Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favorite Christmas/ Holiday Songs, Part II

I know that December 25th has come and gone. However, we are still in the holiday season (even if the retail sales suggest otherwise), so this post is still (barely) topical.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"



While some object to this song because it is rather depressing, it is important to understand its context both within the film Meet Me In St. Louis and in American history. Within the movie, Judy Garland's character sings it to her younger sister to comfort her as they face leaving their family home in St. Louis. As you can tell by the clip above, this attempt isn't very successful. In regards to history, the song (and the movie) came out during World War II, which made the wistful tone more understandable and welcome. On another note, the song was supposed to be much more depressing than it was. For instance, it was supposed to contain the lyrics "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ it could be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past." Judy Garland argued against these lyrics, so the lyricist changed them to the ones we know today.

"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"



Although my coworkers and I used to laugh at this song because it sounded so despondent and desperate, it has grown on me over the years. Rather than being desperate, I suppose that the song seems a little more hopeful than I originally thought (even though the lyrics don't really suggest that the person's answer is going to be a positive one for the singer).

"My Dear Acquaintance"



I like the understatement of Regina Spektor's interpretation of this song. Although there is a debate (at least if one is to believe the YouTube comments for the song) regarding her use of irony and sarcasm in this performance, I am not entirely convinced that the song is necessarily that sarcastic (at least in the "Merry Christmas (the War is Over)" vein). While it does encourage reflection, I don't know if the tone is bitter enough to be considered sarcastic or ironic. Please forgive the rather odd clip - it was the only one with the entire song I could find on YouTube!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm going to be away from my blog for a few days because of the holidays, but I hope that all of you have a wonderful Christmas. Here is one more song to help you get in the holiday spirit. While Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is one of the most popular songs in history (really) and has been covered by almost everyone, my favorite version is Bing Crosby's from the beginning of the movie White Christmas. While the movie's finale is certainly more uplifting, the wistful tone and minimal orchestration of this version makes it far superior (at least in my humble opinion):

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Movie Review: A Muppet Christmas Carol

Due to weather issues, I am not spending my evening watching A Muppet Christmas Carol with my siblings, so I figured I would do the next best thing and discuss it. Out of the approximately five billion versions of A Christmas Carol that exist, this is by far my favorite. Although I grew up watching Mickey's Christmas Carol, that adaptation never rang true, and it is truly colorless when compared to the Muppet version.

First, let's get a few things out of the way. This movie is pure, unadulterated cheese. The tiny sets, the odd mixture of humans and Muppets in Victorian clothing, and the unapologetic cheer (see the choreography for "It Feels Like Christmas" as a prime example of all of these things) should spell disaster. Some of the songs, such as "When Love is Gone," seem destined to provide the audience with the opportunity to get more snacks or to use the rest room. Furthermore, on paper, the very idea of combining the Muppets, Michael Caine, and Charles Dickens seems destined for disaster.

And yet, despite these potential issues, it manages to work on so many levels. Not only is it able to bring a unique spin to familiar territory, it also manages to balance levity (usually in the form of Gonzo, who is standing in for Charles Dickens) with the story's more somber moments (if you aren't tearing up when the camera pans to Tiny Tim's abandoned chair with his cap and crutch, you are made of sterner stuff than I am). It sticks fairly close to Dickens's story and even uses a great deal of his language from the story. Furthermore, the movie avoids the pitfall of Mickey's Christmas Carol by taking the time to actually establish the characters. While it does typecast the Muppets, which is to be expected, it also is careful to provide a good understanding of the actual Dickens characters. The songs also add a great deal to the script. Although I fast forward through some songs on a regular basis, there are far more hits than misses in this film. "A Thankful Heart," "One More Sleep Til Christmas," and "Bless Us All" are incredibly catchy and really should be available through iTunes (just a suggestion).

In addition to a strong script and good songs, this movie also has Michael Caine, who makes a surprisingly good Scrooge. He does a good job interacting with the Muppets (which must be more than a little strange) and is able to make a believable transformation from miser to benefactor in less than two hours. Most importantly, you never get the sense of condescension from him and he actually seems to be enjoying himself. The casting on the Muppet end works well too; Kermit's character makes him an effective Bob Cratchit and including the two hecklers as Scrooge's former partners is a stroke of genius.

If you are tired of the endless airings of A Christmas Story or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (at least the Jim Carrey version), you may want to consider renting this and making it part of your holiday. Yes, it is a little cheesy, but what are the holidays without some cheese?

Book Trailers: Simone Elkeles's "Perfect Chemistry"

While I am all for getting people to read, I am usually very skeptical of book trailers. Given the budget and resource constraints, they are often have questionable production values (and that is putting it very kindly). Imagine my surprise and delight when I came across this book trailer/ promo for Simone Elkeles's YA novel Perfect Chemistry. The video is a parody of the book's plot, and its purposeful cheesiness is very addictive.



Favorite moments: Brittany's vapid "It's a book!"; Brittany's boyfriend doing his white boy dance

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Songs, Part I

From the past few posts, it may appear that I am a Scrooge-like creature who mutters "Bah humbug" and threatens to kick puppies during the holiday season. However, there are quite a few Christmas songs that I happen to love. In fact, I'd venture to guess that there are far more Christmas songs that I like than ones that I despise.

"Merry Christmas Eve"



Who knew that Better Than Ezra even made a Christmas song? And what a great song it is. Rather than beating you over the head with the warm fuzzies, it manages to offhandedly capture some of the most elemental parts of the holiday. Some of what they mention are transcendentally important ("a midnight Mass for a birthday," "at the airport families wait on cue"), some are great pop culture shout-outs (Miracle on 34th Street), some are tiny observations ("grandmothers save paper to use next year"), but all ring very true.

"Promises to Keep"



and

"Old City Bar"



Tran-Siberian Orchestra is definitely not for all tastes. Some people love them, some people think of them as too manufactured and gimmicky. While most of their music is hit-or-miss for me, their first album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is on my permanent Christmas playlist. "Promises To Keep" and "Old City Bar" are my favorites. Unlike much of TSO's music, which typically goes into hair rock/ synthesizer/ Meat Loaf territory, these two songs are so wonderfully subtle, both in regards to the music and the lyrics. Even the use of the children's choir in "Promises to Keep" seems utterly fitting. "Old City Bar" is perhaps one of the most underrated of TSO's songs. Not only does it promote the importance of acting kind to each other, it accomplishes this in a perfectly understated way without resorting to emotional blackmail or manipulative measures (I'm looking at you, "Christmas Shoes").

"Tennessee Christmas"



Judging from the amount of people I know from Tennessee who hate this song, it is obviously not universally beloved. However, I happen to enjoy this song (partially because I am originally from Tennessee), and it never really seems like the Christmas season to me until I hear this song. Try to ignore Amy's totally 1980s hair, makeup, and clothes from that horrible album cover.

"What Christmas Means to Me"



After all of those slow Christmas songs, I figured that we needed something a bit more upbeat. Actually, I think that, with this song, Stevie completely skips upbeat and goes all the way to blissfully happy. What's more, he is able to do it and not seem completely cheesy or insincere.

