Read Harder Review Catch Up

So, I sort of forgot that I was doing the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but I discovered my spreadsheet for it (occupational hazard, I have spreadsheets for everything) yesterday, and saw that unintentionally I’ve crossed some off the list in the past few months. Here are some mini-reviews (mostly taken from my Goodreads. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends there.)

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood “A book that has been banned or heavily challenged in your country” 

This is a terrifying book. The timely resonance is chilling of course, and it made it harder to read than it probably would have been before the open misogyny of the current administration. It’s well written and the character is realistic, even in her weakness – this is a person not a “strong female character,” which I appreciated. But I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve finished it. At times it felt like a chore, not because it was dull, but because it was scary. I think I’ll be processing this one for a bit

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – “A classic by an author of color” 

I realized a couple of weeks ago that I could remember next to nothing about this book. I think I read it in high school, but it was a quick, beautiful read. The dialect (like all dialect) took me a little bit to get into, but I really loved the rhythm of it after a bit. Janie is an excellent central character. Knocking it a star for the bullshit (of it’s time) attitude towards domestic violence.

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No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – “A book where all of the POV characters are of color” 

Billed as a reworking of The Great Gatsby, set in a present-day, economically depressed, African American community in the South. So not really The Great Gatsby at all. But that’s great! Watts takes the broad themes, and some of the character types, from Fitzgerald’s novel and then deeply roots them in their new context. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and deeply humane. (So maybe not that different from Gatsby at all.)

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A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval – “A book published by a micropress”

So, I’m stretching a bit to classify Haymarket Books as a micropress, but whatever. This book is amazing. It will break your heart, make you laugh, and leave you wanting to storm some barricades. If you’re me, it will also make you incredibly homesick.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part III

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The Writer’s Almanac helpfully reminded me yesterday that it was Shakespeare Day (both his birth and death day, or at least as far was we know), which was good encouragement to finish reading Henry VI. I only had a few scenes left, but was having trouble motivating myself. Because, as I have now mentioned multiple times, I’m pretty over this particular interpretation of the War of the Roses. I admit this is because I have, based on very casual personal research, and a crush on this well-cast actor, I’m pretty much decided that the Yorkists were right and therefore this whole conflict was wasted bloodshed.

I basically had made up my mind at the end of Part II how I felt about all characters involved in this tragic miscommunication, and at first it felt like there was a possibility for poor Henry to escape away to a monastery and pray, letting York and his sons take back the throne (as clearly based on patriarchal genetic inheritance ridiculousness was theirs). But of course, this is a Shakespearean history play so 1. there must be heads cut off and 2. a woman must ruin everything.

I wrote last time about how I appreciated Queen Margaret’s badassery, and I still kind of do, but it turns to folly in this part. Not just because she loses the ultimate battle, but because she has no foresight. She and her son should have stayed in France and they would have lived long, prosperous lives, claiming to be wrongfully exiled but with their heads intact. But, no, the all important crown must be won back for “poor Ned.” (Side note: why did they all name all of their sons Edward? I appreciate the comparative lack of Henrys in this installment, but still…diversify for the sake of clarity at least.) She does seem to love her son, but it’s clear that she really wants to hold power for herself and as she is female this is evil, I get that. But the scene where she and Clifford murder York is a bit heavy handed on the hand wringing villainy. Great wordplay sure, but it must be tricky to play and keep her seeming even remotely human.

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Gabriela Petrushevska in a Macedonian production available from Shakespeare’s Globe Player

Even if I hadn’t already made up my mind about the rightful claimants to the throne, the really disturbing, onstage murder of the youngest York boy would have turned me against the Lancastrians from then on. (Yes, I know that the York’s then retaliate by killing the also seventeen year old Prince of Wales, but he was actively waging war against the York princes when they killed him. Rutland was traveling home with his tutor and literally begging to spared the sins of his father. It’s heartbreaking and I’m not sure how you can watch that scene and then root for anyone associated with Clifford.)

This play also begins the character assassination of Richard III, which I won’t bore you with all my grievances now, but suffice to say the conflation of physical disfigurement with moral ineptitude is pretty hard to read with a modern eye. You’ll all get to read my full treatise on this if I ever reach the Rs. For now, just one more Henry to go!

Read Harder Review (and Five Star Book!): Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

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I underlined so many passages in this book. A fact I know Ms. Fadiman would appreciate. I also bought it on a trip to a bookstore that was explicitly to buy a book club book, and nothing else. But it fit the “book about books” line on my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list, so naturally I had to get it. (If that reeks of rationalization and addict behavior, you’re not wrong.) I knew from the blurb on the back that I was going to love this book, but I didn’t know just how much I would identify with it. Yes, I knew that Fadiman and I are both book people, who were also raised by book people, but more than that we’re both the same kind of book people.

