Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Big Book Post

It's the most wonderful time of the year: time to reflect on the books I've read in 2015! I always end the year with a Big Book Post (see previous Big Book Posts).

I finished my reading challenge, completing my sixteenth of sixteen books yesterday, and just in the nick of time.

Books read, in order
Dec-Jan: The Mathematician's Shiva, by Stuart Rojstaczer
Jan: Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler
Feb: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
Feb: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
Mar: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
2013-Apr: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Apr: Gulp, by Mary Roach
Apr: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
May: Rats, by Robert Sullivan
Jun: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Jul-Aug: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Sep: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Oct: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Nov: Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Dec: Paper Towns, by John Green
Dec: The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut

The best and the worst
I read a bunch of books I really loved this year, but it's not hard to choose a favorite. Poisonwood stands out above the rest. It was a fascinating story and well-told. A close second was HPMOR, which I've been reading since 2013 but the final 21 chapters were only published this year, so I'm counting it as a 2015 book. It's brilliant what Yudkowsky's done with the Harry Potter story, and if you can bear the length (over 2,000 pages) and the stigma of fan fiction, I highly recommend it.

It pains me to say it, but Rats was the book I liked the least this year. The topic was interesting, but the writing wasn't really flowing smoothly into my brain. Interestingly, Poisonwood and Rats were loaned to me by the same friend.

By the authors
I read ten books by men and six by women.
I read three Brits (Lahiri, Gaiman, and Pratchett) and one Canadian (Atwood). Everyone else was born in the USA.
The oldest (and deadest) author I read was Vonnegut (b. 1922), followed by Atwood (b. 1939, and very much alive), and then Pratchett (b. 1948) who died WHILE I was reading Good Omens. Sorry guys. All other authors are younger, and living. I couldn't find ages for the authors of Welcome to Night Vale, which I suppose is appropriate, since time is weird there. I am assuming they are the youngest of the authors I read this year.
This was my fourth time reading Atwood, my third and fourth times reading Gaiman, and my fifth time reading Roach. The rest were new to me.

By genre
1 memoir
2 non-fiction (biology and nature)
13 fiction
 - 3 YA
 - 4 Sci-fi
 - 4 Fantasy

Ender's Game is the first in a series I will probably not continue.
The Year of the Flood is the second in a trilogy I probably will finish.

By publication date
The oldest book I read was Sirens of Titan, published in 1959. Everything else was published in the 90s or later, including two books published this year: Welcome to Night Vale and HPMOR (sort of).

By setting
Settings include New York, Newport (RI), Boston, Columbus, Chicago, Orlando, Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin, Georgia, Night Vale (California?), Atwood's vague concept of the future North America, London and the English countryside, Yudowsky's alternate Hogwarts, the Belgian Congo, USSR, Calcutta, Mars, Mercury, Titan (moon of Saturn), elsewhere in space, and the human digestive tract. Specific time settings range from WWII to 2044, but Ender's Game certainly goes beyond that (if it takes place in our reality), and as was previously mentioned, time is meaningless in Night Vale (and out of it).

I watched the movie of Gone Girl. I started watching the movie of Ender's Game but didn't finish it, and I have yet to see The Namesake movie. I'm very much looking forward to the movie of Ready Player One and the HBO miniseries being made of Atwood's MaddAddam series (of which Flood is a part).

Book clubs
I didn't read any of these as part of a book club, but I was inspired to read The Namesake because my college fraternity chapter selected it for their book club. I tried to read along with them and participate, but I ended up zipping through it. Plus, I'm sure I read Welcome to Night Vale at the same time as many (tens of? hundreds of?) thousands of fellow fans worldwide.

Reading in interesting places
I read Ender's Game on a cruise ship.
I saw many subway rats while reading Rats (although the book focuses on rats in alleys).
I read The Sirens of Titan on Titan.

Where I got them
Borrowed: Yes Please and Paper Towns (Sara), Neverwhere (Scott), Ender's Game (dyAnne), Gone Girl (Talia), Rats and Poisonwood Bible (Charlene), Ready Player One (Matthew)
Gifts: Mathematician's Shiva (Bethany), Sirens of Titan (Sara)
Bought: Flood (The Word in Greenpoint), Good Omens (The Word in Jersey City), Gulp (Strand), Night Vale (Amazon)
Read online for free: HPMOR
Just had it: Namesake

Looking ahead

  • My first priority for 2016 is to tackle the pile of books I got for the holidays, which will achieve several goals: reading books within a year of being given them, feeding my Sarah Vowell obsession (Lafayette in the Somewhat United States), and reading more non-fiction (the stack is almost entirely non-fiction).
  • Reading the books Lindsay got me for my birthday will intersect with the gift goal, the non-fiction goal (David Byrne's How Music Works) and the Neil Gaiman obsession (Trigger Warning).
  • I would like to complete the MaddAddam trilogy by reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam.
  • I've recently discovered Vonnegut and I've taken a year off from Murakami which is too long.
  • I have a shopping bag full of books from the shelves of a friend who was purging before a move, and I plan to delve into it starting with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series.
  • The first two bullets in this list contain plenty of non-fiction to choose from, but in case I need more, I'd like to prioritize Guns, Germs, and Steel and A People's History of the United States.
Happy new reading year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


When I was a kid in summer camp, I had a friend who would do his summer reading on the bus. Since we were kids and didn't yet know all the words (spoiler: we still don't), he kept a dictionary with him, and would look things up as needed.

