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This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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Book Review: At the Mercy of the Queen

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 31, 2012 2 comments


At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: fans of Philippa Gregory and Tudor era historical fiction
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Back-cover summary:
A sweeping tale of sexual seduction and intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, At the Mercy of the Queen is a rich and dramatic debut historical about Madge Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition.

Desperate to hold onto the king’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardize the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.

My review:
I was excited to read another book from the Tudor period of history, especially since the story was told from a different perspective. The main character is Margaret Shelton, the cousin of Anne Boleyn who comes to court to be one of the Queen's ladies.

Observing the changes in Queen Anne's character and her relationship with the King through the novel is a highlight of this novel. Anne Boleyn is often portrayed unsympathetically, as a scheming, manipulative, heartless woman. Here, in the eyes of a friend, she may be hardened by a political life, but she is otherwise a person who cares about her friends and religion. Still, society blames the corrupt actions of King Henry and his cohorts on the Queen. The King is a weak, spoiled, and unpredictable character, and as his behavior wears on Anne, she begins to lose her temper with him more often, and she heads on the path to her doom.

On the side, Margaret has problems of her own that eventually are entangled with the Queen's problems. However, it's a lot harder to care about her struggles. Margaret, or "Pretty Madge" from Great Snoring (sigh...), is a very flat character. She doesn't seem to have many distinguishable traits other than her beauty. The men who struggle for her affection are similarly uninteresting. Norris is the bad guy who does bad things. Arthur Brandon is the good guy who does good things, but of course, he's not good enough for her because of his illegitimate birth. Gosh, it's like a Nicholas Sparks novel, except instead of a fatal disease, Madge gets the King. The writing flows smoothly enough, but some of the dialogue sounds more awkward than it should be, even given the time period.

I haven’t read as much fiction as I’d like from this time period, so at this point, I measure all of these books against The Other Boleyn Girl. I find that this one falls a bit short. What intrigues me about these stories at the royal court are all the intrigues, subtlies, and motivations. Since Madge is naïve and good-intentioned when she comes to court and only slowly learns to be more political as the story goes on, there isn’t too much of this on her part or observed in the other big players, characters like Jane Seymour and her family, the Duke of Norfolk, and Cromwell. Without this, it is a light retelling of a larger story that is fun enough to read, but it doesn’t linger long in the mind.

Los Angeles–The Stuff

Posted by gck Friday, January 27, 2012 0 comments

Well, we had to do stuff in between meals. Neither one of us was really up for a big touristy weekend, so we mainly did a lot of walking in different places. More walking = more space for food, right?

[Santa Monica Pier]

Our first little walk was through downtown Santa Monica down to the Santa Monica Pier. We walked through the shopping area (I made a Sephora stop because my skin needed more lotion than I had anticipated… stupid 3oz liquid/gels rule) and stumbled upon the Farmers’ Market. On the beach next to the pier, it looked like some sort of ultimate frisbee tournament was going on. There were all these straight lines of backpacks forming field boundaries on the sand. Cirque du Soleil was had its tent up, but the show wasn’t opening for another few days. The pier itself was full of tourists, but it’s still fun to see something like that full of life and energy (in contrast to Seattle Center’s now defunct Fun Forest).

IMG_0635  IMG_0641
[Venice Beach]

Okay, maybe it’s just me, but when I used to think of Venice Beach, I imagined a crowded beach full of sophisticated California movie star wannabes. Something like Waikiki in Hawaii. Laugh all you want. Yeah, it’s so not like that. The boardwalk is more like the most touristy street in a Mexican resort town, except with a lot more drugs. You’ve got all the T-shirt shops selling things that I can’t imagine anyone actually wearing in public. Then all the weird (and occasionally good) art. And finally, all the marijuana doctors, offering you a medical marijuana card for something like $40. Excellent. We did see a rather funny incident. Probably peeved by all of the “doctors” making offers to him as he walked with his two young children, a man finally stopped and talked to one of them. He asked if he could get cards for his two kids because “he has back problems and she’s psychotic.” Haha. Well, Venice Beach is a nice place to watch the sunset or do a beach walk, but I’m not sure I’d want to hang out there on a regular basis.

