Fiftyfifty.me 2012: DONE!


I FINISHED FIFTYFIFTY.ME!

They said it couldn't be done.
They called us crazy.
In some cases they just called us losers.

Me: "Dad, are you going to join us and do Fiftyfifty.me?!"
Dad: "NO. Unlike you guys, I have a life!!!!!!"

My fiftyfifty.me started like this - Jon Yang came up with this brilliant idea to read 50 books and watch 50 movies during the year. Inspired, I got the idea that not only would I want to join him (because it sounded like a massive nerdy undertaking, and therefore, just my sort of thing), but perhaps others would too. Looking at our site now, 355 people publicly signed on, with others doing it on the wings.

And here we are, one by one, crossing the finish line.

As you can imagine, my brain is a little bit fried (particularly as I lived the month of December in a state of college finals-style panic). But here's the list! ** denotes favorites.

BOOKS:
1) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
2) Knowing Your Value (Mika Brzezinski) **
3) Before I Go to Sleep (SJ Watson)
4) The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (Jennifer E Smith)
5) The Tiger's Wife (Tea Obreht)
6) Yeah, I Said It (Wanda Sykes) **
7) Food Rules (Michael Pollan)
8) Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
9) Before the Mortgage (ed. Christina Amini & Rachel Hutton)
10) Divergent (Veronica Roth)
11) Lions of Little Rock (Kristin Levine) ** (Loved this one. Read my review here)
12) Stories I Only Tell My Friends (Rob Lowe)
13) StoriTelling (Tori Spelling)
14) Uglies (Scott Westerfield)
15) The Little White Care
16) L'Amant (Marguerite Duras)
17) Fifty Shades of Crap Grey
18) The Story Behind the Song
19) Scar Tissue (Anthony Kiedis)
20) Trinity (Leon Uris)
21) Trinity (Leon Uris. 900 pages)
22) But Enough About Me (Jancee Dunn)
23) Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) **
24) I Feel Bad About My Neck (Nora Ephron) **
25) Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have) - (Sarah Mylnowski)
26) The Lover's Dictionary (Devid Levithan)
27) I Remember Nothing (and Other Reflections) - (Nora Ephron)
28) Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (David Sedaris)
29) The Game (Neil Strauss)
30) The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Aimee Bender)
31) As Husbands Go (Susan Isaacs)
32) Code Name Verity
33) The Giver (Lois Lowry)
34) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling)
35) Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple)
36) More Baths, Less Talking (Nick Hornby)
37) Soulacoaster (R Kelly)
38) The Fault In Our Stars (John Green) **
39) How to Be a Woman (Caitlin Moran) **
40) The Affair (Lee Child)
41) Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys
42) Tiny Beautiful Things (Cheryl Strayed) ** (Obsessed. Read my review here)
43) Seriously, I'm Kidding (Ellen Degeneres)
44) Confessions of a Video Vixen (Karrine Steffans)
45) Maus (Art Spiegelman)
46) Not Dead & Not For Sale (Scott Weiland)
47) Cool, Calm and Contentious (Merrill Markoe)
48) In the Bag (Kate Klise)
49) Smut (Alan Bennett)
50) For the Love of Letters (Samara O'Shea)

Alternates:
You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero (Bob Powers)/ Choose Your Own Adventure for adults
The Moon Daughter, Zoe Ghahremani (Pub date: 2013)

MOVIES:
1) Timer **
2) Absurdistan
3) Muppets **
4) Gattaca
5) A Separation **
6) The Artist **
7) In Time
8) W/E ** (one of my absolute favorite films this year)
9) The Joneses
10) Iron Lady
11) Friends with Kids
12) Being Elmo
13) Hunger Games
14) I Do
15) In the Land of Blood and Honey
16) Rue Cases-Negres
17) The Best Marigold Hotel
18) The Grey
19) Rock of Ages **
20) The Dictator
21) Little Manhattan **
22) The Intouchables (I haven't shut up about this since seeing it)
23) Dark Knight Rises
24) The Descendants
25) Serious Moonlight
26) Ruby Sparks
27) From Rome with Love
28) Up
29) Magic Mike
30) The Names of Love
31) Moonrise Kingdom
32) Mirror Mirror
33) The Runaway Bride
34) Argo
35) The Sessions (The only reason I didn't walk out of this movie was fiftyfifty.me)
36) First Position **
37) Katy Perry: Part of Me [oh no she didn't. oh yes, she did]
38) Limitless
39) Anna Karenina **
40) Dumb and Dumber (had somehow never seen this)
41) Manon des Sources
42) Out of Sight
43) Rebound
44) Still Bill
45) No Strings Attached
46) Five Year Engagement
47) Safety Not Guaranteed
48) Les Miserables
49) Lincoln
50) Happy

Post-Game Wrapup:
In what is no surprise to anyone who knows me, it was harder for me to get around to the movies than the books. People ask if we cheat and read children's picture books, etc. to get the count up. No, although I did foray into Young Adult books on a few occasions (The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, is one of the best books I've read in recent years, actually). And I definitely generally found myself more willing to throw a book aside (or turn off a movie) if it wasn't doing the trick. Getting stuck and bored is one of the reasons people turn away from reading, I think, so I managed to avoid that almost completely.

In general I was so eager to hit the numbers that I gobbled up whatever came my way, which made it a much more interesting year of reading, taking in recommendations from other people at a pace I've never done before. In the end, it's a complete mash of topics and quality, but it was also, without a doubt, fun as hell.

I am most definitely signing on to do this for 2013. Starting tomorrow, in fact. No rest for the wicked, I say.


