Book Review: One Hot Summer by Rosemary Ashton


Author: Rosemary Ashton
TitleOne Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Narrator:  Corrie James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames.  The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river.  Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli.  In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species.  Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery.  Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.

The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme.  And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858.  A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

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Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)


Title: Avengers: Infinity War
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Avengers 3 or Marvel Cinematic Universe XIX is the big crossover spectacular you’d expect.  It brings together both factions of the Avengers with Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of Wakanda (including Bucky, now known as The White Wolf) to attempt to prevent Thanos from acquiring all of the Infinity Stones and destroying half of all the life in the universe.

With 21 main protagonists plus villains and minor characters,  it’s impressive that filmmakers are able to streamline their overlapping storylines and give everyone adequate screentime (although this is not a movie you can watch with no previous knowledge of the MCU).  I particularly like how people from different groups are matched up to work together, such as Thor with Rocket and Groot, and Doctor Strange with Iron Man and Spider-Man (and latter those three work with the remaining Guardians and Nebula).  I feel there were moments in the movie where typically the camera would hold a shot for a heroic beat, but instead there’s a quick cut to another storyline, as if the editors are just trying to fit in everything possible.  And that’s okay, because it keeps the movie from feeling bloated.

The movie does a good job of showing a more tender side of Thanos, albeit I’m still unconvinced that he’s capable of love.  I also question if he’s really thought his plan through (see spoilerly thoughts below).  I’ve not seen Doctor Strange before, but I immediately loved him when he called Tony Stark a douchebag.  The character most poorly served in this movie is Vision, who I thought had terrific character development in Civil War, but seems to be reduced to a bland plot device here.  I love that they cast Peter Dinklage as a giant.  Thor, Spider-Man, and Groot steal every scene they’re in.  Despite the grim subject matter this movie is very funny. Except for the ending which is appropriately solemn.

Avengers: Infinity War is not a great movie, but it is a great action adventure blockbuster, which is all we can ask of it.

 

Some spoilerly thoughts and questions:

  • It’s convenient that the superheroes that survive Thanos’ plot are the same ones from the first Avengers movie. Presumably, Hawkeye also survives and will rejoin them. I suppose that will make that sequel a bit more focused, though.
  • Too bad Doctor Strange doesn’t survive since he choses to be vague about what he saw in the possible futures.  May have been better if he’d said nothing at all.
  • It’s kind of a cheap move that Thanos survives because first Peter Quill takes the bait and ruins the plan to take the gauntlet, and then Thor waits until it’s too late to use his Thanos’ killing ax.  Those kind of tricks don’t make for good storytelling.
  • Does Thanos really eradicate half of all the living things in the universe? Half of all the ducks, half of all the trees, half of all the paramecium? Or is it just half of all the bipedal, sentient humanoids?  The latter would make more sense because destroying half the food sources and disrupting ecosystems would be contrary to Thanos’ belief that he’s doing a mercy to stop starvation.  But where is the line drawn between species that are halved and those that are left untouched?
  • If the eradication is truly randomized, there’s a 50% chance that Thanos himself would be disintegrated.  For a moment, I thought that was actually going to happen, and Thanos, his mission accomplished,  would be content to see himself disappearing.  I think that would’ve been an amazing twist and would’ve set up the next movie to be less “Let’s fight Thanos for 2.5 hours” and more “OMG, Thanos is gone, how are we going to reverse this?”
  • Red Skull’s appearance seems kind of … random … but hey, when your squeezing in almost every character in the MCU, why hand out a bit part to an unknown?
  • If the heroes lost in Infinity War are brought back by Stark sacrificing himself, I’m good with that.
  • Are Natasha and Bruce going to be able to rekindle their romance?

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2018)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second year of this Netflix series adapts books five through nine.  As such, it suffers some of the problems as the books in the repetitiveness of the plots and the extreme frustration with the adult characters’ persistent obliviousness and casual cruelty.  Neil Patrick Harris’ hammy performance as Count Olaf has its moments but too often veers into just plain annoying (especially in The Vile Village when he’s disguised as Detective Dupin).

