Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: "Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film" by Patton Oswalt

I've been a big fan of Patton Oswalt for some time now. I think he's a pretty good actor (he particularly gave a terrific performance in Charlize Theron's Young Adult a few years back), and I love his comedic observations as well. One friend of mine says that Oswalt and I share a similar sense of humor, although clearly only one of us is making a living off of it.

One thing I didn't know I shared with Oswalt was an obsession with the movies. Those of you who know me well know I've been a huge movie fan for almost my entire life, and at the very least, see everything nominated, or in contention, for Oscars each year. And thanks to a year-long American film class in college, I consumed a healthy diet of classic movies as well.

Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend isn't your typical celebrity memoir, although it does chronicle a period of his life when he dealt with a serious addiction—to going to the movies. From 1995-1999, while focusing on his career as a stand-up comic and dreaming of one day acting and directing, Oswalt went to the movies at least several times a week, often at the New Beverly Cinema, watching classics and lesser-known films as well as new releases. While watching movies brought him pleasure, expanded his cinematic horizons, and stimulated his creativity and his desire to one day see his work on the big screen, it also caused him a great deal of stress, as he planned comedy sets and other work, as well as social obligations (when he had them) around movie times. (And the constant diet of movie concessions wasn't good for his waistline either.)

"Movies—the truly great one (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life."

And if just seeing that many movies each week and planning his life around them wasn't enough of an obsession, he also compulsively felt the need to "check off" each movie he saw in one or more of five film reference books, chronicling the location, date, and time he saw each film. This action became a routine he couldn't shake—it's almost as if seeing the movies didn't count if he didn't record seeing them.

As Oswalt provides background on each movie he saw, and places it in the context of his personal and professional life, he also chronicles the evolution of his career, from first getting the comedy bug while doing an internship in Washington, DC, to dealing with the ups and downs of good and bad performances, to his time both as a writer for MADtv and his tenure on television in The King of Queens. He struggles with jealousy of other comedians who achieve the success he craves, and worries about being able to realize his ambitions.

I enjoyed this book very much, as Oswalt did a great job informing, entertaining, and making me think. While I had heard of many of the movies he mentions in the book, there are a number I wasn't familiar with, so I enjoyed his perspective on those films. I did feel that the book was a little disjointed at times, as he occasionally shifts from one subject to another rather abruptly. But in the end, I found this tremendously appealing. (My favorite part of the book was a tribute to the late owner of the New Beverly Cinema, in which Oswalt imagined a month-long film festival, creating twists on popular movies with classic actors and directors.)

If you're more than simply an occasional movie watcher, or interested in the path some comedians follow toward success, you'll enjoy Silver Screen Fiend. Oswalt writes with humor, heart, and a whole lot of film trivia.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: "Love on the Big Screen" by William J. Torgerson

I don't know why I loved this book so much—maybe it's because I'm a child of the 80s, or because I'm obsessed with movies like the book's main character. But whatever the reason(s), I wouldn't have minded if this book was doubled in length, because I want to know what comes next for these characters.

In 1989, Eric "Zuke" Zauchas is a student at Pison Nazarene College, a small religious school in Indiana he chose because of the chance to play basketball, although he doesn't get the chance to play very much. He and his best friends are part of a club called the Brothers in Pursuit—while they do almost everything together anyway, every Sunday night they wear matching, embroidered boxer shorts and helmets, play games they invented, and report on their pursuits of truth, compassion, God, and women. (Not necessarily in that order.)

Zuke believes life should be like it is in the movies he watches—Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Princess Bride, and especially Say Anything. Like that movie's protagonist, Lloyd Dobler, Zuke believes he should pursue a dare-to-be-great situation, and he thinks he's found it in Abby, a girl in his English class. He devises a plan so that they're frequently together—he decides to become an English major like she is. They get along perfectly, and both feel a connection.

The challenge is, Abby happens to be dating Cheese (Brett), Pison's star basketball player. She's known Cheese nearly her entire life and thought of little but marrying him. Her relationship with Zuke has opened her eyes that perhaps she needs to expand her horizons a little bit. But will she break up with Cheese and start dating Zuke, or will she break Zuke's heart?

"All he wanted shimmered in foggy remembrances of relationships he'd seen on the big screen. Zuke wanted to be in the kiss at the end of the movie."

Meanwhile, things are exciting and stressful for the other Brothers in Pursuit as well. There's a surprise romance, a thwarted romance, taking control of your life when your plans have gone awry, even a little sexual identity crisis, which is particularly a big deal at a religious school. Plus the Brothers need to survive a WWE night with the guys down the hall—and their dorm keeps shaking, and they don't know why.

Love on the Big Screen is utterly charming, full of 80s nostalgia as well as the nostalgia of simpler times (although life didn't seem as simple). It's a story of friendship, romance, ambition, religion, forging your own path, even a little bit of heroics. And it has so much heart. This was one of those books that hooked me from the beginning because of its charm and its quirky characters. The story is simple, but it's high on entertainment value.

I'd love it if Torgerson wrote a sequel, because I'm dying to know what came next for Zuke and his friends.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movie Review: "A Most Violent Year"

New York, 1981. Abel Morales (Inside Llewyn Davis' Oscar Isaac) is the embodiment of the American dream—an immigrant who, through hard work and perseverance, has built his fuel company into a real player in the city. With his ruthless wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his consigliere (a subdued Albert Brooks) at his side, he's just made a deal to buy a large plant, which would give him better access to the river. He just needs to have the capital ready within 30 days.

The problem is, because Abel's company is making inroads, infringing on other company's customers even while charging more, he poses a threat. Unnamed parties have been hijacking his trucks and hurting his drivers and his salespeople. The Teamsters want to arm all of his drivers, which would cause even more difficulty. And all the while, his company is being investigated by the district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo), who wants to make a name for himself and doesn't care if that means sacrificing Abel's company to do so.

While Abel and Anna feel the district attorney's investigation digging deeper and deeper, an incident involving one of his drivers, fellow immigrant Julian (Elyes Gabel), threatens to throw everything they have worked for off course, and jeopardizes the purchase of the plant. Abel is determined to find out who has been harming his business and gather the capital he needs to close the deal, but he wants to do it as honorably as possible, despite Anna's urging him to play as dirty as everyone else. Will he succeed in doing things his way, or will he have to compromise his stance, perhaps putting the company at further risk?

A Most Violent Year is a gritty, understated film written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Boiler Room, All Is Lost). It's also pretty fantastic. While there isn't nearly as much violence as you'd believe from the film's title, this is a story about a man driven to succeed, the woman willing to fight at his side (or behind his back), and those who try to tear him down.

While this is a tautly written and expertly filmed movie, the performances raise it even further. Oscar Isaac is masterful—he combines pride, determination, bravado, barely simmering rage, and a little fear that everything he has worked for may come crashing down. While he has a number of moments in the movie, one scene, where he gathers all of his competitors together, is quietly dazzling.

Jessica Chastain is utterly mesmerizing, chainsmoking as she stands by her man. A gangster's daughter, she's not above kicking a-- and taking names if necessary. She is truly a force to be reckoned with, and while often Lady Macbeth-type roles veer into camp, her performance is fierce yet a tiny bit vulnerable, as she's afraid that the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed might cease. Oyelowo's role is small, but he proves adept with a New York accent, and he once again emphasizes the egregiousness of Oscar's snubbing his performance in Selma.

I don't know why this film hasn't gotten more fanfare and acclaim, short of winning a few film critics awards and a Golden Globe nod for Chastain. While I've not seen all of the films officially released in 2014, this will undoubtedly make my year-end best list. The film, as well as Isaac and Chastain, are all more than worthy of Oscar nominations, and should have been included on this year's list.

Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a bloodbath of a movie. This is a movie worth seeing—it might not blow you away with pyrotechnics, gunplay, suspense, or dramatics, but it will blow you away.