Why You Should Stop Everything and Read: Tiny Beautiful Things

 

I can list on one hand the number of books that have left me breathless and in tears.  The most recent is Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation from her Dear Sugar column.  I had seen the book around, but didn't think much of it.  From the cover I thought it might be a shallow dating column from some women's magazine that was already full of enough junk advice that I didn't need more. How mistaken I was.

I opened Tiny Beautiful Things a couple of days ago and entered a world in which people write in to confess and and try to make sense of their sins, or their deepest fears and insecurities, or their latest personal tragedy, with a complete stranger who responds each and every time with a logic, compassion, and a tapestry of words so beautiful that I found myself literally breathless.

Although she could have just doled out some smartly-written advice, the brilliance in the column is in how far she goes into the trenches with her readers.  She scrapes up the very personal memories and stories, the lessons and experiences we, as strangers, have absolutely no right to access, and lays them before us, like a most patient teacher, so that we may learn something.  She doesn't flinch as she offers up her scars, so we can run a finger along them, perhaps even recoil, before looking again. Closely. 

While I have been reading Tiny Beautiful Things I have been consumed by the themes, the plot lines of the letters, and the stories Strayed used to convey her ultimate advice. Consumed, I tell you. I hadn't even finished the book before I'd bought a few copies to fire off to friends, and as I read I kept a mental tally of the others who will find it under their Christmas trees, in their birthday gifts, slipped to them in a moment when they need it most.

I realize I'm being vague here, and it's a conscious effort not to spoil the reading experience that I hope you will have after reading this.  I understood why certain topics hit home with me, but what of the others? How was I so affected by stories of marital infidelity, of grief after the loss of a child, of dealing with middle-aged body image issues, situations that couldn't be further from my realities?

This, my friends, is the key to good writing.  We often talk about fiction being transcendent, but I don't think we talk enough about nonfiction and its ability to bring us into other people's stories and lives and make us feel their pain for the moments we share. Dear Sugar's advice is directed at the person who has written in, but in the same way that a parent will say something to a spouse fully knowing the child is listening in.  It is written to them, but entirely for our benefit.

Under the layers of jealousy or greed or regret or guilt or anger, or the hundred other emotions swept onto these pages is an underlying theme that we choose how we live. We do not choose our circumstances or the hand we're dealt - and as you read letter pile up on letter, you realize that, no matter how wildly different our lives come out, everyone has problems, everyone has difficult choices to make. Although the details of our individual lives couldn't be more different, the themes are shockingly similar. 

I'm convinced that each reader will take something different away from this book. Me? This: We do not choose some of the detours or roadblocks or  forks in the road, but we choose how we proceed. We choose how much compassion and patience we bring to the most difficult circumstances. It isn't meant to be easy, but it can be done. Most importantly, we choose how we work forgiveness - of others and of ourselves - into the narrative of our lives. 

This book may, like me, make you tear up in public - repeatedly. But it will be worth every tightening of the chest, every locked-away story or memory that comes up to visit you. Promise. 







Flight Response

Lately I've been talking with friends about people who suddenly announce they're up and moving.  I've always been slightly suspicious of it, perhaps because I did this once upon a time in an almost overnight move to San Francisco. I immediately identify this (project it?) as escapism, whether or not it is.

So what does it mean when today, on an absolutely gorgeous day in San Diego, I'm the one with the overwhelming urge to be anywhere else?  Last weekend I was up in LA, both for work and pleasure, and the time flew. Before I knew it I had been there for 3 full days and nights, had been all over town, had seen so many people and done so much. I just felt busy and happy. As I drove home, I was excited to return to my routine and the relaxed life I have created, but then I realized how quiet my life here is.  I was in LA for my 10 year reunion and I think the idea of having been in San Diego for a decade now struck me. I've never lived anywhere this long (except my childhood home); was it deliberate or just by chance?

Sometimes I wonder if I got to San Diego too early. It's an incredible city and absolutely the one I want to spend my later years in. But was showing up here in my 20s right for me? Do I want to be here forever, nonstop? Am I never going to live in a huge metropolitan city again? I guess if you think about anything like that it's overwhelming.

My 10 year personal retrospective is further pressed by the fact that it seems like more and more people are moving away, something I have a hard time with for a number of reasons (see why I hate goodbyes), and meanwhile, others get married and develop universes of their own, which in some ways is a moving-on.  My mom always told me to hurry up and get married because "Your friends are all around you and going out all the time so you don't notice right now - but they won't always be around" and I thought she had it all wrong. Unfathomable! But as I spent a quiet afternoon at a cafe with my thoughts today, I wonder if maybe she's right. Now, I don't think marriage is a solution to very much in this life, it's more of a parallel adventure, but I guess when someone is annoying you and not doing his laundry or fighting over bills, at least you're occupied. It's never been my style to be in a relationship just to be in one, so unfortunately that strategy won't work, but I'm surprised at how right she was that no matter how close you are with people, they are going to spin off into their own lives eventually. Nothing can be forever.

Despite my vague threats, I don't think I'll get up and move anywhere, at least not without a bigger reason, because after my SF experience I realized that ultimately your boredom, thoughts, feelings - they all go with you. A place can only entertain you for so long; your reality is right there in the suitcase or moving boxes with you. You can't move because you think there will be more people to entertain you - you have to be the entertaining one, or, as my mom says "Only boring people get bored."  I shudder to think of becoming boring.

My brother always says [apparently my family gives a lot of advice] to pick a city you'd like even if you didn't know anyone there, and I think that's why San Diego has been home to me for so long - it's that city for me.  It's a city that I love more and more with each passing year, with every hike I take or new restaurant I discover.  But I guess I've been so busy setting up my new company and being involved in 1001 other things that when I stopped for a moment to just relax, I wished there were more people around to do that with, who get it.

