Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Books and Reads of 2019

It's that time of year again... 

It's been a while since I did a reading roundup and it's the last day of 2019, so I figured - why not?

Long-time followers know that I am an avid reader. I try to hit at least 100 books read every year, which is normally not a problem for me. Last year I wanted to step it up to 110 books or more, but (un?)fortunately got derailed with a lot of special trips (more to come on those! keep checking here) that sucked up reading time so my total remains at 100.

So without further ado, here are the best of the 100 books I finished in 2019. It's important to note that these are not all books published in 2019 - it's the best of the books I read in 2019, several of which have been on my list for years. Hopefully you will find something great to add to your list here for 2020, whether or not it's new. And if you like this content, make sure to follow my Books page on Compendium and Goodreads to stay updated on my latest great reads.

Best History Book - Tie 

2019 seemed to be the year of non-fiction for me. For some reason I was drawn more than usual to richly researched books, and it was very hard to choose between the best of them. Both of these books enriched my understanding of world history and filled in massive gaps left by my sub-par American education on global history. Both are slower reads but highly worth reading.

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green

This is the best single history of any part of Africa I've ever read and should honestly be taught in all schools. I picked it up after my month-long trip in West Africa because my overall knowledge of African history and cultures is so severely lacking - the only region we ever learned about in school was Egypt and even that was almost remedial - and I needed to have a more well rounded understanding of the world. This was the perfect book to fill in my gaps. It's impeccably sourced and researched but remains quite readable and includes lots of maps, charts and photos to help visualize the information. The author provides highly nuanced approaches towards gender history and politics, the true impact of colonialism and religious influence, and embraces a complexity that dazzled me.

I wish more history books were this thorough and honest; there is no cover up or one-sided perspective here. The insistence on depth enriches every chapter and leave you with a full 360 degree view of life in West Africa in the period of transition between the 15th and 18th centuries. Toby Green's approach to history by using currency to explain how slavery started and true impact it had in this region and globally is a brilliant idea, and I think this information should be taught in all American classrooms as a mandatory part of understanding why chattel slavery was different and how deeply it robbed an entire continent of its potential. If I could give this more than 5 stars I would. Highly, highly recommend.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

I've heard this book so frequently mentioned by several highly successful folks on various podcasts and interviews as one of their favorites that I finally had to see what all the hype was about. What I got was a totally fascinating history that has completely changed much of my understanding of medieval Eurasian history. We hear so little (and certainly never positive) news of Mongols or Mongolia today, but the legacy left by Genghis Khan and his progeny, particularly Khubilai, is truly remarkable and deserves a much closer, fairer examination than it has often gotten. For example: did you know Genghis' empire was larger than all of North America combined and far, far larger than any other in history? He's the most successful empire builder to live past the age of 35 (dying at age 70). He introduced modern concepts like diverse leadership teams (always promoting on ability and intelligence, not by family relationship) and the first ever paper currency to strengthen his empire. His armies always included mobile engineering teams who would construct the infrastructure and weaponry needed for each specific voyage on-site as it was required, essentially a battalion of human 3D printers. They were also the first fighting force to successfully capture cities by traveling across frozen waterways. He was the first person to unify what is now India and China, and it's not impossible to think those nations would never have existed without his organizational influence.

If you're a history buff this is a must-read to enrich your understanding of world history and understand what short shrift the Khans have gotten over the years. It's not an apologia or a white wash - there were some highly violent, destructive acts taken by these armies and they are honestly depicted here - but that is only a tiny part of their story and the other side really deserves to be told. I found this completely fascinating and am recommending this book to people constantly.

Best Science Book - The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins

This was an amazing read that will launch 1,000 more - there are so many incredible women scientists I learned about through this book who I otherwise would never have heard of. The long history of women's difficulty in entering scientific fields is well researched here; my only quibble is that I wish it was a little more diverse including a wider range of women of color. The book groups subjects roughly by era but also by scientific discipline, a theming which helps show the lineage between female scientists and how they were able to build upon each other (much like you might see "genealogies" of chefs, academics or other professional careers). Portions about women who were deliberately cut out of promotions, Nobel prizes, etc. were completely infuriating and I can't begin to imagine the scientific discoveries we lost as a result. It was really interesting to note the differences Jardins drew between the style of male and female scientists. Sometimes this could get a bit exaggerated, but I do think there's something to be said for a difference in approaches yielding different results. This is a great read for all lovers of narratives like Hidden Figures and discovering those whose vital contributions have been historically overlooked. 

