Beyond Serial: The Year in Podcasts

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It has been some time since I did a round-up of my favorite podcasts, but given that the first season of Serial wrapped up today, I thought people might be interested in what more is out there in the podcast world. What follows are some of my favorite discoveries of the year (all available for free on iTunes).

Serial

If you don’t know what Serial is, just stop reading now, go download and listen to all twelve episodes and then come back, because you are really missing out.

I got turned on to this one by @thebestjasmine on Twitter, although I suppose I would have eventually caught on anyway since everyone seems to be talking about it now. The show is completely addictive, no doubt about it. If you want even more once you finish listening, you should check out the speculation on The Serial Serial, a podcast about the podcast by The A.V. Club.

Podcasts_X-Files

Speaking of doubling down name-wise, another favorite podcast is Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files. I recently decided I wanted to do a rewatch of the series and discovered this at just the right time. I can’t say enough about how brilliant, interesting, and funny this podcast is. Nanjiani generally covers two episodes a week and has reached the middle of Season 3, so there is plenty of time to catch up with him.

Podcasts_Call Your Girlfriend

For something on the lighter side, the final new podcast I recommend is Call Your Girlfriend, hosted by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. These “long-distance besties” talk about anything and everything, from pop culture to the tech world to office politics to, yes, this week in menstruation.

Call Your Girlfriend also happened to lead me to The Broad Experience, which is a podcast about issues relating to women in the workplace. I’m still catching up on back episodes, but this is chock full of useful information and practical tips on a variety of feminist issues.

One of the reasons I was too busy to blog this year was my own workplace issue: a large portion of my time was taken up as the lead editor of a new college textbook in U.S. History, a role that included wrangling professors, writers, and editors, and generally being responsible for the overall content of the book. For this reason, I particularly sought out history podcasts, old and new. The best ones I found are:

    BackStory takes on a different theme each episode (wilderness, higher education, the police) and looks at it over time with three historians, specialists in the history of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries respectively.
    My History Can Beat Up Your Politics also takes on a particular theme, usually something current on the political scene, and looks at it from a historical perspective. However, this podcast is more of a lecture than the short reports and discussion format of BackStory.
    15 Minute History is almost the exact opposite of the two above podcasts. Each episode is a brief look at a very specific historical moment or movement through an interview with an expert on that issue or event.

Other podcasts I recommend are the “News in Slow…” series for language learners, which I use to keep up my Italian (first I listen to the News in Slow French and get an idea of the topics they are covering for the week, then I turn to the Italian). For books, I particularly like A Good Read by BBC 4, where the host invites guests to recommend a book and each guest reads all the books and then comes in to discuss them—a great resource for old and new book recommendations. Literary Disco is also fun, but I haven’t had time to listen to it in a while. For general pop and nerd culture interviews, try Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler or The Nerdist.

Of course, I still recommend many of those podcasts I spoke of four years ago, including Books on the Nightstand, The Classic Tales by B. J. Harrison, the Quick and Dirty Tips series, and my beloved Readers, who I discovered soon after that post and who turned me on to a whole new world of books and blogs across the pond.

Podcasts_Readers

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites and why? I’ll never get through them all, but I’m always looking for new listening material.

Opera 101—2014 Figaro Awards

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Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.
(Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise.)

Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Despite falling off the blogging bandwagon and not writing up most of the operas I saw this year, I could not pass up the opportunity to bestow my annual Figaro Awards. Just keep in mind that I may have more commentary than usual since there is no original reference post to explain these opinions.

All operas seen at the San Francisco Opera in 2014, both in the summer (Show Boat, La traviata) and in the fall (Norma, Susannah, Un ballo in maschera, Partenope, La Cenerentola, and La bohème) are eligible for these beauties.

Production I would most readily see again: Partenope. This could have been stronger musically, but Partenope earns this spot because I have never before attended an opera where the audience was so thoroughly enjoying itself, from the opening of the curtain, which drew spontaneous applause, to the closing bow. So, it looks like Handel is two for two for me.

The ensemble of Partenope. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ensemble of Partenope. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best ensemble: La bohème. While I’m disappointed not to have seen Leah Crocetto as Mimì (she was in the other cast), this was a solid group all around, with Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimì, Michael Fabiano (who I so enjoyed in Lucrezia Borgia despite his horrific costume) as Rodolfo, Alexey Markov as Marcello, Nadine Sierra as Musetta, Christian Van Horn as Colline, and Hadleigh Adams as Schaunard.

