TV Reviews: May – July 2018

Book reviews are still coming next week, but in the meantime, I thought it would be fun to do some TV reviews, since my last one was over a year ago. There are too many new shows now that it took me a long time to decide which show to keep watching and which show to drop. I’ve been watching mostly old shows (Black Mirror, The Crown), though I’ve had to give up on some, too, like Legion (too weird) and The Handmaid’s Tale (too grim). Nevertheless, here are the new shows that I’ve watched:

Cobra Kai:

I’m a fan of the original Karate Kid (fun fact: the high school where they shot it is just down the street from my apartment building back in LA), but I’m well aware of its cheese factor, so when I heard that they were making a sequel focusing on Johnny Lawrence reopening the Cobra Kai dojo and reigniting his old rivalry with Daniel LaRusso, I thought it sounded stupid and would surely be bad. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be really, really good. The series manages to capture the nostalgic feel for the movie while still updating the story to the modern day; the continuation of Johnny and Daniel’s characterization is believable, and the new characters are fun too. I can’t wait for season 2.

The Durrells:

I’ve actually been watching this for a while (it finished its 3rd season, and the 4th is coming next year), but I never got around to reviewing it before, so consider this a belated review. It’s based on the Corfu trilogy by Gerald Durrell, which I love. I’ve seen two other adaptations of My Family and Other Animals, but neither of them manages to depict the magic and the ridiculousness of the Durrells’ life on Corfu. The series does a little better, though I still find the Durrell children selfish and horrible to their poor, long-suffering mother, and I think it would be better as a half-hour comedy/drama than a one-hour drama/comedy. Still, between the beautiful setting, the breezy 1930’s costumes, and the fun (but sometimes exasperating) storylines, it’s the perfect summer watch.

Harlots:

I’ve been meaning to check this out since last year but I haven’t gotten around to it until now (it’s now in its 2nd season). I mostly watch it for the gorgeous costumes, but the story, which revolves around the rivalry of two brothels in 18th-century London, is actually very good. The anachronistic modern soundtrack requires some getting used to, but it’s nowhere near incongruous and annoying as Marie Antoinette. Also, despite its subject matter, the sex scenes are not as graphic as I’d expected, and best of all, they serve a purpose in advancing the plot and developing the characters, as opposed to being a gratuitous and exploitative way to grab the audience’s attention, like in Game of Thrones.

Set It Up:

This is technically a movie, but it’s streamed on Netflix so I count it as a TV movie. Now, for all of my preference for dark, angsty series like Black Mirror and such, I also have a soft spot for rom-coms, though I tend to favor period or non-American rom-coms (The Decoy Bride, Austenland, etc.) This one, on the other hand, is a very standard American rom-com about two overworked assistants who set up their bosses (or, as they say in the movie, “Cyrano them” and “Parent Trap them”) so they could have more free time. I wasn’t going to check it out (Netflix series are usually good; Netflix movies, not so much), but everybody was raving about it, so I decided to give it a go and ended up really enjoying it. Sure, it’s predictable as hell, but it’s also cute, and the two leads are charming and have great chemistry, so it’s good for a Friday night in.

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Book Reviews: June 2018

I’m kind of indifferent to all of this month’s read, but here we are:

Word by Word by Kory Stamper:

It’s interesting how all of the books on language I’ve read so far all have the same sentiment: language changes, so despite how you feel about them, even words like “irregardless” have their places in the dictionary. This book, which revolves around the author’s time as an editor for Merriam-Webster, reinforces this more than anything else. It’s quite funny and reveals some interesting things about dictionaries as well as the persons behind them (actually I never even thought about the writers and editors of the dictionaries at all, but now that I think about it, dictionaries, like any other book, need to be written by someone). 4/5

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevallier:

I took this with me on my trip to Da Nang. Since it’s a beach trip, I figured a book about two women hunting for fossils on the beach of England in early 19th century would be appropriate. It’s too bad that the book itself is boring. There are some interesting bits about fossil hunting and the way women are written out of history, but none of those really pans out. I don’t connect with either of the narrators (Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot), and I hate the fact that when they have a falling-out, it is because of a man. So much for feminism. 2/5

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:

I saw the movie adaptation of this a long time ago, and all I remembered about it was Sean Connery and Christian Slater in funny haircuts solving a series of murders at a monastery. The book is so much more than that. In fact, the murder mystery part is only incidental to the book. It is mostly a book on Christianity, philosophy, history, and much else. However, it is the murder mystery part that I’m interested in – it’s basically medieval Sherlock Holmes (the main character’s name is William of Baskerville, and in the movie he even says “It’s elementary.”) So I admit, I skimmed through a lot of the other parts to get back to the mystery, which becomes frustrating after a while. Just as the mystery is getting interesting, it is interrupted by a long discussion about the poverty of Christ or a description of an altar or a hallucination or something like that. And of course, being only incidental, when the mystery does get resolved, it feels anticlimactic. I’m not saying it has to be some stupid conspiracy like The Da Vinci Code or something, but I wish the murder mystery could have been a little more intergrated into the whole thing. 3/5


A Week In Da Nang

It has become kind of a tradition with my family to take a week-long vacation in early summer. Since most of us work in academia, it’s the most convenient time (later in the summer we would be busy preparing for the upcoming semester); plus, the kids won’t have to wait too long for their vacation.

