Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: "Lucky Alan: And Other Stories" by Jonathan Lethem

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

For someone who once unequivocally refused to read short stories because I convinced myself that rather than invest myself in characters and plots that end quickly, my time was better spent reading full-length novels (such foolishness), I've more than made up for lost time over the last few years. And as any fan of the short story knows, the richness of characterization and storytelling can actually be intensified in shorter form.

While I tend to read many different types of genres, I usually like my short stories to be reasonably straightforward. I don't necessarily need realism or linear structure, but I don't like to have to struggle to wonder what a story means, or what an author is trying to say. (Yeah, I'm opinionated that way.)

This quirk of mine may be one of the reasons that a number of the stories in Jonathan Lethem's new collection Lucky Alan: And Other Stories didn't quite click for me. I think Lethem is a terrific writer, and I've read several of his books, but again, I've tended to enjoy those which hewed to a more traditional narrative better than those which were a little dreamier or more surreal.

The characters in these stories are quirky, and the situations they find themselves in are often tremendously unique. Some of those I really enjoyed included "The Porn Critic," in which a young man tries to overcome the perceptions people have about him because of his job; "The Empty Room," which dealt with the craziness that results when a somewhat dysfunctional family moves to a house much larger than they know what to do with; "Procedure in Plain Air," in which a man unwittingly becomes a player in a situation he doesn't quite understand; the title story, which chronicles the narrator's friendship with a quirky, formerly legendary film director, and the dynamics of that man's relationship with a neighbor; and my favorite, "Pending Vegan," in which a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown has the bad idea to take his wife and young daughters on a trip to Sea World.

If you're a fan of stories that don't quite follow the traditional path, this is definitely a collection you should pick up. Lethem is a tremendously talented storyteller, with a voice all his own.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: "The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter" by Craig Lancaster

"That's the thing about fame. If you have it, it's almost never on your terms. You become what other people—people who don't really know you—imagine you to be."

Hugo Hunter was a young boxer from Billings, Montana, who had exceptional talent. He took the world by surprise when at 17, he won the silver medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics. (He was actually cheated of the gold medal, but that's another story.) Yet given his skills, he was never really able to achieve the success his potential hinted at. Much of his adult life was spent moving from scheme to scheme, addiction to addiction, building up people's hopes and then disappointing them. But he could never shake his love of boxing.

Mark Westerly, a newspaper reporter in Billings, had a ringside seat for Hugo's career, and it changed his life as well. He was part of the celebration of Hugo's victories, and was witness to the crushing disappointments. Yet being a part of the adventure that was Hugo made him privy to some secrets and incidents he could never disclose, and as Mark dealt with challenges in his own life, the pressure often became too much.

"I don't know when I let him in, when I relaxed the pose as objective journalist long enough to let myself love him, but whenever it was, it couldn't be undone, even if I'd wanted that."

Years later, desperate for money and a taste of the glory that passed him by, Hugo has embarked on a series of local fights, in the hope he might make a comeback. But he finds that his life—and his abilities—have gotten far more out of hand than he realizes, but in order to avoid hurting himself and those he cares about yet again, he has to change the path his life is following. But how to do that when all he knows is boxing?

When Mark finds himself with another chance at happiness, he must make the decision whether to try and save Hugo from his demons one last time, and let out the secrets he's been holding in for so long. He also has to realize that everyone is entitled to a second chance, but they must work for it on their own.

Craig Lancaster's The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter feels like a good old-fashioned novel, and I don't mean that in a negative way. I really enjoyed this book and found Lancaster's storytelling tremendously straightforward, without gimmicks or unnecessary drama or affectations. Hugo, Mark, and the supporting characters are really well-drawn and immensely likeable, even when they're doing things you don't agree with. And as with many books I enjoy, I find myself wondering what became of the characters after the book ended.

This is a book about boxing, yes, but it's more a book about friendship, regaining your faith in yourself, and how to unburden yourself from being a witness to another's successes and failures. I'm so glad I stumbled onto this one, and definitely recommend it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Movie Review: "Whiplash"

Whiplash is an intense, fantastic film that asks the question, how far is too far to push someone to harness their talent?

