Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review: "Triburbia" by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Sometimes if I see a crowd of seemingly disparate people together at a restaurant, a sporting event, or other group function, I try to imagine their connections to each other, even invent backstories for them. It's an entertaining way to pass the time, and it often proves how what you perceive is often far from reality.

Karl Taro Greenfeld's Triburbia is a literary version of the same exercise. This book of linked stories examines a group of residents of the Tribeca neighborhood in New York City, generally over the course of one school year, although a few stories are flashbacks. It's an interesting and captivating look at a group of fathers who get together each morning for breakfast at a local coffee shop after taking their children to school, as well as their wives, mistresses, and children. To those outside looking in, many of these people seem to have it all, but when you look closely at their lives, you realize they have many of the same struggles as everyone else.

There's the sound engineer who realizes he looks like the police sketch of an alleged sex offender who has plagued their neighborhood, the sculptor torn between two women and lamenting his willingness to give up his dreams, the philandering playwright who discovers his relationship with his wife improves once he moves out of the house, the famed memoirist who finds himself accused of fabricating his books, even the Jewish gangster who can fix any problem except helping his daughter win over the lead mean girl in elementary school. And those are just a few of the characters Greenfeld vividly depicts.

Interestingly enough, most of the descriptions of Triburbia I saw prior to reading the book made a minor mention of the linked stories concept, so I was surprised as I began reading it. But although it took a while for Greenfeld to begin connecting the characters, once he did, my only criticism was that some of the stories seemed too short, and I wanted to learn more about the characters' lives.

This book was a tremendously fast and enjoyable read, and Greenfeld is a very talented writer who was able to shift narrative voice from character to character very easily. This is one of those novels that captivate but don't wow you, although when you're finished you realize you enjoyed it more than you thought.

A love song for my home state...

After losing power for several days during the derecho this summer, we were prepared for much worse as Hurricane Sandy prepared to arrive. The media had warned us to ready for the possibility of 7-10 days without power and the potential of significant damage, so with a house full of non-perishable items, two cases of bottled water, and a store of batteries, we waited, nervously eyeing the large trees already drooping into our backyard from the adjacent lot.

When we awoke Tuesday morning, we were pleased to see we hadn't lost power or sustained any damage save a few tiles from a neighbor's roof blowing into the backyard. But I honestly wasn't prepared for the extent of the damage Sandy left in my home state of New Jersey, not to mention the destruction in New York City, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

Like so many, my family and friends in New Jersey and New York were (and are still) without power. Some had to evacuate their homes or wait for the Coast Guard to rescue them. Some sustained damage to their homes and cars. But fortunately, all are safe and accounted for. It is upsetting to see so many you care about not have control over their situations and at the mercy of Mother Nature and the cleanup and utility companies, especially when you really live too far away to provide shelter or whatever assistance you can. But hopefully the good vibes and love we're constantly sending will do some good.

Equally as upsetting are the pictures of the destruction Sandy left in her wake. Beaches and places I used to visit when I was younger, like Point Pleasant, the Boardwalk at Seaside Heights (where we went the day after my high school junior prom and a friend's senior prom), even parts of the Atlantic City Boardwalk have sustained significant damage or been washed away.

But as they've done before, the people of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania will not only endure, but they'll come back stronger than ever. And as far as the Jersey shore is concerned, as our favorite native son sings in Jersey Girl, a song I slow danced to at nearly every Sweet 16 party I went to growing up:
'Cause down the shore everything's all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night
You can take the boy out of Jersey but you can never take all of Jersey out of the boy. Wishing all of my family and friends strength, warmth, sanity, patience, and lots and lots of love...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Maybe the Great Pumpkin can help...

Sending love and strength to all of those affected by Sandy. After losing power for several days during the summer's derecho, we made it through reasonably unscathed last night, but I know that my family and friends in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania weren't quite so lucky.

I hope everyone stays warm, safe, and dry as you wait for your power to return and for the water to recede. And in the meantime, for whenever you're able to celebrate Halloween, know the Great Pumpkin is looking out for you...

Book Review: "The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg

There's a lot of truth to the adage, "Food is life." Food can nourish, nurture, soothe, bring people together, even keep problems temporarily at bay. Those are just a few reasons that so many cultures and religions have festive meals as part of their traditions. (I've joked through the years during Jewish holidays that nearly every one is built around the tenet, "They tried to kill us, we defeated them, let's eat.")

For Edie Middlestein, food comforts, heals, brings her pleasure, and satisfies her like nothing else. From a young age, raised in a Jewish household full of scholars and immigrants, she was surrounded by an overabundance of love and food. And food fueled her ambitions to be a stellar student through high school and college, into a law career.

What food couldn't do, however, was fill the emotional void she felt following the death of her parents, or help exacerbate her marriage to pharmacist Richard. So she ate. And ate. And ate some more, even as she raised two children, easy-going Benny and emotional Robin.

But now Edie weighs more than 300 pounds. Doctors have told her if she doesn't stop eating she'll die. When Richard leaves her, tired of their angry, bitter, empty marriage and Edie's addiction to food, her family rallies around her to try and save her. Benny, now a successful, pot-smoking family man, tries to care for Edie as best he can, while Robin, who blames her father for everything, vacillates between being nurturing and struggling with her own emotional issues. And Benny's perfectionist wife, Rachelle, tries to take control over Edie's life as long as it doesn't interfere with her planning her twins' b'nai mitzvah extravaganza or her need to control her family's eating habits.

