Friday, January 7, 2011

I've Moved

My Blogspot and I finally got tired of fighting with each other over formatting and font sizes and have decided to part ways.  I can be found here now:

I'm thinking about continuing to post book reviews here, but until I decide, see my Tumblr for updates (if you want to :P).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book 18: Howl's Moving Castle

Finals just ended, and as a reward for a full week's worth of focused studying I picked up Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones from the college library for a fun bit of reading.  I read it years ago in high school after watching (and loving) the Hiyao Miyazaki film adaptation and wasn't terribly thrilled by the novel, but I was feeling optimistic after my final exams and decided to give the book a second chance.
I'm so glad I did!
I don't think I was reading diligently at all the first time around if I didn't like it then, beacuse I found it to be an absolute delight as I tore through it over the last couple of days.  I love the whimsy of the concept and the wit of the characters.  I often criticize Jones for employing a rather turbid writing style, but I found Howl's Moving Castle to have a clarity that that other books of hers seem to lack.  You have to read the book with some care to really glean the motivations and emotions of the characters (they're all quite British even if the story takes place in an imaginary country, so of course they never quite say what they mean), but it's completely worth it.
Now, the plot!
The main character is a young lady named Sophie Hatter who has decided that she is destined for failure due to the fact that she is the eldest of three (think about it--what fairy tale have you ever heard of in which the eldest child is successful? It's always the youngest, of course).  While her two sisters go off to seek their fortunes, she remains behind in her hometown, tending to the hat shop that her recently deceased father owned before he died. Sophie is all set to live a quiet, mouse-like existence until she finds herself in the line of fire of the evil Witch of the Waste, who curses her and turns her into an old lady.  In order to break the spell, Sophie sets off to the roving castle of Wizard Howl to seek his help, and finds herself entangled in the affairs of his strange, enchanted household.
The film adaptation by the same name is actually one of my favorite movies ever, but I prefer the book, since the story is more complete and the characters are a good deal more compelling.  Sophie and Howl in the book are a lot more fun than they are in the movie (they're just to darn nice in Miyazaki's version). They both have a lot more personality and engage in a  lot of that witty, snarky banter that I just love.  Still, the animation in the film is absolutely gorgeous, and the voice acting in both English and Japanese is brilliant (it doesn't hurt that Christian Bale plays Howl in the English dub.  What a hottie!).  In the end I've come to see the film and the novel as separate creative entities.
And they're both fabulous.

Friday, December 10, 2010


"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." ~Confucius

I discovered this quote in late May of this year, in the epitaph of a book I was reading.  Though the book itself ended up being no good, I found this saying of Confucius' to be pretty neat so I jotted it down on a piece of paper and tucked it away somewhere.  I don't want to say that it "came in handy" this summer, but it definitely applied.

As of today it's been six months since the passing of my beloved Golden Retriever, Shadow.  

He came into our home in April of 2000, a new presence in our lives during a time when we had just lost a close family friend and were facing the end of another's battle with cancer.  My family had just moved to a new neighborhood forty miles away from our old neighborhood, and finally getting the dog my brother and I had been asking for (and which our previous house couldn't have accommodated) was our solace.  The three of us--Shadow, my brother, and I--grew up together, and while he was theoretically our dog, Shadow took to our mom immediately.  She became his Person, and he remained unyieldingly loyal to her for his entire life.

Shadow saw us through a lot of funny stories, like the time he literally ate my homework, or the time when he drank a pot of oil my mom had used to try dumplings and cheerfully wreaked havoc from both ends for a week.  He absolutely loved fruit and was always sneaking into our neighbor's orchard for the apples and pears that fell from the trees in summertime. Going running with my dad thrilled him, even though he would get bored or tired quickly, and he was endlessly patient even when my brother and I went out of our way to annoy him.  

