Friday, February 28, 2014

AI Results Recap: Someday You'll Find It, The Emotional Connection...

The best way to watch one of these results shows is when it has been recorded, so you can fast forward through all of the unnecessary banter and artificial tension. I mean, I know at some point I'll be frustrated, so why postpone the inevitable.

The show started with a surprisingly decent group medley of Counting Stars by OneRepublic and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. Even with Ben's ridiculously annoying tomfoolery (because I'm like, you know, 100 years old) and Kristen showing more energy in the two solo lines she sang than any of her performances the last two weeks, their voices blended very well.

Apparently there were 71 million votes cast. Of course, I can only wonder how many of those votes actually happened after particular contestants performed. Because given some of the people who were safe, I can only figure they survived because of rabid fan bases.

The first group to hear the results were Malaya, Jena, Ben, and Alex. Again, I'll reiterate how much I hate that they constantly make these contestants walk thru the audience so they can high-five folks as they're going to hear results. To the surprise of no one, Malaya was sent to the stools of doom. Oh, wait, apparently Jennifer was surprised. She said she was upset Malaya was in the bottom three because although her performance "didn't show who she was" (among other things), "she belongs here."

Last year's champ, Candice Glover, came back to perform a medley of two of her songs, Cried and Some Kind of Man. She sounded great but she doesn't have a tremendous amount of stage presence. It's a shame given how talented she is that her album had the lowest sales of any Idol winner to date (even Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze).

Next up for the results, MK, Sam, Majesty and Dexter. In my opinion, Dexter should have been the one in the bottom three, but of course not! He's likeable and he's from the South! Instead, MK was sent to the stools of doom. And if that didn't make me irate enough, when Keith was asked what MK would need to do if she came back next week, and he said, "It needs to be about the emotional connection. It's not about vocal skills." And there you have it.

This season each of the judges and Randy will play "tastemaker" and highlight an up and coming artist. Keith introduced Jake Bugg, a 17-year-old English country singer who sounds a lot like Josiah Leming did when he was on the show (although Bugg's accent is authentic). The "rawr" quality of his voice didn't translate for me, Keith.

Of the last group of contestants—C.J., Kristen, Caleb, Jessica and Emily—it seemed fairly obvious who was headed for the stools. And I was correct, the beautiful disaster herself, Kristen was told she was in the bottom three.

So unless anything changes, it looks like the ladies may be doomed again this season. (It's sad that the only way this show can guarantee a female winner is to stack the deck.) This year the judges' save will expire at the top 6. Will they use it?

MK was sent to safety first. When Ryan asked Kristen what she'd do if she was back next week, she said show an iota of energy"try and be more myself." Malaya was asked if she'd bring back the piano, where she had success in Hollywood, and she said she might, but she also said, "I'll try and calm down." (Don't go breaking my heart, Malaya.)

Kristen was given the bad news that she'd have to sing for her life. She chose to reprise her rendition of Turning Tables from "Rush Week," and it was just a wee bit wobbly. Harry explained that the key to using the save was that it had to be a unanimous decision among the judges to use it, and the judges couldn't agree, so Kristen is the first person voted off the islandwell, you know.

After the montage of her experience (accompanied by Kristen's own rendition of Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway), her picture in a row of pictures of each of the top 13 was darkened, Hunger Games-style. I'm surprised they didn't shoot off a cannon.

And there you have it. Next week, the theme is "Home." Whatever that means. I'm guessing Caleb may sing Home Sweet Home and perhaps Dexter or C.J. can sing Sweet Home Alabama?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: "Apple Tree Yard" by Louise Doughty

"When you are a rational human being, with free will and agency, is there any such thing as a point of no return?"

Yvonne Carmichael is a renowned geneticist, well-established in her career. She and her husband Guy, a fellow scientist she met while in college, is loving and comfortable, and they have two adult children. One day, after testifying before a committee of Parliament on a scientific issue, she meets a man. They talk, they walk, her takes her by the arm, and leads her to a little-used chapel in the basement. And Yvonne begins to undress.

The two begin an affair, despite the fact that she doesn't know her lover's name at first, and he has kept most of his life a mystery from her. He is constantly paranoid, worried that Yvonne might say something to someone, or that their relationship might be discovered. Because of his need to control the situation, Yvonne believes her lover must be a spy for the British government, a fact that excites her almost as much as their relationship has. She knows that they can only see each other at certain times, yet she longs for more, longs for the passion he has ignited in her.

As the pair's relationship wanes and intensifies, one night Yvonne finds herself confronting an utterly unexpected danger from another direction. And it is there the course of her life changes, as she suddenly finds herself, along with her lover, on trial for murder. She is prepared to do just as he has always told her, disclose as little about their relationship as possible so the truth will not be discovered. Or will it?

"Relationships are about stories, not truth. Alone, as individuals, we each have our own personal mythologies, the stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. That generally works fine as long as we stay sane and single, but the minute you enter an intimate relationship with another person there is an automatic dissonance between your story about yourself and his or her story about you."

Apple Tree Yard tells a familiar story, one of love, longing, secrets, and betrayal. Yet in Louise Doughty's hands, the story seems fresh and tremendously interesting, even though you're fairly certain where the plot will go. Yvonne's character is so well drawn, so complex (if not entirely sympathetic), you can truly see how she found herself in the middle of a relationship she never expected, as well as trouble she never imagined. Yvonne never really makes any excuses for her actions, but you understand them, and as the story unfolds you realize that even the most intelligent people have blind spots they're unaware of.

I really enjoyed this book and thought Doughty was an excellent storyteller. It takes a talented writer to make you want to continue reading a story you've seen before, but there are still a good number of twists and turns to keep you thinking. There aren't many books I've read lately with this type of protagonist, and it really worked for me. And it certainly makes you consider your own life, your own relationships, and how a seemingly rational person could be so overtaken by desire and fear.

"Is heartbreak even possible now, I wonder? I'm fifty-two. Anyone my age knows that all things pass. If the transitory nature of our feelings means that true heartbreak is impossible, then where does that leave happiness?"

Give this one a read.

AI Top 13 Recap: Who's Got the Yang?

