books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: October, 2014

Friday Culture Watch: To Read, To Listen, To Make, To Do.

To Read.
Ask any vocalist or music lover what they think about autotuning, and you are bound to get an earful. This method of electronic pitch correction (basically the “tuning” of a singer’s voice so it is on-key) is a controversial issue for some who believe it is a way to mask tonal deficiencies in an artist’s voice. Though primarily used in the studio, autotuning can also occur in live performances. Read this piece, from The Verge’s Lessly Anderson for a solid background on the past, present, and future of autotune use in music.

One of the names that often comes to mind when people talk about autotune is the R&B singer T-Pain who has made so much use of autotune in his work that he even inspired an iPhone app called “I Am T-Pain,” which simulates the effect. But T-Pain can really sing—listen to this week’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert featuring the artist. (And read this piece from last March’s New Yorker about the artist.)

To Listen.
Yes, yes, I did. Bought Taylor Swift’s new album 1989, that is. And you should too—because it is upbeat and catchy in all the best ways. And for those of us who remember this era of pop music, TS takes us back. And it is so much fun. (And since that is by no means a critical review, you can read the NYT review here.)

To Make.
One of my favorite snacks to make is popcorn. But I haven’t bought microwave popcorn for two years now. Good thing, apparently, as it is harmful to your health. What I use instead is this handy microwave popper from Sur La Table. Fill the bottom with whole kernels, add a pat or two of butter on top of the vented rubber cover (the butter will melt and drizzle over the popcorn as it pops) and season with salt to your taste when it’s done. It makes great popcorn! And at under $25, it makes a great gift for someone along with some popcorn and maybe a few seasonings.

To Do.
And once you make that popcorn, get ready to watch a movie tonight (after trick-or-treating, of course) that will be expiring from Netflix on November 1. If you’ve been waiting years to stream Apocalypse Now, Steel Magnolias or St. Elmo’s Fire, act fast! The complete list can be found here.

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the death yesterday of Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino. I met him back in 1993 at a debate against Jim Brett when he was first running for mayor and I was a college student tasked with interviewing the two candidates for my Intro to Journalism class. He was a kind and gracious respondent to a nervous 18-year-old that was looking for a quote for her story. And he served his city like no one else. Rest in peace, Mayor Menino.



Out on another school night. Eric Hutchinson at Boston’s Royale.

It is not easy to go out on a Monday night. Especially when the next day is a busy (and early) work day. But for Eric Hutchinson, I will always make an exception.

At the start of this workweek, the Boston’s Royale Lounge was home to a packed crowd ready to hear Tristan Prettyman and Eric Hutchinson on their City and Sand Tour. The doors opened a few minutes past seven, and unlike other shows (like the time I missed Gavin DeGraw perform while I stood outside the venue chatting because I thought he had an opening act), I was determined to get in and set up camp—especially since this one was General Admission. And as an aside, if you are local and ever have a chance to see a show at the Royale, I highly recommend it. Wear comfortable shoes because you will be standing the whole time, but you can get up close and really experience the music in a way that you can’t at a larger venue.

Around 7:30, British singer-songwriter Nick Howard took the stage for a seven-song set that was just fantastic. He was witty and seemed quite relaxed as he engaged the crowd in between his songs. In some ways, his sound reminded me of a cross between James Morrison and the lead singer of The Script. Really great. He is coming back to Boston for a show on April 8, and I will definitely plan to go.

Nick Howard.

Nick Howard.

Next up was indie pop songstress and California native (i.e. the “sand” part of the tour) Tristan Prettyman. Readers may know her name from her previous engagement to singer Jason Mraz, but she is a standalone name in her own right. She sang songs from her earlier albums as well as the new song “Waves” from her latest EP. The highlight, however, may have been her rendition of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”—which I loved! Prettyman is such a talented guitar player and natural performer that she is a pleasure to watch.

Tristan Prettyman.

Tristan Prettyman performs in her cool romper.

After her set, Eric Hutchinson took the stage—though he wasn’t wearing his signature striped shirt, ha ha. He was accompanied by a three-piece band (drums, bass, and guitar/keyboards). As usual, he put on a stellar show. If you haven’t ever heard him live, you are missing out—his is a voice that doesn’t need autotune or studio filters. And his ability to switch back and forth from keyboard to guitar without missing a beat is a gift. I love how he always integrates mashup medleys into his shows too—this time, it was “All Over Now” with Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Sounds like an odd mix, but it worked! Here is a quick clip of EH that I took before my phone died!

