Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #39: The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland

When I think of Vermeer, I picture the same photo that I assume most interested-in-but-not-students-of-Dutch-art people picture, the Girl with Pearl Earring. The painting is awash in light even against its black background, and the color and texture are immaculate. It's a bit strange that this should be one of Vermeer's better known works, since the rest of his catalog focused on people in rooms, engaged in activity. It may be that Girl with Pearl Earring stands out so much because of its striking composition - it's just a girl with beautiful eyes against a strong background. However, reading The Girl in Hyacinth Blue with Pearl Earring in mind is quite helpful because so much is made of the girl in the book's painting's appeal and engagement with the viewer.

This book is less a contiguous story and more of a series of short stories tied together by the painting of the book's title. It's a really good idea, and it's a wonderful examination of how people relate to pieces of art, but in the end it did fall a little flat for me as a result of the disjointed composition. The various stories hold up to the light the joys of family, the beautiful landscape of Holland, and the way different people see and relate to great art. The problem is that the author seems to be trying for a cohesive story that traces the path of this painting through time, but the execution falls short. She could also have been going for a kind of Faulknerian vibe - and we all know how I feel about Faulker - but if that's the case, she's falling short as well; Faulker's use of multiple narrators is used to provide a multi-layered view of the same selection of events, with limited asides to fill in background and perspective. Vreeland's only connective theme is the painting itself and her choice of vantage points leaves the reader wanting more.

The story begins with a professor at a private school showing one of his colleagues what he claims is a Vermeer. Though he does not tell his colleage, this man knows that his father gained possession of the painting during his time as a Nazi officer. This knowledge riddles the man with guilt and it seems that if his colleague can affirm that it is a true Vermeer, then the awful cost of the painting will be justified. The owner is emotionally attached to the painting, but experiences little joy in it. The colleague, however, views it with an art historian's eye and takes note of its composition, brushstrokes, subject matter and use of light. Already, we see two understandings of the same painting, and Vreeland takes us further into art appreciation as the painting is variously viewed as the glue holding a family together, a simple spot of brightness during a melancholy flood, a healing balm on a frought father/daughter relationship. We have all been touched by art, even if it's not in a museum, even if it's recognized as high art, and it's easy to to understand the various emotions in play.

The opening chapter seems to indicate that the chapters that follow will work towards a validation of the work as a Vermeer piece. It's a well written chapter and leaves just enough unsaid that you're curious about the truth that seems to lie ahead. Unfortunately, Vreeland never brings the story back around; I don't think it even needed to go back specifically to the setting of that opening chapter, but some resolution is really necessary. She takes the painting all the way back to Vermeer as he creates it - a portrait of his daughter - and what she imagines the work means to the artist, but never completes the circle. It's a contemplative, interesting look at a painting as it is, but coming back to the question in the opening chapter would have made it a deeper and more cohesive tale. In its present form, it does make you think about how you relate to art and how others may, and that in and of itself is plenty of reason to pick this book up.

256 pages

Cannonball Read #38: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Good concept, poorly executed.

September 11th wasn't the beginning of Islamic terrorism, but it was the first time that it stuck in the American conciousness so dramatically. America has a very unique position in the world, and I think we tend to discount the dramatic effect our geography has on our cultural development. You can see this even in our Founding; the great distance and travel time between England and America allowed American Revolutionaries to address their break from England on some very philosophical terms. When you're fighting a controlling power next door, your politics tend to be driven by very solid, "that is my land, this is yours, I want to control the corn, well I want the canals" earthly concerns, but Americans had time to consider and voice their complaints on a different level. These philosophical beginnings have shaped our political and social culture, and even today, our relationship with the world is heavily influenced by the geography of our nation. A large part of why September 11th was so shocking was not necessarily the discovery that someone would want to hurt us, but rather that they did so on our own soil. This is the same reason Pearl Harbor galvanized the United States the way it did. We simply do not have the threat of land wars and close conflict the way other nations do, because we can do the equivalent of a much older and lankier sibling planting a hand on their minor sibling's forehead as he flails away fruitlessly.

This has also spawned a certain relationship with foreigners. We pride ourselves on being "the Melting Pot," where people of all nations can come and assimilate into American culture and pursue that great dream of success. The expectation that new arrivals in the States should assimilate should not be discounted. We've all heard protestations that people should speak English or not behave in a certain way because "this is America." It's worse when these non-English speakers or ethnic actors are outside of our borders and have no interest in joining the great American project. We so easily discount them in any number of ways, discussing well-established and powerful nations as weak, backwards, in some other country's pocket, abusive or any number of unflattering adjectives and descriptions. We're willing to a certain point to accept people who are trying to assimilate as "our foreigners," but it's a tricky relationship predicated on certain social behaviors. We tend not to be interested in strangers unless they're trying to make good with us.

This is important to consider as we have to navigate the world after September 11th. The average American does not know a hell of a lot about Islam itself, much less its radical fringe. Now that several nationally traumatic events have come to pass under a fog of Islamoterrorism, there has been a somewhat disturbing tendency to lump all Muslims in with the radical fringe - the part that has made itself relevant for us. You hear a lot about how they hate our politics and while that's somewhat reassuring ("We can work with them to develop political cooperation!" It's hard to remember what a Western ideal that is.), the simple fact is that many people just do not care that much about politics. I'm probably one of maybe three or four intense political junkies in your circle of friends; if you're a PoliSci major, I'm one of probably ten - the rest of the majors just want to go to law school (amirite?). That's not an American Thing. We have major cultural differences with these Islamoterrorists and our unwillingness to approach not only them but the moderate, everyday Muslims in the context of their own understanding and mindset prevents us from even having a conversation. It's the ultimate Ugly American moment, a hundred times worse than going somewhere without even looking for a passing familiarity for local custom or the local language (Where ever you go, you should know please and thank you. Sorry, you just should.). We don't bother learning where they're coming from or even how their tradition differs from ours...why wouldn't the most moderate, non-violent Muslim feel slighted and offended?

