Archive for January, 2010

Friday Fun! (Unathletic Me)

January 29, 2010 6 comments

I have always wanted to be athletic.  The version of me that tends to populate fantasy land is essentially the female version of 007.  This is so not realistic though, and I’m not just saying that I can’t do backflips.  My lack of athleticism is so strong that one of my most frequent memories of schoolyard sports is getting hit in the face by basketballs.  This pretty much happened any time I was anywhere near a basketball court.  I didn’t even have to be playing.  I also have asthma and have this tendency to have to stop running to wheeze.  God help me if there’s ever a zombie uprising.

In spite of all this, I still, inexplicably, delude myself into thinking that this time it will be different and sublimely attempt various athletic to semi-athletic endeavor.  Last weekend this endeavor was ice skating.  I remembered ice skating when I was a kid on the beaver ponds near our house.  I was definitely good at it.  I’d play hockey with my brother and his friends.  Why did it take me so long to remember my awesomeness? I wondered.  I discovered a free skating rink in the North End with $5 skate rentals.  I asked a friend to meet me there, and it was on like Donkey Kong.

I got the skates in the biggest size they had, because I have inexplicably large feet for my short stature.  I laced myself up and fought my way through the 2 foot tall terrors to get onto the ice.  I stepped on and almost fell flat on my face.  Hmm, this is not the me on ice that I remember.  I desperately grabbed for the wall and glared at the children flying around using stacked up plastic crates to keep from falling down.  That is so cheating, and no wonder kids are growing up to be such wimps these days, but I digress.  Whilst holding onto the wall and taking tentative skating steps, I realized there was growing pain in my feet.  The skates were way way too narrow.  I also suddenly remembered that I used hockey skates, not figure skates growing up which explained why I couldn’t seem to handle the ice.  You use movements more like roller blading for hockey skates, whereas figure skates are more like roller skates.  I am not a roller skating girl.  I got halfway around the rink, thinking my feet would go numb or something, but they suddenly were in excruciating agony, and I am not exaggerating.  Realizing that I would probably be that woman crying on the rink if I didn’t get off the ice asap, I changed my course and headed down the middle of the rink, abandoning the wall and hoping I wouldn’t land on my ass.  I managed to make it to the door safe and sound and hastily ripped off the skates.  Every step I took still hurt.  It turns out I somehow pulled most of the muscles and tendons on top of my right foot, and I’ve been limping most of the week.

I’d say in the future I won’t attempt athletic things again, but I know myself.  I can just see me taking skiing lessons at some point in the near future.  I’m bound to tell myself If you can snowshoe, you can totally ski, Amanda.  I guess it’s just lucky for me that I don’t live in a climate with more dangerous recreational sports.

Happy weekend everyone!

Book Review: Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani

January 29, 2010 2 comments

Viola loves her life in Brooklyn with her quirky filmmaker parents.  Unfortunately, they need to go to Afghanistan to make a documentary and have dumped her in an Indiana boarding school for a year.  Can Viola see past her homesickness and embrace what Prefect Academy has to offer or will she be Queen Snark for a year?

I came at this book simultaneously expecting to like it and not like it.  I expected to like it, because when I was in the YA age group, I loved boarding school books, and I’ve read Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap trilogy and really liked her writing.  On the other hand, reviews online stated they disliked it due to a negative portrayal of Indiana and what they felt was a lack of understanding of teenagers.  Well, I liked Viola in Reel Life, and I would like to offer up rebuttals to both opinions.

First, the book is written from Viola’s perspective.  She’s a fourteen year old who has spent her entire life in Brooklyn, and she didn’t want to go to boarding school.  Her negative comments about Indiana are to be expected in this case.  She’s a New Yorker in the country for the first time.  Of course she’s going to think the fashion stinks.  Of course she’s going to miss the noise of the city.  Personally, I found Indiana and the folks in it to be portrayed in a positive light, because despite her anger and snark, they persist at comforting her homesickness and winning her over.  She comes to like aspects of Indiana just as much as she likes aspects of Brooklyn.  That is a key part of her growing up that is the main storyline.  She has to learn to make home wherever she is and be independent.  That point would not have come across strongly if she loved everything about Indiana from the moment she arrived.

