Saturday, March 31, 2012

What should I do in Boston??

Yeah, that's about it.  The husband and I are going to Boston next weekend, ostensibly for PAX, but let's be serious.  I need to see and do and eat things that aren't about gaming.  So what should I do?  Where should I go?  What should I eat?  Tell me all the things.

Bookish Stuff

So once again I've gotten to the point where I'm overdue to write three book reviews, one of which is left over from the last time I complained about this.  I could use this post to start remedying that but..... yeah.  I'd rather ramble on about some other bookish stuff first.

Firstly, I've started listening to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer on audiobook (AKA I'm already halfway through) and it's wonderful.  I love Oscar, who is so precocious that in real life I know I'd just want to strangle him, and who can make me confused about whether I'm laughing or crying because the book moves between both so often and so effectively.  And the narration is really good - so much so that even though this is normally the kind of book I'd read in print, I'm actually glad I went the audiobook route (though I'll still probably buy a print copy when I'm done).  I could say more, but I'd rather not ruin my future review, which may or may not ever get written.

I also started reading a biography of the wives of Henry VIII by Amy Weir because the obsession lives on, and it's so interesting to compare her perspectives of Queen Katherine to what Julia Fox said about her in Sister Queens (which I also need to write up a review for).

OH, and I finished The Other Boleyn Girl on audiobook and decided to watch the movie because Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman are two of my favorite actresses and putting them in the same movie should be a recipe for awesomeness, but it so wasn't (though it wasn't their fault).  It was a classic case of a director trying to save a crappy screenplay with a couple of big names and it flopped horribly.  I gave up trying to watch when Henry rapes Anne - what?!?!  I'm ashamed to say that rape actually made me laugh because it made no sense, narratively or historically or in light of the novel the movie was based on.

So that's where I've been reading-wise.  Even if the reviews aren't flowing, they sure are building up, and hopefully I'll be back this weekend to share them with you.  Assuming I ever catch up on the grad school work I've been eschewing in favor of watching The Tudors on Netflix with my husband.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hunger Games ~ The Movie

Hunger Games isn't all about the food.  After my dinner party, I went to see the movie itself.  At midnight.  With all the little kiddies who should have been in bed on a Thursday night.  Afterwards, I felt compelled to make an appointment with my eye doctor, because it couldn't really have been that out of focus, right??

So yes, the movie really surprised me in that it was largely done documentary-style, meaning that the camera was shaky and things were out of focus and you could never see anything in detail.  And this drove me crazy, but I will try not to let it dominate my review.  Except for the rest of this paragraph. I get the value of that style and I see that by having it documentary style they could do more in the way of exposition by interspersing action with commentary.  But when the whole movie is like that, I feel like it is far too distracting and undermines the moments when that style could really be meaningful.  Like the part where Katniss is having hallucinations.  Honestly, if the announcers hadn't just mentioned how tracker jacker venom induces hallucinations, it's possible that you wouldn't have noticed anything was different because the lack of focus and shakiness were just par for the course.  Plus, that style just made it hard to watch and I actually had to look away from the screen a few times to give my eyes a rest, which is never good.

The movie itself: I thought that they actually did a pretty good job.  They made some changes that I thought were really worthwhile.  For example, instead of having Madge, who was hardly a character in the book, give Katniss the pin, she finds it at the Hob, which is both more likely and wastes less time.  So kudos on that.  They also gave a little humanity to the Careers (there you go, Red!), which I appreciated.  And that whole inclusion of commentary was really clever, both for exposition and because Katniss does spend a lot of time imagining the commentary about her and this was the most natural way to include that.  As with any film adaptation, they also made some changes I didn't like so much, but only one stands out to me and I won't mention it because it's at the end of the movie.

I really liked the actress that they chose for Katniss.  She did a really good job of portraying her various emotions (mostly shock and anguish) and her delivery of key lines was great.  And Haymitch was just fantastic - he knew exactly when to be a bumbling drunkard and when to get down to brass tacks.  That was great casting.  Peeta, on the other hand, wasn't exactly what I expected.  I thought he would be a bit more of a heart throb and instead he's...well...a  bit of a mouth breather.  I suppose he did okay (and the camouflage was really awesome).  I guess he just wasn't what I expected, and I never felt that chemistry between him and Katniss that I felt in the book.  I suppose that speaks to her acting as well, though I tend to blame Peeta for it since he's supposed to inspire her response.  That budding chemistry felt more like a trick for the cameras than a real potential.

