Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: Not Quite What I Had Planned

"The universe is full of irony."

Today marked the end of my comprehensive exam, which is basically five-day research and writing marathon. After I turned in the resulting 39-page paper this afternoon, I found that a book I ordered had arrived while I was out. The book was Not Quite What I Had Planned: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Based on the submissions to Smith Magazine by various people, the title accurately describes the book's contents. Smith's challenge to people is to condense their lives into six words. Initially, this seems like a simple task. Some might think "Anyone can think of six words to say to describe himself. What's the challenge in that?" However, accurately and cohesively distilling a life and personality into six words is considerably more challenging that many people expect.

One of the great misconceptions I run into with students is that a longer paper is harder to write and thus is better than a shorter paper. They often have a hard time understanding that more does not always signify better. Perhaps part of that is because of our society. We are a culture that champions that bigger is better and more is always preferred to enough. Consequently, the beauty and power of a six word memoir may be hard for some to see. Not Quite What I Had Planned (which I wish I had thought of - it is an awesome six word description of my life) serves as a testament to the beauty and power that can be found in six words.

The memoirs range from the humorous ("Right place, right time, good lawyer") to the bittersweet ("It's like forever, only much shorter"). Regardless of the tone, almost every six-word memoir gives some idea of what the person who wrote it is like. While it may not provide an exact description, it is possible to look at each of these mini-memoirs and understand, on some level, what has happened to the person in question or what his (or her) philosophy on life might be. Like the PostSecret website, these six-word memoirs give readers the sense that they are not alone and that someone else feels the way they feel. Besides the title, I was particularly drawn to "In a Manolo world, I'm Keds" and Stephen Colbert's submission, "Well, I thought it was funny."

Like the memoirs it contains, Not Quite What I was Planning is a book that has the ability to take on many guises. While I read the entire contents of the book in ninety minutes, I do not delude myself by thinking that I have even started to scratch the surface of what many of these memoirs actually mean. This is a book that invites rereading and reevaluation so that readers can continually try and make greater meaning from each contributor's six words. I, for one, am looking forward to that opportunity and to the challenge of writing my own perfect six-word memoir. Here is my second attempt*: "So tired. Work left to do."

*My first attempt is at the beginning of this post.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pop Up Video!

I have always been a fan of trivia and random facts. Consequently, one of my favorite things on VH1 (back when it primarily played music as opposed to shows like I Love New York) was Pop Up Video. Besides focusing on pop from the 80s and 90s, the little bubbles usually contained interesting if trivial bits of information accompanying the synthesizers and big hair (see George Michael in the "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" video for examples of both).

Pop Up Video apparently airs on VH1 Classic, but my cable subscription doesn't include that channel and I'm hesitant to sacrifice any more money to Comcast for the privilege of watching a single show. However, VH1 Classic has a website that includes a number of videos from Pop Up Videos. While the picture quality is less than fantastic and some of the videos don't work, it is a fun and free way of watching the video for "Express Yourself" while learning that Madonna earned several dance scholarships (presumably for not grabbing herself the way she does in the video).

My Google quest for Pop Up Videos also led me to a fantastic video on YouTube for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is more than a little fantastic. The information doesn't really have a lot to do with the actual show, but it is funny and is a testament to the incredible chemistry between Buffy and Spike (who I liked together more than Buffy and any of her other love interests). Enjoy watching Spike, Buffy, et al while listening to the dulcet sounds of the Divinyls...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Stress Baking

Here is a rather asinine observation: different people deal with stress different ways. If Grey's Anatomy is to be believed (use your own discretion), some people deal with stress by imbibing copious amounts of vodka (Meredith) and sleeping with inappropriate people at inappropriate times (every single character on the show). As interesting as that sounds, in the wake of my upcoming second comp exam, I am preparing for some stress baking. Although I have managed to not bake anything this weekend thanks to a sprained wrist and a mountain of books that I need to annotate, I am fairly certain that, come Thursday morning, sugar, butter, and flour will be covering every available surface of my incredibly tiny kitchen.

To get in the spirit of things (and to prepare myself for the inevitable), I wanted to share one of my favorite shortbread recipes. Like everything else I make, this is not a original recipe. Instead, I came across it in a lovely little book called Sweet Gratitude by Judith Sutton. Not only are the recipes fairly user-friendly (I have had luck with all of the ones I've tried from the book), but Sutton's entire premise of the book is cooking with the express purpose of giving food away. I often bake and give way food (just ask my fellow grad students or the people who work at my neighborhood grocery store), so this is the perfect book for me (if not for my absurdly small kitchen).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Joy of Jib Jab: Time for Some Campaignin'

Although I try to keep up with politics, I must admit that I find the campaign season a little hard to stomach. After the seemingly endless Democratic primary, we are now in the throes of the presidential campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. Between the constant debate over debates and town hall meetings and the odd inclusion of Paris Hilton into the already crazy mix, there is a silver lining to the next few months.

