"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Presents for myself: holiday book haul

Since graduating from my MA in September, I've applied for quite a few jobs and landed one. It's part-time and not highly lucrative. But it also happens to be one of my dream jobs, and the one thing it does subsidize is my serious book-buying habit. You guessed it: I'm working in a bookstore! And at the staff holiday shopping night last week, in addition to getting gifts for some bookish friends and family, I made myself an early present and bought these four beauties.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is obviously a good bet because it's author's name is unpronounceable. Just kidding. (Although have you noticed how many highly regarded authors cause people embarrassments at dinner parties when they try to pronounce them out loud? J.M. Coetzee is my personal favorite in this category. Oh, and let's not forget the publishing house that's joined the trend: Knopf. I had to say their name out loud at work this week and had a split second of sheer panic after it came out of my mouth, wondering whether I'd said it wrong.)

Actually, this is a book that's been recommended to me by all my just-out-of-college friends - apparently it's very relatable for us new grads. I also really appreciated Eugenides' writing in his more famous novel, The Virgin Suicides, although I don't love that book the way thousands of young women on the internet seem to...
But I have higher hopes for this one, and the first few sentences seem to confirm what my friends promised: a book about people reading books. Which is definitely right up my alley.

Next up is something I'm REALLY looking forward to. This book sat next to my desk for a month while I was writing my dissertation. It belonged to my housemate, and at that point I was dedicating all my time to my work, so I was doubly incapable of giving into temptation and flipping open the gorgeous little cover.

Now, though, I'm ready to sink into The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. A year before this book appeared next to me, tantalizingly out of reach, I was writing my undergraduate thesis on film adaptations of fairy tales, and I've been really interested in reading more written adaptations ever since. This book, as far as I know, isn't a direct reworking of any specific tale, but an entirely new tale written in a fable-like style. I can't wait.

And it just looks so luscious, with these gorgeous chapter head illustrations. It reminds me a bit of the illustrations in Harry Potter, but more outrageous and fanciful.

The best part is, this is a series, so I have at least two more books to look forward to. I haven't really researched yet whether there are more to come. Another thing I've noticed during my first month at work is that children's books are usually less expensive than adult books - but they can be as or more beautiful as objects.

In that vein, I finally now own a copy of The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. I've been Tan's books - and this one in particular - since last summer, when I almost saw him speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I believe he's a filmmaker as well as an artist, and this book certainly has a filmic sensibility. There are no words, even within the illustrations. Instead, where there would be words on signs or pieces of paper in the story, there are strange symbols, a bit like a new set of hieroglyphics. This aligns perfectly with the story since, as far as I can tell from flipping through it, it's a story of a man immigrating to a foreign country where he doesn't speak the language.

I absolutely cannot wait to find a quiet moment and sit down with this book. It's just so damn gorgeous.

Finally, to fill out my eclectic little bundle, I got myself a copy of Melymbrosia, by one of my all-time favorites, Virginia Woolf. I'd never heard of this particular novel before I spotted it on the sale table. As I learned from a bit of googling, this is because it's an original version of a novel that Woolf later published as The Voyage Out after her friends urged her to tone down the politics and edginess of her first version. I haven't read The Voyage Out, but I suppose it's only right to start with the original.

In any case, it's always a pleasure to read Woolf. I forget how brilliant she was until I sink back into her writing and find myself wowed and humbled and inspired all over again. I guess to call myself a real devotee I should have already read all her work, but I'm a person who likes savoring things, and it's lovely to think I have many more of her books to discover for the first time.

I will in all likelihood be posting reviews of these books here as I read them. Meanwhile, I'm working my way (very slowly but with great pleasure) through The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Seriously, it's an amazing read, but I feel like it deserves and demands my full attention, so I've been trying to find nice quiet hours to read it, and that's quite difficult now that I actually have a job! I truly realize now how blessed I was this past year to have my full-time job be to read, study, discuss, and write about books.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sweater Weather Tag!

I saw this tag on Kayley's Closet and thought I'd do it myself to get into the fall/winter/holiday spirit!

Favorite candle scent?
I'm not a big candle person because I'm afraid of fire :/
BUT I do love the way candles smell, and if I had to pick a favorite scent, it would probably be something spicy and autumnal. I especially love things that smell like cinnamon.

Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
I somehow got through college and grad school without being converted to coffee, so not the first. Black tea (along with bread) is one of my basic life's essentials, but I truly am a hot chocolate fanatic. I judge cafes and restaurants based on how good their hot chocolate is - and the best way to get in my good graces is to serve spiced hot chocolate. Yummmmm.

What's the best fall memory you have?
Hm, hard to pick a favorite. One favorite memory from last fall in England was going to see the fireworks in the park on Guy Fawkes night. It wasn't just fireworks (although they were spectacular) - there were also food stands and games and rides and a giant bonfire. I'd never really been to a 'country fair' kind of thing, so it was really fun to wander around, try and fail at the games, and soak up some much needed warmth from the fire (despite above-mentioned fear of flames).

