Susan’s Best Reads of 2019

I don’t read as much as I wish I could; I just don’t have time at the moment. It doesn’t help that I wind up with sometimes 600 page books in my hands, and those take longer.  I never know what I’ll read next, and I read a bunch of good ones last year. Here are some of my favorites:

One of the two best books I read this year, I’ve already blogged about: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull, was amazing. Not just a history of Pixar films, it’s also the best darned, most entertaining book on business and employee management you will read. Pixar is a 5-star company for a reason.

The second of my Best Reads this year is The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.  From approximately 1898 to 1912, a serial killer traversed the US by train – coming through New Haven’s Union Station on the way – with an MO of bludgeoning his victims with the back of an axe. Because of communications at the time, few people were able to connect the murders. James painstakingly, with the utmost detail, traces the dozens of murders and examines them, deciding if they were likely by the same killer or not, and why. He traces the paths through the states and the seasons, chasing the trail to a man who was most likely the killer. By the time he’s done, you are convinced and amazed. I could not stop reading this book. I read it while waiting for the school bus. I read it while cooking. I would have read it in the shower if I could have. If you love a mystery, if you love history, if you love crime stories, this book is a must.

I’m only 30 years late in reading Neuromancer, the Hugo-winning cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. I can see why it is held as one of the greatest novels of our time. Gibson predicts and writes about today’s modern computers and internet and gaming – long before they existed. The scenarios he describes are both familiar and futuristic at the same time. While not only visionary, it’s written in  a flawless style and with realistic, interesting characters. If you loved Ready Player One or The Matrix (which has to have been influenced by this book), you will love Neuromancer.

If you’re aware of social and racial issues, I strongly recommend Survival Math, by Mitchell S. Jackson. A professor of writing, in achingly beautiful prose worthy of Martin Luther King Jr., with the voice of a preacher without being preachy, Johnson breaks down the issues faced in his own family, examining how he came to where he is, how racism played into it without even being visible, and how despite all the odds, it’s possible to thrive. He covers harsh topics without flinching. The book is brilliant, spellbinding, and a superb read from a voice that soars with truth.

Far more than I expected, I loved Total Recall, an older door-stop of a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger. From his birth in a tiny town in Austria (which still has only 2500 people) to his divorce from Maria Shriver, Arnold is witty and candid and down to Earth. No matter what you think of his politics or his movies or his personal life, this book may be older, but it was highly entertaining. His best friend just died in September of this year.

Not my favorite, but worth mentioning because of its local importance, is Frog Hollow  by Susan Campbell. Campbell, a former reporter with the Hartford Courant, digs into the history of the notorious Frog Hollow section of Hartford, and through tireless research shows the former glory of the neighborhood as not only an important area in Colonial times, but once a major manufacturing center (in 1898, Pope automotive made half the cars in the US). I was hoping for a deep sociologic dissection of the issues, but instead Campbell gives us an upbeat view from street level about the good aspects of Hartford and the people who live there, not just the doom and gloom of ad-selling news clips.

Last but not least, I’ll throw in a kid’s series you probably missed; with 18 years between my last two kids, I certainly did, but my youngest is so hooked on the British easy reader series Urgency Emergency! by Dosh Archer, I wound up buying most of them. The series is so witty and enjoyable you don’t mind reading them over and over again. Doctor Glenda, Nurse Percy, and the Pengamedics, in predictable melodrama, assist the maladies of Humpty Dumpty, The Big Bad Wolf, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and many more. They are a delight. The library has several of the stories; be sure to read them all!

Upcoming Books-to-Movies

Not every book becomes a movie; not every movie started out as a book, but the two feed off each other like peanut butter and chocolate. Many of the top Oscar-winning films started out as books (The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Schindler’s List, and more). Some movies were better films than their book (in my opinion, Planet of the Apes, Poseidon Adventure, and Casino Royale are three). Some people want to read a book before they see a film adaption, while others see a great film and want to read the book to see if any good bits were left out.

If you’re of the group that prefers to read the book first, better get started! A whole new wave of book adaptions is readying for the coming year. Here’s a peek at some of them:

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – that’s the collection of T.S. Elliott’s poem collection that became the musical CATS. Whether this is a filmed “stage” production or a cohesive musical film remains to be seen, but it stars Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, no theater slouches. Look for it at Christmas.

