Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Twilight Book Review (yeah, right)

Before we go any farther, let me get this out in the open: I hate Twilight.  Yes, I have read it and I can see why it is so addictive.  Yes, I found myself on wikipedia shortly thereafter reading the summaries to the other books because I had to know how they turned out but had no desire to actually read them.  Because Twilight is offensive. Besides the engaging plot, it has a lot of negative female stereotypes to offer the world and I'm just not okay with that.  What makes it worse is that it was written by a woman for young, impressionable girls!  Instead of giving your daughter Twilight for her birthday, why not just tell her "You're a woman and therefore weak.  You will never become anything without a man"?  That way, you'll save some money and a tree and still get the point across.  It's a sad state of things that Twilight is such a phenomenon right now.  And it's captivated both my sister (who gave me the book) and my mother (unto whom I unloaded myself of it, per her request)!  These are strong women, superwomen even, raising three kids apiece and working full-time and generally making something of themselves independent of the men in their lives yet still they have fallen prey to Twilight.  They enjoy reading about a useless female who is defined by men.  I don't understand it.

On a related note, for my bachelorette party a few months back my friends took me to a comedy club to see Craig Robinson, which was unexpected and amazing.  The absolute best part of his performance was when he went awkwardly silent for close to a minute then looked up and said, "F*ck Twilight."  Or maybe it was when we gave him a chocolate penis.
But whether you love Twilight or not, there is a choice to be made: Edward or Jacob?  Cocky vampire or sniveling werewolf?  Which magical creature do you choose?  Which hunky chunk of manflesh do you want nibbling your neck?  For me, there is only one possible answer:
Yes, I was embarassed to be found in the vicinity of the Twilight books.
The things I do for this blog.
That's right, I'm on Team Darcy and I have the t-shirt to prove it.  My lovely friend Robin made me this t-shirt as a belated Bachelorette party gift and I'm proud to wear it and proclaim to the world that I am Team Darcy!  Because really, who needs an inhuman mate when you can have Pemberley?  Sure, there's sexism in Victorian England but at least it's not masked behind blood-sucking demons and making a mockery of my mom.  Plus, Darcy's human and that means non-creepy babies.

PS. Didn't Robin do an awesome job?  She designed the graphic and everything!  The husband thought that I had bought it, that's how well she did!  I am currently trying to convince her to open an Etsy shop because I heart Etsy.  Also Robin.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Most Obnoxious Thing an Interviewer Can Say

So I've been job-hunting for about two months, which I know really isn't that long compared to many.  It gets pretty discouraging but I think that I have already hit the lowest point I can reach despite being a recent college grad who probably has several months or years of cumulative job searches ahead of her.  No, I don't mean the lowest point mentally - I mean I've already heard the most obnoxious thing an interviewer can throw at me.  And it was all for a job I didn't even want.

Interviewer: I hate you already.
Me: Um…?
Interviewer: You got a nearly perfect GPA at Rutgers?!
Me: Oh.  Yeah.
Interviewer: I mostly just screwed around while I was at Rutgers but it didn't matter because I knew that I already had a job.

Oh, and he couldn't spell "fulfillment."  This is why I worked my ass off for three years?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Midnight's Children Book Review

For a long time I wanted to read a novel by Salman Rushdie.  I have a bit of an obsession with anything pertaining to India plus any famous novelist who has a fatwa upon him has my attention.  Between being busy with school and some other book or author always occurring to me first on any book-buying expeditions, it took a long time for me to acquire my first Rushdie novel but finally, on My New York Adventure, I saw my chance.  The husband (then-fiancé) promised to buy me whatever books I wanted from the Strand as my graduation gift and as soon as I entered the store I made a beeline – to the vegan cookbooks!  But after that I paid a visit to Mr. Rushdie and, having no idea which novel to get, made my decision the way that any broke recent college graduate would – I got the cheapest one, ­Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s second novel which just so happened to earn him a Booker Prize.

 Midnight’s Children is a fictionalized story of India’s independence from Great Britain as it pertains to the so-called Midnight’s Children – the 1001 children born in the first hour of independence. What makes the Midnight’s Children so special besides the hour of their birth, you ask?  All have magical powers, with those who were born closest to midnight being the most admirable.  Saleem Sinai, who was born on the very stroke of independence, narrates the novel and therefore the story follows him and the inexplicable correlation between his own life and the life of his country.

Like Sea of Poppies, Midnight’s Children is long and not action-oriented but addictive (well, most of it anyway).  I’m not going to lie – I spent many hours on the beach on our honeymoon reading this because it was just so good.  The writing is amazing, full of idiosyncrasies that make Rushdie’s writing memorable and recognizable.  The plot was cleverly crafted – each little piece fit in perfectly and Rushdie struck an incredible correlation between his two tales.  There’s a multitude of characters but each is independent of the rest, making it impossible to forget who’s who.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have any complaints.  Towards the end, the book just got a bit long.  It took weeks for me to finish after my initial helter-skelter dash towards the finish.  Sometimes the tale of India got a bit confused, particularly the war between India and Pakistan.  This took place during a confused time in Saleem’s life, so the fact that his relation of the events was also a bit muddled makes sense, but it became discouraging at points.  I don’t mind doing further research on something I’m reading about if I find it interesting but when I have to do so just to understand the plot it becomes frustrating.

