Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend" by Matthew Dicks

Budo is an imaginary friend. The boy who imagined him, eight-year-old Max Delaney, had a vivid imagination, so Budo looks much more real than most imaginary friends. He can pass through doors, and travel anywhere he wants to go, but he doesn't ever sleep, and he can't pick things up, because Max didn't imagine Budo doing those things.

"I live in a strange place in the world," Budo says. "I live in the space in between people. I spend most of my time in the kid world with Max, but I also spend a lot of time with adults like Max's parents and teachers...except they can't see me."

Max has Asperger's Syndrome, and while his mother wants to send him to therapists and doctors to help him get better, his father believes Max is just a late bloomer who will change when he's ready, as long as he's treated like every other child. Max likes his routine, he likes his toys, he loves his teacher, Mrs. Gosk, and storytime, and he hates change. Change makes him "stuck."

Budo wants to protect Max as best as any imaginary friend can; he helps Max with his schoolwork and tries to help him navigate the bullies at school who want to hurt Max, like fifth-grader Tommy Swinden. More than anything, Budo wants Max to always need and believe in him, because Budo has seen what happens to other imaginary friends when their real friends stop believing in them—they stop existing.

When Mrs. Patterson, the woman (not a teacher) who sometimes helps Max at the Learning Center at school, kidnaps Max because she believes she could do a better job raising him, Budo doesn't know how to help. How can he save Max when he can't be heard by humans, or move things? He enlists the help of other imaginary friends to try and save Max, but he realizes that in order to save Max he might have to risk his own existence.

So many times reading this book, I couldn't believe Matthew Dicks' creativity. This is a book narrated entirely by a child's imaginary friend. The world that Dicks has created is so unique and well-developed, and while I didn't have an imaginary friend growing up, I almost would like one know if he could be like Budo. While he understands the world around him a little better than Max does, he still has a somewhat limited base of knowledge. His narrative voice is both wise and child-like, and it made the book so tremendously enjoyable and poignant.

I was a little skeptical when I heard about the concept of this book, but I was hooked from the very first page. These characters are wonderful ones you'll want to take into your heart, and although you probably will have an idea of how the story will resolve, the way it unfolds is just wonderful. This is a great book even if you're not a kid at heart, but if you are, I hope you love it as much as I did.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wait, don't throw out your ticket just yet...

Yeah, we lost last night, too. So much for opening a restaurant or buying a villa wherever it is people have villas...

Before you throw out your losing Powerball ticket or cash it in for the $4 or whatever you might have won (and if so, congratulations), here are some tips on how exactly to read that ticket, courtesy of someecards:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The truth about shampoo purchases?

As usual, I'm an outlier. But that should be a surprise to no one.

I have far too many shampoos in my shower, although I'm not as particular about what they smell like. I have my good luck shampoo, which I use on important days (don't judge), I have my clarifying shampoo, and just a whole lot of others. I like options.

Book Review: "Gone, Gone, Gone" by Hannah Moskowitz

Wow, Hannah Moskowitz, you just knocked me for an emotional loop with this one.

It's October 2002. Just as the Washington, DC area is beginning to recover from the 9/11 terrorist attacks the previous year, random people start getting shot and killed by the Beltway Snipers. As I remember all to well, people run to and from their cars, crouch down when putting gas in their cars, and parents fear for the safety of their children while at school. This is the backdrop for the burgeoning relationship between high school students Craig and Lio.

Both boys are emotionally fragile in their own ways. Craig is so hurt by his breakup with ex-boyfriend Cody that he has adopted a large menagerie of stray animals, which he feels he can relate to better than humans. When a break-in at his house allows all the animals to escape, Craig is focused on finding all of his pets and is determined not to let the fear of the snipers interfere with this task.

Lio, who moved from New York following 9/11 and his parents' separation, is dealing with the guilt of surviving childhood leukemia while his twin brother did not. The terror being inflicted by the snipers has truly shaken him, and while he doesn't want to let his guard down by falling for Craig, he cannot help himself. Craig is afraid to care for someone else and becomes afraid he could lose Lio, so he cannot help but to push him away.

Gone, Gone, Gone is a beautifully tender and sincere story of friendship that turns to romance, but that romance is wracked by fear, doubt, and emotional uncertainty. Hannah Moskowitz so perfectly captured the angst of young love, feeling like all you want to do is be with a person, yet so many issues keep getting in the way. All of the characters are drawn so vividly, I could almost picture the story unfolding in my head.

Reading this book made me wish that things were different when I was this age, in terms of being more accepting of your sexuality. But at the same time, I'm so happy that we live in a society where, in general, this story could be a true one, and the fact that these boys are gay is an afterthought. I also once again find myself marveling at the amazing talent in the YA genre right now, that we've moved so far beyond the books that existed when I was younger.

I'm not sure where I heard of this book—I'm fairly certain it was a recommendation from one of two amazing YA authors I've read this year—but I feel so lucky to have found it. Thank you, Hannah Moskowitz, for making me feel hopeful, happy, and sad simultaneously. This is a keeper.

"Don't Give Up...Don't Ever Give Up!"

It's Jimmy V Week on ESPN, dedicated to the memory and inspiration of the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, who led North Carolina State to an amazing last-second victory in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. He was well-known for running up and down the court following NC State's win, looking for someone to hug.

Valvano died of cancer in 1993, shortly after starting The V Foundation for Cancer Research, which ESPN has embraced as its leading charity over the years, and it recently committed a $1 million donation.

