Friday, 1 August 2014

Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" (book review)

Oh summer.  How I love thee.  Too bad it's already half over.  And yes I know it's August 1st, but to accurately quantify summer on the Canadian prairies, one needs to approach things with a dose of brutal honesty now and then.  Because really, we all know that summer is only July and August.  It can and has snowed in June, and spring this year was so fucking cold and raining and shitty that this was even more the case this year.  And it can and has and probably will snow in September, so that is definitely part of autumn.  You can't argue with cold morning temps and pretend anymore at that point.

So while I'm already pining for yesterday, while trying to enjoy the remaining 30 days before we plunge back into the ABYSS that is not-summer, AKA pseudo-almost-winter, the thing that monopolizes our year with 10 months of temperature related agony, I am in full blown summer reading mode.  Which means that I can't read less than 2-3 books at a time.  Books are delicious, and books on the back patio with margaritas are even better.

One of my recent reads was the July assignment for book club, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber.

It could easily be said, in advance of reading this collection of works, that I am a HUGE fan of Angela Carter's work (I reviewed her creepy tale The Magic Toyshop last year).  I like to describe Carter's writing as prose that sounds like poetry.  She had an exceptional vocabulary and understanding of the English language, and the sentences simply flow beautifully.  Mechanics aside, The Bloody Chamber features a large number of familiar tales (such as Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast) re-written with a variety of results, which are quite often not-so-happy endings for the protagonist.  As always, Carter is a feminist writer and this comes through very clearly in her work.  Women who are forced into marriage as an escape from crushing poverty are a common theme in this book, and as a result Carter ends up making quite extensive commentary on sexual violence found within legally recognized relationships and the dependence and voicelessness of women who are victimized by their husbands (who in this case are more frequently their "owners" than anything else).

Although some stories resonated with me more than others, this is obviously to be expected in a short story collection.  As a whole, The Bloody Chamber is an excellent work and quite representative of Carter's style and subject matter.  Once again I would recommend anyone who hasn't read a work Carter to seriously GO READ ONE.  Nights at the Circus is the most accessible and is a bit more gentle than some of her other works in terms of subject matter.  If you enjoy well-crafted and beautifully written stories which inspire empathy and insight, trust me, you will love her works.   

Thursday, 3 July 2014

What I think about when I'm running

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

Haruki Murakami wrote a particularly excellent memoir, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I recommend to anyone and everyone who either enjoys his books or enjoys a good run.

I was thinking about this book today, and thinking about how visualizations help when it comes to setting fitness goals, and also during the actual fitness process itself.  That's not to say you have to picture the grand final result of it all, which can sometimes seem so far away as to be disheartening.  But something that helps you to keep going when you are mid-run and just want to quit.

So today I thought I'd share my own visualization, the thing I think about when I am running.  I have a tough time finding my groove sometimes, but once I settle into it and my arms and legs hit the right rhythm, my abs are pulled in nice and tight, shoulders back... only then can I settle into my visual, which propels me through the rest of my run.

I am a robot.  My arms and legs all move like clockwork.  My pace is consistent, my movements are fluid.  Robots do not tire, robots can run forever.

It is surprisingly effective.

What is your visualization?  What do you picture or think about to get you through a run?

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Lunar Chronicles (so far) - series book review

I am here today to talk to you about what I have affectionately termed "my cyborg Cinderella books".

Oh I love each and every one of you soooo much!

Some YA series are just absolute, pure enjoyment.  And Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles are just deliciously readable books.  They use familiar Fairy Tale characters (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel) as the foundation for a dystopian future where the people of the Earth and the people of the Moon (Luna) march towards war while a devastating plague runs rampant through Earth's kingdoms.

As is often the case with YA reads, this premise might seem to be a bit silly.  But Meyer uses just enough of the traditional story without leaning too heavily on it.  And although the central plot (which I cannot spoil for you) is a very well-known traditional trope, the nuances in the characters and storytelling are fresh and make an old idea seem very exciting.  I've never liked Cinderella more than when she was a cyborg.  :)

Having just read these three books over the course of a few months, I am now suffering from what I'm sure will feel like an interminable wait for the fourth and final book of the series, Winter, which won't be released until early 2015.

Which means any and all YA fans who haven't read this have time to get on it!  If you're at all a dystopian or YA fan or just like a rollicking good adventure, you will love these ones.