Overall though, I really did love the book.  It was interesting to read about early post-colonial India and I appreciated Rushdie’s musings on how history is not absolute.  I will definitely read more by him (I think The Satanic Verses, which earned him his fatwa, is next) and I recommend Midnight’s Children to anybody who’s prepared for the long haul.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Tofu Scramble

Comfort food - what are you thinking about?  For most people, comfort food means something their mother made them as children, often starchy and fatty and of questionable nutrition, but delicious and calming and nostalgic.  Mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, and pancakes are some prime choices, among a whole host of others.  These dishes are all notoriously kid-friendly, which may be part of their continued appeal - they remind the eater of childhood and temporarily relieve her of the present-day stresses by immersing her in the idealized memories that the food evokes.

Having said all this, it's mighty strange that the title of this post should be "Tofu Scramble."  Tofu scramble is not starchy, not excessively fatty, and, in my case, not something I ever ate or even heard of as a child.  The phrase "tofu scramble" did not even enter my consciousness until about a year ago (not surprising, this coincided with my immersion into the world of vegan food blogging).
Stranger still is the fact that I didn't even particularly like tofu before then.  It was something I struggled with; as a vegetarian, I felt like I should like tofu (to all budding vegetarians out there - this is not a requirement nor a necessity) and so I went through package after package, always buying extra-firm and pressing it (because my sister said to), cooking it in different ways, slathering it in different sauces, and generally being disappointed with the results.  I liked deep-fried tofu like you get in Thai restaurants because, well, it was fried and I liked it when I battered it and pan fried (again, because it was fried) but in general, I tortured myself with tofu.

Enter tofu scramble.  Suddenly I learned that tofu does not need to be extra-firm, it does not need to be pressed, and it does not need to be cut into regular cubes and strips with perfect right edges.  Tofu can be an imperfect mess, cooked by intuition and without excesses of fat, and most importantly, tofu can be delicious and comforting, a veritable comfort food.

Every veggie blogger and her mama has her own recipe for tofu scramble but I find that they all call for too much stuff - a teaspoon of this, a pinch of that, a slurry, a dash.  It's not very comforting when the recipe calls for such precision and so many dirty dishes.  After trying a bunch of these recipes and discovering new-found satisfaction in the texture of the tofu (my previous downfall) but never in the taste, I finally just decided to deviate and create my own, using the KISS method.  Here's what I came up with:
Tofu Scramble

1-2 tbsp Earth Balance (or oil if you must)
minced garlic to taste
1 package soft tofu (firm is okay too but don't use silken)
salt and pepper
⅓ cup nutritional yeast (or to taste)

Heat a regular or anodized pan on medium and add the Earth Balance.  Once it's melted, add the garlic and cook for one minute.  Squeeze the tofu between your fingers into the pan, so it crumbles - some pieces will be smaller and some larger and that's just fine.  Season with salt and pepper, stir once, and let cook for about ten minutes.  The bottom of the pan should not be too wet or too dry - just a bit of moisture is ideal so adjust the flame accordingly.  After ten minutes, use a metal spatula to flip the tofu, scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan.  The tofu should be lightly browned.  Let cook for a few more minutes until it's browned on some of the other sides (this is not a science).  Sprinkle the nutritional yeast on top, stir, and cook for another minute or so.  Munch!
You can of course add in some veggies - spinach, mushrooms, onions, et cetera.  I always seem to end up with zucchini in mine because I always forget I have zucchini and have to find some way to use it up.

I should also mention that with the exception of my picky husband, everybody that I have made this for loves it, including a far pickier friend of mine and my anti-tofu mother.  Come to think of it, my husband has never had this recipe so strike that negative vote from the record.  Simple and delicious, this tofu scramble is a sure crowd-pleaser, perfect for any meal of the day.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Book Review

Just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

Yes, I do have a Harry Potter mug.  Also a teapot
and a Snitch.  If it helps, I didn't ask
for any of these things.
It was about ten years ago when I first heard of Harry Potter.  I think I was in the seventh grade , or maybe the eighth.  I know for sure that I was derisive of the plot – some kid’s story about a wizard?  What use did I have for that?  I had the beginnings of literary snobbery (which persists to this day) and in all fairness, I was fairly precocious when it came to books, reading far above my age level throughout childhood.  Skeptic that I was, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and purchased (or had purchased for me by my mother) my first copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I say first copy because I initially bought the paperback version and within an incredibly short time, it was falling apart.

Sorcerer’s Stone is probably my all-time most-read book and is unlikely to ever be overtaken by any book other than Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban (because of course you had to read all of the earlier books whenever a new one came out!).  I quickly turned from Potter-doubter to Potter-enthusiast to unhealthily-obsessed-Potter-lover and did the same to everybody within reach.  Over the years, that first paperback copy and my current hardcover have made the rounds: they have seen my mother, sister, sister-in-law, sister’s friends, several of my own friends, my uncle, and my husband.  I’m quite possibly missing people because I am probably one of J.K. Rowling’s greatest advertisers (though the fact that my powers of persuasion didn’t lead to more book sales probably makes me useless).  I think that every single one of these people were originally doubters who were quickly won over (like Peter Pettigrew).

