Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Poison Tree" by Erin Kelly

Language student Karen Clarke has a stable life, if not a particularly exciting one. She lives in a luxurious off-campus apartment with three friends, they play a lot of tennis, socialize with their boyfriends, and follow a fairly organized pattern. Just before her last year of college ends, Karen meets Biba Capel, a flamboyant aspiring actress, who quickly fascinates and draws Karen into her world. Karen moves into the dilapidated mansion Biba shares with her older brother, Rex, and any number of random friends. It is a world of excess, of drugs, alcohol, and late-night parties, and Karen cannot get enough of it. But the summer of paradise Karen dreams of doesn't quite pan out as she hopes. She begins a relationship with Rex but still longs for the exotic life Biba has, and she realizes that both Capel siblings have more issues than she imagined.

One night, things go horribly awry, and Karen flees from her idyllic life back to reality. Ten years later, Karen and nine-year-old Alice pick Rex up from prison after his sentence for murder has ended. But some old ghosts resurface, ones that Karen is determined to keep hidden—no matter what the cost. Nothing will get between her and her family.

The Poison Tree is enjoyable and a quick read. While Erin Kelly doesn't necessarily tread any new territory, she knows how to tell a compelling story, and you can easily see how someone as level-headed and intelligent as Karen could get drawn into the chaotic, dramatic lives of Biba and Rex. My only criticism of the book is I didn't feel it gave much depth to the present-day relationship and interactions between Karen and Rex. While I understand the bulk of the book needed to be spent on telling the story from start to finish, since the book interspersed past and present, I would have liked a little more exploration of the state of Karen and Rex's relationship, given her fears of it all coming undone. That being said, if you enjoy mysteries, this is one that draws out its suspense in a satisfying way.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: "Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon

I was first introduced to Dan Chaon when I started getting interested in short stories in the late 1990s. I remember being blown away by several of his stories, and over the years I eagerly devoured both of his novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, which was one of my favorite books I read in 2009. Stay Awake is Chaon's return to short stories, and while I didn't feel that any of the stories in this collection packed the power of some of his older stories, they are still tremendously well-written and immensely readable.

All of the characters in these stories are dealing with some sort of trauma, be it physical, psychological, even paranormal. Some of my favorite stories included "To Psychic Underworld:," in which a young widower starts finding cryptic notes on dollar bills, restaurant napkins, tacked to trees, etc.; "Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow," which follows a high school couple whose lives are thrown into turmoil when their baby dies; "Long Delayed, Always Expected," in which a woman has an interesting way of dealing with empty nest syndrome; and "I Wake Up," which follows a young man who receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from his oldest sister, years after their family has been split into separate foster homes following their mother's horrible crime. Some of the stories work better than others; I tended to enjoy those that dealt with more regular situations than those which focused on the odd or paranormal.

Dan Chaon is a terrific writer, and his storytelling ability definitely shines in many of the stories in this collection. I guess it's my own fault for expecting a story or two to really wallop me, based on his previous collections, but this is an enjoyable and compelling collection worthy of a read.

AI Recap: Those Who Can...Get Voted Off

A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps an extra bottle with which to hit myself over the head...

American Idol, you do this to me every year. I realize that this show isn't purely a singing competition, that it's a search for someone with the "whole package." But personality and gimmickry and pretty hair shouldn't trump talent. And if the show's demographic is really going to gravitate only towards cute boys with guitars, dangerous-seeming guys (like Season 9's Casey James), and teenage girls, then put only those contestants on the show. Don't keep offering me wonderful variety on the buffet, only to take half of the dishes away shortly thereafter. (Sorry, I'm hungry.)

Anyway, last night we bid farewell to Erika, our "mobile DJ" with the new Kris Jenner haircut. Despite strong performances every week (and a fantastic "sing for your life" performance), she couldn't seem to engender the support of the heartless, shrieking, swaying voters. But more on that in a bit.

The group performance of The Longest Time (not what I would have picked) did more to emphasize each contestant's flaws than strengths—Jessica oversang; DeAndre's random falsetto notes didn't work, even in a doo-wop-inspired song; Skylar's countrification didn't quite mesh; Joshua's shrieking was unsettling; Erika was pitchy, dawg; and Phillip wasn't quite sure what to do. (Colton, Hollie, and Elise seemed to make it through unscathed; Heejun sang the wrong lyrics.)

We were treated to:
  • lots of preening and mugging on camera from a very unkempt Casey Abrams (so cute he was there with his parents to watch BFF Haley perform);

  • a birthday tribute to Steven courtesy of Joe Perry (who initially had criticized Steven's decision to appear on the show) with on-camera cameos from Liv and Mia Tyler, and a rhyme from the birthday boy ("I'm a Rip Van Winkle, so I'm told...I'm much too young to be this old."); and

  • a Ford Music Video to Kelly Clarkson's You Found Me, which showed the contestants playing hide and seek "as a refuge from the dread of the Thursday results show."
Oh, and J.Lo wore a tight dress in Pepto-Bismol pink. Wow.

When the first group of contestants—Hollie, Skylar, and Elise—were called up to learn their fate, I had this feeling of dread. Choice Jimmy comments: Hollie looked like a "sweet diva caught in the headlights," Skylar is "starting to stall" and needs to do "something creative" if she wants to win, and Elise, although "no one knew her song" (speak for yourself), gave Jimmy "goosies." (Sweet lord.)

Ryan told Hollie and Skylar that they were safe, and Elise wasn't sure what was happening. You could see there was a split second when she was utterly pissed off at the thought of being in the bottom three again, and then Ryan told her she was safe, too.

What planet does Lana Del Rey come from? I don't get her at all, and thought her performance was sleepy and bizarre, yet not quite the trainwreck I expected based on the bashing she took after performing on Saturday Night Live.

The next group of contestants to meet Kieran and the dimmed lights (DeAndre, Joshua, and Jessica) seemed both nervous and lacking in personality. Jimmy said that while he told DeAndre to have fun, "He frolicked! I kept looking for the bouncing ball. He had no connection to this song." Ryan told Jessica that Billy Joel had said he liked her version of Everybody Has a Dream, and she looked at him as if he told her that Hollister was closing. And then Ryan sent DeAndre to the stools.

Haley Rinehart, last year's third-place finisher and frequent judges' punching bag, performed her debut single, Free. She looked and sounded fantastic, and it reminded me how frustrating last season was. I hope she's able to succeed because I think her voice is a super-unique one in today's music scene.

Phillip, Erika, Colton, and Heejun waited the longest to hear the results. Jimmy mentioned that Billy Joel sent an email that Colton did a great job with Piano Man, and referred to Colton as the potential "third horse" in the Jessica/Joshua battle for the win. He ranted a bit at Phillip's unwillingness to listen to Jimmy and Diddy, and the show's apparent dislike of collaboration. ("If you're doing your own material, do what you want. Until then, take advice from everyone out there.") Jimmy also had no kindness for Heejun's antics, and ended his criticism by saying, "At the end of the day, Interscope has to pay a lot of money to work with these performers, and we're not paying for that." (There was a brief snippet of Heejun's post-performance vow that "If I make it to next week, something crazier is going to come.")

Because we're trying to coddle Heejun for reasons I can't figure out, Ryan gave him a chance to defend himself. He said, "My taking my shirt off was a metaphor for showing the real me. I'm just a guy who helps kids with special needs, I'm not a star."

Heejun and Erika joined DeAndre in the bottom three, and I knew what was coming.

J.Lo said, "Heejun, you are a star, baby."

You know what, J.Lo? Being a clown on a television show that other performers take super-seriously doesn't make you a star. Heejun hasn't demonstrated that he has the vocal prowess or even the understanding of the opportunity he has been given, yet he has outlasted Jeremy, Shannon, and Erika, not to mention many of the other contestants who didn't get into the Top 13, because he's goofy and speaks funny English. That doesn't make you a star. That makes you a buffoon. His work back home with children with special needs is tremendously admirable, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't take this opportunity seriously.


Ryan sent DeAndre and his mane back to safety, then revealed that Erika received less votes than this year's Norman Gentle. She sang a no-holds-barred version of I Believe in You and Me, but there was no way the judges were going to save Erika given her inability to get traction from the fans. So sad.

Next week, we'll see if Heejun does crazy or serious. And because I'll be on travel for the next two weeks, the recaps will be MIA. But I'll be checking out what happens, and I'll be back...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

AI Recap: Making Billy Joel Your Own

"If you can't sing Billy Joel, you can't sing at all," Steven declared at the top of last night's show in which the contestants tackled "the songbook of Billy Joel." (Of course, Steven allegedly worked with Billy but yet didn't know one of his most famous songs, but more on that later.)

