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“I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist.”

Howard Roark from The Fountainhead

For many years, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead has been a silent, yet palpable force emanating from my bookshelves. I’ve always wanted to read Ayn Rand for the same reason I wanted to read Moby Dick, and for the same reason I want to read Gone With The Wind and Infinite Jest. The Fountainhead was one of many white whales that I knew I had to conquer due to equal parts curiosity and necessity. Any epic American novel that important and that influential is unquestionably meant to be discovered and experienced, but the difficulty and sheer size both posed intimidating obstacles and for a long time, I opted to succumb to the distractions of newer, shorter, and more attractive books.

I don’t know what compulsion coerced me to finally pick it up and start reading it last week; I specifically remember my elated Reader’s High after finishing Meg Wolitzer’s excellent book The Interestings and being inspired to read another long, worthy book. And perhaps I was mindful of my New Year’s Resolution to read more Classics this year. Whatever the reason, whatever the impulse, I’m so glad I decided to read it.

Howard Roark, Architect – the protagonist, the hero – is an Outlier in the truest sense of the word. Talented, but misunderstood. Honest, but disliked. Smart, but unpopular. Respected, but feared. Unconventionally handsome. Notoriously different. Roark reminds me of Atticus Finch and Hester Prynne – strong, able characters who are easy to hate for all of the qualities that should make them likable. Isolated people who stick with their convictions in spite of popular opinion; people who are maddeningly unscathed by their damaged reputations; and people who are so purely good, independent and esteemed that the level of compassion they incite from the reader is borderline unbearable because of the impossibly unfair situations they wind up in.

Presumably, a 700-some odd page novel about architecture in the early 1900’s would be slow, dull and difficult to read. To my pleasant surprise, I found quite the opposite to be true. The book was well-paced, beautifully written and very digestible in spite of its length. The narrative spanned several decades, following Roark from the tail-end of his college career as a wide-eyed, idealistic student well into adulthood as a struggling professional. All of Rand’s characters from love interests to brutal enemies were well developed, brilliantly intertwined and polarizing. There was no neutral ground; there was no indifference. Readers inevitably chose sides and either loved or hated every character, interaction or plot point throughout the entire narrative.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help comparing The Fountainhead to one of my favorite long reads of all time – Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Though drastically different, taking place centuries apart, I couldn’t stop myself from drawing parallels between the two novels. After all, both Jack from Pillars and Roark from The Fountainhead are two unquestionably brilliant architects who undergo extenuating circumstances with unadulterated vision and ambition and have their sights set on the most coveted women in their respective societies. They both pour their lives into their craft and they both exhibit debilitating patience in light of the ugliest, most conniving and calculating of adversaries. Both novels were epic. Both spanned a few decades, and not to mention – both Roark and Jack have unforgivably red hair!

It’s not often that a subject as random as architecture can captivate a reader, but architecture is one of my favorite subjects because I love the idea of it, and Rand and Follett describe and humanize it in a gorgeous way. Architecture is the truest form of functional art; the result of left and right-brained genius; the combination of physics and poetry. The accuracy and necessity of pairing balance and engineering with finesse and creativity is just a beautiful concept to me. I only know one actual real-life architect and he might be the brightest mind I have the pleasure of knowing, but like Roark and like Jack, my friend The Architect is so independent and intelligent that he floats on a lonely wavelength that transcends everyone else in a weirdly tragic way.

I suppose I loved The Fountainhead so much because I relate to Roark and his plights on a deeply personal level. His impossiblely unattainable expectations, his standards of beauty, his inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfection when it comes to anything from his sketches, his buildings or his relationships – I aspire to be like him. I could only wish my life and values were that definitive and pure, even though I know they’re not. Perhaps I can only compare the other worldly, transcendental experience and joy I feel when reading incredible books to how Dominique Francon feels when she looks at beautiful buildings.

Reading this novel made me feel depressed, lonely and quite despairing at times. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions – the love story in the Fountainhead was among the greatest, most passionate and heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Tumultuous, tempestuous – seemingly hopeless. Among the ranks of Jay Gatsby and Daisy. Jack and Aliena. Ygritte and Jon Snow. Peter Parker and Mary Jane.

