Friday, February 27, 2009

Leonard Cohen!

Exhibit A [A very excellent artistic rendering of Dr. M, me and Dan]

Exhibit B [The wonderful and legendary Leonard Cohen]

Exhibit C [Us at the Long Center enjoying a Leonard Cohen concert, thanks to the amazing ticket purchasing abilities of Dan]


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Zadig (1747)

As part of my previously discussed quest to read all the books on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list (in reverse alphabetical order by title), I recently purchased a book containing Voltaire's Candide, Zadig, and fourteen selected stories. Since Candide is also on Bloom's list, I decided to save that for later, but I did read and enjoy Zadig and the other stories by Voltaire.

In this philosophical fiction, Zadig is a young nobleman in Babylon who has everything going for him. He is rich, smart, just, sensitive, and caring. And yet, every time he tries to do something good, a series of coincidences and misunderstandings conspire to have him punished. Fate being as it is, he ultimately escapes punishment after punishment, only to once again find himself jailed, torn away from his true love, hunted and/or enslaved.

Voltaire is an excellent satirist, and the footnotes in my copy of the book point out many parallels between the characters in Zadig's Babylon and Voltaire's contemporary French court. While my knowledge of Enlightenment history is pretty vague, I still found Voltaire's jabs at his rivals to be entertaining and his pokes at bureaucracy to be timeless. While this story is somewhat of a philosophical and political fable (which makes it sound kind of dry), it is also very very funny, insightful, and a quick and satisfying read.

The same can be said for the selected short stories also included in this volume. Although he sometimes gets a little bogged down in the religious feuds between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, in many of the stories Voltaire focuses his keen eye on social and philosophical issues that still ring true today.

I can't wait until the year 2034 when I finally get to the C's on this list and dig this book back out for Candide...

[And if you fancy it, you can read the complete text of Zadig here!]

[Also, did you know there is some kind of fashion line called Zadig & Voltaire? It makes doing an image search for the book cover much more difficult than one would imagine.]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

ttyl (2004)

I borrowed a copy of Lauren Myracle's ttyl (2004) from one of the librarians at work, who bought it after it was banned from the Round Rock middle school libraries last year so she could see what all the fuss was about. I was also interested in investigating the fuss, as well as curious as to how engaging (or annoying) a novel written entirely in instant messages could be.

While it is occasionally more annoying than engaging, and sometimes the dialogue rings a little false, for the most part Myracle has constructed a nice novel exploring the politics of high school, the freakiness of adolescence, and the importance of good friends. The IM conversations are a clever gimmick for the book, one that mostly works, although it is sometimes more like an adult writing the way she thinks teenagers would write than the way they would actually write themselves: for example, everything is spelled correctly (except when one girl gets drunk at a frat party and comes home to type about it) and while a handful of abbreviations are used consistently -- mostly u and ur -- most things are spelled out.

As far as all the "fuss" goes, there are some curse words in the book -- although not nearly as much as you would expect from high school sophomores, and nothing worse than shit. None of the girls actually have sex, although they do talk (and joke) about it a lot. Some of the conflicts of the book read a bit like an after school special (high school teacher flirting with girl! racy pictures from a party emailed to everyone in the school! popular girl is mean then nice then mean!), but the informal and first person nature of the instant messages cuts the drama a little and lets the issues be explored in a relatively realistic and sensitive manner.

So: totally not as bad as I thought it would be, and worth picking up if you like young adult lit and are interested in what the kids are up to these days...

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I'm not the world's biggest Valentine's Day fan -- I don't really like chocolate or candy, I don't wear jewelry, and while I love going out to dinner, I hate overpriced "special" menus and crowded restaurants. Dr. M did buy us a bottle of wine to drink today in honor of the big V, but that's about as far as we will go. I also think it is crazy that Valentine's Day is held up as this time when single people are all supposed to feel sad and couples are supposed to feel obligated to spend lots of money and demonstrate their love in the form of something pink and heart shaped. Bah, humbug!

So, with all of that in mind, will you all be my Valentine?

