A Real Guitar Hero – Sungha Jung 12 Year Old Prodigy Fingerstyle Guitarist at LimitlessUnits.com

This kid is truly talented… the style, skill, originality, I can’t think of anything he’s missing. I’d definitely buy an album of his arrangements!

Biology + YouTube = music to my ears

Three things about me. One, I’m a big fan of music – love the sappy stuff, the rockin’ stuff, the funky stuff, the big beat bouncin’ stuff. Two, I’m also a big fan of biology and all the cool, incredible things we find in nature. Third, I love nerdy comedy. So when I can enjoy these three things together, I’m practically in heaven. Thankfully, YouTube has encouraged more and more people to put their creative efforts online, and this means that I now have multiple nerdy-comedic biology music videos to choose from when I need my nerdy-comedic biology music fix.

Some classics you may already know:

“Scientists for a Better PCR” by BioRad – This video practically brings tears to my eyes, no joke. Both tears of joy (good music!) and of laughter (“it’s amazing what heating and cooling and heating will doooo…”).

“Large Hadron Rap” by alpinekat – About the Large Hadron Collider, in the style of old school rap that I favor – the more funk, the better.

“It’s called epMotion” by epmotion08 – About an automatic pipetting system meant to rescue lab techs from sore wrists and fingers that come with manual pipetting. A parody of the boy-band era.

In addition to those, I’ve just discovered (thanks to FriendFeed) a set of rap remixes created by a group of Stanford RAs which are pretty awesome, and probably the most educational I’ve seen so far (the third and fourth don’t have entertaining videos, but the lyrics more than make up for it):

“Regulatin’ Genes”

“I’m going going back back to plasma membrane”
(about vesicle transport)

“I just want a function”
(classic line: “mo’ toads, mo’ problems”)

“Hi, Meiosis”
(classic line: “Thanks Greg, oh Gregor beg your pardon, I’ve always been amazed the way you tend your gardens.”)

All I can say is, I love the nerdy hip-hop stylin’s and I wish I’d had these when I was in college!

The gustatory voyage of the Beagle, part 1

I have a soft spot for food writing in books that are not about food. Experiments in living off the land in My Side of the Mountain, the expansive feasts put on by the woodland creatures in the Redwall series, the culinary culture of the Lenape Indians – the depictions of food and food preparation in these stories are what stand out in my memory.

So to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday this week, I’ll highlight some of my favorite culinary passages in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s diaries describing the years he spent traveling around the world as the naturalist on board HMS Beagle. I’m only part way through, so consider this part 1.

It is often the case that Darwin exposes his wry humor when speaking of food. Take, for example, his description of the difficulty they sometimes had in procuring food from their hosts:

On first arriving it was our custom to … ask the senhor to do us the favour to give us something to eat. ‘Anything you choose, sir,’ was his usual answer. For the first few times, vainly I thanked providence for having guided us to so good a man. The conversation proceeding, the case universally became deplorable. ‘Any fish can you do us the favour of giving?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any soup?’ — ‘No, sir.’ — ‘Any bread?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any dried meat?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ … It not unfrequently happened, that we were obliged to kill, with stones, the poultry for our own supper. When, thoroughly exhausted by fatigue and hunger, we timorously hinted that we should be glad of our meal, the pompous, and (though true) most unsatisfactory answer was ‘It will be ready when it is ready.’

Contrast this with a sumptuous dinner hosted by a well-stocked relative of a member of Darwin’s party just a few days later:

[The] profusion of food showed itself at dinner, where, if the tables did not groan, the guests surely did; for each person is expected to eat of every dish. One day, having, as I thought, nicely calculated so that nothing should go away untasted, to my utter dismay a roast turkey and a pig appeared in all their substantial reality.