Yeah, I decided to give this season a try. We'll see how long it lasts.

I didn't watch any of the audition or Hollywood episodes, just watched last week, when the top 31 was culled to a top 13. One thing I've noticed is there's far too much touching going on, so I'd imagine Howie Mandel won't be able to watch. The contestants ran into the audience touching their hands, even the judges did the same thing. Sorry, it just creeps me out. I long for the days when the judges sat at their inaccessible table, and the contestants performed up on stage without any of the frolicking in the middle of the audience. Maybe I'm just a germaphobe...

One other thing before I start the actual recap of "This is Me" week. So now you can vote starting at the beginning of the show? What's the point of the show, then? Are the new producers finally acknowledging that the bulk of voters don't actually care about the contestants' performances (kind of like the judges sometimes), but just vote for who they like because they're cute, or from the South, or whatever?

Anyway. The contestants had the opportunity to choose a song that defined themselves as people and as artists. The good news is that this theme led to some songs I never thought I'd hear on the show being performed, and only three songs that have been performed in previous years. Not to say there weren't some dubious choices. And prior to each performance, Randy mumbled some nonsense to try and explain why he's still on the show. (Example: "If Jessica can connect with the song, she'll be a winner." As my friend Kevin would say, "Deep.") The rest of the show Randy sat, grinning and nodding uselessly, like a cross between Buddha and a benevolent don. (Can I start the #bringbackjimmyiovine campaign?)

Dexter kicked off the show, singing Chris Young's Aw Naw (had to Google it). Like Dexter, it was a perfectly nice performance, one you'd expect to hear at a bar or karaoke club. He seems like a terrific guy, but he's lacking a bit in charisma and any kind of vocal star quality. Keith called it "a great cover version," but said Dexter needed to make the song "more Dexter." Harry tried blaming the contestants' ear monitors for the fact that Dexter sung out of tune (a refrain he hit a number of times during the evening). Jennifer urged Dexter to use his personality more, and lamented that the song was too low for him and didn't hit the "sweet spot" of his voice. (Haven't heard that sweet spot in either of the two performances of his I've seen; does it exist or is it as elusive as useful suggestions from the Dawg?)

As soon as I saw Malaya bounding onto the stage, full of puppy-like energy, I wrote down, Tone the shtick down. Seriously. I get it, you're young, you're excited, but enough. She chose to sing Bruno Mars' Runaway Baby, previously performed to perfection by Season 11 third-place finisher Joshua Ledet (go to 2:48 in the video), and promised to bring her patented "Slyonce" (a cross between Sly of Sly and the Family Stone and Beyonce). Well, that didn't happen. But what did was a manic, horribly off-key and out-of-breath performance, where she changed up some of the pronouns but not all, and mostly bounced around. Ugh. Jennifer called it "not your best vocal performance" (ya think?) but said she commands the stage "like a superstar." (Really?) Harry called her "a contender" but said she seemed nervous. Keith said that the show wasn't as much about the performances (umm, okay) but about "watching you grow, and what you can do from here forward." I think she's in trouble, despite her promises to bring her tuba on the show.

So when you choose to a sing a song that defines you, would you choose one called Beautiful Disaster? Well, inexplicably, Kristen chose the aforementioned Kelly Clarkson song, and although the song is about loving a guy despite his flaws, Kristen explained that she was interpreting it to be about her, because she got into the top 13 on a wild card and needed to go for it, and whatever. Well, she didn't go for it. She's beautiful, and has a good voice, but her performances I've seen on the show have absolutely no oomph to them. She certainly has more talent than previous "pretty" contestants, but if she gets lucky and stays on the show past this week, she has to have (and I can't believe I'm saying this) a "moment." Keith said Kristen is a "really strong pop singer" but wasn't wowed, and Jennifer told her to "stop thinking and sing."

Dear Ben: stop trying so hard. Maybe you really are the small-town country guy who's not comfortable on social media, but asking, "Whatever happened to the Polaroid camera?" when talking about Instagram smacks of pretension. (And small-town country guys don't wear a leather baseball cap, a vest, and a tie.) He sang Johnny Cash's classic Folsom Prison Blues, which Paul McDonald sang during Season 10. Apparently Ben (or "Briley," as Ryan likes to call him, as if they're fratboys or whatever) opens every gig he plays with this song. It was really, really fast (even faster than Paul's version), and although he hit some good notes, at times his voice sounded both nasal and too high. Keith said the tempo was so quick that "Johnny might have done that a time or two with the help of a stimulant." He also told Ben to be careful when he entertained "not to sacrifice artistry for kitsch." Jennifer said it was the best performance so far (damned with faint praise, considering what had come before), and Harry said he gained respect for Ben because he "picked a song from our country's history." (Wonder what would have happened if he chose a Scott Joplin number, or perhaps a Revolutionary War ditty. I kid.)

C.J. sang Darius Rucker's Radio, and, Darius Rucker this guy is not. I guess he must have shown the judges something in Hollywood that has made them such a huge fan, but I've not been impressed with anything he's performed to date, and I wouldn't have given him a wild card last week. I get he's going for some gravel in his tone, but a lot of times he just sounds off-key to me (and it's not just the ear monitors). Jennifer said it was a lot of fun, that he may have had pitch problems (no "may" about it, J.Lo) but she could feel his energy. (He wasn't nearly as energetic as his cousin dancing in the audience!) Harry said that C.J. has a "cry" in his voice, and it has spoiled him, so he was disappointed that C.J. didn't show that off in this song. Keith said that C.J. emulated Darius Rucker's combination of "country, soul, and R&B swagger." Disagree.

MK decided to change things up and not sing a ballad, instead choosing Allen Stone's Satisfaction, a more uptempo song which I, like J.Lo, had never heard before. I really like MK and I'm excited she's getting the type of response she is on the show, but a tiny piece of me can't help but wonder if people are pandering to her in an effort to overcompensate. I actually thought this wasn't a very good performance vocally—I like the richness of her tone but her high notes tend to wobble, and this song had a lot more background vocals to distract. But the crowd and the judges seemed to really like it, although Keith said at times it looked like she was "waiting for the next line" of the song. Jennifer said that MK showed "confidence in patches" but sometimes looked like a deer in headlights, while Harry said that MK's voice never fails her. Guess it's another case of something sounding better in the studio than on television.

