Thursday, January 31, 2013

What is happening in the Volunteer State??

All apologies to my friends from Tennessee, but things are going utterly crazy in your state! While one of these instances alone is enough to raise eyebrows, all three together make me wonder just what exactly is in the water these days...

See this dog? Looks pretty harmless, right? Well, apparently his owner took him to a Jackson, Tennessee shelter to be euthanized, not because he was vicious or tore things apart, but because he suspected the dog was gay. Seriously. The shelter wrote on its Facebook page:
This guy was signed over to RC, not because he's mean or because he tears things up, but because...His owner says he's gay! He hunched another male dog so his owner threw him away because he refuses to have a "gay" dog!
Fortunately, the dog is in the process of being adopted by a rescue agency, which will have him neutered, tested for heartworm, and vetted for behavioral issues before placing him in an approved home. All I know is, someone deserved to be euthanized in this situation, and it wasn't the dog.

But that's not all. The Tennessee state assembly is again discussing passage of SB234, or the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which died with the adjournment of the assembly last year. This bill bars Tennessee teachers from discussing any facet of "non-heterosexual" sexuality with children in grades K-8. But the newest iteration also includes a provision requiring teachers or counselors to inform the parents of some students who identify themselves as LGBT. The bill says:
A school counselor, nurse, principal or assistant principal from counseling a student who is engaging in, or who may be at risk of engaging in, behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and well-being of the student or another person; provided, that wherever possible such counseling shall be done in consultation with the student’s parents or legal guardians. Parents or legal guardians of students who receive such counseling shall be notified as soon as practicable that such counseling has occurred.
Are members of the Tennessee state assembly satisfied with the number of children committing suicide because they are depressed about coming to terms with their sexuality? Are they willing to chance that more children are turned out on the street by their parents because they're "turned in" by those purporting to provide guidance and advice? To me, this bill is unconscionable, and any lawmaker who votes for it should be ashamed. I know that those who support equality are increasingly finding themselves on the right side of the law, but this is simply unacceptable.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, in an interview on MSNBC's The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd, Senator Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's senior senator, former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, and a former presidential candidate himself, said that "video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns because video games affect people." Seriously, folks. It doesn't get much better than this. Watch for yourself.

Book Review: "The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories" by Simon Rich

This might possibly be one of the funniest story collections I've ever read. I can't count the number of times I laughed out loud while reading, something that doesn't happen that often for me.

The 30 stories in Simon Rich's uniquely creative, sometimes zany, sometimes heartfelt collection are all about relationships—finding them, trying to maintain them, and losing or ending them. And not every relationship is traditional—one story recounts Zeus' frustrations with an alcoholic, hiphop-loving Cupid, while another (one of the funniest in the collection) is narrated by a condom as he makes his journey from the drugstore into someone's wallet. Don't be dismayed by the fact that there are 30 stories—most are quite short; in fact, some only last a page or two.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection are: Unprotected, the already-mentioned story narrated by the condom; Occupy Jen's Street, in which an Occupy Wall Street protest is somehow transformed into one trying to get a girl to date one of the protestors; Scared Straight, in which a group of teenagers trying to pursue long-term relationships are dissuaded by those stuck in the reality of those commitments; The Last Girlfriend on Earth, narrated by a man who has the last girlfriend on Earth; Invisible Man, in which a CIA agent using invisibility drugs to hunt down a terrorist gets distracted by spying on his ex-girlfriend; and Present, the story of a scientist who can never quite do right by his girlfriend.

I found myself constantly marveling at some of the ideas Rich came up with, and the characters in his stories don't always seem to follow typical behaviors—a man's friends try to set him up with a female troll, characters have no problem dating Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. Some stories aren't quite stories—there are a few personal ads, a report about the excavation of a bar by archaeologists, even Jeopardy! questions/answers.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the stories are quite short. And while Rich generally has a perfect grasp on how long his stories should run, a few ended so abruptly I can't help but wonder whether part of those stories got lost in the translation from print to e-book. But beyond that, Rich's voice is so creative, fresh, and fun, this was a tremendously fast read for me and an investment I'm glad I made.

The funny thing is, I would never have heard of this collection if it weren't for a recommendation from Amazon. And now that I've read it, if Rich's other books are this funny, I'm going to have to read them all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Calvin Klein is her density...and her son...

I know that Call Me Maybe memes are so 2012, but with the interwebs recently abuzz at how the future date on the flux capacitor at the end of Back to the Future was sometime in the last few weeks (it's actually October 21, 2015), I thought this might be appropriate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: "Hikikomori and the Rental Sister" by Jeff Backhaus

Sometimes when we feel most alone, we don't realize that there are others who feel the same exact way, perhaps for different reasons or manifested differently.

It has been three years since Thomas Tessler has truly faced the world. Wracked with grief and immense guilt following the tragic death of his young son, Thomas has locked himself in his bedroom, only leaving to shop for groceries at a convenience store in the middle of the night. While he lives in the same apartment as his wife, Silke, he never speaks to her, never acknowledges her many efforts to cook him meals, bring him things, or simply let her know how he is feeling. He is hikikomori, the Japanese word for a person who withdraws, a total social recluse.

Desperate to get her husband back, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman who knows the hikikomori phenomenon all too well, as it consumed her brother's life back in Japan. Reluctantly, Megumi agrees to work as a "rental sister" for Thomas and Silke, to try and encourage Thomas to come back into the real world again. Megumi's life is fairly unsatisfying, filled with nights spent drinking in bars with her friends, sleeping with random men to try and help her feel something. As she tries to get Thomas to acknowledge her, to speak to her, she finds herself drawn to him in inexplicable ways as he helps fill the emotional void her brother left behind.

Megumi and Thomas' relationship progresses, and threatens to shut Silke out entirely. But Thomas doesn't know exactly what he wants. Can a person who has allowed himself to be so isolated from people, from feelings for so long actually be equipped to feel again, to communicate? This is a fascinating book about how immobilizing grief and loneliness are, yet how comforting isolation can be. It's a story about trying to move on when you don't want to let go of your hurt and guilt, and how sometimes it takes a person who knows completely how you feel to help you take tentative steps toward moving on.