Now to those who felt it was too young for teenagers, I think you’re starting to fall for the media’s portrayal of all teens as growing up very fast.  They’re not all having sex, doing drugs, and drinking.  I wasn’t that type of teen, and even teens who are can appreciate that not everyone is living a Gossip Girl life.  It is a clean book, and I liked that because it left room for me to focus on Viola growing as a person.  The kids are kind of innocent, and Viola acknowledges that she’s led a protected life so far.  On the other hand, Viola and her friends have to deal with step-parents, new siblings, serious family illness, money problems, and more.  Their problems are middle class type problems, but what’s wrong with that?  Not everyone grows up abused or poor or filthy rich or debaucherous.  The overall messages are excellent ones for teen girls to hear–be loyal to your friends, grow up and help your parents, don’t choose a boy over yourself, do your best and be gracious.  Plus the storyline supporting these messages is fun and interesting to read.

My only complaint with the book is the minor sub-plot of a ghost.  I don’t think it really fit in very well with the overall world and feel of the book.  I would have much preferred that Viola find an old diary or something that made her come to understand Prefect Academy better.  However, it wasn’t in the book enough to make me dislike the story.

Overall, it’s a fun read, and I recommend it if you enjoy YA lit or stories set in boarding schools.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won on Reading Sarah’s blog. Thanks!

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Book Review: Ethan: Site 39 by Otis V. Goodwin

January 26, 2010 9 comments

Book cover--purple light hitting a black and white planet.Summary:
In the near future Earth is destroyed by an asteroid.  Luckily for humanity, a group of people had already departed for Alpha Centauri to colonize the two stars found there.  After losing contact with the few survivors, the Centaurians believed Earth to be uninhabited.  Five thousand years later, their descendants return to an Earth that has recovered from the chaos caused by the asteroid to begin the work of reinhabiting it.  When Ethan, one of the colonists, stumbles upon a residence dug into a mesa made of granite, everything the Centaurians believe about what occurred on Earth in relation to the asteroid is challenged.

I really wanted this to be a good book.  First I’m a big supporter of indie and self-publishing, as I often find the stories more creative and thought-provoking than those published by big publishing houses.  (See my review of Vow of Silence for evidence of that).  I also thought it was an intriguing scifi storyline.  Unfortunately, Goodwin can’t write.

Oh, he can come up with a great idea for a story, but his writing is terrible.  First, he tells us instead of showing us.  For instance, he’ll say things like “Ethan was thinking how worried he was,” instead of, you know, letting us see Ethan’s worried thoughts.  Whole parts of the story that would have been fun to read in addition to making the book longer he sums up by telling us about it in a couple of sentences, such as “They talked about their planned future together” instead of letting us read the conversation.

Not that I would have wanted to read the conversation anyway, because the dialogue is atrocious.  Every character sounds like an automaton.  They never use a contraction or a simile or anything really that makes a human sound human.  Goodwin tries to explain this as language changing, but even when we flash back to see characters from the time of the asteroid, they speak in exactly the same robotic manner.

The book blurb says that Goodwin is retired from the military, and it frankly shows.  In some ways, this is good.  The military portions in the asteroid flashback are clearly written by someone who knows the military.  However, mostly it’s just a rabid conservatism showing.  We’re talking a world in which the small population of humans rebuilding all automatically fall in love with someone of the opposite gender and that love is automatically, wholeheartedly returned.  It’s like the man never got past the fairy tales told to little girls to realize that that doesn’t happen perfectly for everybody in real life.  Real life just doesn’t work out that perfectly for everyone.  It makes all of the characters unbelievable, whereas having one true love situation would be believable.

Of course, there is no saving the wretched female characters.  Goodwin seems to be only capable of writing the completely helpless sobbing woman or a woman who is essentially a dude with boobs.  God forbid a woman be strong and feminine simultaneously.

I feel kind of bad saying all of this, because his overall storyline really is good and creative.  It’s what kept me reading the book in spite of cringing and rolling my eyes.  What Goodwin should have done is acquired a writing partner who could write his storyline on the sentence level well.  Then he would have had a great book.  Unfortunately, he didn’t do that.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Free copy from book promotion agent via LibraryThing‘s EarlyReviewers Member Giveaway program.

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On Television

January 25, 2010 8 comments

Today a conversation was on Twitter about tv.  No, I’m not talking about the Pregnancy Pact movie that came out this weekend (though I did watch it).  This particular conversation was one I’ve heard in educated circles many many times.  It goes something like:

OMG the television is evil and will destroy us all!!!!