When I went home for spring break in April, he was fine.  And then he wasn't.  He declined suddenly, within the span of less than a month, while I spending my summer working in an on-campus lab four hundred miles away from home.  I wasn't there to watch him get sicker and sicker, but I heard about it from my parents.  It started out as stiffness in his hind legs.  A loss of appetite.  Then a fever.  And then the vet said cancer.  We didn't want to do the scans or biopsies to confirm.  What was the point?  "He's too old," the vet told us, "to be a candidate for surgery."  And we weren't about to put our ten-year-old dog--the equivalent to an eighty-year-old man--through chemotherapy.  

I saw him twice before he died, on brief weekend visits, and flew home one last time to be with him in the vet's office when we had to let him go.  It was quick, and I was holding him, and I felt it when his heart stopped beating and his pain finally ended.  Two days later, I went back to campus and returned to work.  

What followed was the worst summer of my life.  I wasn't alone on campus, but I felt alone even when I was with my friends.  I spent most of my time in my basement lab, where I was typically the only person working, and even when the other girls were there they didn't really talk to me.  I've never felt more empty.  My parents, troopers that they are, healed fast and by my next visit home they were fine even though I wasn't.  

We're not so good at talking about grief.  No one is.  All we're ever taught to do is be strong and bottle it up.  The stiff upper lip and all that.  No one's ever taught us what we're supposed to do with our sorrow, our rage.  Unaddressed and unexpressed, it has nowhere to go but deeper into oneself.  It becomes a part of our identity, this grief.  And we think that's a legitimate way of dealing with it.  If you bury it deep where no one can see it, that's got to mean it's gone, right? 


I've healed to the point that I can write this without crying now, but I can't downplay the tightness I'm feeling in my throat and chest.  At six months, my grief is lighter now--less like an open wound and more like a scar.  Other people won't know it's there (I can pet other peoples' dogs now without tearing up, and I suppose that's progress), but I know it's there and I have a feeling that it always will be.  

Of course, in our own grief we forget about that of others.  While I was home over Thanksgiving, my little brother broke down and cried in the car when I was driving him home.  I hadn't realized how much he still missed Shadow until then.    

I'm not of the belief that dead people or things can hear you, but since Shadow died I've made something of an exception for him.  So, darling boy, if you've got access to the Internet in Dog Paradise or wherever you are, hugs and kisses and MilkBones to you from me.  Miss you, sweetling.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book 17: Memoirs of a Geisha

When a novel is adapted into a film, I almost invariably find the written version more appealing.  It might just be one of those elitist things that comes with the territory of being a longtime book-lover; you somehow always come to believe that your imagination is more accurate and on-point than the other guy's.

However, through pretty much no fault of its own, Memoirs of a Geisha as a novel is, in my books (ha ha ha, puns!), surpassed by the silver screen's version.  I think a lot of this has to do with the way the movie adeptly brings to life all the colors and sounds of the world that Golden strives to portray in his writing.  John Williams' arrestingly lovely accompanying score doesn't hurt either.  In any case, the novel is significantly improved upon in the film, which I find to be a good thing.  After all, isn't that why screen adaptations of books are made in the first place?  (And that noise you hear is Hollywood responding with a resounding "NO".  Clearly.)

At its core, Memoirs is a novel about overcoming adversity.  It tells the story of one geisha's dogged pursuit of love and happiness in the face of career challenges, political turmoil, and bitter rivalries.  Narrated from the perspective of retired geisha Nitta Sayuri, Memoirs paints an elegant picture of the colorful, separate reality--the "flower and willow world"--in which geisha once lived and worked.  It was the imagery that drew me in most of all; Golden's descriptions of the settings and costumes are vivid and arresting.  I found myself reading late into the night, just to get a "glimpse" of another one of Sayuri's kimono.  I've always been fascinated by Japanese culture, and Memoirs of a Geisha definitely fed that fascination.  

The novel also impressed me because it read like an actual memoir.  It is written in such a manner that it is easy to forget that it is, in fact, a work of fiction.  The book even begins with a (fictional) note from the translator.  For the five days it took me to read this book (which makes it a quick read, considering the fact that I'm a full-time student), I was absolutely ensnared by the world that Golden creates with his prose.  

