Monday, November 21, 2011

On Hiatus

I can't believe it has been over a month since my last post. Unfortunately, life has been even more insane than usual due to a number of unplanned developments. Without boring you with the details, the long and short of it is that I'm going to go on hiatus for a few months (at least until after the semester is over, and more likely until I'm done with my dissertation). Although I might write periodically, I won't be able to keep up with my self-imposed "at least once a week" posting.

I hope to be back soon & with much better news! Until then, thanks for reading, and (for those of you in the US) have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October 2011 Birchbox

My October Birchbox was waiting for me when I got home this afternoon, and I must say that I'm pretty pleased with this month's haul. Not only did my box have a nice combination of skincare and makeup products, but all of the products are perfect for this transition from summer to fall.

This month's theme was "Prep & Finish," and according to the card that came with the box, the products inside are supposed "to help you prep and polish skin, body, and hair... [to] help you become your most gorgeous self from start to finish." In my box were samples for the following products:
First glimpse inside the box
  • amika Obliphica Hair Treatment
  • Anastasia Beverly Hills HydraFull Gloss in Bellini
  • Clark's Botanicals Intense Radiance Mask
  • Laura Geller Spackle Tinted Under Makeup Primer in Bronze
  • The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo (this was my extra this month)
Top products: Laura Geller primer, The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo
Bottom products: amika Hair Treatment, Clark's mask, Anastasia lip gloss
 I've tried the lip gloss, hair treatment, and mask, and so far I'm really liking all three of them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Literary Halloween Costumes: Comic Strip Edition

Although the highs in Boston are in the upper 70s and lower 80s this weekend, there has been a definite chill in the air signaling that fall is indeed here. Before the usual Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's rush, we have to get through Halloween, which means another post (or two or three) of literature-inspired Halloween costume ideas. As always, I'll try to keep it fairly cheap, low-key, and easy.

For this edition, I was inspired by a comment on one of my early literary Halloween costumes posts from MovieMan0283, who mentioned Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. With this in mind, I realized that not only are comics and graphic novels a form of literature, they are also full of iconic and recognizable characters that would make for fun (and easy) costumes. Without any further ado, here are some ideas (please feel free to add your own in the comments!):
  • Calvin and Hobbes (from the comic strip of the same name) - I love Calvin and Hobbes. Bill Watterson did a wonderful job balancing the heartwarming moments with plenty of mischief and humor, usually caused by Calvin's desire to thwart his babysitter, torment the girl next door (Susie), or find a shortcut to doing schoolwork. For Calvin, black and white sneakers (Keds or Converse would be perfect), black pants, and a red and black striped shirt are all that you need. That said, the costume would be much improved by having Calvin's spiky blond hair. For Hobbes, you would need a tiger costume, but an orange sweat suit with black electrical tape stripes, white cloth on the stomach section, and ears could also work in a pinch, Of course, if you don't have someone willing to be your Hobbes, you could get an unlicensed (but still adorable) stuffed Hobbes to accompany you on your misadventures.
  • Linus van Pelt (from Peanuts) - Of course, all of the Peanuts characters lend themselves to easy costumes, but Linus is one of my favorite characters, so I'm going to feature him. Like Calvin, you would need a red shirt with black stripes. He also wears black shorts and sneakers. However, the most important accessory for the costume is the blue blanket.
  • Sally Brown (from Peanuts) - Okay, since my first costume ideas were for male characters, I figured I better include some female characters too. Sally is the perfect character for the girly girl in all of us. She usually rocks a cute pink dress and white sneakers (you could get away with feminine flats too) that highlights her blond hair. If you would like, get someone to go as Linus and you can call him your "Sweet Babboo" all night.
  • Betty and Veronica (from the Archie comics) - I honestly never understood what both Betty and Veronica saw in the rather pallid Archie. Both girls (the rich vamp and the girl next door) were American archetypes, and I always got the feeling that, once they got away from Riverdale and met other guys, they would realize that Archie wasn't worth the competition. These characters make for easy costumes (as long as you have the right hair color). Besides her trademark dark hair, Veronica needs to dress in trendy, expensive-looking clothing. Betty should wear her blonde hair in a ponytail and wear more down-to-earth clothes (think jeans). Betty was also a cheerleader, so you could go that route.

Crunch Time...

As usually happens when school starts, my life isn't really my own anymore. I've been teaching one class, assisting with another, working my non-college job, and trying to get work done on my dissertation. Unfortunately, I'm not predicting things to get any better in the next few months (in fact, I will probably be even busier than I have been, which is a scary thought). Consequently, I will try to post something every two weeks or so, but I make no promises.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Pan Bagnet

As someone who grew up Catholic in a land-locked state, fish was an inevitable part of Fridays during Lent. While there were some excellent meals, the unremitting cycle of shrimp, catfish, and tuna soon got the better of me, and by the time Easter came around, we were excited if only because Friday meals would be less predictable. I particularly resented the tuna sandwiches, which were heavy on the mayo and seemed to lack any taste beyond the fish's saltiness. While I will still make the occasional tuna sandwich, it is usually the result of desperation rather than any real culinary craving.

With these mayo-heavy tuna bombs in mind, I approached Melissa Clark's pan bagnat recipe with some trepidation. The mayo-less combination of tuna, tomatoes, vinaigrette, and basil sounded yummy, but I was still uncertain. However, with some beautiful heirloom tomatoes from the farmer's market (the last of the season) taunting me, I knew that it was now or never: I had to try this recipe before it was too late and the summer's tomatoes were replaced with hothouse versions that are essentially red tennis balls.

A quick trip to the grocery store allowed me to gather the needed ingredients, and after 30 minutes of chopping, whisking, and flattening, the sandwich was done. And it was amazing! Far from the tuna sandwiches of my youth, this sandwich featured a combination of flavors and textures. Better still, the sandwich kept wonderfully in the fridge and was just as tasty the next day.

Pan Bagnat (Slightly adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark)

Time: 15 minutes plus 20 minutes weighting
  • 1 very small garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I used the oil drained from the tuna)
  • 1 8-inch round very crusty country loaf, or small ciabatta, halved
  • 1 medium-sized, ripe tomato, sliced
  • 1/2 small red onion, sliced
  • 1 can olive oil-packed tuna, drained (see the note above regarding the oil)
  • 6-8 large basil leaves
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking constantly.
  2. If using a country loaf, pull out some of the soft interior crumb to form a cavity. (If using a ciabatta, you won’t need to eliminate anything.)
  3. Spread half the tomato slices out on the bottom of the bread loaf. Top with some vinaigrette, then with the onion slices, tuna, basil leaves, and more tomato. Top this with remaining vinaigrette. Cover with the second bread half and firmly press the sandwich together.
  4. Wrap the sandwich tightly in foil, waxed paper or plastic wrap, then place in a plastic bag. Put the sandwich under a weight such as a cast iron frying pan topped with a filled kettle. 
  5. Weight the sandwich for 7 to 10 minutes, then flip and weight it for another 7 to 10 minutes. 
  6. Unwrap, slice, and serve immediately, or keep it wrapped for up to 8 hours before serving.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Banned Books Week 2011

Banned Books Week this year goes from September 24 to October 1. While I might not get to post about it as much as I like (seriously, this semester is slowly but surely killing me), I wanted to give you some resources so you can celebrate banned and challenged books this year.

As always, the ALA has some excellent free resources for schools, teachers, librarians, and other organizations.

The Learning Network at The New York Times (one of my favorite teacher resources) has list of 10 ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.

To get a different perspective on Banned Books Week, Jonah Goldberg had a provocative article in USA Today. While I don't agree with his points (and yes, I've lived in places that have tried to ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird), I do think it is worth a read since it really makes us think about what this week is about.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination"

When I first came across Something's Coming, Something Good in my local Barnes & Noble, I immediately knew that I had to buy the book. As a theatre junkie and a huge fan of West Side Story, I thought that this book would be a great addition to my library (yes, I do have a musical theatre/theatre subset within my books). After reading the book, I've found that my initial enthusiasm might have been a little premature. Misha Berson offers an interesting and well-written look at West Side Story, but rather than presenting new scholarship or perspective on the show and its creation, the entire book is more as a compilation of previous research and information.

The book examines West Side Story from its origins to its role as a touchstone of American culture. The most engaging chapters come early in the book, as Berson addresses the show's staging, music and lyrics, and choreography. I also appreciated the chapter dedicated to the film version of the musical, which included a list of differences between the movie and the stage show. These chapters are very heavy on the research, but Berson integrates other people's thoughts and ideas in a way that is cohesive and easy to read.

