Dr. & Mr. Mikkelsen

>> 30 October 2009

Rochelle successfully defended her dissertation yesterday, meaning that she is now Dr. Mikkelsen!



>> 27 October 2009

...short for National Novel Writing Month, begins on November 1st. The goal is to complete a draft of a 50,000 word novel before December 1st. Participants can register (for free) online at the website: http://www.nanowrimo.org/. While signing up online is strictly optional, the website has some useful tools and resources for calculating your progress and staying on schedule. It also has some useful information for first-time writers (how to deal with characters, dialog, plot, etc.)

I have been working on a novel for a while, albeit in a rather self-defeating way. 150 pages in, I didn't like the way the plot was going, so I had to scrap most of it and restart. 175 pages into the re-write, I decided to change the main character and switch to a 3rd person point of view. So, now, on the 3rd re-write, I am only about 30 pages in. This means I have been keeping ~1 page for every 10 pages written. Now that the novel is (hopefully) headed in the right direction, I am looking forward to participating in NaNoWriMo in order to make some serious progress. 50,000 words might not finish the project for me, but it should put me in range of being done.

If any of the readers of this e-blog are interested in participating, let me know. I'll be posting periodic updates of my progress.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo in the past?
  2. If you were going to write a novel, what would the title be?
  3. Can you think of any acronym that is worse than 'NaNoWriMo'?



>> 25 October 2009

I used the Chrome beta for a while. Then went back to Firefox. Use Safari on the Mac at work. Now, back to Chrome.

Of the three browsers, Chrome definitely looks the best - and the hybrid navigation/search bar is a handy feature. Firefox has been my main browser for so many years, though...it's hard to leave it behind.

So, what browser do you use?


Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

>> 19 October 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After thumbing through the pages of this book, I was almost certain that I was not going to like it. There were pages that contained a single sentence each. There were pictures of doorknobs and birds interspersed throughout. Lines of dialog were not granted their own lines, but were instead crammed together in jumbled masses of text. There were pages where words were printed over words, so that the entire page was unreadable. In short, it looked gimmicky, and I supposed that the gimmickry was the only thing the novel had to offer. Nevertheless, as the book came highly recommended, I decided to give it a shot.

And I'm glad I did. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It was gimmicky - there's no denying it - but it was also a wonderful story that walked the precarious line between hilarity and heartbreak. The gimmicks could have been completely cut and the novel would not have suffered one bit. Take away the pictures, punctuate like a normal author, and the book would have been every bit as good (maybe even better as it would have contained less distraction).

The main character, an eight-year-old boy named Oscar, is suffering from anxiety and depression following the attacks on the World Trade Center, which claimed his father's life. When he discovers a key in his dad's things, he sets out to find the lock that the key opens, assuming that this key is a part of one of the elaborate scavenger hunts that his father used to orchestrate. During his quest, he enlists the help of the strangers he encounters, who seem to see Oscar's quest as a chance for them to move past their own sorrows and regrets.

So, after basically gushing for three paragraphs, I'll get around to business. What do I like about this novel? Oscar is a great point-of-view character. It's easy for a book told from a child's perspective to become obnoxiously cute; this book escapes that danger. Oscar is intelligent and observant enough to be an interesting narrator. He notices the subtleties of the adult world but doesn't have the experience to make sense of them. This creates a tension that is reliably played on for laughs and for emotional weight.

The plot moves along quickly, and even though you always get the sense that Oscar isn't going to find what he's looking for - or rather, that the thing he finds isn't what he thinks it will be - there was enough going on to keep me flying through the pages.

What did I dislike about this book? Not a whole lot, but there were some things which I wasn't wild about. First, the 'gimmicks.' They didn't ruin the book or anything, but they just struck me as being too trendy for a book that was otherwise very good. Sort of like getting a Guns 'n' Roses tattoo - it might seem like a good idea at the time, but it will age quickly. There will be a time fairly soon (I imagine) when the odd type-setting, etc. will look very dated and out-of-place.

Also, there is a subplot (which I won't discuss to avoid spoilers) involving two individuals who survive the bombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II. While I am sure that the bombing was a horrific event for anyone who survived it, the characters' response struck me as rather over-the-top and melodramatic. It isn't completely unbelievable, but it was a bit of a strain.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews >>

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Have you ever read this book?
  2. What is the funniest book you have ever read?
  3. What is the saddest?
  4. What is the longest book you've read?


Mixed Metaphors About Television

>> 11 October 2009

The fall television series is well underway. While there are a few notable series that have not started up yet, I don't think it's too early to give you my thoughts on which shows are on the fence, making the grade, and getting dumped (I told you there would be mixed metaphors!)

Making the Grade:

