Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: "The Obituary Writer" by Ann Hood

In 1960, Claire is the perfect suburban housewife—she knows how to have the perfect drink ready for her husband when he comes home from work, she is up on her current events, caters to her husband's every need, and she realizes how lucky she is to have married a true provider, ensuring a good future for her family. But a crisis in their neighborhood leaves Claire out-of-sorts, and leads her into the arms of another man. As the world readies for John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president, she finds herself pregnant and unsure what path her future should take—should she do what is expected of her or should she follow her heart?

Years earlier, in 1919, Vivien Lowe is working as an obituary writer in California. She is able to perfectly capture the essence of those others have lost, and she knows people's grief all too well, as she lost her lover during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Despite the years that have passed, she has remained convinced he's suffering from amnesia and is unable to get back home. When her closest childhood friend experiences a tragedy, Vivien must decide whether to continue searching for her lost love, or moving on with her life.

Ann Hood's newest novel, The Obituary Writer, tells both Vivien and Claire's stories, in alternating chapters. While their circumstances and challenges are different, the two women are more similar than they appear, and the connection between the two will ultimately help one move forward.

I really enjoyed this book, and read the majority of it in one day. While there isn't anything that is necessarily unique about either woman's story, Hood really captured the tone and the setting of each character really effectively, and I was hooked pretty quickly. The connection between the two women was fairly easy to figure out, but that didn't detract from the book's appeal, because Hood is an excellent storyteller. I found the ending a little ambiguous and would love to discuss the book with someone else who has read it to see if my interpretation and theirs were the same!

While the description of the book calls this "part literary mystery," I don't think that is accurate. What I do think it is, however, is a really well-told, well-written story worth reading.

Because You're Special...

March 20 would have been Fred Rogers' 85th birthday.

I've written before about how fond I was of Mr. Rogers growing up, of his unswerving belief that everyone was special and how important it is that people know and remember that fact. He also talked about the importance of gratitude, of taking the time to think of and thank the people that have encouraged you and made you who you are. In fact, when Rogers won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmys in 1997, he asked everyone in the audience to do just that.

I recently read an article—on Cracked's website, of all places—which listed the five moments that proved Mr. Rogers was the greatest American. While I'm not a fan of comparing one's greatness to another's, I can't dispute the points the article makes. Some have condemned Rogers for teaching tolerance of all people, but we all could benefit from a lot more tolerance in our world today.

Through all of the recent debate about marriage equality, and those who believe that not everyone deserves the right to spend their lives with the person they love, I've struggled a bit. Even though he was a Presbyterian minister, I'd like to believe that Mr. Rogers would stand for love, not the fear of it. And more than anything, I know he'd still be telling people how special they are, and how he feels about them.

So, for whenever you're feeling a little less sure of yourself, here's a reminder from Mr. Rogers that it's you he likes.

There. Doesn't that make you feel better, at least once your eyes stop burning?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: "The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

How can we keep from falling into the same old patterns and traps of our childhood? Can we ever break free of the pull of family dynamics? These questions are at the crux of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout's new novel, The Burgess Boys.

Jim, Bob, and Susan Burgess were raised by their mother in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine, following the death of their father in a freak accident when they were young. Jim was always the strong one, the hero; Bob, the sensitive one, always seemed to get the most love from their mother, while his twin sister, Susan, bore the brunt of her mother's rages and insecurities. As soon as they were able, Jim and Bob fled Shirley Falls for New York—Jim became a corporate lawyer after garnering some notoriety defending a celebrity client, while Bob settled for a career as a Legal Aid attorney. Susan stayed in Shirley Falls, married, divorced, and raised a son on her own, and was never able to overcome the self-esteem issues she suffered because of her mother. All their lives, Jim has belittled Bob's every move—the collapse of his marriage and subsequent romantic relationships, his work for Legal Aid, even his apartment. And while everyone has told Bob to stand up for himself, he idolizes Bob, so he has allowed himself to be treated this way.

One day, Susan calls Jim for help. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, apparently rolled a bloody pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan. He doesn't know why he did it, except that he intended it as a joke, because he didn't even know what Ramadan was. Zach's actions have ignited a firestorm in Shirley Falls, where an influx of Somali immigrants had already been causing strain among the long-time residents. Jim and Bob come home to try and assuage Susan and Zach's fears, and Jim tries to smooth things over with the political and legal community. And as Jim's meddling actually makes things worse than better, and the three siblings find themselves reliving old habits and old hurts, all of the anxieties and pain are magnified, causing ripples in their relationships with each other, as well as Jim's relationship with his wife, Helen.

Elizabeth Strout is a very talented writer, and she has created a compelling story of family dynamics and what it feels like to be an outsider, both in reality and within your own family. While the premise of her story is appealing, her characters are not, at least through nearly the entire book. I really struggled with why I cared what happened to these people when I didn't have any sympathy for passive Susan, guilt-ridden and sad-sack Bob, or boorishly aggressive and angry Jim. Even the gradual (or in some cases, sudden) transformations they make didn't completely win me over, although I understood the catalysts for them occurring.

Can you enjoy a book when you have no empathy for the main characters? That answer differs for me from book to book; in the case of The Burgess Boys, I'd say it was a well-written book I didn't enjoy as much as I had hoped.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

"These stories are all true, but only somewhere else."

So says the narrator of Kristopher Jansma's appealing yet frustrating novel-in-stories, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. From an early age, he wanted to be a writer, and he simply can't stop reinventing himself and the situations around him. As a teenager in North Carolina, he introduces himself as a character in a Wilkie Collins novel when pressed into service escorting a girl he is enamored with to her debutante ball. In college in the Berkshires, he meets the eccentric and talented Julian McGann, a flamboyant writer whose skill inspires rivalry and inspiration—Julian's career reaches great heights, while the narrator finds himself benefiting only when Julian's mania gets the best of him.

But in addition to the inspiration Julian provides, he also introduces the narrator to the beautiful Evelyn, a world-weary actress with whom he becomes quickly enamored. Evelyn is certainly fond of the narrator, but enjoys the control she has over him, and the two have an on-again, off-again relationship for years. When Evelyn finally decides to get married, the behavior of Julian and the narrator lead to the trio having a falling out that lasts for more than 10 years.

That's where the book falls off the rails, in my opinion. Suddenly the narrator is impersonating a college professor, telling tales to a newlywed couple in Dubai, writing papers for college students in Sri Lanka, searching for his Salinger-esque friend in Ghana and at a writer's retreat in Iceland, and tracking his one true love (or is she?) in Luxembourg. Julian McGann is now inexplicably called Jeffrey Oakes, and Evelyn's wedding to an Indian scientist somehow is transmogrified into a wedding with a prince from Luxembourg. And the conclusion, in the same airport where the book began, is a little magical but a little perplexing.

I think Jansma is a terrific writer, and I loved the first half of the book. The relationships between the characters, the adventures they found themselves in, the rivalry between writers, all were compelling and enjoyable. But when you have a main character who is more enamored with reinventing the truth at every turn, you don't know what to believe, or when what you're reading will suddenly turn into something else. I kept waiting for some sort of explanation about which parts were true—was his friend's name Julian or Jeffrey? Who did Evelyn marry? But the narrator, and the book, were mum on these details.

I love books that leave you guessing, and I love those that challenge the truth, but I struggled with this book because it never tied things up for me. Perhaps it was never meant to. But in the end, I thought this was a book with tremendous potential that sadly (and somewhat frustratingly) was never realized.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An historic day...

Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about Proposition 8 in California, which struck down marriage equality. When the Ninth Circuit Court and a district court in California subsequently overturned the voters' decision to ban same-sex marriage, supporters of the ban brought their case to the Supreme Court. While early analysis of the justices' questions point toward the possibility of a narrow ruling which might set aside Proposition 8 but not provide guidance as to marriage equality in other states, a decision is expected in June.

Tomorrow, the Court will hear arguments to overturn the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limits the definition of marriage to being between one man and one woman. Briefs supporting the nullification of this law have been filed by countless people, from President Obama to professional athletes like football players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita, and countless entertainers. President Clinton, who signed the bill into law, has also called for it to be overturned. Four Democratic Senators—Senators Mark Warner (VA), Claire McCaskill (MO), Mark Begich (AK), and Jay Rockefeller (WV)—have publicly stated their support for marriage equality, as has Republican Senator Rob Portman (OH), whose son is gay.

