Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: "The Gospel of Winter" by Brendan Kiely

Wow. This is a powerful, emotionally moving, and fantastic book.

Sixteen-year-old Aidan Donovan has always existed on the fringes of things. A loner more content to snort Adderall and read by himself, as his wealthy parents' marriage disintegrates, he's more comfortable with Elena, their housekeeper, than his parents or friends his own age. He doesn't have any patience for the dishonesty or non-genuineness of the community where he lives.

"Nobody ever said I don't know or I'm afraid, and they acted like the masks they wore were their real faces and that they could sustain themselves forever on their own self-assurance—like they really believed they didn't need anybody else. What was that John Donne poem we read in Weinstein's class, 'No Man Is An Island'? Not here. We were a goddamn social archipelago that called itself a community. Why did I feel like I was the only one who lived in a nightmare? What was worse was that I knew people did have fears."

The only place Aidan truly feels comfortable is at his church, Most Precious Blood, as Father Greg, the local priest, is the only person who seems to care about or listen to him. As he starts making friends with a trio of his classmates—Josie, the charismatic girl on whom he's had a crush for some time; Sophie, the wild but friendly girl with a reputation; and Mark, the swim team captain with issues of his own which mirror Aidan's in more ways than he knows—Aidan starts to feel a little more comfortable in his own skin.

As Aidan balances the comfort of his new friends with his discomfort about his home life, he starts to realize that Father Greg's affections are not just directed at him alone, and while he mourns the feeling that he is no longer special, he also grapples with the reality of what the priest has done. What does that make him? Would telling people, admitting what has happened, make those in his community blame and think less of him, as the priests have led him to believe? Can he just pretend that nothing happened?

Aidan's community—and the nation—begin confronting the revelations about sexual abuse by priests, and people want to know if Aidan was affected, what he knew, but he'd rather ignore the whole thing, despite the toll it takes on his own psyche and those around him. Only as he realizes the true consequences, and what could lie ahead for him depending on the path he chooses, does he realize that there are other people who care about and love him.

"I thought about how people like Old Donovan and Father Greg and teachers and even Mother and Elena tried to give me advice about who I was supposed to be and what kind of person I was supposed to become, but looking at Josie, I wondered if it didn't all come down to something simpler: Are you the kind of person who is there for people when they need you, or not? Isn't it in those moments when you have to work harder than you thought you could to reach out to another person, and you do, that you finally find the you who's been hiding behind the mask all that time? Is it there, finally truly naked, and reaching for one another, that we create the chance to hold one another again? And what about the chance to love again? Do we get to create that possibility too?"

This was a phenomenal book. Its subject matter was difficult, but Brendan Kiely's use of language and his storytelling ability captivated me completely. I loved Aidan's character and felt so much pain and hope for him. I could definitely identify with some of his thoughts and fears and hopes, as I remember feeling similarly as a teenager. I devoured this book, reading nearly the entire thing in one day. It was just such a beautiful, powerful, painful yet hopeful story, and I hope this gets the attention—and the readership—it so truly deserves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: "Foreign Gods, Inc." by Okey Ndibe

Don't mess with the deities, for you know not what they'll do.

Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzondu is a Nigerian taxi driver in Brooklyn. He's having a tough time of it. Educated at Amherst College, intelligent and ambitious, he is determined to make a better life for himself, but he is unable to get a job because his accent is so thick. Instead of marrying for love, he married for the possibility of a green card, yet wound up with a shrewish wife, who constantly demanded money, accused him of having affairs, cheated on him, and divorced him, taking much of his savings.

But now the rent is due, his gambling debts have him strapped for money, and the emails from his sister and mother back in Nigeria begging for money are becoming increasingly more strident and demanding. Inspired by an article about Foreign Gods, Inc.—a tony New York gallery that specializes in the purchase and sale of deities from foreign countries, Ike decides his best hope for fortune and comfort is to return home to Nigeria and steal Ngene, his ancestral village's war idol. After all, as he has read, "In a postmodern world, even gods and sacred objects must travel or lose their vitality; any deity that remained stuck in its place and original purpose would soon become moribund."

Ike's return home to his village is not as smooth as he had hoped. He nearly gets arrested several times in the airport because he refuses to give customs officials and others the bribes they expect. His mother and sister have fallen under the influence of a corrupt, maniacal Christian preacher, who has captivated many in his village with promises of salvation and talk of the devil. And his mother is at war with Ike's uncle and grandmother, as she has been led to believe by the preacher that they were responsible for Ike's father's death because they worship Ngene, not Jesus.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is in part a meditation on what it's like to be an immigrant in the U.S., and part a reflection on what it's like to return home to a country and a culture you tried so hard to leave behind. At times the book is satirical, as it pokes fun at the mangled English the characters use ("Now I have to be a fantastic hostage by tabulating a drink in front of you," one of Ike's friends says) and their fascination and disbelief at American ways. Toward the end of the book, it turns metaphorical, as Ike begins to experience—or is he simply imagining—the consequences of stealing Ngene away from the village.

Okey Ndibe tells an amusing and intriguing story which may have more roots in truth than I'd imagine. It ran a little slow in places, but Ike's character is fascinating, and his plight made for a compelling read.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Eagerly anticipating the sobbing...

2014 is only just about a month down, but there are already a number of movies I'm eagerly anticipating this year. While the adaptation of Mark Helprin's amazing Winter's Tale is due out soon (and looks good, despite the fact that Russell Crowe's presence is giving me Javert flashbacks), and the first half of Mockingjay (the final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy) will hit theaters toward the end of 2014, there's probably no movie I'm anticipating as eagerly as The Fault in Our Stars.

If you've been following my blog for a while, you may recall that John Green's The Fault in Our Stars was probably the best book I read in 2012. The book hooked me so hard I stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. finishing it, and then hating myself for reading it so quickly. Plus it was so emotionally gripping, I was sobbing on my couch in the middle of the night.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now and the upcoming Divergent) and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) star as Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus "Gus" Waters, teenagers who meet in a support group for kids with cancer. Gus is in remission from the osteosarcoma that took one of his legs a few years ago, and thanks to a miracle drug trial, the tumors in Hazel's lungs aren't continuing to grow, although she knows that's just a matter of time. The two are snarky, sarcastic, sensitive, and wise beyond their years, and begin an intense friendship that brings them both joy.

