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.

Weekly Adventure: Colm Tóibín at the Paula Cooper Gallery

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Almost 8 years ago (!), when I was studying abroad at University College Cork, my contemporary Irish literature professor assigned Blackwater Lightship, and since then I have been mildly obsessed with its author Colm Tóibín. I’ve been working my way through all of his books (and they range in genre including short stories, novels, memoirs, and literary criticism.) I’ve loved all of them. Many of them fall into the category of “things that are too important to me for me to write about in any coherent fashion.”

So instead, I will just give you my three favorite quotes from last night, remind you that sometimes it is great to meet your heroes (he was so kind and I’m inspired to write for the first time in ages), and tell you all to go buy his new book, or any of his old books.

“A novel loves money, it loves disappointment, it loves a marriage, it loves a marriage that does not happen.” – On novels as secular spaces

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Follow up: “So on page 6, I rid of the gods.” 

“If you’re a novelist, the most interesting part of a story is the blurred figure in the photograph.”

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Related: The Story of Night (a beautiful book about a gay man in Argentina) is “about someone who has not spoken before but must now speak”

Where I’m from the men didn’t say much, but the women would all be talking all at the same time.” – on why he writes with such power (to borrow a phrase from a question asker) in the voices of women

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A Whole String of Adventures

Full disclosure, this is a super lazy post. I’m tired…I’ve been doing a lot…

It’s been an eventful week for me, filled with theater and movies. And I’ve been really bad about blogging about them. I’m not going to write long reviews of everything, mostly because I don’t want to, but here were some highlights:

The Golden Apple from ENCORES! at City Center

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I didn’t know anything about this show going when my New York godmother invited me to take her extra ticket last Thursday. But after reading this wonderful article, I was intrigued. I’ve always wanted to go to an Encores show, and this was a really fun discovery all around. The show is a lighthearted retelling of Homer, and I loved the choice to recreate Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite) as a silent ballet dancer. One because I love ballet and two because it allows the show to sidestep taking any stance on the character’s culpability.

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Lindsay Mendez as Helen with Cowperthwaite (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Badlands at Videology Bar and Cinema

I’ve written before about how much I love this dark, weird little fable. So for now I’ll just share my friend Arely’s thought at from some angles young Martin Sheen looks exactly like Charlie and from others exactly like Emilio Esteves. It’s sort of crazy.

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An Emilio moment

Also, the queso hot dog at Videology was a pretty tasty way to end a week.

Six Degrees of Separation (with Allison Janney!) 

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

It was raining a lot on Saturday. So I almost refused my lotto win ticket to Six Degrees of Separation. But I’m so glad I didn’t. Obivously the biggest draw is Janney and she is as fabulous as you expect her to be. But the play in general, which I had only ever read before, is surprisingly funny and heartwarming. It’s sad how relevant the racial issues (and CATS hatred) still are 26 years on, but the 1990 setting does lend a delightful pre-Google detective story element to the plot.

Also on Saturday I met an actress in the audience whom I’m a big fan of and she was very sweet. 

Mother’s Day trip to Beautiful – The Carole King Musical

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I’ve wanted to see this show for a long time. I love Carole King, and so I was so excited to get to share it with my mom on Sunday. And it was the perfect Mother’s Day show. (I’m pretty sure the entire audience was there celebrating the holiday.) We were unable to stop ourselved from singing along. We briefly felt bad but everyone else was also clapping and dancing. Highly recommend it. Bring your mom, or your most mom like friend. (I’m happy to play the role of mom like friend in your life for this occasion.)

Wakefield at the IFC Center

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A perk of my membership at the IFC is monthly free screenings. I generally go to all of these, even when I know nothing about the film (obvious caveat for avoiding horror/extreme violence), which was the case with this one. It’s…strange. Adapted from an E.L. Doctorow short story by writer/director Robin Swicord, it tells the story of a man (Bryan Cranston) who abandons his wife and family, only to live above the garage and spy on them. It works more as a conceit than it has any right to, but it also has some really icky undertones I’ll be processing for awhile. Cranston is great though.

 

Coming Clean about Purple Rain*

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Can anyone in this movie act? — No.

Is the dialogue straight up awful? — Yes.

Are the sexual politics at best questionable? — Well, there’s a scene where a woman is literally thrown in a dumpster for daring to ask something of a man…so, yeah. (It is done by the villain, but it’s played for laughs, so…)

Is it still, somehow, a masterpiece? Absolutely.

