Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: "Angel Baby" by Richard Lange

Luz has been under the thumb of her husband, Rolando, a drug and crime lord in Tijuana known as "El Principe," or "The Prince." The only thought that gets her through her every move being watched by Rolando and his henchmen, the rapes and the beatings, is her four-year-old daughter, Isabel, who Luz left with an aunt in California before escaping to Mexico a few years earlier.

One day, Luz decides she has had enough. She takes some cash out of her husband's safe, his Colt .45, and the clothes on her back, and prepares to escape. It's not her fault that people wound up dead as she tried to leave. And although she's on the run, determined to retrieve her daughter and start a new life, she knows it's only a matter of time before Rolando tries to find her.

Kevin Malone is an aging surfer who moved to Tijuana as things in his life went from bad to worse. Haunted by tragedy, he spends his time between drinking binges running Mexican immigrants across the border. When he is asked to help Luz, it shakes him out of his doldrums at the same time as it makes his memories worse, and he has no idea just how much danger he might face.

Jeronimo is a convict whose time in a Mexican prison is made more palatable thanks to the support he gets from Rolando as one of his employees. He is determined once he leaves prison to set his life straight and treat his wife and two young children to better things, but that's easier said than done. And when Rolando demands a favor from Jeronimo he cannot refuse, it sends him on a collision path with Luz and Malone—and another person determined to cash in on the situation.

Richard Lange's Angel Baby is a fun, action-packed book that transcends typical crime novels because of the complexity of the characters Lange has created. This is a novel where you want to root for almost everyone, even though you realize what that might mean. It's hopeful and bleak at times, and while you may figure out how the story will unfold, it doesn't matter, because the way Lange gets there is worth your time.

This is a book that reads a bit like a movie, and I don't mean that derogatorily. Enjoyable, well-written, and tremendously compelling. You'll want to savor the story and devour it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: "The Great Gatsby"

Quick confession: The Great Gatsby is one of my most favorite novels of all time. I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic in high school and it utterly captivated me; I read it again in college and have read it a few times since. Needless to say, when I heard that Baz Luhrmann was going to be bringing the book back to the screen, I was both excited and hesitant—Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom are among my favorite movies, yet I worried that his penchant for phantasmagorical excess might dampen the book's spirit.

After seeing the movie, I can say that while my concerns weren't completely off-target, it wasn't an utter mess either. Luhrmann's version remained fairly faithful to the book, save a dramatic (and utterly unnecessary) device which had Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting the events from a sanitarium, where he was recovering from a bout of depression and anxiety following the tumultuous summer on Long Island's West Egg.

In case you've never read the book, here's a thumbnail summary. In the summer of 1922, Nick Carraway comes to New York to pursue a job in the bonds market. He rents a humble little cottage on the nouveau-riche West Egg, across the water from the old-money East Egg, where his distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives in a mega-mansion with her boisterous, philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Nick, as it turns out, lives next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, moving in a ray of his own sunlight), a man of whom many incorrect rumors are spread, yet one who encourages the mystery as he throws opulent, boozy parties during which he mainly hides in the shadows.

But Gatsby, as it turns out, has been waiting for Daisy to visit one of his parties. You see, Daisy and Jay fell in love five years earlier before he was shipped off to fight in World War I, yet when he returned home after the war, he realized his penniless life was no match for the debutante Daisy, so he left her to marry the magnetic and wealthy Tom. But the two have never stopped loving each other, and Gatsby conspires to reunite with Daisy, using Nick as a somewhat unwitting matchmaker.

The first part of the movie, which chronicled in great detail Gatsby's parties and the debauched, no-holds-barred behavior in pre-Depression New York City, seemed tremendously unnecessary for me. I didn't pay the extra money to see the film in 3D (seriously?) so while I'm sure that added to its visually stunning nature, it was like a kaleidoscopic ride through the mind of someone with ADHD. How much could Luhrmann cram into these scenes? All that was missing was Betty Boop or Al Jolson saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet, folks."

When Luhrmann let the story unfold, and track the increasing unhingedness of the characters, all of whom were infatuated with someone they could never be with (yes, even Nick Carraway), the movie worked, for the most part. And as it barreled toward its tragic conclusion, DiCaprio and Edgerton's performances in particular were spot-on. But ultimately, like the legend of Jay Gatsby and his amazing parties, the movie was big on flash without much flesh.

Although he is unbelievably almost 39 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio truly looked the part of Gatsby, the "man in the cool, beautiful shirts," but his acting was as much a factor as the costuming. (My only criticism was the overuse of Gatsby's favorite appellation, "old sport," which had my teeth on edge by the end of the movie.) Joel Edgerton continues to deliver performances that simmer with undercurrents of rage and bravado, and I almost wish he was in the movie more than he was. I'm a big fan of Mulligan's, yet I felt at times she was a little too breathy and simpering; you almost wondered why someone like Gatsby would spend his entire life trying to prove himself worthy of her love.

But the weakest link in the film for me was Tobey Maguire. When the narrator of the movie is such an uncharismatic sad-sack, how can the movie rise above this? Quick answer: it really can't. Maguire's monotone did little to show just how tortured he was by the events unfolding around him, and while I found the way Luhrmann played up what appears to be Nick's infatuation with Gatsby intriguing, even that seemed somewhat unbelievable given Maguire's lack of emotional range. It's like he's been stuck playing emo-Peter Parker for far too long.

If Luhrmann had allowed The Great Gatsby to focus more on the story as Fitzgerald intended it and less on the setting, I think it would have been worthy of the word "great." This version was perhaps "The Slightly More Than So-So Gatsby" to me, sadly. And it made me hope Hollywood continues its lack of success adapting The Catcher in the Rye for the movies.

Movie Review: "Star Trek: Into Darkness"

Now that's how you do a sequel! Iron Man 3 and this, the second installment of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek redux, have proven that not all summer movie sequels are tired retreads of their predecessors. I really loved this movie and might be so bold to say I liked it even more than the first film, which I thought kicked some serious ass.

When the movie opens, the Enterprise is exploring a primitive planet which is destined to be destroyed by a volcano. But the crew decides to save the planet by detonating a device that will neutralize the volcano. As you might imagine, things go somewhat awry, which leads to Kirk (Chris Pine) deciding that in order to save a member of the crew, they must violate the Prime Directive, meaning that these primitive people would see their spacecraft, which could have serious ripples in the space/time continuum. (It makes more sense in the movie.)

Kirk's decision leads to a great deal of friction—between him and Spock (Zachary Quinto), between Spock and Uhura (Zoë Saldana), and between Kirk and Starfleet, which is tremendously unamused at Kirk's constant flouting of the rules. But tensions are put on hold when Starfleet is attacked by one of their own, the mysteriously dangerous John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, magnetic and seriously badass), who has 70 of his comrades cryogenically frozen in photon torpedo tubes. Harrison is, of course, far more than meets the eye, and again, Kirk and his crew must decide whether or not to trust Harrison or to follow their instincts. The crew's interaction with Harrison and those with whom he has allied himself (and those that have dared cross him) is the catalyst for some great action, some humor, and even a little emotion.