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City (standing in for Juilliard). He's a talented yet cocky drummer who dreams of being a true great in the jazz world. While practicing one day he is spotted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the black-clad hardass who rules the school, and handpicks those he believes to be talented to join his studio band.

But while Fletcher would love to find the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, what he seems to be even better at is terrorizing his students, hurling slurs, curses, even furniture at those who provoke his wrath. (His philosophy is not knowing the answer can be worse than being wrong.) But does he do it because he likes to break these students down, or because he believes this is what separates the truly talented from the pretenders, those who truly want it from those who are lazy and squander their gifts?

Fletcher takes an interest in Andrew, but that interest is tremendously fickle. Andrew is determined to prove himself worthy of Fletcher's faith, even if that means practicing until his hands bleed all over his drums, and closing his emotions and his life to anything but his music. (The scene where Andrew explains to his girlfriend why they shouldn't see each other any longer reminded me a little of John Malkovich's breakup with Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons.) He doesn't have any friends, and his father (Paul Reiser) doesn't quite believe in him, but Andrew only wants to be great.

The road to greatness, however, is a tremendously difficult one, and Fletcher exposes every one of Andrew's vulnerabilities, pushing him to the breaking point. Andrew has to decide whether to try and see if he really is as talented as he believes he is, or if he should simply believe what Fletcher has been telling him, that he just doesn't have it. But what do you do when your single-handed pursuit of a dream doesn't end the way you hope it will?

I've been a huge fan of Miles Teller since he appeared in Rabbit Hole a few years ago, but it was his performance in The Spectacular Now, one of the best movies I saw last year, that truly demonstrated his acting prowess. He is terrific in this movie, simultaneously cocky and desperate for Fletcher's approval. His dogged determination to get the chance to play during a music festival was painful to watch yet utterly mesmerizing.

If all you know J.K. Simmons from are his comic role as the father in Juno or his Farmers' Insurance pitchman responsibilities, you will be utterly bowled over by his performance in this movie. He is a drill sergeant, a bully, a heartless bastard everyone is aching to deck, yet Simmons occasionally lets glimpses of the man's vulnerability break through his a--hole exterior. Simmons has complete command of nearly every scene he is in, even without saying a word. If there is any justice, he will be among the nominees for Best Supporting Actor at this year's Oscars—this is far from a lovable performance, but it is totally riveting.

Running less than two hours, Whiplash puts you through the ringer, but like Andrew and Fletcher's other students, you willingly take it all in. While the plot of the movie may not surprise you, the performances—and the heart—of this movie will wow you. See it.

Movie Review: "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

While watching Alejandro González Iñárritu's loopy Birdman, the question inevitably came to my mind: which came first, the character, or Michael Keaton? (I ask having done no research on the film, because that would be too easy.) Because whether or not the film was intended to be loosely based on Keaton's career, this certainly was a role he was able to fully inhabit given how closely it mirrors his own life and career.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) used to be a movie star, the actor who played the iconic superhero Birdman in a famed trilogy of films. But while box office success was his, he was a bit of a critical laughingstock, so he walked away from the character rather than continue the series. He's desperate to be taken seriously as an actor in this phase of his life, so he's sunk everything he has into writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's iconic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The movie takes place in the few days of previews before the show has its opening night.

The thing is, Riggan is a little bit of a mess. His daughter (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serving as his assistant, as well as a reminder of his failures as a father. His ex (Amy Ryan) isn't sure whether to hate or pity him. His girlfriend/costar (Oblivion's Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant with his baby. Oh, and Riggan is being taunted by the voice of Birdman, who is encouraging him to give up the stage charade and agree to a fourth film.

Beyond Riggan's own offstage drama, the show has its share of challenges as well, which have his best friend/producer (Zach Galifianakis, in an almost completely non-Galifianakis-like performance) on edge. An actor is replaced at the last minute by Broadway wunderkind Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is at turns both supremely egotistical and utterly insecure, and isn't really comfortable with the publicity about the show being all about Riggan.

The demands of the show and his life suddenly become too much for Riggan to bear, and the voice in his head is growing ever more demanding. This is where Birdman shifts into fantasy, as the film takes a bit of a trippy ride deep into the recesses of Riggan's psyche. It's a little distracting but also gorgeously filmed. And then, as the film rights itself (slightly), it takes on a slightly farcical tone, and you wonder if Riggan is just a bit shrewder than we've been led to believe.

