Sunday, July 31, 2011

Movie Review: "Crazy, Stupid, Love"

When you go to the movies as often as we do, you tend to see the same previews for upcoming films over and over again. In some instances, that fills you with dread—I'll admit that after seeing umpteen previews for Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman's The Change-Up, I have no desire to see the actual movie, since I have a feeling most of the film's best jokes were in the trailer. But over the last few months, I saw preview after preview for Crazy, Stupid, Love, and it made me increasingly excited to see the actual movie, although I worried that all of my anticipation would leave me disappointed.


One night while having dinner at a restaurant, sadsack Cal Weaver (Steve Carell, giving his mopey best) learns that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore, dialing back the free-spiritedness of her performance in The Kids Are Alright), slept with a coworker and wants a divorce. He is completely cut down by this news but does what any good husband would—he quickly moves out and finds a depressing bachelor apartment. He also starts frequenting a trendy bar, loudly lamenting the end of his marriage and his wife's infidelity, and his harangues catch the attention of resident ladies' man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, oozing charm, sex appeal and a little bit of sleaze), who takes pity on Cal and agrees to tutor him in the art of love 'em and leave 'em. And in true movie form, a new wardrobe and haircut later, and Cal is ready to start meeting women—with interesting results. Meanwhile, Jacob is entranced by the one woman who seems immune to his charms, brainy-but-sexy lawyer Hannah (the amazing and recently ubiquitous Emma Stone). And to top it off, Cal and Emily's 13-year-old son is infatuated with their 17-year-old babysitter, who has her own infatuation...

It may sound like a lot of plot to wade through, but in the deft hands of co-directors Glen Fiquarra and John Requa, the movie takes shape right away and keeps you involved—and invested—until the end. No character is quite what they seem (except, perhaps, some of the flaky supporting characters), which gives the film a complexity beyond your typical romantic comedy. A somewhat surprising (for me) twist toward the end of the film throws everyone for a loop, and brings out Carell's less sympathetic side, but luckily, it doesn't last long. In the end, even if the ending seems a little neatly tied up, you're left with a terrifically well-acted, well-paced movie, definitely one of the best I've seen so far this year.

Book Review: "The Blade Itself" by Marcus Sakey

I had never heard of Marcus Sakey or read any of his books, but one day I saw an advertisement promoting his latest book on my Facebook page. Having just breathlessly finished his first book, The Blade Itself, I'd like to thank the somewhat intrusive mechanisms of Facebook that place certain ads on your pages based on things you say you "like" or things you type, because Marcus Sakey is an author worth reading.

Danny Carter and Evan McGann were best friends, growing up together in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, moving from mischief to petty crimes to more serious robberies and thefts. One night, a pawnshop robbery goes awry. Danny escapes, but Evan gets caught and sent to prison, although he does not give Danny up. Years later, Danny has built a brand new life, with a solid career and a serious relationship with his longtime girlfriend, when Evan returns. He hasn't forgotten that Danny walked away from the pawnshop and left him to deal with the consequences himself, and he wants some payback. So Danny is faced with the ultimate dilemma: do you honor your debts and risk everything you've built your life on, or walk away and face the same risks?

You may think you've seen this story before, but in Marcus Sakey's hands, the plot is fresh, the characters are complex and the action crackles. I had a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach from the moment I started reading the book until I raced through the last page, because I knew something bad was going to happen (it was the literary equivalent of watching a movie with your hands nearly covering your eyes), but even if some things weren't surprising, the whole story was really exciting. If you like action/thriller-type novels, pick up The Blade Itself, and you won't be disappointed, except when it's done. I know I'll be downloading some more of Sakey's books really soon!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

There'll Be Sad Scenes (To Make You Cry)...

According to a recent article on, the 1979 remake of The Champ, which starred Ricky Schroder, Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, may include the saddest scene in movie history. At least in the world of science.

Despite its critical drubbing, the final scene of The Champ has become a must-see in psychology laboratories around the world when scientists want to make people sad. It has been used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people (they aren’t). It has helped determine whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad (they are) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (older people did report more sadness when they watched the scene).

I saw The Champ in February of 1983. While it may seem odd that I remember that exactly, my parents rented the video (remember video stores?) for me when I was home sick that weekend. I remember crying really hard during that last scene. And then the next day, my grandfather died, so this movie has always been surrounded by an aura of extreme sadness for me.

Inspired by a blog post on, I started thinking about what movies truly make me cry. Of course, being an utter emotional cripple most of the time, it might have been easier to make a list of those movies that don't make me cry.

