Sunday, November 30, 2014

Movie Review: "St. Vincent"

If you had told me 35(!) years ago when I first saw Meatballs that one day Bill Murray could be considered somewhat of a national treasure in the movie industry, I don't know if I would have believed you, despite the awesome "It just doesn't matter" monologue. But the more I think about it, his special sarcastic-yet-charming irascibility has really held up well through the years, and it makes his performances endearing even when the characters he plays are total SOBs.

In the heartwarming, funny St. Vincent, Murray once again puts on his lovable curmudgeon hat, this time playing Vincent, a hard-drinking, gambling loner fond of a particular "lady of the night" (Naomi Watts, hamming it up with an Eastern European accent) who likes his cat more than most people. He's barely eking out a living and doesn't have a problem making everyone else as miserable as he is.

One day Vincent gets new next-door neighbors, struggling divorcée Maggie (a surprisingly subdued Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is battling it out with her ex-husband while trying to make a better life for Oliver, which includes enrolling him in an expensive Catholic school, where the runty Oliver is the target for bullies. One day Oliver gets locked out of his house and winds up spending the afternoon with Vincent, which leads to his becoming Oliver's babysitter of sorts. (Needless to say, Vincent always makes sure he gets paid.)

You can see from a mile away where the plot of this movie will lead, but the performances are so funny and heartwarming that it doesn't matter that you've probably seen similar movies many times over. Vincent is more than just an angry drunk; the film slowly reveals the complexity of his character and how quick people are to judge him simply as a curmudgeon without truly understanding why.

Murray does a great job inhabiting Vincent's character, shading his performance with vulnerability and humor so he's not just a ranting mouthpiece most of the time. Lieberher more than holds his own against Murray and McCarthy (who doesn't have much to do in the movie, but still brings an appealing warmth), and Watts and Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd (as Oliver's Catholic school teacher) ham it up as the film's comic relief. (Terrence Howard glowers through most of his scenes in an unnecessary plot thread.)

I thought this was a sweet and funny movie, and once again, Bill Murray proves he is a well-rounded actor. There's nothing earth-shattering in this movie, but amidst films loaded with special effects and Oscar-geared mugging and transformations, St. Vincent is a simple, tremendously fun film with a lot of heart. And how could you go wrong with that?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: "Coming Out to Play" by Robbie Rogers with Eric Marcus

There's a point toward the end of Robbie Rogers' new memoir, Coming Out to Play, when he recounts the first words he said to former NBA player Jason Collins, who had just come out of the closet. "The first thing I said after he introduced himself was, 'Congratulations, but it feels a little weird to congratulate you for being honest.'"

Rogers deserves congratulations for the same reason. Coming Out to Play is an honest, often emotional account of his struggle to accept himself and his sexuality, and reconcile it with what he believes will be the reactions of his ardently Catholic family, his professional soccer teammates, and the world. It is a book about how hard it is to keep your true self hidden from everyone around you, and how that pressure dampens your ability to enjoy even the things you love the most.

Since I don't really follow soccer except for the madness around the World Cup, I'll admit I hadn't ever heard of Robbie Rogers until the spring of 2013, when I heard that he had announced he was gay at the same time he was retiring from professional soccer. When shortly thereafter he decided to play again, this time for the LA Galaxy, he became the first openly gay male athlete to play a game in a major professional team sport in North America. And although it took him a long time to come to terms with who he is, since that point he has embraced his opportunity to be a role model, especially for young people, to demonstrate that your sexuality doesn't define you, and it shouldn't stop you from doing what you love.

"...I don't represent the gay community and I'm not giving anyone a voice other than myself. If anything, I like to think that I'm speaking for myself and for all people who feel like they've been discriminated against. That's a role I'm happy to embrace."

Although our lives are vastly different, Rogers' story definitely hit home for me in a number of ways. I, too, spent a long time trying to figure out a way not to be gay, and once I realized that was an impossible task, I worried about how my family and friends would react. And while it probably wasn't a shock to most people when I eventually told them, it was a relief to be completely honest instead of hiding a part of my life, worrying about which pronouns to use, and not being able to enjoy my life as I was experiencing it.

