Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Friends From Everywhere

This weekend, I'm going to head up to New Hampshire to see the brand new baby of a pair of dear friends. I drove up to a different hospital when their first child was born, too. These are friends who will be at my wedding this summer, who I can laugh with, who have one of the few children I willingly spend time with (certainly the closest kid I hang with), who I would go through a brick wall for. They are some of the most exceptional people I know - brilliant, noble and strong. I love them dearly, and I can't wait to meet their new son, whose texted picture I have flashed around to friends like he was my own blood relative.

I met these friends on the Internet.

The Internet is a funny place. I'm a part of the first generation or two of Internet users for whom the Internet is fully integated into their lives. I Facebook like crazy, I blog here, I check email continually, I Twitter, I connect with the Internet through phone and computer. With so much use, people like me are bound to meet other people floating around out there in the ether. Some of these people - just like people in the elevator or in the coffee shop - will strike a chord with you, and you'll become friends. I know all the stereotypes and the truths. The Internet is full of child molesters and weirdos...everyone's living out a personality of their own fabrication...bad people are out there trying to get you. I know all this, but I also know that some of the best people I know are people I met online.

I want to be clear here. Without some of the people who I have met, I would not be who I am. I never would have started writing creatively if not for Ubersite. If not for my creative writing, I would probably not have started writing speeches. Rich said at our Clearness Committee meeting the other day that he fell in love with me partly because of the way I wrote on that site...hell, Rich and I MET on Icecats message boards. I would not know The Lucy, who is one of my bridesmaids and who drove up from Pennsylvania to go to a David Sedaris book signing with me in Boston. I would not have an adorable little girl yelling "I love you Miss Josie" as I left her house. My life would be different. I start with this because I don't want people to pooh pooh what follows.

On March 26th, a woman who I haven't ever met died of leukemia in Texas. Her name was Amanda Amos, and she was the originator of the Cannonball Read project. She was 33, which is a ridiculous age for anyone to die, much less someone with a three year old son. She was sharply funny, incredibly well spoken and smart as a whip. She was a commenter on Pajiba, a movie site that I don't comment on very often but read daily. The response to her death has been overwhelming, and I cannot help but be moved not only by the tragedy of her death but by...hell, by the renewed hope for humanity the response has given me. People who had never met her in person were sending letters and books and flowers and all kinds of gifts, just to make her fight a little easier. The Internet might show us the worst of humanity, in the form of Dateline specials and horror stories from the evening news, but it so often shows us the best of it, too...the caring people can have for each other and the love.

The Pajiba crew is trying to get a coordinated effort going towards donating to a scholarship fund for Amanda's son. If you have an extra $5 this month, or an extra $20, please consider sending it to taking care of a kid who lost someone spectacular too soon in his life. It's tough out there for all of us -we need to help each other bear up until it gets sunny out again. Even if you're too strapped to send money, please consider donating blood or getting on the Bone Marrow registry. It's something good you can do that costs nothing and could make the difference in someone's life. Please consider it, for the sake of all the friends you have, had and will yet have, no matter where you find them.

Excellent Customer Service in an Age of Mediocrity: London Sole

I know I have been high on superficial junk and cosmetics lately and not very good at...you know, substance, but a.) I have a heavier post to go up later tonight and b.) I like superficial crap so no offense but this is a fucking star, I run it, and you have no say. Sorry. I do KIND of feel bad so I'm going to try and do less of this, but I recently had an experience that was a breath of fresh air and I want to give credit where credit is due. There are a lot of companies out there that suck at customer service and our natural human tendency is to bitch about bad service far more than we praise exceptional service, so I'm bucking the trend and passing the kudos along.

I recently ordered a pair of ballet flats from London Sole. I ordered a pair of Lowcut flats in a cute navy fabric with white polka dots, which were on sale. I got a message from Maggie at London Sole informing me that they did not have the Lowcuts in the navy and white, but they DID have the same fabric in a Pirouette cut, which is very similar. When I called back, I got a human on the phone on the second ring and then was quickly connected to Maggie, who was extremely nice and helpful. She reviewed the problem, then told me they would send me the Pirouettes in the correct fabric at no extra charge. Pirouettes were NOT on sale, which meant that they wiped out a price difference of $105. They didn't really HAVE to do that, but they did, without a single word about the price. Right on.

I was already really happy with the way they had handled my problem when my shoes arrived. I was even more impressed when the package got to my doorstep. The shoebox was wrapped in purple tissue paper, and had a handwritten note on it:
"Dear [Josie], Enjoy your new London Sole flats! Please let us know if the size fits well or if you need anything else! Thanks! London Sole Team xx" Again, they didn't need to do this, but it probably took thirty seconds to write and added a lovely personal touch. The shoes fit perfectly and look great!

Thank you thank you thank you to London Sole, for not only making a great product but having people who answer your phones and solve problems efficiently and with immense charm!

Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 Budget = SOLVED

Last week, something great happened. The Swedish Pirate Captain - also known as Work Friend Joe - came around the corner with a paper in his hand. "JOSIE," he said, "I'm so glad you're here today! I solved the budget." Clearly, this was going to be excellent.

