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):

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.