Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: "Everything Beautiful Began After" by Simon Van Booy

I fell in love with Simon Van Booy's mesmerizing short story collection, Love Begins in Winter, when I read it in 2009, and it was among my favorite books of that year. His first novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, approaches love and relationships in a wholly different way, and although it didn't resonate with me as much as his short story collection, Van Booy's writing continues to transfix me.

Rebecca is a former flight attendant and an aspiring artist on the run from life. George is a loner and student of foreign languages who spends most of his days drunk and wishing for companionship. Henry is an archaeologist who has never allowed himself to get completely close to someone because of a tragedy that happened in his childhood. The three young people meet in Athens one summer, and their encounters with each other change their lives profoundly. This is a story about the peculiarities of friendship, the beauty of love, the overwhelming paralysis that accompanies grief and fear, and finding the courage to embark on a new start.

This book was beautifully written and tremendously compelling, yet I didn't feel as much of an emotional connection with the book in its entirety. Each of the characters were complex in their own way, but despite the range of emotions and events that affected each, I never quite warmed to them, and I found the crisis that one character went through toward the end of the book to be a bit excessive. But Van Booy's storytelling ability kept me reading because I was blown away by his use of language. I definitely liked this book, but didn't quite love it as much as I hoped I would. It's worth a read, but read Love Begins in Winter first.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Bother With Modifiers?

Enough said.

Customer Disservice...

When I was in college I managed a bookstore. There were few better jobs for a bibliophile like me—we were able to borrow books, the longer I worked there I started having regular customers ask me for recommendations on what to read, and I had the opportunity to talk about books all day long. (Plus, I could wear jeans every day, and the store hours were pretty accommodating to someone going to school full-time.)

These were the days before the "super stores" came to the DC area, so we didn't have to worry about clients going to Borders or Barnes & Noble, and ours wasn't a store built for congregating or reading—you browsed, found a book, paid, and left. (The one exception to that rule was during lunchtime, when the government workers would stand in the magazine section hiding their copies of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler in legitimate magazines.)

For years after I graduated from college and held numerous stress-laden "real jobs," I used to dream of one day working at a bookstore again. Little did I realize that the advent of the bookstore-as-library concept championed by Barnes & Noble and Borders, coupled with the growing selfishness and entitlement of customers, would shake me from my idyllic thoughts.

When I decided to concentrate on being a personal chef full-time in 2004-05, I took a job at a local Barnes & Noble in order to have a regular income and health insurance. I learned fairly quickly that this wasn't the perfect job it once was—book displays were determined by corporate, so there was little creativity involved; my knowledge of books wasn't prized by our store manager, so I spent a great deal of time shelving maps and travel books, or magazines, instead of working with "real" books; and I often found myself supporting the nearly-always-shorthanded café staff, making lattes, serving cheesecake and mopping floors.

Oh, and the customers truly sucked the joy from the job. People would come into the store, grab a gigantic stack of books or magazines, read them in the café, at tables throughout the store, or even on the floor, and then leave them there. I literally would put the same magazines away time and time and time again. (My tenure at the store was during the whole Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston/Angelina Jolie scandal as well as the breakup of Britney Spears' and Jessica Simpson's marriages, so I grew quickly tired of their faces on the cover of every magazine.) Customers felt entitled to leave stuff wherever they wanted; they'd set up their laptops in the middle of an aisle, and allow their kids to roam free and pull stuff off the shelves. (Anyone assigned to straighten the kids' area at the end of the night would want to cry nearly as much as the person in charge of the newsstand.)

Not that the job was all torture, mind you. Apart from those people who never wanted to do anything or didn't show up for their shifts, I worked with a really fun group of people, many of whom read books and loved talking about them. And there was many a time where a group of us were laughing hysterically at one thing or another, usually the behavior of customers.

So it was with great fondness when I saw the list of bookseller grievances that came from Borders' employees as their stores closed. While some of these may seem petty to those who never worked in a bookstore, many of these hit the spot, and my memory bank. (When people would call the store and say, "I wanted to know if you had a book," my sarcastic reply after the call was ended was, "Oh, we're fresh out of books, but we can sell you a lovely calendar.") And more than one person asked for "the book by that guy," "the book with the blue cover that was on that table last week," or "the one they talked about on the internet last night."

Here's the list:

++ We hate when a book becomes popular simply because it was turned into a movie.

++ It confused us when we were asked where the non-fiction section is.

++ Nicholas Sparks is not a good writer … if you like him, fine, but facts are facts.

++ We greatly dislike the phrase "Quick question." It’s never true. And everyone seems to have one.

++ Your summer reading list was our summer reading NIGHTMARE. Also, it’s called summer reading, not three days before school starts reading.

++ It’s true that we lean to the left and think Glenn Beck is an idiot.

++ We always knew when you were intently reading Better Homes and Gardens, it was really a hidden Playboy.

++ Most of the time when you returned books you read them already — and we were onto you.

++ "Limit one coupon" did not mean one for every member of your family — this angered us. Also, we did know what coupons were in distribution that week.

++ It never bothered us when you threatened to shop at Barnes & Noble. We’d rather you do if you’re putting up a stink.

