Thursday, September 30, 2010


I apologize to anybody that might be reading for my apparent abandonment of Soy Chai Bookshelf.  I have been eating, and reading as well, but due to my recent Harry Potter obsession and upsurge in things to do, coupled with my lack of desire to write book reviews while I could be reading and my kitty's recent emergency vet visit, the blog's kind of getting forgotten.

First off, the kitty.  Ralph, my baby, my little boy, who I found at about two weeks old in the middle of the street while driving home from Barnes and Noble (where I bought Lord of the Flies, hence the name), had a urinary blockage the other day.  I discovered something was wrong when I came out of my bedroom in the morning to find spots of bloody vomit (minus the chunks) all over the house.  As is to be expected, I panicked.  At first I thought that it was Turbo, because she tends to be a vomiter, but I had a feeling that it was Ralph because he'd seemed a bit off the day before.  Sure enough, after following Turbo around for a while, I discovered a fresh puddle in a place she hadn't been so I shoved Ralph in his box and took off.  After what was essentially two appointments (after the first, when they couldn't figure out what was wrong and I brought him back out to the car to find that he'd vomited all over his little paws again, I brought him back in), he finally peed some blood on the examining table and they figured out what it was.  He had to spend the rest of the day there but he recovered nicely and is back home with me.  I get the pleasure of shoving pills down his throat twice a day, which he really loves as I'm sure you can imagine.  He (and Turbo by default) will be on prescription food for the rest of his life to prevent this ever recurring, but at least he's okay.

What else is making me so busy, you ask?  Well in the past couple weeks, four potential jobs have finally gotten back to me.  I have taken one (an evening and weekend tutoring gig) and have been busy interviewing and completing assignments for the others, as well as buying new nice pants because I learned that I have grown to fat for the others.  (For anybody that knows me, no I do not think I am fat just too fat for my size twos.  And fours.  So it's a good kind of busy but between babysitting, training for the tutoring job, driving back and forth to the vet, and trying to handle job search stuff, I've been rather exhausted the past couple of days.

None of this has anything to do with the title of this blog post (no, not even my description of Ralph's chunkless vomit).  The full title would be "Eurgh.  Oh my god that's disgusting VOMIT VOMIT VOMIT," but that would just make an unnecessarily long URL and I just don't feel like going there.  The cause of this outburst is this:

Yes, that it is exactly what you think it is.  It is Lady Gaga.  In a meat dress.

Before I do on, I'd like to say that I've been on the fence about Lady Gaga.  She irritates me - media stunts aren't my thing nor are tantrums, which she has been none to throw in response to the attention that such stunts inevitable garner.  But I admit - her music is catchy.  I'd even go so far as to say that I enjoy some of it (what I've heard at least, which isn't much).  I've certainly been irritated by the media frenzy and the messages I've garnered have been so mixed that I lean towards disgust.  Well, the meat dress seals the deal.

Do I even need to explain why this disgusts me?  Probably not, but I will anyway.  Yes it disgusts me on the whole oh-my-god-she's-wearing-raw-meat-can-you-imagine-the-smell-and-what-about-ecoli level but it's much more than that.  There is so much disrespect to animals in this publicity stunt that it boggles the mind.  It's worse than wearing leather furs.  I never thought that I would defend wearing furs, but at least there's some tangible purpose to it - it keeps you warm, the animal didn't die for nothing at all, once it was a choice necessary for survival.  I shudder at the sight of fur coats or those awful fox scarf things, but in comparison to this they seem downright tame - they are used more than once, the animal (or at least its hide) isn't just tossed aside like garbage.  But this?!  This just screams disrespect and waste.  Some animal, or more than one most likely, died so that talk show hosts could have something to talk about, so that Lady Gaga could be on people's tongues once more (wow that sounded dirty).  It's a sign of dominition, of power, of not considering anything less than yourself.

In defense of her meat dress, Lady Gaga told Ellen Degeneres (a vegan, for those who don't know), that "Well, it is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth," said Gaga. "However, it has many interpretations but for me this evening. If we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat." -source

First off, that sounds pretty judgmental to me.  Secondly, what does that mean?  Doesn't the meat on your bones have whatever rights you exercise with it?  How does wearing meat mean that you're fighting for your rights?  And how can you really be making a stand for personal freedom in anyway when so blatantly demonstrating a lack of respect for the freedom of other beings?  Seriously, if anybody can explain this to me, whether with your own interpretation or more illuminating quotes, please do.  I'm repulsed and disgusted with Lady Gaga as a person.

Interestingly, the two Lady Gaga-crazy people I know are both vegetarians.  They have yet to respond to the link I posted on Facebook, but I really want to know what they think.  Not to start a fight - I'd really just like feedback and opinions, and not just from them.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Randomness Part 1

So I've decided to do something different with the blog today.  Namely, treating it as a blog.

Before starting Soy Chai Bookshelf, I had some ideas about it that included single-topic posts, lots of editing, and daily updates.  Well, the first two have worked thus far (for the most part) and, to be honest, I'm bored.  I also intended to not make them too personal - I mean, who wants to read about a stranger's day-to-day life?  Well, me.  Sometimes.  If it's interesting.  So, starting tonight I'm going to be posting some more spontaneous posts, either when I don't have yet another book review ready or just have something to say.  Oh, and to note - I have two book reviews in progress and a third in line.  It's really hard for me to motivates myself to write them.  Anyway…here we go!

First off, I demand that you read this article immediately.  It's short, sweet, and says everything I should have in my Twilight review.

Once you're done with that, you need to eat one of these blondies with a scoop of this chocolate ice cream. It'll be about four trillion calories of pure, unadulterated vegan bliss.