Which make-up trend do you prefer: dark lips or winged eyeliner?
I'm not sure why winged eyeliner is specific to fall.... But in any case, I'd say, for myself, dark lips. I've always been more of a smoky eye girl.

Best fragrance for fall?
Not a perfume person. Maybe cinnamon?

Favorite Thanksgiving food?
Stuffing. Stuffing, stuffing, stuffing.

What is autumn weather like where you live?
Much warmer than where I lived last year! Now that I'm back in the bay area, I'm enjoying clear, sunny days, most of which have been really warm as well. It's only this week that the temperature dropped about ten degrees. Now it really feels like fall, and I'm eagerly pulling out my scarves and my knitting needles.

Most worn sweater?
A pale grey pull-over that goes with basically everything. Then I like to dress it up with colorful scarves.

Must-have nail polish this fall?
My favorites for fall and winter are dark reds and greens. I have one stupendously deep and sparkly green from Butter London that's just perfect for holiday parties.

Football games or jumping in leaf piles?
Leaf piles. Obviously.

Skinny jeans or leggings?
I just got my first pair of leggings/jeggings. They are super comfortable, it must be admitted. But I also love jeans, because you can depend on them for almost everything you do.

Combat boots or Uggs?
Er, neither? Tall brown leather boots are more my thing.

Is pumpkin spice worth the hype?
Probably, yes.

Favorite fall TV show?
Hm, haven't really been watching much TV because I've been trying to read more.

What song really gets you into the fall spirit?
Timshel by Mumford and Sons, I think. It captures something calm and quiet that I love about cold months - something far from the busy-busy of holiday shopping or parties, but which is so lovely to find in between the busier moments.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

I'd forgotten how good this story is. And I think it's the mark of a good adaptation when the movie reminds you of how much you love a story and makes you want to go back and read the book over again. Catching Fire was pretty much everything I wanted it to be - although, that said, it's been a nice long year-and-a-half since I read the book, so I was in a perfect place to enjoy the movie without noticing any glaring omissions or glosses. I'll reserve judgement on those details until I re-read and re-watch. But this was a truly enjoyable film, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, well-designed.

Middle movies are the best - this time around, we didn't need to be introduced to the characters or the world. There's no awkward exposition in this movie. A few elegant shots remind us of what's come before. One of the best is when, at the very beginning, Katniss aims to shoot a wild turkey in the woods back in District 12 and at the last moment sees herself shooting Marvel, the tribute she killed in the first games, instead. That one image was such a good reminder, early in the film, that there's no way Katniss (or we) can forget what happened in the previous movie. She and Peeta and all the other victors we meet later in the movie are seriously damaged and changed by what they did in the arena.

Portraying that psychological damage is one of the best, most unique things about Collins' books. Unlike most stories about heroes and heroines who endure incredible physical violence, the Hunger Games trilogy honestly shows how much that violence hurts people, physically and psychologically. When they're back in the arena, the characters also spend more of their time running in terror or lying on the ground, incapacitated by pain, than they do fighting or acting brave. I really appreciated that the movie lets its action heroes and heroines remain human even as they achieve superhuman things.

The actors really stepped up to the task of embodying both human fragility and human strength. I felt I knew what was going through Katniss's head at all times, which is important for an adaptation of a book that was told in the first person. And although there never seems to be enough time in movies for just watching the characters grow, Catching Fire did show a lot of character development. Peeta in particular undergoes a wonderful transformation in this part of the story (which makes part three even more heartbreaking). His strengths come to match Katniss's, although the two don't overlap. As I watched them struggle differently but bravely with the pressures and horrors of the victory tour and the arena, I was totally convinced that, together, they could actually change the society that was oppressing them.

Meanwhile, Gale starts to look worse and worse in comparison, as he consistently ignores everything Katniss is going through and just keeps asking her whether she's in love with him yet. He becomes, in some ways, the same as the spectators who so eagerly lap up Katniss and Peeta's staged romance. Peeta, on the other hand, accepts Katniss's feelings and gets on with the more important stuff, like helping her save her family or comforting her when she has nightmares about the arena. When Gale sees Katniss recoil in shock after her vision of shooting Marvel, by contrast, he has no idea what to do.

All of this points not only to how much better Peeta is than Gale, but also how much better Suzanne Collins is than most authors who focus on their heroines' love lives over everything else. One of these boys understands that Katniss is more than a sex object, and he's obviously the one she should ally herself with if she wants to save the world and wants to have a chance at happiness doing that. Collins also exposes how the society objectifies Katniss. The best way to keep her from starting a rebellion, as Plutarch Heavensbee suggests to President Snow, is to paint her as a classic feminine stereotype, more obsessed with her wedding dress than concerned about politics. That's why Cinna's transformation/destruction of that dress is such a good image. On the one hand, he literally burns up the dress to show that she's more than the barbie doll that the Capitol wants her to be. On the other hand, when she spreads her wings as the Mockingjay, she's still expressing her identity through a dress, a foreshadowing of the fact that she'll become as much a puppet of District 13's rebellion as she was of the Capitol.