The book itself (as an object, not a story) tells the tale.  Even considering the fact that this copy has not seen every reader that I introduced to Harry, it shows its wear.  The book will stay open on any page you choose without the assistance of, say, your hand.  Its spine was long ago broken, though in the world of books that means that it is well-loved not ill-used.  The crease on the dust jacket has permanently expanded from the number of times it was used as a bookmark.  If you remove the dust jacket, you can see, among other things, Korn etched into the cover.  As I was never a Korn fan, I know that this comes from my middle school best friend Krystina, who was probably writing on a piece of paper on top of the book.  I was annoyed when I first discovered this but now it makes me smile.  This book has been places.  Literally.  Maybe not this book, but others in the series have made it to Texas and Florida and probably elsewhere.
If you look really closely you can see the word Korn.
So what is it that makes this book so captivating?  The entire series is attractive and appealing but it’s really this first book that’s the most important, the volume that decided the fate of the rest.  Is it the escapism that the magical world so clearly offers, both to Harry who spent the first eleven years of his life being ignored by his non-magical aunt and uncle and the reader who only wishes that is were real?  The whimsical tone that Rowling uses to describe transfigured cats and earwax-flavored jelly beans?  Or perhaps it’s the promise that even the smallest, scrawniest, least significant of us can change the world.  In truth, it’s all of these things and more.  Forgive me for being cheesy but the world that J.K. Rowling created is magical and casts a spell over you from the first page.

For years now, upon rereading Sorcerer’s Stone, I have found a level of immaturity to the writing that bothers me to the point that I sometimes want to put it down.  This is the same as what I felt in reading Uglies; however, like Uglies, this fades after the first few chapters.  Whether that is because the writing improves or the plot takes over I’m not sure, though I tend to think that it’s the latter.  There’s something just a bit cliché about the sentence, “Dudley’s mouth fell open in horror, but Harry’s heart gave a leap” (22) that hasn’t disappeared by the end-of-the-year feast, “the best evening of Harry’s life… he would never, ever forget tonight” (307).  These are all words that we have seen before; of course, it’s common to get caught up in hackneyed phrasing because many of us speak that way and few can’t help but to write like that, but J.K. Rowling is not one of those people.  One of my favorite lines of literature is spoken by Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince: “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure” (56).  Rowling has the ability to say things in a new way but, like Harry, has yet to find her voice in this first installment.

And maybe that is the true magic of the Harry Potter series.  Many have noted that young readers can grow up with Harry, particularly those that started reading from the beginning.  As Harry grows, so do they, and so it is okay that each book is a little darker than the last and death becomes more real.  The plots mature with the child reader and a lasting relationship is forged, rather than being left behind with Nancy Drew and The Boxcar Children (or, you know, books that kids today actually read).  But there is more to it than that.  The writing itself changes which is possibly more important than the plot.  The narrative voice matures as the expectations of the growing audience increase.  For a child, a few clichés are okay – they are familiar and identifiable.  But as that child becomes a teen and then an adult, she will notice those clichés and want more – and Rowling will give it to her.  In all aspects, these books grow with the reader and so the reader can grow with Harry.  Of course, the maturing narrative voice is a moot point for those who fell in love with Harry as adults, like many of my converts.  I tip my hat to Rowling’s fantastic plot that wins over seasoned readers and retains those of us who have matured beyond it.
Probably my favorite chapter of the first book.  Note how well the book
stays open on its own.  Perfect for sipping chai.
Back to Sorcerer’s Stone.  Despite my issues with the narrative voice, it is still a fantastic story and first installment of a series.  It is whimsical and endearing, adventurous and everyday, and familiar in its strangeness.  Rowling’s introduction into a world of flying motorcycles and singing hats, breathtaking sports and villainous teachers, is inspired for more than these extraordinary features.  It is the story of a child who feels what other children feel and want what other children and is all at once pitiable and admirable, courageous and unsure of himself.  This is where the true magic lies.  Harry is a kid like any other kid and he grows up like any other.  He is a friend and a confidant and, more importantly than anything else, Rowling establishes that from the very beginning.

In case I haven't made it clear, I recommend this book.  Read it to yourself.  Listen to it while jogging.  Pull an Obama and read it to your kids (which I definitely plan on doing).  Then get the rest of the books and do the same.  Make sure to buy hardcover because you will be reading them over and over.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Extras Book Review

Warning: This book review contains spoilers to the original Uglies trilogy, reviewed in a previous post… skip to the last line for my opinion if you don’t want the spoiler.

At the end of Specials, Tally, who has been forced into a variety of roles through her life with her most recent rewiring turning her into a violent and mentally unbalanced Special, refuses to be rewired yet again.  She is one of the few people who has been repeatedly able to overcome the physical changes made to her brain and so she trusts to her ongoing ability to do this.  As the novel ends, Tally and her fellow Cutters have revealed the truth of these operations – brain rewiring and, for the average pretty, bubbleheadedness – causing a “mind rain,” in which the lesions are reversed, people discover their individuality and freedom, and the possibility of a return to a “Rusty” way of life is quite possible.  Tally is one of the few who realizes the planetary dangers of individual freedom and so she retreats into the wild to fight back against those who inevitably will expand their cities to satisfy their whims and thus begin again the process of destroying the world.

