Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Chicago Adventures Continue!

This has been a week of firsts for me...

For the first time, I gave someone else directions of how to get somewhere downtown.

For the first time, I had some Chicago style pizza...

Holy crap! This is some delicious but ridiculously filling pizza. I barely ate 30% of my personal pan.

For the first time, I went to a Chicago Bulls' game (in the company box, no less):

I was impressed at how many people were there for a Tuesday night, but it was a markedly different experience from my UT basketball outings. The fans didn't seem to be as intense or enthusiastic. It was fun, but not as fun as being surrounded by thousands of manic fans screaming their hearts out.

And for the first time, I experienced Chicago in weather above 50 degrees F. Who knew that such conditions existed in this frozen wasteland?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Books Like Whoa: When It Just Ain't Workin'

So this year has been a little bit of a mixed bag for me with the books I've been reading. I've read a few books that I've loved, a few books I've enjoyed, and to be honest, a few books I've just not dug. I feel a little ambivalent about talking about books I don't enjoy. It's hard enough out there for a book, right? They don't need me hating on them. We need to champion reading, period.

But at the same time, if you have similar taste to me, I want to spare you the time and money. It's disappointing to invest those things and then realize it's a dud or just not working for you. Plus, all of these are well established with readers- no real harm done. So here's few titles that have not clicked for me (though only one is truly terrible) and why:

Endless Night
by Agatha Christie

Why I didn't dig it: Okay, okay, you know how much I love Agatha. Basically, this just isn't the kind of book that I want from her. I want a cozy mystery, or an international intrigue, or a cleverly plotted caper. This is more of a spooky love story with the whole who is crazy? who is real? who is going to die? bit. Which I do enjoy. However, when I sign up for a mystery and I get a sensation novel, my expectations are not met and I get cross. I gave up after 100 pages and considered it a waste. Then, as I do when I give up on a book, I Googled the ending. And holy crap, it was a humdinger! So I quickly skimmed back through and realized that it wasn't a bad book. It was a good book spoiled by misaligned expectations.

Rating: 3 - Not my cup of tea, but I get why people dig it

Five Red Herrings
by Dorothy L. Sayers

Why I didn't dig it: I also do love Dorothy Sayers. Gaudy Night is one of my all time favorites. However, this particular Lord Whimsey mystery veered into a subtype that I just don't like - the endless repetition of the details of the crime so as to inure you to the one flaw in the timeline that solves the mystery. It's a super technical kind of mystery, and I just don't like that kind. I get bored and skim. My eyes glaze over and I route against the hero to solve the crime. It's a perfectly well executed little story, but it's not my bag and it was not fun for me to read.

Rating: 3 - Not my cup of tea, but I get why people dig it

by Douglas Preston; Lincoln Child

Why I didn't dig it: This is the only one of the bunch that I feel confident in saying is truly terrible. This book fails in basically every respect. I reflected on this on Goodreads... I would watch a movie of this- I could see it being a thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park. As a book? So terrible. The writing is abysmal and basically reads like a screenplay. These kinds of thrillers are dependent on the author's ability to get you to care about the "how" of what happens, because it is clear from the first 20 pages what the "what" is. Is there really any doubt as to what is going to happen in this book? No. That's just the genre. But successful titles in this area get you to care about the characters and keep you interested in how they are going to get there. I didn't connect or care about anyone - the characterization was thinner than Kate Moss and, generally, I found them all unconvincing. Thus, I didn't care about how they were going to drive forward to the inevitable denouement. I mean, for goodness sake, within 20 pages, an All-American little kid named Billy (you couldn't have even picked a less tired little kid name?) is dispatched purely to make you think, "Holy crap, no one is safe!" I didn't care that no one was safe. A dark part of me that I don't want to look at too closely wanted them to die. 

This includes Pendergast, who I found incredibly grating. Why anyone would listen to him is beyond me. That bums me out because I was hoping this would be a new series for me to get into. Not to be, alas.

All this being said, I could see this being a really entertaining movie. In the action film, characterization isn't as important and there's enough pure whiz-bang explosion fun to keep you going. I'd see it- it has some interesting set pieces and I could practically see the way the filmmaker would cut to ominous shots of the mauled bodies. But this is the prime example that "the book is better than the movie" saying is not always true - this is a bad book that could be a really fun film. I looked it up and there's a version starring Tom Sizemore - I'll have to Netflix it and see how that version holds up.

