Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: "Warm Bodies" by Isaac Marion

Wow. This book totally caught me by surprise. I don't know whether it's because I'm a complete and utter sap, or because I've been recently enthralled by books populated by vampires and zombies and werewolves and other visions of a dystopian future, but I absolutely LOVED this book. I read it in a little more than a day and now I'm sad that it's over.

In a future in which most of the world has been destroyed by wars and plague and riots, very few humans still exist, and they are hunkered down in former sports stadiums and other large buildings, hiding from the zombies that have taken over. One of those zombies is R. He doesn't know what his name was "before," he doesn't know how long he has been a zombie, but he knows that he is much more curious about the past than most of his fellow zombies are, and he wants to understand what made him the way he is. One day, after killing a teenage boy and experiencing his memories while chewing his brain, he somehow subsumes the boy's soul, and finds himself wanting to protect the boy's girlfriend, Julie Grigio, whose father is one of the leaders of the anti-zombie movement. Julie brings (for lack of a better word) life to R, and the desire to try and change the direction in which the world is headed. And as their unlikely relationship develops and strengthens, they set a chain of events in motion that may have ramifications for all of the inhabitants of their world—both the living and the undead.

At its heart, this book is a story about finding hope where there previously was none, understanding who you are and believing you have the ability to make change happen. But while these themes may be somewhat clichéd, Isaac Marion incorporates them into a fantastic story populated by characters whom you might have never seen before, but who grow on you fairly quickly. Don't let the zombie storyline dissuade you from thinking this book is silly or lightweight; the plot is tremendously interesting and keeps you guessing just where it will go next. I read a brief interview with Marion in which he indicated he wasn't sure if this would be the first book of a series; I certainly hope it will be, because I want to know what comes next for these characters. This is definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

Taking Time to Say Thank You...

Although Memorial Day tends to be marked by most with a day off from work, time at the pool or beach, and barbecuing, it's also a moment to reflect on the bravery of the men and women who have served our country through the years, especially those who gave their lives in an effort to protect and defend the US.

I'm not a particularly patriotic person, because I believe many people who claim patriotism would think gay people are unpatriotic or un-American. And I don't agree with the philosophy of some, that voting a certain way or believing certain things make you more patriotic than others.

However, on Memorial Day, and every day, I am tremendously grateful to those who risk their lives to protect the US, both domestically and abroad. I am grateful to those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. And I hope there will come a day not too far in the future where anyone who wants to serve our country can do so, regardless of sexual orientation.

Never forget...we are the land of the free because of the brave. Thank you for your bravery and your sacrifices.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Tempest about Storm...

This is Storm. Storm is four months old and is being raised in Toronto. Looks like a typical four-month-old, no?

When the baby was born, Storm's parents sent out your typical birth announcement. But one thing was missing: the announcement didn't disclose whether Storm was a boy or a girl.

Said parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker:
"We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now—a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place?)"
This isn't an issue of sexual confusion—Storm's parents are clear what sex their baby is—so only the parents, their two other children (both boys), a close friend, and the two midwives who helped deliver the now 4-month-old baby know its gender. Even the grandparents have been left in the dark.

Why this decision? Stocker and Witterick say it gives Storm the freedom to choose who he or she wants to be. "What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It's obnoxious," Stocker, a teacher at an alternative school, said.

"In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, 'Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s(he) wants to be?," Witterick wrote in an email.

Stocker and Witterick's two other children, Jazz and Kio, are allowed to pick out their own clothes in the boys and girls sections of stores and decide whether to cut their hair or let it grow. Aged 5 and 2, they wear pink and have long hair, and are frequently assumed to be girls, according to Stocker. He said he and Witterick don't correct people—they leave it to the kids to do it if they want to.

Both boys are "unschooled," a version of homeschooling, which promotes putting a child's curiosity at the center of his or her education. Their nontraditional education setting, coupled with the freedoms they have in determining their appearance and clothing, isn't all it's cracked up to be, however. Though Jazz likes dressing as a girl, he doesn't seem to want to be mistaken for one. He recently asked his mother to let the leaders of a nature center know that he's a boy. And he chose not to attend a conventional school because of the questions about his gender. Asked whether that upsets him, Jazz nodded.

There is debate in the scientific community about how this might ultimately impact Storm's gender identification. And while I admire the philosophy behind Stocker and Witterick's decisions regarding keeping Storm's gender a secret as well the freedoms they give Jazz and Kio, I ultimately question their effects. Childhood can be difficult for seemingly "normal" children; for children who are perceived to be "different," treatment by their peers—and even well-meaning adults—is often traumatizing.

While I see nothing wrong with not forcing children to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes, I believe that much of what Stocker and Witterick is nothing short of "experimenting," which may ultimately cause their children more harm than good. If a five-year-old boy is already struggling with being mistaken for a girl, what happens next? Why not experiment with disciplinary actions rather than gender roles?

I'm not a parent, but I don't believe this will be ultimately successful. And I only hope these children don't bear the after-effects well into their adulthood.

Book Review: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" by Steve Earle

Steve Earle is a pretty fantastic musician, and with his terrific debut novel, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, he's proven his talent as a writer as well. This is a tremendously well-written and creative book with characters that slowly reveal themselves to be more complex and sympathetic than you might think, and a plot that mixes despair and hope with a little bit of mysticism.

It's the fall of 1963 in a rundown neighborhood of San Antonio. Doc Ebersole is a disgraced former physician struggling with a severe morphine addiction—and he's being haunted by the ghost of his former patient and fishing buddy, Hank Williams. (The rumor is that Doc gave Williams the morphine shot that might have killed him.) Doc lives in a boarding house and, in an effort to support his habit, treats the local criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers for sexually transmitted diseases, gun and knife wounds, and other injuries and illnesses—and performs abortions for women who find themselves "in trouble." Into this mess comes Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant in need of Doc's services. She stays with Doc after she recovers, and after she sustains a wound that won't seem to heal, she discovers her ability to heal Doc's patients and send them on the road to a new life. But not everyone is happy about these supposed miracles—including the local clergy nor Hank Williams' ghost.