Particular movies that stand out in my head as real tearjerkers: Brian's Song, Running on Empty, Field of Dreams (the scene where Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad gets me every single time), Big Fish, Super 8, Longtime Companion, A Single Man and Four Weddings and a Funeral (my heart melts every time John Hannah recites Auden's Funeral Blues). And that's just a small number of movies that make me cry. I steered clear of most of the obvious tearjerkers.

Never one to suffer in silence, I posed the question "Which movies make you cry?" to my Facebook friends. The answers I received included: Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, Testament, Running on Empty, My Sister's Keeper, Man on Fire, Star Wars (apparently when the Death Star blows up it provokes strong sadness), Ghost, Somewhere in Time, My Life, Steel Magnolias, My Girl, Sophie's Choice, The Notebook, Father of the Bride, E.T., Beaches, Without a Trace and Invictus.

So, what about you?

What movie(s) choke you up? I know I'm missing some, because everything makes me cry, even the Folgers' coffee commercial where the son comes home from the army in time for Christmas.

I'll be interested in your feedback...

Book Review: "Orientation and Other Stories" by Daniel Orozco

Two police officers who find themselves falling in love, documented in the pages of a police blotter. A group of bridge painters. A temporary worker who moves from long-term assignment to long-term assignment. An exiled dictator. A morbidly obese, housebound man. The characters that populate Daniel Orozco's great story collection, Orientation and Other Stories, aren't the usual characters around whom stories are based. And that makes each one all the more interesting and captivating.

I really enjoyed the majority of the stories in this collection. Orozco has a tremendously engaging style that pulls you in pretty quickly, and even if you cannot identify with the situations the characters find themselves within, you definitely want to see what transpires. The opening story, "Orientation," in which a new employee is given a tour of the office that includes far more information than where the copier is and whether personal phone calls are allowed, shows off Orozco's humor and lets you know fairly quickly that all will not be normal in his stories. My favorites included "Only Connect," in which a random invitation to a colleague's party has a ripple effect on a number of lives; "Officers Weep," which follows the budding relationship between two police officers, as chronicled in entries in the police blotter; "I Run Every Day," in which the narrator gets pushed too far by his coworkers' taunting; and "Temporary Stories," which follows a temporary worker from assignment to assignment and explores the relationships she forms—or avoids.

Orozco's voice is quirky yet insightful and deep, and I really enjoyed this collection a great deal, although not every story resonated for me. I find myself still thinking about some of the characters, and it would be interesting if Orozco expanded many of these stories into longer-length pieces. I definitely recommend this collection if you like stories with slightly off-center characters, or if you're a fan of great writing. You won't go wrong.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: "Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta's third novel is a sometimes moving, poetic story about family, fame, memory, fear of loss and obsession—and how each can take their toll on life.

Nik Worth, born Nicholas Kranis, was a musician on the fringes of celebrity in the late 1970s. After his period of minor fame passed, he continued making music under the guise of several fictional bands (and record labels)—and obsessively building a fictional chronicle of his career, authoring myriad reviews, fan magazine interviews, news articles and other memorabilia. While this expansive fantasy world Nik has created troubles Denise, his younger sister, she has issues of her own. In caring for their mother, who is in the early stages of dementia, Denise is convinced she is losing her own mind, and worries she will have no one to take care of her. And to top that off, Denise gets fixated on tragedies reported in the media, from childhood abductions, hostage crises, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, etc. When Denise's daughter, Ada, decides to make a documentary about Nik's life and art, it opens everyone up to anxiety about truth, art, fact and fiction, and Denise realizes for the first time that everything isn't headed in the right direction.

I love books that explore the creative process, especially in the music world, and Stone Arabia is a really compelling look at the obsession with art, creativity and fame. When the book explores Nik and Denise's relationship, the book is at its strongest, because so many of us can identify with the way people slip into the same roles when dealing with their loved ones. This is a fascinating and heartbreaking story, but pieces of the story—particularly a strange road trip Denise takes near the end of the book—don't ring as true as others. In the end, Spiotta is a terrific storyteller, and I found myself hooked from start to finish.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Movie Review: "Midnight in Paris"

It's been a few years since I've seen one of Woody Allen's movies (the last one I saw was 2008's delightfully zany Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and I'm pleased that my return to his films, Midnight in Paris, was so amusing, thought provoking and well written.

