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I just finished reading Perfume by Patrick Suskind. I read it in the time it took to drive through southern NJ, which sounds impressive, but really only indicates how bad the traffic was on the turnpike. Luckily it seems to have let up, so hopefully I will get to Boston in time to hang out with Hannah before she switches cities with me.

Anna has been telling me to read this book for years, and so when I saw it on a table of twenty-five cent books, of course I picked it up. I think I might have liked it better if I had just picked it up randomly - it is surprising, original, well-written, all very good things. But with this much hype from Anna - and I believe a few others have recommended it to me as well - I was expecting to have a new favorite book by the end, and I definitely did not.

Spoilers. )

So, in conclusion - and it better be, we're almost at the bus stop - while I enjoyed reading the book and liked the style of writing and the premise, for me there was not much more to it. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, but I also don't think passing it up would mean missing out.
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Cross-posted to my blog. Comments welcome either here or there.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill In War and Society is written by a soldier, and it shows. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a military psychologist, not a scientist, and as a scientist I found it incredibly frustrating to read this book - almost none of his assertions are sourced or cited in full. Additionally, Grossman's admiration for his fellow soldiers is made manifest throughout the book. Although he makes a good case that these soldiers deserve, if not admiration, at least compassion, his frequent, brook-no-argument assertions that most soldiers are "brave", "noble" people committing a "necessary evil" can be grating to those of a more pacifist bent.

In other words, it was not easy going slogging through this book. However, none of this means that Grossman doesn't have some incredibly thought-provoking things to say.

This book was written to explain a startling fact: throughout most of military history, up until the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers (between 75 and 95%) have refused to kill. Brigadier S.L.A. Marshall, who studied this phenomenon during World War II, found that no more than 20% of soldiers would "take any part with their weapons". These results can be found throughout time and across cultures, from Alexander the Great who lost only 700 men in years of fighting, to tribesmen in New Guinea who remove the arrows from their feathers before going off to war, to the soldiers at Rosebud Creek in 1876 who fired 252 rounds for each Native American they hit.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered one of America's bloodiest battles, but as Grossman shows, it could have been a great deal bloodier... )
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Yesterday Sean and I watched quite possibly the worst movie I've ever seen, Grande Ecole. We dubbed it the Gay French movie, and worried it would be too depressing, but it was actually so bad it was kind of funny, though not in the good way. The highlights included a scene of two boys having sex on a bed while mirrors swirled around them, and a scene where the main character talks to his parents, only they're all superimposed onto a field of stars and staring off into the distance. Add this to their sad little attempts to address classism and racism, their slightly less sad but still quite futile attempts to be sensual and risque, and the fact that NO ONE COULD ACT and, well. When it was over, I turned to Sean and said, "Well, that's two hours of our lives we'll never get back."

Here's a question: What is the absolute worst movie you've ever seen, and why?
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If I get offered the one-year Newark job by the end of next week, I'm going to accept it. If not, I will be in Sacramento for the next two years.


I wrote this on the train a while back and didn't post it because I couldn't connect to the internet:

Review of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova )
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My new roommate has a pretty nice DVD collection, so last night I picked out The Virgin Suicides and sat down to watch. I realize it is 4 a.m. but I'm going to attempt a review anyway. My apologies for any incoherence.

I think what it really comes down to is the title. How many meanings does the title have? Surely more than one, since a literal interpretation is incorrect - Lux Lisbon, as the film delights in detailing, is not a virgin by any definition by the time she kills herself. Well, then, perhaps the intent is to focus on the Lisbon girls' youth and purity, on the innocence which makes them symbols of teenage girls everywhere. But there is a deeper significance to the word and the concept "virgin", if one chooses to see it - virgin is the mystification and idealization of women, virgin is the definition of women by men, virgin is silencing and stultifying and ultimately violent. Virgin is the heart and soul of the story and my question is, did the people who made the film realize that? Because most reviews I've seen seem to entirely miss it.

