Sunday, March 25, 2018

Stranger in a Strange Land No More: One Outlander's Survival Guide to Living in Hong Kong

Photo from the HK harbor lightshow cruise by yours truly
Hong Kong has many wonderful qualities, but it is not a user-friendly place to outsiders. It's crowded, bustling, and ever-changing. That yummy dim sum restaurant you adored might be gone and replaced with a fried chicken joint in a matter of months. That mural you admired on your daily commute has suddenly been painted over and replaced with new artwork. It's hard to keep up! And there's a lot of things one learns through trial and error because it isn't made apparent if you're new to the big city.

Hong Kong doesn't have the time to teach a newcomer how to swim in a sea of 7 million people, all crammed together on what my friend Lucas calls "the least relaxed tropical island in the world." For an American like me raised in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the first few months living here was incredibly overwhelming just in terms of figuring out how life works here.

Having lived in HK for over a year now, I've realized it is a very small world despite encountering people from all walks of life on a regular basis. You learn the areas where you live, people at businesses you frequent begin to recognize you, and you slowly forge together your own close-knit little community. To quote the song "Twilight World" by Swing Out Sister, "Forget lonely crowds, unfriendly faces, they'll soon become familiar places, before too long..."

For those of you looking to visit or live in Hong Kong, I've compiled this list of helpful how-tos that can make your stay, long or short, more convenient and fun in a shorter period of time.

Long-term residents: get your Hong Kong ID Card. 

If you plan on living here for any amount of time, this is an absolute must. You'll need this to open a bank account, set up utilities, get a local cellphone plan, and pretty much anything else major that you can think of. You also will need it to go in and out of Hong Kong when you travel since it also works as your customs card. It is quite handy because rather than filling out a form and standing in line, you just run the card through the security gate, place your thumbprint on the pad when prompted, and you are good to go. 

The ID card is free of charge and the immigration office will issue you a temporary one that is effective immediately - the real one can either be mailed to you at a small fee or you can opt to pick it up - it usually takes about two weeks to process. You can find out all the details on where to get one here. 

Hong Kong is a hiker's dream. 

Your favorite Critic at the top of Victoria Peak trail.
When I first thought of this area, the existence of incredible, scenic hiking trails did not immediately spring to mind. But they are there! Hong Kong's geography is wonderfully varied - you get the best of the mountains along with the best of the ocean. When the humidity isn't 200 percent, there are many great trails to be explored and a deep, abiding love for nature lies at the heart of HK culture, despite the bustling metropolis side of it all. Check out Sassy Hong Kong's Guide to the best hikes here. 

Cash is King. 

This one of the biggest learning curves for me coming to Hong Kong. In the US, cash has slowly been replaced with credit/debit card options in almost every situation, from fast food joints to self-checkout kiosks in Wal-Mart.

Not so with Hong Kong. In fact, very few restaurants and shops, particularly local ones not affiliated with big chains such as Marks & Spencer, will take a traditional American credit card. One learns quickly to carry cash around. Another alternative is to have an Octopus card, which can be obtained for HK$150 - the US equivalent of $20 - at any local MTR (Americans, read subway) station customer service counter. The Octopus works as a debit card at convenience stores and shops, and you can just tap it at the turnstiles to get into the MTR for wherever you need to go. Although my husband and I both think Hong Kong missed a golden wordplay opportunity not calling it the OctoPASS, but I digress. And while we are on the subject...

Octopus cards can be refilled at convenience stores as well as MTR stations. 

I didn't learn this until about three months into living in Hong Kong. You can go to your neighborhood 7-Eleven or Circle K, hand them your cash, tap the Octopus sign near the checkout and hey presto - its been refilled. This is so much better than having to walk back to the MTR every single time, and it's definitely a perk not well advertised.

Prepare yourself for expensive, tiny apartments. 

The "tiny house" trend in the US got nothing on apartments in Honkers. Prepare to spend at least US$2,000 a month on a place that will probably be around 500 to 600 square feet total. As Americans, we tend to like our space, so this definitely came as a bit of a shock to me. The good news is, Hong Kong is a very transient place, so there's always plenty of choices in terms of places to live. 

Do your research and find a good local realtor that will take the time to show you around, preferably someone that can be vouched for by a friend or trusted source. Many employers offer tax breaks and housing allowances to employees since the ridiculousness of the housing market is well-known, so if you are employed by a local company, talk to your HR representative. Again, you probably have to ask since perks like this don't tend to be well-advertised. This will come in handy since often you have to pay upfront at least two or three months' worth of rent to the landlord prior to signing the lease.

Getting a personal bank account here as an American is a pain. 

