Sunday, November 30, 2008

Black Friday

The economy might be sick, but consumerism is sicker.

Imagine yourself as one of several hundred consumers, hyped-up by the promise of spending. You are exhilarated by the annual prospect of acquiring more things than your neighbor, new things, shiny things, clean smooth soft things, things you didn’t have before. Imagine standing outside Wal-Mart in the dark cold 5 a.m. air, your pulse racing, every face around you flushed, every body jostling for position in front of the sliding glass doors, vying for a spot closest to the stockpile of 99 cent Burt’s Bees Lip Balm, 99 dollar Blackberry phones, and 799 dollar Samsung LCD TVs.

Suddenly there is a roar. The crowd surges forward. You are carried along the sea of bodies, pushing to keep your position. (You were so close, don’t let that woman get in front of you, who cares if her bratty kid wants the Sponge Bob Mp3 player for $39.99, she can wait her place in line, she wasn’t up as late as you were, here in the cold, if you push that guy to your left maybe you can get past him, you’d have a clearer shot at the door and he looks like your annoying coworker anyway, the one who made fun of you for saying you’ve always been an enthusiastic Black Friday shopper, although this year is just ridiculous, who would have thought everyone would pick Wal-Mart sales, that’s why you’re here, because you thought people would be at Circuit City and Best Buy, stupid shoppers.) Your adrenaline soars as you inch forward, pressed between body-filled coats and hats and mittens. Everyone is shouting.

There is a crack; many cracks, really; a shattering sound, as if all the cold bodies that had been pressed together had broken to pieces, crushing one another to shards. But no, the sound is coming from ahead. You look up to see the frontrunners in the crowd lurch forward into the store! You squint as you are mashed against the back of the man in front of you. What has happened? Only as you are pushed over broken glass, through the entrance, do you realize: the mob has acted overeagerly. You have broken through. You are inside Wal-Mart.

And then you stumble over the body.

“Wal-Mart worker dies in rush; two killed at toy store”

Summary: A horde of shoppers “bum-rushed” a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, breaking down the doors. A 34-year-old male employee from Queens was trampled to death. A 28-year-old pregnant woman and three other workers were also injured. Customers angrily resisted leaving the store and tried to keep shopping as officials announced they were closing the store, insisting, “they had been waiting on (sic) line since Thursday.”

Meanwhile, in Palm Desert, California, an argument arose between two teenage girls in the electronics section of Toys ‘R Us. A gun was pulled, and two men died. Thank you Amendment Number Two.

This is the sort of capitalism that makes me embarrassed to be live in consumerist America.

Escape from NYC: A story of collapse

Last weekend’s excursion to Philadelphia was my first time out of New York City since August, when I “officially moved here.” It would be hard to describe a weekend in which I ran a half marathon as relaxing, but if not “relaxing,” I would describe the experience of being out of crowded, chaotic NYC and in bright, orderly Philadelphia, at the very least, “refreshing.”

This week, spending Thanksgiving in Allentown with my cousin and my elder cousin Kim was my second time out of the city. We arrived on Wednesday night; ate a random assortment of cranberry bread, peanuts, spinach quiche, green beans and butter cookies that had been prepared by my grandmother; played two games of Chinese checkers; and then dispersed to our various sleeping arrangements: Kim slept on an inflatable bedroll and sleeping bag on the floor, and I took the couch (which, I might add, was a glorious improvement over my 5’7” rock-hard futon. I feel asleep instantly).

The next morning, I woke up exhausted. It was as though I had just run the half marathon the day before, instead of half a week ago. I wasn’t sore; I just felt as though every muscle and every bone in my body had turned into lead. If my grandmother hadn’t already been awake, bustling around and hovering over me demanding my breakfast order, I probably would have gotten up, gone to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, curled back up on the couch, and gone back to sleep. Even more shockingly, it was 8:00 a.m.—almost two hours past when I usually wake up for work on a Thursday morning.