Jim Valvano was a man of great courage and strength, and perhaps he is best known for the emotional and inspirational speech he delivered at the 1993 ESPY Awards, when he was presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. I saw it again on ESPN last night and, as always, it made me cry, it made me think, and it made me grateful.
"To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
He closed his speech with the words,
"Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all."
As I think about Valvano's words, I think of all the people that have been lost to cancer in my life, those struggling with the disease right now, those fortunate enough to survive their fight and live to teach others, and all of those whose lives have been touched by this disease. Following Jimmy V's example is never easy, especially in times of struggle, but I promise you, it can be done.

If you are looking for a good cry, here's his speech. I send my strength and prayers and hope to those currently struggling with this disease, and send my love to those who are worried, who are grieving, and those we've lost.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: "Die a Stranger" by Steve Hamilton

While reading Steve Hamilton's ninth mystery featuring Michigan ex-cop Alex McKnight, all I kept thinking was, "Why isn't Steve Hamilton more of a household name?" Having read every one of his books, I always walk away immensely satisfied by the depth of his characters, the complexity with which he imbues every plotline, and the emotions he touches on. That's a rare feat.

Alex McKnight lives in the small Upper Peninsula town of Paradise. Constantly living with the reminder of being shot as a policeman while his partner was killed (Alex has a bullet lodged just near his heart), he is a fiercely loyal friend and unsuccessful former private investigator who can't seem to stay out of trouble, or trouble just seems to find him.

Vinnie LeBlanc is one of Alex's closest friends. Maybe even his best friend. The two have gotten into some scrapes before, but both have saved each other from danger in the past. When Vinnie mysteriously disappears the night after his mother dies, Alex knows this isn't just grief-related sadness or the need to get away; he knows Vinnie is in trouble. And despite the entreaties of law enforcement and the distrust of Vinnie's own family and reservation numbers, Alex is determined to find Vinnie and help him.

With the help of someone from Vinnie's past, Alex discovers his disappearance is tied to an incident at an isolated airport that left five people dead. But the dangers they uncover—and the ramifications of their actions—leave Alex, Vinnie, and everyone they know in harm's way, and there aren't many solutions left.

What I loved about this book, as I do all of Steve Hamilton's books, is the perfect balance between action, suspense, and introspection. It's not all car chases, gunplay and fistfights, nor is it all brooding and reflection. Alex McKnight is a fantastic character I've really come to enjoy over the years, and I feel that way about the other recurring characters in this series—Vinnie, Jackie, even Chief Maven. I really think the series would make an excellent television show, because I'd want to spend more time with it than simply seeing a movie every now and again.

If you like this genre, pick up a Steve Hamilton book. Any one in the series would do, as would his two other stand-alone novels. And maybe you'll help me in my quest to make him the household name he deserves to be.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

This week's cover song is the Indigo Girls' 1993 cover of I Don't Want to Talk About It, which they recorded for the soundtrack to Philadelphia. I'm a huge fan of this song, and this version in particular, but then again, I think the Indigo Girls can do no wrong. (Don't you?)

As an aside, when this version of the song was released, my friend Gayle and I would sing it in the car constantly, even matching Amy and Emily's harmonies. What can I say?

While Rod Stewart's version of the song seems to be the most ubiquitous, I learned that the song was written by Danny Whitten, whose band, Crazy Horse, first released it in 1971. And since then, the song has been covered by a diverse group of artists including Rita Coolidge, Everything But the Girl, and even UK X-Factor winner Joe McElderry. (The things you learn from Wikipedia...)

Take a listen and let me know what you think. Previous cover songs can be found here, here, and here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

In many of his movie roles, Bradley Cooper tends to portray self-confident, sometimes cocky characters, who appear (at least on the surface) to have control over their lives, with a gleam in their eyes as they get whatever they want. While his performances are always captivating (and of course, he's very nice to look at), you can't help but wonder how much of that confidence is Cooper's own and how much of that is his acting.

To watch Cooper play a character at the opposite end of that spectrum proves how strong of an actor he really is. In the terrifically funny and poignant Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper plays Pat Solitano, Jr., a former history teacher who was recently released from a mental hospital (against doctor's orders) by his mother (Jacki Weaver), much to the surprise and disbelief of his brusque father (Robert De Niro).

Pat has had a run of bad luck, being hospitalized as part of a plea bargain after an incident that cost him his job, his marriage, his house, and his freedom. But now he is determined to change his life and live more positively—he exercises rigorously, tries to find the silver lining in every situation, and he is determined to make himself over into a better person, so he can rekindle his marriage and move out of his parents' home. His parents want Pat to get control over his illness and not try to reopen old wounds, plus his superstitious bookie father wants him to watch all of the Philadelphia Eagles' games at home, since he has determined Pat brings the team good luck when he's present during games.

When Pat meets the equally troubled and recently widowed Tiffany (an incendiary, emotional Jennifer Lawrence), he is completely thrown for a loop by her manic mood swings and her desire to be his friend, which keeps him off balance. Tiffany promises to help him secretly get into contact with his estranged wife if he agrees to be her partner in a dance competition. But keeping his end of the bargain is tougher (and sometimes more enjoyable) than he thought, and it causes ripples among his family as well.

This is a movie about regaining your confidence and finding the positive in the challenges you face, never easy tasks. Pat talks a lot about trying to be his "best self," and in doing so, comes to the realization that the things he thinks he wants aren't always the things that he really wants, nor are they always best for him.

Based on a terrific book by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook skillfully skirts the line between humorous (even hysterically funny at times), poignant, and introspective. David O. Russell, whose last movie was the brooding-but-uplifting The Fighter, brings some of the quirkiness of his earlier movies (Flirting with Disaster, Spanking the Monkey, even I Heart Huckabees), but he never pushes too hard to manipulate your emotions.

