Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: "Love on the Big Screen" by William J. Torgerson

I don't know why I loved this book so much—maybe it's because I'm a child of the 80s, or because I'm obsessed with movies like the book's main character. But whatever the reason(s), I wouldn't have minded if this book was doubled in length, because I want to know what comes next for these characters.

In 1989, Eric "Zuke" Zauchas is a student at Pison Nazarene College, a small religious school in Indiana he chose because of the chance to play basketball, although he doesn't get the chance to play very much. He and his best friends are part of a club called the Brothers in Pursuit—while they do almost everything together anyway, every Sunday night they wear matching, embroidered boxer shorts and helmets, play games they invented, and report on their pursuits of truth, compassion, God, and women. (Not necessarily in that order.)

Zuke believes life should be like it is in the movies he watches—Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Princess Bride, and especially Say Anything. Like that movie's protagonist, Lloyd Dobler, Zuke believes he should pursue a dare-to-be-great situation, and he thinks he's found it in Abby, a girl in his English class. He devises a plan so that they're frequently together—he decides to become an English major like she is. They get along perfectly, and both feel a connection.

The challenge is, Abby happens to be dating Cheese (Brett), Pison's star basketball player. She's known Cheese nearly her entire life and thought of little but marrying him. Her relationship with Zuke has opened her eyes that perhaps she needs to expand her horizons a little bit. But will she break up with Cheese and start dating Zuke, or will she break Zuke's heart?

"All he wanted shimmered in foggy remembrances of relationships he'd seen on the big screen. Zuke wanted to be in the kiss at the end of the movie."

Meanwhile, things are exciting and stressful for the other Brothers in Pursuit as well. There's a surprise romance, a thwarted romance, taking control of your life when your plans have gone awry, even a little sexual identity crisis, which is particularly a big deal at a religious school. Plus the Brothers need to survive a WWE night with the guys down the hall—and their dorm keeps shaking, and they don't know why.

Love on the Big Screen is utterly charming, full of 80s nostalgia as well as the nostalgia of simpler times (although life didn't seem as simple). It's a story of friendship, romance, ambition, religion, forging your own path, even a little bit of heroics. And it has so much heart. This was one of those books that hooked me from the beginning because of its charm and its quirky characters. The story is simple, but it's high on entertainment value.

I'd love it if Torgerson wrote a sequel, because I'm dying to know what came next for Zuke and his friends.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movie Review: "A Most Violent Year"

New York, 1981. Abel Morales (Inside Llewyn Davis' Oscar Isaac) is the embodiment of the American dream—an immigrant who, through hard work and perseverance, has built his fuel company into a real player in the city. With his ruthless wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his consigliere (a subdued Albert Brooks) at his side, he's just made a deal to buy a large plant, which would give him better access to the river. He just needs to have the capital ready within 30 days.

The problem is, because Abel's company is making inroads, infringing on other company's customers even while charging more, he poses a threat. Unnamed parties have been hijacking his trucks and hurting his drivers and his salespeople. The Teamsters want to arm all of his drivers, which would cause even more difficulty. And all the while, his company is being investigated by the district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo), who wants to make a name for himself and doesn't care if that means sacrificing Abel's company to do so.

While Abel and Anna feel the district attorney's investigation digging deeper and deeper, an incident involving one of his drivers, fellow immigrant Julian (Elyes Gabel), threatens to throw everything they have worked for off course, and jeopardizes the purchase of the plant. Abel is determined to find out who has been harming his business and gather the capital he needs to close the deal, but he wants to do it as honorably as possible, despite Anna's urging him to play as dirty as everyone else. Will he succeed in doing things his way, or will he have to compromise his stance, perhaps putting the company at further risk?

A Most Violent Year is a gritty, understated film written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Boiler Room, All Is Lost). It's also pretty fantastic. While there isn't nearly as much violence as you'd believe from the film's title, this is a story about a man driven to succeed, the woman willing to fight at his side (or behind his back), and those who try to tear him down.

While this is a tautly written and expertly filmed movie, the performances raise it even further. Oscar Isaac is masterful—he combines pride, determination, bravado, barely simmering rage, and a little fear that everything he has worked for may come crashing down. While he has a number of moments in the movie, one scene, where he gathers all of his competitors together, is quietly dazzling.

Jessica Chastain is utterly mesmerizing, chainsmoking as she stands by her man. A gangster's daughter, she's not above kicking a-- and taking names if necessary. She is truly a force to be reckoned with, and while often Lady Macbeth-type roles veer into camp, her performance is fierce yet a tiny bit vulnerable, as she's afraid that the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed might cease. Oyelowo's role is small, but he proves adept with a New York accent, and he once again emphasizes the egregiousness of Oscar's snubbing his performance in Selma.

I don't know why this film hasn't gotten more fanfare and acclaim, short of winning a few film critics awards and a Golden Globe nod for Chastain. While I've not seen all of the films officially released in 2014, this will undoubtedly make my year-end best list. The film, as well as Isaac and Chastain, are all more than worthy of Oscar nominations, and should have been included on this year's list.

Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a bloodbath of a movie. This is a movie worth seeing—it might not blow you away with pyrotechnics, gunplay, suspense, or dramatics, but it will blow you away.

Book Review: "The Business of Naming Things" by Michael Coffey

The title of Michael Coffey's new story collection refers to the main character in the title story, who has made a living naming products, housing developments, and other things. But it's also appropriate for the entire collection, which focuses on people trying to get a sense of their own identities—as parent, friend, lover, child, priest—and figure out their place in the world.

Of Coffey's eight stories, the ones I enjoyed the most were: "The Newman Boys," which followed a teenage boy's friendship with a physically disabled neighbor, and how that relationship ripples through the rest of his life; "Moon Over Quabbin," in which a mother pictures her former town, which was submerged under water when a river was dammed, and envisions her son alive through those to whom his organs were donated; and "Inn of the Nations," which follows a priest in the 1960s, trying to get control of his life, which seems no easy task.

While Coffey is a very talented writer, and I enjoyed his use of imagery, many of these stories eluded my grasp. They started out strong, and I understood what Coffey was trying to say, but then the stories veered off course. In some cases, it seemed as if he just threw so much stuff into the stories they were going in many directions at once. This was particularly the case with the final story, "Finding Ulysses," which borrowed heavily from James Joyce.

These stories are intriguing and unique, and Coffey has a strong voice. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Book Review: "The Girl on the Pier" by Paul Tomkins

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

Patrick is a forensic sculptor, helping to identify unknown murder victims through his work. His latest assignment is to reconstruct the skull of an unidentified girl found on Brighton's run-down West Pier in the 1970s. Yet while he is determined as always to give his all to his job, he can't stop thinking of a summer night he spent on the West Pier in 1993, a night spent in the company of Black, a beautiful photography student. But as soon as he started to get to know Black, she disappeared without a trace.

"It's the story of my life: desiring the impossible woman."

As Patrick works to reconstruct the girl's skull, he remembers fragments of his life—his childhood and the turmoil he experienced, being abandoned by many people he cared about throughout his life, as well as how he came to be a forensic sculptor. He wants to solve the mystery of who the girl was, and solve the mysteries of his own life. Neither challenge is an easy one.

Paul Tomkins' The Girl on the Pier is fascinating—the plot takes all sorts of twists and turns, and Tomkins provides so much interesting detail, particularly around Patrick's career, and the steps he takes in his work. (I'll admit, with all of the crime novels and thrillers I've read, I don't believe I've ever read about a forensic sculptor, so that was pretty cool.) And Patrick is an intriguing character, one who demonstrates how powerful memory can be, and how moldable memories are.

My one criticism of this book is the non-linear way the story is told. I found myself having to double back more than a few times and re-read passages, just so I could better orient myself to the flow of the story and figure out what was being talked about. But once I got further into the story, I didn't find that as unsettling, although it took some getting used to.

If you're a fan of crime novels and thrillers, definitely add this one to your list. It's tremendously intriguing and different, and you can't say that about every book you read.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review: "Two Days, One Night"

We all want to believe we are generous and empathetic people, but when truly faced with someone in need, how would we react? Would we put the needs of others over our own needs and wants? This is the primary question raised by Two Days, One Night, a Belgian movie directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a wife and mother who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. She's ready to go back to her factory job, when she learns that the factory owner has given her colleagues two choices: they can let Sandra return to work, or they will each receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros. The 16 workers vote to let Sandra go, but when it is discovered that the factory foreman intimidated several of the workers to vote against Sandra, the factory owner agrees to a new secret ballot on Monday morning, so Sandra has the weekend to shore up the majority of votes she needs.

But Sandra would rather throw in the towel than go begging her coworkers for one more chance. While she must convince everyone that she is strong enough to work and wants nothing more than to have her life together, emotionally she isn't sure she's ready, and finds herself popping Xanax like candy. Yet her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) convinces her that she is worth fighting for, and they need her salary to avoid going on the dole again.

The movie follows Sandra as she visits each of her colleagues and pleads her case. Some are sympathetic, some are hostile; some make excuses, and some feel that they're entitled to a financial windfall even if it means financial disaster for her and her family. She faces friendliness and violence, experiences happiness and despair, and many times she is convinced she should just give up and let the chips fall where they may. And at one point her will is utterly tested, and she must decide how, or whether, to keep going.

In a number of her English-speaking roles, such as The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, Cotillard displays a steely calm mixed with a bit of barely controlled mania. But in this film, she is more vulnerability than toughness, her sad eyes telegraphing her pain, her fear, and her shame at having to put her colleagues—and herself—through this. She wants to get her life back together again, but she doesn't know if it's worth all the effort.

