Thursday, February 28, 2013

A lot of books (there is no cohesive title for this post)

Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian JungleOut of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle by Marc Gonsalves

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. (This was a loooong book, too long in my opinion. Sometimes it felt like *I* was a hostage in the Colombian jungle.) The authors (the former hostages) are just regular guys so the depth and quality of their writing was surprising. I know there was a professional author helping them out, but he seemed to take a pretty light hand in editing their story.

Summer of My German Soldier (Summer of My German Soldier, #1)Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book from the early 1970s and it shows. There are some weird things going down in this book that I don't think translate very well to today, the main one being that SPOILER Anton is 22 and P.B. is TWELVE. I thought she was fourteen until the very end of the book but even that was squicking me out a bit. Finding out that she was twelve did not help matters. END SPOILER

HOWEVER. There is definitely some value in this book and it gets some things juuuuuust creepily right, like when the protagonist finally tells her mom in a moment of bravery that she doesn't like her, and her mom just stares back and then walks over to the phone and makes an appointment with the town's most horrible hairstylist and schedules a perm for her daughter right then and there that she knows will turn out awful. The author knows what she's doing, is what I mean, or rather, she knew what she was doing 40 years ago when she wrote this. It doesn't stand up so well now. Though I wonder if I'd feel the same about a great many books I read as a kid that are now 30+ years old.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyThe Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why by Amanda Ripley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a really good survey of the kinds of emergency situations people find themselves in and the different ways they react. It's like a crash course in layperson emergency response - what people did/did not do before trained help made it to the scene, and how those decisions affected the survival rate. It reminded me of The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence but on a larger scale. Definitely some valuable lessons to learn, many of which we plan on teaching to our kids. (Jeremy and I both read this book and we both felt like it dumbed things down, though. It sometimes took a Malcolm Gladwell approach and just told a lot of stories in order to prove a point.)

SteelSteel by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book reads like the dream of a 13-year-old competitive fencer who just stayed up all night watching all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Except not that good.

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. Something is keeping me from full-on LOVING this book. I'm not quite sure what it is yet. The reading experience itself gets five stars for sure, though - this book was always a treat to pick up. I appreciated that it was mysterious without being overly weird or dark dark dark. It reminded me a lot of The Master and Margarita, except without the religious or symbolic depth. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you want to read a book that tells a great story without getting bogged down in anything heavy. The Night Circus does that very well.

The NotebookThe Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I knew I wouldn't like this book and I still read it (I'm between holds coming in at the library, ok??). Sorry, almost everyone else in America: The Notebook is not for me. Can we still be friends?

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater


This is going to be one of the most divided reviews I've ever written. Here goes.

For what this book IS and DOES, I love it. LOVE. Five stars, all around. It's the Hardy Boys + Nancy Drew, all grown up and without the cheese, because the ghosts or the coincidences or the noises in the attic are real, instead of turning out to be Mr. Peabody trying to scare the county away from taking his land (or whatever). The first third of the book was especially delicious, but the entire thing was very shivery and mysterious. And because I'm familiar with Ms. Stiefvater's storytelling style (from The Scorpio Races), I was content to let the story alternately meander and pick up the pace until the end, when everything is very quickly drawn together.

HOWEVER. For what this book ISN'T and DOESN'T, it is an almost-failure. Seriously, I'd give it one star. Two, maybe? I gave a scathing review to Abandon, saying that it had "nothing even approximating a complete story arc contained as a whole within its pages." To my great disappointment, the same can be said about this otherwise fantastically lovely book. There's a line in The Raven Boys about Maura's visions of death being only "promises," and that's what this book ends up being full of, too. So many promises...and so little delivery. I could not believe that the book ended when it did. Nothing was resolved. NOTHING. Three or four chapters out from the end, I was still prepared to give this a glowing review. Now, I'm not sure what to say (as you can tell from all these words I've written).

Another minor complaint: many very good books require their readers to be more credulous than they might otherwise be in order to truly, thoroughly be enjoyed. This is true sometimes for The Raven Boys, too. Specifically, I had questions throughout the book about SPOILER Blue's mother's ability to predict the people who would die in the next 12 months. So did she see Noah? Do we even know for sure it was Gansy in the vision? Why isn't the whole town beating down a path to her door?? END SPOILER. But if I just let it go, it was fine.

Allll that said...I still totally enjoyed reading this book and I still kinda love it and in the end, I would probably still recommend it.

