Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: "The Returned" by Jason Mott

Most, if not all of us, have had this thought one time or another. What if a person we had lost suddenly returned to us? In Jason Mott's emotionally provocative and intriguing novel, The Returned, the world is confronting this question.

Suddenly, and without warning, people are returning from the dead, at the same age and condition they were in prior to their death. All over the world these people, referred to as "the Returned," are showing up, most often in vastly different places than where they died, looking for those they knew and loved. No one is quite sure what to make of this—are the Returned a blessing, a chance to relive lives lost, or are they the devil in disguise?

It was the day of Jacob Hargrave's eighth birthday party in 1966 when he slipped away from the party and tragically drowned. His parents, Lucille and Harold, spent the next several decades mourning and remembering their son, and comfortably settling into curmudgeonly old age. When Jacob is returned to them, they are unprepared to raise an eight-year-old boy at their age, but his return reawakens Lucille's maternal instincts, as well as Harold's unease, and his questions—is this Jacob really their son? How can this be when he buried him himself? And will they lose him again?

The vast number of the Returned across the globe has brought the world to the brink of insanity, with those returning simply wanting to pick up their lives where they left off, while Tea Party-like movements representing the "true living" start to fear that the Returned might someday outnumber those who have never died. Harold and Lucille's small North Carolina hometown of Arcadia becomes the center of both movements, as the federal government begins assembling internment-type camps for the Returned, while the resentment of some of their neighbors toward the Returned becomes increasingly dangerous.

Just a few days before what would have been my beloved grandmother's 100th birthday, the thought of how wonderful it would be to spend more time with those I've lost is fairly fresh in my mind. The Returned explores many of the emotional responses people might have to such an occurrence—what do you do if the love if your life returned but you moved on after their death? After facing the hurt of loss, are you willing to reopen your heart again to the uncertain possibility of more hurt and loss? Can you blindly love these people even if you're not sure if they're really those you've lost?

I loved the premise of this book and the emotions Mott explored. While, obviously, the main idea of the book is farfetched, he was fairly accurate in dealing with how people would react to such a phenomenon. I only wish the book hadn't spent so much time on brief vignettes of others who had returned at the expense of the Hargraves' story. And while inevitable, I wasn't as interested in all that the government did to deal with these people, or the inevitable confrontation with the irate citizens, although it did bring out some beautiful and emotionally poignant surprises.

This is a tremendously thought provoking book, and Jason Mott is a very talented writer who has created a book worthy of being discussed and debated. I wish it had gripped me more on the whole given the beauty of its central premise, but I still enjoyed reading it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

Chris Isaak has one of the most distinctive voices around. His lower register is so rich and his higher register is so lush, and honestly, I don't understand why he's not a bigger star than he is. (Of course, he's done things his own way instead of pursuing more commercially viable options, so I'd imagine that's part of the issue.)

Arguably Isaak's best known song is Wicked Game, which was released as a single in 1989, but it didn't gain traction until it was featured in David Lynch's 1990 movie Wild At Heart. The song's exposure in the film led to its reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 1991.

While Isaak's version, in my opinion, is the best, I think Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow's version comes the closest to Isaak's. I know some of McMorrow's music, but didn't hear his version of Wicked Game until it was used to accompany a dance on a recent episode of So You Think You Can Dance. Once again, the mood of this song was perfectly evocative, and McMorrow does a good job with the vocal range of the song.

So here's a live performance of McMorrow's version, recorded in 2011 at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Ireland.

P!nk has also been performing a rendition of the song on her latest tour. Here's a performance from San Jose earlier this year:

And here's Isaak's version. (It's a pretty hot video, too.)

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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: "Two Boys Kissing" by David Levithan

David Levithan, you have slayed me once again. Every Day, and, of course, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which you co-wrote with John Green, have taken their place among my favorite books of all time. And while I didn't think it could be possible, I loved Two Boys Kissing more than those. Seriously.

Seventeen-year-old former boyfriends Harry and Craig are planning to set a new Guinness World Record for continuous kissing. To do so, they'll need to kiss continuously for over 32 hours. This will take physical strength, yes, but also significant emotional fortitude and support from many, many people, since the sight of two boys kissing at all—let alone publicly for 32+ hours—will be difficult if not downright unacceptable for some.

While Harry and Craig undertake their record-setting quest, navigate their true feelings for one another, and deal with the myriad number of issues that will arise during this period, two other young couples are dealing with their own issues. Peter and Neil, who have been together for over a year, are struggling with trying to determine what their expectations of each other and their future should be, while Avery and Ryan, who just met, are struggling with issues of gender identity and all of the nerves of a blossoming relationship. Meanwhile, Tariq, a friend of Craig and Harry's, is trying to overcome his fears after being beaten up by a group of thugs, and Cooper is dealing with the aftermath of his parents' discovery of his homosexuality.

All of these storylines may seem somewhat typical, but Levithan develops each with depth and empathy in a short number of pages. And what lifts this book up even further is that it is narrated by a nameless Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS. Part lamentation for what they lost, part reflection on the struggles each of the characters are going through, since they've seen it all, their words are so insightful, so moving, so dead-on in many, many ways, I literally found myself tearing up multiple times as I flew through the book.

"You must understand: We were like Cooper. Or at least had moments when we were like Cooper. Just as we had moments when we were like Neil, Peter, Harry, Craig, Tariq, Avery, Ryan. We had moments when we were like each of you. This is how we understand. We wore your flaws. We wore your fears. We made your mistakes."

I read this entire book in one day, and I was moved and inspired beyond my expectations. Levithan made me laugh, think, and, as I mentioned earlier, cry with his words. I can't even begin to count the number of times he so perfectly captured many of the feelings I had as a teenager struggling with my sexuality, with self-esteem, with bullying, with wondering if my parents and family and friends would ever be able to accept me for who I was. And the book was pitch-perfect in its portrayal of the rush of emotions when you first meet someone you like and realize they feel the same way, the anxiety of wondering whether there will be a second date, the beauty of a first kiss.

I've said before how much I marvel at the state of YA fiction today, especially LGBT-themed fiction. I wish that Two Boys Kissing had existed when I was a teenager, because it would have been a tremendous help and comfort to me. I wish there was some way this book could be required reading for those struggling with their sexuality and with self-acceptance, as I believe it really could make a difference. Levithan doesn't create an unrealistic world where there are no problems and no struggles, but he shows how wonderful life has the potential to be, even when you don't think it can.

This is honestly one of the best books I've read in some time. Thank you, David Levithan, for this experience. I feel changed for the better.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

And the Oscar goes to...

Just saw the trailer for Matthew McConaughey's new movie, Dallas Buyers Club, based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a Texas cowboy diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, who realized that while there were drugs to help those living with AIDS, they weren't approved by the government or readily available. So he took matters into his own hands, tracking down alternative treatments from all over the world by means both legal and illegal. Woodroof joined forces with an unlikely band of renegades and outcasts—who he once would have shunned—and established a hugely successful "buyers' club."

The movie, which also stars Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto (took me a while to realize it was him), opens in early December, and given that many (including me) thought McConaughey might get nominated for an Oscar last year, this may be the performance that finally gets him to the big dance. Looks pretty great, and I can almost guarantee I'll cry. (But that's nothing surprising.)