When describing the animals he encounters, Darwin sometimes includes a note about its culinary value. For instance, the meat of the water-hog (Hydrochoerus capybara), the largest living rodent in the world, is apparently “very indifferent,” though it supposedly tastes like pork and is considered a delicacy today. Of an aggressive carrion-eating bird, the Polyborus Novae Zelandiae (probably a species of Caracara), Darwin writes, “the sealers say that the flesh of these birds, when cooked, is quite white, and very good eating; but bold must the man be who attempts such a meal.”

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Neither of these sounded particularly appetizing, but later on Darwin mentions that armadillo is “a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell.” I <3 roasting, so this claim prompted me to search for recipes online – pointless, in retrospect, since I lack the means to procure armadillo in suburban California. At any rate, all I could find were some armadillo-inspired dishes and a bare-bones fact sheet confirming that people do indeed consume armadillo roasted in the shell. Ah well. Now I know what to ask for when I visit South America, or, hey, even Texas!

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

It’s said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So Happy Birthday, Charles – can’t wait to learn more about you through your culinary adventures!

2008 in books

In posts past, I’ve sometimes listed the last few books I read and, if lucky, a review. Like many other things in my life, I aspire to read frequently and widely and to record my experiences exhaustively, but often fall short. It’s almost a new year, however, so I was inspired by John Dupuis over at Confessions of a Science Librarian to at least list as much as I can remember reading in 2008.

Close to but not necessarily in chronological order:

  1. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love Marquez’s writing – expansive yet incisive, a feast for the senses using only ink on paper. I enjoyed this book slightly more than 100 Years of Solitude, though both are highly recommended.
  2. Until I Find You by John Irving. Another author I usually enjoy reading, this most recent book didn’t necessarily disappoint, but it didn’t necessarily satisfy either.
  3. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. Entertaining and fast-paced. I hear the movie is awful, though.
  4. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. A fast read, but nothing earth-shattering.
  5. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I’m a sucker for compelling case histories, especially of the neuropsychological type.
  6. A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. Humorous and educational, if you ever wanted to learn the dirty details of studying baboons in the wild.
  7. Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. I found this wholly engrossing. Doesn’t hurt that I am fascinated by animal behavior/cognition as well as autism, both of which are brought together in this book.
  8. Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky. Fun and informative essays about human biology and behavior.
  9. The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. These books are highly acclaimed but for some reason I just don’t particularly like Lahiri’s writing. It’s perfectly fine, I just find it a bit bland.
  10. Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Decent but nothing compared to her first few books.
  11. Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. Not bad, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Galapagos.
  12. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. A first-hand account of a doomed Everest expedition. Gripping, chilling, and emotionally draining. I couldn’t put it down, and couldn’t get images of the mountain out of my head for weeks. I think watching a PBS documentary (“Everest”?) on that very same expedition while I was in the middle of the book was part of that… So if you want the full experience, watch the documentary too!
  13. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Gripping, chilling, and emotionally draining. I sense a pattern. At any rate, I am also fascinated by religion, Christianity in particular, so this book was a must-read. I’m also a big fan of Krakuaer’s writing.
  14. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Also very good.
  15. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Entertaining look into the restaurant and culinary world.
  16. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain. Good as well. I love food – ’nuff said.
  17. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Again, I love food. And I agree almost completely with Pollan on everything. And I want to be a farmer and a cook and …
  18. Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. An autobiographical account of a notable food critic’s experiences. Very interesting and fun to read. Did I mention I love food?
  19. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. A classic that I’d never read. Surprisingly entertaining!
  20. The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger by Lois Lowry. I loved reading Number the Stars and The Giver growing up. Unbeknownst to me, these three books actually go together. The Giver was by far the best of the three, though.
  21. Complications by Atul Gawande. Ditto everything John Dupuis said.
  22. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks. More fun neuropsych case histories. Some are reiterated between this and Anthropologist on Mars.
  23. Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. More neuropsych, this time focused on the way music affects, is affected by, or otherwise manifests itself in cognitive disorders.
  24. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. A well-argued book. I haven’t read much in this particular area but have become increasingly interested in it. There are some great videos out there as well.
  25. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. A slim, elegantly written and engaging account of a Pakistani man at a personal crossroads after 9/11.
  26. Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote. It looked interesting and I needed a book to read on the plane. I ended up reading it entirely in one sitting (good thing the flight was a long one) and even shed a few tears, a bit awkward on the plane. But like I said, I’m a sucker for animal behavior, plus I love dogs, and this was plenty of that, in a moving personal account of the friendship between a man and a very unique dog.
  27. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. Like Complications, well-written and interesting. I liked Complications better, though.
  28. The McKinsey Way by Ethan Rasiel. I was interviewing so it seemed like a good idea. I guess if you are interested in how the biggest management consulting company in the world works, this book definitely helps.
  29. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. A mystery novel told through about 6 different characters and their very different circumstances that somehow come together at the end. This was another spontaneous buy that I ended up enjoying very much.
  30. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. A rare foray into romance novels, though one could argue that this has more literary value. Still, I enjoyed it as a glimpse into what life as a courtier in England might have been like during that time. The book is very different from the movie, though.
  31. Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. Eccentric story of a young man who loses everything and finds himself working in a circus as a veterinarian. Dark and surreal but very human.
  32. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner. True story of a man who interacts with and observes a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco. Engagingly written.