Book Review: "The Business of Naming Things" by Michael Coffey

The title of Michael Coffey's new story collection refers to the main character in the title story, who has made a living naming products, housing developments, and other things. But it's also appropriate for the entire collection, which focuses on people trying to get a sense of their own identities—as parent, friend, lover, child, priest—and figure out their place in the world.

Of Coffey's eight stories, the ones I enjoyed the most were: "The Newman Boys," which followed a teenage boy's friendship with a physically disabled neighbor, and how that relationship ripples through the rest of his life; "Moon Over Quabbin," in which a mother pictures her former town, which was submerged under water when a river was dammed, and envisions her son alive through those to whom his organs were donated; and "Inn of the Nations," which follows a priest in the 1960s, trying to get control of his life, which seems no easy task.

While Coffey is a very talented writer, and I enjoyed his use of imagery, many of these stories eluded my grasp. They started out strong, and I understood what Coffey was trying to say, but then the stories veered off course. In some cases, it seemed as if he just threw so much stuff into the stories they were going in many directions at once. This was particularly the case with the final story, "Finding Ulysses," which borrowed heavily from James Joyce.

These stories are intriguing and unique, and Coffey has a strong voice. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Book Review: "The Girl on the Pier" by Paul Tomkins

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

Patrick is a forensic sculptor, helping to identify unknown murder victims through his work. His latest assignment is to reconstruct the skull of an unidentified girl found on Brighton's run-down West Pier in the 1970s. Yet while he is determined as always to give his all to his job, he can't stop thinking of a summer night he spent on the West Pier in 1993, a night spent in the company of Black, a beautiful photography student. But as soon as he started to get to know Black, she disappeared without a trace.

"It's the story of my life: desiring the impossible woman."

As Patrick works to reconstruct the girl's skull, he remembers fragments of his life—his childhood and the turmoil he experienced, being abandoned by many people he cared about throughout his life, as well as how he came to be a forensic sculptor. He wants to solve the mystery of who the girl was, and solve the mysteries of his own life. Neither challenge is an easy one.

Paul Tomkins' The Girl on the Pier is fascinating—the plot takes all sorts of twists and turns, and Tomkins provides so much interesting detail, particularly around Patrick's career, and the steps he takes in his work. (I'll admit, with all of the crime novels and thrillers I've read, I don't believe I've ever read about a forensic sculptor, so that was pretty cool.) And Patrick is an intriguing character, one who demonstrates how powerful memory can be, and how moldable memories are.

My one criticism of this book is the non-linear way the story is told. I found myself having to double back more than a few times and re-read passages, just so I could better orient myself to the flow of the story and figure out what was being talked about. But once I got further into the story, I didn't find that as unsettling, although it took some getting used to.

If you're a fan of crime novels and thrillers, definitely add this one to your list. It's tremendously intriguing and different, and you can't say that about every book you read.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review: "Two Days, One Night"

We all want to believe we are generous and empathetic people, but when truly faced with someone in need, how would we react? Would we put the needs of others over our own needs and wants? This is the primary question raised by Two Days, One Night, a Belgian movie directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a wife and mother who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. She's ready to go back to her factory job, when she learns that the factory owner has given her colleagues two choices: they can let Sandra return to work, or they will each receive a bonus of 1,000 Euros. The 16 workers vote to let Sandra go, but when it is discovered that the factory foreman intimidated several of the workers to vote against Sandra, the factory owner agrees to a new secret ballot on Monday morning, so Sandra has the weekend to shore up the majority of votes she needs.

But Sandra would rather throw in the towel than go begging her coworkers for one more chance. While she must convince everyone that she is strong enough to work and wants nothing more than to have her life together, emotionally she isn't sure she's ready, and finds herself popping Xanax like candy. Yet her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) convinces her that she is worth fighting for, and they need her salary to avoid going on the dole again.

The movie follows Sandra as she visits each of her colleagues and pleads her case. Some are sympathetic, some are hostile; some make excuses, and some feel that they're entitled to a financial windfall even if it means financial disaster for her and her family. She faces friendliness and violence, experiences happiness and despair, and many times she is convinced she should just give up and let the chips fall where they may. And at one point her will is utterly tested, and she must decide how, or whether, to keep going.

In a number of her English-speaking roles, such as The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, Cotillard displays a steely calm mixed with a bit of barely controlled mania. But in this film, she is more vulnerability than toughness, her sad eyes telegraphing her pain, her fear, and her shame at having to put her colleagues—and herself—through this. She wants to get her life back together again, but she doesn't know if it's worth all the effort.

While I thought the questions the movie raises were intriguing, I found the movie itself kind of flat. Basically, Sandra goes from person to person, asking for their support—sometimes the person is home, and they have virtually the same dialogue she had with the previous person, and other times the person is not home, and their family member/neighbor directs Sandra to find them somewhere else. It's like the cinematic equivalent of Paul McCartney's Let 'Em In—essentially watching Cotillard knock on people's doors or ring their doorbells, and wait for someone to answer.

Cotillard and Rongione give strong performances, but I felt that the movie left more questions than answers. What happened to cause Sandra's condition? Why isn't Sandra willing to get Manu involved in helping make the case to her colleagues? And does she really want to work with people who are willing to throw her over for money? The movie felt incomplete, and never quite gripped me, so I didn't feel invested in Sandra's struggles. Perhaps I'm not as empathetic as I'd like to believe I am, or something got lost in the translation to English.

Book Review: "The Martini Shot: A Novella and Short Stories" by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos has been one of my favorite crime writers for a number of years now. I've read everything he's written, and I'm always blown away by the crackling action scenes, his exploration of racial tensions, and his opening up a new perspective on the Washington, DC of the 1970s and 1980s. I also love the complexity of his characters—much like real life, no one is completely good or bad, which makes them tremendously compelling.

The seven stories in Pelecanos' first collection, The Martini Shot boast many of the same characteristics which make his novels so appealing. For the most part, these aren't the happiest of stories, as each of the main characters is struggling with something—addiction, greed, violence, guilt—or often more than one of these. And although you can often figure out the path these stories will take, Pelecanos' writing ability raises them up a notch or two.

Some of my favorites included "Miss Mary's Room," where a young man remembers the carefree days of his youth and a close friendship before crime changed everything; "When You're Hungry," about an insurance investigator who travels to Brazil to find an allegedly dead man, but finds his perfect case closure record may be in jeopardy (among other things); "Plastic Paddy," which illustrates how letting your friends see you vulnerable is never good for your friendship; and "Chosen," which provides some back story on Spero Lucas, a character from a few of Pelecanos' most recent novels. (This story reminded me how I'm more than ready for another Spero Lucas novel—hope that's next from Pelecanos!)

The collection also contains a novella, "The Martini Shot," which goes behind the scenes of a television crime show and follows one of the show's writers (probably loosely based on Pelecanos' own involvement with The Wire). But this is just more than a you-are-there type of story, as the writer finds himself caught between the woman he loves and the trouble a friend finds himself in. Even though the story was tied up at the end, I found this really interesting, and would have loved to keep reading this.

There wasn't anything I didn't like about the collection; I just wasn't blown away by every story. I felt as if a few duplicated themselves a bit, and some didn't grab me as much the other stories, or other Pelecanos novels, have in the past. His excellent storytelling ability is on display, but some of the stories needed a little more time to develop.

If you've never read anything by George Pelecanos, you need to remedy that. While this collection isn't his best work, it's still a great example of why he's one of my favorite writers—and why I can't wait for his next book to come out, even if it's a year or so away.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: "Housebreaking" by Dan Pope

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

One night in 2007, Benjamin Mandelbaum's wife throws him out of the house and declares their marriage over. The sad thing is, this time he's actually innocent of the infidelity she's accusing him of, but she doesn't care.

With nowhere else to go, he decides to take their dog and move back into his childhood home in Connecticut, to live with his widowed father, Leonard. He's unsure of what his next steps will be, how his children will handle the divorce, and whether he really wants to start sleeping in his old bedroom again, especially as his father embarks upon a relationship (of sorts) with an old friend.