In addition to the mudslinging, negativity, and petty quibbling, this lead up to November 2008 also brings us another great Jib Jab video skewering both candidates (and some other prominent political figures). I've always been a fan of good satire, and the Jib Jab videos (such as 2004's "This Land!") are usually very funny and well-conceived. I would much rather watch several Jib Jab videos than any of the Scary Movie/ Epic Movie/ Superhero Movie parodies that have become ubiquitous during the past few years. What I particularly like about the Jib Jab videos is that they satirize/ parody both parties; no one is safe from the creators' wrath. Although I definitely prefer and support one of the candidates, even I chuckle during this video.

The Museum of Science, Boston (aka An Affective Method of Birth Control)

My sister was visiting me in Boston this week, so I had a chance to go out and do a number of touristy things in town. Besides visiting the MFA (which is in the process of being remodeled and looks fantastic) and Harvard Square (which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the ubiquitous scent of urine), we also went to Boston's Museum of Science. Although neither of us are particularly science-oriented (much to our mother's chagrin), we thought it might be a lot of fun to check out the butterfly garden and the other exhibits.

While we had a lot of fun wandering around the museum for a couple of hours, the trip solidified several things in my mind. Besides confirming my aversion to crowds, my visit to the MOS made me realize that spending time there might be a very affective method of birth control. I have nothing against children, but being surrounded by hundreds of 5 - 11 year olds who are running around and screaming is enough to convince almost anyone that waiting to have kids may be a very good idea. Taking teenagers and young adults there would also be more cost-effective and less humiliating than having them participate in NBC's controversial reality show The Baby Borrowers.

Strangely, when visiting other children-oriented sites like the New England Aquarium, I wasn't aware of the complete chaos that I found at the MOS. Either I have become less tolerant of children or the MOS crowd tends to be rowdier because of the amount of interactive things children can do there. However, I am not planning on attempting to find the answer to this anytime soon. Despite the edifying trip to the MOS, I have an exam coming up, and the quiet in the library will be a welcome respite (at least in theory).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Breaking Dawn Fall-Out

While I haven't read Breaking Dawn, which is the latest installment in the freakishly popular Twilight series, the book has been an endless source of amusement for me and my friends at the bookstore. In the months leading up to the book's release, we would sometimes get onto the bookstore's official website to read the supposed reviews of Breaking Dawn written by Stephanie Meyer's adoring fans. Most of these reviews were simply shout-outs to characters (i.e. "Edward ROCKS!!!!"), but my friends and I got a kick out of the fact that there were literally hundreds of reviews giving the not-yet-released book five stars.

However, in the week since the book's actual release, something very interesting has happened. Twilight fans read it, but their reaction has been decidedly less enthusiastic. While the majority of reviewers have given the book the maximum number of stars allowed at (according to the current statistics), a surprising and significant amount of readers have cried "Foul" at Meyer's book. Even though Entertainment Weekly put reader disappointment into some perspective by noting that, given the fan base's intense investment in the characters, it would be nearly impossible to satisfy everyone, the magazine's review of Breaking Dawn gave it a solid "D."

On a semi-related note, the latest issue of EW also printed Meyer's response to people who see Bella as a bad role-model for teenage girls. (Spoiler alert - if you haven't read Breaking Dawn and want to know nothing about it, then don't read any further.) Meyer's told EW that "If you want to be a mom more than anything, you should get to." I agree with Meyer's basic sentiment, but I think that she's missing the main problem that people have with Bella. Bella's issue is not that she wants to be a mother. Instead, it is the fact that she is a damsel-in-distress, cookie-cutter heroine who is passive, needy, and more than a little desperate that I (and perhaps other people) balk at. Furthermore, as my sister (who has kept up with the books but has only read Twilight) noted, Bella's desire for a child isn't really evident (or perhaps even existent) in the earlier books.

