Monday, January 23, 2017
Lily met Eva Trentham, the daughter of an infamous Australian painter, when they were young girls, on Lily's first day in a new school. An only child, raised modestly by parents who seemed perfectly happy with their quiet, ordinary lives, Lily is quickly besotted with Eva and her two sisters, Bea and Heloise. And when Lily is invited to visit the Trenthams' home, she immediately falls in love with the bohemian lifestyle Eva's parents, Evan and Helena, have created, letting the children fend for themselves, surrounded by art, nature, and raucous parties.
Little by little, Lily becomes a part of the Trentham household, and she and Eva become inseparable. Evan and Helena create a sort-of artists' colony in their own home, inviting three young artists to come and live with them, and together they will challenge the mores and stuffiness of the conservative Australian art scene. Even though she feels fully immersed in the magical atmosphere the Trenthams have created, and her parents are all too happy to let her live with Eva's family, Lily knows that she will be always be just an outsider.
But as the girls get older, Lily starts to realize that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Evan's work seems to be eclipsed by that of one of his protegés, the government is cracking down on what they view to be "indecent" art, and each of the girls, even young Heloise, has their own obsession with the handsome young artists who live with them. And then Lily realizes she has been the one left in the dark, and the secrets that have ramifications which will irreparably change a number of lives.
The Strays shifts back and forth between Lily's somewhat magical life among the Trenthams and her fellow strays, to the present day, when she attends a retrospective of Evan's work. This is a story of the intense friendships of youth, the feeling of belonging in a place far different than you were raised, and the jealousy and heartbreak which comes from actually finding yourself on the outside.
"What I feel is the sense of futility that emerges when the past is laid side by side with the present, like two photographs taken many years apart, when it becomes clear that there is no more time."
The themes of the haves and the have-nots, of the outsider being brought into a life they had heretofore only imagined and/or wished for, are both tremendously familiar in literature. Emily Bitto tweaks them a bit, so there is a freshness to the plot you've seen many times before. The characters are flawed yet interesting, and while you have your suspicions about how the story will unfold, there still are a few surprises.
While the book tried to capture the battle between art and government-mandated decency, I don't think it focused on that topic enough, so it seemed a bit nebulous. One troubling thread of the story didn't get focused on enough, and I'm not sure if that was because the family tried not to deal with it, or if it just got lost. But all in all, this is a captivating story of friendship, love, creativity, betrayal, and finally finding one's place in the world. It's both heartwarming and tragic, tempestuous and grounded.
NetGalley and Twelve Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!
It's one of my most favorite times of the year: the Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow morning. I've been reasonably (ha) obsessed with the Oscars since the 1980s, and so we make an effort to see every movie and performance nominated for the major awards before the Oscar telecast. (If what happens tomorrow is what I think, we won't have much more to see, thanks to a very movie-heavy holiday season.)
For a while now, I've been making my predictions for which movies and performances I think will get nominated, then after the nominations are announced I come back and analyze how well I did. (Note: this isn't necessary who I think deserves to get nominated; often there's a pretty gap between what I want and what actually happens, because the Oscars are as much about paying back old slights, trying to take advantage of popularity, and other crazy politics as they are about who gave the best performances. But I digress.)
So, here's what I think will happen tomorrow around 8:35 a.m. ET. I know there's bound to be a surprise and/or disappointment (for me) or two, so...
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Analysis: Over the last few years the Academy has played coy with the number of films which will get nominated for Best Picture. Some years it's eight, some years it's nine, sometimes it's ten. I went with 10 this year although I have a feeling it will be either Fences or Silence, not both. And then, if the Academy feels adventurous, they could nominate Deadpool, which would be awesome.
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Analysis: I feel fairly secure about these five, but Joel Edgerton could sneak in for Loving. If he does, I think he'd displace Mortensen, whose movie was the least seen in theaters.
Amy Adams, Arrival
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Analysis: It breaks my heart not to add Annette Bening to this list for her fantastic performance in 20th Century Women. She should have won an Oscar already, and she absolutely should be nominated this year, but I worry that her multi-layered yet ultimately more comedic performance will get overlooked. Huppert has never been nominated, so I think that plus the Golden Globe win give her momentum. But then again, Ruth Negga (for Loving), Emily Blunt (Girl on the Train), or Jessica Chastain (for Miss Sloane) could surprise, and there's a v-e-r-y o-u-t-s-i-d-e chance that Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech could actually hurt her chances for a nod. But I doubt it.