For one, we’re both obsessive annotators, she described it as treating reading like a conversation, which I loved. We are also both collectors of words. She has an essay in here about quizzing her friends and family on words she had to look up while reading a 1920 Carl Van Vechten essay, something I have never done – I want my friends to keep liking me – but I have definitely made the same kinds of lists. (Honestly, I made a long one reading this book. I would argue her word choice was overly grand if I didn’t know she was just reveling in the diversity of the English language.)

Aside from the kinship with a fellow book and word nerd, I really loved her description of her family. When she was growing up they used to watch quiz shows religiously and shared a love of proofreading menus. I know that to some (most?) of you that must sound insufferable, but to me it was warmly familiar. My dad gives my mom (and anyone else who is around) a history quiz from the morning paper. My brother once took a victory lap around our dining room table after besting us all on a final Jeopardy question. A couple of months ago my brother’s high school friend responded to my correcting my father’s statement that Faneuil Hall opened in the 1990s by saying that he meant it was renovated then, by saying, “You can’t get away with anything with the Dennetts.” So maybe we’re a little insufferable too, but this book made me feel in good company.

Side note: She writes a lot about her husband George, and each time he came up I thought, “he seems great.” Turns out – I had read and loved his own memoir The Big House and thought the same about her!

Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:

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Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.

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2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)

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3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:

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I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…

Weekly Adventure: I’m Nobody Who Are You at the Morgan Library

I love Emily Dickinson. I didn’t always. When I first read her I found her cold and distant and overly formal. Which looks ridiculous to me now. Imagine, thinking of a poem like this as reserved:

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But I also love what I know about her as a person. Not the mythical figure of the ghostly pale woman upstairs in her New England attic scribbling away and never leaving her house, but the weird and wonderful, and yes unmarried (gasp!), woman that I’ve pieced together over the years. The most clues for me came not from a biography but this collection of her “Envelope Poems.” I feel like that book made it the most clear how integral writing poetry was to her daily life, but also showed that she had a life beyond poetry. She was cooking or going to a concert or reading a letter when had these flashes of inspiration.

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Poem draft on a program card

The small show of her letters and drafts on view right now at The Morgan Library does a nice job of depicting Miss Dickinson’s quiet, but not empty, life. I especially liked the way they presented her interest in botany, with a digitized version of the plant catalog she made while a student at Mt. Holyoke. (It’s really beautifully designed and lets visitors flip though the pages, which obviously could never be done with the fragile original.) I also liked the way she wrote up and down on the pages of her letters, like she simply had too many thoughts to contain them to one direction:

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I had never been to The Morgan before, and I really appreciated the design of the exhibition. There was a lot of contextual information, but it was presented in a clear, uncluttered way. Also, this was the correct paint color:

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Though it doesn’t photograph very well apparently. It’s much greener than this in person.

It’s also just a beautiful space, J.P. Morgan’s library had me swooning (as my Instagram followers can tell you), and while I was there a classical duo was playing in the central courtyard, which was a lovely addition. I highly recommend a trip as a way to pass a gray Sunday afternoon.

The exhibition is on view through May 21st at The Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison Ave

And the Nominees Are 2017: Final Round

Happy Oscar Sunday! I’m going to a watch party at Q.E.D. in Astoria in a few hours, but I wanted to get my last few catch up reviews posted before the ceremony.

Toni Erdmann

Pretty much every film critic I read, listen to, and/or follow on Twitter heaped praises upon this movie. But they all also mentioned that it was almost 3 hours long…so it took me awhile to find time to go. And while I really appreciated the performances, and some of the set pieces had me laughing out loud, it was too long. No comedy, even one as emotionally layered as this, needs to be 3 hours long. (In fact, I can tell you exactly when it should have ended, and it was at least 15 minutes before the actual end, with the yeti hug in the park.)

That being said, the parts of this that are a satire of international business culture are scathingly spot on. And the central message, that we should all take ourselves a little less seriously, is a welcome one.

Also, I’ll never again be able to heat “The Greatest Love of All” without thinking of Sandra Hüller and laughing.

The Eagle Huntress

I needed this story right now. Aishlopan, a 13 year old girl living with her nomadic family in the mountains of Mongolia, wants to be an eagle hunter like her father. Her parents let her despite there never having been a female hunter before. When she tries, she’s brilliant at it.

It’s a feel good feminist story. Parents, please take your preteen children of all genders to see this (though, warning for the squeamish: Eagles are birds of prey and nature has some gruesome aspects, but they are handled tastefully.)

May we all, as we face our own versions of the old men sitting in huts saying in the same breath that woman can’t hunt eagles because they will get cold in the mountains and that Aishlopan only succeeds in competitions because she is a girl, maintain the strength and ease that she has & ride off to break those men’s records with smiles on our faces.

