Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Compendium is Turning Five! And Grease Ticket Giveaway

Let me tell you a little story.

Five years in and stronger than ever - happy birthday Compendium!

The date is September 2012. I'm one year past college graduation and have been supplementing my full time job, where I'm relatively bored, with writing on the side for Metro Magazine. As a journalism major I am really hoping to step into that world full-time and feel like I'm on track to at least be a regular columnist and maybe editor someday when BAM! I find out the magazine is closing in a week.

Although the writing had probably been on the wall for some time, I was absolutely devastated. I felt like I was finally hitting my stride; I had just run my first major print piece (which I still have a copy of today!), an interview with the new incoming director of the Minnesota Opera. It felt like all of the hard work I'd done over the last year+ was flying straight out the window. Worse, as 90% of my work was online, I knew it would be lost to the wind if I didn't do something quickly to save it.

Thus, Compendium was born. I created this blog initially as a place to store my work for Metro and to keep it alive online. I took a little hiatus from the media world but then realized: this site didn't have to be static storage space to hold old articles. Why wait for a publication to pick me up? Why not start my own blog, share my own thoughts, and build the kind of coverage I always wanted to see but had to pass through gatekeepers before? I decided to re-up my work with my local media contacts and began slowly building a brand, a process that continues to this day.

It's been a long road to here, but I can safely say that five years later, building and running Compendium is one of the most fun, rewarding challenges I could imagine. I've had the opportunity to connect with so many amazing readers - YOU! Tens of thousands of you! - and I'm so grateful for the opportunity. If I hadn't started Compendium I would have missed out on so many amazing projects, performances, and people. I would never have met the incredible folks of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, who blow me away every day with their ingenuity and compassion. And I wouldn't have the ability to keep planning for the future, for more performances, ways to give back, and a few really cool new business ideas up my sleeve that I hope to share in coming years.

As a token of my gratitude to all my readers for five years of incredible theater and blogging, I want to give back to you for a chance to show my appreciation for following me on this journey. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) has graciously agreed to give me four tickets to give away to a lucky reader (or two!) to enjoy Grease (review here), currently showing and the best selling show in CDT's history. 

CDT has always held an extremely special place in my heart for a few reasons. One is that it was the first theater I ever attended outside of the small town I grew up in up north. My younger sister and I were taken to a production of Brigadoon by my parents, and I will never forget the magic of seeing one of our favorite movie musicals come to vibrant life on stage. For kids whose biggest travel adventure was camping at state parks a short drive away, it was an unfathomably luxurious and inspiring experience. I also adore CDT's strong community outreach. They have been excellent partners with local school programs and are always working to make their shows more accessible, be it through ticket promotions (make sure to check for family discounts as they always do series where children's tickets are included free with adult ticket purchases) or bringing their performances outside of Chanhassen for others to enjoy.

Here's how to enter the giveaway: 

1. Make sure you are following Compendium on Facebook (you can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter!)

2. Comment on this post either in the blog comments below or on the Facebook post. Let me know: what is your favorite show you have ever seen? Who do you want to take to see Grease and why? Bonus points if you can also tell me what you're most looking forward to seeing in the new 2017 - 2018 theater seasons! 

3. I will draw a winner from those names on Friday, September 15, 2018. Winners can book their tickets anytime with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. 

Thank you so much to all readers for an incredible five years. Cheers to five more! 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Thrillist: The Best New Foods at the State Fair

The expectation is excess, and this place delivers. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist. 

Everyone knows: indulgence is the name of the game at the Minnesota State Fair. After all, where else can you get deep fried everything covered in cheese and haul it on a stick without so much as a second glance from anyone who may pass by?

From deep fried avocados to vegan noodle bowls, there are a whole host of amazing new treats to be found at this year's Minnesota Get Together. Check out my top picks for Thrillist by clicking on this link!


Is there anything more indicative of summer in Minnesota than the State Fair? Long touted as one of the nation’s best, the fair provides dozens of reasons to go. Although witnessing princesses carved in butter, checking out farm animals up close, and seeing world-class live bands at a fraction of the usual ticket price are all big draws, regular fair-goers know the real reason to attend involves only three words: Deep. Fried. Food. Classics such as Sweet Martha’s cookies, the all-you-can-drink milk stands, and giant turkey legs need no introduction, but if you’re going this year, make sure to enjoy some of these new food selections. You might regret it later, but that’s part of the tradition.