I get where people are coming from.  I do.  The tv is full of advertising and bad ideology and unattainable goals and….well, the list could go on and on.  I used to think this so much so that I actually gave up tv for a year.  Well, I owned a tv but I got zero channels on it.  I used it to watch movies sometimes.  I thought some earth-shattering freeing feeling would happen.  But it didn’t.

On the other hand, when I was in highschool, I was completely tied down to the tv schedule.  I had my shows that I absolutely had to catch to the exclusion of everything else, and that wasn’t right.

The thing is, folks, life is largely about our relationships with other people, and tv can be a really fun way to enhance it.  I love the Lost discussions I’ve had with various folks, ranging from in-depth analysis to superficial debate over which Lost hottie is hottest.  So when people say tv keeps us from engaging with others, I say, screw you.  It can actually bring us together.

The problem comes about when you have a relationship with tv.  When I didn’t have a tv I had just as much of a relationship with it as when I was glued to it in highschool.  It’s just that my relationship was about not having it.  It’s like how they say it takes energy to hate something, so it winds up just hurting you.

The thing about tv is, it needs to not be central to your life either due to what’s on it or due to not having it.  A tv should be an accessory in the house that’s an option.  That’s it.

When I started having this healthy mind-set for tv, I didn’t suddenly revert to watching something every night.  Some nights I read.  Some nights I play videogames.  Some nights I go out to concerts or bars or what have you.  When I do watch tv, it’s just as a fun thing to do, and no I don’t believe that subliminal (or not so subliminal) messages are eating their way into my brain, because I don’t take it that seriously.  When you view something as entertainment, it really won’t maliciously, secretly attack you guys.  When you talk like that, you don’t sound educated.  You sound like a bunch of superstitious nut-cases.  So just relax and live your life.  I swear you’re not going to magically overnight transform from your counter-cultural self into a Stepford wife.

Friday Fun! (Me vs. Turnip Greens)

January 22, 2010 8 comments

Upon the realization that my budget went flying out the window in the last six months of 2009, I decided it was high time to get frugal again.  This of course was spurred on when I got my annual free credit report and saw my student debt all summarized in one place.  Anyway, to this budgeting end, I got two apps for my iTouch–Budget and SpendLite.  I used Budget to outline my monthly budget.  This left me with a set amount for food/necessities and one for fun.  I added those two numbers together, divided by four, and there you have my weekly fun/food/necessities allowance which I plugged into SpendLite.  I can add new expenses right on it as I go without having to save receipts and it automatically subtracts it for me.  A world where I have to do less math is a world I like.

Anyway, so to this end, I realized I need to go back to the creative cooking that I established in my super-poor student days.  I’m also attempting to eat more seasonally, as you guys know, because it’s cheaper and it exposes me to new foods.  This week when I was grocery shopping, I came armed with a list of seasonal veggies–sweet potatoes, turnips, butternut squash, and kale.  I quickly found the sweet potatoes and decided against butternut squash since I still had a backpile of frozen butternut squash ravivolis made last week.  The turnips were disturbingly pre-cut and individually shrink-wrapped. WTF?!  They looked like little deformed heads in shrinkwrap.  Kinda like the heads in Futurama only without all that fun water to bounce around in.

Defeated in the turnip arena, I decided to brave the leafy green land of kale.  One of my best friends loves kale and insists it’s easy enough to stir-fry up, so I approached the leafy green portion of the produce aisle that I usually give the evil eye to as I walk by.  The problem with my grocery store is that it sticks labels of what the leafy greens are on the top in a manner that seems to have zero bearing on the leafy greens down below.  You’d think that the lables would be in the same order as the leafy greens, but apparently not.  After much searching, I decided that I’d probably found the kale.  It was leafy.  It was green.  It looked fresh.  It had a produce number on it, which the signs unfortunately didn’t have, but this meant I could type in the produce number at the self-checkout and be sure.

Upon arrival at the self-checkout, I typed in the produce number, and it informs me that I just bought around $1.50 worth of turnip greens.

Turnip greens?! What the fuck is a turnip green?!

However, the practical and very cheap portion of my mind reminded me that turnips are in season so probably the greens are too, and did I notice that this was only costing me $1.50?  So I bought it.  Plus removing things you’ve already keyed in at self-checkout is just annoying.

