Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A message to Anthony Weiner...

Kristin Chenoweth adapted the song Popular from the musical Wicked to send a message to NYC mayoral candidate and chronic sexter Anthony Weiner, and performed it on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Good fun, although I don't know if it was Chenoweth's makeup, hairstyle, or perhaps some sort of plastic surgery that has her looking a little like Janice from the Muppets.

Anyway. Enjoy!

Book Review: "On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta" by Jen Lin-Liu

Warning: Don't read this book on an empty stomach, or if you're on Atkins, because you'll be craving carbohydrates and your stomach will probably be growling throughout the entire book.

Jen Lin-Liu was a journalist, food writer, and owner of a cooking school in Beijing. While on her honeymoon in Italy, as she marveled over the culinary delights she and her husband enjoyed, she started wondering about pasta. (And who wouldn't?) More specifically, she started wondering about pasta's provenance, given its popularity in so many different cultures.

Who invented the noodle? Was it, as legend and history have said, Marco Polo, who brought the noodle back to Italy from China during his global explorations? Or were mentions of noodle-like substances in the Talmud and Etruscan history, or supposed discoveries of ancient noodles evidence that pasta was enjoyed even earlier in history? Lin-Liu decided to set out on a culinary journey along the Silk Road to discover the origins of pasta.

Her journey takes her through small villages in China and Tibet, Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. She spends time in cooking schools, restaurants, tourist attractions, and even people's homes, learning secrets of rice, pasta, and dumpling dishes the world over, and marveling at their differences and their similarities with the food her cooking school teaches people about in China. But more than that, as she spends time with professional chefs and home cooks, wives and mothers, men and women, she learns a great deal about different cultures and how they view the role of women versus men, as well as the role of food in each of these societies.

At the same time, Lin-Liu, a newlywed, is forced to confront her own issues with her marriage. Spending most of her journey on her own, with her journalist husband elsewhere, she wonders whether this trip was good for her marriage, and what role she should play in their relationship after her travels. With food such a central part of her life, but not nearly such an obsession for her husband, are they doomed to fail?

Lin-Liu cites two points raised by food historian Charles Perry, which illustrated some of what she learned in her travels. "If a people eat much of a dish, this does not mean that they have eaten it forever, [and] if a people eat little of a does not follow that they never ate much of it."

As a huge pasta, noodle, and dumpling lover, I enjoyed reading about Lin-Liu's experiences, and the incredible (and sometimes nauseating) food she was able to eat and cook during her travels. But after a while, I stopped caring about the purpose of her mission (the issue of provenance seems to come and go throughout the book) and just focused on her conversations and her discoveries. She's an excellent writer and describes the things she ate and saw with terrific detail.

But if anything, the weak link in the book is Lin-Liu herself. She is fairly unflinching in writing about her own issues with her marriage and her role as a woman, which doesn't quite endear her to the reader. And when she recounts certain exchanges with her husband you definitely sympathize with him, not her. It takes a lot to write about yourself in an unflattering way.

This is a fascinating book, and the recipes that Lin-Liu includes are well worth the price. If you've ever dreamed of going on a worldwide food journey, but don't think it's something you can afford (financially or weight-wise), live vicariously through Jen Lin-Liu. You'll enjoy yourself, and be super hungry.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

With thanks to Sean, for pointing this one my way!

Michael Jackson's Billie Jean remains one of his most iconic and well-known songs. It was the second single off of Thriller, and it is one of the best-selling singles worldwide; in fact, it ranks #58 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

I first heard of The Civil Wars when they performed with Taylor Swift on the Grammy Awards a few years back, but I've really grown to like their music and their sound. They definitely deserve to be listened to. In this live performance, they put a unique twist on Michael Jackson's hit.

David Cook, winner of Season 7 of American Idol, knocked it out of the park with an amped-up version of Chris Cornell's acoustic cover. I remember being wowed by Cook's vocals on this far-too-short performance.