True confession time: I am a die-hard Billy Joel fan. Seriously. I have all of his music, know 95 percent of his songs word for word, have seen him in concert numerous times, and consider him to be one of my top two favorite singers of all time. That being said, I approached Billy Joel Night with some cautious optimism, because while his songs are amazingly memorable and beautiful, they're fairly simple vocally. It takes a lot to mess up a Billy Joel song. Or so I thought.

Diddy joined Jimmy this week to mentor the contestants, and we also were treated to a ridiculously boring and meaningless "wardrobe advice" session with Tommy Hilfiger and one of the show's stylists. Can you be considered an "advisor" if almost no one takes your advice?

DeAndre started out the night and after prattling with Tommy about his hair and the need for a star-making outfit, met with Diddy and Jimmy about his song, Only the Good Die Young. DeAndre didn't seem to quite connect with the lyrics, which are, in essence, about convincing a Catholic girl to give up the goods (so to speak). Jimmy suggested DeAndre look at J.Lo for the first four lines ("She's a Catholic girl, she'll get it"). Clad in a white tshirt, shiny black jacket, white sleeveless vest, and black jeans, DeAndre whipped his hair back and forth and sang the song while rainbows skittered by. Not quite, but it was totally karaoke and not impressive vocally. The judges seemed to think that the people loudly cheering for DeAndre actually liked his performance and weren't being manipulated by stage hands with "applause" signs. (I've read the behind-the-scenes reports of the show; I know what goes on.) Steven said the song was "A little too happy, but isn't that what the world needs right now?" (Meaning, "I didn't like it, but I don't care.") J.Lo praised DeAndre's "laid-back, islandy, Bob Marley vibe." (Another contestant they're trying to pretend is from Jamaica, like they did with Naima last year. This kid is from San Jose. In California.) Randy gave us his first "I wasn't jumping up and down" of the season and said the performance didn't wow him. Point to Randy.

Erika is a Rhode Islander, but Diddy told her she needed to be a New Yorker in order to sing New York State of Mind. (Kimberley Locke performed this during Season 2.) After Erika told Tommy she likes the kind of style Pink has, he convinced her to get a drastic hair makeover...from blonde with red streaks to a short, jet black, Benatar-esque look. I like it. I really liked Erika's performance; I thought she gave it a little twist of her own while staying fairly true to the melody (as she was told she should). And while the judges really praised her, they once again gave her contradictory advice. ("Don't oversing, but let go." "Respect the song in the beginning, but do runs at the end.") Randy did call her "one of the best singers in this whole thing" because she can (wait for it) "sing the phone book." Steven said she could have "put more character into it" but she "wore it like beautiful." (Anyone with a Steven Tyler decoder ring I can borrow?) Ryan said that "not since the Sanjaya ponyhawk" has there been a transformation so talked about.

Joshua was uncomfortable this week with his choice, She's Got a Way, because it's a pop song, and he doesn't feel comfortable singing non-soulful songs. (Maybe Billy Joel isn't Percy Sledge, Joshua, but the man has soul.) Tommy suggested Joshua wear a tuxedo, but Joshua wore a black suit with a black tie, exactly what Tommy thought he shouldn't do. (Random fact: Joshua wears his clothes a size too small to make them look fitted. Must be nice.) After he blew me away last week, I wasn't too impressed with Joshua's performance this week. He really seemed uncomfortable at the start of the song, and then the gospel choir came in, and all I wanted was for Joshua to stop screaming at me. This is a beautiful, spare song that absolutely didn't need all of the bombast he brought to it. J.Lo said she felt stupid saying anything about Joshua's singing (clearly I don't), but he needed to connect more with the lyrics. (And maybe dial it down to 11, let's say?) Steven said Joshua took a song he didn't know (really, Steven?) and made it memorable, adding that he "sang the sweat out of it." Randy was his usual indecisive self, saying J.Lo and Steven "were both right," but Joshua is one of the competition's best singers.

Gee, of all of Billy Joel's songs, Skylar picked the countrified one, Shameless. (This reminds me of last year, when Scotty picked the one Elton John song that apparently had the word "country" in the title.) Yet when she first sang it for Jimmy and Diddy, they felt it seemed forced and false, but Diddy told Skylar, "the truth will set you free." (Great singing advice, Sean John.) And then Tommy told Skylar they should build her outfit around one of her one million pairs of boots, but Skylar came out wearing heels. (Awesome advice, Tom.) She started out sitting on the edge of the stage, surrounded by four guys, all clapping out of rhythm. (Way to stage that spontaneity, huh?) I thought it started out too low for her, and while she hit some powerful notes when the song built, I'm starting to feel that Skylar is getting a little one-note for me. Randy asked if Skylar was inspired by Brad Paisley's version of the song (Paisley never sang the song), but when Skylar explained it was inspired by Garth Brooks' version, Randy claimed never to have heard that. (That's probably the version you're thinking of, music expert.) J.Lo thought it was pretty good, Steven called it pitchy in places but says he's "amazed every time you hit the chorus with such conviction." He also said "it started out slow, but that's ok."

How will Elise "fight back from two weeks in the bottom three," asked Ryan? By ignoring almost everyone's advice. She chose to sing Vienna, one of my favorite songs off Billy Joel's The Stranger, but Jimmy and Diddy didn't think singing an "unknown" song was wise. Then Diddy said that perhaps singing "the Vienna song" (oh, brother) might work, if Elise gave a great performance. (Maybe we could get mentors who are familiar with the material they're coaching the contestants on?) Then after confiding that she liked the 60s and 70s fashion-wise and Tommy suggested Elise wear bell bottoms with a short jacket, Elise chose to perform in a dress cut-down-to-there and some sort of sleeveless jacket over it. (This is why I recap singing competitions and not Project Runway. Shirt, pants, dress—that's all my fashion vocab can handle.) I thought she gave an absolutely terrific performance that showed off all of her voice's best assets, but the song was utterly unrecognizable from the original. (And I can't decide whether that's a good or a bad thing. Is it better for the contestants to sing slightly varied versions of the songs, like Erika or Colton, or to totally change the song, like Elise or Phillip?) The judges gave her a standing ovation, praising the melody, the runs, everything. J.Lo, clearly demonstrating she needs some anger management counseling, told Elise, "I'm so happy for you, I want to shake you," and added that this was the first time she showed her personality. (Clearly J.Lo forgot Elise's performance last week.) Randy called her "unbelievably talented" and mentioned that every week, he asks himself (along with "Who's in it to win it?," I'll bet), "Who's gonna have a moment? Well, Elise had a moment tonight!" Then, in an effort to connect Elise emotionally to the audience, they brought up two of her teenage voice students, who were crying with happiness over Elise's performance. Let's see if "Project Save Elise" lasts at least one week...

You know what, folks? Phillip is his own person. He's not going to let anyone tell him what to do. (I hope he gets to sing Gavin DeGraw's I Don't Want to Be sometime soon.) He chose to sing Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), but chafed at the advice Jimmy and Diddy were giving him. Diddy wanted Phillip to sing the song without the guitar (he called it "a shield"), told him "you gotta groove," and then brought some random girls into the rehearsal studio for Phillip to sing to. Then Tommy told Phillip that you should never wear gray clothes on stage, because it's not becoming of a star. Cut to Phillip, on stage with his guitar, wearing gray on gray. Awesome. I felt like his rendition of the song also had very little resemblance to the original, and it sounded similar in a number of ways to his renditions of In the Air Tonight and Superstition, but if Scotty can win the entire show singing country versions of songs, why can't Phillip win? J.Lo said, "It felt like you were taking out your aggression on your mentors," but told him, "You are who you are and you are great." Steven called it a "perfect rendition," saying he took the song and "Phillip Phillipsed it." Randy pointed out all of the advice Phillip chose not to follow, but said that was fine, because he shouldn't stop being himself. Randy also called it "one of the best renditions of the song ever." When he talked to Ryan, Phillip explained that his guitar wasn't a shield, and that he wasn't trying to sing only for certain people, but he wanted to put music first. Yeah! Put music first! (At least someone on this show recognizes that should happen sometime!!)

Our little sprite, Hollie, chose to tackle Honesty, a big ballad that the mentors worried she might not have enough grit or life experience to understand. But Hollie took their advice to heart and put a lot of feeling into the song. Plus, she could wear sparkly things! Once again, I really liked her performance. While she is terrific at belting the big notes, the smokiness and richness of her lower register is really terrific to listen to. The judges, however, didn't hear the same performance we did at home apparently, as they called it pitchy, questioned whether she had sung the song enough to know all of the notes, and said while it was good, she was "better than that." (I can't help but wonder if her supposed pitchiness had anything to do with the image of the dandelion puffball breaking apart on the screen behind her. Maybe everyone got hay fever or something.) Hollie explained that she had never heard the song before, so it was tough, but hoped she could stick around another week. I hope so too, Hollie, because if you get voted off before Heejun, I may lose myself, and not in any Eminem kind of way.

