Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I’m a sucker for end-of-year lists. Probably because I have trouble remembering books, music, movies, etc. that happened before August. And while I certainly haven’t read / seen / listened to / done nearly as much as the folks over at Salon, Slate, and NPR, I thought I’d use what will probably be my last post of 2012 to recollect some good things that happened. Helpfully (I hope) categorized.


(I should mention that I have generally lame taste in music, meaning that I like plenty of stuff that most people would say is derivative and I would never turn my iPod to “shuffle” while it was hooked up to speakers in a public place. So these recommendations probably don’t mean much, but here they are.)

1. MC Hammer & PSY doing “Gangnam Style” at the American Music Awards. Okay, music award shows are dull, and most of the performances feel about as inspiring as slowly-rising bread dough. But damn. I could not stop smiling all the way through this thing. Kind of made me feel like a music-obsessed teenager again. Oh, and in a sea of “Gangnam Style covers,” I also loved Ai Weiwei’s, just because it’s Ai Weiwei and it’s appropriately random.

2. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round.” Generally not a country music fan, but kudos to Musgraves for this quiet, beautifully arranged song that rips apart country music’s sacred cows of God, marriage, and small town life.

3. Lana del Rey, “Summertime Sadness.” Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to hate Lana del Rey because she changed her name / gave a terrible performance on SNL / comes across as stiff and weird. But I played this song over and over again on the train, sometimes twice in a row. Nice video, too.

4. k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, “I Confess.” Something about the urgency in the music and of course k.d.’s amazing voice. (video mildly NSFW)

Blogs & Blog Posts

This is Colossal. I checked this “blog about art and visual integrity” pretty much every day and it always put me in a good mood. Some of my favorites here, here, here, and here.

Sequential Crush. I’m a bit young to have read romance comics regularly, but I do remember reading Archie comics as a kid, and something about these stories is so innocent, so much of a time capsule, that you can’t help but be charmed. Plus Jacque Nodell, who runs the site, is clearly passionate about the material and really knows her stuff.

Foodgawker. They seem to be focusing a lot more on sweets these days (maybe cause it’s the holidays), but this is still my go-to place for new food ideas.

The Hairpin’s 5-part series on growing up in Scientology. I admit to a somewhat morbid fascination with Scientology (this very long article about Paul Haggis’ defection a few years ago was amazing). This series of essays, by a woman who was born into and has since left the church, is beautifully written and informative.

Videos, Audio, & Viral Things

The guy who learned to walk and run again through yoga.

Tard the Grumpy Cat. I could look at him all day.

Garfunkel and Oates. Especially “29 / 31″ and “Pregnant Women are Smug.” (I dearly love all my pregnant and recently-mommed lady friends.)

Where the Bears Are. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon this web series, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not part of the target audience. But it was so charming, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and fun to watch. And I’m happy to know that some guys who’ve spent much of their lives writing for big studios got a chance to create something they wanted to create. (mildly nsfw)

Tig Notaro’s live set at the Largo. Damn. I’ve listened to this twice now, and the moment near the end, when the guy in the audience says “This is fucking amazing” and everyone claps, still makes me wanna bawl. And shout for joy at the same time. (I think it’s on YouTube, but this is really one to buy.)

The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello. Just beautiful.


(granted, several of these came out last year or the year before, but I didn’t get around to reading them until now)

Leviathan Wakes. Good old-fashioned space opera.

March Was Made of Yarn. Beautiful collection of story and essay-responses to the March 2011 tsunami. “Box Story” is the best by far, but there are plenty of other good ones.

Railsea. China Mieville goes young adult but doesn’t talk down. Not on par with Embassytown, but still a fabulous read.

The Night Circus. Like a gourmet toffee apple. Or a hot serving of high-end kettle corn. Okay, those aren’t very good descriptions, but the book was a lot of fun.

The Hunger Games. Hey, they’re pretty good! And there’s a heroine who isn’t overly girly and who saves the guys more than they save her!

Afterlives of the Saints. Kind of makes me wish I’d gone to Catholic school, just so I could have been terrified by all these stories of creative self-abuse.

