Tag Archives: plays

Read Harder: Vol. 1

This year, I plan on chronicling my adventures with Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge.

Read a play

I thought, for a hot second, about re-reading something from my high school English classes. But then I remembered that I hated Hedda Gabler, and while I love Shakespeare, I just didn’t have it in me. I wanted something short and funny. Arsenic and Old Lace, maybe?

Written in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring, it opened in 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances. This dark comedy is centered around the Brewster family — our hero Mortimer, his two brothers and their spinster aunts. And aside from Mortimer, they’re all insane.

Teddy believes he is Panama Canal-era Theordore Roosevelt, digging locks in the basement. Jonathan has just had surgery to conceal his identity (he now looks like Boris Karloff and was, in fact, played by Karloff on stage) and is on the run with his alcoholic doctor. The dear, sweet aunts have taken to murdering elderly gentlemen by offering them a bit of company and a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Poor Mortimer just wants to get married.

If farce and dark comedy is your jam, I can’t recommend this enough. And check out the movie, directed by Frank Capra; it stars Cary Grant as Mortimer and Peter Lorre as the surgeon, Dr. Einstein. I saw it as a kid and I think it informed my sense of humor as much as any Muppets or Mel Brooks movie.

— Jess

 

 

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Ideal Bookshelves

A thoughtful relative gave me a copy of My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of essays in which famous people in a variety of fields talk about the books that are most important to them. You’ll find essays from luminaries like Alice Waters and James Franco, as well as from people who are prominent in their fields, but not necessarily “famous.” The gorgeous illustrations that bring each person’s choices to life are colorful and exciting, a wonderful reminder of just how much emotional and psychological resonance physical books still hold for many people. You can learn more about the project, which is the brainchild of Jane Mount and Thessaly LaForce, at the book’s companion website, which also features many other ideal bookshelves on various themes, from Jane Austen to sci-fi, available as prints, paintings and note cards. You can even submit your own ideal bookshelf for custom design!

At first I was overwhelmed by the thought of picking only ten books that were meaningful for me–couldn’t I just have an Ideal Bookcase? But on reflection–and sober contemplation of my savings–I decided that I’d better think about it a little harder. I’ve whittled down the many, many books that have danced through my life over the years to a list of five that have a special meaning. The other ones? Well, you’ll just have to ask me about them next time you visit the library!

ideal

The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater.

Walter, our hero, is introduced to the art of snarking out–sneaking out of the house at night to go to the 24-hour movie theater–by his friend Winston. Walter and Winston are bored with the lack of academic challenge at their school and the tedium of their everyday lives, so when a typical night of snarking out turns into an adventure involving a missing scientist and his greatest invention, the boys are definitely up for the challenge.

This novel was the first book I’d ever read that implied there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath the surface of everyday life. It was also the first book I’d read that criticized teachers who give tons of busywork instead of actually teaching, something to which I could, sadly, relate all too well. For good or ill, I credit Snarkout Boys for making me the contrarian adventurer I am today.

The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein.

Heidi Holland lives through some exciting times, but she isn’t always sure what to make of them as they pass by. Between glimpses of Heidi in her current life as a feminist art historian, the reader is treated to long scenes from various times in Heidi’s life: trying to figure out boys; discovering consciousness-raising, radical politics, and good sex; and navigating the shallow, greedy culture of 80s materialism, to name but a few. Can a determined young woman live life on her terms? Heidi Holland can, and does, but it’s not easy.

Of all the shows my college theater group produced,  Heidi Chronicles was my favorite. I had only one scene, but I went to as many rehearsals as I could so I would understand how this baffling, cultural-reference-riddled play (I had to stop and look something up in just about every line of dialogue) could ever come to life. Between the words on the page and the skillful architecture of the stage, I came to understand a lot more about art history, women’s history, and feminism. Theater really should be seen and heard, as well as read, so try the digital audio version on for size, too.

Cooking for Dummies, Bryan Miller.

Although IDG’s “Dummies” series takes a lot of good-natured ribbing for their approach, this particular title is extremely helpful. Miller’s introduction to kitchen skills covers basic tools and techniques for the beginner kitchen wizard, then moves on to simple foods, like salads and pasta, that are pretty hard to screw up. Once you’ve got those under your belt, you can move on to strategies for shopping, meal planning, and dinner parties. Miller ends the book with lists of books and resources to consult next, ensuring that you can take your cooking up to the next level, if you want. Perfect for new college grads, or anyone else who’s tired of relying on take-out and the microwave.