For those of you who can't read the writing (clicking will make it bigger), Work Friend Joe's brilliant budget plan for 2009 begins with "Giving Billions to Goldman Sachs." Then, a spur heads off wherein we "Appoint Goldman employees to key government positions." The other leg of the plan heads down by way of "Solar-Powered Healthcare" to "REPUBLICAN ROAD TO RECOVERY," then terminates with "Sarah Palin in 2012."

Is it so much less clear and/or logic-based than what's actually being offered by the Feds?

Friday, March 27, 2009

More Stuff I Like (Now Phthalate Free!)

Today is the day I really like things I have been mean to repeatedly over time. I am probably too judgmental but what can I say, it's all part of my charm.

As we know, my 3-of-7-day(s) job is at an energy conservation company that I totally love. One may assume that this means I am into all kinds of hippie crap like not washing my hair and using those reusable grocery bags and riding a recumbent bike to work and stuff, but unfortunately this is not true. It's not totally false - I do try and keep my environmental impact low by recycling and keeping lights turned off that I'm not using, etc., but when it comes to certain things, I put on my Arrogant Douchebag Hat and say "gimme the chemicals, baby!" The main place this pops up is in my makeup and bath stuff, unlike that used by Celia who is way better about reading labels and not coating her body with deadly, deadly poison. She's always recommending these fabulous products to me and I get really excited about them for about thirty seconds and then invariably wind up running in to the Brooks Pharmacy in a rush and buying something that actually has a label on it saying "this is full of active irritants" or whatever and not the thing made out of plants that's way better.

When I do manage to buy things that are made of plants, it's very exciting for me when they work because then I can tell Celia I bought something that's not radioactive, and the relationship flourishes. Such is the case with the J.R. Watkins Shea Butter Body Cream that I bought on Wednesday while en route to the Booster Banquet to defend against the peeling that is happening on one of my arms (thanks, weird body). Here's the reality, people - I am a sucker for old timey packaging. I saw this on the shelf and it was a done deal. It is merely by chance that it works well and is magically green. It's paraben, dye and phthalate free, and it's super moisturizey and smells good. Apparently Bath and Body Works does currently or once did sell it and you can also buy it on their online store, but as I said above, I bought it at regular old Walgreens. The thing about the smell though...well. Do you remember those Girl Scout sandwich cookies with the picture of the Swiss Chalet on the top cookie that had a little place for the filling to squish out so it looked like the sun? Yeah, this stuff smells like that.I guess today is also the day I talk about sugar based products because the other new thing I love is Pink Sugar by Aquolina, which Sephora sent me as a sample. Those bastards. Anyway, I liked the packaging on this, too- it came wrapped like a candy in a festive little packet. However, I have never really felt that drawn to Pink Sugar (Sephora features it frequently), so soon after receiving it, I was talking to Cindy and said "now, I like cotton candy and all, but I have to admit that I've never been particularly inclined to want to smell like it." Here's a secret about me...if you leave me near cosmetics long enough, eventually that shit is getting put on my person. So I tried the sample and it smells fantastic on me. I don't know why. I assume physics has something to do with it. But I love it and now understand why Sephora's always on about it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

More Stuff To Put On Your Face

So YAY I got some new makeup (the previous batch was not really new, I just hadn't written about it), and I would like to tell you about it because it's SPRINGY and I love that spring is here.
First of all, Sephora claims corals and pinks are in for spring, which I don't know about either way, but boy, I really like this coral-red eyeshadow in Emmanuelle from NARS. Now, to see if it looks okay on me. Report to follow.
Dior's makeup is not cheap. This is probably good, because otherwise I'd be swimming in it. However, it is totally worth it. I got their Dior Addict High Shine lipstick in Runway Red (see swatch above) and it looks amazing. The lipstick itself isn't cakey or greasy, it's just nice and soft. The color is excellent, with little enough pigment that it lets your own lips do the heavy lifting while still adding shimmer and slight development of color. Plus, the packaging is freakin' sweet. I can't recommend Dior's makeup enough; I know it's pricey but it works and it will last until you die. I currently have this, their 5-Color Eyeshadow Compacts, DiorShow mascara, Dior Addict and Addict Shine perfume, and two of their lip glosses from the Addict line. I use all of them and I love them all equally.
Buxom Lips...ohhhh my God I love Buxom Lips. I got their full color version in Vanessa (the bottom shade) and totally loved the richness of color and the tingly lip-plumpitude. It has just a little bit of tingle to it that makes your lips feel fresh and happy, and does a great job moisturizing even my crappy ass chapped winter lips. This is a feat of the first order. I bought a gloss this time with a sheer fuschia tint to it, called Melonie. I must warn you - this particular color looks like the 80s in a tube. It's neon pink looking. BUT, it's gorgeous on. It's the perfect spring shade, almost corally but a bit more pink. Plus, if you have some wintertime pastiness in play, it will be cute on you too as you transition to a more t

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Amalfi Dozing in the Sun on a Train but Not Quite Dreaming

After Christmas, Sephora has a GIANT sale which is temping and generally evil. I bought a couple items; the Ojon "The White Ball" which was made exclusively for Sephora, $30 marked down from $65 (I use "The Ball" which is brown, smells like chocolate and exfoliates like a mother. I like them both but I think they're a bit ridiculous at $65 and just over the got-a-deal side of reasonable at $30), and the "Amalfi Dream" collection from Vincent Longo for I believe about $30 marked down from whatever, something I wouldn't have considered previously. I am a sucker for Italy-themed items, so my brain got all pingy about "Ooh, the Amalfi Coast!" and eventually this overrode my questions about whether these colors would right for me.
Ultimately, it was a little of both. The eyeshadows and lip gloss were great colors for me, but the liner and lipstick are a little cool for my skin tone. The big revelation was the texture of the products. Vincent Longo is one of those crazy enterpreneur types who was working photoshoots and fashion shows and getting all creative with mixing up his own goops in the back room, and he finally developed it into his own makeup line. The result is generally excellent.

