Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: "Mexico: Stories" by Josh Barkan

Mexico has taken a bit of a bad rap in the last 18 months or so, with Donald Trump using his criticism of Mexican immigrants as a launching pad for his (now-successful) run for the American presidency. Although Mexico has so much more to offer the world—culture, history, beauty, cuisine—all too often people choose instead to dwell on the incidence of crime, drugs, violence, and poverty they see portrayed in the media.

Unfortunately, Josh Barkan's new story collection, aptly titled Mexico, won't really help the country much with its reputation. But like the country itself, these stories are more than you initially think, much more than violence, crime, drugs, and poverty. While not every story works, taken as a whole, this is a powerful collection that makes you think.

The characters in Barkan's stories are, for the most part, ordinary people caught in the midst of extraordinary, and in many cases, unexpected, situations. The choices they choose to make, the decisions they face aren't always the ones we would choose, but they are often shaped by circumstances driven by the country itself.

Some of my favorite stories in this collection were: "The God of Common Names," in which a schoolteacher is caught in the middle of a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship between two of his students, children of rival drug lords, and he finds himself contemplating his own marriage, which caused its own friction; "I Want to Live," which tells of a woman awaiting a doctor's appointment who becomes immersed in the life story of a fellow patient, once a beauty queen and minor celebrity; "The Prison Breakout," about a man working with prison inmates who gets obsessed with the innocence of one prisoner in particular; "The Sharpshooter," which tells of an American soldier and his best friend, involved in a drug sting operation; and "Everything Else is Going to Be Fine," about a driven young man whose involvement in a bizarre incident forces him to confront what he has been hiding.

The stories I liked most tended to be more character-driven than violence-driven, although violence played a role in each. Some stories I felt were more about violence and crime, and didn't seem to ever rise above that. Barkan is a tremendously talented writer who created characters and plots which packed a punch (no pun intended), and made you feel for the situations in which the characters found themselves.

After a while, though, the stories started to feel very similar and very bleak, and the collection became harder to slog through. There were only so many kidnaps and murders and assaults I could read about, and I felt the stories toward the end of the collection became a little more one-note. But then one of the earlier stories would flash through my mind, and I would realize that while this may be an uneven collection, it's a pretty well-written and powerful one, rooted in the reality of today's world.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Book Review: "I Liked My Life" by Abby Fabiaschi

There were times when I was a teenager and in my early 20s (back in the dark ages) that I suffered from depression, and I thought about what it would be like to attend my own funeral, to see who would attend and what people would say about me, whether they would be sorry or sad, or how they would react.

In a strange way, I was reminded of those thoughts when I was reading Abby Fabiaschi's beautifully moving debut novel, I Liked My Life.

From the outside, it appeared Maddy had it all. She was a well-read, tremendously intelligent and generous housewife, with a successful husband, Brady, and a beautiful teenage daughter, Eve. Maddy was witty, sardonic, fun to be around, and fiercely devoted to her family, and determined that Eve grow up understanding the difference between right and wrong, and realize the impact of her actions when treating someone else cruelly. Sure, Brady's workaholic nature, his refusal to relax and spend time with her and Eve, and his taking her for granted more times than she'd care to count enraged and saddened her, but for the most part, she is satisfied with the way her life unfolds, which is why it is a tremendous shock to her family, friends, and the community when out of the blue, Maddy commits suicide one day.

But although her life on Earth is over, Maddy isn't quite finished. She watches over Brady and Eve and tries to help them deal with their grief and, perhaps equally importantly, their relationship with each other. She's determined not to let Eve grow up with bitterness and anger, and she refuses to let Brady distance himself from their daughter, to fall into his usual patterns of anger, neglect, and periodic bouts of attention. From wherever she is, Maddy gently manipulates both of them to draw closer to one another; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but she sees how they are both reeling from her sudden death.

The one thing Maddy wants to do is find her replacement, someone who will provide stability and love for both Brady and Eve. And she thinks she has found that in Rory, a teacher with a sparkling personality, an unexplained warmth, and a sarcastic edge, plus Rory is haunted by a tragedy of her own. Can Maddy help shape her family's future before she disappears for good?

Meanwhile, Brady and Eve try desperately to understand what might have caused Maddy to take her own life, and how they might have been responsible. Each deals with grief and anger in their own way, and although they try to lean on each other, they struggle with that, because Maddy was the bridge between them. But as their relationship changes, they both begin to better understand who Maddy was, what made her tick, and how she really felt about her husband and her daughter. That may hurt, but it also the first step they must take if they will ever be able to move on.

This is a tremendously thought-provoking and moving book, but despite the subject matter, it's not overly maudlin. Fabiaschi is a talented storyteller whose finesse belies the fact that this is her debut novel, because the book shifts and changes into something a little different than I expected, something even richer, while in a lesser author's hands this book could have turned into an all-out sob fest.

The characters are much more complex than they first appear, although they're not always sympathetic, and you wonder at times just how much of a martyr Maddy was to put up with Brady and Eve's behavior. But as you see Maddy's side of the story, you begin to understand that, just like life, things aren't always what they appear, and you never really understand the relationship of two people by looking in from the outside.

Sure, this story isn't perfect, and at times things happen a little too conveniently or seem a little too pat. But it was compelling from start to finish, and I really wanted to know and spend time with these characters, and understand their emotions. And I, too, wanted to understand what drove Maddy to her final moments. There are both the elements of the familiar and the unique in this book, and I liked it very much.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2016 Oscar Nominations: What happened

This morning, in a rather convoluted and lackluster online announcement, the nominations for the 89th Academy Awards were announced. Yesterday, I posted my predictions of what I thought would get nominated in the major categories; now it's time to see how I did compared to the real nominations.

As usual, the Oscar nominations continue to befuddle and aggravate me, although there were a few pleasant surprises.

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Analysis: I wasn't sure how many movies would be nominated for Best Picture this year since it's never a consistent number. I picked all nine of these and then added a tenth, so I'd say I got 9/9. Of course, I was hoping the Academy would throw in a nomination for Deadpool to add some cool factor, but then I remembered: it's the Oscars.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Analysis: I went 5/5 here. No surprises whatsoever, although I wondered whether Joel Edgerton could slide in for his performance in Loving, but the Oscar nominees in this category are identical to those nominated for the SAG award.

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, but this is category #1 of aggravation. I don't know what the hell Annette Bening needs to do to win an Oscar, but it appears she and Glenn Close are destined to remain also-rans while younger actresses win one or two awards (not always because they deserve it). And wherefore art thou, Amy Adams? I get that Huppert has never been nominated before, and Negga gave a fantastic performance as one half of the couple whose love broke down the barriers to interracial marriage, but come on already. Look, I love Meryl Streep, but sometimes she doesn't deserve to be nominated. She was perfectly pleasant in Florence Foster Jenkins, but this was a nomination for Meryl Streep, icon, not Meryl Streep, actress. Oh, and the other person missing in this category? Viola Davis. Supporting actress, she is not. Ugh.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, but not where I expected. I honestly am surprised that Hugh Grant didn't finally land his first nomination (after being passed over for Four Weddings and a Funeral 22 years ago) for Florence Foster Jenkins, although I'm pleased to see Hedges included among the nominees. And I told you about Michael Shannon...I just should have taken my own advice in the next category.

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, although I should have known better. I said yesterday that the only thing that would make me as happy as Annette Bening landing a nomination was if Janelle Monáe was nominated for Hidden Figures, not to mention her superlative work in Moonlight. Clearly the Academy didn't care about making me happy. I thought Octavia Spencer would get in over Monáe because, like Michael Shannon, the Academy went with the established former winner (or nominee, in Shannon's part) instead of the younger actor. And of course, then there's Viola Davis. (Lead, cough cough, not supporting.)

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villenueve, Arrival

Analysis: I went 3/5 here, but I'm not surprised by what happened. I thought the Academy might not yet be ready to welcome Gibson back with open arms, and I thought Villenueve wasn't well-known enough. I thought Garth Davis might get nominated for his film debut in Lion and thought the directors' branch might opt for perennial favorite Martin Scorsese instead, but his movie Silence languished at the Oscars. I'm not overly disappointed or surprised, though.

