Travel Diaries // Mini road trip to Mystic, Conn.

I love to travel, but unfortunately, I work. But since I tend to like money and not starving, it’s not so bad. But that’s why weekend trips, often spontaneous ones, are so important. My cousins recently invited me to tag along on their mini road trip to Mystic, Connecticut, and I was jazzed since I love pizza and Julia Roberts! I went with my cousins, my sister, and my brother-in-law, and we lucked out with a gorgeous spring day. Here are some photos.img_5615
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2015 Book Roundup // My favorite picks of the year

2015 was a good book year. My total count is at 40, which is pretty standard for me. Every year I try to read a book per week, but I’m a notoriously slow reader, and I also try to have somewhat of a social life! So here are my top 5 favorite books of 2015:

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5. Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation

I loved this book. Helen of Troy as a myth is one of the most interesting cultural concepts to me. This book explored most of the ways Helen of Troy was written about in ancient Greece, and what she continues to mean for a modern audience.

4. Paper Towns

LOVED Paper Towns, because it was an exploration of what it means to know someone, what it mean to fall in love, and what it means to love an idea more than you love a person. And for the record, I adored Cara Delevingne as Margo in the movie.

3. Paris

One of my favorite genres is historical fiction, and Edward Rutherfurd’s novel about the city of Paris is historical fiction at its peak. It tells the story of half a dozen families in Paris from the middle ages to the 60s, and the main character is the city itself. I adored it.

2. The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood, this novella retells the story of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope. She’s hanging out in Hades in the fields of asphodel, and decides to tell her side of the story, especially the guilt she feels about the hanging of her twelve maids.

1. Trilby

Number one this year was George du Maurier’s Trilby, about a tone-deaf artist’s model who is hypnotized by the greasy, sinister Svengali. I loved the setting of 1870s Paris, the commentary about the corruption of the world, and the innocence that was Trilby and her love for Little Billee. She was an innocent soul ruined by the world.

What were your favorite books this year?

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Why are we still obsessed with Helen of Troy?

I’m going to direct that question to myself: why am I still so obsessed with Helen of Troy? I read this book recently that tried to answer that question for me, and I think I have the answer.

The book is Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell. It’s a critical analysis of the ancient Greek myth and literature surrounding the dazzling Helen of Troy, and what she meant for ancient and classical Greek society. The implications are, of course, what she means today.

16179837A while ago I shared this Margaret Atwood poem that imagines Helen of Troy as a countertop dancer, i.e. a stripper. The poem is a reminder that Helen of Troy, and what she represents, are still so incredibly relevant today.

So why is she so relevant? Why am I, like the rest of the world, obsessed with figuring out Helen of Troy?

Because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and thus she embodies the problematic nature of female beauty. The ancient Greeks knew that, and countless playwrights, writers, orators, and sophists used her as the embodiment of how they felt, and treated, women in their society. Ruby Blondell’s book sheds so much light on what Helen of Troy represented.

Blondell explores several Greek writers who included the character and “device” of Helen of Troy in their works; most notably Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (obviously), Sappho’s poetry, The Oresteia, Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, Euripedes’ Trojan Women and Helen, and Isocrates’ rhetorical speeches. Each writer deals with Helen in a different way, either defending her, making her a victim, making her a villain, or reducing her to something not worthy of living.

Blondell’s exhaustive analyses of each of these works comes to one conclusion: that for men, female beauty is both an asset and a risk. Beauty is essential for a wife, but beauty also makes a wife supremely untrustworthy, because she can always use it as a weapon. She can always use her beauty as a way to emasculate men, and make cuckolds of them. Therefore, Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, is the ultimate example of what the ancient Greeks defined women as: literally a “beautiful evil.”

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There’s this eloquent passage from the book’s introduction that adequately sums up why beauty is problematic for men—because they have to control it in order to reduce the risk of emasculation:

“Helen of Troy is the mythical incarnation of an ancient Greek obsession: the control of female sexuality and of women’s sexual power over men. As the most beautiful woman in the world, and the most destructive, she is both the most in need of control and the least controllable.”

I think these themes are still so extremely relevant today, to an alarming degree. We still have these ridiculous notions of female beauty, narrow beauty standards, and we have an image of this “ultimate woman” as if there were any such thing. Despite the strides we’ve taken, Helen of Troy is still here today.

Some men still feel compelled to control women, and control the power of female beauty. Even in such small instances as telling their girlfriends how much makeup they should wear, or not letting their girlfriends wear certain things so they’re not flaunting their beauty and making themselves attractive to other men. There’s still this philosophy of containment, that female beauty has to be controlled and limited so that it can be owned. Obviously, this mode of thinking and acting turns female human beings into objects.

Helen of Troy, as she is described in these works and a million others, could only have been created by men. Nowhere in classic literature is she understood as a thinking, acting individual with agency who is allowed to make mistakes. She is only a device used to promote misogynistic ideals. But she’s also experiencing something of a feminist renaissance, courtesy of works like Margaret Atwood’s, in which her beauty is still extremely problematic, but in which she takes back her story.

Having constructed female beauty as a threat, and imagined an absolute standard of beauty fulfilled by a single woman in whom that threat culminates, Greek men spent considerable energy attempting to analyze, contain, disarm, deny, or appropriate the power accorded to their own creation.

In this world, we can understand Helen’s story much more simply: a woman unhappy in marriage leaves her husband because she has fallen in love/lust with another man. Is it her fault that her husband and his brother killed hundreds of people to take back what they saw as her property?

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I think it’s kind of ironic that the blame traditionally lies with Helen, when a modern lens will obviously come to the conclusion that Helen’s husband is to blame for starting a 10-year war to begin with, and for treating her (and her beauty) like a commodity. Thus, in this modern world, Helen has become an example of the negative effects of the patriarchy. And Helen is no longer abused for expressing unbridled sexual passion—for the most part.

