All posts in: assorted media

22 Jan 2018

best picturebooks of 2017. and also podcasts.

It is already the second fourth week of January. While New Year’s Resolution musings are fair game for at least another week, we are certainly coming up on the far reaches of the acceptable time to be writing about favorite media of the previous year.

Oh, how tiny and fleeting this window is! Does anyone still think about the best books and movies and such from 2007? I feel like one’s choices for comparative media analysis (and by that I mean: “Best of” Lists) are limited to The Previous Calendar Year or ALL TIME. How limiting.

Since the clock has already run out for 2017, I am going to sneak in just three final, semi-incongruous lists for you.

My Top Ten Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

Unlike my annual Best Reads lists, this list refers only to books *actually* published in 2017! They are also listed in no particular order, since, as I have mentioned, my window of relevance is narrowing oh so quickly. I have no time to think that critically!

The above list represents my own particular, adult tastes. You can tell because of all the browns and blues. Muted, adult-y books. What books do KIDS actually like? The timeworn question of children’s literature people. I cannot speak for all children, of course, but I did create one specific child recently. Here is what he loved this year:

My 6-18-month-old’s Favorite 2017 Picturebooks


I have to say… I’m a little surprised by his  tastes. Some of these books seemed, to me, a little “old,” a little wordy, a little… uh… philosophical for an under-two. I mean, except for What Does Baby Want. That’s just a book about boobs. But he seriously loved all of these books. I limited this list to those books I read so, so, so many times that I accidentally had to put them on the top bookshelf where he couldn’t reach or maybe lost them behind the couch for awhile. Maybe.

Two lists for the price of one! What a great post! Why not make it better by throwing in a third, completely unrelated list? Good idea, Jessica. Just run with it. Don’t look back.

My passion for podcasts has really only grown since I ran out of This American Life so many years ago. I consume more podcasts than I do television, movies, or music. (I might consume more podcasts than I read books?? Egad… let’s not dwell on that thought for too long) The podcast scene is really booming lately, almost in the way that blogging was years and years ago – and finding a podcast with great hosts on a topic that I am interested gives me the same buzz as finding a similar blog.

So here’s what I’ve been loving this year; the podcasts that I feel excited to see posted and queue up immediately, again, in no particular order:

My Top Ten Favorite Podcasts of 2017

This is the list that certainly had the most runner-ups. I listen to just… entirely too many podcasts. I used to be such a completeist too, wanting to start at the beginning of every show and listen to each episode in order and never miss once I caught up. Ha. Now it’s all I can do to keep vaguely up to date with even these ten.

Okay. I’m done. You may all safely enter 2018 now.


03 Apr 2014

Hollywood vs. The Giver


So it seems my favorite childhood book is finally (finally!) becoming a movie. I certainly cannot let this occasion pass without comment. (Comments which are loaded with spoilers, btw)

I have notoriously complicated feelings about Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It is a book that holds a special place in my heart and memory, a book I have probably read a dozen times.

As an self-respecting Professional Book Person, I acknowledge that shedding some of my own precious feelings about books is an essential part of the job. I am used to complicated book feelings. I get less riled up when the media misrepresents children’s and YA lit. I take movie adaptations with a huge grain of salt, and I am pretty good at considering the two as separate pieces of art.

But The Giver movie? I don’t know if I can approach this adaptation with my Professional Book Person tricks. Grad school may have given this book a beat-down, but within My Own Personal Canon, it holds up to multiple re-readings, to close scrutiny. I can’t pry The Giver all the way from my psyche, so I’m not sure I am going to be able to watch this movie as a separate entity or without considering what the movie should have been or could have been.

I feel like I’m beating around the bush, so here’s a thesis statement: I am concerned this movie will not do the book justice whatsoever. Yes, most of my concern comes from aforementioned young reading experiences and personal feelings. But some of them are not.

First and foremost… are they really filming this entirely in color? I hold onto a thread of hope that maybe the trailer is a trick, that the filmmakers wanted to save the black and white transition for the theatrical release,  for maximum impact. It seems like a bit of a hokey point to get hung up on, but it’s such an obvious move that to abandon it seems portentous. Every person I’ve ever talked to about The Giver as a movie – from my first reading in 1995 to my most recent re-read in 2008 – suggests it. Jonas’s gradual shift to seeing colors is a major turning point in the novel and such an important part of what separates Jonas’s community from our own. Such a smart plot device… and just so obviously cinematic.

