Saturday, December 31, 2011

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

I've been in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a long while, but fell in love with the Zooey-Joseph pairing in the amazing (500) Days of Summer.

Happy New Year, y'all!

On beyond 2011...

In a little more than eight hours, we here on the East Coast will bid adieu to 2011. It has been an interesting year, and I look forward to what 2012 will bring.

Equality took a number of steps ahead and a number of steps back this year. Don't Ask Don't Tell became one for the history books, and despite what some conservatives may tell you, the military has felt no ill effects from allowing openly gay soldiers to serve. President Obama also vowed to no longer defend the outdated Defense of Marriage Act, and Congressional Democrats introduced bills that would replace this antiquated law, but to date, only one Republican has expressed support.

New York lawmakers approved same-sex marriage in the state, while lawmakers in North Carolina and Minnesota took steps toward implementing Constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. And nearly every Republican candidate running for President in 2012 has promised to amend the U.S. Constitution to include this same inequality. Bullying of gay students continues to increase at an alarming pace, as does the number of gay teenagers committing suicide and the number of acts of violence perpetrated against gay people or those "suspected" to be gay.

But looking beyond politics, I think it has been a fairly good year. I was able to get out from under a horribly demoralizing job to find a position in an organization that values my skills and challenges me (sometimes more than I want, but that's life), and I look forward what 2012 will bring professionally.

I've enjoyed the opportunity to spend some wonderful time with friends and family this year, read some terrific books, and see some memorable movies. I visited the summer camp I attended for 10 years between the ages of 10 and 19 for the first time in 19 years, and it was an eye-opening experience to be reunited with people who played a big role in my childhood. And on a sad note, we said goodbye to my great-aunt Eileen, who was a truly terrific person.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy New Year, and I hope that 2012 brings each of you everything you're dreaming of!

Book Review: "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

It's been nearly 10 years since Jeffrey Eugenides published a novel—his last book, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, so one could imagine that was a pretty hard act to follow. His new book, The Marriage Plot, has been hailed by critics as one of the year's best, although reaction from readers has been somewhat mixed. In my opinion, this is a terrific story led by three complex characters, but from time to time, it gets mired in its own intellectualism.

It's the early 1980s at Brown University. English major Madeleine Hanna, who grew up privileged in the New Jersey suburbs, is in love with romantic novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot, and is truly in love with love. Widening her horizons in her senior year, she takes a semiotics class, which causes her to challenge her beliefs and think more philosophically, but she also meets Leonard Bankhead, one of her classmates, a highly intelligent—and troubled—biology major. Meanwhile, Madeleine's friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, is obsessed with her and believes that she is his true soulmate. Even traveling around the world after college, exploring the history and philosophy of different religions, can't seem to shake her from his mind. The Marriage Plot tells Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard's stories, views the world and their interconnectedness through each of their eyes, and gets fully immersed in their happinesses and challenges.

I really enjoyed the three main characters and really became invested in what happened to them. The problem I had with the book, however, is that I felt it tried to be an intellectual novel, and it didn't need to. It gets a little too in depth in its literary and philosophical references, and spends more time than necessary providing a religious framework for Mitchell's explorations. While I understand these characters were intelligent and thoughtful, the same story could have had even more impact if I didn't need to wonder what each literary reference meant. That being said, however, the story and Eugenides' writing is too good to pass up, so if you go into reading this knowing you may need to look things up in the dictionary (or maybe you're smarter than I am), you'll realize the novel's strengths faster than I did.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What bravery looks like...

This is the face of 18-year-old Ben Breedlove of Austin, Texas.

Breedlove suffered from a dangerous heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which one part of the heart is thicker than the other parts, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood.

On December 18, Breedlove posted two videos to YouTube in which he told his story.

He talked about his heart condition not allowing him to play sports like his friends.

He discussed cheating death three times, the first time when he was four years old and the last time on December 6, when he collapsed while at school and awoke to EMS workers giving him CPR.

In his videos, he talked (using handwritten index cards) about visions he saw the first and third times he cheated death.

He talked about not being afraid to die.

And on Christmas Day, he suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital.

Watching Ben's videos, I am overwhelmed by his bravery. I hope his parents are proud of the child they raised, because he clearly was a special person who never took one minute of his life for granted.

"It was obvious to all of us that knew him that he knew what he was doing when he made that video," close family-friend Pam Kohler said. "There are times that [the family is] overwhelmed by the pain and the loss of Ben, but then it's replaced with knowing that he was at peace with what was going to happen."

If heaven and angels exist, undoubtedly Ben Breedlove is among them. I'd encourage you to watch his story (have tissues handy) and then share it with those you love.

Encourage them to live their lives as Ben did, with no fear, embracing the joy and wonder of every day.

RIP, Ben. You've given the world something to think about and left an incredible example behind, one to which we should all aspire.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The year in movies...

In my opinion, this has been a really great year in movies, and I've not yet seen several of the year-end releases.

Matt Shapiro created this amazing montage of the year in movies, called Cinescape: 2011. He's apparently been doing these for five years now. (Check out his YouTube channel for the previous years' montages. His user name is oyguvaltshappy.)

They should get Shapiro to put together the montages for the Oscars. This really is brilliant.

Book Review: "I Knew You'd Be Lovely" by Alethea Black

Short story fans, or those who simply love great fiction writing, go out and pick up Alethea Black's magnificent story collection (or download it onto your eReader), I Knew You'd Be Lovely. I read this collection in one day and nearly every story left me moved beyond words, intrigued, amused, or simply amazed at Black's abilities. (And sometimes more than one of those happened simultaneously!)

The characters in each of Black's stories are at some sort of emotional crossroads. In the incredibly moving "Someday is Today," a young woman comforts her sister and young children after her brother-in-law's unexpected death, and struggles with questions of faith and her own purpose. "The Only Way Out is Through" follows one man's struggles to get through to his troubled son, with nearly cataclysmic results. The main character in "Mollusk Makes a Comeback" struggles to remain positive as events in her life spiral out of control, and in the title story, the narrator's search for the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend leads her down an intriguing path. And those descriptions just scratch the surface of the stories in this collection.

I love short stories, but I really found this collection exceptional. Black created some truly memorable characters, many of whom could have a whole book written about them. (There are definitely more than a few characters about whom I'd like to know what happened when the story ended.) I didn't want this collection to end, but now that it has, I'm more than ready to read what Black has in store next! Don't miss this one, seriously.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: "Pictures of You" by Caroline Leavitt

One foggy day, about three hours from Cape Cod, two women's cars collide on the road. Both appear to be running away from their marriages. April dies in the crash, while Isabelle survives, and is left not only to pick up the pieces of her life in the town she had wanted to escape, but becomes entangled with April's devastated husband, Charlie, and their young son, Sam, who is riddled with guilt about the accident. Charlie can't understand why April wanted to leave, and what she was doing on that road far from home, Sam wants nothing more than to talk to or see his mother one last time, and Isabelle is torn between again wanting to escape and wanting to stay to take care of Charlie and Sam, despite her role in their misery. And as their lives unfold, they realize the impact of every decision, and how sometimes the "best" decision isn't always the right one.

Pictures of You had moments of heartbreaking poignancy and moments when I wanted to shake each one of the characters into action, and both contributed to my enjoyment of the book. No character was drawn to be flawless; at times I sympathized with each of them, and at times I wished someone would just tell them to get a grip. The book definitely exceeded my expectations and surprised me in a number of ways, and that made me happy. And while I am, admittedly, a total sap, it was Caroline Leavitt's well-written story, combined with the emotional power it packs, that kept me reading this book well into the night in order to finish it. Very well done.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: "The Gentlemen's Hour" by Don Winslow

There's always an intrinsic coolness in Don Winslow's novels, whether he's writing his series with PI Neal Carey, chronicling the battles between drug cartels, or following a group of surfing friends, as he does in his terrific book, The Gentlemen's Hour. It's a combination of his vividly drawn characters and their often quirky-yet-authentic dialogue, as well as his ability to make you feel you're watching the action unfold in front of you.

