Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday 5: Five of Whatever

How tidy are your kitchen cabinets?

I realize now that we don't really have proper cabinets in our kitchen. We have mostly open shelving and then a few closets. They're clean, definitely, but tidy? Well, we know where to find everything, and that's enough, I think.

What’s an art project you did in school that you remember fondly?

The big project in third? fourth? fifth? grade was weaving. That was my favorite out of anything else we ever did, and over twenty years later I still have that project. Weaving is a handicraft I'd like to get back into at some point. I remember it as being very relaxing.

What’s the best thing you ate on your most recent trip?

Oh man! I had so much good food: upscale Italian with my parents and best friend, deep-fried Nutella and fluff, greasy spoon diner breakfasts and lunches, a Rolando's Super Taco, pirogi, Thai's really hard to pick.

What’s the dumbest non-political thing you’ve seen lately?

Photobucket charging its users $40 US per month for the privilege of third-party linking. Um, what?? I never used Photobucket as an image hosting service (or at least, not seriously) so I'm not really angry about it (my images aren't being held hostage), just confused. How out of touch can you be?

What’s something in your home that’s lasted longer than you expected?

We had a microwave that was definitely older than some of my students. It's gone now, and we have a replacement, but RIP noble microwave. You served us well.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What I Read: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.

Image courtesy Vintage Classics
 I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is "somewhere in the middle," so now I don't know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino's epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he "retold" through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn't what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.

Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn't really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn't hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn't like it nearly as much as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. I'm not glad that I'm read it, but I'm not annoyed, either.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Talky Tuesday: What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Part 2: Austin, TX (Day 1)

I get to Newark airport from King Sauna without a problem. But boarding gets a little hairy, as I quickly realize that the flight's been overbooked and that I'm in one of the later groups to board in Southwest's free-for-all approach when it comes to seating. I start working through contingency plans, or try to; I come up with nothing. Eventually I tell myself that my bad luck getting to the sauna is the sacrifice I made to the gods of travel luck—things will go my way now.

My luck hasn't run out yet, it turns out, and I make it on board, as well as an elderly couple put on standby—themselves beneficiaries of someone else's bad luck, I suppose. I wonder if I am as well.

I scribble some notes on the flight, read one of the ebooks I brought along on my phone (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino; I'm largely unimpressed), and even take a bit of a nap.

We land and I change from my traveling clothes into something more suited for Texas in August. I realize that I've forgotten to pack deodorant and apply liberal amounts of some stick perfume from Skin Food, hoping it's enough to make me borderline acceptable to the public at large.

It takes forever for the shuttle bus to arrive, but I don't mind. Noah (my host) and Elizabeth (his girlfriend) don't finish work until 16:30 anyway; my flight arrived at around 13:30. The more time I spend waiting at the airport for transportation nonsense to sort itself, the less time I spend waiting at the recommended coffee shop by myself. That feels too much like waiting for a date.

Nonetheless, the bus eventually comes and I probably still have 45 minutes or so to wait for my hosts at The Hideout. I settle in with an iced hibiscus tea, fruit, and free wifi, then text Noah to let him know I found the coffee shop okay. The rest of my wait bounces between talking to friends on Google hangouts, reading ebooks, and doing sudoku puzzles.

Cafe reading. // Image courtesy Vintage Classics

Noah and Elizabeth find me without a problem. I peel myself off the cafe chair and reluctantly hug Noah ("I'm probably really gross." "It's fine."). We stand around and decide what to do for food, since Noah's hungry and I'm a low-key guest who can go along with almost anything. They decide on a basement sandwiches and beer place. (Something I notice across the weekend: every food place in Austin is an all-purpose food place, serving cafe fare as well as beer and wine.)

At the sandwiches-and-beer place, the group next to us are arguing, good-naturedly, about how far it is to one destination or another. It isn't until I bite into my veggie sandwich that I realize I'm hungry. For the first few bites, it's like the subtraction soup from The Phantom Tollbooth: the more I eat, the hungrier I get.

Of course I'm hungry. For the past twenty-four hours I've survived on beer, tea, digestive cookies, and a banana.

We finish up and return home so I can drop off my bag and so Elizabeth and Noah can change into more comfortable, less work-y attire. A poster has arrived while they've been gone, a gift that Elizabeth bought for Noah (a new map of the United States that is, for some reason, the best map ever; Noah tries to explain but I fail to grasp the import), and I take the opportunity to segue into their gifts, which mercifully have survived the long journey. Those mugs were easily the most fragile thing in my luggage, and I could only hope that I had been careful enough with them across an ocean and half a continent. (The accompanying tea is much less delicate, at least.) But things survived intact and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Clothes changed and gifts exchanged, we head into town for Geeks Who Drink trivia. Our team is disqualified because we have too many players, so our second-place victory (or third? enough to win some money) is only a moral one, but a win we take nonetheless.

Image courtesy Geeks Who Drink

Back home, Noah and I watch Okja. (Speaking of Bong Joon-ho!) He's genuinely unimpressed with the movie, while I'm neutral enough on it that I would watch it again.

After that, it's midnight, and going to bed can't be delayed any further, even if I'd like to sit up with some tea and talk for hours. I fall into bed and conk out for the first real night of sleep I've had in 48 hours. I have the first dream that I've had in weeks, though when I wake up I don't remember any of it.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday 5: Homecoming

What’s the crime like in your neighborhood?

Our neighborhood is pretty calm. There was a big fire? Explosion? in a neighborhood business a few years and we never heard if it was an accident or deliberate, but that's been basically the only thing that's really ever happened here. Unless you count the obnoxious street racing that goes on late at night.