++ "I was just here last week and saw this book there" meant nothing to us. The store changed once a week.

++ When you walked in and immediately said, "I’m looking for a book," what you really meant to say is, "I would like you to find me a book." You never looked. It’s fine, it’s our job — but let’s be correct about what’s really happening here.

++ If you don’t know the author, title, or genre, but you do know the color of the cover, we don’t either. How it was our fault that we couldn’t find it we’ll never understand.

++ We were never a daycare. Letting your children run free and destroy our section destroyed a piece of our souls.

++ Oprah was not the "final say" on what is awesome. We really didn’t care what was on her show or what her latest book club book was. Really.

++ When you returned your SAT books, we knew you used them. We thought it wasn’t fair — seeing that we are not a library.

Believe me, I don't excuse those in customer service who are rude, but I will say that working at a bookstore these days was a brutal job, only as far as dealing with the public. But it was fun...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Despicable We...

I know we are a society built on the freedom to express your opinions, and it is often the difference of opinion that leads to progress. But lately I have been appalled at the growing lack of respect and civility that characterizes our country, and worry about what the future holds based on the behaviors that I've seen, from our elected officials, "regular" citizens, and our youth.

Much news coverage has been devoted to recent incidents at the Republican presidential candidate debates over the last several weeks, including one audience cheering about uninsured people dying and another booing a gay soldier. While many of the Republican candidates have been forced into condemning these behaviors, it is clear from their tepid reactions they saw little wrong with what happened.

But even more appalling than the growing disrespect those in the political arena show each other and the citizens of our country is a recent incident that took place in a suburb of Buffalo. As I wrote last week, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide after years of being bullied for being gay. His suicide came even after he recorded an "It Gets Better" video to try and rally others who felt as he did.

At a homecoming dance Jamey's sister attended shortly after her brother's death, some of his anti-gay schoolmates mocked and cheered his suicide.

Jamey's mother said, "She was having a great time, and all of a sudden a Lady Gaga song came on, and they all started chanting for Jamey, all of his friends. Then the bullies that put him into this situation started chanting, ‘You’re better off dead!’ and ‘We’re glad you’re dead!’ and things like that."

In an interview with Anderson Cooper last night, Alyssa Rodemeyer talked about the incident at the homecoming dance. She said, "The bullies ran from the dance when they realized they were going to get in trouble."

To date, school officials have done nothing. And you know they were there to watch the jeering, so they were aware of at least some of those involved.

Too many teachers, coaches, and other school administrators have stood idly by when children are bullied, especially because they are gay or perceived to be gay. It's not enough that no intervention occurred in all the years Jamey was bullied in school, but again, they refused to intervene while these same bullies jeered his suicide.

Who puts these ideas in these children's minds? Who tells them to think that it's not only right to undermine a person's self-worth until the point he sees no other option but suicide, but then applaud the decision?

This is so, so wrong. I shudder to think how many more lives will be irreparably damaged or lost because of disrespectful, disgusting behavior on the part of children and adults.

We can do better. Why don't we?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book Review: "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

Magical. Incredibly compelling. Romantic. Boy, I loved this book.

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel follows the magical Cirque des RĂªves, a circus full of dazzling and fantastical amazements. Marco and Celia, two brilliant magicians, are locked in a competition that neither of them understand, and that only one of them can survive. They use the circus as the epicenter of this competition, creating spectacles more incredible than the next. And as the two fall deeper in love, they learn just how enmeshed with the circus their lives are—and how the lives of all of those involved will be affected by whatever decisions they make regarding their future.

I thought this was a terrific book. I was completely taken with Morgenstern's creation of the circus and all of the people involved, both behind the scenes and within it. And this is a circus like no other. Don't think this is a story about clowns and lion tamers and trapeze artists—this is a story with a strong emphasis on magic and illusion and manipulation of reality. I fell in love with the characters and was truly disappointed when I was finished, although I couldn't help but race through the story. I'm sure this will be made into a movie at some point, but I'd encourage you to read the book first. If you enjoy these types of stories, you'll fall in love with the book just like I did.

Friday, September 23, 2011

If it Gets Better, Why Does it Keep Getting Worse?

This occurred earlier this week but I didn't have time to post about it until now.

My heart is breaking over last weekend's suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay teen from the Buffalo area. He took his life shortly after returning from a family camping trip, and his suicide is attributed to years of bullying because of his sexuality.

"I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens," he wrote on his blog September 9. "What do I have to do so people will listen to me?"

In the months prior, he routinely blogged about school bullying and thoughts of suicide in between upbeat posts about his pop star idol Lady Gaga and the ordinary types of teen rants typical for kids his age.

To demonstrate the amazing beauty of Jamey's spirit, even as he battled bullying in his own life, in May he recorded a video for the It Gets Better Project, to try and encourage other teens struggling that life was still worth living. It just kills me to watch this video.

I know that for every suicide that finds its way into the public eye, there are a dozen children who commit suicide every day because they are bullied for being different, even when they themselves might not really know what their differences are. And I continue to be frightened by the conservative turn our society seems to be taking, especially when it comes to the way people are treated relative to their sexuality, or what is perceived to be their sexuality.