Oh, look, it's Season 10's favorite punching bag, Haley Rinehart! Haley will be performing her first single, Free on tonight's results show.

Next up was Heejun. He asked Jimmy and Diddy for advice on how to overcome last week's criticism (my response would have been "sing better," but he didn't ask me), and they explained that the music business was tough and you had to roll with the punches. (Best line of the night from Diddy, "I don't know if he's a comedian or con man, or if he's even Asian." You know what, Diddy? His glasses don't even have glass in them.) In his session with Tommy Hilfiger, he was a little disrespectful, giving really jokey answers to his questions. (Example: "Who's your style inspiration?" "Jessica Sanchez.") Heejun chose to sing My Life (aka the theme song from Bosom Buddies for old folks like me), and he started out wearing a shirt and bow tie (along with one of his knit beanies) and pretended to mess up the start of the song. Then he said, "Sorry, that's much too slow for me. And I want to DANCE!" He pulled off his hat and his shirt (to reveal a tshirt), and proceeded to move all over the stage, even singing to the judges at one point. Interestingly enough, while I thought the performance was ridiculous, it was the best he has sounded vocally since the season began. (Not saying much, but...) J.Lo said his performance was a "breath of fresh air," but that he didn't quite hit his vocals "because you were running around." Steven was not amused saying that while Heejun "took the piss out of the song," the music business "would kick his ass" because he needs to take it more seriously. Randy said that he was happy to see Heejun have a good time, but the performance was "vocally missing something." When Ryan asked Heejun about Diddy's comments, he said "Diddy is confusing himself," and then softly said, "Sean John..." I think it's craps if Heejun sticks around while Elise and Erika get voted out, but you know that's going to happen. Stupid tween voters.

Jessica loves shopping, by the way. And clothes. And singing. She chose Everybody Has a Dream, which is an absolutely fantastic song off of The Stranger. Jimmy and Diddy tried to pass off some BS like they didn't believe what Jessica was singing because she was just belting the notes, so that set up the big drama for when she actually sang. I thought she was really good, and has a voice far beyond her years, but there's just something about her that's a little Jackie Evancho-like, a little too practiced for me. The judges gave her a standing ovation, and Steven said, "You've gone way past my judging. When God gave out vocal cords you were first in line. Thanks for letting me hear you sing." J.Lo called this "a defining moment" for Jessica (although I thought I Will Always Love You was actually more of one), while Randy said she "has a moment every week." (Once again, the judges conveniently forget previous performances when praising the chosen ones, because according to them, Jessica most certainly didn't have a moment last week.) He also called the song "flawlessly perfect," which I think gilded the lily a bit much.

Colton finally got the pimp spot this week, and he was looking forward to playing the piano for the first time in a few weeks, singing (what else?) Piano Man. (Josh Gracin sang this in Season 2, but the YouTube gods don't want to share it.) Diddy was impressed after he heard Colton's version, saying "I want to buy that record." (Hee. He said "record.") Tommy wasn't too thrilled with Colton's hair, but he's an individual, you know? When the performance began, I'd imagine some used car dealer on Hollywood Boulevard went looking for their spotlights, because Colton's red piano was surrounded by every pinpoint spotlight from here to LaBrea. I thought he was fantastic, bringing enough of his vocal originality and (although I hate to use a Randy word) an alt-rock, almost emo-ish vibe to a classic song. I also think he deserved a standing ovation, but the judges are odd with their standing O's as always. J.Lo said Colton sings with "pure feeling," and she (of course) got goosies from the start. (I'd hoped that word had died a horrible death.) Steven called Colton a "great singer and a great musician," adding, "Your choice of chords when your voice resolved was stunning." Randy called him a rockstar. Colton, who apparently has been warned by show executives about "religious tweeting," thanked God for his performance. (Colton has mentioned his interest in being a Christian rock singer after the show.)

My DVR cut off after they re-ran the phone numbers (remember these are 866 numbers, not 800 numbers), so I don't know if they made the judges stall for time by naming who they think will be safe and who is at risk. Here's what I think:

Should be bottom three: DeAndre, Heejun, Skylar
Will be bottom three: Erika, Hollie, Heejun (or DeAndre)

Sadly, I think Erika is going home despite another great performance and the dramatic makeover, although I'm hoping the audience wises up and sends Heejun home. Of course, if the voters don't like Elise no matter what, she could still be in danger. Let's hope not.

So until tonight...remember, in the immortal words of the Dawg, "Those who can, should, those who can't shouldn't, and those who babble incoherently should judge American Idol."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book Review: "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff

Some books grab you from the get-go, while some take a little time before they hook you completely. Lauren Groff's wonderful Arcadia fell in the latter category for me, but it was an investment well worth my time. This was a beautifully written book about family (biological and otherwise), love, responsibility, relationships, and the unique pull of one's upbringing.

Arcadia is a commune that develops in the early 1970s in upstate New York, built around a dilapidated mansion called Arcadia House. Born into this community of musicians, farmers, midwives, bakers, and burnt-out escapees is Ridley Sorrel Stone, aka Bit, the son of friendly community pillar Abe and Hannah, a baker often laid low by the depression that commune living cannot cure. The book follows Bit, his family, and other Arcadia residents as the community finally succeeds after years of struggling, looks at the after-effects of its success, then follows Bit's life after nearly everyone has left Arcadia, and what living on the "Outside" has done. Bit is an idealistic, creative, sensitive, and intelligent person, who finds his life turned upside down by the complexity of many of his relationships. This book is an interesting, thought-provoking meditation on the many ways "free" living can shape people's futures.

The book starts when Bit is only five years old, and I felt that portion of the book was the most difficult to engage with, perhaps because you were seeing things through his young eyes, however unique a perspective that provided. As Bit matured, the book really took shape and flight, and I found all of the characters so memorable and complex. Lauren Groff is a terrific writer; her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, remains one of my all-time favorites, and it is good to see her talent and storytelling ability flourish with Arcadia. It's definitely a book that will get you thinking about your own life, your own dreams, and your own relationships. Definitely read it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Justice for Tyler...

After two days of deliberation, a New Jersey jury found Dharun Ravi guilty of a hate crime, as well as evidence tampering and invasion of privacy, for using a webcam to spy on his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, in a liaison with another man in their dorm room. Clementi committed suicide in October 2010, a few days after learning that Ravi had watched him on the webcam and tweeted about it to friends.

Ravi was convicted on parts of all 15 counts against him — including four bias intimidation counts — involving Clementi. (The majority of the four counts pertained to the fact that while Ravi might not have intended to intimidate Clementi because he was gay, his actions might have made Tyler feel that was Ravi's intention.)

However, the jury had some difficulty with portions of the bias counts, giving a split verdict on some of the specific acts in which he was charged. The jury found Ravi not guilty of all bias counts pertaining to the man Clementi was seen with during the webcam spying. Ravi's sentencing has been tentatively scheduled for May 21, and he faces deportation to his native India.

Tyler Clementi's suicide sparked national outrage and concern about bullying, especially of gay teenagers. But Ravi was not accused of causing Clementi's suicide, and his defense team tried to present Ravi's actions as foolish and short-sighted, but somewhat typical of an 18-year-old. They also tried to attribute his motivation for the spying not on any bias toward Clementi's sexuality, but because Ravi was allegedly concerned his iPad and other possessions might get stolen by the man his roommate was meeting.

Certainly no verdict can bring Tyler Clementi back to life, nor can it assuage the pain and betrayal he felt in the last days and hours before he made the decision to take his own life. But I was surprised and pleased with the jury's decisions in this case.

While I honestly don't believe Dharun Ravi did what he did because of a hatred or prejudice toward gay people, it's time that homosexuality stops being an acceptable excuse to treat people as less than a person. All too often where judicial decisions are concerned, "gay panic," or other similar defenses, are seen as valid, and can be justification for gay people being beaten, murdered, or otherwise mistreated.

I commend this jury for being willing to listen to, and analyze, the evidence with an open mind and a sense of fairness. For once, it is good to see that in death, Tyler Clementi got some measure of the justice he was denied toward the end of his life.

Friday, March 16, 2012

AI Recap: One (Bitter)Sweet Day

Much to my surprise, especially after Ryan's claim that "no one wants to break up the Idol family" (despite humiliating Jermaine on camera the night before), someone was actually eliminated at the end of last night's episode. I was totally expecting them to go through all of the anguish and then announcing that everyone was safe—silly me, underestimating this television juggernaut!