I thought this was a really well-written and engrossing book. Rogers is a very complex person with many interests far beyond sports. He isn't afraid to portray himself or his actions as unsympathetic at times, and he doesn't excuse certain things he did. You can almost feel how tightly wound he was through most of his life, and how finally revealing his true self to his family was tremendously freeing and cathartic, and I'm not ashamed to admit, it (unsurprisingly) made me a little emotional.

I hope that this book makes its way into the hands of those who need it most. Rogers may not have set out to be a role model, but he definitely is one, and we are fortunate that he is willing to share his journey and his feelings with us. Hopefully this book will change more than one mind, and make a difference in more than one life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: "Revival" by Stephen King

"This is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there's still time."

Jamie Morton is a young boy growing up in a small town in Maine in the early 1960s when he meets the new, enigmatic preacher of the main church in town, the Reverend Charlie Jacobs. Charlie and his young wife, Patsy, create quite a stir among churchgoers—many of the boys and men are a bit infatuated with Patsy, and many of the girls and women feel the same about Charlie.

But while Charlie is interested in being the town's spiritual leader, he is also tremendously interested in electricity, and its power (no pun intended) to change lives, to heal. Charlie's burgeoning discoveries in this area are brought to Jamie's attention in an unusual way, and it creates an even stronger bond between the two. Yet when an unspeakable tragedy affects Charlie's life, it causes him to question his faith in a very public way, and he is forced to leave his job and the town.

Charlie is never far from Jamie's mind as he grows into adulthood. Hooked on the guitar at a young age, he becomes a musician, playing with various bands throughout the years but never quite hitting the big time. But after his family faces its own tragedies, the only way he can cope is through heroin. And when he is at rock bottom, he encounters his old friend Charlie, who, through unusual means, sets Jamie's life back on the right path. But this good deed comes with a very hefty price—and Jamie quickly learns that Charlie is far from the man he thought he was.

As Jamie tries to get his life together, he begins to uncover the truth about Charlie's experiments, and the effects on those he purportedly helped. But Charlie now demands more than Jamie's gratitude for all he had done on his behalf—he wants a partner in his final explorations. And these aren't just basic experiments.

Stephen King is back to his usual tricks in Revival, combining your basic everyday people with an evil streak at the dark end of the spectrum. I feel as if in recent years, King's storytelling has gotten even stronger, as he draws you into a story that is interesting on its own, and then makes you wonder exactly what's going to happen. I really liked Jamie's character, and found Charlie to be a complex addition to the pantheon of King villains.

I've read a great deal of King's books through the years, and I tend to enjoy those that deal more with the evils of everyday life than those which touch on the supernatural. This is a bit more of the former than the latter, although the ending, like many of King's books, tended to go a little awry for a time. But it's a really interesting read, one which King fans will truly enjoy.

Feelings of gratitude-ish...

The cornbread has just come out of the oven. The pies and cakes are done. That's all the prep work that needs to be completed before the big meal tomorrow.

As we get ready to spend Thanksgiving with those we care about, our thoughts turn not only to what time the turkey needs to be put in the oven, football, and food coma, but also counting our blessings and thinking about the things and people for which we're most thankful. (Of course, we should be thankful every day, but a holiday called Thanksgiving kinda accelerates the process, you know?)

This year, the joy of turkey, stuffing, and green bean casserole (the one thing I really do love most) is tempered by the hole in our hearts, as this will be the first Thanksgiving without my father. I've been told—and I've already experienced—that the "firsts" are always the most difficult, and there's no denying that, but a holiday that is marked by togetherness will be even harder.

The last six months have moved both exceedingly fast and far too slow, and while the realization that he won't just walk in the door has begun to sink in, I've still picked up the phone to call him countless times to share a thought or an anecdote with him.

Dealing with this loss, it would be easy to say there isn't anything I'm thankful for this year, because honestly, I'd give anything for even one more day. But truthfully, as I ponder the times I've felt grateful this year, especially the past six months, I realize that it's more important than ever to express my feelings.

To my friends and family from every phase of my life who have reached out countless times to see how my family and I are doing, I am more thankful than words can say.

Losing a member of your family makes you truly treasure those who are still with you, so I am grateful that despite the sadness, we will still celebrate Thanksgiving together, surrounded by special people.

