Thursday, October 30, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen

Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Fairy Tales from Around the World by Corinna Sargood

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I both liked and disliked this book for the same reason: I have heard most of these stories before. What I like is that I am proud to have heard them before; I heard (or rather, “read”) them in my Myth and Fairy Tales class at Rochester, and in encountering so many of them again, I experienced a wave of nostalgia. Reading these stories reminded me of why I enjoyed that class so much: it was because in their foreignness, they take tales that seem so familiar and “American” and make you, the reader/listener, wonder whether or not the roots of the tales were from another time and another culture, or whether the roots of the tales are even more basic than that: whether they merely reflect lessons, morals, and basic human desires that are common across cultures and time. Or perhaps the different versions show how the lessons and morals change over time, or how their packaging changes. That was what I loved about that class, and reading this book took me straight back to that academic love of literature.

Of course, I couldn’t help but dislike the book for exactly the same reason: I had heard it all before. Perhaps if I had never taken that course at Rochester, I would be absolutely enthralled by this book. I do love fairy tales, and I love seeing different perspectives and different versions of the same fairy tale. Although these all had odd names and seemingly odd origins, many of them incorporated the fairy tales we know best: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel; even Rumplestiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk showed traces in these stories.

For those interested in foreign culture and fairy tales, this is definitely a worthwhile read. I can understand why an author such as Angela Carter would take it upon herself to edit such a novel. She is one to embrace the peculiar and the foreign. It will be a wonder if Margaret Atwood does not do something similar, in time.

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Highs and Lows in the Working World

8:37 a.m. I open Outlook to find a follow-up email from a non-Wiley member of yesterday's meeting…with minutes attached. The entire subway ride to work, I had been thinking about how I wanted to be the first to follow up about the meeting, to thank everyone for coming and complementing everyone on how informative it had been. So much for that. I grit my teeth and thank everyone anyway. Better to be polite, as planned, than to have my 2nd boss (henceforth to be referred to as Boss #2) ask me to do it later, anyway. My first boss (Boss #1) would probably have asked me to do it yesterday, already, so I should count my blessings.

9:10 a.m. I mistakenly type "meting" instead of "meeting" on an email and then send it to 75 members of a neuroscience journal's editorial board. Boss #1, who I cc'ed on the email, catches the typo and informs of the mistake, correcting not only that error but also how I have worded several paragraphs and ordered the information. I want break my hand and then punch myself in the face with it.

9:35 a.m. I figure out how to get one number from one cell in one Excel spreadsheet to link to a different cell on a second Excel spreadsheet by using a formula, rather than copying and pasting. This discovery, if applied properly, could save me unfathomable amounts of time in the future. I celebrate by boiling myself a second cup of tea.

10:15 a.m. A secretary from the corporate division calls and informs me that room 8-068—coincidentally the room that has typically been used for all regularly scheduled Current Protocol meetings, for which I am now responsible, long before I ever arrived at Wiley—has now been commandeered and must be surrendered by all individuals who have not reserved it strictly for its videoconferencing capabilities. Thus, I am being asked to cancel and rebook all twelve meetings I have scheduled in that room over the next eight months. "Just go in 8-067," I am told, which would be an easy switch if it didn't involve first cancelling 8-068, then rebooking 8-067, then fixing the calendar in Outlook, then reissuing invitations to all invitees correcting the location . . . for every single event. And of course, this is assuming room 8-067 is even available in all twelve instances, which it is most likely not.
The woman on the phone can hear the frustration in my voice as I ask if we couldn't just stay there, at least for such-and-such a meeting, and her response is a whimper-y no, no one's allowed, please don't be angry, she's just the messenger. I spend the entire rest of my morning juggling calendars and emails, and I still only manage to move three events out of that room by lunchtime. I am beginning to think that maybe the corporate division arranged this plot to try and make me quit, until Damian mentions it on our noon-thirty running group outing. I still do not feel consoled.

12:30 p.m. Our little running group heads out for a jog. It's cold, windy, and raining. If I lengthen my stride, I am running too fast for the group and cannot hear the conversation, never mind participate in it, but when I shorten my stride, I can feel the bad habit of trotting setting in. I settle for running at the front of the group, for which our self-appointed coach calls me the group's "pacer." I could feel good about this, if it weren't for the fact that I know I am the slowest runner on the entire Harrier running team, out in Central Park. I try to think about what fun it will be to play open-gym volleyball at the public gym in Chelsea after work, instead.