This book really took me by surprise. When I started reading it I thought it would be a harrowing story of a man near the end of his rope, struggling with a debilitating addiction yet trying to help others to feed his habit. But Doc was much more complex than I expected, and the people that surrounded him, including Graciela, were layered, fascinating people. I even found the mystical parts of the book enjoyable, although I felt the subplot with the local priest to be a bit unnecessary. Even as I had suspicions where the book would go, I savored every page. Earle is a talented writer, and he has created a fascinating little world that might not be pretty or happy, but it sure is interesting. Great book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This" by Robin Black

What a beautifully moving book this was. Robin Black's short story collection examined the tenuous connections of relationships—between parent and child, lovers, friends, siblings, even strangers. Some of the stories (one in particular) made me laugh out loud, some made me cry, but all made me think and have definitely touched my heart. Some of the most memorable stories included the opening story, "The Guide," which followed a father reluctantly watching his blind daughter get ready to head off to college; "Immortalizing John Parker," a story about an artist struggling to paint a portrait of a dying man while dealing with the end of her own relationship; "Some Women Eat Tar," a humorous look at how a woman's pregnancy affects her relationship with the baby's father; and the closing story, "The History of the World," which looked at the difficult yet cherished relationship of aging siblings on a trip to Italy. And that just scratched the surface of the collection.

I never used to read short stories because I didn't like getting attached to characters and getting immersed in the plot, only to have the story end fairly quickly. But the opportunity to experience the range of characters, plots and emotions that Robin Black has created in this collection is amazing. Any one of these stories could stand on its own and be developed into a novel, and I'd love that, because in just a few pages, I felt completely hooked by these characters. This book is fantastic, and given that it is Black's fiction debut, I can't wait to see what comes next in her career.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Will Ronald Go the Way of the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese??

After nearly 50 years as the innocent, fun symbol of McDonald's restaurants, Ronald McDonald's job is in danger.

The nonprofit advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, which has previously targeted soft drink manufacturers Coca-Cola and Pepsi for the environmental impact of their bottles, has organized more than 550 health professionals and organizations in a campaign to ask McDonald's to stop marketing junk food to kids and retire Ronald McDonald.

The campaign, which took the form of full-page advertisements in six major newspapers across the US last week, acknowledges that "the contributors to today's (health) epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem." Groups such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, as well as well-known nutritionists and doctors like Andrew Weil, a doctor and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, signed onto the effort.

Is there an obesity crisis in our country, especially among children? Absolutely. But this is less the fault of Ronald McDonald than it is the difficulty in getting children to engage in consistent physical activity instead of playing video games and watching television. And it can be attributed more to the ease by which stretched-to-the-limit parents can buy their kids fast food meals rather than cook dinner after a long day of working or child-rearing.

Ronald McDonald certainly proves an enticement to children, inciting them to ask their parents to take them for fast food. But at the end of the day, the decision to feed children fast food lies in the hands of their parents, and whether or not there is a friendly-looking mascot has no bearing on the final decision.

It is far cheaper to feed children (or adults, that matter) fast food than to buy fruits, vegetables and meats. As that trend continues, parents have few options.

I wish we as a society would be more willing to accept responsibility for things instead of looking for others to blame. It isn't the coffee shop's fault if you burn yourself drinking your coffee, it isn't the donut shop's fault if you gain weight after eating one donut every day, and it isn't the mall owner's fault if you fall into a fountain because you're not paying attention to where you are walking.

I hope McDonald's and other fast food restaurants will continue taking steps to make their food healthier, as that will assist parents who feel trapped into feeding their children fast food. I also hope that children and parents get better educated about what causes weight gain, and how to reverse that trend, and that doesn't include getting rid of advertising symbols.

But I do wish Burger King would ditch the creepy king figure...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: "The Adventures of the Karaoke King" by Harold Taw

This book takes you on a bizarre and rollicking ride alongside Guy Watanabe, the Karaoke King. Still struggling after his divorce, he is an avid disciple of the motivational speaker Troy Bobbins, who inspires him to pursue his dreams. After he wins the Karaoke King title and medallion in a local competition in Seattle, he meets Megumi, a beautiful young woman with a difficult past, and he believes his life is changing for the good. Yet his encounters with Megumi leave him beaten and missing his Karaoke King medallion, and wondering exactly what his future holds. He is determined to free Megumi from the clutches of her patricidal businessman boyfriend and get his medallion back, and this adventure takes him across the Western US, into China and back again. Along the way he meets no end of interesting characters who either help or hinder him (sometimes both), and it is often difficult for Guy to determine who is on his side. There's Billy, a closeted gay man in rural Washington; Milton Schwartzer, a midget and former porn star; Sunny, the owner of a run-down karaoke bar; and Sheila, one of Milton's drug-abusing former employees. Encounters with each of these people leave Guy changed in some way, and he must fight to free his soul and determine his future.

I found this book simultaneously interesting and frustrating. I think Harold Taw tried to throw a lot of zany adventures and characters into this book, and some of them resonated more than others. But my main challenge with the book is that I found it difficult to muster a lot of sympathy for Guy, who keeps chasing the wrong things and seems eternally destined to make the same mistakes over and over. I also found his determination above all things to reunite with Megumi somewhat dubious, since she really didn't appear to give him the affection he needed and wanted, just exposed him to physical and financial ruin. The last quarter of the book, which chronicled Guy's return trip to the US in a shipping container, and the results of his capture at the hands of immigration officials, seemed so far-fetched it nearly made me stop reading the book.

I love books that tell of noble and bizarre quests—one of my favorite books of all time is Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill, the story of a man looking for true love and dragons to slay. But The Adventures of the Karaoke King fell a little short for me. It was enjoyable, well-written and interesting, but in the end, more memorable for its weaknesses than its strengths.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sometimes Athletes SHOULD be Role Models...

Many professional athletes get paid obscene amounts of money, yet their behavior when they step off the field, court or rink is often obscene. Whether it's bringing handguns into the locker room, participating in violent fights, being arrested for drunk driving or domestic violence, or using homophobic language to taunt opponents, officials or fans, far too many athletes go too far in cultivating their "bad boy" images.

But not all athletes are cut from the same cloth. In recent months, I've been tremendously impressed by the number of athletes who have spoken in favor of gay rights and against homophobic hate.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita has spoken out in favor of gay rights.

New York Rangers forward Sean Avery expressed his support for gay marriage and even recorded a video for the Human Rights Campaign's "New Yorkers for Msrriage Equality" program.

Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley recently recorded an anti-bullying PSA for GLSEN.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo spoke out on behalf of marriage equality and gay rights and earlier this year, recorded a video in support of marriage equality in Maryland.

And now, Ayanbadejo's teammate, wide receiver Donté Stallworth, recently took to Twitter in support of equality.