I have never believed that New York City is a particularly exhausting place to live, or at least not for someone as capable and competent as me. I don’t feel particularly tired as I go about my business, or worn down, or battered. When I first arrived, I was certainly challenged by the tasks of navigating through masses of people on the streets, pushing my way onto subways, and forging into and out of crowded stores. However, I assumed I would become accustomed to (and more adept at) them, and I have. Granted, I still detest shopping, but I hated that activity to begin with, so doing it with an extra million people in my way—standing in front of me in the dressing room and checkout lines, grabbing stuff off of the shelves before I can get to it, blocking every available aisle with shopping carts—is understandably less pleasant. However, I don’t cringe before crossing the street headlong into a mass of people anymore, nor am I nearly as hesitant to pack myself body-to-body into a Manhattan-bound express train at 7:30 a.m. It’s not pleasant, but I’m not scared to do it, either.

Even so, despite all of my “adjustments” to city life, my bodily collapse on Thanksgiving morning gave me a new consideration for the toll that living in NYC may be taking. The way my body reacted mimicked exactly how it used to react when I would come home from college after first-semester finals. I would arrive home, blink at my family, eat a snack, and collapse into bed, only to awake the next morning feeling more tired than I had felt all semester.

But this isn’t the end of finals week. This is real life.

After a weekend of consideration, I concluded one possible reason for this instant, seemingly inexplicable exhaustion. In NYC, a person has to constantly have their guard up. On the sidewalk, in the subway, on the bus, in the park, at the beach—everywhere, you are constantly surrounded by people and must be aware of others’ presence. Must be prepared to be accosted by beggars and buskers asking for money. Must be ready to stay on your feet when jostled by passerbyers. Must be aware of and ready to protect your valuables, “just in case.” Once you leave the city, once you are, for one instant, alone, your body releases that defensive hold. Then, suddenly, you realize the debt that is created by the energy that you have demanded to keep constant watch over yourself and your surroundings. That is when the exhaustion comes: when the guard goes down. That is the only time the body can afford such a collapse.

Which leads to the inevitable questions: If I have only been here a few short months and have already needed to “collapse,” how will I fare over the span of several years? How does anyone manage? Is it a sign I should not be here, that I won’t make it? Or do I merely need to grow a thicker skin? And can I?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

In Gear

Do I look like a runner? I felt reasonably convincing, at least until I stepped out of the hotel....

Monday, November 24, 2008

You know you ran a badass half-marathon when:

  1. The race began before sunup
  2. Due to weather conditions, the wheeled participations elected to race the Rothman 8k, instead
  3. It was too cold for the starter horn (so the starter counted down over the microphone instead, “3, 2, 1….”
  4. You couldn’t feel your hands, feet, or lips…before you’d even taken a single step
  5. You could have clothed a homeless shelter in the amount of layers people shed along the race route
  6. The water station cups had shards of ice floating in them
  7. Instead of cheering you on, the staff members along the race route were warning you about black ice
  8. The sweat on people’s bodies turned to frost
  9. The post-race beverage of choice was hot chicken broth (Gatorade, eat your heart out)
  10. You walked back to your hotel wrapped in a sheet of aluminum foil to stay warm…and so did everyone else

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: A Mercy

A Mercy A Mercy by Toni Morrison

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
NY Times is correct in comparing A Mercy to Morrison's previous renowned work, Beloved. Both deal with slave life: the backstories of slaves; the relationships between slaves and owners and mothers and daughters; the realities of being owned and being free in 17th century America. Like Beloved, A Mercy grapples with abandonment as its central theme.

However, A Mercy is a much more grounded novel than Beloved in that the reader is not guessing throughout the novel how much is real and how much is fantastical. A Mercy keeps the reader up to speed with the real-time thoughts and actions and memories of its characters as they tell the story in their unique voices: the trader-turned-slaveowner Jacob; his purchased wife Rebekka; Florens, the young slave girl sold to Jacob by her mother; the other slave laborers of Jacob's household Sorrow and Lina, and even Florens' mother, who narrates the final chapter.