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Analysis: I'm going out on a little bit of a limb here. I believe Ali, Bridges, Grant, and Patel are locks. That fifth spot is in flux. Aaron Taylor-Johnson won the Golden Globe for Nocturnal Animals but I think the Academy may pick previous nominee Shannon (who has a slightly showier and more sympathetic role) over his co-star. The other possibility is Lucas Hedges, who was really good in Manchester by the Sea. And of course, there's probably someone I'm not thinking of...
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Analysis: Other than Annette Bening getting a nomination tomorrow morning, the one thing which will excite me more than anything is if Janelle Monáe gets nominated. She had a great year and proved she has a real future in acting, not to mention she's an amazing musician and drop-dead gorgeous, to boot. I have a feeling the Academy will hedge its bets and go with 2011 winner Octavia Spencer for the same movie, despite the fact that Monáe's role is a little showier. Oh, and don't get me started on Davis, who should be a Best Actress nominee, since she's in 95 percent of Fences (and won a Best Leading Actress Tony Award for the same performance). But this is the Oscars...and the same thing happened with last year's winner, Alicia Vikander.
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Garth Davis, Lion
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Analysis: Another crapshoot. The Directors Guild of America nominated Chazelle, Davis, Jenkins, Lonergan, and Denis Villenueve for Arrival. The Golden Globes nominated Chazelle, Jenkins, Lonergan, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge and Tom Ford for Nocturnal Animals. I have a feeling Gibson may get in, but I never count out Scorsese, since the last time he really had a pet project (1988's The Last Temptation of Christ), he got nominated although the film did not.
And there you have it! Check back tomorrow to see which noms excited me, which enraged me, and which shocked me.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Theo was Griffin's first love. They were best friends first, and then one day, Theo surprised Griffin by expressing his feelings for him, especially since they had never discussed either of them being gay. (This was Theo's secret; Griffin's was revealing to Theo that he knew he was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and he wasn't quite sure what to do about it.)
"It's going to sound stupid, and I wouldn't ever say this out loud, but the way Theo and I came out to each other was sort of like getting caught in a thunderstorm. Storms can suck when they're knocking out power and ripping apart houses, no doubt. But other times the thunder is a soundtrack to something unpredictable, something that gets our hearts racing and wakes us up. If someone had warned me about the weather, I might have freaked out and stayed inside."
Griffin and Theo's relationship was truly specialthey shared many inside jokes, romantic and goofy moments, and Theo tried to help Griffin deal with his OCD. When Theo gets the opportunity to attend college in California on early admission, Griffin has a feeling that being out of sight might mean out of mind with Theo, so he breaks up with him. But Griffin knows Theo is his endgame, and that they'll eventually find their way back to each other and their love.
As Theo's first year of college unfolds, it's no surprise that he begins dating Jackson. Griffin does his best to be happy for his best friend, but he is hurting, and his pain is making his compulsions more intense. He knows that Jackson wants Theo to stop being friends with Griffin as well as their other best friend Wade. Griffin starts to wonder whether he should try and move on to, if the endgame he had always dreamed of has changed. And then, without warning, Theo drowns.
Theo's death throws Griffin into a tailspin. He doesn't want to do anythinggo to school, leave the house, anything except mourn for his true love and his best friend. To make matters worse, Jackson comes to New York for Theo's funeral and then stays for a little while, to escape from where the tragedy happened. Yet despite their mutual jealousy of the other, Jackson and Griffin start to open up to one another, since they're the only ones who truly knew Theo this way, and they're the only ones who feel this kind of grief.
But no matter how much they confide in each other, the pain of Theo's loving someone else, coupled with Griffin's grief, is dragging him down. He wants nothing more than to shut the world outWade, his family, everyone and everything. He can't ignore the fact that his OCD is getting more out of control, though, and he's starting to hurt everyone else in the process. The only way he can attempt to move on is to try and come to terms with his and Theo's history, from start to finishwithout varnishing over anything or avoiding the pain.
This is an intense book, but it's not all as sad as you'd expect. I might have teared up a time or two, but I was surprised I didn't become more emotional given the subject matter. I think that's because Adam Silvera tried not to make the book too heavy, even as Griffin and the other characters dealt with some serious grief, as well as unresolved anger.
Silvera is such an excellent writer. His book More Happy Than Not made my list of the best books I read in 2015.
