapters, I was only reading to find out what the hell was going on, because every dialogue and plot development was so excessively mysterious, it was ridiculous. But to give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it only seemed that way because Falcon solidified the "hard-boiled" detective genre, and in the 80-odd years since it's been published it's defined the formula stereotype to the point where the original seems like a parody of itself.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Such dulcet and harmonious breath

If you love words, read Julia Stuart.

I forget how The Pigeon Pie Mystery came to my attention, but it was such a delightfully quirky character assembly, with such enchanting word melodies (for lack of a better phrase), that I had to read two more Julia Stuart novels.

It isn't a mystery in the tradition whodunit sense. The daughter of a disgraced Indian Maharajah is given "grace-and-favor" (i.e., free) residence by Queen Victoria to live in Hampton Court Palace. Her fellow residents are an eclectic assortment of down-and-out oddballs from formerly elevated positions in society, victims of Fortune's furious fickle wheel. There's the young doctor, who tries too hard to fix his hair into the latest American fashion and who fights his nemesis the naturopath for the health and patronage of his patients. There are the catty but sisterly ladies living at the Palace, who vie both for each other's rooms and the honor of being the most eccentric: dove-loving, ridiculous hat-wearing, or fern-obsessed. And lastly, there is the universally despised retired Major-General, who dies of arsenic poisoning from a pigeon pie our heroine's maid cooks.

The characters are so deftly and wittily crafted, it was hard to put down. And then Stuart did it again and again in the next two books I read.

The Matchmaker of Perigord is Stuart's debut novel and my favorite of her three Stuart books. In stark contrast to the other two books of hers I read, which are so... whimsical and British, Perigord is so... whimsical and French.

The lone barber in a small village decides to become the town matchmaker, after coming to terms with the fact that the town's population is aging and balding. But the story is not just about his matchmaking efforts: it's about the tiny community's survival in the face of modernity, rare mini-tornadoes, and the man from the Census bureau. And of course, it's about food and the tiny but pride-challenging preferences for food preparation: a decades-old feud over the proper way to make a cassoulet, an ongoing fishing trip picnic rivalry between childhood friends, how to eat quickly but with some dignity while on a blind date with someone you despise. All the villagers have unspoken family histories or unrequited loves or unresolved existential dilemmas -- including the matchmaker, whose childhood crush moves back to the village to buy its old, decrepit castle.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... as the third of Stuart's books that I read demonstrates.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is the tale of a middle-aged Beefeater and his wife, who live in the Tower of London and are still getting over the tragic death of their young son when the Beefeater is tasked with reinstating and overseeing the Tower menagerie.

For starters, the title uses the Oxford comma, so I was immediately a fan. But like the previous Stuart books, the characters are so magically crafted that I couldn't stop reading. The quirks are both heart-rending and hilarious: the Beefeater who tries to collect different kinds of rain, the vicar who secretly writes award-winning erotic fiction, the ladies of the Underground Lost and Found who never waiver in their detective work to find the owners of items left on the Tube.

The three books are witty and capricious, to be sure. But because they focus on the interplay of love and loss, tradition and transformation, they give a timeless and bittersweet quality to seemingly dreary daily routines.

I wouldn't say these books are among my favorites, but they were so thoroughly enjoyable and so beautifully written that I highly recommend them.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A swashing and a martial

Because more than a few people suggested it to me, I finally read Wild. It was funny. It was predictable, even though as one person's journey to find herself it was unique: nature retreat stories all have a similar undercurrent, and this one was no different.

What I did like about it was the fact that it was a memoir of a woman who took off on her own, for her own reasons, to prove something to herself and no one else. (I like it because I'm currently plotting my own hiking trips in Wales, but I plan to try and drag The Planning Committee if I can.)

What I can't believe is that she did it with basically no hiking experience or basic gear knowledge. It's both incredibly amazing and incredibly stupid, because people die every year on shorter, more basic hikes for doing the same thing. Maybe that's part of the life lesson, though: that luck plays a bigger role in our ups and downs than we like to admit.