Morrison once again proves to be a master of voice, as she differentiates all of these characters, not merely by the superficial details with which she imbues them, but by the ways in which they speak their parts of the narrative so distinctly. In such a short book, Morrison brings the reader from a state of confusion in the opening pages--who is speaking? what is happening? should I understand what they are talking about?--to a state of pleased recognition as the same narrators recur and are readily identified by their vocal nuances.

A Mercy might be shorter than Beloved, Morrison's unwavering style makes it just as emotionally and historically packed. It is a novel to be unloaded, both in style and content. Morrison continues to mark herself as a novelist who will be taught alongside Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston

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Thursday, November 20, 2008


Taken from the recently reviewed Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver:

“I’ve about decided that’s the main thing that separates happy people from the other people: the feeling that you’re a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench.”

Boss #1 returned from his conference today, where he has been since last Wednesday, and suddenly I have a whole new flurry of assignments to do, invoices to fill out, and mailings to send. It’s almost relieving to have to think again.

Can stress be like medicine? I think I now understand the college students who wrote their term papers “better” under the pressure of those few hours right before the assignment was due. I find that I function better when people expect me to be productive, to turn in work, to give them what they ask for. It doesn’t matter what these things are—an email, a fax, a list, an analytic report—just these expectations make me feel useful.

It’s when I get an inane assignment that no one really cares about, one that takes little-to-no brainpower and that is of absolutely no consequence to anyone that both my mind and my body begin shutting down. I literally begin to fall asleep as I try to accomplish the task. Either that, or else I begin to panic. What am I doing here? Am I settling for this job? For this life? Shouldn’t I be aspiring for higher purposes? Aren’t I meant to be doing better things? Is this what I really want? Will this get me to what I really want?

Feeling functional and at least the slightest bit important is soothing; it is pacifying. That is the key to a happy employee, I think. Every company could be full of satisfied, productive employees if only that company made each and every one of them feel 1) essential to the company and 2) capable of contributing to their position. I am sure the most successful companies out there take this to heart. However, as I make this observation, I wonder if I am meant for the management-type position everyone is supposed to aspire to. After all, if I want to be given tasks to complete, I can’t be the giver of those tasks, can I? And being a manager means relying on other people to get work done. Heaven knows I abhor doing that.

Where oh where is this life is this going to lead?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Animal Dreams

Animal Dreams Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Animal Dreams

Yet another Kingsolver masterpiece. Had I discovered this novel first (instead of Prodigal Summer), it may have been my favorite. The landscape is scenic in a tangible way; the characters are familiar yet intriguing; and the internal conflicts mesh with the external in a fluid way that makes the story come full circle and yet flow outward, into both the future and the past.

One thing I have noticed from having read all of Kingsolver’s work, now, is that she takes a keen interest in Native Americans. The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and now Animal Dreams all deal directly with Native American life, tribes, and conflicts. Consequently, they all deal with a sense of belonging and a sense of self on the part of the protagonists, at the same time. Furthermore, Kingsolver delves into childhood in every single one of her books, along with the process of maturing—which, I believe, is why so many people laude The Poisonwood Bible as her most notable work. Yet, the delicacy and insight with which she writes about this subject is present in every one of her novels; The Poisonwood Bible simply uses “growing up” as its structure, while the rest of her novels weave the concept and process into their framework as texture and support for everything else that happens.

Sense of self is key to every Kingsolver novel, and Animal Dreams does not disappoint.

Codi Noline returns to her hometown feeling more homeless than ever and must confront the fact that her sense of groundlessness is more self-imposed than any external force causing it. I can relate to this struggle, which is perhaps why I loved this book so much; yet I also feel that most people can relate to Codi’s feelings of aloneness and isolationism and search for selfhood, or at least find memories of these feelings in themselves.

Bottom line: Kingsolver is worth reading, and Animal Dreams would be a good starting novel for anyone in need of initiation to her material.