Then, of course, there's nothing quite like MJ's original. And the fact remains, the kid is not his son.

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

All You Need is Love by The Flaming Lips

Lovesong by Adele

I Love It by Robin Thicke

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: "Visitation Street" by Ivy Pochoda

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors. While I've tended to love his grittier books more than his recent forays into historically-tinged fiction, I absolutely love the way he writes and the way he creates and develops his characters.

Lehane recently started his own imprint at HarperCollins Publishers, called (what else?) Dennis Lehane Books, and Ivy Pochoda's terrific Visitation Street is the first book released under this imprint. It's truly a book worthy of its impresario, and I believe it signals the arrival of a fantastic writer with a tremendous amount of promise.

Valerie Marino and June Giatto are 15-year-old best friends growing up in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood. It's summer and the two are bored, and starting to feel the pull of maturity separating them, as June wants to be treated like an adult and hang out with boys, while Val is still content to go on doing the same things they always have. But Val doesn't want to lose June, so in an effort to seem more mature and brave, she encourages June to accompany her on a late night ride on the East River, using a pink rubber raft. On the water that humid night, something happens, and only Val returns, washed up on the shore under a pier, injured but alive.

June's disappearance lights a spark among those in the neighborhood, for different reasons. Jonathan Sprouse, a disillusioned musician-turned-music teacher who rescued Val from underneath the pier, is haunted by his own demons and the questions and aftereffects his heroic act leaves behind. Fadi, the Lebanese owner of a neighborhood bodega, fancies his store as the community center of Red Hook, and hopes June's disappearance and his attempts to bring the community together around it will help his business and his sense of belonging. Cree, a friend of Val and June's, dreams of getting away from Red Hook but finds himself rooted there because of his mother's inability to let go of his father's memory—and his own pursuits leave him vulnerable to suspicion. Ren, a talented graffiti artist with a mysterious past, is determined to try and insulate Cree from suspiccion—for mysterious reasons.

But of course, the person most affected by June's disappearance is Val. Unable to remember (or perhaps acknowledge) what happened on the river that night, afraid that taking responsibility might mean June really did die, she starts acting out in strange and potentially dangerous ways, if for no other reason than to feel a part of something again, to feel that someone else other than June cares about her.

The characters all collide around the events of that summer, a summer that sees the Red Hook neighborhood struggle with potential gentrification and the arrival of the first cruise ships to the area, as well as the usual distrust and dissatisfaction that occur among racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines. It's a story about friendship, relationships, and how important it is to come to terms with your own demons, as well as how you can't always tie yourself to your past and need to move on.

This isn't a mystery per se, in that June's disappearance seems fairly self-explanatory, but the book is more about the events that incident sets into motion. I thought Pochoda did a terrific job setting the story and giving life to her characters, and I really found myself captivated from start to finish. Having read many books that have had similar plots, I worried that Visitation Street might veer into more clichéd territory and was so pleased it didn't. I really flew through the book and actually wanted it to be a little longer, because as is the case with many books I enjoy, I wanted to know what happened next to the characters.

I'm very excited to see what's next for Ivy Pochoda's career, and look forward to seeing the next books to emerge from Dennis Lehane Books. If they're as good as Visitation Street, Lehane may prove himself to be just as successful finding new talent as he is showing off his own.

Movie Review: "Fruitvale Station"

I went into seeing the fantastically powerful Fruitvale Station knowing what the movie was about, and it packed such a punch that I can only imagine how those who go into the movie without knowing anything might feel. Any review will give you the same information mine will, but if you want to remain unaware, don't read on.

This amazing film, written and directed by first-time director Ryan Coogler, is based on the true story of Oscar Julius Grant III, a 22-year-old resident of California's Bay Area, who was inexplicably shot and killed by police at a BART station in the early hours of January 1, 2008. The film opens with actual cell phone video of the incident taken by witnesses on the train, but you're not completely sure what you're watching until you see everything unfold later on.

