Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Here comes 2014...

As 2014 approaches (and it already has, for some of you out there), I thought I'd re-share this duet from 2011, featuring one of my faves, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Zooey Deschanel, singing What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

Whatever you're doing (or did), I hope it was exactly what you wanted, and may the New Year bring you fulfillment of your sincerest wishes!!

Book Review: "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a tremendously well-written, fascinating, heartwarming, bizarre, and somewhat frustrating book, but I couldn't stop reading it.

It's the story of the Cooke family—Mother, Dad, Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary. Fern and Rosemary, only a few months apart, are inseparable, constantly imitating each other, getting themselves into trouble (and telling on each other), and participating in studies conducted by Dad's graduate students in psychology. Life seems idyllic—although young Rosemary never seems to stop talking—until Fern disappears when Rosemary is five, and this disappearance strains the family, eventually leading to Lowell's departure.

"Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply—her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I don't remember her fully, not the way Lowell does."

The thing is, Fern wasn't just any sibling, and she didn't just disappear. Fern was a chimpanzee, raised by the Cookes as part of a study that "twinned" a baby chimp and a human baby, to determine the effects on the development of both. There were times when Rosemary felt outshone by Fern and what Fern could do, but she still felt like she mattered. And when funding for the study ended, and the Cookes began to have concerns about Rosemary's safety and the safety of others with Fern, she was taken to a university laboratory.

"One day, every word I said was data, and carefully recorded for further study and discussion. The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone."

But while Fern left when Rosemary was five, Fern's presence and her disappearance affected Rosemary's life tremendously, from the way she interacted with others more like a chimp than a human, to the destruction of her relationship with her older brother, as well as the end of her father's career, and her family's happiness. As she grew, Rosemary became a person more comfortable with silence, one more interested in blending in unnoticed than standing out. And as a college student at the University of California, Davis, some people didn't even know that Rosemary had siblings.

This is the story of secrets and things left unsaid. It's the story of an experiment with noble purpose that left a family worse for wear, and affected the trajectory of each of the members' lives. It's also the story of the unreliability of human memory, how what we believe isn't always what happened (nor is what we're told). And it's also the story of someone determined to set the record straight, to unravel fact and remembrance into a coherent thread.

I thought Karen Joy Fowler did a great job creating the Cooke family and fleshing out both the experiment that brought Fern to their family and the aftereffects of her departure. The dialogue, the characters, and the emotions they felt and conveyed were moving and compelling, and it hooked me on the book pretty quickly.

I felt at times, however, that the book didn't know if it wanted to be simply a novel or a novel with a message about animal testing and cruelty to research animals. This is a topic that needs serious attention but the details provided about the Animal Liberation Front didn't really mesh with the rest of the plot. I also felt as if an entire thread of the plot that involved one of Rosemary's fellow students (and a ventriloquist's dummy) was distracting and didn't quite fit, nor was it fleshed out the way it could have been.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book. It was completely not what I expected (I feared it was going to be bizarre) and it really warmed my heart. It's not perfect, much like the characters whose stories it tells, but that is part of what makes it affecting.

"My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn't there, and I can't tell you that part. I've stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that's mine, and still everything I've said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Her"

Novelist E.M. Forster once said, "Only connect!" In our world, where people often sitting at the same table can be seen using their smartphones instead of having conversations, it is difficult to build lasting connections.

And in the distant future of Spike Jonze's fantastic Her, connection is even more difficult. People depend upon their computer systems for most of their social interaction. Sad sack Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living writing personal letters for people, to fit their every need and occasion. He has been writing for many of his clients for a number of years, so he has learned how to incorporate personal details (and in some cases, even created those personal details) into his letters. His success is a bit ironic, because he hasn't been particularly lucky in the romance department, and recently separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who has filed for divorce.

One day Theodore purchases a revolutionary new computer operating system (OS), which is purported to adapt to the user's every need. Theodore gets more than he bargained for with his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). At first Samantha helps streamline his emails and his contacts, reminds him of work meetings, and nags him to get out of bed on time. But Samantha isn't just any OS—she's tremendously curious about the world outside, and wants to understand what it's like to feel, to think, and to love.

It isn't long before Theodore, still reeling from the failure of his marriage and seeing the detritus of other relationships, finds in Samantha a soul mate, someone with whom he is moved to share so much, because she seems to understand him and the fragility of his emotions. They joke together, Theodore shares his thoughts and feelings, and, as time progresses, the two even get, umm, cozy. Amazingly, this growing relationship doesn't seem weird to anyone, as many people find themselves in romantic relationships with their operating systems, and even other people's.

Is this really love, or is this simply the adaptation of a computer program to fit its user's needs? Are Samantha's emotions real, or are they simply an amalgamation of her programmers? Is this type of connection better than none, or does it signify Theodore's fear of real intimacy? Can this love story have a happy ending? While this is certainly a quirky story which requires you to suspend your disbelief (perhaps less if you've built relationships with people you've met online or through gaming), you find yourself believing in Theodore and Samantha's relationship, even rooting for them.

This is only the fourth feature film Jonze has directed (after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where The Wild Things Are), and he has created a fascinating setting in which relationships like Theodore and Samantha seem completely possible. As self-assured as his direction is (it's certainly not as quirky as his previous films), his screenplay utterly dazzles. There were pieces of dialogue that literally made me say, "wow," and if I had read these lines in a book, I definitely would have highlighted them as phrases to savor.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an absolutely terrific, moving performance as Theodore. It's honestly the second-best performance I've seen of his after his mastery in Walk the Line—he combines vulnerability, tenderness, fear, and bursts of confidence tremendously well. I found myself wanting to shout at him not to withdraw from Samantha when his emotions were getting confused, as he apparently did with his wife.

Scarlett Johansson gives great voice. You forget at times that Samantha isn't a real person, as Johansson imbues her with such life, such passion and curiosity. It almost makes you long for an operating system of your very own. She and Phoenix have terrific chemistry, and it's a shame that the Academy doesn't recognize voice performances, because she really is such an integral part of the movie.

Amy Adams, as an old friend and former girlfriend of Theodore's, does some quietly moving work (and has some insightful dialogue), while Rooney Mara doesn't have much to do, but brings some emotional fragility to her one scene. I wasn't sure what to make of Chris Pratt's role as a colleague of Theodore's, but he was his usual goofily likeable self.

I've stated numerous times before that I'm a sap—emotionally charged movies and books really tend to resonate for me. But regardless of that, I thought Her was absolutely fantastic, and very well might be my favorite movie of the year. Time will tell...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Apartment" by Greg Baxter

Greg Baxter's debut novel, The Apartment, is a terrifically written, somewhat meandering book that both is and is not about what you think it is.

In an unnamed European city (although some reviewers have guessed this is Prague, Baxter said the novel's setting is an amalgamation of several different cities), an unnamed American narrator is planning to meet his friend, Saskia, to find him an apartment, as he had been living austerely in a formerly elegant hotel since he arrived. The narrator is in his early 40s, a former Navy sailor who had served on a submarine in Iraq and then returned to that country as a defense contractor. But he doesn't like to talk about the past, because of the things he did while he was in Iraq.