Best high-low mashup: Duck bacon wontons
Location: Giggles' Campfire Grill at the southeast corner of Lee Avenue & Cooper Street at The North Woods
Head straight to Giggle’s for the duck bacon wontons, easily the most delicious and accessible way to package duck in finger-food form. The deep-fried crescent-shaped wontons are stuffed with duck bacon, grilled sweet corn, and cream cheese, and served with dipping sauce (as if you even need it at this point). There is everything to love about this inspired combo.

Most Anthony Bourdain: Swine & Spuds
Location: Swine & Spuds in the Warner Coliseum, northeast corner
If there isn’t enough carnage for you in the duck bacon wontons or Memphis totchos, there is only one place to head: Swine & Spuds, a new purveyor destined to become a classic with their eponymous dish. Here’s the lowdown: bacon-wrapped pork belly and mashed potato croquettes served on a skewer, topped with a choice of home-style gravy, Korean bulgogi barbecue sauce, or sweet chili sauce. Go for it.

Biggest diet buster: The Bacon Fluffernutter
Location: The Sandwich Stop on the west side of Clough Street, between Carnes & Judson Avenues
Better than a cronut and way tastier than those unicorn coffees from Starbucks is what is sure to be this year’s new craze: the Bacon Fluffernutter. Brimming with a bacon, peanut butter, and marshmallow cream filling, this artery-clogger is encased in a grilled cinnamon bun and dusted with powdered sugar for good measure. A little bit savory and a little bit sweet, this is one not to be missed.

Unhealthiest makeover: Cheesy nacho corn on the cob
Location: Texas Steak Out on the west side of Underwood Street, between Lee & Randall Avenues
Sweet corn with lime and elote has gone hand in hand with the Mexico City travel craze and seems to be everywhere these days, but you won’t find that here. Instead, the State Fair has gone a more plebeian route with their ears of corn, roasting them then coating them with crushed Doritos and melty nacho cheese. Even if you’re not a fan of vegetables, there’s a high chance you’ll find something to like about this one.

Best throwback: Bowl o' Dough
Location: Blue Moon Dine-In Theater on the northeast corner of Carnes Avenue & Chambers Street
If you’re anything like me, nothing was better when you were a kid than sneaking as much cookie dough as possible when Mom went into a baking frenzy. Now I can indulge once in awhile and the Bowl o' Dough is the way to do it. Coming in four incredible flavors -- brownie batter swirl, European cookie butter, lemon ricotta cheesecake with blueberries, and the OG favorite gluten-free chocolate chip cookie dough -- and served with a side of sea salt-flavored ice milk, this is a thoughtful blast from the past that is worth sampling.

Fastest upper: Maple cream nitro cold-press coffee
Location: Farmers Union Coffee Shop on the north side of Dan Patch Avenue, between Cooper & Cosgrove Streets
If you’ve made it this far, chances are pretty good you’re feeling a little sluggish from all the fat and sugar. What better way to perk up than some high-octane cold brew coffee? The Farmers Union is offering a real gem that incorporates locally sourced heavy cream and maple syrup and infuses the coffee with nitrogen for an extra energy blast. Give it a shot when you’re lagging, and you’re sure to roar through the rest of the day with ease.

Most hipster: Deep-fried avocado
Location: O'Gara's at the Fair at the southwest corner of Dan Patch Avenue & Cosgrove Street
Want something trendy to go with your Dorito-swathed corn? Look no further than the deep-fried avocado, the most obscene foray into fatty goodness we’ve seen yet. There’s no way you’re walking in a sweat-filled field surrounded by 20,000 people without having at least a few libations along the way, so make sure to soak up that booze with something sinful and satisfying like these little beauties. And if the fry and the avocado aren't enough for you, it also comes with a side of chipotle ranch sauce for dipping.

Most frou-frou: Slow-roasted pork mole tamale
Location: Tejas Express in the Garden, north wall
I’m sure there are some of you looking at the above list and thinking: “But what about me? I want a little class in my fair food. Give me something to eat with a fork.” Well, friends, have no fear: For the true foodie, Tejas Express has come through with a slow-roasted pork mole tamale that will knock your socks off. They take a fresh corn tamale, stuff it with slow-roasted pork, cover it in mole coloradito sauce, and black bean pineapple relish, and serve it with a smile.

Most obscene mashup: The Pizzarito
Location: Green Mill on the east side of Cooper Street between Randall & Wright Avenues, at Family Fair at Baldwin Park
Food at the State Fair is nothing if not thoroughly unnecessary, so this year the Green Mill decided to take it to the limit with the Pizzarito, which is exactly what it sounds like: a flour tortilla overflowing with pepperoni, Italian sausage, risotto, mozzarella, and marinara, coated with garlic butter, Parmesan, and Italian spices, baked and served with a side of marinara. If you want to go over the top, this one’s most definitely for you.

