Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) Catching Fire by

Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equally as addictive, although slightly more predictable than the first Hunger Games novel, Catching Fire is a worthy and appropriate sequel. After reading this second novel, I am anxious to read the third, and am struck by a very marketing-driven thought: that this publisher should absolutely work on getting a video game out on the market for these books. Because the mere idea of the Hunger Games, never mind the intensity and creativity of the writing, lends itself perfectly to an action-packed video or computer game. In fact, this second novel practically reads like a video game, albeit with a bit more emotion and plot.

My only worry is that I may tire of Katniss' character (and her perpetual second-guessing) or that Collins will disappoint me in whatever she decides for the romantic fate in the love triangle for Katniss, Peeta, and Gail. But I am now positive that Collins will not resort to copying any of Orwell's or Lowry's or Burgess' work, so whatever the third book brings, it should be worth the wait. Because you can bet the libraries will have a considerable waiting list....

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Virgin Blue

The Virgin Blue The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this beautiful novel, Chevalier uses her lyrical prose to meld a story of historical fictional with the modern-day tale of two women wrestling with both national identity and womanhood. The way Chevalier winds the two stories together works well, but Ella's story is clearly the stronger of the two narratives, as it is richer with "relatable" material such as "What does it mean to live as an American wife in France?" and "What happens when you are tempted to cheat on the husband you wanted to have a baby with?" and "Where can one really feel 'at home?'"

Girl with a Pearl Earring debuted Chevalier's lyrical style, and The Virgin Blue offers no disappointments on its heels; in fact, it is a refreshment to feel the difference in tones as Ella and Isabella's stories shift back and forth between one another. The ability to accomplish this shift is the mark of a polished author, and one who will likely be able to produce several more finished works in the future.

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Never Enough

A friend of mine made a keen observation the other day, as we discussed my potential "future plans," which may or may not include a year-long English teaching stint in China:
"I think you like making things hard on yourself. NYC just isn't cutting it anymore, even though it was a step up from running and swimming and working at Hillside (the campus coffee shop) and writing a memoir thesis senior year. NYC + half + full marathons with volleyball, a full-time job, social life, and a triathlon in between just isn't cutting it for you these days. The next logical step is to go to China and teach English--while training for an Ironman, of course."

At first, I argued with him. Isn't this just a way of of "moving on?" And isn't he trying to "move on," as well? He's been working a lab job in Boston as long as I've been in NYC, and now he is considering moving out to the West Coast to try teaching. However, the more I consider his argument, the more validity it seems to hold. "Making things harder" (or, in more positive-sounding terms, "finding the next challenge") looks as though it may be a reoccurring pattern in my life.

I would say it started for obvious reasons: I was (am?) a competitive and curious child. I wanted to do more--and be the best!--all the time. And this was without having an older sibling to emulate! My parents helped me to join activities that interested me and were socially appealing--tap/ballet classes, swimming lessons, flute and piano lessons, a community soccer team--but always with the qualifier that I had to stick with them throughout the duration of the class/season. Then, if I didn't like the activity anymore, I could quit. There was a reverse rule, too: for every activity I joined, I had to give another one up. This rule forced me to quit soccer in lieu of basketball, when I was "recruited" in fourth grade, and it kept me off of the club swimming team. (Because my mother insisted that if I joined WHAT--Woodland Hills Aquatic Team--she would make me quit every other one of my activities. Which of course I couldn't do.)

But notice: only the latter rule--concerning having to quit one activity to take up another--was ever exercised; the former--that I had to finish the class/season before quitting an activity--never proved to be a problem. This was because I didn't want to quit anything! If I didn't like something, that probably meant I was bad at it, and that just meant I needed to work harder! The only activity I can remember quitting was Brownies; just when I had graduated to Girl Scouts, I left the troop. My reasons were that it was boring, and I had no friends there. This was clearly an activity that needed to be cut to make way for bigger and better challenges!

By the time I reached middle school, I was taking piano lessons in addition to flute lessons. I was still tap-dancing. I was working a one-day-a-week paper route (a job I had taken when I was 9 years old, with the help and encouragement of my father). And in the summers, I swam on the community swim team. Not bad for a kid who accepted nothing less than straight A's and checked out the 20-book-maximum on her library card at every visit.

Junior high school got busier, because while I continued to participate in all of my aforementioned activities, I was not entering public school and encountering activities that hadn't been available before. I was now playing three instruments: flute, piano, and alto sax (which I learned in order to be in the junior high jazz band). Obviously, having just learned alto sax, I could not be The Best at that instrument, but maintaining my first chair flautist position was very important to me. Therefore, although I was no longer taking any flute lessons, I still had to practice from time to time, because we had these annoying things called "challenges." What would happen, is that a lower "chair" would challenge your superior skill. Then, both you and the challenger would hide behind the stage and play a passage of music chosen by the director, and then the band would vote on which anonymous musician they thought played it better. Sometimes, the band voted for the worse player, merely because they could tell who it was and they liked that person better. But to my credit, I was never dethroned!