This is a tough concept - harder than it sounds, really - and The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes a game stab at showing-not-telling this unintended offense. The story follows the rise and fall of a Pakistani man who attends Princeton and goes on to a noted business valuation firm, only to have his life derailed by a confluence of events including September 11th. There is a significant love interest, whose decaying mental state puts her out of his reach, and their combined story adds a depth of understanding that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. The story effectively shows what enormous strain is placed on a man in a foreign country simply by trying to remain true to himself. His love interest cracks under the same stressors, fighting constantly to reconcile her personality with her past and her ongoing emotions. Changez, the narrator, clearly feels beset on all sides by enemies and challenges as society turns against his appearance and his friends grow suspicious of him. It's a well done portrayal of the changes for those who "look Arabic" after September 11th, and it's truly heartbreaking.

The delivery, however, is really not good. The idea is that Changez is talking with an American traveler in Lahore over dinner and the narrator's voice frequently breaks into stilted conversation with this traveler. When it does, it not only is bad dialogue, period (Stuff like, "You find our waiter somewhat threatening? But there is no harm. He is simply bringing a large stick to the oven."), but it also makes no sense in contrast to the tone of the storytelling parts or the story itself. First of all, the rest of the story is told in incisive, descriptive, smooth speech. Are we to believe that Changez got a speechwriter and has this story memorized for best effect? Secondly, he is supposedly a Princeton man who worked with high-level officials in his own company and those he was valuing. I find it extremely unlikely that Changez would have been able to rise as high as he did in the story with awkward, stilted English of this particular stripe. Perhaps more importantly, from the description he gives, we should understand that most of his realtime use of the English language was in academic circles and the world of upper-eschelon finance. To succeed - which in the story he clearly indicates he does - he would have to have a better mastery of his speech to communicate effectively and persuade both professors and clients, particularly the latter. Moreover, if this is the context for his formative English experience, it makes zero sense for him to slip back into a more rudimentary speech pattern when confronted with an English speaker...particularly a businessman. I just found these problems to be extremely jarring and felt they took away from the message of the book.

I think this is an important book on an important topic, but I do think some of the tonal problems are a detriment. Not enough, however, that I would advise you to pass this one up. Anyone interested in politics or sociology should check it out, and frankly anyone should take a little time to complete its brief 208 pages. It is well worth your time and crucial to understanding true Western/Islamic interactions.

208 pages

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Brief Outburst On the Topic of Blogger

Dear Blogger,

I just took the better part of three days to format that fucking post about various cosmetics because I wanted to do something as radical as put a smaller, italicized, centered caption under a picture. At every turn, you add extra space and line breaks on me and then I have to go in to unfuck the HTML that you've added FOR NO DISCERNABLE REASON. Sometimes this is no problem, but sometimes, like for instance if I have a bunch of photos I want to caption in the aforementioned crrrrraaazy manner. What the hell is that about? Why would you do that?

Oh and by the way, I really fucking love it when I spend time fixing stuff, hit post and then view the blog, only to find out that you have refucked what I just spent time unfucking. What do people do when they don't know shit about HTML? I only know this crap because I had a ghetto-ass Geocities site at one point in my life and had to learn it to survive. What about people like my Grandmother, who like the idea of blogging but only really have the computer basics down?


I hate you, please stop failing at this level.



Magical Delivery of Surprise Presents #2

Incidentally, I did the math for BeautyFix box number one and even leaving off the 3Lab M Cream's figure, the box's value was well over $50...more like $196. Great deal, even if you happen to get something you don't like. Box number two arrived a week or two ago and despite one misstep, everything else was pretty great.
Cures by Avance Age Defyer Eye, $50 for 0.5 oz.

This is a very nice, light moisturizer for the eye area. I can't really vouch for the AGE DEFYING qualities because I simply don't have a heck of a lot of fine lines and wrinkles in play, but I can certainly appreciate a nice moisturizer. I did find that if I didn't wait a little bit to put makeup over it, it would kind of ball up, but what I usually do in the morning is apply any moisturizing and toning products, dry my hair, and then apply makeup, so it works well in that context, and if you were putting it on before bed then you'd be good to go. At $50 for half an ounce, I'd probably pass on this since as I mentioned I'm not really in the AGE DEFYING market, but if you yourself are in said market, I think this would actually be worth your money. This is not to say it's a bargain - $50 for a small tube is not what I would call a steal - but rather to say that it's a good product.
Decleor Source D'Eclat Instant Radiance Moisturizer, $56 for 1.69 oz.

