Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The How Novel Bookclub: 1984 Part III

Third time's the charm, y'all! This is it. The end. The third and final discussion of George Orwell's 1984.

I'll pause to let it sink in. And for you to get your hanky in case the emotion gets to be too much.

As far as experiments go, I think this whole blogging bookclub is working out pretty well. Sure, there was a long lag between our first and second discussions, but hey, life happens. And I have to admit: this was not my favorite book.

Don't get me wrong, I liked it. But at times it was a bit of a slog. After all, it was written in the 1940s and there has certainly been a shift in fiction prose in the last 60 or so years. The long dense paragraphs and slow plot movement were a bit of a challenge. But it certainly gets points for its importance to the Western literature cannon and how it basically created the dystopian future genre.

And now on to Part III! (summary from Penguin books)
Winston and Julia are separated and taken to the Ministry of Love where Winston is physically and psychologically tortured by O’Brien until he finally accepts the Party’s views. In a moment of utter terror, Winston betrays Julia, something he was convinced they could never make him do. The final lines of the book show Winston’s complete transformation into a model Party member: “…Everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The shit, as they say, hits the fan. Part III was a difficult read, but not for the reasons I discussed above. It's just hard to read about someone being tortured. And we're not only talking about physical torture--though that happens and don't even get me started on the rats--but the psychological stuff is pretty horrible too.

I admit it: I was surprised that O'Brien ended up being the big bad guy. In fact, I am surprised at how WRONG all my predictions were regarding the plot of this book. I thought for sure it would be about a man fighting the power and trying to bring down the fascist government. It turns out Winston never even had a chance. The Party always knew what he was doing and everything that he was thinking. This isn't a story about one man's triumph over evil--it's a story about how men are capable of creating evil that cannot be stopped.

Y'all this book is depressing as HELL.

Winston makes a good go of it. He hangs on as long as he can. He even feels a certain amount of pride in not betraying Julia...until he does. But if you were being threatened with having your face chewed off by rats, is there anything you wouldn't betray? And then, even when he can tow the Party line and has learned how to employ doublethink...he still hates Big Brother. Doesn't he? Until the end when the Party's victory is complete. Winston is released back into the world (such as it is) where he spends his days sitting at a desk doing nothing and drinking gin in a bar. On the last page is the final sad revelation. He loves Big Brother.

The scariest thing about 1984 is the utter hopelessness.  There is absolutely no happy ending here. There's a bit of ambiguity here about whether Winston gets his brains blown out, but honestly that seems like a better option. At least then he could be a martyr for an actual cause. But Winston gets turned into another brainless Party drone. Just another brick in the wall.

"Obedience is not enough...Power is inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself...Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm....there will be no love except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated foe. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science." --O'Brien

Yeah, not a world I want to live in thank you very much.

Bottom line: A slow moving plot and theme of hopelessness combine for a tough read. Still, if you consider yourself a fan of dystopian future fiction, I'd recommend it purely for it's importance to the genre. Otherwise--skip it. It's gonna bring you down.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Great Cupcake Hunt: So it Begins

It's no secret I love cupcakes. I mean, who doesn't? Maybe communists? But that's probably just because of lack of opportunity, not anything offensive about cupcakes themselves.

A few months ago, my friend Lauren and I had a brilliant idea. Let's try all the cupcake shops in the area and find out who has the best cupcakes of all. Cupcakes are having something of renaissance here in the DC area and you can't take a step without tripping over a cupcake shop. We decided to start with Alexandria, but our big idea for hitting all the big shops in one day kind of hit a big stumbling block. Turns out a lot of cupcake shops aren't open on Mondays.

(cue sad trombone)

But! We were not going to be stopped. Lauren and I planned a cupcake feast and BY GOD we would have it. So we decided to make the shops compete bracket style so we could perform our Great Cupcake Hunt in multiple steps. First up in Part I: Buzz Bakery vs. Lavender Moon Cupcakery.

The rules of the Cupcake Hunt are simple. Each bakery will compete with three cupcakes: a basic vanilla on vanilla and two other cupcakes that represent the signature style of the individual shop. There are three categories of judging criteria. First, appearance. After all, you want your cupcakes to look pretty. Second, taste. Duh. And third, the X-Factor. Is there something that makes the cupcake really special? Appearance and taste are judged on a scale of 1-10 (with both me and Lauren assigning our own scores) and the X-Factor score is a sort of bonus that we mutually agree upon (out of 5 possible points). A cupcake may be overall ho-hum, but if it has something out of the common way, it can get a score bump.