So this post is rapidly turning into a list of links but trust me, they're all worth it.  Switching gears…

I have had ridiculous writer's block recently.  For awhile I was coming up with a bunch of ideas but either couldn't motivate myself to write or nothing came out right.  Now I can't motivate myself - not even for book reviews, never mind creative works like my short story collection which I desperately want to finish so that I can publish it and be filthy rich so that I can install a coffeehouse in my home.  Why would I do this you ask?  Because the only places I can really motivate myself to write are Starbucks and Barnes & Noble cafes, yet I don't have $4 to spend on a chai latte every time I want to set pen to paper (AKA fingers to keyboard) and really, the cheap drinks just aren't sufficient for the transliteration of such creative brainwaves.

Back to writing: I feel like my story collection needs something new but I can't decide what that thing is.  What I'd really like to attempt is "The Steeplechase," which sounds like an intimidating, exhausting, soul-wrenching route to some really excellent writing.  I estimate that it would require somewhere around three to four dozen soy chai lattes to complete this, meaning that I currently need a Starbucks gift card totaling at least $144.  Any donors out there?  I'll include your name in the acknowledgements.  If the donation is repeated, I will dedicate the whole damn thing to you.  Remember back when this was a normal way for writers and other artists to earn a living?  Rich patrons would give them money and they'd spend all day at Starbucks banging out stories on their Macs.  Or something.  That's what I need.

I'm thinking of somehow using the blog for accountability in relation to my writing, though I'm not sure how that would work.  There are probably some websites out there that do this.  Yet another way to procrastinate…

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Margaret Atwood… LIVE!

Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorite authors.  Brilliant and witty, she crafts beautiful sentences and incisive plots, moving from novel to short story and from present-day life to futuristic dystopia with ease.  She also writes memoir, poetry, nonfiction, and children's literature; though I have yet to read anything other than her fiction, suffice it to say that she is incredibly prolific.
I first encountered Atwood the summer before my senior year when she appeared on a list of summer reading as one of several different authors to choose from.  I chose to read Lady Oracle (though admittedly because I didn't look to carefully and thought that it was called Lady Orange) and fell in love with it.  I went on to read several more of her novels, no longer to fulfill school requirements, and loved every one.  My two favorites were The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, both dystopias and both very different from one another.  I shared Atwood with my friends and my mother and continue to check her shelf whenever I go to the bookstore to see if they're carrying any different titles (sadly, they insist on always carrying the same ones).

You can imagine my excitement when, while at school in New York in early 2006, I learned that Atwood would be coming to do a reading.  My friend Sarah and I got all excited to go but, for some reason, her plans changed an it never happened.  For years now I've been occasionally checking her website in search of another reading and finally, this summer, I struck gold.  Sarah and I again planned to go, until she ended up having to go to California at the last minute.  Fortunately, four years later, I am now equipped with not only the ability to go to such events alone but also a husband to drag along with me.  So, as it happened, on Monday night the husband and I trekked into New York to see Margaret Atwood read at the 92nd Street Y.

Atwood mostly spoke about a proposed trilogy that she is writing, two of which she has already completed: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.  The first Oryx and Crake, I reread (almost) before the reading; the second I have yet to open.  
These are "simultaneal" (AKA "Meanwhile…") dystopias about the near end of humankind due to a "waterless flood - a man-made virus to which we have no immunity" (Atwood).  I will get more into this when I review the two books; for now I will just talk about what Atwood had to say.

After seeing Atwood, I can tell you confidently that the woman is a genius.  She knows everything about technology and animals and the environment and pop culture, or at least seems to.  I can't imagine how she possibly has time to write when she must spend so much time doing research.  Of course, this conundrum could be explained by Atwood's claim that "I actually don't need to make things up, there's a lot out there."  Atwood combines unbelievable facts to create a fantastic novel that is simultaneously unbelievable and quite close to home.  If you don't believe that her books are based on facts, just ask her about the cockroach brains currently being used to develop antibiotics.  So not only does this woman know everything, write amazingly, and travel the world, she is also addresses what Valerie Martin, who did her introductions, calls "the great moral problem of our time: environmental conservation."  Yes, Atwood isn't just a genius for genius's sake; she is using her knowledge to make a difference in this world.  Dare I suggest that she is a superwoman?

As I said, Atwood is a proponent of environmental conservation, yet she does not advise fear: "I wouldn't bother being really, really afraid of anything until it actually happens; I would advise being respectful."  This seems like an excellent strategy to me: fear of what happens if and when humans destroy the planet could drive people to prepare rather than prevent.  Martin asked Atwood at one point about wasps: if it was okay to kill them, and if, like bees, they produce honey.  When Atwood said no, Martin asked, "So what's the point of them?"  This was rather ironic; despite these  two novels (never mind the rest of Atwood's work) and what Atwood had said up to then, Martin had completely missed the point.  The planet is not here to provide for humans; humans are merely another life form, like wasps, who ought to feed into the cycle of life.  Martin displayed the exact kind of mentality that Atwood tries to prevent and is absorbed in it that she can't even realize how problematic it is.  After hearing that, the world that Atwood describes doesn't seem so crazy after all.

As a dystopia writer, Atwood is clearly interested in more than just the environment.  Society is also a big issue.  After all, as she says, dystopia is an "arranged society that is negative" - it is not a state of total chaos or anarchy; it is organized and intentional.  Like the later reign of King Henry VIII, it is "not a state of ordinary human freedom"; like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most well-known dystopias, it is a government that is "controlling people at every stage of life."  Dystopia is not the dissolution of society but an example of society gone wrong.  To this end, Atwood repeatedly advised against the combination of government, religion, and corporation.  Like the three branches of American government are meant to do, these three units provide a valuable counterbalance to one another, keeping things fair and level.