I am, of course, grateful every day that I can spend my life with the one I love, and that the world is slowly but surely enabling everyone to have the rights to love whomever they choose, and do so with the same rights.

Most of all, I am grateful to my father. During the speech I gave at his funeral six months ago, I said that he was the greatest man I've ever known. I have endeavored every day (some more successfully than others) to live my life treating people the way he did, and I am beyond thankful to have had him as a role model and a friend.

No matter where you are, no matter whom you are with, I hope your Thanksgiving is a joyous one, and I hope you have things to be thankful for. Thank you for your generosity, your humor, your support, and everything that makes you the incredible person you are.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

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

I don't know why I waited so long to read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I've loved his other books—in fact, his 2010 story collection, Memory Wall, was among the best books I read that year, so I know he's a tremendously talented writer.

Maybe I hesitated because the book has already begun showing up on a number of year-end "best" lists, and lately I've had a bit of a disconnect between those the critics label as best of the year and those of which I'm most enamored. Well, I needn't have worried, because Doerr's latest is as good, and beautifully written, as I hoped it might be.

In the early 1940s, the world is on the brink of war. Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Although Marie-Laure went blind at the age of six, she has a tremendous thirst for knowledge and a passion about the world around her, particularly the natural world. Ever-protective of his daughter, Marie-Laure's father built a model of their Paris neighborhood so she can navigate the streets and always find her way home.

Meanwhile, in a German mining town, young Werner Pfennig is growing up with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage. When the two discover a radio, it opens up a world of dreams and information. Werner also discovers his ability to repair and build radios, as well as his ability to grasp complicated mathematical and scientific concepts. This intelligence catches the interest of a Nazi officer, who sees that Werner is enrolled in an elite Hitler Youth school, where the fervor for perfection and rooting out inferiority begins to turn him into a person he doesn't recognize.

As war closes in, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and head to the seaside town of Saint-Malo, where her eccentric great-uncle Etienne lives. Etienne has never been the same since the first World War, and he is unprepared for just how profoundly his life—and the lives of those around him—will be affected by Marie-Laure's presence, as well as the town's resistance to the Nazi occupation. And Werner finds himself on the front lines, as he is part of a team tracking down those using radios to subvert the Nazis.

Werner and Marie-Laure's lives will intersect in a profound way, both when they are at one of their weakest moments. And this encounter will have an indelible impact on the lives of many for years to come.

"To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it's a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop."

This is an exquisite, wonderfully told story. The characters are tremendously vivid and came to life for me, and I found myself fully immersed in what was happening to them. Although the book unfolds slowly, I was never bored, and although I had some suspicions about how certain events would be resolved, I felt some suspense at what would happen. Doerr is truly so talented, and although the book's switching back forth between two points in time sometimes made me take a moment to re-orient myself to where I was in the plot, I enjoyed this book so, so much.

If you don't need a book to move at breakneck speed, but you want a story to savor, pick up All the Light We Cannot See. This is one of those books I could see as a fantastic movie as well, but the book is so worth reading.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: "The Land of Steady Habits" by Ted Thompson

Is it ever too late in life to have a mid-life crisis?

Anders Hill doesn't think so. He and his wife, Helene, are living a financially comfortable life in suburban Connecticut, socializing with the same group of people they have for years. Both of their sons are grown and have moved on to lives of their own (one more successfully than the other), and they've just finished the requisite home renovations.

For some reason, this life is no longer enough for Anders. He retires from his job in the financial sector and decides it's time he and Helene get a divorce. This decision doesn't follow any significant anguish or betrayal—he's just not satisfied with his life anymore, and is ready to move on to the next chapter, despite how surprising and upsetting this decision is for Helene, their family, and friends. (And don't even mention his poor timing in announcing his decision to Helene.)

Once Anders moves into a condo and is now free of all of the social obligations he found so stilted, he realizes he misses that life, misses Helene, more than he anticipated. But attempts to re-enter his old life seem to go more than awry—he always seems to do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and his discovery that Helene has begun dating his old college roommate throws him for even more of a loop. (And doing drugs periodically with a friend's son isn't helping matters either.)

"Divorce, he'd learned early on, was not so much from your spouse but from all of the things you'd forged as a couple—the home, the parental authority, the good credit, the friends."