IMG_0678  IMG_0681
[Getty Center]

The last time my family was in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Villa, but not the Getty Center. So it sounded like a good thing to do on this trip. One nice thing about both of these attractions is that they are free, and you only have to pay for parking (or take public transportation). Perched on a hill, there are great views from the gardens of surrounding areas, and the gardens are well crafted and peaceful to walk through. There were a number of buildings housing galleries of paintings, photographs, decorative arts, etc., organized by time period. There was also an interesting temporary exhibit called Pacific Standard Time, featuring art from Los Angeles in the period following World War II.

[I put together a video of textural pictures I took, mostly in the cactus garden]

Our final attraction was the Huntington Library, which we visited mainly for the purpose of seeing the botanical gardens. It’s a real pity we didn’t know about this place when my family was here because my mom would have loved it. Even though it was wintertime and many things were not blooming, there was still a lot to see. Mike’s favorite (and I can see why) is the Cactus Garden, which is full of succulents from around the world. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge space, and there’s such incredible variation in the plant life that it’s difficult not to be amazed. The Japanese Garden was under construction, but we visited the Chinese Garden, the Conservatory, and observed a few blooming roses in the Rose Garden. There are also a few art galleries in the main buildings, but we wanted to spend our limited time in the gardens. In a few hours, we probably still left with more than half of the grounds unseen.

IMG_0793-1  IMG_0848
[Huntington Library Botanical Gardens]

While I’d still say that I’m not very well suited to living in Los Angeles, I can definitely understand the appeal to those who choose it as their home. Beaches to enjoy all year round, beautiful gardens, and plenty of good food and culture. We didn’t see any movie stars (Mike spotted plenty when he lived there), but they were probably all preparing for the Golden Globes.

Los Angeles–The Food

Posted by gck Friday, January 20, 2012 1 comments

Right before Snowcopalypse 2012 hit, Mike and I spent an extended weekend in Los Angeles. He lived there for a few years way back when, so he’d get all nostalgic as we drove and walked around (to the point where we were in a parking lot and he was like, “Oh, I remember these stairs…”). Both of us really like food, so it’s unsurprising that some of the things he’s most eager to revisit are restaurants. There were only so many restaurants we could hit without our stomachs exploding so there was no way to visit all of his favorites. We did a nice mix of both old and new.

[mole tamale from Monte Alban]

Mike pretty much vetoed in In-n-Out suggestion (fine, I will go to the Bay Area soon and get it then), but I did insist that I wanted a tamale. And good mole sauce. So he found a little Oaxacan place called Monte Alban that reputedly had a delicious tamale with mole sauce. It did not disappoint. I don’t necessarily prefer the flatter, banana leaf-wrapped Oaxacan style tamale to the more common corn husk-wrapped one (they’re just different shapes to me), but the tamale itself tasted great, and the mole was rich, sweet, and flavorful. There’s a similar one that I’ve had at La Carta de Oaxaca in Seattle, but it’s twice as expensive (and possibly not as good). I also tried a yellow mole empanada with cactus, but the flavor of the sauce was a little weird for me. I wish we had more places like this in the Pacific Northwest because there was a lot that looked good on that menu that I’d want to try.

Along the same lines, we had a huge lunch at Versailles, Mike’s favorite Cuban restaurant in the area. The name bothered his dad a lot because he couldn’t figure out what connection the name “Versailles” had with Cuba. This small chain of restaurants is known for its delicious garlic mojo sauce, so we split the lechon asado (roasted pork in mojo sauce) and the signature dish, the “Famoso Pollo Versailles” (roasted half chicken in mojo sauce). They came with rice, black beans, and my favorite thing at a Cuban restaurant, fried plantains.

[California roll “sushi” burger from 26 Beach, photo from Yelp]

We ate at 26 Beach twice in one day based on Mike’s friend’s recommendation. It was breakfast and dinner, though, so the food was completely different. He eventually realized that this restaurant was one he remembered from when he lived there, but he had forgotten the name and it had changed locations. The breakfast menu had a long list of delicious looking French toasts, but alas, I’m not one for sweets in the morning, so no Tiramisu or S’mores (?!) French toast for me. They had a lot of other interesting things, like scrambled eggs over pasta and rice. That seemed odd so we instead requested the Chorizo scramble with potatoes instead of rice, and it was tasty.

For dinner, there were a bunch of “normal options,” but what the restaurant is most known for are their burgers, which are gigantic. They’ve been voted the best burger in LA before, so they’re doing something right. You can get things like a PB&J burger, a Bombay burger (with coconut curry and mango chutney), or their famous “sushi” burgers. There was a California roll burger and spicy tuna burger, but the wasabi aioli sounded a little weird to me so I opted instead for the Mori Eel burger, which was challenging to eat gracefully but also quite delicious.