Fast forward three years, and Scott Westerfeld places us in a city in what was once Japan where the mind rain has caused considerable changes.  People can now change their appearance in any way they like, lesions are optional (though, disturbingly enough, still chosen by a few), and the hole in the wall is no longer quite so generous.  This last detail is due to the new reputation economy that has been set up – every citizen has a rank, with one being the best.  Those with the highest ranks receive the best and most stuff.  For those whose ranks are lowest, there is the chance of earning merits (by taking care of littlies or a variety of other tasks) to gain extra credit so that the hole in the wall will give them stuff.  To work your way up in rank, you must either be a criminal, have a group of Reputation Bombers repeat your name for hours, or “kick” amazing stories that get people saying your name and looking at your feed.  Despite these changes, the prettiness as defined in the earlier books is still important – the #2 ranking citizen is the only person in recent history to have been born naturally pretty (Tally Youngblood is #1).

Meet Aya, a fifteen year old with a big nose and a terrible rank.  She would do anything to become famous, including befriending the Sly Girls (a group who tries to have the worst possible reputations while performing dangerous stunts) and then betraying them to kick their story to the world.  Along with the Sly Girls, Aya discovers a mountain filled with what could be missiles and a launcher, run by inhuman freaks.  She kicks this story, and simultaneously becomes instantly famous and the target of the freaks.  Tally Youngblood comes to the rescue and they go on an adventure to learn the truth and save the world.

Extras is definitely the fourth book in a trilogy.  While Aya, like Tally before her, is initially focused on selfish impulses only to learn of something larger than herself, Aya never departs from her obsession with face rank.  Despite being sympathetically written, she is impossible to like and shameful to identify with.  The rules of the city that she lives in are equally disappointing; departing from the originality of the earlier books, Westerfeld bases this new city system on Twitter rather than coming up with a fresh idea.  Replace “kick” with “tweet,” “face rank” with “trending worldwide.” And make the limit ten minutes rather than 140 characters, and you’ll see what I mean.  A world based on Twitter is just not something that I want to read about – though in Westerfeld’s defense, maybe teens do if this book is any indication.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the novel is its ending.  Whereas each of the previous novels ends on a ominous cliffhanger, culminating in Tally’s brave decision to enter the wild and fight back humanity’s expansionist impulses, Extras ends at a party.  Nana Love, the #2 citizen in the city, hosts an annual Thousand Faces Party for the top thousand citizens and lo and behold!  All of the active characters up to now have joined this rank and can now party together!  Including the savagely-designed Tally, who replaces her camo with a ball gown for the occasion!  What a smashing end!  Nobody grows up and nothing is learned.  You could almost forget those freaks who, it turns out, are actually launching themselves into orbit with all the metal in the world to start a new colony and restrict human expansion on Earth (don’t worry, everybody forgives Aya for kicking a lie).

What this book screams to me is MONEY!  MONEY!  MONEY!  Westerfeld had already completed a perfectly respectable dystopian series, to be made into a movie, and the addition of a fourth book seems to me to be indicative of a desire to just earn more money without the burden of extra creativity.  The final novel appeals to little more than a depiction of a selfish teen’s desire for fame and wealth and while that may be an effective selling tactic, it is not acceptable as an ending to a series that has promoted the inner strength of youths and their ability to literally change the world.

Overall?  Stick with the trilogy.  Extras is not worth the time or disappointment.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Girls' Night In and Teeth

The husband had to work two overnight shifts this week which meant one thing to me: Girls' Night!  As much as I love hanging with my girls and hubby, sometimes it's nice to just have some girl talk and breakfast for dinner (which the husband will not partake in).  Sadly, one of my girls is currently MIA and could not make it but all that means is another girls' night in the not-too-distant future!  Girls' Night also meant that I finally got to see Teeth which the husband is terrified of and refuses to watch with me even though I caved and watched Zombieland with him (sorry to everybody I am repeatedly spoiling this for, but why weren't any of the main characters eaten?!  I mean, come on now!).  Anyway.  Before I get to the movie… food!

Tofu scramble
(we didn't have zucchini on girls' night)
Old-fashioned Chelsea Waffles from Vegan Brunch

Breakfast for dinner is always the way to go, whether it be girls' night or any other day.  Our yummy selections for the evening were tofu scramble, grapefruit mimosas, strawberries, and waffles!  Yum!  This was quite a breakthrough for me because normally making waffles leaves me a crying lump on the couch while somebody else (the husband) cleans up the mess and picks up whatever I threw in a fit of rage (I wish I was kidding) but no more!  My usual mistake is forgetting to spray the iron between each and every waffle but I assigned my lady friends the task of watching me to make sure that such a mistake was not repeated and there was success!  Okay, they totally failed me once but fortunately I had over-sprayed for the previous waffle so the waffle just split apart but did not stick… we munched the pieces while waiting for the rest of the food to be done, so all was not lost!  I completely forgot to take pictures, but waffles and tofu scramble don't vary too much so the pictures are of waffle leftovers and previous tofu scrambles.  Stay tuned for my delicious tofu scramble recipe!