But regardless of your views, it is not okay for a teenager or preteen or anyone to take their own life because they feel they have nowhere else to turn. And it is not okay for them to be abused, physically or emotionally, because of their differences.

Why can't we teach our children this lesson? How hard is it to get teachers and school administrators to recognize what is going on in front of their faces and take action? Ignoring it makes the problem worse; it does not make it go away.

Let's try not to lose another Jamey Rodemeyer. Can't we allow these kids to live their lives so in turn they can grow up to be adults with full, loving hearts?

We can't waste another minute. My heart goes out to Jamey's family and friends, and all I can say is, rest in peace, Jamey Rodemeyer. You left this world a little more compassionate than it was to you, and for that, all of us should truly be grateful.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Sad Goodbye...

"Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again."

—Billy Joel

One of the worst things about growing older is losing those you love and having to say goodbye to them, often unexpectedly. (A friend of mine from high school recently said, "The only time being a grown-up pays off is when I want an extra cookie, watch a dirty movie without fear of getting caught, or get a drink.")

Today we said goodbye to my great-aunt Eileen, who passed away Tuesday night at after suffering a massive stroke following heart surgery last week. She was 85 years old.

Aunt Eileen was an absolutely terrific person, who never stopped living life to its fullest every day. As many of her generation, she was never shy about sharing her opinions and telling you exactly how she felt, but she was also never shy about sharing her love and her heart with those she cared about. For as long as I can remember, she was a tremendously warm and welcoming person, and always made W feel like he truly was a part of our family when she saw him.

She taught school for more than 30 years on Long Island, and loved to talk about books and other intellectual pursuits with me. I remember as a child, she would always give me workbooks and other study materials she thought would be helpful, and was always happy to talk things through. She believed you should never stop learning, and took classes and attended workshops throughout her life.

Her greatest love, of course, was her family. My uncle Jack died approximately 20 years ago, but she never let widowhood stop her. She had four terrific children—Allyn, Larry, Roberta, and Cindy—whom she loved as fiercely as she did all of her grandchildren—Bobby, Philip, Ian, Barbara, Debbie, Ross, and Cole. And she was over the moon with her nearly two-year-old great-grandson, Jackson.

But her love and her generosity of spirit didn't just stop with her immediate family. I remember she sent me a card when I had my gall bladder removed in the late 1990s, and also sent a card and checked on me when I started chemotherapy for cancer in late 2002. She was always happy when any family came together, whether for a special occasion or just an everyday encounter.

I was lucky to see my aunt in July when we celebrated my grandmother's 89th birthday. She was completely happy, healthy, funny, and opinionated as always. It's the perfect way to remember her.

Rest in peace, Aunt Eileen. Thank you for your love, your spirit, your intelligence, and for being you. I will miss you with all of my heart.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: "The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

Most of Tom Perrotta's novels have been wry examinations of society and its foibles. Election, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher each did a terrific job in chronicling the positives and negatives of human behavior. His characters aren't always sympathetic, their motivations aren't always understandable, but his books always make you think.

With his newest novel, The Leftovers, Perrotta ponders an interesting question: what if the Rapture happened, but not all of the religiously devout were taken, but instead, a random, unexplainable group of people disappeared? How would the rest of the world cope? How would a person deal with the disappearance of a spouse, children, or parents? These are the issues that the citizens of Mapleton, a small midwestern town, are confronted with when an event called the "Sudden Departure" affects the world. No one—not even religious leaders—can explain who was chosen and why, and no one can help those left behind to try and get on with their lives. Kevin Garvey, the mayor of Mapleton, lost none of his family to the Sudden Departure directly, but his family has fallen apart in the wake of the event. His wife, Laurie, joined a cult of survivors called the Guilty Remnant; his daughter, Jill, has started failing out of school and become promiscuous; and his son, Tom, dropped out of college to follow a questionable prophet named Holy Wayne. As Kevin tries to help the people of his town rebuild their lives, he embarks on a relationship with Nora Durst, whose husband and children were lost to the Departure.

I always marvel at Perrotta's storytelling ability and the way he thinks things through. He did a great job creating a post-Rapture world without actually having you experience what happened that day, so much like the characters themselves, you don't really know what happened to those who disappeared. When I finished the book, I found myself frustrated that not one character's situation was resolved, but then I realized that this must be a metaphor for how the world felt after the Sudden Departure. (It's still frustrating to me, though, that no narrative threads were wrapped up. I like some ambiguity, but this was tough.) In the end, though, this is a well-written and tremendously captivating book, and I'm so glad Perrotta is still in fine writing form.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Great TV Musical Moments, Part 2...

This one you probably didn't see.

Sir Elton John was among those celebrated at the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors. During the ceremony, each honoree is recognized by those they are close to or those who admire them, and these recognitions often result in memorable moments, musical or otherwise.

During the tribute to Elton, Heather Headley, who won a Tony in 2000 for playing the lead role in his musical Aida, performed Your Song. Other than Elton's performances of this song, this may be one of the most incredible versions of the song I've ever heard.