Using my mad librarian skizzillz, I discovered that most greens are cooked pretty similarly and that on the bitterness scale (what kind of veggie *needs* a bitterness scale?!) it is more bitter than spinach.  Erm, ok.  The next night, I had already determined to make pizza for dinner.  The only veggies I had to put on it were sweet potatoes, black beans, turnip greens, and red potatoes.  I learned from Vegan with a Vengeance that you can put potato on pizza if you thinly slice it and place give it enough oil to soak up to keep from being crunchy.  I’d done that before, and it was amazing.  Sweet potato, black beans, and cheese does not a filling pizza make, imho, so I pulled up info on cooking turnip greens on the interweb.  Apparently you can make greens less bitter by quickly boiling them for a few minutes prior to cooking them in whatever you want to cook them in.  Using copious amounts of garlic was also recommended.  The number one recommendation though was to add pork grease.  Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen, and I couldn’t help but wonder how bad these greens taste if you have to soak them in what essentially equals bacon grease.  But I soldiered on.

I took the huge leaves, ripped two in half, and put them to boiling.  Guys, turnip greens do not have a pleasant aroma when cooking.  It was like smelling armpits.  I drained them, stuck them on a cutting board, and soaked them with lemon juice.  I read somewhere that putting lemon juice on spinach draws out the iron, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt the turnip greens.  I then stood staring at them trying to determine the best method for the pizza.

Since the sweet potato slices have to be on the bottom of the white pizza to soak up the oil, I decided to do the herbs, garlic, and oil, then sweet potato, then ripped up bits of turnip greens topped with more garlic, followed by black beans and three kinds of cheese.  One thing the interwebs didn’t tell me is that turnip greens are kinda stringy.  I tossed the stems that extend up into the leaves ad infinitum and placed the pieces on the pizza.  I crossed my fingers after assembling and stuck the whole thing in the oven.

Surprise, surprise, the pizza was a success!  It was yummy and garlicky and the greens cooked to perfection sandwiched between sweet potatoes and garlic.  I’m still not sure how I feel about a veggie that smells like armpits when you cook it and that needs to be soaked in other things, like garlic, to taste good.  In any case, I still have about 10 leaves to use up somehow over the next week.

Happy weekend guys!

Book Review: Battle Royale Ultimate Edition Volume 1 by Koushun Takami (Manga) (Series, #1)

January 22, 2010 4 comments

A Note on Me and Graphic Novels:
This, believe it or not, was my first foray into the world of graphic novels.  I was spurred into this new territory by my intense love of the movie Battle Royale.  I know that there’s also a traditional book out there, but I’d heard the manga is what the author feels really fulfills his vision of the story.  I received the first volume of the ultimate edition, which contains the first three mangas in the series, for Chrismukkah.  I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading a graphic novel.  I tend to associate them with superheroes, and I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories (except Ironman. Robert Downey Jr., *swoon*).  But this.  This was a story I already knew I liked, so I came at the genre with a much more open mind than the once or twice I flipped through a superhero graphic novel.  You guys, I absolutely love the feeling of reading a graphic novel.  I could literally feel different parts of my brain working at it than that work when reading a regular book, playing videogames, writing, or watching a movie.  It’s like a portion of my brain was like “Oh hai.  You finally remembered I exist!”  I love that I’m only reading dialogue, because I hate extensive descriptions in books.  I love that the drawings are art that I actually enjoy looking at the fine details of.  I love it that when I flip back to show scenes to other people, I notice things in the drawings I didn’t see the first time around.  I’m officially a convert to the genre, but you still won’t see me reading about superheroes anytime soon.

In an alternate history of Japan, Japan comes under the rule of a totalitarian, isolationist government after WWII.  The government rules through terror, and part of that terror is selecting, supposedly via lottery, one 9th grade class every year to compete in a televised game where it is kill or be killed.  Shuuya never expected to win this lottery, but when his class goes on a field trip, upon arrival they discover that they are this year’s participants on an island location.  They discover collars on their necks that will detonate if more than one is left alive at a certain point and also if they wander into the randomly assigned and changing forbidden zones.  As the teens attempt to survive the game through various methods, flashbacks tell the story of the 9th grade class members.