Oscar (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan of The Wire and Friday Night Lights) is an ex-con who is trying to keep his life on track. He wants to marry his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), although he struggles with fidelity, he wants to be able to provide a better life for those around him but can't seem to find his way completely clear of his past. But he is fiercely devoted to two things—his mother (the steadfast yet emotional Octavia Spencer) and his young daughter, Tatiana, who is already proving herself to be smarter than her parents are ready for.

The movie follows Oscar on New Year's Eve Day, as he tries to put his life completely on track. You see what a good heart and soul he has (although you get glimpses of his troubled past in some flashback scenes), and how determined he is to make things work, job-wise and relationship-wise. You see some of the tough-guy posturing he adopts with his friends, but it is more driven by bravado than anything else. And as conversations point Oscar and Sophina toward that BART station, you want to scream at the screen, much like you'd want to when watching a horror movie.

Running just under 90 minutes, the movie packs a great deal of plot, tension, and emotion into a short amount of time. The theater where I saw the movie remained silent through the entire film—a surprise in these days of discourteous moviegoers—except for the sniffling and sobbing that overtook most of us as the film reached its conclusion. (Yes, me, too.)

The performances are tremendously powerful and feel authentic. Spencer is the film's emotional center whenever she's onscreen—you can sense her intense love for Oscar but her fear that he'll ruin his life. Diaz's Sophina is conflicted between wanting to be with the man she loves and wanting complete certainty he'll give her and her daughter everything they want. But the movie belongs to Michael B. Jordan. Oscar is far from perfect, but you see how much he wants to do the right thing. When the film reaches its sad, sad climax, you find yourself emotionally drained because of such a tragic loss, and outraged at what transpired, and that is partially because of Jordan's star-making performance.

Walking out of the theater after the film, I felt completely wrecked yet so grateful I had the chance to see Fruitvale Station. This is easily the best movie I've seen so far this year and I can only hope that more people find it, see it, and take it to heart. Not since Boyz n the Hood have I been so blown away by the spare yet forceful power of a directorial debut. This is one I hope finds its way to the Oscars next spring.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pointing out someone else's wrong doesn't make you less wrong...

Oh, Alec Baldwin.

You know, I thought it was a little troubling when you called your daughter a "thoughtless little pig" a few years ago. When you went crazy because flight attendants asked you to stop playing Words with Friends on an airplane readying for takeoff, I understood, because how many of us haven't wondered why we can't use our Kindle, iPad, or iPod during an entire flight?

When you called a barista at Starbucks an "uppity queen," I thought, well, poor choice of words. But hey, Alec, you've been an outspoken advocate for equality and gay rights, so clearly you didn't mean anything homophobic. Right?

And then recently you were at it again, calling Daily Mail reporter George Stark a "toxic little queen" on Twitter for claiming your wife was Tweeting during James Gandolfini's memorial service. (Your exact Tweets, actually, were "If put my foot up your f--king ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much," and "I'm gonna find you George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna f--k you...up.")

You kind of lost me there, Alec. I don't care if you apologized to GLAAD, and I'm not interested in the fact that most are willing to give you a pass because of your vocal support of the gay community. You probably aren't homophobic, although you clearly have anger issues that manifest themselves in calling gay people (or people you find feminine) "queen."

Words hurt. It's not acceptable to call people names because they don't do what you like, especially when those names have hurtful connotation. We've sadly not moved far enough as a society that these words still don't have ramifications.

But just when I thought we'd reached the end of this debacle, you decided to open your mouth again. After your "toxic little queen" tirade, Anderson Cooper tweeted, "Why does #AlecBaldwin get a pass when he uses gay slurs? If a conservative talked of beating up a "queen" they would be vilified."

On Howard Stern's radio program, you decided you'd get even with Anderson Cooper. So you said, "Anderson Cooper has a job to do. And that job is to try to reinforce his credibility in the gay community after the fact that you couldn't get him out of the closet for 10 years with a canister of tear gas. Now he's the sheriff. Now he's running around writing everybody a ticket!"