"No matter how big we try to make our world, in the end it's just ourselves. We follow ourselves around everywhere."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book as the story unfolded. This book is as much about Megumi as it is about Thomas, and she is a much more complex and complicated character than he is, yet that complexity left me somewhat uncertain about whether she was a sympathetic character or someone to pity or dislike. But Jeff Backhaus did a very good job of gradually peeling back the layers of her personality, so you're not quite sure how you want the story to resolve itself. Much as in the book itself, I felt Silke was more in the background, so it was difficult to understand some of her actions and motivations.

This is a beautifully written meditation on grief, loneliness, and the nourishment of companionship. While the story engages you throughout, it's not always as compelling as it should be, but Backhaus keeps you wondering what will become of his characters. Unique, sometimes spare, but lyrical.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

Amy Winehouse's tragic (if not completely unexpected) death at the age of 27 nearly two(!) years ago was a definite loss to the music industry. Winning five Grammys in 2006 for her breakthrough album, Back to Black, one could only imagine to what heights her career might have scaled if she didn't struggle so badly with addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Ronnie Spector is known as the "original bad girl of rock and roll," whose 1960s musical group, The Ronettes, had huge hits with songs like Be My Baby and Baby, I Love You. (Interestingly enough, some not familiar with 1960s music know her as the female voice in Eddie Money's 1986 hit, Take Me Home Tonight.) Spector, too, battled demons that threatened her career, not the least of which was her producer ex-husband, impresario Phil Spector, but although she's never been able to achieve the success of her early career with the Ronettes, Spector continues to record and tour around the world.

In 2011, following Winehouse's death, Spector recorded a version of Back to Black as a tribute and for the benefit of the Daytop Village addiction treatment centers. While Spector's version is different than Winehouse's, it still has some of the melancholy brooding of the original, and Spector's trademark smoky voice gives it an interesting depth.

Watch Spector's version here:

And here is Winehouse's original:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Book Review: "The Last Kind Words" by Tom Piccirilli

So let's get this out of the way: nearly every member of the main family in this book, The Rands, are named for dog breeds. It's a somewhat bizarre affectation that sometimes proves a little distracting, but don't let that stop you from reading this fantastic, brooding book from Tom Piccirilli.

Terry (Terrier) Rand was born into a family of thieves. His father, Pinsch (Pinscher), was a cat burglar who never seemed entirely enamored of the life; his uncles, Mal (Malamute) and Grey (Greyhound), always larger-than-life presences as he grew up, have expertise as card sharks; even his grandfather, Shep (Shepherd), in the throes of Alzheimer's, used to be a force to be reckoned with, and his fingers can still pick a pocket fairly well from time to time. Terry had no choice but to fall into the life, running scams (mostly successfully), running with—and sometimes against—the local crime family.

Terry fled his family's Long Island home five years ago, after his older brother, Collie, went on a murderous rage that left eight people dead. Collie and Terry were more like combative rivals than brothers; Collie wanted—and took—everything that Terry had, and left him holding the bag on more than one occasion. Terry left without warning and never contacted his family, even leaving his fiancée, Kimmy, behind. But now Collie is only days from his execution, and he has had Terry summoned home.

Collie lets Terry know that while he is guilty of seven murders, he did not kill a young woman whose death he is also accused of. Although he never disputed it during his trial, he has learned that other young women who looked similar to his victim have met a similar end. While he isn't interested in a new trial or a stay of execution, he wants Terry to investigate and find out the truth.

But the truth—of this crime, and his difficult relationship with Collie and his family—is something Terry isn't quite ready to delve into again. He finds himself falling back into familiar patterns, as he runs afoul of the local crime family who are now onto his uncles; tries to fight the tide of crime that holds him in its thrall; worries about his teenage sister, who is on the verge of entering the same life as the rest of their family; and relives the pain and anguish he felt in leaving Kimmy behind. He knows he needs to break free of all of this, but can't, and while he can't understand what Collie's real motivation for calling him back to town was, he can't resist trying to find out the truth, no matter where it leads.

The Last Kind Words is a meditation on the power of family and how strong the ties that bind us are, no matter how hard we struggle to fight or how far we run to flee them. Terry is smart enough to know where he will go wrong but finds himself powerless to stop heading in that direction.

I've been a big fan of Piccirilli's books for a while now, and this is a truly fantastic one, full of crackling violence, suspense, and brooding introspection that really works. There is always an undercurrent of violence simmering just underneath the surface of the story, and Piccirilli's writing style leaves you wondering just how things will unfold. How far will Terry find himself twisted in the knots of his family and his past?

This is a smart, tremendously well-written crime novel that is more introspective than most, but it still has enough tension and violence to satisfy. So put the whole dog names thing out of your mind, and settle in for a fantastic read.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Photobombed ever after...

How's this for a photo for the ages?

Chris Jiminez proposed to his girlfriend of three years, Cristina Silva, last week at Disneyland, after they completed the Never Land Family Fun Run 5K. As you can see, Silva was understandably moved by the proposal. (She said yes, by the way.)

But Silva's reaction paled in comparison to the one of a bystander, probably a fellow run participant, who found herself caught in the middle of their moment. She has yet to be identified, but given that the photo has gone viral, it shouldn't be long now.

For what it's worth, Jiminez and Silva are so enamored with the photo—shock and awe and all—that they're thinking of using it for a Save the Date.

See the full story here.

Book Review: "The Good House" by Ann Leary

I thought this was a pretty terrific book. It had quirky (but not annoying) characters, an engaging and intriguing plot, and great writing. Who could ask for more?

Hildy Good has lived her whole life in Wendover, Massachusetts, an historic town on Boston's North Shore. She's proud of the fact that one of her ancestors, Sarah Good, was one of the first women hanged for witchcraft during the Salem trials, and many women in her family have claimed to have some type of psychic gift. Some people say Hildy can read minds, which isn't true—she's just really good at reading people and predicting behavior.

Except her own. This successful real estate broker has a bit of a drinking problem. Well, maybe more than a bit, as a year ago, her two daughters staged an intervention and sent her to rehab. Since then, she's always felt a little awkward at parties where everyone drinks—more because she feels people are staring at her than she's actually fighting the desire to drink. But there's nothing wrong with an occasional glass of wine at night when she's by herself, right? Right?