As you might imagine, there is a tremendous amount of emotion surrounding these events. I never would have believed the Supreme Court would ever deign to discuss marriage equality, and I certainly would never have believed that I'd see a tweet from President Obama like this:

Seeing the photo of the tweet on Facebook earlier today made me a bit emotional, because as I've said a number of times already, when I was growing up and struggling with how to accept myself, I never would have believed a sitting president of our country would make me feel I was worthy of equality.

I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will ultimately rule with the best interests of the many and not the few, but I have a feeling their decisions will be so narrow that it will continue to be left up to the states to decide individually, and many states already have constitutional amendments in place banning same-sex marriage. I know history will at some point prove that opponents of marriage equality are on the wrong side of the argument, as were those opposed to civil rights, suffrage, and interracial marriage, but waiting for history to prove those wrong does the many of us wishing the same benefits as our fellow citizens small comfort. There is no reason we should bear the same burdens without the same advantages.

I leave you with a few images of the many that have been shared via the internet today. As I've said countless times, I fail to understand why people fear love between two people. Love builds us up, it lifts us up. Fear of that love only serves to tear us down.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I first heard the amazing Louis Armstrong sing What a Wonderful World when I watched the movie Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. While the song came at a pivotal time in the film, I remember it utterly moved me, even giving me the chills. And while the movie had a terrific soundtrack, it was that song I came back to over and over again.

Probably one of the most well-known cover versions of this song is by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose 1993 medley of What a Wonderful World and Somewhere Over the Rainbow can still provoke some of the same emotions Armstrong's version did.

But the version of this song I'm featuring is by the late Joey Ramone, best known as the lead singer of The Ramones. While his version of the song isn't quite as ethereal as Armstrong or Kamakawiwo'ole's, it has an added poignancy when you realize it was released posthumously in 2002, on his solo album, Don't Worry About Me. (Ramone died in April 2001 after a seven-year battle with lymphoma.)

No matter which version of the song you like best, you can't beat the way it makes you feel. Here's Ramone's version:

Here's Kamakawiwo'ole's medley:

And here's the original that spawned it all, which still holds up after all this time:

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

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

Go Your Own Way by Lissie

Winner Takes it All by McFly

Book Review: "What the Family Needed" by Steven Amsterdam

I don't know about you, but when I was growing up (and sometimes even now as an adult), I dreamed of having superpowers. The desire for those powers—of flight, invisibility, super-speed, x-ray vision, etc.—changed based on the situation I was in at the time, but I felt fairly certain that my life, or at least that moment, would improve significantly if I possessed those skills.

When Steven Amsterdam's What the Family Needed begins, 15-year-old Giordana and her older brother, Ben, are the pawns in their parents' struggling marriage, and one day their mother decides to leave their father and take them to live with her sister's family. Despite the perpetual animosity between her parents, this move is a shock for Giordana, who had planned her entire summer around hanging out with her friends and working at an ice cream store in town. Yet when they arrive, her anger is quickly tempered when her younger cousin, Alek, asks, "Tell me which you want, to be able to fly or to be invisible." She chooses invisibility, and she discovers her ability to will herself so gives her more insight into her parents' relationship and the path her life was headed down, than she'd ever imagined.

In each of the book's related vignettes, which take place over the years, each of the characters suddenly discovers they possess a superpower. Some are truly meaningful—Alek's older brother finds he suddenly has the ability to forge romantic connections between people by simply touching both of them; Giordana's mother, a nurse, finds she suddenly can hear people's thoughts—and others' are somewhat arbitrary, such as Alek's mother, who discovers she can swim with almost superhuman endurance. But all of these characters (mostly) use their powers for good, not evil, and find that the powers changed them in different ways than they imagined.

Although I found some of the stories more compelling and emotionally engaging than others, I really enjoyed this book and the magical world it created. I did wish that Amsterdam did more to resolve each of the characters' stories—while we see all of them years after we've learned of their superpowers, we don't know if these skills were temporarily inherited or permanent, and how they made it to a later point possessing those powers. And I loved the emotion of the final story, which finally gave more insight into Alek, who is somehow at the center of everyone's stories, although its resolution had the potential to negate everything that happened before it.

This is a beautifully written book, almost lyrical at times, and if you have the power to suspend your disbelief, you'll find yourself emotionally engaged in an utterly unique set of stories, which while fantastical, don't require you to like fantasy or science fiction.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: "Indiscretion" by Charles Dubow

Boy, did I love this book. I actually finished it days ago but haven't had time to write a review until now, and I've not been able to get it out of my mind.

Madeleine and Harry Winslow have been together since they were students at Yale some 20 years earlier. They have it all—charm, looks, money, and talent, as Harry is a National Book Award-winning author just on the verge of becoming a household name. They are always surrounded by friends and acquaintances, whether they're at their summer home in the Hamptons, their apartment in New York City, or even in a rented apartment in Rome, where they travel so Harry can finish his next book. As Walter, the Nick Carraway-esque narrator says, "I can think of no heroes of literature who would fit their paradigm. Their story lacks the obstacles to passion. They met and fell in love. It is one of the simplest and, at the same time, most difficult things to do. The drama of their lives is that they know how to keep love alive."

One summer, the Winslows meet Claire, who is in the Hamptons with a boorish man she is dating. Claire is immediately drawn to the appeal of both Winslows, and her intelligence, beauty, and admiration of the couple quickly wins her a place in their crowd. But by the end of the summer, Claire's admiration turns to a strong desire for Harry, which he easily rebuffs, as he is deeply in love with Maddy. As Walter remarks, "It is easy to tempt, but only the truly strong can resist." When the Winslows leave for Rome, it seems as though Claire's desire will pass, yet when circumstances bring Harry and Claire together unexpectedly, he finds himself unable to resist her. He falls deeply for Claire, yet he never falls out of love or desire for his wife. And then, of course, Maddy discovers the betrayal, which leads to both expected and unexpected outcomes.

This is a book about lifelong friendships, love, devotion, passion, and desire. Can you truly love two people at once? Can you spend your entire life loving someone from a distance and be happy only with their proximity? Does betrayal truly kill long-time love? All four main characters—Maddy, Harry, Claire, and Walter—each are touched in some way by these questions. Indiscretion is so beautifully written, so emotionally satisfying, that I was even able to deal with the fact that I found Claire's character unappealing, and not simply because of her role in the story.

The world of literature is full of books about infidelity, so you may wonder what makes this superlative debut novel so good when there are so many books out there that tell similar stories. The fact is, while the story may not be unique, Dubow draws you into his characters' lives and gets you so fully immersed that you can't help but be hooked by what happens to them. And even if you can predict what might happen, the journey to those incidents is so worthwhile it doesn't matter if you've seen it all before. That is a true testament to his enormous talent as a writer, and the story he has created. I hope it moves and affects you as much as it did me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I listened to ABBA a bit when I was growing up, in particular the Super Trouper album, which I remember (believe it or not) my grandmother playing constantly in her car. But it wasn't until ABBA songs featured so prominently in Muriel's Wedding—particularly Waterloo (probably my favorite)—that I became fairly obsessed with their music.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and I saw a regional production of Mamma Mia! in Philadelphia. That was all I needed to feed my ABBA obsession, and although the movie version featured some fairly questionable singing performances (cough, Pierce Brosnan, cough), Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried were well worth the price of admission.

I'm also a fan of the British pop/rock band McFly, and while I like a lot of their original music, I stumbled over their cover of Winner Takes It All a year or so ago. It was the second song on their 2008 single Lies, and while they're no ABBA, I think they do the song more than justice.

Here's McFly's version:

Here's the original, for nostalgia's sake:

Here's Meryl Streep's version from the movie version of Mamma Mia (I promise no Pierce Brosnan singing):

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

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

Go Your Own Way by Lissie

Book Review: "Prodigy" by Marie Lu

There's something about the second book in a trilogy. It's like everything just clicks. No matter how strong the first book was, in the second one, all too often the author hits their stride and delivers a powerful punch. It was the case with The Hunger Games trilogy—I thought Catching Fire was pretty fantastic—and Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, and it's definitely the case with the second book in Marie Lu's Legend Series, Prodigy. I enjoyed the first book, Legend, a great deal, but I couldn't get enough of this one.

Following his faked execution at the hands of the Republic, June and Day escape Los Angeles and head for Las Vegas, where they hope to meet up with a group of Patriot rebels, whom they hope will help heal Day's wounds and provide assistance in his search for his young brother, Eden, captured by the Republic to be used as a medical experiment. Upon their arrival in Las Vegas, they learn that the Republic's Elector Primo has died, and he is replaced by his son, Anden, who once showed interest in June.

