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show preview: Alex Dezen at Middle East Upstairs, March 9.

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The Damnwells have disbanded after 16 years together. Alex Dezen is on tour in support of his second solo album, II. The newest album features upbeat, grooving melodies with a retro vibe. Of the new album, Dezen said: “In many ways, the job of an artist is to re-examine what came before. That informs what we do next, My intention when I made this record was not to make an ’80s record. But as soon as I got the guitar in my hands and started messing around with chords and getting further along into the production and the writing, it just went that way — and it felt very natural to me.”

In 2010, Dezen  earned a master’s degree from the University of Iowa after completing two years at the institution’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He writes material for other artists and has worked with  Dave Grohl, The Dixie Chicks, Justin Bieber and Kelly Clarkson. In 2015, he collaborated with the American dance company Pilobolus Dance Theater, composing the music for the dance piece “Wednesday Morning, 11:45 (2015).”

$10, Thursday, March 9, 7 p.m., Downstairs, Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square, Cambridge, mideastoffers.com.

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book review: VICTORIA

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VICTORIA: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen by Helen Rappaport. Harper Design| January 2017| 304 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 9780062568892

RATING: 3.5/5*

Currently the Masterpiece series Victoria airs on PBS and Victoria historical consultant Helen Rappaport wrote this companion book. The book includes a forward by novelist and series screenwriter Daisy Goodwin, who writes: “There were plenty of people who thought that an 18-year-old girl could not be an effective monarch. But it is clear when you read Victoria’s own words that she was a woman with an extraordinary sense of her own identity.”

The author delves into the queen’s writings to provide scholarly insight. Throughout the book there are quotes from Queen Victoria’s diaries as well as letters from the Queen, her family, confidants and Prince Albert. There’s a useful House of Hanover Family Tree [1714-1837] and plenty of beautiful pictures of the Victoria cast throughout the book. It includes these sections: Little Drina; From Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace; The Maiden Queen; Lord M; The German Pauper; Her Majesty’s Household; The Court of Queen Victoria; The Welfare of My People; Becoming a Mother; Behind the Scenes.

When I watch historical television series [such as The Crown] I often find myself googling information on people and events. I enjoy researching and perhaps reading additional books based on something I’m watching or reading. This book contains a bevy of information and details which may enhance one’s enjoyment of the program.  It’s a magnificent resource—all in one attractive coffee table book– for fans of the program Victoria, the British monarchy and the Victorian era. This likely is only something that the most avid fan would actually buy/own but it’s worth checking out.

Years ago I bought the Sense and Sensibility companion screenplay and diaries by Emma Thompson. I’m not an Austen-phile but I do love Emma Thompson and loved the film. In the past 20 years the book travels from apartment to apartment and looks good on my bookshelves. I don’t look at it often but I like knowing I own it.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: Virgin and Other Stories

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Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 179 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 9780865478695

RATING: ****/5*

Strong debut short story collection with a dark tone and dark sense of humor. Author April Ayers Lawson, currently a visiting writer at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill,  grew up in the South with an evangelical background. She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s easy to imagine that everyone in the South drives around in a pick-up truck with confederate flag and gun rack attending weekly church service. In this story collection she creates a complex image of the South and its inhabitants with rich details and enthralling, layered characters.

In the title story, Jake contemplates the potential deterioration his marriage to Sheila, a virgin when they wed. A teenager becomes tantalized by a mysterious young man living at her piano teacher’s home in “The Way You Must Play Always:” “The love inside her had room to spread out now. It was part nervousness, part desperation, and a little craziness too, and she felt it begin to rush outside of her and around her, leaving invisible prints of itself all over the things she touched: her bag, her books, the keys, the pages of the music she turned.” A woman who befriended a transgender woman at her church takes her son to the woman’s funeral in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling.” This boy recalls how different his mother would be when Charlene would come over to visit: “First I thought WHAT IN THE WORLD did my mother have to put in a diary? All she did was give me assignments, wander around the house wiping things down, drink green tea, and go to stores. She never said anything to me about a diary; then Charlene’s her thirty minutes and my mom is Anne Frank.”

