Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: "Contents May Have Shifted" by Pam Houston

Pam, the narrator of this absolutely fantastic book, can't seem to stay in one place. An author and writing instructor with little luck on the romantic front, the one thing she seems to have inherited from her dysfunctional parents is a sincere love of travel and a restlessness to explore.

Contents May Have Shifted follows Pam all over the world, from ranches and spas, to monasteries, religious shrines, hotels, and landmarks, in locations as diverse as the American Southwest, Alaska, Bhutan, Tibet, Laos, Spain, Scotland, Newfoundland, and Australia. Sometimes she travels with friends, sometimes colleagues, sometimes lovers (or ex-lovers), and sometimes she is trying to escape it all. And she has no shortage of flying-related complications, whether on a jet plane or a small turbo prop! Pam's (and Pam Houston's) tremendous appreciation for wherever she is and whomever she is with, no matter the circumstances, is both heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking, but moving all the same.

While this book hooked me from start to finish, especially since the sphere of my personal travel experiences is so narrow, I give you one warning: this book is not told in a linear way, so as it jumps from place to place, it jumps from time to time. Sometimes she's with one partner, sometimes another, and sometimes she's simply dealing with friends and their issues. I think it's a true testament to Houston's skills as a writer that she's able to present such a full story through short snippets told out of temporal order. If you can suspend your need for order and just give in to this book about the joy of travel and relationships, you will love it as much as I did. And if you want more Pam Houston, I highly recommend her short story collections Cowboys are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat.

"American Idol" Recap: What Kind of Chocolate Do You Like?

So after what seems like 525,600 minutes (but what has been, in actuality, six weeks), it's finally time to start the live performance shows. First up: the top 12 guys, along with the "surprise" 13th guy who will get a shot at redemption.

Interestingly enough, if you consider that 6 of the 10 winners have been guys, and guys have won the last four seasons, the odds are fairly good that this season's winner performed last night. And while I felt a few could be worthy of a confetti explosion come late May, I'm always doubtful that America and I are on the same wavelength.

But onto the show. Randy was surprisingly dressed up, wearing a long jacket, J.Lo decided to cover herself tonight (more on that later), and Steven was wearing a zebra-print jacket I swear Allison Iraheta wore during Season 8. (The more I watch Steven, the more he's starting to look like Janice from The Muppet Show.)

Reed opened the show with a manic, jazzy, spazzy, utterly awkward version of Maroon 5's Moves Like Jagger. He tried to throw in everything he could—a little scatting, a little moonwalk, playing the drums like Sheila E. (did you see her on the Oscars Sunday night? Glamorous life, indeed.), heck, he even forgot to take the word "s--t" out of the song and was censored. Randy once again called him "this season's Casey Abrams," J.Lo said the song was "a great way to show America what they're dealing with," and Steven incorrectly name checked Reed's band, Shoeless Revolution, calling them "Shoeless Generation," and saying that "a whole new generation will love your a--." (Steven got censored, too, but after the word was heard on television. Call the FCC!)

You might not have known Adam has a baby daughter, Whitney, whom he and his wife like to dress in giant head bows. (When I saw his wife wearing a vintage Hillary Clinton headband, I understood.) Oh, and apparently he has a large black woman inside of him (never heard that one before) and he wants to show the world "what white chocolate is about." (Can I point out now that white chocolate isn't really chocolate, just a pale imitation?) Adam chose to sing a straight-from-karaoke version of Aretha Franklin's Think. I thought it was awful and in his leather jacket, t-shirt, and Pittsburgh Steelers' "terrible towel," he just looked like a dad trying to hard to impress his kids into thinking he's cool. Steven's adjective wheel spun to "brilliant" for this performance, Randy said that he liked Adam's 1970s-era "blue-eyed soul" (really?), and J.Lo said she was waiting for the big finish, which she loved. (Points for Adam's supporters' signs "Brock On" and "Brock the Vote," though.)

Awkward dialogue break #1: Ryan: "Steven, what kind of chocolate do you prefer?" Steven: "Dark." Randy: "I consider myself milk, but dark is cool." (Shut up, Dawg. You weren't even included in the conversation.)

Deandre showed he was more Milli Vanilla with a warbly version of Earth, Wind & Fire's Reasons. Other than one beautiful high note toward the end, I found him really off-key, with really awkward transitions between his head voice, his falsetto, and his lower register. He does flip his hair quite beautifully, though. J.Lo said that his voice was "so perfect," while Randy called him "one of the most commercial guys" on the show, "ready to make a record right out of the box." And then, in Nigel's favorite manufactured ploy two young girls from the audience apparently were dying to hug Deandre. Yeah, right.

Colton showed us the secrets of his hairdo (one dab isn't enough for him) and he paid tribute to his sister, Schyler. Choosing to sing Paramore's Decode, Colton started out behind the piano, sang on stage for a bit, and ended up on top of the piano, James Durbin-style, complete with dramatic lighting. I actually really like his voice and hope he sticks around. Randy said it was great to "finally have our own indie alt-rocker singing Paramore" on the show, and both J.Lo and Steven called him a "relevant artist," although J.Lo mentioned she likes it better when she can "feel his heart" through his music.

Hanging on the stools with Jeremy, Ryan referred to him as the "spirit stick" of the group, the one who is constantly cheering everyone else on. He sang Sara Bareilles' Gravity, which I love (plus I can never forget the Mia Michaels-choreographed dance routine from So You Think You Can Dance). Jeremy has a nice voice, but his phrasing is really breathy at times. However, I thought he did really, really well. Steven called the performance "beautiful" (go figure) and said that Jeremy has "a big, big heart, and for that alone, you should be America's idol." (Steven, you're judging a singing competition, remember?) J.Lo said that Jeremy is "blessed by God with a voice that affects everyone," while Randy kept blathering on about "sangers" in the competition, and then said, "America meet Jeremy. Jeremy meet America."

Awkward dialogue break #2: Ryan: "Steven, how do you feel so far?" Steven: "I'm as confused as a baby in a topless bar." Then Steven proceeds to pull down his shirt, sneeze and expose his nipple, teasing J.Lo for her Oscar dress, to which she shrieked, "There was no nipple!"

Nice lead-in for Aaron, no? He sang Never Can Say Goodbye, and I thought he sounded great and worked the audience well. The judges gave him the night's first standing ovation, and Randy praised his "beautiful vocals, mad vocals" because "this boy can sing!" Steven blathered about how Aaron has raised the bar for himself, because now he has to top this. Doesn't everyone have to top their first performance? (God, I hope so.)

Barely seen Chase, "this season's country crooner," said that he's "as country as you can get." He sang Hunter Hayes' Storm Warning well, although the song didn't show off his voice to its fullest potential. He's a terrific performer, though, and toward the end of the song, proceeded to spin around while kicking his leg, which was pretty professional. Steven told Chase he looked like Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, and said "there are probably a lot of mummies [mommies] in America rooting for you." J.Lo praised his "movie star good looks and good voice," while Randy told him he had "mad skills."

So are "totally unique" and "individual" code words for "gay" on the show? That was how Ryan prefaced the introduction to Creighton, who blew me out of the water with an amazingly powerful-yet-restrained, vocally beautiful rendition of True Colors. (The lights behind Creighton even turned to a rainbow flag, although I know the lyric to the song is "Your true colors are beautiful like a rainbow.") I didn't feel the judges gave him anywhere near the praise he deserved. Yes, they used words like "stupendous" and "so beautiful," but chose to focus more on the fact that more than half of the guys performing would be going home. And then Randy said something about "we're going to think about the back story, the image, the whole thing, but you can sing." Huh?

And it's back to Phillip Phillips this week. (Points for the producers for titling a picture of his family with "Phillip Phillips Phamily Photo." Hee.) He sang In the Air Tonight, and I loved it. (How cool was it that Phillip Phillips sang some Phillip Collins?) Some people find him annoying and too derivative of Dave Matthews, and while there's no denying he sounds a lot like him, there's something irresistible about him. J.Lo mentioned that when they got back from last year's auditions, all they could talk about were Scotty and Lauren, while this year, all they could talk about was Phillip. J.Lo praised his "special talents," while Steven said he has a "crazy kind of voice, and really hit [his] stride." Stupid Randy said he "wasn't jumping up and down with the reharm of the melody." Whatever, Dawg. If warbling Deandre is commercial, Phillip is mad ready.

Young Eben was next into the breach, and he inexplicably chose to sing Adele's Set Fire to the Rain. Even with the fiery backdrop usually reserved for Motown week when someone sings (Love is Like a) Heat Wave, Eben was not on pitch for a good portion of the song. Sad, because he seems like a really likable kid, and it really does make an argument that he could have waited an extra year or two. The judges mentioned that he was a little pitchy, a little flat, and Steven, while praising his "straight, beautiful voice," suggested he "listen to some blues records and shake it out."

Heejun, minus one of his usual hats, introduced us to his dancing mother, and then promised to prove that "Asian people can not only outscore you on their SATs, they can also sing and melt their hearts...the females." He sang a perfectly adequate version of Robbie Williams' Angels, and while he really has a beautiful voice, his performance wasn't exceptional to me in any way. He also tends to drop the ends of some words when he sings them. All of the judges seemed to agree he didn't choose the right song, although his voice is "as smooth as silk." Ryan tried to get Heejun to explain why he chose the song, and he started saying that everyone has angels around them, blah blah blah.