I cobbled together some bigger pictures, because the one above is kind of teensy. In the Amalfi Dream collection, I got (clockwise from upper left): an Eye Shimmer Souffle in Lily Mist, a Velvet Riche Lipstick in Sexy Lady, a sample size of The Curl mascara, an eyeshadow trio in Orbit Dusk, a Perfect Shine Lip Gloss in Amalfi Dream and (not pictured) a Duo Eye Pencil in Soft Pink/Passion. The quality of all of these is excellent; they all stay put and last well. Here's a blow-by-blow.
  • The Eye Shimmer Souffle in Lily Mist has great color, but is the only product I have some trouble wrangling. You have to kind of stick your finger in the little pot and mush it around on your eyelid, which makes it a little hard to apply with precision. It's very shimmery but if you use too much, it takes on that Too Much Shimmer = Greasy effect. I have tried applying it with a brush and with a Q-Tip as well, but it tends to want to stay on the brush or Q-Tip. Sponges might be the answer, but I haven't tried them yet. In any case, the color as I said before is stunning, a really nice light springy pink with nice shimmer.
  • The Velvet Riche Lipstick had really fantastic texture. It's super creamy and actually moisturizes (unlike those junky lipsticks from the CVS that claim to do so). The problem I have is that it's just the wrong color for me. Sexy Lady is a cool, almost mauvey color, and it makes me look like an elderly person who just came out of cold water. Not good for me. BUT! I would totally by this lipstick, just in another color.
  • The Curl mascara was the biggest revelation for me of this collection. I am generally sceptical of claims that a product that's not an eyelash curler will curl my eyelashes, particularly when it's followed by a discussion of how said product is all natural and does this magic through oils and plants and shit. However, this...actually did. The brush is very fine and separates your lashes really well for even application. I can't believe it, but it does also curl your lashes. I have since bought a tube of it. It's not waterproof, but it stays put, so unless you're planning to swim in it, you'll probably be okay.
  • Orbit Dusk is a combo of a metallic violet color, a nice strong bronze and a shimmery pale gold. The three colors can be made to work for pretty much any time of day, though as always with darker purples, you need to use sparingly for daytime wear. Very pretty pallette and the powder stays put and doesn't crease.
  • The Amalfi Dream lip gloss has a soft golden tone to it. There's some more of the cool tone of the lipstick, but it's so slight here that the overall effect is warm and shimmery. The gloss wears really well and does not have that goopy lip gloss feel, which is MUCH appreciated. Feels more like a chapstick.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"...But An Idea Lives On."

"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on."
- John F. Kennedy at Greenville, NC, Feb. 8, 1963

John F. Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents, not for the usual worshipful reasons you see from people who idealize the whole Camelot concept, but because of the way he addressed the American public. For me, a large part of what makes the quintessential American is a certain ingenuity and daring, and Kennedy banked on that creative spirit perhaps more than any other President. He wanted to create drastic change in the world and - I think - knew he couldn't will those changes into being on his own, either because there isn't enough force of will in the world to make Americans go quietly along or else because he wanted Americans to put their own stamp on his vision for the country.

To this end, he tended to speak of ideas and of lofty goals...no 30 point plans here. When President Kennedy came to address America, he did so in a way that encouraged them to engage their imaginations. One need look no further than that iconic line from his Inaugural address, as he asked Americans to ask what they could do for their country, but one can and should look further to see just how often he tasked the American public with finding their own way to restore certain fundamental ideals and moving forward to shape the country they wanted to live in.

One of the things most closely associated with Kennedy's short term was the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration. Kennedy loved space, for a variety of reasons ranging from "there is cool stuff up there" to the defense possibilities. He also loved it for the romantic thinking it engendered in the American people and the creativity it inspired. I mean, realistically, who gives a crap about space? It's far, it's cold, it's generally hostile to humans...but there's something about that wide open expanse of stars that gets you thinking about what's there and how to go touch it and look at it and breathe it in. To some extent, it's sheer luck that NASA has been as productive as it has been and continues to be, in both its official capacity and in the Department of Inventing Things by Accident. But the thing is, regardless of how useful it is, NASA and our collective adventures in space give us something to dream about and create our own idea of, something undefined that we can find our own way towards. NASA's achievements also stand as testaments to how much we can do...if we can go to the moon, just think of what else we could do right here on Earth.

I watched the space shuttle go over my house last night. It looked like a quickly moving star. I stood out in my driveway, looking actively crazy in my pajama pants and heavy bear-hunting coat and waved at the sky. I thought for a while about how cool it is that we - humans, Americans - can do things like launch ourselves into space, fly like birds, make ourselves like stars. That's pretty damn cool.

