Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review: "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War"

Following any of the horrific events that have become all-too-common in modern society, someone on social media inevitably shares Mr. Rogers’s advice to “’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’… I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” These words are true, but after so many tragedies and so many Facebook posts, it becomes easy to dismiss or forget about them. Artemis Joukowsky’s Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War provides clear proof of the veracity of this sentiment. The book tells the true story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who took on the enormous task of helping refugees in Europe as the Nazis were coming to power and World War II was starting. It is also the companion book to the Ken Burns documentary that will be airing on PBS in September.

While the Sharps seemed like an ordinary couple, they had an extraordinary sense of duty that led them to accept the mission put forth by the American Unitarian Association to go to Prague, Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Despite having two young children, Waitstill and Martha go to Prague, learn ways of circumventing the obstacles in their way, outwit the Gestapo, and work to help those who are being oppressed and hunted by the Nazis. After leaving Prague and having a short sojourn at home, they return to Europe during World War II to continue helping those they can.

In many ways, this story seems too fantastic to be true, but Joukowsky, who is the Sharps’ grandson, does an excellent job providing research and facts as support. In some instances, the number of names, dates, and references can weigh down the narrative, but the text’s focus never wavers for long. Joukowsky’s writing style also does not veer far away from the facts. If it is not verified in Martha and Waitstill’s correspondence, excerpts of which are included, or through his interviews with him, the text takes pains not to dramatize the events. This helps further establish Joukowsky as a trustworthy author, but it also can make the narrative a little dry, which is surprising given the suspense that is built into the story. However, despite these minor issues, the book moves quickly and leaves the reader wanting to find out what happened to the Sharps. Additionally, there are places where the straightforward narration works to the book's advantage. The description of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia is especially sobering; any further dramatization would have detracted from the horror of the event.

Another aspect that reinforces the book’s reliability is that Joukowsky examines some of the more everyday facets of the Sharps’ lives. A prime example of this is the tension that exists between the good that Martha wanted to do by helping refugee children and the fact that she did this at the expense of spending time with her own children. Also, rather than closing with the Sharps’ second mission to Europe, Joukowsky follows them post-World War II, as they grow further apart both literally (Martha did a lot of travelling on the lecture circuit, while Waitstill returned to Prague to work for the American Committee for Relief in Czechoslovakia) and figuratively and after their marriage ends. In a perfect world, their bond would have been galvanized by the shared experiences in Europe and would have remained strong. Joulowsky’s exploration of its disintegration reinforces the reality of this story; it is not a fairy tale or fable but the story of two seemingly ordinary people who were able to accomplish extraordinary things under great duress and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

All in all, Defying the Nazis is a worthwhile and important book. Besides providing the Sharps with the attention they so richly deserve for their heroic actions and showing the personal cost that can come with such actions, it also illustrates how people can rise to the occasion. In short, it is another reminder for us to look for the helpers.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Wendy Cope's "From June to December - Summer Villanelle"

If this blog has illustrated anything, it is my ongoing love of Wendy Cope's poetry, particularly her villanelles. I hadn't given her a great deal of thought recently, but Wednesday's edition of The Writer's Almanac podcast reminded me just how much I enjoy her writing.

While some argue that Cope is mawkish, I've always found her poems to be somewhat biting under the supposed sentimentality ("The Orange" is the exception rather than the rule). On the surface, "From June to December" is the typical love poem, where the speaker's thoughts are preoccupied by his (or her) love. Indeed, anyone who has ever been in love (or in the first stages of a passionate affair grounded in lust) can relate to the line "I think of little else but you." However, several elements of the poem (such as the title and the final stanza) hint at a slightly darker sentiment.

The title is intriguing and puzzling, since it asks the reader to determine what the span of time is in reference to. Does it mean that the affair only lasts from June to December? Or does it refer to the time span that the feelings in the poem lasts?

