Saturday, December 31, 2011

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

I've been in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a long while, but fell in love with the Zooey-Joseph pairing in the amazing (500) Days of Summer.

Happy New Year, y'all!

On beyond 2011...

In a little more than eight hours, we here on the East Coast will bid adieu to 2011. It has been an interesting year, and I look forward to what 2012 will bring.

Equality took a number of steps ahead and a number of steps back this year. Don't Ask Don't Tell became one for the history books, and despite what some conservatives may tell you, the military has felt no ill effects from allowing openly gay soldiers to serve. President Obama also vowed to no longer defend the outdated Defense of Marriage Act, and Congressional Democrats introduced bills that would replace this antiquated law, but to date, only one Republican has expressed support.

New York lawmakers approved same-sex marriage in the state, while lawmakers in North Carolina and Minnesota took steps toward implementing Constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. And nearly every Republican candidate running for President in 2012 has promised to amend the U.S. Constitution to include this same inequality. Bullying of gay students continues to increase at an alarming pace, as does the number of gay teenagers committing suicide and the number of acts of violence perpetrated against gay people or those "suspected" to be gay.

But looking beyond politics, I think it has been a fairly good year. I was able to get out from under a horribly demoralizing job to find a position in an organization that values my skills and challenges me (sometimes more than I want, but that's life), and I look forward what 2012 will bring professionally.

I've enjoyed the opportunity to spend some wonderful time with friends and family this year, read some terrific books, and see some memorable movies. I visited the summer camp I attended for 10 years between the ages of 10 and 19 for the first time in 19 years, and it was an eye-opening experience to be reunited with people who played a big role in my childhood. And on a sad note, we said goodbye to my great-aunt Eileen, who was a truly terrific person.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy New Year, and I hope that 2012 brings each of you everything you're dreaming of!

Book Review: "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

It's been nearly 10 years since Jeffrey Eugenides published a novel—his last book, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, so one could imagine that was a pretty hard act to follow. His new book, The Marriage Plot, has been hailed by critics as one of the year's best, although reaction from readers has been somewhat mixed. In my opinion, this is a terrific story led by three complex characters, but from time to time, it gets mired in its own intellectualism.

It's the early 1980s at Brown University. English major Madeleine Hanna, who grew up privileged in the New Jersey suburbs, is in love with romantic novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot, and is truly in love with love. Widening her horizons in her senior year, she takes a semiotics class, which causes her to challenge her beliefs and think more philosophically, but she also meets Leonard Bankhead, one of her classmates, a highly intelligent—and troubled—biology major. Meanwhile, Madeleine's friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, is obsessed with her and believes that she is his true soulmate. Even traveling around the world after college, exploring the history and philosophy of different religions, can't seem to shake her from his mind. The Marriage Plot tells Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard's stories, views the world and their interconnectedness through each of their eyes, and gets fully immersed in their happinesses and challenges.

I really enjoyed the three main characters and really became invested in what happened to them. The problem I had with the book, however, is that I felt it tried to be an intellectual novel, and it didn't need to. It gets a little too in depth in its literary and philosophical references, and spends more time than necessary providing a religious framework for Mitchell's explorations. While I understand these characters were intelligent and thoughtful, the same story could have had even more impact if I didn't need to wonder what each literary reference meant. That being said, however, the story and Eugenides' writing is too good to pass up, so if you go into reading this knowing you may need to look things up in the dictionary (or maybe you're smarter than I am), you'll realize the novel's strengths faster than I did.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What bravery looks like...

This is the face of 18-year-old Ben Breedlove of Austin, Texas.

Breedlove suffered from a dangerous heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which one part of the heart is thicker than the other parts, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood.

On December 18, Breedlove posted two videos to YouTube in which he told his story.

He talked about his heart condition not allowing him to play sports like his friends.

He discussed cheating death three times, the first time when he was four years old and the last time on December 6, when he collapsed while at school and awoke to EMS workers giving him CPR.

In his videos, he talked (using handwritten index cards) about visions he saw the first and third times he cheated death.

He talked about not being afraid to die.

And on Christmas Day, he suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital.

Watching Ben's videos, I am overwhelmed by his bravery. I hope his parents are proud of the child they raised, because he clearly was a special person who never took one minute of his life for granted.

