Monthly Archives of: January 2012

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Why do Russians love Ferrero Rocher?

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If you’ve ever been to a Russian house, you know what I’m talking about.  The tea set comes out, the fruits and nuts come out, and out comes the Ferrero Rocher.

Ferrero Rocher is the currency of Russian households.  We received at least three Ferrero Rocher gift boxes this holiday season, and gave out at least two. What is it about this candy that makes it the Mercedes of the Russian community? Is it because it’s just expensive enough ($9.99 per box) to say, “I care and here’s something for your house so we don’t come empty-handed”, but not big enough of a commitment as wine? Is it because we love Italians?

I mean, for me, personally, it’s because it has Nutella in it (which I actually didn’t know until recently), and also because it reminds me of every Russian dinner gathering I’ve ever had to sit through in my childhood.

But back in the day, in the salad days of immigration, you only bought Ferrero Rocher for other people if you were a baller. So maybe the brand recognition has stuck.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Tax Returns

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It is a rainy, misty day in Londondelphia and Vicki sits at her kitchen table, absentmindedly spooning Nutella from the jar and brooding. There are hundreds of papers scattered about and her hair is dishevelled.  She makes small noises of curiosity from time to time and rifles through the papers systematically, throwing some on the floor when she is done. The tea kettle goes off again and again distantly in the background.

Mr. B walks into the room with a slight limp.  For the sake of this story, we are going to pretend that Mr. B is a veteran of the Soviet wars in Afghanistan and partakes in opium, even though Mr. B was not even born when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan happened and I’m not really sure how one would even go about finding an opium den in 2012.

“My God, woman, what are you doing,” Mr. B asks.

“The returns, Boykis, the returns!” Vicki turns towards him with a crazed gleam in her eye.

“What returns?” Mr. B gently turns the tea kettle off and pours himself some Assam, stepping over the mess.

“All of the information we need to file federal taxes for 2011 is missing.  Doubtless an enemy has stolen them for his benefit.  Think, Boykis.  Who would hate us so much that he would want to see our tax information?”

Mr. B rolls his eyes. “No one hates us. We have no enemies.” He pours some milk into his Assam and sits down beside Vicki.

“That’s what you think,” Vicki says, pushing a couple of folders full of mortgage information out of the way, onto the floor. “Moriarty’s spies are everywhere.  Especially when it comes to finding the two documents we need to be able to finish our returns. I bet,” she trails off and puffs on a hookah pipe lying on the floor.

“I bet they realized that we were working on taxes since they saw our attic light on late at night.  They knew we were missing papers, so every day they checked our mailbox while we were out.  One day this week, the electric man was supposed to come check our meter.  Under that pretense and since we live in a relatively crime-free neighborhood where no one is suspicious of normal activity, they came to our house dressed as the electrician and-” Vicki gets up and rushes outside in her bare feet.

“-yes.” She kneels down near the electric meter and traces the soil, rubbing it between her fingers. “The footprints here were much larger than that of a usual electrician. He walks around a lot for his job in checking the houses, so he has very snug shoes, which are smaller than the shoes that imprinted in this here dirt. They took our letters under that pretense and-” she walks over to the mailbox, delicately avoiding any of the soil.

“-yes.” She brushes the top of the mailbox with her finger and tastes it. “They were wearing gloves.  Usually the postman that comes here does not because he’s allergic to latex.”

Mr. B has appeared and is peering outside the front door with suppressed curiosity. “Aren’t you cold?  You should come back in.”

“Patience, Boykis!” Vicki cries. “These non-fingerprints are less than 24 hours old and we are hot on the trail!”

Mr. B holds out a stack of envelopes in his hand.  “Are these the documents you were looking for?” Vicki’s neck jerks up and she squints.

“Why, yes!  How did you find them?”

Mr. B gives her a pointed look. “You accidentally put them in the middle of your Economist magazine as a bookmark.”

Vicki’s whole body slumps, no longer primed for the chase.  She trudges back inside.

“Can I deduce something, if I may be so bold,” Mr. B asks, raising an eyebrow, ushering her in.

“What,” Vicki says, dejected. “Oh, yes, alright.”

“Can I deduce that you’ve been enjoying our watching the new BBC Sherlock Holmes remake, Sherlock, and have been so inspired by what you think is a great show that you wrote a fantasy blog post about something that kind of happened but you made a much bigger deal about it than it was in real life because you are a writer and are crazy?”

Vicki perks up. “Brilliant, Boykis.  You’re finally catching up to my staggering intellect, I see.”

 

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The Best Books I Read in 2011

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I realize this is post is little late, but I was otherwise lazy preoccupied.

Since Mr. B gave me an iPad for my birthday and I started commuting by train, I have been going through books like crazy. I think I must have read around 30 books last year. The hard part is finding really good books. Those are the books you don’t want to put down even though it’s 11:49 and you have work tomorrow.   Fortunately, I’ve sifted through the piles and found some real gems this year.