Local banks are not here to help you. In fact, they actively do not want your business. Cashing US checks here? Forget about it. However, especially if you have a job in Hong Kong, you need to have an account since most employers do not want to issue live checks (and good luck cashing them without an active account here). You get paid by direct deposit, once a month, in one lump sum - then it's up to you not to blow it all before your next paycheck the following month. Believe me, direct deposit is the way to go anyway since the bank is usually incredibly crowded and you want to avoid going there in person as much as possible. 

My husband and I went with Hang Seng Bank, which is a cousin to HSBC Bank based in the US. This means we can take money out from HSBC as well as Hang Seng Bank ATMs all over Hong Kong with no fee involved. They are also more open to connecting overseas US accounts, which I have to maintain to pay off my US credit cards since connecting a Hong Kong bank account up to a universal payment service such as PayPal is a no-go. Standard Chartered Bank, for instance, one of the oldest banks in Hong Kong, will not issue accounts to American expats, full stop. 

Things that you will need for sure to open a bank account here: your Hong Kong ID Card, a hard copy letter from your employer - signed and stamped - that verifies your employment and monthly salary, your passport and working visa, and two pieces of actual mail from a utility company or a bank that verifies your address here in Hong Kong. Those are the basics, but be sure to ask a bank representative exactly what else they may need - it never hurts to be overprepared here. Again, it may take up to two weeks for everything to get sorted out; so make sure you have plenty of cash on your Octopus or in your wallet to fall back on in the meantime! 

Utility bills can be paid at the ATM. 

Talk about handy! Websites for bills such as electricity and water can be pretty incomprehensible and don't always have English translations - and online payment really isn't a thing here for most services. The good news is, once you get the bill in your mailbox you can pay via the ATM - it is right there on the menu options. Just be sure to have the bill with you in order to type in the account number and the bill payment amount. 

You can also do direct cash payments via the ATM. 

Need to pay someone in advance for an event or party they are organizing? No need to wait until you see them - another perk of the ATMs here is as long as you have the person's account number and the bank they use, you can deposit cash right into their account. For instance, if there's a party going on and the organizer needs HK$200 ahead of time to reserve the table at the restaurant, if they tell me they have an account with the Bank of China, I can head over to that ATM, choose the cash deposit option, plug in the account number they give me, insert the cash, grab the receipt - all done!

Movie theatres require reserved seating ahead of time. 

Yup, you read that right. You want a seat in the movie, you have to book it ahead of time, preferably on the movie theatre website. The upside is that you know you'll get the view that you want - the downside is that people use it as an excuse to get to a movie late since they know their seat is guaranteed. Oh well, at least we can all still eat popcorn during the show! 

US Passport Holders who have been to mainland China previously are eligible for a 10-year multipass visa.

The proximity to the number of amazing places from Hong Kong is pretty extraordinary; the closest being mainland China - however, as an American while you don't need a visa to travel to Japan or Taiwan, you DO need a visa to go to "the mainland" as Hong Kongers call it. The good news is for around US$250, you get unlimited visits to anywhere in the mainland for 10 years. If your passport expires at any point during that decade, the visa can be transferred over to the new passport. This is an incentive that is only available at this point to US passport holders who have previously traveled to China and had a temporary visa once before.

Get packages delivered to your workplace. 

Package delivery can be a tricky thing here in Hong Kong; especially if both you and your spouse work out of the home. Most delivery people are on a tight schedule, so if you're not there - back to the post office it goes, and it's up to you to go retrieve it. Ain't no second chances for you. 

What is infinitely less stressful is to have packages delivered straight to your workplace (if your boss allows it) where someone in reception will be sure to receive it during business hours. So you get the package you want and you don't have to worry about figuring out which post office it landed in.

Pick up some basic conversational Cantonese. 

I was happy to find that the language barrier is pretty minimal here - most everyone speaks some basic level of English. But knowing a few phrases in Cantonese can be very helpful from time to time. For instance, many cab drivers do not speak English, as well as people that install your utilities or fix issues within your apartment. You're still gonna be a gweilo (meaning foreigner) no matter what, but knowing some basics can up your street cred a little more and smooth the way for better transactions in the future. 

Cabs are not very helpful and quite expensive - use the bus or the MTR. 

Cabs in Hong Kong can be the worst. They are very expensive, CASH ONLY, and often they will use any excuse not to take you where you want to go - especially if you are clearly not local. 

On the plus side, Hong Kong has one of the easiest, cleanest, cheapest and most efficient transportation systems in the world with the MTR, which accepts Octopus cards as payment - tap and go, zip zip. I strongly suggest giving the train map, trolleys and bus routes a look before trying to hail a cab. 

And speaking of public transit...

Eating or drinking on MTR buses, trains, and trolleys is not allowed. 

