Monday, January 30, 2012

What if we all had Reese's problems?


I'm definitely intrigued by the release of the upcoming movie This Means War, starring Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as two of the CIA's best spies (and best friends) who, in true Hollywood fashion, are dating the same woman, played by Reese Witherspoon.

While it's anyone's guess at this point whether the movie will be a taut, fun, romantic action thriller, or devolve into a silly, clichéd mess (my money is on a combination of the two), I can't help but feel horrible for poor Reese Witherspoon. I mean, what must it be like to have to choose between Chris Pine and Tom Hardy?

Wow. Count your blessings, huh?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: "The Odds: A Love Story" by Stewart O'Nan


Niagara Falls is the often-clichéd spot where couples begin and celebrate their lives together, as a large number of marriage proposals and weddings happen there each year despite all of the tourist trappings. Stewart O'Nan's new novel, The Odds looks at the other side of the coin—a couple staring down the end of their lives together.

Art and Marion Fowler have been married for nearly 30 not-entirely-happy years. With their marriage on the brink of collapse and their finances in ruin, they flee their suburban Ohio home for one last journey back to Niagara Falls, where they celebrated their honeymoon. They've cashed in their savings in the hopes a big win will stem the foreclosure of their house, but both arrive at the Falls with different goals—Art is hoping that maxing out his credit cards by booking a bridal suite and planning romantic events will make Marion fall in love with him again, while Marion is ready to move on with her life no matter what happens with their money. This is the story of a couple gambling their future on one last weekend together, and both want the win to go their way.

Stewart O'Nan is definitely one of my favorite writers. He has a way with language, plot, and character development that always pulls you into his books, and The Odds was no exception. At under 200 pages, I read the book in a little more than a day, and was drawn to finding out just what was going to happen to the Fowlers. They are weary people; each has fought the same fights and heard the same responses from the other countless times. Yet it's probably that weariness that didn't endear this book to me as much as I hoped it would. Yes, I was invested in knowing what happened to Art and Marion (and although the future is alluded to, you're left to your own devices to figure out what's next for the couple), but more because I love reading O'Nan's writing, not because I had any real love for the characters. Much as you feel after visiting a real touristy destination, I felt glad to have made the journey, but didn't feel moved by the experience. I would encourage those of you who have never read any of O'Nan's books to pick up Snow Angels, Last Night at the Lobster, Wish You Were Here, Emily Alone or any one of his earlier books. He's a terrific writer; I just didn't feel this book was as good as some of his previous ones.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Far too young...


Today I received news from a high school friend that another classmate, Shari Epstein Luzzi, passed away yesterday. While details are somewhat sketchy, I understand that Shari had been ill for at least a year, and she leaves behind a husband and two young sons.

This is not the first high school classmate we've lost. One committed suicide while we were seniors in high school; we lost a few within the first few years after graduation to cancer, car accidents, and drug overdoses; one classmate was killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center; and at least two others passed away within the last few years. But each time we lose a classmate, we once again realize how fleetingly fast life moves.

There is never a good age at which to die. But age 42 seems far too young and so tragic, and I feel for her family, friends, and others affected by her loss.

We may be 42 and 43 now, but in our hearts and in our minds, we're still the big-haired high school kids rocking out to Bon Jovi's Never Say Goodbye at our senior prom, hanging out at the Manalapan Diner every weekend, and feeling invincible.

And in our imaginations, Shari will be forever young. Rest in peace.

Book Review: "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness


This is a wonderfully magical and compelling book. If all you know about vampires comes from the Twilight series, and all that you know about witches, wizards, and demons comes from Harry Potter, I'd definitely encourage you to give this book a chance.

Diana Bishop is a witch, descended from a long line of witches dating back to the Salem trials. But after her parents were killed tragically in Africa when she was young, Diana has done everything she can to avoid using her magic. (She doesn't think putting a spell on the washing machine to keep it from flooding counts.) Diana is a famed scholar and historian, doing research on alchemy at Oxford. One day while reviewing resources at Oxford's Bodleian Library she encounters an historical alchemical manuscript which provides secrets to the origins of witches, vampires, and demons. The manuscript is enchanted, and somehow Diana is able to break the spell briefly, which brings her to the attention of many who want the manuscript for their own, including Oxford geneticist Matthew Clairmont, who happens to be a vampire. Diana finds herself drawn to Matthew, which causes frictions between witches and vampires long hidden in history to come to the surface, and they encounter many a person (and creature) looking to do them harm.