It seems like I read a lot of books about pop science, food, and animals. I think next year will have more of the same, plus perhaps more science, more tech, and religion thrown in.

Books I’m currently reading: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Persig, The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, The Assault on Reason by Al Gore, The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall, and Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky.

Books currently lined up: A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan, Longitude by Dava Sobel, Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner, The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks, Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagain, and River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins.

Not to mention the dozens of books I’d like to read but haven’t procured yet. Not enough time in the day, not enough days in the year…

“Do you believe in Gosh?” – Mitch Hedberg tribute

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’ll just ask where they’re going, and hook up with them later!”

On March 30, 2005, comedy lost one of its brightest talents. Mitch Hedberg, though still mostly unknown to the general public, was slowly amassing a devoted following and an impressive resume complete with appearances in feature films and on Letterman (10 in all) along with nationwide stand-up tours. His style was like the polar opposite of many of today’s comics; rather than holding the audience hostage with indignant screeching, he’d drawl his quiet one liners like some laid back dude inviting you to have a beer – and after 3 or 4 you’d be nodding and laughing with him like he was your oldest friend. His comedy is unique, sure, but it’s comedy for every day.

“I know how hard it is to stop smoking. It’s as hard as it is to start flossing.”

I discovered Mitch in college thanks to some savvy friends and for the next few years hardly a day went by where I didn’t find myself quoting him. I’m thankful that I was able to see him in person before he passed away, when he did a show at the University of Rhode Island in 2004. Perhaps it’s a cliche to say that Mitch changed my life, but I think it’s not far from the truth when you can’t ever look at Christmas stockings, corn (off the cob), jellybeans, smoke detectors, fire exits, race cars, donuts, etc the same way again.

Recently a friend and I took care of the bill for a large group at a restaurant and we both ended up with hundreds of dollars in cash in our pockets. She said, “man, I have so much cash, it’s dangerous!” I immediately said, “don’t go buy a snake bite emergency repair kit!” She’s actually a Mitch fan as well, but she didn’t catch the reference, to my disappointment.

Dufresne.. party of 2. Dufresne… party of 2. And if no one answers they’ll say their name again. “Dufresne, party of two, Dufresne, party of two.” But then if no one answers they’ll just go right on to the next name. “Busch, party of three.” Yeah, but what happened to the Dufresnes? No one seems to give a shit. Who can eat at a time like this – people are missing. You fuckers are selfish… the Dufresnes are in someone’s trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry! That’s a double whammy. We need help. Busch, search party of three! You can eat when you find the Dufresnes.”

