Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reading Challenge...Accepted?

When I was in college, I started writing down every book I read in a notebook. Looking back, I eagerly cataloged every Mary Higgins Clark book that I read outside of school, but it seems I didn't deem books I read for class as worthy of recording. As an English major, that's a...strange oversight. (Although I also distinctly remember not finishing Pride and Prejudice for years after it was assigned in class...a class in which I got an A on my character study of Mr. Bennett. Brilliant writing skills on my part or state-school education? Let's not dissect it.) 

Even though other methods of book tracking are more searchable and less likely to be forgotten about, I've stuck with my old notebook. (I toy with the idea of using an online spreadsheet instead, but then I read The Bone Clocks, which seized me with FOLPFAHNI (fear of losing power forever and having no internet). 

Along with my book tracking, some years I set a reading goal. Lately, I've seen a trend toward reading challenges that are meant broaden horizons. Book Riot started a reading challenge last year, and they've just released the 2016 challenge. The 2016 challenge has some wonky items that range from potentially awkward (read a book aloud to someone) to weirdly specific (read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the past three years).

However, Modern Mrs. Darcy published a reading challenge that is meant to help you succeed--read a book you've been meaning to read...read a book that has been banned...read a book that intimidates you. These, friends, are things we can succeed at. 

Do you set a yearly reading goal? Is anyone interested in following Modern Mrs. Darcy's challenge and sharing what you read for each category? 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Holiday Advice, or At Least You Aren't Being Attacked by a Whale

Since my dealing-with-Thanksgiving tactics came a day too late, let's get a jump on Christmas.

First, survival stories. Is your family nosy? Do they disapprove of your life choices? Do they think that Don Lemon is a good reporter? Well, tell that to the guys who escaped from a Siberian gulag and then walked across the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. Or to the guys who were attacked by a great whale.*

NPR's Book Concierge is pretty amazing. It offers the standard categories--fiction, nonfiction, etc.--but also areas like It's All Geek to Me, Rather Long, and Rather Short.

If you need a short-ish volume to read on the flight home, try this list from Maureen Corrigan. Always, always trust Maureen Corrigan. She will not steer you wrong. while her reviews are rarely out-and-out negative, if she says that a book is "just OK," you have been warned. Her story happens to include my favorite book of 2015, The Tsar of Love and Techno**, and also a few that are on my TBR list: The Mare, No Better Friend, and The Story of the Lost Child.

Ever one to put things into perspective, Sarah Vowell talked about her new book, Lafayette and the Somewhat United States, on Conan. "Do you have feet? Do you shoes? At Valley Forge, that's what we call a Merry Christmas."

And then there's this, from the author of the awesome pop culture book, Slaughterhouse 90210:

My sibling is re-posting Ted Nugent on Facebook, so some of us do indeed need your prescriptive Thanksgiving survival content, thanks.

What are all of you planning to read over the holidays?

*The movie version of In the Heart of the Sea is about to be released. It stars Chris Hemsworth, who I am thankful to for being the only funny part in that new Vacation movie. It is a terrible, terrible, NSFW, NSF People Who Like Movies, NSF People with Working Brains movie. (If you liked this movie, I only ask that you let me know so I can never, never take movie recommendations from you.)

**Anthony Marra, the author of The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, lives about 30 minutes from me. Who is surprised that I haven't started stalking him? [raises own hand]

Friday, December 11, 2015

November Book Review

I read some really great books in November. I read Mary Kubica's books, The Good Girl and Pretty Baby. I really liked The Good Girl because it was suspenseful and dark. It was compared to Gone Girl but I would compare it more to Girl on the Train. I like how she made the "bad guy" so likeable. Pretty Baby was also dark and twisty. My Literary Sensei abandoned this book on page 62 when Kubica referenced a comic sans font on the character's business card.

My other dark and twisty book was Gillian Flynn's short story, The Grownup. I pre-ordered this book and read it while my child was in gymnastics. I did look up so she would know that I was paying attention but I also needed to take a breather from Gillian's craziness. The first page grabs you because it is so shocking and not what you expect (even though you should expect this from her). It starts with being vulgar yet hilarious and then turns into a ghost story. I really liked this one but I am big fan of all her books.