The first trailer for the movie came out today. I'm not embarrassed to say I've watched it about five times already. (Some of my colleagues are hooked, too, so I'm not alone in this obsession.) Maybe you won't understand what my excitement is about, but watch the trailer and you might. The movie opens in June, and I'm already prepared to sob.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Sarah Cornwell's What I Had Before I Had You is a beautiful, poignant, and exquisitely written novel about the ripple effects mental illness causes on a family.

Olivia Reed was raised by her dynamic and manic mother, Myla, a practicing psychic, in the Jersey Shore town of Ocean Vista. Fiercely protective of Olivia one minute, and disappearing to leave her home alone for days on end the next, Myla taught her daughter to believe in the powers of the universe. She also taught Olivia to believe in the ghosts of her twin baby sisters, who died before Olivia was born. Myla kept the nursery a shrine to these babies that never lived, even going so far as keeping baby food and diapers in the house, and leaving food on their highchairs.

The summer that Olivia turned 15, she saw her sisters for the first time, as teenagers, and believed that this sighting signified she was coming into her own powers, much like her mother. But when Myla disputes this vision, Olivia is motivated for the first time to challenge her mother's constraints and begin living a carefree life, determined to find out the truth of her sisters. This journey of discovery teaches Olivia about friendship, love, and loss, but also uncovers some truths she never expected, truths which lead to an irreparable rift in her family and change the course of her life.

"I left my mother here when she was sick and sad and alone. When I was fifteen, someone lowered a rope into my well, and I climbed it and pulled it up after me. I like to think that if my mother had waited two or three more years than she did, I would have grown up enough to come home to her. But I can't be sure."

Years later, Olivia returns to Ocean Vista with her own teenage daughter, Carrie, and her nine-year-old son, Daniel, who has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which served as the catalyst for the end of her marriage. Her return to her hometown sparks memories of that tumultuous summer, of how her life changed, and of the guilt she feels about her relationship with her mother. When Daniel suddenly disappears, the search for him forces her to examine the course her life has taken and how mental illness has shaped it, and the role her mother has played all along.

What I Had Before I Had You shifts back and forth between the present and that summer of 1987. It's a moving, emotional book that captures all too well the highs and lows, the challenges and surprises that mental illness brings to a family, and how even years later these issues still surface and shape the course of people's lives. It's also the story of the fragility of human relationships, the lies we tell each other and ourselves, and the randomness of memory.

"I've heard that each time you remember something, the memory is rewritten by the neurons in your brain; that the memories you summon frequently are molded and smoothed—clay on the potter's wheel of your mind—while memories you leave buried can bubble up with photographic precision."

Sarah Cornwell is a tremendously talented writer. Her use of language was almost lyrical, as you can see by just a few of the passages I chose to incorporate into this review. While I had a little trouble at the start trying to figure out what the whole ghost idea was about, I was quickly hooked on the book, and as with so many books I love, was torn between wanting to devour it in one or two sittings, or wanting to savor it. (I chose the former, and don't regret it.) I look forward to seeing what's next in Cornwell's career, because this book shows that she has exceptional talent and promise.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review: "Before We Met" by Lucie Whitehouse

A number of times while I was reading Lucie Whitehouse's new novel, Before We Met, I thought to myself, this is kind of like one of those flicks on Lifetime Movie Network. You know the ones I'm talking about. But believe me when I tell you, that description isn't a bad thing, because this book hooked me completely from start to finish, even as I had an idea about how things would unfold.

On what seems like just a typical Friday night, Hannah Reilly decides to surprise her husband Mark by meeting him at London's Heathrow Airport, where he's scheduled to arrive on a flight from New York. This is familiar territory, as Mark's company used to have New York and London offices. But once everyone from his flight makes it through customs, Mark isn't among the crowd. Hannah is concerned, but can't seem to reach Mark—his cellphone goes right to voice mail. Did he miss his flight? Did something happen?

The next day, she gets a phone call from a tremendously apologetic Mark, who explains the reasons he was detained and unable to call. But that is after she finds out from one of his colleagues that he said he was taking Hannah to Rome this weekend. And why isn't Mark at the hotel he usually stays at while he's in New York, and why hasn't he given her a number to reach him at?

Although Mark promises to return on Tuesday, Hannah is becoming more suspicious, although she swore she'd never be the type of woman who spied on her husband and pried in his business, after she saw what her mother's similar actions did to her parents' marriage. But the more she looks into things to find answers, she finds only more questions. How much does she actually know her husband? Who is the woman he's apparently been talking to on the phone behind closed doors? Is Mark in some kind of trouble with his business?

Lucie Whitehouse ratchets up the suspense incrementally, to the point where you're not quite sure what to believe either. While this book veers into territory we've seen numerous times before, it's a credit to Whitehouse's storytelling ability that you can't stop reading, you can't stop wondering just where things will go. Are there valid excuses for what Hannah finds out? Has Mark been trying to protect her, or simply himself?

This was a quick read for me, and one that completely satisfied me. It doesn't matter that there weren't many surprises—even as you see things coming and you know what questions Hannah should be asking, you want to find out where the story will go. That's the mark (no pun intended) of a pretty great read.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book Review: "The Wind is Not a River" by Brian Payton

1943. The world is deep in the grip of World War II, and there are fears that the war may never end, that it might turn out to be another Hundred Years' War.

John Easley is a journalist, deeply in love with his young wife, Helen. Yet when his younger brother is killed in the war, he struggles with his grief and his desire to ensure his brother's death wasn't in vain. He is determined to tell the U.S. a story of the war, particularly the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands, which no one seems to know anything about, and reporters are sent away by the government.

