Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Top 50 Movies of the Decade

I've seen a lot of movies through the years. I certainly know what I like and what I don't, but for the most part, movies are just movies. I'm not interested in analyzing them for messages and I don't want to be manipulated. Just make me laugh, cry, think or wonder.

As 2009 came to a close, everyone and their brother assembled "best of" lists for the year, and some more ambitious folk tackled the decade. I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so while it's a little bit late, here's my list of my top 50 movies of the decade.

Without further ado:

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Magical. Sensational special effects, a beautiful story and wonderful performances by Chow-Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Gets me every time.

2. A History of Violence (2005): Ah, small town America. Mild-mannered Viggo Mortensen (in one of his best performances) performs a heroic act of violence...and then everything starts to go awry. Maria Bello and William Hurt are fantastic. This one still shocks me a bit.

3. Children of Men (2006): Brilliant, bleak and hopeful. Clive Owen comes to the rescue of civilization in 2027, a chaotic time when humans can no longer procreate, but he has agreed to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea. Amazingly snubbed by Oscar. Fantastic.

4. Brokeback Mountain (2005): Heartbreaking, beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted, this story of two cowboys who fall in love boasts some phenomenal performances by Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams, with haunting music from Gustavo Santaolalla.

5. Memento (2000): One of the best movies to turn the narrative structure awry, this story of a man (Guy Pearce) suffering from short-term memory loss who is determined to find out who killed his wife still resonates nearly 10 years after I first saw it. No shortage of "wow" moments in this movie, this proved Christopher Nolan would be a director to be reckoned with.

6. The Departed (2006): The film that finally won Martin Scorsese the Oscars that had long evaded him is far, far more than a consolation prize-winner. This movie is unflinching in its portrayal of police corruption and deception, beautifully violent and boasts tremendous performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga and (surprise) Jack Nicholson.

7. Best in Show (2000): While all of Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries" are enjoyable, this one, chronicling the madness of a national dog show, still cracks me up even though I know all of the jokes. The performances in this movie—Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Guest himself—are brilliant caricatures that you actually care about.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: "The First Rule" by Robert Crais

It takes a good author to create characters you remember. It takes a great author to get you to care about the characters enough to get invested in them time and again. Robert Crais is one of those great authors, and he has created two such characters—sarcastic private investigator Elvis Cole and his silent-but-deadly longtime friend and business partner, Joe Pike. While The First Rule focuses more on Pike, Elvis does show up to assist.

On a fairly typical night in suburban LA, importer Frank Meyer and his entire family are brutally murdered in what appears to be a robbery-motivated home invasion. But Meyer wasn't just a regular guy: he used to be a contract mercenary with Joe Pike before he left to start a family. Pike is determined to track down Frank's murderers at any cost, and runs into the police, ATF and the world of Serbian organized crime while doing so. This book has some great action and some terrific character development, and Crais has done a great job in his last several books rounding out Pike's persona more fully. While some of the action may be a little predictable, this book is a great page-turner. And you can't go wrong picking up any other of Crais' books either.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: "Where the God of Love Hangs Out" by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom is one of my favorite authors. Some of her short stories—in Love Invents Us, Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You—are among the best I've ever read. And her latest story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, is a worthy addition to this list.

There are two sets of interrelated stories in this collection and some unrelated ones. The first set chronicles William and Clare, lifelong friends who, unbeknownst to their spouses, are falling in love with each other late in life. The stories are told from both William and Clare's points-of-view and see them both through ups and downs. The second set follows Julia, the new widow of a famous jazz musician, and her stepson, Lionel, as they make their ways through life. The other stories touch on various aspects of love, life and relationships, and each is memorable in its own way.

Bloom is at her best in this collection. In thinking about these stories, I'm struck by something a reviewer of this book said in Entertainment Weekly: Bloom's writing doesn't stop you in your tracks, but it grabs your heart. I'd agree. Don't miss this book.

Book Review: "Noah's Compass" by Anne Tyler

Sixty-one-year-old Liam Pennywell is at a bit of a crossroads. The lifelong teacher was just downsized out of a job, and he has downsized his apartment as well, moving into a smaller place in a less-savory neighborhood in Baltimore. On his first night in his new place, he goes to sleep...and wakes up in the hospital with stitches in his head and hand, apparently the victim of a burglarly gone awry. The problem is, Liam can't remember anything that happened that night after he went to sleep, a fact that causes him severe distress.