In other news, when this happens I usually just take on another crazy endeavor to entertain myself, and the feeling passes. Might be time to revisit the bucket list.

What Drives Me.

This weekend I went to the AIGA Y Conference in San Diego. I didn't go because I'm an artist (which, as anyone who has seen me play Draw Something can affirm, I most certainly am not). I didn't even go because I know an artist. I went because I think it's important to try something different on for size, and I was curious to see what I'd learn.

"Art is the only subject you see from the moment you wake up til you go to sleep." - Nancy Rouemy

The verdict was favorable: If you have the opportunity to check one out, I would. Y Conference, in its 17th year, involves inspiring talks from the most interesting group of people - a mix of artists, designers, and entrepreneurs who each bring something different to the conversation.  You run the risk of developing delusions that you, too, could put hundreds of hours into artwork and produce something palatable. You will leave overflowing with ideas and inspiration, no matter your field.

Personally, I went in to Y Conference not recognizing a single name on the roster (this is incomprehensible to my artistic friends, but hey, I never asked you to name our Supreme Court justices).  Although I had walked in a blank slate, I left with a notebook full of ideas, quotes, and impressions.  When I got in my car for the final time, I was converted into a huge admirer of Karim Rachid's work and philosophies, and a fan of both Andrea Dezs√∂'s artistic range and sense of humor.  I was in awe of Eben Bayer's ability to remind us that the most complex technology, the kind we don't even think could exist, was created by Mother Nature long ago (check out cuttlefish, then check out his company Ecovative Design).  And impressed by both Andrew Byrom and Nancy Rouemy's abilities to bring the challenges of their artistic endeavors to a level that the common village idiot (here: me) could understand, among many others.

                                             "Art is time made visible." - Andrea Dezs√∂

Attend one of these conferences and you'll leave with a better understanding of the intense work artists and designers put into the world around you.  It draws your attention, for 48 steady hours, to the thoughtful way people around us approach not just artwork but product design, products you put your hands on every day without thinking twice, so that you won't think twice. It really is astounding.  Let me go ahead and make a sweeping statement here: it changed the way I see everything.

"Everything you look at has art -- or lack of art -- in it." -- from Nancy Rouemy's talk 

The theme of the conference was What Drives You? To start with: my sister's Toyota. At 7 in the morning. That's what drove me there, anyhow. But as each speaker got on stage to discuss what drove them, I began to wonder what drives me in life, as opposed to up the 5N. So here's the list, or what I think is the list, Dr. Freud:

Affection. Wanting people around me to be happy. Wanting to show love. Wanting to share all this love in me with other people.
The Written Word. The sound, rules, and playfulness of language.
Understanding. Understanding concepts, understanding people. Feeling understood.
Happiness. As physically expressed. I will do almost anything for a smile.
Optimism. Sometimes relentless. Sometimes misplaced. But always there.
Approval. Appreciation. Sometimes separately, sometimes together. Just being honest.
Collaboration and connection. 
Growth. Not physical, gave up on that a long time ago! Here I mean growth as in learning something new, accomplishing something different. Rather than just poking around for exploration's sake. I'm not curious for curiosity's sake enough (other than up and going to a professional conference I have no business being at). Adventure. 

But what if, like most of the speakers, I just limited it to one? That's the tough part. Which one is really in the driver's seat?

What drives you?

     "The more you look, the more you can use what you see." - Nancy Rouemy


Spring Cleaning

For Persian New Year ("Nowrooz") we celebrate the first day of spring.  This involves a thorough house cleaning that one might suspect was invented by tricky parents to get kids to clean their rooms worldwide.  But apparently it really is a thing.  So this year I put aside the laptop and my neverending stack of work and got to it.

My Top 10 Spring Cleaning Finds, 2012:

1) A tee shirt from a "graffiti party" Sigma Kappa sorority bar crawl. What this means is that 72+ sorority women were given white tee shirts and permanent markers, set on a course working their way through a row of college bars, writing on each other all the while.  It was both horrifying and hilarious to read this shirt.  While I am impressed that my friends could still spell at a time like this, I am horrified that I have kept it.  On one piece of cotton there were so many memories that made me laugh out loud, then shudder, then roll the shirt up and squish it back in the box.

2) Letters from summer camp.  I didn't remember who had written to me, but there was the evidence of people who cared about me way more than I've ever given them credit for.  There was also a pretty hilarious letter from my dad on massive GASTROINTESTINAL RADIOLOGY journal stationery.  Clearly that was kept.  The only thing better would be if I could find a stockpile of the blank stationery itself...

3) French camp song list.  Just in case I ever need to sing in French about rowing, I'm all set. Phew.

4) A love letter.  I've been reading For The Love Of Letters by Samara O'Shea and had just read the chapter where she talks about how to write a love letter.  She talks about the variations it can take, and gives examples. I sighed, feeling all sorry for myself as I read a letter Keats had written.  I wanted a love letter! I wanted someone to pour their heart out on the page.  Fast forward one day, and what pops out of the box but a letter in such detail and emotion that I'm floored I forgot it was ever sent to me. It wasn't written on a scroll as I'd hoped and imagined for, but it was in an oversized thank you card and included an insert grading the aspects of what a great tour guide and companion I was on the visit.

Years later I read it with different eyes than the lovesick girl who would have received it then. It was really quite sweet. I kept it.

5) My sister's childhood drawings. Saved those for eBay. (I kid, Susie, I kid! Or do I?...)