However, this despair only made the contrasting uplift and inspirational components that much more powerful. I will always remember the catharsis and bright joy I felt at the climax of the tale – that magical pinnacle hidden in that massive brick of pages. I’ll never forget how unbelievably full and ebullient my heart was when I finished the last page of The Fountainhead, knowing that the world was a better place and though grossly unfair at times, life can be pretty damn beautiful.

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Around this time every year, I always mentally compose an evaluation of the year’s activities – best albums, best books, best vacations, concerts, etc. This year I’m sad to report that I thought 2013 was ultimately pretty underwhelming. Perhaps we can blame the ever-unlucky #13 or maybe I’m just being extra negative as I’m wont to be every New Year’s Eve, contender for my least favorite special occasion aside from my birthday, but nothing about this year was particularly memorable, fun or special to me, and I’m okay with that. That’s the bright side of starting a New Year. I personally think that’s more worthy of celebration – the inspirational onset of Change and the Future. Therefore, getting plastered on the Eve of said Change only promises brutal hangovers and regret over half-hearted kisses on the first day of a fresh beginning. No thanks.

Like birthdays, I think New Year’s Eve is tainted with lofty expectations of dressing up and having the Best Night Ever, but in my experience, it’s always more trouble than it’s worth. Two of my good friends are hosting house parties and several others are attending various events at bars or music venues around the city, but battling the cold weather, paying exorbitant covers only to stand in line at overcrowded bars plus the added worry and hassle of ensuring safe transportation tonight are all effective deterrents to leaving my warm couch and ever-faithful sweatpants. Why on earth would I do that?

Before you bestow your piteous sympathies on me and wrongfully group me with those bitter anti-Valentine’s Day single ladies, you might be surprised to learn that my sentiments towards New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are actually quite different. Sure, they are both considered “romantic” occasions, but Valentine’s Day is actually romantic. I love Valentine’s Day. It makes me happy every year even though I’ve been single for the past several. Some argue that it’s petty to celebrate Love because if you love someone you shouldn’t need a holiday to tell them and bestow thoughtful gifts and attention upon them, which is true. But c’mon – New Year’s Eve? Birthdays? At least Valentine’s Day celebrates the wonderful, special phenomenon of Love rather than the mere inevitable (somewhat depressing) passing of Time. And sure, you may or may not get a kiss at midnight, but if you’re single, more often than not you’re hoping you get one just to avoid feeling left out. I can’t think of anything more utterly unromantic and frankly, sad than searching for an equally lonely stranger to ring in the New Year with if you don’t have a significant other.

But don’t despair, readers: I will look at some of the brighter moments of the past year in a feeble attempt to lift your fragile spirits. Some of my favorite moments or proudest accomplishments did in fact, occur during this otherwise, boring year.

CHEERS

READING: I had a goal of reading 50 books this year, which in itself is essentially a stretch goal. That’s almost a book a week, which is near impossible if you have a full-time job and a social life. However, having this goal, unattainable as it may be, caused me to always, ALWAYS have a book. There was never a point in which I didn’t have a book on my nightstand or in my purse, and there was never a solo meal or gap of time in which I wasn’t reading, and that to me is fantastic. I hope I continue this rewarding good habit in 2014 and quite frankly, for the rest of my life.

I ended up reading 37, which is respectable and eight more than I read last year. Notable literary moments:

A Song of Ice and Fire

  • Biggest Accomplishment: This summer, I read the entire 5,000 some odd pages of the Song of Ice and Fire series in less than four weeks. This was easily my proudest and most fulfilling reading accomplishment of the year and ignited an unquenchable obsession for all things Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin-related. It’s been years since I’ve been so enraptured by a series, comparable only to the seven Harry Potters in my personal experience, and I can barely contain my excitement and frustration about the upcoming books, whenever they may be published. A Storm of Swords was probably my favorite of the series, but shit gets pretty real in A Dance with Dragons too. The HBO series doesn’t hold a candle to its origin. No contest.

