7 Books I Wish I’d Skipped

Everyone has probably seen those “10 books that have stayed with me” posts on Facebook by now. I’m kind of sad that I haven’t been tagged yet, but I know when people try to think of their most literary friends, I don’t immediately come to mind. I love reading, but I’m not exactly what you’d consider one of them “literary types.” Plus, everyone knows at least three of my top ten books were written by Tolkien, and I guess that isn’t very interesting to some people. However, many of my favorite bloggers have been talking about books lately, and I want in on the fun!

We’ve already established that my top ten list would be a little boring and predictable, so I’m going to discuss my bottom seven. One of my favorite quotes from my dad is, “Life’s too short to read bad books.”

Facebook Data Science compiled the results of those “Ten Books” statuses, listing the top 100 books according to Facebook users. Tom and I read through this list together; while we were pleased to see that The Book of Mormon was #35, our reaction to much of the rest of the list was the following: “Really. Reeeaalllly. Really? REALLY?!” It quickly became clear that our idea of “good literature” doesn’t match up with that of the rest of Facebook. Most of the books I talk about in this post came from this or similar lists, and they’re all hailed as “great.”

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was a school-inflicted experience, and it will probably be a school-inflicted experience for every kid from now until the Second Coming (after which I hope many of the books currently being produced by the Mormon Texts Project supplant some of these so-called “classics” in school curricula).

Objections

  • I would summarize Gatsby this way: “It’s about horrible people being horrible.” This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but seriously, what is this book even about? Rich people having affairs? Something about the American Dream? A cautionary tale about going to Long Island? I just have no idea!
  • The characters are unrelatable and unlikeable. By the end of the book, there wasn’t a single character I cared about. I was glad when people started dying, and I wished more of them would die. Hey, you might as well kill off the narrator—it’s not like he does anything at all.
  • I wasn’t a fan of the heavy-handed symbolism. It was just too much. You couldn’t see the forest for the trees—and you couldn’t see the story for the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

Substitute

If you’re in the mood for reading about horrible people being horrible, try Wuthering Heights. This book, at least, has a plot.

2. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

I can’t blame this one on school. I picked up Rebecca by myself after enjoying the black-and-white Hitchcock movie. I was looking for some good timesy Gothic romance, the Kindle version was only $5, and I wanted to use a Mrs. Danvers-like character in my NaNoWriMo book this year. Boy, was I in for an unpleasant surprise.

Objections

  • I expected this book to be creepy and unsettling, and it was—but not in a good way. I felt a little bit depressed and skittish any time I picked it up.  I couldn’t place it, but I felt like I was reading something immoral (other than the incident mentioned in the next bullet point). According to the afterword, it seems my subconscious was right. I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say I’m really bad at picking up on themes.
  • [SPOILER ALERT] Maxim de Winter, husband of the narrator, never faces any legal consequences for murdering his first wife, the titular Rebecca. In fact, when the current Mrs. de Winter learns of this, her first reaction is, “Oh, how wonderful! Maxim isn’t still missing his dead wife! Now we can be in love forever and ever!” Yeah, until you both get to that lake of fire and brimstone. Hitchcock danced around this issue in the movie by having Maxim explain that he was about to shoot Rebecca, but then she fell over and hit her head and conveniently died. As implausible as that is, it’s better than a murderer getting off scot-free.

Substitution

If you’re looking for Gothic romance, stick with Jane Eyre, which is one of my favorites and won’t leave you feeling icky inside.

3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

By the time we read The Grapes of Wrath in 11th-grade English, I was convinced that American literature and I would never be friends. There isn’t enough Mark Twain in the world to make up for all the authors like Steinbeck in our fair country.

Objections

  • Everything Jim Casey says. He’s supposed to be the Christ-figure of the book, and I find that incredibly blasphemous. He’s a preacher who gives up his profession because, in addition to the fact that he has a disgusting habit of fornicating with young members of his congregation, he’s decided that there’s no such thing as sin, and that religion has no answers for people having hard times.
  • Sadly, nothing in the above bullet point surprised me. Steinbeck was a dirty commie, and he couldn’t keep his destructive ideas out of his book. (I don’t like commies.)
  • The ending. My goodness, was that really necessary?
  • All the main characters are from Oklahoma.
    Better dead than sooner red.
    Better dead than sooner red.

    Enough said.

Substitute

I really want to plug The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck here. It tackles a lot of the same themes as The Grapes of Wrath: family relationships, gender, wealth and poverty, etc. In a way, it explores the opposite side of the “American Dream” (in quotes because it takes place in rural China): what do you do when you achieve it? Buck’s characters are engaging, and her writing is lovely—you almost feel like you’re reading Chinese. Why isn’t this one assigned in school?

4., 5., and 6. Anything by John Green (but especially Looking For Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson)

None of these count as “classics,” but they’re popular enough and bad enough that I had to include them here. I could rant for hours about every terrible thing John Green has done. However, the only person contractually obligated to listen to said rant is Tom, so I’ll spare you the whole thing and just focus on the problems with his books. I can’t imagine any responsible parents letting their children read anything by John Green. Apparently he “totally gets what it’s like to be a teenager,” but if this is what teenagers are like, I don’t want my kids to be teenagers.

Objections

  • The language in these books is quite bad.
  • John Green frequently trivializes pornography, which is never, ever okay.
  • He also romanticizes teen sex.
  • All his characters are exactly the same: insufferable hipsters masquerading as nerds. Why should I read about the kind of people I go out of my way not to hang out with?
  • This one is purely my problem, but I’ve realized I don’t like reading about teenagers unless they have magical powers and/or are trying to save the world. Yawn.