Rating: 0 - I couldn't even get through the whole thing

I always feel disappointed when I don't like a book. I spend a lot of time and effort researching what I choose to pick up (yes, I am a nerd- did you not realize this by now?), and when I don't like something, I feel like I've failed. Sometimes I feel like the author is the one who has failed me, but mostly, I blame myself for not being more selective.

Anyways, I know there are people out there who have read and loved all the above books, so I will alleviate my guilt by directing you to read any of the positive reviews these have received.

What was the last book you read that disappointed you? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Gift of Books

There is no gift I love and cherish more than a book. I have received lovely jewelry, fun and useful electronics, even cash money - they are wonderful gifts that I appreciate and enjoy. But the only gift that makes my heart constrict and rejoice is a book. If it's a book that I've never heard of, I get excited to see what it's about and, more importantly, why I think the person gave it to me. If it's a book I've wanted, I delight in the feeling of being known and having an apt book selected for me.

Looking through my shelves, I smile when I think about the different memories gifted books represent. I remember that Bess gave me What Would Barbra Do? because I thought it would be a step too far to indulge that level of musical love. I remember that Maria gave me The Borgias and Their Enemies because we had been talking about what a history geek I am. I have dozens of C.S. Lewis books that my mom dutifully sought out for me from Christmas lists of yore. My Aunt Renda has given me so many interesting books about C.S., faith, etc. over the years that I sometimes lose track and then am delighted when I see her inscription in one that I pick up.

I received a book from my rector this week - he sent it to our congregation as we're in the midst of this season of change. There's been a lot of uncertainty and trust kicking in over these last weeks and I have been repeatedly drawn to praise the Lord for the wisdom of our leaders. They have been gracious and hopeful at every turn, where my impulse would be bitterness and despair. Their example has been not only an inspiration but a comfort to us all. But when that book came - it was literally like getting a big bear hug from all of them. I know people talk about love languages and their different forms when they talk about relationships. As I felt the wave of comfort and relaxation come over me when I opened that lovely little package, I realized that my love language might be books.

Has anyone ever given you a book you loved? Or hated? 

Friday, February 24, 2012

How Not to Succeed in Business Without Trying

I think the time may have come for me to start touring America with helpful rules for appropriate office attire. I'm not perfect at dressing professionally - I have moments when I get to the office and realize that a skirt is a little too short or that I should have worn a cardigan or some other slip up. It can definitely be a challenge for those of us who are newer to the workforce. But generally, I keep it professional. I've actually gotten feedback in reviews that my professional attire is better than some other ladies at my stage of career. To that end, I want to offer some advice on what not to do when you get ready in the morning.

Let's start with the ladies...
  1. If someone might mistake you as wearing your pirate costume from Halloween, don't wear it to the office. Really don't wear it if it looks like it was the one labeled "Slutty Pirate" (or any of the "Slutty ___" line).
  2. I should not be able to determine what kind of undergarments you are wearing at a glance. This includes see-through shirts, brightly colored bras under light colored shirts, whale tails, and skirts that are too short. The only exception is camisoles in a layered look. 
  3. If in doubt, leave the patent leather at home. I'll give you a pass if you work for a bar or in the fashion industry
  4. Don't wear shoes you can't walk in. This will vary from woman to woman, but it's instantly recognizable when a woman can't handle her heels. It makes you look like a little girl in her mom's shoes. There's no shame in flats
  5. One word on eye shadow: blend
  6. An all pink look makes you look like a "Toddlers and Tiaras" reject. Avoid the cutesy or anything that makes you look like a little girl. 
  7. Sandals and pantyhose are mutually exclusive wardrobe decisions. A Venn diagram to illustrate:

Basically, don't give anyone a chance not to take you seriously. We're lucky because it's a lot easier to be a professional woman these days than it was even 10 years ago. But let's face it: to this day, it's a man's world in many fields. Whatever is considered professional in your field, go above and beyond. Sometimes it means leaning towards a more conservative look, but is being cute more important than looking the part of a competent professional? You can still look fashionable and cute without looking like a drug addled pop star.

