Monday, May 21, 2012

Things we call ourselves

Everyone has nicknames, even those who vehemently oppose them. I've had several over time, including the standard abbreviation (Manda,) the creative --and now one of my internet handles of choice -- (mandoir,) and the aughts-age trendy (ACrow.)

The only name I've ever rejected was "Mandy." Only two people have ever called me this, and both have done it at least a little ironically. My high school dance teacher, seemingly in an effort to construct the barfiest name possible, named me "Mandy Cane." This crossed over the "offensively annoying" line into "campy and hilarious," and I allowed it. The second person is my dad. I do this thing where I make what I call the "snuggly bunny face" (there are a few different variations of this, but they all involve cutesy hands and a shit-eating grin) and I say "Daaaddy" in a cutesy voice, and then he makes snuggly bunny face back and goes "Maaaandy" in the same cutesy voice. This is one of those things that is either not funny unless you're us, or funny because you know us and it's ridiculous.

What are some of your favorite and most despised nicknames?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book review: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Plot summaries are the most boring part of writing these reviews, so is it okay if I cheat a little and just ask Wikipedia? Please guys? (Just say yes…)

“Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew, journeys to Ukraine in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family shtetl… Jonathan begins his adventure with Ukrainian native and soon-to-be good friend, Alexander “Alex” Perchov, who is Foer’s age and very fond of American pop culture, albeit culture that is already out of date in the United States. Alex studied English at his university, and even though his knowledge of the language is not “first-rate”, he becomes the translator. Alex’s “blind” grandfather and his “deranged seeing-eye bitch,” Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr., accompany them on their journey. Throughout the book, the meaning of love is deeply examined.”

Okay, thanks for letting me do that. Anyway, the first thing I want to get out of the way is that yes, JSF’s writing is pretty damn precious. Half of the novel is written from Alex’s point of view, and his broken English is utilized as a main motif to comedic effect: “seeing-eye bitch,” “masticated her tail,” “It was very rigid to understand,” etc. It worked, and it was funny, but these sections at times come across not so much as a means to further the story, as they are a humorous academic exercise in thesaurus abuse. By which I mean: literary dick-measuring. Even considering this bit of pretentiousness, though, these sections are pretty funny — both for the language gymnastics and for some of Alex’s editorialized translations to the American tourist.

The other parts of the story, interwoven in parallel, are meant to be excerpts from the Jonathan Safran Foer character’s novel, an imagined and fictionalized version of the history of Trachimbrod (stand-in for Trochenbrod,) the shtetl where his ancestors originated from in the Ukraine. These sections are written with a heavy hat-tip to Gabriel García Márquez, but they are really lovely. The residents of the shtetl really come to life through Foer’s imagination, and they get their share of humor, too.

The historical setting of WWII naturally means there will be some tragedy, and some really tough, heart-wrenching sections. There is, allegedly, a bit of controversy around Foer’s depiction of the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod/Trochenbrod; my feeling (as a non-historian) is that this is pretty clearly fiction, and as Foer took the liberty of re-naming and reconstructing the town, I didn’t have any issues with his presentation.

Reading this, I instantly began comparing it to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I also reviewed but didn’t like that much. The precious writing is present in both in spades, but the characters in Everything is Illuminated were not quite as too-advanced-for-their-own-good — a characteristic I found very grating in the former. As book-reading types, many Cannonballers will probably have picked this one up already, but if you haven’t, I’d definitely recommend it as worth reading.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I didn’t see Fight Club, the movie, until a few years after its 1999 release, and afterward I was compelled to go to the source and read Fight Club, the book. It was my first exposure to Palahniuk’s writing, which is certainly recognizable in its style and voice. The story seems simple enough to start: the narrator, unsatisfied with his life, follows his new friend Tyler Durden on a quest to “hit bottom.” They start with fight clubs, where men who feel neutered by their lives beat each other to a pulp in order to feel alive. The men eventually graduate to Project Mayhem, an anarchist collective that wants to burn the world down and start over. Throughout, there are details about how to make napalm, and how to neutralize a lye burn, and how film projectors work. It’s a fascinating novel, and gripping, certainly.