6) My own drawings. I liked drawing the Guns n Roses logo. Over and over and over again.  Some people got their edge by drinking Nighttrain or wailing on their guitar. Rebel that I am... I sharpened my pencil.

7) Postcard from my brother, when he was just learning to write, approx 4 yrs old. I heart you was the main messaging.  I miss when he was little and had such an easy time telling me that.

8) Stories upon stories upon stories. I used to love writing fiction and wrote all the time; it just poured out of me.  Somehow after college I stopped writing completely. I blame this on the spirit-thrashing that is the law school experience. I found a script I had begun writing with a friend in high school.  He's no longer with us, and I will keep those yellow papers forever if for that reason only.  And to remind myself that once upon a time I thought it was appropriate to include Soul Asylum as the lead track in our movie.

9) College essays offering clear evidence that I was more intelligent and articulate in my late teens than I am now.
I wondered why I would possibly hand in a medieval English paper called "Let's Talk About Sex" and then remembered a friend and I challenged each another to incorporate totally off the wall phrasing into our boring papers.  "Handsome young buck" was one I threw him.

10) A signed and dated document by my dad regretting a certain Presidential vote. A personal treasure.

The point of spring cleaning is to clear things out, to wipe off the dust, to throw things away.  What I found myself doing was spring cleaning my memories. I pulled them out of the box one by one, dusting them off, holding them up to the light, and putting them right back in the box they had come from.

I can't wait to find all of this all over again.

The Lions of Little Rock. And me.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (book #11 for fiftyfifty.me!) is a stellar Young Adult novel that was recommended to me by a friend. But recommendations can really be hit or miss. After its never-ending series of critical kudos, I was relieved to be assured I was in for a good read. What I did not realize was that it would also stir something very personal in me.

The story takes place in 1958 Arkansas, after the Little Rock Nine, and during a time when local schools inexplicably continued to struggle with whether to stay open if they had to be integrated. More specifically, it is the tale of two young girls, Marlee and Liz. Marlee, who has been shy her whole life, finds reason to open up to Liz, the new kid. But no sooner have they forged this important friendship than Liz disappears from her school.  We learn immediately that she was "passing" as a white, and has been found out. These plots points set the backdrop for a fascinating, educational story of a time where you were white or black, period, and where the category you fell in very strictly delineated your opportunities and social circles.

This novel also gives readers - or hey, me - an opportunity to consider what it might feel like to be forced into a category. Worse yet: what it might be like to be notified that you don't fall into the "appreciated" categories; to know deep down that you are an outsider and yet not want to call attention to that fact.

As the new magnum opus stupidus Shahs of Sunset prepares to air on Bravo TV and humiliate me, desecrating all that's holy about my centuries-old culture (thank you, Ryan Seacrest), I am forced to think about whether we've really come all that far from the days of segregation. Supposedly, the show will showcase a different side of Persians. The pitch amounts to: Iranians aren't all  bearded anti-American freaks! No! They party and sell real estate -- they're just like us!

Horrifying, really.

Yet the recent addition of this show to America's cultural lineup proves a fact I often comment upon: Middle Easterners are the last minority you can be openly racist about. Under the guise of railing against the sliver of the population that behaves violently, people post hatred and spit vitriol left and right. To add a little insult to injury, they do so generally. I have yet to meet more than 5 Americans who realize Iranians aren't Arab. They don't bother having to know because it doesn't matter to them. But we all know Chinese people aren't Japanese. You don't need to know much about the nuances of Middle Eastern culture or country boundaries here, because they're all clumped together as evil.

Recently, while reading the comments section of a news article about the tensions between Iran and other nations, my jaw dropped as I read what people had written.  It's not ok to do this with blacks, Latinos, or Asians - if someone wrote about blasting another race off the earth, my guess is the news outlet would have moderated the comment (read: edited it out). But it's open season (since the 1970s) on anyone of Middle Eastern heritage. Born and raised here, I have actually professionally vowed to uphold American law, which is more than I can say for a lot of other citizens, and yet I'm the outsider? Because my hair is black or my grandparents lived on a different continent?

To be clear, I do not mean to say that the level of segregation, racism, or torment even remotely approaches that of African Americans in the 1950s (or before. or after), but simply to say that perhaps we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet. That maybe American still has some lessons to learn about equality and acceptance and entitlement -- and kindness.

Turning the pages of Kristin Levine's novel, I was reminded of my time at law school; the Towers had just fallen and, out of concern for the heightened tension in the corridors and violent commentary, a group of Near Eastern students requested a meeting with the then-Dean. At a time when people who even looked Middle Eastern were being attacked nationwide and when his own students who wore hejab (a scarf to cover a woman's hair, which some believe is required by the religion) required escorts for safety, it took him over a week to take the meeting.

When we finally sat down, we began telling him our tales- vicious and worrying comments made in the student lounge, or in one case, aimed at a prominent Middle Eastern professor. Our concerns were met by his dismissal- he quickly reminded us that he considered himself a First Amendment scholar and felt that people had a blanket right to freedom of speech (any scholar will tell you freedom of speech isn't that cut and dry, but I don't pretend this gentleman was a scholar of that sort.)

IN ANY CASE, he sat back and said:

 "I had no idea there were so many of you here."

He spoke as if, unbeknownst to him, we had "passed"; we had been admitted and walked the halls -- as if we didn't deserve to be there. There were one million things he could have said, or should have said, and yet this was what he used his breath to utter.  A case of one person absentmindedly speaking his mind, but he's certainly not the only one who thinks that way. I daresay he wouldn't have taken this same liberty with La Raza in the room or any other ethnic student group. But Middle Easterners aren't so popular these days, so looser lips abound.

I read The Lions of Little Rock as I filled out an application that required me to fill in the bubble for race. It is something I always struggle with - to me, the options seem limited.  We can identify as White, Latino, African-American, Asian, Native American, or Unwilling to Disclose.  And so this becomes my cultural identity: Unwilling to Disclose. No one in this country treats me as if they think I'm white (as if white is still the prize or necessity to contribute to and participate in the community), and I hesitate to fill it in every time, so I don't.

The Lions of Little Rock is a powerful book for so many reasons. On the surface it is a sweet, thoughtful tale, and one might mistakenly file it away as historical fiction and believe that the lessons end there.  But the point is that the story is important to us today, and will be every day until we properly square away our racial issues. One can only hope that a unique book like this contributes to a gentler younger generation, one that approaches each and every member of their classroom with more interest and understanding.  Not just the black children- all children who look a little bit different than them, or act a little bit different. It is a tale of acceptance that I guess I wish more adults would read and learn from.

As much as I loved this story and its message of hope, the author couldn't understand me more than when she writes her final words and reminds us: we still have a long way to go.

My Culture Consumption: Roundup #1

January was a doozy over here in this thing called life.  It was a chance to think long and hard about what is important, so before you dive into reading this post, do me a favor and go text someone you love. (I'd say call them, but let's take baby steps)

I'm going to follow the footsteps of my blogging muse and just dive in on this one, My Culture Consumption: Roundup #1 (Jan - early Feb edition).

Although the month of January threw some curve balls, it also had some high points and I remained steadfast in my dedication to fiftyfifty.me.
 
Since I last wrote, I have read 3 new books:

*The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (book #4)
*Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (book #5)
*The Tiger's Wife (book #6)


Now, at first glance you might think I read 2 self help books and yet another trashy celeb bio, but this is not the case!   
best. title. ever

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight
by Jennifer E. Smith

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a sweet and simple YA (young adult, ye non-literary friends in the house) novel about a boy and girl who meet at an airport, and what transpires over the course of the next 24 hours.  As someone who can be easily sold on concept, I loved where she went with it, and the clever title had me from the get-go.  It is not a question of if this movie will be made into a movie, but when.

Of course, it made me wonder what the statistical probability of love at first sight would actually be.  Ooh, and would the same thing happen to me on my flight the next week?  Not so much.  In a very symbolic moment about my life, I ended up on the flight where the dude behind me was eating a tuna sandwich. 


The Tiger's Wife 
by Tea Obreht

Books that get a gazillion accolades are truly hit or miss.  When I started this one, I got worried. Beautiful cover, 1001 quotes from adoring literary superstars... how would it deliver?  And for the first 50 pages, I'll be honest, it didn't.  I actually described it to others as "literary molasses".  But then the pieces started to come together and I settled into the rhythm of the way the story is braided, and it became more enjoyable.  What was most impressive to me was she had created a fairytale for adults.  It was unlike anything else I had read, and the depths of her imagination, while at first alienating to me, became astounding.




eat these, for example.
 Food Rules: An Eater's Manual 
by Michael Pollan


You'd look at the title and think I could write this one, but it turns out it stumped even me.  Apparently food that comes in through the window of your car is not food??  Wish I got the memo before swinging into Jack in the Box yet again. A straightforward compilation of common wisdom regarding eating and health.  We've heard some of these items over and again (women's magazines recycle these tips every month, do they not?) And yet the brilliance of the delivery is in the simplicity.  I've been cooking at home nonstop since reading it, so it must have worked. Quick, someone take a picture!


Movie-wise I've been slacking.  I saw The Muppets (movie #3), the new one with never-lets-me-down Jason Segel and Amy Adams.  Then I went on a movie hiatus as I spent hours of my sweet youth watching Downton Abbey (worth 0 pts on fiftyfifty.me, but worth a million to my internal romantic)  The Muppets was fantastic because it was delivered in a self-conscious style that allowed it to be self-deprecating and fun; from the start the movie makes you aware that they KNOW it won't live up to traditional Muppet movies, but you're going to have fun with it anyways.  And we did. 

Yesterday I tried to pick up the pace, and watched Gattaca (movie #4) last night, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.  Then today I went to see A Separation (movie #5), the Iranian film that has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar as well as Best Screenplay.

One of these was significantly better than the other, in my opinion. That would be the one where Uma Thurman is not playing the ideal woman. (Seriously, she's cute but how are there not one but TWO movies centered on this theme?) 

Set in a future society obsessed with human perfection, I liked the issues that Gattaca raises.  It was interesting to watch it so many years after its release; at the time when it came out I'm sure people weren't yet testing to see what gender baby they could conceive, strategizing for a child's best success via selecting the "right" donor at the bank, etc.  So  I'm sure my experience is different, watching it in a time and place (now) where this testing isn't that much of a wild concept. And perhaps that's what made it even creepier, less of a sci-fi and more of a social warning.  So they had concept and the cinematography was beautiful -- but for me the acting fell flat.  All I could think of was how happy I was for these two boring people that they found each other.  I wanted to do away with the other two and just watch Jude Law, charming as ever. Of course the one interesting one self-incinerates, of course.


A Separation probably deserves a post of its own.

The story, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is about a man and woman who are in the process of divorcing- they separate and he is left to raise their daughter and to find care for his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's.  The plot spirals out from there, examining the ripple effects of our actions.  The film introduces a cast of absorbing characters through strong acting, heavy but well-delivered themes, and storyline that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

A Separation deserves the accolades it has been getting. But here's the thing: it's not a good movie despite its being from Iran, which I fear is what some people think.  It is a good movie because it is done with heart and with universal themes and characters you can readily relate to, however wildly different their circumstances might be from your own.