Christmas Songs I Hate, Part II

If part of you dies a little bit inside whenever you hear certain Christmas songs, this post is for you!
  • Most animal songs that involve Christmas - This includes any song done by the barking dogs. However, two that I find particularly horrific are "Dominick the Donkey" and "Chrissy the Christmas Mouse." Sweet baby Jesus, where to begin with how terrible these songs are. "Dominick the Donkey" actually includes braying. "Chrissy the Christmas Mouse," performed by Donald O'Conner and Debbie Reynolds (both of whom should have known better), is probably the most insipid songs ever created.
  • "A Howdy Doody Christmas" - I first heard this song when I worked at Pier 1, where it was on the Christmas music tape. After my coworkers and I stopped hyperventilating from the horror of it, it became one of the songs that we loved to hate. It was too bizarre to completely dismiss it, and so we resorted to mocking it every time it came on. Unfortunately, I can't find it on YouTube (I know that you are very sad about missing out). To give you an idea of what the song is like, just imagine a frightfully cheery Christmas song that would fit in a murder scene (probably directed by Quentin Tarantino) where someone gets stabbed or hacked to death.
  • "Warm and Fuzzy Time of Year" - Just the name makes me want to find and maim Billy Gillman. The only thing that could make this song less tolerable is when it features a creepy Howdy Doody puppet.
  • "Merry Christmas with Love" - This song has so much going against it. It is extremely sappy, it is kind of depressing, and it is performed by Clay Aiken, who has a rich, inoffensively bland voice. Whenever I hear this, I can't help but think that the carolers are really the woman's friends who are doing an intervention (through song).
  • "Same Old Lang Syne" - This shouldn't even count as a Christmas song, but radio stations tend to use it during the holiday season. While the song's plot takes place on Christmas Eve, I don't think that the holiday really matters. It could have taken place on July 4th or Flag Day or Arbor Day for all of the presence that the holiday has in the song. Anyway the narrator meets an ex-girlfriend at a grocery store and they drink beer in her car. Then a random Kenny G-esq solo ends the song. That's the basic plot. Tom Reynolds's I Hate Myself and Want to Die has a wonderful dissection of the song, and he makes a very valid point when he notes that "No matter how plaintively Fogelberg sings... it doesn't change the cold fact that nothing happens in this song."
  • "My Favorite Things" - I don't hate this song per se, but it really has no business being part of the Christmas/ holiday music rotation. Yes, it mentions a few wintry sort of things (snowflakes, silver white winters, etc.), but that is not a very sound rationale for considering this a Christmas song. It was in my family's Reader's Digest songbook, and even as a small child I found its inclusion suspect.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bizarre Specials of Christmas Past

Although Christmas is a time of joy, peace, and love, and it is also a time for over commercialization. Beyond the sometimes strange Christmas music that is everywhere during December, there are also the holiday specials to contend with. Some, such as White Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, are great. Others (see the Lifetime holiday movies) are cheesy and predictable but fairly good-natured.

However, I've started remembering some very strange Christmas specials from years past. My parents, who were occasionally very supportive, used to videotape TV Christmas specials using our top loading VCR. In those pre-DVD, pre-cable days, these tapes were a constant source of entertainment. However, I've come to realize just how screwed up some of these specials really were.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas



I remember watching this one numerous times with my brother. It stars Joel Grey (of Cabaret and Wicked fame) as the voice of the clockmaker/ father. For the uninitiated, this is (very) loosely based on the poem of the same name. When I say loosely based, I basically mean that the story has nothing to do with the poem, which is used at the end of the cartoon. Anyway, Santa Claus refuses to come to a town because one of its inhabitants has written him a letter saying that the townsfolk don't believe in him anymore. Unsurprisingly, most of the people are heartbroken about this, but Joel Grey's character comes up with an idea to help the town get back into Santa's good graces. When I asked my brother if he remembered this cartoon, he actually was able to sing the song featured in the clip above. This was more than a little disturbing. However, my brother's freakishly accurate memory is not nearly as disturbing as the people in this cartoon, all of whom look very similar and vaguely inbred.

Christmas in Hawaii



I don't know why my parents thought that a Christmas special starring Perry Como and Marie Osmond would appeal to children. However, when you only have 4 channels, almost anything with bright colors is appealing, so my brother and I would occasionally watch this. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had no idea that Perry Como was in this until I looked it up on YouTube just now.

Andy Williams and the NBC Kids Search for Santa



I LOVED this special, and I mean that in a completely non ironic way. Starring a surprisingly spry Andy Williams and a bunch of 1980s era child stars (including a tiny Joey Lawrence) who I suppose were contractually obligated to do this, this show was far superior to Perry Como, Marie Osmond, and Hawaii (at least it was when I was seven). Although time hasn't been terribly kind to it (I can't get over how creepy it is that Andy Williams manages to take a bunch of kids to the North Pole without other chaperons), it still makes me smile even as I laugh at how utterly insane the entire premise is.

ETA: There are some very questionable sartorial choices in this clip (Joey Lawrence's Bigfoot slippers, Andy Williams's white socks). I'm also quite surprised at how lovely Joey Lawrence looks in this video - he's prettier than most of the girls. Also, while Malcolm Jamal Warner tries to play it cool and even seems a tad embarrassed, Alfonso Ribeiro seems completely into this number - I suppose that this kind of unquestioning enthusiasm served him well as Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Grading Frenzy

I have just finished grading over 130 essays in less than 24 hours. I think I deserve some kind of prize, but I will be happy to settle for several extra hours of sleep... Since a snowstorm is supposed to hit Boston tomorrow, maybe I will get that extra rest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Songs I Hate, Part I

Christmas songs are indeed a mixed bag. Some are truly inspired, and some are great because of their effervescent and unrepentant cheesiness ("All I Want For Christmas is You"). Unfortunately, there are several things that work against the quality of Christmas songs. Since there is money to be had in Christmas albums, EVERYONE puts out a Christmas album. This surfeit of albums often leads to rushed Christmas songs (there are only so many variations on the theme possible) or to strange covers of already established songs. Furthermore, while Christmas (at least in theory) is a time of peace, joy, and love, song writers tend to translate that into maudlin, trite, and emotionally manipulative.

Although I will do a post of Christmas songs that I do like, here are some of the ones that I have a particular aversion to. I've also helpfully included links to the songs, when possible, so that you can share in the pain. These are more than just your garden-variety annoying Christmas songs (like "Feliz Navidad" or "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth"); these songs take annoying to a whole new level:

"Hey Santa" - One of my most embarrassing things from my past is that I used to really like Wilson Phillips. Luckily, this only lasted for about a month in the 5th grade, so I was much wiser when two members of the group came out with "Hey Santa," which is a song that was universally reviled at the bookstore I worked at, perhaps because it was on constant rotation on the holiday mix that we were forced to listen. The perky melody, saxophone solo, and stupid harmonies still set my teeth on edge. It has Lite FM written all over it, and it is a rather stupid song (and an insultingly bad video).

"Where Are You Christmas?" - This song is from the travesty that is the live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Jim Carrey and Ron Howard - you should both know better). Besides being from a horrible movie that probably still has poor Dr. Seuss whirling in his grave, this song is so syrupy that just listening to it is enough to rot teeth. I particularly hate the Faith Hill version of the song, which she does in full-throated, power ballad mode. My hatred for this version stems from the fact that, when I lived in Nashville, a radio station had it on constant rotation during the months of November and December. Whenever I heard that song when I was driving, I would frantically and violently dive for the radio controls, almost crashing my cute little CR-V in the process.

"Santa Baby" - Strangely enough, I don't hate this song as much as the other ones on the list. However, my siblings, particularly my sister, hate this song with the fire of a thousand suns. Besides the fact that it is almost a rite of passage for pop tarts to cover this song (Madonna, Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue, Kellie Pickler, etc.), the song's entire vibe is simultaneously too materialistic and too cutesy for words. Whenever I listen to it, I get the image of Santa as sugar daddy, which is incredibly disturbing. The Madonna version is probably the most obnoxious, since she did it during her high-pitched, Betty Boop phase during the 1980s.