This is also why I loved Joanna's undressing-in-the-elevator scene. She recognizes exactly what those fancy clothes mean, and she isn't having any of it. She'd rather go naked than conform to anyone's idea of who she is. It’s also a priceless scene, which the actors play for comedy very successfully. But, as is appropriate for the story, even this comedic moment is overlaid with the themes of the film. The Hunger Games trilogy is a critique of those who thoughtlessly create and consume entertainment, and it forces its own audience to really think about what they’re watching and to decide for themselves whether it’s entertainment or something else.

I loved all the new characters, Joanna included. The casting was right on the nail for everyone, and the movie succeeded in presenting clear, though necessarily brief, portraits of each of them. Haymitch also acquires a lot more depth in this movie simply by being presented alongside his friends, the other victors. One details I did miss from the books was the scene where Katniss watches the video of the games from the year Haymitch won. But I admire the directors for knowing when to cut scenes like that and achieving a coherent and lean movie in the end.

In addition to being well directed and acted, the movie was beautifully designed. The arena looked pretty spectacular, especially in the aerial shots. And once again, the movie fleshed out a more vivid, tangible world than the books presented (thin physical description and world-building is one of the main flaws of the books, in my opinion). I look forward to seeing how the filmmakers show us District 13. Only a year to wait, but the brilliant series of short scenes and spare shots at the end of the movie definitely whetted my appetite and are making that year seem very long indeed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Matched trilogy

It's been a while since I blogged, but in between starting a new job, gearing up for the holidays, and adjusting to life after school and back in the US, I have actually managed to keep reading. After a few random 'literary' novels, I was craving some easy, plot-driven books that wouldn't be total drivel.

YA dystopias fit those conditions perfectly. I love dystopia because it involves imagined worlds but still makes you think about the real world. And although Ally Condie does a little too much telling and uses quite a few too many symbols and metaphors, the Matched trilogy definitely made me think.

First, these books made me think about myself. The first book introduces us to the Society. It's important that it's written with a capital 'S' because a lot of things in this book are identified by normal nouns turned into proper nouns by a capital letter. That's because there are no multiples or options or choices in this world. There is one government, one country, and one right answer to every question. Each person is matched with their one perfect 'match' and one perfect job. They have one set of clothes. And they act as one, all obeying the same laws. (There is also, we learn, one rebellion trying to take down the Society, but even it is called the Rising, a foreshadowing of the fact that it turns out to be hard to distinguish from the system it's trying to replace.)

I found this world-concept especially interesting because one of the things I dislike most about contemporary society, especially in the US, is the excess of choice it offers its citizens. All you have to do is go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and try to pick a new set of bathroom towels to understand what I mean. There are so many variables and options for everything we buy - do you want organic or conventional, non-fat, low-fat, or whole milk? While shopping for apples this week, I must have been offered at least 20 varieties of just that fruit. Personally, this stresses me out, and as I read about Cassia Reyes, Condie's heroine, I had just a twinge of jealousy because she didn't have to make those ridiculous choices all throughout her daily life. Condie really succeeded in imagining a future world that seems to have solved a problem our society actually suffers from - only they took the solution too far.

It's not just Cassia's meals and clothes that are determined for her. She also gets no choice in the person she'll spend her life with, the job she'll spend her life doing, and the city she'll spend her life in. Luckily for her, she gets matched with her best friend, Xander. Unluckily, she is mistakenly matched with a second boy as well: her other friend, Ky. And so Condie has a perfect little set up to explore the concept of a character who has to learn what it means to choose between two options and, later, how to create her own ideas and her own future outside of the options presented to her.

The first book, Matched, starts out looking like a pretty conventional teen love triangle. But as the series develops, the initial set-up of Cassia being torn between Xander and Ky gets woven into a much bigger story about her relationship to society, not just to a couple of boys.

Again, this all felt so familiar. Beyond over-stuffed supermarket shelves, the US (foremost among rich nations) pretends to offer its citizens unlimited possibilities in what kind of life they can lead. Supposedly, anyone, myself included, could become president someday. That's not strictly true, of course - there's a lot of inequality and a lot of glass ceilings still around. But this book responds in interesting ways to that American Dream. In a lot of ways, Condie's message is very traditionally American: she celebrates the moments when Cassia breaks away from the Society by running away into untamed nature or expressing herself through her own poetry, music, and dance. There's even a refrain throughout the books, referring to the anonymity of the leader of the Rising: Anyone could be the Pilot. This sounds a lot like saying, Anyone could be president of the United States.

But in the end, Cassia returns to civilization to help build a better society having learned that there are no easy choices, and possibilities are not unlimited in any part of life. She can't choose both Xander and Ky, or both the Society and the Rising. She can't live in both her home town and the wild canyons she discovers in Crossed and comes to love. She can't divide herself when some of her friends choose to leave for unknown lands while some decide to stay and rebuild. Choice is good, but choice is also hard.