But this series is saved by the women.  In The Austere Academy, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats is absolutely hilarious as the evil, secretly cake-sniffing brat. Then in The Ersatz Elevator, Esme Squalor makes her debut as the most-stylish villain, wonderfully portrayed by Lucy Punch who basically steals the screen from Harris for the rest of the series (no small feet).  One of the biggest changes from the book is greatly expanding and changing the role of Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue, into a librarian at Prufrock Academy who becomes a VFD agent and delightful – if short-lived – ally of the Baudelaires.

Another great addition to the cast for this season is Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket which allows for a long-awaited reunion with Harris of rivals from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  Isadora and Duncan Quagmire make their debut, although there part is smaller than I remember in the books (perhaps I’m conflating with later books in the series?). But the Baudelaires are what really makes this show succeed: Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire, Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire, and the greatest toddler actor ever, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire.  This season shows them grow as characters, becoming more confident in their abilities, and willingness to stand up against those cruel, clueless adults.

The show remains a visual treat and is full of more memorable gags than I can document here. This show was made to be GIF-ed on Tumblr.

 

Related Posts:

 

Podcasts of the Week for Two Weeks Ending May 19


I’m not doing well at getting these podcast recommendations up every week, but here’s a good crop of podcast for your listening pleasure.

HUB History :: The Battle of Jamaica Plain

There was a gang shootout right here in my own neighborhood over a 100 years ago that had international implications and ended up involving Winston Churchill, and I’d never heard of it?!?

Hidden Brain :: Baby Talk: Decoding the Secret Language of Babies

It’s been a long while since I’ve had a nice chat with a baby.

Planet Money :: The Land of Duty Free

The mass quantities of liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, and perfume sold in airports has always fascinated/perplexed me.  Here’s the story of how the duty free shop got started at Shannon Airport in Ireland.  It also confirms my suspicions that duty free shop purchases aren’t really bargains.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders

A live performance of LeVar Burton reading a hillarious/poignant story about a worldwide apocalypse, a genie in a bottle, theater criticism,  and the nature of wishes, complete with an interview with the author

BackStory :: Shock of the New

The history of World’s Fairs fascinates me and this episode commemorates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with special focus on women’s and African American perspectives on the fair.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cherokee Story Slam

The stories and life of the talented Robert Lewis.

More or Less: Behind the Stats :: Tulipmania mythology

The Dutch tulip bubble always makes a good story about economics and finance, but the truth of the story is not as dramatic as the myths, albeit more interesting in many ways.

 

Brand New Music Pages


Have you ever wanted find all of my music posts in one place?  I’ve created a new music page which you can find in the menu at the top of this blogs homepage.   The music has three sub-pages.

Album Reviews

Reviews of recently released albums.

All-Time Favorites

Lists of my favorite songs and albums.

Music Discoveries.

My attempts to learn more about a band or artist by listening to all or most of their back catalog.

 

Comic Book Reviews: Ms. Marvel (2014-2015)


I’ve heard good things about the Ms. Marvel comics and so I read the first four volumes of the collected comics.  Kamala Khan is a wonderful character who cares deeply and has a lot of humor and creativity, as well as being just plain adorable.  I also like the water color style of the comic art.

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Artist)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Publication Info: Marvel (2014)
Summary/Review:
Rating: ***1/2

Kamala Khan is a teenager from Jersey City who writes fan fiction about her favorite superheroes (who in this universe really exist, not just in comic books), struggles with the strict upbringing of her immigrant Pakistani parents, and engaging with the wider American world as a Muslim girl.  On a night when Kamala sneaks out to go to a party, a mysterious fog envelopes the city and Kamala finds herself with the powers to morph her body and gain significant strength.  She adopts the persona of her hero Captain America – aka Carol Danvers – and begins protecting Jersey City from weird attacks and invaders.  This collection of the first five issues is not overly weighed down by origin story tropes as it depicts Kamala clumsily learning to use her powers while maintaining her ordinary life.


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Jacob Wyatt (Illustrator), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review: ****

The second collection features Ms. Marvel coming face to face with her first archival, The Collector, a hybrid of a bird and a clone of Thomas Edison (a delightfully-weird villain).  Wolverine becomes Ms. Marvel’s mentor for a time and Kamala has to balance fangirling over one of her heroes with the reality that she is in better physical shape to handle their adventure.  She’s later paired up with Lockjaw, a large bulldog with teleportation powers.  The story of the Inventor kidnapping teenagers to use them for their energy cleverly plays on the stereotyping and disposability of Generation Y in our capitalist system.


