Friday 5: Consumption

What is your paper towel consumption like?

Not awful, but not ideal. I try to use sponges and tea towels as often as possible in the kitchen, but paper towels have also become our default paper product in the house. No napkins, no tissues: just paper towels.

What condiment do you use most often?

Hm, what counts as a condiment? Do the variety of sauces in squeeze bottles in our fridge count as condiments? Because if we’re talking about just ketchup and mustard, I don’t use either.

What is your sticky note consumption like?

Nonexistent. I never use them.

What’s your coin jar setup?

Sweden is much closer to going cashless than the US, and I go for long stretches without having any cash on me at all. Needless to say, spare change doesn’t really accumulate. When I have some, I usually give it away.

What’s something you’ve purchased recently that was lower in price than usual?

I don’t know about recently, but I picked up some home decor items from Myrorna’s for ultra cheap. I also visited a couple of vintage stores while I was in the US, but the keyword there is “vintage” (i.e. not “thrift”). They didn’t break the bank, but they weren’t a steal, either.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 3

It’s Feminist Science Fiction Book Club day. Noah has a meeting with the alumni board of his grad school program, so Elizabeth and I get to spend quality time together. Quality time at the supermarket, even: one of my favorite places to go when visiting people. This time, though, not so much. Not because I’m with Elizabeth but because it’s no longer so early into my trip here and there’s no giddy anticipation of “oh, let’s get this!”; we’re just shopping for the essentials for book club brunch.

When we get back, I hop in the shower while Elizabeth poaches eggs in their tiny kitchen, and it smells divine when I get out. I get out the table dressings and fight the urge to use the Swedish particle verb that neatly encapsulates the meaning of “set the table” when I ask if she wants me to set the table. Maybe I’ve gone native ?

I curl up with more Ted Chiang stories until people show up. Noah is the first back, triggering a stream of other arrivals: Camille, who I met last night, and two others. The chairs come out now, including those fold-up canvas sporting event chairs with the cupholders in the armrests. Noah takes one of them between me and Elizabeth, and it’s the rare occasion where I’m taller than him—he is, easily, a foot taller than me.

“This is really freaking me out,” I comment. “I’m not used to you being so much shorter than me. Usually it’s the opposite experience.”

Discussion kicks off with the trials and tribulations of cat ownership, and then we get to Karen Memory, which everyone seems more or less equally lukewarm about for a variety of reasons, but we all agree that there’s a long stretch in the middle where nothing happens. Noah brings up that the introduction of the cast of characters feels like a diversity checklist and maybe directly in response to the Sad/Rabid Puppies debacle of however many years ago now, someone else doesn’t care for the dialect, and I make my nitpicky point about how the book makes a useless and offhanded mention of radium watch dial painting that’s maybe 30 years anachronistic, and that people didn’t well and fully realize radium was killing those women for another 10? 20? years after. The “it’s a steampunk alternate history” argument is made, to which I counterargue that yes, I’ll take that for the big stuff, but for small things that seem to serve as a signal of “I did research!” it’s jarring and frustrating because it didn’t NEED to be in there for the story and ruins the whole image of “I did research!”

Cover of Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory."
Image courtesy Tor

We also discuss The Dispossessed and whether or not it’s feminist, and whether or not it squares with actual anarchist experience. (One member of the book club has experience with real-life anarchists, or maybe real-life anarchist communes, and Noah wants to pick her brain.) Members drift out again, for other events, but one member (who disliked the dialect) remains and discussion unofficially continues for a few minutes more. I bring up The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage as a potential read, and we talk about how contemporary computer science treats Lovelace. The question of whether or not I think it qualifies as feminist is brought up, and I argue yes, based on the fact that the author comes down pretty explicitly in the “was Ada a genuine inspiration or just riding the coattails?” debate as being, to put it roughly, pro-Ada, which can be seen as a sort of feminist statement maybe? Other books tangentially related to feminist sci-fi come up, and then it’s time for the last member to make a graceful exit.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The next item on the agenda is a goodbye party for grad school friends who are leaving Austin by way of Mexico City for North Carolina. It’s not for hours, though, and Noah wants to head to the gym otherwise he’ll be bouncing off the walls. I suggest visiting Book People, which was a suggestion earlier in the visit that never manifested, and who can resist a visit to a book store? This works out—they can drive to the gym and leave me at a nearby bus stop for a route that goes straight there—and away we go.