I don't recommend these books based on the writing style or the psychological depth of the characters, who are lovable and relatable but also fairly simple. This book adheres to the (I think absurd) rule in YA that psychological depth and elegant, show-not-tell writing be banished along with violence and sex.

But despite its flaws, this trilogy was a very good read. I wanted to find out what happened to the characters, and the books delivered the plot at a great pace, not too fast and not too slow, just enough to keep me desperately turning the pages. And when I stopped turning those pages and headed to work or went to make another cup of tea, I wasn't just thinking about who Cassia would end up with at the end of the third book. I also found myself thinking about my own life and my own choices - engaging in just the kind of reflection that dystopian fiction is supposed to inspire.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Animal Dreams

I picked Animal Dreams up for 10 cents at my local library because I'd enjoyed another of Barbara Kingsolver's books, The Poisonwood Bible. Now that I think about it, I read that over five years ago, and I honestly don't remember much about it, except that I liked it but found the ending a little too drawn out. Animal Dreams, on the other hand, is paced really beautifully and wraps up in a series of shorter chapters that delicately tie up loose ends and even leave one scene to happen "off-stage" although Kingsolver spends a lot of the book building up to it. It's a very quick, but very satisfying read. The writing is so smooth, the first-person voice so accessible that if, like me, you get completely sucked into identifying with the protagonist, the book just flies by.

That protagonist is Codi Noline, who goes back to spend a year in her tiny desert home town after essentially running away from a difficult and estranged childhood there. The arc of the book is her attempts to reconcile with her family and other people in the town as well as with herself. What I loved about this book is that it shows the inaccurate and unhelpful habits in people's self-image that can keep them from living to their full potential. The quote singled out for the back of the book is about how our lives shape our dreams, just like how a dog who chases rabbits during the day dreams about chasing rabbits at night, but the book also shows the reverse: how if we don't dare to dream or hope for a certain kind of life, we don't end up living that life.

Codi's narration is interspersed with shorter sections told from the point of view of her father. In addition to these multiple voices, Kingsolver weaves together multiple strands of story. Codi's sister travels to Nicaragua to help solve an agricultural crisis while at the same time Codi is faced with an agricultural crisis in her own town. One of the central plot-lines is about Codi's relationship to the older women in the town, who turn out to be surrogate mothers she never realized she had. Another is her rekindling of a romance with Loyd, an Apache guy she dated in highschool.

It's possible Loyd fits into a stereotype of a 'wise Indian,' but I really liked his outlook on life as he describes it to Codi and enacts it throughout the book. A big theme of the book is people's relationship to nature and place, and he has a lot to say about that. I also really liked how Kingsolver handled Loyd and Codi's relationship. It's refreshing after reading and watching so many books and movies where the courtship is everything and the happily ever begins the moment the destined couple kiss. In this book, Loyd and Codi already went through all that in high school, so instead, Kingsolver allows them to pick up where they left off and describes both the challenges to their happiness and the simple, comfortable moments as they sit side-by-side on a porch or take a long drive together.

Finally, I really enjoyed the imagery of the Southwest - the tiny town Codi has such difficulty negotiating, and a Pueblo she visits midway through the book. I love the desert, and it was nice to read about it as described with such ease and vivid particularity. I will definitely be reading more of Kingsolver's books - I already picked up The Bean Trees, which I've heard is great - but I think I'll be thinking about this book for a long time to come.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Summer favorites

I fell off the bandwagon of these favorites posts over the summer, so I'm just going to do one post for the whole summer, which was a little blurred together anyway because of spending so much time on the one project of my dissertation. Which is now over, so I have time to blog again :)

Favorite music:

I needed plenty of good study music to keep me going through the end of my dissertation, and I really fell in love with a few artists. I knew of Kimbra from her collaboration with Gotye on 'Somebody That I Used to Know,' but I recently discovered her independent album, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, she only has one album out as of now.

I also rediscovered Emily Wells, who's a one-woman music magician, playing and mixing all the instruments and vocals herself. I saw her live at my college a couple of years ago and never got around to listening to her albums. The lyrics to her songs are almost onomatopoetic at times, which is interesting and very pleasing to listen to.

Favorite food:

Milkshakes. The ultimate summer treat. The best, most indulgent reward after finishing a big project or putting a grueling day of writing. I actually only discovered the joys of milkshakes a few years ago, so I'm making up for lost time! There were a couple of great places in England that put any kind of cookie or candybar into a milkshake form, a magical and delicious transformation. But I also experimented with making them at home with fresh fruit. Even better!

Favorite book:

This was a summer devoted to the oeuvre of David Mitchell. I love and worship all his writing, but my favorites are probably number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. They're also some of my favorite books of all time. Seriously, do not get me started on David Mitchell unless you want to be suddenly overwhelmed by a towering wave of admiration and specialized knowledge.