Watching last night's show, I learned a few things:
  • Jimmy Iovine is a lot nicer with his comments about the contestants if he's sitting in the studio when they air;

  • Celebrities like Steven wear the same clothes more than once, too, as he was wearing the same pink cheetah-print monstrosity during Shannon's audition in Savannah;

  • I can rest easy now knowing that J.Lo's new single and video are coming out March 29; I was worried that she wasn't going to have enough to promote on the show;

  • Ryan wants to be on the cover of Boy's Life magazine (I don't judge, just like Nigel and Ken);

  • There's going to be an "Asian music explosion" at some point, and there's a ridiculously slim chance that Heejun could lead it (I guess William Hung is busy?); and

  • The show still has a problem with voting, evidenced by the fact that two guys should have been in the bottom three instead of Elise and Erika.
Oh, and here's a quick request for the show's new "fashion advisor," Tommy Hilfiger: NEVER LET RANDY AND STEVEN WEAR PINK PLAID ANYTHING, EVER!!

After a fairly innocuous Ford music video to Shiny Toy Guns' Ghost Town, the dream crushing began. From the first grouping of Phillip, Skylar, Elise, and Joshua we found that Phillip wears the same green t-shirt on every results show. I also learned, much to my surprise, Percy Sledge is not only still alive (Randy's comment Wednesday night that "wherever Percy Sledge is, I know he's proud of what he just heard" made me believe he was dead), but he also emailed the show about how impressed he was with Joshua's performance of When A Man Loves A Woman (despite the fact he was allegedly singing "Michael Bolton's version"). Oh, and even though her performance was stellar, Elise was again in the bottom three.

Demi Lovato performed. Is she the one that went a little crazy, and is she the one allegedly dating Justin Bieber, or is that Selena Gomez? Can't tell the difference. This performance was, umm, yeah.

The next group to learn their fate included Colton, Shannon, Deandre, and Jessica. Ryan continued his obsession with faking Colton out by saying, "Colton, you sang an unfamiliar song and it will cost that you'll be away from your family while you're on the tour!" Sorry, Ryan, once you've hooked up with Daughtry, you're just small potatoes. (Or peaches.) Anyway, while I would have put Deandre in the bottom three after his performance, the girls voting for his pretty, pretty hair kept him safe, and Shannon was sent back to the stools.

Daughtry performed Outta My Head next. Great song. He still has no personality, along with no first name, apparently.

And from the final grouping of Heejun, Hollie, and Erika, Jimmy mentioned that Erika fell into the trap of "oversinging," and to no one's surprise, she was named to the bottom three, despite Heejun's horrifically boring Richard Marx song Wednesday night.

The judges were not happy with the bottom three, or, at least that Elise was in there after the performance she gave. The super-solicitous Seacrest sent Elise back to safety. And then he told Shannon that she received the lowest number of votes, and was in danger of being eliminated if the judges chose not to use their save.

Shannon sang a less-than-stellar encore of One Sweet Day, and the producers trotted out the Disney meadow one last time for our pretty pretty princess, as her mom sang along. And then Randy quickly burst her bubble, telling her the judges wouldn't be saving her. (I'd imagine they're not going to let themselves get trapped as they did last year, when they saved Casey, only to find Pia was eliminated two weeks later.) Shannon showed true class and poise; in fact, Heejun was crying more than she was. (At least he was when the cameras were on him.)

So, farewell to Shannon Migraine, as she was called on several messageboards. A guy better go next week, unless both Erika and Elise bomb their performances.

Next week, the music of Billy Joel!! Great music...let's see what that means.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: "Untouchable" by Scott O'Connor

It takes a talented writer to keep you reading a book that gets bleaker and bleaker, but Scott O'Connor definitely fits that bill. Untouchable is, for the most part, a book in which the situations the main characters find themselves are getting increasingly hopeless, and at some point they need to decide whether it's worth fighting at all.

It's the fall of 1999, nearly a year since Lucy Darby's sudden death. Her husband, David, a crime scene clean-up technician, immerses himself in helping others purge any traces of their loved ones' deaths, while he is unable to do the same in his own life. Their son, 11-year-old Whitley (known as The Kid), has not spoken for a year, communicating instead via a series of notebooks in which he shares his thoughts. The Kid is treated horribly by his classmates, so much so that he begins to believe his unworthy and horrible, and starts blaming himself for Lucy's death, wondering if she actually died, or simply disappeared because she, too, was disgusted with him. And as the atmosphere around The Kid grows even more charged and potentially dangerous, David is starting to lose his own grip on reality, which also could have potentially harmful effects. All of this plays out against the backdrop of a country riveted by the uncertain fears of the coming millennium and the worries of what Y2K could bring.

Scott O'Connor has created some tremendously vivid, heartbreakingly poignant characters, in David and The Kid, as well one of David's coworkers and one of The Kid's classmates. But so much of this book is so bleak, I worried what would happen to characters in which I had invested so much emotion. This is a well-written book that was hard to love, because I just wanted to shake the characters and those around them, to make them aware of all that was going on. But it truly is a testament to O'Connor's excellent writing ability that you want to keep on reading a book that disturbs you so much.

AI Recap: Will the Real Janis Joplin Please Stand Up?

"Through the years, this show has not been without the drama," Ryan intoned at the start of last night's episode. (Understatement much, Peaches? The judges have cried more than the contestants, I think.) He mentioned that "with the help of law enforcement" (or TMZ), they discovered criminal information about one of the contestants and had to disqualify them. And that would be revealed...but not for at least an hour. (This IS American Idol, after all.)

J.Lo was resplendent in yellow, Randy decided to dress down, in one of his favorite cardigan sweaters and a flower pin, and Steven...well, Steven brought Carly Simon's You're So Vain to life. His white hat was strategically dipped below one eye, his scarf, it was apricot (not quite), and he definitely watched himself gavotte.

Last night's theme was "Songs from the Year You Were Born," or as one of my friends put it on Facebook, "Songs Covered in the Year You Were Born," given that 6 of the 11 songs weren't originally performed in the contestants' birth years, which ranged from 1983-1995(!).

Phillip DaveMatthew DaveMatthews Phillips was first up, and he literally went from working with Jimmy and "fan favorite" to having kidney surgery. Born in 1990, he chose to sing Hard to Handle by The Black Crowes, originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1968 (and previously massacred by Constantine Maroulis in Season 4). Given that Phillip had surgery a few days ago, he performed sans guitar, and was fairly controlled in his body movements on stage, but I thought he did a really good job. I would have loved a little more vocally, but I just enjoy his performances, and to quote our judges, thought this song was totally "in his wheelhouse." Randy again went with his whole "you're so different" line of feedback, and said that this would be a great single for Phillip, as he "sounds amazing." J.Lo was impressed that he performed so well so soon after surgery, and said it proved how natural of a performer he is, that he "feels the music in every cell." (Randy couldn't resist poking fun at J.Lo's movie career, saying, "The Cell, J.Lo, really?") Steven asked Phillip if he could score some of his post-surgery meds (I kid) and praised Phillip for his ability to "pick songs that match your voice and character."

Last week Jessica's performance was called one of the best ever. How would she fare this week? (In the pre-perfomance package, Jessica's mother said she used to scream and faint when she didn't get what she wanted, and her (cute) father said, "Please. Drama queen.") She was born in (egads) 1995, and chose to sing Gloria Estefan's Turn the Beat Around, originally recorded in 1976 by Vicki Sue Robinson. (The song has been previously performed on the show by Carmen Rasmusen in Season 2, Season 3 runner-up Diana DeGarmo and Haley Scarnato in Season 6.) Will was impressed with Jessica's attitude, and called her a "swaggernaut." He and Jimmy suggested that she at one point call out to the audience ("Y'all ready?"), and it would have been cooler if we didn't hear about it beforehand. All in all, I thought she did a very good job and looked age-appropriate. I don't know that it was the best song to show off her voice, but she has certainly done that already. She was a little bit literal with her movements (she kept pointing to her ears when she sang the line, "Love to hear percussion"). Steven was unimpressed, saying that he loves her voice but she shouldn't stray too far from ballads, and that her "rhythm was a little shady." J.Lo said it wasn't her favorite performance from Jessica but she knows she can sing, while Randy "echoed [his] fellow judges" and explained that they were trying to "stir [sic] you in the right direction." They all thought her vibrato was too much for a song where vocal precision was required. Jessica was a little upset by the criticism and promised to pick a better song if she gets to come back next week.

Heejun's adorable dancing parents talked in Korean about how wonderful he is. He was born in 1989, and chose Richard Marx's Right Here Waiting. (Do you remember those booths they used to have at amusement parks and some malls where you could "record" yourself or a group singing, sort of like karaoke, and you would get a cassette or CD? I recorded myself singing this song during the summer of 1989. Ah, memories.) Ever the ladies' man, Heejun asked Will for Fergie's phone number, which he wouldn't share because she's married. As far as the singing went, the best word I can use to describe Heejun is earnest. I don't get why he wears glasses with no lenses in them, but he's very likeable and he has a fine, if unremarkable voice. (He even threw in what I used to refer to as the Star Search dramatic octave change.) Randy didn't enjoy the performance, calling it "pitchy all over the place." (J.Lo snapped back, "Not all over," to which Randy replied, "Five or six times at least.) He said that Heejun should be singing R&B songs because of the "swag" everyone seems to have this season. J.Lo has replaced Jeremy with Heejun, calling his tone "special and gorgeous," and while she noted that he was struggling with the song at the start, "towards the end it was really beautiful" and she felt his heart. Steven said that Heejun "stepped far outside his circle" and was out of breath for most of the song, but he is "special." Ryan asked Heejun if he was emotional, and Heejun mentioned that his girlfriend was in the audience, so he was thinking of her, plus "20 percent J.Lo and 10 percent Fergie."