Death on the Nile – Kenneth Brannaugh’s second attempt to capture Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in a mystery due out in October of 2020. It also stars Gal Godot of Wonder Woman fame.

Doctor Sleep – Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining stars Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrence, due out in November 2019.

Dune – Yet another attempt to harness Frank Herbert’s cornerstone classic, most assuredly without the winged underwear. Although it bears an all-star cast, I loved the deep details of the novel, and I have a special affinity for the admitted mess of the 1984 Lynch adaption. Like Batman, all the reboots get tedious after a while. Sometimes you can’t capture greatness.

The Goldfinch Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel hits theaters in September of 2019. It has promised to be faithful to the book, a coming of age story of a boy whose life changes in an instant.

The Turning – A modern adaption of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, it’s produced by Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg’s track record isn’t perfect, but still one of the best in Hollywood. The story is the one of the classic horrors of literature. Due out in January of 2020.

Little Women – The long-time classic of girl literature by Louisa May Alcott, it was first adapted for film in 1933, and most recently in 1994. A very strong cast (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, the list goes on) has given this move a lot of buzz. Now’s the time to catch up on the classic story you may have missed (it’s not as bad as you fear). Look for it at Christmas, 2019.

 

The Good Liar – Nicholas Searle’s novel will star Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan as a con man trying to steal from a widow who has more than one trick up her sleeve. Look for it in November of 2019.

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn’s #1 thriller of a woman who witnesses a crime will star Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, and Gary Oldman. Since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, it’s technically a Disney film (with no princesses, no mermaids, and no singing), due out in October of 2019.

Bond 25: Ian Fleming wrote only 12 Bond novels, and two collections of short stories. The films have now exceeded the original material. The movie has been through a long list of issues from a revolving door of writers and directors to explosions on set, and the working title of Bond 25 gives away no details about the story, but you can get your fill on the original novels. The movie, purportedly the last for Daniel Craig, is set for April of 2020.

Deadpool 3, Black Panther 2, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984 : 2020’s crop of Comic-book Hero films, from Marvel and DC. Most of them still have current story lines, or track down the older versions online or in graphic novel compilations.

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem’s novel of a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome searching for the killer of his best friend won multiple awards for fiction and crime fiction. The all-star cast is headed by Ed Norton, who stars, directed, produced, and wrote the script. During filming, a set caught fire and a fireman died during the response, fueling accusations and lawsuits. It’s due out in November of 2019.

Happy Parents, Happy Kids

Perhaps one of the fastest ways to pick a fight with a stranger is to comment on their parenting style. Around the country, let alone around the world, each culture or region is convinced only their way is right. Yet, American education has been in decline for years, currently ranking 27th in the world.  On the world happiness index, the US only ranks 18th. How do we, as parents, raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted and productive children? Let’s take a look at a few approaches to child-rearing from beyond our shores…

Strict Helicopter

Parenting books number nearly as high as the number of parents, but several have made headlines. At one end is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  China, with more than a billion people vying for jobs, education, and housing, is perhaps the most cut-throat parenting system of all: children seen with potential are removed from homes as young as three, and raised by the state to become champion athletes, mathematicians, scientists. Parents are relentless in ensuring their child’s excellence, demanding study or practice eighteen or more hours a day in a method most Americans would label sheer abuse. Imagine the pressure on an entire class where being #2 is not an option. Chua has no qualms about pushing her daughters into being virtuosos and Ivy League scholars.

Don’t Bug Me, Kid

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman focuses on the ways the French raise their 

children. “The result of raising children French style, Druckerman writes, is “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters and reasonably relaxed parents.””  French parents have a me-first attitude – if the baby won’t sleep through the night by four months, let him cry. They don’t like to breastfeed, because it interferes with intimacy. They don’t speak to their infants in baby talk, treat patience and waiting as the highest virtue after social manners, and feed their infants table food, resulting in children who like to eat normal food. Are French children perfect? Bien sȗr, non, but they seem to have far fewer struggles than Americans.