    Son of Poseidon

  • Most Fun: Don’t judge me, but over the Thanksgiving break, my 9-year-old cousin would not stop raving about the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Being familiar with the movies and a fan of Greek Mythology in general, my curiosity took over and I bought and read that whole 5-book series in 15 days. Sure, I purchased them in the “Chapter Books” section of the bookstore and they are very obviously written for 4th-grade level readers, but that didn’t detract from the adventure, humor and clever fun of the books and I’m excited to read the Heroes of Olympus Series in 2014.
  • The Classics: I read four Classics this year and enjoyed all but one. My favorite was Slaughterhouse Five, but I’m glad I finally read 1984 as well.
  • Most Influential: Reading Eating Animals propelled a major lifestyle change a few months ago. I’ve been more conscious about my diet and what goes into my body than ever before and I doubt I can ever reverse what I know about factory farming and animal products thanks to this book. Review here.
  • Favorite Book: The first book I opened in 2013 remains the best one I read all year – Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay moved me unlike any other novel probably has ever before. Not only was it my best book of the year, it might be my favorite of all timne. You can read my review here.

WEDDINGS: I attended more weddings in 2013 than I have in my lifetime combined. I suppose I’m reaching that age when all of your friends are getting hitched, and even though they’re expensive and sometimes stressful, it’s always fun and so, so special to witness your loved ones make a huge, monumental step in their lives. I traveled to Wisconsin for one, served as a dutiful bridesmaid in another and celebrated at all of them. I even have a celebratory marriage gathering back home this weekend, but by then it will be 2014 so doesn’t technically count.

JEERS

MUSIC: I think 2013 was severely lacking in good music this year. My friend Allison and I were trying to think of our favorite songs, albums and shows of the year, and struggled to come up with any. Maybe the industry’s in a slump or all of my favorite bands are hibernating and busy writing and working on their next big projects – but I found 2013 profoundly boring from a musical perspective. Sure, I went to a lot of shows and festivals and saw a lot of bands, but none particularly affected me in the way a genius album or an amazing concert typically can.

  • Best Performance: Atoms for Peace at ACL – I remember standing alone near the sound board, freezing in my flimsy festival clothes and being rendered speechless by the entire production before returning to reality and meeting up with my friends who saw Lionel Richie instead.
  • Best Album: N/A – I really can’t think of one that truly amazed me this year, but I will say Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, CHRVCHES and Daft Punk did not disappoint me.
  • Best Song: “We Sink” by CHRVCHES is probably the song I’ve listened to the most in 2013. From the energized, well-paced intro to the catchiest chorus ever, I think this song is perfect and I still listen to it a few times a day.
  • Worst of the Year: Lorde – I just don’t like this chick’s music and without fail will hear ‘Royals’ or ‘Team’ at least six times a day. I don’t deny her talent or lyricism, but there are just some artists and songs I simply don’t like – and in 2013, Lorde is my personal most overrated breakthrough.

FOOTBALL: The Dallas Cowboys, The Texas Longhorns and my Fantasy Football team all performed horrifically this year. I still love football and will watch the various bowls and playoff games dutifully for the duration of the season, but seeing all of your teams under perform and lose is understandably upsetting and disappointing. A tie for the worst game goes to:

  • The Romo-less NFC East Championship where Kyle Orton’s noble efforts actually produced a close game which ended in an interception, loss to Philly and the end of another typical Cowboys season.
  • The saddest Texas bowl game I’ve ever watched – Not only did the Horns fail to score more than once during the entire game, but getting royally stomped by the Oregon Ducks during Mack Brown’s last game was even more heartbreaking.

That about sums up my best and worst of the year. Regardless of whether or not you agree with my anti-New Year’s Even sentiments or my generally underwhelmed opinion of 2013, I hope you all have a great day off tomorrow and a safe and happy evening.

Love,
Alison

Over the past two weeks or so, I embarked on a fantastic adventure that doubled as an action-packed science-fiction exploit and a heartwarming coming-of-age (again) journey with some smart, funny and heroic young children. Ironically, a mere day after closing the covers to these terrific stories about alien invasions and battle command in null gravity, I dejectedly returned to the real world only to find out that the government shut down, thereby limiting NASA funding and pumping the breaks on space exploration and discovery of unknown worlds.

