Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseBookYes Please boldly presents personal stories and thoughts from the star of Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and Baby Mama. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, this autobiography humorously weaves through short chapters on topics such as being a teenager in the eighties, personal beauty, and her bond with her sons. Her passion for improvisational comedy is evident from several anecdotes relating to her starving artist days spent learning from “gurus” of the craft, co-founding The Upright Citizens Brigade, and working part-time at Chicago’s Second City.

It was refreshing to listen to this memoir narrated by a quick-to-laugh author and her assorted celebrity-friends that included: Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, and Poehler’s parents. Poehler’s levity obviously infected them as well. Utilizing humor she effectively communicates deeper emotions when describing the difficulties of divorce, traveling in a third-world country, and dealing with guilt. Another advantage of the audiobook is the final chapter, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Love in Venice by Andre Rieu

love in veniceMusic – This is the new album from Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra, released in November 2014. Andre offers you his hand and invites you on a journey through the Venice night via gondola. It is a declaration of love to perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, and provides a popular selection of the most well-known Italian melodies.  It is the theme Andre chose for his 10th anniversary of the Vrijthof concerts, from the romantic Dutch square in Maastricht, The Netherlands.  Andre Rieu is the world’s best-selling classical musician.  He has received more than 400 Platinum and 171 Gold Awards, and Love in Venice went straight to No. 1 on the Classical Charts.  Andre and the Johann Strauss Orchestra – between 80 and 150 musicians – travel around the world performing about 100 concerts per year. They are as successful as some of the biggest global pop and rock music acts. Rieu is known as the modern day “Waltz King,” a title originally bestowed upon Johann Strauss II.  He plays a 1667 Stradivarius violin, and he and his wife, Marjorie, do all the arrangements of the famous songs.  I loved all of the music, but especially “Love in Venice,” “Volare,” and “That’s Amore.” There are 18 songs on Love in Venice, but the DVD has many more and is incredibly beautiful, festive and colorful.  So sit back and allow your imagination to drift into gorgeous, romantic Venice with wonderful Italian music.

Groundhog Day (1993)

groundhogMovie – After last year’s extended winter freeze I’m skeptical that the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will have mercy and cast no shadow on February 2nd. Regardless of prognostications I can make the most of inclement weather by enjoying an old favorite, Groundhog Day, which was filmed not so far away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Woodstock annually celebrates the holiday and their brush with movie-making fame. Past festivities have included the director/writer Harold Ramis as well as other cast and crew. (Ramis is featured in And here’s the kicker : conversations with 21 top humor writers on their craft by Mike Sacks. Punxsutawney Pennsylvania celebrations, which the film depicts, have also garnered participation from the film’s celebrities and boast crowds of 20,000+.

This film about a self-centered news announcer stranded in small-town limbo appears to be an ordinary comedy, filled with Ramis and Murray’s witty brand of humor; but like other classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, it contains deeper themes that resonate with many people. For example, the importance of community and connecting with others, especially during bleak days, appears in both classics. How one uses the time one is given is also a shared theme. So is the idea of receiving a second chance to learn life lessons.This film resonates with so many filmgoers that it has made numerous top movie lists and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Despite the weather outside being dreadful, this film has inspired folks around Woodstock to emerge from their homes and celebrate.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

a man called oveBook – Ove is a grumpy man. He’s exasperated with his neighbors, the stray cat who keeps hanging around, the postman and anyone else he encounters in his daily rounds through the neighborhood. He’s recently lost his job and cannot understand why the rest of the world cannot follow life’s “rules” and be more productive and sensible. His wife Sonja says that Ove is “unforgiving.” Ove calls it “having firm principles.” And, while Ove is trying to stick to his principles, life keeps straying from the plans. Despite his grumpiness, Ove is kind (in a grouchy sort of way). When his new neighbors accidentally back their U-Haul over his mailbox, Ove’s world begins to change in ways he never could have imagined. This story is charming, funny and slightly off-beat. If you liked The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you may enjoy Ove’s quirky tale.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