That being said, the book definitely has its flaws.  While Memoirs is a good introduction into certain concepts within Japanese culture and the geisha subculture, it is clearly a novel written by an American.  Rather than being introduced and incorporated subtly, many of the cultural elements are addressed with a heavy-handedness that is sometimes jarring.  It is clear in these instances that Golden is trying to prove that he did his research.  He works hard to capture a Japanese "voice", and it's sort of hit-or-miss throughout the novel.  The characters were also kind of flat to me.  Even Sayuri, in spite of being the protagonist, is generally lacking in depth and definition.  

I do in some respects feel like the movie did it better; the characters are more real, and even the plot was executed more capably in the film than it was in the novel.  The screenwriters made changes to the plot that even I, as a purist when it comes to film adaptations, approve of.  The changes heightened the drama and improved the pacing, and these are changes which I wish Golden's editor would have made.

In any case, Memoirs of a Geisha is a fine book and a fine film.  While both provide a relatively good primer on Eastern culture and philosophy, they are both works of historical fiction, and this is a fact that is important to take into account.  As long as readers/viewers keep this in mind and don't try to take Memoirs at anything more than its face value, they will enjoy and benefit from their experience.  

Grade:  B+
Rating:  13 and up, for some (relatively vague) sexual content

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Today (Phoenix)

Today is the two-year anniversary of my grandmother's death.  I wrote this poem a week after she died in 2008.  It seems like it's been forever now.

I remember you in joy;
In laughter,
In echoes of voices, reminiscent foods
And silk that still smells like your skin.
Strange is the relief blooming now
Where grief, even in life, gnawed.
Silent is this journey's ending,
Which we take as fate.

Curious, the lack of the black rage,
For where I could not see before,
You are everywhere now;
Soft, golden, sunlit.

And even as weeping--so cathartic--
Cleanses backwards,
Spreading dirt to leave a snowy soul,
I can say nothing but "good night"
And wish you, the hero, safe travels to Valhalla;
No longer wasted, as in armored battle, but
Resplendent, glowing.
Eternally alive.
The phoenix of my dreams.

Brave warrior,
Dearest heart,
To where do you go now?

"Someday we'll all be gone,
But lullabies go on and on.
They never die--
That's how you and I will be..."
~Lullaby by Billy Joel

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book 16: The Pillars of the Earth

After a good two months of slow, painstaking reading, I have finally finished reading Ken Follett's novel, The Pillars of the Earth.  The time it took me to finish the book reflects in no way upon the book itself, but upon the fact that I hadn't had much time to read until recently.

Pillars of the Earth is almost 1000-pages long and spans over fifty years of medieval history.  If you've seen Paul Haggis' 2004 film, Crash, then you'll be familiar with the broad idea of the novel.  Pillars takes characters from many different walks of life and unites their lives, ambitions, and story lines in one town, with the building of a cathedral church.  Their affairs tangle together quickly and become inexorably linked, which is what drives the novel's plot.  The book is also like Robert Bloch's Psycho in that it is divided into two parts, each of which is presided over by a different protagonist.

The novel partially takes place during a period in history known as The Anarchy--a nineteen year-long war of succession between King Stephen (also known as Stephen the Usurper) and the Empress Maud following the death of the King Henry's heir, William, aboard the White Ship, which sank off the coast of France in the year 1120.  This incident plays a major role in the political undercurrents which guide the novel's plot (and, besides, is a really interesting era of British history on its own).
And now for an attempt at a spoiler-free plot summary... I suppose I could come up with some keywords and list them in vague order of appearance.  Here goes:

public execution, perjury, maternal morbidity, attempted infanticide, treason, invasion, ecclesiastical trickery, ruination, bribery, LOTS OF WAR, arson, architecture, political cunning, building, evil plots, self-denial, oopsies-babies, epic love stories, more evil plots, global travel, epic disaster, more war, murder, royal succession, court disputes, marriage, divorce, skirmishes, religious miracles, science, public execution, changing the church forever

Ok, the order sort of went to crap towards the middle of the list, but it was spot-on at the beginning and end.  Anyway, there is a LOT that happens, to say the least.  