On to Teeth.  This movie is… disturbing.  Yeah yeah, vagina dentata, big deal.  That's really not what's so bothersome, largely because it's not real.  What is disturbing is how many times the main character is raped, molested, and sexually harassed.  Dawn O'Keefe, the main character of Teeth is a teen who speaks to her peers about abstinence and believes in purity.  Being human, she also has to deal with the sexual feelings that she can't help but experience and figure out how to deal with them.  In a moment of weakness, she kisses a crush of hers who immediately capitalizes on her weakness and rapes her.  This was incredibly disturbing, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Reflecting on it, I think that rape is generally alluded to or mentioned in movies or books but rarely shown or described in great detail.  The one exception that I know of is Lucky by Alice Sebold, a memoir; memoirs are probably the one genre that would contain more brutal descriptions of rape because that's often the point.  In Teeth though, there was no effort made to soften the blow.  Dawn is shown being overpowered, even as she screams "I'm saying no!" repeatedly until the man, in his brute force, bangs her head on a rock.  He seems remorseful for that, yet doesn't stop what he has begun until Dawn's vagina's teeth take control.  His penis chomped in half, he falls in the water and drowns (and I cheered).

Sadder still is Dawn's seeming belief that she is no longer pure, despite the fact that she was a victim.  I fear that there are people who would watch this and blame her - Well, she shouldn't have gone swimming alone with him and kissed him and pressed her body against his - she was clearly asking for it so it's her fault.  I can just hear people saying this and it's just so awful and terrible that they would, as though any sort of physical intimacy automatically implies sexual assent.  Poor Dawn seems to think it's her fault too and doesn't tell anybody what's happening to her - it's just lucky that she has her extra set of teeth to ensure justice.

The movie's not entirely depressing though.  I tend to take everything a bit more seriously than others, though how you could take a girl being raped and molested lightly I don't know.  It is a about vaginal teeth after all, implying a certain level of ridiculousness to go hand-in-hand with the heavy subject matter.  There's a lot of dark humor in it (like a crab climbing over a discarded penis head) which lightens the mood and kept me from becoming too emotional.

Teeth almost seemed like a cautionary tale though for whom I'm not sure.  Does it warn girls against the dangers of men?  Does is warn men against taking advantage of girls?  I have no idea but I think that it should be taken a little more seriously than it tends to be.  Vagina dentata might make you laugh but sexual assault is no joke no matter how much humor surrounds it.

I realize that I've moved away from reviewing and into speculation and sermonizing but that's okay.  Teeth is more than just a spectacle and despite what many people think, it's okay to think about what you watch instead of just taking it at face value (cough cough at everybody who yells at me for "over-thinking" Indiana Jones).  In fact, I think it's better to analyze everything we watch at some level - otherwise you might start believing that all historical artifacts really do belong in a museum or that rape is something laughable.  What you don't view critically, you may absorb and that is usually far from ideal.  What I'm saying is while you're enjoying your movies and TV shows, keep your brain on.  There's no reason you can't watch and think at the same time.

Anyway… yes, I recommend Teeth - upsetting yes, but it is enjoyable as well and definitely food for thought on the dangers that women can never quite seem to escape despite promises of our equality in this country.  Dawn does seem to harness her own power at the end though, leaving female views smug and happy that she can finally actively punish the horrible men in her life.  I'll warn you though - some of the mutilated penises are a bit gross but nowhere near as visually disturbing as some of the other aspects of the movie.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dilemma at the Library

The library is new to me.  Let me rephrase that - I've been familiar with the library for years, had even been there a few times, but not until recently have I started to take full advantage of it.  I've always found them somewhat uncomfortable - stuffy and bare, unfamiliar in their non-consumerist aura, and frankly not appealing (except for the Fanwood library which has guinea pigs but is the stuffiest of all).  Recently though, in an effort to save money, I have resorted to the library and I must admit, it has been working out quite nicely.  Except for my inner dilemmas that is.

I understand borrowing paper-and-ink books - you borrow it, read it, give it back.  Nothing is stolen, just shared, and ultimately the words are yours to remember, not keep.  But audio books?  For someone who is opposed to downloading illegally, this causes a whole host of issues.  On a side note, I once took a popular culture class, in which the professor took a survey on the first day.  One of the questions was Do you download music illegally?  He later revealed that only one person out of the thirty or so in the class answered no.  That was, of course, yours truly.

I have only recently started listening to audiobooks - usually while jogging, but occasionally while in the car or while walking down the street as well.  Audiobooks are, of course, quite expensive, therefore being able to get them free from the library is ideal.  This doesn't seem that different from borrowing books, except that I listen to the books on my ipod and therefore must import the files onto my computer.  This essentially means that I have them forever despite the fact that they don't belong to me.  I am not, of course, sharing them with others but I am taking permanent possession of something that is not mine.