[“The Original” at Killer Shrimp]

I’ve heard Mike rave a lot about a hole-in-the-wall with a line around the building called Killer Shrimp. It had closed down a few years back, but he realized when planning for this trip that a new location had opened up, so it was something we had to go do. He ended up preferring the atmosphere of the old location to the sleek, modern look of the new one, but it’s nice to be able to eat inside. They’ve also added things to the menu, but the thing they are known for is a bowl full of spicy, herby broth with 13 huge prawns, served with French bread, pasta, or rice. The bread is the way to go, it’s perfect for sopping up the yummy broth. I’m not a huge fan of eating messy things with my hands, but for this meal, I’d make the exception.

[Kale salad at Gjelina]

SoCal seems like it should be all about healthy stuff, and up to this point, I had gorged myself on huge plates of meat, spicy shrimp, and a giant burger. Enter Gjelina, a restaurant I’d heard praised a lot on Chowhound. Dinner reservations were supposedly difficult to come by, so we chose to go on a weekday lunch instead and had no problem getting in. A few days back, we walked through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and saw a booth giving out free food samples. It was a kale salad, and I generally hate kale, so I let Mike eat it first. When he said it was good, I tried, and much to my surprise, it was. The secret, the guy said, is to let the salad sit for about 10 minutes after adding the lemon juice because it softens it. The recipe is available on True Food Kitchen’s website. With this in mind, we ordered the kale salad at Gjelina, and it was pretty tasty. Mike ate a lamb burger, and I had pappardelle with wild mushroom ragout. There were a lot of other yummy-looking things on the menu, like a mushroom, goat cheese, and truffle oil pizza. Be aware, however, that “changes and modifications are politely declined.”

Our last meal was at Sushi House, a hole-in-the-wall sushi place that Mike used to love because they had a reggae theme. Sadly, ownership might have changed, and now it’s just a regular sushi restaurant that has a few Bob Marley posters (all that remains of the theme). The food was good, but the charm was gone.

It was a lot of fun eating our way through a small part of Los Angeles, and hopefully we return to do it again soon!

Book Review: Little Bee

Posted by gck Thursday, January 19, 2012 2 comments


Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: people interested in the stories of refugees and world issues

Book 2 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.
Country: Nigeria

Back-cover summary:
Sorry, you don’t get one. Interestingly enough, there seem to be two different cover summaries for this one. The one on Amazon, which is not the one that was on the version I read, says this:

We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

The version I read looks more like this:


My review:
To be honest, this is not at all the sort of book I would ever pick up on my own. Many other reviewers have been SIMILARLY TURNED OFF by the pretentious “summary” and the obnoxious SELF-PRAISE on the cover. Trying a bit too hard, eh? I don’t understand who they think they’re going to hook through techniques like this. NEVERTHELESS, I will admit that I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, and hopefully some edition will eventually be published that loses all the gimmicks.

I had one friend suggest this book awhile back. I looked it up, didn’t instantly feel a desire to read it, and thought, “Eh, maybe.” When I signed up for the Around the World Challenge, I knew I wanted to read more books set in Africa (and in the Southern Hemisphere in general) so this one made it to the top of my list. Another friend wrote a rave review on GoodReads, so that got me even more excited to read it. In relation to this challenge, I’m now wondering if I really should even count it for Nigeria. The author has no connection to the country that I can determine, and though one of the main characters is from Nigeria, most of the book is set in England. I felt like the portrayal of Nigeria was very limited and one-dimensional. I’m hoping the other books that I will read from Africa show more than violence and poverty.

Little Bee gets 3.5 stars from me because I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I agree with the original summary that the African beach scene is horrific. One of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in my recent memory. I imagine that some sensitive readers might put the book down at this point. I don’t agree, however, that the rest of the book is “extremely funny,” nor do I understand why they would wish to characterize the book as such. To me, this book seems to be about several characters dealing with misfortune that connects them. It gives a compelling argument for relaxing deportation rules for refugees. None of that is particularly amusing.

The narration switches between two characters: Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who is the title character, and Sarah, a British woman. Little Bee, whether narrating or being mentioned by Sarah, is always the more interesting character. She is colorful, unpredictable, and sometimes entertaining, whether she’s imagining how she would tell her friends in Nigeria about the things she experiences in England or making amusing observations like “…in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country. Then people will nod their heads and look very serious.” However, she remains somewhat distant because it’s hard for the readers to really understand her motivations. It seems like she alternates between expressing a strong instinct for self-preservation and indifference to the idea of dying.

