Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What's in Your Resolution?: 2017

Resolutions are a tricky thing...

Cooking more is definitely on the 2017 agenda. 

Sometimes they can be really helpful. For example, last year I made a resolution to be more consistent about working on the blog. Not only has that proved to be far more fulfilling than expected, but it has taught me so much about persistence, growth and self-teaching, and introduced me to some amazing new friends.

Resolutions can also be depressing, however: they don't always account for life's unexpected changes; you shouldn't only adjust your life or do positive things one time a year; and sometimes the goals you set for yourself can be a little overambitious.

So as I look forward to the coming year, I'd like to know: what do you want to see more of here? More books, more food, more shows? More museums or volunteering opportunities? I'd like to make this a two way project and post more of what you want to see.

Please let me know your thoughts! You can always comment here, or find me at my Twitter handle or Instagram. Until the next post, sending you all best wishes; I'm having a great holiday break, and I hope you all are enjoying a blessed end to the year.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Best of 2016: GUEST POST (Are We Now or Have We Ever Been?)

For my first ever guest post, I'd like to introduce you to my wise friend Genesia. 

At Beyonce...who doesn't love Beyonce?
This amazing lady just turned 30, and let me tell you - she has some things to share. I've been trying to get her to do a guest post for me for a while, and when I read this it really resonated as a look back on the year and a good way to think moving forward. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did! 

I’m turning 30. Which I’m told comes with an existential crisis. Either I’ve been managing it’s flair ups deftly, or I’m in denial about how deep the rabbit hole of uncertainty actually is *shrug.* Either way, its abundantly clear to me that I’m smack in the middle of a transitional phase. It was not brought to me by Xerox in 4 parts without commercial interruption, it’s live.

The complicated-feels-turn-up is extra real.

Mostly, I’m comfortable with this change, and am excited to see what’s beyond the horizon of this milestone. Sure, I have angst aplenty, but not necessarily about this. I mean it’s weird don’t get me wrong, but also, turning 30 is kind of cool. One of the main gains with this shift into a new section of adulthood, is learning to be more unapologetic about the things that are (currently) important to me.
For example:
  • I make no apologies for being child free and not wanting to have children.
  • I make no apologies for going from attending church multiple times a week to joining Pillow Baptist AME Church for Happy Brunchers and Hustlers.
  • I have always been proudly black, so no issues there (even though, I did go natural a few years ago which is a change or whatever).
  • I make no apologies for being plus-sized.
  • I make no apologies for not wanting to get married anytime soon, if at all.
  • I make no apologies for choosing to eat out-in-the-street rather than make daily lunches.
  • In all these areas there is room for adjustment, but, I make no apologies for being where I am (currently) on this journey, for who I am or who I am becoming. Some things will change, some, will not.
I feel now, as I never have, like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides that I am a force in this world. But even with the growing surety of my womanness there is something trailing, biting, that I have not been able to shake loose from my soul. Alas, try though I might, I cannot evade the reality of a world where open and deeply entrenched racism has intensified so much. To say nothing (right now) of patriarchy, rape culture, queerphobia, fatphobia, xenophobia, misogynoir.
Like teak credenzas, vintage white supremacy has returned.

And it’s nasty.

Children of the 90's were afforded a certain amount of space to grow. Even with disgusting displays of systemic injustice still seething through all sections of society and media (Rodney King being a poignant early childhood reminder that we were not, and had never been safe); Racism, though systemically ferocious in it’s destruction of our communities as it had been for our grandparents, felt (on occasion) hypothetical, diasporic, distant, coded. As (technical) 80's babies born a tad too late for big hair and shoulder pads, but just in time for the Tootsie Roll, just in time to be Naughty By Nature while hip-rolling to Aaliyah in our Jodeci Boots, we were in the lull between two battles.
Crack and the subsequent war on drugs, de-industrialization and the loss of access to normal economic means of survival, mass incarceration increases, furthering of historical housing and lending discrimination practices and the depression caused by the aforementioned had already destroyed the infrastructure around us. The rising action in the story arc of “Gentrification: The Musical” obliterated much of the world our parents grew up in. Where I grew up, vacant lots were the norm.

Neighbors were losing grip of neighborhoods that had been in the family for decades. Slow and deliberate, this decay sets the stage for everything we see now. It was here, formed on these previously vibrant slabs, we learned how to play the game. It was here, we were supposed to aspire to more. Which almost makes no sense. But we did hope, we did dream –even if those dreams were sometimes halted in the street, or cut short by circumstances. We believed we could achieve. In essence, as told by oh-so-many assemblies and graduation ceremonies, we believed we could fly.

Our parents, raised with a (relative) sense of security were smacked by the realities of coming of age during Reaganomics and under Bush the Elder. Though their world was crumbling, proving promises of progress to be false, they did their best to equip us with the lessons of their parents. If they had gained nothing from being the fruit of the civil rights movement and the babies of black pride they were conscious of their beauty, and of their rights. They owned that. Even if they couldn’t get loans from the bank to own something substantive to leverage any more than their grandparents could.

