Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: "Carry the One" by Carol Anshaw

Wow. I loved this book.

Late one night, after Carmen's wedding reception, a car containing several stoned wedding guests, including her siblings, Alice and Nick; her new sister-in-law (and Alice's girlfriend), Maude; Nick's new girlfriend, Olivia; and Tom, an aspiring singer and sometime-boyfriend of one of Carmen's friends, accidentally hits and kills a young girl on a dark country road. The accident affects each of them differently, but sticks with each of them for the rest of their lives. Carry the One follows Nick, Alice, and Carmen over a period of 25 years, as they struggle with love, relationships, marriage, raising children, career success, political activism, and the pull of addiction. The book deals with the heavy issues—loving your parents despite your "childhood from hell," letting an addict hit rock bottom without trying to save them, fighting not to love someone you know will hurt you repeatedly—but just as deftly deals with the humor, pathos, and delights of everyday life.

What I loved so much about this book is how quickly I was hooked into the characters' lives. I understood what motivated them, what made them happy or disappointed them, what they wanted most from life, and what their fears were. Even if I couldn't completely sympathize with each of the characters throughout the entire book (Carmen, in particular, can be more prickly than Nick or Alice), I felt totally immersed in the flow of the story and the way their lives progressed. And while this book isn't without its drama, some of the quieter moments are so beautifully written. I've seen some fantastic reviews of this book and a lot of lukewarm reviews (although it appears some of those stem from confusion about the plot), but I can unequivocally say this has been one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Book Review: "I Am an Executioner: Love Stories" by Rajesh Parameswaran

As I've mentioned a number of times before, I avoided reading short stories and short story collections for years because I didn't enjoy getting attached to a character or getting drawn into a plot, only to have it end fairly quickly. But then I realized how a good writer can often give their stories so much depth that you feel as if you've actually read a novel. I'm glad I finally opened my mind in this way, because I've had the opportunity to read some exceptional short stories over the years.

Rajesh Parameswaran's debut collection, I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, introduced me to a writer with some terrific promise. A number of the nine stories in this collection started with fascinating ideas and memorable characters, and left me thinking about them even as I moved on to the next story. While a few of the more experimental stories fell flat for me, there are definitely some stories to savor, including the opening story, "The Infamous Bengal Ming," narrated by a tiger who realizes he has fallen in love with his trainer at the zoo; "The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan," which tells of a former CompUSA employee so drawn to becoming a doctor that he actually masquerades as one; "Demons," in which a woman's wish for a moment's peace from her husband's nagging leads to disastrous results during Thanksgiving; and "Bibhutibhushan Mallik's Final Storyboard," narrated by the art director of a famous Indian movie director who wants to break away from his boss and old friend to make his own movies and start his own life anew. I'm not much of a fan of the more free-form story styles, a category into which two of the stories I liked the least fell, because I felt they distracted me from the heart of the characters and the narrative.

I really marveled at Parameswaran's ability to capture many different voices, from the housewife to a train station manager with an inflated sense of self-importance, to tigers and elephants. (My biggest problem with the title story was the voice of the main character, who used a pidgin-type of English I found tremendously distracting.) The stories that worked best for me in this collection were those which laid out the plot fairly simply, only to let me discover all of the amazing nuances of character and narrative he created. I definitely found some of the characters occupying my mind—and some even infiltrated my heart, which is the mark of an excellent storyteller. I look forward to seeing what else Parameswaran has up his sleeve in the future!

AI Results Show Recap: Kind of Like Watching "The Rose"...

Well, it was bound to happen sometime. After escaping her "vacation home" in the bottom three maybe four times the entire season, Elise was finally sent home on a fairly paint-by numbers results show which featured Katy Perry as Military Barbie, cranky comments from Uncle Jimmy, the dancing elf that Stefano has become since last season, and Randy wearing a "Yo Yo Yo" pendant now. (I swear, if I see him on QVC in the off-season hawking his jewelry, I will vomit.)

Our contestants received 58 million votes Wednesday night, which apparently was 10 million greater than this time last year. (Amazing what happens when everyone is talented and have different types of voices, no?) To continue with our Queen theme, Ryan (stop it) introduced Queen Extravaganza, a band that apparently Brian May and Roger Taylor chose in a web contest to tour with them. Great band, and the lead singer eerily looks a bit like Freddie Mercury, especially around the mouth. It's a little freakish.

After a Ford Music Video to B.O.B.'s Magic, in which Skylar was the star, and the incredibly pointless meeting between the contestants and the lowlifes at TMZ (at which Nigel Lythgoe inexplicably showed up, further proving he's the one who not only causes half the scandals, but leaks them, too), we got down to Kieran dimming the lights. (I really don't like the whole bringing the contestants down in groups to hear the results thing they're doing, especially when the pairings are totally obvious. I liked when they'd just ambush them on the couch.)

Jessica and Elise were first to learn their fates. Jimmy called Jessica's rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody a "big mistake," but called her Dance with My Father "magnificent." Jimmy didn't like Elise singing I Want It All, calling it something he'd hear in "a nightclub somewhere in the back of beyond," while her choice of Jimi Hendrix's Bold As Love was "doubling down on the bad choices." By this point, Elise had pretty much had it, and she uttered, "I just can't win." This week's most annoying fakeout from Ryan went to Jessica: "Jessica, it's not looking good...for the other five contestants. You are safe."

For some reason, Casey "Zach Galifianakis used to look like this" Abrams was back again, looking more like a homeless person than ever. He prattled about pranks they played on the contestants during last season's tour, I guess as a lead-in to Ryan's announcement about tickets going on sale. And then our favorite squishable singer from last season, Stefano (no more "Langone," apparently) came out to sing his new song, I'm on a Roll. It's a danceable tune, all about how everything is going his way. I think the verses are far too low for his voice, but he sounds good on the chorus. It sounds a lot like a lot of songs on the radio. Kudos for the color coordination of his sneakers (red with black bottoms) with his backup dancers (white with red bottoms). (At one point, Stefano came over and danced by the judges' table, taking J.Lo's hands and shaking Steven's. Like a child, Randy desperately held out his hand, too.)

(As an aside, what is with all of the random hashtags they keep posting throughout the show. Do people really use #stefanoonidol or #telljimmy when they're tweeting? I usually use #shutuprandy or #couldnttheygetabettermentor, if anything.)

Next up, the BFF pairing of Hollie and Joshua for the second week in a row. Like we don't know what's going to happen here? India.Airie apparently tweeted her pleasure about Joshua singing her song so well. Jimmy praised Hollie but wondered if her turnaround was too little, too late, and said if Joshua got voted off, "there's something wrong with the competition, the voting, and the world." Fear not, Uncle Jimmy, Joshua was safe, after Ryan told Hollie, "Last week you reached new heights, this week, you're in the bottom three." (Umm, she was in the bottom three last week, too, even after reaching those new heights. I wish the judges and the writers would pay attention to what actually happens on the show from week to week.)

Katy Perry suited up in sexy military wear to sing Part of Me. With all the people rolling around the stage in camos, I was reminded of a far better military-themed performance, Brandon and Jeanine dancing to Battlefield by Jordin Sparks, on Season 4 of SYTYCD.

On to our final pair, Skylar and Phillip. Jimmy said Skylar did a "very competent" job with The Show Must Go On (more like fricking amazing, IMHO) but called her performance of Tattoos on This Town "self-indulgent," because she dedicated it to her hometown. "You can't just dedicate a song to one town." (By that logic, wouldn't Jessica's dedicating Dance with My Father to her own father be considered self-indulgent as well, since it was only one father?) He said that while the judges thought Skylar won Round 1 of the Wednesday night performances, "she was knocked out in Round 2." Of Phillip's performances, Jimmy had very little kind things to say. He explained that Phillip wasn't feeling well, so his performances were missing his usual energy, and he felt that because of this week, he "has left an opening for someone other than Phillip Phillips in the finale."

Not so, Jimmy, as Phillip was declared safe and Skylar was sent to the stools. Briefly, however, because Ryan then told Skylar she was safe, leaving Hollie and Elise. And, as expected, Elise was eliminated. (I heard her say to Ryan, "well, the good news is they get to hear me sing Whole Lotta Love again." And see how much J.Lo liked it? (She was actually crying and rocking out at the same time.)

And there you have it. Goodbye to our very own Janis Joplin. Remember, some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed and some say love, it is a razor that leads your soul to bleed.

Five contestants remain. I honestly have no idea what will happen once the judges get Hollie sent home next week. Maybe more standing ovations for Joshua?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

AI Recap: I Smell the Finish Line...

The Season 11 finale is less than a month away, kids. Who's gotta have it? Who wants the finish line?