Finally, Bella seems to have absolutely no understanding of the consequences of her desire to become a vampire. While Edward and his family understand that living forever has more than its share of problems, this does not seem to register with Bella at all. In fact, when compared to a character facing a similar decision (such as Winnie in Tuck Everlasting), Bella's lack of understanding is truly amazing, particularly when you consider the fact that, in the book, Winnie is younger than Bella. Frankly, this only shows that Stephanie Meyer is a little clueless about how insane Bella truly is. Perhaps Meyer got too caught up in the supposed perfection that is Edward to get around to little things like character development and nuance.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Is This Really Necessary: Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage

When I was eight or nine, the movie Dirty Dancing came out and I was immediately obsessed. In addition to having dancing and romance, the film had the added attraction of being banned by my parents, who thought it was much too adult for me. Since I couldn't watch the movie at home, I bought and listened to the soundtrack and managed to see the movie at a friend's house when I spent the night. Even now I will occasionally watch the movie or even the True Hollywood Story if I am bored or if there isn't anything else that strikes my fancy on television.

That said, even I have to recognize that the movie is definitely not the pinnacle of cinema. It is a great movie to watch if you are feeling nostalgic or if you are with a group of snarky friends and you want to make fun of something. The music is good (particularly if you discount Patrick Swayze's "She's Like the Wind," which never made a lot of sense to me) and the dancing is a lot of fun. Plus, it has two of the great stars of musical theatre (Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop) playing small secondary roles as Baby's parents. However, in my mind, Dirty Dancing is best confined to watching at home with friends and copious amounts of alcohol.

Not everyone shares my view on the movie. Someone (namely, the film's writer Eleanor Bergstein) decided that the only thing better than watching the movie at home was to watch it live in a theatre. Dirty Dancing - The Classic Show on Stage (as it is called) has spread like kudzu from the Netherlands to Germany to England to the US. What is most perplexing (from my perspective) is that it seems to be basically the movie done on stage. The actors don't sing; when it is time for a song, people come on stage and sing while the actors dance. In fact, judging from the clips on YouTube and the the show's site, I can't tell any discernible differences between the movie and the live show (beyond the random live singers and some different songs).

Surprisingly, the stage show has been very successful, particularly in Germany and England. While I can see people enjoying the show's kitschy sensibility, I am a little upset that the British have embraced the show, given their rich theatrical heritage. Despite the thrill of seeing a live person on stage saying "I carried a watermelon," I can't imagine paying over $50 for the privilege of watching what is essentially the movie with starring less famous people.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Baking Frenzy

Although the summer term for the class I was TAing is technically over, I am still trying to wrap up the class. In addition to the never ending stream of paperwork that seems to be inherent to teaching, I have also been baking desserts for the lunch that my students and I are taking to their cooperating teachers tomorrow. I have made chocolate marble chess bars, blueberry bars (from a recipe I got from the addictive The Smitten Kitchen website) and chocolate chip cookie bars. While I enjoy baking, my tiny apartment and its archaic and evil oven make this task much more difficult than it has any right to be. With some careful watching, the blueberry bars came out marvelously, but the chocolate marble chess bars burned on the bottom. Luckily, the worst part of the chess bars' crust peeled off, allowing me to salvage that batch. I'm waiting with bated breath to see if the chocolate chip cookie bars turned out okay; they are cooling on the counter, so I can't check their bottoms yet.

While I've had fun with my weekend baking frenzy, I've managed to spend an absurd amount of money on ingredients, dirty all of my dishes several times, burn myself once, and cut myself while grating lemon zest (it was as much as it sounds). All of this has made me miss having a large kitchen, a dishwasher, and an oven that has more settings than "off" and "incinerate." Oh well - such are the joys of graduate student life!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Library Book Sales and Defensive Shopping

I just got back from the Boston Public Library book sale. Like many things in Boston, this was an interesting and lively experience, even if it does bring out people's aggressive side. For instance, the books are just $2.00 for hardcovers and $1.00 for paperbacks, but apparently the BPL raised their prices, which caused a bit of disgruntled muttering among some of the shoppers. Also, people tend to swarm on some of these shelves like locusts. After avoiding some elbows and ducking in quickly to check out certain shelves, I emerged with five books, which cost me a grand total of $8.00. These include:
  • The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin (I read one of her books for a children's lit class, and found it quite charming, so I am looking forward to reading this)
  • The Best American Essays of 2003
  • Modern Critical Views on Ernest Hemingway
  • Modern Critical Views on Maya Angelou
  • Twilight
For those of you wondering, I bought Twilight for the sole purpose of giving it away on BookMooch. Although I do not like the book, apparently 400+ people on BookMooch want to mooch it. In fact, two minutes after I listed it, someone has already requested it. While I am glad that someone who wants the book is going to be able to read it, I also feel bad for the 400+ people who will be receiving the email from BookMooch informing them that Twilight has been listed, only for them to get to the site and see that someone has already mooched it. When you are competing with hundreds of people for one book, I can imagine that this disappointment must be a fact of life, but it still has to be a letdown.