"I could fill the silence by talking about the past, but I try not to think about the past. For much of my life, I existed in a condition of regret that was contemporaneous with experience, and which sometimes preceded experience. Whenever I think of my past now I see a great black wave that has risen a thousand stories high and is suspended above above me, as though I am a city by the sea, and I hold the wave in suspension through a perspective that is as constrained as a streak of clear glass in a fogged-up window."

The novel takes place over a one-day period, although the narrator finds himself reminiscing on a number of encounters he has had with people throughout his life, both after arriving in this city and in his life before coming to the city. It is around Christmastime, and winter has the city in its thrall. Snow falls throughout the day.

The narrator and Saskia travel throughout the city, on foot as well as by train, bus, streetcar, and taxi. They stop at cafés and bars, shops and outdoor holiday markets, tourist attractions and remarkable architecture. They encounter several of Saskia's friends, including the misanthropic Janos and the pretty yet flighty Manuela, and his being an American makes him more interesting and more loathsome to some. Throughout the day they spend much of their time both talking and not talking, about art, culture, history, their families, and at times the narrator is willing to answer basic questions about his military service and where he made his money.

"Saskia can move quickly from being very cool to being very funny. It makes me think she's not trying to be one or the other. I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time. I wish we could remain strangers."

The narrator has spent much of his life trying to disengage from connections and commitments despite his work history. And although he is reluctant to let anyone know too much about him, and loves the lack of permanence that hotel living allows, he looks forward to losing himself in the city and having an apartment of his own.

While in much of the novel the pair is on the hunt for an apartment, the plot frequently veers off topic, as the narrator remembers people he has encountered, including his closest childhood friend back in America, as well as several instances during his time in Iraq. While many of these reminiscences happen without warning or connection to what is currently happening, my guess is that they occur because the narrator suddenly encounters something that triggers a memory or sensation.

This is a very short novel, only about 210 pages, but it is very weighty. It is so much more than I expected, more complex than a simple search for an apartment. It is a book about relationships, about avoiding your past but knowing that it shapes you, about trying to remain disengaged while simultaneously engaging. And more than that, it is a paean to immersing yourself in a place, in its culture, its history, its people, and its beauty.

I really enjoyed Baxter's storytelling ability in this book, even if I wished it had stayed on course a little more than it did. While the vagueness of the setting and the narrator's life was intriguing, I would have enjoyed a little more specificity to flesh out my experience. But in the end, this is a powerful and tremendously compelling story that I am really glad I read, and I can't stop thinking about it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: "Dirty Love" by Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog was truly one of the most moving and affecting books I've read in the last 15 years, and the film adaptation was powerful and well-acted. Dubus so perfectly told the story of flawed people trying to get what they wanted and felt they were entitled to, with disastrous consequences.

He brings that same literary power (without utter tragedy) to Dirty Love, his collection of tangentially linked novellas about people who want to be happy in love, but the pitfalls of love—infidelity, low self-esteem, foolish mistakes, alcoholism—get in their way. Again, Dubus' characters are far from perfect and their actions don't always make you feel sympathy for them, but their stories are far too common in real life, and they make you feel as you shake your head.

In "Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed," Mark, a middle-aged technology project manager, discovers his wife of more than 25 years, has been cheating on him. For a man who spends his days controlling situations, losing control is quite unsettling, and he tries to figure out what his next steps are—kicking her out of the house, begging for a reconciliation, beating the crap out of her lover—or all of the above.

In "Marla," an overweight woman with low self-esteem has always wondered what it would be like to have a boyfriend and envies the ease by which her female colleagues enter relationships. But when she finally finds a man who shows romantic interest in her, she questions whether what she imagined love would be is a fantasy or should be the reality to aspire to.

The main character in "The Bartender" has always dreamed of being a poet but can never pull his poems together to be more than a tool to seduce women. When he finally meets a woman he cares enough about to marry, he dreams of becoming a different person, but even the impending arrival of a baby can't stop his philandering ways.

And in the title novella, a teenage girl named Devon has fled to her elderly great-uncle's home to escape her father's infidelity and the aftereffects of her sexual escapades being posted online. As her great-uncle struggles with his own memories, Devon dreams of starting over, and wonders if an Iraqi vet she's met online might be the answer.

All four of these novellas are tremendously compelling, although knowing Dubus' writing, I kept expecting the protagonists to do something irreparable, so I felt as if I were reading with my hands metaphorically over my eyes. And while these characters are flawed, happily, they don't veer into House of Sand and Fog territory. Dubus is such a terrific storyteller, and he really could expand all four of these into full-length novels. They're not exactly happy stories, but they're definitely realistic, and I can't stop thinking about them.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Movie Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Pairing with Martin Scorsese has proven to be a pretty potent decision for Leonardo DiCaprio—in Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and now, The Wolf of Wall Street, he's turned in some exceptional performances. And Scorsese, now in his early 70s, continues to demonstrate his trademark skill in increasingly diverse movies.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, a New York boy who became a stockbroker in the late 1980s and rose to great heights, fueled by his own voracious greed as well as the siren call of drugs and sex, only to become a cautionary example of fraud years later. When the movie opens, Belfort (DiCaprio) is ready for his first day on Wall Street when he catches the eye of the firm's senior broker (Matthew McConaughey, still thin from Dallas Buyers Club). In one scene-stealing, totally off-the-wall lecture, you can't take your eyes off McConaughey as he shares with Jordan the veritable keys to the kingdom—and they're not the traditional ones you learn in business school.

After the stock market crash of 1987 tanks Belfort's career (along with thousands of other stockbrokers), he winds up at a smaller and less reputable firm which sells penny stocks to working class citizens who probably can't afford to buy them, yet are drawn to the idea of owning stocks. It is there Belfort harnesses the sales skills he took from Wall Street, and in a matter of minutes he wows his colleagues with his prowess and quickly becomes the one to emulate. He meets WASP wannabe Donnie Azoff (a buck-toothed Jonah Hill), who sees in Belfort all he wants to be, and this admiration and adulation leads Belfort to start his own firm.

Molding his sad-sack band of wannabe brokers in his own image, Belfort's firm achieves astronomical success, making all of them more money than they could ever dream of. And this money attracts both positive and negative attention—Belfort begins an affair with, and ultimately marries, Naomi (Margot Robbie), and the meteoric rise of his firm catches the eye of dogged FBI investigator Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who just knows that all is not on the up-and-up, and he is determined to bring Belfort and his comrades down to earth.

In depicting the excesses that Belfort and his band of brothers partake in—drugs of every kind; sexual debauchery in every shape, color, and size; strippers; fistfights; even catapulting midgets toward a target—the film frequently reaches a riotous, almost music video-like pace. These segments occur with more and more frequency the richer that Belfort and his firm become, but there are only so many times you can see this frenzy played out before you get numb to it. (Although I could do without ever seeing Jonah Hill's rear end again.) It's almost as if Scorsese, in trying to demonstrate the excesses of Belfort's life, decided that being visually excessive would be more effective.

As you might imagine, all good things must come to an end, and as the FBI draws closer and closer, Belfort gets more and more frantic to try and find a solution. He considers cutting a deal and walking away from his firm, but the thrill of being the king keeps pulling him back in. DiCaprio is at his best in his most manic moments, when he's leading so-called "sales meetings," cheering his employees on, and declaring that nothing short of a jackhammer will remove him from his company—it's like Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech on steroids.