It’s also brutal. Amidst the graphic descriptions of faces getting mashed in and bodies beaten senseless are some bleak nihilistic ruminations, which would be less powerful if they were simply depressing, but no; the narrator’s voice is also darkly humorous. Palahniuk kicks you while you are down, but he doesn’t leave you laying there; he lifts you back up with humor, and that motivates you to not abandon the narrator entirely.

Not everyone is a fan of Palahniuk’s writing style, and that’s perfectly understandable. I, myself, can’t say that I seek out a lot of his writing; after this and Choke I found myself feeling like “Okay, I get it.” But he’s definitely good at inhabiting damaged characters, and with this being his first novel, there is a bit of freshness to his staccato phrasing and patois that makes the shtick seem a bit more authentic than it does in the later novels. So if you haven’t already read this one, and saw and liked the movie, I’d recommend it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Review: Animal Farm by George Orwell

I decided to re-read Orwell’s allegorical anti-Stalinist satire since I was way too young to understand it the first time I read it. (Aside: an ambitious young reader, I saw the title and must have thought to myself, “Yay, animals!” Alas, these were not the cuddly animals I was accustomed to from the likes of James Herriot.)

So, yeah, this made a lot more sense to me this time — I’m not going to recap in depth because I’m going to assume most people have read this one. Essentially it’s the tale of a revolution gone wrong thanks to government corruption, except here you’ve got pigs = the government, and the rest of the farm = the populace.

It’s a pretty great book, and a short read. Orwell is great at creating a sense of dread and foreboding that carries through the entire novel, and he pulls no punches in sacrificing some of the more prominent and beloved “characters” in order to demonstrate the brutality of the regime. Even today, with communism less of an overt “threat” to the US, there are valuable messages here about power and corruption in the leading/ruling class.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In the Matrix, people drink crap beer because they don't know any better.

Here are two companion articles that may be a "red pill" of sorts. I am feeling like a beer missionary right now!

Grab Me a Warm One!
Don’t believe Coors and Budweiser—cold temperatures ruin good beer.
There’s practically no beer worth drinking that should be served below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some styles, like double IPAs and British bitters, are at their best around 55 degrees. But walk into any bar, even one serious about craft beer, and you’re likely to be served beer that’s close to freezing, often in a misguidedly chilled mug.
Where did this practice of deep freezing beer come from? While the cold neuters tasty beers, it masks the flaws of flavorless macrobrews. So it’s no surprise that the corporate brewers who make Budweiser, Miller, and Coors fill their ads with images of frosty mugs, snowy peaks, and bikini-clad babes frolicking improbably in fake snow. Coors Light has invested the most in frigidness, famously deploying the dopey gimmick of erecting mountains on its labels that turn blue when the beer is “cold enough.”
Too true. Next time you order craft beer and you see frost on the glass, do yourself a favor and wait to drink it. Or warm it with your hands.You will taste the difference, and you will love it. I promise. But if you've gone ahead and ordered the standard BudMillerCoors, then yes, drink it quickly while it's cold.

Can Beer Save America?
For decades, the big brewers (Anheuser Busch, MillerCoors, etc.) have marketed their products less on the basis of taste or quality than on identity branding. What you drank subsequently became a statement not necessarily of what your taste buds enjoyed, but of your self-image. The Miller versus Budweiser wars and Old Milwaukee ads, for instance, were so often a pitch to guys looking for working-class street cred. Meanwhile, Pabst Blue Ribbon lately has been pitched as a retro-themed statement of hipster style.
This kind of marketing made a certain sense, because while macrobrew brands are certainly appealing, the actual beers in question are basically terrible. Produced through the macrobrews’ low-price, high-volume process, they don’t contain high-quality ingredients, they don’t contain much alcohol and, thus, they simply don’t taste good. Knowing this, the macrobrews have logically designed their marketing campaigns to focus on everything (the can, the type of people who drink it, the logo, etc.) but the actual product. Indeed, if there’s one ubiquitous reference that macrobrewing companies make to the beer itself, it’s usually one telling you how cold the beer is or should be — a temperature that, quite deliberately, helps hide just how bad the beer actually is.
In the last few years, small brewers have filled the vacuum left by macrobrewers, specifically marketing higher-priced products based on premium quality and taste. It’s been a wildly successful endeavor. 2011’s sales results tell that story: In a year that saw an overall decline in the beer market, the craft brewing industry increased its year-to-year sales by 15 percent and substantially grew its share of the total market.
The headline overall is kind of silly, but the article has some encouraging news! There is something to be said for quality, even at a higher price point, and even in the face of strong marketing.

