Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Helga Recommends: Podcasts

This blog features my opinions, but I don't talk too much about individual things that I like beyond rating and reviewing the books I read and occasionally other things as well. I spend a lot of time in the car, so in addition to my dependency on audiobooks to help pass the time (and actually cross books off the TBR list), I have developed a rotation of podcasts that I listen to every week. Podcasts are more portable than audiobooks, which I listen to on CD, and I listen to them while doing chores, or at the grocery store, or any time I want to tune out reality. This requires subscribing to many podcasts.

My podcast rotation includes:

Pop Culture Happy Hour: All of the credit/blame for this weekly NPR offering goes to PCHH evangelist and my dear friend Margaret (@MrsFridayNext), who repeatedly referenced it until I had to listen in order to make sense of her effusions. I didn't start at the beginning, and it wasn't until later that I finally figured out Linda Holmes was also the Television Without Pity recapper Miss Alli, whom I had diligently followed through many TARcon and other recaps. It was truly a moment of squee. The show is a minefield of music, book, comic, and movie recommendations that you will want to follow through on (AT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY).

Extra Hot Great: Tara Ariano and Joe Reid are also ex-TWoP gurus. EHG is a forum in which they--and designer Glark (David T. Cole)--weigh in on pop culture with a variety of delightful (usually TWoP-related) guests. They have several regular segments, but my favorite is inevitably Game Time, in which Tara and Joe face off and answer pop culture trivia questions. They often talk about shows I don't know or care for, and despite this I find myself listening attentively.

Slate's Culture Gabfest: This podcast is hosted by Slate talking heads (usually Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner) and features three segments each week, followed by a round of endorsements. As with PCHH, the endorsements usually lead directly to interlibrary loan requests. Unlike the first two podcasts I listed, the Gabfest emphasizes "culture" rather than "pop culture," and the subject matter ranges from insanely popular to rarefied. One of my favorite recent moments was when they went to see the Justin Bieber movie and dissected it as seriously as possible.

Only a Game: Every time I listen to this WBUR show, which features interesting, journalistic stories about different sports, I end up wishing it were twice as long. Bill Littlefield is a knowledgeable and gracious host, and I often ending up purchasing the featured books for the library. I also enjoy the weekly review of sports news that Littlefield does with the always-gregarious Charlie Pierce, derailed as it often is by Charlie laughing at his own jokes. Also known as: The Sports Show for People Who Don't Really Care About Sports.

Hang Up and Listen: Another Slate offering, this time with a sports angle. Hosted by

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: Bossypants [2011]

Among people of my acquaintance, Tina Fey is seen as a kind of celebrity Everywoman. Even though her life undoubtedly includes photo shoots and awards shows and running a popular television show and occasionally moonlighting on Saturday Night Live, she still manages to seem "normal," almost like one of us. She's not tall, or freakishly skinny, she has a scar on her face, and she's funny. That's why Fey's memoir Bossypants was hotly anticipated as the book that would allow us to learn more about our famous sister.

Bossypants chronicles Fey's childhood in suburban Philadelphia, her move to Chicago and time with Second City, and her years with SNL and 30 Rock through a series of loosely connected stories. While her narrative is unabashedly written from a female perspective--from her first period to her first trip to Planned Parenthood for a Pap smear to the question of whether she should have a second child--it is also presented in the wry, self-deprecating way that one would expect from her writing: "nowhere in the pamphlet did anyone say that your period was NOT a blue liquid." Fey is keenly aware of her position as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and Bossypants works best when she is using her story to dissect the double-standards and stereotypes she's encountered. This is not a good book in which to find "dirt" on other celebrities, but it is an excellent glimpse into the life of a smart, hilarious, and driven woman who is balancing a career and personal life, just like the rest of us.

