Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: "Book Lust to Go" by Nancy Pearl

Although I love books and reading, I sometimes get stuck in a book rut. Despite having a towering “To Be Read” pile, I will have a problem finding anything that suits my fancy. Thankfully, that is when Nancy Pearl’s invaluable Book Lust series comes into play. Her latest addition is Book Lust to Go, a book full of recommended reads dealing with a variety of locales ranging from Baltimore to Berlin and Verona to Vietnam.

Like the other Book Lust books, Book Lust to Go is arranged according to theme, with most of these themes pertaining to the location in question. These themes (mostly) make sense, even when Pearl decides to use quips or puns (think “Just So Much Greek to Me”). Besides countries, the book includes sections dedicated to hiking (hilariously titled, “Hiking the (You Fill in the Blank Trail”), mountains, and bodies of water (separated into “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “See the Sea,” and “Water, Water Everywhere”).

Far from just relying on the ubiquitous travel guides, this collection includes novels, memoirs by travelers and native authors, and other pieces of non-fiction. Regardless of what you are in the mood for reading, chances are that you will find something to satisfy your literary craving. The breadth of literature represented in this book is all the more impressive when considering the fact that Pearl judiciously tried to avoid repeating books from her three previous Book Lust forays.

Overall, Book Lust to Go is the perfect resource not just for the armchair adventurer or the reader struck with wanderlust, but for people who are going on a trip but is at a loss for what to read. Not only will Book Lust to Go give them a wealth of suggestions to help them pass the time while traveling, it will (more often than not) offer them book ideas that will give them better insight into the place they are going.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes" by Stephen Sondheim

I have long had a love affair with musical theatre. When I was younger, this love affair was all-consuming; anything and everything Broadway-related, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to (shudder) Frank Wildhorn, was fair game, and I admit that I had at least two versions of the Jekyll and Hyde soundtrack in my CD collection. However, with age and experience comes discernment. While I still have a fondness for some ALW, my interest in Wildhorn's pedestrian work died before I entered college and any lingering attachment perished when David Hasselhoff played the title role(s) in a televised version of Jekyll and Hyde.

Luckily, college introduced me to the works of Stephen Sondheim, and ever since, I have become a bit of a Sondheim snob. Consequently, when I heard that he was writing a book that included the lyrics for his shows, as well as essays and reflections on the songs, I was psyched (sadly enough, I probably used this exact phrase when telling my students about it. Unsurprisingly, they were not nearly as excited as I was).

Finishing the Hat includes the lyrics for Sondheim's shows from Saturday Night (conceived of before West Side Story, but unperformed until 1997) to the wonderful (if poorly received) Merrily We Roll Along. Interspersed among all of the lyrics are overviews of the shows as well as short essays and notes about the songs (hence the Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes from the book's subtitle). The book also contains Sondheim's original notes and reflections on other lyric writers (all deceased), such as Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim's mentor), Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. In short, this book is a musical lover's dream come true.

While the lyrics are the real star of the book (and, as Sondheim noted in his interview with Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air, they read very well on the page), I found myself really enjoying his thoughts upon revisiting the lyrics. For instance, his explanation for changing "Rich and Happy" to "That Frank" not only helps us understand his rationale for the change but also gives us a deeper appreciation for the thought that he puts into his music and lyrics. I also enjoyed Sondheim's forthrightness and candor, which rarely devolve into malicious gossip (the closest he gets is in his recollections of The Frogs). He is quick to praise the lyricists who came before him and influenced his work (as his pastiche work in Follies shows), but he also does not hold back when it comes to critiquing their more questionable lyrics. Even as I felt myself getting defensive on behalf of lyricists like Gershwin (whose work Sondheim refers to as "Rhyming poison"), Sondheim uses specific examples to prove his points, and even when I admire the lyricist in question, I often found myself understanding and agreeing with Sondheim's anlysis.

One of the roads I didn't take was taking a course (or set of courses) dedicated to musical theatre. However, Sondheim's Finishing the Hat provides a veritable master class on musical theatre and the thought and care that go into creating a musical. Read it while listening to Sondheim's songs, and you will get the full appreciation of a master at work.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: "The Partly Cloudy Patriot" by Sarah Vowell

This week has been one of minor annoyances, and today's adventure, which included cancelled and delayed flights, is no exception. However, if there is one nice thing I can say about waiting six hours at the airport is that it gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up on some fun reading. While reading something heavy (think Camus or Proust) would not have worked, Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot was the perfect companion for a morning that devolved into a long, sad experience at Logan Airport. I finished it just as my plane started its descent, and while I was still annoyed by the delays, I was glad that I had such an enjoyable book to prevent me from being more irritated.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been on a bit of a Sarah Vowell kick. After reading The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, I was eager to read The Partly Cloudy Patriot during my sojourn to the Happiest Place on Earth. Although Vowell's trademark wry humor and preoccupation with American history remain the same through these three books, The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a collection of essays addressing the author's thoughts on a variety of subjects. The diverse selection of topics, as well as the essay format, make this an excellent selection for reading on the go because I could easily read an essay in a brief amount of time before sprinting to a changed gate or listening to the pilot's announcements.