Best True Crime / Mystery - Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

I came across this book in an article about the Oklahoma! musical revival, threw it on my list for shits and giggles, and it completely blew me away. Killers of the Flower Moon has the same power of a Truman Capote, Jon Krakauer or Erik Larson kind of nonfiction; it's impossible to put down and almost as difficult to believe that its dark narrative is 100% true. I was shocked at how little of this history I knew and how violent it was. The contemporary American attitude towards Native Americans tends to be negative ("why aren't they over it yet?"), without recognizing how far the trauma committed against native peoples extends even into the present day. The events of this book take place well under 100 years ago and are shockingly evil, including deceptive marriages, poisoning and violent assault of people's spouses and own children, theft and worse. This book unwinds like a good mystery novel with plenty of suspects, moving targets, and unsolved mysteries that span decades. It's also a light history of the founding of the FBI, which is an event that I didn't know I needed to learn about and information I feel will be useful in the future. I highly recommend this, especially to fans of mystery or true crime books. It's another missing piece of American history that I've already called upon in the months since I read it.

Best Sports Book - Levels of the Game by John McPhee

I don't normally read sports books, but I'd seen this recommended by Tim Ferriss and others for years and finally got tired of hearing about it. Levels of the Game is surprisingly hard to find but it was so worth the wait. Everything said about this slender book is true: it is so much more than simply a sports story, and it really is one of the best pieces of short writing I've ever read, a true masterpiece of short form. I flew through the 150 pages or so in a single sitting and have been mentally chewing on it ever since.

At surface level this is just a gripping play-by-play of a legendary tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Charles Graebner; however, I quickly learned there is so much more packed in here. Deep character studies and biographies of both contestants are seamlessly interwoven throughout the match, and through them a window in to the wider issues of mid-20th century (and, I would argue, contemporary) America. The intense focus and detail here manages to make a brilliant case study of polar opposites of American privilege, racism, regional discrimination, classicism, religion, culture and so much more. It's truly a study in contrasts and had Graebner and Ashe not been teammates playing for Team U.S. in an international competition at the same time this match occurred, I think this match would have become as famous as Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" but in a racial context.

This book is truly fascinating, even for those who don't like sports very much, and if for no other reason it's worth a read for the truly excellent prose. I am still astonished at the mountains of detail John McPhee packs into clean, simple but elegant language in well under 200 pages - it's a masterpiece of construction and I am definitely striving to achieve his economic, elegaic style in my own writing.

Best Memoir: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

Immigration seems to be the issue of our times and there is no better book to read to understand this issue than Dear America. Something that gets lost in all the numbers and statistics on either side of the immigration debate is the vital understanding that these are not things we are talking about - they are people who have thoughts, feelings, needs and rights. There is so much nuance lost in the soundbite-driven conversations by talking heads on cable news, and people's lives are hanging in the balance.

This book has the perfect levity between personal memoir experience and hard data. As a former reporter for the Washington Post, Vargas is no slouch with his research, and all the data here can be backed up. Whichever side of the immigration debate you're on, I'd highly encourage you to pick up Dear America and gain some core understanding of this issue from someone who knows it most intimately. I suspect it's going to continue to be vital knowledge to have, especially as our economy continues to evolve. This is a must-read for every American citizen and I'd recommend it to any demographic.

Best Book About Women: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Say what you want about GOOP: I was turned on to Mary Beard through GOOP's podcast and if I get nothing else out of it, it was fully worth it. This stunning, perfectly concise text analyzes the place and perception of women in Western society stemming back to the classical age (aka Greeks and Romans) and it is a fascinating look at texts like The Odyssey that so many of us have read (but this time with totally fresh eyes). I think most of us are aware by now how deeply rooted sexism is, but I also think we do not always see how explicitly and intentionally grounded that sexism is all the way back to our earliest cultural myths. Beard utilizes several delightful contemporary examples to apply her theories, and I blew through this in barely over an hour. Highly recommend this for all readers - it's got deep things to say in an easily accessible package and will really blow your mind with some of her examples.