Flash forward to now, and like my camp friend, I occasionally find an unfamiliar word while reading on the subway. Carrying a dictionary with me is preposterous, and Google can't always hear my requests from deep underground, so I've started keeping a list of words to look up later. Here are the new words I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

rakehell: A person of questionable morals (to put it blandly), used in the book to describe the protagonist.
parvenu: Essentially "new money," derogatory, again describing the main character but in the eyes of an aristocratic woman.
treed: This one was easy to figure out from context but I loved it so much I wrote it down. In this context it means trapped in a high place, such as up a tree. In the book, someone speculates being "treed on the fountain," and I thought this was a very colorful way of describing that.
quondam: Former, although in the book it seems to mean "absent" or "intermittent," as it describes a man who blinks in and out of existence, in contrast with his very solid and permanent house.
glancing: Brief and indirect, referring to a question asked by a character who wasn't entirely interested in hearing the answer.
desiderata: Things desired. "Healthy, charming wise children were the desiderata."
phlegmatic: Not prone to action or emotion. This word has been knocking around in my brain for many years and I'm glad to finally have the excuse to look it up. It is used to describe mountains in contrast with people.
peyotl: This appears to just be an alternate or foreign spelling of peyote. He seemed to be using it as an adjectival form of peyote (peyotal?), but I guess not.
concupiscence: Sexual desire, referring to the Sirens of Titan themselves.
incipient: in the beginning stages, describing a character's baldness.
scalplock: I can only find this as a two-word phrase: "scalp lock" referring to a tuft of hair on an otherwise shaven head.
brummagem: Showy but inferior and worthless, describing souvenirs.
noblesse oblige: From Google: "the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged." In the book, the human is privileged and the machine/robotic life form is less.
skylarking: Playing a game or doing something just for the fun of it. In the book, an action is described as not skylarking, but rather a strategic move.
sepulchrally: In a manner relating to a tomb or burial (knowing the definition of sepulcher would have helped). This referred to an apparently gravely ill character's speech.
salubrious: Promoting health, referring in the book to the climate.

Monday, December 21, 2015

That's not an apple; that's a cloud.

About a month ago, I downloaded an OS update to my very old iMac. I knew it was risky business, but the specs said my computer could support it. Although the user reviews were all pretty bad, none of their complaints were things that mattered to me, and I figured if they're offering an update, I may as well get it, rather than letting my computer plunge deeper into the stone age (2008).

Speaking of outdated things, I'd been using the Address Book app (represented by a beige book icon with an "@" emblazoned on it) to keep my holiday card list. Address Book is a disconnected, local app that you can't access from anywhere but your computer, but that suited me fine.

Old: bad.New: good!

Apple disagreed. I downloaded the upgrade and installed it, and then days later it was time to start my holiday cards. I went to the dock and discovered that the beige book was gone and in its place was a slightly browner one with an encircled portrait silhouette called "Contacts." I opened it and it was empty. The upgrade had apparently wiped out my address book.

My concern deepened when I couldn't find the physical notebook in which I'd kept the list of people I'd sent cards to last year. It didn't have addresses, but at least it would have been a starting point. I'll leave that aside, since Apple isn't to blame for it.

Some googling revealed that iCloud might be the solution, although no one reported my exact problem. I attempted to log into iCloud but it did not accept my password. After resetting my password I tried again, but now there was "a problem logging into your iCloud account."

After some screaming and swearing I gave up, and began the process of rebuilding my address book, entering information into Google Contacts as it came to me (so THERE).

Fast forward to today, when my iMac gently suggested I download some software upgrades, because that had worked so well LAST time. I complied, and after a restart, my computer asked me to enter my iCloud password. It took several minutes, but the login seemed to be working. After I'd accepted some terms and conditions and agreed to a few other things, ultimately the login failed. I was too jaded by this point to scream or cry.

Then it occurred to me to try logging into iCloud via my laptop. Envision a video montage with silly background music as I dig through piles of things in my apartment looking for my laptop. The laptop is brand new. I got it a few months ago after my iMac did something that made me very nervous. Since then my iMac has been working fine, and I'm too lazy to move things over, so I'm still using it as my primary computer. Anyway, I logged into iCloud successfully from my laptop.

