Friday, February 27, 2015

Accosting Strangers and I'm Reading Some Sarah Vowell

I saw one act of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser yesterday, which was really enough of it for me to be able to make fun of the plot in the future, so I'm all set. Wagner is not so much for me as a composer, and Tannhäuser is four and a half hours long, so it was a situation where you had to commit or get out. And I got out to my apartment, where I ate pretzel chips with hummus and watched Broad City.

The actually important thing to be gotten from the evening is I ran into Thérèse and Laurent from Thérèse Raquin, an opera I'm currently obsessed with and am seeing again Saturday. I'm also reading the book this week. Thérèse and Laurent are the leads, and they were also seeing Tannhäuser, as it has been talked about as a thing to be seen. I told them they had mad chemistry, because daaaaaamn.

 Ugh You don't even know. I'm about halfway through the book, but I'll tell you, I'd be nowhere near as into it based on how Zola's writing the two of them if I hadn't seen them makeout onstage first. THE MAGIC OF THEATAH.

Don't worry, I'm totally posting a review/summary of it after Saturday on my almost-never-updated opera blog. And probably reviewing the book here. Because VERY DIFFERENT FEELINGS ON THE TWO. I congratulate composer Tobias Picker on taking the good elements of the book and kind of shoving out the rest. Mmm. Art.

I'm reading Sarah Vowell's Take the Cannoli, which is the last books of hers I haven't read, so. Step it up, Vowell. Write more books. I was a downer at my cousin's bridal shower with info from your last one ("We're honeymooning in Hawaii!" "Oh, I'm actually reading a really good book right now about the US's illegal annexation of Hawaii") and now she has a baby. Who can talk and stuff. The time has come.

*googles like an enterprising person would have done in the first place*

Oh! She has a new book coming out in October called Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Very good then! Let's all read that.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Villette in March! A Timely Reminder

I'm pretty sure everyone forgot but ONE WEEK FROM TODAY we are starting Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Signup post is here. Next Tuesday, 3/3 is our first post, and it's chapters 1-5. We're gonna knock this one out. Slowly. And lazily. But still. Knock it right out.

"What do you know about Villette, Alice?"

Well, nothing, but after having skimmed some things, I can tell you that it is CB's third novel, and if Wikipedia isn't full of shit, its main themes are "isolation, how such a condition can be borne, and the internal conflict brought about by social repression of individual desire."


Based on some minor plot spoilers I've read, there's also possibly a parallel between the novel and that time Charlotte Bronte went to Brussels or something and fell in love with her teacher M. Heger and wrote him a series of embarrassing letters until his wife said "Cut that out right now."

This isolation and social repression thing makes total sense though if we think about the Brontes. 'Cause where'd they live? Nowheresville. So they had a certain amount of freedom to be weird (which Emily just ran with) but when they encountered society at large, and certainly I imagine when CB started hanging out in London, they had to curb that weirdness. I mean, if today we occasionally feel like Society is keeping us down, 1850s England must have been maddening.

Oh, I am looking forward to the discussion around this book.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir: Like the show I Survived, but in a stranded-on-an-alien-planet way

This book took me wayy longer to read than it took everyone else. 

This is because everyone else's review was "HAHA so funny this book is so great!" and I opened it prepared for uproarious Martian hijinks and read:

In the Hab, I have the oxygenator, a large piece of equipment that breaks apart CO₂ to give the oxygen back. But the space suits have to be portable, so they use a simple chemical absorption process with expendable filters.

Ok, let's be clear about something on this blog as it relates to me and the world: I. Hate. Science. I do not care about chemical processes; I don't want to do experiments unless they involve something fizzing, and even then, I want someone else to do them so I can watch. I didn't take the ACT because it has a science portion and I knew it would pull my score way down. In high school, lab reports were my single most disliked thing. My eyes glaze over, I'm super-bored, it's the worst.

So this book wasn't really written for people like me, and that is fine. Because a lot of people love science! Love love love. But as it stands, these were my comments during it:

In case you were unaware, The Martian is about a guy whose fellow crew members think died on a mission, so they leave without him, but -- boom! He is in fact alive! A good portion of the book is his journal, but, thank God, that's not the whole book. There are sections about NASA and what they're doing to save him once they realize that oh, hey, looks like our satellites are saying there's someone alive and abandoned on Mars.

