Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorite Books of 2010

My reading has suffered this year. According to my LibraryThing tags (which probably isn't the most accurate measurement), I've read 47 books this year. While this isn't bad, it is still lower than my tally in past years. However, I can honestly say that the books I did read in 2010 were, for the most part, very good. Here are, in no particular order, my favorites from the past year:

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim: My favorite theatre composer/lyricist published a compilation of his lyrics up to 1981's Merrily We Roll Along. This is a must-have for any theatre lover, and I am eagerly awaiting Sondheim's follow-up book, Look, I Made a Hat, which is supposed to be published in the fall of 2011.

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark: A well-written, thoughtful, and fun look at grammar and language. When I received this book as part of LibraryThing's early readers program, my boss gently teased me because: 1) I was reading a book about grammar, 2) this book was selected for me because my book collection on the site suggested that I would enjoy a book about grammar, and 3) I really, really liked this book.

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose: When I was getting my master's and doing my student teaching, I found myself having to teach The Diary of Anne Frank (the play) to a bunch of surly eighth graders. This experience, and a prior experience serving as the technical director for the play, made me develop an aversion to Anne Frank. However, Prose's thoughtful and well-argued analysis of the diary encouraged me to revisit the diary and look at as both a piece of literature and a historical document.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin: Yes, I know that this book is very gossipy, but it is also fascinating and well-written. Furthermore, even though I find it hard to completely buy into Heilemann and Halperin's narrative since they don't cite their sources, some of the revelations that have come out in the time since the 2008 election (such as George W. Bush's reaction to John McCain's puzzling behavior in the wake of the financial crisis) help verify their claims.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell: Although Sarah Vowell has been on the literary scene for a while, I hadn't read any of her works until this year, and I am a little sad that it took me this long to read them. Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates are both very good, but I have a soft spot for The Party Cloudy Patriot, since it helped keep me (relatively) sane and happy during my interminable wait at the air port in November. 

How Do You Measure a Year?

When the fauxhemians in Rent asked that question in the 1990s, they offered a list of ways that we could measure a year. These ways included measuring it in daylights, sunsets, midnights, cups of coffee, and (of course) love. In addition to these rather whimsical methods, the past few years have given us another way: measuring a year in terms of doing something slightly off-beat. 

An entire subgenre of books have emerged from this idea. Last year, The Writing Spider blog spotlighted this trend, citing A.J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love as examples. The writer jokingly suggests a number of ideas that she can do in order to become famous by following in the questionable footsteps of people like Julie Powell.

I've read a number of these types of books, and I must admit that I'm torn about the entire idea. On one hand, I appreciate that these people have dedicated a year of their lives to doing something on a regular basis. On the other hand, these types of books have become so ubiquitous that I can't help but be cynical about the authors' motivations. Rather than trying to find themselves or learning more about the world around them, it can be easy to attribute their dedication to their desire for fame or money (or both).

What is your take on these types of books? Have you read any that you have found enjoyable?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmastime is Here: A Few Songs to Help You Get in the Mood

As usual, I've been neglecting this blog; life, specifically in the form of my jobs and my research, has been in the way. While I am hoping to post a bit more next week, here are a few of my favorite songs to help you get in the mood (especially if you're like me and are spending the day frantically trying to get ready for the holidays):

"An Angel Returned" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

TSO isn't for all tastes, and (at least in my opinion) none of their subsequent albums have been nearly as good as their first outing, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. However, this song always makes me happy and reminds me to embrace the goodwill, the cheer, and (yes) the inherent cheesiness of this time of year.

"Christmas Bells are Ringing" by Nat King Cole

Although most people default to Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," I prefer the cheerfulness and liveliness of this song.

"Merry Christmas Darling" by The Carpenters

This isn't a happy song, but if you are looking for a somewhat melancholy (but not too melancholy) Christmas song, this is the perfect bet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: "Book Lust to Go" by Nancy Pearl

Although I love books and reading, I sometimes get stuck in a book rut. Despite having a towering “To Be Read” pile, I will have a problem finding anything that suits my fancy. Thankfully, that is when Nancy Pearl’s invaluable Book Lust series comes into play. Her latest addition is Book Lust to Go, a book full of recommended reads dealing with a variety of locales ranging from Baltimore to Berlin and Verona to Vietnam.

Like the other Book Lust books, Book Lust to Go is arranged according to theme, with most of these themes pertaining to the location in question. These themes (mostly) make sense, even when Pearl decides to use quips or puns (think “Just So Much Greek to Me”). Besides countries, the book includes sections dedicated to hiking (hilariously titled, “Hiking the (You Fill in the Blank Trail”), mountains, and bodies of water (separated into “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “See the Sea,” and “Water, Water Everywhere”).

Far from just relying on the ubiquitous travel guides, this collection includes novels, memoirs by travelers and native authors, and other pieces of non-fiction. Regardless of what you are in the mood for reading, chances are that you will find something to satisfy your literary craving. The breadth of literature represented in this book is all the more impressive when considering the fact that Pearl judiciously tried to avoid repeating books from her three previous Book Lust forays.

Overall, Book Lust to Go is the perfect resource not just for the armchair adventurer or the reader struck with wanderlust, but for people who are going on a trip but is at a loss for what to read. Not only will Book Lust to Go give them a wealth of suggestions to help them pass the time while traveling, it will (more often than not) offer them book ideas that will give them better insight into the place they are going.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes" by Stephen Sondheim

I have long had a love affair with musical theatre. When I was younger, this love affair was all-consuming; anything and everything Broadway-related, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to (shudder) Frank Wildhorn, was fair game, and I admit that I had at least two versions of the Jekyll and Hyde soundtrack in my CD collection. However, with age and experience comes discernment. While I still have a fondness for some ALW, my interest in Wildhorn's pedestrian work died before I entered college and any lingering attachment perished when David Hasselhoff played the title role(s) in a televised version of Jekyll and Hyde.

Luckily, college introduced me to the works of Stephen Sondheim, and ever since, I have become a bit of a Sondheim snob. Consequently, when I heard that he was writing a book that included the lyrics for his shows, as well as essays and reflections on the songs, I was psyched (sadly enough, I probably used this exact phrase when telling my students about it. Unsurprisingly, they were not nearly as excited as I was).

Finishing the Hat includes the lyrics for Sondheim's shows from Saturday Night (conceived of before West Side Story, but unperformed until 1997) to the wonderful (if poorly received) Merrily We Roll Along. Interspersed among all of the lyrics are overviews of the shows as well as short essays and notes about the songs (hence the Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes from the book's subtitle). The book also contains Sondheim's original notes and reflections on other lyric writers (all deceased), such as Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim's mentor), Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. In short, this book is a musical lover's dream come true.

While the lyrics are the real star of the book (and, as Sondheim noted in his interview with Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air, they read very well on the page), I found myself really enjoying his thoughts upon revisiting the lyrics. For instance, his explanation for changing "Rich and Happy" to "That Frank" not only helps us understand his rationale for the change but also gives us a deeper appreciation for the thought that he puts into his music and lyrics. I also enjoyed Sondheim's forthrightness and candor, which rarely devolve into malicious gossip (the closest he gets is in his recollections of The Frogs). He is quick to praise the lyricists who came before him and influenced his work (as his pastiche work in Follies shows), but he also does not hold back when it comes to critiquing their more questionable lyrics. Even as I felt myself getting defensive on behalf of lyricists like Gershwin (whose work Sondheim refers to as "Rhyming poison"), Sondheim uses specific examples to prove his points, and even when I admire the lyricist in question, I often found myself understanding and agreeing with Sondheim's anlysis.

