A Surprise

So, I totally didn't hate The Departed at all. I actually kind of liked it. No, seriously. I thought it was a pretty good movie and I enjoyed watching it. Hey, I'm as surprised as you are, especially since all anyone would tell me about it was that it was super violent and directed by Scorcese. (I didn't think I liked any Scorcese movies at all, but I kind of liked The Age of Innocence. Not as good as The House of Mirth, but what can you do?) But this one was very good, I thought. I liked the story, I liked the characters, there was genuine tension. It also made me wicked glad I'm a girl and not sleeping with two guys from South Boston. (Not that I have anything against guys from South Boston. Isn't Matt Damon originally from there? See, nothing against them. But I'm still glad I'm not in any of the situations depicted in that film because I would go off the deep end.)


Amster! Amster! Dam Dam Dam!

So yes, I got stoned in Amsterdam on 4/20. I know, right? Sadly, Brite, my traveling companion on this excursion, did not take to smoking a hash joint (which is what, exactly, anyway? Brite refused to get a straight up weed joint, but I'm confused, because I always thought hash was oil). Anyway, Brite had never had so much as a puff before, and I was sympathetic, because the first time I ever smoked a joint I got wicked paranoid and StonerEx, who had given me the joint (he wasn't my ex at that time, though) was not at all pleased by my negative reaction to it. Yeah. Don't smoke to impress boys. Anyway, so Brite didn't get paranoid, but she got kind of weirded out from being so relaxed (Brite, spends even less time than I being relaxed) and she got hungry, which she didn't like.

Brite: Would stopping at McDonalds make me a pig?
Me: Does tripping over your own feet when you're drunk make you uncoordinated?

But let me back up a little bit. The stoner thing is what you have to talk about up front, but really my trip to Amsterdam was about much more than weed. I also drank a lot of beer.

Friday started with the quintessential mad dash for the train station. The train station is on the other side of town, and we had to catch a seven o clock train for Paris so we could get a ten o clock train for Amsterdam. So we get just outside the building -- around 6:20 -- and I realize I've forgotten my cell phone. This is not cool, for reasons that will become clear. So Brite takes my bag, and I run quick like a bunny up the stairs to my apartment, find the phone amid the black hole chaos of my room, and book it out of there towards the station. I had planned on catching up with Brite, but we took different routes to the train station, so I sprinting and walking and walking and sprinting, and she was hauling all our crap, and we were both "shitting it" -- her Englishicism, not mine -- and then we got to the train station at the same time with like fifteen minutes to spare. This tells you all you need to know about Brite and me.

So we get on the train, and within an hour our next drama starts. You see, Brite and I only confirmed that we were going to Amsterdam as of like, last week. So we didn't think to make hotel reservations until, like, Tuesday. For Friday. For Friday, April 20, in Amsterdam, Holland. Yeah. There was diddly squat online. Duh. Aside from the 4/20 thing, it was also the tulip festival. Right. So we start calling. One of the hostels we call is like, oh, don't worry, we keep 40 beds free, just call us on the morning of your arrival and we'll hook you up. We open at eight. Foolishly, Brite and I figured our problems were more or less solved. So at eight, we start calling, and it's like trying to get tickets for a rock concert. Read: the phone is busy. We call for two hours solid, the phone is never not busy, and at times we are calling literally every two seconds. Amid the laugh riot, we arrive in Paris. Of course, because we live in Normandy, we arrive in Paris Montparnasse, and because we are headed to Amsterdam, we have to depart from Paris Gare du Nord. As you may (or may not) recall, Montparnasse is fucking ginormous, and the Metro is only about six miles from the train part. And a metro ride halfway across town, and then we get to Nord and have to get to the main line trains there, and we have how long to do all this? 40 minutes. Yes. There was a great deal of running and swearing and continuing to dial that stupid hostel, but yes, we did make the train.

We never did get ahold of the stupid hostel, though. So four hours later, when we arrive in Amsterdam, around 2pm, and no place to stay. We buy a map in the train station, have no idea how to use public transportation (I mean, in Amsterdam. Of course I know how to use public transportation in general. As a sidebar, considering I grew up near San Francisco, how completely wrong is it that cable car/trammy things make me nervous? I have this nagging doubt that they can't possibly actually get me where I'm going) so we hoof it over to the hostel. Full. The other hostel. Full. The place that's supposed to hook you up with a hostel when you don't have one. Got nothing. We get rejected by like six or eight other places (a couple of places have like, one bed for one night for eighty euros, and we reject them) until an enterprising young hotel manager tells us to try the tourist office. A boat, we are told. A boat, two beds, two nights, 150 total. We'll take it, we say, convinced that the next stop is the train station or a homeless shelter in Rotterdam.