I absolutely love this story.  I love violent, gory stories, and there are creative deaths galore here.  For instance, the weapons include a scythe, and that scythe gets used.  In one particularly memorable scene, a girl desperately attempts to stuff a boy’s brains back into his skull.  It’s freaking amazing.  There’s also graphic sex, ranging from rape to love.  I don’t like my books to pretend like sex doesn’t happen in the real world, because um, it does.  The fact that sex can be wonderful and about emotions or horrible and about power is wonderfully depicted.

The manner of introducing these characters tossed together in a horrible situation then expanding on who they are via flashbacks is very reminiscent of Lost.  Of course, here the characters knew each other, at least somewhat, before the game.  The flashbacks fit in perfectly with the action of the game, and they reveal just enough about the characters without revealing too much.  From a cooking class that solidified a friendship to crimes committed to lessons learned from an activist uncle, the flashbacks are endlessly fascinating.

Seeing these characters in what most certainly feels like a hopeless situation orchestrated by a powerful government far bigger than they are is truly powerful reading.  It leaves the reader wondering not only what makes people do bad things, but also how to define what is good and bad given various situations.  Is it actually good to team up and attempt to buck the system or will that just cause more pain in the end?  Is suicide a bad thing when it’s kill yourself or kill others?

If you enjoy Lost, The Hunger Games, violence, psychology, or even just graphic novels, you will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it and can’t wait to read the next volume!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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5 Questions About Books

January 21, 2010 15 comments

I stumbled on this fun meme over at Readers and Reference, and I really liked the questions it asks, so I bookmarked it for future use.  I tweaked it a little bit to be in question format and to be a bit clearer.  If you decide to do the meme yourself, please post a link in the comments here so we can all check it out and get to know you better too!

What’s a book you most want to read again for the first time?:
Hmmm, there’s a lot of books that have meant so much to me in my life, but I think I’d have to say The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  I had seen the movie and absolutely hated it.  My nerdier friends at university told me over and over again to read the “trilogy,” and I would love it.  I refused to for years, but then one day I decided to take a whack at it.  I can’t remember why.  Anyway, I was cracking up reading it, which hadn’t happened to me in years at the time.  It really reminded me why I love to read.

What was one of your favorite childhood books?:
Absolutely no doubt On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I loved the whole series growing up, but this was my favorite entry.  In it Laura lives next to a creek, and I lived next to three beaver ponds, so I felt a bit of camaraderie.  I also was completely obsessed with the sod house for some reason.  I wanted to live underground just like Laura in a house that plants grew out of and, best of all, that I could walk on.  I also enjoyed their problems with cows, since I was frequently sent out to chase cows back into their pastures.  Plus, Laura’s relationship with her father, Pa, I identified with as it reminded me of mine with my father.  Also, not gonna lie, I wished repeatedly that I had a mother like Ma.

What’s a book that you were assigned in school that you were expecting to be bad, but that turned out to be really good?:
I was a US History major in undergrad (my other major was English and American Literature).  We were required to take two courses that gave you an overview of all of US history.  I was dreading the Civil War portion, because I just don’t like that war.  Every historian has a time period within their specialty they don’t like.  Anywho, so this professor assigned us Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to read, as it was one of the big stimuli for the Civil War.  She wanted us to see beyond the modern controversy and read it with historian’s eyes to see why it had such a big impact on the abolition movement.  I was expecting it to be fingernails-on-chalkboard bad, but, you guys, it is so good.  It really demonstrates how abolitionists saw African-Americans as equally human, just downtrodden as the victims of slavery.  It also shows the high expectations placed on Christian women at the time.  It’s a heart-wrenching book, and I encourage you to read it and judge it for what it is and not for the racist movies and plays that followed it.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” read?:
This is a tough question for me, because I don’t tend to feel guilty about anything that I read.  I’d have to say though that British chicklit books like Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella probably count.  The cheesey, romcom storylines annoy the heck out of me, but for some reason, I still read them periodically.  I guess it’s kind of like watching Teen Mom on MTV.  I can’t look away from the train wreck.

What’s a book you feel you should read, but haven’t yet?:
I’m not sure it quite counts as a book, but Beowulf.  I took this AMAZING class in undergrad on ancient mythology, and we mentioned it umpteen times, but didn’t have time to read it.  I absolutely love ancient myths, like The Odyssey is one of my favorite books of all time, so really there’s not much of an excuse for the fact that I have yet to read Beowulf.  Hm, except maybe that I’m not sure which translation is the best, and we all know how much translation matters in the ancient myths.

*waves* Hope you enjoyed the meme!