Song of the Week: “Best Friend” by Sofi Tukker


Sofi Tukker is a New York City based dance pop duo consisting of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern.  You may have heard it before because apparently it’s being used in commercials, but since I don’t have tv I’ve come to it with no preconceptions.  Anyhow, a song about friendship is ideal for Thanksgiving weekend, and it also has some nice beats.

 

 

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Photopost: Thanksgiving Day Parade 2017


Somehow had a worse perspective than last year, but here are some photos from the 2017 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

Book Review: Gypsies of New Rochelle by Ivan Jenson


AuthorIvan Jenson
TitleGypsies of New Rochelle
Publication Info: Michelkin Publishing (2017)
Summary/Review:

I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

I gave up on reading this novel about 40% through.  The novel set in 1980 is narrated by 17 y.o. Shawn Aldridge, the youngest member of an eccentric family that recently moved from the midwest to the New York City suburb.  All of the children are expected to accomplish something great, but most of the family’s hopes are pinned on Shawn’s sister Nora becoming a concert violinist, leaving the other children to work out their resentment and inadequacy in other (supposedly comic) ways.  Shawn, an irritating narcissist, sees himself as a sensitive poet and spends much of his time taking the train to New York where he dates an exotic dancer, while simultaneously dating a typical middle-class suburban girl in New Rochelle.  The characters frequently stereotype others, and the author’s voice seem to agree with them.  The dialogue is stilted and unbelievable. Really everyone in this book is loathsome, and while it’s possible to have a novel with no sympathetic characters, you have to be a better writer than this.  I’m not surprised to look at Amazon and see this book compared to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, because I hated the movie adaptation of that book for many of the same reasons I hate this book.

Favorite Passages:

“Now, there were two sides to this family. One was playful, fun, drunken and the other was desolate and desperate. At any given moment I could not tell which side was going to win out. The dark or the light.” – (Kindle Locations 134-135).

Rating: *

TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 18


Radiolab :: Match Made in Marrow

A story about how faith and science are in conflict, but how people who disagree can come together in dialogue (and still disagree).

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Disney Parks

An overlooked aspect of the Disney theme park experience: sound design.

30 for 30 Podcasts :: Hoodies Up

Trayvon Martin was murdered during a broadcast of the NBA All-Star Game.  Five weeks later, his hometown team the Miami Heat posed for a photo with their hoodies up.  This is the story of that photo and the rebirth of athlete activism.

WBUR News :: An ‘Underground World’: This Urban Tent Community Is Dangerous For Heroin Users

A scene from the opiod crisis with a visit to a hidden tent community in the Boston region.

Fresh Air :: Priest Responds To Gang Members’ ‘Lethal Absence Of Hope’ With Jobs, And Love

An interview with Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and how to care for children in gangs.  You can also read my review of his book Tattoos on the Heart.

Podcast Alert: Five Questions with Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso


Have you listened to the interview with me on the Five Questions with Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso podcast yet?

Did you know you can subscribe to the podcast on Podbean, iTunes, and Stitcher?  You can also subscribe on Downcast and other smartphone apps.

Did you know there’s a Facebook page you can follow?

Did you know that this is an awesome podcast where you can hear everyday people share fascinating facts about themselves and you won’t be sorry for subscribing?

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Book Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


AuthorTiffany D. Jackson
Title: Allegedly
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Mary is a teenager living in a group home in Brooklyn after several year of serving time for murdering a baby when she was 9-years-old. Allegedly, as is Mary’s frequent refrain.  When she falls in love with a man at the nursing home where she volunteers and becomes pregnant, she begins to reevaluate her past so that she can have a future with her baby and boyfriend.  The incidents of the night of the murder and her mother’s role in it as well as other facet’s of Mary’s past are slowly revealed while in the present time Mary has to deal with case workers, psychiatrists, and her hostile companions in the group home.  The book is good at showing the horrors of the modern day carceral state and Jackson does a great job at developing Mary’s voice.  However, the twists in the story seem unnaturally injected into the narrative to build suspense, especially the biggest twist at the end of the book, make it hard to recommend this book.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Ballet Lover by Barbara L. Baer 


