Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Reviews

During recent flights and train rides, I polished off two books that have been on my To Read list for a while.

The first was The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. Set in 1919, this historical novel is very different from Lehane's usual modern day mysteries and crime thrillers, such as Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, although the setting remains the same- the city of Boston. Lehane's novel attempts to capture the spirit of that age using two interweaving protagonists- Danny Coughlin is a popular and headstrong cop, the oldest son of a respected Irish-American family in Southie and Luther Laurence is a black laborer who moves to Boston from the midwest and ends up working for the Coughlin family. Oh, and Babe Ruth is a character as well. However, what sounds like a recipe for triteness actually works, and the story is sustained by the extensive details that provide historical context- the Spanish flu, the molasses flood, the budding labor movement and corresponding anti-Red paranoia, Italian anarchists, racism, and the Boston Police strike are all vividly described. The result is an interesting and informative portrait of a dark and uncertain time in Boston's (and the entire nation's) history. I enjoyed The Given Day and felt like it taught me a lot about an era that I previously hadn't given much thought.

The second book I read was What is the What, by Dave Eggers (sort of). As explained in the preface, What is the What is the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who told his story to Eggers, who then transformed what he heard into a book, approximating Deng's voice and using him as the central character and narrator. The resulting mixture of fact and fiction is spectacular, an astonishing tale of survival in which we see the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. I loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly. Achak is a child living in a Dinka village in southern Sudan when his peaceful village becomes a immersed in a larger conflict- a rebel army, the SPLA, has sprung up to fight off the fundamentalist Islamic government who have taken hold in Khartoum, the nation's capitol. The town is targeted for destruction in a series of brutal raids- Dinka men shot, houses burned, Dinka children captured and turned into slaves. Achak escapes and eventually finds himself among a group of over a hundred small boys, led by a schoolteacher named Dut who has decided that walking to Ethiopia is their best chance for safety and survival. The journey is long and treacherous- boys die of disease and hunger, are killed by lions, are shot at from helicopters. Dut does his best to keep them out of sight from both the government-sponsored bandits who want to kill them and the rebels who desire to turn them into child soldiers. Eventually Achak ends up in Kakuma, Kenya, a refugee camp and virtual city, with a population around 80,000. His journey is told through a series of flashbacks and memories, as Achak now lives in Atlanta under his Christian name, Valentino, one of over 3000 "Lost Boys" who were granted political asylum by the United States. The book vacillates between terrifying and touching- the horrific violence seems like something apocalyptic, straight out of The Road, but it's real. However, throughout the story, beacons of light and generosity appear, from Manute Bol (Dinka tribesman turned NBA player) to Jane Fonda's daughter Mary Williams to people like Phil Mays, who acts as Valentino's sponsor and aids him in his adjustment to life in the USA. I was most impressed with the character of Dut, an ordinary man who willingly took on the responsibility of leading hundreds of children through a war zone. Through the story of Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What personalizes the plight of the refugee, and this is the book's great triumph. All proceeds from the book go towards the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. The government in Khartoum remains in power and is now waging similar destruction in the Darfur region of western Sudan- for more information, go here.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

R.I.P., J.D.

Jerome David Salinger, you were a gifted and weird man who, in the end, wanted nothing more than to be left alone, but thanks for writing the greatest coming-of-age novel of all time. I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time when I was about fourteen and absolutely loved it, the whole thing- the tone, Holden, the narrative, everything. It's pretty amazing that a book written in 1951 can still knock the breath of teenagers with its poignancy decades later. I later read Salinger's other work and enjoyed it almost as much, especially the compilation Nine Stories with the haunting "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

oh, and here's a letter from Salinger explaining why he wasn't selling movie rights for The Catcher in the Rye. (link blatantly stolen from Kelly's facebook page)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Last days in Vienna

When it comes to traveling, I prefer to stick in one location for a few days (preferably one with a free place to stay) rather than do a whirlwind tour with a different stop every day. A week in Vienna provided had plenty of time to hang out with my family here and explore different areas of the city. On a rare sunny day, my cousin and I climbed the steeple of St. Stephen's for some lovely views of the snow-covered city. I returned later for a tour of the catacombs, which was creeptastic. All of the former bishops of Vienna were buried underneath the church, as well as parts of the Habsburg royal family- literally. Their innards are stored in urns at St. Stepehen's, their bodies interred at a second church, and their hearts buried at a third. Deeper into the catacombs are rooms filled with skeletons- some from the Black Plague, and some from when the church was used as a public burial ground during the 1700s- the wooden coffins deteriorated long ago, and all that remains are stacks of bones and skulls. Fortunately for you all, photos are prohibited.