When the first movie in Abrams' series premiered four years ago, people were amazed at how well the actors embodied their television/film predecessors. But they are far more than caricatures or imitations of the original actors—many have fleshed their roles out beyond what we're familiar with. Pine combines William Shatner's bravado with a surprising vulnerability; Quinto's Spock has a sensitivity and complexity beyond Leonard Nimoy's; and Saldana's Uhura is undoubtedly the superwoman that Nichelle Nichols probably wished she could have been during the television series' run. Simon Pegg (Scotty), Karl Urban (Bones), and John Cho (Sulu) each have their wry moments—in my opinion, only Anton Yelchin (Chekhov) seemed a little too bumbling.

But this movie honestly belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch. Powerful, dastardly, sly, and sensitive, his embodiment of John Harrison is in the mold of Javier Bardem's portrayal of Silva in Skyfall last year—a villain so complex and so damaged you don't know whether you should fear him or empathize with him. One can only hope we'll see his return in future installments.

I am not a "Trekkie" although I watched the original series and many of its spinoffs, and I saw the first two movies with the original cast. I understand that some have said this was a great movie but not a good Star Trek movie. All I know is I was captivated from start to finish, far more emotionally invested than I would have thought, and had a great time. And I don't know if you could ask for much more from the summer movie season.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: "The Program" by Suzanne Young

Holy crap, I loved this book. It's been a while since a story has so gripped me that I felt the need to finish it in one day, and then was disappointed once I was finished that it was over. But Suzanne Young's The Program is one of those novels.

Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions, deemed a "behavioral contagion." To combat this enormous problem, the only proven course of treatment is The Program. Those who appear to be suffering from depression, or associated with those who are depressed or have committed suicide, are "flagged" at the first sign of a problem, and taken against their will to experience six weeks of drug-induced memory erasure, followed by enrollment in a new school, with a new wardrobe as well as sterile and crisis-free surroundings, where emotions of any kind are frowned upon.

Sloane is trying as hard as she can to hold her life together. Her older brother, Brady, committed suicide before people realized how big of a problem suicide was becoming, and she and her family have never quite recovered from this blow they didn't see coming. But Sloane and her boyfriend, James, who was Brady's best friend, try desperately to keep each other from falling prey to any type of behavior that might lead to their being turned into The Program, even by their own parents. (The propaganda being generated by The Program has brainwashed most parents into "turning in" their children in an effort to save them from themselves.)

When another of their best friends commits suicide, the pressure to keep themselves together becomes too much to bear, and James, and then Sloane, find themselves taken into The Program against their will, although they vow to always remember each other and their love. As Sloane finds her memories being eradicated, she realizes that her depression is disappearing as well, and she starts to wonder whether she is better off sacrificing the good memories she had to help her avoid the crushing ones. But things in The Program aren't quite what they seem, and with the help of friends "on the inside," she tries to figure out what has happened to her, and tries to get as much of her life back as she can, without alerting those monitoring her.

I've tried not to give too much of the plot away because while what happens may not be surprising, part of the power and beauty of this book was watching the plot unfold. Suzanne Young did such an amazing job conveying the crushing depths of despair gripping teens suffering from depression, that you could see why they felt suicide was their only option. She made you care about Sloane, James, and the other characters in the book, that you were torn between wanting them to keep their lives the way they were and wanting them to get help.

I found this book tremendously moving and so compelling; I couldn't believe how quickly I flew through more than 400 pages. This is one of those books that sticks with you after you read it, one in which you wonder what happened to the characters after the story ended. Fantastic.

Book Review: "The Morels" by Christopher Hacker

What is art, and how far should you go to pursue it? Are there lines that shouldn't be crossed, people who shouldn't be sacrificed, or does art supersede everything else?

These are a few of the questions addressed in Christopher Hacker's intriguing, somewhat frustrating, and slightly disturbing new novel, The Morels. Arthur Morel is a writer whose first novel was published to some acclaim, but in his everyday life, he is struggling as an adjunct college professor. Socially awkward and idiosyncratic, Arthur is married to beautiful pastry chef Penelope, and together they are raising their inquisitive and creative 11-year-old son, Will.

Arthur's second novel follows characters named Arthur, Penny, and Will, seemingly a barely fictionalized account of their lives and their struggles. But one incident in the book, involving "Arthur" and an eight-year-old "Will," so pushes the boundaries that people—Penelope and her family included—are no longer sure if this was something Arthur dreamed up or if was something that really happened. And that nagging question eats away at Arthur's relationships with his wife and son, as well as society in general. But more frustratingly, Arthur's rationale for writing this scene and his refusal to recant or apologize for it threatens to tear his marriage—and his life—apart.

The Morels is narrated by Chris, an old classmate of Arthur's who now works as a sometime filmmaker and an usher at a movie theater, who becomes reacquainted with Arthur by chance. And as he spends more time with his old classmate, Chris realizes that Arthur has never outgrown his penchant for the dramatic or his frustrating reverence for art. But Chris also envies the stability that he sees Arthur taking for granted—the beautiful wife, the loving son, the career.

As events unfold in Arthur's life following the release of his second book, Chris and his colleagues decide to produce a documentary about Arthur. And in the process they learn more about his life than they ever imagined, and how everything that occurred around him as a child led him on the path he now follows, and toward the perception that art is nobler than anything else.

This book was, for the most part, tremendously compelling, although it made me uncomfortable from time to time. I found Arthur's embrace and defense of artistic excellence, and his behavior throughout the book as shocking, frustrating, and perhaps somewhat unbelievable, but I couldn't pull myself away from finding out how the book—and Arthur's story—would resolve itself. While I felt as if Christopher Hacker veered a little off course occasionally, especially when the story spent too much time on the relationship of Arthur's parents, he definitely had some twists up his sleeve that I found really intriguing, some that made me wonder exactly what I had been reading.

The Morels is a book that somewhat defies explanation. And while it may make you uncomfortable, it definitely will make you think, and intrigue you as it pushes you beyond your comfort zone with its plot and the questions it raises.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

The Beatles seem to have a song for every occasion, every mood, every inspiration. I've been a huge fan of theirs for as long as I can remember. I even played Revolution Number 9 backwards at top volume to see if I could hear the purported "Paul is dead" lyric, years after that theory was proven to be a hoax.

Picking my favorite Beatles song is kind of like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. (Well, maybe that might be easier for some parents.) It really depends on my mood. But given my bouts of occasional Pollyanna-ism, I'd have to say that one of my all time favorites is All You Need is Love. I mean, with that as a title, and a lyric, how could you go wrong?