I am starting to feel like a disgruntled Harry Potter fan. “But Hogwarts didn’t look like that in my imagination. The Great Hall was so much greater and Ron looked like this and Hermione wasn’t like that and…” But a work like Rowling’s – or any other high-concept kid’s book that ends up on the big screen – has so many fantastical possibilities that there is no way any interpretation will match up with the text, will stand up to your vision. The Giver is a more manageable beast, and despite its relative lack of Harry Potter-level opulence, seems almost more reliant on visuals. The shift from utopia to dystopia is slow – right in line with Jonas’s brainwashed twelve-year-old perspective. Lowry creates such a comforting utopia – it’s just like our world, but without the doubt, uncertainty, pain that sit with us even as children. The utopia is powerful and Jonas’s slow education even more so.

When I watch this trailer, I don’t feel comforted for one second. The sets and costumes are aggressively “sci fi.” The interior shots show oversized boxy homes filled with that affected, Jetson-esque furniture that is supposed to look futuristic. Instead of slowly injecting discomfort into an otherwise familiar setting, the aesthetics of the film skip right to the dystopia, which, to me, is a much bigger violation than a red apple.

Maybe I’ve just read the book too many damn times – my brain permanently imprinted with 20-year-old images. But I am worried that a great book that could have been a great movie has been Hollywood-ized to death. The world needs another teen sci-fi-adventure-romance, so why not The Giver? If I can make myself see the movie, I will have to work hard to keep my cool, keep that non-psycho Professional Book Person hat on tight and try not to have a conniption.

Or, more likely, I will wait until a trusted children’s-lit friend watches it. If they report back negatively, I will never watch it and pretend it doesn’t exist. The Utopia Of Your Favorite Childhood Book. I can hold onto that one.

10 Feb 2014

Books before Movies, Movies before Books, and other Not-So-Important Dilemmas

A few weeks ago I finally watched the first Lord of the Rings movie. Yes, thirteen years is a long time to avoid a well-respected cultural touchstone of cinema, based on a cultural touchstone of literature. I understand that. But you know… elves. Trolls. Orcs. Dragons. Three hour movies about elves and trolls and orcs and dragons.

But also, I wanted to read the book first. I always want to read the book first. My reasoning has always been that I would prefer to meet characters in their primary setting – between two book covers. Through my actions, I make a fairly unsupportable assumption that books are always better than their adaptations. But I don’t even think I believe that. I think I just like the scramble – quick! Find the book and finish it before we go! And probably more importantly, the ritual strokes my literary-ego. I am a person who chooses books before movies. Please, everyone line up to admire my giant brain.

Book-Before-Movie feels virtuous but does not always result in a more enjoyable reading/ watching experience. Re-reading a favorite just before taking in a film adaptation can be especially hazardous. I watched the first Hunger Games movie with a friend who had just finished a re-read; we all agreed it was a great film and a great adaptation, but my friend had a laundry list of “well, they skipped THAT part and changed THIS part” to discuss as well. I re-read Perks of Being a Wallflower before watching the movie and felt the same way, but also felt like there was something different, something so good about the book that wasn’t in the story but in the narrative. Something that didn’t translate to the screen – maybe something that couldn’t.

Then there is the Lord of the Rings dilemma. Over thirteen years, I told plenty of people that I was planning on reading the books. But I wasn’t going to read them. I didn’t really read fantasy. I was in grad school. I was always going to read something else instead. It wasn’t going to happen. It hasn’t happened. Stalemate.

But what really tipped me over was my experience with Game of Thrones. I chose to watch the show because I was coming around to fantasy, because I wanted to watch a show with The Boy, and because everyone on the planet was obsessed. I didn’t feel a need to read the books before I watched because I didn’t even know if I would like the book. Lord of the Rings was a classic. A Song of Ice and Fire was thousands and thousands of pages long.