Unfortunately, some of the other chapters suffer by comparison, and several seem like filler added to make the book longer. The most egregious chapters are "The Rise of the Dancer-Choreographer," "Broadway's Youth Musicals," and "West Side Story and the Rise of Juvenile Delinquency." These chapters seem unnecessary and distract from the strong scholarship that Berson brings to the rest of the book. For instance, I'm still scratching my head over the inclusion of the youth musicals chapter. Not only are the included shows unsurprising (Hair, Rent, and Spring Awakening are all mentioned), but the few connections Berson attempts to draw between these shows and West Side Story are obvious at best. These factors, combined with the fact that the chapter is a slight three and a half pages (and one page is a picture), makes me wonder why this chapter wasn't cut altogether. What makes this truly lamentable is that the basic idea (West Side Story's influence on later musicals about teen angst and rebellion) has the potential to be much more interesting than the actual chapter suggests.

Given all of these factors, I do recommend Something's Coming, Something Good, albeit with some reservations. This would be a great resource for someone who has just found the show or for a theatre director who needs to brush up on the show's history and conception. Berson has certainly done her research, and references to previous biographies, books, documentaries, magazine articles, and interviews abound. With all of this information, this book provides a good springboard for those who want to do further research into the show and read the primary sources Berson quotes. There is also a very fun section on references to the show in popular culture, which would be a great way to introduce it to a theatre class.

In short, this book provides a great introduction for people who want to learn more about the show, and it even makes sense as a quick reference guide for those of us who know a great deal about the musical's origins and influence. However, don't be afraid to skip some of the lighter chapters that only have a tangential relationship with the show.

Three Views: "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through"

Follies, straight from Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, recently opened on Broadway, and the reviews have been mostly positive. Although I probably won't be able to get up to NYC to see the show (funding and time are not on my side right now), YouTubers have been diligently putting up videos from the Kennedy Center production, and I'm certain that some videos from Broadway will be up soon. With that in mind, I thought it might be interested to look at and compare three interpretations of one of my favorite numbers from Follies: "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through" from the Loveland section and starring the younger versions of our four main characters (Phyllis and Ben/Sally and Buddy).
From the Papermill Playhouse Production (1998)

Although this wasn't a Broadway production, it was perhaps the next best thing. Starring Ann Miller, Donna McKechnie, and a host of other notables, this production received a lot of attention. Although the sound and video quality isn't great, you can really see the talent of the cast and the vision of the choreographer (Jerry Mitchell). I particularly like the pairing of Meredith Patterson and Michael Gruber. They do a nice job portraying their characters' brittle veneer of sophistication without delving into caricature.

From Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (2011)

Yeah, I know this wasn't a production, but there is a lot to like about the staging and interpretation of this version. Although I really don't like Jen Colella's take on "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" (I'm giving Matt Cavanaugh a pass because he's more subtle than Colella), Laura Osnes and Bobby Steggart totally won me over with their adorableness in "Love Will See Us Through." Their wide-eyed sweetness is a charming counterpoint to the utter smarminess of the other couple.

On a terribly shallow note, I think that Jen Colella is a perfect example of why you shouldn't get a tattoo in a super-conspicuous place (or why, if you do, you might want to wear a dress with sleeves).

Kennedy Center Production (2011)

Based on this video, I'm torn about this version of the song(s). The Ben/Phyllis duet is fine if not terribly exciting, while the Buddy/Sally version is just too broad for me to get behind. I feel like the entire "Love Will See Us Through" piece is done with too much of a knowing wink to the audience; the couple's discomfort is obvious and palpable. Although I know that we are supposed to get that Sally is not terribly happy for having to settle for Buddy, pulling it back just a bit would have helped the number immensely. One thing that I really liked about Osnes and Cavanaugh's interaction (see the concert version) is that the Sally/Ben interaction is subtle but very telling. By this point in the show, we don't need to be hit over the head with the fact that Sally is not happy with Buddy. Trust me, we know.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 2011 Birchbox

Unlike last month's Birchbox craziness, I received this month's box with no problems. Although it was slightly delayed, the Birchbox team sent me an email letting me know that it would be arriving a little late. However, given what I've seen from the box, it was definitely worth the wait.

Since this month marks the company's one-year anniversary, the theme for September is "Thanks to You!" According to the info card, the featured products are some of the Birchbox team's favorites that "represent every aspect of the Birchbox personality," ranging from girly to minimalist. This month I received:
  • Colorscience pro sunforgettable mineral powder with SPF 30 (minimalist)
  • Incoco Nail Polish Applique in a glittery gold color (adventurous)
  • Jouer Lip Enhancer (practical)
  • Truth Art Beauty Face Nourish - Birchbox Blend (crafty)
  • Birchbox Friendship Bracelet (this was my extra)
I really like the diversity of products in the box. The nail polish strips were a breeze to put on; I'll be very curious to see how they last on my nails (they are supposed to last for two weeks). I'm also looking forward to trying the other items. Look for a review at the end of the month!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memory Of...

"New York, New York" by Ryan Adams (filmed on September 7, 2001)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Food Truck Adventures (Part I)

Boston always seems to be a few years behind most trends, and the food truck craze is no exception. However, from my recent experiences, the wait was worth it. During the past month or so, I've noticed a lot more food trucks around, with offerings ranging from Vietnamese-inspired sandwiches to cupcakes to fried chicken. While my food truck adventures are ongoing (I haven't come close to eating at all of the city's food trucks or even hit up the majority of them), here are my experiences so far:

Kick*ss Cupcakes - I love a good cupcake, but I've found them frustratingly hard to find. Many of the cupcake places I've tried tend to be overpriced, dry, and too sweet. One of my favorite places in Boston for cupcakes is Kick*ss in Davis Square. However, there isn't an easy way for me to get to Somerville, so my cupcake cravings often went unanswered. Then the cupcake place got a truck and started coming into the city. Now I've gone to the truck an embarrassing number of times and managed to try a number of cupcakes. While the vanilla, chocolate, and Super Chocolate ($3.00 each) are all safe bets, my personal favorite is the Boston Cream Cupcake-A-Go-Go. It is basically a Boston cream cake parfait, with yellow cake layered with chocolate, custard, and whipped cream. At $4.00, it is a decadent and very satisfying treat.

Staff Meal Food Truck - The staff meal is a tradition at some restaurants, where the cooks prepare a meal for the restaurant's staff (hence the name). The Staff Meal truck is based on this idea, and it features what seems to be a rotating menu with creative takes on classic recipes. When I visited the truck, I asked the guys running it for a suggestion, and they recommended the "BlLT," which is basically a BLT with bacon loaf instead of regular strips of bacon. The bread is grilled and crisp, which results in a variety of textures and temperatures in the sandwich. With the bacon loaf (the cooks take bacon, throw it in a meat grinder, and form it into a loaf shape), the sandwich is tasty but very rich and makes for a filling meal.

Bon Me - Bon Me specializes in Vietnamese-inspired food and serves noodle salads, rice bowls (both white and brown rice), and sandwiches. You get to pick a protein (chicken, tofu, or barbecue pork), and it is served with the carbs of your choice along with greens and veggies. Their rice bowls are very good (I love the brown rice); the pork provides a salty and savory counter-note to the rice and greens. My only (tiny) quibble is that the pork can sometimes be a bit too salty. However, I'm looking forward to trying the chicken rice bowl.

Bon Me also has excellent chocolate rice pudding. I was never a huge rice pudding fan before, but this was enough to convert me. Be certain to show up early if you want the pudding - it sometimes sells out!

M&M Ribs - I must admit that the M&M Ribs' truck is a little hard to find, but it does seem to make regular appearances at the SOWA Sunday market. I came across it when I was having a serious craving for fried chicken, which is hard to find in Boston. Despite my initial hesitance when I came across the truck (who would think of buying fried chicken from a food truck), my cravings won out and I purchased some wings and fries. When I first got my food, I thought my fears were confirmed. The fries were on the pale side, and the chicken didn't have much of a coating. However, the food was good. The chicken was juicy and flavorful, and the thin outer coat was crisp (if not as crunchy as I would like), and the fries were surprisingly tasty in their greasiness. While I don't know when I'll make it back to SOWA (Sundays are usually reserved for work), I definitely want to try to the rest of M&M's menu.

