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Archive for August, 2011

Day Three with no power, and now for something completely different, Day One with no hot water!  *sigh*  Because we’re in such an area of low importance, I have a feeling we won’t get either back until at least the end of the week.  At least, I am trying to prepare myself for the disappointment of going home every day and finding the power still out.
A silver lining (there is one, I think) is that I am tearing through books faster than I can review them.  I actually finished this book on Sunday, and I’ve finished another besides.  So here it is — Lauren Oliver’s much-touted Delirium.
Lena Haloway is terrified of love.  Love is the disease that has been eradicated by her government — all citizens receive “the cure” at age 18, and go on to live completely normal, healthy lives free of amor deliria nervosa.  Love is what drove her mother to commit suicide when Lena was only six.  Love casts a shadow over every aspect of life, every part of Lena’s dystopian society.  Love is the last thing that Lena wants any part of.  But less than 50 days before her cure, Lena realizes that love is the one thing she can’t live without.  And now she has to make a choice — live a lie forever, a life without love, or leave behind everything that she knows.
After The Hunger Games and Divergent, I’ve been definitely riding the wave of dystopian YA literature.  Abandon, while not dystopian, was a complete bust, and so I was hoping that Delirium would renew my faith in YA lit.  It did.  I liked Delirium, unfortunately not as much as HG or Divergent, but I liked it nonetheless.

Lena, as a character, is interesting in her mediocrity.  She’s no Bella Swan — quick to tout her mediocrity, yet unable to explain why everyone loves her (I still don’t get the attraction).  She’s not Katniss Everdeen, superwoman and queen of survival.  And she’s not Tris Prior, a rebel without a cause from the right side of the tracks, rushing headlong into conflict.  Lena is…plain.  She’s not attractive.  Boys don’t like her.  There’s nothing “special” about her.  Her main concern, unlike Bella, unlike Katniss, unlike Tris, is being singled out.  If it was up to Lena, she’d be completely ordinary forever, as long as it guarantees that she won’t fall into the same trap her mother did.

The theme of love as a mental illness is an interesting one.  Lena is terrified of becoming like her mother — so blinded by amor deliria nervosa that the disease eventually took her life.  It’s interesting to see a writer talk so candidly and go so in-depth with the story of a child’s response to the mental illness of their parent, and the question, in the end, of if the mother is the one who is sane, and not the authorities, after all.

The turning point of the book, for me, was the climax at the end.  Up until that point, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually read the sequel.  Not that Delirium was bad, but that I had pretty much assumed I knew how everything would go, only to have the end come as a surprise.  I don’t know if I’ll be reading the sequel, Pandemonium, but I wouldn’t rule it out.  We’ll see.

Rating: *** and 1/2

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Sometimes I get a hold of a novel that doesn’t strike me as that alluring at first.  I don’t have difficulty putting it down to do something else, I don’t really “get into” the story.  And then all of a sudden, something happens, and I fall headlong into it, and wind up loving it.  That happened with The Pillars of the Earth, it happened with The Hunger Games.

And it happened with Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter.

Boston, present day.  Nina Revskaya, a former ballerina and star of the Russian Bolshoi Ballet, now confined to a wheelchair, is auctioning off her priceless and legendary collection of jewels to benefit the arts.  In doing so, she hopes to finally close off the painful past, memories of the years before her defection from Stalinist Russia, once and for all.  Drew Brooks, the curious young woman who is in charge of setting up the auction, is fascinated by Nina’s jewels and the history behind them, and wonders why she can’t figure out Nina or her motives as she sets up the final sale of these priceless gems.  And when Grigori Solodin, a middle-aged professor of Russian studies, produces an amber pendant that appears to belong to the collection, all three are intrinsically linked in the uncovering of a mystery that changed the course of Nina’s life — and Grigori’s.
First of all, this book has everything in it that I love.  Russian history.  Ballet.  Jewelry.  Poetry.  Boston.  There was really no way that I wasn’t going to love it.  But the writing style was what sealed it for me.  Everything was so beautifully written, so well described.  My favorite parts were Nina’s flashback episodes, which take up the majority of the book.  Kalotay really paints a vivid picture of life as a ballerina during the Stalinist regime — living as one of the elite in a period where so many people were poor and had nothing, the balance between being fortunate and being afraid of the fall.  There is so much that we in the West still don’t know about life in the Eastern Bloc, behind the Iron Curtain of communism, during the reigns of Stalin, Kruschev, etc.
Although Nina is not overtly made a sympathetic character, I had to pity her so many times throughout the novel.  She has made mistakes and lived to regret them, but feels that now, fifty years later and across the ocean, it is too late for her to redeem herself.  I love novels with a theme of redemption, and I loved Russian Winter.  Another five-star, and one of my favorite books of 2011.
Rating: *****

