Remembering Tony Horwitz


I just learned that journalist and author Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite writers, died today at the young age of 60.

Horwitz’s writing was part history, part participatory journalism,  and part travelogue – three things I love to read, so naturally I enjoyed reading the combination of all three.  He had a way of bridging past and present, and shaking the assumptions we have about history.  He will be missed.

Here are the Horwitz books I’ve read with links to reviews:

I also learned that he just released a new book earlier this month called Spying on the South, which is about Frederick Law Olmsted of all people, a strange confluence of my interests.  Rest assured I’ll be reading that soon!

Book Review: Hellraisers by Robert Sellers


Author: Robert Sellers
TitleHellraisers
Illustrator: JAKe
Publication Info: London : SelfMadeHero, 2011.
Summary/Review:

This graphic biography tells the exploits of the Irish & British actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole.  I’ve long admired the work of Harris and O’Toole, and familiar with Burton by reputation, but Reed was new to me.  What they have in common is that they were part of new class of post World War II actors who were gritty and real, and lived a wild and hardscabble life off the screen and stage.  The book focuses on the legendary exploits of the quartet’s drinking and partying but also their feelings of inadequacy and failed relationships.  It’s common to romanticize their wild lives, but the book does not shy away from the harm they caused, the violence, the sexual harrasment, and general arrogance. Cleverly, the author ties their stories together by having the Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole appear as ghosts to a character named Martin who is drinking his life away. The four hellraiser actors are able to help Martin to focus on his life and family. Oddly, when I checked this book out, the librarian told me he’d read the book and said it was “good, clean fun.” I’d say it’s anything but, a cautionary tale more than anything else.  Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole lived lives of reckless abandon so that you don’t have to.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week: Special New Podcasts Edition


I haven’t heard any standout podcast episodes to share with you for a while.  But, I’ve also started listening to some (new to me) podcasts.  Here are my latest discoveries:

Baby Geniuses

I subscribed to this because it’s co-hosted by Lisa Hanawalt, creator of Tuca & Bertie.  The show seems to just about sharing stuff you know.

Greater Boston

A serial audio drama set in an alternate universe Boston where, among other things, there’s an effort afoot for the Red Line to secede and become its own city.  The show started several years back so I’ve started listening from the beginning.  Quirky and entertaining, so far.

Lost Notes

A podcast series that tells obscure music stories.  So far I’ve listened to excellent episodes about how a bad recording of “Louie, Louie” became the defining interpretation of the song, the scandal of Boston’s New Edition filming a music video with the LA Lakers, and how synthesizer pioneer Suzanne Ciani explored her art in commercials.

Next Left

The Nation interviews up and coming progressive leaders.

Science Rules!

Bill Nye – the science guy -answers your questions about science.

White Lies

A serialized documentary about the murder of Reverend James Reeb in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and how no one was ever brought to justice for the crime.

And, podcast of the week episodes:

Fresh Air :: Lizzo on “Cuz I Love You,” Self-Love And Bringing ‘Hallelujah Moments’ To Stage

Lizzo is a terrific artist, as demonstrated on her album Cuz I Love You, and a terrific interview, as demonstrated with Terri Gross.

Science Talk :: Secrets of the Universe Revealed

Steven Strogatz makes calculus interesting for the lay person.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Review: The Best of Luck Club by Alex Lahey


Album: The Best of Luck Club
Artist: Alex Lahey
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • I Don’t Get Invited to Parties Anymore
  • Am I Doing It Right?
  • Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
  • Isabella

Thoughts:

Do you like 1980s power pop, but want to hear it from a young, contemporary artist? Australia’s Alex Lahey fits the bill on this album that just totally rocks.  She even rips out a sax solo on “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself.” A year ago this week, I reviewed an album by Lahey’s fellow Australian Courtney Barnett, which I completely loved, and I feel just as strongly for The Best of Luck Club.  Lahey is maybe a bit less edgy musically than Barnett, but her lyrics are empowering and uplifting.  And even on the ballads the pair of ballads that close out the album – “Black RMs” and “I Want to Live With You” – Lahey express the contended domesticity of a loving relationship while still being a rock & roller.