Running one minute short of three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is about 45 minutes too long. Watching DiCaprio flail about as his life is circling the drain isn't nearly as compelling as watching his rise to success, and I just wished that the story would bring itself to the ending I expected a little quicker than it did.

The movie had some terrific performances—in addition to DiCaprio, Hill and Robbie are quite good in their roles. But much like the time period it depicted, in the end, the movie was a little more bloated than it needed to be. With a little bit of trimming, it could have packed even more of a wallop.

Movie Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Having a dream is one of the things that motivates us. Even if we don't actively pursue our dreams, just the thought of knowing we might someday achieve them is enough to keep us moving forward, even when things seem bleak.

No one knows that as well as Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. Llewyn used to have a partner, but he committed suicide, leaving him to try and find fame as a solo act. But as the popularity of folk music is beginning to wane from the earnestness of the late 1950s and early 1960s, making it big seems less and less possible for Llewyn, but he is determined to keep trying.

Playing a few gigs here and there, crashing on the couches of friends all over New York (until he alienates them—which proves far too easy for Llewyn to do), Llewyn is struggling to get a foothold. His relationship with fellow singers Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake, looking a little like he's ready for an SNL skit), is somewhat complicated by the fact that Jean is pregnant—and there's a possibility the baby may be Llewyn's. He just can't seem to catch a break no matter what he does, and perhaps that's because, as Jean puts it, "everything you touch turns to shit."

Inside Llewyn Davis is a quieter, more introspective movie than we've seen from the Coen Brothers in some time, but it's equally as powerful as many of their others. It follows Llewyn through a particularly difficult week in 1961, as he tries to scrape together some money, a shot at fame, even a little self-respect, but all seem elusive, and he really must consider whether it's all worth it. But as desperate as he is for a shot, he wants to do it on his own terms—he doesn't want to try and find another partner or join another group, he wants to be appreciated as a solo act.

Oscar Isaac, who was one of the stars of last year's high school reunion movie 10 Years (and sang one of my favorite songs of 2012, Never Had), gives a star-making performance in this movie. He has a phenomenal voice (which is why it's so amazing to me that Llewyn is unable to find fame as a singer) and he imbues his performance with a stubborn yet weary bravado that really works for his character. This really is his movie, as all of the other actors have a few small moments here and there, but you can't take your eyes off of Isaac when he's onscreen.

While this movie doesn't have any of the Coen Brothers' traditional violence, it doesn't lack for quirk. A segment of the movie featuring John Goodman as a jazz musician and a monosyllabic Garrett Hedlund as his driver and valet seems odd and slightly out of place, but it is entertaining. And once you've seen the movie, I'd love to discuss your interpretation of how the movie flowed—was it a flashback, or did Llewyn's whole adventure start all over again?

I thought this was a pretty fantastic movie, despite the difficulties that Llewyn experienced making his dreams come true. But I hope that Oscar Isaac walks away from this movie a star, because his performance proves his talent is truly worthy of that classification.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Mary Poppins has always been one of my favorite Disney films. While it's a little too long and drags a bit at certain points, it's still merry and emotionally satisfying (and keeps me singing long after the movie has ended).

I felt pretty much the same way about Saving Mr. Banks, the story of Walt Disney's struggle to bring this classic to the screen. Disney (Tom Hanks) had been trying to convince English author P.L. (Pamela) Travers (Emma Thompson, at her most superciliously cranky) to grant him the rights to her series of books featuring magical nanny Mary Poppins, so he could make them into a movie. But Travers couldn't stand the idea of allowing Disney to add his "magic" to Mary and the Banks family—the thought of the characters being turned into cartoons or "cavorting" with fairies didn't sit well, as her characters meant too much to her.

After a 20-year battle of wills, Travers' financial need finally brings her to Los Angeles to meet with Disney and the team he has put in place to adapt Mary Poppins for the cinema. But all too quickly Pamela realizes she's not pleased with the direction that Disney, script writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the musical team of the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) have imagined. She tosses out nearly all of their ideas, including casting Dick Van Dyke as Bert. ("He's one of the greats," Pamela is told. "Laurence Olivier is one of the greats," she retorts. "Dick Van Dyke is most certainly not.")

As the movie unfolds, we learn through one or two too many flashbacks the hold that Mary and the Bankses have on Pamela, as they took root in her childhood in rural Australia. She begins to understand that Walt Disney is more than just a hyperactive, money-making hack, but someone who truly does care about Mary Poppins. She also learns that she and Disney have more in common than she would imagine, as the pair's animosity toward each other begins to thaw. And the rest, of course, is glorious cinematic history.

I really enjoyed this movie, as it stimulated my sense of fun and nostalgia as well as my emotions. Emma Thompson is pretty spectacular, as she combines haughty superiority and irritation with true sensitivity. It's the type of character Thompson does really well, and although her Travers starts out fairly unlikeable (how can you not be charmed by the magic of Disney?), you know she's more complex than you think. Tom Hanks does a great job as Walt Disney, with both a mischievous twinkle, a sensitive moment or two, and the bluster you can imagine the real genius had. Colin Farrell, as well as Whitford, Schwartzman, Novak, and Paul Giamatti as Pamela's driver, all turn in strong performances as well.

Movies about making movies are always good fun—take Singin' in the Rain or State and Main as examples—and Saving Mr. Banks is a worthy addition to this canon. It's a heartwarming and fun movie with a lot of heart, like so many Disney movies of yesterday and today.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: "Duplex" by Kathryn Davis

Have you ever woken up from a dream and wondered, "What just happened?"

Dreams (at least mine) rarely follow linear patterns—there's a little reality mixed in with people from different aspects of my life, usually with a healthy dose of psychedelia for good measure. (If you've ever wondered whether you can justifiably be angry at someone for what they did to you in a dream, try explaining to a person you're mad at them for borrowing your car and parking it in the refrigerator, and see how they react.)

Reading Kathryn Davis' Duplex was a lot like walking into the middle of someone else's really bizarre dream. It's interesting and dizzyingly creative and Davis' storytelling ability was pretty magical and psychedelic throughout. It's less a novel and more a collection of interconnected short stories that take place at different times, but they feature the same characters—a powerful and seductive sorcerer; Miss Vicks, an elementary school teacher who is in love with the sorcerer; a family of robots who don't always appear human to other people; and Mary and Eddie, childhood sweethearts whose lives are forever changed by the strangeness around them.

If you're a fan of dreamy, fantastical fiction that doesn't quite flow in a typical way, where the plot doesn't quite jell and it's hard to pin down exactly what the book is about, then Duplex may be for you. While I enjoy some fantasy and nontraditional fiction, this book was a little too out there for me, but Davis is a very compelling writer, so while I was a bit confused and wondered what it all meant, I was still dazzled from time to time by her use of language and evocative imagery.

Very intriguing, but it's a book you have to work through.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Movie Review: "American Hustle"

Certain directors have certain strengths. There are those who specialize in effects-laden movies (like Michael Bay), those with the exceptional ability to craft a story (like Peter Jackson or early Steven Spielberg), those who create dreamy, thought-provoking, even confusing films (like Terrence Malick or David Lynch), and those who might excel at one or more of these, but also have the ability to coax phenomenal performances from their actors.