The Gentlemen's Hour is a follow-up to his 2009 novel, The Dawn Patrol, both of which follow a group of surfers on San Diego's Pacific Beach, which has been rocked by the violent murder of local legend Kelly Kuhio. The case seems open-and-shut: the killer, a wealthy member of a surfing gang, has confessed, and a number of witnesses say they saw him throw the fatal punch. Yet when PI Boone Daniels is asked to investigate the crime to determine whether the charge of first-degree murder should stick, in addition to alienating his long-time friends and the Pacific Beach community, he finds a lot of things to prove the incident wasn't as cut and dried as it appeared. And that's only one of his cases, as he also is asked by a friend to determine if his wife is having an affair. Couple that chaos with a great deal of self-discovery, and it's not all "hang loose" for Boone Daniels.

I love the way Don Winslow writes, and every character in Boone's group is much more complex than they appear initially. Winslow takes the surfer stereotype and turns it on its ear—sure, these characters are obsessed with finding the perfect wave (or any wave at all) and may fall into surfer speak, but they are much smarter and profound than you think. This is a great book, packed with action and character exposition, although at times it gets a little bogged down in background detail. Winslow did introduce a psychotic villain, who I feared was going to derail the entire book, but luckily he makes only a brief (yet annoying) appearance. All in all, I enjoyed this tremendously, as I have enjoyed nearly every one of Winslow's other books. I hope he's hard at work writing the next one!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Review: "The Artist"

I wish we didn't live in a world where hype existed. Whenever possible, I try to see movies and read books fairly soon after they're released, and avoid most reviews so I don't have any preconceived notions in my mind. But when you follow the entertainment world like I do, there's no escaping hearing which movies and books are being hailed by critics, especially around year-end. All of that preface to say I came to The Artist knowing it's one of the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Picture, as it has been the winner of, or is a nominee for, many major critics' awards.

Is it worth all the hype? No, and maybe, yes.

It's 1927, during Hollywood's Golden Age, when silent movies are at their heyday. Debonair George Valentin (played with a mischievous twinkle by Jean Dujardin) is one of the most popular stars, charming audiences both on and offscreen (although not his wife). One day during an autograph session, a fan named Peppy Miller (the vivaciously adorable Berenice Bejo) winds up in George's spotlight, much to his amusement. The two share some sweet chemistry, and their encounter leads to Peppy's employment as an extra, and then supporting character, in many of his films. Then, as Hollywood gets caught up with the new talking pictures, Peppy's popularity (say that five times fast) explodes, while George, who believes talking pictures are just a fad, is left to lanugish in failure, losing everything, except his trusted dog. But Peppy is determined to save George at any cost, which leads to the film's most dramatic moments, as well as its breathless and unexpected finale.

In case you hadn't heard, The Artist is an (almost completely) silent movie, like a souvenir of the era it captures. It is a beautifully shot film, and the acting is appropriately over the top, as silent movie acting was in Hollywood's days of yore. And while I was utterly taken in by the film's charm and its artistry, in the end, its silence robbed me a bit of its heart. To me, The Artist is like a beautiful meringue dessert—lovely to look at and enjoyable to consume, but in the end, it doesn't fill you up. But it's well worth seeing, for Dujardin and Bejo's performances, and the uniqueness of the experience.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: "How the Mistakes Were Made" by Tyler McMahon

I'm guessing that I love to read books about bands or the music industry because I'm such a huge music fan. Novels like Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or Tom Perrotta's The Wishbones, or nonfiction like Peter Guralnick's books about Elvis, including the terrific Last Train to Memphis, have an added appeal because music truly captivates me. Tyler McMahon's How the Mistakes Were Made is a great addition to this genre, a tremendously compelling (if not entirely original) look at the powerful hold music and performing has on some people, and the relationships that get caught in the crossfire.

In the early 1980s, Laura Loss was known as the queen of hardcore punk, despite being under 18. The bassist for her brother's legendary band, Second Class Citizens, she traveled the country with the band as it made a name for itself, until punk's own fans detroyed her brother. Ten years later, in pre-grunge Seattle, she still lives on those memories, playing for a second-rate band, until she meets Nathan and Sean, two aspiring musicians from Montana in whom Laura recognizes exceptional genius. Under her tutelage, a new band, The Mistakes, is formed, and the three ride the rollercoaster of pursuing their dreams. Yet two of the key factors in the band's success—Sean's synesthesia (a blending of the senses that allows him to "see" the music) and the chemistry between the three of them—are both challenged as the band experiences a meteoric rise to success. Cutting between Laura's days in her brother's band and the day-to-day world of The Mistakes, this is a book about one woman's struggle to hold her life together for the second time as music once again threatens to tear it apart.

I stumbled across this book on Amazon, having heard nothing about it, and I really enjoyed it. While Laura isn't an altogether sympathetic character, her story and her experience in both bands are very compelling. And while the book never lost my interest (I read the entire book in about a day and a half), the relationship between Laura, Nathan, and Sean isn't particularly unique, and you can see what is going to happen pretty early on. But that doesn't take away from the emotions and raw drama that McMahon imbues the book with. This is a good, solid, entertaining read, particularly if you're interested in the music world.

Take that...right in the posterior!

Did you hear the one about the overweight congressman who ridiculed the First Lady for having a fat ass and forgot that people would hear him and rush to share this news tidbit with the press?

Meet Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner from the great state of Wisconsin.

While on the telephone at DC's Reagan National Airport (still hate writing that full name out), Sensenbrenner said he told a woman who was praising Mrs. Obama—who has pushed her "Let's Move!" campaign and others to improve childhood eating habits—that she should follow her own advice.

"She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself," he allegedly was overheard saying.

Sensenbrenner does not deny insulting the First Lady, and says he plans to call Mrs. Obama to apologize. His spokeswoman said, "Mr. Sensenbrenner was referring to the first lady's healthy food initiative. He doesn't think the government should be telling Americans what to eat. While he may not agree with all of her initiatives, he plans to contact the First Lady's office to apologize for his comments."

While it's nice to see someone get hoisted on their own petard, I must admit I don't understand why some Republicans are so outraged by Mrs. Obama's healthy eating campaign. She's not forcing anyone to eat anything they don't want to, or forbidding them to eat fattening foods. She's trying to educate people about the need to watch what they eat and exercise, much in the same way Nancy Reagan tried to keep kids away from drugs, and Laura Bush pushed the need for literacy.

Oh, wait. It's because when you're in the other party, you object to everything, no matter how random.

But sometimes it bites you in the, well, posterior.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: "11/22/63" by Stephen King

Growing up, Stephen King was easily one of my favorite authors. Many of his novels created indelible impressions in my mind. (I still have a distrust of clowns thanks to It, and just thinking about The Stand makes me cough.) But my fondness for King has wavered a bit over the last 15 or so years, as I started discovering that as his novels grew in size, his ability to close out a story (from often exceptional ideas) suffered somewhat. Needless to say, I put a great deal of thought into deciding whether or not to read his latest opus, the nearly 900-page 11/22/63, but after flying through it in less than a week, I can unequivocally say this novel should be ranked among some of King's best work.