As serious as this all sounds, the reading and discussion were actually quite fun.  Atwood made us both laugh even while giving us something to mull over, another sign of her extraordinary genius.  Sadly, when I met her at the signing afterwards, I was too shy to squeak out anything other than "Hi, how are you?" in an incredibly high-pitched voice.  Fortunately, the husband had his wits gathered well enough to tell her that we enjoyed the reading.  Too bad.  Among other questions, I wanted to ask if she is a vegetarian, because I really can't imagine that she's not.  So, Ms. Atwood, if you're reading this: Are you a vegetarian?  Why (not)?  And what fiction authors do you read?

P.S. If Margarget Atwood were actually to respond to this post, I would probably pee my pants.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban yet, take a look before reading on!  Also, 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.

I distinctly remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released.  It was the first volume of the series that I had to wait for, as the first three were already out by the time I jumped on the bandwagon.  My mother special-ordered it for me though for what reason I’m not sure as I was scheduled to be at sleep away camp during the release.  I wrote a letter to my mother from camp asking her to bring the book when she came to visit.  She said no, convinced that I would destroy it (mind you, I’ve always been neurotic about keeping my books in excellent shape), forcing me to deal with the trauma of being the only person at camp without a copy of the new Harry Potter.  I dealt with this mostly by borrowing a copy whenever I could and waking up early to filch my cabin mates’ copies while they slept on unawares.  This did not work out well.  When I finally got home, I grabbed my copy, parked myself in the recliner, and started over, reading the entire behemoth in one day.  It was the first time I had done this and probably the moment that solidified my Harry Potter obsession.  It was also the first but not last time that J.K. Rowling moved me to tears.

As I mentioned in my discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban, I consider the books to fall into the three groups: the first three book, the last three books, and Goblet of Fire, which stands alone.  In the first three books, we are introduced to the wizarding world and the dangers and themes to come.  In the last three, we deal with horrors that were only hinted at before.  Goblet of Fire is the pivotal time between the two when Harry is no longer a child but not quite yet a man and when the world he inhabits is changing around him.  It is a turning point in the series, when the series as a whole grows up.  It is also the first time that in innocent character who sides with the “good guys” is killed.  I think that the moment when Cedric is killed is the true turning point of not only the volume, but the series as a whole.  At this point, something has been started that can’t be turned back from. While before there was danger, everything always turned out okay; here, Rowling seems determined to erase the false sense of security created by those happy endings.  Of course, the impact of this first murder is nothing compared to that of the next (in Order of the Phoenix), but it is a hint of what is to come, both in this volume and those that follow.  Rowling has unlocked the future of the series and from this point forward, every word is influenced by this one moment.  Cedric is murdered and nothing remains the same.

However, the changes in the series are apparent before Cedric’s death in the graveyard; they can be seen from the very first page of Goblet of Fire. The novel opens in Little Hangleton, a small Muggle village far removed from Privet Drive, Hogwarts, and the wizarding world we’ve known thus far.  This first scene is also Harry-free, which suggests that being the title character does not necessarily make him the most important aspect of the story.  The return and rise of Voldemort is for once taking precedence over Harry’s journey.  While the majority of this and the successive volumes may continue to follow Harry, he is still always part of something larger.

The realization that Harry is not the most important person ever goes hand-in-hand with the maturation of both the series and Harry.  On a practical level, this change can be seen in the very writing.  The narrative voice has suddenly become more mature and matter of fact.  The sentences are more to-the-point than before, as though Harry’s maturation is reflected in the very words used to describe it.  While the whimsical tone that underlay the narration of the first three volumes was entertaining, it’s a relief to finally read something that makes its point so succinctly.

Sadly, Harry’s maturation contrasts unpleasantly with Rowling’s portrayal of girls in the novel.  Perhaps in an effort to emphasize the maturation of all (sexual maturation included), in Goblet of Fire Rowling seems to try and draw a line between the natures of witches and wizards.  The witches do not come off well, absorbing many stereotypes.  All of a sudden, Harry is surrounded by packs of giggling girls, obsessed with the ball and boys.  Mrs. Weasley shows her very stereotypically feminine zest for gossip, choosing to believe slander over the people that she really knows.  Perhaps I could stomach this if it wasn’t for Hermione’s behavior.  While she may not giggle and covet the cutest date, she becomes catty and vengeful, particularly in her behavior towards Rita Skeeter.  She also spends four hours getting ready for the ball, which just does not match the Hermione I’ve come to know and love.  It’s rather disappointing to see all of the witches in Goblet of Fire become mere stereotypes while other aspects of the series are so enriched by this installment.

Another thing that I don’t like about Goblet of Fire is Rowling’s unprecedented attempt to make this book more current.  During the opening scenes on Privet Drive, there are mentions of both Ferraris and PlayStations, which not only remove the timelessness of the story but also represent a continuity error.  Harry was born in 1980 and therefore had just turned fourteen in book four, making the year 1994.  He mentions in a letter to Sirius that Dudley threw his PlayStation out the window, however the original PlayStation was not released until December of that year.  So not only is Rowling’s deviation from her normal ignorance of modern Muggle affairs irritating, it’s also poorly researched.

My final complaint is that I don’t really believe Barty Crouch, Jr. as Mad-Eye Moody.  The man was a psychotic killer, spent a year in Azkaban, and then spent more than a decade under the Imperius curse, yet within two weeks of being busted out by Voldemort he convinces everybody with his performance as Mad-Eye Moody.  A bit implausible, no?  As usual, Rowling does an admirable job of making the story fit: Moddy is known for only drinking from a private flask, giving Crouch an easy excuse to consistently administer the Polyjuice Potion to himself; also, like Moody, Crouch hates any Death Eater who walked free (though for very different reason) so antagonism towards them comes quite naturally to him.  Nice try, Rowling, but this isn’t enough to convince me.  I will believe far-fetched magic but a dramatization this impressive?  No thanks.  Equally ridiculous is the fact that Crouch not only teaches Harry the Unforgiveable Curses but also teaches him to fight them.  Why would a Death Eater want to increase Harry’s defenses against Voldemort?  There is no reason.  I think that the movie actually handles this better – by giving the character of Barty Crouch, Jr. that disturbing tongue flick, we can guess at the truth about Moody whenever he’s behind on his Polyjuice Potion.  Just this one little flaw in his performance makes the whole thing more believable.