The Land of Steady Habits follows Anders, Helene, and their youngest son, Preston, as they all try to make sense of their new realities and deal head-on with (or avoid, in some cases) the challenges that they face. It's an interesting look at how easy it is to become complacent in a life in which you're basically unhappy, and how easy it is to take things and people around you for granted. This book is also a commentary about how privilege doesn't always equal happiness.

This was a well-written book, but the majority of the characters were fairly unsympathetic, so it was difficult to warm to them. Anders seemed like a person who was probably in need of psychological help (as was Preston), but people continued berating them and letting their behavior continue unabated instead of getting them help. I totally understood Anders' rants and his need for something different, I just felt like it took him a long time to get there. And while Helene seemed to be the character most deserving of empathy, she seemed fairly flat to me. My favorite parts of the book were Anders' interactions with Charlie, the troubled son of Helene's closest friends, and I wished there were more of those.

In the end, I thought this would be more a comic look at a late-in-life mid-life crisis, but it turned out to hew more toward an introspective character study. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: "The Theory of Everything"

Science is definitely one of my weaker subjects, so I'll admit going into The Theory of Everything I didn't know much about Stephen Hawking, although his book A Brief History of Time was a fixture on the best-seller list in the late 1980s when I managed a bookstore during college. And while the film gave me more perspective on Hawking than I had, what it gave me more than anything was a tremendous admiration for his courage and determination as well as his spectacular intellect.

Hawking (a masterful Eddie Redmayne) was a doctoral student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, an absolutely brilliant mind yet utterly unsure on what to focus his PhD studies. At a party he meets Jane (Like Crazy's Felicity Jones), a feisty poetry student who is intrigued by him but not quite certain if she can handle his intelligence and unorthodox views. But as the two begin falling in love, tragedy hits—Stephen is struck with a motor neuron disease similar to ALS, and is given two years to live.

A lesser woman would have taken the opportunity to leave Stephen, and a lesser man would have allowed himself to wallow in self-pity until his body betrayed him. But as the movie (which is based on Jane's memoir) proves, neither Stephen nor Jane are lesser people. The movie tracks Stephen's rapid physical decline, juxtaposed against his brilliant scientific discoveries. It also chronicles Stephen and Jane's relationship, both the highs and the lows, as well as the challenges that his condition caused their marriage.

In movies such as My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables, Redmayne proved himself to be an actor of diverse range and a strong presence. But nothing I've seen him in prepared me for his utter transformation into Stephen Hawking. At the start of the movie, he is a floppy-haired, clumsy, almost impish presence, with Austin Powers-esque glasses and a mouth that moves as fast as his mind. And as the disease takes its toll, Redmayne metamorphosizes physically, drawing his body into itself, but his face, while often frozen into grimaces, never loses its expressive ability. This is a performance on par with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. (Seriously, he's that good.)

And if Redmayne's Stephen is the physical center of the movie, Jones' Jane is the emotional center, and her performance is no less brilliant. I've been a fan since first seeing her in Like Crazy in 2011 (here's my review of that one), but she is truly impressive here, playing the sometimes-idealistic, sometimes-vulnerable woman who clearly served as a catalyst for Stephen Hawking's bravery. One scene early in the movie, when she watches Stephen struggling shortly after being diagnosed, shows the range of emotions she is going through without resorting to a single stint of histrionics. I had goosebumps.

The other performances in the film are equally worthy of standing alongside Redmayne and Jones, particularly Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the church choir director who becomes a companion to the Hawkings', and David Thewlis, as Stephen's mentor and professor. While the movie doesn't expect you to understand the science Stephen was so passionate about, it does give you numerous glimpses of his trademark flashes of humor, which again, make Redmayne's performance so nuanced.

To use a British-ism, I thought this movie was really lovely. But in the end, it is worth seeing mainly for the breathtaking performances. Redmayne is so clearly deserving of an Oscar for this role, and I hope that Jones' name will be among the Best Actress nominees this year as well. This is a love story, a story of triumph, and most importantly, the story of perseverance, and I am glad I had the chance to experience it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Remedy for Love" by Bill Roorbach

The state of Maine is about to get hit with what is being called "the storm of the century." Small-town attorney Eric stops by the grocery store to stock up on some high-end provisions (fancy cheese, good wine, etc.) in preparation for a visit from his estranged wife. He finds himself in line behind Danielle, an unkempt woman he assumes to be homeless, who is having trouble coming up with all of the money she needs to buy her groceries. Rather than cause a scene, he pays the difference, then offers her a ride.