Hopefully, operations will eventually pick back up and the U.S. can continue interplanetary expeditions, and as a respite, an escape from reality if you will, I’d recommend reading Orson Scott Card’s cult sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game before the film releases in exactly a month from the day the government shut down.
Like Hunger Games and The Percy Jackson series, Ender’s Game is a popular young adult fiction with powerful (yet self-deprecating) protagonists, elements of fantasy and not-so-subtle anti-establishment undertones. But unlike the former two series, Ender’s Game rarely resides in the Young Adult sections of bookstores, and wasn’t even written in this Millenium. Published in 1985, the award-winning Ender’s Game usually lives in the sci-fi section among the rest of Card’s impressive catalog of work and appears on several required reading lists for prepubescent teenagers and military soldiers alike.
My biggest disappointment about reading Ender’s Game was that I didn’t discover it when I was a kid. Though this novel is perfectly entertaining from an objective, adult, point-of-view, I know I would have deeply connected to Ender, his friends and his challenges if I read this while I was facing the day-to-day atrocities of middle school adolescence. Sure, Ender’s Game takes place on a space station where young, gifted children are groomed to command potential battles against alien invaders – not quite relevant to my preteen years. But no matter what age group, nation or universe you’re from, you will encounter bullies, cliques, unfair authority figures, competitiveness, stress and most importantly, loyal friends.
Without divulging too much for those of you who want to read the book or watch the film, I will say that Ender’s Game is a timeless heroic narrative with likable characters, plot points and dialogue. Even as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised by how captivating the story became after a few chapters.
After I finished Ender’s Game too soon, I wanted more. More science fiction, more space, more armies, more battles – so fortunately, on one of my routine visits to Half-Price Books, I stumbled upon the parallel semi-sequel, Ender’s Shadow. 
 Written over a decade later, Ender’s Shadow doesn’t “follow” Ender’s Game in the traditional sense. Rather, Ender’s Shadow retells the same narrative of Ender’s Game from the point of view of Bean, one of Ender’s Battle School classmates, fellow soldiers and best friends. Remarkably bright, funny and little, Bean is super clever and likable, and I honestly think I enjoyed this book better than the first. Rather than discovering new places, meeting new characters or learning how the Battle School society operates, we’re reacquainted with familiar faces, we relive exciting battles and we already know the impending result of some major events and turning points.
Bean’s point of view is fresh, young, inquisitive and a welcome twist to the somber tone of the first novel. Plus, Bean’s back story and journey to and through Battle School add depth and a twinge of tragedy to the one-dimensional coming-of-age experience we lived through with Ender on the first go around. Upon finishing Ender’s Shadow (and re-reading the final passage three or four times) I shamelessly shed a few tears and let out a dramatic, cathartic sigh – a familiar ritual whenever I finish any good book that I never want to stop reading.
Now, I’m left wishfully (and pathetically) counting the days until the movie comes out. And for the government to come back.
Until then, I leave you with a smattering of Ender’s Game inspired fan art and Battle School propaganda. Harrison Ford Needs You!:

“Game On” by Drew Brockington

Concept Art by Alan Atwood

“Wild animals, with true natures and pure talents. Wild animals with scientific-sounding Latin names that mean something about our DNA. Wild animals each with his own strengths and weaknesses due to his or her species.” 

-Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably my favorite Wes Anderson film; its humor, whimsy and perfectly cast group of voice actors comprise one of the most clever, heartfelt movies I’ve ever watched. Though it’s a PG-rated, animated film based off of a children’s book, the quote above has always stuck with me. In spite of himself, Mr. Fox is sly, wily and clever simply because he’s a wild animal. As a wild animal, it’s in his nature to hunt, sneak and steal in the same way it’s in rabbits’ nature to run, burrow and hop. It’s the same concept as the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog that Ryan Gosling so aptly retells in the movie Drive. The scorpion stung and therefore, killed his friend the frog simply because its his nature. Foxes, scorpions, leopards and their unchanging spots – How many adages are there in the English language that convey the message that animals act upon instinct, and animals behave the way they do because its just in their nature?

I bring this up because it reminds me of a particularly personal struggle I’ve faced for about six years. When I was a junior in college, I read a glossy pamphlet no larger than an index card that was handed to me by some grassroots, unshowered yuppie on a street corner. In summary, the literature touted the health, environmental and most obviously, animal welfare benefits to a vegetarian diet. Being not swayed, but fascinated by these arguments, I spontaneously decided to experiment with vegetarianism for a week.

