Thursday, February 28, 2008

Grendel by John Gardner

fiction/literature, (c)1971, 175pp
rating: *****

Grendel is a retelling of the "Beowulf" myth from the point of view of Grendel. It's pretty important to have read "Beowulf" before reading this book or you will be hopelessly lost. The majority of this book deals with life at Hrothgar's hall prior to the appearance of Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel immediately who tells us all about his life and what he has observed. He has observed the settling of this area by the nomadic bands and the building up of Hrothgar's empire. He is entranced by Hrothgar's "Shaper", a harpist and storyteller, though the storyteller's words cause Grendel auguish because he knows what the Shaper says is untrue but he is so entranced by his words that part of him believes. After an encounter with a dragon, he begins his marauding on Hrothgar's hall until the inevitable meeting with Beowulf.

Apparently this book is widely used in high school classes, though I never had to read it. I read up a little bit about the style of the book so that I would appreciate it more. There are 12 chapter and each of the twelve chapters corresonds to one of the zodiac signs, starting with the first chapter and an encounter with a Ram. Each chapter also deals with different ideas of philosophy, including using philosopher's own words. Grendel himself goes through several different phases in thinking about the meaning of life. There are also meditations about propoganda (through the role of the Shaper), the role of religion on society, and the meaning of war.

Throughout the book, Gardner plays with different literary styles as well. Most of the book is told through stream-of-consciousness of Grendel. However, he shifts to a lyrical style (which echoes the original text) and screenplay style (very Beckett-esque).

I started reading this a long time ago and I couldn't get all the way through it. However, this time it really captivated me and made me think. And sometimes it's nice to read a book you really have to think about.

Friday Seminars

One of the most annoying things about my graduate program is that we have mandatory Friday seminars. They are "mandatory" for everyone - faculty and students. During the second semester, our second year Ph.D. students give talks about various topics. Occasionally we have visiting professors speak (though those are usually on Thursday night - less mandatory; I only get in trouble for not going if it's something directly related to my area of interest). The rest of the empty seminar slot are filled by "senior students" or recent grads giving update about dissertation work.

In small doses, I think this is an excellent idea. However what ends up happening is that the same people get roped into speaking again and again about their dissertation data. And since my advisor is instrumental in these seminars, I am roped into giving these talks about once a year. I am supposed to give a talk about my dissertation data for the THIRD TIME in May. I have already given a talk about what I was going to write my dissertation on (the first time). I have given a talk about my exploration of most of my data (the second time). I am still working through all of my exploratory data (since the first time I gave my talk I hadn't finished collecting it yet) - what am I supposed to talk about in May?

Another thing that irritates me about these seminars is that they are scheduled from 2-4 in the afternoon. That pretty much kills my day. It's hard to motivate myself to start working on my dissertation stuff when I know I'm just going to have to break to go down and listen to people talk about the same things I've already heard them talk about at least once before.

Additionally while these are "mandatory", there are a lot of faculty members that rarely if ever darken the door of the lecture room. These are also random students who somehow get exempt from these because, "they're just so busy." While, I AM BUSY TOO! But my advisor says, "If I can't get my own students to come ..." Six years of this! I am tired of it. My small form of revenge is to find the facet of my dissertation that my advisor is least interested in, and I'll talk about that.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Words to Live By

A writing schedule brings balance to your life – not balance in the pseudoscientific, New Age, self-help sense of wondrous fulfillment, but balance in the sense of separating work and play. Binge writers foolishly search for big chunks of time, and they “find” this time during the evenings and weekends. Bing writing thus consumes time that should be spent on normal living. Is academic writing more important than spending time with your family and friends, petting the dog, and drinking coffee? A dog unpetted is a sad dog; a cup of coffee forsaken is caffeine lost forever. Protect your real-world time just as you protect your scheduled writing time. Spend your evenings and weekends hanging out with your family and friends, building canoes, bidding on vintage Alvar Aalto furniture that you don’t need, watching Law & Order reruns, repainting the shutters, or teaching your cat to use the toilet. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t spend your free time writing – there’s time during the work week for that.

