Podcast Review: Crimetown

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Before I get into this review, I should probably explain how podcasts have taken over my life over the last few years.  My first year teaching, I used to listen to sports talk radio on the way to work.  I would occasionally listen to music, but found that I got more out of people talking.  This wore on me very quickly.  I then started listening to NPR (which I now joke is my obligation as a teacher).  One thing quickly led to another and I found myself subscribed to NPR podcasts of segments I liked and suddenly realized I could listen to “talk shows” of just things I was interested in, as opposed to whatever happened to be on the radio, and off I went.  I tend to alternate between subject matters. I usually alternate between episodes of a “serious” podcast and then to a goofier one.  This both reflects my interests and is also a direct result to my over-saturation of politics earlier this year when I was at one time listening to exclusively six or seven different politics podcasts, several of which were releasing daily episodes which super bummed me out. So, you will probably see a similar pattern as these reviews roll out.

Podcast: Crimetown
Producer: Gimlet Media
Hosts: Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier
Summary: (taken from Crimetownshow.com)

Welcome to Crimetown, a new series from Gimlet Media and the creators of HBO’s The Jinx. Every season, we’ll investigate the culture of crime in a different American city. First up: Providence, Rhode Island, where organized crime and corruption infected every aspect of public life. This is a story of alliances and betrayals, of heists and stings, of crooked cops and honest mobsters—a story where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

5 out of 5 stars

Crimetown is produced by Gimlet Media and hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.  It has been mentioned before that I have an outrageous fascination with non-fiction books and that love extends to other form of non-fiction as well.  I often find myself watching documentaries as often as traditional TV and movies.  I have a vague interest in the genre of “true crime” although I was never really sucked into it all that much until I read The Lufthansa Heist by Henry Hill and Daniel Simone.  I must have missed the period of fascination most people (or at least males I grew up with) had with the mob, but I hit a period last year after reading that book and seeing other documentaries and of course the classic Goodfellas that got me supremely interested in all the different angles around Henry Hill.  It passed.  Or so I thought.

A friend and I will often drop into conversations if we’ve started listening to a podcast we think is worth checking out.  He led me along on a string a little for this one.  He said it was a podcast that was in the style of a documentary about organized crime.  They were going to spend each season focusing on a different city.  At this point I was already pretty interested and figured I would chuck it onto the backlog of podcasts to check out.  Then he reeled me in.  “It’s just started it’s first season and that season just happens to be about Providence.”  A podcast that sounded interesting, I would only have to listen to a couple episodes to catch up to, and was about my home state?  How could I not at least give it a chance?

True to the description, Crimetown is an incredible undertaking.  The podcast uses archived audio as well as interviews with several people intimately involved with the politics, law enforcement, and mafia starting in the 1970s.  It uses several people of interest to drive the story, however, it is fair to say that the infamous Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, is the focal point of the podcast.  Each episode or chapter runs about 30 to 45 minutes and are packed with stories and interviews.  They do a great job telling just a couple specific stories each chapter that drive the overall plot forward.  At the time I am writing this, six chapters have come out and each chapter has a companion page at their website crimetownshow.com where they put up pictures of the people involved and occasionally archived documents and videos.  It really is quite amazing how well they paint each of stories and it has become a must listen for me as soon as it is released.  If you are at all interested in true crime or even just someone who finds the style of documentaries to be interesting this podcast is completely worth checking out.  I look forward to the rest of the season and any/all of the future seasons to come.

Book Review: Shrill by Lindy West

shrill by lindy westTitle: Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
Author: Lindy West
Publisher: Hachette
Hardcover: 272 pages
Source: BookCon 2016
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible–like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you–writer and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

With inimitable good humor, vulnerability, and boundless charm, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss–and walk away laughing. Shrill provocatively dissects what it means to become self-aware the hard way, to go from wanting to be silent and invisible to earning a living defending the silenced in all caps.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Andrew and I came across this book at BookCon Chicago this year. We were both already weighed down with dozens of pounds of books, but Andrew insisted that it looked good (and thought he remembered good things being said about it) and we should pick up a copy. It’s really never hard to convince me to pick up a book, so we did and I am so glad we did, because this is one of my all-time favorite reads this year. Shrill is Lindy West’s memoir, told in a collection of short essays/stories that are somewhat linked, but are easily taken a piece at a time. She writes about big events in her life, especially focusing on the way she’s been treated because she’s an overweight female. It’s a feminist masterpiece.