Favorite movie:

Definitely From up on Poppy Hill, the newest movie from Studio Ghibli. I am, in general, an adorer of Ghibli productions. I have many more to watch, much to my shame, but also secret delight because how delicious is it to know there are movies out there that you haven't seen yet but know you'll love? From up on Poppy Hill was wonderful. I loved the main character and her subtle evolution from selfless responsibility to falling in love and letting go both of her day-to-day tasks and her clinging to the past. The visuals, of course, were stunning, especially the interior of the old clubhouse that's at the center of the story. The best part: I got to see it in original Japanese with subtitles, which I love.

Favorite fashion:

To be honest, this was not a summer for being fashionable. I spent most of it sitting in bed or at my desk in my pyjamas, which is my go-to writing outfit. When you have to sit all day, all you care about is being comfy. I stopped wearing jewelry, just threw on jeans and a t-shirt whenever I went out to dinner with my friends, and generally lived in the same clothes for three months. What's strange is, I kind of loved it. Now I've been reunited with my full closet, I'm very excited to get back into creative fashion combinations, but I'm also a lot more stressed about clothes. As someone who has trouble with decisions and wants to get her clothes just right every time, I found the simplicity of a small closet incredibly freeing. So right now I'm trying to figure out a balance between satisfying my love of clothes and self-expression-through-clothes and my need not to obsess over clothes for an hour every morning.

Favorite experience:

The best thing about this summer is that, when I finally turned in my dissertation and left England, I was satisfied. I'm proud both of the work I put in and the final product I turned in. It may not earn a high mark, but I know that this project took me way beyond my previous academic work, in terms of thinking and writing. So I walked away from this year feeling good about it and satisfied as I move on to whatever my next projects will be.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

This is the first book I picked up after finishing my master's and moving back to California (hence the long absence from this blog!). I've been wanting to read this for a while, especially since I saw Chabon talk about his new book last fall. He was very cool and funny in person, so I've been looking forward to picking up one of his books. And I wasn't disappointed. In fact, this book is pretty amazing (as the title suggests), as a historical novel, a story about storytelling, and an American epic, three genres that interest me a lot.

The book is about two young Jewish cousins (one American, one Czech) who are part of the invention and huge surge of superhero comic books in New York during WWII. That most of the creators of those comics were Jewish is historically accurate, and although the characters and their comic were invented by Chabon, he peppers the novel with footnotes and at times uses present-tense, retrospective narration to suggest that everything he describes actually happened. This effect is so well-done that I had to go online to make sure none of it was real! In the tradition of the best historical novels, Chabon weaves a compelling, personal, fictional story out of an equally compelling historical reality, drawing links between the comic books and the war as well as the society of WWII New York.

In addition to being a brilliant historical novel, this is also a wonderful tribute to the comic book form. Chabon is uncannily good at describing the visual effect of a comic book illustration. The passages describing panels of the books his characters are creating are just stunning. (Actually, in general, Chabon's prose is stunning, with long, long sentences dragging the reader along so that you're torn between stopping to appreciate the beautiful convolutions of his writing and racing ahead to find out the next reveal in the plot.)

Even as someone who doesn't read comics, though, I found the book's portrayal of difficult lives made meaningful by storytelling really compelling. The main characters are all artists and storytellers, and their relationship to their creativity changes over the course of the novel and over the course of the war in sometimes tragic, sometimes really uplifting ways. In college, I studied some post-war German poetry and read about the kind of creative numbness that followed the war. This book portrays the complexity of various characters' reactions to the traumas of the war, whether is inspires or destroys their creative impulses.

In doing so, it bridges the reactions of Europe and America. By having one of the characters arrive in New York from Prague at the beginning of the war, Chabon ensures that the threat of the war and especially the Holocaust are never far from our minds. He portrays the first superheros as a product of American and European Jewish communities and cultures meeting, and offers a more nuanced vision of some of America's strongest myths.

The book is a bit of an epic myth itself - although it only covers about ten or fifteen years, they are some of the most traumatic and important years of 20th century history, so it feels much longer. I started to get a bit nervous about the ending as the characters aged, separated, and reunited, because I tend not to like epilogue-type endings that close off the story a few years down the line. But Chabon succeeded in rounding off his story without closing it down. In the end, he leaves things open and fairly hopeful, but not unrealistically so...But no spoilers! You must go read it yourself, and I recommend you do. Personally, I'm looking forward to discovering more of Chabon's work.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Recipe: Yogurt cake with strawberry-nectarine compote

 Got a cup's worth of yogurt in the fridge? I did yesterday, and after a few hours of editing the first chapter of my dissertation, I definitely needed to bake a cake. The obvious solution is this yogurt cake recipe, which I got from the Whole Foods website. The only thing I adjusted is adding a few drops of milk at the end, because the batter looked alarmingly thick and sticky. I figured it might be because I used very thick greek yogurt, so I added the milk to lighten it up. I have no idea if that was the actual cause or if the milk had the desired effect. Anyway, it turned out deliciously.