One of the roads I didn't take was taking a course (or set of courses) dedicated to musical theatre. However, Sondheim's Finishing the Hat provides a veritable master class on musical theatre and the thought and care that go into creating a musical. Read it while listening to Sondheim's songs, and you will get the full appreciation of a master at work.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: "The Partly Cloudy Patriot" by Sarah Vowell

This week has been one of minor annoyances, and today's adventure, which included cancelled and delayed flights, is no exception. However, if there is one nice thing I can say about waiting six hours at the airport is that it gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up on some fun reading. While reading something heavy (think Camus or Proust) would not have worked, Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot was the perfect companion for a morning that devolved into a long, sad experience at Logan Airport. I finished it just as my plane started its descent, and while I was still annoyed by the delays, I was glad that I had such an enjoyable book to prevent me from being more irritated.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been on a bit of a Sarah Vowell kick. After reading The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, I was eager to read The Partly Cloudy Patriot during my sojourn to the Happiest Place on Earth. Although Vowell's trademark wry humor and preoccupation with American history remain the same through these three books, The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a collection of essays addressing the author's thoughts on a variety of subjects. The diverse selection of topics, as well as the essay format, make this an excellent selection for reading on the go because I could easily read an essay in a brief amount of time before sprinting to a changed gate or listening to the pilot's announcements.

The essays range in topic from Vowell's musings on California to the nerdiness of Al Gore (and how embracing this nerdiness might have changed people's perceptions of him to popular culture (Vowell has an innate distrust of Tom Cruise). All of these essays are light in tone even as she explores the darker sides of her topics. In the title essay, Vowell explores her complex views on the American flag, particularly in the wake of September 11 and the war that followed. She also admits her fascination (and love for) historic sites that are associated with the more tragic moments of our history and goes so far as to recount a conversation she has with a psychologist friend about why she is happiest at places like Salem, Massachusetts.

Even though I wholeheartedly enjoy Vowell's musings, I don't know if I would go so far as to recommend it to everyone. Her willingness (and forthrightness) in admitting to and exploring her complicated views on history and America in general would definitely be a turn off for a certain segment of the population. Even some people who share Vowell's love of history might balk at her salty language, liberal ideals, and irreverent treatment of subjects that are usually considered too sacrosanct to be mocked or even questioned. However, for people who don't mind (or revel in) a heaping helping of irreverence mixed in with their history and pop culture, The Partly Cloudy Patriot definitely deserves a place on the "To Be Read" list.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Get $5 Off One Jasmere Purchase Before December 1, 2010

As I've mentioned in an earlier post, I've become addicted to Jasmere. It's a site that combines many of my favorite things (online shopping, specialty retailers, and saving money) in one place. It is very similar to Groupon, but it features web-based retailers (versus ones in the community) so anyone anywhere can make a purchase.

If you've never tried it before (or even if you have), now is the perfect time to give it a whirl. Jasmere is running  running a special promotion where you can get $5 off a purchase you make between now and December 1! Just use the following code when you check out: SF5E2650AF

Today's feature at Jasmere is Sweet Sally's, a specialty bakery, and the baked goods look perfect for the holidays (or any day for that matter).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What I'm Reading (and What I've Read) - November 2010 Edition

I know - I've been a bad blogger the past few months. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that this is going to get any better - job 1 + job 2 are going to be crazy until Christmas, and my research is starting to speed up (if only I could get more participants!). However, I do have some plans to catch up on my posting during the Thanksgiving and winter holidays breaks. To tide you over until then, here is a quick rundown of my recent reads:

The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell - I've been on several reading kicks lately, meaning that I've found myself reading different books by the same author or different books about the same subject (more on this later). One of my recent finds has been Sarah Vowell. While she isn't everyone's cup of tea, I enjoy the wry humor she brings to any subject, and I definitely appreciate (and relate to) her complicated views on American history. The Wordy Shipmates tackles the story of the pilgrims, while Assassination Vacation is about her search for sites relating to presidential assassinations. If you are looking for a fun, thought-provoking, and educational read during the Thanksgiving holidays, either of these books would definitely fit the bill (and be seasonally appropriate, at least in the case of The Wordy Shipmates).

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim - I am an unabashed Sondheim nerd, and this book is AMAZING! I'm hoping to review it during the Thanksgiving break, but let me just tell you that, if you are a musical theatre aficiando, you need to get this book. Besides collecting the lyrics from Sondheim's early works (from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along), the book includes some of Sondheim's original drafts as well as cut songs, essays on other lyricists, and explanations/information on the songs and shows.

Book Lust to Go by Nancy Pearl - I love Nancy Pearl, and when I received this book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program, I was psyched. I haven't had a lot of time to read it over just yet, but my upcoming trip to Florida should provide the perfect opportunity to read and review it.

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank - Inspired by Francine Prose's book about the diary, I've been reading a lot about Anne Frank and I have found that I appreciate her story and her writing so much more now than I did before. I also read a graphic novel biography of Anne Frank by Sid Jacobson, which I highly recommend.

Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson and Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen - Both books are excellent looks at the life of Louisa May Alcott, but I give the edge to Eden's Outcasts. This book offers a dual biography of Louisa and her father, Bronson Alcott, and knowing about Bronson makes Louisa's life that much more remarkable and understandable. Also, Reisen's book (or at least the advanced reader's copy that I read) had a few factual errors, mostly pertaining to Little Women. While these errors weren't major, they were distracting and made me question some of Reisen's authority about Louisa and her life.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Get an Early Start on Holiday Shopping with Jasmere

Between getting my research started, worrying over my lack of participants, and trying to prepare for my poster presentation at the Happiest Place on Earth next week, life has been insane. While I don't expect it to get any better in the coming weeks (or months), I have been finding ways to prepare myself for the end of the semester craziness that seems to coincide with the holiday season. My not-so-secret weapon this year is Jasmere.

You might be asking yourself, "What's Jasmere and why should I use it?" The site's "How it Works" page describes it much better than I can, but in short, the best way I can describe it is that it is the lovechild of Groupon and shopping sites like HauteLook and and Gilt Group. The site features a product or voucher from a different vendor every weekday, and the price goes down after a certain number of people make a purchase.

Besides being a fun (and cheap) way to shop, the other thing I love about Jasmere is that the vendors featured are very different and fit a range of lifestyles and tastes. Happy shopping, and let me know if (and what) you decide to purchase from the site!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Moment of Sincerity from Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
Jon Stewart - Moment of Sincerity
Rally to Restore Sainty and/or FearThe Daily ShowThe Colbert Report