What I love about this collection is that Lindy puts herself out there and shares the reality of what she faces as an overweight woman in society, and then goes on to explain how our current societal outlook and culture is to blame for the shitty behavior of people. I feel like we see a lot of theories behind why women are treated so poorly by men (e.g. they are seen as objects rather than people, so they are catcalled more often, etc.), but what we need are brave women to be like: this happened to me, this is how it made me feel, and this is why it needs to change. I think a lot of people reading this book are going to realize that they have experienced similar situations and are going to better understand how we can go about dealing with those situations in order to affect change in our culture. And what’s wonderful about this book is that Lindy calls people out in such a way that left me both angry and ready to take action, yet also amused and laughing at the ridiculous situations life puts us in. I don’t know how she does it, but she does, and it is inspiring.

I devoured this book. I love how it’s written in short chapters that I can very much put down when I need to get to work or help make dinner, but it’s a joy to pick back up again and read more about what Lindy has to say. I’ve already recommended it to pretty much everyone I know (I keep begging Andrew to read it NOW), so I’ll recommend it to anyone who’s reading this right now. It’s intelligent, funny, thought-provoking, and simply wonderful. Read it. Now. And then we can talk about it. 🙂

Review: Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins

Watchmen.jpgTitle: Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore
Illustrator/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins
Publisher: DC Comics
Hardcover: 416 pages
Source: Owned
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin.

One of the most influential graphic novels of all time and a perennial best-seller, Watchmen has been studied on college campuses across the nation and is considered a gateway title, leading readers to other graphic novels such as V for Vendetta, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and The Sandman series.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

When we first started dating, one of the first questions Andrew asked me was whether or not I’d read Watchmen, which I hadn’t. He was so appalled, we went to a used bookstore the next day and bought the book. It took a while for Andrew’s recommendations to make a regular appearance on my currently-reading cycle, so one year later, here I am, having finally read this amazing novel.

I had mixed feelings about having already seen the movie when going into this. Generally, I refuse to watch any movie based on a book before reading the book, just because I don’t want my experience to be tainted by the director’s or cinematographer’s idea of how things should look. In this case, it was a little better, because the images are supplied through drawings and not just my brain, so there is still someone giving me a guide for how the characters and places are supposed to look. I also appreciated that I was given the benefits of a second read-through without first having read it — I was able to pick up on some foreshadowing that I wouldn’t have caught onto had I not experienced the story before, so I enjoyed that a lot.

What is there to say about this novel? It’s amazing. It’s one of the few five-star books I’ve read this year, and it’s because Alan Moore just doesn’t hold back. Watchmen gives a stark look at life and human nature. Yes, it’s set in a fantasy world, but this book tells a lot of truths about how the world works and how people work. I love how there are no true “super” heroes, just people trying to get through life however they feel like they can. Some want glory or fame or really just want to do good, but they’re all incredibly realistic people with a lot of emotional baggage that they bring into their work and their lives.

There are so many literary things to appreciate as well. Parallelism between stories-within-stories (which was probably my favorite thing that the graphic/comic aspect did so much better than words ever could, a wonderful stream-of-consciousness chapter with Dr. Manhattan (again, beautifully drawn), and just so much more. It’s hard to describe the complexity and magnificence of this book, but it’s definitely a must-read for any graphic novel, science fiction, super hero, or literature lovers. The drawings are beautiful, the writing is wonderful, and the story is simply smart. Easily one of my favorite works of fiction.

Book Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Autobiography of Malcolm X.jpgTitle: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Authors: Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Publisher: Ballantine
Paperback: 466 pages
Source: Owned
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

From hustling, drug addiction and armed violence in America’s black ghettos Malcolm X turned, in a dramatic prison conversion, to the puritanical fervour of the Black Muslims. As their spokesman he became identified in the white press as a terrifying teacher of race hatred; but to his direct audience, the oppressed American blacks, he brought hope and self-respect. This autobiography (written with Alex Haley) reveals his quick-witted integrity, usually obscured by batteries of frenzied headlines, and the fierce idealism which led him to reject both liberal hypocrisies and black racialism.

Vilified by his critics as an anti-white demagogue, Malcolm X gave a voice to unheard African-Americans, bringing them pride, hope and fearlessness, and remains an inspirational and controversial figure.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Andrew’s second major in college was African-American studies, so there’s a lot of African-American literature he’s read that I have not, so when his turn came up to recommend a book for me to read, he recommended this one. Mostly because it’s an amazing book about a man who made history with his dedication to civil rights, but also because I refuse to watch movies based on books before reading the book, and he really wants to watch the Denzel Washington Malcolm X movie with me, so there we go.