The essays range in topic from Vowell's musings on California to the nerdiness of Al Gore (and how embracing this nerdiness might have changed people's perceptions of him to popular culture (Vowell has an innate distrust of Tom Cruise). All of these essays are light in tone even as she explores the darker sides of her topics. In the title essay, Vowell explores her complex views on the American flag, particularly in the wake of September 11 and the war that followed. She also admits her fascination (and love for) historic sites that are associated with the more tragic moments of our history and goes so far as to recount a conversation she has with a psychologist friend about why she is happiest at places like Salem, Massachusetts.

Even though I wholeheartedly enjoy Vowell's musings, I don't know if I would go so far as to recommend it to everyone. Her willingness (and forthrightness) in admitting to and exploring her complicated views on history and America in general would definitely be a turn off for a certain segment of the population. Even some people who share Vowell's love of history might balk at her salty language, liberal ideals, and irreverent treatment of subjects that are usually considered too sacrosanct to be mocked or even questioned. However, for people who don't mind (or revel in) a heaping helping of irreverence mixed in with their history and pop culture, The Partly Cloudy Patriot definitely deserves a place on the "To Be Read" list.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Get $5 Off One Jasmere Purchase Before December 1, 2010

As I've mentioned in an earlier post, I've become addicted to Jasmere. It's a site that combines many of my favorite things (online shopping, specialty retailers, and saving money) in one place. It is very similar to Groupon, but it features web-based retailers (versus ones in the community) so anyone anywhere can make a purchase.

If you've never tried it before (or even if you have), now is the perfect time to give it a whirl. Jasmere is running  running a special promotion where you can get $5 off a purchase you make between now and December 1! Just use the following code when you check out: SF5E2650AF

Today's feature at Jasmere is Sweet Sally's, a specialty bakery, and the baked goods look perfect for the holidays (or any day for that matter).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What I'm Reading (and What I've Read) - November 2010 Edition

I know - I've been a bad blogger the past few months. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that this is going to get any better - job 1 + job 2 are going to be crazy until Christmas, and my research is starting to speed up (if only I could get more participants!). However, I do have some plans to catch up on my posting during the Thanksgiving and winter holidays breaks. To tide you over until then, here is a quick rundown of my recent reads:

The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell - I've been on several reading kicks lately, meaning that I've found myself reading different books by the same author or different books about the same subject (more on this later). One of my recent finds has been Sarah Vowell. While she isn't everyone's cup of tea, I enjoy the wry humor she brings to any subject, and I definitely appreciate (and relate to) her complicated views on American history. The Wordy Shipmates tackles the story of the pilgrims, while Assassination Vacation is about her search for sites relating to presidential assassinations. If you are looking for a fun, thought-provoking, and educational read during the Thanksgiving holidays, either of these books would definitely fit the bill (and be seasonally appropriate, at least in the case of The Wordy Shipmates).

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim - I am an unabashed Sondheim nerd, and this book is AMAZING! I'm hoping to review it during the Thanksgiving break, but let me just tell you that, if you are a musical theatre aficiando, you need to get this book. Besides collecting the lyrics from Sondheim's early works (from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along), the book includes some of Sondheim's original drafts as well as cut songs, essays on other lyricists, and explanations/information on the songs and shows.

Book Lust to Go by Nancy Pearl - I love Nancy Pearl, and when I received this book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program, I was psyched. I haven't had a lot of time to read it over just yet, but my upcoming trip to Florida should provide the perfect opportunity to read and review it.

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank - Inspired by Francine Prose's book about the diary, I've been reading a lot about Anne Frank and I have found that I appreciate her story and her writing so much more now than I did before. I also read a graphic novel biography of Anne Frank by Sid Jacobson, which I highly recommend.

Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson and Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen - Both books are excellent looks at the life of Louisa May Alcott, but I give the edge to Eden's Outcasts. This book offers a dual biography of Louisa and her father, Bronson Alcott, and knowing about Bronson makes Louisa's life that much more remarkable and understandable. Also, Reisen's book (or at least the advanced reader's copy that I read) had a few factual errors, mostly pertaining to Little Women. While these errors weren't major, they were distracting and made me question some of Reisen's authority about Louisa and her life.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Get an Early Start on Holiday Shopping with Jasmere

Between getting my research started, worrying over my lack of participants, and trying to prepare for my poster presentation at the Happiest Place on Earth next week, life has been insane. While I don't expect it to get any better in the coming weeks (or months), I have been finding ways to prepare myself for the end of the semester craziness that seems to coincide with the holiday season. My not-so-secret weapon this year is Jasmere.

You might be asking yourself, "What's Jasmere and why should I use it?" The site's "How it Works" page describes it much better than I can, but in short, the best way I can describe it is that it is the lovechild of Groupon and shopping sites like HauteLook and and Gilt Group. The site features a product or voucher from a different vendor every weekday, and the price goes down after a certain number of people make a purchase.

Besides being a fun (and cheap) way to shop, the other thing I love about Jasmere is that the vendors featured are very different and fit a range of lifestyles and tastes. Happy shopping, and let me know if (and what) you decide to purchase from the site!