"The Christmas Shoes" - I've saved the most hated song for last, for I despise this song more than I can possibly convey in words. Worse yet, it was a huge hit that spawned a book and a tv movie, so it was, at least for a time, everywhere. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is about a little boy who wants to buy shoes for his mother so that she will look beautiful for Jesus when she dies. Unfortunately, he doesn't have enough money for the shoes, so the man standing in line behind him, who is also the song's narrator, gives him the money and notes that God sent the little boy so that the man would feel heaven's love (or something of that nature). Just when you think that the song can't get any more saccharine, a children's chorus enters the picture and lisps the cloying chorus once more. Listening to this song is like being beaten with a sack filled with kittens or being drowned in a vat of pudding (TM Mike Nelson).

Once you get beyond the children's choir, you start to realize the entire emotional arc of the song is wrong. A self-absorbed guy gives a few dollars to a boy so that the boy can buy shoes for his dying mother? And this guy says that "God had sent that little boy to remind me what Christmas was all about"? Perhaps he should leave God out of it. All things considered, couldn't the Almighty have figured out another way to remind this self-absorbed douche what Christmas is about without having to resort to giving a small boy's mother a fatal disease? Beyond that, I don't think that Jesus is that much of a stickler for trends or footwear. I know that I am supposed to be touched that a little boy wants his mother to look pretty when she gets to heaven, but I'm more than a little disturbed at the thought that he is running around on Christmas Eve while his mother is apparently knocking on death's door.

By the way, someone did a parody version of this song called "The Christmas Thong." This is so wrong (yet funny) on so many levels. The story has changed somewhat: the guy is trying to get a job at Fredericks of Hollywood and a little boy comes in to buy some lingerie for his mom. The guy gets a glimpse of the mother's picture and decides to help the boy out. I'm not sure what's more upsetting: the fact that the little boy is buying a thong for his mother or the fact that the song's narrator is completely supportive of this venture.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Book Review: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence

While David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, I have a considerably more complicated view of his sister, Amy. Although I like Amy, I tend to prefer her in small doses. In a cameo or on a talk show, she is very charming and funny, but I can't imagine watching her for more than thirty minutes at a time. I greatly admire her wit and her complete lack of self-consciousness, but like eating an entire pound of Godiva in one sitting, I always thought she was just too much to take in large doses. However, her book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, which was first released two years ago and has just come out in paperback, may just change my mind about her once and for all.

For those of you unfamiliar with Amy Sedaris, she is a jack of all trades and a master of many of them. Besides acting in film (she's had cameos in approximately every other film to come out since 2002), theatre (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told - a gay reimagining of the Genesis story) and television (Strangers with Candy), she is also a known baker (she sells her cupcakes in NYC), proud rabbit owner (not a euphemism - she has pet rabbits and even starred in a Microsoft commercial with rabbits), and gifted comedienne. All of these attributes are featured, in some form or fashion, in I Like You, a subversively humorous and surprisingly useful guide to hospitality.

In the book's introduction, Sedaris admits that she does not like joke cookbooks. Consequently, while some of the advice that she offers should definitely be taken with a grain (or even a shaker) of salt, her recipes are easy to follow and are typically very good. The recipes range from cupcakes and cheese balls to traditional Greek dishes, and Sedaris also includes menu suggestions, such as a meal for a first date and an alcoholic's menu (applesauce and chicken wings). Interspersed with the recipes are photographs of Sedaris and numerous arts and crafts as well as hints and tips for entertaining. While many of these tips are useful, there are certainly some ones that are made with tongue planted firmly in cheek; for instance, as a party game for children, she suggests taking the children to a part of town that they have never been to before and letting them figure out how to get home on their own.

While I Like You may never take the place of the traditional guides to etiquette and entertaining, it certainly deserves a place beside these books. This book makes a great hostess gift for the nontraditional hostess or as a wickedly funny (and slightly strange) reference for yourself. There is also an abridged, but still humorous, audio version, in which you can enjoy the craziness of Amy Sedaris in stereo. Trust me, as we get stand in the midst of the Christmas/Hanukkah/ Kwanzaa season, I Like You makes a great alternative to the ubiquitous songs about reindeer and snow.

Prop 8 - The Musical

What's better than a short musical with songs by Marc Shaiman, who wrote the songs for Hairspray? A short musical about Proposition 8 starring Neil Patrick Harris, John C. Reilly, and Jack Black, who plays Jesus. My personal favorite part about this is that Jack Black, as Jesus, points out some of the stranger things the Bible says, such as not eating shellfish and stoning people. In under three minutes, not only does Shaiman satirize society's complicated relationship with homosexuals (for instance, it notes that people don't mind homosexuals when they are making clothes or fixing hair), it also skewers the fact that Bible-thumpers tend to "pick and choose" which Biblical edicts to follow. Enjoy!

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: Holidays on Ice

I must admit that I tend to have a complicated relationship with the holiday season. Besides the commercialism, the greed, and the ruthless behavior (a Wal-Mart employee was actually killed on Black Friday by members of a stampeding crowd), there is also the manufactured, maudlin, feel-good songs and specials to contend with. This can be particularly unnerving for people who work in the service industry; while murderous, bargain-crazed shoppers are not typically the norm (I hope), retail workers must deal with some very unhappy, loud customers (after working 7+ Christmases in retail, I have faced more than a few). Unfortunately, all of the sweetness and light offers little comfort.

That is where David Sedaris comes into play. His book, Holidays on Ice, which has just been reissued with several more essays (most of which have been previously published in Sedaris's other works), offers a much-needed respite from the saccharine cheer often found during the month of December. Made up of reminisces from his experiences as well as several fictional essays, Holidays on Ice emphasizes the needless craziness and shallowness of the holidays. However, it isn't an entirely caustic depiction of the Christmas season.

While I haven't read the newest edition of the book, I have read the 1998 edition several times. The main attraction of the book is "The Santaland Diaries," Sedaris's account of his employment as an elf at Macy's in New York. This essay is what catapulted Sedaris to fame after it first appeared on NPR, and it stands up to multiple rereadings. In addition to Sedaris's hilarious description of his various exploits (such as when he tells shoppers that they can see Cher if they stand on the magic star) to his perceptions of the different Santas and elves that he worked with, he also offers some heart that helps temper the cynicism. The same is also true "Dinah, the Christmas Whore," an essay about Sedaris's childhood, in which he gains some insight into his older sister's life away from the family.

The other essays in the book are of the fictional/ satirical bent, and some are more successful than others. Given my theatre geek tendencies, it is unsurprising that my favorite is "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," in which an angry theatre critic harshly reviews the Christmas pageants at local elementary schools. It balances the bombast of some theatre critics while also satirizing the trite fare offered during the holidays. The remaining three essays, "Based Upon a True Story," "Christmas Means Giving," and "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!" are funny, but I don't find them quite as successful as the rest of the book. Specifically, "Season's Greetings" and "Based Upon" are a little too harsh for even my tastes.