I see. So instead of continuing to take responsibility for your own behavior, it's better to say, "Hey, look at this guy! He's worse than I am! I can't be wrong if this guy is wrong!"

That's not how it should work. It's nobody's business to dictate when a person should come out of the closet. And while, sure, Anderson could have made his disclosure much earlier in his career, he's not less of a person because he didn't.

Again, a lot of people in the gay community are willing to give you a pass, and actually take your side over Anderson Cooper's because of his so-called "hypocrisy" in waiting to come out of the closet. But Alec, I'm not one of those people.

It's not that I don't appreciate everything you've done in the past. But at some point, the words "I'm sorry" aren't a get-out-of-jail-free card every time you do something inappropriate. Apologize and then don't do it again. And don't think you're in a position to criticize others for what you think they should do.

Maybe then I won't switch the channel when a Capital One commercial comes on.

Book Review: "Ten Things I've Learnt About Love" by Sarah Butler

Alice has always felt like the black sheep of her family. Her mother died when she was four years old, and she has always felt that her father and older sisters somehow blamed her for that. In fact, she has always felt as if everyone blamed her for being born in the first place, because apparently so much changed in their lives afterward. Maybe that's why she has always been on the move, running away from home when she was a child, and traveling the world as an adult, never really settling down in one place.

She is in Mongolia when she gets the call that her father is dying, and she is able to make it home in order to say goodbye. There is sadness, regret over the things she did or didn't say or do, and a desperate need to understand why her relationship with her father was the way it was. At the same time, she is struggling over the end of her relationship with Kal, a man she thought she might marry, but who was unable to give her what she wanted most.

Daniel is a homeless man, a tramp, who wanders throughout the city of London. While it isn't the life he would have chosen for himself, he's been able to find the beauty in simply standing still and observing his surroundings, the peace of being alone with nature. He collects things he finds on his walks—bits of paper, discarded or lost jewelry, pieces of metal—and can configure them into special treasures. Daniel has synesthesia, which causes him to see letters and words as colors—certain names are pale blue, warm red, or a bright white.

While Daniel hasn't had a job or a steady place to live for many years, he is buoyed by the memories of a woman he once loved more than anything, and his dreams of being a success. But more than anything, he knows he has a daughter he has never seen or met, although he has looked for her nearly every single day of her life, and he desperately wants to find her, although he worries what she'll think if she meets him. As his health starts to fail, he is determined and anxious about finding her. As he said, "You can't miss someone you've never met. But I miss you."

Sarah Butler's wonderful debut novel isn't full of surprises—you know the story early on—but it is full of heart and beauty. It's a story of not feeling like you belong, of longing for connection, and, most of all, the need to love and be loved. Butler is a fantastic writer and this story unfolded so perfectly. Much like typical families, many things remain unsaid, but the silences and the pauses are as telling as the dialogue. I worried how she would tie up the plot and I was glad it didn't fall into any of the traps I feared it would.

I'm definitely a sap, so this book was right up my alley, but it's not sappy. It's really just a terrific book worth reading and taking into your heart.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Never forgetting those around you...

President George H.W. Bush and I might not see eye-to-eye where political issues are concerned, but there's never been a doubt in my mind that he is a good man. And his recent actions definitely reinforce that belief.

Patrick, the two-year-old son of a member of Bush 41's security detail, is fighting leukemia, and has lost his hair as a result of his treatment. After learning (and seeing) that many members of his security detail had shaved their heads in solidarity with Patrick and his father, Jon, the former president did so as well.

Security detail members also created a website,, to help defray medical costs. They also raised funds with a 50-mile motorcycle ride through Maine, followed by a lunch and silent auction. Once President and Mrs. Bush learned of this effort, they made a donation and then President Bush volunteered to shave his head. (The Bushes lost their four-year-old daughter, Robin, to leukemia 60 years ago this October.)