As you watch Headley's performance, you'll see Elton fighting back tears as well as the admiration of fellow honoree Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening, and the emotional reaction of the entire Kennedy Center audience. This is one of those performances my brother texted me about and said, "You better watch this one."

You better watch this one.

Great TV Musical Moments, Part 1...

This performance came up on my iPod on the way to work this morning, and I remembered how amazing it was to watch.

At the 2005 Grammy Awards, as a tribute to Janis Joplin, Joss Stone and Melissa Etheridge (returning to the stage for the first time since being treated for breast cancer) performed a medley of Cry Baby and Piece of My Heart.

While the former song suited Stone's soulful style well, Etheridge truly shone on the latter song. Head shaved (coping with the effects of chemotherapy), voice raspier than usual, she gave what she later said was every ounce of energy she had into that performance. And the primal scream she gave toward the end of of the song felt truly symbolic of her howling anger at the disease. (When she re-recorded the song for her greatest hits album a few months later, although she kept the scream in, it didn't seem as passionate nor as raw.)

If you missed it or don't remember it, check it out.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Feeding My Ryan Gosling Addiction...

My name is Larry and I am becoming increasingly more addicted to Ryan Gosling.

We saw Gosling's terrifically cool (and seriously violent) Drive over the weekend. I was mesmerized by director Nicolas Winding Refn's ultra-stylized homage to 80s movies, particularly in the opening sequences, but more than that, I was really taken in by yet another of Gosling's fantastic performances.

Gosling plays a movie stunt driver and garage mechanic by day who lends his services as a getaway driver at night to those in need. Given his evening pastime, he is fairly circumspect about sharing any personal information, but that doesn't make his character less intriguing. He becomes involved with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young waitress and mother whose husband is just about to get out of prison. As you watch Gosling and Mulligan's interactions you are captivated as much by what is not said as what is.

In an effort to protect Irene and her son, Gosling's character agrees to help her husband settle a debt. And that's when things go horrifically awry, bringing Gosling into the sphere of soft-spoken gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, playing marvelously against type) and his loud, violent partner, Nino (Ron Perlman).

This is the second of three Gosling movies released this year. He gave a terrific performance (abs notwithstanding) in the marvelous Crazy, Stupid, Love (to which I pledged my devotion earlier this summer), and he has a much-buzzed-about performance in George Clooney's upcoming political thriller The Ides of March. While I don't know if any of these performances will be award-worthy, I hope Gosling gets more recognition for his acting soon.

Gosling is one of those actors who is terrific to watch, for his incredible ability to totally occupy a character, as well as his obvious physical characteristics. In addition to Crazy, Stupid, Love, he has turned in some truly memorable performances over the years.

Those include: Blue Valentine, a mesmerizing (and depressing) look at a marriage in decline. Gosling gives a performance that absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar last year, alongside the deservedly nominated Michelle Williams; the fabulously lovable and goofy Lars and the Real Girl, where he plays a social misfit whose relationship with a blow-up doll he orders from the internet captivates those around him; his Oscar-nominated performance in Half Nelson, where he plays a teacher with a drug habit who makes an impression on an inner-city girl, and the unforgettably disturbing The Believer, one of his earliest films, where he plays a racist skinhead who turns out to be Jewish.

If you've missed any of these, check out Netflix (or Qwikstar—ugh) ASAP. And please share which of Gosling's films feed your addiction.

So now I've acknowledged my little obsession. Thanks for listening.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: "Mile 81" by Stephen King

Given Stephen King's penchant for 1000+-page novels, it was terrific to have a short story from him instead. Mile 81 is a short story released exclusively in e-book form, and it marks a return to the King of yesteryear, where "regular" people find themselves confronted with a completely horrifying situation.

At Mile 81 on the Maine Turnpike is a boarded-up rest stop. One day, young Pete Simmons goes exploring there, to prove to his older brother and his friends that he's just as capable of being adventurous as they are. Armed with the magnifying glass he got for his 10th birthday, he finds the rest stop not quite all it's cracked up to be—just a place where teenagers go to drink, play cards and hook up. But then he finds a bottle of vodka, and drinks just enough to pass out. While he is sleeping, a mud-covered station wagon drives up to the rest stop (strange because it hasn't rained in Maine for more than a week) and stops. The doors open, yet no one seems to get out. Then the car's presence starts to attract a number of good samaritans driving along the highway, who don't realize quite where their good intentions will lead them...

This was an enjoyable short story, and it really did remind me of King's earlier work. As always, King excels at characterization, and really imbues each character with a great deal of life and detail in just a few pages. The problem is the story just wasn't as scary as I had hoped, and I felt like the ending was a little too pat. But for $2.99 on my Kindle, this story definitely was worth my time, plus it included a preview of his upcoming novel, 11/22/63.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Worthy of the Word "Champion"...

To the surprise of nearly everyone (perhaps even herself), Australian Samantha Stosur captured the U.S. Open women's championship last night, stopping heavily favored Serena Williams from her magical comeback march (and in straight sets, to boot). Stosur played magnificently, challenging the somewhat lethargic Williams on nearly every point, conquering the nerves and errors that characterized her first Grand Slam final last year, when she lost the French Open to Francesca Schiavone.