1:15 p.m. An email is awaiting me from one journal’s Editor-in-Chief, informing me that I have missed sending an invitation to one of his journal's board members. This is not the case, but there is no easy way to explain this. I spend the next hour-plus trying my best to appease him, his assistants, and Boss #1 so that everyone is assured that everyone will be attending their function. I would like to throw every single guest list on my desk into the trash bin, along with my computer and perhaps a few extra piles of mysterious papers that exist on my desk, for good measure. Why must everyone always be informed of everything?

3:40 p.m. I finally finish the Excel report I have been trying to create for Boss #2 for over a week. She is actually in her office, so I make the harrowing six-foot trek from my cubicle to her desk to show her what I have generated and to ask what she would like to have changed. She seems enthusiastic about what I have created, even as she suggests changes, and then we start to rehash yesterday's eReader meeting. She tells me her tentative vision for the project, and then adds that I'd be the perfect person to see it through. I am almost doing backflips as I leave her office, when she says “Oh by the way, thank you for following up with those gentlemen from yesterday. It’s the polite thing to do, but I just got so busy….” I actually do a backflip this time, at least in my mind. On days like this, a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Say You're One of Them

Say You're One of Them Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I decided to read this book because of popular review. People loved it. Time loved it. Essence loved it. Entertainment Weekly loved it. Maybe I should have checked my sources--all owned by Time Inc. (duh)--but I figured that a book generating this much positive press would be worth reading.

I won't go back on this opinion--it was worth reading. It was as about worth reading as most other books I have read: nothing spectacular, but not a waste of my time, either. What seemed wasteful in Akpan's book was the way that the lengthiest stories were the least effective. Perhaps it was their length that diluted them; perhaps if they had been shortened to the size and style of the stories that impacted me the most, that left me what felt like a taste of experience or shock, they would have felt like less of a chore to read.

On the positive end, the longer stories gave me more of a sense of the character narrating them. "Fattening for Gabon" and "Luxurious Hearses" are both 136 pages, and I had the clearest pictures of Kotchikpa and Jubril respectively by the end of each of their stories. This is only logical, however, since at the end of a full-length novel, you fully expect to know the characters, or else you will have lost interest by page 150. I also felt I understood Jigana, the eldest son and narrator in "An Ex-mas Feast" quite well despite its shorter 34-page length. This is probably because the story did not attempt to accomplish much aside from depicting family dymanics, and told from a very distinctive point of view, this can create a story in and of itself.

My favorite story was the book's title story, "My Parents' Bedroom," in which Monique's mother tells her, "When they ask, say you're one of them." For someone like me who finds titling works of writing incredibly hard, I found this a stroke of brilliance. The title fits the story collection perfectly. Meanwhile, this story had the most impact on me, not just because of its violence--the other stories certainly contained violence--but because of the narrator's ability to withhold understanding of what was occurring around her so that I, the reader, also did not know until she had figured it out. And what she cannot understand, I cannot understand, as if I am her age, living inside of her. Usually I hate being confused at the actions of other characters in the story. But here, "not knowing" only makes sense, and it makes the story come alive.

Short stories are a tough genre, and Akpan does indeed deserve acolades for his endeavors. I just need to remember, in the future, not to read books on recommendation from the press. I am almost always, in some capacity or other, disappointed.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
At last! A novel that makes me want to seek out other novels by this same author! A novel that doesn't have me wondering--in the last 25, or 50, or 100 pages--why it won't just end already. A novel that keeps me up past midnight, complete with drooping eyelids and that foreboding "you'll be sorry tomorrow morning" feeling. And, perhaps most importantly for a book titled "The Abstinence Teacher," a novel with a balanced viewpoint.

After I had read the first two "sections" of the novel, each written from the point of view of one of the book's two main characters Ruth and Tim, I was completely confused. It's not that this was a confusing book and I didn't know what was going on, but I didn't know how to feel about what was going on. The Christians who were causing Ruth to lose her job didn't seem 100% fabulous from Tim's point of view, even though they had saved him from his destructive life, but they didn't sem 100% evil and crazy from Ruth's perspective, either, in spite of the lawsuit being brought against her for insinuating that masturbation is a common practice. Somehow, Perrotta actually had me rooting for both characters--and I was okay with that!

What I fear is that caused me to love this book so much was the degree to which I related to its characters. No, I am not a forty-year-old Sex Ed. teacher or a Born-again ex-junkie; I have never been divorced, nor have I been remarried, and I do not have any teenaged children, as Ruth and Tim do. However, when it comes to physical intimacy, I have been living on the equivalent of a tundra, so I know what it's like to feel sexually frustrated. I know what it's like to self-judge and criticize your ow reactions when you are feeling the way Ruth feels about wanting but not finding A Man. I also know quite well what it is like to go through religious conversion and back again, to feel conviction and doubt grapple with one another. These are the struggles I latched onto in The Abstinence Teacher, what made his characters seem so true and sympathetic.