Besides jazz band, other new "public school" activities included the G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) Program, which sometimes required staying after school for competitions or projects; the National Honor Society and its randomly organized volunteering activities; and less regimented, fun things, like school dances!

Then came high school. And here is when it becomes obvious that I cannot help but seek out "more challenges." Because in spite of my parents' warning, I took everything I was already doing and tacked on even huger responsibilities. I was already playing basketball, which I continued to do. Since our team was still rather undeveloped, and because I was one of the tallest girls probably in the whole school (sad but true), I was kept on the varsity squad, which clearly required a massive time commitment. Before basketball season even began, though, I decided to add another sports season to my rotation: volleyball. I had never played this sport before, but I somehow decided that just being in the high school marching band in the fall wasn't enough, and being the flute head section leader in the marching band wasn't enough, either. So I threw volleyball practices into the mix that was already chaotically filled with band camp, football games, newspaper delivery (which I thankfully gave up by my senior year), tap dancing, and piano lessons.

But wait! This is not all. Because after winning the "rising star" contest twice in junior high school and having first a poem and then a short story published in the illustrious high school literary magazine, Graphiti (and it was illustrious--it won awards nearly every year and rivaled some real magazines in both stylistic and print quality), I was determined to hold the most senior position on that staff possible. I ascended the ranks, from Literary Editor, to Senior Editor, to Editor-in-Chief by my senior year. These appointments, of course, also required oodles of time, which I squeezed in by skipping class (not "skipping" skipping, of course--I dutifully checked in with my teachers and made up the work, which then generated more homework that I didn't have time for...) and also working on the magazine during that sliver of time between when the final bell rang to let school out and when I was expected for band/volleyball/basketball practice after school. No rest for the weary!

In the spring things got a little better. By then, the marching band and all of my varsity sports were over. But that was when the church instrument ensemble would gear up for Easter, so they would hold more frequent practices, and I also played flute/piccolo in the high school musical pit orchestra, which required that I camp out at the high school for entire nights during the week and resulted in my oftentimes skipping tap classes and piano lessons. Moreover, in my senior year, I decided that I had had enough of basketball (or maybe it just wasn't challenging enough? Maybe I wanted I had to try something new again?), and I joined the swim team for my winter sports season. I was certainly not the cream of the crop, in terms of swimming capability, but I liked the coach and the training regimen well enough that in the spring, I signed on with the club team (WHAT) and commenced daily 2.5 hour practices which, often, led right into pit musical practice for the rest of the night.

Also, did I mention that there were college and scholarship applications going on during all this time? And that not only did I apply to 7 different schools, but that almost all of them were private and would require ample funding that I felt obligated to secure? Nothing like setting the bar high!

So far, I have neglected to mention my summers, but they yield more-or-less the same pattern. Initially, when I turned fifteen, I trained to become a lifeguard because I wanted to work outside. This is all I did for one or two summers: I worked as a lifeguard at local pools. Then, however, I felt pressure to "consider my future," so I found a volunteer internship opportunity at Carnegie Mellon University. Since it was unpaid, it was rather flexible, so I went in for a few hours, two days a week, and lifeguarded the rest of the time. The following summer, I found an internship with College Prowler, Inc. that paid me a stipend. I continued to lifeguard and fitted this internship around that job, but things were scheduled considerably more strictly now that money was involved. The summer after that, the working roles reversed: I found an internship that demanded regular hours and provided regular pay. Still, I was unwilling to give up lifeguarding, so I filled in for lifeguards when they went on vacation and on the weekends, and spent the rest of my time interning indoors.

Then came college. This has already been described above, but let me add a few details: I decided to walk onto the varsity swim team at the beginning of my sophomore year, knowing full well (and being reassured by the coach) that I would be the slowest person on the team. I decided to double-major in completely juxtaposed subjects (English and Brain & Cognitive Sciences) AND to go abroad for a semester AND to get an English honors degree. But not only would I get an English honors degree, write half of the thesis the first semester, and then I would completely start over the second semester, just because I wanted to write a memoir, and the first-semester thesis-writing course required a research project (i.e. did not permit anything "creative"). Furthermore, not only did I work at Hillside Cafe, but I was promoted to the 2nd-in-command student supervisor senior year, when my friend became the manager. And I held three other jobs in the meantime: as a Writing Fellow, as a proofreader for a professor, and as a freelance copy editor for a student writing his own book. And yes, I meanwhile managed to secure the Time Inc. internship that led me to NYC, while courting Teach for America . . . just in case I couldn't make the publishing thing work out.