I also feel there is an interesting point to make about overall cost when you consider volume of consumption. A 6 pack of Coors Light is anywhere between $4-7 at most stores. The average person would have to drink about 3 or 4 12oz cans of Coors Light, at 4% ABV, to even start to feel a buzz. In contrast, you can buy a 22oz bottle of Stone Double Bastard, a flavorful and strong beer at 10.5% ABV, for about $6-7 in most stores in California. My decision is obvious, if I'm staring down the two in a store and they cost about the same. I do get less of the Stone for the same price, but I don't need any more than I'm buying for that price. I'd have to drink most of the 6 pack to get the same buzz as I would get drinking the Stone, effectively drinking nearly the same amount of dollars in one sitting. And I'd enjoy it much, much less.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing is a thought-provoking short novel originally written in 1929, and Nella Larsen is today considered to be one of the premier novelists to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. The story follows two biracial women who can both “pass” as white despite being legally Black (h/t Plessy v Ferguson.) The main protagonist, Irene Redfield, is an olive-skinned woman who has chosen to remain part of the Black community; she is married to a darker-skinned (“copper” is the descriptor) man, and one of her two sons is dark-skinned as well. The second lead character is Clare Kendry, an old childhood friend of Irene’s; the two reconnect on a hot afternoon when Irene passes as white to gain entry to an upscale Chicago hotel. Clare, described as pale and fair-haired,  has married a wealthy white man and passes as white full-time.

Years later, now living in Harlem, Irene receives a letter from Clare, who is feeling isolated from her Black heritage. Her racist husband has no idea of her racial background, and as such, she has been unable to stay connected to her past for fear of revealing herself. While he travels, Clare hopes to see Irene and other members of the Black community in Harlem and revisit her roots. Irene has reservations about Clare’s re-integration into the community, but Clare’s persistence eventually sees her into the many social events that Irene is involved in.

As one might expect, the social commentary in this novel is insightful and important. In addition to exploring the biracial experience from several angles, Larsen has also decided to focus on the middle-class Black experience, which is an often ignored segment of society even today. Therefore, in addition to racial themes, there are also implications about class privilege as well. I think this is an important book for pretty much anyone to read. The specific racism discussed is that of a very early-20th century overt nature, but the themes of “passing” and feeling “othered” by both racial groups of a biracial person’s background are still very relevant today.

It’s a short book, and very well-written: Larsen’s language is rich and engrossing. I read it in a few hours and definitely recommend it. It’s a very small time investment for such a poignant story.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Easy A GIFs

I just watched Easy A for the first time last weekend and it was pretty hilarious, and in no small part thanks to Emma Stone, who may be the most lovable actress -- to both men and women -- in awhile.

It was also pretty GIF-able.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thanks for the offer

I've started taking public transportation, thanks to the graduate student government negotiating a fantastic deal with LA Metro that makes our fares insanely cheap during the school year. And, I'm down the street from one of the Red Line stations, so I even get to take the real subway.

Because LA public transit, though, is so disjointed and on a grid, I have to transfer a lot. And sometimes waiting at the bus stops in between transfers takes awhile. This, incidentally, is the worst part of taking the bus. I hear a lot of horror stories about weird people on the bus, and they certainly are there, but with my headphones and book I'm mostly left alone. There was one guy, one time, that asked me to dinner, and when I politely declined, he wondered why "the most powerful man in the world" couldn't even get a date. High comedy! Anyway.