The problem about living in a small town is that you know everyone and everyone knows you. So when Hildy strikes up a friendship with Rebecca McCallister, a wealthy but lonely wife and mother, she sees this as a wonderful complement to her life. Until she realizes Rebecca's life is a little more complex than Hildy is interested in knowing. Meanwhile, Hildy is vacillating about her attraction to the least likely of men in town, and doesn't know what to do about that.

This book really has a little of everything. There's intrigue, illicit love, emotional discovery, missing children, and some great plot twists. More than a few times I wondered where Ann Leary was going to take her story and I enjoyed how it flowed. But more than that, I really loved Hildy's character. She's not always easy to love, although you understand more and more just why that is, but she's tremendously memorable, and I found myself completely engaged in her story.

This is a really well-written book that is sometimes moving, sometimes funny, and completely worth reading.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Remembering a star...

It seems almost unbelievable that Heath Ledger died five years ago today, almost nearly as unbelievable as his death at age 28 itself was. I remember we were in Las Vegas and the news came as quite a shock, as his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight (which would win him a posthumous Best Supporting Actor a little more than a month later) was already catapulting him toward the super stardom I always thought he deserved.

Ledger first came to my attention as the mischievous yet appealing rebel in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You. The movie was a great deal of fun, yet underneath his cocky swagger, you could tell this 20-year-old kid had a great deal of potential, potential he more than delivered on in his brief, tragic yet magnetic performance as Sonny in 2001's Monster's Ball.

Although he delivered strong performances in not particularly successful films such as Ned Kelly and The Four Feathers, watching his beautiful, emotionally restrained portrayal of lovelorn Ennis Del Mar in 2005's Brokeback Mountain was the moment I knew Ledger was destined to be a star. Watching him let his feelings out just a few times in the film breaks my heart every time I see it. This was a performance that truly deserved the Oscar for Best Actor that year, although he lost to Phillip Seymour Hoffman for the showier Capote.

But it was The Dark Knight that made him a household name, and finally granted him the fame he both sought and feared. Those who knew the Joker from Jack Nicholson's performance in the original Batman were dazzled by Ledger's unhinged, evil mastermind, whose nuanced performance will go down in film history as one of the more creepy yet magnetic villains.

Who could know what heights Ledger's talent would have risen to had he lived? For an actor who only made 18 movies, he left an indelible imprint on the world of cinema, more for his talent than his tragic death. But fortunately we have his movies to remember the light he gave us.

Huffington Post has a retrospective on Ledger's life, as well as a photo slideshow.

All she needed was the McKayla Maroney face to top it off...

In case you haven't seen the eye roll heard 'round the world. One can only imagine what John Boehner says—and it probably wasn't nearly as good as what we think, anyway.

Monday, January 21, 2013

It's not the only thing, but it's one hell of a thing...

As I've said so many times over the last four years, if you had told me that one day in my lifetime the President of the United States would mention the need for equality with regard to sexual orientation, I would have thought you were crazy. To hear these words during President Obama's second inaugural address today made me cry, made me proud, and made me hope.

While there's no guarantee of what the next months will bring, particularly with the Supreme Court, I feel more optimistic than I ever have. And for that I say, thank you, Mr. President.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Amour"

For the most part, we live in a youth-centric society, particularly where the entertainment world is concerned. Television networks care most about ratings in the cherished 18-49 demographic, classic movies and television shows are remade with stars of today to try and capture new audiences, and it is often difficult for older performers (particularly women) to get strong roles in Hollywood.

With all of those factors in mind, I wonder if Michael Haneke's emotionally powerful Amour would get the green light to be made here in the United States. Luckily, the movie is a joint production of France, Germany, and Austria, so moviegoers all over the world willing to invest their time and emotions in this movie can be richly rewarded.

Legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, a long-married couple in their 80s who enjoy a peaceful, full life together. Retired music teachers, they enjoy the pleasures of classical music, and one of Anne's former piano students is a rising star. Their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is also a musician, although her relationship with her parents is somewhat strained.

One morning during breakfast, Anne suffers some sort of attack which leaves her momentarily unresponsive, nearly catatonic. While it quickly passes, further symptoms lead to her hospitalization and a diagnosis of a blood clot. After surgery fails, she finds herself paralyzed on one side, and the once fiercely independent woman is now wheelchair bound and dependent on her husband and others for assistance with nearly everything.

Both Anne and Georges know where her condition is headed, and Anne wants none of it. She makes Georges promise she won't be hospitalized again, and expresses her desire that her life end before she deteriorates. Georges, however, does all he can to keep her comfortable and happy, even as he knows the end will come more quickly than he'd like. But he is determined to care for Anne his way, despite his physical and mental exhaustion, and the concerns of his daughter.

Amour is utterly unflinching in its portrayal of Anne's physical and emotional deterioration and the toll it takes on her and Georges. Riva gives a phenomenal performance as Anne gets physically weaker, yet her intellect and fighting spirit shine through. A scene where she refuses to yield to Georges' pleading with her to drink some water from a sippy cup is both familiar and shocking. Riva is able to communicate so much with merely looks, small gestures, and murmurs.

While Riva received an Oscar nomination (her first) for her performance, Trintignant was sadly overlooked, but his performance is truly the film's emotional center. Shuffling back and forth down the hallways of their cluttered Paris apartment, he refuses to cede control of Anne's care, even to Anne's wishes, despite the toll it is taking on him. But despite the strain he is feeling, he remains stoic almost entirely, although his emotions get the best of him in certain situations that make you tear up as you can't tear yourself away from watching.

Given the subject matter of this movie, you inherently know the path it will follow. But that doesn't lessen its emotional power or how strongly the film and its performances will resonate. It's a difficult film to watch, but one you should watch, both for Riva and Trintignant's performances, and for Haneke's restrained yet masterful direction.

Movies like this don't get made every day, especially in the U.S. But thanks to the courage of Haneke and his actors, we have the privilege to watch the twilight of Anne and Georges' relationship.

Book Review: "Vortex" by Julie Cross

When a series starts with a bang, as Tempest, the first book in Julie Cross' Tempest trilogy did last year, you wonder whether the subsequent books in the series will be just as good, if not better. And after reading Vortex, I can say that while this book took a little while to find its rhythm, overall, it's a worthy successor to Tempest, and I am really interested to see how Cross ties the series up.

