Monthly Archives: June 2010

Bite

It may seem that the vampire phenomenon is relatively recent with True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twighlight all big money makers in popular culture. However, the literary vampire has been around for much longer, making its debute in poetry of all things, most likely with Heinrich Ossenfelder’s poem “The Vampire.” It is a short work in German that led the way for a craze in the 1720s of vampire themed poetry. The first appearance in prose occurred with a short story by John Polidori in 1819, called “The Vampyre.” Novels? Most people would default to Stoker’s masterpiece of the genre, but Sheridan Le Fanu actually beat him by 25 years with 1872’s Carmilla.

So why am I talking bloodsuckers this week? With the return of True Blood and next week’s release of Eclipse, I wanted to take a moment to do one of my favorite things–encourage people to read. So for those of you out there who love Vampire fiction, here’s a list of suggested reading beyond the world of Sookie and Bella. Most should be available at the library, although some may even be available online for free.

  • Carmilla Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)–The first of the genre, it’s an interesting work, especially in light of its lesbian themes.
  • Dracula Bram Stoker (1897)–One of the best that really set the tone and standards for those to come. Read just to say you have.
  • I am Legend Richard Matheson (1954)–Spare me that it’s a Will Smith film. It was a book first and in this case the book definitely surpasses the movie.
  • Vampire Chronicles Ann Rice (1976-2003)–I’ll argue that The Vampire Lestat is the best of the group, followed closely by Interview with the Vampire. After a while, the volumes lose something, but the first two hold up.
  • Blade–It’s a comic book, but it’s good one and the character is an interesting spin on the vampire hunter character.
  • Brown Girl in the Ring Nalo Hopkinson (1998)–In interesting twist on the genre that pulls from Caribbean folklore.
  • Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter Laurell K. Hamilton (ongoing)–For those who like Sookie, this is a more adult series that deals with the supernatural beyond vampires, as well as a more adult sexuality.

And finally . . .

  • Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte (1847)–No, this isn’t a vampire story, but it is a gothic love story. For my kids that want to read Twilight for their projects, I always suggest this. Heck, Bella and Edward even talk about it in the book. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is another one worth picking up.

Whether your fancy be vampires or robots, just read anything and everything! I’m rereading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as we speak, along with a random assortment. What’s on your nightstand?

Categories: Let Me Entertain You | Leave a comment

Bad Things: My Buffet of Summer Shows

I recall a time when the most interesting prospect of the summer TV season was Circus of the Stars (Alfonso Rivera was actually a really good acrobat). But HBO managed to change all of that when they started showing Sex and the City during the dry season of reruns. And thus a light bulb went on with networks that they could actually show new things during the summer and it would be okay. A great gift to humanity.

One of my biggest thrills for this summer is the return of Top Chef. I cannot get enough of this show. I watch the rerun marathons and live for each new season. Although I’m not too psyched about setting the show in DC this season, my love of Tom Calicchio and the addition of the syrupy-tongued Eric Ripert trumps any trepidation I might have.

Speaking of Bravo reality TV, I have no shame in admitting that I love The Real Housewives of … franchise. I don’t care about Orange County, but man do I love some Jersey, New York, and Atlanta. With the New York season winding down, I put my trust in those Jersey girls to keep my catfight fix fulfilled. I doubt they’ll disappoint.

This summer will also see the return of My Life on the D-list, another Bravo reality vice that continues to give me the giggles. Last season’s episode with Beatty White playing password at the Sizzler with Kathy and her drunk mother goes down as one of my favorite reality TV scenes.

Lest my readers think my DVR is full of Quick Fires and table flips, two of my absolute favorite shows are returning in the next month. I actually had an argument with a student last spring where he told me that the book is always better than the movie. To debunk that theory, look no further than True Blood. Alan Ball is a genius of uncanny spark who has managed to take a mediocre, yet addictive romance series and turn it into a funny, sexy, tragic, smart, and sassy show that sticks close to the books’ essence while constructing a much more engaging and complicated world for it’s more fully developed characters. To prove my point, look no further than Lafyette and Tara, two characters who are essentially footnotes in the books who have become strong contributing members to a well-rounded cast. And Ball’s invention of novice vamp Jessica is in turns funny and heartbreaking, as with her break with Hoyt at the end of last season.