While I thought the questions the movie raises were intriguing, I found the movie itself kind of flat. Basically, Sandra goes from person to person, asking for their support—sometimes the person is home, and they have virtually the same dialogue she had with the previous person, and other times the person is not home, and their family member/neighbor directs Sandra to find them somewhere else. It's like the cinematic equivalent of Paul McCartney's Let 'Em In—essentially watching Cotillard knock on people's doors or ring their doorbells, and wait for someone to answer.

Cotillard and Rongione give strong performances, but I felt that the movie left more questions than answers. What happened to cause Sandra's condition? Why isn't Sandra willing to get Manu involved in helping make the case to her colleagues? And does she really want to work with people who are willing to throw her over for money? The movie felt incomplete, and never quite gripped me, so I didn't feel invested in Sandra's struggles. Perhaps I'm not as empathetic as I'd like to believe I am, or something got lost in the translation to English.

Book Review: "The Martini Shot: A Novella and Short Stories" by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos has been one of my favorite crime writers for a number of years now. I've read everything he's written, and I'm always blown away by the crackling action scenes, his exploration of racial tensions, and his opening up a new perspective on the Washington, DC of the 1970s and 1980s. I also love the complexity of his characters—much like real life, no one is completely good or bad, which makes them tremendously compelling.

The seven stories in Pelecanos' first collection, The Martini Shot boast many of the same characteristics which make his novels so appealing. For the most part, these aren't the happiest of stories, as each of the main characters is struggling with something—addiction, greed, violence, guilt—or often more than one of these. And although you can often figure out the path these stories will take, Pelecanos' writing ability raises them up a notch or two.

Some of my favorites included "Miss Mary's Room," where a young man remembers the carefree days of his youth and a close friendship before crime changed everything; "When You're Hungry," about an insurance investigator who travels to Brazil to find an allegedly dead man, but finds his perfect case closure record may be in jeopardy (among other things); "Plastic Paddy," which illustrates how letting your friends see you vulnerable is never good for your friendship; and "Chosen," which provides some back story on Spero Lucas, a character from a few of Pelecanos' most recent novels. (This story reminded me how I'm more than ready for another Spero Lucas novel—hope that's next from Pelecanos!)

The collection also contains a novella, "The Martini Shot," which goes behind the scenes of a television crime show and follows one of the show's writers (probably loosely based on Pelecanos' own involvement with The Wire). But this is just more than a you-are-there type of story, as the writer finds himself caught between the woman he loves and the trouble a friend finds himself in. Even though the story was tied up at the end, I found this really interesting, and would have loved to keep reading this.

There wasn't anything I didn't like about the collection; I just wasn't blown away by every story. I felt as if a few duplicated themselves a bit, and some didn't grab me as much the other stories, or other Pelecanos novels, have in the past. His excellent storytelling ability is on display, but some of the stories needed a little more time to develop.

If you've never read anything by George Pelecanos, you need to remedy that. While this collection isn't his best work, it's still a great example of why he's one of my favorite writers—and why I can't wait for his next book to come out, even if it's a year or so away.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: "Housebreaking" by Dan Pope

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

One night in 2007, Benjamin Mandelbaum's wife throws him out of the house and declares their marriage over. The sad thing is, this time he's actually innocent of the infidelity she's accusing him of, but she doesn't care.

With nowhere else to go, he decides to take their dog and move back into his childhood home in Connecticut, to live with his widowed father, Leonard. He's unsure of what his next steps will be, how his children will handle the divorce, and whether he really wants to start sleeping in his old bedroom again, especially as his father embarks upon a relationship (of sorts) with an old friend.

And then one day Benjamin finds out his old high school crush, Audrey Martin, has moved back into the neighborhood along with her lawyer husband and their troubled teenage daughter. Audrey isn't sure if she even remembers Benjamin from high school, but he remembers her all too well, and it's not long before a lonely Audrey allows him the chance to act upon his teenage desires. Yet even as he gets totally caught up in Audrey, he still longs for the comfort and security of his marriage, and misses his estranged wife.

Audrey has her share of issues as well—an emotional secret she's not comfortable sharing with Benjamin; worries about Emily, whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic; and her strained relationship with her husband, Andrew, a powerful attorney who finds himself caught up in a power struggle in his office, the likes of which he'd never imagined, and one he might not win, which is quite a change for someone who hates to lose.

All of their lives come to a crucial moment one night, a moment which will change each of them. Housebreaking is quite well written and though perhaps slightly melodramatic in places, really compelling. It's a book about marital discord, about unhappiness and grief, which reminded me a little bit of The Ice Storm. It's also a story about trying to control what happens in your life, despite the fact that you have no control over these things whatsoever.

I've never read anything by Dan Pope before, but I was really impressed with his storytelling ability. Although you've seen many of the situations in this book before, somehow in his hands, it seems like a fresh story, and I flew through the book rather quickly. I don't know what it says about me that I find stories of dysfunctional relationships entertaining, but I do know this probably would make a good movie as well.

If suburban melodrama (and I mean that in a positive way) interests you, Dan Pope's Housebreaking is a fine example worth reading.