Joshua rounded out the top 12, and the contestant that apparently has gotten the nickname "Mantasia," broke out Jennifer Hudson's You Pulled Me Through. Wow, what a voice. I was pleased to see that while he really let loose vocally, he didn't veer into Jacob Lusk-like histrionics. The judges gave him a standing ovation, and Randy said, "This is what singing is about!" J.Lo was so moved by Joshua's voice she told him she wanted to punch him, but told him he could be an R&B or gospel star right now. Steven said that he has "the voice the world has been waiting for."

And finally, the judges revealed that the contestant with the shot at redemption was the "Gentle Giant," Jermaine Jones. (I was surprised, because I couldn't understand why they would have even mentioned Johnny Keyser as a possibility, since he was cut before the top 40, if they weren't bringing him back.) Jermaine sang Luther Vandross' Dance with My Father, and his beautiful baritone, combined with the story behind the song, made me a little weepy. I just don't know how his voice will do in this competition, or whether he's engendered enough support. But his mother loves him.

My choice for the top five: Creighton, Joshua, Aaron, Phillip, and Colton, although it's entirely possible Deandre, Heejun, or Reed could sneak in. (I believe the judges will pick Deandre and/or Reed as wild cards, though.)

And tonight...two more hours of singing! It's the ladies' turn! (Jen Hirsh, don't disappoint me!!)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Fallback Plan" by Leigh Stein

Esther Kohler just graduated from Northwestern. Although she dreams of being an actress, she's not really interested in actually pursuing that career right now. In fact, she doesn't really feel like doing much of anything. When she moves back home to live with her parents, she envisions days of laying on the couch in her pajamas, watching lots of television, re-reading her favorite children's books, and existing under a haze of prescription drugs.

Her parents, however, have other plans for Esther, and find her a job babysitting for the young daughter of neighbors Amy and Nate Brown. But the Browns' infant daughter died six months earlier, and they haven't quite recovered from that blow. Esther finds herself becoming the responsible one, caring for May as well as Amy, and serving as Nate's confidante, all while her own personal life is in a bit of a shambles. She finally realizes that she needs to shake herself out of her complacency, especially where her interactions with the Browns are concerned, but she's still not sure where that leaves her.

This book surprised me. It wasn't what I expected, and just when I thought I had it all figured out, it threw me for a bit of a loop, in a good way. Some of the reviews of the book said it was uproariously funny. I thought it was definitely wry and humorous, but not hysterical, but that didn't detract from its charm. Esther is a character that really grew on me; she was much deeper than she seemed at the novel's start, and much more aware of what was going on around her. Leigh Stein did a really good job capturing the angst and rudderlessness that many recent college graduates feel, when you're not quite ready to be an adult, yet no one is still willing to treat you as a child, at least the way you want. I really enjoyed this.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My favorite performances of 2011...

Sunday night the Oscars will be awarded to a few lucky people. Since I'm fairly certain I'll be pleased with some of the winners and disappointed with others, I thought that this year I'd put together a list of those actors and actresses who gave what I felt were the best performances of the year, whether or not they were nominated for Oscars.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter: Michael Shannon gave a truly Oscar-worthy performance as a man trying to make sense of his increasingly disturbing (and perhaps apocalyptic) dreams. Is he hallucinating? Is he seeing visions of what is to come? Whatever the reason, Shannon does an incredible job of portraying a man just barely (if that) holding himself together. Watch the trailer.

Ryan Gosling, Drive: Ryan Gosling had one heck of a year in 2011. While his sexy, charming performance in Crazy, Stupid, Love endeared him to audiences and his strong idealism in The Ides of March was captivating, he was at his most magnetic, his most enigmatic, and his most dangerous in the underappreciated but fantastic Drive. Playing an unnamed guy whose specialty is serving as a getaway driver, Gosling brought menace, charm, and sex appeal to this role. So good. Watch the trailer.

Felicity Jones, Like Crazy: This movie of an all-consuming love that has to weather a great deal of turmoil was tremendously moving, and while Anton Yelchin did a terrific job, Felicity Jones, as the sometimes-aloof, sometimes deeply obsessed Anna, was marvelous. And when I found out that nearly the entire movie was improvised by the actors, my admiration grew. Loved the movie; was dazzled by the performances. Watch the trailer.

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn: After turning in an emotionally searing performance last year in Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams stepped into the role of an indelible icon and nailed it, garnering her third Oscar nomination. But while she completely captured the oft-imitated breathy sexuality and amazement with her own appeal, Williams' portrayal of Marilyn Monroe's vulnerability and naked desire for love is what has stuck with me. She deserves the Oscar, although she'll be passed over again this year. Watch the trailer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50: We've watched Joseph Gordon-Levitt grow up before our eyes, from the awkward teenage alien on the television hit Third Rock from the Sun to the romantic foil in (500 Days of) Summer, Gordon-Levitt has demonstrated magnetism, charm, power, and sex appeal in many of his roles. But in 50/50, he truly came into his own. Playing Adam, a young man diagnosed with cancer which may or may not be fatal, he walked the thin line between anxiety and despair, depression and rage, while maintaining a sense of humor and empathy for those suffering around him. Watch the trailer.

"American Idol" Recap: There's a Moon Out Tonight...

Doctor, my eyes.

Look, I realize that for many women Steven Tyler still has some inexplicable appeal. That would explain all the "Walk This Way, Steven" and "Marry Me Steven" signs that appear in the audience during the live shows. But honestly, I could have gone my entire life without watching him strip down to his underwear, moon the camera, and then jump in the water at the end of last night's episode. (And don't even get me started on stupid Randy's insistence that he wouldn't hold Steven's yoga pants, as if the very act of holding a man's pants could somehow emasculate you. Dumba--.)

Oh, yeah. The recap.

Well, our top 24 has been chosen. And of course, thanks to Nigel "I Never Met a Gimmick I Didn't Use" Lythgoe, the judges will choose one more male contestant from four who were eliminated—Jermaine Jones, David Leathers Jr., Cowboy Richie Law, and, inexplicably, Johnny Keyser, who didn't even make the top 42!! (This "most shocking event ever" was announced after the obligatory "contestants dance around like fools" segment at the end of the show.)

When we last left you, the fate of crybaby daddy Adam Brock was in the judges' hands. He sobbed for what seemed an eternity about how much he needed to sing, how that's all he wanted to do, yadda yadda yadda. Steven said, "I love to watch a man cry," and then told Adam he made it. And guess what? MORE TEARS! Plus, we got to see yet another baby picture. Here's what I know, Adam. When Baby Whitney watches this footage back in 10-15 years, she's going to hate you for the ginormous bows you made her wear in her non-existent hair. How can the kid hold her head up?

Jeremy Rosado was next down the path of crushed dreams. We were reminded of his "Idol family," the group he sang with throughout the competition—David Leathers Jr., Eben Franckewitz, and Ariel Sprague (although strangely no mention was made of group member Gabi Carrubba, who was cut before the top 42). According to Ryan, Jeremy "became a star" with his final performance of Carrie Underwood's I Know You Won't, which I found choppy, although he does have a nice voice. The judges inexplicably gave him a standing ovation, and J.Lo told him his performance was "transcedental [sic]." They praised him for being a nice boy, cheering all of the others on, and then told him he was a unanimous choice for the top 24.

Young Shannon Magrane, again sporting her too-short shorts, forgot the lyrics during group day, but gave a strong performance of Kelly Clarkson's The Trouble with Love Is when she "sang for her life." (Add that to the list of phrases I hate.) She made it through, although I think her voice will be even better a year or two from now.

Apparently Scott Daingerfield was a favorite of J.Lo's (surprise) last season, but had to withdraw, so this year he was hoping to go all the way. (In the competition. You people with your minds in the gutter.) His final performance of Folsom Prison Blues was a little bluesy, a little jumpy, and it wasn't enough to get him through this year.

Several people whom the producers didn't deem important enough even to acknowledge got cut, including Gina Glocksen lookalike Wendy Taylor. That must suck.

Pint-sized Skylar Laine was concerned because she didn't think she'd make it into the top 24 once they put fellow country singer Chelsea Sorrell through. (Interestingly, she didn't even acknowledge Baylie Brown as a country singer.) In a total coincidence (yeah, right), Skylar sang Reba McEntire's Fancy a week after J.Lo mentioned to the other judges that Skylar reminded her of Reba. I like her voice, but think she shouts a lot. The judges told her she made it through, and then Steven asked her to bring him some crawfish, since she's from Mississippi(!), but Skylar said she'd bring him some deer meet instead, and he should ask Randy to bring home crawfish from New Orleans. She also talked about wanting to jump in the water, which is clearly what instigated Steven later in the show.

Also making it through: "early judges' favorite" Hallie Day, "country crooner" Chase Likens and Season 10 returnee Aaron Marcellus.

Another returnee from Season 10, Deandre Brackensick, was cut at this stage last year. But a year later, his voice has matured, between his fantastic group performance and his final performance of Maxwell's This Woman's Work (so much better than when hammy Michael Lynche sang it during Season 9). As J.Lo put it, "we'd be crazy not to put you through."

"Gentle giant" Jermaine Jones was falling to pieces waiting for the judges' decision (which, sadly, if you kept count at home, you knew before he did). Jermaine has a beautiful baritone voice and a sweet-yet-slightly-uncomfortable relationship with his mother (he calls her "my beautiful" and she calls him "my handsome"). Although his rendition of I Believe in You and Me for his final performance was lovely, the judges felt as if he needed some more work on his voice, and hoped he'd come back next year. He was truly devastated, and while I wasn't surprised to see J.Lo get choked up, Randy even teared up (or lost a contact lens). "I thought I became a singer to break people's hearts in a good way," Steven said sadly as Jermaine walked away.

