Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: "Life Drawing" by Robin Black

There are certain books you would like to devour in one or two sittings because of the suspense or tension their plots generate—you just need to know what will happen next and how the plot will be resolved. Then there are other books you wish you could devour because the writing is so breathtaking and you are so engaged in what is happening with the characters. The two aren't always mutually exclusive, but for me, books often fall in one category or the other.

Robin Black's Life Drawing definitely fell into the latter category for me. This book was so exquisitely written, so compelling, I would have been happy if it were double its length. (This isn't a surprise, of course; Black's short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This was among the best books I read in 2011.)

Owen and Augusta (Gus) have been together for a long time. He is a writer and she is an artist, and they've always lived a happy but slightly unorthodox, anti-establishment kind of life. But after their relationship nearly collapses following Gus' confession to a short-lived affair, they move away from their city life in Philadelphia to an isolated farmhouse in the country, where they try to concentrate on work and rebuilding the trust between them. They both struggle with their work at times, and although things seem to improve between them, there is always some underlying tension.

"There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you're having and the one you're not. Sometimes you don't even know when that second, silent one has begun."

Into their isolation comes Alison, who rents the vacant farmhouse next door. Although Gus is at first resentful of Alison's stopping by and encouraging the couple to socialize with her, she eventually comes to enjoy Alison's companionship, and both disclose the secrets that are plaguing them, and Alison also is a sympathetic ear to Gus' struggles with her father's increasing descent into Alzheimer's. But when Alison's young daughter, Nora, comes to visit, her presence, and what she brings along with her, threatens to shatter all of their relationships.

"I was right up close in a staring contest with the undeniable fact that for all the little things over which we have some control, for the most part we have none; and I was at a loss to know how to respond."

Life Drawing, well, draws you into its plot almost immediately. Gus, Owen, and Alison are complex characters. They're not always 100 percent likable but they're utterly fascinating, and although Black divulges one major plot twist early in the book, you still wonder how the story will get there. Sure, this type of story has been seen countless times before, but it's also different, and Black's skilled storytelling definitely sets it apart.

This is a book about trying to keep your heart and your head aligned, about how you can simultaneously love and dislike someone, and about how the things you fear can often come back to haunt you. I am sad to have finished this (despite flying through it) and can't stop thinking about these characters. As soon as Robin Black's next book comes out, I will undoubtedly leap on it. She's just that good.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: "Porn Again: A Memoir" by Josh Sabarra

At first glance, it would appear that Josh Sabarra has led a pretty charmed life. A former high-level entertainment executive in Hollywood, he's good looking and charming, knows a lot of celebrity gossip, and can count a number of famous people among his friends. He also has a tremendously close relationship with his parents—or perhaps too close.

"My uniquely close relationship with my parents has been a point of intrigue among friends. The frank nature of our conversations—which happen multiple times per day by phone—includes everything from work to romance to sex."

But behind his public persona, Josh was a tremendously insecure person. Tormented from a very young age for being different, for being unathletic and more interested in music, theater, and fashion, he felt much more comfortable around adult women, embarking on friendships with several with whom he felt a kinship. This lack of self-esteem led to overeating, which led to his being overweight, which resulted in body image issues. And because he heard too many negative slurs about gay people—even from his own parents—he sublimated any acceptance of his sexuality—until he was 30 years old.

As he grew older, he became confident with his looks (through lots of plastic surgery as well as diet). Hiding his true self motivated him to succeed in his career, and he quickly rose the ranks as a publicist and marketing executive. But ultimately the pressure of hiding his true self became too much to bear, and he was desperate to find true love, and share the "true Josh" that had been locked underneath the heterosexual, driven façade he created.

Porn Again is the cheeky yet moving story of a man coming to terms with, and eventually loving, who he is. Given the title, the book does go into some explicit detail about his finally exploring his sexuality, through romantic relationships, sexual liaisons, encounters with hired porn stars, online dating and hookup services, and even some celebrities—and he's unabashedly willing to share details.

He's also willing to dish a bit about some of his celebrity friends and former friends. While in some cases he refers to them obliquely, like "Ms. Drama Queen," he spares Ricki Lake in particular no mercy. It's definitely fun to hear about the side of celebrities you may suspect but never have true confirmation.