Best African Lit / Locally Published Work: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

I have been reading a huge amount of work by African writers over the last few years, so when I saw that Minneapolis publisher Graywolf Press was releasing this I had to snap it up right away. This book was so good. It is truly diasporic and managed to weave three totally different character's plot lines seamlessly together, making it a story that people of many different identities could engage with. Structurally it is reminiscent of Yaa Gyaasi's transcendent novel Homegoing, although this has more complexity and narrative threads to weave together and a spicy dose of Marvel's Luke Cage to keep it modern. It felt to me like modern African superhero magical realism, with a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wakanda and Marlon James all mixed together. It makes for a really fresh combo and I was deeply pulled into this narrative; it was hard to believe that this was Moore's debut novel and this book packs a lot of plot into 300 short pages. If you're into mystical fantasy / historical fiction, this is definitely one you should pick up.

Best Novel: The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal  

I fell in love with Balli Kaur Jaswal after reading Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows, which I saw on a Reese's Book Club pick. This book (her second) solidifies her as one of my favorite new authors. This has all the touristic charm of stories like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but without the colonial gaze. Jaswal is so expert at having honest conversations about issues directly affecting women but packaging it into a treacly beach read text, which is stunningly difficult and achieved here with ease. Topics covered here include sexual assault, abortion, arranged marriage, immigration, sexism, Punjabi culture, and more - which sounds heavy but I promise that Shergill Sisters was one of the most fun reads I had all year. I flew through this book and could easily have devoured a whole series.

Best Fantasy: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia  

I'm always looking for new fantasy fiction and I couldn't have been more thrilled with this one. I know almost nothing about Mayan civilization and mythology, something I am actively working to rectify. I found dipping into this new world really fascinating, especially with the complexity it treats death. It's a thrilling fantasy tale but also romantic and uniquely empathetic in a way I haven't seen in similar books; the author makes a point of prioritizing compassion and grace even in the characters with the darkest and most twisted motivations. This is a complete world on its own (lots packed into just over 300 pages!), but I could easily see it becoming a detailed series. It's like American Gods meets Akata Witch, but Mexican / Mayan style. Highly recommend to fantasy / mythology lovers who want something unique and new to read.

Best Children's Book - Tie 

I read a lot of children's literature this year. I know some people consider children's books not to be "real" literature or cheating for book counts, but hear me out: anyone who has attempted writing projects knows that writing more concisely is actually harder than providing length. Being able to communicate a full story in 50 pages or less with short, easy to pronounce words that can entertain grownups and kids alike is no easy task. Thankfully there are some fantastic new arrivals to the children's lit scene that you and the kiddos in your life can equally enjoy.

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o 

I threw this on my to-read list the second I heard Lupita Nyong'o was writing a book and so was one of the very first to get this from the library. Let me tell you - it lives up to all of the hype and more. The illustrations are luminous, seemingly glowing off the page, and are totally captivating with rich, full hues. The story is extremely affecting and you can tell how personal it was for Nyong'o to write. I had teary eyes only a few pages in, and the beautiful resolution will put a real warmth in your heart.

This is intended to speak to kids who are feeling downtrodden about their dark skin, but I actually think it's a good book for all kids to help soften assumptions / answer questions about skin color differences. Reading something like this at a young age would have helped introduce ideas of racial awareness to me at a foundational level that would have really served me later in my adult life, and I'm so glad it exists for kids now. I want this book to get ultimate support for the simple message (and to support Nyong'o, of course), but it's also just a very high quality, beautifully illustrated children's book that is among the year's best. Highly recommend for grownups and kiddos alike.

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

This made the rounds on a bunch of best-of lists for children's books last year, and I found it really delightful. It's a simple book but one that beautifully shows how to accept and even celebrate people who present differently. I've always loved the term mermaid for trans / queer people and this book makes it even prettier. The centering of black and brown bodies in this story is also special and a beautiful celebration of diverse life.

In the debate around trans and LGBTQIA rights, one of the first questions raised is always "well what do I tell my children?" A book like this gives an easy answer: just tell them the truth. Kids are far more open minded and accepting than they get credit for, and I'm so glad that books like this exist to make the conversation easy for all parties. This is appropriate for kids of any age but especially ages 3 - 8 or so and definitely is a good tool for helping to explain the existence of queer / trans people if a child is asking about it. The colorful illustrations are also a top selling point.

Best Fairy Tale Re-mix: Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is a perennial fave and the second I heard she had re-imagined a fairy tale I had to check it out. There's a lot to recommend this book, Solnit's feminist re-imagining of Cinderella among them, but the real standout to me were the stunningly gorgeous die-cut illustrations. Every image is portrayed through intricately cut silhouettes and it's a lovely way to tell the story. I almost wish this were a picture-only book, just to have more delicate illustrations to enjoy. This is probably best enjoyed by grownups or older kids (I'd say age 8 and up?) to get the full effect.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Thrillist: How to Volunteer in the Twin Cities This Holiday Season

Don't be a Scrooge. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

The season of giving is upon us! While that most often means an exhausting list of shopping, wrapping, and gift giving and receiving, I also like to think that it's a time to think even more than usual about giving back to our communities. And the best part is that volunteering is FREE - it just requires a little effort to sign up and schedule a few hours to give back.