Vying for the last spot on the girls' side were three young-uns: Shelby Tweten, Ariel Sprague, and Hollie Cavanagh. (For some reason, they're not making any mention of Hollie's being cut during this same round last season. But here's her audition from last season, in which she nearly fell apart emotionally.) Since we only saw Hollie's final performance, I had a feeling she'd be the one to make it through, and I was right.

And then it was a battle of the youth on the guys' side as well, with 15-year-old Eben Franckewitz competing against 17-year-old David "Mr. Steal Your Girl" Leathers Jr. for the last slot. David trotted out his audition song, I Want You Back, for his final performance (channeling his "inner Michael Jackson," said Ryan), while Eben sang Ain't No Sunshine. (Ryan wondered, "But was it too safe?") Steven said that David had too much confidence while Eben didn't have enough, yet to my surprise they chose Eben over David.

So here are your top 12 guys, who will sing Tuesday night, along with the "mystery pick":

Creighton Fraker
Phil Phillips
Reed Grimm
Heejun Han
Chase Likens
Adam Brock
Deandre Brackensick
Aaron Marcellus
Joshua Ledet
Eben Franckewitz
Jeremy Rosado
Colton Dixon

And your top 12 girls, who will sing Wednesday night:

Jen Hirsh
Erika Van Pelt
Elise Testone
Jessica Sanchez
Hallie Day
Hollie Cavanagh
Shannon Magrane
Baylie Brown
Chelsea Sorrell
Skylar Laine
Haley Johnsen
Brielle Von Hugel

Three nights next week. Egads.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"American Idol" Recap: Flotsam, Jetsam, and Whatnot

Good news for those of you already weary from weeks of auditions and what has seemed like months of semifinal rounds ("The most brutal cuts ever!"): The live shows begin next week! Of course, the bad news there is that we'll have three days of the show, at least next week. (Or maybe that's just bad for the one who has committed to recap the program. Hmm.)

Last night, 14 of the top 24 contestants were revealed. And as last night's show ended with a contestant in the throes of a drama-laden emotional breakdown as he waited for the judges' decision, I realized that I was pretty happy with the contestants they've chosen so far, which means either they've decided to take this year's show in a different direction, or the remaining 10 contestants will be the bane of my existence. Knowing Nigel Lythgoe and friends, I'll bet the latter, but there's still room for optimism.

Anyway, in the wise words of The Dawg, "I don't want to drag this out any longer."

You know the drill. The contestants walk down a long, dramatic pathway (this time shrouded in smoke left over from the Harry Potter series) and sit in front of the judges to learn their fate, punctuated by lots of stalling and stammering (from the judges, of course).

The spotlights kept bouncing off J.Lo's sparkly green dress and shining in her face, so I'd imagine a lighting tech is going to lose their job. And Steven was totally wearing yoga pants, or he borrowed a costume from Cirque du Soleil.

Who Made It

One of my favorites, Jen Hirsh, was the first to hear the good news. Despite the fact that she has knocked every song out of the park since her audition, the judges told her that her final performance of Aretha Franklin's Baby I Love You was uneven and, you know, they're looking for "the best of the best of the best." (Any guess which judge uttered that inanity?) But Jen prevailed, and the judges told her she is one of the best singers of the season. (Truth.)

Creighton Fraker shared his interesting back story, that he was adopted as a child and grew up in a preacher's family, and dancing was banned in their town, but he then found out that his birth father was in the heavy metal band Flotsam and Jetsam. (So that explains all that crazy rock and roll music.) The judges told Creighton they were looking for someone they feel "has that special something" (or at least someone they can convince the speed-dialing tweens to vote for), someone who can "touch America." (Stop.) His birth father totally looks like a cross between Bo Bice and a less-attractive Josh Holloway. Seriously.

Preacher's kid #2, Joshua Ledet blew the judges away with his final performance of Up to the Mountain. After admitting that "the better singers don't always make it on the show" (no way?!?), Joshua got the good news, and proceeded to kill nearly all of his appeal by showboating, chanting "I'm blessed, I'm blessed, I'm blessed" and "Can I get an amen?" (Joshua, it's a narrow path to the Lusky Stank, so watch yourself.)

I'm guessing pretty blonde Haley Johnsen is either being set up as cannon fodder or one of the surprise Pia Toscano/Latoya London auditions of the season, since you never got to see her final performance, although Ryan mentioned it was great. We did see clips from her audition (Brandi Carlisle's The Story) and her group performance. She has a really good voice, so she could surprise.

Elise Testone, one of the bluesy singers we often heard made it through another round but didn't see, finally got her moment. She tore through James Brown's This is a Man's World, and Jennifer called her "one of the best singers we've seen." I'm starting to worry a tiny bit that all of the gravelly-voiced singers will cancel each other out.

Next up was this year's Casey Abrams, Reed Grimm. (He plays the drums! He scats! He sings quirky songs!) We were reminded of his manufactured drama during Hollywood Week, when he needed two pep talks from Mom before singing Georgia On My Mind while playing the drums. For his final performance, he sang a scatty version of It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) while accompanying himself on the drums, which he played with brushes. (Show-off.) The judges warned him that they are looking for "an American Idol singer," so while they like his personality and unique style, they want him to actually sing sometimes, too. (Go figure.) If he growls once, I'm crawling through my television and beating him over the head with his crooked grin.

Ahem. Sorry.

Blonde, gravelly-voiced singer #2, "mobile DJ" Erika Van Pelt impressed the judges early on, especially with her rendition of Pink's Glitter in the Air during Hollywood Week. But her decision to sing Adele's Don't You Remember for her final performance didn't wow the judges; in fact, J.Lo's subtitles said, "I don't like this song for her." As J.Lo explained to Erika, "Some people just blew us away the whole time, some didn't do as well as we hoped. Like you." But Erika made it through anyway, prompting a tremendously self-deprecating, "This doesn't happen to girls like me."

Country cutie Chelsea Sorrell apparently forgot the words to I Told You So during Hollywood Week, although Steven told her "Sweetie, you sing so pretty, you start that over again." But since we didn't see any of her other performances, and Steven told her "I can tell by your demeanor that you know what our decision is," I was surprised that she made it through. But this segment gave me my favorite quote of the night from The Dawg, "We try and raise the bar every year, but this year we definitely raised the bar." Yeah.

Would an older, wiser Baylie Brown, returning from Season 6, make it through right after her fellow country crooner? Her final performance (Rascal Flatts' Here Comes Goodbye) was partly breathless and partly beautiful, and the judges talked about her inconsistency. But then Steven said, "It doesn't give me great pleasure to say this, it makes me ecstatic" to tell her she made it through. She could be this season's Kellie Pickler, minus the dumb jokes about salmon.

Best line of the night came during Ryan's interview with America's favorite English mangler, Heejun Han. "Heejun, what are you sweating?" "Mostly water." Brilliance. Heejun sang New York State of Mind, and his voice does have a really lovely tone, although he appears to be straining at times. He warned that if the judges told him no, he would "kiss and hug J.Lo so much, because it's every Asian man's dream." But the bravado faded when the judges gave him the good news, and he became very emotional. And then J.Lo (and The Beatles) broke into Hey Jun, which now diminishes my admiration for Steven's singing it last week.

Jessica Sanchez is only 16, but she's been performing most of her life, and her family has spent a lot of money on her. Her group performance of Buddy Holly's It Doesn't Matter Anymore may go down as one of the best group performances we've seen on the show, and her final performance of The Prayer showed that she is capable of some vocal restraint and not all vibrato. Although her voice is mature, I worry if she's going to get caught in the whole dilemma that plagues most young singers on this show, when singing "adult" songs doesn't work for their voice. Hopefully not.

Was there room for quirky Dave Matthews/Paul McDonald-wanna-be Phil "It's Not Phillip This Week" Phillips? Phil sang an acoustic version of Usher's Nice and Slow, which I loved. I love his voice and his quirkiness; I hope he can control it, though, and not become the milquetoast performing seal that Paul McDonald became last year. (Although Paul married Ashley Greene from Twilight, so who got the last laugh here?)

"American Idol veteran" Colton Dixon was next. Colton was one of the last contestants unfairly and ridiculously cut from last year's top 24, and this year he (allegedly) wasn't even planning to audition, but merely accompanied his sister, Schyler, who was cut just before the top 42. He chose to sing Coldplay's Fix You (which he dedicated to his sister), beautifully, and this year he made the cut. (For something truly tear-jerking, watch this rendition of Fix You by the senior citizens' chorus, Young @ Heart. Have Kleenex in hand.)

And speaking of returning contestants, would this be the year for Brielle Von Hubris (née Hugel)? Her ever-present mother told Ryan, "I look really fat next to you." He said, "You look tan." "It's airbrushed," she explained. Brielle was determined to make it this year, tearing into her final performance of Killing Me Softly. I'm not quite a fan, although I'd love to be surprised by her. Definitely didn't love her departing "I love all of yous" to the judges.

Those Who Didn't Make It
Lauren "There's No Crying in Music" Gray
Neco "Not Quite A" Starr
Richie "I Came to Make Music, Not Recycle It" Law
Blaire "Never Saw You Before" Sieber
Naomi "Who?" Gillies
Clayton "You Look Vaguely Familiar" Farhat
River "Cool Name, Cool Shades, Welcome Back to Anonymity" St. James
Caleb "Even Meatloaf Doesn't Do Meatloaf" Johnson

The show ended with handkerchief-sporting, over-singing, emotional dad Adam Brock. Apparently the judges weren't wowed by his final performance of You Don't Know Me (you don't have to shout every. single. note.) because it "didn't show them who he is." And then he started crying, about how this is his dream, and he was looking at his daughter, and how much he wants to succeed for her, blah blah blah. (Seriously, man. Nut up. You have a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, so stop crying. There's no crying in music, after all.) Randy told him that the judges' decision "was not unanimous" and then the show ended. I'd be shocked but not disappointed if he doesn't make the cut. I hate it when people mistake shouting for blues and soul.