Fresh off her "dramatic save by the judges," Elise was ready to knock one out of the park this week. Born in 1983, she chose Tina Turner's Let's Stay Together, which was originally recorded by Al Green in 1972. (This song has been previously sung by Justin Guarini, Trenyce in Season 2, Leah LaBelle in Season 3, and Season 4 Top 20 contestant Joseph Murena.) Elise said she "had a really positive attitude" going into this week and hoped people "would be making babies" when they heard her sing this song. (They even did a cute split-screen duet between Elise and President Obama.) I thought she was fantastic, starting out sitting on the piano, and then really rocking it toward the end. The thing is, though, I can't tell if she's just going through the motions. I feel like she has to push herself to smile when she remembers to do so, so I don't know if it's because she's not comfortable in the spotlight or she knows she won't win the competition. Steven praised "the beauty in your soul, and the voice behind it," while J.Lo said this performance showed America who Elise is, calling it "a beautiful, beautiful thing." Randy proclaimed, "America, Elise is back!" He also said the performance was "dope" and "like butter," and said she even had "a little Janis in there." Ryan warned Elise that she'd be blamed if lots of babies were born on December 14.

According to Deandre's mother, when he was four years old and singing in church, a woman came up to her and told her he'd be on American Idol one day. (Interesting feat, considering he was born in 1994 and the show didn't start until 2001, but hey.) Deandre chose to sing Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King, but Jimmy and Will weren't feeling it. (Of all the songs from 1994, that's what he chose?) They recommended he sing "Luther and Mariah's" Endless Love. (And somewhere, Diana Ross screamed in agony.) I'm not a big fan of when one person sings a duet by themselves, unless they're driving in their car. (I didn't like it when Danny Gokey sang it in Season 8, either.) Deandre was in full Milli Vanilla mode, even wearing a cream suit. J.Lo started her feedback with, "Hi baby," the version of "You look beautiful" given to males. She told him he could sing anything, and sang that beautifully but it was the wrong song, a point all three judges echoed. (And as Skylar proved later in the show, you don't have to listen to what Will and Jimmy suggest.) Randy even went so far as to call it "boring and safe," because "Luther and Mariah sang their you-know-what's off." Deandre said that this theme "terrified him since the beginning of the season" and couldn't find the right song.

Boy, I would have loved to have seen Shannon (born in 1995) take on No Doubt's Don't Speak, which was one of the songs Jimmy suggested (using a disgustingly product placed phone that plays music). She picked One Sweet Day by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, clad in an outfit I couldn't tell whether it was a slip or sparkly short-shorts, while a Disney meadow played out on the screen behind her. (I seriously kept waiting for Thumper or Bambi to show up.) Vocally, she was fine, but I just feel she's a bit robotic and boring. The judges thought she did a beautiful job with the song although they were all worried when they heard her selection, and Steven said Shannon sings her best when she doesn't try so hard. (But she looked like she was trying really hard.) Randy, as you might have known, worked with Mariah, so he was impressed by Shannon's "mad potential," and said she did a good job, "considering the mountain you needed to climb" with this song. Ryan thanked Shannon for wearing flats and put his head on her shoulder.

News flash: Colton hooked up with Chris Daughtry at dinner on Tuesday night! (Cue fan fiction!) Apparently Chris sent Colton a direct message on Twitter and they got together. His advice for Colton? "Be true to yourself and pick songs you know," Colton said, "which I'll do next week." Because this week, the born-in-1991 alt-rocker chose to sing Broken Heart by White Lion. (I have 20,000 songs on my iPod and I've never heard of it, although the band did have a few hits in the late 1980s, including Wait and When the Children Cry.) Even though I've never heard the song, I enjoyed his performance, broody and sensitive in the beginning and more rock-like toward the end. (I don't enjoy his reverse-Cruella de Vil hairdo, though, and it's amazing how much better he actually looks with his hair down than all spiky. But my hair makes me look like one of the Bee Gees, so I can't judge.) J.Lo loved the beginning of the song and likes his sensitive side, telling him "you look pretty when you sing." Steven told Colton it was "the wrong song for your voice and your passion," which Colton took in stride ("Okay," he said), while Randy said the song didn't matter because "you performed it dope, dude." He then proclaimed, "I like this guy, Ryan."

Erika was born in 1985 (a good year) and picked Heaven by Bryan Adams. It was a big slow song at Sweet 16 parties that year, I can tell you. (Season 5's Elliott Yamin, Season 7 runner-up David Archuleta and Season 9 third-place finisher Casey James all sang this song.) I thought she did a good job with the song and I love Erika's voice, but I'm starting to see the whole "holding back" thing J.Lo keeps harping on. I feel like Erika lets loose in rehearsals and then tightens up when it comes to the live stage. I'm sure glad she's gotten rid of the bridesmaid's dresses, though, opting for more of a Stevie Nicks-esque top. J.Lo called her "this year's Janis Joplin" and said she feels like Erika is starting to come together as an artist. The arrangement left Steven (and me) wanting more, while Randy said he "kinda liked it, like 8 out of 10."

After eight contestants had performed, Ryan reminded us that we had "some tough business" to attend to, with the disqualification of a contestant. "I can now reveal that contestant is Jermaine." (Because no one else knew who it would be.) They then showed a segment during which Jermaine was called into a meeting with executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, and they explained they had recently found out he had been arrested twice in 2011 and given false names to the police, and had four outstanding warrants. "We don't judge, of course," the producers said (as cameras filmed their every move), "but our rules don't allow our contestants to have any outstanding warrants." Jermaine was sent packing, to rehearsal footage of what would have been his performance of Somewhere Out There by Linda Ronstadt and Peabo Bryson. I cannot tell you how appalling this whole segment was. When other contestants have been disqualified, this has happened offscreen; to strip Jermaine of his dignity while the world watches really indicates this show has sunken to a new low. Of course, Jermaine did wrong and should pay the consequences, but did you need to film him trying unsuccessfully to tell his side of the story? Shame on you, Nigel Lythgoe.

Always the trooper, Skylar was next to perform, and she remarked that the judges were being "mean tonight!" She was born in 1994, and struggled with finding the right song, but picked Bonnie Raitt's Love Sneaking Up on You. Jimmy and Will didn't think it "was enough song" for Skylar to sing, and suggested a number of alternatives, including a "ghetto/country" version of Coolio's Fantastic Voyage, but she stuck to her guns. I thought it was fine, not overly remarkable, and didn't show off her vocals much. I'd like to see her do something a little different next week. Steven told her she sings everything great, while J.Lo—in one of the most laughable statements of the night—said, "I know you think we're mean, but we do you a disservice if we're not honest." She then gave Skylar a fake-out, saying, "You really killed it." Randy referred to Skylar as the show's "rockin' in-house country girl," and told her, like Colton, she performed well and it didn't matter that the song wasn't the best choice.

Ryan brought the homesick Joshua some crawfish, and then let him loose. Born in 1991, he chose to sing "Michael Bolton's version" of When a Man Loves a Woman, first recorded by Percy Sledge in 1966. (Michael Lynche sang the song in Season 9, and last year, Stefano Langone took it on.) I can honestly say that Joshua's performance was one of the best I've ever seen, and I've been watching the show since the beginning. Vocally, he was fantastic, but he excelled in his performance as well, even taking his jacket off at one point. Seriously phenomenal. The judges gave him a much-deserved standing ovation, as the cameras panned to an audience sign that said, "Punch Josh J.Lo." Randy said that this was truly a "moment", while J.Lo called it the best thing she's ever seen on the show. Steven said Joshua "gave it up so big, God came through your eyes," while Randy commented that somewhere, "Percy Sledge is happy about what he just heard."

Little Hollie got the closing spot, and her family is just as adorable as she is. Her mother was surprised at Hollie's ability given the fact that they don't come from a "musically backgrounded" family, while her father poked fun at her messiness one minute and then teared up with pride the next. Hollie was born in 1993, and showed once again she's not afraid to take on the big songs, choosing Power of Love by Celine Dion. The song was originally recorded by Jennifer Rush in 1984 and also released by Laura Branigan and Air Supply. (Trenyce performed this song in Season 2, as did Season 3's Amy Adams, and Season 4 Top 16 contestant Melinda Lira.) I love the huskiness of Hollie's lower register, and once again she was surrounded by candles. While I think Hollie has a terrific voice and thought she did well, this arrangement was a little blah for someone with such vocal power. I kept waiting for her to hit bigger notes, and she really only had a few to hit. J.Lo said that she had "only 1 or 2 things to criticize, but it would be silly to do so," while Steven said that she gave a great performance, although it was a little pitchy here and there. Randy said she "blew it out the box." (One of Hollie's brothers in the audience gave it a "so-so" rating when asked by Ryan how his sister did.)