In this corner: three cupcakes from Buzz Bakery.

And in this corner, Lavender Moon's three cupcakes:

First round: Buzz Bakery's Flower Power vs. Lavender Moon's Vanilla Vanilla (both are vanilla cake with vanilla icing).

Let's start with Buzz Bakery's Flower Power. I wish I could say that we started off with a bang, but it was definitely more of a whimper. In the Appearance category, Lauren awarded a 6 while I was quite unimpressed and gave the cupcake a 3. The cupcake had a bit of creativity with the flower and colors, but in the end, it was a messy presentation. It looked like something a grade schooler would make and the colors were...not appealing.

As for taste, again, this cupcake came up short. The frosting was gritty and overpowering of the cake with a slightly chemical taste (probably due to the food coloring). The cake itself was very dense (which I like), but really dry. It tasted like it had been sitting out for a while. Cutting the cupcake in half revealed a surprise, there was some chocolate filling inside. But not a lot and you couldn't taste any of it. The frosting was way too sweet and honestly, making a cupcake at home from a mix would have been better. Lauren scored the cupcake a 3 in the Taste category and I gave it a 2. As for the X-Factor: a big fat snowman (0). Nothing special here.

Flower Power's score: Appearance (9) + Taste (5) + X-Factor (0) = 14. Yikes

Next up in the vanilla category, Lavender Moon's Vanilla Vanilla (see picture above).

This cupcake scored way higher in appearance.  It had the look of a classic beautiful boutique cupcake with an elegant swirl of tasty looking frosting. I also found the flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting very appealing. We did dock a few points for a kind of boring presentation. Just because it's vanilla doesn't mean you can't stick a piece of fruit, some kind of crumble, or even some vanilla shavings on top! Lauren gave it an 8 and I went with a 7.

Taste was a bit of a surprise. The texture was very nice and the cake and frosting were well-balanced...but at the end of the day it was kind of bland. Vanilla on vanilla is never really going to be exciting, but you can make a great vanilla flavor (think of a delicious vanilla ice cream) and this cupcake was lacking that kind of vanilla punch. Having said that, the texture of the frosting was light and frothy and really pleasing. Both Lauren and I assigned a 6. Oh, and the cupcake also got an X-Factor bonus of 2, for the flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting. It may not have lived up to the vanilla promise, but it sure looked purty.

Vanilla Vanilla score: Appearance (15) + Taste (12) + X-Factor (2) = 29

First round, Lavender Moon is the clear winner.

Second round! Buzz Bakery's Peachy Keen vs. Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate

Buzz's Peachy Keen (pictured on the right): in the Appearance category we liked this one a lot better than the first selection. The crumble on top was really cute, and the color was definitely an improvement. But the size of the cupcake is definitely a problem--it's just small, especially when compared side by side to Lavender Moon's offerings. If I am paying over $3 for a cupcake, I want more bang for my buck. And it's also kind of chintzy on the icing. Lauren scored it a 6 and I gave it a 5.

Taste was a big improvement though. This was a delicious cinnamon cake topped with cream cheese frosting and a peach filling. The cake was not too dry, had a beautiful color, and was full of cinnamon flavor. The crumbs on top also added a really nice crunch. The cream cheese frosting was a great counterpoint to the cake. Unfortunately, you couldn't taste the peach filling at all. If you are going to call your cupcake Peachy Keen, you should probably make sure it tastes like peach. Still, the cinnamon cake was delicious. Lauren gave this cupcake a 6 for taste and I gave it an 8. It also earned a bonus X-Factor score of 4 for the amazing cinnamon cake aspect.

Peachy Keen score: Appearance (11) + Taste (14) + X-Factor (4) = 29

Our next competitor is Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate. Spoiler alert: this was our favorite cupcake. As for appearance, it wasn't flashy, but there's just something about a yellow cake and chocolate frosting that calls to mind birthday parties and great cupcake childhood memories. The chocolate frosting had a sassy crimped swirl and it was shiny and really appealing. In fact, the cupcake looked like the top of a soft service ice cream cone and who wouldn't want that? Lauren and I both gave it a 5; it certainly wasn't flashy, but it looked fun.