- Paul Silva, How To Write A Lot

Top 12 Movie Scenes!

I can't even find the first edition

12. Hot Stuff The Full Monty (1997)
When the men are in line for unemployment and the song "Hot Stuff" comes over the loudspeaker. They can't help but do a little of their choreography while they are standing there.

11. It's Raining Men Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
The fight between Mark Darcy and Daniel Clever. They're too posh to fight properly, so it turns into an awkward, bumbling sequence to the tune of "It's Raining Men". One of the best uses of a musical soundtrack.

10. The Slowest Car Chase Ever Enigma (2001)
Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet are chased through English country fields by a private investigator. Car chases are so much more fun when they are done at 30mph in a WWII era buggy. Plus, this scene culminates with a satisfying, yet incredibly awkward kiss. Love it.

09. "'ll remember this moment when we were so close." Igby Goes Down (2002)
My favorite scene from my favorite dark comedy. Sookie tells Igby what she thinks about after she's done having sex. Igby's response? "You're a real fuckin' upper." Dialogue perfection.

08. "I'd like to dedicate this to my grandpa, who showed me these moves." Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The ending scene at the beauty pageant in Little Miss Sunshine was the perfect ending to a perfect movie. Making a mockery of child beauty pageants has never been so funny.

07. The Baptism Montage The Godfather (1972)
The juxtaposition between the baptism and the string of violence is riveting. And don't think I missed the symbolism.

06. "How are you going to kill this bunny? Swingers (1996)
Trent's pep talk to Mikey in Swingers when he is getting ready to pick up a girl. Priceless - and is followed by one of the most cringe worthy scenes in movie history.

05. The Tango Roxanne Moulin Rouge (2001)
Another instance of juxtaposition. The way that "Roxanne" is retooled is almost sinister, as is the flashing between Satine's night with the Duke, Christian's jealousy and the tango dancers.

04. "You can't handle the truth!" A Few Good Men (1992)
Best courtroom scene ever. Hands down. I can almost forget how crazy Tom Cruise is in real life.

03. "And like that ... he's gone. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The final reveal where Verbal Kint's lies all crystalize for the police officers is magic - and one of the few endings I didn't guess before it happened.

02. "I want my father back you son of a bitch." The Princess Bride (1989)
Inigo's vengeance for his father's death at the hands of the evil Count Rugen is sweet. He finally gets to tell Count Rugen, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father - prepare to die!" over and over again, and he ends with this line as he kills him with a final blow of the sword.

01. How do you solve a problem like Maria? The Sound of Music (1965)
When Maria finally marries Captain Von Trapp, she walks down the aisle in this huge, gorgeous wedding dress. The camera pans up and the wedding march morphs into a reprise of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" I've loved this movie since I was a little girl, and while twenty years later I'm not so sure about the implicit message that the problem is solved by marrying her off, this scene still makes me smile.

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

I watched The Godfather with FR last night for the first time ever. I understand entirely why so many people count it as their favorite movie of all time and I am looking forward to seeing the next one. I think the final montage scenes between the baptism and "taking care of family business" might go into my top ten movie scenes of all time.

But now I'm craving cannoli.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New York Minute

Had a fantastic, touristy New York day, despite the slushy puddles of treachery lining the streets. I met a friend of mine in Grand Central Station and we proceeded downtown to the Lower East Side Tenement musuem. I thought the tour was a little dull, though quite informative. Mostly, I kept looking around at all the apartments, thinking, "LOOK AT ALL OF THIS SPACE!" Granted, I know it would be different if there were a family of four living in an apartment the size of my current apartment.

Also, we were in one of the rooms and another person on our tour asked what this odd metal box was above the stove. Turns it out it was a gas meter where the tenants would have put in a quarter for gas. It occurred to me that there is actually an only one of those boxes in my apartment too.