Furthermore, the writing was simply efficient. It wasn't notably beautiful, but it wasn't meant to be. Perrotta told the story with as little excessive floweriness as possible. And of course, I will always be in awe of a perfectly executed ending, which he somehow managed against all odds.

These are the reasons I am returning straightaway to the library to check out another book by Perrotta. I hope I will not be disappointed.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Warm Fuzzies #4: More-ish Cookies

Warm Fuzzies #4: More-ish cookies

Maybe I really should give up on publishing and go to culinary school.

Several weeks ago, I baked cookies to thank my mentor, a young British chap named Damian, for "showing me the ropes" and basically helping me learn the basics of the job he had vacated and into which I had been catapulted without instructions manual. The cookies were oatmeal raisin, and they went over quite well--so well in fact, that Damian, in his packaging ignorant manner, asked me where I had bought them. (I had delivered them to the office kitchen in a shoebox lined in cling-wrap, with a handwritten "help yourself in honor of Damian" -type sign propped in front.)

About two weeks later, I needed Damian's help shelving a journal: I simply could not find where to place it. Most of the journals my boss, Joe, received, were located on one particular set of shelves in front of my cubicle-mate, Sarah's, desk, but this one was not there. Obviously, having held my position for over a year, Damian would know where other issues of this journal were hidden, so I decided to pay him a visit at his cubicle across the office.

Upon my describing the predicament and showing him the journal, Damian informed me that it was filed in front of Sarah’s desk. I, in turn, informed him that I had just spent five minutes staring at the journals arranged on those shelves, and this journal was most definitely not among them. He insisted otherwise and suggested we “go have a look.”

On the way to the shelves, he asked if I would like to make a bet. He had probably only asked in jest, but I was so frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest task without his help—filing a journal, for heaven’s sake!—that I said sure; what were we betting? He had no suggestions, so I made the terms: if the journal’s companions were there, I would bake him more cookies. If they weren’t, he had to come running with the lunchtime group more regularly. (I went a few times a week, mostly for the companionship, and I like Damian’s company, so I wanted him to come along.)

Of course, the journal was there.

Thus, I found myself rolling sweet sticky balls of dough in cinnamon and sugar, baking snickerdoodles the following Sunday afternoon. I didn’t know what kind of cookies Damian would want, so I just guessed at what I thought might be popular and easy to make, and went with my intuition. Yesterday, I received the sweetest confirmation that my intuition was, indeed, accurate.

Good Lord,
These are simply some of the most more-ish cookies ever devised by man. I will be enormously fat by the end of the week,

I wrote back, however, asking: what does more-ish mean? I did assure him, however, that it being Thursday and with only one day left in the week, he still looked trim and spry to me.

I do love baking for people.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Blink

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
While the overarching theme of this book carries through, there is literally at least one topic in this book that should appeal to every reader. I found myself thinking of a different friend or family member at every chapter, thinking of how much they would appreciate a certain passage or vignette. My mom might be interested in the portion about clients who refuse to sue doctors whom they liked; while I and my BCS friends would devour the portion detailing the way ventromedial patients' lack of response to Damasio's gambling task mimics addicts' disconnect between knowledge and action. My formerly nationally-ranked tennis-playing friend Ben might actually read this book if I told him it contained a man's detailed analysis of Andre Agassi's forehand; and I would send this book to the brother, Travis, of one of my college friends, Tom, to give him hints on making his improv performances more successful.

No matter what your interest is, no matter what you think of the claim of this book--that is, "thin slicing"--you will find this book interesting. That is because Gladwell takes topics that are potentially inaccessible to the general public, such as neuroscience, art history, and physics, and turns them into stories. He then breaks the stories apart and explains each portion in order to use it to further his argument--that we can and should use "thin slicing" to our benefit rather than assuming it is beyond our control.

Blink fails only in that it does not succeed in making good on its promise to make its readers better at thin-slicing. The book gives us a name for those unconscious, snap judgements and decisions we make. That, Gladwell tells us, is the first step: becoming aware. He then describes ways in which other people have refined their abilities at thin-slicing, as well as ways in which thin-slicing has inhibited people's performance. However, the book ends short of telling us how we can accomplish the former and avoid the latter.

Personally, I am grateful that Blink did not become a step-by-step self-help book on becoming a better thin-slicer. I would be happy just to be cognizant of what thin-slicing is. However, at the outset of the book, this was not what I was led to believe would be the outcome of my having read Blink. Thus, as a reader, I feel that Gladwell did not make good on his promise, and therefore I cannot consider this a five-star book.