Similarly, the questions that start the last stanza, "But is it love? And is it true?/ Who cares?", can be interpreted as an indication that the speaker is still in the giddy early part of the relationship and doesn't care what anyone calls it, but it might also indicate that the speaker is aware that this might not be true love but is okay with that realization. Additionally, this poem is more overtly sensual than "The Orange;" rather than pure giddiness, there's some decided carnality at play here that keeps the poem from becoming too sentimental.

Of course, I might be totally off-base here, so please feel free to share your thoughts below!

From June to December 
Summer Villanelle
by Wendy Cope

You know exactly what to do—
Your kiss, your fingers on my thigh—
I think of little else but you.

It’s bliss to have a lover who,
Touching one shoulder, makes me sigh—
You know exactly what to do.

You make me happy through and through,
The way the sun lights up the sky—
I think of little else but you.

I hardly sleep-an hour or two;
I can’t eat much and this is why—
You know exactly what to do.

The movie in my mind is blue—
As June runs into warm July
I think of little else but you.

But is it love? And is it true?
Who cares? This much I can’t deny:
You know exactly what to do;
I think of little else but you.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Looking Ahead to the 2016 Tony Awards

Next Sunday is the 2016 Tony Awards, and as usual, I feel more than a little unprepared for the show. However, I also think I'm better informed than I have been for the past few years thanks to a wealth of online resources (and because it seems pretty certain that Hamilton will be a juggernaut). Below are a few of my favorites just in case you are looking to do some cramming for the Tonys or in case you are looking for some great information on Broadway and theatre.

My go-to resource for all things Broadway is BroadwayRadio. I've been a longtime listener to their Sunday podcatsts (and Peter Filichia wrote the first theatre book I ever bought for myself). Recently, they've expanded their podcast, so they have one each weekday morning in addition to the one on Sunday. These daily podcasts are shorter (usually around 15 minutes each), and they include review round-ups for shows that have just opened as well as news related to Broadway and the theatre world. The hosts (James Marino and Matt Tamanini) have an obvious love of theatre, and their well-informed and strong opinions are always thoughtful and engaging. Additionally, BroadwayRadio seems to be acquiring new theatre-related shows on a weekly basis, so this is definitely a resource to check out!

Love them or hate them, The New York Times is a wealth of information on Broadway, and their Tony Awards section is extensive, with news, interviews, and videos. I also love following the theatre critics' liveblog and Twitter accounts during the awards telecast.

While this isn't a resource dedicated to theatre, I'd be remiss if I didn't include the interview Broadway producer Scott Rudin did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He had some wonderful insights into the backstage world of Broadway. Additionally, if you go into the Fresh Air archives, you can find some excellent interviews with other theatre personalities, including Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick, and John Kander.

Happy reading/listening!

the producers photo:  tumblr_lmcfy20RZX1qgskrr.gif
Yes, I know I posted this last year. And yes, I still think it applies.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Foodie Friday: Potato, Asparagus, and Tuna Salad

Growing up in the South, meat and potatoes/starches were a staple. I don't think I even knew anyone who was a vegetarian until I was well into my 20s. Luckily, time and new experiences have broadened my horizons, and while I still like meat, I've also found that it isn't necessary for every meal. Earlier this month, I had a lovely dinner with two friends who are vegetarians (technically, they are pescatarians), and if anyone could convince me of the wonders of vegetarian eating, it would be them. For this time around, they served a hearty salad that is perfect for summer, and I knew that I needed to recreate it later.

Going from what I knew of the salad (it had tuna, potatoes, greens, asparagus, green beans, herbs, and a vinaigrette), I worked backwards and found some possible starting points. The first recipe that seemed promising was this one from the BBC Good Food site. While I didn't want the salad to be warm, I was intrigued by the use of pesto as the dressing.

Epicurious also had a recipe, originally published in Bon Appetite, and it was closer to what I remembered. However, I don't care for capers, and I wanted to scale down the proportions and cut down on the amount of oil (seriously, the dressing alone has a cup of oil). I also decided to simplify the ingredients list since I didn't have the time to visit Whole Foods for Champagne vinegar and radishes.