Friday, October 22, 2010

Literary Halloween Costumes: Couples Edition

Let's face it; Halloween, with its perfect storm of strange behavior and slutty costumes, seems to be the ultimate single person's holiday. Unlike Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's/Valentine's Day, Halloween is a haven for single people looking to act out, dress inappropriately, and hook up. However, if you are in a couple, fear not! Halloween also gives couples the excuse to act dysfunctional or to find a pretty easy compromise when it comes to costumes (he wants something scary, she wants something elegant). To go along with my earlier posts on literary costumes from last year and this year, here are some costume ideas to help you celebrate Halloween with your other half:
  • Heathcliff & Catherine from Wuthering Heights: If you find yourself in a rather unhealthy (but passionate) relationship, dressing as Heathcliff and Catherine gives you and your significant other the perfect excuse to scream at each other (or, conversely, to ignore each other and try to make each other jealous) in public all in the name of "being in character." For Heathcliff, he will need black slacks, black boots, and a black, button-down shirt. Wild hair and crazy (but mesmerizing) eyes are huge bonuses. Her costume is a little more difficult, since a period gown would be nice. However, a gown with a voluminous skirt, a shawl, and an elaborate updo would definitely work in a pinch.
  • The Phantom & Christine from The Phantom of the Opera: Since the musical has become entrenched in people's minds as what the Phantom and Christine should look like, these costumes are not that difficult. The Phantom could definitely get away with dark slacks, a vest, and a white shirt as long as he had the iconic mask (easily found in most costume shops). If he could get a tux or black tie and tails, so much the better. Christine is pretty easy, since a white gown and long hair (dark or otherwise) would work. To be cute (or annoying, you decide), carry around a small boom box or ipod with speakers playing "Music of the Night" constantly.
  • Dr. Frankenstein & his Monster from Frankenstein: If both partners want to wear something creepy, Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster (who is not named Frankenstein) would be easy to put together. Dr. Frankenstein just needs a suit or a lab coat. Even though most people think of something that looks like Lurch when they think of the Monster, he/she could just wear ragged clothing and hideous makeup (think pale skin, scars, etc.) to signify that he/she is the reanimated dead.
  • Lenny & George from Of Mice and Men: This is perfect for two guys or any couple with disparate heights/body types. Overalls or jeans and dark shirts would work for both guys. Get Lenny a stuffed rabbit to pet.
  • Robin Hood and Maid Marian from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood: Although a green tunic, tights, and hat is the traditional look for Robin (thanks Errol Flynn/Disney), he can also wear darker, less monochromatic clothing. Boots, dark slacks, and a dark shirt would suffice as long as he has a bow and quiver of arrows. Maid Marian needs a gown and headpiece/hat. A corset-style top on the dress is a plus.
Couple/Duo Costumes from Children's Books:
  • Pooh and Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh: Like Lenny and George, Pooh and Piglet would benefit from a couple with different heights and body types, but this would be cute worn by anyone. For Pooh, you could go to the trouble of renting or making a costume, but a red shirt, some ears, a large pot (with "Hunny" written on it), and some yellow face makeup (with a black nose) would work too. Piglet just needs pink tights and a leotard/shirt/shorts and pink ears and makeup. If being Piglet doesn't appeal, the other person could easily dress up like Christopher Robin by wearing a polo shirt, shorts, socks, and shoes (British accent optional)
  • Curious George & the Man in the Yellow Hat: Too easy - George needs a tail and ears (or a monkey headpiece or hat), and he can get away with wearing brown sweats or a brown shirt and pants. The Man in the Yellow Hat needs to wear yellow, but the most important piece of this costume is the yellow hat. You can buy one online or make it yourself.
  • Dorothy & the Scarecrow/Lion/Tin Man/Toto/Wicked Witch/Glinda from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Dorothy's costume is simple but iconic; besides the blue-and-white checked dress and basket, she will need ruby slippers or silver shoes (depending on if you want to pay homage to the Judy Garland movie or the original books). Depending on what you have available (and who Dorothy's partner will be), Dorothy's partner could be a good witch (poufy pastel dress, wand, tiara) or a bad witch (black dress, green face, pointy hat, broomstick). He/she could also go as one or Dorothy's friends. The Scarecrow is probably the easiest costume to come up with on short notice. Besides some makeup and hay, all you need are some ragged clothes and a willingness to stumble around all night.

Foodie Fridays: Carmelized Onion & Bacon Pizza

Although I have nothing against bacon, I admit that I don't always understand the bacon craze. Why would anyone want deep fried bacon? Or bacon cupcakes? Or turbaconducken? However, in some recipes, bacon makes perfect sense. Its crispness and smoky flavor make the perfect contrast with creamy ricotta and sweet onions. This pizza recipe, adapted from Savory Bites and Smitten Kitchen, is the perfect end-of-the-week meal for an evening of television, surfing the net, or even (in my case) updating your curriculum vitae and getting ready to apply to grown-up jobs.

2/3 cup ricotta (give or take a little)
1 red onion
4-5 strips of bacon
1 tsp. brown sugar
a pinch of salt
2 Tbls. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Pizza dough (I used approximately 1 pound of dough, which I purchased from a local pizza place)
Mozzarella and parmesean (if you so desire)

1. Cook your bacon until just crisp. You can use leftover bacon or you can simply cook it in the oven while you are preparing the onions. Drain the bacon and chop into bite-size pieces. If you didn't cook your bacon in the oven, turn your oven to 350 degrees to let it preheat.

2. Chop the onions so you get half rings. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sprinkle them with the brown sugar and salt. Sautee the onions for 15-20 minutes until they are dark brown and sweet.

3. Put parchment paper on a baking sheet and sprinkle the paper with cornmeal (you can use a pizza stone if you have one). Roll the pizza dough out on the prepared baking sheet. You can create a crust by pressing your fingers into the dough. Brush the dough with the remaining olive oil, and sprinkle it with minced garlic.

4. Spread the ricotta cheese on the pizza dough. Top the cheese with the onions and bacon. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.

5. Bake the pizza at 350 for 15 minutes, and then bake it for 5 minutes at 400 degrees. My oven is evil and burned (or "carmelized," as my friend likes to say) the bottom of my crust. However, this did not detract from the yumminess of this pizza.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Literary Halloween Party Ideas

Since I've tackled literary-themed Halloween costumes last year and this year (with a couples version coming up!), I thought I might try to come up with some literature-themed Halloween party ideas. Beyond the obvious idea for having a Halloween party with a general literary theme and telling guests to come as their favorite character from literature, here are a few more ideas I came up with:

Alice in Wonderland: Whether you are partial to the Disney cartoon or the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version is your cup of tea (pun intended), this theme is very flexible. Besides having a mad tea party, you could also hold the party in the Queen of Hearts's court, complete with jam tarts and red (and white) roses. This is also the perfect theme if you want to be a little quirky/eccentric, since Wonderland is many shades of crazy. As an added bonus, Alice in Wonderland has a ton of characters, so this gives your guests a range of characters to dress up as. If you need more inspiration, Lenny's Alice in Wonderland site has a lot of excellent party ideas ranging from the menu to the party favors.

The Great Gatsby: If you are looking for something with a more adult theme and you want to give your guests a chance to dress to the nines in fabulous 1920s regalia, then a Great Gatsby-themed party might be right for you. If you want to pay homage to one of Jay Gatsby's parties, then break out the champagne, decorate everything in art deco, and be a little (or very) ostentatious. For something a little more low-key, you can replicate the reunion tea that Nick had at his humble abode, which featured the usual suspects in terms of an afternoon tea. Party Remedies also offers some easy ideas.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: This is another child-friendly theme, and I could see it being a lot of fun for a neighborhood party. Besides decorating your front door to look like a wardrobe, you could take advantage of anyplace that has their Christmas decor out by transforming your party room into a winter wonderland (since Narnia is in perpetual winter until Aslan returns). You could serve Turkish delight as well as tea party foods (what is it with all of these books and tea?). has a surprisingly elaborate list of ideas that can make your Narnia party one to remember.

If you don't want to commit to just one book, you can throw a party with a specific genre as the theme. This could be particularly fun for several reasons. Besides utilizing all the cliches of the genre, this theme is a little more open-ended, so you have a little more wiggle room in terms of what the party can include and guests can be more creative when it comes to costumes. In terms of genres, the possibilities seem endless, but here two of my favorites:

A (bad) romance-novel themed party: Even though there are some good romance novels out there, most people are more familiar with the stereotypes associated with the genre. This can allow you to let the party be delightfully tacky and over-the-top. For the decorations, you can go crazy with boldly colored pillows, flowers, and candles. Or, if you want more of an exotic theme, try to go for the harem look with a tent and vaguely Middle Eastern decorations (authenticity is not the point - this is a bad romance party). The food should be finger food, or you could go a different route and serve things that are insanely suggestive (or completely in your face).