And then one day Benjamin finds out his old high school crush, Audrey Martin, has moved back into the neighborhood along with her lawyer husband and their troubled teenage daughter. Audrey isn't sure if she even remembers Benjamin from high school, but he remembers her all too well, and it's not long before a lonely Audrey allows him the chance to act upon his teenage desires. Yet even as he gets totally caught up in Audrey, he still longs for the comfort and security of his marriage, and misses his estranged wife.

Audrey has her share of issues as well—an emotional secret she's not comfortable sharing with Benjamin; worries about Emily, whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic; and her strained relationship with her husband, Andrew, a powerful attorney who finds himself caught up in a power struggle in his office, the likes of which he'd never imagined, and one he might not win, which is quite a change for someone who hates to lose.

All of their lives come to a crucial moment one night, a moment which will change each of them. Housebreaking is quite well written and though perhaps slightly melodramatic in places, really compelling. It's a book about marital discord, about unhappiness and grief, which reminded me a little bit of The Ice Storm. It's also a story about trying to control what happens in your life, despite the fact that you have no control over these things whatsoever.

I've never read anything by Dan Pope before, but I was really impressed with his storytelling ability. Although you've seen many of the situations in this book before, somehow in his hands, it seems like a fresh story, and I flew through the book rather quickly. I don't know what it says about me that I find stories of dysfunctional relationships entertaining, but I do know this probably would make a good movie as well.

If suburban melodrama (and I mean that in a positive way) interests you, Dan Pope's Housebreaking is a fine example worth reading.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins' debut novel hooks you pretty quickly.

Rachel Watson takes the same train to and from her suburban London home every day. She has grown accustomed to the people on the train, and the things the train passes along its route, especially a set of houses set back from the tracks. Most days the train stops at a signal which allows her to observe the people in those houses, and she imagines they are living happier lives than she is. She often sees one attractive couple, whom she's named Jason and Jess, and she's invented careers for them, and feels so good about their relationship.

One day, what she sees from her seat on the train shocks her. "Jess" is kissing another man! How could she jeopardize the perfect relationship that she and "Jason" have? Rachel is devastated and angry, since her own life is in a shambles, and she has idealized this couple she doesn't know. And when "Jess," whose real name is Megan, disappears the next day, Rachel is shocked—and feels that she needs to tell the police what she saw. Little by little, she gets more involved in the investigation about what happened to Megan, because she wants to do her part, and she feels that she knows something.

The thing is, though, Rachel isn't entirely reliable. She has a bit of a drinking problem—well, a big drinking problem. And sometimes she has trouble remembering what happens when she drinks. But she has this feeling she might have seen what happened to Megan. If only she could remember...

"I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head."

The Girl on the Train is the story of a woman who feels as if life has tossed her out, and she cannot regain her momentum. She is desperate to feel needed, to feel wanted, included again, so when she sees an opportunity to try and help out with the investigation into Megan's disappearance she jumps at the chance. But she doesn't count on her own lies and inadequacies being revealed, or being forced to confront her own issues.

Hawkins is a terrific writer and has written a taut, compelling book, despite the fact that many of its characters are pretty unlikeable. The book is told from multiple perspectives—Rachel, Megan, and Anna, Rachel's ex-husband's new wife. I found my mind spinning with all of the different possibilities of what happened, and what was going to happen. I came up with outlandish theories, theories that seemed they had merit, and one I hoped wouldn't be the case.

Then sadly, in my mind, Hawkins punted. She took the easy way out, and it honestly killed the book for me. I don't think I'm smarter than many people, although I guess I read a lot of thrillers, but I totally saw the ending coming. I was truly disappointed.

I'd definitely encourage you to read this book and formulate your own opinions. So many people have absolutely loved it in its entirety, and been shocked by the way everything transpires, so perhaps you will as well. I think for the most part, this is a pretty great book, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in Hawkins' career.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: "Pretty Ugly" by Kirker Butler

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

Kirker Butler's Pretty Ugly leaves no stereotype untouched—pageant moms, philandering husbands, slutty teenage girls, even devoutly religious old women get torn apart in this satire.

When she was a young girl, Miranda Ford won a local beauty pageant. (Well, she didn't quite win, but she eventually got the title.) It changed her life, and when she got married and gave birth to a little girl of her own, Bailey, she was determined to make her a true pageant star in the southeastern U.S. After eight-and-a-half years and more than 300 pageant titles, Miranda is just getting started, but Bailey is tired of sacrificing her life to pageants, tired of parading around in gowns and swimsuits, tired of being judged. Knowing there's no stopping her mother, Bailey starts binge eating in an effort to fatten herself out of contention, but even that doesn't stop Miranda, who is pregnant with another baby girl she has already named Brixton Destiny Miller. (Don't ask.)

Miranda's husband, Ray, has always tolerated her obsession with pageants, despite the financial and emotional toll it has taken on their family. Working two jobs as a nurse and a hospice worker to keep them afloat, Ray pops every random pill he gets his hands on, with often-interesting results. But a growing dependency on nearly every prescription drug imaginable isn't the worst of Ray's problems—his girlfriend, Courtney, the 17-year-old girlfriend of one of his hospice patients, has just found out that she's pregnant.

And then there's Joan, Miranda's devoutly religious mother, who home schools the couple's two sons because Miranda doesn't know what to do with them since she won't enter them in pageants. (Because they'd turn out gay, wouldn't you know?) Joan has frequent conversations with Jesus, and listens to everything He tells her—even when it comes to planning a murder.

Things go from bad—a pregnant Miranda gets into a knock-down, drag-out fistfight with the trashy mother of another pageant contestant while a reality show films it all—to worse—Courtney moves in with Ray and Miranda's family and befriends Miranda, although she plans to destroy everything by forcing Ray to marry her. (She doesn't realize, of course, that Joan—and Jesus—are watching.)

Pretty Ugly is a campy book, part Toddlers and Tiaras, part Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, with a healthy dose of soap opera thrown in for good measure. It's funny in places, ridiculous in others, and I thought the story was drawn out a bit too long, but Butler, a writer and producer whose credits include Family Guy, clearly knows what he's doing.

If you've ever wondered what the people involved in kiddie pageants are like but can't bring yourself to watch a reality show, this is the next best thing. More ridiculous than sublime, it's sure to make you chuckle—and/or offend you.

Movie Review: "American Sniper"

Chris Kyle was the deadliest sniper in American history, credited with killing more than 160 Iraqi insurgents on his four tours. Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Kyle's autobiography not only sheds light on Kyle's time in Iraq, but what drove this man to continuously put his life on the line, and the struggles he faced when not in the field.

Growing up in Texas, what Chris Kyle (a beefy Bradley Cooper) wanted more than anything was to be a cowboy. It seemed like the perfect match for his devil-may-care, reckless style, plus cowboys do pretty well with women, too. But when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998, he realized he had a more important purpose, and joined the military, training to be a Navy SEAL.

While training, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), an intelligent and independent woman who quickly falls for the brash soldier. But after 9/11, she knows Chris is headed to Iraq, and that he faces danger and possible death. As he becomes an elite sniper known as "The Legend," protecting his fellow soldiers and taking down insurgents before they can cause greater harm, Taya wants to understand how Chris feels about killing people, and how it will affect his life, and theirs. But Chris is single-minded in his determination to serve his country and protect his fellow soldiers.

His time in Iraq doesn't affect Chris nearly as much as being home does, even as he and Taya begin raising a family. The difficulty of being away from Iraq and knowing that his compatriots are at risk without him affects him greatly, as do the simple, startling sounds of everyday life which affect many soldiers returning home from war. As much as Taya wants him to stay home and build their life together, he wants to go back to Iraq, and each time he decides to return it puts a greater strain on their marriage.