Still, it is highly entertaining. Anyone who liked Freakenomics will like this book equally well, or perhaps more, since I feel that it appeals to an even wider audience. Believe it or not, it was an even faster read.

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Sayeth the [Future] Presidents

My initial objective was to write about the presidential debates this weekend. I watched 2 of the 3 debates, and after having heard some of the insidious exchanges between the candidates, I decided I would look up the transcriptions of each debate at, comb through them the remarkable lines that stood out in my memory, and let what was said speak for itself. I figure every other political figure has probably done enough analysis on every word and facial tic that my own two cents won’t be worth much.

I will say, however, that the only reason I am not in an utter American panic, right now, is that 1) I barely have any money worth losing in this Economic Crisis, so the state of the stock market doesn’t much matter to me, and 2) I am so confident Obama is going to win that I am not wasting my time worrying over what the state of our country will be if McCain wins. If I thought the latter had a chance of winning, I would currently be looking into the process of getting my work visa for England.

Now, on to Debate #2:

“My friends”—said by McCain in the beginning remarks of nearly every one of his answers. Obviously his political tactic was to force the public to equate their American identity with that of “friend of John McCain,” but if he truly were addressing only those who considered him a friend, would he be speaking to very many people?

(Im)Proper Figures of Speech
The Simile, Strangled
MCCAIN: Well, you know, nailing down Sen. Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There has been five or six of them and if you wait long enough, there will probably be another one.

A Mindful Metaphor
OBAMA: I think it's important to understand, we're not going to solve Social Security and Medicare unless we understand the rest of our tax policies. And you know, Sen. McCain, I think the "Straight Talk Express" lost a wheel on that one.

Being a little too optimistic
MCCAIN: Let's look at our records, my friends, and then listen to my vision for the future of America. And we'll get our economy going again. And our best days are ahead of us.

Someone who just doesn’t understand
OBAMA: Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don't understand. It's true. There are some things I don't understand. I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us.

Debate #3:

“Joe the plumber” said by McCain in the beginning remarks of nearly every one of his answers. If this debate was directed to Joe the Plumber, then McCain might have a chance at winning the election.

The Ideal Tax Policy
MCCAIN: Nobody likes taxes. Let's not raise anybody's taxes. OK?

On Hurt Feelings:
The launch
SCHIEFFER: Senator Obama, your campaign has used words like "erratic," "out of touch," "lie," "angry," "losing his bearings" to describe Senator McCain.
Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like "disrespectful," "dangerous," "dishonorable," "he lied." Your running mate said he "palled around with terrorists."
Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?

The response: McCain wants an apology
MCCAIN: A man I admire and respect -- I've written about him -- Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful…. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

But Obama wants to stick to the issues
OBAMA: …now, I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.

But McCain still wants his apology
MCCAIN: …again, I did not hear a repudiation of Congressman....

So fine, Obama will deviate, if that’s really what McCain wants…
OBAMA: I mean, look, if we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like "terrorist" and "kill him," and that you're running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say "Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line."

MCCAIN: You've got to read what he said...

OBAMA: Let -- let -- let...

MCCAIN: (interrupting) You've got to read what he said.

OBAMA: Let me -- let me complete...

[And the debate continues in this vein for an unnecessarily length of time, during which Schieffer servs as an instigator every time McCain seems to lose steam.]

On what was Left Behind
OBAMA: I do think that it is important for the federal government to step up and help local school districts do some of the things they need to do. Now we tried to do this under President Bush. He put forward No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, they left the money behind for No Child Left Behind.

Why to vote
SCHIEFFER: This concludes the final debate. I'm Bob Schieffer of CBS News, and I will leave you tonight with what my mother always said -- go vote now. It will make you feel big and strong.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Idiosyncrasies from another life

The question of the day, anymore, is “how is the new job going?” It’s not a question I am entirely sure how to answer. On one hand, I could say that the job is going wonderfully. I feel I am picking up my various responsibilities relatively quickly, and nearly everyone I have met in the office has been very nice. I am busy all the time, so the day passes quickly, and my tasks are just varied enough that I don’t get too bored doing any one thing.

That being said, the many tasks I am doing are all very administrative. I fax, print, copy, and pass information between people. I schedule meetings and keep guest checklists after emailing invitations to events I participate in planning. I take minutes at meetings and do my best to make sense of them afterward when writing htem up for the participants. I query databases. I make spreadsheets. I proofread the spreadsheets. I assemble them into reports. And in doing all of these things, I make errors.

