Monthly Archives: January 2011
Tomorrow is February 1st, 2011.
I made the grand – and probably less-than-smart – decision a while back to celebrate the month that contains Valentine’s Day by reading only love stories. Then I realized that pretty much anything can be called a love story if you look at it in a certain way, and narrowed my focus.
Yep. I’m reading only Romance novels in February. Books I described to my friends as “Romance Novels. Trashy Ones. The ones where Pirates and/Fabio would not be out of place on the cover.” Thanks to my Kindle, I’m armed and ready with a whole slew of wonderfully passionate and wonderfully cheesy novels involving shirtless cowboys, shirtless princes, voluptuous heroines, and rendezvous in all sorts of forbidden places.
You know you’re excited. Don’t lie.
(And, oh yes, I will be reading “Pleasuring the Pirate.” You bet your a$$.)
Starting tomorrow, watch out!
Since starting this blog, I’ve signed up for a lot of Chicago-area book/literary/storytelling groups mailing lists. One of the most interesting groups I’ve gotten emails from has been 2nd story. This storytelling collective has been in action for about five years, and seem to bring in bright talent.
As I made that 2011 Resolution to see one author/literary event a month, and January passed in a flash, I made reservations to attend the January 29th 2nd Story show, which was a collaboration with a folk music group called Hogeye Folk Arts, and which was taking place at the Lake Street Church in Evanston, IL.
After a day of perusing some of the adorable stores in Evanston, and a delicious dinner at Tommy Nevin’s Irish Pub, we headed over to what I was hoping would be a lively, lovely evening of stories and songs.
Arriving at the church, I was immediately put off by the women seated at what I assumed was the ticket table. Now, I’m a regular theatre-goer. I know the drill. When you arrive for a show, you locate the ticket table and get your ticket or check in or however the producing group chooses to run things. One of the women replied briskly, “The doors aren’t open yet.” I could clearly see that, as the closed doors were two inches in front of my face. Fine, whatever. I replied, “Oh, well, I just wondered if I needed to check in or get my tickets,” and the woman replied back with “No. The doors aren’t open yet.”
So yeah, great start right? I went back to my husband and we sat down to wait for these magical doors to open. (It was around then we quickly realized we were the youngest people in attendance who weren’t actually going to be performing or were part of 2nd story. This is truly only a slight exaggeration – there were three kids there as well.)
Once the doors opened, we went in and sat on the far left side of the semi-circle of seats. The venue wasn’t a theatre, but rather a very nice room (with a sassy red accent wall) and there was a nice buzz going on among the gathering crowd, and everything seemed like it would be fine.
Nope. This is when it all goes to hell.
As the show was beginning, and a nice-seeming gentleman was making opening remarks, a woman (who I shall call “Window-Lady”) got up, went to the windows right behind me, and opened one. While I understand that a group of people in a medium-sized room can create some heat, if you open a window in January, someone’s going to get cold. The woman who was seated in front of me merely turned her head to see what was happening, and Window-Lady growled, “I just opened the window!” Window-Lady then proceeded, perhaps out of spite, to open a second window. After that, she placed herself standing directly behind me and watched the show, occasionally talking out loud in what I would not describe as a whisper. At one point, the woman in the seat in front of me (you know, the one who dared turn her head?) got cold, and got up to close one of the windows. Window-Lady’s response? To open the other window as far as it would go. As this was becoming an issue, a well-intentioned lady got up from her seat in the middle of one of the songs and – paraphrasing – told Window-Lady that many of us were freezing. To which Window-Lady responded, “Well, maybe you should think of other people.”
Because, you know, opening a window in January because you’re warm while disregarding the opinions of others is really thinking about other people. Grr.
I’d had enough. Having been to a ton of theatre in my life, nothing irritates me to my core like rude audience members, and this woman took the cake. She wasn’t talking on her cell phone or texting (though she did talk loudly at several points in the evening, to herself I think) but she was infuriating me.
