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Knock-Knock, Who’s There?

First of all, big welcome to visitors from my three newest countries: Austria (wilkommen!), Mexico (bienvenidos!) and Guam (hafa adai!). And an even special welcome to getting visits from all 50 states with my first click from Montana. In your honor, I will post a picture of your flag.

Well that was fun.

Wouldn’t it be disappointing if that was it?

Anyway, second of all, where did all the people who were visiting my blog go? Please come back. I had over 600 of you the other day; what did I do wrong? Was it something I said? Can we patch things up?

But that’s not the actual post either.

So, I don’t know what’s going on with me lately – maybe an advanced case of frost on the brain, because it’s halfway to March and it’s still so fucking cold – but there has been weird stuff going on around me.

Maybe I’m spending too much time alone, but I’ve been hearing weird noises in my apartment. Not just at night, but during the day as well. I mean, there are the normal sounds – cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks, loud music playing, people talking, blenders whirring, and when I’m in my bathroom, the farts, flushes, and showers of the people above/below me (totally gross, btw, and one of the reasons I can’t wait to leave here) – but then there are sounds.

Some of the sounds are perfectly normal in context, like knocking on a door. Sometimes I hear other people’s apartment doors being knocked on, but I know when it’s mine. The past few days, I’ve been hearing a very near knocking sound, and this morning actually rushed to my door, finding no one there. Also, there’s tapping, like someone is gently tapping on the walls. Sometimes, in the area of the refrigerator, I hear a snap/crackle sound, like the fridge is adjusting itself.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts; I certainly haven’t seen any, and other than that one day in the religion center where a stereo spontaneously started playing in the Hillel Lounge in front of me and two witnesses, not much in the way of supernatural experiences. But if this building’s haunted, I deserve the right to know.

I don’t want to wake up one morning to see…this.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Jennifer Connelly.

Wait…I don’t have a tub.

Phew.

Safe for now.

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Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

I finished the first book out of the 20 or so I brought home with me. It took me a few weeks, to finish it, but not because I was bored with it, mostly because of end-of-semester stress. Ladies and gentlemen, PopCoby Scarlett Thomas.

Cover of "PopCo"

I found it on the shelf at Memorial Library; it had a fascinating front cover with an eye and lips, and an equally more interesting back cover. After a few minutes of debating whether to get it and face the reality that it’d be returned unread, or not getting it and then when I went back to look for it, find it gone, so I just got it and put it under everything I had to read for the semester…well, not really, more like…alongside it, getting in a chapter or two here and there. This is the kind of book that’s hard to put down, but once you pick it back up again, it’s easy to get back into.

To summarize: Alice Butler is a twenty-something crossword puzzle constructor turned toy creator for a gargantuan toy company called PopCo. She is invited to the annual company retreat in a place called Battersea. There, in this weird company compound where there may or may not be children testing toys, she is assigned to a team of other eclectic and mysterious PopCo employees to make the “perfect product for the teenage-girl market.” Much like her predecessor in Wonderland, Alice goes on a strange journey full of encrypted messages left at her door, wacky workshops where she has to play a paddle ball game, solve riddles, and sail a boat. It is also a journey into her childhood, as she searches for the solution for the mysterious code inside a locket given to her by her grandfather, reliving it alongside searching for the answers to the questions PopCo brings up – both of which yield unexpected results. It’s like a hybrid of Alice in Wonderland and 1984.

It’s got all the ingredients for a good story, but I think it’s about 75% there. I loved the character of Alice; she seemed like a great combination of nerdy and spunky. Socially awkward, yet sexually desirable. Some of her friends, particularly Esther, got on my nerves for the sheer lack of information Thomas provides us with. I feel like it has a strong start and keeps going for awhile but loses steam toward the end. The last few chapters were fascinating, but still somewhat of a let-down. We never find out if Alice left PopCo or not; if the treasure was found, and by whom; if anyone from PopCo came up with the desired product; how Chloe’s sabotage worked out; if Alice and Ben ended up together; and what the hell happened to Alice’s father. I don’t know if the author planned on writing a sequel, but since it’s been a decade since she wrote it, it’s unlikely that there will be a PopCo 2.

I would definitely recommend this book; it’s full of fun and tidbits about cryptography and an inside look at major toy corporations and branding schemes. I loved the crazy book-page code, and the complicated one with the massive grid.

