Author: Thanh

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Title: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 384 pages

Plot
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a historically significant fictional work that raised awareness on the tragedy of slavery. Depicting the lives of the multidimensional slaves and slave owners, this rich story brings to life a time period preceding the Civil War (with the novel being credited as spurning some of the seeds leading to war!).

He Said
I was captivated by the strong characterizations and the initial plot promised to be an exciting tale. Unfortunately, the novel fell short due to glossed over details, too many characters, and contrived/convenient plot devices. The characters, with distinct voices, were far more interesting and well-fleshed out than the situations they found themselves in. I really enjoyed the way Stowe presented both sides of the slavery debate. By the novel’s end, however, it sadly became propaganda for Stowe’s beliefs. The ending was terribly unrealistic and overly simplistic. In this case, the sum of the parts (so many moving, insightful, and humorous storytelling) is better than the whole.

She Said
Powerful characterization. Moving language. While the narratives were captivating in the beginning, the novel soon suffered a plague of characters that simply could not tell all their stories within the short span of 300+ pages. While each character’s plight was distinct, most reached a similar (if not identical) conclusion that was convenient and contrived. For example, I was very drawn into George’s and Eliza’s journey. I stood by their ideals and feared for their lives. Then suddenly, their planning was interrupted with the narratives of many more characters. When we resumed their journey, we found they arrived at safety. Just like that. Despite these shortcomings, Stowe’s work is a true classic and should be taught in schools.

We Say
While poised to be a literary classic, the novel does not live up to its fullest potential. However, the degree of clarity and insight in which Stowe presents such a controversial topic of her time is astounding and worth reading.

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Genre: Biography
Length: 656 pages

About
Jobs agreed to have a biography written about him so he could inform his children of why he was such an absent father. For a man who was extremely sensitive about his image, the project also assured him that his biography would be truthful. Indeed, he and his family urged for truth – for a portrayal that reflected the dichotomies that existed in him. He was cruel, yet brilliant. He was visionary, but also hypocritical. He viewed himself as an artist and allowed the stereotypical temperaments of an artist to manifest. To the world, Jobs was an astonishing individual who provided a perfect case study for business schools, technologists, and inventors.

He Said
Steve Jobs is one of the most iconic figures of the 20th & 21st centuries. Whether you love or hate Apple, Jobs most likely influenced your life in one way or another. Jobs does an impeccable job at detailing, without filters or biases, the fascinating “true story” behind all of the technological advancements and how Apple became one of the most valuable companies in the world. I really enjoyed learning about how the iPod, iPhone, and iPad came to be. The chapters on Pixar were a surprising bonus as I didn’t know Jobs had such an involvement in my favorite animated production studio. The biography was well-written and structured and shows the culmination of lots of research.

She Said
Uncensored. Poignant. The book painted a clear image of Jobs as a selfish jerk and… an innovative genius. Jobs left behind a legacy of not just a revolutionized digital world that meets both the demands of art and technology, but also a proven science of a “great company”. He built Apple (and Pixar) on a collaborative and cutting-edge platform that won’t settle for less than best. As a person, Jobs left lots to be desired. He seemingly had no social filter and would speak his mind even to hurt people at will. Indeed, the book contained many details that would delight Pixar and Apple fans.

We Say
When it comes to Jobs, he commands “the best”; therefore it is not surprising that he chose Isaacson to compose his biography. Isaacson wrote a truly candid, insightful, and detailed piece that does its best to present the multifaceted sides of Jobs and his intelligence, which led to so many innovations. A must-read for anyone with a curiosity towards the man responsible for Apple and Pixar. It allows the reader to see Jobs as a person, exposing his genius and flaws.

Travels: New York City

There is no city more “American” than NYC: New York City, New York. As one of the largest, busiest, and most populated city in the US, it is bustling with diverse culture, business, and history. It is visually so iconic and recognizable because of the countless films and TV series that take place in this city. The fantastical lives on screen conjure nostalgia for the “real deal”. Indeed, there is just so much to see and do in the “Big Apple”! We’ve been here 3 times and still have more places we want to explore in future visits! For now, these are some of our favorite places in New York:

Statue of Liberty

NYC represents the melting pot of culture that is the very bloodline of the US. The Statue of Liberty is a stunning representation of the freedom, hopes, and dreams so many immigrants have when they choose to make the US their home. A short and scenic ferry ride to Staten Island allows you to see the statue up close and you get a gorgeous view of all the skyscrapers and classic architecture.