I didn’t research the subject any further nor was I particularly compelled to stop eating meat for the rest of my life. I love meat. I always have. I love barbecue. I love burgers. I grew up frequenting a steak house my uncle was an accountant for during my formative years and was never unnerved by the hanging ducks and reeking fish that welcomed (and stared at) me when I’d regularly accompany my mother to the Chinese Super Market. I had no intention of removing meat from my diet for longer than seven days, and even doubted that I could abstain from it for that long.

However, the first week went by remarkably quickly. It was actually pretty easy – so easy that one week turned into a month, and eventually two years. I rarely craved or missed meat and never had trouble finding menu items at all of my favorite dining establishments. In fact, as a college student, being vegetarian was an ideal situation for practical reasons alone. Being less expensive than most omnivorous fare, saving those extra dollars for beer money was a welcome perk. And as someone who is notoriously unskilled in the kitchen, subsisting on primitive meals like cereal and grilled cheese was a pretty easy existence. Without holding any particular moral convictions against eating meat, living without it was surprisingly very doable.

I admit, every now and then I’d cheat during those two years – I’d crave the weirdest things. I’d rarely want a burger or chicken nuggets like I expected, but usually culinary oddities like sushi, lox and bagels or New England clam chowder – things that didn’t really have vegetarian equivalents in genre or texture. I was never that strict about whether my food was cooked in chicken stock or alongside other meat either – I just generally didn’t eat meat, and I was fine with it.

I didn’t eat a lot of vegetables either. People often ask if I lost weight during that extended dietary experiment, and in all honesty, I probably gained a few pounds – there is a surprising amount of food that contains no meat, but also next to no vegetables or anything of nutritious value – pizza, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, cake, pasta, ice cream and candy to name a few. Whatever the reason, I considered myself 98% vegetarian with very few qualms or slip-ups.

After those two years, I slowly started incorporating meat back into my diet. I could have stayed loyal to it if I only cared about my own well being, but eating is rarely a solo endeavor. The real reason I regressed was because it confused the hell out of my peers, and most importantly, my family. Watching my sweet mother toil and stress about what I could and couldn’t eat was painful and unnecessary, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. So when I visited my folks, I would just politely eat whatever they prepared for me. Then after I graduated, I took a job that required me to travel and I subsisted on fast food and take-out almost every day, making it harder to survive solely on french fries and fruit and yogurt parfaits.

I’ve gone back and forth with these meat-free experiments ever since – my sister acutally finds it quite funny, and it is. For me personally, being a conscious eater and citizen of the world is much more about dramatically lessening my consumption of meat rather than eliminating it all together. If everyone only ate meat every other day, or perhaps even once a day – I truly think the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that level of societal change will never happen in our life time and Americans are getting unhealthier, fatter and greedier every day – so I’ve been internally faced with the dilemma of being against The Problem with no hopes of lasting impact or being part of The Problem because it’s a hopeless cause and meat is well, delicious.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer has been on my reading list for years; I loved reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated  and have always found Foer’s wit, humor and style of writing very enjoyable. So now, nearly 4 years after it was published, I sat down and read the damn book.

This particular book struck quite a chord with me; rather than merely sharing statistics, facts and data about why we should or should not eat animals – the author looked upon the subject matter very thoughtfully and very personally. He too went back and forth between different dietary choices in his young adult years and never made a concrete decision on the matter. Motivated by the birth of his first child and having legitimate parental concern for what was best for his son’s health, Foer dove into multi-year research project to learn about how our food is produced, uncovering the ramifications of continuing to consume animal products at the current rate. Though this was a non-fiction book that was beautifully researched and meticulously edited, Foer truly made this work a story, which is probably why I identified with it so closely.

He discusses the culture, history, tradition and meaning of food and the social and emotional implications of sharing meals with friends and family members. Furthermore, he takes a philosophical approach on many issues that make readers second guess their beliefs. If Americans love their cats and dogs so much and give millions of dollars to the pet industry, why don’t we ever think twice about eating other animals? The thought of torturing said dogs and cats or eating them is abhorrent because they’re our pets. NFL quarterback Michael Vick even served time for his dog fighting escapades – but pigs and chickens can be pets too, and just because they just happen to be delicious, it’s okay that we eat them, and we don’t seem to mind that their treatment and slaughter is unsanitary, violent and sometimes sadistic beyond belief.