Speaking of the film version of Goblet of Fire – in terms of loyalty to the text, I think that this is the best of the adaptations.  The director did an excellent job of compressing what could be compressed and choosing what to cut, thus maintaining the integrity of the novel.  Granted, I’m not a fan of the extended flying scene during the first task (snooze), the obnoxious punk rock concert scene at the ball, or the fact that Harry meets no obstacles in the maze, but overall I think that as far as adaptations go, this one is really good.  It’s not actually my favorite of the films (that would be a toss-up between Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince), but I do respect it for this reason.

One final note (I apologize for how ridiculously long this is): Cedric’s death was done wonderfully.  As I hinted at earlier, it was the first time I cried reading Harry Potter and those tears were almost more from shock than sadness.  Rowling’s handling of this moment is superior – it happens so quickly and so unexpectedly that like Harry, the reader is left asking wait, what just happened?!  True to their disinterest in this murder, Voldemort and Pettigrew keep the plot moving even while Harry and the reader dwell on the moment.  We’re forced to handle the shock of what’s just happened while being confronted with what’s going on in the present and the moment is filled with pain, horror, and confusion just as it should be.

Overall, Goblet of Fire is in my top three.  I love the change in tone and narration, the story, and the growth in Harry’s characters.  Yes, I have my complaints but that’s to be expected.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Oprah's Newest Book Club Pick

Normally, my posts are thought out, carefully written and edited, and only posted once I deem it acceptable.  This is not me saying how careful and excellent a blogger I am; more how a demonstration compulsive a student I was.  Well that's not what this post is about.  This is about me being filled with rage.  About books.
As anybody who has a remote interest in modern literature already knows, Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, recently came out with a new novel, Freedom.  Sounds like the great American novel, doesn't it?  It's garnered lots of attention, largely because it's reported to be awesome and also President Barack Obama got an advance copy and pissed off everybody ever.  And now it's gotten even more attention - Oprah chose it at her latest book club pick.

Initially, this pissed me off.  I was similarly pissed off when Oprah started choosing classic books.  Don't get me wrong, I think it's wonderful that she promotes literacy and all that, but I think that she should also be promoting books that people haven't heard of.  She should open people's eyes to the literature that isn't being read but deserves to be, thus helping to create modern classics and supporting struggling creators of great literature.  So you can only guess how I felt when Barnes & Noble e-mailed me to say that Oprah had chosen Freedom as her newest book club pick.  After my initial annoyance, I remembered something: wait a minute… the author of The Corrections? Wasn't that also an Oprah's book club pick?  SERIOUSLY?!
About five seconds after that, I remembered that Franzen had rejected the nomination, something that nobody had ever done before.  I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered the details of the rejection: he initially accepted it, even appeared on Oprah, and then rejected it because he was afraid that it would scare off male readers.  This earned him even more attention (and sales) than the initial honor bestowed by Oprah.  It's also a bit insulting to women, as though men are beyond women's literature.  But this isn't a feminist issue (for me…right now).

So you probably imagine how I feel about Franzen's second nomination.  I think it's disgusting that he's getting even more media attention despite his bad behavior but I also kind of applaud Oprah for it.  It's almost a big eff you to Franzen - you can't escape me now!  Of course, Franzen's already established his dreamed-of male readership so this really just means even more sales, but that's not quite the point.  The point is that Oprah wins.  I don't watch Oprah or read her magazine or really know much about her, but I'd rather her have the upper-hand over this sleazeball.

Maybe you think I'm overreacting or being unreasonable.  And yeah, I probably am.  But as much as I hate celebrities acting stupid for attention, I hate it even more in writers.  Literature is a respite from all that.  As an aspiring writer myself, I'm disgusted at those who place such a high value on media-grubbing.  Writing is about your words, not your name or your face.  Graciously accept any honors bestowed on you and don't insult half your readership in the process.  If your writing is good enough, a sticker on the cover won't change anything.  In fact, do you really want a readership who is concerned more with stickers than literary value?

In fact, I have The Corrections.  I went through an Oprah's book club phase in my early teens and bought The Corrections when it was first selected.  I read a few pages, wasn't particularly interested, and forgot about it.  When Freedom came out, I wondered if I should reread The Corrections to see what all the fuss was about.  Now, I'm thinking that I might not.  If for no other reason, do I really want to approach a novel so non-objectively?

Oh, and I also hate J.K. Rowling.  Another subject for another day.  In the meantime… a kitty!

Yes, he usually looks that miserable when I hold him.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Book Review

Shockingly enough, I do read more than just Harry Potter.  I actually own Tess of the D’Urbervilles by accident – my Victorian Lit professor from the fall 2009 semester (best class ever!) accidentally required that we buy it despite having removed it from the syllabus.  Instead of trying to return it though, I figured that I might as well hold onto it and read it once I graduated.  And so I did.

A rather prolific poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy is well known for such famous novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd.  My first encounter with him was in my senior year of high school when I was required to read The Mayor of Casterbridge for an AP English class. Though much of my class really enjoyed the novel, I did not, nor did I come close to finishing it.  When I decided to hang onto Tess and read it at a later time, I had not yet put together two and two and realized that it was written by the same dreaded author.  Eventually, I did make the connection but I told myself that I’m older now, my tastes have changed, I’ve learned to find the good in things.  And that’s true; I did finish Tess, which is clearly an improvement on my part.

