Saturday, March 30, 2013

March Book Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
My rating: ☆☆

I'm so glad I finally read something by Ian McEwan. Sweet Tooth is his newest novel, and I haven't read his others, so I don't have anything else to compare it to... yet. I will read him again, and I really enjoyed this first experience. My only past encounter with McEwan is the movie adaptation of Atonement, which I had mixed feelings about (and that was probably due to Keira Knightly being in it - I always have mixed feelings about her). Due to the dark nature of that story, I think I assumed that Sweet Tooth would have a similar tone. It's definitely not a lighthearted plot, but it's not as black as I would have liked for a book about espionage.

As for a little plot background: Serena Frome shows potential in high school for numbers, despite an overzealous appreciation for contemporary fiction reading, and is accepted to study Maths at Cambridge. She disappoints upon graduating, and only gets a third (which is the lowest level honors you can graduate with). She has a chance affair with a older professor who begins tutoring her, sexually and academically, for life as a "social servant." That's code for: MI5, Englands intelligence agency. She applies, is accepted, and is assigned to a special operation referred to as "Sweet Tooth." It's 1972, England is still fighting the Cold War, and MI5 wants to back writers whose politics lines up with the government's, in order to manipulate the cultural conversation. Well-versed in contemporary fiction, Serena is selected to co-opt a promising young writer named Tom Haley. The story centers around her falling for his stories, then for Tom himself.

I moved quite quickly through this novel, but I would have flown through it had it not been for all the tedious historical details. I don't mean details that really add to the flavor or intrigue, either. Parts of Sweet Tooth sort of read like a text book, and that's coming from a gal who loves her some historical fiction. I don't know enough about McEwan to know if he's just got a thing for history, or if he was indulging his inner professor, but man... I admit... I skimmed somma that shit. It always seemed to come at the most inopportune moments, too, like when you're waiting to see if something more interesting or exciting is about to happen.

I also didn't really relate to Serena's character very well. I felt like she could have been much more fleshed out, and even more likeable, for that matter. She did have a sort of self-deprecating dialogue that was both endearing and a little irritating all at the same time. You don't ever really feel sorry for her when it's appropriate, because you see all the consequences coming before she does. I feel like McEwan could have made her a little more approachable, but maybe that wasn't his desire.

This is a good little novel. Especially if you like Cold War history, read up! There is a nice twist toward the end, that I totally saw coming chapters ahead, but was still fun to unravel. I didn't guess the exact details, but gathered an inkling of the final punch, and this is where I feel like the climax could have been darker and -- therefore -- make much more of a lasting impression.

March Bonus Books:
the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, by Mark Haddon (  ★☆ ) 

★ - Hated it.   - Didn't like it.   - Liked it.   - Really liked it.  ★ - Absolutely loved it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

March Madness

Soooooo...I worked multiple events as a contractor throughout the month of March. This is really fun for me, and a nice change of pace, because by bonding with a larger production company I get to work on large-scaled events/festivals and for corporate companies that I wouldn't ordinarily as little ole me. These included a 300+ person gala, a 4 day long corporate SXSW Interactive social event, and SXSW live music showcase. All great experiences and lots of fun! Here's a recap in picture form:

Bartenders dance on the bar at Handlebar on East 5th Street - our host venue for corporate clients at SXSW.

Upstairs deck at Handlebar, transformed.
Sound & lighting gurus in action.
People enjoying SXSW music.
And then this happened.

With Snoop-Dogg/Lion at his movie screening.

Yup, Ole Snoop. He was super nice and very gracious with his fans. We were working his movie screening, which was just for an intimate group of people. Afterward, he took time posing in pictures and shaking hands with the guests. Later, on his way out, we just sort of stumbled into this picture with him, which he was more than happy to take. The best part was that right after this he voluntarily came up and hugged each one of us and thanked us for all our help making his event go smoothly. Um, no prob, Snoop!

Oh, don't believe me? Here's another angle. My glassy I've-worked-12-hours-and-counting eyes really "pop" in this one.

But Snoop wasn't the only VIP present. Oh hohoho no. The Dream was performing (didn't know who he was until that day) before the movie screening, so there was a heavy hiphop/r&b presence. The Dream's keyboardist borrowed my ear buds and then asked for my number. Whoo hoo. We had no idea that Usher and Bobby Valentino (also didn't know who he was until that day) were also going to show up to support (aka smoke weed?). I only caught a glimpse of Usher before he was ushered away. Har har. That was pretty chaotic. I was "stage managing" the bands, and Bobby Valentino's bodyguard came up to me backstage (if you wear black and a walkie talkie people think you make big decisions) and this was the conversation that ensued:

Bodyguard: "Hey. Hey!" (The band was loud)
Me: "Yes?"
Bodyguard: "I'm Bobby Valentino's bodyguard, and he'll go on for you after these guys."
Me: "What?" (It was really loud)
The Bodyguard repeated himself at least three times. I finally caught the name.
Me: "Who?"
Bodyguard: "BOBBY VALENTINO." (I had zero clue who that was, so I just shrugged.)
Me: "Oh, well, sorry. Our sound permit is up at 10pm and these guys get to play their full set."