Other Cool Stuff That Happened

I finished my PhD. Yea!

I made bread in my rice cooker. Oh, the possibilities.

Almost every idiotic politician who said idiotic things about rape / women’s bodies got voted out of office.

I went to Isshiki Beach, and it was beautiful.

I started rock climbing at an indoor climbing gym. I still suck at it, but it’s fun.

Happy winter holidays everyone!





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My formal religious education ended at age 6, when I moved from an Episcopal kindergarten into a secular elementary school. I remember an early childhood that included weekly church services and Bible stories, but nothing like the immersive environments described by my friends who received the bulk of their education in Catholic or Jesuit schools.

Maybe that’s part of the reason I found Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints so fascinating.

(Full disclosure: Colin is my friend and grad school colleague. If I’d hated or even been indifferent toward his book, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it here. But I loved it, hence the review.)

For those who grew up surrounded by stories of religious martyrdom and miracles, the names of Agatha, Barbara, Foy, George, and other saints chronicled in Afterlives are probably familiar. But Afterlives moves beyond the familiar versions of these stories, including fascinating details and a critical perspective that help to breathe new life into very old tales.

For Dickey, saints exist in a liminal space between human and god, their bodies subject to seemingly unendurable torments in their desire to transcend mortality. It is their mortality, in fact, that makes their suffering poignant. They are defined by their physical selves, and more specifically by the body parts they lost, or by the tortures they endured (sometimes self-inflicted).

There’s Saint Simeon, who sat atop a pillar in the Syrian desert for thirty-seven years. Saint Lawrence, who as he was being burned alive said to his tormentors, “This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite.” St. Agatha, whose breasts were cut off and is often depicted holding them on a tray. Dying for one’s beliefs, it seems, wasn’t always enough to achieve sainthood–one had to die or be killed very, very creatively. Hearing some of these stories for the first time, I genuinely wondered how any young Catholics or Jesuits were able to sleep at night.

Dickey himself is a product of Catholic and Jesuit schools, but he notes that the full stories of the saints were very different from those he had been taught. He calls them “an alternative history of early religions and nations,” adding that it was through the saints that he “first began to understand that history is not a solid, purposeful arc from the darkness of the early ages to the enlightened modern era. It is, instead, full of strange detours, odd obsessions, embarrassments that were often meant to be forgotten.”

Afterlives effortlessly weaves the stories of saints with references to modern literary theory, film, and pop culture, which serves to make their stories all the more immediate, moving them out of the confines of religion and into the realm of the everyday, or at least the extraordinary everyday. Early on in the book he compares the saints to Ridley Scott’s replicants, who were described as “more human than human”: “Unlike the Christ, (the saints) are not divine, though divinity may pass through them. They may be miraculous, but even so they remain fully, stubbornly mortal. But while they participate in a  common humanity, they lie at the very limit of that humanity–they have pushed what it means to be human to the breaking point, and then beyond. They have taken their own humanity and shattered it.”

Indeed, for someone never exposed to stories of religious devotion taken to comical extremes, the stories of the saints are first and foremost stories of bodily endurance. Saints don’t just suffer, they turn suffering into art. And for Dickey, it’s all right to occasionally laugh at their extremes. He recalls the Jesuit chemistry teacher who told the story of burning Saint “turn me over and have a bite” Lawrence: when the whole class laughed, the chemistry teacher reprimanded them, saying that the story was “not funny.” Dickey writes: “But of course, it is funny. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence is recognized now as the patron saint of comedians…My chemistry teacher snapped at us because he, like so many believers, conflated the sacred and the solemn.”

Afterlives takes its subjects seriously, but it’s also full of humor and unexpected connections between religious martyrdom and modern life. There’s a sense of wonder throughout the book, whether Dickey is describing the illustrations in Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the vertigo-inducing depths of Borges’ Library of Babel, or the way that Saint Sebastian’s death reminds him of Joe Pesci’s brutal beating in Casino. As its subtitle indicates, Afterlives is ultimately about much more than the lives of saints. It’s a reflection on what it means to be human, on the often thin line between madness and sanity, and the ways in which devotion and obsession could drive someone to push the boundaries of both.