Our Book Club choice was Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This was a tough read at first but I am glad that I stuck with it. Interesting characters gave us plenty to discuss at our Book Club gathering.

I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and loved it! Honestly, I didn't know much about Hemingway and picked the book by it's cover. I loved the story and the author did an amazing job at describing Paris. I felt like I knew exactly where she was at and felt all the feelings of Hadley.

My fluff book of the month was Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich. This is a between-the-numbers book in the Stephanie Plum series. These are light and funny books that are perfect for something quick to read or to recover from dark heavy books.

The self-help book of November was Money Making Mom by Chrystal Paine. She is the Moneysaving Mom and has a daily email and blog that I follow. I enjoy that she reminds her readers regularly that she's not perfect. It would be easy to see that she can "do it all" but she's very down-to-earth and has a self-deprecating sense of humor that I enjoy. Her book was very good because it was truly helpful. It is catered to the SAHM demographic but also good for anybody turning a hobby into something more. I was eager to read this one as I was in the early stages of getting my coaching website started.  The book guides you from the start of your idea to launching and everything in between. It had tough love and also encouraging pep talks along the way. She gave excellent and helpful examples from herself and other women that succeeded and also some that failed. My favorite line from the book is "don't spend so much time planning, brainstorming, and preparing to launch that you never actually push the start button."

My favorite book of November was The Apothecary by Maile Meloy. I read a wonderful article by her in Town and Country. It was an essay for the Manners and Misdemeanors section about patience and it was just what I needed to read at the time. I have read it over and over again and made copies for others to read. Unfortunately, it's not on the internet (c'mon T&C!). Within a few days of reading the article, I saw that Maile Meloy was going to be a guest speaker at Parnassus, releasing her third book in the Apothecary series. This a Middle Grade/Young Adult series but one that any adult would like. She started off writing adult books but was asked by a friend to write a young adult book in hopes of having a movie idea (still in the works). I really enjoyed hearing her speak and even asked a question (gasp). I brought my copy of her article and she was so pleased that someone read it. She tried to find it on the internet, too. I absolutely loved this book and immediately texted and emailed my reading buddies to say, "you must read this!". One review described it as a mix between Harry Potter and Nancy Drew. It was just a great story that was creative and allowed me use my imagination. I also liked the pictures. When she mentioned the artist, the audience ooohd and aaahhd. I was clueless, but gave an impressed look to my seatmate.

Currently reading: The Hypnotist Love Story by Liane Moriarty.

Have you read any of these books? What was the best book you read last month?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Let’s talk about this

Like many of the fine folks who contribute to this blog, I’m from Alabama. And, therefore, I have a soft spot for Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird. You can imagine the range of emotions I felt when I learned that she had a “new” book coming out this year ... but the controversy surrounding it made me a little sick to my stomach. I can think of few things worse than someone taking advantage of an author’s dementia for monetary gain. An article from The Onion summed up my feelings perfectly.

But, I had to read it. I had to. In October, I borrowed my brother’s copy of Go Set A Watchman (her caretaker gets no money from me!) and finally finished it over Thanksgiving.

This book is no To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t think I would have finished it if it hadn’t been the Harper Lee book. It didn’t have the same driving plot, intensity, or life lessons.

However, there is some great writing in the book. Parts are clever and felt very real. The south is hot and muggy. Ice cream on a hot day is delicious and can take you back to memories of your childhood. Games you played as kids had hidden meaning you might not have realized at the time. She says all of that better than I just did.

I was perhaps most enraptured with the scene where Scout’s aunt throws a fancy party. Scout/Jean Louise would come in and out of conversations, hearing only bits and pieces of them as she was simultaneously frustrated with her aunt and the party in general. The bits of conversations were spot on, and the scene perfectly put people in certain groups that they would be in at a party.

I also have to admit that this book felt slightly like The Help in the way the protagonist was the fish out of water in the southern town – and especially at that party – because of her life, her ambitions, and her marital status. It irked me that the comparison was so easy to make, and I think it's because this book just doesn't have the plot it needs to feel unique or to be about more than a girl coming home for a visit and feeling like everyone is the absolute worst.