All You Need is Love was first performed by the Beatles in June 1967 on Our World, the first live global television link. It was released as a single in the U.S. in July 1967, and it hit #1 on the Billboard charts for one week. But it continues to endure, and an endless number of cover versions of the song have been recorded over the years.

A good friend of mine (who requested I refer to him as "a handsome and witty fellow") recently shared The Flaming Lips' version of the song, which was released last month. It's a little bit trippy but it's a pretty cool and different version of the song that still remains true to its overall feel.

For a bonus, here's a version by Lynden David Hall, which appeared in the movie Love Actually. (I couldn't embed the actual scene from the movie, but you can see that at

And of course, I couldn't resist sharing the original:

All you need is love. And love is all you need. (Love and oxygen, as a friend pointed out this morning on Facebook.)

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

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

Redemption Song by Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Love Me Tender by Chris Isaak and Brandi Carlile

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book Review: "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

If you read as much as I do (or even if you don't), you're bound to come across a book that is hailed by literary critics and readers as one of the greatest things ever, but no matter how much you try and read it and are determined to love it, it just doesn't click for you. I know that happens most often with the classics, but it certainly happens with "regular" fiction and nonfiction as well.

Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is such a book for me. Reviews have hailed it as everything from "brilliant" and "haunting" to "a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles." One reviewer even said this book "restores my faith in the future of the novel all over again."

One day, in a snowy village in war-torn Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides as Russian soldiers abduct her father, Dokka, in the middle of the night. Their kindly neighbor, Akhmed, fears the worst when he sees the soldiers setting fire to Dokka's house as they take him away, but he rescues Havaa from her hiding place. Fearing she will be discovered, Akhmed takes Havaa to the local hospital, abandoned but for one doctor, Sonja, who alone (with the help of one cantankerous nurse) has been treating all of the victims of war and illness that enter the dilapidated hospital's doors. Akhmed, who was a medical student at the very bottom of his class, promises to work as a doctor with Sonja to ensure Havaa is provided for.

Sonja comes with her own set of issues, most notably her sister, Natasha, who has continuously disappeared and reappeared in Sonja's life, but has been missing for some time. And Akhmed is caring for his own bedridden wife, and worrying about his neighbor and childhood friend, who is an informant for the Russians. But Sonja and Akhmed forge a reluctant partnership, one which opens both of their eyes to the surprising connections that tie them together.

For me, while there's no doubt that Marra is a tremendously talented writer who has created some memorable characters and some beautiful sentences, this book just didn't click the way I hoped it would. It's a very dense story—in order to give gravity to his narrative, Marra packs a great deal of Chechen history and details that seemed to run on for far too long. The book takes place over a 10-year-period, and switches perspectives frequently and abruptly. And although he weaves all of his storylines together at the end, before that point I wondered why he spent so much time dwelling on certain details about secondary characters.

I'm not usually an outlier in this fashion; I usually like books more than others. So if the story and people's reviews make this book sound like one you think you'd love, have at it. And then perhaps we can discuss what I'm missing.

Stop. This. Madness. NOW.

This is a picture of Mark Carson. He was 32 years old.

Last Friday night, Mark Carson and a friend were walking in Greenwich Village in New York City, when he was approached by a man, Elliot Morales. Morales asked them, "Are you afraid? Do you watch the news? Do you know what happened in Sandy Hook?" according to the New York Post.

He then asked Carson, "Do you want to die here?" Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

Police said Morales called Carson a "faggot" and a "queer" before shooting him in the cheek. Mark Carson died.

Morales rolled around "laughing on the ground" and proudly told officers "Yeah, I shot him in the head" as he was arrested five blocks away from where Carson was killed. Morales is being charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime.

This is Nick Porto and his partner, Kevin Atkins.

In early May, they were assaulted on Eighth Avenue, between West 34th and West 35th Street at about 5 p.m. Porto said that he and Atkins were walking arm-in-arm down Eighth Avenue after a leisurely brunch when a group of men he said were in their early-to-mid 20s and wearing Knicks jerseys started shouting slurs at the couple.

"They called us faggots," said Porto. When he turned around and asked why they were shouting at him, the group of men knocked the pair to the ground and began to violently kick and punch them, he said. Porto was left with a broken nose and severe headaches.

This is NYC nightlife promoter Dan Contarino. Last night, Contarino was jumped at Avenue D & 4th Street. Allegedly, witnesses are reporting the assailant was yelling "faggot" as he was kicking and beating Dan. Neighbors rushed to Dan's aid and chased after the attacker but unfortunately he got away.

Contarino had to have emergency surgery, although his life is not in danger.

Around 5:20 a.m. this morning, a couple, ages 41 and 42, were walking on Broadway near Prince Street when two men began yelling anti-gay slurs. A physical altercation ensued and one of the victims suffered an eye injury, police said. Fabian Ortiz and Pedro Jiminez were arrested and are being charged with third degree assault as a hate crime.

When does this stop? This rash of violence is alarming. But what is more alarming is the behavior that fuels these attacks. While in this day and age people expect the Westboro Baptist Church to blame "the fags" for every major disaster in our world, what isn't acceptable are the lawmakers and clergy and athletes and sportscasters and others who believe that gay people are somehow less worthy than "regular" people.

Take Pastor E.W. Jackson, who said that gay people are psychologically sick. "Their minds are perverted, they’re frankly very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally and they see everything through the lens of homosexuality. When they talk about love they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about homosexual sex. So they can’t see clearly."

Pastor Jackson is the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia.

Gay people are not less than, not inferior, not unworthy, not abominable, not sick, not anything more than human beings. No one deserves to be attacked or screamed at or shot or killed for who they are, something they cannot change. But the more our society continues to give those who speak with tongues of bigotry and ignorance and hatred and small-mindedness a voice, a pulpit, a platform, a job representing us, people out there will take those words as a reason to foment violence.

I've said it so many times before, but I will not stop saying it. WE DESERVE BETTER. And we need to demand it. People's rights are not up for debate. And people's safety shouldn't be dependent upon whom they love or how they walk or dress or anything.

A loss that inspires...

About two weeks ago, I wrote Zach Sobiech, a 17-year-old who, when diagnosed with a rare form of terminal bone cancer, decided to embrace life's possibilities instead of giving into his mortality. He recorded a song, Clouds, which became a viral hit. A number of celebrities then lip synced to in his honor, and the proceeds from his music went to the Children's Cancer Research Fund set up in his name.

Sadly, Zach lost his battle with cancer yesterday. I never met him but I was tremendously saddened when I learned of his death, especially on a day when faced with the tragic losses in Oklahoma. But Zach's courage also is tremendously inspiring. I know so many people who have battled cancer and other diseases and never given up, and I am inspired by their bravery, even if they ultimately lost their fight.

Soul Pancake prepared a video tribute to Zach, which includes his song and some interviews. It's very moving and beautifully done.