Click here to see my list of the best organizations to volunteer with and donate to for Thrillist at this time of year. Please keep in mind that these are worthy causes ALL times of year; but if you're trying to squeeze in some final gifts before tax season, or want to share a portion of your gifts with the wider community, these are perfect places to turn to first. Let me know in the comments - what did I miss? Who else would you add to this list?


During the season of gratitude and giving, is there any better time of year to consider giving back to your community? Many organizations struggle to advertise when they need help, especially when funding is limited. To help connect the dots, we have rounded up plenty of options for causes around the Twin Cities that can use your helping hands now, or at any time of year, to build a better community. If you still can’t find anything on this list that calls to you, head to Hands on Twin Cities or Volunteer Match to search from hundreds of other opportunities.

For those concerned about homelessness and surviving the cold weather
Homelessness is a growing epidemic in the Twin Cities. AEON is one of the best organizations working to solve this problem by preserving and building affordable housing for communities in transition from experiencing homelessness, and nearly 95% of donations go to support operations. PRISM provides holistic services, healthy food, and weather appropriate clothing. Elim Lutheran Church opens cold shelters this time of year. Bridging provides necessary housing items for people transitioning out of homelessness. If you’d rather volunteer directly in a shelter, reach out to St. Stephen’s, People Serving People, or Simpson Housing Services.

For those passionate about helping the elderly 
One of the most overlooked communities year-round is the elderly. Little Brother partners younger volunteers with older folks to help them find and enjoy social engagement. Neighbors Inc. provides gift assistance for seniors who may not be able to exchange gifts with friends and family. Other great organizations include MN Seniors, Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, and Volunteers of America Minnesota and Wisconsin, all of whom find people to visit less mobile elderly in senior homes. If you’d rather fly solo, simply stop by the nearest senior center to you to share your gifts; musical performances are especially appreciated.

For those passionate about food justice and feeding the hungry
One in eight children in Minnesota is at risk of experiencing chronic hunger. Second Harvest Heartland connects food to people in need, providing more than 89 million meals and 32 million pounds of fresh produce to over half a million people in the state. Loaves and Fishes is another great option for group volunteer projects. The Sheridan Story generally focuses on packing meals for kids so they can eat over the weekend. Appetite for Change is a fantastic option for anyone focused on creating intersectional good, where you can help them educate students on urban farming and leadership, or work on-site in the restaurant incubator. Campus Kitchen is a model of food efficiency, repurposing leftover cafeteria food to provide over 1,000 meals each month to organizations around Minneapolis. And Open Arms Minnesota cooks and delivers nutritious foods to those suffering from life threatening illnesses.

For those passionate about education and literacy
Education is a field that is perennially looking for volunteers. From January through May, the Minnesota Urban Debate League is seeking some to judge debates between the 1,200 students they serve across Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Minnesota Historical Society hosts History Day every year at the University of Minnesota and you can be a judge of student research projects. The East Side Freedom Library houses non-circulating research collections and needs volunteers for educational programs. If you’re passionate about music, consider contacting the Walker West Music Academy, an innovative school that trains students of all ages in music of the African-American tradition. Urban Ventures always needs help with after-school programs and coaching opportunities. Give the gift of a lifelong love of reading through Reading Partners. Or consider going straight to the source and volunteering through Minneapolis Public Schools or St. Paul Public Schools.

For those concerned about current immigration policies
Few subjects are as heated right now as immigration and refugee resettlement. The International Institute of Minnesota needs ongoing help with a number of services for new arrivals to the U.S., including employment placement. The Minnesota Council of Churches provides similar services and has long been a trusted first point of contact. The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota always needs help providing free legal advice to those caught in between systems. Advocates for Human Rights needs volunteers in a similar capacity, but also offers opportunities for less technical roles like observing court proceedings. Contact the International Education Center to help teach English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

For those dedicated to making this a happy holiday season
Events targeted towards the holidays are often the first time people get experience with hands-on volunteering. Through the end of November, Free Bikes 4 Kidz needs volunteers to clean and fix donated bikes for Christmas gifts. Operation Christmas Child or Toys for Tots are justifiably famous gift-giving charities that have robust local outposts. Interfaith Outreach is an inter-religious way to offer gifts, or Hospitality House Youth Development subsidizes the cost of holiday gifts so parents can shop for items their kids want. There’s the upcoming Not So Silent Night Holiday Market, which benefits YouthLink MN. Best of all is that many of the goods for sale benefit local causes and all are locally made, like Larissa Loden’s gorgeous jewelry company which donates 5% of all profits to support Cookie Cart.