The judges had a little extra time, so they were asked who they thought was safest and who was most at risk. Randy said Joshua was safest and Heejun was most at risk; J.Lo said that Joshua, Hollie, and Phillip were safest, and chose to let the audience decide who was at risk; and Steven said that Joshua, Elise, Jessica, and Phillip were safest, and he also didn't remember anything else that happened thought the audience should decide.

Tonight: allegedly, we'll have results, although I'd anticipate that given Jermaine's departure we'll go through an hour of emotional turmoil (mostly mine) just to find out that everyone is safe. I believe the bottom three contestants should be Heejun, Deandre, and Skylar, but think the bottom three will be Erika, Heejun, and either Deandre or Elise. If someone goes home, it should be Heejun, but it could be Erika, sadly.

Oh, and if all of this isn't enough to get you to tune in tonight, we'll have exciting news about J.Lo! Yippee!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"American Idol" Shocker: Farewell to the "Gentle Giant"

According to multiple entertainment sources, American Idol contestant Jermaine Jones will be disqualified from the show tonight after it was discovered he concealed "multiple crimes" from the producers. Jones was reportedly charged with two crimes in 2011, one involving violence. In both arrests, Jones gave a fake name to police. He additionally did not reveal to producers that he has outstanding warrants.

The Hollywood Reporter's blog says that Jermaine's departure "will pan out in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night's broadcast." (Gross.)

You may recall from my recap of last week's results show that Jermaine was no longer living up to his "Gentle Giant" nickname bestowed upon him by Ryan and the judges. He visibly bristled after Randy's criticized part of his performance on Wednesday night, was angered by Jimmy Iovine's feedback on Thursday, and rejoiced a little too blatantly in front of soon-to-be-ousted Jeremy Rosado when Ryan revealed Jermaine was safe. These images are far from the sobbing mama's boy image the show was trying to put forward.

If the rumors are true (and they apparently were supported by Jones' own Twitter account for a while yesterday), it's certainly a sad end to the wild ride Jermaine has had. But even sadder, his "surprise" return to the top 13 kept someone else from getting another chance.

Oh well. Tonight it's "Songs from the Year You Were Born" night. Shannon is going to sing a song from 1996, y'all!

Dated music and drama...who could ask for anything more?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie Review: "Safe House"

True confession time. I'm a big Denzel Washington fan, yet I tend to skip a lot of his movies, because I feel his recent performances can be grouped into a few categories: the troubled law enforcement officer/detective/security guard battling his demons while everything around him goes to hell; the earnest, seen-it-all law enforcement officer/detective/security guard saves the day; and the badass bad guy whose a lot more complex than you think he is. I know that's an utter over-generalization, and I may have missed some terrific movies, but I feel that, with a few exceptions (American Gangster, Inside Man), Washington's performances since winning his Best Actor Oscar in 2001 for Training Day have hewed to these classifications.

When I first starting seeing trailers for Safe House, I thought, "Here we go again. Can Denzel please play a different character?" But once the movie premiered, and I heard from several friends that it was an enjoyable action flick, I was intrigued. And then I discovered that the movie's screenwriter was one of my campers when I was a counselor at summer camp, so I knew I had to see the movie.

Safe House is a taut, action-packed thriller that may not keep you guessing, but it still throws some surprises your way, while keeping you pretty well hooked for nearly two hours. Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is the CIA's most-wanted rogue agents. When an information exchange goes awry in Cape Town, South Africa, he finds himself arrested and taken to a safe house manned by the bored, waiting-for-his-break Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). But shortly after the interrogation of Frost begins, the safe house is raided and Weston finds himself on the run with Frost, torn between wanting to do what he believes is the right thing and being led somewhat astray by what Frost is telling him he should do. And as the movie unfolds, Weston becomes more and more confused about whom he should trust—his CIA handlers, his own instincts, or Frost himself.

While this movie doesn't really tread any new territory, Washington and Reynolds play well off each other, and there is enough crackling action to keep you excited and wondering where the plot will go next. I wondered what was ultimately going to happen and enjoyed the way the story was tied up in certain aspects and left fairly ambiguous in others. And even if he plays similar characters in many of his movies, I think Washington is at his best when his performances convey both bravado and some vulnerability, and I felt that the character of Tobin Frost allowed him that opportunity.

If you enjoy action movies, go see Safe House, or add it to your Netflix or Blockbuster queue. It's not earth-shattering, but it's really entertaining.

My grade: B-

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Expats" by Chris Pavone

Dexter and Kate Moore seem like your typical Washington, D.C. couple—Dexter works in banking (although Kate can't exactly explain what he does) and Kate writes position papers for a think tank. They're raising two small boys, although Dexter isn't home nearly as much as Kate would like him to be. And then one day Dexter gets a can't-refuse job offer in Luxembourg, so Kate quits her job and readies for her family's new adventure.

The thing is, Kate isn't just another expat housewife. She has been keeping some pretty serious secrets from Dexter. And as Dexter gets more and more immersed in his mysterious job, and Kate meets another American couple she doesn't quite trust, she realizes that she's not the only one who has been keeping secrets. But are her suspicions correct? Is it her past that is being investigated, or something else? What will happen, to her marriage, her family, and her life, when all is revealed? Can she solve the mystery that seems to have engulfed their lives before she loses control of the situation?

I found The Expats to be an entertaining read. I like the way Chris Pavone peeled back the layers of Kate's life and she started discovering all of the untruths around her. My main criticism of the book, however, is that it took a long time for the plot to really get going, and the setup—which tended to move from time to time, place to place—was a bit confusing. Kate is a fascinating character—more so than the other main characters—and I wonder if Pavone's somewhat-vague ending leaves the door open to further adventures for the Moores. This is definitely enjoyable, although it left me wanting a bit more.

Friday, March 9, 2012

AI Recap: Nice Guys Do Finish Last...

Oh, Jere-Bear, say it ain't so! Sadly, the judges chose to jettison the show's "spirit stick," the resident cheerleader, after his Wednesday night performance landed him the least amount of votes among the guys, alongside Elise "Put on a Stank Face" Testone. And in the cruelest cut of all, J.Lo delivered the hard news. But more on that later.

Did you ever notice that Ryan seems to glow a little more on results nights? It's almost like his little internal engine is powered by faking out contestants and crushing dreams.

Luckily for us, last night marked the season's first group performance to what Ryan referred to as "Stevie Wonder's mega-hit As." (Mega-hit? I Just Called to Say I Love You, Sir Duke, You are the Sunshine of My Life, Signed Sealed Delivered, those are mega-hits.) It wasn't as hellacious as these numbers can be, although there was lots of oversinging going on, and randomly, Deandre would just throw in a falsetto note. Dude, just because you can doesn't mean you need to all the time.

The Ford Music Video (to Peter Gabriel's Big Time) made all of the contestants Shannon and Jermaine's actual size and they terrorized a city. (Sadly, they didn't eat Jimmy Iovine.)

And then it was time for Kieran to dim the lights so we could get some results. First up, the grouping of Elise, Jessica and Hollie. Jimmy made his random (and often mean) comments about the contestants as always, saying that his concern for Jessica, whom he believes gave "the best American Idol performance ever," might believe the applause too early and get over-confident. Maybe I'm no music industry expert, but telling a 16-year-old she gave the best performance in a show's 11-year-history might prompt more over-confidence than applause, no? To the surprise of no one, Elise was sent to the stools of solitude, and she did so with visible attitude.

Heejun, Jermaine and Colton were next. Jimmy didn't have anything nice to say about either Heejun or Jermaine's performances, and said he was concerned that Colton needed to be true to himself as an artist and "find his truth." (Coming to a Chinese buffet near you: Fortune cookies with the wisdom of Steven Tyler and Jimmy Iovine.) Ryan gave Colton the old fakeout for the second week in a row: "Colton, America didn't like what they heard last night...they LOVED it. You're safe!" Jermaine is proving to be the not-quite-gentle-giant, visibly reacting to Jimmy's criticism as well as what the judges had to say, and wasn't pleased to learn he was among the bottom three guys. (Jermaine seems to forget he only made the top 13 as a gimmick.)