The story grabs the reader quickly, and then peels back one layer at a time to give more information about the events that took place. I agree with the cover that “the magic is in how it unfolds.” It drags a little when Sarah is dealing with her work and relationship woes because it’s hard to care much about first world problems when you’ve got a Nigerian refugee right there, but maybe that is the point.


Posted by gck Wednesday, January 18, 2012 2 comments

“It never snows in Seattle.”

Or so everyone here likes to say. Realistically, the central areas average around 5-8” of snow each year. But it’s generally not a problem because only a little will fall at a time, it usually won’t stick to the roads at all, and if it does, the temperatures rise in a few hours and it all melts away.

Except for when that isn’t the case. And I’ve found that it’s quite often linked to when I need to be on a plane.

[November 2010 – Staring bleakly at snow, waiting to take off]

Some historical examples:
1. Thanksgiving 2006 – I’m heading back from London. I was happy that I booked a flight through Vancouver because “it shouldn’t snow there.” Unfortunately, it did in Seattle and flights were cancelled for a few days so I got to spend a night in YVR and ended up taking a bus back the next morning.
2. Christmas 2008 – I’m about to head out to Taiwan and snow dumps all over the place. I survive a horrible highway drive with people spinning out right in front of me. I make it all the way to my street, but I lose speed as I try to avoid killing the idiot kids who are sledding on the road. Can’t get up the hill. Car ends up parked along the side of the road. There’s a small window of peace and my flight makes it out, which is good because the city got more snow and turned into a brick of ice for the next week or so.
3. Thanksgiving 2010 – Mike and I are heading to London via Iceland. It starts to snow that day. We head out early and take public transportation to the airport. Unfortunately, by the time we’re on the plane, it starts really dumping snow. They spray orange crap all over the plane, then say that they’re waiting for the de-icer to arrive at the airport (?!) and we end up delayed a few hours. Well, I got to spend some time in Iceland.

IMG_0912  IMG_0919
[left: 1/17/12. right: 1/18/12.]

4. MLK Weekend 2012. Mike and I are heading back to Los Angeles. It has already snowed over the weekend in Seattle and we are happy to have missed it. Except it’s not over. It dumps more snow the morning we’re supposed to fly back. No airport delays and public transportation is okay, just a little slow, but it picks up while we are getting back to our cars. I see that everyone else is leaving work so I do the same. Roads are okay, but my car gets stuck in my snow-and-ice-covered parking lot and I have to enlist the help of three neighbors to shovel so I can get into a parking spot. More fell today, and we’re still getting light accumulation through the day. It’s looking like about 5” of accumulation on my deck, which is significant when you remember what the yearly average is.


Why is snow in Seattle such a big freaking deal?

It’s funny, each time this happens, my Facebook friends list instantly turns into a stream of snow pictures and remarks about “Snowcopalypse” and “Snowmageddon.” Snow is a big deal here because of a combination of factors: steep hills, lack of resources to deal with it (because it isn’t a common occurrence), and people who don’t know how to drive.

The snow response has gotten better – for one thing, after the 2008 storms, the mayor finally gave in and changed the policy that formerly prevented the use of salt on roads. (Yes, they used to just run around dumping sand all over the place) But it’s still not enough. I saw plows go by my road twice yesterday, but they haven’t gone by yet today because they’re still clearing the major streets after the day’s snowfall. I just saw two Puget Sound Energy trucks go by, though. Outside of Seattle proper, most power lines in this area are above ground. There are a lot of trees. Wind and snow make them fall down. They tend to fall on power lines. People lose power. You get the idea.

Now for the drivers… this video from a snowstorm a few years back circulated heavily but perfectly illustrates what happens when you have icy conditions and bad drivers. It’s from Portland, but it’s the same idea.

It can get pretty scary, though. A few years ago, there was a bad bus accident on Capitol Hill that resulted in one charter bus hanging over a very busy segment of I-5.

busoveri-5  busoveri-5x2

But I guess it’s easier to look at the humorous side. A video on Seattle driving from this round of snow:

P.S. My next big trip is in February, so be prepared if you're in the Seattle area...