The Patriot rebels have connections in high places and promise to help Day find where his brother has been taken, but they ask for a pretty high price in return—they want to enlist his and June's assistance in assassinating the new Elector, so the Patriots can take control. Being pressed into this kind of service will separate June and Day, and playing two different roles definitely strain their blossoming relationship. Day starts to wonder whether his blind faith in June is warranted, or if finding herself back in the arms of the Republic, where she flourished previously, will be enough for her to leave him and the Patriots behind. And as June spends time with Anden, and hears that his plans for the Republic are far different from his father's, she wonders if she can stop the Patriots' plan, or whether doing so might mean Day's certain death.

What is the stronger obligation, love and friendship, or principle? How do you know whom you should trust? Are there moments when you should trust your head and not your heart? Should you put the needs of family above the needs of your country and its people? Prodigy addresses all of those questions but doesn't necessarily tie all of the answers up neatly, or answer them at all. The book alternates the narration between Day and June, so you're able to get both sides of situations, and understand how one character sees something may be vastly different than the other.

This is a great book, and Marie Lu did a terrific job moving her characters and the plot forward. While I had a feeling about how the plot would ultimately unfold, I loved how Lu kept me guessing, and I found myself heavily invested in what was going to happen to June, Day, Anden, and those around them. There's good action and character development, and the choices the characters face aren't as clear as they seem.

Prodigy is even better than its predecessor, and as I raced through the book over the last day, all I kept thinking was, I can't wait for the third book. Let's hope it's worthy of the first two in the series...and it doesn't take too long to come out! (Sorry, Marie Lu, but the pressure's on!)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Review: "A Town of Empty Rooms" by Karen E. Bender

Serena and Dan Shine are both struggling. Serena suffers a breakdown of sorts following the death of her beloved, larger-than-life father, while Dan is struggling with the death of his older brother. When Serena's actions force them to leave New York and head to Waring, North Carolina, the only place where Dan can find a job, their marriage is challenged as both of them face similar yet different emotions.

Deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, Serena tries to find ways to fit in and feel like she has a purpose, so she becomes active in a small synagogue in town. She is taken with the congregation's magnetic rabbi, who serves as a spiritual and emotional guidepost for her, although his own erratic behavior threatens his relationships with his congregants and his future. Dan, who feels betrayed by Serena's actions and desperate to reclaim some stability in his life, becomes somewhat obsessed with his involvement as a Cub Scout leader for their young son, Zeb.

Both Dan and Serena have encounters with their volatile next door neighbor, Forrest, who rules the neighborhood with threats and unstable actions. Forrest is the scout leader who wants everything his way and doesn't care what stands in his way—ethics, religious freedom, or plain decency. And they quickly find out what happens when you challenge him, which leaves them both questioning their decision to stay in Waring and their faith in each other.

Above all, this is a book about a marriage in turmoil, of struggling to find one's place, and coming to terms with loss. "Everyone lived in the empty rooms of their own longing, wrangling with their own versions of love and grief; sometimes, if they were lucky, they stepped out of their rooms to meet another person, to try, for a moment, to live in the precious room of another."

Karen Bender is a really strong writer, and I enjoyed the depth and complexity she brought to some of her characters, especially Dan, Serena, and Rabbi Golden. I also thought she did a great job exploring the simmering anti-Semitism that still exists in small towns, and how it comes out in seemingly innocent ways. I was frustrated, even irritated at times by Forrest's character and the situations he was involved in; I felt as if the book was on the verge of teetering into territory in which it didn't belong, and I was glad that Bender pulled back from that.

In the end, this is a good, compelling story, although sometimes a little uneven, brought to a higher level thanks to Karen Bender's writing ability.

Friday, March 15, 2013

AI Results Show Recap: Can We Have Another Minute to Discuss?

Ok, Idol
fans, here's a little pop quiz for you.

The show's decision to finally show voter rankings after 12 seasons is:
(a) Awesome; just what I've been waiting for
(b) Horrible; takes away all the suspense
(c) Just another way to manipulate the message that girls rule, guys drool

I kid, I kid. While it was interesting to see allegedly how the contestants rank with voters, I could have done without the whole, "Devin, you received 25 percent of the vote in Puerto Rico" thing. I need lots of space before people start lighting up maps with different colors or people, ok? But seriously, while the top three vote-getters from Wednesday's show—Candice, Kree, and Angie (in mysterious order)—were probably my top three, I worry that if the results consistently look this way, people may get complacent and not vote for the stronger contestants. And if Kree and Candice aren't the final two, someone will pay.

The show started with a recap of Wednesday night's performances, and we got Jimmy's manipulated feedback on the contestants.
  • "Singing slow urban gospel every week won't get Curtis past the top 8."
  • "When I heard Janelle sing, I was sold. That girl's not going anywhere." (This is where I call BS. Her performance was tepid and utterly lacking star quality or vocal charisma.)
  • "If Devin sings this type of song a few times, this will be his temporary home."
  • "Angie is a real talent. When she sings her own songs, she's magnificent; but she wasn't as good as the judges thought with this song."
  • "Paul picked a good song for him, but I don't get the country/pop thing. It's pure pop. Other guys did a better job than him, though." (Other than Burnell, who? No one, that's who. But better get our last white guy off the show ASAP!)
  • "Candice's talent, her poise, won the night."
  • "Lazaro has potential, but he needs to learn to take criticism and work harder." (Clearly he sees Lazaro as a threat to a girl winning.)
  • "Kree was great, she knows the material she sings better than anyone. Top 3."
  • "Burnell was the best guy, he did a great job."
  • "When it comes to charisma and star package, it's Amber, Amber, Amber. Top 3."

Then Ryan started this new thing where they tell people where their votes were coming from. I won't even recap it because it's stupid and unnecessary. But Candice made the top three.

And speaking of unnecessary, instead of the Ford Music Video (are they still doing these?) we got a commercial for some upcoming movie called The Croods, because the contestants sang some sappy song from the movie called Shine Your Way. I'll pass.

Fast-forwarded through the Bon Jovi performance, which was taped a week ago. Lest my Jersey cred be threatened, I saw them live in concert about a month ago. This was just a reminder they did far too few of their hits and far too many new songs.

Kree was presented with the key to her hometown of Woodville, Texas by the city's mayor. Oh, and she made the top three.

Time for the sing-off for a spot on the summer tour! (That's about as much enthusiasm as I can muster.) Moptop mess Charlie was the sixth place finisher on the guys' side, so he came out full dressed this week, accompanying himself on the piano to an original song called Lucy in the Sky with Sky Blue Diamond. It was slightly treacly but more on key and together than Charlie has been in a while. He admitted he wrote the song about having to "choose between a two-year relationship and being on the show." I'm sure the producers had their tranq guns at the ready in case he started breaking down again.

Aubrey was the sixth-place finisher on the girls' side. (Still shocked they didn't trot out Zoanette to up the crazy quotient.) She looked gorgeous and sang Out Here On My Own. As with every one of her performances, I marveled more at how beautiful she was than how she sounded. Now it's up to the voters, and I'd assume our little awkward turtle will get his chance to shine in the spotlight. We'll find out next week, though, so stay tuned!

One of my phavorite (haha) winners, Phillip Phillips, returned, well, home, to perform his new single Gone, Gone, Gone (which, as we'd later find out, is the new single they play for the eliminated contestants). He also was presented with notice that his single Home is certified as quadruple platinum. Not bad for someone people wrote off as a Dave Matthews wannabe, huh?

After revealing that Angie was the third contestant in the top three, they ripped a page from The X-Factor's book and revealed the rankings of the remaining contestants, one by one, as they saw their faces flash up on the monitor and tried not to freak out around those yet to find out where they stood. The rankings were as follows:

4th Place: Lazaro (if he can get his act together, he's dangerous)
5th Place: Amber (I was a little surprised she was so low, but again, I wasn't as overwhelmed as everyone else with her performance)
6th Place: Janelle (I guess she was the 5th best girl, so...)
7th Place: Burnell
8th Place: Paul (I think he's probably in trouble)

The bottom two were Devin and Curtis. Nicki announced, "If Curtis goes home, then I'm going home." And after a little hemming and hawing, Ryan revealed that Curtis finished in last place and would need to sing for his life. Nicki threw some sort of fake temper tantrum. Curtis' redux of I Believe I Can Fly was less hammy but not much better than his performance Wednesday night, but I still expected the judges to fall all over him.