There was an intermission/refreshment break, and my husband and I left. Which is a shame, because the two storytellers we heard – Larry Kearns and Aimee Perkins – were really, truly fantastic. Kearns told a touching, humorous, and insightful tale about a father and his two sons stuck on a houseboat, and Perkins held us in the palm of her hands with her tale of a gruff mechanic seeking acceptance in his new life as a woman in a small Wisconsin town. The band, Seeking Wonderland, were also lovely. This talented ensemble of six young dudes played jazzy/lounge-y tunes that were incredibly catchy, and even rocked out on an accordion. (Kudos as well to the pianist, who was playing the hell out of a piano that was badly in need of a tuning.) I’m sure the third storyteller of the evening – Matt Miller – would have been wonderful, too, but we simply didn’t have it in us.
I’ll be attending 2nd story again, but when they’re back in their natural habitat – at one of the bars and lounges in Chicago. Probably Webster’s Wine Bar, since I’ve always wanted to go there anyway. I can only presume that the ticket takers and window lady were affiliated with the church and not with 2nd city (as Window-lady seemed to be putting out supplies for the refreshments when we were leaving) and so I’m not blaming this clever, hard-working storytelling group for something out of their control.
However, the evening left me cold. This proves once again that even the best performances can be trashed by a bad audience experience.
As an audience member, don’t be rude. You’re not the only person in the world, and the sun doesn’t shine out of any orifice of yours.
In 2003, American troops bombed Baghdad. Amongst the chaos of the explosions, a group of lions and other zoo animals were set free from the Baghdad Zoo and wandered the rubble of the city completely free. In the cleanup efforts, American troops gathered many of these animals and took them back into captivity. A few lions, however, wouldn’t come so easily and were shot by the troops.
This incredibly heart-breaking (and true) incident was the inspiration for Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichson’s award-winning graphic novel, “Pride of Baghdad.” It’s not a happy story. If I had any previous knowledge of this real-life incident, I likely would not have read this book at all – but I did, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Vaughan (who is credited with writing the story) makes a smart choice to personalize the four lions we are to journey along with. Zill is the alpha-male, Safa is an older lioness who is nearly blind, Noor is a younger lioness who (pre-bombing) hatches plans to get free, and is also the mother to the youngest of the pride, Ali. These animals talk to each other and their personalities and backstories shine. As they wander the nearly-abandoned city, they encounter other loose animals; horses, monkeys, and another lion.
Henrichon (the illustrator) has an obviously deep understanding of the power that visuals lend to a graphic novel. Though it’s often said of horror movies that the things you don’t actually see are the most atrocious, I challenge anyone to tell me the last few pages of “Pride of Baghdad” aren’t horrifying and soul-crushing. This isn’t one of those last-second happy twist endings.
I have a feeling that, years from now, when I’m asked about truly sad books I’ve read along the way, this is one that’ll come to mind. That said, it’s a powerful (if fictionalized) reminder of the savage nature of both animals and human. Animals may eat each other, but humans (and their wars) aren’t much better.
Here’s my grand confession: Prior to this reading, I’d never picked up one of her works. Sometimes I’m a sham of a booknerd, I know.
Now, my typical instinct when I think of “Prairie Tales” (as I like to call them) is to assume the book I’m about to read will lean toward the dull side – or, will read like an episode of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” (CBS has ruined me, I tell you.) So, it’s with mad pleasure that I’m thrilled to announce that Willa Cather’s sense of humor and gift for creating likable, immediately believable characters, showed me I was wrong.
In 1918′s “My Antonia,” a little boy named Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as a Bohemian family. This family includes a young girl named Antonia. Jim and Antonia become fast friends and go through life side by side, with occasional bursts of romantic interest. The book charts them from childhood to parenthood, and does so in five sections. Of these sections, the one I was most interested in is the second – “The Hired Girls.” In this book, Antonia and other young country girls come to the city to get hired as maids, and find themselves swept into a world of boys and dances. It’s the book in which we meet perhaps the novel’s most fascinating figure, Lena Lingard. She’s a surprisingly bold, successful, and independent woman for the time period she was written to have existed in. Lena and Jim will later have a romance all their own.
The book explores darker turf as well, though these moments are kept quick. During the very first winter Antonia’s family lives in Nebraska, her father shoots himself. The passage is strikingly written and very touching.