There he is!
Overall, I think it was a pretty good movie.  Unfortunately, though, I couldn't appreciate it that much at the time because of the motion sickness it caused me.  I sure hope the next two movies aren't like that.

One last note, which is more of a question for others who have read the whole series and saw this movie and which you can skip if you have not and do not want things spoiled: Did it seem to you like they were eliminating the need for a movie of Catching Fire?  In the first book, Katniss had no knowledge of any problems in the districts, but in the movie we saw that spark, and saw it catch.  Plus I feel like they might be hesitant to show another Games, which I thought was a big (though effective) risk on the part of Suzanne Collins.  Do we know if there will be a movie of Catching Fire yet?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hunger Games Dinner Party

Hello, fellow Hunger Gamers!  I'm running off of three hours of crappy sleep thanks to the midnight premier of The Hunger Games.  I'm going to save my review of the movie for a time when I'm feeling slightly less exhausted and instead share with you the Hunger Games-themed deliciousness that I whipped up before the movie, because I'm cool like that and because you need to have your own Hunger Games dinner party!

First up, I made Prim's Salade au Chevre Chaud, or salad with hot goat cheese.  This is a pretty classic French salad consisting of lettuce, French dressing (the real kind, not that orange stuff), and broiled goat cheese rounds on slices of baguette.  I had this salad in France and it was the best way I could think of to incorporate Prim's goat cheese into the meal and I must say, it did not disappoint.  It's pretty self-explanatory, but here's the recipe I used for the dressing.

Next up, we had what my friend Ali designated "Flambless Stew," or my recreation of the lamb stew with dried plums that Katniss loves so much.  There's no meat in it of course (I used Gardein beefless tips).  It went over really well with everybody, even my fruit-in-food hating husband, and is further evidence that you don't need to eat meat to eat well.  The recipe is at the end of the post and Hunger Games lover or not, I recommend you make it.

Finally, for dessert, we had this beauty of a cake:
Isn't that gorgeous?!?!
That's right - that's a Peeta Mellark Nightlock Berry Cake which, unfortunately, I can't take credit for.  My talented friend Sarah produced this beauty and I must say, it was pretty amazing (and delicious).

All in all, it was a great dinner party and so much fun that I almost forgot about the movie afterwards.  I'll be back sometime this weekend with a review.  In the meantime, go check out my review of the series on audiobook.  Or start planning your dinner party.  May the odds be ever in your favor!

Flambless Stew (adapted from this recipe)

3 9 oz. bags Gardein beefless tips (in the freezer section)*
olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red wine
2 cups vegetable stock (I use Better Than Bouillon brand)
1 tbsp sugar **
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 small zucchini, cubed
2 large red potatoes, cubed
2 1/2 cups pitted prunes, quartered
1 tsp dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary, crushed in your hand
1 tsp dried parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup ginger ale**
black pepper

6 cups cooked grain of choice (I used brown rice)

Heat a big pot over medium-high heat and coat the bottom with olive oil.  Brown the beefless tips, working in batches.  Don't worry about cooking them through right now, just get some color on them.  Remove to a bowl.  Add some more oil to the pan, along with the onion and garlic.  Cook until the onion starts to brown.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping at the bottom to get all those good crusty bits.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and bring to a boil, then lower heat.  Simmer for 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.  Add more water or stock if it seems a little dry to you.  Five minutes before serving, add the beefless tips back to the pot and simmer until heated through.  Season to taste.  Serve over grain.  Be amazed at how yummy it is.

*According to the Gardein website and the package, you should be careful not to overcook the tips, so be sure to remove them from the pot after browning.  I'm not sure about this, but if you leave them in there the whole thing will probably explode.  And don't worry - they're plenty tender.  I see a Meatless Monday post about faux meats in my future.
**I think the ginger ale in the original recipe is really for meat tenderizing purposes, which wasn't necessary here, but I wasn't sure so I added it.  In the future, I would probably leave out the sugar and the ginger ale, because with all those prunes, it made the stew pretty sweet.  I added some extra water and a lot of black pepper and that cut the sweetness, so I leave it up to you to decide about the sugary stuff.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ~ Dai Sijie

Isn't it pretty?!
I bought Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress for its cover.  There.  I said it.  I buy books for their covers and that's that.  Unfortunately, covers don't guarantee contents, and I learned that the hard way.
Don't get me wrong.  This little novel isn't bad, per se, which is exactly why it's taken me around two months to read it.  I read through it at a fairly good pace, nodded, and put it aside.  Overall, it did very little for me.