"It was obvious to all of us that knew him that he knew what he was doing when he made that video," close family-friend Pam Kohler said. "There are times that [the family is] overwhelmed by the pain and the loss of Ben, but then it's replaced with knowing that he was at peace with what was going to happen."

If heaven and angels exist, undoubtedly Ben Breedlove is among them. I'd encourage you to watch his story (have tissues handy) and then share it with those you love.

Encourage them to live their lives as Ben did, with no fear, embracing the joy and wonder of every day.

RIP, Ben. You've given the world something to think about and left an incredible example behind, one to which we should all aspire.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The year in movies...

In my opinion, this has been a really great year in movies, and I've not yet seen several of the year-end releases.

Matt Shapiro created this amazing montage of the year in movies, called Cinescape: 2011. He's apparently been doing these for five years now. (Check out his YouTube channel for the previous years' montages. His user name is oyguvaltshappy.)

They should get Shapiro to put together the montages for the Oscars. This really is brilliant.

Book Review: "I Knew You'd Be Lovely" by Alethea Black

Short story fans, or those who simply love great fiction writing, go out and pick up Alethea Black's magnificent story collection (or download it onto your eReader), I Knew You'd Be Lovely. I read this collection in one day and nearly every story left me moved beyond words, intrigued, amused, or simply amazed at Black's abilities. (And sometimes more than one of those happened simultaneously!)

The characters in each of Black's stories are at some sort of emotional crossroads. In the incredibly moving "Someday is Today," a young woman comforts her sister and young children after her brother-in-law's unexpected death, and struggles with questions of faith and her own purpose. "The Only Way Out is Through" follows one man's struggles to get through to his troubled son, with nearly cataclysmic results. The main character in "Mollusk Makes a Comeback" struggles to remain positive as events in her life spiral out of control, and in the title story, the narrator's search for the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend leads her down an intriguing path. And those descriptions just scratch the surface of the stories in this collection.

I love short stories, but I really found this collection exceptional. Black created some truly memorable characters, many of whom could have a whole book written about them. (There are definitely more than a few characters about whom I'd like to know what happened when the story ended.) I didn't want this collection to end, but now that it has, I'm more than ready to read what Black has in store next! Don't miss this one, seriously.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: "Pictures of You" by Caroline Leavitt

One foggy day, about three hours from Cape Cod, two women's cars collide on the road. Both appear to be running away from their marriages. April dies in the crash, while Isabelle survives, and is left not only to pick up the pieces of her life in the town she had wanted to escape, but becomes entangled with April's devastated husband, Charlie, and their young son, Sam, who is riddled with guilt about the accident. Charlie can't understand why April wanted to leave, and what she was doing on that road far from home, Sam wants nothing more than to talk to or see his mother one last time, and Isabelle is torn between again wanting to escape and wanting to stay to take care of Charlie and Sam, despite her role in their misery. And as their lives unfold, they realize the impact of every decision, and how sometimes the "best" decision isn't always the right one.

Pictures of You had moments of heartbreaking poignancy and moments when I wanted to shake each one of the characters into action, and both contributed to my enjoyment of the book. No character was drawn to be flawless; at times I sympathized with each of them, and at times I wished someone would just tell them to get a grip. The book definitely exceeded my expectations and surprised me in a number of ways, and that made me happy. And while I am, admittedly, a total sap, it was Caroline Leavitt's well-written story, combined with the emotional power it packs, that kept me reading this book well into the night in order to finish it. Very well done.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: "The Gentlemen's Hour" by Don Winslow

There's always an intrinsic coolness in Don Winslow's novels, whether he's writing his series with PI Neal Carey, chronicling the battles between drug cartels, or following a group of surfing friends, as he does in his terrific book, The Gentlemen's Hour. It's a combination of his vividly drawn characters and their often quirky-yet-authentic dialogue, as well as his ability to make you feel you're watching the action unfold in front of you.

The Gentlemen's Hour is a follow-up to his 2009 novel, The Dawn Patrol, both of which follow a group of surfers on San Diego's Pacific Beach, which has been rocked by the violent murder of local legend Kelly Kuhio. The case seems open-and-shut: the killer, a wealthy member of a surfing gang, has confessed, and a number of witnesses say they saw him throw the fatal punch. Yet when PI Boone Daniels is asked to investigate the crime to determine whether the charge of first-degree murder should stick, in addition to alienating his long-time friends and the Pacific Beach community, he finds a lot of things to prove the incident wasn't as cut and dried as it appeared. And that's only one of his cases, as he also is asked by a friend to determine if his wife is having an affair. Couple that chaos with a great deal of self-discovery, and it's not all "hang loose" for Boone Daniels.