"Action, he says, is the only language fit for love."

Against Helen's wishes, after a brutal argument, John decides to head back to the Aleutians and find out just what is going on. Hiding his true identity, he travels with a crew on a bombing run, when his plane is shot down over the remote island of Attu. Forced to face the harshest of elements and hide from Japanese soldiers, John must figure out how to survive to tell the story he needs to, and honor his brother's memory and the memory of those whose lives were lost in the war. And at the same time, he ponders his love for Helen, and their marriage, deeply affected by his inability to share his grief with her.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, Helen is devastated by John's departure. While she tries to occupy her time caring for her elderly father, who suffered a stroke, she is desperate to find out where John is, and if he is okay. Yet the more she tries to find out where John has gone, or if he is okay, the more roadblocks she finds in her way. So she decides to do the only thing she can—try to find her way to the Aleutians, so she can find John and bring him back.

"Helen does not know how she is going to find him. She knows only that she must go there to do it."

Helen uses every trick she can to get into Alaska. She, too, must hide her true identity to get there, and put her own safety at risk. She also must leave her father, uncertain whether she will ever see him again. But for her, the only thought is finding her husband and bringing him home.

This is a tremendously compelling, beautifully written story about love, courage, determination, and finding the will to survive. It's amazing that for the majority of the book, John and Helen aren't together, except in reminiscences, yet their love story is so powerful. Brian Payton tells an excellent story, and this is a part of World War II I had no idea about. I felt drawn into the characters' struggles and emotions.

It's interesting—so many movies are made from adaptations of books. I think this could be a beautiful movie, as long as it didn't lose the poetry of Payton's words. I really enjoyed this one.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Movie Review: "August: Osage County"

Well, if you've ever thought your family was crazy, watch August: Osage County and you'll feel better instantly. Because short of, say, Oedipus' family or perhaps Medea's, there's no one out there crazier than the Westons.

Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is a chain-smoking, pill-popping shrew, living in a drug- and emotionally induced haze the majority of the time. (The fact that she's suffering from mouth cancer doesn't stop her smoking.) Her husband, famed poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) numbs the anguish of living with his wife through alcohol, and the two spend their days sniping at each other. They live in a house in Oklahoma where the air conditioning is never turned on and the shades are taped shut, so there's no concept of whether it's day or night.

Beverly's sudden disappearance summons the Westons' three daughters. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only daughter who stayed in Oklahoma, and she has sacrificed a good deal of her life caring for her parents, despite the fact that she's clearly not her mother's favorite. Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) comes from Florida with her sleazy fiancée (Dermot Mulroney) in tow. And the prodigal daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes home as well, in the midst of a marital crisis of her own with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and the issues of raising a teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). Vi's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper) come to the rescue as well, and when Beverly's disappearance turns out to be a suicide, the pair's son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes as well, to face prolonged haranguing from his mother.

Crisis brings out the worst in people, and as the family gathers to mourn Beverly's loss, the claws, old grudges and hurts, and occasional good memories come to the surface. Vi strikes out at whomever she can—she's angry at Barbara for taking away her pills (not to mention for leaving Oklahoma in the first place), at her husband for abandoning her, at her daughters for trying to control her life. She spends a lot of time doing what she calls "truth telling"—in essence, prying into people's lives and insulting them wherever she can. But clearly all of this venom serves as armor from a lifetime of dissatisfaction and hurt.

But unlike most families that come together to mourn, this gathering is marked by the disclosure of many painful and surprising secrets that threaten to tear the family further apart. Barbara is torn between wanting to rebuild her marriage and wallow in her anger about having to be back home in Oklahoma, confronted by the dysfunction she desperately wanted to escape. Ivy wants to finally stop sacrificing her own life and build a future with the man she loves, and Karen keeps looking for love in the wrong places.

Based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play, this is a tremendously melodramatic film, one which at times feels a little more like a television movie than a feature film. I felt as if the movie layered on so many different issues, crises, and secrets that I just kept waiting for the next thing to happen. (I was glad that the bombshells stopped at one point.) But the movie's humor (and lots of profanity) keeps it from turning utterly maudlin.

What elevates this movie is the fantastic acting. Streep tears into her part with incredibly emotional gusto, and this performance is definitely among some of her strongest in recent years, clearly deserving of her 18th Oscar nomination, which she received earlier this week.

But as good as Streep is, I was dazzled even more by Julia Roberts. Stripped bare of her glamor without it feeling gimmicky, her performance is emotionally charged and complex, and has a maturity that I thought was tremendous. In my opinion, it's one of her two best performances, and I hope she gets more opportunities to portray characters like this. (In almost any other year, this performance could net Roberts her second Oscar, but I think the competition in the Best Supporting Actress category is just too good this year.)

While this movie is mostly dominated by Streep and Roberts, many of the other actors have moments as well. Julianne Nicholson, following up her strong performance on Showtime's Masters of Sex is beautifully vulnerable as the daughter who has put her own life on hold for far too long, only to discover her dreams may go awry because of her family. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale have some terrific scenes as well, and while one of my favorites, Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn't have a big role, he still manages to touch your heart.

I didn't love the movie but I thought the performances were pretty stellar. If you're a fan of melodrama, this is a movie for you; if not, you'll still be rewarded by some fantastic acting if you're willing to endure the soap opera for about two hours.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fade in on a, well...

I was a huge fan of NBC's Smash in its first season. It was a show I had eagerly anticipated after first seeing the trailer, and once I started watching it, I loved the music from the show-within-a-show, and thought that many of the performances were great (despite that creepy, annoying Ellis). But when the show changed hands in its second season, the show (in my opinion) lost its focus, and quickly lost my interest.

But harkening back to that first season, one of my favorite songs was Let Me Be Your Star, which was performed in the trailer. A duet between Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, the two actresses vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe in the fictional musical Bombshell, the song hits on many feelings which should be familiar to anyone who has ever hoped to land a part in a production of any kind.