Book Review: The Ruins of Us

Posted by gck Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2 comments


The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: people interested in other cultures (particularly Muslim or Arab cultures), fans of character-based contemporary fiction
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Book 1 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.
Country: Saudi Arabia

Back-cover summary:
More than two decades after moving to Saudi Arabia and marrying powerful Abdullah Baylani, American-born Rosalie learns that her husband has taken a second wife. That discovery plunges their family into chaos as Rosalie grapples with leaving Saudi Arabia, her life, and her family behind. Meanwhile, Abdullah and Rosalie’s consuming personal entanglements blind them to the crisis approaching their sixteen-year-old son, Faisal, whose deepening resentment toward their lifestyle has led to his involvement with a controversial sheikh. When Faisal makes a choice that could destroy everything his embattled family holds dear, all must confront difficult truths as they fight to preserve what remains of their world.

My review:
It would be easy for a novel written by an American writer about an American woman who married a Saudi man and moved to Saudi Arabia, only to discover years later that he had taken a second wife, to sink into a dramatic focus on mistreatment of women. However, this novel rises above that. Born to an expatriate family in Saudi Arabia, Keija Parssinen is the perfect person to tell this story. No, things are not equal between men and women in Saudi Arabia. But there is a reason the US Department of State has a page detailing the reality of being a Saudi wife for Americans who are considering this life -- despite the reputations and stereotypes, this country and culture has an allure that draws people to it. This novel explores that allure.

The writing is gorgeous, full of elegantly written descriptions. It is definitely a character-driven book, though, and in order to really like it, you must be okay with a good deal of backstory and a plot that doesn't always move forward quickly. The third person narration also switches between the perspectives of most of the major characters, so it is necessary to like or be interested in most of them. I personally found the characters to be interesting, if not all likable.

Most interesting to me was the character of Faisal, Abdullah and Rosalie's son, who gets caught up in a Muslim extremist group. There is a comparable character in the movie "Circumstance" who turns to fundamentalism, but his reasons for doing so are never truly revealed. In contrast, Faisal's motivations are easy to relate to. He is a confused teenager who has always had trouble fitting in. He wants something pure and good to believe in. And as he crosses the boundary into adulthood and realizes that his parents are not perfect, he uses religious self-righteousness to reject them.

All of the characters are, for the most part, well-meaning. But their occasional ill-thought mistakes, selfishness, and lack of communication slowly tear down the happy life they sought to build. They had me rooting for them to succeed each step of the way, even though it became clear that once the threads are too tangled, there is no simple happy ending.

This would be a great book club book, as there are many topics and character motivations that would be interesting to discuss.

Further thoughts that the book inspired:
Yes, there really is a US Department of State page titled “Marriage to Saudis.” Many of the questions answered on that page were addressed in the book as well. There were many things about marriage to a Saudi that I wasn’t previously aware of:

1. You have to get permission from the government! This was surprising to me. I think the book made a bigger deal out of it than it really is, but it still doesn’t sound like just bureaucracy, either.
2. If you get divorced, you (as the non-Saudi) are not getting your kids. No chance.
3. You and your children need an exit visa to leave the country, and this requires the permission of the husband or father. The US government can help get adult women out without the permission, but not children.

Serious stuff. I also found it kind of amusing how in the novel, Saudi men would drive across the border for “happy hour” in Bahrain, where they were able to drink alcohol. The conflict between the religious fundamentalists and the money-grubbing royal family is also a surprise. I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising that politics breeds corruption, but it seemed like in a country where religious rules are so strict that the royal family would be the ones behind it.

Finally, it crossed my mind that I tend to think of expatriates as white people leaving the US and moving to a cheaper place to have a relaxing life, and immigrants as non-white people coming to the US for jobs. I mean, obviously I know that it is more than that, but if I had to think of the first defining image that came to mind for an expatriate and an immigrant, it would be a middle-aged American couple with an art studio and large pool in Mexico and an Indian or Chinese guy working in a US software company. Being so fully entrenched in the American mindset, I think of America as the place where people want to go, and the expats leave because they’re weird. But – duh – American expats are immigrants to another country. Not someone on an extended vacation (trying to eat, pray, and love!) or attempting to exploit the locals, Rosalie in this novel really is an immigrant, someone trying to assimilate into a country that doesn’t want her to be there. I enjoyed seeing things from that perspective.