(This last bit will make sense to very few people, but The Raven Boys had delightful shades of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Really. It's like a bizarro TDHOFLB where the boys let her into their club and we get to see what happens.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bokashi update

It's time for an update on our experience with Japanese indoor composting, aka Bokashi.

The main reason I was on board with trying it was to reduce the amount of food scraps we threw away in the trash can (we do not have a garbage disposal). I was raised in a house with a compost pile, so it is second - nay, FIRST - nature for me to want to put orange peels and egg shells somewhere other than the garbage. (It's the same as if you grew up recycling in your home - you will never be able to throw away a newspaper in the trash can without wincing.) And I'm happy to say that the Bokashi bin has performed very well on that count. Almost anything can go inside the Bokashi bin, including cooked food and small pieces of paper (like napkins), which is more than you can say for compost piles. It is so easy to keep the bowl nearby as I'm prepping dinner, fill it with peels and skins and scraps, and then add it to the big sealed bin at the end of the day. Our kitchen trash can doesn't fill up as fast and it doesn't get as stinky, either.

But of course, the main purpose of the Bokashi bin is to create humus for enriching the soil of a garden. That's the main reason Jeremy tried Bokashi in the first place. You have to wait for the entire bin to fill before you bury it in the garden, and in the six months since we've had the bin, we have done that three times. We are still on our original bag of Bokashi bran, by the way, which is nice since I was reluctant to be locked in to buying a proprietary product too often. We have also used the "juice" of the bin as plant food. And it seems to be going well. Considering that our soil was pretty much sand before, I'm sure the Bokashi humus is improving it.

The only negative I can report about the Bokashi bin is not really its fault. Sometimes, we get lazy and forget (or "forget") to empty the day's food scraps from the bowl on the counter into the sealed Bokashi bin. That's fine if it happens one day only, but sometimes the counter bowl gets left unemptied for too long. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it starts to stink (because hello, nasty food scraps just sitting in a bowl on your counter). And second, mold sometimes starts to grow, and once the food is moldy, you cannot add it to the Bokashi bin. It messes with the healthy fermentation process.

Overall, I would really recommend Bokashi for people who cannot (for one reason or another) manage a normal compost pile - or even if you can, actually. It takes up very little space, doesn't require much effort (ahem, unless you get lazy like us sometimes), adds back to your garden, and reduces the amount of food scraps you throw away in your trash can. And that's good for everyone.

Monday, February 25, 2013

TV zombies

We were in Oman for the weekend. One of the nights, we stayed at a hotel in Sohar. And that hotel had a little something called TELEVISION. I'm going to try to say this in as unsanctimonious a way as possible, but we do not have TV at our house. Like many of you, I'm sure - it seems like TV is not so much a given these days because of the ubiquity of DVDs and Netflix. I mean, we have A TV at our house, but it's in the under-the-stairs playroom and is only hooked up to a DVD player. For their entire lives, my kids have understood that to watch something on a TV is to be able to pause it and rewind it and put in something else if you want to, at any time.

Well, TV in a hotel doesn't work that way. You flip through the channels (ooooooh) and if something looks good, you watch it for a while but don't blink because you can't rewind it (wow!). After one show is over, another one comes on. AUTOMATICALLY. With fancy, loud, bright commercials in between. And sometimes there are whole channels devoted to addicting kids to their content (a channel called "Playhouse Disney" at the hotel) and our girls could not. look. AWAY. They were TV zombies.

It was amazing. They were watching TV. Jeremy and I were watching them watch TV. And even though that was four whole days ago, which is a loooong time for a four-year-old, Magdalena cannot stop asking about TV, and when we can go back to the hotel and watch some more, etc. etc. I suppose it's just as well we don't have it at home because I don't think I'd hear the end of it.

Or the novelty would wear off and it would be just another entertainment option. Whichever.

Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22nd, outsourced

Note: I'm in Oman right now with sketchy internet so I won't be able to post some of the links a few of you sent me in the last 36 hours or so. Sorry! I'm sure they will still be awesome next week.

You know I love Jeopardy!. So of course I loved watching this awesome guy win the Teen Tournament.

A dress-code enforcer's struggle for the soul of the middle-school girl.

G-rated moments of swoon from literature (not just YA). That scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel - it's been years since I read that book, but SIGH.

I can't remember whose FB page I saw this on, but: a mom took "newborn" photos of her 13-year-old adopted son. Hilarious.

The world in 1963 (photo essay).