For those who like to drink their beer and do good, too
One of the coolest trends in the rise of our urban breweries is the vast amount of community engagement they have spurred. Finnegan’s is the one that started it all, donating profits from every beer sold since its 2000 inception to community organizations and hosting ongoing Community Action Nights and Reverse Food Truck events. One of Minnesota’s most famous breweries, Surly has ongoing events ranging from blood drives to food deliveries through its program Surly Gives A Damn. Dangerous Man Brewing has a similarly robust program that hosts events all year; it’s an approachably low-key involvement that allows volunteers to show up as they’re available via their email list. For the more physically active, the Brewery Running Series raises funds for local organizations, lets you run a short race, and gives you free beer privilege (we call that a win-win-win).

For those who want to support diverse communities
As governmental aid for immigrant and refugee communities continues to dwindle, organizations servicing such groups need more help than ever. For the East African community, consider the African Development Center, which includes a bank, community center, and educational classes on finance and business. The SEAD Project helps the Southeast Asian diaspora and also has a satellite office in Laos. And there are a host of groups working with the local Latin American community: Consider La Oportunidad, which hosts youth and literacy programs; CLUES, helping with food distribution, ESL teaching and mentorship; or the Latino Economic Development Center, which hosts several key fundraisers throughout the year to provide vital scholarship money to Latino students.

For those concerned about climate change
If you’re more of an outdoorsy type, consider working with local environmental causes. Start with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which has a list of environmentally-focused organizations seeking volunteers. Help keep local green spaces fresh by volunteering with the Minneapolis Parks Organization or Hennepin County. The Women’s Environmental Network has a host of ways to get involved in environmental causes with a group of like-minded ladies. For larger scope projects, the Minnesota DNR is always looking for people to help clear trails, gather seeds, and identify species. A more low-key way to help out is through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which has several ideas that citizens can implement on their own. If giving back is a more a resolution for 2020, reach out to Great River Greening, which hosts targeted restoration events every spring and fall at sites around the Twin Cities.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Band's Visit Is A Quiet Masterpiece

This is the one. The one I've been waiting for. 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I can't describe to you how incredibly excited I was to see The Band's Visit last night. I was hooked ever since seeing Katrina Lenk's magnificent performance of "Omar Sharif" at the 2018 Tony Awards (the same night she won best performance by a leading actress in a musical). I wasn't able to see a performance with the original cast in New York City, so I was thrilled to find it coming to Minneapolis as part of the Broadway tours through Hennepin Theater Trust.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Band's Visit is quite simple on the surface, telling the story of a small group of Egyptian musicians who get lost on their way to perform for the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center in Israel due to a mix-up of the name of the town they are to visit (they end up in Bet Hatikva, rather than Petah Tikvah). The troupe is stranded with little money and taken in by a cafe owner named Dina, who feeds them and finds homestays for them to pass the night until the next bus to Petah Tikvah will run. Dina immediately connects with the conductor Tewfiq and contemplates a romantic relationship with him as she later gives him a tour of Bet Hatikva, a dream that seems to flourish until withering as she learns his sad past. Haled, a younger member of the band, sneaks out to enjoy a night on the town and ends up counseling a shy young man named Papi in the art of flirting. Simon, an older musician, witnesses a fight and difficult relationship between the husband and wife he is staying with. His music provides a sense of peace to them as they resolve their fight. A boy waits endlessly by a payphone for his girlfriend to call. Much like the nearby sea, life ebbs and flows in Bet Hatikva until the night ends, the band boards their bus to Petah Tikvah, and Dina's life returns to the everyday cycles it always endured.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