There are many things that I love about this book.  The characters are strong, and although some of them ended up being written too black-and-white for my taste, they are written vividly and well.  The settings are also stunningly portrayed.  Follett has a real knack for writing engagingly about architecture, of all things, and paints beautiful pictures with his words.  

The plot is also strong in that it honestly does have something for everyone.  Follett keeps the action varied, and in doing so engages his audience even further.  As in 'Crash', the end of the novel sees all the threads coming back together to form a complete, intricate tapestry of intersecting lives and worlds.  The melding of political intrigue, war, religious zeal, and iron-willed industry and innovation is evocative and intriguing.  

When I further analyze my fascination with this book, I have to admit that I've always had a weird, distant sort of fascination with the concept of a God.  I don't consider myself a believer in much other than science and people, but I definitely found myself interested by the frequently-mentioned theme of "God's will".  Watch out.  Some day, when I write a post about East of Eden, this idea--the idea of human will versus what is construed as the will of God--will come up again.  

In summary, I looooved The Pillars of the Earth, and I'll read it again as soon as I get a chance.  

Grade:  A
Rating:  15+, for language and strong adult content (definitely took me by surprise)

Since finishing the book I've also had the chance to watch the recent STARZ channel series.  I was fully aware before I started watching that it wasn't going to be great, since trying to cram such a huge book into a few one-hour episodes was definitely not going to happen.  However, I wasn't expecting to be quite so disappointed.  They drastically changed the fates of certain characters, cut out major themes, and added some really awkward undertones to certain character dynamics (hello, incest?).  The one thing that I felt the series was good for was the portrayal of England at the time.  While Follet's writing provided me with a lot of fabulous mental images, it was nice to have some of the corroborated by actual visuals.  If you haven't read the book and have watched the series, I implore you not to judge a novel by its screen adaptation.  The book is a zillion times better.

Monday, August 30, 2010

New Year

I never bothered to work on drumming up traffic for this sodding blog, so it's no surprise that I'm the only one who reads it.  Not sure why I actually bother posting here, but I think it has more than a little to do with narcissism.  Meh.  At least I have my own little corner of the Interwebs.

This has been a strange summer and, honestly, I could've gone without pretty much 100% of it.  Very little happened that I actually enjoyed, and a great lot of it was actually pretty crappy.  I learned things, I guess, but it was mostly stuff I wish I hadn't had to learn.  People suck, even (especially?) when they're related to you.  No matter how many times you experience loss, it never gets easy.  Folks don't communicate nearly as well as you think they do.  Just because you're nice to someone doesn't mean they aren't going to be an ass in return.  Stuff like that.  It's stuff that one ought to know, in theory, but it doesn't become something to live by until you have to actually experience it yourself.  And then it starts to suck.

It's been a bit of a downer, and I don't really know how to talk about it with people.  Clear solution:  spew it into the endless ether of the Web.  I'm a little disgusted with myself.

Junior year of college starts tomorrow, which is very weird.  People keep using the term "halfway over"to refer to our college experience, and I wish they would quit it because I'm not ready to be done with college.  After college comes medical school (hopefully), and I'm not nearly as excited for that transition as I was for the one from high school.  I want to feel optimistic, but I'm not finding much to work with right now.

I guess I should put things in perspective, though.  I have a great job, and my friends are back on campus now.  I'm still tight as ever with my parents and brother.  I have good relationships, and I'm working on making new ones.  I'm a respected member of the college community--a leader, even.  That's all good stuff.

Classes start soon, and there's nothing for mood-elevation like routine (I suppose).  I'm hoping that this year will be better than last year, and that the burnout I'm concerned about will just leave me alone.

I'm tired.  When I'm not surrounded by people, it's easy for me to sink into dark funks, which are difficult  for me to pull myself out of.  I feel old, and stale.  I hate to think of myself as being dried up and boring at the age of 20, but that's where I seem to have found myself.

This is probably just the fatigue talking.  Things are supposed to look better in the morning, right?