In Tempest, Jackson Meyer discovers that in addition to the pressures of college and maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend, Holly, he's a time traveler. He can't go too far into the past or the future, and is just beginning to understand the limitations of his time traveling abilities. The more time he spends trying to understand time travel, the more a group of people called the "Enemies of Time," who use time travel for apparently nefarious purposes, want to enlist Jackson in their work—or they'll kill him.

As Vortex begins, Jackson has made the decision to leave Holly and his best friend, Adam, alone, so they'll be safe from harm. He becomes an agent with Tempest, the branch of the CIA that handles all time travel-related problems. As he throws himself into his training, he tries hard to deal with his fellow agents who resent him, and keeps everyone at arm's length in an effort not to feel the hurt of losing people again.

Jackson finds himself back in New York City, trying to help track down members of Eyewall, an opposing division of the CIA which uses the Enemies of Time as its agents. He also comes face to face with Holly—although she looks and acts like his former girlfriend, the similarities end there, and as he tries to find more about this Holly, he realizes the differences have far-reaching implications. And as Jackson tries to better understand how time travel works, and the damage it can do, he struggles to find out what is true and what is being manipulated—and who is trying to damage those he loves.

At its heart, Vortex has many of the same characteristics that made Tempest such a great book—compelling characters; a fascinating (if slightly confusing) storyline, particularly where time travel is concerned; and plenty of suspense, because, like Jackson and his fellow agents, you aren't sure who to trust or what is real and what is being manipulated. While I obviously cannot identify with the time travel-related issues Jackson is struggling with, the emotional challenges he faces transcend the complex nature of the plot, and he is a tremendously sympathetic and multi-layered character.

My challenge with this book is the complexity of the plot Cross has created. There are so many permutations related to time travel and so many scenarios about its effects that even Jackson and those in the agency aren't quite sure of all of the implications, which makes it confusing for the reader. There is so much technical language to wade through at the start of the book, I kept waiting for the actual plot to take hold, and once it did, I really found myself drawn into the story, racing through the book.

If you enjoy books that explore worlds about which you may never know (or maybe you do, and that's a whole different story), I'd definitely encourage you to read both books in Cross' series. But if the technicalities confuse you a bit at first, don't despair; you'll be rewarded with a gripping, complex, and fascinating story that explores a wide range of emotional and philosophical questions.

Friday, January 18, 2013

My favorite TV theme songs...

Recently two bloggers I follow fairly religiously assembled their lists of their favorite and/or most memorable TV theme songs. That effort was right up my alley, seeing as I still know the words to most of the theme songs I grew up with!

So, my pop culture-filled brain started thinking, and I decided to put together my list. It was hard to pick only 26 theme songs—and apart from one, I stayed away from instrumental ones—but these are ones that came to mind first. I know I didn't include some obvious ones—The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Partridge Family, etc., because there just wasn't room, and I didn't want the whole list to be obvious ones.

In no particular order, here they are:

Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979): Maybe the recent deaths of Horshack and Epstein (Ron Palillo and Robert Hegyes) have made me a little more nostalgic, but I love everything about this song, especially the mellow sound of John Sebastian's voice.

Silver Spoons (1982-1986): I wanted a house big enough to ride a train through after watching this show. And I totally had Rick/Ricky Schroder's haircut at one point.

Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983): 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8...well, you know. Cyndi Grecco is one of the most unknown singers with one of the most well-known songs. Ain't that like show biz?

California Dreams (1992-1996): I know I wasn't the only one watching the "TNBC" block of programming Saturday mornings on NBC. This opening sequence is from the earlier seasons of the show (so no Jake, Sam, or Lorena), but I always loved Heidi Noelle Lenhart's voice in this version.

Angie (1979-1980): A show perhaps better known for its theme song, which was a hit for Maureen McGovern, than the show itself. When we took our 5th grade trip to Philadelphia, a bunch of us sang this song on the bus. I know it wasn't just me.

Love, Sidney (1981-1983): This Tony Randall show didn't last long, but I still remember all the words to its theme song. "We're friends forever, and when the rest have gone, it's you who will be there for friend."

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977): One of the classics. The theme song changed after the first season, but this version (from the last season) is the more memorable one for me. And I totally wanted to toss my hat in the air, but I'd lose it.

Joanie Loves Chachi (1982-1983): No, I don't care that this is one of the biggest spin-off failures in television history. Nor do I care that Scott Baio wasn't a good singer. (Like it mattered?) As I've mentioned before, I memorized the lyrics to this song to sing with a friend at a Halloween party in eighth grade and it's been in my head ever since. Seriously.

The Love Boat (1977-1986): Saturday nights growing up involved The Love Boat at 9:00 and Fantasy Island at 10:00. And the only one missing from the guests on this episode was Charo, don't you think? (Does anyone else do Isaac's two-fingered point? Probably not.)

Gilligan's Island (1964-1967): This isn't the original version of the theme song, which didn't mention the Professor or Mary Ann, instead calling them "the rest," but this is the one once the show was in color. Used to watch this on Channel 5 after school....

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I always knew they looked shifty...

Finally, CNN reports the true goings-on in Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's lab. And Beaker? First Lance Armstrong, now this?

Same Love...

The first time I heard Same Love, the song by hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert), I literally started crying. I was blown away by the song's message, and the way it challenges those who believe sexual orientation is a choice, those who discriminate, those who are afraid, and those who just don't understand.

Here are some of the lyrics that resonate for me:
The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing god, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And god loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written 3500 years ago
I don’t know
And then, this challenge to hip-hop:
If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
"Man, that’s gay" gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for 'em
Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Last month, Susan Johnson, a middle school teacher in Detroit was suspended for three days for playing the song for her class. The school district said Johnson’s suspension was warranted because it broke basic curriculum rules teachers at the school are meant to follow, in that she needed to get prior permission to play something like this. (She probably wouldn't have gotten that permission.)

Students and others, including Macklemore himself, protested Johnson's suspension. But more than that, Johnson's students were moved by what they heard. One student even sent Macklemore an email about the incident:

If you've never heard the song, I encourage you to put your preconceived notions of hip-hop aside and listen to it. Or share it with those who need to hear it. I commend Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for sharing this message.

Book Review: "Love is a Canoe" by Ben Schrank

If the course of love ran smoothly, we'd have far fewer books, movies, songs, magazines, and plays, don't you think? Ben Schrank's new novel, Love is a Canoe, looks at the chaos of love and how sometimes trying to help it isn't the best thing.