Even as early as Flirting with Disaster, David O. Russell proved himself a director worthy of classification into the latter category. While for the most part, his movies have tremendously compelling and entertaining stories, they're characterized by some exceptional performances as well. His last two movies, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, received a total of seven acting Oscar nominations between them, and three wins—Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for the former film, Jennifer Lawrence for the latter.

American Hustle reunites the director with Bale and Lawrence, as well as Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for The Fighter) and Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro (both nominated for Silver Linings Playbook). The performances Russell elicits from his actors are almost uniformly fantastic, but the twists and turns of the plot and the excellent dialogue make this movie one of the best I've seen all year, and easily one of my favorite of Russell's movies.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale, with a serious paunch and a horrific comb-over) is a small-time grifter. The owner of several dry cleaning stores, he makes most of his money scamming people looking for quick loans, and selling stolen or forged art. He's also trapped in a marriage to the manipulative and unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, a force of nature), who is flighty and insecure and smarter than you think, but she knows Irving married her to be a father to her young son, and makes the most of treading on that weakness.

At a party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, never sexier), desperate to make her way in the world. The two troubled, not-quite-solid souls are immediately drawn to each other, and Irving has dreams of starting a new life with Sydney. And when he lets her in on his real line of business, Sydney is all to happy to join the scam—she reinvents herself (complete with English accent) as Lady Edith Greensley, who has "royal banking connections." The team achieve great success, even though Sydney knows Irving may never leave Rosalyn.

But when they get nabbed by detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, 70s perm and all), who is all too hungry to make a name for himself within the FBI, DiMaso quickly identifies that the bond between Irving and Sydney/Edith may be more tenuous than it looks, and does everything he can to weaken it. He quickly falls for Sydney/Edith, and you wonder if she feels the same way. He forces the pair into working for him, setting people up that he can then arrest. The ultimate scam they set up seems too good to be true—convincing Camden Mayor Carmine Pulido (Jeremy Renner) to take a bribe from a fake sheik in order to rebuild Atlantic City. Richie decides that's not good enough—he wants the scam to entrap some members of Congress as well. (This is based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s.) And that's when things start to go completely haywire.

Bale is believably desperate as a con artist trying to have his cake and eat it too. He so quickly immerses himself into the character's appearance that you forget this isn't some aging actor forgoing his vanity for a choice part—this is a 39-year-old Englishman playing a suburban New Jersey Jew. This is the second excellent performance Bale has turned in this year, the first being Out of the Furnace, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

Amy Adams has turned in strong performances over the years, and has four Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations to show for it. But you've never seen this combination of fiery bravado and painful insecurity that she embodies in this character, and I just couldn't get over how sexy she looked throughout the film, since her characters are usually much more low-key. A number of actresses turned in Oscar-worthy performances this year, and while I don't know if Adams will make the cut for a nomination, it's definitely deserved. She's just that good.

Cooper's character is tightly wound, power-hungry, and generally unlikeable, quite a contrast from the character he played in Russell's last movie, Silver Linings Playbook. He sees Sydney/Edith as the answer to his prayers both professionally and personally, and gets caught up in where he thinks their scam will take them. His Silver Linings Playbook co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, is absolutely fantastic in this movie. Her role is smaller than the others, but every time she's onscreen you can't take your eyes off her. Funny, insecure, desperate, backstabbing, needy, and more in control than you think she is, if Lawrence hadn't won an Oscar last year, I'd think she was a shoo-in this year.

While the movie takes a little time to gather steam, I totally captivated my attention, and I wasn't sure how the plot would resolve itself. Russell perfectly captured the 1970s setting (a segment with a microwave oven is particularly funny) and the film has a reckless 1970s-like sensibility. At times funny, at times suspenseful, at times emotional, I thought American Hustle was an excellent film, tremendously well-acted, and a worthy opponent of 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars this year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: "The Abbey" by Chris Culver

Ash Rashid is a police detective in Indianapolis and a part-time law student. He used to be a homicide detective, but after being shot during an investigation, he realized that dealing with so much tragic death had taken its toll on his psyche. He's also a Muslim, albeit one who drinks a little too much (maybe a lot), can't quite concentrate on his daily prayers, and he may have bacon every now and again.

"I may not have been a very good Muslim, bu my religion called me to seek and foster justice. It's a divine edict as stringent as any command in any faith."

When his niece Rachel, an athletic high school student who seemed on the right path, is found dead of a supposed overdose, it shocks Ash and compels him to try and figure out what really happened. And when Rachel's boyfriend allegedly admits to Rachel's murder and then commits suicide out of supposed guilt, the police are convinced the case is closed. But Ash isn't, and despite roadblocks put up by his own department, he is determined to figure out what really happened to Rachel.

But when more seemingly unrelated murders begin occurring, the heat is turned up—on Ash himself. What he finds is far more complicated than he imagined, and far more dangerous to him and his family than he bargained for. Should he follow orders and drop his investigation as he has been ordered to do, and simply accept Rachel's overdose as an accident? Or should he risk his own safety and that of his family to find out the truth, even if the truth is more than he can handle? Is there anyone he can still trust?

The Abbey is the first in a series of books featuring Ash Rashid, and I really enjoyed this. Ash is one of those good guys who has more than enough flaws of his own—in addition to his drinking (which is a bit of a problem), he's a little too impulsive, and he can't seem to let things go, which isn't a bad quality to have in a police detective. He's introspective, however, but he is willing to blur the lines between right and wrong in the pursuit of the truth.

This book had a good mix of action, some suspense, some interesting twists, and strong character development. While the plot isn't necessarily surprising, it's still pretty compelling, which makes it a fairly fast read. I really like Ash's character, and I'll definitely be reading the next two books in this series. Rashid is a good addition to the world of dogged police detectives.

Cool cover song of the week...

If you've read my blog or any of my other social media posts before, or simply if you know me well enough, it's no secret that I'm an unabashed child of the 80s, despite the fact that I was 11 when the decade began. Even though I love all kinds of music, 80s music has a special place in my heart—and my memory.

Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time was released in 1984 as the second single from her album She's So Unusual. It hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was Lauper's second most commercially successful single after Girls Just Want to Have Fun. In their joint ranking of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs, MTV and Rolling Stone ranked Time After Time #66.

I love the spareness of this song and the lyrics are so poignant. While some 80s songs are more like novelties, this one truly has stood the test of time for me.

Minnesota alternative band Quietdrive released their version of Time After Time in 2006. While their version didn't have the success of Lauper's, only reaching #25, it was used in several movie soundtracks. Their version is more upbeat but it doesn't take away from the song's best qualities, which some covers do.

Here's Quietdrive's version:

Here's an instrumental version recorded by the late, great Miles Davis:

And here's Lauper's original. Still so great. (And I've always loved this video.)