This book saved me from a lifetime of eating frozen dinners. I was trying to get serious about exercising and losing weight, so I thought it would be a good idea to learn to cook properly, too (go big, or go home). Miller’s book gave me the basic kitchen skills I needed and the confidence to try more advanced dishes, and I plan to give it as a gift to all the kids in my life when they’re ready to strike out on their own. This is also the very first book I ever checked out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger.

Henry’s rare genetic anomaly randomly sends him back and forth in time; Clare’s life follows a normal, sequential pattern. Their asynchronous love affair is magical, passionate, and exciting, but also fraught with difficulty. After all, it’s exasperating when the person you love can vanish at any moment, and it’s no picnic for the vanisher, either. Is this a love story for the ages or a train wreck waiting to happen? Literary romance fans who haven’t devoured this book should bump it to the top of their lists, at once.

I’m not the sort of person who reads popular books at the same time everyone else is reading them. I made an exception, though, the year I went to library school, and everybody was swooning over this book. A time-traveling librarian? How could we notIt was the first time I’d been on the same page–literally and figuratively–with a group of friends over a book, and the fact that we were all working hard, studying hard, and partying hard together made it even more meaningful and worthwhile.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s collection of tough-love advice, collated from her tenure as advice columnist “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus, is tough, tender, hilarious and heartbreaking. Strayed’s overall tone is warm and friendly, making you feel as if you’re sitting in the kitchen–or maybe a coffee shop–with the very best kind of friend: someone warm and sympathetic, but unafraid to call you on your crap, if need be. Letter-writers bare their souls on topics from the loss of a child to professional envy of a friend, and Strayed answers them all the even-tempered wisdom that is hard-won by those who have seen, and survived, many of life’s more unpleasant aspects.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Cheryl Strayed. She’s endured a great deal in her life, but she didn’t let it make her bitter. She writes with both wisdom and humor. She knows when cuss words make a piece of writing work, and when to use gentler language.  And she genuinely cares about the people who write to her, and wants to help them achieve their highest potential. Those aren’t bad things to aspire to, methinks, and I ask myself sometimes, “What would Cheryl say?” when I ponder my own dilemmas. Hopefully keeping this book handy will keep me grounded and sensible–but not too sensible–as I navigate my 40s.

Your turn: what books would be on your ideal bookshelf? Tell us about a book that means a lot to you, or reminds you of a specific time in your life.

–Leigh Anne

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And the Ladies Have It

Welcome spring, and welcome Suzy–please enjoy the first blog post from our newest contributor, who will be joining us monthly in the writing staff rotation.

For Women’s History Month I wanted to honor the “bad” girls of history. Then I got hung up on the definition of “bad” in this case. Do I mean bad like Nell Gwyn, orange-seller, comedienne and long-time mistress of King Charles II of England? Or bad like Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, one of the most prolific serial killers of all time and fan of bathing in virgin blood? Both ladies are fascinating, but there are degrees of bad. I think Gwyn’s amorous misdemeanors sort of pale in comparison to murdering 600 people. But I’m judgy like that.

So, being the scientific chick that I am, I chose my favorites.  Without further ado, my top 10 bad girls of history:

 Nell Gwyn –Reputed to have told her coachman fighting for her honor, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.” Gwyn’s feisty wit and lusty personality are the reason King Charles II, on his deathbed, begged his brother, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” And she didn’t.

Cleopatra–Sure, she was an amazing administrator and Egypt’s culture and economy flourished under her reign. But she murdered her own brother and sister to become the Queen of Egypt! She was the mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony! She swallowed a priceless pearl to demonstrate her wealth!

 Elizabeth Bathory–As mentioned above, killed 600 people in pretty gruesome fashion. 600 PEOPLE. That’d be like killing all of my Facebook friends. Twice.

Bonnie Parker–I freak out if I get pulled over for speeding. Parker was involved in at least one hundred felony criminal actions during her two-year career in crime. This includes, but is not limited to, kidnapping, murder, armed robbery and one major jail break. She also chain-smoked Camels.

Mae West–The very first play she wrote (“Sex”) got her convicted on a morals charge. But the lady who said, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often,” was an instant success and never looked back.

Marie Antoinette–Hopefully we all know by now that Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” But she wasn’t that into helping the starving masses either. And she really, really, really, really liked clothes.

Margaret Sanger–Considering the current controversy over birth control and woman’s health, we ladies may need to channel the spirit of Sanger in 2012. She promoted the pill before the pill existed. And got tossed in the clink for it.