Peter Herman watched his parents' marriage disintegrate and saw how that affected his mother. As a 12-year-old, he spent a summer with his grandparents, a couple truly in love, and he shared the lessons he learned in a self-help book of sorts, Marriage is a Canoe. The book became legendary, with many people commenting how it helped them through the years, although it also became the target of many cynics.

To celebrate the book's 50th anniversary, Stella Petrovic, an ambitious young editor at Peter's publisher, decides to reignite excitement by holding a contest asking married couples in trouble to share their stories. One lucky couple will spend the weekend with Peter in the picturesque town he's lived in for years, with the hopes that he can help mend their marriage. But what Stella doesn't realize is that Peter's intentions aren't quite as clear as he pretends they are, and she also doesn't recognize the reasons for all of the pressure her boss, Helena, is putting on her to ensure the contest succeeds.

Emily Babson and Eli Correlli, the winners of the contest, are struggling with feelings of resentment, betrayal, inferiority, hurt, and, above all, the desire to keep their marriage going. Emily grew up with Marriage is a Canoe as a touchstone in her life, one of the things that helped get her through her own parents' divorce. So she sees this opportunity to meet with Peter as the magic elixir that will put her life back on the right path.

The trouble is, Peter didn't always follow the lessons of his own book. His 40-plus-year marriage to Lisa, who recently died, wasn't the storybook relationship it should have been. Now dating Maddie, a woman very much in love with Peter and who wants a life with him, Peter isn't quite sure what he wants and what to do. And he can't quite seem to shake the feeling he should have done better.

I really enjoyed this book, which looks at both self-help/motivational books and the world of publishing with a slightly skewed eye. It's a testament to the strength of Schrank's storytelling ability that I was so interested in the story and invested in its resolution despite the fact I found nearly every character in this book unlikeable. (But isn't that like life?) I loved the way he contrasted the idyllic relationship of Peter's grandparents that he outlined in his book with the cold realities of love and marriage.

This was a tremendously engaging, well-written book about relationships, about knowing, understanding, and appreciating yourself, and about the need to understand the different between reality and idealism. And you'll probably want to go canoeing afterward.

Monday, January 14, 2013

You think you've got problems?

Courtesy of George Takei on Facebook. I guess things get tough for everyone, even Austrian nuns.

Movie Review: "Zero Dark Thirty"

I remember getting a phone call late the night of May 1, 2011, just as we were getting ready to go to bed. It was from a friend who said that apparently President Obama was going to make a major announcement to America on television within the next hour.

Obviously, only an announcement of great magnitude would be announced on television around midnight on the East Coast. And although the news networks wound up breaking the news before the president, the news was still pretty momentous—Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of Navy SEALS in Pakistan.

We all reveled in that announcement, but what many didn't realize is the arduous battle it took to get to that resolution. Kathryn Bigelow's superb film Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, the tireless efforts of the intelligence community to track down leads to his whereabouts, and the operation which brought SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan that night in May 2011.

Dogged CIA analyst Maya (a fantastic Jessica Chastain) is determined to find the trail that leads the agency to bin Laden, but is unsure of all of the methods used to accomplish this, until she witnesses agency veteran Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a suspect. He plays both bad cop (torture and waterboarding are involved) and good cop (giving the prisoner food and water), and while it horrifies her, she knows that this is the way to get things done. And in this case, it ultimately pays off, giving them a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, supposedly a valued courier to bin Laden.

The leads grow hot and cold through the years, and Maya is pressured by her boss (Kyle Chandler, continuing the supercilious government persona he wore in Argo) to stop following the trail that may never to lead to bin Laden and instead help to "protect the homeland" by finding those terrorists the administration can point to as victory steps in the war against terror. But Maya is not one to be deterred from her mission, even in the face of threats against her and those in her life, and she uses every bit of information at her disposal in any way she can.

When she discovers her instincts might be correct and they might have bin Laden in their sights, Maya is not cowed by those who doubt the validity of her sources or the information she has. In a humorous sequence, she keeps track—in red marker on her boss' wall—of the number of days that elapse after the information is brought to higher-ups in the administration. And when the ultimate go-ahead is given to involve the SEAL team, she still doesn't let doubts affect her.

Like Argo and Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie for which you already know the ending, but that doesn't lessen the film's intensity or its power. Buoyed by a ferocious yet quietly emotional performance from Chastain, along with excellent supporting work from Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Chandler, and Mark Strong, I found myself truly invested in the film and its outcomes, and even found myself getting a bit emotional when the SEALs ultimately had success in their hunt for bin Laden.

Much has been made about the movie's supposed endorsement of torture. I didn't feel that it celebrated torture; it was simply a portrayal of the techniques used in the intelligence world during that time. It is sad that people have lambasted the movie for this reason.

I don't know if this was an enjoyable movie given the subject and the intensity of the story, but it really knocked me out. Kathryn Bigelow absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar for this equally taut follow-up to The Hurt Locker, and I hope Chastain wins a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Kudos to Bigelow and screenwriter and producer Mark Boal for creating a gripping story with such a strong female character at its core.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders

What kind of short stories do you like?

Do you like experimental stories, in which the author doesn't necessarily adhere to traditional narrative structure, explores ideas and concepts you may never have imagined, sometimes imagining a not-too-distant time where things will be vastly different than you're used to? Or do you prefer your short stories to be more traditional in terms of narrative, characterization, dialogue, and concept?

If you're a fan of the former, George Saunders' new collection, Tenth of December, is definitely one you should explore. And if you're more a fan of the latter, while all of Saunders' stories might not quite resonate for you, there are still some brilliantly written stories worth reading.

Saunders is probably one of the most creative literary minds currently writing. He explores ideas of class, race, sex, relationships, love, in a way I've never seen, and many of his previous novels and story collections have tended toward the satirical. The stories in Tenth of December aren't quite as satirical, but their approach is far from what you see in most collections today.

The stories that I enjoyed the most included Victory Lap, which chronicled a young girl's attempted kidnapping through the eyes of her next door neighbor, a teenage boy so controlled by his smothering parents he isn't sure whether to help her; Puppy, in which a harried mother takes her children to get a dog, but discovers more than she wants to about the woman selling it; My Chivalric Fiasco, detailing personal drama within a renaissance fair-like setting; and the powerful title story, in which a man with terminal cancer goes into the woods to die, but finds more than he bargained for in a troubled young boy.