I really enjoyed Majesty's performance last week, and I felt she topped that with this week's rendition of Janelle Monae's Tightrope. She looked great, sounded terrific, and is a very strong performer. I loved the song choice, and so did the judges. (I never thought I'd hear Janelle Monae on this show, and I'm really excited about it.) Jennifer praised Majesty's style, telling her there's no one else like her, and Keith called her "a mystery," saying "it will be fun to watch the mystery of who you are unravel over the weeks."

Jena (who apparently told Ryan her hair was actually "s--t brown" under the black dye before her performance) sang Coldplay's The Scientist, which was previously performed by Season 9 semi-finalist Katelyn Epperly. I love Jena's voice and think she's definitely a strong contender on this show. I really liked this performance, although it seemed a bit too slow at times. The judges praised her "unique" and "powerhouse" voice, while Harry praised her "interesting choices on a preexisting melody."

If Elliot Yamin and Lee DeWyze had a love child, it would look like Alex. He's probably my favorite contestant, and this week he sang Jason Mraz's A Beautiful Mess. (Boy, I would have loved it if he sang Mraz's If It Kills Me.) I really liked this performance, his singing in a single red spotlight, despite the swaying of the audience (which I hate), although I think he may need to pick things up a little bit in a week or two. Harry inexplicably asked if he could "try to sing in tune" because he knows Alex can. (What? No ear monitor excuses there, Harry?) He also didn't like the "inward, introspective" nature of the performance. Keith disagreed, saying he felt pulled into Alex's performance. J.Lo agreed with Keith, calling the performance a really nice change, and she said she was "caught up in the mood." I'm going to reserve my judgment on Harry's comments, but I hope this isn't a contestant he tries to sabotage in favor of someone less talented.

Those of you who know me know I don't often admit I'm wrong, but Jessica's performance will cause me to do so. I was utterly underwhelmed by her performance last week, and since I didn't watch any of her earlier performances, wrote her off as a country performer who liked to pretend she was edgy. But her rendition of Shinedown's The Crow and the Butterfly was excellent—hard, gritty, and soulful—and I totally get her now. J.Lo said Jessica gave her "goosies" and that her performance was her favorite so far. Harry praised the "dark, haunting quality" of her voice. Really liked this.

Emily chose to sing P!nk's Glitter in the Air (otherwise known as the song P!nk sang at the Grammys while dangling in the air). She did really well with it, and I thought her voice was really powerful but she didn't overdo it. J.Lo said she was "gushing" over Emily's performance, while Harry praised her for singing the melody and conveying the emotions of the song well. Keith called it "a beautiful vocal from top to bottom," but said that what P!nk brings to her performances is a mixture of ying and yang, of sensitivity and a little edge, and cautioned Emily not to forget "the yang" when she sings. Which, of course, led to the inevitable sophomoric joking of "who's got the yang." Because you can never truly get the judges away from Beavis and Butthead-like humor. (Heh-heh-heh.)

The show's resident heartthrob, Sam, sang Matchbox 20's Unwell. It was perfectly pleasant and on-key, but nothing super exciting. The ladies in the crowd went wild, as expected. Harry called the performance "nice," but said he wished that Sam's vocal mirrored the song's "messed up" vibe. J.Lo called Sam a "quiet storm" (the same words she used to describe MK earlier) and said he can sing perfectly, but he needs to start believing it. I guess for a good-looking, talented 17-year-old on this show, a little humility is refreshing.

The first true pimp slot of the season went to the "resident rocker," Caleb. He sang Rival Sons' Pressure and Time, another song I'd never heard of. I think Caleb has tremendous pipes and a great range, but I hope he'll throw some, to quote Paula Abdul (unbelievably), light and shade into his future performances. I'll need a little variety or I'll start to get a little bored, but there's no denying his talent and showmanship. Keith said Caleb needs to figure out who he is and convey that a little stronger in his performances, J.Lo said he seemed "ready for the rock star life" but he "has the goods to back it up," and Harry told Caleb that much like Journey, when they needed a new lead singer, found Arnell Pineda, if Rival Sons ever needs a new singer, Caleb should get the job.

All in all, it was a pretty good show, although I thought about turning it off after the first three performances. But it was tremendously refreshing to hear some different songs, even (amazing!) some current ones. I'm going to try and remain optimistic that the stronger contestants will remain on the show and the, well, less strong ones will be voted off first, but we'll see how long my optimism lasts.

Who should be in the bottom three: Malaya, Kristen, and either Dexter or C.J.
Who will be in the bottom three: Malaya, Kristen, and either Dexter or (although I hope not) Alex

Until tonight's mess of a results show...

Monday, February 24, 2014

My favorite movies of 2013...

Yeah, I know. Most critics do their "best of" lists at the actual end of the year they're highlighting. But then again, most critics have the chance to see all of a particular year's movies by the end of that year, and don't have to find themselves at the mercy of when the movies will be released to the "general public."

I saw 47 movies this year. That's a few more than 2012. Not bad. So now that I've had the chance to see all of the 2013 movies I could (I missed a few), I've ranked my 12 favorite movies of the year. Most won't surprise you, and you've probably seen many if not most of them, but perhaps you'll add one or two to your list of movies you need to see.

In a future blog post over the next week, I'll talk about which actors I thought gave the year's best performances, so what you'll find out is that in some cases, fantastic acting didn't make for a fantastic movie. For all except one, I linked to my full movie review if you want to read more.

1. Her: Admittedly, I'm a total sap, but Spike Jonze's smart, sensitive, thought provoking movie has so much going for it even without my emotional weakness. This commentary about a not-too-distant future where connecting with people will become so difficult that a sad sack loner (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and no one bats an eye, is funny and poignant, with lines I wish I could have recorded so I could use them again. Read my original review.