You really can't say anything bad about Decleor products...well, that's not true, you can say that not all of them have the best smell, but generally that's a very minor problem and completely insignificant compared to the results it will give you. I've been to a couple Decleor spas and used several of their products and not once have I been disappointed. This moisturizer is no exception. I have tried a couple of radiance-oriented lotions and powders and have found almost every one to make me look either shiny or greasy, neither of which is okay. I was a little concerned about this one because it did have that pearlescent sheen that threatens shiny, shiny doom, but when I put it on, the effect was perfectly subtle and the moisturization was ideal. It just gives you a nice fresh look, and as an added bonus, makeup applies really well over it. I really loved this one.
Pur-lisse Pur-lip Comfort, $22 for 0.5 oz.

My lips are a constant source of trauma in my life. Every seasonal change, they kind of lose their shit and start cracking and peeling and generally being horrible, and of course because I am compulsive, I wind up messing with the little hurty flaky bits and it's just bad news everywhere. I try and litter my surroundings with chapstick with the thought that the more I see it, the more I'll use it, but it remains a problem. This Pur-lisse product, despite it's stupid naming scheme (ah, the pseudo-Scandanavian spa product protocol), is fantastic, and I have very high hopes for it. I have been really impressed with the difference it's made in my not-currently-freaking-out lips and based on what I've seen, I expect it to perform admirably when the seasons change. A little pricey for lip stuff, but NOT for lip stuff that works this well. Pending success when fall rolls around, I'm thinking this is a product I'll keep around.
Skindinavia Makeup Finishing Spray, $29 for 4 oz., $39 for 6 oz.

I tend to get some makeup fatigue by the end of the day, so if I'm going out after work I really should (read: do not always) touch up my makeup. This spray, however, sets everything so it stays remarkably well. I just assumed that this was a hoax, to be honest with you, but I'm really, really impressed with the difference that this spray makes to the longevity of my makeup. It does take a little getting used to, because normally I would avoid spraying liquids near my eyes and inviting mascara runs and eyeshadow chaos, but once you try it you'll see that it doesn't wreak havoc on your careful application. Really great product, I'm glad I received it!
Me! Bath Shower Sherbet, $28 per pint

I have been using this salt scrub that is very oily and makes the bath a danger zone (sorry honey), but I love the scent of it so I take the risk. This Shower Sherbet, though, is wonderful AND non-hazardous. It's a big ass container, and the scent is lovely. However, the best part is that it has all these great oils and scrubbers in it that go on you and don't adhere to every molecule of your tub! I got the Vanilla Purity "flavor" and I am really thrilled with it...which is saying something, since I hate - not dislike, hate - about 99% of vanilla scented bath and body products. This is a really nice scrub and did leave me with a palpable difference in the feeling of my skin. I would order this again, and after looking through their website, I would be interested in a number of their other products as well.
SpaRitual nail polish in "Airhead," $10 and ginger hand lotion, $28 for 7.7 oz.

SpaRitual focuses on making stylish but Earth-friendly polishes, which is pretty neat. I like the color, and the polish itself seems to hold up pretty well, even on my post-acrylics, beat-to-hell nails. The color is very sweet and unobtrusive, and they have a good range of options on their site. The bottle is recyclable and the polish itself is made without formaldehyde and some other nasty polluting chemicals. The lotion is also excellent, and actually smells like real ginger, rather than that creepy made-in-a-lab-in-New-Jersey faux ginger that cosmetics companies often use. (Note to Fragrance People: When people like a scent found naturally, they want to smell LIKE THAT SCENT, not like an approximation that you tidied up.) Great stuff. I would buy both of these again.
Juara Tamarind Tea Toner, $27 for 4.75 oz.

Continuing the tradition of embarassing confessions on here, I am really bad about cleaning my face at night, which as I understand it is when you should be using toner, which is basically a reset button for your face (TM Jen D). I tend to use old-school Ponds cold cream (NB: that stuff works.) moments before collapsing into bed. Toner is just too much effort. However, I have been using this one right after I get out of the shower in the morning so I can let it do its thing while I blowdry my hair and it does make my skin feel great. I think I need to kick the laziness if there are in fact benefits to be reaped. I'll probably pick some of this up (after I use up my bottle of Mario Badescu cucumber toner, which is also excellent).
The Youth As We Know It concentrate, $70 for 1 oz.

Bliss makes some really great products - they tend to smell good and do as advertised, which frankly in cosmetics is not always the case. This is an anti-aging concentrate that is supposed to do all manner of wonderful things to your skin, and what I can attest to is that it is moisturizing and refreshing, which is most of what I ask of face products. Not having used it for that long, I can't say whether it will prevent aging and all that hoo-rah, but it seems like a great product and I like how it feels. It's another one I'd be unlikely to buy right now, simply because I don't really need anti-aging stuff and don't really like the emphasis that society places on the avoidance of something it is in our nature to do, i.e. get older, but I would use this as a moisturizer for sure.
Degree Body Mist, $3.49 at Big Y as of yesterday when I went to buy salsa.

Here's the misstep in this round of BeautyFix. Let me first say that I don't have an issue with the actual product. It's perfectly fine - I got the scent called "Sexy Intrigue," which...okay - and I threw it in my gym bag. I'm not going to use it as an every day perfume (Is that what you're supposed to do with these things?) but it's a non-offensive nice scent for destinkifying after the gym. I do have a mild problem with it being included in the BeautyFix package because it simply is not at the level of the other products, and I'm paying to sample new top of the line products. "Nice, but available in the same building where I buy vegetables" is really not sufficient. Fine.