With a record-tying 14 nominations, certainly La La Land seems like the film to beat, and despite nearly everyone else I know, I loved it. But it will be interesting to see what the next month brings before a few lucky people can use the words "Oscar winner" before their names...

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Strays" by Emily Bitto

"Trying to describe my friendship with Eva is like showing the slides from a life-changing journey. The images can never break their borders and make their way into the body, into the nose, the ears, the entrails; they can never convey the feeling of profound change, brought about simply by altering one's place in the world."

Lily met Eva Trentham, the daughter of an infamous Australian painter, when they were young girls, on Lily's first day in a new school. An only child, raised modestly by parents who seemed perfectly happy with their quiet, ordinary lives, Lily is quickly besotted with Eva and her two sisters, Bea and Heloise. And when Lily is invited to visit the Trenthams' home, she immediately falls in love with the bohemian lifestyle Eva's parents, Evan and Helena, have created, letting the children fend for themselves, surrounded by art, nature, and raucous parties.

Little by little, Lily becomes a part of the Trentham household, and she and Eva become inseparable. Evan and Helena create a sort-of artists' colony in their own home, inviting three young artists to come and live with them, and together they will challenge the mores and stuffiness of the conservative Australian art scene. Even though she feels fully immersed in the magical atmosphere the Trenthams have created, and her parents are all too happy to let her live with Eva's family, Lily knows that she will be always be just an outsider.

But as the girls get older, Lily starts to realize that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Evan's work seems to be eclipsed by that of one of his protegés, the government is cracking down on what they view to be "indecent" art, and each of the girls, even young Heloise, has their own obsession with the handsome young artists who live with them. And then Lily realizes she has been the one left in the dark, and the secrets that have ramifications which will irreparably change a number of lives.

The Strays shifts back and forth between Lily's somewhat magical life among the Trenthams and her fellow strays, to the present day, when she attends a retrospective of Evan's work. This is a story of the intense friendships of youth, the feeling of belonging in a place far different than you were raised, and the jealousy and heartbreak which comes from actually finding yourself on the outside.

"What I feel is the sense of futility that emerges when the past is laid side by side with the present, like two photographs taken many years apart, when it becomes clear that there is no more time."

The themes of the haves and the have-nots, of the outsider being brought into a life they had heretofore only imagined and/or wished for, are both tremendously familiar in literature. Emily Bitto tweaks them a bit, so there is a freshness to the plot you've seen many times before. The characters are flawed yet interesting, and while you have your suspicions about how the story will unfold, there still are a few surprises.

While the book tried to capture the battle between art and government-mandated decency, I don't think it focused on that topic enough, so it seemed a bit nebulous. One troubling thread of the story didn't get focused on enough, and I'm not sure if that was because the family tried not to deal with it, or if it just got lost. But all in all, this is a captivating story of friendship, love, creativity, betrayal, and finally finding one's place in the world. It's both heartwarming and tragic, tempestuous and grounded.

NetGalley and Twelve Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

2016 Oscar Nominations: What I think

It's one of my most favorite times of the year: the Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow morning. I've been reasonably (ha) obsessed with the Oscars since the 1980s, and so we make an effort to see every movie and performance nominated for the major awards before the Oscar telecast. (If what happens tomorrow is what I think, we won't have much more to see, thanks to a very movie-heavy holiday season.)

For a while now, I've been making my predictions for which movies and performances I think will get nominated, then after the nominations are announced I come back and analyze how well I did. (Note: this isn't necessary who I think deserves to get nominated; often there's a pretty gap between what I want and what actually happens, because the Oscars are as much about paying back old slights, trying to take advantage of popularity, and other crazy politics as they are about who gave the best performances. But I digress.)

So, here's what I think will happen tomorrow around 8:35 a.m. ET. I know there's bound to be a surprise and/or disappointment (for me) or two, so...

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Analysis: Over the last few years the Academy has played coy with the number of films which will get nominated for Best Picture. Some years it's eight, some years it's nine, sometimes it's ten. I went with 10 this year although I have a feeling it will be either Fences or Silence, not both. And then, if the Academy feels adventurous, they could nominate Deadpool, which would be awesome.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Analysis: I feel fairly secure about these five, but Joel Edgerton could sneak in for Loving. If he does, I think he'd displace Mortensen, whose movie was the least seen in theaters.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Arrival
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Analysis: It breaks my heart not to add Annette Bening to this list for her fantastic performance in 20th Century Women. She should have won an Oscar already, and she absolutely should be nominated this year, but I worry that her multi-layered yet ultimately more comedic performance will get overlooked. Huppert has never been nominated, so I think that plus the Golden Globe win give her momentum. But then again, Ruth Negga (for Loving), Emily Blunt (Girl on the Train), or Jessica Chastain (for Miss Sloane) could surprise, and there's a v-e-r-y o-u-t-s-i-d-e chance that Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech could actually hurt her chances for a nod. But I doubt it.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Analysis: I'm going out on a little bit of a limb here. I believe Ali, Bridges, Grant, and Patel are locks. That fifth spot is in flux. Aaron Taylor-Johnson won the Golden Globe for Nocturnal Animals but I think the Academy may pick previous nominee Shannon (who has a slightly showier and more sympathetic role) over his co-star. The other possibility is Lucas Hedges, who was really good in Manchester by the Sea. And of course, there's probably someone I'm not thinking of...

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Analysis: Other than Annette Bening getting a nomination tomorrow morning, the one thing which will excite me more than anything is if Janelle Monáe gets nominated. She had a great year and proved she has a real future in acting, not to mention she's an amazing musician and drop-dead gorgeous, to boot. I have a feeling the Academy will hedge its bets and go with 2011 winner Octavia Spencer for the same movie, despite the fact that Monáe's role is a little showier. Oh, and don't get me started on Davis, who should be a Best Actress nominee, since she's in 95 percent of Fences (and won a Best Leading Actress Tony Award for the same performance). But this is the Oscars...and the same thing happened with last year's winner, Alicia Vikander.

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Garth Davis, Lion
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence

Analysis: Another crapshoot. The Directors Guild of America nominated Chazelle, Davis, Jenkins, Lonergan, and Denis Villenueve for Arrival. The Golden Globes nominated Chazelle, Jenkins, Lonergan, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge and Tom Ford for Nocturnal Animals. I have a feeling Gibson may get in, but I never count out Scorsese, since the last time he really had a pet project (1988's The Last Temptation of Christ), he got nominated although the film did not.

And there you have it! Check back tomorrow to see which noms excited me, which enraged me, and which shocked me.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book Review: "History Is All You Left Me" by Adam Silvera

Oh, man, this book...

Theo was Griffin's first love. They were best friends first, and then one day, Theo surprised Griffin by expressing his feelings for him, especially since they had never discussed either of them being gay. (This was Theo's secret; Griffin's was revealing to Theo that he knew he was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and he wasn't quite sure what to do about it.)

"It's going to sound stupid, and I wouldn't ever say this out loud, but the way Theo and I came out to each other was sort of like getting caught in a thunderstorm. Storms can suck when they're knocking out power and ripping apart houses, no doubt. But other times the thunder is a soundtrack to something unpredictable, something that gets our hearts racing and wakes us up. If someone had warned me about the weather, I might have freaked out and stayed inside."

Griffin and Theo's relationship was truly special—they shared many inside jokes, romantic and goofy moments, and Theo tried to help Griffin deal with his OCD. When Theo gets the opportunity to attend college in California on early admission, Griffin has a feeling that being out of sight might mean out of mind with Theo, so he breaks up with him. But Griffin knows Theo is his endgame, and that they'll eventually find their way back to each other and their love.

As Theo's first year of college unfolds, it's no surprise that he begins dating Jackson. Griffin does his best to be happy for his best friend, but he is hurting, and his pain is making his compulsions more intense. He knows that Jackson wants Theo to stop being friends with Griffin as well as their other best friend Wade. Griffin starts to wonder whether he should try and move on to, if the endgame he had always dreamed of has changed. And then, without warning, Theo drowns.