This one took me a while. It was a little frustrating, because I felt like it held up the other books on my reading list. The print is small and it reads like a textbook — there’s just a whole lot to digest in all the words on the page. I took my time with it because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it justice skimming and not giving it my full 100% attention. However, it’s so worth it. Reading this book and learning about this man who was raised from the slums to a prominent figure in the civil rights movement is something that I think everyone absolutely needs to do at some point in their life. I feel like just from reading this, I understand so much more about the civil rights movement and the context in which it was fought.

The best part is reading how Malcolm X grows as a person. It’s so interesting, because I found myself making judgments about him and his beliefs, but that reaction is only because he’s so honest about his feelings and thoughts. The most rewarding/interesting part of this book for me was seeing how Malcolm develops his viewpoints and changes his opinions based on each new experience. In that way, it’s an incredibly engaging read because of Malcolm’s ability to continuously learn more and inform himself about the world. I found myself growing and changing right along with him — it was an intense reading experience, to say the least.

I always find it hard to judge a non-fiction book. The most I can say is that I found it rewarding and informative — despite the fact that it’s told from Malcolm himself, this book gives an honest no-holds barred look at Malcolm and his life, and it is one of the best subjects you can inform yourself upon. I highly recommend it.

Movie Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman The Secret ServiceDirector: Matthew Vaughn
Running Time: 2 h 9 min
Rating: R
Source: Chicago Public Library
 

 

 

 

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Ever since the commercials for this came out, I’ve been dying to see this movie — Colin Firth as a secret agent spy guy? Yes. Absolutely yes. I mean, I’ll see him in basically anything, but this looked particularly good. So, when we came across it during our weekly library browsing, Andrew and I decided to spend our Friday night hanging out and watching Kingsman.

Alyssa

I didn’t have the highest of expectations going in, but I expected to enjoy myself watching this movie. What I didn’t expect was to absolutely love it. For a couple of days afterward, I would see it by the TV and turn to Andrew to say, “That was actually such a good movie.” For me, it had everything: great acting, a solid story line with a few twists that were unexpected for the most part, and lovely cinematography. My favorite part about comic books turned movies are those beautiful shots that are reminiscent of a comic panel, and Kingsman certainly used those to its advantage, along with heavily stylized fight scenes. I at first thought that the fight scenes were going to bother me, since I’m incredibly squeamish about blood and gore, but I found that it was done in such a way that it really was like reading a comic, and I didn’t have to turn away when things turned violent– which is rare for me.

In terms of story itself, it’s wonderful. The movie makes me want to read the comics, because I fell in love with characters. The villain is a hilarious foil to the agents, and I hope he’s portrayed as well in the comics.

Andrew

Like Alyssa, I didn’t have very high expectations for this movie. Even the opening scene didn’t do much to improve my expectations. And I love Colin Firth, but I thought it was a bit far-fetched for him to play a secret agent. Luckily, I was quickly proven wrong in that belief.

I enjoy watching plot-heavy scenes more than I do action sequences, but Kingsman did a good job in balancing the two, to the point where the action sequences even contributed to the plot of the film, rather than having it seem like two separate movies: one with plot, and one with mayhem and fighting. (*cough* Captain America 2 *cough*) Also, a lot of movies coming from comic books try to make themselves more “realistic” for the “real world,” but this really stays true to some of its comic book roots in terms of not holding back on some of the goofy elements — like the characterization of Samuel Jackson’s character, and the over-dramatic stylized fight scenes — and staying true to the stylistic comic book elements for the way it was shot.

Overall, this is a surprisingly good movie and we highly recommend it.

Book Review: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

good omensTitle: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Publisher: HarperTorch
Paperback: 430 pages
Source: Purchased/Chicago OverDrive
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

When Andrew found out that I enjoyed Gaiman, yet hadn’t read Good Omens, we went out that week to buy a copy so that I could remedy the situation. It was, he said, a book that I had to read, no matter what. To his credit, I can’t think of a single thing that I disliked about this book. I honestly, thoroughly enjoyed it from the first page to the last. It’s insightful, thoughtful, and purely, simply funny.