And let that be a lesson to you -- okay, let that be a lesson to ME -- to search out accommodation well in advance, even if I don't really have to do that when I go to Paris. Must not get complacent during tulip festival. Anyway.

Right, so we got to the boat, we rested, we headed out, there was the aforementioned stoning and eating. On to Saturday.

We went on one of those great New Europe free tours on Saturday -- honestly, I cannot possibly pimp that company enough. I want to work for them. They're the best tours I've ever had -- and we learned all sorts of interesting factoids. Like! The Dutch people had neither last names nor numbers on their houses until they were invaded by Napoleon in the early 1800s. It was very, "Bob [okay, fine, Hans] who owns the bakery with the flying horse on the side, you know, the one on the corner by the big canal" sort of goings on. So that by itself is kind of a fun and cool fact, but then! This bit is hilarious. So Napoleon and the French show up, and they're like "You must all have lazt names! Ooh la la!" and the Dutch are like "Screw this," and the French are like, "You will all show up tomorrow morning to register for last names!" So the Dutch are very resentful and they decide to put one over on the French. So they show up the next morning and, you know, the boring ones are like, "I'm Bob Baker, cause I am one," and then the practical jokers get up and say "I'm Hans Bornnaked." "I'm Gretel Pubichair." And the French don't speak Dutch so they just write it down and the Dutch go home and laugh their asses off. Of course now two hundred years later, and you can tell exactly what kind of sense of humor your great great great great grandparents had.

Hee. I thought that was so awesome. Because I am twelve. We also saw the Red Light District, lots of canals, and the Jewish Quarter. And other stuff that I can't remember, because my brain cells are used up on that Mr. & Mrs. Pubichair thing.

Right, so then Brite and I split up and I headed to the Rijksmuseum, where there are some Rembrandt and Vermeer. And I like Rembrandt, although I wasn't a huge fan of the Nightwatch. And I realized that I really... don't like Vermeer as much as I ought to. It makes me sad, but I just don't see it. His colors are too dark or too bright or too definitive or something. Oh, I like Girl With a Pearl Earring okay -- although that's in Haag somewhere and I haven't seen the real one. But the other stuff... meh. Just a vague feeling of guilt that I don't like it more. But I do like Rembrandt's portrait work really a lot. His trick with faces is inredible.

Anyway, after a rest back on the boat, Brite and I head out for evening fun. We were actually prepped to pay for the Red Light District tour, but we were too late, so we went out for dinner and drinks instead. Dinner was tasty, although we're both fastidiously picky (me: vegetarian plus fish, health food; Brite: meat eater, hates fish, likes food that tastes good) so finding overlap was a little tricky. Asian food ends up the quickest compromise. We hit a couple bars after that; and then wandered around till we found a club. Brite had (understandably) really wanted to go clubbing in Amsterdam, and we'd been told that the clubs got going between eight and eleven. Perfect, we thought. Yeah. This club that we found opened at 11:30, was halfway across the city from the river, and the trams stop at midnight. Nothing daunted, we paid the outrageous cover price, went in, prepared to dance. Nothing. A DJ, very overpriced drinks, and a bartender who told us the scene actually starts around one.

Fuck that, was my reaction, I was falling asleep on the table. So Brite and I negotiated and ended up bailing. We headed up to a neighborhood closer to where we were actually staying -- took the very last tram up to the river -- and found a coffee shop and shared a thai stick. The coffee shop closed at one, but there was a bar next door playing fun dance music. We did the little "Are you up for it?" "Yeah, sort of, I think, are YOU up for it?" dance and ended up going in... and stayed for two hours, because it was awesome, and when we ran out of money, the bartenders gave us our second round for half prices. (There are many annoying and scary things about being a girl and traveling more or less on your own. But one way in which it is excellent is that you can pretty much count on being able to drink approximately twice the amount of booze you can actually afford.)