Substitute

There is plenty of good YA fiction out there. Put down TFIOS, and go reread Harry Potter. Read Allie Condie’s Matched series and learn something about game theory. Not a dystopian futuristic romance fan? I enjoyed the No Safety in Numbers series by Dayna Lorentz—it’s about being trapped in a mall infected with killer flu. In each of these books, stuff actually happens. Yay for YA!

7. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

I can’t even come up with a bullet list for this. I really tried to read this book for senior English. Really. I tried everything. I summarized each paragraph with a post-it note. I read with the book in one hand and a printout from Sparknotes in the other. I read chapters out loud to myself. And yet, as early as a week after we’d finished the book, I realized I couldn’t remember anything about it. Conrad’s writing is just not my cup of tea (my dad feels the same way—ask him about Lord Jim sometime). Plus, he spends pages and pages talking about cannibals, but the cannibals never eat anyone! Talk about disappointing your reader.

Substitute

I vaguely remember that the story took place in Africa. If you want to read about Africa, I’d recommend Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s not great, but it taught me a valuable lesson that has stayed with me for years—yams are a man’s crop. That’s all you really need to know. Plus, Achebe isn’t a fan of Heart of Darkness, either, and called Conrad a “bloody racist” for writing it. I obviously can’t gauge Conrad’s racism one way or the other, but if the Yam Lord thinks he’s a racist, that’s good enough for me.

***

I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t read classic literature. I’m not even saying “DON’T READ THESE BOOKS!” (except for 4-6). What I’m really trying to say is that while many good books are immortalized as “classics,” not all “classics” are good books. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with you if you made it through high school without enjoying everything (or anything) assigned in English class. It’s okay to be discerning, and it’s okay to disagree with those “100 Best Books of the Century” lists. Designate your own “classics.”

And hey—tell me why you love them! I love comments!

Guest Post: Tom’s Award-Winning Minecraft Research

Tom’s been wanting to do a guest post for awhile, and now he has the perfect opportunity! By the way, my husband is the coolest. Who watches his brothers play a video game, writes an academic paper about it, and wins money? Good times!

Hi, I’m Tom, and this is my long-awaited husband guest post in which I take up weighty matters of scientific research: specifically, I’m going to brag a bit about how I just won money for the infamous Minecraft research paper.

During my time at BYU, I was involved in multi-user 3D computer-aided design (CAD) research—think Google Docs for jet engine design. The lab I worked in used money from the likes of Boeing and Pratt & Whitney to hack multi-user functionality into commercial CAD systems, and then wrote up the best-of-class hacks as patent applications and/or research papers. The theory is that someday Boeing or a company with a similarly long, CAD-heavy product development cycle will pull the trigger on creating a multi-user CAD system, and when that day comes they’ll turn to BYU (a) to spend millions of dollars licensing the lab’s patent portfolio and (b) get the best thinking on the topic. Hopefully it will happen; based on my patent rights I’ll get something like 40% of 1/5 of 7/19 of BYU’s net take.

The possibility of multi-user CAD prompts some golden questions: what would multi-user CAD do for an organization’s design paradigm? Does it let you do more free-flowing collaborative design? How do you effectively manage a multi-user design project? It’s hard to draw conclusions directly about CAD because all the software is still in the prototype phase, CAD expertise is expensive, and there are no real multi-user-CAD-centric organizations to learn from. This is where Minecraft comes in.

For anyone who doesn’t have young male relatives, Minecraft is a phenomenally popular block-based videogame with over 100 million registered users. Players inhabit a world composed of cubical blocks (3d pixels, or voxels) made of different materials; they can choose either a combat and survival-oriented adventure mode or a no-limits creative mode. Thirty or more users can play together in the same world, and people have built amazing things.

minecraft1
A castle built by WesterosCraft

My brothers played the game and I saw a thing or two about it on Facebook. I decided it was really the most similar thing in the world to a multi-user CAD system from the future, and I started pitching a research project where we’d figure out and/or experiment with how Minecraft users work in order to make predictions about multi-user CAD. I’m not entirely sure if it was a joke with a serious idea on the side or the other way around, but the lab’s professors caught a glimpse of the vision, and my co-authors (initially Dave French and Brett Stone, later joined by Ammon Hepworth and Dr. Ed Red) and I started putting some of our research hours into the idea.

We took a survey, did some forum-stalking, and ended up writing a paper about it. WesterosCraft, arguably the most successful Minecraft organization, has built the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, and we focused in on their practices and users. (They were really helpful, and the paper couldn’t have happened without them.)

minecraft2
Another sweet model by WesterosCraft

In a nutshell, we found that effective use of multi-user software requires at least as much planning and structure as effective use of single-user software. Even when gaming, people need structure and planning to work well concurrently. WesterosCraft will have thirty or more people build a castle all at the same time, but only once a single person has created a formal design document that includes maps, images of scale models, the approved palette of blocks, the relevant information from the books and/or TV show, etc. This document goes through an approval process, everyone reads it, an outline of the castle gets laid out, and only then does the whole organization jump in to build it up and flesh it out. Even then, there is a hierarchical leadership structure managing the work.

So, WesterosCraft is arguably the best multi-user 3D design organization in the world, and its members probably take project management more seriously than some real-world companies. Therein lies our takeaway: multi-user software won’t be a “magic bullet” for shortening design projects, but if already-known good project management practices are followed (good up-front scope definition, effective communication, involved management, etc.) then it can certainly help. We also learned a lot about what Minecraft players like in their teammates, how they like to work together, etc. and compared their preferences against aerospace engineers’.

If all that sounds a little hand-wavy, rest assured that the 14-page paper (which includes 16 figures and 51 citations) provides a little more detail. Titled “Collaborative Design Principles from Minecraft with Applications to Multi-User CAD,” it got presented in August at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Computers and Information in Engineering 2014 conference and won the Virtual Environment and Systems Best Paper Award. This came with a $500 check (which we’re splitting) and plaques for each of us, which will make interesting conversation pieces in the future.

minecraft3

So that’s how I won money for getting paid to research Minecraft.