This book really fascinated me. Deborah Harkness created truly vivd characters that transcend the typical stereotypes of witch or vampire yet retain some of the familiar characteristics we've come to know. The story is part epic adventure, part fantasy, with even a little soap opera thrown in for good measure, yet the action and story development never stop. I really found myself wondering what the next step was in Diana and Matthew's relationship, and hope Harkness will revisit her characters in a later story. If you're at all intrigued by this type of book, read A Discovery of Witches. Definitely a terrifically compelling romp.

Friday, January 27, 2012

R-E-S-P-E-C-T...


It was the finger wagging seen 'round the world.

This photo of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer appearing to scold President Obama has made its way around the web. While Governor Brewer explained that the camera must have caught her during an "animated" moment because she didn't scold the president, she did mention that their exchange on the tarmac in Phoenix was a little tense, because President Obama was unhappy with the way she characterized a previous Oval Office meeting between the two in her 2010 book.

The fact is, I don't care what the two were talking about. But the picture reignited my strong feelings that President Obama has been met with more disrespect than any other president, at least in recent history. Which, of course, also leads to the question, even if you don't agree with the man's policies, shouldn't you at least respect the office?

Yes, I know that George W. Bush was the butt of many a joke during his eight years as president, but I can honestly say I never heard the news media or his opponents refer to him as "Bush" except in headlines. Yet routinely I hear legislators, the media, and especially those who do not agree with his positions call the president simply "Obama." This is the leader of our nation; more than half of those who voted in 2008 chose him as the president. He at least should be referred to as "President Obama." Just because you didn't want him to be president or don't think he's doing a good job doesn't mean he doesn't deserve the respect of the title to which he was elected.

The disrespect the president has been shown has truly been one-of-a-kind. Again, there was open ridicule of President George W. Bush, mostly by the media, but no one in the Democratic party shouted "you lie" during a State of the Union address, and people didn't routinely show up at President Bush's appearances with pictures of him in the crosshairs of a gun or riddled with bullet holes. Just the other day, Tim Thomas, goalie of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, chose not to attend the White House ceremony honoring the team. While Thomas claimed that this was not a slap at President Obama but rather an overall criticism of the government's abuse of power, rarely if ever before has a professional athlete skipped a White House ceremony when their team was being honored.

There are those who have said President Obama doesn't simply deserve respect because of the office he holds; he needs to earn respect. This is a man who oversaw the capture of Osama bin Laden, the end of the war in Iraq, the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the implementation of a health care initiative...what more does this man need to do to earn respect?

As adults, we need to set an example for our children about respect. President Obama is no different than nearly every other man who has held the office of president during our country's history, and should be treated with the respect that office deserves.

You don't have to like him, you don't have to agree with him, you just shouldn't wag your finger in his face.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Matching wits with the Academy: How did I do?


Yesterday I posted my predictions for this year's Oscar nominations. And as Academy President Tom Sherak and last year's Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence announced the nominations this morning, among the gasps heard from time to time were some of mine.

I didn't match the Academy in any category although I accounted for nearly all of the places where I was wrong in my analysis in yesterday's post.

Here are the major nominations and where I missed the boat.


Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Up Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
Tree of Life
War Horse


Analysis:
So I predicted 7 nominees in this category instead of the 9 we wound up with. The 7 films I predicted were nominated, as was Tree of Life, which I mentioned as a possibility. Given the lukewarm critical reaction, the nomination for Extremely Loud and Up Close was a pretty big shock.


Best Actor
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Analysis:
I went 4/5 in this category. I'm sad that Michael Fassbender wasn't nominated, although Demian Bichir was fantastic in the little-seen A Better Life.


Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Analysis: Although I went 4/5 in this category, I did say that Rooney Mara was the potential spoiler, either at Tilda Swinton or Glenn Close's expense. And that's what happened. Can't quibble with this category and I'm really excited about Mara's nomination. Plus, Meryl Streep hit the big 17.


Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Up Close

Analysis: First of all, I am so aggravated that Albert Brooks didn't get nominated for Drive, I can hardly see. (Brooks, however, was a pretty good sport about the snub.) Second of all, I went 4 for 5 again, thinking Von Sydow wouldn't be able to overcome the lukewarm reception his film had gotten thus far.


Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Analysis: No surprises here, although I'm disappointed that Shailene Woodley didn't get nominated for The Descendants. Although I predicted Woodley might get the nod, I thought she might get bumped for Janet McTeer.


Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Analysis: I tend to forget that the directors' branch of the Academy doesn't like to follow the expected path. While I thought the nominations in this category might parallel the Directors Guild, which included David Fincher, the Academy went with Malick instead. Sigh.

For a complete list of Oscar nominees, click here. And tune in on February 26 to see who walks away with the little golden guy...

Monday, January 23, 2012

If I were the Academy...


One of my most favorite times of year is about to arrive.

Tomorrow morning at approximately 8:37 a.m. ET, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (specifically, the Academy president along with last year's Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence) will announce this year's Oscar nominations. Even though there is no shortage of film awards given out nowadays, which certainly reduces the surprises the nominations bring, Oscar nomination day always gives me the nervous chills.

I've seen almost every movie in contention for major awards this year (there are still a few pesky films yet to be released in the Washington area) so I feel like I have a fairly good handle on which names will be called tomorrow, but there's always a surprise or two in store. And since the Academy and I don't always walk in lock-step, I also have a few things that I'd like to see happen (which probably won't).

So, here are my predictions for who (and what) I think will get the call tomorrow:

Best Actor
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Analysis: Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt are locks for nominations. I think Fassbender will get in for his no-holds-barred (and no-clothes-worn) performance, and I'm going with outside contender Oldman for his first nomination, although Leonardo DiCaprio has a strong shot for J. Edgar. My favorite performance of the year is Michael Shannon in the amazing independent feature Take Shelter. (Add that to your Netflix queue.)


Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk about Kevin
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Analysis: Meryl Streep is a lock for her 17th nomination; Davis and Williams are locks for their performances, and I think Swinton is fairly solid. If there's an outside contender, it's Rooney Mara for her star-making portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If Academy voters feel strongly about Mara, she could bump either Close or Swinton.


Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Analysis: I feel pretty safe with Branagh and Plummer, slightly less so with Brooks (only because he didn't get a SAG nomination). Jonah Hill seems a safe bet, but I'm never quite sure with the way the Academy treats the not-so-serious young actor suddenly taking a serious role (see Mila Kunis last year). And I'm going out on a limb with Nick Nolte, who received a SAG nomination for his transcending-against-type role in Warrior.


Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Analysis: Octavia Spencer and Berenice Bejo are locks, as is Jessica Chastain, who gave terrific performances in six movies in 2011. Melissa McCarthy has had a heck of a year, which very well might get capped off with an Oscar nomination. If there's a shaky plank in this category it's the youngster, Shailene Woodley, who absolutely deserves a nomination, but runs the risk of getting eclipsed either by Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs or Carey Mulligan for Shame.


Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Analysis: I went with the five men nominated by the Directors Guild, although their results are rarely paralelled in total by Oscar. Outside contenders include Steven Spielberg for War Horse, Terrence Malick for Tree of Life (folks either LOVED it or hated it), and if The Help or Moneyball makes a really strong showing in the nominations tomorrow, either Tate Taylor or Bennett Miller could find themselves on this list.


Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
War Horse


Analysis: The biggest variable is the Best Picture category, because this year the Academy has announced there will be no less than five nominees and no less than ten, but isn't setting a fixed number. I'm betting on seven and am going with the films above; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Bridesmaids and possibly even The Tree of Life could fill the category if the number of nominees expands.


What will happen? Tune in tomorrow—or at least come back to my blog tomorrow—and see how I did.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Come to the bark side, Luke...

Following last year's Super Bowl, Volkswagen's ad "The Force," featuring a pint-sized Darth Vader, was the talk of the media.

Well, a few weeks before Super Bowl 46 hits giant screen televisions around the world, our friends at Volkswagen have done it again. And they've not strayed too far from the original.

Check out their new commercial, "The Bark Side," below. You'll need to listen closely for a few seconds to make out the tune the dogs are sharing...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green


Curse you, John Green, for writing a book that hooked me so hard I stayed up until nearly 2:00 this morning finishing it. Curse you for writing a book so emotionally gripping that I was sobbing on my couch in the middle of the night. And curse you for writing a book that I cannot get out of my head, one that I am so sad to have finished. By curse you, of course I mean "thank you."