We had lunch in Little Italy (NOT the best Italian food in New York by any stretch of the imagination, though guests always want to go there) but I was able to have a glass of wine and cannoli.

When I walked back into my apartment, the lights in my aquarium were off which led me to a moment of total panic. It went a little like this: Why are the lights off in the aquarium? Oh my God the power is out. Oh my God, all of my fish are dead! Oh shit, what - . Then I flipped on a light and realized I just plugged the light into the wrong socket.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Out by Natsuo Kirino

fiction/mystery, (c) 2005, 400pp
rating: ****

I ran across this book when I was looking for more things to read when I ran out of literature when I was working in London. I didn't buy it then because of the sticker price (high exchange rate is a killer on books particularly), but I tucked the idea of this book away. Finally, this year, I decided to read it.

Out tells the story of four friends/colleagues that work the night shift at a company that makes packaged bento box meals. Each one of them has their own reasons for working the night shift, and each one has severe problems at home. Matsuo's family members orbit around each other without ever caring or interacting with each other. Kumiko is mired in debt and has spending problems. Yoshie is stuck caring for her ungrateful children and her aging mother in law and Yayoi's husband gambles and cheats on her. In a fit of rage one night, Yayoi strangles her husband with his own belt and calls her friends to help her figure out what to do. In this way, all four of them are pulled into the more criminal underbelly of this Tokoyo suburb.

Kirino won the Grand Prix award in Japan for this novel and it is well deserved. Though it is filed under the "mystery" section in Barnes and Nobles, it's not really a mystery. We find out exactly what the crime is and how it happens in the first thirty pages or so. The beauty of this book is watching everything unfold and seeing how Masako particularly manages her situation. Kirino has done a good job making all of the characters extremely realistic and this makes the reader invest in them. She also includes a young loan shark, a Brazilian immigrant and a casino owner as supporting characters and does an excellent job fleshing them out as well. The fact that all of these ladies work the night shift and so live in an inverse of everyone around them adds an additional darkness to this novel that makes it even moodier.

The other nice thing about this book is that it doesn't fetishize japanese culture (likely because it is a crime novel written by a Japanese woman). Many works of fiction and movies made by western writers fall prey to orientalism (read the essay if you haven't!). They either play up the young, hip, edgy teenagers or the rigidity of the culture. This book depicts a different side of Japanese culture and life and is refreshing to read.

I only had two quibbles with this book. Quibble #1 - it is quite long, and while most of it is a page turner, it definitely dragged just a little in the last quarter of the book. Quibble #2: The ending is a little ... odd, and somewhat disturbing. To say more than that would give it away. Overall, I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008


It was so nice this weekend that we went hiking on my friend's birthday. We went to Great Falls park and hiked one of the Billy Goat trails which basically involved a lot of rock clambering, including one slope at about a 70 degree angle. It was fun though and I got a good workout, especially my arms from using them to lever my body around from rock to rock.

My camera is broken, so my friend lent me her camera to take some photos. Here are a few:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

fiction, (c) 2003, 326pp
rating: *****

People have been telling me to read this book for years, and I sort of put it off because it seemed to angsty. Recently though, I've been trying to read the books that "everyone" has read and talks about so that I might be able to converse about them intelligently. (In the last couple of years, I've read The Corrections, The Time Traveler's Wife and The DaVinci Code for this same reason). The Lovely Bones is the most recent in this string of novels.

For people living under a rock, The Lovely Bones is Alice Sebold's first novel. It is about a young girls named Susie Salmon who is brutally raped and murdered. She goes to heaven and watches over her family and friends as they attempt to cope with her death and move on with their lives. Through her eyes, we see how her death changes her friends, family and even total strangers. In heaven, Susie herself also gets a chance to grow and change as she learns to cope with her own death.