Tonight: more cuts. The never-entertaining pitting the last two contestants against each other. (This year it looks like 15-year-old Eben Franckewitz and 17-year-old David Leathers Jr.) And there will be One. Shocking. Elimination.

Sure there will.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: "American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar's first novel, American Dervish, is an interesting and somewhat unswerving look at a Pakistani family living in America, and the struggles that occur when devotion to their Muslim religion gets in the way.

Hayat Shah is a good-natured preteen growing up in the 1980s. One day, his mother's childhood friend, Mina, comes from Pakistan to live with the Shahs along with her young son, to prevent her ex-husband from taking custody of her child. Hayat becomes immediately infatuated with Mina, and she begins teaching him to read the Quran and understand the meaning behind their religion. Meanwhile, Hayat watches his parents' marriage struggle, with his father's drinking and infidelity, and his mother's constant nagging. One day, Mina begins a relationship with Dr. Nathan Wolfsohn, Hayat's father's partner and best friend. The fact that Nathan is Jewish, a religion that some devout Muslims despise, is not lost on the increasingly observant Hayat, and one day, his actions set a change of events in motion that have ripples for his entire family, as well as Mina and Nathan.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Akhtar is a very good writer and he certainly made Hayat's story a compelling one. I found many of the characters very unsympathetic—however realistic a portrayal of Akhtar's life this may be—and I don't particularly enjoy books whose plot turns on the actions of a jealous, angry child. (I'm reminded of Ian McEwan's Atonement in that way, another book I disliked because of this same issue.) The look at the Muslim religion was very interesting as I know very little about it, but beyond that, I found that the story frustrated me more than moved me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Sentry" by Robert Crais

I love it when a book surprises me, I really do, and it's always terrific when it's a book by an author I'm a fan of. But then again, there is definitely something to be said for writers who deliver consistently great books each time; nothing too different, just the right blend of action and plot, with characters you grow attached to from book to book.

I'm a big fan of Robert Crais' books featuring wisecracking but sensitive PI Elvis Cole, and his partner, former policeman-turned-mercenary-turned-tough guy, Joe Pike. Over the last few years Crais has centered a few of his books around Pike, and although his writing doesn't change, Pike, a man of few words but truly defined values and beliefs, is a powerful presence. In The Sentry, while pumping gas one day, he notices two gang members acting strangely, and winds up stopping them from severely beating a sandwich shop owner. Drawn to the owner's niece, Dru Rayne, he promises to protect them, and tries to intervene when gang members step up their attacks, and Dru and her uncle flee in fear. But Pike quickly discovers that nothing is what it seems, that the number of enemies he should fear is far larger than he realizes, and the only people he can count on are Cole and their associates.

Joe Pike is an interesting character, and I always picture him similar to a less talkative and hammy Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). I love the way Crais has given Pike so much depth and the way he has fleshed out the relationship between him and Elvis Cole. The Sentry has all of the features of Crais' great books—brutal violence, diabolical villains, and fast-paced action. My only criticism of this book is that the main villain's "sidekicks" (I won't say more than that) are really annoying, with a tendency to parrot back a portion of everything he says. Over 400 or so pages, that gets a little wearying. But other than that, this is another Robert Crais book worth picking up.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

This is a terrific book. Jack and Mabel left behind their comfortable lives for the adventure and excitement of settling their own homestead in 1920s Alaska. But after a few brutal winters, the reality of their decision is crippling them both—Jack can't seem to find a way to success despite all of his physical efforts, and Mabel is depressed and lonely, still longing for the child they lost a number of years before. They both worry they might not survive the coming winter, for different reasons.

One night, in a surprising burst of merriment, the couple makes a snow child. The next morning, the snow child is gone—as are the mittens and hat they gave it—but they start glimpsing a young, blonde-haired girl running through the snowy woods, a red fox at her side. At first they both believe the girl, named Faina, is a figment of their imaginations, but she begins showing up at their cabin with gifts of berries and freshly killed game. Yet each night she disappears as mysteriously as she arrives, refusing to stay with the couple, and when the weather turns warmer each year, she disappears for good. As the years pass, Jack and Mabel learn that you can love something that doesn't belong to you, and realize the amazing gifts that Faina has given them, even as circumstances change beyond their wildest dreams.

I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I really loved it. A story of how a couple survives against the odds, both physical and emotional, and how to get past the things that remain unsaid, the book is both grounded in realism and magical at the same time. While certainly there is some level of imagination you must have to accept Faina's character, she brings far more to the story than I expected she would. Eowyn Ivey does a wonderful job of storytelling and makes you feel for all of the characters, even those who seem more taciturn than others. This is a very well-written book that definitely surprises you.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

You are not better than me...

Dear Person Who Believes They Should Be Able to Vote on My Rights,

You don't know me, but for some reason you think you should be able to control my life.

Because you don't agree that I should be able to love and have a life with the person I choose, you think you have the right to prevent me from doing so.

I don't know why you think you should have this power over me.

Maybe your religion tells you that I am wrong. But that is your religion. It is not mine, nor is it the religion of the state or the country we live in.

Maybe you believe that marriage equality threatens "traditional" marriage. Every time I hear that excuse, I'd like someone to show me an example of a couple whose marriage was somehow affected by a same-sex couple's marriage.

But there are no examples. Because this is a lie.

Did Newt Gingrich cheat on his first and second wives because of same-sex marriage?

Did Kim Kardashian remain married for only 72 days because of marriage equality?

Have Donald Trump or Jennifer Lopez or Billy Joel or Nicolas Cage or Paul McCartney been married and divorced multiple times because of marriage equality?


Those who are concerned about protecting marriage should focus on one thing: preventing divorce. That's what destroys marriage. So does infidelity.

The fact that two people who love each other want to make a lifelong commitment to each other doesn't destroy marriage. It never has, and it never will.

The legislature in New Jersey approved marriage equality earlier this week. But Governor Christie vetoed the legislation because he believes that marriage equality should be decided by the voters.

The Maryland Senate approved marriage equality yesterday and it is expected to be approved by the Maryland House and signed into law by Governor O'Malley. But opponents of marriage equality believe the voters should have a say.

If the voters were asked to decide whether women should have the right to vote, it would not have happened in 1920. Who knows how long that might have taken?

If the voters were asked to decide whether African-Americans should have the right to vote, it probably would not have happened when it did.

If the voters were asked to decide whether interracial marriage should be allowed, it probably would not have been approved. And yet there are a number of political and religious leaders in our country who are married to someone of a different race.

My rights are not yours to decide.

I don't care what language you speak, what god you worship, whether you choose to carry a gun, smoke, drink, or if you know every episode of Star Trek by heart.

How you live your life doesn't affect me.

So why does how I choose to live my life concern you at all?

You are not better than me.

Think about that when you have the opportunity to vote on whether all people should have the right to marry whomever they choose.

You should not have the right to vote on my rights.

You are not better than me.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"American Idol" Recap: It's The Las Vegas, Baby!

"This bus goes towards the Las Vegas," said America's most favorite non-English speaker since Balki Bartokomous, Heejun Han. "I'm on this program called American Idol." (I'm still looking for Ashton Kutcher, because I know this kid is punking us with the pidgin English.)

After the 70 remaining contestants heard the news they were moving on, Steven told them they'd be performing in Las Vegas "on the set of Elvis Presley." Umm, yeah. More like the set of "Viva Elvis," a Cirque du Soleil show at the Aria Hotel. They were divided into groups of three or four, and each group would be singing a song from the 1950s or 1960s. But don't get fooled, Ryan warned us. "Even though these songs make you feel good inside, the cuts will be brutal." Welcome to Pleasantville, folks.

First up, Colton Dixon, Cari Quoyeser, Chase Likens and Skylar Laine, who was struggling with the harmonies on Dedicated to the One I Love. But when it came to performance time, the group blended well together, despite Skylar's outfit and hair. The judges praised Colton, Chase, and Skylar, but said that Cari didn't sound as good, so she was sent packing.

(And speaking of the judges, J.Lo clearly raided the wardrobe closet from Dancing with the Stars, while Steven was wearing an animal print blouse (complete with bow tie) that I swear my Grandma Anne wore during the Jewish holidays. Randy was as dressed up as always, sporting a white argyle sweater.)

Friends Ariel Sprague, David Leathers Jr., Gabi Carrubba and Jeremy Rosado met during the Savannah auditions and performed together during Group Day, along with Eben Franckewitz. The group didn't feel as confident about singing Rockin' Robin, and Gabi (whom David referred to as "a diva") wanted another solo. But at performance time, everyone shone (Ariel more so than anyone else, IMHO) and all made it through, even without Megan Corkrey's "caw, caw."