RIP, Zach. To his family and friends, I say thank you for sharing Zach's courage and creativity with us. We are the better for it.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

Nearly 36 years after his death, Elvis continues to endure. Beyond the legend of the man himself (and hell, I've even made the pilgrimage to Graceland to pay homage), his music still makes you feel romantic, wistful, or even playful, and certainly can turn almost anyone into an Elvis impersonator for a few brief minutes.

Love Me Tender was released in 1956 when Elvis performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show, a month before his movie of the same name debuted. The song hit #1 on the Billboard charts in November 1956, remaining in the position for 5 weeks, and also reached #3 for 3 weeks on the R&B chart. This version was ranked #437 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

While the song has been covered by everyone from Norah Jones and Linda Ronstadt to Frank Sinatra and Richard Chamberlain(!), I really enjoyed the duet recorded by Chris Isaak and Brandi Carlile, for the 2008 tribute album and concert, Elvis Viva Las Vegas. Both of their voices are so unique and soaring, and their harmonies work tremendously well on this song.

Here's the duet:

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

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

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

Redemption Song by Chris Cornell and Audioslave

More proof the world is going stone cold mad...

I've read about or seen a few things over the last few days that make me wonder if people in our world are just getting crazier, or if I'm just getting less tolerant. (I'm guessing it's somewhere in the middle of the two.)

Rich Manhattan mothers are hiring handicapped tour guides so their kids can cut lines at Disney. It's like something out of an episode of one of the Real Housewives shows, or even Arrested Development. Seriously. These women are hiring people with disabilities to pose as family members so they and their kids can jump to the front of lines. These so-called "black-market Disney guides" run $130 an hour, or $1,040 for an eight-hour day.

Now, I'm no fan of people who park in handicapped spots when they don't need to, forcing people with actual disabilities to walk further. But this seriously takes the cake. Although I guess it's just as pathetic that these individuals would be willing to rent themselves out for such a purpose. No better way to teach your kids values.


She wanted to dance with somebody. On the plane. Think you've had to fly with annoying or crazy people? Well, folks on a recent flight from LAX to JFK win this battle hands down. Their flight had to make an emergency landing in Kansas City because a woman wouldn't stop singing Whitney Houston songs at the top of her lungs. (As American Idol has taught us, it's always the people who shouldn't be singing Whitney songs that do.)

The woman has apparently blamed her musical outburst on her diabetes. (I would have drawn the line at Rick Astley, but that's just me.) And as you'd imagine in this era of bystanders watching instead of helping, someone got video of the woman's swan song, I Will Always Love You on their cell phone.


From the ridiculous to the, well, more ridiculous. This morning when I was walking to the Metro, I spied a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker that read, "I'll get rid of my guns when God gets rid of the gays". Needless to say I had to remind myself (repeatedly) that slashing a car's tires or bashing in its windows would be a criminal act, and I'd probably not get to work on time.

Look, I'm not going to get into a debate about gun control now. I think I've made my feelings about that abundantly clear. But while you might have the right to amass an arsenal in your home, what gives you the right to hide behind your religion to preach bigotry and hate? It's always wonderful when people preach about what God hates or what God will destroy. I don't think God needs a spokesperson, no matter what religion you believe in.

Remember, guns don't kill people. Bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance kill people.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: "Is This Tomorrow" by Caroline Leavitt

In 1956, in the suburbs of Boston, young divorcée Ava Lark is struggling to make it. She and her 12-year-old son, Lewis, are the only Jewish family in the neighborhood (and their neighbors don't hesitate to share their Jewish stereotypes), and one of only two families living without a man, although the other family lost their patriarch when he died unexpectedly. Ava dreams of a better life for her and her son—she wants to be financially stable enough to buy the house in which they live; she wants a steady job, a happy son, friends, and romance. Yet none of it seems to go her way.

Twelve-year-old Lewis isn't quite aware of his mother's struggles, but he wishes she were more like the other mothers in the neighborhood. He wishes his father would return, or at least take him away from his life. His only solace are his two best friends, Jimmy and his older sister, Rose. The three are inseparable—the self-titled Three Musketeers—and share nearly everything, although there are times when Jimmy and Lewis exclude Rose, and Rose struggles with her feelings for Lewis, who is oblivious to how she feels. The two boys dream of escaping their hometown, and have a map on which their entire future route is planned.

One afternoon, Jimmy disappears. No one knows what happened to him, but the neighborhood—in the heart of the Cold War and fears of communism—suspects everyone. Ava's life becomes scrutinized and criticized even more, her every romantic relationship open to suspicion, even the fact that Jimmy had a crush on her. For Rose and Lewis, Jimmy's disappearance turns their lives around in so many ways. Both believe he is still alive, and vow to find him, no matter how long it takes.

Year later, Rose and Lewis finally are able to solve the puzzle around Jimmy's disappearance. But they discover that while solving a mystery may bring some closure, it opens up more questions, and feelings they were never prepared to address. And these questions have ramifications into their relationships with others, including Lewis' relationship with both of his parents.

Caroline Leavitt is a fantastic writer, and I loved her earlier book, Pictures of You. She has an amazing ability to show how one tragic action—in this case, Jimmy's disappearance—has powerful ramifications for so many people for so long. While at first, I wondered why Leavitt spent so much time dwelling on Ava's character when she wasn't even the focus of the story, I realized later how the choices she and those around her made really did have an impact on everyone else.

Leavitt has a very straight-forward style. She cuts to the heart of emotions and situations without forcing you to wade through a lot of hyperbole, but her words have real power. Her depiction of 1950s and 1960s America, and the moods of everyday citizens during that time. While I felt the story took a little bit to gain momentum, I found Lewis and Rose's characters so fascinating and so tragic, and would love to know what happened to them after the book ended. (And Ava could have her own side story, focused on her adventures at the end of the book.) This was a terrific story that really moved me.

If you've never read Caroline Leavitt before, add her to your list. You'll be glad you did!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

One of the best reasons celebrities should make headlines...

Our society, and particularly the media, are so celebrity-obsessed, and as we all know, there are far too many celebrities out there famous for not doing anything, yet the media salivates over their every word, their every step, their every outfit. But when celebrities do something selfless, something for which they truly should get media coverage and appreciation, it's often not as sexy.

This is 17-year-old Zach Sobiech. Zach is terminally ill, fighting osteosarcoma—a rare form of bone cancer that is particularly aggressive and deadly. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2009, when he was just 14 years old. He's since endured a number of treatments, including a hip replacement. Last May, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread, and pronounced there is nothing more than can be done.

Faced with the question, "When faced with months to live, how do you say goodbye?", Zach wrote and recorded a song, Clouds, which became a viral hit. The song includes lyrics such as, as "Be ready to live and it'll be ripped right out of my hands," "If only I had a little bit more time with you," and the chorus "we'll go up, up, up/But I'll fly a little higher/We'll go up in the clouds because the view is a little nicer."