The Lovely Bones could easily get maudlin and depressing. It could easily have become the literary equivalent to a Lifetime Television Movie about "dealing with death". However, Sebold is very careful to avoid those kind of cliches and instead presents a fresh and interesting look at this subject. While this book is cerainly not an "upper", there is a definite element of hope and the reader feels less badly for Susie and more so for her family members who are forced to go out without her. In a way, Sebold makes death - even violent death - feel almost mundane for those that are dying and presents it as part of the normal cycle of life. There are lots of great characters in this book, from Susie's alcoholic grandmother to her childhood acquaintance Ruth who grows up believes that she can see ghosts and spirits. The writing is evocative and detailed without being tedious. This book was never dull and I finished it under two days. I highly recommend it - turns out all those who recommended it to me were entirely correct.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Let the games continue...

In the end, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton (like 55% of the other people in my state). I feel at peace with my choice, and suprisingly I really really want her to win.

I had been kind of ambivalent for a while as it's hard to decide between Obama and Clinton on the big issues. They have voted identically 90% of the time (though Obama has missed 16% of the votes and Clinton has only missed 6% of the votes). The things they split on are all relatively minor and pretty much come out in a wash (if you agree with this blogger, and I do).

Honestly, I just like the tone of Clinton's campaign better. Maybe I've been beaten down by 8 years of the Bush administration, but I just don't buy this message of hope. I mean, I buy that Obama means it. It's just a little too sunshine and rainbows for me. All of this optimism ... it's just too much for me. I actually prefer Clinton's pragmatism and calculated political outlook to Obama's almost revivalist cry for change. So I voted Clinton on that basis.

That being said, if Obama ends up being the candidate, I will support him fully. This is not the time for a schism in the democratic party considering the possible republican candidates. Granted, of the three front-runners, McCain is the least crazy. At one time, he was semi-moderate (or at least, as moderate as one can be in the Republican party). Now he's been flip-flopping all over the place, selling his soul to the uber-conservatives for the presidential nomination.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Book #5: Getting Stoned with Savages

Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost
nonfiction/travel, (c) 2006, 256pp
rating: ***

A couple of years ago, I read (and loved) The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost about his time living on Kiribati, an atoll in the South Pacific. I found it extremely funny and engaging and was looking forward to reading this new book.

Getting Stoned With Savages finds Troost back in the South Pacific, first on the islands of Vanuatu, and then on the islands of Fiji. Troost describes life in Porto Vila, the main city on the main island of Vanuatu. He spends an inordinate time talking about the joys of kava, a hallucinogenic drug that is taken regularly by the men and women of the South Pacific. He goes in search of real live cannibals and gives us a little bit of history about the islands. The end of the book talks about having a baby in the South Pacific and the joys and struggles with that.

Overall, this book lacked the magic of the first one. Troost himself seems to understand that, and explains it in the last chapter. An atoll is the great equalizer - while he and his wife were looked at strangely in Kiribati, eventually they were accepted by the locals and were subject to the same whims of nature and the supply chain as everyone else. In Vanuatu and Fiji, Troost lived the life of an expatriate. I got the sense that he really had to go looking to find things worth writing about. His life in Vanuatu was not unlike the time I've spent in places like Nairobi. Sure, there are the trials and tribulations of a third world country (and yes, I am glad my data collection in Kenya ended prior to the civil unrest there), but there are also bars and malls that cater specifically to expats.

So, while this book wasn't bad, it's not as good as the first one.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Crockpot White Beans and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Crockpot try number two! The chicken fajita stuff was pretty good, though more like a modified chili than anything else.


* 2 cups great Northern beans, sorted and rinsed
* 2 cloves garlic, minced
* 1 onion, chopped
* 6 cups water
* 1/2 tsp. salt
* 1/8 tsp. pepper
* 3/4 cup chopped sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained
* 2 oz. can sliced black olives, drained
* 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Mix all ingredients except tomatoes and olives in 3-4 quart slow cooker. Cover slow cooker and cook on high for 4-6 hours or until beans are tender. Mash some of the white beans while in the crockpot to thicken mixture. Stir in tomatoes and olives and cook 10 more minutes until thoroughly heated. Sprinkle each serving with Parmesan cheese5 serving