 Choice quote:

“He wanted to stick his finger in it and see what happened. Some story, some quest, started here, and he wanted to go on it. It felt fresh and clean and unsafe, nothing like the heavy warm lard of palace life. The protective plastic wrap had been peeled off”

I love fantasy books, but they have to be smart, too.  So right around the time that The Magician King was coming out, I decided to pick up its prequel The Magicians .  I don’t know why I didn’t read it before.  I just wasn’t feeling it, I think because the premise (boy Quentin is different from everyone else, attends a school of magicians and has adventures with his friends from the school) sounded too much like Harry Potter and as much as I love Harry Potter, I hate knockoffs.  I was wrong.  These  two books have quickly made their way into my top ten favorite books of all time.  They not only take you into another universe, they make you understand our world better. They’re both creepily dark and ridiculously hilarious, and Lev Grossman is incredibly talented; he leads you to where he wants you to go.  You feel like you’re right along with Quentin and the others on their adventures, and they perform magic in a way that seems actually possible.  Once you’re done with this book, you’ll be so sad that we really don’t have magic in this world.

 Choice quote:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

After I was finished with that pair of books, I suffered from withdrawal pretty badly.  I was extremely lucky that The Night Circus was published just around that time. It’s definitely not as savoury, thick, and badass as Magicians, but it’s beautiful and delicate and mysterious in its own way, and Erin Morgernstern capably takes you into a magical world that takes place during the night but is definitely not as dark and brooding as Brakebills. There are two magicians, a love story that spans a decade, and a circus that arrives out of thin air in fin de siecle Europe.  I saw the dead tree version in stores, and it is so beautiful. Creates exactly the right atmosphere. Also, Marco is hot.

 

 

 

Choice quote:

Many phenomena — wars, plagues, sudden audits — have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.

From schools for magic and circuses that vanish into thin air,  it’s only a short step to heaven and hell, and I am so, so glad I’ve finally gotten into Neil Gaiman, because he is just as amazing as everyone says he is, especially when he’s writing with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. This book is told from the point of view of a Legionaire of Hell, the suitably British Crowley, and an Angel, Azirophale. Long-time enemies, they’re now more or less friends and have the annoying burden of saving the world from Armageddon. But first, they have to get past the traffic on the London orbital.    I read this right before we went to England and it is just such a perfect description of the British disposition and understated humor that I could not recommend it more highly.  Also, Crowley is hot. One of my other Gaiman favorites is Neverwhere, in which he creates a whole new layer of London out of thin air.  I believe it was this book that invented the steampunk genre.

Choice Quote: 

“Raffy has this magical, abracadabrical ability to transform all his “ifs” into “whens”.”

 

From there, it was a straight shot into magical realism with Karen Russell’s short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  Just the title makes you want to read it, right? The short stories are all stand-alone, but they all take place in the Florida swamplands, a place rife with magic and misunderstanding, but woven into the ordinary ordinariness of growing up.  There is  the story of a boy who searches for his dead sister with magic swimming goggles, a girl who gets stuck in a conch shell, and the title story about an boarding school for girls with wolf parents which, in my opinion, is the best one.  Karen Russell has such a knack for choosing the exact right word that it’s a pleasure to read.

 

 

 

Choice quote: 

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

And, grudgingly, after that, I moved on to literary fiction. But what I didn’t know is that I’d found another book in my top 10: Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  I forget how I found it; I think someone in my Goodreads friends recommended it, but, oh my god. This is the book I wish I’d written.  Such a biting, succinct satire of modern society, of men who are schmucks, racism, bureaucracy, capitalism, academia, a beautiful depiction of New Orleans, and just everything wrapped all together into, really, The Great American Novel. If you haven’t read this book yet, you haven’t read American literature.

 

 

 

 

Choice Quote: 

“Literature could turn you into an asshole: he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.”

Speaking of TGAN, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is another obvious contender. It’s been on every book list in the country over the past year.  I don’t think it’s a 10, but definitely a solid 7 or 8.  If you don’t understand baseball, it can be a slog at times, but you technically don’t need to: the novel is not about baseball, but about people.  About how people are flawed, go to college, grow up, and do stuff in between.  Beautifully written, beautifully characterized, with tons of passages about Moby Dick, it’s just a good chunky read.

 

 

 

 

Choice Quote:

“Warp threads are thicker than the weft, and made of a coarser wool as well. I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious – all you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me.”

 

Next, we have The Lady and the Unicorn, by an author I’ve enjoyed before for her girl with her pearl earring, Tracy Chevalier.  Chevalier also creates worlds, but with history instead of fantasy.  Here, she literally weaves the story of the famous tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, the tortured painter that painted the original image, and the women caught up in his wake.  What was really, REALLY cool is the way Chevalier describes the making of a tapestry. AND. OMG. NERD BONUS POINTS HERE.  When we were at Stirling Castle, they had a tapestry BEING MADE LIVE with the ARTISTS RIGHT THERE DOING STUFF and you could ASK THEM QUESTIONS.  I geeked out for 20 minutes watching what Chevalier had only described in words.  It was better than Nutella.