You want people to take you seriously because of what your mind has to offer. Don't let anyone be able to write you off as unsubstantial or accuse you of using your charms in an unseemly way (that's also for date night). Once the hint is there, it is hard to shake. I've now seen this happen twice to women I worked with, one time rightly and the other time wrongly. It's not PC or fair, but it is a reality. You don't want to let a whiff that kind of chatter attach to you - and you can start with your wardrobe. Keep it professional, keep it cute, keep it safe. Save your fun stuff for the weekends.

Men don't get off the hook here, though. Gentlemen, gentlemen. Your fashion faux pas are in many ways worse than the ladies'. Why? Because it is maddeningly simple for you to look like you know what you're doing. Here is all it takes for you to look professional:

Non-wrinkled light blue oxford + non-pleated khakis + loafers + belt the same color as loafers = presentable professional

That's it. You could throw a jacket into this equation if you want to spice it up - and let me assure you, no woman is going to tell you not to wear a suit and tie. And cuff links? Help me. Swoon. That being said, many of you seem to be incapable of sticking to this formula. You want to jazz it up or jazz it down. You want to be different. Don't be different. In this case, different makes you look silly.

Specifically, don't be different in these ways:
  1. Do not wear a silky shirt. I'll hazard a guess and tell you that this should apply to your private life as well. Nobody wants to look up one day and realize they're dating a Night-at-the-Roxbury-lookalike 
  2. If you're collar has shriveled to the point that it will not lie flat, it is no longer work appropriate. Save it for a golf game or yard work - or donate it to someone who works from home.
  3. Never wear a jean button up shirt. Really never wear a jean button up shirt with a cartoon character embroidered on the breast pocket.
  4. If your pants turn into man-pris when you bend over, they are too short. There likely will be no floods in the office - you don't need to tailor your wardrobe to accommodate that possibility.
    1. Sub rule: Do not wear man-pris, unless you are in Europe. I can't speak for the office etiquette there, but probably don't wear them there, either.
  5. Chest hair is for private times. It's called an undershirt. 
  6. Never. ever. ever. wear a pair of pants with pleats. I have seen maybe 5 guys ever pull this look off. Just walk away... it's the male equivalent of low rise jeans. It's a bad idea 99% of the time.
  7. Only wear a festive tie if you are the kind of guy who seems like they would wear a festive tie. If you are unsure if it fits your personality, then don't do it. It will come off as creepy.
What fashion catastrophes have you spotted at your workplace? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Oscar edition!

by Michael Lewis

Procured from a certain ginormous online bookseller's lending program

Procured in December 2011

Finished on January 29, 2012

Format: eBook

Why I gave it a try: I really love Michael Lewis' narrative style. I inhaled Liars Poker, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, so when I saw this offered for free, I knew I had to give it a go. Plus, the movie was out last year and I always try to read the book before seeing the movie. 

Summary: All is not fair in love and baseball. Some teams have mucho money to spend on the best rated players, while some teams have just enough to get by to sign mid-grade players. Lewis follows Billy Beane and the Oakland A's for a season as they implement value stock principles to acquiring players.

Thoughts: I am not the target audience for this book. Well, now that Brad Pitt has starred in the movie version of this, perhaps I am. Either way, I don't watch baseball or even really like it that much. I played softball as a kid (I got to play shortstop because I was one of the only ones not afraid of the ball), but that's really the extent of my experience and investment in the sport.

All of my lack of context aside, I found this to be a fascinating read, wrought with politics and machinations worthy of Washington or Wall Street. This is Lewis' specialty - he takes the rogue, radical thinking underdog who wants to revolutionize their world by subverting the normal way of doing things. And then they revolutionize their world by subverting the normal way of doing things. It is an incredibly satisfying formula and feeds into the American love of cheering for the underdog (see this super interesting Radiolab podcast on this).

Not only it is it a satisfying formula, but Lewis truly has a gift of picking the right details to describe his characters. He will choose a mannerism or physical trait, and somehow, it tells you all you need to know about the person. Like Billy Beane's inability to watch the games live without throwing chairs against the wall. Or the fact that Scott Hatteberg can't help but chat up whoever is on base when he's playing at first base.