In the end, the suicides are completely unexplained. You get glimpses of the girls' unhappiness - their incredibly strict parents, the boy who has sex with Lux on a football field and is gone the next morning - but no real reason for their actions. Reasons? They barely even have personalities. The narrator is a schoolboy, one of several schoolboys who watch them from a window across the street, who worship them decades after their deaths. From the movie's final monologue:

What lingered after them was not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts -- a clock ticking on the wall, a room dim at noon, the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself. We began the impossible process of trying to forget them... So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. It didn't matter in the end how old they had been or that they were girls...but only that we had loved them...and they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

The movie rightly condemns the way the media objectifies and sensationalizes their deaths, and highlights the suffocating strictness of their parents and their focus on keeping the girls pure, innocent, virgin. But it is unclear whether it realizes that the narrators themselves have a role in this process. Look at how the final monologue is worded. "Hear us calling them out", "thinking only of herself", "we will never put them back together". In the end this about the boys, not the girls, and while this is fine - the boys are people too - it is not a choice that can stand in isolation. Why tell this impossibly horrible story in a way that renders it "beautifully tragic"? Why silence the Lisbon girls? As some sort of meta context for the silencing that led to their suicides?

I'm not sure I can give the writer and director that much credit. Maybe I'm underestimating them. But from where I stand, this is one of the most despicable movies I've seen in a long, long time.
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I am bored. I can't go to sleep yet because the people next door are drinking and talking loudly, but really, I just want to go to bed so that I can wake up and have it be the day I go home.

Today my roommate was telling me about how she loves The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I have officially given her up for lost. She is clearly worthless, because - and I am not exaggerating here - The Notebook is clearly worthless. It is, in fact, the worst thing I have ever read, and that includes all those rejected high school lit mag submissions. Even the poetry. Especially the poetry.

I borrowed it from my mother without telling her because I needed something to read on the plane, and I spent the next several hours looking longingly towards the escape hatch. The only reason I finished reading it is because I refused to believe that a book could be that bad. Surely, there had to be one good scene, one original thought before the end. Maybe someone would get hit by a bus? ... no. It was the same sentimental, predictable drivel the whole way through. How could it be a bestseller, I wondered? How soul-crushingly mindless can the people of this country be? I thought I had accepted the idiocy of my fellow Americans after the 2004 election. But I hadn't. I was in denial. When I finished this book, I finally understood, and I accepted it, and I wept. And then I ate my little packet of peanuts.

For nearly a month, I despised my mother for owning this book. Then one day, when we were packing my room at the end of the semester, she found it and asked if it was her copy. I gritted my teeth and told her it was. "Oh," she said. "I was looking for it. I was going to donate it, but now I'm not sure I want to inflict it on anyone else." I looked up, hope and forgiveness in my eyes. "Can we burn it?" She shook her head. "I don't have any matches." In the end, we put it in the recycling. I like to think that its pages will be pulped and remade, wiped clean, if you will, and that some better story - that is, any story - will take its place.

That is all.

(Anyone on my friendslist who read and liked The Notebook can please defriend me now.)
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So, my computer crashed last night, but I guess it just needed some alone time, 'cause I tried it this morning and it was working fine. Unfortunately, it crashed after the library had closed so I had to go to CVS to get something to read. The selection was pretty awful. In the end I got Dan Brown's Deception Point because it looked better than a cheesy romance novel and you know what? It wasn't that bad. I would actually say it was pretty decent for a mass-marketed thriller. The characters were cardboard but sympathetic, the writing style was uninspired but at least it flowed. And some of the situations were awesome. Hammerhead sharks? A volcano? You know I'll like any book with a volcano.