While the story of the women's championship should be Stosur's impressive play, it is her opponent's behavior during the match that once again has caught the attention of the media. Of course, Williams' behavior at the Open is somewhat legendary: during the 2009 U.S. Open, Williams' outburst against a lineswoman cost her the semi-finals against Kim Clijsters, who went on to win the title.

This year's outburst was slightly less toxic but equally as disappointing. Serena was serving at 30-40 in the first game of the second set when she hit what she believed was a winner and shrieked "Come on!" in approval. But she called out before the point was over, while Stosur was still making a futile attempt to get her racquet on the ball. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki gave the point, and the early break that came with it, to the Australian.

Serena was understandably displeased, though she had no ground on which to stand. The call was obvious. Serena disagreed and became more incensed when she thought that the umpire, Asderaki, was the same official who was in the chair for her infamous 2009 blowup at the tournament. (She wasn't.)

"Aren't you the one who screwed me over last time here?" Serena asked Asderaki after being told of the point penalty. "Yeah, you are."

At that point, the crowd rushed to Williams' defense, and it seemed to energize her. She broke Stosur back to even the set at 1-1, and then held serve in the next game. Commentators John McEnroe, Mary Carrillo, and Dick Enberg—as well as most people watching—wondered whether this would be the turning point in the match.

But Serena wasn't content to leave well enough alone. During the next two changeovers, she continued berating Asderaki, with comments that included:
"A code violation because I expressed who I am? We're in America last I checked. Am I gonna get violated for a water? Really, don't even look at me. I promise you, don't look at me because I am not the one. Don't look my way."

"If you ever see me walking down the hall, walk the other way. Because you're out of control. Totally out of control. You're a hater, you're unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing. And I never complain. Wow."
Fortunately, Stosur showed true class and composure during the match, breaking Serena to go up 4-3 and then winning the two remaining games to take the championship, 6-2, 6-3.

Serena was gracious in defeat, praising Stosur's play and acknowledging that she outplayed her during the entire match, but when asked by Mary Joe Fernandez about the controversy, she said, "Well, I hit a winner that I guess didn't count." When told about the hindrance rule that caused Asderaki to reward the point to Stosur, Williams said, "I guess I have to read my rule book."

Serena Williams may have won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, but her behavior is not worthy of a champion. She feels as if the rules should never apply to her, and that she is entitled to berate anyone who doesn't kowtow to her. Had she won this championship because her behavior intimidated Stosur (anyone who watched Serena threaten the diminutive lineswoman in 2009 could certainly feel intimidated), the tournament would have had a serious black mark on its record. This type of behavior may have been colorful and amusing in the days of McEnroe and Connors, but it contradicts the sport's genteel beginnings, as well as any notion of sportsmanship.

As I've said before, professional athletes should act like professionals. A lawyer cannot berate a judge for a ruling they don't like, nor can a teacher shake their finger at a principal or other administrator. It shouldn't be acceptable here, and if the WTA has any backbone, they will suspend Williams for this recent outburst. (Following the 2009 U.S. Open, Williams was put on two years' "probation" with the threat that she could be suspended for any repeat performance.)

Congratulations to Samantha Stosur on her victory. Sometimes, the better player—and the better person—can triumph.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget...

Not that anyone could.

Prayers and love to all of those who lost someone on this tragic day. Unending gratitude to the heroes who led the way, often sacrificing themselves for others.

Brady Howell and Angela Houtz, you are missed today and every day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review: "The Cut" by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is one of the best crime writers around today. A native of the Washington, DC area, all of his books take place in the area, and tend to explore the thin line between good and evil, and how easy it can be to cross that line. (This is a theme that Pelecanos also explored as one of the main writers of the television series The Wire.) His newest book, The Cut, is one of his best.

Spero Lucas returned from the Iraqi war ready to do something. He finds a job doing special investigations for a defense attorney, and also does freelance work for other people, returning stolen property. He is good at what he does and commands a healthy 40 percent cut of the findings for his work. When a noted drug kingpin asks Spero to find out who has been stealing drug shipments from him, he jumps into the investigation full bore, but finds far more than he bargained for. As he tries to keep control of the situation, using all of his physical and intellectual strength, he wonders how much a successful job really is worth to his life, his future, and the love of those around him.

When George Pelecanos is at his best, he creates complex characters who are far more than what they seem at first glance. Spero Lucas is a terrific creation; you think he's a cocky former soldier who gets by on his intellect, good looks and physical strength, but he is far more complicated than that, and the depth Pelecanos gives him makes him tremendously appealing. The action in this book crackles, and while you may see some of the plot twists coming even quicker than Spero does, the pacing of the book and Pelecanos' storytelling ability will make you want to race through the book as quickly as possible. It's so good to have Pelecanos back at the top of his game, and I can only hope his next book will feature Lucas again.

Do yourself a favor. If you're a fan of crime novels and you've never read any George Pelecanos, pick up The Cut or nearly any one of his other books, and you won't be disappointed. You'll wonder where you've been all his life.

Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?