Jennifer Lawrence is once again a revelation in this movie; at times explosive and emotional, at times a confident anchor, I found myself saying, "Wow," a few times during her scenes. Bradley Cooper showed a lot of depth and vulnerability in his performance, and I found myself rooting for his character even while he was making a mess of things. It was fun to see Robert De Niro smile every now and again, although at times he slipped into typical De Niro-isms (which still isn't bad). Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) has a recurring and amusing role as one of Pat's friends from the mental hospital.

As we head into the heavy and serious movies released for Oscar consideration, Silver Linings Playbook is definitely a lighter alternative. But don't mistake its lightness for lack of substance or appeal—this is a very enjoyable, well-acted movie that makes you feel while it's making you laugh, and I hope to see it get some recognition come Oscar time.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Part of my history...

We spent the weekend before Thanksgiving in Miami's South Beach, celebrating the wedding of my first cousin, Marin, to his beautiful bride, Melissa. It was both an elegant and raucous affair, one that lasted far beyond my bedtime (I'm getting old, apparently), but it was wonderful to spend time with some members of my family I've not seen in years. I even endured the "I haven't seen you since you were this big" remarks. (And I'll admit, leaving the 40-degree temperatures to spend time in South Beach wasn't too bad either!)

The wedding was held at the Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach. The Eden Roc has been a fixture on South Beach since the 1950s, visited by legendary celebrities like Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Katharine Hepburn. But I've recently learned that the Eden Roc was part of my history as well.

At the wedding, my uncle Ron (my father's brother) shared two pictures he had found of my beloved grandmother, Gloria, standing in front of the Eden Roc in 1965. I've written before about how important a person my grandmother was to me, so it was incredible to see these pictures—taken four years before I was born—at the very hotel where we were. It was almost as if she were there enjoying the wedding, which I know she would have loved to have done, as her grandchildren were such a treasured part of her life.

Even more incredible, though, was a fact shared by my father, almost in passing. As I've mentioned before, my mother died before I was two years old, and because she died when I was so young, I have no memories of her. My father said that the Eden Roc was where he and my mother went on their honeymoon in 1967. This was a surprise, since this is a subject we never discuss.

My father remarried when I was three, and my mother adopted me shortly thereafter, so I've been lucky to have had two loving parents nearly my entire life. But there was something emotionally, almost physically powerful about walking around the hotel that weekend, knowing that, although the hotel has obviously undergone significant renovations since 1967, I was perhaps walking in some of the same places my mother did then. That is an opportunity I'll truly treasure.

Quite a lot of history packed into a weekend, but a wonderful reason for the history lessons. Congratulations once again, Marin and Melissa!

Book Review: "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe


In 2007, Will Schwalbe's dynamic mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is always fatal. This was a shock to Will's entire family, as Mary Anne had always been a true force of nature, a crusader for humanitarian rights all over the globe, once the director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and truly an inspiration to everyone she encountered.

Mary Anne and her husband, Douglas, raised their three children with very strong principles of courtesy, faith, learning, and family, as well as a lifelong love of books. So it was not at all unusual when Will, sitting with his mother in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, asked Mary Anne, "What are you reading?" That conversation started the two on an incredible journey of reading, exploring new and favorite authors, and discussing topics far beyond the books they read.

As a voracious reader, I absolutely fell in love with this book on so many levels. The books that Will and Mary Anne read spanned many genres—fiction, mysteries, poetry, plays, psychology, religion, philosophy—and I was pleased that I had read a large number of the books they touched on, although I don't think it's necessary to have done so. As they read, Will recounted memories of his mother and her amazing life, as well as his childhood, interspersing them with the day-to-day challenges faced by a person living with "treatable but not curable" cancer.

"When you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time," Will discovered at one point during this period of time. As he and his mother learned about new authors and revisited favorites from the past, he also learned a lot about his mother in the process—what motivated her crusade for humanitarian rights, what drove her to make each person she encountered feel as if they were special, and how she felt about dealing with her illness.

Schwalbe, who was editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books before leaving to found, is a fantastic writer who makes his mother a vivid presence in this book. You feel fortunate to be a part of their conversations, and the things they discussed definitely made me think. But of course, you know where the book will end, so there is always a tinge of melancholy as you follow the path of Mary Anne's illness and the remarkable strength she showed.

As I've said before, I'm a huge sap, so this book was a powerful, inspirational, and emotional one for me, but so wonderfully written that I read the entire book in a day. This book reinforced my love for life and the importance of telling those you care about how much you love them and how proud of them you are, but also it reinforced how much I love reading. How can you not fall in love with a book that celebrates the love of books and reading?

One quote from Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, which Will included in the book, really sums The End of Your Life Book Club up for me:
"Pass the time?" said the Queen. "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds."
I am grateful to Will Schwalbe for opening up his life and his mother's world in this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it definitely made me think.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Smashed"

The entertainment world loves addiction stories. Countless movies, television shows, books, songs, even plays and musicals have found inspiration in the struggles faced when fighting a drug, alcohol, or other addiction, and the effects the addiction has on those around the person.

Smashed is a small movie, but one completely worth watching. It's a shame it's gotten so little publicity in the media. Kate Hannah (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter's Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a first-grade teacher whose marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) mostly consists of nights spent drinking at a bar, partying with friends until the wee hours of the morning, drunken lawn golf, and drunken sex. Recently Kate has discovered that her drinking has led her into some frightening situations far beyond the usual, and she is losing control.

When a mistake at school leads to her lying to her students and her boss, she begins to realize she might need help for her drinking problem. But she's probably not an alcoholic. Supported by her colleague (Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman), she begins attending AA meetings, where she finds a sponsor, the world-wise Jenny (an underused Octavia Spencer). And as she begins confronting the fact that she really does have a problem with alcohol, she realizes the problem is compounded by her relationships with her husband and her estranged mother (Mary Kay Place). And those realizations lead her down a road fraught with more challenges than she's prepared to handle.

