Friday, October 11, 2013

Five Reasons I Loved the New Romeo and Juliet

When I found out about this movie sometime in the summer, I was stoked. Any mention of bringing Shakes to the big screen makes me happy, especially my favorite tragedy of his. Then I found out that it truly was an adaptation, that Julian Fellowes had changed the Bard’s words (sacrilege! the English major in me cries) and replaced them with his own. Despite my misgivings, I went to see it, but mostly out of curiosity rather than excitement.

I loved it. And here’s why. (Even though the play is hundreds of years old, the movie did make some changes, and here’s a spoiler cut.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Knits and Things and Fine Array

I don't consider myself a very talented knitter, but I do enjoy how relaxing the hobby is. My mom, sister, and grandmother all crochet, but I never quite got the hang of it. Since I've been home, I've asked them to reteach me. That hasn't worked out, but my sister did get me two knitting classes for Christmas 2011. So while I'm still a beginning, I'm enjoying teaching myself new techniques and finding new challenges (which, for me, means things that aren't rectangular).

While I was in Kaz, my host sister taught me one crochet stitch. I'd like to blame this on my limited time there, but there is a good possibility she thought I was too dense to learn any more. However, one stitch was enough to get me started, and I promised my fellow goons (an affectionate term, I assure you) that I'd make them each a little something to get through the Siberian winter. Even though that didn't work out, I'm still working on my goal. One friend asked for an article for the hands (like gloves). I made her these arm-warmers (because I'm not skilled enough yet to make fingers):

I admit that they're not much to look at, but I guarantee they're warm! And then, while I was watching Doctor Who all spring long, I made myself a cool TARDIS hat. I believe I found the pattern on ravelry. Something to keep my head cozy next winter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Наурыз құтты болсын

Happy Nauryz! Nauryz is a new year holiday celebrated in Kazakhstan on or around March 21st. This year, I decided to be adventurous and cook a Kazakh meal for my family. It was my first time cooking Kazakh food, and recipes are difficult to find online, but with the help of my Peace Corps cookbook, I muddled through all right.

For the first course, I made a cucumber-and-tomato salad. This was one of my favorite dishes during service, and it's really simple. All that's needed to top it off is a splash of oil and some salt. Easy and delicious!

The main course was plov, which is also easy because it's just rice, meat, and carrots. I used strip steak and cooked it separately, sautéed the carrots, and then added both to the cooked rice. Some garlic and onions can flavor it up nicely.

For dessert, I made baursaki, a doughnut-type dessert made especially for Nauryz. I managed to find a recipe for the dough online, and then I just fried them up. They were less lovely than the baursaki I remember eating over there, but they still tasted good!

Homemade baursaki! Yum!
And to top it all off, vodka for a toast and some authentic Kazakh tea my babushka gave me before I left! My family said they liked everything, so I consider the meal a success.

Monday, March 11, 2013

School Update

Just a quick update on the semester. I turned in my second monthly submission, which brings my thesis work up to 61 pages (approximately 17,000 words)! At this point, I don't even know if that's good progress or not. Between work, school, and volunteering, I'm really just trying to get enough sleep without completely losing my sanity. I resisted going to grad school mostly because I valued my sleep too much, but I really forgot how overwhelmed I was in undergrad. I'm very much looking forward to spring break.

 But two months down is an accomplishment. "I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday." (Unknown) :)

In other news, it's two years to the day my group arrived in Kaz. We would still be there with two short months until COS. It's a strange day that brings up a lot of memories. At times, it doesn't even feel real. But in the spirit of positivity, I remember a common saying from over there: все будет хорошо. Everything will be okay. It was a thought that kept us going on the tougher days, and it stills helps today.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy International Women's Day!

This holiday was first celebrated in 1911 and is now an official holiday in over 25 countries, including Kazakhstan. The purpose is to draw attention to women’s issues as well as honor the women in your life. As my own little way of celebrating, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite female protagonists in literature who have shaped my reading experiences as well as my outlook on life.

01. Francie Nolan from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s adolescence in the city. I confess that I barely remember this book because it’s been so long since I read it. But I do remember walking into the library at 14 in search of that magical, elusive book. A librarian handed me this, and I was changed. Francie loves reading, but it’s her strength of character that carries her through heartbreak and makes her a relatable protagonist.

“Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

02. Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Cassandra’s a 17-year-old who lives with her eccentric family in a castle in the English countryside. She longs to be a writer, like her father, who locks himself in the tower in order to finish his second novel. In pursuit of this goal, she sets out to ‘capture the castle’ in her diary, but the story is set in motion when two American move into the hall nearby and change Cassandra’s life, as well as her sister’s. Through it all, Cassandra is funny, strong, graceful. I reread this in Kaz and then lent it to a friend, who commented that I’d marked up the text so much that she could just read all my underlinings and brackets and not miss any of the plot. That’s how good it is. Every line speaks.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

03. Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. 95% of girls who read this book identify with Jo in some way, because she’s fantastically outspoken and brave but also flawed. She desperately wants to become a famous writer, but her family’s situation forces her to work. And her desire to keep her sisters together doesn’t work as well once they all begin to grow up. Throughout the novel, she faces setbacks, arguments, and devastating loss with fortitude and determination.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all someday. I like good strong words that mean something.”

04. Nan St. George from Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. At turns funny and tragic, this is the story of five American girls who aren’t accepted in New York society because of their ‘new’ money, so they try their luck in England, to varying degrees of success. Nan St. George, the youngest of the five, rebels when told she’ll be getting a governess. But the two become fast friends and form a friendship that stands the test of societal disappointment and disillusioning marriages.

"The greatest mistake is to think that we ever know why we do things. . . . I suppose the nearest we can ever come to it is by getting what old people call 'experience.' But by the time we've got that we're no longer the persons who did the things we no longer understand. The trouble is, I suppose, that we change every moment; and the things we did stay."

05. Irene, the queen of Attolia from Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. This is my favorite series, but it took me a while to warm up to Irene. Beautiful but never accused of being kind, she’s cold and distrustful because of the things she’s been forced to do to take and keep her throne. When Gen sees her dancing among the orange trees, he realizes she’s not as intimidating as she seems. She’s a complex woman who evolves through her relationship with Gen but also stays true to herself.

“I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh. I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I've fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I've seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine. How did you think I did this if I was a fool with cow eyes for any handsome man with gold in his purse?”

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Don't Feed the Plants!

I've spent the past week and this weekend practicing for and playing the piano in the pit for a local high school musical. After a week of practice and three shows on top of work and school, I am exhausted! They did Little Shop of Horrors, which is odd but enjoyable. Since returning from the PC, I haven't had that much time to play the piano or any opportunity to play in a group, and it took me a while to get back into the swing of things, especially since I wasn't all that familiar with the music to begin with. But I forgot how much fun it is! The kids did a great job, too. It's great to see their hard work pay off.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Single Girl's Guide to Surviving Valentine's Day

With Hallmark in the world to hawk overpriced, sentimental cards, it’s impossible to escape Valentine’s Day. And, as America seems to have a problem with moderation, it can be . . . overwhelming, to say the least, especially when you have no significant other to celebrate with. So I have compiled a quick guide to surviving the most made-up holiday.

1. Steer clear of department stores for at least a month. Six weeks is better, actually, since stores tend to take down Christmas decorations and go straight for the pink and red hearts. Grocery stores can be handled as long as I don’t tread down the candy aisle.

2. Treat Yo’ Self.* Valentine’s Day is the singleton’s Treat Yo’ Self, a day to put myself first without feeling guilty about it. The concept is self-explanatory. Go to a movie. Eat some cupcakes. Rewatch my favorite movie. Buy myself a new book. It doesn’t really matter as long as I remind myself that, as a confident and independent young woman, it’s abso-blooming-lutely okay to go to a movie theater on my own.

3. Take up a new hobby. There are lots of opportunities waiting for me! Just in my area, there are karate classes, knitting groups, a writing club (which I’ve just learned about). I’m still trying to find a hiking/outdoors group near me, but hopefully I will find one soon. Finding something I’m interested in is the perfect way to broaden my horizons as well as meet some new friends.