When teenagers Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus "Gus" Waters meet in a support group for kids with cancer, they are drawn to each other immediately. Gus is in remission from the osteosarcoma that took one of his legs a few years ago, and thanks to a miracle drug trial, the tumors in Hazel's lungs aren't continuing to grow, although she knows that's just a matter of time. The two are snarky, sarcastic, sensitive, and wise beyond their years, and begin an intense friendship that brings them both joy. Hazel introduces Gus to her favorite book, called An Imperial Affliction (she calls it her best friend next to her parents); their mutual love for the book and desire to know what happened to the characters after its abrupt ending sends them on a memorable journey to track down the reclusive author. Green's depiction of both Hazel and Gus, and their interactions with friends and family, felt totally genuine and moving.

John Green is the co-author of one of my favorite books from 2010, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and this new book is easily one of the best I've read in quite some time, both for the quality of Green's writing as well as the emotions it evoked in me. Clearly, a book about teenagers who meet in a cancer support group is headed in a direction you don't want it to, but even the journey Green takes you on is worth the sadness. I loved this book tremendously and honestly cannot say enough good things about it. It's not for everyone, but if you know what you're getting yourself into, I think you'll agree how much you'll love taking Hazel and Gus into your hearts.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: "The Submission" by Amy Waldman


This was a fantastic, thought-provoking book.

Two years after the 9/11 attacks, a competition is underway to design a memorial at Ground Zero. A jury composed of noted artists, historians, critics, and Claire Burwell, a young widow whose husband was killed in the attack, has narrowed down the selection to two finalists. After an impassioned discussion led by Claire, the jury selects a winner, known as The Garden. And when the name of the architect is revealed (all submissions were anonymous to this point), a stunning discovery is made. The winner is an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan. The jury is fraught with indecision—should Khan be disqualified because of his religion, since Americans would most certainly not want a memorial designed by a Muslim? When news of Khan's selection hits the public, New Yorkers—and those across the world—are fueled by twin arguments. Some adamantly demand that Khan withdraw from the competition, while others feel that unfairly tarring all Muslim people as terrorists is a dangerous behavior. The debate over whether or not Khan should be disqualified ripples into a conversation about whose grief carries more weight, who should be the final say about a decision with the potential to affect the world, and what makes a person an American.

Amy Waldman did a fantastic job with this, her first novel. She deftly evokes a troubling time in our not-too-distant history, giving voice to all facets of the anger, fear, sadness, and hatred that emerged following 9/11. Waldman never takes sides in the argument, yet allows her well-drawn characters to explore the familiar and uncomfortable. A few times while reading this book I worried that Waldman would take the plot down a path that I didn't feel would be true to the story, but she surprised me each time. I did feel at times that there were too many characters to keep straight, but that didn't affect my overall feelings. This is a book that will make you think, it may anger or sadden you, but in the end you'll realize what power it contains. Truly amazing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Oh, the humanity!

Last week, Pope Benedict told the diplomatic corps assigned to the Vatican that same-sex marriage "threatens the future of humanity."

He told diplomats from nearly 180 countries that the education of children needed proper "settings" and that "pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman."

"This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself," he said.

Jimmy Kimmel explains how the Pope's claims could be true.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Review: "The Lake of Dreams" by Kim Edwards


Lucy Jarrett has always had a hard time staying in one place. Fleeing her upstate New York hometown, Lake of Dreams, to go to college right after her father's tragic accidental death, she has drifted from job to job, place to place, relationship to relationship. Living in Japan with her boyfriend, Yoshi, she starts feeling the same pangs of longing and dissatisfaction, so she jumps at the chance to return home and visit her family after her mother is in a minor car accident. But returning home, Lucy isn't happy to see how her family has moved on in the 10+ years since her father's death, and finds herself treading familiar hurts and frustrations, as well as reconnecting with Keegan Fall, her high school boyfriend.

One night, suffering from jet lag, Lucy picks the lock on an old window seat in her family home and finds a number of what appear to be old letters and historical documents. She begins to research her findings, and what she discovers is more than she bargained for—she finds a hidden secret in her family tree that has the potential for ripple effects into the present, and future. As Lucy tries to uncover more and more of the facts, she also must renegotiate her relationships, with her family, with Keegan, and with Yoshi.

I've always been a fan of stories of family dysfunction and family history, so this book grabbed me pretty quickly. And while the story itself was really interesting, and I really enjoyed the way Kim Edwards laid everything out, I had trouble warming up to Lucy's character until well into the book, and that made immersing myself in the story fully a bit difficult. But by the time I appreciated just how complex a character Lucy was, I found myself truly hooked. While perhaps not as memorable as Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter, this book is definitely an affecting, emotional read.