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Rogue Trains

…if there were no wheels percussing the iron road, all human life would wink instantly out. Because such noises are the snoring, the sleep-breathing of a railsea world, & it is the rails that dream us. We do not dream the rails.

China Mieville’s Railsea opens on a boat…or at least it seems that way for the first few pages. Then it appears to be a train. But there is talk of breaching, so the train must be on water. But no, the animal in question breaches through “black earth” in a “clod-cloud.”

As usual, half the joy in this Mieville novel is gradually, slowly developing a picture of its universe. Both The City and the City and The Scar managed to keep the exact nature of their seemingly impossible worlds somewhat hidden for a good portion of the story, giving only tidbits here and there. With Railsea, the basic premise–Moby Dick on a train–is clear after a few pages, but the delightful little details of exactly what the railsea is, and the nature of the world in which in exists, are revealed slowly.

Given Mieville’s tendency toward the slow reveal, I was surprised that he opted to include illustrations of his fabulous beasts in Railsea. I almost wish he hadn’t. Perdido Street Station‘s slake-moths, The Scar‘s bonefish and mosquito people, and Embassytown‘s Arieke were described so vividly that I never thought a drawing could do them justice. But after a while I actually started to look forward to the little pencil illustrations that opened each section of Railsea. Maybe because that they were simple, and were supposed to be simple–a lay person’s quick sketch of monsters.

Railsea is also a motley collection of storylines and subjects that Mieville clearly adores. Trains. A quest for a giant beast. Pirates. Critiques of capitalism and the brutal nature of commerce. Reckless and marvelous world-building and word-invention.

The novel is billed as young adult, but the only noticeable difference between Railsea and other Mieville novels is an absence of foul language and sex. The violence and grotesquerie are still there (albeit not as graphic as some of the violence depicted in Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and even Embassytown). Which is in itself a sad commentary on what classifies a novel as “young adult”–violence is fine, but no sex, please.

At the same time, Railsea doesn’t shy away from another of Mieville’s trademarks: the depiction of a diverse range of relationships and family types. A brother and sister have two fathers and one mother–something that isn’t dwelt on or made an issue of, just added in as an afterthought. And as with Embassytown, Mieville once again depicts strong female characters without trumpeting the fact. Railsea‘s equivalent of Captain Ahab is female, and she’s every bit as obsessed and fearfully revered by her crew. Half of the hardy “sailor” characters are female. One character is, intriguingly, never given a definite gender.

Railsea isn’t quite as meaty and mind-blowing as Embassytown, but it’s a really, really good read. Mieville’s world-building and language-play skills are in fine form here–the universe he imagines is at once familiar and utterly ridiculous, full of creatures and dangers that invoke genuine terror. The hints about the origins of the “railsea” and this world’s strangely toxic sky lead to a hilariously satisfying conclusion. (I’ve complained before that Mieville often has trouble seeing his stories through to the end, but here, for the second time in a row, he brings things to a beautiful ending. Almost too beautiful, but it won me over.)

Read it. I’ll probably read it again. When Mieville’s good, he’s so very, very good. Fingers crossed that this is the beginning of a long series of ever more inventive universes. I’m starting to believe he’s got hundreds in his head.

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…and I’m here to offer my comprehensive, well-informed assessment of the entire genre.

But first a bit of background.

I picked up a few romance novels as a teenager, mostly to laugh. My sister had a crush on Fabio for a while and had a copy of Pirate, a novel that he actually wrote (though when he appeared on Jay Leno to discuss the plot of the book it was clear he knew absolutely nothing about it). I flipped through the occasional copy of some Harlequin paperbacks in bookstores and at friend’s houses, mostly to look for the sex scenes at a time when actual sex was still a bit of a mystery.

I was never a devotee, though. From a pretty young age I could recognize shitty writing, and most of those books were, well, mediocre at best, horribly written at worst. When it came to literary titillation I usually preferred Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which contained little or no actual sex but made me very, very curious about the smoldering glances traded between male vampires. And then there were V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel, who I’ve written about before and who left very little to the imagination when it came to descriptions of sex.