Hollywood writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson embodies Woody's alter ego this go-round) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), are tagging along on her parents' trip to Paris. Gil is reasonably unsettled about the future—he'd like to avoid returning to Hollywood and having to write or rewrite scripts, in favor of settling in Paris and writing a novel, desires Inez most passionately does not share. Running into old friends Paul (a merrily pompous Michael Sheen) and Carol (Broadway actress Nina Arianda) puts the couple's relationship further on edge, as Inez wants to spend all of her time with them (especially Paul, on whom she had a crush in college), while Gil would rather wander the streets of Paris, drink in the charm of the city and imagine what it would have been like to experience the City of Lights in the 1920s.

And then one night he magically finds himself in the nostalgic time he longs for, sharing drinks and philosophies with Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali and others. The contrast between the joy he feels in the past and the dissatisfaction he feels in the present isn't lost on him, especially when he meets Picasso's beautiful mistress/muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who actually longs to live in the Paris of the 1890s, the "belle epoque." But the longer he spends in the time he has romanticized, the more he realizes what he most needs and wants in his "real life."

I've always been transfixed by books and movies that somehow juxtapose reality with fantasy, which is one of the reasons Midnight in Paris appealed to me so much. I thought Allen's dialogue was pitch-perfect in many scenes, as Gil and his compatriots explored the ideals of love, creativity, passion and inspiration, and I enjoyed Gil's struggles between present and past. While McAdams' character was so unappealing you wondered what exactly Gil saw in her, I found the acting on the whole quite strong, with the actors tearing into their roles with great gusto (especially those playing the famous writers and artists). Allen's movies are always heavy on dialogue, so that may not appeal to everyone, but I highly recommend it. It made me think, it made me laugh and it made me smile a little wistfully when it was over.

Gone to Black...

"If there's a rock and roll heaven, well you know they've got a hell of a band."

In the mid-1970s, The Righteous Brothers recorded Rock and Roll Heaven, a tribute to musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, Bobby Darin and Otis Redding, who died too soon. It was updated in early 1991 to include Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Dennis Wilson, John Lennon, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Cass Elliot, who died a few months after the original version of the song was released.

With the untimely, yet sadly not unexpected, death today Amy Winehouse today, the song could stand another round of updates. Winehouse, who had long struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues, was found dead in her London flat. She was 27 years old.

Eerily, Winehouse now joins "the 27 club"—along with Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Kurt Cobain, all who died at age 27. Like those who preceded her in tragic death, Winehouse was an exceptional talent who could not escape the dangerously magnetic pull of drugs. While she certainly was more than aware of her struggles, chronicling them in her hit Rehab, her life seemed destined to end in the tragic way it did.

She won five Grammy Awards in 2008, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, yet her career was marked more by public breakdowns, canceling performances due to "illness" and, most recently, being booed off a stage in Belgrade while visibly high and forgetting the lyrics to one of her songs.

I've been taken in by Winehouse's talent from day one, even enjoying her earlier jazz vocal performances, including Moody's Mood for Love. But in addition to her two most notable hits, Rehab and You Know I'm No Good, the songs of hers I seem to play the most are Tears Dry on Their Own, Amy Amy Amy, and the song I've embedded below, the Mark Ronson-fueled Valerie.

RIP, Amy. Hopefully you're in a place where you will no longer struggle with addiction, and more importantly, I hope you get to sing lead sometimes with the amazing all-star band in rock and roll heaven.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Middle of the End?

In a crushing blow to bibliophiles everywhere (not to mention its 10,700 employees), Borders announced earlier this week that it would be closing its remaining 399 stores and going out of business by the end of September. (Earlier this year, Borders declared bankruptcy, closed approximately one-third of its stores and had hoped it would find a buyer to get it out of bankruptcy.)

Borders once operated as many as 1200 stores (some under the Waldenbooks name) and helped pioneer the mega-bookstore concept that was partly responsible for the demise of independent bookstores and smaller chains across the country. But now, with all Borders stores closing, what's left is Barnes & Noble, along with smaller chains like Books-a-Million and a smattering of small bookstores across the country.

For someone like me who would spend every day reading if I could, this is devastating news. Yes, I now have a Kindle, so I don't buy as many books as I used to, but bookstores are like a touchstone for me. As convenient as the Kindle is in terms of reading on the go and especially when traveling (I am a person who used to pack almost as many books as the number of days away), there's nothing like the feel of a book in your hand.

There's nothing quite like the smell that emanates when you crack open a new book.

And bookstores are wonderful simply to wander through aimlessly, as you never know what unknown author or new title you'll stumble upon.