Now, three and a half years after Mitch Hedberg’s untimely passing, they are releasing one last album, “Do You Believe in Gosh?”, which he had been recording just prior to his death. Today is the official release date, and you can buy the album on Comedy Central’s website, which also has information on a nation wide tribute happening today at six comedy venues. For those who’d like to hear some of his material before shelling out for a record that I can say nothing about (since I haven’t heard it yet), there are some decent videos here, here, and here.

“I was going to stay overnight at a friend’s house, he said ‘you’re gonna have to sleep on the floor.’ … Damn gravity! Got me again! You don’t know how bad I wanna sleep on the wall.”

I hope more people come to appreciate his humor and human insight. Mitch, rest in peace and laughter, for you’ve given both to your fans.

Mitch Hedberg official site

Mitch Hedberg quotes collected at WikiQuote

Moving out, moving on

After tomorrow, we will officially be moved out of the house at Miramonte. It’s amazing to see how much stuff you can accumulate, the amount of which you never really realize until you have to pack it into boxes. I think we’ve taken 6 small truckloads (little Toyota), 3 large truckloads (big Chevy), and 3 hatchback loads already, with maybe one more small truckload and hatchback load to go. This doesn’t include my bike, Chris’s motorcycle, and the three cars between the two of us. We’ve been having a continuous freecycle pile in our driveway and have taken a small truckload to Goodwill (via Paul) as well.

I watched “Into The Wild” on Sunday night while taking a break from moving. I’d read the book as well, and the movie version struggles a bit from having to condense more than a year of Chris McCandless’s journey (plus several years back of context) into less than 2 hours. But it still makes you appreciate his desire to free himself of material wants, of the trappings of society, and “things, things, things, things, THINGS…” Maybe this message was driven home more forcefully by the fact that moving surrounds you with so many things. Suffice it to say, our new living room has barely enough space to walk right now. Craigslist, here we come!

Since I forgot to take any pictures of the new place (and have sold my camera, besides), some hand-drawn renditions will have to do. First, the view from the front:

It’s a cute front/back duplex (technically a triplex since the owners converted the garage into another unit, but also technically illegal so it may remain a duplex), and we’re in the front unit. There’s a side alley on the right that goes to a shared laundry room which opens out on the other side to a communal cement patio. The patio is basically an extension of the driveway, which is on the left side of the house; in fact, it used to be the driveway when the back unit was still a garage. The picnic table from the old house is there now, along with our tomatoes and herbs, and there’s a grill, woot! The best thing about the house is the kitchen, which has hardwood floors, bright red cabinets, and new stainless steel appliances, including a sweet five burner gas stove. The second best thing about the house is that it’s painted bright blue with yellow shutters and doors. The inside of our unit used to have funky yellow and green walls in the living room too, but they decided to repaint it a neutral beige before we moved in. The big downside is that there’s not much storage – the closets are fairly big, but since we have no garage and only a modestly sized living/dining room, we’re going to have to get rid of a lot of stuff, mostly furniture. To give you an idea, here’s the floorplan before and after we moved in (caution: fuzzy pictures!):

All things considered, it’s a nice little place that’s pretty new inside and there are definitely perks. The plum tree out front has delicious plums and we also have an apple, persimmon, walnut, and orange trees overhanging from neighboring houses. Our duplex neighbors are really nice and have already done neighborly things like order us recycling bins (she works at city hall) and water my tomatoes. Our street itself is just a tiny bit sketchy in that it’s crowded and some of the houses are run down, but it’s pretty varied in terms of who lives here and the location is great – about half a mile to Whole Foods, Safeway, and Target in addition to all the stuff on Woodside Rd, a bunch of shops, restaurants, and markets within a few blocks, and about a mile from downtown. It’s also 2 miles closer to my work by bike and 15 miles closer to Chris’s work. If I got a commuter bike I could pretty much bike to everything in just a few minutes! That’s pretty rad.