2. Fruitvale Station: Still can't get this powerful movie out of my head. It's based on the true story of Oscar Julius Grant III, a 22-year-old resident of California's Bay Area, who was inexplicably shot and killed by police at a BART station in the early hours of January 1, 2008. The movie follows Oscar (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan) on New Year's Eve Day, as the ex-con tries to put his life completely on track. You see what a good heart and soul he has (although you get glimpses of his troubled past in some flashback scenes), and how determined he is to make things work, job-wise and relationship-wise. Should have been a Best Picture nominee, at the very least. Read my original review.

3. 12 Years a Slave: Emotionally searing, painful, and powerful, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, truly brilliant), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his family in the 1840s, who is accused of being a runaway slave while traveling in Washington, DC. He winds up on the plantation of a sadistic slave owner (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender), and becomes the friend—and sole hope for salvation—of fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in a starmaking performance of dazzling proportions), with whom the plantation owner is obsessed. Absolutely fantastic movie, although difficult to watch. Should absolutely win Best Picture next Sunday. Read my original review.

4. American Hustle: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with a paunch and a bad comb-over) is a con artist married to the flighty, unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), while smitten with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, never sexier). Irving and Sydney begin scamming people as a team until they run afoul of ambitious detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, complete with Robert Reed's perm from The Brady Bunch). He forces the pair into working for him, setting people up that he can then arrest. The ultimate scam they set up seems too good to be true—convincing Camden Mayor Carmine Pulido (Jeremy Renner) to take a bribe from a fake sheik in order to rebuild Atlantic City. Richie decides that's not good enough—he wants the scam to entrap some members of Congress as well. (This is based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s.) And that's when things start to go completely haywire. Smart, tremendously well-acted, and funny. Read my original review.

5. The Way Way Back: While this isn't a film that blows you away, nor is it one that surprises with its plot, it was tremendously heartwarming and funny, and full of memorable performances. Shy, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has to spend the summer at the beach house of his mother's horrible boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type), who is abusive to everyone, especially Duncan. To escape, he finds a haven at Water Wizz, a water park straight out of the 80s allegedly managed by manchild Owen (a fantastic Sam Rockwell). This film combines the lightheartedness of summer comedies with actual sensitivity and intelligence, although it hit a little too close to home for me in a few places (and those who know me well will know why). Read my original review.

6. Short Term 12: Short Term 12 is the name of a foster care facility that focuses on teenagers with emotional issues. It's supposed to be a short-term solution until the county figures out a more permanent solution for these kids, but some wind up staying there for more than a year. The home is run by Grace (Brie Larson) and her goofy-but-lovable boyfriend Mason, who are fiercely protective of the kids but are not willing to cut them any slack. This is a quiet powerhouse of a film that keeps surprising you every time you expect it to take the usual turns. You learn surprising details about the characters, which give you more insight into their actions. In a perfect world, Brie Larson would have gotten a Best Actress nomination and Keith Stanfield, playing one of the home's residents, would have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Read my original review.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: "Golden State" by Michelle Richmond

"What I believe is this: there is no divine flow chart, no elegant spiritual mathematics through which our lives are processed. Events occur, we respond to them, we make choices, and our lives are shaped accordingly."

Julie Walker's life has been shaped by many different events. Her father died when she was young; her mother raised Julie and her younger sister, Heather, in a small, stifling Mississippi town which Julie couldn't wait to leave. When Julie left for medical school in San Francisco, she felt bad about leaving her needy sister, but she needed to reinvent herself and start her future. Heather drifted from boyfriend to boyfriend, place to place, problem to problem, and came in and out of Julie's life.

Julie met Tom, a radio disc jockey, and the two fell deeply in love. And when an unexpected incident surprises them and transforms their lives, they are truly happy. Until Heather re-enters their lives, and everything falls apart in her wake, including, little by little, Julie and Tom's marriage. Heather leaves to join the Army, and the two sisters stop speaking completely for several years.

"I understand now how families become estranged, not by design but by embarrassment. You come to a point when so much time has passed that it seems impossible to make the first move."

Heather's return throws Julie into upheaval once again, and wreaks havoc with what is left of her relationship with Tom, especially once Heather reveals her pregnancy. Yet Julie agrees to deliver Heather's baby, and the day she goes into labor turns out to be one fraught with chaos—for Julie, for the possibility of a future with Tom, for the entire state of California. Julie faces a shocking crisis which forces her to re-evaluate everything in her life, including her relationships.

Golden State is tremendously compelling, thought-provoking, emotional, and very engaging. Michelle Richmond hooks you quite quickly into Julie's life and the crises she faces, as the book follows the course of one day, with occasional reminiscences of other times in Julie's life. It's a fascinating exploration about the ties and the loyalties of our relationships, those we're born into and those we choose.

"Between a marriage one chooses and a blood relation one doesn't, shouldn't marriage be the more powerful bond?"

I enjoyed Golden State a great deal. I really liked the complexity of both Julie and Tom's characters, compelled both by what has happened and what remains unsaid. I'll admit, however, while the major incident that drives much of the plot and forces Julie to reminisce certainly is a driver of the story, I felt as if it was almost superfluous; I thought Julie's story and her relationships with her sister and her husband could have stood on their own. But it didn't detract from the power of the story.

If you see any of the reviews or publicity around this book, it's recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult or Jacquelyn Mitchard. I worried a little bit that this book would be one of the ripped-from-the-headlines-type stories Picoult is well known for, but fortunately (in my opinion), this wasn't that way at all. It's just a well-written and well-told story that definitely makes you think how you'd react in similar situations.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" by Kenneth M. Walsh

Kenneth Walsh's kenneth in the (212) is one of my favorite blogs, one I visit frequently each day. While we don't agree on everything (particular his allegiance to Roger Federer versus my Rafael Nadal fanhood), his snarky, pop culture-savvy, humorous look at society and the things that interest him never fail to amuse, enlighten, and/or expand my literary, cinematic, or musical horizons. (Plus he features daily pictures of hot guys. I'm only human.)

But reading Kenneth's blog didn't adequately prepare me for how much I would enjoy his new memoir, Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? While his frequent posts provide glimpses into his sense of humor, his pet peeves, and his passion for certain things (and people), Walsh's book is warm, self-deprecating, laugh-out-loud funny in places, and surprisingly moving. He really is an excellent and engaging writer.