On "becoming a man"...


Yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. It seems almost hard to believe that so much time has passed since that milestone, although it doesn't seem like it was just yesterday. One thing I do know—I wouldn't want to revisit the physical awkwardness of that time!

In our temple, preparing for your Bar Mitzvah was always a bit stressful, even though I was a fairly good Hebrew school student. Cantor Ben-Isvy definitely expected the best from all of his Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates, and he would run you through your paces over and over again, and tolerate no mistakes. He knew when you didn't practice, and I didn't make him angry more than once! (Maybe twice.)

In the weeks leading up to my Bar Mitzvah, I remember a few things weighing on my mind. First and foremost was the weather—it was the beginning of January, after all, in the days before global warming, so all of us prayed that snow wouldn't hit New Jersey and affect those who would be traveling to celebrate with us.

But the main thing I thought about a great deal was my Grandpa George, who was terminally ill with cancer. I remember hearing later that he used to wake up every morning and pray that he could make it until my Bar Mitzvah, as I was the oldest grandchild. Not only did he make it, but he truly thrived—watching the video of that night it's hard to believe how sick he was, and that he died a little more than one month later.

The theme of my Bar Mitzvah was Pac-Man, believe it or not. I remember we had a really cool robot greeting guests and serving drinks (it was the early 1980s, after all), and the stereotypically cheesy Bar Mitzvah band. And much like any special occasion, it was marked more by how quickly the night flew than anything else, other than being greeted by relatives and family friends who hadn't seen me since I was "this high," or in some cases, I'd never seen them before.

Looking back on my Bar Mitzvah, what I'm proudest of is the fact that of all of my friends who attended, I'm friends with all but maybe four of them on Facebook, and in probably every one of those cases, they're not on Facebook as far as I'm aware. It's awesome to have that kind of connection all these years later.

Becoming a Bar Mitzvah means becoming an adult in the Jewish religion, but that is a ceremonial responsibility. (Believe me, your parents don't look at you or treat you any differently!) Even though I don't practice Judaism in my adulthood, I still remember much of what I learned back then, and I feel fortunate to have had such a fantastic celebration to mark that occasion.

Plus, I shared that day with Elvis' birthday, so how could I have lost?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Getting hungrier for "The Hunger Games"...

I am trying desperately not to get overly excited for the March 23rd premiere of the first Hunger Games movie, but given the current glut of bad movies opening (I'm still waiting for a few "Oscar" movies, though), it's pretty difficult.

When the official trailer was released in November, a collective sigh was released by millions of fans, but we've been thirsting for more. And now, we've gotten one small tidbit.

The photo below shows Lenny Kravitz, who plays stylist Cinna, Woody Harrelson, who plays Haymitch Abernathy, and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mallark. While many devoted tween fans of the series questioned many of the casting choices, including Hutcherson and Kravitz, I think both will do a phenomenal job. They already look their parts physically!



Are you as excited as I am? I look forward to the next tidbit...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: "Misery Bay" by Steve Hamilton


Steve Hamilton may be one of the best crime/mystery writers in the literary world today. After his spectacular book The Lock Artist, Hamilton returns to the town of Paradise in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and his series of books featuring baseball player-turned-cop-turned-sometime-private investigator Alex McKnight. And it's truly like the return of an old friend, as Hamilton hooked me within the first few pages and kept me racing breathlessly until the book's conclusion.

One cold night, a college student hangs himself from a tree in the middle of a snowy, deserted field. He didn't leave a note, but suicides often don't. The boy's father, a federal marshal and an old friend of Alex McKnight's favorite nemesis, Police Chief Roy Maven, asks Alex to look into his son's suicide and try and find out why he might have chosen to end his life. But what appears to be a simple investigation uncovers a pattern of crimes more affecting and sinister than anyone ever expected, and Alex and Chief Maven find themselves thrown together, trying to find and stop a cold-blooded killer, all while Alex tries to put the demons of his past behind him.

Steve Hamilton knows how to tell a story amazingly well. It's a testament to his skill that he can make the eighth book in a series featuring many of the same characters feel as fresh as the first. The pacing is razor-sharp, the action is first-rate, and even as you think you've gotten the whole mystery figured out, he still has some tricks up his sleeve. If you've never read any of Hamilton's books, you don't know what you're missing—so remedy that right away! Can't wait to see what he comes up with next...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The official start of 11 months of dread...