It is heartening to see this increasing show of support from pro athletes, and I can only hope the numbers of those for equality will continue to grow. After all, equality has never hurt anyone.

It's nice to see athletes actually act like role models.

Another Score for the Sanctity of Marriage...

As the media has reported ad infinitum, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, announced their separation after 25 years of marriage last week. Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger publicly acknowledged that he had fathered a child with a long-time household staffer, Mildred Baena, who had worked for the family for 20 years.

Schwarzenegger has had a history of acting inappropriately toward women; in fact, during his initial campaign for governor, a number of allegations (entitled "Gropegate") were raised by women who claimed to have been victims of his sexual misconduct.

The wheel of infidelity among relationships and marriages in the entertainment field and the political world seems to spin quite frequently. However, what angers me in this case is that twice during his term as governor, Schwarzenegger voted against bills that would have permitted same-sex marriage in California, citing the often-held belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and that same-sex marriages "could harm the sanctity of traditional marriage."

Clearly, Schwarzenegger had no issue with harming his own marriage, but he—and countless other politicians—should no longer be able to dictate who we are able to love and marry. Same-sex marriage isn't what is harming so-called traditional marriage; lies and infidelity are.

Comic Fortune Feimster said it best when she spotlighted Schwarzenegger's history of vetoing bills that would have supported same-sex marriages. "Good thing Arnold Schwarzenegger has been upholding the sanctity of marriage since apparently us gay folks don't know how to," Feimster tweeted.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Amy Myers for President!

Quite often, politicians make mistakes when speaking off the cuff. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin went on a near-boycott of the media after Katie Couric interviewed her during the 2008 campaign and questioned her views and statements.

Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), often spoke of as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, has also made some gaffes. During a speech in Concord, NH, Bachmann told attendees that it was a privilege to be where the American Revolution first began, in the place where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired. Unfortunately, this shot was fired in Concord, Massachusetts.

And then there was the time when Bachmann said that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more," despite the fact that nearly all of them—Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—owned slaves (although John Adams did not) and all died before slavery was officially abolished.

New Jersey high school student Amy Myers thinks that Bachmann's mistakes reflect poorly on women in politics. So Myers wrote her a letter, saying, "As one of a handful of women in Congress, you hold a distinct privilege and responsibility to better represent your gender nationally. The statements you make help to serve an injustice to not only the position of Congresswoman, but women everywhere. Though politically expedient, incorrect comments cast a shadow on your person and by unfortunate proxy, both your supporters and detractors alike often generalize this shadow to women as a whole."

But this isn't just your typical letter of criticism. Myers, who refers to herself as a "typical high school student" yet admits she has watched All The President's Men at least a few times, has a challenge for Bachmann:
"I, Amy Myers, do hereby challenge Representative Michele Bachmann to a Public Forum Debate and/or Fact Test on The Constitution of the United States, United States History and United States Civics."
Bachmann or her representatives have yet to respond, and some conservative blogs have even questioned whether this is a legitimate letter and not one written by an adult trying to ridicule Bachmann.

But for now, Myers stands by her guns, and waits to see how Bachmann will respond. And now, perhaps the media will be somewhat more attentive to fact-checking remarks made by our elected officials, and challenging them when they exaggerate or have their facts wrong.

Then again, probably not. Read the full text of Myers' letter here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Not Much Ado about Coming Out...

While I don't spend much time focused on celebrity coming-out stories because I believe they should be more of an everyday occurrence rather than a major event, two recent announcements—and the non-reaction that surrounded them—made me somewhat hopeful.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a great article on long-time NBA executive and Phoenix Suns President & Chief Executive Officer Rick Welts, who has just now publicly come out as gay. Welts, who lived in the closet for more than 40 years for fear that those within the NBA would discover his homosexuality, saw a 14+-year relationship end because his partner could no longer handle living in secret. Ironically, Welts came out to NBA Commissioner David Stern the day before Kobe Bryant used a gay slur when yelling ata referee.

Said the Times:
"'This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,' said Mr. Welts, who stands now as a true rarity, a man prominently employed in professional men’s team sports, willing to declare his homosexuality. 'Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.'"
Interestingly enough, although homophobia is routinely expressed by professional athletes, when it came to Phoenix Suns player Steve Nash, Welts' publicly acknowledging his sexuality wasn't that big of a deal. "Anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up," Nash said. "He’s doing anyone who’s not ready for this a favor."

Since the announcement was made public, Welts said the feedback he has received has been tremendously positive. "The outreach has been amazing," Welts said. "I've been hearing from families, friends. The emails have been uniformly positive."

The day following Welts' announcement, CNN anchor Don Lemon also acknowledged his homosexuality. While Lemon's sexuality was apparently not a secret from his friends, family or colleagues, he came out publicly in an interview with the New York Times, a month before the release of his memoir, Transparent.

Lemon has gotten significant support from CNN, which also supported him when he publicly divulged that he had been molested by a pedophile as a child. However, Lemon fears how the public will react to him now that his sexuality is public. As he told NPR, "Most people would think if you’re the prime news anchor, then you should sort of be this Edward R. Murrow, Clark Kent guy with the family and 2.5 kids — or the perky cute, yet smart Katie Couric." Lemon said. "Anyone would have to be naive to think that it wouldn’t make a difference."

However, Lemon felt that coming out was important to help those struggling with their sexuality to steer clear of suicide. (He dedicated his memoir to the memory of Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide last October after his roommate videotaped his encounter with another man and then bragged about it on Twitter.) And although many people believe that everyone in the public eye should come out (including Lemon's colleague, Anderson Cooper), Lemon doesn't agree.
"I think it would be great if everybody could be out," he said. "But it’s such a personal choice. People have to do it at their own speed. I respect that. I do have to say that the more people who come out, the better it is for everyone, certainly for the Tyler Clementis of the world."
What is refreshing is that while both of these stories have garnered media attention—and the usual crackpots trolling anonymous internet chat rooms and Twitter feeds—they've not been viewed as that big of a deal. While I'm not naive enough to think that this signifies a wholesale shift in public perception of homosexuality, it does mean things are changing.

And a little bit of change is a good thing...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous people in American history. His accomplishments while president, his speeches and, of course, his assassination, are legendary. But what you probably didn't know is that, in addition to achievements as a political leader, Abraham Lincoln was one of the world's most accomplished vampire hunters.