It's always heartening to see the goodness in people when the spotlight is no longer on them. Hopefully this picture will just be a good memory for young Patrick years from now, and may his battle with leukemia will be a successful one.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When love is love, no matter who you are...

This is Arin Andrews and Katie Hill from Oklahoma. He's 17 years old, she's 19. One excelled at ballet and competed in beauty contests, while the other was the son of a Marine Colonel.

They look like your average couple, don't they? What's so amazing is that two years ago, Arin was a girl named Emerald, and Katie was a boy named Luke. The couple met through a support group for transgendered teens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while both were completing their transitions.

Both struggled with their gender identities while growing up. "The teachers separated the girls and boys into separate lines for a game...I didn't understand why they asked me to stand with the girls," Arin told the Daily Mail. "Girly things didn't interest me, but I was worried what people would think if I said I wanted to be a boy, so I kept it secret." Meanwhile, Katie confided that, "Even from age three, I knew deep down I wanted to be a girl. All I wanted was to play with dolls. I hated my boy body and never felt right in it."

"Being transgender myself, I understand Arin better than anybody else — how good he feels and how complete he feels," Katie told The Sun. She also quipped to the Daily Mail, "We're both size five, so we even swap our old clothes our [mothers] bought us but we hated."

It's wonderful that now that the two have successfully completed their transitions, they can resume their lives with each other in bodies they feel more comfortable in. Arin said, "Now when I’m out in a public pool or lifting weights, no one raises an eyebrow. They just think I’m a guy...I can wear a tank top, which I couldn’t before, and I can go swimming shirtless. I can just be a regular guy. And I’m so lucky to have my family and Katie to rely on."

And Katie added, "We look so convincing as a boy and a girl, nobody even notices now. We secretly feel so good about it because it's the way we've always wanted to be seen."

HuffPost Gay Voices editor Noah Michelson, when discussing this story on their site noted, "It brings to light the idea that sexuality and gender are not the same thing. So both of these individuals are heterosexual...They're not gay just because they're transgender, and that's something that blows people's minds still."

When people love each other, it shouldn't matter who they are. The most important thing is that they're happy with each other, and happy together. Stories like this are like wonderful fortifications against the ignorance and hatred that still exists in our world. Wishing Arin and Katie every happiness always...

Book Review: "The Unknowns" by Gabriel Roth

When you've spent so much of your life trying to make logical sense of things, bringing order to total chaos, can you apply those same principles to situations where logic doesn't always occur, like romantic relationships?

Computer programmer Eric Muller figured out his knack for computers and writing code fairly early. "I still haven't found anything that keeps anxiety at bay as reliably as coding: the possibilities and ramifications branch outward to colonize all of your available brainspace, and the syntax of the language gives direction to your twitches and impulses and keeps them from firing off into panic."

While he reveled in his skills, his desire to be accepted and find a girlfriend often outweighed his intellect. And when he tried using his intellect to conquer the "girlfriend issue," disastrous consequences ensued. So Eric realized that the well-placed sensitive comment, remembering certain things his dates said and using them in future questions and comments (to show he was listening), and demonstrating his sense of humor were all keys to some success, even if his insecurity often got the best of him. And despite the fact that he and a friend sold their internet startup company for millions of dollars, his confidence often wavered.

When he meets Maya Marcom, an intelligent, driven, and beautiful reporter, all bets are off. Eric keeps waiting for Maya to see through him, to realize his flaws or that he's still the same insecure, geeky computer nerd he was growing up as their relationship intensifies. Yet when he finds out a secret about Maya's past, he isn't sure how to handle that within the confines of their relationship, and approaching this problem like coding doesn't help matters any. Couple that uncertainty with issues regarding his estranged father, who is again searching for the ultimate business deal, and trouble is definitely on the horizon.