I think it’s important to note that this book is less about whether it’s wrong for humans to eat animals. After all, animals eat animals. If you really think about it, some animals technically eat humans. This book is more about unveiling atrocious factory farming practices – how this irresponsible system is destroying our planet, diminishing our health and not to mention, not only killing our animals – but making them suffer. Humans have engineered them into unnatural genetic mutations that produce optimal meat and lay the most eggs with limited amounts of space, light and feed. We rarely consider the terrible working conditions of employees in the slaughter house or the amount of pollution factory farming produces – quite literally, animal shit that gets sprayed into the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, but it’s the machine that is capitalism, which is why it depresses me when I think about it.

I think that’s the hardest part for us humans to grasp – we don’t think about it. We don’t think about how the animals we eat are raised, transported or slaughtered. We also don’t think about how deformed and disgusting they are in the current system; some chickens and turkeys can’t even walk because they’re so grossly overfed. Most factory farmed animals can’t even reproduce naturally anymore, which is probably the most sobering contradiction to evolution there is. Humans have literally altered some species to the point where they can no longer continue existing without our help. It’s like playing God in the Jurassic Park model – we have such control over other living creatures, yet act so indifferent towards their welfare.

My hope for the world is a sea change in how we control our intake of animal products. For example, Foer profiles several responsible, sustainable farmers who love their land, love their work and absolutely love their animals – even if they are raised for slaughter. Unfortunately, these heroes are the Davids to the Goliaths that are factory farming corporations, and unlike the Biblical tale, these underdogs are losing the battles. Being humane stewards of the earth is a principal almost all religious and political belief systems agree on, and the way our country raises animals is contradictory to all of the progress we’ve made. Factory farming is no longer about feeding the world; it’s about making money (and making people obese, asthmatic and allergic to things), and I’m having a hard time reconciling not necessarily my beliefs, but what I know is wrong with the food I love to eat.

Sure, it was easy being a vegetarian the first time around, but I’m not a college student anymore. I’m an adult and I live in a city with a flourishing food culture, and I love food. I love trying new restaurants. I love going out to eat with my friends. And *sigh* I still love meat.

I’m sure you’re wondering why my obsession with Fantastic Mr. Fox has transformed into an unexpected diatribe about my personal dietary dilemmas and the horrors of the factory farming system. Perhaps, it’s because I can’t quite determine whether humans are really that different from wild animals. Is it really our nature to tamper with nature? Is it natural to pump ourselves with man-made chemicals and hormones? And is it really in our nature to torture other living things that clearly have the capacity for intelligence, emotion and creating social hierarchies? We’re supposed to be intelligent and civilized, walking upright, speaking language and twiddling our ever-dexterous opposable thumbs. So if we are such evolved creatures, how can we consciously keep consuming animal products so thoughtlessly and irresponsibly? Or at least how can I after reading 350 some-odd pages of compelling truths about eating animals?

I’ve never been a radical – liberal yes, but never extremist. Sometimes, I associate PETA more with terrorism than activism in the same way I group pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics in a similar bucket. What I’m saying is – I will probably never completely stop eating meat. I highly doubt that I could ever go vegan. My mom would probably very easily talk me into eating her unapologetically greasy Asian stir-fry, and I couldn’t imagine Thanksgiving without watching the Cowboys with my dad followed by a wonderful tryptophan-induced nap. But I can tell you, I will always know in the back of my mind how disgusting my food really is and I can tell you that I’ve never had a harder time separating the source from the end product than I do now. For now, I’m going to focus on eating meat much less – perhaps, never preparing meat for myself or for others.

I don’t want to label myself as a vegetarian because I’m obviously going to be a terrible one. Again. But I do want to be a conscious, informed and socially responsible omnivore (or pescatarian or lacto-ovo what have you) – and I can only hope that one day my eating habits can influence the behaviors of others, or even the world, and lead to less guilt and regret.