Over and out for now. :)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (book review)

This month book club is reading graphic novels.  I've been waiting a while for this genre to come up, not only because I obviously love graphic novels, but because I don't know that we can really link them all together and call them a "genre".  There's so much diversity in subject matter, art, etc, that I think it will be a challenging discussion when we eventually sit down and try to figure out what ties our works together and what generalizations we can make about what is more an art form than a genre.

Anyway, this month I read the 2-volume Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who is also the super talented author of American Born Chinese, which I highly recommend if you haven't already read it.

I'm a big fan of the covers

Despite having taught high school history for a time, I have only a passing knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, mostly to do in connection with imperialism in general.  My knowledge of the internal tensions and politics within China at the time is almost nil, so I was really glad to read this work not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from an educational one.

I would recommend reading these in the order suggested by the title of the combined work.  Some things are otherwise given away in Saints, or would be difficult to understand the importance of without first having read Boxers.  The two are essentially inseparable, and only happen to be bound separately.

Children Bao and Four-Girl are the protagonists of these two stories.  In Boxers, Bao is mistreated and neglected by his brothers until conflict with both "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts to Christianity) leads Bao to train in martial arts, and eventually lead his brothers and the members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in rebellion.  In Saints, Four-Girl's story runs parallel to Bao's.  Also a mistreated and unwanted child, Four-Girl yearns for basic recognition and a real name, and eventually finds the belonging she desires in Christianity.  Bao and Four-Girl cross paths innocently as children, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war by the time they are teens, with tragic results.

Gene Yuen Lang does a marvelous job of presenting both sides of this conflict, but I found Boxers to be a much stronger work than Saints.  I found Bao to be the more developed and complete character, with more time spent on the development of his character and exploration of his actions and motivations. The believability of the characters also extends to many of the secondary protagonists. Perhaps it is simply because Saints is a shorter volume, but I found it to be lacking in character development and storyline compared to Boxers.  I found Four-Girl to be much more static and her story less intriguing than Bao's.  Together they work well, but I really wish that as much development had occurred with Four-Girl as with Bao, it would have made for a better balance between the works.

The art of Boxers and Saints is very much in Yang's style, it is an extremely clean and almost minimalist at times, but highly expressive.  His use of colour to contrast the mundane from the supernatural is excellent, and minor characters are drawn with as much personality as the protagonists.  Architecture and landscapes are simple but appropriate and well-done as well.

Overall, I feel that Boxers and Saints is an excellent work, and I wish it had been available when I was teaching high school history.  Although this was a brief topic in the curriculum, I feel like these graphic novels give a good overview of the issues and parties involved, and would make for excellent, engaging reading for students studying this section of history.  I highly recommend this work for anyone who enjoys history, graphic novels, or just a very good story. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (book review)

I've learned to mistrust books described as "coming of age story".

This is mostly because they are all, essentially without exception, absolutely depressing as hell.  And Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa is no different.

Now sometimes things are depressing, especially when you're a teenager.  And sometimes things are good.  And sometimes there are books like this one, and like Catcher in the Rye, where nothing good EVER happens to the protagonist.  As opposed to a more balanced and realistic story where good things occasionally happen (as they do in real life, even if your life is really shitty), like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  And I know that's because the writer would like us to feel the depth of their angst, but really it just serves to make the book unrelatable and unpleasant to read.  The lack of any redeeming moments or characters is what makes Kicking the Sky into a long, drawn-out, masochistic bore.

So why did I pick up Kicking the Sky knowing what type of book it was?  The premise involving a murder as the catalyst of loss of innocence was very intriguing, especially a real-life murder.  But this event is hardly mentioned at all in the middle section of the book, almost as if the author forgot about it while he was busy writing about all the terrible things that happened to everyone.  Considering the main characters are 11- and 12-year-old boys, there's lots of sex (most of it non-consensual) and drug use, assaults, and dead people that nobody seems to mind too much about.  I get that they are supposed to be neglected latch-key kids, but somebody's getting raped or molested in some way in pretty much every chapter. It was totally unnecessary.  We got it the first umpteen times, their lives are shitty and they're exposed to a bunch of crap they shouldn't be.  Which makes me question whether they had any innocence to lose to begin with, and whether protagonist Antonio can actually be pining for a childhood that didn't really exist to begin with.  So the story also falls short on that account as well, as I can hardly assume that Antonio's family suddenly woke up one day as terrible people after a childhood supposedly full of happiness.