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

Go Your Own Way by Lissie

Winner Takes it All by McFly

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

Redemption Song by Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Love Me Tender by Chris Isaak and Brandi Carlile

All You Need is Love by The Flaming Lips

Lovesong by Adele

I Love It by Robin Thicke

Billie Jean by The Civil Wars

Across the Universe by The Scorpions

Can't Hold Us by Pentatonix

Wicked Game by James Vincent McMorrow

Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) by The Postal Service

Jolene by The White Stripes

Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) by Justin Timberlake

More Than This by Norah Jones

Royals by Mayer Hawthorne

I Can't Go for That (No Can Do) by The Bird and The Bee

Ain't No Sunshine by Silent Rider

Crazy by Ray Lamontagne

Stairway to Heaven by Heart

Nothing Compares 2 U by Capital Cities

Roar by Oscar Isaac

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism" by Naoki Higashida

"Can you imagine how your life would be if you couldn't talk?"

The Reason I Jump was written by Naoki Higashida when he was 13 years old. (He is now 21.) Unable to speak more than a few words because of his autism, he learned how to communicate using a word grid and then a computer, and now has written several books of fiction and nonfiction. But this book is truly a mirror into his soul and his life, and it is both insightful and moving.

In the foreword he said, "I wrote this story in the hope that it will help you to understand how painful it is when you can't express yourself to the people you love. If this story connects with your heart in some way, then I believe you'll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too."

If you've ever wondered what people with autism perceive about the world around them, and in particular instances, why they act a certain way (or don't), or seem to adopt certain characteristics or behaviors, Higashida answers those questions from his own sphere of experience. While not every autistic person reacts in the same manner, his explanations are tremendously insightful and helps broaden understanding about some common traits and patterns.

While this book is valuable simply as an information source, it is incredibly moving, almost heartbreaking, to see how many times Higashida refers to people "telling him off" or losing their patience with him because he continued doing things after repeatedly being told not to, or for reacting in a way contrary to the way people expected him to. He continually implores the reader not to "lose faith" or "give up" on autistic people. As he puts it, "The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people."

Written simply, in question-and-answer-style, and interspersed with a few parables and stories (including a short story Higashida wrote himself), The Reason I Jump was an eye-opener for me, someone who hasn't dealt with many people with autism. This is such a valuable and moving book, and I'd imagine it would be useful for anyone to learn not just about autism, but about the need for compassion for anyone. As Higashida mentions several times in the book, just because a person doesn't appear to understand what is going in on the world around them, or they're unable to communicate with people verbally, it doesn't mean they can't feel, or think, or perceive.

I'm grateful for Naoki Higashida for sharing his feelings and his thoughts, and grateful to author David Mitchell, and his wife KA Yoshida, for translating this book into English so it can be accessible to a much wider audience, one in desperate need of this information.

Book Review: "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell

I really loved this book.

Cath (short for Cather) Avery and her twin sister, Wren, have always been inseparable. They've stood by each other through thick and thin, through their mother leaving just after 9/11, and their father's battles with depression and anxiety. They've shared the same friends, the same clothes, and the same obsession with the Simon Snow books (a series modeled after Harry Potter, but with teenage magicians and vampires). They've devoured the books, seen all of the movies, bought the merchandise, and both have spent hours writing fan fiction about the characters, although Cath started to do more of the writing and Wren became her beta reader. And Cath has built up quite a following in the Simon Snow forums, becoming the most popular fan fiction author.

But when the twins decide to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln together, Wren announces she thinks they should not be roommates, and should start making different friends. While this is easy for the more sociable and popular Wren, the idea throws Cath for a loop, as social situations without her sister tend to make her anxious. So she winds up living with the seemingly brusque Reagan, whose boyfriend, the cheerfully affable Levi, is always around. When Cath isn't worrying about having to talk to people, she spends her time worrying about her father, feeling the pressure of her classes, and wanting to finish her major piece of fan fiction before the last book in the Simon Snow series is released.

"In some cases, she was actively trying not to make friends, though she usually stopped short of being rude. (Uptight, tense, and mildly misanthropic? Yes. Rude? No.)

As Cath and Wren's relationship becomes more strained, she struggles with her fiction writing class, particularly one of her classmates who becomes her writing partner, and her professor, who believes that fan fiction is nothing short of plagiarism. And she starts thinking more and more about Levi, which causes her more anxiety.

This is such an enjoyable book. Cath is a tremendously quirky character with a huge heart and boundless creativity, and while I didn't always understand why she didn't just tell people how she felt at times (especially when they deserved to hear it), I found her really appealing. I love the way Rowell interspersed the book with snippets from the Simon Snow series and some of Cath's fan fiction, so you can see how she was inspired by what was happening around her. All of the characters were much more interesting and complex than they initially appeared; ironically, Wren was the one character who wasn't as interesting, at least initially. But I found myself utterly hooked from the first pages, and read this book very quickly as much as I didn't want it to end.

Fangirl is the second book of Rainbow Rowell's I've read this year, after the exceptional Eleanor & Park. She is a fantastic, empathetic, and talented writer, and I can't wait to see what's next for her. (I need to read Attachments as well.) Pick up any of her books and you'll find yourself a Rainbow Rowell fan, just like me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: "Light of the World" by James Lee Burke

At one point during Light of the World, James Lee Burke's 20th novel featuring Louisiana sheriff's detective Dave Robicheaux, one of the characters says to Dave, "Do you people carry a fight with you every place you go?"

That seems an appropriate question for this book, which finds Dave, his wife, Molly, his adopted daughter, Alafair, and his best friend and partner-in-crime, private investigator and human wrecking ball Clete Purcell, vacationing in Montana at the home of a friend, a famed novelist and environmentalist. They've not been in Montana long when Alafair, out for a job, early one evening, is nearly shot by an arrow. At first, suspicions point to Wyatt Dixon, an emotionally disturbed rodeo cowboy, but then it appears that a far more dangerous nemesis is after Alafair—convicted serial killer and sadist Asa Surette, who became obsessed with her after she did a series of interviews with him for a book she was planning to write. The thing is, Surette was allegedly killed—in Kansas—when the van transporting him to another prison was involved in a massive car crash.

But having a deviously intelligent, dangerous, and megalomaniacal serial killer coming after his daughter isn't all Dave has to confront. When Clete's daughter, the deeply troubled former mob assassin-turned-documentary filmmaker (yeah, you read that right) Gretchen Horowitz, comes to Montana, it isn't long before she runs afoul of a corrupt police detective, who abuses her physically and mentally, among others who aren't happy that the subject of her next documentary is shale oil extraction. And when Clete gets involved with the wife of the heir to a wealthy oil magnate, it's just the icing on the cake.

Dave's need to try and do the right thing continuously clashes with his need to protect his family and his belief that people who do wrong should pay. He's never quite comfortable when dealing with corruption, either among those sworn to uphold the law or those who feel they're above it. As one character tells Dave, "But I think you have an agenda. You resent others for their wealth. Everywhere you look, you see plots and conspiracies at work, corporations destroying the planet, robbing the poor, that sort of thing, and you never realize these things you think you see are a reflection of your own failure."

I've been reading James Lee Burke's books since the late 1980s, and he is among my most favorite authors. I particularly love the poetry of his language, whether he's depicting the after-effects of violence (an all too common factor in his books), drawing out a fight, or especially, describing a setting. His words truly paint pictures in your mind. I met Burke at a reading a number of years ago, and I can't help but think that there's a piece of him in every character he writes.

