December 29, 2010

End of the Year Reads

When I recently tallied the total number of books I read in 2010, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that I read fewer books this year than I read last year (and last year wasn't exactly a record breaking year). How the heck did that happen? I seemed to have simply lost steam at one point. I also spent the better part of October getting spooked by a number of ghostly short stories, which I didn't factor into my total because I felt like it would be cheating (the stories came from disparate books). As a result, the number of books I consumed per month slowly tapered, at least in comparison to 2009. But it's really the quality of books that matters, not quantity, right? If reading fewer books means I can include gargantuan stories with 500+ pages, re-read certain favorites or delve into multiple short stories, then I suppose I'm ok with my number. Which is officially 21 books read in 2010. And so, here is how I concluded my reading this year:

The Group by Mary McCarthy. This story is about a group of seven Vassar graduates from the 1930's whose lives intertwine and diverge over the years following their graduation. It’s interesting to note what has changed between now and the time when the book was written (early 1960's) and what hasn't (surprisingly, not a lot has). Some of the book's themes are as relevant today as they were back then: the living life as a single girl in the city, the importance of female friendships, the need for autonomy, finding Mr. Right, martial hardships, talking with frankness about sex and birth control, etc. Each chapter sort of acts as a stand-alone story, though the subplots and characters overlap. I later learned that the book was first written as separate stories that were eventually made into the cohesive book we see today. The Group is at once a snapshot of the way things were, and a mirror reflecting the same problems and dreams and aspirations found today as yesterday.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. Considering that the Deathly Hallows Part I movie came out this autumn, I had no other choice but to re-read the last two books in the Harry Potter series in preparation (what diehard Harry Potter fan wouldn't?). Even on my third reading, the books continue to delight and entertain. I still laughed and cried and shrieked with fear in the same exact places as before. Harry's story just gets in there and leaves you spellbound for days on end. Blame (or praise is more like it) Ms. Rowling. The woman's a literary genius, I tell you.

The Empowered Patient by Elizabeth Cohen. Written by a CNN medical correspondent, this book offers crucial information on how to get the best medical care in the United States. Medical errors are more common than we think and in order to combat a misdiagnosis, we need to stay alert by asking the right questions, choosing the right doctors, and trusting our instincts when it comes to making decisions about our health. A must-read for every American.

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier. Sometimes you need something a little fun and frothy to take the edge off of a serious read. And this book did just that. The author is an American woman married to a Frenchman, so the perspective is that of an outsider, but one who has been invited inside, so to speak. And while a lot of what the book espouses I either already knew or already knew better than to believe (generalizations and stereotypes abound), it still offers constructive ideas about how to live well, with grace and flair to boot.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Three years had elapsed before I was finally able to complete this Mother of all Gothic novels. Why did it take me so long? The teeny tiny font and 600+ page count might have had something to with it. Also, the author's propensity for garrulous (albeit beautifully poetic) descriptions of atmosphere and mood and the heroine's melancholy tears that seemed to flow every other page (I suppose the book wouldn't be Gothic without any of the above) most certainly played a part in my sluggish dawdle to the book's conclusion. There were some genuinely chilling scenes in the book that also justified its Gothic reputation. It's been said that the author never travelled to the foreign climes of which she wrote, which makes her expressive, detailed prose all the more mind boggling. Never underestimate one's power of imagination! Especially when one is Anne Radcliffe. She has inspired legions of authors, most notably Jane Austen, who parodied Radcliffe in her very own Northanger Abbey.

As the final days of 2010 draw to a close, I just want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a very joyous new year. Thank you for reading and saying hi. You know who you are. Here's to a joyous and triumphant 2011! xx

December 23, 2010

Black Swan

It's been a few days since I saw Black Swan, and yet my brain is still reeling from it. It's intense, it's creepy, and it has more than a few jump-out-of-your-chair moments. It's the sort of film that weighs on the psyche for days afterward and warrants rumination and discussion. The dark psychology behind the story is absolutely compelling and is played out through the use of haunting visual images (i.e. mirrors abound in the film and are the cause of some pretty chilling moments).