Anyway, you are all well-aware that I loved the show and launched quickly into the books. And while I read it was fairly clear that if I had come to this book cold I never would have made it through the first few chapters. There is just too much going on and too many characters. Watching the show gave me a leg-up, and then reading while I read helped me understand some of the more subtle scenes in the show. Some folks make the argument for Book First because you get the pleasure of imagining characters on your own, without input. But when a movie or show is cast as well as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, then I don’t mind. My endearment to the characters of Westeros made the books worth the effort.

And I never would have read the books if I hadn’t watched the show. I could have gone to my grave Jon Snow-less, Rob Stark-less, Tyrion Lannister-less. Stalemate broken.

In conclusion, I have spent 500+ words on an issue of little or no importance. Read before you watch, watch before you read, do what you like, do what you do. But if you’re spending decades of your life making excuses for reading a book or watching a movie, you should probably just do what you have to do. You’re not getting any younger, you know.

P.S. My extreme LoTR avoidance also allowed me the very rare pleasure of meeting Boromir for the first time, screaming “NED STAAAAAARK!!!” into the small space of my living room, The Boy laughing at my inverted cultural priorities over the last 13 years.

P.P.S. Now, next time I go home to Michigan, I can play Lego Lord of the Rings with my sisters. I am excited. This is a very legitimate reason for an adult woman to be excited. I promise.

12 Sep 2013

The Spectacular Now

Two weekends ago, my sister came to visit me and we couldn’t decide on anything Boston-y that we should do. I even asked her if she wanted any food-stuffs that you can only get in the big city and she said “no, I’m on a migraine medication that kills my appetite so I don’t really eat.”

So I thought we could see a Sister Movie, as this particular sister and I have a very long track record of watching movies together. Our parents dropped us off at the theater to see Titanic in 1997. We saw Slumdog Millionaire together on Valentine’s Day – my sister sang me a love song while we waited in the concession line, but refused to share a Diet Coke.

We went to see The Spectacular Now, because the only movies ever pay money for are adaptations of children’s and YA books. Apparently. I read Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now just after starting my old blog, actually. I had just decided to start reading like a crazy person all the time, and The Spectacular Now caught my eye from the National Book Award shortlist.

I think I would like to read it again. The movie felt like a boiled down teen love story with a complicated, fairly unlikeable protagonist. I remember there being something more going on in the book, some more depth to Sutter’s world view. I liked the movie, though, for what it was, although I will admit to a major distraction:

Shailene Woodley in this movie looked fairly exactly like our youngest sister.

Tall, long of limb, always wearing her hair in a messy top-knot, freckles, little cute nose, long dark hair… it was fairly uncanny. And also, Shailene’s character, Aimee, was pretty much the same character as my sister. Quiet. Under the radar. Super smart. Beautiful. And into sci-fi. There’s a scene when Sutter comes into Aimee’s bedroom for the first time and it was pretty much my little sister’s bedroom, all animals and posters and twinkle lights. You know, the bedroom with the fairytale night stand? Yeah. That sister.

The association became rather distracting because I was basically watching a movie where my youngest sister falls in love with a slick alcoholic who will probably break her heart. Also, there’s a sex scene. Also also, that bedroom scene just screamed Manic Pixie Dreamgirl…  And then my mind started whirring – is my sister going to be someone’s MPDG? She did just start college – will she bring someone back to her dorm room and they will fall head over heels for her adorable posters and tchotchkes and vast knowledge of Pokemon? Do MPDGs actually occur in real life or are they persistent fictional female constructs?

I don’t think Movie Aimee is particular MPDG-y, and Book Aimee even less. In fact, I think part of what is interesting about The Spectacular Now is just how average Aimee is, and how Sutter has to learn how not to change her to his whims and also treat her life and interests with respect – even if she’s falling in love too fast, and even if Sutter can’t manage to treat his own life with respect.

It was also interesting to see the differences between how the book and the movie portray Sutter’s personal vices. The book is first person from Sutter’s POV, the whole story filtered through Sutter’s over-the-top perspective. Sutter’s voice is funny and brash and so well done, but Tharp definitely uses the strong voice to his narrative advantage, using it to distract the reader from how much Sutter is drinking, how many dangerous decisions he is making, and also the whole plotline about his father. On the screen, we watch Sutter sipping from his flask almost constantly – it sinks in much more quickly how damaged this boy is and how much progress he needs to make. I think the movie is sadder to watch than the book was to read.

