Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Concert

Kevin's mom sings in a number of local choirs, and every holiday season she performs in a variety of concerts in various venues around town. We usually try to make it to a few, but with time constraints this year, we were only able to attend one.

That one was the National Choral Arts Society's concert at The Kennedy Center. When we're in town, we attend this one on Christmas Eve, but this year we went to the abridged version earlier in December. The concert was on Monday night, and the length was cut down to accommodate that. But it was still a great show, perhaps better for clocking in at under an hour and a half.

Every year this concert is sponsored by a different ambassador, and music from that ambassador's home country is included in the program. This year the chosen country was Argentina, which made for a very fun concert. The Argentinian songs were performed by the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, who traveled to DC for this show. The music and language was just familiar enough for me to follow it, but different enough from my usual experience.

The choir also performed a number of traditional USian carols. And this year there was an extra treat. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers fame, joined in on guitar for a few songs. The guitar isn't an instrument I normally associate with Christmas music, but Silent Night was apparently originally composed for the guitar. It was cool to hear variations of these songs that I'm not used to. I left wishing we would be in town for the full concert this year. Hopefully next year's concert has some similar surprises.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Shirley Jackson is one of those authors who just sticks with you. I'm not entirely sure what it is about her writing, but it haunts for years. I read The Lottery in high school, and I still think about it from time to time. I'm sure that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be no different. It gets scarier the more I think about it, which is a little strange, but it also keeps getting better. And it's so short that I have no doubt I'll be re-reading it in the future. Probably to celebrate Halloween.

The narrator is a young woman named Merricat who, strangely, reminded me a lot of Rothfuss' Auri. When The Slow Regard of Silent Things came out earlier this year, Rothfuss took pains to warn his readers that it was an unusual story with an unusual protagonist. Sure to be unlike anything they'd read before. Well Rothfuss has likely never read this book, because the two are more than a little similar.

Merricat and Auri have a lot in common. They are meticulous. They assign emotions and intentions to the inanimate objects around them. They are both bound by ritual and believe strongly that every thing has a particular place. A day's mood can be set by something that happens early in the morning, and certain days are only good for certain tasks.

The two characters differ in motivation. Auri is a fundamentally good person who seeks to restore and then preserve balance in her own little corner of the world. She cares deeply for everything around her and wants most of all to minimize harm. Merricat, on the other hand, is fundamentally selfish. Where Auri struggles with change because she needs to know where she fits in, Merricat struggles with any change that may take the focus away from her. She's caught her sister in her web and goes to great lengths to resist anything that may knock her off her pedestal in the center of her sister's world.

Merricat's lack of moral code is the scariest part of this book, though everyone else's uncaring actions towards her breeds its own kind of terror. The way Merricat handles Charles in inexcusable, though he's hardly some innocent victim. If he'd had his way, she'd be packed off and he'd be free to spend her father's fortune. Even Constance isn't totally innocent, complicit as she is in Merricat's sins. Still, her fate is possibly the worst of anyone's, made somehow scarier by her happy embrace of it.

I actually read this book for a book club that meets this weekend. I debated holding off until after the meeting to write this, but I decided to get my own thoughts out first. I may have more to say later, though.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I'd forgotten how much I like this book. For some reason, the sixth book always gets lost in the shuffle for me. Must be because it's the penultimate book. I expect it to just be build up for the final book. And in some ways it is. This is the book that introduces us to Horcruxes and fills in Voldemort's past. But there's also a lot of fantastic stuff in here. Even if it does put some strain on Rowling's decision to use a limited third-person perspective.

I love all of the relationship stuff that begins happening in this book. Ron and Hermione's jealous dance around each other is perfect and so typical of first romances where people are too scared to just say what they want. Harry's crush on Ginny is wonderful, too, if a little cheesy with the chest monster metaphor. The moment when they finally kiss still thrills me completely, and I always wish she was more of a presence in the final book so that we could see them together a bit more.