Casablanca vs. Gone With the Wind: Gone With the Wind, obviously.

Women of Syria (photo essay).

There's a whole backstory behind this fake menu that I don't have time to explain, but basically this is a joke menu of AMERRICUN food. [HT Jessie]

More and more companies are requiring college degrees...just 'cuz.

Gifts for kids. Warning: this page includes a product that is soap shaped like poo. [HT Jeremy and Andrew]

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A new church building

This weekend, the first purpose-built Mormon chapel in the entire Middle East will be dedicated in Abu Dhabi. Where have we Middle Eastern Mormons been meeting all these years, then, you ask? In rented villas or in private apartments, mostly. It works, but it's not ideal.

Villas (homes) are not especially well-suited to the mechanics of Mormon services. We need one big room for the first hour of the meeting, and then a lot of smaller rooms (but some medium-sized ones) for the meetings of the men's group, or the women's group, or the big children's class, which then breaks into smaller children's classes, plus an indestructible room for the Nursery (babies/toddlers) class, and then at least one administrative room. It's great if there's a kitchen or food prep area, too, and maybe a bigger outdoor space for non-Sabbath events. You can see why the words "purpose-built" are music to our ears, because all the quirks of a Mormon service are accommodated in such a space. In our villas, not so much.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A TAL episode to try

Do you listen to This American Life? If you do, then maybe you've already heard this week's very affecting episode about a high school in Chicago where last year, 29 current/recent students were shot.

If you don't listen to the podcast in general, considering listening to this one (you can find it here). It is worth an hour of your time (two hours, probably, because there is a Part 2 coming out next week) for the following reasons, listed in decreasing order of triviality.

1. As a linguist who does not currently live in her home country, and thus is not exposed to many native American English accents, this podcast was a joy to listen to just for the sake of hearing something NEW. A lot of things we've talked about in theory in my recent MA classes were happening in real life in the podcast's recordings of people talking. Metathesis, African American Vernacular English, register-switching depending on the audience (pay attention to how the school guidance counselors talk to the students, and then how they talk to the reporter), etc. Fascinating.

2. Even though it was mostly a sad story, I was so interested in these people's lives because their high school experience is so different from how mine was. I mean, the basic structures are still there - cliques (except cliques = gangs there), classes, grades, sports, football - but the way in which the students interact with those structures is so different. It really made me think.

All of this is beside the point, because the most important thing I felt while listening to this podcast was that:

3. Here are adults who really care about the kids they are in charge of. I could hardly believe the dedication and love these administrators, teachers, and counselors showed for their charges. I can't imagine the toll it takes on their time and emotional resources. It was a ray of hope in a story that was otherwise kind of grim.

If you listen to this episode of This American Life and want to hear more, here are a few of my other favorite episodes from the past few years.

Will They Know Me Back Home?
What Doesn't Kill You
The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar
Mind Games

Monday, February 18, 2013

Downton Abbey Season 3 Finale (SPOILERS)

We'll talk about the-ending-that-ruined-Christmas-Day-for-the-Brits in a minute (yes, the finale aired on Christmas Day. Can you imagine?). First:

Friday, February 15, 2013

February 15th, outsourced

In Valentine's Day news:

Remember the guy who made that awesome live music video to propose to his girlfriend? Well, he made another video to celebrate Valentine's Day and it is lovely. [HT Jen]

Valentine's Day around the world.

A Valentine's Day miracle (monoamniotic twins, one year later) (brief language warning somewhere in there, by the way).

Retired Sweetheart candy sayings. [HT Liz]

Hunger Games valentines. [HT someone - can't remember who, sorry!]

In other links:

A faceless teenage refugee who helped ignite Syria's civil war. Everyone knows Mohamed Bouazizi's name. This guy, not so much.

This waiter wouldn't serve a family who insulted another family with a Down Syndrome boy. Bravo.

Remember Hypercolor t-shirts??

I laughed and laughed at these two videos (here and here) of infomercial "before" clips taken out of context.

You might think you don't want to spend 14 minutes watching Mormon kids open up their mission calls. I think maybe you do.

What do you think of the redesigned Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone cover?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Yesterday, Miriam's (Scottish) teacher brought a toaster into class and the kids all made toast as an experiment in before/after description and observation. Miriam came home just raving about toast - plain, unbuttered, toasted bread. The way she described it to me, it was as if she had never imagined you could even make toast without butter and cinnamon sugar.