Oh, Scott Hatteberg. I literally teared up reading parts of his story. It's my weakness - plain old good guys who succeed by just doing what they're supposed to do. He got released from the Red Sox after he ruptured a nerve in his elbow and couldn't throw the ball anymore (kind of important for a catcher). Beane scooped him up because of one metric and one metric alone: his on base percentage. They were buying his ability to get on base and didn't really care that he wasn't going to be of much help on defense. As it happened, they were able to coach him into being a decent first baseman. But here we have Lewis at his finest: you are invested in Hatteberg's story on an emotional level and you are also buying into the information that he's getting across about why on base percentage is undervalued asset in the baseball player free market. Well played, sir.

I found that there were a couple of sections that dragged for me (like the part explaining the origins of the school of thought Beane championed), and I also did not think that Lewis successfully set up the premise of the book (I didn't realize we were following them through a single season until halfway through the book). That aside, this was a really enjoyable book that made baseball a page turning topic for this non-fan. I am to the point where I would probably read a book about mustard or IRS statistics if Michael Lewis wrote it. This did not disappoint. 


5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

Have you seen the movie? How does it compare to the book? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shrove Tuesday Hoopla

Whew. I have been MIA and I am sorry... have you ever had a time when you just were sort of floating? Kind of on auto-pilot, unthinking, unfeeling, floating along the lazy river ride of life? That's been me for the last few weeks. I've been getting into the routine of being on a new project for work, and somehow, focus on getting into that routine seems to have white noised out all other things in my life.

Which is why Lent is so well timed for me this year- I am ready to reengage with the land of the living and embrace anew the things that are important to me. So, as last year, I am going sans sweets and meat for the 40 days o' Lent. I've filled up on steak, chicken, and sugar the last few days, and I am ready to say goodbye to them for a while.

And, in honor of my new Anglican traditions, I made my requisite pilgrimage for dinner tonight:

Pancakes! Because Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras) is also known as Pancake Day! Traditionally, people were trying to use up all their rich food that they weren't going to have over Lent (butter, sugar, etc.). Thank the Lord they did, because who doesn't want a church sanctioned pancake feast? I think in England they have some kind of fry pan/pancake races to this day. I would like to attend. My British friends - let me know how to make this happen.

I was also introduced by my Chicago coworkers to the Polish traditional Mardi Gras food - paczkis. Imagine a cream filled doughnut. Now fluff it up to twice it's normal size. Now flavor the cream inside to match the icing flavor. Now dump a ton of sugar sprinkles on top. You are left with maybe the most decadent doughnut I've encountered. It was amazingly delicious, but all of us had sugar headaches for about an hour afterwards. Totes worth it...

Anyhoo, I am now full of pancakes and paczkis, and I am ready for Lent. I'm ready to refocus on God and on engaging fully with the life He's given me. It's a little hard at times to figure out this whole community thing while I'm on the road, but I'm ready to tackle the challenge.

Buckle up, folks! Lent is here... yahoo!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

If Chuck Norris Had A Mom, It Would Be Jessica B. Fletcher

My friend informed me the other day that one of my all time favorite shows is now available for streaming on Netflix. Murder She Wrote. Ah, sweet memories. Every sick day or holiday was spent catching the 10am viewing of this television classic on A&E. I did and do love it. In fact, as I've had it on in the background for the last week, I've been struck by how much I still enjoy it. However, now that I'm a little older, I can see some of the underlying challenges for new viewers to embrace the series the way I have.

Many people have noted the extremely high murder rate per capita that Cabot Cove, Maine seems afflicted with... Jessica Fletcher seems to be a veritable magnet for homicide. Beyond this, however, I've realized that the writers seem to constantly be screaming, "Don't worry! Just because we've got a post-menoposal gal as the lead doesn't mean she's not hip to the realities of sexy times and violence and drugs and bad mustaches. She knows! She sees it all the time in Cabot Cove!" What follows are plots that strongly remind me of Bugs Bunny send ups of The Maltese Falcon.