While on a surf of random videos on YouTube earlier today, I stumbled upon this version of Let Me Be Your Star, performed by Tony Award nominees Jeremy Jordan (who appeared in Smash's second season) and Jonathan Groff. It's a little campy (especially when the two don Marilyn wigs), but both are in pretty fine voice, and I thought it was too good not to share.

And for old time's sake, here's the original duet between McPhee and Hilty. Still gives me chills.

Book Review: "The Kept" by James Scott

Gothic. That's the word that kept coming to mind when I was reading James Scott's The Kept. Not quite creepy but definitely atmospheric, this was a tense, compelling book that kept me hooked and wondering what was going to happen next.

One snowy day in upstate New York in 1897, Elspeth Howell returns to her home after spending a few months away working as a midwife and doctor's assistant in a distant town. She comes bearing gifts for each child (she's been gone so often that she has to keep a list of their ages), and looks forward to seeing her husband, Jorah, and their five children, even though her returns home are always a bit awkward.

Yet when she arrives at her house, she finds disaster. Her husband and four of her children were murdered, and her 12-year-old son Caleb appears to be missing. And then, startled by his mother's arrival, Caleb accidentally shoots Elspeth, thinking that the murderers had returned. This continues the unthinkable nightmare for Caleb, a child more comfortable in silence than speaking, one whose nightmares led him to sleep in the barn near the family's animals, as their presence comforts him.

Caleb worries that he has killed his mother, and tries to nurse her back to health. And when another mishap destroys the family's home, Caleb must carry Elspeth through the snow. They come upon the town of Watersbridge in search of the killers, and as they try to find them, they both happen upon jobs—Elspeth, pretending to be a man, begins working at an icehouse, while Caleb becomes a servant at an inn serving the town's gambling, prostitution, and violent urges.

It turns out Elspeth has far more secrets than Caleb could ever imagine, and Elspeth believes the tragedy visited upon her family was in retribution for her sins. As Caleb starts to find out more about who he truly is, and the truth about his mother, he is torn between hatred and loyalty, but ultimately, he is determined to make those who killed his siblings and his father pay. And Elspeth feels that seeing this mission to its end, no matter how it turns out, is the only way she can atone for what she did.

There's more to this book, but I'm going to get further into the plot (although some reviews have), because I think some of its appeal lies in the way the story unfolds. Caleb is a fascinating character—a fearful, troubled child who at the start of the book almost seems to have some sort of intellectual disability, but it turns out he's just been sheltered by his Bible-loving father and his absent mother. Elspeth is very complex—you understand her motivations and yet cannot sympathize with her actions, but you still feel sorry for her.

As I first started reading the book, I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but James Scott hooks you fairly quickly and doesn't divulge everything right away. It's a strange and slightly creepy book, but Scott is an excellent storyteller, and I'm really glad to have found The Kept.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oscar nominations: how did I do?

Usually when the Oscar nominations are announced each year I'm surprised, and not always pleasantly. Today was no exception to the surprise rule, but honestly, I wasn't really disappointed by anything, exception the omission of those I was hoping for but knew probably wouldn't get nominated.

So comparing my predictions to the reality of today's nominations, how did I do?

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: I actually had all nine nominees, but I thought the Academy might go with a 10th. I thought Philomena wasn't quite Best Picture-worthy (although charming), and am surprised that Saving Mr. Banks apparently didn't resonate with Academy voters. (More on that in a bit.) Thrilled Her made the cut; unimpressed with The Wolf of Wall Street; and although I knew it wouldn't happen, still hoped for a surprise from Fruitvale Station.

Best Actor
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Analysis: I went 3/5 in my predictions, although I said Bale and DiCaprio were possibilities. I am shocked (but not disappointed) that Robert Redford wasn't nominated, in that I thought there was more hype than substance, and while I didn't see Captain Phillips, I suffer from Tom Hanks fatigue since my bitterness over his back-to-back wins in 1993 and 1994, so I wasn't upset by this omission.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Analysis: I went 4/5 here. I'm shocked, honestly, that Emma Thompson didn't get nominated for Saving Mr. Banks. This was a tough category and someone was going to get left out. I'm just glad Amy Adams didn't. (I'd still vote for Cate Blanchett, but wanted Adams in the category.) Congratulations to Meryl Streep for her 18th nominations!

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Analysis: I went 4/5 here. Honestly, Jonah Hill's nomination surprised me. He was good, but I thought Will Forte in Nebraska and James Gandolfini in Enough Said gave stronger performances. Daniel Bruhl received Golden Globe and SAG nominations for his performance as real-life race car driver Niki Lauda, but didn't make the Oscar cut, much like John Hawkes in The Sessions last year and Mila Kunis in Black Swan in 2010.

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, too, but I am thrilled, quite honestly, that Oprah Winfrey wasn't nominated, and Sally Hawkins was in her place. This is a terrific category.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: If you're sensing a theme, I went 4/5 here as well. Alexander Payne's nomination is no surprise and is well-deserved, although I am surprised that Paul Greengrass didn't get nominated for Captain Phillips. I was hoping Spike Jonze would be nominated for Her but didn't expect it. And I'll admit that as much as I'm a Scorsese fan, this nomination wasn't deserved in my opinion, as I thought the movie was bloated and overdone.

And there you have it. We'll see who emerges victorious on March 2!!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oscar nominations: who's gonna get 'em?

Many of you who know me know that I've been fairly obsessed with the Oscars for a number of years. We make an effort to see every movie that's nominated in the major categories (if we haven't anyway), and I keep close track of all of the film critics' awards and other awards shows leading up to the Oscars.

And then there's the small matter of being able to name every nominee in every major category (picture, actor, actress, supporting actor/actress, director) from every year. (Don't judge.)

Tomorrow morning, the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards will be announced. As I've done the last few years, I'm going to make my predictions of who I think will be nominated. I'm never 100 percent right in any category because there's always a surprise or two, but I can usually predict if there are going to be surprises who the surprises might be.