I was a little bleary-eyed on Tuesday morning from the late night, but it was worth it. Three talented performers, a wonderful show, and a great venue. A win on all fronts!

On Teachers.

Did you have an important teacher in your life? What was it about him or her that really informed or inspired or encouraged you? Over the next year, the NPR Ed team will be running a weekly series called 50 Great Teachers. Today’s installment begins with Socrates. I think this will be an interesting series to follow.

I have been fortunate enough to have a handful of teachers over the years from whom I really learned a lot. And I have had my share of teachers that were borderline unstable (though most of those came in my post-secondary school experience).

There were even some that stand out just because they seemed to genuinely like their jobs. Like Mr. Kessler, my seventh grade Civics teacher (do they even teach that anymore?) who facilitated weekly “Jeopardy” games in class using course content and current events to generate questions. The memorable part wasn’t the game, but the fact that top performers each week would earn prizes from Mr. Kessler’s large stockpile of travel toiletries that he had swiped from various hotels and motels on his travels. Answer a question correctly, and he would toss a treat your way—maybe a shower cap, or a sewing kit, or a miniature bar soap. It was hilarious and quirky—just like the teacher himself.

But it wasn’t until my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Jones, that I really became excited about learning for learning’s sake. Just through her example, she taught me the value of living a life full of intellectual pursuits. I first met Mrs. Jones the summer after 9th grade when another mother tipped my parents off about a summer writing workshop she was running at her house. The other parent knew from her daughter that I loved to write, and thought it would be a good opportunity for me. My parents signed me up and for a week I went every day to Mrs. Jones’ house to work on creative writing projects. Even still, I look back on it as one of the most formative experiences of my education. Her house was filled with books, and as I sat around her dining room table that overlooked a picturesque pond, I filled my notebook with poems and short stories and writing exercises of all kinds. I learned loop writing, mind mapping, and a variety of techniques that Mrs. Jones was still learning herself. She quoted from authors with whom I was not yet familiar, and her face would light up when she discussed the process of writing and getting something to be “just so.”

When I finally had Mrs. Jones as a teacher in school, she assigned labor-intensive assignments like Reading Response Journals, which were detailed reports on all aspects of a text (character, plot, symbols, historical context, etc.). Classmates complained, but I was meticulous in my focus. I have held on to those assignments all of these years (!)—maybe because of the hard work that they represented. Other students laughed because she often talked about her time at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (just because it sounded like a silly name to unenlightened teenagers); it would not be until years later that I realized what an honor it was to be chosen to participate in the annual event. Back when I started graduate school, I sent her a letter to the school at which she had been teaching to thank her for inspiring me as a reader, a writer, and a thinker—but the letter was returned without a forwarding address. I hope someday I am able to reconnect with her!

Tonight I am going with my friend K. to hear Amy Poehler (whose book was just released) in conversation with her high school English teacher, Kathy Dalton. I can’t wait—will definitely report back on that.

Bookminded Recommends: Jon Favreau’s ‘Chef’.

On Friday night, I decided that it would be a good time to finally watch a movie that I had been wanting to see for a few months: the film Chef. Last week was a busy week, and that fact, coupled with the rainy weather, made me want to stay in and enjoy a good flick. Though sometimes I get nostalgic for the days of the video store, thanks to Amazon Instant and my Roku (!) I was able to rent my selection and begin streaming it immediately.

For foodie readers looking for a lighthearted movie to enjoy, I recommend Chef. When the film opens, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is stressing about a noted food blogger’s upcoming visit to his L.A. restaurant. Casper is an innovator, but as we quickly learn, his creativity is limited by the owner of the restaurant (Dustin Hoffman), who wants his chef to keep churning out the dishes that have helped build a solid following. Casper wants to create a special menu for the visiting critic, but receives a contrary edict from his boss: no new menu items.

Of course, the predictable food does not impress and results in a scathing review that gets personal. Casper quits the restaurant and gets back to what he loves: cooking interesting and innovative food for adventurous foodies. Only this time it isn’t in a traditional restaurant: it is in the tiny kitchen of a food truck.