In the best story, a married artist forms complicated relationships with her art dealer and another artist in “Vulnerability.” She’s married to a man who mostly hangs out after work in the garage watching porn on his computer. Of her husband: “Occasionally when I returned from the bathroom at a restaurant I’d come back to find him engaged more happily in conversation with the waitress than he ever was with me; with me he claimed he could be himself, which was depressed.” She creates imaginary relationships in her mind then when she meets the art dealer and another man she corresponded with she plays them off against each other. There’s a dangerous precariousness in her emotions and palpable insecurities: “I knew I had nice legs, and unable to think of anything funny or intelligent to say, my mind sludgy with the clonazepam I chewed like candy and alcohol and th dregs of crumbling fantasy, I shifted then about in hopes that he’d forgive me for not being as smart and inspired and bold as I thought I’d managed to seem in the emails.” Best read slowly to savor and absorb the exquisite details.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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book review: Mister Monkey

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Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. Harper| October 2016| 285 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-239783-6

RATING: ****/5*

“They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundreth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable musical based on the classic children’s novel.”

In writing this novel about a failing theatrical production, author Francine Prose [Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, My New American Life, Blue Angel] addresses the rippling effect of the play on a bevy of players. The faltering stage production of a classic and popular children’s novel brings together a disparate group of actors, crew and audience members.  Prose imagines how this rather basic play correlates to the mid-aged actress questioning her career, the child actor playing the titular monkey, the children’s book author and young child in the audience, that child’s teacher and others. Each chapter builds on the past one. The play’s based on a novel about a wealthy New York family who adopts an orphaned monkey. The father’s girlfriend thinks the beloved monkey stole her wallet. The case ends up in court. Absurdity ensues.

Each chapter addresses the play from a different character’s viewpoint adding more layers to the story behind the play. Margot wonders how she ended up working so hard and not advancing her career in the way she’d imagined. She’s playing Mister Monkey’s lawyer in a tiny theater. This isn’t the career she’d envisioned for herself at Yale. She reminds herself: “Art is art, theater is magic, no matter how humble the venue. Together they have transformed a house full of strangers into a group of people all rooting for Mister Monkey!” The home-schooled twelve-year-old actor in the monkey suit became engulfed in everything simian when he landed the role. He also harbors a massive crush on Margot. Costume designer Lakshmi believes “Mister Monkey is a nasty piece of imperialist propaganda justifying human trafficking, which you would know if you were smart enough to substitute a person for a monkey.” Eleanor works as a nurse full-time and acts on the side. The grandfather and his grandson, Edward, attended a matinee of the play. Prior to the play the grandfather started reading the book to his grandson. “The grandfather didn’t like the book either. It seemed obvious and preachy, full of improving lessons about race and class, honesty, justice, and some kind of . . . spirituality, for want of a better word.” Edward takes the playbill to school and a spirited argument about evolution erupts among the kindergartners.

How does this affect Edward’s teacher Sonya? She’s in trouble because her young pupils discussed Darwinism.  Sonya meets a guy for dinner at a fancy restaurant where she ends up next to the book’s author. The date deteriorates quickly. Suffering from PTSD after Vietnam, Ray ending up writing Mister Monkey based on an experience during the war. He’s now wealthy. Whenever Ray receives theatrical royalties he takes whomever he’s dating or married to at the time to dinner at a restaurant called Enzo’s and he gives his favorite waiter Mario tickets to the production. Mario’s fiancée left him—“She was the one who pretended to be someone else, someone who wanted a life of simple contentment with Mario. By then Mario had moved back to his parent’s house for what he’d thought would be a few weeks.” Mario adores the theater and will attend any play and restaurant patrons gift him tickets often.