Now imagine the Legend of Zelda secret sound (or if you can't, click here) as I turn to see a dialog box pop up on my iMac telling me that I've logged into iCloud from another computer. "How do YOU know?" I wondered, since my iMac was ostensibly not connected to iCloud, however all signs now pointed to connected. I opened Contacts optimistically, and at first there was nothing in there, but seconds later it populated with all of my entries from my old address book. HAPPY ENDING! iCloud had indeed sucked up my info, and was just holding on to it until I pushed the right boulder out of the way causing the secret passageway to appear.

Next stop, Ganondorf
The notebook remains at large.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Prize winners

This was a fun little exercise. I just scoured the lists of National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and Pulitzer Prize winners to see how many I've read. I wasn't expecting many, since I read for pleasure and therefore very few "modern classics." The result is I haven't read many compared to how many award winners there are, but more than I expected.

National Book Award:
  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette (1992, non-fiction)
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001, fiction)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005, non-fiction)
Man Booker Prize for Fiction:
  • Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
I also read half of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009), so I will give myself half-credit for that. I've also read five books shortlisted for the prize:
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986)
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2003)
  • Oryx and Crake  by Margaret Atwood (2003)
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
  • A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
Wow, this award really loves Atwood and Ishiguro (there are several more of their books which have won or been shortlisted).

Pulitzer Prize:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961, fiction)
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011, fiction)
Half-credit for Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003, fiction). I've also read four finalists, two of which are also National Book Award winners (The Corrections and The Year of Magical Thinking). The other two are What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (2013, fiction) and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1999), which I was wondering why I hadn't seen on any of these lists yet.

For my exposure to award-winning books, I have the following sources to thank: the CHA and ARMANi book clubs, working at Borders (from which was born both aforementioned book clubs), a dude in a gay chat room, and various book-reading friends.

Oh, and this exercise was inspired by the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge, which I only just now discovered so any goals achieved are purely chance.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Suddenly there is music in the sound of your name


It's a race to the finish as my root vegetables soften before I go ahead and eat them. This is a tale of three relatively successful dinners in a row.

Monday: Spaghetti Squash with Thai Peanut Sauce
At the suggestion of a friend I tried this recipe, and if you do too I suggest printing the recipe out right now, or saving the text in a Word file. The website is wonky (I cooked this a few days after I intended to because I couldn't get the site to load at the critical moment) and it's one of those pages with a lot going on. Even the process of calling it up to post the link here slowed my computer way down.
  • The best part: scooping out the roasted spaghetti squash. I was prepared for that to be an annoying process, but it was super fun.
  • The worst part: buying entire jars of things only to use a few spoonfuls. This mainly refers to the red curry paste (which I already have a plan for), the sesame oil (which I know I could have subbed out, but I kinda wanted sesame oil), and the soy sauce (which I suppose will inspire me to do more Asian cooking). The coconut sugar I just laughed out loud at. There's always something that makes me laugh out loud, and this time, that was it.
  • The improvised part: Since the recipe was a little vague on which herb I should use, I used all of them. My mom clipped me some herbs from her herb garden and I figured it was now or never. I chopped up basil, sage, chives, and parsley. I stopped short of adding rosemary (foreshadowing) and mint.
Also: arugula and tomato salad.

Tuesday: Leftover Thai Peanut Sauce With Noodles and Steamed Vegetables
At first I was annoyed when Monday's recipe only called for a 1/4 cup of the pint of peanut sauce it had me make, but the leftover sauce made a delicious meal over egg noodles and steamed broccoli and carrots. I have a picture for you:

Wednesday: A Parade of Roasted Root Vegetables
My beets and radishes were getting pillowy soft, so it was time to eat them lest I discover what stage comes after pillowy soft. I decided to roast the beets since the last time I boiled a beet I got yelled at. I searched for "roasting beets" and Google cheerfully responded in the voice of Bobby Flay. As long as I was roasting beets I decided to do the same with the radishes and the rest of my carrots, for which this recipe conveniently presented itself. I used fresh rosemary instead of dried thyme, and it has made all the difference. Everything was yummy, but:
  • The recipe called for baby carrots and I used regular (peeled, don't worry) carrots, so they were a little al dente despite being left in longer.
  • The beet recipe said 45-60 minutes, but it took a full 90 to cook these beets, which were slightly smaller than cantaloupes. 
  • The beets were a bitch to peel, unlike boiled beets where the peel slides right off.
  • The roasted beets tasted EXACTLY THE SAME as boiled beets.
Also, slightly wilty and blackened arugula and limp tomato salad

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Improv in the kitchen: "yes, sometimes"

I am generally not comfortable going off-recipe in the kitchen. Given my limited kitchen knowledge, I will usually go out and buy the exact ingredients rather than substitute with similar things I have handy, or I'll say no thanks to that recipe and look for another one.