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Snapshot Book Review: Election

Election Election by Tom Perrotta

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
In spite of having read the insubstantial description on the back, I expected more out of this novel. Why? Because of the author. The funny part is that the subject matter ended up being about the same as it was in the last two books I read and loved by him, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher: loyalty, marriage, friendship between sexes, competition, selfhood. However, Election belongs on the Young Adult shelves of the local library, not in the general fiction section alongside his other adult novels. I have read other novels that address teenage protagonists and high school settings but that are written with an adult level of language and understanding in mind. Election is not such a novel. Had I read this during one of my reading binges back in junior high school, I most likely would have adored it. The content would have been just "adult" enough to appease my more mature sensibilities, but the "easy reading" factor would have allowed me to fly through it the way I needed to back then. Reading it now, however, I want to linger over passages and to think a little more deeply, even as I crave plotlines and characters that keep me plowing forward through a novel. Election does not allow me to linger at all, since every few paragraph the POV changes to a different character, none of whom spend much time at all reflecting on their surroundings, other characters, or dilemmas to which readers (like me) might relate. The dilemmas are certainly there, but they are entirely written into the plot (even if they are the results of characters' traits, such as Tracy's cutthroatness or Tammy's vengence).

As a young adult book, Election deserves at least three stars. However, for my own enjoyment purposes and for the purposes of recommending it to other readers I know and respect, two stars will suffice.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

How to Share a Tootsi Pop

  1. Procure a Tootsi Pop, still fully assembled with stick and wrapper.
  2. Wrap the still-packaged head of the lollipop in a sheet of paper, bringing the corners of the paper down around the stick. Twist to seal.
  3. Smash the double-wrapped head of the lollipop onto an unoccupied subway seat several times.
  4. Carefully unwrap the paper from around the lollipop, catching all broken shards of candy inside the paper. Hand this to your friend.
  5. Remove the wrapper from what remains of the head of the lollipop. Consume remaining shards of candy and Tootsi Roll as desired.

The Fine Print: Instructions have been derived from a demonstration performed by two adolescent African-American males on a Queens-bound F train. Writer will not be held accountable for reactions from other passengers, sugar-related injuries, or other unforeseen circumstances. Results may vary. See demonstrators for details.

Snapshot Book Review: Matters of Faith

Matters of Faith Matters of Faith by Kristy Kiernan

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
It would be tempting to write this book off as one of many “just another” novels. With family drama as the structure and religion as the conflict, it would be easy to shelve this book right alongside an Anita Shreve “failing marriage” novel or a Jodi Piccoult “my child is dying/arrested/pregnant” novel. Husband/wife, mother/son, and father/daughter relationships always generate complicated, interesting stories; the problem is that most of them have already been told this way using this mother’s voice.

Still, what I find particularly interesting is that when Kiernan chooses to switch POV so that the son, Marshall, is telling the story, she keeps the POV in the third person (whereas the rest of the novel is told in the first person, from the mother Chloe’s POV). However, no one other than creative writers or English majors are likely to notice, much less appreciate this tactic. It keeps readers somewhat removed from Marshall and his account of the story, at arm’s length, which allows them to judge him the way every other character is judging him throughout the story. Conversely, readers are in the story with Chloe and therefore cannot help but empathize with her plights, even if they may disapprove of her emotions or her actions.

What is particular and interesting to this book is the way Kiernan addresses faith and religion separately, yet in parallel. Some of her characters can separate the two and some cannot, but she as the author draws a clearly divisive line between faith and religion and thus allows her readers to explore both simultaneously and objectively, while in the context of a family drama.

This is no work of literature in either the formal or the artistic sense, but it is a fun, fast, mildly thought-provoking read and certainly a nice addition to the literary conversation surrounding faith and religion.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Dancing Girls

Dancing Girls Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
The only thing that saves this from the one-star category is the fact that I can imagine my creative writing professors at Rochester assigning these short stories, because they are right in line with all of the ones I read for class. I would read and become a bit excited near the end of the first third of the story, hoping with a bit of anticipation that now, after this confusion and meandering, everything will add up and lead to something beautiful or horrendous or at least meaningful. But after finishing the second third of the story, I finally realize that no, the first third was exactly what was going to happen throughout, and I would be destined to finish the story without finding any purpose to it at all, but I would finish it anyway, because I had already invested time and energy in the first two-thirds, and darn it, if there was some surprise at the end that made everything make sense, I didn't want to be such a lazy reader that I would miss it.