At times, Smashed seems a little movie-of-the-week, but Winstead's electrifying performance buoys it above the usual damsel-with-a-problem fare. You know where her drinking will lead her yet you watch almost with your hands over your eyes, because you sympathize with someone who has let her life spiral out of control without her realizing it. Her acting is as effective during some of the more quiet moments as they are when she is ranting at someone. Aaron Paul, as the husband who realizes his wife's recovery is leaving him behind, proves that the Emmys he's earned for his work on Breaking Bad aren't a fluke—he's both angry and at times, completely vulnerable.

It makes me sad when movies like this get so little screen time amidst the major releases, but my hope is that Winstead at the very least will get some recognition come awards time, so people will try and find the movie on Netflix. It's not a perfect movie, but the acting and the emotional depth the characters show make it one worth watching.

Book Review: "The Art Forger" by B.A. Shapiro

Part mystery, part art history lesson, part novel about rebuilding your self-confidence after it has been shattered, B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger is a well-written, intriguing, and well-researched look at the world of art forgery.

Claire Roth is a young artist whose promising career was derailed after a scandal involving a former lover and fellow artist. She now makes a living working for a website called, creating perfect copies of famous art masterpieces, but she dreams of entering the legitimate art world once again. One day she is approached by gallery owner Aiden Markel, who offers her an opportunity that is too good to pass up: forge a copy of a famed Degas painting stolen as part of a 1990 art heist from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the largest unsolved art heist in history, and in exchange, Markel will hold a one-woman show of Claire's work in his famed gallery. He also ensures Claire there is no way either of them can get caught.

When the original painting, which Markel apparently gained possession of through a shadowy transaction, arrives in Claire's studio, she is transfixed by its beauty and its idiosyncrasies when compared to Degas' earlier work. The more research she does to ensure her forgery is a perfect copy of the original, the more she begins to suspect that the painting delivered to her studio isn't the original either. She begins doing her own investigation into where the original painting could have been switched for a forgery, delving into both Degas and Gardner's histories, while trying to remain above suspicion for the work she is doing.

I don't know much about art history (and not all of the history that Shapiro shares in the book is true), but I found this book tremendously intriguing, both for its look at works I've seen and heard about, and its terrific portrayal of a woman interested in rebuilding her life, but determined to uncover truths that may lead to her life being shattered even further. I really wondered how Shapiro would tie everything up, and while some of what occurred wasn't necessarily surprising, her storytelling ability really hooked me, and I read the entire book very quickly.

If you're intrigued by art history with a little bit of mystery thrown in along with a well-told story, definitely pick up The Art Forger. You may even learn something along the way!

Book Review: "Life Among Giants" by Bill Roorbach

They say the course of love never quite runs smoothly. For nearly seven-foot-tall David "Lizard" Hochmeyer, that couldn't be more true. A high school senior with a promising football career ahead of him, his life is thrown off course not only by his love for his neighbor, the famed ballerina Sylphide, but by his parents' mysterious murder, and his strange relationship with his mentally ill sister, Kate.

Lizard spends much of his adult life trying to figure out the truth behind his parents' murder, and the more he finds out, the more confused he becomes. He cannot shake his obsession with Sylphide, the widow of a famed rock singer, and he isn't sure how tied to those events Sylphide and her entourage really are. As she and his high school girlfriend, Emily, drift in and out of his life, he finds that love, truth, and clarity don't necessarily walk hand in hand.

Life Among Giants shifts between Lizard's memories leading up to and following the murder of his parents, and the present. Lizard leads an interesting and rich life, but he can never shake the feelings he had when he was younger, and that fact holds him back but allows him to grow at the same time. Bill Roorbach has created one of the most intriguing main character narrators I've come across in some time. Lizard is wise beyond his years and incredibly perceptive in one minute, and acts the way a typical 17-year-old would one minute later. I love the way he let the story unfold, and while I enjoyed many of the other characters, I found both Sylphide and Emily too much of an enigma to truly understand the way Lizard felt about both of them for the majority of his life. And while Kate's character was hard to pin down and empathize with, I realized after I was done with the book that this is probably the way people feel when dealing with a person suffering from mental illness.

This is a beautifully written, compelling book about love, family, the search for truth, being comfortable in your own skin, and trying to put your demons to rest. While I don't see the Holden Caulfield-esque characteristics some reviewers have identified in Lizard, he is a character worth meeting and spending time with.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks...

As hard as it is to believe, it's Thanksgiving again. It's the first time in five years I haven't been stressing out over basting the turkey and worrying about how all of the side dishes would be finished around the same time! But I will admit, spending the holiday in the 75-degree weather of Florida is something fairly easy to get used to!

I try to be thankful every day for all of the special people and great things I have in my life, but more so on this day. I am thankful for those I love, and I am grateful to have been able to celebrate a number of special occasions with my family in this last year.

I am thankful that while many of my family and friends were inconvenienced by Hurricane Sandy (some significantly), no one was harmed. While I wish we could live in a world that was more united than divided, it was good to see how people come together to support each other in times of greatest need.

Above all, I am grateful to have the love and support of so many amazing friends. Thank you for laughing with me, providing support and encouragement when I've needed it, and for just being the incredible people you are.

On this day, I can't help but have the lyrics to The Beatles' In My Life running through my head:
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all
Thank you for being you!! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

There comes a traumatic time in a child's life when they realize their parents, whom they've idealized (even idolized), are fallible and flawed, just like everyone else. It's difficult to come to that realization, which sometimes creates ripples that play out for their entire lives.