I could delete the files, but that seems excessive and what if I want to listen again?  It takes a while to import all those discs and there are very few copies available (at least at my library), though I may just be making excuses.  I could just not borrow them and save myself some anxiety, but then what's the point of them being at the library?  The librarians must realize that MP3s have replaced CDs and therefore nobody is listening to them as CDs and must be taking and keeping the information.  But does that make it okay?

I know you're probably thinking that I am paranoid and worrying myself over nothing, but the theft of media really does bother me.  If I write a book, I don't want people photocopying it and handing it out.  Artists need income to generate more art (which is one reason why so many bloggers become Amazon Associates and have ads… I have been toying with the former idea though with only three followers there's no real point).  I wonder too if the creators need to give permission for their media to be in a library - if, say, J.K. Rowling, the loudest complainer I know of, says it's okay for Half-Blood Prince on audio CD to be in the library, is it stealing for me to import it and keep it forever?

  • What do you think of libraries loaning out audiobooks, CDs, and DVDs?
  • Is it legalizing theft or, at that point, does it mean that it's no longer theft?
  • Does this bother you as well or am I alone in my paranoia?
  • Are you another one of the few who refuses to download illegally and gets irritated by those who have huge collections of music and movies that don't belong to them?  No, it's just me?
  • Does anybody know if artists have to give permission for their works of art to be available at the library?
  • Does it seem like a sell-out when blogger start making money off of the products they talk about on their blogs?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Uglies Trilogy Book Review

Dystopias may be my first love of the literary world.  I love to read about the many ways in which humanity may go wrong.  Whether it be the mind control threatened by 1984, the chauvinistic religious orthodoxy warned of in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the destruction of literature paradoxically represented by a book in Fahrenheit 451, I’m never quite as happy as when I’m unlocking the possibilities of mankind’s future.  I recently ventured into the young adult dystopian genre, starting with the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.  In this review I will discuss the original trilogy, leaving the fourth and final novel for a separate review.

Scott Westerfeld’s trilogy-turned-four book series, Uglies, is one of many recent young adult dystopias.  It is set in a post-Rusty world (you and I are “Rusties” by the way, due to our mutual dependence on metal) and appears quite peaceful.  The basic premise of the society that Westerfeld creates is that nearly everybody is born ugly and, on their sixteenth birthday, is made pretty through cosmetic surgery.  Pretty means average – perfect symmetry, average height, average weight, no extremes.  There are also Specials, who enforce the laws of the city and may or may not exist.  The city where they live is filled with disposable creature-comforts that come out of a hole in the wall upon request and can be instantly recycled to reduce waste.  Solar energy abounds and people remain within the city, leaving the wild to itself, because this new way of life is designed to reduce humans’ impact on the planet due to what humanity has learned about its own destructive nature as demonstrated by the Rusties who destroyed themselves through oil consumption (something to look forward to!).  Comfort is perfectly balanced with green living and everyone is hot (or about to become hot) – sounds like a veritable Eden, no?  Oh yeah, there’s a catch: at the same time that everybody becomes pretty, they also become the recipients of brain lesions that make them “bubbleheaded” – pretty much vapid bores who are incapable of thinking about much more than themselves and the next party (very Brave New Worl-esque).  No big deal.

The original trilogy follows one character, Tally Youngblood, as she explores the three stages (or possible stages) of life in the city that young adults would probably find the most interesting.  Their titles are self-explanatory: Uglies, Pretties, and Specials.  Through Tally’s eyes, we learn of the lies that are necessary to sustain this new society and question which is more important – individual freedom or the health of the planet as a whole.  As Tally says in Specials, “Freedom has a way of destroying things” (356).  This is a question that is never fully answered in the series nor by me.  Westerfeld does a really excellent job of representing the flaws in both systems to the point that it becomes an unanswerable question.

All of the books are really catchy, in a very young adult fiction way, though that is not necessarily a bad thing.  I had a hard time getting into the first novel, because of the slightly immature style, but once I got used to it, I really couldn’t put the novels down.  If you can get past the irritating syntax that the characters use (i.e. It is so irritating-making), the writing really shouldn’t be a problem.

The novels really make you think about the nature of our civilization, the significance of beauty (if everybody is beautiful, then is anybody beautiful?), and the structures that make a government work.  Because this novel is meant for young adults, it’s more accessible to the readers, giving them more opportunities to delve into the issues at hand and really think about what’s going on.  It also gave me a framework to think about other, more complex dystopias that I’ve read, which was very valuable.

I think my favorite thing about these novels is the representation of Tally Youngblood.  Tally is no Bella Swan or even Hermione Granger.  She is strong and self-sufficient when she needs to be but also weak and flawed.  She never breaks down crying into the arms of some stronger male, though she does question herself and accept help.  She is an adolescent dealing with the affections of two different love interests but also a true protagonist, making things happen and leaving her mark on the world.  The possibilities of her characters are no more or less restricted than those of her peers; her strength does not come from her gender or her background but from a secret place within that it is implied everybody may have but only some choose to access.  She is a fantastic heroine because she manages to be both heroic and relatable which is all the better because she was imagined by a man.