Author: Barbara L. Baer 
TitleThe Ballet Lover
Publication Info: Open Books, 2017
Summary/Review: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel begins in 1970 and tells the story of Geneva, a writer for a niche ballet magazine, set against a feud between the great dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova.  The cruelties and sexism of the ballet world are reflected in Geneva’s life as her publisher squashes her honest accounts to maintain access, her long distance boyfriend plans a future with little concern for Geneva’s interests, and she has to care for her aunt who survived an escape from Nazi Germany.  Geneva’s keen observational skills that make her a talented journalist also seem to be a handicap as she seems to often be observing rather than acting on her own life.  In addition to an interesting fictional narrative there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes segments in ballet drawn from real life. The one thing about the conclusion of the book is that Geneva’s problems aren’t really resolved so much as she grows older and doesn’t find them so important anymore, which I guess is real life, but much of an ending for fiction.

Recommended booksUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris


AuthorTamara Winfrey Harris
TitleThe Sisters Are Alright
Narrator: Tamberta Perry
Publication Info: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015

Summary/Review:

This short collection of essays focuses on how Black women in the United States are maligned and held to toxic stereotypes of being oversexed, irresponsible, and irrationally angry.  Winfrey Harris breaks down these stereotypes historically and in the present day, and holds up the beautiful and accomplished reality of Black women.  It’s very short but powerful so it’s worth finding a little time to read or listen to this book.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer


Author: Z.Z. Packer
TitleDrinking Coffee Elsewhere
Narrator: Shirley Jordan
Publication Info: Highbridge, 2013
Summary/Review:

This is an excellent collection of contemporary short fiction.  Packer is great at quickly establishing characters, and while the stories tend to be more slice-of-life than a traditional beginning-middle-end format, they’re all the better for capturing the nuance of character developments.  Stories range from a conflict among troops of Brownies – one black, one white – to a teenage girl who runs away to Atlanta and is taken in by a pimp, to a boy forced by his father to try to sell birds at the Million Man March.  All the stories are from an outsider’s perspective and thus feel very relatable.  I’ll be looking out for future work from Z.Z. Packer.

Recommended booksKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ****

Photopost: New England Aquarium


My daughter and I took advantage of the chilly holiday Friday to visit the New England Aquarium.  The Giant Ocean Tank is always awe-inspiring and we got to see divers film the animals up close and listen to them answer questions.  We also spent considerable time at the shark & ray touch pool, the tidepool touch tank, and with the penguins.  As a novice photographer, I found that adjusting for white balance and shutter speed in the Aquarium was challenging, so there’s not so many great photographs, but still a record of our fun visit.

Related post: Photopost: Whale Watch

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 11


Mortified :: Kids Who Teach

Stories of kids becoming teachers, including a stunning musical defense of feminism.

Have You Heard? :: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Corporate Education Agenda

An explanation of why major corporations have become big players in education policy and what it means for the rest of us.

Planet Money :: Your Cell Phone’s A Snitch

What personal information is gathered by your cell phones, how it’s being used by law enforcement and others, and what rights do we have under the Constitution to privacy.

99% Invisible :: Dollhouses of St. Louis

The sad story of  St. Louis’ historic black neighborhood, The Ville, where old houses are being robbed of their bricks for resale to salvage operations.

Resistance Mixtape: Veterans Day


Veteran’s Day is the time we honor people who served in the military.  These are people who often have seen the horror of war and try to express this to those of use divorced from its reality, and even today are among those most opposed to war. My hope for this and every Veteran’s Day is that our military is used wisely and that there we don’t end up with more people to remember on future Memorial Days.

Bruce Springsteen :: “Born in the U.S.A” – The bombastic chorus is often misinterpreted as blind patriotism, but the verses tell of the long lasting effects on a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Creedence Clearwater Revival :: “Fortunate Son” – Who goes to war often has less to do with patriotism and more to do with one’s position in society.

Eric Bogle :: “The Green Fields of France” – November 11th commemorates the end of The Great War which was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars” but still young people are sent off to fight.