Would they use the save? I couldn't imagine that they would, even if Curtis hit every note and made angels weep, because I'm sure they're saving it for one of the ladies, when one of the favorites is falsely put at risk as a way to motivate voters winds up a victim of voter neglect. When Randy revealed the decision on whether to save Curtis wasn't unanimous (which it must be), Nicki said, "I don't feel like we came to a decision. Could we have another minute to discuss it?" (Not that the judges spoke at all during Curtis' performance, because the die was already cast.)

And with that, we said goodbye to someone Ryan labeled, "One of our favorite people ever on the show." Umm, not even close. I'm actually thrilled at this point, and honestly, I don't dislike any of the remaining nine as much as Curtis. So glad he didn't stick around for weeks like previous egomaniacs Michael Lynche and Jacob Lusk.

Will Charlie or Aubrey join the tour? Do you care? I don't. But if I were Nick, Cortez, Elijah, and Vincent, I'd be kind of bummed I finished lower than mega-meltdown Charlie...

After Ever After...

I'd never heard of Jon Cozart, aka "Paint" before, but I am absolutely blown away. This guy is a freaking genius, and he is crazy talented.

In "After Ever After," he outlines what life was like for the Disney princesses after their happy endings ended. And it isn't pretty. (Pretty funny, yes.)

If you're easily disillusioned, or you're not in a place where you can laugh out loud, save this for later. And check out his YouTube channel, where he does spoofs of movies and other things.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day!!

It's 3.14, which means it's Pi Day! I don't know about you, but I can always get into a holiday, however manufactured, that is built on dessert. (It's the math I have trouble with.)

AI Recap: I'd Stand Up, But My Skirt's Too Short...

On last night's show, clearly brought to you by Jimmy Iovine and Interscope Records, was mostly a snoozefest, punctuated by a few star-worthy performances. (Seriously, what was with every contestant talking about how amazing it was to meet Jimmy, how nervous they were, blah blah blah?) And the snoozing, I believe, was mostly due to one of the worst theme choices ever—"Songs of the American Idols," a mishmash of songs sung by the winners on the show plus songs they've recorded post-Idol. As you might imagine, there were some tired songs on this show.

Nicki was about 7-10 minutes late for the episode, ostensibly "stuck in traffic" on her way to the studio. Or she heard Curtis' tepid and off-key performance of Fantasia's I Believe in rehearsal, and figured she could skip it. Seriously, dude. You said you didn't want to "top" Fantasia's performance? Well, no danger there! (Syesha Mercado covered this in Season 7, and I thought she did a pretty great job.) First of all, Curtis was wearing a jacket made from bandannas or horrible paisley curtains, and oh, vocally he was an utter mess. He was off-key nearly the entire song and the choir didn't help him any, and the sharp high note he threw in at the end smacked a little of desperation, like when figure skaters throw in a triple salchow at the end of their routine because they fell on another jump earlier on. For some reason, however, the judges wouldn't criticize his vocals, although Keith said Curtis' adrenaline "caused you to sing above where you were supposed to." Randy said "a couple of things were great," but said Curtis kept trotting out the same type of inspirational songs, and he wanted him to do something different. (Like sing on key and be less pompous? Oh, probably not.) Mariah disagreed with Randy, saying she wanted more of Curtis' "gospel-tinged" vocals, and even mocked Randy, saying that "Randy wants you to do a rock album."

Jimmy told Janelle she needed to stand out because there are "lots of blonde country singers" out there right now. She decided to sing Montgomery Gentry's Gone, which Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery sang. (LMFAO when Jimmy said that Scotty took "lots of genres" and turned them into country songs. No, he sang everything the same way.) While Janelle's performance was upbeat and pleasant, she just doesn't have a particularly strong or memorable voice, and again, I don't think she should have made it even this far. She is by far the weakest woman in the top 10. She said she got "cotton mouth" during her song. Keith said Janelle was "burning it up" onstage (hardly) and he liked her "LeAnn Womack-y runs." Nicki told "King Arthur" that last week's song suited her better, and she wished that she'd sing songs "that show the pretty part of your voice," but still called her "electrifying." (Take your hood down and your sunglasses off, Nicki. Maybe then you'll hear and see what's going on.) Randy said "the song didn't lead anywhere," while Mariah contradicted herself as always, saying she would love to hear Janelle sing a ballad or mid-tempo song, but that her "aura was giving us 'star'."

Devin chose to sing Carrie Underwood's Temporary Home. I love the song and think, when it's done right, it has the power to move you emotionally. Devin mentioned in his meeting with Jimmy that he identified with some of the lyrics because he was raised in a single-parent home. Regardless, that emotional connection didn't translate into a memorable performance. I thought he was bland and disappointing, although he hit all his notes. Keith said it wasn't one of his better performances and said that while the song was good for Devin's voice, he appeared to be nervous, unlike his usual confident self. Nicki disagreed, saying that Devin didn't look afraid, he looked professional, and felt this showed another facet of his talent. Randy called it "way too safe," saying he mistakenly underplayed it, because "you got to go for broke every time." Mariah explained it wasn't Devin's vocals necessarily, but "we expect so much from you because you have the ability to do so much vocally." Ryan said, "If you're here next week, you'll show a different side of you, right?" Devin corrected him, saying, "When I'm here..."

Jimmy warned Angie that she has a tendency when performing to seem like she's performing in a beauty pageant. She shuddered and said, "I would never want to compete in a beauty pageant." I'm going to stay off my anti-pageant-bashing soapbox for the time being, but just say, if you don't want to sound pageanty, perhaps you shouldn't sing a song that has been performed better by pageant contestants, in this case, Jill Brooks, who won a talent prelim at the 2011 Miss Tennessee Pageant. Anyway, Angie chose to sing Celine Dion's I Surrender, originally sung by Kelly Clarkson, and covered by Anthony Federov in Season 4 and Season 8's Lil Rounds. When Angie finished singing, Keith said, "As do I, surrender." He called Angie "such an artist, because you can take any song and make it feel current." (I didn't feel this one was current, actually.) He also said that Angie's higher register was very pleasing to the ear. Nicki said Angie looked like a billion dollars, that her "legs are giving me everything I need today." She called Angie "perfection on every level," said her voice was flawless, and that she was "a thousand billion percent amazing." Randy did his all-too-tired declaration combination of "The competition starts now!" and "This girl is in it to win it!" Mariah said, in her shortest critique of the evening, "What did I think? Stellar."

Jimmy reminded Paul not to oversing, not to overthink, and for goodness sake, don't be theatrical. "You're not running for president!" Paul chose to sing Lonestar's Amazed, which Scotty sang in Season 10. (This song has been covered to death on this show—by Josh Gracin in Season 2, Matt Rogers in Season 3, even Baylie Brown in Season 11. And there's no video proof of any of it.) Truthfully, I thought this was Paul's best vocal, as he hit some big notes but didn't overdo it. He certainly deserved more praise than I think he got. Keith said it sounded as if Paul had been listening to the judges' critiques, and called it one of his better performances, suggesting he "stay on this track." Nicki told Paul, "This is the first time you've stimulated my sexual appetite," and said this was a good song for Paul's voice. Randy told Paul he wasn't going to comment on the sexual appetite (thank you, Dawg) but called it a "great song choice," although he wanted Paul to stay in a higher register longer. (Of course, last week he told Paul that when he got intense, it wasn't pleasant to listen to, so what would you expect?)

All hail Candice. She sang I Who Have Nothing, covered by Jordin Sparks during Season 6. Holy frigging crap, she was that good. Control and unleashed vocal power, ridiculous range but softer parts, too. I hope she's this good every week. She just has a performance quality that is head and shoulders above everyone on this show except Kree. (Totally different vocal, but equally as slaying, IMHO.) Keith, Randy, and Nicki gave her a standing ovation. (I did, too.) Keith said, "Just know if we had more time, we'd still be standing and clapping for you." He praised her effortless command of the notes and how she "never let the audience pull you out of your zone." Nicki suggested, "It would be in everyone's best interest to never sing this song ever again," even recommending the song be "banned from the show" because Candice "destroyed" it. (Nicki, if only they'd ban certain songs from the show...maybe you can get them to do it.) She said Candice combined "vocal gymnastics fused with a fresh, current, ill style." Randy loved it, but gave her the tepid, "This is one of the greatest performances on the show...this season." Mariah said that every time Candice is on stage, she's mesmerized and transfixed, and feels her performances in her heart. Apparently last week, after Candice's performance, one of her minions Mariah tweeted, "Candice, wow!" She also explained that her skirt is too tight, which is why she can't stand up to give her a standing ovation like the other judges.