And now, here I am! So who knows what challenge will be next.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Take Your Health and Run With It

Last year, when I was training for the Pittsburgh Marathon, a veteran marathoner told me that two factors would predict the outcome of my marathon: if I skipped any long runs (“whatever you do, don’t skip long runs”) and how I dealt with injuries (“because more likely than not, you will get injured at least once”). To my credit, while it was in my power to stay on schedule, I did not skip a single long run and, I will say with a considerable degree of certainty, that this made all the difference. However, as predicted, I also got injured.

When I twisted my ankle playing volleyball, I made a vow: if and when my ankle healed, I would never take my health for granted again. I would be so incredibly grateful; I would be careful with my body, even if that meant giving up volleyball all the way through May. I would cross-train! I would do anything, if only my ankle would heal and I could run this marathon. I had worked so hard for this . . . and how could I ever live without running?

As it turned out, my ankle did heal rather quickly (although at the time it seemed to take ages). I ran the marathon in May—rather well in fact—and after that I took time off from running any serious races. I ran to “stay in shape,” but as the weather got warmer and I spent my weekends sleeping until 10 a.m. instead of pounding out 12 or 16 miles, going on 4- or 6-mile runs during the week became more challenging and, honestly, more miserable. I didn’t have any goals, because now that I had run a full-length marathon, even running the Queens Half-Marathon in September seemed to require very little training; I did very few long runs ahead of time and still managed to pull off 1:38:59 (7:33/mile), 5/221 age group, 46/2236 gender placement. It was a miserable race, and I was, quite frankly, a miserable runner.

As the heat of the summer abated, and winter crept nearer, I began to look ahead to spring, for another marathon. I had qualified for Boston 2010, so finally it looked like I would have a goal on the horizon. I didn’t want to be too hasty in registering, though, in case I “broke my leg or something” (my words!), so I waited until December, and what happened? The race filled to capacity, and I was effectively shut out. I instantly registered for a substitute marathon in Washington D.C., but I was still extremely disappointed. My big race—stolen! Now I was going to run this other race that no one has ever heard of—“SunTrust” something—and clearly would therefore have no interest in watching. It was not a good way to start training.

However, once I had a schedule in place, I fell into the routine just as I had for the Pittsburgh race. It was comforting to have my Saturdays planned, to have that weekly obligation to myself. The trouble was, while I was running 5-6 days a week and gradually increasing my mileage every Saturday, I was not getting faster. In fact, if anything, I was getting slower. I was running with these men at work: one of whom was recovering from surgery, another whose wife just had a child and ho was therefore getting an average of three hours of sleep a night, and on some days I could barely keep up with them. I had no excuses, and was therefore both humiliated and increasingly frustrated.

Then, miraculously, right after my 18-mile run, I broke the speed barrier again. Suddenly I was back down to my 7:30/7:45 per mile pace without even trying. I felt exactly the same (barring some foot pain, but I was planning to go to a podiatrist for that, so it should be taken care of soon enough), and when I looked down at my watch, ta-da! Magic had happened, and there was my incredible time: 20 miles in 2hours and 30 minutes. Unbelievable!

My foot had been bothering me for about two weeks, though, so I finally went and saw a podiatrist. She taped me up, gave me an anti-inflammatory medication, and told me I needed orthotics. I left sans-orthotics, with the full intention of finding an alternative, when my foot actually started feeling better. But that was when my knee started feeling worse. And when I say worse, I mean that it completely immobilized me.

It was after a “shorter” long run, on my “down” week of 14 miles. I ran all the way up the West Side Highway to the George Washington Bridge, and as I was coming back, I knew my left leg felt tight. My knee felt a little twinge-y and I was unusually tired, but I figured this was because I was running after work. I hadn't brought my metro card, and I obviously had to get back somehow, so I just kept running. I made it back with a less-than-impressive pace of 8:14/mile and no real pain, but the moment I stopped running, I felt like an iron mouth had clamped onto the left side of my knee. I could barely walk.

Which brings me to the present, at which time I am about to start attending physical therapy for Chondromalacia of the patella, running with a patellar brace, and making a repeat vow: If and when my knee heals, I will never again take my health for granted. I will treat every run with joy and gratitude, even if every step feels mentally or emotionally miserable. Because I am 100% more miserable now, without running in my life, than I ever was on a single run. Guaranteed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Birthdays Grow Up

Growing up, my parents always threw me themed birthday parties at home. I had the option of holding the parties elsewhere—one year I think I had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese—but then the one-fewer-than-your-age guests rule no longer applied (because of the expense) and, in that case, I could never have invited all of my friends! So I usually chose to have my parties at home where, every year, my parents arranged all of the games, food, and favors around a single theme. Some of the themes were really creative: I remember having a unicorn theme, a detective theme, and a backwards birthday party theme, just to name a few.