This year our destination is Da Nang, a city in Central Vietnam best known for its beaches. Most travelers skip it altogether or only use it as a transition point between two more popular destinations – the ancient capital of Hue and the old town of Hoi An – but we’re all about avoiding the crowd, so to Da Nang it is.

To shake things up, we also decided to take the train instead of flying. Sure, the trip takes 15 hours instead of 1,5, but it’s fun to sleep on the train (we had an entire compartment to ourselves), and you can catch some epic sunrise and sunset too.

Sunset over Thanh Hoa

Sunrise on the way to Hue

Another great thing of train travel is you get to go through the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, the most beautiful coastal road of Vietnam (called “a ribbon of perfection” by Top Gear). You can’t get views like these from a plane:

Our first glimpse of Da Nang from the train

In Da Nang, we rented an apartment right by the beach. It’s in a newer part of town, so we had the beach almost to ourselves. To avoid the sun, we only went to the beach very early in the morning (I’m talking about 5 AM early) or late in the afternoon.

The beach in the afternoon…

… and in the morning

If you go early enough in the morning, you can see the fishermen coming back with their catch in distinctive basket boats. You can even buy their fish – it doesn’t get fresher than that!

A fisherman’s motorbike and his gear

A make-shift fish market on the beach

You can also see a lot of wedding photo shoots

My niece and nephew’s beach combing haul

Of course, being so close to the famous old town of Hoi An (it’s only 30 km away), we had to take a day trip there as well. However, it wasn’t easy with two kids in tow, so I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I’d wanted. I’ve been there once before, but that was years ago and I didn’t remember much of it, except that it was very pretty. It’s still pretty now, like a more compact version of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, only with Chinese and Japanese influence on the architecture rather than French. Unfortunately, it was also very hot and insanely crowded. Otherwise, I would’ve gone back there by myself to really explore the place.

Typical Hoi An scenes

Two of the many Chinese temples and assembly halls of Hoi An

There are also plenty of day trips and hikes that can be taken from Da Nang, but I was feeling lazy, so I just wandered around the waterfront area of the city, which isn’t far from our apartment. It’s a great place for people watching, and when Da Nang’s many bridges, the most famous of which is Dragon Bridge, are lit up as darkness falls, it is quite an impressive sight.

Dragon Bridge during the day

… and at night

Our answer to Singapore’s Merlion

Da Nang’s skyline

All in all, it was a good trip. I still prefer the “discover and explore” type of travel, but it’s fun to just relax once in a while.


Book Reviews: May 2018

I got an eclectic mix of books this month, but the good news is that all of them are enjoyable, each in its own way. Let’s hit it!

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan:

I just finished the series based on this (once you get past the Blade Runner rip-off aesthetic, it’s very good, plus Joe Kinnaman is not too terrible to look at either) so naturally, I wanted to check out the book. It is set in a distant future when human consciousness can be digitized and stored, which allows people to change bodies (called “sleeves”). As you can’t rely on physical appearances to tell who is who, it is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. The mystery itself is quite standard, but the setting makes all the difference. I’m glad that I watched the series first though, because it makes the sci-fi lingo a lot easier to follow. The thing is, the series deviates quite a bit from the book, so about halfway through, I lost track of the plot a bit, but in the end, just like when I watched the series, I sort of let the story wash over me and didn’t think too hard about it, and I was able to enjoy it much more. 4/5

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett:

After Altered Carbon, I wanted an easier book, and a Discworld novel just fit the bill. This book revolves around the Witches, who have to face a family of modern vampires that threaten to take over their country. It contains some hilarious bits about the “edgy” vampires (who stay up during the day, drink wine, and give themselves names like “Tracy” and “Gerald”), some adorable bits about Igor and his dog Scraps (or Thcrapth, in Igor’s accent), and some profound bits with Granny Weatherwax (“Sin is when you treat people as things”). A great Discworld novel, all around. 5/5