They started us young. Many of us cut our teeth on the demand for divestment from South Africa’s system of Apartheid. We had never set foot in, nor laid eyes on Africa, we even believed the lie that scratching your booty and being African was a great insult to be lobbed at kids who was black as us on the playground. Still we began to understand that we were a part of something bigger. We grew strong. We were given a foundation of variety, of options, of representation. We, though this system still hated us, were on TV, in so many shades and types. We were on radio. We were in sports. We were undeniable. Even when there were issues on the home front, we were visible, for one small moment, and if only to each other.
We grew strong.

I was recently asked, if I thought the collective ‘we’ is / if I am better off in America now or in 1960. This question was born of a genuine curiosity from the person who asked me, not, thank goodness, an attempt to throw micro-aggressive shade. I said I didn’t know. I tried in that moment, as I am trying now, to come up with a definitive position on this.

I just don’t know.

Here’s why: When I was 27 or so, Ferguson happened. Among various angering segments of media coverage, I watched, in horror, a clip one morning with an unhooded Grandwizard of the Klan, in plain view on MSNBC. He was discussing their local chapter’s campaign for ‘order’ while the community waited to find out if the officer responsible would be charged for murdering 17 year-old Mike Brown. The Klan had been distributing flyers in St. Louis, threatening lethal force for those who chose not to “behave.” Private citizens, were openly threatening black residents with violence, if these folks dared to have a response to systemic racism that was deemed unacceptable to them.

It was 2014.

51 years after the March On Washington.

58 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 59 years after Mamie Till buried her baby boy. 1 year into the 2nd term of the first black president. We were supposed to be past this. As I typed that last sentence, I know it’s not true. I knew it wasn’t true then. But seeing that man on screen, unhooded and unashamed was a clarion call to what was, what is, and what was to come. I was shaken. And I remember sobbing into the phone on a call to my mother that day (I just needed to hear her voice). She and my dad and my village had built me to weather this. I wasn’t oblivious to the ways of the world. I was equally weary as I was aware. This should have rolled off me. And it just didn’t. I didn’t know why.

The fatigue I felt that day overwhelmed me. In that first conversation, hearing my mother’s words of comfort through her own bewilderment is when I first identified a responsibility that had been weighing on me.

Movements are created by the community. They are manned by all types of folks (though not all of us are regarded equally –especially when counting intersectional gender/social identities -specifically women and queer folks –who have oft been excluded from the historical record, despite mountains we move). Movements are energized by ‘young people.’ At every stretch they/we are the ones who will go out on the front lines, and stand for justice, for equity. It is then, in my opinion, the responsibility of those who came before (even if only just before) to pass on knowledge, to support, to help guide, to listen, and to toil with. As the eldest child, and as the 2nd oldest of my extended/blended siblings, this is work I am well-suited for. I want those who come after to have some measure of sustaining hope in these trying times. Seeing that man naked and unashamed, riding for his most racist of causes, stole my hope.

I feel like I’ve been living a long time. And miles to go before I dream.
I didn’t know until that moment, that this theft was possible. I didn’t know that I could feel as powerless as I did in that moment. His brazenness, or rather, his comfortability with being in the open, proved that things had reverted to something we were supposed to be conquering.

Decimation. Bewilderment. Indignation. I felt utterly unprepared to combat this devilment, for a few terrifying moments. How could I protect, or guide anyone, if someone like him shook me so? How can we be tasked with doing the saving of the children in our communal charge, if we are still children ourselves?

Diamond’s little girl was not saved from the carnage. We were forced to watch it happen, but we could do little. The little girl who spoke so bravely at the city council meeting in North Carolina in the wake of yet another murder-by-cop. Nothing could rescue her from having her pain, our pain, mocked. Sandra Bland, who’s mother undoubtedly had access to the same videos we did, is gone. Not protected. Tamir Rice. Within 13 seconds someone’s child was erased, and no one will pay. Alton Sterling’s son was not saved from his sobs, wailing, gnashing. Some of these children are old enough to be mine, are old enough to have come from me. Freddie Gray’s back didn’t break itself –despite what the state says. Rekia Boyd didn’t fire the bullet that killer her. Korryn Gaines’ little boy is the only one who stood witness to his mother’s execution. He is forever changed. He is 5.

How can I tell them they will be okay? This is the responsibility I feel. This is what I heard in my mother’s voice through the receiver (and in my father’s voice when I spoke to him later that same day). This is where I found myself that day. This is where I found myself this summer, x amount of years later, on the eve of teaching/facilitating a social justice summer camp I’d developed, the week after Philando. My staff and I wondered what we would say to the children about their power. We wondered if we would be unwittingly feeding them a lie.

The conflict, though immense, is not all dark. As much as I feel responsible to those walking with me, those who I can help guide and aid as they process this thing we’re fighting, I know those who came before are with us. I hear this when my grandmother is fired up, and is willing to continue the fight despite having endured what she has for decades. For example: I am reminded to call up the words of the negro national anthem — they understood these dark days. They spoke prophecy and a timely word at the time about continued hope.

…Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…
I know that I’ll keep going. It’s what we do.