Book Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Posted by gck Monday, January 9, 2012 0 comments


Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Genre: Contemporary thriller
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: thriller fans, people with interest in amnesia and memory loss

Back-cover summary:
Every day Christine wakes up not knowing where she is. Her memories disappear every time she falls asleep. Her husband, Ben, is a stranger to her, and he's obligated to explain their life together on a daily basis--all the result of a mysterious accident that made Christine an amnesiac. With the encouragement of her doctor, Christine starts a journal to help jog her memory every day. One morning, she opens it and sees that she's written three unexpected and terrifying words: "Don't trust Ben." Suddenly everything her husband has told her falls under suspicion. What kind of accident caused her condition? Who can she trust? Why is Ben lying to her? And, for the reader: Can Christine’s story be trusted? At the heart of S. J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep is the petrifying question: How can anyone function when they can't even trust themselves?

My review:
An old-ish woman has amnesia, and she reads a notebook every day to remember stuff! Ohhh, I can't help but make the comparison, even though this book is really nothing like The Notebook. This sort of dark thriller isn’t the type of thing I would normally pick up, and I’m glad it was our book club pick this month.

Before I Go to Sleep has a gripping and unusual premise. A woman named Christine suffers from a particular form of amnesia where she is able to recall short term memories until she goes to sleep for the night. Each day when she wakes up, she has to piece her world back together, with the help of some long term memories, her husband Ben, and a journal she writes her daily discoveries in.

I love how the book is structured. The first part is a day in Christine's life, waking up and not knowing where she is, going through the realizations she has to do each day, and discovering that she has a journal to read. The second part contains entries from the daily journal, chronicling Christine's non-linear path to remembering her past. The last part is the continuation of the day after she has finished reading her journal.

Christine's situation is quite terrifying, and the reader is drawn into the suspense of all of the things unknown. Once I started reading, I really wanted to know the outcome, but it was long enough of a book that I had to read it in multiple sittings. It's nice that there's enough length to draw a lot of suspense, but I also think a lot of the journal days were filler and could be eliminated. I mean, the following type of scene seemed to play out over and over again:

Christine: I don't trust my husband. I know I should, but I don't.
Someone else: You should. Your husband really loves you!
Christine: I know now that my husband loves me, and I love him, too.

Really, X loves Y (in various combinations) was said so many times in this book that it pretty much lost meaning by the end. The name S.J. Watson is gender ambiguous, but I did check after I finished reading and was unsurprised to discover that it was a man. Christine's character never seemed particularly feminine, and in some instances the writing even sounds markedly masculine.

Still, I guess in this book, it matters less what the people are like and more about the situation and what really happened. It's scary to see how helpless a person can be without memories. Though Christine's type of amnesia may not commonly exist, there are relevant similarities between her feelings and reactions and those of people with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Movie Reviews: Tomboy, Melancholia, Muppets

Posted by gck Sunday, January 8, 2012 0 comments


Two great movies opening at SIFF, work kicking me out of my office at 3pm for a move… my Friday evening plan was obvious. I took the untolled I-90 bridge over to Seattle before most of the traffic hit and met up with my movie-loving friend Alexis. Her movie-loving friend David joined us for the films as well. The back-to-back films felt a lot like the film festival, except the theaters were mostly empty!

France, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: **** (out of 5)

SIFF continues to have technical glitches. This film started with no sound and David had to run out and tell someone to turn it on. At least with subtitles we didn’t miss too much. This is a slow, charming coming-of-age story about a girl named Laure who pretends to be a boy named Mikael when her family moves to a new place. She is accepted as a boy into the group of kids in their residential area and forms a particular bond with the girl in the group. The children play their parts so perfectly in this film, particularly Laure (Zoé Héran) and her sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana). It’s a subtle exploration of adolescent acceptance/rejection and gender identity.

France, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Ah yes, I finally got to see the film that Lars von Trier was screening at Cannes when he made his controversial Hitler remarks and got thrown out of the festival. I’m thinking he’s not completely right in the head. Melancholia confirms this, as the main character Justine is definitely mentally unstable and her character is supposed to be a lot like him. This is not your typical end of the world movie. The end of the world isn’t the main focus of the film, it’s the characters and their reactions to it as it plays out. The idea for the whole thing is “that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen.” The first half of the film (titled “Justine”) sets up the depressive character, showing her very abnormal actions and moods during her wedding. The second half of the film (titled “Claire”) shows Justine’s calmness as her normally stable sister freaks out about the whole Earth blowing up thing.