I hole up in the bookstore cafe (one of the rare, not-all-purpose fooderies I visit; there is no beer and wine menu) with a hibiscus tea that’s probably 80% ice. I read through the first two trade paperback collections of Monstress. I briefly consider buying them, but err in favor of I don’t need any more goddamn books.

Noah and Elizabeth turn up much sooner than I’d expect from going to the gym, but I suppose they had a head start versus my wait for the bus and the bus ride here. We opt to hang out a while longer at Book People, since we all have reading: I’m still working on Monstress, Noah has picked up Conscience of a Conservative, and Elizabeth is reading a dense nonfiction book about one of the kings of France.

Once we’re sufficiently book’d and sufficiently hungry, we wander off in search of dinner, by way of the Lush store. Noah grouses about how so many of the bath items look like food (“That just seems like a bad idea!”) and a clerk overhears him and stops to chat about how they sometimes find items with teethmarks in them. We gab a bit more about shouldn’t context in the store make that clear, and then I think to ask if they have any stick perfume. I love my particular Korean brand and scent, but if Lush has something comparable it would probably be cheaper to get it from them than import it from Korea. I show her the container and she nods and leads me to a display where Elizabeth is talking to another sales rep.

“In these tins. We had sticks like that before, but they got stuck a lot and customers complained about wasted product.”

I thank her and give the vanilla sample a smell, but it’s impossible to tell anything in the store. I dose up one wrist with the Korean and another with the Lush, and walk outside to compare the scents in fresh air, free from olfactory interference. No dice; the Lush one smells like ice cream, sickly sweet and not the same floral-vanilla I’ve come to love.

Treaty oak austin 2015

Elizabeth and Noah are quick to follow me out, and we continue to dinner by way of the Treaty Oak, whose story Noah relates to me as we walk. Eventually, we end up at a diner, where I do the thing I always do for lunch or dinner in a new diner and order a grilled cheese. Discussion floats around board games and mistakes our parents taught us and how good the milkshakes are here.

“They cost more than five dollars, actually,” Noah offers, when he sees me struggling.

“THANK YOU,” I reply. “And they don’t put no bourbon in it or nothing?”

“Nope.”

Now it’s finally time for the goodbye party, and to start with I feel a tiny bit miserable because it’s a large group at a picnic table that makes it hard to have a conversation with more than just a handful of people at a time. But conversations settle into place like wagon ruts; topics flit back and forth among death metal bands and bad movies and effective solutions for homelessness (since everyone at the table is some kind of policy wonk or another). Eventually the host gets ready to leave for the next stop, and Elizabeth and Noah decide to call it quits. Everyone brushes their teeth and says goodnight.

Friday 5 on Saturday: Sandwich or Nah?

Why is or isn’t a hot dog a sandwich?

Oh, this controversy! This is one that I actually watched unfold, to an extent, because even Merriam-Webster weighed in on it.

I don’t even care about hot dogs and their status as a sandwich; I just want to say that Merriam-Webster is a ray of light in these dark, confusing times. I’m glad I follow them on Twitter.

Why is or isn’t a hamburger a sandwich?

I would say so. Maybe it’s a question of the orientation of the bread that throws people off.  Hamburgers have proper bread orientation to be a sandwich; hot dogs don’t.

Why is or isn’t a wrap a sandwich?

I say it is, for the same bread orientation reasons outlined above.

Why are or aren’t Oreos and ice cream sandwiches sandwiches?

They’re sandwich cookies, but they’re not sandwiches. There’s no bread! They could never be a reasonably filling and healthy meal!

Why does or doesn’t listening to an audio book count as reading the book?

Photo of books from NinoAndonis on Morguefile.com..
Image from NinoAndonis on Morguefile.com.

Now here’s the really juicy question. What is the point of reading a book? Is it to consume the story, or is it to consume the story in a particular way? Is there an advantage to reading? (Like how some studies suggest that readers retain more from paper copies than from ebooks.)