I participated in some of Vienna's cheerier traditions including eating wiener schnitzel (who doesn't love a piece of fried meat approximately the size of a large pizza?) and attending a classical music concert at the Musikverein.

I also met up with an Austrian friend whom I met in Australia (check out his awesome photography blog and scroll down for some cameos of me in the outback) and wandered through the funky 7th District, which was a nice change of pace from the more formal First District.

The city has fantastic public transportation that is a combination of old-timey streetcars and a modern underground subway- the best part is that everything runs so frequently that you rarely have to wait for more than five minutes. (Boston, you're on notice!)
I'd definitely recommend Vienna as a city worth visiting, although next time I'll probably go when it's warmer. I did go running through the snow in the Augarten, a huge park near my aunt and uncle's.

Check out the one of the enormous Flak towers- when the Nazis occupied Vienna, they constructed anti-aircraft towers that still loom ominously over the park. Since they are constructed from uber-reinforced concrete, it would be difficult to take them down without causing significant damage to the park. surrounding buildings, so the city has left them alone

Another thing I enjoyed about Vienna was the abundance of cafes- these people sure like their coffee and cake! The whole city was filled with pastry shops, from upscale places to the chain Aida, which seems to be the Viennese equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts- they are all over the city and always packed, and resemble something from the 1950s, with retro pink uniforms and seating at the counter. Unfortunately, I was allergic to everything on the menu, so I stuck with a cup of coffee. Unlike in Germany, where beer is the cheapest beverage on the menu, Austrians always serve a complimentary glass of water alongside coffee or tea. The only downside is that everyone in Europe still smokes, so you can't go in any sort of restaurant without your clothes and hair stinking.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More Vienna

I've spent the past couple of days exploring more of this impressive city. My favorite building and the one in the picture is the Rathaus, or City Hall, which looks more like a giant castle than a place to pay your parking tickets.

On Sunday night, my aunt and uncle took me out to a delicious dinner at a local traditional restaurant, where we tried a couple Austrian favorites- weiner schnitzel (breaded and fried meat. Yes, please!) and a beef broth soup topped with sliced crepes.

I took a tour of the Habsburgs' Summer Palace, Schloss Schönbrunn. According to my aunt, it's better than Versaille because the rooms are still furnished. The House of Habsburg ruled over Austria and central Europe for six centuries and were known for acquiring territory through politics and marriage rather than on the battlefield. The wife of Napoleon and Marie Antionette were both Habsburg daughters married off at a young age, and a whole lot of the girls ended up with cousbands, i.e. husbands who are also cousins, a trend popular with monarchs as well as rural southerners (ba dum bump).

Vienna is famous for music above all else, and today I lucked into a visit to the Vienna Boys Choir school. The choir has been in exsitence since the 1400s and consists of boys ages 10 to 14 (they get kicked out when they hit puberty) who live and train at the school and spend about three months each year traveling the world to give performances. Attending a musical boarding school at such a young age must be a very strange way to grow up. I saw one of the rehersals today and was amazed by it- they seem like ordinary kids until they start singing, and suddenly they transform into something downright angelic. Good thing for these boys the creation of eunuchs has fallen out of fashion.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Austria

After a couple more days in Germany (for additional accounts of the weekend in Berlin, complete with better photos and better commentary, check out what Molly and JR had to say), it was time to move on from the cozy town of Weiden and save the buddymollys from unpleasant aftereffects of my bier and sausage diet. They did decide to accompany me to Munich for a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial on the outskirts of the city, and for that I was glad- I felt like it was something I should see during my time in Germany, but hadn't been looking forward to going by myself. The site was eerie and sad as expected, but the best word to describe it is chilling- we've all heard and read and seen pictures of the Holocaust, but it's a different feeling to actually stand in such a horrible place.