I love the way Don Winslow writes, and every character in Boone's group is much more complex than they appear initially. Winslow takes the surfer stereotype and turns it on its ear—sure, these characters are obsessed with finding the perfect wave (or any wave at all) and may fall into surfer speak, but they are much smarter and profound than you think. This is a great book, packed with action and character exposition, although at times it gets a little bogged down in background detail. Winslow did introduce a psychotic villain, who I feared was going to derail the entire book, but luckily he makes only a brief (yet annoying) appearance. All in all, I enjoyed this tremendously, as I have enjoyed nearly every one of Winslow's other books. I hope he's hard at work writing the next one!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Review: "The Artist"

I wish we didn't live in a world where hype existed. Whenever possible, I try to see movies and read books fairly soon after they're released, and avoid most reviews so I don't have any preconceived notions in my mind. But when you follow the entertainment world like I do, there's no escaping hearing which movies and books are being hailed by critics, especially around year-end. All of that preface to say I came to The Artist knowing it's one of the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Picture, as it has been the winner of, or is a nominee for, many major critics' awards.

Is it worth all the hype? No, and maybe, yes.

It's 1927, during Hollywood's Golden Age, when silent movies are at their heyday. Debonair George Valentin (played with a mischievous twinkle by Jean Dujardin) is one of the most popular stars, charming audiences both on and offscreen (although not his wife). One day during an autograph session, a fan named Peppy Miller (the vivaciously adorable Berenice Bejo) winds up in George's spotlight, much to his amusement. The two share some sweet chemistry, and their encounter leads to Peppy's employment as an extra, and then supporting character, in many of his films. Then, as Hollywood gets caught up with the new talking pictures, Peppy's popularity (say that five times fast) explodes, while George, who believes talking pictures are just a fad, is left to lanugish in failure, losing everything, except his trusted dog. But Peppy is determined to save George at any cost, which leads to the film's most dramatic moments, as well as its breathless and unexpected finale.

In case you hadn't heard, The Artist is an (almost completely) silent movie, like a souvenir of the era it captures. It is a beautifully shot film, and the acting is appropriately over the top, as silent movie acting was in Hollywood's days of yore. And while I was utterly taken in by the film's charm and its artistry, in the end, its silence robbed me a bit of its heart. To me, The Artist is like a beautiful meringue dessert—lovely to look at and enjoyable to consume, but in the end, it doesn't fill you up. But it's well worth seeing, for Dujardin and Bejo's performances, and the uniqueness of the experience.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: "How the Mistakes Were Made" by Tyler McMahon

I'm guessing that I love to read books about bands or the music industry because I'm such a huge music fan. Novels like Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or Tom Perrotta's The Wishbones, or nonfiction like Peter Guralnick's books about Elvis, including the terrific Last Train to Memphis, have an added appeal because music truly captivates me. Tyler McMahon's How the Mistakes Were Made is a great addition to this genre, a tremendously compelling (if not entirely original) look at the powerful hold music and performing has on some people, and the relationships that get caught in the crossfire.

In the early 1980s, Laura Loss was known as the queen of hardcore punk, despite being under 18. The bassist for her brother's legendary band, Second Class Citizens, she traveled the country with the band as it made a name for itself, until punk's own fans detroyed her brother. Ten years later, in pre-grunge Seattle, she still lives on those memories, playing for a second-rate band, until she meets Nathan and Sean, two aspiring musicians from Montana in whom Laura recognizes exceptional genius. Under her tutelage, a new band, The Mistakes, is formed, and the three ride the rollercoaster of pursuing their dreams. Yet two of the key factors in the band's success—Sean's synesthesia (a blending of the senses that allows him to "see" the music) and the chemistry between the three of them—are both challenged as the band experiences a meteoric rise to success. Cutting between Laura's days in her brother's band and the day-to-day world of The Mistakes, this is a book about one woman's struggle to hold her life together for the second time as music once again threatens to tear it apart.

I stumbled across this book on Amazon, having heard nothing about it, and I really enjoyed it. While Laura isn't an altogether sympathetic character, her story and her experience in both bands are very compelling. And while the book never lost my interest (I read the entire book in about a day and a half), the relationship between Laura, Nathan, and Sean isn't particularly unique, and you can see what is going to happen pretty early on. But that doesn't take away from the emotions and raw drama that McMahon imbues the book with. This is a good, solid, entertaining read, particularly if you're interested in the music world.