When my friend Adam and I mapped out our second year of our virtual Book Club, we strategically incorporated a variety of themes, categories and types of literature into our reading list. For February, we considered it all too appropriate to read a classic love story to recognize Valentine’s Day, ironically a completely over-hyped and commercialized holiday that I fail to care about. Upon cursory research, Wuthering Heights topped several “Best Love Stories of All Time” lists, hence our decision to tackle Emily Bronte’s most esteemed novel this month.

Initially, I will admit that the plot moved deafeningly slow, perhaps a symptom of the mundane lives of the handful of incestuous characters.  Also, virtually the entire tale is told retroactively from the first person point-of-view of a secondary character who turns out to be quite charming and arguably the most likable character in the whole book. If there was an equivalent for “Best Supporting Actress” for the loyal female who narrated the majority of Wuthering Heights, I’d definitely award Ellen Dean for her strong principles, sense of humor and talent for compelling storytelling.

Though the plot crept slowly in the beginning, I caught myself surprisingly engaged amidst several extensive reading sessions – reading for hours on end about the Lintons, Earnshaws and Heathcliffs, ultimately finishing the final half of the novel in one three-hour sitting this evening.

I certainly enjoyed the tale, especially nearing the conclusion when the plot accelerates considerably. The relationships and love triangles in Wuthering Heights were not at all as I imagined, but I definitely extracted an element of romance from the gloomy, isolated moors of the English countryside. I couldn’t escape comparisons to Downton Abbey with the horses, estates, fanciful dialogue and lippy servants. I also kept thinking of Luke Wilson’s infatuation with Gwenyth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums, you know falling in love with family members and all.

The love lines in Wuthering Heights were dysfunctional, unhealthy and tumultuous to say the least – but aren’t all good love stories? Why else do we watch dramas or romantic comedies? Isn’t infidelity, passion and irrationality what attracts us to these fictional couples? I’d say the results for many of the characters are tragic and the characters you’d expect to champion and cheer for don’t necessarily end up following the paths you originally want them to. But I consider that a good thing – Bronte’s plot twists and unexpected conclusion make Wuthering Heights one of the most iconic books in English lit.

In fact, by coincidence I discovered this article about the moors of Yorkshire that originally inspired Charlotte and Emily in the prime of their literary careers. The stark, but beautiful countryside was vividly described and a major component of Wuthering Heights. Apparently, developers wanted to populate the land with garish wind turbines, but ultimately, Bronte enthusiasts campaigned to perserve the land’s beauty because of its literary significance. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of renewable energy, but I consider the decision to preserve the integrity of the land terribly romantic. It’s incredible, really – a place that inspired a novel in the mid-1800’s has decidedly been left unadulterated to sustain the legacy of Emily Bronte and her timeless novel over a century later. I’d love to visit the moors that inspired Wuthering Heights in the same way that I’d love to visit Martha’s Vineyard and Platform 9 3/4. The significance of these literary settings transcends time and culture, and that in itself is so special, historic and dare I say romantic?

Do I agree that Wuthering Heights is the best love story of all time? Probably not. Off the top of my head, I would argue that the relationships in Pride and PrejudiceThe Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God were more compelling than that of Heathcliff and Catherine. But do I agree that Wuthering Heights is a classic tale worth your time of day? Yeah, I do.