For my fellow NYCers reading this, you're probably gasping at the prospect of not being able to carry your morning coffee on your commute. I have found that if I am carrying water and not making a huge deal of it, I can sneak by with that - I call it the "gweilo pass". But food is an absolute no-go and it will be taken away from you (I've seen it happen). On the upside, the trains and the stations are some of the cleanest I have ever seen, so I think it is worth the sacrifice not to snack!

Join online expat groups. 

When I first moved here, I had no job or family to rely on and only knew a total of two people that lived here (aside from my husband). Before I got my full-time job here I had my freelance audiobook editing work to tide me over, but working from home can be a very isolating experience. I knew I had to go out and meet people. I went on Google and found out about a group called InterNations - a kind of Facebook for expats. The Albatross membership, which only costs about $10.95 per month to join, allows you to make friends, join social groups and activities as well as official InterNations social and networking events at a fraction of the cost it would normally be to attend fancy dinners, clubs and events (have I mentioned Hong Kong is expensive??!) Many of my close friends that I have made here were made through InterNations, and they have opened many doors for me. 

Other groups I can recommend are the HK chapter of as well as the Expat Hong Kong Facebook group that not only features ads for apartments and needful things but offers an open forum to ask pretty much any question and about Hong Kong and share information with other fellow expats. 

A few last-minute odds and ends: 

1. Watch out for highly aggressive train and elevator doors. 
2. Always hand cash to people with both hands. 
3. Most apartments do not have heat. Invest in space heaters because it does get cold from time to time! 
4. Things like dryers, dishwashers, conventional ovens and sometimes even fridges don't always come standard in apartments. 

Do you have any helpful tips for living, working and traveling in Hong Kong? If so, add your comments below! 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Introducing the new Critic Kitteh: Batman!

Batman is judging you - right now. 
He's brooding, sneaky, has lots of opinions, and most importantly - loves watching movies. Introducing the new Critic Kitteh - Batman!

After almost two years of being feline deprived after our dearly departed Sir Toby passed away, my husband Casey and I decided to do something about it. Now safely ensconced in a pleasant, pet-friendly apartment, we went in search of adopting a rescue kitty.

I have found in my life that you don't pick the cat; the cat picks you. The story of Batman's adoption is no different.

The process of acquiring a cat in Hong Kong is harder than one would initially think. The first adoption centre all but slammed the door in our faces when we showed up to look at cats during business hours without an appointment, and promptly told us we would not be let in unless we registered on their website. Thinking it would be better to try another avenue, we found out there was actually a shortage of adoptable cats at the local SPCA! A coworker then suggested we look into a local shelter called Hong Kong Cats where (like everything else in this city) you would still have to fill out a form on the website, but they were less strict about letting potential adopters meet the cats.

We submitted the form and waited. Sure enough, within a couple of days the director contacted us via email and said that there was a cat that needed a foster home urgently and would we consider being foster parents with the potential to adopt? She referred me to their Facebook page where his photo was posted and we saw a sleek, diminutive-looking pocket panther with jade green eyes. While we had  both hoped to have the opportunity to visit with a few kitties and see which one we clicked with, after some discussion we decided it wouldn't hurt to help the little feller out. If it didn't work out, we could always give him back to the shelter, and in the meantime buy some time for them to make other arrangements for him if need be. So I emailed back the director and said sure, we would be willing to foster him, could we come by over the weekend to meet him and arrange transportation? The response back was almost immediate - great, but he needs a home by TONIGHT. Be careful what you wish for!

Batman and the Critic ready for their album cover 
After scrambling around for needful items (such as a litter box) and finding to our great relief there is an excellent pet store right across the street from us, a much larger than anticipated 12-pound Batman (not his original name), crash-landed into our lives. The first four or five days were dubious - he mostly hid in the corner and barely ate. Casey thought he had magically escaped the apartment the second day we had him because he couldn't find him anywhere (and trust me Hong Kong apartments aren't that big); it turned out he had just camouflaged himself behind our equally black TV. We kicked around various names for him - Houdini (inspired by my dear friend and audio queen Tavia Gilbert's black kitty), Ninja, Mister Mistoffelees...but nothing seemed to quite fit.

Along about the sixth day, something miraculous happened - he had been hiding under the bed as per usual most of the day when we decided to sit down and watch some Batman the Animated Series. The minute the famed Batman theme by Danny Elfman came on, he came rushing out like a black streak and joined us on a chair, from a safe distance, to watch with us. Casey and I looked at each other and we knew. Of course, we also realize that makes us his joint team of Alfreds, but we figured that just came with the territory.

As the days went by, Bats decided he liked our modest high-rise home on the 29th floor, and we formally adopted him as of Sunday, February 4 - just a few short days before the second anniversary of Toby's passing on February 12. Now he joins us on the couch for film watching; usually on one or both of our laps, has become my new alarm clock, and fills that spot in my heart that was once again ready for a purring bundle of awesomeness.

