Summer Reading / 4 Books to Enjoy, Detest, Debate + Share

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The media (née publishing industry) really has a way of psyching us up for summer reading, right? It’s possible I follow too many writers and publishers on Twitter, but people are unloading summer reading lists like there’s nothing better to do than to curl up (as one does) in some fantastical leather chair, in your library of many leather-bound books, a perfectly-brewed pour over coffee at your side and in your lap (beside the well-behaved, non-shedding, foot-warming dog) a thick volume of the greatest novel ever. Or, you know, on a beach or a porch somewhere, a temperate breeze just strong enough to move the blades of grass just so. You will sit there, never moving, going through tens of these novels, hundreds of these novels, until your to-read list is empty and your GoodReads challenge is blown out of the water. And that’s how I fantasize about book reading.

This summer, that will not be exactly my situation but I do want to finally get to four books that I’ve been putting off until I could get as close to this scenario as possible. Two fiction, 1 non-fiction and 1 semi/possibly work-related. This, is my brief summer reading list:

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children / In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image wins acclaim and prizes, becoming an icon for millions—and a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me / In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of race, a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion.

Tom Kelley + David Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All / In an incredibly entertaining and inspiring narrative that draws on countless stories from their work at IDEO, the Stanford d.school, and with many of the world’s top companies, David and Tom Kelley identify the principles and strategies that will allow us to tap into our creative potential in our work lives, and in our personal lives, and allow us to innovate in terms of how we approach and solve problems.

Mia Alvar, In the Country: Stories / These nine globe-trotting, unforgettable stories from Mia Alvar, a remarkable new literary talent, vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere and, sometimes, turning back again.

What are you reading this summer?

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Conversations with actors

One of my new favorite places online is the SAG Foundation‘s YouTube channel. Founded in 1985, the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, is meant to “enhance the lives of performers by investing in programs which help them in their professional endeavors and the communities in which they live.” Fortunately for us, not only do these events happen often — sometimes multiple events in a day — but the bulk of them are published here. No SAG card needed.

The pieces range from a series called “Conversations” — wherein an artist, or the cast of a production (from Portlandia to Broadway’s Something Rotten!) — take part in a moderated solo or panel discussion — “The Business” which focuses, not surprisingly, on the business aspects of production, as well as many pieces on casting, independent film production and distribution, marketing, auditioning, etc. It’s really a great resource, and the best part (for me) is that it’s not another run-of-the-mill panel that talks surface layer plot devices. Because it’s geared at actors and industry-heads, it gets down to the minutiae of production, casting, storytelling and loads of other behind-the-scenes moments you don’t typically find anywhere else.

Here are some favorites:




Monday is a good day for a #LinkList

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READS // I’m reading a few books this week: Amanda Lindhout’s A House in the Sky, Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They are all fantastic in completely different ways. I’ve been on a roll lately with fantastic books, and it’s only encouraging me to read more so I’ve basically been yack, yack, yacking nothing but books lately. If you know me in real life, #sorrynotsorry.

There’s a lot of talk about diversity in books this summer, or rather — the lack thereof in promoted book lists. I haven’t found a really fantastic list yet, but celebrated author (and personal favorite) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was featured in an article talking about the books she’s reading now, and I unabashedly added them all to my to-read list. I meant to post this last month, but if you read nothing else in this post, read: “Having a Heart, Being Alive” by Roxane Gay.

LISTEN // I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been on a real nostalgic spree recently. I mean, if there’s a Now 1997! CD somewhere, I need it. I’ve been playing Dru Hill, Tegan and Sara, Incubus, Blu Cantrell, you name it. Generally, I try to resist nostalgia, but I was organizing my CDs this weekend (I know what you’re thinking, but I’m down to discs only and I feel bad throwing them out) and it just happened. Do yourself a favor. 

EXPERIENCE // In Search of ‘Wild’ Costa Rica (via NYTimes); Works in Progress: Women Artists We Should’ve Known Decades Ago (via NYTimes T Magazine)

TV // Are you watching Inside Amy Schumer? In its third season on Comedy Central, this show has been on my must-watch list since I caught a first season skit where she hires a “sext photographer”.

FILM // I saw Spy this weekend. It’s a classic spy-movie spoof featuring an unconventional lead saving the day in a completely improbable way. While Melissa McCarthy plays this character type a lot, this movie is one of the few where she plays (or is forced to play) the dumpy, mid-western type but also, the hot spy with the sailor mouth. I loved it.

Coming up: I can’t wait to see HBO’s new Richard Holbrooke documentary The Diplomat. Holbrooke was an American diplomat dating back to the ’70s and was, at the time of his death in 2010, a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Oft outspoken, Holbrooke was one of the more polarizing and controversial figures in American politics and I’m excited to see where this doc goes. Here’s the trailer:

On McKee’s Story Seminar: The Meat + Everything Else

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Last month, I flew up to NYC for a few days of walking, waiting and writing; three things I seem to do most frequently when I’m in the city. I travelled up to attend Robert McKee‘s infamous STORY seminar, a 3-day intensive on the design and structure of storytelling. It seems like people are finally starting to realize and value the art of storytelling and not just in traditional methods (novels, movies, songs, etc.) but in everything. Some of the best, most efficient advertisements go viral because of their unique takes on story. All of that to say, this is a great seminar for anyone who looking to sharpen their skills.