Quite often while reading Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, I felt as if Walsh was speaking directly to me. Whether sharing his feelings about coming to terms with his sexuality in light of public attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s, his comfort with adults rather than his classmates (particularly several of his teachers), and struggling with the bullying of some of his peers, I found myself nodding, completely identifying with what he was saying. I was also moved by his tales of his relationship with his mother (from whom he clearly gets some of his wicked sense of humor) and his estranged father. (And Kenneth, I totally get the mouse thing—I was fortunate I had a roommate willing to handle that "issue" when I lived in a house with a small rodent problem.)

For the pop culture savant that I am, Walsh's references to everything from Family Affair (he totally envied Buffy, Jody, and Cissy) and Joyce Bulifant (Match Game enthusiasts, you'll know who I'm talking about) to the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Thomas Roberts, and vintage Good Morning America hosts David Hartman and Nancy Dussault were absolutely fantastic. And as someone who isn't quite at ease in social situations (despite my love of talking), and not particularly tolerant of other people's quirks, I really identified with Walsh's discussions of his extreme social anxiety and his battling misophonia (being distracted, even enraged by the small sounds people make that others don't hear or pay attention to).

What I loved so much about Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? is that I felt like I truly got to know what has made Kenneth Walsh the person he is, which makes me appreciate his blog all the more. This is a well-written, funny book with a lot of heart, and I enjoyed it even more than I thought I might. It's great to read a memoir about a person who has such a passion for what he does, and the things he likes, but recognizes that his life isn't perfect. Definitely a keeper.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: "A Life in Men" by Gina Frangello

If you were told you had a disease that would ultimately shorten your life, would you live your remaining days and/or years differently? Would you prize your happiness and fulfillment over others? These are just some of the questions addressed by Gina Frangello's A Life in Men, a beautifully written, compelling book that is both moving and a bit frustrating.

Mary and Nix were best friends since childhood, inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other. When Mary is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 17, it throws their friendship into a bit of an emotional uproar. The two go on a vacation trip to Greece just before college, and Nix is determined that what might be Mary's last vacation be the trip of a lifetime. Yet one tumultuous day and evening in Greece, everything changes, and their friendship rapidly dissolves, leaving Mary to wonder exactly what happened.

Three years later, Nix is dead, and Mary continues to surprise her doctors by surviving, even thriving. She moves to London, where Nix was living when she died, in an effort to try and understand what her friend became and what happened to her. It is in London, living in a group house with three men, that she embarks on her first romantic relationship, and begins a period of her life driven by impulse, the need for love and sex (and not necessarily in that order), the desire to feel as if she is living her time-limited life to the fullest, and ensure that no one is trying to shelter or protect her.

Mary's life takes her all over the world—South Africa, Mexico, Spain, Amsterdam, Morocco—and she drifts from relationship to relationship, mostly governed by her need to feel she isn't squandering what she has left of her life. Even meeting the man she believes to be the love of her life doesn't fulfill her quite the way it should—she's constantly driven by the desire to do whatever she wants. Raised by adoptive parents, she gets the chance to meet her biological father and half-brother, which also gives her the chance to be reunited with two people she thought she'd never see again.

The book shifts between Mary and Nix's time in Greece and Mary's journeys all over the world. As she begins to understand what happened to Nix that night in Greece, it compels Mary to live her life even more, despite the toll it takes on her body and her marriage. But it also helps her understand what love is, what it means to love and be loved.

I enjoyed this book and was completely drawn into the story, even as it frustrated me. While understandably, Mary's life is challenging, she's not the most sympathetic character, and I couldn't believe the way she treated people who cared about her. And as in real life, so much in this book hinged on things that weren't said, and I found myself urging the characters just to say what they're feeling or thinking. I also felt that the very last chapter in the book tied things up far too neatly and coincidentally, and that irritated me a bit.

Frangello is a terrific writer, and she created some wonderfully memorable characters and tremendously beautiful imagery of the places where Mary travels. And there's no denying this book is powerful and moving—I'll admit I got a little choked up at times. And it definitely makes you wonder how you'd live your life if confronted with the same type of diagnosis Mary was.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hoaxes don't help...

Yesterday I posted about the absolutely unacceptable way a New York mother responded to a birthday party invitation her son received from a classmate with two gay fathers. Many of you shared my outrage and cynicism.

Well, it turns out cynicism and outrage were appropriate emotions, but for the wrong reason. You see, the two people pictured above made the whole incident up.

DJs Leeana Karlson and Steve Harper, with Long Island's K-98.3, made the whole thing up. Apparently at the behest of K-98.3 management, the two admitted today that the entire story was a lie and issued an apology.
"Dear K-98.3 Listeners," the statement begins, "On Wednesday, we told you the story of Sophia's birthday party, and one parent's objection to the same-sex household of Sophia's parents. We also posted the invitation on our Facebook page, and invited comments from our followers.

"This story was, in fact, totally fictitious, and created by the two of us. This was done without the knowledge of K-98.3 management or ownership.

"We were attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic, but we made a mistake by misleading our listeners into thinking that this specific situation actually existed. "We are very sorry that we perpetuated this falsehood, even after it was clear that it had taken on a 'life of its own.' We deeply apologize for violating your trust, and we will work hard to regain that trust."
At this point the radio station's management hasn't commented on their plans for the pair. I hope they get fired and never work in radio again.

Let's face it: the type of treatment Karlson and Harper created actually does happen in our country. But when hoaxes like these catch the media's attention, they add fuel to the fire of those who deny that discrimination and prejudice exist, those who say that anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people aren't necessary. They're the reason that certain states—Kansas being one recently—can feel empowered enough to introduce a law in the state legislature that says discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons is okay.

Hoaxes like these don't help. We need to talk about these issues, to make this type of prejudice really stop, but creating a scheme to promote dialogue isn't the answer.

Book Review: "Mercy Snow" by Tiffany Baker

The town of Titan Falls, New Hampshire is ruled by its paper mill. The mill has always been a powerful fixture in the town and it still employs most of the men. Its success or failure has a direct effect on the well-being of the town, and its byproducts have tainted the Androscoggin River for years, certainly leading to a number of deaths and illnesses.