(Also, Mongolia looks really beautiful.)

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This movie should be required viewing for all Americans. Ava DuVernay (who you may recognize as the Oscar-snubbed director of Selma) lays out the devastating history that leads directly from slavery, through the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction through Jim Crow to today’s mass incarceration and police brutality. It isn’t an easy watch, but we are never going to make progress if we ignore the reality of the history that informs out current debates and tragedies.

Although she clearly has a point of view, DuVernay does a good job of including voices from across the political spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance that Newt Gingrich brought to his interview. And if you need a definition of unhelpful white nonsense you can play a compilation of all the times that Grover Norquist reduced complicated political grievances to complaints about “mean people.” She also doesn’t let Democrats off the hook, because racism isn’t a Republican issue, it is a human issue and we all need to acknowledge this in able to fix it.

Just watch it. It’s on Netflix. Go now.

I Am Not Your Negro

I’ve loved James Baldwin since I was assigned Giovanni’s Room in a class in college. (I had read Go Tell It On the Mountain before that but it had gone over my head.) So, I knew I was in for brilliance when I went to see Raoul Peck‘s new documentary that uses only Baldwin’s words to examine the lives of MLK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers and through them the story of the mistreatment of black people in America.

A Facebook friend of mine called this “required viewing” and it certainly is. It’s well crafted and edited and well-deserving of its Oscar nomination. I found it to be very emotional and distressingly relevant to our current moment. I hope that it inspires people to read Baldwin, and more history in general, because its beautiful, but there are gaps that may need filling in for an uninformed viewer. (Such as the fact that Malcolm X was not murdered by a white man, but a member of the Nation of Islam.)

Overall, this is a remarkable documentary, worth waiting in the lines I’ve seen at every independent movie theater showing this in NYC.

 

 

Best Picture Baking Project: Chariots of Fire

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Happy President’s Day! I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated this particular strange American holiday, and I’m certainly not going to start under the current administration, but I did take the opportunity to head home to New Haven for a bit of rest and relaxation. And for me that means movies and baking (though the baking was not my best effort…more on that later.) First, the film:

Had I seen this one before?

Nope. Which was surprising to both of my parents. All I knew was the opening sequence with the team running down the beach.

Top 3 observations on this viewing?

  1. This movie is so incredibly British. Which means, it’s charming, incredibly well acted, and obsessed with questions of whether it is acceptable to focus on individual excellence over a “feeling of esprit de corps.” Which as an American is hilarious to me.
  2. The depiction of Americans as professional, running machines that are borderline evil or Bible thumpers. It’s always funny to me (especially in later Richard Curtis movies), but here it is particularly pronounced.

    I mean, look at him with his hat on backwards, how gauche.
  3. I love a good sports movie, and this is one of the best. It’s a classic for a reason. And I like that it takes on other issues, anti-Semitism and commitment to faith, without getting too preachy or overreaching for metaphors. These men are more than just runners, but true Olympians, then as now, are a unique breed motivated by physical challenge, which, as I am very much not, will always be fascinating to me. 

What did it beat? Did it deserve to win?

Atlantic City –  Never heard of it.

On Golden Pond – I really only know of this, because of Jane Fonda accepting her dad‘s Oscar for it, which is a nice awards history moment, but doesn’t really help me judge the film

Raiders of the Lost Ark – I love that this was nominated, but of course it didn’t win.

Reds – Oh, I love this one so so much.

This is tough. Reds is one of my favorite movies of all time, but Chariots is pretty fantastic too. I’m going to go with, I would have voted for Reds but I’m not mad that Chariots of Fire won.

Bechdel Test Pass?

Nope. There are two named women, they are both reluctantly supportive partners to their respective champions. They never meet. (This is one of those cases where this didn’t bother me that much. Cambridge, where most of this narrative takes place, was an overwhelmingly male environment. It would be strange and forced to shoehorn women into this particular narrative.)

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Sybil (Alice Krige) seeing Harold off at port – in a shot later echoed in a future Best Picture, Titanic

OK, dessert time, I wanted to do a flaming dessert for obvious reasons, but…that turns out to be trickier than I thought…

Flaming Baked Alaska Cupcakes

Ingredients for cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 cups of your favorite ice cream, I used strawberry field

Ingredients for meringue and flambe

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2-2 cups brandy

Directions 

Prepare the cupcakes

  • Heat oven to 350F and line cupcake pan with papers
  • Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt
  • In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • Add eggs one at a time, mixing well between additions
  • Beat in vanilla extract
  • Add flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with flour
  • Divide batter evenly into liners, filling them about 2/3 full
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes (*check them at 15, mine took 18 minutes)
  • Remove from oven and let cool
  • Peel away cupcake liners and discard
  • Cut a small divot out of the top of each cupcake, large enough to hold ice cream
  • Fill each divot with ice cream
  • Put filled cupcakes in freezer