And, let’s talk about one thing that struck me throughout: At times, this book felt like it was trying to be a young adult novel or a romantic novel. Scout and Henry (who is her longtime boyfriend at this point) talk a great deal about their relationship, and she gives him advice on women quite a bit. I also didn’t expect to learn the story of Scout getting her period. In other words, there were scenes in here I didn't expect. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Sweet Valley High book, Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret, or a new version of Catcher in the Rye (because Scout sure seemed to feel like her town was full of phonies).

There is one good point at the end about the importance of not tying your conscience to someone else's conscience (or at least your perception of it). Also, in a related note, Atticus wasn't the evil character I feared he would be after hearing rumors about this book. He was definitely not perfect, but he wasn't the raging racist I expected; he was really just more of a pragmatist than the prophetic voice we met in Mockingbird. Still, it's disappointing. But, also, he's not real, so it's not worth getting actually upset about (I'm talking to you, WORLD AT LARGE).

I want to talk about this book. What did you think? Was the ending satisfying? Did you end up hating Atticus? What did you like? What didn’t you like? What did you learn?

Who else has read this book and wants to talk about this with me?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Black Friday Adventures at the Used Bookstore

Turns out, I can do it all. On Black Friday, I #optedoutside, got deals on-line and shopped local. I also recycled and ate leftovers. I basically saved the world in less than 24 hours. My best friend was with me for the holiday weekend and we took our usual trip to McKays (used bookstore) after a walk in Percy Warner Park. I also brought my 4-year old and told her she could have two books. She said three books and walked out with five books. I had some books to trade but didn’t need any books so I walked out with eight.

I love going to McKays and it never disappoints for entertainment value.  I started going to McKays while I was at UT-Chattanooga and was so happy when they opened here in Nashville. My Mother-in-law lives in Chattanooga but refuses to go alone so I take her when she visits. My MIL is an avid reader but only of one genre. She reads Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Steve Martini, Brad Thor and Brad Taylor, etc. She’s also read the Bourne books more than once. I thought she would be devastated when Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn died but she just responded with, “yes, I heard about that”. Could it be that they desensitized her to their own death?

She always has books to trade and always disappointed in the trade credit. She doesn’t want to pay more than $1 for a book but wants to get her money’s worth in trade. She never remembers book trade protocol and procedures. There is panic and awkwardness and me debating on whether or not to help or just watch. She goes to her author sections and can’t remember if she’s read the books or not. She will look at my books and wonder where I came up with these selections. She usually makes it through the check-out but flounders in the cart return.

My other two guests: my best friend who doesn’t have time to read but still loves books and my daughter. I prefer to not have her with me but Lexi is a natural born shopper and a good kid. She picks out her books and then has some sort of imaginative game that keeps her in constant motion until she eventually has to poop. Every. Single. Time.

On this visit to McKays, I went with some classics that have been on my to-read list. Pride and Prejudice—I’ve watched the movie countless times and love all the things Bennet and Darcy but never read the book.  I also chose The House of Mirth and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I picked up Atonement but immediately returned it to the McKays box in my closet. I wondered why it was familiar to me and suddenly had a flashback to my Mom saying “this is a sucky ending” and other critical words to my movie selection process.

Crazy Ladies is a book by Michael Lee West and I remember it being so funny. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it but it was a favorite of mine along with my Mom and Aunt.  It’s a dramatic southern family and I believe one of the main characters named Dorothy would fake faint just like my Aunt Dot would do in times of stress (and a crowd of witnesses).

Book Club introduced me to Jane Gardam and Old Filth. I read the other two books in that series and just read a great review of a book called The Queen of the Tambourine. I was very happy and lucky to find this one.

Several friends have raved about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so I picked it up, too.

My last book is Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I read The Paris Wife (Hemingway’s first wife) last month and loved it. So I want to read this one to compare.

Have you read these books? Do you have a favorite book store?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Need a break from turkey?

Is everyone in your family not on tip-top behavior at Thanksgiving? Is your 85-year-old uncle attempting to engage you in conversation about "those great Stephanie Meyer books"? I'm here to help you escape! (Mentally. I can't actually get you out of there.) Read these articles on your phone while you pretend to check the weather.