Freezer Fudge: A Story of Betrayal

Sometimes I’m a terrible wife.

As some of you know, I occasionally like to dabble in making “healthy” versions of “food.” I love a good black bean burger, I’m still working on trying to perfect my spinach-based, “naturally-sweetened” chocolate “milk”shake, and you should really ask Tom about “death soup” sometime—it’s the one meal I’ve made that Tom has steadfastly refused to try (he also rejected the black bean burgers, but he took a bite first). As is probably becoming clear, Tom is understandably not enthusiastic about my efforts. Most of the time I try to “keep it real” and make meals that Tom is actually willing to eat.

But  a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this recipe for health-nut freezer fudge:

I’m a sucker for cookie dough anything, and I’ve been wanting to experiment with the food processor more often. Plus, the main ingredient is chickpeas, and I’m always a fan of chickpeas. As I Googled around, trying to figure out where one buys
“soft dates,” I concocted an evil plan to trick Tom into eating and falling in love with this fudge. It was going to be the gateway drug that led Tom into embracing my wacko cooking experiments.

When Tom came home from work the day I made the fudge, he asked me what I’d been up to. “Oh, you know, the usual,” I said. “Working, cleaning the things, making freezer fudge…” I mentioned the fudge casually, trying not to give away my master plan.

“Freezer fudge?!” he said, eyes lighting up as he swiveled around in his chair. “You’re so cool!”

Man, did I start to feel guilty. How could I take advantage of my innocent Tom’s trust like that? Seeing the pure joy in his face, I almost wished I had made him real fudge. But I tuned out my conscience, telling it that I was looking out for Tom’s cardiovascular health, and that he would thank me someday.

The fudge actually tasted pretty good when I tried it the next day, but it definitely wasn’t sweet enough for Tom’s taste—it probably needed more dates. Disappointed, I made peace with the possibility that freezer fudge would not be enough to revolutionize our kitchen activities.

Still, I was determined to get him to eat some of my creation. I waited until Tom was finishing off his after-dinner cookie before asking, “Ready to try some fudge?” I knew he would decline, as he had already eaten dessert, but I had to build his anticipation without seeming too eager and rousing his suspicion. Sure enough, Tom was clearly disappointed at having to put off his fudge experience. Again my conscience prickled, but it was too late to turn back—I was committed.

The next night, Tom excitedly pulled the fudge pan from the freezer. I faltered in my resolve, muttering that I didn’t think I had sweetened it enough. I hadn’t anticipated that his expectations would be this high, and I needed to lower them for my plan to work. Every single one of Tom’s female relatives, from his mom to his sisters to his grandmothers to his aunts, makes fantastic desserts, so Tom was very much accustomed to confectionary perfection. It became clear to me in that moment that I hadn’t thought this fudge thing through. My plan was doomed.

Tom, having sampled the failure fudge, thought for a moment. Then he said, “You know, I’m not a huge fan. But I really appreciate you doing this kind of thing for me.” He gave me a big hug. I felt like a criminal.

I managed to hold it together for a few hours, but eventually I cracked. The guilt was just too much. “Tom,” I said, “I can’t lie to you anymore. That fudge is made of chickpeas and dates.”

He made a big show of feeling betrayed. As I begged for forgiveness, I promised I would make him real fudge sometime. But then, Tom didn’t really have much of a foundation to stand on, considering how many of the cookies I’d recently made “for his home-teachees” he’d rapturously enjoyed.

“You think we can blend in some garlic and salvage the fudge as hummus?” Tom asked.

“I think the chocolate chips might make it a little weird.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Such a waste of ingredients that could have been good on their own!”

And that’s the story of how I deceived my husband and ended up with a sad pan of unwanted fudge in my freezer. I’d like to say I learned a valuable, life-changing lesson from this experience, but basically all I’ve got is that chickpeas are meant for hummus, not desserts. And maybe that I shouldn’t trick Tom. Sorry, Tom.

The Hobbit: Why Tauriel Doesn’t Belong in Middle-earth

Some of you may find this installment more interesting than the last one; most of you will find it less so. I’ll try to keep it a little shorter and less surly.

This post is technically about the events of the movie that could never occur in Middle-earth, but most of those infractions involve Tauriel in some way. I think the movie would have been…almost acceptable if her entire character arc had simply been omitted (not least because there would hardly be any movie left). I don’t want to be unfair; there is a time and place for non-canonical character insertions…I think. None are coming to mind right now, but I’m sure there are situations where that kind of thing could be done well. However, Tauriel’s insertion is not one of those. She’s pretty and competent, but she doesn’t belong in Middle-earth, and nor do any of the shenanigans in which she is involved. The problem lies not in her character per se, but in the fact that Peter Jackson didn’t put in the effort to create believable, contextual scenarios for the universe he is adapting defiling. Without further ado, here are the main offenses.

1. The awkward and painful romance between Tauriel and Kili

This alone is enough to catapult a worthy Tolkien fan out of the story. I’m sure Jackson thinks he is providing some sort of meaningful social commentary, but it does not make sense in this universe. Elves and Dwarves generally cannot stand each other, due in part to a long and complicated history; but beyond that, romantic feelings such as those hinted at in the movie are fundamentally contrary to the two races’ natures.

Not actually a better love story than Twilight. (Image courtesy of EmilyEretica)
Not actually a better love story than Twilight.
(Image courtesy of EmilyEretica)

It’s time for a little Middle-earth history/theology lesson. This is all in The Silmarillion, if you don’t want to take my word for it.