For 13-year-old Joe Coutts, who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in 1988, that moment comes shortly after his mother, Geraldine, is sexually assaulted one Sunday. She is both physically and emotionally traumatized, and nothing that Joe or his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, can do can help heal Geraldine or assuage the anguish she feels. And although she still fears her attacker, she is reluctant to share the details of her assault and what led to it, and would rather that Bazil and Joe drop the subject.

As Bazil tries to care for Geraldine and keep as much normalcy at home as possible, he tries to determine who is responsible for his wife's assault, keeping within the confines of tribal law. Joe begins learning more about the justice system and possible perpetrators, and wants his father to keep him fully involved in the investigation, which leads him to pursue his own suspicions.

With all that is going on, Joe finds himself on the cusp of adulthood quicker than he planned. He enlists his best friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to help him with investigating some of the people who might have been responsible for his mother's attack, a task they take on in earnest when they're not drinking, smoking, talking about girls, and acting like typical teenagers. And when the person responsible for assaulting his mother winds up walking free, Joe faces a difficult dilemma about how to take control of the situation and restore normalcy to his family's life, no matter what the cost.

The Round House, which recently won the National Book Award, is a powerful story about the bonds of family, the loyalty of friendship, the loss of innocence when you encounter violence for the first time, traditions, and the pain and excitement of growing up. Louise Erdrich created beautifully complex and vivid characters, and unfurled a multi-layered plot that kept me reading even as I had suspicions about how it would progress. As she often does in her books, Erdrich also included Native American elements into the story, through the character of Joe's grandfather, Mooshum, and the traditions of the sweat lodge and the round house.

This is a beautifully written, compelling, and thought provoking book, one in which I felt deeply invested. I did think the story moved a little slower than I wanted, and as much as I enjoyed Mooshum's stories, sometimes they ran a bit long, and then they were more of a distraction. But on the whole, this is a book that packs a powerful punch, one that will keep you thinking about it long after you're finished.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: "The Pain Scale" by Tyler Dilts

Tyler Dilts' debut crime novel, The King of Infinite Space really wowed me when I read it back in 2010, and in fact, it made my list of the best books I read that year. When I saw that he was getting ready to release the second book in his series featuring Long Beach police detectives Danny Beckett and Jen Tanaka, I hoped that the talent he showed previously would again be evident.

The good news is, The Pain Scale is just as good as its predecessor.

When the book opens, Detective Danny Beckett has just returned to the department from an extended medical leave following an injury inflicted by a criminal, an injury that nearly cost him one of his hands. His pain is nearly constant, and can only (barely) be controlled by Vicodin and/or vodka. But when he and Jen land a high-profile murder case, he hopes the adrenaline and the focus on something else will help distract him from his pain.

Sara Benton and her two young children were brutally murdered in what appears to be a home invasion. Sara was married to Bradley Benton III, the son of a prominent California congressman, who is being groomed to succeed his father. Every move that Danny and Jen and their colleagues make in investigating the case is being shadowed by the congressman's own hired guns, but that is unavoidable.

They have their suspicions about the case, but when evidence leads them in a different direction they're pleased to tie up some loose ends, but they know there must be more to these murders. What they discover is far more than they bargained for, and the actions they take leave them vulnerable physically, emotionally, and ethically. And all the while, Danny is struggling with managing and masking his pain, as well as his own emotional issues and the medical problems of a close friend.

Tyler Dilts knows how to tell a story. He hooked me from the beginning, both with Danny's struggles and the way the murder case unfolds. There's some great action and some terrific narrative, and I feel like Dilts really fleshed out his characters well. You think you know how you should feel about the suspects but when Danny and Jen aren't sure, you get drawn right in with them. And while the resolution of the case may not completely surprise you, the after-effects keep you reading.

While there's something to be said for occasionally reading a book heavy on action and light on character development and feasible plot, for me, a good crime novel combines both. And once again, Tyler Dilts has proven he's a writer worth being read, although I don't want to have to wait two more years for his next book!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The rush to judgment...

This stuff doesn't happen on Sesame Street. It almost sounded like an episode of The Good Wife or another courtroom drama.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Kevin Clash, the award-winning creator and voice of parental-savior-and-scourge Elmo, had taken a leave of absence from Sesame Street because of allegations that seven years ago, he had an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old boy. (To the surprise of no one, these allegations were first published on gossip wasteland TMZ.)

Clash, who is gay, did not deny the relationship, but asserted that it did not happen until the individual reached the age of 18. Sesame Street did a thorough investigation and believed the allegations were unsubstantiated. But sources said the accuser was never able to produce any proof of the relationship starting before he reached the age of consent.

One day later, Clash's accuser recanted his statement. Andreozzi & Associates, a law firm that said it represented the anonymous accuser, said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon that "he wants it to be known that his sexual relationship with Mr. Clash was an adult consensual relationship." The statement added, "He will have no further comment on the matter."

I said when I first heard the news, and I continue to believe that Clash's career at Sesame Street is over. And that saddens me. What a boy raised poor in the inner city of Baltimore was able to create through hard work, dreams, and exceptional talent is amazing.

But what happened to innocent until proven guilty? While the prospect of Clash having a relationship with a 16-year-old at age 45 certainly was troublesome, it was just that: an allegation. Is that all that is needed in a post-Sandusky society? I realize TMZ has no standards when it publishes material, but shouldn't there be some responsibility about publishing unproven allegations?

A rumor is all it takes, apparently. But why is the accuser allowed to remain anonymous after he recanted his story?