Like a good podcast on a road trip? Or for ignoring those around you, earbuds in place? Take a look at these 25 bookish podcasts. There's something for everyone here, from Disney to Drunk Booksellers.

PureWow offers some entertaining stories, including one from Grantland (RIP, Grantland) on the great Jan Hooks and a conversation between Gloria Steinem and the Notorious RBG.

From the LA Times, a few Thanksgivings in fiction. No matter how your day goes, these books will make you glad that no one got shot before lunch and that your mom does not own a brothel in the next town over.*

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

*If your mom owns a brothel in the next town over, or indeed in any town, I sincerely apologize. There's a lot to be said for the entrepreneurial spirit.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Desert Island Discs

I read a book about the wonderful Mary Berry* a few weeks ago. The author mentioned her turn on a BBC Radio 4 show called Desert Island Discs, on which guests choose eight recordings they'd take with them to a desert island. Then, the podcast app on my phone stopped working. I downloaded a new app called Overcast, and, lo and behold, it has archived episodes of Desert Island Discs.

Coincidence? I think not.**

I downloaded several episodes featuring the most important people in London. Of course, I mean Colin Firth, Jeremy Irons***, and Patrick Stewart.

serious actors acting serious

Today I listened to an episode featuring the great Patrick Stewart. Having lost his hair when he was 18, he has clearly handled great adversity before and a desert island poses no great challenge. He is a very serious actor and of course, chose serious music: Benjamin Bitten, Leonard Bernstein, and Fats Waller, among others.

His voice is very soothing and English, and when I finished listening...friends, I felt smarter. I urge you all to give this podcast a listen! It really is great fun.

Do any of you have podcasts that you regularly listen to? Waiting on season two of Serial?

*I could talk about the Great British Baking Show, but really, that deserves its own post.
**Desert Island Discs was probably on my old app and I just didn't notice. Shhhhhhh.
**Jeremy Irons recorded the Westminster Abbey audio tour, so he may be the most important person in London.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Today's book thought

"I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything; and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates." 

--Sarah Vowell, Lafayette and the Somewhat United States

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reading Relationships

I once worked with a girl that I affectionately named, The Hyena. The name was given because of her ear-bleeding laugh. She had a boyfriend that resembled a hostage situation more than a relationship. It bothered her immensely that he did not enjoy to read. So, she would buy him books that she thought he'd enjoy and then insist they read together in complete silence. To make matters worse, it would be on the weekend and during football games. This plan never worked and he finally escaped.

I got married eight years ago and did not mind that Nate was a sporadic reader. He mostly read Tom Clancy novels and liked to have a book when traveling. He read Medici Money prior to and during our trip to Italy and it was like having the inside scoop everywhere we went.  He asked for Freakonomics one Christmas and would read political books that put me to sleep just by reading the title.

Nate doesn't understand how I can finish one book and immediately pick up another or how I can stay up for hours because I MUST finish a book. You know what I'm not ok with in our reading relationship? He faces me while I read at night. His eyes are closed and it's like he's sleeping (he's not) and this drives me bonkers. No way would The Hyena tolerate this behavior.

Nate's reading picked up when his running buddies raved about Born To Run. I bought it for the next holiday. He would cringe, gasp, laugh and have dramatic sighs while reading this each night. I read it next with the same responses and then forced all my other running buddies to read it, too. This started a quest for crazy runner books. We read books by Scott Jurek and Dean Karzanes (ultramarathoners). A person that runs 50-100 mile (or more!) races has plenty of issues to fill up a book.

Two years ago, I had a great idea that we should read The Hunger Games series and watch the movies. He agreed and it was fun to discuss the books, watch the movies and look forward to the Mockingjay releases. Unfortunately, I let one nugget of info slip and was banned from reading the third book before him. He's a vault and I'm a spoiler.

A few other books that I have recommended and he gave high praise: A Spy Among Friends (very interesting and lots of facts), River of Doubt (about Theodore Roosevelt), American Sniper (total man book) and Empty Mansions (history and money).

Our next reading adventure begins this Christmas when we start the Harry Potter series. I assume it's never too late for Harry Potter. We watched the movie marathon last New Year's weekend and decided this would be good for us to do together and also a good Christmas present. Thanks to Costco for the discounted box set.