This book is basically for really nerdy survivalists. "Could I survive on another planet! How! Please, book, tell me creative solutions for this problem." 

This book is NOT for liberal/fine arts people like myself who are completely resigned to and accepting of the fact that in that situation, we would die immediately.

Every liberal arts major on Mars

Despite the above, I didn't hate the book. It was fine. But like a solid 2.5/5 stars fine, because so very very much of the book is science, and talking about the step by step processes the narrator is taking to survive, and ahhhhhh I don't care. I ended up heavily skimming those sections and that made the book way better. 

Every now and then the author would flirt with some characters speaking to each other, but overall the book's setup seems ideal for a nerdy science writer since he's mainly spending the whole time monologuing and not having to get into the subtleties of human interaction.

So. Read it if you like science and science people. Or, y'know, don't. This book left me with zero strong feelings, which I guess in its own way is kind of damning.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When is a book group a gay book group, and other stirring questions

I feel like The Worst Reader, because I haven't finished a book since Barnaby Rudge last week. Which sounds maybe like one of those obnoxious things the more academically-minded kids said in high school, like "UGH I got a 93 on my Physics test," but...this is a book blog. And my only post this week has been about Meghan Trainor. And AS FANTASTIC AS SHE IS, she has verbatim said when asked about her favorite book, "I. do not. read. books." Which is of course fine, as some people prefer to live life or whatever, but as this is, again, a book blog, until someone writes a Tiger Beat Meghan Trainor biography published by Scholastic, she feels a bit off topic.

Ahhhh this is from her tour that I'm seeing in TWO WEEKS

I've been struggling through The Martian all this time. I'm also in two church book groups. The first is because my pastor wanted the young ladies to get together and read Facing Love Addiction (awww yeah). This is basically where we all get together and talk about past relationships and bond. So it's super-fun.

The other is the main book group, which I've been in for a few years and is the one that makes me read things like The Gnostic Gospels. We're now doing How Jesus Became God, which is written by an agnostic named Bart Ehrman who does A LOT OF RESEARCH and I respect that, but one member of our group *cough*Robert*cough* is a giant Bart Ehrman fanboy and believes everything he says and I like to make fun of him for this. I also like to not just blanket-believe Ehrman, 'cause come on. 

This book group's membership has shifted over time, but it almost always consists of like four or five gay men in their 40s/50s, a couple lesbians, and one straight person. It's the only time, even at my pretty gay church, that straight people are the minority. And it's not like we read gay books! We're all just super-into eating Thai food and discussing the history of Christianity. Which I promise isn't some obscure gay stereotype. Although, again, given the group's makeup, maybe it is and it's just that no one realized it until now.

I mean, I guess.

1/6 of the year is almost over and it just started, so what is going on. My whole "resolve to read more classics" has resulted in two classics being read (Carmilla and Barnaby Rudge), and me beginning Daniel Deronda and -- ha -- Crime and Punishment, which terrifies me because it seems to be all about Ideas and I am so bad at grasping Ideas. 

Please don't make me dig for your meaning, Dostoyevsky. I know you didn't have a lot to do in prison other than think about these things, but I got shit to do and I guarantee you at some point in your discourse on mankind I am wondering whether or not Meghan Trainor's gonna do her Can't Help Falling in Love cover at her Chicago concert, because while I have a bootleg version of that on my phone, I want to hear it in person, damnit.

HAPPY FEBRUARY (our high is -4 today). 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Meghan Trainor Is Great and Let's All Talk About That

Some of you might be aware I've been consumed by a slightly more than passing interest in Meghan Trainor as of late. I have never, repeat, never, followed a pop singer's career to this degree. There was a failed 8th grade attempt involving NSYNC where I purchased a magazine, cut out the pictures and stuck them all over my wardrobe while telling myself I had a crush on "I don't know, Lance, I guess." But this was all due to the mistaken notion that they sang "When the Lights Go Out," which is in fact sung by the British group Five. Once this was cleared up, down the pictures went.

Of course I picked you, Lance. Of course.

In the grand tradition of obsessive brains, I now have way too much info on Meghan Trainor and, in casual conversation, make myself offer up a highly filtered version of this information (haha jk "highly" filtered never happens for me and there is inevitably a moment of uncomfortableness where the other person says "wow, you...really know a lot about that topic").