The book shifts back and forth from when Theo and Griffin's relationship first began to the present, and you wonder how everything is going to occur. I'll admit I struggled with Griffin's character a bit, because his grief made him a little too difficult to dealt with, and his selfcenteredness, while understandable, made him less than sympathetic at times. But as Silvera lets the whole story unfold, you can understand why he acts the way he does.
I read about 90 percent of this book in a day. It's not an easy read emotionally, but Silvera immerses you in the story and makes you feel the emotions his characters do. The fact that the boys' sexuality was just presented in a matter-of-fact way, without experiencing any homophobia or people's difficulty accepting them, once again leads me to wish this type of YA fiction existed when I was a YA.
Friday, January 20, 2017
I pondered this as I got ready to read Megan Miranda's The Perfect Stranger. Her last book, All the Missing Girls, was fantastic, both for the mystery itself and the unique way Miranda let the story unfold. The book even made my list of the best books I read in 2016. So needless to say, I tried very hard to ratchet back my expectations of her new book, because I didn't want to be disappointed just because I loved her last book so much.
Did she deliver? While The Perfect Stranger isn't perfect, it's a good, suspenseful read. And I think I might have liked it even more if I didn't read Miranda's last book and expect to be dazzled. If you go in knowing that, you'll hopefully enjoy it.
"I can only explain it this way: that I knew her deeply, if not thoroughly; that a four-month relationship can supersede all the boyfriends, all the friendships, that came after and lasted longer, that our friendship was born from the one time I'd stepped off track, done something unexpected that did not follow the predicted steps of my life. And for that reason, it shone brighter, and so did she."
Leah Stevens was a journalist in Boston who got a little too emotionally invested in an exposé she wrote. When she refused to reveal her source, and things related to her story unraveled, a restraining order was taken out against her and the newspaper she worked for was threatened with a lawsuit. Without a job and feeling utterly betrayed, she needed to get out of townfast. She ran into an old friend, Emmy Grey, with whom she lived just after college.
On the run from a bad relationship, Emmy is desperate to leave Boston as well, so she involves Leah in her plan. The two head to a small town in Western Pennsylvania, where Leah gets a teaching job, and they can both keep off the grid. Leah and Emmy live on parallel schedules, and the two rarely if ever see each other for more than a few minutes, especially when Emmy starts dating someone new. But Leah keeps getting the sense that Emmy is still on her guard, that she's waiting for something to happen.
One night, a woman with a strong resemblance to Leah is assaulted and left for dead. A teacher who has shown a little too much interest in Leah is the suspect, which puts Leah a little more in the spotlight than she'd like, since her previous life has been kept a secret. But when Emmy disappears a few days later, Leah has no choice but to put herself out there and try to find out what happened to her friend.
Leah cooperates with the handsome young police officer who is assigned to the assault case, and tries to get him to help find Emmy. As the police investigate, she realizes that despite feeling tremendously close to Emmy, she never really knew her, which leads the police to suspect that Leah may be making the whole story up, that Emmy may not really exist, especially once they learn of Leah's past. But she knows the truth, and she is determined to find out just who Emmy was, and what happened to her, even if it means returning to the scene of her past transgressions, and possibly putting her own life and her own future at risk.
How well do we really know someone? How far would you go for a friend who has done a lot for you? Does one questionable action in our past doom us forever? The Perfect Stranger strives to answer all of those questions. It definitely keeps you guessing, because you aren't sure how reliable of a narrator Leah really is. The book's setting helps add to the tension, adding an almost moody feel to the whole thing.
As I mentioned earlier, there are things I didn't like about the book. There were a lot of things happening at once, and some of the storylines seemed unfinished, even unnecessary to the core of the plot. But Miranda really is an excellent writer, and knows how to slowly let details unfold so you stay hooked. So of course, what this means is, I'll eagerly await her next book, and remind myself to dial back my expectations again. (I never learn...)
NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!
Monday, January 16, 2017
This book is staggeringly beautiful. Powerfully emotional, haunting, frank in its sexuality and its romanticism, this is a book about love, infatuation, longing, and lust. It's a book which explores the divide between wanting the familiar and wanting what you do not (or in some cases, cannot) have, and makes you realize that the things you think you cannot live without lose their appeal as soon as you get them. I felt this book in my heart and in my head, and I don't think I'll be able to forget it anytime soon, nor do I want to. I don't doubt this will be among the best books I read this year.