Take that...right in the posterior!

Did you hear the one about the overweight congressman who ridiculed the First Lady for having a fat ass and forgot that people would hear him and rush to share this news tidbit with the press?

Meet Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner from the great state of Wisconsin.

While on the telephone at DC's Reagan National Airport (still hate writing that full name out), Sensenbrenner said he told a woman who was praising Mrs. Obama—who has pushed her "Let's Move!" campaign and others to improve childhood eating habits—that she should follow her own advice.

"She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself," he allegedly was overheard saying.

Sensenbrenner does not deny insulting the First Lady, and says he plans to call Mrs. Obama to apologize. His spokeswoman said, "Mr. Sensenbrenner was referring to the first lady's healthy food initiative. He doesn't think the government should be telling Americans what to eat. While he may not agree with all of her initiatives, he plans to contact the First Lady's office to apologize for his comments."

While it's nice to see someone get hoisted on their own petard, I must admit I don't understand why some Republicans are so outraged by Mrs. Obama's healthy eating campaign. She's not forcing anyone to eat anything they don't want to, or forbidding them to eat fattening foods. She's trying to educate people about the need to watch what they eat and exercise, much in the same way Nancy Reagan tried to keep kids away from drugs, and Laura Bush pushed the need for literacy.

Oh, wait. It's because when you're in the other party, you object to everything, no matter how random.

But sometimes it bites you in the, well, posterior.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: "11/22/63" by Stephen King

Growing up, Stephen King was easily one of my favorite authors. Many of his novels created indelible impressions in my mind. (I still have a distrust of clowns thanks to It, and just thinking about The Stand makes me cough.) But my fondness for King has wavered a bit over the last 15 or so years, as I started discovering that as his novels grew in size, his ability to close out a story (from often exceptional ideas) suffered somewhat. Needless to say, I put a great deal of thought into deciding whether or not to read his latest opus, the nearly 900-page 11/22/63, but after flying through it in less than a week, I can unequivocally say this novel should be ranked among some of King's best work.

Jake Epping is an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who teaches GED English classes as a way to make extra money. In response to an assignment in which he asked his students to talk about a life-changing incident, he learns that Harry Dunning, a handicapped janitor, was injured by his father during a violent rampage on Halloween night in 1958, the night he killed Harry's mother and three siblings with a hammer. This discovery deeply affects Jake, and when his friend, local diner owner Al, shows him a hidden time portal in the diner that transports you back to September 1958, Jake jumps at the chance to go back in time and prevent this massacre. No matter how long you're "back," when you return to the present you've only been gone for two minutes, and if you ever go back through the portal again, everything that happened on your last visit resets. Once Al realizes he has a kindred spirit in Jake, he enlists him in the ultimate heroic mission—stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. But time and history do not enjoy being diverted from their plans...

There have been thousands of books written about time travel and the idea of righting past wrongs, but in Stephen King's tremendously capable hands, this concept seems fresh and unique. I kept wondering what twists would come next, but none of them detracted from my complete enjoyment of this book. Almost every character has great depth and they easily draw you into their stories. And when a book of nearly 900 pages reads like a 300-pager, you know you're in the hands of a master. Is some of the plot predictable? Sure, but it's still utterly compelling. Don't be put off by the heft of the book or its subject matter—at its core, this is a story about love, history, and trying to do the right thing, even though it may have larger ramifications. Truly a fantastic book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: "The Taste of Salt" by Martha Southgate

Josie is a marine biologist, one of only a few senior-level black women in her position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In achieving professional success, she has finally been able to free herself of her childhood in Cleveland, of her alcoholic father and addicted younger brother, and she can spend her time in the ocean, where she loves to be more than anything. But she has never fully disentangled herself from the trauma and disappointments of her childhood, and that has a ripple effect in her personal relationships, including her marriage to Daniel, who is also a marine biologist.

The Taste of Salt is a book about the unending power of addiction and the harm it does not only to the addicts, but to those around them. But more than that, this is a book about relationships, about allowing yourself to feel worthy of love, to express your emotions, and trust those around you. The book is narrated mostly by Josie, with chapters told by each of her parents, her brother, and her husband, and it is tremendously compelling.