After a night in Munich that included bier and currywurst and a trip to the famed Hofbrau Haus, I boarded the train for Vienna. My aunt, uncle, and cousin live right in the heart of the city, and they've been encouraging me for years to come for a visit. In spite of the cold weather and mostly gray skies, the city is absolutely beautiful. On Saturday, we walked around the First District downtown and saw all sorts of gorgeous and historical buildings- even the department stores are decorated with statues and carvings hundreds of years old. We saw some of the Hapsburg crown jewels (not to be confused with the family jewels, mind you), the church where Napoleon was married, the Winter Palace, and the famous St. Stepen's catherdral- I might go back there to check out the creepy skeletons in the catacombs.
That night, we watched the 1949 British movie The Third Man which was filmed in Vienna- it was an appropriate choice given the fact that I had walked through the same areas earlier that day, and the film itself was interesting- a thriller about racketeering in Vienna after WWII- like Berlin, Vienna was also divided into sectors controlled by the Allies.

Today, my aunt and I went to the Belvedere museum (pictured at left) to see paintings by Vienna's most famous artist, Gustav Klimt, including The Kiss. The downside of vacationing in January is the gray and cold weather, but the upside is the fact that it isn't crowded at any museums or tourist hot spots. Likewise, the downside of using an Austrain keyboard is that the z is where the y should be, leading to manz tzpos, but the upside is the ability to make umlauts, which everyone knows are Äwesöme.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


On the way back from Berlin, the buddymollys and I stopped for a day in Dresden. The city is split in half by the Eble River- the old town (Altstadt) is filled with churches and palaces built during the 1700s when the city served as the capital of Saxony. (And all this time I thought Saxons were British- whoops!) Almost all of the old town was destroyed on a single night in 1945 when the allies firebombed the city during WWII. Kurt Vonnegut was a POW held in Dresden at the time and references the event in one of my favorite books, Slaughterhouse-Five. The city has since been rebuilt and restored. New town, or Neustadt, is located north of the river and is a funky, modern area filled with shops, bars, and all sorts of ethnic restaurants- Molly wanted to move there by the time we were through.

After WWII, Dresden was part of East Germany, and you can still see the remnants in a few big ugly concrete buildings that apparently served as the inspiration for Boston's own City Hall. We also spotted a communist mural (how very Shepard Fairey) as well as pedestrian lights with the beloved Ampelmännchen- the East German "little traffic light man" who has remained popular following unification.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner

I spent my first weekend in Germany with five friends in Berlin, and we had a wunderbar time. In addition to its history, Berlin is known for its fun nightlife, and we did our best to experience both aspects of the city (although we didn't make it to the fetish club-maybe next time). We saw the Reichstag building, which houses Germany's parliament, and the huge and impressive Brandenburg gate- the chariot on top was stolen by Napoleon in 1806, brought to Paris, and was restored to Berlin after Napoleon's defeat in 1814. We proceeded through the gate into the former East Berlin and stopped at the Pergamon museum that contains archeological treasures including the altar of Pergamon (we're sitting on its steps in the photo) and my favorite, the Ishtar Gate- an enormous structure made of blue tile that once stood at the entrance to Babylon.

Once we finished our Berlin field trip, we bopped around the bars and restaurants for several hours to sample Berlin's fine beers and cuisine, including currywurst- a delicious sausage smothered in ketchup and curry powder. Mmmmm. When it came to the bier, I may have been a little overenthusiastic but thankfully recovered enough to venture to the Berlin Wall on Sunday. Much of the wall has been torn down, but there remains a 1km stretch that doubles as a modern art gallery.

Overall, Berlin lived up to the hype- it's a huge, vibrant city with a lot to offer, and I easily could have spent a couple more days touring around. Maybe not in January, though- despite the German people's reputation for efficiency, they have not yet mastered the art of snow removal; even in the main districts, the sidewalks weren't cleared and everyone ends up tromping through dirty snow.

Update: My first bier review is up on Beer Crusade.

Friday, January 15, 2010

In Germany

I arrived yesterday morning and spent the day walking around Munich before catching the train to the buddymollys town in rural Bavaria. It's cold and covered in snow here but the scenery is quite pretty, especially in the countryside. My utter and complete lack of German hasn't been too much of a problem except for when I ordered lunch in Munich and ended up with a giant pile of bologna with pickles and onions on top. I also had to change trains in Nuremberg within my six minute layover, so I basically accosted a German man and showed him my ticket and he nicely helped my find my train and made sure I got on the right car- a lot of the trains split during the journey, the front half going on one route and the back half to another locale, which could have been very problematic.

