Thursday, February 4, 2016

The problem with American Idol (and The Voice)

I love a good singing competition. And for years, I avidly watched (and blogged about) American Idol. Until the show became a parody of itself and lost its ability to find or make pop (or pick your musical genre) stars. Yes, there were still some good singers -- make that very good singers. But actual stars, people who could sell lots of albums, after the glow of that season's American Idol had dimmed, who you would hear in heavy rotation on the radio? Not so much. Make that not at all. (Lee DeWho? Caleb Who's Son? Nick Fradiani anyone? And how many of you bought Candice Glover's R&B album? And how many of you even recalled any of those people before reading what I just wrote?)

Indeed, the last Idol winner or finalist who I recall ever hearing on the radio is Phillip Phillips, who won Season 11 -- and I had to look up what season he won.

The Voice, NBC's singing competition, has a similar problem. While I love the idea of the blind audition, it's really just a gimmick. And the show has yet to produce any real stars. In reality, the true stars of the show, the ones who have actually sold lots of records because of it, are the various judges, not the competitors. (While I can actually recall the names of several winners, I have yet to hear any of them on the radio or read about them selling out concert venues or selling many records -- and I've looked.)

So why hasn't either show produced any (new) stars, or produced any platinum- or gold-record sellers in the last four (or more) years? Two reasons. (And neither of them has to do with the fact that no one buys records any more.)

The first is the judges. Say what you will about Simon Cowell, but he knew how to spot and develop musical talent. That was his job as an A&R, or artists and repetoire, guy for record labels, to find and groom the next breakout music star. And he has a pretty good track record.

While Paula Abdul was a successful pop star, back in the 1980s, and Randy Jackson was a successful musician and producer, neither one of them had or has a track record, or success, spotting or grooming or marketing a great singer/star. Ditto Steven Tyler, Ellen DeGeneres, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., or Keith Urban* -- or Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, or Gwen Stefani** -- all of whom are talented, award-winning performers. But spotting, grooming, and marketing someone, other than yourself, is a different talent.

And while Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr., are, in my opinion, the best, as in most fun/entertaining, group of judges American Idol has had since the early days (before Paula went gaga and Randy became a cliche), their collective superstar powers have yet to identify a superstar, or even a star. And while Scott Borchetta, the American Idol mentor (which seems to involve making or supporting terrible song choices) may have signed several big names, perhaps, most notably, Taylor Swift, it would seem as though American Idol is his kryptonite.

The second reason the show has failed to produce a real winner is the American public. We suck at judging talent competitions. Or when we vote in packs we do.

All that said, I am (as of this writing) planning to watch -- and blog about (when it goes live) -- American Idol Season 15, supposedly the last season ever of American Idol. (Though never say never, or ever, in Hollywood.) And I am hoping (though not hopeful) that this season the judges and America will have finally "discovered" another star.

Stay tuned.

*No, I did not forget Kara DioGuardi, though I would like to.
** The one exception on The Voice is Pharrell Williams, but he has yet to pick a star from that competition. And before anyone says "What about Sawyer Fredericks?!" When have you heard him on the radio -- and do you know anyone who bought his album? Does he even have an album?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My favorite books of 2015

I typically read over 100 books a year. (I actually have a Word file, started in September 1991, listing every book I've read to completion -- title and author.) I would probably read more, but I am a very picky reader, who avoids books filled with violence or books most would describe as depressing or with the words "poignant," "tragic," "heart-wrenching," "heartbreaking," "triumphant," or "dark" anywhere on the jacket.

So actually selecting and finishing a book is high praise. And to make my annual "Best Books" or "Favorite Reads" list a book has to have not only an interesting (not totally predictable) plot or story but be well written (and researched, if nonfiction), have characters I can relate to (or don't hate), and a certain je ne sais quoi.

Herewith, my list of the dozen books I most enjoyed reading this past year, listed alphabetically by author. (And if you want to see all the books I read and liked this past year, and other years, check out my previous Book Nook posts.)

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block. Mystery. This was my first Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery, the eleventh in the series, but it will not be my last. Indeed, I appreciated that you didn't have to have read any of the 10 previous books to understand or appreciate The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons.