The novel is narrated by the son of two famous doctors who got on the bad side of Mao in Communist China.  The narrator and his friend, in a similar predicament, get sent to a rural mountain community for "reeducation."  There, they meet another young man in a similar position.  This new friend has piles of forbidden classics in hiding and our young hero proceeds to access them in whatever way he can.  Then he and his friend fall in love with a seamstress's daughter and read to her and get her pregnant.  And then they mourn a janitor, or something.  And then something else happens (I've forgotten what, I'm not just being vague).  And then it ends.

I think that the main problem with this novel is that it's not long enough.  It gives the sense of being a long novel, needing a lot of space and time devoted to the development of the setting, the characters, the situation.  But all that is rushed.  I get no sense of Communist China, no sense of what moves our narrator, no sense of much.  Things happen and it ends and I'm not sure whether I care.  I could feel potential, but in a rush of vagueness, it felt flat.

In addition, there were moments in the novel in which it seemed to forget its place and time altogether.  The two I remember were when the characters talked of a siesta and I felt the need to remind them that they are in a culturally secluded China speaking some form of Chinese.  Another was when the narrator talked about the idea of being a teen mom, but rapidly mentioned that being a teen mom wasn't a possibility in such a way that it wouldn't even be a concept to think of.  It seemed to be making a nod to current American issues without considering its true context.

So yeah, this novel was disappointing.  I didn't dislike it, I just lacked reaction altogether.  That's okay.  At least I have a pretty cover to look at.

Monday, March 12, 2012

I may have a problem

So remember how I gushed on an on about my new literary obsession?  That quickly turned into me racing through Sister Queens, a biography of Katherine of Aragon (AKA Henry VIII's first wife) and her sister, Juana of Castile (AKA that supposedly crazy queen who was locked away by her husband, father, and son), as well as plans for reading Shakespeare's Henry VIII.  Today, I took a trip to Barnes & Noble, and discovered Elizabeth and Mary, which I assumed was about Henry's two daughters who become queens, and immediately began to salivate.  I rushed home to order a cheap copy from Abebooks, and belatedly realized (thanks to the rather obvious caption) that the Mary to which the title referred was not in fact Elizabeth I's half-sister who was queen before her, but her cousin Mary Queen of Scots (who I used to always confuse with Queen Mary and may have thought were the same person).  So, needing to keep my burgeoning knowledge of lady monarchs in chronological order, I quickly found Mary Tudor, a biography of...well...Mary Tudor.  Weirdly enough, I'm fascinated by this particular monarch, because in her younger portrayals on The Tudors, she's just so cute and sweet that I need to know how she turned into the myth that made me scared to go to the bathroom at sleepovers when I was a kid.  Which obviously makes no sense because it's not like that actress is the reincarnation of the real Bloody Mary.  Or is she...

so creepy
NOT sisters

I may be spiraling out of control.  Thank goodness I'm a bargain shopper.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Awakening ~ Kate Chopin

So I've got a few books backlogged that I've read/listened to, been underwhelmed by, and failed to review.  I shall begin to remedy that here and now with the briefest of reviews.  Today's catch-up post is about The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which I actually finished back in September.  Oops.  Make sure to link up to your review at the end and remember that there is no need to link back.

The Awakening is one of those books that I meant to read for years, but never thought to actually acquire until I stumbled across it at a library sale and bought it for $1 with triumph in my heart.  I assumed that I would love it, it being all feminist-y and what not.  Alas, it failed me.  Here's the quickest plot summary I can muster to get you onto the same page: Edna Pontellier becomes discontented with her role as respectable wife and mother, buys her own house, has an affair, and drowns.  Along the way, she essentially abandons her children and is very racist.