I DO have a problem with the marketing for this product for two primary reasons, and I'm sorry if this doesn't interest you but it is of constant irritation to me. First of all, I hate - HATE - the commercials for this, where some asshole with a walking stick, white gloves and an affected Europeville bullshit accent is talking about how women never slow down and this means they sweat, so the best perfume in the world isn't worth jack if they sweat it off, so "he" decided to put his perfume in the deodorant aisle instead of in "little glass bottles." Also there is a shot of a woman walking what looks like a panther. What the fuck. Here's my problem with this...can we please find a place between acting like women are barely functional princesses who only like pink shit and acting like women are so totally hardcore for accomplishing their daily lives that the BINDINGS OF THE WORLD CANNOT HOLD THEM? Women don't need pandering in either direction. Make a nice perfume that smells good and put it in whatever the hell you want. Scent does not require special packaging to denote female toughness.

So that's annoying. More annoying is the use of the male voice and visual cues. You know why? This stuff was created by a woman. It's annoying enough to have some bullshit marketing pitch that's all "this is my offering as a humble man, set at the stairs of the temple of women" but to find out that Degree thinks I'll only BUY this crap if they present it to me as a Gift From A Caring Man is extra insulting. Why not just market it as a body mist that smells good and is easy to use? Why must we go to the high-fashion artsy place (because as you know, women only like things if they have the smell of fashion on them) and emphasize the Males Care factor? I'm disappointed that Degree thinks women are stupid enough to fall for this shitty marketing and honestly it makes me not want to buy their product. You can do better, Degree.

All in all, another solid round from BeautyFix! I highly recommend signing up. More reviews to come in the near future!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Magical Delivery of Surprise Presents #1

A couple of months ago I heard about this thing called BeautyFix, where you get a box of either sample or full size cosmetics and assorted unguents for $50 about every three months. I figured that since I like both surprise presents and cosmetics, it was a safe bet for me. Belonging to the program also gives you discounts on the products they send you, which is nice...you may as well help people pay for it once you've gotten them hooked, right? My first delivery arrived with a wide variety of pretty great stuff in it. The BeautyFix program seems to be relatively young and it does include a forum on their website that's ostensibly to discuss the use of these products and others. At the moment it's mostly people bitching about dumb crap. I would recommend this program to anyone, but the reality is that it's a selection of products chosen to appeal to the widest possible base, not tailored to your coloring or particular taste. Listening to these people complain that the color of eyeshadow or nail polish they got didn't work for them is irritating as hell, so I'd say it's best to give it some time for membership to increase before relying on the forums.

Item number one was an aromatheraphy spritz from Kerstin Florian. I keep it at my desk and use a little spray when I'm getting tired or the heating is acting up yet again. It has a really wonderful light orange blossom scent, and the spray is fine enough that it won't make your makeup run. As all of these types of products do, it swears it will tone your skin and make you glow radiantly, blah blah blah...look. It will give you a little boost of nice refreshing scent and add some moisture to your skin. It will not solve the world's problems. I don't think I would buy this, simply because refreshing mists for the workday are fairly far down my personal cosmetics investment list, but if it's your kind of thing, then this is a great one.
Kerstin Florian Spa Face Neroli Water, $35 for 4 oz.

Item number two was a face serum from Lisa Hoffman that's packed with all kinds of nice vitamins. This one, I would not buy. It does make your skin feel great, but the texture of it is really not that pleasant. It feels a little bit greasy and the absorption is kind of fussy - some of it will absorb well immediately, but then I kind of feel like it's resurfacing throughout the day. If I use it at night, I will wake up with nice moisturized skin, but I've come to realize that I personally need any products I use on my face to work for both night and day, because I am lazy. If I bought this from Hoffman's site, it would set me back $95 for an ounce, and for a product that works fine but not brilliantly and isn't that versatile, that just won't cut it.
Lisa Hoffman Night & Day Vitamin A&C Serum, $95 for 1 oz.

Item number three was a full size can of Jonathan hairspray and man...this stuff is worth the whole package price. I used it to style my hair for an opera recital this June. I was wearing a full length gown, so we're talking big blowzy hair here AND on top of this, said gown was a day late from the tailor so I had to do my hair in the morning, go to work for most of the day, pick up my dress, change into it and then go to the recital. My hair stayed PERFECT and not at all hairsprayed-looking, and I should mention that this was my first solo performance in about...eight years, so I was nervous as hell and sweating up a storm throughout. The smell is great, the hold is great, it's easy to work with and on top of this, the ingredients are vegan friendly. It's a truly great product and even though I don't use a ton of hairspray, I'm a convert for life.

Jonathan High Shine Flexible Hairspray, $30 for 10 oz. can

The fourth item, Glowelle beauty drink, is another victim of my laziness. I got a seven day trial kit and I did see a difference in my skin - it stayed better hydrated and felt nicer, but I have pretty good skin anyway and don't know that it would be worth $40 every seven days for me personally. However, if you have chronic problem skin, you may want to give it a whirl. Lots of people on the forums recommended putting it in various smoothies, etc., which I think would be a big help - I only like drinking really cold water, so if I got distracted at work and forgot about it, it could be kind of a process to remember to drink all of it. Glowelle 7 day kit, $40 for 7 days

I got this Global Goddess eyeshadow in a different color. It's a really lovely plummy red called Kajol. It applies well and stays put, which is really nice...I often find when you have something kind of gimmicky like this (it touts the inclusion of white tea in the shadow), it makes the product suck, but it is not the case here. I really enjoyed this one and have been able to combine it with a lot of shadows that I have. The natural color lends itself well to either natural or dramatic looks. Great find! Global Goddess I-Divine eyeshadow, $18

When I was a kid, Mom had this facial mask that probably did all kinds of great stuff but MOST of all was one of those peely masks. It was really fun. This Exuviance mask is a return to the fun of those peel masks, and it does make your skin feel really great. Perhaps more importantly, it does not do that stupid thing where teensy bits don't get peeled and they adhere themselves to your hair so tightly that you basically have to treat it like bubblegum and accept that you're going to have to hack a giant swath of your hair out. Very refreshing and moisturizing!