Rating: ****

TV Review: Fleabag (2016)


Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Fleabag is a British comedy series created and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  In the show, Waller-Bridge portrays a 30-year-old woman in London who is sarcastic, has several strained relationships, and engages in lots of recreational sex. At first I thought this was going to be one of those “a person in their 20s sleeping around and having a wacky life, isn’t it so relatable” types of shows that I never find relatable.  Thankfully, it is not like that at all.

Waller-Bridge’s character has sexual relationships with three different men over the course of the series, but they are negligible compared with her relationships with her family and friends which are the focus of the show.  Her mother died three years earlier and her father (Bill Paterson) has been distant ever since, but does things like send her and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) to feminist lectures and silent retreats.  Things with her older sister are also not so good as Claire is much more serious and is married to her absolutely awful husband Martin (Brett Gelman).  Her father is also romantically involved with their Godmother (Olivia Colman), far too soon after their mother’s death.  Colman is an actor I always enjoy, but her portrayal of the absolute worst kind of pretentious, manipulative, and passive aggressive person is so good that I want to hate her.  Finally, Waller-Bridge’s character feels grief and guilt over the recent death of her best friend and business partner Boo (Jenny Rainsford, who appears in flashbacks) who was hit by a car.

All the actors in this show are absolutely spectacular. Over the course of the series, their stories are woven into wacky adventures, and somewhere along the way, we the audience find ourselves caring deeply for these people even if they can be kind of awful.  One of the features of the show is Phoebe Waller-Bridge frequently breaking the fourth wall to bring us into the situation with a wisecrack or look.  This mannerism could be irritating in other hands but Waller-Bridge never fails to be funny, and she has the most expressive face.  And after all the laughter, don’t be surprised if you find yourself crying at the end of the series because it’ll hit you in the feels.

By the way, it wasn’t until after I watched the entire series that I discovered that “Fleabag” is the name given to the main character!  She’s never referred that way on screen, perhaps its meant to represent the way she thinks of herself at her most self-loathing.

 

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Tuca & Bertie (2019)


Title: Tuca & Bertie
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

This new animated comedy from Netflix has a lot in common with one of my favorite shows, BoJack Horseman.  For one thing, Tuca & Bertie‘s creator, Lisa Hanawalt, served as production designer and producer for BoJack Horseman.  For another, Tuca & Bertie are anthropomorphized birds living in a city of anthropomorphized animals and even anthropomorphized plants (they’re so cool!).

Nevertheless, Tuca & Bertie isn’t a spinoff of Bojack, nor is it even the same universe.  Tuca & Bertie has a brighter color pallette and, for lack of a better word, a “bouncier” animation style that frequently veers into surreality.  That is an even more surreal than a world with talking bird people.  Also, BoJack is a show that keeps returning to the inevability of misery and that other people will disappoint you.  Tuca & Bertie is more positive and shares its belief that one can count on the people you love to get you through troubled times.

Despite it’s wacky humor, Tuca & Bertie reveals more serious undertones over the course of the season.  Tuca is an outgoing toucan and free spirit who has no filter between her brain and mouth.  It’s established early in the season that she’s alcoholic and six months into living sober, and confronting supressed anxieties for the first time.  Bertie is a songbird with more open anxiety issues and people pleaser. She struggles at work with men speaking over her and sexual harrassment.  Yet we see her assert herself to get a new position as senior operations analyst at her publishing firm and explore a second career as a baker. The two characters are rightly depicted as a yin-yang late in the season because they complement each other so well.

This is a bright and heartwarming show, and just delightfully weird.  I especially like the music – both the electronic dance background music and the fact that characters narrate their life in song.  If you decide to watch it and it doesn’t work for you at first, give it a few episodes to sink in.

 

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)


Title: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company:Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Han Solo is one of the most beloved characters in movie history and in 4 movies (and a holiday special), he was portrayed by Harrison Ford, arguably the most popular actor of the past five decades.  A Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford is missing an essential element.  Not that Alden Ehrenreich can be blamed as he does an excellent job performing as a young Han, it’s just not possible for him to be the same character.