Alternating between past and present (with some allusion to future events), the book follows Edie at different points in her life and her addiction to food, and also alternates between Edie's story and Richard, Benny, Robin, and Rachelle's. The Middlesteins is a funny, sensitive, and emotionally evocative look at a family in crisis, where food is an easy target of blame.

As a former personal chef and someone obsessed with cooking, talking about, and eating food, I can certainly identify with some of Edie's feelings, although not to her level of extremity. I thought Jami Attenberg did a phenomenal job with this book and her look at the emotional and physical effects of an addiction to food. She created some very vivid characters and she treated them well, because she could have turned this into a caricature. Although some of the shifts in narration and the mentions of what happens to the characters in the future distracted me a bit from time to time, I really enjoyed this book, and it made me think quite a bit.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie Review: "The Sessions"

Mark O'Brien was a poet living in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s. After contracting polio at age 6, he spent the majority of his life in an iron lung, as his muscles were too weak to sustain any real movement. In his mid-30s, he decided he no longer wished to be a virgin, and hired a sex surrogate to help him achieve that goal. He recounted his experiences in an article called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."

Ben Lewin's surprisingly funny, warm, and enjoyable movie The Sessions is based on O'Brien's article. Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) gives a fantastic performance as O'Brien, a devout Catholic who craves love. After researching an article on sexual activity among people with disabilities, he realizes that there is an opportunity to explore a side of himself he never believed possible.

After seeking permission from his neighborhood priest (William H. Macy, believably befuddled by O'Brien), Mark hires sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Cheryl tries to approach Mark as just another client seeking to achieve a goal, but finds the challenges of her own life play havoc with her emotions. Cheryl helps Mark not only gain control of his body, but his courage and self-confidence as well.

Hawkes, who played menacing characters in both Winter's Bone and last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, gives a performance which dazzles not only for his ability to evoke sensitivity, wry humor, and anxiety, but simply for the fact that he spends the entire movie lying flat on his back, head slightly tilted. The emotions and depth he is able to convey while not moving are the stuff for which awards are deservedly given. You never feel sorry for Mark because of his condition; you marvel at his heart, his mind, and his wicked sense of humor.

Helen Hunt, who has been practically AWOL from films for some time, also gives a terrific performance. Literally baring herself (and looking fantastic at age 49), she brings passion and intelligence to her role as a woman torn between professional detachment and emotional inspiration. Hunt is able to convey multiple emotions with a simple expression, and I found this to be a stronger performance than the one she won an Oscar for in As Good As It Gets. (Don't get me started on that one.)

This is a beautiful, well-acted little movie that is frank in its portrayal of our sexual desires, but is more about our need to feel loved. These actors, and the characters they played, make it easy to love them. I'd expect to see this movie receive a great deal of recognition come Oscar time.

Book Review: "Live by Night" by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is one of my all-time favorite authors. I've always been awed by his ability to combine crackling action and great plot development with complex, well-drawn characters. While these characteristics have been key factors in the excellent Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as his terrific series with Patrick Kenzie and Angela Genarro, I wondered how they would translate into a more epic-type novel.

When we first meet Joe Coughlin, the gangster at the heart of Live by Night, he has his feet in a tub of cement and he's just about to take a permanent swim in the ocean. But then the novel travels back in time to the Prohibition-era 1920s in Boston. Joe, the son of a well-respected police inspector, has decided to follow a different path than his father, and he and two friends work for a well-connected mobster.

One evening during a robbery, Joe lays eyes on Emma Gould, who, as it turns out, is the girlfriend of a rival mob boss. This relationship completely obsesses Joe, and sets him down a dangerous path that leads to betrayal and, ultimately, prison. Prison tests Joe physically and emotionally, but it also leads to a long relationship with mob boss Maso Pescatore.

After leaving prison, Joe is sent to Tampa, where he begins building an empire and forging relationships with local Cuban leaders. But the road to success never runs smoothly, and over the years, Joe finds himself battling the KKK, moonshiners, religious zealots, the local police and even the U.S. Navy, as well as some old nemeses. And each encounter leaves Joe torn about what he wants for his future.

Lehane definitely knows how to spin a story, and it's definitely the mark of his strength as an author that you find yourself rooting for Joe, even as he's plotting to destroy his enemies and committing crimes. There are some great action scenes, as well as some strong character development. Some of the character dynamics and plot twists are a little more predictable than I would have liked, as you can see most of what happens coming before it does. But I still found myself hooked on the story and enjoying the characters and their relationships.

Live by Night may not be the best Lehane book I've read, but I really did enjoy it. And now that I know how he does with this type of book, I'll go back and read Any Given Day.

Friday, October 26, 2012

It's not spoiling it Sandy, it's just making it better...

Building on my Facebook post from earlier today, where I wondered if anyone else had been inspired to sing Sandy from the movie version of Grease because of the impending hurricane, I saw this:

Here's what the Weather Channel should say...

Admittedly, every time I hear someone utter the words "Frankenstorm" on television it makes me crave Count Chocula, but hey.

While I hope the storm isn't as horrible as they're predicting it will be, here's the map they should put up:

Be prepared and be safe, everyone.

Hang it up...

Cell phones have greatly enhanced our ability to keep in touch, solve problems and get information wherever we are, and provide assistance in an emergency. Yet they've also turned us into more self-centered and rude individuals, seemingly oblivious to those around us and those with whom we're interacting. We don't seem to realize that everyone in an elevator or at an airport boarding gate isn't interested in hearing us shout to whomever we're speaking.

