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: A Spy Called James by Anne F. Rockwell

a spy called james
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Title: A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent
Author: Anne F. Rockwell
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
Hardcover: 32 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Told for the first time in picture book form is the true story of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who spied for George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, and whose personal fight for freedom began with America’s liberation.

* I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I very much appreciate this book for existing in the first place — it’s a wonderful idea to introduce children to stories like these at a young age, especially stories like James’s are hardly ever told in schools. At least, they weren’t very often told in my schools when I was younger, but I hope that’s changing. As the description says, James Lafayette was a spy for George Washington’s Army during the American Revolution, and had to fight to obtain the rights that were given to other former slaves who served in the army because “spies” were not generally covered under the agreement that was made between slaves and the newly formed American government.

The story itself is simply told in a language that children will understand, but covers all the details. And I love the illustrations. They’re soft water-color type illustrations with a lot of blended colors and soft lines. It’s very child-friendly and I know I enjoyed looking at the pictures, so I think they might, too.

I could see this being in a classroom for children to enjoy during free reading time, or even have it being read aloud to children as part of a history lesson. And, of course, it’s a nice addition to the home library, especially for a history-lover.

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. 🙂

Book Review: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.jpgTitle: Fever Pitch
Author: Nick Hornby
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Paperback: 272 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

In America, it is soccer. But in Great Britain, it is the real football. No pads, no prayers, no prisoners. And that’s before the players even take the field.

Nick Hornby has been a football fan since the moment he was conceived. Call it predestiny. Or call it preschool. Fever Pitch is his tribute to a lifelong obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity, Hornby’s award-winning memoir captures the fever pitch of fandom — its agony and ecstasy, its community, its defining role in thousands of young mens’ coming-of-age stories. Fever Pitch is one for the home team. But above all, it is one for everyone who knows what it really means to have a losing season.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I have a lot of feelings about this book.  I am pretty fanatical about my alma mater’s American football team and as a direct result, parts of this book felt a bit too real.  The way that Hornby is able to describe the relationship one has with a team is truly beautiful.  In the intro alone (which I forwarded to several of my friends who are not huge readers) he really delves into the emotions involved with a crushing defeat.  He goes in with the opinion that to a degree, to be this big of a fan you have to be somewhat depraved and then goes on to show how this fandom is both the largest blessing and curse of his life.

First of all, his point about being somewhat literary and therefore often times making metaphorical connections between his team’s performance and his life rang incredibly true to me.  Much like Hornby, I can often times take what I see from a performance of my team as grand analogy to my own life at the time.  We are losing every game despite looking like a good team in the preseason?  That’s my senior year where I was poised to glide through the last semester and finish early, but for whatever various outside reasons was a non-starter.  We pull together an amazing season despite having no reason to do so?  It’s the year I am living with my wife for the first time, I’m beginning to feel comfortable at my job, and just generally feel like I can deal with the things life throws my way.  Hornby points all this out and does so through some comic, some serious, and some heart-wrenching examples from his own life.

The other thing I think this book does incredibly well is give a glimpse into football (soccer) culture in England particularly in the 70s and 80s when the majority of these events take place.  I do also quite enjoy soccer and the English Premier League is my league of choice so being able to learn a bit more about the atmosphere in grounds at this time was fascinating.  Besides that, it is wonderful to get the perspective of someone who had some of the traits that often lead to hooliganism, but for a variety of reasons was not a hooligan himself, and his reflection on these rougher fans as he grew older and distanced himself from them entirely.  There is a lot of interesting commentary on class and race, which was a pleasant surprise for me.  Finally, being able to hear about a football nuts opinions on Heysel and Hillsborough thinking back to when they happened was absolutely incredible and a perspective that has been missing from most of the other coverage I have seen on these tragedies.

My only issue with this book at all is that it was occasionally a slog to get through.  The format of each section being a game was really cool in terms of driving home just how obsessed he is, but it made it a bit daunting and disorienting at times when reading.

Fair warning: If you expect this book to be anything like the films by the same name prepare to be disappointed.

Book Review: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

Art of Rivalry
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Title: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
Author: Sebastian Smee
Publisher: Random House
Hardcover: 416 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Sebastian Smee tells the fascinating story of four pairs of artists—Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon—whose fraught, competitive friendships spurred them to new creative heights.

Rivalry is at the heart of some of the most famous and fruitful relationships in history. The Art of Rivalry follows eight celebrated artists, each linked to a counterpart by friendship, admiration, envy, and ambition. All eight are household names today. But to achieve what they did, each needed the influence of a contemporary—one who was equally ambitious but possessed sharply contrasting strengths and weaknesses.

Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were close associates whose personal bond frayed after Degas painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso swapped paintings, ideas, and influences as they jostled for the support of collectors like Leo and Gertrude Stein and vied for the leadership of a new avant-garde.

Jackson Pollock’s uninhibited style of “action painting” triggered a breakthrough in the work of his older rival, Willem de Kooning. After Pollock’s sudden death in a car crash, de Kooning took over his mantle and became romantically involved with his late friend’s mistress. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met in the early 1950s, when Bacon was being hailed as Britain’s most exciting new painter and Freud was working in relative obscurity. Their “intense but asymmetrical” friendship came to a head when Freud painted a celebrated portrait of Bacon that was later stolen.

Each of these relationships culminated in an early flashpoint, a rupture in a budding intimacy that was both a betrayal and a trigger for great innovation. Writing with the same exuberant wit and psychological insight that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for art criticism, Sebastian Smee explores the way that coming into one’s own as an artist—finding one’s voice—almost always involves willfully breaking away from some intimate’s expectations of who you are or ought to be.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

One of my favorite things to learn about is how art is made — I mean art in a broad sense, in terms of writing, painting, filmmaking, etc. I find it incredibly satisfying to learn about the lives of those who’ve created amazing pieces of work, and learn how their circumstances influenced those works. So, when I saw that this was available on NetGalley, of course I requested it.

Sebastian Smee does a wonderful job in going through the pairs of artists and giving brief summaries of their lives and how they were affected by each other. I love that this gives a brief glimpse into each of the artist’s works, so that we can see these constructions were not created out of a vacuum, but within the life of an actual person. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that, so it’s nice to learn something about each artist.

The writing itself is incredibly understandable and I felt that the stories were fast-paced but well fleshed out. I was engrossed almost the whole way through and never felt like I was missing any information about the artists, but the story didn’t feel drawn-out. The perfect balance. 🙂

What would have made this book a five was if we were given a brief description of the time period and how art was currently viewed in the culture before delving into the artists’ lives and how they were changing it. We get a lot of detail on what the artists do, but not necessarily why that was groundbreaking for their time — the only reason I was able to almost keep up was due to my vague memories of an art history class I once took. I think knowing the context of the time period would have been incredibly helpful for understanding the different artists and appreciating their new approaches to art.

My favorite section was definitely the Matisse and Picasso chapter, but I also think that those are the two artists I know the most about, so there might have been a bit of a bias when it came to that. I also think it was the least dysfunctional relationship that Smee explores (at least, it seemed that way to me), so that also might have been a factor.

If you’re interested in how art is created, or learning more about the lives of some famous artists, then I definitely recommend you pick this up. I greatly enjoyed it.

Book Review: My Father and Atticus Finch by Joseph Madison Beck

 

My Father and Atticus Finch.jpg
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Title: My Father and Atticus Finch
Author: Joseph Madison Beck
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover: 240 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

As a child, Joseph Beck heard the stories—when other lawyers came up with excuses, his father courageously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Now a lawyer himself, Beck reconstructs his father’s role in State of Alabama vs. Charles White, Alias, a trial that was much publicized when Harper Lee was twelve years old.

On the day of Foster Beck’s client’s arrest, the leading local newspaper reported, under a page-one headline, that “a wandering negro fortune teller giving the name Charles White” had “volunteered a detailed confession of the attack” of a local white girl. However, Foster Beck concluded that the confession was coerced. The same article claimed that “the negro accomplished his dastardly purpose,” but as in To Kill a Mockingbird, there was evidence at the trial to the contrary. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant had to be escorted from the courthouse to a distant prison “for safekeeping,” and the courthouse itself was surrounded by a detachment of sixteen Alabama highway patrolmen.

The saga captivated the community with its dramatic testimonies and emotional outcome. It would take an immense toll on those involved, including Foster Beck, who worried that his reputation had cast a shadow over his lively, intelligent, and supportive fiancé, Bertha, who had her own social battles to fight.

This riveting memoir, steeped in time and place, seeks to understand how race relations, class, and the memory of southern defeat in the Civil War produced such a haunting distortion of justice, and how it may figure into our literary imagination.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was incredibly excited when I saw this book, since it combines a couple of my favorite things: To Kill a Mockingbird and non-fiction.  I teach To Kill a Mockingbird every year, and I am constantly looking for companion pieces to go along with it.  I was really hopeful last year when Go Set a Watchman came out that it would finally be the ideal book for this purpose.  While I have a lot of thoughts about Go Set a Watchman (most of which boil down to it would be an excellent book if it did not use the same characters as Mockingbird), suffice it to say it was not quite what I was looking for in terms of a pairing.