So, here goes:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: The last few years the Academy has nominated nine films for Best Picture, but the number can be anywhere between 5 and 10. I went with 10 this year, although I think the potential nominees most likely not to make the list are Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Philomena, and/or The Wolf of Wall Street. If there's one more film that could sneak in instead, it's Inside Llewyn Davis. And if I voted, among these nominees would be one of my favorite films of the year, Fruitvale Station.

Best Actor
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

Analysis: I'd love to see Christian Bale on this list for American Hustle instead of Redford (scandalous, I know), but I don't think that will happen. Leonardo DiCaprio could sneak in for The Wolf of Wall Street as well. I thought Oscar Isaac was fantastic in Inside Llewyn Davis, but I can't imagine that will happen.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Analysis: I worry about Amy Adams' lock on a nomination, but I think she so deserves one. The one I'm most unsure of is Meryl Streep for August: Osage County, which many have said was one of her best performances. Do voters have Streep fatigue, or will they give her an 18th nomination? Judi Dench could take her place for Philomena, but again, is there Dench fatigue in the Academy? Kate Winslet has an outside chance for Labor Day (she got a Golden Globe nod), but I doubt it. In my perfect world, the amazing Brie Larson would get nominated for Short Term 12, but hey.

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Analysis: James Gandolfini could sneak in here, with a posthumous nod for his fantastic performance in Enough Said. There's also an outside possibility that either Tom Hanks or Matthew McConaughey could be a double nominee, with a nod for Saving Mr. Banks or The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively. I'd cheer if Will Forte squeezed his way in for his great work in Nebraska, but I won't get my hopes up.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler

Analysis: No offense, Oprah fans, but I'm hoping her name doesn't get called tomorrow morning. I just didn't think her performance was substantial enough for a nod—she did a lot of glowering and smoking. (And I'm not saying her time on screen wasn't substantial enough, I just didn't think the role was.) But I expect her to get nominated, partially because it will be the only major recognition the movie gets, and partially because, well, she's Oprah. Sally Hawkins was phenomenal in Blue Jasmine, but seeing as she didn't get an Oscar nod after winning a Best Actress Golden Globe for Happy Go-Lucky a few years back, I don't think it will happen here.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: This is the toughest category to predict, partially because now there are never enough nominees to match the Best Picture nominees, and partially because the directors' branch is notoriously ornery some years. (They didn't nominate Ben Affleck last year and Argo won Best Picture!) Scorsese might miss out this year, in place of Alexander Payne for Nebraska, Spike Jonze for Her, or even the Coen Brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis.

How close will I come? I'll report back tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father" by Alysia Abbott

Alysia Abbott was two years old when her mother was killed in a car accident. Her parents had a rather unorthodox relationship (it was the early 1970s, after all)—her father was bisexual and dated men while he and her mother were together, while her mother also dated other men, including a suicidal patient she counseled as a psychologist.

After her mother's death, Alysia and her father, Steve, moved to San Francisco, where he fully immersed himself in the gay culture of the city. A poet, writer, and activist, Steve was determined to find his place in the literary world and, most importantly, find a man to share his life with. And while he was committed to ensuring Alysia had a good life and was cared for, as many parents can understand, sometimes his responsibilities as a father didn't necessarily dovetail with his own wants and desires.

"If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure. He tried to do what he thought was best even if he didn't always know what 'best' was or how to achieve it."

Fairyland is a complex and poignant tribute. Using her father's letters, journal entries, and other writings, combined with her own recollections, Alysia Abbott tells the story of an emotional, unshakeable bond, but one which was difficult at times to maintain. As she grew up, Alysia wanted a "normal" life more than anything—even in San Francisco, she knew no other children being raised by a single gay parent. She was forced to hide her father's sexuality from her maternal grandparents, but she chose to hide it from school friends and others, preferring to tell peers that her father was so consumed by grief over her mother's death that he couldn't handle another relationship.

More than anything, Alysia resented having to share her father with his literary pursuits and his search for a romantic relationship, and Steve resented Alysia's lack of respect for his needs and her treatment of his potential boyfriends. At times, the burden of fatherhood overwhelmed him.

"My father expressed resentment because I asked him to fix me breakfast when, at age four, I was 'perfectly capable of doing it alone.' Maybe Dad couldn't understand my needs because our life was populated by so many needy wanderers like himself, young people escaping bad homes and bad marriages, all searching for their true selves and open to anything that might further that quest."

Alysia didn't remember when her father told her he was HIV-positive, but she never truly accepted that diagnosis, which in the 1980s proved to be a death sentence for most people. She never dealt with the idea that one day her father would grow so ill that he'd need her to care for him, that one day he'd die. As Fairyland chronicled the decline of Steve's health and his growing dependency on Alysia, it was truly accurate in the range of emotions that family members go through when their loved one is dying.

The book doesn't paint an altogether rosy picture of Alysia and Steve's life together. Alysia is fairly honest in depicting her flaws and how they affected her relationship with her father—she was often selfish, demanding, and resentful of others who tried to become part of Steve's life. It's clear it's taken her many years to come to terms with some of her feelings about her father. At the same time, Steve's journal entries clearly delineate his own struggles with fatherhood and how he sometimes wished he didn't have to care for his daughter himself. I found myself sympathizing with both people at different times throughout the book.

I really enjoyed this. It was beautifully written and while it is emotionally moving, it isn't maudlin, which it certainly could have been. It's also evocative in its depiction of how the early days of the AIDS crisis affected the gay community in San Francisco. I feel grateful that Alysia Abbott was willing to share her father and their life with us.

"Dad could always make me feel better when the world outside made me feel strange. Dad was the one who loved me best of all."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cool cover song of the week...

One of my favorite 80s heavy metal songs is Quiet Riot's Cum On Feel the Noize. Ironically, since this blog post features a cover version of that song, Quiet Riot's version is also a cover, of Slade's 1973 hit. While the song was Slade's fourth #1 hit in the United Kingdom, it never made it big in the U.S., peaking at #98 on the Billboard chart. Quiet Riot's 1983 version, on the other hand, hit #5 on the charts, and was actually the first heavy metal song to reach the top 5.