As an adult I’ve never bothered much with romance novels because a) I imagined they were repetitive and dull, and life is too short to read bad / dull books, b) the dominant guy / simpering virginal girl stories that I remembered from my teenage years were now a big turnoff, and c) if I wanted titillation I had a wealth of well-written erotic literature to choose from, never mind all the plotty stuff about corsets and dukes and horses.

But then a few years ago I stumbled onto Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the Tumblr Romance Club. I started reading commentary on contemporary romance novels and the idea that anything that’s loved by large numbers of women tends to be written off as fluffy or dumb. (Granted, there’s plenty of criticism aimed at novels that men AND women love–Dan Brown, anyone?–but there’s a unique level of vitriol reserved for “chick lit” and “chick flicks.”) Mostly, though, I started reading some of the reviews on both of the above websites, many of which were really damn funny. Sure, when it comes to humor romance novels are low-hanging fruit, but it takes a certain amount of skill to skewer them really well. I recommend Melinda’s review of Larkspur on tumblr (Rajah is not a rapey dragon) and Sarah’s review of The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl on SBTB (Kaliq dismounted with the same speed and grace as he would remove himself from the body of a woman he had just made love to.) Oh, and did you know there’s a whole subgenre of romance novels devoted to pregnant amnesiacs? And one of those novels is actually called Pregnesia?

While laughing at the really bad ones I also started to re-think my dismissal of romance novels. Maybe they’d undergone a bit of a renaissance since I was a teenager. Commenters on SBTB and tumblr spoke repeatedly of how the heroines were now a lot more kick-ass and the relationships a lot more equal. So I pored over lists of recommendations for newbies and finally downloaded two books to my Kindle.

The first one I read was Zoe Archer’s Warrior, the first in a series called Blades of the Rose (I cannot write that without giggling).  Zoe Archer got a lot of love on a lot of different romance-related websites for depicting racial diversity, creating detailed and interesting worlds, and always featuring confident, intelligent heroines. So my expectations were a bit high.

Sadly, they weren’t really met. The book wasn’t AWFUL, it just wasn’t very good. It was set in Mongolia, which I guess was supposed to be exotic but just felt sort of like a Hollywood version of Mongolia. The bad guys were 100% bad and the good guys were 100% good (yes, I know that technically the male lead was supposed to be a ruffian-turned-decent-guy, but his flaws were essentially scratches on a Ferrari). The sex scenes were fun, but they didn’t really excite me.

I think this is my fundamental problem with most romance novels–when you know for sure that two people are going to get it on (repeatedly and in a lot of different locations, often with a baby and marriage in the end), there’s just not much excitement or anticipation. I like my romance to appear in the background of a good story, not be the center of it. Lin and Isaac from Perdido Street Station. Jamisia Capra and the snake-headed alien she ALMOST had sex with in This Alien Shore. It’s more fun when you don’t know for sure if they will or they won’t, or if their relationship isn’t the whole foundation of the novel.

I made it all the way through Warrior and really needed a decent helping of China Mieville or Cormac McCarthy, but I decided that I should give the romance genre at least one more shot. So I tried Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, who also gets a lot of praise on romance novel websites.

And…damn. This one was good.

The writing was crisp, clever, and engaging–the prologue alone is a very solid little mini Gothic novel. The book didn’t take itself too seriously and was witty without being cloying. The main characters were complicated and appealing, and even though you knew they were going to end up together, it wasn’t exactly clear how. The supporting characters could have used a little more fleshing out, but that didn’t really bother me.

And the sex was actually hot. Loretta Chase did a good job of building things up slowly–a grasped hand here, a rough embrace there. But once the characters got their clothes off the writing definitely wasn’t shy.

I kind of wish that the novel hadn’t ended with (spoiler alert!) wedded bliss and a baby, but again, that’s kind of a minor criticism. I really liked this book.