For those unfamiliar with the series, the protagonist is a "gentleman burglar" (think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but not as good looking), with an eye for antiques and art, who runs a used bookstore. His best friend and confidant is a lesbian who runs the pet store down the block. This installment opens with Rhodenbarr filching F. Scott Fitzgerald's original manuscript for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" from the bowels of a museum at the behest of a "Mr. Smith." Soon after, he is asked by a cop of his acquaintance to help him solve a burglary/murder on the Upper East Side. Could the two be connected? Read the book, which is a quick, entertaining read, to find out!

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron. Fiction. A mystery with a sense of humor and a touch of metaphysics and romance. If I had to pick one word to describe this book, or it's protagonist, it would be wry, a good thing in my book. (There are not enough wry books out there, IMHO.)

The protagonist is former Michigan college football star Ruddy McCann, who goes from a promising career in the NFL to a not-so-promising career repossessing cars in and around his small hometown in Michigan, due to a cruel twist of fate. If things weren't bad, or weird, enough, Ruddy starts hearing the voice of a (deceased) real estate agent in his head, falls in love with the girlfriend of an arch rival, and stumbles upon an unsolved murder. Full of fun, quirky characters, humor, and warmth, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man is a story of murder, romance, and second chances. Highly recommend.

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave. Fiction. It's a romance/finding yourself/about-the-importance-of-family novel set in Sonoma County, and I loved it. Couldn't put it down. It starts off as the story of a runaway bride who, discovering her fiancé has been keeping something big from her, drives all night from LA to the safety and security of her family's vineyard in Sonoma County. However, she arrives home only to find things aren't so perfect there either -- and discovers that sometimes what you think you want you don't really want. Full of wit and wisdom, laughter and heartache, Eight Hundred Grapes is a perfect escapist (?) read.

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. Nonfiction. I love books about the history and evolution of language. Or maybe I should say (or write), I love interesting, entertaining, well-written books about the history and evolution of language. (There are plenty of pedantic, boring books about language and grammar out there.) And Gaston Dorren's new book, Lingo, definitely falls into the entertaining category.

As the (American English) subtitle suggests, the author looks at 60 different languages found in and around Europe, sharing anecdotes about their similarities and differences and speakers. My only regrets are that the chapters often felt too short (just scratching the surface) -- and Dorren does not include American English (or British English) pronunciations of foreign words (e.g., Welsh) or maps showing readers where the language under discussion is spoken, both of which would have been very helpful.

That all said, if you are fascinated by linguistics (as I am), or are just curious about language, or have ever wondered why there are so many different languages in Europe, definitely pick up a copy of Lingo.

Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow. Fiction. A beautifully written tale of young love and (non-creepy) obsession, set in the Hamptons, Paris, Provence, and New York City. If you've ever been in love (or lust) with someone seemingly unobtainable, who keeps popping into (and then out of) your life, or had a first love you've never forgotten, you will relate to and (probably) appreciate this book. (Neither was the case for me, but I was good friends with two young women who greatly reminded me of the "girl" in question in Dubow's novel, and, like the author, grew up in New York City and spent many summers in East Hampton and Amagansett. So the book was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.)

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception And Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell. Nonfiction. This tale would have made for a good Sherlock Holmes novel -- except that it is a true story. It begins in 1898 when a woman goes to court in England claiming that her deceased father-in-law, a successful merchant, was, in reality, the much wealthier 5th Duke of Portland. The author, who has clearly done her research, then recounts the infamous trials that followed and takes readers through to the present day to find the truth about the dead duke, his secret wife, and the missing corpse. If you enjoy a good mystery, especially one filled with real-life characters, check out this book.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. Fiction. If I had to pick one adjective to describe this book it would be charming. A tale of love and friendships lost (the main character's name is Monsieur Perdu, Mr. Lost in English) and found, The Little Paris Bookshop is the perfect book to read on a chilly winter's evening, or when you just want to curl up a book that takes you thousands of miles away. I enjoyed the story, about two men's journeys of self discovery (literally and figuratively) that begins in Paris and wends it way to the south of France. However, IMHO, the book should have been titled The Literary Apothecary, for reasons you will understand if or when you read the book. (Though the original German title, something like The Lilac Room, was worse.)