While in Iraq, Chris and the squad he eventually leads are in search of a deadly sniper known as Mustafa. Chris wants more than anything to kill Mustafa, and is willing to risk everything—even his own life—to do it, as it would symbolize retribution for the lives Mustafa has taken. But as the tension grows in Iraq, Chris starts to realize that he wants to be present in his own life, and for his family.

This is an intense film, and Eastwood does an excellent job in particular with the scenes in Iraq, ratcheting up the tension and giving the film a "you are there" feel in the heat of battle. Cooper gives a fantastic performance as a man whose immense physical and emotional strength at the most chaotic of times can't protect his heart, or his life away from the battlefield. It is a mixture of bravado, vulnerability, and confusion that he can't control everything the way he can control the bullets from his gun. Miller does a great job as well, although her character sometimes has the thankless job of begging her husband to stay home with her instead of serving his country and protecting his fellow soldiers.

I thought that the movie ran a little longer than it needed to; although the movie was faithful to Kyle's memoir, which followed him on all four tours of Iraq, I felt as if it got a little repetitive at times, although I understand why. I also wish that we had gotten to know some of Chris' compatriots a little better, save the two who had the most screen time. But these are merely quibbles—this is a tremendously powerful movie that does great justice to the life of Chris Kyle and his amazing bravery in protecting the lives of so many. We are fortunate that men and women like Chris Kyle are willing to lay down their lives to serve and defend our country.

Movie Review: "Still Alice"

Julianne Moore, meet Oscar. Oscar, meet Julianne Moore. You've flirted with each other a few times before, but I believe you're going to become very close friends in about a month or so...

Alice Howland (Moore) is a brilliant linguistics professor. She's one of the leading researchers in the field, having written the definitive textbook used in university classes, and is sought after for presentations. She's always been driven to have it all, and have it all she does—a successful marriage with John (Alec Baldwin), a scientist; three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart); and a fulfilling career.

Suddenly she starts noticing strange things are occurring—she forgets familiar words during a presentation, she gets easily distracted and forgets what she is doing, and one day during a run she becomes completely confused about where she is. She fears a brain tumor or other disease, but she is not expecting the ultimate diagnosis, early onset Alzheimer's disease. Alice's decline is rapid, and she worries about being a burden on her family and having no quality of life once the disease takes its full toll on her mind.

Still Alice follows Alice and her family through the deterioration of her condition. Tension between her two daughters comes to light, as her more driven daughter (Bosworth) can't understand why the flightier, aspiring actress daughter (Stewart) won't abandon her dreams of a life in Los Angeles and come home to help care for their mother. Alice wants her husband to take a sabbatical while she's still able to enjoy it, but he's not willing to let his own scientific career languish. And for Alice, having to cede control of her life and her mind is one of the worst things she ever thought she'd have to deal with.

Moore is absolutely fantastic in this movie. She's courageous, vulnerable, stubborn, angry, and determined to do things her own way for as long as she can. While this is an emotional movie, Moore never goes for the histrionic way out—her performance is so layered, so human. One scene in which she prepares a speech to deliver to the Alzheimer's Association is particularly poignant—she wants to give a scientific-focused speech to prove her mind still works, although her daughter thinks her speech should be more personal. I challenge you to watch her speech and not at least tear up.

My only regret about this movie is I didn't feel that the majority of Moore's co-stars performed to her level. While Stewart has a few moments where she doesn't seem like the petulant, totally-over-it-all character she often portrays, I thought Baldwin and Bosworth were particularly flat. (I think it was a combination of their performances and their odious characters.) But this is Moore's movie, and she isn't brought down in the least by those around her.

If you've ever experienced a loved one forgetting who you are, or watching a person you care about struggle to remember something, anything, this movie will touch you, and may even be difficult to watch. But the truth is, it never gets as hard to watch and deal with as I feared it would. (I will admit that the novel it's based on, by Lisa Genova, wrecked me even more when I read it about five or so years ago.)

Bring your tissues, and prepare to be dazzled and moved by Moore's performance and Alice's story. If there's any justice, next month Moore will finally win the Oscar that has eluded her so far in her career.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: "All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven

I loathe when a book is touted as "the next [fill in title of bestseller]," or "as funny," or "as suspenseful" as another popular book. As I've said before, I believe that type of comparison cuts both ways—if you're a fan of the book that the new one is being compared to, it sets up unfair expectations, and if you're not a fan, you may skip a book that you might have really enjoyed.

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places is hailed as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park. Having absolutely fallen in love with both of those books, I couldn't resist reading Niven's, even though I knew that the comparison wasn't fair. But after reading Niven's book, I can say that it does share some commonalities with the other two books—namely characters who speak far more eruditely than real teenagers do, and the books' ability to leave me a puddle of emotion when they were done. And neither of those facts made me love All the Bright Places any less.

Violet Markey and Theodore Finch have one of the most unusual meet-cutes I've seen—they meet on the ledge of the bell tower at their Indiana high school. Violet is grieving after the tragic death of her older sister, and has shut the world out. Finch has been known as "the freak" for years, despite his good looks, snarky sense of humor, and intelligence. He's fascinated with different methods of suicide, and has contemplated it more than a few times, but something always stops him.

"I'm fighting to be here in this shitty, messed-up world. Standing on the ledge of the bell tower isn't about dying. It's about having control."

After Violet and Finch essentially save each other from possible death, Finch makes it his mission to save Violet from herself, and convince her to start living her life again, and allowing herself to enjoy things, and people, she used to. The two become partners on a class project called "Wander Indiana," where they are encouraged to visit some of the wonders of their state. But in doing so, they also discover that despite all of their challenges, they can truly be themselves when they're together, which both find truly cathartic.

As the two begin to acknowledge their feelings for each other, and Violet starts feeling comfortable again, Finch continues struggling with his own demons. As much as he tries to be present, to enjoy every moment they spend together, the weight of the feelings of others around him, the problems he's always dealt with, become too much to bear. Violet must make a crucial decision—does she try to save Finch as he saved her, or does she let him handle things on his own?

Niven does an excellent job in portraying the struggles of teenagers dealing with grief and mental illness, and while the obliviousness of those in Finch's life is appalling, this sort of "ignore it and it will go away" behavior is all too true. While as with many YA books published recently, the characters are far more articulate and intelligent and sarcastic than most teenagers really are, the dialogue was beautifully written, and I found the characters, Finch in particular, to be truly memorable.

Sure, this book is a little predictable, but I found it tremendously well done. I can't get it out of my head. I'm sad that I'm done with Finch and Violet, much as I felt after Hazel and Gus' story, and Eleanor and Park's story were done, too. This is a special book, and an important one.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Nominations: How Did I Do?

Yesterday I laid out my predictions for which films, actors, and directors would get nominated. This morning, the Oscar nominations were announced, and as always, there were a few good surprises and a few head-scratching, upsetting snubs.

So how did I do? As always, I did fairly well, missing one or two here and there, and even being 100 percent correct in one, maybe two categories. So here are this year's nominations in the major categories:

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Analysis: Over the last several years, the Academy has this irritating quirk that it won't set a fixed number of nominees for Best Picture, only a minimum of five and a maximum of ten. Nine films have been nominated the last few years. In my predictions I listed 10; this year eight were nominated. Technically, I was perfect in this category—all eight films nominated were on my list; only Foxcatcher and Gone Girl didn't make the cut. (I'm not disappointed in the former; I am in the latter.)

Best Actor
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Analysis: I went 3/5 in this category, although I did say that Carell and Cooper were strong possibilities. I must say, the most egregious snub of the day (even more than The Lego Movie getting passed over in the Best Animated Film category) was David Oyelowo not being nominated for his magnificent performance in Selma. I'm guessing he isn't as well known as some of the other nominees, and wonder if the controversy around his film hurt his chances. I would also have loved to see Jake Gyllenhaal get his second nomination. But this category isn't bad—four out of the five actors received their first nomination, and Bradley Cooper received his third consecutive Oscar nomination. (I don't know if I imagined this when I watched him on Alias years ago!)