A group of celebrities, led by The Office's Rainn Wilson, were so touched by the song and Zach's story, that they got together to record a version of them lip syncing this song to raise awareness and research funds in his honor. The celebrities involved include: Bryan Cranston, Sarah Silverman, Ashley Tisdale, Colbie Caillat, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, Andy Grammer, Jenna Fischer, Angela Kinsey, Jenna Elfman, Jack McBrayer, Lumineers, Jason Derulo, The Mowglis, Rachel Bilson, Kina Grannis, Passenger, Creed Bratton, Tyler Hilton, Mark Duplass, Josh Gad, Jason Wade, Paul McDonald, Ed Helms, Phillip Phillips, Justin Young, and Alyssa Shouse. It's pretty awesome.

You can download Zach's song here, from iTunes, or you can make a donation to the Children's Cancer Research Fund directly.

God bless Zach Sobiech, and all those who pitched in to honor him. It's nice when people, especially celebrities, surprise you.

Celebrating all moms...

As Mother's Day approaches it's an opportunity to celebrate all those amazing women who are mothers, as well as those who play that role. Thank you for the sacrifices you make on a daily basis and the love you give us.

The May 13 cover of The New Yorker salutes the growing number of gay parents in its Mother's Day tribute, and while some may say—and have said—it's just another example of a liberal magazine upholding a liberal agenda, I think it's beautiful to recognize it takes all types of people to be mothers, whether biologically or simply through love and nurturing.

As I salute my mother, grandmothers, sister, mother-in-law, sisters-in law, and all of those among my family and friends who deserve to be recognized every day, and send strength to those who have lost their mothers, I thought I'd take this trip down memory lane, courtesy of a 1970s-era television commercial from Bell System (the telephone company back in the day). And I called, "Just because I love you, mom."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

You take the good, you take the bad...

Wanna feel old? The finale of The Facts of Life aired 25 years ago last night, May 7, 1988, after 209 episodes. (It premiered in 1979.)

While it's been quite a few years since we've been able to spend time with Mrs. Garrett, Blair, Jo, Tootie, and Natalie, to celebrate how time has flown, Huffington Post looked at the large number of current celebrities who appeared on the show when they were younger. Of course, we know all about George Clooney and first-season regular Molly Ringwald (before the cast was winnowed down), but Helen Hunt, Mayim Bialik, David Spade, and others also made the rounds in Peekskill.

Check out the slide show they assembled at

And now, sing it with me: You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have...

Book Review: "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud

"We're not the madwomen in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy...and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are...and not a soul registers that we are furious. We're completely invisible."

So says Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who always dreamed she'd make something special of her life. She had aspirations of being a successful, worldly artist, along with being a wife and mother. Yet instead she's found herself as "the woman upstairs," the person always providing support, encouragement, and praise to those who do achieve, those who live more glamorous lives than she does. But although she has accepted this role, she yearns for something more, she yearns to break out of her dull, perfectly pleasant life.

When the glamorous, cultured Shahid family comes into her life, they begin awakening feelings in Nora she had long since tamped down. She is enchanted by one of her students, young Reza Shahid, who quickly becomes her favorite student as a result of his intelligence, sensitivity, and affection for her. And while she initially finds Reza's father, Skandar, a Lebanese professor working on a fellowship for a year at Harvard, intriguing, it is Reza's mother—the sensually alluring artist Sirena—who utterly dazzles Nora.

Nora finds herself opening like a flower under the light of Sirena's friendship, particularly when the two decide to share studio space. The proximity to Sirena's creativity inspires Nora's own artistic talent to flourish, although she is often simply content to spend time with Sirena without actually doing any work. And as their friendship grows, Sirena's companionship—and her increasing reliance on Nora in many ways—makes Nora finally feel wanted, feel as if she has a purpose. Yet she realizes that the Shahids still view her as a companion and confidante, and they will be able to continue their lives when they return to Paris, and the thought of again being alone frightens and angers Nora.

As her dependence and infatuation with all three of the Shahids grows, so does her frustration with her own life, yet she only can see them as her source of happiness and purpose. She is in love with being needed, with feeling alive, and doesn't want that feeling to end. And as the deadline for the Shahids to leave Massachusetts draws closer, Nora struggles with dramatically fluctuating emotions, and her actions become more impulsive.

We've seen this character so many times before, the woman who felt she was doomed to a boring and uneventful life suddenly being awakened by those around her, and her steadfast need to cling to these feelings rather than face a return to her old life. At times I found her an intriguing character, and at times, her neediness and resentment wearied me. Having seen this type of situation in other books, I wondered if Messud would choose the predictable path for her plot, or cause Nora to become utterly unhinged. I was pleased that the book didn't take all of the twists I expected (and feared), and in fact, Messud threw in a twist at the end that surprised me and left me thinking much as it did Nora.

It's difficult to sustain interest in a story about a vengeful and needy person (except when it's a fantasy) unless the author has the ability to make you feel for the character. While I didn't love this book, I did like it quite a bit. I felt that, for the most part, Messud gave Nora enough layers to keep her interesting (if not wholly sympathetic), and I wondered just where the plot would go. It's an age-old story with not a completely age-old ending.

Wait, is there an "I" in "Team"?

Remember, grammar lessons can come from everywhere, even cacti...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I've written before about how much I love Bob Marley, and Redemption Song in particular. If I were to take on the difficult task of assembling a list of my favorite songs of all time, this one would definitely be on it. I love the song's melody, Marley's incredible delivery, and the amazingly poetic lyrics. (And I'm not alone; in 2004, Rolling Stone placed the song at #66 among The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.)

"Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom, 'cause all I ever have...redemption songs."

Chris Cornell has one of the most distinctive and versatile voices in rock music today, which he has demonstrated as the lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, as well as in his solo career. And while's he's no stranger to cover songs—check out his version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean—I'm a huge fan of his rendition of Redemption Song. He's been performing it for a while, both with Audioslave and on solo tours, this is the only version that YouTube would let me embed.

And here's the classic Bob Marley version. So, so good, and amazingly, so right on in today's world.

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

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

All the things that I am not...

As the mantle of marriage equality—and equality in general—continues to get embraced by a wider and wider circle, those on what will eventually be the losing side of the argument—and history, for that matter—continue their vocal tirades, throwing accusations of an increasingly wilder nature at LGBT people and those who support equality. While I'd like to believe that most rational, reasonably intelligent people can separate the truth from baseless hyperbole, I thought it might be helpful to let people know some basic facts.
  1. I am not looking to "recruit," "convert," or "turn" people gay. While I believe every person has the right to live their life the way they so choose, I would never knowingly encourage people to "choose" a lifestyle in which they're treated with derision, persecution, inequality, and threats of violence.

  2. A person's desire to spend the rest of their life with the person they love should not affect anyone else's relationship or marriage. If in some bizarre way my relationship affects yours, your relationship was not stable.