On Sunday, we shook off our mild to moderate hangovers, and hit the Anne Frank House on the way to the train station. We were kind of rushed, and had all our luggage and that, so we didn't get as much out of it as we could have, but it's incredibly moving even so. It's a big enough house, and nice enough, until you think about eight people living there together and never being able to leave. I reread part of the book when I got back to France, and I'd forgotten how much of it is Anne talking about how everyone is sort of at each other's throats kind of constantly. I can't even imagine it... every time I try, I shiver uncomfortably. I totally love my family -- Anne obviously totally loved hers too -- but we would kill each other. And then you get to the end of the museum and there was the whole display of the diaries and the showing about how they all died, and I got all choked up thinking about how she was my sister's age when she died.

Then there was the train and France and walking home from the train station, but that part's boring. And that was my trip to Amsterdam.


Spring Fever, Again, Some More

In my two weeks away from Normandy, crazy stuff happened that I noticed not at all. Okay, I know I keep meaning to write about Germany, and I promise I will, and Amsterdam too, where I am going this weekend. Ironically enough, I am accidentally going to Amsterdam on April 20. I know, right? Story of my life. But I'm waiting to write about Amsterdam until I actually go there and I'm waiting to write about Berlin until I get my pictures uploaded and I can post them. So you get to hear about bugs instead.

Seriously, the insects in Normandy have gone nuts. They were already nuts before I left and now they've gone more nuts. The little red and black beetles that sort of look like extremely masculine ladybugs are mating. I mean, I think they're mating; they seem to be wandering around my street joined at the ass. I don't know what the life cycle of these little things is, but they seem to have hatched maybe six weeks ago, so either they breed all summer or they stay in the egg for like, a million years.

Also, now when I go bike riding, I swallow like six bugs every time. Going at different times of day merely changes the species. I know, I know, trust me, I know.

On the plus side, though, the land has gotten really beautiful. The daffodils are gone but now the tulips are blooming, and they're brightly colored and gorgeous. The mustard (or whatever the hell it is) is waist height, and the lambs aren't in the fields anymore but the horses still are. And the apple trees are finally blooming, sort of one at a time, like dominoes. But when a tree blooms, the whole tree is suddenly white and green. And there's another kind of tree (pear? plum? no idea) that gets covered in these beautiful bright pink blossoms and between that and the apple orchards, the petals sort of drift down through the air all the time. Through the insects. Hey, just trying to give an accurate representation.

And! Now it stays light until late (I started typing now it stays late, which makes no sense) -- seriously it's only April and the sun isn't setting until almost nine -- and I can wait to go on my bike ride until like, 7:30 and the whole countryside looks gold. I don't like living in small towns -- not enough to do, too much animal life -- but I do love riding bikes in the country. Only one bike at a time, though.

Also, completely off topic, Wonderfalls is totally growing on me. I understand people not liking it, but I get so much vicarious fun out of it. I don't actually act like Jaye (at least I hope I don't) but I think like her sometimes, and if you see the whole series as sort of subjectively told, I think it works really well. Like no way is my family as annoying as Jaye's, and objects don't talk to me, but some days it just feels like they do, and you're aware that you're subjective and crazy, but you sort of can't help it. I don't think I explained that very well, but I love it nonetheless. Plenty of elements don't work, or don't work together just right, but the subjective storytelling is tremendous fun to watch, at least when you're my age and caught up in it yourself.


Wonderfalls -- Wax Lion & Pink Flamingoes

Two episode reviews at the same time. Because I watched two episodes last night, and really the show is so short, and I've only seen these two episodes, I feel like I don't have the tools to evaluate them on a case by case basis. The show is pretty good, and more than that it's likeable. As in, I wouldn't necessarily expect someone else to enjoy it, but I really am.

The DVDs were a present from someone from SJC. Because she is a sweetheart and really really nice.

And she was right, it's very cathartic to watch this show. Wonderfalls is about a twenty-four-year old girl with a philosophy degree, who has moved back to her hometown to work retail. Welcome to my summer plan. Anyway, inanimate objects start talking to her and telling her to do wacky things that end up changing people's lives in wacky ways.

The writing is snappy and fun, not as intelligent as Veronica Mars but still pretty above average. It's patchy, and sometimes thinks it's cleverer than it is, but there are some absolute gems that make up for it.