I have a mental chalkboard for each humiliating error I make, and there are several bold white slashes already looming up there after only my first few weeks. It is hard to accept these as part of the “learning process,” because they seem such affronts to my view of my own competency. Still, I am trying to be patient.

The better question, as opposed to “how is the new job going?” is “what are you learning at your new job?” In response to this question, my mind immediately beings to assemble lists of skill sets: learning to write invoices, to use Excel, Outlook, Lotus Notes, AS400, the Wiley Portal. . . . Yet, if I stop and consider a fuller, more complete answer, I am also learning that old habits die hard. I am observing many little idiosyncrasies from my former “life” creep into this new Office Life, even where they don’t belong.

For one thing, I type like a pianist. This is not just to say that I hold my hands like a pianist rather than a typist, but rather that when inputting information into the computer, in instances where the average person might use a left click or a drop-down menu, I almost always use a keyboard shortcut. In fact, I have combined right-hand mouse work and left-hand key strokes to such a degree that they work in concert, almost like the pedal on a piano works in concert with both hands on the keyboard—independently and with a completely different motion, but toward the same goal. It’s quite fascinating to observe this in myself and one which I only discovered one day when I realized how differently Damian and I went about the same copy/cut/paste tasks. We were moving information between Excel and Word, and he would always use the left-click functions, whereas I only ever highlighted information with the mouse and then used my hands on the keyboard to do the rest. I wonder if hands know how to miss an instrument.

Another habit I am finding hard to break is my inclination to cite every piece of information I provide. Every time one of my bosses, or an Editor-in-Chief, or anyone, really, asks me a question that I must research the answer to, I have to resist the impulse to direct them back to the websites and the individual people from whom I garnered the answers. Initially I thought sending them directly to the sources may be a good idea, but then I realized that they don’t want me to waste their time. All they want is the answer to their question. If they ask me later how I found out, I should keep track of my sources for my own sake, so I can “prove it.” However, people in the “working world” don’t generally need an email with an attached bibliography. That’s for academia, and despite how closely I am working with academia—since I am working on neuroscience journals and current protocols, both of which involve professors throughout the world—I am still immersed in the Business, with Business People.

The last habit I am having trouble overcoming is my tendency to try to finish assignments before they are due. Usually, this would not seem like a bad quality. After all, it is never good to fall behind schedule, and what better way to avoid falling behind schedule than to complete all tasks ahead of schedule? However, in the working world, or at least in the publishing world, information changes to rapidly that in order to offer the most up-to-date figures on any report, one must create the report as close to when it is due as possible. This creates all kinds of stress for me, since I have never been the kind of student to write term papers 24 hours before they are due. I prefer to begin months ahead of time, to wade through the material, to create outlines and drafts, and to copyedit and proofread right up until a week beforehand, when I breathe a sigh of relief and hand the thing in so I can go study for some other test.

Now, I am multitasking all over the place, with everyone’s calendar layered on top of my own calendar, and I can’t even check things off, because they aren’t allowed to even be started until such-and-such a date for fear of having outdated information show up on the report. “What sort of life is this?” the student in me asks. “You didn’t sign up for this sort of stress!” But then again, no one asks me to stay until 8p.m. any evening to finish that last story or get that last piece of copy to print, so I shouldn’t complain. If I don’t get home until 9 or 10p.m., it’s because I was out with the Harriers running team or playing volleyball at the Chelsea public gym. Like I said, old habits die hard.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel by Diane Setterfield

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
What a unique book. It mixes types like none I have read before. The structure is one where the author writes about a girl who is writing about a writer. Sittenfeld is telling the story of a girl (Margaret) who is telling her own story by writing it directly to the reader, but she is also commissioned to write down the story of Vida Winter, a renowned author who tells her story verbally. The two stories intermingle at times, as Margaret hunts down details of the living remains of Ms. Winter's story, visiting ruins of the Angelfield house and interviewing lost souls such as Aurelius. The Thirteenth Tale is about characters telling one another's stories, and if the characters in those told stories had told stories, The Thousand and One Nights would have been quickly called to mind!

More than its narrative structure, The Thirteenth Tale had a unique feel to it. Its English setting and the various details Setterfield used gave it an almost fairy-tale/cottage-like quality that suited its storytelling nature. What is more, it used the Sixth Sense effect, so that once a crucial element was revealed, it made me want to go back and check to make sure every detail in the novel fit my new understanding. It is always fun to see stories in a new light, particularly when the new light is so unexpected.