Every time I saw this book in the store, I was intrigued by it. I'm so glad I finally bought it, because I really, really liked it. Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, combines true historical fact with incredible fiction to create a fascinating account of Lincoln's life and his struggles with the undead. The unique twists in the book and Grahame-Smith's attributions of certain instances in history to vampires is incredibly creative (and actually explains a lot, if you think about it). This isn't a silly book by any means; there is so much thought and attention paid to details that I found myself wondering how Grahame-Smith could have thought of all of this. (And the photos in the book are terrific, too.)

If you're able to suspend your disbelief and give in to this melding of fantasy and history, you'll really enjoy this book. And you probably won't be able to look at the Lincoln Memorial—or a penny—in quite the same way again!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I've Got the Music in Me...

Last November, when I blogged about one thing I was thankful for each day leading up to Thanksgiving, I wrote about how thankful I am for the gift of music. That certainly hasn't changed in the last six months, but every day I realize how music really serves as a soundtrack to our lives.

For fun, I'm participating in a "30-Day Song Challenge" with several friends from college. Basically, each day has a theme—a song that makes you happy, a song that reminds you of an even, a song that describes you, etc. For that day, you post (on Facebook) a link to a video of that particular song.

Today's challenge was "a song you can dance to." I don't dance (well), but what I remember more than almost anything was that during freshman year of high school, the girls who tried out for the pom-pom squad auditioned to Jungle Love by Morris Day and The Time. For years after that audition, no matter whatever Sweet 16 or party we were at, if the song came on, every girl who tried out came onto the dance floor and did the routine. We saw it so often, even some of the guys learned the routine!

And that's what I mean about music really providing powerful links to memories. When I hear a song, I am often reminded about a particular place, time or person in my life, and can even picture hearing that song at that time. When I was in summer camp from 1980-1989, I remember one summer hearing Bruce Hornsby and The Range's Mandolin Rain, just as the sun was going down, and the song echoed through the mountains. Whenever I hear that song, I can almost hear that echo.

What songs remind you of a particular time, place or person? What song makes you cry? What song makes you smile?

Those are interesting questions to ponder—and even more interesting songs to think about.

Book Review: "You Know Who You Are" by Ben Dolnick

Ben Dolnick's latest novel follows The Vines—Arthur and Alice and their three children, Will, Jacob and Cara. The Vines are your typical family living a fairly uneventful life in suburban Maryland. Jacob, the middle child, doesn't have the same self-confidence and self-assurance that his siblings do, and longs for approval, to fit in. When Alice is diagnosed with cancer, Jacob takes advantage of the ensuing chaos to explore his new freedom, causing harmless adolescent trouble and, ultimately, pursuing his first romantic relationship. And when Alice dies, his personality takes on new sensitivity, which he tries to use to his advantage.

You Know Who You Are focuses on Jacob as he moves through high school, college and life after graduation. His relationships are always slightly off-kilter, whether with his family, friends or various girlfriends. Even as he grows he still feels as if he lives in Will's shadow, although Will has his own troubles figuring life out. But all of this uncertainty, and the struggles that Jacob experiences, makes him a tremendously sympathetic character, and it's one of the reasons this book is an enjoyable read.

I love books about family dynamics. While this family is a little less dysfunctional than most, I still found Jacob's story, and that of the entire Vine family, very interesting. It took me a little while to get completely hooked, but once I did, I found myself flying through the book. The plot explores very familiar territory, but Dolnick's storytelling ability makes even the familiar seem slightly different. This is one of those books that lacks fireworks but relies on the strength of its characters to tell a compelling story. I enjoyed it a lot.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: "Trigger City" by Sean Chercover

Last year I found a new author named Sean Chercover, who writes a series of books featuring Chicago PI Ray Dudgeon. I really enjoyed his first book, Big City, Bad Blood, and although it's taken me a while to get around to his second book, Trigger City, I'm happy to say it's just as good, if not better.

Joan Richmond was the head of payroll for a Chicago company. One Sunday afternoon she was shot and killed by a former employee, Steven Zhang, who left a confession before killing himself. All of those around him noticed Zhang's erratic behavior changes in the few months leading up to Richmond's murder, but no one expected him to react in this way. While this seems like an open and shut case, Dudgeon is hired by Joan's father, a retired military commander with whom she had a somewhat strained relationship, to find out "the truth." But the truth isn't quite what it seems, as it appears Joan's previous employer was a military contractor with secrets to hide—and lots of people interested in keeping them hidden, no matter what. And as Dudgeon continues his investigation while dealing with his own personal issues, he realizes no one quite knows what the truth really is, and maybe that's a good thing.

Chercover's second book moves quickly, has a terrific plot and lots of twists, some of which I didn't see coming. Dudgeon's character is really complex; he's more than just a stubborn private investigator—he has enough personal demons to keep several psychiatrists busy. But he is determined to protect those in need of help, no matter what the cost may be to himself. That complexity, plus some great action, makes for a really fast and compelling read. Plus, the book makes you think about how our government's reach keeps expanding. I hope Chercover plans to keep writing—I want to know what's next for Ray Dudgeon, and you will, too.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Could Mamie Eisenhower Do "The Dougie"?

This is old news by now, but I'm still so excited by it, I just had to share. Last week, as part of her "Let's Move!" initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama danced during an event at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, DC.

While she had initially promised that she would stay on the sidelines because she didn't want to be the center of attention, apparently the siren call of Beyonce's Move Your Body proved too much, because she proceeded to dance "The Dougie" and "The Running Man" along with the students.

And she danced well.

Sarah Palin may criticize Mrs. Obama's drive to get children to eat healthier and exercise, but in my entire life, I have never seen a casually dressed First Lady energetically dance along with enthusiastic children. Her ability to never forget that she was just a "regular" person a few short years ago is one of the most appealing things about Michelle Obama, and we are truly privileged to have her as First Lady.

Think what you want about the President, but this is pretty awesome. I hope future first ladies (or gentlemen) follow in her footsteps in terms of relatability.

I'm a Travelin' Man...

When I switched jobs about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me most was that I would be significantly reducing the amount of business travel I had to do. At my previous job, between conferences, board meetings, site visits for future conferences and other events, it seemed like I traveled at least once or twice a month, sometimes making two trips nearly back to back.

Yesterday, however, when I found myself arriving at my fifth airport in two days, I felt like I was stuck in a bit of a time warp. And while the first part of my travel was to celebrate my niece's graduation from college, on Saturday I flew from Orlando to Washington, DC, and then yesterday I flew from Washington to Las Vegas, through Long Beach, CA.