There has been a lot of hype about this show (it did win 10 Tony Awards, after all) and I wasn't disappointed. The success of The Band's Visit begins and ends with Chilina Kennedy who is magnificent as Dina. Kennedy has a dynamic voice and sexy, lithe presence that does complete justice to this complex character. James Rana was quietly lovely as the shy and tortured Tewfiq, and his understated performance added real power to this role. Joe Joseph blessed us with a gorgeous voice as Haled, and his smooth stylings provided welcome comedic moments and some beautiful romantic ballads. The musical standout of the show for me may have been Mike Cefalo's unexpected star as the young Telephone Guy, with a haunting solo that rose admirably into chorus to close out the show with "Answer Me." I also have to shout out the crew of silent musicians who played their instruments live on stage in various formations. They were spot-on and added a rich additional layer of perspective to the staging, almost like an extra group of friends to watch with, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The clever set is, like the show, much more than it first appears. Seemingly a drab collection of sandy colored buildings, each structure unfolds into varying levels of depth to provide totally new settings (for example, flip open a wall and an alleyway is suddenly a roller skating club). A turntable stage cleverly allows for dynamic choreography and scene changes, quickly transitioning us through locations and plotlines. Several well-chosen projections are also included, almost creating dreamscapes as characters describe their inner desires, and I appreciated the mystical affect they offered.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

We live in a noisy world. A disjointed world. A hurting world. A world in chaos. The success of a show like The Band's Visit, an uncomfortably quiet, emotionally haunting, darkly comedic, 90 minute meditation on finding beauty through life's hardest moments in one of the most conflict-ridden areas of the earth, is hardly assured. And yet... I couldn't help thinking in the dark theater, sitting in communion with my fellow arts lovers as the stunning strings of "Omar Sharif" wafted through the air like the most precious incense and Chilina Kennedy gracefully wended like altar smoke around the moonlit stage, that maybe The Band's Visit is exactly what such a world needs.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is a production that defies all attempts to classify itself into dichotomies, staying firmly put in the much messier, harder but truer, world of the liminal. There is no good or bad, villain or hero, right or wrong. Actions taken with good intentions have devastating consequences, just as actions that might be classified as bad or immoral provide some of the only moments of happiness these characters experience. I found it a moving, vital salve to the extreme noise that confronts me every time I look at my newsfeeds. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to turn off the noise, listen to the sounds around us, and silently conduct our bodies into harmony with the natural world, weeping hearts and all. The Band's Visit is a lovely, wistful balm for what ails us all these days and highly worth a visit. Click here for more information or to buy your tickets before it leaves town on December 15.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Norwegians is a Dark Delight

What would happen if the Coen Brothers wrote a script for the stage? 

Photo courtesy of Dark and Stormy

After seeing The Norwegians by Dark and Stormy Productions (my first ever time!) last weekend, I think it would look similar to that.

Part whodunit, part murder mystery, part dark comedy, The Norwegians tells the story of two women who try to kill their ex-boyfriends but make the mistake of hiring a gang of Minnesotan Norwegians to do it. The Norwegians like to strut and pontificate about their fearsomeness, but when it comes down to brass tacks they've got nothing on, say, the mafia (or the Italians living in Wisconsin, as it were). This gang is much more Swedish Chef than Tony Soprano, and their consistent inability to actually do something rather than talk in circles demonstrates just how befuddled they are. Several twists reveal surprising connections between the characters as the drama unfolds and by the end we are left guessing as to who will actually follow through with the assassinations. It's a little like a farcical, more romantic version of Fargo.

The best moments of The Norwegians for me were the ones poking fun at Minnesota's deeply Scandinavian roots. As a descendant of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants myself, I found many of the jokes spot on. Luverne Seifert is especially good as Tor, the ringleader of the Norwegians and a proud Scandinavian. Seifert nails the regional accent and has several witty quips. As Tor's partner Gus, Avi Aharoni hits several emotional peaks and valleys; he's especially adept at projecting crazy eyes from beneath his parka. Jane Froiland was a little baffling to me as Olive; her emotions blow like the wind, and it could be a little hard to pinpoint the character's state of mind. Regardless, Froiland clearly relishes her role and it seemed like she had a lot of fun. Sara Marsh was chilling as the jaded, jilted Betty. I fully believed she was more than capable of assassination, and I hope I don't encounter any women like Betty anytime soon.

The scenic design by Joel Sass is bare bones: a simple table, four chairs, a table cloth, a desk lamp, and a scattering of "snow" on the floor is all it includes. It really worked for me, casting strong contrast and shadows throughout the stage (along with some innovative lighting from Mary Shabatura) that gave this show a film noir patina. The costumes by A. Emily Heaney are similarly straightforward but evocative, and it's amazing what a complete world is conveyed through such a simple and limited number of objects.