Apparently Ryan was so sick last night that there was a chance he wasn't going to be able to host the show and (shudder) Nigel Lythgoe would have stepped in. (Once I found that out I decided not to get snarky about how tired he was looking.) That being said, J.Lo looked like she was auditioning to play the lead in a remake of Goldfinger (or, as a friend commented last night, C3PO), Steven wore a sequined jumpsuit-type thing I swear I've seen on Beyonce's tour (but the jacket manned it up), and Randy wore a lapel pin that said, "YO," which proves he's just desperate for attention. (Watch him follow J.Lo and Steven as they greet the audience at the start of the show. He is desperate to touch as many audience members as possible.)

Last night was the first time since Season 5 that there would be an official Queen-themed night. We saw the contestants talking with Roger Taylor and Brian May (and honestly, Jessica and Joshua looked like they hadn't a clue who they were speaking with), and then we were entertained (using the term loosely) by a medley of Queen hits sung by the contestants—Fat Bottomed Girls, Another One Bites the Dust, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Elise, Joshua, and Skylar were probably the strongest of the singers, but it was fairly lackluster all together.

The contestants each sang two songs, one from Queen and one of their "personal choosing." (Oh, and they also got two sets of phone numbers. 866 numbers, not 800 numbers, you naughty people.) Again this week, I'll recap both performances together.

Jessica kicked things off with an oddly choppy version of Bohemian Rhapsody, previously performed by Constantine Maroulis in Season 4, and Kellie Pickler in Season 5. The whole performance started out in black and white, a la The Wizard of Oz, and then when she (very briefly) got into the rock part of the song, the broadcast went color. As always, I thought Jessica's vocals were great but the song just didn't work for me. Although Steven told Jessica that "Freddie [Mercury] would be proud" of her version, he confirmed that "rock is not your forte." J.Lo said she expected more attitude from the performance, more "throwing your hair and running around the stage," but then said "all in all it was really great." (No, J.Lo, if you have criticisms like that, it wasn't really great.) Randy praised Jessica for showing great restraint: "She sang no runs at all in the entire song, yo!" He also encouraged her to channel Tina Turner when taking on rock songs, as she knows how to perform them. But all in all, Randy loved it.

For her second performance, Jessica chose to sing Luther Vandross' Dance with My Father, already tackled this season by the later-disqualified Jermaine Jones, Season 4's Scott Savol, and last season's Jacob Lusk. Jessica's dad is about to be deployed to Singapore, and has served in Afghanistan before. Ryan thanked her father for his service, and then thanked Jessica(!) "for the fine work you do." I thought she looked beautiful during that performance (the wind machine helped), and again, sang the song very, very well, but there didn't seem to be as much of an emotional connection as I thought there would be given the dedication to her father and the situation. (At one point after the judges started talking, Jessica was tearing up, and the cynic in me couldn't help but think of William Hurt's character in Broadcast News. Great movie, BTW. Add it to your Netflix queue if you've never seen it.) J.Lo explained that Luther was one of her favorite singers, but that Jessica's performance "was the best I've ever heard this song sung." (Exaggerate much, J.Lo?) Steven said, "I don't think you could sing a song bad," while Randy continued waxing poetic about the level of talent this season, remarking that "all of you could jump on the charts right now." Oh, and Jessica's dad will be in the audience tonight.

Our favorite spitfire, Skylar, was up next, singing The Show Must Go On, which Paris Bennett performed amazingly in Season 5, and Carly Smithson sang in Season 7. Despite all of the bombs bursting in air or whatever, I thought Skylar did a terrific job with the song, because she captured the emotion and pathos of it (this was the only song Queen wrote about Freddie Mercury's illness and death) without countrifying it. Steven called it "over the top" (but in a good way), explaining that there was something extra to Skylar's performance. J.Lo got her goosies, and praised Skylar for "articulating every part of the story" of the song. Randy called it "incredible, dude," and one of Skylar's best performances, and when Ryan asked Randy whether Skylar has a shot at being in the finale, he replied, "This girl's gotta have it, Ryan. She wants the finish line and I love it!"

Her second song choice was Jason Aldean's Tattoos on This Town (had to Google it because I'd never heard of the song, not that it mattered in her case, apparently), and I wasn't really wowed by the performance except for the big note she hit at the end. She dedicated the song to her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi. Randy said he's a "ginormous" fan of Skylar's, and then took credit for creating his own language, with words like ginormous. (Yeah, Dawg, and Al Gore invented the internet. We know.) Steven said that while she didn't "take the song where you have taken the others you've sang," she still can "do no wrong."

Joshua decided to liven things up a bit, singing Crazy Little Thing Called Love, which Fantasia sang in Season 3, Taylor Hicks sang in Season 5, and Tim Urban "sang" (complete with sliding across the stage) in Season 9. He had very interesting phrasing in this song, singing "This thing-a/called love-a." (Perhaps he's getting us ready for Stefano's performance on tonight's results show?) It was fun and he performed it really well, but I think it was vocally a bit shrill. Randy stood up immediately, Steven stood up shortly thereafter, and then J.Lo reluctantly stood. Randy called the performance "unbelievable," giving him "four checks" for vocals, performance, charisma, etc. He compared Joshua to a young Sam Cooke, then Sam and Dave, and then called out to Little Steven in the audience that Joshua was like Wilson Pickett. J.Lo admitted that while she loves all of the contestants, "the Joshua part of the show" is her favorite part, because she knows she'll get an "inspired vocal and a great performance" every time. Steven praised his classic style and said he sounds like no one else, and claimed "Freddie would have loved your two-stepping."

Joshua's second song was India.Airie's Ready for Love (again, a song I had never heard of and had to Google, but the judges didn't mention that either). What a fantastic vocal performance that was, really demonstrating Joshua's beautiful voice. The judges gave him another standing ovation (this one was deserved, however), and mostly the judges claimed they didn't know what to say to him anymore. Randy told future contestants, "if you want to be a singer, watch Season 11." J.Lo called the performance "transcendent," saying that Joshua "snaps her to reality" when she hears him sing. Steven said he "hopes the label finds you a bunch of great songs and you can take it to the moon," claiming, "I smell the finish line." Comically, in Joshua's post-performance "confessional," Skylar came in and ranted that the judges have given him 12 standing ovations.

Elise picked I Want It All as her Queen selection, a song I know better from commercials than Queen themselves. She accompanied herself on the tambourine, and I thought it was a rollicking good time. (I was distracted by the constant flashing of "I Want It All" on the screen behind her when she sang.) Steven said that Elise found her stride and sang it like the classic, and J.Lo said she was in her element. Randy called it "unbelievable," praising the song's "1-4-5 bluesy kind of changes that allow you to do your 'Janis thing.'" Elise explained that this type of performance was what she enjoyed most and what she felt was most in her wheelhouse.

For her second song, Elise took on Jimi Hendrix's Bold As Love, which I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I recognize more for John Mayer's cover version than Hendrix's original. (Don't judge me.) She was in full-on rock chick mode with this song, wearing a scarf on the hand she uses to dictate her note changes. It was cool, but a lot more talking than a song you perform in a singing competition should have. Steven said he loves the "Janis Joplin" in Elise's voice, but he cautioned her that she needs to pick songs that people recognize, and warned her about "picking cherries with her back to the tree." (Now a Jimi Hendrix song covered by John Mayer is unrecognizable, but an unknown Jason Aldean song to those outside of the country genre and an unknown India.Airie song were fine for Skylar and Joshua to sing.) J.Lo said she understood what Steven was saying but felt like Elise "slayed that song so hard it didn't matter." Randy agreed with Steven, saying that this song wasn't the best for this time in the competition, and also said he felt Elise "attacked" the song, and "was boxing with it." J.Lo vehemently disagreed, saying, "She made it exciting!" Elise told the voters, "listen to Jennifer." (I think her open-mouthed disbelief at Steven's statement that people wouldn't recognize the Jimi Hendrix song won't win her many new fans either, and if crabby Jimmy—who was AWOL except for sitting in the audience with Little Steven—has his say tonight, I'm sure he'll criticize her.)

Our favorite pawnshop heartthrob, Phillip, chose to sing Fat Bottomed Girls, which Bucky Covington sang during Season 5. (I'm finding fewer and fewer of these old AI performances on YouTube, which annoys me.) It was definitely fun, and Phillip was flirty and performed well, but it wasn't a vocal masterpiece by any means. Steven commented on the song choice, saying, "The bigger the cushion, the...bigger the cushion." He also told Phillip he "loved watching you ride a breath." (Umm, ok.) J.Lo addressed criticism that all of Phillip's songs sound alike by saying, "a great singer should sound like themselves. You sound like Phillip Phillips." Randy commented, "Was it good? Yes. Was it great, did it make me jump up and down? No." Ryan admitted that in his 11 years with the show, he'd never seen Randy jump up and down. And for that we're all thankful, Ryan. Believe me.