  3. Allowing people of the same sex to marry each other will not open the floodgates to people marrying their children or other family members, their pets or other animals, or inanimate objects.

  4. While I go to the gym six days a week, I don't ogle the others in the locker room. And I'm not interested in hitting on any of them, or any random person with whom I come into contact in any random public place. And you know what, Family Research Council? Letting gay kids into the Boy Scouts will not mean they will hit on other scouts either.

  5. Demanding equal rights in all aspects of my life doesn't mean that I'm "persecuting" those who steadfastly cling to inequality. Contrary to what Newt Gingrich believes, religious rights are not being "outlawed" by equal rights.

  6. Contrary to what Pat Robertson believes, I do not deserve to be equated with rapists and murderers because of my sexual orientation. And while people may hide who they really are, or choose to live a life in denial, you cannot "change" your sexual orientation.

  7. Gay people are not "unclean" or an "abomination."

  8. No matter what they believe in African countries like Uganda and Zambia (where a gay couple's parents turned them into the government just recently)—or how they act in nearly every state in the U.S. and many countries—gay people aren't deserving of death or violence against them. Oh, wait. No one is.

Thanks for listening. And if you're confused, try reading this again.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quiet athletes rarely change the world...

To the surprise of no one, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe—an outspoken advocate for marriage equality—was cut by his team earlier today after eight and a half seasons. This was especially unsurprising to Kluwe himself, who predicted this after the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of the NFL draft last week.

The fact is Kluwe is 31 years old, and has played fairly inconsistently of late, but there's little doubt that his vocal activism helped make it a little easier for the team to decide it was time to part ways with him, especially in a state that has struggled with a decision regarding marriage equality. (The state legislature is still debating the issue after voters rejected a bill last November that would have amended the state's constitution to dictate that marriage should be between one man and one woman.)

Chip Scoggins, a sports reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said: "Regardless of whether they admit it, the Vikings are jettisoning Kluwe partly because they grew tired of his outspokenness. It’s naive to think the move is based solely on his age (31), salary ($1.45 million) or how he performed last season (inconsistently). Kluwe has become the most visible punter in NFL history because of his social activism. The Vikings deny that Kluwe’s public stance on issues factored into their decision — not that they would ever admit it — but they likely prefer someone who embraces the anonymous life of an NFL punter.

"Kluwe has developed a wide audience and become a polarizing figure as a staunch advocate for same-sex marriage. Whether it’s gay rights, player safety or Ray Guy’s omission from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kluwe isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. And he refuses to apologize for that, even if it contributes to his exit.

"'This is me,' he said. 'I pay attention to what goes on in the world, and I like to speak up when I see something.'

"Kluwe’s expected release could result in some backlash by fans who applaud his support of same-sex marriage. A handful of teams need punters, so he could find a job elsewhere. Kluwe also understands that teams might pass on him because they view him as a distraction. He believes he has four or five good seasons left as a punter, but he refuses to muffle his activism just to get a job.

"'I think the sacrifice would be worth it,' he said. 'Now, I would hope that I would get the chance to play football again, because I think I can still play. But if it ends up being something that costs me that position, I think making people aware of an issue that is causing children to commit suicide is more important than kicking a leather ball.'"

Kluwe's release follows that of Baltimore Ravens linebacker and LGBT ally Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was released by his team last month. Again, Ayanbadejo is 36 years old, so his release cannot be attributed to his activism alone. (In fact, Ayanbadejo initially squelched stories that blamed his advocacy for marriage equality for his release, although he has since said it certainly could have played a role in the final decision.) And, as I reported last month, former New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita—another advocate for marriage equality—retired from the game at age 33.

Hats off to Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Scott Fujita, and all those unwilling to let equality be trodden upon simply for the sake of keeping their jobs. We are fortunate to have advocates like these, and so many others, in our corner, and I hope their courage won't be in vain for long.

All in the bonds of sisterhood?

Don't know if you saw this when it hit the media two weeks ago or so, but this was far too good not to share.

So apparently a board member of the Delta Gamma sorority at the University of Maryland had just about had it with her lame sorority sisters, especially the level of enthusiasm (or lack thereof) shown in their participation in Greek Week activities, particularly those involving their "matchup" fraternity, Sigma Nu.

This board member got so frustrated that she dashed off one of the craziest, profanity-laden emails to her sorority sisters I've ever seen. And of course, one of her sisters decided to share the email with the media, so the world could enjoy this heaping dash of cray-cray. The author of the email has since resigned, but you've just got to see this, unless you're easily offended by vulgar language:
If you just opened this like I told you to, tie yourself down to whatever chair you're sitting in, because this email is going to be a rough fucking ride.

For those of you that have your heads stuck under rocks, which apparently is the majority of this chapter, we have been FUCKING UP in terms of night time events and general social interactions with Sigma Nu. I've been getting texts on texts about people LITERALLY being so fucking AWKWARD and so fucking BORING. If you're reading this right now and saying to yourself "But oh em gee Julia, I've been having so much fun with my sisters this week!", then punch yourself in the face right now so that I don't have to fucking find you on campus to do it myself.

I do not give a flying fuck, and Sigma Nu does not give a flying fuck, about how much you fucking love to talk to your sisters. You have 361 days out of the fucking year to talk to sisters, and this week is NOT, I fucking repeat NOT ONE OF THEM. This week is about fostering relationships in the greek community, and that's not fucking possible if you're going to stand around and talk to each other and not our matchup. Newsflash you stupid cocks: FRATS DON'T LIKE BORING SORORITIES. Oh wait, DOUBLE FUCKING NEWSFLASH: SIGMA NU IS NOT GOING TO WANT TO HANG OUT WITH US IF WE FUCKING SUCK, which by the way in case you're an idiot and need it spelled out for you, WE FUCKING SUCK SO FAR. This also applies to you little shits that have talked openly about post gaming at a different frat IN FRONT OF SIGMA NU BROTHERS. Are you people fucking retarded? That's not a rhetorical question, I LITERALLY want you to email me back telling me if you're mentally slow so I can make sure you don't go to anymore night time events. If Sigma Nu openly said "Yeah we're gonna invite Zeta over", would you be happy? WOULD YOU? No you wouldn't, so WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU DO IT TO THEM?? IN FRONT OF THEM?!! First of all, you SHOULDN'T be post gaming at other frats, I don't give a FUCK if your boyfriend is in it, if your brother is in it, or if your entire family is in that frat. YOU DON'T GO. YOU. DON'T. GO. And you ESPECIALLY do fucking NOT convince other girls to leave with you.