Eventually, though, I no longer wanted to be just a guest at my own party; I wanted to be the host, too. I think it was my 12th birthday when I came up with my own first party theme: a Barbie Birthday party! Now, this couldn't just be any ordinary Barbie party. We wouldn’t just be playing pin-the-boob-on-the-Barbie and eating pink frosted cake—not with my tireless imagination and penchant for making things as complicated as possible! In my dreamed-up game world, the guests’ Barbies would compete by selling and shopping for Barbie clothes, a bit like Mall Maddness, Life, and Sim City all rolled into one. Add Barbie dolls, fake Monopoly money, a house turned into a Barbie neighborhood via paper signs and cardboard placards, and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake (my signature! Never went a year without it at home), and you have my birthday party.

This party turned out to be such a hit that I continued to host my own parties every year after that. A few were more memorable than others; the ones that come to mind are Gameshows, Candy, Favorite Things, Camping, and—perhaps my most creative—Survivor. They finally culminated in my last and most “adult” party: my 18th Dinner Party, for which I (with the help of a few family members, of course) dragged our dining room table into our living room, dressed it in our finest linen table cloth and china, cooked a four course meal (complete with endive salad and chocolate cake for dessert!), and fed twelve of my closest friends, after which we played cards—just like “real adults.”

Ironically, that was the most “adult” way I ever celebrated my birthday. My 21st birthday was completely anticlimactic—I arrived in England about two weeks beforehand, making me of legal drinking age the moment I stepped foot on British soil. Furthermore, since I had only been in the country two weeks, I knew almost no one; thus, I ended up tagging along with two Singaporean girls I had just met to a church service they were attending. (By a stroke of luck, one of them suggested that we go out for dinner afterwards, where they treated me because it was my birthday. And believe it or not, the one who suggested we celebrate my birthday by going out to dinner is, today, one of my closest friends!)

I have no idea what happened to my 22nd birthday, so clearly that one is lost for good. My 23rd birthday was the first one I spent in NYC. I barely knew anyone in the city, so my dear cousin K___ took me out to eat my first Ethiopian food. I suppose this was a very “adult” way to spend a birthday, but again, I didn’t do much (or anything, really) to actually put together a celebration. Therefore, I decided that this year, since I now actually have friends all in one location with whom I would like to celebrate, I would try to arrange a real birthday celebration for my 24th birthday.

Four weeks before the designated date, I began researching various seafood restaurants that looked enticing, with the help of, New York Times, and recommendations from friends and colleagues. Three weeks beforehand, I set out on a venue-finding expedition. In one Saturday, I visited six different seafood-restaurants (alas, I only looked at the décor and picked up a menu at each location; I did not taste the food). At the end of the day, I decided upon Lure—by far the most impressive façade of the bunch.

Alas, in spite of all my planning, it was not to be. I sent out an Evite two weeks ahead of time and even managed to get 7 affirmative replies. (Which, out of 23, was actually a very good turnout.) Unfortunately, those 7 gradually dwindled to 5, which shrank to 3, which eventually petered out to 2 latecomers and R___(who, since he was visiting me from Boston, would have to come with me wherever I was going anyway).

I guess this is what happens when you get “older” and live in the busiest city in the world: the people who live there get busy and don’t have time even half of the commitments they make. In the end, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I severely underestimated how exhausting the process of moving from my apartment from Queens to my apartment in Jersey City would be. (Which, of course, being my ambitious self, I had scheduled to take place on the very same day.) However, it did not lessen my disappointment in the fact that I missed out on yet another birthday “celebration” surrounded by friends. But I guess this is what “real” grown up birthdays are all about: you go out to brunch or lunch or dinner and let someone else pay for it and call it a celebration. And you mark down another year past, and a few weeks later throw out all those birthday cards (except the best ones, like the ones that say: “where’s the party at?—Don’t end sentences in prepositions!—Where’s the party at…bitch?” Those you put on your bulletin board for posterity).

For next year, though, I have the best idea: I’m going to go with a Christmas theme. Buy everyone else presents….

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

“The Nuisance”

It's really amazing what you find when you clean--when you really clean--your apartment. And there is no better time to really get down to the nitty gritty of what you have stowed away in corners you didn't know existed than when you move. Honestly.

I am finding unopened packets of earplugs, single shoelaces, sample caffeine pills, half-written letters, scribbled story ideas, and other tidbits and scraps I've saved for who-knows-what reason. The most ironic thing is, after examination, I still cannot bear to part with most of it! Oh I see why I saved this, I will think, despite the fact that I clearly did not remember having saved it in the first place. This will come in so useful, should I find the time/want to ____. Right.