Next up on the food truck front, I'm hoping to try Roxy's Grilled Cheese, the Redbones truck, and The Cupcakory. If there are other trucks you'd like to recommend, please let me know here or on my personal twitter account (@sweeks1980).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Get 20% Off at Jasmere Now Through September 17

Back to school is upon us (or, depending on where you live) in full swing. While I'm not quite ready for the end of summer yet (the move-in insanity, the paperwork, the start of classes), Jasmere is making this time of year a little sweeter by offering a 20% discount on one purchase through September 17, 2011. Just enter the following code at checkout: SF2053B1E608.

Happy shopping, and please feel free to share the discount code with your friends and family (just please don't post it on any coupon sites!). Jasmere is having a contest to see whose code is used the most, so sharing is definitely encouraged!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Hot Fudge Sauce

While many people in Boston (and on the East Coast in general) are scrambling to prepare for the insanity that Irene is supposed to bring, I've had a pretty awesome and laid-back evening. After an excellent meal at Radius with my friends (and seriously, if you've never been, you need to go), I went home and made hot fudge sauce. I know that this isn't great hurricane prep, but at least it helped me use up some cream that had been languishing in my fridge and it made me feel much more productive than I actually was this evening.

This recipe is so easy that you will wonder why you didn't make your own hot fudge sauce before. Yes, it requires three decadent things (chocolate, heavy cream, and corn syrup), but that is all it requires, meaning that you don't get anything unknown in your sauce. Also, it lasts a while in the fridge (not that it will be around that long), and after all is said and done, it probably costs around $8.00 in ingredients and 10 minutes of your time. If you want a delicious and impressive dessert without having to spend a lot of time or money, this sauce over small scoops of good ice cream or gelato (or even good quality, store-bought pound cake or cheesecake). A sprinkle of toasted nuts, toasted coconut, cocoa nibs, or even crushed coffee beans would be a nice, but totally optional, touch. Sometimes, less is definitely more.

Hot Fudge Sauce (from Betsy Block's Mama Cooks website with a minor tweak):
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 pound of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • Dash of vanilla (optional)
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
1. Heat the cream in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form.

2. Add the chocolate chips and corn syrup to the cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for five minutes.

3. At the end of cooking, add a dash of vanilla and a pinch of salt, if desired. Pour over ice cream, cheesecake, or whatever else you desire. Store leftovers in the fridge & heat in the microwave as needed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: "Taken Hostage" by Ranae Rose

Fair warning: This review will have a lot of spoilers after the first two paragraphs. I’ll note where the spoilers begin so, if you want to remain unspoiled, you can stop reading.

It isn’t everyday that a book gives me almost exactly what I expect while also surprising me at every turn, and, in this sense, Ranae Rose’s erotica-action novella, Taken Hostage, is remarkable. While it gave me what I anticipated based on the synopsis as well as my prior experience with romance novels (my guilty pleasure), it did so in an unexpected manner. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and curse, for the book manages to defy a number of typical genre tropes while still falling victim to many of the stereotypes people associate with romance.

The story set up is familiar: Tiffany, a New York bank teller, finds herself attracted to a handsome stranger who she assumes is a new customer. However, James Elliot is not your typical customer. Upon reaching the front of the line, he holds up the bank, demands that Tiffany fill a pillowcase with money, and takes her hostage. The two of them then drive across the country to escape the police.

Spoilers start here…

This premise alone seems promising if not terribly original. After reading the first few pages, I assumed that:
1. James would have some sort of noble reason for holding up the bank, since modern romance heroes rarely, if ever, do anything this drastic (or flagrantly illegal) without having some sort of rationale that allows us to sympathize with him. At this point, my money was on him needing the money to ransom a loved one (probably a female relative).
2. Tiffany, being a modern, independent heroine, would show her feistiness by defying her captor and trying to escape before learning about his back story and then falling in love with him.
3. The author would somehow mulligan the bank robbery plot at the end, with James being vindicated and allowed to lead a free and happy existence with Tiffany.

However, this is where Rose surprises us. There are no ailing relatives, kidnapped sisters, or even endangered puppies to motivate James’s very illegal actions. He’s doing it for the money, pure and simple, and we find that Tiffany’s bank isn’t the first he has robbed. Also, beyond her initial fear (which is understandable considering that James tells everyone in the bank that he will kill her if they are pursued), Tiffany, upon hearing from James that he isn’t going to hurt her, seems quite content to go along with him and opts to stay with him as his partner when he gives her the opportunity to leave. She is also quick to acknowledge their sexual attraction and doesn’t have any angst over wanting James.

This is unexpected and ensures that no one will confuse this book with, say, a Harlequin Presents, but these decisions also highlight the book’s flaws. Although I appreciated that James wasn’t a tortured hero and Tiffany wasn’t a typical feisty or martyred heroine, we don’t know much about them and the little we do know is not positive. While James’s candor about robbing the bank for money should probably be taken as refreshing, it made it impossible for me to root for him. Similarly, Tiffany’s willingness to believe that James means her no harm (she takes his word at face value minutes after he has announced, during the robbery, that he will “blow her brains out”) and desire to screw him six ways to Sunday before even knowing his name firmly made her a too stupid to live heroine without the typical tropes.

You may be asking yourself, “What stereotypes does the book use?” Well, the characters have sex and lots of it, with scenes that are steamy if somewhat ludicrous. One of the first major sex scenes happens in the woods, where the characters get it on while on the run from the police. Adrenaline aside, they take a while to stop even after they hear people approaching. At this point, I was rooting for the police to catch their sorry selves, if only because people this intrepidly stupid (or is it stupidly intrepid) and morally bankrupt shouldn't procreate.

Also, James and Tiffany get their happily ever after once they escape the police and cross the border into Mexico. This might not be such a formidable problem except that Rose ends the book in typical romance novel fashion, with the two of them exchanging “I love yous” on the beach. This falls flat since we don’t see them connect on any real level beyond the sexual. Even if I could ignore the fact that these characters haven’t earned and don’t deserve their happy ending, it is hard to believe that they love each other and will spend the rest of their days blissfully sipping margaritas together.

All of this is not to say that Rose is an untalented writer. She writes a torrid sex scene and keeps the tension of the book going, even when her two main characters seem unconcerned with evading the police. I also can’t help but admire that she avoids trotting out many romance conventions even if she does so to the detriment of the characters. I almost wish she had fully committed to defying all genre expectations and made this book straight-up erotica. A more ambiguous ending with James and Tiffany racing towards the Mexican border while evading the police might have been more satisfying and believable rather the forced and unconvincing HEA.

In short, if you are looking for a hot, if implausible, read filled with lots of sex, then you might enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you are looking for a romance with likable, sympathetic characters developing an understandable relationship with each other, you might want to look elsewhere

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 2011 Birchbox (Better Late Than Never!)

So, as you may have heard, my first August Birchbox for this month was stolen (I'm still seriously annoyed by that, and God help the person if I ever find her [him?]). Luckily, Birchbox customer service is fantastic, and just a week after contacting the company, I received a replacement box.

The question then becomes: Was it worth the wait and frustration? Well, just judging by the contents, the answer is yes and no. While I'm intrigued by most of the products (and I actually love the much-maligned hair tie), there are a few caveats.

This month's theme is "Beauty Innovations," and the products do seem to fill a need left unfulfilled by others that have come before. The contents of my box include:
  • A large sample of Befine Night Cream & a single use sample of Befine Exfoliating Cleanser
  • A large sample of Blinc mascara
  • A sample of LIFTLAB Lift & Fix High Potency Serum
  • A small vial of Kate Spade New York Twirl
  • A Twistband hair tie (this was my extra)

I'm very excited about trying the Blinc mascara, since I love tubular mascara. I am also curious about the nigh cream, since I know that is an area lacking in my skincare regime.

However, I'm bummed about three things. The first is that this is the second time in three months that I've received the sample of Twirl. I have lots of allergies, so I don't use a lot of perfume. Also, getting it again doesn't make a ton of sense to me, since it seem that the aim of Birchbox is to introduce you to new products.

The second thing that annoys me is that the Befine Exfoliating Cleanser is a single use packet. I probably shouldn't complain since I received six things in my box (counting the cleanser and the hair tie), but I would have much rather received a larger sample of the cleanser instead of the Twirl sample (again).

Finally, and I know that this will be somewhat ironic given the complaint I just had about the cleanser, but I wish that there were more of a balance between the makeup samples and the skincare samples. A half-and-half split would be perfect, but I've noticed that my boxes tend to be primarily skincare. I've checked my beauty profile on the site, and it doesn't seem to be skewed towards skincare, but maybe I'm missing something.