Jake Epping is an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who teaches GED English classes as a way to make extra money. In response to an assignment in which he asked his students to talk about a life-changing incident, he learns that Harry Dunning, a handicapped janitor, was injured by his father during a violent rampage on Halloween night in 1958, the night he killed Harry's mother and three siblings with a hammer. This discovery deeply affects Jake, and when his friend, local diner owner Al, shows him a hidden time portal in the diner that transports you back to September 1958, Jake jumps at the chance to go back in time and prevent this massacre. No matter how long you're "back," when you return to the present you've only been gone for two minutes, and if you ever go back through the portal again, everything that happened on your last visit resets. Once Al realizes he has a kindred spirit in Jake, he enlists him in the ultimate heroic mission—stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. But time and history do not enjoy being diverted from their plans...

There have been thousands of books written about time travel and the idea of righting past wrongs, but in Stephen King's tremendously capable hands, this concept seems fresh and unique. I kept wondering what twists would come next, but none of them detracted from my complete enjoyment of this book. Almost every character has great depth and they easily draw you into their stories. And when a book of nearly 900 pages reads like a 300-pager, you know you're in the hands of a master. Is some of the plot predictable? Sure, but it's still utterly compelling. Don't be put off by the heft of the book or its subject matter—at its core, this is a story about love, history, and trying to do the right thing, even though it may have larger ramifications. Truly a fantastic book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: "The Taste of Salt" by Martha Southgate

Josie is a marine biologist, one of only a few senior-level black women in her position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In achieving professional success, she has finally been able to free herself of her childhood in Cleveland, of her alcoholic father and addicted younger brother, and she can spend her time in the ocean, where she loves to be more than anything. But she has never fully disentangled herself from the trauma and disappointments of her childhood, and that has a ripple effect in her personal relationships, including her marriage to Daniel, who is also a marine biologist.

The Taste of Salt is a book about the unending power of addiction and the harm it does not only to the addicts, but to those around them. But more than that, this is a book about relationships, about allowing yourself to feel worthy of love, to express your emotions, and trust those around you. The book is narrated mostly by Josie, with chapters told by each of her parents, her brother, and her husband, and it is tremendously compelling.

Martha Southgate, author of the fantastic The Fall of Rome (which isn't about the ancient Romans), has written another terrific book filled with complex characters and beautiful prose. Like the ocean that Josie loves, where what appears on the surface is only a glimpse at the complexities that lie beneath, Josie's relationships and her way of relating to those in her life are far more complicated than they first appear. While Josie might not appear to be the most sympathetic character at the start of the book, I'd encourage you to keep reading, or you'll miss a well-told story of human emotions and interactions.

The dichotomy of Tebow...

I'll admit it: I'm simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by Tim Tebow.

Beyond his aesthetic appeal (what do you want from me?), it's easy to get hooked by his never-say-die attitude, which has propelled his career as an NFL quarterback far beyond anyone's expectations. While no one can argue with his heart or his ability to motivate a team (or a crowd), Denver Broncos' coach Jon Fox's decision to start Tebow was ridiculed by many because of his deficiencies as a quarterback. Heck, even some defensemen from the Broncos' latest opponent, the Bears aren't impressed.

No real throwing ability. No power. A tendency to get rattled. But with all of that, the Broncos are now 7-1 with Tebow as a starting quarterback. The Broncos lead their division, and Jon Fox and Broncos VP John Elway look like geniuses. And there's no denying that Tebow's amazing 4th quarter rallies are fun to watch, unless your team is the one being rallied against.

All that being said, however, it's Tebow's beliefs that I have a problem with. I don't begrudge him his devout faith, but I don't need to have it shoved down my throat with every victory. And while "Tebowing," his tendency to pray on the sidelines, has sparked a craze so big that even an Olympic skiier "Tebowed" after her World Cup victory, like former quarterbacks Jake Plummer and Kurt Warner have suggested, maybe he could tone it down a little.

My main problem with Tebow, however, is his public support for pro-life and anti-equality causes, going so far as to appear in advertisements for conservative organizations. When you publicly affiliate with organizations that promote hatred and support inequality, you clearly have no interest in fans of all religions, sexual orientations, and beliefs. And it's a shame, because someone in Tebow's position has the opportunity to make a powerful statement about loving all people (like Jesus did), but instead, he has chosen to be narrow-minded.

Which is why, although there's no denying the excitement of "Tebow Time," I just can't fully embrace his successes. Should be an interesting end to the football season, though...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: "American Boy" by Larry Watson

Some authors seem as if their style and storytelling would fit in perfectly in a different era. Larry Watson, who has written some truly fantastic books, including Montana 1948, Justice and In a Dark Time, is one of those writers. Many of his books would be appropriate companions to those by Fitzgerald or Faulkner, both in setting (many of his stories take place in earlier times) and because his narrative, while spare, packs the power of earlier writers.

Matthew Garth is a working-class teenager growing up in Minnesota in the early 1960s. Raised by his waitress mother, he would much rather spend time in the company of his best friend, Johnny Dunbar, and his wealthy family, led by the town doctor and his devoted wife. On Thanksgiving night Dr. Dunbar is asked to treat Louisa Lindahl, a woman in her 20s who has been shot by her good-for-nothing boyfriend. That night Matthew sees both a gunshot wound and a topless woman for the first time, and both sights haunt him. His longing for the mysterious Louisa changes his behavior and his relationship with the Dunbars, and leads him to actions that set a chain of events in motion that will affect all of them indelibly.

While American Boy certainly is a book that recalls an earlier time, the feelings it chronicles—jealousy, lust, envy, betrayal, and a desire to better one's life—are modern ones. This was a very quick read; while nothing too surprising transpired in the plot, I still felt somewhat invested in the characters and what happened to them, even if none of them were particularly likeable. I really enjoyed Watson's storytelling ability, as I always do, and think he should be much more famous than he is. This may not be his best book, but it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


John Lennon was shot and killed 31 years ago tonight, December 8, 1980. I was a 6th grade student in Mrs. Radman's class (before she left to have a baby) and I remember talking about the Beatles and John Lennon earlier that day with some friends. At that point in time I was somewhat obsessed with the Beatles' music—quite a departure from the other music I listened to.

The violent death of a man so committed to peace was almost incongruous. It certainly was difficult to understand—I wasn't old enough to have lived through either Kennedy assassination, and this was before Ronald Reagan was shot.

Thirty-one years after his death, Lennon remains an icon, both for his musical genius and his innate goodness. While the songs of the world have been less melodic without him, we are truly fortunate to still have some of his most memorable creations in our lives.

Rest in peace. And thanks for all you gave us in your far-too-short life.

Book Review: "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

This book was frigging awesome! Children of the 80s, especially video game junkies, here is the book for you. Combining the adventure, danger, action, companionship, romance, violence, and fantasy of the best quest novels with fantastic 80s trivia, Ernest Cline has outdone himself with his very first book.

It's 2044, and the real world is an awful place. The environment has been destroyed, there's a worldwide energy shortage, nearly all people live in abject poverty, and the only escape is plugging into OASIS, a virtual world made up of thousands of planets, where you can be anyone or anything you want to, do anything you want, even fall in love. Because schools became so dangerous they have been replicated virtually on OASIS, ensuring students pay attention and face no threat of bullying. Like everyone else, Wade Watts uses OASIS to escape the bleak world he lives in. And one day, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday—a highly eccentric, 80s-obssessed multibillionaire—dies, but he leaves one final gift for the world, a series of puzzles and challenges sure to test anyone. But the winner will have ultimate control of OASIS. And the challenges are unlike anything you could imagine. Wade, like millions of others, tries and tries to solve the challenges for years, until one day, he stumbles onto the first clue. And then the greatest adventure—and the greatest threats—of his life begins.