Chef may be a bit predictable at times, but it was an enjoyable film with a great cast (including John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson). Add it to your fall viewing list!

Memoir Monday: Flirting With French.

This week, I am reading this memoir Flirting With French by William Alexander about his experiences (and challenges) of learning the French language. I am generally interested in the study of foreign language—and believe that it is such a wonderful endeavor for any individual. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, only 10 percent of native-born Americans reported speaking a second language. This compared to the European Union where according to a 2006 European Commission report, 56% of residents speak a language other than their mother tongue. Further, 28% of those had mastered two foreign languages. Additionally, in 2009, about nine times as many Chinese students study in the U.S. as compared to the reverse. But I digress.

This book is great so far—so funny (as Alexander’s rigorous attempts to master the language seem to bring him far afield from fluency) and fascinating (as it offers a solid overview of linguistic theory for the layman).


Learning a language after what linguists call the critical age of acquisition (roughly age 7, but definitely before puberty) is difficult—and nearly impossible. And by learning a language, I mean mastering the ability to function at a native or near-native level of fluency. William Alexander is undeterred, however, in his pursuit!

A funny aside about this book: my son, who attended a French immersion school for the last six years happened to see the book on my night table when he went into my room to get something. Our conversation went like this:

B:         “Mommy, I saw that book on your night table. Are you trying to learn French?”

Me:      “No, it is just a memoir about someone who is studying the language.”

B:         “Oh, I saw the title and I thought that maybe you were trying to learn some cheesy pick up lines.”

Me:      “Um, why would I be looking to learn some pick up lines?”

B:         “Good point. Well, is it for one of your gal pals planning a trip to France?”

Me:      “Um, no.”

B:         “Oh, OK. Can I read it when you are done?”





The Weekender: A Little Sunday Music.

This morning my children were singing a familiar standard in church, but it was pepped up midway though with the addition of some Swahili verses! Listen here (disclaimer: I am no videographer).

Then, we stepped outside to hear this great music on Boston Common. First, the ending of “Superstition,”

and then this (note the dancing spectators–LOVE):

The Weekender: Birthdays for Twelves Abound.

This weekend, my new puppy Hildy is twelve weeks old.
And my first baby is twelve years old. Happy Birthday, B! Where did the time go?

To celebrate, per B’s request, we are going out for tapas (sans canine) here on Saturday night and for brunch here on Sunday (B’s actual birthday). The weather is bright and sunny this weekend in Boston, which is a welcome treat after a week of heavy rains. Enjoy your weekend!

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read.
Recently I was in a writing workshop where a classmate offered his take on writer Joan Didion: too white, too insulated, too rich, too elite. Since all of these are subjective observations, I would like to add my own: too talented. Novelist and essayist Didion has always had a way of getting to the heart of the matter, as she did in her 2004 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote in 88 days following the death of her husband—while her daughter was also battling a case of septic pneumonia.

There is Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, Blue Nights, and many others—all which exhibit her trademark syntactical style. She has said, “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed…The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

Director Griffin Dunne and filmmaker Susanne Rostock are currently making a documentary about Didion titled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live using the author’s own words and her own voice. The pair has organized a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film and although the goal has already been reached, visitors can still donate (and there are some interesting incentives to encourage donor participation—including book recommendations and recipes from the author herself) and read more about the project.
didion To Listen.
As a fellow Cape Codder, I have to give a shout out to singer Meghan Trainor. At only twenty-years-old, Trainor has written songs for some notable artists (Rascal Flatts, among them) and has a number one Billboard song with “All About That Bass” (you’ve probably heard it by now). The message of the song—being happy with who you are at any size—is a positive one, and is definitely the antidote to the Photoshop-trimmed images that are marketed to young girls as the physical ideal. And it has certainly spurred a lot of discussion—like this piece in The Atlantic and this one in The New York Times. What do you think?

To Make.
Seven days until Halloween! If you have little ones, check out Absent Librarian’s blog for some inspiration on literary costumes for kids. Here are a few images from her site. So cute!
Book-Kids enhanced-buzz-16173-1380754477-9

To Do.
Aretha Franklin does not have time for that. Watch this compilation of morning show interviews that Franklin did over the last week in support for her latest album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.

There are a series of mishaps—poor earpieces, loud background music, gushing interviewers, and the like. And the Great Diva herself does not seem amused. Also, after that, read this Vulture piece by Rich Juzwiak on the changing tenor of Franklin’s voice that asks the question if whether Franklin’s latest album “will do for aging what “Respect” did for Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement.”

Have a wonderful weekend! xo

Culture Watch: The Enduring Presence of Billy Joel.

Do you like Billy Joel? Odds are, if your answer is yes or no, you have strong feelings about your position. I don’t have any empirical data to back up this supposition—just anecdotal observations. People like me—who are fairly neutral on the artist—seem pretty rare.

Some dismiss Joel’s music as sentimental shlock (or “shlock-and-roll”), and I’ll admit, the same thought crossed my mind when I sat through a rendition of “Piano Man” at a fifth grade talent show last year. The young lad who sang the tune was talented, for sure. But the song went on and on and on (and on and on…).

But then there are songs that I do like—like “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” or “You May Be Right” from Glass Houses. Though the appeal of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” or “Only The Good Die Young” is lost on me (I think Bruce Springsteen covers the same theme as the latter with “Thunder Road” in a far superior way!) there are some tunes (“An Innocent Man” or “Leave a Tender Moment Alone”) that evoke nostalgia.

In 2009, Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum proclaimed Joel the “worst pop singer ever.” He writes, “I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.”

This week, Nick Paumgarten has a fantastic profile of Joel in The New Yorker titled “The Thirty-Three Hit Wonder.” I love how the author weaves his own experience with his subject into the piece in a way that is entirely engaging and authentic—and never intrusive. He writes, “For better or worse, my childhood had a lot of Billy Joel in it. When I was in fifth grade—late seventies, Manhattan—a friend who had five older brothers played “Captain Jack” for me, and it was the first time I’d heard about such things as junkies, closet queens, and masturbation. It was probably the allure of such wickedness that caused me, not long afterward, to choose, as my first-ever LP purchase, Joel’s new album, “52nd Street.” From this one, I learned about some other things, such as Halston, Elaine’s, Dom Pérignon, and the fact that one may snort cocaine from a spoon. All this came from “Big Shot”; I memorized, and can probably still recite, the lyrics.”

Despite a catalogue of recognizable hits, Joel has not released a new album of popular music since 1993. These days, his songwriting is strictly instrumental—he has no interest in writing lyrics anymore—as he tells Paumgarten, “I don’t wanna.”

Now ten months into a year-long residency at Madison Square Garden, Joel shows no signs of slowing down—even if he is focused on playing old hits rather than creating new ones. Yet he is still writing music, albeit of a different bent. The song cycle that he has been working on for the last ten years is called “The Scrimshaw Pieces.” Paumgarten, after listening to Joel play selections from this series notes, “In between pieces, he began to explain that these were variations on a motif and that they were telling the story of the history of Long Island, from its pastoral beginnings to the arrival of the Europeans — “I’m imagining the prow of a ship, and a Puritan hymn” — and then the bustle of the nineteenth century. Farming, fishing, the railroad. “Getting busy on Long Island,” he said. “This one’s almost Coplandesque, with big open fifths.” Certainly many would love to hear what he has been working on, but whether we will get the chance is anyone’s guess. As Joel says, “”If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it … I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore.”

What do you think about Billy Joel? Are you a fan? Not a fan? Somewhere in between?

A Clear Vision: Warby Parker and 826 Collaborate.

For those that haven’t heard of it, 826 is a fabulous non profit founded by writer Dave Eggers (he of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and The Circle) to get kids to write and to receive general academic support.

There are seven 826 locations across the country, and there is one in Boston. My son has taken writing workshops there, I have volunteered there, and we are so grateful that it is part of our community.

Now 826 has partnered with Warby Parker (where hubs and I got our latest specs) and in addition to issuing a limited-edition frame (The Kidd), WP is also sponsoring two books–The Review from 826NYC featuring poems, short stories, and essays contributed by their program students. And 826LA’s Activity Book, a collection of prompts and projects for kids to fill in. Proceeds from the books (sold at the NYC and LA WP retail locations) will benefit 826. Isn’t that great? So…check them out if you haven’t already and support literacy initiatives like this!

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