I wrote this in sections. While reflecting on my identity, as I often do (let there be angst), it has become partially clear to me that much of the subject of my reflections is related to the feeling of being alone, or walled off. As an intersectional woman (I’m black, a black woman, just coming out of poverty *fingers crossed*), who spends a great deal of time looking for and observing connections that occur in life, history, business, relationships, faith, etc it can be lonely. As an individual, I’m a loner. Its just the way I’m made. I have wonderful interpersonal relationships and family for days. I am loved. And though I spend copious amounts of time alone, it doesn’t produce any loneliness in me. Realizing however, that the world has never seen me as a full human, does. White supremacy, like other systems makes people feel disconnected from others, and feel that they are alone and/or invisible in their struggle. In their toil. And in the case of privilege that they are alone in their success.

I see me though. And I see us.

I recently told my niece, who is 4 and deeply concerned about monsters, that there were no monsters in my house. In the world there are monsters, of this we can be sure, but I had them cleared out of my home. Express order. We then had a conversation about god, and how god was bigger than any monster. I believe this. Once she’d exhausted her questions (and me) about the nature of god, as if coming to a revelation she pointed out that we can kill the monsters, too. Each of us can kill the monsters. We have that power.

In a year like 2016, I think often of the sweet-by-and-by. Not that I’m in a hurry to get there, but I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s speaking of the inevitable Rise. I am reminded by Nikki Giovanni that we sip nectar from on high. I am reminded that there is a fire in us. That there is strength. That they too felt this thing, this nagging, persistent thing, and they wrote their way through. They sang their way through. They prayed their way through. They fought. They wailed. But they didn’t let this thing stop them. They learned to own their self. To master themselves — even though the world could often claim that right on paper. But never in spirit. They resisted. They resist.

We collectively and individually resist.

We are connected to the things in this world, in this life. But we are not only bound to the things we can see. Or the things that would overtake us. We are infused with power from on high, and/or from within. We are linked with those who came before and with those who are to come after, those who walk alongside. We are in a dance that propels us all forward. I do not always carry hope. But in the end I know that I’ve decided to persist. For as long as I can.

This is where I am right now.

Thank you for allowing to me to make note of this transition.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fun Times at "Fun Home"

She rang of keys...

Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
How do you make something sad to be something funny? Can you ever truly understand the past?

That is the central question at the heart of Fun Home, currently visiting Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theater. Fun Home is the 2015 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, based on the memoir and graphic novel by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel test fame) that explores her memories of her father, sexual awakening and her father's subsequent suicide. It is a gorgeous, complex, highly nuanced story that covers the complications of "coming out," the incredible transition in public feelings about homosexual relationships, and a bittersweet rendering of the pain of searching for answers after untimely death.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Bechdel is a super-smart writer and I loved this book, but I was curious how the graphic novel would play out on-stage. A key element of Fun Home is the multiple versions of Bechdel interacting simultaneously - the adult as she draws/remembers her younger selves, the running commentary in her head as she bounces back and forth between multiple ages. In the production, this plays out beautifully as "Older Alison" stands in contemplative observation of her younger selves as they all interact, harmonizing and remembering different wisps of moments. It provides a real sense of conflict and growth that is true to life and provides an extremely moving theatrical experience.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Part of this is due to the total synchronicity between each Alison. Alessandra Baldacchino is magnificent as small Alison (think age 10 or so), with a ton of spunk and an evident curiosity for life. Kate Shindle is strong as adult Alison; my only wish was to hear more of Shindle, as she has a gorgeous voice and is somewhat silent compared to the other versions of the character. The standout in this crew was Abbby Corrigan as medium Alison, the Alison who comes out to her parents, goes to college, and weathers Alison's sexual awakening. Corrigan has a clarion-clear voice and gives a superbly nuanced performance, transitioning from the naivete of inexperienced, sheltered youth to the passion and fire that can only come from an early-20s college student who feels they've understood the world (when they haven't). She anchors this crew; her beautiful work weaves the tapestry of Fun Home together.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
The rest of the cast is good, too. Robert Petkoff is striking as Alison's father Bruce. He perfectly demonstrates the stiff, almost abusive relationship Bruce had with his children, as well as the pain that came from being a closeted gay man in the mid-20th century. Bruce's story is a powerful one in a post-Obergefell vs. Hodges world, and it's incredibly important that we never forget how far we have come in tolerance and why that tolerance matters so much. Susan Moniz gives a similarly nuanced performance as Alison's mother Helen, another character who faces unimaginable obstacles. Helen is no martyr, but it is unthinkable to imagine the risk and isolation she must have felt as a cuckolded wife. Moniz is a wonderful partner with Petkoff, and they bring the complex, deep partnership and despair felt by Alison's parents off of the page and into full-fledged life. Karen Eilbacher is wonderful as Alison's friend (and later partner) Joan. Eilbacher is a refined, thoughtful foil to the impassioned transition of Corrigan as middle Alison, and it's easy to see how Joan would be such a key figure both in Alison's sexual awakening and her recovery after her father's suicide.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
The set of Fun Home is mainly placed in the Bechdel's restored Victorian family home in Pennsylvania, a place Bechdel herself describes as a sort of mausoleum of emotions. It's evocatively represented for the first half of the play (as well as the family-owned funeral home, or "fun home") in a few strategically chosen furniture pieces but blossoms into a gorgeous, fully drawn piece later in the show replete with paintings, bureaus, a piano, crystal and more. This alternates with an austere NYC apartment and Alison's simple dorm room to create a contrast between cold and severe and lush yet distant environments, perfectly mirroring the emotions of the characters' strained relationships and senses of self. It also bears noting that although this is a richly drawn, complex story, it clocks in at a little over 90 minutes with no intermission, further proving my theory that a show does not need to be long to be excellent.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Fun Home should be required viewing, and here's why: a lot of people don't seem to understand the dangers of repressive societal norms. Alison's strength in telling Bruce's story, in poignantly memorializing his struggle and using it to search for truths in her own identity, is incredible and vital to understanding the difficulties of life as a gay person in America. Bechdel is strictly honest in her retelling; neither of her parents are angels; Alison herself is extremely naive, although well-intentioned; the sins of the father are not the sins of the child, although her mother can't seem to see the difference; her biggest mistake is taking for granted the fact that her family will always be there (they won't). It's important too to note that although the story here is rather dark, it comes with many rays of sunshine. It really is fun, and it's funny; you'll be surprised how often you laugh with Bechdel at her crazy past.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Fun Home is deeply complicated, but that is it's beauty: it's only through the confusion and mess that makes up real life that we can find truth and happiness. It is impossible to watch Fun Home without growing up a little and without confronting some uncomfortable truths - not only about the characters, but about yourself. How do you react to this story? Why? What can we learn from each other? Why does that matter? In the Age of Trump, these questions will be more important than ever. Fun Home is a glorious exploration of the uncomfortable fact of human existence and the beauty of saudade*, and of all the ways that humans, as imperfect and broken as we are, are connected in the end. See it; you won't regret it. Fun Home runs at the Orpheum Theater through December 18; find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link.