I'm a sucker for books about a noble hero on a quest, so needless to say, Ready Player One sucked me in from the get-go. This is a story about courage, friendship, love, good, and evil, with the 1980s and the worlds of classic video and adventure games and anime as its backdrop. Cline definitely lets you get lost in the geekery, but he has created terrific, memorable characters who draw you into their lives, and the action sequences are fast-paced and creative. I can only imagine what a phenomenal movie this would be, but I can say for certain it is an exceptional book. Easily one of the best I've read in quite some time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

So what if it's a manufactured holiday?

Today, according to the folks at, is National Comfort Food Day. How awesome does that holiday sound?

Now, maybe you're not one of those people who lives for the cold weather because of stews, soups, casseroles, and chilies, but I most assuredly am. (Not to mention the fact that cold weather clothing is much more flattering to the comfort food-fueled body!) While I went to culinary school, and can cook nearly everything, when I am asked what my specialties are, or what I most love to cook, I always answer "comfort food."

Comfort food really is, well, comforting for me. When I'm sad, or hurt, or stressed, or emotionally and physically exhausted, the best medicine is often a bowl of macaroni and cheese, or a plate of baked ziti. (Of course, the fact that I am a carbohydrate junkie helps here, too!)

So, take the time today to celebrate the food that can be your friend when you need it. I'll resist the temptation to dive into a vat of mac and cheese tonight!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: "Lost Memory of Skin" by Russell Banks

It takes a talented author to make a sympathetic character out of one who has done something odious, but Russell Banks succeeds in his new book, Lost Memory of Skin. Sadly, other aspects of the book didn't fare quite as well.

The Kid is a 21-year-old, socially awkward misfit on probation from his conviction as a sex offender, after an attempt to meet an underage girl goes awry. Unable to live less than 2,500 feet from anywhere children might gather, he lives in a tent under a South Florida causeway, in the company of a number of others who have committed similar and worse crimes. He knows what he did was wrong and truly wants to start anew, but can't seem to catch a break either keeping a menial job or a place to live. One day he encounters the Professor, a larger-than-life man (physically and figuratively) who believes the Kid will be an excellent resource for his studies on homelessness and sex offenders. In exchange for sharing his experiences, the Professor takes Kid under his wing and provides some assistance. But the Professor is a man with a number of his own secrets, and when those are revealed, the balance of power between the two shifts. Ultimately, this is a book about the importance of trusting yourself, and how difficult it is to trust others until you can master that skill.

With Kid and the Professor, Banks created very unique characters, characters with whom you certainly can't identify but at times can't help rooting for them. While the general thread of the plot is compelling, the story takes a very unnecessary turn after the Professor's secrets are revealed, and I really felt that twist undercut the story. And at times, Banks spent far too much time dwelling on Florida history and the Bible, which distracted from the actual characters you want to follow. A truly prolific writer, Banks has written two of my favorite books—The Sweet Hereafter and The Rule of the Bone, but I felt he tried a little too hard with this book. His writing, however, is still something to behold, so I'd encourage you to pick up one of his earlier books if you've never read him before.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Doesn't anyone care about accuracy anymore?

File these under "D'oh":

A few weeks ago, Victoria's Secret started selling its take on college sports t-shirts, with a cute, sexy Michigan State t-shirt.

Nothing objectionable about this shirt, right? It has the Michigan State name, the Spartans logo, the color is correct...The problem, however, is that the tagline "Hail to the Victors" is actually from the University of Michigan's motto/fight song. Guess there must be a Wolverine fan in VS's product design department...

Not one to be outdone, Old Navy recently tried their hand at women's college t-shirts, with similar results.

With these three shirts for the University of Iowa, University of Colorado, and University of Arizona, the team names are correct, but the founding years for each of the universities is off. The shirts list the founding dates as 1820, 1878, and 1881, respectively, but the actual dates are 1847, 1876, and 1885, which means that the date on Iowa's t-shirt is 27 years off.

Has no one at Old Navy heard of the internet? Has our society always just been content with mediocrity, or is this something that has come along with the general malaise from which we all seem to suffer these days?

Hope the individuals responsible for these errors don't leave their jobs to pursue positions in pharmaceutical or medical supply communications...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's time...

This video has made its way around the web, but in case you've not yet seen it, check out this amazingly moving commercial for marriage equality, thanks to GetUp! Australia.

Whether or not you're an emotional cripple like I am, there's no denying the power of this message. I just wish the whole world could see it this way.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Movie Review: "The Muppets"

When a new installment of a movie franchise is released after a number of years have elapsed since the last one, there is always concern whether the new movie will be able to capture the magic of the series. Where The Muppets is concerned, the answer is a resounding yes.

It has been nearly 13 years since the last movie starring the Muppets, the middling Muppets from Space. The world certainly has changed since 1999—puppets, when they exist at all, are edgier and more satirical (think Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or the characters from Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Crank Yankers)—they don't wonder why there are so many songs about rainbows, they don't sing with chickens or tell corny jokes. And it is precisely that world that The Muppets is set in, which probably adds to its appeal.

Gary (lifelong Muppet fan Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script), his Muppet-obsessed brother, Walter, and his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) set off for a trip to Los Angeles to visit the famed Muppet Studios. When they arrive at the rundown landmark, Walter overhears the plans of evil oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the studios and drill for oil...if the Muppets don't raise 10 million dollars in two weeks. Walter and his pals track Kermit down, and it turns out that the Muppet crew hasn't been in touch for a long time. Kermit is at first reluctant to try and track everyone down, but eventually joins Walter, Gary, and Mary on an expedition to reunite the old gang and put on a telethon in the old Muppet Show model to raise the money. But things aren't as easy as they seem—there's one key holdout among the Muppets, no network wants to give them a chance because they're no longer relevant, and then there's the matter of finding a celebrity host...

Will the entire Muppets gang reunite? Will they be able to raise enough money to foil Tex Richman? (Cue maniacal laugh...) Will they be able to find a celebrity host? And will Walter decide whether he wants to return to his home in Smalltown or join the Muppets? Well, needless to say, there's not a lot of suspense to be had, but that doesn't detract from a second of the movie's appeal. It's campy, funny, corny, and heartwarming, from the celebrity cameos (Selena Gomez, Modern Family's Rico Rodriguez, John Krasinski, Neil Patrick Harris, etc.) to the kitschy musical numbers, but ultimately, the movie had me from Statler and Waldorf's first insults, not to mention The Rainbow Connection.

Having eagerly anticipated the Muppets' return for months, I can say that the movie wasn't quite as great as I had hoped, but it was tremendously enjoyable. Definitely a fun trip down memory lane...

Book Review: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern woman and mother of five children who died in 1951 as the result of a remarkably aggressive form of cervical cancer. While undergoing radiation treatment, doctors at Johns Hopkins took samples of her cells without her consent, to better study the cancer. These cells, known as HeLa, became an important scientific and medical tool—they were the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, and they are still alive today. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. But very little was known about the woman from whom these cells came, and her family was unaware of Henrietta's contributions to science for many, many years.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Henrietta's story and chronicles the struggles of her family, most of whom never had the opportunity to even finish high school, to understand what cells were taken from her and what scientists were doing with them. Rebecca Skloot also gives a great deal of background into scientific research, particularly where cell and tissue study is concerned, and the challenges both the scientific and medical ethics communities face relative to "donations" of cells taken from patients. But in the end, this is the story of Henrietta's family and the emotions that the discovery of her role in science uncovers.