This was my first time at a Dark and Stormy Productions show, and I'm sure it won't be my last. I loved the tongue-in-cheek nature and fearless parody of Minnesota culture, which is long overdue in my opinion. There are a few meandering moments in the script, but overall The Norwegians is the #tctheater live action rendition of a Coen Brothers movie that I never knew I needed. It's a good seasonal performance that is void of the treacly holiday spirit so prevalent at this time of year, meaning: if you're also a Grinch in December, skip the holiday shows and head to Northeast Minneapolis for this darker, wryer performance instead. A word to the wise: this performance space is definitely hard to find, especially on dark winter nights, so allow yourself more time than you think you need to get there so you don't get lost (like I did... multiple times). The Norwegians runs through January 5; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Six is a Divine Experience

Six puts the spotlight back where it belongs: on the women who made the man.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

True story: I have always been a history buff, for my whole life. Even in elementary school, I sought out books about the days of yore, imagining what it might be like to wear a ruff or practice a harpsichord or cross the ocean on a great ship.

I never thought about it at the time, but in retrospect I always made a point of seeking books about women first. Queens were my favorite. I had a book about 10 of the most powerful queens in Europe (many of whom, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Catherine the Great, are still sadly neglected in history studies) that I read so many times I nearly had it memorized. I bought all of the Dear America series (RIP), read American Girl books as soon as I got my hands on them, and was obsessed with the Royal Diaries series, which introduced me to queens like Nzingha and Kaiulani who were never covered in my textbooks.

It says a lot, however, that the above series were about the limit of what I was able to find about women in history when I was growing up. And they weren't easy to access - in my small town the libraries didn't carry most of these books, so I had to scrimp and save my allowance to buy them at book fairs (they weren't cheap), or borrow from friends who got them as gifts.

So imagine the joy of elementary school age me when it was announced that Six was coming to the Ordway. Six is a rock concert style show that tells the story of the six wives of Henry VIII (the first Queen Elizabeth's father, if you're not sure who he was). Each wife gets the chance to sing her story to the audience in a competition to determine which had it worst. By the end, however, they realize that they've been given short shrift; they aren't famous because they were the wives of a king - their king was famous because he had so many colorful wives. Instead of competing, they band together to re-define their stories and leave on their own terms.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

It should be no surprise that I LOVE this concept. It helps that the team of queens performing is terrifically talented and more than give these historical figures their due. As there's not much of a plot beyond what I just described, let me break down the characters for you to give you a better idea of what goes down:

  1. Catherine of Aragon: Henry's first and longest-lasting wife, Catherine of Aragon, was never intended to marry him. Sent from Spain at the age of 16, she was intended for Henry's older brother Arthur. When Arthur died shortly after their marriage she instead married Henry and bore him a daughter, Mary. Catherine was older than Henry and struggled to have more children, and a rift grew between them as he cheated more and more frequently. Henry went to extraordinary lengths to divorce Catherine, including leaving the Catholic Church and founding the protestant Church of England (which ushered in an era of violent religious instability in the U.K. for centuries). Catherine is played with spunk and charisma by Adrianna Hicks. I appreciated her no-holds-barred attitude, perfectly befitting what I imagine to be the inner dialogue of a queen who was constantly overlooked and passed around without her will throughout her life. 
  2. Anne Boleyn: Anne Boleyn has been thoroughly castigated in history as a seductive, husband-stealing, six-fingered witch. I have always thought she got short shrift and am thankful that her story is finally being re-written by historians. Anne was the woman Henry incurred his first divorce to marry. She mothered the indisputably great Queen Elizabeth 1 and was known for being plain spoken and willful. I love her backbone and that she was one of the few people to publicly fight against Henry in his time, and she was accomplished - fighting to pass a bill helping the poor and homeless and writing the now-famous song Greensleeves. Anne was tragically beheaded after being successfully accused of adultery, but she went down swinging. Her fuck you attitude is delightfully rendered here by Andrea Macasaet in a wry, pointed performance that had me in stitches. I dare you to leave Macasaet's performance without at least changing your mind about Anne Boleyn, if not loving her a little more than the others.
  3. Jane Seymour: Allegedly the only wife Henry VIII ever loved, Jane is also the only wife who bore him a son. She was quickly (and for her I'm sure, terrifyingly) betrothed to him only the day after Anne Boleyn was violently beheaded, and died shortly after birthing Edward VI. Jane is a little more boring than the others on the surface, but her real life had some tragic elements. Her character in Six is therefore the most ballad-oriented, and her solo was beautifully sung by understudy Mallory Maedke. Maedke puts some dynamism it what could have been a snoozy role for me, and she was a few audience members' clear favorite by the end of the night. 
  4. Anna of Cleves: Anna was the luckiest of Henry VIII's wives and it happened completely by accident. Needing a wife after Jane's tragic death, Henry VIII solicited portraits of eligible ladies from around Europe and selected Anna's (a wealthy German royal) after determining it was the prettiest. The trouble was that her real-life appearance and demeanor did not match the glow-up given in her portrait, and Henry VIII was totally turned off after actually meeting her in person. They were briefly married but quickly divorced so Henry VIII could seek greener pastures, meaning Anna was left to enjoy a single life of great wealth in not one but two palaces with the freedom to do however she chose. I saw understudy Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert play Anna in Six. While I think she was the weakest vocally of the crew, she was indisputably the comedic highlight. I loved watching her confidently strut around the stage and gain the ultimate life of a royal wife, which felt like a much deserved win for at least one of these ladies. 
  5. Katherine Howard: Katherine is perhaps the most-forgotten of Henry VIII's wives. A cousin of Anne Boleyn's, Katherine married Henry VIII at the ripe old age of 17 (he was 49, hmmmmm) in the same year he divorced Anna of Cleves. Unfortunately she met the same ill fate as her cousin: successfully accused of adultery and beheaded for it. Katherine always seemed to have the least amount of choice in her fate of all of Henry VIII's wives, and her fury at that lack of agency is wonderfully portrayed by Samantha Pauly. Pauly has all the attitude of a 10 Things I Hate About You's Julia Styles, and her solo really hits home how little choice the women of the Tudor era had to control their own fates. 
  6. Catherine Parr: The only wife to outlive Henry VIII in their marriage, Catherine Parr had a long life outside of her relationship to the king. She was highly educated and a political force, publishing books, creating educational programs for women, and generally leading a rich and interesting life. Catherine is played brilliantly by Anna Uzele in what was undoubtedly the musical highlight of the entire show. As I recently saw so wisely stated on Instagram, "There are people who can sing, and there are people who can sang." Uzele is firmly in the all-caps SANG camp, whipping out a dynamic voice that is supple as a knife and powerful as a hurricane. Time stopped during her solo and I can't wait to see her career explode; she has all the potential of an Audra McDonald, a true vocal star. 

All the ladies sing beautifully in complex six part harmonies throughout the show. They are backed up by a kickass all-female band (appropriately dubbed the "Ladies in Waiting") comprised of Julia Schade conducting on keys, Michelle Osbourne anchoring on bass, Kimi Hayes shredding on guitar, and Elena Bonomo killing it on the drums. It warmed my heart to see a stage filled with 100% badass lady musicians, and these girls more than hold their own on the instrumental front.

Because the story is told as a concert, there's no moving set pieces - just a compelling staging that you could easily place at a Coachella-style festival, designed by Emma Bailey. Dynamic lighting from Tim Deiling enhances that effect, and the choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille reflects your favorite girl groups on stage. Far and away my favorite part of the production design were the clever costumes designed by Gabriella Slade. Each queen wears a modernized riff on Tudor wear, with gowns slashed to mini-skirt length, leathery leggings, and tough accents like spiked crowns and studded boots (which, mercifully, were not sky high heels for once, allowing the actresses to actually dance and move on stage. More costume design by women for women please!!). I would happily wear any of those outfits as a Halloween costume or frankly just on a date night - let's hope it inspires some creative designer-to-commercial releases.

If there's only one thing I can be grateful to Hamilton for (and there are many), it's that its wild success has completely demolished the idea that history is boring and people don't care about it. History is filled with fascinating stories, especially of groups like women and people of color that are so often erased in textbooks, and those stories deserve their time on stage. Six was a delightful flip of the historical script, finally putting the focus where it was always due: on the extraordinary women who had to survive and thrive in an era where they had very few options to do so. This staging is beautifully executed and had the normally staid Ordway audience out of their seats, on their feet and totally committed to enjoying this concert. It also challenges the lie that these shows have to be long to be good; Six clocks in at barely 90 minutes and was very well received. Six is a little part Spice Girls, a little part Chicago, a little part Hamilton, and 100% fantastic. It's going to be a huge success once it hits Broadway, so make sure to see it right here at home before it's expensive and hard to do so. Click here to nab tickets before Six closes at the Ordway on December 22.