"Perhaps in this, finally, lay the leanest proof of love: the hope, the belief, the conviction that she knew more about me than I did myself, that she, not I, held the key to everything I felt. I didn't need to know anything; she'd be the one to know."
Enigma Variations consists of five novellas, each focusing on a man named Paul at a different time in his life. In "First Love," 22-year-old Paul returns to the Italian island where his family spent summers in his early adolescence. He remembers in particular one summer, when he was 12, and he became obsessed with the village's cabinetmaker, a ruggedly handsome man who seemed to show an interest in Pauly (as he was called back then), and awakened desires in the boy he was never aware of before. When Paul returns to the island he finds while certain things are as he remembered them, certain things are as far from memory as possible, yet he realizes things about that summer that young Pauly would never have understood. And that was the first time he realized the loss we can suffer when we don't say the things we most want to.
In "Spring Fever," Paul is dating a woman, Maud, whom he believes is cheating on him. While he is slightly dismayed by this fact, at the same time he feels freed by it. At a dinner party with friends, where he meets Maud's suspected lover, he discovers that perhaps she isn't the only one with secrets, and he is more of an open book than he thinks. "Manfred" follows Paul as he becomes obsessed with a younger man who plays tennis at the same club he does, and Paul longs for Manfred to recognize him, to see him as a man and not just a person, to desire Paul with the same fervor Paul feels for him.
In "Star Love," Paul is reunited with a college girlfriend, Chloe, with whom he had a fitful yet intense relationship. They seem to meet up every four years in a similar setting, and yet each time they leave one another indelibly changed, yet immobilized from expressing their true feelings, even when both are with other people. And in "Abingdon Square," an older Paul meets a younger writer and starts to wonder if she is his last chance at true happiness, yet he is afraid of rejection and putting his feelings out there.
"When I'm with you, I feel I can take what others call my life and turn its face away from the wall. My entire life faces the wall except when I'm with you. I stare at my life and want to undo every mistake, every deceit, turn a new leaf, turn the table, turn the clock. I want to put a real face on my life, not the drab front I've been wearing since forever."
Aciman's storytelling draws you in, holds you by the heart, and envelops you in the story. I found these novellas so powerful, so beautifully written, and they provoked so many emotions in me. I found the way Aciman and the other characters treated Paul's bisexuality very interestingin a less-talented author's hands this could have been fodder for melodrama. This is a book about love and the intensity of that love; it is not a book that truly cares about the sex of the people Paul loves.
This is probably not a book for everyone, but it is so bold and poetic, so emotionally rich and exquisite, if it sounds like it might appeal to you, pick it up. Perhaps you'll identify with some of Paul's emotions, or perhaps you'll just understand the enduring power of loving and being loved.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
I'm actually grateful for this obsession, because sometimes the Golden Globes and SAGs nominate performances or movies that got very little, if any, time in theaters around here, so learning about them introduces me to some great films and performances I might not have otherwise seen. Captain Fantastic is definitely one of those.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie have raised their six children in a remote cabin in the mountains of Washington state, almost completely off the grid. They've educated their children in history, science, politics, culture, survivalism, even socialism. (A favorite holiday is Noam Chomsky Day.) These children know how to hunt, forage for, and grow their own food; they know how to rappel, climb rocks, defend themselves, and treat injuries; and they are stronger, faster, and more agile than most adults, let alone children their own age. Ben and Leslie have also taught their children to be critical thinkers, although they mostly believe the same things their parents (or more so, their father) do.
Over the last several years, Leslie has been suffering from mental illness, and is starting to tire of life off the grid. She wants her children to live more typical lives and interact with their peers. Yet this is a source of significant friction between her and Ben, and she has been hospitalized while he remains with the kids.
While some of the children are devoted to their father and the life they know, some are beginning to think like their mother. The oldest child, Bo (George MacKay), wants to go to college, and realizes that he has no understanding of how people interact in the "real world." When a tragedy forces Ben and the children back into society, their interactions with Ben's sister and her family, as well as Leslie's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), devout Christians who blame Ben for what has befallen their daughter, show just how wide the divide is between Ben's way of thinking and others', and it sets up a situation in which the children must choose what path they want to follow.