This brings me to my thoughts on My Father and Atticus Finch.  I think this book is outstanding in terms of giving an example of a historical case similar to the Tom Robinson trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I often have a very hard time trying to get students prepared for the novel, especially teaching in the 21st century in a northern state.  What I most often do is talk about the Scottsboro Boys trial.  This helps to give students some background information; however, there are a lot of things that are not similar (multiple defendants, the Northern lawyer, the fact that it took place earlier and set precedents for the Tom Robinson trial, etc.).  While I do not think that this book would wholesale replace it, I do think that portions of it could be used very effectively for pre-reading and that students who have an interest in the trial and in history would benefit enormously from reading this book.

I also think that the book does a nice job laying out the idea that Atticus Finch is not based on his father even though there are a lot of similarities (and only tries to push the idea he might have been at the end).  It reads as a very interesting and important story in its own right independent of its connection to Harper Lee’s works.  That being said, one of the most interesting things to me in the book outside of the trial was the discussion of the author’s father and his grandfather.  Perhaps because I enjoy overanalyzing things, I found the differences on white-black race relations fascinating and felt like it almost broke down as his father was like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and his grandfather had more of an opinion like Atticus in Go Set a Watchman in terms of his paternal approach.  As such, I think that along with being something that adds to the experience of To Kill a Mockingbird this book also made me retroactively enjoy Go Set a Watchman more.

The only criticism I have of the book is that it can at times get a little slow and bogged down in family history (this is entirely fair as the book is ostensibly about his father).  I found myself as I got further into the meat of the book getting a little annoyed with the chapters that dealt with the minutia of the family or the town as opposed to things directly related to culture or the trial itself.  This is a minute complaint however and the book overall was a page turner the whole way through (in large part due to the very narrative approach taken by Beck).

In conclusion, I think this book is a must read for people who love To Kill a Mockingbird or have an interest in history.  I plan on having at least one copy in my classroom library to recommend/lend out to students.

Audiobook Review: The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial by Peter Goodchild

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.jpgTitle: The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial
Author: Peter Goodchild
Publisher: LA Theatre Works
Running Time: 1 h 55 min
Source: Audiobook Sync
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

The Scopes Trial, over the right to teach evolution in public schools, reaffirmed the importance of intellectual freedom as codified in the Bill of Rights. The trial, in a small-town Tennessee courtroom in 1925, set the stage for ongoing debates over the separation of Church and State in a democratic society – debates that continue to this day.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Edward Asner, Bill Brochtrup, Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Matthew Patrick Davis, John de Lancie, James Gleason, Harry Groener, Jerry Hardin, Geoffrey Lower, Marnie Mosiman and Kenneth Alan Williams.

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial is part of L.A. Theatre Works’ Relativity Series featuring science-themed plays. Major funding for the Relativity Series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

©2006 L.A. Theatre Works (P)2006 L.A. Theatre Works

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

I’m not really sure how I feel about this play, to be quite honest. It’s an interesting subject, and full cast audios are the best, especially when they’re by LA Theatre Works and the actors are actually performing. However, simply based on the fact that it’s supposed to represent a historical event, I just didn’t like that I wasn’t sure which parts were dramatized and which were truly taken from the court records, especially when it came to dialogue. There were some parts that I feel like might have been added simply for entertainment/humor value, but if they weren’t, then that would have interested me in a completely different way, but I was never sure if any/all of it was true or made up.

Besides that, it’s an interesting case that’s worth further study and thought. Since Andrew’s a teacher, and I studied education for my Master’s, the way law and social norms influence how and what we teach is incredibly interesting to me, so that helped a lot for pulling me into the story in general. This case also foreshadows a lot of the textbook wars we have present-day, so it’s fascinating to hear some of these first arguments for/against teaching evolution/religion. Very cool.

However, I think it’d be better to actually see the play or read the book. It was hard for me to keep all the characters straight, and within the trial, I think it’s important to know who is speaking and who is making what argument (even though after a while, you can figure it out). Admittedly, I’m not the best when it comes to remembering details when I’m only getting information through audio, so if audio is your strong suit, then it might not be a problem for you.

Overall, however, I think it was a good dramatization of the trial and it presented a lot of interesting factors that (like the description says) we’re still debating today, especially within education. I just think that I would have much preferred to read this than to listen to it, even with the full cast.