Makes you think about what else you could do, doesn't it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #26: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

Full disclosure:
  1. Most of what I previously knew about Twilight, I learned from the Bumper Sticker application on Facebook.
  2. What I learned about it via that route made me scared, vaguely hostile and confused.
  3. That information included: Edward Cullen is a vampire. Edward drives a silver Volvo. Edward is sparkly. Someone named Jacob is involved. There are a lot of teenage girls with seriously unbalanced approaches to their love lives.
  4. I have poked a lot of fun at Twilight without having read it.
  5. I felt kind of bad about that.
Luckily, I no longer have to feel bad about it, because every single last swipe I took at this stupid ass book was 100% justified and dead on. Oh my God, what a waste of paper...LOTS of paper, too, I mean, this is probably the book that's going to make Tolkien a prophet. I see someone reading laughable sections of this tripe out loud under a tree, and the tree will hear it and be like "yo, my neighbors got hacked down so people could print THIS shit on their dead, pulped carcasses? FUCK THAT NOISE," and then the next thing you know all the trees achieve Ent-style sentience and are headed for Meyer's publisher reading to wreck shop. I say right the fuck on. This book is offensive to such a broad swath of my sensibilities I hardly know where to start.

Let's start with the more clinical problems, shall we? How about the horrible fucking writing? When it's not just straight up boring and unimaginative prose (which would just render it a mildly boring but inoffensive beach book), it's completely over-comma-ed with superfluous phrases all over the joint. I give you this gem: "I quickly rubbed my hand across my cheek, and sure enough, traitor tears were there, betraying me." The reason for the crying is as stupid as the crappy writing but I assure you, we will get to that soon enough. Here's the thing...traitors? Betray. That is the nature of a traitor. Adding "betraying me" at the end doesn't make you sound deep or soulful, it makes you sound unfamiliar with what your chosen adjective is. This is a constant problem in Meyer's book; she just doesn't know where to stop. If not for those last two words, that sentence wouldn't be nearly as horrid - it would still be dumb in context, but again, that's content - but in a lame attempt to add...whatever to her piece, Meyer adds all this extraneous crap that just clunks along, sucking the bag as it goes.

Also, this book is actually about 200 pages. If you shucked off all the repetitive junk she's packed into this behemoth, it would be a trim, quick read. But no, we need to hear nine thousand times the most boring details of Bella Swan's braindead high school life. Ohhhhh boys like her but she's in love with Edward. Ohhhh her friends are drama queens. And lest we forget the most important theme - Edward being dangerous. Let me do you a favor:

"I'm so dangerous! But I can't stay away. Even though I am dangerous."
"I don't care! I'm too retarded to comprehend the threat you pose to me! Plus you are pretty!"
"But I am DANGEROUSLY pretty. I constantly want to cause you harm - it is my nature. Stay away! But don't leave me."
"I will never leave you! I am a hazard to myself and others, as evidenced by the fact that I fall down a lot! Also you may have heard that I am an idiot!"
"You cannot be trusted to save yourself...so I must save you. From myself. Because I am dangerous. BUT I CANNOT STAY AWAY."

There you go. That is the whole fucking book. I just saved you 498 pages and several non-refundable hours of your life. Feel free to send presents to me any time. The amount of time and ink completely wasted in the process of relaying the same thought over and fucking over again is absolutely staggering. In The Club Dumas, one of the characters mentions the cheapness of modern bookbindings and how we have all these aged relics but today's writing will eventually disappear because we didn't treat it with respect? Yeah, well, THANK GOD, in this case. Our posterity would destroy the social order and start from scratch if they found out we read - and in some cases, FREAKED OUT OVER - this crap.

Most of all, though, this book pokes me right in the feminist. It is 2009, people. No one has to waste time on simpering and fainting daintily. And yet THIS is what we offer up to young women as the model of a great relationship. Let me be clear with you, ladies...this is not a good relationship. This is ABUSE. This is a situation that calls for a restraining order. If some dude is coming into your room at night unannounced to watch you sleep (particularly, I should note, if this person has spent about 150 pages telling you how dangerous to you he is because he wants to drink your blood), that is not romantic, it is STALKING. If he treats you like you're incapable of functioning, you need to tell him to go pound sand and remind him that you somehow managed to live before you met him. If he orders you around and sometimes physically restrains you in order to get his way? CALL THE FUCKING POLICE.

Christ on a bike, this is the stuff that makes me want to go have a hysterectomy. And lest we forget - it's not just teenage girls who love this stuff and idolize Edward. Oh no no no. You know how I came to have a copy of this to read? My Mom's idiot book club is reading it, because all the ladies just loooooove it (My Mom disagrees, thank the dear sweet Lord. You know why? Because my Mom is awesome). What grown woman looks at this situation and says anything except "yo...that's fucked up"????

And did I mention this part?: "I knew I was far too stressed to sleep, so I did something I'd never done before. I deliberately took unnecessary cold medicine - the kind that knocked me out for a good eight hours."

Or the part where Edward is STILL all So Dangerous, But Cannot Stay Away on page, like...400?