Anyway, I would recommend seeing this film if for no other reason than to promote films based on YA books that are not big budget dystopian trilogies that end up flopping, discouraging movie producers and American film-goers from investing in anything Teen. I think I will give the book a re-read, or maybe try Mojo, which I unearthed from the bottom of my Drawer of Shame yesterday.

Also, if you would like to read a more movie-ly review of this film, please direct yourself to my dear friend’s blog, The Daley Screening. He is watching a movie every day for a year, in a panic celebration of turning 30 earlier this year, and blogging about it. It’s a pretty impressive task to behold. Also, he talks a lot more about booze in his review than I do, if you like that sort of thing. Which I do, but I like books more.

16 Aug 2013

so you ran out of This American Life, vol. 4

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been listening to podcasts for the past year and a half. SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST YEAR AND A HALF. I know, I know. You’re sick of me talking about it. It’s all I’ve been able to talk about for, oh, the past year and a half. But, oh, that past Jessica, that 18 months ago Jessica, she used to work so many jobs and commute all over the city and generally go-go-go-go-go.

And run tiny laps around a tiny track listening to This American Life.

And then, when she ran out of This American Life, some other podcasts. You can read about those here, here, and here.

Recently, a dear friend of mine brought me a present. A dear, podcast-loving-friend with a stockpile of ancient WTF episodes stored on his hard drive. He offered me the gift of Marc Maron interviewing Ira Glass in 2010. It’s a great episode. I listened to it a while ago and it had me thinking about storytelling and how we relate to each other as humans and how one goes from Normal Human to Cultural Superhero (Ira, Marc) while maintaining personal integrity, authenticity. Last weekend, The Boy and I were unpacking and he queued up the episode on our speakers. After the second listen, I just wanted to listen to more This American Life.

So I did. Yes, there are other excellent podcasts being podcasted, but if you are in possession of a smartphone (which Past Jessica was not), then the This American Life app is well worth the three dollars.

Three dollars. THREE DOLLARS! Three dollars will buy you access to every episode that has ever existed, including episodes before the show existed as This American Life. You can skip over all the episodes that bore you, listen to old favorites, or do like me – get completely overwhelmed and just pick 2008 and start listening.

So here is a quick guide to my favorite 2008 episodes, which will be useful only to those who buy the app or time travelers. But really… THREE DOLLARS! Come on, guys.

You can also listen to any episode streaming from the website, so if you have a tedious computer task and want something to listen to, then you can just follow the links.

Maybe I’ve listened to too many comedy podcasts, but is there anything more fun than spying on the inner workings of The Onion? Onion staffers pitch hundreds of headlines a week to each other, hoping that one or two will pass muster. It’s serious. It’s intense. And it’s hundreds of potential Onion headlines, so it’s absurd. Also: guess who was a staffer in 2008? Megan Ganz. And Iiiiiii have a girl-crush on Megan Ganz.

Also, the last act with Malcolm Gladwell was so funny I forced a headphone into my man’s ear so he could listen. Then I made him buy the three dollar app.


I am a sucker for stories about education, especially after living with a teacher for four years. Act One, all about questionable disciplinary and firing practices in the New York Public School System was completely fascinating. And if anyone has had the good fortune to live in a city or neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, Act Two will be an eye-opener.


If I am a sucker for educational stories, I am even more a sucker for Geoffrey Canada stories. This one is about baby university. Act Three is also really great, about a mother in prison and the daughter who missed her too much. One of those tear-jerking episodes. You know the ones I’m talking about.


Hey, remember 2008? That whole election thing? It sure is interesting to listen to what people were thinking about our president and the state of government during 2008, five years into said presidency. Start with these three episodes, then move onto…


… some episodes about America’s near financial collapse! I think I actually tried to listen to these when they aired, but I gave up on all that banking jargon. But five years later, I am wiser and more patient and have lived in this economy long enough to understand the terminology. Also, these episodes are just entertaining.