"What part of anyone is knowable?," Eric asks. How does a person who can only see the black and white of code when it works or doesn't work accept the uncertain greys of a relationship? Can you truly take a leap of faith and believe what the person you love tells you, or do you have to somehow prove it to yourself?

The Unknowns tries to answer those questions through the awkwardly lovable persona of Eric Muller. He is certainly a flawed character, yet you can mostly understand his insecurity and uncertainty, as it is rather deep-seated. And you find yourself rooting for his relationship with Maya to work. But while I totally understood what motivated him, I was really unsettled with one action he took, and it nearly made me stop caring about him and what happened to him. And that was a little disappointing, although Gabriel Roth's storytelling ability, and his depiction of Eric's life, was tremendously skilled and appealing.

This is a book about learning to trust your instincts when you're completely conditioned to act differently. It's also a love story about two people desperately trying to trust one another and overcome insecurity. And like love itself, it's not perfect, but it's enjoyable to experience.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I took a brief hiatus on posting these because I'm having iPod issues, but now I'm back. (Aren't you glad?)

If you've listened to mainstream radio lately, you probably can't escape several songs, one of them being Swedish DJ duo Icona Pop's hit I Love It. It's poppy, upbeat, infectious, and quite a perfect summer song. (Plus, it's kinda fun to pedal to in spin class, but enough about Larry's current obsessions...)

And while Robin Thicke currently has his own hot hit, Blurred Lines (with Pharrell Williams and T.I.), which many are calling one of the songs of the summer (myself included), it didn't stop him from performing a more Robin Thicke-esque version of Icona Pop's hit on a BBC show recently. While I tend to love Thicke's more upbeat songs (including Everything I Can't Have, which for some reason you can't find on YouTube), I think he turns this song into a totally different, well, joint.

So here's Robin Thicke's version of I Love It:

And here's the original from Icona Pop:

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

All You Need is Love by The Flaming Lips

Lovesong by Adele

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Red 2"

When Red hit movie theaters a few years ago, for some reason it barely registered on my radar. But after seeing a preview for the sequel about a month ago, I thought, well, better see the first one! We watched it on DVD a few weekends ago and absolutely loved it. So much fun...can't believe I missed it initially.

Needless to say, I became eager for the sequel, and I'm pleased to say that Red 2 is a worthy equal to its predecessor. While the plot is a little more complicated, and there are a few more villains to deal with, the movie is still a great deal of fun, with some terrific action, great laughs, and a cast that has terrific chemistry, even with a few new additions.

After the adventures of the first movie, retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his adventure-loving girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are settling into a life together that is a little more boring than either would care to admit. Luckily, chaos re-enters their lives with the return of Frank's old CIA compatriot, Marvin (John Malkovich). It's not long before Frank finds himself on the receiving end of gunfire and threats from government interrogator Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), who has been tasked with finding out the truth behind a secret government operation Frank and Marvin were involved with, one which apparently involves a nuclear weapon lost somewhere in the world.

The thing is, Frank and Marvin don't know anything about the operation. Not that that matters, of course. And although Frank gets the upper hand on Horton, it's not long before Horton has sent one of Frank's old revenge-minded nemeses, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee), after him, and MI6 also has offered the deadly Victoria (the amazing Helen Mirren) a contract to kill him as well.

What's a guy gonna do? Get to the bottom of it, of course. And trying to uncover the truth takes Frank, Sarah, Marvin, and Victoria around the world, and into more than a few firefights, fistfights, car chases, and other misadventures. Frank wants to keep Sarah away from danger but doesn't quite understand how much she wants to be a part of the action, especially when his old flame, Russian intelligence agent Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones, plastered with foundation), surfaces. When they track down the person they believe will give them the answers they need, they get far more than they bargained for.