Off to Berlin for the weekend! I can't figure out how to post pictures on this computer but will add some photos and beer (or bier) reviews early next week.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


And now for an important announcement- I have been invited by the beer bloggers at Beer Crusade to serve as a guest correspondent while on my travels through Germany and Austria. I will be sampling the region's finest biers and reviewing them on the Beer Crusade site. Bocks and Hefeweizens and Marzens, oh my!

European Vacation

Tomorrow I take off for a two-week vacation in Central Europe. I hear northern Germany is actually quite balmy in January. No, really! Okay, not really. I arrive in Munich and from there take the train to a small town in Bavaria where the buddymollys live. This is the most daunting part of the journey, as I have to get myself from the airport to the train station in Munich and then change trains in Nuremberg, and the only German words I know are ones a German soccer teammate used to shout during games: Wunderbar! Ya! Scheisse! From there, we'll be heading up to Berlin for the weekend to meet up with JR and Jessica and Lawrence. Then, I'll tool around Germany for a couple of days with the buddymollys before heading back to Munich and continuing on to Vienna to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin. I've never been to Germany nor Austria before so I'm definitely looking forward to the trip, and I'll be posting updates and pictures whenever I have the chance. To start with, here's a little gem that someone alerted me to on Facebook:
Oh yeah, it's an awkward years photo throwback featuring one of my travel companions.

If I finish packing today, I'm going to watch my latest arrival from Netflix, Good Bye, Lenin!, to get me in a Berlin state of mind. It's kind of like a New York State of Mind, with a lot less Billy Joel.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dinner party, Julia Child style

Ever since I moved into my grandmother's house I've been wanting to put the fine china to good use. So I invited a few friends over for dinner on Saturday night and took on an ambitious cooking project- Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon. How very Julie & Julia of me. I found copies of the original recipe as well as instructions for the brown-braised onions and sautéed mushrooms on this cooking blog and went to town. I used regular old American bacon instead of a chunk of bacon cut into lardons, but other than that, I followed the recipe to a T, serving it with the recommended boiled potatoes and buttered peas. It was a pain in the ass to make, and it took all frickin day, and I can't even pronounce it properly so I was just calling it French Beef was delicious!! Seriously, the beef was flavorful and delicious and so tender- it practically melted in your mouth. The picture does not do it justice.

I also made a plum torte for dessert and it was super easy and very tasty, even though I kind of screwed it up by using regular plums instead of mini Italian ones.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A song and a link

I meant to post a Friday song of the day yesterday, but I forgot. So here's a Saturday song of the day:

Right as Rain
by Adele. She sounds like Amy Winehouse, you know, without the crack.

And here is a blog that seems stupid when you first look at it, but then, for some reason, it gets funnier and funnier. Nic Cage as Everyone.

The ice rink installed at Fenway Park is still up, and last night, I went to the BC vs BU college hockey game. It was a lot of fun, and my purposeful layering and the fact that our seats were underneath an overhang helped keep us tolerably warm. BU won 3-2. All I wanted was a good picture of us in front of the rink, but unfortunately the man who took this photo focused on our coats instead of the ice. He also tried to kick Mike out of the picture, which was sort of amusing.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

DCoE field trip: Adventures in Building 19

Q: How do two people with nothing to on a Tuesday afternoon entertain themselves?
A. By having a scavenger hunt at Building 19, of course.

For those of you non-Massholes, Building 19 is a chain of discount warehouse stores that sell a large and often bizarre assortment of items, including clothing and furniture, most of which is severely outdated or looks like it fell off the back of a truck. Their slogan is "good stuff cheap" and although their items are definitely cheap, "good" is subjective. My strongest memory of Building 19 comes from a time I went there with my mom when I was a kid. It was winter and my mom was wearing an old pair of boots. She took them off to try on a pair of shoes and then walked down the aisle a bit to test out the shoes. When we returned, the boots had vanished. An employee had stuck a price tag on them and placed them on the shelf! So that basically sums up Building 19.