My biggest criticism is that the narrator herself often bordered on melodrama, with all of her pining about twinness. I understand that being a twin was part of the essence that drove the novel in the first place, but I never really felt that I got to know the narrator in a way that made me much empathize with her lack of appetite, sleeplessness, or basic neuroses. And the last chapter was dreadful. If I had been Setterfield editor, I would have insisted that it be cut.

And yet: this book would appeal to a wide range of audiences. I would recommend it to mystery lovers, Harry Potter fans, and anyone who enjoys books set in old England. I don't particularly fit any of these categories, though, but I found the book entertaining, so book lovers in general, I suppose, will probably like it, too.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

New Yorkers ARE Nice

And here is my proof: since I have officially moved to the city, I have met a number of these neighborly, welcoming people through the various activities I have pursued. Take, for instance, the New York Park and Recreation Center, which I recently joined for the bargain price of $37.50/6 months. The Chelsea location has open gym volleyball sessions every Monday, which I discovered utterly by accident as I was exploring the gym on the Monday I joined. I noticed the nets and people warming up, evaluated their ability levels, and walked right into the gym. I asked the nearest girl with a friendly-looking face whether these were leagues or not and if I could play with them (them being the group that was warming up together), and she said no, this was a session open to anyone, and sure, the more the merrier. We formed our first team of six, and ta-da! I was suddenly playing volleyball again.

The next week, when I returned again on Monday, I began warming up with a man named Greg. He looked to be about retirement age—perhaps a little younger—with completely gray hair and a compact 5’7” build. As we passed and set to one another, he suddenly said, “You know, your team should automatically get extra points because you look so much like a volleyball player.” I felt very flattered.

My first team was comprised of a spunky girl named Nicole, who I ended up spending a good deal of the night practicing my pass-set-hitting sequences with when we weren’t on the court; a tall, lean Hispanic guy with baggy shorts and a black bandana who looked for all the world like he could be cast in a movie as a gang leader. He possessed the air of cocky world indifference to match that impression, but he still exuded the air of someone you desperately wanted to please, someone you wanted to “be cool with,” evident by the fact that guys were either tough with him or ignored him and girls either flirted with him or had to play the tough card. When our first set of games were over, Nicole and I practiced passing with him. We had to be tough, partially because we were trying to be good volleyball players, but mainly because we aren’t Hispanic—those girls were always flirty, even if they were skilled players.

The next guy on my team was a tall black guy, somewhat similar in stature to the Hispanic guy because of his lean, muscular, innate-seeming athleticism. However, this guy had an air of classiness to him. He held himself with a particular grace and acted with a quiet, reserved politeness that I cannot quite describe. Suffice to say, I knew that if I made a mistake, he would not be the one to give me a dirty look for it.

The last member of the team was another guy whom I also imagine would never have given me a dirty look for any mistake I might make. This guy was Asian (I regret to say I cannot identify which particular ethnicity), which made him appear younger than the other two guys, but upon reflection, he probably wasn’t any younger than the rest of us and perhaps may have been older. He was certainly a very skilled player. He was very quiet at most times, but not passive at all, in spite of his wire-thin appearance. He emitted what I would call an aura of humble pride that made me wonder what sort of image I gave off without realizing, because I doubt he had any idea that people may perceive him as seeming humbly proud.

In any case, that has only been one of my experiences at a New York Park and Recreation Center. The other occurred even more recently, when I took an evening to use the center’s pool for the very first time.

Much to my chagrin, the pool was extraordinarily crowded. I suppose this is to be expected, considering that the center is publicly owned and operated and that I was swimming at the most convenient hour of the day for every working individual. Thus, I was forced to share a very narrow lane with five other swimmers. This would not have been such a problem, had they been anywhere near my speed or ability; however, not one of them even did flipturns. At one point, two of the swimmers left, and I paused at one wall to determine what my next set would be. Another boy standing at the wall looked at me with what appeared to be awe. “You’re really good,” he told me. I laughed, thinking to myself as I always do at those kinds of compliments that he had no idea what “good” was. But I thanked him, and we chatted for a bit about how long he had been swimming, what good exercise it is, and the best times to swim. It was a pleasant chat, and we shook hands at the end before he left the pool. His name was Anthony.

Later, at the end of my swim, I received a similar compliment from another lane partner. This fellow’s name was Mike, and he asked me whether I could swim breaststroke and butterfly. When I replied that I could, he told me he was jealous. He had recently taught himself to swim, and he had only mastered backstroke and freestyle so far. Now, from swimming in the lane with him, I never would have pegged him as a self-taught swimmer, so I told him that. He was bashful, but not so bashful that he kept from asking if I wouldn’t teach him butterfly. I was very surprised, but I said sure, and then suddenly there I was: teaching a grown man (is someone my age considered a grown man? I suppose that depends) the fundamentals of the butterfly.