Theo's death throws Griffin into a tailspin. He doesn't want to do anything—go to school, leave the house, anything except mourn for his true love and his best friend. To make matters worse, Jackson comes to New York for Theo's funeral and then stays for a little while, to escape from where the tragedy happened. Yet despite their mutual jealousy of the other, Jackson and Griffin start to open up to one another, since they're the only ones who truly knew Theo this way, and they're the only ones who feel this kind of grief.

But no matter how much they confide in each other, the pain of Theo's loving someone else, coupled with Griffin's grief, is dragging him down. He wants nothing more than to shut the world out—Wade, his family, everyone and everything. He can't ignore the fact that his OCD is getting more out of control, though, and he's starting to hurt everyone else in the process. The only way he can attempt to move on is to try and come to terms with his and Theo's history, from start to finish—without varnishing over anything or avoiding the pain.

This is an intense book, but it's not all as sad as you'd expect. I might have teared up a time or two, but I was surprised I didn't become more emotional given the subject matter. I think that's because Adam Silvera tried not to make the book too heavy, even as Griffin and the other characters dealt with some serious grief, as well as unresolved anger.

Silvera is such an excellent writer. His book More Happy Than Not made my list of the best books I read in 2015.

The book shifts back and forth from when Theo and Griffin's relationship first began to the present, and you wonder how everything is going to occur. I'll admit I struggled with Griffin's character a bit, because his grief made him a little too difficult to dealt with, and his selfcenteredness, while understandable, made him less than sympathetic at times. But as Silvera lets the whole story unfold, you can understand why he acts the way he does.

I read about 90 percent of this book in a day. It's not an easy read emotionally, but Silvera immerses you in the story and makes you feel the emotions his characters do. The fact that the boys' sexuality was just presented in a matter-of-fact way, without experiencing any homophobia or people's difficulty accepting them, once again leads me to wish this type of YA fiction existed when I was a YA.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: "The Perfect Stranger" by Megan Miranda

Sometimes I think we put unfair pressure on authors. Let's say an author writes a book that blows you away. You eagerly anticipate their next book, sometimes you get impatient if it takes them too long to write another one, and then when you get the chance to read it, you expect this one to blow you away, too, right? (I know I'm not alone here.) But if it doesn't come close to the last book, at least in your mind, whose fault is that, yours or theirs?

I pondered this as I got ready to read Megan Miranda's The Perfect Stranger. Her last book, All the Missing Girls, was fantastic, both for the mystery itself and the unique way Miranda let the story unfold. The book even made my list of the best books I read in 2016. So needless to say, I tried very hard to ratchet back my expectations of her new book, because I didn't want to be disappointed just because I loved her last book so much.

Did she deliver? While The Perfect Stranger isn't perfect, it's a good, suspenseful read. And I think I might have liked it even more if I didn't read Miranda's last book and expect to be dazzled. If you go in knowing that, you'll hopefully enjoy it.

"I can only explain it this way: that I knew her deeply, if not thoroughly; that a four-month relationship can supersede all the boyfriends, all the friendships, that came after and lasted longer, that our friendship was born from the one time I'd stepped off track, done something unexpected that did not follow the predicted steps of my life. And for that reason, it shone brighter, and so did she."

Leah Stevens was a journalist in Boston who got a little too emotionally invested in an exposé she wrote. When she refused to reveal her source, and things related to her story unraveled, a restraining order was taken out against her and the newspaper she worked for was threatened with a lawsuit. Without a job and feeling utterly betrayed, she needed to get out of town—fast. She ran into an old friend, Emmy Grey, with whom she lived just after college.

On the run from a bad relationship, Emmy is desperate to leave Boston as well, so she involves Leah in her plan. The two head to a small town in Western Pennsylvania, where Leah gets a teaching job, and they can both keep off the grid. Leah and Emmy live on parallel schedules, and the two rarely if ever see each other for more than a few minutes, especially when Emmy starts dating someone new. But Leah keeps getting the sense that Emmy is still on her guard, that she's waiting for something to happen.

One night, a woman with a strong resemblance to Leah is assaulted and left for dead. A teacher who has shown a little too much interest in Leah is the suspect, which puts Leah a little more in the spotlight than she'd like, since her previous life has been kept a secret. But when Emmy disappears a few days later, Leah has no choice but to put herself out there and try to find out what happened to her friend.

Leah cooperates with the handsome young police officer who is assigned to the assault case, and tries to get him to help find Emmy. As the police investigate, she realizes that despite feeling tremendously close to Emmy, she never really knew her, which leads the police to suspect that Leah may be making the whole story up, that Emmy may not really exist, especially once they learn of Leah's past. But she knows the truth, and she is determined to find out just who Emmy was, and what happened to her, even if it means returning to the scene of her past transgressions, and possibly putting her own life and her own future at risk.

How well do we really know someone? How far would you go for a friend who has done a lot for you? Does one questionable action in our past doom us forever? The Perfect Stranger strives to answer all of those questions. It definitely keeps you guessing, because you aren't sure how reliable of a narrator Leah really is. The book's setting helps add to the tension, adding an almost moody feel to the whole thing.

As I mentioned earlier, there are things I didn't like about the book. There were a lot of things happening at once, and some of the storylines seemed unfinished, even unnecessary to the core of the plot. But Miranda really is an excellent writer, and knows how to slowly let details unfold so you stay hooked. So of course, what this means is, I'll eagerly await her next book, and remind myself to dial back my expectations again. (I never learn...)

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: "Enigma Variations" by André Aciman

André Aciman's debut novel, Call Me by Your Name, utterly blew me away. I remember reading and re-reading paragraphs, mesmerized by his poetic language, and at times dissolving into tears from the emotional power of the story. While I could never seem to get into his second novel, and didn't know he wrote a third, when I stumbled on his latest novel, Enigma Variations, I thought I'd give his writing one more try.

This book is staggeringly beautiful. Powerfully emotional, haunting, frank in its sexuality and its romanticism, this is a book about love, infatuation, longing, and lust. It's a book which explores the divide between wanting the familiar and wanting what you do not (or in some cases, cannot) have, and makes you realize that the things you think you cannot live without lose their appeal as soon as you get them. I felt this book in my heart and in my head, and I don't think I'll be able to forget it anytime soon, nor do I want to. I don't doubt this will be among the best books I read this year.

"Perhaps in this, finally, lay the leanest proof of love: the hope, the belief, the conviction that she knew more about me than I did myself, that she, not I, held the key to everything I felt. I didn't need to know anything; she'd be the one to know."

Enigma Variations consists of five novellas, each focusing on a man named Paul at a different time in his life. In "First Love," 22-year-old Paul returns to the Italian island where his family spent summers in his early adolescence. He remembers in particular one summer, when he was 12, and he became obsessed with the village's cabinetmaker, a ruggedly handsome man who seemed to show an interest in Pauly (as he was called back then), and awakened desires in the boy he was never aware of before. When Paul returns to the island he finds while certain things are as he remembered them, certain things are as far from memory as possible, yet he realizes things about that summer that young Pauly would never have understood. And that was the first time he realized the loss we can suffer when we don't say the things we most want to.

In "Spring Fever," Paul is dating a woman, Maud, whom he believes is cheating on him. While he is slightly dismayed by this fact, at the same time he feels freed by it. At a dinner party with friends, where he meets Maud's suspected lover, he discovers that perhaps she isn't the only one with secrets, and he is more of an open book than he thinks. "Manfred" follows Paul as he becomes obsessed with a younger man who plays tennis at the same club he does, and Paul longs for Manfred to recognize him, to see him as a man and not just a person, to desire Paul with the same fervor Paul feels for him.

In "Star Love," Paul is reunited with a college girlfriend, Chloe, with whom he had a fitful yet intense relationship. They seem to meet up every four years in a similar setting, and yet each time they leave one another indelibly changed, yet immobilized from expressing their true feelings, even when both are with other people. And in "Abingdon Square," an older Paul meets a younger writer and starts to wonder if she is his last chance at true happiness, yet he is afraid of rejection and putting his feelings out there.

