Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How To Say "I Love You"

When I really think about, and sometimes even when I really don't, I am astounded by the power of words.

Words. This arbitrary combination of symbols to which we have ascribed meaning, and whose meaning is constantly being changed and rearranged and challenged, hold the power to change everything. Spoken, written, sung, texted, tapped out in morse-code; the methods of communicating words are endless. And to think that (fluent) speakers of a language all understand syntax, idiom, and grammar seemingly inherently is quite overwhelming.

Words change lives. How many people have claimed that a book has changed their entire world view? How many speeches and sermons have moved people to their knees? Have you ever watched someone's face when they receive a text? In 140 characters, you can make someone feel loved or break their heart or surprise and shock them. The lyrics of a song can reach into the recesses of the soul and make you feel completely understood. Words connect beyond physical.

And while the capability to convey meaning through words is astounding, there's so much more to it than simply using the literal words of what you want to say and expecting everyone to understand. There are many layers to communication. The sentence "I love you" is a statement with such seeming simplicity that even those with a very basic understanding of English can comprehend what it means.

But it's not as simple as that. One does not write or say "I love you" without a numberless array of meanings attached to it. What tone was it said in? Was it followed by a smiley face in a text? The conversation before it places it in context. The way in which the author intended it might not be how the receiver interprets it. Maybe the speaker was bearing his soul because he has never before placed those three words in that order and spoke it out loud, unable to ever recall it. Maybe she understands their relationship to be special that she believes he loves her deeply and in a non-romantic way. Maybe she has heard it so many times casually that she knows his sentiment is playful too. 

I've been thinking about the idea of communication, and how so much meaning is lost between the cracks of personal history. Sometimes, no matter how much you explain something to someone, they are just incapable of understanding your point of view. And about how sometimes two people meet and their pasts and comprehension of the world perfectly align and their words to each other are perfect symphony making beautiful sense to each other.

And with all these layers of semantics, it really is a wonder that we ever understand each other at all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Because Jian Told Me To

It's no secret that I love the CBC Radio show "Q" - for both its content and its host, Jian Ghomeshi. I've found that I am inclined to buy or read or subscribe to or follow any musician, author, columnist, and actor he interviews. This is particularly true of books, and I have read two books in the past week or so that I would have passed by, were it not for Jian. I thought I would review them, since I haven't done a book review in a while.

Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Shteyngart

A few weeks ago, Jian re-aired an interview he did this past summer with author Shteyngart. I was only half listening at first, but then I started hearing some pretty solid jokes, and paid closer attention. Steyngart was witty, clever, and quite interesting to listen to, so I decided to pick up his book as soon as possible.

I had seen Super Sad True Love Story around for a few months, and almost picked it up when I was in Portland last November, based solely on the eye-catching cover and the traumatic title. Once I learned that it was a present-day dystopian novel, I had to have it for my collection.

The plot seems simple at first, but actually becomes this complicated tightly-woven web of thoughts that, in my opinion, derails about half of the way through. The protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is an almost-40-year-old with grey hair, a protruding belly, and blemished skin. In a world where the value of the American dollar has diminished and Asian countries have taken over, people value youthfulness and physical attractiveness more highly than any other attribute - other than personal credit rating - and using hand-held computers called äppärät to rate strangers on their bed-worthiness. Ironically, Lenny works for a company trying to reverse the ageing process, and while in Rome looking for test subjects, he falls madly in love with a beautiful young Korean-American named Eunice. Eunice is charming at first, but when she returns to New York to give her relationship with Lenny a chance, it becomes increasingly evident that she carries an unreal amount of emotional baggage. While she struggles to deal with her duty to her family as the eldest child, Lenny struggles at work and with his own family situation, and he clings to the past (his collection of real books, clothing) in a way that alienates him from society. Oh, and there is a massive protest and revolt happening in NYC at the same time.

See what I mean by complicated?

I like the way this book is structured. Each chapter alternates between a first-person narrative from Lenny's personal journal and emails that Eunice sends to her mother, sister, and best friend. I preferred Eunice's chapters because they were less wordy and revealed a lot more about Eunice than Lenny's journal entries.