Best Elvis tribute: Memphis totchos
Location: Snack House in the Warner Coliseum, south concourse
Pour one out for Elvis, the OG of snack connoisseurs, at the Snack House by ordering a set (or three) of the Memphis totchos. It’s a bowl of perfectly fried tater tots surrounded in sliced bananas and sautéed bacon, covered in a melty peanut sauce. A little savory, a little sweet, a whole lot of goodness, it certainly has us “All Shook Up.”

Most high maintenance: Spicy Thai noodles
Location: Oodles of Noodles in the Food Building, east wall
There’s always one person in a group who has, with or without any fault of their own, very specific dietary needs. Whether you’re accommodating a vegetarian, dairy-free or gluten-free diner (or all three), look no further than Oodles of Noodles in the Food Building. Its new dish features a red curry rice noodle dish cooked in coconut milk with a host of culturally authentic produce (such as hard-to-find galangal) that will put a smile on the face of the most delicate constitutions.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Holler Sessions Brings the Heat

What IS jazz music? 

Photo by Maria Baranova

How do you define it? Who are "real" jazz musicians? How do you listen to jazz?

As arguably music's most postmodern art form, jazz can be polarizing. People either love love love it, or they really love to hate it. The rest of the world tends to sit on the sidelines, intimidated by the music, never really knowing what to do with it.

Photo by Maria Baranova

For people of any camp, there is now thankfully The Holler Sessions, a brilliant new entree into the world of jazz music in the form of a one man show by Frank Boyd. Boyd's irascible character is a Kansas City radio DJ who make it his mission to bring the best jazz music to his audience. Gliding through legend after legend, Boyd takes the audience on a journey through music history to some of the best jazz covers and bands, detailing the specialties of each. And when I say legends, I mean it: Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and many others all make appearances. Boyd's encyclopedic trivia is a delight to die hard fans and an accessible introduction for those who are unfamiliar, and at several points in the show the audience is invited to call in - literally, on their cell phones - to be guided through trivia about select musicians. There is a delightful surprise at the end that I won't spoil for any future audience members here, but suffice it to say, it's the only appropriate culmination for the show after we have learned so much about this art form.

Photo by Maria Baranova

Frank Boyd is an intriguing person to lead this journey. At first he felt a little too Bernie-bro for me and I found myself a bit irritated with his delivery, but as the show progresses it's clear that Boyd has nothing but respect and love for the art of jazz. His delivery is somewhere between J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, with a whiff of Paul Giamatti and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure. It's a performance that slowly builds and really grabs you towards the end of the show, and in retrospect I really appreciate how he has structured the performance. One thing is undeniable: I learned a whole lot, and I suspect the rest of the audience did too.

The set is a static, small staging of the inside of a manic devotee's radio studio, abundant with scraps of paper and post-its, trash, coffee, whiskey and some kind of nameless upper. The clutter never detracts from Boyd's magnetic presence, and strategically placed lighting and hidden props continue to make appearances as he shuffles through the detritus to unveil ever-more records, quotes, images and factoids to teach us about jazz. At several points of the show Boyd even turns the lights off completely for moments at a time or cuts off the sound entirely, forcing the audience to listen without distraction to the pieces and to contemplate their significance. It can feel a little unsettling, but it really does require you to pay attention, and those quiet moments are the ones in which you really start to understand the point Boyd is trying to make.

Photo by Maria Baranova

The Holler Sessions is an excellent entree into the world of jazz for novices, especially young ones, and it's a trip I'd recommend taking. I loved that Boyd dabbled with audience interaction on their phones via call-in segments; even though the delivery was clumsy, it's a trend I am sure we will be (and SHOULD be) seeing more of as performers and audiences become younger and more digitally focused. The Holler Sessions almost feels like a live YouTube series developed for an exclusive live audience. We are all in on Boyd's mission, and if you're not on board by the end of the show you are truly missing out. The Holler Sessions runs at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through August 20. Take a leap and check it out; I bet you'll be glad you did. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

And for those of you who want a deeper dive into under-appreciated music, I HIGHLY recommend reading Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, an authoritative journey through the history of music performed by African-Americans that was published by Minneapolis' own Graywolf Press a few years ago. It's beautifully written by a local college professor and it will truly open your eyes to the world of hip hop in a way few things I have encountered can. You can find more information about it by clicking on this link

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Wonderful Trip through The Immigrant Journey Project

The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. I hope it has an incredible audience engagement; it deserves it.  