One night a tragic bus accident rocks the town, holding two families in its sway—the McCallisters, who run the mill, and the ne'er-do-well Snows, who had only recently returned to Titan Falls and now live on its fringes. When Zeke Snow is accused of causing the accident despite his innocence, his younger sister, Mercy, is determined to prove his innocence, while starting to embrace the mysterious gifts that have been handed down through generations of women in her family. All Mercy wants is normalcy, but trouble and scandal seem to follow her family wherever it goes.

June McCallister, wife of the mill's owner, reinvented herself from the poor Florida girl she once was to the woman whose actions are followed by everyone in town. When she discovers some facts about the night of the accident, and how her own family was far more involved in events than anyone knows, she is determined to protect her husband and her son at any cost, no matter what it takes—intimidation, innuendo, bribery, lies, even putting others at risk. June doesn't really want to know the full truth, about the accident or the Snows' ancestor, Gert, whose skeleton was uncovered the night of the accident, and to whom her husband's family may very well be linked.

Mercy Snow is a book with a gothic feel. It's one where no one is quite what they seem, and there are more secrets than truths. It's a story about a town where the power of some has held dominion over others, no matter what the cost, and no one wants to be the one to speak out or ask questions. It's also a story about the strength of familial relationships and all that we'll do to protect the ones we love.

This was an interesting and compelling book, and Tiffany Baker has a very evocative use of language. I wished there were a few more surprises in this book than there were; I felt as if once I got a handle on the plot and where it was going I was able to fairly accurately predict how the story would resolve itself. I also don't particularly enjoy books or movies where one character or group of characters hold all the cards and can manipulate everyone into doing what they want, even though it's wrong, although I know this happens in real life. But in the end, the star of this book is Baker's storytelling ability and the town of Titan Falls itself, both of which made the book worth reading.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Why not just say, "No, thank you"?

I realize, that much as we were told back in the day, that it takes different strokes to move the world. But try as I might, sometimes I just don't understand why people find the need to act like total jerks.

A woman in Baldwin, New York, decided she didn't want her seven-year-old son to attend his classmate Sophia's birthday party.

Does she not approve of tie-dye parties because the 70s are over? Does she think that at this age, boys shouldn't go to little girls' birthday parties?

No, none of those things. She didn't want her son to attend the party because Sophia is raised by her gay fathers.

But instead of showing her son how to handle things with class, this mother wrote on the invitation, "Tommy will NOT attend. I do not believe in what you do and will not subject my innocent son to your 'lifestyle.' I'm sorry Sophia has to grow up this way. If you have an issue or need to speak to me: [number erased]."

Seriously. As misguided as I clearly think it is to penalize a little girl for who her parents are (much as I'd like to penalize this woman's son), why was this behavior necessary? This wasn't a party where the kids were going to a same-sex marriage ceremony, a food bank helping people with AIDS, or a Human Rights Campaign Fund event. This was a little girl's birthday party. I'd wager a guess that the so-called "lifestyle" of this girl's fathers would have closely resembled everyone else's.

If there's a bright spot, when this story was originally posted on Huffington Post, the woman's phone number was still listed on her response. I'd be willing to bet she got more than a few phone calls from people telling her what they thought of her behavior.

Raising your child in the midst of ignorance and prejudice will do more harm than going to the birthday party of a girl with two dads.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: "The Cost of Living" by Rob Roberge

"The dumbest junkie I've ever met could do the quickest math imaginable about how much they had left and how long it could and would last. We can shift metric to standard in our heads and we can tally up the numbers of pills in our pockets faster than a room full of MIT grads with calculators."

Bud Barrett should know better than anyone what it's like to be a junkie. He's spent a good part of his adult life completely high, thinking about getting high, figuring out how long his high is going to last and how to maintain it, and recovering from being high. Amazingly, during a good amount of this time, Bud has been a well-known indie guitarist and singer, part of a band that achieved some renown (and even more after he left). But the siren call of drugs has led him down an increasingly self-destructive path, causing him to do things he never thought he'd do, and hurt himself in ways non-addicts couldn't even imagine.

"I'd crossed so many ethical lines I said I would never cross in my life. I'd become a man I couldn't recognize more times than I could ever count."

Bud's mother committed suicide when he was young, and his relationship with his father has been strained since he witnessed a shocking crime he never quite understood. And those two relationships have haunted him, driven him toward drugs and thoughts of suicide, and given him some thought of redemption at times as well. When Bud meets smart, sassy, responsible Olivia, for the first time in his life he wants to be sober, wants to savor the moment instead of drowning in it drugs. But will the pull of his addiction be stronger than true love?

Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living is a beautiful, almost poetic book which is brutally frank in its depiction of the daily struggles of a drug addict. Bud is a man with everything—talent, brains, drive, love—but he can't keep from putting himself in harm's way, literally putting his life at risk hour after hour, day after day. The book shifts back and forth through different times in Bud's life—sometimes he's deep in the throes of addiction, sometimes he's clean, sometimes he's somewhere in between—and it follows him as he deals with problems both ordinary and bizarre. He finds and loses love because of his addiction, he's financially secure and penniless, he's with old friends and drug friends he barely knows.

At its heart, this is a book about relationships. All the paths in Bud's life lead him back to his estranged father, a man whose love Bud craved yet a man he also wanted to destroy at times. Yet the answers he seeks from his father could either set him free or set him back on a path of self-destruction, and he's not certain which he'd rather it be.

"My next overdose could be my last, and I wasn't sure I was too scared by that anymore."

I was absolutely captivated by Roberge's storytelling. Although the shifts in time took a little orienting, Bud is such a vivid character and his persona, both high and sober, is so well-drawn, that even as you're disgusted by him and pity him and think he might be better off dead, you can't help reading about him. The Cost of Living is tremendously well-written and utterly compelling. One hell of a read.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: "The UnAmericans: Stories" by Molly Antopol

There was a time when I didn't read short stories, because I said I didn't like getting emotionally invested in characters and plot only to have to move on a short while later. It was a foolish sentiment, in retrospect, one which I abandoned about 15 years ago when I realized how rich the short story landscape truly was, filled with talented authors creating stories with the power of full-length novels, stories whose characters intrigued me and made me long to know more about what happened to them when the stories ended.

