books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: November, 2014

The Weekender: Music in Copley Square.

I have mentioned the studio where I take piano lessons before. Musicians’ Playground is housed in the Piano Factory building on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. I really can’t say enough about the studio and its owner, Alyssa O’Toole if you are looking to start or continue piano lessons at any age. It is never too late!

Last month, Alyssa had a piano brought to Boston’s Copley Square for an event where she encouraged passersby to come and  learn portions of an original composition titled “Hands”. People from all walks of life, of all ages, and with varying levels of musical training (from none to a lot!) participated.

A videographer was on hand to film the event and to put all of the pieces of the composition together. The video came out really great and it is such a neat concept that I thought I would share it here. If you live in or around Boston, definitely check Musicians’ Playground out!


The Weekender: The Christmas Tree.

So I know it is VERY early to be thinking about putting up a Christmas tree, however, a friend told me this week that she was going to do all of her decorating this weekend so she could actually enjoy the process and not feel rushed. I get that. I usually put up our tree the week after Thanksgiving though this year, with Hildy on the scene, I am a little concerned with how that might go.

If you are starting to think of your holiday decorating, here is a little video from John Roberts to make you laugh. I find this hilarious (no matter how many times I watch it!). Enjoy!

Ina Garten to the rescue!

Two weeks ago, my friend A. and I were all set to go see Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa fame) speak in Boston. I had bought the tickets over the summer, and they were paper tickets (which is not the norm these days). A day or two before, I was searching my computer for saved PDF ticket files, and that’s when I remembered they were paper. The problem was, I couldn’t find them. True (and awful) story. By the time I realized that the tickets were not going to materialize, I also learned that the event was sold out. UGH!

Now why am I sharing this story? Because I offer it as Exhibit A as to how my day-to-day has gotten super busy–so much so, that I am having trouble keeping track of things. Even some important things–like dinner! (I may have eaten popcorn for mine last night.) That said, even though I may have missed seeing Ina Garten in person, I *did* get a copy of her new cookbook, Make It Ahead, and I am loving it so far.

Not sure what the plural of Patitsio is, but either way these do look doubly good!

Not sure what the plural of Patitsio is, but either way, these do look doubly good!

This week, I used her recipe for Patitsio and made two batches–one of which I will freeze. It is easy to make, though a bit time consuming, but it can be done in stages if needed. One tip: though each batch calls for a 28-oz can of tomatoes, I would recommend adding an extra 14 oz. to each batch to give it a bit more tomato flavor and to add some additional moisture. Also, if you are not a fan of lamb, you can certainly double up on the ground beef instead.

The book has lots of great recipes that you can prepare in advance of a dinner party or family celebration–or even just a regular old workweek when you have lots of obligations and need to have some hearty meals at the ready.

When the honor of our heroes is called into question.

Back in September, on a whim, I decided to watch a couple of episodes of The Cosby Show on Amazon with my son. We laughed and laughed, and I remembered why the show was so great. It was a nostalgic time machine. A straightforward family comedy with a positive and upbeat tone. The next week, I bought the first four seasons on DVD and for much of this fall, we have been watching the show together as a family one night a week.

In the 80s, Cliff Huxtable was America’s Dad–funny, yet sensitive. A reasonable disciplinarian and a role model. In short, all of the qualities to which one might aspire. Bill Cosby, himself (forgive the pun), was too.

Fresh off my renewed engagement with Cosby’s 80s persona, last month, I bought Mark Whitaker’s biography Cosby. Unlike many biographies, this one (authorized by the subject) is a very readable book that fully holds the reader’s interest.

But soon after I finished reading, there was this. And this. And now this.

And I am a bit at a loss. On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Cosby refused to comment on the allegations when asked by Scott Simon. And I wonder–is a refusal to comment on accusations a refusal to dignify the kids of claims that are often hurled at a person of influence. Or, is it a guilty silence? I don’t know. Innocent until proven guilty, right? But a sad thought to consider this at all. It is a hard lesson to realize that our childhood heroes may not be infallible. 😦
What are your thoughts on this?