Phillip finally decided to throw down the gauntlet at his doppelganger, Dave Matthews, with his second song, singing The Stone. (Never heard of this one, either.) It Dave Matthews. Go figure. Steven called it, "very entertaining and very off the wall," saying that Phillip found his niche. J.Lo was unhappy, saying, "Everyone has a chance to win at this point, especially you. You need to sing songs that will get you onto that final show. I want you on that final show." Ever the contrarian, Randy disagreed with J.Lo, saying that this performance showed Phillip's true colors, and that he's an artist blah blah because artist blah blah and a true artist blah blah makes choices like an artist blah blah. He ended with the profound, "Phil Phillips will always be Phil Phillips." Wow. Ryan admitted that on his way to the stage, Phillip ran past "my girlfriend" (Julianne Hough), and "she sighed, blushed, and said, 'yummy!' We'll be talking about this tonight, dear." Didn't you see Footloose, Ryan? Girls like Julianne like boys like Phillip, not buttoned-up suity-boys.

So Hollie claimed the pimp spot, singing Save Me. I thought she did really well as I love where the song sat in her register, but I wish she had gone for one more big note at the end. J.Lo praised her for connecting emotionally halfway through the song, but then went into a long harangue about how she needs to connect with all parts of the song, and the audience, and J.Lo does the same thing, and...I woke up to Randy criticizing the performance, saying, "At this point in the show, everybody needs a moment. This wasn't your moment."

Not one to be undaunted, Hollie broke out her audition song, The Climb, which also got her into the Top 40 last season. (Season 9 contestant Haeley Vaughn sang this, as did our own Georgia Peach from last season, Lauren Alaina.) This is the perfect song for Hollie, both vocally and message-wise, and I thought she did a terrific job. So did the judges, who actually gave her a standing ovation, which caused her to dance a little jig. Once again, the judges claimed, "Hollie's back" and "this is the Hollie we love," forgetting they loved her last week. Steven said, "it doesn't matter what kind of accent you have, you sing a song so beautifully."

I think they start with a bottom two at this point in the season. I would guess, just based on recent occurrences, that the bottom two will be Hollie and Elise, with Elise going home, although I wouldn't be surprised if Jessica or even Phillip wound up in the bottom two. I think Elise probably should go home, as there's just no more room in this competition for the constant haranguing she's getting from the judges, and clearly she just wants to sing her own kind of music. Hollie could go home, as sometimes a contestant who has struggled in previous weeks goes home just as they're getting their momentum back. And of course, Jessica could go home, too, especially since she sang first, but will she get sent home after dedicating a song to her military father? Phillip's elimination would set the show on its heels, honestly, as I still think he's the favorite to win even though he doesn't wow me. (Heck, even Jessica admitted that he's "handsome.")

Tonight, a Queen tribute, Katy Perry, and STEFANO!! (I still remember my favorite line from his rendition of Tiny Dancer last season, "Ballerinum, you must have seen him...")

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review: "Thick as Thieves" by Peter Spiegelman

A good crime novel keeps you guessing, keeps you questioning everything you read and wondering when the twists are going to come. And even better, a good crime novel delivers on the guesswork, leaves you wondering how you didn't see some of the twists coming, even if you might not be exactly happy with the ultimate outcome of the book. Peter Spiegelman's Thick as Thieves is definitely a good crime novel.

Carr is the leader of a group of thieves planning a gigantic heist, involving money laundering, diamonds, financial espionage, and extortion, which unfolds across Miami, Mexico, and Grand Cayman. The ultimate payoff of this heist will allow each of them to be set for the rest of their lives—if they don't kill each other or walk away from the person bankrolling the operation first. While Carr's crew are all professional thieves, they are still reeling from the after-effects of an operation gone wrong several months ago, which claimed the life of their original leader, Declan, the man who brought Carr into the crew in the first place. No one knows exactly who to trust, and several of Carr's cohorts aren't quite sure that he's the one to lead them if the going gets tough. And Carr, juggling a personal crisis on top of bewildering uncertainty about who to trust, just wants to finish things once and for all.

Spiegelman has significant experience in the financial industry, so he brings a great deal of detail and authenticity to the plot. The action truly crackles—so often I found myself reluctant to put the book down because I was completely wrapped up in the story. The characters are fascinating; some surprise you even after you think you know how they'll act or what type of person they are. My only criticism is that sometimes there is so much going on I found certain moments difficult to follow, so I wound up re-reading a few passages. But then I caught some nuance I missed previously, so I don't consider that a bad thing. Thick as Thieves is a book that will keep you guessing while it hooks you completely. Definitely a great read.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: "How It All Began" by Penelope Lively

Life can change in a split second. One afternoon, retired schoolteacher Charlotte is mugged on a busy London street, causing her to fall and break her hip. That accident causes a ripple effect in the lives of several seemingly unconnected people, with poignant, frustrating, and potentially life changing results.

Charlotte, who has always been fiercely independent, finds herself forced into living with her daughter, Rose, and her husband, Gerry. Rose works for a once-notable historian who is interested in returning to the limelight; Rose's tending to her mother leaves her boss dependent upon his niece, Marion, an interior designer whose relationship with a married man is revealed through an untended text message. At a luncheon with her uncle (which she shouldn't even have been attending), Marion encounters a business partner who seems to be the cure for her financial woes. Meanwhile, Charlotte, an adult literacy tutor before her accident, brings a student, the Eastern European emigré Anton, into Rose's home, which causes further ripples.

I really loved this book. I found it charming, thought-provoking, heart-warming, and even a little life-affirming, as Penelope Lively spins her characters into orbits that intersect briefly and then rotate away again. None of the connections seem too pat; many of the characters have their foibles, but that is what makes them so appealing. At times, I felt the book moved a little slowly, but I kept finding myself drawn into the story by Lively's remarkable ability to keep the different threads of the plot moving without causing the reader any confusion or doubt. It really does prove how quickly life can change as the result of an incident we don't even know about. This was a little jewel of a book.

AI Recap: Psych!

Having watched American Idol since the middle of Season 1, I've always had a growing dissatisfaction with the weekly results show fiasco, especially since it started becoming less about the contestants and more about gimmickry and featuring other musical artists. But apart from the general poor group musical numbers, the inane Ford Music Videos, and the reinventing of history by the judges, what irritates me more than anything are Ryan's little fake-outs of the contestants.

Does anyone out there still enjoy it when Ryan teases an emotionally vulnerable contestant? At some point when Ryan says, "I'm sorry...but you didn't get enough wind up in the bottom three. You're safe!", I expect someone to punch him. Ryan was particularly manipulative in his little teasers this week, and if it's a sign of things to come, I may fast forward the show until I see who was eliminated.

Last night we had to say goodbye to "third horse" Colton. That's what I predicted as soon as I saw "Another shock rocks Idol" flash across my screen at the start of the show, although I (somewhat gleefully, I'm embarrassed to admit) wondered if Jessica might get voted off despite the judges' save last week. It's sad, because while I feel Colton definitely was the weakest overall Wednesday night, I enjoyed listening to him, and was surprised that he was abandoned so quickly by all of the fans that kept him out of the bottom three until now. (Where did all the 53 million votes go?)

But before we learned of his fate, we had the opportunity to endure a ludicrous group rendition of Martha and the Vandellas' Dancing in the Streets (which looked like a Skittles commercial when a raft of colorful balloons fell from the ceiling, basically burying the contestants). We also had the opportunity to see another classic Ford Music Video (this one to Switchfoot's Stars), wherein the contestants were envisioned as characters from the Zodiac, or at least the next installment of Clash of the Titans.

BFFs Hollie and Joshua were the first to learn their fates. Crabby Jimmy basically said Hollie has no chance of winning, that it would be "a long road to get Hollie to the finals," but said that Joshua has a terrific shot to win. After Kieran dimmed the lights, Ryan teased Joshua by saying, "Last week you were at risk of elimination, this week you didn't get the right number of put you in the bottom three. You're safe." He then sent Hollie to the silver stools of doom.

Why, it's Taylor Hicks! Although Ryan never came out and acknowledged he was the winner of Season 5, he did let a nearly orangey Taylor share that he would be performing in Vegas! Now there's a shock. Katharine McPhee is on Smash, Daughtry is, well, Daughtry, Elliot Yamin (who went unacknowledged in the audience) and Kellie Pickler are recording stars, and Taylor will be opening for Rita Rudner at Harrah's. (I kid. Or do I?)