The impending 10th anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday has me dreading the weekend a bit. Even though the media hasn't shied away from covering the tragedy every year, somehow I feel this milestone may be a bit more overwhelming than I can handle.

Earlier this week, a friend on Facebook asked if people remembered where they were when they first heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the plane crash in Shanksville. While I have shared my recounting of that day on my blog previously, it still feels strange to share with people my memories of that day.

Somehow the question being raised triggered a continuous refrain of Alan Jackson's song about 9/11, Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning. While I tend to steer clear of books, movies, etc. that use 9/11 as their focus, this song touches me, at least right now.

In the coming days, I'm sure everyone will be asked at least once where they were or what they were doing on that fateful day. I'll just take the message that Alan Jackson is conveying in this song as a bit of a comfort.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Food Nirvana...

Those of you who know me are aware that I'm obsessed with a few things—movies (and the Oscars as an offshoot), reading, pop culture and, of course, food. And as much as I love cooking it, I love eating it even more.

Although I really haven't had the opportunity to travel outside the US, I have been able to enjoy some pretty fantastic meals in my life. For me, the perfect meal is a combination of excellent food and service, and ambiance doesn't hurt either! And excellent meals don't have to be budget-busters—sometimes all it takes is a great piece of steak or fish, beautifully cooked, sided, and plated, and presto!

Stupidly, I've never thought of using the blog to highlight some of my more memorable meals (perhaps I've been too bloated to think clearly) but I'm turning over a new leaf!

After much anticipation, yesterday I had the great fortune to finally visit Graffiato, the Washington, DC restaurant owned by Mike Isabella of Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars. While the final episodes of the latter truly highlighted Isabella's skill in the kitchen, I wasn't prepared for how fantastic his food would be.

Graffiato is based on the small-plates concept, so you can try a few different things on the menu, especially if you go with folks who are willing to share!

Our first dish was the absolutely sublime Chicken Thighs with Pepperoni Sauce. (Isabella created the pepperoni sauce during the finale of Top Chef All-Stars, and judge Gail Simmons waxed nearly poetic about it. Actually, all she kept saying was, "Pepperoni sauce!") Imagine perfectly cooked boneless chicken thighs, seared to crisp the skin, with a zesty yet complimentary tomato-based sauce that had tiny chunks of pepperoni, served with a vegetable relish of sorts. Every bite was unbelievable. If he wanted to bottle the sauce, I'd buy a case right now.

Next came Sweet Corn Agnolotti, a pasta filled with outrageous sweet corn in a light sauce accented by pine nuts and tiny chanterelle mushrooms. I literally gasped when I bit into the agnolotti—the sweet corn was so perfect as a foil for the pasta and the sauce. If Graffiato served bread, I would have sopped up every drop of that sauce, if there was any left after the pepperoni sauce.

Grilled pork ribs, fall-off-the-bone tender and liberally seasoned with Sicilian oregano, came next. The ribs were served with a side of coriander-spiced yogurt (similar to a tzatziki sauce) which was the perfect foil for the ribs, as was the sweet and sour garnish of chopped fruits and vegetables, which I couldn't decipher because I ate it too quickly!

Our last entrée was the "Jersey Shore" pizza. OMFG. This pizza had provolone cheese, tomato sauce, FRIED CALAMARI and a cherry pepper aioli drizzle. The crust was thin and came out perfectly hot from the pizza oven. Needless to say, much of the pizza came home in a box, but I nearly picked all of the calamari off first!

Of course, we had to save room for dessert. How about Nutella sandwich cookies—chocolate hazelnut cookies with Nutella in the middle, all with just a little pinch of sea salt, and the gelato of the day was (what else) sea salt, a vanilla gelato with an amazingly sweet and salty flavor? An incredible cap to an incredible meal.

As I've learned, not all hyped restaurants (particularly those owned by celebrity chefs) live up to expectations. But Graffiato most certainly did, and I know we'll be back there again soon, because there are a ton of other things on the menu to try! (And we'll need more pepperoni sauce!!)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Where Were My Acid-Washed Jeans?

Last night we saw Journey and Night Ranger in concert. (The concert was also supposed to include Foreigner, but when it had to be rescheduled because of Hurricane Irene last weekend, Foreigner was no longer available.) Needless to say, it took me back—all the way back to my childhood in the 1980s.

As I've mentioned before, music has always been a huge part of my life. When I was younger, I bought record albums, 45s, and even cassettes with reckless abandon. I used to lock myself in my bedroom with my stereo blaring, and I'd sing along to practically everything. Journey was one of my favorite bands starting in the early 1980s when they released Escape (I can't even count how many times I used to doodle the cool way the album title was lettered), and I devoured their earlier music as well. And then in the mid 1980s, Night Ranger completely hooked me with hits like When You Close Your Eyes, Sentimental Street, Goodbye and, of course, Sister Christian.

