Majestrum by Matthew Hughes

majestrumBook – Henghis Hapthorn is a creature of logic. He uses his skills and talents to solve puzzles for the elite of the Archonate, the vast empire of human colonies spread throughout known space. Recently, though, he’s suffered a few setbacks. A dangerous encounter with a rogue magician – rare in this age of science and reason – has transformed Hapthorn’s computer assistant into an animal familiar, which now needs to sleep and eat, and has developed a personality of its own. Worse, the intuitive part of his mind has become its own person, and Hapthorn finds himself having increasingly bitter disagreements with himself. And now the Archon himself has hired Hapthorn to investigate a mystery that goes back to the origins of the Archonate, deep within the last age of magic, which may cause the foundations of the world to turn, leaving Hapthorn’s valued logic entirely useless.

Hughes’s prose is elaborate and ornate, making this relatively short book a somewhat denser read than I was planning on, but I loved it anyway. Hapthorn is a Sherlock Holmes type, but with problems Holmes never had (Watson never passed out in the middle of the action, or refused to work without regular deliveries of exotic fruit). The mystery is well-constructed, but the real joy is in exploring the universe Hughes has created, one based on science but where magic is real and increasingly important in the most important events of the universe.

Inequality for All (2013)

inequalityMovie –This is the award winning 2013 documentary about the widening income gap and its devastating impact on the American economy.  It features Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author, and political commentator.  Time magazine named him one of the Ten Best Cabinet Members of the Century, and the Wall Street Journal placed him sixth on its list of the “Most Influential Business Thinkers.”  Inequality for All is both an interesting history of the life of Rhodes Scholar Robert Reich, and a penetrating explanation of the erosion of the middle class in America.  The film is an intimate portrait of a man whose lifelong goal remains protecting those who are unable to protect themselves. It describes the historical events that have led to massive consolidation of wealth by a precious few and why this threatens the viability of the American workforce and the foundation of democracy itself. Dr. Reich is funny, engaging, critical, realistic, and humane in his moral message about the current crisis of the U.S. income gap and the growth of poverty in the United States. Reich has published 14 books, including Reason, Supercapitalism, and the best selling Beyond Outrage. The film is well researched and valid and throws a very bright light on why ordinary people can barely make ends meet. Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterMovie – The Hundred Foot Journey is a wonderful movie about rivalry, family, love and self-discovery. In the midst of political unrest, the Kadam family’s restaurant is set on fire resulting in the death of their matriarch and chef and loss of their family business. The father and his children flee India for Europe and by chance they settle in a small village in France. The oldest son Hassan learned much about cooking from his mother, so the family decides to open a restaurant. It is located directly across the street from an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant owned by Madame Mallory, who is obsessed with earning another Michelin star for fine dining. As you can imagine, Madame is none too pleased with her new neighbors’ eatery complete with a garish Taj Mahal facade and blasting Bollywood music. To further complicate things there is a growing romance between Kadam and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite.  Totally delightful and guaranteed to stimulate your culinary senses.  We also have the book by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey, that the move is based on.

Revival by Stephen King

revivalBook – King’s most recent novel has been hailed as a return to classic form, closer to a real horror novel than he’s written in a while. If you go into it looking for that, you might be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. The story follows two men, narrator Jamie Morton and the man he refers to as his “fifth business,” the catalyst to all the really important events of his life, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Charlie (as he prefers to be called) is fascinated by “special electricity” all his life, but his interest takes a darker turn when his wife and son are killed in a car crash. After that – well, a horror novel called Revival with a lightning bolt on the cover does evoke a certain famous Doctor F., after all.

Revival isn’t as focused as the classic King novel it most evokes, Pet Sematary, and dealing as it does with similar themes and ideas, it suffers by the comparison. Where the plot meanders, though, the characters pick up the slack, and a few genuinely creepy moments (Jamie’s birthday-party nightmare sticks in the mind) carry you through rapidly to the end. The ending is, at least, classic Stephen King – sprawling, grotesque, and a little out of left field.

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.