Prose based the novel on her own experience attending a children’s musical with her granddaughter at a small theater in Manhattan. Prose found the production lacking and tragic and at one quiet moment her granddaughter exclaimed: “Grandma, are you interested in this?” And so Prose wrote this novel to address that question. Fascinating connections allow Prose to explore shattered dreams, unfulfilled goals, success, failure, raising a child in Manhattan, career, love and friendship through wonderful characterizations, vivid prose and a sharp tone. It’s easy to become engulfed in this brilliant, darkly amusing and astutely observational novel.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

 
–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Future Sex

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Future Sex by Emily Witt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| October 2016| 210 pages | $25.00| 9780865478794

RATING: *****/5*

“I had not chosen to be single but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Without love I saw no reason to form a permanent attachment to any particular place. Love determined how humans arrayed themselves in space.”

Technology changes everything. It changes how we meet people and it changes how we interact with others. There’s more sexual fluidity and experimental sex than in the past because of both changing ideologies as well as the ability to remain anonymous online if one chooses to indulge in one’s fantasies. Whatever you fancy you’re likely to find it. However, society still expects people to couple up to have families. Author Emily Witt writes: “If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursued a strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject.” We live in a rampant rape culture. Women also get slut-shamed for wanting and pursuing sex. Can someone subsist outside of a monogamous relationship? Does everyone need to be part of a couple? This book strongly suggests that it’s not essential although how far outside the cultural norms must one go to be happy? Witt explains: “I supposed that since then I had been nonmonogamous in the sense of sometimes having sex with several different people within a specific period of time. As I said this both the idea of counting people and the idea of grouping them within a time frame seemed arbitrary. This was just my life: I lived it and sometimes had sex with people. Sometimes I wanted to commit to people, or they to me, but in the past two years no such interests had fallen into alignment.” Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner.  Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Emily Witt will be at Harvard Book Store on Monday, October 17, 2016

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new music: Alexandra Savior; Radar Eyes

Alexandra Savior, “M.T.M.E.”

M.T.M.E. –the abbreviation for music to my ears is the new song from talented 21-year-old Alexandra Savior. The song entrances with intensely sultry vocals and a musical arrangement which effectively fuses Eastern and Western sounds. The L.A.-based Savior wrote the song with Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys/Last Shadow Puppets).

Radar Eyes, “Midnight Drive”

80s post-punk/goth influences feature prominently on this song. Yearning vocals and stylized, psychedelic guitar make the song pop. It’s a definite throwback for fans of The Church, Bauhaus, Echo & The Bunnymen. Past meets future on this energetic single. Radar Eyes is: singer/ guitarist Anthony Cozzi; guitarist Russell Calderwood, drummer Nithin Kalvakota, and bassist Lucas Sikorski. The band’s new album Radiant Remains [Under Road Records] is available now.

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show preview: Trashcan Sinatras at Middle East Club Cambridge on Tuesday, May 17, 2016

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Scottish indie-pop band Trashcan Sinatras formed in 1986 and released its debut album Cake in 1990. This album featured the catchy, charming hits: “Obscurity Knocks” and “Only Tongue Can Tell. The second album, I’ve Seen Everything, released in 1993 included the pretty single “Hayfever,.” Trashcan Sinatras create pretty, gentle, melodic songs. Ones that I used to play over and over. The band will release its sixth album Wild Pendulum in May. You can support the new album via Pledge Music.

Trashcan Sinatras line-up: Frank Reader (vocals); John Douglas (guitar); Paul Livingston (lead guitar); Stephen Douglas (drums); Stevie Mulhearn (keyboards); Frank DiVanna (bass-tour); and Grant Wilson (bass-CD).

discography:

Cake (1990)

I’ve Seen Everything (1993)

A Happy Pocket (1996)

Weightlifting (2004)

In the Music (2009)

Trashcan Sinatras  play The Middle East Club in Cambridge, Mass. on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.

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