 Other favorite pastimes include sneaking up on us, wild rumpuses at around 10pm (catnip gratefully appreciated), sleeping under the covers, looking down upon the city of Kong Hong through our (closed!) windows with a watchful eye, sharing his opinions with a wide variety of mews and purrs, and sitting in front of the laptop to make sure I'm writing only good things about him. 

Many thanks to Jackaroo, my dear friend Debbie Blinder's Russian Blue who has served well as interim Critic Kitteh; a colorful character in his own right. And of course to our dear Toby, though gone from this plane of existence lives on in the hearts and memories of his many friends, fans, and admirers. Batman has some big paws to fill, but we are confident that he will enjoy being a part of our lives and this blog for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Current Reels: Murder on the Orient Express has Poirot at his Most Vulnerable

The gang's all here: Branagh keeps this remake solidly on the rails
Every year, I like to take the opportunity to review what I like to call an "alternative holiday film" - something that evokes elements of the season while being far from the traditional tropes. In this case (pun intended), being snowed in while traveling on holiday on The Orient Express.

Poirot has long been a favorite of mine, and while David Suchet's fussy turn as the great Belgian detective remains impressive beyond words, Kenneth Branagh's interpretation is less closed off and more emotionally vulnerable. It's a tack that won't appeal to everyone, but I thought it was a remarkably fresh take on the classic character - particularly since this case proves to be one of Poirot's most ethically challenging. There's a gravitas to the entire piece, from the imaginative cinematography to the pitch-perfect screenplay adaptation by Michael Green, that seems wholly appropriate to breathing life back into one of Agatha Christie's most famous and compelling mystery novels of all time.

The film opens with Poirot in Jerusalem in 1934, solving a case with his usual air of savoir faire; but with less zeal than is due one of the greatest sleuthing minds of all time. It's an important moment as it shows our man of the hour as exacting in his standards but nonetheless rundown. As many of us do in such times in our lives, Poirot decides to give himself a break by heading to Istanbul; but quickly finds to his disappointment that yet another case demands his attention in London. He runs into a good friend who offers to book him on the plush Orient Express, which will take him through the Alps and onto France, where from there he can make his way to his next appointment. 

Unfortunately, it is trouble from the start as at first the train is completely booked, but Poirot agrees to share a compartment in order to make it on and takes comfort that perhaps he and his glorious moustaches (truly, never were there such voluminous multiple whiskers before) can simply catch a break as well as the train. His marked frustration is more apparent than the perpetually unperturbed Poirot that Suchet projects, and it adds a tone of relatable humanism to the famously large ego of the "little Belgian."

Depp brings his acting A-Game as well as distinctive outerwear 
For the first time in a long while, I was impressed with Johnny Depp. His turn as the malevolent Edward Ratchett, with a gravelly Brooklyn accent was the right balance between fearful and pugnacious, as befitting his character (without giving the plot away). Most of the sets and costumes were faithfully in keeping with the time period; but I noticed the distressed leather jacket that he wore when he first stepped out stood out a little too much from the rest. I could only imagine that was a bargaining chip between him and Branagh; I can almost imagine him saying, "Okay, I'll play it straight just this once, but you gotta let me wear a weird jacket, man." Under Branagh's careful eye,  I couldn't help but sense that everyone in the star-studded cast was polished, turned out, and bringing their very best acting chops to the table. I especially liked that each actor tried to sidestep their typecast roles that they tend to be known for (Willem Dafoe as a professor rather than the tough guy; Penélope Cruz as a maid rather than a femme fatale, etc.) and see them all bring something new and interesting to the characters. 

Most impressive was the cinematography; which certainly employed every inch of the big screen. It was an appropriate and effective use of CGI to show the lightning bolt striking the Alps and sending down the avalanche of snow in front of the train, which broke up the slower dialogue up to that point with an effective piece of thrilling action. Cameras pan through watery cut glass, making concerned faces of the suspects appear blurred and distorted; perhaps shielding the audience from their true intents until the appropriate moment of reveal. Indeed, the train itself is an important cast member; with its elegant frosted glass wall sconces and polished wood panels. To be given the task of filming most major scenes in long, narrow compartments is a challenge that Branagh was clearly up for. In one critical moment in which the body is found in one of the compartments, the entire scene is shot in one unbroken, elegant cut looking down from above; as the characters gather and enter into the room and then back out again. This serves to simultaneously include more characters within the shot as well as seamlessly move from one critical scene into another while side-stepping the messiness of multiple cuts back and forth from one end of the narrow compartment to the other. Characters are tracked through the windows of the compartments; interrogations take place indoors and outdoors, and the audience witnesses the crew of the train industriously shoveling away at the snow to get everyone moving again; a detail that is often lost in and amongst the sleuthing action of previous versions.