For a memoir, though, Fey provides remarkably little information about her childhood and family. I was looking forward to learning about her past, and certainly that was accomplished--in terms of her career. As for her early childhood, Fey spends a brief chapter and quickly moves on. Despite the fact that the book is dedicated to Fey's mother, there are only the barest hints of her presence in the narrative. Fey mentions her brother very early on ("My brother is eight years older than I am. I was a big surprise."), but there is no sense of how their relationship functioned as children, or whether they even interacted at all. There is a chapter on her father, Don Fey, but that's the exception in this glossed-over part of her history. She talks about Christmas at her in-laws' house, but never introduces a contrasting picture of Christmas with her family. It's as if Fey is completely comfortable talking about her professional failings and, to some extent, her personal feelings about her career and motherhood, but she's unwilling to cross a certain boundary of privacy. This is completely understandable, but it means that even after an entire book, I still got the sense that I was somehow missing the real Tina Fey.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book! There were several times I laughed out loud, and I definitely appreciated Fey's understated humor. Bossypants is a quick and fun read, and since Tina Fey is a celebrity, I am looking forward to her follow-up memoir that addresses all the gaps I whined about above.

Grade: B

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Likeness [2008]

I'm not sure what I would have done if I'd finished In the Woods and The Likeness hadn't been waiting for me at the library--gnashed my teeth and written an angry blog post, perhaps. Actually (gasp) run out and purchased the book? Thankfully, no drastic actions were necessary. As I said in my review of the first book, The Likeness actually caught my eye several years ago, but I thought I'd better start at the beginning.

Tana French's follow-up picks up in the aftermath of Operation Vestal with the story of Cassandra Maddox, whose relationship with the narrator of In the Woods ended in flaming ruin, largely because of his inability to deal with the past. Subsequently, Cassie left the murder squad and joined Domestic Violence, which she finds much less satisfying. When she is called to advise on a homicide case run by her new boyfriend Sam O'Neill and her old boss in Undercover, Frank Mackey, she is startled to find that the victim appears to be her exact double and was using an alias that she and Mackey created together many years ago.

Mackey comes up with an unorthodox plan to uncover her killer's identity: Cassie will revisit her undercover days and resume the victim's life as if she had been wounded, rather than killed. Although she first greets his scheme with understandable skepticism, going undercover also offers Cassie a much-needed break from the lingering effects of Operation Vestal. However, the downside is that the culprit is likely among the four people with whom the victim, Lexie Madison, shared an old mansion in the country. As Cassie gradually becomes comfortable in Lexie's life, she also grows close to her housemates--a group of inseparable, eccentric graduate students--and learns more about "Lexie's" life before she assumed her own false identity. Will the killer figure out Cassie's game before she has a chance to figure out the truth of what happened to Lexie?

Grade: A-

The Likeness has a fascinating premise that I'm not sure I ever fully embraced. This might be because I've never met someone who looks exactly like me; I have been mistaken for other people, however, and that's always a disconcerting feeling. Despite the fact that I was somewhat reluctant to buy in, The Likeness was easily one of the best books I've read recently, and an excellent follow-up to In the Woods. It has the same deft, location-oriented nostalgia and emotional resonance, although this time the setting is Whitethorn House rather than the woods. French does a masterful job of blurring the lines of Cassie's identity as her personality becomes subsumed into "Lexie." Even though the operation must have a finite end, the illusion of a fresh start is so powerful that she is tempted to embrace it as a safe haven, even as the housemates' relationships are more and more strained because of her presence. The Likeness is suspense of the most excruciating and drawn-out variety; its tension is not predicated on imminent danger and horrific acts, but on the slow breakdown of human relationships and the agony of inevitable endings.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to The Likeness on audio CD, and that was definitely a good decision. I can't testify for the accuracy of the various Irish accents employed by the narrator, but there's something about the rhythm of French's language and narrative description that lends itself to that medium.

French tends to weave a certain amount of commentary on Irish politics or the "state of the nation" into her novels, and The Likeness is no exception. Sometimes these are quick comments about the concept of land and ownership, and sometimes they're more lengthy discourses that can bring the plot (in this case, already very slow to unfold) to a grinding halt. Overall, it's fascinating to find out more about another culture that is similar to ours, yet very different at the same time.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss [2010]

Ah, Paris, City of Light. Several of my friends read Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins, and spoke very highly of it, and the title character shares my name. How could I not put in on my TBR pile?

Anna Oliphant is a high school senior whose famous-author father has arbitrarily decided she would benefit from a year abroad before she graduates. The School of America in Paris (or SOAP) is an elite institution at which middle-class, movie-loving Anna does not feel immediately at home. She's left her mother and younger brother, as well as her best friend Bridgette and the boy that she kissed the night before she left for France. At SOAP, she is befriended by a girl named Meredith, and falls into her group of friends, which includes the beautiful (and taken), British-accented √Čtienne St. Clair.