The characters are pretty solid, although some of them are kind of predictable. I like Jaye, although the actress needs to learn to get by with less mugging. I don't find her depression makes her unsympathetic, but her constantly changing expression is kind of annoying. Her line readings, however, are kind of awesome. And the best friend is good, and the sister and the mom are just fine (although the mom keeps confusing me because one time she guest starred on The X-Files as a mutant who could persuade people to do things). The dad and the brother are still kind of nondescript, but hopefully that will change. And the bartender/boyfriend type! My god. I don't actually know how good of an actor he is, because whenever he is onscreen I am distracted by his pretty pretty face and winning mannerisms. It's really not fair. I have a philosophy degree and am confused and sometimes depressed and bitter (although I've been starting to snap out of that, thank God) about my life and yet there is no cute bartender flirting with me and giving me free vodka shots. Why not? What am I doing wrong? No guys get fireworks in their pupils when I snark at them. Sometimes the universe is monumentally unfair.

Anyway. Aside from that, and the mugging, I'm really enjoying the show. Its style is very quick and jerky, but it's working for me so far.

I think I should start giving this stuff ratings. Because it's a good way to end reviews without having to think of a conclusion. Nota bene, I rate things harsh. So, about 7/10 for Wonderfalls as a whole so far.

In Which I Ramble

I have like five things on my mind, none of them really long enough for a post by themselves, but my time on the computer is coming in short bursts today, so there shall be several posts for the price of one. Sort of. If you think like that. Hey, you don't like it, go read a real book.

Which I actually just did, and it was awesome, so you guys should all read it too. Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire. Brooks is an Australian reporter who spent something like ten years in various Middle Eastern countries, reporting about the lives of women in Islamic nations. They have varying levels of misogyny and control, and womens' lives vary hugely between one and another, and even within the same country in different areas and at different times. The book is completely fascinating and absorbing; I picked it up in a German bookstore and read a chapter and immediately decided to say hell with it and shell out the twelve euros required. And I'm not sorry I did, although I would have preferred being able to find it at a local library. That's definitely not meant as a slam on the author, though. Brooks is concise and relevant, and the book reads like a series of very interesting newspaper articles. She has a journalist's unbiased style and good transitions. As a reader, you have to be careful, in fact, because although Brooks presents many facets of a complex issue, she clearly has very strong opinions about it, and it's easy to fall in to agreeing with her without thinking about it. Not that her ideas are wrong, just me being a paranoid philosophy major. Anyway. The book covers various facets of life, such as wedding customs, genital mutilation, guerilla warfare, and belly dancing, but it never feels rushed or jumpy. Definitely a feminist read (I've been on kind of a feminist kick lately) but interesting, I think, for people of all backgrounds.

Now I'm reading a 500 page history of Western civilization. Which is tons better than it sounds, but so far I'm only on chapter two.


New City, Same Bad Habits

Dude, you guys. Berlin? Totally totally rocks. My favorite city so far, and the one I would most like to move to if I weren't headed back to the States. It slingshot itself neatly over Prague and London and left Paris choking on its dust. I LOVE Berlin.

My favorite part is the whole attitude the city has towards itself and its history -- it is under a great deal of obligation to think about its past and its culture (especially since the past is so recent) and it's under a lot of pressure from a lot of conflicting groups to remember that past in the right way. The memorials in Berlin -- of the Wall, of the Nazi book burnings, of the Jews who died in the holocaust, of the communist massacre in the public square, of Hitler's bunker (inside joke. A parking lot is there now) -- are my favorite memorials of any I've ever seen. They're all powerful and thought provoking without explaining too much the issues or the deal. Plus they offer things like free walking tours in three or four languages so that everyone has a chance to see this stuff.

I also love that I found an English book store and I might possibly have spent a day or two's worth of food money on thought-provoking non fiction cultural analysis. It was Berlin's fault! Getting me all in a thought provoking mood! (That scene in The Glass Castle where the kids are all super hungry and the mom hides a chocolate bar under the sheets and eats it and they catch her? Me with books. It's so bad. I'm going to be sending my kids to the library and secreting away first editions under the mattress.)

Anyway, today I am going to a concentration camp, which should severely dampen my appreciation for the city. But you gotta do what you gotta do.


Books My Sister Lent Me

So my sister was in town this last week, and was extremely sweet and brought me some teen books I'd been wanting to read. Meaning today is Adolescent Book Review Day.