 

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Takeshi Miyazawa (Illustrator), Elmo Bondoc (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This collection includes another crossover story with a comical story about Loki ending up at Kamala’s school dance.  There’s also a crossover with S.H.I.E.L.D. as she teams up to save the school from alien infested cafeteria food.  The bigger story is that Kamala falls in love with a boy named Kamran, son of her parents friends, who not only shares a Muslim heritage and geeky interests with Kamala, but also has Inhuman powers.  It seems too good to be true, right?

Rating: ****


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
Title: Ms. Marvel Vol. 4: Last Days
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This is part of a larger Marvel story arc called “Last Days of the Universe” in which the big story is happening in Manhattan.  Kamala has to set up protection for Jersey City on her own while also trying to rescue her brother.  Then her biggest hero Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers arrives and they are able to spend some time working together.  It’s a bittersweet crossover as Danvers has little time to spare and Kamala has to recognize that there may be no tomorrow and reconcile with her family and friends.  My favorite part is when the people in the shelter Kamala sets up in her school decide that they will deal with the end of the universe in a purely New Jersey manner, with a dance party.

There’s also an issue of Spider-Man in which Ms. Marvel makes an appearance, which has nothing to do with the rest of this book, but it makes sense since Kamala Khan and Peter Parker have a lot in common.

Rating: ****

Favorite Passages:

“The young are seen as a political burden, a public nuisance. They are not considered worth educating or protecting.  They are called parasites, leeches, brats, spawn–

If you used the to describe any minority but children, it would quite understandably be considered hate speech.

We are simply taking this loathing to its logical conclusion.” – The Inventor

“Friendship is not a zone, you idiot! Friendship is something real and good and anybody who doesn’t understand that needs a dictionary.” – Bruno

“It’s always the same.

There’s always that one group of people who think that they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them.

And then everyone who looks like them suffers.’

Movie Review: Inside Out


TitleInside Out
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Director: Pete Docter
Production Company:

The premise of Inside Out is well-established from all the promotion for the movie.  Inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson are five personified emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust.  When Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has to leave behind her home, friends, and hockey team, and deal with moving into a creaky, little house, a late moving van, and her parents’ distraction, Riley faces new stresses that throw the organized world of her emotions into disarray.

The story goes in places I didn’t expect.  Joy and Sadness are separated from the “control center” of the mind to the “memory banks” and have to find their way back in what is essentially a buddy film.  Joy – the self-appointed leader of the emotions – has never understood the purpose of Sadness and as Riley goes through what is essentially a depressive episode, Joy realizes that they can’t resolve the problem until she lets Sadness take control and allow Riley to express her feelings.

It’s a complicated concept, but it’s done well with a lot of humor and creative illustrations of the inner workings of the mind. It has the gags that will make the kids laugh, and the moments that will make the parents weep (as I did both when Riley’s imaginary friend fades away and at the climax when Riley finally tells her parents how she’s feeling, which lead to my son shouting “hey, you’re crying!).  My son also noted that the emotions display a lot of – well, emotions – leading him to conclude that there must by five smaller emotions within their minds, and so on.

Summary/Review: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Rating: ****

Album Review: Roza Cruz by La Mecánica Popular


AlbumRoza Cruz
ArtistLa Mecánica Popular 
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Thoughts:

It’s hard to describe the music on La Mecánica Popular’s album Roza Cruz.  I think it sounds like psychedelic Latin jazz, NPR describes it as “Radical Afro-Latin Futurism,” and the band’s own website says they are a “Brooklyn-based Afro-Latin group” and that “their sound is steeped in 1970s’-era Salsa Dura, yet incorporates a heavy dose of modern gadgets – a unique blend of processed Peruvian-style guitar licks & experimental sounds, synths, and textures.”  However one describes it, the five instrumental tracks on this album are a treat for the ears.