One Big Happy

The Danish Way of Parenting, by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl may just have a little more power behind it. The Danes often score #1 on the list of Happiest Country in the World. They have high taxes, but they get free education, healthcare, paid maternity leave, and more – those things that are crushing us. To discuss Denmark (and many of the Scandinavian countries), one has to first understand the concept of Hygge, which rules everything the Danish do: Hygge (pronounced hue-guh or hoo-guh) is that warm, huggy feeling of comfort you get when you’re doing something with your family: sitting by the fire drinking cocoa, playing a board game, or maybe decorating cookies together, in one of those commercial-like scenarios where everyone is happy and the kids aren’t fighting and the dog isn’t chewing the game pieces – except, in Denmark, this is actually reality. It’s the land where Norman Rockwell must have taken notes.

The Danes rear their children with this mindset, which transforms them into happy adults. In (very) short:

  1. Don’t overpraise. Find something specific and praise that one thing instead. “What a nice, straight line!” Encourage growth; don’t let your child think s/he’s perfect.
  2. Let your child play. Play. With sticks, rocks, toys, not electronics. Play builds thinking skills, motor skills, social skills, and spatial relations a child needs for education.
  3. Promote togetherness. Family game nights, dinner, movies, puzzles, walks or sports or just playing in the park. Do it together, or with friends. This promotes strong social ties and models appropriate behavior. 40% of American families eat dinner together less than three times a week – 10% never do.
  4. Reframe negative thinking. Dwell on good things, not bad. If your child says they hate school, remind them of the things they do like.
  5. Practice empathy and compassion. Talk about emotions, and help your child learn to recognize them in themselves and others. Compassion for people and animals makes for a caring society.
  6. Let children figure things out for themselves. Don’t hover. Let preschoolers settle their own squabbles (within reason. If Agatha is beating Bjorn with a shovel, you might want to step in). 

There are no absolutes to child rearing. Some children are just darling; others seem to come out of the womb looking for trouble. But in a time when Americans are fracturing at the seams from stress, when schools are failing, children are parenting themselves, and society itself seems to be tearing apart, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere for advice. Considering the Danes were terrorized by two World Wars and are still the happiest people on Earth, maybe we should listen.

Also try:

        

 

50 Years of Apollo

On July 21, it will be FIFTY years since mankind first walked on the Moon.

Although the Russians – with superior rocket power – managed to get not only the first satellite in space, but the first man in orbit, first woman in orbit, and smash the first man-made object into the moon, it wasn’t until May of 1961 when President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, challenging America that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

United for the Cause

Perhaps no other statement since Roosevelt’s “Date which will live in infamy…” speech has done more to stir an entire nation in a single united direction. Congress allotted funding. The infant technology industry ramped up. Mylar was invented. Velcro found a use. Manufacturing learned to miniaturize (in a time of bulky tubes and transistors, when each reel of magnetic computer tape could hold a whopping 184 Kilobytes of memory [for reference, an MP3 recording of the Star Spangled Banner runs around 900 Kb – half your memory]). The entire country surged forward with that dream, no doubt spurred on as an homage to Kennedy following his assassination. TV picked up the dream with serious and non-serious programs like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Dr. Who, and more. Movies gave way to huge spectacles, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and a few thousand campy pulp films. Food wasn’t left out: the need to eat in space gave us the use of TANG, dehydrated ice cream, and Pillsbury Space Food Sticks.

The Final Frontier

The road to the moon was littered with failures – we didn’t even manage to smash a probe onto the moon until 1962. We made it through the Gemini program, only to learn that some things couldn’t be rushed or corners cut when the Apollo 1 crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – burned to death in an oxygen fire in a test module, because the pressurized doors opened the wrong way. This led to a pause – there was no Apollo 2 or 3, and 4-5-6 were all unmanned. If ever there was a lot of pressure on a crew, Apollo 7 was the first 3-manned crew to blast off Earth, period. Missions 8-10 looped the moon, giving us the famous Earthrise photo.

Apollo 11 pulled it all together. With less computer capability than an Apple watch, the lunar lander settled on the moon,  Armstrong sent out the famous words, “The Eagle has landed,” followed shortly by Armstrong’s historic “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” At the end of an incredibly violent, divisive, depressing decade, the entire world came together for a few brief moments to rejoice.

Fifty years later, we sit back on our Tempur-pedic cushions with our cell phones, tablets, LED lights, and flat-screen TVs, watching through scratch-proof lenses or LASIK-fixed eyes (all outgrowths of the space program),  and marvel at a time when space exploration was our future.