While the subject of this book is very scientific, much of it reads like a novel. It is a fantastic story—sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking—but Skloot gives depth not only to Henrietta and her family, but the researchers who both studied and questioned the HeLa cells through the years. When this book was released last year to tremendous acclaim, I didn't think it would interest me much, but a friend recently recommended it, and I'm glad I was motivated to pick it up. Don't be put off by the subject matter; in the end, this will pique your curiosity and tug at your heart. And you'll definitely look with a different eye at the next medical procedure you have!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach

It has been said that "baseball is life." Whether or not you agree with this statement, for the characters in Chad Harbach's fantastic new novel, The Art of Fielding, baseball may not be life, but it certainly is at the crux of their lives.

Henry Skrimshander is a scrawny, aspiring baseball player whose effortless talent during a summer league game attracts the attention of Mike Schwartz, an athlete at Westish College, located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike gets Henry enrolled at Westish and becomes his mentor, coach, torturer, and biggest advocate, and Henry finds himself turning into a superstar, being mentioned as an early draft pick in the major leagues. And then one errant throw sets a chain of events in motion that affects the lives of not only Henry and Mike, but also Guert Affenlight, Westish's president, who finds himself caught in the grips of an obsession he never imagined; Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, who returns to Westish after escaping an impulsive marriage, and wants to start anew; and Owen Dunne, Henry's roommate. This is a book about baseball that transcends the sport itself—it is a book about how frightening realizing your dreams, and falling short of them, can be.

Amazon chose The Art of Fielding as its best book of 2011. And while I'm not ready to bestow that title on it just yet, I can unequivocally say it's one of the best books I've read this year. Harbach has created an unforgettable bunch of characters, and while the situations he puts them in may not be unique, the way he tells their stories and how they handle what comes their way is truly fantastic. He is a terrific writer and at times, a sentence or two would make me pause and read it again, just to marvel at his word choices. This is a book of over 500 pages that read like a much shorter novel, yet when I finished it, I wished I had more of it to savor. Truly fantastic.

Giving thanks...

Once again, the year has flown by at unbelievable speed. It seems impossible to think that yesterday was Thanksgiving and today—the equally beloved and dreaded "Black Friday"—marks just one more month until Christmas.

We celebrated Thanksgiving back in New Jersey with my family, and I cooked the meal. It always amazes me how the fruits of two days' worth of cooking can be devoured in less than 30 minutes, but it's clearly a good sign, no?

As I cooked and we ate, I realized that once again this year I have so much to be thankful for. I am thankful to have been able to celebrate the holiday surrounded by gamily. I am thankful to have the opportunity to continue watching my nephews grow and be amused by their antics.

I'm thankful for our dog, Quinn, and I'm thankful we discovered doggie day care so Quinn can channel some of her boundless energy! And of course, I'm thankful to spend every day with the love of my life, because every day is more special and more meaningful.

I'm also thankful for the opportunity to express my opinions through this blog, and I'm tremendously grateful that you visit from time to time to see what I have to say. This is so much better than the alternative of talking to myself!!

Hope your holidays were truly special.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: "The Detachment" by Barry Eisler

Into everyone's life, a little John Rain should fall. John Rain is the deadly yet sensitive assassin who has been the protagonist in six of Barry Eisler's previous novels. He finally returns after a hiatus of several years, during which Eisler wrote two stand-alone novels. Happily, Rain—and Eisler—are at the top of their form yet again.

After deciding to get out of the life as an assassin-for-hire, Rain has returned to Tokyo and resumed his old habits of martial arts training, listening to jazz, and enjoying fine scotch. But when black ops veteran Colonel Scott "Hort" Horton tracks Rain down and tries to convince him to take out three targets in the national security realm in order to prevent a coup which could essentially suspend the U.S. Constitution, Rain finds the offer too dangerous, and too good, to refuse. He enlists the services of his old ally, Dox, and joins forces with two of Hort's men, Treven and Larison, each of whom has their own secrets to hide. And then Rain discovers that Hort might not have been completely truthful when laying out the rationale for the planned assassinations...and at least one member of Rain's team has plans for some sidework that might have dangerous repercussions.

Barry Eisler is a terrific storyteller, and even though the world he has created for John Rain and his other characters is nothing like I can imagine, he quickly engrosses you in nonstop, crackling action, suspense, and exceptional character development. I always find myself rushing through these books, pushed along by the plot, fascinated by the details that Eisler includes, and transfixed by the fact that he has been able to make a deadly assassin with a conscience a realistic and sympathetic character. If you like this type of thriller, you won't go wrong with any of the John Rain novels—each one reads like a movie, but they're better written. Hope the next one comes sooner!

Friday, November 18, 2011

And speaking of Christmas traditions...

Too good to pass up.

The Santa problem...

Grumpy parents and movie villains often joke about canceling Christmas, but at the Hollings Cancer Center in Charleston, SC, that nearly happened.

Earlier this week, the Center's administration decided that because of its state affiliation (it is part of the Medical University of South Carolina), they weren't going to have a "Santa presence" this year. And that meant telling hospital volunteer Frank Cloyes, who has spent the last two years dressing as Santa and spending time with chemotherapy patients, that his services were no longer needed.

Center leaders also decided to make decorations "more secular and respectful to all beliefs," said Hollings spokeswoman Vicky Agnew. "We don't want to offend a volunteer with good intentions, but we need to think of the bigger picture. People who are Muslim or Jewish or have no religious beliefs come here for treatment," she said.

This decision, of course, caused a great deal of public outcry all over the country, leading to more criticism that political correctness had gone too far.

The Center received so much negative feedback that Agnew released a statement saying, "We’ve received a number of strong responses to the Santa story, and it prompted another discussion on our end. As a result, we’ve decided to allow a Santa presence this year." But Agnew did clarify that the initial decision to end Santa's visits was made after complaints from patients.

Being Jewish, clearly Santa doesn't have the special meaning to me that he does to those who celebrate Christmas. But that's fine with me. I've always viewed Santa as more of a representative of the commercial nature of the holiday than the religious one, so the presence of Santa doesn't offend my religious beliefs or anything. If emphasis was placed more on Jesus Christ or the Nativity scene, I would have more of an issue with it, especially if equal weight wasn't given to other religions.

The holiday season is a traditional touchstone for many, especially those dealing with stressful situations, such as undergoing chemo or having a family member with cancer. If the presence of "Santa" brings comfort, then I see no reason to ban him from a cancer center during the holidays, unless his presence is making more patients unhappy and uncomfortable. And if you don't want a volunteer dressed as Santa to spend time with you, it's easy enough simply to say "no, thank you."

Sometimes political correctness for political correctness' sake isn't correct.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sometimes only a hamburger will suffice...

We've all been there. You're completely in the mood for fast food, so you head to the drive-thru, only to find that they're still serving breakfast or, if you have a craving for hash browns, that they've already switched over to serving lunch.

Take Shanaya Edgell, for example. According to The Smoking Gun, the 22-year-old and her boyfriend arrived at a Janesville, Wisconsin McDonald's around 3:00 a.m. the other day, and she was jonesing for a Mickey-D's cheeseburger.

The challenge: McDonald's had already switched over to their breakfast menu. This enraged Edgell, so she turned on her boyfriend, Darrell Page, biting him on the arm and tearing off his shirt. Page and Edgell drove away, but then she apparently changed her mind, and directed Page to "return to McDonald’s so that she could get breakfast."

Then it appears Edgell got a little loopy, and allegedly began striking Page in the face and biting his right arm. Page also told police that when he pulled his car over during the assault, Edgell got out of the vehicle and climbed atop the hood to keep him from leaving.

Edgell, who was arrested for disorderly conduct, told police she became "upset" after discovering that McDonald’s had "switched over to the breakfast menu and she wanted to order food off the regular menu." She said she was "freaking out over this," adding that Page was trying to calm her down over the matter of the unavailable cheeseburgers.