Anne Tyler's latest novel is the story of Liam's struggle to regain his memories of that night, and the struggle of his ex-wife and daughters to put up with the challenges of a perpetually-passive Liam. He comes into contact with a younger woman employed to help a wealthy executive with memory problems, and Liam hopes she will be his "rememberer" as well. But instead, she opens him up to the possibilities of a different life, one he isn't sure he can handle.

I've always enjoyed Tyler's books and the quirky characters she creates. But this book left me just as frustrated as Liam's ex-wife and daughters. Liam's passivity really detracted from my enjoyment of this book, as I found it very difficult to have any empathy for him. I guess for now, I'll need to content myself with some of Tyler's older books, like Saint Maybe or Breathing Lessons.

I'll Take "Sixth Time's the Charm" for $400, Alex...

I'm a trivia junkie. As I've commented previously, for some reason I can't remember where I put my car keys on a daily basis yet I have a fairly good grasp on classic sitcoms, state nicknames and other obscure facts. And I nourish that obsession by watching Jeopardy on a daily basis and dreaming of the day when I can tell Alex Trebek I'd like to make it a daily double.

But I'm not content to just dream about it. I've tried to have some control over my own destiny, having taken the Jeopardy quiz five times.

However, it's not all about knowledge of rivers, children's literature or holidays and observances that gets you face to face with Mr. Trebek. You see, once you pass the online test, you get put into a drawing with everyone else who passed. And only if you get selected in the drawing can you move forward and get an audition. Therein lies the challenge: if I was the only one entered into a drawing, I still wouldn't win.

There's no pessimism here. In addition to taking the Jeopardy quiz five times, I qualified for Who Wants to be a Millionaire eight times. What was the next round of that process? The drawing.

I'm taking the quiz again tonight. Of course, I'm hoping my recall of the Old Testament, biology and opera will sustain me, but more than that, I'm hoping at least to get past the drawing this time. It's ok if I don't ultimately hear my name announced on television or get the chance to "write" my name in funky letters. I'd just like the chance to succeed or fail completely on my own merits, and leave the luck of luck off the table, just this once.

Or maybe I'll switch to Wheel of Fortune. I'm good with puzzles.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: "Under the Dome" by Stephen King

It's a beautiful fall day in the town of Chester's Mill, Maine. Residents are out and about, some enjoying the day, some trying to get out of town, some beating people up in a murderous rage. And then the unthinkable happens—an invisible dome drops down over the city. Since it's invisible, many people experience what happens when you run into the dome. And then they realize they—and in fact, the entire town—are trapped.

Stephen King's Under the Dome is more a story about a town in crisis, and how people respond to that crisis, than a traditional King horror story. You have the struggle for power by a corrupt town politician, the growing panic which leads to violence, feelings of doom, etc. And then, as King uncovers where the dome came from, things get a little more interesting.

I really liked this book, but there was just too much. Too many descriptions of what happened when people ran into the dome, the power struggle ran on for far too long, scenes of violence and destruction seemed to take forever and there were so many characters in this nearly 1100-page book it was hard to keep track. Sometimes I felt as if he introduced characters just so we could see them die. But he held the book together really well, and I felt the resolution was a good one, an area where I believe King has fallen short in previous books. All in all, a very compelling, if overly long, book.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Since Everything is Going So Well...

Three weeks after gay marriage was legalized in New Hampshire comes an announcement that opponents in New Hampshire will ask a House committee to repeal the law and let voters amend the constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

This follows recent action in Iowa, where 18 Republican lawmakers introduced another resolution to propose a constitutional amendment recognizing as valid only marriages between one man and one woman (gay marriage is now legal in Iowa), and the rejection in DC Superior Court of a proposed referendum to let voters decide whether the marriage equality law should stand. A referendum which had the support of at least 39 Republican congressmen, who filed an amicus brief in support of the suit.

Let's look at the facts.

Our country is at war.

Millions of people are still out of work, and it will take some time for our economy to recover from the constant bashing it has taken over the last two years.

Countless people have no health insurance or are under-insured.