Oh, and there’s a lot of falling.  In Pretties, Tally reflects that “Sometime it felt like her life was a series of falls from ever-greater heights” (will find page number and edit) and she’s not kidding.  She is constantly falling from high places but never getting hurt, a nod to the technological advances that have been made in the novel.  This aspect of the novel is a bit overdone, largely because it doesn’t really contribute to the plot and gets redundant.  Ah well, nothing’s perfect.  Except for Pretties’ faces.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Namesake Film Review

First off, the reason I keep reviewing film adaptations of books rather than actual books is that I'm not ready to post actual book reviews.  Which reminds me that I actually do have one to write but… yeah.  I haven't yet.  Mostly, though, the reason is that I've been reading a teen trilogy and I don't want to review it until I've finished reading the fourth and final book.  That's right, the fourth book in the trilogy.  I'm also reading a book by Deepak Chopra but, as I'm sure you can imagine, that takes a bit more time to get through since it makes me think so much (I've already had to renew it once and will probably have to do so again).  I think I'll write some halfway-through thoughts about it though (by which I mean that I've already written some but haven't actually gotten halfway through the book yet).  Anywho, onto tonight's review.

Here's another way to stall actually writing this review: as a disclaimer, I find it necessary to tell you that I did not finish the film.  Take what you will from that, but know that this review is somewhat incomplete.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's only novel to date (she's also published two short story collections), is one of my favorite novels ever.  It's filled with cultural clashes, family, love, heartbreak, and is bound to make you salivate (though I haven't read it since becoming vegetarian three years ago so all the descriptions of chicken and lamb are probably much less appealing now).  The novel follows the Ganguli family as the parents marry and emigrate from India to America where they raise two children, and then focuses in on their son, Gogol, and his issues coming to terms with his name and heritage.  Gogol was named for his father's favorite author by accident - what was meant to be a pet name became a good name (official name) due to confusions with American culture and a grandmother who died before telling them what to name the child.  Gogol's struggles with his name echo his struggles with his parents' culture; when he rejects one, he rejects the other, and when he reclaims one… (you get it).  It is a powerful, engaging novel that is worth several rereads and more than a few raves.  As such, it was an obvious choice for a film adaptation.

To start with, the film transposes the Ganguli family from Boston to New York.  Why?  I have no idea.  It was completely unnecessary and irritating, though I suppose it wouldn't bother anybody who hasn't read the book.  It does diminish the distance that Gogol places between himself and his parents, though not significantly (New York to Boston vs. New York to New York).  The film also includes details from the novel without proper exposition.  For example: upon moving to America, Ashima (the mother) discovers that she can recreate a nostalgic Indian snack by combining crisped rice, peanuts, chili powder, and some other stuff.  In the film, we see her make this concoction and that's all we know about it.  The predictable response: Indians eat weird food.  To be exact, the husband's response was, That's not going to taste good.  Well, that's not the point.  The moment is meant to be about nostalgia and loneliness and finding something familiar in a strange and isolating world and the film makes it about Indians eating weird food.

The whole movie seems detached in this way.  It didn't draw me in at all - rather than feeling like I was immersed in the Gangulis' lives, I felt like I was watching actors read lines.  I don't think this is the fault of the actors; rather, it is the fact that the actual words of the characters fail to portray their true emotions. The novel penetrates them through non-dialogue, which the film fails to find an adequate substitute for.  The only time I felt at all moved was late in the film was when Gogol visibly embraces his heritage by shaving his head after his father's death.  We could see his acceptance of his past and understand the significance of the gesture.  Other than that one moment, I just felt like an observer - some actors were doing their thing on the TV while I sat on my couch.  Very detached.

I ended up stopping the movie early because the DVD from Netflix was horribly scratched and kept skipping and freezing and being an all-around pain in the butt.  I might have tried to work it out but it didn't really seem worth it.  There's no reason to believe that the last twenty minutes of the film would save the rest.

I know what you're saying: it's a film adaptation of a book - of course it's terrible.  The book is always better.  Duh.  Well, true but that doesn't mean that the movie has to be supremely disappointing and alienating.  Wuthering Heights was wonderful and the Harry Potter movies, though not nearly as good as  the books, still have me coming back for more (and rewatching the existing movies regularly).  The Hours is both one of my favorite books and favorite movies.  But The Namesake?  Disappointing both in terms of its own namesake and as a film in general.

I'll leave you on a cheerier note:

I have the most polite cats in the world.  Look at how nicely they wait on line!
Plus, when one's been drinking/showering for too long, she or he moves to the
back of the line and lets the other one have a turn!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ode to the Cupcake

Warning: cupcake porn ahead.

Take a minute to recall your eighth birthday.  I'll help: you probably had to go to school that day, or maybe the day before or after.  Or maybe, less acceptably, your eighth birthday fell during a break from school.  Remember your best friend's eighth birthday instead.  There was an air of excitement as the first bell of that day rang, was there not?  This wasn't a normal day.  Sure, there would be math and spelling and recess, but all of that was forgotten in favor of the treat that would follow lunch, the treat that would give you a chance to drop your pencil and forget your times tables and allow you to release the sugar-crazed frenzy of delight within you.  What was the cause of this delicious anticipation?  The humble cupcake, of course.