See for yourself:

Book Review: "The Virgins: A Novel" by Pamela Erens

Do you remember what it was like when you thought you could tell everything about a person simply by looking at them? (Maybe you still think this.) More specifically, do you remember in high school thinking that the so-called "popular" crowd must have had it made, that the couples you saw together all the time might be together forever, that the "smart kids" had it easier than anyone else?

Pamela Erens' new novel The Virgins seeks to capture that time, those feelings. It's 1979 at Auburn Academy, a prestigious New England prep school. Seung Jung, an affably popular Korean athlete, proctor, and dabbler in recreational drugs, begins a relationship with new student Aviva Rossner, a mid-western Jewish girl both desperate to be noticed and not to be noticed, who is trying to escape an unhappy childhood. While Seung is laid-back while Aviva is intense, the two find refuge in each other and their relationship, and are caught up in the youthful exuberance of young love and sexual exploration.

"Even the teachers talked about them. Seung Jung and Aviva Rossner were bewitched."

The couple isn't ashamed of demonstrating their affection for one another wherever they are, much to the chagrin of teachers and school administrators, and both the resentment and titillation of their fellow students. Bruce Bennett-Jones, a student quick to point out he descends from one of the "better" families in New Jersey (from the same town as Seung, but from the "right side of the tracks"), narrates the novel, both from remembered observations as an outsider looking in at Aviva and Seung's relationship, and details he imagined as someone resentful of the relationship, since he was attracted to Aviva himself.

As we often learn, however, what we see and what we believe to be true isn't always the reality, and that is the case for Seung and Aviva's relationship, which struggles far short of the unbridled sexual congress their peers imagine they partake in constantly. Laden down by physical and emotional pressures, by the expectations of Seung's parents and the dissolving marriage and disregard of Aviva's, the couple realizes that they, too, don't really understand each other, which ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

The Virgins all too accurately captures the feelings of adolescent relationships and the way they affect others. And while Bruce Bennett-Jones is an unsympathetic narrator, the way Pamela Erens describes his conflicted emotions and actions is spot-on as well. I found it interesting that the book was set in 1979, because apart from random mentions of historical events (and the absence of cell phones, emails, and text messages), I didn't necessarily feel that the time period had much of a bearing on what transpired in the book—so much of the feelings and issues it portrayed are the same today.

Erens is an excellent writer and she really hooked me on the plot pretty quickly. My only regret was that while I wanted to know what happened to the main characters, other than Seung, I didn't like them much. (It's a testament to Erens' storytelling ability that some of the supporting characters were far more interesting and dynamic than Aviva and Bruce, and in fact, I would love to know what happened to them.) Aviva's emotional coldness and vacillations made her less appealing, and Bruce's actions and simultaneous bravado and self-loathing made him very hard to care about. But again, it shows the strength of Erens' story that I wanted to keep reading despite disliking the characters.

The Virgins is a tremendously intriguing social commentary and a true reflection of a time in our lives we remember all too well, no matter how far away from it we come.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: "Night Film" by Marisha Pessl

In 2006, Marisha Pessl's fantastic debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was released, and it hooked me completely. For years I eagerly anticipated her follow-up novel, and finally, seven years later, Night Film was released, to great fanfare in the literary world.

Was it worth the wait? Hell, yes. I finished the book last night and I still cannot get it out of my mind.

Stanislas Cordova is a famous avant-garde movie director. Known for exposing the horror that lies beneath everyday situations, for manipulating emotions and inflicting psychological terror on his audiences, his films are beloved, reviled, and studied by film scholars worldwide. When the plot of one of Cordova's films is mirrored by an actual murderer, the public tide starts to turn against him, so his films become underground events, "night films," only shown in secret locations known to rabid fans.

Cordova's genius is celebrated yet the director, a notorious control freak and recluse, holes himself up in a heavily protected compound in upstate New York, where all of his films are made. Those actors and technicians that have worked with him refuse to talk about their experiences, or have disappeared for new lives in places unknown. There are rumors of the occult, of unspeakable acts being committed against children on Cordova's compound. Is he a twisted mastermind or a malevolent villain?

Celebrated investigative journalist Scott McGrath once tangled with Cordova, calling him out on a late night talk show. It destroyed McGrath's career, left him with much less money, and ended his marriage and many professional relationships. So when Cordova's daughter, Ashley, a gifted musician who apparently had more than her own share of demons, is found dead after an alleged suicide attempt, the logical thing for McGrath to do is to let it go, right?

But McGrath believes there is a story behind Ashley's death, and her troubled life, and he is determined to uncover it, in the hopes that the trail may lead him back to Cordova himself. Along with Hopper and Nora, two young people with their own connections to Ashley, McGrath begins digging deeper and deeper into what happened to Ashley. What they discover is that there are no easy answers to these questions, and everything they find out moves them closer to and further away from the truth, while placing their lives in danger. And the quest for answers takes McGrath into the horrors of his own mind.

This is an ambitious book, more than 600 pages in length, with fake newspaper and magazine articles, webpages, and photos sprinkled throughout to bolster the story. It is truly a thrill ride that leaves you breathless; I found myself wanting to see some of Cordova's movies after hearing them and his craft described so reverently. And while the book spent more time delving into the paranormal than I would have liked, the way that thread was tied up made the time worthwhile. You find yourself wondering just exactly what happened to those who worked with Cordova, or whether McGrath was telling the story the way he heard it, manipulating the facts to fit his own purposes.

Pessl did a fantastic job unraveling the plot piece by piece, and while I found myself needing to reread the last 50 or so pages to be sure I understood how things concluded, I felt tremendously satisfied although slightly out of breath, as if I had raced to the story's end. This isn't a book for everyone but it is so well-written, so well-told, that I hope it finds an audience willing to be teased, willing to think, and willing to get utterly hooked. Wow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Lee Daniels' The Butler, the latest movie from the Oscar-nominated director of Precious and The Paperboy, is a thoughtful meditation on the history of race relations in the United States, told through the eyes of a longtime White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). We first meet Cecil as a young boy in 1920s Georgia, where he and his family work in the cotton fields of the Westfall family. Cecil is taught by the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave, in the small dowager-type roles she occupies so well) to be the perfect servant, so that "the room should feel empty when you're in it."

Cecil winds up working in an exclusive Washington, D.C. hotel, so perfectly embodying the subservient role of meeting guests' whims without their taking notice that he catches the eye of a White House aide, who hires him as a butler. His experience follows the pattern you'd expect, first awestruck then perfectly fitting in, and his service spans from the Eisenhowers through the Reagans.

But while Cecil is perfectly placid at work, his home life is far more tempestuous. Devoted to his work in order to give his family a much better life than he could ever imagine, his wife Gloria (a strong if underused Oprah Winfrey) resents his hours away from home and his refusal to share any secrets of the families he serves. His oldest son, Lewis (a terrific David Oyelowo), wants his father to take a stand against the growing racial disharmony in the country instead of being willing to blend into the background and take orders from white people. Lewis, much to Cecil's chagrin, becomes an outspoken advocate for civil rights, joining the Freedom Riders movement and many other protests in the south.