This little map was the most beautiful way to connect all audience members' families' journeys to the United States! 

When I was arranging to see The Immigrant Journey Project, the media rep I was in contact with made sure to send a disclaimer: "don't forget that these performers aren't professional actors!", she said. She needn't have worried. I can safely say that The Immigrant Journey Project is one of the most candid, moving, intimate works I've seen in a while, and the mixed cast is a huge part of it's success.

Let me back up for a second and start at the beginning. The Immigrant Journey Project marks the culmination of a three year long development process between Mu Performing Arts and several community groups, including CHAT, the Hmong Elder Center, SOY, Wilder and WISE. The grant-funded project was devised to help Asian-American elders and more recent immigrants to tell their stories through learning about theater and puppetry. The Immigrant Journey Project takes the scripts and stories written by dozens of participants and distills them into a series of short vignettes that shine a light on each of these unique narratives. The show is split into three themes: past (where Hmong elders tell of their lives as youth living in their villages); present (young immigrants talk about their recent immigration to the United States and their observations of cultural differences); and future (Mu Performing Arts cast members imagine a futuristic potluck in space). The result is a show that has it all - wonder, humor, ennui, heartbreak, gratitude, perspective and a whole lot of heart.

The Immigrant Journey Project opened with the story of Pa Lee Thao as she remembered sweet stories from her childhood in the village, such as losing a shoe in the river and going on dates. All of the vignettes told by the Hmong elders are told by the elders themselves in Hmong, which are then translated into English by one of the actors. It was so special and beautiful to see these wise community members become animated and engaged as they shared pieces of their past, many of which were beautiful and elegantly simple. The one exception was "Poison From the Sky 'Tshuaj Saum Ntuj' " by Cher Pao, in which he detailed how his village and their farms were poisoned by chemicals dropped on them during one of the many wars that devastated SouthEast Asia in the twentieth century. Pao's abrupt style was shattering, and the simple facets of his story laid bare the horror he witnessed as a young man. It was incredibly moving, and added a lot of gravitas to the rest of the show.

In between the Hmong elder's stories were two other biographical series. One, called "WISE," was the more modern telling of three young girls who are recent immigrants to America. Each has had a very different cultural and familial experience and has arrived to the United States for different reasons, but they also share several themes. Standouts included stories about the first time each encountered snow and the difference between foods and eating habits in their respective cultures versus the U.S. The girls were shy but engaging, and their vibrant, youthful perspective brought great energy to the performance. It was a joy seeing them work with the experienced Mu performers, with whom they clearly shared a warmth and comfortability that was inspiring to see.

The final series was the fictional and much more creative "Futuristic Potluck," staged by Mu Performing Arts' cast members. These were much sillier (and funnier) stories that were a huge hit with the children in the audience. There were some strong political themes raised in these potluck narratives, such as social anxiety, sexism, gender rights and cultural reflections on the year 2017 (from 50 years into the future of course), but the overwhelming sense from this series was community and positivity. Normally I would have found something like this potluck series to be really out of place and a waste of time in a show like this. However, when woven between the more serious and emotional true stories of the young and old immigrants featured here, the futuristic potluck provided a welcome dose of humor that helped break up each series of stories.

The live music on stage was unique and beautiful.

All of the stories of The Immigrant Journey Project were told through puppets made by the artists themselves under the expert tutelage of Masanari Kawahara (also known as Masa). I've seen Masa's puppets in action before but they never struck me quite as they did in this performance. Each puppet was clearly made with love and care, and it was so beautiful to see the artists represent themselves visually. Their vibrant and expressive use of color and shape made the puppets very relatable, and displacing their story through a puppet (rather than "acting" themselves) really helped to build confidence and project each person's narrative. The futuristic potluck puppets were abstractly creative (very reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, actually) and a whole lot of surrealist fun. They were also shockingly expressive, a testament to the strong voice work of the Mu cast members.

The Immigrant Journey Project is exactly what we need more of in Twin Cities theater and an inspired choice for Mu Performing Arts to wrap up their 25th season. It is such a brilliant way to bring real-life stories to the stage in an authentic, respectful and engaging way. I love that it was able to give back to the community both in terms of training and arts, and in educating the audience about these vital stories. The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. If you went to see the latter show, I strongly urge you to support The Immigrant Journey Project too. These are real stories from real refugees and immigrants about their real experiences in both of their homelands, and I am certain that any audience can find something to learn from these brave artists.