The end result was a filling, fresh, and delicious salad that could satisfy even the most dedicated meat lovers. It keeps well and is infinitely adaptable, so feel free to play with the ingredients as you like!

Potato, Asparagus, and Tuna Salad (adapted from BBC Good Food and Epicurious/Bon Appetite)

For the vinaigrette (Note: You might not need to use all of this vinaigrette on your salad depending on your preferences)
  • 1/3 - 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (start with the smaller amount and add more as you deem necessary. If you like, you can use some of the drained olive oil from the tuna here)
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (you can use Champagne vinegar if you have it. Lemon juice would also be refreshing)
  • 1 small shallot, minced (or you can use 2 tablespoons of minced red onion)
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon pesto (you can forgo this if you like)
  • Herbs to taste (I used chives and parsley)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix 1/3 cup of olive oil  with 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and the mustard until the mixture is well-combined.
2. Add the shallot and herbs to the mixture.
3. Taste the vinaigrette and add vinegar and/or olive oil as needed.
4. Add salt and pepper to taste. However, you might want to go easy on the salt for now - the tuna will have quite a bit of salt in it.

For the salad
  • 1 pound of asparagus, trimmed and steamed or roasted and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 3/4 pound of potatoes (new potatoes are nice!), boiled and cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks
  • 1 pint (approximately 3/4 - 1 pound) of cherry tomatoes, halved (I roasted mine in a little olive oil, but you don't have to)
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped into small pieces
  • 6 ounces of tuna packed in olive oil, drained (use more or less as desired - I use 6 ounces) 
  • 4 - 5 oz. of mixed greens
  • 1/4 cup of pine nuts
  • Other possible possible add-ins: red onion, cooked fresh green beans, olives, fresh mozzarella, cucumbers, roasted red peppers
*The potatoes don’t have to be used, but, if you don’t use them, the salad won’t be as hearty (it would likely be more of a side dish than a main course). If you don’t use the potatoes, you won’t need all of the vinaigrette. Also, you could replace the potatoes with croutons or pieces of toasted bread and make this similar to a panzanella, but this won’t keep as well.
1.In a large bowl, combine the asparagus, tomatoes, herbs, eggs, and onion, and toss gently.
2. Drizzle on approximately 1/3 of the vinaigrette and toss to combine the ingredients and to evenly coat them with the vinaigrette.
3. Dress the potatoes (if using) with 1/3 of the vinaigrette (they will absorb quite a bit of the vinaigrette, which is why I like dressing them separately from the rest of the veggies). Add the dressed potatoes to the other dressed vegetables.
4. Flake or chunk the drained tuna. You can either mix it into the vegetables or serve it on top of the vegetables.
5. Dress the mixed greens with the remaining vinaigrette. You can either toss these greens into the vegetables or use the greens as a bed for the other vegetables and the tuna.
6. Top the salad with pine nuts (toasted if desired).

Friday, May 27, 2016

Long Time, No Post

While I didn't mean to take a four-month break from blogging here, spring semester happened. I'm planning on being better this summer. Stay tuned for book reviews, Tony Awards ruminations, and other random thoughts!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Top Reads from 2015

I apologize for my lengthy absence - the end of the year is always rough in academia. Between the holidays, the end of the semester, and a five-day conference, November and December were a little crazy. However, now that the craziness is more manageable, I wanted to write a post on my favorite reads from last year. I had a great reading year in 2015 (I read over 80 books). This was aided by a Scribd subscription for part of the year (I used it in the summer, but I didn't feel like I could justify having it once school started back) and a seven-day cruise where I had very limited internet access.

Besides the number of books I read, what is even more exciting to me is that most of them were quite enjoyable. Below are my favorite books that I read during the past year. While most of them were published before 2015, the ones that I included in this list were new to me (I'm an avid re-reader, but I'm not going to list them since I've likely written about them on my blog before :).