Exuviance Rejuvenating Treatment Masque, $26 for 2.5 oz.

I am pasty. This is my lot in life. My family is European Grab Bag with Scandanavian accents and seriously, I spend at least half the year translucent. For this reason I have tried many, many depastifying products, from tanning booths (good, but pricey over time) to going to the beach or pool (good, if I have time) to lotions (EXTREMELY well mixed bag). I generally shy away from straight up self-tanners because I've found them very hard to apply without streaking and they often turn me orange. When I got this box, it had been raining for about two weeks and I was getting married in another two, plus it had rained for like, four weekends BEYOND the two solid weeks of rain, so I looked at this Bella Bronze stuff and thought "well shit, it's worth a shot." It worked extremely well...easy to apply, even color, and most importantly, the color was very natural. It just looked like I had gone to the beach for a week. I will definitely be buying this product. Bella Bronze Self-Tanner, $26 for 4.2 oz.

The last item I got in this round was a 3Lab Ultimate Lift cream sample, which is actually a pretty nice product but its press is rife with all that FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH type bullshit that you expect from infomercials. It's made from some damn Swiss apple (it does smell delicious and appley) and of course it makes you look ten! years! younger! and all this. Here's the bottom line. It's a nice cream that moisturized my skin and tightened it up without feeling uncomfortable like many tightening creams do. That being said, I am 26 and not in need of a ton of resurfacing so I will pass on this one for the time being, perhaps to revisit it at a later date. 3Lab "M" Cream, $250 for not nearly enough oz. to make it worthwhile for a college kid

Cannonball Read #37: The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (Book the Seventh)

After the Harry Potter series ended, I was looking around for books with a similar feel to them. My aunt was a Reader's Assistant at the Boulder Public Library at the time, and she recommended "the Lemony Snicket" books, which sounded like a joke, but since she's rarely wrong, I went out and bought Book the First, The Bad Beginning. It was in the Children's section, and it was short. I will take a moment here to congratulate the author and everyone else involved in the design of the book for it's lovely, quality bindings with ripped-edge pages and sturdy board-and-cloth construction. It's nice to see any book - much less a childrens' book - bound really, truly well.

I waited until now to write about these because none of the books previously have topped the 200 page requirement (plus the pages are small, so it really would have felt like cheating), but I've read through book seven at this point and I cannot recommend the series heartily enough. I particularly like the tone of the books, which is lighthearted but still doesn't pull any punches for younger readers. The stories follow the tragic misfortunes of a trio of orphans and do not shy away from admitting that yeah, it's really sad that bad things happen to nice people and that there are bad people in the world. Moreover, Snicket does not dumb down the vocabulary for kids. I always think this is the best policy - baby talk is quite frankly a disservice to children, as they need adult speech to develop their own language patterns and vocabulary; you don't need to be quoting Plato to two year olds, but you don't need to be using non-verbal babble with them either - and Snicket has a good handle on it. When he wants to use a big word, he goes for it and explains it in a way that gives context for it, which I think makes the meaning clearer than can a dictionary definition.

The Baudelaire orphans' parents died in a house fire while they were at the nearby beach, and since then, they have been in the care of an inept banker named Mr. Poe. (I'm sure that by now I need not mention that these books are rife with literary references.) The orphans will come into a vast fortune once they come of age, but until then, Mr. Poe is tasked with finding them a place to stay. In The Bad Beginning, they are placed with their odious uncle, Count Olaf, who after putting the children to work in his disgusting house attempts to trick the oldest child, Violet, into marrying him and thus getting around the age requirement for the inheritance. Through the combined wit of Violet (an inventor), Klaus (an avid reader) and Sunny (a baby who is fond of biting things), the three Baudelaires escape. Unfortunately, they are escaping to a string of similarly disastrous placements that Mr. Poe comes up with, and are chased at every turn by Count Olaf, who disguises himself as a variety of characters to get near the orphans and their incompetent guardians.

Lemony Snicket is the narrator, and what gets really interesting is the way the Baudelaire children's story begins to blend into Snicket's own. At this point in the stories, it's beginning to be clear that Snicket is more than a guardian and transmittor of the kids' story and in fact is involved himself. This adds a wonderful amount of depth to the tale, and is way more interesting than many kids' books.

I have read through book seven and anxiously await the arrival of book eight. I think any parent should consider these, not only for their kids but for themselves, and even if you're kidless, you'll enjoy the hell out of these. They're wonderful, inventive books with great imagery, terrific characters and unique depth. Each book comes in a nice little compact size, too, so it's perfect for trips or the beach or rides into work on the train. Do yourself a favor and pick a bunch of them up, or even better, buy the boxed set. It's only 95 bucks (each book costs about $11 anyway, and there are 13 of them, so it's pretty much highway robbery to get the box set), and I guarantee you'll want to rip through the whole series.

