Monday, September 29, 2008

Murdering Characters

In the film Stranger than Fiction, an author (played by Emma Thompson) meets one of her characters and finds herself unable to kill him off as she intended. Her novel would have been a masterpiece; however, because she could not bring herself to end her character's existence, the book ended up being mediocre.

I've come to the conclusion that being able to murder one's character-creations is the mark of a good writer and makes for better books. Harry Potter, for example: he has to struggle to achieve the end he needs and he loses good friends along the way. Some grumbled that perhaps Ron or Hermione should have died--and perhaps they're right--but the other deaths Rowling wrote were tramatic for her audience. That tragedy added something invaluable to the book. Tolkien was willing to kill off Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and some of the dwarves in The Hobbit. Lewis narrated the death of Aslan in a scene that made me cry in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. These deaths elict real emotion from readers, and forge a connection with a story that wouldn't happen without them.

(***WARNING: TWILIGHT saga spoilers ahead***)

So I finished Breaking Dawn, the last in the series of books I wrote about last week. I was dissatisfied with it. It ends all right, but the problem I have is that the main characters all get exactly what they want. Bella becomes a vampire without really losing her humanity, or even having to endure much of a struggle to not murder humans. Edward gets Bella as a vampire without sparking a war with the werewolves because he keeps her from dying instead of turning a healthy human into a vampire. Jacob--a werewolf--gets over Bella by finding his soul-mate with Edward and Bella's hybrid daughter. Bella and Jacob stay best friends, even though the werewolf nature is to destroy vampires. Occasionally, Meyer makes you think there will be difficulties for the characters, but then everything gets smoothed over perfectly. None of the main characters die. Meyer is unwilling to murder any of them.

What's so wrong with getting what you want? Because we know, deep down, that life isn't that simple. You aren't supposed to get what you want without at least a little struggle. It would have interfered with the story if Bella become crazed with thirst when she sees her father a short time after becoming a vampire, so Meyer makes sure that Bella has amazing self-control unheard of for a newborn vampire. No struggle.

Struggle is what makes for interesting narrative, the kind of story you could read again and again. Harry Potter would not have made me feel if Dumbledore hadn't died, if Harry hadn't had to struggle for a family and to find his place. The Lord of the Rings would have fallen flat if their quest to destroy the Ring hadn't been fraught with dangers and tragedy. Stories worth telling have deep struggles, and sometimes (like Frodo) the characters can't go home again.

Meyer's books are entertaining, but they likely won't end up on the same shelf as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or other great works of fantasy literature. In fact, my paperback copies of the first two novels are destined for Paperback Swap or Bookmooch.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Vanilla Adventure

I bake a lot. I think I have a few friends solely because they love it when I bring them baked goods--and I'm not stingy when I bake something delicious. I have even been proposed to based on a slice of cheesecake*. Baking is definitely one of my hobbies, even if I don't keep up my baking blog much**.

If you bake, you'll know that you usually use a little vanilla. Vanilla extract adds an indefinable quality and flavor to desserts that's just wonderful. You may not necessarily notice when it's there, but you will notice something missing when it's not. Vanilla seems simple ("plain vanilla," anyone?), but it's actually one of the most complex flavors out there.

Since I bake a lot, I always have to keep a bit of vanilla extract on hand. And I buy the good stuff--some extract claims to be pure, but it actually has corn syrup and other things added to it. A good extract should be mainly alcohol and vanilla. Buying the crappy stuff--if it's labeled "pure"--is pricey. Buying the organic/free trade extract is even more expensive.

After recently dropping six bucks for a teeny-tiny bottle at the co-op, I decided to look up how to make your own vanilla extract. I had burning questions: is it difficult? is it cheaper? how is it made, anyway? I then stumbled upon This site tells you how to make extract, and also gives general information about beans, varieties, good places to find beans, and other vanilla-related information.

So it turns out making vanilla is pretty easy. Beans+vodka+time=more extract than you can use in a lifetime. Buying beans was my next challenge, until in my internet travels I found the Organic Vanilla Bean Company, which was recommended by The Kitchn.

Today I bought 1/4 lb. of Tahitian vanilla beans for about eight dollars, plus shipping. From what I've read, a mix of Tahitian and Bourban beans are better for extract, but Tahitian are favored by pastry chefs. I'm no pastry chef, but I do bake pastries. And the Tahitians were a bit cheaper, so in a few days, I'm going to embark on making my very own extract.

*Don't worry, Lance...I turned him down.
**Which, in fact, I should just morph over here. No point in keeping all my interests separate anymore. Especially since I can't seem to keep any of them up to date. I do like have a baking blog, though *sigh*.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


I don't have much to say, so I thought I'd post some interesting links:

The Facts About Corn Sweetener: an interesting look at high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), my personal enemy*. Marion Nestle is a nutrition expert, so I think she's got a pretty good perspective on the debate, especially since the Corn Association is trying to convince the American public that HFCS is harmless, and just like honey! Uggh.

The Kitchn: I love this website. They have a lot of posts, but I've gotten lots of recipes and information from it. They emphasize good, wholesome, local food. They also talk about cool kitchen gadgets and living in an apartment.

No Impact Man: A guy in New York sets out to create zero impact on the world. He talks about what his family does to achieve that goal, and philosophizes about how trying to NOT consume as much as possible makes a happier, healthier world. Pretty fascinating and inspiring.