Lazaro looked dapper, like a young Bruno Mars, in a turquoise jacket and skinny black tie. Unfortunately, that was the most inspired part of his performance. He chose to sing Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway, previously covered by Katie Stevens in Season 9. He hit some good notes, but mostly the song seemed out of his range. Keith asked him why he chose that song. I felt really bad for Lazaro trying to get his words out, but ultimately he explained he identified with the lyrics because he grew up in a small town and left his family to try his hand at performing. Keith said the performance wasn't in his wheelhouse, Nicki called it her least favorite performance of Lazaro's, chalking it up to Jimmy's criticism that Lazaro often forgets his words or seems lost in his performances, which I agree is untrue. She did tell Lazaro he looked like "a cuddly Ricky Ricardo." Randy said his pitch was all over the place, and Mariah condescended, saying "people are falling in love with your courage." Oh, and Mariah knows what it's like to overcome obstacles.

I'm not sure what Jimmy was smoking when he told Kree not to oversing, something she's never done, but it didn't matter. She absolutely slayed Roy Orbison's Crying, originally sung by Carrie Underwood in Season 4. Not quite sure why that performance wasn't worthy of a standing o, though. Keith trotted out the "you could sing the phone book" compliment, but then told Kree if she made a record tomorrow, he'd buy it in a heartbeat. Nicki called Kree's performance "smooth, delicious fun," and then said something like, "Sometimes when I'm hungry, I want waffles—buttermilk waffles—and I put some Aunt Jemima maple syrup on them, and a little butter, and then put it in the microwave for a tiny bit to warm it all up. That's how your performance made me feel." Randy was perplexed, but told Kree he loves her and loves her voice, and from the first note of every song she sings, he's drawn in. He also said her performance made him feel good all over. Mariah said it was obvious Kree has an enormous range.

Of all the songs Burnell could have chosen, he chose Ruben Studdard's Season 2 coronation song, Flying without Wings. God, it reminded me of how disappointed I was when he beat Clay Aiken that year. Burnell lost the glasses for this performance, not that he would have been able to see anyway given the clouds of smoke/fog wafting all over the stage. It's a really boring song and I don't think he did much with it. Keith praised the "unique timbre" of Burnell's voice and the so-called "Burnell-isms" in his performance. Nicki admitted to being "obsessed" with Ruben's album and that song (really?), and said that Burnell is well on his way, although she loved last week's performance better. Randy said he "vindicated the dudes" with his performance. Mariah talked about how emotional Burnell makes her when he sings. Ryan snarked, "It looks like the smoke has traveled all the way from Vatican City." Hee.

Getting the pimp spot for the second time this season already was Amber, who chose Kelly's coronation song, A Moment Like This, which Jimmy inexplicably suggested she should sing up-tempo. Thankfully, she didn't, although she brought an interesting interpretation to the song, and proved her ability to sing while being battered about by the wind machine. She hit some big notes, and I really like her voice, but like her performance last week, I feel like she rushes through songs and doesn't hang on some of the notes as much as she should. Keith, Randy, and Nicki gave her a standing ovation. Keith told Amber that "the way you perform is how I feel when I listen to you, simply effortless." Nicki called it the best performance of the night (I guess her memory only lasts past one or two performances, because this wasn't better than Candice and Kree), and said that Amber's aura and voice remind her of Whitney Houston on her first album. Randy said Amber "blew it out the box," called it "so perfect," and said, "Guys, the girls are killing you tonight!" Mariah said, "Hashtag 'Pow!' To critique you is unnecessary." (Except, that, well, it's your frigging job!!)

It will be interesting to see if the bottom three is all guys tonight, or if Janelle winds up there because she sang second.

My bottom three:

What I think might happen:

I honestly think that Curtis or (sadly) even Lazaro should go home, although Devin could, because he's been slightly less pimped and doesn't have Lazaro's back story. Hopefully not, though.

Tonight, Bon Jovi, Phillip Phillips (hooray), and an utterly unnecessary "sing off" for a spot on the tour between two people no one cared about enough to vote for. Plus, if we're lucky, an awkward group routine, a Ford music video, plenty of fakeouts and manufactured drama! Who says Thursdays stopped being fun after "Must See TV" went off the air?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: "We Live in Water" by Jess Walter

Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins was one of my favorite books from last year. I loved the dreamy, magical way it captivated a struggling seaside town in Italy, and a young hotel owner, riled up by the arrival of a Hollywood actress.

Walter's new story collection, We Live in Water, is more gritty than dreamy, but his amazing storytelling ability shines through any setting. The main characters in each of these stories are men who are struggling with one thing or another—addiction, relationships gone wrong, professional failure, etc., and many of the stories have left me thinking about them even after I finished.

I had a number of favorites in this collection, including: Anything Helps, which follows a homeless man vacillating between wanting to pull his life together so he can be with his son and falling back into the morass of addiction and panhandling; Thief, in which a man tries to figure out which one of his children is stealing from the family's vacation fund; The New Frontier, which follows an unlikely pair of former high school friends on a mission to rescue one of their sisters from a life of prostitution in Las Vegas; Don't Eat Cat, a futuristic story which is, in essence, about the self-destructive impulses we all have; and the title story, which follows a lawyer who returns to a town in Idaho to try and find out what happened to his father, who abandoned him 30 years earlier. The collection ends with Walter's skewered look at his hometown of Spokane, Washington (the setting for a number of the stories), from which you can see where he found inspiration for some of the stories in the collection. A few of the other stories are a little too short, and seem to end before they really get going.

As I've said a number of times when reviewing short story collections, I used to steer clear of short stories because I felt cheated not to have had enough time with characters or a storyline I really enjoyed. But now, I realize that short story collections actually afford us a window into so many different characters and situations, more than we'd normally get in a novel. And the stories in Walter's collection, thanks to his amazing talent, are so memorable that I would love almost any one of them to be expanded into a full-length novel, just so I could find out what happened next.

This is a terrific collection of stories about people we might not notice, or want to associate with, in real life, but the lives they live are tremendously intriguing and compelling.

Movie Review: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

Despite the fact that the classic L. Frank Baum novel and its movie adaptation are called The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard himself isn't really the focus of the story, as it's Dorothy's journey to Oz with her compatriots that captures most of the attention. But have you ever wondered what brought the man behind the curtain to Oz, or why he was the way he was?

Your wondering is over thanks to Sam Raimi's somewhat uneven but captivating film, Oz the Great and Powerful. Like the movie it sprung from, this one begins in Kansas, and in black and white. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a magician in a traveling circus, a somewhat unapologetic shyster and inept ladies' man, who always finds the need to stay one step ahead of his audiences—not to mention his fellow circus performers. He has a long-suffering assistant (Zach Braff, still with his Scrubs smirk) and he's about to let his one true love (Michelle Williams) get away. When he makes the mistake of romancing the circus strongman's girlfriend, he needs to flee quickly, so he makes his escape in a hot air balloon—directly into a twister. (Who could have guessed?)

When the balloon crash lands in glorious technicolor, Oscar realizes he's not in Kansas anymore, but Oz. He is greeted by glamorous witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who quickly believes that Oscar is the wizard that the citizens of Oz have been waiting for since the Wicked Witch killed the previous king. Theodora is also quick to believe that Oscar is her romantic destiny, a fact that her mysterious sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is more than happy to manipulate. And Evanora is also able to manipulate Oscar into doing her dirty work, as she convinces him he must destroy fellow witch Glinda (a luminous Michelle Williams). Along the way to hunt Glinda down, he picks up a flying monkey sidekick, Finley (Zach Braff), and a little china girl (Joey King).

Of course, Oscar quickly realizes that Glinda isn't the problem, but she wants his help in convincing her subjects they can take on the actual Wicked Witch. (Or witches.) But that's precisely what Oscar wants to avoid, as always, since he'd rather flee than face trouble, or lead anyone anywhere. But that wouldn't work for the movie, now would it? So Oscar, Glinda, and the citizens of Oz (including the munchkins) use the power of self-belief and the sleight-of-hand magic that inspires Oscar to fight back against their enemies, which leads to the film's somewhat protracted (and inevitable) conclusion.