*Saudade is one of my favorite non-English terms - see the Wikipedia definition here and the video of Cesaria Evora representing saudade in vocal form below.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

GOOD KARMA: Help Aleppo Now; Donate to the White Helmets

I'm going to keep this one brief....

Raise your hand if you're appalled at the situation in Syria. Everyone's hands are up? Good.

This situation, particularly the dire, dire plight of refugees and Syrian citizens, has gone on for far too long. All reports out of Aleppo are beyond horrifying, and we must do everything we can to help those suffering there. It should never have taken things reaching this point for the Western world to wake up, but here we are: let's do something to fix it.

It can be really, truly overwhelming to try to figure out where to donate for worldwide crises. How do you know the money is being well used, or going at all towards the people you're trying to help? How do you choose between dozens of worthy organizations, each of which seems to need funding more than the last?

In this situation, I'll make the choice easy for you: donate to the White Helmets.

This extraordinary organization sends citizen volunteers - CITIZEN VOLUNTEERS - into the most dangerous situations imaginable to help those who are the most threatened, literally. A chief role they have played in Syria to-date is helping to uncover those who are buried alive in the rubble left after serious bombing, which happens devastatingly often (see the trailer above for the short about this group that is currently featured on Netflix. I promise, it's worth watching).

The brave men and women working for the White Helmets need every resource they can get, and thankfully we can help with that. Any donation, even $5 or $10 dollars, makes a difference - remember, 1,000 people donating $10 each is $10,000, and it grows exponentially from there. 

So for the sake of our fellow humans, for those who are suffering, for those who we have the defined obligation to help as much as we are able: please, please donate to the White Helmets. Consider it your good karma for 2017.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Best of 2016: Books I've Read

Anyone else a pagemaster? 

As Marcus Tulius Cicero said... "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
If you weren't already aware, reading is one of my absolute favorite pasttimes.

Growing up in a small, rural, pre-internet town meant that there wasn't a whole lot to do, particularly in the winter when it was super cold outside. For years, my town didn't even have a true video rental store - you could find 10 or so of the latest faves at the gas station, but that was about it. Not exactly mecca for children's entertainment.

But I was a lucky kid, because I loved to read. Reading has always been an extremely important tool for helping me to learn more about the outside world, to travel in my mind, to practice empathy with those who are different from me by learning from my experiences. I've never had a ton of money, but reading has always been a way for me to transcend my situation and to grow.

My reading has gotten more focused and ambitious over the years, and I feel like I'm really starting to hit my stride. I read everything from children's books to graphic novels to poetry to non-fiction to modern classics and members of the "literary canon."

To see the culmination of my reading in 2016, click on this link. And if you're interested in following my reads year round, please do! You can follow my Goodreads page here.

A few of my absolute standout favorites are listed below; keep in mind, that not all of these books were published in 2016, but they are books that I read in 2016. Being new does not equal greatness though; don't miss the old goodies thrown in with the shiny new books below.

Most Beautiful Children's Book: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Just look at this cover - LOOK AT IT. The photorealistic paintings here are unbelievable, and the story is just as good. I have one word for this book: GORGEOUS. It seriously has the most beautiful illustrations I've ever seen in a children's book. The amazing, amazing paintings tell the story almost without words. Kids and grownups will be blown away by how beautiful this is. The story itself also stays true to Madiba's past; although a little oversimplified for my taste, it is a kid's book so they get away with it. This is a quick, beautiful read that is a wonderful story for any child or grownup.