Martha Southgate, author of the fantastic The Fall of Rome (which isn't about the ancient Romans), has written another terrific book filled with complex characters and beautiful prose. Like the ocean that Josie loves, where what appears on the surface is only a glimpse at the complexities that lie beneath, Josie's relationships and her way of relating to those in her life are far more complicated than they first appear. While Josie might not appear to be the most sympathetic character at the start of the book, I'd encourage you to keep reading, or you'll miss a well-told story of human emotions and interactions.

The dichotomy of Tebow...

I'll admit it: I'm simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by Tim Tebow.

Beyond his aesthetic appeal (what do you want from me?), it's easy to get hooked by his never-say-die attitude, which has propelled his career as an NFL quarterback far beyond anyone's expectations. While no one can argue with his heart or his ability to motivate a team (or a crowd), Denver Broncos' coach Jon Fox's decision to start Tebow was ridiculed by many because of his deficiencies as a quarterback. Heck, even some defensemen from the Broncos' latest opponent, the Bears aren't impressed.

No real throwing ability. No power. A tendency to get rattled. But with all of that, the Broncos are now 7-1 with Tebow as a starting quarterback. The Broncos lead their division, and Jon Fox and Broncos VP John Elway look like geniuses. And there's no denying that Tebow's amazing 4th quarter rallies are fun to watch, unless your team is the one being rallied against.

All that being said, however, it's Tebow's beliefs that I have a problem with. I don't begrudge him his devout faith, but I don't need to have it shoved down my throat with every victory. And while "Tebowing," his tendency to pray on the sidelines, has sparked a craze so big that even an Olympic skiier "Tebowed" after her World Cup victory, like former quarterbacks Jake Plummer and Kurt Warner have suggested, maybe he could tone it down a little.

My main problem with Tebow, however, is his public support for pro-life and anti-equality causes, going so far as to appear in advertisements for conservative organizations. When you publicly affiliate with organizations that promote hatred and support inequality, you clearly have no interest in fans of all religions, sexual orientations, and beliefs. And it's a shame, because someone in Tebow's position has the opportunity to make a powerful statement about loving all people (like Jesus did), but instead, he has chosen to be narrow-minded.

Which is why, although there's no denying the excitement of "Tebow Time," I just can't fully embrace his successes. Should be an interesting end to the football season, though...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: "American Boy" by Larry Watson

Some authors seem as if their style and storytelling would fit in perfectly in a different era. Larry Watson, who has written some truly fantastic books, including Montana 1948, Justice and In a Dark Time, is one of those writers. Many of his books would be appropriate companions to those by Fitzgerald or Faulkner, both in setting (many of his stories take place in earlier times) and because his narrative, while spare, packs the power of earlier writers.

Matthew Garth is a working-class teenager growing up in Minnesota in the early 1960s. Raised by his waitress mother, he would much rather spend time in the company of his best friend, Johnny Dunbar, and his wealthy family, led by the town doctor and his devoted wife. On Thanksgiving night Dr. Dunbar is asked to treat Louisa Lindahl, a woman in her 20s who has been shot by her good-for-nothing boyfriend. That night Matthew sees both a gunshot wound and a topless woman for the first time, and both sights haunt him. His longing for the mysterious Louisa changes his behavior and his relationship with the Dunbars, and leads him to actions that set a chain of events in motion that will affect all of them indelibly.

While American Boy certainly is a book that recalls an earlier time, the feelings it chronicles—jealousy, lust, envy, betrayal, and a desire to better one's life—are modern ones. This was a very quick read; while nothing too surprising transpired in the plot, I still felt somewhat invested in the characters and what happened to them, even if none of them were particularly likeable. I really enjoyed Watson's storytelling ability, as I always do, and think he should be much more famous than he is. This may not be his best book, but it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


John Lennon was shot and killed 31 years ago tonight, December 8, 1980. I was a 6th grade student in Mrs. Radman's class (before she left to have a baby) and I remember talking about the Beatles and John Lennon earlier that day with some friends. At that point in time I was somewhat obsessed with the Beatles' music—quite a departure from the other music I listened to.

The violent death of a man so committed to peace was almost incongruous. It certainly was difficult to understand—I wasn't old enough to have lived through either Kennedy assassination, and this was before Ronald Reagan was shot.

Thirty-one years after his death, Lennon remains an icon, both for his musical genius and his innate goodness. While the songs of the world have been less melodic without him, we are truly fortunate to still have some of his most memorable creations in our lives.