When they arrive at the cabin where Danielle has been staying, a sense of concern comes over Eric. Given the anticipated storm, Danielle needs water and firewood, not to mention more food than she has. And while she's willing to accept a bit of his help, she's more than ready for him to leave her alone. But when Eric finds himself stranded, without a car or a cell phone, the only place he has to go is back to Danielle's cabin—and she's not happy about that, to say the least.

As the storm unleashes its fury, the two forge a tenuous agreement to ride it out together. But as lies are told, truths are revealed, and both the right and the wrong things are said, Danielle and Eric aren't sure if sticking together is the right decision. And Mother Nature has her own ideas. Is Danielle emotional, unstable, and/or possibly dangerous? Is Eric the victim he has painted himself out to be?

The Remedy for Love is an intriguing look at two people who are far more complicated than they appear. Danielle and Eric have some interesting banter, open some painful and emotional wounds, and get in each other's faces, and you're not exactly sure what is going to happen. The stranded-in-a-storm thing has been done before, but Bill Roorbach mines it for all it's worth, and most of the time it works, although there are a few somewhat unbelievable turns the story takes.

I felt the book would have been stronger had it focused solely on Eric and Danielle, but it spent a little too much time also providing the framework of Eric's relationship with Alison, his estranged wife. (And given all of the detail Roorbach provided, I still don't know if I understood what really happened with them.) Danielle, in particular, is really intriguing, but her dialogue is a mix of intellectual and street patois that irritated me at times. The two spend a lot of time dancing around proverbial elephants in the room without actually discussing many of them, and I found the ending a little disjointed. (Maybe someone who read the book can message me and tell me how they think it ended?)

Bill Roorbach is a very talented writer; his first novel, Life Among Giants, boasted another fascinating main character. The Remedy for Love is a strong character study, but one that left me with a few more questions than it did answers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: "The Daylight Marriage" by Heidi Pitlor

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

When they met, Hannah and Lovell couldn't have been more different. Hannah was the impulsive free spirit, a young woman raised in the midst of privilege yet taught by her mother that women should never be subservient to men—and she had a broken engagement to prove her mother's lessons had sunk in. Lovell was the practical, stable, shy climate scientist, whose romantic track record was far less impressive. But when Hannah delivered flowers to Lovell one day after he graduated, he was smitten, and knew he had to be with this woman, despite the fact he didn't feel like her equal.

Years later the two have built a life together, raising two children—rebellious yet sensitive Janine, and Ethan, shyer yet sturdier. Lovell has a successful career that keeps him busy and challenged, but Hannah feels herself drifting, wishing for more. Through the years, the resentments, the anger, the frustrations, and the hurts have multiplied and simmered just under the surface.

One night, after a seemingly innocuous exchange, it all comes to a head, and the couple have a bitter argument, one that just stops short of turning violent. Both are unsure what their next steps are, but Lovell hopes they can get back on even footing. Then the next day, Hannah disappears after dropping Ethan off at school and calling in sick to work. As evidence dribbles in, Lovell and the children hold out hope that she will return, but they also must negotiate a new stage in their relationships, especially when Janine fears her father may have harmed her mother.

The Daylight Marriage is a bleak yet well-written book about how the things we don't say hurt as much, if not more, than the things we do. It's a book about how we sometimes confuse stability for happiness, and uncertainty for unhappiness. It's also a book about how one impulsive decision can change your life—in both good and bad ways.