Sporting a wispy, hangdog goatee and a lousy toupee, Keaton looks haggard but is absolutely brilliant in this role. Riggan wishes he could have been taken seriously as an actor while achieving the success he did as Birdman, but realizes he couldn't have both, which is why this comeback is more important to him than anything else. And while he desperately wants to set his relationships right, he feels utterly powerless to do so. He is both vulnerable and brave, cocksure and scared, and this is a performance I expect we'll see recognized as Oscar season approaches.

Keaton's co-stars turn in some strong performances as well. Norton talks a mile a minute about craft and words, and is often most comfortable when he's making other people uncomfortable, but there's an air of vulnerability to him as well. I am a huge Emma Stone fan, and while I don't think she had a huge part in the film, she imbued her character with the shaky confidence you'd expect someone to have just out of rehab. Naomi Watts (as Keaton's leading lady and Norton's sometime girlfriend) and Riseborough each have some good moments.

Birdman is definitely a talky film, but despite its meditation on the short-term nature of fame and the power of the media, it's a little more lighthearted than I expected. The dreamy pieces may render this film not quite for everyone, but it's definitely worth seeing for the performances and the dialogue alone. I hope this represents a return to the film world for Michael Keaton; he's definitely been missed.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: "You" by Caroline Kepnes

You often hear from actors that villains are more challenging to portray than those characters that are inherently good, because unless the character (and the movie) is utterly campy, they need to be complex enough in order for the audience to be interested in them.

The same holds true in books—I'd imagine that at times, creating "bad" characters might pose more of a challenge, since in order to keep the reader's attention (and perhaps at least a little sympathy), the character has to be more than just evil. If that truly is the case, Caroline Kepnes did an excellent job in her new book You, because she hooked me completely on (and even had me rooting for) a character who did completely odious things.

The day that Guinevere Beck walks into the New York City bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he is instantly smitten, by her sexiness, her intellect, and her sense of humor. It doesn't take long for Joe to convince himself that Beck is the one meant for him—and all he needs to do is convince her of that fact. He does his research (some of it is actually legitimate) and he begins to understand what makes Beck tick, and he plots his course for how he can get her to fall for him.

While Beck is attracted to, and intrigued by, Joe, she is far more complex than he realizes, and there are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of a potential relationship. There's her occasional not-quite-boyfriend Benji, and her needy best friend Peach, for starters. And she has issues. But none of this detracts Joe from pursuing his goal of a happy ever after with Beck. No matter what he has to do.

This is a book about the fine, sometimes blurry line between love and obsession, and how nothing is quite what it seems. It's both a fascinating social commentary and a true page-turner about infatuation, and not letting anything stand in the way of what you believe is your destiny.

You is (the grammarian in me winced when putting those two words together in a sentence) truly a testament to Kepnes' exceptional talent, because in lesser hands, you wouldn't care about Joe's pursuit of Beck beyond being troubled by it. But there are times when you can't quite figure out which character is more unsympathetic, and times when you're actually rooting for Joe to win Beck over. (Other times, not so much.)

I really enjoyed this book in a can't-look, can't-look-away type of way. I thought the story was a bit more drawn out than it needed to be, but I was utterly fascinated (and repulsed) by Kepnes' characters. This is one book I'll be thinking of for a long while...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: "I'll Give You the Sun" by Jandy Nelson

Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun is beautiful, breathtaking, bewildering, and a little bizarre, but I can't get it out of my head. Somehow I knew I'd love it and yet it still surprised me.

Jude and Noah Sweetwine are twins, so close they often think of themselves as NoahandJude. They can read each other's thoughts and know each other's fears. At age 13, both are artistically creative and emotionally sensitive in their own ways, yet they're also quite different. Jude is a daredevil who loves to surf, take risks, and is rapidly becoming the type of girl who intrigues and attracts all the boys, while Noah tries to live his life unnoticed so he won't be bullied, lives in his own artistic fantasy world, and is fighting his attraction to/obsession with the new boy next door.

