Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fun - and FREE! - Holiday Things To Do With Your Family

Christmas is an expensive time of year. You buy presents for everyone in your family and a few close friends. You tip your hairdresser, your lawn guy, your assistant, your mailman, your trash guy, your recycle guy, your grocery store cashier. You donate to the Salvation Army and Heifer International and Toys for Tots. You buy presents for your kids' teachers, your co-workers, the neighbors who feed your cat and take in your mail when you go on vacation. You bake dozens of batches of cookies with expensive ingredients. You replace those broken Christmas bulbs and pick up a few new lawn ornaments. You buy a turkey, a ham, and a LOT of wine for family gatherings. Everyone in the family needs new festive clothes for going to concerts, church, and parties. So the last thing you need is a list of pricy holiday events like going to see Boston Ballet's Nutcracker or North Shore Music Theater's annual production of A Christmas Carol.

Well, this list is NOT that. Everything on this list is completely, 100% FREE (outside of the cost of transportation to get there). If your purse is feeling a bit thin this holiday season, here are some wonderful - and FREE!! - activities to help you and your family get back into the holiday spirit.

Visit Santa
Almost every mall I've ever been to invites kids to come and talk to Santa for free when there isn't a long line. You have to pay for a photo, and they don't usually allow you to take your own, but Santa is happy to chat with your kids and ask them what they'd like for Christmas (be sure to stand close enough to eavesdrop). And when it's quiet, he'll often spend quite a while just chatting with them. Most will even give the kids a free candy cane, too!

Check Out the Decorated Houses
In almost every city you can find a house - sometimes even an entire neighborhood - that goes absolutely CRAZY about Christmas decorating. In my hometown, it's the Schulers' house. There's Christmas music piped outside. There are sleighs and penguins and reindeer and Santas and elves and snowmen. There's Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Olaf and Mrs. Claus. There's a Santa on a train and one on a jetski and one in an airplane. There are white lights and colored lights and moving lights and flashing lights. We drive past their house several times a week through the whole Christmas season.

If you're not sure where there's a good display near you, hop onto Google and see what you can find. A local radio station posted this list for Boston area displays last year. I bet with a bit of patience, you can find a similar list for wherever you live.

Town Treelighting Ceremonies
The treelighting ceremony in Boston is a spectacle, and although impressive, does tend to be very crowded. But most towns have a scaled-down version that may include local school choirs, town band or orchestra concerts, even a recital by students at a local dance school. Some towns even offer free hot chocolate and free cider.

Ice Skating
You do need to own ice skates for this one to be truly free, but chances are you can borrow skates from a friend for the day. There are plenty of safe outdoor skating areas if you ask around. Some places, like the Frog Pond in Boston, charge a small fee for adults but are free for children (13 and under, in the case of the Frog Pond), so Mom & Dad can watch from the sidelines while the kids skate. This link lists a bunch of free and paid outdoor skating rinks in Massachusetts.

This is a Boston-specific activity, but if you're anywhere within driving distance, it's worth checking out. Blink! is "A Light and Sound Extravaganza" featuring the music of the Boston Pops and 350,000 coordinated Christmas lights "dancing" to the music. Dates and times are listed here.  

Local Christmas Concerts
Check your town website for what's going on near you. Many school and local orchestras, bands, choirs offer free concerts this time of year. Some churches host free Christmas concerts, sometimes even a performance of Handel's Messiah - often open for amateur singers to join the chorus! Put on your most festive holiday outfit and enjoy classic and new Christmas songs performed by your friends and neighbors.

Tour Your Local Farm or Nursery
Many nurseries and farmstands go all out for Christmas, with dozens of decorated and themed Christmas trees, miniature train sets and the snow villages to go with them, even reindeer in the yard waiting to be petted and fed. It can be great fun to wander around, enjoying the festive atmosphere, getting decorating ideas, and watching the kids' eyes light up as they imagine one of those reindeer helping to pull Santa's sleigh on Christmas.