The music and dialogue are one step removed from parody and the plots consistently hinge on people having ABSURD LOUD ARGUMENTS in public where Jess or her cronies can overhear them (i.e. ""IF YOU THINK THAT I WILL EVER LET YOU GO, YOU'VE GOT ANOTHER THING COMING. I WILL KILL YOU BEFORE I SEE YOU IN THE ARMS OF ANOTHER MAN! DO YOU HEAR ME? DID EVERYONE IN THE VICINITY GET THAT?"). The policemen are beer swilling and cigarette toting and constantly writing JB off with a "what does an old broad like you know about the dark world of crime," until they are enlightened by her rapier wit and detectivery acumen. Private eyes wear pork pie hats and thick beards- the camera zooms in on their faces whenever they are stalking their quarry. I really do find myself at times looking for Elmer Fudd to pop up...


Now for a round of "Friend or Foe?"For each of these quotes, try to figure out if the speaker is a Cop or a Suspect:

A. "When someone moves a body, I gotta ask why."

B. "He's not a very nice friend for you to have, Mrs. Fletcher... not very nice at all."

C. "You're a very shrewd cookie... but you're barking up the wrong tree."

D. "You're not at your typewriter now."

E. "I may be a small town cop, but I know my job."

F. "Just so you understand, I'm gonna catch that killer. That's a promise."

G. "I'm not only gonna take your purse - I'ma give you a free blood test." *opens switchblade*

See below for answers...


All of this to say, on the face of things, this is a terrible show. If someone tried to launch this show today, it would be laughed out of the first screenings.

And yet. And yet.

Murder She Wrote is television gold. If it comes on, I watch. I know many other closeted fans who feel the same way (I don't want to out them - they should come forward for themselves). I love the crazy plot lines, the dramatic music, the inappropriate public confessions, the copious number of scrunchies, and most of all, Angela Lansbury... I love Angela Lansbury.

Angela Lansbury deserves her own post, so I'll only touch lightly on the depth of her awesomeness. 1) She's a sassy parlor maid extraordinaire (see Gaslight)! 2) She plays Judy Garland's saloon girl nemesis (see Harvey Girls)! 3) She sells a song called "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?" all while some idiot is making little asides like, "Indeed, I would!" to her (see Till the Clouds Roll By)! 4) She will help you turn a profit slitting people's throats (see the original production of Sweeney Todd)! 5) She plays a teapot. And makes you cry. BAM! (see Beauty and the Beast) 6) She's the funniest fake drunk in the history of fake drunks (see Death on the Nile) 7) She is by far the best Miss Marple around (see The Mirror Crack'd)

You see where I'm going with this? Angela Lansbury is the master of pulling off things that sound ridiculous on paper. When she does them, they are not ridiculous - you believe every word. She's just that good.

So when we come to the feather in her cap, the jewel of her crown, the pepperoni of her pizza, Jessica B. Fletcher, we see her combine all her skills into one concentrated mass. Result? A super human detective machine whose powers seem to be limitless.

A sampling of the amazing skills of Jessica Fletcher:
  • Caring for a Chinese orphan while it's Chinese nun guardians are delayed (this was arranged when she was chatting them up in Mandarin)
  • Balls of steel - she will confront anyone about anything, no matter how personal or how little she knows them, and she will do it at night in dark stairwells if needed
  • Indignantly accusing people of lying and then lying to get them to give her information inadvertently
  • Stepping in for a dead congressman in Washington until a replacement can be elected
  • Concocting a stain remover with eggs and lemons more powerful than Oxyclean 
  • Stepping her foot through a partial opened front door to shove her way in after someone has said they don't want to talk to her
  • Giving chiding speeches on ethics to grayed business men that shame them into doing the right thing
  • Brewing anti-corn ointment for ailing cabbies
  • Evading purse snatching ruffians with pierced ears and fedoras 
  • Befriending minorities (they are usually credited as "black youth" or "hispanic taxi driver")
  • Pretending to see someone hit your car in order to ascertain whether or not it was, in fact, your car
  • Convincing people to go back to AA
I don't think Chuck Norris has a mom. But if he did, based on these awesome array of skills, you can bet your sweet biscuits that it would be J.B. Fletcher.