Phil Ochs :: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” – Tells the story of a veteran of all the United States’ wars who decides to refuse to fight any loner.

Bill Withers :: “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” – Another view of the lasting damage on a veteran of war.

 

The Clancy Brothers :: “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” – The families and friends of veterans also suffer the iniquities of war.

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Album Review: Revelations by Shamir


AlbumRevelations
Artist: Shamir
Release Date: 3 November 27
Favorite Tracks: “90’s Kids,” “Blooming,” and “Straight Boy”
Thoughts:  Shamir Bailey’s debut album Ratchet was built on electronic beats and dance rhythms, making it club ready. His latest album is stunning stripped-down, pure pop melodies that draw on rock genres from 60’s girl groups to grunge.  The music doesn’t impress me much, but I do love Shamir’s soulful voice and how it emphasizes the striking lyrics of tracks like “90’s Kids” and “Straight Boy.”  It’s a short album (31 minutes), so give it a second listen if it doesn’t move you the first time.
Rating: ***

Song of the Week: “Powerwalk” by The Nunnery


The Nunnery of Minneapolis makes loops of vocal sound live to create the mesmerizing “Powerwalk.”  And that’s about all I can tell you about The Nunnery because they seem vague about their identity online.

 

 

Photoposts: Autumnal Sundries


I got a new smartphone recently. Unlike the previous one which would notify me repeatedly that the memory was full if I took more than one photo, this one actually has space to save pictures. So here are some recent smartphone photos.

Also, although it’s about 10 years after it was cool, but I recently set up an Instagram account should you be interested in more photographs.

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 4


This is a big week for Podcast of the Week, because for the first time I’m able to recommend for your listening pleasure a podcast featuring me!

Five Questions With Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso :: Five Questions With Liam Sullivan

Yep, that’s me.  You’re probably wondering how I got myself into this situation.  You’ll have to subscribe to Betsy’s podcast to find out.  Better yet, you can listen to five questions with my wife.

Song Exploder :: “Stranger Things (Main Title Theme)”

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein breakdown the creation of the theme song I can’t keep from dancing to.

Hit Parade :: Le Petty Prince Edition

Prince and Tom Petty both died to young in the past couple of years after emerging as superstar artists in the 1980s, and they even performed together in a epic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”  Otherwise, they wouldn’t seem to have much in common, but Chris Molanphy breaks down how their careers paralleled one another.

99% Invisible :: Oyster-tecture

Oysters helped create the City of New York and oysters may help protect the city from climate change.

Album Reviews: Fever Ray, Blitzen Trapper, The Barr Brothers


This week, quick thoughts on three new albums I listened to today.

AlbumPlunge
Artist: Fever Ray
Release Date: 2017 October 27
Favorite Tracks: “Wanna Sip” and “IDK About You”
Thoughts: Fever Ray is the solo project of Swedish electronic musician Karin Dreijer, also of the duo The Knife. The album has some sick beats and synths, but Dreijer’s voice is unpleasant and the frequent profanity seems to be juvenile attempt to be shocking.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Wild and Reckless
Artist: Blitzen Trapper
Release Date: 2017 November 3
Favorite Tracks: “Joanna” and “Stolen Hearts”
Thoughts: A twangier, pure country outing from Blitzen Trapper grew out of a “rock opera” staged in their native Portland, OR that tells a sci-fi love story of two kids on the run.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Queens of the Breakers
Artist: The Barr Brothers
Release Date: 2017 October 13
Favorite Tracks: “You Would Have to Lose Your Mind” and “It Came To Me”
Thoughts: The Montreal-based Americana jam band with a harp received good reviews for their innovative sound, but the album sounds kind of like generic folk-pop to me.  Not my thing.
Rating: **

Song of the Week: “Matter of Time” by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings


On November 18, 2016, Sharon Jones died leaving behind a musical legacy and broken hearts everywhere. A year later, the final Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings album Soul of a Woman will be released on November 17, 2017.  The first single, a peace anthem called “Matter of Time” reminds us of what we lost and what we’ll always have from Miss Sharon Jones’ musical gift.