via Willco

via Willco

At approximately 4:30 am on Saturday morning, I finished one of the best books I’ve ever read. The usual disappointment that overcomes me when a story I love comes to its inevitable close was deepened by the fact that all of the subsequent books I will read this year probably won’t meet the lofty expectations and standard this book has set for all of my future literary conquests.
The Pulitzer-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon certainly lived up to its embellished title and revered accolades. Though I’m over a decade late in discovering this terrific work of fiction, I’m so glad I discovered Chabon at arguably his best and certainly look forward to delving into the rest of his repertoire.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was as daring and provocative as it sounds; though the title almost comes across as childish or campy, it perfectly encapsulates the two equally likable protagonists – the kind, charming man-of-many talents, Josef Kavalier, and his impossibly smart and quick-witted cohort Sammy Klayman. These two young Jewish heroes tirelessly work in the business of superheroes at the height of its popularity – the Golden Age of comics, a time when political sentiments were especially sensitive as the U.S. remained anxiously neutral while other nations were in the midst of the second World War.
When I initially heard of Kavalier & Clay, I immediately thought of a hero of some sort and his trusty best friend or sidekick. This certainly aligns with the comic book plot line and overarching themes of camaraderie and teamwork that’s woven through the pages of this book. But I wouldn’t say either Kavalier or Clay takes more of the spotlight in the novel – their characters – cliche as it sounds – were quite the dynamic duo. Both possess different talents (powers, if you will) and share equally tragic personal experiences that define who they are. Despite their conflicting talents, skill sets and personalities, the combined power of the two was a force to be reckoned with. In addition to that, the relationship between these two characters is one of the most heartwarming and touching friendships in all of fiction.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because this action-packed novel was such a joy to read. There were certainly a handful of other significant characters and as one would expect, this book about comic books was quite frankly, about much more than comic books. The lighter subject matter regarding comic books and magic made Kavalier & Clay a deliciously fun book to read, but since it takes place during the worst World War of our time, the story was equally sobering. Painful even.
As you can tell from this shining review, I highly recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. You don’t have to be a comic book aficionado to appreciate that component of the book; it’s more of a history lesson about the industry at its pinnacle in the 40’s. As I was reading, I kept thinking, “Why haven’t they made this into a movie yet?” Turns out they’ve tried and failed a few times over the years, but there are talks about a potential HBO mini-series, which would be badass. In the meantime, I’ll be catching up on lost time and exploring more fantastic tales that originated from Michael Chabon’s beautiful mind.

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As a follow-up to my Year in Live Music infographic, I created a similar graphic detailing my reading activity over the course of 2012. I’m ultimately pleased by the number of books I read (29), but was also disappointed that my reading activity declined over the second half of the year. The usual excuse always involves a shortage of time – there’s just never enough time to read, but what New Years resolutions have taught me is – there will never be enough time to read. Nor will there be enough time to exercise, reorganize your closet, redecorate your home or keep in touch with friends. You have to make time for it, and in 2013 I plan to do just that. Reading brings me so much joy, and it’s frankly silly to deprive myself of that. In fact, to ensure that I continue reading this year, my friend Adam and I devised a book club for the year, strategically planning our selections based on variety and our personal preferences – feel free to join!
Without further a do, my literary year in review:
Longest Book: Moby Dick at 608 pages
The novel was terribly slow, difficult and took me about a month to finish, but I’m ultimately glad that I conquered one of the most iconic books in the Western canon. It’s totally a book that can be read over the course of a year – the chapters are short and digestible, but they don’t detract from the epic nature of the story.
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038Most popular author: Jonathan Franzen, 3 books
It took me two years to finally pick up Freedom, which dominated all of the “Best of” lists in 2010 and boy, was I missing out on a terrific piece of fiction. It was such a beautifully and creatively written novel and I fell in love with several of the characters despite their overt flaws and shortcomings. In addition to Freedom, I also read Franzen’s short and charming memoir, The Discomfort Zone, and The Corrections (which turned out to be quite appropriate since a large portion of the novel takes place on a cruise ship and that just happened to be my selected reading for the cruise I went on in August-complete coincidence)

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Best Classic: To Kill A Mockingbird
The first and only time I read this classic was in my 9th grade English class when I was more concerned about memorizing vocabulary words than I was with simply reading and enjoying a literary, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. In 2010, one of the most intelligent and well-read friends I know told me To Kill A Mockingbird was her all time favorite book; she even named her dog Harper. I gave it a second pass a few months ago, and the charming, humorous and touching novel was totally worth the second shot.
Best Non-Fiction: Friday Night Lights
For a non-fiction book about sports, this one was incredibly human. In Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bissinger combined sharp journalism with elaborate storytelling and I can’t wait to read his follow-up tale, After Friday Night Lights, that details the unexpected friendship that blossomed between him and one of the football players that resulted from his time in Odessa.
 
Ultimate Favorite: The Art of Fielding
I know both of these books came out in 2011, but they’re neck and neck for best book I read in 2012. They were both considerably long, they were both told from different points of view, and they both made me cry. The characters and story lines in both novels were incredibly well-developed and as Jonathan Franzen candidly described The Art of Fielding, “It’s left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will,” I have a special place in my heart that only Henry Skrimshander and Mitchell Grammaticus can fill. I highly recommend both.