Hyenas do not make great co-workers but thanks to her, I am very content with reading while he watches MLB games from April to November and using my booklight when I know he needs to sleep. He never complains about how much I read or how much I spend on books. Most importantly, he doesn't appear to be in a hostage situation so I'll just carry on.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Reading Recap, or Come at Me with Those Holds, Library!

I caught up with my library holds! (I deleted a few of them, but still...caught up.)

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore
Sweet, nutty Drew Barrymore. But nutty in a good way. 

The saddest line in the book: "When I was 14 and wanted to start my life over..." We all know that Drew had her share of troubles when she was younger and was emancipated from her mother at 14 years old. But just to think of a 14-year-old being on her own and being better off is astounding. I felt the most kinship with her during the "Klutz" chapter. I, too, fall over invisible things. Ken always points to the picture of a falling person on "wet floor" signs and says, "Look, you're on that sign!" 

Drew reads this audiobook, and I recommended it. Note: She is an AC-TOR and that definitely comes through in the book. If she's telling a story where she screamed in real life, she screams in the book. Be warned, all ye with earbuds. 

The Hours by Jillian Cantor
This one falls solidly into my "borrow" camp. The protagonist is Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's neighbor, Millie. Millie's husband, Ed, is Russian and, therefore, suspect #1 in the Red-Scare 1950s. It was a good story, but nothing remarkable. It made me want to read a nonfiction book about the Rosenbergs. 

How We Got to Now looks at six areas that are integral to how we live: glass, cold, cleanliness, sound, light, and time. This book makes complicated topic really readable, and I enjoyed it. And I feel smarter! 

My favorite bit of trivia from this book: Around 1855, Chicago was raised ten feet. Like, they-jacked-up-the-buildings-and-ran-a-sewer-system-underneath-them raised. Because the city was at almost the same level as Lake Michigan, all of the waste went...nowhere. Gross. Johnson writes, "In 1860, engineers raised half a city block: almost an acre of five-story buildings weighing and estimated thirty-five thousand tons was lifted by more than six thousand jackscrews." Whuuuuuut? 

Slade House by David Mitchell
What a great, creepy book! It's small but powerful (238 pages, but the physical book isn't even as large as a trade paperback), with short stories that all tie into Slade House--which is haunted. I was a little confused during the first story, but once I got the rhythm of the book in the second story, it all came together. Put it on your TBR list for next October...or for any time you need a little unsettledness in your reading life.

(I read the ebook, but the paper book is enchanting...a bright yellow cover with no dust jacket (I hate dust jackets) and a cutout on the front. So cool.) 

Corrupted by Lisa Scottoline (Rosato and DiNunzio #3)
Let's face it, this series isn't highbrow literature. Or anybrow literature. But I like it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

October Book Review

October was a good month of reading. I started off with Liane Moriarty's Three Wishes and The Last Anniversary. Three Wishes was her first novel and you can definitely tell. I enjoyed it but glad it wasn't the first of hers that I read. Next was The Last Anniversary. I liked all the characters and a bomb drop on the last page was fantastic.

I finished Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy in October after reading 20 pages per day for what seemed like months. It was very interesting and I learned a lot about the Queen along with mental illness during that time period.

The Book Club choice was The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. This was a great story and provided a great deal to discuss and questions to ask. Unfortunately, my perfect attendance streak ended (January 2012-September 2015 RIP). An additional Book Club outing was planned to see Adriana Trigiani speak at the Nashville Public Library. I put the pressure on to read Big Stone Gap and Big Cherry Holler before the event. They were good stories but I hate small country towns. I'm from the crappiest small country town and scarred for life because of it so I'm comfortable in being judgmental. I really enjoyed hearing Adriana speak--very funny and entertaining. She talked about her new book, All The Stars In The Heavens, and it made me want to read it along with biographies of Loretta Young and Clark Gable, too.

I read a "mommy" book called, Hands Free Life. There were some good points to it but I would not recommend it. Every other paragraph contained "tears ran down my face". I looked up reviews on Goodreads to see if I was the only one. One review suggested making a drinking game out of every time she said, "tears ran down my face". Ha! Glad to know it wasn't just me! Nothing like a bad self-help book to remind you that you are doing just fine!