While the essays are a little uneven in quality, Holidays on Ice is definitely worth reading (or rereading) during this time of the year. The balance between sweet and sour makes it a refreshing antidote to the syrupy concoctions that abound during the month of December and reminds us that often there is something inherently funny in the insanity surrounding the holidays. It is worth noting that the new edition of the book contains several new essays, some of which relate to Christmas and some which have to do with other holidays (namely Halloween and Easter). While all but one of these newly included essays have been previously published in Sedaris's other books, this new edition is definitely worth a look, if only because it contains the hilarious "Six to Eight Black Men," which certainly deserves a place in the Sedaris holiday canon.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am frantically writing this blog while waiting for my potatoes to finish cooking; it is the first time I'm having people over for Thanksgiving, and I am more than a little nervous. However, my fear of under cooking or overcooking the turkey not withstanding, I am very grateful for many things this year. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
  • The fact that Barack Obama is the president-elect.
  • My family (and it's my sister's birthday today!)
  • My jobs - I work for two of the greatest bosses ever. Plus, I get to work with some interesting, inquisitive students who want to change the world (for real).
  • I don't have to work retail this holiday season!
  • My friends and classmates - they are smart, snarky, and supportive. What else could I ask for?
I'm sure there are dozens of other things that I should mention. However, I've got to go finish preparing dinner. To keep this post from being too maudlin, here is a fantastic clip from The Addams Family Values. After being forced to attend a summer camp for WASPy, affluent children, Wednesday and Pugsley are coerced to participate in a play about the first Thanksgiving, which was written by one of the counselors. While Wednesday finds the play "puerile and under-dramatized," she eventually agrees to appear in it in order to lull the counselors and her fellow campers into a false sense of security. Enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quick Review: A Colbert Christmas

From reading my blog, it may seem like I am a joyless cynic. While this is partially true, I also happen to love Christmas (particularly since I'm not working in retail anymore). Despite the over commercialization of the holiday and the fact that the holiday season starts in the middle of October and lasts until the end of December, I still squee like a schoolgirl when the Christmas season proper (the end of November) starts.

However, all of this sweetness and light can be rather overwhelming, not unlike being forced to eat several large clumps of cotton candy all at once. Consequently, I had high hopes for Stephen Colbert's A Colbert Christmas, which aired on Comedy Central yesterday. In addition to combining satire and Christmas (two things I love almost equally), I usually find Stephen Colbert's absurd bluster amusing. Unfortunately, I wasn't completely enamored by the show. While there are some funny moments and shout-outs to people who have watched The Colbert Report faithfully, the show seemed to go overly long and the jokes, which could have been very funny with the right pacing, sometimes were driven into the ground long after they ceased being humorous.

Perhaps this is an instance of something that seemed much funnier on paper than the end result suggests. When thinking about it as a passing idea, the concept of Stephen Colbert's pompous, insane, mercurial character having a Christmas special seems insanely funny. However, a little Colbert goes a long way; one possible alternative to the resulting hour long show (featuring cameos by Elvis Costello, Jon Stewart, and Willie Nelson) would have been to split up the show into segments on The Colbert Report.

Nevertheless, I find this clip, featuring Jon Stewart attempting to entice Stephen with Hanukkah, funnier than I can begin to say. My favorite part is Jon's "They are CANDLES!"

It's Turkey Lurkey Time

So, it is 1:00 AM on Monday morning, and I should be asleep because I have teaching/ class in the morning. However, I've been lying in bed obsessing about everything that I need to do in preparation for having some friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. While I have a relatively clean apartment due to my efforts this weekend, the thought of cooking a turkey breast for the first time on Thanksgiving day is going to give me hives.

However, I must admit that I am excited about having people over to celebrate. The past few years, I've done the Thanksgiving buffet experience at some of the area hotels, and while this is fun, it feels more than a little odd to spend that much money on a single meal (and still not have any leftovers). I'm also fairly confident about all of the other food that I'm preparing, so the worst case scenario is that we'll have lots of side dishes to eat if the turkey doesn't work out.

Anyhoo, just in case you are wondering what on earth the title of this post means, it comes from a song from the musical Promises, Promises. While it was originally performed by the awesome Donna McKechnie, the best quality version I could find for posting purposes was from the not very good yet strangely compelling movie musical Camp:



Are you still there? If so, congratulations. "Turkey Lurkey" is a screwed up song that has felled many a person. My brother, sister, and I were all horrified when we first witnessed this number; considering that this was when we first saw Camp, you can only imagine how stupefied we were. In a movie filled with "WTF?" moments, I think that this is the pinnacle. Since then, we've cultivated a love-hate relationship with this song. While we will make fun of it at any opportunity, we still listen to it. Perhaps the best explanation of the number's strangeness comes from the always funny Seth Rudetsky, who deconstructs the song's performance at the Tony Awards:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Twilight Haters of the World Unite!

Oh Twilight - like the monster (vampire?) at the end of the movie, the book just won't go away. Here are a few resources for people who (like me) want the book/ movie/ phenomenon that is Twilight to be sucked into a black hole:
  • Roger Ebert's review, while not as scathing as I had hoped for, makes some interesting points regarding the nature of Bella and Edward's relationship and the ridiculous amount of pan stick the actors playing the vampires must endure for teenybopper entertainment.
  • The Dari Burger, which usually focuses on the enduring crappiness of Sweet Valley High, is now analyzing/ tearing apart the new, shiny (like Edward in the sun) crappiness of Twilight. One of the highlights is an imagined conversation between the blog's author and Stephanie Meyer. While some might argue that Ms. Meyer might not deserve to be hated on this much, her obsession with Edward (which leaves Shonda Rhimes's obsession with McDreamy in the dust) and her tendency to compare her work to that of classic authors (Jane Austen and Shakespeare) make me feel that some of the hate is justified. Quite frankly, I like to think that Jane Austen would HATE Bella with a sincere passion and eviscerate her verbally if given the chance.
  • The incomparable Mrs. Giggles offers her views on Twilight; unsurprisingly, they aren't very complimentary. To give you a small taste of what she thinks about the book, she calls it pornography for teenage girls...
  • The amazing ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (don't you just love that name?) reviewed Twilight and gave it a solid D+. SB Sarah seems particularly affronted by the decidedly meh character of Bella.
I know that is is very wrong, but all this hating on Twilight warms the cockles of my heart in ways that a sparkly, undead boyfriend could never hope to do.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twilight Overload

As most of your know, I am not a fan of the Twilight series, in which a really passive, boring girl falls in love with a noble vampire. However, I have found that I can't hide from it - since the movie is coming out this week, the book is EVERYWHERE! There is a new movie tie-in edition of the book (complete with the freakishly pale cast on the cover and on the pull-out poster in the back of the book) as well as a soundtrack and ubiquitous magazine features. Even In Style magazine, which is one of my guilty pleasures, had a photo spread with some of the cast members.

The only potential bright spot is the possible backlash that may come from the critics and fans. If anything, I look forward to reading Roger Ebert's review; even if I disagree with his overall review, he always does a good job of showing exactly why he liked or disliked a particular film. Furthermore, I have heard that some people are horrified by the movie trailers, and the thought of millions of angry Twilight fans makes me happy inside (I never claimed to be a particularly nice person).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rent's Endings: The Film Version & the Alternate

Just in case you wanted to see and compare the ending Chris Columbus opted to use for the film versus the alternative, I've posted both below. I'll also include some commentary at the end (so you won't be prematurely distracted by my grumblings).

The Version Used in the Film (ending 1):
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The Alternative Ending (ending 2)


I prefer the alternate ending for a number of reasons. Besides providing a great framing device for the movie (the film opens with the cast on the bare stage singing "Seasons of Love"), the alternate ending is also far truer to the play than the version Columbus opted to use for the film. In the play, the entire cast sings the song and is rejoined by Angel at the very end. Although Angel is present in ending 1 (through Mark's movie), he doesn't have the same presence that he does in ending 2.

I also find that Columbus's rationale for using ending 1 is a cop-out and underestimates the audience's intelligence. According to his director's commentary, he decided to use ending 1 because the beginning of the film seemed so distant from the end and asking people to make that connection took them out of the moment. However, I think that most people are cognizant enough to remember something that happened less than two hours before. Furthermore, the image of the cast standing on the stage in their individual pools of light is so striking that it is an image that most people would remember.