Overall this book is much better done than the previous one. It's a lot tighter with no unnecessary or forced scenes. The callbacks to previous books are great, especially with the light it sheds on Tom's diary from Chamber of Secrets. It introduces new plot points very well, shows everyone growing up and achieving more equal footing with the adults around them. And the final twist is shocking and heartbreaking no matter how many times I read it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding the Christmas Spirit

I love Christmas. I hold off on the carols and decorating until after Thanksgiving, but I'm usually ready to head out and get a tree that Saturday. This year was a bit different though. This year, Thanksgiving took a lot out of me. I spent the week after in a sort of zombie-like haze, trying to catch up on sleep and laundry and being thankful for the leftovers in my fridge. While people talked about Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, I could barely bring myself to care about presents. I started to worry, ever so slightly, that I would fall too far behind and be scrambling to get things done at the last minute.

On Friday, Kevin was talking about various gifts he was planning to get for friends and family. Something he said triggered an idea in me, and almost instantly I had figured out nearly all of my presents. The ones for family, anyway. With a firm idea the fog lifted from my brain, and I started planning out the stores I would need to visit.

We got up bright and early on Saturday to get the tree. It was raining, but that only helped us to be more decisive when we found a good one. Then I went out shopping in the afternoon and, miracle of miracles, I made a huge dent in my Christmas shopping list. And it's an impressively long list.

On Sunday I had one or two things more to buy. I actually found myself eager to go to Tyson's, the massive, nightmarish mall near our house. But I decided not to fight it and braved traffic. Parking was impressively easy. They implemented a new system to show empty parking spaces with red and green lights (and blue for handicapped spaces), and I was able to find a spot almost immediately. In the mall I quickly found what I wanted, rewarded myself with what is fast becoming a traditional cup of lobster bisque at Brio, and managed to not spend any money at Barnes and Noble.

I still have one or two more things to buy, and I need to wrap most of what I have bought and get it shipped to Colorado. But I'm feeling very on top of things. We have a fully decorated tree that I love looking at. The pile of presents beneath it is growing. Now all we need is some snow and everything will be perfect. I love this time of year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Endless Celebration

Thanksgiving week was intense this year. Kevin and I hosted for the second year in a row, and we had a busier week than I've had in a long time.

Dad and his girlfriend arrived on Tuesday, and Connor came over for dinner and pinochle. We didn't quite finish the game before it was time for bed, but we played some.

On Wednesday my cousins arrived, as did Danielle and Eric. We ended up having more people over for dinner on Wednesday evening than we did for Thanksgiving. The meal was a lot simpler though, since it just involved chopping things up and setting them out on the buffet so everyone could make their own tacos.

Thursday was the Thanksgiving whirlwind. We cooked. We ate. We drank. I fell asleep before the football game ended, but other people were up until almost 2.

Since no one had to be anywhere, we spent Friday drinking mimosas and beer and playing games. Once again I fell asleep before the rest of the party. I just can't get by on as little sleep as I used to.

Everyone left fairly early on Saturday morning (well Connor stuck around for a while because we couldn't find his keys and then we watched The Lego Movie instead of looking for them because sitting was better than standing). We did some picking up, but mostly Kevin and I lounged around building up strength for his high school reunion that night.

The reunion was fun, even if I was starting to feel a bit burnt out. It was interesting to meet a bunch of the TJ crowd, and it was nice that there was no pressure on me to know anyone or make small talk. For example, after I met a bronie, I was able to exit the conversation and avoid him for the rest of the evening with very little effort.

Sunday was a day of rest and laundry and leftovers. I tried to go to bed early, but ended up reading until my normal bedtime. Oops.

Monday was my company party, which meant that our branch of the office was full and noisy and then we all had to troop downtown for the fancy dinner. I cannot for the life of me understand why this party is on a Monday instead of a Friday, but there it is. The servers kept our wine glasses full throughout dinner (so much for everyone gets one glass of wine, though I suppose that if you never finish it it all counts as the same glass). We left early, and I still barely made it home awake.

On top of the Monday night party, my company scheduled a mandatory meeting for Tuesday morning. I made it, but it was rough. When I got home, I basically just went to sleep. I spent the entire night dreaming that I was wandering around a library inside of a castle, which helped to refresh me. I woke up Wednesday morning feeling almost human.

