High on Books: Shelly Smith's "Reads & Weeds" podcast cultivates the best sentences and strains

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Shelly Smith

Photo by Moni Jones/Her & HIm Studio.

A love of the written word, cultivated cannabis, and the buzziest broadcast medium inspired Ypsilanti-based comedian Shelly Smith to start the podcast Reads & Weeds.

Smith had appeared on other comedians’ podcasts as a guest but, she says, “I wanted to do more than sit around and talk -- I wanted to do something more intentional. Some friends talked about doing a book club and it dawned on me that a podcast, revolving around cannabis and books, was the perfect cross-section of my interests.”

The upbeat, irreverent Reads & Weeds is a delightful listen. There is fun banter about topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to self-publishing books to women in prison to back tattoos. The show features a variety of co-hosts plus fellow readers who stop by, which makes for a riotous atmosphere. Smith’s childhood friend, Kris Walton, handles the technical aspect of the show in addition to occasionally co-hosting. Walton joined Smith on an October episode discussing Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which joined an impressive list of eclectic books that have been discussed on the podcast. 

“One of the books we read, Smoke Signals, is all about the socio-political history of cannabis,” Smith says. But all the reads aren't about weed. Other books include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, and The Illusion of Money by Kyle Cease.

Ann Arbor author Alexander Weinstein explores the human experience in the Computer Age with speculative fiction collection "Universal Love"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Alexander Weinstein and his book Universal Love

Author photo by Francesca Albert.

People spend too much time on phones. Kids are addicted to their screens. Technology is ruining how we communicate. 

But what if tech also forces us to figure out how to find connections even in the age of emoji-only text messages?

Some of these issues are at the heart of Alexander Weinstein’s Universal Love, a collection of short speculative-fiction stories about an eclectic group of characters, including a woman who becomes closely acquainted with a hologram version of her deceased mother and a man with depression who seeks electronic surgery to erase his troubled past. 

Weinstein, an Ann Arbor resident and professor at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, says that he can see the addiction to the constant stream of information that our technology affords.

As wonderful as technology can be in connecting people with friends, or in supporting human justice, or in accessing information readily, I can see that my students are becoming increasingly addicted to technology. And it's not just them -- it's all of us. Right now, we’re in a kind of binge-drinking stage of technological addiction. There are emails to check, Facebook posts to like, Instagram photos to upload, Tinder/Grinder profiles to swipe, emojis to send, and endless text messages. At stoplights, I see other drivers, sending off one more message before the light turns green. Next to us in the restaurant is a family eating dinner in silence as they individually play with their smartphones. And at bus stops around the world, grown men and women are playing tiny games on their screens like children.

Curiosity Cured the Cat: Dr. Howard Markel encourages readers to explore in "Literatim: Essays at the Intersections of Medicine and Culture"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dr. Howard Markel and his book Literatim

When you've been a medical journalist for decades and have written hundreds of essays and articles, it might be difficult to determine which writings to include in a collection. But Dr. Howard Markel says it wasn’t as hard as one might think to assemble Literatim: Essays at the Intersections of Medicine and Culture.

“I’ve written for a variety of places, but a lot of that has been reportage and not essays. Some articles about patients really didn’t fit either,” says Markel, who is the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine and the director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “I wanted the book to be about medicine and how it intersects with culture, so after talking with the editor at Oxford University Press, I went and got my articles out of my file cabinet and literally put them on the floor in front of me. After I wrote the introduction, the rest came together nicely.”

Full Metal Jokers: Comedians & musicians team up for a night of laughs at A2's Open Floor Studio

PULP LIFE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Full Metal Jokers

Full Metal Jokers, clockwise from left: Mateen Stewart, Jeff Horste, Esther Nevarez, Full Metal Events logo, and Torey Arnold. 

Dan Thomas took two of his favorite things and made something better. 

Full Metal Events - Comedy & Music “started off as strictly a stand-up show,” Thomas says. “But I also really enjoy music, too. Saturday Night Live inspired me to take those two pieces -- good stand-up comedy and musical guests -- and put them together.”

The show begins with a comedian, followed by a few songs from the musical guest, about an hour of stand-up, and then ends with the musical guest again.

Thomas makes it a point to feature a diverse lineup. “We rotate hosts and performers every show,” he says.

The musical talent is as wide-ranging as its performers. Past shows have included music guests such as Nappi Devi, Frank Grimaldi, and Mark Norman Harris, who does rap, folk, and comedy. Comedians have come from both near and far and include Samantha Rager, Connor Meade (who recently won first place in the recent Comedy Rumble), Marv Barnett, Brandi Alexander, Emily Sabo, Andrew Yang, and Tony Tale.

The show on Thursday, Dec. 26, features a lineup of nationally known performers. 

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase features 30 female comics performing 90 seconds each

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Comedy Rumble 2019

Clockwise from top left: judges Reese Leonard, Sam Rager, Jacob Barr, and host Bret Hayden will be at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase as part of The Comedy Rumble.

It started when comedian Bret Hayden decided to have a party.

“I wanted to have a Christmas celebration with my comedian friends, so I did it as a show and everyone showed up.”

That party has since blossomed into one of the fastest-growing local humor nights: The Comedy Rumble.

It's not your typical comedy night with an opener, warm-up, and headliner; instead, the Rumble is a lightning-fast show featuring 30 comedians doing material for 90 seconds each. The briskly paced routines are performed in front of a panel of professional comedian judges, with the top four vote-getters getting to do another quick set before a final winner is declared.