Ms. Willa Cather deserves all her accolades. She was a really strong writer in total control of her game. Charming, lively, and much funnier than expected, “My Antonia” is a gem.
(SideNote: I’m always interested to learn tidbits like this. The Dogfish Head Brewery (Delaware) has a “My Antonia” beer that they’ve created. So, Willa Cather joins Kurt Vonnegut in that elusive list of “Authors with Tribute Beers.”)
Oh, how I love travel guides. More than I probably should, really. Whenever there’s the slightest hint that I might be going on a trip somewhere, I jump online and to bookstores and start gathering information. As one with a serious travel-bug, I love knowing all about the places I’m going and what I can expect to see – in addition to things to keep an eye out for.
Heck, I’ll even read travel guides when there’s not a slim chance I’ll be heading somewhere. But then again, I’m a big nerd, so..
Back in August (before this blog was born) my husband and I spent our honeymoon on the glorious and magical Hawaiian island of O’ahu. We stayed in a spectacular hotel on Waikiki beach, and spent a week perusing the island via foot, bus, and rental car. The week holds some of the happiest memories of my life, and I will forever claim I left a piece of my heart in the Pacific Ocean on Waikiki beach.
This, however, is not about how much I love Hawaii.
Packed in my bags for the trip (and in my purse every day along the way) were two travel guides that I picked up to prepare for the adventure. The first was (pictured above) the Lonely Planet guide to “Honolulu, Waikiki & O’ahu.” The second was the Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Honolulu & O’ahu guide. I selected both of these for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I trust the Lonely Planet and Eyewitness Travel companies and the well-informed staffers they hire to compile these guides. Second, I’m a sucker for color and pictures, and many of the travel guides I found contained pages and pages of text. While that’s all well and good, and while we know I love text, we’re talking about places where I want to see sights. For that reason, I think pictures are absolutely a necessity.
If I had to choose, I would say the Lonely Planet guide was my favorite of the two guides I took with me. Like the Lonely Planet magazine, the photographs and layout are just gorgeous. These people take pride in their visuals and obviously hire talented photographers, along with their talented writer staff.
The guide breaks down the island into different parts – Honolulu, Waikiki, Southeast O’ahu, Windward O’ahu, North Shore, Leeward O’ahu, and Central O’ahu – and then highlights the best things about each region. Recommendations are frequent (such as “Best neighborhood for walking” and “Best shave ice”) and, from the ones we tested, pretty dead-on. There’s a section with suggested itineraries, but then it feels like you’re left to explore.
Though the book is packed with a lot of information, it never feels like too much and the excess of information came in handy. For restaurants, there are notes like “Closed Sundays,” which are always helpful for non-locals. The final section of the book is practical information – such as speed limits, food glossary, climate charts, and a section on dangers to watch out for.
Whenever I go on my next adventure, if there’s a Lonely Planet guide for it, I’m absolutely picking it up.
(At Chinaman’s hat, which we located thanks to the Lonely Planet Guide.)
The best thing about Eyewitness’ guides is that they’re not attempting to exhaust every single thing you could possibly do while vacationing somewhere. It’s their focused brevity that makes them shine. (I own 4 or 5 of these for different places, and I’m never disappointed.) If you’re going to a site like Pearl Harbor, which is massive and has endless things to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Turning to the Top 10 Pearl Harbor list will ensure you hit the major points and don’t smack yourself later for missing something like the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. Also, there are lists like the Top Ten Moments in History list, which gives a super-quick overview of the history that makes up a place like Hawaii. When you’re out walking around, you may want to know what happened in a particular spot without having to read a whole book about the event. In addition, the lists of local dishes to try, the best golf courses, bars and clubs, and places to shop are all super handy when you’re faced with a barrage of options. O’ahu is a rich island, and there’s too much to do it all in one trip.
Also, there was a detachable map in the back of this Eyewitness guide that my husband and I kept on us at all times, and used more than once to figure out where in the world we had wandered to. Waterproof and small, these maps are great to keep in your pocket just in case. Big Plus.