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Surviving Irene

Aaaannnnd looks like we’re back!  Unfortunately my apartment is still without power (one of only three houses on our block without power…*sigh*), but we never lost water, which is something to be thankful for.  And of course, we’re okay.  My parents are okay; no trees fell on their house, and all we suffered are a few downed branches and some loose shingles.  But we’re okay, and that’s what matters.  So regardless of David’s moaning (all of his interests are electronic-based), we are fine, and hopefully the power will be back on soon.
So how did I spend Hurricane Irene?  Saturday was my cousin Melinda’s wedding (finally; they’ve been engaged for over two years now!), and although it was nail-biting (the weather was kind of rough that morning), they still had a beautiful wedding!

Melinda’s father, my godfather, John, died in 2007 of a heart attack, so she was escorted down the aisle by her two gorgeous daughters, Lauryn and Shealin. 

 

These two were made for each other.  I was so happy for them.

The much-talked of zombie wedding cake!  The cake topper is a groom running away from a zombie bride.

Me and my handsome husband 🙂  I got my hair cut just the day before and I love it.  It’s so short and spunky.
My new favorite picture of the two of us.
Saturday night was more or less the same ol’, same ol’.  We didn’t lose power until early on Sunday morning, so we both took advantage of the hurricane (and lack of internet) and slept in.  I got a lot of reading done (reviews to come), and David…was really bored.
We ended up going to my parents’ house for dinner (since they had a grill and we could get a hot meal).  And my father’s birthday was on Saturday, so we celebrated it on Sunday instead.  When Dave and I got home, we were still without power…and still are this morning.  Boo.  Hopefully the food in our fridge won’t spoil before the electric company gets the power running again!
How did all of you do?  Everyone alive out there?

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My friend Matt is a fire spinner, has been for several years.  As a joke, stitched into his Duvetyne cloth (the flame-retardant cloth spinners use to put out errant flames) are the words “Safety Third”  (I asked what first and second are; he told me “audience” and “performance”).  Cute joke, but in all honesty, safety is really crucial when fire spinning.  
As my friend Joe says, burns are somewhat of an “occupational hazard” (like any of us are getting paid for this — though I do know some people who do…).  Most times, burns don’t go beyond singeing your hair or eyebrows, if you are careful and have a safety spotting you at all times.  There are several steps you can take to assure that you are as safe as possible while fire spinning.
1) Wear natural materials — no polyester.  As any knitter will tell you, polyester or acrylic yarn (and fabric) is not naturally flame-retardant (unless it has been treated).  When a natural material like wool or cotton catches on fire, it will catch slowly, and wool will often self-extinguish (not that you’ll be giving it enough time to).  Acrylic and other plastic-based materials will melt and adhere to the skin — which is very painful and requires professional removal from medical personnel.  And it hurts.  Wear cottons, linens, wools, denims — any natural fabric.
2)  Limit the use of alcohol-based sprays and aerosols.  This includes hairspray, mousse, perfumes, and some bug sprays.  All of these are combustible, so if you’re piling them on before fire spinning, you run the risk of igniting yourself.
3) “Spin-off” your performance articles after dipping them in fuel.  Often, when you dip the wicks into the fuel, the wicks soak up much more fuel than necessary.  To eliminate excess fuel, spin your performance object very quickly (I usually put one finger through the hole handle of my fan and spin it very fast), so you can either see (or feel) the fuel spinning off it.  This will eliminate the risk of fuel dripping down the object to your hands or skin.
4) Always have a safety.  Your safety should be someone who stands a few feet away from you with a flame-retardant cloth (about 2′ by 2′) and who keeps his or her eyes on you at all times throughout your performance, in case a trick goes awry and you catch something on fire.  If the safety sees errant flames, he or she should yell “DOWN” (not “FIRE” for obvious reasons), which will be the sign for you to immediately drop whatever performance article you have.  The safety will then use the cloth to first extinguish any flames on your person, and then (if necessary) extinguish the flames on the performance article.  Never spin without a safety.  Even when you are just practicing in your own back yard.  David and I take turns.
5) Always spin fire outdoors and away from pets or children.  This should go without saying, I know.  Keep all pets either tethered or held a safe distance away, and keep children away.  I have never spun in front of children before, but I have spun in front of animals, and you’d be surprised how many dogs think that fire spinning is SO AWESOME.  Or they think their masters are in danger and try to run to them.  It’s best to not spin with animals there until you know how they’re going to react to the flames…and even then, have them on a leash or tether for their own protection.