Beka Cooper: Terrier, by Tamora Pierce. I think Pierce is trying to branch out with Beka, with mixed results. The story takes place 200-odd years before Pierce's other Tortall books (Song of the Lioness, Immortals, Protector of the Small, Trickster) and features the ancestress of George Cooper, a young woman named Beka. Beka is in training to be a "Dog," the city's equivalent of a police officer, and is working the slums alongside two veterans. Of course, she's the heroine, so she gets a couple of leg ups on her trainers; specifically the ability to hear the voices of dead souls carried by pigeons, and the ability to understand voices picked up by the wind. These get her started on two interlinked cases: somewhere in the Lower City, a man is hiring people to mine gems for him and then killing them so they can't reveal the location of the mines. But someone has found out he has them, and is threatening his family members to give them up. The kidnapper, calling himself after a children's bogeyman, has been doing similar things on a smaller scale for years.

Beka comes as a moderate departure for Pierce -- she's working in an earlier time period in her own universe and for almost the first time, she's dealing primarily with commoners rather than the nobility (only one of Pierce's previous heroines was a commoner, and she within a book or two she was in close with the King and the court, so a commoner merely raised in the house of a noble -- as Beka is, after her mother dies, prior to the story's start -- is rather a novelty). The storyline is far more whodunnit than Pierce's previous work; most of her other characters either already knew or didn't care who was causing them all their problems. Mystery writing isn't Pierce's strong suit -- the twist at the end is neither unexpected nor especially shocking -- but she's writing for teenagers so I'll cut her some slack on that. Not a lot of slack -- if you can't surprise me with the ending, please don't bother trying -- but I was less discriminating in my formative years. So I prefer the glory days of Alanna knowing exactly who the bad guy was and only needing to worry about how to take him down without dying, but I didn't hate Beka's storyline or anything.

Telling the story in diary entries was an interesting choice. I liked hearing the story in Beka's words -- her perspective is pretty good. But the style felt contrived in a lot of places; Pierce doesn't really seem comfortable with it, and the way she uses it for exposition is sketchy.

Some nitpicks -- I know it's a fantasy country and all that, but I do have to ask -- there seem to be very few changes in culture or technology or anything in over 150 years. There's some lip service -- a female knight character, slave trading, different slang -- but the feel is just the same. Yes, the Middle Ages lasted a long time in real life, but doesn't Tortall have a Peter Abelard?

The book does, though, have all Pierce's usual strengths: a powerful, vulnerable heroine, good dialogue, decent humor, strong plotting, and feminist flavor. Overall, fairly average, but definitely worth a look, especially if you're a fan of Pierce's other books.

The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. Whew. What to say about this one. Well, the premise is that Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which was inspired by his friendship with Alice Liddell, was a nonsense version of a true story. In Beddor's universe, Alice (or rather, Alyss; Wonderland spells things whimsically, it seems) is a refugee princess from a real fantasyland called Wonderland, who, on her seventh birthday, is driven out by her murderous aunt, Redd. Deemed an unsuitable Queen, Redd was deposed by her younger sister, Genevieve, Alyss's mother. Now she's back for revenge, and Alyss is forced to flee to London, circa the Victorian era, where she is captured for pickpocketing and sent to an orphanage, to be eventually adopted by the Liddells and given the chance to tell her extraordinary story to Reverend Dodgson.

Beddor's premise is interesting and his imagination is good; there are just enough familiar elements and characters to make Alice-lovers happy. (Example: Hatter Madigan, the head of royal security.) Wonderland is interestingly mapped and described, and Alyss herself is fairly compelling and sympathetic.

But the book isn't actually a book. Beddor describes everything in cinematic terms, and as a result, the book feels so like a written-out film it's almost impossible to enjoy. The descriptions are strongly visual, which helps to make them stand out, but the scenes, dialogue, and characters are so dependent on movie archetypes and norms that it's intensely distracting and makes it almost impossible to enjoy the book on its own terms. Scenes that would play off without comment in a movie felt forced and contrived, and dialogue that talented actors would be able to handle without a problem looked odd written out in black and white.

Beddor had a fairly original idea, his plot moves along nicely, and he isn't a bad writer, but he has no appreciation for his medium at all, and it shows. The Looking Glass Wars reads like a novelization of Men in Black: awkward and ultimately unsatisfying.