The next group, composed of Adam "Already Overexposed" Brock, Erika Van Pelt (finally we get to see her sing), Shelby "Cannon Fodder" Tweten, and Angie "Too Wacky for Del Ray Beach" Zeiderman sang Great Balls of Fire, with Adam on the piano. They sounded great, but of course, what would the show be without its manufactured drama? Randy told the group, "Let us deliberate and see what your sentence will be." (Way to go, Judge Crapner.) They told Adam, Erika, and Shelby that they were through, then resorted to the same "deliberations" they do when fakely considering saving a contestant before telling Angie that she, too, made it through. (BTW, Adam, wearing a handkerchief in your back pocket and a clashing one in your vest pocket makes you look like a tool. I know. I was voted "Best Dressed" in high school.)

Dressed as if they were about to sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, the group of Brielle Von Hubris, Schyler Dixon and Molly Hunt inexplicably sang Why Do Fools Fall in Love? instead. Brielle and Schyler sounded great, but for some reason, we never heard Molly's solo, yet Steven told her that her individual vocals were weak. He also said he remembered making out to this song (gross) before (surprise) cutting Molly.

We also learned we'd be saying goodbye to Wayne Wilson, Ashley Robles, Stephanie Renae, Tina Torres, Janelle Arthur, and Aubree Dieckmeyer, most of whom we didn't see perform.

The next group—Eben, Haley Johnson, Reed Grimm and Elise "Finally, Camera Time" Testone—decided to "jazz up" The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Reed seemed to get the most solo time (surprise), but the entire group sounded fantastic. The judges gave them a standing ovation, praised Elise for her beatboxing the melody and Reed for some augmented and diminished intervals (I love Steven in his moments of lucidity), and the whole group went through.

After entirely too much set up, we learned that outcast cowboy Richie Law and Jermaine Jones would be the only duet. Richie kept talking pompous smack again, including, "I didn't come here to recycle music, I came to make it." Yet, unbelievably, the two baritones sounded fantastic on their duet of Make it Easy on Yourself. Heck, the Dawg even called them "The Brothers Righteous"! Both made it through, although their interactions are still really awkward.

Rather than bother with their group members, we learned that Hallie Day, Baylie Brown and Chelsea Sorrell all made it through to the next round. (Baylie and Chelsea sounded great in their brief snippets of performance.)

The final group of the first day, Jessica Sanchez, Deandre "Neither Milli nor Vanilli" Brackensick, and Candice Glover took on an upbeat version of Buddy Holly's It Doesn't Matter Anymore. They really tore into the song, with Jessica and Deandre's vocals sounding slightly more impressive than Candice's, and the judges gave them a standing ovation. Randy waxed philosophical, saying, "The future's really bright; when I hear you sing, I say, 'yo.'" (I'm so ready for a 365-day calendar with the quotable Randy Jackson, aren't you?)

The contestants got a little bit of bad news at the end of the day: depending on how many contestants make it through on the second day, the judges might have to go back and cut more contestants from Day 1.

Day 2 started with Scott Daingerfield, Clayton Farhat, Adam Lee Decker and Curtis Gray taking on Jailhouse Rock. It was kinda fun, kinda spastic, but since it was all attractive guys, J.Lo was shimmying. However, the judges' reactions weren't as enthusiastic, and J.Lo pretended she knows music, too, telling the guys they were sharp on the "minor third thing." Scott, Clayton, and Adam made it; Curtis did not. But he did get a "We love you, man" from his group, so all was not lost in bro-town.

Caleb Johnson, Joshua Sanders and two people only referred to as "Blair and River" made it through, as did Joshua Ledet and Shannon Magrane. (Curtis Johnson Jr. and "Amber"(we still don't have her last name) didn't make it through.)

(A group anchored by our own Johnny Bravado decided to hang out in the pool rather than stress out about their song. I wonder if J.Lo got to see Johnny shirtless?)

Next up was a group that called themselves "The Neopolitans," Britnee Kellogg, Jessica Phillips and Courtney Williams, who looks like a cross between a drag queen and a slightly more masculine Melinda Doolittle. They didn't rehearse with the band because all three sing professionally, and they "didn't want to waste the band or the vocal coach's time." (Such nice girls.) They took on the never-successful-on-the-show You Keep Me Hangin' On. I thought all three sounded really good; the judges apparently heard a different rendition, because while they praised Britnee, they didn't like the stylings that Jessica and Courtney brought to the song. Britnee and Courtney made it through; Jessica did not. But that's ok, because "they're not looking for real artists, anyway." Stay classy, Jess.

The trio of Lauren Gray, Wendy Taylor and Mathenee "I Survived Patient Zero" Trico had the day's first run-in with "vocal coach from hell" Peggi Blu. (To see that she knows of what she criticizes, check out Peggi's grand championship win on Star Search. Go to the 2:00 minute mark.) Peggi and Lauren weren't seeing eye to eye because Lauren couldn't seem to get the notes or the phrasing of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow right.

"There's no crying in music!," Peggi exclaimed.
"They're tears to help me focus," Lauren explained.
"Are you on Ritalin?," Peggi inquired.
Lauren said she wasn't.
Peggi warned, "Then focus. Wake up and get a grip!"

Lauren and Wendy sounded terrific during their performance, Mathenee not so much, and he was sent home.

The new, drama-free MIT (Heejun, Jairon Jackson, Phil "Or Maybe It's Philip" Phillips and Neco Starr replacing Cowboy Richie) was a little afraid of Peggi Blu. But thanks to the magic of editing, we got to see how wonderful she can be, as it appeared she took a shine to this group, who sang I Only Have Eyes for You. Neco seemed to have the biggest part, Heejun once again demonstrated his grasp of perfect English while singing, Jairon seemed slightly out of place, and at first I thought Phil was having trouble hearing himself or the music, but it turns out it was just more of Cocker-Hicks Syndrome. "What a crowd, what a mob, what a show," Steven non-sequitered, and then sang—and you know you've wanted to all season long—"Hey Jun..." All four got through after some judge-created drama.

The final group—Jen Hirsh, Creighton Fraker (who looks utterly different every time I see him), Aaron Marcellus and Nick "At Least I Get to Tag Along with the Cool Kids" Boddington—saw the reunion of Groove Sauce minus Reed. Now they call themselves "The Lady and The Spectacles" (all the guys are wearing glasses) and they sing a spot-on rendition of Sealed with a Kiss. And have I mentioned how much I love Jen Hirsh? Creighton ain't no slouch, either, although the judges didn't like Nick as much as the other three, and he was sent home.

And then, in firing squad mode, each group came forward and the judges made further cuts. Going home were: Gabi Carrubba, Schyler Dixon (much to Colton's dismay), Angie Zeiderman, Candice Glover, Jairon Jackson, Britnee Kellogg and—shocker of all shockers for me—Johnny Bravado. (Guess Jennifer wasn't impressed with the shirtlessness?)

Forty-two contestants remain. They'll sing again and then find out who makes the top 24. Plus, next week, Steven (shudder) strips down to his underwear and dives in the pool.

Hopefully in the next 7-8 weeks we'll know who's going to the top 24...

Book Review: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander's first short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, brought him to the literary spotlight in the late 1990s. His magical prose, his creative plots, and his wicked sense of humor had me up late into the night to finish the story collection and laughing (sometimes out loud) as I did. A number of years later, Englander's newest collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, captivated me in much the same way. While on the whole this book isn't quite as good as his first, some of the stories made me gasp just the same.

The title story follows two couples, one visiting from Israel and one which has moved away from the religious fervor of youth, who use an obsession with the Holocaust as the root of a parlor game, with disturbing results. "Camp Sundown" is told from the point-of-view of the director of a summer camp that attracts both children and elderly Jewish adults, and the disaster that ensues when a group of seemingly harmless people are left to their own devices. "How We Avenged the Blums" is a humorous look at how a group of school children react when one of their own is bullied. At first glance, "Sister Hills" looks like the story of an Israeli settlement through the years, but it runs far deeper than that. And that's just four of the eight stories in the collection—not all have the same power, but Englander's writing remains masterful.

Englander has a knack for capturing the Jewish experience from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of settings, but you don't need to be Jewish to enjoy the stories. Some will knock you over, some will make you laugh, and some will make you uncomfortable, but this is a terrific story collection worth reading.

"American Idol" Recap: The Only Thing I Caught Was a Positive Attitude

Last week on American Idol there was vomiting. Fainting. Crying. Trash talk about cowboys. Stage parents. Prejudice toward cops. The so-called "Patient Zero." And virtually no singing.

But Group Day in Hollywood is "the most grueling event ever." For many of the 185 contestants this is "the end of a lifelong dream." (Until they audition again next year.) And of course, "not everyone will survive." (Did I miss the part where they combined Hollywood Week with The Hunger Games?)

The group performances kick off with The Bettys. (Steven wondered why they didn't call themselves "Betty and The Boops." Maybe because they don't know who Betty Boop is?) Anyway, we were reminded of this group's bouts with infighting, vomiting, crying, and sleeplessness as they took to the stage to "sing" Blu Cantrell's Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops). It wasn't pretty. Only Jennifer Malsch and Cari Quoyeser survived the assault on our ears. And then we were treated to extensive footage of eliminated group member Cherie Tucker vomiting and sniffling. WTF? Did we pick up Pepto-Bismol as a sponsor this year? Following someone into the restroom to listen to them vomit is never good television, not even on Fear Factor.

Groove Sauce—composed of Jen Hirsh, Aaron Marcellus, Creighton Fraker, Reed Grimm and the previously unseen Nick Boddington—performed a fantastic rendition of Hold On, I'm Comin'. Seriously, everyone was amazing, but Jen Hirsh was the standout, and not just because she was the only girl in the group. The judges gave the group a standing ovation and Dawg articulated his praise like this: "Yo, I was impressed, yo."