anita o'dayMovie – This is the award-winning documentary about the life of the great jazz vocalist Anita O’Day (born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago). Anita provides reflections and candid recollections on her life and music, and the documentary is packed with interviews and performances. Her career was long and eventful, spanning seven decades; her last album recorded when she was 84. She left an unhappy home at age 14 and toured the Midwest “Walk-a- thons” as a marathon dancer and singer. Then, she started singing in little clubs around Chicago from 1936 to 1939 – clubs in Uptown, such as the Ball of Fire, the Vialago, the Planet Mars, the Off-Beat and the Three Deuces. At the Off-Beat she met Gene Krupa, and in 1941 he asked her to start touring and recording with his band. That year, Down Beat named her “New Star of the Year.” She sang with the Woody Herman band in 1943, and then joined the Stan Kenton band in 1944, where she recorded several hit songs and rose to fame. Subsequently, she became a solo artist. Many placed her in the same category of such jazz vocalists as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, saying her talents matched theirs. She toured Japan for three decades with a big band and was hugely successful. Along with Mel Torme, she is often grouped with the West Coast cool school of jazz, and her skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody put her squarely among the pioneers of bebop.

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce PapersBook – Sophie Diehl is a criminal attorney. She doesn’t want anything to do with her firm’s divorce cases, but when a senior partner asks her to step in to lend a hand, she can’t say no. And the client – Mrs. Mia Durkheim, nee Mia Mieklejohn, from one of the oldest families in New England – thinks Sophie is great and won’t have anyone else for her lawyer. The story unfolds through a collection of memos, letters, notes, and legal documents as the divorce gets longer and longer, messier and messier.

It sounds a little traumatizing, but most of the time it’s hilarious. Sophie and Mia are both smart, clever women, at two very different points in their lives: Sophie trying to get a handle on the beginning of her career, and Mia trying to get out of a marriage that’s grown stifling. The insults fly fast and heavy, usually in the direction of Mia’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Daniel. Rieger puts her years of experience as a law professor to good use in this witty first novel. (I particularly liked the way she invented a whole New England state so that she could invent her own legal precedents.)

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

riding campBook – The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is the coming of age story of Thea Atwell. She is 15, lives on a ranch in Florida with her parents and her twin brother, and is already an accomplished horsewoman and beauty.  She has always been very close to her family and sheltered, as she and her brother are homeschooled and really don’t have any friends except for each other.  Thea’s world is shaken when the Depression begins and she is sent away by her parents to an exclusive equestrian boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a punishment. We see her adjusting to her new school and making friends with privileged Southern belles as she tries to overcome her feelings of guilt and homesickness. The reader will keep turning the pages as the story slowly unfolds to reveal the reason for her banishment by her family from her beloved home. This is not a cozy read as it is full of scandal, sex and secrets. The book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus.

Cheek to Cheek by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

cheek to cheekMusic – This is the new 2014 collaboration album by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. It consists of jazz standards by famous jazz composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Cheek to Cheek was inspired by the desire of Bennett and Gaga to introduce the songs to a younger generation. It debuted at number one on Billboard and earned Gaga her third consecutive number-one album, and it extended Bennett’s record as the oldest person, at 88, to achieve number-one status on the charts. Of course, Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) is one of the bestselling vocalists of all time, and has five Grammy Awards and 13 MTV Video Music Awards. Although her Pop albums – The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way – brought her great success, she now plans to do one jazz album per year. The legendary Tony Bennett (Anthony Dominick Benedetto) has 17 Grammy Awards and has sold over 50 million records worldwide. Cheek to Cheek is one of the best jazz vocal albums to come out in years, and it features scintillating big band arrangements and famous jazz musicians with the band. Every song is a delight, but I especially liked “Lush Life,” (by Billy Strayhorn), “Nature Boy,” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” This is a stunningly excellent CD, and it will keep your heart pounding. It also has a generous fold out photo montage, with candid photos of the performers.

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

mermaids in paradiseBook – Deb and Chip are pondering where to take their honeymoon. After considering and rejecting several adventurous possibilities, they decide on a romantic Caribbean island vacation. Chip is an outgoing jock who makes friends easily and, at their first dinner on the island, he invites several guests he’s met to join them. Among them is Nancy, a marine biologist. The next day when the newlyweds are relaxing on the beach, Nancy races up to them and informs them that she has spotted mermaids while snorkeling near the reef. What ensues is pandemonium, as Nancy tries to manage her “discovery,” while protecting the mermaids’ lives and habitat. What surprised me most about this book was the humor. It’s narrated by Deb, whose droll observations and opinions on everyday life balance the deeper messages concerning corporate greed, the impact of social media and the delicate balance of the ecosystem.