Lucky she wasn't after the elusive McRib sandwich or a Shamrock Shake. Those are limited-time items, you know...

I am an excited fanboy...

That squeal you heard around the world yesterday, the slow-down in productivity everywhere came courtesy of the official trailer for The Hunger Games, the much-anticipated movie adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy.

As I've written a number of times previously, I loved these books, and cannot wait for the movie to come out next March. While many of the series' younger fans questioned nearly every casting choice, from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss ("she's not tall enough" and "she's blonde") to Josh Hutcherson as Peeta ("he's short and not blonde"), the trailer delivers convincing glimpses that all of the choices made by director Gary Ross—in concert with Suzanne Collins—were on target.

Admittedly, I'm most excited about Lenny Kravitz playing Cinna, the stylist who turns Katniss into an icon during the Hunger Games. (If you've never read the books, you won't know what I mean, but suffice it to say, he's a terrific character.)

Read the books if you haven't. And enjoy the trailer! Can't even count how many times I've watched it already...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wanna feel old (and maybe a little bit creepy)?

While 1996's Jerry Maguire may be best known for the lines "Show me the money!", "You had me at hello," and "You complete me," little Jonathan Lipnicki, who played Renee Zellweger's nerdy son, often stole the movie, with lines like, "The human head weighs eight pounds."

Well, today Lipnicki is 21(!) years old and looks a bit, well, different. And if the human head does weigh eight pounds, clearly Lipnicki has been lifting a lot of human heads to get a physique like this.

I know I have no real reason to feel like a creepy old man given that Lipnicki is 21, but I kinda do. Still, this is quite a transformation...

Movie Weekend: "Being Elmo" and "J.Edgar"

I had the opportunity to see two great movies this weekend, and they couldn't have been more different. Being Elmo chronicled the journey of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer most famous for Sesame Street's Elmo, and how a boy growing up in a lower middle class suburb of Baltimore became passionate about puppeteering and was able to turn that love into his life's work. Clash clearly wears his heart on his sleeve (or at the end of his hand) when he takes on Elmo's childlike persona, but those who know him say that Elmo's loving nature is a pure manifestation of Kevin's heart.

Being Elmo was a beautiful documentary about finding and following your dreams, and never letting anything stand in the way of what you're passionate about. And it's also the story of how you can never expect the impact a person may have on your life, just as you cannot anticipate the impact you may have on another's. Spectacular.

From Elmo to the FBI. Interesting transition, no?

This morning we saw J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biography of famed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a fantastically nuanced performance of the power-hungry, paranoid, approval-craving Hoover, as the movie follows him from the early 1920s through his death in the 1970s. Some believe Hoover to be the embodiment of all that is wrong with law enforcement, that his unwavering focus on whom he considered America's enemies was often motivated by grudges. Others believe that his focus on forensics, evidence collection (early police cases saw detectives simply throwing evidence away), and centralizing fingerprint records revolutionized the fight against crime.

While Eastwood certainly allows viewers a glimpse into the psyche behind the dogged crime fighter, he doesn't beat you over the head with his opinions about the man. And Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's (Milk) script shows you both the henpecked man dominated by his mother (Judi Dench) as well as the man wishing he could follow his heart but knowing that to do so would be disastrous. Armie Hammer, who with some digital enhancement played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, needed no visual gimmickry to play Clyde Tolson, Hoover's second-in-command and, if the rumors are true, his longtime companion. Hammer and DiCaprio have immense chemistry, and their scenes have both a power and a poignancy.

The movie jumps back and forth through the decades, under the guise of Hoover's dictating the story of the FBI to various agents. The time shifting is a little confusing, because while all of the characters are saddled with age-appropriate makeup, until the plot advances you aren't quite sure where you are in the plot. And the film, like many of Eastwood's recent movies, moves a little slowly at times, but the performances will keep you riveted.

I think Leonardo DiCaprio has always been one of those actors who gives strong performances but is never quite taken seriously despite his talent. I hope this performance nets him another Oscar nomination, and I would also love to see Armie Hammer be recognized in the Best Supporting Actor category as well. J. Edgar is definitely a movie worth seeing, for even if Hoover wasn't the most popular of men, he certainly was one of the more intriguing ones of the 20th century.

Book Review: "Zone One" by Colson Whitehead

The literary world over the last few years has been somewhat obsessed with the undead—novels featuring vampires, zombies, werewolves, mythical creatures, etc. are more popular than ever before. Yet there hasn't quite been a zombie novel like Zone One, Colson Whitehead's thoughtful and thought-provoking new book.

It's a time in the distant future and the world has been hit by a pandemic (referred to as the Last Night) which divided its citizens into two classes—the living and the living dead. While an initial military operation killed many of those who turned into zombies following the Last Night, brigades of citizen soldiers, at the behest of the provisional government in Buffalo, have been tasked with clearing out the rest of New York City so it can eventually be resettled. Mark Spitz is one of those citizen soldiers, and over the course of three surreal days, Zone One follows his efforts and those of his fellow recruits as they sweep city buildings and kill any remaining zombies that had been able to hide, or were trapped when the plague hit. The book cuts between the present day and accounts of Mark's attempts to survive in the early days of the pandemic.

I've referred to this as an "intellectual zombie novel," because while there is no shortage of lurid violence as the zombies attack and are captured, the book spends more time exploring themes of survival, courage, mediocrity, and the fight to distinguish yourself in a world characterized by unique people. Whitehead is a tremendously gifted writer and his use of language is mesmerizing at times, but I felt at times that the book moved very slowly, because despite the action, everything unfolds at a fairly meditative pace. This is a book worth reading, but it's important you keep in mind that this is a book much heavier on contemplation than action. But Colson Whitehead has made a worthy, if somewhat unique, contribution to the zombie "genre."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Be cool, boy...

I'm a sucker for all things West Side Story, perhaps because I still haven't gotten over that we didn't perform it in high school. (My sophomore year we performed Grease, and so it seemed the most natural follow-up for junior year, but it never happened. We did Carousel instead, and gone were my dreams of playing Tony. Sigh.)

Anyway, to celebrate West Side Story's 50th anniversary (and the upcoming release of a new Blu-Ray DVD), a group of dancers created a flash mob in Times Square. Flash mobs may be a little overused, but this one had me at the first snap of the fingers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thought for the day...

Enough said.

Say it ain't so, Joe...

When it comes to Pennsylvania legends, Joe Paterno probably ranks somewhere just under Ben Franklin and above William Penn and "Mean" Joe Greene. Head coach of Penn State for 45 years, most people figured his tenure would end in a similar fashion to Supreme Court justices.

But with the increasingly disturbing allegations of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up swirling around Penn State, it's becoming infinitely clearer that the time for Paterno to step down as coach may be sooner rather than later.

Has he run a clean program as far as NCAA rules are concerned? Yes. But while protecting your players, your reputation, and your school certainly are admirable actions (and somewhat rare in the do-or-die world of college athletics), doing so at the expense of innocent children makes you a coward and a monster, not someone to be revered.

Yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But as the number of children that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly sexually abused grows, so does the sadness and anger that university officials aware of the allegations for years did nothing to ensure it stopped. While Paterno informed Penn State's athletic director of one instance of alleged abuse he was told about, Paterno was happy to stay out of the fray. And that included turning his back when university officials continued to do nothing regarding the abuse accusations, and allowing Sandusky to continue to use school facilities to run his foundation for at-risk children, where he met those he allegedly abused.

Paterno taught his players courage, teamwork, sportsmanship, and drive. Sadly, it appears that the teacher did not heed his own lessons. It's time for Paterno to bid farewell to Happy Valley and think more about the lives changed because of things he did not do than those changed by the things he did.