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

I’m rounding up this month’s reviews with a non-fiction book. This, as you can guess from the title, is about the women who worked in US factories during the 1920’s and 1930’s, painting watch dials using self-luminous paint and contracting radium poisoning as a result, and their legal fights against their employers for compensation. It is horrifying to read about how radium literally eats its way through these women’s bodies (there are some very graphic descriptions and photos) and how their employers callously dismiss their suffering. At the same time, the women’s strength and determination can be very touching and inspiring. I can’t imagine how they can go through so much pain and still do everything they can to get justice for themselves and all workers like them. 5/5


From The Garden

It’s been a while since I share photos from our garden, but after seeing Kezzie’s post of her own garden, I was inspired to do the same. My dad is a pretty avid gardener, and I’ve been keeping sort of a photographic record of our garden for him, so it’s always fun to look back to see how our plants were doing each year.


Our amaryllis collection (the salmon-colored one is from a bulb I brought back from Amsterdam)


Orchid and Heliconia


Banana blossom (which makes a very good salad) and mulberries (which make very good jam)


Book Reviews: April 2018

This month I only managed to read two new books because I was rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes. Why? Well, it’s like this: I just read a Lovecraftian script for work. Anything Lovecraftian reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which is essentially Holmes/Cthulhu fanfiction, so I reread that. And then I realized it’s been a while since I read the original A Study in Scarlet, so I reread that, and I figured, might as well reread all the Holmes stories and novels while I’m at it. And that is how a bibliophile’s mind works…

Anyway, onto the two new books I read:

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan:

I’m a bibliophile (see above), so any book that has to do with bookstores or libraries or writers can catch my interest. This one is essentially a murder mystery set in a bookstore – a homeless young man kills himself in the bookstore he usually frequents, and the bookseller that knows him must confront her own dark past to unravel the mystery of his death. It’s a very quick read and the mystery itself is pretty engaging, but I find the beginning too slow and the resolution a bit too easy, and I didn’t really connect much with the main character. 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden:

This is the third fantasy books I’ve read based on Russian folklore and mythology (after the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Deathless.) I guess I’m just drawn to them because I grew up with Russian fairy tales. Anyway, the plot of this book is quite standard – Vasya, a young girl whose mother dies giving birth to her, inherits some of her mother and grandmother’s otherworldly abilities, and she uses those abilities to protect her village from a dark force. Still, the world of the story feels very authentic, and the characters are well-portrayed. My only complaint is that the ending is a little rushed (I was expecting a more epic journey, but I guess that’s for the sequels). Also, if I have to read that Vasya’s stepmother “shrilled” or “shrieked” once more, I’m going to shriek too. 4/5


Cuba Packing List

I wasn’t going to write packing post for this trip, but then I realized that, like every aspect of traveling to Cuba, packing for Cuba also has its own specificities that I’d like to share with you. Plus, any excuse to post more Cuba photos, right? 😀

So, for 10 days in Cuba, here is what I packed:

– Tops: 5 T-shirts, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 chambray shirt (it was so hot that I went through these faster than I thought, so I had to do laundry a couple of times.)

– Bottoms: 2 linen pants, 2 lightweight jeans, 1 dress (the dress was strictly for SIA, but it came in handy when I was too lazy to wash my tops.)

My standard sightseeing outfit (goofy pose not included)

– Outerwear: 1 cardigan, 1 sweater, 1 light jacket (though I never wore the sweater and the jacket in Cuba. We transferred flights in Moscow, so they were for keeping warm inside the airport/on the plane.)

– Shoes: 1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of flip-flops (for the beach/walking around the casa.)

OK, this may just be an excuse to show off the cool floor tiles of Cuba…

– Accessories: 2 hats (1 baseball cap and 1 straw hat I bought in Trinidad), 3 scarves. These are life-savers; I used them to cover up from the sun and the big one was used as a sarong when we went to the beach. They can also double up as face masks in dusty/smoggy places. We got some funny looks walking around Havana with scarves wrapped around our faces, but trust me, your nose, throat, and lungs are going to thank you.

Some tips:

– Don’t bring anything too nice, anything you don’t want to sweat through or get sand or dirt on. If you’re planning to go dancing, maybe bring a cute dress, but honestly, it’s all very casual.

– I know it’s hot, but don’t bring just tank tops and shorts if you don’t want to be burned to a sizzle. The sun is relentless, even during February.

– Pack all the toiletries, make-up, and medications you’re going to need. You won’t be able to buy them here. And sunscreen. A lot of sunscreen.

– Bring hand sanitizer and tissue/toilet paper. Bathrooms in Cuba are not the cleanest, so it’s better to be prepared.

– Pack some detergent if you’re going to do laundry. Most casas provide laundry service, but it can be expensive.