After all, reading or listening doesn’t change the story or the language, for that matter. Not to mention that audiobooks are a godsend for people with visual impairments or dyslexia. Isn’t it better that they hear a story instead of not being able to consume it at all? Didn’t all language and literature start out as oral traditions of storytelling?

And yet, I would still feel like I was cheating, somehow, to say that I had read the audiobook I listened to.

All of this is a moot point anyway, though. I don’t care for audiobooks for reasons unrelated to snobbery. I have a hard time paying attention to purely audio information (same problem I have with a lot of podcasts)  and am incredibly likely to zone out and miss huge chunks of the story without even realizing it. It doesn’t matter how good the narrator is.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 2

My favorite part of visiting friends, particularly friends I only see every so often, is borrowing books from their personal libraries. It keeps me from having to pack books myself, and I like to see the ways that friends have branched out and developed in my absence. So it’s not a problem that Noah is still sleeping and Elizabeth has already left for work when I wake up a little after 7:00, alert and refreshed. I use the time to sit with a collection of Ted Chiang’s short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I start with “The Story of Your Life,” since I had recently seen and enjoyed Arrival,  and have just begun another before Noah wakes up and brews some of the Söder tea I brought to go with the mugs. We talk while we finish our drinks, sleepy and meandering.Making new friends in a new country can be challenging, especially for introverts (and maybe even especially in a culture that’s very introverted); I relish the chance to spend time with someone who has a history with me and who knows me well, and vice versa. The conversation continues through starting a load of laundry, walking to (and then eating at, and then walking home from) a breakfast joint, and a visit to a store that has a proper name but that Noah and Elizabeth simply call “The Magic Rock Shop.”

My reputation precedes me, I guess; anytime I visit friends somewhere, they point me towards a nearby rock and gem shop, if one exists. I worked at a cave (a literal, hole-in-the-ground cave) with a pretty hardcore mineral and lapidary selection throughout college and afterwards. As a result, I have a soft spot in my heart for rocks, even today, and I guess it’s obvious to anyone who’s known me for any length of time. This one tilts more New Age than rockhound, but there’s still plenty to enjoy (and, of course, the pallets out back with the bulk, rough-cut slabs).

I’ll never understand the appeal of amazonite.

One of my priorities in Austin was seeing the Art.Science.Gallery. in person, but they’re closed while I’m in town. Oops!

What awful timing!

It’s quite close to Zhi Tea, though: across the street, basically. I know about Zhi Tea because of another friend, originally from Austin but now based in Sacramento. Noah is also a fan and it was already on his agenda for us that long weekend without me even asking, so it works out perfectly. We jaywalk across the street (I had forgotten how much the American landscape hates pedestrians) and I make a beeline for the black tea selection to find four I want to try in the little four-cup sampler. Noah orders an iced tea and we go and sit in the garden in the back.

Pardon the unintentional photobomb behind me.

All of my editing and lesson planning runs on bottomless cups of black tea. I love a good Söder, but I’m always curious about new varieties. My Sacramento friend had sent me some other Zhi Tea, and it was good enough that I was keen to try their other blends. None of those four in front of me disappointed, either.

I remember to (mis)quote Vonnegut at one point in between sips: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Even with on-going life anxieties, I recognize that at least in that moment I’m happy. I like to think it comes out well in that photo; as someone with chronic Resting Bitch Face my smiles come out rather forced in most photos unless I’m genuinely and really happy.

After finishing our tea, we go back into the tea shop so I can make the difficult choice about which tea to buy. I eventually settle on Fredericksburg Peach, and we head out for Korean-Mexican fusion food next because all of the caffeine has put me in hummingbird mode; I need some food to take the edge off. Miraculously, I have a huge bowl of rice for lunch without lapsing into a food coma right after.

We bus over to the Capitol building for a tour. It’s much shorter than usual, since both the state senate and the state congress are in special sessions, so we just wander around the halls a bit, with our bald, eyepatch-wearing guide. I stop in the gift shop and pick up some postcards for mailing later.

We check out the state Senate and Congress from the gallery, Noah narrating in low tones about current legislation they’re trying to pass and assorted factions within the state government and within the state-level GOP. We don’t stay long (maybe the prospect of politics is too depressing?), though, and eventually head for the library, where Elizabeth works. Her day is almost over at this point, so we just wait at a table for her. Our conversation here, influenced by the library atmosphere, is slower and hushed. I encourage him to write more.

