Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reviews- four books

Lately I've been on a reading-in-bed-before-I-fall-asleep kick, so I've gone through a few books lately, namely:

Room, by Emma Donoghue. You know those creepy news stories where a man kidnaps a girl, keeps her prisoner for years, and the girl ends up having her rapist's child, Austrian basement style? Well, Room is a novel with a similar premise, only it's told from the perspective of a five year old boy, Jack, who has spent his entire life in a single room with his mother, not understanding that a world outside exists. His friends are Rug, Chair, and Dora the Explorer, and he sleeps hidden away in a wardrobe because his mother doesn't want the bad man who comes in at night to be able to look at him. The book is disturbing and completely addictive, and very cleverly written. My sister Kerry sent it to me and I couldn't put it down.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett- after Room I needed something a bit cheerier, so I finally read the book that everyone I know had already read. The Help, set in the segregated South in the 1960s, is the story of white housewives and the black housekeepers who do their chores and raise their children. Although they spend their days together, they don't interact outside of strict societal norms, until one of the town's socialites, Skeeter Phelan, returns from college and decides to scratch below the surface. The Help is an enjoyable read, full of lively characters and a bitchy villian who is just so fun to despise, the type of book you could recommend to nearly anyone and know that they'll like it. My one critique is that I feel it's been overpraised as an "important" book. If it were written during the 1960s, maybe that would have been the case, but since the book was written 50 years after the troubled times it describes, it certainly isn't an Uncle Tom's Cabin or even a To Kill A Mockingbird. However, it's still a great story and well worth a read.

The Wonder Boys
, by Michael Chabon. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite authors, so I had high expectations of this book. However, I wasn't a huge fan, mostly because I didn't like the protagonist, frustrated writer and college professor Grady Tripp. He's a 40 year old man who cheats on his wife, obsesses over one of his students, smokes pot all the time, and basically needs to grow the fuck up. He's not quite as awful as the husband in On Beauty or the dad in The Squid in the Whale, but is pretty much a rehashing of the pompous, male academic stock character. The side characters were a lot more likeable and entertaining, despite (or perhaps because of) their flaws.

Lastly, I read We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. I thought Room was disturbing, but it has NOTHING on Kevin. This book is the story of a school shooter, written by his mother in a series of letters to her estranged husband. She wasn't sure she wanted to have children, she resented giving up her former lifestyle, and then her child turns out to be...evil. Is she somehow to blame, or was he just born that way? We know at the start how Kevin turned out, but Eva tells the story in chronological order, from all of her doubts during and after pregnancy, to how difficult Kevin was as a baby, and then things go from bad to worse as Kevin displays an ever deeper streak of cruelty, to which his father is willfully ignorant. As a narrator, Eva writes beautifully and certainly reveals her own flaws...but with every chapter, the story grows darker and the sense of dread expands. I feel traumatized after reading it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. I'll tell you one thing, though, I will definitely not be seeing the movie- the book was haunting enough. I'm going to have to read some Jennifer Weiner next as an antidote!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

You'll pry the Oxford comma out of my cold, dead, and unambigously described hands.

Earlier this year, mayhem erupted (in certain circles) when a rumor that the Oxford style guide was no longer in favor of its namesake serial comma hit the press. Since moving to Australia, I've noticed that none of my coworkers use a comma after the word before "and" in a series -i.e. "please invite Ron, Belinda and Steve to the meeting." I think it looks weird and makes it seem like the last two on the list are a pair rather than separate, serial entries. Apparently the Oxford comma is standard in American English but only used to avoid ambiguity in British English. But I think it always makes the meaning clearer, and I refuse to stop using it! The sandwiches on sale are ham, tuna and peanut butter. See what I mean? Long live the Oxford comma!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

World Pneumonia Day

November 12th is World Pneumonia Day. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death of children under the age of five worldwide, and not surprisingly, 98% of these deaths occur in developing countries. The sad part is that the vast majority of them are preventable- these children die because they lack access to vaccination, antibiotic treatment, and basic medical care. The World Pneumonia Day website is a good source of information and ways to help in the fight against a disease that belongs in the past.

My laboratory performs research on the bacteria that cause pneumonia, and recently received a large grant to run a pneumococcal vaccine trial in Vietnam (a grant that pays my postdoc salary- yay!).

On a related note, when I hear the anti-vaccine loons from the US and the UK spouting nonsense and misinformation, it makes my blood boil. Vaccines are safe, and people who are fortunate enough to live in countries where they have access to them should be grateful.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Beyond the pale

At the end of winter, I am so pale it borders upon light blue. I've never gone into a UV tanning bed because, hello, thymine dimers much? This year for the first time, I was considering trying to reduce the pale so I didn't spend the first couple of months of summer with lunar legs. I was thinking about getting a spray tan, which has the benefit of not causing skin cancer, but after some discussion with friends I realized they don't work how I thought they worked. "Oh they look pretty good but make sure you exfoliate first because otherwise it will flake off unevenly." What? It comes off? Somehow, even though it is essentially sprayed onto your skin, I thought it just sort of coloring that gradually faded and that I could get one at the start of summer and just build up from there. Apparently not. So I opted for a third choice, a tinted moisturizer. Dove makes one called Summer Glow- "mosturiser with a hint of self tanning agent gradually builds a self tan." Despite the lack of proper grammar and the z-less Australian spelling of moisturizer, it sounded like what I was after. Something to bring my legs from translucent blue up to pale before my trip to Queensland. And it worked! I used it 5 or 6 times before the trip and got just a hint of color, with no streaks! So I thought I'd share in case anyone else is looking for such a product.

For my next consumer report, I'll post a review of the new potato chip flavor to hit the Australian shevles: meat pie and sauce. I kid you not.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Weekend Report

The first Tuesday in November is Melbourne Cup day when the biggest horserace in the country is held, and a public holiday for the state of Victoria. The spring racing carnival is known as much for the fashion as the races, and I went on the Saturday prior to Melbourne Cup, known as Derby Day and traditionally when all racegoers where black and white. I do love a dress-up event, and this is one of the few occasions where fascinators and hats with netting are standard attire. I went with my friend Lauren, we drank lots of champagne, and lost all of our (fortunately very low stakes) bets, but still had a blast.

On Sunday, I decided to show some Halloween spirit- I didn't really get my act together in time to organize a costume party, so instead I invited a few friends over to carve pumpkins and eat pumpkin pie (made from canned pumpkin, not the carving pumpkins). Proper pumpkins are difficult to find in Australia- what they call a pumpkin is actually a squash, and two people did end up bringing acorn squash instead of pumpkins. None of the Australians (or my Irish flatmate) had ever carved a pumpkin before, nor tried pumpkin pie, and found both quite enjoyable. And now the pumpkins look great sitting out on my balcony. And I don't even have to worry about punk kids smashing them because they don't have that tradition here either :)