Before I go too far into this, I want to say that I don’t think McKee necessarily advocates one specific avenue for success in screenwriting. If you’re looking for the right way to do it, you should stop and reëvaluate what you’re getting into. The way we watch television and movies, the types of content we consume is evolving too quickly for there to be one exclusive route to success. What McKee gets behind is story. Read his book, listen to the audiobook, or go to the seminar. You’ll benefit from this course if you take the good and leave the bad. It’s as simple as that. Don’t expect to agree with everything, and don’t expect to walk out after three days a brilliant screenwriter.

I’ll also preface by saying I felt a little douche-y and unqualified for going to this. What type of person goes to these things? According to McKee, John Cleese has been to the seminar four times. Will I need to go four times? When I signed up, I got an email with a long list of recommended films to watch, films that McKee would mention at some point. I’m not going to lie, that part was a little thrilling. I spent a couple months going through as many as I could that I hadn’t seen, re-watching a few that I had, missing the important ones I felt should be included. The email also included a schedule which showed what I already knew: the seminar is essentially Robert McKee talking for 10-ish hours straight, for three days. Whatever kind of dread you personally associate with sitting in an auditorium for 10-ish hours a day, for three days, I empathize.

But ultimately, I loved it.

I researched the seminar quite a bit before I left and I didn’t find the kind of information I wanted: like, the meat. Here are a few things I picked up and/or wanted to know before I spent the time, effort and cash.

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Gathering STEAM: Why Arts Really Matter

I’ve been really interested lately in the ongoing debate between the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education plan, and it’s seeming alternative, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics). The general consensus behind both is that kids need a deeper education in these areas if they are going to compete in globalized world. (Or, you know, so they can be Not Sure in a Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho world*) On that incredibly superficial point, everyone seems to agree. Realistically, educators and education planners argue their respective sides on somewhat of an endless cycle, but kids are already in the system. As much as I wish I had that deeper education in those STEM areas, I also wish I had a more expansive one in the Arts.

Actor Tim Daly is most known for his work on television on the series’ Wings, Private Practice, and most recently, Madam Secretary, but he also advocates for arts education via the Creative Coalition, a 501(c)(3) public charity (née lobbying group) that regularly holds events and speaks to influencers about the pressing issues in the art and entertainment industry like arts education, but also First Amendment issues and public funding for the arts, among others.

Earlier this year, Daly gave a talk on “STEAM” at the Sandbox Summit, an ideas forum held annually at MIT. The video was released recently and provides an interesting look into his background as an arts advocate, the importance of STEAM education and how he became “radicalized” in support of this cause (and also why it might need to be STEM after all).

Here are a few points that connected with me: 

“Creativity and imagination can be trained — or unleashed, rather — because we’re all born with it”

“The arts are the emissaries and custodians of our culture. The arts are the common language of our humanity.”

“Imagination is a muscle [and] arts is the gymnasium for the creative mind”

“Entertainment is the 2nd largest export in the United States of America, so at least it should be dealt with and talked about with the same amount of respect and gravitas as the automobile industry or the pharmaceutical industry, etc.”

“For every dollar the government spends on the National Endowment for the Arts, they are returned seven tax dollars.”

“The arts are a vaccine for the this social ill [of rate of high school drop-outs]”

“The arts are not something extra. They are not a luxury item. They are not dessert, they belong on the plate with the main course”

“We [artists] put what you [scientists] do into an emotional context. We make people feel something about what you do. And if we don’t feel, we miss out on the miraculous opportunity of our humanity”

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Carl Sagan

“I think that the arts are more important to teach than science and math. I think that the arts are the conveyance of all these other things.”

“There’s no wrong in the arts. There’s only discovery and creativity and imagination.”

I really liked this talk. I think we need more people advocating for arts since it’s seemingly first to go when cuts are needed, but is clearly a subject we care (whether we admit it or not) deeply about. Not to diminish the others, or even a broader education re-haul (although I can’t imagine any of the various groups agreeing on a way to achieve this), but as Daly said in the talk, maybe “arts do not belong on the plate with the main course, the arts are the plate. They are the thing that takes the meal around, right? And shares it with everyone else.” I dig the metaphor, and I think it’s an interesting way to think about arts education and the role it plays in creating facilitators of communication. If we have all this knowledge, and no way to communicate it, what is it good for?

* This is totally a reference to the 2006 movie Idiocracy, which is one of my favorites ever. It was a parody in 2006, but now…

First & Final Frames

“What can we learn by examining only the first and final shot of a film?” – Filmmaker and cinephile, Jacob T. Swinney posted this video called “First and Final Frames” to Vimeo back in March, and since then, it has garnered some 1.6 million views.

Swinney says, “This video plays the opening and closing shots of 55 films side-by-side. Some of the opening shots are strikingly similar to the final shots, while others are vastly different–both serving a purpose in communicating various themes. Some show progress, some show decline, and some are simply impactful images used to begin and end a film.”

Here are a few of my favorites:

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Though I come primarily from a writing perspective, beautiful cinematography has the ability to say a lot with no words at all and has always been an area to which I’ve been drawn. It’s fascinating how much is conveyed in just these few brief moments, not only the individual scenes but their placement in the film and the impact these moments have on the overall story. Seeing the first and final frames side by side adds a new dimension – how about that Gone Girl section?

Check out Jacob’s work, including other great pieces analyzing film techniques and/or explorations including: Tarantino’s Close-ups (the second, in a four-part series) and The Evolution of Batman in Cinema.