"When I'm with you, I feel I can take what others call my life and turn its face away from the wall. My entire life faces the wall except when I'm with you. I stare at my life and want to undo every mistake, every deceit, turn a new leaf, turn the table, turn the clock. I want to put a real face on my life, not the drab front I've been wearing since forever."

Aciman's storytelling draws you in, holds you by the heart, and envelops you in the story. I found these novellas so powerful, so beautifully written, and they provoked so many emotions in me. I found the way Aciman and the other characters treated Paul's bisexuality very interesting—in a less-talented author's hands this could have been fodder for melodrama. This is a book about love and the intensity of that love; it is not a book that truly cares about the sex of the people Paul loves.

This is probably not a book for everyone, but it is so bold and poetic, so emotionally rich and exquisite, if it sounds like it might appeal to you, pick it up. Perhaps you'll identify with some of Paul's emotions, or perhaps you'll just understand the enduring power of loving and being loved.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie Review: "Captain Fantastic"

At least some of you know that once the Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations are announced, we spend a lot of time at the movies, seeing all of the movies and performances nominated for the major awards, so we're reasonably prepared come Oscar nomination time. (Then, of course, comes the crush to see anything we haven't seen before the Oscars—we usually come really close, if not hit 100 percent.)

I'm actually grateful for this obsession, because sometimes the Golden Globes and SAGs nominate performances or movies that got very little, if any, time in theaters around here, so learning about them introduces me to some great films and performances I might not have otherwise seen. Captain Fantastic is definitely one of those.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie have raised their six children in a remote cabin in the mountains of Washington state, almost completely off the grid. They've educated their children in history, science, politics, culture, survivalism, even socialism. (A favorite holiday is Noam Chomsky Day.) These children know how to hunt, forage for, and grow their own food; they know how to rappel, climb rocks, defend themselves, and treat injuries; and they are stronger, faster, and more agile than most adults, let alone children their own age. Ben and Leslie have also taught their children to be critical thinkers, although they mostly believe the same things their parents (or more so, their father) do.

Over the last several years, Leslie has been suffering from mental illness, and is starting to tire of life off the grid. She wants her children to live more typical lives and interact with their peers. Yet this is a source of significant friction between her and Ben, and she has been hospitalized while he remains with the kids.

While some of the children are devoted to their father and the life they know, some are beginning to think like their mother. The oldest child, Bo (George MacKay), wants to go to college, and realizes that he has no understanding of how people interact in the "real world." When a tragedy forces Ben and the children back into society, their interactions with Ben's sister and her family, as well as Leslie's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), devout Christians who blame Ben for what has befallen their daughter, show just how wide the divide is between Ben's way of thinking and others', and it sets up a situation in which the children must choose what path they want to follow.

Mortensen is a tremendously versatile actor, equally comfortable in both fantastical and realistic roles. His performance is Captain Fantastic is both intense and sensitive—he's a man who so fully believes that the way he has raised his children is right, and can't believe anyone (including his children) would disagree with that, but he's absolutely horrified when he realizes that he may have done his children a disservice. He is proud of the ways his children excel over others, yet turns a blind eye to where they may be lacking. And he is a man devoted to his wife, but he cannot understand why she would suddenly change her mind about the life they have chosen for them and their children. (Oh, and he goes full Viggo again in this movie, if you know what I mean.)

The actors playing the children are all quite good, particularly MacKay and Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the son whose questions and wants start to cause cracks in the foundation Ben has built. Langella has a fairly one-dimensional role as the film's heavy, and Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, playing Ben's sister and brother-in-law, don't have a lot to do other than be shocked at how outlandish Ben's behavior and obsession has become.

This is a sweet, predictable movie, but its quality is ratcheted up a few notches because of some of the performances, particularly Mortensen's. He has been nominated for Golden Globe and SAG Awards, and I hope to see his name among the Best Actor Oscar nominees later this month. It's definitely a movie worth seeing—it's thought-provoking, a little emotional, and quite enjoyable.

Movie Review: "Hidden Figures"

When I went to see Hidden Figures I joked on social media, "Let it be said I am seeing a movie about math." While obviously this movie is about so much more than that, it is truly fantastic to see a movie which focuses on the superior intellect of women, particularly minority women, at a time when contributions from both groups in "serious" fields was hardly valued.

As the space race between Russia and the U.S. heated up, with the Soviets in the lead, NASA was under significant pressure to put a man in space. In addition to the large number of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists they had on staff, NASA relied on "human computers," African-American female mathematicians who were used to perform calculations and analysis—but not be seen or heard unless spoken to. Informally supervised by Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), these women were smarter and faster, but rarely even thought of beyond their abilities to get work done.

One of the smartest of these "computers" was Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). She is assigned to work with the men calculating how to get a man into space before the Russians did so, and she quickly proves her worth, despite the resentment and prejudices of those around her. But despite the fact that she is asked to calculate figures without access to classified information that would help, as well as the subpar treatment shown to all African-Americans at this time in history, Katherine quickly catches the eye of the NASA Director (Kevin Costner), who begins to rely on Katherine more and more, despite some things he just doesn't understand about her.

Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), is encouraged to apply for one of the engineering positions that has opened up at NASA. She's perfectly qualified (perhaps more so than others), but in an effort to keep African-American women from advancement, the job requirements were changed to include coursework that is only available at segregated schools. She wants to challenge the system, but is discouraged by some (including her husband) from making too much of a fuss.

At the same time, Dorothy is becoming increasingly frustrated by NASA's refusal to formally give her the supervisor position (and pay) for which she has essentially been doing the work for some time, but she sees opportunity in another challenge: mastery of the new mainframe computer that NASA has brought in, which has the potential of replacing all of the "human computers."

As NASA begins preparing for John Glenn's launch into space, Katherine's work becomes ever more crucial, yet she is challenged by the obstacles that keep being put in her path. She wants to attend the meetings where the up-to-the minute data is discussed, and she wants to be viewed as an actual member of the team, not just the typist who is actually doing all of the work. Will her calculations prove correct, and will Glenn make it to space and back safely?

Hidden Figures succeeds on so many levels. It brings to the public eye the achievements of some truly unsung heroes whose work made a huge difference in our world, as schools don't teach about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan when they're talking about the space program, they talk about the astronauts. The film also conveys some strong messages, yet never seems heavy-handed. It also succeeds in creating tension even though you know most of what will happen, but you get so invested in the characters and the story you can't stop yourself from getting nervous.

This film may be a crowd-pleaser, but it's also a tremendously well-acted one. Henson plays a role very different to many of those she's played recently, and walks a line between the deference her character was supposed to show and her frustration that her intelligence wasn't valued the way it should. I really don't understand why she hasn't been more of a factor in the Oscar conversation, since she really has some great moments.

This is the second memorable performance that Monáe has turned in this year (after Moonlight), and this absolutely should land her among the nominees for Best Supporting Actress this year, as her Mary Jackson is fiery, funny, and unabashedly proud of her intellect. Her biggest competition is Spencer, who is always good, but I didn't think her performance rose to the level of Monáe's (mainly because her role wasn't as exciting). Where the Oscars are concerned, however, sometimes the familiar gets in over the more-deserving. (Ironically, when watching the previews before this movie started, Spencer is in five of the movies we saw previews for.)

I really enjoyed this movie, and absolutely expect it to get a Best Picture nomination in a few weeks. It's rare that a movie with female leads does as well at the box office—this weekend marked the film's second consecutive week at #1—and it's even rarer to see a film succeed which features women's intellectual prowess as such a significant factor. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: "Our Short History" by Lauren Grodstein

If it has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, well then, I'm (more than) a touch insane. Because I keep reading books that are tearjerkers despite the fact that television commercials make me tear up, and yet I'm surprised that these books leave me a sniffling mess nearly Every. Single. Time. And so it is with Lauren Grodstein's newest novel, Our Short History.

