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Slump

As it turns out, the failed “Snowquester” storm that petered out yesterday may have been just what the doctor ordered. I got a freebie day off work, and since it would have been my late night at work, I got a lot more sleep than I would have otherwise. Since there was minimal bad weather and we didn’t lose power or experience any flooding, T and I spent our three-year anniversary (from our first date) lounging on the couch doing not much at all. Cookie was quite perturbed to have us home all day messing up her nap schedule, but it was otherwise a quite relaxing day. I caught up on some PBS Frontline specials, some email, and a few other things around the house. Most importantly, I finished a good but dense non-fiction title that had been languishing on my bedside table for months.

This is unusual for me, especially since the book was a history of early Tudor England, a time and place I’ve always been interested in. Winter King is about the reign of Henry VII, and I though it was good, but quite dense and meticulous in its research. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read this kind of history and it took me longer than I expected, and I was constantly getting distracted by other books. Now that it’s done, reviewed, and back to the library, I can move on to other books! Like the Philip Pullman edition of selections from the Brothers Grimm, which I finished since I finished Winter King yesterday afternoon. I actually had a moment yesterday afternoon where I was sitting on the floor in front of my “to-read” bookshelf, just staring at covers, trying to decide what to read next. T found this pretty hilarious, but as a fellow librarian, he’s sympathetic.

Overdressed: A More Personal Review

You guys, I’m sorry it’s been so long! August was extremely busy – I got involved in a big project at work, then took some exciting vacation time! I spent a few day at home in Chicago visiting with my family and friends still in the area, and even managed to catch a Cubs game with my dad.

Image of the scoreboard at Wrigley Field
That’s the “W” flag going up!

After that, T and I went to West Virginia for my cousin’s wedding. A good time was had by all, I believe, but I’m still recovering from the sunburn I got while whitewater rafting. (WORTH. IT.) Plus, we had views like this to enjoy:

Sunset image from Pipestem Resort State Park
Sunset!

All in all, I can’t really complain about August, except that it seemed to disappear. September is in full force now, even if the humidity makes it feel like it’s still summer. Now that fall is coming and I’ve been in my current job for a full year, I’m feeling more settled in.

A few weeks ago, I had a strange dream where ghosts of favored clothing past reappeared in my wardrobe. It was a weird but kind of good dream. A few days later, I got an email from my local public library letting me know that a book I requested, Overdressed, had arrived (link is to my Goodreads review). And, man, this book was difficult to read. It made me feel extremely ooky. Even more ooky than Fast Food Nation, so you know I’m not messing around.* The author wasn’t fantastic, frankly, and most of what she’s said has been researched and written about better elsewhere. I guess it was another one of those “right book/right time” situations, where I’m juggling professional and casual wardrobes, and everything seems to be falling apart at once.**

If you were curious, which you probably weren’t, there are two things that stand out in my mind as best and worst purchases, and this book got me thinking about them.

Worst would be this sailor’s top from L.L. Bean, a retailer I normally like. I’d coveted a “sailor stripe” type shirt for a long time, and finally indulged. I almost immediately regretted it – the fabric was much heavier than I thought it would be, and it stretched incredibly. I ended up with sleeves well past my wrist and a dumpy-looking torso. I was so in love with the idea of the shirt that I continued to wear it for a while, but eventually gave it away. Best would be a pair of Levi’s mid-rise boot-cut jeans, from back when they had an Eco line. I loved those jeans, and wore them into tatters. I still think about these jeans, and compare every subsequent jeans purchase to them. Which is unfortunate, because they’re no longer made, and I haven’t yet found anything as good.

I found the resolution to Overdressed pretty frustrating. Not that I expected Cline to tell me how to shop, necessarily, but the suggestions she made seemed insufficient. As appealing as the idea of being able to sew my own clothes is, frankly, I’m just not motivated enough to spend the upfront money on the machine, fabric, patterns, not to mention space in my apartment and taking time away from things I actually enjoy. Now I find myself stuck in-between; reluctant to buy from many of my usual sources, but in need of a few new items. Where do you guys love to shop when you’re looking for longevity?

* Ooky is a highly technical term, folks, not for amateurs.

** Does this ever happen to you? Where one day a button falls off a cardigan, the next the sole of your sandal tears, and then you notice holes or torn seams in something else? I feel like my clothing collaborates to all fall apart simultaneously.