Anne Boleyn–Did she sleep with her brother? And a poet? And a groom? Did she really commit treason?  I don’t know, but she had six fingers and a killer sense of style.

Lucretzia Borgia–Again with the incest. But also a poisoner!

Wallis Simpson–King Edward VII of the United Kingdom abdicated his throne to marry her. Enough said.

Your turn–who’s your favorite “bad” girl? 

–Suzy

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The Wendy Chronicles

It’s been a little over four years since Wendy Wasserstein died, and I still miss her.  Not, obviously, in the way her relatives and friends do; that’s presumptive in the extreme.  It’s Wasserstein’s literary absence that smarts, the loss of a wise and witty author gone too soon.

Best-known for her multiple-prizewinning play, The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein’s body of work also includes humorous essays and one smashing novel, the kind of fictional debut that hurts to read because it’s so good, and there will never be another.  As if to atone, Wasserstein did leave behind various recordings that, when read alongside her literary work, flesh out our posthumous portrait of the quirky, determined author.

Whip-smart, and packed to the gills with artistic and cultural references with which you might not be familiar — I made more than a few trips to the library the first time I read Heidi Chronicles — Wasserstein’s writings constitute encyclopedic coverage of women’s history within a particular context. Her entry in the Jewish Women’s Archive succinctly explains her singular position in contemporary American literature:

Wasserstein made a special place for herself in the American theater by being one of the first women to stage women’s issues with the astute and comic eye of a social critic. As her characters, accomplished women who are trying to find fulfillment in their personal and professional lives, discover that it is impossible to “have it all,” they gain a better understanding of who they are. Although she resisted being labeled a “feminist” playwright, arguing that men are not subject to such labels, she was seriously troubled by the unjust inequities based on gender that she saw in American society. Therefore, her plays continued to focus on women struggling to define themselves in a “postfeminist” America that still suffered from the backlash of sexism, homophobia and traditional values but also from the problem of liberal entitlement. Her writing not only reflected her passionate interest in women but also revealed the fact that she was Jewish and a New Yorker.

On the surface Wendy Wasserstein and I have next to nothing in common, but when she speaks of what unites all women — our desire to succeed on our own terms, and to make peace with women whose terms are not ours — I feel a sense of kinship that transcends the boundaries of age, religion, class and privilege.  Reading Wasserstein has taught me to keep my heart as open as my mind, and to laugh at the obstacles in my path, even as I work diligently to strike them down.

This is, of course, one of the reasons we read:  to learn from those who sing with different voices.  Their compositions are meant to encourage us, not to copy theirs, but to inspire our own.

–Leigh Anne
uncommon woman in training

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An Irish Literary Sampler

If you were so inclined, you could probably spend the rest of your life reading nothing but Irish literature.  Quite frankly, I’m half-tempted:  as I read and researched for this post,  I found enough literary leads to keep even the most voracious reader happy.  To do full justice to the subject, I’d have to write a book.

Luckily, many people have beaten me to the punch.  Here’s a short list of books our own library offers, meant to be that briefest of introductions to the literature of Ireland.

Irish Literature 1750-1900: An Anthology, ed. Julia M. Wright.   A comprehensive overview of 150 years in Irish writing, this work contains treatises both historical and philosophical as well as extracts from folklore, opera and, of course, poetry.

Finding Ireland, Richard Tillinghast. Reading this book is like taking a long walk with a friend whose photographic memory expresses itself in one cheerful, rambly monologue. This delightful literary tour of Ireland is part travelogue, part love poem, and all wonderful.

For something slightly more comprehensive, you can have a Field Day, literally. In fact, you can have several, as all five volumes of the Field Day Anthology are available for checkout. Volumes four and five are specifically dedicated to Irish women’s writing and traditions.

Ciáran Carson’s translation of the Táin bó Cúalinge (the cattle raid at Cooley) is a fine introduction to Celtic epic tales. In this particular saga the mighty warrior Cú Chulainn battles an entire army over a brown bull, all for the sake of Queen Medb’s desire to have nicer livestock than King Ailill’s. It’s much more complicated than that, of course, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to see for yourself.

I could go on, of course. Purists might, for example,  deem it sacrilege that I never once mentioned Yeats, Boland, Wilde (mere) or Wilde (fils), but rest assured:  the library’s got you covered.  In fact, why not stop by today and ask us about your favorite Irish novelist, poet, or playwright?

–Leigh Anne

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