236 pages

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How To Have A Wedding And Not Become A Mobile Episode of Bridezillas

I got a lot of comments about my sustained sanity during the wedding planning process, particularly as we got close to the date. I am not really sure why - in an era where one has access to both Excel and the internet - crippling stress should be mandatory. That being said, the perception remains that Weddings Are Stressful And Somewhat Horrible To Plan. I watched a LOT of Bridezillas while I was getting ready for the wedding (mostly to gloat about how unlike those women's lives my own was) and though most of those brides clearly have some kind of personality disorder that predates the wedding, it seems particularly sad that they have bought into this marketed mindset that surrounds weddings. You all know what this mindset is - it's your day, and you are a princess, so you should get what the Bridal Industry says you want no matter what it costs. I'd like to throw a few things I learned out into the Internetosphere in the hopes that they'll be useful for someone.

First of all, here are some one-off items:

  1. A wedding is about formally joining your lives because you love each other. If it stops being about that, you need to at the very least stop and reappraise the situation.

  2. If you have become the primary planner of the wedding, your other half likely does not care about the details. It's not a bad thing - it's just that they don't care about the zillion decisions that go into fine tuning a large event. Not everyone does.

  3. Figure out what you actually care about, and let the experts help with the other stuff.

  4. Keep things as simple as possible, and keep good records of those things.

  5. Men do not have the same frame of reference for weddings that women do. Prepare to explain stuff that might seem obvious to you - it might not be to your significant other.

  6. Constantly question the Wedding Industrial Complex's rules about when things MUST BE DONE. If scary rednecks in the woods can hustle up a wedding dress before that baby arrives, so can you.

Now, here's an overview of my wedding, with commentary.
  • We held it at the Harding Allen Estate in Barre, MA. Not only is the Estate beautiful, but their services are comprehensive and accessible. We wrote them about four checks and in return they handled: set up and take down of both ceremony and reception areas, food, drinks, wedding cake, space to get dressed (AND spy on our guests! Huge bonus), all staff including Leslie and Chris the awesome wedding coordinator folks, reception table set up, our family pictures displayed around the Estate, tables, chairs, linens, silverware, flatware, glassware, set up of all our favors and whickety-whack, cake knife, card cage, and the run of the Estate all damn day. We paid an extra fee to have the day to ourselves (they often do two weddings a day on Saturday), and found it well worth it. My recommendation, re: preservation of sanity is simply to research venues and to book a venue that provides as many resources through a minimum of people as possible. Having Chris to communicate with and Leslie on the ground to manage all the details was absolutely essential to the success of the day. I also encourage you not to discount the importance of LIKING the people you're working with. I felt at every turn that Leslie understood what I was going for and where she didn't understand the specifics, she was open and willing to learn.

  • I used Martha Stewart's Wedding Planning Tools to track all the wedding stuff. I know many may be Martha-averse, but her planning tools are excellent, and let's have it said...the woman is a creative mastermind. I got some great ideas from her site. The planning tools themselves let you track guests for any event, including bridal shower, etc. and get reports on them in any number of formats (print seating charts, by gift, etc.). There's also a great budgeting tool and easy to use seating chart design. They really have you covered from top to bottom and I highly recommend them.

  • We did a lot of do-it-yourselfing. If you can do this - or you have crafty friends and relatives - it's a great way to add your own personal touch to the wedding. It CAN be a cost-saver, though I think it's presented as a guarantee too often. Remember that your time has a value as well. If you are losing sleep and getting stressed because you have to finish a half dozen projects, it probably isn't worth it. My Mom put together all of our flowers. Now, my mother is an artistic mutant and can do these kinds of things in her sleep (she was planning to whip up 16 table arrangements on the morning of the wedding), but even if you're not a big flower arranger, Martha has lots of tutorials on how to do so. I also assembled the invitations using materials from Envelopments, ordered from CC Lowell. That was time consuming but not hard. I used one of Martha's ideas to bring some of our colors onto the table with napkin bands, and I wrapped handmade, all-natural soaps from Stella Marie Soap Company as placecards (which ensured that people TOOK their favors). I also printed my own programs on cardstock. I'd recommend providing programs for half your guest list - we had a TON left over.

  • I had a dress custom made. I went on a great trip to Kleinfeld's in New York to look at dresses and found a stunning one that looked great on me...for $2700. No matter how beautiful it was - and it was - I didn't feel comfortable spending that much on a dress, and I knew Rich would probably have a heart attack. It was also a relatively simple design. If it had been more complex, the price tag might not have been so startling but as it was, I thought I could do better. I had a copy made by Bargain Bride for $525 and because it was made to my measurements, my alterations only cost $75; it just had to be pressed, and the shoulders fitted to my own because it was a tip-of-the-shoulder dress.

  • The girls' dresses came from J. Crew, on sale, and they picked their own shoes. This didn't really save ME personally tons of money, but it made it easier for my bridesmaids. We found some beautiful cotton dresses with pockets on J. Crew, and everyone was able to get them on sale for $100 or less. I think they will all wear them again and they all looked FANTASTIC. I wanted to be my own bridesmaid. I originally planned to have strong pink and orange as my colors, but with a little flexibility we added in the plum color, and it all worked out beautifully. The bridesmaid dresses were the second thing I picked out after the venue and that gave Mom and I a game plan for flowers. In order to pick the dresses, I first thought about the body types I had in my wedding party - I had one tall, skinny girl, one slightly-shorter-but-average-height and skinny girl, one woman with swimmer shoulders and narrow hips, one woman with hips all over the joint, and one woman with ninja butt - and identified the hip/rear region as our collective Dressing Challenge. The dresses were fitted in the top and then had a graceful pouf-out at the natural waist. Everyone looked completely tailored and chic. I just told the girls to find orange shoes they liked, and I was thrilled with the result, since you could see each woman's personality in the shoes she picked.