The film depicts our country's shameful racist behaviors with an unflinching eye, and it is sobering to see. (Even more sobering, of course, to realize that these instances, whether racially or homophobically motivated, still happen in our country in 2013.) But while the film's Forrest Gump-ian journey through civil rights history hits all of the highlights (the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins, Martin Luther King's assassination, etc.), it gives these incidents only cursory glances in an attempt to juxtapose Cecil's work with the battles going on in the world around him and his refusal to get involved.

While the oh-look-who-it-is parade of celebrities playing the occupants of the White House (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan) is interesting, none of their performances are particularly memorable or authentic. Only Cusack's Nixon comes reasonably close. And I wish that Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. had more to do with their roles as Cecil's fellow butlers. (The less said about Terrence Howard's throwaway role as the Gaines' lecherous next door neighbor, the better.)

At its heart, Lee Daniels' The Butler is as much about relationships than anything else, and that is where the actors truly shine. When given more to do than glower, smoke, and complain, Winfrey's performance hints at some of the bravado of Sofia in The Color Purple with a little more emotional vulnerability, but I felt she wasn't used to her fullest potential. Oyelowo hits all the right notes as the son determined to make the world a better place for his people, even if that means sacrificing his family, and I felt an undercurrent of barely simmering conflicting emotions throughout his performance which truly worked.

But the movie, as you'd imagine from the title, belongs to Whitaker. His is a performance of quiet strength and emotion. But he so perfectly embodies the golden rule of servitude, of being seen and not heard, that the movie seems to be more about his observances of situations than participating in them. I still wouldn't be surprised to see him and Winfrey (and hopefully Oyelowo) among the list of Oscar nominees later this year.

The irony wasn't at all lost on me that I was watching this movie on the weekend during which the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was being observed. Undoubtedly, our country has come a long, long way in 50 years, although there is still progress to be made. Lee Daniels' The Butler, although a little heavy-handed in its messaging from time to time, is a good reflection on this history, with some nuanced performances worth watching.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

It seems like you can't turn on the radio without hearing a song by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which is a great thing, in my opinion. Not only are all of their songs tremendously catchy (try getting Thrift Shop out of your head, for example), but I'm awed by their social consciousness—in addition to their terrific song Same Love (which I wrote about earlier this year), they really walk the walk when it comes to promoting equality.

I'm also a big fan of the a capella group Pentatonix since I first heard them on the NBC show The Sing-Off. They're immensely talented and creative, and you can see so many of their songs on YouTube. I thought their cover of Macklemore's Can't Hold Us was fun, even if it isn't completely faithful to the original. (They take some liberties with the lyrics to fit them, as well as to make them a little more work-friendly.)

Check out their take:

Then, jam out to the original version from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis:

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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: "The Universe Versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence

When he was 10 years old, Alex Woods was struck by a meteorite, which crashed through the ceiling of his house. It left him in a coma for two weeks, with a permanent scar, and with epilepsy. All of these things, plus his straightforward, bookish nature, his lack of desire for fighting, and the fact that his mother makes her living as a tarot card reader, mark Alex as a target for bullies at school, and leave him without friends, so he finds friends in books and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Alex meets curmudgeonly Isaac Peterson, a disabled Vietnam veteran, somewhat by chance—Alex is hiding in Mr. Peterson's garden shed—but this encounter changes them both in many different ways. But how did 17-year-old Alex wind up detained at customs at the English border, with a significant amount of marijuana in the glove compartment, an urn of ashes on the passenger seat, and be the target of media and police attention in several countries?

"My mother would say that everything happens for a reason, but I don't agree with that—not in the sense she'd mean it, anyway. Most of what happens is pure chance. Nevertheless, I have to admit that there are certain moments that, in retrospect, seem to shape the course of our lives to a remarkable degree."

Gavin Extence's The Universe Versus Alex Woods is an amusing, immensely charming, and, dare I say it, heartwarming book, about not being afraid to embrace who you are, and learning to trust those around you. Alex Woods is a remarkable character—inquisitive, sensitive, intelligent, and at times infuriating, and as the book unfolds, I found myself getting more and more invested in what happened to him, and couldn't wait to find out exactly what brought him to his interaction with customs officials. While the plot might not necessarily be surprising, Alex's growth and journey both of self-discovery and discovery of the world around him, made this book tremendously compelling.

I really enjoyed this book, and although I'd guess that for Gavin Extence, this was the story about Alex Woods worth telling, I'd love to know more about his life after the book ended. So if you're listening, how about a sequel or follow-up of some sort?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

People are cretins...

Don't know if you saw this story in the news earlier in the week, but I've been to busy to post this before.

Apparently the grandmother of Max, a 13-year-old boy with autism, received an anonymous letter at her home in Newcastle, Ontario, Canada. The letter, signed by "One pissed off mother," refers to Max as a neighborhood "nuisance," "retarded," and a "dreadful" noise polluter.

But worse than that, the letter says, "Personally, they should take whatever non retarded [sic] body parts he possesses and donate it to science. What the hell else good is he to anyone!!! Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!! Either way we are ALL better off!!!"

See for yourself:

There are no words for someone like this. If the author of this letter is actually a parent, I fear for this person's children. Canadian police are investigating.

Sometimes people just baffle me.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Book Review: "Countdown City" by Ben H. Winters

An asteroid is supposed to collide with Earth in 77 days, resulting in mass casualties all over the world. Already many parts of the United States have lost electricity, food stores have closed and been replaced by black market and rummage sales, the water supply is running low, and people are barricaded in their homes with weapons at the ready, waiting for the inevitable violence that may come before the end of the world.

Hank Palace was a police detective in Concord, New Hampshire until his job was eliminated when the police department was subsumed by the U.S. Department of Justice. But although he is out of a job, he can't turn off his investigative thirst or his desire to help people, so when he is approached by Martha Milano Cavatone, his former babysitter, to find her missing husband, former police officer Brett, Hank eagerly agrees, despite the fact that millions of people are disappearing every day, leaving to pursue items on their "bucket lists" before the asteroid hits.

By all accounts, Brett Cavatone was an upstanding, religiously devout man with a strong sense of right and wrong. Hank cannot figure out where Brett might have gone or why he left. And everyone tells him he should just leave the case alone, especially since tracking down a missing person with no internet, no phone, no electricity is nearly impossible. But once a detective, always a detective, with or without a badge and a gun, and Hank doggedly pieces the clues together.

"There are a million things I might be doing other than putting in overtime to make right one Bucket List abandonment, to heal Martha Milano's broken heart. But this is what I do. It's what makes sense to me, what has long made sense. And surely some large proportion of the world's current danger and decline is not inevitable but rather the result of people scrambling fearfully away from the things that have long made sense."

Hank's investigation leads him to an anarchist colony located where the University of New Hampshire was, and then to a rocky beach where ships carrying "immigrants" from other portions of the world and the country are traveling, seeking relief from the chaos and shortages brought on by the impending doomsday. As he finds himself immersed in more danger and confusion than he anticipated, he is torn between doing what he believes is right and leaving Brett missing, instead preparing himself and his life for the world's end, which is moving ever closer.

What do we owe one another as humans? Is loyalty never-ending or does it have its limits, especially in times of crisis? Should you do everything you can to find someone who doesn't want to be found, or should you leave them to their own devices? Countdown City strives to answer those questions against the backdrop of growing panic and great unrest, and the world's inevitable destruction.