I know we've all lamented from time to time about the way customer service seems to be declining in stores, and it's certainly true. But so is the reverse—I can't tell you how many times I've seen a person go to the deli counter, a cashier, a pharmacist, and never once pause their cell phone conversation to acknowledge or thank the person assisting them. I've seen this happen three times today, in fact, and in none of those conversations was someone giving step-by-step emergency tracheotomy instructions or speaking to a person in distress.

Nearly all of us has been on a cell phone when we walk into a store. It's only natural these days—you get a phone call in the car and continue your conversation as you run your errands. But when you get ready to pay for your stuff, or request something from a sales associate or deli employee, is it that hard to either put your call on hold briefly or offer to call the person back while you deal with the actual human being in front of you?

Don't you get offended when you greet someone and they don't reciprocate, or you do something for someone and they don't say thank you? Imagine how the cashier or sales associate feels when they greet you, give you what you asked for, or say thank you, and all they get in return is listening to your continued conversation. I always tell the person to whom I'm speaking that I'll either call them back or ask them to hold on briefly so I'm not rude to the person in front of me.

It only takes a second to be polite. I'll bet even the person on the other end of the cell phone conversation wouldn't object!

Just a thought...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When good Crayolas go bad...

(Courtesy of George Takei's Facebook page, which if you haven't liked, you're missing out on a lot of fun humor.)

I'm choosing to look at this simply in fun, not with a political lens on, although some could make the argument about what this cartoon represents...

Phillip Phillips takes on the "Star Spangled Banner"

If you followed any of my recapping of American Idol's 11th season earlier this year, you'll know I was a big fan of the eventual winner, Phillip "Don't Call Me Dave Matthews" Phillips. While he may not have had the big voice of runner-up Jessica Sanchez or the versatility and stage presence of third-place finisher Joshua Ledet, I loved the gravelly sound of his voice and his interpretation of songs throughout the season.

Despite those who lamented that Phillips' win was due more to preteen and tween girls' lock on the voting for "WGWG" ("white guy with guitar") contestants, he's done pretty well since the show ended. His "coronation song," the nearly ubiquitous Home, has sold over 2 million copies thus far, which is the highest result ever for an Idol winner, and his debut album, The World from the Side of the Moon, drops in about three weeks.

Last night, Phillips sang the National Anthem at the opening game of the World Series. While his voice might not be the type you'd expect to sing the anthem, he brought a mellow, acoustic vibe to the song in a wholly different vein than, say, Whitney Houston. I really like his version if you're willing to step outside of what you expect an anthem singer to sound like.

Sounds like he's still in it to win it, yo...

And a child shall lead them (or at least come up with a great idea)...

They say (at least George Benson and Whitney Houston did) the children are our future. There's certainly no disputing that some of the best ideas come from younger minds.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the NFL has a very active and visible campaign to promote this cause. There are pink ribbon logos on the fields, and quite often players, coaches, cheerleaders, referees, and others incorporate pink ribbons or pink items into their uniforms or equipment.

But 11-year-old Dante Cano from Marlboro, NJ (shout out to my hometown) thought the NFL should go one step further, and use pink penalty flags during the month of October. He wrote a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell, who not only admired Cano's idea, he ran with it. Sunday's Dolphins-Jets game will use pink penalty flags, and Cano will have the opportunity to go on the field to present the flags to the officials.

Of course, some have criticized the NFL's campaign, saying the use of pink "sissifies" the game, but those are just Neanderthals who clearly don't care about the millions of lives impacted by breast cancer, or the fact that women who battle the disease need strength and courage far greater than many can even imagine.

I hope that more children are inspired by Dante Cano's example. While not every great idea gets recognized at all, let alone with the fanfare his will be, those who worry about the future can feel better about it being in the hands of the next generation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: "A Working Theory of Love" by Scott Hutchins

Relationships can be complicated. Neill Bassett knows this well. His marriage imploded nearly as soon as it started, despite the fact he and his wife dated for a long time before getting married. And his relationship with his father, a strict, traditionally Southern doctor, was definitely fractious until his father committed suicide while Neill was in college.

Yet Neill's father isn't quite out of his life. When he died, he left behind thousands of pages of journals chronicling daily occurrences, interactions, and his philosophies on life. While one publication, which ran an excerpt from one of the journals, called Neill's father, "The Southern Samuel Pepys," these journals are incredibly detailed, and incredibly boring.

But the banality of journals hasn't stopped Amiante Systems, an artificial intelligence company, from buying them. In an attempt to build the first computer to pass the Turing test, in which judges try to distinguish the dialogue of a computer from that of a human, Amiante Systems has hired Neill—who has a marketing background and no knowledge of computer programming—to input thousands of journal pages into the computer in order to give it language. The computer begins "speaking" (through an IM or chat function) in Neill's father's own words, which leaves him unsettled. And then the computer starts asking questions about Neill's childhood.

While his emotional state is in flux, Neill meets Rachel, a much younger woman who he initially intended to be nothing more than a one-night stand, yet he finds himself continually drawn to and repelled by her. He keeps running into his ex-wife, Erin, who lives nearby, which brings to light his unresolved feelings about their relationship and its dissolution. And another unsuccessful romantic dalliance has the potential to jeopardize the success his company is achieving with "Dr. Bassett" (the name for the computer).