What a waste of time. I understand the draw of this shitshow even LESS now. I didn't even think that was possible. My god. I don't even know what to recommend as an alternative. If you like this stuff, or God forbid, think there's any quality involved, there is literally nothing I can recommend to you that you'd be able to process. Go...run around in the yard or something. Ugh.

498 pages

Cannonball Read #25: Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin (ed. Henry Hardy)

At one point while I was reading this, I turned to Tricia and read her one of Berlin's beautiful, long sentences about the nature of liberty and then said, "now, can you imagine anyone listening to that on the radio, much less several hours of it?" Of COURSE you can't...why? Because the Common Man fears words with more than five letters now! That's fucking sad, because let me tell you, this collection of essays is stunning, well presented and clearly rendered. People should be thinking about what it truly means to be free and even more importantly, about what type of freedom they want.

Berlin originally gave these essays as BBC radio addresses in 1952, fairly early in what would be a long and prolific philosophical career. The lectures were a massive hit and really jump started Berlin's career. (Again...can you imagine this happening today? That was only fifty-odd years ago, folks.) In the essays, he explains six modern philosophers' thoughts on the nature of human liberty and then proceeds to rip them apart. He takes on Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and De Maistre, all of whom are mainstays of political thought. I am not woman enough to summarize Berlin's already excellent explications of these men (plus you should read this for yourself), but in each man's thought, Berlin sees repression, rather than expansion, of human liberty. It's a fascinating look at political theory that's normally accepted at face value as a quantum leap forward in social development.

No political theorist or philosopher comes to the plate announcing that they don't care about the best possible solution to the problems faced by humans needing to live near each other. The men Berlin presents were some of the most ardent pursuers of what they believed to be the ultimate in human freedom, putting forth doctrines that they believed would produce an ideal social order. Berlin, however, feels that these ideas constrict actual human liberty, and in some cases do irrevocable damage to freedom. It's fantastic to consider these famous concepts from a different standpoint.

This is part of my experiment that I like to call "I Don't Know Much About Intellectual Conservatism and Feel Like I Should Know More," and frankly, if all intellectual conservatism (read: neo-conservative stumpmen and pundits, you are not invited to this party) is as lucidly presented and beautifully written, I am SO on board for more.

208 pages

Cannonball Read #24: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

I read Ethan Frome in my freshman year of high school and hated it so much I wanted to kill it and myself. Oh my God, the pointless angst and the sledding and the EPIC BORINGNESS WOVEN OF FAIL AND GROSSNESS. I hated it. I should note that my freshman English teacher was kind of horrid and the only redeeming part of the class was the reading of To Kill A Mockingbird, even though she did her level best to make that terrible as well. Luckily, she has since retired and her post has been taken over by one of my former classmates who is very smart and very funny and who I trust is kicking ass and taking names.

So anyway, I hated Ethan Frome and this hate killed off any interest I had in reading Edith Wharton. As I got older and dug more into the literary world, however, I kept running into people talking about how great The House of Mirth was and how "boy, Edith Wharton was one interesting, hardcore human," and gradually I started considering rekindling my relationship with her. Then one day I was in Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough (vastly inferior to former Old School Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester, R.I.P) and The Custom of the Country was on the $2 shelf, so I picked it up and said "better not let me down again, Wharton," and then breezed through to the checkout line as people backed slowly away from me for fear that I was perhaps more than a little crazy.

BRIEF SEMI-TANGENT: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Everyman's Library, for making nice, well-bound, durable copies of classic literature that I can drop repeatedly, bend open the binding on and generally abuse without significant damage to the book itself. Everyone can go buy lots and lots of Everyman's Library books here. (Oh my God, NOOOOOOOO, don't tell me they have a Best Of collection! How do they expect me to ever have money ever?)

Okay ANYWAY, The Custom of the Country. Great book. I have issues with Period Society Novels, a la the Jane Austen type works about how people navigated society and still found a stiff, parent-sanctioned type of love, etc. I find it very hard to understand why anyone put up with the abject idiocy of the class system when it went so hard against their desires. There are obvious economic and political advantages to the system, but I find that few books successfully show why individuals would ascribe to the system even when it was clearly Not Working For Them. Give me a Becky Sharp before an Elizabeth Bennet ANY day, is my point; repugnant though Becky may frequently be, at least she's making her life work for her instead of spending her days talking shit about the class system while clinging desperately to its rules and regulations. In Wharton's depiction of New York society, she successfully shows what the hell the members of polite society got out of it and why they chose to stay within its construct.

Undine Spragg is a big fish who has outgrown her local pond. She has the natural beauty to make a break for New York, and her parents take her there with high hopes. She is completely domineering and manipulates her parents and those around her without a care. She continues this trend when she makes a society marriage to the dreamy Ralph Marvell, a poet with no real taste for business. Wharton draws an interesting contrast in the two halves of the relationship; while Undine seems to care only for the trappings of business, she is actually far better at it than Ralph. When their eventual divorce comes along, she is able to really take these business skills out for a drive and as an independent actor, is able to better realize her true potential. She is the face of new American society, where there is more business than polite bons mots and the latest fashion. Needless to say, I like Undine's style because she uses manners, traditions and fashion to their greatest effect - as tools for social adventuring.