Anyway, this complaints aren't enough to make me abandon Birchbox just yet. I'll definitely be giving it another month or two, and then I might reevaluate it (particularly if I get more repeat samples!).

ETA (August 22): I wanted to add that I sent Birchbox an email asking about the repeat item policy, and I received an incredibly nice reply back. I also was given some more points, which weren't necessary but are greatly appreciated. So, three cheers for Birchbox customer service! Those ladies know how to keep their customers happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where's My August Birchbox? + A Sweepstakes

Sorry I've been absent; I can't believe that it's been almost two weeks since I've last posted. Life has been crazy lately. Besides a pet-sitting stint that was full of misadventures (my life was like a bad sitcom episode for a while there), work has been very busy.

Anyway, enough with the disclaimers and excuses. The first thing that you might notice is that, as of today, I haven't had my usual Birchbox post. This is because it was stolen (dum, dum, DUM!). According to the post office and the tracking number, my box was delivered last week. My awesome mail person, who is one of the most reliable people I've ever met, said that she remembered delivering the box (because who wouldn't forget a bright pink box?). That means there's a Birchbox thief somewhere in my neighborhood. I refuse to believe that someone in my apartment building took my box, so I'm chalking it up to an unscrupulous person from another building stopping by and grabbing it (I know it's farfetched, but it's what helps get me through the day).

On a brighter note, Birchbox has awesome customer service, and the company is supposed to send me a new box. My fingers are crossed that 1) I actually get it and 2) it has the products that are featured on my account, because they look amazing.

Birchbox is also running an awesome sweepstakes for some June Jacobs products. To enter, just click on this link.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: "Just My Type"

Type and fonts surround us, but many people give them little thought. Luckily, there are others like Simon Garfield who are not just fascinated by font and typeface but are willing to share their passion with the rest of us. Garfield’s interest and enthusiasm for his subject are evident throughout the book. Furthermore, he does a good job making his explanations accessible and engaging for those who do not share his awareness and knowledge of font.

Just My Type provides a history of typeface and printing starting from Guttenberg up until present day. It also dissects different fonts, such as the much maligned Comic Sans, and provides stories about the fonts and their designers. Garfield also includes lots of graphics and examples from history and popular culture to help illustrate his points, which contributed a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of the text. In addition to his lively account of the IKEA controversy that arose after the company changed its typeface from Futura to Verdana, I also appreciated his explanations of such issues like the use of period inappropriate fonts (often found in film) as well as the differences between legibility and readability (using the record cover of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”).

That said, given the myriad of topics included under the general umbrella of font and type, the book can be very uneven, and some chapters undoubtedly will have more appeal to the general public than others. I would have preferred to see more discussion on the use of type in branding and advertising rather than the chapters dedicated to minutiae like the ampersand. However, after the first few chapters, it is easy to go skip around in the book and focus on your interests without sacrificing understanding or consistency.

In a similar vein, the text is sometimes so information-rich that it can seem overwhelming for the typeface neophyte. Though I consider myself a fast and avid reader when it comes to most books, I often found myself reading a single chapter and then taking a break from the book to prevent font overload. Garfield does guard against this somewhat by mixing shorter, lighter chapters with the more dense ones, but even then all of the ideas still seem to mix together.

The final problem and caution I have about the book has nothing to do with Garfield or the actual text and everything to do with the medium. Although I understand the cost-saving measures involved in providing electronic copies to people for review, this is not a book that lends itself well to reading on a device. The number of graphics and the different fonts used make this book almost impossible to read on most e-readers. I tried reading it on my Nook Simple Touch before realizing the incompatibility between the device and the content.

Overall, although this isn’t the type of book I would read on my own, I was very pleased to have the chance to read such an informative and pleasant treatise on font and typeface. For people who are interested in knowing more about font and print, this would be an excellent starting point (just try to get a physical copy rather than an electronic one!).

Full Disclosure: I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Beauty Review: Birchbox Products from July 2011

Following the awesomeness of my May and June Birchboxes, I guess it was just a matter of time until I got a box that I wasn't crazy about. While I have decidedly mixed feelings about my July box, there were (as you'll see in this review) more hits than misses.

Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser (full size [8 oz] $20): As I mentioned when I got my box, I had tried and liked this cleanser before. However, I'm glad that I had the chance to try it again, since I had forgotten how great it is. It is very gentle and non-drying, and it does a nice job with regular cleaning on any skin type. It also has a nice, mild scent, making it a good workhorse product to have. Although I haven't used Purity Made Simple in a while, I might go back to it in the fall/winter months.

Nuxe Huille Prodigieuse Multi-usage Dry Oil (full size [50 ml] $29.50): According to the info card that came with my box, this oil is supposed to give you a pretty glow without any slickness or greasiness. It certainly did do that, but I found myself not needing it all that often. This is something that might make sense in cooler weather, but in the summer, the last thing I want to do is to add an additional layer of anything (particularly oil) to my skin. That said, the oil worked well conditioning my cuticles and taming flyaways (use it sparingly!).

Redken Shine Flash 02 (full size [4.4 oz] $17): This product's claim to fame is adding shine to hair. Unfortunately, I couldn't tell any difference in my hair when I used it. I don't know if my hair was just too dark or was shiny enough without it, but this product is not on my "to buy" list.

Zoya Touch Collection Nail Polish in Pandora (full size [.5 fl oz] $8): I really like Zoya polishes, and I had been wanting a sophisticated nude polish (because wearing sparkly purple or blue when teaching is probably not a great idea). This is the perfect summer nude color, and it had pretty decent coverage too (it only took two coats for it to be opaque).

Do Nothing But Read Day 2011 + What I'm Reading

I rarely (if ever) need an excuse to read, but I am looking forward to "Do Nothing But Read Day" this year. DNBRD falls on Saturday, August 6, and it should be a lot of fun. Given the number of books that are in my "To be read" pile, this should help me make a dent. I just finished The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith, and I'm in the middle of The Making of Cabaret by Keith Garebian.

Depending on my progress on the Garebian book, my planned reading for August 6 might include:

  • The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand
  • Just My Type by Simon Garfield (I got this from LibraryThing Early Reviewers June batch, but it is a pdf that does NOT play well with my Nook, so it has been a slow read since I have to do it at a computer)
  • Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination by Misha Berson (it has been on my TBR list since June)
Are you participating in DNBR day? If so, what are you planning to read?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: "The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie"

Growing up, I LOVED the Little House books with an ardor that even my eventual alliance with Nancy Drew could not equal. I carried the yellow-bound paperbacks, which I received as boxed set from my aunt, around until they literally fell apart, and I even remember discussing the books with my classmates in the tiny Southern town where I went to elementary and middle school. 

Although I replaced my frayed books with the full-color editions that came out in the mid-2000s, I now have a more ambiguous view of Laura and her books. In addition to the horrible television show (sorry, but it is a ridiculous, preachy, exhausting mess) and the books' discomfiting racial issues, there is also the fact that certain groups, such as extreme right-wing conservatives and super Christians, have seemed to have appropriated the books as their own. Added to Rose Wilder Lane's (Laura's daughter and assistant with the books) libertarian streak and the books' hypocritical view of the government (there is a great deal of anti-government sentiment that conveniently ignores the federal assistance that the Ingalls family received)  I can't look at the books in the same way.

Despite my complicated view of the Little House books, I was excited to read Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, where the author decides to enter the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder by doing the things that Laura did (churning butter, twisting hay sticks), researching Laura's life, and visiting the places mentioned in the books. On her quest, she is accompanied by her seemingly saintly boyfriend, Chris, who not only reads all of the Little House books but also willingly does things like sleeping in a covered wagon and road tripping to various Ingalls-related sites.

This is a rather slim premise, but what McClure lacks in substance she usually makes up for in style. For the most part, she relays her misadventures with great panache and humor. This is particularly evident in the middle chapters, which show McClure's attempts at cooking recipes from The Little House Cookbook and her road trips to places like Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almonzo lived. A run-in with an "end of days" group at a homesteading skills weekend (she and Chris, worried that the group members will hear them in their tent, write notes to each other to plan their escape) to an experience sleeping in a rented covered wagon are two highlights of the book, for McClure manages to merge the absurd and mundane together to create a comedic moment that, nevertheless, seems real and related to her quest in some way.