Things are much, much better at the lab. The bare bones of the situation haven't really changed at all, but my supervisor and I are on much better terms - we talked for two hours Thursday morning, and then after work the whole lab went to see Frans de Waal speak and then out for drinks afterwards. Yesterday I got to go in with the monkeys - really in, to feed them. They were too busy with the oranges and bananas and juice-soaked bread to pay much attention to me, but I picked up a piece of banana and Lance came over to me, putting one hand on my arm for balance and grabbing the banana with the other. Then he sat next to me eating contentedly.

Of course, it isn't all sweetness. Capuchins have a pretty complex social hierarchy and the other group, the Bolts, ganged up and attacked the lowest-ranking female, Georgia. Her hand and her tail were bleeding and we had to put her in isolation with her baby. I think the worst part is the baby, Grace, who right now is so small and cute it almost hurts to look at her. You know that when she gets a little older she will be picked on like all the other Gs, like Gretel who darts around never touching any of the other monkeys and Goya, who is losing her hair. Right now Grace can do whatever she wants, she can jump on the alpha male's back and bite him with abandon, and he'll just tolerate her. But one day, in a few months even, she's going to do it and he's going to bite back, and she may not even survive it. G-babies have been killed by the Bolts before.
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So now I've suddenly got a ton of free time on my hands.

Review of RENT. )
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I finished Immortality while I was home last weekend, and while it was a great book, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Each chapter, each character, each phrase or thought or description by itself was wonderful, but packed up all together I found myself confused by Kundera's purpose.

Here be spoilers. )

All right, I've got a class to get ready for. I may come back to this later.
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I have a tendency, when bored, to read whatever I can get my hands on. A few weeks ago, it happened to be the first couple of books in Terry Goodkind's fantasy series. They weren't really interesting enough to write a review of, but I was kind of curious as to just how many pages he's written. I turned to google. It gave me this.

Question, Haddenfield, NJ: I've noticed similarities between your Sword of Truth series and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series...

Terry Goodkind: If you notice a similarity, then you probably aren't old enough to read my books.

OUCH. Reading through the rest of the interview, Goodkind's apparently got an ego the size of an oliphaunt. And he doesn't exactly deserve to have one. I won't say he's as bad a writer as Jordan*, but, well, neither am I and you don't see me proclaiming, "First of all, I don't write fantasy. I write stories that have important human themes... That puts my books in a genre all their own."

Whatever, Terry. In 1400 pages you wrote exactly one character that interested me. Your world is derivative, your plots filled with contrivances, and I'm not sure you could get through a book without having a major character raped even if you tried. You have Jordan's length without his fluency, you have Ayn Rand's ego without her originality, and you have George R.R. Martin's morbid streak without his thought-provoking, nuanced characterizations.

In other words, Mr. Goodkind, go tickle a sleeping dragon.

* To be fair, Robert Jordan is actually a decent writer, much better than most people in two important respects. First, he's got good descriptive abilities. He writes pretty. If he stuck to writing about ball-gowns and landscapes, he'd be first class. Secondly, he's got the determination to write, as anyone who's made it to book 11 can attest (I dropped out at 5). Even the best writer amounts to nothing if they never pick up a pen. However, his convoluted plots, weak characterizations, and tendency to write a romance for every character, no matter how minor, are enough to cancel all that out.
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Is there still a limit of five posts a day on unpaid users? Because if that's been got rid of, I can stop condensing my public posts and indulge in more obsessive private to-do lists.

I've been up since four a.m. yesterday, and I've gone past being tired and have now my second wind. Damned unfortunate, as I want to go to bed. Had a bit of a party in the lounge, watching the playoffs and mocking the Red Sox fans. Have I mentioned how much I adore our firsties? If I haven't, let me say it now: I adore our firsties. There. I bet you weren't expecting that.

My UMass midterm is an essay. I know it's very bad of me, but I was sort've looking forward to a multiple choice test.

And the reviews:

The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault (Mild Spoilers) )

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire (Even Milder Spoilers) )

Dead Poets Society (Major Spoilers) )

Max (Minor Spoilers) )


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