That being said, I didn't enjoy Light of the World as much as I have many of Burke's previous books. For one, I felt as if every character had an enormous chip on their shoulder, and it grated on me after a while. And I just don't understand how so much evil can follow Dave and Clete wherever they go—it's not just one particular villain they run afoul of, but many. It got hard to keep track of which person was visiting which wrong on which character. I also felt like much of this book was a retread on familiar territory—Dave and Alafair fight over his protective nature and her refusal to listen to him, and Clete follows his libido into trouble despite better judgment. I think Gretchen is one of the most complex characters Burke has created and I'd love to see more of her in a future book, even separate from Dave, Clete, and the rest of the gang.

The other question I had is how old Dave and Clete are supposed to be at this point. One of the hallmarks of Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels is the way both Dave and Clete are haunted by their time fighting in Vietnam. But if the Vietnam War happened 40-50 years ago, I guess that these characters are now near 60 at their youngest and 70 at their oldest? If that's the case, I have trouble believing they're still capable of the lives they appear to be living. But I guess that's the beauty of fiction.

James Lee Burke usually writes one book a year, and I look forward to it with great anticipation. Despite not enjoying this book as much as some of his others, I am still tremendously enamored of the way he writes, and can't wait until his next book comes out, hopefully next summer. If you've never read him before, definitely pick up a Dave Robicheaux novel and hopefully you'll be captivated as much as I have been all these years.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review: "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish" by David Rakoff

When I heard David Rakoff's book was written entirely in verse,
I thought to myself, "Could there be anything worse?

"Trying to ascertain plot from each rhyming couplet,
Would it be good enough to be worth all that trouble?" It

Seemed an idea that was rather pretentious,
And struggling with verse can be rather contentious.

But the critics they raved, hailing the book's success,
Saying this was Rakoff at his very best.

The glory of this triumph was somewhat diminished,
By the fact that Rakoff died shortly after it was finished.

But now that I've read it, and allayed my fears,
I can say it amused me and moved me to tears.

The writing insightful, the characters complex,
And it amazed me how well their stories intersect.

It was a quick read, 'though I savored each word,
I can't believe I ever thought this idea was absurd.

I loved the way these characters' lives unfolded in stages,
A novel's worth of plot and emotion in just a few pages.

So if, like me, you're skeptical about this book,
I can assure you it's definitely worth more than a look.

It's a book you'll want to recommend to your crowd,
And it's infinitely more fun if you read it aloud (even to yourself).

Don't worry if poetry's not your idea of fun,
You'll feel tremendously fulfilled when you're all done.

I really loved this, and I'm completely sincere,
When I say it's one of the best I read this year.

So thank you for enduring my attempts at a tribute,
Clearly rhyming is not my strongest suit.

Ahem. I couldn't resist.

This is a phenomenally written, emotionally compelling book, one of the most unique I've ever read, and I loved every minute of it. David Rakoff has created a masterpiece of interconnected stories-in-verse about characters in some sort of emotional flux. Some of the connections come as an utter surprise, but the emotions they generate are truly genuine. As the title suggests, Rakoff's characters are involved with all of those verbs in some way, and I only wish he had lived, because I'd love to read more about them.

Believe me, I was truly skeptical of this concept, but I am so glad I gave it a shot. And you should, too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

One of the songs you can't escape on pop radio these days is Katy Perry's Roar. It's certainly catchy, and it became Perry's eighth non-consecutive #1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It also peaked at #1 on various charts, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, and reached the top five on most international charts, including France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.

Oscar Isaac is a singer and actor, who performed one of my favorite songs of 2012, Never Had, in one of my favorite movies of last year, 10 Years. He's about to become a huge star, as he's the lead in the Coen Brothers' newest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is about a folk singer struggling to make it in the world.

The other night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Oscar proved he could turn almost anything into a folk song, with a (sadly) very quick version of Roar. (Which boasted some impressive harmonies from Fallon himself.) I really hope Oscar hits it big, as he's exceptionally talented (and not bad to look at either).

Here's his performance:

And here's Katy Perry's original:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

Go Your Own Way by Lissie

Winner Takes it All by McFly

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

Redemption Song by Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Love Me Tender by Chris Isaak and Brandi Carlile

All You Need is Love by The Flaming Lips

Lovesong by Adele

I Love It by Robin Thicke

Billie Jean by The Civil Wars

Across the Universe by The Scorpions

Can't Hold Us by Pentatonix

Wicked Game by James Vincent McMorrow

Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) by The Postal Service

Jolene by The White Stripes

Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) by Justin Timberlake

More Than This by Norah Jones

Royals by Mayer Hawthorne

I Can't Go for That (No Can Do) by The Bird and The Bee

Ain't No Sunshine by Silent Rider

Crazy by Ray Lamontagne

Stairway to Heaven by Heart

Nothing Compares 2 U by Capital Cities

Book Review: "The Night of the Comet" by George Bishop

It's 1973 in the small town of Terrebonne, Louisiana. Alan Broussard, Jr. (aka "Junior") has just turned 14, and his mind is on many of the same things other 14-year-olds think about—trying to fit in at school, trying not to let his parents embarrass him, and, more importantly, girls—especially his new neighbor, the beautiful Gabriella Martello.

When Junior's father, an awkward high school science teacher and frustrated scientist, buys Junior a top-of-the-line telescope for his birthday, he does so in the hopes that he and Junior can watch the impending progress of Comet Kohoutek, which he promises will be the astronomical event of the century. Of course, Junior would rather use his telescope to watch Gabriella and her family, who live across the bayou in a much nicer housing development than the Broussards.

Much to the surprise of Junior, their father's enthusiasm about Comet Kohoutek's impending arrival starts to rub off on the people in Terrebonne, and excitement begins to build, even among those who have never had any interest in science. But the anticipation around the comet also highlights the problems in Junior's world—his mother's desire for a better and more exciting life than she has, one where money and love aren't as hard to come by; his father's frustration with the course his life has taken; even his sister's need to leave their small town. And all Junior wants is for Gabriella to feel the same way about him that he does about her.

"All of my father's talk about the 'objective observation' and 'trusting the evidence of your senses' was of little use when it came to trying to understand other people. People, I was beginning to believe, didn't so easily conform to the rules of science. With people, it was all just guesswork."

As tensions in the Broussard family grow at the same time excitement about the comet ramps up in town, Junior tries to make sense of his parents' relationship and the truth about love. But the problems of life, like scientific phenomena, can't always easily be pinned down, no matter how hard we hope they will.

The Night of the Comet is a well-researched book that tells an interesting if familiar story of the travails of growing up and not understanding your parents' relationship, but needing its stability. It's a story of the drama of first love, particularly unrequited, and how children and adults alike pin their hopes on things that don't always come true the way they want. It's also the story of relationships—between husband and wife, parent and child, those who seem to have it all and those who want it all.