Heidi Pitlor does a really good job at switching perspectives between Lovell and Hannah, past and present, tracing their relationship from the start to where they wound up. The story also shifts between Lovell's attempts to pull his and the children's lives together, and Hannah's steps after she left home that morning. It's a well done yet painful story, and Pitlor's storytelling ability keeps you fully engaged and immersed in the characters' lives, even if you don't necessarily like them very much, or know who you're really rooting for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: "Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love" by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

I remember in September 2011 when the Washington, DC area was hit by a quickly moving and unexpected set of rainstorms that left highways flooded, creeks running far over their banks, and trees felled. While we were fortunate not to lose power, many in the area did. I remember reading that several people were killed during those storms, mainly as a result of getting caught in the floods, including a 12-year-old boy from the town next to ours, who apparently fell into one of the creeks affected by the massive amount of rainfall. I couldn't even fathom the loss his family and friends were feeling, and that boy, Jack Donaldson, remained in my mind for a few weeks as I read and watched a number of follow-up news stories about the aftermath of his death.

So several years later, when I read that his mother had written a book about coping with this loss, and struggling with her faith, I felt drawn to it. Having lost my father unexpectedly just about six months ago, I knew this book would affect me, but it did both in ways I anticipated and ways which surprised me.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson was a blogger who chronicled her family's life, their faith, and her decorating tips. She and her husband, Tim, had two children, Jack and Margaret, and they were deeply rooted in their community, their church, and in their circle of family and friends. The four of them were tremendously close-knit, and Anna was always a very protective parent, warning her children of potential dangers and trying to keep them safe at all times, an irony not lost on her after Jack's death.

Jack was an athlete, an actor, always striving to make his friends and family laugh. But he was also tremendously sensitive, complex, and very cautious—as Anna's sister said after Jack's death, "I don't get it. If there was a poster child for 'kid least likely to get swept away in a stupid creek,' Jack would be the one."

Rare Bird is as poignant and heart-wrenching as you'd imagine an account of a mother's grief after the sudden loss of a child could be. But Whiston-Donaldson is careful not to portray Jack as perfect; she paints a complete picture of a complicated, loving, intelligent, and special child, who undoubtedly would have grown into an exceptional man. And she is honest about her feelings—the blame she places on herself for letting her children go out and play in the rain that night, struggling with her belief in God after this loss, and the challenges she faced in dealing with her husband, her daughter, and others while processing her grief.

"But maybe all deaths feel like this—improbable, strange, untimely, unnatural. Maybe every single death needs to be examined, spoken of aloud, and turned over in the mind to make it seem more real. And perhaps not being able to grasp all at once what has happened is a small mercy in itself."

This is an important and powerful book for anyone dealing with grief. I identified with many of the things Whiston-Donaldson said, such as, "I soon learn that prior closeness does not determine who will show up for you." Even though I didn't lose a child, nor do I share her religious beliefs, I was moved and affected by what she had to say. Grief is, sadly, a universal emotion, but how we deal with it is so individual, yet many of her frustrations, fears, and regrets spoke to me.

For her sake and the sake of her family, I wish that Anna Whiston-Donaldson's first book, as she said she thought it would be, was about painting furniture. Yet I feel tremendously fortunate that she was willing to share her family, her grief, her faith, and most importantly, her son, with us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: "Noggin" by John Corey Whaley

One of the things I love so much about reading is what different books do for me. Some entertain, some manipulate my emotions (this is not necessarily a negative), some teach, some infuriate, and some make me think. I love when a book surprises me and does more than I expect. Such was the case with John Corey Whaley's spectacular second novel, Noggin. I enjoyed it tremendously (despite its offbeat premise) and it really made me think.

Travis Coates was a gravely ill 16-year-old who was tired of dying, but he didn't want to keep living the way he was. He and his family agreed to participate in an experimental program in which his head (the only part of his body not riddled with the cancer that was killing him) was removed from his body and, when medical and technological advances made it possible, it would be attached to another donor's body. Deep down inside, everyone had a feeling this would never happen, but it was a good thing to imagine occurring years into the future.

One morning Travis woke up, his parents by his side, to find that his head had been reattached to another teenager's body (a better body, if anyone's counting). For Travis, it only seemed like a few hours had passed since he said goodbye to his family, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate, but for everyone else, it was five years later. Five years in which so much had changed.

"I want to tell you a story about how you can suddenly wake up to find yourself living a life you were never supposed to live. It could happen to you, just like it happened to me, and you could try to get back the life you think you deserve to be living. Just like I did."

Travis has to return to his high school and repeat sophomore year. (While he should be 21, his body and his mind are still 16, and he didn't get enough credits while he was sick to become a junior.) Beyond everyone wanting to get a look at his really cool scar where they attached his head to the other boy's body, it's weird being there without Kyle and Cate, although he is able to make a new friend.