When Neill discovers that one year is missing from his father's journals—the year Neill was born—he's convinced that this may be the key to his father's suicide and the difficulties in their relationship. Yet what he discovers only brings more uncertainty and causes him to feel more vulnerable as he continues working with the computer.

A Working Theory of Love is a really well-written and emotionally compelling book, and it raises some interesting questions. What would we do if we could ask a dead loved one questions you never could when they were alive? Are there questions about our lives and the relationships our loved ones have with us and others that we shouldn't want answers to? Where does love come from, the heart or the head?

I really enjoyed this book a great deal, although I felt the subplot about a cult-like group Rachel becomes involved in was somewhat unnecessary. And Rachel's character wasn't drawn to be as intriguing as others, so you can't quite understand Neill's feelings for her. But in the end, this is a book that makes you feel, with your brain and your heart.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movie Review: "Argo"

If you had told me during the height of the "Bennifer" craze that Ben Affleck would transform into one of the best directors currently working, and a strong actor to boot, I probably wouldn't have believed you. (Did you see Gigli?) But after marveling at his direction of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and now the spectacular Argo—not to mention his strong performances in the latter two movies—I'd say you're absolutely right.

I was nearly 10 years old in 1979 when angry Iranian citizens stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. While I was generally aware this occurred, and the continuing crisis remained in the back of my mind (although I'll admit at the time I knew more about what was happening behind the scenes on The Love Boat or Three's Company more than current events), like many, I had no idea that six Embassy employees had escaped and eventually made it back to the U.S. So as the events in Argo unfolded, for the most part, it was like I was finding things out for the first time.

The movie begins with a brief narration of the history and events that led up to the animosity Iran felt toward the U.S. back in 1979. Watching the angry mob work up the strength to storm the embassy and overrun its staff, it felt as if I was there in the middle of what was happening. Affleck's direction here was superb—the tension and emotions on both sides was truly palpable. You felt the anxiety of the Embassy employees as they decided their only recourse was to flee the dangers that awaited them.

Affleck, complete with shaggy 70s hair and beard, plays CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, pressed into service by the agency to help extract the six employees who were hiding at the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). He comes up with an unlikely scenario—he and the "houseguests" (as they are referred to throughout the movie) will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie, and after looking around Tehran, will fly to Switzerland. To give the scenario the authenticity it will need in order to succeed with suspicious Iranians, Mendez flies to Hollywood where he enlists the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who gets to spout the best lines in the film), finds a script, and starts building the necessary publicity buzz in Hollywood. (I'm not gonna lie—I was psyched to see Adrienne Barbeau in the movie, because I'm still a child of the 70s and 80s, what do you want from me?)

Finally getting the go ahead from the U.S. government, Mendez flies first to Istanbul and then Tehran to begin the extraction operation. Of course, he has to gain the trust of the houseguests (not an easy feat) and overcome suspicion and very close investigation of the Iranian secret police, not to mention the changing plans of his own government.

It takes an excellent director to make a movie compelling when you know what is ultimately going to happen, but that is exactly what happens with Argo. Affleck's direction and the performances are top-notch, and the plot is so tightly wound, that you find yourself wondering whether the story will divert from the path you expect it to take, much like Apollo 13.

There doesn't seem to be a false note in this movie—even the toys in Mendez's son's room are authentic to the time period. The few moments of humor don't truly distract you from the story at hand, although Arkin's show-stealing performance would certainly justify your being distracted. Affleck brings a quiet power and vulnerability to his role, and the actors who play the houseguests—particularly Scoot McNairy as the one hardest to convince—bring tension and fear to their performances. And Affleck doesn't simply make the Iranians one-dimensional stereotypes; in particular, Farshad Farahat, as the airport guard who isn't quite sure whether to believe the scenario Mendez has woven, gives a simmering portrayal.

I truly hope that this movie and Affleck get the recognition they deserve come Oscar time. I felt as if The Town was definitely worthy of a Best Picture nomination two years ago but it was passed over, and I hope that doesn't happen again. But regardless of the awards this film receives, it serves as one more powerful notice that Ben Affleck is one of the most talented directors of this generation, and I look forward to continuing to enjoy his contributions to film.

Movie Review: "Seven Psychopaths"

The new film from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Seven Psychopaths is twisted, violent, hysterically funny, even surprisingly tender at times.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter, who may or may not have a drinking problem, depending on whom you ask. His relationship with girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is going sour, but his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell, gleefully twisted) is looking out for him, trying to get him to stop drinking, and volunteering to help write Marty's latest movie, called (what else) Seven Psychopaths.

Billy is running a bit of a scheme kidnapping dogs or, as he calls it, "borrowing" dogs, then returning them to the owners and getting paid a reward. His partner in this scheme, Hans (Christopher Walken, doing his best Christopher Walken), is a religious pacifist with a passion for peyote and an ailing wife. One day, Billy unwittingly kidnaps the beloved shih tzu of Charlie, a gangster (Woody Harrelson) who really loves his dog. Charlie will stop at nothing to get his dog back.

Marty accidentally gets tangled up in Charlie's mission to rescue his dog and make the kidnappers pay, while at the same time trying to reconcile his vision for his screenplay with Billy's, who imagines it ending in a final shootout and blaze of glorious violence. And then Marty makes another startling discovery about his friend, which sets many wheels into motion.