The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister. Fiction. A tale of magic, mystery, murder, and illusion set in the turn-of-the-century (1890s to early 1900s) Midwest. The magician of the title is a young woman with the stage name of the Amazing Arden. Her lie, if she is, in fact, lying? Read the book to find out. Beautifully written -- dare I say, spellbinding? I couldn't put this book down. (Reviewers have compared The Magician's Lie to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus. As I have read neither, I couldn't say. I just know I really liked this book.) If you are into books about magic or magicians, as I am, or just want an interesting read, pick it up.

Yes, My Accent Is Real (And Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You) by Kunal Nayyar. Memoir. Two things to know about me: I don't like most memoirs (too self-indulgent), and I am not a fan of The Big Bang Theory (the television show in which Nayyar appears), though I have seen several episodes. In fact, the only reason I picked the book up was that I saw Nayyar talking about the book on some morning show. And something about him, or what he said (I don't remember now), made me want to read his book. And I'm glad I did.

Yes, My Accent Is Real is a collection of humorous, autobiographical essays (even the titles of each chapter, or essay, are funny), spanning from Nayyar's childhood in India, to his time as a college student in the United States, in Oregon, and his nascent acting career, to getting the role of Raj on The Big Bang Theory and getting married to a former Miss India. And you don't have to have watched The Big Bang Theory to enjoy the book. You just have to have a sense of humor and appreciate what it must be like for someone from a difficult culture to be plopped down at a big American university and try to make his way t/here.

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura. Nonfiction. The fascinating, real-life story of three (originally five) young Japanese women, all the daughters of samurai (or former samurai), who were sent by the emperor of Japan to the United States for 10 years in 1871, in order to become educated and learn Western ways -- and then return to Japan and educate other women and children. Well researched and well written, the story takes you from the opening of Japan to the West (the Meiji period) to San Francisco and across the United States to Washington, D.C., and the Northeast and then back to Japan a dozen years later. I had never heard of these young women, who were all remarkable, and was delighted to have stumbled upon this book. A must read.

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. Memoir. Lovely, lovely book about shepherding (i.e., sheep farming) in England's Lake District. Rebanks is a marvelous writer. His prose makes you feel as though you are there with him in the English countryside, tending his flocks, over the course of four seasons. And while sheep farming may not sound very glamorous (it isn't) or interesting, learning about life on the fells (hills and mountains) of the Lake District and the life of a typical shepherding family -- a very hard life, not for the faint of heart, or health, or for those who like a secure source of income -- is fascinating. Indeed, it's a life that Rebanks, probably the only shepherd to graduate from Oxford, says he would not trade for any other (nor would many of his neighbors). A gem of a book.

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino. Memoir. Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris Bureau Chief for The New York Times, is a terrific writer -- and journalist. And as the spouse and teenager and I were about to embark on our semi-annual Thanksgiving trip to Paris (to see my mother), I thought it would be fun to read Sciolino's book about her Paris neighborhood. And I was right.

Sciolino introduces readers to the life-blood of this Parisian neighborhood in the 9th Arrondissement, the  people who work and live there, and her anecdotes are filled with humor and compassion. In fact, I was so taken with the street from Sciolino's stories and descriptions, I insisted we spend an afternoon perusing it from top to bottom. (And afterward wished we hadn't as it was nothing like the rue des Martyrs she so lovingly and vividly described in her book.) Still, I highly recommend this memoir for Paris lovers, those who like travel books, and history and food buffs. (There are a lot of good food stories in the book as well as charming descriptions of the street's racier past.)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time to break out the Hanukkah music!

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights (aka Christmas for Jews), begins this Sunday, December 6th, at sundown. Sadly, all the great Jewish composers were too busy writing Christmas songs to come up with anything really good for Hanukkah (or Chanukah). So we have had to content ourselves with "Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah," or "Oy Chanukah" in the original Yiddish. (Oy Chanukah, indeed. Eight nights of gift giving and eating greasy food? Whose great idea was that?)