Taylor introduced Season 8 winner Kris Allen, who performed his new song, The Vision of Love. Love him, love the song, although they had him playing on a spinning stone piano the first half of the song, so the camera kept losing sight of his face. (Remember, in addition to his talent, he's very easy on the eyes. I'm not interested in seeing the back of his head.)

Next up for the voters' decision were Skylar and Elise. Jimmy rambled about how great Skylar was and how Elise didn't sing Let's Get it On that well, and probably deserved to go home. Ryan sent Skylar to safety and then asked Elise if she felt like the judges and Jimmy were harder on her than other contestants. She said yes, probably because they thought she could take it better since she's older, but it was difficult to feel so discredited at times. (Time will tell if Elise falls into the same pattern as Kimberley Locke, Syesha Mercado, Casey James, and Haley Reinhart, three contestants who were ripped apart by the judges nearly every week, often wound up in the bottom three, but all finished in third place.) Ryan sent Elise back to her "vacation home in the bottom three."

Ryan did another Dick Clark tribute, which was fun, and then Ryan introduced LMFAO, who sang(?) Sorry for Party Rocking. The less said the better.

Last up were Jessica, Phillip, and Colton. Jimmy revealed his sudden aha moment, that Jessica is singing songs that are too old for her, and he APOLOGIZED(!) to her, saying that would change if she made it through to next week. (Umm, Jimmy, they sang classic soul songs. They're all too old for Jessica, no?) He also proclaimed that Phillip should be in the finale, and tore Colton's Bad Romance performance apart, calling his look "1985 Billy Idol on TRL meets Spider-Man on Broadway." (Jimmy, watch out for Julie Taymor. She's not one you want as an enemy.)

Ryan reminded Jessica that last week the judges saved her from elimination, but this week, "there's no saving you...from the stress of the competition. You're safe." (Jerk.) He then sent Colton to the stools.

Faced with the bottom three of Hollie, Elise, and Colton, the judges hemmed and hawed about what could happen and whether or not this was the right bottom three. Ryan then pulled Elise aside and said, "Elise, it was hard for you last night. It's going to be hard again tonight. I'd like to ask you to sit down...and watch another one of your friends go home. You're safe." Her reply? "Shut up!"

Interestingly enough, Jessica doesn't really interact with any of the other contestants unless they approach her. Hmm.

Ryan then announced that Colton had been eliminated. He was tremendously gracious, explaining that he wasn't himself on Wednesday night, and tried too hard to be something he wasn't. He promised that when he made a record (and a tearful J.Lo exclaimed, "You're going to make lots of records, baby!") he would listen to the judges' advice. He sang Everything for his farewell song, but made it clear that he was singing to God, not the audience.

Only two more guys left. Does that bode well for Jessica, especially since she'll be singing "younger songs" from now on? (Will next week's theme be Kidz Bop or songs from Nick Jr.?)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

AI Recap: Will Someone Sing the Phone Book Already?

So wait...I looked away from the television for a minute last week and I must have missed something. Did the judges save Jessica? I never would have known because they barely mentioned it.

Hopefully you can detect the heavy sarcasm, because, much as J.Lo wants us to look at her abs, and Randy wants us to think he's an actual music expert (cough, Al Green, cough), the show wanted you to remember that Jessica would have been sent home last week were it not for the beneficent generosity of our judging panel. The show opened with the dramatic footage, including Jessica watching herself be saved on a television in the contestants' mansion (how meta). We even got a T.S. Eliot poem, "What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." (Makes as much sense as Steven and Randy do sometimes.)

And then Ryan interviewed Jessica about what it felt like to be saved (a conversation I'm sure Kirk Cameron has all the time), then the judges were asked...ugh. Thank goodness the show was jam-packed with 14 musical performances, or they might have asked the other contestants how they felt watching Jessica get saved by the judges. (Maybe that's tonight's plan.)

After a sweet and almost-emotional tribute to Dick Clark, we were treated to two songs from each contestant, one which hit #1 on the Billboard charts between 2000 and now, and the other which was a "soul hit" I'm assuming the contestants got to choose from a list of 10 songs, since all but one has been performed on the show at least once before.

For the sake of ease, I'm going to recap both performances per contestant. (See, I'm sarcastic and helpful.)

Hollie started out the night talking about nerves with Jimmy, how she feels fantastic when performing in the studio but starts overthinking things once she hits the stage. Not tonight, she vowed. She sang Adele's Rolling in the Deep (we can't seem to get enough Adele this season), which Haley sang last season. I thought this was one of Hollie's best performances—she started out a cappella, belted out her notes and seemed really relaxed on stage. Steven praised her for "finally doing what everyone in America was waiting for—ruffling your tail feathers and hitting the notes." He also called it "perfect." J.Lo (clad in an ab-tastic dress Tina Turner wore in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) said she was thrilled for Hollie and also called the performance "perfect," which meant that the ornery, lavender-clad Randy needed to point out it wasn't perfect but, "close to perfect, because she knows, some notes here and there were pitchy." But he told Hollie that he "felt her for the first time" (neglecting to remember how much he praised her earlier in the season, but the man has the memory of a gnat).

Her second performance was Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man, which Julia DeMato sang in Season 2. (Love Ryan's hair in this YouTube clip.) Again, I thought she did a really terrific job, despite the sexual undertone of the song itself. Vocally, it was top-notch. Randy said he was worried about her singing this song at first, but, "crazy dude, you worked it out," calling it even better than her first performance. Steven praised her but said she could push it even more, and encouraged her to "go over the top." (Until the judges have deemed it's too much. God bless inconsistency.) Plus, Hollie got a good luck message from the Liverpool Football Club just before her performance, which made her squeal.

Since we were in the mood to rehash old storylines last night, Ryan brought up Colton's sister Schyler, reminding us yet again that she was the one who auditioned and Colton just went along for moral support, yet here he is on stage, and she's watching in the audience, after being cut for dramatic purposes in Vegas. She talked about how proud they all are of Colton, and how he surprises them every week, and (naturally) demurred when asked if she was coming back for Season 12. ("Why? A girl won't win anyway," I dreamed she replied.) Colton's first song was Lady GaGa's Bad Romance (performed splendidly by the University of Oregon's a cappella group On the Rocks). Jimmy told him he needed to look into the camera when he sang, because "when you look in the camera, they vote." (He referred to Colton's support from female viewers as "backing him like a stone wall.") He tore into the song, kicky red streak in his hair and all, backed by a manic female band and surrounded by these giant jets of smoke and air. I thought it was fun, and the choruses were terrific, but the song itself seemed a little low for him. Definitely not one of his best. Although Randy called it the "Colton Dixon concert," he said it wasn't the greatest performance, although Colton "has had so many great performances this season." J.Lo, too, was excited by the performance but not wowed, and thought it was too low for his voice. Steven understood, saying "you've got to get low to get high," and explained that Lady GaGa knows that, "to get to the other shore, you need to lose sight of this one," so he encouraged Colton to keep taking risks. Oh, and just to keep up his lecherous side (despite the fact he was wearing a loud print blouse I saw on a Chico's commercial), he praised the female band.

Colton's second song was the Earth, Wind, and Fire classic, September, brought to life in Season 4 by Anwar Robinson (despite the fact I can't find the clip on YouTube). Colton changed up the melody completely, and while I don't have a problem with that in general, this just wasn't good. And it didn't help that to carry out the September theme, his piano had fallen leaves atop it, and we were treated to visuals of more falling leaves while he was singing. Steven said that his voice is a lot more powerful than that song, and J.Lo said he needed to find a song that was better for his voice. No standing ovation for Colton this week. Truth is, it will be interesting to see if his "fans" can keep him out of the bottom three this week.

According to Jimmy, Elise "has a vacation home in the bottom three," and explained that while some contestants have built-in blocks of fans, Elise needs to win people over every week for some reason. (Simply put: she's not a cute boy or a teen girl. This show is not for female singers in their mid-20s unless they're super hot.) For her first song, Elise chose Alicia Keys' No One, sung by semi-finalist Felicia Barton in Season 8. Clad in an awesome orange gown, Elise even got the Stevie Nicks wind machine treatment, and while I thought she didn't really take any chances with the song, she was very good. J.Lo thanked her for giving her the "first goosies of the night" (darn, three straight weeks without that word) and told her that when she smiles, her eyes light up. Steven told her he "loves her lots," although he wishes the song had a better chorus, but she "sang her little tushy off." Randy praised Elise for staying with the melody instead of changing it up completely, calling it a great lesson in restraint. Ryan mentioned that this week's rehearsal was emotional for her, and got her to admit that her dog was very ill, but she refused to milk that for votes. (How refreshing.)