Rest in peace. And thanks for all you gave us in your far-too-short life.

Book Review: "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

This book was frigging awesome! Children of the 80s, especially video game junkies, here is the book for you. Combining the adventure, danger, action, companionship, romance, violence, and fantasy of the best quest novels with fantastic 80s trivia, Ernest Cline has outdone himself with his very first book.

It's 2044, and the real world is an awful place. The environment has been destroyed, there's a worldwide energy shortage, nearly all people live in abject poverty, and the only escape is plugging into OASIS, a virtual world made up of thousands of planets, where you can be anyone or anything you want to, do anything you want, even fall in love. Because schools became so dangerous they have been replicated virtually on OASIS, ensuring students pay attention and face no threat of bullying. Like everyone else, Wade Watts uses OASIS to escape the bleak world he lives in. And one day, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday—a highly eccentric, 80s-obssessed multibillionaire—dies, but he leaves one final gift for the world, a series of puzzles and challenges sure to test anyone. But the winner will have ultimate control of OASIS. And the challenges are unlike anything you could imagine. Wade, like millions of others, tries and tries to solve the challenges for years, until one day, he stumbles onto the first clue. And then the greatest adventure—and the greatest threats—of his life begins.

I'm a sucker for books about a noble hero on a quest, so needless to say, Ready Player One sucked me in from the get-go. This is a story about courage, friendship, love, good, and evil, with the 1980s and the worlds of classic video and adventure games and anime as its backdrop. Cline definitely lets you get lost in the geekery, but he has created terrific, memorable characters who draw you into their lives, and the action sequences are fast-paced and creative. I can only imagine what a phenomenal movie this would be, but I can say for certain it is an exceptional book. Easily one of the best I've read in quite some time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

So what if it's a manufactured holiday?

Today, according to the folks at, is National Comfort Food Day. How awesome does that holiday sound?

Now, maybe you're not one of those people who lives for the cold weather because of stews, soups, casseroles, and chilies, but I most assuredly am. (Not to mention the fact that cold weather clothing is much more flattering to the comfort food-fueled body!) While I went to culinary school, and can cook nearly everything, when I am asked what my specialties are, or what I most love to cook, I always answer "comfort food."

Comfort food really is, well, comforting for me. When I'm sad, or hurt, or stressed, or emotionally and physically exhausted, the best medicine is often a bowl of macaroni and cheese, or a plate of baked ziti. (Of course, the fact that I am a carbohydrate junkie helps here, too!)

So, take the time today to celebrate the food that can be your friend when you need it. I'll resist the temptation to dive into a vat of mac and cheese tonight!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: "Lost Memory of Skin" by Russell Banks

It takes a talented author to make a sympathetic character out of one who has done something odious, but Russell Banks succeeds in his new book, Lost Memory of Skin. Sadly, other aspects of the book didn't fare quite as well.

The Kid is a 21-year-old, socially awkward misfit on probation from his conviction as a sex offender, after an attempt to meet an underage girl goes awry. Unable to live less than 2,500 feet from anywhere children might gather, he lives in a tent under a South Florida causeway, in the company of a number of others who have committed similar and worse crimes. He knows what he did was wrong and truly wants to start anew, but can't seem to catch a break either keeping a menial job or a place to live. One day he encounters the Professor, a larger-than-life man (physically and figuratively) who believes the Kid will be an excellent resource for his studies on homelessness and sex offenders. In exchange for sharing his experiences, the Professor takes Kid under his wing and provides some assistance. But the Professor is a man with a number of his own secrets, and when those are revealed, the balance of power between the two shifts. Ultimately, this is a book about the importance of trusting yourself, and how difficult it is to trust others until you can master that skill.

With Kid and the Professor, Banks created very unique characters, characters with whom you certainly can't identify but at times can't help rooting for them. While the general thread of the plot is compelling, the story takes a very unnecessary turn after the Professor's secrets are revealed, and I really felt that twist undercut the story. And at times, Banks spent far too much time dwelling on Florida history and the Bible, which distracted from the actual characters you want to follow. A truly prolific writer, Banks has written two of my favorite books—The Sweet Hereafter and The Rule of the Bone, but I felt he tried a little too hard with this book. His writing, however, is still something to behold, so I'd encourage you to pick up one of his earlier books if you've never read him before.