Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Guess where I'm going?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

I'm going to Texas on Halloween for a friend's wedding!

Oh, and also that Rally To Restore Sanity thing in D.C. the day before.

Fuck yea! It took some finangling (a lot of back and forth was had between me and me and friend-wth-car and bride-to-be this weekend about this) but I'm able to do both and I am so excited!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Doomed Lovers At The Train Station

Last Saturday, a friend gave me tickets to see the Broadway play, Brief Encounter. I knew nothing about it and went into the Studio 54 theater completely blind. My initial judgment of it was that it was very British and far too quirkiwhimsilicious (that's on the bad side of quirky where the whimsy feels forced).

By the end of the hour and a half, I was completely sold. Most plays try to transport you to a different time and place with the costumes and appropriate props, and director Emma Rice certainly had the stage decked out with pre-World War II nostagia. But it was really the intensity of the emotions portrayed by the actors and the literal interpretation of two lovers getting caught up in a torrent of emotions that left my insides feeling strangely raw.

For those who do not know, Brief Encounter is based on a Noel Coward and David Lean film from 1945 of the same name. Laura, a housewife, meets Alec, a young doctor who is married as well, by chance and they fall in love. The story is incredibly simply, but this does not diminish its tragic end. It's strange that in today's films we have to have something huge and substantial happen to the characters - someone's dying of cancer or there's a huge betrayal or there is a great sacrifice - for us to feel like it was something worth crying over.

With Laura and Alec, it was simply that they fell in love but could not be together because both had their own families. In the end, they had to "be sensible" – keeping their feelings buttoned up in their stiff period costumes, yet knowing that their hearts were irrevocably broken. I left the darkened theater feeling both alive and numbed by the sheer onslaught of emotions, and was astonished that I could feel these things after having initially felt disdain for the two lovers.

It was such a pleasant coincidence then that this week's New York Magazine did an article on the design of the play. The piece included this sketch below, which was created by Neil Murray, the scene-and costume designer. I think it perfectly encapsulates the tragic romance.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Food They Carry

This post is dedicated to Jen K. Stay safe in Iraq.

Ashley Gilbertson – a war photographer who I recognized as Dexter Filkin's colleague in his book, The Forever War (BEST BOOK EVER) – recently wrote an interesting article in The New York Times about the types of food that the troops in Iraq carry. Each country's combat ration hold practical items, but there are also foods that serve to remind a soldier of his home. The American Meals Ready to Eat (M.R.E.) include peanut butter and tortillas; the Swedes and Norwegians have cod stew with sour cream and potato; the Germans have goulash.

Gilbertson also put together a neat interactive where he photographed each country's combat ration and their foods against a lighted-up surface.* I included some of my favorites below. If you have some time, you should take a look at the article and click through the interactive.

United States - I love that they get skittles.

South Korea - Of course there's kimchi.

Ukraine - I really liked how bland and drab this country's food looked compared to all the other countries.

Ashley Gilbertson wrote:
In combat, eating is often the only good thing about a day. When a soldier or marine sits down to warm up his M.R.E., he’s not being shot at, he’s not losing friends. It’s almost a ritual, and the very act of opening one of these packages suggests safety, however brief it may be.

*It's sort of reminiscent of what David Littschwager did with his One Cubic Foot project in National Geographic - where he went to different locations and stuck an alloted space of about cubic foot, then took living organism out to photograph them and made it into a photo collage.

All photos by Ashley Gilbertson/VII Network, For The New York Times.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cannonball Read #34: Up In The Air by Walter Kirn

I finished Walter Kirn's Up In The Air in a day and a half. Just zoomed right through, and I felt like I was speed-reading at times. Kirn's writing style made me want to gobble up each following sentence, because all the observations of his protagonist, Ryan Bingham, were sharp and hilarious. I felt like I was getting a peek at 50 different stereotypes in a single paragraph, and I really enjoyed it.

If you've seen the movie, toss it out. The movie is great in its own right (I love the movie even though it depresses me), but the book that it was adapted from is very different. Ryan Bingham is a constantly air-bound corporate flack who is in "Career Transitions" (a euphemism for "He fires people for companies") obsessed with reaching the millionth-mile mark on his frequent flyer miles - that much is the same. However, he has already decided in the beginning that he wants to quit his job and is just using his company to get his last remaining miles in to hit his goal.

Much of the novel deals with his perfect schedule getting messed up or the general feeling that he is being messed with. You don't really sympathize with his frustrations so much as you laugh at them, and then cheer as he adapts to them (either with a swig of liquor or by popping pills). He spouts generalisms and platitudes throughout the book, but does not see that he himself is a stereotype. His fear of commitment and the way he keeps track of his miles only serve to remind us that he is running away from something. Ryan reveals a lot of information about himself, but only a few of them are valuable. It is our job to guess whether if he is sharing or if he is about to throw us a curve ball.

I'm not sure how Kirn managed to get me to root for such a jerk, but he did it. The only person Ryan was nice to (without an ulterior motive) was his screw-up kid sister who was about to get married for the third time. With everyone else, he calculates his advantage, their disadvantage, the possible outcomes - much like he does with his miles and his credit card rewards. Though he is completely screwed up, he knows it. It only took a million miles to figure it out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cannonball Read #33: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Like Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Isihiguro infuses When We Were Orphans with a sense of measured nonchalance. While reading, I could imagine Christopher Banks sitting across from me and just talking his thoughts out, just him and I having an easy conversation. But his words, the events that he speaks of, are a slow, gradual build up - like he is carefully trying to tiptoe around the real point of his story.