While there are some advantages to traveling—particularly, for me, the opportunity to read while in the air and waiting to board—travel is becoming less and less appealing as a result of stricter security measures and the increasingly selfish behavior of my fellow travelers. Believe me, I understand the need for heightened security in airports and on planes, especially following Osama bin Laden's recent death, but I believe very few (if any) airports are adequately staffed or prepared to handle the volume of travelers who need to be screened, particularly those who see no reason to pay attention to any of the regulations or procedures they need to follow.

Emptying everything out of your pockets doesn't mean you should leave your wallet or your phone in there until asked. Taking your laptop out of your bag and putting it into a separate bin means, well, just that. And the regulation about no liquids, gels or aerosols over 3 ounces has been around for years now, but yet it constantly seems to surprise people. Which, of course, just delays the screening process for people like me, who can take off my belt and shoes, put my laptop in a bin and get everything on the belt in the blink of an eye.

And don't get me started about the way people behave on planes these days. I realize airlines no longer provide free meals unless you're traveling first or business class, so it makes sense to bring your own food on the plane. But could you stop and think that maybe something with extra onions, or some type of fish, might not be the most appealing scent for your fellow passengers to inhale for a few hours? And when the flight crew announces that the fasten seatbelt sign is on, that actually applies to everyone on the plane. It doesn't mean you can wander down the aisle to get something out of your oversized carry-on bag.

Some airlines now offer free wireless internet service on flights, which has led to some predicting that cell phone calls might eventually be allowed during flights. That might be my cue to stop traveling, because if people scream into their cell phones while they're in their cars or in restaurants, can you imagine how loudly they'll talk at 36,000 feet?

Yes, I know I'm impatient and fairly intolerant. But if travel is becoming more expensive and more of a hassle, shouldn't it be somewhat enjoyable? Of course, it's important to note that I also traded one crazy playground (Orlando) for another (Las Vegas). So, to quote Jimmy Buffett, it could be my fault.

Book Review: "The Ice Princess" by Camilla Läckberg

Swedish author Camilla Läckberg's first mystery to be published in the US, The Ice Princess, is a suspenseful and compelling read. Set in the Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka, the book follows well-known biography author Erica Falck, who has returned to the town after the tragic death of her parents in an accident. She plans to stay for a while to get their affairs in order and finish her latest book. One day while on a walk, she is flagged down by an elderly caretaker who has found a disturbing sight—the body of a woman lying in a bathtub of frozen water and blood. It turns out this woman was Alexandra Wijkner, Erica's best childhood friend, from whom she was inseparable, until they were 10 years old, when they inexplicably drifted apart and Alexandra's family moved away. For a woman who appeared to have everything—a successful art gallery, a handsome and wealthy husband, a beautiful and historic home—the idea of Alexandra committing suicide seems difficult for anyone to fathom.

Erica is asked by Alexandra's parents to write an article about her for the local newspaper, and as she does research into her life since their friendship ended, she becomes convinced that Alexandra's death might not have been a suicide after all. She also tries to figure out why Alexandra drifted away all of those years ago. Teaming up with Patrik, another childhood friend who is now a police detective, she begins to discover that the case isn't as clear cut as it looks, and there are many secrets many people in Fjällbacka want to leave hidden.

I feel a little bit of pity for any Swedish author whose work gets publicity in America, because they all get compared to Stieg Larsson. And in fact, a blurb on the cover this book says, "Stieg Larsson fans who give this book a chance will be rewarded." I enjoyed this book, but it's nothing like Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, so don't go into this book expecting that. However, many of the characters are richly layered, and while some of the secondary characters were a little too clichéd for me, the plot took some very interesting twists and kept me flipping pages fairly quickly. Erica wasn't your typical accidental detective and certainly was far from omniscient, and that made her curiousity about the case even more interesting. Apparently this is the first of seven books Läckberg has written about Fjällbacka (I know at least the next one features Erica and Patrick), so I'm definitely going to keep reading them. If you're a mystery fan, you'll probably enjoy this.

Book Review: "The House of Tomorrow" by Peter Bognanni

Since his parents' death when he was very young, 16-year-old Sebastian has lived in Iowa's first geodesic dome with Nana (his grandmother), a devout follower of designer and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Nana has home schooled Sebastian and allowed him little contact with the outside world beyond the tour groups that come to the dome each week, and he is ready to follow the path that she has set for his future. When she suffers a stroke one day, Sebastian's life is thrown into turmoil. He meets Jared Whitcomb, a teenage boy with issues of his own, and his loving yet overprotective mother, Janice, who are touring the dome when Nana suffers her stroke. Later, Sebastian also meets Jared's older sister, Meredith, who teaches Sebastian a thing or two about the complexity of emotions. As Jared and Sebastian become friends, Sebastian starts discovering all of the things he has been missing in life—punk rock, processed foods, girls, and most of all, companionship with a peer. But he is torn between this new life and continuing to work with Nana on fulfilling her visions for his future.

I really loved this book. Every one of the characters is endearing in their own way, even if you're not supposed to empathize with them. Sebastian's interactions with the Whitcombs and Nana were at turns funny, thought-provoking and touching, and Bognanni really gave him depth beyond the fish-out-of-water storyline. Even though I had a feeling where the book would go, I never felt bored, because Bognanni's storytelling ability was really great. I was sad when I finished the book because I'd love to know what happened to all of the characters once the story ended. That, to me, is the mark of a great story.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: "The Year We Left Home" by Jean Thompson

I'm always fascinated by novels that explore the dynamics of family, the good times and the frictions, the struggles that recur and the unspoken challenges that remain hidden, and how each member of a family deals with the same things. Jean Thompson's new novel, The Year We Left Home, is an interesting and well-written look at more than the 30 years in the life of the Erickson family, seen through the eyes of the matriarch, her four children, a distant cousin and one of her grandchildren. While the book doesn't necessarily explore earth-shattering issues and there are no shocking plot developments, I feel it aptly represents more than 95 percent of families—it's the everyday issues that challenge and test a family's strength.

The book opens in Grenada, Iowa in 1973. Anita, the oldest Erickson child, has just gotten married and can think of nothing more than a life raising a family in the town where she grew up. Meanwhile, her brother Ryan, just on the cusp of graduating from high school, watches the wedding reception from the sidelines and dreams of getting out of Grenada and making a life for himself far away from the clutches of his family. An encounter with his cousin, Chip, recently returned from Vietnam, lays the foundation for a sporadic relationship that has interesting ramifications throughout the book. Each chapter looks at a different character at a different point in time, as they deal with the different challenges life throws at them—good and bad. Some characters grow while others stay the same, much like life itself.