Yet three years later, Noah and Jude are barely speaking, and everything has changed. Jude lives in constant fear and has isolated herself from the possibility of a romantic relationship, and while she feels a profound need to create art, she can't seem to express herself the way she wants to. And Noah has completely given up art, dives off of cliffs, and become the person no one ever thought he'd be. What happened in their lives, and between them, to change everything so drastically? When Jude meets a charismatic young man she can't stop thinking about, someone with a connection to Noah, and then meets a troubled artist whose talent may help her free her artistic block, these encounters provide answers and yet more questions.

"'Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,' I say. 'Maybe we're accumulating these new selves all the time.' Hauling them in as we make choices good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things."

I'll Give You the Sun shifts in perspective between Noah and Jude. Noah's narration takes place when the twins are 13, Jude's takes place three years later. Each of them holds half of the answers yet aren't willing to share them with the other to complete their understanding. How can a relationship that was so interdependent, so interconnected, turn so painful?

"This is what I want: I want to grab my brother's hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders. Things don't really turn out like you think."

This is a book about the half-truths we tell ourselves and our reluctance to see what is in front of us and say what we truly feel. It's a book about following your heart and accepting the truth, even if it leads you somewhere you're afraid of, and realizing you must live the life that ignites your passions. It's also a book about how simple it is to hurt those closest to us, and how the simplest actions can cause so much pain.

Nelson is an absolutely exquisite writer. I cannot tell you how many sentences I read over and over again because they took my breath away. That being said, I found Noah's narration—while tremendously heartfelt and emotionally provoking—a little difficult to follow, because he speaks in a stream of consciousness-type way, as he sees everything in his head as a painting. It took a little getting used to, but it truly touched my heart. Jude and Noah are such vivid, beautiful characters I absolutely loved, even as I wanted to shake them for making the mistakes they did.

This is one of those books I wish were so much longer because I didn't want to give up these characters. I hope someday Nelson gives us a glimpse into their lives again, but even if she doesn't, I know she is an author I'll need to keep reading. This one blew me away.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: "The Children Act" by Ian McEwan

I told a friend on Goodreads recently that I find myself running hot and cold on Ian McEwan's books. I really enjoyed Enduring Love but couldn't tolerate Atonement (and I know I'm in the minority on that one). Yet something about his newest book, The Children Act intrigued me—perhaps I wondered what a McEwan-esque take on what sounded like a plot from a Jodi Picoult novel would be like.

Fiona Maye is a well-respected High Court judge presiding over family court cases. Yet while she comes across as sensible, practical, unflappable, her professional demeanor belies the turmoil of her personal life. Her marriage is in trouble, and she's not sure how she feels about that fact. Is she angry? Hurt? Depressed? The one thing she knows for certain is she's starting to feel betrayed by her growing older, and wondering if pursuing her career so doggedly was the right decision.

"To be caught out enacting her part in a cliché showed poor taste rather than a moral lapse. Restless husband in one last throw, brave wife maintaining her dignity, younger woman remote and blameless."

As the judge on call one night she is summoned regarding an urgent case. Adam, a highly intelligent, 17-year-old boy, is gravely ill, yet because of religious reasons he refuses the necessary blood transfusion and treatments his doctors dictate. To refuse these treatments will most likely mean death, if not paralysis or other life-altering disability. The hospital and the court-appointed social worker believe Adam is too young to make his own decisions, and has been brainwashed by his parents and other religious elders. Yet Adam maintains he knows his own mind, but would rather face death or permanent disability than go against his religion.

Needing to make a decision very quickly, Fiona takes the unorthodox route of visiting Adam in the hospital. She is drawn in by his fierce intelligence and his devotion to his religion, as well as his creativity and sensitivity. She is utterly unprepared for the way this encounter makes her feel, as unprepared as she is for the chain of events her visit sets into motion. And she must make a difficult decision—should she overrule Adam's wishes (and determine that he, three months' shy of the age of consent, is not mature enough to understand the gravity of his situation) or should she doom him to possible death?

"Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, non obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?"

I found this book tremendously intriguing. I wondered, given the way many of McEwan's books unfold, exactly what would happen, and I was reasonably happy with the choices he made. I enjoyed the characters and actually wished the book was a little longer so that the reader was able to spend more time with them. In lesser hands this could have turned into utter hystrionics, but I thought McEwan's restraint was true to the plot. I haven't stopped thinking about this one, nearly a week after I finished it, so that's definitely the sign of a book worth reading.