Rating: ****

 

 

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)


TitleBlack Panther
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Black Panther is rightly celebrated for breaking ground in representation by depicting African and African Americans (and especially Black women) in a superhero/action adventure film.  That wouldn’t matter as much if also wasn’t an excellent superhero/action adventure film, certainly the best one I’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The all-star cast put in excellent performances that balances the challenge of providing great character development,  motivations, and relationships with butt-kicking, blowing stuff up, and witty dialogue. The world of Wakanda comes alive, providing a “what if” view of how an African country uninterrupted by colonialism could develop a technologically advanced society from architecture to clothing to rituals to freakin’ awesome battle rhinos.

Introducing T’Challa in Civil War means that Black Panther doesn’t get bogged down with “superhero origin story” tropes, even as it shows him facing the challenges of coming of age, ascending to kingship, and realizing the nuances of right and wrong in governance.  Chadwick Boseman does a great job at examining this uncertainty and loss of idealism. Michael B. Jordan steals the show as Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens whose character is so very American in contrast to the rest of the cast, and brings up uncomfortable questions about Wakanda’s responsibility to oppressed and colonized Black peoples worldwide. (SPOILER: I’m disappointed Kilmonger chooses to die because I think his character could make a great “frenemy” in future films, allying with T’Challa as Wakanda opens itself to the rest of the world.  But I suppose Marvel is already telling that kind of story with Wanda Maximof).  Like most everyone else, my favorite character is Shuri, the young tech wizard played Letitia Wright who needles her big brother T’Challa (while secretly hero-worshiping him) and says inappropriate things at formal occasions.

You probably don’t need me to say it, but this is an all around terrific movie and has something for everyone.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Previously Reviewed:

Album Review: Last Man Standing by Willie Nelson



Album: Last Man Standing
Artist: Willie Nelson
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Last Man Standing”
  • “Don’t Tell Noah”
  • “Something You Get Through”
  • “Heaven Is Closed”
  • “I’ll Try to Do Better Next Time”

Thoughts:

At 85 years old, Willie Nelson is cognizant that many of the people he loved and worked with have died and that he doesn’t have much time left.  Nelson’s new album explores that sense of mortality with tenderness and a sense of humor.  Musically, Nelson sounds as good as ever, and the display of musical styles is a retrospective on his musical career as much as the lyrics. May we all age as gracefully as Willie Nelson.

Rating:

Book Review: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson


Author: Joshilyn Jackson
TitleGods in Alabama
Narrator: Catherine Taber
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2005)
Summary/Review:

This is a novel I saw highly recommended but didn’t know too much about going into it.  And since it jumps among many genres – romantic comedy, mystery, Southern gothic – it kept me guessing what would happen next (in a good way).  The narrator Arlene Fleet leaves her hometown in rural Alabama after a “miracle,” and promises God three things: never to lie, never to fornicate, and to never return to Possett, Alabama. 10 years later, an old classmate from Possett appears in Arlene’s life and forces her to make the decision to break all three promises.

Accompanying Arlene on her journey back to Alabama is her African-American boyfriend/potential fiance, setting up a confrontation with Arlene’s racist relatives. Arlene also has to contend with her strong-willed Aunt Florence, who raised her when her own mother suffered mental illness.  And she has to contend with the legacy of the popular high school quarterback, Jim Beverly.  There’s also an unsolved murder.  The murder is mentioned early in the book, so this is no spoiler, but the how and the why of the murder unfold over the narrative.

It’s an interesting and entertaining book that shifts from funny to dark on a dime.  I think it gets a bit too contrived toward the end, but by that time I was too invested in the characters to be bothered too much.  Of course, not knowing what exactly type of book this is helps in not anticipating its many twists.

Recommended books:

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price, The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann,  and Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)


TitleCaptain America: Civil War
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Captain America’s name is in the title but this film feels more like a third Avengers movie, or perhaps more generically Marvel Cinematic Universe XIII.  The movie starts with the Avengers team working in Lagos where new member Wanda Maximof attempts to deflect the explosion of a villain’s suicide bomb, but instead it accidentally detonates in a nearby building where it kills Wakandan humanitarian workers.  This latest mishap leads to the United Nations passing the Sokovia Accords (ironically named for the place where the Avengers first attempted to avoid collateral damage) which will allow the U.N. to oversee and control the Avengers.