The verdict, then? I’m not rushing out to download a dozen more romance novels–I tend to want a little more to chew on when I read. But sometimes I just want to have a bit of fun with a book. And I definitely think I dismissed the whole romance genre way too quickly. Something tells me there are plenty more books and authors out there that I might want to check out. So if you’re a bit of a book snob and are embarrassed to be seen reading a romance novel in public, get yourself an e-reader and just give them a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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(Thank you very much to Kathryn at Contemporary Japanese Literature, who introduced me to this collection–you can read her review of March Was Made of Yarn here.)

“In an emergency such as this earthquake, art is useless, to say the least. Our recent experience only helped expose the ultimate futility of all artistic endeavors.”

–Kikuchi Kan, Ruminations on the Earthquake, 1923

I’ll have to disagree wholeheartedly with Kikuchi Kan. An artistic response to the tsunami was exactly what I needed.

There has been a lot of response, of course–essays, newspaper articles, short films, photo collections. But unfortunately much of it has fallen into the realm of disaster porn, the kind of material that can make anyone feel like a voyeur. Since the quake Tokyo’s bookstores have been crammed with books full of photo after photo of physical devastation. These kinds of responses have their value and their purpose, but the sheer magnitude of the disaster also demanded something else.  Something absurd. I was reminded of John Whittier Treat and Oe Kenzaburo’s writings on the atomic bomb, and their claim that certain things are simply unwriteable, beyond the realm of literature. The claim of the Japanese protagonist in Hiroshima Mon Amour: “You saw nothing.”

Enter the wonderful short story collection March Was Made of Yarn. Some of the stories are underwhelming, but at least half are gorgeous. The title story by Mieko Kawakami conjures up a potent image: in the days before the quake, a pregnant woman on vacation with her husband dreams of a world made of yarn, one that occasionally disintegrates into a pile of string only to rebuild itself in a new shape.

” ‘When something unpleasant or dangerous happens, things suddenly come apart. They go back to being just yarn, they wait it out.’

‘Interesting,’ I said.

‘They’re yarn, after all. Sometimes the yarn turns into sweaters, or mittens, and that’s how they protect themselves. When something scares them, that’s how they get through it.’

‘And our baby was yarn, too?’

‘Yeah. It came straight out in a long line, as plain old yarn, and then when it was all out it sort of knitted itself into a baby shape, and I was the mother of a yarn baby. You were the father of yarn.’

She didn’t say anything after that. The silence continued for some time. I remembered that her cell phone had rung earlier and mentioned that, but she didn’t respond.

‘Even March was yarn,’ she said eventually.


‘Yeah. March.’

March was yarn?’

‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘In that world, even March was made of yarn.’

‘I don’t think I get it,’ I said after a while.

‘What’s not to get?’ she said.

‘I can see how books and bags and stuff could be made out of yarn, but March isn’t a thing, right? It’s just a name we give to a segment of time. How can you make something like that out of yarn?’

She looked at me like I was talking nonsense. ‘I told you. In that world even March was made out of yarn.’

‘But what does that mean?’ I said. ‘March is made out of yarn?’

‘I told you. It means March is made out of yarn.’

The absurd stories were the ones that resonated the most with me, though David Peace’s more traditional “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster” paints a vivid picture of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, describing scenes that sounded eerily familiar:

“Under the stars, beside his helmet, Ryunosuke lay on the futon between his wife and two sons. He tried to read the Bible. But he could not concentrate. He tried to read The Communist Manifesto. But, again, he could not concentrate. For under the ground, he could feel the earth continue to grind and scream, a gigantic mechanical worm burrowing through caverns and tunnels, pushing the ground up, then pulling it back down in its wake. Ryunosuke imagined the turning gears an spinning cogwheels deep within the metallic body of the beast.”

The real gem in this collection, though, is Tetsuya Akikawa’s “Box Story,” one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read. Describing or quoting too much would spoil it, so I’ll just say that it’s about a shortage of boxes and what happens when someone invents a method of breeding them. Seriously, this one story is enough reason to purchase the whole collection. Read it. It’s amazing.

Oe Kenzaburo and John Whittier Treat may be right about the unwriteable nature of certain catastrophes. Some things simply can’t be described, and describing them in detail doesn’t always help.  But March Was Made of Yarn reminds me with sledgehammer force of exactly why art isn’t just a luxury or a pastime. It’s a fundamental human response to tragedy, a way of shaping the shapeless and nonsensical into the familiar. Even if the only thing that feels familiar is nonsense.