May Books

I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if May seems to be a great month for books this year? I realize the last few years I’ve been in grad school and haven’t done as much pleasure reading as I like to do, and that late summer is traditionally a good time for beachy blockbusters to be released. Still, it seems like May is chock full of books I’ve been dying to get my hands on!

Blackout, by Mira Grant: The first two books in the Newsflesh trilogy (Feed and Deadline) got 4-star Goodreads reviews from me. I’ve read them two or three times since I got them last summer, and I thought they were fast-paced and character-driven nail biters. Certainly many of the characters make poor decisions, and I know some friends who haven’t enjoyed the series as much, but I think they’re wrong. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore: Another loose trilogy whose first two sections got four-star reviews, the Graceling books are mature YA fantasy novels. Not mature in the sense of “adult content”, necessarily, though I think Cashore does a great job of addressing sex and sexuality. But mature in the sense of addressing real issues people face head-on, treating the readers like adults. I think I liked Graceling a little better than Fire, but I’m really excited to read Bitterblue.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel: I tore through the first book in this projected trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. I was home for Christmas vacation when my mom got the first book, Wolf Hall, as a Christmas present, and she generously let me borrow it to read before I returned to DC. I basically couldn’t put it down or pay attention to anything else. It’s the best kind of historical fiction, blending facts and period details to create a really rich background for extremely compelling and well-realized characters. A coworker and I have been anxiously tracking the progress of this book through our cataloging process; it may come to blows when the book is available.

Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris: I don’t often read series with 10+ installations, or at least I tend not to stick with those series that long. For some reason, I still want to read these books. Partially to know what happens, partially for their trashy escapist fun, partially because I thinks the book are improving (after a dip a few books ago). I believe the series is winding down, so extraneous plots are being wrapped up, and Harris’ writing has gotten stronger and her characters more complex as the series progresses.

What else am I reading? I finally picked up the new Charles Mann book, 1493, the follow-up to his unexpectedly page-turning 1491, a history of life in the Americas before Columbus. I also grabbed The Cellist of Sarajevo, which was recently announced as the 2012 One Maryland, One Book read. I hadn’t heard of it before the announcement, but I’m really interested to read it. I’m spending some time on audiobooks this month, between various road trips I’m taking, and am looking forward to listening to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One as read by Wil Wheaton.

ETA: And there are some exciting books coming out in early summer as well, including the new Kate Summerscale (genius of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher fame) and the new Deborah Harkness (I didn’t love the first book, frankly, but she’s a Mount Holyoke alumna so I will read the series anyway).

You can always find me on Goodreads to see more! What are you excited to read this summer?

May Contain Spoilers

Last week, I treated myself to an evening out with a good friend, and we went to go see The Hunger Games movie on opening night. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie – I thought the acting was very good, and the suspense felt very real, and that’s coming from somebody who’s read the book more times than I care to admit. There were some missteps, like the scene where Katniss is hallucinating under the influence of the tracker jacker venom, and a few bits and bobs left out, like the incorporation of dead tribute’s eyes into the muttations featured in the finale. But there were some good additions, like the increased role of Seneca Crane and the visual image the viewers are allowed of the riots in District 11 after Katniss acknowledges Rue’s death to the cameras. I do love these books, but I tried to judge the movie on its own merits, and as I said, enjoyed it. It didn’t knock my socks off, but I teared up when Rue died, if that puts it into perspective.

However. However. A full week on from the movie, there are two things that were left out that are driving me crazy, one of which is personal but still important, and one of which seems like a major plot point ignored, and I’m really curious how these issues will be addressed in the second film, Catching Fire.

First, the plot point – Peeta’s leg. Towards the end of their time in the arena, Katniss finds Peeta essentially dying of a stab wound to the leg. This injury drives her actions for several chapters of the book – tending him, distracting him, essentially focusing on his well-being in a semi-private cave space that allows their relationship to develop almost normally.* In these interactions, we see Katniss’ tender devotion to her sister in the story about her sister’s goat, her steely determination to protect Peeta by getting him better, and her inability to see people she cares about in pain. All these character traits are important, but what’s especially important is that Peeta’s leg doesn’t get fully better in the books, while it’s miraculously healed in the film. In the book, the madcap rush for the Cornucopia in the end leaves Peeta bleeding and weakened, and Katniss’ blind panic when they’re separated, and her later devastation to learn he’s lost the leg, illustrate her changing and conflicted feelings for him in a way the movie fails to do. Also, her relative lack of injury makes it difficult to understand how they’re going to set up the force field issue in book 2, but that’s another story. I thought leaving this out saved some storytelling time, but at the cost of a deeper understanding of their relationship and a potentially suspenseful plot point.