Eru, or God, delegated the rule of Arda (Middle-earth, etc.) to fourteen helpers, seven men and seven women. They were sort of like angels with great power. One of these was Aulë, the master of all crafts. In the beginning, Aulë was anxious for Eru to create men and Elves so he could love them and teach them his skills. He was so impatient that he created the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves based on hazy ideas of what Eru’s creations would look like. He named them Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful…I’m kidding, of course. They were probably all grumpy.

Not a thing in Middle-earth. Image courtesy of Disneyclips.com
Not a thing in Middle-earth. (Image courtesy of Disneyclips.com)

Eru found out what Aulë was doing, of course, and explained that the Seven Dwarves (hehe) had no wills of their own—Aulë could control them, but when he wasn’t thinking about them, they stood still and lifeless. Apparently Aulë hadn’t considered this, but he acknowledged his foolishness and offered to either give the Dwarves to Eru or to destroy them. Instead, Eru gave the Dwarves true life; however, he didn’t change them in any other way, and told Aulë, “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.” Because Elves (and men) and Dwarves had different creators, their natures were such that they wouldn’t easily get along.

Biologically, this story has some interesting implications. Elves and men are obviously of the same species, because they produce fertile offspring. But I doubt Aulë took that sort of thing into account when he created the Dwarves. Indeed, it seems Elves felt no attraction: the Elvish word for “Dwarves” translates to “the stunted people,” and they often refer to them as “unlovely.” Dwarves appear to feel the same, for the most part. I want to keep this blog g-rated, but let’s just say that if an Tauriel and Kili really formed a romantic relationship, a sane Elf would probably consider Tauriel more similar to Pasiphaë than to Luthien.

…and that’s about all I want to say about that. Moving on!

2. Kili is wounded with a Morgul arrow (and Tauriel is sad!)

My main beef with this scene is that ordinary rank and file orcs get to carry Morgul weapons around and use them at will. Think about it: you have this awesome weapon that can turn anyone into a wraith. If these weapons were widely available, why wouldn’t every single orc, troll, and Nazgul  have one? Why is it that only Sauron’s most trusted servant has one in LotR? If these weapons are rare, why not save the one they have for, say, Thorin?

Maybe there’s an alternate explanation: the orcs that aren’t supposed to exist squandered all the Morgul-brand weapons while chasing random Dwarves through the wilderness, until Sauron put his (hypothetical) foot down. “This is why we can’t have nice things!” the Dark Lord hissed. “No more Morgul weapons. Henceforth, they may be used by Nazgul only.”

3. Tauriel knows fancy Elven magic healing spells

Okay, so this is something that probably irked me more than anything else in the movie, and really drove home the “bad fanfiction” vibe. To find what’s wrong with this scene, we have to do a little digging. Tolkien wrote an essay entitled “The Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” (Elves) that was not published during his lifetime. Still, when creating an original Elven character, it might have made some sense to read up on Elven culture, right? Even I read that essay before writing any of my terrible Silmarillion fanfiction (no, I won’t let you read it).

Anyway, the essay offers some interesting insight into the daily lives of Elves, including gender roles, career choices, marriage customs, naming, and even a form of reincarnation. For this discussion, I’ll focus on the first two topics.

With few exceptions, there are no rigidly-defined gender role divisions (there’s a law that only women can make lembas, for example), but there are activities that women or men generally prefer. In “Laws and Customs,” Tolkien gives an example of this:

“For instance, the arts of healing, and all that touches on the care of the body, are among all the Eldar most practiced by the [women]; whereas it was the elven-men who bore arms at need. And the Eldar deemed that the dealing of death, even when lawful or under necessity, diminished the power of healing, and that the virtue of the [women] in this matter was due rather to their abstaining from hunting or war than to any special power that went with their womanhood. Indeed in dire straits or desperate defence, the [women] fought valiantly, and there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals. On the other hand many elven-men were great healers and skilled in the lore of living bodies, though such men abstained from hunting, and went not to war until the last need.”

Make Lembas, not war (Image courtesy of Darkchylde)
Make lembas, not war
(Image courtesy of Darkchylde)

In LotR, we see Elrond acting as both a warrior and a healer, but the two incidents happen 3025 years apart. He’s had plenty of time to retire from the battlefield and develop the skills needed to (partially) heal Frodo of his own Morgul wound. In contrast, the fact that Tauriel is the captain of Thranduil’s guard (we’ll gloss over the fact that an Elf woman is highly unlikely to have such a job) implies that she wouldn’t have spent much time studying the healing arts, beyond perhaps minor first aid that might come in handy in her line of work—she certainly wouldn’t have developed the kind of skill to treat an injury as serious as Frodo’s or Kili’s. Even if she had extensively studied this level of healing, because she spends so much time in the “dealing of death,” she wouldn’t have the power necessary to apply her knowledge—technique isn’t everything, it seems.

Concluding Remarks

Look, I get it. The Hobbit has no prominent female characters, and only a few are mentioned specifically (Bilbo’s mother Belladonna, Girion’s wife, Fili and Kili’s mother, Gollum’s grandmother—let me know if I’m missing anyone). It would be absurd to expect three movies (three movies?!) to be cast entirely male. For this reason, I didn’t mind seeing Galadriel in An Unexpected Journey (though the portrayal of her character and her mind powers left something to be desired) or even giving Bard daughters (though they didn’t really do anything). But the Tauriel arc is just a farce. Furthermore, aren’t we all tired of love triangles already?