  1. The Office - So far, this season has been very good. The second episode wasn't my all-time favorite, but the following episode (the one with the wedding) totally made up for it. Fans of The Office have been looking forward to this weeding for nearly as long as Jim (and longer than Pam)!
  2. Parks and Recreation - The first season was decent, but the current season has been hilarious. It took a little while for the writers to get the feel for the characters, but now that Leslie is less pathetic and the supporting characters are more fully realized (like the womanizing Tom and the tough-guy boss Ron Swansen), the show has new legs. None of the shows on my list has boosted its stock more in this season than Parks and Recreation, which has jumped from a 'probably not going to watch' to a 'high-five!'
  3. Fringe - I liked this show from the start, and it keeps getting better. For fans of X-Files, Lost, and other sci-fi/slip-stream television programs, you could do much worse than Fringe. Leonard Nimoy boosts the geek credentials with his role as the mysterious arch-scientist William Bell.
  4. How I Met Your Mother - Three episodes down, and this season is looking as good as its predecessors. Ted is still ostensibly the main character, but it is Neil Patrick Harris' character, Barney, who steals the show every time. It's going to be legend - wait for it - dary!
  5. Glee - It is completely over-the-top, slightly reminiscent of a Mexican telenovela, and extremely fun. The scene where the football team dances on the field literally me grimace, until I smiled, until I laughed. Who knows if they'll be able to keep this up, season after season, but for now, it's making the grade.
On The Fence:
  1. Community - Chevy Chase has not had much success since his successful days (you know, back when he had all the success...before he stopped having so much success?) and he doesn't seem to be breaking the jinx with Community. A good premise and a few hilarious early moments haven't been sustained in subsequent episodes. I'll give it a few more chances to prove itself, but the message for Community: get your ducks in a row or you ship has sailed and you are going overboard (mixed metaphor: check!).
Getting Dumped:
  1. Flash-Forward - It started with a cool premise and a very good pilot episode, but things have fizzled out fast. The dialogue is mostly expository and obvious - "We saw the future for 2 minutes and 17 seconds," and "Can we change the future, or are we fated to live the things we saw in our visions?" Compounding the problems with the show is the unexpected lying that the main characters do simply for the sake of enhancing the drama of the show. For example, the main character, a recovering alcoholic, sees that he is drinking from a flask in his flash-forward. His wife has told him that if he relapses, she will divorce him. When she tells him that in her flash-forward she was in a relationship with another man, her husband freaks out and can't imagine why she would betray him...even though he literally told us exactly why she would leave him, not 5 minutes before. Ugh!
  2. House - This was always a stand-by show for me, but I think I'm done with it. As it turns out, there is one interesting character in the show: Dr. House. So far, he has been in rehab, a mental hospital (as a patient), and he has quit his job as a doctor. No thanks. Note to the show: don't take the only thing that is interesting about your show and change it to something less interesting. CASE CLOSED!
  3. Hank - It took 5 minutes to convince me that this was not a funny show. The remaining 17 minutes of the episode were just confirmation of the show's mediocrity. I'll pass on this one.
What TV shows are you watching? Did I get it wrong on any of my reviews? Confused by the mixed metaphors?


Book Review: Ahab's Wife

>> 10 October 2009

Grade: 3.5/5

Not long ago, I finished reading Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund. The recent success of books like Ahab's Wife, Wind Done Gone, March, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc. suggests a new route to a best-seller: take a great and beloved novel, and retell it from the point of view of one of the novel's secondary or peripheral characters. In the case of Ahab's Wife, that peripheral character is...(smack yourself if you don't guess this correctly)...Ahab's wife, who is left behind in Nantucket while her husband blusters around the ocean in pursuit of Moby Dick.

The story follows Una Spenser for several years, beginning with her home in Kentucky, her years spent living at a lighthouse, her world explorations as she joins the crew of a whaling ship, her various romances and heartbreaks, etc. The story follows her for several years after the end of Moby Dick, as she responds to Ahab's [SPOILER ALERT!] death and is again faced with the daunting task of picking up the pieces of her life.

The book is at its very best during the times when it overlaps with events and characters described in Moby Dick. Our familiarity with the events of that story creates a unique sort of suspense - even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I was compelled to keep reading for the sake of the characters, who didn't yet know about the demise of The Pequod at sea.

The main character of the story, Una, sometimes felt a little contrived to me. To understand what she is like, take a 21st century college graduate with a degree in comparative literature and transport her back to the early 1800s and enjoy watching how much better she is than her contemporaries. She's into new age spirituality, despises racism and traditional gender roles, makes tons of money but never forgets her roots, etc. and so on. In short, she's the perfect Oprah guest. To me, she only really made sense as a foil for Ahab. She was defined by the things that Ahab was not. Ahab was defiant of his fate; Una rolls with the punches. Ahab was obsessed with revenge; Una bears a casual interest in everything, but has no obsessions. Ahab deifies himself; Una loves looking at the stars because they make her feel small (or whatever). Despite the fact that she is a total anachronism, Una is still an interesting and compelling main character, if not an entirely believable one.

The novel is extremely well-written. Naslund has a real ear for putting together a sentence (a faculty that I have not demonstrated in the construction of this sentence). However, her strength occasionally proves to be her downfall. There are moments in the book where Naslund gets so carried away with her ability to make up adjectives and turn nouns into verbs, that she seems to overlook the fact that the things she is saying are either 1) hopelessly trite or 2) nonsensical.

Moonless, the sky was an utter darkness (as was the sea, which met it seamlessly), strewn with stars, as was the sea occasionally, when the swell of some wave before me would bulge up to reflect briefly the light of some star behind me, before rolling it under the water. Can the sea thus swallow even the stars? (emphasis added).
If this question is posed literally, the answer is: no. The sea cannot swallow the stars. Even the smallest stars are larger than our entire planet. If the question is posed figuratively, then I suppose we could answer: if by 'swallow' you mean 'reflect' and by 'stars' you mean 'light from the star's, then yes. If the question is posed metaphorically, the answer is: what are you talking about? This is a minor example - the first one I found while flipping through the pages - but this sort of thinking is ubiquitous in Ahab's Wife and I find it slightly grating. There are entire passages in the book which sound great until you try to actually apply your brain to them, at which point it becomes clear that this is more of an exercise in hypnotism than in deep thinking. Not all novels have to be deep, but I found the bulk of Una's philosophical ruminations to be superficial (at best) or mere exercises in verbosity (at worst).

I recommend this book with the following caveats:
  1. Be willing to skim when the thinking gets muddled.
  2. Be familiar with Moby Dick (Sparknotes are fine, but you should know the basic characters, themes, and plot).
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Am I way off?


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