Go Caroling
If you're at all musical, check with your local hospital and nursing home to see if they have any groups of carolers coming in, and ask the caroling group if you can join them. In my experience, the carolers are always happen to have additional voices. And there is nothing that can get you in the Christmas spirit like bringing joy to the face of someone who is ill or elderly and separated from their family at Christmas time. And isn't bringing joy to others what Christmas is all about?

There are always plenty of opportunities to help out your favorite charity during the holiday season. Be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. Help prepare or serve dinner at a soup kitchen. Help sort, wrap, or deliver toys for a local toy drive or Angel Tree program. Deliver dinners with Meals on Wheels or help serve at your local Council on Aging. Visit residents in your local nursing home and read to them or ask them about their childhoods. Shovel off your neighbor's walkway if it snows before they get home from work. Volunteer to walk or groom animals at your local shelter or rescue society. Whatever type of volunteer work interests you, do it as a family.

Merry Christmas!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book Review: "Dear Mr. M" by Herman Koch

I read a lot of mystery novels, so there are not a lot of twists and conventions and formulas that I have not seen before. But Herman Koch's "Dear Mr. M" began and ended with twists that I found new and intriguing.

The book opens in the form of a letter, in the words of the title itself: "Dear Mr. M". It's not clear at first, who is writing the letter, nor who is being addressed in the letter. Mr. M. is established as being the author of a novel based on a true crime, and someone personally known to the letter writer. But perhaps not exactly personally known by the letter writer - the letter writer knows about Mr. M's life, but does Mr. M know him? Or is the letter writer a stalker, perhaps even a criminal? Or perhaps it is Mr. M. who is the criminal, being stalked by the letter writer who knows his crimes? The author tantalizes us with clues, not even telling us right away what crime has been committed, never mind by whom it was committed.

Over the course of the novel, we meet the various players in the unfolding scenario: a group of high school friends, and a teacher who has an affair with one of the students and later disappears. Is he dead, or did he merely change his identity and walk away from his life after the affair is broken off? Is he, himself, Mr. M? Is Mr. M one of the students, perhaps even the murderer - if a murder was even committed? Koch gives the reader just enough clues to keep him interested, allowing a single piece of the puzzle to fall into place before tossing in another confusing clue.

The true test of a clever mystery is, of course, to keep the reader guessing until the very end, and Koch accomplishes this in spades, saving one final twist until nearly the last page of the book. The most effective plot twists are not ones that stretch credulity, but that make the reader realize that the twist is perhaps the only possible outcome, given the clues and hints the author has scattered throughout the book. And the revelations in the final chapter were so well done in this case that it actually made me immediately turn back to the first page and re-read the whole entire book with new eyes.

I found Koch's use of language to be lovely and descriptive, although occasionally it becomes clear that the novel is a translation from the original Dutch, as dialogue is sometimes stilted or feels unnatural to the English-speaking reader's ear. But on the whole, I enjoyed the writing style as much as the plot itself.

On the whole, I found "Dear Mr. M" to be an intriguing mystery, full of interesting and realistic characters, with a story that kept me involved and guessing until the surprising - and satisfying - ending.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. For additional information on this book, please see the Penguin Random House website.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Christmas Music, Old and New

Thanksgiving Eve is when I traditionally begin listening to Christmas music. I like to put on some of my old favorites while I'm chopping up onions and celery and bread for the stuffing, and baking pumpkin pie, and picking out my serving dishes, and setting the table. There's something wonderfully festive about preparing for company and listening to the same holiday music I've listened to and loved for years. But over the past few holiday seasons, I've discovered some wonderful new versions of some of my favorite classic Christmas songs, and I'd like to share them with you.

If you love Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," try listening to Michael Buble's funky version:

Based on The Drifters' 1954 arrangement, Buble adds jazzy rhythms, backup singers doot-dooting 50s harmonies, and Shania Twain chiming in with a delightfully retro falsetto verse and some lovely harmonies.

If you love Nat King Cole's recording of Mel Torme's classic "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," check out Andrea Bocelli and Natalie Cole's live concert recording from 2009.