Some of these discoveries, though, feel like small treasures: little candies I am uncovering that, as I find them, I pop into my mouth and think, "Aha! this is what I taste like. I always knew I was a good judge of myself!" Below is one such example. It is a poem that back in . . . maybe eleventh grade? So 2002 or 2003, when I was participating in a poetry workshop on Saturdays at the Braddock Library. (This was back when I fancied myself an "all-around" writer, which obviously had to include poetry. I have since absolved myself of that delusion.)

I have never been one to particularly enjoy reading poetry. It always feels to me like the poets are trying too hard, and I prefer narratives to overwrought existentialism or over-described scenery. However, poetry does demonstrate that a few well chosen words can, at times, replace entire paragraphs to convey what you mean, and this is a skill that, as a writer, you should both covet and cultivate as best you can.

I like this whole poem, as a whole, but also in parts. I think it can be read both ways, because each stanza conveys a slightly different tone, a slightly different message. I'm not going to go into the whole English Major Analysis mode here, but I'll just say that the last three lines of this poem are brilliant. Read quickly, you can almost miss what makes them so unusual. When I first read them, they made me think of a dog carrying around his pup by the scruff of the neck, with the pup being the "love," but then that not being enough to fill the dog's mouth. But then I realized that it was that word "like" that had crept past me--I had just assumed the line had read something like, "Around in my teeth." But no, it was "Around with me like teeth." Love for someone is like teeth? And to follow it with the line, "And I am starving," implies hunger for love, but also the act of destruction, because teeth chew, and envisioning "chewing" love.... Well, you get the picture. Hence why this woman does not envision herself to be the ideal lover.

In any event, an excellent poem. Packing is certainly no fun, but at least it leads me to discoveries like this!

"The Nuisance"
by Marge Piercy
Circles on the Water. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1982.

I am an inconvenient woman.
I’d be more useful as a pencil sharpener or a cash register.
I do not love you the way I love Mother Jones or the surf
Coming in
Or my pussycats or a good piece of steak.
I love the sun prickly on the black stubble of your cheek.
I love you wandering floppy making scarecrows of despair.
I love you when you are discussing changes in the class structure
And it jams my ears and burns in the tips of my fingers.

I am an inconvenient woman.
You might trade me in on a sheepdog or a llama.
You might trade me in for a yak.
They are faithful and demand only straw.
They make good overcoats.
They never call you up on the telephone.

I love you with my arms and my legs
And my brains and my cunt and my unseemly history.
I want to tell you about when I was ten and it thundered.
I want you to kiss the crosshatched remains of my burn.
I want to read you poems about drowning myself
Laid like eggs without shells at fifteen under Shelly’s wings.
I want you to read my old loverletters.

I want you to want me
As directly and simply and variously
As a cup of hot coffee.
I want to, to have to, to miss what can’t have room to happen.
I carry my love for you
Around with me like teeth
And I am starving.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Picking Up the Pace

So I guess this would be Epic Long Run # . . . 4? If you count the Christmas Eve run as #3. I suppose the distance could make this run epic, although I have run 20 miles before, when I was training for the Pittsburgh. The weather could be considered epic to some, although a 25-feels-like-12°F was not nearly as bad as what I suffered during some of my earlier runs, particularly that 19°F 14-miler. No, what made this run “epic” was the pace.

Lately—over the past three weeks or so—I’ve been having severe pacing problems. This is not to say I’ve felt particularly tired or miserable while running (although running in Pittsburgh really does make me think twice about whether I love the sport or not, because running constant hills requires way too much attention to pain); I’ve simply gotten to the end of my run, looked at my watch, and done a double-take. I was running that slowly?! How could I have possibly run 26.2 miles at a 7:40 pace if I can’t even run 4 miles under 8:15? Truly, I was averaging between 8:00 and 8:30, and as the time crept up, my morale tumbled downward.

The more I tried to rationalize my escalating times, the more frustrated I became. Over break, I was sleeping more than usual, so it couldn’t be from fatigue. Also over break I was eating on a very regular schedule—as opposed to my sometimes abnormal volleyball/swimming/running/shopping/ “NYC life” influenced schedule that can have me eating dinner at 9 or 10 at night—so it couldn’t be my metabolism that was bringing my legs to a screeching halt. I tried stretching before I ran; I tried not stretching before I ran. Nothing seemed to help—I felt exactly the same when I ran, except I was still running 30 seconds slower per mile than I usually would. Apparently my body was just going to run slowly, and that was that.