On the bright side (hey, this is the festival of light), over the years, a number of singers have taken it upon themselves to, if not create a new, original Hanukkah song (I refuse to acknowledge Adam Sandler's contribution, though I guess I just did), to create entertaining Hanukkah song parodies, which, in my opinion, are way better.

Herewith, my two picks for the best Hanukkah song parody of 2015 -- which you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy.

First up, The Maccabeats singing "Latke Recipe" (to the tune of "Shut up and Dance"):

Next, Rachel Bloom's Chanukah sendup of "Santa Baby," titled "Chanukah Honey," which I love.

Chag sameach!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How to pick the next President of the United States

It's time to change the way we vet and elect our President.

Forget debates and town halls. Forget appearances on late-night talk shows. And forget the electoral college. (Seriously, does anyone understand how the electoral college even works?)

If we want to truly get Americans involved in the electoral process and pick someone who will best represent we the people, we need to change the process. We need to have presidential candidates run for office in a way that Americans will understand and watch.

What we need is... a presidential reality TV show.

We can call the year-long reality TV show, The Amazing Presidential Race, with the election taking place during November sweeps. What could be more perfect for our talent-show-, Kardashian-, and Houswives-loving times?

But The Amazing Presidential Race would be more than just a political obstacle course. It should also include a test of knowledge, a la popular quiz shows, such as Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Jeopardy!

So all candidates running for President would have to go on special week-long (or longer) presidential editions of both Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Jeopardy! with Jeff Foxworthy and Alex Trebek, respectively, asking the candidates questions about U.S. History, European History, the Middle East, Economics, the Constitution, Math, and other topics that a fifth grader, or, really, a high school graduate, or someone applying for citizenship, or certainly someone running for President of the United States, should know, as well as more difficult questions. Wouldn't that be way more entertaining than what we have now?

Lastly, I propose a talent portion, a la American Idol, where each presidential candidate has to go before a panel of judges (think three Simon Cowells) and present his or her vision for America, which the judges will then critique and then we, the people, get to vote for, via Facebook, Twitter, some special app, phone, or text message. I guarantee candidates will get way more votes than they would have under the current system. And we would get a much better sense of what our candidates are made of.

So, who's with me?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

It's a Throwback Thursday '80s New Wave Dance Party!

For some reason, I've been hearing a lot of 1980s New Wave music recently -- at restaurants and in shops. And it gets me all nostalgic, it does. (I remember when MTV FINALLY came to Manhattan in 1982 or 1983. My dad had just bought a big projection TV, and I would camp out in his living room, with a bunch of my friends from school, watching videos FOR HOURS. Video not only killed the radio star but my desire to do homework.)

So, it being Throwback Thursday, I thought I'd share a few more of my favorite '80s New Wave songs and videos, like...

"Situation" from Yaz (or Yazoo)...

(Alison Moyet, Adele before there was Adele. Am I right?)

And the Thompson Twins' "Doctor! Doctor!"

I've also been hearing The Cars' "Magic" played a lot.

And I don't know if you heard but Duran Duran has a new album out -- and the group was seemingly everywhere this summer, performing classics, like "Rio," as well as some new tunes.

And how could I (almost) forget Robert Palmer?! Though I have no idea what his "Looking for clues" video is about.

I could go on (and on) -- The Go-Gos! The Bangles! Roxy Music! Howard Jones! The Pet Shop Boys! -- but I will save those artists for another post.

Good dancing to you all!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

And the finalists for 2015's sexiest Halloween costume are...

Yes, folks, it's time to put the Ho back in Halloween. And this year's crop of sexy Halloween costumes  promises to be a real treat for us sexy Halloween costume aficionados.

So, without further ado, here are my top sex -- I mean SIX -- picks for 2015's sexiest (as in, most ridiculous) Halloween costume.

First up, the corniest Halloween costume I've ever seen.

Next up, the Naughty Nemo Costume. (Just saying "Naughty Nemo Costume" makes me happy.)

There's definitely something fishy about this little outfit (like the fact that Nemo was a boy fish). Hey, you Halloween costume designers, quit clowning around!