Just for fun (and because you can probably go to a used book store, library book sale, or flea market and buy these by the ton), use Harlequin Presents romances as party favors. Honestly, what is a better icebreaker than letting your guests look at books with titles like Powerful Greek, Housekeeper Wife? You could even hold a contest for the most ludicrous passage in a book.

A mystery: Besides the ubiquitous murder-mystery theme, you could go a little more PG and just have a regular mystery for the guests to solve. Set the mood with a dark, spooky atmosphere in the house. Invite guests to dress up like their favorite sleuths (Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple come to mind), and have them solve puzzles to earn more clues.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dissecting Glee: "Grilled Cheesus"

It has been a crazy month, but I really wanted to write a post about the latest episode of Glee. Up until yesterday, Glee had been a huge disappointment since it returned for its second season. I found "Audition" annoying and the Britney Spears episode tedious and inane (similar to Britney herself). When I found out that Ryan Murphy and company were going to do a serious episode about faith and religion, I braced myself and mentally prepared to break up with Glee forever. Since Glee doesn't do subtle particularly well, I expected "Grilled Chesus" to be ridiculously anvilicious at best, insulting at worst. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the episode, and I thought that it was the best episode of the season so far.

First off, let me just say that "Grilled Cheesus" is probably one of the most divisive episode of Glee, and a quick peek at the Glee forums at Television without Pity indicates that most reactions will fall into one of three camps. The first camp was horribly offended by the portrayal of religion (and, in some cases, atheism) in this episode, the second camp thought that it was too maudlin and over-the-top, and the third camp found the episode's treatment of religion thoughtful (even if the episode itself was a little too heavy handed). I happen to fall in the third category, but I can definitely see how some people's mileage may vary.

The Plot: As I mentioned, tackling religion on a show that is equal parts camp, soap opera, and American Idol is a risky venture. It really surprised me how angry some people were on the TWOP forums about the portrayal of religion and atheism. I thought that the show did a good job looking at all of the different aspects of religion and how people view religion. Even as it questioned the view of God as a combination of a genie and a concierge (see Finn's absurd and selfish wishes when he prays to the apparition of Jesus on the grilled cheese sandwich), it also acknowledged that spirituality can mean different things to different people. Finally, and most tellingly, it presented the atheist perspective without forcing Kurt and Sue to renounce their atheism or finding a neat and tidy resolution to the characters' doubts about God.

The Music: There was a lot of music in this episode, and I must admit that I didn't pay much attention to some of the songs. One of my nitpicks is that, with the overabundance of music featured in "Grilled Chesus," some of the songs that deserved more airtime were cut. In all honesty, I really could have done without "I Look to You" and "Papa, Can You Hear Me?", which took me out of the moment because, rather than thinking about Yentl and Streisand, all I could think about was Nelson Muntz singing it on The Simpsons. That said, I found myself really loving several of the numbers.

"Only the Good Die Young" - I love how Puck tried using this song to substantiate his claim that religion and spirituality is about making the most of the time you have. As a former Catholic school girl, I couldn't help but laugh at Puck's reasoning. However, I appreciated the lightness of the number and how much fun the characters seemed to be having during the song.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" - This was a devastating sequence and arrangement. Also, the actor they got to play young Kurt looked uncannily like Chris Colfer. That is all I have to say - I have something in my eye...

"One of Us" - This is the song that should have been longer, and not just because the cast looked amazing in their white and black ensembles. It seemed like the perfect ending to the episode, and the minimal staging highlighted the music. My only issue (besides the truncated length of the song) was the final cut to Finn's empty plate. It just felt a little strange, even though the director probably wanted to leave the audience with a fairly open-ended ending image. Rather than having a shot of the cast (bathed in the ethereally white light of the stage) or of a recovering Mr. Hummel (both of which could be construed as religion saving the day), showing the empty plate and crumpled plastic wrap certainly made the ending ambiguous.

Other Observations:
  • Even though subtlety is far from this show's strong point, there were quite a few tiny moments that were well done. For instance, the scene where Kurt, Emma, and Will are in the waiting room at the hospital, and Emma slips her hand into Will's was a wonderfully understated touch.
  • I love that crazy, evil Sue is juxtaposed with her softer side. Her relationship with her sister is lovely.
  • This episode also showed us the nicer side of Santana, Puck, and Brittany. They all seemed very genuine when they were talking to Kurt.
  • For all of her quirks, Emma actually gives pretty good advice.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Foodie Fridays: My Favorite Food Blogs and Sites

After almost three months, Foodie Fridays is back (at least for today)! My list of "go-to" food blogs and sites is a little out of control, but the web is a virtual treasure trove of recipes and cooking advice. While the web will never take the place of actual cookbooks (cooking a complicated recipe using an iPhone or running back and forth between my kitchen and computer doesn't work out so well), these sites provide some great reading and culinary inspiration.

Smitten Kitchen - This is one of my favorite sites. I've had a lot of luck with recipes I've tried (even if a few of them seem a little labor intensive), and the pictures that accompany the recipes are food porn in the best sense. Besides the beautiful food photography and the great recipes, it features The. Cutest. Baby. EVER! I'm not the kind of person who falls over at the sight of a baby, but this kid is adorable.

Kitchen Window: NPR - I'm an NPR junkie, and the Kitchen Window feature is always a fascinating read. While the recipes are good, my favorite thing about this site is the food writing that accompanies the recipes. I'm a sucker for a good essay on food, and Kitchen Window always deliver. - This site makes me miss having a car. Jane and Michael Stern, as well as others, write about food finds that are sometimes off the beaten path but are always worth the trip and effort.

The Crepes of Wrath - The motto of this site is that "great food doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming, and the recipes definitely live up to the motto. The recipes are usually fairly simple, and there's a wonderful selection of recipes to choose from (just check out the index if you don't believe me). This Mandarin chicken recipe is one of my favorites.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: "The Glamour of Grammar"

I have long had a love-hate relationship with grammar. Although it is necessary for effective writing, I also have nightmares of the grammar exercises from school, and I always dreaded having to teach grammar to my high school students.

However, Roy Peter Clark’s The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English illustrates that grammar does not have to be the dry, lifeless subject found in schools. By inviting readers to “embrace grammar… not as a set of rules but as a box of tools” (p.2), Clark manages to make a somewhat imposing subject into something that seems both approachable and relevant.

The Glamour of Grammar consists of 50 super-short chapters divided into five sections: Words, Points, Standards, Meaning, and Purpose. Within these sections, Clark covers every topic grammatical and writing topic imaginable, such as the difference between literal and figurative, and how to properly use an exclamation point. I particularly appreciated the “Keepsakes” he includes at the end of each chapter. These sections provide pithy sound bites of the chapter’s main points.

One of the main draws of The Glamour of Grammar is the writing. He takes what, in other people’s hands, could be an uninspiring topic and makes it fascinating. Furthermore, Clark does not just give lip service to language; he obviously loves words and grammar, as illustrated by the many writing samples he includes. His selection and analysis of these samples offer a glimpse of how Clark must approach reading. Rather than merely reading for information, I can imagine him savoring the language and feeling a great deal of excitement when he finds a great piece of writing.

All in all, this is one of the best books on grammar and writing I have encountered, and it would work equally well as a reference book or as a cover-to-cover read. Although I was skeptical before I started reading it (the title seems to be promising a bit much), Clark does an excellent job emphasizing the beauty (and, yes, the “magic and mystery”) found in grammar.

I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity (or Why I LOVE Jon Stewart)

I really want to go to this...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Banned Book a Day

The Business & Heritage Clarksville is providing commentary on one banned book everyday from September 1 until October 2 (the end of Banned Books Week). This is actually pretty cool (and makes me feel somewhat better about being from Tennessee. Seriously, the Murfreesboro mosque debacle was very disheartening).