Then it’s back home, and everyone reads for an hour or two. I sit with Elizabeth in the living room and read more from Stories of Your Life and Others while Noah retires to the bedroom, eventually falling asleep in his book. Once in a while Elizabeth and I talk about the cats, or the graphic novel she’s reading for a book club.

We stay like that until it’s time for Master Pancake, a local riff show in the spirit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my all-time favorite TV show. Before we get to the Alamo Drafthouse, it’s pizzas, Chicago style, in a dark and dingy bar. Three different TVs have three different things on, all muted with closed captioning: there’s Young Guns, a sports game, and something else.

“They have all the Austin bases covered,” Elizabeth notes. “People nostalgic for the 80s and people who want to watch sports.”

The food is a completely opposite experience for me from yesterday with the veggie sandwich and Subtraction Soup.  I thought I was hungry when I ordered, but after the first bite of pizza I realize This is way too much. Even with Noah mooching a slice off of mine, there’s still a last slice of my personal pie left over. I would have left it, truthfully, but Elizabeth wraps it in foil and bravely carries it in her purse for the rest of the night; Noah will have it for breakfast in the morning.

Eventually it’s time to the theater for Master Pancake. We stop at another, closer bar first, in order to meet up with everyone. I get my first and only Long Island for the trip, and we go up to the roof to people watch, which quickly turns into “sitting in the air-conditioned part of the roof bar and watching the arcade.”

More of Noah’s Austin friends find us at the bar, and we all have a good time at Master Pancake. We hang around the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, tired but also reluctant to brave the horde of loud, drunk people. It has to happen sooner or later, though, and we squeeze into someone’s car for a ride home. When we get back, it’s late but I’m not as tired as my hosts, so I make use of their wifi and check my email and gchat and things before bed.

Friday 5: Five of Whatever

How tidy are your kitchen cabinets?

I realize now that we don’t really have proper cabinets in our kitchen. We have mostly open shelving and then a few closets. They’re clean, definitely, but tidy? Well, we know where to find everything, and that’s enough, I think.

What’s an art project you did in school that you remember fondly?

The big project in third? fourth? fifth? grade was weaving. That was my favorite out of anything else we ever did, and over twenty years later I still have that project. Weaving is a handicraft I’d like to get back into at some point. I remember it as being very relaxing.

What’s the best thing you ate on your most recent trip?

Oh man! I had so much good food: upscale Italian with my parents and best friend, deep-fried Nutella and fluff, greasy spoon diner breakfasts and lunches, a Rolando’s Super Taco, pirogi, Thai curry…it’s really hard to pick.

What’s the dumbest non-political thing you’ve seen lately?

Photobucket charging its users $40 US per month for the privilege of third-party linking. Um, what?? I never used Photobucket as an image hosting service (or at least, not seriously) so I’m not really angry about it (my images aren’t being held hostage), just confused. How out of touch can you be?

What’s something in your home that’s lasted longer than you expected?

We had a microwave that was definitely older than some of my students. It’s gone now, and we have a replacement, but RIP noble microwave. You served us well.

Review: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.

Image courtesy Vintage Classics

Author: Italo Calvino

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.54 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: Weary travelers at a castle and a tavern are rendered unable to speak, and so use a Tarot deck to share their stories.

Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in Tarot cards; fans of Italo Calvino.

In-depth thoughts: I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is “somewhere in the middle,” so now I don’t know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino’s epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he “retold” through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.

Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn’t hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’m not glad that I’m read it, but I’m not annoyed, either.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 1

I get to Newark airport from King Sauna without a problem. But boarding gets a little hairy, as I quickly realize that the flight’s been overbooked and that I’m in one of the later groups to board in Southwest’s free-for-all approach when it comes to seating. I start working through contingency plans, or try to; I come up with nothing. Eventually I tell myself that my bad luck getting to the sauna is the sacrifice I made to the gods of travel luck—things will go my way now.

My luck hasn’t run out yet, it turns out, and I make it on board, as well as an elderly couple put on standby—themselves beneficiaries of someone else’s bad luck, I suppose. I wonder if I am as well.