As for Taste....the first word out of both of our mouths was, "mmmmm." Repeatedly. This one hit all the spots; fantastic blending of all the flavors (chocolate, vanilla, and orange) and each was distinct without being overwhelming. They each unfolded in your mouth, like when you are tasting a great wine. The orange really complimented the chocolate and the contrast of the dense cake with the light frosting was really nice. It tasted expensive and gourmet, which is what you want in a specialty cupcake. Lauren gave it a 9 (docking one point for a bit of a dry texture), and I gave it a 9 as well. This cupcake also earned a bonus X-Factor score of 3 for the amazing balance of flavors.

Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate score: Appearance (10) + Taste (18) + X-Factor (3) = 31

Second round goes to Lavender Moon, but this was a close one.

Round Three! Buzz Bakery's 9:30 Club cupcake vs. Lavender Moon's Flourless Chocolate with Almonds and Sea Salt

Buzz's 9:30 Club cupcake is a play on the classic Hostess cupcake. It got a good score for appearance; it was again a small cupcake, but the frosting was shiny black and the white swirls were cute in the way of a Hostess cupcake. For appearance, both Lauren and I assigned a 7.

Unfortunately, the first word out of Lauren's mouth when tasting the 9:30 Club was "yuck." The cake was VERY dry and while the icing was delicious (light and chocolatey with great depth), the cake was just terrible. Neither of us finished this one due to the problematic cake texture and you couldn't taste the vanilla whipped filling at all. A dud all around. Lauren and I both gave it a 3. We were a bit kind though and assigned 2 X-factor bonus points for the cute overall look and the actually delicious frosting. 

9:30 Club score: Appearance (14) + Taste (6) + X-factor (2) = 22

And the final cupcake of the day was Lavender Moon's Flourless Chocolate with Almonds and Sea Salt. As far as appearance goes, this cupcake looked like a brownie with chocolate icing on top. Sounds good in theory--but in reality, the top looked kind of dry (with the brownie crackles) and the crunchy topping was kind of mystifying. Was it almonds? Caramel? Sea salt? No way to know. Lauren also raised the point that it's not as visually appealing when the cake and the frosting are all the same color. Lauren ended up giving this cupcake a 6 for appearance and I went with a 5. It was kind of meh. 

Turning to taste, oh boy was this cupcake rich. Like TOO rich. You expect a rich and dense chocolate flavor with a flourless cake, but this was too much. There was also a big problem in that the cake didn't appear completely baked. It had the texture of brownies that haven't been cooked all the way through (too moist) and when we took it out of the wrapper, it was definitely top heavy. There was a huge imbalance to the flavors; we got a bit of the almond, but the sea salt was completely absent. And it needed the salt to break up the chocolate. The frosting was also overwhelming in its sweetness. If you wanted a light summer cupcake--this is NOT what you would reach for. Lauren and I both gave it a 5. There was a potential for an X-factor bonus, especially with the gluten-free, but at the end of the day, it had too many problems to get a bonus.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Almonds and Sea Salt score: Appearance (11) + Taste (10) + X-factor (0) = 21.

Final scores! 

Buzz Bakery = 65

Lavender Moon Cupcakery = 81

Highest scoring cupcake = Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate with a score of 31. 

Lowest scoring cupcake =Buzz Bakery's Flower Power with a score of 14. 

As a final note, the inside of Lavender Moon's Cupcakery was really adorable. Lots of pink (yay!) and nice whimsical touches to the furnishings. Buzz Bakery is first and foremost a coffee house, so it's bright and loud, and not really conducive to the quiet contemplation of the fabulousness of cupcakes.

Winner: Lavender Moon by a landslide.

The aftermath.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The How Novel Bookclub: 1984 Part II

Welcome back, gentle readers! Yes, it's been a while since we revisited George Orwell's seminal novel of a dystopian future, 1984, but it's time to put on your reading glasses and thinking caps and get back to it!

In our last session, we talked about Part I of 1984 with a focus on the historical context of the novel. I noted that Part I seemed to be more or less all set-up and was weak on actual plot. It was all hella depressing. But now we are forging ahead to Part II!