Monday, September 13, 2010

More Literary Halloween Costumes: Children's Literature Edition

Even though we aren't even halfway through September, let's face it - Halloween will be here before we know it. To help get in the Halloween spirit, here is an early follow-up to my post from last year on costumes inspired by literature:
  • Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird: I love this book, and I think that Scout would be a pretty easy. Besides a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of overalls, all you really need to complete the look is short hair (or hair in pigtails) and sneakers. If you want to be more ambitious, you could also dress up in Scout's ham costume.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House series: This is another (fairly) easy costume to put together. Throw on a prairie dress and a sunbonnet (you buy one or make your own), and make sure you have brown hair, which is the source of angst for Laura. This costume would probably work for one of the American Girls.
  • One of the Little Women: Depending on your physical attributes, you could go as Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy. Beth is probably the easiest - all she needs is a long dress, an apron, and a basket (cats are optional). However, if you are blond, you could easily pull off Amy with her sausage curls and precocious personality.
  • The Cat in the Hat: Besides the hat (which you can easily find at a costume store), all of you need to do is dress in black and put on some white gloves. Cat ears and whiskers complete the look. If you can get two people to dress up like Thing One and Thing Two, so much the better.
  • Peter Rabbit: You could go all out and rent a bunny costume, but the easier (and cheaper) option is to throw on some rabbit ears and a blue jacket or shirt.
  • Waldo from Where's Waldo?: You will need the iconic striped shirt and hat and glasses, as well as a pair of jeans. Go up to people all night and ask them, "Where am I?"
  • The little boy from The Snowy Day: If it is unusually chilly where you are on Halloween night, put on a red snow suit and call it day.
Stay tuned - I also plan on doing a post on literary-inspired costume party themes and literary costumes for couples.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Two Poems for this Time of Year

Just in case you managed to be blissfully unaware of yesterday's anniversary (and the controversy surrounding it), the media was doing everything in its power to bring it to your attention. While I managed to avoid network news and even my favorite news websites, I was pleasantly surprised by the two poems selected (purposefully or not) by the Poem-a-Day subscription I get via email and iPhone everyday. While the poem yesterday is about acknowledging and dealing with grief, today's poem had a decidedly more hopeful tone and reminds us about the great ideals America can and should stand for. It is a lesson that, sadly, many people still need to learn.

Yesterday's Poem: "I measure every Grief I meet"
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call "Despair" –
There's Banishment from native Eyes –
In sight of Native Air –

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they're mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own –

Today's Poem: "The New Collusus"
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Friday, August 27, 2010

Avoiding Facebook

While I can understand how some people can have a Facebook addiction, I've decided to start avoiding Facebook because it pretty much exists to anger me. In essence, some of the stupid things that people decide to post, such as links to news articles praising or condemning certain ideas or political figures, make me want to either immediately defriend them (seriously, I don't know if I can be friends with someone who publicly and proudly proclaims their love, admiration, and support for Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin) or curl up under my desk and cry.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that Facebook doesn't exactly encourage rational, reasonable, thoughtful discussions. Instead, what happens is closer to a flame war, where one person posts something and their virtual friends attack it (either supporting it or condemning it) like a pack of hungry piranhas. While I've gotten myself involved in some strongly worded exchanges, I have learned that, for the sake of my sanity and my blood pressure, it is best to ignore these things altogether.

The other problem that I have confronted on Facebook is that, by knowing about all of my virtual friends' thoughts, ideas, and political leanings, I've started to become very judgmental. When someone posts something (usually political in nature) that I find abhorrent, I can't help but question why I'm friends with this person in the first place, even though I know that, in real life, we:
  1. Would never, ever talk about politics
  2. Actually get along pretty well
As a result, I've decided that Facebook just isn't for me. I will continue to use it for work (because I have no other choice). Otherwise, I'm going to remain blissfully ignorant.

The Role Model Conundrum

I recently had an interesting conversation regarding celebrities and popular culture. During our discussion, my friend noted that she didn't consider celebrities, including actors and sports figures, role models and that she is able to separate their personal lives from their body of work. While I can respect her ability to keep these things separate, I don't know if I buy into the "I can overlook their bad behavior because they are good at what they do" argument.

The role model debate is one that has come up many times before. The issues surrounding Rhianna and Charles Barkley come to mind. It is true that many celebrities did not aspire to be role models. However, by a combination of talent and luck (and even some hard work), these people have found themselves bathed by the constant light of the paparazzi's cameras. While it is understandable that the cameras capture some unflattering moments, is it too much to ask that people, regardless of their fame and fortune, NOT ACT STUPID?

When did being a celebrity excuse you from having to act like a decent human being? Why shouldn't actors and sports figures be held accountable for the same behavior I expect of my college students? Why are people so willing to overlook an actor's or athlete's bad behavior when, if their neighbor did the same thing, these same people would shun him or her?

I'm not asking for celebrities to give up all of their money and go to the desert, and I'm not asking them to be more than human. I'm not asking them to do anything particularly admirable or worth emulating (even though that would be nice). I don't even want them to take up the mantle of role model or hero. However, I do think that they (as we) should do the right thing and not act like jackasses. Would it really be so damn difficult for them to not throw phones at others, verbally abuse their co-workers in an expletive-filled tirade, or sleep with everything that moves? Even with my rage issues, I've managed to go through life without having done any of these three things.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I'm Reading - August 2010

I don't know what happened, but fall is in the air (both figuratively and literally - at least in Boston). Even though I have a ton of things that I need to do to prepare for the new semester, I'm also in the middle of three substantial (but very intriguing) books. However, with everything looming on the horizon, I have no idea when I will be finishing and reviewing them.

The first book that I'm reading is Eden's Outcasts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the lives of Bronson Alcott and his famous daughter Louisa May Alcott. I'm about 100 pages in, and I've found the book very engaging and well-written, even if it isn't a fast read. So far, the book has mostly focused on Bronson, who the authors portrays as a brilliant but incredibly flawed man.

The second book is the delightfully titled Spunk and Bite, a play on the writing guide Strunk and White. In Spunk and Bite, author Arthur Plotnik focuses on writing and (according to the website) guiding "writers into language and styles fine-tuned for today's writing environment." It has been a surprisingly fun read, and Plotnik does an excellent job writing about writing, which is much trickier than it sounds.

Finally, I just started The Glamour of Grammar, which I received as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program. Since I got it with the expectation that I would write a review of the book in a timely fashion, I'm trying to focus on reading it (between prepping for classes and working at my other job). I just started it today, so we'll see how it goes.

I hope to keep up with the blog this fall, but the posts might be few and far between. Besides teaching a class, working at my consulting job, and (with any luck) starting my research, I am also scheduled to present at a conference in November. This would be much more exciting if 1) I had something to present (I'm hoping to have some initial data for my presentation) and 2) it was being held someplace other than the happiest place on earth. I have to stay at a theme hotel. There is no way this is going to end well...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Finding Joy Online

Although the internet provides us with many things (news, shopping, music, videos instructing us on the finer points of cat yodeling), it doesn't seem like something that can bring us joy or reaffirm out belief in the inherent decency of people. In fact, it seems like the internet can often bring out the worst in people. I don't know if it is the fact that it is an open and easily accessible forum for people to broadcast their opinions or if it is because it seems so impersonal that people, usually hiding behind the cover of anonymity, can say whatever pops into their heads, but comments on the internet sometimes trend towards the vile, hateful, or blatantly uninformed. While I am all about civil and thoughtful discourse, a quick peek at most comments under a YouTube video or Yahoo News article can make you doubt the goodness of mankind (it can also make you doubt their writing ability, but that's a subject for another post).