Tickets to see this show (at the new-to-me and fabulous Steppingstone Theater) cost only $10, and rest assured that any money you spend will be well utilized by Mu Performing Arts to continue this kind of community-focused work. My only wish upon leaving the theater last weekend? I would love to see this project re-created with the many other incredible immigrant communities we have here in Minnesota. While this is technically outside of Mu's mission and scope, they have proven themselves to be expert custodians of such narratives, and I hope we can apply their expertise to lift up other communities as well.

I highly encourage everyone of all ages to check out The Immigrant Journey Project with Mu Performing Arts at Steppingstone Theater before it closes on August 20. It's the perfect way to wrap up your summer theater series, and it's a model for artistic community engagement in the future. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Best Books I've Read in 2017 (So Far)

As usual, I have set several lofty reading goals for myself for this year.

A post shared by Becki Iverson (@beckiiverson) on

If you follow my book recommendations you know that I am obsessed with Goodreads - I have no idea how I would track all of the great reading I do over the years without it! This year I've had the good fortune to join a fabulous book club that is reading its way around the world, beginning with the Middle East. It's called Around the World in 80 Books (anyone can join! click here to find the group) and I highly recommend it - I've tremendously enjoyed the pieces we've explored so far, especially because even for an avid reader like me, it has pushed me to pick up and research things I never would have found on my own. It's free, it's easy, and it's so inspiring!

Since I seem to be crushing my target of reading 100 books this year, I thought it would be great to break up the top books with a review of the first half of the year. Wherever you're at in your reading journey, I'd highly encourage you to pick up one (or all) of these - they may seem random but they have a lot to offer! And if you want even more suggestions, follow along my blog's Books page (link here) or check out my post on the best books I read in 2016 (link here).

Most Helpful for Challenging Societal Norms: Happy City by Charles Montgomery 

I've recently been very interested in the politics and process of city planning and community layouts, and there was no better introduction to that subject than this beautifully written book. Charles Montgomery leaves no stone unturned in his new vision for how our urban centers could work. He truly inspired me to remember that every single thing in our lives is designed (and designed for a reason) - while this can feel defeating, it also means that it can always be changed. I really appreciated that Montgomery is not afraid to be blunt and straightforward about some of the most harmful aspects of traditional urban design, especially in the form of racism and classism. The good examples he uplifts of cities who are thoughtfully innovating for the future are truly well-rounded. For example, they always include provisions for the traditionally most reviled among us (say, drunk homeless people) in innovative, loving ways that provide spaces for all citizens - and isn't that what we say we want our societies to be in the first place?

Since I have returned to living without a car (essentially for my day to day needs at least) a few years ago, I have been SO much happier and healthier. Restricting our cities to be built for cars is honestly tyrannical, and Happy Cities lays this reasoning out in compelling detail. I would urge everyone to give this wonderful book a shot and open their minds to the possibility of living differently from what conventional wisdom dictates. There are so many more ways to enjoy a rich, vivid life that have nothing to do with working thousands of hours of overtime and spending half your day commuting in a car. Definitely check this little gem of a book out!

Most Unexpectedly Spiritual Science Book: The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery

This is one of the most marvelous little science books I've ever read. It takes a very humanistic, Krista Tippet's On Being approach to zoology by focusing on the octopus (although plenty of other animal information is included as well) through our understanding of the octopus's consciousness. The book reads almost like a memoir, following Montgomery through her travels, her personal interactions with the octopuses (which is correct as opposed to octopi for the plural - little known fact), and other bits of knowledge about the ocean that she weaves in through the central location of the Boston Aquarium.

I've always really struggled with zoos and aquariums as "homes" for wild animals - I think it's rather cruel - but Montgomery makes quite the case for it here, describing how much safer and long lived the animals are as well as the kinds of care they receive that they never could in the wild. She also details how many octopuses (and other fish) are released, if possible, back into the wild before the end of their life so they are able to complete and breed naturally. There is no doubt that the keepers working with them are very committed to giving each a safe, happy life, and that they are imminently qualified to do so. This book lets you peer "behind the curtain" of a zoo/aquarium's operations, and it was really interesting.

Animals tend to get the short end of the stick in measuring intelligence and that is a shame. Montgomery does a wonderful job of explaining how smart octopuses are and how little we are able to comprehend their consciousness - after all, they are composed completely differently from us and have a completely different perspective on the world. There is no denying that octopuses are smart though and that they have distinctive personalities. For anyone who wonders about animal consciousness and eating meat, this will be striking.