6) Know your props/fire toys, and choose accordingly.  When first learning how to spin, it is nice to start with a “stationary” toy, such as a fan or a staff, that has no movable parts.  In layman’s terms, when you light the wicks of a fan, or a staff, they stay a continuous distance from your body.  Where you spin the fire, it will stay.  However, if you are using fire poi (wicks on the ends of dangling chains), you have less control over where you are spinning your fire.  I had a friend this past weekend at Wildfire light himself on fire with his poi, and he’s been spinning for over a year now.  Start small.

From FireMecca.com

6a) LED toys are your friends!  If you don’t think you’re ready to spin fire (good for you for listening to your inner voice!), but you still want to spin, LED toys are definitely your friends.  LED toys are like regular toys, except that they have LED lights built-in.  You can get some ridiculously pretty results using LED props — one of my favorite things this weekend was a “fire and ice” hoop, which had both LED lights and fire wicks.  The result looked like the picture to the right.  Awesome, no?

LED toys are great for learning how to spin, or spinning in places where fire is not welcome (such as your rented apartment backyard, if you don’t happen to have a sympathetic landlord, or indoors).  You get beautiful results, it looks badass, you can practice to your heart’s content, and you don’t run the risk of hurting yourself or others.

Finally…7) Ask for help!  If you want to get into fire spinning, but you’re not sure how to start, ask a fellow spinner!  Seriously, I don’t know anyone who spins fire that doesn’t want to help other people get involved and see how cool and fun it really is.  I joined a FB group yesterday for spinners in my home state (Connecticut), and someone else posted that she wanted to learn fire breathing.  Within minutes, two people had jumped in and commented that they’d be happy to help her learn. 

Stick to all of the above, and you’ll be well on your way to spinning safely!

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Wildfire recap!

Wildfire was AMAZING.  I can’t stress that enough.  Although I’m not a camper (and I REALLY hate the way that dew makes everything in your tent, including your sleeping bag and pillows damp), it was still the most fun I’ve had in a long time.  And I can’t wait to go back next year.  There’s another WF in September, but Dave and I can’t afford it and to be honest, as much fun as it is, you come off the weekend feeling like you just took a ride on the world’s biggest roller coaster.  Fun times, but you need a little while to recover afterward.

The whole thing takes place at a Boy Scout camp, so I was a little disconcerted when I walked in at first.  It reminded me way too much of the music camp that Kim and I went to when I was 15 — which was terrible (mean, stupid people; I got the campsite a metric MILE away from base camp; everyone got sick or dehydrated; one of our friends was a douchebag the whole week; etc).  But this camp (thankfully) had plumbing, including flushing toilets and real showers, even if everything else was relatively primitive.  Dave chose to pitch our tent in the wooded area, which again, not my favorite place to be (reminded me too much of music camp).  Next time we go, we’ll camp down on the main field with most of our friends.

The thing I hadn’t anticipated at WF is the laid-back, comfort level of everyone.  Everyone hugs you.  Everyone says hi.  Nobody acts like a douchebag.  It’s kind of amazing.  But it was weird at first.  I had a little bit of an uncomfortable moment when the fifth person I didn’t know gave me a hug.  I am not used to being touched that often, and I had a little bit of an anxiety attack once I was alone.  But I got used to it.

  There ARE no superiors at WF, there are only organizers.  The teachers teach some classes and then go on to take some others, so everyone is on equal footing.  Everyone is required to do four volunteer hours (I helped cook lunch on Saturday and breakfast on Monday) to offset the costs of the retreat.  Cooking was a lot of fun, but tiring — it’s a LOT of work to feed 300 people!

I took a LOT of classes.  The classes took place in the main field and in the tents on the field.  This is also where we would spin fire in the evenings, once it got dark.  The field was clearly marked out by burning lamps and huge braziers, which is where we got fire for our fire toys.  You can’t really see it from this picture.  This is daytime, so everyone was either taking a class or practicing what they had learned.

Dave wanted to only take classes that had to do with fire staff.  He wants to get proficient in one area of expertise.  On the other hand, I took classes in spinning poi (more fun than I expected), hoop (AMAZING), choreography for fan spinning (I learned how to do a thumb roll on the handles of my fans — maybe a video to come if Dave and I can figure out how to work the video on the camera) and belly dance (my abs are still tingly!).  All of them were a lot of fun, but my body is SORE after this weekend!

This is my friend Lyndsey (the one who got us into spinning), spinning her unlit staff on Friday afternoon before dinner.  The circle of benches over there was where we congregated for our “newbie meeting”, which basically explained what was going to happen during the weekend and how we were not to spin fire until we took a safety class on Friday night.