This being a Disney movie, it's definitely geared toward children, who will enjoy the film's magical and sometimes slightly disturbing effects, and the genesis of the characters they've come to know and love. I'll admit I was somewhat captivated from time to time, even though I knew what would happen, because I felt the film's primary message, stressing the importance of believing you can achieve greatness, is a positive one. But the film takes some time to get going, and has about two endings too many.

As the star of the movie, I expected James Franco to be a much more dynamic presence. Even when he's in his flimflam stage back in Kansas, he never projects any kind of bravado you'd expect from someone in this position. I know Robert Downey Jr. was originally discussed for this role, and I could only imagine what a twist he might have brought to the film. But Franco falls flat most of the time, and I don't understand how he could inspire anyone. Michelle Williams is a perfect Glinda, not quite as saccharine-sweet as Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked, but definitely someone you'd want to follow anywhere, while Rachel Weisz tears into her campy role with the appropriate amount of gusto.

All in all, this is a somewhat enjoyable, slightly overlong spectacle of a film which, like its title character, has a great deal of flash but not a tremendous amount of substance, although it does have a heart deep down inside.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review: "Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Do you remember what it felt like the first time you fell in love? How you wanted nothing more than to spend every waking minute with that person, talking about nothing, experiencing everything, and you counted down the minutes, or the days, until you saw them again? Do you remember how you over-analyzed everything the person said, trying to figure out if there was some hidden meaning, some sign the relationship would or wouldn't go the way you wanted? That all-consuming craziness of first true love, thrown into the emotional maelstrom of high school, is the basis for Rainbow Rowell's fantastically quirky and sweet new novel, Eleanor & Park.

It's 1986. Park Sheridan is a half-Korean high school student trying his best just to blend in. He has good friends, yet spends much of his time practicing tae kwon do with his father and younger brother, obsessing over his Watchmen comic books, and listening to music by The Smiths and Joy Division. The first time Eleanor walks onto the school bus (I kept being reminded of Molly Ringwald's quote from 16 Candles, "I loathe the bus"), Park is blown away by her height, her bright red hair, and her unique dress code. Although Eleanor shares Park's seat on the bus, they don't speak at first, for fear of causing ripples in the social strata around them. But little by little, things begin, as Park starts sharing his comic books and making Eleanor mix tapes, and they finally start speaking to one another, and suddenly they realize how much they look forward to these moments.

But of course, the course of love—and life—never runs smoothly. While Park's life is a fairly open book, despite his somewhat challenging relationship with his father, Eleanor's life is much more complicated. Moving back in with her mother, her new husband (who threw Eleanor out a year ago), and four siblings, she lives in constant fear of causing her stepfather to notice her. And her mere presence, especially as she and Park grow closer, has seemed to incense many of her fellow students, who ridicule and bully her for just being her. This constant guardedness affects both her and Park, as she is constantly questioning the things he says and does, and he is worried every time he says something that she'll take it the wrong way. And she doesn't want Park to fight her battles, yet he is constantly compelled to. But despite all of the challenges and roadblocks, they just can't get enough of each other.

When the situation at home becomes too much to bear for Eleanor, she makes a difficult decision, and Park, despite what it means, helps her. The ending is a tiny bit improbable, but it doesn't matter, because it shows how each views their relationship, and the other's place in their world.

I found Eleanor & Park to be right on target in so many ways. I felt that Rowell's dialogue was humorously authentic without being precious or precocious, and she perfectly captured all of the anxieties—social and emotional—of high school and first love. Above all, I loved these characters so much, that I was rooting for them and found myself completely captivated by their story. I raced through this book and, of course, I'm now sad it's done. Definitely recommended for those who love quirky relationship stories, and although this is classified as a YA novel, it's definitely geared for all readers. I hope you like it as much as I did.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I've always been a Fleetwood Mac fan, although I grew a little tired of them—especially Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)—during the Clinton presidency. However, one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs has always been Go Your Own Way. I love the way the members of the band's vocals blend in this song, and the lyrics—which is about the complicated relationship between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were having at the time—are really great.

The song was the lead single off the Rumours album and went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the group's first top-10 hit in the U.S. It is ranked number 120 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list.

I first heard Lissie's more introspective version of the song when it accompanied a dance routine on So You Think You Can Dance. (No matter how much the show frustrates me, it has opened me up to a lot of fantastic musical artists I might not have heard otherwise.) Since then, it's appeared in a number of commercials and other places, most recently in previews for the Josh Duhamel/Julianne Hough movie, Safe Haven. Those of you who have been following my Cool Cover Song posts probably recognize I really like it when artists change up a song and make it a little more introspective, so this certainly fits the bill.

Here's Lissie's version:

And, for a trip down memory lane, here's the 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

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

AI Recap: The Power of 10

Did we really have a top 10 results show without unnecessary drama (save the forced histrionics of another overblown Curtis Finch, Jr. performance)?

Is it possible that, although I'm not crazy about a few of the contestants, this is a top 10 that doesn't incense me?

Were we really spared any non-prerecorded moments of Zoanette- or Charlie-related madness?

Hold on to your hats, kids, this may be the end of days. Or a harbinger of the madness to come. But whatever it is, I found last night's results show far less annoying and crap-filled than I know future results shows will be. Although if some of the top 10's "victory performances" are any indication of what they're going to sound like in front of a live Hollywood audience, we may be in trouble.

I'm not sure who thought of the design of this show, but it was horribly stupid. The contestants were kept backstage in this weird holding room, seemingly miles away from the stage. The audience in the theater couldn't see them, but we could at home. Ryan started by telling the guys which ones made it into the top 10 (and secured a spot on the summer tour—oh joy, oh rapture), and when he'd call someone's name, they'd walk all the way to these dramatic-looking doors to the stage, and then Ryan would announce their names to the crowd, into which they'd walk, to rousing applause.

If it sounds confusing and unnecessary, it was even more so, but to be spared the ridiculously non-dramatic fakeouts of who made it and who didn't, I was willing to endure. Plus, I watched it on my DVR, so I fast-forwarded through anything the judges had to say when they gave their so-called "advice" to the contestants.

Shockingly, the overly theatrical "guy Taylor Swift," Paul, was the first contestant named into the top 5. He was shocked and said he wondered if Ryan was playing a joke on him. He screeched and stumbled through a (surprise) dramatically oversung version of Alone, performed on this show far too many times to count, none greater than one of Paul's idols, Carrie Underwood.

Burnell, rocking an ensemble last worn by Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was next to be named into the top 5. He sang India.Arie's Ready for Love, complete with his soon-to-be-trademarked hand gestures. The amazing Joshua Ledet sang this song last season (although only the studio version can be found on YouTube). Burnell, I loved Joshua Ledet, and you are no Joshua Ledet. Don't try.

To the surprise of no one (not even him, no matter how much he playacted humility and shock), Curtis also made it into the top 10. He sang John Legend's So High (again with the flying theme), and he started in with the Burnellisms, too, pointing "high", etc. I didn't think his performance was as strong as some of his others, and I hope (although I doubt) the judges will tell him that every note, every gesture doesn't need to be hammered to death. Subtlety can be wonderful sometimes, too. (Stop looking at me. Remember, those who can't do write about others who can't do.)

Who's next? Our own "Spanish Ken doll," Devin. I'm seriously liking him more and more every time I see him. He sang Israel Houghton's The Power of One (all in English this time, although in her post-performance "advice," Nicki suggested Devin stick with the English/Spanish hybrid), and he sounded great (mostly) and showed more performance skill than we've seen from him yet. Hoping he goes far.

I wondered who would be the final guy in the top 10. Marketable, ladies-loving Elijah? Early favorite Vincent, whose last performance knocked him off his pedestal? Chapeau-topped Nick? "Jean vest" wearing, pelvis-thrusting Cortez? No. The final slot went to the one with the amazing smile and the great story, Lazaro, this time surprisingly dressed in all black save for white sneakers. He apparently didn't know the last few notes of his victory song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, despite it being the song he sang for his audition. (Of course, AI lovers remember this as the song that should have won Clay Aiken the title in Season 2, and Season 10's Curtis, Jacob Lusk, also sang it.) Vocally, Lazaro was a little bit of a mess, sometimes good and sometimes fairly bad, but I love him. It will be interesting to see how long he lasts if he doesn't continue improving.