Admittedly, I'm not much of a fan of so-called experimental stories, so I didn't quite "get" all of the stories in this collection. Some of the stories are a little vaguer than I would have liked them to be (one whole story kept referring to a term and never actually defined what the term was, although you could extrapolate its meaning somewhat, it really bothered me), and in some, characters were either so unsympathetic or spoke with weird affectations that I found it difficult to get into the stories. (Several stories referred to futuristic drugs or products with trade names, without ever quite explaining what they were or how they were used.)

This collection has received tremendous critical and popular acclaim, and you can see why, as Saunders is at the top of his game with his storytelling ability. These are not mostly happy stories, but they are powerful ones, so if you're prepared for that coming in, you may be able to take more of them into your heart and your mind.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Doctor, my eyes...

So I rarely use my blog as a forum for ogling, but sometimes I've just got to break my own rules.

This is a picture of Matthew Bomer (White Collar, Magic Mike) and Ian Somerhalder (The Vampire Diaries) unable to keep their hands off each other at the People's Choice Awards.

Far too much stylish hotness for one picture, I think.

That's the way I always do it...

When I saw this cartoon, I thought, "Is there anything that says 'Larry' more than this?" (If not, it's close.)

The Oscars: Who Got Nominated?

Last night, I predicted who would be announced as Oscar nominees this morning. And as it is every year for me post-announcement, I'm always slightly off in my predictions, excited, and irritated, all at the same time.

So, here's what happened:

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Analysis: The Academy did go with nine nominees again this year. I went 8 for 9 in my predictions, with Moonrise Kingdom being thrown overboard for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sigh. Just wasn't too wild about this movie.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Analysis: I went 4 for 5 here. I thought Denzel Washington was the most vulnerable nominee, but it turns out it was John Hawkes, whose superlative turn in The Sessions, in which he spent the entire movie flat on his back with his head contorted, was passed over. There's no denying Joaquin Phoenix was great in the odd The Master, though. (I'm also disappointed Richard Gere was overlooked for Arbitrage, but that was a pipe dream.)

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Analysis: Again, I went 4 for 5. It's exciting to have Wallis and Riva as bookend nominees in this category.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Analysis: It's becoming a broken record, but I went 4 for 5 here, too. This is one of the categories that disappointed me, because although I think everyone in this category is immensely deserving, I was hoping to see Javier Bardem recognized for Skyfall, Leonardo DiCaprio for Django (although Waltz had the showier role), and of course, Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike. But they went old school here—not counting today's nods, the nominees in this category have a collective 17 nominations and 6 wins.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Analysis: Again, 4 for 5 in this category, although I did say Jacki Weaver could surprise. Silver Linings Playbook is the only movie to have nominees in every major category—picture, actor, actress, supporting actor/actress, director, and adapted screenplay. Not bad. This is a good category and it should be a tough battle between Field and Hathaway, and I'm not sure how I feel about Maggie Smith being passed over for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—disappointed or pleased they didn't go the Betty White route?

Best Director
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Analysis: Perhaps you heard me yell, "Are you f--king kidding me?" when they read the nominees in this category. Seriously, folks? No Ben Affleck? No Kathryn Bigelow? (Tom Hooper missing out for Les Miserables is disappointing but not nearly as incensing or surprising.) I went 3 of 5 here, although I thought Russell (a 2010 nominee for The Fighter) had a shot. But I'm not nearly as passionate about Beasts of the Southern Wild as others—I found it way too dreamy, allegorical, and disjointed to merit the recognition it's getting.

And that's a wrap. Once we see Zero Dark Thirty and Amour within the next few weeks, I'll post my list of the best movies I saw in 2012, as well as what I rank as the best performances of the year.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Oscars: Who Will Be Nominated?

Early tomorrow morning Hollywood time, the nominations for the 85th Academy Awards will be announced.

Many of you may know that I've been fairly obsessed with the Oscars for years now. When the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations are announced a few weeks prior to the Oscars, we make an effort to see as many films and performances nominated, and if at all possible, we try to see everything nominated in the major Oscar categories (picture, actor, actress, supporting actor/actress, director) prior to the Oscar ceremonies.

Since I track a lot of the precursor film critics awards and other recognitions, I always make my predictions of who and what will be nominated, and then compare how I did the following day. Of course, I always love a surprise nomination or two—as long as they don't occur at the expense of someone I'm rooting for.

So, here are my predictions for the names which will be announced tomorrow morning. Let's see how far off I am!

Best Picture
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Again this year, the Academy isn't announcing how many movies it will nominate for Best Picture; the number will range between 5 and 10. I went with nine again this year, although there are some possibilities for that 10th spot, including Beasts of the Southern Wild and box-office champs The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall. (My vote would go to The Dark Knight Rises, as I thought it was a better movie, but who knows?)

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Denzel Washington, Flight

Analysis: I feel fairly confident that Cooper, Day-Lewis, Hawkes, and Jackman will be nominated, but the fifth slot is up for grabs. I'd love to see Richard Gere get his first nomination for his marvelous performance in Arbitrage, and while Joaquin Phoenix was superb in The Master, I believe his quirky off-camera personality and dissing of the Oscars will work against him, leaving that fifth slot for two-time winner Washington, who was excellent in Flight.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emanuelle Riva, Amour
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Analysis: I feel confident that Chastain, Cotillard, and Lawrence will be nominated tomorrow, but there are five possibilities for the remaining two slots. Eighty-five-year-old Riva could be the oldest woman ever nominated, for her critically acclaimed performance in the tearjerker Amour, while eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis could be the youngest performer nominated, for her quirky film debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Perennial Academy favorite (and 2006 Best Actress) Helen Mirren could sneak in for Hitchock, as could New York Film Critics winner Rachel Weisz for Deep Blue Sea, but I think the fifth slot will go to Watts, for her tough, tender portrayal of a mother fighting for survival in the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Analysis: No one has ever been nominated for a role in a James Bond movie, but I really think Javier Bardem could be the first. I'm most hoping that Matthew McConaughey, who has won a number of film critics awards for Magic Mike (although he missed both SAG and Golden Globe nods), will get a nomination. Other possibilities include Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L. Jackson for Django Unchained, and Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Analysis: I have a feeling Maggie Smith, who is becoming the Betty White of British actresses, may well sneak in for her scene-stealing role in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and although I was underwhelmed by Amy Adams in The Master, she has received a great deal of critical acclaim for her small role. However, other possibilities include Nicole Kidman, who received both Golden Globe and SAG nominations for the quirky The Paperboy, critical darling Ann Dowd in the little-seen (or even heard of) Compliance, and Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook. (Heck, if Skyfall gets a Best Picture nod, Judi Dench could sneak in, too.)