9/11 Memorial

When you think New York City, there is an automatic association of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Memorial is a beautiful and haunting sight that allows visitors to remember those whose lives were so sadly cut short for a senseless act of terrorism. The large constructed “water falls” reminds visitors of the night Twin Towers which once stood. We didn’t visit the Museum, but we hear it preserves the many stories of the people whose tomorrow’s were stolen as well as a portion of America’s history that will never be forgotten. Behind the memorial stands One World Trade Center, which opened for business yesterday (11/3). The building is exactly 1776 feet tall, to commemorate America’s year of independence.

Central Park

A visit to New York City is incomplete without strolling through Central Park. This place also holds a special place in our heart as we traveled there the day after Thanh proposed. That is why Nhi’s sister painted the above canvas for our wedding. We were hopeful of catching Autumn colors, but unfortunately, the park remained entirely green. We strongly recommend taking a bike tour that would allow you to take in the entire park without exhausting all your time. The bike tour does allow you to take as many stops as you want, so be sure to take a picture in front of the Friends fountain!

Times Square

Considered the “heart” of NYC, Times Square is truly a must-see extravaganza, especially at night. It may be midnight but the bright lights, crowds, and bustling businesses will make you question the time. Truly epitomizing a city that never sleeps, Times Square is home to several broadcast television networks and showcases the latest advertisements. Tourists flock here day and night and it is the location for the annual New Years Countdown featuring a certain “ball drop” to celebrate the New Year. Surrounded by big stores and big lights, Times Square puts you at a walking distance to some of its most sought-after offerings – Broadway & shopping!

Ladurée

We had to visit this French luxury bakery known for its macarons that are flown straight from Paris. It is a rather petite shop with small arrays of delicacies. The decor of the shop, the packaging, and the appearances of the pastries were exquisite. Despite the high-end price (each macaroon was $4), we found the taste to be just average; our eyes feasted more than our stomachs.

Asian Dining

There are plenty of Asian dining options among Chinatown and Koreatown. In terms of cleanliness and aroma, Koreatown wins by a wide margin. As for food, it depends on your preference. We love Kang Suh Restaurant although it is rather pricey. The BBQ is mouthwateringly delicious. We also like their lunch boxes, which are more reasonably priced. And the squid side dish is to die for. Koreatown’s bakeries look cozy, inviting, and absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, the actual taste leaves lots to be desired. If you’re in the mood for a nice, authentic Vietnamese dinner, we recommend Chinatown’s Nha Trang One (not to be mistaken with Nha Trang Centre). Their canh chua (tamarind based soup) is the best we’ve tasted. We also love their soft shell crabs. Lastly, enjoy a family meal of all-you-can-eat hot pot at 99 Favor Taste. (Really? Favor and not Flavor? A serious typo!)

Carlton Hotel

Carlton is located near Koreatown, which makes it extremely convenient for those who live to eat. :) The decor is very elegant and classy with many hidden charms. Aside from a very pleasant stay, Nhi left with more decor inspirations for our future home. :) Room service here is also very good. Their French fries are the best we’ve had. (Their steak was fine, but not extraordinary.)

5th Avenue

(Photos taken the day after Thanh proposed.)

Located in the upper side of Manhattan, “5th Avenue” is the dreamland of high-end shopaholics. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for any purchases, everyone can afford to window shop. You are near Central Park and also sprinkled among all of the window fronts and stores are gorgeous, historic architecture. For more “affordable” shopping, check out the stores on 7th Avenue, including “the largest store in the world”: an 8-story worth of Macy’s spanning an entire block!

We Say
New York City is a nice place to visit for its grandeur. But, it’s not one for habitat. Having lived in Minnesota for a good many years, Nhi believes in being nice to strangers. Well, most New Yorkers don’t tend to share that belief.

In this city, cars and taxis are not the ideal mode of transportation. You will not only pay a premium just to park (if you can find a spot) and will waste much of your precious NYC minutes stuck in traffic. Become very familiar with the MTA (New York’s public transportation system); nowadays your smartphone makes navigation a cinch! Because there’s just an overwhelming amount of potential sight seeing, we recommend lumping multiple nearby destinations in each of your planned outing so you’re not wasting too much back-and-forth travel time. Most important will be to have comfortable footwear – we walked well over 5 miles one day!