Even before I joined the NY Park and Recreation Center, though, I had been so in need of a “group” of athletes that I Googled running teams and came up with the Harriers—a group that runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in Central Park. I emailed the coordinator and then showed up one Tuesday evening in mid-July, hoping for the best. It turned out to be one of the bravest and most beneficial things I could have done. Obviously there are so many runners in Central Park that finding one particular group is a bit of a task, but once I had asked half a dozen people if they were the Harriers, I found one correct person, and was then welcomed to the workout. As they first discussed what we’d be doing, I knew I would be at the back of the pack. And since then, I have remained there. It feels reminiscent of my “serious” attempts at swimming: the harder I tried, the more “bottom of the pile” I was. But having already been resigned to that position on a team and working for My Personal Best rather than to beat another person, I am okay with that. Instead, I am celebrating the wonderful people I have already met through this group.

First and foremost is the closest person I have to a friend here in NYC: Arianna. I have only met her in the last month or so, but she is the perfect running partner, because she is a wonderful conversationalist, and we are very close in speed. We started out by calling each other up for long runs on the weekends, and then, once I got up my courage, I asked her whether I could store my belongings at her apartment on Tuesdays and Thursdays when she planned to attend Harrier workouts. It is too far for me to go all the way back to Queens from Hoboken, NJ and then get back to Central Park by 7pm, and she lives six blocks from where the Harriers meet to run, as well as about halfway between the two points on my commute. She agreed, and it has worked superbly every since.

Almost all of the other runners I have met through the Harriers have been very kind, but the other one worth mentioning is Mark. He’s sort of the Harriers’ unofficial “coach,” as he writes and attends most of the workouts, and he is probably the most knowledgeable runner I have ever met. What really made him stand out to me as a coach was the fact that after only my fourth workout with the team (and I haven’t attended all that many, probably not even ten yet), he ran behind me and gave me tips on form—my form, what I specifically was doing with my body—for sprinting vs. long-distance running. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Me? I wanted to ask him. You’re paying attention to me? But I’m not even a real runner! Again, it was so reminiscent of my swimming days with WHAT and George. Every time George would come over and give me advice about my stroke or my times, I would think, He’s paying attention to me! Even though I’m slow! Even though I’m not a real swimmer!

So the bottom line is, New Yorkers ARE nice. But maybe it’s athletes who are nice. Sports create community; although I guess it is hard to tell if they are the cause—if the sport generates the camaraderie between individuals—or the effect—if kind, welcoming people tend to gravitate toward athletics. Regardless, sports have proven, socially, to be my saving grace every time I settle somewhere new. From elementary school to parochial school, back to public school, to high school, to college in Rochester, to England, to New York City, sports are what have always helped me feel a “part” of something.

Maybe war is just patriotism, wanting to feel a part of one’s country, gone horribly, horribly wrong. Because doesn’t it just seem like a sport on steroids?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Pigs in Heaven

Pigs in Heaven Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
The funniest part about my adoration of Barbara Kingsolver is that my favorite book of hers is not The Poisonwood Bible. In fact, of the three books of hers I have read now, that is probably my least favorite. Prodigal Summer still probably ranks as my favorite, followed very closely by this one, Pigs in Heaven. My biggest disappointment upon finishing this novel occurred when I went back to the library to find another Kingsolver book and discovered that the only one they had was actually a prequel to this novel! I hadn't known The Bean Trees came first in the telling of these character's stories, and I was tremendously disappointed to find out that I already knew the story of The Bean Trees without having read it in Kingsolver's vivid, elegant prose.

What I love about her writing is that it is so beautiful without trying to be so. You get a stunning picture of southern and midwestern landscapes and a true sense of people's lifestyles and ethnicities without her, as an author, shoving these facts and descriptions in your face. Somehow, she blends them into the language so seamlessly and so convincingly that you end up feeling them rather than knowing them. This is the mark of a truly successful writer, as far as I am concerned. And the mark of a truly successful book is one in which I do not find myself wanting to edit as I read. That is not something she achieved with The Poisonwood Bible--I badly wanted to edit the ending of that novel--but Pigs in Heaven kept me page-turning relentlessly without one critique, in spite of my ability to predict the ending.

Now there was a real accomplishment, because I hate to predict endings. But somehow, Kingsolver and those pigs pulled it off. I look forward to her next novel.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Black Girl/White Girl

Black Girl/White Girl Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Joyce Carol Oates is a very smart author. She knows a lot about location, a lot about history, and a lot about language. However, as a reader, I often find myself feeling very aware of these things as I read her books: that she, as the author, is going to tell me about this location or this event in history or that now, she is going to use this particularly literary device to tell this section of her story. Instead of enhancing her stories, it often fragments them for me, the reader.