Karen Neulander has made a name for herself as one of New York's top political consultants. She's not afraid to leak things to the press about her clients' opponents, or do everything she needs to in order to help them gain advantage and, of course, votes. She's equally protective of her six-year-old son, Jake, whom she has raised alone since before he was born. When she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend at the time told her he didn't want to have kids, so she left and never spoke to him again.

Now Karen is facing an even tougher opponent. Two years ago she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and given approximately four years to live. While she has fought as hard as she could, with surgery and chemotherapy, she knows there will come a time that she won't be around any longer, no matter how much she hopes a miracle might come her way. But she has everything all planned out—when she feels that she's ready, she and Jake will move to Seattle to live with her younger sister Allie and her family, so Jake will be cared for when it's time.

While Jake understands—as much as a young child can—what is happening to his mother, he has one request: he wants her to get in touch with his father. After dragging her feet for a while in the hopes that he will forget what he asked, Karen relents. She's not too surprised to find out that Dave Kersey is still living in the same expensive condo in New Jersey. But she is thrown for a loop when he's excited to meet Jake.

Despite how happy Dave makes Jake (and vice-versa), Karen is adamant about allowing him to become too large a part of her son's life. She can't reconcile this man who is head over heels for his son when he didn't want her to have the baby in the first place, and as the two grow closer, she becomes frightened that Dave may try to take Jake away from her, or at the very least, upset the plans she has made for his future. And she can't seem to accept that perhaps what Jake needs most of all is his father, at a time when all she wants to do is cling as closely to her son as possible.

Our Short History is written as Karen's "memoir," ostensibly to be read by Jake when he is older. She provides glimpses of her childhood and her relationships with her own parents and grandparents, as well as her time with Dave, and what it has been like raising Jake. It also includes "advice" and her hopes for her son, so he knows how much she has always thought, and feels, about him.

Well, as you can imagine, this packs an emotional punch. But despite its ability to generate tears, this is a book about the fierceness of a mother's love, and the need to hold on to her son as tightly as she can for as long as she can, as if that can make up for the time she won't have with him. It's also a story about how we can be short-sighted and let our own hurts take precedence over doing what is right.

As I remember from her previous books, A Friend of the Family and The Explanation for Everything, Grodstein is a talented writer and knows how to tell a story. I thought this was a little predictable, and while I completely understood the emotions, fears, and anxieties Karen was experiencing given everything happening in her life, I found her to be a little more unlikable for a little longer than I expected.

This book definitely makes you count your blessings as well as wonder how you might act if faced with similar circumstances. It takes you on an emotional journey and gives you a touching picture of everything a mother would do for her child.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Signal Flame" by Andrew Krivak

Well, looks like I've read my first truly great novel of 2017! It took two books last year, it's taken seven this year, but clearly it was worth the wait. Bleak yet hopeful, poignant, and powerful, The Signal Flame is beautifully written and draws you into its story fairly quickly.

In early 1972 in Northeastern Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains, Jozef Vinich, the patriarch of a small family, is laid to rest. The former owner of the town mill, Jozef was known not only for his rags-to-riches story, immigrating from the Austro-Hungarian part of Europe after World War I to make a life for himself, and eventually his family, but he is also known for his strong work ethic, as well as his sense of humor. He is mourned by many in the community, including his priest, who was also his best friend, but especially his daughter Hannah and his grandson Bo Konar, who bought the mill from Jozef a number of years ago.

Jozef, Hannah, and Bo all lived together, as the life of the Konar family wasn't quite a happy one. Hannah's husband, Bexhet (Becks), emigrated from Hungary to fight with the Americans during World War II, but deserted and spent time in prison. He never got over what he saw during the war, and when he returned home he was changed, until his sudden death in a hunting accident on the family land. Apart from one semester away for college, Bo has spent his lifetime working the mill, but his younger brother Sam was always the one who wanted something different, so he enlisted in the military, and on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, went missing.

As bleak as I've made the book sound, and there are moments of tragedy and moments of loss, this is equally a book about finding hope where you've believed there was none, of realizing that there is a time to let go of the grief and anger you feel, and of allowing yourself a chance at happiness. This is a book about family, about the legacies of land and emotion and anger that we bequeath to our children, and about the simple joys of nature, the smell of lumber, the sounds of wildlife.

In another author's hands this book could be maudlin, or the simplicity of its story could be boring. But in Andrew Krivak's hands, this book is almost poetic, in its use of language and its evocative imagery, in the characters he has created. Here's just one example of the beauty of his storytelling:
And when they were finished, they sat at the garden table in the twilight and watched the coals of the fire pulse red and an ashen silver without flame, sat like sated guests at their own feast, silent once again and not wondering what came next, for all that they had strived for in the course of the day lay in the past, and what anxiety each carried lay, at least for the moment, in the past as well.
This is a special book which I can't get out of my mind. I know that when I begin thinking of the best books I read in 2017, this will undoubtedly be one of them.

NetGalley and Scribner provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: "Small Admissions" by Amy Poeppel

Sometimes after I've read a few fairly heavy or angsty books, I need to metaphorically cleanse my literary palate by reading something a little lighter. It doesn't necessarily have to be a humor book or utter fluff, but every now and then I like to seek out books that are lighter in tone, more straight-forward, something I can enjoy without having to tax my brain or my psyche too hard.

After the last few books I've read, I turned to Amy Poeppel's Small Admissions as my literary intermezzo of sorts. It was just what I was hoping for—an engaging story with characters I could root for (as well as some I could root against). It even made me laugh more than a few times, which was a pleasant surprise.

The daughter of two college professors, Kate Pearson has always been almost myopically focused on academics, much to the frustration of her friends and her older sister Angela. But when her post-graduate work in a prestigious anthropology program with a noted professor turns disastrous, she makes a characteristically un-Kate decision and plans to move to Paris with her trés handsome boyfriend Richard. Only she doesn't quite get out of the Paris airport, and then she's back in the U.S., nearly catatonic in her depression, never getting out of her pajamas, drinking far too much, and refusing to do anything to fix her situation.

After nearly a year of moping and mourning, Angela feels compelled to do something to save Kate from herself. Angela's chance meeting with the overworked director of admissions for a tony prep school in New York lands Kate an interview. And despite one of the most disastrous job interviews on record, where she dresses inappropriately and says even less appropriate things, Kate is shockingly hired as the assistant director of admissions for the famed Hudson Day School.

"...she didn't like children particularly. Didn't know any other than her niece, didn't want to. Didn't know anything about schools in New York City, either, obviously. Or schools anywhere. Or the admissions process. Or administrative anything. She would be expected to answer people's questions, and she wouldn't have the answers because—to get right down to it—she didn't know anything."

After her initial fear that her boss will discover he accidentally hired the wrong girl, or that she'll screw everything up, abates, Kate starts to settle into her job. Before long she's interviewing prospective students—smart, driven children programmed by their parents; clueless children wondering why they're even there other than because their parents are making them; and the rare child who actually deserves to go to Hudson. Kate is far from a traditional interviewer, and as crazy as her interviews with the kids are, some of the parents are even crazier! (While a subplot featuring two feuding parents seems tired, there's a terrifically funny payoff.)

Meanwhile, as Kate is getting fully immersed in the whole admissions process, Angela constantly worries that Kate will suddenly backslide and tries to take control of her life prematurely, and Kate's two best friends from college are dealing with their own secrets, while one of them, Chloe, tries to find Kate another boyfriend, mostly out of guilt, since Richard is her cousin. It's all fodder for more chaos than any one person can handle, but Kate surprises them all by taking it in stride. Mostly.

Was this book fairly predictable? Absolutely, but that didn't lessen its appeal for me. I would have enjoyed the book more without the tired (and annoying) subplot about Kate's jealous friend, because Kate and her work in admissions made for a pretty enjoyable book on its own. I worried the book would lose its way diving into her romantic life, but fortunately Poeppel didn't hamper the book with turning the plot into total chick-lit. I thought Poeppel has a great ear for dialogue and a knack for crazily outlandish conversations that you can absolutely see someone getting nervous and saying.