As one might expect from an origin story, a lot of familiar aspects of the Han Solo character are introduced here.  We see Han get his last name, meet Chewbacca(Joonas Suotamo) for the first time, get his blaster, meet Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and acquire the Millenium Falcon.  The notorious Kessel Run is even part of the plot.  Many of the movies set pieces are generic  or derivative action-adventure tropes.  Early on, landspeeders are used in a classic car chase, then there’s a railroad heist, and finally scenes of the Falcon dodging asteroids and a space creature reminiscent of Empire Strikes Back.

Where Solo works best is around the edges, where we see the people and events that shape Han Solo into becoming both cynical and self-interested and having a big heart with a weakness for the underdog.  The former is demonstrated by Han’s mentor/antagonist Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who repeatedly instructs Han to not trust anyone.  Another important figure is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s childhood sweetheart.  At the start of the film, we see them both trying to escape their home planet of Corellia, but Qi’ra is captured at a checkpoint.  Han serves in the Imperial Navy for three years with plans to go back to rescue her, but when they meet again, she has found her own way out, and it’s strongly implied that she’s done some unsavory things in the process.

Han’s heart is shown again and again.  He’s placed in a pit to fight Chewbacca to the death, but realizes that they are both prisoners and finds a way for both of them to escape.  A big twist in the film involves another antagonist Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), and Han’s response to new knowledge is very telling.  Even Han’s final confrontation with Tobias is one that’s filled with tears, rather than celebration.

Solo has a lot in common with the other Star Wars Story, Rogue One, in that it shows the People’s perspective of the galaxy rather than one of royals, knights, and generals.  Imperial officers are typically unquestionably evil, but the one who recruits Han has a tender moment where he calls Han “son.”  Of course he also promises Han that he’ll be flying starships, so it’s very telling when the movie jumps ahead three years to show Han in a battle, on foot.  Deconstructing the myth of Imperial efficiency, the battle is depicted as a mess with no clear objectives and the officers having nothing more to offer than catchphrases.  Also like Rogue One, one of the best characters is a droid.  In this case Lando’s companion Elthree (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who speaks the truth that has been evident through all the Star Wars movies: droids are treated as slaves and need to be liberated.

The movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be a romp or to delve into the more serious undertones of poverty in the Empire and what that drives people to do.  As a result the movie is a bit uneven and not as good as it could be.  Nevertheless, the acting is strong, the humor is sharp, and Solo is generally an entertaining movie.  It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga (and certainly better than any of the prequels).

Rating: ***

Book Review: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella


Author: W.P. Kinsella
Title: Shoeless Joe
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Blackstone Publishing, 2011 (originally published 1982)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

    • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    • Box Socials
    • The Thrill of the Grass
    • The Mocassin Telegraph and Other Stories
    • The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories
    • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories
    • The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories
    • Red Wolf, Red Wolf: Stories
    • Magic Time

Summary/Review:

W.P. Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growin up and this is one of his classic books. Most people will be familiar with this novel as the source for the movie Field of Dreams.  The basic gist is that a baseball crazy man named Ray Kinsella marries a woman from Iowa and together they purchase a farm.  Ray gets a mystical message “If you build it, he will come” and knows that it refers to disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson.  He builds a baseball field on his farm, and Shoeless Joe appears, followed by the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the World Series.

Ray gets more missions from the mysterious voice: to take reclusive author J.D. Salinger to a game at Fenway Park, find the curiously named Moonlight Graham who played in one baseball game and never came to bat, and the Oldest Living Chicago Cub player.  Bringing this odd group together, Ray is also able to reunite with his (dead) father who played baseball in his youth, and his (living) identical twin brother who ran away from the circus.

What I forgot about this book is that it is largely a series of conversations focusing on philosophy, dreams, American identity, and fatherhood.  It’s a great blend of magic and the quotidian.  And the fictional version of J.D. Salinger is a hoot, and one can only hope the real Salinger was something like that.  The book holds up and perhaps even better than I remembered from an adult perspective.

Favorite Passages:

“You don’t have any witnesses.  What if it was all a hallucination? Religous fanatics are known to have delirious visions.  You’re obviously a baseball fanatic.”

Recommended books:
Rating: *****