I liked many elements of this book but found it got a little bogged down with the "coming of age" drama in Junior's life. The story about the excitement generated by the comet, and the way it brings to light problems in the Broussard family, resonated more for me. But it's still a good story that doesn't quite end the way you think it will.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Out of the Furnace"

So let's get this out of the way first: if you're looking for an upbeat movie, go see something else. While I cannot in any way guarantee whether you'll like this movie, I can say with almost complete certainty that you won't necessarily feel good when it's done, although you probably will be marveling at the performances.

The film takes place in industrial Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town. The economy has hit the town hard, leaving its citizens to do whatever they can to make ends meet. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works long hours at the mill, partially to pay off the debts his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier between tours in Iraq, keeps incurring. When Russell isn't working, he's worrying about their dying father and spending time with his girlfriend Lena (a luminous yet underused Zoe Saldana).

One night, in a split second, a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison. By the time he is released, so much has changed—his father has died, his relationship with Lena has ended and she is dating the town police chief, Wesley (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has gotten involved with throwing fights in an effort to pay off his debt to seedy bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Thinking he has no other way out, Rodney convinces John to set him up for some fights run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, at his most unhinged), a dangerously violent and psychotic drug dealer who runs a nefarious crime ring in New Jersey.

As Russell tries to pull his life back together after prison, he is desperate to get Rodney on the straight and narrow. But Rodney has his own desperation to deal with and his own demons to face. When he disappears after a fight, Russell fears the worst, and goes against everyone's warnings—Wesley's, Lena's, and his uncle's—and heads to the New Jersey wilderness to track DeGroat down and find out what happened to his brother.

Christian Bale's acting talent no longer surprises me, but it continues to dazzle. At times intense, at times quietly emotional, his performance is complex and tremendously compelling. There are a few scenes in particular I found myself watching with my mouth open, because I couldn't believe how good he was. Casey Affleck, whose role is smaller than Bale's, also has some tremendously powerful moments. I hope he's gotten his personal life together and continues acting, because he's just so good.

While Harrelson plays a fairly stereotypical psychopath, you still can't take your eyes off of him. While his character was on one of his violent jags, I thought that I never would have expected this type of menace from sweet Woody from Cheers. But he does menace well. Sam ShepSaldana has a few good scenes but is mostly underutilized, as is Whitaker, whose character is probably the most formulaic of them all.

I thought this was a really good movie, although it certainly was a downer. My main criticism, however, was that I had no sense of how long a period of time the movie spanned. When the movie begins, it's 2008, and Rodney is set to go on another tour of Iraq with his unit. But by the time Russell gets out of prison (you never know how long he's been sentenced for, given what the crime appears to be), Rodney is back, Lena is in a relationship with Wesley, and their father is dead and buried, but you don't know if all of this happened in a matter of months, years, or what, and I found that irritating.

How far would you go for someone you love? Would you risk it all to even the score, no matter what? Out of the Furnace strives to answer those questions, and while it does so perhaps unsurprisingly, it's still a tremendously watchable, well-acted, and intense experience.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: "Understudies" by Ravi Mangla

What a funny, insightful, and touching little book! (And I mean "little" not in a derogatory sense—Understudies is billed as a "short novel," and it's just a little more than 120 or so pages.)

Our somewhat jaded (and unnamed) narrator is a high school teacher. Or, in his words, "It could be said I worked as a purveyor of worldly knowledge, a molder of young minds...It could also be said I supervised the next generation of disappointers in the intervening hours between bus rides." His life—and the lives of those around him—are changed when a Golden Globe-winning actress moves into his town.

His bizarre best friend Chudley becomes obsessed with the actress, and the narrator begins to worry that this obsession may cause Chudley to do something inappropriate. But what he doesn't realize is he is becoming increasingly focused on the actress' presence as well. But he's unable to ascertain whether he's actually interested in her, or if he's just using her as a distraction from his unsettled personal life, as his live-in girlfriend, Missy, is pressuring him for more permanence in their relationship.

As he tries to make sense of his life, and of his mother's new role as an advice columnist on the web (despite her own phobias), he finds himself hanging out with a group of high school students, including one of his own students, and they form a band, which reawakens his zeal to perform. And strangely, these high school students—even when stoned—are more insightful than he is about life.

Understudies is a humorous and moving story told in vignettes about a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis before he hits mid-life. But in addition, it's a commentary about our fame- and celebrity-obsessed culture, and how we find ourselves following the latest trends and searching for solutions to our problems anywhere we can find it. It's also a story about the need to feel loved and needed, to feel secure.

Ravi Mangla is a terrific writer. He has a great sense of humor, which was definitely reflected in so much of this book. Many sentences made me chuckle. And even as you shook your head at the ludicrousness of some of the situations and characters (including a student named Cuisinart), you realize that underneath all of the satire, it's a story that seems familiar and realistic. I look forward to seeing what's in store for Mangla's literary career.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: "Going Home Again" by Dennis Bock

As the owner of several language academies across the globe, Charlie Bellerose is a successful businessman, and he has the opportunity to travel all over the world. His personal life, however, isn't as successful at the current point. His recent separation from his wife motivated him to leave Madrid, where he has lived for nearly 20 years, and return to his native Toronto, where he plans to set up another school. This leaves him far away from his 12-year-old daughter, Ava, who is highly intelligent and resentful of Charlie's absence, which can't be ameliorated by a few visits back and forth and periodic conversations via Skype.

If there's a silver lining to his return to Toronto, it's that he's able to forge a new relationship with his older brother, Nate, to whom Charlie had always felt inferior, and his young nephews, Titus and Quinn. Nate is going through a vicious divorce, and is having trouble adjusting to the fact that his soon-to-be ex-wife has begun living with another man, a man with whom his sons feel comfortable.

At a book festival one weekend, Charlie runs into his first love, Holly, with whom he had a relationship during college. Holly is married and has children of her own, but Charlie can't help but think that she might be interested in starting over again with him. Seeing Holly makes Charlie long for his college days and the intensity of their tumultuous relationship, but it also reopens old wounds, as the two experienced a painful tragedy that affected them in different ways.

As he struggles with the feelings—good and bad—that Holly reignites, Charlie also must deal with his desire to be a good father to Ava. Can he be a presence in her life if he isn't living in Madrid? Can he live in Madrid if his wife is dating someone new? At the same time, Charlie must confront his brother's increasing anger toward his soon-to-be ex-wife, and the way his nephews are handling Nate's erratic behavior. It sparks memories of Charlie and Nate's relationship when they were younger, which is unsettling.

Can you ever really have all that you want, or must you make sacrifices in order to have the things that are most important to you? Can you stop someone you care about from destroying their life and those around them, or do you need to step back and allow them to make their own mistakes?

Dennis Bock does a great job delineating the challenges that come from love, family ties, parental obligations, and powerful memories of friendship in Going Home Again. While nothing truly earth-shattering or surprising happens in the book, it's a well-written and emotionally rich story, and I found myself completely engrossed in the plot very quickly.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

All the 2013 movies you might not have seen (or might never see)...

I see a lot of movies, more so than most of my friends. But even I haven't seen many of the movies included in this amazing 2013 trailer mashup from The Sleepy Skunk. (Some haven't come out yet, so I'm not as out-of-date as I could be...)

Check it out, and for a list of all of the movies included in this trailer, visit here.

This is why I love the movies.

Happy National Cookie Day!!