Poirot, where's your jacket bro?
However, the film is not without its flaws. As a detail person, Poirot running around outside and sometimes on top of the train without so much as an overcoat did not strike me as being consistent with the character. Godiva chocolate boxes casually placed within view of the camera for product placement purposes seemed out of place. Most frustrating was a moment later in the film involving a tense confrontation between the doctor and Poirot that seemed not only unnecessary; but frankly, silly. It is almost as if we couldn't be trusted as moviegoers to not fall asleep in the middle of the intrigue if the plot wasn't sufficiently peppered with action sequences.

Still, through the crisp white snow and crackling firelight of torches burning outside, the great reveal is made and the train - and life - goes on for Monsieur Poirot and the passengers. Overall, it is a satisfying execution of a classic story that was obviously rendered with a great deal of love and attention that is fun to watch regardless of whether you know the twist or not. Few recent mainstream films go to such great lengths to create a meditative environment on which to ponder the complicated and intricate patterns of human emotions.

Jackaroo sez: It's a beauty of a film to watch and while some action sequences seem out of place in the moment, overall the innovative acting and care taken to render this thoughtful take on a memorable "whodunnit" makes it worthwhile.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Autumn Audiobook Spotlight: The Throwback Special focuses on Rituals and the Healing Power of Moving On

As football season kicks into high gear, Chris Bachelder, author of the National Book Award nominee The Throwback Special, took time out to share some of his inspiration for his novel about rituals, male bonding, and mid-life crisis.

In this tongue-in-cheek novel, 22 guys gather in a low-budget hotel on an annual basis to reenact a gruesome moment in sports history - the November 1985 play when Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins had his leg violently broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. As characters are introduced, the story becomes less about the central event - often referred to as "The Throwback Special" - and more about the hilarious - and sometimes heartbreaking - realities of reaching middle age. Bachelder, who has taught writing classes at the Sewanee School of Letters at the University of the South in Tennessee for several summers, says novel writing is a journey of discovery and that he hadn't initially understood "this was a book about nostalgia, belonging, and rituals."

"You can kill a book if you know too much about it," says Bachelder. "I tried to find drama from the movement of the mind since there's not much movement of the plot, honestly...those moments of thought that bend back against themselves and again, arrive in paradox and bewilderment and, hopefully, comedy." 

Watch the interview below as Chris and I talk about the novel, why hotels are weird, how Kurt Vonnegut inspires him, and how an excess of characters can be just enough, rather than too much, of a good thing. 

Getting that "Special" Voice 

R.C. Bray, doing what he does best - talking!

I also caught up with R.C. Bray, the award-winning voice actor who narrated the audiobook and a guy I am lucky enough to call friend. There was a lot Bray found he could relate to, being both a sports fan and "around" the age of the men in the novel. 

You had to voice a lot of characters in this book. How did you keep them all straight? 

As with any book I keep mp3 files of each character. I don’t pre-record them. I wait until I’ve done a few of their lines or a nice big paragraph, then use that for future reference. About halfway through the book I rarely need to reference them anymore. But minor characters will pop back up from time to time, so I record everyone.

What was your prep process for narrating this book and was it easier or harder than you anticipated? 

One of the things I do to prep from time to time - which I did with Throwback - is skim through the pages looking for capitalized words; minus those at the start of sentences of course.  Doing so not only helps locate place names, ancient battles, etc. that may have difficult pronunciations; but more importantly doing so gives me a good idea as to character count AND an idea as to who’s got the bulk of the story by how many times they’re mentioned. In Throwback, many of the character's names were each mentioned quite often.That can sometimes mean “thin” or even underdeveloped, characters. Not the case with this book AT all. From a narrator’s point of view, Chris provided so much with minimal effort on each of the guys that I got such a clear visual.There’s nothing like it when an author does that; it helps aid so much in what kind of voice I’ll give a particular character. 

This book talks a lot about rituals - and the weirdness of them. Do you have any weird rituals with your friends or family? If so, why are they important to you? 

There’s this bridge somewhere around Queens when we head to New York City. My wife and her brother used to waggle their fingers in the air and make goofy sounds for the duration underneath. As soon as you’re out from under it, all silliness stops and you're back to normal. My wife introduced me to it when we were dating. We’ve since gotten our kids to do it. We really don’t have to plan for it either; we all know where the bridge is and we all just jump into action once we’re under. I do it even if I’m in the car by myself! Why? I’m not really sure. But it never fails to crack me up. Part of why I love it is it’s so completely random. Think about it. How many other people do you think do something that unique?