Their styles and voices blend surprisingly well, and the combination of piano and orchestral accompaniment is beautifully balanced to swell where it should and let the voices shine where they should.

The Carpenters' beloved 1978 Christmas album, "A Christmas Portrait," includes many favorites, but Karen Carpenter's rich, mellow voice is at its best in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." For a very different sound, listen to Sam Smith's haunting 2014 recording.

From the a cappella opening strains through the addition of a simple piano accompaniment, Smith moves from a very straight, note-for-note verse into playing around with the rhythm and the melody, yet keeping the original beauty and simplicity of the piece. Smith's rough, almost croaky voice is a huge contrast to Carpenter's caramel-smooth contralto, but it works.

Any of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remembers the annual Andy Williams Christmas specials (oh, those sweaters!), which always included favorites like Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," with a full chorus "aaaahing" and "ding donging" in the background. For a perfectly harmonized a cappella version of this classic, look to the Pentatonix's 2014 recording.
The rich bass singing lead, another walking bassline underneath the melody, the boppy harmonies, the swinging beatboxing in the'll find yourself waltzing around the room while you listen.

Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" with its muted trumpet and jingle bells is another classic that's been re-recorded by many artists, including Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby. If you're willing to open your mind to a VERY different version, the mashup of "Here Comes Santa Claus" with "Winter Wonderland" performed by Snoop Dogg, Anna Kendrick, and the cast of Pitch Perfect 2 is quite a twist on the original.
Snoop (Or should I call him Dogg? Not sure if it's a first and last name or a single name like Cher or Madonna) has a surprisingly mellow and pleasant voice, and Kendrick's clear, light soprano blends well with it. The funky electronic rhythms in the background will have you bopping along. This version may not be for haters of hip hop and rap (of which I am generally one), but give it a try. You might find you like it!

Speaking of duets, one of my all-time favorite Christmas duets is, of course, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." There were no less than FIVE versions recorded in 1949 alone, including Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams (!), and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, but probably the most familiar version is Dean Martin's 1959 recording with the Andrews Sisters. If you'd prefer an updated (and slightly sanitized) version, you'll love Idina Menzel and Michael Buble's 2014 recording.
Be sure to watch the sweet video that accompanies this recording. The little boy and girl are beyond adorable and the lip-synching is beautifully done. And you can't go wrong with the stunning voices of Menzel and Buble, two powerhouses whose voices reinforce each other instead of battling. Just charming.

Another Bing Crosby favorite is "I'll Be Home for Christmas," also recorded by Frank Sinatra (among countless others). Contrast their traditional, full orchestra and chorus recordings with Kelly Clarkson's 2011 version.
Clarkson's sweet, clear voice is backed by a jazz trio of piano, drums, and trumpet. She moves to a plaintive, scooping wail in the last verse that just gives me chillbumps. This recording makes me want to sit down with a glass of wine and look over family albums of Christmas photos from years gone by.

The Boston Pops performing Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" is always part of Christmas in my house, although others may prefer Johnny Mathis' 1958 recording. Blending the best of both of these versions is Harry Connick Jr.'s 1993 version.

The jazzy orchestra is reminiscent of the Pops' recording, and Connick's smooth as silk vocals play with the rhythm and the tune more than Mathis' measured, light crooning. Another version that will keep your toes tapping while you're gift wrapping!

Many classic Christmas songs from the 1950s and 1960s were performed by chorales like the Harry Simeone Chorale, Mitch Miller, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. Among the most well-known Christmas songs in that style was Simeone's "Little Drummer Boy". For a funky instrumental recording, you can't go wrong with Mannheim Steamroller's 1988 arrangement.

Combine orchestral tracks with unusual percussion, lots of synthesizers, funky rhythms, and a video that's kind of a trippy riff on the Nutcracker, and you get Mannheim's version of "Little Drummer Boy."

And one bonus track that's my new favorite this Christmas: "Mary Did You Know?" was written in 1991 by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, and was recorded by various artists throughout the 90s, 00s,  and teens, but really only became mainstream when the Pentatonix released a recording in 2014. If you love that version, you HAVE to listen to this year's recording of Mark Lowry singing the lead backed by the incredible vocal pyrotechnics of Voctave.