However, I have three massive problems with this book:

  1. It's too close to home. I love dystopian novels because they really make me re-evaluate the value I place on technology and progress, and because they often have a fantastical element about them that makes them just slightly intangible. But while I was reading SSTLS, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was reading about right now. People don't talk to each other when in the same room; they use their personal devices to chat and rate each other. Shopping online and fashion and eating well and being attractive is all that matters. And there was an occupation in NYC because of the disparity in wealth. Basically, Shteyngart predicted Occupy Wall Street a year before it happened. It was so close to reality that I couldn't suspend my disbelief and get in that disconnected world of literature. Do not want.
  2. I didn't care about the love story at all. Eunice was such an unsympathetic character by page 200 that I wanted Lenny to leave her and her non-committal ways. I didn't believe their love story and so, for me, it wasn't "super sad" at all; it was a relief.
  3. Lenny's diary entries were so long, verbose, and unnecessary to the plot that I found myself skipping whole pages to get to the point. Shteyngart is a good writer, that is undeniable, and he knows how to write clever sentences. But I have no time for authors who relish their own way with words and love to show off by writing long, winded, pointless descriptions. That is a prose fail.
My final verdict:
While I had some issues with Super Sad True Love Story, they are, by and large, matters of personal preference. There are some great moments in it, and if nothing else, it's a great comment on the emptiness of our material society. If you're into dystopian fiction that barely brushes the border of sci-fi, pick up this book.

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

Never before had I paid any attention to the Giller Prize nominees or even knew how prestigious a prize it is. When I learned that Jian was hosting, I looked up the nominated books; Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers was the novel that stood out as the most interesting to me. I also started hearing a lot about this particular book around - friends who worked at Chapters recommended it, Anthony Germain talked about it on the CBC Morning Show, I'd seen articles floating around the internet about it. So, I bought it and started reading it before the Giller Prize was announced. It didn't win, but it is still an amazing book that I quickly flew through in a few hours, not wanting to put it down for a break.

The Sisters brothers are Eli and Charlie Sisters; trained assassins living in Oregon during the California gold rush. The novel opens, narrated by the younger and fatter Eli, just as the brothers are heading to California to murder Herman Kermit Warm, a man who is known only to them as "a thief." Eli's horse is a relatively useless chubby and slow creature named Tub who is completely impractical for his line of work. The book covers the adventures and people met by the brothers on their way to California, revealing Charlie to be a heavy drinker and Eli a sort of romantic at heart. When the brothers arrive in San Francisco, they learn that their contact and  their target have gone missing - together. Questioning everything he had believed in, and with a fat horse who has lost an eye, Eli reluctantly joins Charlie to find Warm on this last, unexpected leg of their journey.

I absolutely loved this book. From the minute I picked it up to the moment I put it down, I didn't want to stop reading. What is most appealing about
The Sisters Brothers, first and foremost, is deWitt's writing style. It's written without contractions and nuances of English in 2011, and as such is a straightforward, clear narrative. That isn't to say that there aren't any moments of beautiful writing - there are. Many, in fact. But this is a novel that is definitely more centred on telling a story than presenting an author's philosophy or dazzling with words. It's funny, suspenseful, and I was filled with a nostalgia for a past that is not my own.

My final verdict:

Read this book! Stop what you're doing, and go out and buy it right now! Borrow my copy! Go to your library! Get it on your eReader/iPad/iPhone! It's an excellent addition to your library and most certainly deserved to be nominated for the Giller Prize.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Master Chef

Today was one of those days that are not terrible but definitely not great. I was cold all day, I put too much sweetener in my coffee, I was frustrated with work, and it was almost dark by the time I left to pick up Dad today. Today was one of those days where you just wish you had stayed in bed. 

So, in an effort to feel homey and warm and comfortable, I decided that this evening I was going to cook. I love cooking and my evenings don't really let me do the kind of cooking that takes rows and rows of spices, lots of chopping, and dirtying every pot and pan in the cupboard. I decided that tonight would be one of those nights where I would make something healthy, delicious, and from scratch. I had bought some quinoa, which I have never made before, had some fresh veggies in the fridge, and took some ground beef out of the freezer: it was meatball night.

I also decided that I was going to write a blog today. My original plan was to write about something quite serious, but then I thought: I've never posted a blog about cooking, even though I love it. So I cranked Michael Buble's Christmas album, put on my sweatpants, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and we were off to the races. Thus I present to you: Meatballs & Quinoa - A Beautiful Pair.