Of course, the internet and email is awash with supposedly heartwarming stories that are supposed to inspire us to be better people. Unfortunately, these stories and emails tend to cross the line that separates heartwarming from trite. They are so prevalent that coined the term "glurge" to describe the genre.

However, the internet delivered two surprisingly heartwarming stories to me today. Thanks to the Mental Floss Watercooler News email I get during the week, I found out about Joel Armstrong, who rescues ducklings (just click on the link and see the Telegraph's photo essay on it).

After reading about this story on my way to work this morning, I thought that I had gotten my daily dose of uplift. However, several people on Facebook posted a link to the following StoryCorps animation:

Danny & Annie from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

Even though the entire video is sweet and sad, it is the last few seconds that really gets to me. Besides Danny and Annie's story, which is profoundly touching on its own, the addendum, where it mentions the letters of condolence Annie has received, gives me some hope for mankind. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife"

"Dear Anne,
Your silent photograph disperses you thirteen shrouded
years. Were you always
so fragile and mute, Anne Frank? I look at you but you
are no longer a face behind the bankrupt mirror"
- from Dear Anne Frank: Poems by Marjorie Agosin

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is a book that students usually encounter as an eyewitness account of one girl's experiences during the Holocaust, and they often remember the book as a straightforward diary. Although the diary does function as a firsthand account of a tragedy, it isn't pure, unedited work that most people think it is. Besides the fact that Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only surviving member of the Secret Annex, decided not to publish some of the more intimate entries and unflattering portrayals of the Annex dwellers (out of respect for the dead), Anne herself did a lot of editing and rewriting of her work while in the attic, looking ahead to its publication after the war.

Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife attempts to correct the misconception that Anne's work is merely a diary by offering an in-depth look at her self-editing process, her growth as a writing, and the immense influence her diary has had (both as a book and as a play/film). It is a surprisingly effective way of forcing the reader to rediscover a classic and appreciate it on a new level.

While Prose gives us an overview of of the Franks' lives before the war, the first half of the book is entrenched in discussing Anne's writing and editing process. Inspired after hearing on the radio that Gerrit Bolkestein, the minister of education, art, and science in the exiled Dutch government, was looking for documents written by Dutch citizens during the war, Anne made numerous rewrites and revisions to her existing writing. Prose also cites other influences on Anne's writing, including the popular Joop ter Heul novels (an adolescent literature series) and the continued evolution of the relationships among the inhabitants of the Secret Annex.

The second half of Prose's book gives us an account of the book's influence, including the formation of the Anne Frank-Fonds and the Anne Frank Foundation, the opening of the Anne Frank House, and creation (and bitter disputes over) the Broadway play based on the diary. Throughout all of this, Prose never allows us to neglect Anne's skill and voice as a writer. For instance, she calls attention to the problematic Broadway adaption. Although she concedes that the play did bring Anne to a larger audience, she also notes that, by trying to make the play more universal, the playwrights under emphasized the work's Jewish identity and made Anne seem naive and "stupid, which is the impression created by scene after scene" in the play.

Despite possibly overstating Anne's metacognitive abilities when it comes to her writing, this book is successful overall in that it provokes us to rethink the diary as not just an eyewitness look at the Holocaust but also as a piece of literature. I particularly recommend for teachers (and English teacher educators) to read this book and reconsider how to approach The Diary of a Young Girl when teaching it to students. By encouraging us to look at the diary with a new perspective, Prose's work might be one of the best ways to remember and honor Anne's legacy, not just as a victim of the Holocaust or as an adolescent who died far too soon but also as a writer.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The World Needs This...

I have very fond memories of playing "Carmen Sandiego" and "The Oregon Trail" on my elementary school's computers. It all seemed very advanced, at least for the 1980s, and while I never did well at either game, I still enjoyed playing them (and watching my friends get thwarted on "The Oregon Trail" by the dreaded Jed, who seemed to get every disease known to man and would inadvertently screw things up).

Apparently, other people have a similar affection for these computer games of yore:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Geekdom Continues

I just won a book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program called The Glamour of Grammar. I don't know what's sadder: the fact that, based on the books listed in my LibraryThing library, I fit the profile of someone who would enjoy this book or the fact that I'm actually psyched about getting this book.

Consequently, you can look forward to seeing a review of this book posted to the blog in the next few months. I'm also hoping to write a review on Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife in the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I'll Be Back Soon!

Sorry again for being AWOL - my jobs have been crazy lately! However, since we've completed the move for job #1 and the summer term is coming to an end at job #2, I should be much more attentive to posting this month.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a great way to wile away the hot summer hours while surfing the net from an air conditioned space, may I suggest the addictive TV Tropes site? Besides deconstructing the tropes often found in television shows (and other media), it also reminds people (or at least me) of pop culture from years gone by. I've wasted much more time that I care to admit by reading this site.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My iPhone and Me: A Love-Hate, Co-Dependent Relationship

So I've had the iPhone for almost a year, and to my horror, I discovered I've become someone I told myself I wouldn't become: a complete iPhone addict. Despite my many attempts at using different types of technology to organize my life (my mom and a former boss both gave me early versions of the Palm Pilot at different points), I was never able to find the patience to use it to its fullest advantage. The iPhone has succeeded where many other devices have tried and failed.

Our relationship started off innocently enough. I used my iPhone mostly for email, texting, and calling people. However, I soon found that the iPhone is much more than an expensive phone with a ridiculously expensive monthly plan. Over time, I've found that the iPhone does a number of things that fit my life really well. This includes:

Recipe Storage: Between Evernote, which I use to clip recipes I see online, and my Epicurious and Mark Bittman apps, the iPhone has become a very handy device to use when cooking. While there are some minor annoyances, such as the screen going dark while I am trying to follow a recipe, I find that, for simple dishes, using the iPhone is a viable alternative to printing out a recipe, running back and forth from my laptop to my kitchen, or lugging around a huge cookbook.

Checking Email: I am a self-proclaimed email addict, and I check email numerous times each day. I find it particularly important to check it in the morning before I go to work, so it is very easy to check my email before leaving the house (or sometimes even getting out of bed).

Organizing My Life: This might seem like an overstatement, but as someone who used to carry around an actual calendar/planner (and, at one point, a New Yorker desk calendar), I can honestly say that figuring out how to import all of my Google calendars (and my boss's work schedule) into my iPhone calendar has made my life somewhat more organized. I love being able to have my calendars sync automatically, and I even found a way to import the Red Sox home schedule so that I know when to avoid the T and the Fenway area. As someone who dislikes crowds and sports, this is a big deal.

However, my relationship with the iPhone has not been all puppies and rainbows. There are several things that drive me crazy about my iPhone, to the point where I sometimes wish I hadn't decided to take the plunge and get one. These major cons include:

Sketchy Coverage: Despite what At&T would like us to think, their coverage (particularly of the 3G variety) can be spotty at best. What is particularly annoying is that my phone sometimes refuses to work when I'm in my apartment. Although it would be easy to lay all of this at At&T's feet, I also place some of the blame on the iPhone, which can be temperamental when it comes to reception. Consequently, I am stuck with a seldom-used but necessary land line.

Reading Un-Friendliness: Although part of me would love an iPad, if reading on it is like reading on an iPhone, I might have to pass. Reading on an iPhone is okay if I have nothing else to read, but if given the choice between reading on my iPhone and reading the text on paper, paper would win every time. Besides the sometimes inopportune readjustment of the text (it jumps from landscape to portrait), the backlighting can be tiring to look at.

