Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tomorrow is a Latter Day

I've been wanting to see Book of Mormon practically since it debuted on Broadway. So when we found out that it was coming to the Kennedy Center this summer, we jumped at the chance to buy tickets. And on Sunday Kevin, Sarah, Zach, and I climbed to the very top of the Kennedy Center and sat in the second to last row to enjoy the show.

The plot is pretty basic. Two young, optimistic Mormon men take off on a mission trip to Uganda. There they find themselves in a situation they never expected and aren't entirely prepared to deal with. The village to which they're assigned is under the thumb of a ruthless warlord, their friends and family are dying from violence and disease, and they're in no mood to listen to some preachers tell them about a better life. One missionary despairs and tries to get transferred to a cushy posting in Orlando. The other lies his head off, mixing the biblical stories up with his favorite science fiction and fantasy to give them a little more flair. They learn lessons about friendship and perseverance and helping each other and everything ends happily because this is, after all, musical theater.

The songs were a lot of fun. There was a great representation of the horrors of dysentery and a surprisingly dirty song about baptism. The show had a very South Park sensibility, which should come as no surprise, but it wasn't always my favorite thing. Arnold messed up the lead lady's name so many times that I left the theater unsure of what her name actually was. I felt like that joke, which wasn't really funny to begin with, had some serious diminishing returns. The guy complaining about maggots in his scrotum also felt cheap and offensive. But there was some great stuff in the absurdity of Mormon belief and in the yawning chasm between what the Africans imagined America to be like (all the flour you can eat! Red Cross on every corner!) and the reality.

I also liked the ultimate message of the play, which is that the specifics of your scripture matter a lot less than the message. So the Latter-Day Saints Americanization of Christianity (The Garden of Eden is in Minnesota!) ultimately doesn't matter as much as their message to be courteous and helpful in all things. Although they should probably do something about the racism inherent in their creation myth.

Ultimately this isn't my favorite musical and I have no desire to run out and buy the soundtrack. Though I have since listened to the whole thing on YouTube. But it was a fun evening with more laughs than cringes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: The Reptile Room

In The Reptile Room we begin to settle into what will be the pattern of the series. The Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with a distant and eccentric relative. Everything is wonderful for a few days. But then Count Olaf finds them, insinuates himself into their life, and kills the new guardian. The orphans find themselves needing to thwart yet another of his plots. This one involves poisonous snakes and a trip to Peru.

This series could easily get repetitive, but given that it's written for 10-year-olds, that's probably part of the point. Kids like things to be repeated over and over. I still find comfort in the familiarity of a story where I know what's going to happen in broad strokes. The real pleasure always comes in the details, and the details here are pretty great.

Snicket has a better grasp of his language and humor. His wordplay is more specific to the story at hand, and he has fun with some tongue twisters that need to be logicked out. The plot is a bit more complicated than the previous one, and thus takes a few more step to thwart. I can only imagine that this trend will continue, as the books get steadily larger.

I also know, despite the lack of clues so far, that there is a larger conspiracy at play here. The death of the Baudelaire parents and the fire in their house was not an accident, and everything happening to the children, especially Olaf's obsession with them, is connected somehow. I've got my eyes open for clues, and I'm excited to start putting things together. Even though I think it will be a few books before this really emerges. In the meantime, it's fun to watch the orphans work together to outsmart the adults around them and keep each other safe. It's especially fun when Sunny gets in on the action, distracting everyone through the cunning use of a friendly snake.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book Review: Winter's Heart

Like every other book in this series, Winter's Heart is incredibly slow to start. But then it starts accelerating, and by the end you don't want to put the book down. It took me the entire bus ride from DC to NYC to read the prologue (which is over 10% of the book), and the ride back to get through Perrin's chapters that are so disconnected and full of moping and miscommunication that I hardly care. There are some characters in that subplot that I care about a lot, but right now it feels stuck.

After that, though, we get Elayne and Mat and all sorts of excitement. There's more about the Seanchan, more poilitics and intrigue. Rand finally carries through with his plot to rid saidin of the taint, and another Forsaken goes down in the meantime. Although they are effectively immortal, and now that Lanfear is back I'm sure Osan'gar will pop up again at some point.

The thing that I really appreciate about these books is that, while the characters all have their own story lines, those stories intersect. Rand and Nynaeve team up. Perrin and Faile run across Sevanna. Mat is neck deep in Seanchan. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, where the characters keep moving farther apart from each other, this series maintains relationships that have been important since the beginning, even if the people in them have changed.

I wish there had been more Egwene, but every character sits one book out. And I was nearly halfway through before I really realized she wasn't going to be in this book, even though I sort of know that already. Her story jumped ahead at the end of the last book, and everyone else had to play catch up. That wasn't clear until closer to the end, but it all makes sense now, and I'm excited to see more of her in the next book.

I'm starting to see that this series would really benefit from a re-read once I'm done. It would be fun to go back to the beginning and see hints of later storylines and piece together some more details. Then again, I'm already devoting a year of my life to this series, and I'm not sure I want to do that again. Besides, that's what wikis are for.

From what I've heard, the tenth book is the most panned. I've seen references to a weird structure, and I'm not at all sure what to expect. But after that the books are supposed to get good again. And since I've been enjoying it, even through this downturn, I'm excited for the ending.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: The Bad Beginning

Because what I need in my life right now is yet another series with more than ten books. At least these can all be read in a single sitting.

The Bad Beginning is the first in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. I first read it and the second book years ago when I was baby-sitting for my cousins. But at the time the series wasn't complete and I had no real incentive to track it down and read the whole thing. Then I kept hearing about it. Then Netflix announced their adaptation of it. Then it was my birthday. So I finally bought The Complete Wreck and doubled the length of my reading list in one fell swoop.

But it is a very short book. 160 pages, with illustrations and large type on small pages. I read it quickly and found it delightful. Even though these books are about the terrible things that happen to the Baudelaire orphans, beginning with them becoming orphans, Snicket has a sense of humor that elevates the story. It's funny and charming while refusing to shy away from grief and pain and fear.

The books are very obviously written for children, with Snicket interrupting the text every so often to explain a word or concept. I especially liked when he flipped this around, using a more complicated word like feigning to explain the basic word faking.

I'm eager to read the rest over the weekends remaining in the summer. Despite constant assurances that this won't end well I can't help but expect a happy ending. It's a children's book, after all. I guess I'll just have to see where it goes.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Things That Will Happen When You Visit NYC

You'll download this Uber thing that everyone has been talking about to use but discover that you are too drunk to figure it out

You'll go out to a nice dinner and order the second cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, which costs more than that most expensive bottle at restaurants you usually frequent

The next day you'll discover a bar where you drink steadily for 5 hours for a mere $35. This seems like a fair trade.

You'll spend a lot of time looking at pictures of the kids of people you went to school with and wonder how many people you graduated with have procreated by now. You'll spend even more time looking at pictures from college and immediately after.

You'll spend half an hour waiting for a brunch table for a party of four. And another half an hour waiting for your food.

Somehow, you'll still think you'll be able to find a brunch place that can easily accommodate ten people the next morning.

You'll wander wistfully through the enormous Barnes and Noble at Union Square, wishing your own city had a bookstore this big.

You'll discover shakshuka and fall in love and look up a recipe and realize that it's actually easy to make.

You will be sitting on the subway, minding your own business, wondering if you're awake and sober enough to concentrate on your book when a couple of guys will burst in, take off their shirts, and start pole dancing. You're still not sure if it was entertaining or annoying.

You'll spend the entire weekend feeling like you're just on the verge of figuring out the subway system. But then another station will be closed for weekend work and you'll be forced to walk the entire length of Times Square, cursing your lack of local knowledge.

You will, however, have left 45 minutes early for brunch in case that happened.

You will have the most delicious steak you've had in a long time, along with the most delicious spinach you've had in probably your entire life, and you'll spend the next hour with a mystery stomachache wondering what the hell caused it. (Probably the roasted garlic, since it's the only thing you ate that your husband didn't.)

You'll discover that it's possible to live in NYC for several months without ever visiting the grocery store or opening your own fridge. You will be vaguely horrified.

You will have many, many conversations with many old, dear friends about everything under the sun and remember why you love them all and how glad you are that more of them are moving to the east coast each year.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: The Silkworm

Before I read this book, I was warned that there was a cannibalism aspect to the murder mystery. Fearing the absolute worst, I braced myself. But it turned out that the cannibalism was mostly metaphorical, part of the book within a book that the murder is based on. So my first thought upon finishing was that it was much milder than I expected. And my second thought was that that was the strangest reaction I've had to a book in a long time.

I love JK Rowling's Cormoran Strike series. Only two books in, but he and Robin are fun, smart people to hang out with. I like the way Rowling doles out clues, which leaves me feeling like I'm constantly on the verge of figuring things out. And I certainly could if I paid closer attention or flipped back to re-read passages. But as it stands I haven't been able to solve the mystery before the big reveal in either of her books. Which is a nice change of pace for someone who often sees the ending coming a mile away.

If I have a complaint it's that I wish Robin were a bigger part of the books. I'd like her to be more equal, less assistant, and to take up a larger portion of the chapters. Though I understand why she doesn't. But she seemed to be in this book far less than the last one, and I'm hoping that changes in the future as she becomes more skilled.

Other than Robin getting the short stick, I really enjoyed this book. The suspect pool was large and interesting, and the murder had me flummoxed. I have a lot of fun reading these mysteries, and it makes me think I should sample some more of the genre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity is one of those books that I feel like everyone's been talking about for years. But for all that people were gushing about this book online, I managed to avoid hearing anything specific about it for a while. Then a few keywords entered my subconscious: female fighter pilots, female friendships, spies. I knew I had to read it.

It's difficult to talk about this book. It deals with spies during WWII, so right off the bat you've got an unreliable narrator. As the details of her situation become more clear, it also becomes clear that something big is coming. But it's impossible to discern what that something is.

Suffice it to say that this book was amazing. It deals first and foremost with female friendship, but it also focuses on women's war effort during WWII. There are female pilots and radio operators, interrogators and spies. It's refreshing to get a book that focuses on this side of the war effort, bringing to light things that have been obscured by history. And Wein includes a detailed bibliography at the end, along with notes on what liberties she took to make her story work. It's my favorite kind of historical fiction: the kind that's just true enough to get you asking more.