Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bingeworthy TV: Great British Baking Show

I'm not going to pretend I have any talent for baking, but I do enjoy it when I somehow manage to follow a recipe and turn out something edible. I like eating good food; I'm just not invested in learning how to create it for myself.

But somehow, in watching the determined, talented bakers of The Great British Baking Show, I've found myself thinking, "Hmmm, maybe I could make that..." Despite not always quite understanding what they are talking about.

With the judges and bakers throwing around words like "choux," "lamination," and "baps," it can be hard to tell where the technical cooking terms end and the quirks of British English begin. More ambitious viewers can seek out cookbooks and how-to videos from the judges, the rest of us can just enjoy the atmosphere.

The humor is sometimes a bit adult, but I think it's probably still a good choice for families to view together as the show's overall warmth and good spirit override the occasional innuendo. It's so very heartwarming to watch the bakers try their absolute hardest to achieve seemingly impossible tasks, while still taking the time to cheer on and assist their competitors.

I highly recommend The Great British Baking Show to anyone looking for a sweet escape from the hassles of real life that won't add inches to your waistline.

~Sarah, adult services

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Staff Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

When a book I've read becomes a movie or a TV series, there's one important question I ask myself: will they do the story justice or will everything be changed and ruined? I'm here today to (hopefully) help you answer that question for one book turned movie.

If you read an enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, should you go see the movie? Yes.

If you've seen and loved the movie, should you check out the book? Maybe.

I had Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians on my To Read list since I first saw the (original) glittery cover five years ago. I finally found the time to read it this summer because a) I've reached peak wedding season in my social group and b) I really, really wanted to finish before seeing the movie. It can be frustrating to watch a movie and have events or characters you loved in the book removed or changed, but I find that if I watch a movie first, I'm less likely to read the book since I more or less already know what's going to happen.

Crazy Rich Asians combines rom-com and soap opera plots with descriptions of extreme luxury, and just a touch of modern fairy tale fantasy. As a reader, the numerous mentions of luxury brand names could be a little bit exhausting, and this is one area where the movie surpasses the book. It's much easier and less distracting to show a character wearing a gorgeous, expensive outfit (or car or house) than it is to read several sentences describing that outfit.

As a reader, it helped that one of the main characters, Rachel Chu, was equally out of place in this world, and that several of the characters more intensely invested in over-the-top consumerism were used as comic relief. Not that Kwan was arguing that wealth = bad, more of conspicuous wealth = bad manners.
Some of the other changes between page and screen were more significant, but I felt like they made sense for the story and characters. I don't want to spoil anyone, so I'll try to be general. The book explores the ways that extreme wealth and unequal power balances can harm relationships by comparing several different characters' experiences, while the movie narrows its focus primarily to Rachel (our average woman) and Nick (our dashing prince).

Born in China, but raised in America by her single mother, Rachel has created a comfortable life for herself in New York City as an Economics professor. When her handsome, fellow-academic boyfriend, Nick Young, invites her to spend their summer break visiting his friends and family in Singapore, she's happy to join him on an adventure. Nick, however, did not tell Rachel that his family and friends are the elite of Singapore, nor did he warn his family about their relationship, leaving his mother to assume that Rachel is a gold-digging embarrassment.
I enjoyed Kwan's descriptions of his native Singapore, the foods, places, peoples, and hints of its history and culture. I'm also a sucker for a good love story, and I feel like Rachel and Nick earn their happy ending, but that Kwan left enough potential for drama to justify the two sequels. In fact, it's fairly likely that I'll be picking up China Rich Girlfriend (book two) to read next summer.

~Sarah, Adult Services

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is a journalist writing from St. Louis, Missouri, a city firmly tucked in "flyover country," that large swathe of the United States between the east and west coasts that tends to get little attention. Kendzior sets out to correct some of this neglect in her new book, The View from Flyover Country, composed of short pieces she wrote for Al Jazeera between 2012 and 2014.

All is not well in flyover country, although many of the issues Kendzior writes about affect the entire nation and the globe. Her overarching theme is social and economic justice -- the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots -- which she explores by looking closely at race and religion, the media, higher education, and what she calls the post-employment economy.

With years of journalistic experience and degrees in history, Central Eurasian studies (an MA), and anthropology (a PhD), Kendzior knows her stuff. She's also a clear and graceful writer. One of her primary contentions is that, increasingly, those in positions of influence -- in government, business, policymaking, and mainstream journalism -- belong to an affluent and self-selected set who, due to their privileged backgrounds, cannot possibly comprehend, assess, or report accurately on economic issues. But entry into their professional circles is too often barred to the rest of us by the sky-high cost of elite private schools and the fact that so many influential positions are now filled by those who were able to spend years in under- or unpaid internships and fellowships gaining access to those in power.