My feelings on Tess are quite mixed.  At some points I couldn’t put the book down and would read on late into the night.  This obsessive reading was tempered, though, by the rather high number of times that I fell asleep with it in my hands.  This is probably because the writing is rather schizophrenic.  Sometimes the narrator is detached and we get little more than “He said, she said” whereas at other times all we hear is the narrator expostulating on the background of the situation or place or character.  Sometimes the writing is melodic and beautiful, at others brusque and ugly.  It was hard for me to get a real handle on the writing itself because of how inconsistent it is.  This is probably partially due to the fact that the novel was originally published as several stories in different publications before Hardy put them all together, a practice common to that literary era.  An excellent and understandable explanation, though it doesn’t make Tess any easier to read.

The Broadview Press edition.
I would buy from them just for the
covers.  Yes, I do judge presses
by the covers.  Is that a crime?!
Before I go on, I think a quick review of the plot is in order for those who aren’t familiar with it.  The title character, Tess Durbeyfield, is the daughter of poor parents whose poverty is due largely to their laziness and fondness for drinking.  One day the father learns that they are the last surviving members of a noble family, the D’Urbervilles.  Tess’s parents send her off to marry the son of a family with the same name, with the intention of restoring them to their former position.  Tess is impregnated, though not married, and returns home disgraced. The baby dies and Tess leaves home again, meets a respectable young man who loves her, marries her, and then abandons her when he finds out her past.  There follows desperate poverty, exhausting work, sexual threat, stalking by her rapist, a crime of passion, and execution.  So yeah, it’s pretty much the most depressing thing ever.

Hardy does not tell us how Tess is impregnated, choosing rather to abandon his close narration at this point.  It is my opinion that she is raped, partially because the full title of the novel is Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (emphasis mine) and partially because Hardy has a tendency to abandon Tess at her moments of greatest vulnerability, yet another issue I have with the narration of the novel.  Also, rape matches much better with the overall tone of the novel than surrendering to passionate love.  Either way, she is ruined for good because nobody gave a crap whether the girl consented or not.

Tess herself is a pathetic little character, destined to poverty and untimely mistakes and constantly done in by those around her.  Loyal and hardworking, she is also dull, poorly educated, and easily influenced.  Being a woman in Victorian England, she is generally at the whim of those around her, whether that be her parents, her employer, or her love interest.  Despite the promise that this holds for many lovable characters, Tess lacks the snarky decisiveness of Elizabeth Bennet, the independence of Jane Eyre, and the passion of Maggie Tulliver, all of whom are in similarly helpless, impoverished positions.  Of course, Elizabeth, Jane, and Maggie were all written by women so Tess is not entirely to blame for her lack of spirit or any interesting qualities whatsoever.

Speaking of which, what about men writing female characters?  To be perfectly honest, I’m attracted more to Victorian female writers than their male counterparts and every time I read a Victorian novel written by a man I am reminded why.  Their female characters are often hollow shells of what women were expected to be, which offers an insight onto how women were viewed at that time, whereas their men are actual people.  Just think of Angel Clare, Tess’s husband: educated, witty, decisive, free to go and do what he pleases, he is everything that Tess is not.  Even her rapist is more multi-faceted than she.  In fairness to other Victorian male writers, I haven’t read that many of their novels so if anybody wants to recommend something to me, please do.

My biggest problem with Hardy in this novel is what I mentioned above: his abandonment of Tess during her times of greatest vulnerability.  Yes, I know that I’m supposed to think about the text independently of the author and that it is the narrator who is to blame but when a poor, sad, abused girl is left to the wiles of a man stronger than she with far less morals, I need somebody more tangible to blame than a nameless, bodiless narrator.  That’s you Hardy!  As somebody who gets far too involved in books, it actually pained me to know that Tess was completely alone during those moments, without even a disinterested narrator to hold her hand.  Also frustrated as a reader to not be allowed access to her thoughts.  Which is giving me ideas for my next story, should I ever complete the collection I am currently should be writing.

One more note on Tess before I give up this hopeless attempt to make sense of my feelings towards it: pages from the end, Tess and Angel stumble in the dark upon Stonehenge.  Freaking Stonehenge.  Yeah, I know it’s been there since long before Hardy’s time, but I have never once actually associated it with British literature.  Nothing I have read has ever described it or even mentioned it.  My point is not about the novel but about how I have two very different conceptions of England: there is the England of novels, where accomplished ladies play and sing and madwomen are locked in attics and men hunt at their leisure and orphans ask for more and an infant defeats the greatest Dark Lord of all time; and then there’s the England that I can see and touch and read about in travel books.  It’s bizarre when these two Englands intersect and prove that they are the same place.  Do you know what I mean?

So my feelings on Tess are mixed, and with good reason.  It offends me as a woman, a feminist, a friend, and a writer.  But sometimes it was good, or at least captivating.  I’ll probably give Hardy a chance.  Though not until I finish rereading Harry Potter!  I also have to say, I'm astonished at how much I managed to say about Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  If you made it this far, I apologize.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Comet Cafe Restaurant Review

So I'm back in NJ and delighting in cooking my own food again.  As you already know, the husband and I spent the last few days in Wisconsin with his family and that means cheese, beer, brats, and a general distaste for vegetables.  Yuck.  Conveniently, my sister-in-law Saralyn is a vegetarian (one of the few I know), meaning that she knows all the good places to go in downtown Milwaukee for a yummy meat-free meal.  Now I know what your thinking: Veggie restaurants?  In the midwest?  Yeah, right.  And while I can't seem to identify many all-vegetarian (or, cheesehead forbid, vegan) restaurants in the city, there are a number of veg-friendly establishments.