This movie gleefully skewers movies, particularly gratuitously violent ones, while turning criminal stereotypes on their ears. Farrell does a terrific job as a man struggling with his own demons who suddenly is confronted with someone else's, and Rockwell has never seemed more comfortable playing a joyful psychopath. Harrelson combines bravado and vulnerability to great comic effect, but the movie belongs to Christopher Walken, who is at times a parody of every Walkenesque character he's played, but is a man with surprising depth and intelligence, resigned to the fate that lies in front of him.

There is a good deal of violence in this movie, so it may not be for the faint of heart, but it is truly worth watching, for the twisted plot, the humor that will leave you laughing out loud, and the sly performances. And be sure to stay through the credits—there's a last minute gem stuck in the middle.

Cool cover song of the week...

As I've said many times before, I'm a huge music fan, and have more than 23,000 songs on my iPod. (It keeps playing the same 1000 or so, but it is what it is.)

While my musical tastes are tremendously eclectic, in general, I love songs to which you can sing along. Which probably explains my fondness for covers, new versions of popular songs, sometimes faithful to the original, sometimes bringing a new and wholly unexpected twist.

I have a treasure trove of covers to share with you, but I'll start with The Counting Crows' take on Borderline, one of Madonna's earliest hits. It's off their album Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), and I think it gives the song an interesting twist. So interesting, in fact, that I knew I recognized the song but couldn't figure out what it was until Adam Duritz hit the all-too-familiar chorus.

Enjoy. What are your favorite cover versions of songs?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review: "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

"The books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in." So says Clay Jannon, the narrator of Robin Sloan's marvelously magical book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Honestly, any novel that combines a celebration of a lifetime in the literary world, a lifetime of reading, along with a rollicking, mysterious adventure, is one I could imagine myself living inside of.

The economic recession has hit Clay Jannon hard, causing him to lose his job as a web designer and marketer for a profitable bagel company in San Francisco. Finding himself doing everything but looking for a job, one afternoon walking around the city, he comes upon Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and after proving his ability to quickly climb a ladder to fetch books from high shelves, he finds himself employed, working the late night shift.

But the more time he spends in the bookstore, the more he realizes it's not your average establishment. The inventory is random at best—there is very little rhyme or reason to what books the store carries. Very few customers come to the store while Clay is working, and those who do come in repeatedly and don't actually buy anything, but instead borrow mysterious books written in an indecipherable language from strange corners of the store. And then there's the matter of the logbook which Mr. Penumbra requires Clay write in after every customer leaves, and record every aspect of the transaction, down to the customers' moods, even what they're wearing.

Clay knows something strange must be going on, and to fill his late night hours, begins investigating. He enlists his girlfriend, Google employee Kat, his childhood best friend Neel (now owner of a successful tech company), and his artist roommate Mat in trying to figure out what mysteries lie within the books, the store, and Mr. Penumbra himself. And what they find takes them all on a rollicking adventure which touches on data visualization, literary and graphic history, the choice of hewing to tradition vs. embracing change, and, most importantly, a love of books.

This is a magical, compelling, well-written book I absolutely loved. I'm a big fan of books that take you on an adventure, and even if I wasn't always completely sure what was going on, this book hooked me from start to finish. Robin Sloan has created a tremendously fascinating, complex, and exciting world, and the characters are multidimensional and very appealing.

If you like your stories with a side of adventure, or if you like books that don't follow a traditional plot or story flow, definitely pick up Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. You'll find yourself utterly captivated and wishing you could find his bookstore and be part of the adventure.

Where is the line?

The above cartoon was published in the October 16 issue of the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the University of Arizona's newspaper. Two days later the newspaper issued an apology, said it fired cartoonist D.C. Parsons, and said the staff is reviewing its editorial policies. And, of course, the newspaper editor was quick to do the whole "his [Parsons'] views do not represent the views of the Wildcat staff, nor does the Wildcat represent the views of the university" disclaimer.

Parsons also apologized, explaining that the cartoon "was not intended to offend." (Not sure how, but...) He said:
"It was based on an experience from my childhood. My father is a devout conservative from a previous generation, and I believe he was simply distraught from the fact that I had learned (from The Simpsons) what homosexuality was at such a young age.

"I have always used humor as a coping mechanism, much like society does when addressing social taboos. I do not condone these things; I simply don’t ignore them. I do sincerely apologize and sympathize with anyone who may be offended by my comics...but keep in mind it is only a joke, and what’s worse than a joke is a society that selectively ignores its problems."
I find this cartoon troubling, and wonder what the editors were thinking allowing it to run. But I wonder, is this a freedom of speech issue? Is there merit to allowing these views to be shared, if for no other reason than to provoke dialogue and, hopefully, to emphasize just how off-base and dangerous this type of speech is?

Is this offensive humor worthy of a cartoonist losing their job, or simply a case of a joke that fell flat? Where is the line where humor and comics are concerned?

How about a little musical humor for a Friday??

Saw this on a friend's Facebook page and couldn't resist:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Book Review: "The Professionals" by Owen Laukkanen

I read a fair amount of crime novels/mysteries/thrillers, which have become more and more popular in recent years. For me, a good book in these genres needs to hook you quickly and completely and be reasonably plausible (unless I'm reading one of Michael Koryta's more supernatural-type thrillers), and above all, I can't stand when the killer/villain is practically omnipotent, always one step ahead of everyone else.

While I appreciate a good page-turner every now and again, I do like when these books are well-written at the same time. Another hallmark of a well-written crime novel is when the author creates multidimensional villains, so you find yourself unsure of just whom to root for—you know inherently that the villains are bad and should be caught, but you actually see them as people, too.