I never understood before why people gave a shit about "acoustic sessions" someone did, or really any live performance. Their studio-enhanced recording was probably as good as it was gonna get. But MT recently went over to London and oh, yes I have watched every video of every radio show appearance she has done. Because they will inevitably either make her do karaoke to Nicki Minaj (SHE KEEPS UP; it is amazing) or hand her a ukulele and make her a cliched white girl, and it is adorable.

You are more than your ukulele, girl

Meghan Trainor's given a lot of shit, and I'm not sure why. Her sound is pop, but it's retro-pop, and she helped write it. She's been involved in music since she was a tiny person, which is good because she's only 21 and therefore it's not like "her whole life" is a huge amount of time anyway. But what I mean to say here is she KNOWS what she's doing, music-wise. She knows how to put a song together. She started out wanting to be a songwriter because she didn't think she'd be a performer. All About That Bass is 50% hers (meaning there's only one other songwriter credit on it, which is pretty awesome).

Yeah, she says some dumb stuff, but she's 21. I was saying a lot of dumb stuff when I was 21 (I mean, I'm still doing that, but I'm not aware of it yet). She claimed she's not a feminist, and she said some kind of ignorant things about anorexia, but they're honestly the exact same things I said in high school. And people're gonna tell her that she's got it backwards and she'll fix it.


1) Her music is catchy as hayll.

2) She made a mock-commercial for a Thanksgiving album on Jimmy Kimmel, and it's awesome.

3) She has a super-cute Southern accent EVEN THOUGH SHE GREW UP IN NANTUCKET. I attribute this to her brief time in Nashville.

4) She brought her dad to the Grammys and was really really proud of him the entire time. He also went to the after-parties with her and they danced.

So damn cute

5) She seems like a genuinely nice person. And I know that's an image you can craft, but every article I've read, even when trashing her, is like "ugh, ok, yes, she's really nice." And a lot of her fans are 12-year-old girls and she's setting an awesome example for them. Aside from the "I'm not a feminist" thing. Which is totally gonna get fixed.

I have tickets to see her at the House of Blues in March, and it's basically The Thing To Which I Am Most Looking Forward. I want her second album to come out right now. LISTEN TO HER FIRST ONE AND LET'S CHAT.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Barnaby Rudge: The Phantom Menace of Dickens novels

First of all, fuck Barnaby Rudge. This book took me three years to read.

There is just paragraph. After paragraph. After paragraph of description. Especially when the 1780 riots finally start happening. If I were Dickens's editor I would've crossed out at least 100 pages with "Are you fucking kidding me?" written in giant red letters.

me to Dickens for 85% of this book

Dickens is good at plots that tightly revolve around a central cast of characters, but when he expands that to a broader message, it becomes pretty Not Good. In Barnaby Rudge, he spends page after page after page summarizing the Gordon Riots, and it's terrible. Here is one example of said terribleness (DO NOT READ THIS WHOLE QUOTE it is not worth it):

The City authorities, stimulated by these vigorous measures, held a Common Council; passed a vote thanking the military associations who had tendered their aid to the civil authorities; accepted it; and placed them under the direction of the two sheriffs. At the Queen's palace, a double guard, the yeomen on duty, the groom-porters, and all other attendants, were stationed in the passages and on the staircases at seven o'clock, with strict instructions to be watchful on their posts all night; and all the doors were locked. The gentlemen of the Temple, and the other Inns, mounted guard within their gates, and strengthened them with the great stones of the pavement, which they took up for the purpose. In Lincoln's Inn, they gave up the hall and commons to the Northumberland Militia, under the command of Lord Algernon Percy; in some few of the city wards, the burgesses turned out, and without making a very fierce show, looked brave enough. Some hundreds of stout gentlemen threw themselves, armed to the teeth, into the halls of the different companies, double-locked and bolted all the gates, and dared the rioters (among themselves) to come on at their peril. These arrangements being all made simultaneously, or nearly so, were completed by the time it got dark; and then the streets were comparatively clear, and were guarded at all the great corners and chief avenues by the troops: while parties of the officers rode up and down in all directions, ordering chance stragglers home, and admonishing the residents to keep within their houses, and, if any firing ensued, not to approach the windows. 

IT IS THE WORST. I'm not sure what made Dickens want to write about the Gordon Riots of 1780, but he should've been slapped real hard when he first came up with the idea. 

And now, some background.