Enter Comet Cafe.  Comet Cafe, located on the East Side of Milwaukee, specializes in using fresh, local ingredients to make veg-friendly food from scratch.  They serve meat, but most of the meat options are veganizable and there are even vegan options that don't have a meat counterpart!  Suck it, carnivores.  They also pride themselves on serving locally crafted beers.  In fact, their booze menu (that link is to a partial menu) is exponentially longer than the regular menu, comprised of more beers, wines, and liquors than it seems possible for their small establishment to hold, many with a notably Wisconsin-ian flair like the Wisconsin cow bomb (a pint of beer, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, and a shot of Jameson).

Comet Cafe doesn't seem like much from the outside.  There's a mural painted on the side of the building and the inside seems a bit seedy.  From the inside however, it really appeals to me and everything I like in a restaurant hang-out.  Part cafe, part diner, and part bar, it refuses to choose a niche and refuses to be snooty.  It's very down-to-Earth which matches perfectly its comfort food-oriented menu.  The walls are interesting, with large paintings and exposed pipes.  It's very much the kind of place you could imagine a student going to sit at a counter to do work while sipping a latte or a drunken writer going to throw back an exploding cow and theorize loudly on Nietzsche.  Of course, you pay for the ambiance - not in money (it's reasonably priced) but in the fact that it's small and thus doesn't have many tables, and there's no designated place to wait which can cause a lot of awkwardness for those standing around for forty-five minutes and the people whose table they're inevitably blocking.

Anywho, on to the important stuff - the food.  I had pretty much already decided what to have before we left the house due to my obsession with perusing menus online.  The husband and I started out the meal out with an appetizer of vegan riblets with hot sauce.  These were pretty much Satan balls seitan chunks that had been battered and fried.  These were yummy!  They kind of freaked my out because they were made to look and feel like the real thing, a sensation that always skeeves me out, but I got past it and enjoyed myself.  Oh, and if you were wondering, yes the riblets were on the appetizer menu and yes I thought it was strange that an appetizer comes with fries.  Must be a midwest thing.  But the fries were really delicious so I got over it.

The riblets were followed by a cup of creamy tomato soup (free with my meal!) which was not vegan (the waitress was kind enough to warn me!)  but also delicious and I never even thought about taking a picture of.  Imagine a cup of creamy tomato soup and you're there.

Finally, we got to the main attraction.  I ordered the vegan salisbury steak which is topped with a porcini mushroom gravy and served with mashed potatoes and the daily vegetable (corn-on-the-cob).  Salisbury steak is actually a meaty meal that I remember fondly from my childhood which my mother stopped making long before I would have stopped eating it.  That is until tonight, when she'll be making it for my vegetarian birthday party.  Go figure.  Her dish is pretty much baked hamburgers covered in canned mushrooms and gravy.  I never liked her actual hamburgers so I'm assuming there's more to the patties than that but I don't know.  I'm not sure if that's anything like what salisbury steak traditionally is but what I had at Comet Cafe was completely different.  It was patties (made from a hazelnut base) that were breaded and fried and covered in a really excellent gravy.  The patties looked, felt, and tasted more like what I remember a chicken-fried steak to be.  I never liked chicken-fried steak but this stuff was goooood.  My socks remained on but this is comfort food.  It's not meant to blow you away; it's meant to fill you up and make you feel good.  And it worked.  The mashed potatoes were also really good.  The corn however, was underwhelming.  And I'm not saying that from the perspective of a Jersey girl who is spoiled with weekly local farmer's market corn but from the perspective of somebody who knows what good things taste like.  Ah well, I wasn't there for the corn.  Happily, I had leftovers of the steak and potatoes (such an odd thing for me to say) which meant a nice lunch the next day.

Sadly, there was no dessert.  Literally.  They advertise an amazing-sound chocolate cake, carrot cake, a variety of pies, and a daily assortment of vegan treats but by the time I finished dinner they were completely out.  Of everything.  The waitress teased me with the possibility of there being some carrot cake hiding in the back but alas, it was not to be.  That's okay though as I had three cocktails and that's enough naughtiness for one evening.

To sum up: Comet Cafe is awesome!  I will definitely be returning on future pilgrimages to the husband's homeland.  Hopefully for brunch because I have been desperately desiring vegan brunch in a restaurant and their brunch menu looks scrumptious!  To all the vegans and vegetarians in Milwaukee: GO HERE!

In case you're interested, every moment not spent
consuming yummy vegan food my husband spent
building this.  I married a three-year old.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets yet, take a look before reading on!  Also, 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.

Several years ago, my mother and I went on a trip to Niagara Falls.  While walking among the little Canadian town on the border of the United States, we found all of the normal Canadian souvenirs you’d expect to be found in such a touristy town – pure maple syrup, maple creams, maple leafs.  Probably some non-maple relate paraphernalia as well – a hockey stick maybe?  Okay, I don’t know much about Canada, but moving on.  What really struck me though was the Harry Potter books with different covers.  I guess that up until that point, I’d assumed that the American covers were the standard covers, if I’d thought about it at all.  But alas, they are not, and therefore I had to have one of these strange books.  I think that at that point only the first three or four books were out and, as Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorites, I bought the third book.  Little did I know that the differences went beyond the cover!  What had also never occurred to me is that the books were “translated” into “American” English.  So in reading this strange version of the third book, I also was treated to a plethora of very British and very unusual-to-me sayings.  I’d share some with you except that that copy of the book is currently as my parents’ house.  Maybe I’ll update this post tomorrow when I’m there.  Suffice it to say that I felt extraordinarily well-cultured after this experience.  Also suffice it to say that the Canadian versions of the Harry Potter books are much more portable being far smaller than the American editions.

As I’ve said, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has always been my favorite of the first three books.  I tend to group the seven books into three groups – the first three, the fourth, and then the last three.  I will go into this more in my discussion of the fourth book but suffice it to say that Prisoner of Azkaban is both my favorite of the first three books and a contender for all-time favorite (something I have yet to determine).  At this point in the series, the overall plot is still waterproof – partially because each of the first three volumes pretty fully answers all of the questions it poses rather than ending on a cliffhanger and partially (I’d imagine) because the first three volumes was published within a fairly short period of time, meaning that J.K. Rowling had better planned each of the following two before publishing the first.