One thing I noticed that may or may not have been intentional; the names of the PopCo employee characters all line up in alphabetical order and alternated by gender and importance of their role in the story. Take a look:

Alice (protagonist)

Ben (her love interest)

Chloe (Ben’s “fawn-haired” friend who isn’t who she seems)

Dan (Alice’s friend, a programmer)

Esther (a mysterious and duplicitous internet marketer)

Frank (not a major character; described as a “large black man with tattoos”)

Grace (female Asian employee who beats Hiro at Go)

Hiro (male Asian employee and reigning Go champion who has a thing for Grace)

There are no I or J-named people, but there is Kieran (who is male but should be a girl, by the rule of being an odd letter of the alphabet) and two Icelandic employees, Mitzi and Niila (who fit, as Mitzi is female and Niila is male). There is also a Violet, however, nobody with names between O-U.

This one was tough to let go, knowing that I had so many unanswered questions. All the same, it intrigued me so much that I got two more of her books from the library, brought them home with me to read, and will probably end up moving their way to the top of my reading list.

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On Judging A Book By Its Cover

In an unexpected turn of events, this post is exactly how the title sounds.

This afternoon, I spent an hour that I should have been working on my paper browsing Half-Price Books. If you haven’t experienced the glory of Half-Price Books, or live in a city/country where there is none, find the nearest one and go now. Or, when it opens, since it’s almost midnight here in Wisconsin.

Half Price Books (Lego Version)

Half Price Books (Lego Version) (Photo credit: Diorama Sky)

With ebooks, eBay, and Amazon.com, the bookstore suffered a pretty terrible death. All the little ones died first, then Waldenbooks, Gordon’s, pretty much paring them down to Barnes & Noble and the occasional Borders. But somehow, Half-Price Books emerged like a phoenix from the proverbial pile of ash.

When you go into one of their stores, you never know what you’re going to find. It might be a long-lost childhood favorite, a completely obscure title, or even a box of Edward Gorey note cards. And everything’s – you guessed it – half price. And some things are even less.

So today when I went to Half-Price Books, I looked at covers.

Yes, covers.

An old adage says, “never judge a book by its cover.” Well, they’re wrong.

::gasp::

It’s true. The art of the book cover says something about the book. I’ll start with the types of books I usually buy. For fiction and literature, bright colored covers usually mean chick-lit, or something else light and fuzzy. I can go for these types of books, except when I buy them without reading much about it from the back cover and it turns out to be a Christian Young Adult novel. (This has happened.) For a play, usually the cover will be your standard Samuel French or Dramatists pastel. I always wondered about how those colors got picked for each title. That would be the most fun job ever. Biographies and memoirs usually have the author (or whoever’s being ghostwritten about) on the cover, a move that is vain, but then again, he or she is kind of what the book’s about. Still, there are some wonderful biographies/memoirs with pictures on the cover that do not contain the visage of the subject. Mysteries come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, but usually if it’s got blood or guns on the cover, it’s not as thrilling as the author would like to you think it is. My favorite mysteries are of the “cozy” genre, not too graphic or violent but fun to follow (and figure out, if you’re that type of reader). For example, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series is named after plants, the corresponding one of which is featured on the cover, and Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are done up in a tasteful still-life with a matching color palate throughout. You know you’ve got a hit series when any of your books can be spotted from a mile away. Yes, I’m talking to you, Sue Grafton. Fantasy and sci-fi novels have incredibly detailed covers, emblematic of how intense you have to focus in order to follow them. Travel guides often feature a photo of something that is either too abstract to recognize without a caption, or a picture of something you will most likely never witness if you travel to that place, like the sunrise over Mt. Fuji in Japan, the wild elephants of South Africa, or an unpolluted, moonlit view of any large city in America.  Pop lit often features a black cover with a single image like a mask or a candle or a sewing machine or something, as if to say, “you must be Victoria Beckham in order to open me.” And then there’s your romance novel covers, which run the gamut from beautiful to inane to not-safe-to-leave-lying-around-the-house-during-your-kid’s-sixth-birthday-party. The higher budget the novel and the more bankable the novel, the hunkier the guy/the prettier the girl. Some of them end up looking pretty ridiculous – in fact, there are websites such as this one where you can ogle, gawk, and poke fun at the most awful covers from around the world.

The worst ones of all?

Movie tie-in covers. It’s a sad day when you need freakin’ Leonardo DiCaprio to sell The Great Gatsby, a piece of art with reputation Leo can only dream of even coming close to.