Friday, January 19, 2018

Podcast Roundup Week #3

This week, the last week of holiday break, I listened to 62 episodes. This number will come to a screaming halt once classes begin again. The theme of the week seemed to be unchecked institutions.

I listened to the entirety of the five-part series The Pope's Long Con, the story of Kentucky state Representative Danny Ray Johnson, a hustler and liar who managed to claw his way up to the state house in Kentucky with a side of sexually molesting a minor along the way. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting released this in December of 2017 and within two days of its premiere, Johnson had committed suicide. It was horrifying to listen to it while knowing the outcome, but it does raise all kinds of questions about checks and balances and how this man got to this incredibly powerful position without anyone ever doing a simple background check.

Each episode is roughly 20 minutes long, so if you're at all interested, it's not a huge time commitment.
Reveal, the podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting, is absolutely one of my favorites.It covers in-depth stories about things I never even knew were stories. The episode "Fire and Justice" examines the case of five people who were convicted of a 1988 explosion at a construction site in Kansas City, Missouri that led to the death of six firefighters.  The story tackles the entire criminal justice system from shoddy police work to unfair plea systems to sentencing irregularities. I never leave a Reveal episode without wondering how human beings have managed to cope with the evilness that power always manages to bring out.
If you're looking for even ONE more example of bureaucracy gone terribly awry, listen to the Radio Diaries episode "The Dropped Wrench." In 1980, an overworked mechanic in Arkansas almost managed to blow up Arkansas (and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, adn maybe Alabama) while working a nuclear missile silo when he dropped a wrench and it poked a hole in the missile's fuel tank.  The response of the mechanic, as well as the responses of the bureaucratic chain of command, is almost unbearably cringe-y to listen to.  There are roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and roughly 15,000 more reasons to have trouble sleeping at night.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Our book club book for this month was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This is the debut novel from Saunders and is described everywhere as "avant garde," so I was super nervous upon reading it. I had to keep checking it out of the library because I was consistently having to return it after having read only twenty pages.

It's the story of the in between stage between life and death (the "bardo") and the ghosts who hang out there.  It's a narration about the love of a father for his child. It's the retelling of the stories of the forgotten.  It's confusing as all get out.

There are over 150 characters in the book and if you try to follow each individual story line, you'll drive yourself crazy. I was attempting to do that the first couple of attempts at this book.  But then I let it go. I imagined myself in the bardo with ghosts flitting in and out, only obtaining the bits and pieces of their stories. I imagined the confusion of not really knowing you're dead.  I stopped trying to figure out plot and just imagined being there. It made it all much more reasonable and I made it through the last half of the book with less sturm and drang and confusion. 

Saunders is quite clever in the writing. He uses bits and pieces from historical narratives in addition to his own narration from the beings in the bardo.

His hair was dark brown, without any tendency to baldness. - In "The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln," by Katherine Helm, account of Senator James Harlan.

His hair was black, still unmixed with gray. - In "Chiefly About War Matters," by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His hair, well silvered, through the brown then predominated; his beard was more whitened. - In "A Wisconsin Woman's Picture of President Lincoln," by Cordelia A. P. Harvey, in "The Wisconsin Magazine of History."

The conflicting accounts tell us so much about the time period, but also call into question the idea of the "facts" of history.  If we want to describe Lincoln's hair color, there's no way to actually do so with any sort of accuracy. If that's the case on a detail that seems, on the face of it, to have an actually correct answer,  what hope do we have of constructing any sense of the reality of the past? 

In the end  I was glad I soldiered through on this one, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it without strongly advising that you gear up for some confusion at the beginning.

Monday, January 15, 2018

2018 Sewing Project #1: The Dress is Done

I've literally been working on this dress for years. In a matter of about four hours (only FOUR), I managed to finish it.

I was doing the New Look pattern 6095 because it was marked "easy" (and it was!), it was cheap, and there was an option of a dress with sleeves. I did version A with the sleeves of D. 

The sleeves were not that bad. I actually got stuck on the sleeves step and once I just sat down and sewed it, it turned out that I was making the whole thing into way more of a process than it actually was.  
The final product is way too big on me, which indicates that either my measurements were off or that I was too generous in my cutting of the pattern. The neckline is also way too much of a boat for me. I guess the picture on the pattern indicates that, but I didn't really pay attention. I will definitely be looking for more of a scoop, crew, or square neckline. It's also way too long. Even for someone who is as modest as I am about hemlines, this is ridiculous. It's all really good to know and I'll keep all of this in mind when I am making future dresses. 