If the soaring soprano sailing above all the rich harmonies doesn't bring tears to your eyes, then you have a cold, cold heart. I could listen to this recording over and over all Christmas season and I'll still cry every time. Listen to it. TRUST ME.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Merry Early Christmas!

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

2016 AMAs: Red Carpet Review

The American Music Awards are always interesting to review for red carpet fashions, because the breadth of musical genres represented means that the fashions range from country chic to haute couture to avant garde to ghetto formal. It's a wonderful opportunity for both sizzling sartorial successes and tragic tailoring trainwrecks. And we saw both last night.

One of the looks we've been seeing all over the red carpet this season is a long see-through lace gown worn over various types of undergarments. This was definitely one of the most popular styles last night, seen on Hannah Davis, Kat Graham, Idina Menzel, Gigi Hadid, and Teyana Taylor.

Davis' cobalt blue lace overlay covered a strapless black bra and high-cut panty set, with long, slightly belled sleeves and a flared train. Feminine, elegant, and not too revealing, the graceful lines of the lace and the undergarments were sultry without being tacky, and the gorgeous color set her dress apart from the mainstream black version. 

Graham's fishnet-patterned overlay was low cut in front and had oddly flared sleeves and a high slit in the straight skirt. She was braless and wore a low, straight-cut panty that created an unflattering line at the widest point of her hip. Her ding-toed stance did not help the line of this boring, droopy dress. 

Menzel's strapless column featured a black and silver starburst over the leotard-style undergarment, and the skirt flared into a long, graceful train. It created beautiful lines and looked less bare than many other versions. 

Hadid's white lace column wasn't quite as see-through as some, which I really liked. I also liked the variations of zig-zag patterns in the lace and the to-the-waist ruffle on the bodice, although it was worn a bit too low. But overall, this was a great variation of this look. 

Taylor's corseted bodice featured dropped shoulders and an opaque panel at the front and back, with opaque fabric at the base of the bodice creating pretty arched lines over the hip. The hem flared into a slightly ruffled train. It was perfectly tailored to her figure and although somewhat racier than a few other versions, it hinted more than revealed.

Another extremely popular detail seen on many attendees was the extremely plunging neckline, worn by Lady Gaga, Milla Jovovich, Bailee Madison, Bebe Rexha, Hailee Steinfeld, and Olivia Munn.

Gaga opted for the shirtless tuxedo look, with a tailored white tuxedo jacket, wide-legged pants (slightly too long, but otherwise gorgeously cut), and a huge white picture hat. I loved the feminine touches of the hat and the satin underlay of the lapels. A nice twist on an old favorite. 

Jovovich's plunging neckline was mirrored by a deep and wide front slit in a beautifully textured black column with just a bit of peekaboo paneling at the waist and in the sleeves. The long straight lines gave her beautiful height and the stark black worked well with her coloring. A very striking look. 

I loved the fabric of Madison's swirled pink metallic column, and the narrowness of her v-neck wsa flattering and looked more secure than many of the other plunging necklines. The simple silhouette and sleek updo balanced the busy-ness of the fabric beautifully.
Rexha's neckline was too wide and insecure-looking, but I did love the way it wrapped into the waist, and the waist-high slit paired with over-the-knee suede boots was the perfect complement to the fabulous jungle print. A slightly narrowed neckline and this look would have been perfect. 

Steinfeld's turquoise romper tucked the deep vee into a wide leather belt, and appeared to continue into an endless loop forming the skirt/shorts and wrapping back up into a capelet, which was a great touch. Her long, wavy hair cascading to cover some of the exposed skin softened the look and made it work for me. This is a great example of taking a popular trend in a unique direction and using really creative design techniques. A terrific look all around. 