The final grouping of ladies consisted of Erika, Shannon, and Skylar. Jimmy said that Erika needed to be "more direct" in her presentation of songs and in response to J.Lo's criticism that Skylar's performance Wednesday night started out "nasally," Jimmy crowed, "I like nasal!" Erika was sent to the stools first (and you heard her say to Elise, "It's the old ladies!") and then Shannon learned of her doom as well.

Lauren Alaina and her newly bleached-out hair returned to the big stage with a sassy performance. (Now there's the stage presence and confidence the judges were looking for last season!) I was glad that we didn't have to endure any conversation with her, though.

The final grouping of guys—Joshua, Jeremy, Phillip and Deandre— were ready to learn their fate. Ryan tried to garner Phillip some sympathy votes, asking him about the media story that he had been rushed to the hospital, but he was having none of it. He was safe anyway. After Jimmy eviscerated him ("I think he's going home"), Ryan sent Jeremy to the stools, as J.Lo looked concerned. And then, ridiculously, Joshua was named in the bottom three over Deandre. WTF, America? No one can tell me that Deandre and Heejun were better than Joshua. Sigh.

Mary J. Blige performed her new song and we congratulated J.Lo on the success of her other Fox series, Q'Viva. (Between commercials for that and her Kohl's ads, there's way too much J.Lo on television right now.)

Ryan told Erika and Joshua that they were safe, then asked Steven who out of the bottom four (Jeremy, Jermaine, Elise, and Shannon) deserved to go home. "Jeremy," he said. No small talk this time.

Jermaine's true colors (I miss Creighton) came out again when he did a little too much celebrating in front of Jeremy when Ryan told him he was safe. At least wait until you get to the couch, dude. Shannon was safe as well.

Which left Elise and Jere-Bear. Ryan asked Randy if America got it right with the bottom two, and he hemmed and hawed about different singers and different performances before saying, "Not exactly right but probably." (In other words, yes.) J.Lo was left to deliver the bad news, and she said, "Based on the performances we've been given, we've chosen to save...Elise."

I'll admit I was a little surprised with the end result, although I do think Jeremy was out of his element. But I don't think Elise is much longer for the competition, unless she surprises me.

So until next week, folks, I leave you with this question: Of the six girls on the show, four of them are 17 or 18. Considering the demographic of the show's audience, and the fact that the last four winners have fallen in the "cute boy with guitar" mold, is it still possible for someone like Erika to win the show? Just curious.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

AI Recap: Songs You Know by Heart

When I first heard last night's show was going to feature the guys singing Stevie Wonder songs and the ladies singing Whitney Houston songs, I thought it might be a train wreck, but then I thought: Haven't we heard nearly every Whitney and Stevie song on the show already? And the truth is, with only two exceptions, every song performed last night had been performed at least once before.

At the start of the show, Randy—sporting some sort of dead animal on the collar of his jacket and a glittery pin that reminded me of Nancy from the cartoon of the same name (but I found out later it was Betty Boop)—promised, "We got some hot singing tonight, Ryan." (Speaking of hot, J.Lo looked pretty fantastic. Steven, on the other hand, was sporting Roy Liechtenstein-inspired pants with lips on them, so he reminded me of the video for the Alan Parsons Project's song Don't Answer Me.)

Ryan announced the latest twist to ensure that all of their favorites remain on the show for at least another week: the guy and the girl with the lowest votes will be revealed and then the judges will decide who goes home. (I'm sure Jeremy breathed a sigh of relief at that announcement.) I love it when a show changes the rules mid-stream; I'm sure the fact that the show was beaten in the ratings by The Big Bang Theory a week or two ago had nothing to do with it, right, Nigel?

The contestants were mentored (or sabotaged, but more on that later) by Jimmy Iovine and Mary J. Blige, who proved to be a seriously astute coach. Joshua started out the evening singing Stevie Wonder's I Wish, which is one of two songs not yet performed on the show over the last 10 years. (I'm so glad to finally know the name of this song!) I thought the performance was a little manic but vocally he was top-notch, combining a more upbeat style with some of his powerful vocals. J.Lo threatened to punch him again (Joshua might need a restraining order by the end of the season) and Randy told him, he "blew it out at the top of the show," and called him "flavorless, I mean, flawless." Ryan asked about Joshua's gospel-singer like tendency to shake his hands when he sings and he called them his "Mantasia hands." I'm trying to decide if that creeps me out or not.

Elise chose to sing The Greatest Love of All, but Jimmy and Mary weren't happy with the way the song meshed with her voice. They convinced her to sing I'm Your Baby Tonight, for which Haley was beaten up last season. She seemed very unhappy while she was rehearsing because she didn't know the song and didn't feel comfortable, and although Jimmy and Mary seemed to notice, I don't know if they cared all that much. (Was there no compromise song? I thought last season they let the contestants stick to their guns regarding song choice.) When Elise hit the stage, she honestly looked like she'd rather be anywhere else. She looked well-put-together (I think she's a dead ringer for a non-costumed Lady Gaga) and her voice is good, but the whole thing was just wrong. The judges tried to sugarcoat their criticism, telling her with one hand how great her voice is, how her voice has "so much character," but on the other hand, that this "wasn't her best performance," or, in Randy's oft-tactless way, "that one wasn't good." To her credit, Elise didn't try to blame Jimmy and Mary, although she acknowledged she'd only known the song for 4-5 days.

Jermaine the "gentle giant" chose Knocks Me Off My Feet, which has previously been performed by Elliot Yamin in Season 5 and the infamous Sanjaya Malakar in Season 6. It's a nice song, but I always think of Simon's comment, "Why would you sing a song with a lyric that says 'I don't want to bore you.' Of course you're boring me." Jermaine sounded good (and the fashion crew tried to make him look a little more "street," with red sneakers and a puffy vest), but I agree with J.Lo in that I didn't feel he had any emotional connection with the song. She said, "Sing to me," and of course, Randy felt excluded, so he added, "Or sing to me, or Steven." Randy called Jermaine's voice "Barry White meets Arthur Prysock or Jerry Butler," but confided that he liked the verses of the song but not Jermaine's interpretation of the chorus.

Wild card recipient Erika took the stage, hair back to its post-makeover look, last week's bridesmaid's gown traded for a pretty red dress. She chose to sing I Believe in You and Me, previously sung by Melinda Doolittle the week she was ridiculously eliminated in Season 6. Jimmy and Mary cautioned Erika not to try to sing the song as Whitney Houston would have, but to bring her own style to it. Mary J. even told Erika her voice was as rich as "steak and potatoes, there's no celery and peanut butter in that voice." (Mmm...steak.) Erika gave me "goosies," I'm telling you. The judges praised the fullness of her voice and her amazing tone, and Steven even said, "It was perfect. I think you're great," but J.Lo keeps insisting that Erika is holding something back. Not every note needs to be caterwauled, J.Lo. After Randy counseled her, "Dude, let go," Ryan informed Erika that her new nickname was "EVP." Way to go out on a limb, Seacrest.

Apparently everyone was worried about resident heartthrob Colton taking on Stevie Wonder, because he's so alt-rock-dreamy. He sang Lately, a favorite in auditions and the song Stefano Langone turned into a disco number last season. I thought he was outstanding, with a little falsetto plus his Jared Leto-esque smoldering eyes and the dramatic lighting. Steven told him, "You're only as good as your last performance and your last note, and that was outstanding." J.Lo praised him for letting the audience feel his heart, and Randy, ever the pointless contrarian, said, "It technically was not picture perfect, there were sharp notes and some flat ones, until you hit the chorus, which was flawless." He also praised Colton for turning a "Stevie song into a Coldplay song, or 'I Don't Want to Miss a Thing' sung by Mr. Steven Tyler." (Shut up, Randy.) Ryan praised Colton's dreaminess, saying that "you can hear the screams in Hacienda Heights."

Shannon chose to sing the oft-covered chestnut, I Have Nothing. (Seriously, everyone from Trenyce, Jennifer Hudson, and Vonzell Solomon, to Katharine McPhee and Lakisha Jones has sung this song.) Shannon struggled mightily with this song, which is surprising considering how big of a voice she has, but it was shouty and off-key, and her "nothings" were choppy. Like Jermaine, she also had a problem finding an emotional connection. All three judges tried to explain that Shannon's nerves got the best of her, but Steven told her she "crashed and burned in the turnarounds." Shannon assured everyone she can "sing [her] butt off," and said she just "needs to do a Heejun and shake it off."

Deandre "I'm Not Terence Trent D'Arby" opted to pull his lustrous locks back and sing Master Blaster. To me, it was all chaos, with the band and backup singers on stage, lights flashing the colors of the Jamaican flag, and not a lot of opportunity for Deandre to actually sing. Steven called it "beautiful," and said that Deandre was "the male Naima [Adedaipo, from last season], bringing a different flavor and Jamaican patois" to the show. J.Lo first said the ending was weird but then tried to cover that up by claiming she didn't want it to end. (She also said she thought he "bought it from the beginning.") Randy praised Deandre for showing a different side of himself, like Joshua did earlier in the show.