Although it seems as if people have been running for the Republican presidential nomination for years, tonight's Iowa Caucuses mark the official start of the 2012 Republican presidential race. Within a week it's on to the New Hampshire primary, and then everything rolls downhill from there.

While I've made no secret of my political leanings, I am truly disheartened by nearly every Republican nominee and the rhetoric many have already employed, which as far as I'm concerned, doesn't bode well for the next 11 months. Every single Republican candidate that has been taken seriously by the media has employed passionately anti-equality messaging in an effort to court the evangelical voters they believe will be core to winning the White House. (The candidate whom I believe would have the best shot to beat President Obama is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, but because some of his views are more centrist, the Republicans are too caught up in pandering to the highly conservative wing of the party to notice.)

You have Mitt Romney, who when he ran against the late Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat, claimed to be more pro-gay rights than the liberal lion himself. But suddenly, in his second run for the presidential nomination, Romney has vowed to embrace a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Then there's the thrice-married Newt Gingrich, who filed for divorce from his first wife while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer, and who was having an affair with the woman who was to become his third wife when he and his second wife divorced. But Gingrich, who has vowed to protect "the sanctity of traditional marriage," has also embraced the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has been tailed by gay rumors since he first ran for office, but he, too, has promised the constitutional amendment. He has also expressed disbelief in climate change and believes that gay people have declared war on Christmas.

Michele Bachmann is married to a man who profited from those who came to his clinic to "pray the gay away." (Although Marcus Bachmann is rumored to be gay himself.) Bachmann once told a group of educators that gay people and gay life are "part of Satan."

And don't forget Rick Santorum. When Rudy Giuliani ran for president in 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman said that, "There are only three things he mentions in a sentence—a noun, a verb, and 9/11." The same holds true for Santorum, except replace "9/11" with "gay." I don't think Santorum stands for anything; he's just against gay people.

Of the remaining candidates, only Ron Paul has said that same-sex marriage should be a state's rights issue. But earlier in his career, Paul disseminated numerous anti-gay and racist newsletters, so who knows what he believes?

In general, Americans think our country is in bad shape economically, and have concerns about national security. Only when you specifically ask voters questions about same-sex marriage do they register an opinion, and at this point, only evangelicals and Republicans are vehemently against equality.

So if most Americans don't care that much, why do the Republicans think tearing gays apart will be the key to victory?

Why do I have to spend the next 11 months hearing how gay people aren't deserving of equal rights, that they're spawns of Satan who don't deserve a voice in government?

I'm hopeful things will go in a different direction, but I'm cynical enough not to expect anything else.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The best books I read in 2011...

It may come as no surprise to you, but I read 84 books this year. That's four more than last year, but I'm still down 19 from 2009. Still, an average of seven books a month isn't too shabby!

Looking back at the books I read in 2011, I could find a place for at least 30 of them on my year-end best list. But I decided to discipline myself and cut the list down to 16. (After all, it's my blog; there are no rules.) Your comments are welcomed, as always!

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite books from 2011. For each, I excerpted my original review, but you can still access the full review I originally wrote.

Here's to another year of exceptional reading!


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Dr. Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher working for a major pharmaceutical company. After her close friend and colleague dies under mysterious circumstances in the Amazonian jungle while on company business, her employer sends her to the jungle to complete his assignment—track down Dr. Anneck Swenson, a renowned and reclusive gynecologist whose research into the reproductive habits of a local tribe the company has funded for years. Ann Patchett strikes again—more than simply a story of woman versus jungle or woman versus her past, the book explores the creatures—both physical and metaphorical—that frighten, challenge and could potentially harm us, and the ripples that one action can cause many people. Read my original review.



Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: This book was frigging awesome! Children of the 80s, especially video game junkies, here it is. Combining the adventure, danger, action, companionship, romance, violence, and fantasy of the best quest novels with fantastic 80s trivia, Ernest Cline outdid himself with his very first book. This is a story about courage, friendship, love, good, and evil, with the 1980s and the worlds of classic video and adventure games and anime as its backdrop. Cline definitely lets you get lost in the geekery, but he has created terrific, memorable characters who draw you into their lives, and the action sequences are fast-paced and creative. Read my original review.