The chapters where she first leaves her motel at the starting point had me rolling with laughter: going to extreme acrobatic lengths to turtle yourself into your super-heavy, really big hiking pack? Been there! I totally understood the small descriptions of trail life for beginners. Constantly being one of the only women on the trail (see also: sports team, online communications staff)? Been there! Totally understand both the fury at the belittling comments and the internal pride of trusting your own skills and sticking through it.

I didn't really get a full sense of Cheryl Strayed as a person, though: just as a reflection of events that happen to her, rather than her mental (and, one can infer, quasi-spiritual) journey. It's a little problematic, because if her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail is supposed to be a balm for her wounded life, it would have been better to have greater insight into her psyche at the start of it. She does a great job of painting her pre-PCT life as an overgriefed, oversexed, and overdrugged whirlwind - beginning with the sudden death of her mother from cancer, and continuing on to her string of affairs that eventually lead to her divorce. But what kept bugging me was the lack of insight into the very character and being she supposedly lost in this downward spiral.

In a way, Wild reminded me of The Wanderer, the Sharon Creech young adult story about a girl who sails with her male cousins and uncles across the Atlantic in a sailboat.

As with Strayed's memoir, it didn't quite capture the personality of the protagonist - and as a result, couldn't entire relate or even like her. Sophie, the girl, is braver and smarter than the boys in some respects, and the history of her adoption is told impassively. Sophie herself seems detached from events in her own life before the sailing trip. And though half the book is told in first person, the reader doesn't quite understand why she keeps lying to her family about stories their grandfather in England never told her.

In both cases, I closed the book jacket disappointed, wanting to be able to see the story through the figurative eyes of the female characters themselves. But I really just saw it from the vantage point of a third person. Though I really, really appreciate these stories about females finding identity in a male-dominated arena, in the end sometimes they end up masking the heroine's true voice even more. It can be annoying.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Mingle with the old time throng

I read the last of the Gaslight mysteries a few months ago, in the throes of pre-election madness.

Like the preceding dozen books in the series, the last three were quick and entertaining reads. Our Knickerbock-turned-midwife heroine sees the rift between her and her parents begin to heal, and her mother even starts to help her solve mysteries. The mysterious parentage of the "orphan" she adopted is finally resolved in Murder in Chelsea... as is the annoyingly slow-burning romance between her and the police detective (which, 19th-century social conventions be damned, drags on WAY too long). Unlike many of the past books, which take place in immigrant tenements or working class areas of Manhattan, these last three focus on the upper-middle class and ultra-wealthy sections of New York society, and crimes its denizens pay to cover up.

One thoroughly enjoyable thing about this mystery series is referencing a map of Manhattan for each title, to try and imagine the invisible socioeconomic borders over a century ago.

Now patiently waiting for the 16th book to come out this spring...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Because I play the other football three times a week

I swear, this will be the year I finally understand what the hell is going on while I'm watching the SuperBowl. Like Mi Hermana en Ann Arbor said, this year I won't be watching for the ads alone. (I tried and failed to comprehend the rules in 2006 when the hometown team made it.)

This funny animation helped a bit, via Sploid:


Monday, January 20, 2014

Jewel, pastiche, partition

Another mystery set I love is Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series.  The books are definitely not as campy or comedic as some of my other favorite series - in fact, they're not at all. They've slowly moved from focusing on the horrible legacies of the Great War to the rise of fascism in Europe. In some ways, private investigator Maisie's life personifies life between the world wars: hidden traumas and personal loss linger, and happiness and healing come slowly but unfortunately under the shadow of a very possible future war.

In the most recent book, psychologist-detective Maisie investigates the murders of two young Indian women in London. At the end of the book, after solving the murders and sensing that the map of the world will be very different within a decade, Maisie temporarily closes her private investigation business and leaves for India (and anywhere else the winds may take her).

Winspear drops hints that Maisie may end up working for intelligence services leading up to the second World War. But I shall have to wait, as I seem to have to do with so many good mystery series, for the next installment to be written. Le sigh.

I finally gave in to Netflix's "suggested" list of films. Not sure why Netflix suggested Chicken Tikka Masala  - I'm guessing it's some combination of my ratings of Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Bend It Like Beckham, and half a dozen other indy films about gay or lesbian second generation immigrants. But I really liked both the premise and the specifics of the (highly improbable) plot: a guy's very traditional Hindu family misunderstand a phone conversation and think he agrees to a hastily-arranged marriage to a good Indian girl, not realizing that his "best friend" is really his lover.