Munn's print babydoll dress had a higher and broader neckline than most, which might have worked except for all the posing and movements she had to do as a presenter, which made me very nervous for a potential wardrobe malfunction. But the skirt, although alarmingly short, hits her at the perfect length, the flared ruffles on the sleeves add a nice detail, and the tiny black belt with a bow break up the busy watercolor print just right. And the colors are lovely on her.

I don't often critique the men on the red carpet, because so many of them are often so generic. But despite a somewhat generic pattern of skinny-legged tuxes, the men generally did well last night in creating some unique looks worthy of commentary.

James Bay put the "skinny" in "skinny pants" in these impossibly slim black velvet trousers, paired with a short black and silver brocade jacket, plain black tee, and wide-brimmed hat. I loved the combination of textures in the fabrics, and although the hat was a bit small, it was an interesting and funky touch. Nicely done. 

Gabriel Conte's elegant black and white plaid skinny tux featured a black satin shawl collar and was paired with a black turtleneck and perfectly white sneakers. The impeccable cut and tailoring of the suit, along with his perfectly-coiffed hair, made for an elegant and eye-catching look.

Mason Cook opted for a more traditionally cut tuxedo, with slim but not skinny pants, worn with a black dress shirt and narrow black tie and pointy-toed dress shoes. The beautiful but not-too-bright teal color brought it to the next level and created some personality. A great classic and youthful look with just the right touch of pizzazz. 

Naill Horan's gray suit with perpendicular pinstripes (I'm sure there's a name for this pattern of fabric but I'm not sure what it is) had a nice, subtle sheen, and it worked well with the plain white pocket square and open-necked white shirt. But the brown shoes were a big fat miss. Tsk tsk.

Similar to James Bay, Tim McGraw also sported impossibly skinny skinny pants paired with a silvery-black brocade jacket and a hat. However, McGraw stuck with his country roots with jeans and a cowboy hat, and his tuxedo jacket featured a narrow satin shawl collar and matching cuffs on the pushed-up sleeves, worn over an open-necked placket shirt. A great look, combining country sensibilities with formal touches. 

Shawn Mendes went more casual, with a black leather biker jacket over looser-fitting black dress pants and a textured charcoal gray shirt. Impeccably polished boots and swept back hair completed the look nicely. 

Co-host Jay Pharoah went for class in this polished deep blue suit with notched satin lapels, white dress shirt, and narrow black satin tie, finished off with perfectly shiny pointy-toed dress shoes. A very elegant look. 

Sting mixed casual and class with slim-fit dark pants and casual jacket over a gray tee with black sneakers. Not a bad look, but shame on him for forgetting the sometimes-always-never rule of jacket buttons. Never button the bottom button unless the jacket is hanging on a hanger, not on you!

Ty Dolla $ign (how it pains me to type that) started with a simple base of black skinny jeans and a basic black tee, but then dressed it up with million-dollar dress shoes and a fantastic shiny leather jacket with broad, short lapels and patterned front inserts, topped off with a Smokey Bear hat and cool round shades. Classy and unique. 

I'm always interested to see how groups make their looks work together (or don't). This year's groups, for the most part, did a nice job of creating unique individual looks that were still unified in some way among the whole group. 

Green Day's wild hair and guyliner alone tended to unify them, but so did their choice of interesting textures and fabrics used in similar cut suits and a black and white palette. From black on black, to black velvet paired with a black-and-white patterned shirt, to shiny silver lame over black, each of these three personalized their look while fitting into the style of the group as a whole. 

The Chainsmokers went with the popular style of skinny-cut tuxedos, but personalized them with contrasting colored print shirts, which was a nice touch. 

The three members of Forever In Your Mind didn't do such a good job of coordinating their looks, outside of wearing black, slim-cut pants. A psychedelically-patterned colored sweater on one, a black-and-white polka-dotted shirt on another, a shiny tux and formal shirt on the third, along with a mixture of pant lengths just didn't create any sense that these three belonged together. 

Fifth Harmony's red carpet look was nicely unified, with all black (okay, technically I think the middle dress is navy, but it's close enough to count) dresses in varied cuts and textures, with lots of wide diagonal swaths and tall strappy sandals. Each look suited the wearer's figure and personality, yet they all worked together. 