When they brought the five guys who were cut out onstage, I waited for the moment the judges or Ryan would announce wildcards. Nope.

Time for the ladies to enter the holding pen. First into the top 10, the constantly underwhelming Janelle, who underwhelmed again with her rendition of Dierks Bentley's Home. I like that she sounds like Jewel without the twee lyrics, but she doesn't wow me in any way, kind of the way the judges and everyone kept telling us how amazing Lauren Alaina was in Season 10, but she never seemed to wow anyone. I predict Janelle will soon be the Kristy Lee Cook-ish bane of my existence.

Candice was next. Still cannot believe she was cut last season, because she would have chewed up and spit out Jessica Sanchez like Jennifer Holliday nearly did during last season's finale. She sang Mary J. Blige's I'm Goin' Down and was Ah. Ma. Zing. Can she just be declared the winner and give me my nights back?

Piano-playing, original song-writing, Angie made it next. She looked great but didn't sound so great on a somewhat overblown and screechy I Was Here by Beyonce. Let's hope it was just nerves. And did you know she wrote and performed an original song?

When Ryan announced that Amber was the next contestant into the top 10, she looked like she might pass out. Nicki is right: the girl has legs for days, even if I feel like a bit of a perv saying that. She showed a bit more personality by singing another Whitney Houston song, this time I'm Every Woman, which Trenyce sang in Season 2, Mandisa sang in Season 5, and Lil Rounds sang in Season 8, but apparently none of those are available on YouTube. It will be interesting to see if Amber can stand out this season.

Would the final spot in the top 10 go to one of our beautiful, marketable contestants, Breanna or Aubrey? The hot mess of Zoanette? Future Miss Alaska Adriana? I'll admit, I sweated through this one, until Ryan announced that Kree made it into the top 10. I take back my earlier comment: can Kree win now? Her performance of Susan Tedeschi's Evidence showed fire, sass, and amazing vocals...and the camera pan showed she has a pretty hot boyfriend. How can you miss?

Again, I expected an announcement about wild cards. Nope. But apparently the sixth-place finisher on both the guys' and ladies' sides will compete in some sort of pre-determined sing-off to determine who gets a spot on the summer tour. It will be interesting to see who they pretend finished sixth—I can't imagine they won't want either Charlie or Zoanette to be that person, for the drama factor alone.

And there you have it...the 10 people sure to make me crazy one way or another over the next nine or so weeks. (Fifteen people total, counting the judges and Ryan. Oh, and Jimmy. Sixteen. Sigh.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Review: "Benediction" by Kent Haruf

I've always been utterly captivated by Kent Haruf's storytelling ability. In novels like Plainsong and Eventide, the simplicity of his writing was used to such terrific advantage. The characters he creates are everyday people with everyday challenges (for the most part), and in a world where all too often more is more, his stories don't dwell on unnecessary drama yet touch your heart and make you think.

The same holds true for Haruf's newest novel, Benediction. In the small town of Holt, Colorado, longtime resident and hardware store owner Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he and his wife, Mary, begin planning for the end of his life and endeavor to make his final days as comfortable and stress-free as possible. While their grown daughter, Lorraine, comes home to help care for her father, her presence doesn't quite assuage the sadness and uncertainty Dad and Mary feel about their estranged son, Frank, who left Holt after he graduated high school and never returned. And as Dad's last days draw closer, reminiscences about his difficult relationship with Frank, as well as other precarious situations he found himself in throughout his life, come rushing back to challenge him.

Next door to the Lewises, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother, Berta May, following the death of her own mother to cancer. She becomes a captivating presence for the Lewises, especially Lorraine, and Alice's curiosity and innocence also bring joy to the lives of Willa Johnson and her daughter, Alene, both of whom have struggled with loneliness in different ways. Meanwhile, Rob Lyle, Holt's new preacher, tries to mend his own difficult relationships with his wife and teenage son, John Wesley, both of whom resent having to move to this small town. And when Rob decides to start expressing his true feelings in his sermons, he is met with outrage and ridicule from his congregation, which further strains his family's tolerance of the situation.

Although it takes some time, these seemingly disparate characters weave together to form a rich and moving meditation on life, happiness, love, sadness, perseverance, and the beauty of life's simple joys. There is tension and relaxation, happiness and regret, all played out against the backdrop of Dad's ever-present mortality. While not a tremendous amount happens in the book, the story is so well told, so beautifully written, that you feel like you know these people and can share, and understand, how they feel.

I still believe that Plainsong, probably Haruf's most recognized novel, is his best, but Benediction is a worthy addition to his earlier works. If you like plain, strong, beautiful writing, this is definitely a book for you.

A workplace prayer...

On days you find yourself stressed beyond belief by the prospect of another crazy work day, just utter these simple words:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the minds I cannot change,

the courage to endure second-guessing, backstabbing, and unfounded criticism,

the strength to resist baked goods brought in by generous colleagues and the mid-afternoon siren song of the vending machine,

the intelligence to remember that when someone asks for your "honest opinion," honesty is not what they're interested in,

the discipline to avoid choosing Facebook instead of meeting deadlines,

the good fortune to avoid conversations which include the words "budget-cutting," "changing priorities," or "changing direction,"

and, above all, the wisdom to remember that no matter how bad it gets, I am lucky to have a job.

Feel better now?

AI Recap: I Believe I Can Fly, Do You??

I'll admit I'm not a huge Ryan Seacrest fan—the seasons-long banter between him and Simon Cowell that bordered on homophobia, the hammy dramatics of result nights, even his immense dominance of the entertainment world. But the way he handled Charlie Askew last night—with kid gloves rather than a spotlight—showed that he truly is a consummate professional, and a genuine heart beats inside the man made of cheese. (His words, not mine.) But more on that in a bit.

The difference between Tuesday night's show and last night's was pretty epic. On Tuesday night's show, seven, maybe eight women turned in good performances I'd be willing to watch again. But last night, I honestly liked two, maybe three performances completely, was bored and disappointed by several, and found the remaining performances to be utterly demonstrative of the show's desperate, ham-handed need to have a female winner this season.

In case you didn't know, Elijah likes the ladies. And if you didn't know, he mentioned it like three or four times, because he hoped to "connect with all my ladies out there" with his performance. Way to go, guy. You're heterosexual. He sang Rihanna's Stay, and it was definitely better than his performance from last week, but a great singer he's not. But dude, why do you keep going for falsetto notes when you have no falsetto? Keith said the song suited his voice and he showed good control. Nicki admitted, "I think I would be willing to stay," and then beat the marketable horse again, saying she could see his face on blankets and other merchandise in a "New Kids on the Block from wayback kinda thing." Randy and I were on the same wavelength (it's happening more often than I'd care to admit this season), as he said he liked the performance more than last week, but it "never left first gear, and never went anywhere." Oh, but he looks marketable. Mariah suffered from incurable logorrhea this episode (definition: incessant or compulsive talkiness), and she patently refused to say anything negative about almost every contestant. She called this one of Elijah's better performances, said his relevancy was his strongest point, mentioned that he was very "saleable," and also pointed out a trend that she's noticed lately about songs with "intimate" lyrics on the radio, etc. Her verbal diarrhea got so bad by the end of the show that the band just started playing her off. (Points to Ray Chew Live on that.)

Cortez recognized that his performance of Titanium last week was a bit of a mess, so he vowed to do better this week. He sang Bruno Mars' Locked Out of Heaven, and while I give him props for the song choice, at the end of the day, he isn't a very good singer, and tends to go for songs that require a higher range than he has. And the pelvic thrusts while rocking a stonewashed denim vest didn't help the, well, package any, either. (I also thought the male background singer was seriously loud on this song.) Keith asked why Cortez chose this song, because he explained that while he loves his voice and his spirit, it wasn't the best to show off his ability. Nicki said that Cortez got his "mojo back," but said "whoever styles Elijah should style you," as she mocked his "jean vest." (Hee.) She mentioned that she felt like he was straining vocally, however. Randy agreed, saying that it seems like he needs to take nearly every song he sings "down a half-step or a whole step." Mariah told Cortez she enjoyed the ballads he performed during Hollywood week and the auditions more, and admitted that he might take the song down a half-step. She said, "I'm not sure the song is you, although you chose it," but he has "a lot more to give vocally."