After I popped it in my inconsistent and uneven student-housing oven, I cut up some overripe fruit I had and improvised a little compote. Half a lemon squeezed over the fruit, 1/8 cup water, a tsp of sugar. Boil until thick and delicious.

I've actually gotten a lot bolder with improvising in the kitchen this year. Possibly because I'm the only person eating it, so if I mess up, no one else will suffer. Possibly because, when sorting which food blog to use for a given recipe, I end up actually paying attention to what ingredients differentiate scones from bread and pancakes from crepes. Possibly because I've had to substitute quite a few ingredients that I couldn't easily find in this part of the world. In any case, I've learned a lot about cooking as well as literature this year.

Ta-da! The cake rose A LOT, so much that I had to rearrange the racks in the over to accommodate it. It stayed nice a fluffy when I took it out, too.

The end product was delicioso. Not too sweet, because (as I forgot to mention earlier) I only had half the amount of sugar they called for. The compote could have been sweeter, too, if I'd added more than a tsp of sugar, but actually it made a lovely tea-time snack. The best thing about this cake is that it tastes gooey and dense without being buttery or fatty-feeling. It's sort of like eating a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit, except also a cake :)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: The Bling Ring

I wanted to see this movie for a few reasons. First, to see what Emma Watson's up to. Second, to finally see a Sophia Coppola movie. Third, for the chance to spend 90 minutes in the southern California sun.

And I definitely enjoyed it. There were some really interesting shots, great performances, and obviously, given the subject matter, killer costuming. I was especially happy to finally see Coppola's style - and it really is a style, which is wonderful. I love watching director's movies. Even when the directorial touches are light, like her use of obvious, jarring music or her choice of a few unconventional framings for key scenes in the movie, they give the film shape and a kind of consciousness - or maybe conscientiousness is a better word. It makes the film feel crafted.

This shot, for example, takes the point of view of one among many cameras directed at the characters' lives - news cameras, security cameras, phone cameras. It's not so much to make you feel alienated from the story, but enough to make you briefly remember your position as a viewer and briefly consider the angle from which the story is being told.

That angle is for the most part slanted toward Marc, the one guy in the group of five teens who decide to start stealing from celebrities. Except only one of them really decides. After Rebecca leads a puppy-dog Marc along on a few preliminary break-ins, the rest of the girls fall in without, it seems, a second thought. This is a bit difficult to believe, but then what these teens did in real life is also difficult to believe. I kind of expected Coppola to explore the motives behind the craziness, and she does to an extent.
Very subtly, she suggests the parallels between the teens and their famous victims - such as the way the victims carelessly leave the keys to their mansions under their doormats while the teens carelessly boast about their conquests to the friends who eventually turn them in. But I left the film with a lot of lingering questions about what was going on behind those beautifully made-up faces.

Again, very subtly, Coppola does convey the effect of the crime on the main characters. It comes through in the shift from lazy beach hangouts at the beginning of the film to a frantic cocaine montage near the end. It comes through in the different ways they break down upon arrest. Watson in particular did such a good job that I almost felt sorry for her, until I remembered how she'd wound up in that cop car.

The film doesn't excuse or explain what happens in it, which I liked. I just wish Coppola had trained her impartial and keen gaze a bit longer and looked a bit deeper at the characters. There was one scene I especially loved: Rebecca and Marc are driving in the dark, and the camera sits just behind them, in the middle of the back seat, so we can't really see their faces, just the partially-lit road ahead. Marc asks Rebecca if she would ever rob him if they weren't friends. Rebecca says something like, "I would never do that to you." And yet by the end, she betrays him. That one scene takes the characters fathoms deeper without even showing their faces and opens up new questions about the meaning of robbery, wealth, friendship - all the themes of the movie. I wanted more of that.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Recipe: Summer Quesadillas

This is just a quick recipe for some DELICIOUS quesadillas I made the other day and wanted to share. They're made especially summery by the zucchini and the corn and are a very filling and satisfying alternative to chicken quesadillas if, like me, you find summer makes you want to be a little lighter on your body and get a little vegetarian (at least until it's time to barbeque).
*Apologies for the terrible lighting in my kitchen. 

First I picked out some yummy fresh summer veggies - sweet mini peppers, zucchini, corn, and onion (not pictured, but essential in a lot of what I cook).

I sauteed up the onion, zucchini, and pepper, adding in that order and making sure the zucchini had enough time to soften and get a little browned.

Meanwhile, I dunked the corn in boiling water for a minute or so, then shaved off the kernels, which is always fun.

Added the corn...

...and some cayenne, to give it more warmth and flavor.

CHEESE. Plenty of cheese to melt it all together. 

I used about half my veggies for one tortilla and spread the cheese on both sides so it'll stick together. Then I let the tortilla get crispy (the filling was already hot).

Finally, some fresh avocado to top it off.