For me, the movie and its social ecosystem it reflects is symbolic of Iran (and the world) as a whole- it's much more complex than you could possibly imagine at first glance.

Nothing is simple. cc: Politicians of the world.

Book #3: Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 3.5 or 4 of 5 stars
Book #3 for my fiftyfifty.me!

Fact: I could only read this book with all the lights on and never right before sleep. Tonight I stayed up reading because I couldn't bear the thought of having it haunt me any longer!

Additional fact: when I described the plot to my mom, she was sure she had seen it on Lifetime at some point.  So just so you have a sense of what we're dealing with here.

To that end, it meets the definition of a good thriller: a great hook, strong pacing, and it scares the daylights out of you.  The setup reminded me a little bit of Wait Until Dark, a movie you should see if you haven't.  Same as in that film, here a woman is deprived of a main sense/function- here, her memory. Every day she learns, and every night when she sleeps, she will forget.

See what I'm talking about?!

It definitely held my interest- it's at least a solid 3.5, probably a 4.  I found myself rushing forward, needing to know just what the hell was going on!  You get points for that, people.
I should probably read this next.

I imagine it's a challenge for a novelist to write the novel of an amnesiac and not bore your reader to tears as the days are repeated; it's well done here.  Good mass market-style fiction. Oh, and try not to compare it to the movie Momento: That'll be a losing bet. 

For those of you not inclined to the literary arts, I did check and thankfully this is not a Lifetime movie (that I know of, or at least by this title). It is categorized as "in development" on IMDB.  But secretly, part of me is hoping Lifetime does make a movie even sooner.  And if it could star Nancy McKeon or Meredith Baxter Birney, all the better!  When I'm done posting this I'll write Lifetime a letter.

Anyhow, it kept me on the edge of my seat with heart palpitations for 3 days straight.  I'm considering this book my cardiovascular activity for the week!

Book #2: Knowing Your Value

Knowing Your Value: Negotiating Your Way to the Salary You Deserve by Mika Brzezinski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend recommended this to me on our Colombia trip.  Because she's a writer whose career I admire, I decided to pick it up.  But let's be clear: I wasn't really looking forward to it.  I thought of it as medicine I should take along the way for my career.  I picked up my copy at the local library (yay library!) and was impressed by the fierce woman on the cover.  And so I began... and just a few pages in, I knew this was one of those books I'd be talking about for ages to come.

Knowing Your Value should be required reading for any woman who plans on, you know, ever having a job. It isn't about putting a # on your value but on realizing that the traditional ways that women communicate and relate- which often serve us well in our daily lives - actually work very much against us in the work environment. And an important point: it's not about men vs. women, it's about women as their own worst enemy.

First of all, Mika is extremely likeable and easy to identify with. I knew nothing about her, but now have set my tv to record her show, that sort of thing. Her analysis isn't written from a patronizing point of view (memo to every other advice author) but rather from the angle of someone who has been through a lot and had to earn her lesson-learning the hard way. Her humility is engaging, and inspiring (hey, if she ends up sitting on the desk for her book cover, so could you!)

Secondly, she pulls in a pool of high profile executives who corroborate what she says in their own ways. So the book ends up feeling like a star-studded focus group, complete with Carol Bartz's foul language, or Trump admitting that if you ask him for too much he'll probably fire you anyhow. It gives what she says additional validity, and more scenarios you are likely to identify with.  What do women say that men would never say to themselves?  What do men ask for that gets them the higher salaries? What are the possible reasons for those payment disparities we always hear about?  How does motherhood affect the equation?

There were so many quotable passages in here.  I found myself constantly bringing it up in conversation as I came to terms with how obvious some of the scenarios were, and yet I'd never really noticed them. I will be buying copies and gifting this for a long time to come.

Girls, get your read on.

Book #1: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

FINALLY!  Ever since Jon and I created fiftyfifty.me, a reading/movie challenge,  go figure that we got so busy administrating that we haven't gotten a moment to read. And by "we", I mean the royal We here.

The good news is that I just turned the last page of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

Book #1, done!
The bad news: only giving it 2 of 5 stars.  This means "eh".


I have loved other Agatha Christie mysteries but this wasn't a favorite. Too many moving pieces, to begin with.  I kept flipping forward to refer to the cast of characters; only a few stood out to me and to the very end I couldn't really tell the butler from the secretary, for example.  It barreled forward throwing in details out of left field.  Somehow it skidded to a halt that was completely predictable but based on nothing I could have predicted.  Sounds odd to say, but if you read it you'll immediately know what I mean. 

I spent more of the time being confounded and retracing my steps/trying to visualize what was going on than getting to sink into the story or even have a hope of getting my own guesses going.  That said, I enjoyed her writing along the way, even in my complete confusion.

The book setup calls to mind ever-beloved Clue; a mansion, a muuuuuurder, and maps of the layout that you have to ponder over.  However, in the end it just didn't deliver for me.  That said, I believe the book is famous for introducing certain writing devices into mystery.  Click here if (and ONLY if) you want a spoiler, ok? 

Hercule Poirot is a memorable literary character with a pretty awesome name, but I'll stick to the film/tv versions of his subset of Christie tales if they're all like this. 

Will definitely be reading other Agatha Christies for the challenge, I'm sure, but this wasn't the running start I was hoping for!  Oh well, I suppose it sets the bar low- my next 49 books better deliver or else.

Resolve This.

Happy first week of the year down!