I don't know whose brainchild the various daily celebrations of particular food or food groups are, but even though I rarely eat them anymore, I wholeheartedly support National Cookie Day. (Because, after all, "C" is for cookie, and that's good enough for me.)

Pondering the subject of cookies (I walked by a bakery on the way back from an errand), I started thinking about my favorite cookies through the years. While undoubtedly, I'm a fan of homemade cookies of all sorts, there are quite a few packaged cookies that have caught my fancy since childhood.

These include:

Fudge Stripes: I've always loved the perfect ratio of cookie to chocolate. And because they're not too sweet, they're easy to over-indulge on.

Nutter Butters: Peanut butter is my kryptonite. A sandwich cookie with peanut butter? Sign me up. (This is why my favorite Girl Scout cookies are Do-Si-Dos.)

Oreos: Sure the Double Stuff and the various chocolate-covered variations are yummy. (I recently heard about a peanut butter version but quickly sanitized my memory.) But give me plain old Oreos any day. And does anyone remember the imitation Oreos, Hydrox? (I remember kids being made fun of in elementary school if their chocolate sandwich cookies said Hydrox instead of Oreo. I grew up on the mean streets, y'all.)

Chips Ahoy: If you can't have homemade chocolate chip cookies—or even the slice and bake ones—Chips Ahoy are the next best thing. And again, I'm a bit of a cookie purist. You can keep your chewy versions and the ones with M&Ms or Reese's cup pieces. Give me my crunchy Chips Ahoy.

Basically any Pepperidge Farm cookie: The trademark white bags start me salivating. Whether it's the Milano, the Chessmen, or any of their special collection cookies, those devils at Pepperidge Farm know how to do cookies. Other than anything with jelly in it, I wouldn't turn one away. And Pepperidge Farm remembers...

And you? What were/are your favorite cookies? I could use a glass of milk, some cookies, and a nap about now...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: "Far Far Away" by Tom McNeal

"It don't matter how young you are or how old you get or how brittle your bones are or how leaky your gray cells, you are still going to flat like a happy ending."

If you're a believer in happy endings, in fairy tales, enchanted spells, ghosts that have a purpose, and evil forests, than Tom McNeal's wonderfully magical Far Far Away is a book for you. But if you can't get your head around any of these concepts, this is probably not a book you'll enjoy.

In a land called (of all things) Never Better, Jeremy Johnson Johnson (that's his real name; it's not a typo) is a smart, sensitive boy who keeps to himself. You see, Jeremy hears voices—or, more accurately, one voice—the voice of Jacob Grimm, one half of the famed fairy tale-writing Brothers Grimm. For reasons neither of them can quite understand, Jacob is tasked with protecting Jeremy from the evils that lurk in this world.

But neither Jacob nor Jeremy consider beautiful, mischievous, and athletic Ginger Boultinghouse a threat, not even after she takes a bite of a cake so delicious it's supposedly enchanted with a spell, that causes you to fall in love with the first person on whom you cast your eyes after taking a bite. Naturally, Ginger sees Jeremy first, and finds herself inexplicably enchanted, even though she doesn't believe in such magic. And while Jacob isn't happy that Ginger's attentions are keeping Jeremy from his studies, or that she is somehow convincing him to sneak around late at night and play pranks on residents of their town, Jeremy enjoys the attention—until it brings him more trouble than he bargained for.

And that's just the start of Jeremy's problems. Because in addition to his fellow townspeople suddenly shunning him, there's a small problem of his father owing so much money on their small house that they're about to lose it to the bank. Plus his father hasn't left the house in years. Despite constant attention from a sheriff's deputy determined to find Jeremy and Ginger causing trouble, the kindly baker, Sten Blix, befriends the duo when no one else will.

Jacob is a helpful and trusted companion to Jeremy (although not always a welcome one). Yet as devoted as he is to protecting his charge, Jacob is helpless as an unexpected evil in the form of the dreaded Finder of Occasions takes control of Jeremy and Ginger. It is the toughest challenge the duo—and the ghost—have ever faced. Will the duo be able to outsmart their nemesis? Can a ghost who can only be heard by Jeremy actually help save him?

Far Far Away is a creative, magical, wonderful book. It's a little bit of an anachronism, in that it feels as if it is set in a place far away and a time long ago, yet there are cars and answering machines and credit cards, and Ginger in particular acts more like a modern teenager than anything else. It was a little hard to get into at first, but once I did, I quickly devoured the rest of the story. I found Ginger's manner of speaking a little grating at times, but I really loved everything else about this book.

Predictable? Sure. But that's the beauty of fairy tales: you know where the story will probably end up, but the journey is tremendously worthwhile. And the journey to Far Far Away is definitely worthwhile.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Another example of how our future is in good hands...

This is Duncan McAlpine Sennett. Last month Duncan celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Portland's Congregation Beth Israel.

During his Bar Mitzvah speech, he explained the Torah portion he was reading from, and used it to draw a parallel to an issue he feels pretty strongly about—nationwide marriage equality.

Duncan said:
"In my Torah portion, Jacob works for seven years to earn the right to marry Laban's daughter, his love Rachel. Before marrying Rachel, Jacob is first tricked into marrying her older sister Leah. I find my parsha [Torah portion] interesting because it is a window into what was life was like back in the days of the Torah.

"Back then, this seemed to have a perfect definition of what traditional marriage meant for their time, when as time passes we have a completely different definition today. So the question is: how has the definition of traditional marriage changed since the days of the Torah? Just looking at my Torah portion as a proof text, I think it has changed a lot.

"Leah and Rachel had absolutely no say in marrying Jacob — it was like a business deal between Jacob and Laban. Today in the United States, marriage is very different. No longer do the fathers arrange marriages and women can marry whomever they want.

"While studying my Torah portion and comparing and contrasting marriage — past and present — I found it would be irresponsible to exclude the topic of gay marriage. I am a very very strong supporter of equal rights and the freedom of men and women to marry whomever they love.

"People who disagree with me like to quote the Bible and say that traditional marriage should only be between one man and one woman. But after seeing my Torah portion that I've just read, the definition of traditional marriage is nothing like what people think it is today. Jacob married two sisters who were his first cousins."
Duncan mentioned close family friends who are same-sex couples, who taught him about the importance of marriage equality. He then ended his speech by saying:
"My Torah portion taught me that the definition of traditional marriage has changed a lot since the days of Torah. So why can't it change just a little bit more so everybody can marry who they love? And now that I'm a Bar Mitzvah, I will not only continue to support but encourage other people to support equal marriage rights. Shabbat shalom."
Here's Duncan's speech:

I'm so blown away by Duncan's maturity and empathy, and his decision to make his Bar Mitzvah more than just a celebration of religious maturity. Clearly, living in a community like Portland and having the opportunity to get to know same-sex couples has helped broaden his understanding and acceptance, but this is still an impressive action, as he paralleled what he learned for his Bar Mitzvah with his awareness of the world around him. (I think my Bar Mitzvah speech rhymed, but that about sums it up, although it was 30 years ago.)

It's so easy to get cynical and pessimistic with so many people in power trying to hold back the tides of equality and choosing to discriminate, but when you see an example like Duncan's, it helps make you feel a little more hopeful about the next generation.