All of this is just my long-winded way of introducing these graphic, 60's-inspired posters inspired by the film. Created by a British design studio, these advertisements capture the duality inherent in the main character, Nina (played by Natalie if you didn't already know that) and in the role she portrays on stage in the ballet production of Swan Lake. The role calls for a dancer to simultaneously assume the grace, fragility, and physical perfection of the white swan, as well as the power and sinister seduction of the black swan. You can see where the struggle lies here, in trying desperately to conform to two very different ideals at once. Life soon imitates art, and it's no wonder Nina loses her grip on reality. I think the designers behind these posters did a beautiful job conveying all of this. The first image where the swan and dancer become one has a sinister quality to it that I find perfectly suited to the movie (and just might be my favorite in the series).

I can't help but think about our (i.e. my, society's) notion of ballerinas and the ballet world in general. Ballet is about attaining perfection, an ideal of beauty and refinement and poetry in motion. And yet, we don't really think about the not-so-pretty aspects of it: the physical injuries and deprivation, the intense physical and mental discipline and rigor, as well as the cutthroat competition among dancers. All of which makes it the ideal backdrop against which to play out this doubling and fracturing of the self that goes on in the film.

If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend you do so; I know it's not the cheeriest of movies to watch over the holidays, but I promise you won't regret it! And after you've done so, tell me what you thought about it in the comments section.

{Images from The Guardian, via Fashionista}

December 20, 2010

Total Lunar Eclipse

Have you heard about tonight's total lunar eclipse? According to National Geographic, "A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon, Earth, and the sun all line up, with Earth in the middle. During the eclipse, Earth's shadow is cast onto the full moon, dimming—but not completely obscuring—its surface." Apparently, this is the first time since 1638 that a total lunar eclipse of a full moon coincides with the winter solstice (as a result, the moon will feature quite prominently in the night sky in the northern hemisphere, from 9:55pm to 2:01 am PST).

Too bad the probability of my seeing anything of interest will be next to nil considering California has been afflicted with opaque, heavy grey clouds and seemingly endless bouts of rain over the past few days which show no signs of abating soon. It's comforting to know that I can always live vicariously through NASA, which will be hosting a live video feed of the lunar eclipse on their website. The giant astronomy nerd inside me sighs with relief.

{Image via here}

December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

Today marks the 235th anniversary of Jane Austen's birth, and to celebrate, Google UK has featured this nifty doodle on their homepage. How cool is that? The scene above looks an awful lot like this one. Happy 235th Birthday, Jane Austen! You don't look a day over 234, my dear.

December 15, 2010

Grammatically Correct

My inner grammar snob is positively giddy over this mug, particularly because it sheds light on what is probably the #1 grammar pet peeve of mine of all time: it's "between you and me", people, not "between you and I"! And yes, I do feel better now that I've gotten that off my chest. :-)

They also have plates, in case you're interested.

P.S. This is probably my #2 grammar pet peeve.

{Images via here}

December 11, 2010

O Christmas tree

And suddenly, Christmas is upon us. No sooner had I returned from my blissful Thanksgiving sojourn than I felt firmly in the thick of yet another Christmas season (that Father Time moves pretty darn fast for an old guy). I tend to feel a bit ambivalent about this time of year (I say 'yes' to the holiday spirit and sense of generosity and good cheer; I say 'boo' to all the commercialism and pressure to buy, buy, buy). Just call me Charlie Brown. Fittingly, I've adopted this diminutive and very Charlie Brown-esque potted fir tree as my Christmas tree this year. And in spite of my black thumb credentials in the past (for which T relishes teasing me), I intend to nourish and shower this little fir with all the tender loving care I can possibly muster. And keep my fingers crossed that he won't meet his demise under my guardianship.