"But Julia!", you say in a whiny little bitch voice to your computer screen as you read this email, "I've been cheering on our teams at all the sports, doesn't that count for something?" NO YOU STUPID FUCKING ASS HATS, IT FUCKING DOESN'T. DO YOU WANNA KNOW FUCKING WHY?!! IT DOESN'T COUNT BECAUSE YOU'VE BEEN FUCKING UP AT SOBER FUCKING EVENTS TOO. I've not only gotten texts about people being fucking WEIRD at sports (for example, being stupid shits and saying stuff like "durr what's kickball?" is not fucking funny), but I've gotten texts about people actually cheering for the opposing team. The opposing. Fucking. Team. ARE YOU FUCKING STUPID?!! I don't give a SHIT about sportsmanship, YOU CHEER FOR OUR GODDAMN TEAM AND NOT THE OTHER ONE, HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN TO A SPORTS GAME? ARE YOU FUCKING BLIND? Or are you just so fucking dense about what it means to make people like you that you think being a good little supporter of the greek community is going to make our matchup happy? Well it's time someone told you, NO ONE FUCKING LIKES THAT, ESPECIALLY OUR FUCKING MATCHUP. I will fucking cunt punt the next person I hear about doing something like that, and I don't give a fuck if you SOR me, I WILL FUCKING ASSAULT YOU.

"Ohhh Julia, I'm now crying because your email has made me oh so so sad". Well good. If this email applies to you in any way, meaning if you are a little asswipe that stands in the corners at night or if you're a weird shit that does weird shit during the day, this following message is for you:


I'm not fucking kidding. Don't go. Seriously, if you have done ANYTHING I've mentioned in this email and have some rare disease where you're unable to NOT do these things, then you are HORRIBLE, I repeat, HORRIBLE PR FOR THIS CHAPTER. I would rather have 40 girls that are fun, talk to boys, and not fucking awkward than 80 that are fucking faggots. If you are one of the people that have told me "Oh nooo boo hoo I can't talk to boys I'm too sober", then I pity you because I don't know how you got this far in life, and with that in mind don't fucking show up unless you're going to stop being a goddamn cock block for our chapter. Seriously. I swear to fucking God if I see anyone being a goddamn boner at tonight's event, I will tell you to leave even if you're sober. I'm not even kidding. Try me.

And for those of you who are offended at this email, I would apologize but I really don't give a fuck. Go fuck yourself.
How about that? Talk about the basis for lifelong friendship, huh?

But even better than this letter is the dramatic reading of it by Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon, who will be playing General Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel. This man's performance is legendary. But watch where you watch it, because you'll need the volume up to hear his performance appropriately.

I guess this is what I missed working full-time while going to college, huh?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Movie Review: "Iron Man 3"

The third film in a series can be sublime—think The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Ultimatum or even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—or ridiculous—anyone for Ocean's Thirteen, Batman Forever, or, heaven help us, Jaws 3-D?

While the first Iron Man was pretty fantastic and the sequel was somewhat disappointing, I'm pleased to say that the third outing with Tony Stark definitely hews more toward the former than the latter. Not only is it a truly worthy start to the summer movie season despite the fact it's only the first week in May, but it has taken the series into an exciting yet introspective and—dare I say—more mature direction, in the hands of director Shane Black, who is new to the series.

Iron Man 3 takes place sometime after the hullabaloo following the cataclysmic events in The Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is still a bit shaken by what he was a part of, and regardless of the bravado he wears, he's suffering real people problems, namely an inability to sleep and periodic anxiety attacks. His inventor-on-speed mentality isn't helping him execute his new idea, namely a system that allows pieces of the Iron Man suit to come hurling toward him with just one simple gesture. (The suit almost seems to attack him as much as it attaches itself to him.) And this mania isn't helping his relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking quite deserving of her recently bestowed upon title of Sexiest Woman Alive) one bit; in fact, she's tired of playing second fiddle to a metal suit.

And then trouble comes calling, in the form of The Mandarin (a marvelous Ben Kingsley), a mysterious dictator of epic proportion, who is systematically raining terror down on the world, and letting them know what's coming next in dramatic broadcasts that take control of the airwaves. The Mandarin is allied with dweeb-turned-dashingly evil scientist Aldrich Killian (a suavely unhinged Guy Pearce), who was once snubbed by Tony Stark and now has harnessed the scientific power to turn damaged and maimed people into mercenary human weapons with molten flesh. Tony challenges The Mandarin mano a mano, and he obliges, with rocket launchers aimed at Stark's cliffside house, in one of the film's tense and dazzling action sequences.

The Mandarin and Killian constantly up the ante to deadlier levels that threaten the safety of the world (not to mention Tony and Pepper), and even involve Tony's sidekick-yet-rival, Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle, sporting one seriously impressive pair of biceps). You think you know where the movie will lead but you aren't sure, given the movie's almost plaintive tone, not to mention Tony's emotional upheaval. Yet as the action and the spectacle build and build, so too does the plot, so you're not just left with fighting to the death and explosions and gunfights (although there's plenty of those)—you're being stimulated emotionally and (again, dare I say) intellectually as well.

Robert Downey Jr. is a tremendously talented actor who has had a number of memorable roles in his career to date, yet I think Tony Stark may be his best. I don't know where Downey's true personality ends and Stark's begins, and I don't care. He truly wears this character as easily as he does the suit. Much like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series, I felt as if every character in this movie was well-acted; there are none of the overacted roles we're so used to seeing in summer blockbusters.

Iron Man 3 may not be as good as the original, but it's pretty darned close. And if the rest of the summer movie season is even half as satisfying and enjoyable as this film, we're in for one hell of a ride this year.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Book Review: "The Carrion Birds" by Urban Waite

There are thrillers where you haven't a clue what is going to happen, ones that keep you guessing until far into the story, if not until the end. And then there are those in which you can pretty much figure out most of what will happen, sometimes early on into the book. While the latter type of book might not seem too exciting to read, in the hands of a talented author, it can be just as compelling (if not more so) than the former. Urban Waite's The Carrion Birds definitely follows that example, but his storytelling ability and the richness of his characters keep you flipping the pages (literally or metaphorically) so you can see how the story will resolve itself.

Ray Lamar used to be an oilman in the small New Mexico town of Coronado, until his father's wells ran dry. With no real prospect of income, and a wife and young son, he turned to a less savory way of life as a hired gun for a local crime lord, which brought him into the sights of a dangerous Mexican drug cartel and visited unspeakable tragedy upon his family, also causing his cousin Tom to lose his job as the town's sheriff.

After 10 years of hiding out, Ray is ready to move on with his life and finally see his now 12-year-old son again. He agrees to take one more job, because it will bring him back to Coronado, a town now in severe economic decline. But from the very beginning, nothing about this job goes the way it is supposed to, and Ray finds himself being sucked further and further into a maelstrom that he desperately wants to escape. His return to Coronado opens up a number of old wounds, and brings his cousin face-to-face with those who took his job away 10 years before, and those who resolutely tried to defend him.