Our education system lags far behind other countries.

Don't you think we have bigger problems than stopping people who love each other from making a lifetime commitment? Why aren't the constituents of these legislators demanding real progress on the economy, health care, education instead of allowing their lawmakers to pass laws that will make some people less worthy of equal rights than others?

I guess when everything in the country is going as well as it is, you need to concentrate on the important issues like gay marriage. Makes sense, right?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Golden Globe Awards

If you know me well, you know I am an awards show junkie. But few awards shows have my devotion like those celebrating movies—the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the granddaddy of them all, the Oscars. In part because I am forever fascinated by the marvel of the movies, in part because like so many I am always curious to see who looks hot and who does not, and in part because there is always an emotional moment or two to savor, when these awards air, I am right in front of the television every time.

Last night's Golden Globes delivered everything I hoped they would. While I found Ricky Gervais mostly underwhelming, the show itself was short on boring moments and long on well-deserved victories, at least in my opinion.

Some of my highlights:

  • Seeing Michael C. Hall, who is recovering from Hodgkin's disease, finally pick up an award for Dexter after being nominated so many times between this show and Six Feet Under.

  • The standing ovation Jeff Bridges received after winning Best Actor in a Drama for Crazy Heart. Mr. Bridges may be the first in his family to pick up an Oscar this year, and it's a shame his father Lloyd won't be around to see it.

  • Meryl Streep's graciousness during her acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (for Julie & Julia), in which she quipped, "In my long career I've played so many extraordinary women, basically I'm getting mistaken for one." (Extra points for her wish to change her name to "T-Bone Streep," in honor of Best Original Song winner T-Bone Burnett.)

  • Drew Barrymore's heartfelt emotion following her win as Best Actress in a TV Movie or Miniseries for Grey Gardens. Long simply an awards show fixture, Barrymore was first nominated in 1985 for her performance in Irreconcilable Differences, so needless to say, she was very excited and emotional.

  • Robert Downey Jr.'s humorously "selfish" speech, which he said was his wife's fault since "she told me Matt Damon was going to win at 10:00 this morning."

But the speech of the night belonged to Best Supporting Actress winner Mo'Nique. Recognized for her searing performance in Precious with the night's first award, she set a bar no one else could match.

While some have criticized Mo'Nique for her diva-like attitude regarding other awards she has won and others have questioned the Svengali-esque behavior of her husband/manager, with this speech, she proved there is substance behind the woman.

Here is the full list of winners:

Best Picture (Drama): Avatar
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy): The Hangover
Best Actor (Drama): Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress (Drama): Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Walz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Best Director: James Cameron, Avatar
Best Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Best Original Score: Up
Best Foreign Film: The White Ribbon (Germany)
Best Animated Film: Up

Best Drama: Mad Men
Best Comedy: Glee
Best TV Movie or Miniseries: Grey Gardens
Best Actor (Drama): Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Best Actress (Drama): Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Best Actor (Comedy): Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Best Actress (Comedy): Toni Collette, The United States of Tara
Best Actor (TV Movie/Miniseries): Kevin Bacon, Taking Chance
Best Actress (TV Movie/Miniseries): Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens
Best Supporting Actor: John Lithgow, Dexter
Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Sevigny, Big Love

On to the SAG Awards January 23, and then, of course, the Oscar nominations February 2! I love this time of year!

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Favorite Movies of 2009

Funny thing is, I used to consider myself a real movie person. And I guess I used to go to tons of movies each year. But then life and work and travel and training for a half-marathon and everything else got in the way, and apart from our traditional award-contender movie marathon over the holidays, seeing a ton of movies just doesn't seem to happen anymore.

That being said, however, I did see about 25 movies in 2009, in theatres and on DVD. And while I haven't seen a quarter of the movies released in 2009, I still feel pretty confident about making up my best-of list.

Here they are...

1. Avatar: Say what you want about political overtones, racism, environmental messages, etc. The sheer spectacle of this movie truly blew me away. The production is amazing, the visual effects (especially when seen in 3D) were dazzling and I found the story compelling even while predictable. Compared to Titanic, this movie truly is James Cameron's crown jewel. Maybe he should be king of the world??