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, although I did say Cotillard was a possibility despite her not receiving Golden Globe or SAG nominations. It would have been fun to see Jennifer Aniston get a nomination for Cake, but perhaps this signals a new direction for her career, and I'm excited about that. Jones and Pike received their first nominations, previous winners Cotillard (2007) and Witherspoon (2005) received their second nominations, and Moore received her fifth nomination (her third for Best Actress).

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Analysis: I went 5/5 here. There was an outside possibility that someone like Josh Brolin for Inherent Vice or Tom Wilkinson for Selma might sneak in, but that didn't happen. Simmons received his first nomination, Hawke and Ruffalo received their second nomination, Norton received his third (second for Best Supporting Actor), and Duvall received his seventh, his fourth in this category. (His one Oscar win was in 1983, Best Actor for Tender Mercies.)

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, and I'm thrilled. Laura Dern's nomination was a total surprise, as she had been mentioned early on, but didn't get any notice from the critics or other awards, so I thought she was a lost cause. I'm quite excited about this category. Arquette and Stone received their first nominations, Dern and Knightley received their second (their first in this category), and Streep received an unprecedented 19th nomination, her fourth for Best Supporting Actress. (Her first win was in this category in 1979, for Kramer Vs. Kramer.)

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Analysis: I went 3/5 here, mainly because I was hoping the Academy would make history by nominating Ava DuVernay for Selma, making her the first African American woman nominated in this category. But given the number of women (four) nominated in this category, her omission is unsurprising. I also thought Clint Eastwood, a two-time winner in this category, would get a nod for American Sniper, but maybe the liberal Academy is still making him pay for scolding the chair during the 2012 GOP convention. Tyldum was nominated for a Directors Guild Award, so his nomination here isn't surprising, but I was surprised by Miller's inclusion, especially since his movie wasn't nominated for Best Picture. Anderson, Linklater, and Tyldum received their first nominations; Iñarritu and Miller received their second.

Who will win? The Oscars will be handed out Sunday, February 22. You know I'll be watching!!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Oscar Nominations: Here's What I Think...

Tomorrow morning just after 8:30 a.m., the nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards will be announced. Those of you who know me well know that I've been obsessed with the Oscars for some time, and I always get tremendously excited around nominations time. (You probably also know that for years now, we attempt, usually with near-perfect success, to see all of the films and performances nominated for the major awards.)

As I've done for the last few years, I thought I'd share my predictions as to which films, actors, and directors I believe will get the major nominations tomorrow. I usually do fairly well, but there's always at least a surprise or two. And I guess that's part of what I enjoy about hearing the Oscar nominations—the momentary burst of excitement just before the names are read in each category, thinking quickly in my head who is being excluded when the names are announced in alphabetical order, and who was able to sneak in. (When I get the chance to see all of the 2014 movies, I'll then be able to ascertain which films and actors I would nominate if I were a member of the Academy, but that's often a whole different ball of wax.)

So, here goes:

Best Picture
American Sniper
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Analysis: One of the quirks of the Oscars in recent years is that there is no fixed number of Best Picture nominees, beyond a minimum of five and a maximum of 10. Some years there have been eight, last year there were nine, so who knows? I predicted 10, although you can count on the Academy to be contrary. There's an outside chance that the Academy could nominate Unbroken, although it's been shunned by critics' and other awards thus far. If there's one or two that might not make the cut, I'd say they would be Whiplash and/or Foxcatcher.

Best Actor
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Analysis: I feel fairly confident about Redmayne, Keaton, and Cumberbatch. If there's any justice, Oyelowo will get a nod, because he is absolutely magnificent, although Selma has been the object of some controversy in its interpretation of history. I'm picking Gyllenhaal because this is a unique turn for him which was nominated for both Golden Globes and SAG, and the Academy loves when young actors come into their own. I'm guessing Steve Carell will get passed over for his major dramatic performance, much as Jim Carrey did in 1998 and 1999, although I wouldn't be surprised to see him on this list instead of Gyllenhaal or Oyelowo. And I wouldn't count out Bradley Cooper for American Sniper if the film does well in the nominations tomorrow. Last year he didn't receive Golden Globe or SAG nominations for American Hustle but received an Oscar nod; this would be his third consecutive nomination if he gets in.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Analysis: I agonized over this one, I must admit. I'm fairly certain that Moore, Pike, Witherspoon, and Jones are locks (although Jones may be on the weakest ground by virtue of not being as well known), and that the fifth slot is between Adams and Jennifer Aniston for her breakthrough performance in Cake. The Academy loves to reward actresses for playing against type, and when actresses known for their comic skills do a dramatic role, sometimes it spells Oscar, like Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. I think Adams' Golden Globes win the other night demonstrates that she may have the edge, but I wouldn't be surprised if Aniston bumps her. And to complicate things, it's entirely possible 2007 Best Actress winner Marion Cotillard could sneak in for her performance in Two Days, One Night, for which she won a number of film critics awards.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Analysis: As with the other categories, I feel confident about four nominees—Hawke, Norton, Ruffalo, and Simmons. Duvall, of course, is a legend, and he was nominated for both the Golden Globes and the SAGs for this role, which seems Robert Duvall-ish, but the movie didn't do well, and the last time he played a similar role that was more critically acclaimed (in 2011's Get Low) he missed out on an Oscar nod. But the truth is, no one else rises to the top in my mind—depending upon how their films do tomorrow, it's possible Tom Wilkinson could get nominated for his performance as LBJ in Selma, or Josh Brolin could get his second nomination for Inherent Vice. And there's a very outside chance Steve Carell could wind up in this category despite being campaigned for in the Best Actor category.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Analysis: I feel as if it's nearly a lock that Streep will get an unprecedented 19th nomination tomorrow. Naomi Watts could sneak in instead of Chastain for her role in Birdman, and if Selma has a good showing, there's a slight outside shot that Carmen Ejogo could make it for her performance as Coretta Scott King. Critics have been touting Rene Russo for Nightcrawler, which would be cool.

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Analysis: I had the toughest time with this category. I feel that Linklater, Gonzales Iñarritu, and Anderson are pretty strong locks. Eastwood is a perennial favorite, having been nominated for Best Director four times previously, and he was recently nominated by the Directors Guild. DuVernay, who would be the first African American woman nominated in this category, seemed more of a sure thing a few weeks ago, before Selma has taken a beating for its alleged liberties with history. Other definite possibilities include David Fincher for Gone Girl, wunderkind Damien Chazelle for Whiplash, and DGA-nominated Morton Tyldum for The Imitation Game.

How will my predictions fare this year? Tune in tomorrow, and I'll report back on how I did.

Book Review: "West of Sunset" by Stewart O'Nan

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers of all time. Like many, I was first introduced to his writing in high school through The Great Gatsby, which I fell in love with pretty instantaneously, and then devoured everything else he wrote. But while I am familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald the author, I honestly never knew much about F. Scott Fitzgerald the man, save his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Zelda.

Stewart O'Nan's new book, West of Sunset, follows Fitzgerald at the end of his life. In 1937, despite the successes he achieved with his first few books, he is teetering on financial ruin, and his renown has been eclipsed by other American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway. His reputation has been soiled by his days as a violent alcoholic, as well as Zelda's mercurial and sometimes destructive behavior. With nowhere else to turn, he lands a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Scott finds Hollywood to be a garden of temptation, of both the alcoholic and female persuasions. He begins working at MGM, and is reunited with old friends like Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell, and Humphrey Bogart and then-wife Mayo Methot. He finds life as a screenwriter not particularly challenging, although he doesn't enjoy having to navigate studio politics, which cause him to be bounced from one film to the next, and he sees his work get edited by other writers and directors. He uses his spare time to try and write another novel, about a powerful movie director, but can't quite muster the confidence.