Finally, there are so many small, nuanced moments in ending 2 that makes it the better choice. From Mimi's look of joy when Angel enters to the small touch of the hand between Angel and Collins to the beatific light that surrounds the characters, it is considerably more memorable and poignant than Mark's grainy, Baz Luhrmann/ Oliver Stone-esq video footage.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Rent

There are a lot of things I hate to love (Starbucks coffee, Center Stage, and Lucky magazine come to mind) and that I love to hate (Twilight, Sweet Valley High, Legally Blonde the Musical, feta cheese... the list is long). However, one thing that goes both ways is Rent, Jonathan Larson's magnum opus rock opera based off of La Boheme. While there is a great deal that I like about the musical, there is also a lot that bothers me whenever I take the time to really think about it. Here is my take on Rent:

What Works
  • A lot of the music is good and some of the songs are fantastic. "What You Own," "Seasons of Love," and "Finale B" are perhaps three of the most successful numbers, and they not only encapsulate what is going on in the play but they also work on their own. Even though "Seasons of Love" can get be very saccharine and was overplayed there for a while, its main lyrics are particularly strong.
  • The carefree spirit of the play (which isn't quite apparent in the movie version) is infectious and makes a great contrast with the carefully staged shows that have become common on Broadway. It is the anti-Disney and the anti-Andrew Lloyd Webber show (and I mean that in the best way possible).
  • In regards to being a show that supposedly "defines a generation" and speaks for the angst of a particular generation, it is far, far superior to Spring Awakening. While both musicals are period pieces, Rent just feels more genuine when compared to SA's formal, 19th-century dialogue and raunchy rock numbers. Also, while Larson had a great respect for Broadway (and was an admirer of Stephen Sondheim), the creators of SA seemed more than a little holier-than-thou in regards to their view of musical theatre.
  • The show's policy to sell $20 premium tickets the day of the show was a great way to introduce theatre to a new generation and to let the people who the show was about get a front-row seat to it.
What Doesn't Work (At Least for Me)
  • Yes, a lot of the music is good. However, since it is a rock opera and mostly sung-through, some of the songs are less than successful. Also, the show tends to have one volume (loud). When I saw it on Broadway, I was seated under a speaker and couldn't hear for the rest of the night.
  • There are holes in the plot that you could drive a truck through. Although this is part of the show's appeal (Larson died before seeing his show open and become a cultural phenomenon), I can't help but wonder why no one connected to the show realized that some characters, such as Benny, just seem to disappear and reappear at will.
  • This show has one of the most dislikable cast of characters ever assembled on stage. While the original cast of actors was (and still is) very talented, the characters are so incredibly unsympathetic that I have always had a hard time connecting with them. Maureen is self-absorbed and unfaithful, Tom decides that hot wiring an ATM is better attempting to teach his students, Mimi doesn't really seem to have any sort of revelation that her behavior is dangerous (and is rather predatory to boot), and Roger is a pill beyond comparison (read Mrs. Giggles's awesome review of the film version to get an idea of why I hate Roger). Even though Angel is sympathetic, he is made into such a martyr figure that he is more of a symbol than a true character.
  • Overall, the show seems hypocritical. Though these characters espouse the idea of acceptance, they really don't seem all that accepting. While they lionize people like them (who squat in buildings, leech electricity and whine about how poor they are while not putting forth any real effort to find and hold a job), they are awfully judgmental towards people who attempt to act responsibly. Benny, who is the play's supposed villain because he has sold out and turned his back on the bohemian lifestyle, doesn't anger me nearly as much as the other characters. While he sometimes is a jerk, he also pays for Angel's funeral, thus proving that having a real job that makes real money can come in handy in some situations. Of course, the other characters don't thank him for his gesture and make a rather disparaging remark about how nice it must be to have money.
  • The show's main idea, that it is acceptable and even admirable to be completely irresponsible as long as you are doing it in the name of "art" and are not selling out by (gasp!) getting a job doing something you don't like, angers me to no end. I appreciate art and the struggles that people have to endure in order to create art. However, I don't see it as an excuse for not being responsible and contributing to society in a positive way. I know sound like an old fogey, but even as a teenager (the show came out when I was in high school), I never understood why these characters couldn't get jobs and do their art in their off hours, like most people do (incidentally, Jonathan Larson worked at a diner before he got the funding that would allow him to concentrate on writing).
  • Although not nearly as bad as the atrocity that is the film version of A Chorus Line, the movie version of Rent is a veritable cornucopia of bad decisions. From allowing Chris Columbus (who directed the first two Home Alone movies and Adventures in Babysitting) to be at the helm to the fact that the film version came about 10 years too late for the original Broadway cast (most of whom were in the film) to be believable as starving artists, a lot of mistakes were made. However, the one that annoys me the most is Columbus's decision to change his original ending (which only proves how wrong he was for this particular film).
I know that my pro/con list is rather imbalanced. As you can tell, I have major issues with some of the underlying themes. Nevertheless, I can appreciate it for what it is and I can even forgive it for bringing the rock opera back to the Broadway stage. However, I still refuse to accept the fact that Roger is all that and a stack of pancakes - trust me Mimi, "Your Eyes" is NOT worth coming back from the dead for. "One Song Glory," Roger's song about his desire to write a great song, is ironically the superior song. However, given Roger's self-absorption, perhaps none of us should be surprised that his best song is about himself. Shut up Roger!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Day in America

Yesterday marked the end of a long election season. However, it also marked a milestone in the United States' brief history, and it signals the possible beginning of a new and brighter chapter for the country.

Congratulations Mr. Obama.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book Reviews: Gastronaut

In my mind, there is a cookbook spectrum. On one end are the uber-practical books that most people have and that you refer to when you need to figure out how to make the basics. From The Joy of Cooking to Mark Bittman's awesome How to Cook Anything (which was just updated) to the ubiquitous Better Homes and Gardens books, these tomes hold a great deal of information on how to actually prepare a meal and are the sorts of books you get when you graduate from high school and college and must start fending for yourself. On the other end of the spectrum are the fun, fancifully written cookbooks that are often a bit impractical. These are the books that you read for entertainment while shaking your head and wondering how the hell you are supposed to make some of the recipes included. Examples of these include Andy Warhol's Wild Raspberries and Helen Gurley Brown's The Single Girl's Cookbook, which includes instructions involving asbestos mats. They are funny and a great read, but you would never grab one when preparing to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

Stefan Gates's Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave falls somewhere between these two extremes. A self-described "epicurean desperado," Gates's book describes some of his more interesting food-related adventures, misadventures, and experiments. Don't let the rather plain cover fool you - this is hysterical, in a very British way (and I mean that as a sincere compliment). For instance, he has a chapter entitled "How to Stage a Bacchanalian Orgy," complete with substitute suggestions for hard-to-find ingredients like dormice. He also has sections on cannibal recipes, foods that are considered aphrodisiacs, and how to cook guinea pigs. His advice includes how to gild Cheetos and sausages with edible gold and what to eat in order to produce the most flatulence.

Balancing out the recipes for head cheese are (comparatively) more practical ones for toffee fondue and tips for creating a biscuit-tin smokery. Even in these sections, Gates is able to interject a great deal of humor and wit. Overall, Gastronaut may not help you prepare a roast turkey for the first time (even though it has a recipe for turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a chicken that is stuffed with a duck), and it will never be able to replace How to Cook Everything in terms of real-world application. However, if you are looking for a cookbook that is a lot of fun and has a few practical recipes interspersed with some crazy ones, you should definitely check this one out.