The delivery was a little uneven: I suspect the film was very low-budget, and the camera quality kind of shows it. Some of the dialogue is stilted, and some of the acting not quite convincing. Quite a few of the characters are sloppily stereotypical: the fat English boozehound, the Jamaican alcoholic, the eagerly horny Indian guest.

Overall, I liked it. It was made in the early-ish 2000s, during the "multi-culti" independent film craze, which produced a lot of films with similar predictable storylines about second generation Americans or Brits navigating the nuances of identity (immigrant, nationality, gayness, changing gender roles). Though I watched a lot of these movies in my own identity-navigating phases, I honestly can't get tired of them, even if have to be in the right mood to watch one. In general, I think they should be celebrated for bringing to light the struggles of a lot of different and overlapping communities to participate in civic life.

And then, coincidentally, of the four episodes of MI-5 (Series 8) I watched recently, one of them had a character and plot that semi-justified my deep love of this highly anti-civil liberties, pro-War on Terrorism show. A 17-year-old Indian Muslim recruited to infiltrate a Hindu nationalist group saves the day (and survives, which is rare on this show); but at the end of the episode had some of the more insightful and heartbreaking surface-level lines of the entire 10 seasons: "You're always busting in on Asians in the middle of the night and dragging them away... All I wanted was a game of football. [But] you played me, just like [opposing spy] played [opposing agent]."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

And then there were none

I waited a year for Rhys Bowen's latest mystery in her Royal Spyness series, and it didn't disappoint. In previous books with delightful punny titles, our impoverished heroine -- the 35th in line to the throne -- has been sent to a dreary Scottish castle, a vampire-infested Romanian castle, and the French Riviera with Coco Chanel. This time, she is dispatched by Her Majesty to a country estate in Kent to teach an Australian sheep herder how to run the dukedom he has unwittingly inherited.

Campy stereotypes and a murder mystery ensue -- perfect for gray Northwest evenings after playing soccer in the drizzle on sodden pitches with no female subs!

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait for Bowen to write the next Royal Spyness installment, but in the meantime I'm excited that she's written two more books in her Molly Murphy series. So I have those to look forward to finding and reading while also waiting on pins and needles for Alan Bradley's next Flavia De Luce book to come out, like, any day now...

Speaking of campy murder mysteries, I thought Clue was made in the late 1990s, and was more than a little confused when Tim Curry looked even younger than he did in the worst made-for-TV movie about the Titanic ever (which I watched as a teenager out of sheer dedication to Titanic lore).

Also good fun for a dark and stormy January night. (Outside my window, not on my screen...)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Gray hairs, grey cells

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is one of my favorites of all time, for its sheer and utter mind-blowing brilliance. With the first book, The Eyre Affair, Fforde completely rewrote the rules of fiction and deserves some sort of Nobel Prize.  And then he did it again and again and again and again and again.

And now, in The Woman Who Died A Lot, our book-jumping, time-traveling heroine Thursday is now in her early 50s. She's limping around from the last assassination attempt and still has to dodge clones of herself that her lifelong nemesis, an evil corporation, keeps creating to gather secrets from those close to her. Meanwhile, in the future the time police have been disbanded in the present, so her son no longer has a bright career to which he can aspire; and her genius daughter is trying to build a device that will save Swindon from a smiting by the Almighty, who is angered that Thursday's clergyman brother has resorted to collective bargaining with Him over the answer to the ultimate question of existence.

Like every other Thursday Next book, I couldn't put it down. And like every other Thursday Next book, no pithy summary can do it justice nor convey exactly how fantastically nerdy and nuanced the plot is. It's so heartening to know that an eighth book is in the works!

Though Thursday, who was the same age as me when I started reading the series (28), is now in her early 50s in the series, I feel some sort of affinity to what she and her peers might say to Jasper Fforde's two newer books for young adults: "I'm too old for this."