Though maturity looms around the corner, Prisoner of Azkaban is the last book in which Harry can really be considered a child, when the challenge of making it to a nearby wizarding village for a day of fun takes precedence over protecting himself from a raving murderer.  The larger, more mature themes are hinted at: particularly questions of betrayal and the revelation that Harry is marked, a constant target.  Ultimately, though, Harry remains in his childish bubble, ending the novel with a joke about his godfather, the convicted murderer.

Other characters become a bit more real in this volume as well.  Hermione the student is for once humanized – we see her bowing under the pressure of having taken on too many responsibilities and finally cracking. Ron’s flaws become quite obvious in his willingness to abandon his friendship with Hermione multiple times throughout the novel.  The value of friendship is tested by something so innocuous as a broomstick, before finally proving itself superior (for now) to a petty, immature grudge.   Even Severus Snape, who had previously never been more than a villain, reveals himself to be a man holding a grudge after being wronged in his youth.  People become more than just their surface value in Prisoner of Azkaban: a werewolf is not just a monster, a convicted murderer is something more.

The Firebolt: the infamous friendship destroyer.
Also, apparently I couldn't be bothered to shower after my workout
before jumping back into
Harry Potter.
Much is the same as it was in the first two volumes – the book opens on Harry’s birthday, a matter of utmost importance; Snape continues to be a threatening figure haunting the pages; there are excessively long Quidditch scenes; and there is an ultimate resolution – we know where Harry stands at the end of the book and the current state of wizarding affairs, as in the first two volumes.  But much has changed as well; Harry stops looking for trouble – “Why would I go looking for someone I know wants to kill me?” (73) – and lets trouble find him instead; rather than enemies in disguise, we are presented with the conundrum of hidden friends; and we are introduced to the dementors, who embody fear and force the reader to ask what our allies say about us.
So what is so compelling about Prisoner of Azkaban?  I think this is always an important question to ask oneself, as I discussed in my evisceration review of Twilight.  Nearly every text presents its own ideology and one needs to question it to avoid blindly buying into it.  Anywho.  So what it is that I love about this book, I believe that’s where I was before I jumped on my soapbox.  I think it’s really just all these things I’ve been saying, particularly the intersection between childhood and the darkness to come.  Prisoner of Azkaban is completely unexpected in many ways, which is a pleasure after two volumes whose ends were foreseeable even if the details were not.  Ron’s revulsion at the true identity of his rat – “I let you sleep in my bed!” (373) – really strikes a cord with me, as it is evidence that danger can lurk in the most unexpected places and sometimes we cannot trust our friends (Ron himself often fails as a loyal friend).  Again, there is the reversal of expectations – we thought it was Crookshanks, a new pet/characters, who had evil motivations, but in truth it is the loyal, ancient rat that had never shown a sign of danger who turns out to be an enemy.

Darkness lurks in the most private places, suggesting the true danger of Harry’s world even before he can fully grasp that fact.  Whereas before Rowling let us understand only as much as Harry, here we take a step beyond him, and that is supremely satisfying.  He ends the novel content in the discovery of a parent-figure while we can only look ahead – but what about Wormtail?  The series is changing; the real changes won’t come until the next volume but they are hinted at here.  The reader knows that something is coming even if Harry can not quite grasp that fact.  It is the cliffhanger, the first of any consequence that Rowling introduces, that captivates me.  It is at this point that the series really comes to life and starts moving forward, leaving the reader more excited than ever before for what is to come. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Alterra Coffehouse Review

The Atlantic?  The Pacific?
Guess really fast because I'm about to tell you.
Greetings all!  You should all be very impressed with me because this is the second post I've posted (and the third written) since being on vacation!  I'm writing to you today from Wisconsin, where the husband and I are spending a long Labor Day weekend visiting my in-laws.  That's right, the "ocean" pictured above is actually Lake Michigan.  It's hard to believe that it's a lake, especially when you wake up on an airplane only able to see water in all directions and can only assume that the pilot has taken a wrong turn.

But this post isn't about lakes masquerading as oceans or confused travelers.  It's about soy chai lattes, which have been sorely lacking from the blog for awhile now.  More specifically, it's about the soy chai latte I had today at Alterra Coffee, a small and locally-owned chain of coffeehouses in the Milwaukee area.  Alterra has ten locations - in downtown Milwaukee, on the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee campus, at the local airport, at local malls, and more - it's essentially the local Starbucks.  On both of my trips to Alterra, I've gone to the UWM campus location (located a few steps from the lake), which is a big two-story free-standing building with fun-colored seating outside and an artsy, rustic sort of vibe inside.  It has seating upstairs and down and feels cozy and welcoming, unlike many of its larger competitors.
As the name implies, Alterra specializes in coffee, strong coffee to be precise, but that doesn't stop me from ordering my standard chai in an attempt to find the ultimate brew.  Amazingly, Alterra has not one, but two chai choices, which makes for a very happy Jennifer.  On my first trip a year and a half ago, I had the African Red Chai.  I remember liking it but knowing that I wouldn't switch off of the traditional Indian chai, which is richer and spicier.  Today I tried their Indian Masala, which seems to be their own brew (or at least not the Tazo or Oregon Chai concentrate that you usually find when you're out).  Oh my GOD.  This stuff is amazing.  It was perfectly spicy, with a slightly different than normal note to the flavor that I can't describe but was just wonderful.  The balance of chai to soy was absolutely perfect (which is a nod to the barista, because the person making your chai can make all the difference) and either the tea was unusually dark or it was blended really well because the foam on top was a lovely shade of tan.  And can we talk about the foam?  There was foam!  So often when I get chai lattes out, there's barely a smidgen of foam on top, as though I'd ordered a cup of chai tea with lots of soy milk.  NO.  It's called a latte for a reason and the people at Alterra know what that reason is andohmygodit'ssogoodIwantmorenow.
The husband - isn't he pretty?!  Okay, maybe not so much in this picture.
Eating brownies does not normally cause him face-altering pain.
My sister-in-law, Saralyn. Yes they
did pose in the exact same chair.
For those who are interested, the husband declares Alterra's coffee (he thinks it was a Columbian brew) to be "zesty, sharp, poignant; it stings the nostrils and punches the taste buds."  In case you can't tell, that means it's good.  Saralyn, my sister-in-law, had a white chocolate mocha, which she found to be "yummy, white-y, and mocha-y."  (Lame!)  Also, "better than Starbucks and it's called a Mocha Blanca.  I'm not good with words.  It was good and I didn't get jittery afterwards."  However, the husband found his brownie to be quite underwhelming so you may want to stick to the beverages.  I also bought a tin of Alterra's Blueberry Rooiboos tea, which sounds and smells amazing and comes in a cute tin that seems to have been hand-packed.  I wanted to taste and review it for this post but it's loose and I don't travel with my tea ball so that will have to wait.