Oh, Charlie. Even your pre-performance video smacked of desperation, down to the self-mockery of his inability to grow a mustache. He hit the stage in a tie-dyed tank top (gross on so many levels), hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a feather earring, and sang/screamed Mama by Genesis. Honestly, I'm not sure if Charlie is truly earnest in his attempts to play the fool or if this is some side-eyed mockery a la Sanjaya or Norman Gentle. The judges were truly flummoxed. Keith told Charlie he has a huge range and could front a band—and perhaps that's the path he should choose—but the way he performed felt disingenuous and disconnected. (Not to mention, STOP SCREAMING AT ME, CHARLIE!) Nicki asked, "Where's my little baby at? I don't want to see your arms, I don't want to see that earring, and get rid of the mustache immediately. I feel like I lost my kid." She said she didn't know where the "darker thing" was coming from and it upset her. Randy said the front part of the song was terrible, and then it went to scream at the end. "I just didn't get it at all," he admitted. Mariah babbled that she appreciated Charlie's love of classic rock songs, "and maybe you're trying to bring the whole genre back to a new audience," and she enjoys him a lot as a person. Charlie seemed on the verge of tears throughout the judges' feedback, and when Ryan asked him what his motivation was for the performance, he said, "I needed to vent a little bit." He continued, "A lot of people think I'm a buoyant kid, but I smile all the time because I have to." You honestly could have heard a pin drop, and Ryan held it together impressively, praising Charlie's "honesty and courage." First of all, I've been where Charlie is (emotionally, not onstage or in terms of wardrobe), so I know how hard it is to hold it all together. And while I hope he's not as low as he said he was, I think I'd rather he feel that way than believe for a second that this meltdown was even the tiniest bit calculated to get people's sympathy. This boy needs some psychological help and some time out of the camera lens, he doesn't need a few more weeks of tottering on the cracking ice of his psyche.

Nick, why do you continuously underwhelm when you have such a beautiful voice? Props for admitting that "his 20s caught up with him" and caused him to lose his hair, which explains the sartorial choice of hats each week. He returned to the piano and sang a very pretty, creatively styled version of the Goo Goo Dolls' Iris, but at times his voice was swallowed up a bit by the band, and I just kept waiting for it to knock me off the couch. I like him so much, so it's disappointing to think he might not make it in favor of back story and marketability. Keith loved the vulnerability of his tone. Apparently, this is one of Nicki's most favorite songs, so she didn't like that he played with the melody right away, but she said it was "pretty," in his comfort zone, and true to him. Randy liked the whole "Ryan Tedder thing" he had going on but didn't think it was his best performance. He said it left him wondering "who are you, not who you desire to be?" (I feel the same way about you, dawg.) Mariah felt like he "kicked in" at the end.

Burnell trotted out the now-familiar memes—he dropped 40 pounds and his family survived Katrina. He revisited his audition song, I'm Here from the musical version of The Color Purple. He has a very good, very interesting voice, but if someone doesn't stop the downright corny hand gestures I may slap my television. And I'm guessing that there might have been a nostalgia sale at either Merry-Go-Round or Chess King, because Burnell, too, was rocking the stonewashed denim, along with a backward baseball cap. Keith gave him a standing ovation, and said that he believed Burnell when he sang the song's lyrics. He also praised his "instantly recognizable voice." Nicki said "It's pretty obvious you're one of a kind," and once again noted the "struggle and pain" in his voice. Randy said that Burnell captured his attention immediately when he started singing because of the urgency in his voice. Mariah said that his revisiting his audition song (which made her cry then) gave her another tearful moment. Burnell explained he chose to sing the same song because when people saw it during the audition rounds, it was all chopped up, so he wanted people to hear the whole thing.

Apparently Paul has been an extra in music videos for Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton. He listened to all of the judges' critiques of his last performance and really was going to avoid oversinging this week. He sang Just a Fool by Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton, and parts of it were fantastic and parts were really over the top. Keith asked Paul what kind of artist he wanted to be, and he explained he wanted to be a pop/country artist, the male counterpart of of Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift. "So you want to be the guy Taylor?", Keith questioned. "Yes," Paul exclaimed, "If people want me to be!" (You can't show people you're that desperate, Paul.) Keith cautioned him not to underestimate his voice (which I honestly don't understand) and said something about being believable. (What's more believable, naked desperation or fake crying when you're moved by your own performance?) Nicki called it a solid performance, but suggested that Paul listen to Keith, because he knows what he's talking about when it comes to country music. Randy said the beginning of the song was amazing, but explained that Paul changes his tone when he gets vocally intense, and it isn't always pleasant to listen to. Mariah didn't know Paul wanted to be a country/pop artist (so?), but said that he had a "strong instrument." (She said a lot of other things that meant nothing.) Keith ended by saying that Paul is "better than he realizes he is." I'm no singer, but I think when you tell people they're not believable and they underestimate their voice, they probably don't think they're that good, so why tell them they are yet criticize them?

While my love of Lazaro obviously stems from the actual courage he shows every time he has to speak to the judges or Ryan, or how he makes it through every day of his life, I love his amazingly sunny personality and the richness of his voice. He sang the Nina Simone classic Feeling Good, which has been performed on the show by Season 6's Leslie Hunt, Adam Lambert in Season 8 (although he sang Muse's version), Katie Stevens in Season 9, and Hallie Day last season. He may not have the best voice consistently through every performance, but you can't help but be won over by him. I'd honestly rather listen to him all season than some of the other contestants. Nicki said she loved it, and praised that he "put some attitude and your own spin" on the song. Randy said, "He believes! He thinks he's in it to win it and he is!" He also mentioned that you can see Lazaro's "heart light up" when he hits the sweet spot in his voice. Despite the hideous performances that preceded him, Mariah chose to criticize Lazaro, saying that parts of the song were too low for him, but she is impressed at what he's been able to accomplish with his music. (Condescend much?)

I said it last week, I'll say it again. I do not like Curtis one bit. His talent is inarguable, but his lack of humility (he referred to his performance in the top 20 as "epic") makes him totally unappealing. He sang R. Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly, which Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee sang, Aaron Kelly (no relation) sang in Season 9, and Jacob Lusk sang in Season 10 (bad video on this clip). Curtis hit some terrific notes, but if we want to criticize Paul's oversinging, this man should have his picture next to the definition of that word. And I know I'm cynical, but the tears seemed just a little too fake to me. All four judges gave him a standing ovation (Randy and Nicki actually stood up before the performance was over), and each went into paroxysms of praise, talking about how Curtis oozes everything positive, there's so much hope in him, that he's "bigger than American Idol" because he makes people feel like they can fly, and has been called by a higher power, etc. The words "Praise God" were even uttered by Randy. The whole thing made me shudder.

Devin sang Somos Novios (It's Impossible), which has been sung by everyone from Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Elvis, to Andrea Bocelli, Christina Aguilera, Luis Miguel, even Katharine McPhee. He really has a terrific voice and is even stronger when he sings in Spanish, as he did again this week. I also felt his emotional connection, which I thought was lacking in his performance of Listen the last time, was very strong. Keith said the beginning of the song was shaky because Devin seemed nervous, but he's such a "good, good singer, so gifted" that he was able to overcome his nerves. Nicki called it "muy bien y perfecto," and said Devin was stepping into his own, even saying that he "looks like a Spanish Ken doll." Randy said that Devin is one of the few guys whose tone he really likes, along with his vibrato, and he called him, "mad cool and mad young." He also proclaimed, "I like this guy!" Mariah called the performance incredible, and praised his ability to "jump between genres and languages." She also said he had tremendous potential to reach an international audience.

Vincent had the pimp spot this week, and sang Boyz II Men's End of the Road and, frankly, it was pretty disappointing. After the performance he gave last week, this week he tried too hard and hit too many bum notes, although he did hit a few pretty spectacular ones as well. Keith said he felt "nerves got on top of your talent," while Nicki explained, "You wasn't sitting on it right tonight." Randy said he overshot a bit, while Mariah babbled, and what I was able to decipher was that Vincent had "moments of brilliance" but she wasn't sure "whether it's time to nitpick." (It's a more appropriate time to nitpick here than, say, in Lazaro's performance.)

I know the producers are all about gender parity, but the truth is, I'd rather see more girls advance to the top 10 than guys, although that won't happen.

My Top 5:
Curtis (don't like him but can't argue)
Burnell (ditto)

What Might Happen:

Tonight, we're back in Hollywood for a protracted 90-minute reveal of the top 10. Plus, I'm assuming there will be wildcards. And, if we're lucky, a poorly choreographed, lip-synced group number. I hope the day just flies...