I feel for those who are going to lose their jobs as the Borders stores close. And I feel for those of us for whom a bookstore is an oasis, a launching pad to propel us on our journey into a new book or alongside a new author.

I only hope that Barnes & Noble can hang on, because a world without bookstores isn't one I want to contemplate.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Here's Your Sign...

From Facebook via comes the 14 Most Hilariously Effective Signs Supporting Gay Marriage. Some are funny, some are serious, some are stereotypical, but they're all pretty amusing.

So the next time you see someone protesting equality, grab some oaktag and Mr. Sketch markers, and put together one of these signs:

Book Review: "Blind Sight" by Meg Howrey

If I were to think about the characteristics that best describe the "type" of book I most enjoy, the list would include believable, beautifully drawn characters; a relatable but not necessarily utterly realistic plot; emotional development for the characters and, in turn, for me; and a feeling of slight melancholy once I finish reading, because the book is done. Of course, I've thought about this today because I just finished Meg Howrey's debut novel, Blind Sight, which I can definitely say is my "type" of book. I. Loved. It.

Seventeen-year-old Luke has been surrounded by strong women all his life. Raised by his New Age-y mother, religious grandmother and two quirky half-sisters in an environment of both mysticism and old-fashioned Puritanism, Luke is actually the first male child in many generations of his family, but has never felt he suffered because of this. Near the end of his junior year in high school, he finds out that his father—of whom his mother had never spoken—is a famous television actor in Los Angeles, and Luke goes to spend the summer with him. Luke learns that the glamorous Hollywood life isn't necessarily a satisfying one, but he realizes very quickly that while he never felt the absence of a father before, having his father in his life makes him feel truly grounded in ways he never imagined. And as the bond between Luke and his father deepens, he starts to question the philosophies with which he was raised, and starts to wonder about his place in the future.

Meg Howrey, a former ballet dancer, has an incredible knack for dialogue, both humorous and serious. The relationships she created between all of the characters in the book are so multi-dimensional, and while you may find yourself "rooting" for one character over another, you actually can understand the motivations behind each. Luke was an incredible narrator and I found myself completely engaged in his struggles, particularly with the emotional turmoil he dealt with toward the end of the book. (Interestingly enough, mid-way through each chapter, Howrey switches from first-person to third-person narration.) As I've said in book reviews I've written before, a sign of how much I enjoy a book is when I want to know what happens to the characters after I finish reading. Blind Sight is definitely one of the books I wish could have lasted longer, because I want to know where Luke's story—and that of his family—will go next.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A View of History. Together.

When the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time on July 8, many in the world watched this historic milestone in the space program. But of those viewing this event, it seems as if none has touched our collective hearts like Chris and Kenneth Bray, pictured above.

On April 12, 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia first launched from the Kennedy Space Center, 13-year-old Chris Bray was there to witness the momentous occasion, with his 39-year-old father, Kenneth. And then, last Friday, the Brays were there again, to take, as Chris put it, "The picture we waited 30 years to complete."

Chris Bray told The Washington Post, "We’ve always loved that first photo,” Bray said. “Taking a similar one for the last launch seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate the shuttle program and our relationship by putting the time passed in perspective, celebrating the interests we share, and illustrating the father/son bond we’ve maintained over the years."

What's amazing is that the Brays entered a lottery to purchase tickets to the launch and got passes to the Astronaut Hall of Fame viewing area. Despite a delayed flight from Newark and a lack of rental cars at the Orlando Airport, they made it to the launch site—in a 15-seater van—at 4 am.

How incredible must it have been to share two truly historical moments together, and document them for posterity? There are so many events I wish I had shared with someone special, and been able to capture them on film.

Book Review: "Remembrance of Things I Forgot" by Bob Smith

"It's safe to say your relationship is in trouble if the only way you can imagine solving your problems is by borrowing a time machine."

It's 2006, and comic book dealer John Sherkston has decided to break up with his long-time boyfriend, Taylor. Unfortunately, he chooses to do so on the same day Taylor announces he has finally perfected his design of a time machine he has been building for the US government.

As the result of an encounter with Vice President Cheney, John gets sent back to 1986, where he meets "Junior," his younger self. After an uncomfortable round of flirting, John reveals his identity to Junior, and the two meet up with a younger Taylor to try and right some wrongs—in John's family, in his relationship with Taylor and in the world, as they try to stop George W. Bush from gaining the motivation to run for president. Their journey takes them across the country, and as John reveals what the future holds for Junior and Taylor (both separately and together), he realizes that some things are better to prepare for and some things are better off running their own course. Oh, and they also have to battle two Dick Cheneys at one point. Don't ask.