Usually I like to build a "compliments sandwich" for my book reviews, where I talk about what I liked, then talk about the parts I didn't, and then end with something positive.  But I'm just not sure I can with this one.  It's not a dramatic story about growing up, it's just a bunch of terrible things happening to people over and over and over, with no happy moments to break up the action and create realism.  Give this one a pass.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

I'm not going to tell you how cute your child is

I am not ever going to tell you how cute your child is.

This is probably not because your child isn't cute.  I'm sure they totally are.  But a lifetime of hearing nothing but "gosh how cute and precious are you" is not going to do your kid any favors.  It might actually be a detriment to them.  So I'm cutting the cute crap, and here's why:

Firstly, "oh you're so cute" is not a message your kid needs to hear over and over and over.  While this might seem like a really good idea, it only reinforces a major problem in our society.  Which is that you (all of us, especially the girls) are only of value if you are pretty/cute/handsome.  And that is a serious problem.  Children are rabid sponges for adult interaction and information.  They are absorbing everything you say (as anyone who's ever dropped an F-bomb around a 2-year-old knows), and using that to figure out their own world.  If all the adults and random strangers on the street are focusing on how cute a child is, this quickly becomes something that they will know is important.  Being cute gets them attention from adults.  Being cute is clearly very important.  And I'm sure that's not the message we're intending to send when we compliment a child's looks, but if that's all they hear it's what they will value.  And this is not a fair thing to have them cope with, especially (I say it again, especially especially) the GIRLS, who will not only be hearing it from the adults around them, but also from their TV shows and music and toys, all of which are hyper-focused on the importance of beauty (seriously, go look at the "girls aisle" in the toy store, I have a whole other rant on this for another day).  And then we grow up trained to be perpetually dissatisfied with our appearance, and end up caking on make-up and spending hours at the gym trying to fit back into that narrow definition of cute that was so repeatedly pounded into our minds time and time again.  So do the kids a favor, and cut that shit out.

Secondly, "oh you're so cute" is actually code for "I know nothing about you kid, so I'm going to comment on the only thing I can readily see about you, which is your appearance."  What about their kindness and generosity?  Or their gentle soul?  Or their mischievous sense of humour?  Or their gregarious personality?  You know, things about them that ACTUALLY MATTER.  Now I know this is harder with babies, who have all the personality of a bag of potatoes for the first several months of their life, but make a little effort to do better than "gosh he's cute".  Banal platitudes on a child's looks can only take you so far.  What do you know about them other than that they have an adorable button nose?  Maybe spend some time with them and get to know who they are, rather than just what they look like.  I'm going to wager that there's probably a real person hiding under all the cute.

Lastly, none of this barrage of cute commentary is good for mom and dad either.  These people are doing their best to turn little Timmy into a reasonable, functional human being, and don't need these perpetual cute messages any more than their children do.  Adults are conditionable too, and hearing infinite repetitions of the same statement over and over and over will change anyone's mind over time.  Because nobody goes into parenthood knowing exactly what to do, our upbringing, our society and peer groups inform us about what's important.  We don't need any of these groups teaching us that cute is priority number one.  It's just not good for anybody.

Maybe your kid really is cute.  Good for them.  Maybe they're also a great listener, or a trustworthy friend, or full of compassion.  And maybe those things are getting overlooked because all the adults can do is comment on what they can most easily see.

Step it up people.  It takes a community to raise a child, and the community needs to stop being so shallow. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Curried Sweet Potato Chips recipe

I'm feeling quite the culinary queen now, this is my SECOND recipe that I ever made up out of my head (I'm sure you all remember my vegan chickpea donairs?)!  This recipe serves 2 as a side dish, but could easily be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled to feed a crowd.  So without further ado, here it is!

Curried Sweet Potato Chips

(Serves 2 as a side dish of 1/2 cup each)
Delicious and naturally vegan. :)

  • 1 6oz sweet potato or yam (this is a smallish one, the big suckers you see in the store will weigh a lot more!)
  • 1 tsp vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 tsp medium curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Wash and peel the sweet potato.  Cut the potato into medallions, about 1/2" thick (not too thick or your cook time will be longer).  Cut the larger medallions in half, or even quarter them in the case of a very large potato. 
In a medium bowl, combine the oil, curry powder, turmeric and salt.  Add the cut potatoes to the bowl and toss until coated.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and put the seasoned potatoes on the tray.
Cook for 10 minutes, then use a spatula to flip the potatoes over.  Cook for another 10 minutes until just slightly blackened around the edges.
Eat as is, or dip them in ketchup or spicy vegan mayo!

They come out such a pretty color from the turmeric.  They are just a teeny bit spicy and full of flavor, enjoy!  :)