Taylor Swift: 1989

Album: 1989
Artist: Taylor Swift
Genre: Pop, Rock
Release Date: October 27, 2014
Track List:

01 Welcome to New York
02 Blank Space
03 Style
04 Out of the Woods
05 All You Had To Do Was Stay
06 Shake It Off
07 I Wish You Would
08 Bad Blood
09 Wildest Dreams
10 How You Get the Girl
11 This Love
12 I Know Places
13 Clean

He Said
For the past several years, Taylor Swift has skated a fine line between country and pop. While 1989 is her fifth studio work, she actually deems it her first… given that it solidifies her transition into a full-on pop singer. The album is a cohesive effort that plays well, but lacks the uniqueness that made previous albums memorable and distinctively “Taylor Swift”. Perhaps this is reflective of today’s mainstream pop, but many of the songs sound similar not only to one another (while listening I sometimes wasn’t sure when one track stopped and another started) but also to music made by other artists. The music is too loud on most songs and the repetition felt like just that. Swift’s songwriting, which had matured so finely seemed to have again taken a step backward, but it is definitely still present and shines in creative songs like “Clean” and “Wonderland” (bonus track found on Target exclusive Deluxe Edition) – which are my favorites.

She Said
There’s not a trace of country in this pop album. The theme of love also took a back seat. Perhaps her more limited dating pool these past two years provided little material for the album. 1989 is an improvement from Red and is defining a new Swifty era. Her vocals showed maturity and she wrote of love from a different angle. The album as a whole is a lot more upbeat than her previous works. It would serve as a nice workout soundtrack or morning routine music. My favorite track from 1989 is “This Love”, which is reminiscent of Swift’s true storytelling days. As for her music videos… I have no comments on her weird dance moves.

We Say
Taylor Swift: Pop Star is here to stay and 1989 is her coronation. It is filled with cookie-cutter pop songs that are meant to be cheeky and fun.

How I Met Your Mother: Series Finale

A common plot device/formula that TV series (sitcoms in particular) employ is the on-again/off-again couple. They are the ones that date (sometimes get married) and break-up multiple times before (usually) reconciling for a “happily ever after”. Viewers are stringed along for years because they love the undeniable chemistry.

The most notorious on-again/off-again couple is Ross (David Schwimmer) & Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends. For 10 years, they went through periods of being together always followed by some conflict which led to separation. It was definitely a roller coaster ride. It can be frustrating to watch a couple go through such a tumultuous journey. While there is never a guaranteed “happy ending”, viewers are usually optimistic and support the couple until the end.

This year, another long-running sitcom concluded and viewers learned that it had been following the “on-again/off-again” formula, but the audience response was far from the celebratory one that Ross & Rachel received. The sitcom in reference is no other than How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted (Josh Radnor) & Robin (Cobie Smulders).

After 9 years, HIMYM concluded with Ted ending up not with the “Mother”, but with Aunt Robin. This outraged many a viewer because everyone believed the series’ premise was about Ted & the “Mother” (and their presumed happily ever after). For years, people had followed the series anxiously waiting for the “Mother”… only to find out she dies?!

Season 8 concluded with viewers actually meeting this titular “Mother”, Tracy (the perfectly cast Cristin Milioti), in an extremely surprising but satisfying reveal. I greatly looked forward to watching Tracy & Ted’s love story in season 9. Sadly, season 9 was mostly a time waster, keeping the series at a standstill and unbearably dragged out. The worst part was that it wasn’t even funny or entertaining. I skipped/half-watched the final season. Tracy and the “flash forwards” were the saving graces of season 9. Those scenes were extremely precious and had the full essence of what made HIMYM so awesome a long time ago (full of heart, wit, and often humor). Josh & Cristin had amazing chemistry and I truly felt like Tracy was the perfect match for Ted. One of my absolute favorite scene of the whole series has to be the epic moment when Ted talks to Tracy for the first time; the flawless writing and spectacular acting encapsulated so many emotions and highlighted how “fated” this couple was supposed to be and felt like the big “reward” for sticking it out for so many years to wait for the “Mother”.