I also appreciated McClure's exploration of her conflicted views of the books, their writers and participants, and their legacy. She even tries to understand the viewpoint of Rose Wilder Lane, a divisive figure that many people (even, or perhaps especially, fans of the books) tend to dislike for a number of reasons, including her complicated relationship with her mother and the fact that she blatantly plagiarized from Laura's unpublished memoir to write her own (fictional) novel. Given that McClure could have easily gone the fan girl route while letting her "calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly," I appreciate her candor and her acknowledgement of the less-than-perfect or ideal aspects of Laura World.

The book does drag in places, most notably the opening and the ending. Both sections are more rooted in McClure's personal life and less related to Laura Ingalls Wilder's works, and both address McClure's personal life, specifically the illness and death of her mother. There is also a part where McClure has a mini-crisis while visiting De Smet, South Dakota, which is as puzzling for the reader as it is for her.

This book isn't perfect, but it is entertaining and informative, particularly for those who grew up reading the Little House books. At a mere 249 pages (at least on my Nook), it is a light, quick, fizzy summer read, perfect for taking to the beach or reading on a plane. McClure's ability to weave in information while keeping the prose engaging makes this a supremely enjoyable way to revisit a childhood favorite and a cultural touchstone. It even made me want to embark on my own Laura World adventures, even if they only go as far as dusting off my copy of The Little House Cookbook and making up a batch of apples 'n' onions. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Movie Review: "Winnie the Pooh"

In the frenzy surrounding the final movie of the Harry Potter franchise, another childhood favorite sneaked into theaters under the radar this weekend. Disney released a feature-length (if somewhat short) Winnie the Pooh film based on several of A. A. Milne's original stories, and the entire enterprise makes for an enjoyable movie experience, particularly for those little ones who might be a tad too young for the daring exploits of Mr. Potter and his companions. That said, much of the audience in the showing I attended on a warm Saturday afternoon were adults, signaling that the nostalgia and affection for our bear of very little brain transcends age (even if some of us might have felt a little silly going to the ticket desk and asking for the 12:30 showing of Winnie the Pooh).

The 60-minute movie (I told you it was short) has three interweaving storylines involving our favorite silly old bear and his 100 Acre Wood friends. Besides Pooh's usual quest for honey, we also have the search for Eeyore's tail and some confusion over the whereabouts of Christopher Robin (who looks and sounds a lot more British than earlier incarnations). If this doesn't sound like an awful lot to sustain a film, it is because it isn't. However, it is light, fluffy, and very enjoyable. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, it would make the perfect first film for small children, since there isn't anything terribly menacing or disturbing about it. It is just innocent, gentle fun from beginning to end.

The characters are much the same as you remember, even if they seem a little broader and less subtle than they were in the original shorts. My brother and sister found them to be caricatures (for instance, Pooh seems much, much more honey obsessed than he did in other incarnations, which is saying something), but I didn't have this problem. Perhaps it is because my nostalgia goggles were firmly in place, but I had a lot of fun seeing the characters on the big screen.

Perhaps one of the real reasons to see the movie (especially on the big screen) is the animation. Simply put, it is gorgeous and is a fitting tribute to the original Winnie the Pooh films made by Disney. Besides Christopher Robin, all of the characters look much as they always did, and the lush but familiar depiction of the Hundred Acre Woods is beautifully rendered. Eschewing than the creepy, computer-generated characters found in other animated movies and shows (including the terrible My Friends Tigger and Pooh on the Disney Channel), the hand drawn quality of this film makes it that much more enjoyable. Imagine the difference between going to an old-fashioned movie theatre and the multiplex behemoths that most cities have, and that is the difference between seeing a soulless, CGI version of Pooh and this animated version.

The voice actors do a nice job; joining Jim Cummings (the original voice of Pooh) are John Cleese as the narrator and Craig Ferguson as the blustery Owl. The other voice actors are not necessarily people you would have heard of, and that, to me, is an excellent thing. Without having to be dwell on being vocally recognizable to their audience (think of the numerous Dreamworks animated movies that seem obsessed with featuring stars' voices), these actors can slip into the familiarity of the characters that thousands (millions?) have grown up with.

The songs are fun if not super memorable. There isn't anything that comes close to the wonderful Sherman brothers' songs, even though Robert Lopez (of Avenue Q fame) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez do a serviceable job of it. I also wasn't too taken with the Zooey Deschenal cover of the original Winnie the Pooh theme. However, Ms. Deschenal more than makes up for it in the fun "So Long," which plays over the clever ending credits. Do yourself a favor and stay through all of them. They are charming and entertaining without being too wry, and they have some lovely callbacks to the Milne stories. Even my disenchanted brother and sister loved the credits (and thought they were the best part of the film).

If you are feeling fatigued by the Harry Potter hoopla (or, if you are like me, you never really got into Harry Potter in the first place), do yourself a favor and spend 60 minutes in the 100 Acre Wood. Sitting in the back of a theater and seeing little kids clutching their stuffed Pooh bears and watching their friends on the big screen for the first time is a truly magical experience (no broomsticks or Hogwarts required).

Monday, July 11, 2011

Birchbox July 2011

I had a great teacher in high school who often said, "You get what you get when you need it." I've always taken this piece of wisdom to heart, and it always seems to be true. Today, after a long, hot, miserable commute home, I was excited to see the familiar pink box waiting for me by my mailbox. Although this isn't my favorite Birchbox ever (I really loved my May and June boxes), this one has some intriguing products.

This month's theme, if you can call it that, is that the products were selected by designer Cynthia Rowley, and I do like that most of the products are no-nonsense basics that are very usable for everyday.
From left to right: Redken Shine Flash,
Nuxe Dry Oil, Kind Bar

  • A large sample of Philosophy Purity Made Simple One-Step Facial Cleanser
  • A large sample of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Multi-Usage Dry Oil
  • A large sample of Redken Shine Flash 02
  • A large sample of Zoya Nail Polish in Pandora (a creamy nude polish)
  • An almond and apricot Kind Bar
I've tried Purity Made Simple and Kind Bars before, and I like both products. I'm also excited to try the nail polish, since I've been wanting to wear a more subdued color lately. My only real disappointment is that there isn't really any makeup (besides the nail polish), but as I mentioned earlier, I do think that everything in this box is very practical and easy to incorporate into my regular routine.

From left to right: Redken Shine Flash, Zoya polish, Purity Made Simple, and Nuxe Dry Oil
I haven't quite decided if I'm going to do a full review of these products, but if you would like one, please feel free to leave a comment below. I'm easy to persuade!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Poems for Independence Day

July 4th is upon us once again, and even though I am planning on hiding from the crowds and working on my never-ending research, this doesn't mean that I am a complete Independence Day Scrooge. If you, like me, prefer quiet and poetry to drunken crowds and tourists (Boston seems to be crawling with them right now, and it is exhausting), then here are some poem suggestions and resources for your 4th of July.
Have a wonderful holiday (however you decide to spend it)!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic"

From past experience, I’ve found that writing a book about another book’s genesis is very difficult. The resulting works are usually somewhere between interesting but unexplored minutiae or gushy biography. Luckily, Michael Sims manages to avoid both pitfalls in The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. Tracing White’s life from his childhood to his tenure at The New Yorker to his writing of Charlotte’s Web, Sims manages to write a deft and thoughtful examination of the author, his writing style, and his curious, and fascinating, relationship with nature.

Although the book certainly has slow patches (the opening chapters in particular seemed to take a while to get going ), overall it is very enjoyable and incredibly detailed. What’s more, almost everything that Sims includes in the book, from White’s hesitancy regarding romance to his experiences farming in Maine, relates to the book’s ultimate focus. While it might not have been entirely clear when starting the book why Sims opted to describe Samuel White’s manner of speech in the early chapters in such detail, the payoff is seeing the parallels between E. B. White’s father and John Arable, one of the characters in Charlotte’s Web. Even more impressive is that Sims trusts his readers’ patience and intellect; rather than dropping early hints about this, Sims presents the information without apology and only mentions the connection briefly when describing the character later in the book.

All in all, The Story of Charlotte’s Web is a fascinating and insightful look at E. B. White and the factors that led him to write Charlotte’s Web. Sims’s account of White’s life and habits is thorough and well-researched, and his writing clearly conveys his affection and admiration for his subject without being obsequious. Fans of White and Charlotte’s Web will undoubtedly enjoy this book and learn more about the work and man who wrote it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Just Finishing, Currently Reading, and To Be Read

Tired of my book addiction (and worried about the fact that I will probably be moving in the next year), my family banded together and bought me a Nook Simple Touch for my birthday earlier this month. I have to say that I love the simplicity of the design, the portability, and the simple interface. However, while this has definitely slowed down my purchasing of physical books, it hasn't, and won't, stymie it entirely.