These two are This American Life classics – they get replayed often, so you might have heard them already. If not, then do. This is part of your cultural education! Mike Birbiglia’s story – the inspiration for his movie Sleepwalk With Me – is the highlight of Episode 361, and Episode 360 is fascinating, and will break your heart six ways to Sunday.



09 May 2013

only death will part

This week in impossible/stressful/ridiculous wedding tasks, we plan our ceremony.

Which will happen in…. oh…. two months.

Two. Months.

Scene: The Boy and Me looking over possible wedding ceremonies provided by our lifesaving officiant

The Boy:                Do you want to do our wedding vows like a duet?

Me:                        What in the world are you talking about?

The Boy:                Like this

[He shows me a supposedly contemporary exchange of vows in which the imaginary paper couple appear to read a very long, very drippy poem, alternating stanzas between bride and groom]

Me:                      I would prefer the phrases “you crept toward me” and “dandelion fluff” to not be included in my wedding.

The Boy:               Alright then.

Me:                      In fact, the only way I will exchange vows with you in a duet form is if we sing them. Like West Side Story.

The Boy:               What in the world are you talking about?


And that is when I realized that everything I know about romance, I probably learned from musical theater.

29 Mar 2013

seven things for a friday

1. I got to leave my windowless office today to visit a branch library. It was the cutest little branch by the beach, and such a nice little children’s space – nice collection, nice layout, very neat and well-kept and inviting. A nice way to spend a Friday.

2. This morning I was 10 pages away from finishing The Dinner and 3 tracks away from finishing the last disc of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both of these books are the kind of books where there are unreliable narrators and zillions of secrets being revealed in every chapter… so, I was feeling a little reading-tense. I finished The Dinner and found the concluding pages to be decidedly creepy but without any major additional surprises. I’ll let you know how Bernadette goes once I need to do the dishes or fold my laundry.

3. I think my next-up audio is Wonder. I’ve heard OMG BEST BOOK and eh, not that great, so I’m curious. 

4. A few days before Google Reader got axed, I deleted my massive stockpile of blog bookmarks. They were feeling oppressive, and I figured the ones I really wanted to read, I would remember. I added 15 back to my list so far. I’m happy with my decision.

5. I have 10 days to watch 30 episodes of Mad Men. Sooooo… I am watching a lot of Mad Men. I am thinking about Don and why he has so many girlfriends. Seriously, dude. Don’t you get exhausted? Don’t you want a break? You have a high-powered job and a steady-lady… you have children. Don’t you want to come home and like… lie down? Not pretend like you are in love with another lady, like a new vagina will save you from your internal pain? Come on, Don. I hope this series ends with Don at like, 80. I would like to see an 80-year-old Don.

6. If you are a fiction writer-type, you should check out John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. I’m only a few chapters in, but it’s pretty much what I’ve been looking for lately – straightforward but flexible instructions on building stories in an organic way. Much different than the other writing craft books on my shelf.

7. This is my second list-based post of the month. My apologies.

14 Mar 2013

it’s a mad, mad world

A few months ago, one of my coworkers started watching Mad Men for the first time. She was hooked after the first season, and I’ve made my love for this television program so clear that she comes into my office every few days to dish about whatever episode she’s just finished.

I’ve probably watched this show – from start to finish – at least three times. Maybe four. Each episode is so rich, so full of visual and contextual details that you might not notice in a single viewing. The jumps between seasons – even episodes – make you wonder what happened in the meantime. The story unfolds more as life than fiction, but if you watch enough times you can see arcs that span over multiple seasons – big, scary character arcs about what it means to be a man or a woman or a child.

But my favorite part of this show is how it plays with the idea of “historical fiction” – how we think about the past.  Much of the time, the show and the characters proceed as if they are putting on a show, the show of the 50s and 60s; they wear the appropriate costumes, make the politically incorrect jokes, they walk around as if they know they are Of The Time, even if that time is now past.XZ

But then, every few episodes, the facade drops. Two characters look at each other like they  just realized are children wearing adult clothing. Those moments, where everything is stripped down, are completely unsettling.