We were blessed with extraordinary good weather — it only rained on Sunday evening, which was unfortunate because it meant that the Performance Class took place in the dining hall instead of in the amphitheater, so nobody could perform with fire.  It was super hot on Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday (see Dave above, drinking water), but Monday was beautiful.  Also, you’re probably noticing that a lot of guys are shirtless?  No guys wear shirts at WF.  I don’t know why.  It’s just the way they roll.  Dave decided to become one of the shirtless guys and paid for it with a super bad sunburn.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

I came home sore, exhausted, slightly burnt (on my nose), but it was the most fun weekend away I’ve had in a LONG time.  We’re planning on going again — maybe next May, around David’s birthday.  They have three Wildfire retreats a year — in May, August, and September — but we can’t afford to go to all three, or even two a year.  It was an amazing weekend, and I can’t wait to do it again.

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While I am a self-professed avid fan of English or British historical fiction, this book, number 70 for the year, is my first foray into French historical fiction, though it takes place around the same period of time as many of my Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory novels:  The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C.W. Gortner.
Last in line of the once-prestigious, now-reviled Italian Medici family, Catherine is only a girl when she is betrothed to the dauphin of France.  Forced to make her home in a strange country, given in marriage to a prince who openly keeps a mistress, it is years before Catherine is able to carve out a life for herself and her children, desperate to ensure her destiny and their legacies.  But she is beset by enemies from all sides — the Protestant Huguenots, who struggle for equality and acceptance; the Guise family, who want to see the existing monarchy topple; and even the ones she loves.  And Catherine must use everything in her power to keep her crown, and her life.  
This is the story of France’s most notorious queen before Marie Antoinette.  Catherine de Medici is almost constantly reviled for the dark decadence that surrounded her reign, and is well known for ruling the country through her sons with an iron fist.  Her lifetime is noted as one of the darkest times in French history (obviously before the French Revolution), involving wars of succession and religion.  Catherine has been accused of witchcraft — she was a patroness of astrologers and particularly of the mystic Nostradamus — and there are few tragedies during her lifetime that were not attributed to her, directly or indirectly.
Yet it is difficult to hate Catherine in this telling of her story.  In the afterward, author Gortner says that she struggled to look beyond the evil reputation that surrounded de Medici to find a sympathetic character underneath.  The incredible tragedies of Catherine’s lifetime include the deaths of eight of her children — only two survived her — and an often brutal war for religious tolerance.  During a time in history where religious persecution was rampant and the Inquisition was wreaking terrible cruelty in Spain, Catherine de Medici struggled for the first part of her life to keep religious intolerance at bay.  Yet she is blamed as the ringleader of the terrible St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants, although there is no direct tie between her and the orders.  Gortner struggles to make Catherine a character that the reader does not despise, trying to show her obvious motivations of keeping her sons alive and her title intact.
The book is very good, and the further I got into it, the more difficult it was to put it down.  While the names became difficult to keep straight at times (there are so many Francois and Henris!), it was a compelling story.  I didn’t manage to feel quite 100% sympathetic towards Catherine — I felt at times like Gortner was modeling her after The Lion In Winter‘s Eleanor of Aquitaine: scheming and manipulating her children onto the throne, whatever the cost may be.  But whatever her motives or disposition, she makes a compelling and fascinating heroine.
Rating: ****

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While David and I were visiting our good friends, Lyndsey and Joe, the other night (the same two people who taught us how to fire spin), I was looking over Lyndsey’s book collection and realized that she had allll four of the books of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles!  Having read only book one (Dealing with Dragons) before, I asked if I could borrow book two.  Lyndsey was kind enough to lend me the remaining three books of the series.  Since they are short and snappy, I started and finished book two today!
Searching for Dragons takes place one year after Dealing with Dragons ends.  Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, is fed up with royal protocol and being nagged to marry.  So he takes the day off and escapes into the Enchanted Forest, only to discover that someone has been stealing magic from the Forest itself, and framing the dragons of the Mountains of Morning for the theft.  When he goes to ask the King of the Dragons, Kazul, for advice, he encounters the Cimorene, the most unlikely princess in the world, who tells him that Kazul is missing.  Together, Mendanbar and Cimorene take an adventure through the Enchanted Forest itself, to find Kazul and the thieves before the magic is sucked from the Enchanted Forest forever.
Maybe it is my extreme devotion to Dealing, but I didn’t like this book half as much.  I think it might be because Mendanbar is the star of the story, and not Cimorene, the heroine of book one.  Mendanbar is a nice enough guy, but he’s not as gutsy and plucky as Cimorene, and he doesn’t appeal to me as much.  The plot of the story moves faster than Dealing did, as well.  It’s not difficult to follow, it’s just not as interesting IMO, especially since you know from the get-go (especially if you read the first book) who the culprits are, whereas in Dealing, the perpetrators remain a mystery until the end of the book.
It’s a good second novel, and I’m planning on reading books three and four shortly.
Rating: ***

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