Next up was 679. We were reminded that during rehearsal returning contestant Brielle Von Hugel (I'll now refer to her as Brielle Von Hubris, for her obvious lack of any) bossed her group around, and her equally horrible mother talked smack about Brielle's group member, Kyle Crews, whom she thought would sabotage the entire group's chances. The group members' "parental units" were led in hypocritical prayer by Brielle's mother, who prayed, "Please, Jesus, or I'll have to deal with her when she gets back to the room!" (I'm sure Jesus was thinking, "Like that's the biggest of your problems?")

This group—Kyle, Brielle, Joshua Ledet, Shannon Magrane and someone later identified as "Amber," also sang Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops). To me, Joshua and Shannon were the only standouts, but since the producers love comeuppance more than talent, Brielle and "Amber" also made it through, while Kyle did not. (To which Mrs. Von Hubris remarked, "We love Kyle. He has a good voice." Where was the lightning strike there?)

Make You Believers, the group featuring Amy "Patient Zero from Tent-essee" Braunfield, Dustin Cundiff, Jacquie Cera and Mathenee Treco. We re-lived their angst, with Amy finally finding a group after being ostracized by others because of her illness, but no one else in this group got sick. In fact, Jacquie said, "The only thing I caught was a positive attitude." Oh, really? Then, moments later, Jacquie passed out while applauding for another group. (Sportsmanlike behavior is dangerous, y'all.) But before the quartet became a trio, Jacquie joined her compatriots on stage, to massacre More Than a Feeling. Amy and Dustin forgot their lyrics, everyone sounded horrible, and all but Mathenee were cut, although I thought he seriously shouted through his verse.

We then had our "Don't forget the lyrics montage," which showed some groups forgetting the words altogether, some making up their own lyrics (reminiscent of Season 10 winner Scotty's "nuts of wonder" when he tried singing I Hope You Dance during Group Day last year), and filling in with "oohs" and "ahs."

Troubled group Those Girls and That Guy were up next. In case you forgot, police officer Alisha Bernhardt tried to bully contestants into joining her group, but finally found a home with Christian Lopez, Samantha Novacek and two other unidentified contestants. They promised a "memorable" number (so of course, we got canned footage of the judges and contestants yawning) but didn't impress with Sugarland's Stuck Like Glue. The whole group was cut (I actually thought Christian deserved to stay, but what do I know), and Alisha offered personal security services to any of the judges if they came through Indianapolis.

Jennifer's favorite boytoy, Johnny Keyser (aka Johnny Bravado) and his group, Area 451 were having trouble with the nerves of 17-year-old Imani Handy. She collapsed, was revived, got up again, collapsed again (Johnny Bravado reminded all of us that he saw Imani fainting and caught her in his arms), and yet everyone still thought it was a good idea for her to get on stage and perform, even her mother, who didn't want to stop her from pursuing her dreams. (Okay, I'm all for letting your children pursue their destinies, but if your daughter has fainted twice—and fallen onto hard ground—and she still looks like death warmed over, it's time for you to be a parent and stop the madness. Dr. Phil, out.) But the quartet took the stage, Bryce Garcia forgot the opening lyrics, Kristi Krause was unimpressive, Johnny was his usual smarmy self (and got the flirty smile from J.Lo) and then Imani started singing and...who would have guessed it? She collapsed again. But douchebag Johnny kept singing through the chaos, and even Randy was like, "Stop singing!" Bryce and Kristi were cut, Johnny got the chance to save the day again, and after some uncomfortable begging (and hedging on J.Lo's part), Imani was sent home as well.

The mostly underage Hollywood 5Ariel Sprague (16), Eben Franckewitz (15), David Leathers Jr. (17), Gabi Carrubba (17), and old man Jeremy Rosado (19)—gave a nearly perfect performance of Duffy's Mercy. (I thought Jeremy was the weak link, big time.) All five made it, and their parents came running in for a group hug.

We learned we were saying goodbye to Reese Klockner (who?), last week's dramatic roadkill, Symone Black, and "expectant father" W.T..

And finally...the dramatic-est of the groups, MIT (Most International Team), or Cowboy vs. Asian. The group talked in the confessional about their struggles, but then cowboy Richie Law demanded his own confessional, in which he waxed poetic that, "I'm compromising, but there's no compromise between good and bad," and warning that, "One person in our group is gonna be taken down." Heejun Han shared his fortune cookie wisdom (sorry) that Richie "has a mouth but no ear, he talks but doesn't listen." When they performed, Heejun sounded great ("Beautiful," exclaimed J.Lo), Richie sounded adequate, Jayron Jackson wasn't remarkable, and Philip Phillips gave us his best Taylor Hicks convulsions. All four made it to the next round because the judges "knew how good they were" in previous rounds. And after they celebrated their good news, Heejun offered a totally staged apology to Richie as well as "Mr. and Mrs. Cowboy," because of "all the craps [sic] I said about you on the show."

Since I didn't watch the auditions, is Heejun's English really that bad, or is this an act? And does he need the subtitles?

Also making it through were Erika Van Pelt, Hallie Day, and Elise Testone (all of whom we've barely seen), and Adam "I Have a Huge Black Woman Inside Me" Brock.

The next day (aka "the ultimate litmus test") would be the last opportunity for solo performances, and all contestants would be accompanied by the band, and could play an instrument. While J.Lo went to call her lawyer to make sure the video of her slapping Marc Anthony was pulled from YouTube make a phone call, Steven and Randy had an impromptu jam session with the contestants.

Joshua Ledet was up first, and shared that his anxiety about flying nearly kept him from coming to Hollywood. He sang Christina Perri's Jar of Hearts, and I thought he gave it a great, soulful twist, without treading down the oversinging path so many contestants do. The judges gave him a standing ovation.

Colton Dixon, who came thisclose to making it last year, sang Daughtry's What About Now while accompanying himself on the keyboard. I thought he sounded good, not great, and the two-tone hair does him no favors.

Philip Phillips sang a fantastic, spastic rendition of Wicked Game by Chris Isaak, which wowed the judges nearly as much as his guitar wowed Randy.

Jen Hirsh blew everyone away with Georgia on My Mind, myself included. Honestly, her voice is fantastic, and she has great power but she controls it. While it's certainly premature to label someone the winner after just a few appearances, but if she can endure this type of performance, she absolutely should win, despite the fact that she doesn't fit the typical "winner" mold.

"Starving artist" Creighton Fraker also wowed the crowed and judges with What a Wonderful World. Jayron Jackson and "Amber" didn't deliver on their solos, apparently because of the rain and thunder in Southern California.

Apparently Reed Grimm wanted to sing a cappella, but in the interest of drama was told allegedly an hour before his performance that he needed to sing with the band. Vocal coach Peisha McPhee (Katherine's mom!) tried to knock some sense into Reed, who was hemming and hawing and wanting to talk to his mommy as time was running out. (I know Peisha wanted to smack him and say, "My daughter didn't get the lead role in Marilyn: The Musical because the other actress slept with the director. You think you've got problems?") Assistant musical director Michael Orland came to the rescue, and after another tearful conversation with mom, Reed decided to "do something different": sing Georgia on My Mind while accompanying himself on the drums. ("There's another Casey there," the Dawg proclaimed, because apparently only one person has ever sang that song before.)

Young Shannon Magrane, wearing shorts a little too short for a just-turned-17-year-old, powered through What a Wonderful World. Equally young Skylar Laine, also suffering from the contagion sweeping the contestants, received 3 liters of fluids but powered through The Band Perry's You Lie. ("She reminds me of Reba," J.Lo proclaimed.) Country mama Rachelle Lamb, who brought her young daughter to her audition, hit a Kelly Clarkson-like falsetto note during the contestants' jam session earlier in the day, which appeared to take its toll on her voice when she sang Miranda Lambert's The House That Built Me, even messing up the lyrics.

And then the nearly ubiquitous Adam Brock closed out the (few) solos by proclaiming, "We need a little white chocolate in here," and singing (again) Georgia on My Mind. I love the richness of his voice but find his overall persona a bit grating. Randy asked about the significance of the handkerchief in his back pocket, and Adam explained that it once belonged to his grandfather, who was his biggest fan, and also, "Steven Tyler wiped his brow with it" after the jam session.

Then came another irritating dramatic quirk—the separation into hotel rooms. Room 1 had Creighton, Adam, Jen Hirsh, and Hallie Day; Room 2 had Phil Phillips, Shannon Magrane, Eben, and Skyler; Room 3 had Brittany Kerr, Jennifer Malsch, Rachelle Lamb and Jayrod Gibson; and Room 4 had Stephanie Renee, Baylie Brown, Brittany Kellogg and Angie Zeiderman.

As Room 1 waited for the judges' decision, you saw that the room also had Josh Ledet and Johnny Bravado, so what did you think would happen? Room 1 was saved (and we learned that this room also contained Lauren Gray and Jermaine Jones, whomever that is).

Room 2 also got good news from the judges, and we saw that Reed and Jessica Phillips (whose fiancé had a stroke) also were in that room.

Room 3 started getting restless after hearing cheers from the other room, and after a catfight between Rachelle and hopeful Madison Shanley, the judges shared the bad news that they wouldn't be continuing in the competition. (But not before Randy shared—FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS SEASON—that this season "had the best talent ever!" Already with the hyping? Sigh.)

Room 4, which also contained the feuding-no more Richie and Heejun, and young Gabi Carrubba also heard good news.

Tomorrow night, it's on to Vegas, because why not drag this out a while longer? But we get the return of frightening vocal coach Peggi Blu, so how bad could it be? (My favorite quote in the coming attractions is, "There's no crying in music!")