I scribble some notes on the flight, read one of the ebooks I brought along on my phone (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino; I’m largely unimpressed), and even take a bit of a nap.

We land and I change from my traveling clothes into something more suited for Texas in August. I realize that I’ve forgotten to pack deodorant and apply liberal amounts of some stick perfume from Skin Food, hoping it’s enough to make me borderline acceptable to the public at large.

It takes forever for the shuttle bus to arrive, but I don’t mind. Noah (my host) and Elizabeth (his girlfriend) don’t finish work until 16:30 anyway; my flight arrived at around 13:30. The more time I spend waiting at the airport for transportation nonsense to sort itself, the less time I spend waiting at the recommended coffee shop by myself. That feels too much like waiting for a date.

Nonetheless, the bus eventually comes and I probably still have 45 minutes or so to wait for my hosts at The Hideout. I settle in with an iced hibiscus tea, fruit, and free wifi, then text Noah to let him know I found the coffee shop okay. The rest of my wait bounces between talking to friends on Google hangouts, reading ebooks, and doing sudoku puzzles.

Image courtesy Vintage Classics

 

Noah and Elizabeth find me without a problem. I peel myself off the cafe chair and reluctantly hug Noah (“I’m probably really gross.” “It’s fine.”). We stand around and decide what to do for food, since Noah’s hungry and I’m a low-key guest who can go along with almost anything. They decide on a basement sandwiches and beer place. (Something I notice across the weekend: every food place in Austin is an all-purpose food place, serving cafe fare as well as beer and wine.)

At the sandwiches-and-beer place, the group next to us are arguing, good-naturedly, about how far it is to one destination or another. It isn’t until I bite into my veggie sandwich that I realize I’m hungry. For the first few bites, it’s like the subtraction soup from The Phantom Tollbooth: the more I eat, the hungrier I get.

Of course I’m hungry. For the past twenty-four hours I’ve survived on beer, tea, digestive cookies, and a banana.

We finish up and return home so I can drop off my bag and so Elizabeth and Noah can change into more comfortable, less work-y attire. A poster has arrived while they’ve been gone, a gift that Elizabeth bought for Noah (a new map of the United States that is, for some reason, the best map ever; Noah tries to explain but I fail to grasp the import), and I take the opportunity to segue into their gifts, which mercifully have survived the long journey. Those mugs were easily the most fragile thing in my luggage, and I could only hope that I had been careful enough with them across an ocean and half a continent. (The accompanying tea is much less delicate, at least.) But things survived intact and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Clothes changed and gifts exchanged, we head into town for Geeks Who Drink trivia. Our team is disqualified because we have too many players, so our second-place victory (or third? enough to win some money) is only a moral one, but a win we take nonetheless.

From Geeks Who Drink

Back home, Noah and I watch Okja. (Speaking of Bong Joon-ho!) He’s genuinely unimpressed with the movie, while I’m neutral enough on it that I would watch it again.

After that, it’s midnight, and going to bed can’t be delayed any further, even if I’d like to sit up with some tea and talk for hours. I fall into bed and conk out for the first real night of sleep I’ve had in 48 hours. I have the first dream that I’ve had in weeks, though when I wake up I don’t remember any of it.

Friday 5: Homecoming

What’s the crime like in your neighborhood?

Our neighborhood is pretty calm. There was a big fire? Explosion? in a neighborhood business a few years and we never heard if it was an accident or deliberate, but that’s been basically the only thing that’s really ever happened here. Unless you count the obnoxious street racing that goes on late at night.

If you could have attended one of those high schools with a specific academic focus, such as performing arts, studio arts, sustainability, science and technology, international languages and diplomacy, or some option you thought of yourself, which would you have chosen when you were thirteen?

When I was thirteen? Wow, let me dust off my time machine for a moment.

At that point in my life, I was focused primarily on writing and music (though not writing music). There’s a good chance that I would have chosen performing arts.

This is maybe Adult Katherine projecting her current interests back on Teen Katherine, but thirteen is when I first started studying foreign languages. (I started with French that year, and then took French and German throughout my high school career.) I liked French well enough back then that I could probably have been convinced to enroll in an international languages school.