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America - This book was on my "To be read" list for a long time.I finally picked it up last year, and my only regret is waiting so long to read it. In it, Erik Larson provides a gripping account of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Through alternating chapters, he tells about the fair's construction and the serial killer who took advantage of the fair to murder a number of people in horrific ways. My one piece of advice when reading this book is not to read it late at night. Reading about a murder house is disconcerting at any time, but it is especially troubling at 1:00 am.

Fun Home - Allison Bechdel was our keynote speaker at NCTE this year, and when I had the opportunity to buy some of her books for her to autograph, I jumped at the chance. While I liked Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, I loved Fun Home, which is examines her relationship with her father and which was the basis for the musical that won the 2015 Tony for Best New Musical.

Drama - I really like Raina Telgemeier's work and was excited to read her graphic novel about middle school students putting on a musical. The story focuses on a female tech person, which made it especially enjoyable for me (in high school and college, I spent a lot of time working backstage on various plays). It touches upon friendship, crushes, and LGTBQ issues without getting too heavy. Overall, it is a lovely, humorous read.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman - Jill Lepore's look at Wonder Woman's origin is critically acclaimed for a reason. The main focus is on William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator, and Lepore does an excellent job taking Marston, who could easily seem like an unsavory and over-the-top individual, and making him multifaceted and nuanced.

Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children - Since I feel inundated with information on education at work, I often bypass reading about it in my spare time. However, I picked this book up at a library book sale, and once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. Besides providing a thoughtful look at the state of education in post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that has had many issues with their public education system, the author does a great job presenting all sides to controversial topics like Teach for America and charter schools.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: "The League of Regrettable Superheroes"

I’m not a comics expert, but I have a great affinity for reading about comic books of years past. One of my favorite aspects of reading about these books is the often well-intentioned but ridiculous missteps that have occurred, such as an entry in the Superman universe that Glen Weldon gleefully (and affectionately) recounts on the NPR site where Jimmy Olsen travels back in time and starts a Beatles craze in ancient Judea. “The League of Regrettable Superheroes” by Jon Morris is dedicated to celebrating the wacky hijinks and preposterous storylines of yesteryear. However, rather than focusing on the missteps of well-known series, Morris’s book focuses on lesser-known and less-successful superheroes. Some have dubious origins (Captain Tootsie, a superhero/advertisement for Tootsie Rolls) while others seem to have been designed to take advantage of a trend popular at the time (Morris points out that Magicman, which debuted in 1965, was an attempt to cash in on shows like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie”). In almost all cases, the superheroes are indeed regrettable, but Morris has palpable fondness for them even as he acknowledges how ridiculous and ill-conceived they are.

The entries are organized into three parts – The Golden Age (1938 – 1949), the Silver Age (1950 –1969, a time that Glen Weldon refers to as The Crazypants Years), and the Modern Age (1970 – present day). Most entries are two pages in length, with a page dedicated to humorously and wryly describing the superhero and the other page featuring lavish color pictures from the comics (a few entries have four-page spreads, with the extra pages consisting mostly of pictures). As a sidebar, Morris includes a few quick facts on each hero, such as the creator and the debut info, as well as some snarky commentary (for instance, The Conqueror’s sidebar includes “Last seen: Moving inexorably toward Berlin”). While the setup might frustrate those who want further information, the format works very well for readers who want a general overview of the comics without too much minutiae to bog down the proceedings. Additionally, the use of full-color pictures throughout the book (in fact, all of the pictures are printed in color – Quirk does not skimp on the printing or layout) provide further insight into the heroes, as Morris wisely uses his subjects’ inherent insanity and inanity to speak for themselves. These features also make “The League of Regrettable Superheroes” perfect as a quirky and fun coffee-table book.

In short, if you are looking for a serious and in-depth examination of failed comic book characters, then “The League of Regrettable Superheroes” might not be for you. However, it is perfect if you want an entertaining, approachable, and amusing look at unsuccessful or inept attempts at finding the next Superman or Batman.