The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Magical. Incredibly compelling. Romantic. Erin Morgenstern's debut novel follows the magical Cirque des RĂªves, a circus full of dazzling and fantastical amazements. Marco and Celia, two brilliant magicians, are locked in a competition that neither of them understand, and that only one of them can survive. Don't think this is a story about clowns and lion tamers and trapeze artists—this is a story with a strong emphasis on magic and illusion and manipulation of reality. Read my original review.



The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: It has been said that "baseball is life." Whether or not you agree with this statement, for the characters in Chad Harbach's fantastic new novel, baseball may not be life, but it certainly is at the crux of their lives. This is a book about baseball that transcends the sport itself—it is a book about how frightening realizing your dreams, and falling short of them, can be. Read my original review.



Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas: Grant Achatz is one of the most acclaimed chefs in the US, if not the world. His Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has been ranked among the best in the world. In 2007, at the height of his and the restaurant's success, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4-b squamous cell carcinoma—tongue cancer. While most doctors advised Achatz to have a portion of his tongue surgically removed, thereby ending his career, he underwent an alternative treatment of chemotherapy and radiation first. This is more than a book about Achatz's struggle with cancer and how it affected those around him, including Kokonas, his business partner at Alinea. The book traces the genesis of his love of cooking, his struggles in the competitive and harrowing culinary world, and his desire to reinvent the way people approach and eat food. Read my original review.

Book Review: "Legend" by Marie Lu


It is the future, and the Western United States is now the Republic, a military-run nation fighting for control over its neighbors. In order to succeed, the best and brightest students are handpicked by the Republic to attend one of its four finest colleges and then serve the military. Those less scholastically minded teenagers are put to work, and those who fail the Republic's test of mind, character, and athletic ability (called "Trial") are sent away to labor camps. Routinely, sectors of the Republic are affected by plague, but with some of the greatest scientific minds at their disposal, plague outbreaks don't last too long.

June is one of the Republic's greatest success stories. Born into one of its most elite families, she is the only student ever to get a perfect score in the Trial, and she is sent to college at age 15 to prepare her for her service to the Republic. Day, also 15, is a child of the slums; he lives perpetually in hiding, as he is one of the Republic's most wanted criminals. When June's soldier brother, Metias, is killed one night, Day is the chief suspect in his murder, and June vows to use her strength and intelligence to hunt him down and ensure he answers for his crime. Yet once the two finally cross paths, they realize they have more in common than they ever imagined, and both of their worlds are turned upside down.

At least half of the so-called "young adult" novels published today have some type of dystopian vision of our future at their core. With Legend, Marie Lu has created another less-than-rosy version of our future, where the government and the military combine strengths to keep the people down. Her setting—and her characters—are well-drawn and very compelling, and they help the book rise above its lovers-from-different-worlds premise. This was a really quick read, and although I could see many of the plot twists coming, it is a testament to Lu's writing ability that I still wanted to see how she pulled everything together. Day and June are very fascinating characters, and as I believe this book is just the first in a series, I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop their story.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year! Enjoy it with new eyes...


"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

--Semisonic

Happy New Year!

No matter how you chose to ring in 2012, I hope that you had an enjoyable and safe time, surrounded by those whose company you enjoy.

A few days ago, W had LASIK surgery. After wearing glasses for about 20 years, he decided it was time to see if he could avoid having to wear glasses everywhere he went.

All told, the surgery took no more than 7 minutes. Beyond the sheer wonder that a procedure to dramatically improve a person's vision (even when they've worn glasses their entire life) took so little time, what struck me most about the entire day was when each patient left after surgery, the staff told them, "Enjoy your new eyes!"

Think about that: for some of the patients, this would be the first time in 10, 20, even 30 or more years they wouldn't need to greet the day with glasses. They could watch television from their couch or see a movie and not need their glasses or contacts to help them decipher details. For all intents and purposes, they truly were getting new eyes.

Then I realized how appropriate that concept was for all of us as we celebrate the start of 2012. Many people greet the new year by making resolutions, taking down holiday decorations, cleaning and throwing away clutter.

But what if the most amazing thing you can do for yourself in the months to come is to look at everything with new eyes?

Forget resolutions. Forget worries. From today on, I'm going to look at everything with new eyes. And while they will still be behind glasses, what they will see, what they will perceive, will hopefully be a bit different.

Enjoy all that 2012 has to offer you. And I challenge you: enjoy it with new eyes.