The ensemble of La bohème. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ensemble of La bohème. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Most disappointing production: La Cenerentola. It’s safe to say I had been looking forward to Rossini’s La Cenerentola for some time. Oddly enough, soon after I asked on Twitter, “Who do I have to sleep with to get the San Francisco Opera to put on La Cenerentola?” I learned that they would in fact be putting it on this season. While the production was perfectly fine, I was expecting to adore it, and I didn’t. So I’m rather glad that this self-professed bel canto whore did not, in fact, have to give it up after all.

Least memorable production: Un ballo in maschera. In that I literally can’t remember anything about it. I know I wasn’t really with it this fall, and we saw this the night before I left for my week-long birthday trip to four different national parks, but I expected something to stand out. Yet it didn’t. Not the plot, not the singing, not the set. So, despite the fact I rather liked the music when I listened to it beforehand, and I vaguely remember that Heidi Stober was delightful (as always), it is conspicuously absent from these awards.

Heidi Stober as Oscar in Un ballo in maschera. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Heidi Stober as Oscar in Un ballo in maschera. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best production design: Partenope. As mentioned above, the audience burst into spontaneous applause when the curtain rose on this set. La Maratonista agreed that we had never seen that before. The opening scene certainly presented a striking tableau and perfectly captured the interwar Paris vibe they were going for, like something from a Lubitsch film.

Danielle de Niese as the curtain rises on Partenope. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Danielle de Niese as the curtain rises on Partenope. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best costumes: Show Boat. Going into the summer season, I would have thought this award would eventually go to La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, or La Cenerentola, but when all was said and done, these dazzling costumes from Paul Tazewell set a high bar that no other production matched.

The ensemble of Showboat in costumes by Paul Tazewell. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ensemble of Showboat in costumes by Paul Tazewell. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (male lead): Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk in Susannah. This award is almost entirely due to the fact that while other people were singing I often found myself thinking, “Where’s Sam? This needs more Sam.”

A scruffy Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk in Susannah. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A scruffy Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk in Susannah. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (female lead): Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma in Norma. Radvanovsky had a few weak spots opening night, but from the reviews I’ve seen they seemed to have smoothed out quickly over the course of the run.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma in Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma in Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (trouser): Daniela Mack as Rosmira in Partenope

Outstanding performance (pinch hitter): Jamie Barton as Adalgisa in Norma. Replacing Daveda Karanas just weeks before opening night, Jamie Barton almost outshone Radvanovsky in the lead role.

Outstanding performance (brothers from different mothers): Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Alexey Markov as Marcello in La bohème. While I’d seen this opera before, these two made me realize the story is almost more about friendship than love. I mean, besides Così fan tutte (and let’s not speak of that problematic piece), what other major opera focuses on male friends?

Outstanding performance (sisters from different misters): Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa in Norma. Apparently these two were in opposite casts in these roles at the Met; I’m glad that due to a last-minute withdrawal on the part of Daveda Karanas we ended up getting them both, because they sing beautifully together.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa in Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa in Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

MVP of the season: Christian Van Horn. What wasn’t he in this fall? From his turn as Oroveso in Norma, to Count Ribbing in Un ballo in maschera, to Alidoro in La Cenerentola, and finally Colline in La bohème, he gave solid supporting performances throughout the season.

Christian Van Horn as  Alidoro with Karine Deshayes as Angelina in La Cenerentola. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Christian Van Horn as Alidoro with Karine Deshayes as Angelina in La Cenerentola. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Adler Fellow(s) of the year: Efraín Solís as Dandini, Maria Valdes as Clorinda, and Zanda Švēde as Thisbe in La Cenerentola

Efraín Solís as Dandini, Maria Valdes as Clorinda, and Zanda Švēde as Thisbe in La Cenerentola. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Efraín Solís as Dandini, Maria Valdes as Clorinda, and Zanda Švēde as Thisbe in La Cenerentola. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best choreography: Michele Lynch for Show Boat

Best choreography (honorable mention): the flamenco in La traviata

Favorite program cover: La bohème. I also liked the covers for Showboat and La traviata, but this painting of the rooftops of Paris really captured the world of the opera. Plus, I’m a sucker for Caillebotte.

SFO_Boheme Cover

The Big Sleep award (tie): Norma and Partenope. Neither of these plots makes a lick of sense, but the singing was oh so pretty.