Mortensen is a tremendously versatile actor, equally comfortable in both fantastical and realistic roles. His performance is Captain Fantastic is both intense and sensitivehe's a man who so fully believes that the way he has raised his children is right, and can't believe anyone (including his children) would disagree with that, but he's absolutely horrified when he realizes that he may have done his children a disservice. He is proud of the ways his children excel over others, yet turns a blind eye to where they may be lacking. And he is a man devoted to his wife, but he cannot understand why she would suddenly change her mind about the life they have chosen for them and their children. (Oh, and he goes full Viggo again in this movie, if you know what I mean.)
The actors playing the children are all quite good, particularly MacKay and Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the son whose questions and wants start to cause cracks in the foundation Ben has built. Langella has a fairly one-dimensional role as the film's heavy, and Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, playing Ben's sister and brother-in-law, don't have a lot to do other than be shocked at how outlandish Ben's behavior and obsession has become.
This is a sweet, predictable movie, but its quality is ratcheted up a few notches because of some of the performances, particularly Mortensen's. He has been nominated for Golden Globe and SAG Awards, and I hope to see his name among the Best Actor Oscar nominees later this month. It's definitely a movie worth seeingit's thought-provoking, a little emotional, and quite enjoyable.
As the space race between Russia and the U.S. heated up, with the Soviets in the lead, NASA was under significant pressure to put a man in space. In addition to the large number of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists they had on staff, NASA relied on "human computers," African-American female mathematicians who were used to perform calculations and analysisbut not be seen or heard unless spoken to. Informally supervised by Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), these women were smarter and faster, but rarely even thought of beyond their abilities to get work done.
One of the smartest of these "computers" was Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). She is assigned to work with the men calculating how to get a man into space before the Russians did so, and she quickly proves her worth, despite the resentment and prejudices of those around her. But despite the fact that she is asked to calculate figures without access to classified information that would help, as well as the subpar treatment shown to all African-Americans at this time in history, Katherine quickly catches the eye of the NASA Director (Kevin Costner), who begins to rely on Katherine more and more, despite some things he just doesn't understand about her.
Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), is encouraged to apply for one of the engineering positions that has opened up at NASA. She's perfectly qualified (perhaps more so than others), but in an effort to keep African-American women from advancement, the job requirements were changed to include coursework that is only available at segregated schools. She wants to challenge the system, but is discouraged by some (including her husband) from making too much of a fuss.
At the same time, Dorothy is becoming increasingly frustrated by NASA's refusal to formally give her the supervisor position (and pay) for which she has essentially been doing the work for some time, but she sees opportunity in another challenge: mastery of the new mainframe computer that NASA has brought in, which has the potential of replacing all of the "human computers."
As NASA begins preparing for John Glenn's launch into space, Katherine's work becomes ever more crucial, yet she is challenged by the obstacles that keep being put in her path. She wants to attend the meetings where the up-to-the minute data is discussed, and she wants to be viewed as an actual member of the team, not just the typist who is actually doing all of the work. Will her calculations prove correct, and will Glenn make it to space and back safely?
Hidden Figures succeeds on so many levels. It brings to the public eye the achievements of some truly unsung heroes whose work made a huge difference in our world, as schools don't teach about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan when they're talking about the space program, they talk about the astronauts. The film also conveys some strong messages, yet never seems heavy-handed. It also succeeds in creating tension even though you know most of what will happen, but you get so invested in the characters and the story you can't stop yourself from getting nervous.
This film may be a crowd-pleaser, but it's also a tremendously well-acted one. Henson plays a role very different to many of those she's played recently, and walks a line between the deference her character was supposed to show and her frustration that her intelligence wasn't valued the way it should. I really don't understand why she hasn't been more of a factor in the Oscar conversation, since she really has some great moments.
This is the second memorable performance that Monáe has turned in this year (after Moonlight), and this absolutely should land her among the nominees for Best Supporting Actress this year, as her Mary Jackson is fiery, funny, and unabashedly proud of her intellect. Her biggest competition is Spencer, who is always good, but I didn't think her performance rose to the level of Monáe's (mainly because her role wasn't as exciting). Where the Oscars are concerned, however, sometimes the familiar gets in over the more-deserving. (Ironically, when watching the previews before this movie started, Spencer is in five of the movies we saw previews for.)
I really enjoyed this movie, and absolutely expect it to get a Best Picture nomination in a few weeks. It's rare that a movie with female leads does as well at the box officethis weekend marked the film's second consecutive week at #1and it's even rarer to see a film succeed which features women's intellectual prowess as such a significant factor. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come!