I decided I wasn't going to use a recipe for my meatballs. I relied totally on my memories of watching my mom and aunts make them, as well as my countless hours watching The Food Network. The following ingredients made the cut (because they were what I bought/thought would taste good/had on hand).

  • about 1/4 large white onion
  • two slices of white bread
  • some garlic
  • parmesean cheese
  • egg whites to bind it all together
  • salt, white pepper, lemon pepper, cracked black pepper, and some miscellaneous herbs
  • I ended up tossing some green pepper in too, because why not?

I use onions a lot. In just about every meal I cook, whether its pasta or stirfry or a sandwich, I use onions. So I chop a lot of onions. But for some reason today, these onions made me cry like 30 Rock had been cancelled. My mascara was running down my face and I couldn't see anything. But I soldiered on, and chopped up the remaining ingredients.
So it looked like this:

Then I added the meat and spices (I used three different kinds of pepper because I like the light taste of white pepper, lemon pepper adds an extra kick, and cracked black pepper gives a bit of heat) and mixed it all up, and it looked like this:

All that was left was to form the balls out of the meat - thus making the meatballs. I also coated the bottom of the pan in olive oil, which I wasn't enturely sure was the right move. I knew Jamie Oliver would approve, because he douses every single thing he makes - even Jiggs Dinner - in oil. So with that comforting thought, I placed the tray in the oven for 20 mins on 375 degrees.
While the meat cooked and the quinoa simmered away (2 parts water to 1 part quinoa; salt and boil the water, toss in the grain, and simmer on medium heat for 15 mins or until the water is gone), I chopped some carrots and green beans and tossed them in a pot of simmering water to steam.

Then I washed dishes.

Then my supper was FINALLY finished after an hour and a half of prep work, and I was so hungry and happy that I enjoyed it all the more. And I have enough deliciousness for another meal, and I have two more meals of meatballs stored in my freezer for a later date.

Still so hot and fresh you can see the steam!

Anyway, now I am sipping on some pomegranate tea, half-watching 30 Rock and feeling full, peaceful, and content. I must head off to the gym later, but for now I can pretend I don't have to. 


Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Since my friend Lilly has been posting on her blog like a fiend lately, I feel like I need to update mine so she cannot harass me as I harass her for updates. I've been less inclined to post lately as well since my computer was under repair for a little mishap involving Pepsi, my keyboard, and the spilling of the former into the latter. Luckily, $400 and three weeks later, my MacBook has returned home no worse for wear and I am able to access the internet all the time again! Yay!

I'm in one of those states of mind where nothing and everything are happening simultaneously; Nothing of ground-breaking importance has shaken me to the core, but my life is so full of people and events. My amazing friend Karen and I lead Bible study on Tuesdays and teach Sunday School on Sundays, both of which take up more time than I originally anticipated. For a couple Thursdays now I've been heading to the home of Zach and Beth Hynes (you should read her blog; she doesn't write often but when she does it's worth reading!) for a communal dinner, which has been so nice. It's so lovely to meet new people who are friendly and interesting and like conversation. The rest of my week is filled with grocery shopping and laundry and reading and watching Modern Family and coffee and movies and celebrations for various milestones.

As much as I said I was sick of being in school, now that I'm working, I miss it. I miss lots of things about it - meeting people in class; discussions where no one's wrong or right - everyone is just discussing; the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a paper; learning new things. I miss that my time was my own, so if I didn't want to go to class, I didn't have to; if I needed to stay up late finishing a paper, it was ok to be tired the next day. I miss meeting people on campus for coffee, or running around feeling frazzled and important because I needed to meet 5 people in an hour.

SO, dear readers, I've decided to go back to school part time in January. I'm only planning on taking one night class, but I am so looking forward to it. I'm also planning on going back to school in the fall - where, I'm not sure yet. But something is in the works. I suppose more than anything I've realized that academia is the place for me. And yes, it is tiring. And yes, sometimes it feels completely futile. But talking and philosophizing and reading helps understand the human condition. And, really, what's more important than that?


PS - I am reading Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, as per the recommendation of Jian Ghomeshi, and it's great so far. I will post a review of it as soon as I'm done.