Elastic Waist: It could probably be a diet blog, but I like to think of it as a body acceptance blog. Many of the posts are about nutrition and about eating good food, but some are about feeling beautiful and fabulous, no matter your waist size--something that many of us can stand to hear.

That's it for today! I might have a vaguely stressy/angsty post coming--I'm in the throes of figuring out when I can find time to work on my thesis (when I'm not at work or in class or working on homework for my class).

*If you've read anything recently from me, you know I really hate it. It affects me strangely, and I can taste it in food. Yuk.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Awful Book I Can't Shut

This summer, I thought I was going to take a seminar in literacy. Part of that class involved reading YA fiction, which excited me. Some of those books are award-winning Good Books. Some were merely popular to teens and fit the purpose of the unit. Thus, I picked up Twilight with the intention of seeing what all the fuss was about.

From the beginning, these books have bothered me. Meyer's style hearkens back to romance novels, punishing kisses and all, and her descriptions are heavy-handed and dull. The style is such that it calls attention (for me at least) to the language, something that it shouldn't do. The narrative should be the focus of the reader's attention, not the language; I had a hard time concentrating on the story at first because Meyer's style got in the way.

But I can't seem to NOT finish the series. Part of it is my obsession with knowing the end of stories, no matter how horrible. Part of it is the stories are strangely compelling, even with all their narrative and character flaws. Now I'm embarking on the final book in the series, knowing how it's likely to end, but I have this need to finish it, even if the end will annoy me.

The Twilight series has captured the imaginations and hearts of thousands of readers. It's hailed as the "next Harry Potter" due to its popularity. However, they can't touch that series because they lack the depth and complexity of Rowling's work. Rowling carefully spins tales with complex characters and mythological allusions. Part of reading Harry Potter is playing "spot the myth". Meyer's books lack that depth and richness.

I purchased the first two books out of curiosity, and checked the other two out from the library because they were only available in hardback, and my desire to know the end of the saga wasn't enough to justify paying for two books that will end up on Paperback Swap or Bookmooch. I'm into the last book, and I just want it to be done so I know how it ends, and then I can go on with life.

I read these books with nose wrinkled slightly with disgust, but obviously Meyer creates something that's compelling enough to overcome my distaste for her writing style. How can an awful book still be good enough to keep me turning the pages, eliciting anxiety and hope? I always feel the need to justify why I'm reading these books, yet the reason is simple: I've been sucked into a story against my will and better judgment.

I can see the appeal for teenage girls who can't imagine a world beyond high school and age 18: Bella Swan aspires to halt her life right as its beginning. She can't imagine passion and love greater than what she's found at 17, while those of us who are a bit older know that she's a teenage idiot. She wants to give up humanity because she doesn't understand what being human and having a beating heart means--her "soulmate" is more important, and what teenage girl doesn't want to believe they can't find their soulmate at 17? It's silly and awful. Still, I can't look away, and I can't shut the book.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


This event popped up in Daily Headlines* today and made me giggle
One Refworks to Rule Them All**

One Refworks to find them, one Refworks to bring them all and in the end notes bind them. Writing research papers? Citing sources for other projects? Join reference librarian...
I want to know who decided to do that, hehe. Usually Daily Headlines are much more bland.

*Daily Headlines is a daily e-mail the University sends out to keep students, faculty, and staff apprised of events and other notices.
**In case you miss the reference...well, it wouldn't be funny to you anyway, so...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"I'm [Runnin'] in the Rain"

I will make all sorts of excuses to not run. Now, I really love running. I feel great every time I go, and I like how much energy I get and the fact that it's helped me manage my weight since college. But sometimes all that succumbs to the excuses I make.

Yesterday, I was tired. So I came home and watched TV. Then I was hungry. So I ate dinner. Then it was rainy and dark, so I couldn't run outside, right? And I just knew the HPER would be insanely busy, so I didn't want to go over there. So I sat at home and went to bed.

Today, I didn't get up early because it was rainy (and the rain affects me like that). So no AM workout. But I knew I needed to run. You see, I'm training for a marathon. And if I skip more than one workout a week, I feel like I'll be sliding down to not running at all, and I'll lose all momentum.

It was raining. It'd been raining all day, thanks to Gustav. It was sorta miserable outside, but my options were to haul my butt over to the HPER or to run outside. I suddenly wanted to run outside. When training for a marathon, one is advised to run in a variety of conditions and terrains, to prepare for the race. Rain is definitely a possibility in Arkansas in March, so I needed to run in the rain. Ok, I thought, I'm going to do this.

I needed something to shield my eyes from the rain. A hat! Alas, I'd given away my baseball hats because I never used them. I even had a visor once that would have worked. Drat. Then I remembered I have guy friends who live close by. I ran down to my neighbor, Mason, and asked if I could borrow one of his. He said, "sure!" and handed me one off the top of his head.

The run was great...and freeing. I've never run in the rain, and I did it. I also ditched my iPod, which is my usual running companion, and that too was liberating. It was just me, the pavement, and the drip of rain all around. From now on, the rain is my friend--or at least not an excuse. Also, if I had stayed in or had gone to the HPER, I never would have seen the guy riding a unicycle holding an umbrella. It was a scene from a circus movie, I swear to you.