Secondly, the issue of food. The books, and the competition, are called the Hunger Games for a reason, and the reason was completely ignored in the films. Where was the discussion of the  District 12 Tributes of the 73rd Hunger Games, who Effie Trinkett declares had terrible table manners, and who Katniss counters had never, “not a day in their lives,” had enough to eat? The loving description of the lamb stew, over which Katniss and Peeta will later bond? Rue’s wistful comment that she’s never had a groosling leg to herself? One of Katniss’ major strengths in the arena is that she can hunt, a skill borne of deep necessity, and her ability to find adequate food not only saved her family, but will save her and Peeta in the arena. Katniss’ life revolves around finding enough food (and water) to keep herself alive, especially once she’s in the arena, and this single-minded focus helps the reader understand much about what drives her as a character. Katniss is dragged of Gale in a state of panic, begging him to promise he won’t let her family starve if she dies in the arena, and it should be a desperate and touching moment that highlights both her worst fears and her implicit trust of Gale. In the absence of a real understanding on the part of the audience of the role hunger and the fear of hunger play in the universe, much of Katniss’ drive and anxiety rings somewhat hollow.

I had a lot of quibbles with the interpretation and adaptation of the story in the book  into the plot of the film – we never see the worst of Haymitch’s drunkenness, for example – but was generally able to understand many of the changes that were made. These two points have really stuck with me, and made me wonder how the second book will be rendered on the silver screen.

*Obviously, nothing about the situation is normal. But Katniss is able to open to Peeta in this environment in a way she is unlikely to have done in their “real” existences, in a way that might feel normal in a less-dystopian young adult novel featuring two protagonists falling in love.

Keeping busy

Work’s been busy the past few weeks. Getting ready for classes to start again, and all the tasks that come with that, has been eating up a lot of my time at work. I subscribe to or follow a number of professionally-adjacent library-y blogs, newsletters, Twitter feeds, and whatnot, but in the last two weeks I haven’t had a lot of time to do more than casually browse.

What’s really been helpful in times like these has traditionally been bookmarking, but I’ve also been using my Instapaper account really heavily (a service I’ve mentioned before). I splurge-purchased the app for my iPod Touch, and have an online account with a bookmarklet as well. Basically what Instapaper does is save the text of articles to read later, so that I can access them even if I’m not online. There’s a nifty feature, too, for exporting the articles to various formats, including a Kindle compatible format.

When I encounter long-form essays that I don’t have the time to or can’t read at work, I’ll hit the “Read Later” button. If article pile up, I can sort them into folders (like ‘Libraries’ or ‘Reviews’), download a batch to my Kindle, and read them right before bed, or on my lunch break, or anytime I don’t want my laptop (or even my Touch) around.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally had some success with audiobooks on a recent road trip! I listened too, and very much enjoyed, the audio versions of both Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey’s recent books. Both were read by their respective authors, and I’d read the books before, so I had an idea of what was coming. Even having read the print books, I really liked hearing the authors’ voices, whether they were telling a story or representing a person featured in the book. It made a long drive seem much shorter, and I definitely laughed out loud.

Slow Start

I’ve been lax about posting in 2012, in large part because frankly very little has been happening. I’ve spent minimal time in the kitchen, and what time I have spent there has been boring, unless people are suddenly interested in my ability to turn sauteed mushrooms into a pasta topping with a splash of dry white vermouth? I’ve been working on a scarf, which is supposed to look like rick rack ribbon (http://www.purlbee.com/rick-rack-scarf/) but instead looks like the record of a failed sobriety test. I did visit Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on Monday with a friend, which was nice but a bit drab:

Church in downtown Harpers Ferry
Church in downtown Harpers Ferry

I have read one book so far this year that I loved, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. I didn’t realize until I cracked it open that it was set in and around my hometown of Evanston, which was a nice sentiment for me. It’s the story of two high school boys, both named Will Grayson, who run into each other in downtown Chicago on an eventful winter evening. Both character’s voices (each written by a different author) felt authentic and real, and the writing managed to be both serious and fun, and tremendously poignant. A highly recommended read.