Countdown City is the second book in Ben H. Winters' terrific trilogy featuring Hank Palace. It began with the fantastic The Last Policeman, and Winters (and Hank) are again in fine form. I absolutely loved the first book in this series; I really enjoyed this book a great deal, but found some of the conspiracy theories and anarchist scenarios a little more confusing and complicated than I would have liked. But on the whole, I absolutely love Hank's character and some of the supporting characters, and am in awe of the incredibly creative and complex world that Winters has created.

You don't necessarily need to read The Last Policeman before Countdown City, but I'd recommend it, simply to get the full breadth of Ben H. Winters' talent. I can't wait for the third book in this trilogy, although I know that no matter what happens, I won't want to see the end of Hank Palace.

Movie Review: "The Spectacular Now"

Sutter Keely (Rabbit Hole's Miles Teller) seems to have it all. Confident, good looking, the life of every party, he is always quick with a joke or ready to lend a helping hand. He and his girlfriend Cassidy (The United States of Tara's Brie Larson) have a wild, fun relationship—until it all gets a little too much for her and she breaks up with him.

The thing is, Sutter doesn't believe in making future plans. He doesn't like to think of the future at all—not college, not marriage, not a career path. It's frustrating to his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his teachers, his boss, even his friends. He lives in the now, and just focuses on being happy, which is easy for him, considering that he nearly always has a flask of whiskey and/or a beer at hand.

One day he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee Finecky (The Descendants' Shailene Woodley), a quiet, intelligent, and driven classmate he had never met, because she doesn't go to parties or move in the same circles he does. (She actually studies and does well.) Drawn to someone so different from him, Sutter and Aimee strike up a friendship that turns to romance—despite Sutter giving Aimee every reason not to fall for him.

Is Sutter falling for Aimee or is this simply a rebound relationship with someone vastly different from Cassidy? Can someone so focused on living day to day every have a successful relationship? Will Sutter be able to grow up and face the future, especially one that includes Aimee? Or will he fall into his regular behavioral patterns despite having every reason not to?

The Spectacular Now is a pretty terrific, romantic little movie that makes you think and makes you feel. It's funny, heartfelt, and (fairly) authentic, and although Sutter gives you every reason to dislike him, you can see what motivates him to act the way he does, as much as you can see the motivations behind Aimee's actions and behaviors as well. You want to root for the couple to succeed even if you know they may not be right for each other.

What works so well in this movie are the performances. Miles Teller has such an unabashed charm and confidence that you can absolutely see why his character appeals to so many. Yet his performance is layered—the braggadocio is undercut with a heartbreaking vulnerability, and you can see his character literally caught between inertia and the slightest pull of ambition. Shailene Woodley follows up her should-have-been-Oscar-nominated performance in The Descendants with another tough and emotionally complex role. Given the high profile movies she has on the horizon (Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars), she's on her way to being a major star.

I've said numerous times (on this blog and otherwise) that I'm a total sucker for romantic and emotional movies, so it's little wonder The Spectacular Now appealed to me. But more than manipulating my emotions, this movie worked for me on so many levels. It's far more complex than a typical high school relationship movie, and praise goes to director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who adapted Tim Tharp's novel) for not taking the easy or the usual way out, at any point in this movie.

If you like this type of movie, go see it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review: "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" by Matthew Quick

"You ever feel like you're sending out a light but no one sees it?"

High school senior Leonard Peacock is at the end of his rope. Not only is it his 18th birthday and no one realizes it, but he's feeling more and more alone and unhappy every day. So he has decided today is the day he is going to kill himself using his grandfather's WWII P-38 he took from a Nazi officer, but he is also going to kill his former best friend, Asher Beal.

Then perhaps people will feel badly for the way they've treated him, especially his mother, who has essentially neglected him.

But before he commits his final acts, he's determined to give going-away presents to the four people who impact his life—his elderly next door neighbor, the Bogart-loving Walt; Baback, a fellow student and secret violin prodigy; Lauren, the home-schooled Christian girl on whom Leonard has an unrequited crush; and Herr Silverman, his favorite teacher, and one of the only people who treats Leonard with respect for his intelligence and sensitivity. As he reflects on his relationships with the four of them, he becomes even more determined to carry out his plan.

In one day, with one decision, your life can change. How do you know what path to take? Can you believe those who promise things will get better, even if so many people around you don't seem happy with their lives? These are the questions that Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock strives to answer. But like life itself, there are no perfect answers, no easy solutions.

This is a pretty depressing book, both in its portrayal of the loneliness and alienation Leonard feels, and the stark reality that far too many people in real life share his feelings, and take the actions he is contemplating. Leonard is an unusual person caught in some unfortunate situations, and you can see that even the little bit of hope that people offer seems too little too late for him.

I've enjoyed Matthew Quick's previous books (particularly Silver Linings Playbook), and he has done a great job in developing Leonard's character in particular. I felt as if the book left a few issues unresolved, so I may need to re-read some of it, but you absolutely sympathize with what Leonard is going through. This book is definitely a downer, though, so it's best you don't read this if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable yourself.

While the book is geared toward the YA market, this is definitely one adults can and should read. I do hope that at least one person contemplating suicide will read this book and feel slightly more hopeful about the future than Leonard did, and ultimately be moved not to go forward with such a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Now THAT'S the way to open a Bar Mitzvah...

And I thought I've seen some pretty ostentatious Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties...

Check out Sam Horowitz's opening dance number at his Bar Mitzvah last fall in Dallas. I would wager that the hora and lifting him and his family up on chairs pales in comparison to this! (I was wondering why I couldn't have something like this at my Bar Mitzvah and then I remembered: I can't dance, and was even less, umm, graceful back then!)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Time to show some courage...

Earlier this month, I wrote about the recent anti-gay propaganda laws in Russia and how it might affect the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, particularly the safety of LGBT athletes and their supporters, as well as those individuals whose work it is to cover the games.

At the time, I said that I didn't really think a boycott of the Games would do any good; in fact, more visibility could come from those athletes like U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir and New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup visibly competing and speaking out. And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had said that it previously secured assurances from "the highest level" of Russian government that LGBT athletes and vistors would be able to attend the Sochi games unmolested.

The other day, the IOC proved that its mind is only on its wallet, not basic human rights. A recent report announced the IOC will equate any displays of LGBT rights advocacy or solidarity in Sochi with a "demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda," which is prohibited by Rule 50 if the organization's charter. Those found in violation of Rule 50 can be subject to "disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned," without any sort of appeal.

Meaning, quite simply, that LGBT athletes should stay in the closet, stay quiet, and not be allowed to be who they are during the Olympics. LGBT athletes will not be able to hug their spouses, partners, or friends, because under Russia's laws—which the IOC is essentially supporting—that would be equated with "propaganda" prohibited by this legislation. It is fine, of course, for heterosexual athletes to hug or kiss their spouses or partners or significant others.