Molly Antopol's new collection, The UnAmericans, is one of the reasons I'm glad I read short stories. Every one of the eight stories in this collection packed a quiet power, richly drawn characters, and tremendously compelling explorations of human emotion in typical and unusual situations.

The characters in Antopol's stories are Jewish people spanning the 1950s through the present. Whether it's the former Czech dissident-turned-New England professor in "The Quietest Man," who tries to find out from his estranged daughter what her new play will say about their strained relationship; the restless Israeli journalist desperate to once again leave her country in search of work, but can't seem to get herself disentangled from a relationship with a widower and his teenage daughter, in "A Difficult Phase"; the actor recently released from prison after refusing to name names during the McCarthy era in "The Unknown Soldier," who has reinvented himself to get roles but can't seem to even act the part of good father to his young son; the young Israeli soldier in "Minor Heroics," who finds his loyalty to his family tested after an accident; or the woman recounting her exploits in the Yiddish Underground during World War II in "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story," these are seemingly ordinary people facing challenges that test their strength and their heart.

After I finished every one of these stories, I simply thought to myself, "That was so good!" Antopol's use of language and imagery, as well as the emotional richness with which she imbues her characters, really makes this a tremendously strong collection. It doesn't matter that I couldn't identify with the situations most of these people found themselves in; I just wanted to keep reading about them. And usually when I read, I'm struck by a sentence or two, something I like to use in my reviews, but there were so many amazing sentences in these stories it became an exercise of excess.

I've always felt that a good short story keeps you thinking about the characters after it has ended, and in many cases, you'd be willing to read more about them. I felt that way about nearly every story in The UnAmericans. I'm so glad I found this collection, and look forward to seeing what's next in Molly Antopol's career. I know we'll be hearing from her again soon.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: "The First True Lie" by Marina Mander

Luca is a young boy living in Italy with his mother, who suffers from depression, and their cat, Blue. He has never known his father and doesn't quite understand where he went, so many of his classmates call him an orphan. Sometimes he and his mother have a typical relationship—they have fun, she nags him about getting up on time, taking a bath, doing his homework. But sometimes his mother is unable to cope with the world and locks herself in her bedroom for a day or two, but Luca is attuned to those moods.

"They say that for a child I'm extremely sensitive—whether or not they mean it as a compliment, I don't know. They say it with a smile, but there's something sad behind that nice smile that makes me think they haven't understood much of anything. I train myself to be sensitive and my antennae tune in on their own."

One morning, however, Luca's mother doesn't wake up. At first he thinks she has taken some of her pills, which often make her sleep deeply and not hear anything, but when he returns from school that day and sees she hasn't moved at all, he knows that she has died. And now, he truly is a "complete orphan," and he is sad that his love and his presence weren't enough to keep his mother alive. But beyond that, he fears that when his mother's death is discovered they'll put him in an orphanage, a horrible place where you aren't encouraged to be yourself or be free, and they'll separate him from Blue.

"This is terrible. I don't want to go. I don't want to be a complete orphan. Anything else would be better. Better to say that Mama's left. Or else say nothing and act like it doesn't matter. Better to find a way to make do. It can't be that difficult. Better to try to survive. Better to keep it a secret and smile. Better to use my imagination, to make myself come up with something special. Better to hope it will all just be over soon."

At first, like many young children who discover they're suddenly without adult supervision, Luca enjoys the freedom of eating only junk food, of leaving their apartment a mess, and staying up as late as he can. But he knows he must pretend to the outside world that everything is fine. He tries not to act overly sad or even overly happy—he doesn't want anyone to question his behavior, which might lead them to want to talk to his mother. He figures out how to go the grocery store and act like he belongs there, to pass his mother off as busy at work or running late so people don't encounter her, all while he has all the windows to her bedroom open to combat the increasing smell of decomposition.

The First True Lie is a heartbreaking story of one boy's courage and ingenuity in the face of what he knows is inevitable. Luca is a tremendously endearing narrator—smart and imaginative, impish and mischievous. His sensitivity in recognizing his mother's moods and feeling for her even if he doesn't understand them is moving, as is his fervent desire to stay in his home with his cat. While obviously not every young child could keep up the subterfuge (and it's clearly a measure of how much his mother has disconnected from the world), you find yourself rooting for him to succeed.

This was a tremendously compelling book, because you want to know what happens to Luca. Its narrative is at times a little disjointed and peppered with curses, much as dialogue with a young boy might be. But you are moved, and even impressed, by Luca's bravery.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Last Days of California" by Mary Miller

Fifteen-year-old Jess and her family have left their home in Montgomery, Alabama, and are driving to California, with the plan to arrive before the Rapture. Along the way, they are committed to saving as many souls as they can—Jess' father wants her and her older sister, Elise, to hand out as many tracts as they can every time they stop at gas stations, fast food restaurants, motels, and the occasional casino. Despite the special and sacred nature of their pilgrimage, this car trip is like one many families experience—Jess and Elise squabble over space in the backseat, their long-suffering mother just wants to read and relax in peace, and their father refuses to use a GPS because he doesn't like machines to tell him what to do.

Other than their father, it doesn't appear that anyone in their family truly believes that the Rapture will actually happen. Elise, who is secretly pregnant, hopes in many ways that it does come, so she won't have to live with the disclosure of her secret. And Jess isn't sure what she believes, about being saved, or anything else for that matter.

"That was my problem—I had no imagination—I couldn't imagine anything other than what I knew. The way time functioned, for example. Minutes. Waiting. How long a day could be. My biggest fear was that things would go on forever and there would never be any end. The idea of forever terrified me, even if we were in heaven and everything was great there."

As her family makes their way across the country, Jess confronts her insecurity with her looks and her body, and her simultaneous envy and relief that guys stare at Elise and not her. She desperately wants something to happen in her life—she wants more meaningful friendships, she wants to fall in love—but in her heart she knows she might not be as ready for these things as she thinks she is. She says, "I didn't know how I could want things so badly while making it impossible to ever get them."