Deniers

How do we know it wasn’t faked? Like everywhere Man goes, we left our garbage behind – landing modules, rovers, flags and plaques – more than 400,000 pounds worth, and though they can’t be seen by any telescope on Earth (you’re talking a 10-foot object from 239,000 miles away), they can by orbital satellites around the Moon.  The path to space is far too complex for a blog post, so grab a good book, watch a good film (join us for a viewing of the documentary Apollo 11 at CPL on July 18), and think on just how different our lives would be if we never tried to reach for the Moon.

             

                       

                           

Inconceivable! An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Legend has it “It” girl Lana Turner was “discovered” at a soda counter in 1937. Outside of perhaps Hedy Lamar, who invented some heavy military tech in WWII, most of the actors in the “glory days” of Hollywood were not known for smarts but for looking glamorous. Hollywood was the way for good-looking people from the back fields of America to break free and become wealthy and “cultured.” They had to speak well, dress well, stay thin, know their lines and marks, and obey the studio.

Times have changed. While good looks are nice, there are plenty of successful actors who have never been considered heart-throbs (Steve Buscemi, Clint Howard, Vincent Schiavelli, Mike Smith, Linda Hunt, etc). Hollywood may have its mega-cash flow (A-listers make $15-20 million per film; Dwayne Johnson had 9 films 2016-2018), but many stars aren’t afraid to flaunt their smarts and get that college degree, knowing how fickle the acting business is. Jodie Foster has a degree from Yale, Natalie Portman from Harvard, Emma Watson from Brown, Mayim Balik has a PhD in Neuroscience, Gerard Butler a law degree, James Franco is finishing a PhD from Yale, and more.

Smart AND Talented

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting actor Wallace Shawn, listening to him speak and interviewing him briefly. Never heard of him? I’ll bet you have. Perhaps most famously he is known for the Inconceivable role of Vizzini in the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Currently, he plays the Professor on the TV show Young Sheldon. He’s had roles in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bojack Horseman, and if you had children any time in the last 20 years, he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story. You might not know his name, but you probably do know his face and voice.

And what an interesting man he is!  Soft spoken and humble, he loves to chat, and was charmed by all the happy faces he met. Shawn graduated from no less than Harvard, with a degree in history and the hope of becoming a diplomat – so far as spending a year in India teaching English. Acting was never on his radar – in fact, he was known far more for being a playwright, with such well-received plays as Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Marie and Bruce, My Dinner with Andre, A Master Builder, and Evening at the Talk House. His acting career came about due to a friendship with play director Andre Gregory, with whom he collaborated on the semi-autobiographical My Dinner with Andre, and he’s never stopped working since.

He’s also published books of essays, including one titled simply Essays, and his 2017 collection entitled Night Thoughts, which he admits is a bit political. Although biographies will give more clues to his opinions, in person Wallace treads a neutral line, doesn’t give many clues as to his feelings, and tries to keep many of his opinions private. Originally he considered writing to be selfish and self-indulgent, but then realized it was a satisfying creative outlet.

Heavy Reader

photo: Dawn Swingle

So what does a highly educated actor and playwright like to read? What authors does he favor? Wallace preferred to side-step the question a bit, citing that he likes to keep those things private. In the past, his favorite book was The Idiot by Dostoevsky, because it contained just about everything you could ever want to know about the human condition – not the kind of answer I expected, far heavier than I would have imagined. He admitted to liking Japanese literature, including Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami. The man is far deeper, and a deeper thinker, than I ever would have imagined.

Time with Wallace Shawn is like spending time with a favorite uncle who comes to Sunday dinner. While his movie and television roles may portray him otherwise, he’s sweet, personable, and down to earth. He admires Woody Allen, spent much time with him, and does not believe the accusations against him. His environmentalism showed when asked what he would have liked to have told his younger self, and he remarked he never realized “when he was young that the most destructive animal on Earth was ourselves, that what we put into our cars would destroy everything not only locally, but globally, that butterflies and bees would be dying, and only a handful of people would even care about it.”

Wallace Shawn: actor, voice actor, playwright, author. If you can’t catch one of his plays, check out his movies and TV shows. Truly, a man who is much greater than the sum of his roles!