Also: I hate Pete, love Betty, throw things at the TV when after reforming for half a season, Don starts Pulling a Don, and John Slattery is probably by biggest Mad Men crush. Silver fox anyone?

So I decided that I might try to watch Mad Men again before the final season premieres in April. That is a lot of episodes in just a few days. I should probably make more ambitious goals, but damn I just love this show so much.

25 Feb 2013

ten movies

Operation: Watch! More! Movies! has been fun. I got The Boy in on it, and now once every week or so he’s all “so, want to watch a movie?” and then there is movie snacking and couch cuddling and other such enjoyable evening activities. A Saturday Morning Movie, before anyone else in the apartment is awake, is also recommended. Here is some of what has been watched in 2013:

Old School Comedies

Planes, Trains and Automobiles reminded me of how much I love Steve Martin.

I think my dad has told me a few hundred times that Trading Places was one of the funniest and best movies ever, and I can now say that I’ve seen it!

The Boy asked to watch The Producers, and then was slightly miffed that the original wasn’t a musical. Nine years of hanging out with me has its side effects.

One time, I showed Beetlejuice to a group of middle school students in a library and my jaw dropped at how offhandedly raunchy it was. And PG! So I obviously wanted to watch it again to make doubly sure that I am an awful librarian.

Ryan Gosling

Speaking of raunchy… yeah, that is the only reason I watched Blue Valentine.

Non-Old School Drama-Comedies

Did you hear 7 bajillion plugs for Sleepwalk With Me in 2012? I did! Thankfully, I liked it otherwise I would be indignant about all that hype. And we wouldn’t want that, right?

Non-Old School Drama-Comedies Starring Jason Segel

I found The Five Year Engagement to be exactly what I expected: a slightly off-center romantic comedy hinging mostly on Jason Segel’s ability to be charming. I was particularly charmed the Michigan location and how for awhile, the plot centered on how awful it was that Segel was turning into a Michigan-Mountain-Man.

Jeff Who Lives At Home was probably a better movie, and was less Segal-centered. Still nothing I would watch over again, but good Streaming-Netflix-Fun.

Serious Oscar Nominated Films

Um, yeah, the only Oscar Nom I could get my hands on at the library was The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists! I don’t think it will win (or will have won by the time I post this tomorrow morning…), but it was decently entertaining.

Sex, Drugs and Murder. And Cross-dressing.

I think we covered this one recently enough.


I meant to post this once I finished watching 10 movies, but I think I have actually already watched 20?? So what I’m trying to say is, I’m not even trying to live a productive, self-satisfied life anymore – I don’t write, I don’t do projects, I don’t exercise, I just watch movies. And acquire respiratory viruses. Which leads to more movies. And Breaking Bad. I’ll tell you about the other 20 movies another time. I need some DayQuil. The end.


21 Feb 2013

all roads lead to YA lit – sex & drugs edition

My effort to watch more movies this year has flipped on a strange bit of radar in my head – my ears perk up for movies that flew under my radar, classics I haven’t watched since I was a child, movies that whatever sort of cult cache that I seem to revere. I listened to an interview with Seth Green – one of my middle school actor crushes (even though I was probably already taller than him at the age of 12) and he mentioned his friendship with Macaulay Culkin, and that the favorite film of his career was Party Monster. It was on Netflix. I watched it. For twenty minutes I was completely put off, then completely engrossed.

The movie is based on a book that is based on the lives of the two protagonists – James St. James and Michael Alig – as they romp around New York in the early 1990s with a gaggle of gender-bending, bizarrely dressed Club Kids behind them. It’s bizarre, it’s graphic, there are many drug overdoses and a few murders. It reminded me of In Cold Blood in the way that I wasn’t quite sure if I was watching a documentary or a fictionalization, or whether James and Michael were protagonists or villains.

Of course, I google the crap out of it once the movie’s over. After some time spent down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I figured out why the name “James St. James” stuck so clearly in my head:

He wrote a fairly well-received YA book in 2007!

All the roads, they lead to YA. Although to be honest, if you set Freak Show and Disco Bloodbath/Party Monster in front of me, I would probably choose the latter. Blame it on Seth Green.