Have I mentioned how much I love making New Year's resolutions?  I LOVE MAKING NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS.  Sometimes my resolutions overlap with my bucket list, which as you know by now, I am slightly obsessed with.  I think this is all a symptom of my larger list-making obsession.  I make resolutions for the regular new year, for Persian New Year/Norooz (March) and on an ongoing basis with friends; any excuse, really.  I'm the kind of person who would put "Make new year's resolutions" on my list.

I used to put my resolutions up on my refrigerator, but one year I had "Learn to knit baby blankets" on my list because so many girlfriends were having kids and I thought they would make cute gifts.  Note to self: this is not appropriate decor when a date is over.  I had a little explaining to do.  So now I'm keeping it between me and my blog (and you, I guess). 

In past years, resolutions have included travel, going out more, drinking more water & wine than soda (I should probably revive that one), stepping it up with the fitness, keeping in better touch with people, making more girlfriends in my city, etc.  I've been pretty good about holding myself to them in the past and I hope the pattern will continue this year, but I also hope I will pick more interesting resolutions.  The key is really picking things you'll actually do.  As I like to point out, certain things are just never gonna happen. I'm not going to give up being sarcastic or quit coffee. I'm not going to magically remember to include attachments when I send emails.  So why set myself up for failure?


This year's list is working out nicely so far, although there aren't too many surprises yet:


2012 Resolutions:
1) Do more yoga.
Specifically, to learn to do a proper headstand in yoga without collapsing, knocking the wind out of me (and possibly the person next to me)

2) Don't eat standing up.
This is a symptom of my life, which is led largely on the run, like a refugee from the law but much less interesting.  So either I need to become that interesting, or I need to sit down and properly get to enjoy my meals.

3) Do fiftyfifty.me
50 books, 50 movies, all new to me, to be torn through this year.  This is the resolution I am by far most excited about.  I'm all signed up- are you?  I tend to read a lot every year and in the back of my mind aim for 50 books, but haven't ever been able to nail it.  Movies, however, are a whole other story.  I've only started to become a movie fan in the past few years, and devote little to no time to it. Subresolution: to finish reading Milan Kundera's bibliography.  He's my favorite writer by far, and I've saved a few of his books to read on a rainy day (or if ever in the hospital in traction, etc. And yes, I save books for this.)  On the off chance the world ends in 2012, I need to probably get to the last few of these ;)

4) Go new places.
This is always on my list. Last year landed me in Nashville and Colombia, two of my favorite vacations, for example.  I'm excited to see what opportunities come up this year. New Orleans is definitely in the cards, but I'm worried you'll never be able to tear me out of a jazz bar once I'm seated.  I am trying to find a way to get over to Africa, specifically to Senegal.  I haven't been to some of the beautiful parks in California.  Stuff like that.   I don't know where this year will take me, but I've found that actually promising yourself to try new venues leads you to, you know, actually do it.  I'm open to suggestions if you have 'em!

5) Find somewhere new to volunteer. 
Step it up. I do volunteer communications work with Real Medicine Foundation and I support mAss Kickers Foundation, but I miss hands-on experience working with clients and seeing the first-hand effects of volunteering.  So some of that.  Perhaps this will be the year I become a Big Sister and formally pass my 80s music knowledge to the next generation? 

6) Respond to emails within 24 hours. 
This is beyond impossible, but it's nice to have goals! I heard this from an executive I work with - and he really does keep to it. Granted, his emails are to the extent of "Thanks" "Sounds good", etc. and I tend to write War and Peace: The Sequel in my emails, but I'd like to get back to people while the content of their emails is still relevant.

7) Use the phone more, email less. 
Remember back when we had personal contact? Yeah, that.

8) Entertain in the home more.
I'm constantly out, which is fun but not totally personal and, sure, expensive.  I love it but I think this year I'll try to mix it up and make use of my place more- cook dinners, gather friends, just lounge around and make it even more homey. Homie?


9) Travel guy.
I didn't even know this was a resolution for me, but we were babbling about resolutions when we hiked to the waterfall in Colombia and this one came tumbling out of my mouth.  Apparently (says my subconscious?) I want to be with a guy I am excited to travel with, and to go ahead and travel with him. Traveling well together is obviously a great way to assess how you guys fare generally, but I love travel and I realize it's something I need someone else to be into- exploring places, going beyond your limits.  From his love of travel I would apparently be able to draw sweeping generalizations about his understanding of his place in the world.  Ok, but if we're being honest, there's also the little fact that there are places I want to go that would be a lot of fun with my girlfriends, but a male bodyguard would be nice and/or necessary (for one thing).  Plus, as great of a time as we have, I have to stop accidentally going on romantic-destination vacations with my best girlfriends.  See also: Mexico, Paris, Greece, cruises, the Caribbean.  I mean, seriously.

10) Develop a new talent.
Obviously I don't know what this one is gonna be, but knowing me it will be a little off the wall. Archery, anyone?


11) Write more. 
And here we are.


fiftyfiftyme: Movie #2, Absurdistan

Ok, apparently we're living in bizarro world, because I just watched my second movie of the challenge, but have yet to finish a single book. 

I visited my sis and we popped in a random comedy we found on Netflix, Absurdistan. I assumed it was the film from the Gary Shteyngart book of the same name (which I haven't read) - turns out I'm wrong. It's a Russian flick and we went into it pretty much blind.

The premise of the movie is simple- young lovers are finally going to have their first night together, but it coincides with the women of the town going on strike against the men (read: no sex) for continuing to neglect the water shortage in the town.  So it's up to our young hero to sort out water for the village and set the gender relations back on track if he wants a night of his own. 'Tis a lot to saddle a young teen with, no?

The movie is beautifully shot- the sets are colorful and engaging, and the story is told with so little dialogue and so much facial expression.  It has the feeling of a (slightly raunchy) folk tale, and is a total escape. 