Short answer: the reason I find Helen so ridiculously entrancing/interesting is because even in the society she “lived” in (mythologically), she still managed to break free and cause a whole lot of trouble. I guess that’s my third-wave feminist lens talking. 😉

Definitely check out this book if you want to learn more about 1. Greek mythology, 2. gender politics in ancient Greek culture, 3. classic literature, 4. a woman with growing cultural relevance (who never truly became irrelevant). I only read about half of the works discussed, and it’s so easy to just get lost in these pages.

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Awesome summer reading rec: 'Flipped' by Wendelin Van Draanen

Today’s book review is the delightful young adult novel Flipped. My sister and I watched the movie a year ago and we fell in love with the humor and message of the story. I bought the book afterward and found that the movie had stayed largely faithful to the novel, and I loved reading the novel version of a story I loved so much. Flipped is a coming-of-age tale focusing on two young teenagers, Juli and Bryce, and how their perception of each other changes as they learn what kind of person each wants to be. The novel is narrated by both of them, offering insight into their separate worlds, and also offering two points of view to most of the events in the novel. It’s a fun format that highlights the message in this deep yet lighthearted story about first love, integrity, and growing up.

331920Juli is a precocious, outgoing eighth grade girl who has had a six-year-long crush on a boy named Bryce. The narrative begins with Bryce’s description of when he and Juli first met as second graders, when she barged into his family’s moving van and chased Bryce all over the house, trying to hold his hand. He describes her as “muddy” and that she was always “taking over and showing off like only Juli Baker can.” Bryce’s narrative presents him as a somewhat spoiled child who cares about social status and keeping up appearances.

“I’ll ride my bike all the stinkin’ way to school for the rest of eternity if it means being with her.”

In the second chapter, Julianna Baker’s lively voice takes over. She describes how much she enjoys watching her father paint, because it lends her a sense of peace. She’s a peaceful, unselfish child who enjoys simple pleasures like hearing her father’s stories, raising chickens, and donating fresh eggs to her neighbors. She’s so much more down to earth than Bryce is, but she’s still harboring a crush on her image-obsessed young neighbor.

Flipped is such a gem of a novel because it perfectly encapsulates this experience of growing up and trying to figure out who you are. Bryce, the popular boy, is concerned with his reputation and with being cool, which hurts Juli’s feelings. Juli has a strong sense of morality and begins to truly see Bryce for who he is. Both children have to reexamine the ways they were raised and go through these growing pains as they blossom into teenagers.

“One’s character is set at an early age. The choices you make now will affect you for the rest of your life. I hate to see you swim out so far you can’t swim back.”

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My Favorite Books: 'I Capture the Castle'

This post is less of a review and more of an opportunity to gush. I recently re-read one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. You may know her as the author of 101 Dalmatians, but Smith’s first novel is nothing short of literary magic. My sister first introduced this book to me when I was a very young teenager; now, I read it during the springtime, because it inspires in me the same feeling that spring does: that feeling of magic and new beginnings, of everything bursting into bloom.

457340This is the story of the impoverished Mortmain family in the 1930s, living in a moldering old castle in Suffolk. I love every aspect of this novel, from the themes of growing up and getting to know oneself, to falling in love for the first time and experiencing both intense elation and the deepest heartbreak. The best part of this novel is the narrator: sparkling, charming, intelligent and self-aware Cassandra Mortmain, our 17-year-old heroine whom JK Rowling called “the most charismatic narrator [she’s] ever met.” I completely agree.

Cassandra records everything that happens in the castle in an attempt to “capture” it, hence the title. The novel is populated with these larger-than-life characters, like Cassandra’s father, a former bestselling author who hasn’t written anything in over a decade; Cassandra’s stepmother, an artist’s model named Topaz who regularly wanders around their land completely naked; and Rose, Cassandra’s older, luxury-obsessed sister who is also gentle, honest and loving.

But the best part of this book is Cassandra’s voice. She’s both very naive and very mature, and through the course of six months, her entire world is turned upside down when she and Rose meet two American men, Simon and Neil, who have inherited their estate. I love this quote from the beginning of the novel:

Rose: Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice—when Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.

Cassandra: Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent.

Cassandra and Rose start spending a lot of time with the two men, and Rose schemes to marry the elder, Simon, so she can escape genteel poverty. Cassandra helps, and it looks like everyone’s dreams have come true when Rose and Simon become engaged and Rose finds herself also, fortunately, in love with the man she said she’d marry whether or not she loved him. That is, until Cassandra falls in love with Simon herself.

Cassandra describing and experiencing her first—unrequited—love is the heart and soul of this book. I always feel her joy and her pain so acutely, especially when she says things like, “Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known” and “Perhaps watching someone you love suffer can teach you even more than suffering yourself can.” Everything feels so much stronger and more intense for Cassandra because she’s in some ways extremely naive and a blank slate, and it’s made so much worse by the fact that she’s in love with her older sister’s fiancé. But you’re also very much aware that Cassandra knows her own heart and mind, that what she feels for Simon is real and not just puppy love, which makes Cassandra’s pain so much harder to bear.

“Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper.”

Reading this book is like opening a window into the soul of a very kind, very funny, very warm-hearted young girl, and it’s also like reading your very own diary. Her soulful thoughts leap off the page, and I could fill up this entire post with just direct quotes from the book. My favorite is when Cassandra visits an empty church to find solace and thinks, “I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.” Cassandra is deep, brilliant, childlike, noble, funny and kind, and she’s made this novel one of the best I’ve ever read.

So I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

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