24/7 Connection: I can appreciate being able to check my email, get the news, or make a call at almost anytime, but this comes with a price. I'm not quite sold on being connected all of the time. However, I don't usually turn my iPhone off. Even when I am teaching or at work, I will put it on silent, but I rarely power it down. I know that turning it off is an option, but part of me thinks, "If I'm paying for the unlimited data plan, then by God, I'm going to get my money's worth."

Self-Loathing, Apple Style: I've always been a PC person, so I find it more than a little upsetting that I use (and love) my iPhone. If the iPod is the gateway drug to all Apple products, I'm scared that someday I will trade in my affordable Toshiba for a sleek, expensive new computer from the Apple Store. However, I think that the price tag (and the memory of those damn Apple vs. PC commercials) will be enough to deter me from going down that slippery slope.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer (Re)Reading, 2010

For whatever reason, I've been sort of a slacker this summer when it comes to reading new books. While I can blame my crazy schedule, I think that there is more to it than that. However, this summer has provided me with the perfect opportunity to revisit some of my old favorites as well as some books that I didn't love the first time around but thought they were worth revisiting.

New Books I've Read This Summer

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose
I didn't care for Prose's How to Read Like a Writer, so I approached Anne Frank with some trepidation. However, I found this book thoroughly enjoyable. Besides exploring the backstory of the diary and how it came to be published, Prose makes a convincing argument for appreciating the diary as literature, rather than just as a historical document.

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Learn pieces of trivia that you thought you knew. From knowing who coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest" (Herbert Spencer) to words that rhyme with orange (two proper nouns: Blorenge and Gorringe), this book serves as a reminder of just how much you don't know. It's a fun, diverting read, even if it does make you question your IQ.

Reading Revisits

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (first read in 2008)
Even though I had mixed emotions to this book when I read it two years ago, I decided it was worth a revisit, just to see if I had a change of opinion or if absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. I did find Fadiman's essays just as interesting and readable as I did in 2008, but I was also still appalled/fascinated by the self-congratulatory tone in some of the entries. That said, rereading this book also reminding me of some Fadiman's very insightful comments regarding her sometimes idiosyncratic love of reading. Among some of my favorite quotes:
  • "American admire success. Englishmen admire heroic failure. Given a choice - at least in my reading - I'm un-American enough to take quixotry over efficiency any day" (p.24)"
  • I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love... The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel" (p.38).
  • "I'd rather have a book [to read], but in a pinch I'll settle for a set of Water Pik instructions" (p.113).
At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman (started in 2008, finished in 2010)
After Ex Libris, I tried reading another collection of essays by Fadiman. Although I started the book in 2008, I soon found myself occupied with other things (namely, my comprehensive exam), and so At Large and At Small was shelved, unfinished, until this summer. The essays are similar to those in Ex Libris, but the subject matter does not stop at books. Instead, Fadiman writes about her love of coffee and ice cream as well as the bittersweet experience of moving from a beloved New York apartment to a country house. While not as compulsively readable as Ex Libris, At Large and At Small is still worth a read.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (read and reviewed earlier this year)
So far, this is one of my favorite books of 2010...

Busy, Busy, Busy...

Sorry for the lack of posts this month - I've been teaching a summer course at the university, and between that, research prep, working my other job (where we are getting ready to move offices) and preparing for another class I am teaching in the fall, life has been a little hectic. However, I hope to make up for it during the next week (no papers and few meetings - yay!). Stay tuned for posts on my summer (re)reading and my ongoing love-hate relationship with the iPhone...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In Honor of Independence Day: More 1776

I know that I blogged about 1776 two years ago, it is definitely a musical worth revisiting. While it isn't perfect, there is something very moving about it. Here are two of my favorite moments from the movie adaptation.

In the first scene, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson fret while the Continental Congress read Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. However, despite (or perhaps in response to) the stress of waiting, the three men find time to bicker over what the national bird should be:

The second scene is considerably meatier and more dramatic. This scene follows the harrowing "Molasses to Rum" number, which one of the delegates from the southern states performs in response to the demands that slavery end. Adams, alone and shattered, tries to rally himself after the delegates leave the hall:

For more information on 1776, visit the musical's official web site.

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Foodie Fridays: My Favorite Places to Eat in Nashville

Sadly, whenever I plan a trip home, one of the main things that my sister and I plot out is the restaurants we want to go to while I'm in Nashville. Although we should probably venture out and try more new places, here are my tried and true places to get a bite to eat in Nashville:

Anatolia: I know that there must be excellent Turkish restaurants in Boston, none that I have tried compare to Anatolia. Although this restaurant is situated in a strip mall, the food here is first rate. From the fresh bread and spiced olive oil served before each meal to the hearty (and generous) entrees to the decadent baklava, everything I've ever had here has been excellent. The one caveat to the place is that the service can be inconsistent, but I am willing to overlook a less than friendly waiter for the good food (and the good prices). If you are going through Hot Kabobs withdrawal (like my sister, who loved this tiny Nashvillian restaurant), Anatolia is a good choice.

Bobbie's Dairy Dip
: I used to eat here so much that it is embarrassing. Besides being deliciously retro (it is housed in an old drive-in), this restaurant also serves wonderful burgers, fries (Belgian style), onion rings, and soft serve ice cream.

The Cupcake Collection
: Cupcake places seem like a dime a dozen in almost any city, but The Cupcake Collection has a number of advantages over many (if not all) of them. In addition to the excellent frosting to cake ratio (they don't go overboard on the frosting, which is very important to me), the cake is always moist and light. This bakery also offers some delicious flavors, including strawberry (my sister's favorite), sweet potato, coconut cream, key lime, and red velvet. When added to the fact that the cupcakes are only $1.50 each (take that, Magnolia Bakery!) and that the staff is always friendly, this just might be cupcake heaven.

The Loveless Cafe: While it is a bit of a tourist trap, the Loveless has great country-style cooking (biscuits, fried chicken, country ham. My personal favorite things about the Loveless are the sweet tea and the biscuits and preserves that come with most (if not all) of the meals. If you can't make it to Nashville, the Loveless also ships its preserves, biscuit mix, and other items. While the biscuit mix can't compare to getting the real thing in the restaurant, it is an acceptable substitute.

Pancake Pantry
: This is another tourist trap, but it has certainly earned its reputation as being a place to go when in Nashville. With over 20 varieties, the pancakes are the main draw here, but definitely try the hash browns. Also, avoid this place on the weekend, unless you feel like waiting in line for what seems like an eternity.

: Located near Vanderbilt, this Asian grill is a hidden jewel among all of the fast food joints and chain restaurants in the area. Not only is it fast, it is also a pretty cheap place to grab a nutritious and tasty meal.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Literary Guilty Pleasures

NPR's All Things Considered has an ongoing series that features authors' confessions about their own literary guilty pleasures. These potentially embarrassing reads include the risque Peyton Place and the taboo (and so bad it's good) Flowers in the Attic. Additionally, some male authors admit to liking books that are considered feminine reads, such as Twilight and the Rosemary Rogers' bodice-ripper Sweet Savage Love. If I didn't love Jack Murnighan before, I love him for admitting his affection for this book.

That said, I have a number of guilty pleasure books hidden away in the confines of my bookshelves. While I wouldn't be caught dead with some of these books in public, they are some of my closet favorites. Besides some romance novels (I'm a picky romance reader, and tend to be stuck on ones from my younger days), I also love children's books. My absolute favorites may be Beverly Cleary's Ramona series. Yes, I know that these books are for children, but I probably read the entire Ramona series (or at least the books that I have) once a year. Cleary perfectly portrays the misadventures of Ramona Quimby, a girl who tends to be too imaginative for her own good. I particularly love Cleary's portrayal of a child's feelings of being misunderstood and helpless. However, it never gets too dark; in a world of depressing children's stories, Ramona is a happy (but not too happy) respite.