As you may have read, my CSA membership has been encouraging me to be more adventurous with my meals and I've been broadening my horizons. A friend recommended I try this recipe to address the abundance of beets and carrots in my fridge. Some minor adjustments I made were to use cedron (aka beebrush or lemon verbena) instead of parsley because, as I said with chamomile, what the hell else was I supposed to do with it? I also used olive oil instead of "walnut oil" because no.

as if
But the substitution I made that had the largest effect on the outcome was to use a regular knife instead of a mandoline. When I read "Using a mandoline," there was a laugh-out-loud moment, and instead I sliced as thinly as I could, which was not very thin. The resulting salad is a real fork-breaker:

I think a mandoline is a neat thing to own, so I might buy one. I certainly will not be making this dish again until I do.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Neither an egg nor a plant, discuss

Eggplant is something new that's come into my house thanks to the CSA. There were five of them, purple as can be. Here are the two that remain:

A nightshade is neither a night nor a shade.
I brought one to a neighborly courtyard cookout over the weekend, sliced it, brushed it with a mixture of oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and placed it on the grill on a sheet of foil. This turned out well.

Tonight I assigned myself the "simple" task of making eggplant parmigiana. Nota bene: not all recipes at are simple. This one started with slicing the eggplants and laying them out on a rack for two hours so they can "release moisture." I literally laughed out loud in my apartment by myself, eyed a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese on a nearby shelf, checked with a friend that this was bullshit, and then continued with the recipe.

My eggplants were small, and I didn't have any mozzarella (::gasp::), so I didn't do the layering-in-a-casserole-dish step. I just dumped them and the sauce on some fettuccine and called it dinner. The eggplant slices were burnt beyond all recognition, but I knew they were eggplant (once) and that's all that matters.

Very excited to make pesto out of all the leftover basil. That's a thing I do now. Thank you, CSA!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Under the Tuscan Kale

Life is a bowl of metaphor
I joined a CSA this summer, which may have been a foolhardy step for someone who a) doesn't like to cook, b) has no one to feed but himself, and c) spends most mealtimes outside of the house. There is the added complication that my pickup date is Wednesdays no later than 7:30, which will be a problem when orchestra rehearsals start up again in September, but we'll burn that viola when we come to it.

The main challenge is using all the food before it goes bad. People keep telling me to freeze stuff, which is a very practical suggestion, but I just know once it goes into the freezer it'll never come out. There's also the suggestion of drying things, like herbs (which I am in fact doing with the chamomile, because what the hell else am I supposed to do with it), but that seems to defeat the purpose of having fresh herbs. Still, I may take some of these recommendations, because storing it all in the fridge and blasting through it before nature reclaims it is not exactly working at 100%.

My main strategies are these:

  • Invite friends over for dinner. My friends are starting to realize that when I invite them over for dinner, I'm really inviting them over to cook for me (well us). It's not your traditional dinner party, but it works well for my friends who like to cook, who have small kitchens, and who like free food, and it works especially well for me.
  • is a website that will tell you not only how long you can expect your food to last, but also how to store it. From it I have learned not to put basil in the fridge.
  • Bring the fruit to work. Nothing makes a bunch of coworkers happier than a bunch of free fresh fruit. My first week I left two pints of strawberries in my fridge to die, but the second week I brought the cherries in to share (plus made this at home) and used almost all of them. Current challenge: plums. I just ate two of them while typing this bullet (and now my keyboard is a little sticky, but fortunately it's my work computer).
  • Just give it away. Farm-fresh produce makes a great thank you gift. My neighbor who watched my cats availed herself of some broccoli, and my friend who picked up my CSA haul one week relieved me of the minzuna and epazote, and thank goodness.
My very limited cooking repertoire needed to be expanded, but it served me well the first few weeks when it was raining kale in here. I made my mainstay African pineapple peanut stew twice, which took care of some of the kale, onions, garlic, and cilantro. With the remaining kale I made this extremely basic massaged kale salad, which required only buying a lemon. Lately, the kale tide has been stemmed, and I've rediscovered a forgotten food processor and made pesto twice (once with garlic scapes, and then just with garlic). 

Signing up for the CSA was a little bit like immersion therapy. With each week I get more and more comfortable with the mountain of agriculture I bring home. I even start to look forward to Wednesdays and finding out what Iron Chef-like ingredient they'll saddle me with this time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The people I interacted with on my #selfdate

After much hemming and hawing, I took myself on a #selfdate* on Sunday. It was a day that could easily have been spent entirely at home, immediately following an exciting but busy Fourth of July, and with a Netflix disc (yes I still do that) in waiting and an infinity of internet to watch. What got me out of the house was the fact that is was closing day for Wolf Hall on Broadway.

Seeing Wolf Hall meant giving up my entire Sunday because it's a two-parter: Part One was offered as a 1pm matinee and Part Two as a 6:30pm evening show. Plus, a desire to pay as little as possible meant getting to the box office at 10am to wait in line for $39 rush tickets (which turned out to be unnecessary as there were plenty of empty rush seats at both performances).