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I’ve been trying to piece together why this movie is so magical since the minute I walked out of a free screening at the Brooklyn Bazaar Wednesday night. It’s obviously a lot to do with the music, and I’ll always be thankful for the experience of singing along to “Purple Rain” with a ballroom filled with tipsy strangers. But, that can’t be all of it, because then I would just want this to be a concert film, and that’s not how I feel at all.

It may be that for all its soppy melodrama, and petrified-wooded performances, the film does have a unique and striking (if a bit dated) visual style. The lighting design and cinematography (by Donald E. Thorin) do a lot to elevate the action.

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But, lets be real, the magic here is Prince himself. Not just in his musical performances (though goddamn), but as a presence onscreen. That mad had a two hour face, and the ability to simultaneously be winking at the audience and be completely vulnerable and in the moment. Sure, the world of this movie is absurd, but his emotion was real and so its easy to get swept up with him for the ride.

 

*This series used to be called “Classics from the Queue, but no one has a Netflix Queue anymore, and that title never really got across this idea that these were movie I had lied about seeing so these posts will now be called “Coming Clean” reviews.

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…

And the Nominees Are 2017: Round 5

BAFTA nominations came out this week! Which means that in addition to the movies I saw in the last week, I have a few catch up posts, and an even longer list of things to see! So this may be a bit of a long one, but there’s some great stuff.

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Note: I wrote this review this summer, before the latest round of investigations into Anthony Weiner and their devastating implications for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Instead of rewriting it, I’m sharing it here as a time capsule of my initial thoughts on this film.

 

I’ll admit I went to this basically because I wanted to go to the IFC Film Center, but I’m glad I wandered in. Look, Anthony Weiner seems like a difficult person, but I think he genuinely would had good policies as a mayor. Though one with an anger management problem. The real story here isn’t why he sexted (obviously that’s some combination of lust, ego and a maybe pathological need to be adored) but why that’s unforgivable when others things aren’t. And more importantly its about how amazing his wife Huma is. Not for putting up with his crap (how and why she did is her business. Note: Though I’m glad she’s gotten out now) but for creating boundaries for herself and sticking to them even when there’s a documentary crew in her house. She’s me new definition of grace under fire.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

If you’ve read this blog, or ever talked to me, you probably know that the Harry Potter stories (I almost wrote universe, but I don’t like that. Maybe the Harry Potter mythology?) are incredibly important to me. In other words, this movie was made for me. And it was a delightful return to a world that I love. Plus Eddie Redmayne & Colin Farrell are 2 of my all time favorite actors, so I’m happy to watch them run around New York (including the museum I used to work at!) reducing it rubble.

The magical creatures are wonderfully rendered. I especially love the platypus like creature who collects gold in a pouch, which google tells me is a niffler. And I loved the sequences where Newt (Redmayne) walks his new, no-maj (aka muggle) friend Jacob (Dan Fogler) around his suitcase taking care of his animals. It was a lovely touch of warmth and whimsy.

Which honestly was needed, because the main plot of this movie is very dark, and the anti-magic Second Salem crusaders are super creepy. No spoilers, but until something towards the end becomes clearer about him, I found it very hard to watch Ezra Miller‘s character Creedance (and don’t get me started on his creepy little sister…)

But, as always, in J.K. Rowling’s world at least, there is hope in the darkness (and its usually in the form of a smart woman – I loved Katherine Waterston as Tina!)

And while I am not happy at all about the casting of a domestic abuser as the franchise’s new villain, I am happy to see where the story goes from here.

Divines

I wanted to like this movie so much. It tells the story of 2 French girls of color, one the daughter of an imam, growing up in the equivalent of the projects. At first it was giving me Fish Tank vibes and I was so in. But, I don’t know if it was the mood I was in or my over empathizing problem, but I could not get over my, ultimately justified, fear for these girls.

At every step along the way I wanted to save them from their self destructive decisions. I understand the point that writer-director Houda Benyamina, was making about the truly bone crushing stagnation of poverty, but I ultimately didn’t enjoy watching their naive attempt at escape (through the emulation of a local female drug dealer) grind them even further into despair.

That being said, the two actresses at the center here, Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumena were remarkable and Kevin Mischel added a lovely touch of romantic relief.

20th Century Women

I love the way Mike Mills tells stories. I loved Beginners and this felt like a true companion piece to that. Not just because Mills has said this is his love letter to his mom the way Beginners was to his Dad, but they feel cut from the same stylistic sloth. And I love that cloth.