While he tries to immerse himself in Hollywood life, he also tries to be a dutiful husband to Zelda, who is living in a mental hospital, and their daughter, Scottie. And as he struggles with his addiction to alcohol, he meets Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, and promptly falls in love with her. Their tumultuous relationship, juxtaposed against his financial woes, his on-again, off-again binge drinking, and his guilt over betraying Zelda, causes his health to decline, and his career to do the same.

As a fan of old Hollywood, I found this book very interesting, as it touched on movies, actors, directors, and writers that I've heard of, and whose work I've seen over and over again. O'Nan paints Fitzgerald as a tremendously flawed character, desperately trying to redeem himself as a writer, a husband, a father, and a man, and not having much luck on any front. I've always been a fan of O'Nan's storytelling ability, having read all of his books, and while this one moves a bit slow at times, and feels repetitive after the fifth or sixth time Scott's alcoholism relapses, O'Nan's talent is once again on display.

This is an enjoyable, but somewhat melancholy, look at an entirely different side of one of literature's leading lions, and some of Hollywood's glory days. If you're as fascinated by movie and literary nostalgia as I am, pick this one up.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: "Rainey Royal" by Dylan Landis

When we first meet Rainey Royal, the protagonist of Dylan Landis' exquisite novel of interconnected vignettes, she is 14 years old, living in 1970s-era New York City. Her mother left to allegedly live on an ashram, leaving Rainey to live with her father, Howard, a jazz musician of some renown, who acts as a Pied Piper and mentor of sorts for young, aspiring musicians—particularly women.

These "acolytes," as Rainey refers to them, show up, take what they can from Howard (although he usually does more taking), and leave when either they get tired of the lifestyle or Howard tires of them. Rainey is forced to share her living space and possessions with these people, and understand she must share her father with so many.

Rainey is fierce and feisty, but at the same time, she's desperately in need of love and attention. She's getting more than she bargained for with Gordy, Howard's best friend and fellow musician, who lives with them, but while she knows his affections are wrong, they make her feel needed at the same time. She's also just becoming aware of her sexuality, and the effect it can have on others—her teachers, the male musicians that surround Howard, even strangers.

"She sends signals to everyone, all the time, even if the signals are submerged, like telexes in cables on the ocean floor. It's what she does."

Rainey has a love-hate relationship with her best friend, Tina, who craves Rainey's approval and love, but also wants to be a part of the circle that surrounds Howard. Even as she and Rainey grow into adulthood, she never quite discloses the extent of her relationship with Howard. But more than anything, it is Rainey to whom she and others are drawn, including Leah Levinson, a fellow student, whose life seems to eke along colorlessly until she is with Rainey again.

Rainey Royal follows Rainey, as well as Tina and Leah, from their teenage years through their mid-20s, through emotional, humorous, angry, even criminal escapades. Rainey is a tremendously talented artist in need of someone to nurture her talent, but she is also desperate to find someone to love her, someone willing to give, not just take from her, and all of her relationships cause her happiness and hurt at the same time.

I thought this was an absolutely terrific book. Rainey is a complex, beautifully drawn character, flawed yet sympathetic, one whose actions you might not always agree with, but you can see from where they originate. Landis is a fantastic writer, and there were so many sentences that I just marveled over. I worried when I started the book that the whole novel-in-vignettes concept would make the story feel incomplete, as if we were just getting glimpses of the characters and action instead of becoming fully immersed, but Landis did a good job of ensuring continuity, even as the novel progressed through the years.

I'd love to see another novel that follows up on Rainey, Tina, and Leah. Landis has a love for her characters and it truly showed, making Rainey Royal a book worth reading, for so many reasons.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: "Descent" by Tim Johnston

The Courtland family—Grant, Angela, Caitlin, and Sean—travel to the Rocky Mountains for a summer vacation before Caitlin leaves for college. The destination is Caitlin's choice—a championship runner, she hopes to challenge herself on the rugged terrain of the mountains so she is ready to compete at the collegiate level in a few months. For Grant and Angela, struggling to rebuild their marriage, the vacation represents an opportunity to try and strengthen a fragile trust.

Caitlin and Sean go for an early morning run/bike ride in the mountains. A few hours later, Grant gets a phone call from the county sheriff that Sean has been found badly injured on the side of a road, probably hit by a car, and Caitlin is nowhere to be found. All too quickly the idyllic vacation turns into a family's worst nightmare—what could have happened to Caitlin? Where is she? Is she alive? Will they ever see her again?

Descent follows Grant, Angela, and Sean as they try to make sense of Caitlin's disappearance. Already deeply affected by another tragedy earlier in her life, Angela's grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous, and she tries to reconcile her feelings for her husband and her son. Grant and Sean each try to deal with their feelings of guilt and anger in very different ways, while navigating the tension that has grown between them.

I felt as if this was, in essence, two books in one. There was the exploration of family dynamics in the wake of a cataclysmic event, and then the tension-filled, heart-pounding conclusion. Tim Johnston is a terrific writer, and his use of language and imagery was almost poetic at times. I could have done with less introspection, because while I understand it was necessary to show just how vastly each individual was affected, I felt as if the same things happened over and over again. But once the action and suspense ratchets up, despite containing elements you've seen many times before, the book stepped itself up a notch or two.

This is a well-written book that definitely gets your heart pounding at the end. But the quiet moments in the book are just as powerful, and prove Johnston's strengths as a writer.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: "Grasshopper Jungle" by Andrew Smith

I would have never believed that a book could appeal to the 14-year-old boy inside of me while also having a lot of heart, until I read Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle. This is a crazy, puerile yet utterly enjoyable book which honestly surprised me.

Sixteen-year-old best friends Robby Brees and Austin Szerba are growing up in the small town of Ealing, Iowa. There isn't much to do, so the boys mostly skateboard and smoke copious amounts of cigarettes. Robby is gay; Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, as well as Robby, and that's difficult on all of them, especially considering that nearly everything in the world makes Austin horny.

They start to notice weird things around town—Shann hears a constant ticking noise behind the walls of the new house her family has moved into (a house that originally belonged to her late uncle, who was a scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur in Ealing) and the boys discover the noise is from an antique teletype machine, constantly repeating a warning message that doesn't make sense. And then they stumble upon an underground shelter that is unlike anything they've ever seen, built to protect people from an unimaginable disaster.

But that disaster is no longer imaginable, as the town suddenly is struck by a plague which turns those it comes in contact with into six-foot-tall praying mantis-type insects with insatiable appetites for two things—food and sex. As Robby and Austin discover how this plague came to be, they realize that the future of the human race may depend on them and few additional people, and they figure out how to defeat the insects. But it's a messy (and dangerous) proposition.

Grasshopper Jungle is zany and tremendously entertaining, but as much as Smith's characters like to say "Uh" a lot, and there's a lot of talk of sperm, and balls, and horniness, at its heart this book is about the beauty of friendship and trying to be comfortable with who you are. It's also a book about how our histories—no matter how bizarre—affect our lives and our futures.

This is definitely not a book for everyone, but if you are in the mood for a crazy but sweet story and aren't phased in the least by horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises, or if your inner teenager is looking for a fun read, you'll definitely enjoy this.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: "You Could Be Home By Now" by Tracy Manaster

Alison and Seth Collier are high school teachers (she teaches history, he teaches journalism) who are dealing (badly) with a terrible loss. In an effort to try and regain some balance and try to rebuild their lives, they decide to move across the country to Arizona, where they both take jobs at The Commons, a high-end retirement community. Alison will be the community historian, as the CEO wants to create a sense of history (even if it's not quite true), and Seth will be the editor of the community newspaper.

But while Alison quickly gets acclimated to their new life and her new job, Seth continues struggling. And if covering birth announcements of the residents' grandchildren isn't stimulating enough, he is rather underwhelmed by the community's biggest scandal—one longtime resident is discovered to be housing her young grandchild, despite community rules that no children are allowed to live there. Some residents feel that she should be allowed to continue given the circumstances; others believe in following the letter of community rules, while the CEO is most concerned about the effect the scandal may have on property values.