The show at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase marks the second anniversary of the Rumble. “We started at Cellarmen’s [in Hazel Park] in December of 2017,” Hayden says. “Since the first one went so well, I wanted to make it a regular event. After Cellarmen’s closed [in July], I talked to [Comedy Showcase founder] Roger Feeny, who knew me as a regular at the club. He was 100% on board and supportive, so we did our first show in Ann Arbor on October 30.”

The next one happens Wednesday, December 18, and this show is special because it is the second time the Rumble features female comedians only.

“About five or six years ago, when I first started in comedy, I could count on two hands the number of women comedians that I knew personally," Hayden says. "Comedy has always been overwhelmingly male, so I wanted to see if it possible to find 30 women comedians to perform.”

"Last Letters" documents a love story among German Resistance fighters in World War II

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Last Letters book

“We are only here because of Harald Poelchau, the prison chaplain who risked his own life to smuggle these letters back and forth to my grandparents,” says author Johannes von Moltke. “There is no other way that my grandmother would have gotten these letters and been able to keep them the rest of her life.”

The messages von Moltke refers to are the heart of Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence Between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, which contains the intimate notes between German Resistance fighters in World War II. The book is published in English for the first time thanks to von Moltke, his sister Dorothea, his uncle Helmuth, and translator Shelley Frisch. 

Late in 1944, Freya von Moltke waited at home while her husband Helmuth James von Moltke was being held in a Berlin prison, awaiting his trial for his part in the Kreisau Circle, one of the crucial Resistance groups in Germany. In the months leading up to Helmuth’s execution in January 1945, the two exchanged heartfelt, moving letters about their lives and love for each other. Poelchau risked his safety daily to smuggle these writings in and out of the prison. 

Dr. von Moltke, now a professor of German and film at the University of Michigan, says his grandmother always had the letters with her.

Paul Bernstein’s debut book of poetry, "What the Owls Know," chronicles a fully lived life

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Paul Bernstein and his book of poetry, What the Owls Know

A blurb on the back of What the Owls Know, Paul Bernstein’s book of poetry, says that the reader is guided through the “ground of a fully lived life.” There is no question that Bernstein’s life, like his poems, is fully realized.

Born in New York, Bernstein came to Ann Arbor in 1959 and returned to the city in the late 1960s seeking a Ph.D. in History. “I first published my writing while an undergraduate,” Bernstein says. “But then I got involved in politics. … I was involved with anti-war politics and at some point thought that I should give it up to focus on writing poetry but then protests heated up, the Weathermen began … and I realized it was not the time to get out.”

Brittney Morris' "Slay" imagines Black Panther's Wakanda as a VR video game beset by trolls

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Brittney Morris and her book Slay

A lot can happen in 11 days. One of the original Apollo missions could have gone to the moon and back. The Pony Express could have delivered one piece of mail from Missouri to California. A turtle can walk from New York to Ohio. And the most anticipated YA novel of the fall can be written!

After seeing Black Panther, Brittney Morris penned her debut book, Slay, a story about a young African-American woman who battles a real-life internet troll intent on ruining the video game she created, also called Slay.

“After I saw the movie, I was hoping someone would make a Wakanda simulator video game," Morris says, "because I immediately wanted to go back to Wakanda, and then I got to thinking about how controversial an all-Nubian VR MMO would be. I realized how much responsibility would be on the shoulders of someone managing such a game. And thus, the idea for Slay was born.”

Retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth co-authored the definitive biography of blues legend Robert Johnson

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Bruce Conforth and his book Up Jumped the Devil

Decades of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail have led to the 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, which aims to rewrite and correct the story about the legendary bluesman. Co-authored by retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this book entertains with facts, cut through myths, and lets readers learn about a man who has for too long been reduced to a single (and impossible) anecdote about trading his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to play the blues.

“When Columbia released its Thesaurus of Classic Jazz [in 1959], it was the first chance for most country-blues artists to have their recordings on a major label," Conforth says. "Most people didn’t even know that these folks existed. And on this record was Robert Johnson. … The liner notes said that he was the greatest blues musician there ever was, but we had nothing to compare him to and didn’t know anything about him. Almost immediately this mystique formed around Johnson while at the same time people were saying, ‘Oh, we’ll never know anything about him.’”

Conforth, who grew up in and around New York City during the 1960s folk revival, took that as a challenge.

Sarah R. Baughman's middle-grade book "The Light in the Lake" marries science and magic

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Sarah R. Baughman and her book Light in the Lake

Author photo by Ashley Cleveland.

Sometimes it feels like monsters are everywhere and the world is out to get you. At times like this, we all need some magic in our lives to make it better. For 12-year-old Addie, whose twin brother Amos died recently, these truths can all be found in Maple Lake. 

Addie is the protagonist in Sarah R. Baughman’s debut novel, The Light in the Lake, and she spends much of the book in the coveted role of a summertime Young Scientist studying the very lake where her brother drowned three months ago. Using a notebook that Amos left behind and with the help of her new friend Tai, Addie learns that the lake has secrets that include both those of a scientific nature (pollution) and of a more supernatural nature (a mysterious creature described by Amos as living deep inside the lake). Addie straddles the two worlds, one foot firmly in her trusted science and the other not so firmly in a magic realm that she’s not quite sure she believes in but one that might ultimately bring her closer to her late brother. 

U-M grad and Michigan native Baughman says she has always been interested in the “connection between these seemingly different ways of looking at the world.” Though not a scientist by training, “I deeply value scientific knowledge and approaches to problems.”