Best coat porn: Show Boat

Realest rain: La Cenerentola

Best (Worst?) use of a cross as hammer: Susannah

Raymond Aceto as Olin Blitch in Susannah. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Raymond Aceto as Olin Blitch in Susannah. Photo by Cory Weaver.

AT&T award for cutest kids: Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske in Norma

Chevy Chase-Gerald Ford award for best pratfalls: Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo in Partenope

Joyce Kilmer award for best aria: “The Trees on the Mountains” in Susannah

Nigel Tufnel “none more black” award: La traviata

The set of La traviata was as dark as the soul of Alfredo's father.  Photo by Cory Weaver.

The set of La traviata was as dark as the soul of Alfredo’s father. Photo by Cory Weaver.

“Things That Go Bump in the Night” award for loudest set changes: La Cenerentola

“Murphy Bed” award for coolest set changes: David Farley for La bohème

Set most likely to be found on Skull Island: Norma

King Kong or Norma? You be the judge. Photo by Cory Weaver.

King Kong or Norma? You be the judge. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Harry Belafonte award for best use of bananas: Philippe Sly in Partenope

Plato award for best shadow puppets: Partenope

Jon Bon Jovi “blaze of glory” award: the finale of Norma

The grand finale of Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The grand finale of Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

And last but not least, since I didn’t write up opening night, a few dresses (mostly) not found on stage.

Best Dressed (Paris division): Komal Shah. Once again, a killer Oscar de la Renta gown.

Best Dressed (aficionada division): Chandra Rudd. Kudos for wearing a purchase from the SFO costume sale.

Komal Shah (left) in Oscar de la Renta and Chandra Rudd (right) in Bob Mackie (designed for LuLu). Photo by Alex Washburn, special to The Chronicle.

Komal Shah (left) in Oscar de la Renta and Chandra Rudd (right) in Bob Mackie (designed for LuLu). Photo by Alex Washburn, special to The Chronicle.

Best Dressed (animal print division): Joy Binachi. La Maratonista and I were standing next to her in the lobby post-Norma and she just looked so cute.

Best Dressed (feathers division): Sonya Molodetskaya.

Joy Bianchi (left) in Tom Ford and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown with Sonya Molodetskaya (right) in Vasily Vein. Photo by Alex Washburn, special to The Chronicle.

Joy Bianchi (left) in Tom Ford and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown with Sonya Molodetskaya (right) in Vasily Vein. Photo by Alex Washburn, special to The Chronicle.

Finally, as always, a big shout-out to La Maratonista for being such a great opera companion (as well as a bigger person than me when it comes to the harpy in our row) and also to the Intrepid Irishman for stepping into her shoes for Susannah. The 2014–2015 season has been absolutely stellar and I’m looking forward to another great year, starting with the epic Les Troyens and Two Women in the summer season.

Feel free to comment or argue for your favorite (and not-so-favorite) moments of the season below.

Returning to Manderley 2014

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As promised, here are the answers to the “first lines” challenge I posted last week. Click here if you’d like to try to guess some of the books before reading the answers below.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

—The opening of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier

Longbourn

1.  Kino awakened in the near dark.
—John Steinbeck, The Pearl

2.  At five-forty-five in the morning, Paul and I rousted ourselves from our warm bunk and peered out of the small porthole in our cabin aboard the SS America.
—Julia Child, My Life in France

3.  Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

4.  When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race and manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.
—Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement

5.  I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral.
—Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt

6.  Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.
—E. Lockhart, We Were Liars

Manderly Covers

7.   I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.
—Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

8.  Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She’d already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense.
—Tom Rob Smith, Child 44

9.  PUBLIC NOTICE: There will be an auction on the 24th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, for the valuables the farmer Natan Ketilsson has left behind.
—Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

10.  There is one mirror in my house.
—Veronica Roth, Divergent

11.  There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.
—Jo Baker, Longbourn

12.  At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

13.  The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.
—S. J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep

Before_Sleep

Congrats to Fran Wilde and Erin G. who both guessed three of these correctly.

Which one(s) are you kicking yourself over?

Look for reviews and comments on these selections and more in my traditional “Year in Books” post at the end of the month.

Grand (Re)Openings

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It’s been so long since last we met,
Lie down forever, lie down;
Or have you any money to bet,
Lie down forever, lie down.