I enjoyed this book and definitely felt compelled to keep reading because I wanted to see how the story would unfold for all of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, nothing truly earth-shattering or surprising happens in the book, although there are some moments when I wondered how a situation would resolve itself. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, which makes some of the chapters less enjoyable, but on the whole, I felt as if I really got to know this family, and liked being part of their lives. A good read; perhaps not one that will knock your socks off, but Thompson is a terrific writer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

AI Top 5 Recap: You Think Love Hurts?

Has Ryan finally tired of sharing the spotlight with the judges? Because tonight’s show started with the judges already seated and they didn’t get their special introductions, so we didn’t get to see J.Lo’s full “librarian bride” outfit or Steven’s latest ensemble from the women’s section of Merry-Go-Round. (Remember those? And Chess King?) We did, however, get the full Peaches-down-the-stairs treatment, along with close-ups of Kelly Preston (guess the tabloids are wrong and she’s not pregnant again) and Sir Anthony Hopkins, and the clever “I (Heart) The Seacrest Side Part” poster.

With only three weeks until the inevitable Scotty-Lauren finale in the Nokia Theater, Ryan reminded us that tonight was probably the most important show of the season. Why? Well, as Randy explained (like he does every week), at this point in the season everyone is wondering who is in it to win it? (Because I guess no one remembers that Randy tells us at least one or two of them are in it to win it every week, right?)

This week’s theme, “Now and Then,” will have the contestants singing a “current” song and a song from the 1960s or 1970s. (Remember, on American Idol, “current” means songs dating from 2004 through an unreleased song, but more on that later.) To help protect Jimmy from the wrath of the contestants he dissed last week mentor the contestants this week, Jimmy enlisted some “musical royalty.” Who comes to mind when you hear that term? Bet Sheryl Crow wasn’t it…

James was first up, and for his “current” song he chose 30 Seconds to Mars’ Closer to the Edge. (Not bad, it was released in 2010!) Sheryl was singing backup for James during rehearsal and she excitedly chanted “I get to sing with James,” to which James replied, “I got to sing with Sheryl.” Cute. Jimmy said that there is “nothing standing between him and greatness.” Clad in a sleeveless jacket with “Give Metal a Chance” on the back, James worked the stage and the crowd like a total pro during the song, high-fiving the crowd, encouraging them to sing along, and hitting some pretty fantastic notes. To use a Randy-ism (I hate when I do that), it wasn’t my favorite song, but I am so amazed with the comfort he has performing. Steven told him he “kicked the song’s ass” and he’s “ready for stadiums” the way he storms the stage. J.Lo told him the competition was his to take. Randy reminded us that 30 Seconds to Mars is Jared Leto’s band (what a barrel of knowledge the Dawg is), and said he felt like this was a good song choice for James, as it shows where he’s going as an artist. And in case you didn’t remember from last week, “James is in it to win it! He wants it, Ryan!”

Time for “Positive Affirmations” with our own Jacob. Ryan asked Jacob if he still thought he could win the competition (was he going to say no), and of course, Mr. Ever-so-Humble explained that he brings something painful different every week, but more importantly, he’s bringing a positive message that something good could come out of his hometown of Compton, CA. (Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the rap group NWA as well as Venus and Serena Williams come from Compton? I’d think the town is doing pretty well for itself already, so no need to pat yourself on the back, Baby Luther.)

Jacob picked No Air, the duet by Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks and everyone’s favorite stable boyfriend, Chris Brown. (This “current” song is from 2008, BTW.) And lucky for us, Jacob chose to sing both parts. I prayed for no air during the performance, one of my Facebook friends prayed for no hearing…it was just that awful, perhaps one of the worst performances I’ve seen in years. But maybe the judges got to see a different rendition, because instead of telling him how horrible it was, J.Lo told him she was glad he was starting to define himself as an artist (because he mentioned in the pre-performance footage that this was the type of song he wanted to record) and if this is the type of song he wants to sing, he should cultivate this direction. Randy didn’t agree, explaining that while Jacob “is one of the greatest singers on the show” (compared to Ashthon, Karen, Naima and Paul, maybe), no one should ever sing duets by themselves. He also said that most of Jacob’s vocals were sharp, and he counseled Jacob that he isn’t the next Chris Brown or Jordin Sparks, but should be the next Luther, because “he’s the church kid.” Steven’s tone-deafness continued, as he told Jacob he “loves where [he goes] with his voice,” and although it was sharp, he was terrific. In response to Randy’s criticism, Jacob explained he is “an artist that appeals to everyone,” and even Luther sang pop songs. (Newsflash: You don’t appeal to me, Jacob. Burn!)

Lauren’s “current” song choice was Carrie Underwood’s Flat on the Floor (from 2008). Sheryl encouraged Lauren to “stay put” while singing instead of running all over the stage. This week’s first installment of “The Little Lauren That Could” found Jimmy explaining how proud he was of Lauren because she takes all of the constructive criticism and is ready to come out fighting. (Funny thing is, other than the “you need more confidence” and “you can hit big notes” tall tales that get spun each week, Lauren hasn’t had much, if any, constructive criticism. I’m just sayin’.)

As usual, I thought Lauren’s performance was fine. She shouted a lot, and I felt she had trouble sustaining some of her notes, but she was entertaining. At one point, the camera caught J.Lo bobbing her head along with the song, but her face didn’t look like she was enjoying herself that much. (That cameraman will be looking for work soon.) Record exec Randy told Lauren this was the direction she should go in, and “Lauren is in it, y’all!” (But if the dawg doesn’t say “in it to win it,” does that mean she’s not?) Steven said that Lauren has “found her niche,” and at “15 years old” (she’s 16), he thinks “she’s it.”