As Dan Bucatinsky, an actor, producer, screenwriter, and the author of Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?, a memoir about being a gay father, said in a BuzzFeed article,
"As a dad, I think teenagers should discover their sexualities and experiment with relationships with peers rather than grown adults who are inherently in positions of power and influence." But, Bucatinsky wrote in an email, "If it's true they were two consenting adults, it's really nobody's business. So is this really about 'Is it okay for someone who works on Sesame Street to be gay?' The answer is yes."
Ultimately, that is the question. I don't think Sesame Street, already the target of backlash for its supposedly liberal views toward equality and diversity, will allow the distraction of keeping Clash on the show in a day-to-day role. I do think Clash showed poor judgment, knowing that in his role he primarily interacts with children and young people in large numbers, and in many circumstances, bad judgment is all it takes to lose your job.

I hope to be proven wrong here. I don't know Clash personally, but this whole situation saddens me a bit.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Lincoln"

Daniel Day-Lewis has given some legendary performances in his career to date, probably none as vivid as that of Daniel Plainview, his Oscar-winning turn in 2007's There Will Be Blood, which is still seared in my mind. While his performance as America's 16th president in Steven Spielberg's excellent Lincoln is somewhat less fiery, it is still enormously powerful, a role he truly gets lost in.

Lincoln focuses on the last four months of the president's life. He has just been elected to a second term, and he knows that the end of the Civil War is imminent, although he never ceases to be blown away by the toll it has taken on human lives. He urges Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would officially abolish slavery, before his inauguration. This is a shrewd yet risky political move—he knows that if the war ended before the amendment is passed, the returning Southern states will reject ratification.

To accomplish his objective, Lincoln works every angle he can. He enlists his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), to wrangle the necessary votes in the House of Representatives (which involves convincing lame-duck Democrats to cross over and vote in support of the amendment). He sends elder statesman Preston Blair (the genteel Hal Holbrook) down to Richmond to make overtures to Jefferson Davis for a settlement of peace, so Blair will keep the conservative Republicans in line. He urges powerful equality advocate Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (a marvelous Tommy Lee Jones) to control his fiery ideas that all men are equal in every way. And when Lincoln himself needs to get legislators in line, he's not above cajoling, yelling, or reminding his opponents he is "cloaked in immense power."

Meanwhile, Lincoln is dealing with his own emotional crises as well. His wife (a superlative Sally Field) is still mourning the death of their young son, Willie, and urging him to match her level of grief. His oldest son Robert (a mostly-underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the army, to prove he is just as worthy a man as every other soldier. And at times, he'd like to do nothing more than play with his youngest son, Tad.

The beauty of this movie is its capturing of the political oratory of the time. There's more than one remark that provokes a laugh because of how closely it mirrors our current political landscape. And although there's no surprise about how the 13th Amendment ultimately fares, the run-up to the final vote (and the surprising reactions) still cause emotion.

This movie is jam-packed with actors you know as well as those you'll recognize but struggle to remember their names. ("Oh, wait, that's the guy from..." is a common refrain.) At times, the virtual "who's who" nature of the cast is a little distracting, but once the movie settles in, you realize how well everyone fills their roles.

Day-Lewis occupies a remarkable physical and emotional space as Lincoln, looking every inch as authentic as the man seated within his memorial. His performance is as powerful when he's telling a story, glint in his eye, as when he is yelling at his cabinet to pass this amendment. Field brings a remarkable sense of unresolved grief, a hauntedness, to her role, although her emotions never belie the shrewdness that was Mary Todd Lincoln. Jones was born to play a craggy Civil War-era legislator; his face is etched with every struggle Thaddeus Stevens had fought. Many other actors, including Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, and David Costabile, turn in strong performances; there is not an actor who seems miscast or out of place.

If there's a fault with this movie it's that in capturing a powerful event in history, yet one with more verbal fireworks than anything else, you become somewhat conscious of its length. But it's never boring, and the performances are so riveting, that you don't feel as if you've been watching a history lesson come to life.

Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors in film history, and he proves himself worthy of that mantle once again with Lincoln. The marriage of exceptional acting and skillful direction results in a movie truly worth seeing, one I'll expect to see recognized quite a bit come Oscar season.

Book Review: "Too Good to Be True" by Benjamin Anastas

"Most of us open our eyes at some point in our lives and find ourselves in a place we never would have chosen if we'd been paying attention along the way—a region of unlikeness all the more disorienting because we have found it on our own, without anyone else to blame, propelled ourselves right into the maw of it by the force of our own desires."

So says Benjamin Anastas relatively early on in his beautifully written and emotionally affecting memoir, Too Good to Be True. Anastas was an author whose first book, An Underachiever's Diary, received some serious acclaim in the late 1990s, and his follow-up novel helped him achieve renown, a goal of his for quite some time. Yet the pressure of following up these successes with a third novel seemed nearly impossible to handle, and his life began imploding around him.

This book is a first-person account about living with the constant anxiety of financial need, the near-crushing desire to regain your former sense of security and achievement, the powerful love of a father for his young son, and the need to love and be loved. Anastas pulls very few punches in accounting for the events in his life—he doesn't sugarcoat his actions or reactions, or his role when circumstances went bad.

As he recounts his childhood, raised by a hippie father who believed money was the root of all evil and a mother who struggled with mental illness when he was young, you can see how these events shaped the man he has become. You feel the strength of his desire to keep his marriage going even though he and his wife can barely stand one another, you sense his shame and fear about whether or not he'll ever be able to regain his financial footing (or avoid having to take his young son to a Coinstar machine to gather enough cash to pay for food), and you understand his hopefulness that he can give his son the love he needs to thrive.

Too Good to Be True is more than a memoir of self-discovery, it's more a tale of understanding how you get to a certain point in your life, how much of what has happened to you was truly within your control, and where you can go from this point. As someone who has struggled with anxiety about the direction of my own life, I heard Anastas' voice and identified with his feelings, his worries, and his thoughts.

"How much of our lives do we write, and how much of them are written for us?" Benjamin Anastas strives to answer that question, and reading this book, you'll relish how he finds his answers, but also realize that answers often lead to more questions. Although a little too self-deprecating at times, this is a book that packs a punch, one that makes you laugh, makes you think, and makes you feel.