But I rarely missed anything. And so, after trying four or five stories in Dancing Girls, I returned it to the library. I'll look for a novel the next time I decide to delve into Atwood.

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Snapshot Book Review: MVP

MVP: A Novel MVP: A Novel by James Boice

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of those books you read for the artistry of its construction: they vivid yet impersonal style of the language, the POV shifts, the abstract-concreteness of it. This is the kind of book that I imagine my sophomore year Creative Writing Seminar Professor choosing, to go along with all of those stories that were so thought-provoking and had such poignant language, but that I didn’t quite “get.” Yet what makes Boice’s novel unusual is its here-and-now, popular culture subject: the life of a (fictional) professional basketball player.

This subject has probably been done a number of times by a number of authors. I would wager that it has been glorified to the extreme on one end, and written to evoke sympathy bordering on tears on the other. Yet MVP does neither of those, or else it does both: it shows the ostentatiousness of a professional athlete’s lifestyle and expectations from life, as well as the simplicity of a child’s dreams and how difficult it is to live those dreams out. You hate the protagonist even while you are pitying him. In any work of modern art, I find that ambivalence is the key to artistry, and so this is a work of “modern” fiction.

I wish I could find an English teacher or school board willing to try teaching this book to kids in inner-city high schools. Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are great and certainly well written, but this would probably be my choice of material to teach because not only would there be good writing to model and interesting themes to pursue, but the kids might actually find something in this novel they can relate to. Even I, a suburban white girl, found something to relate to in Gilbert’s struggles for selfhood and self-ownership, and the fact that I can imagine many of my former jerk-off classmates actually becoming interested within the first chapter makes me keen to try my theory. However, my efforts would probably end in MVP landing on the banned book list and me landing out the door on my tush. Sex and drug use is not skirted in this novel, nor should it be for the subject it is addressing and the stare-in-the-face manner it uses to tackle that subject. I believe high school juniors and seniors would be up to the task of facing these references and descriptions, with which they are most likely already familiar. Sadly for me—and for most high schoolers out there—school administrations will never agree.

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Feeling Old in your Youth

The first time you book a ticket, go to an airport, collect one boarding pass (yours), check a bag (yours), and fly to another city with just a sweatshirt over your shoulders and a backpack at your feet, you start to feel old. You use the term “mature” because now you are capable of travelling alone, and this brings you one step closer to being adultlike. You call yourself “independent” because God help you if anyone sees how young, and helpless, and trembly you feel inside.

When you old your first salaried paycheck, and you realize that the term “benefits” really means Price Tags That Make Regular Living Almost Affordable Instead of Impossible, you feel a little older. You realize that there is so much more your parents handled with while you were growing up, so much more that you didn’t know about or ever conceive of, that it seems astonishing anyone would ever decide to have a child. It disgusts you to realize how sheltered and protected you were in those moments when you felt so invincible, so self-sufficient, so autonomous. You smirk at teenagers with their all-knowing eye rolls and confident struts. Even in the vastness of your newly discovered ignorance, you feel so much smarter than them. So much older.

Then girls you went to high school with start posting Facebook pictures of their newborns, and you’re caught somewhere between feeling very old and very young: old because your peers are now mothers, will be wheeling strollers in a supermarket, will wash baby socks and spit-up bibs, will carry diaper bags instead of purses; young because you’re still browsing Facebook and because they bothered to put these pictures up there, right next to the ones of their ex-boyfriend shoving one ping-pong ball up each nostril in front of several other bleary-eyed boys laughing over the rims of their red plastic cups in the background. Still, you have officially joined the ranks of Women, because no one who gives birth to a baby can still be called a “girl,” can she?