You seemed to have a lot of fun narrating this book. What - if anything - personally resonated with you? 

Throwback is set around a bunch of guys my own age who are going through what I am or will go through at some point: the fact that life doesn’t always turn out as planned, I’m not invincible, and at some point I’ll have to shed my eternal boyhood cloak to face “adult” problems head on.There are people I knew in elementary school, high school, college, work, etc. who have died, gotten divorced, gone to war and not come back, become insanely successful, and lost a child to illness. They also discovered they are transgender, “came out”, won a Super Bowl ring, played pro baseball/basketball, worked with famous actors, were important catalysts to bring back to some form of normalcy and hope in young peoples lives; on and on and on. I’ve had my shares of ups and downs, too. But, like most people I’m sure, I prefer the ups. Even when, like in Throwback, once upon a time good things do eventually come to an end and it’s time to move on/forward. There is a lot of power in letting go and moving on. As Bobby Plant once said:

 "Leaves are falling all around, It's time I was on my way. Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go. The autumn moon lights my way.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Power of Storytelling - Q&A with Audie-Winning Narrator Nicol Zanzarella

The lovely, "chatty Italian" herself!
 Every year, the Audiobook Publisher's Association (APA) of America hosts The Audies, which recognizes audiobooks of distinction and the voices that bring the words to life.

I recently caught up with actress and audiobook narrator Nicol Zanzarella, who in June won her first Audie for her work on the supernatural romance/thriller Ghost Gifts by Laura Spinella and produced by Brilliance Audio. This self-professed "chatty Italian girl from New York" currently residing in Los Angeles shared her thoughts on her craft, what it means to be a storyteller, and how audiobooks just may save the world. Listen to more of my interview with Nicol at the bottom of this blog post!

Ghost Gifts seemed like such a perfect fit for you. It's New York, it's Italian...did you choose to work on this project? 

I have to give it up to fate and David Andrews at Brilliance Audio who put this book in my lap. I have found that there are a couple of really special people in this business that seem to take great care in matching projects and voices...and I give all appreciation to David on that. The author Laura and I like to say that the ghosts are kinda watching over us because this has been an extraordinary experience from the get-go. I recorded that book at night and I am a scaredy-cat! I would leave the studio looking over my shoulder with my flashlight on.

What first inspired you to become an audiobook narrator? 

It's a funny story actually - I had a friend living in New York about 12 years ago who became a pioneer in audiobook narration. She would send us snippets of some of her more outlandish books she got to record to a select few people over the holidays as sort of a joke Christmas gift, like, "Hey, listen to this thing I got to say!" That is how I found out audiobooks were even a thing. I will allow her to remain nameless, but all these years later I love getting to share that story and how she made me realize I would love to do just that. (Listen to more of Nicol's thoughts on breaking into the audiobook industry in the audio interview below!)

What are you listening to these days? Do you have any fellow narrators that inspire you?

Nicol and David Andrews at The Audies in June
I gotta admit - I still have a love for the actual book in my hands - and, I'm a dogear. I like to wear in my books and take notes, so in truth I have a lot more listening I have to do. Someone who inspires me is Tavia Gilbert. One of my favorite audiobooks is one I just recently listened to called I'll Be Seeing You (narrated by Gilbert and Kate Rudd). I highly recommend it. At one point I stood by my kitchen counter bawling listening to that book. When a narrator does what they do so well, it's not some grand, costume performance - it's so quietly simple and exquisite and that's what they (Gilbert and Rudd) did with this book, and what I strive for. I love Tavia's work and what she brings to it - it leaves me speechless. (Critic's note: Ms. Gilbert won an Audie for Best Female Narrator of the year, also in June).

You identify yourself as a storyteller. Why do you think stories are so important? 

First and foremost my family has instilled in me a love of tradition - everything from the Italian side of my family with Sunday dinners and traditional holidays to my mother who studies Native American tradition and storytelling. It's our history, it's our roots; it's the way we ever first started to share information. You can tell stories so many ways - but I chose this way because it encompassed the things that have become important to me in my life. And maybe also because I like to talk a lot, which Martin, my better half, will attest to (laughs). There's the tradition and there's the roots aspect of humanity in storytelling, and I also think it is where we can go to find out that we are not that we can read or listen to the story of someone we could never in a million years identify with and find something that strikes home. I truly think that through sharing stories and really trying to listen to each other we could possibly save the world. Artists often face the question, "Is what we do important?" In the grand scheme of all the things going on in the world at any given time, particularly now, whatever you can do and whatever way you might touch something in someone even if it is in the back row of a poorly attended performance, it is still something. It awakened something in you for having done it or one other person somewhere along the way that might have that lightning bolt go off in them. That is what we're all doing here, I hope.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Minimalism - My Journey of Letting Go

2016 was undoubtedly the hardest year of my life. I have been struggling to find a context in which to write about my year and how it has shaped me into the person I am today. When I watched the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, I found the frame in which I could fit my own personal snapshot of coming to grips with simplification. I'd like to preface this by saying what follows is not meant to chastise anyone who wants a house of their own with their own furniture - more that it is my journey to realize that material possessions are not a marker of adulthood, and the freeing power of doing more with less.