And thus begins the Civil War where the team splits over whether they will accept outside control.  Frustratingly, the filmmakers have douchey Tony Stark take the side I agree with, while it’s Steve Rogers who goes rogue in opposition to the accords.  Honestly, these choices seem out of character for both Stark and Rogers and the film never really justifies their decision.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop Civil War from having a lot of dramatic tension as Rogers puts together a team to protect his friend Bucky Barnes and seek out Helmut Zemo who framed Barnes for bombing the U.N., while Stark puts together a team to stop Rogers from breaking the Accords.

If there wasn’t enough going on, Civil War also introduces two new major characters. T’Challa, the Black Panther, enters the fight as a wild card third party seeking revenge on Bucky Barnes because his father King T’Chaka is killed in the bombing.  Meanwhile, Stark decides it’s a good time to bring a new, young superhero into the fold, Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man).  You’ve probably seen what happens next, as the clips of the big battle scenes as Avengers fight Avengers at a German airport have saturated popular culture.

There are some interesting twists I won’t spoil, but I was impressed and surprised by Zemo’s end game and manipulation.  And despite the grim subject matter, the movie manages a lot of humor and entertainment.  Oh, and I haven’t mentioned Vision – who seemed to just be tossed in as another character in Age of Ultron – who emerges as both comic relief and the humanitarian heart of Civil War.  There’s a lot going on in this movie, but ultimately it succeeds because it does justice to characters, even though there’s a lot of them.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Vessel by Frankie Cosmos


AlbumVessel
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: March 30, 2018
Thoughts:

Frankie Cosmos – the stage name of Greta Kline (a perfectly fine popstar name but I suppose she’s trying to distance herself from her famous parents, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) – sings in a sweet voice over power pop arrangements, sounding kind of like Kimya Dawson crossed with 90s bands like Velocity Girl and Belly.  The songs are short and the 18 tracks combined total just over 30 minutes so the album feels over before it really gets started.  The music is pleasant but it doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me. Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to relate?

Rating: **

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell


Author:W. Kamau Bell
TitleThe Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Narrator: W. Kamau Bell
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, and television host.  I’m aware of him through his terrific Politically Re-Active podcast with Hari Kondabolu (currently on hiatus).  I liked him enough from that to want to read his book.  Much of The Awkward Thoughts is straight memoir.  Bell’s parents divorced when he was young and he grew up in Boston attending predominately white private schools.  He describes himself as a “blerd” or Black nerd and distanced from the identifiers of Black culture. Since Bell and I were born in the same year, I found I could relate to a lot of the pop culture events he recounts.

As a teenager he moved to Chicago at a time when Harold Washington was mayor and Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey were beginning their reign as world changing Black super-celebrities.  Bell attended University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out, and then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s to attempt  to break into the stand-up comedy scene right as the big stand-up boom of the 70s and 80s went bust.  He finds his niche in a one-man show in which he made comedic observations on the state of racism in America.  This lead to work on television, hosting Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX and then United Shades of America on CNN, as well as many, many podcasts.

Among the memoir bits, Bell reflects on many topics including sports (and why he doesn’t enjoy them), Denzel Washington as the greatest actor of all time, the significance of Doc McStuffins, and the Rocky movies.  He also worries about racism in America and the very real threat of a Black man like himself being killed by police or a vigilante.  He details a significant incident when he was harassed by the staff of a coffee shop in his hometown of Berkeley, CA when he stopped to talk to his wife (who is white) and her friends at the sidewalk cafe.  As a white reader, I was grateful that Bell takes the time to address what white people can do to confront racism (and give us a pep talk in the process) while relating his own experiences of what definitely does not help with racism.

This is a funny and insightful book, and the audiobook is extra special in that Bell reads it in his warm voice.

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)


TitleAvengers: Age of Ultron
Release Date: May 1, 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The second Avengers movie and the eleventh in the Marvel Cinematic Universe reunites the familiar crew of superheroes and introduces some new ones as they battle a world-destroying villain unleashed by … themselves.  The Avengers was pretty much content to link together a bunch of action set pieces and call it a film.  Age of Ultron surprisingly includes longer stretches of quieter settings allowing the story to breath and the characters to develop.  This includes a party where the Avengers joke around, a visit to Clint Barton’s secret farmhouse (and previously unknown wife and children), and a surprisingly tender romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner.