4. Grab some wine and relax with a movie or a book that’s not about love. As nice as a love story can be, sometimes you just need to get away from them, which is harder than it seems. After all, even big action-adventure stories throw in love B-plot to appeal to wider audiences. However much a rarity they are, they are out there. I can always revisit a book I’ve read, stop by the library to browse, or browse Netflix. It’s doable, and I will do it.

5. Have a girls’ night! This is tough for me, because I’m in my 20s, and all of my friends are busy with jobs and grad schools and, yes, boyfriends. Planning in advance is essential for everyone involved, but even if no one is available, I have a plethora of fallbacks.

6. Whatever I do, I promise to spend time on me

7. Always remember that my parents will get me a card and probably chocolate. Chocolate is always delicious and appreciated.

And that is how I survive Valentine’s Day.

*Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford probably owns the copyright to this.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Antietam Photos

Just a few photos from a trip through Maryland last fall. I was passing through on my way back from a wedding and decided to stop at Antietam National Battlefield for a little history lesson. It was a gorgeous day, and I took a lot of pictures. Besides being rich in history, it's a beautiful area with some great trails, and I'd love to go back when I've got more time in order to explore it more fully.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In honor, I've thrown together a little list of my favorite things that are P&P or Jane Austen related. Numbered, but in no particular order:

01. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Pride and Prejudice re-imagined by Hank Green and Bernie Su as a mass communication student's video blog series. An enjoyable adaptation of P&P because of the updated setting, the lively characters (Lydia in particular), and drawn-out posting schedule that keeps the viewer guessing and anticipating the next video. The nature of the vlogs limits the point of view, but that allows the viewer to develop a connection with Lizzie and go through her emotional journey right along with her. It also allows for some hilarious costume theater segments.

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02. Austenblog. For me, the definitive Jane Austen website. It's not updated as often as it used to be, but, when your subject is 200+ years old, that's not a huge deal. Besides news about anything JA related, there are a lot of good reviews of Jane Austen offshoots, meaning P&P 'sequels,' contemporary retellings, and twists on the current obsession with Mr. Darcy. The editors have written and contributed to several Jane Austen related books.

03. Lost in Austen, by Emma Campbell Webster. Not to be confused with the 2008 BBC miniseries (although that is an entertaining romp), this is a choose-your-own-adventure-style book based on Jane Austen's works. You read as Elizabeth Bennet, and your mission is to marry for love and for comfort (ahem, money). As you choose your path, you run into different characters, both heroes and villains, from the rest of Austen's works. You have points for Accomplishments, Intelligence, Confidence, Connections, and Fortune, all of which increase or decrease according to your choices and also affect your marriageable status. While it's maybe not for Austen purists, it's great fun for someone who grew up with CYOA books and has the opportunity to sit and relax on a rainy (or snowy) afternoon.

04. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. As you can tell from the title, this is Pride and Prejudice . . . with zombies. This started the whole classic book/monster mashup genre that still seems to be going fairly strong. There are large chunks of P&P kept intact, which is sometimes jarring, but if you can suspend your disbelief and accept the concept, it can be a lot of fun. This also served as the introduction to P&P for a few guys I've known who admitted that they probably wouldn't have been able to get through the original. The last I had heard, this was being made into a movie, and Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth Bennet, zombie slayer. Related books include: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; Mansfield Park and Mummies; Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons; Emma and the Vampires. (I have to stop. There are too many.)

05. Marvel Illustrated's Jane Austen comic books. As far as I know, they have released five-issue collections of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. I'm a fan of short, literature-inspired comic series, and these are fantastic. The art in P&P and NA is especially great, and the P&P covers are designed to look like teenage magazines, which is a fun touch.

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06. Bride and Prejudice. Bollywood does everything right. This 2005 movie by Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham,  is an adaptation of P&P filled with great music, fantastic dance numbers, and lavish costumes. Standout numbers are "Punjabi Wedding Song" and "No Life Without Wife." Aishwarya Rai Bachan stars in her first English speaking role as Lalita Bakshi (Lizzie Bennet), while Naveen Andrews of Lost fame plays a supporting role as Balraj (Bingley). While the story remains timeless, the cultural translation works well, partly because cultural misunderstandings contribute to the obstacles in Lalita and Darcy's relationship and partly because of the charisma of the film itself.