The good things about this film would give Melancholia a solid 5 star rating. It is an absolutely gorgeous film. The beginning overture shows random scenes from the rest of the film in slow motion interspersed with shots of the planet Melancholia moving closer to Earth, set to dramatic classical music. Then Earth blows up and the rest of the movie starts. (Another SIFF tech screw-up, there was something covering a small bit of the projector in the top left corner at the beginning, which was distracting. Then someone’s fingers eventually moved it away midway through the overture.) Acting is great, and the characters are memorable. Justine’s wedding is such a disaster that you can’t help but cringe. The end of the film, when Earth blows up fo’ realz, has so much tension that it really feels like a huge loss when it happens. You’re left with… melancholia. =P

The bad? Well, I feel like there should have been more of a point. There are so many strong emotional experiences in the film, but they culminate in any sort of revelation. “Depressed people deal better with crisis” is not enough of a point for me. But most of the bad is the shaky camera work. The big screen is awesome for all the slow, dramatic shots, but watching all of the real life stuff gave me motion sickness-like nausea. Alexis got headaches. It would probably be easier to deal with on a small screen, but then you miss out on the power of the beauty.

The Muppets
USA, 2011
Watched: in theater, Regal Cinemas at the Landing
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

I had some discount tickets to use and there weren’t a lot of compelling options in mainstream cinema, so I dragged my brother to go see The Muppets. I don’t think either of us are huge Muppets fans, but we were both curious why it was getting such high ratings. Having seen it, I don’t think I loved it as much as everyone else did (I’m sure I missed a lot of the old references), but I do understand the likeability. The beginning had me worried at first… it was cheesy and not funny. But it got better and funnier, and you can’t really hate a movie that’s as genuinely feel-good as this one was. Lots of celeb cameos. Favorite part was the song “Man or Muppet?” That’s pure genius.

Bikram Yoga and the Vata Dosha

Posted by gck Thursday, January 5, 2012 1 comments


When people learn of hot yoga, usually they hear of Bikram Yoga, a system of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury. He’s a controversial figure, with people criticizing the safety of his yoga and how he copyrighted his yoga sequence (and has been aggressive about pursuing violators). He was probably the one who got the whole hot yoga craze going. Now you can find all sorts of styles of yoga in a hot room. Next to Bikram, the hot yoga style you’ll probably hear of the most is “power,” “vinyasa,” or “flow” yoga.

In Ayurveda, an Indian form of alternative medicine, there exists the concept of doshas. The doshas are types or principles that the body contains. They are vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth). People tend to have one or more primary doshas that voice themselves more prominently, but there is also the idea of dosha imbalances, where one (not necessarily a primary) voices itself excessively to ill effect.

Now, bear with me here. I am not an expert on Ayurveda, nor am I necessarily a believer in it. However, to me, doshas serve as yet another way of categorization, like Myers-Briggs types. And it suits the points I want to make, so I’m going to go with it.


My primary dosha is clearly pitta. My normal operating mode is go-go-go and I am goal-oriented. Challenges excite me. My schedule is frequently overbooked. I can be irritable and impatient. And since I carry plenty of heat inside myself, I do not deal well with external heat. When I first approached hot yoga, I was convinced that it would be difficult and wrong for me because of the heat. Well, it definitely was difficult. But it actually clicked with me remarkably well. Eventually, someone pointed out to me that hot yoga was a primarily Type A thing because it fed the fire, and then it made sense. Heat might make my body suffer, but a fiery practice makes pitta thrive. It was also pointed out that generally what you need most is what you want to do the least. For me, yoga-wise, that is restorative yoga. It’s slow, it’s full of long stretches, and it’s not really a workout.

Yeah, okay. But I need a workout.

Bikram Yoga was the first hot yoga class I tried. The second was power yoga, and I hated it. I didn’t have the arm strength to hold downward dog for very long without wanting to die, and I always had sweat dripping in my eyes when my head was inverted. But over time, I built up that strength, ignored the sweat, and learned to love the flow of power yoga. It got to the point where that was pretty much all I did.

When I did my 30 Day Yoga Challenge last March, I used a coupon for a month of unlimited classes at a Bikram Yoga studio nearby. Because of that and the good availability of classes, I ended up doing a lot more Bikram classes than usual that month. During this time, I noticed a persistent trend: I was never excited to go to class, but I almost always left with a great feeling. Not excited to go to class? Not that surprising. Bikram Yoga is kind of boring. It’s always the exact same class. 26 postures, most of them repeated twice. The teacher’s dialogue stays pretty consistent. It’s long: always 90 minutes.