What I love about the first two seasons is that by reading the books I have a general idea of where the season is going, but I have no idea what twists and turns have erupted from Ball’s brain. Yes, sometimes the show does get a bit too heavy-handed on the Vampire rights as a double for gay rights, but there is something so watchable and charming about it that I am willing to forgive Ball. Last seasons Yahtzee game is the perfect example of the measured quirkiness that Ball does so well.

With my beloved Breaking Bad working towards the end of another masterful season (I am hedging for an Emmy three-peat for Cranston and praying for a much deserved first win for Aaron Paul), I can see, moving ever closer, the July premier of Mad Men. It’s that show you may have heard tons of fuss about but never watched. Or tried to watch but found difficult to get into. Make no mistake, Mad Men is not for the zip-second viewer. Creator Matthew Weiner has the gall and courage to make his audience earn their payoffs. He and his actors are not afraid of silence, stillness, and single lines that can indeed be maddening if you are more of a CSI paced viewer.

There are many things I love about Man Men–the historical setting, the attention to detail, the amazing acting. But what I think I love most about it is that Weiner understands creating complications. His stories are rarely in your face and his characters, down to the man who runs the elevator and has said maybe two lines the entire show, are developed to the point that they are neither good nor bad, happy or bitter–they are, like real people–a little of everything.

One of the things that I teach my students about Shakespeare and why people still study him is that he was the first playwright to really write for the character, rather than the situation. I believe the Weiner and his team have also honed this gift. His characters not only speak realistically, they speak individually while still melding together as people who spend their lives in close company often do.

Don Draper is perhaps one of the best characters of the past couple of years (it doesn’t hurt that John Hamm is too handsome to actually exist in nature). On one hand, the audience has spent the past three seasons watching him deal with a past that we too would try to run from, try to love the wife he thinks he wants, be unfaithful with a string of challenging women that would never have been named Mrs. Draper, and still maintain his career. It is so easy to fall for him in the lovely quiet moments with his children or, in one of my favorite scenes of the series, when he tracked down Peggy in the hospital to bring her back from the brink of Frances Farmer-land. But then there are those moments when his choices feel like a slap in the face. (His firing last season of poor closeted and repressed Sal just for turning down a piggish client left me in tears of sadness for Sal and anger at Don.)

Weiner has a wonderful way of balancing the real historical events in the background of the show while still carrying on the plots of his characters. Mad Men is delicate in this dance, subtle, and thought-provoking. It is one of the few shows I watch where I do not talk to anyone or multi-task because I want to take in every second of it before I call my mom to discuss every nuanced moment. It is not, by any means, pure entertainment. It is something much more that our society sadly ignores. The fact that July will mark the fourth season gives me hope that the world is not just Gossip Girls and Bachelorettes; perhaps, like the folks of the now defunct Sterling-Cooper, we are much more complicated and capable of great feeling, even if it isn’t shouted at the top of our lungs.

Categories: Let Me Entertain You | Leave a comment

The O Word: Debunking the Organic Myth

Although my best friend and I are fundamentally so much alike, we come from such different worlds that it often amuses me. Apparently, when Jenn’s nephew was born, they passed down the family Wranglers for him to wear home. When my mom found out I was pregnant with my daughter, she handed me down an organic hemp t shirt made by our old neighbors in California. My parents were pseudo-hippies. Pseudo because, according to my mom, they bathed and didn’t do drugs. (I might call foul on the latter part of that statement because I found a hash brownie recipe in her stuff. She claims she was holding it for a friend.)