It’s a mixture of collage, nonlinear storytelling and other technical tricks with real emotional depth and sly humor. Every character in this movie feels like a real, full person, even the ones that easily could have been jokes, like Billy Crudup‘s post-hippie handyman.

Annette Bening is quietly wonderful as the older, single mom of a 15 year old boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) who she feels unequipped to raise into a “good man,” (Because, “who even knows what that means any more?”) She enlists the help of his friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and renter Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and while her plan doesn’t quite work out they all do their best along with Crudup to form a family.

And its beautiful, and at times absurd, and I’m a little concerned about how much I want to wear all of Annette Bening’s costumes considering she’s  a fifty something women in this, but whatever, the 70s are in. Anyway, this is a beautiful film, filled with empathy, and you should all see it.

Don’t Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite artists in any medium, his stand up and radio stories are like comfort food to me. And this movie has a lot of the qualities that I about about his work: wry, observational comedy, self-deprecation that doesn’t wallow its way into self-pity, and a deep empathy for the frailty of its characters.

This movie, Birbiblia’s second as writer-director, follows an improv group that starts the move as a family of lovable losers and tracks the changes that occur hen one of them gets hired on a (very thinly veiled) stand in for Saturday Night Live. 

I find improv very hard to watch. (I get so nervous for the performers!) but the performance scenes here act as great illustrations of the group dynamic. The whole cast is great and the story is realistic, painful and warm, and brutal and lovely. It’s an insightful depiction of how people define success differently for themselves and how that can be impossible to describe.

A Monster Calls

I wasn’t going to see this. I feel like the darkness of the trailer made me think it was going to be creepy, but it wasn’t at all. It was a lovely little fable about anger and loss and love.

I bet it was probably a children’s book (it was!) and the movies felt like walking through a fairy tale. The young boy at the center (Lewis MacDougall) has a great “British orphan” face, even though he doesn’t play an orphan. What I mean is he looks like a kid out of a Dickens adaptation. And this feels like it will take its rightful place in the long tradition of British children’s stories.

And, like a lot of those stories, this is pretty bleak. Connor has had to grow up very quickly, because his mother (the always lovely Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, he’s bullied at school, and his dad, though generally kind, lives in a far away land (Los Angeles). His relief comes in the form of a Yew tree monster, delightfully voiced by Liam Neeson, who comes to help him come to terms with all of his conflicting emotions. It’s a tear jerker, and the animation is gorgeous. I feel like this isn’t getting the buzz it deserves. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

Julieta

Film nerd confession: until last night I don’t think I had ever actually seen a Pedro Almodóvar film. I knew all about him, knew I should probably watch Volver at some point, and had even seen the very underrated musical adaptation of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown during its brief Broadway run, but I hadn’t ever just sat down and watched one.

Well, I don’t know how Julieta fits in with his work obviously, but I can say that I liked it a great deal. Based on a few Alice Munro short stories, the film follows the title character backwards and forwards through her life, slowly solving the emotional mystery of how bright, young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) becomes the secretly sad, middle aged woman (Emma Suárez).

Almodóvar paces melodrama like a thriller, suspense heightening score by (Alberto Iglesias) and all. I love stories about complicated women that still feel real and this is a good one. I’m definitely going to catch up with more of his work now.

 

Songs That Hit Me Harder Now

I started working on this playlist a couple of days after the election. I was an emotional wreck. Like not sure I was capable of pulling myself out of bed levels of despair. I’m still very sad and angry, but I’ve begun to channel that energy in more productive directions. But certain songs have been making me cry that never did before. Some of their lyrics made a new kind of sense, and some I can’t really explain, but they listening to them and letting myself cry has been cathartic for me so I thought I would share them with you all:

Second Nature – Original Broadway Cast of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson 

I understand why people have issues with this show. It definitely can be read as glorifying Jackson, and parts of it are really just dumb. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately and how American populism is often such a dangerous, violent thing. I think it’s, unfortunately, worth a revisit in our current climate.

My Shot – Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton 

Just as a corrective.

Truth No. 2– Dixie Chicks

Bread & Roses– Judy Collins
I know I’ve shared the Joan Baez and Mimi Farina version of this before, but literally every version has always made me cry and especially now…

Pompeii – Bastille 

Ghosts That We Knew – Mumford and Sons 

He Thinks He’ll Keep Her – Mary Chapin Carpenter 

OK this one doesn’t make me cry, but I don’t think I had listened to it before this weekend since I was like 10. And I really didn’t understand it before. Also, this video is such a find. Look at all of those powerhouses! (And all that 90s hair..)