Could our country-crooning Skylar take on Whitney Houston? She chose Where Do Broken Hearts Go, aka Pia Toscano's only "upbeat" number last season. When Skylar first started rehearsing, Jimmy and Mary were concerned she was pushing too hard too soon, and cautioned her to bring up the belting gradually. I thought she did really well, showing that she has both a softer side and a rougher side to her voice, and can belt with the best of them. J.Lo claimed that the start of the song "was nasally" but also said that Skylar had "the biggest moment of the night" with the song. Steven's thesaurus was broken, as he called it both "beautiful" and "a thing of beauty," saying that Skylar "climbed that ladder." (What ladder, Steven?) Skylar's performance fit right in with Randy's sudden need for everyone to show a different side of themselves in the first week of competition, telling her, "You can sing country, you can sing any song."

Time for the next episode of American Comedian, with the glassless-specs-wearing Heejun. He and Ryan shared some of his silly pictures, in which he pretended to eat Deandre's hair ("They look like noodles," he said). He chose to sing All in Love is Fair, which both Katharine McPhee and Pia Toscano sang previously. Not much of a barn burner, this song. It started out slow, but Heejun's voice built nicely, although it didn't wow me. I feel like he would have been a bigger deal in an earlier season, when this type of guy's voice was a novelty. J.Lo told Heejun she loved him from the first time he sang for her, and Heejun called her out for hugging Jeremy but not him, saying "I guess you were playing hard to get." "But you hugged Steven," she countered. Randy remembered they were supposed to be judging a singing competition, and told him, "It wasn't perfect but it was really good."

Our pint-sized princess with the gigantic voice, Hollie came next. She definitely planned to let her hair down this week and sing All The Man I Need, which we heard from Season 7 semi-finalist Sabrina Sloan and also from Vegas contestant Jessica Phillips earlier this season. I love Hollie's unabashed charm, her ability to control her big voice, and her freshness, which is the one thing I see she has that Jessica Sanchez does not. Plus, she was able to blow the song out of the water while lights that looked like giant candy corn surrounded her. "Dude, you nailed it," exclaimed Randy, while J.Lo said that "this is the Hollie I know and love from last year and this year." She then decided to shake things up a little (at least among the tween set) by wondering, "will we have two girls in the finals?" (And the voting for Colton, Deandre, and Phillip tripled in volume.)

In what's becoming a tiresome plot point, Ryan, Jimmy, and Mary all reminded us what a wonderfully nice guy Jeremy is. Yeah, I get it. At least he can win the congeniality award. He sang Ribbon in the Sky, which is one of my favorite Stevie songs, and one which I think Justin Guarini (remember him?) excelled on way back in the early days. There's no denying Jeremy has a good voice, despite the fact he kept singing "ribbons in the sky," but this wasn't a wow. That's okay, of course, because he's a nice guy. Steven said his voice was "velvety smooth," but said that "vocally, you didn't fly tonight, because that wasn't in the song." J.Lo has lost all credibility where Jeremy is concerned and claimed she loves to see the way he "interprets" all his songs, while Randy admitted it wasn't Jeremy's best. But luckily, it's up to the judges tonight, so I'd guess Jeremy is safe to be everyone's BFF for at least one more week.

Getting the penultimate, "almost-pimp" spot this week is Jessica. Not surprisingly, she chose to sing I Will Always Love You. Syesha Mercado sang this song during Dolly Parton week in Season 7, and I had little doubt that Jessica wouldn't completely knock it out of the park. It looked effortless, honestly. She has one hell of a voice, and the judges gave her a standing ovation, with Randy shouting, "Give it all to her!" The Dawg then told Jessica that "not only are you one of the best singers tonight, you're one of the best singers in the whole competition!" But Steven did the prophesizing. "You may be the one," he said. (Apparently Jennifer Hudson tweeted "That's it, Jessica!" following her performance.)

Phillip Dave Matthew Phillips David Matthews closed out the show, bringing his gravelly-voiced charm to Superstition, previously sung by Kimberly Caldwell back in Season 2 and Season 8 Wild Card contestant Ricky Braddy (who was totes robbed, BTW). From what I've seen on the interwebs, people either love Phillip or hate him. I count myself in the former camp, as I love the tone of his voice and think he brings something different to the show. The judges love him, too; as Randy put it, "You drive your own car in your own lane and I love it!" (Umm, ok.)

Because we had extra time (always a danger on this show), Ryan asked the judges who were the standouts and who was in trouble. Randy said that Josh and Jessica were the standouts; J.Lo said that Shannon is in trouble but overall, the girls were stronger; and Steven said that Elise and Shannon were in trouble, and the standouts were "Jessica and...Jessica."

Tonight, I predict at least a little bit of objectionable tomfoolery. Don't know in what manner it will come, but something is going to irritate me tonight.

Can't wait!!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book Review: "The Starboard Sea" by Amber Dermont

When I finish certain books, I'm sad that they're over but feel fulfilled by the chance to have read them. Amber Dermont's debut novel, The Starboard Sea, is one of those books. I couldn't stop myself from wanting to race through the entire book, but tried in vain to slow down as the end approached, because I wanted to prolong the story and see what came next for the characters.

It's 1987, just before the stock market crash. Jason Prosper is a rich high school senior from New York City, raised with all of the benefits a wealthy family can offer. After getting kicked out of his prep school following the suicide of his best friend and roommate, Cal, Jason winds up at Bellingham, a boarding school for many "second chance" kids of privilege. Struggling with Cal's memory and guilt over his death, Jason finds himself drawn to Aidan, a student with her own troubled past. The two begin to let their guards down and confide in one another. And then one night, when a hurricane hits New England, everything goes awry, leaving Jason to once again pick up the pieces, and he discovers just what privilege can do—and what it can't.

At first, I thought I wouldn't enjoy this book because I couldn't identify with rich, reckless high school students used to getting everything they wanted and living lives I could only imagine. But Dermont's development of the characters, even those who seemed on the surface like nothing more than rich kid stereotypes, is very complex, and she really draws you into all that Jason is struggling with. I honestly could have spent another few hundred pages watching what happened next with the characters once they left Bellingham and seeing what direction Jason's life took, and that, to me, is the mark of a fantastic book. Dermont is a really terrific writer and I can't wait to see what she does next!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The magnificence of Meryl...

Although it's been nearly a week since the Oscars, I absolutely could not let my excitement about Meryl Streep's Best Actress win go unmentioned. Although she had been nominated a record 17 times, and won a number of Golden Globe Awards and other honors, she actually hadn't won an Oscar since 1982, when she was honored for her brilliant work in Sophie's Choice.

For many, this Oscar win was a surprise, as conventional wisdom thought that Viola Davis might win Best Actress for her excellent performance in The Help. That was more of an ensemble picture than The Iron Lady, plus Academy voters love rewarding actors and actresses both for biographical pictures as well as those whose characters suffer from some sort of illness, and Streep did both.

The fact is, Meryl Streep was long overdue for a third Oscar. While she gives brilliant performances in nearly every movie she's in, over the years she has given performances that might have been Oscar wins in a different year, or if she wasn't nominated alongside another award-worthy actress.

Some of her best performances in recent years included the comic and poignant Postcards from the Edge in 1990 (she lost to Kathy Bates' unhinged fan in Misery); the heartbreaking One True Thing in 1998, where she played a mother suffering from cancer (she lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love); her flirty, complex portrayal of author Susan Orlean in Adaptation in 2002 (she lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones' Velma Kelly in Chicago); the hard-as-nails and funny-as-hell Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 (she lost to Queen Elizabeth, Helen Mirren, for The Queen); the no-nonsense Sister Aloysius in Doubt in 2008 (Kate Winslet finally won her Oscar for The Reader); and the beloved Julia Child in Julie and Julia in 2009 (she lost to Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side). And she wasn't even nominated for her brilliant work in The Hours in 2002.

For an actress of Streep's stature, by all accounts, she is a tremendously funny, gracious, and generous person. On the awards circuit this year, she told many people she was pulling for Viola Davis (the two acted together in Doubt). Just after the Oscars this week, it was announced that Streep donated $10,000 to a Rhode Island Upward Bound Scholarship Fund in honor of Davis, who established the fund with her sister in 1988. Streep also donated $10,000 to the Segue Institute for Learning in Central Falls, RI, where Davis grew up.

And how can you not love and respect a woman who has used the same hairdresser and makeup artist on every movie since 1982, someone she has known for 37 years? She made a point of thanking J. Roy Helland in her acceptance speech. (Helland also won an Oscar for his work on The Iron Lady.)

Streep was at her self-deprecating best during her acceptance speech, which I've included below. And even if she's correct, that she'll never win another Oscar, I hope she continues delivering exceptional performances and being a role model for other actors—and human beings.