In Black Girl/White Girl, there were too many literary devices being used--too many different narrative voices, too many subtle shifts in point of view/narration, too many plot deviations. I thought it was quite cunning to veil the true intent of the story throughout, but I found that by the end, I should have been able to discover that this was in fact the true intent all along instead of being just as surprised as the main character was to discover what the true story was about. Because I was so surprised, I found myself disappointed. I wanted to know what really happened to Minnette Swift. Was the racism all faked by her, or was some of it real? Was her death completely accidental?

Perhaps this would be a better book to teach in school, with its history subtext (turned main text...). Either way, it does not encourage me to return to Oates' work in the near future.

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A Warning to Those Still in School

Transitioning into the working world—into the world of professionalism, into the world otherwise known as Real Life—requires a multitude of changes. You think you know this; perhaps it is the reason why you are still in school.

This transition requires a regression back to 8-hour days of remaining in one place with the same people, with a one-hour lunch period scheduled midway through the day, just like in grades one through twelve. It requires submitting yourself to a daily commute longer than the ten minutes it takes to walk across a college campus. There are no more free bus passes or state-of-the-art gyms or libraries (literally) in your backyard. You now not only have to become self-educated in matters such as health insurance, 401ks, life insurance, and the stock market, but you actually have to care about these issues, too. This is because you are expected to make decisions regarding them, and these decisions will affect your life. And weeklong holidays—never mind summer vacations—are gone. Forever.

So perhaps you have managed to think of all of these things. (If so, your prescience is much keener than mine.) However, I have recently discovered what is perhaps the most surprising transitional necessity that I failed to foresee: a Professional Wardrobe.

Suffice to say, my wardrobe is probably adequate for my job position. Over the summer, as the days grew hotter and I deemed it ridiculous to alternate between wearing black full-length pants, black goucho pants, and a black skirt every day that I interned at This Old House Magazine, I took to buying more and more skirts. I am now the proud owner of five work-appropriate skirts, which has expanded my daily dressing options considerably. However, as fall creeps further along and the days become noticeably cooler, I have discovered myself shying away from these skirts and taking to wearing my long black pants nearly every day of the week. Then one day, I considered wearing stockings.

Now, those who know me well will understand what a drastic step it is for me to voluntarily consider wearing stockings. Since I was a wee girl (okay, I was probably never described as “wee,” but since I was very young, in any case), I have detested stockings. I have stood at bus stops for years, bare legs sticking out from under my uniformed jumper in every imaginable manner of weather, pointedly ignoring all the anxious chirps and twittering coming from the mothers and grandmothers nearby. The only times I would ever wear anything on my legs other than pants were for my weekly dance class—tights were required for participation, being part of a dancer’s “uniform”—and when my mother insisted unrelentingly that I wear stockings for some sort of formal function. She rarely did this, so I rarely wore them.

Stockings are itchy! And constrictive! They are simply uncomfortable, and I dress for utmost comfort if I dress for anything. Unfortunately, the Real World doesn’t care one whit about comfort, and now that I am an active participant, I can no longer go about not caring what others think, as I did in former High School and College Worlds.

Yet, I have not considered wearing stockings because I think anyone at work would care whether I did or not; I want to wear them because my legs are cold! So this brings me back to my original point: what my wardrobe needs (and this is my Professional Wardrobe we are talking about here, because I have plenty of T-shirts for the summer and hoodies work just fine for me in the winter) is seasonal variety. Now that I have interned in a professional office during summer months, I have acquired plenty of skirts, and I have sandals to match these, as well as some sleeveless blouses to go with them. However, I own surprisingly few short-sleeved blouses, and almost no long-sleeved ones. Furthermore, as I noted before, I own only one pair of long pants, and I own no close-toed shoes that are appropriate for walking long-distances here in New York (an essential quality, in my opinion, of any pair of shoes I shall buy henceforth). Thus, my wardrobe is seriously lacking. I find myself alternating between one white and one gray cardigan daily in order to stay warm at the office, and on the commute home, it’s goose bump city all up and down my legs. And it’s only 50F right now! Imagine how hard things will get when winter arrives!

So all of you in school, consider yourselves forewarned: don’t dive headlong into the professional world without seriously reappraising your wardrobe. If you’re anywhere near entering the World of Work, consider saving your next paycheck for a pair of pumps or a nice collared shirt, because you really won’t need yet another pair of jeans, when five out of seven days a week, you won’t be able to wear them, anyway.s