And then your best friend tells you she’s engaged. And you start talking about reception venues and bridesmaid dresses and what old friends deserve invitations to the wedding. And that’s when you really feel old. Because she’s the first, and she won’t be the last, and even your sister is already nineteen and has been dating her boyfriend for over four years. It doesn’t matter that you have never had a boyfriend or that you can remember each and every date you have been on with utmost clarity; your friends and family members are going to be leaving this lifestyle of call-me-on-the-weekend-to-catch-up, getting married, having children, buying houses. You’re twenty-two, nearly twenty-three, and you can already see the unit called family morphing into this new being, and the definition of the word friendship changing to “maybe I’ll see you in six months when you come into town for my baby shower.” Is this what you envisioned when you were eight and dreamed of living the lives of your babysitters? Is this what you wanted back when you couldn’t wait to grow up?

You can vote. You can drink. You can watch all the R-rated movies you like; you can even watch X-rated movies, if that’s your thing. If you live in a city, you have no reason to rent a car, so that’s no milestone. The things you are waiting for now are things you would rather forget are going to happen: wrinkles, joint pain, memory loss, stock market investing. But you’re twenty-two! You have your whole life ahead of you! But that’s what they said when you were sixteen, and when you were eighteen…. When is it no longer your whole life and only a part of your life that’s left?

Not Quite a New Yorker

In some ways, I feel very much like I am on my way to becoming A New Yorker. I am now perfectly willing to elbow my way down the sidewalk, and I am not put off if I have to squeeze onto a subway car in the middle of rush hour. Twenty-thousand bright lights and flashing billboards no longer make me feel as though I’m going to have a seizure (although I will admit to squinting, particularly when I emerge from the subway at ten o’clock at night), and brushing off the crazy bums soliciting my spare change is becoming a more routine annoyance than a pity-inducing spectacle. I know—at least vaguely—where each of the subway lines run, and I have finally figured out how to walk north, south, east, and west via the logically numbered street grid which is downtown Manhattan. (I am not nearly so good at navigating Queens, but I have found walking and subway routes to the grocery stores and libraries, which are my number one priorities.)

Likewise, my lack of “impressed-ness” by this city is another sign that I am no longer “just a visitor.” My friends Andy and Kelly came to visit this weekend, so of course, because they were from Out of Town, we met in Times Square. Kelly and I saw Aveune Q on Broadway and then met Andy on the flashing red steps of the billboard island at the intersection of 46th St and Broadway. Every time we would emerge onto the street, Kelly would cover her eyes, pleading, “Overstimulation! Too many people! Too much!” When we collected Andy and started looking for a place to eat, I continually caught him standing at the street corners as we waited for the light to turn, staring up at the buildings and lights with an awed, this-is-what-the-other-half-lives-like expression on his face. He is currently attending graduate school in The Middle of Nowhere, New Hampshire (otherwise known as Dartmouth); Kelly is living in the Siding-Covered Suburbs of Dallas, TX. Together, their reactions to what is my new “home” showed me exactly how much and to what I have become accustomed: crowdedness, noise, dirt, lights. People. Granted, as I told Kelly, I don’t go to Times Square on a regular basis. Tourists go to Times Square; regular people who live in New York go to their jobs and to apartments, and to anywhere that is not nearly such a gaudy, polluted, money-snatching person-pit. However, those things which so impressed them barely even registered on my radar until, noticing their reactions, I began seeing my surroundings through their “outsider eyes.”

Yet, their visit also made me realize that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, remotely close to being A New Yorker. (Yet.) My first indication was the fact that in spite of having lived in they city for five months, I had no idea where to suggest that we eat dinner. Over these past five months, I have not had the money or social connections to go out to eat much, if at all. Plus, within this short time frame, I have lived in three different communities (Upper West Side, Harlem, and Woodside) and worked for two different companies (Time in midtown and Wiley in Hoboken). One may think this means I should be more familiar with more areas of the city, but to the contrary—I have been so busy moving and readjusting all the time that I have not become well acquainted with any one area or its eateries. Moreover, I do most of my own cooking. I know where the grocery stores are in Columbia and Queens, but that’s about it.