Best Memoir (tie): Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and Shrill by Lindy West

Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books that snuck up out of nowhere and is destined to be a classic. I saw seen laudations for this book all over the place last year, and now I know why. This gorgeously written, straightforward memoir should be required reading for understanding white people living in poverty. It offers a straightforward diagnosis of and treatment for the problems created by this poverty, as well as a complex, compassionate understanding of the community from a member of it. J.D. Vance is not trying to tell everyone's story, he's explicit to the Appalachian community of his past; but I suspect that many of the truths he finds here could also readily apply to other poor communities across America. This book is a damn good read on its own, but considering everything else going on culturally in America right now, it's a good place to start for building bridges across the great chasm of lived experience here. This is a masterpiece - everyone should read it.

I was another unexpected hit, but I'm *so glad* it was. It seems that memoirs by funny women are all the rage now. Recent years have seen additions from Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and many more. I enjoy this genre although I haven't found it terribly deep before. Shrill, however, completely changes the game. Lindy covers so much ground so well, particularly issues that aren't often discussed at large. She has a very non-dramatic account of having an abortion (which is remarkable for its normalcy); many essays on the difficulty of being a fat woman in our culture; discussions of interracial relationships; stories of fighting (and slaying) internet trolls; what it really means to be a woman working or a big fan of comedy; and so much more.

Malcom Gladwell's final podcast in the (truly excellent - run to listen if you haven't yet) Revisionist History series focused on the true definition of satire and eviscerated contemporary comedians (including Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey) for being brilliantly funny but not ever accomplishing anything with their satire. I think Gladwell was right on those points, but I would be very interested to see what he thinks of Lindy West. Her writing is so original and so important. You will find yourself out-loud guffawing as you read passages and then immediately pause and cry, when you really think about what it was she just said. Lindy is funny, but it's the kind of funny that sends an arrow straight through your heart. So much of what she says is heartbreaking, the more so because it is true. It is only her fierce defense of her right to normalcy, her staunch attacks on anyone who might deny her (or any person) that right, and her unwavering moral compass, that save this book from being a totally devastating, depressing indictment of Western society.

Best Cookbook: Appetites by Anthony Bourdain

I know, I know. I'm a Bourdain whore, and I'm not ashamed. He is just so thoughtful, such a magnificent writer, so deliciously sinful (but not TOO sinful). It's no secret that I adore Anthony Bourdain, so it should be no surprise that I absolutely loved his newest book. It's very simple, no-fucks-given, and perfectly in tune with the Bourdain brand. As he says, this is not intended to be a revolution in recipes; rather, it's a list of the kind of things he likes to make at home, particularly for his daughter. These are very straightforward recipes but with a lot of deliciousness. And be prepared, should you have diet restrictions: these are riddled with gluten, dairy, meat, and all sorts of other things that aren't particularly good for you (but taste amazing). This was a great holiday read and it's perfect for cozy, comforting recipes now that the weather is getting cold. I also loved the unique kinds of photos used here. There isn't much in terms of photographing actual recipes, but it fits neatly into the visual aesthetic Bourdain promotes on his TV shows and is totally consistent with his brand.

Best Play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

I tried, I really, really tried, not read this and to not like it. I thought why ruin Harry Potter? Is J.K. Rowling really that greedy, to need to expand this already huge franchise? Why is this even a play? But I finally caved and read this, and boy was I wrong. It is excellent, truly unique, and innately readable for any person, even someone like me who doesn't love to read plays or screenplays very often. I spent the Thanksgiving weekend re-watching all of the Harry Potter movies and I read this immediately after. I am SO glad I did! This book manages to be truly original and is an excellent followup to the Potter series. It opened up a lot of new possibilities to the original series and some interesting new information as well. It's also extremely imaginative and I would love to see it on stage. I have no idea how they would pull off some of the effects listed here! I hope it tours so I get a chance to see it.

Best Novel: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Sometimes something hits you that is so visceral, so immediate, that it feels like a punch in the gut. Yaa Gyasi's magnificent debut is one of those books. It's always hard to know, when a book received an insane amount of hype, if it really is as good as everyone states. In the case of Homegoing, have no fear: the hype is well deserved. This is one of those books that sinks deep into your bones, takes hold of you and just won't let you go. The story is heartbreaking in many respects - any tale really getting at the heart of racial injustice committed through colonialism is bound to do that - but so, so important. It's also wonderful to see a book showing, very tangibly, how the policies of one person, one society or one parent can in fact affect generations of people thereafter, particularly in America. A single arrest, a single kidnapping, a single slaveowner, can have impact on a family that lasts far, far beyond what the initial instigator could ever have imagined. African and African American women are fiercely redefining literature right now and it is SO EXCITING. Gyasi, Chimamanda Ngoche Adichie, Zadie Smith and so many more are the new literary vanguard. Get out of their way because they are going to redefine our cultural landscape and it couldn't come soon enough.

Best Essays: The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin

2016 could be defined partially as "The Year Becki Discovered Ursula K. Le Guin." I've been hearing for ages about how wonderful she is but I just hadn't read any of her books. No more. I've been entranced with all of her work I've encountered so far and I intend to try to read through all of her work in 2017 (quite a goal, as she has loads of books!). I loved her fiction but what really sold me on Le Guin is this collection of her essays, speeches and other bits and bobs. There are so many beautiful passages and so much wisdom in this book; what a treasure! Le Guin is an absolutely fabulous writer and has some gorgeous essays here. She is a study in eloquence and brevity and her treatises on writing and reading should be required for any aspiring authors. My favorite parts, however, are the biographical essays and her thoughts on political issues, including gender in just about everything, the problem of representation in art (hint: there's not nearly enough diversity of all stripes), current politics, and why women wear such ridiculous shoes. This was a thoroughly charming book to spend a fall day with and I loved being surprised by its richness and beauty. Highly, highly recommend for Le Guin fans, essay fans, feminist readers, and aspiring authors and auteurs.