The house still isn't quite back in order following the festivities of the past week, but it's getting closer. Two more loads of laundry ought to get us there. We're finally almost down with the leftovers. I'm even starting to get excited to cook again. But this week took a lot more out of me than I was expecting it to. We may need to scale back the Thanksgiving celebration in future years (or at least not follow it immediately with back to back parties).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is a book I missed back in high school. My sophomore year was American Literature. The school decided to start a new class that combined American Lit with American History into a single 3-hour class. But because I was science track, I opted for the regular, easier english and history classes that year. And I ended up with a different reading list because of it. So while all my friends read and fell in love with Bless Me Ultima, I was keeping busy with The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. (My friends probably read those, too. I think the advanced class had an expanded reading list, not a different one.)

Recently I saw this book on a best-of list, then encountered it at a used book store for $1. Which meant that I basically had to read it.

I think I may have enjoyed this book more had I read it in a classroom setting. It reads like a lot of the other books I read for school, heavy on the metaphor. And each chapter works fairly well as a stand-alone segment in the story. It's almost like a series of vignettes, tied together with a larger theme.

Bless Me Ultima follows young Antonio, who is just beginning school in New Mexico during WWII. An old healer, Ultima, comes to live out her last days with his family, and takes charge of his spiritual growth. She teaches him about his pagan heritage, which occasionally comes into conflict with what he's learning at the Catholic Church. Antonio is torn between his father's dream of moving west and his mother's desire that he settle down and become a farmer or a priest. He's also torn between the religions he's presented with as he tries to translate the external moral code of the church to the internal one he knows he'll need to rely on as an adult.

The language is a little flowery, which I like but not everyone does. I thought the descriptions of scenery and townsfolk did a good job of reflecting some of Antonio's internal struggles. Though his prophetic dreams tended to be a bit too on-the-nose. But overall, the book did a good job of talking about the struggle to identify yourself separate from your parents and their dreams for you. There was also some magic, which I always find enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The first and only time I attended a midnight book release party was when this book came out. It was the summer before my senior year of high school, so a couple of friends and I were easily able to make the trek to the nearest Barnes and Noble by ourselves. The party itself was geared to a much younger audience, but we were bookish and happy to spend some time browsing the shelves before the book was officially released. On the way home I sat in the backseat and read the first chapter aloud for the benefit of the driver.

This is also the first time I spoiled myself for something. I care less about this now. I know the shapes of stories well enough to understand what's coming, and spotting the clues is a big part of my enjoyment. But at the time I was genuinely upset that I'd figured out Sirius was going to die from the blurb on the dust jacket. I was even more upset when the text proved my prediction correct.

Despite that I remember being excited when this book first came out. We'd all waited so long, and it was by far the longest book in the series. Getting to spend so much time in the wizarding world made the three year wait feel worth it. In hindsight, I think it would have been better for the book to be delayed another six months and get another editing pass.

Order of the Phoenix doesn't really stand up to the tests of time the way the others have. It drags a lot. Parts of it are clumsy. Bits get repeated almost verbatim from the fourth book and the occasional recaps aren't integrated into the text as well. The book goes on tangents, like Hagrid's experience with the giants, that do nothing more than flesh out the world. It's fun to read about the first time, but it's a bit boring on re-reads because it doesn't tie into the story in any meaningful way.

It doesn't help that this is when Harry is at his least likable. It makes sense. Harry is isolated and grieving and fifteen years old. His anger and recklessness and sudden mood swings make sense for the character. But they aren't particularly fun to read about (unless you are just as angry yourself, which I honestly was for parts of this book). Worse, he makes some truly stupid decisions, and it's easier to see the Law of Narrative here than in other books.

This all makes it sound like I don't like this book. Which isn't entirely true. Yes, it's a bit of a slog to get through, but there's still a lot of great stuff in here. Dumbledore's Army is a highlight of the entire series, and I sometimes wonder if Harry should become a teacher as an adult, rather than an auror. It's great to see the Marauders as students at Hogwarts, as much as the narrative has to twist to give us that scene. The addition of Luna and Ginny's expanded role are most welcome, as is Neville's slow development into the complete badass he ultimately becomes. I just wish it were all a bit more streamlined.