Dear Nigel,

As hard as it may be to believe, Scotty’s “current” song, Gone by Montgomery Gentry, is from 2004! Regardless, Sheryl told Scotty he has a big career ahead of him. Jimmy promised that because of the intensity and angst of the song, “people will be moved” by Scotty’s performance. I am not sure what performance he was talking about, because I didn’t sense any intensity except for how hard Scotty rolls his eyes when he makes his funny faces, and I certainly wasn’t moved. Look, Scotty has a great voice, but apart from a rare performance here and there, I feel he’s fairly one-note. At this point in the competition, it’s great he’s such a polished performer, but I’d like to see some growth week after week. I don’t see that with Scotty; all I see is the same stuff, just a different song and a different outfit. But I’m just blogging for people on Facebook, you know? I'm no musical expert. (But I do have 17,000+ songs on my iPod.) Steven told Scotty, “Up to now you’ve been a Puritan, but I saw you dance with the devil tonight, and that’s good for you!” J.Lo said she “lost it there for a second,” and called his performance “some American Idol stuff.” Randy trotted out his second-most used phrase of the season, saying he felt as if he was “sitting at Scotty’s concert,” and then reminded us “this guy is in it to win it, too!”

Haley somehow lucked into the pimp spot again this week. Apparently Jimmy felt the need to apologize for how horribly he criticized her last week encouraged her to sing an unreleased Lady GaGa song called You and I, which she sings at her concerts. Haley was slightly ambivalent but decided to take the chance once she got the opportunity to talk to GaGa herself. (Does that seem as stupid to read as it did to write?) Jimmy said that the way Haley sings this song will show the audience “she’s got it.” She started out the song laying across the stairs, and gave a sexy, sultry performance, with some really powerful vocals. I didn’t love the song, and it didn’t sound like Madonna like most of GaGa's other songs (oops), but I think Haley was great, especially as she traded lines with the backup singers. But remember, the judges are trying to sabotage Haley like they did Kimberley Locke in Season 2 (anything to protect the Ruben/Clay finale) and Syesha Mercado in Season 7. (Remember when her “producers choice” song was Hit Me Up from “Happy Feet”?) So J.Lo said that Haley had “some good moments” in the song but didn’t think it was wise “when you have James and Scotty out here doing their thing” that she chose to sing a song no one had heard of. (Had you heard the 30 Seconds to Mars song before this show? Or the Montgomery Gentry or Carrie Underwood ones? I hadn’t. What difference does it make? Are the voters so sheep-like they can only vote for performers who sing songs they know? If that’s the case, why have theme weeks at all?) Randy said he didn’t think it was a very good song, and although she “had some nice notes,” he thinks of her as more the Joss Stone type of singer. (Wait, what about Janis Joplin?) Steven said he heard “all of Haley,” and told her she was “one perfect song away from being the American Idol,” but she just had to find it. Haley was really angry during the judges’ criticism, and when Ryan asked her if she regretted choosing the GaGa song, she chose her words carefully, by saying she took a risk. F—king bulls—t, this is.

The contestants’ second songs were from the 1960s or 1970s. (Even Scotty slid under the wire with this one.) James’ choice was Harry Nilsson’s Without You, sung previously by Kelly Clarkson (boy, was her voice hurting that week) and Carly Smithson in Season 7. The song really affected James emotionally because he misses his fiancée and son so much, and rehearsal footage had him crying so hard he stopped singing and sat outside. In typical faux-AI drama, we were led to wonder whether James would be able to pull it together. And…he did. The performance was definitely pitchy in places (dawg), but his emotions were truly captivating, as he broke down at the end. Randy called it “the mark of a truly great performer,” because while “the song wasn’t perfect vocally—it was sharp, flat, whatever in places—it was perfect emotionally.” He then deemed the title James’ to lose. Steven called it “crazy beautiful,” noting that “when you sing as good as you do, you can let a song get the best of you.” J.Lo praised James’ heart and soul, calling him “a true true artist” and saying “he’s amazing, guys.” As much as I love James, I will say that the judges giving him a total vocal pass on this performance—and so many other contestants throughout this season—is indicative of the “everyone should be the American Idol”-style judging I really dislike. That being said, an emotional James revealed that “every week I leave everything on this stage,” and I believe we’re luckier for it.

Here’s a lead-in to a commercial I never thought I’d hear: “Coming up, Jacob takes on Nazareth.” (Silly Jewish boy, I was figuring he would sing a gospel song after that. LOL.)

Jacob apparently came in with ideas for his second song, but Jimmy and Sheryl convinced him to take on Nazareth’s Love Hurts. (Most convincing was the soft, tender way Sheryl sang it a capella, but Jacob clearly didn’t pay attention.) Jacob tore into the song like a lioness after a gazelle—yep, it was that gross—and although he had a few moments, his refrain of “it hurts” couldn’t have been more apt. (The bemused look on Hannibal Lecter’s face led me to hope some fava beans and Chianti might be served after the show, but that’s just wishful thinking, right?) But bad as it is, remember what show we’re watching, people. Steven called himself “a sucker for [Jacob’s] passion,” and although he got “lost in the song” (code for “you f—ked up”), it was “a beautiful thing.” J.Lo discounted his “little bobble in the middle,” because of his ability to bring so many “tricks in the end.” (She said it, not me.) Randy said Jacob might have hit the highest note ever on the show and warned us, “Jacob is back!”

For little Lauren’s old song, she chose the unfamiliar little ditty Unchained Melody, which apparently was her parents’ song. (And you know it was their song because of its popularity in the movie Ghost, because her parents are younger than me, y’all.) As I pondered her rehearsal footage and Sheryl and Jimmy telling us how powerful of a moment Lauren was going to have, I seemed to recall that Lauren sang this song during Hollywood week, thus rendering this entire “Lauren can’t hit high notes” BS scenario moot. Anyway, her rendition was fine, although she was out of breath when going to some of her bigger notes, and I didn’t think she brought anything new to the song. But boo to the judges who gave her no feedback. J.Lo said there was “nothing to judge,” calling it “a beautiful song sung beautifully.” And Steven said she picked “just the right song,” because he could listen to her all night long. (Gross, don’t go there.) So remember: singing a familiar song and bringing nothing special to it > singing a song that no one knows really well. (And people said I’m not good at math.)