Prepare the meringues

  • In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites until foamy
  • Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form
  • Gradually beat in the sugar until the meringue is stiff and glossy
  • Preheat oven to the hottest setting
  • Remove the cupcakes from freezer
  • Set each cupcake on their own small place
  • Place the plates onto a baking sheet
  • Cover each cupcake with meringue using an offset spatula
  • Place the sheet into the oven until lightly browned (*pay close attention and take them out exactly when they are browned) 
  • Remove from oven
  • Pour tablespoons of brandy over each cupcake
  • Ignite the brandy and let burn until the flame subsides
  • When the flame dies down serve immediately

Or…this could happen:

We did try them, they tasted like cheap brandy… But the unlit ones (ie the ones I didn’t put in the oven/douse with brandy tasted good…)

Six Degrees of Cinema: Silence

I’m not sure how to write about SilenceAs a film fan I was struck by the beauty of the cinematography and the ambition of telling a story that in many ways is very internal, in a visual medium. As a person who, while admiring of his obvious genius, has a really complicated relationship with Martin Scorsese, I must say that I appreciate his contemplative side much more than whatever you want to call The Wolf of Wall Street

But, despite fantastic performances all around, not much of this movie stuck with me when I left the theater as I expected it to. Well, nothing artistic at least. As an exploration of religion and the nature of belief, I cannot stop thinking about it. It raised so many deep questions about martyrdom and apostasy and what faith in the face of the actual persecution looks like, and why governments engage in it. (I think it has something to do with fear of a power greater than themselves.) It’s an exploration of evangelism, and when its more dangerous for converts than liberating, what then is asked of a believer?

I don’t have answers, but its been a very long time since a movie made me think this deeply about spiritual things. So, let’s see if 1980s era Scorsese will pull that off as well with the next link, his The Last Temptation of Christ.

In this chain: Paterson – Silence

Read Harder Review: Paterson by William Carlos Williams

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So, this one is a bit of a cheat. I’m counting Paterson as my “book I had read before” on my Book Riot Read Harder list, because I have a distinct memory of being assigned the book length poem in college. I even remember that the only copy I had at the time was in a Norton Anthology, one of those bricks with the very thin paper and crazy small print. I remember reading the first page, that English professors always made us buy for survey courses. (I think this was for Modern American Poetry? Or maybe even just the second half of the intro to American Lit? Fellow Northwestern English majors help me remember…)

Anyway, that’s really all I remember about having read this. I’m sure I finished it. I was/am a big nerd and usually did all of my reading, especially in my poetry classes. But like most stuff I read for survey classes, I remember the one sentence , (in this case: “No ideas but in things,” that I’m sure I quoted in a midterm paper. You may know that there is a movie of the same name out right now with Adam Driver as a bus driving poet. The director, the indie legend Jim Jarmusch, didn’t directly adapt the book (that’s really not possible), but seems to have taken his own swing at the Williams’s central premise, that a man and a city can stand in for each other.

I’m going to see the movie tonight and decided to revisit the book in preparation. And this time around I was amazed that I could ever have forgotten it. It’s an epic collage of history, found text (including letters from a young, slightly sycophantic Allen Ginsberg!), and of course, poetry.

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As with any work of this length, some sections are better than others. It went off the rails a bit in the third (or maybe 4th book) when he tries to tell a more coherent narrative story. I much prefer the grand pronouncements (though he didn’t like them much himself – see above re: ideas and things.)

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This section really spoke to me as I read it the night of the airport protests. My Instagram followers seemed to like it too.

He also takes a weird tangent in book 5 where he goes on and on about women being either virgins or whores, where I couldn’t tell if he believed that, or his Paterson believed that, or if he was being satirical. I kind of don’t want to unpack it, because I hate discovering my favorite writers hate women…especially when he dropped this reference in an earlier book:

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For those not in the know on their Temperance Movement radicals…Carrie Nation was hardcore

But contradictions are part of the point of course. (There’s a direct line easily drawn between Leaves of Grass and Whitman’s multitudes and this poem.) If Paterson the character is Paterson the city, I think it’s pretty clear to say that Paterson the city is also means to be America. And as we all see right now, America is a mess of contradictions.

But if you let Williams’s writing just wash over you, the effect can be pretty glorious:

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Images from the #NoBanNoWall Protest at Battery Park 1/29/2017

Apparently this is going to be a new blog series. This rally and march came together in under a day, and it was very impressive to see New Yorkers come together quickly, and strongly for the brave people being illegally kept out of our country right now.

 Senator Gillibrand summed it up pretty well:

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Cher Horowitz would approve

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