November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014

Things I’ve Read: The Aviator’s Wife

A recent trivia night reminded me that Time magazine’s very first Person of the Year was not Einstein or Hitler, the personal computer or an oily Kardashian. It was, in fact, one Charles Lindbergh, known primarily for flying across the ocean blue back when flight involved strapping yourself to a paper box and hoping for the best.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a huge accomplishment. Lindbergh probably did more for aviation than almost anybody, particularly in transforming aviation from neato curiosity to legitimate industry. So rah rah and all that.

Some things Lindbergh was less known for: his secret families. That’s right: plural. Only recently was it revealed that he fathered seven children with three different women in Europe. You know that trope about the airline pilot with a family in every city? Exactly.

The Aviator’s Wife tells the story from the point of view of Anne Morrow (later Lindbergh). Flash forwards aside, it runs from just before she meets Charles through to his death in the 1970s. While he is (understandably) the book’s prime mover, it turns out that Anne was pretty amazing in her own right. The unassuming second daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico went on to become the first licensed female glider pilot*, her husband’s faithful navigator, and (less happily) the mother of the Lindbergh baby.

It’s that kidnapping fiasco that proves to be the watershed moment in their lives. (I’m not a mother, but I’m assuming the parents out there are knowingly nodding their heads.) Charles, like many Great People, was difficult to live with—selfish, cold, convinced he was always right—and his “my way or the highway” attitude didn’t exactly help the investigation. Even as Anne went on to have other kids, she never quite got over the death of her first one.

I originally thought this book was by the same author as The Paris Wife, a novelization of the life of Hadley Richardson, wife of Ernest Hemingway. I mean, look at the covers:

But this turns out to be a wholly separate tale. They say there’s a woman behind each great man. But with Lindbergh, Hemingway, and so many other cases, it’s more that there’s a man in front of each great woman.

* Amelia Earhart is referred to occasionally, but almost always as simply “The Aviatrix.” Anne was not a fan. It’s like The Real Housewives of Early Aviation.

October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014

A Real Frame-Turner

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the book was better than the movie.

Sure, there are exceptions. Sometimes you see the movie first and are so impressed that you read the book afterwards, skewing your perception in favor of the film that drew you in to the tale. (For me, Jack Reacher. I was so impressed by the movie—yes, I was that ONE PERSON—that I immediately read the entire series and went to see Lee Child in person.)

Generally, though, I think those of us who enjoy book literature and film can agree that the book medium allows for presentation of greater detail, especially through inner dialogue. (When I heard that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was being adapted into a play, I needed someone to slap in the face.)

However, since films these days are essentially a license to print money, odds are good that any notable book will end up Coming To A Screen Near You. A shame, since some books are so beloved that nothing—no combination of director, cast, special effects, and/or Tom Cruise—will live up to the version in your mind.

Friend-of-blog M recently asked me if I’d seen Gone Girl, for instance, and I’m really reluctant to see the movie version of my 2012 book of the year. Not because I have anything against Rosamund Pike or Ben Affleck (she was in Jack Reacher!). Rather, I’ve read that author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn make some changes during the adaption process, and that worries me. I barely tolerated the absence of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, guys.

Other films I’m afraid haven’t done/won’t do the book justice: The Giver, The Maze Runner, Chaos Walking, and The Fault in Our Stars. All YA books, and mostly YA Sci-Fi, which shows both what I like to read and what gets adapted into movies these days.

Have you ever gone into a film adaptation hopeful and come out disappointed? Or the other way around?

October 22, 2014

October 22, 2014

Gunston Hall

George Mason’s Gunston Hall isn’t exactly atop anyone’s list of famous residences. Graceland, sure. Biltmore, yes. Mount Vernon, definitely. But Gunston Hall? No. Indeed, a great many people don’t even know who George Mason is, and that’s partially his fault.

[Quick primer on George Mason: Considered one of the Founding Fathers, Mason was a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. However, because the Constitution gave much power to the central government and lacked a Bill of Rights, he refused to sign it. Ironically, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by Mason in 1776, formed the basis of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. Herein lies an important lesson: You can have principles, or you can be famous, but it’s difficult to do both.]

Gunston Hall is in Lorton, Virginia, nearish to Mount Vernon. A Groupon and some classic October weather (sunny but not too hot) led to my recent visit. I started with the small museum, which contained a few displays and a great 10-minute introductory film that I’m pretty sure was on VHS. I learned that Mason’s first wife died at only 39 (aw), but that they had married when she was 16 (ew), and that he married his second wife partly to have someone to “warm his sheets.” Direct quote. Classy.

Next, the house:

Scaffolding not period-authentic.

For some reason that I didn’t catch, all of the furniture had been removed. On the plus side, this meant we could take all the pictures we wanted (pictures aren’t allowed when the furniture is in). On the down side, there was really nothing to take pictures OF. Here, pictures showing what the rooms are supposed to look like:

Unlike some other grand estates (e.g. Windsor Castle), Gunston Hall isn’t huge. The first floor has four rooms for entertaining, and the second floor has some very small bedrooms and closets. You had to wonder how the latter-day residents of Gunston Hall crammed modern amenities like kitchens and bathrooms into the floorplan.