2. A Single Man: Dazzlingly beautiful and sensual, life-affirming and heartbreaking, I am still thinking about this movie nearly two weeks after seeing it. Colin Firth gives the performance of a lifetime (and he looks incredible to boot), Julianne Moore shines and Tom Ford proves he can design films as well as fashion.

3. The Hurt Locker: Is it possible my heart is still racing about six months after seeing this film? This is a movie about war that doesn't take sides or preach about right or wrong. Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the men who defuse bombs in Iraq packs as much of an emotional charge in the quiet moments as it does when the squad is at work. Jeremy Renner takes command of the film, while Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty give emotional weight to their characters' struggles. Should win Best Picture but probably won't.

4. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman delivers on the promise he showed with Juno, Clooney at his most vulnerable is better than ever, Vera Farmiga dazzles, Anna Kendrick is a little tornado and the movie crackles with wit and emotion. Makes you think even as it's making you laugh.

5. (500) Days of Summer: I'm not sure what I loved most about this movie—the narrative structure, Zooey Deschanel's every move, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's humorous and wrenching performance, the great soundtrack...Oh, wait. I just loved this movie.

6. An Education: One of the best movies of 2009 you probably never heard of. This film tells the story of 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a young English girl dreaming of going to Oxford and studying literature, when she meets worldly David (Peter Sarsgaard) and everything changes. Mulligan is a beautiful discovery, Sarsgaard is his usual sexy, thoughtful self and Alfred Molina, as Jenny's father, is fantastic. If you can find it, see it.

7. District 9: Part sci-fi thriller, part faux documentary, District 9 is a profound commentary on how those in power treat those they fear. Johannesburg, South Africa has been home to a large community of aliens for over 20 years, and their presence in a city-ordained shanty-town has led to riots and crime. A major corporation has been put in charge of relocating the aliens. And chaos ensues. Sharlto Copley gives a chilling, unforgettable performance.

8. Up: I am a big kid at heart, but even so, I loved this movie. From the nearly-wordless beginning that left me in tears (don't judge) to the take-no-prisoners attitude of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and his scout stowaway Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) and the hysterical dogs, Pixar has another classic on its hands.

9. The Hangover: Often when a movie has been hyped to death or labeled "one of the funniest movies ever," it rarely delivers on its promise and I find myself sitting in the theatre staring at the laughing crowd around me. Not so with The Hangover. The most improbable of scenarios seems just a bit more real thanks to Bradley Cooper's smarm, Ed Helms' prissy outrage and Zach Galifianakis' pathetic yet hysterical cluelessness. Oh, and Mike Tyson, too.

10. Inglourious Basterds: The great Quentin Tarantino strikes again, this time taking on the Nazis and the Third Reich. A troop of Jewish-American Nazi hunters, led by Brad Pitt, is part of a plot to bring down the Nazis at a French cinema. But they hardly expect the wiliness of Col. Hans Landa, aka "the Jew Hunter," (Christoph Walz, sensationally frightening) or the revenge-minded cinema owner, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent). A little slow at the start but when it gets going, look out.

Choosing 8 of these movies was fairly easy, but the battle for slots 9 and 10 was tough. Precious boasts career-making performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique; Where The Wild Things Are captured childhood wonder perfectly; Away We Go brought me face to face with my desire not to be a f--kup, and Star Trek amazed this non-Trekkie with how much I enjoyed it.

Coming soon: my top movies of the decade.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Better Off Ted": The Best TV Show You're Probably Not Watching...

Over the last few years I've watched very little TV outside of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, my nightly dose of Jeopardy and cooking shows. I'll watch whatever is on TV if the mood strikes me, but by and large I usually do other stuff rather than watch. And yes, I know that I've missed out on some of the classic shows of the last decade—The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, etc., but I can always catch them on DVD.

So I don't know what possessed me to start watching Better Off Ted when it premiered last spring, but let me tell you: this show is one of the funniest, well-written and well-acted shows I've ever seen. But it's a little quirky, and in typical TV fashion, the shows that aren't-quite-typical fare get bumped all over the place, while the networks continue to put all of their time and energy behind shows that are just like every other one.

The show takes place in the headquarters of Veridian Dynamics, a soulless corporation for which everything from turning co-workers into human popsicles to converting ordinary fruit into a military weapon is part of everyday life. As the corporation makes technological advancements, morals and human rights are heavily neglected.