Were you wondering what Scotty would sing for this round? Easy peasy: Elvis Presley’s rendition of Always On My Mind, which I remember Anoop Desai singing so well in Season 8. Once again, Sheryl told us what a great career Scotty will have, and she said she can’t wait until he gets to Nashville so she can try to “horn in” on his career. (Naked ambition wins points, Sheryl.) Vocally, he did well, and we got the whole “sensitive Scotty” thing this time, but I felt none of the emotional connection that I do when James sings, and not because Scotty didn’t cry. I just feel like he checks things off—look soulfully into the camera (check), hit low notes (check), point (check). As I’ve said before, I feel like Scotty has already peaked on the show, so unless he pulls out a surprise or two, this is what we’re getting for the next three weeks. J.Lo called him a well-rounded artist and a true performer, and said he could do anything. Randy gave us that special insight into his psyche again, explaining he lives by the philosophies of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “the quietest things make the loudest impression.” (I don’t think anyone would accuse Randy of the latter.) Steven told Scotty that “America loves your voice,” and that because everyone has performed so well, it’s going to be “tough for America to vote.” And then Ryan introduced Scotty’s Puerto Rican grandmother, who just said “He’s my Scotty.” So remember, folks, Scotty = America y Puerto Rico.

For her final performance, Haley chose The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. After Siobhan Magnus’ kickass performance of the song last season, I was psyched for Haley’s rendition, especially after I saw that Kelly Clarkson called it “one of the best performances ever on the show” on Facebook and Twitter. Sheryl Crow had suggested she start singing the song a capella and then have the band come in. It was an absolutely flawless performance. Haley truly proved once again that she belongs on this stage, and has a better voice than Jacob, Scotty and Lauren. I just don’t understand what it is the producers and the judges don’t like about her, because I think she’s worthy of the kind of praise they give the others. The judges gave her a standing ovation. Randy said “The best performance of the night goes to Haley!” Steven praised her “sweet, sour and raspy” rendition, while J.Lo said, “You probably were a little angry at us when you came out, but that song has never been sung like that before.”

Just before my DVR gave out, the judges went into their whole “everyone is so deserving of your votes” charade. Here’s what I think:

Who should be in the bottom two: Jacob and Lauren (sorry)
Who will be in the bottom two: Jacob and Haley, although people may think James is safe given his emotional performance and the judges’ praise

There is no justice in this competition if Jacob doesn’t go home tonight. But then again, remember what show we’re watching. And if Haley does go home, I once again will remind you of the order in which they introduced the top 6 last week—Scotty, Lauren, James, Jacob, Haley and Casey.

I’ll be on the road in Florida tonight so I don’t know if I’ll get to watch the results show in its entirety. How I might live with myself if I miss Lady Antebellum (I love them) and a pre-recorded performance by J.Lo is between my therapist and me.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: "The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips

I don't know if this ever happens to you, but when I love an author, I eagerly anticipate their next book, and often buy it shortly after it is released, because I can't wait to get my hands on it. This was definitely the case with Arthur Phillips, whose book The Song is You was among the best books I read in 2009. But sadly, although I've seen almost nothing but fantastic reviews for his latest book, The Tragedy of Arthur, I was really disappointed by it.

The concept behind the book is really interesting. The narrator is an author named Arthur Phillips. Just before his death, Arthur's father, who made his living as a con artist and forger, gave Arthur what he claimed was a long-lost Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur. His father's dying request was that Arthur do the necessary research to prove that the play was legitimately written by Shakespeare and then ensure its publication, sharing the proceeds with his mother, sister and one of his father's associates. Arthur's twin sister, Dana, and their father shared a lifelong love of Shakespeare, which Arthur felt he needed to compete with; in fact, he became an author to prove to his father he was capable of creating something that caused people to feel things. As the verification of the manuscript continues, Arthur begins to question whether the play is legitimate or his father's last big con, and struggles with what to do, with both the play and his life—and major consequences ensue.

The first half of the novel is supposed to be Arthur's introduction to Random House's version of the play, while the second half is the play itself. While I really liked the concept of the book, Arthur's character is tremendously unlikeable (despite his struggles with his father), and I stopped caring what happened to him. The mess he proceeds to make of his life—and how those around him deal with those mistakes—was probably the most intolerable part of the book, because it felt tremendously false. I felt as if Phillips tried to throw a lot of things into this book; some of it stuck and some of it didn't, at least for me. If you're a Shakespeare fan, there is some really interesting information to be gleaned from the book, and the "Shakespeare play" itself is fascinating. But I guess I'll just wait for Phillips' next book and see if it resonates for me more like his last book than this one.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Justice Has Been Done"...

Unless you've been trapped in a cave in the wilds of Tora Bora for the last 24 hours, you've probably heard the monumental news that Osama bin Laden finally met his end at the hands of US Navy SEALS. While his death doesn't signify the end of the war on terror by any means, bin Laden represented the face of terrorism for so many people for so long. And for those who lost a loved one on 9/11, bin Laden's death brings some closure.

Much like the 9/11 tragedy itself, most people will remember where they were when they first heard the news of bin Laden's demise. Coming so late on a Sunday evening, we were nearly asleep when my friend Dave called. Having been raised in a household where calls after 10:00 pm on a "school night" didn't usually mean good news, so I was a bit anxious when I answered the phone.

He asked if we were watching television, and my first thought was that there had been some type of tragedy, or perhaps even a scandal related to the controversy around President Obama's birth certificate. When he explained that the president was expected to make a major announcement on television any moment, it seemed like we needed to watch, to be a part of whatever history was about to unfold in front of us.

Although the wait for the president—nearly an hour after first turning on the television—seemed interminable and slightly frustrating, it was utterly surreal to hear the news of bin Laden's death from Wolf Blitzer and John King. While, not surprisingly, the newscasters were somewhat prone to hyperbole and factual errors given their being called into work unexpectedly on a Sunday night, it didn't lessen the drama as President Obama strode down the East Room hallway to address the world. He began:

"Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

"It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory—hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

"And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts."
As he outlined the scenario under which bin Laden's whereabouts were determined, then confirmed, and when the president gave the order to capture the terrorist leader, I marveled at the strength of our intelligence community, which was able to keep these developments secret for so long. And more than that, I was grateful for the bravery of those involved in the operation, for being able to kill bin Laden without incurring any American casualties, and I was grateful to all of those who have given their time—and in some cases, their lives—defending the US.

President Obama concluded his speech by saying, "The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place. Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

When Saddam Hussein was captured and ultimately executed, I didn't feel much of anything, mainly because his horrendous crimes were perpetuated on the Iraqis and other people in the Middle East. But having lost friends on 9/11, while this time of celebration is slightly tinged with sorrow, I feel as if in some small way, their deaths have been avenged.

This moment was a long time coming, and while it was President Obama who gave the final order, those in President G.W. Bush's administration did doggedly try for years to capture bin Laden. All should be proud of this accomplishment.

Never forget, we are the land of the free because of the brave.