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07. And last but not least, a Jane Austen action figure, because, really, there is nothing cooler than having a mini writer on your desk, especially one who comes with her own writing desk and quill pen. There is no greater writing motivation than being stared at by one of your favorite authors, is there?

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy 151st Birthday, Edith Wharton!

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." - Edith Wharton, born January 24, 1862

My first encounter with Edith Wharton was during my junior year of high school. For an assignment in American Literature, we were tasked to choose a book and write chapter summaries. I don’t remember why I picked The House of Mirth, but it was probably because it fit the criteria and it was in my parents’ library. However, it was the best book I could have plucked off that shelf. I was seduced by the atmosphere of Gilded Age America and entranced by Lily Bart, a spoiled but naïve heroine who tries to navigate New York society on her own. It remains one of my favorite books and the one I recommend the most when asked to recommend Edith Wharton.

I believe in soul mates, sort of, for authors and readers, the kind of reading relationship that even lifelong readers find only once in a blue moon. You read a handful of pages and have to stop because it’s like this writer was inside your head while penning this book. Your ideas of and outlook on life sync up so well that it becomes impossible to remember a time before you’d discovered this writer. And it’s reciprocal, because, after gleaning all the wisdom and empathy possible, you go out and recommend this book and this writer to all your friends. You can’t stop talking about it. It sneaks into every conversation.

The House of Mirth was such an experience for me. I devoured a number of her other novels, though I still have a long way to go, as she was quite prolific. Among my favorites are: Ethan Frome, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Children, and The Buccaneers.

But she didn’t write only novels. An accomplished gardener and amateur architect, she wrote books such as The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and their Gardens. Also, this is her estate, The Mount, located in Lenox, Massachusetts, which she designed herself:

I’ll leave you with a few interesting tidbits.
- She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence and was the first female recipient.
- She wrote ghost stories.
- She moved to France later in life (and wrote about it). The street on which she lived is now called rue Edith Wharton.
- She was given an honorary doctorate from Yale, and the Yale library has a collection of her letters and manuscripts.
- She was good friends with Henry James.
- The Mount is thought to be haunted. Ghost Hunters filmed an episode on it.
- She was rewarded the Chevalier Legion of Honour for her relief and refugee work in France during World War I.

Because I am a literary enthusiast and a major dork, I celebrate her birthday every year, usually by making cupcakes. This year's weren't a culinary masterpiece, but being happy in small ways is a healthy thing. :)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Music - Ulytau

American pop music is very popular in Kazakhstan. Everyone, especially teenagers, knows Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé. Even Shakira, which was a blast at the discotheques, though she's not technically American. However, one of my favorite things was learning more about local music. These endeavors included, yes, a failed attempt to learn the dombra, a two-stringed lute-like instrument (which I would love to take up again, but they're extremely hard to find here in the States). During a cultural training session, our teachers introduced us to this band: Ulytau.

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The word in Kazakh means "great mountain," which I freely admit that I found out from their official website, because I was a Russian speaker. There is also a literal Ulytau, which is an area in the central part of the country. Though a handful of volunteers were near there, I never had the opportunity to visit. Ulytau the band plays folk-metal, combining electric guitars with the national instrument of Kazakhstan, the dombra. This is a dombra:

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They play traditional folk music as well as the music of classical composers such as Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart, but they do it all with a heavy-metal twist. Their album Two Warriors is available for MP3 download on Amazon.

Standout Track: "Ata Tolgauy." (This may surprise you, but English/Kazakh dictionaries are hard to find online. I believe "ata" means "father." I cannot find a translation for "tolgauy.") This is a tune I heard often at festivals and concerts, often played by larger, traditional ensembles. Like the rest of the tracks on Two Warriors, "Ata Tolgauy" is a fun take on a traditional song with a main hook that will keep you humming all day long.

All in all, this music is a lot of fun if you're looking for familiar music arranged in a new way. Because of the fusion of Western and Eastern music, you'll also enjoy it if you're looking for something you might not have otherwise come across on your own.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day . . . I worked mandatory overtime. Not the most celebratory of activities, and I wish I had something more exciting to share. Instead, I will end with a quote. In the spirit of the recent National Day of Service:

“Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”