Nearly every episode comes with a "commercial" for Veridian. Like this one on friendship:

Or this one, when a televised speech by President Obama shifted its time slot:

The cast is led by Jay Harrington, whose slightly deadpan/slightly zany style is perfect for Ted, while Portia de Rossi is an absolutely Emmy-worthy standout as Veronica, the domineering, sexy and just-a-bit-vulnerable executive. Andrea Anders shines as Linda, Ted's unstable, needy colleague, with whom Ted is always just on the verge of flirting, and Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett are hilarious as Phil and Lem, geeky scientists who bring bromance and timidity to a whole new level.

Here's a recent clip where Phil is forced to work with Veronica all alone (she scares him), to disastrous results:

And another, where Veronica delivers a less-than-sympathetic eulogy for an employee who died because he was working too hard:

If you've not watched Better Off Ted, chances are you've either never heard of it or had no idea when it was on. And that's because ABC has relegated it to at least five different time slots on three different days—in the last few weeks it's been shown on two different days!

You can catch Season 1 on DVD and Season 2 on or even on ABC's web site. Much like Dilbert comics, you'll be thankful you're not in this workplace!

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Best Books I Read in 2009...

So, umm, I read a lot. You may have noticed this from my reviews on this blog and on Facebook. In doing a little research, I discovered that I read about 105 books in 2009...not too shabby, huh?

In thinking about all of the books I read this past year, I've picked out the 15 that resonated the most with me, those that have stuck with me long after the book went back on my shelf.

Here they are, in no particular order:

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper:
Judd Foxman is having a tough time. His marriage is over since he caught his wife in bed with his shock jock boss, his father just died and his father's dying wish was for his entire family—mother, sister and two brothers—to sit shiva for seven days. Everybody brings their families and their emotional baggage. And no one will be the same.

Holy hell, I loved this book. Granted, I love me a good story about family dysfunction, but this really was fantastic. I'd never read anything by Jonathan Tropper before, if for no other reason than I tend to shy away from books that critics bill as "hysterically funny," since they rarely are. But this book made me laugh and even moved me a little. I was sad when I was done with it, yet I couldn't stop myself from rushing through it to the end.

The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
This is a book about music, how songs remind us of a certain moment or how hearing the right song at the right moment can convince us to act or not to act. This is a book about love, both falling in and out, and trying to find your way once your life seemingly falls apart. This is also a book about insecurities when your dreams start coming true...or when they don't.

I had a little trouble starting the book but I'm beyond glad I gave it a go. Phillips packs a lot into each page, so while I read the bulk of the book quickly, I didn't feel as if I were flying through it. If you like good fiction, read this book. And then tell me when you do so I have someone to discuss it with!

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when, after being intrigued by an encounter with student parishioners at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, he decided to spend a semester at Liberty University to better understand the young evangelical crowd. A non-practicing Quaker raised in a liberal household, what Roose discovers about his fellow students and what life is like at an evangelical college is at the heart of The Unlikely Disciple.

I really loved this book. I'll admit that I expected this to be much more tongue-in cheek and critical than it was. Roose makes no bones about how he feels about certain issues, such as the evangelical community's view of homosexuality or the theory of evolution, and how hearing both sides didn't sway his feelings. But he approached this whole assignment with a tremendously open mind, and what he discovered changed him in ways he didn't expect. But don't get me wrong, this book is not a love letter to Falwell and Liberty University either.

Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy
Some of the most beautiful short stories I've read in a long time. This collection is not very long but each of the five stories packs an emotional wallop and has definitely stuck in my mind more than a week after finishing the book. As you can tell from the title, each of these stories has to do with love—and each approaches the subject from a different angle. I've never read anything that Simon Van Booy has written but I'm definitely going to find his other book now. If you like short stories, I'd encourage you to read this book. It will make you look at love—and those you love—in a whole new light.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
This book is c-r-e-e-p-y because you realize just how real the situations the characters find themselves in can be. Dan Chaon is an amazing writer and I found this book to be a fantastic, quick read, that I probably need to read over again in order to ensure I didn't miss any of the nuance.