As you might guess from the title alone, The Carrion Birds is a bleak book, but it is never morose or heavy-handed. In less than 300 pages, Urban Waite does a terrific job drawing his characters and providing their back stories, as well as pulling you along on the trajectories they might follow. While you may know how the whole story will resolve itself, it is a testament to Waite's talent as a writer that you don't care if there are few surprises, because the narrative is well-written, the drama is palpable, and the action flows tremendously well. I've seen some reviews of the book which liken it to No Country for Old Men, and while it does share that book's bleak tone, this is a book with a style all its own, although Waite's ability to evoke the settings of his novel reminded me a little of the excellent James Lee Burke.

This is a thriller which might not shock or dazzle you, but it certainly will thrill you, as much for the way it is written as for its plot. And definitely check out Waite's first novel, the equally bleak The Terror of Living, as well.

Friday, May 3, 2013

It's tough when they all look alike...

From kenneth in the (212):

As we've seen far too often, our 24-hour news cycle leads to unfortunate errors. Check out the photo that accompanies the story below.

I guess it's hard to tell Joan Collins and NBA player Jason Collins apart, huh?

It's almost as egregious as the closed captioning service used by local Fox affiliate KDFW a few weeks ago. During the manhunt for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the service captioned the suspect as "19-year-old Zooey Deschanel."

"Whoa! Epic closed captioning FAIL!" Deschanel tweeted when she saw the screenshot. The blunder was the fault of Caption Solution, a Kansas-based company that provides real-time closed captioning services to local TV stations. The company's president, Kala Patterson, issued an apology, as the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. Gawker says it was the work of a "rogue employee."

Anyone who thinks proofreading and fact-checking are dying skills, I believe a change is gonna come.

Living your life isn't flaunting it...

Since NBA player Jason Collins announced he is gay earlier this week, response within and outside the world of sports has been largely positive and affirming, with the NBA, the Washington Wizards (the last team Collins played for), and numerous athletes expressing their support for Collins, as well encouraging tweets and phone calls from the President and First Lady, and many celebrities.

As expected, however, there have been those less than enthused or impressed by Collins' announcement as well. Sure, there have been the typical "God hates fags" comments, plus the Westboro Baptist Church has done its usual saber-rattling. Collins received some death threats via Twitter, and a few sportscasters, including ESPN's Chris Broussard (who leaned on the Bible and said Collins was living "in open rebellion to God") and CBS announcer Tim Brando first called Collins' sexuality a lifestyle choice and then said Collins shouldn't be called a hero despite being the first athlete in a major sport to publicly announce his homosexuality. (He tried to couch this by saying heroes were people like first responders, but previous Tweets have shown Brando has referred to Hootie and the Blowfish and golfer David Toms as heroes, just for doing good or playing well.)

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions. But ignorance is no excuse for prejudice, as is the case with Atlanta Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel.

Samuel told FOX Sports Radio that he doesn't understand why gays have to flaunt their sexuality when asked about NBA center Jason Collins. He said, "Straight people are not announcing they're straight, so why does everybody have to announce their sexuality or whatever? You know, what they prefer...So that's just how I see it. That's my opinion on things. All respect you know, I have nothing but respect for the people whoever decisions they make and whatever, but you know, you don't have to show it and flaunt it like that. You know what I'm saying, we have kids out here, too."

Really? Straight people don't flaunt the fact that they're straight, but finally taking the chance to be a role model and live your life openly is flaunting it, because Asante Samuel doesn't agree?

Has Samuel ever been to a shopping mall, theme park, airport, sporting event, or any public place and seen a straight couple kiss and hug? As long as the public displays of affection don't get out of hand, no one seems to care—in fact, people even smile. But what some people don't realize is that gay couples have been asked to leave malls, theme parks, restaurants, and other places, simply for hugging or kissing their companion, because these are apparently "family establishments" where it's perfectly fine for a straight couple to do the same thing. Gay couples have even been cautioned on airplanes because people complain.

Samuel tried to explain his feelings on ESPN.

Whenever I see things like this I am reminded of a line from Wicked: "Some people are so empty-headed they'd believe anything." Yep, sounds about right.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

17 problems you haven't had since the 90s...

Maybe it's because I'm always borderline nostalgic, or maybe it's because, as I posted earlier today, the 90s are in my head full force following the death of Chris Kelly of Kris Kross, but I just couldn't get enough of More Beans' post called 17 Problems You Haven't Had Since the 90s.

Using James Van Der Beek's "Dawson Crying" meme (from Dawson's Creek), the post looks at 17 crises you might have experienced back in the day, but shouldn't have to worry about them ever again. Here are some of my favorites:

Roll up the cuffs on your Z. Cavariccis, hook up your Discman, and read the whole post at (For those of you born in the 1990s who don't know what I'm talking about, don't identify yourselves...)

Jump, jump, no more...

Don't try to compare us to another bad little fad
I'm the Mac and I'm bad give you something that you never had

So sad to hear that Chris Kelly, one-half of the 90s duo Kris Kross, was found dead in his home yesterday at the age of 34. Their song Jump, and their habit of wearing their clothes backward, really brings back a lot of memories of my life in the early to mid-90s, not that I wore my clothes that way purposely. (Most of the time, at least.)

Jump never fails to get me moving. In fact, I may play it on my iPod several times today. Because, you know, the Mac Dad will make you jump, jump, the Daddy Mac will make you jump, jump, Kris Kross will make you jump, jump.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: "Wave" by Sonali Deraniyagala

Every so often you hear about a person who survived an accident, fire, or some other type of tragedy while all other members of their family, household, or car died. I always wonder how that person finds the strength to carry on with their life, and how they're able to handle the feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger that certainly must affect them.

Sonali Deraniyagala is one of those people. When the tsunami hit Asia in December 2004, she and her family were vacationing on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. After the water subsided, she survived, while her husband, two young sons, and her parents all died. While she sustained physical trauma, as you could imagine, her emotional trauma was far worse. How could she continue living her life when her entire family was gone? Why did she survive while everyone else died? When every day of her life was defined by her being a wife, a mother, and a daughter, what would happen now?

"I don't want it to be tomorrow. I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start."

Wave is an emotionally powerful account of the days, months, and years of Deraniyagala's life following the tsunami. The book follows her efforts to try and come to terms with her losses and begin living her life again—the struggles, the setbacks, the challenges, and the victories she experienced throughout. The book also details her realization that the small events in life, the likes, dislikes, and dreams of her children, the habits of her husband and parents, were often where the magic was.

While Wave certainly packs a punch, it is never maudlin. The book never tries to manipulate you, and Deraniyagala is frank and blunt about her feelings. This is a book designed to make you think more than make you cry, and it is also a book that has you marvel at the strength of one woman to carry on in the face of tragedy that would easily break almost anyone.

I feel privileged that Sonali Deraniyagala chose to share her feelings, her struggles, and her experiences in this book. It reads very quickly, yet her writing is poetic and wonderful, and in my mind's eye I can see her family vividly thanks to her descriptions. This is a difficult but tremendously moving and inspiring book.