But as similar as that aspect of his life is, things are really different where Kyle and Cate are concerned, as their lives moved on, much differently than Travis would have expected. Travis can't seem to understand why they can't seem to pick things up where they left off, and runs the risk of alienating the people who matter the most to him. It's truly hard to reconcile his gratitude at being able to have another chance to live with his frustration that his life can't be the way he wants it to be.

Noggin is tremendously thought-provoking, because while the procedure that gave Travis a new lease on life is certainly difficult to grasp, it raises some interesting questions. If you thought a person you lost would come back to you, should you keep your life in a holding pattern until it was confirmed that it won't happen? What obligation do we have to those we leave behind? If this procedure existed, should it be used, or is it one step too far?

I really loved this book. I loved the fact that Travis wasn't any wiser than he was before he died, and if anything, he's more confused. I loved all of the characters and how they were flawed, just like real life. And I love the way Whaley tells a story, which is just one reason why his previous book, Where Things Come Back, was one of my favorite books of 2012.

If you can get past the procedure on which this book hinges, you'll really enjoy this, and it will move you if you've ever had to face the loss of someone you wish could still be with you. As Travis says, "It made me realize that no matter how often you see or talk to someone, no matter how much you know them or don't know them, you always fill up some space in their lives that can't ever be replaced the right way again once you leave it."

Noggin might be that way for me.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Given World" by Marian Palaia

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

Growing up in rural Montana, Riley worshiped her older brother, Mick. Part guardian angel, part partner-in-crime, Mick taught her about the world around her. But when Mick goes missing in action in Vietnam, the loss is more than Riley or her parents can take, and she spends the next few years in a haze of wild behavior and drugs. She meets and falls in love with Darrell, a boy from the nearby reservation, and then she finds out that she is pregnant shortly after Darrell tells her that he, too, is headed to Vietnam.

Feeling she has no choice, Riley, too, decides to leave Montana, heading for San Francisco, where she hopes the pull of the ocean may right her once and for all. But her journey is one continually punctuated by those who come into her life and those who leave, sometimes tragically, and on many occasions, Riley turns to drugs and alcohol to fill the empty spaces in her life.

"The years since I'd left Montana had fallen well short of a pure, unadulterated, youthful-type trajectory, and my soul was every iota as snakebit as some of the worst ones. Climbing out of the ditch was a hit-or-miss proposition, and even though I was working on it, down was still a hell of a lot easier way to go than up."

Eventually, Riley makes her way to Vietnam, first to Saigon and then to Cu Chi, where Mick went missing, in the hopes she might find some sign, some clue as to what happened to him all of those years ago. But at the same time, she's also looking for a way to move on with her own life, to be able to finally reconcile all of the people who left her, as well as her own leaving.

Marian Palaia's The Given World is a lyrical, poignant book about those who leave and those who are left behind. It's about trying to find the courage to trust again when all around you people break their promises and abuse your faith. It's also about finally letting the world in instead of letting it pass you by.

Palaia's prose is beautiful, almost poetic at times. She populates this book with so many fascinating characters, none more so than the complex, flawed Riley. I found myself so drawn into her story that I hoped the book would take a turn that would otherwise be unrealistic. There are so many characters, and some chapters are told from others' perspectives, so at times the plot is difficult to follow, but Riley's story just takes hold of you and makes you want to race through it.

This book was an unexpected surprise for me, and I can't wait to watch Palaia's career continue.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: "As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride" by Cary Elwes

I was a freshman in college in 1987 when The Princess Bride was released in theaters. (Egads.) I didn't know what to expect from the movie, but I'm a big fan of noble quests, swashbuckling heroes, and true love, so it was no surprise I was completely enamored of it, and saw it twice more in the theaters. (What else was I going to do, study?)

Even though The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies of all time, it was only a modest box office hit. I had no idea 27 years ago that I was watching a movie that was destined to be a classic, and as I've learned from Cary Elwes' terrific As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, the film's actors and creators had no idea either.