There were two large holes in my day (11am-1pm and 4pm-6:30pm) which I passed looking for food and eating food. With one exception (a friend who happened to be at the show), everyone I spoke to on my self-date was a stranger, which made Sunday a very different day than most. Here are the people I interacted with, in order:

  1. Arriving at the line for rush tickets, I took my spot behind a young woman I would later learn is named Jane. In fact, she introduced herself to me with her full name, which I've now forgotten but wouldn't have posted here anyway. We didn't start chatting until after her friend Sara(h?) arrived and then left to get tea. I think the impetus for our conversation was my obvious struggle to make myself comfortable without letting my ass touch the sidewalk. After that we had a pleasant conversation about Broadway, books, and life in NYC.
  2. Sara(h?) and I didn't interact much. After announcing to Jane that she was going across the street to Mcdonald's to fetch some tea, I almost asked her to get me a sausage biscuit or fries, but we hadn't broken the ice yet so I stopped myself.
  3. There was an older woman behind me who was a true New Yorker: happy to help her fellow citizen but not extremely interested in talking to a stranger. We started talking when she offered me a page of her newspaper to sit on (my struggle was apparently obvious to all). I asked her name and she gave it, but I've forgotten it. After a brief discussion about rush tickets and lotteries, she went back to her newspaper, not even speaking much with the man behind her, whom I'd assumed was her companion.
  4. The rest of the day passed largely without human interaction, with the exception of quick transactions with restaurant employees, Starbucks baristas, and theater ushers. The next person I spoke to for more than a few seconds was June, a theatergoer who joined me in my box for the evening show (you get BOX seats for $39 when you rush, which is ludicrous and wonderful, as long as you don't want to see one half of the stage). We talked all about Wolf Hall the book and the TV series, and then branched out to A Man For All Seasons the movie and the play, which is the only other Tudor period play I've seen.
If I realized I was going to be writing a blog post about this, I'd have tried to talk to more strangers, but I guess this post is long enough.

*Hashtags appear to be useless on Blogger, so allow me to link you to the blog post where I first saw the term "selfdate."

Monday, May 11, 2015

Curating your reading year like a mix tape

I wrote this piece to submit to a (different) blog and figured I'd post it here as well. 1 of 2

Mix tape wisdom says not to repeat artists on a single tape. You may love Dave Matthews Band (a dated example, like the concept of a mix tape itself), but the idea is to create a collection of music that is varied and broad. You choose one DMB song, and then instead of another one, or even something similar, you go to the other end of your taste spectrum (Madonna, perhaps?) and then keep ping-ponging around, hopefully not back and forth, but to varied points on a circle.

I try to structure my reading year in the same way, in that I try to restrict myself to one book per author per year. There are authors I love with prolific lists of works, and limiting myself to one annually ensures that I will have something new to read by them for a long time, even if they stop writing. As for authors I love who’ve only written one book (or whose other books don’t interest me), it angers me less that I can’t read another of their books because I’d have to wait at least a year anyway, and perhaps by that time they’ll have written something new (still waiting, Erin Morgenstern).

It can be hard to resist sticking with an author especially when you’ve discovered someone new. Last year, I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my first Murakami, and I loved it. I was tempted to grab another, but then I realized I can add him to my list of authors I read once a year, and that sated me. Plus, remaining in Murakami’s strange world seemed like it could have permanent, adverse effects. I chose instead to glide gently into Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, keeping Japan and war and feelings of inadequacy and a small amount of mysticism but leaving the absurd (wow, those two books are a lot more alike than I realized).

I’ll make an exception for series. After all, you wouldn’t break up a symphony, would you? Actually, I would, and have, so this isn’t a great analogy. I made this change after reading the His Dark Materials series, or rather, two thirds of it. I read The Golden Compass and then a year later The Subtle Knife, but never made it to The Amber Spyglass and now I never will (which is a shame because I like its title the best of the three). Even though installments in a series are meant to be read years apart since that’s how they’re published, why wouldn’t you read them back-to-back if you could?

This whole planning-my-reading-year-like-a-mix-tape thing is all in retrospect. There’s very rarely any advance thought given to it (except for the anticipation of reading the next Sarah Vowell book on my list when the new year rolls around). In the post-Christmas lull of holiday week I reflect on the reading year that was, assess which goals I achieved -- including my Goodreads reading challenge -- and examine the variety (or lack thereof) of my selections as I get ready to create another mix tape.

How do you choose what book to read next, and what do you do to ensure diversity in your reading choices?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

More precious than rubies

I just wanted to share with you a bible verse that popped into my head today:
Happy is the one who finds wisdom,
The one who gains understanding
For its fruits are better than silver
Its yield greater than fine gold
It is more precious than rubies
No treasure can match it.
Note: You may be surprised to see the bible quoted in my blog, dear reader(s?). I assure you this post has nothing to do with God or faith or anything like that. I post this quote as I might a verse from a pop song that resonates with me, and the rest of this post is not about the quote itself, but how it came to be knocking around in my head.