It picked up awards at a few festivals, and I can see why. While this movie takes place in a world none of us can imagine, the gender wars surpass cultural, economical, or linguistic boundaries to be both identifiable and hilarious.  My sole complaint is that I felt bad for the guy.  To the very end I wasn't entirely convinced why he liked her so much (maybe his miming was better than hers?)  I would have kicked her to the curb. But hey, that's what makes it romantic I guess!

The best thing about it, I researched later, is that it's not entirely absurd.  In fact, the movie is based on a true story!  Veit Helmer, the writer and director, was inspired by "a 2001 newspaper account of women in the Turkish village of Sirt refusing to accommodate their husbands until they fixed a broken pipeline."  

If I rated movies, this would get a B, but mostly only because I'm stingy with A's.

2 for 2, people!

My fiftyfifty.me Begins! (2012)

Once upon a time, Jon had this great idea to try and watch 50 movies and read 50 books in the year 2012.  But I've already told you that part.

Fast forward to January 1st, when I watched my first movie of 2012.  I decided to set a light tone for the year and start with a romantic comedy. I got a few minutes into Love and Other Disasters, starring Brittany Murphy, and it was, true to its name, pretty disastrous, mostly in the British accent department.  I decided rather than waste time on something I'm not enjoying (hopefully a habit I will keep up throughout the year), I'd try something else.  So I started to watch TiMER, which I had saved in my Netflix queue but am not quite sure how I found it.  I tend to be willing to watch anything that's a romantic comedy. It's like candy for my little brain.  I have a million foreign films and documentaries lined up (just trying to save my street cred here, can you blame me?) but I wanted something easy to slide right into the new year.

MOVIE #1: TiMER
Now, I don't remember how I came across the movie TiMER, but the concept stuck in my head- it's about a company creating chips they can implant in you that will begin counting down to when you'll meet your soulmate (once that person, too, has a chip).  I won't give you the whole synopsis, it's probably worth watching.  I identified with more of the dialogue than I expected to, and the characters were all very likeable.  But what I enjoyed most was that it had a smart sense of humor and opened up the age-old discussion of whether it's better to know your fate, good or bad, or if you should just wing it.  And is there only one person for you?

Let's be honest, it's not common for romantic comedies to get you thinking.  I found myself wondering what I would do, if I would get a bracelet, how it would change things to know that someone was/not coming into your life.  Where does timing play into your life?  What do you do when, like one character, you find out that your soulmate IS out there... but it'll be approximately 5000+ days until you guys cross paths (apparently the answer is: you sleep around).
 A lot of girls (myself included) tend to eyeball whether something is worth their time; we don't, especially in our 30s, do as much of dating because someone is interesting or just funny to be around.  We'll move on if we don't see it going somewhere.  The irony is that we end things and we don't know if, in a parallel world, it would be the person you end up with, because you close that dorr.  In the movie romance quickly becomes subjected to the timer litmus test.  In fact, the opening scene is a girl dragging her new (1 month) boyfriend in to get timers so they can figure out if this is worth their time.

I guess on some level, women already do this, blurting out questions about long-term goals and needs on first dates.  (Thanks simply to the bad advice of a dating guru whose butt landed on Oprah's couch)  Women often put out awkward feelers early on to figure out if they have the information they need to proceed (or not) with a guy they're seeing.  TiMER effectively offers the scientific scenario (hm...perhaps it should be filed under "fantasy" for women??) -- where you could just, with the press of a timer, identify if you're investing your time in the "right" person.

Ultimately the question becomes whether experience for experience's sake has any value in a world where you could move straight to point B.  With a timer it becomes about the destination, not the journey.  So pick your side.  And having the timer/not becomes somewhat of a social statement in the movie, a ready identifier of people who live by different philosophies regarding fate and romance.

Would you get a timer if they really existed?  After devoting more time to pondering a romantic comedy than I ever have or ever will again, I can safely say that I don't think I would.  I don't know that I could handle the pressure or the disappointment of its certainty.  I read the horoscope in line at the coffee shop and that's enough to rattle me, so do I really need to know the facts about my long-term future?  Nope!

Anyhow, I was excited to watch my first movie of the year and the fiftyfifty.me challenge, and it got me thinking that I might explore a "sci-fi romantic comedy" major.  (Yeah, I didn't know that existed until yesterday either.)  It might end up being a minor, because there really aren't that many options.  But so far I've found another couple of movies that might fit in my sci fi romcom category, Peggy Sue Got Married (which I've never seen) and Happy Accidents (which I'd never heard of).  The key is to see how they can work comedy into it. They always throw a hot chick into sci fi movies to keep the boys entertained, so the challenge is in making it cute.

By the way, am I the only person who sees "romantic comedy" and automatically thinks "Meg Ryan"? Just wondering. 

As for Book #1, I'm slogging through The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht.  The book is covered in praise, which can be hit or miss.  Usually I'm skeptical, but right now my defenses are down because last year I read Jennifer Egan's Visit From the Goon Squad, equally decorated with accolades, and it totally delivered.  The writing in Tiger is good, but not keeping me up at night.  I'm hoping it picks up- I have lots to do!  The last time I put so many holds on books/movies at the library I was 12.  In the meantime, I will probably diversify and read something else, just so I don't, you know, lose all my enthusiasm about reading. Ok, slightly dramatic.

If you guys are fiftyfifty'ing, rest assured that I'm trawling your blogs and goodreads lists for suggestions.  The question isn't whether I'll get 50/50 done- I think I will. The key is to actually enjoy what I dive into.  I can safely say that on movies, I'm 1 for 1 so far.  Hooray!