Not only does You Could Be Home By Now follow Seth and Alison's efforts to regain control of their lives, it also provides the perspective of Ben, a community resident dealing with the aftereffects of his own personal tragedy—which come to light in a peculiar way; and Lily, the teenage granddaughter of Ben's neighbor and a self-proclaimed "beauty blogger" who has been banned from social media by her parents. Each has a different viewpoint onto the scandal in The Commons, and has their own issues to cope with as well.

This book struck me as a bit quirky, although I think it was perhaps intended to be a satirical look at the constricting nature of homeowners' associations. I really enjoyed the premise of the book and found it started off really well, but while many of Tracy Manaster's characters are well-drawn, ultimately I found too many of them to be unlikeable, and thus difficult to remain engaged in their stories. Manaster had an interesting approach to dialogue in that her characters didn't quite say what they meant to say, or at times you needed to figure out what they were saying.

In the end, disappointingly, this book didn't resonate for me, although given the nearly 5-star rating it has on Amazon (and a fairly strong rating on Goodreads as well), perhaps I missed something, so I wouldn't dissuade you from giving this a try just because of my opinion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My favorite songs of 2014...

While I spend a lot of my free time reading (as evidenced by the fact that I read 135 books last year), music is and always has been a huge part of my life. Not only do I sing anywhere I can (sometimes to the chagrin of those riding along in my car), but I make sure I have my iPod with me wherever I go. (And it's no Shuffle or Nano for mE—I have the now-defunct iPod Classic, which in my case holds nearly 25,000 songs.)

There has been a lot of enjoyable music released this year—although as always, some of the songs I loved the first few times I heard them rapidly lost their appeal as every radio station played them once an hour&#151. My tastes are fairly diverse (although they hew a little more toward pop than anything else), and if it has a great beat and I can run to it on the elliptical, I'm hooked. (It is interesting that quite often I recognize songs I hear in spin class or in the gym more than anything else.)

Once again, I've compiled my top 25 songs of the year in random order, along with a few extras thrown in for good measure. Each song title is linked to its video (remember those?) on YouTube. What were your favorites this year?

Take Me to Church by Hozier: It took a while for me to learn what this song was actually about (and the video adds even more intrigue), which makes me love it all the more. Regardless of that, one thing is for certain: I am obsessed with Hozier's (Andrew Hozier-Byrne) voice. Gives me chills.

Harlem by New Politics: Add this song to the list of those that motivate me to move faster on the elliptical or whatever piece of gym machinery I'm on. I love the beat of this song, and it's one of the 25 most played on my iPod. (That is a crazy list I'll have to share sometime.)

Already Home by A Great Big World: While this wasn't as popular as the band's Say Something, I love this song more. I don't know why it chokes me up every time I hear it (I am a gigantic sap, I know), and the video, which stars Darren Criss and Jessica Szohr, is excellent, too.

In Conflict by Owen Pallett: This song is so complex, and Pallett's voice is unique and rich, and it reminds me of so many different things. The song doesn't start for like a minute and a half into the video, but it's utterly mesmerizing.

Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon: This is one of those songs I heard for the first time in spin class, but being a child of the 80s, Walk the Moon's sound hit me in all the right places. Their entire album (do they still call them that?) is terrific and 80s-tinged.

The Walker by Fitz and The Tantrums: I wish I could whistle so I could get into this song all the more. I've been a huge fan of Fitz and The Tantrums for a few years now, and this is another great one from them.

I'm Ready by AJR: I don't know where I first heard this song (it probably was the gym), but I still can't get it out of my head. It's fun and infectious, and I'm not ashamed to admit it's not the only song from a so-called "boy band" among my favorites this year.

I Wanna Get Better by Bleachers: Bleachers is the side project of Jack Antonoff, better known as the guitarist from the band fun. This is another song with definite 80s influences, and I love the whole album. Plus, Mary Kay Place is in this video. How could you go wrong?

All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor: Some think this song is a paean to being happy with what you look like no matter what, some think it is prejudiced against thinner people, and some probably didn't even know that this song caused any debate. But this is a tremendously infectious song that makes me want to dance until I'm reminded I'm a danger to myself and others when I do.

Don't by Ed Sheeran: Admittedly this song makes a little more sense when the f-words aren't edited out, but it's still a pretty fun song. And apparently he wrote it about Ellie Goulding. Discuss.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My favorite books of 2014...

Those of you who know me—or even simply follow me sporadically on social media—know that I am a voracious reader. I have been reading for as long as I can remember, and my memories of certain events and trips in my life include what I was reading at that time. I watch very little television, not because it isn't good or because I'm an elitist, but more because I would much rather spend the small amount of time when I'm not working, working out, eating, or sleeping by reading, rather than doing anything else.

This year I read a record 135 books. These weren't short books, or graphic novels, or children's books. (And this total was achieved despite taking about three weeks off when my father died earlier this year.) I did a lot of traveling—flying home from Belgium this past spring I read three books between my three flights—and because I take the metro to work I can read on my 30-minute commute to and from the office. I read some absolutely fantastic books, some good ones, and only a few I really disliked.

As I've done the past few years, I've selected the best books I read this past year, plus a few more that just fell short of the very best but I still think they're too good to miss. I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did!

In random order, the best of 2014 includes:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This is a big, ambitious, emotional, gorgeously written book that I absolutely fell in love with. Let's just say it involves the world following a massive plague, a traveling group of Shakespearean actors and musicians, a series of comic books, and memories of a different world. This is a book about love, loss, friendship, connection, and the power of memory. It's bleak and beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking. Yes, it's about the end of the world as people knew it, but there are no zombies or rebellions or shadow governments or anything like that. Read my original review.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking: Justin Hocking's memoir about his obsession with surfing and Moby Dick, and his struggles to find direction in his life and overcome his addiction to being in relationships, made me feel much like I'd imagine one does after a good round of surfing—breathless and exhilarated, simultaneously. This is a meticulously researched, emotionally poignant, fascinating, and sometimes humorous book, populated with a tremendously memorable and endearing cast of characters. Considering I know nothing about surfing or skateboarding, and have only read Moby Dick once, I was surprised how utterly hooked I was by this book. Read my original review.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: In the early 1940s, the world is on the brink of war. Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old blind girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Young Werner Pfennig is growing up with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage in a German mining town. As war closes in, 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. This is an exquisite, wonderfully told story, with tremendously vivid characters which came to life. Would be a fantastic movie! Read my original review.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevinn: This book, a tribute to a love of books and reading, as well as a tribute to love, is so warm and wonderful, it almost feels like a big hug. A.J. Fikry is the cantankerous owner of Island Books on Massachusetts' Alice Island. Lonely since the sudden, tragic death of his wife a few months earlier, his business is struggling as much as he is. But then three incidents change the course of his life—a disastrous meeting with the new sales representative of a publisher; the disappearance of a rare copy of an Edgar Allan Poe book; and the unexpected discovery of a nearly two-year-old baby left in the store. An utterly compelling story that hooks you from the beginning. Read my original review.

The Heaven of Animals: Stories by David James Poissant: Do yourself a favor: pick up this story collection—you'll be moved, overwhelmed, touched, and blown away. The stories are about relationships—between parent and child, spouses or significant others, siblings, friends, strangers, even between a man and his wife's dog. (No, not like that.) In many cases these are people facing challenges—physical, emotional, financial—and they're struggling to right their own ships, so to speak. While story after story about people in some sort of crisis could be harrowing to read, in Poissant's hands the stories are certainly moving, but told so beautifully and skillfully that you feel empathy, and somehow transformed by the paths these characters follow. Read my original review.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson: Beautiful, breathtaking, bewildering, and a little bizarre, but I can't get it out of my head. Jude and Noah Sweetwine are twins, so close they often think of themselves as NoahandJude. They can read each other's thoughts and know each other's fears. At age 13, both are artistically creative and emotionally sensitive in their own ways, yet they're also quite different. Yet three years later, Noah and Jude are barely speaking, and everything has changed. This is a book about the half-truths we tell ourselves and our reluctance to see what is in front of us and say what we truly feel. It's a book about following your heart and accepting the truth, even if it leads you somewhere you're afraid of, and realizing you must live the life that ignites your passions. Read my original review.