This book was a terrifically fun (and funny), poignant adventure. Imagine having the power to go back into your past and change an event or two that affected you tremendously. When the book focused on John and Junior's meetings with family, or analyzing where John's relationship with Taylor went wrong, I felt it was at its best, but I felt the entire George W. Bush piece felt a little unfunny. While I understand having a dislike for the Bush/Cheney administration, I felt as if Smith made John's character a little too shrill in those instances. All in all, however, this book touched my heart, made me think and made me laugh. And it's not every book that can do any of those things well, much less all three.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Here's the Story...

Television has lost an icon. Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, died early this morning at age 94.

As a child who grew up with the ability to recognize every episode of The Brady Bunch within seconds of its opening, and who never wondered why the castaways could have so many special guests come and go yet they could never leave the island, it still amazes me that both of these shows were off the air before I really started watching television. Yet Schwartz created, for me and generations of children and adults, two iconic universes.

I was sad when I heard the news of Schwartz's passing, but I was touched when I read Schwartz's farewell letter to his family and fans, A Conversation at the Gates, which The Hollywood Reporter ran posthumously today. It gives one last glimpse into the humor and the heart that made Schwartz's two most famous creations so enduring.

In a Twitter post earlier today, Tina Louise, who played the glamorous Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island, said, "Sherwood Schwartz brought laughter and comfort to millions of people. He will be in our hearts forever."

There's no denying that Sherwood Schwartz gave the world the gift of his talent, which you can still witness daily on a television channel somewhere. And for that, every one of us should be grateful.

Rest in peace.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Kiss of Death?

I saw a commercial the other day for a new television series coming this fall called The Playboy Club, starring Eddie Cibrian. It got me to thinking, that while there's little doubt that Eddie Cibrian is pretty fantastic to look at, either he doesn't seem to last very long on television shows, or the shows themselves don't last long.

In 2010 he joined the cast of CSI: Miami and then, after regular cast member Adam Rodriguez returned to the show, Cibrian's character was killed. He then joined the cast of new series Chase, which was already foundering in the ratings, and it was not renewed for the 2011 season.

In 2005, Cibrian starred in Invasion, a series that followed a Florida town dealing with strange occurrences following a hurricane. The series was not renewed for a second season. Following that, he joined the cast of Vanished, which did not last through the 2006 season.

Cibrian's early career saw some longevity, with him spending a number of years on Third Watch (although he left that show for the short-lived Tilt) and two years on Sunset Beach, as well as more than a year on Baywatch Nights.

I'm not blaming Cibrian for the failure of these shows or his leaving others; I just think he falls into a group of actors who can't seem to find a show that succeeds. Hawaii Five-O's Alex O'Loughlin starred in two other shows before landing his current series. As with anything in Hollywood, it's part luck, and part scheduling.

Time will tell if Cibrian's new series gives him the stability he needs; if not, you know he'll show up on television again shortly thereafter. And that's not a bad thing...

Book Review: "Faithful Place" by Tana French

Tana French has done it again. The author of two critically acclaimed mysteries—In the Woods and The Likeness—French is currently one of my favorite mystery writers, and her latest book, Faithful Place, has made me even more of a fan. She has a tremendous ability to create flawed and complex characters you care about and plot twists you believe even while they surprise you, and it all adds up to a book you can't get out of your mind.

When he was 17 years old, Dublin detective Frank Mackey had planned to escape to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly. Both were looking forward to getting away from their smothering, dysfunctional families and the violence and gossip of Faithful Place, their neighborhood. But Rosie never showed up the night they were supposed to leave, so Frank took that to mean she left without him, and he made his own escape. Twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase is found behind the fireplace of a dilapidated apartment building in their neighborhood, and new questions about what happened that night begin to surface. Frank's return to the neighborhood and the family he left behind all those years ago isn't a smooth one, and it unearths old secrets, old anger and old pain, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

French gripped me at the very start of this book and didn't let go until the end. I loved the voices she gave to her characters, fleshing them out so that even if you think you've seen one or two of them before, you haven't. The Mackey family dysfunction runs so deep and is so all-consuming that it could be a novel unto itself (especially with the ramifications of what happens in this book), and everyone has their own issues. You definitely should read this and French's other books to see how good mysteries can be interwoven with great storytelling. I can't wait for her next book.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Marking a Happy Milestone...