Small Admissions was fun, lighthearted, and it didn't take itself too seriously. It was exactly the type of book I was looking for, and if you want something to read that you'll enjoy without getting agitated or depressed, or having to really decipher the plot, definitely pick this up.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: "Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood" by Trevor Noah

I was really surprised when Trevor Noah was named Jon Stewart's successor on The Daily Show. I inherently knew that they wouldn't pick someone with a sense of humor and style identical to Stewart's, but I felt that Noah was so different that his selection meant the show would have a really different feel, which might not appeal to long-time fans of the show. But I always root for the underdog, so as he was getting savaged by critics and fans in his first few days on the job, I kept hoping he'd be able to tough it out and show the stuff—comedic and otherwise—of which he was made.

After reading Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, I realize that I needn't have worried about Trevor Noah. For a child growing up in South Africa in the last days of, and the tumult following apartheid, he faced crises far greater than dissatisfied fans. And if he could be raised during such a crazily illogical time in a country where more violence, racism, and mistreatment went unreported than caught the media's eye, he'd have no problem skewering the insanity of our political system, especially leading into the election of 2016!!

"On February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow Hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations—I was born a crime."

Born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, Noah literally spent his earliest days hiding indoors. His parents, who never married, couldn't be seen together, and because his mother looked so different than he did, she couldn't walk through the streets with him, because at any moment someone might accuse her of kidnapping another person's child. Yet while their lives dealt with crushing poverty, violence, and racism from all sides, his deeply religious mother never let anything bother her, or stop her from raising her son to know he was loved, and to know that he truly could accomplish anything he wanted, despite all of the obstacles in his way.

"She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her."

Born a Crime provides a first-hand account of the last days of apartheid and its aftermath, and what it was like to grow up as a mixed-race child, where he wasn't white enough to be considered white, nor was he black enough to be considered black. While at times this had its advantages, for the most part, it left him on the outside looking in, having to handle everything on his own, fight his own battles, struggle to find people who genuinely liked him for who he was and not the novelty of his skin color, and rebel against a mother who only wanted him to behave.

If you go into this book expecting to laugh hysterically because of Noah's day job, think again. While the book does include some of the wry humor that has begun endearing him to fans, this is an emotional, brutal, and educational story of a life which flourished despite the odds stacked against it. This is a book about growing up in a culture of poverty and crime, and how easy it was to get caught up in that, especially when it was one of the only ways to make money and be able to feed, clothe, and enjoy yourself. It's also a book about fear, how it motivates you, how it paralyzes you, and how it threatens to take away the one thing you cherish more than any other.

More than anything, though, this is a book about the unwavering love of a mother for a child she chose to have. She knew it would be difficult raising her son in the age of apartheid, and in fact, she had no idea when he was born that it would end anytime soon. But Noah was a remarkable child, and while he exasperated, frightened, and upset his mother from time to time, she knew he would accomplish great things one day (as soon as he stopped putting cornrows in his hair and hanging out with those awful hoodlums he called friends).

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about apartheid, which I really didn't know much about. Noah is a good writer, and delivered his narrative much as I've heard him deliver his lines on The Daily Show. This is a funny, thought-provoking, and emotional book, although I felt that some of his anecdotes went on a little too long, while others didn't go on long enough. I also would have liked to have learned how he went from his upbringing in South Africa to one day hosting an acclaimed television show—other than passing mentions of things he did, I have no idea how he made the leap.

I've heard some people say that the audio version of this book is brilliant because Noah reads it himself, but if you read the print/digital version, you can still hear his voice. Noah's story is a lesson of the inequities of the past, and a warning for what is still possible to happen again in our world. But this isn't heavy-handed; it's fun, insightful, and very compelling.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Movie Review: "Lion"

Lion is billed as a "feel-good movie." While it's certainly more upbeat than many of the movies released this holiday season, it certainly manipulates your emotions on the way there, although that's not entirely a bad thing.

Saroo (a fantastic and adorable Sunny Pawar) is a five-year-old boy living in a small rural, impoverished village in India. He is raised by his mother, an uneducated woman who makes her living carrying rocks. Saroo helps his older brother Guddu, whom he idolizes, with the odd jobs he does to make money for the family. For a young boy, Saroo is tough and strong, and wants to help make whatever difference he can for his family, plus he likes being in the middle of the action when he gets to accompany Guddu.

One night, he convinces Guddu to take him along when he goes looking for nighttime work at the train station. He leaves Saroo to wait for him at the station while he goes to look for the foreman; bored with waiting, Saroo explores one of the empty trains and falls asleep. The next thing he knows, he is stuck on the train for several days, forced to forage for whatever trash he can find, until it lets him off in Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. Not speaking the same dialect as those in Calcutta, unable to communicate who he is or where he is from, he fends for himself for a while until he is taken to an orphanage.

While the orphanage tries to search for Saroo's family with the limited information they have, they are unsuccessful, so ultimately Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and he is taken to Australia to live with them. A year later, the couple adopts a troubled young boy from the orphanage as well.

Some 20 years later, while in graduate school, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) begins thinking about his natural family, and whether they still think and wonder what became of him. He decides he must try and find them, although that task is like finding a needle in a haystack, since he never could figure out the correct name of the village he came from, or even how to find people so far off the grid, if they even were still there (or alive, for that matter).

Encouraged by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), trying to find the train station where he was first taken from becomes an obsessive task, one which threatens his studies, his job, and his relationships with his parents (especially his emotionally fragile mother) and his girlfriend. But how can he not do everything in his power to find his real family? And if he does, what will that do to John and Sue?

This film is based on a true story, but I knew nothing about it, so it was as much a mystery/thriller for me as it was a drama. It really raises a lot of interesting questions, though. What happens to lost children in poor and developing countries, and what dangers do they face? How can a poor, uneducated family marshal any available resources to find a lost child? What leads people to adopt children from another country, another culture, and remain positive in the face of emotional difficulties suffered by the children?

Lion is essentially a film in two parts, one chronicling young Saroo's harrowing journey and one following Saroo's quest to find his family. At the center of the film are the two Saroos, Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel. Pawar, in his film debut, is pitch-perfect. He is adorable, feisty, brave, and vulnerable. Patel is utterly magnificent as well, and his performance shows an emotional depth that his previous performances in more feel-good movies like Slumdog Millionaire and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series only hinted at. This is the crowning performance of Patel's career to date, and it is one worthy of at least an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself.

Kidman doesn't have a very large role but it is a quietly powerful and emotional one. She continues to transform herself physically and emotionally for her roles, and you both admire the sacrifices she has made yet feel for her powerlessness in the face of both of her sons. She appears vulnerable and yet her quiet strength is fascinating. Mara's role doesn't really transcend that of the supporting girlfriend, but she does well with what she is given. Both Abhishek Bharate and Priyanka Bose, who play Saroo's brother and mother, respectively, bring heart and emotion to their small but crucial roles.

Incredibly, this is Director Garth Davis' first full-length film; to date he has only directed two television shows, a documentary, and a short film, although he is renowned for his commercials. Yet he showed immense talent and restraint in his work on Lion; in another's hands, this film could have become melodramatic, mawkish, even heavy-handed in its messaging, but Davis has created a film that sneaks up on you, one which makes you cry as it makes you think. I wouldn't be surprised to see it among the Best Picture nominees later this month, and believe it is definitely one of the best films of 2016 I've seen.

Movie Review: "Fences"

I remember when there was so much buzz generated around the thought of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally acting in a scene together in Heat. What would it be like for two lions of the cinema to finally appear together—would the film implode from all of the energy and talent? (Although they both appeared in The Godfather Part II they had no scenes together.) As you might imagine, it was a pretty electrifying scene, even though it wasn't performed at full throttle like both often do.

I didn't get the chance to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis appear in the stage version of Fences in 2010, but that was another pairing I assumed would be electrifying, given the incredible power they bring to every role, plus the raw emotion of August Wilson's play. And while I thought the movie ran a tiny bit too long (I don't remember if it followed the play completely), not only did Washington and Davis, as well as their supporting cast, not disappoint, but they dazzled.

Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on Troy Maxson (Washington), a sanitation worker who once had dreams of playing professional baseball, but by the time black players were admitted into the major leagues, he was deemed too old. This perceived unfairness has always stuck in his craw, and causes him to look at his son Cory's dreams of playing football with a jaundiced eye.

Troy's bitterness doesn't stop him from wanting a bigger piece of the pie, and he wants the chance to be a driver like white men get. He also wants to be able to provide a little more for his family, although that doesn't stop him from complaining that his long-suffering wife, Rose (Davis), takes all of his money, and belittling his ne'er-do-well musician son Lyons when he asks to borrow money occasionally.

Troy is a larger-than-life presence in Rose and Cory's life—he talks big, he drinks big, and likes to shoot the bull with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his Tony-nominated role) about once-impressive athletic skills, manhood, everything. But while boastful, Troy is surprisingly caring about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who sustained a brain injury during WWII, and now roams the streets shouting that he is working on God's behalf, ridding the world of hell-hounds, and getting ready for when he has to blow his horn to let St. Peter know it's time to open the gates of heaven.

A great deal of the play is characterized by emotional outbursts and confrontations among the characters, none more powerful than between Troy and Cory, as the father tries to remind the son who is boss and who is not ready to be a man, and Troy and Rose, about responsibility, loyalty, their treatment of their son, and rehashing old hurts and resentments. Washington directed this film with finesse; although movie versions of plays often feel too open once they're taken out of the four walls of the theater, this film feels comfortable in its space but knows its limits.

As you might imagine, the performances in this film are top-notch. Davis, who eschews even the slightest vanity when she cries onscreen, is utterly mesmerizing, she is both heartbreaking and strong, emotional and stoic. While I am unhappy with the decision to list her as a possible nominee for Best Supporting Actress rather than Best Actress, when she is in at least 90 percent of the movie and she won the Tony for Best Leading Actress, there is no denying she not only will get an Oscar nomination but finally win the award she so richly deserves. (And then she'll be three-fourths of the way toward winning the EGOT—better get your CD working Viola!)

Washington's role is a lot of bluster and anger, and his character isn't particularly sympathetic at times, but his performance is tremendously complex. I saw the play in its original run on Broadway when James Earl Jones played Troy, and while you couldn't deny his presence on stage (especially with that voice), Washington takes the role to another dimension. He is so fascinating to watch onscreen, and his character serves as the film's anchor, so much so that when he isn't on camera, the film feels slightly off-center. I certainly expect him to receive another Oscar nomination for his performance.

There isn't a weak link in the supporting performances—Williamson makes your heart break, while Henderson's quiet presence is the perfect foil to Washington's volume, but Henderson doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Both Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby, who play Cory and Lyons respectively, have emotional moments where they stand toe-to-toe (and skill-to-skill) with Washington and Davis.

In the end, this is a bleak movie, but it is tremendously well-acted and directed. While all the anger and resentment and heartbreak may be hard to watch, the performances are so mesmerizing, you can't tear yourself away.

Book Review: "Burning Bright" by Nick Petrie

Hell, yes! Once again, Nick Petrie proves he knows how to write a thriller that kicks ass and takes names.

Petrie's debut novel, The Drifter (see my review), was absolutely fantastic, a thriller with a great plot and terrific character development. Featuring war veteran Peter Ash, a complex, intense protagonist, the book even made "honorable mention" on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

Petrie—and Peter Ash—have returned in Burning Bright, a book with even more crackling action and moments of quiet emotion. It might even be better than its predecessor. And here's one thing: I know that blurbs from other authors is just a marketing thing, but when Lee Child is willing to say, "Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal," that carries some weight. (Plus, it's true.)

Ash served in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning home after multiple tours of duty plagued by "white static"—serious claustrophobia brought on from the traumatic stress of combat. It's so bad he can barely stand to be indoors for more than a few minutes, and even being outside when the sky is really cloudy gives him trouble. He has once again taken to a long-term hiking and camping trip, this time among the California redwoods, when he discovers he's not as alone as he thought—he encounters a grizzly bear, a rare occurrence these days since most have vanished from that part of the country. His run-in with the bear doesn't approach The Revenant territory, but it sends him up a tree with no gear and supplies, and just slightly worse for wear.

Just as he's beginning to wonder if he'll have to stay in the tree for days until the bear gets distracted, he notices a climbing rope hanging in the tree, what he discovers is a series of ropes hanging from adjacent trees. What better plan that to follow this course, of sorts, and see where it leads? So there he is, traveling from tree to tree, until he finds a hanging platform. All is safe now. Then he finds another danger—a woman with a gun pointed at him. And next? Men with guns. Firing.

June Cassidy is a feisty, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist known for her investigations into data security. She's been on the run from men purporting to be with the federal government, who are interested in what she knows about her mother's groundbreaking computer software research, since her mother died in an accident not long ago. She doesn't know what her mother was working on, but it must have been something big, because these men keep coming. She doesn't know how to escape them, but discovers Peter might be the help she needs.

As the two team up to figure out who is after June, and what they want, they encounter a series of ever-more-determined men wanting to capture and/or kill them. It's going to take toughness, serious smarts, and pretty mad skills with firearms and getaway cars, none of which seems like a problem for the duo. But as they begin to uncover a serious operation afoot which makes June question whom she can trust, and Peter has to fight both the static and those after June, they may be in more trouble than they think.

Once again, Petrie has written a thriller which is the stuff of which great action films are made. The opening chapters are full of serious pulse-pounding action, but he doesn't give character and plot development short shrift. Peter Ash is so much more than meets the eye, but even though he can drop more than a few assailants at once, he still has a lot of problems of his own, not to mention the adrenaline and, perhaps even a little thrill, which comes from taking care of those looking to do him and June harm. And in June, Petrie has created a terrific foil for Peter.

If you like thrillers which not only ratchet up your pulse but leave you marveling at the author's storytelling skill as well, pick up Burning Bright. (You can read that one first if you want, but The Drifter is equally excellent.) My hope is that Petrie—and Peter Ash—will be back soon, and will get the public recognition they deserve.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review: "Difficult Women" by Roxane Gay

This is a crazy-good collection, filled with stories that are sometimes quirky, sometimes moving, sometimes ribald, sometimes funny, but nearly always utterly compelling. There are 21 stories in this collection—some last little more than a page, while some are much longer, but there is a real power in Roxane Gay's storytelling, whether the stories have an almost frenzied pace or proceed in a slower, more contemplative fashion.

While the title of this collection is Difficult Women, I don't think you could classify all of the main characters as difficult. Passionate, complex, unique, fascinating (in both good and bad ways), yes, but in my opinion, the word "difficult" connotes a negative quality that not all of these women have. Some of the characters are in the flush of love or suffering the pain of loss; some are motivated primarily by the need for sexual conquest, fulfillment, even degradation, while others want tenderness and companionship, if anything. Some are fiercely protective of others around them, while some are steadfastly selfish; some are wounded by the world around them, while others are ready to give as good as they get.

I enjoyed nearly every story in this collection, but my favorites included: "North Country," about an African-American engineer who takes a job in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and has to fend off the curiosity and advances of many of her colleagues, while coming to terms with her own secrets; "The Mark of Cain," which tells of a married woman whose husband has an identical twin brother, and she pretends not to notice when the brothers switch places; and "Break All the Way Down," a moving story about a woman numbed by extreme grief, who uses infidelity and rough sex to feel something again, and whose life is turned upside down by a late-night visitor.

Other favorites included "I Will Follow You," which focuses on two sisters who were abducted as children and are inseparable as adults, even though one is married; "How," about twin sisters each rooted in their own unhappiness, desperate to escape what is holding them back from what they crave; "La Negra Blanca," which focuses on a young stripper working to pay for college, who must face the demands of an entitled customer; and "The Sacrifice of Darkness," a story with a fairytale-like feel, about a couple living in a world of darkness and the curse they must bear.

I have never read anything Gay has written, so I was really blown away, by her use of language and imagery, the sexual frankness of many of her characters, and the richness of her characters. There's probably a story for everyone in this collection, although all of the stories might not appeal. (For those of you squeamish by descriptions of harm coming to animals, there are a few stories which go into graphic detail about hunting and other things.)