Elise broke into a sexy, soulful version of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On for her second song. (Nikko Smith sang this in Season 4, top 16 contestant Jared Cotter sang it in Season 6, and Matt Giraud sang it in Season 8.) I really liked her take on it, but the judges didn't. J.Lo harangued her about the need to show more emotion (and even had the gall to mention her refusal to cry about her dying dog earlier in the show), saying that, "when you sang Somebody to Love, you showed vulnerability." (It was Whole Lotta Love, but who's counting?) Steven said she "strummed the hearts of a lot of men watching," but encouraged her to pick 6 or 7 songs she could hit out of the park. Randy simply called it the wrong song, claiming that when "Al Green sang it" (try Marvin Gaye, Dawg) he sang it cleanly. Elise mentioned that it was difficult to condense emotion and big notes into two-minute songs.

Phillip was ready to slow it all down, and chose Usher's U Got it Bad. He brought all of his charm and less of the shouty Dave Matthews-ness he's been trotting out lately, and even had a little swagger onstage. The judges gave him their first standing ovation of the night. What I liked so much about Phillip is that he seems like a consummate professional onstage; he made a point of acknowledging and thanking all of the musicians that accompanied him. Steven said he felt like a chump because he never knows what we're going to get from Phillip, and praised his continued vocal evolution. J.Lo called him "so sexy," said she loved seeing that side of him, and said that "a great singer can sing any song, and that's what you are." (I don't know if I'd go that far, but methinks she was basking in the afterglow.) Randy claimed that "for the first time we have a true artist—someone who is completely himself." (Yeah, because David Cook, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Crystal Bowersox, none of them were true artists.) He then praised Phillip for not listening to anyone's advice, saying, "You don't need to listen to anyone, you're Phillip Phillips, and you're da bomb!" Ryan asked if J.Lo's calling him sexy made him blush, to which Phillip replied, "Always." (I'll bet the stone wall of female voters moved behind Phillip last night.)

For his second song, Phillip chose In the Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett. This too, was fantastic, even if we had to endure some of Taylor Hicks' greatest dance moves. (I was totally waiting for him to scream, "Soul Patrol!" when he finished.) J.Lo said he made her want to come up and dance because his charm is so spontaneous. Steven called him "brilliantly awkward" and said he loved his character. (Ten points for the audience member who made the sign "Phillip Phanatic.")

Next up, the girl "fighting to stay alive" in the competition—Jessica. She chose to sing Fallin' by Alicia Keys, one of the most popular audition songs on the show. (Season 5's Mandisa had the most memorable rendition, IMHO.) I felt like poor Jessica was trapped in the middle of a Travelers Insurance commercial, with floating red umbrellas all over the place. Vocally, as always, with Jessica, it was pretty terrific, but I just didn't believe the song emotionally. Steven said that "a talent like yours lets you get mad at the song and release your passion," while J.Lo called her talent "otherworldly." Randy claimed that Jessica doesn't even know how good she is, and called for Alicia Keys to "holla at the Dawg, because the girl blew the box out of the song!" (Ten bucks we'll "hear" from Alicia Keys tonight...) Ryan asked Jessica what she thought when the judges came on stage to save her, and she said her first thought was that the judges didn't like her and were telling her to stop singing and go home. If she showed one iota of personality and didn't get standing ovations every week, I'd have thought that story was sweet, but...

Her second song was Try a Little Tenderness, which IMHO, no one has been able to touch since Season 4's Nadia Turner, but apparently YouTube has wiped that entire season off the web. She definitely played into her whole "BB Chez" altar ego with this song, with her Bratz hairdo and gave the song a lot more attitude than she normally does. I thought the second half of the song outshone the first. As Steven put it, "Good God almighty, you've done it again," but J.Lo, while praising her singing and her attitude, also took her to task about the need for more emotional connection, with the song and with the audience. All true.

Leading into Skylar's first performance, Ryan promised "a country twist on GaGa." (Really? A country twist? From Skylar? No way.) She sang the country version of Born This Way. To contrast her with Jessica, Skylar isn't as strong vocally, but the girl is a born performer. If you could combine her stage presence with Jessica's voice, you'd have a SuperIdol contestant. I thought her vocals were a bit shouty, but J.Lo said she was perfect three weeks in a row, Steven told her that millions of people out there loved her "drawling," and Randy told her "she was so beyond ready" to be a star. (Interestingly enough, Skylar was sporting a complimentary red streak in her hair to match Colton's. Ooh, do you think they're dating? OMG!!)

Skylar's second song was I Heard It through the Grapevine (sung previously by Season 9's Andrew Garcia). I think she gave a tremendous country twist to the song—I haven't had time to do research if it has happened yet, but I almost could hear someone like Reba singing it. Randy said that every time Skylar sings "it's Skylar's rocking country party," while J.Lo mentioned that she and Phillip have no problem connecting to the audience. I just don't have the enthusiasm for her everyone else does, although there's no disputing her talent.

Last week's most unbelievable bottom three contestant, Joshua, got the pimp spot. He chose to sing Fantasia's I Believe, saying that Fantasia was one of the reasons he wanted to be on the show. (Season 7 third-place finisher Syesha Mercado did a terrific version of this song, but Simon tore her apart for her "audacity" to sing a song Fantasia did.) Joshua was in his element, complete with the gospel choir that probably follows him around when he's not singing, but he messed up the end of the song a bit. (Judges didn't mention it, of course.) The judges gave him a standing ovation, and Randy called him "truly one of the most gifted singers on the show." J.Lo told "sweet cutie" that she felt blessed he was in the competition, that he leaves it all on the stage with every performance. Steven called this performance "another stepping stone" to Joshua's winning the whole competition, and stole Randy's comment, telling him "you could sing the phone book." Randy, not one to be outdone, added, "Literally." When Ryan asked Joshua if his choosing Fantasia's victory song was foreshadowing, Joshua awkwardly refused to answer the question. Strange.

For the final song of the evening, Joshua sang the "emotional civil rights anthem" A Change is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke. (Interestingly enough, Syesha Mercado sang this song, too, as did Adam Lambert during the Season 8 finale.) There's no doubt Joshua was again in his element, but I truly prefer performances like the one he did last week, where he shows more personality than soulful emoting. Randy called it "the perfect song" for Joshua, because he "let the song marinate," and then told Ryan, "the talent this season is better than any other show on television!" (Take that, Cee-Lo.) Steven said he "stretched his voice to the limits of soul," while J.Lo urged voters, "Please, America, don't send this boy home!" Oh...and they gave him ANOTHER standing ovation. Enough already. Joshua admitted he stayed focused by staring at J.Lo's abs, to which she replied, "If staring at my abs makes you sing like that, you can stare at them all you want." (Joshua's grandmother in the audience didn't like that one, young lady.)

It was a very good night, not a great one. I'd say Elise is going home, and she'll be joined by Hollie in the bottom. (The reverse could happen as well.) If they choose a third member of the bottom three, it should be Colton, but after last week's freakshow, who knows what will happen?

Tonight, American Idol actually moves another step toward embracing Kris Allen as the winner of Season 8, plus LMFAO! And maybe Colton will get another prom invite?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: "The Book of Jonas" by Stephen Dau

This is a tremendously powerful and affecting book about the human cost of war, and the long-lasting effects of decisions made in the heat of the moment. Fifteen-year-old Jonas' entire family was killed during a U.S. military operation in an unnamed Muslim country. An international relief organization sends him to America, where he does his best to blend in as he finishes high school, deals with bullies, enters college, and falls in love for the first time. Yet he is haunted by his memories of what happened in his village, and how he survived.

Mandated by the court to see a therapist each week, Jonas is reluctant to share what he remembers, although he questions whether many things are actual memories or the reshaping of events to fit what he wishes happened, or how he wishes he reacted. Eventually he admits that on the night his family was killed, he encountered a U.S. soldier named Christopher, who saved his life, stitching up his wounds and caring for him. In the meantime, Christopher's mother, Rose, has been determined to figure out what happened to her son, as all she has been told by the military is that he is missing in action. When Jonas and Rose meet, a well-hidden secret starts to bubble to the surface, having major implications on Jonas' life and his future.

I was completely mesmerized by Jonas' story and how he handled everything that happened to him. Stephen Dau unraveled a thought-provoking narrative, which surprised me from time to time, and definitely kept me hooked. This is a book where the main characters aren't quite what they seem, which certainly is confusing from time to time, but that doesn't detract from the power of the story. This is less a story about war and more a story about how one survives from the edge of disaster, but it is also a story about the fragile power of memories. Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Friday, April 13, 2012

AI Recap: Someone Get Jimmy a New Flat Screen!

That scream you heard around 8:53 pm ET last night was Nigel Lythgoe's. Alas, his ploy to make the manufactured drama of last night's results show last for the full hour was foiled after Steven told Ryan, "We're definitely going to use our card tonight," meaning the judges planned to save Jessica, Joshua, or Elise from elimination.