The perfect snack for a rainy Monday evening.

Right now I am tearing through a book a friend recommended this morning and having a pre-dinner snack. I thought I would pass it on, as it is one of my favorite combinations–the snack items themselves (as well as reading while snacking!).
photoThe cheese is called Caciotta Al Tartufo and if you like truffles, you will love this. Trader Joe’s has a good version, but it is available at most large grocery stores and specialty shops. I enjoy it with Breton crackers and slices of Honeycrisp Apple. (Optional: if the workday is over, add a splash of dry white wine to your glass as an accompaniment!)

The Weekender: Staying warm.

Given the talk of another polar vortex-filled winter, we’re already testing ways that we can warm up around here.



And if the hearth does not fully warm your chill, try one of these. (NB: humans only!)

Friday Culture Watch: The World of Fan Fiction.

Are you familiar with fan fiction? If you have read the Fifty Shades Trilogy (and are willing to admit it), you have dipped your toes into the world of fan fic—as E..L. James’ characters Christian and Anastasia were based on Stephenie Meyer’s leads from Twilight, Edward and Bella. James’ erotic reimaginings of her vampire world, initially posted online under the penname Snowqueen’s Icedragon, garnered such a robust following that James first self-published the books. Then Random House came calling and reiussed the trilogy in paperback, and the rest is history.

Lev Grossman provides this basic working definition of fan fiction in TIME: “Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

I am intrigued by the idea of fan fic—in fact, I wrote my own Roald Dahl-inspired versions (based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, of course) as a kid. Would love to unearth those gems now! The reason I find the phenomenon so fascinating is that as Grossman notes, it demonstrates an active engagement with cultural media rather than passive consumption. And that is always a good thing.

This is one view.

This is one view.

You may know that first-time writer Anna Todd signed a six-figure book deal with Simon and Schuster this year for her One-Direction themed erotic fan fiction that first racked up millions of views on Wattpad. And she is certainly not the only fan fic writer that has been plucked from obscurity based on the rapid feedback available to online authors.

Not everyone condones this practice, however. George R.R. Martin, author of the popular Game of Thrones series, suggests that writers should not encourage unsanctioned spinoffs based on their characters—which are, ultimately, their own intellectual property.

And here is another. (In the form of a Venn Diagram, which I always appreciate!)

And here is another. (In the form of a Venn Diagram, which I always appreciate!)

In some ways, I think of fan fic as a literary form of sampling, but one could make the (valid) argument that successful fan fic can be too derivative and that it doesn’t always require the production of a composition with enough “newness” in the way that a song like Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage does (despite its origins in Lakeside’s song by the same name). Although, everything is a remix.

What do you think about fan fic? Do you read it? Do you write it?

Serial: The podcast that you need to know about.

First off, I have to give credit where credit is due. I first heard of the new serial podcast from This American Life called Serial from Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog Dinner: A Love Story. Though I love the idea of serial installments (which may explain my affinity for soap operas while in grad school), I’ll admit that the idea of a true-crime podcast didn’t quite pique my interest. Though I am entertained by the melodramatic (see: General Hospital), the gritty world of CSI-type investigations is not usually my cup of tea. But here is the caveat: Ira Glass is involved in the project AND Rosenstrach’s 12-year-old daughter listens to it. So I figured that it would be high-quality and not too gruesome for my taste.

I am happy to report that I gave it a chance and here’s why I think you should too.

The story begins in 1999, when high school Hae Mihn Lee disappears one day after school. Six weeks later, her classmate and former boyfriend is arrested and charged with her murder. The podcasts, which are uploaded on Thursday mornings vary in length (the first is approximately 50 min), most others are in the 30-40 minute range, making them the perfect length for an average work commute. When I tell you that the story is riveting, I am not kidding. And the website has a lot of really cool ancillary media (like this map, for example).

But here is perhaps the most interesting (and problematic) fact of the story: it is based on an actual case. And as The Guardian reports, this is causing some issues including investigation interference on Reddit.