I rarely find it appropriate to give stinging criticism like this without any suggestions for improvement; lest I appear hypocritical, I’ve come up with some ways the screenwriters could have made Part Two more woman-friendly without dismantling the plot so abominably:

  • Show us Thranduil’s wife. She’s never mentioned by Tolkien, but she must be quite a cool lady to put up with her hot-headed husband and her air-headed son for centuries upon centuries. Show us more of Thranduil’s character through his interactions with his wife, and leave out that weird scene where half his face disappears.
  • Use Galadriel again—in person. Look, the whole “Gandalf attacks Dol Guldur alone knowing it’s a trap” thing is utter bogus. I don’t want to info-dump from the books again, but Appendix B of LotR says that Saruman (the head of the White Council, who met in Part One) has agreed to launch an attack. This attack was very well planned, and Galadriel would probably have played an integral part—she’s overtly depicted as being there by several artists, and is even more influential in future attacks.
  • Make Smaug a female. That, at least, wouldn’t require me to ignore everything I know about Elves.

Maybe all this blogging/complaining business is unproductive. Maybe I’ll go write my own screenplay, so that when these movies (movies? Plural?!) are inevitably remade, I can sell it to the producers and make millions. Heck, I’d give it to them for free just to stop Tolkien from rolling around that grave of his.

The Hobbit: The Desecration of Soul

It’s come to my attention that this blog is too frivolous. It’s time to tackle some meaty, important issues. So, here’s one: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an abomination.

(I know this is old news, but I had to see it again before launching an attack to make sure I was totally justified. And, because we weren’t willing to spend more than a dollar on it, I had to wait until it hit Redbox.)

First, you have to understand something about Mr. and Mrs. Tom Nysetvold: we really love Tolkien. In fact, Tom and I decided we were interested in each other based on a conversation in which we discovered that I had read more Tolkien than he had. The books are important. Neither of us care for Peter Jackson or a lot of the things he’s done to the LotR trilogy. Despite this, we went to see the second installment of The Hobbit on a cold December night, just after it came out.

My first reaction after the movie was over: “You took me away from studying for this?” (We’d gone on a reading day, and I was being somewhat facetious.)

Tom’s first reaction: “I am so, so sorry.”

It was cringe-inducing. It was so painfully obvious that Peter Jackson had dug himself into this hole with this three movies business and this weird orc subplot and was just trying to throw stuff together in a way that would maximize his money-made to time-spent-reading-the-book ratio. It was fanfiction–really bad fanfiction. Worse, since Howard Shore’s score work was way below his usual excellent standard, I can honestly say the movie did not have one redeeming quality.

Okay, the Bombur barrel sequence made me giggle a little bit...
Okay, the Bombur barrel sequence made me giggle a little bit…

If Peter Jackson is greedy enough to turn a 95,000-word children’s book into three movies, then I can be lazy enough to break my analysis into three parts: 1) Things that were terrible because they deviated from the book; 2) Things that were terrible because they could never conceivably happen in Middle-earth; and 3) Things that were terrible because they could never conceivably happen anywhere that obeys the laws of logic and/or physics. We’ll tackle number 1 today.

(Edit: I get the feeling that people are as tired of reading about this stuff as I am of writing about it. In addition, I discovered some major problems with the main argument I was using for part 3, so let’s put this on hold.)

Deviations From the Book: Worst Offenders

Now, I know I have friends who prefer to consider movie adaptations as separate entities from their novels, evaluating the movie on its own merits. That’s perfectly reasonable, and those people are welcome to throw everything I’m about to say out the window. I, however, think differently. I see the original medium as the “soul” of the story, and every subsequent adaptation as just an accurate or inaccurate representation. The only person allowed to make acceptable changes, no questions asked, is the original creator. Even if Desolation of Smaug was a brilliant piece of film (it’s not), I couldn’t appreciate it because it was a poor representation of a great book. (Additionally–and I may lose friends over this–this is the reason I just can’t appreciate the musical Wicked: the book is distasteful, and all the catchy music in the world can’t make up for that).

With that in mind, I’ll only target the most offensive moments in this blog post.

1. Beorn

Everything about the way Beorn was handled was disappointing. He is portrayed as this surly dwarf-hating PETA-enthusiast who completely loses his mind and goes on killing rampages, werewolf style, when he turns into this savage bear-beast. Gandalf and crew are on the run from the orcs and have no provisions and nowhere else to go, so they force their way into Beorn’s house and barricade themselves inside, hoping he’ll decide to help the intruders out. Sure enough, Beorn finds his second least favorite type of people sleeping in his house and decides to roll with it. After they’ve explained their story, Beorn criticizes the dwarves for not caring about mice and flies enough, but decides to aid them because he hates orcs more; the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

In the book, Beorn is more of a general introvert–antisocial, even. He just doesn’t want people in his house. He doesn’t make a habit of inviting friends over, and he certainly doesn’t indulge beggars (like Thorin and Co.). It’s true that he isn’t a huge dwarf fan; however, the reason is never specified, and he seems to recognize that some dwarves are more respectable than others (he even recognizes Thorin’s name and family).

Gandalf knows Beorn can be reasonable when coaxed into a good mood, so he comes up with a very clever plan to get on bear-man’s good side. He approaches Beorn with Bilbo and tells the dwarves to come in pairs, five minutes apart (“Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last.” You’ve got to love Tolkien). Meanwhile, Gandalf is telling the story of their goblin adventure in the Misty Mountains. He gradually increases the implied number of their party at roughly the same rate at which the dwarves arrive at the house, and with each new arrival Beorn is increasingly intrigued by the story, so he impatiently welcomes the newcomers and urges Gandalf to continue. In the end, Beorn feeds them and puts them up not because he trusts them completely or he’s feeling particularly compassionate, but because Gandalf’s story was so entertaining.

Later, of course, Beorn does some investigating and verifies his guests’ claims, and is all the more willing to help them when he learns they killed the Great Goblin, admitting that his opinion of dwarves has greatly improved. Beorn gives them food and advice, and loans them ponies to get to the Mirkwood.

Why is Beorn’s portrayal a problem? Besides creating obvious inconsistencies–if Bear!Beorn is so unpredictable and dangerous, how does he have the presence of mind to follow them, only attacking if they try to take the ponies into Mirkwood?–Jackson discards a strategic, carefully-considered, diplomatic solution in favor of one in which our heroes push their way into a stranger’s house and presume upon his hospitality. The message Jackson is sending is that any problem that can be solved with a little bit of tact and cleverness is better off solved by brute force and an entitlement attitude. I don’t know about you, but that’s the exact opposite of the message I want my children to take from The Hobbit.

2. Encounter with the spiders

Like Beorn, the spider business was badly handled in the transition from book to movie, and for similar reasons; however, the problems here are greater, because Jackson’s alterations actually detract from Bilbo’s character development–and heaven knows there’s little enough of that in this movie, already. Seriously, the section of the book covered by this movie is supposed to be about Bilbo finally getting his act together and earning the dwarves’ respect through his quick thinking and unconventional skill set (not to mention a certain magic ring). But the movie focuses very little attention on Bilbo, and (to its detriment) gives Martin Freeman hardly any screen time at all.

In the book, after Bilbo kills the spider tying him up, names his sword, slips on the Ring,  and discovers more spiders salivating over his friends, he comes up with a clever and manageable rescue plan. Using a combination of expert rock-throwing and insulting songs made up on the spot, Bilbo (wisely INVISIBLE) enrages and draws off the spiders. He frees the dwarves, tells them to fight their way to safety, continues distracting the spiders, and drives them off himself with Sting.

The dwarves don’t only develop respect for Bilbo–they start looking to him for guidance and direction, in lieu of instruction from their missing leaders (Gandalf is off doing his thing, and Thorin has already been captured by the Elves at this point). Bilbo has gained authority by saving his friends and launching a successful attack on creatures much larger and more deadly than he is. Not a bad day’s work for a little hobbit.

Some of these elements are present in the movie (no mention of the word “attercop,” however), but it all starts to go downhill when Bilbo drops the Ring. The rest of the scene centers around Bilbo frantically trying to get the Ring back while his friends struggle outnumbered against the spiders, fighting with this freaky crab thing, and slowly coming out of this Ring-possession-induced haze.

Hold on a minute. The Ring is dormant at this point. The word “ring” is never even capitalized in this book, because it’s only important to the plot as a tool to help Bilbo accomplish his tasks. I’m not even sure Tolkien had conceptualized its nefarious past when he first wrote The Hobbit. I realize Jackson is trying to tie the two trilogies together, but Bilbo’s bizarre reluctance to keep the Ring on is nonsensical.

And then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, there are Elves.

Did anyone else groan audibly when this guy showed up?

Sure, let’s sacrifice Bilbo’s character development in favor of letting Orlando Bloom save the day and bring in the fangirls. Bad form, Peter Jackson. Bad form.

3. Just…this.

No.
No.

Note to random comment-er on IMDB: Don’t try to tell me this is Thranduil’s fëa influencing his body. I know Peter Jackson has no idea what a  fëa is.

 4. Lake-town

I was almost too intimidated by the sheer amount of wrong in the Lake-town sequence, but Tom requested a section on it. The best way to sum up what’s wrong with the sequence is that none of its content comes from the book; as a result, it’s disjointed, surreal, and agonizingly slow in the movie.

Tolkien spends very little time describing the most boring part of the story. In my copy, Thorin and Co. are in and out in less than six pages. They make their grand entrance, have a brief tense encounter with some Wood-elves (“Hey! These were our prisoners!” “So what? We’re not talking to you.”), get the people excited, party a bit, collect Lake-town swag, and leave. Bard (the Bowman!) is not mentioned, because he isn’t important at this point–he becomes important later, because of his status as the captain of the town archers and his impressive lineage, but none of that is relevant yet.

At this point, the movie had me simply asking, “Why?!”

Why is all this political garbage necessary? Why make Bard out to be this malcontent rabble-rouser? Why has he been demoted to “Bard the Bargeman”?

What could be a legitimate, plot-driven purpose for leaving four dwarves behind? Don’t you need all the manpower (dwarfpower) you can get against a fire-breathing dragon? Sure, leave the injured guy with the healer, but don’t you care more about your cause than to abandon your company because Thorin made a very reasonable decision? (And don’t get me started on Kili’s “Morgul-blade” injury. That’s a major subject of the next post.)

Why does Lake-town need to be attacked by orcs? Isn’t it going to be attacked by a dragon in just a few hours? Give the poor town a break!

Why are Legolas and Tauriel here? What legitimate, plot-driven purpose could they possibly serve (beyond muddling things up when the dragon finally appears)? (More on my dissatisfaction with Tauriel in the next post.)

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t think Peter Jackson has the answers to these questions.

 …

Well, I think this post is quite long enough. In summary, the alterations Peter Jackson made were not only unnecessary, but simply bad. But worry not, Tolkien purists: more faithful adaptations of the professor’s works exist. In particular, I highly recommend Fellowship! The Musical (the soundtrack can be found on Amazon or on Spotify, if you’re into that) (also, who thinks “Dwarf, Elf, Mithrandir–everyone is welcome here!” would be a great tagline for this blog?). Tune in next time for Part 2.

 

Good Times in Zion!

Some of you know that right after graduation, Tom and I undertook the four-day, 37-mile Trans-Zion Trek in Zion National Park. It was a fantastic and well-timed adventure; after the good times extravaganza that was graduation, the introvert in me was ready to spend four days with no one but Tom for miles around!

This was my first backpacking trip, and Tom’s first time being in charge of one. We both learned a lot. Here is the account from my perspective.

Monday

We started out hiking (hieing?) through Kolob Canyon. As you can see, it was absolutely beautiful.

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After about seven miles, we stopped for the day. The next picture is the view from our campsite—it was pretty cool.

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Also, the stars were amazing.

Tuesday

The day started out much like Monday—nice weather, beautiful scenery, and optimistic hikers.

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“Hey, don’t take pictures of me! And no, I will NOT take my hat off!”
Tom always looks attractive. Sigh.
Tom always looks attractive. Sigh.

We walked through this pretty, wet, cow-infested place called Hop Valley. We didn’t actually see any cows, but there was definitely…evidence, and we were warned not to drink the water in the valley under any circumstances.

Here there be cattle.

Tuesday was supposed to be our hardest day at about 14 miles, mostly uphill. After we left the cows behind, we walked through a meadow and up into a forested area.

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The forest was pretty, but decidedly less Zion-esque. We did see some snow, however:

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We ran into a bit of a problem when one of the springs on the map was dry, but we found another that was unmarked, so we didn’t think much of it. Really, I wasn’t thinking much of anything at all toward the evening; I was distracting myself from the growing soreness in my feet by daydreaming about chicken wings (I was reaching the limit of my enjoyment of Peanut M&M’s, and besides—my mom’s chicken wings are darn good). I also told myself that according to the website, if we just made it through day 2, day 3 would be a short, leisurely 10-mile Elysium (keep reading to find out how hilariously wrong I was) (also, things I would never have considered leisurely a few years ago: 10-mile hikes).

We found a campsite near Wildcat Canyon, set up our tent, and huddled in our sleeping bags until it was dark enough to sleep. There I was faced with an unfortunate, first-world-problems-type choice: should I go to bed hungry, or climb out into the bitter cold to eat an energy bar? I stayed in the tent, a choice that was both very unlike me and probably unwise.

Wednesday

We woke up to find that the water in Tom’s Camelbak line had frozen (see? I told you it was cold!). Other than that, it was a very nice morning. The trail took us along the rim of the canyon, which was much more fun when it wasn’t windy.

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We were both hurting a bit, and Tom was feeling a little sick to his stomach (nothing dangerous, of course). At one point when we stopped to rest, he said, “I almost want to just finish the trip today.” It would add about 5 miles onto the lovely 10-mile day I’d been fantasizing about. I made a sound like this:

In the end, though, the decision was made for us. Around 1:00 we found another dry spring, one we’d been sort of counting on. The next one was more than a mile past our campsite and only five miles from the shuttle, and we had no idea if it would even have any water. We knew it would be a rough night without any water, and by taking a shorter route, we could probably make it to the shuttle with what we had. We decided to go for it.

We didn’t take a lot more pictures after that; we were too focused on making good time. It was crucial that we made it to the main canyon before the last shuttle left, and as we didn’t know when that would be, we were hoping to be at the trailhead by 5:00 (9 miles in about 4 hours). My pace had been slowing down a lot, so it was time to bust out my secret weapon.

Okay, confession time: when I get really fatigued while hiking, the song I play in my head to keep myself going is Call Me Maybe. This is a song I would never listen to under any normal circumstances, but the tempo is just about at my ideal hiking pace. Plus, I needed to get something else stuck in my head to drive out Fellowship! The Musical. Not that there’s anything wrong with Fellowship! (I’ll be raving about it more in my next post a future post), but after 2.5 days of “Happy Birthday Bilbo,” “One Ring,” “It’s a Hobbit Thing,” and “The Balrog Blues,” I needed a break.

As we approached the last spring, we started to see other hikers coming up from the main canyon. That was encouraging. More encouraging was the fact that the spring had barely a trickle of water (it was encouraging because it meant we were making the right decision, and that we would be in civilization that night. Chicken wings ahoy!).

Now came the hardest part of the hike: a 3000-foot descent down the canyon. It was gorgeous, and under any other circumstances, I would have taken tons of pictures. As it was, I just wanted to get to the bottom as fast as possible. Our descent made it all too clear that my hiking boots were too small. I was popping ibuprofen as frequently as Tom would let me. We were getting low on water. Carly Rae Jepsen was starting to let me down, and Tom was constantly having to stop and wait for me (telling passerby about our past few days, implicitly explaining why his wife looked like a decrepit zombie). It was not one of my finer hours. And here I thought I was in shape.

At one point a nice Indian couple out for an afternoon hike took pity on us and gave us a water bottle. Indian couple, you guys are our favorite people. We will love you forever.

We reached the end of the scenic/agonizing switchbacks and caught the shuttle (the last one left at 7:00, so we needn’t have worried), and everyone who had passed us on the way down gave us a cheer. Normally that might have been a little embarrassing, but hey—we’d just hiked 36 miles in three days! Yeah, we are pretty cool!

We didn’t get chicken wings that night, but I did get spaghetti squash enchiladas (ooh lala!) and Tom got what was apparently the best burger he had ever eaten. Overall, it was a pretty good day.

And so, we reached the end of our crazy, awesome, slightly thirsty adventure in Zion. Would I do it again? Heck yes!

But next time, I think I’ll wear size-8 boots and be sure not to listen to Fellowship! for at least a month beforehand. Now, where does one go about buying chicken wings in this town?

Hummus!

I promise this isn’t going to be a food blog. It’s not that I don’t like food blogs—I LOVE food blogs—it’s that I don’t cook well enough to sustain that kind of awesome in the long term

That said, it’s a busy time around the Nysetvold pad. Tom and I are graduating and moving and tying up all sorts of loose ends. Therefore, I’m doing a cop-out blog post about one of my favorite foods: hummus!

My dad has this wonderful tradition of making Sunday dinners for our family. Often he does some sort of Arabic or Indian dish, and he is the one who introduced us to hummus. Now we can’t let a Sunday pass without it, regardless of dinner’s ethnic origin.