I really enjoyed this book, both the introspective and the titillating parts. It was much more moving than I expected it to be—so many reviews I've read focused on the gossipy parts instead—and while my life has been significantly less glamorous than Josh's, I can certainly identify with many of the emotions he talked about and the issues of self-esteem and self-acceptance he confronted. This wasn't the book I expected, especially with a title like Porn Again; it's far more than that. This is fun and memorable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: "All We Had" by Annie Weatherwax

"When I thought about hell, I thought about life without my mother. She was all I ever really had. I tried to picture who I'd be without her and the only image that came to mind was of a ghost."

Thirteen-year-old Ruthie and her mother, Rita, often lived life on the fringes. Rita isn't above using her body or her sexuality to get what she wants, especially if it means ensuring a better life for the two of them. Rita smokes like crazy and likes to drink, but the one thing she knows for sure is that Ruthie is tremendously intelligent and is destined for great things.

The trouble is, most of the men Rita latches onto look good for a little while, and they save her and Ruthie from certain disaster, but their true selves are ultimately revealed, which leads to the need for a rapid and furtive escape. (Although they're not above taking a few parting gifts from these men on their way out the door.)

"This was how our story always went. With the wind at our backs we soared like bandits narrowly escaping through the night. And no matter where life took us or how hard and fast the ride, we landed and we always stayed together."

When Rita and Ruthie land in the small town of Fat River they don't plan to stay, but their battered vehicle decides otherwise. Through the mercy of Mel, who owns Tiny's, the local diner, Rita is able to get a steady waitressing job, and Ruthie is also able to make some money as a dishwasher. The two are able to let their guards down enough to make friends with Arlene, the tough-but-compassionate head waitress, and Peter Pam, Mel's nephew and the diner's transgender waitress. Rita and Ruthie are able to save enough money to rent a small, dilapidated house, which is actually the first place they can call their own, and their coworkers and neighbors become their extended family.

While Ruthie is content to live her life in Fat River, especially since they were able to buy their house thanks to the help of a crooked mortgage lender, it's not long before Rita starts feeling restless and their security starts rapidly going downhill. With seemingly no other solution, Rita relies once again on her feminine wiles to keep them out of poverty. But the decision that Rita makes has a tremendous impact on her relationship with her daughter.

Many books have been written about the often-tempestuous relationship between mothers and daughters, particularly those struggling to make something of their lives. Annie Weatherwax's All We Had is a sweet, enjoyable addition to this genre. The characters are well-drawn and tremendously engaging, and they seem larger than life without being caricatures of themselves. While you probably can predict how the plot will unfold, you're still captivated enough to want to keep reading.

My only criticism of the book is that at times it seemed like each chapter was an anecdote or interrelated short story rather than a continuous narrative. It almost was as if Weatherwax was trying to say, and here's yet another example of Rita's behavior. It didn't ultimately detract from my enjoyment of the book, but it felt a little less whole, if that makes sense. In the end, however, the vividness of the characters and the heart that Weatherwax imbued her story with really win you over.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: "All My Puny Sorrows" by Miriam Toews

So if you're thinking a book called All My Puny Sorrows is going to be a bit of a downer, you're definitely right, but the talent of Miriam Toews is definitely something to behold despite the harrowing nature of the book.

Elf (Elfrieda) and Yoli (Yolandi) are sisters and best friends. Growing up in a Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg, they were tremendously close as they united against the way the community's elders treated women and tried to marginalize Elf's talent playing the piano. They also tried to understand the mood swings of their father, a gentle man who felt desperately passionate about so many things.

As adults, on the surface Elf leads a glamorous life—she has a devoted husband and a successful career as a renowned concert pianist, while Yoli has been divorced twice and is struggling to cope with raising her two children as they approach adulthood, as well as financial, romantic, and career difficulties. Yet Elf suffers from a crushing depression and desperately wants to end her life, although her attempts have all ended in failure.

"It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other."

What Yoli wants is for Elf to finally get the treatment she so desperately needs, so she can finally enjoy her life and once again be the passionate, highly intelligent person Yoli knows and loves. And more than that, Yoli really wants her confidante again, wants someone to help guide her out of the mess that she is making with her life and help her regain the confidence she needs to move her writing career in a different direction. But despite the love of her husband, her family, and her fans, all Elf really wants is to die, so her suffering can end.