Now I’m not totally against big action set pieces, and this movie’s got them, with the Avengers duking it out with the baddies on three continents – Europe, Africa, and Asia. The direction and choreography of these fight scenes is much improved as it’s easier to follow what’s going on and get some sense of what the characters are dealing with internally.  One of my biggest gripes about the previous movie is that the battles caused so much collateral damage and no one seemed concerned about the ordinary people losing their lives and livelihoods in the crossfire.  That’s addressed directly here in the final battle in Sokovia as the Avengers make a concerted effort to evacuate and rescues the civilian population.

Finally there’s a villain, Ultron, who is an android with advanced artificial intelligence. Not surprisingly, the douchey Tony Stark accidentally creates Ultron in attempt to manufacture world peace.  When Ultron goes rogue, in typical comic book fashion it decides that world peace can best be achieved by eradicating humanity.  Still, I was impressed by the range of emotion in this CGI robot who has a dark sense of humor and a curious religious worldview that makes Ultron stand out as a compelling villain.

Marvel Studios continues to impress in making the second Avengers movie, just like the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, better than the first.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Album Review: Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe


 

Album: Dirty Computer
ArtistJanelle Monáe
Release Date: April 28, 2018
Favorite Tracks: It would be easier to list my least favorite tracks, but really there are no duds on this album.

Thoughts:

It’s hard to believe that this is only Janelle Monáe’s third studio album as she has made such a huge contribution to musical pop culture in the past decade.  Monáe’s film work put this album on the back burner, but it was worth the wait.  This is the first album where Monáe steps out from behind her Cindi Mayweather character, and thus it is the personal music she’s released.  Similarly, stepping out of the metaphors of the Metropolis narrative, Monáe directly addresses political topics of the day while celebrating women,  Blackness, sexuality, gender identity and being American (““It’s gonna be my America before it’s all over”).

Monáe picks up the mantle from David Bowie and Prince as the icon of redefining norms for gender identity and sexuality.  In fact, Prince worked with Monáe on defining the sound of the music early on and it shows.  Make no mistake though, this is Monáe’s album and guest artists from Grimes to Brian Wilson to Zoe Kravitz to Stevie Wonder move fluidly to her beat. This is the first great album of 2018, and the song “Americans” should be the song of the summer.

If you want to read more of my dumb thoughts on Monáe’s earlier body of work, check out my Music Discoveries post.  For a more thoughtful career evaluation, read this article by Charles Pulliam-Moore.

Rating: *****

 

Boston By Foot Tours 2018


If you live in Boston, or are planning to visit, the one thing I recommend you do is take a historical and architectural walking tour through the wonderful organization I’m affiliated with, Boston By Foot.  We have around 200 volunteer guides waiting to introduce you to our city’s famous landmarks and hidden corners. Below are the tours that yours truly plans to lead this season (with more to possibly be added later).

Saturday 5/12/2018, 10am – The North End
Sunday 5/20/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 6/3/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Saturday 6/16/2018, 10am – The North End
Sunday 6/24/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 7/8/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 8/19/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 8/26/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 9/9/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 9/16/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Thursday 9/20/2018, 6pm – The South End
Sunday 9/23/2018, 2pm,  SoWa: South of Washington (members preview)
Sunday 9/30/2018, 2pm,  SoWa: South of Washington
Sunday 10/14/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Thursday 10/18/2018, 6pm – Bostonians Behaving Badly
Sunday 10/21/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 10/28/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week of the (Two) Weeks Ending May 5


Twenty Thousand Hertz :: ASMR

Oh my goodness, this podcast made my head tingle!

Hidden Brain :: Emma, Carrie, Vivian

A scary story of American eugenics, racism, and misogony. And not as far removed from today as you’d want it to be.

All Songs Considered :: At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms

A history of one the most important record labels.

Hit Parade :: The You Give Rock a Bad Name Edition

I’m not much a fan of “hair metal” but Chris Molanphy does a fair job of evaluating Bon Jovi’s role in pop music history even as he admits how much he hates them.

Hub History :: Tent City

In 1968, Boston residents fought to stop luxury development and parking in the South End, winning community-informed affordable housing instead. Something we need to do again.

99% Invisible :: The Laff Track

I always hated the laff track on tv sitcoms, but this show made me appreciate why it exists, how it’s done, the artistry of syncing the right laugh, and why laff tracks have vanished today.