Movie Review: "Skyfall"

The James Bond franchise may be celebrating its 50th anniversary, but I saw my first James Bond movie, Moonraker, in the late 1970s, and then had the opportunity to see some of the older movies over the next few years. Although I haven't seen every movie in the franchise, I have had the opportunity to see some movies with each of the actors who have played Agent 007 through the years, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.

For me, James Bond movies tend to follow a general formula—there's a dastardly villain who poses a significant threat, Bond is foiled in his first few attempts to foil this threat, he meets two women—one drop-dead gorgeous one who tends to find herself in some sort of distress (and usually meets an unhappy end) and an equally beautiful yet smart one. And in the end, Bond saves the day.

Skyfall is the 23rd outing for 007, and if the franchise can continue to deliver films of this caliber, Bond is here to stay for a long, long time. Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) helms a tightly plotted, well-acted film packed with some action sequences which will leave you breathless, along with a little more introspection than you're used to with Bond films.

Bond's (Daniel Craigmission is to retrieve a hard drive that contains a list of all British intelligence agents working undercover all over the world. He finds the man who stole the drive, which leads to an amazing chase and brawl scene that leads them on top of a moving train. Eve, an agent sent to assist Bond, has both men in the crosshairs of her gun, but she is afraid she might shoot Bond accidentally. At the last second, M (Judi Dench) orders Eve to take the shot; she hits Bond, who falls into a river and is believed dead.

A few months later, the British government is irate that MI6 has lost the list of undercover agents, and they want M to retire and take responsibility. She refuses to leave the agency until the matter is resolved, and then events begin to unfold that make everyone realize they have a serious threat on their hands—and the threat is directly targeted on M.

Events back at MI6 motivate Bond to resurface, but he is weakened physically and emotionally by his brush with death, and the changing face of the enemies he has been fighting. He meets the new Q (Cloud Atlas' Ben Whishaw, playing every inch the young, disheveled genius) and follows a trail to Shanghai and then Macao, where he meets the requisite gorgeous damsel in distress, this time named Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who ultimately leads him to the nemesis of MI6—Silva (a yet-again-unhinged Javier Bardem). Silva, it seems, has a history with MI6, and M.

And that's where I'll leave the plot so as not to ruin the fun. This is definitely one of the best Bond films I've seen in some time, perhaps ever. The added emotional depth brings a new dimension to Daniel Craig's Bond, making him more than the steely, sexy, tough secret agent. (As always, he looks pretty darned fantastic.) Bardem's Silva has a touch of Heath Ledger's Joker in his performance—a little fey, a little over-the-top—but this man has some serious axes to grind, and Bardem once again occupies the soul of a dangerous and wounded man all too uncomfortably well. And Dench combines her hard-as-nails persona with a little more vulnerability.

Don't write this off as just another Bond film. While Skyfall does bring its usual bag of tricks, there's more to the movie than meets the bloody eye. It's heart-pounding fun that makes you think and feel, too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The history of misheard lyrics...

From musical video experimenters Collective Cadenza, comes this collection of some of the most commonly misheard musical lyrics.

You may have seen some of these before, like "Excuse me while I kiss this guy" from Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, but some seem almost impossible to believe. However, this is coming from the person who thought Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire included the lyric "British flee Romania" (despite the fact that the British were never in Romania), and I could have sworn that Louis Armstrong sang the words "the dark, say goodnight" instead of "the dark, sacred night" in What a Wonderful World. (Don't judge.)

Enjoy. And feel free to share your own lyrical blunders!

Proof that proofreading is a lost art...

Yesterday on Facebook, I shared that when watching the local news in the morning, the anchor was leading into a story about someone who has been groping women in the Fairfax, VA area. Sadly, the caption teasing the story read, "Fairfax Grouper." I certainly wasn't making light of the situation, as I know women feel unsafe, but the caption was fairly funny.

Not as funny, however, as the following headline that ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which was celebrating the dedication of a memorial in that city to President John F. Kennedy, as this was where he spent the last night of his life before his November 1963 assassination.

JKF, JFK, whatever...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

You may have noticed I'm a little, well, obsessed with the 1980s, especially the music. I don't know if it's more because that was the point in my life where music and singing were among my most passionate interests, or if the music was just better back then, although it's probably a combination of both. (Discuss.)

I love everything about the 80s classic, Life in a Northern Town by The Dream Academy—the lyrics, the (no pun intended) dreamy video, and especially the "ah hey ma ma ma ma" refrain in the chorus. (Gives me chills.)

For this week's Cool Cover Song, I'm going with an interesting, mostly faithful interpretation of Life in a Northern Town, recorded by country stars Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen originally for the 2008 CMT Music Awards. (Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland loves her cover songs.) I really like it, and enjoy the "ah hey ma ma ma ma" part in this version as well.

Check it out. And check out my previous Cool Cover Songs here and here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2016 isn't THAT far away...

Many of us have joked that the 2016 presidential campaign would start today in earnest no matter who won last night. And while news articles have already cropped up about future contenders, some more humorous items have developed as well.

Just as the networks started declaring President Obama the winner last night, around 11:00 p.m. ET, #Hillary2016 was trending on Twitter. And then the memes started:

While Hillary Clinton has said previously she isn't interested in running for president in the future, time will tell if these memes become reality.

In the end, love wins...

Thirty-two times. Marriage equality had been put to a vote 32 times before last night, and every time it was defeated. And while legislatures in seven states and the District of Columbia had legalized marriage equality, never before had voters signaled their approval.

But last night was different.

Last night history was made.