People Who Are Overrated, Pop Culture Edition

Sarah Jessica Parker - She seems nice enough, but I honestly don't get the appeal of Sex and the City. Aspiring to be judgmental, needy Carrie, uptight Miranda, prissy Charlotte, or vampy Samantha just seems to be aiming much too low. I also don't see how SJP is a style icon. Sometimes she displays an incredible sense of style; other times, not so much. She's quirky and fun, but I don't think that she's all that.

Oprah - Oh Oprah. I suppose that we should all be grateful that you use your power for relatively good things. However, the fact that a mere mention from you can cause a book to become a bestseller or that you occasionally cause your audience to go into seizures of pleasure by giving them thousands of dollars of merchandise is more than a little scary. Also, as a person who has criticized Americans, specially American children, for being too materialistic, perhaps giving away cars, $800 Camcorders, and $350 Kindles to your audience members is a little hypocritical.

Mitch Albom - Tuesdays with Morrie seemed innocuous enough until it started popping up everywhere. Then came The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which may just be one of the most banal books ever. I've comed to realize that Albom is the literary version of Thomas Kincaid - generically heartwarming, inoffensive, and bland. This leads us to...

Thomas Kincaid - By the word "trite" in the dictionary should be a woodcut picture of Kincaid or at least one of his damn cottages. The fact that he is EVERYWHERE (more so than Mitch Albom or Sarah Jessica Parker) makes him harder to get away from and easier to loathe. From the fact that he calls himself "The Painter of Light" (which is a registered trademark) to the fact that he once urinated on a statue of Winnie-the-Pooh at Disneyland, Kincaid is probably one of the most annoying people ever to invade thousands of homes. However, one great thing that has come from him is that he was thoroughly mocked on an episode of "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" on NPR.

Katherine Heigl - While I usually like people to speak their minds, there is a difference between being honest and being tactless and spiteful. Besides her complete lack of an inner filter, she is a horribly overrated actress. She isn't bad, and she can make the deplorable character of Izzy almost bearable on Grey's Anatomy, but there are certainly more interesting and talented actresses out there.

Anyone on a VH1 or MTV Celeb-Reality Show - The exception to this may be Made. However, there are no words to describe my loathing for the people on The Hills or The Rock of Love. While they are slightly less repellent than the walking STD that is Tila Tequila, this is not saying much.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Book Review: Work Hard. Be Nice.

For years, people have been trying to find the panacea for the achievement gap in American schools. One of the most recent attempts is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), started by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach for America alumni. The KIPP schools, which are now found in several states and serve students from elementary to high school, offer a mixture of strict discipline, energetic chanting and singing, and more time spent in school (the school day is nine and a half hours long and students go to school on alternate Saturdays and in the summer). Jay Mathews’s book Work Hard. Be Nice provides an interesting and approachable if somewhat uneven look at the start of KIPP.

The book's s
ubtitle, “How Two Inspired Teachers Created America’s Best Schools,” leaves little to the imagination when determining Mathews’s opinion on KIPP. However, to Mathews’s credit, his account attempts to present different sides of the KIPP debate. Rather than making the program’s implementation seem easy, Mathews shows the many difficulties, ranging from colleague jealousy to administrative bureaucracy, that come with starting something different. Mathews also does not ignore Feinberg’s and Levin’s many missteps during their early years in teaching for TFA and creating KIPP. Although he portrays some of the anecdotes, such as Feinberg’s decision to have his students call school board members and inquire about the progress made in finding KIPP a new place, as drastic but necessary tactics or eccentric stunts designed to get needed attention, Mathews does not gloss over some of the more obvious errors that Feinberg and Levin commit.

Howev
er, the account still poses some problems. Mathews’s view of Feinberg, Levin, and KIPP is tremendously positive. While he does recognize some of the concerns critics of the KIPP schools have, he fails to provide compelling or substantive evidence that supports his rejection of these concerns. For instance, when faced with the contention that the KIPP students’ achievements may be attributed to them having a supportive home life because their parents value education, Mathews argues that the KIPP students do not have a family advantage because the system “puts less, not more, responsibility on parents than regular public schools do” (282) and points to the extended school day and Saturday and summer classes as opportunities for free child care. This line of reasoning neglects the parents’ efforts in getting their children into KIPP schools and assumes that the parents do not rely on their children to bring in an income from after-school work or to help at home by taking care of younger siblings. This failure to look under the surface to get a better understanding of the situation at hand weakens Mathews’s overall argument.

Ano
ther limitation with the book is its structure. While it revolves around Feinberg and Levin, Mathews also discusses their relationship with other teachers, such as Ball, and students. These relationships do humanize the two men. However, by interspersing ongoing stories about students with the basically linear narrative of Feinberg and Levin, Mathews sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to fully follow the different threads. While this problem is easily solved by flipping through the book and finding the previous thread to a given account, this solution makes for an occasionally unsatisfying experience.

Ove
rall, Work Hard. Be Nice will probably not sway critics of the KIPP schools. Before starting this review, I had some serious misgivings about the program, and these uncertainties remain even after reading and enjoying this book. Although the KIPP model may not present all of the answers or even be “America’s best schools” as the book’s subtitle claims, Mathews’s account is absorbing and provides an understandable, if somewhat biased, introduction for people who are not familiar with education or KIPP but want to learn more about both topics.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler Want You to Vote for Obama

Much to my mother's chagrin, I'm an Obama supporter. While I try to keep my political views to myself (at least on my blog), I stumbled across this video as I was working on a paper for class. Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler did a fantastic (and really funny) video urging people to vote for Barack Obama. It is completely charming in a retro, Nick at Nite sort of way, but I will let you judge for yourself: click here to go to see the video.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wretched Adaptations of Good Books: The Classics

I've recently been thinking about the disaster that often happens when good books get made into film. For every success story, there are probably ten utter disasters. Take, for instance, the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps a successful commercial film version of the book was doomed from the start. Hawthorne's use of narrative to show the minute details does not always transfer well to film. However, the nail in the movie's coffin was the attempt to update the plot ti fit appeal to modern American society. Consequently, the intricate story of forgiveness, renewal, and hypocrisy became a romance-adventure with some gratuitous violence, masturbation, and nudity thrown in for good measure. It even has a conventional happy ending, with Hester and Dimmesdale riding off into the sunset with little Pearl. Demi Moore's defense of the changes pretty much consisted of the idea that many people had not read the book. Not only is this not true (the book is on many reading lists for high school English, so people have at least a clue as to the story), it is also a weak defense. Even people who had not read the book could see that the movie was terrible.

Another great misstep in terms of movies and the classics is The Great Gatsby, which as been made into a film four times. Since the story comes from Nick's point of view, translating that into film is a daunting task, and the various film versions of Gatsby suggest that it is impossible. One of the most famous versions stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as the star-crossed Gatsby and Daisy. Although Farrow is convincingly ditsy, Redform seems much too self-assured and suave to be Gatsby. The most recent version aimed on A&E and starred Mira Sorvino as an unusually self-aware version of Daisy and Paul Rudd as an unusually snarky version of Nick. Despite the star power of the films, none of them satisfyingly capture Fitzgerald's tone, wit, or scathing indictment of the American Dream.