Good book, lively prose, interesting look at New York society and to some extent European society, excellent statement on the American marriage and correspondingly, American divorce. Much better than Ethan Frome, which sucks and is about nothing.

413 pages

Cannonball Read #23: The Stranger, by Albert Camus & The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

I combined these two books to sneak over the 200 page requirement because I think together they present a stunning consideration of how one should live. I'm going to monitor my guilt levels to decide whether to read an additional book to assuage my guilt at this jury rigging of page quotas. To be fair, both books are certified Notable Literary Achievements and together gave me several days of productive deep thinking, so my guilt levels are not too high if I'm honest with myself.

The Stranger is a sad, odd little story about a man - whose surname alone is mentioned, Meursault - so ambivalent about life that he more or less commits a murder by accident. All of his relationships are superficial, and his life just happens to him. The story opens with the death of his mother and he can't even really relate to that tragic event, describing it in a very clinical, detached manner while even her short-term friends from her retirement home are devastated by her death. The book follows a short period of his everyday life, just long enough to show us how disconnected from his life he is; he can identify intense human feeling in others that he observes, but it remains elusive for him personally. The story would be sad enough if left here, but once he makes a "friend" in his apartment building, the man winds up shooting a man on the beach and being arrested for the crime. Even throughout the trial and his eventual imprisonment, his understanding of real life remains distant though he does begin to view it somewhat differently than when he was a free man.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, we are presented with another empty life. Ivan Ilych has spent his life creating the illusion of the "perfect life," constructing a perfect family and coworkers and home without ever feeling anything about them. The lack of emotional connection is shared between Ivan and his friends and family; when Ivan is about to die and later at his funeral, all his wife and coworkers can talk about is money and Ivan in the abstract. The McMansions up on Winter Hill always strike me as a horrid echo of Ivan's perfect construct; they may by definition look like the stately homes that inspired the modern American Dream, but when plunked down amidst dozens of tiny plots squished together, each sporting its own carbon copy, what was so appealing about the type of home these mansions were inspired by completely disappears. The same is true for Ilych's life. It looks good, and he appears to be living the good life, but the moment the illusion is tested, it breaks down irreparably. It is not until just before his death that he understands what is truly important in life, through the lens of his young son.

In Ivan Ilych, Ivan believes for most of his life that simply going through the motions is enough...in The Stranger, Meursault doesn't even try to accomplish that much - he just floats along on the surface of his own life, unaffected even by such Big Life Moments like getting engaged or burying his mother. Both books show us ways not to live our lives, though it is only in Ivan Ilych that we see true reconciliation develop.

There's a lot of bad stuff in the world, and while I think Ivan and Meursault may have chosen their tactics of avoidance subconciously, a lot of people do so today because they are afraid that the bad stuff is going to hurt them. A million quotes are out there in the ether about nothing being really good or joyous without something sad or traumatic to compare them with, so I won't try to include them all, but the fact of the matter is...yeah, there's bad stuff out there and sometimes it's going to feel incredibly, horribly crappy. A friend of mine once just absolutely adored this one woman and was rebuffed by her a couple times. Needless to say, I wanted to get out my stabbin' knife, but what really killed me was that my friend felt that he needed anxiety medication to cope with the severely hurty situation that is unrequited love. Maybe he did - I'm not a psychiatrist - but I couldn't help but feel that what he actually needed was ice cream and a couple really good, ugly crying jags followed by a long run and some time out with friends. Not being loved back is horrible. It's painful and horrendous and makes you want to just lay in bed and die. But that's what it is; it's supposed to hurt. Here's the thing...my friend eventually got together with this woman and now they're totally euphorically happy. Would they be so happy if not for the pain of that rocky start? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be tough to even consider the acme of that happiness if there wasn't a bottom of sadness to compare it to.

There are a lot of people who I think shut out a lot of "real life" simply because they feel like if they care about one thing, they have to care about everything. I used to encourage people to just pick one thing and if more followed, to deal with it when it came about. I've since changed my tune. You do need to try and expand your worldview and to see what's out there. You won't like everything - I, for example, hate the Atlanta airport - but if you poke around and see what's out there, you might miss the great loves of your life. You should try and care about what's around you. It might hurt, it might feel bad, it might just be "eh," but it could also be something you can't live without, something you were missing all along to this point without even knowing it. You have to actively engage with your life and its environment. Meursault and Ilych both avoided reality in different ways - Meursault by simply laying back and allowing life to carry him along, and Ilych by constructing a great trompe l'oeil painting of a life - but in the end the message is the same...faking it, or ignoring it, will forever keep you from the greatest heights of the human experience. And what is a life without moments of true joy, no matter how small and inconsequential?

144 pages and 86 pages

Cannonball Read #22: The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

On the front cover of The Club Dumas, the New York Daily News declares it to be "a beach book for intellectuals," and that's an excellent description, if you don't quite like to disengage your brain all the way but want to keep it in first gear for your beach reading. I have a hard time going all the way into neutral, even on the beach, because I feel like I should be getting something more than just tripe if I'm bothering to read in the first place. Plus, a lot of stuff classed as Beach Reading is that odious sappy romance crap (more on that later) that I can't handle on any level, which leaves my actual pickin's for my beach reading pretty slim.