Though it can be fun to set up house in a new place, I’m really looking forward to the day I have my own house and don’t end up moving every year. I could garden to my heart’s content, install a porch swing, paint the walls spring green, and get a cat and a dog instead of just fish (sorry Doc and Marty, but you’re just not super exciting). That’s when I think it’ll finally feel like I’ve moved on with my life.

Shwirlwind

It’s been a rather crazy June, an even crazier July, and is looking to be a crazy August. So much for the lazy days of summer! For a quick run down:

  • May 31-Jun 1 = Cal States tourney, Santa Cruz
  • Jun 26-29 = Boston Invite tourney, Devens
  • Jul 3-7 = Potlatch tourney, Seattle
  • Jul 7-9 = Conference, Bethesda
  • Jul 9-13 = Visiting home in NJ, friends in NYC
  • Jul 17-22 = Conference, Toronto
  • Jul 26 = Mixed mixer tourney, San Rafael
  • Jul 28-30 = consulting workshop, San Francisco
  • Aug 6-7 = BioBarCamp unconference, local
  • [ Aug 8-10 = college friends reunion???, Atlanta ] – looking unlikely with my schedule and finances… :(
  • Aug 11 = open science informal meetup, local
  • Aug 15-17 = Wedding, Boston
  • Aug 23-24 = Spawnfest tourney, Seattle
  • Aug 30-31 = Labor Day tourney, San Francisco

Sometime in August I will possibly be moving to farther north on the peninsula, which means now is when the house hunting madness starts. We’re looking somewhere between Palo Alto and South San Francisco, though I guess if we’re willing to move up to SSF, we might as well go all out and give city living a try. But it really just depends on whether there are any decent and affordable 1 or 2 BR places that aren’t apartments. If we do move, I’m going to have to figure out how to transport my tomato plants, which have started outgrowing their little enclosures. I planted them in buckets for just that reason, but given how big they’ve gotten, I have no idea how they’ll react to 20 or 30 miles on the highway! They’re one of the only things I’ve planted that have thrived, so it would be sad if they didn’t make it.

Despite the crazy schedule, I’ve still found time to read (long flights and delays help). Since finishing “Kitchen Confidential”, I’ve read “Under the Banner of Heaven” and “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer, “Complications” by Atul Gawande, most of “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, and am now reading “Merle’s Door” by Ted Kerasote. I’ve enjoyed all of them (and am now again running out of books to read…)

Off to prepare for my next conference!

Feeding frenzy

I don’t diet, but I do think quite a bit about what I eat. This is motivated mostly by a desire to be “healthy” but I would hope not in an unhealthy way. Growing up in an Asian household with a mother who loves and excels at cooking traditional Asian dishes, this meant that I ate a lot of different kinds of vegetables, seafood, and stir-fried fare as a kid. Sure, I ate my own fair share of junk food, too – I’d demolish half a party-size bag of Doritos in one sitting and often had dinner-sized snacks (consisting of last night’s dinner) right before dinner, but I escaped becoming another obesity statistic through my devotion to Ultimate Frisbee. (I wouldn’t say genetics has that much to do with it; although my parents are both trim and healthy, it appears the well-nourished younger generation is quite capable of packing on the pounds when limited to a sedentary lifestyle.)

At any rate, my culinary tastes have changed quite a bit since then, but virtually all in good ways. I did not enjoy cheese, yogurt, or seafood a great deal in those days, but now love all three. And I still love fruits and vegetables and will try almost any dish put in front of me, courtesy of being exposed to exotic Chinese foods like tripe and pig ears at an early age. My typical route through a grocery store consists of a beeline to the meat and produce sections, with the occasional visits to dairy, juice, pasta, and baking aisles but rarely any others. Without really making a conscious choice, it turns out that I rarely eat anything that’s been processed and can count the number of times I willingly eat/drink junk food in a year on two hands (and maybe a foot). Then again, I probably eat as many or more calories now that I’ve discovered the joys of heavy cream, baking bread, and cooking with butter. Ah well.