Of course, the judges needed to save teen phenom Jessica from the chopping block, as it was announced she had the lowest number of votes despite a stellar performance of Jazmine Sullivan's Stuttering the night before. (Even Jazmine Sullivan liked it!) Jessica had barely starting singing for her life (Deborah Cox's Nobody's Supposed to Be Here) when the tangerine-hued J.Lo grabbed the microphone out of her hands and said, "Are you crazy? We're saving you!" (I don't know about you, but I thought J.Lo's acting was as convincing as her performance in Maid in Manhattan.)

Not to be outdone, Randy (with his stuck-out-tongue lapel pin) then decided lecturing America was the smartest tactic, saying that Jessica "is one of the best singers in America, EVER! You have to vote for the best!"

Because they had been broadcasting the idea of the "shocking results" the entire night, I can't figure out how much of the contestants' reactions—and Jessica's—were manufactured, and how much was genuine shock. For someone who has been working toward being a famous singer "all her life," Jessica didn't honestly seem to react any stronger than she did when Ryan mentioned that Billy Joel liked her rendition of Everybody Has a Dream a few weeks ago. When Ryan asked her if she was surprised to be so close to elimination, she said, "I just do what I do, and whatever happens, happens."

I was amused by Randy's outrage that he's never seen a bottom three like Joshua, Elise, and Jessica "in 11 seasons." Clearly he forgot how shocked and outraged he was when:
  • Tamyra was eliminated over Nikki McKibbin in Season 1;

  • Ruben was nearly eliminated in Season 2;

  • Fantasia, Latoya, and J.Hud were in the bottom three in Season 3 (which caused Elton John to call the show "racist");

  • Constantine was eliminated over Scott Savol in Season 4;

  • Chris Daughtry came in fourth (behind Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee and eventual winner Taylor Hicks) in Season 5;

  • Melinda Doolittle was eliminated over Blake Lewis in Season 6;

  • Michael Johns came in ninth (behind Kristy Lee Cook) in Season 7;

  • Danny Gokey was eliminated over eventual winner Kris Allen in Season 8; and

  • Pia was eliminated so early last season.

And of course, we had our seasonal farce of dividing the contestants into two groups and then asking the remaining contestant (this year's victim was Skylar) to choose which group she belonged in. (Has anyone fallen for this since Season 3, when Fantasia, J.Hud, and Latoya were in the bottom 3 over Jasmine Trias, John Stevens, George Huff, and Diana DeGarmo?)

Needless to say, Jimmy was apoplectic as well, as he predicted a Hollie, Phillip, and Elise bottom three, and claimed he needed "a new flat screen, since America is clearly seeing something I'm not" when the results were announced.

And speaking of Jimmy, WTF was with his denigrating Elise and Phillip for being "singer/songwriters" and not "technical singers," saying that when you take away their original songs, all they're left with is being a cover singer?

Honestly, the most priceless moment of the evening was when Colton laid his head in Phillip's lap during the (seizure-inducing) group number, P!nk's Raise Your Glass, as Phillip sang the line, "Why so serious?" (The runner-up was Colton's opening up a prom invitation from a girl from Wichita, saying "Oh, snap," and then calling it a "definite maybe.")

Did you tear up when Ryan asked the judges why they hadn't given Colton a standing ovation yet this season, while they've even given one to Heejun (and Jermaine!)? "We haven't stood for you yet?," J.Lo asked quizzically. How can she be expected to remember what she does? She has another show to concentrate on, too, you know!

Jennifer Hudson (who performed Think Like a Man with Ne-Yo) looked and sounded terrific, although I kept waiting for her pre-Weight Watchers self to come up onstage and try to sing, too. (I laughed when Ryan introduced her as the only contestant in the show's history to have won an Oscar and a Grammy. Umm, and a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, Mr. Red Carpet...)

And oh yeah, last year's fourth place finisher, James Durbin, came back to scream his new single Higher Than Heaven, and show off his bleached-blonde locks. (When he announced that his tour was opening at the Viper Room, I still can't disassociate that place from where River Phoenix died.)

I'm still a little skeptical about last night's results. Clearly, this show's voting is biased toward the cute guys, but I have a very hard time believing that Jessica and Joshua were both in the bottom three. And if I were a conspiracy theory-believing paranoid, I'd be somewhat convinced that this was a ploy to ensure Colton and Phillip don't wind up as the final 2. But the show wouldn't manipulate things, would it?

So if they follow their own rules, next week two contestants should be eliminated. Will Jessica and Joshua's fans be rattled from their complacency, punishing Elise, Hollie, and Skylar for their safety, or are the two really at risk?

I don't know what will happen, but I know I can pretend to be more shocked than J.Lo, and I can be more awake than Steven. So, 'til next week...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

AI Recap: (Someone's) Gotta Have It!

Well, gang, it's good to be back. Sure, I'd rather be in Europe, but how could I miss all of the fun of "Songs from 2010, 2011, and Now" night? How could I miss the rarely effective advice from Akon? (I hope Jessica's father is on high alert after hearing Akon wants to "steal her and feed her hamburgers.")

The show opened, as it is often wont to do lately, with a dramatic montage of last week's results show, juxtaposing the show itself with people from DeAndre's hometown, who seemed shocked and crestfallen that their baby Milli Vanilla didn't get saved by the judges. And then, the show asked, "How do you find the strength when your friends leave one by one?" They're getting voted off a reality show, people, they're not being abducted by serial killer James Van Der Beek in a very special episode of Criminal Minds. Tamp down the angst a bit, ok?

Last night, Steven sported a duster from the Bea Arthur/Dorothy Zbornak collection, J.Lo's dress was made from masking tape, and Randy sported another weird jacket with a flower pin. (Clearly Tommy Hilfiger isn't stopping by their dressing rooms to suggest outfit choices.) And Ryan's hair gets higher and darker with every episode. Check out what he looked like at the end of Season 1. (Oh, Dunkelman...)

Anyway, after another useless prattle session between Tommy and the contestants, Skylar kicked things off with Kellie Pickler's Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You. (Raise your hand if you're among those who never thought Kellie Pickler would amount to much after her dumb country blonde routine got old during Season 5.) At first, Jimmy and Akon were concerned it wasn't enough song for Skylar's big voice, but after one performance, she convinced them. (Said Akon, "Your voice is f--king stupid.") She wanted to play the guitar, but Jimmy warned her about relying on "tricks" when she should just sing her heart out. Cut to the live performance, with Skylar on guitar, surrounded by spurting bolts of fire like Will Young's performance of Light My Fire on the one and only iteration of World Idol, as well as fire pits you totally can buy at Restoration Hardware. Skylar definitely puts her all into her songs, and she has a powerful voice, but I think at times she confuses emotion and passion with shouting. However, this was a good rendition of a song I'm not familiar with. Randy apparently forgot he gave Skylar a standing ovation last week for Wind Beneath My Wings, because this week he claimed she was "definitely back," because he "felt her for the first time in a while." Jennifer praised her "perfect pitch," and Steven said, "When you sing it's a complete sentence," adding "Crows may crow, but the hens deliver the goods." (And that ends another episode of "Mr. Tyler's Farm.")

Jimmy tried to push Colton further by telling him that he and Phillip are both going after the same female votes, and "you're behind Phillip, so how do you beat him?" Colton said he doesn't like being compared to anyone, but of course, he wants to win. He sang a stripped-down, angsty version of Skylar Grey's Love the Way You Lie, playing a fog-shrouded piano, and accompanied by a very expressive string section. I love his voice and I like what he brings to every song—it's not quite as rock-y as James Durbin but it's less contemplative than Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, or others. I agree with Steven and Akon that he hasn't quite hit the top of his ability, so if he's able to do that, I think he'll truly be a star, ridiculously skinny jeans and all. J.Lo said that "Colton baby" always "surprises her with his approach to every note, which is the mark of a true artist," although she "wished it was more of a song." Steven praised Colton, saying he "could have recorded that right now with no overdubs and sold it, as is." After fighting with Steven over Colton's red-and-black striped jacket, Randy called him "subtle and stellar," saying he showed sensitivity by "opening the song like a lullabye," and he loves where Colton's "mind and heart go."

The first of the group numbers of the evening featured Elise and Phillip singing Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know, a ubiquitous song on television right now. (My favorite version of the song, other than the original, is a cover by Ron Pope, one of my favorite singers.) During the intro, Phillip acted as if he didn't want to sing this song but Elise convinced him to. I think their voices mesh really well together, particularly on the harmonies, but Elise definitely go to sing more of the showy parts. I can't tell if Phillip is actually reluctant to perform anything out of his comfort zone or if this is all an act. The judges liked the song—Steven admitted to having it looped on his iPod/iPhone, and Randy congratulated "the great Australian singer Gotye," and thought Phillip and Elise nailed it. But of course, the obsessive need to pick a winner for everything led Randy to call "Round 1 for Elise."