Those children allegedly abused by Jerry Sandusky at the very least deserve that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stop the population...

Clearly any concerns about the world's population exceeding 7 billion last week were lost on Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar, who announced that baby #20 was on the way earlier today.

Baby #20.


This, despite the fact that their last child, Josie, was delivered at only 25 weeks (and weighed less than 2 pounds) because of Michelle's preeclampsia. (Nearly two years old now, the Duggars say Josie is showing no signs of complications due to her premature birth.) This, despite the fact that Michelle is now 45, requires the care of a high-risk pregnancy doctor, and is a grandmother to two children.

All because this is "God's plan." (Oh, and the fact that they have a reality show on TLC.)

I am not a fan of telling women what to do with their bodies. But in my opinion, having 20 children is absolutely unnecessary, especially when there are thousands upon thousands of children in the foster care system or in orphanages, desperate to find families of their own. If the Duggars feel the need to share the love they have with more and more children, couldn't they adopt a few? Imagine the joy that a family this size could bring to children longing for their own families. And why jeopardize your health and the health of an unborn baby simply to have a 20th child?

Wouldn't you think God would rather people find homes for all of the children in our country and the world who need families? Wouldn't that be more of God's plan than forcing the world to support more children being born unnecessarily?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Movie Review: "Like Crazy"

Admittedly, I've been really inconsistent in reviewing movies on my blog. The truth is, I've seen some pretty fantastic movies so far this year, and as the end of the year approaches (which is the time all studios start premiering their "Oscar-worthy" movies), I know I'll see a ton more great films.

Two weekends ago, in fact, we saw two terrific independent movies—Take Shelter, an odd, somewhat disturbing movie with breathtaking performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (in her fourth movie of 2011, after Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt), and Weekend, a wonderful, emotionally compelling movie about two guys who meet at a gay bar one Friday night and then spend the weekend together, talking about life and relationships, and trying to decide how much of themselves to share and lay bare.

But to get back to the subject at hand—Like Crazy. Having been to the movies so much these past few months, I think we saw the preview for this movie at least 10-15 times, so I had been eagerly anticipating it. This story of young, all-consuming love, and how it can and cannot flourish from a distance, was absolutely mesmerizing to me, although, as I've disclosed numerous times before, I'm a total sap (or hopeless romantic, depending upon how you look at it).

Anna (Felicity Jones, bringing steely strength and wavering emotion to her performance) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin, truly coming into his own) meet in their last year of college, while Anna is on a student visa from the UK. They fall utterly, completely, obsessively in love, until visa issues upon Anna's return to England force her to stay there. Caught between two countries, torn between needing to stay together and wanting to move forward with their lives, the movie flows through time quickly and chronicles the ebbs and flows of their emotions.

I found out after seeing the movie that director Drake Doremus based Like Crazy on a long-distance relationship he once had, but that there was no actual script for the movie; rather Doremus worked with Jones and Yelchin and the other cast members to improvise everything. And you'd never know it: the dialogue flowed naturally, the emotions were never forced, and not everything had tidy resolutions.

Some people have been lukewarm on the movie, but most have really loved it. I am firmly in the second camp. Especially if you love star-crossed love stories, see this. And in case you haven't seen the trailer, here it is:

Friday, November 4, 2011

You Cannot be Serious...

It seems as if every time I've turned around the last few days, there's been another bewilderingly prejudiced decision made by a state legislature, another presidential candidate taking an appalling stance, or some other shocking incident that makes me shake my head.

Here are just a few things that make me want to either weep or break out into a John McEnroe-esque rant:

It's okay to bully as long as you really, really believe in what you're bullying about: Michigan is one of only three states in the US that has not enacted anti-bullying legislation. And now that the state legislature is finally getting around to thinking this is a problem, the Republican-led state senate has passed a piece of legislation so toothless, some say it actually condones bullying. Matt's Safe School Law, named for Matt Epling, a 14-year-old Michigan student who committed suicide after sustained bullying from fellow students, was passed after Republicans added an amendment stipulating that it does not abridge First Amendment free speech rights or impinge on the expression of religious or moral views. So, in essence, if you object to someone's sexuality on religious grounds, it's okay to bully them. The law is so pathetic, Matt Epling's father, Kevin, wrote a letter of protest that state Sen. Glenn Anderson read on the chamber floor during the debate over the measure on Wednesday.

But it was Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer's reaction that rings the clearest.

Separation of church and state? Nah. There's already been abundant proof that many of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination are trying to appeal to the highly conservative factions of their party. A number have taken pledges that if they are elected president, they will push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, reinstate Don't Ask Don't Tell, and make other moves against equality.

Then there's former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. His anti-gay tirades are legendary; many have even commented that he seems almost obsessed with gay people and what they do. And in a recent speech in Iowa, Santorum's obsession has caused him amnesia where the issue of separation of church and state is concerned. You see, according to Santorum, "God's law trumps civil law," especially where issues of equality for gay people are concerned.

Granted, I'm just a wee bit more liberal than Santorum, but I find it really distressing that he and several other Republican candidates keep addressing the issue of God and God's laws. These individuals are running to be president of the entire country, not just one religious group. The laws of my God are different from the laws of Santorum, Bachmann, and others, so does that mean that if one of them are elected president, they'll only represent those who worship their God? These are scary questions to be asking in late 2011.

Take care of your gay kids: keep them in the closet. Such is the advice of Houston Chronicle columnist Kathleen McKinley, whose recent column suggested that parents of LGBTQ teenagers should convince them to stay in the closet, for their own safety, of course. And she came by this epiphany while reading a People magazine article about gay teenagers being bullied and committing suicide.

"Am I mad at the hateful mean kids who bully and tease these teens? You bet I am. But I am just as mad at the idiotic adults who force our adult views on kids, and pull them into our adult world long before they are mature enough to handle it. The 13 year old that killed himself told his Mom he was gay. She said she already knew and hugged him. She said she just assumed that everyone else would be as accepting as she was.

"Really? Have you been around teenagers? They are cruel and mean. They constantly tear each other down. It was bad when I was a teenager, I can only imagine what it’s like now. No, I don’t have to imagine how it is now. This is how it is now. Why in the world would you give teenagers a REASON to tease you? Oh, yes, because the adults tell you to embrace who you are, the only problem? Kids that age are just discovering who they are. They really have no idea yet. The adults tell you to “come out,” when what we should be telling them is that sex is for adults, and there is plenty of time for figuring out that later."

McKinley then proceeds to say that gay-straight alliances are harmful ("The idea of a high school club based on who you want to sleep with is absurd to begin with."), accuses LGBTQ kids of "flaunting their sexuality" and says the "It Gets Better" campaign designed to prevent bullied youth from committing suicide is actually causing more of them to do so, because "it will never get better."

I hope no kids commit suicide after their parents tell them to stay in the closet, because this column is as close to malpractice as it can be...

Bieber's baby? Say it ain't so. From the infuriating to the somewhat ridiculous. Nineteen-year-old Mariah Yeater claims that her baby, Tristyn, was fathered by none other than supposedly squeaky clean teen sensation Justin Bieber. (I might have thrown up a bit in my mouth on this one.)

I don't know what's crazier in this entire scenario: the fact that authorities have said they'd pursue filing statutory rape charges against Yeater if her claim is true (Bieber was 16 years old when the alleged encounter occurred), or the death threats Yeater has gotten from the legions of angry Bieber fans. (Seriously.) Eager to clear his name, Bieber has consented to a paternity test. The whole thing makes me shudder, but I guess it takes all types...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Review: "Domestic Violets" by Matthew Norman

I love it when books surprise me. Quite often while reading Domestic Violets, Matthew Norman's terrific debut novel, I expected the plot to go in a certain direction and I was disappointed that the book would head in that direction, but Norman's storytelling ability surprised me nearly every time. This is one of those books that made me sad when I finished it, because in the few short days it took me to read the book, I became very invested in the characters and their lives.