I hope to share more thoughts on travel guides when I do some more traveling. So far I know there are trips to see family in Michigan and Texas slated for this year, and perhaps a bigger – OutsideNorthAmerican – adventure awaits in 2012. (Aleisha.. hint.. hint..)
What travel guides do y’all use? Am I the only one who reads these things? Surely that can’t be true.
That’s kind of how I felt while reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.
Hear me out.
This sad novella explores the line between memory and reality, life and death. As the hours of George’s life wind down, so do his memories, thoughts, and the legion of clocks in the house, which he has spent most of his life tweaking and repairing. Family members and friends weave in and out of both his dreams and his reality as he lies in bed, readying to die. He recalls his father’s career as a salesman, and the frightening seizures his father suffered from all his life. It’s really a story about making peace with yourself and those in your life before the clock runs out.
Paul Harding has a gift for words, and there are more than a few passages in the book I highlighted while reading. Harding writes in beautifully minuscule detail of the kind of seemingly minor events that make up a life. If you never grow to care deeply about George or any of the other lesser-developed characters, you’ll at least be blown away by the technique of this writer’s craft. It’s a sad, simple little book told with exquisite combinations of words.
“Tinkers” won the 2010 Pulitzer for fiction, and I can’t argue with that award. Not a bit. Harding is as good as writers come. I would have liked more emotional involvement to go with this parade of word-brilliance, but hey.. A minor squabble, indeed.
In Rebecca Hunt’s fascinating debut novel, he’s called “Mr. Chartwell.” He’s a black Labrador who stands on his back legs and holds conversations with people. That’s right, he’s a dog man. Consider it a testament to what a great writer Rebecca Hunt is, that she makes this seem totally okay from the very first page.
Ester Hammerhans is an awkward librarian who’s husband killed himself two years earlier, and now has decided to rent a room in her home for extra money. Tired of seeing her lonely, her friends are trying to fix her up with a charmingly awkward new library employee. Across town, Winston Churchill is readying to resign from Parliament. Mr. Chartwell arrives at Ester’s door seeking a place to stay, and soon moves in – even as his business with Mr. Churchill grows more and more intense. While he’s around, Mr. Chartwell/The Black Dog develops an an attachment to Ester.
That’s about where I have to stop before I give something away.
“Mr. Chartwell,” is a seriously remarkable first novel. It’s hardly what you expect it to be when you begin reading, and the whole effect is refreshing. Hunt doesn’t feel the need to explain every instance to the reader, and leaves several things open to post-reading interpretation. Her characters are well-developed and her dialogue is fresh and witty. (Winston Churchill, particularly, is given some remarkably strong lines.) It’s just a smart book all around.
The book is more than you think it’s going to be when you begin reading it – which is precisely what makes it worth a read. Here’s to a remarkable debut by a new voice in fiction – and here’s hoping Ms. Rebecca Hunt writes many more clever books full of surprises.
The book goes on sale February 22, 2011. Get your hands on it.
At present, I’m jealous of anyone who lives near enough to London to check our their theater scene. Not only did the Royal Shakespeare Company do a musical version of one of my all-time favorite books, Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” but there’s a David Tennant/Catherine Tate “Much Ado About Nothing” getting ready to open. (Of course I’m a Doctor Who fan. What?)
Both of these aside, I recently learned of a new musical that set my heart twirling with joy.
It seems the Old Globe is running a new production – A musical version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” In the past, attempts to make Ms. Austen’s works into musicals have either failed or just stalled out, so to see one actually hit the stage and seem successful is a joy. With Music, Lyric, and Book by Paul Gordon – the man behind one of my favorite musical adaptations, Jane Eyre – it looks to be one to watch.
Here’s a fun video of the creative team – including director Jeff Calhoun – discussing the show.
This video appears to be from a previous production of the show at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre. (I’m unable to track down current production footage at present, but this is from a production of “Emma” by Paul Gordon, and how many of those can there really be, right?)
I can’t imagine a better-suited Austen work becoming a musical. “Emma,” which was the inspiration for the movie “Clueless” is about romantic entanglements and silly people. What’s not to love about that?
After all, as the book says – “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”