Owen Laukkanen's The Professionals hit all of the above criteria for me. I picked it up at the airport on the way out of town last week, and quickly tore through the book. Reasonably believable plot, good action, well-drawn characters, and a few twists and turns definitely kept me hooked—and satisfied—from start to finish.

Pender, Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse are recent college graduates disillusioned with the job market and their prospects of finding lucrative work. Lamenting about the lack of potential possibilities for a successful life, one night someone jokes about turning to kidnapping as a way to make some money. And then suddenly the joke takes on a life of its own, as the foursome begins traveling from city to city, selecting a target, executing a kidnapping, demanding a reasonable amount of ransom, releasing their victim, and moving on. They feel as if they're in control of the situation—they're wise not to demand too much money, they research their target methodically before executing a plan, and their strategy has paid off.

But then they kidnap the wrong men, and their carefully laid plans start to go awry. Suddenly there are two sets of people after them—Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens and young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and a small organized crime faction bent on making them pay for one of their mistakes. Their web grows smaller and smaller, and their dreams of fleeing the country for a dreamy life of retirement grow ever farther away.

I really thought Laukkanen did a very good job with this book. I enjoyed its mix of action, investigation, character introspection, and what happens when carefully laid plans—and the rules you set for yourself—fall by the wayside. The Professionals is an enjoyable, interesting page-turner that would definitely make a fun movie. My only criticism is that I felt Laukkanen's depiction of the mob characters hewed a little closer to stereotype than anything else, but it didn't mar my enjoyment of the book. If you're a fan of this genre, I think you'll enjoy it.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" by Jonathan Evison

Even though the title of this book makes it sound like a textbook, Jonathan Evison's new novel is a wry, funny, and (dare I say) heartwarming journey of one man's emotional recovery through the unlikeliest of processes.

To say Benjamin Benjamin's life has fallen apart would be an understatement. A former stay-at-home father, in an instant, he lost everything—his family, his marriage, his home, and his livelihood. After a long period of self-loathing and drinking, with no job prospects on the horizon, he enrolls in a night course called "The Fundamentals of Caregiving." In the course, he learns how to insert catheters and correctly transfer clients from wheelchair to bed or toilet, he learns about professionalism, and keeping physical and emotional distance between client and provider, and he comes away with a lot of different checklists on how to be a good caregiver.

Yet Ben's first job, caring for 19-year-old Trevor, a rebellious adolescent in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, proves that all of the checklists and procedures don't help you actually deal with your client. Ben and Trevor forge a connection based on routine, ogling at women, watching cable, and dreaming of all of the places they'll never go, but Ben is unprepared for the upheaval in everyone's lives which occurs when Trevor's estranged father tries to visit. All of the emotional distance in the world can't keep Ben from reflecting his own failures in this situation.

While Ben is trying to do right by Trevor, he's also continuing to deal with the after-effects of his own tragedy. His wife is trying to serve him with divorce papers, his neighbors are complaining about him, his always-solid best friend is having his own issues of conscience, and Ben just wants it all to go away. When he and Trevor embark on a roadtrip to visit Trevor's father, all of his crises come to a head as they come into contact with some interesting people along the way.

I really enjoyed the way Evison let this story unfold. I worried it might be a little too wry and sarcastic, but he balanced those qualities nicely with all of the emotional issues the characters dealt with. I also liked that the book didn't end on a maudlin note as I felt it would. While Ben is immensely needy and unstable (and who wouldn't be after what he has been through), through caregiving he starts to find himself again, although he is clearly getting as much care as he's giving.

This is a really enjoyable book populated with characters who are much more complex than you think they are. I'm now intrigued to go back and read some of Evison's earlier books.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book Review: "The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down" by Andrew McCarthy

I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I was first drawn to Andrew McCarthy's new book because he starred in two of my favorite 80s movies, St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty in Pink. The truth is, however, about a year or so ago I read an article he wrote on Ireland for Bon Appetit magazine, and I remembered being impressed with his writing ability.

While I may have come to McCarthy's book partially because of my nostalgia for most 80s-related things, it was his writing ability, and his insights into the appeal of travel and why he is more comfortable being alone—even while surrounded by strangers—that made me keep reading. But don't be taken in by the quote from Elizabeth Gilbert on the book's cover—while McCarthy meditates on love and relationships, and does eat throughout the book, this is no male version of Eat, Pray, Love.

McCarthy is unable to commit to his fiancée of nearly four years, and doesn't quite understand why. He recounts always being a somewhat ambivalent person; while he initially fell in love with acting in high school and felt truly alive onstage, he never really imagined himself a successful actor, and once his career started taking off, he found himself at odds with this success. (It's interesting to find out the characteristics that most intrigued me about McCarthy's acting—his ambivalence, his vulnerability, his shyness—were actually real-life personality traits, not dimensions of his characters.) At one point he recounts that he saw acting as a terrific way to meet women, travel, and drink to excess.

At a crossroads in his life, and at risk of jeopardizing his future by alienating the woman he loves, he sets out to try and find the answer to what causes his fear of commitment, of showing his true self to people. He begins traveling to places both exotic and remote—the glaciers of Patagonia, the rainforests of Costa Rica, the heart of Amazonian country, Mt. Kilimanjaro, even one of his best friend's childhood hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

As he travels, McCarthy recounts what events in his life shaped him to be the type of person he is, how his somewhat strained relationship with his father has affected the way he parents his children, how his fear of failing after one divorce has impacted his relationship with his fiancée, and he realizes how much he needs what he desires most—a loving wife and family. This book is part travelogue, as he shares risky adventures, breathtaking sights, and encounters both enriching and bizarre with the people he meets along his journey, and part memoir of self-discovery.