In the beginning, Christopher leads us through his high-society life in London and early success as a detective. He befriends a young lady, Sarah, who is also an orphan. He never talks about the cases that he is solving - there is almost a sense of, "But you already know, so why should I boast about my achievements?" - but fills us in on his childhood in Shanghai. He had moved to England after his father and mother disappeared, and in the second half of the book, he travels back to his old home country, now changed irrevocably by the Sino-Japanese War, to try and find out how he became an orphan.

It certainly says something about Ishiguro's craft that I can simultaneously be bored by his words and intrigued by the meaning behind his writing. I was curious about Christopher throughout the book. He may present himself as a very adaptable and intelligent person, but there are hints offered that this is not a universal perception. Early in the book, an old classmate referred to him as an "odd bird," while another later said that he was a "miserable loner." Christopher took offense to these characterizations because he felt that he had always been able to mimic his classmates in their normalcy.

There was also the impression that if he solved the case of his missing parents, the Sino-Japanese War would stop raging. At certain points, I wondered if we were in some alternate universe and that Christopher was being an unreliable narrator by neglecting to tell his that he was the Prince of England or something. Other times, I thought the other British expatriates were making fun of him and his self-importance by fawning over him and the extremely unlikely return of his parents.

In the end, I'm not sure these things matter. At first, I saw the story as a mystery with the discovery of Christopher's parents to be the end point. Throughout the book, I was disturbed by how his perception of himself and the perception that people had of him seemed incongruent. How could we trust his memories of his childhood and of his parents' disappearance? What is ironic is that his profession brings to mind an image of objectivity; the man has solved many difficult cases and been lauded as one of the brightest minds in London society. Yet his existence - the way he sees himself and sees the world around him - is such a fragment to me. Though I trust that he thinks his version is the truth, I do not believe it is the truth.

Does that even make sense? All I know is that after I finished the book, I was left feeling sad for Christopher. Not because of his parents or his missed chances with Sarah, but because he still managed to hold us at arm's length even after revealing the saddest events in his life. Is this the result of having lost his parents and never quite being able to come to terms with their disappearance? There are no answers about that, and Christopher is more than happy to ignore his unhappiness. However, for me, there remains a sense of a wasted life.

Cannonball Read #32: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Everyone's been raving about this book and I've been seeing it all over the subway, so when my friend lent it to me, I figured, why not?

Well, let me count the reasons why (not):

1) It is slow. I was promised a thrilling ride of mystery and intrigue. What I got was 200-plus pages of exposition before it actually got good.

2) I know that this book was translated from Swedish, but they really should have gotten a second English-speaking editor to look over the translated text. Because it just read so awkwardly - like it's been translated. (An example: "...kicked his backside" instead of "kick his ass/butt." Anything would have been better than "backside.")

3) I was at my local bar chatting with random people and mentioned that I was reading the book. They asked me which part I was at, I told 'em, and they said that I haven't gotten into the weird sexual parts yet and that it gets really good. I got to the weird sexual parts and I thought, "It took him 200-plus pages to get to this?" To say I was disappointed is a big understatement.

4) I wanted to know more about Lisbeth, and less about Mikael. Mikael annoyed me, and Lisbeth intrigued me. However, by the end, they had both aggravated me so thoroughly that I can safely say that I do not care about the rest of the trilogy.

For those who don't know the plot: This rich old man wants Mikael Blomkvist to study his huge household and find out what happened to his niece, who disappeared years and years ago. Mikael takes way too long to learn all the relatives' names and a couple months into his "investigation" (I call what he did in the first part of his year "crammed reading." I did it in college... during a weekend before finals) he makes some breakthrough and decides to hire Lisbeth Salander, a skilled researcher, to help him solve the mystery of the Missing Niece. Because obviously he realizes he did not have the skills to move ahead since it took him so effing long to get to a plot development.

Lisbeth is some enigma because she has lots of tattoos and doesn't like smiling or talking (Swedish people should come to New York. We are full of "enigmas" here). She has a checkered past and there are things referred to as The Bad Time. I assume this will be explored in the next two books but I honestly do not care. (Swedish readers, did Larsson really call it "The Bad Time" in Swedish? Seriously?) Lisbeth also freelances for some company that basically does background checks on people and her boss thinks of her as a friend/daughter/lusty object - but that's only because of her lack of talking/smiling and lots of tattoos.

During the course of this book, Mikael gets laid by three different women. I simply do not get it - he was a bore.

Look, I know this isn't supposed to be a great, important novel. But the plot dragged, and by the time I was ready to give up on it, it got exciting, so of course - since I had invested all that time on it - I had to finish it. And when I finished it, I was just annoyed. Because the payoff was really not worth it. Everyone disses Dan Brown books because they are stupidly written (they are) and there are some plot holes (oh God, so many) but at least his books are fast-paced and it gets into the action immediately.

Anyway, I just do not get the craze over this. However, I can see how it would make a great movie because they would (hopefully) gloss over all that BLAH BLAH BLAH SHOOT ME THIS IS SO BORING and get straight into the action.

Note: I am so annoyed at this book that I will not give it a header picture.