What I now understand was that Bobby Valentino was offering to get onstage and give a spontaneous performance just out of the goodness of his heart. Clearly, the sound permit.... and all.

All in all, my first SXSW experience was a lot of fun, however I'm glad it only comes but once a year!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We are two year olds!

 Survived another year of marriage, partnership, and buddyhood.

I'm sweating in this picture, in my handmade 60-year-old heirloom dress, and I think I had actually just made a face at him about how gross it was our two perspiring foreheads were touching right here. Fortunately, Maggie just knows how to make us look a lot more sophisticated and romantic than we really are. At one point in the middle of the ranch where we were shooting I just ripped my spanxs down and stepped out of them. I couldn't take them or the heat any more.

I suppose I'm sharing these dirty details because details are what make up the moments that make up a real marriage. Marriage isn't that picture up there ^ even though it's beautiful (if I do say so myself). It's what's going on behind the pose, in the eyes, between the hearts. Some of that is beautiful, but a lot of it is hard. Hard work. (Trust me, we worked hard to look just that good.)

Our first year celebration felt like cheering for the hurdlers who make it through to the end of their sprint, but knock down every single hurdle in the process. I did not feel like a winner at marriage our first year, except that we survived. It wasn't horrible, but it was much much harder than I expected. I was glad to have that first year behind us.

This year, in comparison, felt like a reward. We are a better, stronger team. Sometimes I still worry our differences are insurmountable, that we will always bicker like tweens, but the reward of buddyhood is enough to quiet that doubt. That and a whole lotta love.

Cheers, darlin'. You are the best thing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

February Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
My rating:    ★☆

This novel slowly creeps up on you... in a casual way. So slowly that it took all of February and most of March for me to finish reading it. I started it actually on time, at the beginning of February, got a few solid chapters into it and then got depressed with the dreary lives of the Pagford citizens, put it down, and didn't get back into it until me mum (like what I did there?) loaned me the audio recording.

The conflict thickens because me mum only loaned me some of the cds, as she wasn't finished listening to the conclusion. So I read the beginning of the book, got frustrated, listened to a good part of the middle on cd, and then had to resort to reading the last 100 pages or so with my own two eyes. But it is in the bag, folks! All 512 pages of the sucker. And I only admire J.K. Rowling more for having written yet another complex tome, this time without quidditch games to fall back on. (On a superficial note, and a review bonus 2-for-1: if you do attempt to read this and get bogged down, definitely check out the audio recording. I know that sounds like something for the elderly or the vision impaired, but the narrator is great--not one of those annoying drones--and really helped me catch a lot of details and grow attached to some of the characters I hadn't previously by reading it on the page. It was the boost I needed, and once fully immersed returning to reading--rather than listening--was easy and I couldn't wait to find out what happened.)

The basis is simple on the surface: Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council, dies unexpectedly. The town is divided over longstanding city boundary issues, and the empty council seat creates an opportunity for the upcoming vote to be swung either way The story follows the citizens who choose to run for council election, and airs the dirty laundry each member of this apparently idyllic little village tries desperately to keep hidden. With a sort of mundane plot foundation that harkens a Jane Austen's society drama, the complexities of the characters, families, and their lives (past and present) are slowly unraveled. Only Rowling could take something as tedious as a small city council election and elevate it into thrilling drama with multiple unexpected revelations.

Rowling is deft at those twisty plots involving lots of characters. You think I had complaints about my January pick having too many perspectives? Well, I spent the first 200 pages of The Casual Vacancy trying to remember WHO everyone was and HOW they were connected to one another. For such a "small town" story, there sure were a lot of key players. And none of them - not a one - appears to be happy with their lot. However, what's magical about the way Rowling writes, and what was lacking from Beautiful Ruins, is you somehow sense that all these folks traveling separate, depressing paths will intersect at some point and it will all make sense in the end. It's worth it to hold out, trust me. And Rowling is so talented that though the topic and material wasn't my favorite, the storytelling was just. that. good. that I kept on. She always - just as in the Harry Potter books - gives you the right balance of "Aha! I knew it." and "Holy shit, did that just happen?" moments. She's just so darn clever.