McCarthy says, "In life there are dividing lines. These moments become a way to chart our time; they are the signposts for our lives." That quote is a fairly accurate description of The Longest Way Home. Andrew McCarthy is a writer with great talent, one who truly made the anecdotes of his travels come alive, and his use of imagery really evoked pictures in my mind. But at times, McCarthy's ambivalence, his reticence to disclose his feelings, even to the woman he loves, was a little frustrating. You almost want to shake him from time to time, to warn him he needs to find his answers quickly or his whole life could fall apart. That melodrama aside, this is an insightful, enjoyable book that makes you see travel, and why people do it, in a very different way.

Movie Review: "Arbitrage"

Are the rich different? Arbitrage, a terrific new movie from writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, strives to answer that question.

Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a renowned hedge fund magnate who is desperate to close the sale of his financial empire. So desperate, in fact, that he has convinced an old friend to lend his company more than $400 million so that they can get a clean bill of health from the auditors and the sale can go through before his ruse is discovered.

His family, including his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who runs the family foundation, and his children, including his brilliant daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who is following in his footsteps, serving as the company's chief investment officer, have varied feelings about his eagerness to sell the company. And as the deal can never quite seem to be closed, Miller's nervousness grows.

Miller also has a mistress, gallery owner Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), in whom he has invested a great deal of money. Julie is becoming increasingly unhappy about playing second fiddle in Robert's life (third, if you count his business), and in an effort to placate her, Robert invites her on a weekend in upstate New York.

On a late night car ride, things go very, very wrong, and Robert is forced to make a split-second decision that will have major ramifications in his life. He calls Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a former employee and friend, for help, another decision that is far more complex that it seems on the surface. And when dogged police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) gets Miller in his sights, he isn't willing to let Miller slip through his fingers, no matter what.

Gere turns in a fantastic performance in this movie. At times powerful, at times nearly brought to his knees by the situations unfolding around him, he plays a man desperate to keep control of everything in his life, even as it spins more and more out of control. His surface placidity only serves to magnify the passions, fear, and desperate duplicity even more. This is a man willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants—how else did he get where he is? That the movie never apologizes for his behavior is one of the things that really rang true for me. I really would love to see Gere get his first-ever Oscar nomination for this film.

Sarandon looks terrific and is tremendously powerful in the few real scenes she has. Marling conveys both strength and vulnerability in her role as a daddy's girl who finally discovers just what Daddy is up to. And Nate Parker, as the unwitting pawn in Miller's actions, draws you into the conflicts his character is suffering from.

It is to Gere's credit—and, of course, Jarecki's—that you honestly don't know who to root for in this movie. Arbitrage is a quietly thoughtful and powerful film that will definitely make you think; it might make you angry, it might make you sad, but it definitely makes you wonder just how differently the rich do have it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Saving Big Bird...

While only the most partisan of people can deny that Mitt Romney's performance in Wednesday night's presidential debate surpassed that of President Obama, the big winner coming out of the debate was clearly Big Bird.

I am not posting this for political discussion; I think the photos and memes that have made their way around the interwebs since the debate are all quite funny and don't ask you to take a side, nor do they say that this is the only problem facing our country.

Here's the latest one:

And here's a fun (albeit crude) one:

All I can say is, C is for Cookie, and that's good enough for me...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

And KitchenAid says "D'oh!"...

Like almost anything involving a computer, you really have to be careful to check what you're doing—and to whom you're sending it—before you hit send. (How many of us have hit "Reply to All" on email that should have just been a reply to one person, or worse, hit "Reply" to an email you meant to forward to someone else, snide comments included? Just me?)

Last night, appliance giant KitchenAid learned this lesson the hard way. During the presidential debate, the following tweet appeared:

(President Obama's grandmother died the night before Election Day 2008.)

As you might imagine, the company hastily deleted the tweet, but the damage was done. Many quickly retweeted the comment, while others replied with scathing remarks.

KitchenAid, owned by Whirlpool Corp., immediately went into spin control by offering apologies on Twitter and other social networks. From its Facebook page:

"Hello, everyone. My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I am the head of the KitchenAid brand. I would like to personally apologize to President Barack Obama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier. It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I take full responsibility for my team. Thank you for hearing me out."

Some accepted the response, while others said the company had lost their loyalty. I think that's pretty excessive, because I don't believe this was the position of the company (and even if it was, I don't imagine they'd express it so inarticulately).

Sometimes social media is a little too social...

Oppan Gangnam Style...

When a song becomes extremely popular, the interwebs go wild with everyone else's interpretations, from cover versions to dances to spoofs.

Korean pop/rap star Psy has hit the big time with Gangnam Style. The song is everywhere—Psy taught Ellen DeGeneres and Britney Spears how to dance like in the video, even Navy midshipmen and cadets from the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets have weighed in with their versions.

These are all great fun, but this is my favorite. A cappella singing group Pentatonix, who won the last season of The Sing-Off on television, have weighed in with their version. There's not as much cheesy dancing, but it's fun all the same.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Truly a "suitable example"...