Difficult Women is a unique, powerful, well-told collection that will stay in my head for a long time. If you're a fan of short stories featuring women with a mind of their own, pick this one up.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle

This should be an interesting exercise: writing a review of a book that you do not understand but you couldn't stop reading, both because you were hoping things would finally become clear, and because the writing was quite good, even as it meandered.

It's the late 1990s, just before DVDs become the preferred method of entertainment, leaving video stores struggling. Jeremy works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, a small town in the center of the state. He should be thinking about college, or at least getting a "real" job, but he likes not having much to worry or think about—he can perform all of the "store opening" functions in a matter of minutes.

One day, one of the store's regular customers, brings in a copy of an old movie with Boris Karloff that she rented. She says that there's something else on the tape. Jeremy means to watch it in his spare time but he gets distracted and forgets. A few days later, another customer returns another movie, saying, "There's another movie on this tape." When Jeremy watches the video, he can't explain what he sees, but it disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home videos, sometimes an empty room with just the sound of breathing evident, sometimes there are masked people moving around, but Jeremy can't determine if the people are involved of their own volition or if they're somehow being controlled or threatened.

When Jeremy shows the videos to Sarah Jane, the store's owner/manager, she recognizes the farmhouse where the scenes were shot as being in a nearby town. She feels compelled to visit this house and see if the people who live there know anything about these films. She is inexplicably drawn to Lisa Sample, the woman who lives in the house, and before anyone notices, she has practically moved in with Lisa, who seems to have some type of control over Sarah Jane, and has some secrets of her own.

Jeremy can't understand what has prompted Sarah Jane to practically abandon her store to spend time with Lisa, and he can't get the videos out of his mind. Should he just let Sarah Jane live her life as she chooses, and should he move on with his own life? Or should he try and figure out just what these videos mean, especially when he finds other videos in the store with increasingly disturbing scenes?

This book is creepy and confusing, with a mood that falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and The Ring, although it really resembles neither in terms of plot. The story shifts perspective several times, with a few sections narrated from Jamie's point of view, a few narrated from Lisa's point of view (and her family history), and a section narrated from another family's point of view.

As I mentioned earlier, John Darnielle knows how to write, to create vivid pictures and atmosphere, and ratchet up the tension so you can't stop reading even as you wrack your brain trying to figure out what this book is about. Is it a horror story? Is it a meditation on loss, and our need to try and find answers to what causes those losses? Or is it just one great big collection of red herrings?

I honestly don't know the answer to the above question, and it's pretty frustrating. While I like to use my imagination when reading, I do like there to be somewhat of a definitive plot, with some resolution. Universal Harvester is well-written (although the book shifts perspective every time the narration is building up steam, thereby cutting the plot off at the knees) but for me, ultimately unsatisfying, yet I couldn't stop reading it!

NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: "The Weight of This World" by David Joy

"In that way, this day was no different from any day that had come before, and that was part of what kept Aiden up at night: the cyclical nature of it all. For his entire life everything had been a continuous whirling of disappointment, the circle seeming to tighten and become just a little more certain with each passing year."

Aiden McCall has known nothing other than his small North Carolina town, and virtually known nothing other than being poor his entire life. Orphaned at a young age, he fended for himself until his best friend, Thad Broom, convinced his mother and her boyfriend to let Aiden stay with them. Aiden and Thad have been inseparable ever since, except for when Thad joined the military and went to Afghanistan.

With the economy in tatters, there is very little for Aiden and Thad to do in order to make money, so they resort to stripping foreclosed houses of wiring and other supplies, and much to Aiden's chagrin, they use most of their earnings to buy drugs. (He dreams of getting out of their town and heading somewhere slightly larger, where there was more opportunity.) Thad returned from Afghanistan with a significant back injury, and his time in the military left him changed emotionally as well, unable to shake the things he saw and did which continue to haunt him, and drugs provide him the only escape.

"Whether a man was born one way or another, he wound up doing things that haunted him the rest of life. People made mistakes that couldn't be fixed...When it all boiled down to it, the only difference between one person and another was whether there was someone to jump in and keep you from drowning."

One night, everything changes. Thad and Aiden's drug dealer accidentally dies in front of them, which leaves them with a significant amount of crystal meth, not to mention weapons and money. The two react in different ways—Aiden tries figuring out how to sell what they're able to take, while Thad loses control and connects with a troubled trio of people, to whom he reveals their secrets. That split-second decision sends Thad and Aiden down a path with dangerous consequences, and both will be tested physically and emotionally, pushed to the brink of survival.

I felt a pervading sense of doom, danger, and bleakness from the opening pages of this book. Even though Aiden and Thad made questionable—and in some cases, troubling—decisions at times in their lives, I still felt like their upbringing left them at a disadvantage from which it was nearly insurmountable to recover.

Can the path of our lives be changed by our actions, or is it predetermined? Does not having a loving family put you at a disadvantage? David Joy explores the answers to those questions, although he makes no real excuses for his characters. This is a dark book, although there are glimmers of hope (in an interesting way), but Joy's storytelling keeps you from getting utterly depressed. His use of imagery is tremendous as well; you can hear the noises and see the sights he describes.

This is the first of Joy's books I've read, and I'm definitely going to read his debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, which I've also heard is terrific. This isn't the happiest of books, but the characters he has created and the story he unfurls hooks you so you need to know what happens. Moving and evocative.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

The Best Books I Read in 2016...

2016 might have been a year of loss and significant upheaval for our country, but I'll admit, it was one hell of a year for me as far as reading was concerned. I read 161 books in 2016—the most I've ever read (or at least since college, when I managed a bookstore and was able to read most of the day). This high total was the fringe benefit of a year of significant travel, downtime during a blizzard (and subsequent case of severe bronchitis), and most of all, some pretty amazing books.

As I've done for the last seven years or so, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 161 books down was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 25, along with an additional 11 which just fell short of the very best but 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! I'll list my top five (in random order) and then the remainder of the books will be in random order as well—ranking would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: What a ride this book took me on! This is an absolutely fascinating story of a man who wakes up to find out that the life he knew didn't exist, no matter how vivid his memories were. But which life is the dream, the one he is in now, or the one he remembers? Can he ever make it back to what he remembered, and if not, what will happen to him? Suspend your disbelief and get ready for your heart to start beating pretty fast. Read my original review.

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson: This one was brutal and absolutely beautiful, and it absolutely blew me away. For the last few years, aliens have periodically abducted Henry Denton. The aliens have given Henry an ultimatum: Earth will be destroyed in 144 days, unless Henry makes the decision to save the world. All he has to do is push a button. But does Henry want to save the world? He has to decide whether humanity is worth saving or if letting the world end would also end his own emotional anguish. This is such an inventive, moving, beautiful book I won't soon forget it. Read my original review.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell's debut novel is stunning, emotional, lyrical, and it quietly grabs you and doesn't let go. It is a novel about desire, and the desire to be wanted. It's about the struggle between following your heart and your libido instead of your head, and both the consequences and triumphs that come from doing so. Greenwell's talent is evident from the very first lines of this book, and his poetic use of language and storytelling ability sustains through the book's entirety. Read my original review.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Paul Kalanithi was an excellent neurosurgeon. At the age of 36, Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Suddenly his life has transformed him from doctor to patient. This is both a reflection on coming face-to-face with one's own mortality and a commentary on the responsibility doctors have to help their patients and their families through that same reflection, whether it happens with some warning or suddenly. Easily one of the finest books I've read in some time. Read my original review.

Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz: Holy freaking crap. This book absolutely rocked—every heart-racing, pulse-pounding second! When Evan Smoak (not his real name) was young, a man rescued him from a troubled life and he trained Evan how to kill. When he got older he became the Nowhere Man, the last resort for a person in desperate trouble. No one knows who the Nowhere Man is, but they know if they call him, he will help rescue them from a seemingly helpless situation. This book hit all of the right notes for me—fantastic action, more than a few twists, some excellent character development, and some pretty cool gadgetry. Read my original review.