It’s been a lot of months since then, and I just started another month unlimited at that Bikram studio. This time, after another few classes that felt the same way, I pieced the puzzle together. Like restorative yoga, Bikram Yoga is another thing that I don’t want to do but benefit greatly from. But rather than balancing out the pitta (which it definitely does not do), it balances out my secondary dosha, vata.

Vata is the ether, the wind, the air. Characteristics include creativity, excitement, anxiety, movement, etc. When unbalanced, vata needs grounding. And that’s why Bikram Yoga is so good for me sometimes. The regularity of the routine itself is grounding, and in addition to that, there’s the entire standing series. Tree pose. Locked knees. Holding poses for a period of time instead of moving with the next breath. Everything about Bikram Yoga feels solid and stable.

Maybe one of these days I’ll be more successful about going to restorative yoga classes. But at least now, I know I’m doing myself good by going to Bikram Yoga on days where my mind won’t stop running in every direction it can find.

2011 in Summary

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 3, 2012 2 comments

I wasn’t going to do it, but so many people are, so I guess I’m the sheep today. Some random highlights of the year 2011…

Finally, at the age of 28, after many years of being told to “go back to China!” (in friendly and unfriendly ways), I made it to China. Just Beijing, but I don’t know if I could have handled a week in Shanghai after all the incredible sights in Beijing. Sadly, that was it for international trips in 2011, not a very busy travel year for me.

Three challenges stand out in my mind this year. National Novel Writing Month (which is nothing new), Six Items or Less, and the 30 day yoga challenge. For some reason, I never blogged about my 30 days of yoga, though I did keep a semi-regular private journal over at 750 Words during the challenge. In the end, I found that I did enjoy the benefits, both physical and mental, that I got from doing yoga so frequently, but I found that cost-to-benefit ratio to be too expensive to do every day.

I ate a lot of good food this year, partially made possible by social media offers. A Chicago GirlTrip also included a trip to the #1 restaurant in the US, Alinea, and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat. Other notable Seattle restaurants I ate at this year include Book Bindery, The Corson Building, Rover’s, Lecosho, Lark, Dinette, Crush, and Le Gourmand. I also cooked through the summer using CSA veggies.


I continued my obsession with Seattle summers. This year’s hike count was roughly 9, one less than last year (but that’s just a weather thing). Last year, one of my hikes was solo. This year, three of them were. Did a backpacking trip on the last weekend of August, same as last year, but this time we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Went sea kayaking on Lopez Island.


The Arts
Another good year at SIFF! I logged approximately 27 volunteer hours and saw 22+ films (still need to put that full list together). It sounds like a lot, but I end up adding so much to my Netflix queue because there are a ton of films that look awesome but won’t fit in my schedule!

Two trips to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, still keeping up that trend. This time none of them were alone. Saw four plays. I have no idea how many plays/shows I saw in Seattle this year, but I’ll estimate about 20.

Re-Kindle-ing a Love for Reading
Yes, I got a Kindle. But thanks to the motivation of friends who are avid readers, GoodReads, and all the book giveaways I’ve discovered, my reading is starting to go back up. I don’t have accurate numbers from before I started using GoodReads actively (sometime in 2009), but these are the counts I have for the previous years:

2007 – 18 (started a Mission 101 goal to read 100 books)
2008 – 5 (this is probably more like 10)
2009 – 7 (this is probably more like 10)
2010 – 27
2011 – 35

I estimated that I finished about 50 of the 100 book goal for 2007 to 2009. This round of Mission 101, my book goal is only 75, but I am on track to pass 100! I’m also proud of myself because back in 2007, I read a lot of young adult fluff fiction, like all of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, and right now, I am reading Shakespeare. And The New Yorker.

10 Year High School Reunion
Yes, I am getting old. I got to meet the children of a bunch of my friends for the first time. I also got to see my cousin Brian for the first time! It’s great to go back to Baton Rouge and see people. It also gives me some perspective on how much I (and my life) have changed. In some ways, it’s great – teenage me would probably think a lot of the things I do now were really cool. But I also see some things in myself that seem to have appeared naturally with the onset of living an adult life – high stress, less flexibility, judgement, etc. So maybe what I do now is cooler than what I do then, but I think in a way, I myself am less cool than I was back then. Hmm.

Well, that’s it for 2011. Not all that different from 2010. We’ll see what 2012 brings!

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