I've been a big fan of Oasis since I first heard their music in the mid-1990s. While the offstage antics of the Gallagher brothers got a bit exhausting, I've always loved their sound, and both brothers bring that sensitivity to their post-Oasis projects.

Here, Oasis brings their quintessentially-Oasis sound to their cover of Cum On Feel the Noize:

Here's Quiet Riot's version:

And here's Slade'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

Roar by Oscar Isaac

Time After Time by Quietdrive

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Review: "This Song Will Save Your Life" by Leila Sales

Wow, I loved this book. If you've ever felt like you don't fit in, or that no one understands who you really are, this book is for you.

Elise Dembowski has never quite gotten it right, socially speaking. Deemed a social misfit through no real fault of her own (except she's driven to try to hard), she's never really had any friends, and she's been the butt of every joke. Ostracized in every way, she has always turned to music for comfort, feeling secure with her headphones on and music playing.

"I was born to be unpopular. There was no other way it could have gone."

The summer before her sophomore year of high school, she is determined that this year will be different. She spends the entire summer studying the latest trends, the latest gossip about fashion, celebrities, and music, and spends more money than she'd like on trendier clothes. Yet when the first day of school arrives, she's virtually ignored by her classmates, and it becomes too much to bear.

"They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can't change that. I know because I tried."

Nearly at the end of her rope, one night she accidentally discovers Start, an underground dance party. No one there knows her, and, more importantly, the people she meets seem to like her. Before long she is sneaking out of her mother's house every Thursday night to attend Start, and starts to develop some friendships—with Vicky, the confident singer who knows all too well what Elise has gone through; Pippa, a confident, cocky English girl and Vicky's best friend; and Char, a cute DJ who takes Elise under his wing.

It is at Start that Elise starts to blossom and feel more confident. Even though the rest of her life continues in the same fashion it always has, at Start, she is accepted, because no one knows the way she has been treated all these years. Char teaches her how to DJ, and she takes a shine to it—and to Char. But of course, she begins to realize that finally being accepted, finding friends as well as something that you love to do all comes with a price, and rules you never realized you had to be mindful of. And once again, Elise struggles with the isolation of high school and feeling like no one truly knows or understands the real her.

I thought this was pretty excellent. I certainly identified with some of the feelings Elise had and understood her isolation, loneliness, and lack of self-worth, so the story really resonated for me. The characters were clever and complex without being stereotypical teens, and they weren't too quirky—everything that happened was completely believable. Leila Sales really did a great job hooking me almost instantaneously on Elise's story, and I read the entire book in a little more than a day. (Of course, I was sad once I finished, because I could have spent more time with these characters.)

This Song Will Save Your Life is another example of how excellent the young adult genre is these days. I never once felt like the book was below my comprehension level, and it didn't seem necessarily geared to a younger reader. If you know how Elise felt, you'll be moved by this book. So glad I read it. While this book didn't save my life, it impacted me, even in a small way.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: "The Empty Chair: Two Novellas" by Bruce Wagner

"If it were possible to hold all of the people's stories all of the time in one's head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end, each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail."

In The Empty Chair, Bruce Wagner tells of the Buddhist spiritual journeys taken by two utterly disparate people. Both stories, which happens years apart from each other, are linked in a tenuous way which might strain your memory a little bit, and are told to a fictional Bruce Wagner.

The first novella is the story of an aging gay Buddhist in Big Sur, California. He has led a difficult life, having been repeatedly molested by a priest in his local church, which led him to experience panic attacks as an adult. But he pursued a somewhat romantic relationship with a woman who was enchanted by Buddhism, and had a son, who was the center of their universe. As his wife taught a basic form of Buddhism in prisons (including San Quentin) and then in schools, he raised their son as a stay-at-home father. But their lives were rocked when their 12-year-old son committed suicide, and he has been unable to settle down since that tragedy, traveling in a Volkswagen bus.

The second novella follows Queenie, a larger-than-life woman who was a wild child, sleeping around with dangerous men and taking drugs. She met Kura, a criminal who longs to become a saint, when he saved her life after she was attacked by a boyfriend outside of a nightclub. Kura rescued her, took care of her, and brought her to India on his search for his spiritual guru. Although she ultimately left Kura to follow his own spiritual journey, she always thought of him, and when he calls her 27 years later to ask her to join him in finding the guru again (who has disappeared), she doesn't blink an eye.

I just didn't get this book. Admittedly, I don't know much about Buddhism, but while the book is upfront about its subject matter, I expected the religion to be touched on in a more superficial way, more an Eat, Pray, Love-type of journey than one that delves so deeply in its details. Buddhist terms and figures are used repeatedly without any real background—I honestly felt like the book should have come with a prerequisite that you know a certain amount first.

Wagner's literary device of a narrator recounting the stories he is told as if they're being told to him at that moment didn't work for me either. The narratives were tremendously stream-of-consciousness, which made them difficult to follow. In the first novella, for example, the main character went on extended riffs about the Beat poets and his relationship with the widow of Beat figure Neal Cassady, which detracted from the meat of the plot. And while his son's suicide was tragic, the way it was told, and the details he used, made me uncomfortable at times.

I've never read any of Wagner's books before, but I recognize his ability to give his characters strong voices, so I may try a different one. All of the reviews I've seen of this book have been tremendously positive, so it may be my lack of spiritual awareness buffered me from the book's appeal.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that left a number of human beings with extraordinary powers—some have the ability to change shape, some have superhuman strength, some can create powerful and believable illusions. The public called these people Epics, and had great hopes that they would be able to save the damaged world.

But great ability breeds arrogance, the need for power and control. The Epics kill whomever they want, whenever they want. And the strongest of all of the Epics—Steelheart—has taken control over Newcago, blocking out the sun, and leaving its citizens dependent upon his generosity for food, electricity, shelter, jobs, and their safety.