The above passage is from Proverbs 3:13-15. That link uses the New International Version (NIV) of the bible, which is the default translation for the website ( The one I transcribed above is how I remember it, and I found it quoted in an academic handbook after Googling "more precious than rubies." I read this text for the first time (and then over and over, year after year) in my childhood synagogue's prayer book. It has stuck with me all these years because it praises knowledge, not God. It also places the value of knowledge over that of wealth (a point it really drives home, as if speaking to the Jewish stereotype). Now, if you read the preceding verses, this is totally demeaned because it warns you against thinking for yourself, and admonishes you to only trust in the Lord, but let's forget we learned that (besides, I think the prayer book takes it out of context anyway).

Growing up Jewish, I had no concept of where specific bible verses came from. Of course there would be a reading from the Torah, and that reading would be the one that follows the one they'd read the previous week. There would also be a Haftarah reading linked thematically to the Torah portion. All of this went down in Hebrew, of course, and I was a child, so if there were ever any geographical markers (like in church, when they announce the book, chapter, and verse before they begin reading), I missed them. I remember learning that the entirety of the our religious texts consist of the Torah, and two other parts called blah blah and blah blah but let's focus on the Torah portion for your bar mitzvah (oh yeah, and the Haftarah portion, which I only now know from research comes from one of the other blah blahs).

Even in a Reform Jewish temple such as the one I went to growing up, the Torah is read as it is written: in Hebrew. We were encouraged to learn the English translation of our bar/bat mitzvah Torah portion so we could talk intelligently about for a few minutes from the bimah, but the focus was on the Hebrew, a language many of us learned to read, but not understand.

Everything in the service that wasn't the Torah, or the Haftarah, or the calendar of events or the fundraising ask, was in the prayer book, and that's where (I think) the above passage from Proverbs lives. The books we used were Gates of Prayer (on Shabbat) and Gates of Repentance (on the High Holy Days), and yet I can't locate the passage in either of those on Google Books (even if I reduce the search to simply, "rubies"). Even though I can't tie the anointment of wisdom back to where I originally found it, I can now trace it back to its source, which is Proverbs 3:13-15, in "the poetic books" of the Ketuvim, also known as "Writings," or in my previous description, the second of the two blah blahs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

First Thoughts on Welcome to Night Vale

Many months ago, my friend Sara pointed me in the direction of Welcome to Night Vale.

I listened to the first episode alone in my apartment at night and was too creeped out to continue. It was a similar experience watching X-Files in my room at 1am: not exactly a gentle prelude to sleep. For me, X-Files requires either daylight or company, and so does Night Vale (ironically, I guess).

Fast forward to Monday, I decided to give WTNV another chance, this time at work. It is much more palatable there. I listened to the pilot again, and now I'm seven episodes in and ready to talk about it.

  1. Most unusual objects that appear (and frequently disappear, leaving no trace, or so we are instructed to believe) in Night Vale are accompanied by a sound (described, not demonstrated). I like that there's a lot of low, sotto voce humming going on.
  2. There is also a lot of glowing. One episode I've listened to is devoted to the presence of a glowing object. Occasionally, we listeners are counseled (by the Council) that the glowing of everyday objects is normal.
  3. On more than one occasion, "a word from our sponsor" is literally one word ("carp," for example). Once, it was a sound.
  4. I am worried about Carlos. Night Vale is a rather dangerous place to live, all the more for those who would dare to examine it.
  5. As if the show weren't already immersed in beautiful, haunting non-sequiturs, each one begins with a demented aphorism before Cecil announces, "Welcome to Night Vale." There is also a closing proverb, read by one of the producers after the credits. One such proverb: "Men are from Mars; women are from Venus; Earth is a hallucination; podcasts are dreams."
  6. Although the podcast features a lot of background music (and some foreground music), it and Cecil's voice are the only things you ever hear (with only one exception, so far). As I mentioned in point #1, sounds are described, but you never hear them.
  7. I felt the need to address the corrupt, totalitarian regime, but I suddenly and mysteriously no longer do.
That's enough for now, lest I spoil anything. Most of the universe can listen on iTunes. As an Android user, I've been listening via Podbay (which you can do from your mobile thing or computer).

Monday, March 30, 2015

New Yorkiversary

It was ten years ago today that I moved to New York, which, by the prevailing definition, makes me a New Yorker. I can't find the source of this conventional wisdom (the closest I came, after some cursory Google searches, is this brief Gawker article). As an alternative, I offer the following formula courtesy of WNYC's Jody Avirgan (via the Brian Lehrer show):

From here
Beyond time, tears shed, and MTA knowledge, here are a few of the things that make me feel like a New Yorker:

  1. I never pay full price for Broadway. Growing up on Long Island, I was acquainted with TKTS (or "the two-fer line" as my grandma called it) at a young age, but living here has opened me up to all the various ways you can see a Broadway show at a significant discount. The best way: be friends with people in the biz.
  2. I know the secret parking spots. It's a fairly uncommon thing to have a car in NYC (and yet, there are cars all over the place!), so driving in the city would seem to make me not a New Yorker, or at least not a typical one. What sets me apart from the visiting motorists is that I know how to get around on four wheels in this city. I know that sitting in traffic on the FDR is better than navigating the streets of East Harlem. I can parallel park like a boss (ask anyone), and no, I'm not telling you where the secret parking spots are.
  3. I know what time brunch is. It's at 2pm. It's called "brunch" because breakfast slammed headlong into lunch and they both tumbled into late afternoon.
  4. I sleep on the subway but always* wake up at my stop. *except when drunk.
  5. I understand that $3 umbrellas are single-use.
Feel free to comment with your own. That is one way to let me know you actually read this blog. (Another way is to subscribe via email at the top right of this page!)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Missed Connection

I order my cat supplies from Because this story will quickly veer away from the subject of cats and cat supplies, here is some adorable product placement:

You hope the cat goes in the box but you live with what you get. is great because, above a certain amount, they will deliver next day for free. I placed an order on Friday, and my packages faithfully arrived on Saturday, but apparently not to my apartment. I was awoken yesterday (Sunday) by a loud rapping at my door. I opened it a crack to see a stranger (not someone from my building) who calmly explained that my (large) packages were delivered to him by mistake. He was on his way to church, but he'd stop by on his way back so I could come pick them up. I said thank you and he left.

As I gradually woke up more and my senses returned to me, I realized I didn't know where he lives (he identified himself as a "neighbor" of mine, but I didn't know on which side or if he was using the term more broadly than next-door), and I didn't know how long church was, but I'd probably be gone for the day before he returned, and I had no contact info for him. I wrote him a note with my phone number explaining myself as best I could and left it on the front door of the building. I also tried peering into each of the buildings on either side of mine to see if I could figure out where my packages were, but no dice. I set off for the day and hoped for the best.

The day went by and I didn't receive a call from him, and I returned home to find my note taken down, but no correspondence in its place. I had enough cat food for a few days so solving this package problem wasn't a top priority, but it still galled me. Today I received a text from the president of my co-op board saying a note was left for me today with a phone number on it. I assume it was from him, but the phone number was one digit short. I remain at an impasse.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mariinsky, Card, and art despite politics

Last week I joined my concert buddy Mark and some of his friends for the Mariinsky Ballet's performance of Prokofiev's Cinderella at BAM. Outside the venue was a group of people protesting the group's artistic director, Valery Gergiev, a supporter of Putin's annexation of Crimea and anti-LGBT legistation. I thought nothing of entering the concert hall and enjoying the performance, which was possibly the first live ballet I've seen as an adult. The last time I saw a staged Prokofiev production, it was his opera The Gambler at the Met, which I didn't care for, and it being the last of three operas I saw that year, I finally had to admit I simply don't care for opera. Dance seems to be a difficult medium by which to tell a story (it felt a little like a game of charades), but I enjoyed the music more.  There's much more that can be said about how Prokofiev's style changed in the thirty years between composing The Gambler and Cinderella, but this is neither a concert review nor a scholarly paper.

Victor Melamed's illustration from this New Yorker article about Gergiev
The program booklet showed the other performances in the Mariinsky's US tour, and I noticed that the orchestra would be performing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall. I love that piece, so I gathered Mark and Álvaro, another percussion friend, and bought tickets. Snow caused Carnegie Hall to close on Monday night (sadly postponing our friend Ian Shafer's Carnegie debut), but it reopened Tuesday for the Mariinsky concert, and I subwayed into Manhattan after two days of hunkering down in Brooklyn. I was remembering parts of the piece in my head on the way there, but there's a truly beautiful, climbing-out-of-the-darkness theme in the third movement that I'd forgotten about until a minute before it happened in the music. When it occurred to me, I gasped a little, and it was a wonderful way to experience the music, sort of like a surprise. After the third iteration of the theme, the music rushes to an end, which is appropriate.

The second half of the concert was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, which the program notes told me Shostakovich was forced by Stalin's government to withdraw (this is a supposition), and thus was not premiered until 25 years later, long after Stalin's death. Its compositional style was controversial and not in line with Russian standards of the time, which made it an interesting choice considering Gergiev's staunch support of the current Russian government. The protesters were outside Carnegie Hall just as they were outside BAM the week before, and on our way out, one of them screamed, "I hope you had a bloody good time!" implying that our attendance at the concert contributed to the deaths of thousands in Ukraine. Unexpectedly, seconds later, I was within earshot of another protester who said to us quietly and amicably, "Have a good night."

At both concerts I felt conflicted, the same way I felt reading Ender's Game on the subway ride there. Every liberally minded person must set aside at least a little trepidation before picking up a book by Orson Scott Card, the outspokenly anti-LGBT author of the Ender Quartet. When I posted on Facebook that I was considering reading Ender's Game, the overwhelming response was to read it despite Card's views, which manage not to make it into the novel in any noticeable way. In fact, the message of the book is largely positive and progressive.

