Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday 5: Returns



What was the last item you returned or exchanged at a store?

I'm generally pretty conservative in purchases and don't need to return or exchange things that often. I guess the last thing was some moldy veggie burgers? You can't exactly see that something's moldy through the cardboard packaging.

When did you last leave the house and then turn right back around and go back inside?

I do this fairly often, because I don't have my life together. The last time I wish I had done that but couldn't was when I realized I had forgotten the right journal page en route to a student.

What’s the latest you’ve ever returned a library book?

I'm a really good library user; I'm never more than a few days overdue, and rarely then!

What location among places you’ve traveled would you most like to see again?

I absolutely loved my long weekend in Indonesia and would love to go back for a longer visit. I'm also looking forward to traveling to South Korea for a wedding in 2019 (knock on wood!) and revisiting all of my favorites there--and possibly making some new ones?

What’s an unlikely movie sequel you’d like to see?

One of my fellow teachers in Korea once joked about "why didn't anyone make a sequel to Titanic" except I wasn't entirely sure that he was joking. I've never seen Titanic, though, and I have no interest in it, so that wouldn't be a sequel I'd like to see (unlikely as it may be). Otherwise, is anything really an "unlikely" movie sequel these days? Anything and everything is up for grabs in terms of becoming a franchise, or at least a trilogy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What I Read: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Or rather, Var blev du av Bernadette, since I read it in Swedish.

Image courtesy Wahlström & Widstrand

Stockholm Library has ongoing book sales (rather than the yearly binge that US libraries seem to favor) and I always check the "for sale" shelves at my closest branch for anything of interest. It's usually spotty, but there have been some bright spots. This Swedish translation of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is one of them. I'm really bad about keeping up my Swedish reading now that I'm not in class anymore, so I figured this would be a cute, easy thing to help maintain my Swedish.

If you were going to run my book reviews through an algorithm to count up the words and phrases I use the most, "I realize I'm late to the party on this one" would probably be near the top. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? was first published in 2012 and here I am, like with so many other books, just getting around to it now.

It's surprising that I didn't pick this up sooner (well, I bought my library edition back in 2016, for what it's worth), considering that the hype is in the sweet spot of "enough to get me interested, not enough to make me cynical." And book bloggers and vloggers I followed seemed to be relatively mixed—Natalie didn't care much for this book, for example. Yes, I'm way more likely to be interested in a book that some people dislike than in a book that everyone loves. That's just how I roll!

Bearing in mind that I read it in Swedish—and I say that not to poo-poo Samuelsson's translation, but rather to highlight my own lack of nuance in Swedish—I had a great time. Some of the complaints that Natalie had might have also bothered me if I'd read in English, but the gauzy veil of reading in a foreign language (even one I understand reasonably well) smoothed out some of those peaks and valleys so that I didn't mind switching back and forth from documents to Bee's narration to documents again. Bee, especially was fun to read. The best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. (I have THOUGHTS about adults who write teenage or child protagonists and make them needlessly stupid.) And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It's like adults who write for teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

I will agree that the one thing that makes the transitions between sections feel sloppy is that, out of necessity, the chronology is out of whack. When the book starts, Bee's mother is still missing, and her little bit about talking to her father about Bernadette's disappearance makes it seem like Bernadette went missing years ago, rather than....weeks? I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that's why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren't that interesting!

The one thing I'm not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin's secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!" meme is fucking tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles" meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I'm sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that's half a point.

It's Soo-Lin's continual gossip-y insufferability that's more cringe-inducing, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don't add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That's one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin's partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just...there. Still kind of a shitty-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by Bernadette.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What I Read: Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life



Part of my 101 in 1001 list is always to try to read one non-fiction book a month. I'm eternally interested in the world around me and reading a constant and broad range of non-fiction helps me do just that.

Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler's Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.

Like other, more historical non-fiction I've received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it's from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna's own correspondence. But for anyone with a committed interest in art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens, it may be a read that is worth the work.