Barnaby Rudge was written in 1841 and comes after The Old Curiosity Shop, which is also not Dickens's best, but I'd say it's worth reading. Barnaby Rudge is worth being tossed into a fire with flames so hot they would burn the sun. It's Dickens's fifth novel and still very Early Period, meaning it's scattershot and unfocused (but doesn't rely on the charm of its characters to carry it through, so it just falls on its face). His very next novel was A Christmas Carol, so thank God he worked that shit out. Because Barnaby Rudge is so very very bad.

The characters are:

Barnaby Rudge. A young man who's apparently simple-minded, but speaks in weirdly eloquent sentences a lot of the time. I'm not sure Dickens knew how to write this sort of thing.

Sir John Chester. An evil politician who everyone thinks is super-gentlemanly and polite, but is in fact ORCHESTRATING the Gordon Riots because he is pissed at Mr Haredale. Sir John is also the father of Edward Chester. 

Mr Haredale. Guardian of Emma Haredale. Catholic.

Edward Chester & Emma Haredale. They're pretty sure they want to get married. Their parents def don't want them to. Edward goes overseas and makes a lot of money in the West Indies, since that's what you did back then.

Dolly Varden. Daughter of Gabriel Varden the locksmith. So pretty. SUPER pretty. Dickens really wants you to know this. But also coquettish, which means she has to learn A Lesson. Dickens likes teaching ladies lessons.

Joe Willet. Son of an innkeeper, in love with Dolly Varden. She's too coquettish so he goes and fights in the Revolutionary War and loses an arm. All because of Dolly and her lady-ways. They get married in the end because it's a Dickens novel and everyone dies or gets married.

Hugh. Works at Joe Willet's inn. Becomes a leader of the riots. Secretly Sir John Chester's son. Has a REALLY REALLY creepy/rapey scene with Dolly that squicked me out a whole bunch.

That Mysterious Dude from the Beginning. Barnaby's father, who killed Mr Haredale's brother ages ago. Ugh. This book.

There're also some comic/terrible characters like Simon Tappertit, who's an apprentice of the locksmith, and Miggs, the locksmith's wife's maid. They both have pretty horrible lives after the riots are over, 'cause sure, why not.

For what the Gordon Riots were, please see this post based on a book I read in three days and highly recommend, unlike this book, which again, is terrible. As to the plot here...Dickens spends so much time summarizing the riots and trying to get everything to tie into his characters, it's just intensely boring. It feels like a history book, but way worse because there're also these fictional elements you're supposed to care about but don't because he spends too much time away from them for you to get invested.

THAT BEING SAID, I was really giggly when Joe and Dolly got together at the end. They're intensely cute. But you could read their whole storyline in about 30 pages, and this book is close to 400. But at the end of the day, I's still Dickens. You read it and are so extraordinarily bored and then there's suddenly a part where you go

Because Dickens can be The Best. But here he is not. Starting, weirdly enough, in the preface, where he hastens to distance himself from Catholics, even though this is 1841 and not 1780:

However imperfectly those disturbances are set forth in the following pages, they are impartially painted by one who has no sympathy with the Romish Church, though he acknowledges, as most men do, some esteemed friends among the followers of its creed.
You know, I make jokes about "damned papists" and that sort of thing, but I don't want to minimize how much Catholics in England SUFFERED from the 16th through the 19th centuries. And Dickens kind of points that out, but then he's a dick about it. But he also has phrases in this book like "drowsy little panes of glass," and describes John Willet as "a burly, large-headed man with a fat face," and check out this description of weather:

It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickle and changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecided whether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in its uncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other, and now to both at once--wooing summer in the sunshine, and lingering still with winter in the shade.

Damnit, Dickens. How are you SO GREAT sometimes, but also the absolute worst. On a similar note, his observations about life that were obviously gleaned from the hours upon hours of solitary walking he did around London are SO SPOT-ON, and you read them and just go "Sir, you get it. Your brain is magnificent. But why did you misuse it for this novel, WHY." But check this out:

To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven's gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens.
"To have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep." Ahhhhhhh. It makes me love him even though I spent a ridiculous amount of time cursing this book and coming up with the infinitely clever alternate title Barnaby Trudge. 