I'm keeping this in the closet with the hope that someday I'll be able to alter the dress to make it wearable.  In the meantime, I'm checking this off the list.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Podcast Roundup Week #2

This week I listened to 40 episodes. I had a small operation on my mouth and spent two days essentially lying on the couch attempting to put pressure on the corner of my mouth in a vain attempt to get the swelling to go down and stop tonguing at the stitches and so I mostly just closed my eyes and let the podcasts wash over me.  Here are some episodes that stuck with me.

I listened to the three-part musical podcast 36 Questions. Starring Jessie Shelton and Jonathan Groff, this tells the story of an estranged couple as they ask themselves questions that apparently lead to love. I'm really interested in research on happiness and love and these questions endlessly fascinate me. The idea that if two people have an honest conversation around these questions it will definitely lead to a long-term relationship is endlessly wondrous to me. I could honestly fall in love with anyone, as long as I told them that I don't think my childhood was any happier or less happy (less happier? I don't know) than average?  Anyway, that is not exactly what this podcast is about, but it's something I will talk about for hours if you let me.

If you lie when having the initial conversation with the 36 questions, what are the consequences? Can you ever recover?  Forget about the questions themselves, can your relationship ever be healed if there is major untruth that has been around from the beginning? Should that healing take place? Whose responsibility is it to begin the healing process? What is the responsibility of the other person?  Does this hold true for romantic relationships and platonic ones? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I'm still puzzling over the ending of this podcast while humming the song "We Both" to myself. 
I also listened to the last two episodes of the 10-part Heaven's Gate podcast with Glynn Washington that takes a in-depth look at cult of the same name whose alien-worshiping members committed mass suicide in 1997. There are ups and downs in this series (you can probably skip episode #4 in which Washington talks about his own experiences in a cult if you're solely interested in Heaven's Gate itself, although the similarities between the cults was striking and the episode really nails that; the episodes with interviews with family members of cult members were hard to listen to and riveting at the same time) and Washington's narration style takes some getting used to if you're more accustomed to the NPR-style production, but these last two episodes were a great ending to the series. Washington pushes you to think about whether or not the beliefs of the cult members are so different from the beliefs of so many others and whether or not you would be susceptible to a certain type of brainwashing.  Thumbs way up to this series and the last couple of episodes in particular.
I have been resistant to listening to Gimlet's branded podcasts, but DTR (which is a popular internet acronym standing for Defining the Relationship - you're welcome to people who have not dated on the internet in a decade or more), which is a Tinder sponsored podcast,  has gotten good reviews, so I went ahead and downloaded the first few episodes. I'm both super glad I'm not dating in 2018 and I don't actually think the relationship with Tinder is super positive in the stories it tells, so this worry of mine is maybe a bit overblown. Maybe. I'll keep listening and let you know.

The episode I want to talk about is "Dick Pics" and I learned SO MUCH. I had no idea that sending/receiving dick pics was just a way of life if you're using modern dating apps.  I did a bit of internet dating in the early days and this just did not happen.  It just didn't. And it seems like that's not true anymore. If I have ever felt more like an old fogey than when I was listening to this podcast, I can't recall that time. And to hear people talking about their super complicated feelings about this phenomenon was fascinating. Some people like it? Some people just ignore it?  Some people feel borderline assaulted?

Anyway, I'm going to keep listening because I like learning about "kids these days" and their ethical quandaries which are different from mine, but no less important. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

I asked for it. I asked someone, as is my custom when I'm getting to know someone, what his favorite book was. He said Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and I ordered it from the library that evening. He said he never even liked reading until he read this book.  Why, that's quite an endorsement! Why, it's a book I've never heard of! Why, it meets one of the requirements for the 2018 Read Harder Challenge! Why, this is great!

It's 933 pages is what it is; 250 pages of those are tedious and mind numbing, too.  But then something happened to me. I just couldn't stop reading it. I was late getting dinner started because I just wanted ONE MORE CHAPTER. I was huddling under the blanket after Dr. BB turned off the lights because I just had to get figure out how our narrator was going to get out of this mess. It just somehow turned into a delicious soap opera. 

From the slums of Bombay to the mountains of Afghanistan to the prisons of Australia, this rambling epic is mostly just us wandering about aimlessly with our narrator who occasionally has a purpose in life but more often than not seems to be most just existing. Apparently Roberts actually DID escape an Australian prison and lived as a fugitive for more than a decade, so I lot of the material I was calling hogwash at the beginning was actually kind of true.  