As hard as Yoli fights to change Elf's mind about dying, Elf fights just as hard to convince Yoli to help her end her life. How do you convince someone you love that their life is worth living when they are unable to see that for themselves? Is it our responsibility to help those we care about end their suffering?

I've never read anything by Miriam Toews before, but I was truly wowed by her ability to inhabit these characters. This is an incredibly moving book about the toll depression and suicide have not only on the person struggling, but on those who care about them. It's also a story about finding the strength to carry on when it feels like you have nothing left, and everything seems to be going against you.

This is a hard book to read because of the emotional nature of the subject matter and the suffering that the characters endure (and I've only scratched the surface in my description), but Toews' prose is so lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it truly immerses you in the story. At times it got a bit difficult because the hits kept on coming, and it was hard to watch Yoli make such a mess of her own life at the same time, but the beauty and power of Toews' writing compels you to soldier on.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: "A Small Indiscretion" by Jan Ellison

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

"It's not always wise to assume that just because the surface of the world appears undisturbed, life is where you left it."

At age 19, Annie Black flees her unremarkable, hopeless life in California to seek a job in London. She feels lucky when she finds a job as an assistant to Malcolm Church, a structural engineer working on a bid to build a new light rail station at Canary Wharf. While Malcolm takes good care of her, and makes no secret that he is attracted to her, she spends her evenings drinking herself into oblivion and longing for more, and she thinks she finds it in Patrick Ardghal, a flirtatious photographer with an interesting connection to Malcolm and his wife, Louise.

One turbulent evening in Paris, while Annie is on holiday vacation with Malcolm, Louise, and Patrick, things come to a head, and the next day, Annie flees without a word and heads to Ireland. She meets Jonathan Gunnlaugsson, a fellow American, and the two travel through Europe and Asia, eventually falling in love.

Twenty or so years later, she and Jonathan are married and living a successful life in San Francisco. Annie designs custom lighting fixtures for her own store, and the couple is parents to three children—Robbie, Polly, and Clara. One day Annie receives a photograph in the mail that reminds her of that tumultuous time in Paris, and it reignites a passion in her she hadn't felt in some time. While on a business trip to London, she rekindles an old acquaintance, which sets off a chain of events she never expected.

Not soon after her return to California, she gets a shocking phone call about Robbie, which shakes their already vulnerable family to the core. As she tries to rally herself and her family together, more secrets are revealed, which surprise both Annie and Jonathan. She desperately tries to reconcile her feelings with trying to preserve the life she has known and taken for granted.

Jan Ellison's A Small Indiscretion shifts between the present day and Annie's life in London 20 or so years earlier. It's the story of being torn between seeking what you think you want and taking what you really want for granted. It's a revealing look at the ups and downs of marriage and building a life together, and just how destructive secrets can be, especially secrets you think you've hidden well.

This is a well-written and compelling book with a few twists and turns along the way. I liked it, but a few things frustrated me. I felt as if Ellison relied too much on foreshadowing as a narrative device, alluding obliquely to things that would happen later. Doing this a few times was fine, but the more she did it, the more I felt she undercut her own story. I also felt that on the whole, Annie was a fairly unsympathetic character, so it wasn't always easy to have empathy for the situations she found herself in.

While it's not as good as Charles Dubow's fantastic Indiscretion, which was one of my favorite books of 2013, on the whole, this is an interesting, well-told story. It definitely will make you think about relationships.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Foxcatcher"

This movie was c-r-e-e-p-y...

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was a gold medal winner in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, alongside his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). A few years after his Olympic victory, Mark is broke, living in Dave's shadow, and hoping desperately for another shot at glory in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

One day Mark is summoned to Foxcatcher, the Pennsylvania estate of John E. du Pont (Steve Carell, looking a little like a younger version of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns). John, it turns out, is a huge fan of wrestling, and wants to help train Mark for the world championships, which will give him a leg up toward the Olympic trials. He offers to pay Mark whatever salary he'd like, and house him at Foxcatcher, and all he wants is Mark's total allegiance—and the opportunity to be a coach and mentor. (Of course, you have to wonder whether the frequent glimpses of shirtless and singlet-clad Mark were part of the fringe benefits John had in mind.)