I think the above may be enough to explain my issues with this novel, but I shall delve slightly deeper.  I am a self-identified feminist.  While this comes along with a lot of beliefs, one of those beliefs is that a woman does not need to procreate to be a "real" woman or any such nonsense.  However, slightly separate from this is the belief that no matter who you are, abandoning your children is not okay.  Also, "racist" and "feminist" do not go together in my book.  Okay, technically Edna's not a feminist, but it seems like she's supposed to demonstrate some feminist ideals, which I take great issue with.  Perhaps Edna is depressed, which would excuse her behavior to some extent, but it didn't feel like depression.  It felt like she was simply bored, and decides to fuck up a bunch of people's lives as a result without even the decency of an explanation.  Also, it's really difficult to identify with a character who never calls her children's nanny anything but a "quadroon" (excuse me while I vomit in my mouth).  Edna seems to me to be little more than a child - selfish, impulsive, and all-around unconcerned with the fact that there are people who depend on her and whose lives will be damaged by her behavior.  She is not a feminist figure or a forward-thinking woman, but a spoiled woman with a penchant for making drama.

Bring on the arguments.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Constant Princess ~ Philippa Greogory

Feel free to link up to your review or discussion of The Constant Princess at the bottom of this post.  There's no need to link back, but keep in mind that if your link isn't on-topic, I will delete it.

As I mentioned the other day, The Constant Princess isn't the kind of thing I normally read, but the audiobook caught my eye at the library and I decided to give it a shot.  The Constant Princess precedes Philippa Gregory's more famous work, The Other Boleyn Girl, and gives a fictionalized account of the early life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife and queen of Henry VIII of England.

My initial response to the novel was a resounding meh.  The reader's voice is a little haughty and her third-person narration isn't easily discerned from Katherine's first-person narration that the text flits in and out of.  Plus, I tend to go for audiobooks that are very plot-based and have a good amount of action, to keep my attention, which this novel sorely lacks.  As for the writing, it was a bit flowery and dramaticized for my taste, which probably explains why I had such difficulty immersing myself into the novel.

On top of that, I was irritated by the sense of entitlement that so may of the characters exude.  Catalina, who becomes Katherine, begins the novel with a puffed-up perception of her own importance.  I was so irritated by that that I nearly turned the thing off, until I saw the other aspect of her character.  She is not just some spoiled princess who thinks she is "especially favored by God" but a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who is truly at the mercy of the men around her.  Despite being royalty, she is not at all free and her actions are almost never of her own choosing.  Once I saw this aspect of her character, interestingly coupled with her sense of entitlement, I began to come around to the story.

Gregory definitely takes some liberties with the story of Katherine's life, the extent of which I'm now learning as I just began reading Sister Queens, a biography of Katherine and her sister Juana.  However, in some cases it does seem that she is filling in the gaps of history with her own interpretation and dramatic spin, and that is no crime.  The angle where Katherine had a passionate, loving relationship with her first husband, Henry's older brother, is not necessarily historically accurate but also not necessarily untrue.  It certainly gives2 her devotion to Henry later on a different flavor.  There were certain aspects of history that Gregory stuck to, like the marriages and bedding of such young individuals, children really, which other interpretations like The Tudors prefer to gloss over for their readers.  I appreciate these bits of accuracy because while not everything is historically true and certainly not comfortable, these details really set the scene in its proper time.

The bits that engaged me the most related to religion and the Crusades.  At the beginning, one of the reasons that I was so turned off by Katherine was her hearty endorsement of the religious wars her parents constantly engaged in.  However, much later in the novel, and decades later in her life, Katherine comes to realize that maybe this was wrong and maybe her Christian parents had destroyed much of value in their efforts to spread the bound of Christendom.  This was a great bit of character development and really quite advanced for that time and her position.

After my rocky start, I really started to enjoy the novel, though more for the bit of history it told than for it itself.  Unfortunately, the ending was extremely disappointing.  After a few years of marriage to Henry VIII and a great personal accomplishment (was Katherine really responsible for defeating the Scots?!), the novel suddenly skips about fifteen years to the point when she's waiting to testify in the King's Great Matter (aka trying to convince the Pope to grant him a divorce), and then just as abruptly ends.  There's hardly any exploration of the turmoil or sense of betrayal that Katherine must have felt at that time.  I know that The Other Boleyn Girl was already written by then, and it's clear that Gregory is trying to lead new readers into reading that as well, but the jarring, incomplete end failed to do justice to the story and to Katherine's life.

Overall, it's not the most amazing novel I've ever read, but it kept my attention and opened up a whole new world of interest to me, which few novels do, so I appreciate that.  And yes, I have started listening to The Other Boleyn Girl, per the instructions of the commenters on this post.  Gregory's writing may not be my favorite, but I'm enjoying it thus far and am glad that I decided to leave my comfort zone and give her a chance.