Do you have any books that you secretly love (even though you would rather die a thousand deaths before reading them in public)? Please feel free to list some of your guilty pleasures in the comments section!

What to Do When You're in Nashville

Sorry I've been MIA recently, but I just got back from a quick trip to my hometown. Even though I like Boston, there is a lot I love about Nashville. Although Nashville is probably best known for country music (sigh), it is far from the only thing worth visiting in the city. If you are headed down to Tennessee but have no idea what to do once you get there, here are a few humble suggestions:

Take a stroll through Centennial Park: Not only is the park beautiful, but it is also home to a replica of the Parthenon, complete with a statue of Athena. While someone had the terribly misguided idea to gild Athena at some point during my high school/college years, standing at the foot of the statue is still an awe-inspiring experience (just don't look at her too long - you might be blinded). As an added bonus, Centennial Park also has some great programs in the summer, including Movies in the Park and Shakespeare in the Park.

Spend some quality time in the main branch of the Nashville Public Library: The Nashville Public Library holds a special place in my heart. Besides being gorgeous, the main branch has a great non-fiction section and a wonderful cafe. Even though parking can be a bit tricky, spending the day there is definitely worth the minor hassle.

Visit the Frist Center for the Visual Arts: Another beautiful building in the city, the Frist hosts a number of rotating exhibitions as well as some work by local artists.

Window shop in downtown Franklin: One of my friends once said that downtown Franklin has a quaint, almost Mayberryish feel to it (with a little Stepford thrown in for good measure). While she didn't mean it in a complimentary way, I actually like downtown Franklin's square and their assortment of (mostly) independent shops. My personal favorite place to visit there is Bathos, which is like a less aggressive version of Lush (which I love but find too fragrant sometimes).

Pet the kittens and puppies at Love at First Site: Before I got a cat, I got my kitten-fix at this kitten and puppy adoption center in Sylvan Park. The staff is super-friendly, and the kittens and puppies are beyond cute.

Stay tuned for my favorite places to eat in Nashville!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stupid Digital Television

I'm visiting my brother, and while he has a digital converter box, CBS is not coming through. This means I'm missing the Tonys. This also means that, much to my chagrin, I will not be able to do my usual deconstruction/critique of the Tonys on my blog. Stupid digital television...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dissecting Glee: "Journey to Regionals"

One of my secret ambitions is to be a theatre critic (I came really close once, but the gig didn't work out). While I probably need to be made of sterner stuff to be a critic, I still get a kick out of reviewing musical numbers. Therefore, I'm dissecting parts of the season finale of Glee. Just to clarify, this isn't a recap (I seriously considered calling it a Gleecap, but that was just too annoying) as much as it is a review of the sections that I found noteworthy. Let's get started with the songs...

"Faithfully/Touchin', Lovin', Squeezing/Anyway You Want It/Don't Stop Believin'":
I love a good '80s power ballad, and this mash-up/medley fit the bill nicely. Besides tying in very nicely to the pilot, the songs really fit the performers' voices. While Cory Monteith (Finn) sometimes gets flack on the TWOP forums for not having the greatest voice (and for the producers' prodigious use of Auto-Tune to correct it), I thought that "Faithfully" (as well as "Jesse's Girl" earlier this season) was perfect for him. Also, considering that the group is mix of people with different dancing abilities, the number's staging made sense. No, it wasn't nearly as ambitious (or insane) as Vocal Adrenaline's "Bohemian Rhapsody" choreography, but New Directions' staging looked like something that would be feasible for an actual high school show choir.

On a more shallow note, I should be making fun of the girls' use of Bumpits, but given that the entire look had a 1960s vibe (which is a little strange, since the music was solidly planted in the 1980s), the look worked. I also am digging the boys' black outfits with gold ties and the girls' gold dresses. The costumer for this show deserves serious props for finding a single dress that looks good on a bunch of different body types.

Questions, Observations, and Minor Nitpicks:
  • Did anyone else think that Rachel was channeling Celine Dion during the beginning of "Faithfully"?
  • I love Brad (the piano player for New Directions); he always looks so happy and into it when the kids are singing, regardless of who is singing and what the song is. His face during the middle part of the medley was priceless.
  • During a reaction shot of the judges during the number, I could see Quinn's mom sitting behind them, even though she didn't come in until later in the number. However, consistency/logic has never been Glee's strong suit.
  • Did we really need a key change in "Don't Stop Believin'"?
"Bohemian Rhapsody" and The Birth of Beth/Drizzle
While I can accept that New Directions lost to VA (I didn't think that ND would win going into Regionals), I refuse to accept that "Bohemian Rhapsody" would win over the Journey medley. VA has done some impressive numbers, including the incredible version of "Rehab" from one of the first episodes of the season. However, "Bohemian Rhapsody" left me cold for a number of reasons. Besides the fact that it was pretty much a showcase for Jonathan Groff, who did most of the heavy lifting in terms of the vocals, the choreography was just too over the top for me. I could accept the polish of "Rehab," but "BH" was just too much. Also, I am still PISSED at Jesse and VA for egging Rachel, so there was no way I was going to be able to enjoy "BH" without some sort of serious comeuppance. Seriously, VA needs to cure cancer or something before I can appreciate a number the group does on its own terms.

On the other hand, "Bohemian Rhapsody" worked well as a parallel for the birth of Beth/Drizzle. The cuts were sharp and well-chosen, so hat's off to the choreographer, director, and editor. I am still highly amused by the juxtaposition of Quinn's screams with the song and with the doctor saying "The baby's crowning" with VA surrounding Jesse and him popping out of the center of the crowd. In fact, the editing/birth of the baby was the one thing that kept me from flipping channels during "BH."

"To Sir, with Love":
I don't like the song "To Sir, with Love," and I didn't really expect to like this number because of the maudlin nature of the song (I always think of this scene from Boy Meets World when I think of the song). That said, this number was surprisingly moving. The lead-up to the song, with each of the club members telling Will how they have changed over the course of the year, was genuinely sad (even though Mercedes's line "Glee club will never end, Mr. Schue, 'cause you are glee club. You're in all of us now" did make me roll my eyes).

The arrangement worked well and parts of it had a definite 1960s, girl-group flavor. Also, the very minimal staging really made the viewer focus on the song, the kids, and Will, who was appropriately choked up during the proceedings. The fact that the kids also looked completely stricken during the song made me forget about my cynicism about the song and get lost in the moment.

While it might seem out of character for some of the characters, such as Santana, to get so emotional about the thought of the end of glee club (it is very likely that the cast was so emotional about it being the end of the season), I thought that, given the capricious and emotional nature of teenagers, it worked. I also liked the shot of Sue watching from the back of the auditorium. Again, her softening up might seem OOC, but she was definitely in a more vulnerable place after that crazy confrontation in the judges' room.

"Over the Rainbow":
I have surprisingly little to say about this song. Matthew Morrison and Mark Salling did a beautiful job harmonizing, and the kids' reactions were very sweet. However, while it is nice to know that New Directions would live to see another day (not that there was much doubt for the audience - the show's been picked up for a second and third season), I can't help but think that "To Sir, with Love" would have made a more powerful ending to the season. However, since I like resolution, I'd probably be bitching if things were left up in the air.

Overall, "Journey to Regionals" reminded me of what I loved about the show. Despite the breakneck pace of the first season and the multitude of unresolved plotlines (Jesse, what the hell happened?), I plan on tuning in for the show's second season.

Please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section. Also, I'm toying with the idea of making this Glee dissection a semi-regular part of the blog. Any takers?