Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: "The League of Regrettable Superheroes"

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

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

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

Edelweiss: A Rumination on Rogers and Hammerstein's Underappreciated Classic

According to the liner notes for a CD I bought many years ago (when I still bought CDs), “Edelweiss,” Rogers and Hammerstein’s song about the Austrian flower, is one of the most moving songs ever.  Even without the hyperbolic wording, it is easy to scoff at such a thought.  The song seems like a sentimental side note within an even more sentimental musical and movie, a minor selection within the maudlin excess that is The Sound of Music.  At first glance, it doesn’t even seem to completely fulfill the definition of moving.  For most of the population, moving means grandiose declarations and copious weeping.  Undoubtedly, musical theatre has offered numerous songs with more outright passion and pathos; from the Rogers and Hammerstein canon alone, songs such as “We Kiss in the Shadows,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” offer considerable dramatic flair.  By comparison, “Edelweiss” is a short, simple, and somewhat repetitious love song to nature.  It lacks the tragedy of young lovers separated by circumstance, the exhilaration of falling in love for the first time, or the comfort in understanding that no one is truly alone.

However, to simply dismiss “Edelweiss” as a clichéd ode to flowers does a great disservice to the song and its composers.  One part of the song’s undeniable appeal and moving quality does have to do with its context within the film version of The Sound of Music. 

Alone in the spotlight, seeing the Nazi guards waiting to take him into custody so he can fight in the army, Captain Von Trapp starts singing this simple tribute to his homeland, a place that, according to the Nazis, no longer truly exists.  In the film version, Christopher Plummer’s purported dislike of the project makes it even more meaningful.  Even as he manfully sings and strums, Capt. Von Trapp’s voice cracks as he realizes the enormity of what has happened.  For just a moment, Plummer’s cynicism fades, and he allows the audience to see the vulnerability and sadness lurking beneath the stoic façade.  His family, led by the incomparable Julie Andrews, joins in and urges the audience to sing too.  I still remember my 8th grade teacher’s explanation of this moment – “It’s like singing the National Anthem in the face of defeat.

Despite the intense emotions associated with the scene, a close examination of the song reveals its considerable strengths without the context of Nazis, Austria, and Julie Andrews.  “Edelweiss” was Oscar Hammerstein’s final work before succumbing to cancer.  Unlike the obvious morality of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” offers a more restrained method of inspiration.  While time and life are fleeting, some things remain unchanged.  In this sense, “Edelweiss” is also one of the most Romantic (with a capital R) of Rogers and Hammerstein’s songs; nature remains constant and provides a sense of comfort within this ever-changing world.  The music takes a similarly understated and simplistic approach.  Stripped of histrionics and vocal gymnastics, the tune emulates traditional folk music.  This is not a song that lends itself to lush orchestrations or complicated choral arrangements; instead, it embraces the sincerity and spontaneity that usually only comes with impromptu singing.

As for its inclusion on the most moving songs of all times list, it is difficult to take a sale-priced CD at the bookstore as the world’s foremost authority on music.  However, in the case of “Edelweiss,” perhaps it is on to something…

Monday, October 5, 2015

Literary Halloween Costumes: 2015 Edition

Every year, I consider not doing a literary Halloween post. After eight posts, it can be a little challenging to come up with something relatively new and/or different. However, after thinking about it and taking a quick look at my blog stats, I find that I can't resist. Here are a few new costume ideas from classic and not-so-classic literature.

Lady Macbeth from Macbeth - Unlike some characters, there is no single, indelible image that is Lady Macbeth, which can be a bonus (even if it does require that you explain your costume to people throughout the evening). For Lady Macbeth, you can go with a more formal, regal look (think velvet gown and elaborate hair) or a more severe ensemble (whenever I picture Lady Macbeth, Judy Dench's version comes to mind). Perhaps her most recognizable outfit is the nightgown associated with the sleepwalking scene, which would allow you to be very comfy (layers would be a good thing) and mutter "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" all evening.

The Girls (Bridget, Carmen, Tibby, and Lena) from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants - This idea works best if you have three female friends who want a group costume but no one wants to spend a lot of time or money coming up with one. The main thing each person needs is a comfortable pair of flattering jeans. After that, personalize the looks based on the different characters. Bridget needs long blonde hair (or, if you want to go for the second book, poorly dyed black hair), a soccer jersey or flirty top (when she's trying to get Eric's attention), and maybe a soccer ball. Carmen is trendier and curvier than her friends. Tibby might have a blue streak in her hair, a Wallman's (or Walgreen's) smock/vest, a nose piercing, and a somewhat sour expression. Lena dresses on the preppier end of the spectrum and tries to blend in.

The Narrator from "The Raven" - Our knowledge of the unnamed narrator of Poe's "The Raven" is limited, but he would be easy to recognize because of the raven. Given the late-in-the-day setting, slippers, pants, a shirt, and a nice robe would suffice. However, you would also need a stuffed raven to place on your shoulder (add the word "Nevermore" on a speech bubble coming out of the bird's mouth for further detail) or a friend to dress up as a raven to accompany you on your Halloween adventures. You might also have a picture of Lenore to look at and sigh over throughout the night.

Princess Elizabeth from The Paper Bag Princess - Elizabeth makes a refreshing change from the typical princess archetypes in their tiaras and fancy dresses. Additionally, she would be a (relatively) easy last-minute costume. As the book title suggests, she wears a paper bag instead of a gown and goes on adventures. Given the (probably) chilly temperatures and decency laws, I don't recommend that you only wear a paper bag. Instead, wear tights (or shorts or pants, depending on your preferences) as well as a tank top or long-sleeved shirt underneath your paper bag (or brown paper) dress. While Elizabeth's dress was simple, you could go all Project Runway with the idea and make your creation a more elaborate affair by styling your paper bag just so.

Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind - I can't believe that I haven't yet spotlighted Gone with the Wind here yet, but better late than never. I think that part of reluctant to include the book is that the movie, its costumes, and its overall look are so well known, but rather than run away from it, you could also embrace the iconography. Scarlett and Rhett (typically) require some planning, but the effect is well worth it. Depending on time, budget, and weather (seriously, running around in a hoop skirt and ballgown wouldn't terribly fun in 80 degree weather), you can go super-fancy in one of Scarlett's well-known, sumptuous ensembles, such as her green velvet dress (made from Tara's curtains), her red velvet party gown, or her picnic dress (Edelweiss Patterns has some beautiful pictures of a homemade version). To be a dapper Rhett, a period suit, preferably with tails and a vest, would do nicely. However, if you are short on time or actually want to fit into your car as Scarlett, you could go with her less famous but still iconic farmhand look by wearing a long, simple cotton dress and a determined if weary expression. Bonus points for defiantly saying, "As God as my witness..." throughout the evening. Rhett's dressed down look is even easier: all he needs is rakishly disheveled hair, long pants, and a white shirt (buttoning it up is optional).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

September 2015's PLAY! by Sephora Box

While I can't say that I'm a subscription box addict (my budget won't allow me to be), I do love trying out different boxes. When Sephora announced last month that it was getting in the beauty subscription box game, I figured I would give it a whirl. After receiving my first box, I'm very happy that I did!

PLAY! by Sephora is very similar to Birchbox, Ipsy, and other beauty subscription boxes in its most basic details. Like these other boxes, you signup for a monthly subscription ($10 + tax per month) and get a package of deluxe samples from the brands that Sephora carries in its stores. You also get a PLAY! Book with information on the different products as well as a PLAY! Pass that, according to the box's FAQ page, you can "redeem in store for a free one-on-one learning session with a beauty expert." My PLAY! Pass also says that I can redeem it to get 50 extra Beauty Insider points with purchase (depending on your thoughts regarding Sephora and the entire "Epic Rewards/Epic Fail" debacle, your mileage on whether these points are worth anything may vary).

Based on what I've seen online, I don't think that there is much (if any) variation in the boxes, which can be both good and bad. While Birchbox gives subscribers sample choice and has them fill out surveys so that the boxes can be tailored to preference and style, it seems like Sephora's boxes all contain the same products. Since I've had mixed experiences with Birchbox personalizing my products (I tend to get shampoo with sulfates, which I can't use because I glaze my hair, and foundations that are much, much too light), I'm actually happy to get the same products as everyone else since this helps mitigate the frustration that comes with getting products that don't work for you and seeing someone else get products that you could and would use.

 I received the notice that my box had shipped on the 18th and received my box today (the 22nd), which is a record for me and beauty boxes. It was packaged in a black and white Sephora shipping box. The inner packaging can be seen on the left. The size is somewhere between a Glossybox and a Birchbox, and it is very cute. One thing I'll be interested in seeing is whether Sephora changes the design on the inner box lids. While this is cute, I'd love to see some other colors and designs. The packaging inside the inner box was crinkled paper, which kept the products in place. If I have one complaint about Birchbox, it is that there isn't any cushioning, so I've gotten more than a few damaged products. I don't necessarily see that happening with the PLAY! box.

The products are snug in their bed

My samples were all deluxe-sized, and there was a nice variety to them. They included:
  • The Sephora Collection Rouge Infusion lip tint/stain in Peony 
  • A Marc Jacobs Highliner in Blacquer
  • Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation face creme
  • Bumble and bumble Haidresser's Invisible Oil
  • Glamglow Supercleanse
  • Elizabeth and James Nircana White perfume (this is a bonus product)

Overall, I really liked the products I received. When I first subscribed, I was a little nervous that the majority of items would be Sephora brand (rather than prestige brands), so I was pleasantly surprised that I received only one Sephora brand product, which I really liked. I particularly appreciate that these are all products I would like to try but aren't ones that I would necessarily purchase on my own. Since one of my hopes when subscribing to a beauty box is finding something new that I would like, I consider this a success.

Additionally, I found the PLAY! Book to be informative. I typically don't pay too much attention to the info sheets or booklets included with subscription boxes, but this one had some helpful information, such as how to use the products in unusual ways (for instance, you can use the Marc Jacobs Highliner to tint light-colored lashes and the Bumble and bumble oil primer to tame brows and moisturize nails). The book is also supposed to be scannable, meaning that you can scan the product pictures with the Sephora smartphone app to get additional information.

All in all, I'm very pleased with the box, and I'm looking forward to next month's. If you have any questions or thoughts regarding the box, please feel free to share in the comments section.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer 2015 Recap: Or, What I Did Instead of Blogging

I can't believe that it is already the end of August and that I've neglected this blog so much :(. I promise, it's not you, it's me. That said, I've had a very busy and eventful summer. This included (but wasn't limited to):
  • Working on materials that serve as a checkpoint for tenure
  • Revising curriculum (yay?)
  • Reading a lot (more on this in a moment)
  • Collaborating with colleagues on an educational exhibit that's coming this school year
  • Going on my first cruise and visiting Alaska
All in all, it was a good summer, and while I could have used another week (or two, or eight), I'm proud of everything that was accomplished. Even though I really didn't make a dent in my to-do list, I was able to get a number of important things done.

Because of the cruise, I was also able to get a lot of reading done. A lot of these books were for fun, which is a luxury since so I have so many books that I need to read for class and research. These books included:
  • The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson
  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  • Lists of Note: An Eclectic Collection Deserving of an Wider Audience edited by Shaun Usher
  • The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  • Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elisabeth Losh
Overall, I enjoyed all of these books, and I'm hoping to review a  couple of them on the blog.

How was your summer? Did you read anything noteworthy? Please feel free to share what you read, did, saw, etc. in the comments!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The 2015 Tony Awards: The Host & Best Musical Nominees

The 2015 Tony Awards were earlier this month, and while I came in knowing very little about the shows, I found it to be a mostly entertaining night. While there were some egregious missteps (flat jokes, problematic musical numbers, the deeply awful "In Memorium" presentation), overall, it was an entertaining and enjoyable night celebrating theater. While there are some great play-by-plays and reviews online (The New York Times always has a great Tonys section), I wanted to add my thoughts to the ones already out there. So, let's rewind to earlier in the month and relive the great and not-so-great moments.

The Hosts - I have to admit that I'm torn about Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. On one hand, they brought a lively sense of irreverence to the proceedings. At their best, it was a little like watching the Tonys with your two snarky, opinionated theatre friends who mock everything but in a loving and joyous way (as opposed to a bitter and angry way). For instance, watching Alan Cumming plug Josh Groban's performance for 90 minutes or so was funny because it was obvious that Cumming thought the constant reminders were obnoxious. I also enjoyed the little musical interludes that the hosts did before the commercial breaks.

However, there were times when the hosts (or the writers or both) went too far and the jokes landed with a thud or failed to launch at all. Case in point: After an amazing performance from Fun Home (more on this in a moment), the audience was treated to a lame E.T. joke. As Dave Itzkoff at the Times put it:

Let this be a lesson that sometimes less is more and that, if you are going to do a lame joke, then at least plan to do it after a crappy performance.

The Best Musical Nominee  Numbers
Fun Home - For most people, this was THE number of the night. Sydney Lucas, who plays the youngest version of Allison, showed some major acting and singing chops in "Ring of Keys." While this number doesn't seem like an obvious one for a Tonys telecast (most shows went for big, splashy, and fun production numbers), it was perfect.

Something Rotten! - While it was very meta (the song is all about musicals and the sometimes preposterous tropes and conventions they contain), it was a nice way to kick off the night. Also, anything that mocks Les Miserables gets a pass in my book.

The Visit - It is always nice to see Chita Rivera performing, especially when she is performing Kander and Ebb. Sure, it was befuddling (Chita is dancing with a younger version of herself, and according to those who have seen the show, the men in masks are supposed to be eunuchs), but it's Chita and Kander & Ebb.

An American in Paris - I don't know why, but I have an unexplainable animosity towards this show. I think that part of it stems from the fact that it (according to all accounts, rightfully) bested On the Town in the choreography category, but the Tony number it selected didn't endear it to me either. It was the perfect example of why medleys don't usually fare well in this venue. It was overstuffed and rather confusing (if you didn't know anything about the show, this probably wouldn't help you).

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Tony, Tony, Tony!

I know it has been a while since I've blogged here, but tonight is Tony night!

the producers photo:  tumblr_lmcfy20RZX1qgskrr.gif

While I know next to nothing about the nominated shows this year, I'm still excited. In a sense, this makes tonight's broadcast even more interesting to me since it will (in theory) give me a chance to learn more about the shows, and I won't get too upset if a show I love doesn't win.

I plan to have a reactions post on the Tonys up later this week. Stay tuned!