And voila! I gotta say, these were some of the best quesadillas I've ever made, or eaten. They were also super easy to make, as you basically just chop up each ingredient while the previous one is cooking away in the pan. Let me know if you try it how it turns out, and also what your favorite quesadilla filling is!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

This is Summer

Pancakes with strawberries for breakfast. Pasta salad for lunch. Fresh apricots in the afternoon. Burgers for dinner (left-over from the 4th of July).

Jeans cuffed. New tan lines every day. The perfect feeling of pulling on a hoodie as a warm day turns into a cold evening. Dirt scuffing over the edge of your sandals, dusts your toes with cool earth. 

Dogs racing through long grass in the park. Fat bumble bees slamming the window three times before they decide it’s solid. The warm belly fur of the little black cat you meet on the sidewalk. Two swans on the lake in the morning, ruffling their glowing white wings.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Cosmopolis

Another read for my dissertation, picked because it's about cities and modernity. I got through this book in a couple of long days of reading, and it does have a way of sucking you in. The whole book (with a few exceptions) is set inside of a limo driving around NYC and, more specifically, inside the mind of Eric Packer, its bajillionaire passenger. This is not the nicest space to be in for 200 pages. Eric is, quite frankly, a strange guy, with very weird relationships to the people in his life who climb in and out of his limo. These include his wife, his body guards, his doctor, and his various assistants and employees. Actually there's no one likable or easy to relate to in this book. The fascination it holds is more the fascination of peering in at some weird subculture than the fascination of learning something about humanity or yourself (although maybe DeLillo would say that we can learn about humanity and ourselves from getting a glimpse of Eric's life).

The style of the book isn't very friendly either. The characters talk in some kind of strange mixture of philosophy professor and New York slang. Maybe that's how multi-billionaires in NYC actually talk, but for me it just felt like another thing distancing me from the characters, making them sound like the mouthpieces of DeLillo's abstract ideas about modern life.

What I found effective about this book was actually precisely what I'm complaining about - that it makes the city strange, as if by putting us inside this limo, DeLillo has plucked us from earth and put us in an alien spaceship so that we can see our lives from a totally new perspective. Eric does in some sense live above the world. However, his perspective doesn't offer much insight. Maybe the space ship is just too high up (excuse me while I beat this metaphor to death), so that the view becomes too simplified.

This was my first DeLillo novel, and I don't think I'll be reading any more of his writing. It was just too rarefied, too fascinated with messed-up people in a messed-up world, too stylistically stilted for me. But I'm glad I read it, as part of my goal to become better-versed in contemporary literature. Now if someone brings up DeLillo at a dinner party, I'll have something to say.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

May Things

Favorite food:

Summer fruit and vegetables! I've been stubbornly eating mediocre, early berries for months now, but just this week the blueberries acquired that shocking sweet kick that means summer is actually here. It feels so great to be eating more things raw, more cucumbers, fruit, bell peppers, lettuce. I even discovered a new kind of lettuce that I'd never had before (me, a Californian!) - lamb's lettuce, a really delicate little baby green.

Favorite book(s):

This month I've been re-reading all of David Mitchell's books and also discovering contemporary novels that are part of the same orbit. Books with multiple storylines, global awareness, and certain recurring themes, including Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. Both were very interesting, although not some of my favorite novels. Most interesting has been to really dive into a pocket of contemporary literature and see novelists overlapping so much. You really can see that they're writing about the same world, breathing in the same air, as it were, but producing different words on the outbreath. The sense of cities as places where people and events collide like molecules (or is it atoms? I'm forgetting my science), the idea of non-corporeal life forms floating around us, the exploration of where our current, globalized, mechanized, capitalized world might take us in the future - all keep emerging from these different novels, so much that they're starting to blur in my mind. Suddenly reading novels seems less like an escape from the world and more like another, slant way into it.

Favorite movie:

 I actually haven't been watching much of anything, which is unusual for me. I've been so busy seeing shows at the local arts festival and so often arriving home just in time to collapse into bed, that I haven't even finished re-watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I got half-way through about two weeks ago...
I did see Gatsby, which I may write a review of. We'll see. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't qualify as a favorite.

Favorite fashion:

I've tentatively decided to grow out my hair again, and I've been experimenting with braids as a way to keep slightly awkward-length hair out of my face. And I'm looking forward to the day when I can do fancy stuff with braids, like wrapping them around my head. It's nice to play with hair now that it's not tucked under a hat or scarf most of the time, although I have been thinking about making or finding a light, crocheted maybe, summery, slouchy hat. That would mean mastering the art of knitting hats.

Favorite music:

I discovered two new bands, who played a show during the festival I've been going to. They are Emily Portman, who plays traditional and original songs based on fairy tale and myth, and Sam Lee & Friends, who play traditional songs from the British Isles, but with very unique and exciting arrangements for an international assortment of instruments. They both played fantastic concerts in an beautiful old church, and their music just glowed (if that's the right word). It was such a treat to hear an old Scottish ballad, for example, sung to the accompaniment of a tabla, a violin, a cello, and a horn - who would've thunk? And the best part about it was seeing how old treasures like these songs or the myths Portman's songs are based on, can be turned to such new and wonderful forms without losing any of their original power.