If you could have attended one of those high schools with a specific academic focus, such as performing arts, studio arts, sustainability, science and technology, international languages and diplomacy, or some option you thought of yourself, which would you have chosen when you were thirteen?

When I was thirteen? Wow, let me dust off my time machine for a moment.

At that point in my life, I was focused primarily on writing and music (though not writing music). There's a good chance that I would have chosen performing arts.

This is maybe Adult Katherine projecting her current interests back on Teen Katherine, but thirteen is when I first started studying foreign languages. (I started with French that year, and then took French and German throughout my high school career.) I liked French well enough back then that I could probably have been convinced to enroll in an international languages school.

What was memorable about a party you remember from high school?

I didn't really party during high school. I think I went to one Halloween party and one cast party (since I was in pit orchestra). Oh, and I guess the parties we had to celebrate the end of marching band camp.

Nothing really memorable happened, though. I did surprise one of my marching bandmates with a techno remix of "Ode to Joy" on a mix CD I tossed in the player. I guess I didn't seem like the techno type.

Which of your older relatives is (or was) the handsomest or prettiest?

This is . . . a weird question? I don't really have an answer.

What was homecoming like at your high school? How did you feel about it?

We had spirit week full of costume themes and pep rallies (that the marching band often played in, so I was usually stuck participating), the typical American high school experience. I enjoyed marching band, at least in the beginning, for its performative and musical aspects, but I could never get into the ra-ra school spirit attendant to things like homecoming and football games. (I still dressed up for a lot of spirit week, though. I can't resist the opportunity for a costume.)

I guess there was also a homecoming dance but I think I attended just one of them. I wasn't really invested in the social aspect around dances, either.

If you couldn't tell from all of this, I was kind of a nerd in high school. Ten years later, the only thing that's changed is that I'm not in high school.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What I Read: American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?
American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.  
Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.
Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love, right? But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no "surprise" or "sublime" for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was "For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation," which touches on one of his "non-traditional" (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn't hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation (remember "light as a feather, stiff as a board"?), Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here's the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:
"I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?" 
It's my turn to laugh. "Patrick Swayze?" 
"In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation." She gives me an embarrassed look. "Did you ever levitate?" 
Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.
There's probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen's thoughts about it, and his memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey's own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?

I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.

I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday 5: In Your Head! In Your Head!

First of all, I'd like the world to know that this song is one of my go-to karaoke songs. I can't tell you why. It's certainly not because I can sing a killer rendition or rival Dolores O'Riordan's vocals. Just a habit, I guess?

Which mythical monster would you most enjoy discovering (first- or second-hand) is real?

I guess it depends on whether or not it counts as a monster in your book, but how cool would it be to have your own pegasus? Or a griffin? Extremely cool, I think.

When did you last exhibit monstrous behavior?

I try really hard not be monstrous, but I'm sure I've been less than ideal in fights with people. But not very recently, I don't think.

What do you think of monster trucks?

I try not to think about how much fossil fuel monster trucks, NASCAR, and  Formula One racing must use up.

If you like monster movies, what’s a monster movie you dislike? And if you dislike them, what’s a monster movie you like?

I don't typically like monster moves, though there is a certain level of over-the-top camp involved in some mid-century ones that I really love, whether they're giant creatures laying waste to entire cities or merely humanoid creatures going on killing sprees. There's a whole stable of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes featuring both of these conceits (though not in the same movie!) and that's where most of my favorites are from: The Horror of Party BeachThe Wasp Woman, Gamera, and so on.

A more recent offering that I like because of its merits as a good movie (rather than my personal taste for camp) is The Host, which until recently was the highest-grossing South Korean movie of all time. (Now it's in fourth place.) I'm generally a big fan of Bong Joon-ho's movies and wish his output were a little more prolific. The Host also features my favorite Korean actress (and maybe one of my favorite actresses hands-down), Bae Doona.

What song about a monster (or with the word monster in the title) do you really like?

I have "The Monster Mash" and Kanye West's "Monster" in my music library and of course I like them well enough, but for this question I'll recommend what is a slightly more obscure song: Drunken Tiger's "Monster."

This Friday Five got pretty Korean-themed towards the end, but not really surprising, I guess.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What I Read: Play It As It Lays

Just one more book left in my TIME Top 100 novels list, now! Too bad it's The Man Who Loved Children and too bad I just can't get into it. Even with a ringing endorsement from Adam at Memento Mori. Ughhhhh~~

Didion takes us on a brief tour of Maria Wyeth's crumbling marriage and mental breakdown in the arid landscape of Los Angeles. Many of the reviews I've read for Play It as It Lays call it "depressing," even "terrifying," but I largely suspect that response has to do with how squeamish you are about abortion (and how squeamish you are about women feeling, at worst, vague and ambiguous about getting abortions, rather than eternally regretful and emotionally destroyed). Of course, there is other heavy stuff going on here, too: heavy substance abuse, off-screen (off-page?) domestic violence, an overdose, and other Hollywood indulgences. I liked Didion's writing and was happy to hitch a ride with Maria Wyeth for a while to visit her gilded cage of a world, but nothing about it shook me to my core. (Maybe that's how you know you're depressed? Hm.)

A comparison to Day of the Locust is maybe apt, since both books are about the dysfunction of Hollywood, but Didion pulls it off way better. Play It As It Lays could also possibly fall into the Dysfunctional Rich White People category on the TIME Top 100 Novels list, up there with Rabbit, Run and Revolutionary Road, but Didon does it better as well. Even if I'm not particularly haunted by the book, I enjoyed reading it. Her prose is light and direct, and I'm going to have to find more from her in the future.