Fforde's Kazam series takes place in a world where magic is a bit like electricity: highly regulated and also possibly used for evil. Magicians have varying types of magical abilities; dragons and other mystical creatures co-exist with humans in an alternate-reality Ununited Kingdom, where an orphaned teenager named Jennifer holds together a magicians' nursing home of sorts.

The books are a quick read, and the magical made-up world is kindergarten stuff after eight books of having to wrap one's mind around the complexities of Thursday Next twists and turns. And while I appreciated the imagination and creativity behind the storylines, the characters and plots themselves just didn't overwhelm me.

I can recognize when I am about 20 years older than the intended audience and just can't relate to a series.

Hobbling off the lawn now...

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The New Colossus

Not that I'm obsessed or anything (*cough*), but Henry Cavill is even better as eye candy in Immortals than he is in Man of Steel. I think it's the chlamys and the chiton.

The movie itself is utter crap, though: it's sepia-tinted, induces visual vertigo, and is only loosely based on the Theseus legend of Greek mythology. I haven't taken classics since high school, but I do remember that the Minotaur wasn't actually part of an invading barbarian horde trying to unleash imprisoned Titans in order to capture a bow with magical powers and defeat the Hellenes. But Netflix was going to take it off of Instant Streaming in a few days, and I had insomnia... so why not watch it?

A much, much better way to pass time while re-living Grandpa's old lectures about the ancients is to read Ruth Downie's murder mystery series about a doctor in Roman Britain (for a great and hilarious murder series that takes place in ancient Athens, see Gary Corby's books). It's not as dark as the Nox noir series, for starters ... if detective stories set in the tinderbox border worlds after the Roman massacres of the Druids can be "not dark", that is.

The series features as its protagonist the highly intelligent but sometimes bumbling medical officer for a Roman Legion based in in Britain. The books are at times funny and heartbreaking, but always interesting ... even if the Medicus' relationship with his slave-turned-mistress-turned-wife clashes uncomfortably with modern conceptions of gendered power dynamics.

I finished the Medicus series right when Congress failed (again) to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and I couldn't help but think about how human migration patterns and melting-pot cultures ebb and flow with the empires of their times. Throughout the books, the doctor struggles with his love/hate relationship with Britain herself, native Britons who see him (correctly) as part of the occupying forces, his homeland and estranged family in Gaul, and the meaning of and duties inherent in Roman citizenship.

While reading the series, I couldn't get Kipling's "The Roman Centurion's Song" out of my head:
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Tempest-tossed, indeed.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Everything beautiful in its time

I love the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year. I love Thanksgiving because it's the closest thing to a modern community-oriented feast. I love Christmas because of all unabashed glee and giving. And I love New Year's Eve and New Year's Day for the chance at change and renewal, and for reflecting on and celebrating the past.... which is why, every January, I like to figure out what I did for the first time in the past year.