The Soul of An Octopus is a wonderful read, especially because it closer ties us to a species not like our own. With the advance of climate change and other multi-national issues facing us, it will take all of earth's creatures respecting and caring for each other to make it through. The Soul of An Octopus really helps bridge the divide between humans and cephalopods, and it's a fascinating walk through their underwater world.

Most Societally Necessary: Hunger by Roxane Gay 

Roxane Gay is such an important writer that I'm not sure how to even review her bibliography - it's really in a category all its own. I adored Bad Feminist, but Hunger is so different, such a unique piece of work, that it's hard to categorize. It's far and away the best thing I've read either about obesity or sexual assault and related PTSD, but also includes so many important details about life as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size (not just heft but height), as a daughter of immigrants (I could go on and on).

There is so much incredible detail wrapped into this book, truly encapsulating an intersectional experience and indirectly demonstrating why it is so hard to talk about intersectional issues. Which part of yourself and your identity does each of your experiences belong to? Which parts of your identity are more important? Are resources equally available to help you depending on race or gender or socioeconomic status? How do you move through pain? How does pain tangentially affect other areas of your life? How do you forgive yourself? Once you've started to heal from your pain, how do you leave it behind after you've carried it for so long?

There are so many rich, rich things to glean from this book, and I think every citizen should read it to have a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of life as a woman who is obese, survivors of sexual assault, and an enormous range of related things. Roxane is so incredibly brave for writing and sharing this honest, raw book. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank her enough for writing it. We needed it and didn't even know it.

Best History Book: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Talk about timely! This book could not have been published at a more opportune moment. Nancy Isenberg has written an absolutely riveting, thoughtful, highly necessary piece on the history of class in America and how it intersects with race issues. This should be required reading for every citizen. There is no way for us to solve the problems we are facing without understanding where they come from, and Isenberg starts at the very beginning. How many people know how classist the initial immigrants to America were? Or that the constitution was initially set up to base citizenship on property ownership, an influence that colors our view of people living here today? Or that the bungling of Reconstruction post-Civil War was not just devastating for former slaves but also for the white Southern poor?

The research here is exhaustive and truly spectacular, and Isenberg's pointed, clear, riveting writing is perfectly aimed to strike the heart of American mythology about progress and fairness. Although unfortunately named, White Trash is a book that will be a standard in learning about American class and race history for decades to come. If you found yourself questioning the results of the election or have a hard time understanding why white poor people tend to vote or act as they do, this is a great place to start. Also related in fictional form that is a great followup: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake, about the lives of coal miners in West Virginia.

Funniest: You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

I discovered Phoebe Robinson through the podcast 2 Dope Queens, and I'm SO glad I did. Not only have I now been introduced to Phoebe's solo podcast Sooo Many White Guys (best. intro. song. everrr.), but she is absolutely hilarious, so thoughtful and well rounded, and is single-handedly helping (at 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams) to create an innovative new space for comics of color. In other words: all she does is win win win no matter what.

I was really excited to read this book and it didn't disappoint. It reads just like Robinson speaks, full of her vernacular - it's like you're having a direct one-on-one conversation with her. This casual feel allows her to really dig in to meaty issues but with humor and finesse, and she has a lot to add to many conversations (particularly around intersectionality and feminism) that are vital to our progress today. I feel like for women of color (WOC) this book will feel familiar - none of the issues Robinson discusses will be new ones - but they still might be a hilarious new spin on old woes. In particular, I adore her clever way of abbreviating words. It's a little jarring at first but once you're in on the joke it's really charming and adds a lot of modernity to the feel of her work.

As a white woman, I found a lot of what she said to be important information to me and in learning to listen to other voices and to respect/understand/honor the differences between us. For any ladies who went to the women's march and want to learn more about intersectionality and some of the specific difficulties WOC face today, this is a great primer - I'd encourage you to pick it up.

Best Book for Women: Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu 

Forget Lean In; THIS is the book that every woman needs to read. Drop the Ball is a magnificent testimony to all the ways that women convince ourselves that we fall short and torment ourselves with unnecessary and unrealistic expectations. It is perfect for anyone who is too busy in their day to day and struggles to to find time for their real priorities (so... everyone?) and for those with a fierce imposter syndrome. Drop the Ball is a perfect piece demonstrating that women need to get out of our own way in order to lead happier, healthier lives. Dufu's insights are so much more realistic and nuanced than Sheryl Sandberg's; I'd love to see more books by realistic, intersectional women like this be published.