If you are looking for a riveting, epidodic narrative that is not driven by a teleological force–i.e. creators say that each Serial season will stay with a non-fiction story for “as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it,” look no further.

Suffice it to say, if upcoming seasons are as engaging as this one, This American Life has a true hit on its hand. Download epidodes via iTunes, or listen on the website. If you are new to the series, start here, with Episode 1: The Alibi.

The new frontier of digital and literary mashups.

For all the talk about the Internet and the Death of American Letters, the data suggests otherwise. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Group, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.”

And millennials, who have one foot into the digital space while still having a footing in a more traditional landscape, are offering some interesting mashups of the two worlds of popular and literary culture. Have you seen this book-themed Kanye West parody by Annabelle Quezada and La Shea Delaney, “Hardcover Bound 2”? Read this NPR story for more.

*Just realized that if you are not familiar with the original KW video that this one parodies, it won’t make sense.

And have you taken this Slate quiz to identify the classic first book lines written in emojis? (I have.)

Atul Gawande on the realities we all must face.

Last week, I pitched Atul Gawande‘s latest book, Being Mortal, to my book club as a future read. It is an important book for everyone to read, I said. It would prompt lively discussion, I tried. Aside from one other who lobbied alongside me, the book was a tough sell to the group. And I get that. When you read blurbs that say this is a book about the “way we approach aging in America” and that it offers “important discussion on end-of-life care,” it doesn’t sound like a book that one might voluntarily pick up. And certainly not for a book club discussion, right?

Yet, I think this book could be more accurately titled, Being Human, because that is really what the book is about–not suffering, not dying–but the things we do to make us live. And how we could begin to have these conversations in our own families.

As Gawande points out, the way we manage elder care in the U.S. is to focus on basic sustaining and medical needs. In the case of a nursing home resident: is he/she well-fed, clean, pain-free, etc. But the questions we don’t always ask may be the more important ones: what are the patient’s likes/dislikes? What are his/her interests? What might inspire him/her to get up in the morning?

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to each of those questions, there is one short answer to the larger question–what makes someone want to live? Put simply, it is having something to look forward to. That can be as simple as a visit from a friend, or a pet that shows affection, or even something as basic as a glass of wine (which traditional physicans might not permit on account of a patient’s medical condition). And in the end, Gawande seems to ask, will that last one really matter? (The answer might be yes–in that it will positively affect the individual.)

Those of advanced age also want to feel that they have some autonomy in their day-to-day decisions–just like individuals of every age (even, and perhaps especially, toddlers!). Imagine that you had someone come into your living quarters every day, give you something to eat (which might not be what you feel like having), dress you, and then have your schedule closely monitored throughout the day until you were told when to retire for the evening. Imagine too, that you were living in a shared space, where roommates could be dropped in and out at administrative will–and that you are taken away from every last bit of familiarity. Slowly, and steadily, you might disengage and decline.

That is not to say that some do need around the clock medical care, but for those that are dealing with the basic ills of old age, there may be some better solutions. Gawande profiles many innovators in the world of gerontology and social services that are doing it right. Like Bill Thomas’ Eden Alternative. Or Keren Brown Wilson‘s Park Place. Or Jacquie Carson’s Peter Sanborn Place.

Gawande also shares personal anecdotes from his and his wife’s own family experiences and emphasizes the importance of shared decision making between adult children and their aging parents. I strongly recommend this book to all–it offers a good reminder of the humanity that unites us all (young and old) and will help spark important familial conversations that should be happening long before they are a necessity.

Being Mortal is insightful and accessible while also being enjoyable. You will smile when you read the story of Gawande’s own grandfather, who at 110 was still taking the bus (!) to business meetings (yes, you read that correctly). And you will rally alongside Lou, the octogenarian whose best friend is an Iranian store clerk in his 20s. Read it, read it, read it.

And after you do, let me know what you think.

Have you seen the documentary "Young at Heart"? If not, watch it now. A truly inspiring and uplifting story. Photo credit: Paul Shoul.

Have you seen the documentary “Young at Heart”? If not, watch it now. A truly inspiring and uplifting story. Photo credit: Paul Shoul.