Again, I don't think a boycott of the Olympic Games is the answer. But the IOC showing some courage in refusing to be bullied by Putin and discriminatory, dangerous legislation is the answer. Although the IOC has a long history of sacrificing human rights in the face of the highest bidder, as demonstrated by the IOC's reaction to human rights advocates protesting the 1936 Games held in Berlin as "based on lies," because Hitler agreed to take down anti-Jewish signs for the two weeks when the Games were held.

Clearly, I'm not equating the two just yet, but without the IOC's willingness to protect each and every athlete's right to be treated equally during every Olympic Games, it is continuing to prove itself as antiquated, bloated, and incapable of administering an event supposedly dedicated to finding the best in all of us.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Review: "Brewster" by Mark Slouka

Just because the plot of a book seems familiar doesn't necessarily mean it won't be compelling or lack emotional power. In the case of Mark Slouka's wonderful new novel, Brewster, you may have seen similar stories, but even though you may know where the plot will go or how the characters develop, you'll still find yourself completely invested, which is a testament to the power of Slouka's writing.

It's 1968, and the world is on the verge of major change. In the small dead-end town of Brewster, New York, high school student Jon Mosher is ready for the change to come. Raised by parents distant since the death of his older brother when Jon was four years old, he's biding his time until he can leave all of this behind. And when he is convinced by one of his teachers to start running track, he is finally fueled by a motivation other than the urge to flee.

When Jon meets Ray Cappicciano, a rebellious student who also seems as if he is on the outside looking in, the two form a close-knit bond, a brotherhood. Ray, the son of an alcoholic ex-cop father with a violent streak, is a fighter, but he is also surprisingly sensitive, taking care of his young half-brother, Gene, and keeping him out of their father's line of fire. Jon and Ray dream of leaving Brewster, and when Jon, and then Ray, fall for beautiful, intelligent Karen, the trio, along with their friend, Frank, start planning their escape.

"We were like that CSNY song, which didn't make sense but kind of did: ' person...two alone...three together...four...'—and for a while we were—'each other.' If confusion had its cost—if it was confusion—we didn't know that then."

Obstacles start to stand in the way of their leaving, however. Jon's track career becomes more and more successful, and he pushes himself as hard as he can to help his team win. But he continues to struggle with his relationship with his mother, whom he believes blames him for his brother's death, and for surviving. And Ray's father starts to veer more off course with every day, threatening their plans—and their safety.

Brewster is a book about the loyalty and unshakable bonds of friendship and love, about how sometimes simply having someone believe in you is all you need. It's also a book about how our friends can become our family, and fill the gaps we have in our relationships with those to whom we're related by virtue of blood. As I mentioned at the start of the review, there's not much in this story you haven't seen before, but the sense of nostalgia, of the memories provoked by friendships that develop in high school and childhood, works to the book's definite advantage.

Mark Slouka is a fantastic storyteller. He pulls you into the plot, into the characters' lives and what transpires with them, quickly yet without a modicum of flash, and before you know it you're hooked. Between this and Ron Carlson's Return to Oakpine, which I read prior to this book, I've had the chance to read two terrific books about the strength and the pull of friendship, no matter how far you are from each other, or how many years pass.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

As I've commented before, I'm a pretty big fan of The Beatles, and as much as I like their music, I really enjoy listening to cover versions of their songs as well, because I think the versatility of their music lends itself to different interpretations.

Across the Universe was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It first appeared on a compilation album in late 1969, and then it was a track on Let it Be. I'm totally captivated by the song's lyrics, particularly the line, "words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup." (Perhaps the inspiration for Crowded House's line, "try to catch the deluge in a paper cup" from Don't Dream It's Over?)

I also like the lyric, "Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns," because who wouldn't?

This song has lent itself to a number of cover versions. The most surreal is one from (believe it or not) The Scorpions. Surreal in that it's pretty darned mellow.

My favorite version of the song is Rufus Wainwright's rendition, mainly because I have always loved his voice. He recorded this for the I Am Sam soundtrack (which is an awesome soundtrack, BTW).

And Fiona Apple recorded a typically Apple-esque version for the 1998 movie Pleasantville. (Caution: Don't listen to this version while operating heavy machinery.)

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

The true downward dog...

Yoga can be kind of complicated for those unfamiliar with the different positions. But this Italian man found the perfect companion for some yoga poses—his chihuahua. I have no idea what the guy is saying, but does it matter?

Book Review: "Return to Oakpine" by Ron Carlson

I'm a big fan of books that chronicle the reunion of childhood friends long separated. The opportunity to relate as an adult to people who knew you when you were younger, to see how life has affected them (and let them see how it has affected you), are tremendously compelling narrative devices, and if you combine those with a little bit of emotional poignancy, you've got a winner as far as I'm concerned. So it should come as no surprise that I was utterly taken in by Ron Carlson's wonderful new novel, Return to Oakpine.

In the late 1960s, Craig Ralston, Jimmy Brand, Mason Kirby, and Frank Gunderson were inseparable friends in the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming. During high school, they formed a band, called interchangeably The Rangemen, Wildfire, and Life on Earth. The band brought a fervent excitement to their lives and their small town, and through all of the practices and performances, their friendships deepened, until one day, a tragic accident claimed the life of Jimmy's older brother, Matt, the town's most highly regarded athlete. Unable to deal with his parents' reaction to the accident, as well as his own homosexuality, Jimmy left Oakpine shortly thereafter, moving to New York to become a well-established writer.

Thirty years later, Jimmy, destitute and dying of AIDS, returns to Oakpine. Banished by his father to live in the refurbished garage, Jimmy renews contact with his old friends. Craig and Frank never left the town—Craig took over his family's hardware store, while Frank owns a restaurant/bar. Mason became a successful lawyer in Colorado, but returns home to sell his parents' house, and finds himself caught up in his friends' lives again, while dealing with the dissolution of his marriage and uncertainty about his future.

Meanwhile, Craig's son, Larry, a high school senior, is dealing with many of the same problems his father and his friends did 30 years ago. Caught between loyalty to his best friend Wade and his love for Wade's girlfriend, Wendy, he is ready to leave Oakpine for good after high school, although he and Wendy develop a close relationship with Jimmy. And Craig and Frank both must deal with the women in their lives as well.

It is both nostalgia and Jimmy's looming mortality that push the four to reunite their band. This decision opens up old feelings, brings back long-forgotten memories and joys, and pushes them toward the future, but a future faced together, not apart.

Ron Carlson is a fantastic writer. In his previous books I've loved both his use of language and imagery to capture both emotions and the evocative nature of the West. But I feel he's utterly outdone himself with Return to Oakpine. It's a familiar story, one you've read before and one whose ending you can predict, but it is so beautifully told, so emotionally poignant, it's still as powerful as if you had never read a story with this plot before. While some of the characters' quirks—particularly in dialogue—took a little getting used to, I found myself torn between wanting to devour the story as quickly as possible and wanting to savor it for as long as I could, because I knew I would be sad when it ended.

"If a person was raised here, he knows the way the light falls in this town on any given week, even you who have been absent for years. That isn't true for any other place for you."