Regardless, I have been looking into the concept of organic lately. Organic always seemed to me like one of those labels that people stick on things so they can charge more, like ‘baby’ or ‘wedding.’ But there was a little part of me that was like, “Am I a bad parent because I don’t make my daughter’s grilled cheese out of sunbaked yard clippings and cheese I made myself from a cow that eats only young clover sprigs or my baby doesn’t puke on hand woven hemp burp clothes?” Probably not, but that organic label keeps popping up and so I decided to investigate. Those who know me know I love some research and so I’ve done the legwork to share with you.

What exactly does organic mean? Basically, organic means that something is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. In the case of animal products like eggs, meat, poultry, and dairy it means that the animals are not given hormones or antibiotics.

So what does the USDA seal mean? It means that the producers of whatever you are eating are organic compliant. Organic-certified operations must have an organic system plan and records that verify compliance with that plan. Operators are inspected annually in addition there are random checks to assure standards are being met.

What do the variations mean? The USDA has identified for three categories of labeling organic products:

100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients

Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)

Is organic healthier? There really isn’t any definitive research at this time to say that organic food is more nuitritious or better for you. However, there have been some studies that showed organic foods like tomatoes do have a higher nuitritional value.

What is organic clothing? Organic fabrics and textiles, like cotton, are, like food products, grown without fertilizers and pesticides and have a low impact on the environment. However, since not all products used to make organic fabric are grown in the USA (we pretty much just do cotton), the level compliance is harder to determine.

Is organic the same as natural? Nope. Natural means that it doesn’t contain additives or preservatives. Organic is a type of farming.

Bottomline: What should I buy organic?

Always (tests show that these items actually absorb pesticides and can make you sick): tomatoes, apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, spinach, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raspberries, fresh herbs, and strawberries. If they are available meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy are also worth the sticker shock.

Only if it’s payday: processed foods and certain produce items, such as: cauliflower, sweet corn, broccoli, mangos, and sweet peas

Not worth it and possibly scam items: Produce you peel like bananas, avocados, pineapples, kiwis, onions, papayas, and oranges. Seafood. Cosmetics.

Clothing can be hit or miss. If it is important to you, look for things made from sustainable products like bamboo.

So basically, there are things worth spending your money on for that organic label, if it is the right organic label. Make sure to read what exactly the label is indicating, as broken down above.

Ideally, you should try to buy at your local farmers market or from local growers. If that is not an option, then hopefully the above stuff will give you a push in the right direction.

Categories: Feed the Belly | Leave a comment

Bedside Companions

With summer officially upon me, it means that I am now privy to two of my favorite things–reading and summer TV. With several of my favorite shows returning in the next month, I’ll probably come back to those, but today I want to talk about the passion that eventually dictated my career–reading.

When people find out that I am an English teacher, they generally ask me one of two things. The first involves telling me that my field is becoming obsolete because no one reads, no writes, no one cares, and there is no career or purpose in the study of literature. The question here is basically, “Don’t you agree that your life’s passion is useless?” Depending on the asker and the company, I have several answers to that, none of which are relevant to today’s topic.

The other question I get, usually from older people, is: “I would like to encourage my child/teenager to read. What do you suggest? What do you read?” My response is always the same: “Well, what do you read?” The majority of the time the parent just looks sheepishly at the ground and admits they aren’t much of a reader. Some are bolder and just tell me point blank they don’t care or don’t like to read. But they want their kids to? This is a point I could argue for hours, but instead, I start by saying, “I read everything I can.”

This is the truth. I read novels, I read non-fiction, I read plays, I read newspapers, I read magazines . . . generally if it’s in print, I give it a whirl. That being said, I am still not as well-read as I would like to be. I have friends who rush out the day a book is released and buy it. It usually takes me a few months to get to something, unless it is a work I have been anticipating (such as Bret Easton Elis’ follow up to Less Than Zero–I have that on pre-order). But whether or not I’m not reading a new release, I am always reading. Reviewing the pile on my nightstand at the moment, a series of categories emerge that I find to be highly indicative of my reading style and tastes.