It seems silly, and missing the point, to make decisions about which art to consume based on the political views of the artist, especially when the art is not in furtherance of said views. Yet, on the contrary, to call anti-LGBT sentiment a "political view" is also missing the point. Conservatives minimize the issue when they call LGBT rights political, which for LGBT people are deeply personal. I'm glad the protesters were there in front of the concert hall both nights. I went in anyway, and I don't think their goal was to keep me from doing so. They raised my awareness of the issue and I educated myself further, and I may decide to stay home and listen to a CD (or patronize a pro-LGBT ensemble, like, say, QUO) next time they're in town.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Please and Thank You (a premature book review)

I am reading Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and I am almost done, but I find I can't wait until I finish to write down a few thoughts. I'll make this post the staging area for what will eventually become my book review on Goodreads.

First of all, I really love Amy Poehler's writing. I'm not laughing out loud as much as I thought I would, but it's a memoir so that's okay. She's not just relating the story of her growing up, getting into improve, achieving success, etc. She's telling the tale but also drawing you in.

I like that she grew up in a town next to a much more affluent town, "the Eagleton to our Pawnee" as she puts it. I smiled when I read that.  I especially like that Rachel Dratch grew up in that Eagletonian town and they have a playful rivalry about it to this day.

Finally, I super, super love the "let's build a park" chapter (which I'm reading now) in which she talks about the genesis of Parks and Recreation. Annotations from Parks & Rec head writer Michael Schur are in the margins, and they are both hilarious and sweet.

"I am the common denominator in two failed Judd Apatow projects. Judd Apatow with me: zero dollars. Judd Apatow without me: two hundred trillion dollars."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Happy New Woods (a movie review)

In the past, when I was no more than a babe (well, no more than ten years old), I got my first glimpse of Into the Woods. It was my sleep-away camp's theater production, and I saw the prologue (that was all they showed the younger kids). Years later in high school, I watched the American Playhouse video recording at a friend's house. We got to the end of act one and I thought, "Well, that was delightful," and when I realized we were only at intermission I exclaimed, "It's not over?" I watched it many more times over the years and it became my favorite musical, and a gateway to other Sondheim shows, and from there, the rest of the genre.

Much has been said of the new Ron Marshall film adaptation, and I have read none of it (if there's anything worthy, links please), so at the risk of repeating what's already out there, here are my thoughts (WARNING: spoilers):

  • Loved it from beginning to end. I can play most of the original cast video in my head from memory, so I flinched when the movie deviated from that (which it did almost immediately), but went in prepared to forgive that, and forgive it I did.
  • Meryl Streep? Amazing, of course. I wondered how they were going to restore the Witch's "youth and beauty," and joked that Meryl has some of that serum from Death Becomes Her left over, but they did a fine job. Also Emily Blunt: amazing.
  • Christine Baranski: amazing and underused (of course it was the part, not much expanding to be done there). Tracey Ullman: amazing, and although her part was small I was satisfied. Frances de la Tour: of course way underused.
  • Johnny Depp: he was fine. His costume seemed to be an awkward compromise between wolf and human. No comment on the neutering of the sexual tension. Honestly that whole storyline has always been problematic, I feel, but at least the tone of the original Broadway production was silly and ridiculous. The tone of the movie was serious (see next bullet), so carving a live (and dry, and physically unharmed) Red and Granny out of the wolf seemed out of place, as was their treatment of "I Know Things Now."
  • The PBS telecast of the original Broadway production was laugh-out-loud funny, self-aware, and self-mocking, although dark. The movie is a fantasy adventure with funny moments, but an overall serious mood. In an interview with Playbill Rob Marshall notes that this was his intent. I suppose the stage show was for adults and the movie is Disney family entertainment.
  • The aforementioned Disneyification didn't bother me much, but I do object to the omission of Rapunzel's death. Rapunzel getting crushed underfoot by the giant throws the Witch over the edge, giving her the motivation to find Jack and deliver him to his death. It also makes her a sympathetic character for the first time in the story.  Without it, the Witch appears to be trying to, what, save the kingdom?
  • The Narrator/Mysterious Man was another casualty of the change in mood, but honestly I didn't mind. I think killing the Narrator in the stage show is a stroke of brilliance, but obviously they were trying to cut down on the killing.
  • I missed the "one midnight gone"/"two midnights gone" aphorisms ("Slotted spoons don't hold much soup"). It gave Granny something to do, for one thing, and for another, it gave us, "How do you know what you want 'til you get what you want and you see if you like it?" but again, it wouldn't have made sense with the mood.
  • The stage production was subtler about things, like the Witch's reason for sending the Baker out for the items. I guess they had to spell it out for the kids.
  • "Last Midnight" was amazing, and for the first time I was able to make out all the words at the end of it.
  • "Agony" was hilarious. Out of place, but not in a bad way.
  • The Baker isn't a funny character, so it's a shame we missed out on James Corden's comic genius.
  • I am not sad that they cut "No More." At that point in the musical, I'm always like, "Yes please god no more."
I suppose that'll do. Just bought tickets for the Roundabout Theater production, can't wait!