One of my favorite parts (among many) was how Pratchett and Gaiman were able to capture the life and mind of an eleven-year-old boy. The scenes with Adam and his friends playing “Spanish Inquisition” or some similar silly thing were perfect. The kid’s comments about the whole situation and their thoughts about how they should “properly” perform an inquisition were on point for how children that age would think about it. I loved these moments.

Another one of my absolute favorite things is how good and evil are portrayed. I think that the authors really thought about their story, what they wanted to say, and how they wanted to portray it to their audience. The friendship between Aziraphale the angel and Crowley the demon is beautifully done. The fight between them, after all, isn’t personal, but purely an issue of circumstance — one happens to be from heaven and one from hell. They have similar opinions about Earth, use similar methods to get followers and have similar contacts within the mortal world.

Reading so many books, it’s hard for me to stay interested in all the same stereotypical plot and character development, so it’s rare that I find a book where there was something that just didn’t click with me. I have no complaints about this one. Not only is it entertaining all the way through, but it actually says something about the way we perceive good and evil and gives us another way to think about it. Andrew, of course, was right. This is a book worth reading. I highly recommend.

Favorite Quotes:

“Aziraphale. The Enemy, of course. But an enemy for six thousand years now, which made him a sort of friend.”

“Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.”

“Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.”

Audiobook Review: Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

anne-of-green-gables-post-hypnotic-press
Buy from the Publisher

Title: Anne of Green Gables
Author: LM Montgomery
Narrator: Colleen Winton
Series: Anne of Green Gables, Book 1
Publisher: Post Hypnotic Press
Duration: 10 hours, 8 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Anne, a young orphan from the fictional community of Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, is sent to Prince Edward Island after a childhood spent in strangers’ homes and orphanages. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, siblings in their fifties and sixties, had decided to adopt a boy from the orphanage to help Matthew run their farm. They live at Green Gables, their Avonlea farmhouse on Prince Edward Island. Through a misunderstanding, the orphanage sends Anne Shirley. And Anne brings all sorts of surprises in her wake.

So begins the classic tale of a girl who, through trying to find her place in the world, ends up bringing love and adventure to Green Gables.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

It has been over a decade since I’ve visited the world of Green Gables, so when I saw this title available to review, I just couldn’t pass up a chance to revisit it.

Anne of Green Gables is a classic coming of age story about a young girl named Anne who gets sent to siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert by mistake — they wanted a boy to help with farm work. But when Marilla agrees to keep the talkative child and raise her up, she certainly gets more than she bargained for. Anne is energetic and over-the-top imaginative, but she is also full of love and generosity.

This book is about being a kid and, oftentimes, learning lessons the hard way. It also shows that even though adults are the ones in charge, they also learn just as much from children as children do for them — I love that balance of perspective. There are also lovely lessons embedded in this story about friendship, forgiveness, and making the most out of life.

But don’t take that to mean that you’re hit over the head with moral after moral! The events flow naturally together, and to make things better, this book is funny. I laughed out loud on numerous occasions because of the ridiculousness of Anne’s antics or Matthew’s attempts to go against Marilla’s wishes and spoil Anne.

I’ve only ever read the book, so listening to this story as an audiobook was a new experience for me. In some ways, it was more difficult for me to let go and enjoy listening to the story, because I’d already made my own assumptions about these characters in my head. However, Colleen Winton is an excellent narrator and I was hooked within a couple of chapters. She’s able to see into the heart of the characters and reflect their personalities in her narration, which made for an entertaining experience.

The excellence of the performance is in the details. When the book says that Anne’s friend, Diana is the kind of girl who always laughs before she speaks, Winton is sure to give a bit of a laugh before Diana’s dialogue throughout the entire audiobook. It’s the added thoughtfulness that really makes the narration stand out. And of course, all the standard marks for a good narration apply: there are distinct voices for each character and the tone of the exposition is reflected in Winton’s voice. Winton brings this story to life, making this an audiobook well worth listening to. And if you want a taste of it yourself — check out below, where I’ve shared the publisher’s sample track.

In short, if you haven’t read it, go read it! Anne of Green Gables is by far one of my all-time favorites. But if you have read it, consider giving it another go. This one is definitely worth revisiting. And if you’re audiobook-minded, definitely consider listening to this edition — it is delightful!

A big thank you to Audiobook Jukebox for their Solid Gold Reviewer program, through which I found this title.

A second big thank you to Post Hypnotic Press for providing me with a copy.