Today is my Grandma Anne's 89th birthday. Since all of my other grandparents have passed away (some when I was much younger), I feel tremendously fortunate that (knock on wood) I still have her in my life. She is still quite active, enjoying trips to Atlantic City with friends, and she spends a great deal of time with my young nephews, who, clearly, don't understand what an amazing privilege it is to have your great-grandmother in your life!

As I've mentioned before, my mother died before I turned two, so when my father decided to remarry, it meant bringing me into another family's life. And while my grandmother reported some initial reluctance to support my mother's marriage to a man with a young son, I'd like to believe she quickly relented when she realized how charming I was!

In all seriousness, my grandmother always reminded me that I was her first love. I remember that in the house she and my grandfather lived in on Long Island when I was younger, there was a photo collage of me along with the poem:
Not flesh of my flesh
Not bone of my bone
But still miraculously my own
Never forget for a single minute
You didn't grow under my heart but in it
Happy birthday, Grandma! I love you with all of my heart and thank you for all of the love and support you've given me through the years.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Don't Want to Rush Life Away...

...but can we skip ahead to the middle of the Fall 2011 television season?

One of the shows slated as a mid-season replacement is Smash, which follows the development of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, through casting, tryouts, production, etc. It focuses on those behind the scenes and, ultimately, the two women vying for the lead role.

I have watched this YouTube clip about 1000 times and each time I am more excited about the prospect. I hope it doesn't disappoint, and I hope it truly does make a star out of Katharine McPhee, as I think she's really talented and beautiful. And besides—the show has Debra Messing, Christian Borle (so good in the Legally Blonde musical) and Anjelica Huston. How could you miss?

Check it out. Does it intrigue you?

Book Review: "The Astral" by Kate Christensen

Is unhappiness a natural part of marriage? How long should you fight for something you want, and if you stop fighting for it, does that mean you no longer want it? Can you love someone even if they're utterly wrong for you? These questions, and many others, are addressed in Kate Christensen's fantastic new novel, The Astral.

Harry Quirk is a poet in his early 50s who had once experienced some acclaim for his work, but his style is now considered outdated. One morning his wife, Luz, a fiercely passionate and paranoid woman, accuses him of having a long-time affair with his oldest friend, Marion, and she throws him out of their Brooklyn apartment, destroying his latest work, love sonnets to imaginary women. No matter what anyone tells Luz, she clings to the idea that Harry has been unfaithful, and reinvents every encounter he had with Marion as proof of his affair. Locked out of his apartment, his work destroyed, Harry briefly stays at a flophouse before moving from place to place, and finds a job at a lumberyard run by Hasidic Jews. As he tries repeatedly to convince an unpersuadable Luz about his innocence, he tries living a normal life, although for Harry, that includes drinking to excess in his neighborhood bar, talking with Marion about why their relationship never moved beyond friendship, and trying to rescue his son, Hector, from the religious cult he has joined, one that believes he is the second coming of the Messiah.

Kate Christensen did a phenomenal job with this book. While I didn't enjoy Luz's character at all and wondered why Harry would fight so hard to keep a marriage that often sounded so challenging, the other characters in this book were so vivid and rich, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Christensen is a terrific writer (although, admittedly, I've never read any of her previous novels) and I found myself really invested in Harry's story. I've said before that a great book is one where you wonder about what happens to the characters once you've finished reading. That was definitely the case with The Astral. It may sneak up on you while you're reading it, but you'll definitely enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If You Like Her Then You Shouldn't Mail a Ring to Her...

Rich people are friggin' crazy. Athletes even more so.

Take Dallas Cowboys' Roy Williams, for example. He's headed to court to try and get back the $76,000 engagement ring he bought his girlfriend, former Miss Texas USA Brooke Daniels. The couple dated for about a year before he proposed—uniquely.

According to the Odessa American, Williams claims he sent $5,000 for school and dental bills, a baseball for Daniels’ brother and — as a surprise — a recorded marriage proposal with the ring through the mail just before Valentine’s Day to Daniels. However, when Daniels declined the proposal, she did not return the ring.

In a signed affidavit, Williams said asked for the ring to be returned until Daniels claimed six weeks later that she had lost it, at which point he reported it lost to his insurance agency. The insurance investigation revealed that Daniels’ father, Michael Daniels, had the ring. He is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Michael Daniels said in a phone interview Tuesday that although he has documentation that Williams initially told his daughter to keep the ring, he will return it to avoid a lawsuit. Daniels didn’t specify when or how the ring would be returned.