*in exchange for this review

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Talky Tuesday: What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 15 and 16: Albany, NY

Day 15

We're up early to see L  out the door to work. A makes some eggs and toast for breakfast, and we have some of the Söder to go with it and wake up from the late night. After some art and doodles, the oldest wants to have a puppet show, and I keep both boys distracted for long enough with Monkey the Dentist and Giraffe the Doctor that A  has time to jump in the shower and have a few minutes to herself (until the youngest gets some serious separation anxiety and I drop him off to be in the bathroom with Mom).

I also have a fun time reading to the oldest, because I love reading anything, even if it's kiddie picture books for the five thousandth time. I chat with A  over the boy's head when he's deeply involved with a book himself, though we never get back to the topic of friendship and time. Once in a while he wants some quiet, or he wants attention, and he yells at us: "Stop talking!" After numerous incidents, A lectures him a little about having patience and waiting, and that's the last "Stop talking!" for the rest of my stay.

We also read through a book about dragons, and at the end it mentions Komodo dragons. One of my students has family in Sri Lanka and has visited on and off, and told me once about seeing a Komodo dragon on temple grounds, where it was allowed to just hang out and be a Komodo dragon because you aren't allowed to kill anything near the temple. I bring up the story with A,  and she mentions that oh yeah, when she worked at the zoo she got to get up close and personal with a Komodo dragon, close enough to touch it.

Cue the meltdown from the oldest.

"NO MOMMY DON'T TOUCH THE DRAGON"

All the days I'm there, he doesn't go down for a nap in the middle of the day, so as the afternoon drags on he gets a little overwhelmed and fussy (which makes dinners a little rough going, but we bribe him through with alternating reading pages and having bites of food).

While the youngest (still an infant) is down for a nap, I go out for a run in the park across the road.

A concrete bridge spanning a shallow, murky, green-brown stream that reflects the surrounding summer foliage.


I jump in the shower to wash off the sweat and grime when I get back and air out my workout clothes on the porch. A offers to wash them with the family clothes, but I figure they'll be fine with some fresh air. A smart move, as it turns out: a stray crayon ended up in the wash and while nothing was ruined, it made the process a little more stressful than usual. It stressed A enough already; if a guest's clothes had been involved, it would have freaked her out even more.



But the big event, in between books and arts and crafts and puppet shows, is the oldest's favorite TV show: "the moon show." "The Moon Show" is just his name for it, of course; can you guess why he calls it that? A hint:


"Do you know what Miss Koba's favorite TV show is?"

"No, what?"

"The Moon Show!"

I don't understand what about MST3K can possibly appeal to three-year-olds but there you have it. We don't make it through the entire episode before L gets home and it's time to start getting ready for dinner, but enough that I'm satisfied. After dinner and baths and bedtime books, the three of us sit down to a classic MST3K episode (a fond Hamilton favorite: Eeegah!), which ends up being background noise while and I (with input from A) break down how the new season compares with the series and give voice to our assorted little nitpicks (I think Jonah comes across as really nervous in the host segments; A misses how cheap the props used to look). We don't make it through the entirety of Eegah!, either, and this time everyone heads to bed much earlier.

Day 16

L has taken a half day off work the next day so he can be home and hang out with us a bit, and also talk to the guy from the solar panel company who's coming to evaluate the best place to put more solar panels. That means he's also home in time for lunch, which is pierogi, one of my absolute favorites. I'm touched that A remembers—especially when she has absolutely no way of knowing that I haven't had any in ages. What Sweden calls "pirogi" are really pirozhki and now if I want any I have to make them from scratch myself instead of getting an acceptably tasty ready-made version. I read a bit more from Her Smoke Rises Up Forever during the afternoon, while L plays with the oldest. We also putz around outside on the slightly crooked swing set.

Dinner is a bit of a hassle, again thanks to lack of an afternoon nap, but "eat, then read" bribes (tonight's book is The Missing Piece Meets the Big O) get the job done. Everyone is a little rushed because we're expecting my high school friend Fox, along with her boyfriend, for company and board games, so it makes the oldest's fussiness a little extra trying. But everyone gets shuttled off for a bath and bedtime stories successfully. Instead of helping with bedtime stories like I did the last couple nights, I set to work sweeping up veggie burger bits and washing dishes.