Timm and I headed to Building 19 (and 1/2, a.k.a. the Burlington store- each location is known by a fraction) and each of us had composed a list of three items that the other person would be tasked with finding. When we reached the destination, we exchanged lists and spent a long time surveying the goods to find objects that best met the description.

Timm's Assigned List:
1. Home decor for a villain's lair.
2. Something with feathers.
3. Something that could be used as a disguise.

He did quite well hunting for artifacts to fit into these categories. I mean, what villain wouldn't want an oversized leopard print ottoman?

And here are items #2 and #3:

That purse also comes in green, for the record.

As for my list, Timm wrote the following descriptions on individual slips of paper.

1. I wish no one knew I owned this:

Totally Taylor! A book about Hanson's heartthrob. Whose hairstyle is disturbingly similar to mine.

2. I went to a rave last night, and all I got was:

Some shimmery decorations and a bottle of E.

and last, but not least

3. I use this when it gets too moist:

Oh wow.

We found lots of other treasures in Building 19. In addition to sock's, they also sell toy's and baby doll's (and these signs nearly made my head explode).

Lastly, we purchased a present for Ern. Oh yes...The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not the original, mind you, it's the comic book version. Jeez! I mean, I could see turning Huck Finn into a comic book, but the Scarlet Letter? Note the flaming cartoon A soaring through the sky on the cover.

The price? Ten cents. Good stuff cheap, indeed.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2009: The Year in Review

My normal album listening and movie watching was not up to snuff, as I spent the better half of the year in a vortex I'd like to call The Thesis Spiral. 2009 came in with a whimper, as I began the year unhappier than I've ever been and contemplating dropping out of graduate school. After a few ugly months, my luck finally changed, and 2009 ended with a bang- new degree and a cool job lined up in Australia. Woohoo!

Without further ado, here's 2009 in review. (No more rhyming, I mean it! Anybody want a peanut?)

Album of the Year:
The Mountain- Heartless Bastards

Song of the Year:
Poker Face- Lady Gaga (okay, technically it was released in late 2008 but it didn't take over all humanity until 2009.)

Best Movies:

There are still several highly praised movies I've been meaning to see, including A Serious Man (the new Coen brothers film), The Hurt Locker, and an Austrian film called The White Ribbon that it supposedly stunning. Of the movies I did see, my favorite was The Informant! (the exclamation mark is part of the title, not a show of my own personal enthusiasm.) I also really enjoyed An Education, Inglourious Basterds, and The Hangover. I did also see Avatar in 3D and also thought that it was pretty awesome- definitely catch it in the theater, though, because the best the special effects are indeed special.

TV Addictions of the Year:
1. The Wire. You've heard about it, and if you haven't watched the whole series yet, make that your 2010 resolution.
2. Jersey Shore. Whatever, you know you love it.

Places I Went in 2009:
Johnson City, TN
Honolulu, HI
South Bend, IN
Newport, RI
New York City, NY
Milledgeville, IL
San Francisco, CA
San Diego, CA
Binghamton, NY
(note to self: This is why you're broke.)

Technological Breakthrough of the Year:
I retired my old hotmail account and started using Gmail. I can't believe it took me as long as it did.
Oh, I got a webcam for Christmas (dirty!) and am now on Skype so hit me up.

Hot in 2009:
1. Reunions. I went to two of them, my ten year reunion at Notre Dame and my Peace Corps Agriculture reunion. Both were held in the midwest and featured great times with great friends, but whereas one had clergy in attendance, the other had farm animals.
2. Book Club. I finally joined a book club that lasted for more than two meetings. Way to go Caity, Amanda, Andy, and Sarah!

Most commented post:

Mouse invasion at my Southie apartment. Gross. Another mark of 2009 was that after 6 years of fast times on East Broadway, I moved to my grandmother's house in Waltham. Who needs The Playwright when you can put on minks and whirl-a-size in the comfort of your own parlor?

Highlight of 2009:
Finally finishing fucking grad school.

I'm starting off the new decade with a trip to Germany and Austria in January, then I'll be back in town for a couple of weeks before the big move to Melbourne in February. I'm really looking forward to a fresh start in a new job. And despite the fact that I think Twitter and Facebook have brought the Age of Blogging to close, DCoE will keep plugging on, so keep on stopping by. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting, and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010!