This book tells three parallel stories: Lucy, who flees her Ohio town with her high school teacher; Ryan, a college student struggling with the pressures of being who his parents want him to be, who finds out a secret about his life; and Miles, who has spent years running all over the place in search of his twin brother Hayden, who disappeared years ago but keeps telling him where he is and then eluding him. How these characters interact is one of the things that makes this book so creepy, and the fact that the story has at its premise identity theft (and how easy it is to pull off) is the other. As the book ultimately unfolded, I found myself a little confused, but it didn't detract from the power of this book.

The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli
This book was freakin' amazing! Honestly, if real life and work didn't get in the way, I would have read the book from cover to cover and not put it down until I was done. This story had some terrific action, great characters and a really interesting story. And even though I had a feeling about some of the things that were going to happen, it didn't matter, because it didn't take away from the story at all. I'm definitely looking forward to his next book and I'm going to go back read some of his previous ones, since I hadn't heard of Piccirilli before. It's Hollywood all you see are remakes of old movies and TV shows, sequels and the occasional "new" idea. Yet here's a book that in my opinion, is crying out to be turned into a movie. I'd love to see that happen at some point.

Breath by Tim Winton
I thought this was fantastic. I was completely captivated from start to finish. And what's interesting is I've never been to Australia and never surfed, yet this novel about the amazing pull of surfing, hero worship and living outside your comfort zones totally resonated with me. This is a short book with tremendous weight; most of the characters are multi-dimensional and have stuck in my head. If there was anything keeping me from falling head over heels for this book it's that I felt it took an utterly depressing turn toward the end.

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory
This book starts in 1939 in rural Georgia. Young Joseph Vaughan is growing up without his father, challenged by an inspirational teacher and affected by what appears to be a serial killer targeting young girls in the communities around where he lives. Joseph assembles several of his friends to become "the Guardians," self-appointed protectors of the community and the girls, but the killer finds his way around everyone. And then Joseph spends a good portion of his life dealing with the aftereffects of these murders.

Ellory is an absolutely fantastic writer. His use of language at times throughout the book was magnificent. At times the plot got a little predictable but I still found Joseph and his story tremendously compelling. Read this one!

The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life by Andy Raskin
Ok, so the book had me at the title. But unlike so many other books, this one lived up to the expectations its title generated. Andy Raskin seemed to have it all. He was a successful writer, musically talented, had several jobs that allowed him the opportunity to live in Japan for long periods of time, and he seemed to have no trouble attracting women. But underneath all of that, his life was in shambles. Through a series of events, he becomes obsessed with Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, and Ando even becomes his spiritual guide. This book is amusing, chock-full of information you'd never think you were interested in and much more psychologically deep than you'd expect. And I wouldn't read it on an empty stomach!

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
I have loved EVERY book Richard Russo has written, and while his books tend to feel a little familiar to me in certain ways—the rudderless middle-aged protagonist, the difficulty with women, the interesting relationship with mom—he really is a brilliant writer.

That Old Cape Magic tells the story of Griffin, a middle-aged college professor who has never quite settled into the second story of his life, despite his marriage to Joy and a beautiful daughter, Laura. Although he tries to keep his parents out of his life, both tend to have a pretty heavy part in it. As events unfold over a year, he has to confront a lot of issues—with himself, his marriage, his parents, his job—and these make for pretty great reading. In my mind, you can't go wrong with a Richard Russo novel. If you've never read him before, add him to the top of your list!

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke
Rain Gods introduced a new main character in Burke's books, Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland, cousin of one of Burke's regular protagonists, Billy Bob Holland. Hack has the unfortunate "luck" to unearth a shallow grave in which nine young Asian women, illegal aliens all, were buried after being brutally murdered. And this discovery sends him on a hunt for the killer, during which he comes into contact with no shortage of lunatic contract killers, strip club owners and people looking to bring others down for money. But that's just the start.

Few authors can describe a setting like Burke can. His words are amazingly picturesque and his action scenes are just fantastic. This book takes a little longer than I would have liked to get to the end, but other than that, this was another fantastic read from one of my favorite authors.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
This collection is about relationships of all kinds and the emotions that these relationships uncover and foster. From the opening story, "Travis, B.," which tells of a young ranch hand's desire to open up to a lawyer working as a night school teacher in rural Montana, to the closing story "O Tannenbaum," which highlights marital discord and temptation during the holiday season, Meloy's writing is at times humorous, at times heartbreaking, always memorable and always terrific. All 11 stories hit slightly different notes and provoked different reactions in me, but I also found myself struck by her fantastic use of language.