Fortunately, Fox and her boyfriend are running a little late themselves, so we have plenty of time for snacks and board games and adult company. This even though L and I have an early morning tomorrow: a four-hour drive to Maine the day off the wedding. We won't have a lot of margin for error!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Friday 5: Just Desserts



What's your favorite breath mint?

I don't have one. I don't use breath mints. I drink copious amounts of tea in the mornings, before I go anywhere or meet anyone, and hope that covers up anything objectionable.

What's your favorite chewing gum?

I was partial to Wrigley's when I was a kid. I tended to chew at least two sticks at once, and had a habit of just popping in another stick once the flavor ran out. Inspired by Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not intended as a role model, I'm sure), one time I actually stuck one of those two- or three-stick wads behind my ear. It's not as convenient as Roald Dahl makes it sound.

What do you like on an ice cream sundae?

Jimmies and crumbled cookies! I don't really care for whipped cream, chocolate syrup, or cherries.


What do you put honey on?

I save honey for my tea when I have a cold.


Where do you go for a good muffin?

I'm rather fond of Espresso House's Choco Fours, even though I am ambivalent at best about Espresso House.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What I Read: The Sky is Yours

Part of the reason that I asked for this book off NetGalley is that the cover design is SO COOL.


I am, occasionally, a fickle creature of shallow tastes. Come at me, pro.*

Smith has done a beautiful job with world-building, from imagining how, exactly, a crumbling city with economic issues baked in from creation would fare under the natural disaster that is two fire-breathing dragons laying siege to everything to the remains of English (and new slang) in post-apocalyptia. She also juggles an impressive number of narrative voices well, from over-read, over-wrought heiresses to foreign trophy wives to educationally stunted teenagers to a woman raised by garbage and vultures. As a technical feat, The Sky is Yours is a laudable effort.

As a plot-driven story, it fell a little flat for me. Smith shows off all those characters well, but we spend a lot of time in perspectives that provide nothing in terms of back story or development for the central three or four (depending on if you want to count Sharkey or not). And while I'm usually a patient reader who's ready and willing to linger in long asides and parentheticals for the sake of language—and Smith's wordplay is nothing less than delightful—I still found things dragging in the middle. Characters that are set up to get to certain places take longer than necessary to get there; entire scenes happen on the page that could have just as easily been implied off screen. Nor am I entirely sure what to make of the end, but that's not anything that would ruin the experience.

Still, as soon as I finished it, I suggested it as a selection for Feminist Science Fiction Book Club, and if I'm willing to recommend a book to other people, that means something. I have a reputation as a book sommelier to uphold.


*Not a typo.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Talky Tuesday: What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 12 - 14:

My time at my parents' is winding down, but I still feel like it wasn't enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Now that the books are sorted (FINALLY, FOR REAL) and packed up, it's time to mail them. I also have some other things I'm shipping back to myself, mostly jewelry-making supplies and gifts for other people.  I run into the patriarch of one of the families I've known from church forever, who's mailing a cell phone charger back to his son. We chat a bit, the way you do with people you went to church with your whole childhood.

I also get in a few good hours with Best Chemist Friend and her boyfriend at their place, catching up in real time and enjoying some (non-alcoholic, for me, since I'm driving) drinks and watching her cats.

When the time comes for me to leave, as in leave the Lehigh Valley, there's a little confusion over how I'm getting to the bus—is Lawyer Mom dropping me off? are both parents? is Teacher Dad around?—but it goes smoothly. I say bye to Teacher Dad, and the usual goodbye ritual:

Rub noses, touch heads, give a kiss, a hug, and the other side

Which we did every day when he left for work when I was little, and then we do every time I leave on a long trip (or just, um, leave these days; these aren't "trips" that I'm taking abroad).