I was sitting at a stop a few weeks ago in my neighborhood from last year, which is neither the best nor the worst of LA neighborhoods. It's had a sketchy past, but it's pretty tame now. And as I'm sitting there, this guy comes up from behind me (poor choice #1) and says

"Excuse me, but do you know this is like, the worst neighborhood imaginable?"

What I should have said: "You don't have much of an imagination, do you?"
What I actually said: "No, it's really not." (REVEL IN MY WIT!)

Then he says, "Well, I just thought I'd offer you a ride so that you don't have to wait here for the bus."

What I said: "Um, no thanks, I'm okay."
What I was thinking: So, the alternative to waiting here, with several other people around, and getting onto a heavily monitored bus, is to get in the car alone with you, an absolute stranger?

I'll pass.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I undersold the Tumblr, so I'm trying this again.

I'm really insecure about my future. So when the career center/marketing lady in a recent "What to do with your life" seminar said that building an online presence is actually becoming really important, even in science, I decided to take her seriously. I mean, I'm on the internet all the time anyway, so I may as well try to do something productive with it. Like, AHEM, a new layout for this blog? And the beer blog? I know they're not anything professional, but I put a little more time into them both than I had before, and I think they look nice enough.

Anyway, about the Tumblr. It's going to be kind of what Tumblr intends it to be, which is mainly narratives in photos, as opposed to here, which is a lot of word vomit, which if you're reading this you know already. But anyway, in the last few days of using the Tumblr, I've found a few more uses for it than I initially thought I would have. For example, I kind of want to show off the recipes I've been trying on Pinterest, but wasn't really interested in posting that here. Tumblr is perfect. I'll just post the link to the recipe, and the picture I took of the version I made, and boom.

Also, regarding grad school, I've been bouncing around this idea -- partly inspired by this blog -- of reintroducing civilized society to scientists. Even though geeky is en vogue right now, people still seem to have really bizarre impressions about the kinds of people who are scientists. So I wanted to focus on something that I find really interesting, which is music, and ask the people I work with: What do you listen to while you're working? And I started posting that kind of stuff on the Tumblr as well.

Anyway. I'm definitely buying into that whole "catch 'em all" idea of social media (except for Twitter. I just can't with that shit) but I'm going to do my best to make it interesting. And yes, I know that probably for a lot of people, what I cooked or what color my nails are doesn't constitute 'interesting', but maybe if you're reading this and you actually know me and you're tired of Charming Wholesomeness prolixity, you may find the Tumblr to be satisfying bite-sized snippets of what you know and love about me.

So, follow the hopping bunny over to the as of yet untitled Tumblr...

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ah, this one was so good, you guys!

Thank you Amazon: A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most powerful and most widely read novels of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules. 

Margaret Atwood has said of this book, initially published in 1985, that she did not include anything that wasn’t happening somewhere in the world. And it’s the truth; we only need recent memories and present knowledge of current events to connect Atwood’s details to their inspiration. It’s therefore fascinating how criticism of this novel often claims that the ideas here are too radical, and that this would never happen, and that putting forth these ideas is dangerous and intellectually dishonest. I don’t have much of a desire to get into political specifics here in a book review, but in light of such criticism, it becomes even more remarkable how some of the liberties lost in The Handmaid’s Tale (again: published in 1985) seem plucked right out of Supreme Court discussions from 2012. Have we really progressed so little? Are we regressing?

Putting aside feminist themes for a moment, I also want to talk a little bit about Atwood’s writing and voice, which are both at their very strongest in this novel. The struggle of her protagonist, Offred, felt immediately urgent and engrossing, and her inner dialogue did honestly evoke the turmoil, anger, numbness, and myriad other emotions that a woman would feel when she experiences what Offred has endured. The strength of the writing and story were perfectly matched here; The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling, well paced, and full of characters who, even if we only meet them for a short time, are treated with respect and given humanity.

(And now I’m giggling a little to myself, because if my review is to be believed, if we treated each other like Atwood treats her characters, The Handmaid’s Tale probably wouldn’t ring so true as a cautionary tale!)