The Club Dumas has two distinct plotlines, both involving the same central character, Lucas Corso. Corso is a rare book...mercenary, basically; he locates, authenticates and obtains books for bibliophiles of various scruples. In this story, Corso has been called in to authenticate a chapter of The Three Musketeers and is shortly thereafter called on to locate and compare the three existing copies of a more mysterious book called the Book of the Nine Doors. The Book of the Nine Doors supposedly allows its owner to call upon the Devil and as one would imagine, there's quite a bit of intrigue and danger around the copies of it. Throughout Corso's travels, the Musketeers chapter and the Book of the Nine Doors seem to intertwine and even more mysteriously, characters from The Three Musketeers (and other literary characters) start appearing in Corso's real life for both good and ill.

This book is rife with little literary allusions, which make it fun for those with a good frame of bookish reference. The descriptions of the rare books in which Corso deals were absolutely mouthwatering; as the person who recommended it to me said, "I desperately want to live in a world [where people cherish, and live and die to collect rare books]." There is one scene in particular that may well be a glimpse into my future, where an aging man lives in an empty mansion that's been stripped of almost everything in it but his precious books.

The Club Dumas is an entertaining book, if not quite worthy of the praise heaped on it by its critics. There are some plot holes and the ending is deeply unsatisfying and a bit nonsensical. However, this shouldn't stop you from packing this for the beach. It's a fairly quick, entertaining read that presents plenty to think about.

Plus if you hate it, you'll be at the beach.

368 pages

Friday, March 13, 2009

Out of Office Message

Sorry folks, I know I've been lacking in the update department, but it's because I'm here:
Caspersen Beach in Venice, FL
I'm tan for the first time in five years and having a blast relaxing and reading, so I'll be back on Sunday with more book reviews and more random blither.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How To Smell Good And Have Nice Skin

It's been a while since I talked about cosmetics and face stuff, so let's talk about cosmetics and face stuff, shall we? First item on the docket is some fantastic eyeliner that does this to my eyes:
Sorry about the mediocre picture quality, I only had my cell phone available. Anyway, when I was 16 I went to Egypt with my Dad and Aunt and we kept seeing women in full burqas where only their eyes were visible. These visible eyes were always stunningly made up and it was a struggle to keep from walking my Western self over to their tables and up to them in markets and asking them to take me away with them for makeup training. I should note that this was a time in my life when I still felt it was acceptable to wear pastel blue eyeshadow more or less up to my eyebrows and body glitter all over creation - sometimes both at once - so I was actually in fairly dire need of said training, but luckily I was able to maintain a certain amount of decorum and relinquish my dream of having fabulous beautiful Egyptian lady eyes. Luckily, a mere 10 years later, I started reading a blog called Apocalypstick Now, which mentioned that Guerlain had started producing old school traditional kohl eyeliner. This is the secret of the Beautiful Egyptian Ladies. Perhaps not the Guerlain product specifically, but kohl liner is it. You put it on with the little plastic stick, right along your waterline, which allows you to get closer to your lash line than I have ever been able to accomplish with pencil. The closest I've gotten is with a small brush and some intensive mirror time and powder shadow.

It's a little pricey but well worth it. I got the "brun" color, which is cosmetic person language (and I believe German person language) for brown. I think it's just enough for everyday wear; the black might be more than I can pull off successfully.

Other things that I like include a variety of products from the Lush. If you have a Lush store near you, I highly recommend that you check it out, since it basically looks and smells like (as Cindy described it) "a bakery for soaps." Lush's products are all natural and made out of the yummiest smelling and feeling ingredients you could possibly want. Celia is way better at the green and organic living than I am (read: I count working at an energy conservation company as reducing my carbon footprint) and makes a real effort at using makeup and other body stuff that's free of chemicals and preservatives. Normally, I take the Bad Person Approach which is to say "the hell with the chemicals, I want my freckles covered up and my lips glossed with lacquer, stat," but Lush makes it so easy, at least in regard to the cleansing part of the endeavor.
The top left item is a soap called Demon in the Dark, which is a mint, clove and apple scented soap. This one doesn't do anything besides smell good and make my skin nice - it is soap, and soap is simple. Moving clockwise, we have the Ocean Salt face scrub, which is an every-couple-of-days scrub that smells like some kind of vodka grapefruit concoction...at the risk of sounding like I have some kind of alcohol problem, I absolutely love the smell, much like the Gin & Tonic perfume from Demeter I used to wear. Ahem. Moving on, we have the Angels on Bare Skin everyday facial scrub, which is lovely and lavendery and makes your skin all smooth and soft and radiant. It's a little bit like magic. Finally, there's the Porridge soap, which is full of oats and mapley goodness and is just the right amount of exfoliation for keeping your skin fresh and even. The other good stuff in the bar moisturizes really well and deals with winter skin efficiently. Check it out, thank me later.

If You Don't Vote, You're A Moron.