The last time I took one of these buses to NYC, there was a scheduling mishap and I ended up arriving hours later than I had planned. But this time the full bus actually radioed through and the overflow bus was there to pick us up just a few minutes later. Success!

I had messaged another college friend now in NYC about hanging out or getting lunch while I was in the environs, but between an international wedding, a work trip, and a death in the family, things didn't hook up and that's 100% fine. So I spend my morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, familiar and reassuring in its kind of grossness. I'm still reading Journal of a Solitude, though I also crib the free WiFi to putter around on Facebook and gchat.

I get bumped up from a layover bus trip to a direct bus, so I don't have to mess around with changing at Kingston. As usual, the ride is ugly all the way through New Jersey and then gorgeous in New York. Sometimes I think about where I'd live if I had to go back to the US, and New England (and New England adjacent) is top of the list. Did I go to college there because I loved it, or do I love it because I went to college there? Hard to say.

My ride, an Internet friend from high school who grew up in the area, relocated to Arizona for a few years, and is now back in Albany, picks me up and gets some Swedish candy for her troubles, and we go out for really goddamn good Thai food before she drops me off where I'll be staying in Albany, with two friends from college, L and A.

A plate of delicious-looking red Thai curry.



Everyone is on a tightly choreographed schedule. My ride's boyfriend will need the car soon, so there's no chance to wander somewhere for dessert (cider donuts!) and give my hosts a little extra time to get the kiddos down; coming directly to their house from the bus station instead of getting dinner with my ride would have plopped me there at Peak Chaos. We've timed things juuuuuust right.

I knock on the door and L answers.

"Koba Commander! Your timing is perfect. If you had been here, like, ten minutes earlier, you'd have met a room full of naked men."

(It's bath time with L and the boys.)

I go upstairs to say hello, and I sit with L and and the oldest son (now 3?), and we read a few stories before bed. A sings the youngest to sleep in the other room, like actually for-real sings a lullaby. Kids to bed, the grown-ups sit in the living room with some tea. I dig out my thank-you gift: some Söderte, in bags because I figure busy parents don't have time to mess around with tea diffusers and etc. The whole conversation is a weird overlay for me; I'm reminded of my parents' college friends that we saw sometimes. They had kids around my age (and my brother's age), and they were just over in Jersey, so it made sense for visits to happen and for the children to get shooed out to spend time together while the adults caught up.

Now I'm living the life I remember my parents living, kind of: I'm visiting with college friends who have just put their kids to bed. I'm just coming from a little farther away than Jersey. Adulthood. I forget what we talk about, but L ducks out the earliest while A and I keep talking about grammar and mathematics and things, but also a lot about friendship and how it changes over time and, naturally, assorted college memories.

"But like, that part of our lives is over now. We've been out of college longer than we were in it."

A is an absolutely lovely person, and one of the things that's lovely about her is that she has a combination of profundity, kindness, and no filter. She can get right to the heart of an issue, accidentally phrase it in the bluntest, gauchest possible way, and then realize how it might come across after the fact and feel awful and immediately apologize. When she goes on to say that her college friendships have become essentially dead and meaningless, she immediately catches the implications of what she's saying.

"I mean, I'm happy to see you and I'm glad you're here, Koba—"

"No, I know what you mean." And that's when I start thinking about Arrival and "The Story of Your Life" and my perception of time within friendships as being eternal and circular and many-layered, counter to what sounds like a very Zen approach ("I'm the person I am NOW, not eight years ago.") that A has.

There is some irony in the fact that we are having this conversation about the ghosts of our past and the temporary whatever that was college with our mugs of tea resting on a cheap, wheeled table/drawer thing that L found while "suite shopping" (dormitory dumpster diving) to outfit the suite we had for our junior (A's senior) year at school. Some things never change.

But sleep comes for us all, and since we're the adults who will be in charge of a pair of little ones in just a handful of hours, eventually we have to pack it in. A goes upstairs and I collapse on the dangerously comfortable couch.  Never enough time; always too much to talk about.