I saved my favorite book for last. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Goldfinch stayed with me for many months and it was so good that I neglected my family while on vacation in Phoenix to read it. I loved this dark and disturbing book as well. Donna Tartt has convinced me that she is a genius in too many fields and I also have a concern for her extensive alcohol and drug knowledge. Oh well, it makes for great reading.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Hip Hop Hamilton

I read a story about some Broadway actor/producer who picked up the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation. He found the story so fascinating that he created a musical around it. And he used hip hop as the musical genre because that would be the music of the revolution.

While I’m no theater connoisseur, I do love history and 1990s hip hop. But, I also owned the Milli Vanilli cassette tape, so I am well-acquainted with the idea that something that sounds too good to be true can indeed be.

Regardless, I went to go see “Hamilton” on Broadway with some friends (who heard about this play and wisely decided we should get tickets and go to it before it exploded in popularity).

If you haven’t heard of this play, The New York Times has covered it well, and CBS Sunday Morning did a profile on "Hamilton" back when it was an off-broadway show. 

Basically, it’s a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. But, while the costumes and storyline are true to the time, it's performed by a multiethnic cast who sing/speak in hip hop, all with the energy and excitement of the Revolution. 

The musical style changes when appropriate -- for example, when King George makes an appearance, his music has the flavor of 1970s British Pop, appropriately out of touch with the revolutionaries. And, Thomas Jefferson sings R&B more than hip hop – because, well, he did basically miss the late 1780s in America and was a little old school compared to Hamilton and crew. Other people can explain this better.

Sounds interesting? It is. The writer/director/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a multitude of musical influences in his life, and they merge perfectly to create the atmosphere that feels like a revolution on stage.  When Alexander Hamilton sings, "I'm young, scrappy and hungry/just like my country,” you believe it.

Miranda won one of the McArthur “genius grants” this year.  He’s the real deal. He even used Chernow as a consultant on the play.

The casting is fascinating -- as they say, it's the story of America yesterday told by the America of today. You can’t get hung up on anyone’s ethnicity – it doesn’t matter. Aaron Burr is African-American. Alexander Hamilton is Latino. The actresses playing the Schuyler Sisters definitely don’t have the same parents in real life. But none of that matters watching the play.

The actor who portrays the Marquis de Lafayette in the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second act blew me away. In Act I, his Marquis portrayal includes rapping in a French accent. At the beginning of Act II, he brings the house down in one of my favorite moments: Thomas Jefferson singing "What did I miss?" as he returns from France. 

Did I mention there are two rap battles between Jefferson and Hamilton debating American policy? One is all about incurring states’ debts, and it ends with a refrain of Madison and Jefferson teasing Hamilton with "You don't have the votes!" What better way to encapsulate the fights and teasing on Capitol Hill? You need to read these lyrics

I learned so much about our ten dollar founding father during the play. Sure, I knew he was shot by Aaron Burr and he started the federal reserve, but he was also part of one of America’s first sex scandals and the founder of the Coast Guard. Hamilton is so much more than the duel death he is often reduced to in popular history.

What else can I say? Let me just repeat the opening line from The New York Times review of the show: Yes, it really is that good. 

Also, if you go to the play – or are just in New York City – members of the cast (and/or special guests) often do a little mini-show outside the theater before the ticket lottery. Many of them involve Lin-Manuel beatboxing for someone to rap. Just go on YouTube to search for #Ham4Ham videos. To get a flavor of the excitement of the show -- and of the Ham4Ham experience -- here's a great video couplet. There are three sisters (the Schuyler sisters) who are prominent figures in Hamilton's life (he marries one of them). They are almost like Destiny's Child on stage. Amazing. 

First, here are three of the actors who have played King George lip syncing the Schuyler sisters' big intro song at a #Ham4Ham performance outside the theater (the woman who pantomimes Aaron Burr's intro rap is one of the actresses who plays a sister):

And here’s a New York Times video of part of that song (but it doesn’t capture the energy on stage):  

Also, you should at least listen to the cast album. Questlove was a producer. What else do I need to say?