I have to wonder if this is her Scottish teacher's influence, because if my reading British literature/watching British miniseries has taught me anything, it's that they enjoy their plain toasted bread over there.

On the other hand, for my entire life, "toast" has always meant "toasted bread + butter and cinnamon sugar," and apparently I've passed that idea on to my children. Hence Miriam's surprise at plain toasted bread being called "toast." If I wanted (for some unfathomable reason) toast without the butter and cinnamon sugar, I would have to say, "dry toast" or "plain toast" or, you know, "toast without butter and cinnamon sugar."

How about you? Is the idea of toast = toasted bread + butter and cinnamon sugar an American construct or just a Bridget (Walker family) construct? If someone offered you toast, would you feel compelled to ask if they wanted butter and cinnamon sugar, or is that included in the concept of "toast"?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Syria

AUS hosted a lecture today by a doctor who recently spent time in Syria with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The auditorium ended up being so packed that I got a seat but Jeremy had to stand in the back with a bunch of other people. Here is a summary of what the doctor, a French woman, had to say.

At this time, about two years into the conflict, estimates are that more than 60,000 Syrians have died.

There are now an estimated 2.5 million internally displaced Syrians (meaning they're refugees in their own country).

About 700,000 have become refugees outside the country, in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. (Some of my Syrian students have told me that Iraqis who fled the war in Iraq in the mid-2000s have since fled back to Iraq - not sure if they're included in the refugee numbers. Also, isn't that just about the saddest thing ever?)

In the last six months, they estimate that about 70,000 have been wounded. That's where relief organizations like Doctors Without  Borders come in.

Some of the challenges DWB/MSF faces is that hospitals and medical staff are often targeted and destroyed/killed (by which side(s), she didn't say). So Syrians are less and less able to provide their own medical support personnel, organizations, facilities, and supplies, which makes them more dependent on outside sources such as DWB/MSF. During the conflict, as field hospitals become the norm, secondary problems such as increased antibiotic resistance arise. With antibiotics available only erratically, and with administration/prescription of them left to irregular circumstances, DWB/MSF is finding that there are more and more people whose injuries they cannot treat effectively with antibiotics. This is above and beyond the more mundane awful conditions they are facing, like having their work areas bombed or having fewer and fewer actual hospitals to operate out of.

Within Syria, about two-thirds of the country are under government control. Into these areas, only government-approved relief organizations are allowed, and all that relief must be funneled through the Syrian Red Crescent. The SRC is overwhelmed and so the aid doesn't get out as quickly as it should, but there is no viable work-around at this time.

In areas (about one-third of the country) controlled by the FSA, access is more "open," but also more difficult because aid workers must cross into the country illegally (I guess that's where the "WB" part of "DWB" comes in handy). Aid workers such as those working with DWB must depend on the assets and help of local residents as well as outside allies, and they often operate within the FSA's field hospitals or they establish their own in private residences. Which, at that point, are no longer private. DWB guards its impartiality carefully, so even something as necessary, urgent, and seemingly simple as selecting a home for a makeshift hospital can be fraught with unintended implications. This complicates the process of helping people.

Security is constantly an issue for DWB. They are always balancing their desire to help and the needs of the people with the very real risks in the country. She spoke of the unpredictability of air attacks and how one place could be safe one day and deadly the next.

During the Q&A period, someone asked if they paid attention to which side's people they were treating. She said as a rule, they do not ask if someone is a rebel or a government fighter or whatever. That's not their job. However, she spoke of one difficult case where they were brought an individual who had been tortured. The person who dropped him/her (she didn't say) off was the one responsible for the torturing, and somehow it became clear that after the doctors were done fixing up the patient, the torturing would continue. She said they did not at first know what to do in such a situation, but ended up treating the person anyway because that was their duty as doctors.

Someone else asked if the people she treated had a message for the outside world, and that was the most heartbreaking part: "Help us." She said that many Syrians expected the same support as Libya received during their revolution, and obviously that hasn't happened. As more time passes, even those Syrians who are untouched by physical injury are becoming more and more traumatized by the constant bombing, street fighting, and snipers.

It was a great talk, even if it left me feeling pretty awful. Still, I'm glad to get the chance to hear accounts like this so I can understand the situation better - and know that there are people doing a lot to help ease the suffering in Syria.