Craig Ferguson on voting...posted originally by my awesome former English teacher on Facebook. Definitely worth your time.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cannonball Read #21: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

When I was in AP English, we read a book that so affected the class that almost every single one of us used it on the AP test itself, and in fact waited after the test was done to find our teacher and tell her we'd done so. The book was called Four Letters of Love, by Irish author Niall Williams, and it so perfectly captured the pressing, insistent, almost suffocating, dizzying feeling of love that I believe it changed us all and showed us just how powerful the written word could be. The book had a central romantic love story, yes, but it didn't stop with love between a man and a woman. Four Letters spoke eloquently about the love people can have for art, for God, for their children and for their parents, and though he never addresses it directly, Williams' writing is a testament to the glory of love one can have for their country. To date, I have worn out two copies of Four Letters of Love. Williams also wrote a book called As It Is In Heaven, which dealt with many of the same themes, but with music front and center.

These books are what I think Bel Canto wants to be. For years, people have been suggesting this book to me, and now that I've finally read it, I'm left quite disappointed. It is a great, unique idea, very poorly executed. The premise concerns a hostage situation at a Vice Presidential mansion "somewhere in South America," where a Japanese businessman's birthday is being celebrated with a performance from a legendary opera singer. The captors believe they are taking a stand for "the people," but the enterprise is poorly planned and ultimately ineffective. Most of the people trapped in the mansion are there to convince the businessman to put a huge factory in the unnamed South American country. They are from all over the planet, and as a result, much of the story revolves around the young translator who came with the Japanese businessman. I'm guessing I don't need to tell you that everyone winds up Forging Bonds all over the place and Making It Work.

There's a lot to work with here. Patchett makes a game stab at relaying the feeling of that universal human communication that transcends language, while still highlighting the magic found in the wide variety of different dialects. She tries to get across the sad futile desperation that washes over these small South and Central American revolutionary groups, and almost succeeds. She really, really wants to get across the power of music and of opera specifically. The reason Patchett fails is twofold; first, she relies excessively on cliched images and descriptions which take away from the geniune accounts she works up, and secondly, she does not appear to have the patience to tease out all of these different plot strands. She has too many people and tries to do too much. There is no shame in picking just one area to really shine light on and doing it well; you don't need to illuminate love AND politics AND music AND language AND people all at once, especially if you're not going to put the necessary amount of work in to open them up.

Ultimately, Patchett's refusal to identify even the country in which the story unfolds is symptomatic of her biggest problem - an unwillingness to commit. It takes courage to really give yourself over to describing love in all its overwhelming discord. It takes strength to close your eyes and rush in to showing people how you feel about opera and why it makes your body respond even when you don't understand the language. It takes real honesty to wade in to figuring out why there are some things that people don't need language for. These things aren't easy. Frankly, you could easily fail even if you're fully committed and open to presenting them to your reader. If you aren't even starting from that point, you're doomed to failure before you write your first word. If you can't decide what country you're in, and settle instead for a vague feeling of...Latin America-ness, how are you going to really bring the influence of the country in? How can you ever hope to get further in to specifics if you can't decide where you are?

Finally, the book is technically incomplete and tonally...weird. I know we're entering a new and horrifying era where it's okay to not give a shit whether you can spell the most basic 4-7 letter words, but if you are publishing a book, and particularly if you somehow wind up as a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, I really need to not find typographical errors. On one page, "vial" is misspelled as "vile," and then on the very next page spelled correctly. There were two more errors that I caught. I know no one's perfect, but how many books do you read that ARE typographically perfect? The vast majority are, because they are properly edited and proofed. It's part of the process and I don't know what happened here, but it's a shame. Maybe this doesn't happen to other people, but when I see typos, I am jarred out of the story for a moment...this isn't a book that can afford that momentary disconnect.

The tone is somewhat trickier. It's just not very good writing. There is one section where Patchett has a character exhorting another to think of love in "the Russian way," i.e. in a much broader and deeper way. There's a lot to explore there - part of what makes Russian literature so rewarding for the Western reader is the view into the very different and extremely complex feeling of Russian love writ large - but that's the last we hear of it and Patchett doesn't show us this type of love. In fact, the comment about it comes from a Russian character who has just gone through a fairly trite (and very Western) declaration of love to a woman he hardly knows. I know he's supposed to be enraptured by the woman's voice, but the idea is wasted with clumsy treatment. Even worse, the scene is followed not more than one page later by the first and only use of the word "fuck," and it is in the context of one of the young captors becoming aroused by and wanting to fuck music. Lazy concept that's been used better before by stronger authors, and even more discordant by the time shortly afterwards when we are expected to understand this same child as a shy potential singing prodigy with incredible purity of sound and innocence of voice. You just can't mix the two concepts in the same character if you're not going to take the time to fully unpack the character and the idea. The same tonal problems appear at the conclusion of the book; not content to leave the book as an exploration of love and music, I think Patchett felt pressured to make it about more and this lead her to throw in a sudden, somewhat inexplicable ending. It was stupid, okay? It could have been perfectly fine, but it was stupid and out of nowhere, and just as clunky as the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but without the goal of staving off continual questions from a massive fan base.

I wish I was blown away by this book. There were a lot of good ideas in it that were left half-finished along the way. It was trite and unfulfilling, and I'm concerned about what its popularity says about the general public's standard for good writing. I probably wouldn't be so bothered by this if Bel Canto hadn't been recommended to me so many times, but as it is, it leaves me cold and irritated.

318 pages