Between my Nook and a Barnes and Noble gift card (thanks, Visa points!), I'm up to my eyebrows in books. Here's a list of what I've been reading, what I'm currently reading, and what's coming up on my reading horizon. If there's an asterisk (*) by the book title, that means that I'm thinking about doing a book review on it. If you see a book that you really want reviewed, please feel free to leave a note for me in the comments!

Books I Have Recently Finished:
  • Turkish Delights and Treasure Hunts: Delightful Treats and Games from Classic Children's Books* by Jane Bocket
  • Yours to Keep by Shannon Stacey
  • Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume Ages 0 to 22 by Marinaomi
  • Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast
  • More Show Me How* by Lauren Smith, Derek Fagerstrom, and The Show Me Team
Books I am Currently Reading:
  • The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic* by Michael Sims - This book will definitely be reviewed because I got it through LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program
  • In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark
Books to Read:
  • Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination by Misha Berson
  • Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity by Thomas C. Foster
  • Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood by Maria Tatar
In light of what I am also doing (working at my off-campus job, analyzing data, preparing for the class I am teaching this fall) this list is a little intimidating. However, I'm hoping to celebrate the July 4th weekend with lots of reading (and possibly a four-day weekend), so I should get through a big chunk of reading during that period. Wish me luck!

Beauty Review: Birchbox Products from June 2011

As I mentioned in my Birchbox post earlier this month, I was stoked about the products in this month's box. Now, several weeks later, that feeling is pretty much the same. I have to admit that there were far more winners than losers in the box, and I am willing to give the product that didn't completely "Wow" me the benefit of the doubt (more on this later). With no further ado, here is a quick rundown of my thoughts on the products.

Laura Gellar Baked Blush N' Brighten in Apricot Berry (Full size [.32 oz] $29.50): This is by far my favorite product in this month's box. Besides being full-size (and thus totally mitigating my guilt over paying a measly $10 for each month's box), this is the perfect summer blush. It packs quite a punch, so only a little is needed. However, despite being very potent, it also looks natural and lovely when applied. The mix of peach/apricot and deeper berry tones works well with my coloring, but I can definitely see this being a universally flattering to all skin tones. I've never tried Laura Gellar before this box, but I'm definitely excited about trying more products from this company.

Kiehl's Ultra Facial Oil Free Lotion (Full size [125 ml] $24.50): It has been a long time since I've used any Kiehl's products, but this moisturizer reminded me why I like their skin care so much. This lightweight, unscented lotion is great for summer and manages to moisturize without being too heavy (or contributing to my skin's oiliness). If you have oily skin, you might want to stick to using this in the evening during the summer months. However, for dry or combination skin, this could be the perfect go-to summer product.

Kate Spade Twirl (Full size [1.7 fl oz] $65): Although I love makeup, I am a bit of a skinflint when it comes to fragrance since I don't use it that often. While I can't see myself buying the full-sized version of Twirl, I really liked the fragrance. It is light, summery, and feminine without being too cloying. If fragrance is your thing, you might really like it.

Xen-Tan Deep Bronze Luxe (Full size [8 fl oz] $39): First, I will say that, if I had to use a self tanner, this is the one that I would use. It was pretty simple to apply, the smell was nice (it had a definite chocolate scent to it), and the tan was natural looking. For someone who usually turns orange when using self-tanner, this is a revelation in itself.

Unfortunately, I had a mini-crisis with this product. However, I can't bring myself to fault it since it was more than likely my ineptitude that led to this issue. After having a pretty good experience ridding myself of the farmer's tan on my arms, I decided to apply the product to my legs to help chase away their paleness. I gave my legs what I thought was an even coating and spent the rest of the evening working. When I woke up the next morning and got in the shower, I noticed that one of my legs was considerably darker than the other one and that the darker leg had noticeable pale patches. A few days of jeans and exfoliating solved this issue, and I'm pretty certain that the problem was me rather than the product.

Herban Essentials Orange Towelettes (Full size [20 towelettes] $15): These towelettes were a nice balance of functional (they helped me get rid of makeup and excess self-tanner) and luxurious (their orange scent seemed very natural and avoided the fake cleaning products smell I was expecting). Although I don't see myself buying the full-sized product since I don't have much of a need for towelettes, I would definitely consider buying them if I traveled more or if I needed individual towelettes to carry around with me for whatever reason.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Foodie Fridays: A Simple but Satisfying Dinner

Waiting for the chicken
The past two weeks have been pretty trying, so I've been trying to keep it simple. This past Wednesday, the weather was awful, and even though I had stopped by The Meat House to pick up some meat (so not a euphemism), I had no idea what to make for dinner. In an attempt to not spend any more money, clear out my fridge, and eat something healthy, I scrounged around my kitchen to see what I could improvise.

Cooking away
While I cooked the house-marinated chicken breast from The Meat House (sauteed in a tablespoon of olive oil), I found some strawberries and mesclun mix I got from the farmer's market last week. To go with the salad, I mixed up a simple salad dressing from olive oil and red wine vinegar (of course, you could use this balsamic vinegar recipe adapted from Mark Bittman's). The resulting meal was simple, fast (it took me less than 10 minutes to cook the chicken, even on my less-than-stellar stove), and incredibly satisfying.
It all comes together!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The 2011 Tonys: Just Because You Try Doesn't mean You Succeed

Since there were only two musicals nominated for "Best Revival of a Musical," I'm going to analyze/snark on the numbers from both the revival musicals and the new musicals in one post. Besides being more expedient (I'm feeling a little guilty for neglecting the Tonys last week), I've found that I didn't have a lot to say about many of the numbers.

The "Best Revival of a Musical" Production Numbers

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Daniel Radcliffe certainly gave it the old college try when leading the cast in a rendition of "The Brotherhood of Man." Even though I'm not a big Harry Potter fan, I was rooting for Radcliffe to do a good job, and I wasn't disappointed. Although he isn't the best singer, I thought that his performance overall was very charming. He has a nice stage presence and is a surprisingly good dancer. The overall staging of the number was good, even though I'm not the biggest fan of  Rob Ashford (seriously, sometimes less is more), and the entire ensemble had good energy. The exception to this was John Larroquette. I'm not certain if he decided to play his character as being preternaturally bored, but he really didn't seem to be enjoying himself at all. My favorite part is, in the last 30 seconds or so of the number, Larroquette is hidden in the back of the formation to disguise the fact that he isn't a dancer and that he isn't really dancing. This, obviously, does not work.

Anything Goes - The show's title song was performed by the lovely and talented Sutton Foster and ensemble. While there wasn't anything wrong with it per se, it managed to be perfectly adequate without being all that memorable or special. I wonder if my ennui with the number in general stems from its overexposure. I feel like I had seen Foster sing and perform "Anything Goes" numerous times (in rehearsal footage, on the show's site, and on various talk shows). Perhaps Foster was feeling the same, since she was missing her trademark spark.

Best Musical Production Numbers

Catch Me if You Can - After a brief appearance and intro by Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz led the ensemble in "Don't Break the Rules," which many have cited as the high point of the show. Unfortunately, this doesn't speak that well to the show's merits, since my co-bloggers and I found the number very "meh." Unlike "Anything Goes," I don't fault the performers, since Butz and company are giving it their all. Instead, I think that the song in and of itself is flawed, and no amount of showmanship could have saved it. My favorite thought regarding this number comes from The Craptacular's Twitter feed: "Don't Break the Rules" plays a lot less compelling/exciting when its not preceded by like, 40 minutes of boring sh*t."

Sister Act - I have a soft spot for Sister Act (the movie). While Petina Miller has a nice voice and a great stage presence, she and the rest of the sisters weren't enough to make me forget the excellent ensemble in the movie. That said, "Raise Your Voice" wasn't bad, but I don't know if it would convince people to buy tickets. For me, it made me want to get the movie from Netflix rather than go to New York to catch the show.

The Scottsboro Boys - This number presents a conundrum. On one hand, it was well-written, well staged, and well performed by the actors. However, I have a problem with the fact that the number really, REALLY wasn't all that representative of the show as a whole. I don't know if the producers and the director (Susan Stroman) thought that doing a representative number was less important than showcasing the talents of the cast, but it did come off as very strange. Based on the number, you would think that this would be a lighthearted musical about friendship (trust me, it is not).