Going home after being away for so long isn't always easy, and reconnecting with old friends doesn't always work the way you hope it will. But Return to Oakpine made you long for those feelings, and captured them so perfectly. I know I'm a bit of a sap, but I thought this was really terrific.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Whether he's writing more adult fare, like American Gods or Anansi Boys, his graphic novel series, Sandman, or even books geared more toward children, like Coraline, Neil Gaiman has the ability to create magic. Sometimes through the unbelievable and unexpected, sometimes through language and imagery, Gaiman's storytelling ability is utterly captivating. And his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, keeps his streak alive. Part fairy tale for adults, part horror story, it is poignant and suspenseful, unique, and even a little bit creepy.

One day after a funeral, a man decides to revisit some of the spots of his youth. He sees his childhood home, long transformed, and then finds himself drawn to the farmstead home of his friend Lettie Hemstock and her family. While Lettie left for Australia when they were younger, her mother is still living there, and she allows him to take a walk to the pond in the back of their property, which Lettie used to refer to as "the ocean." Sitting there by the water, his memories are drawn back to when he was a lonely, bookish seven-year-old, and he finds himself revisiting a traumatic, frightening, and, ultimately, decisive time in his childhood, when he realized things on so many fronts were not as they seemed.

So much of this story is revealed slowly and surprisingly, so to describe the plot further would do it an injustice, since Gaiman's words are far more effective than any I could choose. This is the story of friendship and loyalty, of secrets, of facing your fears, and all too accurately captures a time when children come to terms with the realities of life, and that the adults they had always looked up to aren't as infallible as they may seem.

"Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."

What transpires in this book is frightening, emotional, poignant, and sad. It definitely triggered some familiar feelings in me, of feeling more comfortable and at ease with a book in my hand than anything else, and having to face up to your fears. I flew through the book—I read nearly the entire story in one day—and was completely hooked on the story. Gaiman's writing ability is top-notch, although there were times when some of the imagery he used was a little confusing, so I needed to re-read some passages. But ultimately, this book affected me, it frightened me a little, and most of all, it left an imprint on my mind.

If you're not a fan of books that have a little bit of horror and fantasy in them, you probably won't enjoy this book. But if you have the ability to suspend your disbelief and let yourself get lost in a beautifully written and emotionally compelling story, you won't regret it.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." by Arielle Waldman

Nathaniel Piven could be considered by some to be quite a catch. A well-read Harvard graduate, Nate is a good-looking writer who recently sold his first book, and thinks of himself as a bit of an intellectual. Raised by immigrant parents to respect intelligence and hard work, he wants to be seen as irresistible, but he struggles with his self esteem. Nate has had several long-term relationships with women, but ultimately he's grown bored, or wearies of his girlfriends' idiosyncrasies.

"Although it wasn't something he'd admit aloud, he often thought women were either deep or reasonable, but rarely both."

When Nate meets Hannah, a fellow writer, at his ex-girlfriend's dinner party, he is charmed by her intellect and her knack for conversation, as well as her looks, but he is unsure whether he should pursue a relationship with her. Hannah isn't looking for a serious relationship either, but as Nate begins to pursue her, and she realizes how much she enjoys being with him, she finds herself falling for him. And Nate loves the way Hannah can hold her own in arguments and match wits with his pretentious friends.

As the relationship deepens, however, Nate finds himself falling into the same behavior patterns. Will he realize what he really wants before it's too late, or will he wind up ending another relationship for superficial reasons?

Honestly, I know there are many men like Nate out there, and I'd like to apologize to all women everywhere. Not only wouldn't I ever want someone I knew to date him, I didn't enjoy spending time reading about him. I found this book utterly frustrating and even a bit annoying—the marketing of this book leads you to believe Nate is going to have some major epiphany, but in the end, he remains the same callow, unrepentant man-child he has always been. There is so much pretension among the characters in this book, except Hannah, that I couldn't understand why she was even friends with these people, let alone interested in pursuing a relationship with Nate.

There are times you read a book and find yourself wondering, "Who cares?" That was the way I felt while reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. While Arielle Waldman is a very talented writer—she certainly has created a group of utterly unappealing characters—I wish this book had a little more depth to it, a little more heart, and a little more growth. While I'm curious to know what happened to Nate after the book ended, I hope someday someone was able to smack some sense into him.

OMG! You're my favorite actor! (Or maybe not...)

Have you ever spotted a celebrity—or someone you can swear is a celebrity, but you can't remember what their name is?

Better yet, have you ever spotted one of your favorite celebrities—although in retrospect, you discover it's not the celebrity you thought it was?

Check out this woman, who saw Matt Damon and took a picture with him. Oh, yeah, but it was actually Mark Wahlberg.

You've gotta hand it to Marky Mark, though. Because when he got wind of this woman's photo, he posted it to his Facebook page with this caption:

At least she didn't make him apologize for We Bought a Zoo...

I love good sports. Definitely gives me good vibrations.

Introverts, this one's for you...

Those of you who know me well (or remember me), know that I'm fairly outgoing and kinda (okay, quite) talkative. And I'll admit I don't mind being the center of attention every now and...well, a lot.

But that being said, I tend to feel the most extroverted and "on" when I'm surrounded by people with whom I feel comfortable. I'm not good at walking into a room full of people and shaking hands with strangers, no matter how good it would be for me to do professionally. And even when I'm in a room filled with people with whom I should be familiar, I'm still not the type to approach them and would be much happier hanging out in the background...or perhaps behind the scenes.

I know I don't fit your textbook definition of introvert, but despite what you may think, I'm definitely more introverted than extroverted. (Really.) And once I read Buzzfeed's 27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand, I was pretty convinced, because I can identify with almost every single one of them!

Some of my favorites include:
  • When you carry a book to a public place so no one will bug you, but other people take that as a conversation starter.

  • When people can’t seem to grasp that being in small groups is where you excel the most.

  • When people make you feel weird for wanting to do things by yourself.

  • When you’re really excited to go out, but those good feelings don’t last long enough.

  • And when you need to be completely alone so you can recharge and get back to being awesome.

Do any of these sound like you? That's absolutely fine. Remember:

Read the whole list at And then go someplace quiet and recharge yourself. I don't mind.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: "And Sons" by David Gilbert

"Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons."

So says Philip Topping, near the start of And Sons, David Gilbert's emotionally rich if overstuffed novel about familial relations, primarily fathers and sons. The death of Philip's father, Charles Henry Topping, is not much of an event by New York standards—except for the appearance of reclusive write A.N. (Andrew) Dyer, Charles' oldest friend, who is persuaded to deliver his eulogy. But the eulogy deliver doesn't go quite as well as Andrew hoped, and fearing his own impending physical and emotional decline, he decides to make amends with those whom he has harmed, in particular his two older sons, Richard and Jamie.

Andrew summons both sons home to his New York City apartment, to join him and his youngest son, Andy, whose illegitimate birth 17 years ago tore apart their family. Richard, an aspiring screenwriter and full-time drug abuse counselor who escaped to California years before, comes home with his own family in tow, as well as some interesting plans that involve his father's capitulation. Jamie is a wanderer, who has spent many years traveling the world as a documentary filmmaker chronicling human suffering, but his own life is far from steady, as he finds himself haunted by a project involving a former girlfriend. And high school senior Andy is desperate both to understand his father better and lose his virginity (perhaps not in that exact order).