"I know, better than anyone else, that there are no heroes coming to save us. There are no good Epics. None of them protect us. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We live with them. We try to exist despite them."

Steelheart is said to be invincible. But David knows the truth. Eight years ago, Steelheart killed David's father and countless others in a heartless attack. Steelheart thought there were no survivors of that day, but David escaped undetected. And he saw that Steelheart bled from a gunshot wound, so he is not as invincible as everyone believes.

"I've seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again."

Since the day his father died, David has been quietly studying the Epics, memorizing their skills and their weaknesses, and plotting a strategy by which he may one day get his revenge on the Epic responsible for his father's death. He is determined to join the Reckoners, a shadowy band of ordinary people led by Prof, which is determined to fight and destroy as many Epics as they can. What they lack in numbers they make up for in stealth and innovative technologies. David believes he can encourage the Reckoners to adopt his plan and help him destroy Steelheart, but that is a decision that isn't readily shared by all of the Reckoners.

"'The work we do,' Prof said, 'is not about living. Our job is killing. We'll leave the regular people to live their lives, to find joy in them, to enjoy the sunrises and the snowfalls. Our job is to get them there."

Getting to Steelheart is even more dangerous and complicated than any of the Reckoners, especially David, ever imagined. And after 10 years of thinking about nothing but revenge, he is suddenly forced to confront the question of whether the people of Newcago will be better off without Steelheart, or if having no one to ensure they have food, electricity, and jobs is worse than living under the thumb of a mercurial, homicidal dictator.

How do you know what is the right decision? When you've been consumed with one thought and one thought only for so long, how do you allow yourself to consider a different path? Are you protecting people if you expose them to other hardships? Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart is a tremendously creative, compelling, and complex book, one I really enjoyed. The whole idea of the Epics and the Reckoners is fascinating, and the amount of detail Sanderson put into development of his characters really showed in the book. This is the first book in a projected series, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for these characters.

Friday, January 3, 2014

My favorite books of 2013...

I've been reading for as long as I can remember—it's honestly one of my favorite activities, because it exposes me to some amazingly creative minds and breathtakingly beautiful language. Reading also makes me feel a wide range of emotions—I've been moved to tears, I've been angered and/or frustrated, impressed, inspired, humored, and intrigued, and I've also been compelled to question things around me or shift my way of thinking. But more than that, reading relaxes me. And when you're a type-AAA personality like I am, you take every opportunity to relax you can!

This year I read 126 books. (I actually started, but didn't finish, a few more, as I just couldn't get into them.) I read some absolutely fantastic books, some good ones, and only a few I really disliked. Amazingly, some of the best books I read this year are classified in the "young adult" genre, although there's nothing "young adult" about the writing, the subject matter, or the way they made me feel. It goes to prove that this genre is so much more than books about vampires, wizards, other-worldly beings, and dystopia. (Not that there's anything wrong with those things.)

As I've done the past few years, I've selected 20 of the best books I read this past year, plus five more that just fell short of the top 20 but I still think they're too good to miss. I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my selections, and what your favorite books were in 2013. One thing you know you can always talk with me about is books!

So here goes, in random order:

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: The second book I read in 2013 has stayed with me all this time. (Plus it left me a sobbing mess.) Louisa has lived a fairly sheltered, uneventful life in the English town where she grew up. Will was a ruthless, take-no-prisoners businessman, who lived to the extreme in every aspect of his life, until a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. When Louisa becomes Will's caregiver (despite not having any experience in this sort of work), the two begin a relationship of mutual respect and friendship, following a very rough start. When Louisa realizes that she could be the catalyst to changing Will's outlook on life and his desire to keep on living, she does everything in her power to make that happen, not understanding the toll it will take on her life and her relationships—not to mention how it will affect Will. Read my original review.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: 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. Beautifully written, and sadly, finished just before Rakoff's death. Read my original review (written mostly in verse, no less).

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan: Seventeen-year-old former boyfriends Harry and Craig are planning to set a new Guinness World Record for continuous kissing, over 32 hours. As their families and friends rally around and react to this decision, Levithan's fantastically moving book also follows two other young gay couples and two gay teens, dealing with their own issues. And it's 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. Read my original review.

Indiscretion by Charles Dubow: Boy, did I love this book, about lifelong friendships, love, devotion, passion, infidelity, and desire. Can you truly love two people at once? Can you spend your entire life loving someone from a distance and be happy only with their proximity? Does betrayal truly kill long-time love? The world of literature is full of books about infidelity, so you may wonder what makes this superlative debut novel so good when there are so many books out there that tell similar stories. While the story may not be unique, Dubow draws you into his characters' lives and gets you so fully immersed that you can't help but be hooked by what happens to them. And even if you can predict what might happen, the journey to those incidents is so worthwhile it doesn't matter if you've seen it all before. Read my original review.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: When the tsunami hit Asia in December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala and her family were vacationing on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. After the water subsided, she survived, while her husband, two young sons, and her parents all died. While she sustained physical trauma, her emotional trauma was far worse. How could she continue living her life when her entire family was gone? Why did she survive while everyone else died? When every day of her life was defined by her being a wife, a mother, and a daughter, what would happen now? An emotionally powerful account of the days, months, and years of Deraniyagala's life following the tsunami. Read my original review.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey: In the mid 1980s, children with exceptional gifts, labeled "brilliants," started to be 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. In the present (although in a world different than our own), 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. One elite member of the Department is Agent Nick Cooper—ruthless, intelligent, driven, and a brilliant himself, drawn to the department to create a safer world. An absolutely phenomenal, compelling, and intriguing read. Read my original review.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Contrary to the title, this isn't just a book about marriage, but a collection of articles and other writings (as well as two commencement addresses) that Ann Patchett has published in recent years. Many of the articles touch on relationships—with her husband; her brief, disastrous first marriage; her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy; her grandmother; her dog; one of the nuns that taught her in Catholic school; even her relationship with her work. Thought-provoking, humorous, and, at times, tremendously moving. Read my original review.