Obviously, a lot has changed since the 1980s. Steve Perry left Journey, and although his vocals were tremendously distinctive, the band's new lead singer, Arnel Pineda, sounds so much like Perry it's eerie at times. And of course, everyone in the bands are older now. (Yeah, I am, too.) But for a few hours last night, I found myself taken back to my high school days, when some of the biggest crises I faced were whether or not I'd get the part I wanted in the school play, or how to get out of gym class (especially when it rained). All I needed was a pair of acid-washed jeans, a Swatch watch and a skinny tie (preferably a leather one), and it would have been just like 1985.

It was a fun time to revisit, although I wouldn't want to live there. But I'm grateful to Night Ranger and Journey for helping me reminisce.

Book Review: "We the Animals" by Justin Torres

Running just under 150 pages, told in a spare, staccato style, this book packs a real emotional wallop. This is the story of three brothers frenetically racing through life, playing and fighting with each other, and at times tiptoing around their parents' tumultuous marriage. Sometimes humorous, sometimes depressing, and sometimes disturbing, the book is a series of relatively short chapters which examine a particular incident or crisis. At its heart this is a story about how family dynamics can leave you vulnerable, and how that vulnerability can affect you throughout your life.

This book gripped me from the start, and as fast as I read, I was done with it relatively quickly. The book is narrated by the youngest brother, so everything was viewed through his eyes, which was effective although at times somewhat irritating. I thought the book was at its best when the narrator recounted his parents' relationship as well as the relationship he and his brothers had with their parents. Torres threw in a big surprise at the end, which although tremendously powerful, frustrated me a bit, because I never saw it coming, and it didn't feel true to the story. (However, since the book is apparently semi-autobiographical, I guess it's the way it really happened in Torres' life.) All in all, this book definitely moved me, and I look forward to seeing Torres' career proceed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

For the Love of a Cupcake...

I'm not a big fan of waiting for things. It's the whole lack of patience thing—waiting on line to buy something or to eat at a restaurant doesn't thrill me. But it's a part of life, so I've become a bit more tolerant of waiting as I've gotten older.

And waiting is certainly part of the game when you want to eat at a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef (or one featured on a reality show), or a restaurant featured in the media. (There's a pizza place in Phoenix that Oprah Winfrey called the best ever, and people routinely wait four hours to eat there. Same as the bakery featured on the reality show Cake Boss.)

I've loved cupcakes since grade school, so the current cupcake craze is one I'm enjoying as much as someone one Weight Watchers can. And I've long wanted to go to Georgetown Cupcake but, because it is featured on the TLC series DC Cupcakes, crowds routinely look like the picture atop this post (the waits for a while on weekends were as long as three hours), so I've avoided it. (And it's not like Georgetown is an easy place to visit on a weekend anyway.)

Today we took a trip into DC, and on the way home, thought we'd drive into Georgetown to see what the line was like at Georgetown Cupcake. It didn't look too bad, but as always, parking is a challenge. And then W spotted a space right on M Street, the main street in Georgetown. A free space, to boot. Now, I don't believe in divine intervention, but when there is a free parking space a block from Georgetown Cupcake, that's a sign from God saying Get a cupcake.

So we did. We waited maybe 10-15 minutes and picked up a red velvet and a peanut butter fudge cupcake. Well worth the wait, both today and in our delay visiting the store. And pretty affordable, too!

Check it out: They mail cupcakes, too!

Book Review: "Union Atlantic" by Adam Haslett

Doug Fanning, a cocky war hero, is a tremendously successful banker in Boston, where he works for a major financial institution. Having grown up the son of a housekeeper in a working-class suburb of Boston, his competitive nature has taken him to the top of his profession, giving him authority for multi-million-dollar financial transactions all over the world. Charlotte Graves is an eccentric former teacher whose family has long had roots in the wealthy Boston suburb of Finden. She lives with her two dogs, whom recently have begun speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. Nate Fuller is a disaffected high school senior whose life has lost direction since his father's suicide.

Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic hits its stride as the lives of Doug, Charlotte, and Nate intersect in a number of ways. This is a story of how the thirst for power—be it financial or power over another human being—can obsess a person; it is a story of the strange twists and turns that personal relationships can take; and it is a story of how when you pursue what you want single-mindedly, you may discover it isn't what you want at all.

A great author can hook you on a story even when the characters aren't completely appealing, and that is the case with Union Atlantic. Adam Haslett is a fantastic writer and he has created tremendously flawed yet amazingly appealing characters who draw you fully into their story. While the book gets mired down a bit too much in its financial details, particularly at the beginning, at its heart this is more of a story about personal relationships than the banking world in which a great portion of it is set. Even as it headed toward its somewhat-expected conclusion, the book intrigued me tremendously, and I've found myself still thinking about the characters and wondering what happened to them after the book ended. That, in my opinion, is the mark of a great story.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Different Than Us = Bad

Attention parents: this fall, a dangerous television show will be hitting the airwaves that you'll need to keep your children away from.

Its name? Dancing with the Stars.

There may be reasons to avoid Dancing with the Stars, including the hideous cover versions of songs the contestants dance to, Brooke Burke's inane commentary, or the arbitrary voting that seems to keep undeserving dancers on the show long after they deserve to depart. But according to Fox News' Dr. Keith Ablow (whose "wisdom" I've questioned before), those aren't the real dangers to children.