As for Ted & Robin…

Despite knowing from the beginning that she wasn’t the “Mother”, I couldn’t help but be infatuated with Ted & Robin during the early seasons. I loved their chemistry! I definitely enjoyed their courtship in season 1 and their dating in season 2. After their initial big break up, I reminded myself that I knew all along they had an “expiration date” and that Ted isn’t supposed to end up with Robin. Thus I forced myself to let go of my love for this couple and continued to watch patiently for Ted’s “true love” (the elusive and mysterious “Mother”).

As the series progressed, Ted and Robin went through multiple partners. Yet, somehow they always ended up at a spot of getting back together and then not. As a closeted supporter of Ted & Robin, I felt frustrated and teased. Why let them have such amazing chemistry and be in such predicaments when they aren’t going to end up together?! I tried very hard to not root for them consequently.

As a Ted & Robin fan, I can’t exactly say I’m upset with the ending because their final pairing was what I secretly rooted for since the beginning. The main problem I have with the ending is that it negates all of the character development that occurred in later seasons. In particular, the multiple seasons-long journey of Ted letting go of Robin so that he can meet and be with the “Mother”. It feels almost pointless.

While the creators stand by the fact that they had planned out the whole story since the beginning, I can’t help but feel like their hands were tied by an ending they had filmed nearly a decade earlier (HIMYM was at risk of cancellation during its early years so I believe the creators had this pre-filmed ending in their back pocket “just in case”). The original intention was actually to not even have the “Mother” be a character in the series (save for her reveal in the final moments). Perhaps they should have stuck with that plan rather than giving us the simply adorable Tracy. I would rather not know the “Mother” at all if she was supposed to be an “insignificant” character all along.

I believe most people are upset with the ending because it makes them feel cheated and misled. It was too sudden and contradicts most of season 9. Ted & Robin would have been easier for viewers to “swallow” if the writers dedicated sufficient time to fleshing out this story. The most important aspect of effective storytelling is that the audience has to believe it. Perhaps the intention of HIMYM was to point out that life is unpredictable, but when it comes to TV watching, viewers expect a certain “script”. Twists/surprises are wonderful, but they must feel earned and credible; this is where HIMYM failed.

In the history of the “on/off couple”, Ted & Robin are probably the most frustrating and hard to accept (even though I really loved their chemistry).

Into the Kitchen: Sushi Rolls

Sushi is a hallmark of Japanese cuisine. In a nutshell, sushi are usually rolls comprised of rice and various proteins and vegetables encompassed in a toasted sheet of seaweed (or soy paper). Some rolls are also topped with sauces, tobiko (fish roe), and/or crispy flakes. Thus there is a vast potential for different combinations of ingredients. Making truly exquisite sushi requires the skills, training, and knowledge of a sushi master, but homemade rolls actually aren’t that hard to make!

1. To make sushi rice, cook the medium-grain, premium Japanese sushi rice according to the instructions printed on the packaging. After rice is cooked, transfer to a wide, shallow bowl (or rimmed baking sheet); you want to be able to spread the rice out evenly so it can cool faster. Add sushi rice vinegar (as instructed on bottle and based on how many cups of rice you cooked) and gently and evenly combine into rice. Be careful not to mix aggressively. Cover with a damp towel until you are ready to proceed. Note: We like Mitsukan brand Sushi Seasoning & Nishiki brand sushi rice.

2. Prepare desired ingredients by cutting them into elongated strips. This is where you can be creative and make whatever you’re in the mood for. Avocados (tip: squeeze lemon juice over sliced pieces to prevent/delay browning), seedless cucumbers, imitation crab, and shrimp tempura are common favorite fillings.

3. To prevent the rice from sticking to your bamboo sushi mat, cover it with plastic wrap before proceeding to roll. Make “vinegar water” (combine 1/4 cup water with 2 tsp rice vinegar) to use to prevent rice from sticking to your hands when you are making the rolls.

4. Cut toasted seaweed (nori) sheet in half crosswise (follow the folds on sheet). Place the shiny side of the seaweed down onto the sushi mat. Spread your cooked sushi rice on top in an even and thin layer with your hands using the “vinegar water”.