So I’m a (mostly) healthy eater, right? Well, let’s just say that after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma it’s apparently not that simple. That book can strike fear into the gut of even a relatively balanced eater like myself. Cows are corn. Chicken are corn. Fish are corn. Juice is corn. Toothpaste is corn. Basically, corn is the Borg and resistance is futile. Think we’re 90% water? Wrong – we’re like 99% corn. Even most so-called “organic” products and “free-range” animals aren’t the rosy sun-over-pasture image depicted on their containers. Not to mention the carbon footprint made by transporting asparagus from Argentina. Here in California, we can kind of get away with it because much of the produce in our stores are actually grown in California, and there are farmer’s markets every weekend the entire year. (Growing season? What’s that?)

But whenever you rationalize one thing about food, another bogeyman pops up. Take caloric restriction and aging, for instance. Just the act of eating – nevermind what you’re eating, though this has an impact, too – is thought to damage the body. Digestion produces destructive molecules called free radicals that can go around and beat up your cells. Some foods, like those high in antioxidants (like berries and pomegranate) help to reduce the damage free radicals inflict. But just the act of consuming calories damages your cells, which contributes to aging. When mice and worms are starved (something like 1/3 of their normal caloric intake), they live significantly longer. Although the effect hasn’t yet been reproduced in humans, the fountain of youth beckons many, and caloric restriction has become a trend as people strive to live longer by eating around 1000 calories a day. I heard there’s this one professor studying aging who claims that just looking at food causes you to age (albeit imperceptibly).

In the midst of this national personality crisis about food, I’m reading books about the joys of cooking and eating, participating in cooking and eating, and having a good time cooking and eating. Food, whether it be making it or consuming it, is one of the few things that consistently makes me happy, so I think I’m willing to forgo a potential bonus in lifespan to have what I know is good right now. After all, I’m pretty risk-averse, and while to some that would mean going caloric restricted to the max, to me it means going for the sure thing – food bliss.

By the way, here’s a delicious recipe for cold sesame noodles!

Juno – "Like the city in Alaska?" "No."

I’m probably a little behind the times since I just watched “Juno” for the first time last night. I enjoyed it very much, though watching “Smart People” a couple weeks ago introduced me to Ellen Page and so I wasn’t as enamored with her in Juno as most were. This isn’t to say she wasn’t great in her role – few people do cynical “I do what I want” angsty graduate-level vocabulary spouting teenager better than she does. But her character in “Smart People” was basically the same, if better dressed and in better context (her father is a widowed English professor rather than a remarried H-Vac salesman).

In both cases, her character seems just a bit overdone, though this is often to comic effect and leads to some great lines. Underneath the jaded faux-mature exterior always lies the fact that she is, despite how hard she tries to escape it, just a teenager coping with big problems. I think “Juno” did a better job of developing the characters overall than “Smart People”, which after watching “Juno” feels more and more like a vehicle for seeing just how far the Juno character could be taken. There’s been some criticism of Ellen Page playing essentially the same character and worries that she’ll be pigeon-holed, and I definitely agree. She does it well, but too well – you can believe that maybe that’s all she can convincingly portray (or all that we’ll let her, after two movies like that).

Ellen Page isn’t the only one potentially guilty of that. Michael Cera, who plays Bleeker in “Juno” and one of the guys in “Superbad”, pretty much seems to play one character also. He always comes off as endearing, though, which might be better than coming off as irritating, which too much of Ellen Page’s character can easily do. But disregarding the future of their careers, “Juno” was still a good, funny, quirky movie that leaves you smiling.