(More thoughts on Downton Abbey)

I swear this blog isn't all about DA or anything but I just found out that what was two separate episodes for us was one for you guys in the US. So I've edited this post with comments on the "second half" (other episode for us). It was Crys' comment that tipped me off, because I knew Edith's storyline didn't go Bronte on us all at once.

Friday, February 08, 2013

February 8th, outsourced

Shh, baby's sleeping...until her favorite song comes on.

Why do some countries regulate baby names? [HT Jeremy]

The world's best game of tag. Seriously!!!

What foreign language is on this Dickens poster? My guess was pretty close, how about yours?

Carson (from Downton Abbey) had another life, way back when. [HT Jeremy]

This is possibly too niche to be enjoyed by all, but the big news in the (Mormon) Bloggernacle this week was that FMH upset BCC for best (Mormon) blog. A meme war ensued, culminating in this gem.

Here is a hijab tutorial for men ("brothers") who complain that even veiled women are immodest these days, or who have trouble keeping themselves from harassing women.

Richard III's remains have been found.

Mary Ingalls did not go blind from scarlet fever. I repeat, Mary Ingalls did not go blind from scarlet fever. [HT Suzanne]

People of Timbuktu save manuscripts from invaders. Sniff. [HT James]

YOU GUYS (LADIES). Just keep your whole maiden name and put the last name on there without a hyphen. Nobody says you can't have four names. It works for me. [HT Susanne]

The upside of nuclear war?

I hope to find out that this "new" Anne of Green Gables cover is a hoax. [HT Liz]

This is my favorite link in a long time. It's a little complicated to explain, but basically a lady took pictures of herself in an airplane bathroom using props like the toilet seat cover to mimic 15th-century Flemish portraiture. Yeah, just go look. [HT Liz]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The new semester

I've been getting to know my new crop of students this week. They're a particularly diverse bunch this semester. I often have hordes of Emiratis and Saudis with a few other variations on the Arab theme mixed in there, but this time my classes are more diverse across the board. Off the top of my head (after only meeting with them twice, so it's possible I'm forgetting some), my students come from:

That's China, UAE, Jordan, Saudi, Syria, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine.

Of course, saying my students are "from" a certain place can be misleading. In some cases, the student has never actually been to where s/he is "from." One of my female Palestinian students was born and raised in the UAE and has never ever traveled to her ancestral homeland (Gaza). But she is "from," and always will be "from," Palestine. Good for her - I mean it. I've written on this topic before, but I sometimes think that we Americans whitewash (for lack of a better word) our origins a little too much. Wouldn't it be lovely to meet someone in the US, ask them where they're from, and have them say, "Well, my mother's family came over from Poland in the late 19th-century and my father's family is primarily Italian"? Lovely, yes. Time-consuming, also yes. But it's a more complete answer than "LA" or whatever, that's for sure.

My students think it's strange that Americans can claim they're "from" a certain city or state only by virtue of having lived there for x amount of time. In this neighborhood, you'd better have several generations backing you up before you claim to be from a certain country.

Anyway, it's just interesting, that's all. This semester is the first time I'll be teaching someone from Libya and Sudan; the rest I've done before. I'm glad I have some diverse classes to keep things interesting.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

"I'm bored."

The other day, Miriam and her 9-year-old friend were home alone for about 45 minutes. Apparently, during that fantastically long stretch of time, they got bored. So they each drew up a list of possible activities. I found the lists after I got home and I thought they were a fascinating peek into the minds of a 7- and 9-year-old. Left to their own devices, L (age 9) and Miriam (age 7) thought it might be a good idea to:

(Miriam's list):
1. ride scooter (rolerblades or bike.)
2. see if we can find chok. [chalk]
3. practis jimnastecs.
4. shoes are boats. [this one is my favorite]
5. make a statue.
6. stuffies [stuffed animals] in the air!
7. measure.
8. dress up.
9. clean up.
10. Ghoast!!!
11. snack time.

(L's list):
1. Fort
2. stuffies
3. Dogde stuffies
4. Spinning
5. fashion show
6. fashion show with stuffies
7. monster stuffies
8. trow stuffies at wall
9. eat something
10. treaser hunt
11. pretend you are a stuffie
12. trow a blangket on your head

The Xs and Ls and Ms seem to be some kind of voting system. As you can see, the adults came home before much fun could be had - it looks like only the first two items on Miriam's list were completed. But what great ideas they had! Next time my kids tell me they're bored, I'm busting out this list. There are so many things to do - especially with stuffed animals, it seems.

Friday, February 01, 2013


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