Don't know if you've seen or heard about this, but Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor for Wisconsin television station WKBT, recently confronted—while on air—a viewer email accusing her of not being a "suitable example" for people because of her weight.

Said Livingston: "To the person who wrote me that letter — do you think I don't know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don't see?...You don't know me. You are not a friend of mine. You are not a part of my family. And you have admitted that you don't watch this show. So you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on the scale."

Livingston tells her bully that the bad things he's doing will likely be passed down to his kids: "If you are at home and talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat."

She concludes: "I will never be able to thank you enough for your words of support, and for taking a stand against this bully. We are better than that email. We are better than the bullies that will try to take us down."

The video has gone viral since it showed up on YouTube, and has already caught Ellen DeGeneres' attention (among others), so I'd expect to see Jennifer Livingston making the media rounds soon. And deservedly so.

People, no one gives you the right to judge anyone else. It's fine if you don't agree with a person's opinions or beliefs. But once you criticize a person's appearance, you step into unacceptable territory. We are all human beings. It's time we all act like that.

Danny and Sandy, together again...

This is the way we'll always remember them...

This is them now...

Yes, that's right...Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta are teaming up for a third time (you didn't forget about 1983's Two of a Kind, did you?), this time on a Christmas album due out in mid-November. The album will feature appearances from Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, James Taylor, and the soft rock king, Kenny G. It even includes a duet written by John Farrar, who wrote the smash hit, You're the One That I Want.

Will they go together like ramma lamma lamma kading-iddy ding-dee-dong? We'll see...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The CD turns 30...

Thirty years ago, on October 1, 1982, the first CDs and CD players were officially sold in stores. The first CD sold was Billy Joel's 52nd Street.

Although I am, and always have been, a huge music fan (and purchaser), I was fairly late to the party when it came to CDs. Through all of high school I stuck pretty closely to my record albums (and 45s!), and spent a lot of time recording the albums onto cassettes so I could listen to them on my boombox or Walkman. I also bought a lot of cassette singles. Remember them? (Man, I'm old.)

When I graduated from high school, I received a boombox with a CD player in it, which necessitated buying my first CD. It was Document by REM.

One of the reasons (truly) I went to GW was that we had a Tower Records on campus. But even though I had a CD player once I got to college, I still found myself buying more cassettes than anything else. And that really continued until they stopped producing cassettes on a regular basis, because I didn't have a car with a CD player until the early 2000s. (I did have one of those portable CD players you plugged into your cigarette lighter but it never worked really well.)

Now, of course, CDs cost more than it does to download the entire album on iTunes. It will be interesting to see what the next musical phenomenon will be...

What was the first CD you ever bought?

That's why they call him The Boss...

Growing up in central New Jersey, worshiping Bruce Springsteen was ingrained in your genes. But when I see this ad, which Springsteen did in support of The Four, a group working to support marriage equality on the ballots in four states: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, I realize that he's not just a great musician, but a great man.

Book Review: "Telegraph Avenue" by Michael Chabon

It's the summer of 2004. Longtime friends Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, co-owners of Brokeland Records, located between Berkeley and Oakland, are trying to weather the storm of their struggling business. When they learn that ex-football player Gibson Goode (called "the fifth-richest black man in America") is set to open another branch of his Dogpile megastore not far from their store on Telegraph Avenue, they know it spells doom for their business, and both have very different ideas about how to deal with this challenge to their livelihood and their lives.

Archy and Nat are connected by more than just business. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are successful, semi-legendary midwives in their community, delivering babies for the privileged and the downtrodden, until a botched delivery—and Gwen's reaction to the aftermath—threatens both their professional lives and their friendship. The sudden appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy never acknowledged, throws all of their lives in further turmoil, especially 15-year-old Julius Jaffe, Nat and Aviva's son, who falls hard for Titus. And then there's the reappearance of Archy's estranged father, Luther Stallings, a faded blaxploitation movie star with a troubled past, and his long-time girlfriend and co-star, Valletta Moore. Luther wants to make a comeback movie and believes the best way to get funding is by blackmailing his old friend, City Councilman (and successful undertaker) Chan Flowers. But Luther doesn't understand the ripples his actions set in motion.

Telegraph Avenue is a story about all kinds of relationships, and how doubt, insecurity, anger, betrayal, and things left unsaid can eat away at even the most solid foundations. It's a book that explores the power of music and movies, and how the need to save face is often tremendously destructive. It also questions whether bringing change to a community is a good thing or a bad thing—are progress and success better than holding on to your dreams?

At nearly 500 pages, this is a weighty book, overstuffed with characters and secondary plots which get difficult to keep track of. Chabon is a master storyteller, and as he has demonstrated in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay as well as The Yiddish Policeman's Union, he likes to keep a number of different narratives going simultaneously. The book is chock-full of pop culture references from the 1970s through the 1990s (Quentin Tarantino comes up quite a bit) and musical references galore.

While you can feel Chabon's strong affection for his characters, I felt like the story could have been a little simpler without sacrificing its power. One sentence runs on for 12 pages, and it felt more like a gimmick than a device to move the narrative further. The appearance of a certain former senator from Illinois seems almost gratuitous, and as the book moves toward its conclusion, it veers into kidnapping, gunplay, even threats of blackmail that I just wanted to skip over.

Michael Chabon is one of the best writers and storytellers of our generation. There's no denying his ability to draw you in and make you care about his characters. I just wish he'd return to the more straightforward style of his early novels, like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, even the magical Summerland instead of feeling like he needs to jam twice the story into one book.