Monday, February 13, 2012

Great Grammy music...

This year's Grammy Awards telecast, which aired last night, juxtaposed some fantastic live performances (including one from the night's big winner, Adele), an historic reunion of the Beach Boys, and two emotionally provoking tributes.

While I really enjoyed the tribute to Glen Campbell, which featured The Band Perry, Blake Shelton, and Campbell himself (singing Rhinestone Cowboy), I can't seem to find that footage on YouTube. (Grr.)

Beyond that, one of my favorite performances of the night came courtesy of the amazingly talented Bruno Mars, channeling his best James Brown with a rendition of Runaway Baby.

Of course, the moment everyone was waiting for was Jennifer Hudson's tribute to Whitney Houston, who died suddenly the night before the Grammys. Her pitch-perfect, not-quite-duplicate rendition of Houston's mega-hit, I Will Always Love You cemented Hudson as an exceptional vocalist and performer, and even garnered praise from Dolly Parton, who wrote and originally recorded the song.

This was a moment for which DVRs were created.

Book Review: "Tempest" by Julie Cross

Jackson Meyer is your typical rich college kid, spending time with his girlfriend, Holly, skipping class when he can, and dealing with a difficult relationship with his workaholic father. Everything about Jackson is typical except for the fact that he's a time traveler. He can't go too far into the past or the future, and is just beginning to understand the limitations of his time traveling abilities with his best friend, Adam, the only person who knows the truth.

One day armed intruders break into Holly's dorm room determined to capture Jackson; in a struggle, Holly is shot. In a panic, Jackson jumps back two years, to 2007, but then he finds he's stuck and can't get back to 2009 to save Holly. So he decides to settle in 2007, get to understand his abilities, and try to befriend Holly, in the hopes he can change history and save her. But the more time he spends trying to understand time travel, the more secrets he uncovers, along with a group of people called the "Enemies of Time," who want to enlist Jackson in their work—or they'll kill him.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I raced through it—finished nearly the entire book in one day—and was immediately captivated by this story of a teenager unsure of his abilities, one whose life has been utterly turned upside down, and the girl he is determined to protect—even from himself. This book has great characters, a terrifically compelling plot, and fascinating action; in my opinion, its only flaw is the complex genesis of Jackson's abilities, the people who have been tracking him and others like him, and the so-called "Enemies of Time." I had a little trouble keeping track of certain characters' motivations and what their places were in the plot, so I found that a bit jarring from time to time. But beyond that, I thought this story of star-crossed (and time-crossed) lovers was really memorable, and I can't believe Julie Cross is going to make me wait until 2013 to find out what happens next!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RIP, Whitney Houston: We will always love you...

While perhaps not completely surprising, I was still shocked by the news of Whitney Houston's death this evening at age 48. Even though her life of late was marked far more by her struggles with substance abuse, her rocky marriage to Bobby Brown, and the damage to her incredible voice, there was no forgetting her impact on the music world.

This is one of the first images I remember of Whitney Houston, the cover of her first album. It seemed almost magical that a voice so powerful, so amazingly rich, could come from a woman so beautiful.

Whitney Houston's music featured prominently on the soundtrack of my last few years of high school, through college and beyond, everything from You Give Good Love, Saving All My Love for You, The Greatest Love of All, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, All At Once to the unforgettable soundtrack from The Bodyguard, from which spawned not only I Have Nothing and Run to You, but of course, probably her signature hit, I Will Always Love You. She performed an indelible rendition of One Moment in Time at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and raised the bar for future performances of the National Anthem with her version during Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

Of course, the pop culture savant in me won't forget her 1985 appearance on the hit show Silver Spoons, where she performed a version of Saving All My Love for You with the words "holding each other" substituted for "making love" (this is what you notice at age 15). God bless YouTube for this!

However tragic and untimely this loss is, we should all be grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Whitney Houston's exceptional talent in our lifetimes. And just think, with the recent deaths of Amy Winehouse, Etta James, and Whitney Houston, heaven has one heck of a trio, with accompaniment by Clarence Clemons, and commentary from Don Cornelius.

RIP, Whitney. Thank you for your music.

Book Review: "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This book is a wonderfully special treasure. A book about the strength of love, and the pull it has, over distance and over years, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats captivated me from the start and didn't let me go, and now I can't stop thinking about it. Don't you love books like that?

Just shortly after her graduation from law school, Julia Win's steadfastly reliable father, a successful attorney in his own right, disappears without a trace. Although he told his family he was meeting a client in Boston, his trail ends in Bangkok, and no further evidence can be found. One day, in a box of her father's things, Julia finds a letter her father wrote more than 50 years before to a woman in Burma, a woman Julia never heard of before. Determined to find out who this woman was, and where her father might have gone, Julia leaves home and work and heads to Burma (now Myanmar), to this woman's village. She has no idea what she'll find, and what she uncovers is a story about overcoming grief and sadness, the beauty of the senses, and the amazing power of love. The book cuts back and forth between the present and the Burma of the 1940s and 50s.

I had never heard of this book until I saw it on Amazon's list of February's best books. I was worried that the story might be too sappy, too precious to enjoy, but I was proven wrong. While romance is at the heart of the book (no pun intended), there are so many other things at play as well—happiness, sadness, betrayal, courage—that I was completely immersed. Jan-Philipp Sendker has created a memorable story with wonderful characters whose vividness had me seeing their story unfold before my eyes. I really loved this book.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

"American Idol" Recap: If It's a Singing Competition, Why is There No Freaking Singing?

Dear Nigel Lythgoe,

I realize you're trying to ratchet up the drama for Season 11, but there was NOT ONE PERFORMANCE DURING THE ENTIRE HOUR of tonight's show. I loved the montage of previous group meltdowns, complete with glimpses of Gina Glocksen, the Kristen McNamara/Nathaniel Marshall feud, Tatiana Del Toro's emotional breakdown, and of course, the beloved Brittenum twins ("I don't do groups!"), but an hour of people trying to find groups and fighting about songs and harmonies and sleeping and sickness without any songs being performed is just crap. Seriously.


So at the end of yesterday's Hollywood Week episode, what Ryan "I Wanna Be Matt Lauer" Seacrest called "the most intense, stressful, punishing night of the contestants' lives," young Symone Zaire Black fainted after singing (quite well, I might add) and fell off the stage.

As the crew and medical staff tended to Symone, J.Lo needed to make it all about her. "Poor baby," she said. "I was going to say that was one of the prettiest sounds I heard all day." (It's not you, J.Lo, it's her.)

But then it was clear what it was all about: product placement. "Anyone got a Coke for her?," the medic asked. Luckily, it appeared Symone wasn't hurt too badly and was dehydrated, so she needed to go to the hospital with her "stage dad," but not before learning she made it through to the next round.

Also waiting for decisions from the last episode were Lauren Mink (of the key changes during Heart's Alone) and Jeremy Rosado, as well as Ethan Jones, whom we met in St. Louis, and learned his father went to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. But we didn't hear Ethan sing a note, which didn't bode well.

Jeremy made it through ("along with Nico Starr"); Lauren and Ethan did not. All told, 185 contestants were left.

Producer Ken Warwick put the contestants through their paces as they got started with group numbers. They allegedly had 20 songs to choose from (including Duffy's Mercy, Sugarland's Stuck Like Glue, Joy to the World (no, not the Christmas song), More Than a Feeling, Somebody to Love and a popular favorite this year—and a song sang during Season 4's group night, Blu Cantrell's Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops)). The twists this year? Groups could only be 4 or 5 members and had to be a mix of contestants from Day 1 and Day 2, which of course led to endless minutes of people wandering around saying "Day 1?" "Are you Day 2?"

Having difficulty finding a group are police officer Alisha Bernhardt (mainly because she's a pushy b*tch) and Savannah auditioner Amy Brunfield, who lives in a tent in the woods, and is now suffering from the flu, so no one wants her in her group. Alisha recruits Amy and Dustin Cundiff and needs to find one other person, but her refusal to sing anything other than Joy to the World or Stuck Like Glue leads her group to get poached by Jackie Serra and Matheny Trico, who want to sing More Than a Feeling. (But Amy has to promise not to get Jackie sick.)

Heejun Han, Philip Phillips and Jayron Jackson have formed a group called "MIT" (Most International Team), and then agree to bring in cowboy Richie Law. Season 10 Hollywood Week contestant Brielle Von Hugel (whose group member was the woefully underappreciated Pia Toscano last year) is back, bossing around her group members, including Kyle Cruz, who was apparently told by the judges during his audition he had one of the best voices they'd ever heard. (Not that we heard it, of course.)

Brielle's mother watched from the sidelines, acknowledging her daughter's shortcomings ("she's bossy") but, as any good stage mother will, also casts aspersions on Kyle Cruz's voice. ("I don't want to say he doesn't have a good voice, but...")

Symone returns from the hospital with her father, George, who tells the camera, "I'm not a stage dad. I'm just a father trying to help his daughter achieve her dreams. I'm a mentor...and I want to be a famous mentor." (Gee, I was convinced, weren't you?) Luckily, four girls quickly welcome Symone into their group, and after a slightly creepy "secret huddle" of George and Symone's group members, he leaves his daughter to rehearse.

I can't tell you how much I love watching people throw up or talk about throwing up on television. There's no better way to spend an hour, you know?

Meanwhile, there's trouble with group MIT. Apparently cowboy Richie Law is trying to ensure his group's performance is interesting, so he wants the group to learn choreography(!) and harmonies(!) that the others are struggling with, especially Heejun.