The family reunion, of sorts, brings to light many issues that have remained unsaid through the years, reopens old wounds, and uncovers a secret that Andrew has kept hidden for many years. He is determined to make things right with Richard and Jamie, and try to ensure both his literary and familial legacies are strong. But things have a bizarre way of spinning out of control, in many different ways, as the characters begin to confront Andrew's mortality.

At its core, this is a well-told (albeit somewhat familiar) story that is emotionally compelling, with flawed and not-entirely-sympathetic characters that make you want to keep reading. But Gilbert wasn't content to tell just this story—he had to throw in commentary on the fleeting celebrity of the literary world, a crazy scientific twist that will make you say, "Are you kidding?", not to mention the decision to have the unexciting Philip narrate the book (and share his own life struggles) really bogs the plot down from time to time. It seemed hard to believe this chronicler could always be at the right place at the right time to know what was happening.

The bonds between father and son are complicated ones, and many novels have explored them over the years. And Sons is an interesting and well-written addition to this genre of sorts; I just wish that David Gilbert had stuck more to the core of his story, which had so much merit, instead of trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his plot. It almost seemed as if he didn't trust Andrew Dyer to anchor the book as much as the other characters didn't trust him, but that's where the story truly was.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

I pledge allegiance to Anna Kendrick...

Ok, it's true confession time: I have a bit of an obsession with Anna Kendrick.

While I remember hearing about this theatrical wunderkind in the late 1990s, when she received a Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony nomination for her performance in High Society (she was only 12), she first landed on my radar with her hysterical performance as controlling, conniving, spotlight-hungry Fritzi in the underrated, little-seen, but fantastic movie, Camp (2003). (Not to be confused in any way with the disastrous television show of the same name starring Rachel Griffiths.)

In this scene, Fritzi, tired of being the lackey, sabotages a friend's performance of Ladies Who Lunch so she could take over. Completely on point.

Of course, her acting in recent years has been stellar, from her Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air to her strong work in 50/50 (loved that movie) and End of Watch, and of course, the fantastic Pitch Perfect. Leave any top 40 radio station on for about 30 minutes and you'll hear a version of Cups, and you won't be able to get it out of your head.

Here's the scene from Pitch Perfect:

Even her recent stint as a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance made me crush on her just a little bit more. A self-proclaimed "geek" for the show, she gave some of the most cogent and affirming feedback of nearly any non-dancer on the show, in direct contrast with Carly Rae Jepsen, who guest judged the prior week. For example, of dancer Makenzie, she said:

"Makenzie, you were so powerful in this. In some of the other dances, you've been given the 'beautiful' character—and you're SO pretty. But in this, the power wasn't coming from your beauty. It was coming from your ability."
And trolling YouTube for Anna Kendrick clips helped me stumble on this gem—a version of For Good from the musical Wicked, which she performed with Kristin Chenoweth for The Trevor Project's live concert in May. She may not have Idina Menzel's range, but she does pretty darned good, I'd say.

Can't wait to see what's next on the horizon for her, and I just hope she becomes even more of a star. Anyone else on the Anna Kendrick bandwagon?

Book Review: "Brilliance" by Marcus Sakey

Wow. Just wow. I cannot get over this book.

In the mid 1980s, children with exceptional gifts started being born. More than extreme intelligence or ability, these children have talents beyond any ever seen—reading a person's thoughts or intentions just by looking at them, being able to transform themselves into what ever a person wishes, the ability to become invisible and move where no one is expecting. Labeled "brilliants," they comprise 1 percent of the U.S. population, and pose both tremendous promise and threat to the country and the world.

In the years following the emergence of the brilliants, society is uneasy. They know they should embrace these special gifts, yet how would "regular" people fare when matched against the brilliants in every aspect of life? So those who test into the top tier of these abilities are taken from their families and sent to special "academies," where their skills are harnessed—and they're taught not to trust anyone but themselves.

Flash forward to the present, and a special branch of the U.S. government, the Department of Equitable Services, has been empowered to hunt down the brilliants, or "abnorms," as they're referred to insultingly. After one brilliant brought down the stock market after sensing patterns and making hundreds of millions of dollars, and one took action against society by masterminding a massacre of innocent people in a D.C. restaurant, the country is on edge. Many brilliants have moved to an enormous compound in Wyoming, called the New Canaan Holdfast, where they can live amongst themselves in security, and continue making advances in all fields.

One elite member of the Department of Equitable Services is Agent Nick Cooper. He is ruthless, intelligent, driven, and a brilliant himself, drawn to the department to create a safer world. Yet when he finds himself unable to prevent a major catastrophe, and he realizes his own children are in more danger than he can imagine, he needs to find a way to track down the mastermind behind the brilliants' vengeance—no matter what the cost.

This is an absolutely phenomenal book in so many ways. Marcus Sakey has created a society both vastly different and eerily similar to our own, and the country's unease about the brilliants mirrors so many other issues in our world, both past and present. Sakey's characters are complex, conflicted, and compelling, and the action and suspense nearly made my Kindle crackle. I wasn't sure where the plot would take me, but I was constantly amazed at the amount of thought he put into even the smallest details. (The book is interspersed with fake ads, news stories, and other minutiae that made me laugh and even made me slightly uncomfortable.)

I've read Sakey's previous books and have been impressed by his writing ability, but nothing prepared me for the sheer, well, brilliance of Brilliance. This book is apparently the first in a series and I absolutely cannot wait for the next book to be released next year. If you like action-packed thrillers, or just fantastic page-turners, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Like me, you won't be able to tear yourself away from it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Movie Review: "Blue Jasmine"

No matter whether his movies gravitate toward the fantastical (Midnight in Paris, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice) or the more ordinary (Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days), Woody Allen always has a discerning eye for human foibles, especially of those with a slightly less tenuous grip on reality.

Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, definitely leans more toward the latter category, although the title character periodically lives in a fantasy world all her own. Jasmine, née Jeanette (a haggard yet haughty Cate Blanchett), is having a tough time of things. Her marriage to wealthy businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin), in which she was showered with gifts and a life of privilege, has come to a jarring end, and she has lost all of her money and the trappings she had become used to. These losses, as she was forced to come to the realization that her husband was not all he seemed to be, has greatly affected her mental stability as well.

At the end of her rope, financially and emotionally, she flees to San Francisco to move in with her sister, Ginger (a marvelous if underused Sally Hawkins). Ginger and Jasmine have lived in two separate worlds for far too long, and it's no surprise to either of them—or those around them, including Ginger's brash mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale, gruff and vulnerable)—that Jasmine has reached out to Ginger only out of desperation. Yet despite her troubles, Jasmine isn't above putting on airs. She talks of becoming an interior decorator ("I have an eye for soft furnishings") and finding someone "substantial," but she must take a "menial" job to support herself.

Jasmine also pops Xanax as if they were Tic-Tacs and loves her Stoli martinis, and from time to time engages in conversations with the air (although she thinks she's speaking to Hal). Half of the film is told in flashbacks as you see Jasmine's life with Hal unfold, and get a taste of the life to which she has become accustomed. And you also see her character transition from the wide-eyed, naive spouse, happy to be pampered, to one growing increasingly suspicious of her husband, and you realize she isn't as innocent as she claims to be.