Their onstage look, however, was less successful. It wasn't so much that it wasn't unified - everyone seemed to be wearing rags held together by corset lacings - but that it was ugly, mostly because everyone seemed to be wearing rags held together by corset lacings.

Finally, there were some hits and misses worthy of mention. Some of these hit the mark and some didn't, but at least their wearers all took a risk and went outside the mainstream trends.

Cam's bright yellow column was a bit conservative by AMA standards, but the halter top was beautifully draped and fitted, the waist detailing was lovely and unusual, and the cascade of the skirt with just a peep of gladiator sandal was right on target. 

Ciara's gown seemed an odd pairing of a thick black turtleneck with puffy shoulders with a 1980s bi-level and bi-color bubble skirt. The proportions were all wrong and looked clunky and heavy instead of airy. 

I loved the fabric of Noah Cyrus' gown, but the style just didn't work with it. It wasn't quite see-through enough to fit into the first category I reviewed above, but instead just looked like her underwear was showing through. At least it was nicely cut, modest underwear? Meh, the whole look was just tired and droopy.

Daya's strapless romper almost worked, with its smooth line through the hip, ending in a narrow but baggy cuffed leg and the perfect pointy sandals. But the flap pockets on the hip fall at an unflattering level, making her hips look wide and low. The devil is in the details.

Nina Dobrev's romper worked really well, with its black-and-silver mesh tuxedo jacket and shorts with black satin shawl collar and pocket flaps, over a see-through black corset which just barely peeped out of the jacket. The sideswept long wavy hair, pointed ankle-strap pumps, and tiny black clutch were the perfect finishing touches to a great look.

Lauren Giraldo looked to me as if she were about to do some trick horseback riding in a circus. The art deco pattern on her leotard was pretty, as was the cascading cream chiffon train, but the bare-legged look was too unfinished. Bonus points for her fabulous gold shoes, though.
Ariana Grande hit all the right notes in her wide-legged white pants with a gorgeous short black lace bodice and her trademark dark lipstick and high, tight, long ponytail. It was simple and flattering, with just enough details to add interest.
The shimmer of Skylar Grey's pants and bodice added a bit of extra opacity so her outfit didn't look too exposed. I loved the open shirt worn as a jacket and the black button detail on the pants. I would have preferred a button or two more buttoned up in her undershirt, but she made a good choice to wear just a tiny chain necklace and allow her neck tattoo to be her main chest adornment. 

 Heidi Klum's metallic romper was a completely retro cut, with its nearly bell bottom flared pantlegs, its puffed sleeves, and its primly-tied trailing bow at the neck. If anyone could have pulled it off, it would have been Heidi, but she didn't. Auf!

I adored Jeannie Mai's cleverly-patterned white gown with red and black "tiles" down the front. It was as if she had a narrow column gown painted onto her flared white gown with a train. An unusual, fun, and eye-catching look. 

Keke Palmer could have used a bit more coverage and support under her two-piece mesh dress, but I still liked her look. The fabric draped and moved beautifully, the detailed neck insert was lovely, and the puffy pale pink faux fur coat and pink sunglasses added a touch of color and femininity that softened what could have been a too-severe look. Not perfect, but very different and fun. 

 Rebecca Romijn's gown featured a see-through bodice over a cobalt satin bra and coordinated bi-level full skirt with slightly contrasting lining. The skirt was just a hair too high-waisted and slightly too tight for her (unfortunately quite noticeable when she was presenting), but the color was great and the style was interesting.

And I can't help but end with Z Lala, who seems to be in the Cher-Lady Gaga school of fashion. Not only did she sport this shinier-than-shiny black space oddity with mermaid-cut waist, pointy bust, and molded, rounded shoulderpads, her hair was slicked into an impossible tidal wave ending in a point in front of her face on one end and a widow's peak down to the tip of her nose on the other. It might be a really weird look, but it was certainly memorable, and she pulled it off well.

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