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge: One hell of a read. 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. 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, but the siren call of drugs has led him down an increasingly self-destructive path. This is a beautiful, almost poetic book which is brutally frank in its depiction of the daily struggles of a drug addict. Bud is such a vivid character and his persona 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. Read my original review.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: For lack of a better word, this book is phantasmagorical, but so, so brilliant. I'll admit I didn't understand everything that happened, but Mitchell's storytelling was so breathtakingly good, so utterly captivating, that it didn't matter. I truly was surprised by two things—that a 650-page book could have such rapid pacing, and just how much heart this book had. I was fascinated by the characters and the situations they found themselves in, and I was sad when the book ended, because I wish I could have spent more time with them. This isn't a book for everyone, so you need to be comfortable with just letting the story flow, and suspending your disbelief. Read my original review.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"

I loved Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy (I practically devoured each book as it was released), and saw the first two film adaptations (The Hunger Games and Catching Fire) within the first few days of their release. So why did I wait more than a month to see the third installment?

Two reasons, I guess. First, as those of you who know me well probably know, I spend most of December-February watching all of the movies that receive major Oscar nominations (I don't like to miss any—don't judge), so I have been cramming lots of those in. But my main reason for delaying seeing the first part of Mockingjay (much like the last Harry Potter film, it has been broken into two parts) was that of the trilogy, I found this book to be the biggest downer, and that's saying something, considering the subject matter of the series!

When we last left Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and her fellow Hunger Games victors were forced into competing in the Quarter Quell, sort of an all-star, everyone-but-the-winner-dies competition. But after she and a few of her allies realize how they are being manipulated, Katniss' act of rebellion ends the games. She and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) are rescued, leaving three allies—including Katniss' teammate/supposed love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—behind to fend for themselves against the evil Capital.

Katniss' rebellion has once again encouraged the citizens of Panem's other districts to rise up against the Capital and dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland), but Snow and his soldiers are quick to destroy any uprisings as violently as they can. Katniss is persuaded by District 13's President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to serve as the symbol of what they hope will be the new Republic of Panem. But Katniss is desperate to rescue Peeta, especially as she sees him increasingly being used as a pawn by Snow.

The first part of Mockingjay sets the stage for the final clash between Katniss, the rebels she has inspired, and the Capital. She sees just how far Snow is willing to go to destroy not only the things and the people she loves, but anyone who dares follow in her footsteps. It also follows Katniss as she tries to determine whether her feelings for Peeta were simply part of the game, or whether she truly cares about him beyond loyalty—or if she'd rather be with her childhood companion, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who is tiring of being a substitute.

Mockingjay — Part 1 is another well-done installment of the series, although, as the book was, it is much darker, and a bit more of a downer than the other movies. But it is still tremendously compelling, because of the richness and complexity of the world that Suzanne Collins created when she wrote the books, as well as Francis Lawrence's assured direction, and, of course, the performances.

Jennifer Lawrence continues her quest for world domination (just kidding) with another strong performance as Katniss. She truly has embodied the mixture of courage, vulnerability, insecurity, confusion, and anger that is needed for this character, and while she glowers a bit more in this movie, she still lights up the screen. Hoffman, whose role is far larger than I remember it being in the book, is sufficiently manipulative, and his performance once again reinforces what a tragedy his death last year was. Moore brings iciness and an underlying bit of heart to her role, and while Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss and Peeta's advisers/friends, Haymitch and Effie, don't have as prominent roles in this movie, seeing them onscreen feels like old friends have returned home. It's good to see Hemsworth with a little more to do and say in this film (although it's a shame Hutcherson doesn't get much to do), and Sutherland is his usual dastardly self.

I'm dreading the last part of this movie, because I don't want the series to end (I've just gotten over not having any more books in the series), and I remember some of what is coming. But that being said, this film, and the others that precede it, are bleak yet dynamic, enjoyable yet haunting. It's a series of film adaptations definitely worthy of the books they were borne from.

Movie Review: "Selma"

Around the holidays, there is always at least one or two movies released which are either chronicles of an event or a time in history, or biographies of a notable historical figure or celebrity. And this year is no exception—the last month or so has seen the release of The Theory of Everything (about Stephen and Jane Hawking), The Imitation Game (about Alan Turing), and Ava DuVernay's fantastic Selma.

But while some commercials for Selma promote it as the story of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in actuality, the movie takes place over a short period of time in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has recently signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but many southern states in particular seem to be virtually ignoring it. In Alabama, for example, while African-Americans technically have the right to vote, white court clerks humiliate them and subject them to unfair harassment and testing that disqualifies them every time.

It's come to the point where King (David Oyelowo) and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have had enough. King asks Johnson for his help in ensuring that blacks have the right to vote by passing a Voting Rights Act, but Johnson isn't ready to do so—despite winning re-election in a landslide he feels an obligation to the leaders in many southern states who helped him win, and who don't support Johnson's movement toward equality. Johnson asks for time; King no longer has the patience to wait, especially as more violence is being perpetrated on blacks who simply want the rights they are entitled to.

Everything comes to a head in Selma, Alabama, as King and his colleagues plan a non-violent march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, where they hope to meet with Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), despite his outspoken prejudice. The first attempt to march is met with violence on the part of local and state police (all white, of course) and racist citizens, and this violence is broadcast nationwide by the media, so many people from all walks of life are motivated to come to Selma and join the march. King must decide whether to lead his supporters back into an environment which could be fraught with serious danger, while Johnson must decide whether to let events transpire as they are without his involvement, or if he should go against Wallace's wishes.

While I knew what the outcome of the march on Selma was, I didn't honestly know much more than that, so I found this movie suspenseful as well as mind-blowingly good. Some have pointed out some of the film's historical inaccuracies (for example, ignoring the role that the Rev. Ralph Abernathy played), but I don't feel this lessened the film's power in any way. This is a movie that is all too appropriate given recent events in Ferguson and New York, as well as the fight for marriage equality across the country, and it's frightening how prescient some of the dialogue is, much as it was in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln a few years back.

David Oyelowo, who impressed me last year with his role as Forest Whitaker's equality-crusading son in Lee Daniels' The Butler, absolutely took my breath away with his performance in this movie. He looks like King, has King's cadence, and his replicating some of King's most famous speeches and sermons gave me the chills. But alongside the big moments, Oyelowo shines in so many smaller moments in the movie as well. Selma doesn't paint King as flawless—it shows that this spiritual leader had his own struggles—and that is what makes Oyelowo's performance even richer. I knew just a few minutes into the movie, after his first speech, that this would be a career-making performance, and it is utterly Oscar-worthy.

Wilkinson does a terrific job with his portrayal of Johnson, as he straddles the line between what he knows he needs to do to ensure his legacy versus what he wants to do for political expediency, and he also depicts the struggle of a man in the midst of, as he puts it, "101 problems" coming at the same time. The supporting performances—including Roth, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (she is a dead ringer for the woman she portrays), Stephan James as John Lewis (now a U.S. Congressman), Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams, Colman Domingo as Abernathy, and Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton—more than hold their own against Oyelowo and Wilkinson. In my opinion, only Oprah Winfrey, in a small role, seemed out of place and felt more like acting than embodying a character.

Even if you know little to nothing about the civil rights movement, Selma is a movie to watch and to savor. Ava DuVernay films some scenes with the tension of an action movie, and not a moment feels forced or wrong-footed. You watch events unfold as the characters do and are moved by them. Definitely one of the best 2014 films I've seen.