  • I used Etsy a lot. Etsy and The She Space have restored my faith in customer service. I was able to get exactly what I wanted for a variety of things, including hair accessories, bridesmaid gifts, and my hairpiece. It's a great artists' community, and I have found everyone - EVERYONE - on it to be completely helpful and willing to work with me to achieve whatever I wanted.

  • I spent a lot of time harassing my bridesmaids and vendors via email. I checked in with everyone to make sure they knew what was going on, what was required and had more information than they might have needed. That way, everyone knew what everyone else would be up to, and I had to do much less last minute planning. It worked out well and we had an absolute minimum of chaos, which made room for more fun and laughter!

  • I let the experts be experts. I have never been married before, so there's lots of stuff that I either didn't know or didn't care about. The various people who I hired to help were hired because I trusted their abilities. Our cellist, Virginia Berry, probably still thinks I'm crazy, because I contacted her and told her I wanted the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 playing when we signed our Marriage Certificate and that beyond that, I was pretty ambivalent. She put together a beautiful arrangement of music for people to enjoy before and after the ceremony (there is no music in a Quaker wedding), and more importantly, she was playing music she was comfortable with, which will always be the best. Leslie and Chris do nothing but run weddings all the damn time at the Estate, so where I had gaps in knowledge or concern, they were able to suggest ideas based on common choices. Vet your vendors well and then rely on their expertise.

  • I recommend choosing a location as naturally beautiful as possible. This means you have less decorating to do and thus pay for. Really, how do you beat this?More scenery that was included in the package price of the Estate. See what I mean about not needing to do a damn thing to it?
    Here's our whole invitation. The center part is comprised of the pink outer envelope with the Kalideoscope paper, orange paper and white paper with text layered over it. In the pocket, we included an orange RSVP card and a Kalideoscope vellum direction sheet. I recommend providing a separate, easy to carry direction sheet so people can bring it with them.
    Here is the center of the invitation so you can see how it's put together - click for closeup.
    My dress was a copy made for me by Bargain Bride and I think it came out beautifully. This is The Lucy and I goofing around while we got ready.
    The men were dressed by Mr. Tux Men's Wearhouse Tuxedo Extravaganza or whatever the hell they're calling themselves now. The women are wearing dresses from J. Crew and shoes from various places. We did our own hair and makeup, and hairpieces came from an Alchemy listing with Pick Me Flowers on Etsy.
    Rich and I are saying our vows to each other here. You can see my Mom's beautiful flowers, as well as my veil from Something Bold and a hairpiece from Liason on Etsy (more on her in a moment).
It's tough to beat my Mom, sorry. She put these bouquets together apparently through magic and they could not be more perfect. She used roses, alstroemeria, hypericum berries in both green and red, some green delicate stuff from her garden, and tied it all together with twine and wrapped it in ribbon. If you can find someone to wholesale you the flowers (try a gardener), you can get the stems for cheap and put them together yourself. I will need to get a report from Mom on what she used in my bouquet, because there was a LOT of stuff in there and I can't identify all of it.
The centerpieces were based around hosta leaves from Mom's garden and hydrangeas from our friend Mary Ann's garden and also incorporated the hypericum berries. Again, I'll need to get more info on what's what in here, but one of the highlights was Mom's use of curly leaves in the vase itself to add interest.
Finally, here is my hairpiece (also my cute husband), which was a magnolia clip from Katherine at Liason. Many of you may know that I love magnolias. I wanted to have them at the wedding, but they're out of season by now even in the South, I didn't want to ship in hothouse flowers and they straight up do not grow up north. I'd kind of given up on the whole idea until a minor veil snafu got me looking for hairpieces and I found this one. I had to have the "it's not real?!" conversation about a zillion times, and the effect was just perfect. Katherine's work is impeccable and sturdy, but I think the picture speaks for itself. Now, I can't make you do anything, but I can tell you that if you don't go and look at her shop, you are missing out. She makes these phenomenal headpieces inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha and never, ever, ever in my life have I wished harder that I had $1800 earmarked for pure frivolity. Head on by and check them out.

Hopefully this provides some good advice that will help someone, somewhere preserve their sanity. As long as you simplify, clarify and plan well, there's no reason to have your wedding make your life a living hell. I'm not suggesting that I was 100% calm throughout, but I also wasn't in a perpetual state of panic from start to finish. As I told Rich, at the end of a day, you're planning to feed and entertain a bunch of people (165 in our case) for five or more hours, which means you're going to have a lot of moving parts and a lot of things to plan. If you first establish the important things and lock those down early on, the rest will be a breeze.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

For those of you not on Facebook and thus subjected to the innundation of my page in photos, Rich and I got married this Independence Day. It was a complete blast and a wonderful day!Huge thanks to everyone who made it out and made it such a stunning day. More to come later, but for now, please feel free to swing by the ole Facebook or check out our wedding blog for some information on the day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Latest Word in Stuff I Like

Ah, once again it is time to talk about cosmetics, because I love cosmetics and am also trying to clear out my online to do list before the wedding this Saturday holy crap.