Aggregation Aggrivation

Aggregating interesting things on the web has been a plague on my life for several years now. When I lived in Boston and started my first grad school program (late 2006/early 2007) I didn’t have a computer or Internet access at home. I would occasionally spend my lunch breaks on my work computer doing research for school, and then need to access the links or other information from a computer at the school library. For a while I would send myself emails with links and attachments, but that got frustrating to keep track of, and in the days before my Gmail account and access to Google Docs, I didn’t think I had a lot of alternatives.

Then I discovered delicious, the web-based bookmarking site. I used it heavily for school, bookmarking and sorting all kinds of links. After I moved home and had a laptop/internet access, I used it just as heavily for managing my first library job search, then eventually for recipes as I began to discover cooking blogs, as a wishlist for items not available through Amazon, to bookmark activities and events I was interesting in attending around Chicago, and to share those activities with my sister/partner-in-crime, who I’d convinced to join the service.

Delicious has since been revamped, and I’m not fond of the new look, and I’ve found some glitches that make it less appealing. I use social bookmarking now to mark articles for access from my laptop, and two work computers. Often I’ll find a long article at work that I want to read later at home, or I’ll be halfway through an article at the reference desk when my shift is up. I’ve cobbled together a few services for these types of tasks, none of which is really meeting all my needs.

Google Reader, typically paired with Instapaper. This aggregates the blogs I follow, so if I go a few days without checking in, I don’t have to remember what the last day I checked was and can keep the info to read later. Often with long articles, I’ll save the details to Instapaper and export them to my Kindle so I can read ad and glare free. Doesnt’ work well for graphic-rich articles, obviously, but Instapaper is one of only two apps I’ve paid for in my year of having an iPod touch, to give you a sense of how much I use this service. Since Google Reader’s redesign I’ve tried a few other RSS services, such as Feed.ly, but haven’t found anything I like better.

Pinterest. I used to have a folder on my laptop for assorted visuals I found appealing – design and craft ideas, photos of places I want to visit, cute animals, etc. Pinterest basically serves this same function, but web-based, so I can pin and access the images from anywhere, and it doesn’t take up hard drive space. Pinterest can preserve both images and links, and saving things here doesn’t feel as cluttered as keeping articles in Google Reader forever. As far as discovery goes, a lot of what other people pin seems to involve wedding planning (in which I have negative interest), crockpot recipes (don’t own one) or insipid “inspirational” messages (mostly Christian or fat-shaming), so I often pass on browsing other people’s pins. There’s a convenient “pinmarklet” button for my browser bookmark toolbar that makes saving quick and convenient, though I don’t like having to enter a description for everything I pin.

Delicious. Feels bloated and inconsistent since being acquired by AVOS. I like that there’s more image/visual support, and the interface is clean and straightforward. Good integration with Chrome and Firefox. But th big advantage of delicious for me, at least previously, was the ability to access the bookmarks from anywhere. A video I can’t watch at work can be bookmarked to watch at home, for example. But now, links I delete at home won’t get deleted at work, and my user preferences are similarly not uniform across multiple computers. I’m considering a switch to Diigo at this point, though I don’t know anybody who uses it currently to interrogate about it.

Fairy Stories

I’ve never been the biggest fan of fairytales. Sure, I had a few Disney favorites, but I enjoyed the music and colors more than the stories. I’ve read and enjoyed a few fairytale re-workings, but on the whole I’m not inherently drawn to either the source materials or the retellings.

Which makes it interesting that I’ve found re-imagined fairytales on my shelf and in my Hulu queue quite a bit recently. I suppose it’s very zeitgiest-y, but I always find this sort of confluence interesting. Occasionally it will happen that a historic figure will crop up in multiple books I read in a row (Vidocq, or Vidocq-inspired characters, is a past example), or actors show up across multiple viewings, or I’ll unknowingly check three books somehow related to Venice out of the library. Do you ever hear a word or somebody’s name you’ve never heard before, and suddenly it seems like it’s everywhere? Thus also go fractured fairytales.