After we toured the house, we checked out the outbuildings and gardens. One of the largest dependencies was the schoolhouse Mason built for his kids, which sort of takes homeschooling to the next level.

One of the best bits is the Potomac River view. Apparently Gunston Hall had its own ship landing back in the day, with even more trees cut back to expose the river. Even now, it’s pretty impressive.

While not on par with Monticello or even Montpelier, it’s not a bad day trip if you’re in the DC area. Maybe wait until they put the furniture back in, though.

October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

State Fair Showdown: Wisconsin vs. Virginia

Though I’ve been going to the Wisconsin State Fair for years decades, and though I’ve lived in Virginia since 2008, I had somehow missed the Virginia State Fair. I guess it was in my State Fair blindspot, along with the 46 State Fairs that aren’t in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, or Texas. But in the interest of giving everyone a fair shot (no pun intended), I decided to check it out this year, if only to compare and contrast with my home state’s annual shindig.

Virginia, you never had a chance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Contest: Opening Times
The Winner: Wisconsin

The Wisconsin State Fair opens at 8 a.m. This way, you can start with breakfast (the pancakes are always popular) before continuing on to the fried food of your choice. I myself like to arrive shortly before 9 a.m., when the buildings start to open and the deep fryers have been boiling for a while.

The Virginia State Fair opens at 10 a.m. Once I got in the gates, I headed straight for this place, obviously.

One of everything, please.

I approached, but was met with looks of confusion. I reminded myself that this is the South, and that’s sort of their default, so I asked whether they were open. The response I got? “Depends on what you want.” I WANT THE FRIED FOOD ADVERTISED ON YOUR SIGNS, BRO. Never mind that we’ve already cut significantly into my eating time by not opening until basically lunchtime.

The Contest: Food
The Winner: Wisconsin

Now, I’m trying to be objective when it comes to the food, because it’s certainly a matter of taste. Just because I like eating deep fried Oreos until I pass out in a sugar coma doesn’t mean that’s a plan for everybody. Thus I’m using quantity, variety, locality, and quality of fair food selection as my metrics. I was particularly pleased to see Virginia ham and seafood on offer in addition to popcorn, corn dogs, and other festival staples.

Of all the things to do with a peanut, boiling isn't even in my top five.

Even thus, I have to give the edge to Wisconsin on this one. We have an entire building dedicated just to the brands (Palermo’s Pizza, Berres Brothers coffee) and foods (cheese, cranberries, potatoes) of Wisconsin. Plus, the deep fried country ham biscuit was really salty.

The Contest: Activities/Displays
The Winner: Virginia

Though the Wisconsin State Fair has offered a lot of really cool shows over the years (circuses, bike stunts, lumberjacks, exotic animals), rarely does a single fair contain them all. At the Virginia State Fair, though, I got to see a magician and a team of (Yooper) lumberjacks.

He did much cooler stuff than this, but we weren't supposed to take pictures.

He proceeded to chop that log in half while standing on it. 

In addition, the prize-winning produce and condiments were in open-air displays. It’s not that I WANT to touch these things so much as I like to know that I COULD. (I actually did surreptitiously touch the cotton, because I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched a cotton plant.) Also, the giant pumpkin competition, which I don’t think Wisconsin even has:

Think of all the pies!

Wisconsin used to display the three biggest pigs, but that stopped a few years ago. Probably after that whole swine flu thing. Eesh.

Overall Winner: Wisconsin

You did well, Virginia. But you cannot beat the behemoth that is America’s Dairyland.*

* “First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity"

October 2, 2014

October 2, 2014

Party Like It's Your Birth Month

You may have noticed that October is finally here, bringing with it cooler/warmer weather for those of you in the northern/southern hemisphere. For me, and several of the most delightful people I know, it also brings a li’l something I call Birthday Month. Because I’m a millennial, and we process things only as they relate to us.

It is time, then, for the serendipity to start flowing. Most shockingly, it has. Twice.

First, when I learned that Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is opening up a location in London. TheBoy and I immediately started planning a 2016 visit because the only thing better than eating my body weight in shrimp while overlooking Times Square is eating my body weight in shrimp while overlooking Leicester Square. My favorite part of Time Out London’s review:

The most upsetting thing about eating here, though, is the service. Well-meaning is better than aloof, but in this case, the over-eager staff, themselves drafted in from every nation, were like wasps at a picnic. Trained to be ‘US-style’ friendly, they were constantly intruding to ask ‘how we were doing’ (‘fine, if you’d only go away and stop interrupting’), annoying us with snippets of Gumpian trivia, and quizzing us on our own Gump-based knowledge, ‘because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ (It isn’t.)

Screw 2016. I’m looking up British Air flights RIGHT NOW.

As if this weren’t enough, Pizza Hut has announced that it is bringing back Book It. With free pizza. For adults. If you’re counting at home, I could have stopped at any of those periods and still been overwhelmed with excitement.