As Dr. Ablow says in an opinion piece on Fox News' website, the problem is transgender contestant Chaz Bono.

Ablow says, "Casting Chaz Bono on "Dancing with the Stars" is part of Chaz’s victory tour, which has included appearances on talk shows and the release of a book called "Transition." I advise parents to not allow their children to watch the episodes in which Chaz appears."

In Ablow's twisted mind, simply watching Chaz Bono perform and be applauded on the show could wreck havoc with their gender identity. "The last thing vulnerable children and adolescents need, as they wrestle with the normal process of establishing their identities, is to watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts, the injection of steroids and, perhaps one day soon, the fashioning of a make-shift phallus to replace her vagina," says the not-so-good doctor.

You know what hurts children wrestling with their gender and sexual identities? Being told that what they feel and who they might be is wrong. Being told that boys must act one way and girls another in order to be considered "normal," and if they don't, they need help.

That's what people like Dr. Ablow preach. That's what causes young people to kill themselves, the fear of being considered "abnormal" by those around them. Instead of embracing our children for who they are, Ablow believes medical treatment and prayer can change them into who they should be.

Chaz Bono isn't the danger, Dr. Ablow. Intolerance, prejudice and hatred are the dangers.

And at least I won't see those on Dancing with the Stars.

It's Not Okay...

Time to get back on the soapbox.

In February 2008, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney killed his classmate, Lawrence King, because King, who was gay, allegedly teased McInerney repeatedly with sexual advances, and wore makeup and women's accessories to school. Three years later, McInerney was tried in a California court as an adult. While the prosecution alleged that this was a premeditated murder, as King had expressed his fears that McInerney might act violently toward him, the defense used the pathetic "gay panic" defense, saying that McInerney was "provoked" by King's repeated sexual advances.

And yesterday, the judge declared a mistrial. The jury voted 7-5 in favor of finding McInerney guilty of voluntary manslaughter, not first- or second-degree murder, which meant that seven jurors sided with the defense's version of events: that King's death was his own fault because he acted and dressed effeminately, and made sexual overtures toward McInerney.

While I'm not surprised by this result (except that the trial ended in a mistrial instead of an acquittal), I'm disgusted all the same.

Being gay is not an excuse for murder. It doesn't matter if Lawrence King wore makeup or called Brandon McInerney "baby." While those actions were misguided, they didn't justify McInerney's shooting King point-blank in the head.

Where does this second-class treatment stop? On an almost daily basis, gay people are verbally harassed and physically abused—sometimes seriously or even fatally—while they are walking on the street. Gay business owners or homeowners have had their property vandalized, even destroyed.

And rarely do the perpetrators pay the price. Judges, even when presented with overwhelming evidence supporting that anti-gay violence should be considered a hate crime, refuse to consider it as a possibility, nearly universally. And juries just don't seem to think that gay people are entitled to the same protections under the law that straight people are, as the majority of anti-gay violence cases end in the defendants being acquitted, or at least in mistrials.

Prosecutors will now have to decide whether to retry McInerney, although I'd be surprised if they do. It's sad to think that the legal system, built on guilt or innocence being determined by a jury of our peers, fails to protect gay people time and time again.

With peers like this, who needs enemies?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: "The Borrower" by Rebecca Makkai

Boy, did I love this book.

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. In general, she lacks drive—she keeps doing her job because she enjoys it but she doesn't really want to pursue anything else, she keeps personal relationships at arm's length, and she doesn't care that her life is fairly boring. But all that changes as she deals with one of the library's most voracious readers, 10-year-old Ian Drake. When Ian's evangelical mother tells Lucy she only wants Ian reading books that contain "the breath of God" in them, as well as those that focus on stereotypically masculine characters and don't include magic or fantasy, Lucy helps Ian check out the "forbidden" books in secret. And when Lucy finds out that Ian's parents are sending him to religious classes in order to cure him of any potential SSAD (same-sex attraction disorder) when he gets older, she doesn't know how to help him.

One morning she arrives at the library to find Ian camped out, with a knapsack of provisions (including his pool pass if he needs to show identification). Somehow he part-convinces, part-threatens Lucy to take him on a road trip, and Lucy sees this as an opportunity to free Ian of the restrictions being placed upon him by his mother. Yet the road trip, like much of Lucy's life, doesn't have much of a plan, and Ian starts trying to lead her all over the country. They head from Hannibal through Chicago, to Pittsburgh and Vermont, as Lucy tries to rationalize her actions and draw Ian into telling her he needs her help. And along the way, Lucy learns a little bit more about herself and her family, which she has always kept a distance from, and how what you think is the truth is never quite absolutely true.

While clearly implausible in many ways, this was a terrific story. It had the potential to be preachy but it skated around the controversial issues fairly well. And while I felt that Rebecca Makkai made Lucy's Russian family and friends seem a bit stereotypical, I felt that the rest of the characters in this book were unique, complex and fallible—you wanted to know their story and you grew to care about them even if you didn't like them 100 percent. I would have liked to have known what happened to Ian as he grew up, even though that might have killed some of the book's magic, but overall, I really, really enjoyed this. Any book about the love of books does right by me.