"I don't know how they do it in cowboy town," he says. "Phil had a kidney stone before, and cowboy had a...brain stone." He says he doesn't have a good feeling about the group's chances (although he doesn't appear to be offering any suggestions), and then he said, "Now I have a bad perspective towards cowboys. Even the Dallas Cowboys." Oh, that Heejun.

All-female group The Bettys is melting down, what with one sick group member, one whose voice doesn't do well when she stays up late, and another who just wants to go to bed, leaving poor Jennifer to cry and lament on her own, until Brianna Bell tearfully returns and exclaims, "I'm not leaving you!" (Part of me was waiting for Jennifer Hudson's And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going to play in the background, but maybe that's too much synergy for the producers.)

And then it's performance time. Some groups are ready; some, like The Bettys, who are first up, aren't quite there. And just as they start to sing...The. Episode. Ends.

Next week: More contestants collapse under the pressure of Hollywood Week. (Nigel, injuries work during So You Think You Can Dance. Collapsing just isn't that sexy.)

And it looks like we get the whole finalists-in-different-hotel-rooms scenario again, too. I can't wait.

Until next week!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"American Idol" Recap: (Fallin' off) The Front of the Stage...

Yes, I know, I shouldn't make fun of "the most shocking thing ever to happen in Hollywood week," but I felt the way the producers teased this was truly more shocking than most of this episode.

But more on the fallin' (and yes, there's some Alicia Keys for you, too) later. It's Hollywood Week, y'all!

Can someone please watch the opening animation on the next episode frame by frame and tell me if they show Taylor Hicks' picture along with the other winners? I see Kelly, Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie, Jordin, David, Kris, Lee, and "The Body," but I swear I didn't see Taylor. Hmm.

As we watch footage of contestants being awoken from their beds to head to Hollywood (some have never even been on a flying machine before), we learn that 309 of "the nation's elite" will try their luck to become Nigel Lythgoe's America's chosen one. Like he does every year, Ryan "It's Not Time for the Suit Just Yet" Seacrest explains that the group will be divided in half, and for many, today is the first—and last—day in Hollywood.

The judges gather to share words of wisdom with the contestants, and Steven is ready with the crazy first thing in the morning, giving us his best Wizard of Oz:
What makes the dawn rise with thunder,
What makes the Sphinx the seventh wonder?
What makes the hottentot so hot?
Who put the "ape" in apricot?
What have they got that I ain't got?
Jennifer, all librarian hair and scads of purple eyeshadow, went the Paula Abdul route, telling the contestants not to let their nerves get the best of them and that she loves them. (Boy, I'm already really cynical.) And the Dawg, unable to be anything but the Dawg, simply yells, "Season 11 is ON!" (Truly the articulate one, no?)

Note to the producers: The little "record" sign in the corner of the screen sometimes doesn't fool me into thinking someone recorded the segment on their iPhone or Flip camera. Just thought you should know...

First up to sing for his life, Johnny Keyser from the St. Louis auditions. Johnny Keyser during whose audition Jennifer couldn't stop shouting "You're a star!" and "I love you!" Johnny Keyser who already believes he's head and shoulders above everyone else out there. (I can tell by the cocky half-grin. Trust me, the non-confident can smell the overly confident a mile away.)

He chooses to sing Dreamin' by Amos Lee (great song choice) much in the style of his audition, with more vocal gymnastics than Nastia Liukin and both Hamm twins could throw into a floor routine. I think if Kara DioGuardi hadn't gotten so much heat for objectifying Casey James in Season 9, J.Lo would totally have Johnny take off his shirt. But instead she just kept yelling "Johnny" and "We love Johnny" while he was singing. Way to keep him humble.

Johnny Bravado (I'm totally trademarking that if he makes it into the finals, so back off, Michael Slezak) was juxtaposed with the non-confident Heejun Han, who shared that he was overwhelmed by how beautiful and tall everyone else was. "Even the guys are beautiful," he self-deprecatingly commented. "What do they eat?"

Heejun trotted out his audition song, Michael Bolton's(!) How Am I Supposed to Live Without You. I like the tone of his voice, although I think he strained a bit, but the judges were impressed.

Both Johnny and Heejun, along with nameless others, made it through.

We then were treated to a quick montage of three other successful contestants: Elise Testone, with a bluesy, scratchy (in a good way) version of Jamiroquai's Virtual Insanity; Season 6 returnee Baylie Brown, who sounded somewhat beautiful and somewhat unremarkable; and Hallie Day, with the old chestnut, Natural Woman.

Next up was Galveston auditioner Jen Hirsh, who needed to overcome her fidgety nervousness. She sang Patty Griffin's Up to the Mountain, which would have been Crystal Bowersox's first single had she not been sacrificed not lost to Lee Dewyze. Jen sounded great, and I hope we'll see more of her.

Lauren Gray brought lots of raspy soul to her song (One and Only, same as her audition), and got so into her performance that Randy had to wave for a minute or two before she noticed he wanted her to stop. (No, Randy, you're not irrelevant. Not at all...) Both Jen and Lauren made it through.

After a montage of unsuccessful auditions from Heather Youmans, Sascha Julian, and Candice Russell, complete with lots of begging for second chances, Steven went backstage to give the contestants a pep talk. He said he wanted to see "snapping, yelling, and freaking out."

That auspicious intro led us to Phil Phillips, whom we first met in Savannah. (Never flown on plane except to jump out of it, folks.) Phil, of the super-cool acoustic Thriller audition, had to be onstage without his guitar. Would he survive? Nearly miming playing the guitar, he sang an interesting rendition of Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, which left the judges a little perplexed.

Next up, Pittsburgh auditioner Reed Grimm, who has been onstage since he was two. He destroyed sang I've Got a Golden Ticket from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, throwing in lots of scatting and hammy playing to the audience. ("I've got a golden ticket...and so do all of us here!") There's always one over-the-top contestant I hate (cough, Jacob Lusk, cough) every season. It will be interesting to see if this season's model is Reed Grimm or Johnny Bravado.

Travis Orlando, who was cut during Round 1 of Hollywood week last season, feels he knows what he needs to do now. Plus, his mother walked out on their family. He sang All I Do, and although I thought vocally it was better than the overdone auditions of several others, the judges chose to send Travis back to reality again. Poor kid.

Apparently we also said goodbye to "early favorites" Ramiro Garcia, Wolf Hamlin, and Jenni Schick. Sixty-eight people were cut the first day.

Leading off Day 2 was Adam Brock, who belted Stormy Weather during his Pittsburgh audition, and told the camera that there is a large black woman inside of him. He lamented about being away from his baby daughter for possibly a long while, but knew it was for the good of all of them, blah blah blah. He chose to sing Walking in Memphis, because Jennifer said during his audition that his voice reminded him of Marc Cohn's. I thought he oversang it—a lot—but he has a great voice, so, we'll see.

Mr. Popper's Daughter (aka Jane Carrey) was up next. She did some overconfident prattling before her performance, which you knew spelled doom or you've never watched a Hollywood episode before. Her quirky rendition of CCR's Looking out My Back Door wasn't overly impressive (it ended with a "squee" I thought at first was microphone reverb), and she was sent packing. But she got a pep talk from Dad, apparently, so it wasn't all bad.

The very tall (and young) Shannon Magrane sang a robust version of Fallin', and she reminds me of Ayla Brown from Season 5. Maybe because they were both tall. Whatever.

David Leathers, Jr., whom we all loved in Savannah, is apparently quite the ladies' man, despite the fact that his voice hasn't changed yet and the producers thought he needed subtitles at one point. He sang Celine Dion's Because You Loved Me, and hit a lot of impressive notes, but what happens when his voice gets all Peter Brady in A Time to Change?

(Believe me, I've been there. When I was 11 and in a summer camp performance of The Sound of Music, I had a higher voice than the girl who played Liesl, and I had to sing some of her high notes. Now she performs on Broadway and I'm here recapping television shows. Yeah, life's fair.)

Jessica Phillips, who auditioned in Portland and shared the story of her fiancé, Angelo, who suffered a stroke, sang All The Man I Need, quite well, as Angelo watched from the audience. Shannon, David, and Jessica all made it through, along with Angie Zeiderman and "NBA cheerleader" Brittany Kerr, who apparently didn't even merit a montage.

Also making it through were "mobile DJ" Erika Van Pelt, who has a great bluesy voice; Creighton Fraker (awesome name but ditch the hat), who sang Queen's Somebody to Love; and Aaron Marcellus, who boasted, "this is for Jennifer and the ladies," and then sang (I think) Barbra Streisand's Starting Here, Starting Now. (I don't know because he caterwauled without a lyric through the middle portion of the clip we saw.)

Lauren Mink, who runs a program for adults with disabilities, was in the last group. She appears to be the rare contestant who feels blessed no matter what happens, and sang Heart's Alone, but apparently changed keys several times. Self-proclaimed germophobe Jeremy Rosado told J. Lo she was breathtaking and then sang Superstar a little too breathlessly for my taste, as was his continuous patter with the judges. (Although apparently it gave J.Lo goosebumps, or she was checking her self-tanner.)

Our final performer of the night was 16-year-old Symone Zaire Black, she of the afore-mentioned rendition of (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay. She has a terrific voice and great stage presence. After singing, while answering a question from the judges, she somehow tripped and fell off the stage, hitting her head. And then the credits rolled.

Will Symone be ok? Will there be drama when the contestants start the group numbers? Will J.Lo cry?

I'll say yes to all three. Back at you tomorrow with another recap!