After holiday break, when I returned to work and started running with my buddies there, things seemed the same. They had all stopped running over break for their various reasons: one had had surgery, another was busy taking care of his newborn. Consequently, they all needed to build back up their pace and distance and gladly matched my new slower pace.

Then, this past Friday , M___, T___, and I ran the Palisade 5 route. By some miracle, we ran under 40 minutes. I, honestly, was shocked. That was the first time in three weeks that I had run any distance in under 8 min/mile. I was dying to know why, but I had no explanation, so I just let it go, hoping that it would somehow carry over and give me at least something under 8:30/mile the next day for my 20 mile run.

Did it ever! I ran 20 miles in—excluding the 5 minute water break I took at the top of Riverside Park—exactly 2:30:25. And because I personally am terrible at math, I will tell you: that come out to a little over 7:30/mile!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's unfortunate that this novel feels so gimmicky, because I very much enjoyed Atwood's earlier and "similar" novel Oryx and Crake. This one feels somewhat like an attempt to expand upon the ruined and dystopian world presented in that earlier novel, and the effort was well directed, because that is a very fascinating and creative world. However, for whatever reason, we gradually lose our ability to relate to the characters as the book progresses. Perhaps this is because the details of the strange world's demise get to be too much--they get in the way of the story of the characters, and because we care less about what happens to those characters, we care less about the story at all. Or maybe it is the fact that every chapter starts with a very impersonal "bible verse" of sorts, from Adam One, offering an edict for how The Gardeners should celebrate that particular holy day. Whatever the reason, I barreled through to the end of the novel, only to wish I had stopped halfway, when I really was still enjoying it.

My favorite stories were of Ren, the pole dancer the (quite literal) club Scales and Tails, and her friend Amanda. Atwood couldn't seem to decide, however, until nearly the middle of the book whether their story was to be central to the novel. Then, when it was deemed critical, it had to compete with that of Toby, the burger-flipper-turned-beekeeper, whose story should have seemed interesting but who, as a character, was so reserved and unemotional that she actually was uninteresting.

On a side note, I also must add that I would love to see an entire novel dedicated to Painball: a punishment given for crimes in which the offenders are put into an arena armed with horrendous weapons and "sides" (black or red teams, I believe) and told to kill the people on the other team. This, I think, is prime material for another novel.

Lastly, having now read The Year of the Flood, I would love to go back and reread Oryx and Crake, specifically because of the overlap in who Jimmy/Snowman is in The Year of the Flood. Wouldn't it be wonderful of a teacher of professor somewhere used these books for to teach something about literary continuity? Or as a part of a dystopian literature course? If nothing else, we must give Atwood credit for that: she definitely planned out this novel with admirable thoroughness. Hats off for creativity and attention to detail.

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Snapshot Book Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book gets five stars not because it is a fabulous literary rendering of a superbly thought-out, emotionally complex story, not because it delves deeply into the interwoven psyches of several nuanced yet humane and relatable characters, but because, very simply, it is the latest book to keep me up past midnight in an all-night-trying-to-finish-it marathon. I got into it that much.

Essentially, Suzanne Collins is writing Margaret Atwood material for teenagers, and she is writing it well. The Hunger Games combines the best plot points and overall social commentaries of Orwell's 1984, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, and Lowry's The Giver, while adding her own, more modern-seeming intensity to the mix. Something about the pace of the novel reminded me K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series, and particularly the knowledge that it was the first of a trilogy.

In short, while the book was clearly meant as young adult fiction, I still enjoyed it very much. The love triangle was passe but not overwrought, and if I were still 12 or 14, I would have bought it hook line and sinker. The fight scenes were very thoroughly depicted although not in too much detail as to slow the pace and lose the reader, and Katniss' internal turmoil over her loyalties toward herself, her allies, and even her enemies in the arena I was convincingly portrayed.

I was very pleased to find that the novel stood well on its own. It is the mark of an accomplished writer to be able to finish a novel that intentionally leaves space for continuation without leaving the first story incomplete. I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy: Catching Fire.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Moving Furniture: A Practical Riddle

For all of you math gurus out there, help me out: If you have a bed that is 6’10” tall, 4’10” wide, and 14” high, can it fit through a 6’7” tall, 2’5” wide doorway?

I know the solution should have something to do with a diagonal created by tilting the bed in the doorway, so that means we need to create two imaginary triangles out of the rectangle made by the doorway. (The diagonal, if I remember correctly from 8th grade geometry, is called the hypotenuse.) To do all of this, I guess we first have to convert everything to inches, so let's do that:

  • bed length = 82"
  • bed width = 58"
  • bed height = 14"
  • doorway height = 79"
  • doorway width = 29"

    Okay, so now we have the equation a2 + b2 = c2, with c2 being the hypotenuse. (Pythagorean's theorem, if I am actually brushing the correct cobwebs off of these dusty old mathematical memories.) a = doorway height, b = doorway width (i.e. the floor, or the base of this triangle), and c = the imaginary diagonal that will, hopefully, be longer than the bed length.