Last night voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington (it appears) took a stance for equality, approving bills that legalized marriage equality or defeating bills that sought to amend the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Last night, love won. Equality won.

While nothing can take away the bravery of the legislators and judges in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, it is amazing to feel that for the first time, voters believed strongly enough that my rights mattered enough to take a stance. For the first time, voters in four states have said that every citizen deserves the same rights.

Obviously, this year's election was about so much more than equality, and I'm excited about the outcomes we saw last night. I was moved to tears several times last night, but none more so than when the announcement that the question of marriage equality had been approved in Maryland.

I sit at my desk this morning bleary-eyed and hopeful. There is still so much further to go, and the journey will still be a long and hard one. But this is the inroads we were hoping for.

Hopefully people all over our country, and all over the world, will eventually see that when love wins, we all win.

My gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly, given time, effort, money, passion, blood, sweat, and tears to this cause. And my gratitude also goes to all who will give these things, because it's still needed.

To quote one of my favorite heroes, Fred Rogers, "It's such a good feeling to know you're alive. It's such a happy feeling, you're growing inside."

Indeed. It's a good feeling.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Whatever you think, whatever you feel, VOTE!

Well, it seems like this election cycle has been eight years' long, but it finally comes to a close today. While there are many questions about the end result, and obviously, I have my preferences, my ultimate hope is that equality will prevail in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.

No matter how you choose to vote, please do. Even with allegations of voter fraud that surround every election, we are still tremendously privileged to live in a country that allows us the right to exercise our choices freely and without threat of reprisal.

Give thanks for that freedom, and GO VOTE!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

I'm not against holidays, just ones that go for two months...

...and, apparently, so is Nordstrom.

Having worked in retail during the holidays, there are only so many times I can hear the same songs over and over, so I'm just not a fan of getting ready for Christmas just after Halloween. (I am a fan of getting ready for Halloween right after the summer ends, if only for Reese's Pumpkins.)

I hope Santa doesn't get upset by this...

Book Review: "The Poacher's Son" by Paul Doiron

Ah, family dynamics. You sometimes don't realize what an effect your childhood or your relationship with your parents, siblings, or other relatives will have on you until later in life. And other times these relationships define your entire existence.

Mike Bowditch is a game warden in Maine. His father, Jack, is a hard-drinking, often unemployed womanizer who poaches illegal game from the wilderness. Mike never seemed to get his father's approval—or even his interest—throughout his childhood, and once his parents' marriage ended and his mother moved away with Mike in tow, his relationship with his father was tenuous at best. Mike's decision to become a game warden was made in part because of a need to pay society back for his father's actions, a decision that also led to the dissolution of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend.

One night after responding to a resident's call for help, he finds an answering machine message from his father, which is surprising, since they haven't spoken in nearly two years. The message is cryptic, but it grows in importance when the next morning Mike learns that a local policeman and a lawyer representing a timber company were both murdered, and Jack is the primary suspect. Plus, Jack escaped from police and is on the run.

Mike believes that while his father has been proven to have a violent temper, there's no way he could have killed the men. But he's nearly the only one that feels that way, and as Mike tries to gather some facts and understand what happened, he begins to jeopardize his own career and his relationships with colleagues and loved ones. Determined to find out the truth, despite being warned against it, he joins forces with a retired warden (and one-time nemesis of his father) and begins searching for his father. And then he meets a woman who claims to be his father's girlfriend, who insists she knows what happened.

The Poacher's Son, Paul Doiron's first book in a series featuring Mike Bowditch, is a compelling and well-written mystery/thriller that is a bit weightier than typical books in this genre because of the emotional back story. Doiron, who is editor of the magazine Down East, has a terrific knack for creating an evocative setting—his descriptions of the isolated, wild, and beautiful places on Maine's coast and in the woods were tremendously vivid and set an appropriate mood for the book.

Doiron created the appropriate amount of tension in his story, and while not all of the characters are sympathetic, many are well-drawn and complex, although a few tend to hew closer to stereotypes. There were a number of times when I expected the action to go one way and I was surprised, which is always a good thing when reading mysteries like these. The truth is, however, I actually liked the story of Mike and Jack's relationship, and its impact on other aspects of their lives, almost more than the mystery itself. But I'm still interested in reading the two other books in this series to see how Doiron moves Mike's character forward.

If you enjoy mysteries with a great sense of place, this is one for you.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

As I said about a week and a half ago, I'm a huge music fan, and my tastes vary widely, from rap to opera, country to pop, and everything in between.

Collecting the 23,000+ songs I have on my iPod (I call it the industrial strength iPod, because it's the biggest one they make; no Nano or Shuffle for me!), I've come upon tons of cover versions of songs. Some are completely faithful to the original, some give the original a little twist.

While I undoubtedly consider Andy to be my favorite Gibb brother, I first started getting into music right around when Saturday Night Fever hit theaters. The Bee Gees were nearly ubiquitous on every radio, not to mention the eight-track tapes my parents used to listen to. (Remember those?) I enjoy their up-tempo songs, but I've always loved How Deep is Your Love.

I can't be sure, but I think I first heard this version of the song, by The Bird and The Bee, used as background music for the evening gown competition at a local or state pageant somewhere, and it has stuck in my head. I love the stripped-down nature of their version of the song; you can't compare the two, but both hit the right, well, notes for me depending upon my mood.

Enjoy. And don't forget to share your favorite cover songs!

One last Halloween gasp...

As I said on Facebook this morning, yesterday was Halloween, and today is what I call Hallow-whine:

"I can't believe I ate that much candy."

"Look at all the candy I have left."

If you're a Halloween fan, or haven't been able to celebrate the holiday yet because you're still waiting for the power to come back on and the storm damage to recede, here is a little goodie for you. You'll never look at your stuffed animals the same way again!