Best Poetry: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

I came to Warsan Shire (as I'm sure most people have post-Lemonade) thanks to Beyonce, but I am so very glad I did. Her haunting, lyrical, gorgeous, evocative poetry deeply touched me. Shire is able to translate something deep and ancient through her words, channeling the depths of pain, the wisdom of the ancestors, the ties back through womankind throughout the ages. Her emotions are raw and striking, and her vision of the world is one that can keep you ruminating for a long, long time. I've often thought the future of our world lies in the hands of Muslim women, and if Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is any indication, we are in some very thoughtful, powerful hands.

Most Beautiful Coffee Table Book: Biophilia by Christopher Marley

There really isn't a word big enough to describe how vibrant these photographs are. This was the most gorgeous photo book, offering truly fascinating new ways to observe nature. Biophilia has all the artistic prowess and presentation of a master artist - think Ansel Adams meets Jackson Pollock and Jane Goodall. It's a fascinating mashup that gives equal weight to scientific observation and artistic presentation. My fiancee and I had an awesome afternoon sitting next to each other and pouring over each gorgeous page. I can imagine that this is good for all ages - grownups can appreciate the art and kids will adore the bright colors and safe way to observe creatures they could never otherwise see so closely. 

Most Important Non-Fiction: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein 

Klein has always been a bastion of leftist movements, but this is (in my opinion) by far her best work to-date. Klein is easily one of the best researchers I've read, and she will make you care very much about climate change after reading this book. It is impeccably researched and thorough, covering every aspect of the issue from the causes to the effects, different ways of treating the issue, each solution's viability (or non), and hope for the future. Klein is especially good at representing the importance of climate change to underrepresented populations, particularly people of color, the global poor, women and indigenous groups (the latter receives particular focus with entire chapters focusing on treaties, land rights, progressivism and more). Her information could be taught as a history lesson in addition to a scientific treatise, and it contains very important information (especially for those of us in the wealthy and whiter West) to be considered as we figure out how to solve this issue collectively (and is particularly relevant as we have watched the Standing Rock protest continue over the last few months). 

Klein also manages to leave you with hope as you finish the book, rather than despair. This is difficult to pull off in books about serious, depressing subjects such as man-made climate change, yet she really drives home the ways that all of us can contribute to solutions for this serious problem. This Changes Everything should be required reading for every citizen. If we are ever going to solve these major problems, we will need the information Klein shares at hand. This is a stunningly good read and an extremely important one, particularly in the age of Trump: READ. IT.

Best Graphic Novel: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Nerdy books about strong, smart women are always favorites of mine, so this falls right into my sweet spot. Many people don't know anything about Ada Lovelace, and that's a shame: she's a key figure in the history of the computer (truly inventing computer coding, or at least the earliest form of it), has an impressive familial pedigree, and is just all-around interesting. This book has the best of everything - nonfiction, biographies, graphic novels, even footnotes. (Yes, Padua is a footnote savant, and you will understand what I mean when you read it - step aside David Foster Wallace, there's a new footnote champ in town!). 

Best of all, this book is FUN. It makes what could be a really complex subject - computer programming and hardware design via Victorian era mechanics - so engaging and accessible. I also love that it does a bang up job of elucidating the contributions of a woman to this field. As with so many new industries, computers and programming were initially dominated by women, although now we seem to think of tech as strictly a male field. I think the cultural assumptions of what women are "capable" of could be much affected if we did a better job of sharing stories such as Ada Lovelace's, and with such an entertaining format available to us we have no excuse not to do so. Anyone could enjoy this book, especially if you want to learn more about coding, the history of technology, have a steampunk fetish or just need a break from dry nonfiction.

Best Travel Book: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is one of America's national treasures, and this travel memoir is another reason why. His writing is so simple, yet so lyrical - reminiscent of Hemingway but truly a style of its own. In fact, Steinbeck may be my favorite American author. He tends to be remembered less than more glamorous figures such as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner, but Steinbeck to me knows the true America. This is demonstrated in this book, which details Steinbeck's road trip through America in a small camper with only his faithful dog Charley as a companion.   

Like Norman Rockwell's astonishing portraits of middle class, mid-20th century America, Steinbeck is able to take truly mundane interactions and make something extraordinary out of them. The people he encounters throughout this trip, especially in the deep south (where he encounters true, vivid racism for the first time), all provide profound insights to the character of America at this time, and the foundations our present political situation is built on. It's easy to forget how quickly things have changed in the last 100 years (from no electricity to smartphones, for example), and there is much wisdom to be found here. For a relaxing visit to quieter times and to understand the foundation of our current politics, Travels with Charley is not to be missed. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Best of 2016: Restaurant Closings

Fare thee well, Piccolo. 