What was memorable about a party you remember from high school?

I didn’t really party during high school. I think I went to one Halloween party and one cast party (since I was in pit orchestra). Oh, and I guess the parties we had to celebrate the end of marching band camp.

Nothing really memorable happened, though. I did surprise one of my marching bandmates with a techno remix of “Ode to Joy” on a mix CD I tossed in the player. I guess I didn’t seem like the techno type.

Which of your older relatives is (or was) the handsomest or prettiest?

This is . . . a weird question? I don’t really have an answer.

What was homecoming like at your high school? How did you feel about it?

We had spirit week full of costume themes and pep rallies (that the marching band often played in, so I was usually stuck participating), the typical American high school experience. I enjoyed marching band, at least in the beginning, for its performative and musical aspects, but I could never get into the ra-ra school spirit attendant to things like homecoming and football games. (I still dressed up for a lot of spirit week, though. I can’t resist the opportunity for a costume.)

I guess there was also a homecoming dance but I think I attended just one of them. I wasn’t really invested in the social aspect around dances, either.

If you couldn’t tell from all of this, I was kind of a nerd in high school. Ten years later, the only thing that’s changed is that I’m not in high school.

Reveiw: American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. Incidentally, despite my struggles with brevity, I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing other people’s short writing. I have a friend on a short story kick who can attest to the extent of my cuts (and actually, you’ll blog-meet him soon enough). But the only way to get better at short-form writing is to read a lot of it, right? So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?

American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.

Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.

Author: Rick Bailey

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.22 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Those interested in short-form nonfiction writing, whether for its own sake or for the sake of improving their own.

In-depth thoughts: Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love! But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no “surprise” or “sublime” for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was “For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation,” which touches on one of his “non-traditional” (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn’t hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation, Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here’s the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:

“I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?”

It’s my turn to laugh. “Patrick Swayze?”

“In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation.” She gives me an embarrassed look. “Did you ever levitate?”

Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.

There’s probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen’s thoughts about it, and Bailey’s memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey’s own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?

I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.

I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.

While I might be tempted to point to one of these essays if I ever tackle personal essays or memoirs in a lesson, American English, Italian Chocolate was just not my cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to EFL students.

Friday 5: In Your Head! In Your Head!

First of all, I’d like the world to know that this song is one of my go-to karaoke songs. I can’t tell you why. It’s certainly not because I can sing a killer rendition or rival Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals. Just a habit, I guess?

Which mythical monster would you most enjoy discovering (first- or second-hand) is real?

I guess it depends on whether or not it counts as a monster in your book, but how cool would it be to have your own pegasus? Or a griffin? Extremely cool, I think.

When did you last exhibit monstrous behavior?

I try really hard not be monstrous, but I’m sure I’ve been less than ideal in fights with people. But not very recently, I don’t think.

What do you think of monster trucks?

I try not to think about how much fossil fuel monster trucks, NASCAR, and  Formula One racing must use up.

If you like monster movies, what’s a monster movie you dislike? And if you dislike them, what’s a monster movie you like?

I don’t typically like monster moves, though there is a certain level of over-the-top camp involved in some mid-century ones that I really love, whether they’re giant creatures laying waste to entire cities or merely humanoid creatures going on killing sprees. There’s a whole stable of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes featuring both of these conceits (though not in the same movie!) and that’s where most of my favorites are from: The Horror of Party BeachThe Wasp Woman, Gamera, and so on.

A more recent offering that I like because of its merits as a good movie (rather than my personal taste for camp) is The Host, which until recently was the highest-grossing South Korean movie of all time. (Now it’s in fourth place.) I’m generally a big fan of Bong Joon-ho’s movies and wish his output were a little more prolific. The Host also features my favorite Korean actress (and maybe one of my favorite actresses hands-down), Bae Doona.

What song about a monster (or with the word monster in the title) do you really like?

I have “The Monster Mash” and Kanye West’s “Monster” in my music library and of course I like them well enough, but for this question I’ll recommend what is a slightly more obscure song: Drunken Tiger’s “Monster.”

This Friday Five got pretty Korean-themed towards the end, but not really surprising, I guess.