Ah, cupcakes.  The perfectly sized treat for children and escapist dessert of adults, cupcakes are beloved by all.  Part of the reason for this is inevitably the variety of whimsical paper cups available for them, another is the aforementioned midday treat for schoolchildren, and a third is that people tend to prefer small things (like babies and stuffed animals and shots).  The fact that cupcakes are delicious doesn't hurt but it's really not their most important feature.  Eating a cupcake is about the experience it gives you.  It's okay to be selfish with a cupcake because it was made just for you.  It's okay to eat it eccentrically because there are so many options - licking the frosting off first, just diving in, super-awkwardly eating the cake part first leaving you with a messy handful of frosting.  And you can eat it with your hands!  It's okay to be messy with a cupcake because nobody expects you to use anything more than your hands and mouth (though a napkin couldn't hut).

the tiramisu cupcake I made for my mother's birthday last year

Note: here is where I planned to put a verifiable history of the cupcake.  Sadly, "cupcake" does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and wikipedia's cupcake page is no more enlightening, telling us only that cupcakes were named for the vessels in which they were baked - um, duh?  So instead I shall make up my own history of the cupcake, AKA the fairy cake.

The True History of The Cupcake

Fairies are more than just tiny winged people who flutter about and play jokes on people.  They are a race unto themselves, with their own lore and traditions.  Take the fairy cake, for example.  Humans serve cake as a treat, to celebrate weddings and birthdays and occasionally Wednesday night or even Saturday mornings if they are particularly hung over.  Fairies, on the other hand, regard cake as a sacrificial item to appease the gods, and anything else that is larger than they are and poses a threat.  So one day a family a migratory fairies stumbled upon a new land - it was a huge enclosure, large enough to house a thousand fairies and all their possessions, with an illegible sign in front with strange characters that looked like this: BAKERY.  The ground was smooth, white, and hard and it kept out the rain and snow and nargles.  It was warm, perfect for the fairies who tend to run cold, and smelled rich and yeasty and there were big masses erected all around, with invisible walls behind which large brown orbs were kept, from which emitted the delicious scent.  Many a fairy knocked herself out against these invisible barriers trying to get to the appetizing orbs, to no avail.  Worse yet, there were these huge creatures - bigger even than gods though somewhat fairy in appearance, minus the wings and graceful demeanor - who swatted their enormous paws at the fairies as though to knock them out of the air!  Fortunately, the creatures were sluggish due to their size and met their mark very few times.  However, something had to be done, so a fairy council joined together and decided to make a sacrifice of a fairy cake to appease these violent creatures.  One night, when the enclosure was empty of the creatures, the fairies left a fairy cake hovering over one of the masses and did a ritual wing-dance around it, consecrating the cake to the imposing creatures.  The next morning, they found the fairy cake:
-What is it? one asked.
-It's like a cake, said the other, tasting it; Except very small.  However it is quite delicious.  We should recreate it.
-Who wants a miniature cake? asked the first.  We are simply too large for tiny cakes.  That could only satisfy one person.
-We'll call it a cupcake, said the second.  Just as each person gets his own cup, he shall also get his own cake.  Just watch - the people will eat it up.
And so they did.

Perhaps the most endearing quality of cupcakes is that homemade cupcakes are always the best.  Whether made from scratch or from a boxed mix, cupcakes that were made at home are always better than those selected from behind a glass case or, worse yet, sold in a disposable plastic tray in a grocery store.  I'm not sure what the magic ingredient is in homemade cupcakes - love, perhaps, or maybe a kitchen that's not up to local health codes - but they are always, always better.  What's more, homemade vegan cupcakes are the best yet!  When I bought Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World one year ago, my whole outlook on cupcakes changed.  They were no longer just a fun messy little treat; from the first vegan yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting I ate, cupcakes became a gustatory experience without match.  Since then, I sample cupcakes at every chance (both vegan and otherwise) to prove that homemade and vegan are the two most important descriptors that a cupcake can have.

The other day, as part of an effort to cheer me up despite my continued lack of employment, the husband and I went to House of Cupcakes in downtown Princeton, an adorable little cupcake cafe with a quite impressive variety of delicious-looking cupcakes.  We chose peanut butter cup, red velvet with cream cheese frosting, and yellow with chocolate frosting (the control cupcake).  They were all good, worth the $2 apiece, but they were not great.  The cake was a tiny bit bland, the frosting a bit too sugary.  I certainly didn't regret buying them but I knew that I could do better.

Yesterday, I proved it.  Thanks to inspiration from my lovely sister-in-law, Saralyn, my friend Robin and I made a batch of vegan yellow cupcakes with chocolate buttercream.  What can I say about these?  The cake is classically buttery and rich, the frosting chocolatey and light without being too thin.  Each on its own is delicious; together, they are orgasmic, resulting in the delectable ecstasy pictured at the beginning of this lengthy post.  Sure, I'll still get a store-bought cupcake while I'm out, but nothing beats the homemade vegan cupcake experience.

Ralph licking his chops after devouring his cupcake

In closing - we made a dozen cupcakes for three people yesterday and only four remain, if that tells you anything about how delicious they are.  Also, I don't actually feed cupcakes to my cats, so please don't come after me with pitchforks.  Don't you love my kitchen floor?