After posing for pictures in their garden, we took our drinks over to Bradley beach to shiver barefoot in the wet sand and wind while some romping bedraggled dogs twisted their leashes around our ankles and windsurfers flew about.  It was nice.  Happy Labor Day, all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone yet, take a look before reading on!  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.

No, this is not yet another Harry Potter mug…
just the other side of the first.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has always been my least-loved volume of the series.  It’s not so much that I dislike it as I think that the others are much better.  This extreme stance possibly comes from only having watched the awful film adaptation for years until last week, so it is perhaps better to say that Chamber of Secrets is my seventh favorite.  There are parts I love but overall it’s not the one volume of the series that I would take to a deserted island with me (but which one would that be…?).

Before jumping into what I don’t like about Chamber of Secrets, I think I’d rather talk about what I do like.  There’s Dobby the bumbling house elf, whose efforts to help Harry tend to turn out worse than the danger Harry would have otherwise faced.  Dobby’s slobbering devotion and omnipresent sense of guilt are unexpectedly endearing despite his constant self-degradation.  In keeping with the theme of miniature magical humanoids, the singing dwarves on Valentine’s Day are a nice little touch – very Rowlingesque (does Rowling have her own eponym yet?).  This is a detail that’s easy to forget since the movies came out, as the writer preferred to extend the escape from Aragon rather than include bits of whimsy like singing dwarves (“His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad…”).  There’s Arthur Weasley, whose fascination with rubber ducks is just adorable.  And of course there’s Gilderoy Lockhart, a nice little reminder of how normal wizards are.  Like us Muggles, they value money, fame, and excellent hair products and are, above all else, flawed.  Not flawed in the evil Hitler-like murderer way that Voldemort is, but flawed in the I’m not perfect but I certainly won’t stop pretending way.  Lockhart is far from admirable but very human, which is a trait of wizards that is easy to forget when you’ve got an eleven-year-old running around saving the world.

Perhaps the problem is that Chamber of Secrets seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut.  Rowling’s writing hasn’t really matured since Sorcerer’s Stone and she hasn’t yet seemed to have moved on.  The beginning is very exposition heavy – we learn again that Harry is a mistreated orphan wizard, that Hagrid is gamekeeper, et cetera.  Yeah, we knew that.  This is the second book in a series for a reason.  The exposition in Sorcerer’s Stone was helpful and whimsical; in Chamber of Secrets it is merely a space-filler that you have to read through to get to the good stuff.  Perhaps younger readers need those reminders, but I doubt it.  Kids are a lot smarter than they often get credit for – just look at Harry (I wanted to say Hermione but she’s a little too smart to prove my point and Ron’s just a bit of a dunderhead).

The middle of the novel improves: Lockhart, Dobby, creepy creature killing people that only Harry can hear, gigantic spiders that aren’t so bad but oh wait they’ll eat any human who isn’t Hagrid – all fun.  There’s an excellent sense of fear and danger which is well-matched by Harry’s first taste of not being idolized.  And then there’s the adventure.

I think that Rowling’s editors should have reminded her that she already wrote an adventure for Harry that involves a novel’s worth of investigation that is beyond the means of a character his age, takes place miles under the school, involves travelling a straight line to reach a final point, and culminates in meeting some terrifying form of the Dark Lord.  Been there, done that.  We’d like something new.

The hint to the quest for the Horcruxes in Deathly Hallows is nice, though I’m not sure I believe that Lucius Malfoy would have been quite so free and easy with a bit of his former master’s soul.  The moment when Harry frees Dobby through a bit of unforeseen cleverness is quite gratifying.  But cancelling exams?  Really?  Maybe for Harry and those who were petrified but for everyone else, this is just a bit of a stretch.  I don’t believe it and the kids who Rowling is obviously playing up to probably wouldn’t either.  Saving Dobby is the perfect happy ending – we don’t have to take it too far.

Ultimately, the novel just doesn’t go anywhere.  We learn that Voldemort was once a man, but we already knew that, and that a bit of him is in a diary but the significance of that isn’t at all clear.  Nothing new happens, there are no clues to the future; the novel is stagnant.  After the great introduction to this world and situation that Rowling gives in Sorcerer’s Stone, she just kind of stands still in Chamber of Secrets.  We need more.

I think the terrible quality of this post tells you better than anything I actually said about how I feel about Chamber of Secrets.  There are parts I like but in the end, it doesn’t inspire any eloquence on my part, other than endless synonyms for “stuck in a rut”.  Perhaps my discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban will be better as I love, love, love the third volume.  We shall see.