There are a few flaws with the book that are minorly addressed but could use more treatment. The entire concept is really based on a heteronomative, committed partnership - there's not a ton of language in here for non-CIS relationships or for single people. Although these items are not often explicitly addressed, however, I still think there is a lot of wisdom that can be gleaned here that is still useful for anyone falling outside of a heteronormative partnership, and much of this advice is even more vital in that context. For example: don't be afraid to recruit a "village" to help you. Build and maintain a network to call upon. Release your facade of perfection and meet people honestly with where you are truly at, and accept help when it is offered to you. Build strong relationships with others (especially other women). Be straightforward about your expectations and clear about your needs when you make a request. Stand up for yourself. Practice self care.

I cannot rave enough about Drop the Ball. It reflects a lot of conversations my partner and I had when we first lived together, and I wish I had had a book that so clearly laid out ways in which I was not only failing myself, but failing him. We need to have higher expectations of our partners - it is insulting to treat them like mindless creatures incapable of helping around the home. We need to have higher love for ourselves - we deserve time to rest and recuperate from our busy and stressful lives. We need to get off the perfection hamster wheel - it's unrealistic and completely unnecessary, and life is way too short to get caught up in keeping up with appearances.

What kind of world could we make if women really freed ourselves from the chains of eternal domesticity, learned to accept a little mess here and there, and instead focused our time and energy on our real passions and drive to improve society? It's an attainable fantasy, and the only people in our way is ourselves. Stop preventing yourself from finding peace and success. Read Drop the Ball - it is vital for women of any age and their partners should read it too for insight into why their S.O. has the expectations they do/is societally conditioned the way they are. I adored this book, and you and your partner will too.

Best Graphic Novel(s): The March Series by John Lewis 

I am so, so inspired by this wonderful series. Whoever suggested John Lewis make his story into a graphic novel is seriously a hero. I've studied the civil rights movement all my life, but something about the visual nature of this series really hit me in a way that all the thousands of textbook pages I've read never has. The art in these is truly gorgeous and I really got engaged and emotional with this story. Even in just black and white, the drawings are visceral, active and engaging, and they will keep you riveted to the narrative from start to finish. Book 3 is especially spectacular, and I promise it will keep you riveted to each page.

It's so easy to forget what happened (even in recent history) to get us to today, and the unimaginable pain the civil rights marchers went through is rendered here in astonishing, vibrant life. I highly recommend this to everyone - I think anyone can find some great, inspiring lessons here.

To the publishers: Please don't stop with this series! There is so much more of this story to be shared. I would love a graphic novel series like this on other marchers and activists, maybe Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez next?

Most Insightful: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

I have always had somewhat of an unfair aversion to Tim Ferriss (I can't explain it, he just turns me off a little), but I couldn't resist the idea of this new book with interviews from the super successful of every stripe. I'm so glad I read this! It took a long time to get through but there is so much great information packed into these short interviews. They're funny, heartwarming, inspiring, and will kick your ass into gear towards accomplishing your goals.

In fact, this is one of the few books I would recommend re-reading and revisiting, as one pass through alone won't allow all of the great information here to really sink in. There is something in this book for everyone, from elite athletes to military personnel to comic strip authors, world renowned novelists, great chefs and titans of tech and industry. It's truly an all-encompassing book and I would highly recommend this for anyone who feels a little stuck or uninspired in their life. If you can't find anything in these hundreds of pages to cheer you, nothing ever will!

And if you're a podcast devotee like moi, check out Tim's podcasts (which each of these excerpts in the book is culled from). They're free master classes from the best in the world at their respective crafts - great for taking a long walk or run and doing some serious contemplating!

Best Memoir: The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar

This book was one of our book club choices and it was so incredibly informational. I didn't realize how little I knew about Libyan history until I picked it up, and it's fascinating. Hisham's story of his search for his father is devastating and presumably unending, but through his grief he has managed to create a gorgeous testimony to the value of Libya, of the reason to fight for your freedom, and the ideal that sacrifice is worth it if the end goal benefits everyone.

If you're wondering why Qaddafi had to be removed from power and where Libya can go from here, Hisham has several thoughts to share. I learned so much about North Africa and life under a dictatorship in this lyrical, lovely little book and I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a primer on what is happening there. There are shockingly few great books about Libya and North Africa in general (tends to be the case when an entire generation's worth of writers and artists are imprisoned by a ruthless dictator... but I digress), so it behooves you to really savor the lyrical prose and rich history Hisham presents here.

Best Business Book: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

I was NOT expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Being somewhat of a hippie liberal, it's easy to hate on big corporations and think of them as greedy, soulless entities. That understanding, however, ignores the fact that behind every corporation is a very human, very fallible founder, who has made many tradeoffs to help realize their vision. Shoe Dog is so much bigger than being a book about Nike and touches on life, exploration, vision, determination, problem solving... I could go on and on.