P.S. Our great blog leader, Melanie, has already given me a great list of what to read now that I’ve seen the play. But, if you have time, read the links to the Times stories in this post -- the ones on Miranda and the play are beautiful. The first one includes reflections from Sondheim, Chernow, and others.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What I'm Reading Right Now, or When All Your Library Holds Come in at Once

When it rains, it pours, but at least it's pouring books. Here's what I'm reading and listening to for the next few weeks:

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde (audio)
I started listening to this one after our own KMS mentioned it in the first blog post. Wow. Whenever you think that rich, famous people have it made and have happy lives, listen to a memoir. Hynde calls herself dumb so many times. Even when she got a good grade in a high school class, she says, "There's an outside chance I was actually good at calligraphy, but I doubt it."

As she matured and as things started to come together for her musically, she began to sound more confident. I'm almost finished with this one, and it's been really interesting. The trivia she throws in is great--like that "brass in pocket" is a bit of slang she heard when someone needed to borrow money.

Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (audio)
I've only read one Wilkie Collins book--The Woman in White--but this biography whets my appetite for more. Collins, who had Charles Dickens as mentor (after a fashion), kept two households with two women (and married neither of them) and was a feminist before feminism was cool. 

Fun fact: Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker's oldest child, James Wilkie, is named after Wilkie Collins.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff, I'm going to forgive you for Cleopatra*. This retelling of the Salem Witch Trials is quite interesting.  

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore (audio)
Y'all know how I love a celebrity memoir. The only thing that would make this better is if I could read something that goes with it, like when I read Laura Ingalls/Mary Ingalls/Nellie Olesen's memoirs all in a row. (Summation: Mary was a real bitch. And Laura, really, who divorces Bruce Boxleitner? Come on. Only Nellie's book made me like her more.)

All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani (audio)
This one's next in the audio queue. 

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
Career of Evil is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series. I like mysteries, and so often the prose is cringeworthy even when the story is good. But this series isn't like that, and I'm enjoying this one as much as the first two.  

Slade House by David Mitchell
Mitchell's last book, The Bone Clocks, made me very paranoid about keeping photos and music in the Cloud. Will this book introduce a new paranoia? Wait and see!

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
Fictionalized Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? Yes, please. 

What are all of you reading? Have you read any of these? 

*Cleopatra was only the second univerally hated choice in my Nashville book club. (The first being The Tattooed Girl. I will never read another Joyce Carol Oates book.) 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Audiobooks I Love

There was a time when I thought that audiobooks weren't really reading. Then I discovered that I was just listening to the wrong books. And who taught me that? Jim Dale. Jim Dale reads all of the Harry Potter series, and he is outstanding. 
Jim Dale led me down a road of listening all the time. In the car, while washing the dishes, while folding laundry...but not every book lends itself to audio, or at least not for me. I prefer nonfiction, but I do listen to fiction as long as the story isn't too detailed.

Curious about my favorite audiobooks? Well, you're in luck, because I made a list of them! 

Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and a Son by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez
One of my requirements for memoirs is that the author is the reader. And who doesn't want to hear Jed Bartlett read a book? (Emilio Estevez reads some, too.)

Anything that Neil Gaiman reads, especially The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood. 
Okay. This is a kids' series. No bones about it. But it's so funny. It's a completely ridiculous story about a governess, Miss Penelope Lumley, who's hired to take care of three children who are maybe...possibly...probably partly werewolf. I've no doubt that the print books are good, but the reader makes them hilarious. Bonus: appropriate for all ages! 

Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart
I have held several of you hostage and made you watch Miranda's sitcom on Hulu (and I'm not sorry). This falls into my "is this as funny in print?" category, because Miranda is hilarious and, as noted in my listening rules, reads her own book. 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin and READ BY MERYL STREEP.
And that is all you need to know.

Do any of you love or completely loathe audiobooks?

Friday, October 16, 2015

You’re Gonna Make It After All

I am going to tell you all right now that I am not an astute literary critic. But, I spent many years working at a local TV station and living in the upstairs of a historic home, a mere flight of steps away from dear friends. Therefore, I love the "Mary Tyler Moore" show.