The other half of the movie chronicles Jasmine's attempts to reconcile her current situation with what she thinks she deserves. She's determined to help Ginger better herself as well, and keeps insisting she find a "more suitable" man than Chili, much to his chagrin. And Jasmine isn't quite through with her fantasies, as she makes one last run toward happiness and comfort with a new man (Peter Sarsgard).

Blanchett is an absolute marvel in this movie. She almost never stops talking—often rambling, in fact—but at times you're not sure if you should laugh with her or feel sorry for her. Her portrayal of a woman constantly on the verge of utter breakdown is poignant, humorous, and pathetic, but she is far from a sympathetic character. She definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance.

This is Blanchett's movie, which doesn't leave many of her costars with much to do. Cannavale makes the most of his role as a blowhard who resents Jasmine's interfering in her sister's life, and his role in it. Hawkins brings her usual merry charm, and although you can see in her performance the seeds of a woman torn between helping the sister who has never shown her any attention and showing her the door, Allen never really gives her the chance to shine or explore exactly why she continues to be Jasmine's doormat. Surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay makes the most of his small but pivotal role, while Louis C.K.'s part seems tacked on and unnecessary.

It's somewhat difficult to watch a movie that chronicles a woman's struggles and near dissociative breakdown, but Blanchett is so fantastic you can't take your eyes off her, even if the movie isn't quite as good as she is.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Silent Wife" by A.S.A. Harrison

Let's get this out of the way first. Despite what the marketing of this book may say, The Silent Wife is not "this year's Gone Girl." And truth is, that's both good and bad. I wasn't as much a fan of Gillian Flynn's best-seller last year, so I can't say I wasn't entirely disappointed that this novel didn't share many of the same characteristics. However, I wish that The Silent Wife had a little more of Gone Girl's page-turning suspense.

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert have been together for more than 20 years. Their relationship began in an auspicious way—the two were both involved in a car accident—but the two have supported each other greatly. Jodi has watched as Todd has become a self-made man, starting from restoring and rebuilding a Chicago townhouse from the ground up, to running his own construction business. And Todd encouraged Jodi's studies in psychotherapy and her counseling business, listening to stories about her clients (with all pertinent details hidden, of course).

Todd has ensured the couple never wants for any creature comforts—they live in a beautiful waterfront condo high up on the Chicago skyline, take fun and relaxing vacations, and enjoy fancy dinners and entertainment. And Jodi is the perfect wife—nurturing, supportive, always there with the perfect dinner and their well-behaved dog.

Sure, their marriage isn't perfect. Whose is? Jodi has turned a blind eye through the years to Todd's extramarital dalliances, because at the end of the night, Todd always comes home to her. And while Todd may seek the comfort of other women from time to time (professionals and others), Jodi is his one true constant and he can't imagine actually leaving the life they've made together.

But things have hit a rough patch. When Todd tells Jodi he is leaving her for a younger woman, she can't quite believe he'd be willing to jeopardize the comforting, stable stasis of their marriage. Although Todd feels fulfilled by his new love, and the prospect of a new life, he can't quite shake the thought of being away from Jodi forever, either. However, when Todd's new girlfriend makes it clear he needs to end things with Jodi, he does, although Jodi isn't all that interested in tolerating this.

For their entire relationship, Jodi has been the quintessential silent wife. But she's not willing to turn a blind eye any longer and let Todd destroy the life she has come to depend upon. Shifting between Jodi and Todd's perspectives from chapter to chapter, The Silent Wife is the story of two reasonably intelligent people who find themselves in unfamiliar territory, which causes them to make some reasonably dumb mistakes. While early on in the book you're told what happens, the way the story unfolds is interesting and even somewhat surprising.

I thought the The Silent Wife was an interesting and somewhat compelling read. Jodi and Todd are complex, flawed characters, neither of whom generates a great deal of empathy in the reader, although they're not the odious characters in Gone Girl. This is a story we've seen again and again in books, movies, and television, although A.S.A. Harrison has put some intriguing spins on the story.

All that being said, however, this book felt a little too clinical and distant, and the resolution of the story didn't engage me as much as I would have hoped. While it certainly was interesting to see how the story was going to unfold, just when I expected things to hit a different level of passion and suspense, it didn't. Perhaps that was reflective of the stable life that Todd and Jodi had built for themselves, but it left me a little cold, which was disappointing, because these were two tremendously interesting (if not entirely sympathetic) characters.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

It's not okay...

I've debated quite a bit whether to write a post about the ridiculous government-sanctioned homophobia occurring in Russia since the enactment of anti-gay propaganda laws that make it a crime to spread "homosexual propaganda" to minors. These laws, which have already led to arrests of Dutch tourists promoting equality, are causing many to urge the United States to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and has led gay activists to call for a boycott of Russian-made Stolichnaya vodka.

The U.S. Olympic Committee—and NBC, which has broadcast rights to the 2014 games—have tried to have their cake and eat it, too, saying they'd monitor the situation to ensure the safety of U.S. athletes, particularly LGBT athletes, as well as decide how to report on these human rights violations. But today, Russia upped the ante a bit.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko warned today that athletes and visitors will not be given any special exemptions around the anti-gay laws. Mutko's statement comes a day after the U.S. Olympic Committee released a letter recalling the Olympic Charter's prohibition on discrimination of any kind. The letter also promised that the U.S. Olympic Committee would work closely with the IOC and U.S. State Department to ensure the safety of "every American in Sochi." Additionally, Russian politician Vitaly Milonov said that openly gay athletes and supporters at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games may face arrest under these laws.

The IOC previously secured assurances from "the highest level" of Russian government that LGBT athletes and vistors would be able to attend the Sochi games unmolested, but they've yet to comment on Mutko's statement, which said:
"The law talks not about banning a non-traditional orientation but about other things, about propaganda and implicating minors...

"No one is banning a sportsman with a non-traditional sexual orientation from going to Sochi. But if he goes out onto the street and starts to make propaganda, then of course he will be brought to responsibility.

"As a sportsman, he should respect the law of a country. Come (to Sochi), but don't get young people involved, don't make propaganda. This is what we are talking about."
Competing in the Olympics is a dream for most athletes, and knowing that you'll finally have the chance to represent your country and compete against the world's finest athletes must be one of the most incredible achievements. Some out athletes, including figure skater Johnny Weir and New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup have said a boycott of the games is not the answer.

Skjellerup commented, "I think visibility is the best possible solution, as opposed to hiding away and not attending." He went on to explain, "For me it’s less about taking a stand and more about just being myself...I have no interest in going back into the closet in Sochi...This is not about defiance. This is me standing up for what I believe in." Skjellerup has said that he plans to wear a rainbow pin during the Sochi games which, under Russia's laws, could get him arrested.

It's time for the U.S. to take a stand. We're all too quick to condemn people like Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden as treasonous traitors, yet is our country willing to turn a blind eye to the potential mistreatment of LGBT athletes and others? Where is the outrage of the U.S. in this instance?

I don't know whether boycotting the Olympic games will actually accomplish anything. I do know that we, as well as the IOC, need to serve as a barrier to discrimination and mistreatment, or the Olympic spirit means nothing. But more importantly, I echo the words of openly gay Danish actor Christian Vincent, who recently recorded a video called, "Dear Russia: It's Not Okay."

It's not okay.