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon broke with the trend of the evening (and the trend of most musical numbers performed at any given Tony Awards) by not doing a big ensemble number. In fact, "I Believe" is essentially a solo performed by Elder Price, with some unwitting (and very reluctant) assistance from the Ugandans at the end of the number. While I would have liked to have seen Josh Gads be featured in some way (not only was he not in this number, the camera didn't even cut to him when they were announcing the nominees for "Best Actor in a Musical"), I appreciated the break from big production numbers. Andrew Rannells did a wonderful job being believably sincere and appropriately earnest, and he has a great voice. I also thought that, unlike the Scottsboro number, this song perfectly encapsulates The Book of Mormon. After hearing this quasi-power ballad, you would definitely know what you were getting into if you decided to see this show.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Be Right Back

I know I've been an errant blogger this week, and I apologize. I will be posting my final thoughts on the 2011 Tonys soon (I'm aiming for tomorrow). While the delay was unexpected and unintentional (I've had a horrible week), it has given me more time to process the awards ceremony.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Thoughts on the 2011 Tonys (Part I): The Host and the "Extra" Production Numbers

I've had (almost) 24 hours to ruminate on the Tonys, and while I'm not nearly as pessimistic as I was last night, I'm still somewhat disappointed. It wasn't bad at all, but it was predictable and (on occasion) mind-numbingly boring. With few exceptions, this was not from lack of effort. Neil Patrick Harris sang, danced, and hosted his little heart out, and a lot of people, from Hugh Jackman to Bono to Daniel Radcliffe, were incredibly good sports. Perhaps I was expecting too much (this is an ongoing problem with me and the Tonys); I found the entire show serviceable and competent but not terribly exciting.

The Host - As I said, Neil Patrick Harris did a nice job. While some people might disagree, I would much, much rather watch NPH host than Hugh Jackman (or, God forbid, Sean Hayes, Whoopi Goldberg, or Rosie O'Donnell). He was charming and kept the momentum of the show going for the most part. That said, I do think he was trying too hard. The effort he was putting into being his usual lovable self was almost palpable, and I wanted to give him a hug and tell him to chill for a few moments. However, when he was on (such as the opening number, the hysterical glue joke regarding the War Horse, the showdown between him and Jackman, and even the rap, which was much better than I gave it credit for last night), he was good.

The Opening Number - I liked the idea of having an original number for the opening (rather than a mash-up of all the nominated shows). Besides being somewhat coherent (at least in theory), it also incorporated a lot of the shows without trying too hard. It was cute, but the most memorable part of it was Brooke Shields's epic screw-up that seemed to go on way too long. In fact, I couldn't remember much of the opening until I saw it on YouTube. This is not a good sign. However, it does get kudos for me for having the audacity to have NPH sing about how Broadway isn't just for gays while being hoisted aloft by a bunch of sailors who are shaking their butts in time with the music. That's special (in the best way possible).

The "Extra" Numbers from Shows that Were Not Nominated this Year - Many people argue that the Tonys have become one long commercial for shows (mostly musicals), and the number of extra numbers from shows not nominated doesn't help disprove that theory. Although most of these numbers were not as awful as the extra numbers we've gotten in the past (Young Frankenstein and the intolerable Mamma Mia! numbers come to mind), that doesn't mean they were good.
  • Memphis - Dammit, Tony Awards. Stop making me watch this damn number from Memphis. "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll" was boring last year, and it was even worse this year. The inclusion of the small children dancing in the aisles only made me surlier, since it was obvious applause bait. If Memphis comes back next year, I might even start praying for the return of Jersey Boys, if only because that show has okay music.
  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - The Spider-Man producers went an interesting route for the number they selected for the Tonys. Rather than focusing on the flying and acrobatics, we got a duet between a very bored-sounding Mary Jane and Peter. I can't help but wonder if they opted for this because 1) the issues with bringing the rigging to the theatre or 2) they wanted to appeal to more traditional audience tastes (See! It has a love story! Just like Oklahoma!). Either way, I'm not convinced this was the best choice. Besides downplaying the comic book aspects of the show, it also proved that hearing other people sing the songs of Bono and The Edge isn't that interesting.
  • Company - I wanted to like "Side by Side by Side," and it wasn't awful, but it wasn't great either. It was mostly "meh" and didn't seem nearly as rehearsed or polished as the version taped by the New York Philharmonic. The inclusion of the three girlfriends was understandable (hey, people need to get their Christina Hendricks fix) but clumsy. That said, I'm still excited about seeing the show this week.

Beauty Review: Sprout Wellness Skin Care

Have you ever looked at what's in your face wash or moisturizer and freaked out because of the long list of unpronounceable ingredients? If so, then the Sprout Wellness skin care line is for you. This company, based out of New York City, is dedicated to using organic, fair trade, and local ingredients whenever possible. It also tends to use a "keep it simple" philosophy, so the ingredient lists are very short and lack polysyllabic ingredients. As an added bonus, most products do not contain animal products, so vegans can use the line without any qualms.

Although I am not a vegan or anyone who is particularly worried about most long ingredients list, I was very intrigued when I saw this feature on Jasmere, so I bought a couple of vouchers and decided to try out several products. I'm including pictures, but please note that the company recently changed their packaging, so these pictures are not representative of the packaging now. Also, I'm listing the current prices, which are more than I paid because the sizes were smaller. The products themselves are the same.

From left to right: Makeup Remover, Sugar Body Scrub, and All-Over Cream
Makeup Remover ($10 for 30 ml): The ingredients for this super-simple makeup remover are sweet almond oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and distilled aloe vera. It is simple to use and pretty effective. I've tried it against my current go-to makeup remover (Lush's 9 to 5), and the results are comparable. It is very gentle and moisturizing, and it manages to get off even the most stubborn eye makeup without scrubbing.

Sugar Body Scrub
Sugar Body Scrub ($22 for 170 ml): I am a sucker for body scrubs, and I really wanted to like this product. Although one of the ingredients listed is coconut oil, the scrub is actually quite dry. You are supposed to mix it with water and then scrub yourself with it. While this sounds good in theory, I didn't find it as effective or as easy to use as scrubs that had a creamier consistency. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't replace my current body scrub (from The Body Shop) with it. However, it does make a nice (if unexpected) sweet treat if you decide to taste it (it was for research purposes, I promise!).

All-Over Cream
All-Over Cream ($32 for 100 ml): I was skeptical about this product, since commercials and the beauty industry have convinced me that it is unthinkable to use the same lotion on my body and my face. Despite my skepticism, I wanted to try this cream because so many people have raved about it. Luckily, those raves are much deserved, as this thick, rich cream does a lot of things well. Since it was a little heavy to use as a facial moisturizer during the warmer months, I've been using it on my elbows and heels, and they have my skin ready for summer. I'm looking forward to trying this out in the winter to see how it does with the cold, windy weather in the Northeast. Given that a little bit of this cream goes a long, long way, I'm sure I will have my small 2 oz. container for quite a while.

Face Toner & Face Cleanser
Face Cleanser ($24 for 100 ml): If you are used to foaming cleansers, this one is very different. Instead of mixing it with water, you put it on a cotton ball and apply it to your face and neck. Then you rinse it. I admit, I had a difficult time getting used to this type of cleanser, and I never felt like my face was totally clean after using it (this is perhaps just in my mind). That said, my skin felt very soft and fresh. While I don't know if I would use it all the time, it does make a nice, no-fuss way to wash my face, particularly in the morning or on days when I haven't used a lot of makeup.

Face Toner ($24 for 100 ml): This toner is very straightforward. You apply it to a cotton ball and then put it on your face. As someone whose skin manages to be both oily and sensitive, I was very interested in this product. Unfortunately, I found that it was a mixed bag for me. On one hand, it did get any makeup that I missed with the makeup remover and cleanser and it got rid of any excess oil without being too drying. However, the problem was the toner's scent. Since one of the ingredients is apple cider vinegar, a vinegary smell isn't surprising, but the issue I had was the fact that the scent lingered for quite a while. Even after I rinsed my face with cool water, I still thought I smelled a bit like a pickle. If the spicy odor doesn't bother you, then this is a great toner. If you are like me and are sensitive to scent, then you might want to pass this product.