The chemistry between Anna and St. Clair is immediate, and the bulk of the book is essentially a "will they-won't they" that unfolds over the course of her year in Paris. Anna and the French Kiss is a quick read, but Perkins takes the time to build the relationship between Anna and St. Clair. My favorite part of the book is Anna's slow acclimation to a different way of life. She comes to Paris without friends, without knowing French, and feeling completely inadequate. She figures out how to manage and do the things she likes (most importantly, going to movie theaters) to the point that she actually misses Paris while she's home over Christmas. In that way, the story is as much a love letter to Paris, as well as people's ability to be at home anywhere, as long as are in the company of those they love.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts:

Are we to mentally pronounce "St. Clair" as "Sinclair," like St. John in Jane Eyre? It worked out OK when I tried it, although I kept slipping up when I wasn't paying attention.

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Dead Mother: [Spoiler] No

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Meditation on Being a Teacher

There was a time in my life when I was absolutely convinced that I wasn't cut out to teach anything to anyone. In the summer of 2000, I had just earned my Master's degree in English Literature, but I was at a crossroads. If I wanted to continue into the PhD program, I was also required to attempt teaching college students how to write and, even more nerve-wracking, how to think critically (at least in theory). Considering I was twenty-two at the time and felt very nervous about teaching people not that much younger than me, and was also feeling other pressures to change the direction of my life, it's not surprising that I chose to end my academic career.

I don't regret the decision, because it ultimately led me to my work as a librarian, but I've always felt like I chickened out. I was sure that my parents, who were both teachers themselves, disapproved somehow. They had intimated that I would be good at teaching. My father was a tenured professor in the discipline I was abandoning, my linguist mother taught Spanish before moving on to her career as an editor, and my childhood was filled with looking things up in the dictionary and trying to understand out the difference between "lay" and "lie" as it was explained over the dinner table. That one still gives me trouble sometimes.

The teaching portion of my current job as a reference librarian in a large public library is fairly minimal, given all of the other things that I do at the library. It takes up a relatively small amount of my time; the classes are one-shot attempts to teach patrons how to use the programs and services that the library offers. When I first started teaching computer classes, beginning with Computer Basics, the easiest to conceive but sometimes the hardest to teach, I was terribly nervous. How could I be responsible for teaching people skills that might make a difference for them when applying for jobs? I started slowly, gained momentum, and eventually realized that I . . . was kind of good at what I was doing. People were actually learning things! It was amazing.

Library patrons are probably some of the easiest students to have because, unlike the college students that plague some of my friends who did not  abandon English literature, they have very low expectations and absolutely no investment. The classes we offer are free, which also means that getting people to attend can be an uphill battle. My patrons are grateful if I answer their questions. They are happy if they learn anything at all in the course of the hour and a half I spend explaining things like how to use a mouse or how to minimize a window. I get immediate feedback in the form of evaluations that are handed back at the end of class. There are some hard realities that could be discussed here about economic differences, and the digital divide, and our educational system, but I will save that for another post. I am simply grateful to have the opportunity to share my knowledge with people who are so willing to embrace it.

Which brings me to my other teaching job, one that is both challenging and rewarding. My son is now more than 18 months old, and he is acquiring words and concepts almost faster than I can keep up with. It is tempting to want him frozen as an adorable toddler before he can develop into a rowdy (rowdier) boy or a teenage terror, but at the same time, watching him learn and grow is fascinating. He absorbs everything I say and everything he sees around him, and he reflects it back at unexpected moments. His other parent and I read to him every day and encourage his curiosity and engagement with the world, but it's difficult to determine . . . success? I'm sure most parents wonder if they are teaching their children the right things at the right time and place. Teaching someone the difference between right and wrong, or even teaching someone to say "cold" when they're not 100% clear on the concept, is a bit more difficult than teaching the right-click. Unlike my other job, I have no evaluation forms to tell me whether I'm going the right direction. I can only hope that the outcome will be similar to when he learns how to ride a bike. He will wobble a little, and maybe crash into a few parked cars, but eventually he will be ready to drive off around the block out of my sight as I sit on the porch steps. I will wait patiently for him to come back around to me, and hope that someday he can teach me the difference between "lay" and "lie."

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