Whether you love or hate Nike (particularly its sweatshop legacy), it's impossible to deny the complete revolution Nike created in the shoe industry, all of which started with a simple and noble mission to help provide better shoes made explicitly for the American body. What Nike is today is obviously far more complex than that initial vision, but there are good and bad things to all sides of that story. Be warned that this is a book solely from the perspective of the founder, Phil Knight, so it is going to be overly celebratory. Knight casts himself as the downtrodden, underestimated hero of this story, and it's a compelling narrative (although admittedly lopsided).

If you are able to set aside any concerns you might have about that, this will be a romping good read. It also really humanizes the kind of decisions corporations have to make that aren't always well publicized or explained amidst controversial media uproars. What good are corporations able to do overseas outside of eliminating their sweatshops? What kind of impact and ripple effect can a company have on something as simple as re-working the chemicals in a processing element in order to make a whole industry safer? Who preys upon the corporation itself?

Shoe Dog is a really interesting exploration of these questions and so much more. Anyone interested in creating a start-up or learning more about the interior mechanisms of corporate manufacturing should pick this up. It's not only inspiring, it's enlightening, and you will absolutely fly through it.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Unleash Your Inner Viking with Circus Juventas' Nordrsraga

 Nordrsraga is a little punk, a little sexy, and a whole lot of rock and roll.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

What's dark and flies and is sparkly all over?

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Why that would be Nordrsraga, the latest show from the Twin Cities' resident circus arts school, Circus Juventas. I've written about Circus Juventas before and how cool their work is - I mean honestly, what a fun way to get kids both interested in exercise and in touch with their bodies - but this year's annual extravagant performance reaches a whole new level for them.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

The only Circus Juventas show I've had the pleasure of attending previously was Peter Pan, which was obviously well suited to the circus format. Let me tell you: Nordrsraga blows Mr. Pan straight out of the water.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Nordrsraga loosely tells the story of Norwegian mythology by following Thor (who we may all remember with the big hammer?) as he sets on a quest through the nine worlds to retrieve his stolen hammer Mjölnir from his malicious brother Loki. Thor is joined on the quest by an impressive young boy named Leif (who we find out later is Thor's long-lost son). Together they journey through the monasteries of Midgard, the ice realm (Niflheim), the sunny land of elves (Álfheimr), the dark land of the dwarves (Svartálfaheimr), the fearsome land of the giants (Jötunheimr), the land of fire (Muspelheim), and all the way down to the foundation of the tree of the world itself, Yggdrasil. Many mischiefs follow Thor, Leif and their companions, but by the end of the show Mjölnir is returned and all is righted in Asgard.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

At around three hours long (yes, be prepared!), Nordrsraga has to be filled with feats of bad-assery in order to keep you engaged, and don't worry: it does. Among the incredible tricks are a Viking ship suspended from the ceiling, with trapeze artists plunging off of it; some really gorgeous fire choreography including a full size, flaming sword wielded by a totally badass fire maiden; a series of tightrope walks; giants walking on stilts; elaborate trampoline choreography; and much more. My favorite though were two series of truly spectacular ribbon acrobatics that managed to be both heart pounding and graceful at once. These performers are true athletes regardless of their ages, and I had the best time seeing their skill levels blend throughout the story. I wish I had a cast list (I couldn't find one), but I have to give a strong shout out to the performers who played Thor and Leif. Both were spectacularly fit and clearly understood the art of over-the-top showmanship, reveling in their physicality and giving the audience a truly fiery, engaged performance from top to bottom.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

If you're not familiar with Norwegian mythology, I would recommend doing at least a cursory glance through Wikipedia before hitting Nordrsraga. You can get the gist of the story if you don't, but it really helps to engage with the narrative if you already know which creatures are which. There is also not a lot of narrative here to help you and no program to reference, so if you're more of a story person than a visual person, it definitely helps to have done some prior research. I'd also recommend getting some snacks - three hours is no joke! - and bringing a cushion for the stadium seating, which can get a little uncomfortable after a performance that long.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Last weekend I celebrated my birthday, and I cannot express how exciting it was to check this show out at that time. I'm half Norwegian, so this mythology is something I find highly comforting, fascinating, and under-appreciated. It was so cool to see the legends of my ancestors wrought in glittering detail under the big top for Nordrsraga, and I'd highly recommend it for viewers of any age.  For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas.