60 Books in 2019: The Party Of The Century: The Fabulous Story Of Truman Capote And His Black And White Ball By Deborah Davis

After immersing himself in the darkness of the human soul while writing In Cold Blood, Truman Capote decided to do the opposite and immerse himself in luxury in glitter by throwing the most lavish party ever.

Deborah Davis chronicles from inception to aftermath the night of glamour that was Truman Capote’s black and white masquerade ball, held in the grand ballroom of The Plaza Hotel.

Davis’s book is detailed, interesting and does it’s best in it’s short pages to give context to Capote’s mania about the party, dealing as everything about Capote does, with his relationship to his mother, his outsider/insider status and his keen observation of the human condition.

But mostly, the book is gossip, about the “swans,” Truman’s rich lady friends and their marriages. About Capote himself and his motives for throwing the party. It’s also something of a time capsule, and wholly appropriate reading as Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood swims around in my brain, as it deals with a similar idea, the end of one era and the birth of the other and the way those two moment have to coincide in a melancholic burst of light.

The book is fun and dishy and interesting. It also reminded me that I really need to read more Capote, as I’ve only really read Breakfast At Tiffany’s. (Other Voices, Other Rooms seems particularly up my alley!) And the way the voices carry.

Up next is Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. I enjoyed The Paris Wife, so I’ll probably like this too. I’m not crazy about Hemingway’s writing but I am fascinated by the man and those around him.

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60 Books In 2019 #8: Peony In Love By Lisa See

After a few more fantastical jaunts, lots of fantasy and speculative fiction in the past few months I wanted something a little bit more grounded. So, I picked up Peony In Love, I’d read and enjoyed Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls a few years back and it had been a while since I’d dove into some real high grade historical fiction you know?

And as I read the first sixty pages of Peony, I was thrilled! Oh my god! It was a story about a young woman in 17th century china who’s obsessed with The Peony Pavillion, a tragic romantic opera, and how she falls in love for the first time on the eve of her wedding.

This was so up my alley! When I assembled my “things I like,” list when asking for recomendations, “historical fiction that bends to romance,” was one of my top descriptors. Then, about sixty pages in, Peony dies, and we follow her into the afterlife.

It took a few days for me to recalibrate and continue on because I was so disappointed. I’d just read a whole book about grappling with life after death and heaven and hell and  wanted some transportive realistic historical narrative damnit!

But once I got past my annoyance that the book wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I really enjoyed it. Peony is an interesting narrator in both life and death, and the exploration of the Chinese afterlife, and the rituals surrounding it were fascinating. Peony looking in on her husband and his next two wives as she learns how to be a ghost makes up most of the story, but it’s heart is in learning the secrets of the women who died before her. Her mother and grandmother, other female intellectuals who studied The Peony Pavillion, even the vengeful spirit of her husband’s second wife.

It’s a pretty special book, but know what you’re getting into. I like See’s style, and I think I’ll seek her out more. Growing up, some of my favorite reading was always historical fiction, because it gave me a window into places and people I would never see. I especially loved historical fiction about other cultures, because I’d really likely never see that.

Up next is The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which was actually way down the list, but I know that’s just some straight historical fiction, because I watched the movie! (The movie has Lily James and Jessica Brown Findley, as two women who wind up occupying the same space in different times, which, as a Downton Fan is the most glorious meta flourish in anything ever!) 

That Would Be Enough

I remember sitting in the theater and watching In The Heights.

I remember loving it.

I remember being blown away by the talent and charisma of it’s star and creator.

I remember realizing that it was like nothing I’d ever seen before and yet so familiar I couldn’t deny it.

I remember it’s connections to my family, the generation of immigrants before the generation who’s stories it told. I remember thinking about circles and cycles and New York and home.

I remember thinking, “this will change everything.” Pop music had been on Broadway for decades. But the pop music on Broadway didn’t sound like the pop music on the radio anymore, if it ever had.

I remember a few years later, when this man came to us again with something that could barely shine. I remember when someone else tried to bring hip hop to Broadway and everyone ignored it and it went away faster than you could realize it was there.

I remember being sad about it. I had thought that the game would change and instead we got a Les Mis revival.

I remember arguing with friends about him. I remember insisting that he was a genius, that he needed to be more famous.

“Of course, ‘Let It Go’ is important, but…”

“The Book of Mormon is great, I’m sure, but…”

“Yeah, we need to preserve our history, and I’m glad The King And I is here, but…”

I remember conversations with my sister, talking about not seeing in teenagers, even artsy ones, we encountered the fervor for this scene and music that we’d had.

“We need a new Rent,” she’d say, “a new Wicked, a new something that speaks to people on a wider popular level.”

Then we started hearing what he was working on.

I remember talking in hushed tones about “that presidential rap musical.” I remember wondering aloud if it would work. Or was this man a one hit wonder?

I remember the rumblings from The Public Theater when it premiered. I remember hearing and reading the word “masterpiece” over and over again. I remember hearing about impossible to get tickets, and color blind casting of historical figures and a move uptown to Broadway delayed.

I remember a month ago seeing Something Rotten! and Mary and I loving it. I remember looking at each other and sighing, “It’s great but, it’s not the one.”

“No,” I said, “but I think Hamilton might be.” She rolled her eyes. Considering she’s the one who sold me on In The Heights I was surprised.

“Just because you want him to change musical theater entirely, doesn’t mean that he will,” she said. “Hamilton is going to be too intellectual and weird. Too idiosyncratic. If In The Heights couldn’t be that show for Lin, it won’t be Hamilton.”

Still, I was sure that it had to be something really special. I was waiting for a chance to see it. I was waiting for a cast album. I wanted a piece of it to prove that my faith hadn’t been misplaced.

And I got it on Friday.

Lin Manuel Miranda has created something amazing. I don’t know about the show itself, I still haven’t seen it. But the album.

Wow.

This isn’t In The Heights.

In the Heights took hip hop and blended it with traditional Broadway, which made it interesting. This is something completely new. This is a hip hop and pop opera. This is rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is the radio ready “My Shot.” This is framing King George as an abusive and oblivious boyfriend to the US.  This was worth waiting almost a decade for.

Hamilton will save us. Hamilton will remind us that this is a medium that is alive and growing. That it’s a medium that can absorb what’s happening around it and evolve and survive. It did it before. It did it when Rock and Roll showed up and pushed it to the side. It did it when Hollywood decide it was no longer a sustainable investment, so it didn’t have to cater to the tastes of a wider world and it could speak a more sophisticated language. It did it when families came back to it’s thoroughfare. It did it when a new generation of divas was born from that time.

It will do it again. Hamilton is the first shot in a new revolution. It’s a reminder that musical theatre isn’t old, isn’t out of touch, or doesn’t have to be.

I’ve been saying for months that I was pretty sure that Hamilton would be the one.

Now that I’ve heard this incredible musical, I know that Hamilton is the one. Or at least it should be.

Don’t Throw Cats At Shakespeare: Reenie & Aless Hit The Faire

So on Saturday, Aless and I hit what we decided was “the absolute apex of our dorkiness,” put on some gowns and headed up Tuxedo, New York for The New York Renaissance Faire.

Photos by either me or Aless

Photos by either me or Aless

I’d never done Renn Faire and was really excited to check it out. Aless had also never gone, so we had no idea what to expect, but we were thrilled to find that for the four hours that we were there we were never bored, and we have every intention of going back.

Among our Faire adventures, shopping in every clothing stand, seeing Robin Hood marry Maid Marian, watching a joust that had a loose story line we were barely able to grasp, seeing an improvised audience participation version of Macbeth, where each character was murdered by having tiny stuffed kittens thrown at them.

And we drank mead and cider mixed drinks. (Delicious and very sweet!) And then, what I think was our favorite part of the day we shot bows and arrows.

Aless looked awesome shooting!

Aless looked awesome shooting!

Me, not so much!

Me, not so much!

We ended the day at a pub sing, came home thoroughly happy and dehydrated and if you’re in the tristate area and have a free Saturday or Sunday in the next few weeks, I highly recommend checking out the Faire.

I’m definitely going back, though I’m not sure when.

To see all of our pictures check out my facebook! They’re all there!

Time To Get Personal: On Charity

This is a weird one to write for me, because usually even when I do these ones, it’s about me and my relationship to something. This is about that but it’s about something bigger. But last night as my brother and I almost got into a fight over a comment I made (this one was seriously on me. And I rarely take the credit when my brother and I fight.) I decided I should talk about this more.

I come from an exceptional family.

One where the values of our religion were taken above the dogma, although the dogma, not excluded.

One where, I actually once heard one of the more wealthy members say, “when you want to give away billions of dollars, you have to make billions of dollars.”

One where my conservative Catholic grandfather has spent 3 days a week of his well earned retirement  caring for the dying in an AIDS shelter.

I’ve lived a privileged life. But I was also taught that with privilege came an obligation to improve that world at large.

To put it in nerd terms, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I don’t exactly have great power, but compared to most of the world, I have a good thing going. I will not ever go to bed hungry. I am incredibly well educated. I live at home rent free in an incredibly safe suburb.

To quote my new hero, Kelly Sue DeConnick, “I’m not playing the game on the easiest setting, but I’m not far down the ladder, you know?” She was talking about feminism and equality, which feature into what I’m talking about.

I want to talk about charity, about giving, about globalization.

A few years ago a friend of mine called me out for using the word, “charity,” as if it were an implicit good. She stated that charity as a value was condescending, and I cannot disagree with this more.

I really believe that if charity were taken more seriously, particularly in American society, we would all be better off. I run a charity, I’ve done it for five years, and the first time I felt challenged for it, a few months ago, I nearly lost my head. I was, luckily, at the time, too tired to actually lose it.

So last night, when I mentioned that it felt off that the media was talking about the American victims of Ebola and not the 10,000 in Africa who had already died, my brother pointed out that, immediacy causes a reaction. And also, that the doctor who has just been diagnosed in New York contracted the virus while working with patients in Africa who had/have Ebola. Of course, my psyche does not allow for my brother to have a point while he’s in my presence, so I had to fight him about it. (It’s one of the main reasons that we really shouldn’t live together. Like at all.)

But I was raised to think globally and act locally. It’s why cultural feminism always spoke to me, why conservatism always spoke to me. If you let people, give people the resources to take care of themselves, of their neighbors, they will. I believe that, somewhere in me, I believe that.

But them I look at the world. I look at Ferguson, Missouri, I look at the images of the NYPD, men and women I idolized as heroes my whole life, beating people, I look at a woman as harmless and unradical as Felicia Day, who always played the game by the fanboy’s rules, if only because the rules worked for her (I have no doubt that the minute they didn’t she would step up, and she did) getting harassed by Gamer Gaters, and I worry.

But then I remember that the minute I called my best friend and asked her to give away money we could have been pocketing to help the people of Haiti rebuild their country, she said yes without a thought. I remember that my grandfather’s cousin, who is an honored member of a deeply ingrained hierarchy and could have shut himself away years ago, is spending his 80’s pleading for the freedom of Christians in the Middle East and China. I think of other friends who spent precious social and career building years help the less fortunate through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp.

I was raised to believe that you have to give. Not to get, although what you do get is immeasurable. I was raised to believe that when you have more than you need, you have to give back. The world doesn’t work otherwise. The world will never work otherwise.