Jessica chose to sing Jazmine Sullivan's Stuttering, which Jimmy and Akon weren't very familiar with. (Neither was I, honestly.) Jimmy told Jessica that he and Akon had been impressed with her from the very start of the season, and Akon said she was "going to be a legend." (He also mentioned the whole stealing and force-feeding her thing I discussed earlier.) Jessica started out seated on a piano, and her voice was truly flawless and soulful. She stood briefly and nearly fell sitting back down on the piano, but she didn't miss a beat, and this Beyonce-like tone she brings to her voice really worked for me. I felt like she had slightly more emotional connection to this song than she normally does, but I still think she's a tiny bit programmed. I've never heard a 16-year-old sing quite like her, though. Randy said she brought a "Shirley Murdock As We Lay vibe to the song" (which Jessica totally didn't get, seeing as the song was recorded in 1986—nine years before she was born!), said she "raised the bar really high" with her song choice, and praised her for "slaying the biggest fish of the night." J.Lo said she feels Jessica is starting to "dig deeper" with every performance, but encouraged her to "take America on a ride" each week with not just amazing vocals, but a "Joshua-like performance" in terms of impact. Steven said, "Each time you sing I forget where I am." (Yeah, because that doesn't happen otherwise, right, Steven?) Oh, and J.Lo and Jessica were wearing the same Loboutin shoes. Awkward...

Joshua celebrated his 20th birthday on Monday, and Ryan surprised him with a celebratory video message from Fantasia, who said, "Happy birthday from Fantasia to Mantasia!" His song choice this week was Bruno Mars' Runaway Baby, which Bruno performed flawlessly on this year's Grammy Awards. It was honestly one of the best performances I've seen on this show, and it was fantastic to see Joshua go totally beyond his comfort zone, in terms of vocal style and performance. (I still can't believe he sang the lyric, "There's only one carrot and they all gotta share it." And he wasn't being Bugs Bunny, if you get my drift...) Randy quickly stood up, which encouraged J.Lo and Steven also to give him a standing ovation. Steven said Joshua "can sell a song like a work of art," and encouraged Joshua (repeatedly) to get the phone number of the six-foot-tall dancer who performed on stage. J.Lo called the performance "unbelievable," and explained again what she was trying to say to Jessica, that Joshua combined great vocals with terrific stage presence and performance. And Randy? "Looks like someone's gotta have it, Ryan! He wants it!"

The next duet featured Colton and Skylar singing Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson's Don't You Wanna Stay. (Love that song.) Much as they tried doing with Scotty and Lauren last season, the show is trying to play up a showmance between Colton and Skylar, which Colton tried to debunk by saying, "We are not dating, because she owns a gun." It was nice to hear Colton sing something totally different, and while Skylar's version of Kelly Clarkson's part was powerful, it was also a little shouty. J.Lo called the harmonies "pretty," and reminded everyone that "Kelly and...Aldean" performed the song last season. She also told the contestants, "I love you both dearly, but that was just okay." Randy agreed with J.Lo, calling the song "a draw," because while Skylar's part was showier, she was pitchy, too.

After two successive weeks in the bottom three, Hollie is feeling the pressure. She chose P!nk's Perfect (I love the way the word sounds with her accent), and Jimmy and Akon really tried to encourage her to connect with the song. She sang most of it sitting on a stool in the center of the stage, flanked by the show's resident hot guitarist, who was wearing one of Heejun's ski caps. I thought she sounded good, but just didn't do enough with it, and I think the judges are ready to send her home. J.Lo started with the "You look beautiful" nonsense, said she could "feel her fighting to be perfect," but that's not what it was about. She ended her non-criticism with, "We'll see where it pans out." Steven told her, "It wasn't perfect, it kind of laid there, but you look pretty." (Nice.) Randy agreed that it wasn't perfect, but said "it was much better than where you were last week." He also mentioned that he didn't get a lot of feeling from Hollie on the notes.

Next up was Phillip, who chose to tackle Maroon 5's Give A Little More this week. He told Jimmy and Akon he wanted to do something different, to which Jimmy responded with this week's fortune cookie moment: "Don't be different just for the sake of being different, be great for the sake of being great." I thought it started out really cool and unique, and then fell back into the typical growly, Dave Matthews-y, shouty performance Phillip usually gives. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Steven, however, claimed that Phillip has evolved so much since the start of the season, calling him a cross between Steve McQueen and Johnny Cash. J.Lo agreed with the celebrity comparison but called the performance "underwhelming," saying that she has seen this performance from Phillip a couple of times before and it "wasn't everything you can do." Randy again agreed with J.Lo, saying it wasn't his greatest performance, "not really a 'wow' kind of moment," but said he could record the song and have a pop hit "if he wanted to." (Contradict yourself much, Dawg?)

The trio of Joshua, Hollie, and Jessica took on Kelly Clarkson's (Stronger) What Doesn't Kill You, plus we learned that Joshua and Hollie were the best of friends. What a mess this song was—it was like putting three strongly-flavored ingredients in a blender, hitting puree, and waiting to try the result. These three big voices all tried to outsing each other and it just didn't work. While the judges called this "the season of the big voice," and tried to put a spin on the performance, no one seemed capable of mustering up any real enthusiasm. Randy gave the edge to Joshua, for no apparent reason. (That's like saying Charles Manson was the best murderer.)

Elise got to close the show again, and in her pre-performance interview with Ryan, mentioned she had a crush on Jason Segel, especially after seeing his new movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. (Conveniently produced by Fox Searchlight, wouldn't you know?) Jason sent an awkward video message to Elise, saying he's a big fan. She sang Lady GaGa's You and I, which Haley sang last season and for which Haley was completely torn apart by the judges. Elise wanted to open the song on the drums, but Jimmy cautioned her about trying too hard. Instead, she started on the piano. I felt she did a very good job, but for all of Elise's vocal improvising, she hewed very close to the original. Randy let America know that "Elise is back! America, please know Elise is mad talented!" He called the song "Elise's moment," which he said she needed given last week's bottom two-worthy performance. J.Lo praised Elise for "letting go but keeping control" (umm, ok) and Steven said she "took a song so simple and effortless and made it fantastic." (I hope Haley stuck lots of pins in her judges' voodoo dolls last night.)

Luckily, when the judges were asked who was at risk, everyone side-stepped the question instead of their usual pimping their favorites and sabotaging someone. J.Lo said, "I worry about all of them," while Randy urged America to vote for all of their favorites.

At this point in the season, it gets tougher and tougher to pick a bottom three. It seems inevitable that Hollie will be in the bottom three again, and Elise probably will join her. I think Phillip probably deserves his first trip to the bottom three, but I'm not sure whether that will happen or if Skylar will be sacrificed instead. Hollie should go home, but I wonder whether the judges will be moved to save her or hold onto for one more dramatic week.

Tonight, Jennifer Hudson and James Durbin. (I love when they trot J.Hud out as a success story, when all it does is simply emphasize how arbitrary the voters are.) Oh, and plenty of time for Jimmy's criticism, dimming the lights, and dramatic moments...join me, won't you?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: "A Theory of Small Earthquakes" by Meredith Maran

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
The Raymond Carver poem "Late Fragment" is a favorite of Alison Rose, the main character in Meredith Maran's spectacular novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes. When Alison joins a "Feminist Transformations" seminar at Oberlin College in the mid-1980s, she finds herself immediately drawn to Zoe, a free-spirited artist who awakes in Alison the desire to be loved and protected, but also brings back memories and fears that stemmed from her fractious relationship with her mother. Alison and Zoe move to Berkeley after Alison's graduation, and they build a life together.

But when the Loma Prieta earthquake occurs in 1989, it exposes many of the cracks in their relationship, which magnified as they struggled to have a child. Alison settles into a more "normal" relationship with Mark, and they quickly have a son, Corey. Several months after Corey is born, Alison encounters Zoe again, and although she feels some initial betrayal, Zoe becomes a vital part of all of their lives, helping raise Corey and serving as a "goddessmother" counterpoint to Alison and Mark. But Alison is never completely comfortable in her life—she's never sure exactly what or who she wants, she's afraid that some of her secrets will be exposed, and most of all, she fears losing those she loves, even as her behavior often pushes them away.