Please don't read this thinking it will be like Harry Potter. Don't even think about Harry Potter at all. Pick it up and read it as if someone else entirely wrote it, because otherwise you'll spend some valuable time expecting to be taken on a magical journey, with a heart-wrenching but ultimately happy ending. This is not that book. This is a book for adults, with all the tedious, depressingly small things adults have to deal with. There is no magic except for Rowling's gift for weaving an intricate tale. There's barely even a hero, just failing marriages, miserable teenagers, and malicious busybodies. This book is about selfishness, close-mindedness, bullies, actions, and reactions. This book is about battles--personal and professional--and revenge, and how some people get what they deserve and some don't get what they deserve at all. Small town, small minds, big drama. Read it.

★ - Hated it.  ★ - Didn't like it.  ★ - Liked it.   - Really liked it.  ★ - Absolutely loved it.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Facebook Mission: Accomplished

So we are well into March and I have yet to finish reading and write my review for A Casual Vacancy, my February book pick (thanks to a little switcharoo that had to take place since I couldn't get Sweet Tooth at the library until... yesterday). The fact that it has taken me over a month to read this book should hint at some of my feelings about the book, but I will wait until the last page has been turned to give a full account.

What I know you're really dying to hear about is how my month "without Facebook" went. To be perfectly honest, I was not diehard about this and I don't really feel ashamed about it. Have a snide comment to make about that? Let's see you give up Facebook for a month, and then you can be critical about my go at it. I snuck a few peeks here and there and looked in on my notifications (stupid of me to plan a party/meet up using Facebook invite and then think I could just disappear for a month) and messages from time to time. In my original post I discussed that I had no intentions of being Nazi-like in my requirements for avoiding Facebook. If you struggle with authority, as I do, telling yourself you absolutely can not do something only makes you want to do it more. Instead - just like a good diet should be a life-long lifestyle change, rather than a 24 hour fast - I was striving to change my relationship with Facebook and show myself that I didn't need it on a daily basis. Mission: Accomplished.

From the beginning, the two best things I did was un-bookmark on my computer toolbar and delete the Facebook app from my iPhone. It was amazing that these simple actions kept me from constantly checking my newsfeed whenever I was working on my Mac, and kept my thumb from robotically updating my notifications on the iPhone. I still haven't added the bookmark back, and although the app is back on my phone, I'm keeping it on homepage #2 so that it's not the first thing I see every time I unlock my screen and I've disabled my notification alerts.

I was as surprised as the next person that, since feeling completely free to comment, like, and post my little heart out as of March 1, I haven't really wanted to. Facebook isn't what it used to be (meaning back in college days), and I'm realizing how very little purpose it serves in my life now - especially since Instagram is so much more prevalent these days. Pictures say more than words. In any case, even though I peeked a few times, I refused to comment, kept myself from "Liking" things, and avoided making snarky responses on occasion, and really enjoyed this month of FB silence (especially during the Academy Awards) and a newfound value of privacy.

Now I just need to work on my TV addiction.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bag Bans

On March 1, Austin became the first major Texas city to effectively ban plastic bags. What seemed like a huge controversy at the time the ordinance passed, and instigated a lawsuit between local retailers and the City of Austin, transitioned seemingly without a peep.

I can't remember when I started feeling responsible for the environment. My family always recycled when I was growing up, when it was available, but I don't remember really caring one way or another. It certainly wasn't until college that I began feeling a heavy burden about keeping things from ending up in a landfill. I remember setting up for college house parties and clearly marking a trash can for recycling beer bottles and cans, and one just for trash. Yep, I was "that girl." I knew no shame.

The kicker though was when I made my first trip to New York City a few years later. Sadly, what I will remember most about that visit was the trash piled as tall as a (very tall) man outside our hotel, and walking through windy Times Square and a plastic bag blowing into my face. I will always associate with that visit the nauseating feeling that came over me, when on the drive home my world was torn apart by the reality that was Fresh Kills Landfill (now Freshkills Park). I really, truly had no idea. I was so naive. 

I am quite proud to live in a city that has a Zero Waste by 2040 plan, not only in writing, but also in motion. Recycling can be a lot of work. It's too easy to just throw something in your trash can and not think about it once it's disappeared on the truck. Especially, because I looooove to get rid of things, I'd much rather it was a streamlined, simple process. I don't particularly enjoy collecting food scraps for composting, or saving up electronics to recycle at Best Buy, or remembering to take reusable bags with me to the store. There really isn't anything fun about it. It's work, extra work, which doesn't directly or immediately benefit me, but we're all responsible and there's no way around that.

Even if you don't live in a city with bag bans or advanced recycling programs, you can still participate in small ways, like buying reusable grocery bags. It might seem silly and pointless, but you are just one more person doing Mother Earth a favor. Trying to minimize your personal waste levels will make you reevaluate other parts of your life, as well. Just watch and see.

So pick yourself up a couple of these...

And one or two of these...

And let's all shoulder our responsibility and do our part.