If you're a short story fan, add this to your reading list, stat. If you're not, I'd recommend you pick this up anyway. You won't be disappointed.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
It's the last summer before college for Dade Hamilton. He cannot wait to leave his stifling hometown and his parents' disintegrating marriage for what he imagines will be the idyll of college. Plus there's the matter of his sort-of boyfriend not wanting to acknowledge his existence most of the time, and a misfit from high school spread a rumor that Dade put the moves on her at a party. And then Dade meets Alex, the "dreamy loser" who makes him realize that he is worthy of being loved and living the life he wants to.

Nick Burd accurately captures the post-high school angst of his characters, the conflicts they have with wanting to fit in and be "normal" as well as wanting to live their lives the way they want. Dade is a complex character and Burd allows him and those around him to be both appealing and flawed. What I liked so much about the book is that Burd wasn't willing just to tie everything up with a neat bow at the end. I don't read a lot of YA fiction but this, along with Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, are two remarkable books worth reading.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
I enjoyed this book a lot. This is the story of Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern college student in the throes of no ambition and general boredom, who is hired by a couple to watch their baby. As anyone who has had a nanny, babysitter or other child care professional in their lives knows, the more time this person spends with you, the more they get to know your family--and their foibles. And that is precisely what happens with Tassie. While she is caring for baby Emmie and navigating her employers' relationship, she is also dealing with a brother whose lack of focus pushes him to join the military in post-9/11 times and parents getting older.

Parts of this book are absolutely heartbreaking, parts are a bit predictable and parts are a little slow, but the whole is clearly a terrific read. I didn't always love the characters but I was compelled to find out what happened to them.

It Feels So Good When I Stop by Joe Pernice
Usually when I read books featuring characters who can't seem to commit, hold a job or carry on any successful relationship, they tend to be as disappointing as I'd imagine the characters are to their friends and family. But this book really resonated for me. The author, Joe Pernice, is really talented--he and his brother have a band, the Pernice Brothers, and he's a great songwriter as well.

The narrator of this book (you never learn his name, and while I thought that would annoy me, it didn't) has just had yet another break-up with his girlfriend/wife, so he has fled to Cape Cod. In between trying to get back in touch with her, he starts taking care of his young nephew, and builds a bond with Marie, a woman who lives down the street from where he's staying who has issues of her own. The story switches between the current time and the start of the narrator's relationship with his wife. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, everything, except the ending. It was a bit abrupt and left the story feeling unfinished, so maybe that's a sign that Pernice will revisit this story again soon.

Is That a Gun in Your Locker, Gilbert, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

It doesn't get much better than this.

Just before Christmas, Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas took four unloaded guns from his locker at the Verizon Center. Now, despite stories to the contrary which claimed Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton drew guns on each other after a dispute over card-playing gambling debts, Arenas has a perfectly plausible explanation for taking four guns out of his locker.

He was joking.

Arenas said the guns were part of a "misguided effort to play a joke" on Crittenton. (For me, two guns would have been funny, but four guns? Overkill.)

Never mind the fact that the NBA has a rule that says players are subject to discipline if they bring guns to the arena or practice facility. (And is anyone else troubled by the fact that the NBA had enact this rule in the first place?)

Oh, and never mind the fact that Arenas makes more per year than teachers, nurses or even policemen can hope to in their lifetimes.

How long do we just shrug off these actions by professional athletes as if it's harmless behavior of children? Basketball is entertaining but these athletes don't perform a public service or change the world, so why are they above the law?

Of course, the cynic in me isn't surprised. But I do know I'll stay away from Gilbert Arenas on April Fool's Day...who knows what I'd find?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Review: "The Tourists" by Jeff Hobbs

I found this book on one of my fairly routine bookstore browses, where I basically walk the fiction aisles looking at titles until one jumps out at me. Sometimes I remember hearing about the book, and sometimes I am simply intrigued by the description of the book and the first few paragraphs.