    √(6241 + 841)=84.15

    Whew! So, if the diagonal is ~84" long, and the bed is 82" long, it will fit!

    But wait.... Couldn't we have just turned the bed on its side--so that the width was essentially the length--and gotten it out the doorway like that?

    Well, this was a fun mathematical exercise, nonetheless. Nothing like proving those 8th grade math skills were meant to come in handy after all!

  • Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Creative Shots

    By the title of this blog, one might think these shots will be pictures, but no! These are shots of liquor that I recently heard about in passing. Although I may not necessarily be inclined to sample all of them, they sounded rather interesting, if only because of their name and/or ingredients, and I felt inclined to share them.

    Migrant Worker

    • tequila
    • apple cider
    • squeeze of lime

    Nighty Night
    • Vodka
    • Nyquill

    Oatmeal Cookie
    • Goldschlager
    • Butterscotch schnapps
    • Bailey's irish cream

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    Warm Fuzzies #9: The Clean Roommate

    So I am considering the prospect of moving out of my apartment. Well, for all intents and purposes, I am moving out of my apartment. Basically, if I can find a suitable replacement for myself in my current apartment before the person who has an opening in the apartment I want fills it, I will be moving to NJ within a month.

    Of course, if it doesn’t work out, my heart won’t be broken, because I like my existence well enough the way it is. But I am determining not to be afraid of change, because change can be good. And this new apartment looks really good. And I was considering going to China to teach English for heaven’s sake, so how can I be afraid of moving to NJ? If I’m miserable, well, I’ll just move back.

    Anyway, in order to put this all in motion, I had to tell my roommates what was going on. One of the is currently visiting her family in China, but the other one is here, so I explained the situation to her, also primarily to elicit her help in finding a new roommate. She listened patiently and was very understanding of my wanting to move closer to my workplace. At the end, though, she looked very sad. She glanced down at the table and said, “We will miss you, you know.”

    Hearing that really almost broke my heart. I don’t get to talk to them very much, mostly because whenever I am in the apartment, they are busy speaking in Chinese, and so I do not know what they are talking about. Sure, we get along, but mostly because I leave them to their own devices. I actually get along with each of them much better individually, because we speak in English exclusively when the other one of them isn’t around!

    What she said next really blew me away, however:

    “I don’t think we will find a new roommate as good as you. You are the cleanest American I ever know!”

    She proceeded to admit that she and my other roommate are not “the cleanest people ever” but that I am always cleaning up in the apartment. I was completely shocked to hear this. I never knew they even noticed! They never said anything . . . ever! And they are not slobs, by any stretch of the imagination; I have just always qualified myself as a neat freak and cannot help but clean up messes that bother me too much to leave lying around.

    Absolutely incredible, the things people notice and think about you when you don’t even realize it. And how far a little bit of appreciation can go to erase a well of resentment. I might be willing to clean five sinks so long as someone thanked me for it! Now if only I can remember this piece of wisdom….

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Chicken-Chili Taco Soup

    An excellent recipe for using up leftover cooked chicken or turkey after the holidays. You can add any number of taco-esque condiments such as rice, kidney beans, fresh cilantro, etc. Below, however, is the basic starter recipe. I usually add extra chili powder and salt to taste.


    • 1 tsp olive oil
    • 1/2c onion, chopped (scallions are ideal)
    • 3 cloves garlic, minced
    • 14.5oz can petite diced tomatoes
    • 1-2c chopped cooked chicken breast
    • 1/4c salsa sauce (I like to use spicy)
    • 1 tsp oregano (ground in mortar and pestle)
    • 1/2+ tsp black pepper
    • 2 16oz cans chicken broth
    • 15.5oz can chick peas
    • 14.5 (or larger) can corn

    Heat oil at med/high temperature. Add onion and garlic; saute 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook 5 minutes on low heat. Mix in spices. Stir in all remaining ingredients except for corn and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in corn and cook until warm.

    Spoon into bowls, top with shredded cheese/sour cream/guacamole/whatever you please and ENJOY!

    Running straight through Christmas & into the New Year

    Unfortunately, the last two long runs haven't been quite what they should have been to keep me on track in terms of my training schedule for the D.C. Marathon. However, I am hoping that, ultimately, missing a half-mile here and there will not affect the overall outcome. (Running consistently at almost a minute-per-mile slower pace, however, is--alas--almost certainly going to affect the final outcome of the race.)