Thirty-five-year-old Tom Violet is in the midst of a midlife crisis. He and his wife are having relationship issues stemming from their desire to have a second child, he hates his job except for the opportunity to flirt with his younger employee (and antagonize a colleague), and his famous novelist father, Curtis, just won the Pulitzer Prize, and is staying with Tom's family as he abandons yet another wife. Oh, and Tom has written a novel of his own, but no one will read it, mostly because they expect it will be horrible. And this is the high point of Tom's current situation.

I really enjoyed this book because while the dialogue is certainly sharper and funnier than people talk in real life (at least the people I know), I felt as if the characters were very real, experiencing realistic problems and responding in genuine ways. While I found the ending a little too pat given the rest of the book, at least it resolved (somewhat) what happened to all of the characters I had grown attached to. I expected this book to be reasonably good based on the reviews I read, but it far exceeded my expectations. It is funny, compelling, emotionally astute, and really enjoyable. (Yeah, I kinda liked it.) Read it!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: "Falling Together" by Marisa de los Santos

The irony isn't lost on me that Marisa de los Santos' new book, Falling Together, centers around three once-inseparable college friends who come back into each other's lives several years later, because the return of Marisa de los Santos with a new novel felt a little like a reunion to me. Like her earlier novels, Love Walked In and Belong to Me, there's so much more to this book than meets the eye, and as I tore my way through it, I felt many of the same emotions her characters did.

Pen (short for Penelope), Will, and Cat met in college. "Met cute," they liked to say, when Will and Pen came to Cat's aid when she was in the middle of an epileptic seizure in a university bathroom. Pen was the idealist, Cat the flighty one, Will the steadfast one. The three were inseparable for a number of years (often at the expense of romantic relationships any tried to pursue), until one day, Cat decided to get married and determined that in order to have any chance at a successful marriage, she needed to end her friendship with Pen and Will. Shortly thereafter, Will left Pen, because he said he didn't know how to be friends with just her. Will and Pen both got on with their lives, until one day just before their 10-year college reunion, both received an email from Cat saying she needed help and begged them to come to the reunion. The email sent their lives into disarray, and is the catalyst for an interesting, sometimes frustrating and heartbreaking, journey.

Some have referred to de los Santos' novels as "chick lit," because they're books about relationships and love, but I believe that doing so denigrates the quality of her writing and her storytelling ability. Her use of language is almost poetic and she develops characters that seem fairly simple on the surface but are truly complex, flawed, unique people. While some of the directions the story takes are a little overly dramatic, the book pulls you in emotionally and makes you want to get invested in the story. I thought this book was fantastic, and you can't go wrong with either of her other books. Take the chance—you won't regret it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

Brilliant. That's one of the best words I can find to describe Julian Barnes' latest book, The Sense of an Ending, for which he recently was awarded the Man Booker Prize. This is a book that is fairly straightforward, yet its impact sneaks up on you.

When we first meet Tony Webster he is a high school student; he and his friends want nothing more than to be thought of as smart, witty, and successful with the opposite sex. Into their clique comes Adrian Finn, a new student who actually is smart and witty, and while Tony and his friends envy Adrian a bit, they all vow to remain friends even as they go their separate ways. Their lives proceed in this regard until Adrian's life takes a tragic turn. But many years later, when Tony becomes aware of information regarding this tragedy, and his role in it, he begins to look back at his past while trying to figure out how to make sense of this sudden discovery.

The Sense of an Ending is a book about memory—how it aids and how it fails us, and how our memories of events in our past are shaped by what we want to believe. Reading this book I discovered, much as Tony did, that nothing is quite what it seemed, and acceptance that you cannot change past actions is often hard to come by. Julian Barnes let the story unfold little by little, and it isn't until the end of the book that I was able to put all of the pieces together. This is a very short book but it packs a powerful punch, and it conveys the realities we learn as we age and as we analyze the directions our lives have taken. This is a beautifully written book and easily one of the best I've read this year.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review: "Feast Day of Fools" by James Lee Burke

At age 75, James Lee Burke may be one of our greatest living crime writers, if not simply one of the best writers around. He's won two Edgar Awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and created some fantastically vivid characters in his more than 30 books. If you haven't read anything he has written, pick up one of his books. You won't be sorry.

Burke usually writes a novel a year, and lately switches between his longtime protagonist, Louisiana police detective Dave Robichaux, and Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland. Feast Day of Fools follows Hack Holland as he tries to keep the peace in his Southwest Texas border town, and resists the temptation to begin a relationship with his much-younger deputy sheriff, Pam Tibbs. And then one day, the erstwhile alcoholic ex-boxer Danny Boy Lorca reports that he witnessed a man being tortured and killed in the desert. Holland's investigation leads him to the home of Anton Ling, a charismatic Asian woman known for helping illegal aliens cross over the Mexican border, whose past is more sinister than she is willing to let on. As Hack struggles with his attraction to both Anton and Pam, he finds himself drawn into an ever-more sinister web, complete with Russian gangsters, the son of a former nemesis, an unstable preacher, and the return of serial killer Jack Collins, presumed dead at the end of the last book to feature Hack, Rain Gods. Along the way, there's loads of violence, soul searching, intrigue, and Burke's fantastic writing.

One of the things I love about Burke's writing is his evocative imagery, and it is once again in full force. His heroes are truly flawed characters, wanting to do the right thing but not always approaching it the right way, committed to truth and justice, but cutting corners where necessary. There were a lot of characters to follow in this book, and many were fully developed and more complex than you'd expect them to be. My only criticism of the book is that it was almost too full—I could have done with one less villain or plot thread to follow, although Burke resolved the story quite well. Feast Day of Fools had almost an elegiac feel to it, and I couldn't help wondering if Burke sees a little bit of himself in the aging Sheriff Holland. All in all, this is a hefty, action-packed and beautifully written book, earning its place along James Lee Burke's other must-reads.

I'm Back...

Yeah, I know. It has been a little more than two weeks since I last blogged.

I've spent the last 4-5 weeks working nearly nonstop in preparation for my association's annual conference, which ended this past Tuesday. I was keeping such crazy hours I literally got up, went to work, came home, worked, ate dinner, worked, and fell asleep (sometimes at my desk). Didn't work out, didn't blog, didn't read...but fortunately, it's over now.

You probably might not have noticed I was gone, but I'm back. Hopefully you are, too!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Memory of a Visionary...

The world lost a creative genius, a dreamer, an innovator who knew no bounds, and a visionary last night with the passing of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Jobs, who had been suffering from cancer since 2004, stepped down from his role at Apple in August.

In a statement, the company said, "We are deeply saddened to announce that Steve Jobs passed away today. Steve’s brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives. The world is immeasurably better because of Steve. His greatest love was for his wife, Laurene, and his family. Our hearts go out to them and to all who were touched by his extraordinary gifts."

Moments after the news was announced, I was amazed by the number of Facebook posts from friends all over the world remarking on Jobs' death. Then I realized the irony—so many of us were communicating using technology envisioned by Jobs himself.

This irony wasn't lost on President Obama, who said after learning of Jobs' passing, "The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented."

Jobs' life is a true testament to seizing your dreams and never letting anything stand in the way of achieving them. His 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he discussed "How to Live before You Die," should be required viewing for all.

Rest in peace, Steve. And thank you for leaving an indelible imprint of creativity, courage, and connectivity on our world.