Wow, I can't believe Brooke Daniels turned Roy Williams down. I mean, who could resist a recorded proposal sent through the mail with money for your family?

Did she turn down his proposal via Twitter or Facebook?

Maybe It's Just Me...

Maybe it's just me, but of the two movies about casual sex between friends that Hollywood has produced this year (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman's No Strings Attached was released this spring; Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis' Friends with Benefits opens later this summer), I think the Timberlake/Kunis romp seems a little funnier (and maybe even a little hotter).

I'm no JT groupie, but maybe I'm still loving the naughty Mila Kunis more than the White Swan herself, Natalie Portman. (Ok, maybe I'm a little bit of a JT groupie. And maybe I'm still bitter that Natalie won the Oscar this year. Don't judge.)

Watch and see for yourself...

Answers to Questions We May Never Find...

In a verdict that rippled with the same level of shock as the decision in the initial OJ Simpson case, Casey Anthony was acquitted yesterday of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee three years ago. (Given the traffic the verdict received on Facebook yesterday, I can only imagine what the hours and days following the OJ verdict would have been like if social media were around then.)

The jury returned their decision after less than 11 hours of deliberation over two days. While there are many people—including some legal experts—who feel the jury made the right decision given the evidence the prosecution presented, most feel that the tragic end of Caylee's all-too-short life deserves some justice.

Casey Anthony lied to police, even partied and got a tattoo during the month Caylee was missing. She invented an imaginary nanny, whom she claimed Caylee was with, created a fictitious wealthy boyfriend, and even claimed that she and Caylee had been visiting the imaginary nanny after she was injured in an out-of-town car crash. And yet because the burden of proof remained with the prosecution, the defense's only task was to raise one iota of doubt with one juror to successfully protect their client.

While Anthony was convicted of lying, it is expected that she will be released from jail shortly given the time she has served. And while undoubtedly she will have the opportunity to tearfully tell her side of the story to every media outlet, perhaps "write" a book about her ordeal and even authorize the TV movie about the case, there are many questions for which we may never get answers.

What really did happen with Caylee?

Was her death an accidental drowning as the defense suggested, or did the chloroform and duct tape play a role?

What role did Casey's father really play in all of this?

Is Casey simply a sociopath who was able to party while her child was missing, or were her actions those of a highly stressed young woman trying to cope with unbelievable angst and sadness?

In the end, while Casey gets the chance to live her life freely, Caylee is dead. It doesn't matter who killed her or how she died, but clearly her life was not the beautiful one which all children should be entitled to.

And that is the saddest part of all. One can only hope that Casey has the sense to refrain from having another child, who might eventually inconvenience her life much as Caylee did.

Justice was served. Unfortunately, our legal system worked on the wrong person's behalf.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Your Children are Adorable...When They Behave!

I've made no secret about the fact that, quite often, people drive me crazy. It doesn't matter if it's people's selfishness while standing in line or driving, or their thinking it's adorable when they let their child "pay" at the store or steer the grocery cart. But what frustrates me more than anything is when parents allow their child to run rampant, screaming at them and others, not behaving or understanding boundaries of any kind.

That being said, I absolutely loved LZ Granderson's article on CNN's web site, Permissive parents: curb your brats. It was almost like Granderson has been sitting in my head all of these years! I mean, how can you not love an article that starts:
"If you're the kind of parent who allows your 5-year-old to run rampant in public places like restaurants, I have what could be some rather disturbing news for you.

"I do not love your child.

"The rest of the country does not love your child either.

"And the reason why we're staring at you every other bite is not because we're acknowledging some sort of mutual understanding that kids will be kids but rather we want to kill you for letting your brat ruin our dinner."
Yes, I understand that parenting is difficult, and you cannot have control over whether your child acts up in a public place, or is tired, hungry or needs their diaper changed. What you can do, however, is not bring your child into situations where their unruly behavior can be disruptive to others—like a restaurant, a movie (especially an R-rated movie your small child shouldn't be sitting in anyway) or sporting event. If you can't find a babysitter, don't turn a public place into your child's playroom.

Of course, as I joked with friends earlier, if people were to change their behavior in this regard, half of my Facebook status updates would no longer be valid.

Seriously, it may take a village to raise a child, but the whole village doesn't have to watch your child misbehave.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Let's Go "Fourth" to Celebrate...

The United States celebrates its 235th birthday today. (I swear, it doesn't look a day over 200...)