 

 

We also have one non-fiction book: O Jerusalem!  Completely 100% awesome history book that is, really, as non-biased as it possibly can be, an account of Jerusalem in the time leading up to Israeli statehood and the battle for the city in 1948.  I’d learned a lot about Israeli early history before in books and on tours in the city, but this book is so well-researched and with such a good tone that it makes you feel like you’re reading a novel instead of a history book.  There are anecdotes and pictures of everyday life, an examination of the Arabs’ and the Jews’ motivations, and bits of songs from the time. The way Collins and Lapierre describe the part when Israeli paratroopers decided to storm the old city on 2 hours of sleep, using diet pills to keep themselves awake, as well as descriptions of how the city was kept fed during the blockade, really make you appreciate what people will do for a cause.

 

Any good recs for 2012? Leave them in the comments.

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The internet is making us stupid (or, I’m better than you because I broke my phone)

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I’ve been living semi-technology free lately, but not by choice, and I think it’s making me smarter. But also more desperate. Let me paint a picture for you. (or Google image search, as the situation may be.)

 

A couple weeks ago (12 days and counting), I sent in my brand-new cell phone in for repairs. Since then, I’ve been unreachable before and after work, and on weekends. At the same time, we cancelled cable last week.  And yesterday, we saw The Artist, which is the new hotness in cinema because it’s a silent movie; that is, no voice acting, only the soundtrack.

All of these things combined are making me think deeply about whether we as a modern Western society wade too much in the shallows of the fickle internet and spend not enough time thinking more deeply.

For example, here’s my daily schedule with my cell phone:  wwake up to cell phone alarm, read Facebook feed, then email to wake up for about 10 minutes. Bathroom stuff.  Go downstairs and check tasks for the day on the phone, then read the news on either my iPad or my laptop.  Mr. B drives me to work and I listen to music on my phone on the way to work on the train while I read books on my iPad. If I get an email or Facebook notification while I’m on the train, I read it.

At work, I use my phone to check my tasks and also listen to music sometimes. After work, I listen to it again for music on the train, also checking Facebook and Twitter and email again. Then I use it to call my mom and other people after work. I go to sleep with it. If it’s a gym day, I record my workouts on my workout app and also listen to music in the gym on my phone.

I’m constantly looking for that hit: the Facebook comment notification, the email update, the missed call. When I sent it in, all of that was gone.

It was really disconcerting  for the first couple hours.  However, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing:

The first week without phone was great.  Like before, I was constantly looking down at a pool full of koi, every five minutes,  noticing each ripple, and suddenly, I didn’t have to notice each time a fish swam by and take any action on it.  I could now instead look up at the clear blue sky without interruption.  During that time, I felt more relaxed. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest (by the way, can I interest you in my Sexy Men of History board?,) no Goodreads, no anything that you can do for a couple minutes at a time while waiting for a train, waiting for the elevator, or waiting for a meeting.  My mind was free!  Free to think the great thoughts that Concerned Citizen Nicholas Carr says we’re not thinking as a result of being in the shallows!  Free to be the writer I’ve always wanted to be!

So what did I achieve with my free time? True, I’ve been reading more dead tree books about dead white guys. I’ve been listening to more music and drifting away with my imagination.  I’ve written one new short story that maybe I wouldn’t have.  Being without a phone was definitely a disruption and helped me to see the world differently, and it’s kind of funny to watch people on their phones, also like rats, and be kind of horrified about how you look the same.

But by the second week, I was desperate for a hit of Information.  On Sunday, for example, I had to meet a friend around a part of town that I’m not familiar with. And not just any meeting: I was trying on bridesmaid dresses for her wedding.  I wanted to be on time so she wouldn’t be stressed out.   I’d jotted down directions, but what if I was wrong?  I actually missed a turn I needed, one which GPS would have told me about.  When I finally found the place, there was no one there.  I started panicking that I was at the wrong place, but couldn’t call or text my friend to let her know I was there.

Last week on the train, I had a really good idea for a short story that would be part of the short story collection I’m really hoping to self-publish this year.  I usually write the idea in GMail email subject lines and email it to myself into a special folder category.  But this time I couldn’t, and the thought was lost with the trip. (I know, bring a pen, stupid.  But it’s not the same.) Last week, we were over at friends’ house. Their baby is seriously learning to walk and it’s cute and funny.   I wanted to take a picture of him doing it, but couldn’t, since no phone.  Another friend started a new job last week.  I wanted to call her and ask her how it was going.  I called her using Google Voice, which I’ve been using to check my voicemail, but she wasn’t there so I had to leave a voicemail from a weird phone number. Sometimes I like to capture sunrises over Philadelphia from my office on the 43rd floor (God, that sounded so white just now.) Couldn’t do it.

My phone is supposed to be back on Thursday and I am both happy and sad.

So, where’s the middle between not enough and too much?   Between silent movies and 3D special effects jam-packed features? Between nothing and everything?

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