The role of Westley, the film's protagonist, was a career-making one for Elwes, who was an actor with very few films under his belt when his agent told him director Rob Reiner wanted to meet with him. A fan of William Goldman's book when he read it as a teenager, he knew this was a movie he desperately wanted to be a part of, even though he had no idea just how it would change his life.

If you're a fan of The Princess Bride, you'll love this book. It's a great look at what it was like to make a movie like this with a small budget back in the 1980s (the descriptions of their "special effects" were very amusing, and they definitely have given me some things to look for the next time I watch the movie). There's also some behind-the-scenes stuff I had never heard before, like the fact than an earlier version of the film being pitched by a different director had a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger as Fezzik. The book is also interspersed with reminiscences from Reiner and his producing partner, Andy Scheinman, as well as Goldman, and costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, and Fred Savage.

The anecdotes Elwes shares about his many costars, were fascinating, humorous, and, in some cases, touching. (His recollections of his relationship with André the Giant were really special.) What I loved about it was the fact that every actor (as well as Reiner and Scheinman) recognized they were part of something special, even if they didn't realize the lasting appeal the movie would have. But more than that, the book gives you a small sense of how much fun it must have been to be part of this movie, because it was fun simply reading about it.

I'm grateful to Cary Elwes for writing this book and giving me more reasons to treasure The Princess Bride. If you're someone who finds themselves uttering, "Inconceivable," "Have fun storming the castle," or, of course, "As you wish," occasionally, you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: "Us" by David Nicholls

Douglas Petersen is a mild-mannered biochemist in his early 50s. He craves order and although he thinks he has a good sense of humor and the ability to enjoy himself, he isn't one to loosen his inhibitions frequently, or give up plans for spontaneity. He and his wife, Connie, have a son, Albie, who is planning to go to college once the summer ends. And then one night, Douglas' life is upended when Connie awakens him.

"I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you."

Connie's declaration throws Douglas completely for a loop. But she isn't ready to make a definitive decision on their marriage just yet. They had planned to take Albie on a European tour over the summer (which they nicknamed "The Grand Tour") in an effort to show him some of the world's greatest art, architecture, and history. Douglas has the entire trip planned down to the minute. Connie still wants to go on the trip, and not reveal their discussions to Albie, and when they return from their travels, she'll make a decision.

"To contemplate a life without her; I found it inconceivable. Literally so. I was not able to conceive of it. And so I decided that it could not be allowed to happen."

Douglas is determined to save his marriage, and approaches their trip with utter gusto. But Douglas' need to keep everyone on schedule, his obsessive reading travel and art history books and regurgitating the information at will, and his desire for order exacerbates many of the couple's problems, not to mention furthers the tension between him and Albie, whom Douglas believes has always favored his mother. And although they all try (Connie and Douglas more than Albie) to keep on trying, it isn't long before everything goes horribly awry.

Us is the story of a man always in control who finds a situation he cannot control—and one he cares about more than everything. He wants to prove to Connie that she shouldn't give up on their relationship, and he is determined to try to salvage his relationship with his son. But can a person really change their nature? Can the issues that have arisen throughout a relationship suddenly disappear?

The book switches between past and present, with Douglas chronicling The Grand Tour and the events they encounter, as well as reminiscing about their relationship from the start, when the two wholly different people met and charmed each other into eventually building a life together. Douglas certainly sees the tensions and issues that have occurred through the years, but for a man who is so intelligent, he isn't particularly observant or attuned to his emotions or others'.

David Nicholls' One Day was one of the best books I read in 2010, and the movie was one of my favorites as well. Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating this book, but sadly, I found myself really disappointed. I thought the book went on for far too long and just kept repeating the same themes—Douglas cannot be spontaneous, Connie is frustrated by this, Douglas gets upset with Albie, etc. Even certain incidents in the plot seemed straight out of central casting—saying the wrong things when attempting to speak a foreign language, getting stoned in Amsterdam and running into prostitutes, etc.

But the biggest problem I had with Us was that the book was narrated by Douglas, and I didn't really like his character very much. Sure, he's self-deprecating, and knows what his shortcomings are, but I didn't find him particularly sympathetic—in fact, I didn't love any of the characters. I'm sad that I didn't enjoy it, but other reviews I've seen on Amazon really had, so maybe suddenly all of my sappiness disappeared...