Favorite experience:

The past two weeks have brought their fair share of memorable, magical experiences with all the circus and music shows I've seen. Impossible to put down in words, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. Great live performance can really transport you, and I love that. I'm grateful that festivals like this one make it possible to experience so much transportation and inspiration without traveling far or spending much. This definitely inspires me to pursue the idea of working for arts festivals, making them happen. They're such great experiences.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Specimen Days

I read this as background/margin reading for my dissertation, so I was mostly reading for content that related to my main topic. However, I thought I'd write up a few thoughts on the book itself.

Cunningham tells three different stories, which are in some senses the same stories. They cover what some people call the three industrial revolutions - the mechanization of labor in factories in the 1800s, the advent of computers and other telecommunications in the present day, and the future of biotechnology, in this case spreading to artificial human life. Each story has three main characters, Luke, Catherine, and Simon,whose names and general characteristics stay the same across the whole novel, but who also change to fit each story.

This conceit worked pretty well for me, and I found the moments of time well-chosen. For my dissertation, I've been reading a lot of books that use multiple narratives or multiple times and places, or that imagine a near future, or that use reincarnation as a motif. Although it's a very literary novel, it was also a bit of a page-turner. Each story felt like it was heading inevitably toward something that would probably be terrible, but that I couldn't wait to discover (oh, the suffering we put ourselves through in reading!). I suppose I'd say the best thing about this book is the plotting, both in the normal sense of suspense and pacing and meaningfulness of events in the book, and in the larger sense of how Cunningham constructs his three strands and their overlaps.

What was missing for me was a sense of connection to the characters. I did find them pretty interesting, especially the narrators of sections one and three, but the writing felt a bit distanced. The artifice of the entire structure and the concept made it hard to believe in the characters as people, rather than as literary symbols. As they started to repeat, in variations, over the three stories, each previous incarnation of Luke, Catherine, or Simon began feeling less real. I couldn't help imagining Cunningham sitting at his desk inventing these characters and manipulating them so that they would fit equally well into each story - with the result that they don't fit snugly or perfectly into any story.

The other major element of this book is Cunningham's use of Walt Whitman's poetry - in each story, the narrator has a very special relationship with Whitman, and his verses keep popping up throughout the narration. I haven't read him at all, and I caught myself skipping over the longer excerpts because they were a bit opaque. But nevertheless, the repeated lines of verse made a kind of background rhythm for the whole book even as the individual narrator's voices changed - a kind of fourth voice that spanned the whole.

I wouldn't recommend this book to the idle reader who just wants a good book. It wasn't hard to get into, but it was very easy to get out of. The imagery stayed with me more than the voices or the emotions. A worthwhile experience, but not an entirely satisfying one.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

It's been a while...

Wow, this month has gone by fast. I launched pretty much straight from my last semester of school into a summer of dissertation. Well, it hasn't really felt much like summer yet, or even spring. With the exception of a few days of lovely sun, we've had nothing but grey and cold. Still, I've been getting out of the house a lot more than I was over the winter - maybe I'm sort of willing myself into a summery mood despite the weather and the workload.

One thing that's drawn me out of my pile of library books has been an arts festival that's come to town for about two weeks. Although it's a bit overwhelming trying to focus exclusively on work during the day and then go to shows at night, it's also energizing to be seeing great performances and inventive ideas brought to life onstage. In particular, I've seen a lot of circus/dance/theater-type things that inspire me to make more time for both creativity and taking care of my body.

For the latter, I've been striving to get on a great health kick, eating more fresh and raw veggies, making smoothies, going to classes at the gym and doing push-ups at home, etc. It's hard to keep up those habits when the weather makes it feel like its February (California February, that is), but I'm trying. I'm still getting my veg-and-fruit box every week, which forces me to be both creative and healthy with cooking and eating.

It's nice eating salads, because you can throw them together at the last minute, when you're in the middle of studying but need food fast to feed your brain. You don't have to plan ahead for several days, imagining what kind of left-overs you'll feel like eating tomorrow or the next day, because you can just make one portion at a time.

I particularly love couscous because it's so easy and tastes lighter than pasta. And recently I've gotten a little obsessed with tortilla wraps. I eat them with chicken, hummus, feta, and veggies for lunch, and with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Yum.

There's only so much time I can spend cooking and eating, though, because the dissertation really is upon me, even if summer isn't. I'm enjoying the work so far. Somewhere at the back of my mind (or maybe lodged at the back of my stomach, against my backbone) is some nervousness about the eventual deadline and the scope of the project. Just enough to keep me working and moving forward.

Right now my life is about enoughs: reading enough, writing enough, eating enough, sleeping enough, getting out enough, finding enough inspiration, exercising enough, having enough fun, doing enough work. Balancing things out and moving forward. And not forgetting desert, like this delicious apple/pear tart I made the other day :)