And NOW we're getting somewhere.

Summary of Part II (from Penguin Books):
Much to Winston’s surprise, the woman, Julia, slips him a note which says “I LOVE YOU.” They arrange to meet secretly and soon become lovers. They rent a room above the antique shop from the kindly owner, Mr. Charrington. At the height of Winston’s affair with Julia, he is approached by an Inner Party member named O’Brien whom Winston has long suspected of being a subversive. On the pretense of discussing one of Winston’s Newspeak articles, O’Brien invites him to his home. When he arrives there, Winston is amazed at the amenities available to the Inner Party about which Outer Party members might only dream. One of these luxuries is a telescreen that can actually be turned off for privacy. O’Brien reveals to Winston that the Brotherhood, a mutinous underground organization, does exist, and he makes arrangements to give Winston a copy of a book which details the control techniques that Party uses. Excited about the prospects of helping overthrow the government, Winston takes the book to the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. However, before he can make any plans or even finish the book, he and Julia are arrested in the room that had been their refuge. They discover that quiet Mr. Charrington is actually a member of the Thought Police. He and O’Brien had been working together to trap Winston. 
Part II has a lot going for it: sex, intrigue, secret societies, and lots of foreshadowing. Let's just say that it's clear things are not going to end well for Winston and Julia. After all, we spent the entirety of Part I learning how insidious, omnipresent, and omniscient the Party is.  There's definitely a sense of a ticking bomb in the background during all the scenes where Winston and Julia have a tryst. In a book like 1984 if your main character is ever happy and hopeful, it's pretty clear that things are going to go bad pretty soon.

It's a credit to Orwell abilities as a writer that when the axe falls, it is still a surprise. Part II contains a large portion of Goldstein's book (given to Winston and Julia by O'Brien).  This book is essentially a textbook of the revolutionary group, The Brotherhood, and details the rise of the Party as well as it's techniques. Orwell painstakingly differentiates the Party's totalitarian ideology from others the reader may already be familiar, and in a move I thought was interesting, explains that the Party's power and doctrine arose in the twentieth century because "human equality had become technically possible." With the development of machine production, "it was no longer necessary for [human beings] to live at different social or economic levels. Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted."

I have to be perfectly honest though--the large section of Goldstein's book was a bit of a slog to get through. It's interesting in theory, but the plot was just starting to get going in Part II and it feels like it comes to a screeching halt so Orwell can finally explain the origins of the Party and WHAT IT ALL MEANS. However, it does serve the purpose of making the reader forget about that ticking time when the Thought Police bust into Winston and Julia's secret getaway and Mr. Charrington is revealed as a party agent it's shocking. If 1984 was a tv show, the end of Part II would be a smash cut to commercial with lots of dramatic music. Basically, it was a big DUN moment.

I also want to take a moment to talk about Julia. I found her a fascinating character. It was not a surprise to me that the first place she takes Winston is a secluded grove in the country. She has a bit of a "child of the forest" vibe where she thinks only of the moment and only commits acts of rebellion against the Party to the extent it serves her pleasure. Sex, food, make-up--all of her acts of revolution are self-centered and serve nobody but herself. But she still is more of a radical than anyone Winston has ever met and joins the Brotherhood as readily as him. Through all of Part II I wondered whether in a normal world (like our world) Winston and Julia would have ever even looked twice at age other. I think the clear answer is no.

And 1984 isn't a love story. Despite the fact that it gets the plot moving, I get the feeling that Orwell doesn't view their relationship as anything more than a means to an end. It fans the flame--not of passion, but of rebellion inside Winston and finally gives him hope. Though even in the throes of his affair, Winston knows it won't last. There was a moment, after his first tryst with Julia, when he looked at her naked body and thought, "In the old days...a man looked at a girl's body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred." The Party takes everything. Winston also has a lot of internal monologues about how he constantly expects the Thought Police to catch them at any moment. Not that this is anything new for Winston--from the moment he writes "Down with Big Brother" in his diary in Part I, Winston knows the writing is on the wall. And yet, when the inevitable crash occurs it's still a shock.

Predictions for Part III: Winston gets tortured and then killed. The book started depressing and I don't expect it to get cheery anytime soon. Sigh.