All in all, I was happy with these products and with the company. I highly recommend the Makeup Remover and All-Over Cream, and the other products are good (even if they aren't my cup of tea). The philosophy and business practices of this company are excellent, as is the customer service. Consequently, if you are looking for a gentle, simple, natural skin care line, Sprout Wellness might be right for you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The 2011 Tony Awards: First Reactions

Oh Tony Awards. Every year I think that this year's telecast might be better than last year's, and every year you manage to prove me wrong. It wasn't anything was obviously wrong per se. Unlike past years, the sound wasn't awful and no one got hit in the head with the set. However, it was just so boring that even I (a theatre devotee with an aversion to sports) was tempted to change the channel to the NBA finals just for something more exciting. Even live blogging it with the snarky but reluctant help of my brother and sister didn't make this year's awards any more exciting.

However, I will do some roundup posts on the evening's events, including posts dedicated to the performances for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical. Stay tuned for critiques, kudos, and snark aplenty later this week.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Live Blogging the 2011 Tony Awards

Friday, June 10, 2011

"The Book of Mormon" Original Cast Recording is On Sale at Amazon

Are you ready for the Tonys? I'm not quite there yet, but I'm getting closer thanks to Amazon, which is offering a digital download of The Book of Mormon original cast recording (please don't call it a soundtrack :) for the bargain price of $1.99. This is an excellent deal if only because you get to hear the awesome "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," a song that pays homage to (or savagely rips on) the power ballads from Wicked. Besides mocking Wicked, a show that I find too overly earnest and bombastic to fully embrace, I love that the song addresses the idea that, in spite of the many "buddy stories" in our culture, the partnership is usually very uneven.

If you want something even more irreverent (and borderline offensive) but still funny, check out "Baptize Me," a song that takes something that sounds like a conventional romantic duet and puts a distinctly unique twist on it.

Foodie Fridays: Cream Cheese Pound Cake

I'm so bad at remembering these Foodie Fridays posts that even I'm embarrassed. To try and make up for my benign neglect, I'm going to give you my favorite pound cake recipe. I made it recently to celebrate my friend L's birthday, and it is an excellent (and almost fool-proof) cake and is perfect for the novice baker. I'm always a little embarrassed when she raves over it, because it is pretty easy.

The recipe is from the addictive SmittenKitchen website. The only changes I made were to get rid of the almond extract (I'm lucky when I have vanilla extract in the kitchen, so almond is out of the question) and halving the recipe. The resulting pound cake is a somewhat craggy loaf of cake that perfumes the kitchen with buttery sweetness. While Deb recommends brushing the cake with simple syrup if you are planning on making the cake ahead of time, I've never done this and the cake is always moist enough.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake (with very minor adaptations from
  • 3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 package (4 ounces) cream cheese*, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped white chocolate**
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly butter and flour a loaf pan. You can also butter the pan and line it with parchment paper.

2. Place the butter and cream cheese in a large bowl and beat with a mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar, increase the speed to high, and beat until light and airy, at least five minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the vanilla, then the flour and salt all at once. Beat just until incorporated.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and shake lightly to even out the top. Bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean (approximately 1 hour and 5 minutes in my temperamental oven. If your oven works better than mine, start checking the cake after 50 minutes. Remove it when a toothpick comes out clean).

4. Place the pan on a cake rack and cool for 20 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely. Serve at room temperature.

*Deb's recipe notes that Philadelphia brand cream cheese is the preferred brand to use in baking because of the lower water content. I've made this cake with both Philadelphia brand and generic cream cheese, and I've never had a problem with it.

**The white chocolate is a nice addition, but it has a tendency to cause the bottom of the cake to get too brown (or caramelize, as L's husband kindly says) in spots when I use it. Smaller shards tossed with a bit of flour should fix this issue.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Burning Questions for the 2011 Tony Awards

The Tonys are coming! The Tonys are coming! Now that the day is almost upon, I'm actually pretty psyched. Besides the fact that I get to virtually watch it (and comment on it) with my siblings, there are a number of burning questions that the awards will answer. Here are a few, in no particular order:

Will Neil Patrick Harris have more to do than he did when he hosted two years ago? My best guess is "Yes" since he and (most of) the members of the New York Philharmonic concert production of Company are doing a number on the telecast.

Just how upset are people over the aforementioned number from Company? According to the This Week on Broadway podcast for this week, there has been some grumbling about the fact that Company, a show that isn't currently on Broadway, isn't nominated for a Tony, and is being shown in movie theaters later this month, is getting some precious airtime on the awards. While I sort of get the whining, all I can ask is:
How many times has the Tony Awards telecast subjected us to the horrors of Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys? Seriously, at least this is fairly new. Also, it's Sondheim, who is, by his very nature, awesome. Now stop complaining or I'm going to make you listen to the touring cast of Mamma Mia! belt out a substandard version of "Dancing Queen" again.

Just how badly will the straight plays be treated this year? Every year, it seems like the straight plays are pushed into the corner in favor of the flashier musicals. However, given that this was a rather dismal year in terms of musicals (both original and revival) and an EXCELLENT year for straight plays, I'm hoping that the straight plays gets some much-deserved attention. With shows like Warhorse, The Normal Heart, Born Yesterday, and Jerusalem, the competition for the play categories is fierce!

Speaking of Warhorse, will we get to see those awesome horse puppets during the show? My money is on "yes."

Will Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark make an appearance? While I could not care less about this musical, I sort of want to see it on the Tonys because odds are that it would be very snark-worthy.

Will The Book of Mormon make a clean sweep of it? The charmingly irreverent (or is it irreverently charming?) musical from the creators of South Park is nominated for 14 Tony Awards, and some critics are predicting that they will make a clean sweep of things in these categories. While the musical sounds funny and charming, and is doesn't take itself too seriously like some past shows I could mention (ahem, Spring Awakening), I find myself rooting for other nominees in some of the categories. For one, I'm hoping that The Scottsboro Boys get some well-deserved love and attention. However, since the Tony voters tend to have a block mentality when it comes to voting, as evidenced by the sweep that the entertaining if unexciting and often pedestrian musical The Producers, so who knows what will happen?

Just how charming will Daniel Radcliffe be in the How to Succeed... number? Even though I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan, Radcliffe seems adorable and very grounded, so I'm rooting for him to blow the audience away with his performance.

Interested in finding out the answers to these questions? Do you have more questions (like: Will the set hit anyone this year)? Please feel free to leave comments below, and be certain to watch the Tonys on Sunday (and join us for the live blog if you can)!

Birchbox June 2011

It's a mystery....
Hello! I hope all of you have had a good day! Mine has been surprisingly good. I got to catch up with a good friend of mine, work was busy but productive, and my June Birchbox was waiting for me when I arrived home. Since my past two Birchboxes have arrived in the middle of the month, it was a very pleasant way to end the day. What's particularly exciting is that, since I got my box earlier than usual, I didn't get a chance to find out what other people have received, so the contents were a surprise as well.

This month's theme is "vacation-ready products," and I'm loving what I got in my box. This month, I received:
My first look
  • A sample of the Kate Spade perfume Twirl
  • A large sample of Kiehl's new Ultra Facial Oil Free Lotion
  • A full-size Laura Geller Baked Blush N' Brighten Blush in Apricot Berry
  • A large sample of Xen-Tan's Deep Bronze Luxe
  • Two Herban Essentials Orange Towelettes (this was my extra for the month)
These products look amazing, and the people at Birchbox really outdid themselves with this month's box. Besides getting a full-size blush from Laura Geller (priced at $29.50), the Kiehl's product isn't even available in stores yet, which gives me a sneak peek at this moisturizer. I also love that I got a mix of makeup and skin care. While some reviewers have either had much worse luck than I have or are much more discerning, I find that I am pretty easy to please when it comes to Birchbox. The only thing that I'm a little iffy about is the self-tanner. Since I'm Asian, I've found that some self-tanners turn me orange. However, I will definitely give it a whirl and hope that I don't turn into an Oompa Loompa.

From left to right: Kiehl's  Lotion, Laura Geller Baked Blush N' Brighten (top),  Kate Spade perfume,  Xen-Tan self tanner, Herban Essentials Towelettes
So far, I've tried Twirl and the Laura Geller blush. Although I am a cheapskate when it comes to fragrance (1.7 oz of Twirl is $65, much more than I would pay for perfume), the scent is very pretty. The blush, which can also be used as a highlighter, is pretty but very potent. I'm going to have to use a lighter hand when I apply it next time.

I'll post a more complete review on the products in several weeks (after I've had a chance to spend more time testing them). If you have questions about Birchbox or about the products (from this month's box or from previous months), please feel free to leave a comment below!