Best Director
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Analysis: If Ben Affleck doesn't get nominated tomorrow, you'll hear my angry scream wherever you are. Haneke is my one wild guess. Other possibilities include 2010 winner Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained, even David O. Russell has an outside chance if the Academy goes gaga for Silver Linings Playbook.

I know I won't be perfect, but let's see how close I am! I'll be back tomorrow with a report!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I posted this video a few years ago, but I still love it, and since it fits the category, why not share it again?

I've been a big fan of Chris Daughtry's since he appeared on the fifth season of American Idol (where he inexplicably finished fourth). There's just something about the tone of his voice that has always resonated with me.

In 2009, he performed a live acoustic version of Lady Gaga's Poker Face for a radio station in Germany. I thought the combination of the acoustic guitar and his vocal delivery really brought a different dimension to the usually frenetic song.

So, if you've not seen this before (or even if you have), enjoy!

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: "A Familiar Beast" by Panio Gianopoulos

In the wake of an affair gone wrong, Marcus has destroyed both his marriage and his career. Unsure of what he wants in his future, and paralyzed by feelings of loss, guilt, and loneliness, he winds up agreeing to visit Edgar, a former classmate, in North Carolina. He and Edgar haven't kept in touch over the years, but thanks to the wonders of social media, they were able to reconnect, and even though he isn't particularly enthusiastic about traveling across the country, Marcus makes the trip.

He finds that Edgar's life isn't much different than his own, although Edgar avoids talking about his problems in the typically stoic way men do. Left on his own in Edgar's big, lonely house, Marcus has far too much time to brood over the wreck of his life and his marriage, and confronting how far off course his life has gone. An encounter with a woman at a bar in North Carolina leaves him feeling more bewildered, guilty, and angry about all that has happened.

When Edgar proposes taking Marcus on a deer hunt, he agrees, despite his revulsion for killing anything, which has been an effective enough buffer to help him avoid hunting to this point. As he ponders a way to disentangle himself from yet another situation he has found himself in, he confronts an even greater challenge.

Panio Gianopoulos' A Familiar Beast is billed as a novella, and from what I've read on Amazon about the actual physical book, it's apparently a beautifully printed, 72-page long text. However, on my Kindle, it feels more like a slightly longer short story. But whatever you call it, Gianpoulos does a phenomenal job creating a memorable character in a familiar but complicated situation. He is a terrific writer and his use of language to convey emotions and events we've seen before is tremendously effective, and his storytelling really packs a punch in a short number of pages.

I've always said that the mark of a terrific short story is when you're left thinking about the character(s) and wondering what happened once the story ended, plus you're invested enough to want to read more. This was definitely the case with A Familiar Beast, and I look forward to seeing what else Gianopoulos writes in what I believe is a tremendously promising career.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Review: "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Sobbing. This book turned me into an emotional mess, and even though I knew it probably would before I started reading it, I'm tremendously glad I did.

Louisa Clark has led a fairly uneventful life. She lives with her parents, grandfather, sister, and nephew in the English town where she grew up, enjoys her job as a waitress at a local cafe, and has been dating Patrick, a personal trainer, for a number of years. She's never considered herself the "kind of person" who would enjoy movies with subtitles, classical music concerts, or really going beyond her comfort zone.

When the cafe closes suddenly, Louisa finds herself in a state of flux. Her family is dependent upon her income, and with the world in an economic crisis, jobs are hard to come by, especially for someone with virtually no experience doing anything else. After a number of unsuccessful tries in unappealing jobs, she is hired to be an assistant to a recently paralyzed man, at a higher salary than she has made previously, despite the fact she has never done anything of the sort.

Will Traynor was a ruthless businessman at the top of his game. He bought and sold companies, making tons of money, traveled the world to visit all of the exotic places he had always dreamed of, pushed his limits with extreme sports and challenges, and dated the most beautiful women. And then a motorcycle accident leaves him a quadriplegic, angry at the world for all he can no longer do, and having no desire to continue living.

Will intimidates Louisa, even in his current state. He doesn't want yet another caregiver telling him what would be good for him to do, especially one with no experience or self-esteem. Yet the two begin a relationship of mutual respect and friendship, albeit slowly and sometimes grudgingly. When Louisa realizes that she could be the catalyst to changing Will's outlook on life and his desire to keep on living, she does everything in her power to make that happen, not understanding the toll it will take on her life and her relationships—not to mention how it will affect Will.

This is a tremendously moving story, even if it follows a somewhat traditional path. You know that Will and Louisa will dislike each other at first, that she'll consider quitting her job, and that ultimately, she'll break through his shell. But even as things you anticipate will happen actually do, the characters Jojo Moyes created, and the emotions she has imbued them with, will find their way into your heart. The book is funny at times, frustrating at times, but really fulfilling, and there are certainly some surprises in store.

I have said many times before that I'm a total emotional sap when it comes to books like this, but even as it left me with tears dripping down my face, it's a story I can't stop thinking about. And it's one I wholeheartedly recommend, and would love to hear what others think. Read it!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Woman Who Died a Lot" by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is one of those authors whose creativity never ceases to amaze me. In his seven books featuring literary detective Thursday Next, and two books in his Nursery Crimes series, the scenarios and characters he creates are at times farcical, at times satirical, and often his references to certain things or interpretations leave me chuckling or shaking my head in wonder.

In The Woman Who Died a Lot, Thursday has returned home to Swindon, forced into semi-retirement after an assassination attempt. But although everyone wants her to recuperate from her injuries, the world slows down for no one. Both of her children's lives are in chaos—her genius daughter, Tuesday, is at work on a major Anti-Smite Shield, to protect Swindon from a smiting that God promised to hit the city with, and her son, Friday, is in the doldrums after his job as a time-traveling enforcer in the Chronoguard is eliminated, and he finds out his destiny is now not as promising as he had hoped. And of course, there's Thursday's third child, Jenny, who doesn't actually exist but everyone in the family has memories of her.