I've been trying to figure out what I want to put on my face for the wedding, and in the process have come across some great products. The first one is Dazzleglass from M.A.C. cosmetics. M.A.C.'s stuff has always been fantastic, but I really love this stuff. I am super finicky about the texture of lip stuff...sometimes it's too dry, sometimes too tacky, sometimes just straight up goopy. The kickass woman over at Apocalypstick Now recommended the product AND a specific color called Get Rich Quick. She described it as being "a glittery copper, and nobody in her right mind would think it would look good, but it magically turns into a long-lasting, super-glossy, plumpifying nude." It really is alarming in the tube, but I am starting to think that whenever I see something horrifying in a tube, I should just buy it, because guys she is SO RIGHT. It looks like brown with the body glitter you used to slather on with reckless abandon as a teen, but it really does morph into the perfect color when you apply it. I am just going to assume it is magic. I also bought Local Color, which is the pink color below...it's very pretty but I personally need to pair it with a strong eye.
M.A.C. Dazzleglass, $18

I also got a new round of stuff from Lush. I mentioned getting a sample of their solid shampoo with my last order, so when I went to order some stuff this time I picked up a puck of it. I don't know what people's priorities are, packaging wise, but if it is in fact something you care about, these little shampooey blobs are equivalent to about three bottles of traditional shampoo and have zero packaging but for a paper wrapper for shipping. You can also buy a little metal tin to stash it in if you're travelling. All you need to do is run your hands over it - just as you would with soap - and you have a full head's worth of shampoo. Guys could probably give their hair half a swipe and be good to go. It's really fantastic, and I am loving it! I went with the Seanik shampoo and it has a great ocean scent...also good for manly men who wouldn't want to smell all girly. Did I mention that most of these solid shampoos are under $9? I use either Selsun Blue Natural or Victoria's Secret So Sexy shampoo otherwise, and it would cost me between $27 and $30 for three bottles of those.

I also picked up a foot mask for my horrid callousy feet. You slather this stuff on and wrap your feet in saran wrap, then let them chill out for 10-15 minutes. When you unwrap them, your feet will be SO happy. They will be super soft and your cuticles will be way less creepy and hard (I could cut rocks with my cuticles most of the time...I do not know why). It won't moisturize your callouses to death, but it will significantly improve them and I would imagine that if you like using a PedEgg or callous shaver it would make the process a lot easier. I also tried their toner tabs, which are a nice little in-home spa adventure. You drop one in about two cups of hot water, then stick your face over the bowl and wrap a towel around your head. I like to really wrap myself in well so I get ALL the steam seeping into my face. After you steam for a bit, you take a cotton ball and swab some of that water/toner around your skin. I saw a huge difference in my skin right away and at $1.50 a tab I think it's a total steal.
Seanik solid shampoo, $9.25; Volcano foot mask, $19.55; Toner tabs (tea tree, vitamin C, vitamin E), $1.50/tab, all at Lush USA

Those of you who read these posts on Facebook might have noticed that when I review makeup, a lovely young woman named Kym often pops up all "ummm hello crappy friend, have you looked at my makeup stuff yet?," except she would never call anyone a crappy friend (even if it was true) because she may be the nicest human on the planet. In any case, Kym is an Arbonne representative, and we met up a couple weeks ago to scope out her products. They have a fabulous and very easily customized array of skin and body products, and their make up colors are just really wonderful and rich. Sometimes you see makeup and it's that wishy-washy color that pretty much promises it's going to wear off by the time you drive to work, and it's just depressing, you know? Not this stuff.

I bought the Audrey eye look, which includes four eyeshadow colors and a liquid liner. The colors are perfectly matched and can be used a variety of ways to change the look as you prefer. The colors, though soft colors in their own right, are strong and have great staying power. I wore this set yesterday. Put on the makeup at about 6:15am, went to work, went out for my little work bachelorette shindig, got home at 11pm and it was still exactly where I put it. What the hell else could you possibly want out of your makeup? I also credit the Virtual Illusion Primer sample that Kym gave me for it staying put so long - I've used it with and without the primer with great results both ways. I will probably wind up buying said primer, because it does not have that creepy siliconey feel that so many other ones do and still establishes a great base for your makeup. I also bought a lipstick in Sunset, which is very nice but unfortunately doesn't QUITE work with the Audrey set, so I'll just have to wear them separately. A-ok with me! Again, really nice texture on the lipstick, and it doesn't dry your lips out like so many other ones do.

Arbonne's got a really great approach to beauty...it's all based on doing fabulous stuff for your skin, not just putting nice colors on it. All of their products are natural and rely on fruits and vitamins to develop your skin and keep it happy. Please swing by the site and buy some glorious makeup or skincare from Kym! Don't hesitate to contact her through the site either...she's a straight shooter and will tell you directly about what she likes and doesn't like and what she thinks would work for you. I'll also likely be having a house party with this stuff soon, so you can come by and play with the stuff. I'll keep you posted, but please comment or email if you'd be interested so I don't miss alerting you!
Audrey eye kit, $56; About Face lipstick in Sunset, $16.50 at Arbonne

Finally, my sweet bay magnolia bloomed in the rain this past weekend on my parents' anniversary and I very nearly cried out of sheer happiness.