And speaking of orange.... This sexy Womens Prison Jumpsuit Costume is practically criminal. (Orange is the new bawd?)

Dig the crazy handcuff (chastity?) belt!

I may go to Hell for posting this next costume, known as the Heavenly Hottie Nun Costume, one of MANY sexy nun costumes I found online. (Saints preserve us.)

Moving into the political realm, my next nominee for sexiest (or most preposterous) Halloween costume for 2015 is the Donna T. Rumpshaker (aka Sexy Donald Trump) Costume.

Costumes like these are making Halloween great again, my friends. (Or not.)

Unfortunately, I was unable to find a Sexy Hillary Clinton Halloween Costume. (Though I did find a lot of scary looking Hillary Halloween masks.) Sorry Bill.

But never fear, there is always the Sexy Nerd School Girl Costume....

Unfortunately, I cannot show my pick for men's sexiest (if by sexy you mean ROTFL) Halloween costume, the Heavy Hose Fireman Costume, which comes in Small, Medium (currently sold out), Large, and Extra Large. But you can always click on the link if you're burning to know what it looks like.

Happy Halloween, y'all.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


OMG. Miracles do happen.

I have been a Mets fan for as long as I can remember. I think it was around the time of the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland Athletics. I remember watching that series with my dad, in his apartment, and rooting for the Mets.

After that, I would regularly watch Mets games when I hung out with my dad (my parents were divorced), and we would have putting contests during the commercials. (My father was an avid golfer, as well as an avid Mets fan.)

One of my fondest memories from my youth was my dad taking me to Shea, sitting behind the Mets dugout, and dad getting me an authentic Mets cap and ball (lost during some move, sadly) during the game. From then on, I was hooked.

All through middle school and high school, I would watch Mets games on television on listen on the radio, going to games at Shea when I could. However, when the Mets made their historic pennant run in 1986, winning over 100 games, I was attending college in London, pretty much oblivious to what was happening at home with the Mets. So you can imagine my shock, upon returning to college that fall, to be sitting in my dorm's common room, watching the Mets play in the World Series... surrounded by Red Sox fans. (As I recall, no one came to blows.)

When the Mets made their next pennant run, in 2000, I was a new mom and in the process of moving from Chicago back to the New York Metro Area and had not really followed the Mets' exploits, or baseball, in years (devoting myself to basketball and the Chicago Bulls and Northwestern football). Indeed, to this day, I still think of Mike Piazza as a Dodger, not a Met.

Eventually, though, I returned to my first love, baseball and the Mets, and began regularly watching games some time in 2006.

As a Mets fan, I am used to disappointment. Indeed, as my husband regularly tells (teases) me, my motto is "Hope for the best, expect the worst." Though I believe that applies to pretty much every Mets fan.

Indeed, as I wrote in a previous blog post, the difference between Mets fans and Yankees fans is that Yankees fans (and St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants fans) expect their team to win and are pissed off when their team loses. Mets fans expect their team to lose and are giddy when their team wins.

So you can imagine the giddiness I and Mets fans everywhere started to feel in August when the Mets, who, just a few weeks before looked like they were headed to another .500 (or worse) season, went on a winning streak -- and just over a month later won the National League East.

Now, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am not a religious person, though I believe in God. And it was with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek when, back on April 5th, I wrote this "Mets fan's prayer" on the eve of opening day:

Our Mets team, that art in Citi Field,
Hallowed be thy game.
Thy fans will come,
If you score some runs,
At home as on the road.
Give us this season at least 87 wins.
And forgive us our pessimism,
As we forgive those pitchers who put up Ws for us.
And lead us not into last place in the NL East,
but deliver us unto the playoffs.

Apparently, the Lord heard me -- and one-upped me. Proof that miracles still happen. (Sorry Chicago Cubs fans. You will have to wait a bit longer for yours.)

I know that a lot of you don't care about sports, or the Mets, and I get it. I do. There are a lot more important things going on in the world than baseball and the World Series. But in a world and a time filled with so much bad news and suffering (again, my apologies, Cubs fans), the 2015 Mets are a feel-good story. And right now, at this moment, I am feeling good.

Let's go Mets! #yagottabelieve