Hoping to get her old job back running the Literary Detectives, she instead becomes the new chief of The Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso's Drink Not Included Library (the library's survival depends on a somewhat aggressive corporate sponsor), where she has to deal with budget cuts, protestors who want certain books modified to fit their special interests, and an overzealous staff member who wants Thursday to sanction dawn raids to retrieve overdue library books.

Then she realizes that the nefarious Goliath Company starts substituting synthetic Thursdays for the real one in order to tap into her vast knowledge and take over the world, and these synthetic doubles are stronger, faster, sexier, and healthier than she is. Thursday must battle her old nemeses, Jack Schitt and Aornis Hades, on various fronts, in order to save Swindon, the book world, and those she loves.

I've been a big fan of Fforde's books, particularly the Thursday Next series. The characters and their foibles have become so familiar to me that whenever I read another book I feel like I'm visiting with old friends. Fforde has a tremendous ability to tell a story, and even as he is creating outrageous characters and situations, he imbues them with personality and warmth.

For some reason, however, this book just didn't resonate with me as its predecessors have. The humor seemed too obvious and often unfunny, as if random sarcastic jokes were being sprinkled throughout the narrative without any thought of how they would blend. And while Aornis Hades, who can manipulate memories, is a fascinating character, her whole plot thread grew very tiresome in this book and dragged on for far too long.

If you like unusual and creative stories that combine literary-loving characters with a farcical and futuristic plot, I'd recommend you check out this series, but your best bet is to start with an earlier novel in the series, as I don't think this one is as worthy of Thursday.

Recalculating, bright eyes...

Saw this on Facebook and couldn't resist sharing. You know that getting lost is like living in a powder keg and giving off sparks...

My favorite books of 2012...

So, you might have noticed once or twice that I read a lot. (I can't tell you how many emails and Facebook comments I get from people asking how it is I read so much.) Reading is honestly one of my most favorite things in the world, and I'm tremendously thankful that I've been able to have the opportunity to share my thoughts via this blog and websites like Goodreads and Amazon about the books I've read. In fact, I've even heard from some of the authors whose books I've reviewed, which is tremendously gratifying.

Last year, I read 109 books. (I read a mere 84 books last year.) Yeah, I can't believe it either.

When I started making this list, I came up with 32 books that I still think about, some months after I read them. But a list that size seemed a little unwieldy, so I narrowed it to 20 books, with five additional books that are equally worthy, but I classified them as "too good not to mention."

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite books from 2012. For each, I excerpted my original review, but you can still access the full review I originally wrote. As always, I'd welcome your comments, and here's to another year of exceptional reading!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:I curse John Green for writing a book that hooked me so hard I stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. to finish it. And I curse him for writing a book so emotionally gripping that I was sobbing on my couch in the middle of the night. (By curse, of course, I mean thank.) When teenagers Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus "Gus" Waters meet in a support group for kids with cancer, they are drawn to each other immediately. The two are snarky, sarcastic, sensitive, and wise beyond their years, and begin an intense friendship that brings them both joy. Clearly, a book about teenagers who meet in a cancer support group is headed in a direction you don't want it to, but even the journey Green takes you on is worth the sadness. Read my original review.

The Absolutist by John Boyne: Tristan Sadler, newly 21, travels to Norwich from his London home to take care of an errand he is dreading. He has promised to deliver a sheaf of letters his friend Will Bancroft received while they fought together during World War I to Will's sister. To say that this book devastated me is an understatement. It was easily one of the most beautifully written, emotionally gripping books I read this year, and perhaps in some time. Read my original review.

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke: In 1990, I read my first James Lee Burke book, one of the early novels in his Dave Robicheaux series. Twenty-two years later, I've read 27 of his books—the entirety of three series (Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and Hackberry Holland)—as well as several older stand-alone novels. I can honestly say that Creole Belle not only was one of Burke's best, but it was an absolutely phenomenal book, poetic, dark, elegiacal, and full of evocative imagery and complex, well-drawn characters. Read my original review.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: "The books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in." So says Clay Jannon, the narrator of Robin Sloan's marvelously magical book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Honestly, any novel that combines a celebration of a lifetime in the literary world, a lifetime of reading, along with a rollicking, mysterious adventure, is one I could imagine myself living inside of. I'm a big fan of books that take you on an adventure, and even if I wasn't always completely sure what was going on, this book hooked me from start to finish. Read my original review.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Jack and Mabel left behind their comfortable lives for the adventure and excitement of settling their own homestead in 1920s Alaska. But after a few brutal winters, the reality of their decision is crippling them both. One night the couple makes a snow child. The next morning, it is gone—as are the mittens and hat they gave it—but they start glimpsing a young, blonde-haired girl running through the snowy woods, a red fox at her side. At first they both believe the girl is a figment of their imaginations, but she begins showing up at their cabin with gifts of berries and freshly killed game. Yet each night she disappears as mysteriously as she arrives, and when the weather turns warmer each year, she disappears for good. Read my original review.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: One day in 1962, a speedboat approaches a small Italian village hidden in the cracks of the mountains. The boat bears a young American actress who has been sent from the set of Cleopatra because she is terminally ill (not to mention having an affair with one of the married actors). The actress stays at the small Hotel Adequate View, run by young Pasquale Tursi, and his relationship with her and the events that unfold following her arrival change the course of his life in many ways. Jess Walter's poetic Beautiful Ruins switches between 1960s Italy and the present day, as well as times and locations in between. It is a story of love and loss, of realizing your destiny and shouldering your responsibilities, and how you never quite lose the dreams you have. Read my original review.

Every Day by David Levithan: Reading this book requires you to suspend your disbelief, but it will be well worth it. It is the story of A. Every day A wakes up in the body of another teenager. There is no rhyme or reason to whose body A wakes up in on a given day—male, female, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, fat, thin, well-adjusted, or mentally ill. For one day, A becomes that person, accesses their memories, speaks in their voice, follows their daily routine, and interacts with their friends. And at the end of 24 hours, A leaves that person with some memories of what happened the previous day, but because A does very little to disrupt the lives of those A inhabits, they're generally none the worse for wear. It's a lonely life. Read my original review.