A Theory of Small Earthquakes is a novel about love, family, parenthood, and being comfortable in your life, but it also is a tremendously fascinating reflection on the many different forms a family can take. While at times I worried the book might veer into soap opera-esque territory, Maran deftly keeps the story together, and at times I wasn't sure exactly what was going to happen. Some may take issue with the fluidity of Alison's sexuality, but it is clear from reading the book what motivates her most. I really enjoyed the characters, even while Alison's behavior irritated me at times, and in the end, I was moved, and truly fulfilled, by this story. This is a book for those who like to read about love, relationships, and human dynamics—I don't find this to be necessarily a "gay" novel in any way, just a tremendously well-written one.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Is there anything this guy can't do?

I rarely gush over people in the public eye, but in Matthew Bomer's case, I'll make an exception.

The White Collar star is not only pretty darn flawless in the looks department, but he's a very good actor, and recently came out of the closet publicly, acknowledging his long-time partner and their children.

In tomorrow's episode of Glee, Bomer demonstrates another talent—the guy can sing, too. Playing the brother of Darren Criss' character, Blaine, Bomer and Criss break out a duet of Gotye's current hit, Somebody That I Used to Know. (Criss is exceptionally talented and quite easy on the eyes himself, but Bomer pretty much captures my attention.)

Here's evidence of Bomer's talent. I'm hoping the guy snores, or can't cook, or has some other shocking character flaw, because this guy really got the lion's share of luck otherwise.

Book Review: "The Reconstructionist" by Nick Arvin

As a child, Ellis Barstow and his older half-brother, Christopher, were obsessed with car accidents, which happened frequently near their house. Christopher's death in a car accident while he is in high school puts Ellis on an aimless course; although he gets a college degree in engineering, he drifts from one meaningless and unsatisfactory job to another. After a chance encounter with Heather, Christopher's old girlfriend, who tried to rescue him from the crash, Ellis goes to work for Heather's husband, John Boggs, as a forensic reconstructionist, investigating, analyzing, and recreating the details of fatal car accidents.

Ellis loves his job, because it allows him to try and make sense of seemingly nonsensical things, and understand how one single action can have a ripple effect on so many. But Ellis is also increasingly drawn to Heather, and when they begin an affair, Boggs disappears. As Ellis tries to find him, he revisits the scenes of accidents they reconstructed, trying to make sense of his own life, as he is driven to uncover the truth about the accident that killed his brother, knowing it may affect his relationship with Heather.

This book was fascinating, compelling, and a little off-kilter at times. I loved the story at the heart of the book, and found the work that Ellis and Boggs did to be tremendously interesting, even though there was a little more scientific detail than I needed. And as Ellis analyzed his relationships and his past, the book took a poignant turn. However, I felt that Ellis' search for Boggs dragged on far longer than it needed to. While I felt I understood Ellis' motivation to keep trying to find him, Boggs didn't really seem to be the person you thought he was, so the whole section of the book threw me off a bit. But I still found the book moving and thought-provoking, and that is a testament to Nick Arvin's exceptional story-telling ability.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Book Review: "So Cold the River" by Michael Koryta

Eric Shaw was once a promising cinematographer poised to be the next big thing in Hollywood, until his temper destroyed his career, which significantly damaged his marriage. Now, he mostly makes retrospective films about people, usually used for funerals and other special events. So when Alyssa Bradford hires him to do a biography of her 95-year-old billionaire father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, whose childhood is a mystery to their family, Eric jumps at the chance. Armed only with a vintage bottle of mineral water from Bradford's hometown of French Lick, Indiana, he gets the opportunity to visit an historic hotel that once transformed the area and has now been restored to its former grandeur.

Yet the minute Eric takes a sip of the once-famous Pluto Water, and arrives in French Lick, things start to get a little strange. He starts seeing visions which get more and more vivid, he encounters a very distant relative of Campbell Bradford who has an axe to grind, he discovers more than just a few secrets and legends about Bradford, and it appears he has unleashed a menace set on destroying the town and everyone in it. But motivated by the need to get at the truth, and the power of finding the ultimate story to film, Eric is determined to stay in French Lick—no matter what the costs.

I read this entire 500+-page book on a flight from Paris to the U.S., and it kept me riveted the entire time. Clearly this book isn't based in reality, but it's a terrific paranormal thriller with enough character and plot development to hook you. And it's a little creepy, too, once the characters make some realizations about what's in the water. I picked this book up a while ago because I remember Stephen King saying it was one of his favorite books; it's definitely a book worthy of a read. (Note: This review is kind of vague because I don't want to spoil anything for you.)

Book Review: "The Beginner's Goodbye" by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is back to fighting form with her bittersweet, charming new book about love, loss, and coming to terms with reality in relationships. Thirty-six-year-old Aaron Woolcott is a publisher and editor of his family's vanity press. Crippled at a young age by a weakness in his right side, he has spent most of his life fending off efforts of his mother and sister to take care of him. So when he meets Dorothy Rosales, a plain-spoken, independent oncologist who seems to have missed the caregiver gene, it's almost no wonder that they fall in love and get married. Aaron likes the fact that Dorothy doesn't try to take care of him, likes the simplicity of their lives together.

When a tree crashes into their house and kills Dorothy, Aaron is devastated, and unsure of just how to go on. Yet the more he thinks about all of the things he loved about Dorothy, the more he relives many of the tensions they had during their marriage. And when she suddenly starts reappearing to him—in their backyard, at the farmers' market, in a shopping mall—he realizes that dwelling on all of the "might have beens" won't help him to move on with his life, and he should cherish the memories they had.

Anne Tyler is one of the best writers around when it comes to creating quirky, flawed characters, yet she is at her best when she balances her characters' foibles with their stronger qualities. I found The Beginner's Goodbye tremendously heart-warming and enjoyable; although the characters aren't completely sympathetic, you can understand their motivations and why they react the way they do. The one thing I found interesting (and slightly off-putting from time to time) is that Aaron seemed much, much older than he was; I had to keep reminding myself he was only in his mid-30s through most of this book. But that fact didn't diminish my enjoyment of Tyler's latest.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: "The Might Have Been" by Joe Schuster

I'll admit I was a little wary of reading another baseball novel just a few months after reading Chad Harbach's fantastic The Art of Fielding, but I needn't have worried. Joe Schuster's debut novel, The Might Have Been, has baseball more at its core than Harbach's book, but it is captivating and affecting in its own quiet way.

When the book starts in the mid-1970s, Edward Everett Yates is a baseball player who has been in the minor leagues for 10 years, but still believes he will one day get called up to the majors. And one day he does, to play (at least temporarily) for the St. Louis Cardinals. He is determined to show the team all he can do—and in the midst of a spectacular game, he sustains a severe knee injury that affects him for the rest of his life. This moment haunts him and is the catalyst for a number of questionable opportunities he sacrifices throughout his life—relationships with women he loves, the chance for a family, a lucrative job, and security. The book then follows him 40 years later, as the manager of a failing minor league team in Perabo City, Iowa. Edward Everett struggles with players both destined for future success and those for whom success in baseball is not in the cards, and he wonders if a life in baseball was really worth all of his energy.

This is a book in which nothing tremendously earth-shattering happens, but it is a beautifully written, affecting one all the same. Anyone whom has ever chased a dream, sacrificing everything that got in the way of that singular focus, can identify with Edward Everett and his struggles. While at times the decisions he makes are frustrating, you can understand why he does the things he does, and you find yourself hoping that perhaps this time, things will go his way. This is a book about baseball and a book about a life lived in its shadow, and it is a great read.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: "The Great Night" by Chris Adrian

Sometimes a book has a beautiful story at its core, but the thread tends to get lost in overcomplication. That's the way I felt about Chris Adrian's The Great Night, a well-written book that meshes the emotional, relationship-driven crises of three San Franciscans with characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream, with mixed results.

It's Midsummer Eve in 2008. Three strangers, each dealing with the wreckage of a relationship, enter Balboa Park, headed to the same party. But unbeknownst to them, Titania, Oberon, and their court call the park their home as well. That night, deep in the throes of sadness over the end of her marriage, which dissolved following the death of her adopted son, Titania releases an ancient menace, which threatens the lives of the immortals, and the mortals alike. The three strangers, along with a group of homeless people rehearsing a musical version of Soylent Green, are sealed in the park—and forced to confront their emotionally turbulent pasts, with bizarre results.

I loved when Adrian spun the stories of the three strangers: Henry, a neurotic, gay oncologist dealing with the breakup of his most long-term relationship, and memories of being kidnapped as a child; Molly, suffering from the sudden suicide of her boyfriend; and Will, an arborist in love with one woman yet compulsively drawn to affairs with others. But sadly, he spent far too much time on the strange world of Titania and her minions, and the kaleidoscopic adventures that ensue were far more jarring than fulfilling. I'd love it if I could learn what actually happened to the characters in this story, because that would be a book truly well worth reading.