I'm not sure that I can even articulate actual themes from this novel. Roberts seems to think he's quite profound, but his philosophical treatises told from the point of view of the various father figures in the book, are simultaneously overly simple and bombastic.  After my initial reluctance to engage with it, I just found myself more or less enjoying it the way I would enjoy an action movie. Pick one character at a time to follow and once that character inevitably leaves, through death or separation, pick a new character to follow.  It was like watching General Hospital through the lens of being Tracy Quartermaine's (I just had to google Tracy v. Tracey - these are the tribulations of our time) greatest fan. 

This novel seems quite polarizing on Goodreads. Look, I think Roberts is a little stuck on himself. I think he thinks he's a better writer than he is. I think the novel could have been 50% as long as it was. But at the same time, some of the digressions and plot-lines that lead nowhere were fun and engaging. Roberts' overblown sentence composition became a game I could play when I was reading (how many ways can he describe this guy's smile? his teeth? his black hat?).  And I get why this picaresque would appeal to my acquaintance who loves this book. 

Are the kind of person who likes reading about roguish rascals who perambulate around the world committing acts of various degrees of criminality and immorality all the while opining about the evilness of the world? Then this book is for you. Do you like your protagonists to take actions that make sense and have a clear moral compass?  Then this book is most definitely not for you.  It is polarizing because it was written for a definite audience. I'm not sure that I myself am part of that audience, but I can appreciate this for what it is.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

At some point in the maelstrom of year end roundup lists, I found a list of books that librarians recommend from 2017The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman was the first on the list. Librarians know what's up, so I immediately requested in from my library. Apparently this book is a prequel to Practical Magic, but I have not read Practical Magic and I was immediately immersed in this world without needing any sort of primer.

The Owens family comes from a long line of witches. The matriarch in the family has a long list of rules the family must follow and, of course, as children are wont to do, children break the rules. But when you and I break the rules, it's generally not a matter of life and death. When the Owenses break the rules, it's not always that simple.

I was not expecting to find this book so transporting and riveting, but the lives of Vincent, Franny, and Jet seemed as real to me as my own.  The fear and excitement of the 1960s comes off the page, the deep debates we have within ourselves about self-identity and family belonging are engaged with a way that is meaningful and not preachy, and magic seeps off the page. I'm not generally a magical realism kind of person, but this one is totally five out of five stars for me.  I'm going to go ahead and put Practical Magic on my reading list now.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Podcast Roundup Week #1

I am currently subscribed to 86 podcasts, most of which are active. I actually had over 100 at the beginning of our holiday break and have been slowly purging the ones I don't listen to or are no longer active.  I'm usually about a month behind in my episodes, although I am getting closer and closer to actually being caught up.

When people ask how I listen to so many podcasts, I have to admit that it's because I'm basically always listening. I listen when I work out, when I sew, when I walk, when I drive, and when I clean house. Basically if I'm doing something I don't LOVE to do, I'm listening. This provides me with multiple hours each day to listen to podcasts. I don't watch television or movies much, though, so this replaces visual media for me.
I use Podcast Addict as my podcast player.

This week I listened to 35 podcast episodes and here are a few that I would recommend.

The Adventure Zone: Live in Nashville - I don't think you can actually listen to this episode without having listened to the rest of TAZ, but here's the gist. Three brothers and their father play D&D and make a podcast about it. They are hilarious and the family dynamic is sweet and fun. There was this moment at this live show when the dad, who plays a cleric, uses a spell that he's used before in ridiculous situations for an actual useful purpose and the audience breaks into applause and I'm not going to lie, I did a little fist pump while I was walking in the woods, too, because it was great. The dad in the group sometimes catches some flack because he's not always the best D&D player, but he sometimes has these golden moments. The Adventure Zone is one of my favorite podcasts, and I've never played D&D in my entire life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Prosecuting a President - Roman Mars, the host of 99% Invisible, another super popular podcast, puts out this occasional show of indefinite length on Trump's destruction of presidential and governmental norms with constitutional law scholar Elizabeth Joh.  There's a moment at the end of this episode when Joh asks Mars to think about the debate about whether or not we want someone in charge who thinks the president is above the law and Mars has this little laugh and says "no, that wasn't hard at all," that made me laugh out loud as I was, again, walking in the woods.

Code Switch: (Legally) Selling Weed While Black -  I have a complicated assignment in one of my race and politics classes in which I have the students listen to a combo of Johann Hari talking about the early stages of the War on Drugs as it relates to a war on blues (which was largely aimed at the black community) and the racist policies of the Bureau of Narcotics under the leadership of Harry Anslinger and then listen to an explanation of the song "Strange Fruit" as it relates to that, but this Code Switch podcast actually does a lot of that work for me and I don't have to send students off in to so many different directions. I think too many people automatically link Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs, but I think Anslinger should be a household name, too.
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