I realized that I was living a Mary Richards life in the 2000s, and I’m not even kidding. I can make almost everything fall into place: hilarious co-workers at the TV station, poorly executed dinner parties, interesting dates/boyfriends, and I had a close friend whose real job was creating department store displays. Let that last one sink in for a second; the only two people I can think of in the world who had a real job doing that are my friend Jessica and the character of Rhoda Morgenstern.

Anyway, I recently picked up Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a 2013 book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong all about the program. And I loved it.

It focuses on the people who created the show as well as the actors that were part of the now-classic program. Like any good book about something ingrained in popular culture, it talks about how someone almost got a different part (Gavin MacLeod and Ed Asner both auditioned for the role of “Lou Grant”) and how the show or certain key parts of it almost didn’t happen.

It also tells the story of the female writers who landed jobs working on that program (and Hollywood in general in the 1970s). There was no established career path to get them there, and I found the detailed lives of these trailblazers fascinating, including how their personal experiences occasionally ended up on screen. 

Armstrong actually begins the book with the story of writer Treva Silverman, introducing her life and unique comedy talent while using her as somewhat of a thread throughout. I loved that Armstrong chose to start the book with a name most readers wouldn’t recognize, and Silverman is a fascinating character in her own right.

There was sort of an interesting pseudo-rivalry with MTM and “All in the Family” since the two were both part of the CBS Saturday night lineup. They helped each other in some ways, but they addressed social issues very differently: a rant from Archie Bunker would cause an immediate conversation, but the issues on MTM were character-based and plot-driven. For example, while Archie Bunker would freak out over meeting someone who was gay, MTM handled the issue differently by giving Phyllis a gay brother (even though she didn’t know he was gay). When he visited and took a liking to Rhoda instead of Mary, Phyllis started freaking out that they would get married. Rhoda matter-of-factly told Phyllis that he was gay, and she was relieved. The author noted that it made the audience laugh at someone's reaction instead of the person at the center of the issue.

Of course, MTM didn’t always hit that note just right. Earlier in the series, MTM tried to be more like “All in the Family” by creating a confrontation in an episode called “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda.” Mary realizes a new friend is an anti-Semite and tells her off, but it wasn’t really the show’s style for Mary to explode like that or be so preachy. How the writers dealt with creating a sitcom narrative that addressed issues was a fascinating part of this book.

The book also explored something I didn’t realize: the boundary-pushing TV of the 1970s led to an overcorrection in the 1980s and the networks’ self-imposed “family hour.” Suddenly gone was the edgy social commentary laced in popular programming.

The book really covers every element: the actors’ camaraderie, power struggles, fights and reconciliations; the worries that audiences would think Moore was still Laura Petrie (she even wore a wig the first seasons); the "Rhoda," "Phyllis," and "Lou Grant" spinoffs; and how the creative forces and actors went on to other endeavors (the ones who created "Taxi" used the names of some MTM staff members as characters). 

And, I have to mention one other thing. The author met a superfan who used to type up pages of notes on each show and mail them to the studio. He had his own detailed rating system for each show based on how many “jollies” (times he laughed out loud), “grins,” and “sobs” (any tears counted as sobs) it provided him. He was obsessed. But, here’s the almost weirder thing: the producers read the letters and loved them, finding them an accurate measure of the show’s effectiveness, even more so than professional television critics. He even visited the set, spending a week with the producers and cast members. He provided the author with photos and memories of that time; it was such a bizarre part of the history of the show, but the author found it endearing.

I do think you need to already be a fan of the show to truly enjoy this book. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of every episode (I was born the year it went off the air), but I do remember seeing key episodes in reruns. When I could remember plotlines or scenes mentioned in the book, the stories told really popped. And it gets into a lot of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood and television studios; it can be fascinating or laborious.

Let me end this "Reading Rainbow"-style: If you enjoy learning about television programming in the 1970s, creative forces that worked together to make something unique, the clashes of entertainment and culture, behind-the-scenes details of a classic show, and learning what makes talented actors, producers, and writers tick, then this book is for you.

And if you want to see Mary and Rhoda try to meet men at a club for divorced people, then this embedded video is for you. Some of this holds up (and is a bit too relatable even today), and some is hilariously dated. Thanks, Treva Silverman.