Of course, there are countless movie versions of Shakespeare's plays. One particularly awkward attempt that stands out is Kenneth Branaugh's Love's Labours Lost, which he made into a 1940s style musical featuring Alicia Silverston (of Clueless fame) and Matthew Lillard (of Scooby Doo the movie). As the characters flitter about on the sound-stage sets that are supposed to evoke memories of Astaire and Rogers films and perform numbers by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, it becomes obvious that most of the cast are out of their element. Alicia Silverstone gives it the old college try but clearly has no clue as to what she is saying, and the singing and dancing are, for the most part, amateurish to the point of being embarrassing. While watching non-singers (aka supposedly regular folk) sing can be charming (see Alan Alda's supremely understated and lovely take on "Looking at You" from Woody Allen's Everyone Says "I Love You" for a successful example), watching people attempt to sing, dance, and interpret Shakespeare while being shaky on all counts is more painful than entertaining.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here - A Reader's Poll

I have had this blog for about 8 months now, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised whenever I check my statcounter to see who has been visiting my site and where these hits are coming from. While my statcounter can tell me what pages are the most popular, I am interested in hearing from you (my readers) on what you would like to see me do on this site. Please take a minute to complete the poll and let me know what you would be interested in reading. I promise to take your input into consideration (even if I continue to do my own thing on occasion).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Project Runway

I admit that I probably haven't made it through an entire episode of Project Runway this season. While it used to be one of my guilty pleasures, I couldn't warm to the designers this time around. However, I watched enough of it to know that, while I wasn't rooting for a particular person to win (which is just as well, since the person I want to win typically does not), I was vehemently opposed to the idea of Kenley winning. Although she is talented, she also came off as rude (even to Tim Gunn!), defensive, bitchy, and uncreative. While reality television tends to reward bad behavior (just look at Tila Tequila or any reality show on VH1 for proof), even the tv gods couldn't justify Kenely (and her bad attitude) walking away with the prize.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Theatre Review: A Chorus Line

Although the new promos for A Chorus Line like to call it "The best musical ever," I was very skeptical before going to see the touring production at the Boston Opera House last week. Like any good musical theatre junkie, I was familiar with the show and its place in musical theatre history, but a number of traumatic experiences with the show made me leery of paying money (even at the student rush rate of $25.00) to see it live. Besides a horrendous introduction to the play via the awful movie version (which should be a crime against humanity on some level) and a terrible student-produced version that I forced myself to attend while an undergraduate, my experience stage managing A Chorus Line was what convinced me that making a career in the theatre would probably be a bad thing.

However, after watching the show last week, I can honestly say that I have a greater appreciation and understanding of the show. Despite the decidedly mixed reviews the revival got when it opened on Broadway, the show was probably one of the best touring productions I've ever seen. Here are a few of my observations from the performance I saw:
  • While A Chorus Line is a staple of many a college and community theatre production, it is sometimes hard to find enough people who can sing, dance, and act well enough to truly pull off this show without making some points embarrassing or difficult to watch. The company of this production were uniformly good and are true triple threats. While some characters were a little over the top and therefore unlikable (I'm looking at you, Val), I can say that nothing was boring.
  • The absolute best part of the show (in my mind) is the Montage sequence, which includes "Gimme the Ball," "Nothing," and "Hello Twelve." It has always been my favorite part of the show, and I almost wanted the show to end with it.
  • The other highlight of the show was the character of Shelia. Not only does she have the fantastic song "At the Ballet," she is a surprisingly sympathetic character. The actress playing Shelia (Emily Fletcher) was able to balance the character's hard edges with moments of very believable vulnerability.
  • "The Music and the Mirror" section needs to be cut in half. I'm sure that Donna McKechnie was amazing when she did it originally, but it just feels very long when watching it.
  • I loathe the song "What I Did for Love." While I have always found the song maudlin, hearing Ed Kleban's (the show's lyricist) interview on NPR in which he talked about his hatred for this song solidified my dislike. FYI: Kleban hated the song because he felt that it didn't further the plot. Instead, it was written to be a standalone song that could be a hit and could be performed to promote the show. His dislike of the song was such that he refused to let anyone perform it at his memorial service.
  • As I watched the final casting choices that Zach (the director) makes, I actually hoped that the rejected dancers mugged him in the alley when he left. After putting them through the most emotionally draining and manipulative audition EVER, he deserves a good ass-kicking.
  • The show's finale, "One," is perhaps the most depressing ending I've ever seen. Despite the fact that many people get caught up in the splashy costumes and showy choreography, Michael Bennett actually wanted the ending to be disturbing. While the audience has spent two hours getting to know the individual members of the show, suddenly they are all dressed alike and are the dance equivalent to interchangeable cogs in a machine.
In short, while parts of the show are a little dated ("Dance, Ten. Looks, Three" just doesn't have the same shock value it once did), I heartily recommend this seeing production. Not only does it do the original show justice (which is much more than I can say about the film version), it also features a very talented cast and some great songs. Consequently, while I may not go so far as to call it "the best musical ever," it is an important and mesmerizing part of musical theatre history (and should make the creators of the musical versions of Young Frankenstein, The Little Mermaid, and Legally Blonde very, very ashamed).

The Odd World of SkyMall

From the airport security lines to the lack of amenities to the crowded cabins, flying is usually a far from pleasant experience. However, one of the great things about flying is the always amusing and usually absurd items found in the SkyMall catalogs thoughtfully provided in the pockets of airline seats. From the semi-practical (a travel medicine case) to the odd but compelling (an antique popcorn maker/cart) to the completely frivolous (the Spa-N-a-Box Portable Spa), you can find almost anything and everything within the catalog's slick pages.

Although a SkyMall catalog probably isn't enough to keep you occupied while on a trans-Atlantic flight, it does offer some great diversions on shorter trips. Now that they have done away with in-flight movies, here are some of the odder games my siblings and I sometimes indulge in when there isn't anything else to do on the plane:
  • Find the most useless item possible in the catalog (this can take some time) and try to one-up each other in terms of uselessness and cost. The last time my sister and I did this, we went head-to-head with the expensive inflatable, portable hot tub and the ultimate pogo stick extreme.
  • For some reason, there are an unusual number of pet-related items featured in SkyMall. Everything from personal drinking fountains to memorial plaques are available. Find the stupidest pet items (you will have a lot to pick from) and try to decide which of your friends might actually buy them for their beloved pets. An even more fun variation is taking the catalog with you to your pet-fanatic friend and showing him all of the wonderful things that he can buy for Fido or Fluffy.
  • If all else fails, use the catalog like an adult version of the Sears Wish Book and find all of the things that you would buy if you had an unlimited amount of money and space. While you may never have room for that genuine reproduction of a 1920s helicopter propeller in your living room, you can always dream...
Finally, if you are away from an airplane, take this great quiz from Mental Floss: Actual SkyMall Product or Rejected Invention Patent?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Despair.com

I've always been rather skeptical of places that specialize in products made specifically to inspire others. While this might sound like a terribly cynical standpoint, please hear me out. Things like the Chicken Soup series, the thankfully defunct television show Touched by an Angel, and "inspirational" email forwards have always left me cold. Even when I allow myself to be manipulated by a maudlin story or film, I always feel a little dirty afterward.*

Luckily, there is a fantastic antidote to all of this mass-marketed sweetness and light. Despair.com has some of the funniest, most caustic anti-inspirational products ever created. Modeled after the motivational posters ubiquitous in school hallways and locker rooms, Despair Inc.'s Demotivators take the idea of the stock image (a rainbow at sunset) and juxtaposes it with the one word inspirational feeling (dreams) and the pithy explanation ("Dreams are like rainbows. Only idiots chase them."). While there are many fantastic products and sayings to pick from, my current favorite is this one.