If We Make It Through December – Merle Haggard 
Thanks to Stu-Bot on TBTL for this one.

Make Them Hear You – Brian Stokes Mitchell from Ragtime 

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

Weekly Adventure: La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera

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I carried 4 main facts into last night’s performance of La Bohème at Lincoln Center last night:

  1. I have only recently (read in the last 2 years thanks to the Austin Opera) gotten over a baseless belief that I hated opera
  2. La Bohème is the source material for RENT, which is one of my favorite pieces of art of all time
  3. It’s also the opera that Nic Cage brings Cher to in Moonstruck
  4. The role of Colline was going to be sung by Ryan Speedo Green, who has a really interesting back story. I recommend listening to his Fresh Air interview

In other words, I still feel like too much of an opera newbie to write real reviews, but I was really excited when Claire invited me to go to Lincoln Center for the first time. And it was a really wonderful evening.

Firstly, the building itself is gorgeous, or as I said on Instagram stories last night:

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We also got our own box! Mostly, because the seats were partial view and there were some major scenes (including Green’s coat aria) that were completely obscured for us, but for the most part that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment, and it felt very fancy.

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Obnoxious intermission selfie

The performance itself was also great. As someone raised on musical theater, I’m astounded by the sheer scale of opera. In addition to a huge chorus, including a bunch of children, there were also a donkey and a horse that each did nothing more than walk across the stage once. (Is this traditional? Where do those animals come from? Where do they live?)

Having RENT memorized actually really helped me to follow the plot, especially in the first act when it’s basically the exact same story minus some drugs, which allowed me to not rely too heavily on the subtitles (though I loved my nifty little personal screen), and really allow myself to follow the emotion of the music. I particularly loved Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello, he was funny when he needed to be and had a wonderful quality to his voice.

Our Mimi, Hei-Kyung Hong, was also really excellent, and at the first intermission we learned it was her 30th anniversary singing at the Met! Though I found it odd that they presented the plaque in the middle of the show. But maybe that’s just another opera tradition I didn’t know about before.

Overall I loved the production, and found the story and relationships remarkably modern. (Musetta’s independence particularly, her line “I hate lovers who act like husbands” could still shock some people today.) And the atmosphere of the building and all the lights on the plaza made for a night that was somehow grand and cozy at the same time. It was the first thing this year to truly put me into the holiday spirit. (Let’s ignore that it’s a story about a woman dying tragically OK?)

Weekly Adventure: Falsettos

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Welcome back to regular Weekly Adventure updates! (This one is actually for last week…but I moved this Sunday so I should be back on schedule tomorrow. Yeah, that’s right, I already have an adventure planned for tonight!)

Anyway, last Friday night, my New York godmother (who I sometimes refer to as Baboo, because my brother and I have known her since before we could pronounce words properly) went to see the new revival of Falsettos at the Walter Kerr Theater. (Actually in the exact same seats that my mom and I saw The Crucible from this summer!)

Earlier that day I had read the New York Times review where Charles Isherwood referred to this production as perfect, which combined with my love for pretty much the whole cast (I mean, I hadn’t heard of the kid obviously, but Andrew Rannells? Brandon Uranowitz? Christian Borle? Traci Thoms!) had me excited but also worried (again) about inflated expectations.

And, honestly at first I wasn’t sure what Isherwood was talking about. Don’t get me wrong, it was good. And all of the actors were great. Especially Stephanie J. Block in her slow motion break down glory.

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But it didn’t seem to be rising to the level of “perfect” anything…and then Act II started.

For a little background Falsettos is made up of 2 one acts (there’s also a prequel of sorts) about a man named Marvin (Borle) who leaves his wife (Block) for a man (Rannells) and their attempt to remain a family with their son Jason, despite this complication. (And the further complication that she then falls in love with the family psychiatrist (Uranowitz).) It’s a good set up for both comedy and pathos, and the first act zips along this path…

But the most important background fact is that the last act came out in 1981. And is about gay men. So, it becomes a gut punch of how this zany neurotic family deal with the crisis they didn’t even have the name AIDS for yet. While this is obviously upsetting (Baboo and I both cried all the mascara off of our faces), but it was also an incredibly moving look at what makes a family and how heartbreaking it can be to be in one.

So, in the end, I get where you’re coming from Mr. Isherwood. Act II is pretty damn near perfect. (And can’t wait to cheer for Andrew Rannell’s Tony Nom next spring.)