    Here are the routes from my Christmas Eve and post-New-Year's Day runs, respectively:

    On Christmas Eve, I ran from my parent's house in Forest Hills to the home of family friends, where my family planned to eat dinner (as we do every year). The worst part of this run, by far, was the section over the Highland Park Bridge. Bridge running in NYC is fine, because in that city, loads of people are expected to walk over the bridges. In Pittsburgh, however, everyone only ever drives over bridges. It was a challenge to even find the footpath on this bridge, never mind run on it after a two-day-long snowfall. I ended up having to give up on running or even walking quickly and nimbly tiptoe my way across simply to avoid breaking my ankles. After that, though, it was smooth sailing . . . if you can consider "smooth sailing" running up an incline the entire rest of the way to the Engs' house.

    Today I set out for my 18 mile run. For whatever reason, I actually prefer this distance to 16 miles. Sixteen is one of my two heartbreak distances (the other one being 22 miles). Eighteen and twenty miles I can seem to accomplish without too much agony, but getting past that sixteen mile run is always a huge struggle, and then surmounting the final 22 mile pinnacle of training is always grueling, despite knowing the race will be 4.2 miles longer than even that. Today's eighteen miles was no stroll in the park, however, clocking in at 21°F and a windchill that dropped it down somewhere near 13. My nose was running faster than I was!

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Goodbye Old Year

    Most people’s tradition for bringing in the New Year is to make a resolution: something like “I will lose weight,” or maybe even as specific as, “I will lose ten pounds.” I, personally, have never made New Years resolutions. Basically, I see it this way: what difference does one date on a calendar make? If you are not motivated to do something (or to stop doing something), you are not going to do it—end of story. It doesn’t matter what year, decade, or century it is, a smoker is not going to quit unless he truly and sincerely wants to quit and commits himself to quitting. A busy mom is not going to keep her house cleaner unless she consciously maps out a plan to accomplish this. The mere date of January 1st does not give people more motivation or ability to accomplish their goals than they already have, and if it does, that motivation is short lived. Just compare gym attendance between January and February for proof of that.

    So, instead of looking forward to the new year and things I plan to do, I prefer to look backward at the year past and examine things I have done, particularly things that, at the time, were new and perhaps unexpected.

    • Running the Pittsburgh Marathon. Yes, by January 1, 2009, I did “expect” to run this marathon, but in the scheme of, “did you ever think you would run a marathon?” this is a completely unexpected event in my life. As a child, I hated running. In my own words, “I don’t like running unless I’m chasing something or someone, or they’re chasing me.” I only ever ran for sports, and even then, when it was straight “around the track” running, I griped every second of the way. This year, I undertook three-and-a-half months of training and accomplished the full 26.2 miles without stopping or walking once. And I finished in 3:20:57, qualifying me for both the Boston and New York City marathons. Definitely new, and definitely unexpected.
    • Travelling to Colorado. While I love to explore new places and plan vacations from time to time (e.g. my trip to Singapore in August 2008), I had no plans to go to CO until one of my bosses informed me that she had spoken with her supervisor and planned to send me to a three-day-long publishing workshop out in Denver. Not wanting to miss out on a perfect opportunity to explore, I contacted a high school friend who I knew was living out there. He graciously agreed to host me, and I spent two days after my workshop staying at the Shambalaya Mountain Center, taking hikes, learning about forestry, and drinking in the beautiful mountain landscape.
    • Buying a bed. Believe it or not, this is my very “major furniture” purchase. I have never before bought any fixture that was as large or expensive as this bed. It was fully necessary, though, after sleeping on a too short rock-hard futon for six months!
    • Texting. Not exactly an “accomplishment,” per se, but seeing as I didn’t even own a cell phone until the month before I graduated from college (May 2008), this was a considerable leap into the 21st century.
    • Renting a car. In spite of still being under 25 years of age, the actual rental portion of this event went quite smoothly. Pay the $25 underage rental fee, cough up another hundred dollars for twelve thousand different kinds of insurance, add another $40 or so to buy gas at the dealership and/or fill up the tank at a nearby station, and you’re ready to go. The harrowing part is the drive and, if you are returning the car in a different city (as I was), figuring out where to return the car—and then how to get home! However, I now have this affair under my belt, empowering me with confidence and experience for the future.
    • Competing in a Triathlon. Okay, it was a sprint triathlon, but seeing as I have abhorred bike riding ever since I was a child, even working my way up to ten miles of cycling for this race was an accomplishment. The 400m swimming + 10 miles biking + 5k (~3 mile) running = a race that, even one year ago, I never would have seen myself completing. Now, the big goal for 2010 will be to complete a full triathlon (Olympic distance is 1500m swimming, 40km biking, and 10km running, or in miles, approximately 1 sw – 25 bk – 6 run). Goal, though, not resolution!
    Welcome to a brand new year of Having a Think with me!