Once Upon a Time (ABC): Of the two fairytale series on tv this season, I wasn’t expecting to like this one. And there are some strange elements – I, for one, find the highly stylized fantasy elements in the flashbacks to be roll-my-eyes cheesy and visually overwhelming. The conceit of the show is that an evil queen cursed an entire fantasy/storybook land to modern-day Maine, with no knowledge of their previous lives and no ability to leave. The one person who can (unknowingly and unbelievingly) release the town from the curse is brought in by her son (who she’d given up for adoption ten years prior). There’s a lot going on in this show, with modern-day plots intercut with their fantastical precedents, and often a B-plot of secondary character development running in the background. On the whole, I’m enjoying the show, which generally treats its audience as intelligent enough to follow the plot without being bludgeoned over the head with the parallels between fantasy and modern plots. It’s fast-paced but realistic, and the characters are pretty well-developed. I think the modern-day evil queen is a bit mishandled – she’s not quite evil enough to be rooted against, but no other perspective beyond Evil Queen is provided, so she ends up being a walking plot device, really only there to ensure her own demise. Although extremely white and containing some problematic adoption narratives, a highly watchable show.

Grimm (NBC): A crime procedural wherein the protagonist discovers he’s the last descendent of the Brothers Grimm. As a crime procedural, it works reasonably well, with a sort of X-Files-esque vibe in the Pacific Northwest. The main character has to hide his knowledge and abilities from many other characters, including his partner, but the supernatural elements seem to be mutually aware of one another. Other aspects of the series aren’t as engrossing, and seem superfluous. There’s tension surrounding the girlfriend-almost-fiancee that feels completely irrelevant, as we don’t see her or them together enough to feel invested. The police chief (lieutenant?) is “in” on something “nefarious,” but again, we don’t see enough of him to really feel the threat. I’ll probably keep watching this to the end of the season, in case the characters and back story develop, but I’m not holding my breath.

The Sisters Grimm (series by Michael Buckley): As with the tv series, these books for middle grade readers focus on the story of two sisters who discover they’re descendents of the Grimms, and many of the story components of the tv series apply here. I find that the set-up makes more sense in a children’s book than on screen – absentee parents are a tried-and-true story component for children’s book, since it’s hard for wild adventures to happen with involved and attentive parents. (See also: my childhood.) In this story, there’s a good deal of tension among the Grimm family members and among the supernatural entities, which can lead to a lot more conflict and screaming than I find appealing in children’s books. For somebody of the appropriate age, these might be great (almost a sort of girls’ version of The Spiderwick Chronicles), but I find the children alternately screechy and preachy.

On an unrelated note, why is the Internet so awash with whatever kind of web design is required to make it look like it’s snowing in the background? The animation is turning up on half the websites I frequent, and my Mark Bittman app, and it makes me sort of nauseous and zoned out. Unpleasant.

Solo

I live with a roommate and her two cats, but for most purposes I live alone. She and I get along fine, and share our space and pantry amicably, but I end up cooking for myself a lot. Cooking for one can be rewarding and frustrating – halving or quartering recipes can be tricky, trying to figure out if extras will freeze so I’m not eating the same soup for ten straight meals, doing all the shopping and chopping and carrying gallons of milk to my third floor apartment. I was grateful for Thanksgiving with family  in no small part because all I have to bring is cheesecake, but I’m still getting a belly full of delicious food that I didn’t have to make for myself (and in no way resembles a recent night’s “feast” of a box of Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese and two servings of tater tots).

Most days I do pretty well. I try to stock up on frozen veggies when there’s a sale to I have healthy options most nights, I’ve mastered about a dozen yummy egg dishes, and I can be pretty happy with a baked potato or spaghetti-butter-cheese on nights when dirtying multiple pans seems exhausting. And yet, there are definitely days when I want something more interesting but am completely lacking in inspiration.

Into the breach steps Judith Jones’ “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Most famous as the publisher responsible for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Jones is an accomplished food writer in her own right. After her husband passed away in 1996, she’s been cooking for herself, and this book shows she hasn’t lost an iota of her taste. She scales down “real” recipes, for meals like stew and souffle, so they can be enjoyed once or twice without leaving the chef with a week’s worth of leftovers. Lighter, quick meals are also suggested, along the lines of traditional salads or omelettes. She provides strings of recipes featuring the same ingredient, so cooks can take advantage of sales or bargains without eating the same food for an entire week.

I read a small pile of cookbooks for one person recently, and this was definitely my favorite – the most practical but also the best looking recipes. Recommended!

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