Much like many holidays built around an historic anniversary or milestone, most people will observe Independence Day by eating and drinking (many to excess), partaking in holiday sales, seeing a summer movie and, of course, setting off fireworks for hours. I mean no judgment from my last sentence: I'll admit I don't take the time to reflect on what this holiday means either.

Here's another confession: I'm proud to be an American and I'm proud of (much of) the history of this country, but I don't consider myself patriotic. Sadly, following the period of unity after the 9/11 tragedy, conservative Americans—and, in particular, conservative politicians—appropriated patriotism for themselves, deeming only those who thought they way they did, those who shared their political and moral beliefs to be true patriots. That's certainly not the spirit on which this country was built.

My other issue is that currently, I am considered half a person in this country. Except in six states and the District of Columbia, I cannot marry the person I love because other citizens (many of whom consider themselves the "true patriots") don't believe same-sex couples are worthy of the same rights many of them take for granted and/or abuse.

In some states, I would not be able to stay in the same room as my partner if he were hospitalized, and I could not make medical decisions on his behalf. We cannot adopt a child together in many states, and in all but four states, if we were to decide to hire a surrogate to carry our child, the surrogate mother's name would have to be on the child's birth certificate, so she would have legal rights to reclaim the baby if she so chose.

I am hopeful that the tide will change, but given the strength of the conservative and Tea Party movements, I am pessimistic as well. So I will mark this holiday by celebrating the birth of our country and being grateful for the freedoms all of us have, while still hoping that there will come a time when truly all people will be created and treated equally.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie Review: More Than "Beginners'" Luck...

Summer movies tend to blow you away with their special effects and their fantastical imagery. I've seen several "big" movies already this summer and eagerly await a few more before the season has ended.

What's great, however, is that I've also had the opportunity to see some smaller independent films which have blown me away in a completely different manner. Movies like Win Win and The Adjustment Bureau made me think and even packed an emotional punch.

The movie I saw earlier today, Beginners, possessed some terrific power of its own.

Ewan MacGregor, in one of his strongest performances ever, plays Oliver, a 30-something artist who drifts from relationship to relationship, more because he is afraid of them not working out than anything else. Shortly after his mother passes away, Oliver's father, Hal (a marvelous Christopher Plummer), comes out of the closet and decides to pursue a relationship with another man. While this surprises Oliver he remembers the struggles his parents had, and it seems a bit clearer. Oliver is tremendously supportive of Hal's relationship with physical trainer Andy (Goran Visnijc) and all of the changes he makes to his life. Shortly after—no spoiler here—Hal's death from cancer, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress, and he tries to find the type of love his father finally found late in life.

This movie lays out its story in a non-linear way, flashing back and forth from Oliver's childhood to the present to key events in his relationship with his father. It is a story about the need to love and be loved, and the fear of failure in achieving those things. MacGregor's performance is a quiet one but it is tremendously affecting, and his interactions with Laurent and Plummer are both tinged with different types of emotional resonance.

I thought this was a fantastic movie, one which examines the power in the smaller moments of our lives. I hope it's a movie we hear about again come Oscar time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: "Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

I've read a great deal of so-called young adult (YA) fiction over the last few years, and as I've remarked previously, a great deal of it deals with dystopian visions of the future, or relationships with vampires, werewolves, zombies or other demon hunters. While Jay Asher's excellent Thirteen Reasons Why takes place in the present day, it also paints a bleak yet hopeful picture, but from a completely different perspective.

Clay Jensen is a studious and well-liked high school student, who returns home one day to find a shoebox of cassette tapes on his doorstep, mailed with no return address. As he starts listening to the first tape, he discovers they were recorded by his classmate (on whom he had a crush), Hannah Baker, who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On the tapes, Hannah gives 13 reasons why she took her life, reasons she attributes to 13 different people, and she explains each in detail. Clay doesn't understand why he is on this list, and he is tremendously affected by what Hannah has to say, and by the actions that drove her to suicide.

This is a beautifully written and emotionally powerful book, which thankfully has proven popular among middle school and high school students, as I believe it sends some very important messages about suicide without being heavy-handed or preachy. You never know how your actions, which may seem utterly harmless, may affect another. While at times I felt somewhat frustrated by Hannah's anger, I realized that when a person is driven to suicide, they are not thinking rationally, and aren't willing to let people in to help them. This book is a bit depressing given the subject matter, but it also sounds a hopeful tone near the end, one which I hope all readers hear. A quick and affecting read, but not a light one.