Above are the first lines of my alma mater’s fight song, which seemed appropriate given that I’m re-opening this dormant blog with the second rendition of my “first lines” challenge.

Ribbon

If you weren’t around these parts last Thanksgiving, I stole this game from James over at Following Pulitzer.

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

The most important rule of this game is to rely on your own memory and brain and not to cheat by using Google or another resource, print or online. This includes looking up my recent reading at Goodreads.

I’ll say it again, DO NOT use any other resources other than your own brain and/or the brains of those around you.

So, what’s the game, you say?

Below I’ve posted a list of first lines from books I’ve read this year—your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

—The opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Some truths:
• Some of these should be quite easy; others are fairly difficult.
• I’ve used discretion as to what counts as the first line.
• The line may be in translation, my own or another’s work.
• The authors or books are generally well known, have won or been nominated for prizes, or have been otherwise much discussed recently.
• The selections can be from any time period or genre, fiction or non-fiction—what ties them together is that I have read them this year.

If you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess. Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden. If it’s driving you crazy and you end up googling the answers, that is certainly understandable, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us, that is unforgivable!

Anybody is welcome to comment and guess and I encourage you to do so since even an incorrect guess may trigger something in someone else’s memory. I may also offer hints in my responses so be sure to subscribe to the comments. Whatever is not guessed outright or crowd-sourced through the comments will be posted in one week.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

—The opening of Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy

1.  Kino awakened in the near dark. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

2.  At five-forty-five in the morning, Paul and I rousted ourselves from our warm bunk and peered out of the small porthole in our cabin aboard the SS America.

3.  Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

4.  When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race and manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.

5.  I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral.

6.  Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

7.   I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

8.  Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She’d already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

9.  PUBLIC NOTICE: There will be an auction on the 24th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, for the valuables the farmer Natan Ketilsson has left behind.

10.  There is one mirror in my house. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

11.  There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

12.  At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country. [ETA: The author of this book has been named in the comments below, but the book hasn’t.]

13.  The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.

Please post any guesses below, not on Facebook or Twitter. That way, everyone will be contributing to the challenge in the same place. If you want time to think and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the comments below and remember to check back on December 8th for a new post with the answers.

Good luck!

Opera 101—Pretty Fallen Woman

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"If I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight."

“If I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight.”

I wish I could have been as excited as Vivian to see San Francisco Opera’s production of La traviata, but I’m afraid this one felt rather flat for me. Perhaps that is why, even though I wrote most of this right after seeing it in June, I never bothered to publish it until now.

The ensemble of La traviata. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ensemble of La traviata. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Don’t get me wrong, I like this opera; it was one of the first I ever saw live, and I was looking forward to this production. While there was nothing particularly wrong with it, after the energy of Show Boat, it just seemed dull.

Of course, the story of La Dame aux Camélias (which La traviata is based on) is a bit dull; although I must say that the novel by Alexandre Dumas (fils) is a far better rendition of the plot then what Verdi relates here. However, Verdi’s music is brilliant and I think it was done a disservice in this production. The costumes and sets also seemed far too somber and muddied for a depiction of the life of a courtesan in nineteenth-century Paris.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo). Photo by Cory Weaver.

I remember Nicole Cabell favorably from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, but she didn’t impress me here as Violetta. Reviewers seemed particularly down on the male leads, but I thought Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo) and Vladmir Stoyanov (Germont) both had a lovely tone and sounded solid, as did La Maratonista. She was also impressed by the flamenco dancers in Act II. As was I, but I trust her more on all things Spanish. As we all know, I’m a bit biased when it comes to Spain.

Speaking of dancing, this production made me long to revisit a different version of La Dame aux Camélias, which I saw last fall in Paris: the ballet of the same name by John Neumeier. With gorgeous piano music by Frédéric Chopin, in this case played live on stage, this adaptation is absolutely stunning. Neumeier’s work keeps the original framing of the Dumas novel while weaving into the story the tale of the other fallen woman of French literature who Dumas references, Manon Lescaut. San Francisco Ballet needs to put on a production of this gem stat. It would certainly be a welcome change from their constant repetition of Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake. Of course, I’d also be down for Sylvia or Le Corsaire before seeing those again. Even Coppélia and The Sleeping Beauty come this way all too rarely. But, really, with its incredible roster of ballerinas, San Francisco Ballet would do a great job with the strong female roles in Neumeier’s piece.

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