It was such a misstep for Dickens, and I'm glad it didn't sink him early on. People were probably still weeping over Little Nell when it came out, so maybe that helped him along. But oh man, it's so bad. No one's heard of it because no one should have heard of it. I cannot tell you how little I'm looking forward to his one other historical novel, Tale of Two Cities. Yes, it's much later in his career, but I don't trust him at all with history now. He's so good at taking a group of people and illustrating larger truths about humanity, that when he's talking about humanity itself on this grand scale, he gets lost.

Barnaby Rudge: It's the Worst.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Women's Retreat 2015: The Experience

"Alice," you ask me, "how does an annual Presbyterian women's retreat work?"


You all drive to the retreat center, which doubles as a home for retired nuns, and sign up for your room (everyone gets their own room/bathroom). The retreat center has three floors, and if you don't want to be disturbed by the noise from people staying up late, you should get a room on the third floor. In my case, I sign up for one of the precious third room floors despite the fact I am well aware I will be one of the noisy staying-up-late people I am apparently trying to avoid.

My church partners with another church from a close suburb of Chicago, and has for 31 years. We see these women every February, and our two groups make up somewhere between 50 to 60 people. The average age is about 45, but there are people there from ages 29 to 88.

After checking in, dumping your stuff and putting sheets on your bed, you wander downstairs, saying hello to people and then wandering back upstairs because everyone else seems to have a purpose down there and you are aimless. There's a cushy rocking chair in your room with a view of Lake Michigan that you forgot to take a picture of because A) You are an idiot and B) Your phone is in airplane mode for the weekend and you forget about its use except as a clock.

The first night, there is soup, because ladies and soup, amirite? And there are so many KINDS of soup! And all the dipping bread you could want. Ah, it is a magical time. 

allll the ladies with crockpots, Ariana

Then we meet our retreat leader, have the first session, eat snacks and chat. Friday night's pretty low-key. 

The retired nuns serve breakfast from 8 to 8:30, so everyone pads down to the dining hall in their slippers and eats. I go overboard on Cheerios because I don't buy them at home. There's encouragement to mix it up a little, so you sit with some women from the other church. Then off! Off you go to the morning session, where you are either talked to for an hour, or broken up into small groups to get to know other ladies and share.

The rest of the day is lunch (same dining hall, same padding down to it), afternoon session, and then! There is always a craft: last year we made soul collages. A buffalo figured quite prominently in mine. This year you could decorate paper cutouts of people because our theme was body and mind wholeness. 

Craft time is also super-awesome-relaxing-fun time. A lot of people take naps. Some people walk down to the lake, because Lake Michigan is appx 20 feet from the retreat center. This year a big group walked to the lake, then at someone's insistence, everyone held hands and leaned back to look at the sky. Then we all started moving in a circle and singing Hava Nagila, and my amazing friend Rebecca said "...there are times when I realize we're doing exactly what people think we're doing on these retreats."

A smaller group of women walked further down to the lake and stood on what's normally a beach, but is currently covered by snow & ice. I ended up lecturing on Frances Willard, because WHY WOULDN'T I. 

I mean, I have my own name tag

There's another session in the evening, then there is Saturday night revelry. Saturday night is usually people's favorite because it's when everyone eats snacks, drinks wine, and sits around & chats. This year we had a dance party. PICTURE IF YOU WILL, 20 ladies moving in a circle to The Loco-Motion, and then an 85-year-old joining in and getting really into it. We ended on Dancing Queen. It was pretty much all you could hope for.

Sunday you pull yourself out of bed, go to breakfast again, then have morning session, followed by a worship service we plan ourselves. I'm in the music group every year because I'm on the planning committee. Then! we eat a meal that mainly consists of pita bread & hummus (so, what I eat all the time anyway) and then head out. 

Ah! I have neglected one of the mainstays: my Cheez-Its picture. This is probably the most useless tradition in my life, including the one where I dance to Back in Time every fall Daylight Savings Time, but the way this came about was six years ago, I was on the retreat and missing a VERY IMPORTANT EPISODE of Battlestar Galactica where Roslin & Adama kissed for the first time. So I called my friend Kory from a corner of the main room, clutching a box of Cheez-Its and making her tell me everything that happened in obnoxious detail. I was photographed with said box and then it...became a thing. Thanks, Battlestar.

So! Women's retreat 2015. If I could make you all go next year, I would. No internet, no TV, just a bunch of ladies talkin' about lady things. It is the swellest.