The Minimalism documentary, directed by Matt D'Avella, focuses on several people who have decided to take the leap and drastically cut their material possessions for the betterment of their lives. Two fellas that I particularly admire are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends who call themselves "The Minimalists" who after significant personal losses turned their backs on the lucrative salaries and fancy possessions of the high-powered corporate sales world to a stripped-down existence of living intentionally. Another woman, Courtney Carver, was inspired to start Project 333 - a way of paring down your wardrobe to the essentials - after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Many of these people are using the idea of minimalism to take back control after devastating blows to their mental and physical health. As part of JIAM (June is Audiobook Month), check out my AudioFile Magazine review of The Minimalists' memoir, Everything That Remains. I should also mention audiobooks are a great step towards minimalism, since they literally take up no space at all.

The Minimalists: Nicodemus (left) & Millburn (right)
I am no stranger to downsizing.  As a child growing up, my mom encouraged me to routinely weed out my toys and clothes to make room for new, more relevant possessions. From the time I graduated college to the time I hit 30, I moved SEVEN times. I had an oasis of about four years in a 425 square-foot apartment, but other than that, it seemed my gypsy existence was inescapable. I was ready to put roots down, and by the American standard, that meant getting more space and stuff.

My husband Casey (then boyfriend) and I finally got our opportunity when we moved from the Northeast, where I had grown up all my life, to rural Tennessee in 2014. I had no idea what to expect, but I was fed up with cramped apartments. We found a house to rent that was way too much space for just the two of us, but  our options at the time were limited and it was affordable with a big back yard. Casey, my cat Toby, and I filled the place with light and love. I found a fulfilling full-time job with a short commute. Life was great.

The concept of minimalism was thrust upon me when Casey had to pursue other professional opportunities elsewhere, and the glass in this picture-perfect frame of existence started to crack. I had taken for granted this little world we had created for ourselves, filled with furniture, belongings, and wall art was a finite existence - that we had arrived at the perfect notion of "adulting." Nothing could be farther from the truth. When our beloved cat Toby, who many of you came to know and love through this blog, passed away suddenly and peacefully, the house felt insanely huge with just the two of us. Then the hammer truly came down - Casey did find another lucrative position - in Hong Kong.

As I processed these gaping hole punches in my current reality over the next weeks and months, I gazed around the house and thought, "Oh gods. What are we going to do with all this stuff?" The task of deconstructing a 3-bedroom house, although we had only lived there for two years, seemed insanely daunting. We had a dining room set, a living room set, rugs, lamps, etc. - you name it. And most of it had been given to us by family members. Then there was the emotional component - how could I possibly sell that leather couch? That was the leather couch Toby and I watched movies on all the time... - hitting my psyche HARD. It seemed such a Herculean task that for a moment all I could do was lie on said couch, paralyzed.

Through many months of effort, negotiation, local email classifieds, one massive yard sale, and no small amount of effort on the part of our family and friends, we got rid of the majority of our stuff. We rented a storage space for the rest, and moved out of said house last August. Did I mention we also got married somewhere in the midst of all this? We wanted to be rid of the storage rental space before moving to Hong Kong since it would be too much to handle from afar, so we made arrangements with wonderfully kind family members to hold the items from the unit with them for the time being. A friend of ours had agreed to take the bigger items down in his pickup truck - free of charge, as a wedding present - to a family member's home out of state. 

The final kicker - quite suddenly, this person could no longer make the trip for us. It is December, my time in Tennessee and the US is growing short, and I've still got a whole storage unit full of - I can call it this now - crap. The leather couch I couldn't bare to part with a few months prior was a massive eyesore. In fact, in the cold December light, it all looked sad and worn. In a moment fueled by months of disappointments, losses, and setbacks, I said, "I'm getting rid of this shit." And somehow, I did. I made one trip to the out-of-state relatives' home with only what I could fit in my Honda Accord, and then the rest of my possessions had to be made to fit - and just barely did, into one more car trip to my parents' home. A decade of independent living, reduced to two carloads. And to be totally honest? Those two carloads STILL felt like a ton of stuff. All of that had to be further reduced to two checked suitcases, one backpack, and one purse to take to Hong Kong. Talk about minimalist baptism by fire.