The latter was the case with Jeff Hobbs' The Tourists and I'm glad, because apparently when this book came out, it was labeled as a "Gatsby-meets-McInerney debut" novel. I probably would have run in the other direction if I had seen that, because how often does that hype ring true?

This is the story of four Yale graduates dealing with life in the "real world" nearly 10 years after college. While they weren't all friends in college, their lives become intertwined in far too many ways to recount in this review. And chronicling it all is the unnamed narrator, who is trying to keep his own life afloat both professionally and personally, and trying to make his mark in the world.

Even though I saw most of what happened in this book coming from a mile away, Jeff Hobbs created memorable characters from what could have been simple stock stereotypes—the fratboy jock struggling to make it in the business world, the exotic girl trying to be taken seriously, the gay guy determined to succeed over everyone else. The characters aren't always appealing, but I found the story compellingly readable; once I picked it up I couldn't put it down.

I do recommend this book, but for another take on the post-college angst story, I highly recommend Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children.

Book Review: "The Vast Fields of Ordinary" by Nick Burd

This book opened with an epigram by e.e. cummings:

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.

When I read that, I eagerly anticipated the actual story even more. And Nick Burd did not disappoint. I read this entire 309-page book in a few hours and was very sad when it was finished because it resonated with me so much.

It's the last summer before college for Dade Hamilton. He cannot wait to leave his stifling hometown and his parents' disintegrating marriage for what he imagines will be the idyll of college. Plus there's the matter of his sort-of boyfriend not wanting to acknowledge his existence most of the time, and a misfit from high school spread a rumor that Dade put the moves on her at a party. And then Dade meets Alex, the "dreamy loser" who makes him realize that he is worthy of being loved and living the life he wants to.

Nick Burd accurately captures the post-high school angst of his characters, the conflicts they have with wanting to fit in and be "normal" as well as wanting to live their lives the way they want. Dade is a complex character and Burd allows him and those around him to be both appealing and flawed. What I liked so much about the book is that Burd wasn't willing just to tie everything up with a neat bow at the end.

I don't read a lot of YA fiction but this, along with Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, are two remarkable books worth reading.

Book Review: "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It" by Maile Meloy

There once was a time when I didn't read short stories, much less short story collections, because I didn't want to get invested in characters only to have to give them up fairly quickly when the story ended. Boy, I'm glad I shook myself free of that quirk, otherwise I wouldn't have read a fantastic book like Maile Meloy's Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. This collection is on both the New York Times' list of the year's notable books as well as Amazon's 100 best list, and as I discovered last year, I can rarely go wrong with their recommendations.

This collection is about relationships of all kinds and the emotions that these relationships uncover and foster. From the opening story, "Travis, B.," which tells of a young ranch hand's desire to open up to a lawyer working as a night school teacher in rural Montana, to the closing story "O Tannenbaum," which highlights marital discord and temptation during the holiday season, Meloy's writing is at times humorous, at times heartbreaking, always memorable and always terrific. All 11 stories hit slightly different notes and provoked different reactions in me, but I also found myself struck by her fantastic use of language.

If you're a short story fan, add this to your reading list, stat. If you're not, I'd recommend you pick this up anyway. You won't be disappointed.

Happy New Year!!

Somewhat unbelievably, it's 2010. All too often we remark at how fast time flies, but I can honestly say it seems impossible to believe we're already at the start of a new year and a new decade (gulp). Was it really a little more than 12 months ago that so many sat riveted in front of television screens across the world or shivering in the cold to watch Barack Obama become the 43rd President of the US?

For me, 2009 was a year of sharp contrasts, one of extreme highs and some devastating lows. The most recent high was the accomplishment of completing my first half-marathon (not to mention two other 5K races), with the lowest of the low coming last week with our dog Zeke's death.

As I look toward this new decade, I'm hopeful about what is to come. While I'm not really one for resolutions, I do resolve to try and take more control over my life rather than sit back and watch it unfold (and then lament about what has happened). I do plan to continue my quest to keep fit, and perhaps run another half-marathon or two if my 40-year-old body will allow it.

While the course of 2010 may be uncertain, I do wish for the continued health and happiness of my friends and family, who provide me unending support, love and material to write about. May the coming year provide the fulfillment of wishes, the enlargement of smiles and the dreaming of big dreams.