The second sign that I fail to qualify as A New Yorker was the fact that I got us lost. Not “lost” in the sense that we didn’t know where we were, but we were between 7th and Broadway, and instead of going to 5th Ave, as I had intended, we ended up on 8th instead. It was a simply mistake, but was one that indicates how much effort I still put into thinking, “Okay, the numbers are going up, so that is north. Therefore, because I am at 7th, I want to go east, because the avenues go down going east, and I am trying to get to 5th.” I have struggled with my sense of direction since the moment I arrived here, and it is embarrassingly clear that I will continue to do so, especially now that I am working and not spending my time wandering the city in search of work.

The third sign that I am not A New Yorker—and judging from this sign, I may never be one—is that by the stroke of midnight, I am ready for bed. Even on a Saturday night with two friends in town, I was growing tired around 10 p.m. By the time Kelly and I made it back to Queens, it was close to midnight—time for the party to start, by New York standards—and I was ready to pass out. This could be attributable to any number of things: the thirteen miles I ran that morning, the fact that I get up at 6:30 a.m. every day of the week, the rock-hard futon that I currently use as a bed. However, the bottom line is that I do need sleep, and living in the city that never sleeps, I anticipate this as a sign of having trouble not only fitting in, but of simply surviving.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Little Children

Little Children Little Children by Tom Perrotta

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Little Children

While reading The Abstinence Teacher already had me scouring the library catalogue for more Perrotta material, I chose Little Children on the recommendation of my good friend Mike, and it too proved to be an emotional page-turner. Like with The Abstinence Teacher, I wasn’t sure who I was “rooting for,” whether I condoned Todd and Sarah’s affair or condemned it, which characters I was supposed to like and which I was supposed to despise. If there was ever an author who could write about morally ambiguous topics impartially, Perrotta is that author.

The danger in being impartial is in seeming unfeeling and distant, but Perrotta’s writing is none of these. In Little Children, you immediately lean in close to see Todd—the stay-at-home dad who just won’t transform from his college football playing “boy” self into the lawyer “man” self his wife expects. You squint to get a better look at Sarah—the not-quite mom who always forgets her daughter’s snacks and wants to wear a red bikini to the swimming pool. You feel as much simultaneous compassion and contempt for the child molester as for the brutish father who keeps harassing him.

Little Children is a thoughtfully constructed novel that questions the concepts of marriage, family, loyalty, and love. Perhaps I am in the stage of my life when these ideas seem most relevant to begin considering, but I think even those who have the most stable marriages or haven’t even yet considered marriage can find a piece of plot and a character trait to relate to. That is what Perrotta is good at: making his characters people you know.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Bodily Harm

Bodily Harm Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Once again, Margaret Atwood's style saves this book from what I would consider to be a complete failure. Her ability to make you, the reader, see the characters, to feel as though you know them as well (or as little) as they know each other and to feel the emotions they feel toward one another is her strength as a writer, and she does not fail to exploit that strength in Bodily Harm. However, the way the novel is structured around the book lends itself to a jerky-feeling reading, leaving the reader feeling disgruntled and ready to debark as if on a turbulent plane, rather than compelled to continue by that ravenous desire to know What Happens.

Also, the book was too political. This is not to say it was pushing a particular political agenda, or even that I prefer books with non-political themes/plots. I just feel that this particular book wasn't so much about the details of the politics as about the "broad scope" and theme concerning what was happening in the Caribbean when Rennie (the protagonist, a Canadian journalist) arrives for her visit. It is fine to write about such themes, and Atwood is often successful--as with The Handmaid's Tale for instance--but this particular book needed the details in order to tell the story, and by omitting them for the sake of focusing the reader's attention on the "broader picture," Atwood lost a good deal of my attention and interest, primarily because I couldn't easily piece together everything that was happening in both background and foreground of the novel.

All that being said, Atwood is still one of my preferred authors, and Bodily Harm is another testament to her ability to create full-fledged characters you are convinced you might meet someday. I am not sure any of Atwood's other books will ever live up to my esteem for The Handmaid's Tale, but I am encouraged to keep looking.

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