[photo from "T" altered art's photostream]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Listening Walls (1959)

The cover for my copy of Margaret Millar's The Listening Walls (1959) might not be as great as the cover for Beast in View (which was the cover that inspired me to pick the both of them up at a garage sale), but this is another very strong mystery novel with Millar's same focus on characterization, psychology, and suspense.

In this book, two best friends, Amy and Wilma, go off to Mexico on a vacation away from their husbands. Amy has always been the quiet one who aims to please, while Wilma is brash, loud, sometimes depressed, and often drunk. When Wilma buys an expensive silver box with Amy's husband's initials on it, the two of them have a fight over what that implies, then drink way too much tequila with an American gigolo in the bar. After they go back up to the room, Wilma jumps (or falls? or is pushed?) off the balcony and dies. While plenty of people on the busy street saw her land, no one saw or heard what happened in the hotel room except Amy and Consuela, the maid who often rests in the broom closet and curses her dumb boss and her flighty American boyfriend while listening to the guests through the thin hotel walls.

After Amy's husband, Rupert, brings her home from Mexico, he calls her overly-protective brother, Gill, and tells him that Amy decided to go away for awhile and wouldn't tell anyone where she was going. Gill doesn't really buy this, and when Rupert starts acting nervous, Gill hires a private detective to look into Amy's disappearance. What he finds is that Rupert is entangled in a trickier situation than anyone would have imagined...

Although the ending is a little stiff and the final twist pretty goofy, this is still a great book. More than the plot and the mystery, the characters -- particularly the supporting cast of secretaries, bartenders, and wives -- are what make this book stand apart from other perfectly fine mystery novels and make it something with a little more to bite into.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates (2008)

I don't listen to NPR all that much (I like singing more than talking) and I'm not always the hugest McSweeney's fan (which I think I inherited from Dr. M), but I love love love love Sarah Vowell. I really enjoy everything she writes and her most recent book, The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is no exception.

Now, you'd think a book-long exploration of the Puritans who came to the colonies as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, created the town of Boston, and splintered off into the state of Rhode Island due to a series of hair-splitting theological beliefs might be a little dry. And it probably would be if Vowell wasn't writing it. Lucky for the readers of the book, Vowell possesses a light touch when it comes to the names and dates and theologies of history, a good eye for making connections to present-day politics and beliefs, and a contagious enthusiasm for early America. Seriously, there are so many ways this could go wrong -- too many personal anecdotes, too smug interpretations, too detailed historical analysis. And in every one of those ways, plus many more, Vowell goes right.

The book loosely follows the journey of John Winthrop, the appointed governor of the new colony, who gives his constituents the Reagan-friendly "city on a hill" sermon as they make their way across scary seas to start a new city, make peace and war with the Native Americans, and practice their version of Christianity away from the eyes of the Church of England. Vowell does a nice job of fleshing out the Puritans -- pointing out that many of them had some nice ideas about sharing with others, supporting one another, and even religious freedom (although that guy was kicked out and sent to live with the Indians in Rhode Island). And she doesn't hide the fact that these people were also strict, scared, unforgiving, and in a very tricky political position.

I have to admit that I had only a vague idea of all this history -- not being from the east coast and with a family who came to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and not the 1600s, I've always felt a little distanced from early colonial history. Vowell brings that history a little closer. I can't wait to see what she'll do next...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Origami Foodstuffs

Looks tasty, right? We were the lucky recipients of an origami fast food and origami dessert set this xmas, thanks to the always awesome Nick and Mary P.. When some friends invited us over for a craft night this weekend, we figured beer and moral support were all we would need to turn a handful of colorful squares of paper into the delicious three-dimensional feast pictured on the outside of the packaging. We had a few strikes against us like not reading Japanese, and my general impatience with folding. Our secret weapon, however, was the totally awesome and patient Dan who very nicely assembled a beautiful dessert and most of the very complicated hamburger after I gave up on it and took solace in my totally presentable "Fried Potato." Overall I think we did a pretty good job, if you ignore my cold drinks. And there are several tasty paper items still to be assembled, so this is really the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks Nick and Mary!

[Complete photo documentation here.]