Book It, for those of you who grew up abroad and/or illiterate, was a program that started with getting a pin that looked like this:

After reading a certain number of books in a certain time period, you got star stickers to cover the stars on the pin. Then, at the end of the year, you got a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I’m iffy on the specific requirements, because a) I always read more than the requirement, b) this was like 50 years ago, and c) IT ENDED IN PIZZA.

Now, we alumni just have to sign up at the Book It website and free pizza is given. This whole thing has made me realize that the very same things that motivated me as a kid still motivate me as an adult. Either I’m a kid in an adult’s body or I was an adult in a kid’s body. Betting on the latter.

Birthday month still has 30 days to go. Hang on to your hats and keys.

September 25, 2014

September 25, 2014

Things I’ve Read: My Salinger Year

Of all the city/industry combinations pursued by young people with a dream, New York/publishing is one of my favorites. I myself considered it*, because reading eight or more hours a day sounds pretty much ideal. Though I obviously ended up going a different way, no trip to Manhattan is complete without a walk past Houghton Mifflin, Random House, and the other great publishing houses in Midtown. (Also, a cupcake. But that is neither here nor there.)

Joanna Rakoff, the author and main character of this thinly-veiled memoir, finds herself as an assistant at an unnamed agency in the mid-90s. The job of the agency is to represent authors in negotiations with publishers, lawyers, and fans. The job of the assistant is to take dictation, process fan letters, and type. A lot. On a Selectric, because the unnamed agency takes a pretty dim view of modern technology.

(As someone who actually did learn to use a dictation machine in college, I took great delight in Joanna’s confusion at the peddles. I got my comeuppance when she was trying to figure out how to turn on the Selectric, though. I been there, girl. I feel you.)

Though I’m tempted to compare this book to The Devil Wears Prada, the similarities really end after “workplace memoir set in NYC publishing.” Sure, there’s a boss, but she’s not overtly hostile a la Miranda Priestly. Joanna never has to run personal errands—it’s all business. And while the book does include a fair amount of drama with Joanna’s so-wrong-he’s-right-but-really-he’s-just-wrong-dump-him-already socialist boyfriend, the focus is really on her relationship with a different man: J.D. Salinger.

As you probably know, Salinger was the author of The Catcher in the Rye. And a giant recluse. unless you lived in Cornish, New Hampshire (and even then), you weren’t likely to hear from him. Thus Joanna’s job, as assistant to the agent who represents Salinger, is a (tenuous) conduit to one of our great modern authors.** Salinger is a catalyst for Joanna, both personally and professionally. It is in dealing with him, and his fan letters, and all the other trappings involved in client work, that she confirms what she wants to be (a poet), where (Brooklyn), and with whom (not socialist boyfriend).

I’m a sucker for a good bildungsroman, and J.D. Salinger isn’t a bad quasi-mentor. Not by a long shot.

* It came in third, after DC/government and Chicago/journalism. Podiumed!
** Personal opinions of Salinger’s work aside, you can’t deny his impact on 20th century American literature. Me myself personally, read The Catcher in the Rye once and didn’t really care for it. File under things everyone but me loves, along with The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

September 18, 2014

September 18, 2014


I’m in the middle of reading a short story collection about the takeover of humanity by technology (Robot Uprisings, edited by the guy who wrote Robopocalypse). And while that concept remains fiction—FOR NOW—I’m more convinced than ever that humanity’s days are numbered. It’s less a matter of “if” than of “how.” There are a number of possibilities, some abrupt and others gradual.

- Technology becomes self-aware without humanity’s consent. In one story, a Roomba used by government coders in their classified workspace escapes, docks with a networked charging station, and uploads world-changing information. A ROOMBA, you guys.

- Technology becomes self-aware with humanity’s consent. Imagine if Rosie one day decided to kill the Jetsons. Breakfast with a side of death.

- Tiny tech, banding together. One story involves nanbots invented to clean up nuclear waste. Another has dust-sized robots that “infect” a smart house and turn it against its owners. Regardless, robots work much better together than people ever could. I suspect it’s because we get so angry when we’re hungry.

So now I’m looking for—and seeing—the signs everywhere.

Just today, some people were trapped for 20 minutes in a Metro elevator when a “random” “power surge” shut the elevator down. An almost brand-new elevator. Egad.

Yesterday, TheBoy told me about a problem he had with some code at work. He tested and tested. Isolated the line that was causing the problem. Verified that the line was in fact correct as-is. Tested again and found that IT WORKED.

For those of you concerned about such things, think carefully before strapping computers to your wrists, wrapping them around your foreheads, and splicing them into your houses and cars. (Though I myself personally am too cheap to do any of these things, I do dislike people on principle. It’s a start.) Also, don’t take it personally the next time your phone/computer/sexbot mysteriously and randomly malfunctions. It is neither mysterious nor random. It is an opening gambit in the robot wars, which humanity is likely to lose.

Have a nice day!