If you've never watched Murder She Wrote, you should. You should watch it, laugh where appropriate, and bow down to the awesomeness that it Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher.

Have you experienced the wonder of Murder She Wrote? Do you have your own campy television kryptonite?  

A. Cop
B. Cop
C. Suspect
D. Cop
E. Cop
F. Cop
G. Suspect

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (2012 Book Challenges)

This is my first review for my 2012 Book Challenges! Rejoice!

by Charles Frazier

Procured from my Mama, borrowed from her iPad's library o' eBooks

Procured in December 29, 2011

Finished on January 1, 2012

Challenge?: For the "What's in a Name?" challenge

Format: eBook (this is the first one I read on an iPad and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at my lack of annoyance at the backlight)

Why I gave it a try: This gent is from the same neck of the woods I am (just on the other/wrong side of the mountains) and plus, he made me weep like a little girl with Cold Mountain. Besides, I was intrigued by the creepy cover

Summary: There's creepy twins. There's an evil stepdad. There's a murdered mother. There's a wounded young woman living in an abandoned country lodge. Stir in lost money. Add a suitor. Let the spinning wheel spin...

Thoughts: I was pretty sure I was really going to love this book. I mean, I loved Cold Mountain (though I do curse him for playing with my emotions like a puppet master). I love creepy stories set in the woods. And I love Southern fiction, especially Southern fiction set in my neck of the woods (literally). I was not disappointed and, in fact, I like Mr. Frazier better for having read this book. It shows me that he isn't a one trick pony who is only capable of a single kind of twist or outcome.

For one thing, the amount of tension that he is able to create with relatively little action is remarkable. Most of the action and violence takes place "off stage" or in the past - I'm impressed with Frazier's restraint to go this route. Can you imagine allowing yourself to dissipate the tension of a Dramatic Scene by mentioning it only in passing? It ain't easy. It goes contrary to every instinct you have to play up the emotional tension for everything it's worth (J.R.R. Tolkein takes the crown for exercising the most self-control in this regard). In this case, however, he uses these moments of violence and action as backstory, to set a perfectly fragile, still stage that feels ready to implode at the slightest provocation.

As a good chunk of the novel is set in the North Carolina mountain backwoods, that sense of stillness pervades the book. The only jarring point is the emotionally disturbed twins who have come to live with their aunt after their mother's murder. Their reactions against the world that has perversely misused them juxtaposed with the pristine quiet of nature creates an inherent tension in the setting that ratchets up the impact of what action there is.

The action isn't that remarkable, if I were to lay it all out there. There's not a lot of it until the last third of the book. You don't walk away, though, feeling like you've read a navel-gazing think piece. The closest pop culture reference I can point to is The Night of the Hunter, which is a freaking terrifying and tense movie. In fact, if you haven't seen it, I'd recommend it as a prerequisite to reading the book. The book seems to owe a lot to the actual plotting and overall tone to that film, but it does not feel derivative. Rather, it's a retelling, in the same vein that fairy tales are retold. They are fascinating to compare and contrast (also toss in The Shining, for good measure).

There's also the best love story I've read in years laced throughout the book. Innocent but not implausible, it is two people who are slightly adrift from what society expects and who find each other in an undramatic but personally significant way. I loved how Frazier conveyed ideas about partnership, redemption, and protectiveness without ever veering into the realm of cloying sweetness or Twilight. Really, it was superbly done and satisfying without being pat or facile. 

Basically, I thought this was great. At it's heart, this is a quiet book about recovery from the traumas of life and I'm bummed it didn't seem to get as much love last year as it should have, but it's a must-read for lovers of contemporary Southern fiction.


5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

What was the last book you read with a good creepy plot + tender love story combo?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Okay, So I'm Starting to Get This Chicago Thing...

I stayed downtown last week, and I finally understood what the fuss is about. Chicago is a seriously beautiful and clean city. I literally gasped when the gorgeous skyline came into view. My hotel was by the lake, so here's the view I had of the Navy Pier, first thing in the morning...

Instagram style:

I've also had some extremely yummy food and I have given the city credit that traffic is nothing like as bad as DC.

So, touche, Chricago! You ain't so bad after all. You're actually pretty great. But your suburbs are still the most depressing I've encountered.