*ETA: Right after I posted this, I found the link to "The Starfish Story" on the Despair.com site, and I had to put it on here. I had a teacher in grad school who loved this story, and it is the perfect example of the sentimental/ inspirational story I mention earlier.

Banned Books Week: Other Favorites

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust and his father's experiences in it is one of the great books of modern times. Not only did it help legitimize graphic novels as a form of literature, it also tells a damn good story. In it, Spiegleman uses different animals to symbolize the different ethnicities/races (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Americans are dogs, and so on). In addition to telling the story of his parents' ordeal during the Holocaust and World War II, Spiegelman also addreses his complicated relationship with his father (a tempermental miser), his rivalry with a brother who died during the Holocaust, and his guilt with his mother's suicide. However, Maus has come under fire and was challenged in 2005 for being anti-ethnic and unsuitable for younger readers.

As many have discovered, satire can be a hard sell. George S. Kaufman, playwright and satirist, once famously said that "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." While America (The Book) was very popular, two libraries in Mississippi initially refused to put the book on their shelves because it contained (fake) nude pictures of the justices of the Supreme Court. Wal-Mart also decided not to stock the book because of these pictures. When you consider what Wal-Mart does sell, this is an interesting argument. While fake pictures might destroy America, Wal-Mart is dedicated to providing us with firearms and tobacco products

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Banned Books Week: Literature Edition

While a freakish number of children's books have been banned or challenged, there have been plenty of adult books that have seen the wrath of angry people who spend entirely too much time counting words in the text without actually having read (or understood) the books in questions.

Toni Morrison, who is the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not an author without controversy. Three of her books, Song of Soloman, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved, have all been challenged or banned because of violence, language, and sexuality. Beloved is one of my all-time favorite books, and while I admit it can be a harrowing read, it is also a very powerful one. While parts of the book still perplex me, it also provides incredible insight into slavery in the United States, and it also addresses issues of identity, memory, and guilt. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1988.

Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great books in American literature, it is also one of the most contested books in the canon. In 1885, the Concord Public Library banned the book, saying that the novel was "trash suitable only for the slums." The book's depiction of Huck's behavior and Twain's use of vernacular caused much controversy at the time. Later, in the 20th century, the book came under fire because of its language and racial references. While I can understand how some of the language can make people uncomfortable, most people who challenge the book miss its point. This is not unlike...

Harper Lee's depiction of Depression Era Alabama is a great coming-of-age novel, but this sentiment is obviously not shared by many others, including the student who wanted the book banned because of language or the high school principal who didn't allow a performance of the stage adaptation because of the inclusion of racial slurs and the discussion of rape. However, the challenge that I get the biggest kick out of occurred in Tennessee when I was teaching there. A parent in Williamson County circulated an anonymous (aka cowardly) petition to get the book removed from the public schools there because of language like "snot nosed slut." The petition has so many wonderfully absurd moments that there isn't room or time to go over all of them. The highlights include a list of curses from the book (including "You're damn tootin," a phrase so hilarious that it makes the entire petition look even more ridiculous than it already is) and several quotes from the Bible that supposedly back up this person's protest. I guess that the protester conveniently forgot that, while the Bible is many things, one thing that it is decidedly not is PG-rated. (Incidentally, the Bible has also been banned/ challenged a lot).

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Looking for Information on Banned Books Week?

If you are interested in Banned Books Week and in banned books in general, here are a few links and resources that could be useful:

The ALA site has a lot of information on Banned Books Week, including...

ALA's list of the Top 100 Banned/ Challenged Books from 2000 to 2007

Both FaceBook and MySpace have pages for Banned Books Week

The American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression site has a section dedicated to Banned Books Week, which includes a nice listing of books that have been challenged or banned along with the stories behind the challenges/ bannings.

The Forbidden Library also has book listings, information on why books were challenged/ banned, quotes on censorship, and links to other sites addressing the topic of banned books

The Banned Books blog is dedicated to reading and reviewing banned books.

Banned Books Week: Children's Edition

Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen. (Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.)
- Heinrich Heine

I'm a little late (as usual), but this week (September 26 - October 4) is Banned Books Week, which was one of my favorite weeks when I taught high school English. I used to take great pleasure in surprising my students with the books that have been banned or challenged over the years, and it also led to some very interesting discussions regarding age-appropriateness, parents' rights, and the First Amendment. To celebrate this week, I'm going to be blogging about some of my favorite books that have been banned or challenged. To start us off, here are a few childhood favorites that have met with some controversy over the years:

Laura Ingalls Wilder is not immune to being challenged. Her book was challenged for being "offensive to Indians." Little House in the Big Woods was also challenged for similar reasons. While I can try to see the point of banning the book, it is also a historical document which captures an era of time when relations between Native Americans and white settlers were less than stellar. Quite frankly, I'm more offended by the television series and Michael Landon's complete bastardization of the books than I am by the books themselves.


While the challenging of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl shouldn't be too surprising given some of the more explicit passages, I seriously doubt that anything in the diary is as graphic as what is readily available on the internet or found on network television on a given night. However, the strangest objection to the book was made by four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committe, who deemed the book "a real downer." You can't make this stuff up.


While this wasn't technically part of my childhood, I'm throwing it in anyway. Why? Well, besides being a great book, The Giver was one of the most banned/ challenged books in the U.S. between 2000 - 2007 (at least according to the ALA). Parents have objected to the book's content because it includes infanticide, euthanasia, and violence. However, the best complaint was from one parent who said "This book is negative. I read it. I don't see the academic value in it. Everything presented to the kids should be positive or historical, not negative." There are no words to fully express how awesomely short-sighted this quote is. I can't help but wonder what students are supposed to be reading. Could they read something that was historical and negative? If not, that takes out quite a few books (almost all of Shakespeare's works, The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, etc.).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery's masterpiece, is celebrating its 100th anniversary of its publication this year. In order to properly celebrate, I purchased the new edition of the book, which was published by the Modern Library. Although I still long for the annotated edition of the book, I am quite excited about the Modern Library edition, which includes a reading group guide and an introduction by Jack Zipes.

While I thoroughly enjoyed rereading the book, I was amazed/ flabbergasted at the sheer amount of words that Anne speaks. She has speeches that go on for pages, and I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Marilla, who was quite taken aback at Anne's chatterbox ways. I was also a little horrified at Anne's recalcitrance when it comes to Gilbert Blythe (who I still have a literary crush on after all of these years). The fact that she breaks a slate over his head and then refuses his overtures of friendship for years is disconcerting. However, this is all part of Anne's charm, and even though she seemed a tad overwhelming when I revisited her, I still have a great fondness for her and for the books.

Prince Edward Island, the book's setting, has a website dedicated to luring tourists to the island to celebrate the anniversary. PEI attracts a great number of visitors who are taken with Anne and want to see the places mentioned in the book. For more information on the 100th anniversary, visit the PEI website or check out this article from a July issue of Newsweek. I also urge you to read (or reread) the books and check out the first two Kevin Sullivan movies (done in the 1980s), which star Colleen Dewhurst, Megan Follows, and Jonathan Crombie (DO NOT watch Sullivan's third Anne movie, in which Anne dresses up like a nun and gets involved in World War I - it is wrong on so many levels). With all of the madness found in today's world, Anne provides a welcome glimpse into a time when you could have a "bosom friend" and find "kindred spirits" if you looked hard enough.

ETA: After I first posted this blog, I found two more articles on Anne of Green Gables and its 100th anniversary. The first is from Slate.com, which talks about the book's complexities and its defiance of typical children's literature/ young adult literature. The second article is by author Margaret Atwood and talks about the book's (and L. M. Montgomery's) background.