Happy Easter from the Cardon family!
Happy Easter from the Cardon family!

Cardon family hummus is slightly different from the traditional stuff; no one in my family likes tahini, so we leave it out. Authentic or not, it’s delicious. But if you like tahini, it should be a simple matter of adding some. Hummus is versatile and wonderful. It’s also healthy—and with a glycemic index of 6, it shouldn’t spike anyone’s blood sugar at all.

And now, the recipe:

The Best Hummus Ever!

1 cup dried chickpeas (canned chickpeas also work, but I would advise reducing the garlic)
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp lemon juice
3 large garlic cloves
1 tbsp olive oil

Soak the chickpeas overnight, and boil them for a half hour just before you make the hummus. Chop the garlic in a food processor, then add the chickpeas. Process. Add salt, lemon juice, olive oil, and enough water to reach your desired consistency, and process again. Serve on pita chips, pita bread, rice, apples, cookies, or just eat it straight with a spoon. Not that I’ve ever done any of those last few things…frequently…

 It’s a good day for garlic lovers! Happy hummus-ing!

Current word count: 33,225. It’s going slowly toward the end, but I’m going to make it!

Chemistry: A Meme-tastic Tribute

In just a few short weeks, I’ll be graduating from BYU with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. It’s been a long, hard road, but filling out the senior exit survey brought back a lot of delightful memories. The past four years really have been filled with memorable (if not always strictly pleasant) experiences.

I’ve been wanting to do a little chemistry department tribute post, but I didn’t want to be sappy or overly sentimental. And then it hit me: memes! In my experience, it’s almost impossible to be sappy with memes.

And so, here it is: one chemistry major’s class-by-class experience, illustrated by memes. This will probably only be slightly amusing to other chemistry majors, but that’s okay. (Just to be clear, this should be my only meme post for a very long time.)

Chem 111:

chem111

Chem 112:
chem112forreal
(Yes, this was the topic of not one but two lectures, one of which was allegedly the final exam review. It was a fun class.)

Chem 113:
chem113

Chem 227:
chem227

Chem 351:
chem351real

Chem 352:
chem352
Chem 354:
chem354

Chem 455:
chem455

Chem 462:
chem462

Chem 391:
chem391
Chem 463:
chem463
Chem 464/5:
chem464

Chem 481:

chem481
Chem 514:
Rogelio
Image credit to Glen Thurston

Chem 521:
chem521

Chem 518:
chem518
Image credit to Glen Thurston

 

Chem 523:
chem523
Image credit to Glen Thurston

 

I have no intention of dumping all my chemistry knowledge after graduation, but that’s a subject for another post.

Writing update: 30,509/35,000 words! The end is in sight!

Green Smoothies?! Green Smoothies!

“Tom, what should my first real blog post be about?”

“Food. Talk about food.”

Who am I to ignore such great advice from my excellent husband? Today I’m going to unveil the food item I’ve been making more than any other the past few months:

Courtesy of: Kimberly Snyder. My smoothies never look like this.

Now wait a minute—don’t just brand me as some sort of hippy and leave, never to return. Hear me out.

Green smoothies have definitely improved my quality of life. This is the first time I’ve made it through an entire school year without getting sick, despite plenty of exposure and stress. I don’t crave chocolate as much, and I have more energy. I don’t have to worry about getting enough fruits and vegetables, because I can just drink them all in one fell swoop. Also, I may or may not have lost six pounds by replacing a meal or two a week with a smoothie, making no other changes to my lifestyle.

Now if I can just get Tom to join me, we’ll be all set.

In my opinion, the internet makes the whole smoothie experience way more complicated than it needs to be. “Use only organic produce.” “Make sure it’s a 70:30 vegetable:fruit ratio.” “Don’t eat anything less than 40 minutes before or after smoothie consumption.” “Sip it slowly through a straw and swish it around your mouth before you swallow it.” Ain’t nobody got time for that. Just play around with it until you’ve got something you’d look forward to drinking. You can hardly go wrong.

To start, here’s a simple smoothie recipe I’ve been enjoying lately. Be warned: the frozen berries will turn your “green” smoothie purple. It’s still awesome.

Citrus Berry Surprise [pronounced “soo-PREEZE”] Smoothie

2 cups spinach
1 cup water
1 apple
1 orange
0.5 cup frozen berries of choice

Place ingredients in blender and blend until smooth.

Happy smoothie-ing, friends!

 

P.S. On a writing-related note, I’m working on a 35,000-word novella for Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class. Right now I’m at 27,522 words. Good times!

 

 

An Introduction

“If you don’t have a blog, go home and start one tonight!”—A panelist at LTUE

(Sorry, ma’am, but I waited almost exactly a month).

After all these years, it’s finally happened. I started a blog. Here it is.

As an explanation, this blog is about good times. For me, good times include (but are not limited to) family, food, chemistry, books, and writing—especially writing. And now, a bit of an introduction:

My name is Elissa Cardon Nysetvold. I was born and raised in the sweet little town of Provo, Utah. Here I met and married Tom Nysetvold, the quintessential Good Guy. Here’s a picture of us:

Awww. Cute.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first understood the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As a child, I thought it would be the perfect complement to a successful career as a high-power homemaker. I’ve written stories throughout my life, but for most of them, my only audience was my little sister (thanks, Rach!).

My original plan was to take a four-year break from writing to learn to be a chemist; during the first few years, I more or less abandoned any writerly aspirations. However, when Tom became aware of this, he applied the whip convinced me to “follow my dreams.”

So here I am, about to graduate from BYU and try to make that dream a reality. And because writers apparently need blogs, I’m hoping this will be a good way to con everyone I know into buying my books keep friends and family up to date on the good times to come.