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24 hours in and I’m already addicted as hell.

I joined Pinterest before I really knew what it was, and it only took a few minutes for the format to suck me in. Thus far in the digital age I’ve avoided iPhones and all their apps, Farmville, Words With Friends, Twitter, and plenty of other time-wasting online activities. Sure, I check Facebook several times a day, but I rarely spend more than a few minutes actively engaging with the site. But with Pinterest, I think I finally get it. I see how people could spend half their lives online.

What is it, exactly? Well, it’s virtual scrapbooking. With a community that somehow manages to feel small, even when it’s huge (Pinterest crossed the 10 million user mark faster than any standalone site in history, a fact that has plenty of people paying attention). Basically, it allows you to display stuff you like in categories called “pinboards”. Other people can like your stuff, or re-pin it. You can comment on each other’s stuff.

This might all sound incredibly mundane and fluffy, but Pinterest appeals to a very primal desire (for me, at least): to share things you like. I could talk for hours about books, food, movies, or even buildings that I love. And I could listen rapt for hours while someone else talked about what they loved. Pinterest lets me do both of those things with a huge group of people.

Admittedly, most online traffic represents fluffy pursuits–gaming, posting photos of food and cats, arguing over who could beat Han Solo in a fight. But for some reason arguing about sports or movies is just “online activity,” whereas sharing stuff and talking about it–especially when that stuff includes clothes, weddings, and food–is “girly” (which for plenty of people equals “dumb”). Among the boards that I’ve looked at so far, about 1% of material is related to weddings, but you wouldn’t guess that from this chartThis article represented Pinterest’s growth with a fucking hairdryer. Apparently when 80% of your traffic is female, you’re a) full of white dress-obsessed airheads, b) an endless source of snark for more “serious” internet users, and c) unable to be taken seriously as an online force.

The snarkers can snark all they want, but as Jezebel points out, “Pinterest drives more traffic than YouTube, Reddit, Google+, LinkedIn and MySpace.” And it doesn’t take a genius to see that the site isn’t just an innocuous indie effort at community–every pin equals money for Pinterest and the product manufacturers whose products are getting pinned and re-pinned. Like Facebook, Pinterest’s users generate free advertising just by sharing what they like.

But I like Pinterest so, so much more. I know it’s a marketing gimmick, and I know that by using it I’m basically just turning myself into a free billboard. But I am in love. Hopelessly. The concept is beautiful in its simplicity, as Jezebel goes on to say: “(Pinterest) seems to have identified what women want from the internet by simply allowing women to identify what they want. Period.” The online universe can snicker about Pinterest’s girly-ness all it wants, but it’d be foolish to ignore it.

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Anne McCaffrey, 1926-2011

I wanted to be Menolly. Or at least I longed for a few pet fire lizards to call my own.

Menolly was braver than I ever felt as a teenager–after being told “no” time and time again, she kept going anyway.

In the case of Killashandra Ree, I just wanted her job. Who wouldn’t want to make a fortune singing to rocks on a hostile planet? Re-reading Crystal Singer recently, I was surprised to discover that Killashandra was a lot less likeable than I remembered–she kept whining about how everyone was invading her privacy and seemed to have a very, very high opinion of her talents. But she was nobody’s sidekick, she never needed rescuing, and she flew spaceships in mach storms. And when she had casual sex it was no big deal.

I only ever read three of Anne McCaffrey’s books–Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Crystal Singer–but they were enough to impact my life and reading habits for years to come. Like a lot of other confused teenage girls, I found solace in the struggles of McCaffrey’s mostly female protagonists. They might be battling monsters on distant planets, but they were fully-fleshed human beings, and they felt like kindred spirits.

“Harper, your song has a sorrowful sound,
Though the tune was written as gay.
Your voice is sad and your hands are slow
And your eye meeting mine turns away.”


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Emerging from the Cocoon

Thoughts on life after the PhD

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tales of travel, research, and life


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