Give what you can. Catholicism has a thing that other people should adopt too. It’s called Stewardship. You are a steward of your time, talent and treasure, and you owe those things to God, if that’s what you believe, or to the world, if that makes it easier. I have time and talent, not much treasure. So I give those things back. I produce a musical and give it’s proceeds to people who need it more than I every year. That’s what I can give.

My grandpa, who I cannot speak enough of, spends his days working with AIDS patients. Just because it was something he could do.

I proud to come from this legacy. Really, really proud.

Caged Birds and Inspiration: RIP Maya Angelou

There are certain touchstones for, well everyone, and I feel like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is one of those. If you ask people about poetry, this, or Robert Frost will probably be the first thing that they quote back to you. It’s one of those transcendent pieces of art that has taken on a life of it’s own.

I’m a really big fan of Dr. Angelou’s, like most incredible poets she was able to speak to humanity in so few and undeniably beautiful words. Her words inspired hope, stirred anger, and gave breath and life to so many ideas for so many people.

That might be why when I heard about her death yesterday I spent the rest of the day in a sort of weird, contemplative, melancholy haze.

Her autobiography, I Know why The Caged Bird Sings, was one of the first pieces of literature that I remember reading and fully understanding how something could speak to you and still be so far outside of your own experience. I didn’t have anything in common with Maya Angelou’s life, but I felt like I could see into her heart, and it was a beautiful thing.

I went to an all girl’s high school, and there wasn’t a day that I walked down the halls that Dr. Angelou’s words weren’t on some bulletin board. When I began my women’s studies curriculum in earnest at 20, I was able to understand a great deal of my reading because of my early exposure to her work, her ideals and her unique ability to make the complicated and personal seem simple and universal.

Universal.

I’m glad that I’ve landed on that word, because I think it’s the right one to describe Dr. Angelou’s work. She was an exceptional woman, an incredible writer, and an inspiration to everyone who encountered her work, whether they studied it or simply let it touch their hearts.

Thank you, for everything, Dr. Angelou.

 The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

How To Fight Presidents And More Crushing

How To Fight Presidents

When I found out that Daniel O’Brien was writing a book about presidents I was really excited, and not just because I think that DOB might be my soulmate, but also because I knew that the book was going to make me laugh and that I’d probably learn something.

I did both. (I also, incidentally fell deeper in love with O’Brien, but that’s not relevant.)

Anyway, How To Fight Presidents had it’s inception when a college professor told O’Brien that neither he nor any of his classmates would ever be president, DOB’s response? “I never wanted to be president, but when that constantly angry profesor told me I couldn’t — even if I want to — something inside of me was triggered and I thought, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you. I’m going to president. I’m going to be president all over this country, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!” (O’Brien, 2) and he went about learning everything he could about Presidents to become like them.

He concluded that he could never be president, because all of the presidents are insane in a very specific way, and he was not insane that way. Thus, he decided that if he couldn’t be president, he would learn how to beat them all up. How To Fight Presidents is a primer on presidential trivia and a very funny one. And again, cements my eternal nerd crush on this man.

I mean, how do you not fall in love with a guy who paraphrases Thomas Jefferson by saying, “blood is the poop of freedom,” (O’Brien, 20) and describing James K Polk as “The James Browniest President.” (69) and makes a detailed case that Ronald Reagan might have been Wolverine. But also, how do you not just love a book like that?

I come from a generation that likes our education with a healthy dose of humor and entertainment. We were raised on Bill Nye The Science Guy and Wishbone, and that’s why it makes sense that one of us would write a book that when describing JFK says, “Plenty of presidents have been as good as Kennedy, and many have been better, but he is the only president that made the American people, in unison, say, ‘What a cool dude. I’d let him have sex with my girlfriend if she was into it.'” (O’Brien, 215) or when advising you on how to beat James Madison says, “Grab that sucker, lift him up in the air, say, ‘By the away, I’m a big fan of the Constitution, I’m really glad you put that thing together.” (29)

Of course if you don’t have time to read the whole book just read three chapters, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, absolutely worth it.