John initially tries to get Dave to join the Foxcatcher team, but he refuses, so John uses this to push the brothers apart, and swoops into an emotionally unstable Mark's life just when he needs a father/brother figure most. But after a hard-fought victory, and an introduction to two of John's favorite vices—cocaine and alcohol—their relationship starts to sour. When Dave finally does arrive (courtesy of an offer he can't refuse), he finds Mark desperate to escape John's clutches, and John desperate for credibility as a leader of men, and desperate for an Olympic winner.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story, but I won't spoil one of the key plot points (which I didn't know about until I read a magazine article about the story behind the movie), as the element of surprise is pretty powerful. (If you know what happens it doesn't ruin the movie, but it dulls the suspense a little.) Suffice it to say, however, that the movie just has this pervasively ominous feel throughout, partially from the muted tones in which the film was shot, to the chilly distance which resides between many of the characters.

Carell once again shows off that he is a tremendously talented and versatile actor. Sure, the prosthetics help, but he speaks in a stilted, awkward tone, and his mannerisms make you wonder if you should feel sorry for him or just steer clear of him. (The scene in which he first interacts with Mark almost felt as if he were a stranger offering Mark candy from his car window.) I hope that with this performance, Carell gets more of the respect he deserves beyond the comedy he has excelled at.

Tatum is brooding, shuffling, and insecure, and he imbues Mark with a borderline psychological instability and a simmering rage just beneath his surface. His character doesn't talk much, but there is hurt and anger in his performance. Ruffalo doesn't have as large of a role, but he's quite good as the brother trying to navigate the odd tension between Mark and John, and trying to determine whether the deal he's been offered is too good to be true. One scene in which he is asked to speak about John for a documentary he is filming about himself stood out particularly.

The performances in Foxcatcher are strong, but the movie doesn't rise to meet them. It's almost as if director Bennett Miller, in trying to convey the empty sterility of John's life and the bleakness of the situation the Schultzes find themselves in, doesn't allow the movie to have a great deal of passion, and the pacing is slow. It's a shame, because all of the elements are there for a strong film.

Carell and Ruffalo have been mentioned as potential Oscar nominees, and it will be interesting to see whether Carell is able to succeed in an area that other comedians—Jim Carrey and Steve Martin in particular—have not.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: "Guy in Real Life" by Steve Brezenoff

Lesh (his parents named him after Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead) is a high school sophomore who listens to a lot of heavy metal music, wears black all the time, and pretty much wishes he could disappear. Svetlana, a senior, is an artist who makes a lot of her own clothes, listens to Bjork and classical music, and is the dungeon master of a role-playing game involving a group of her friends.

One late night the two meet cute when Lana literally knocks Lesh off his feet—she hits the drunken boy with her bike while he and a friend are walking home from a metal concert. Lesh is instantly smitten; Lana is irritated that the mishap ruined a notebook with her drawings in it.

The two strike up an uneasy friendship, partially because Lana wants to avoid the son of family friends who has a serious crush on her. Lesh feels Lana is far too good for him, and his friends discourage him from getting to know her, but that doesn't dissuade him. He even allows her to convince him to join her role-playing game group, which causes some unease among her friends.

The thing is, Lesh has a bit of a secret. When he first met Lana he was so obsessed with her that he created a character in her image for an online role-playing game. And maybe he's been playing with the character, and attracting the attention of some other guys online. But how do you bring that up in conversation?

Guy in Real Life is a sweet, tremendously enjoyable read. I really liked both Lesh and Lana's characters, and thought that Steve Brezenoff did a great job getting you engaged in the plot very quickly. Even if you're not into gaming (which I'm not), the book didn't go too heavily into detail so it doesn't have limited appeal. While I found some plot points a little ambiguous, what I liked the best about the book is the refreshing way it looked at gender roles. No characters really fit into a particular stereotype, which is much more indicative of the world we're living in now versus the one I grew up in.

I'm really glad I heard about this book because it hit all of the right buttons for me. Once again, books like Guy in Real Life prove that the world of YA fiction is really thriving right now, and features authors just as worthy of acclaim as those writing "adult" fiction.