Now, almost six months later in my pre-furnished apartment a world away, I sit in front of a desk that isn't mine and is a far cry from my fancy and heavy-as-sin glass top monstrosity I used to have, and I don't even mind. I have acquired very little in the time I have been here and even some of that I am putting together in bags to pass on to better homes. My goal when I go back to my parents' house this summer is to get rid 50 percent of what I have stored there.

I realize that a mark of adulthood is not the house you buy, how much furniture you have, or how big your TV is. It's about how you handle life when it hits you hard. It is about accepting that everything is temporal, and rather than using that truth to fuel my insecurity,  that knowledge is helping me to live life more intentionally. To make time for the small things that end up being big things. To support that friend or family member going through a rough time. No one is going to remember us for the kind of couch we own, or how many electronic gadgets we have. No one says at someone's funeral, "Wow, remember grandpa's iPhone? That was slick." We are remembered for the actions that we take and for the love we share. That's what minimalism is about. Less is truly more.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Current Reels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Fights an Ego-Centric Future

Quill gets introduced to his father's "perfect" world
Marvel's fast-talking, sarcastic group of space weirdos are back to take on the greatest threat to the galaxy yet - narcissism.

James Gunn returns to the director's chair to bring together the intergalactic hellraisers once more in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. In this roundup, viewers begin to get a sense of what makes all these characters tick.

Set to the tunes of Peter Quill's "Awesome Mix Volume 2" given to him by his mother, viewers are tossed into the action from the get-go. This time around, the Guardians are on the run from a haughty and vengeful race of aliens known as "The Sovereigns" that are hellbent on creating a perfect human being. When all seems lost, our favorite antiheroes are unexpectedly delivered from their fate by a deity named Ego, who reveals to Quill that he is his long-lost father. Thus begins a battle of the flawed versus the supposedly flawless, and the disastrous effects of focusing too heavily on the "selfie".  

What makes the Guardians so compelling is they are all works in progress; each one of them on the mend from some past trauma. These are no mere caricatures, but full-fledged beings that have their own cultures, planets, and stories to tell, which make them interesting and relatable - even if they are assholes sometimes.The double-edged sword of a sequel from a writer's standpoint is on one hand, there's no "gear up" needed since the viewers are already familiar with the characters and the universe. On the other, it is trickier to grab the audience's attention from the start without a built-in plot springboard. James Gunn and Dan Abnett (who is also the writer for the Marvel comic) elaborate on the diverse cast's hopes and fears and their relationships with one another, while leaving plenty of time for snappy comebacks and good old fashioned space shoot 'em ups. 

The continued theme running through both Vol. 1 & 2 (which you can read more in my review of the first movie here) is family is what you make of it. I was gratified to see the stories of Nebula, Gamora, and most notably, Yondu (my personal favorite) expanded upon. We learn more about Yondu's past with the Ravagers, his relationship with Quill, and his own personal demons. He goes through hell, but on the plus side, gets a serious upgrade to the most deadly of mohawks! We even get treated to a cameo of the greatest underdog of all - Sylvester Stallone, playing Stakar Ogord (basically space Rocky) who banishes Yondu for misunderstood misdeeds. A weaker script would've taken the easy route with Nebula (played by the impeccable Karen Gillan, best known as companion Amy Pond in Dr. Who)  and reduced her complexities hinted at in Vol. 1 into a cold-blooded villainess. Instead, the story explores further her relationship with her sister, the inscrutable Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and we learn of the atrocities she suffered at the hands of her father, Thanos.

Yondu, Rocket and Groot get in some dude bonding time
What makes this second serving all the more enjoyable is it never takes itself too seriously. Ego waxes philosophical on the 70s classic "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" by the one-hit wonder band Looking Glass (fun fact: this tune fueled the writing of this review). Poop and dick jokes abound. The only true weakness with this feature is certain gags that worked in Vol. 1 are stretched to the breaking point in Vol. 2, reducing what could have been big laughs to mere chuckles - for instance, the sequence of Baby Groot continuing to bring back the wrong item to Rocket and Yondu would've been just as funny with three fewer items. Drax calling the newcomer Mantis "ugly" when he really means "beautiful" got old pretty fast. And as adorable as he was, I could've done with less gratuitous use of Baby Groot.

The sets, effects, action, and makeup are all of the top-notch quality we have come to expect from Marvel blockbusters. What sets Guardians ahead of the pack is the solid storytelling around themes that we can all relate to -family, belonging, and the quest for self-love, which make for a satisfying - if on occasion, emotional -  big-screen experience.

Jackaroo sez: Despite the need for thoughtful pruning of tiresome gags, Vol. 2 succeeds in reminding us, in the words of another 70s classic, "We all need somebody to lean on."