Jess also watches as her parents struggle with their own relationship, with their father's inability to hold a job, their fears about money, and with Elise's erratic behavior. They also struggle with the question of whether the trip will ultimately end in the Rapture, and what will become of their lives if it doesn't occur. Elise can't face the reality of her situation, and isn't sure whether she should keep using her looks to get her the attention she craves. Jess wants things in her family, and their relationships, to remain the same.

"If I wasn't the good daughter, I wouldn't know what I was. I wasn't popular or a cheerleader or a straight A student. ... There were so many things I wasn't that I had difficulty defining myself, especially in relation to Elise, who was so many things."

Mary Miller really told an interesting story, and I found both Jess and Elise's characters to be very dynamic—you knew there was more about them than you first saw. I wasn't sure where the plot would go, and I like the way that Miller ended things, but I thought this was a compelling exploration of how you learn to trust what you know rather than what you're told, and how complicated it can be to find yourself and become comfortable with who you are. This was a really quick read; I read nearly the entire book in about a day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review: "Still Life with Bread Crumbs" by Anna Quindlen

Lovely. That's the word that kept coming to my mind as I read Anna Quindlen's latest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs. It was just a lovely book, emotional, thought provoking, and really enjoyable.

Rebecca Winter used to be something. A once-revered photographer whose iconic works were viewed as feminist statements, her photographs aren't selling well anymore, her agent is becoming increasingly more hostile toward her, and her bank balance keeps declining. At 60 years old, when she receives a notable prize for her body of work, she realizes what this recognition means.

"To Rebecca, it was now official: she was done. Yesterday's news. In your heyday, you got attention; in your senescence, prizes."

She flees her posh New York City apartment to live for a year in a cottage in the country, hoping the rent from the apartment will help abate some of her financial woes, and the change in setting will inspire her to create again. Yet things are seldom what they seem: the cottage is much more rundown and isolated than she imagined, and the charming town she envisions is a little more smothering than she thought it might be. But when a raccoon invades her attic, she meets roofer Jim Bates, and the two strike up a casual friendship that teaches Rebecca that what she sees through her camera lens isn't always what is real.

As Rebecca struggles with doubt in her professional abilities, worries about her financial situation, grapples with the decline of her elderly parents, and ponders the dissolution of her marriage to a man who traded in for a younger woman every 10 years, she begins to feel herself warming to the cottage and the small town. Her daily hikes lead her to photograph everything she sees, and when she encounters a series of homemade wooden crosses in the forest, they inspire a vein of creativity she thought had tried up. But she has no idea what these crosses mean, why they're scattered haphazardly through the woods and accompanied by everyday objects, and their connection to someone in town.

This is an emotionally rich and compelling story about believing in yourself again, trusting your talents and having faith in your own worth. It's also about believing you deserve a second—and even a third—chance at happiness, and how the things we don't say are often the most powerful statements we make. I really enjoyed this book very, very much, and found myself devouring it very quickly.

It has been a while since I've read a book by Anna Quindlen, but after reading Still Life with Bread Crumbs, I was reminded just how much I love her writing, and how good books can make you feel.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: "Road to Reckoning" by Robert Lautner

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

"I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve."

Thomas Walker is 12 years in 1837. An only child, he has lived a sheltered life, never leaving New York City, and following the death of his mother, he is homeschooled by his aunt and doesn't get the opportunity to interact with children his age. But when his mild-mannered, spectacles-selling father takes a traveling salesman job for Samuel Colt, selling his revolutionary new "Improved Revolving Gun," he decides to take Thomas on the road with him, much to his aunt's chagrin—and Thomas' delight.

"Even at twelve I knew that I would have no limit of things to do out beyond the mountains. My own thoughts of danger were less important than having the opportunity to be away from my aunt's lavender chiffon and her yardstick rule, which I never saw measure anything except how much blame my knuckles could take."

Not long after Thomas' father made his first sale, a run-in with a group of robbers turns their travel adventure to tragedy. Orphaned and alone, with no money and few possessions save a wooden model of the Colt revolver, he can think only of getting back home to New York and the comfort and security of his only living relative, his aunt. He then encounters Henry Stands, a cantankerous, larger-than-life former Indiana Ranger, who has little use for people except when they can provide him food, ammunition, and rum.

Stands, on his way to a Philadelphia prison to see if they need help tracking down escaped prisoners, is reluctantly pressed into helping Thomas find his way home. He cares little for coddling the boy, and wants only to leave him in the first town they come across. Thomas, though intimidated by Stands' surliness, finds security in his not-quite-fatherly presence, and fears that he will abandon him on the road. The two forge a strange alliance, one that grows a bit stronger after the two encounter the band of robbers who killed Thomas' father. Yet Stands isn't completely enamored of being the boy's protector, and Thomas wants desperately for Stands to treat him less as an obligation and more as a child.

As the pair make their way back to New York, their partnership—and their lives—are tested several times. Both realize there is more to their traveling partner than meets the eye, and while they have different desires for the resolution of their journey, it is a journey that shapes them both.

I really enjoyed this book a great deal. I thought Robert Lautner perfectly embodied the voice of a 12-year-old boy caught between bravado and vulnerability, and Thomas as narrator was tremendously effective. The book surprised me at times and was more than simply a story about an unlikely pair on an important journey—it was also a commentary on how the Colt revolver, and guns in general, shaped America in the mid-19th century and beyond. The characters were more complex than met the eye, and Lautner knows how to tell a good story.

Some of the blurbs I've seen about Road to Reckoning equate it with True Grit, and while there may be some similarities between the two, I think the comparison actually sells this book a bit short. Henry Stands is more Lonesome Dove's Gus than Rooster Cogburn, and Thomas is a more vulnerable character than Mattie Ross, but no less appealing. This is a different story about a different kind of partnership, and it is a compelling and entertaining one.

"When I first met Henry Stands I imagined he was a man of few friends. When I last knew of him I was sure he had even fewer. But, it could be said, just as true, that he had fewer enemies because of it. And as I get older I can see the wisdom of that."