Something New Right now on the top of my pile is Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. Released May 3, it took me almost three weeks to get it because I had to order it. (I stupidly assumed that my local B&N would carry it.) Although the book is not a challenging read, it is more literary than some of the other occupants on my nightstand. This represents the intellectual category–books that I have never read before that actually require me to pay attention. Sometimes, they are just works of well-crafted fiction, sometimes they are more challenging reads. Most of the time they aren’t even particularly new works–they are just new to me. These more challenging reads I have to save for summer because I can’t focus enough during the semester to really process the work.

Fluff Although I have finished reading it, I still haven’t removed that latest Sookie Stackhouse novel from the pile, partly because I haven’t found a replacement yet. My fluff readings are also books I haven’t read yet, but tend to be paperbacks or commercial genre fiction that require little to no concentration. I don’t just deal with chick-lit (in fact, I rarely read chick-lit unless I hear good things from other people); this category also includes light-weight thrillers (such as Dan Brown or James Patterson) and the YA fiction which is often times better than adult level works.

Reruns Very rarely do I get rid of a book when I am finished reading it. Even if I hated it, I generally will keep it to go back later and reread. It’s funny how tastes can change. For example, I was in college when I read Bridget Jones Diary and I thought it was utter self-indulgent crap. Five years later I picked it up again and was surprised that once I wasn’t in a shroud of undergrad pretension, I actually enjoyed the unique nature of the character Fielding had created, along with her sly little winks at Austen’s prototype. (I still, however, think the second one is crap.) In this category, I seem to cycle through books that I have read before. Sometimes I will read something that I have only read once. But more frequently, I reread the same roughly twenty works, most of which have been read at least five times. At the moment I am in the middle of Forever Amber, one of my very favorite works of historical fiction.

School Related or Non-Fiction This tends to change depending on my academic status. Last fall I was a student (I like to take graduate classes when I can to get hours above my masters and improve my overall knowledge. Plus, it keeps my brain from getting soggy). During that time this space was occupied by things like Renaissance Drama: An Anthology and an overload of philosophical texts on the role of ‘other’ and Aristotle in justification of native treatment during the Spanish colonization of Latin America (and most of those were even less interesting than that description, save the one on Native witchcraft). This spring I gave myself a pass on school and instead read a variety of non-fiction works, most about WWII from my grandfather’s collection. Right now this slot is occupied by The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, a thoroughly researched work about the last woman to be tried for witchcraft in Britain. Absolutely captivating as it combines two of my favorite things– Britain during WWII, and witch trials.

Magazines This is probably the most random pile of them all because magazines are my short handed way of indulging all of my vices and virtues. The top of the pile is Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I have gotten since junior high. It’s on top because it’s the only weekly one. It’s also the only one I tend to read cover to cover. Then there’s Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. I try to read as much of these as I can, but anyone who has cracked the cover of either one can tell you that some of those articles need their own zip codes. National Geographic is a family tradition and I generally read all its articles as they are concise and enlightening. But lest you think I am too scholarly in my magazines, the pile also contains Better Homes and Gardens, Elle, InStyle, and at the moment FitPregnancy and Pregnancy and Newborn.

In general, I read roughly four books and a slew of magazines simultaneously. What I pick up on any given day depends on my mood, level of focus, and time constraints. On a day when my daughter is at school, I am more likely to pick up one of the more challenging works. If I’m reading with Monsters, Inc. or Up playing in the background while confirming to my daughter that, yes, those are balloons, it’s more of a fluff day.

I could give a long list of books I suggest for every occasion, but I think I will save that for another day. My main plea, no matter your age, is to read anything you can, even if it’s just an article about how to make the perfect chicken nugget. And for those who complain of being slow readers, reading is like running–the more you do it, the stronger you get.

Categories: Life and Other Nonsense | 1 Comment

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