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough: Cal and Kristin Stevens are forced to leave their longtime California home and move across the country, after Kristin loses her job as a university administrator and finds a position at a lesser state school in Massachusetts. Matt Drinnan, an aspiring author forced to start his life over after some mistakes completely derailed his job and his marriage, spends his days trying to fill the emptiness. Filled with regret and what-ifs, he attempts to figure out what is next for him. As Matt and Kristin's relationship intensifies beyond friendship, they find themselves stepping into territory that has many potentially negative consequences for both of them, professionally and personally, as well as Cal. Moving, well-told, and beautifully written. Read my original review.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My favorite songs of 2013...

As I've said numerous times before, music is a huge part of my life. I listen to the radio whenever I'm in the car, I'm attached to my iPod when at the gym or on an airplane, and of course, I tend to find myself singing—a lot—whenever the opportunity allows. So, as I did last year, I've assembled a list of my top 20 favorite songs of the year (no small feat, this), and linked to a YouTube video for each.

While this list is in random order, my favorite song of the year is:

1. Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert: In January of 2013, I wrote about how much this song moved me, and it still does, every time I hear it. I am grateful to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for bringing this message to mainstream radio. "I might not be the same, but that's not freedom 'til we're equal, damn right I support it."

2. The Wire by HAIM: I love so much about this song, and everything about this trio of sisters. This song has an awesome 70s-ish vibe mixed with a terrific hook. Check out their entire album.

3. Wake Me Up by Avicii: You cannot escape from this song on the radio these days, plus they're fond of playing it in spin classes at my gym. But you can't miss with a beat like this, or Aloe Blacc's uncredited vocals.

4. Beneath Your Beautiful by Labrinth feat. Emeli Sandé: This is a fantastic pairing of newcomer Labrinth and the sublime Emeli Sandé, whom I would let sing me anything she wanted to just to hear her voice. Plus I think the lyrics are far less insipid than so many other songs out there right now.

5. Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke feat. Pharrell & T.I.: Yeah, yeah, I know. The lyrics are misogynistic, and Robin Thicke might not be the most upstanding gentleman out there. But I haven't been able to get this song out of my head since I first heard it, although I have refrained from asking, "What rhymes with hug me?" Gotta love a song that has generated so many parodies.

6. Cups (Pitch Perfect's "When I'm Gone") by Anna Kendrick: I was a little late to discover the magic of Pitch Perfect, but I am no stranger to the appeal of Anna Kendrick. Makes me want to pick up some flip cups, or something.

7. Brave by Sara Bareilles: Another awesome song with a terrific message that took the airwaves by storm this year. I've been a fan of Sara Bareilles' for years, and I'm thrilled about her success, as well as the popularity of this song. Be brave.

8. Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars: Whether you think Bruno Mars is a spectacular talent or a Michael Jackson wannabe (and I definitely fall into the former camp), this song is almost guaranteed to make you start moving at least one part of your body. (Or at least do the refrain along with him. It's okay. I won't tell.)

9. Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz: Hell, yeah. The song that single-handedly made thrift shops cool, plus an unbelievable hook. This is, indeed, f--king awesome.

10. Don't You Worry Child by Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin: Yes, another song you can't get out of your head. But how can you hate on a song with a lyric like, "Don't you worry, don't you worry child, see heaven's got a plan for you"?

Movie Review: "Enough Said"

Everybody has their own opinions. Some are more willing to share them than others, and some people allow themselves to be guided by others' opinions. But does that make us wise, for protecting ourselves, or does that keep us from experiencing the ups and downs of life?

Eva (a less quirky Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a masseuse. She spends much of her time listening to her clients without talking, and that passivity translates to her personal life as well—while she's sad about her daughter Ellen leaving for college, she can't seem to put her feelings into words. While she certainly doesn't lack for opinions, she's more willing to play peacemaker than create or add to any tensions around her.

At a party she attends with her somewhat-unhappily-married friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), Eva meets two different people—Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet interested in Eva's services, and Albert (James Gandolfini), who is more interested in Eva, although their initial repartee proves somewhat awkward. But when Albert asks her out on a date, she realizes that she enjoys his company and grows more attracted to him the more time she spends with him. The two share a lot in common, including the fact that they are both anxious about their daughters going across country for college in the fall.

Eva discovers that her newest massage client, Marianne, is a bundle of opinions and complaints, particularly about her ex-husband, whose habits, appearance, and very existence continue to trouble her long after their divorce. Although Marianne is prickly and particular, she and Eva become friends separate from the massages. Yet the more time Eva spends with Marianne, the pieces start to fall into place, and Eva realizes that Marianne's ex-husband, the supposedly slovenly, immature, obese loser, is actually Albert.

A person in their right mind, when put into this situation, would admit the connection she shares with both people. But Eva cannot seem to do this, and although she finds herself truly falling for Albert, she can't tear herself away from hearing all of Marianne's criticisms of him. And then she starts focusing on those foibles Marianne had problems with, to the expense of the good things. In her mind, it's still more effective to learn the bad things before getting more serious.

This is a tremendously funny and sweet movie. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a much more complex character than she usually does on television (but still one who resorts to humor in awkward situations), and her performance proves how gifted of an actress she is, for light drama as well as comedy. James Gandolfini plays a different role than he usually has as well, and is vulnerable, sensitive, funny, insecure, and (dare I say it?) lovable. Catherine Keener has the less sympathetic part, but tears into it with prickly gusto.

There's an underlying bittersweet quality to this movie, as it was Gandolfini's second-to-last movie before his sudden death last summer. Much like The Dark Knight following Heath Ledger's death, every nuance of Gandolfini's performance is magnified because of his loss. One can only wonder whether the success of this movie and the reviews he received would have encouraged him to seek out more vulnerable and sensitive roles in addition to the typical parts he often played.

I enjoyed this movie a great deal. You know you're invested in the characters when you want to smack them so they'll behave the way you want them to. Nicole Holofcener's script and direction are terrific, and the movie will make you feel both happy and sad when it's done, but so glad you've seen it.