5. Flip the seaweed over (meaning the rice now faces the bamboo mat and the shiny side of the seaweed faces you). Add your desired fillings in a long row near the bottom of the sheet. Do not overload; otherwise you will have a hard time rolling!

6. Roll your sushi tightly according to directions found on your sushi mat. If desired, sprinkle toasted sesame seeds (or other topping) on top.

7. To cut your finished roll, wipe some “vinegar water” onto your sharp knife and slice through. Clean your knife each time before cutting again.

8. Serve with Japanese soy sauce, wasabi (if you like it), and pickled ginger (generally available at Asian groceries).

For more specific instructions, including exact recipes for various rolls, sauces, and fillings, please check out Just One Cookbook.

We Say
Making sushi at home is definitely labor intensive… We’ll stick to ordering from the pros. :P But, making your own is certainly an option if you live far from a good Japanese restaurant! It’s also a fun couple/group activity every now and then.

Themes: Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, Tangled

My infatuation for Frozen sparked a renewed interest in Disney and a desire to watch the creative team’s past works. Having finished Tangled and most recently Wreck It Ralph, I observed very common themes among all 3 movies.

But first, a mini-review…

Wreck It Ralph runs in a similar creative vein as the Toy Story franchise. Instead of toys, Ralph brings to life video game (arcade) characters. It immerses the viewer into a colorful world with very “human” characters. Essentially Ralph is a story about discovering self-worth against prejudice and labels, told through the heart-warming quest of a misunderstood “villain” (Ralph) who just wants to be the “hero” for a change. This is a fun, feel-good family movie that offers a strong and touching message.

Themes: Identity & Acceptance
One of the biggest struggles that we can all relate to is learning and accepting who you are.

Societal “norms” correlate with acceptance, something that all humans desire. Divergence from said “norm” results in ostracization. In an attempt to fit in with the majority, some go to great lengths to change themselves and conceal any and all glaring “differences”; this can result in self-suffering with unexpected and undesired consequences.

Too often we are also quick to apply labels to others and form opinions without truly knowing who the person is. Indeed, prejudice can sadly cloud our judgment, which sometimes makes us lose out on potential relationships.

Thus the struggle for identity and acceptance can be hard and life-long. Fittingly breaking beyond their labels as “animated movies for kids”, Tangled, Ralph, and Frozen tackle these very “adult” topics through their characters’ journeys.

In Tangled, Rapunzel and Flynn learned who they were through their relationship with one another. Rapunzel overcame her fears of the unknown and became confident in herself. Flynn realized he was more than a “bandit” and found meaning and purpose beyond surviving and living for himself.

In most fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists. “Real life” is not so black and white. The video game characters in Ralph try to depict the multidimensional layers of people. During the day their “job” is to be either the “hero”, “villain”, or supporting cast. Sadly for “villains”, the stigma of their “job” carries off-duty and they are discriminated and considered by peers as “bad guys”. Ralph is the epitome of this prejudice; he consequently suffers from low self-esteem and just wants so badly to show others that he’s not a “bad guy” and be liked by others.

The movie chronicles Ralph’s quest to break through his labeled persona, but actually ends up with him learning who he is. In the touching and strong climax, Ralph boldly states:

I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.

In this epic scene, Ralph not only proves he is more than a “bad guy”, but he finds his self-worth and embraces his “difference”. It is only after he accepts himself that others accept him.

In Frozen, Elsa is forced to hide not only her magical ice/snow-making abilities, but also herself. She was miserable, trapped by fear. When her secret is revealed, Elsa is at first scared, but later becomes empowered by her new-found freedom as she belts in “Let It Go”. After years of isolation and trying to keep a secret, she no longer cared what people thought and just wanted to “live” for once. She relished in her abilities, her “difference”, as she makes a beautiful ice castle (and the lovable, scene-stealing Olaf).

Due to a lack of understanding, people believed Elsa to be a “monster” – a Snow Queen. People fear the unknown. It is only when they start to understand her powers (as a result of Elsa embracing, rather than concealing) are they able to see past her “difference” and realize that she is still human.

We Say
As people, we all have our own quirks; no two are exactly alike. It is crucial to learn who you are and especially understand the “differences” that make you unique. Don’t try too hard to conform to societal “norms” or appease the majority. Ultimately, the big message is this: Living life freely results in happiness.