Read. Looking for a beach read for your summer bookshelf? Check out these two suggestions.
Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty. Moriarty’s novels are breezy beach reads with substantive female characters. If you liked Big, Little Lies, check out Moriarty’s most recent offering about three couples and the initially ordinary day that changes their collective worlds. With alternating chapters set in the present day and the past (specifically the day of the seemingly benign barbecue at the tale’s center), Moriarty peels back the layers of the onion slowly, teasing out details about characters and relationships that only become fully apparent in the novel’s shattering finale.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2 by Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling. In a tale that might be couched by critics as “Harry Potter’s Midlife Crisis” or “How Can J.K. Rowling Become Even Richer: A Story in Two Parts”, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is in fact a delightful and mature stage offering and an opportunity to visit our favorite characters from the Potter universe a few years down the road. Cursed Child is the coming of age story of Harry’s oldest son Albus (OMG!), now a teenage wizard at Hogwarts threatened by the potential resurgence of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. With a tone that is both familiar and fresh, Cursed Child manages to remain rooted in canon while also creating a new story that is perhaps more humorous than previous Potter outings. Playwright Jack Thorne certainly isn’t afraid to ask the “what if” questions which have inspired many a piece of fan fiction, from “What if Cedric Diggory had lived?” (would Robert Pattinson have still been foisted upon us in Twilight?!) to “What if Harry and Hermione fell in love?” The script is a quick and compelling read, but it’s apparent this one is meant to be seen on stage. With London and New York productions running currently (and a touring production to inevitably follow), you likely won’t need floo powder to catch it.
My patronus is a sloth bear.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I can’t predict at what point you might start crying while watching the remarkable documentary on Fred Rogers, but I can assure you the tears will start rolling long before the credits at the 90 minute mark. It might happen in the beginning, with a shot of someone lovingly unpacking the iconic red trolley. You might make it (as I did) to Fred Roger’s impassioned speech to Congress in the early 1970s to continue funding public television. You certainly won’t make it as far as footage from a ‘90s commencement speech, where a graduating student tells Rogers she had a disability as a child which prevented her from starting school and his show served as her earliest education. Truthfully, I cried throughout and long after this movie ended, in part because the world eventually had to lose someone as beautiful and good as Fred Rogers, but also because some of our citizens and leaders seem to have lost sight of his core message that there is inherent value in every human being. At the conclusion of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the entire theater was an emotional mess and needed the full end credits to compose themselves, which is indicative of how truly powerful an experience this film is. “I like you just as you are”, Fred Rogers says to children in clip after clip. As an audience member, you can’t help but feel that he’s also talking directly to you. Sure, we all need some self-improvement, but Fred Rogers reminds us that there are good parts of us already. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a much needed, timely, and impassioned plea for us to harness those innate strengths to make the world around us better.
Yep, still crying.
Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War. Avengers is the grandiose, comic book epic you’ve come to expect from the franchise – approximately 200 characters, each with 30 seconds of screen time (not quite, but the film feels like that at times), witty banter, and long-form CGI battles. Taking a cue from Michael B. Jordan’s KillMonger in Black Panther (who set the new precedent for villains with complex motives), Thanos this go-round has nuances beyond the standard mustache-twirling, “I want to watch the world burn” comic book villain we’ve come to expect from Marvel films. Avengers is a fun romp and the actors clearly seem to be enjoying the material — Josh Brolin is hamming it up while traipsing across the universe on a scavenger hunt for cosmic marbles and Chris Pratt is playing Chris Pratt (let’s be honest). Come for Chris Evan’s beard (which is EN POINTE), but stay for Wakanda. Also remember that Avengers is 2.5 hours of a 5 hour movie, so be prepared for an abrupt ending.
As far as superhero movies go, nothing quite compares to Deadpool. The first Deadpool film was a surprise hit and the sequel manages to preserve its low-budget, “we didn’t really ever expect this to get made, so we’re just having fun” feel. Deadpool 2 reminds us that Ryan Reynolds is one of the most fantastic voice actors working today and the franchise plays to his strengths of comedic timing and self-deprecating humor. Like its predecessor, Deadpool 2 uses music in surprising and Tarantino-esque ways to give audiences what they never even knew they wanted (i.e. a fight scene set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”). The first 5 minutes of Deadpool 2 are particularly sad, especially for Wade/Vanessa fans (are there non-fans of this relationship?), but the film uses the setup to effectively drive the entire story and pivot the characters in a new direction.
“Coal Stories.” NPR’s Embedded podcast, which often offers multi-episode series on specific topics, is a public radio gem. Their latest entry “Coal Stories” is a 5-episode series focused on a small West Virginia town in the lead-up to the 2016 election and in the first year of the Trump presidency. Much has been written about Appalachia in the wake of that election (a great deal of it with broad and inaccurate brushstrokes), but Embedded serves as an important reminder the region is actually far from monolithic, politically or otherwise. The people profiled in “Coal Stories” are presented fairly and detailed interviews capture the impact of the decline of an industry over the course of 30 years. “Coal Stories” also provides a comprehensive history of the coal industry — including environmental impacts, union wars, and grassroots efforts to fight for miner’s rights and land preservation. The primary debate higlighted concerns the creation of new industry in the region versus attempts to revitalize coal production (a frequent promise of the Trump campaign at rallies in Appalachia). Some maintain the decline in coal is a direct result of increasing environmental regulations, while others claim it is a product of market forces and increased mechanization in the mining industry. As someone who grew up in the region I’m pretty hard to please when it comes to content about it, but Embedded: Coal Stories hits the mark.
If you’ve been to Nashville and haven’t tried the local delicacy of hot chicken, you’re doing it wrong. Hot Chicken Festival, a 4th of July celebration of the city’s signature dish, started in 2007. 11 years later, hot chicken is known around the world thanks to Nashville’s status as a “it” city and franchises like Hattie B’s expanding the dish into larger markets (the chain is now in Birmingham and Atlanta). At Hot Chicken Festival, you’ll have the opportunity to sample the spicy fried concoction from a veritable who’s who of hot chicken purveyors. There’s Prince’s, the Nashville eatery who claims to have invented the dish. Bolton’s offers hot chicken on a stick. Hattie B’s serves up chicken tenders with multiple heat levels (note you’ll thank me for: stay away from “shut the cluck up”) and delicious sides (Pimento mac and cheese is not to be missed). There’s also Pepperfire, 400 degrees, Carol’s Hot Chicken and a few other restaurants who don’t specialize in hot chicken but offer special “hot chicken inspired” dishes for the festival. Local brewery Yazoo is usually on hand to relieve your spiced-up taste buds with some cold brews. If you do go, here’s the best strategy (hot chicken festival can draw some intense crowds): get there 1 hour before festival opening, collect your tickets for your free hot chicken samples, and then head immediately to Prince’s once the gates open. Watch the “hot chicken” parade while you eat your Prince’s, then return to the sample table to claim your free chicken. You can spend the remainder of your time eating as much chicken as you care to from the other vendors until the heat (from the sun and food) gets to be too much. People sometimes ask me what my favorite hot chicken is. While I recognize Prince’s as the original and perhaps the best representation of the dish, my favorite is Hattie B’s, the upstart franchise sometimes accused of “gentrifying” hot chicken by opening stores in midtown and Nashville’s west end. Hattie B’s scores on all counts – the sides are excellent, the tenders are appropriately crispy, and there’s a wide variety of heat levels to choose from, ensuring the offerings are accessible to every palate. I’m serious about “shut the cluck up” though — just don’t do it.
The start of my hot chicken festival adventure from a few years ago. Survive and advance.