I mean for real....no more of this? Be still my bleeding heart.

It was with an extremely heavy heart that I woke up on Saturday morning and learned that Piccolo is closing.
Vin du liqueur = vin of my dreams. God bless Piccolo for introducing me to this nectar of the gods.
Long among my favorite restaurants, Piccolo has such a beautiful, unique spirit (and some of the best food anywhere). Sure, chef Doug Flicker just recently opened Esker Grove at the Walker (which menu promises to be far more exciting than any other museum restaurant in the Twin Cities), but it just won't have the same cozy, late 1990s vibe that puts the soul at ease.
A fond farewell salute to the bravest bar that ever was. 
Piccolo is just the last of a string of legendary Twin Cities restaurants to close in the last year. I didn't want to let the New Year come and go without acknowledging their passing and finding some promising new options for the future. So, here are some of the incredible places that have closed in 2016:

Thank god for Smack Shack, which will still be around to enrich the 1029.
And here are the ones I'm desperately looking forward to trying in 2017 to fill the void:

  • Esker Grove
  • Tenant (going into the former Piccolo space and will be run by some of Doug Flicker's most promising proteges)
  • Rabbit Hole
  • 510 Lounge (from Don Saunders, chef of the Kenwood, will go in the former La Belle Vie space)
  • Nighthawks/Birdie (I know this has been open for a while but I still haven't been...I know! I know! 2017 is the year!)
  • Grand Cafe
  • Restaurant Alma (which just re-opened, re-vamped, after an intensive renovation)
  • Pop-ups (I am all for this new trend, although I wish they were easier to find... anyone have a solution? Is there a twitter handle? Bueller?)
  • Young Joni
  • Red Rabbit
  • Tori Ramen
At least we will always have Barrio and their kick ass happy hour - always on point. 
Do you have any great suggestions for new places to check out, or old favorites I might have missed? Please pass them on! I'm always looking to expand my horizons (and my taste buds); send suggestions to compendiummpls@gmail.com, or tweet them to me @becki_iverson.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Lascivious "Lion in Winter"

Game of Thrones fans, this one's for you! 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Do you like castles? Incest? Bloody family feuds? Do you follow Game of Thrones as if it's your actual family?

If so, I have the play for you.

The Lion in Winter, currently showing at the Guthrie Theater on the McGuire Proscenium stage, falls neatly into the Game of Thrones frenzy. Most famous for a lovely screen adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, The Lion in Winter is a modern language look late in the lives of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine as they near the end of their days.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Henry II united the warring duchys of England (and much of what is now France) at the tender age of 21, and is trying to determine his successors as he nears the end of his life. Eleanor, the legendary queen of France and later England, who bore 11 children and fought as fiercely as any warrior, is Henry's estranged wife who has been locked in a prison tower for 10 years. Although they have desperate fights and no longer share a bed, Henry and Eleanor have undoubted chemistry that is fiery and lasting, despite Henry's many affairs (his current one being with their adopted daughter 30 years below his age). Around the spontaneous combustible that is Henry and Eleanor's relationship orbit their three adult sons, each of whom has severe issues (Richard, with aggression; Geoffrey, with plotting and scheming; and John, with childish selfishness. All three also suffer from insatiable jealousy).
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The play is a constant ball of tension, swinging between ever shifting loyalties and old fights that never seem to die. Still, despite the quicksand of anger that the story is built on, it is easy to tell that these characters love each other. They may be messed up, they may be dysfunctional, they may even want to kill each other - but life can't exist without one or the other, so they are all here to stay.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
This show could feel staid if it didn't have a good cast; thankfully, this one has amazing chemistry and hits all the right notes. This is mainly thanks to the excellent leads, Kevyn Morrow (as Henry II) and Laila Robins (as Eleanor). These two have sparks that could set the sun on fire, and it is delightful watching them spar with each other. Morrow is particularly delicious, reveling in Henry's evil ploys with the gravitas of Denzel Washington and the anger of Papa Pope. He is marvelous, and a perfect foil to Robins, whose task of stepping into the legendary shoes of Katharine Hepburn is no small one. It's okay, though: she is more than up to the job. Robins slithers through the show, expertly manipulating the audience (as well as her children) with her sneaky plots. Robins also brings a dry humor to the play that helps liven the vicious mood. Morrow and Robins form an inimitable team; thanks to their strong performances it's not hard to discern how Henry II might have accomplished his incredible goal of forming an empire long before the concept existed for anyone else.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The children are equally well performed. Thallis Santesteban is wonderful as Henry's young lover/daughter/firebrand Alais Capet, the sister of the king of France. Her disappointment over her position and her strong defense of her beliefs demonstrates what Henry might have seen in young Alais, and makes her a stronger foe than Eleanor may have bargained for. Torsten Johnson is a little flat as the oldest son Richard Lionheart, although it works: Richard has clearly numbed himself from a lifetime of battle and hiding his homosexuality. Geoffrey lives up to the name while played by Michael Hanna, who shows the treacherous nature of his intelligence. As the youngest son John, Riley O'Toole perfectly captures the whiny, selfish, thoughtless aura of a spoiled child. Philip II, king of France, rounds out the cast as played by David Pegram. Pegram helps manipulate the audience almost as well as Robins, revealing surprise after surprise to us through his intrigues. He's a good core for this story to hinge on, and fits the cast well.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The set here (with an inspired design by Christopher Ash and Beowulf Boritt) is spare but really exciting (again, really reminded me of Game of Thrones' opening credits). It's a single timber-framed tower seen only through its outlines, surrounded by softly falling snow and lit with a series of creamy, glowy LED candles. As it rotates to reveal different rooms of the castle, we are placed in various corners of the action that feel intimate even though the set is so sparse. It's a brilliant trick, allowing us to see all the intrigue taking place in the castle even while we focus on the immediate action. I really enjoyed it, and it helps to keep the pace of the show feeling fast (it clocks in at around 2 hours and 20 minutes). Costumes, as designed by Karen Perry, are lavish and befitting such a royal family, featuring gold thread, glittering jewels, thick fur trims and more. The extravagance of the costumes offsets the spare bones of the set, and overall we get a solid feeling of the coldness in the castle as well as the hearts of the characters.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed The Lion in Winter. I'd seen the movie ages ago but felt it was a little rusty and boring. Imagine my surprise, then, to find such a lively cast breathing full, contemporary heart into this story that is nearly 1,000 years old. The banter between Henry and Eleanor is fierce and biting, the love they share is painful yet warm. The Lion in Winter is full of contradictions and in its complex portrait of power is an apt cautionary tale (or perhaps reflection of a certain fallen woman of power?) that fits right into our post-election narrative. This incisive play will keep you inspired to keep an extra eye open at night. Anyone who enjoys power narratives (think: Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, House of Cards, etc.) will definitely enjoy this show.

The Lion in Winter runs through December 31; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Clever "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

Explore the world with brand new eyes.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
Fellow avid readers may remember A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the overnight success novel by Mark Haddon that swept the literary community in 2003. It's made waves ever since, and currently is showing at the Orpheum (through December 4).

ACIDN (I know the acronym is awkward but it really is far too long to spell out....sorry guys) follows Christopher Boone, a boy with severe autism who is also a mathematical savant, as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog. This mystery unravels relatively quickly as Christopher comes to find that there are far bigger mysteries surrounding his personal life, which he discovers and begins to reconcile. Through this journey he learns much about himself and his capabilities for survival outside of the world of his sheltered family home.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
There is SO much more to say about the plot of this show, but I really don't want to give away the twist if you haven't seen it yet - suffice it to say, it's a doozy, and it will definitely break your heart. Thankfully it will also put you back together, helping you to grow with eyes wide open, as Christopher learns to do.

This show features some very special performances, particularly that by Adam Langdon as Christopher Boone. Langdon captures Christopher's brilliance and savance with thunderous acuity. He is fully, thoroughly committed to his character at all times, and he manages to connect Christopher with the audience despite the barriers of his autism. It's a truly brilliant performance, and if nothing else sells this show, Langdon will.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Maria Elena Ramirez is lovely as Christopher's teacher/guide Siobhan, and is a wonderful paean to those everywhere who dedicate themselves to working with special-needs kids. Ramirez is full of heart, tenderness and humor and knows exactly how to guide Christopher through the real world. She's the yin to Langdon's yang, and their communion works beautifully to help reveal the inner workings of Christopher's mind.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Gene Gillette is great as Christopher's father, showing a wide range of emotions that swing from consuming love to exhaustion to fear to total disgust. He is the pivot on which all action hinges in ACIDN, and he complements Langdon well. Felicity Jones Latta is prickly as Christopher's mother. She does a good job of conveying the difficulty and despair her character must feel, and we can't help but pity her as we are simultaneously disgusted with her actions. The ensemble is tightly choreographed and briskly moves through their scenes, keeping the show moving at a quick pace (even though by the end it clocks out at 2 1/2 hours, it feels fast).
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The most intriguing part of this show for me was the staging, which takes place essentially within a three-sided cube (much like if you were visualizing advanced calculus equations). As a mathematical savant, Christopher draws out his thoughts in diagrams which are replicated on the grid of stage-high light screens. I can only describe them in appearance as a series of small square solar panel-looking items, but they are really a fluid, complex system of lights, projections and storage spaces. The effect is one of Christopher pulling himself, and things, out of deep space and into the immediate present. It's a really stunning backdrop and it's used to maximum effect. The lighting goes hand in hand with this set piece, often coming from within the "cube" rather than on top of it. This gives everything a piercing blue sheen, which combined with strobe lights and potent high beams helps us to understand how jarring experiencing the outside world is for Christopher. It's a tangible way to place us inside Christopher's head and feel what he feels, and it definitely works.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
I will confess that I read this book shortly after it came out and I struggled with it. It felt slow to me and a little bogged down in its own self-importance. This staging strips away most of those extraneous details and leaves us only with the tense core of what A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is really about, questions such as: What defines family? Where should your loyalties lie? Why do we value the things we do? When is lying better than telling the truth? Do we really understand reality, or do we just think we know about it? Christopher's unique, valuable perspective helps us to understand what is truly important and drives home the importance of consequences. He provides valuable life lessons with a magical mindset. It felt good to disappear with Christopher for a while; I'd encourage you to do the same.

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Orpheum Theatre through December 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.