Kendzior hits hard on the surreal situation that exists in our public universities too, where student costs have shot through the roof, yet, in many cases, over 70% of tenure-track faculty has been replaced by poorly paid adjuncts. She also examines student-loan debt, stagnant and declining wages, the exorbitant cost of living in big cities, the gender gap, the shootings of unarmed black men, the surveillance state, and so much more. It's not a heartening collection to read, but Kendzior's candor is refreshing, and hope springs eternal that heightened awareness may eventually lead to solutions.

~Ann, Adult Services

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Staff Review: God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright's new book, God Save Texas, is a personal, highly anecdotal look at his home state, a place with which he clearly has a love-hate relationship. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Wright is most well known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 2005's The Looming Tower (about Al Qaeda and 9/11) and 2013's Going Clear (about scientology).

He's a pleasure to read, quite funny in casual mode, and, wow, has he got some rich material. According to Wright, "a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics." Among these are a wheelchair-bound governor who has argued that Texas should be granted "sovereign immunity" from the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and an evangelical-Christian lieutenant governor (and former radio shock jock) who opposes the separation of church and state and believes arming teachers will solve the problem of school shootings.  

The book's not all about politics though and Wright gives us chapters on the big booming cities of Dallas, Houston, and Austin (where he lives); the Texas history of oil and gas; Texas art, music, and culture; and more. Wright knows his state -- and half the people in it, it seems -- so his book is liberally sprinkled with personal stories about George W. Bush, Rick Perry, well-known Texas writers and musicians, and even actor and Austin resident Matthew McConaughey, who was Wright's neighbor at the time of the famous dancing-naked-while-playing the-bongo-drums police incident back in 1999.

Wright clearly loves Texas but makes no bones about his almost perennial desire to leave it. Despite its booming economy, the state ranks close to dead-last in spending on education, healthcare, social services, and the environment, areas vital to a high quality of life. Wright's is an honest and affectionate assessment of an extraordinary place, but you may feel quite happy to read about it from afar.

~Ann, Adult Services

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Bingeworthy TV: Daredevil

Daredevil is a streaming series released on Netflix. It takes place in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and stars Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a blind lawyer by day and a masked butt kicking vigilante by night. Matt has not let his disability hold him back in the least, but it should be noted that the accident that took his sight as a child enhanced his hearing and left him with an ability akin to sonar.
As a struggling lawyer by day Matt and his partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) take cases defending their poor and underrepresented neighbors. This is how they come to meet Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) wrongly accused of murder. Karen quickly becomes an important part of the team as an investigator.
Much of Matt’s vigilante work centers around Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). His arch nemesis Fisk is something of a mob boss passing himself off as a philanthropist trying to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen, which brings Matt’s vigilant efforts together with his day job. Throughout the series Matt struggles with his love for the law and the reality that it is not always enough.
I love the character of Matt and how he uses his blindness to deflect suspicion of his vigilante tendencies, without ever coming across as helpless. The show, while having supernatural elements, remains grounded in real problems such as the effects of gentrification on the less affluent residents, human trafficking, and drug trafficking.
Daredevil takes place in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and if you are familiar with it you will pick up on the references, but you don't need to have watched these other movies and TV series to enjoy Daredevil. On a smaller scale Daredevil is companion to several other Netflix streaming series: Jessica Jones*, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and Iron Fist. All of these characters, except Punisher, come together in The Defenders.

~Becca, Technical Services

 *Read our review of Jessica Jones

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Staff Review: Educated by Tara Westover

I cannot recommend the memoir Educated by Tara Westover highly enough. It is captivating -- practically un-put-downable -- and very well written. That said, it is not an easy book to read and if you're like me you'll run the gamut of emotions, including anger and frustration.

Westover tells the story of her Idaho youth as the seventh and youngest child of ultra-fundamentalist, survivalist Mormons, who do not send her to school nor do they home-school her. They also choose not to obtain such documents as a birth certificate or Social Security card for her or to seek medical help for illnesses and accidents. This is because her father views the outside world -- the government, educators, the medical establishment, and so on -- as of the devil and about the devil's business.

In graceful prose, Westover paints a vivid picture of day-to-day life at the foot of Buck Peak. Day-to-day life, however, is filled with horrific accidents, car accidents and industrial accidents mostly, and these events and their aftermaths can be wrenching to witness as are the volatile instability of her father, the submissive blindness of her mother, and the descent into sadistic violence of one of her brothers. At times, my credulity was stretched almost beyond its limit (thanks, James Frey and other memoir fibbers) but in the end I believe this author is telling the truth.

I generally avoid memoirs of dysfunction but Westover's is actually a story of redemption, for she eventually breaks free of her parents (though she suffers horrible guilt and inner conflict in doing so), studies on her own, gets herself into college, and completes her education by nailing a Ph.D. at Cambridge in England. The wonders of this book, besides the prose, which is often incandescent, are Westover's evident love for her family, even after the estrangement, and the deep thoughtfulness with which she tells her story. Equally wonderful is Westover's strength of character, the inner compass or guiding light she possesses, which allows her to escape what struck me as a living nightmare but to Westover was the only life she knew.

~Ann, Adult Services