The one thing I do want to mention about Ellen Page, however, is how much she reminds me of an old roommate of mine. Not in a bad way at all, but it’s rather amusing. Not just the physique and appearance – slim, pale-skinned and freckled brunette – but also the manner of speaking and dress. The whole geeky hipster look, a face made for librarian glasses, the deadpan quips and witticisms, the perpetual hint of sarcasm, the ease with which you can imagine them listening to NPR or hunkering down with a battered copy of a dead Greek guy (my old roommate is a Ph.D. student in Classics – Latin, Greek, etc). The character in “Smart People” reminded me of her more, but the basic essence is the same in “Juno”. Though we didn’t hang out much, she was a good roommate, and seeing her reflected in Ellen Page through these two movies definitely made me think of her fondly. I’m sure someone has told her of the resemblance and I wonder what she thinks of that?

A Lois Lowry triple header

I remember a lot of good books when I was a kid but there is something to be said for reading books of your childhood again when you’re an adult. Some are simply too complex for most kids to appreciate, like the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L’Engle and everything by John Steinbeck (I thought Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath were big and boring when I was in high school but I read East of Eden (even bigger) a year or two ago and absolutely loved it). Other books can be appreciated as kids, but take on even greater meaning years later when revisited.

Megan gave me a bag of books to read and three by Lois Lowry were included – The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger. I’d read The Giver in 7th grade but not the others. Megan recommended reading them in that order and I gamely obliged (at least, I think that’s the right order; it seems appropriate in retrospect). They’re relatively quick reads and you could probably finish each one in less than 2 hours. When I was told that the three went together, it put me on the lookout to figure out how, but if you didn’t know that, you probably wouldn’t figure out how they were connected until Messenger. Without giving away too much of the plot for those who haven’t read them…

The Giver takes place in a seemingly utopian, isolated community where people give up free will, basically, in return for security. But one person is responsible for keeping all of the “memories” of the people inside him – the knowledge of history, of emotion, of beauty, and most importantly, of pain and suffering. This person is known as the Receiver, and without him/her, all these memories would go back out to the people where they’d cause pain and suffering once again. The boy who is chosen to become the new Receiver learns all this and attempts to escape. Given that I have very little idea of what I want to do career-wise, the system described in The Giver appealed to me in a strange way – everyone was told what job they would fulfill as an adult based on how they volunteered their time as a pre-teen. At the very least, it makes you think about how life might be easier in such a community, and what the value of our memories and experiences have for us.

Gathering Blue, on the other hand, takes place in a community that you know immediately is far from utopian. People live in poverty and squalor and treat each other, including their children, terribly. They live in fear of “beasts” in the forest surrounding the village and cast out the weak, sick, or otherwise handicapped to die. This book tells the story of a girl born with a twisted leg who should have been cast out, but was allowed to live because of her widowed mother’s connections. But it turns out that she has a gift for needlework which is highly prized by the leaders of her community. After her mother dies, she is given a life living in good conditions working on an important garment that symbolizes the past and future of her people. For once, she has respect, freedom, and all of her needs provided. But secrets lurk throughout, as she learns, and she soon realizes that what she is really meant to do is to change the future of her community.

Messenger was my least favorite of the three books. Although you learn how each book is connected and it helps to resolve some of the disappointment that the other two books leave you with (they both end abruptly, leaving you wishing you knew what happened), as its own story it feels a little… small. I simply didn’t care as much about what happened in this book. Part of it may be that it felt too ad hoc, too contrived. But it was still engaging enough for me to read it in one sitting, and it’s nice to know what happens to the characters. I just wish it had left me feeling a little more satisfied.

So after all that, I have a newfound respect for Lois Lowry. I remember really enjoying Number the Stars as a kid, too. But reading these books now, I really appreciate her ability to take a compelling idea, craft an entire society, and weave them together into a cohesive whole that has depth and can speak to people of different ages. Although the books are short, she is able to create convincing worlds and tell richly textured stories. And the books are so effortless to read, it almost makes you think it’s not that hard to write that well!