Sometimes, after remembering, I'm surprised by things I haven't done until this late in my life; other times, I'm excited that I've been lucky enough to be able to keep trying and doing new things.
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right...*
"Firsts" from 2013:
  • Visited Mexico! - My first trip to Mexico was for two college friends' anniversary celebrations. There were many other "firsts" that occurred on the trip (some of them rather scandalous), but most shall remain tactfully and discreetly unwritten.
    • Visited Mayan ruins.  I spent almost an entire day at Tulum. The coolest part was being able to swim on a gorgeous beach right next to the ruins.
    • Went scuba diving... or rather, attempting to scuba dive.  The longest section I spent underwater was the practice session in the chlorine pool. Once out at sea, 2 of the 4 of us beginners on the boat had anxiety attacks once we plunged into the water and swam over to the buoy, so our whole group called the boat back and called it a day. We still have one more dive with the company in saecula saeculorum, so maybe one day I'll go back and complete an actual dive.
    • Stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The food was meh, but it was probably the safest way to do the trip. I generally love wandering around finding local food spots, but the language barrier would have been difficult, and I likely would have been overcharged for many services if they hadn't already been included (let's face it, I'm not great at haggling). I definitely took advantage of the nonstop piña coladas. But the loud, obnoxious Americans were embarrassing; even though Americans were the minority of the resort's clientele, they were definitely the loudest and most boorish and there were times when I was ashamed to share a nationality with some of them. I always hate realizing that there's actually a lot of truth to the Ugly American caricature.
  • Saw a rattlesnake in the wild - About two feet away from my foot. Paranoia-inducing. On the plus side, I now know what a rattlesnake's "rattle" sounds like; and whereas I had no clue what to do if anyone on a hike is bitten by one, I do now!
  • Visited St. Louis - My college roommate's wedding brought me to the Gateway City in May. MY GOD, THE HUMIDITY! The St. Louis Arch was pretty cool, though, as was:
    • Seeing huge, gigantic fingerlings of lightning fly across an entire city and beyond. My last night in the city, there was a huge thunderstorm. My hotel had a rooftop deck with a view of downtown; so I ordered a glass of wine and watched the lightning show because we don't get lightning like that in the Northwest. 
    • Attending a Hindu wedding ceremony. It was the shortened, mere 3-hour version, and the wedding program explained what the Sanskrit rituals were for the benefit of guests (like me) who didn't know. I felt very dressed down and tame in my bright yellow, flowery dress, compared to the gorgeous and colorful saris of my old roomie and her family.
  • Finally bought an iPhone - AND I LOVE IT. I'd clearly been living in the Dark Ages by stubbornly clinging to my BlackBerry!
  • Saw mountain goats in the wild - They were a little scrawny because it was early in the season, but they were still only a few yards away at Lake Colchuck.
  • Hiked to 12,000 - My new record! My first summit attempt for Mt. Rainier, and I made it past the base camp I'd hiked to the year before. 
    • Camped on a glacier! - And I loved loved loved every minute of it
    • Wore crampons - They're really cool.
    • Wore mountaineering boots - They're not very cool. Bulky and hard to get used to.
    • (TMI WARNING) Used a Blue Bag - It was also not very cool, and very undignified. Google it.
    • (TMI WARNING) Used a Go-Girl - Also rather undignified (but less so than the Blue Bags). I even practiced in the shower before leaving for the trip. It was ... interesting, and a little liberating.
  • Summited an active volcano (the most active and dangerous in the continental U.S.) - And I loved loved loved every minute of it. My favorite part was standing at the top, peering into the crater and seeing the steam vents, and hearing the mountain creaking.
To life! Looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of 2014.

And because I wrote but forgot to publish this post last New Year....

"Firsts" from 2012:
  • Visited Las Vegas! - There's a lot of ridiculousness in Sin City, but my highlights were: the Bellagio Fountains, the Chihuly exhibit at the Bellagio, lobster buffets, dinner at a Michelin-rated restaurant with my oldest friend, and an inside mall with the ceiling painted to be like the sky.
    • Went ziplining - Across Vegas' old downtown. Fun! 
    • Gambled - I have no idea how I worked the slot machine, but I lost $5 trying to figure it out. My first time gambling, period. And I don't even know how I did it.
  • Went to the Skagit Tulip Festival - Despite growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I'd never been before. Went with La Madre.
  • Left one job for another - I've left jobs for grad school and because funding ran out, but never before for another job. It was just time to move on.
  • Bought a car - A (used) 2012 Ford Focus. I named her Adelaide, "Addie" for short. Second only to my graduate degree, she is the most expensive thing I have purchased entirely on my own. (Still paying off both car and grad school loans, though, so I don't know what that says about status symbols...)
  • Visited Detroit! - Despite visiting Ann Arbor twice a year to see Mi Hermana y Los Sobrinos, I'd never been in Detroit Proper before. It was just as bleak as I imagined it would be, but exploring a park with the nieces and neffy was fun. And going to restaurants and bars with colleagues for a conference also showed a side of the city that I never would have found on my own.
  • Hiked to a base camp - On kind of a lark, three of us hiked up Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier.
  • Acquired a nephew I haven't seen yet - Born in New Zealand. I get to watch him grow up on Skype until I can accrue enough money and vacation time to visit for a minimum of 3 weeks.
  • Chased ballots - This involves going door-to-door to voters whose ballots have been invalidated due to sloppy signatures or other reason, and asking them to fill out the form the county sent to make sure their ballots are counted. Turns out, I like it better than regular canvassing!
Bring on another new year!

* from Robert Frost's "Acquainted With the Night" - one of my favorite poems