Willis is at his best when he plays the taciturn hero who just needs a little action to break him out of his shell. Parker is a lot of fun as the woman thirsting to be in the middle of the action but isn't sure if she's ready for the consequences, and she and Willis complement each other nicely. Malkovich has made his career in recent years playing quirky, eccentric characters, and his Marvin is no exception to that rule. Mirren doesn't have as much to do, but she tears into her role with great gusto and seriously kicks ass. And speaking of kicking ass, while Lee doesn't have as large a role as the others, he electrifies the movie when he's onscreen—and you'll never look at origami the same way again!

At its heart, Red 2 is the perfect summer movie—action-packed, funny, reasonably well-acted, fun, and it doesn't force you to think too hard. Can you really ask for anything more? It doesn't take itself too seriously, which is part of its charm. And truth be told, I would totally pay to see Red 3, so how about it, filmmakers?

Book Review: "The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells" by Andrew Sean Greer

God, this was such a wonderful, magical, and special book, I didn't want it to end! I had forgotten just how much I love the way Andrew Sean Greer writes.

In 1985, Greta Wells has been devastated by double blows—the death of Felix, her beloved twin brother, and the end of her long relationship with her lover, Nathan. Distraught over these losses, and the impending loss of her brother's lover, Alan (it's the early days of AIDS in New York City), she turns to a long course of electro-convulsive therapy as treatment for her depression.

But the treatments have an unexpected side-effect: it transports her between her current life and the lives she would have lived in different eras. In 1918, she lives a bohemian lifestyle, and embarks on a second romantic relationship; in 1941, she is married and has a young son. Yet even as she embodies the different Gretas and immerses herself in their lives, she is aware of what has transpired in her real 1985-era life, and isn't sure which life she really wants to live. "Don't bring me back, I remember thinking: Take me away."

The people in her life in 1985—Felix, Nathan, Alan, and her eccentric aunt, Ruth—all figure in some way in 1918 and 1941. And even though Greta knows what will happen to their future selves, she can't help but want to try and make things happen to ensure at least some of the characters find happiness. But to get to experience life with those you've lost is an incredibly poignant and cherished opportunity Greta doesn't want to lose, even as she points Felix, Nathan, and Alan toward their destinies.

"Is there any greater pain to know what could be, and yet be powerless to make it be?"

This is such a beautifully written, special book. I can only imagine what it might be like to have the chance to spend time with loved ones I've lost one way or another, even if they're a little different from the way I remember them. This is more than a book about time travel—it's a book about relationships, about always knowing what your heart wants, and about how even when we lose people there's always a part of them that stays with us. And one of the things I liked best about the story was that Greer didn't try to explain why Greta was being transported into different eras, so what occurred didn't lose its magic.

If you like books which touch the heart, even if they're not the most realistic in terms of plot (although who says this didn't happen), you're going to love The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. And hopefully, like me, you'll enjoy it so much you'll want to finish it and yet be sad when it's finished. Truly wonderful.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories" by Ethan Rutherford

I stumbled upon Ethan Rutherford's amazingly powerful story collection in a bookstore. How can you resist a book with a title like this?

After reading these stories, I realized this collection has far more to offer than an intriguing title. Some of the stories in Rutherford's debut collection pack a tremendous punch; in fact, I'd wager to say a few of these stories are some of the most powerful I've read in quite some time.

The title story is based on the misadventures of the crew of the first Confederate submarine during the Civil War. It's not a subject I would have ever thought would be intriguing for a short story, yet in Rutherford's hands, you sense the claustrophobia of the vessel, the desperation of the crew to make a difference in a war their side appears to be losing more rapidly day by day, and the courage of knowing their efforts could lead to the ultimate sacrifice. Camp Winnesaka is told from the perspective of the head counselor of a summer camp, who leads his campers into some potentially dangerous situations in an effort to reignite their enthusiasm and keep the camp's financial prospects rosy. In A Mugging, a couple struggles with the aftermath of a mugging in vastly different ways.

My three favorite stories in the collection were the most emotionally affecting. In John, for Christmas, a couple struggles with the toll their emotionally disturbed adult son has had on their marriage and their own psyches, in the midst of an impending blizzard and various other issues. The Broken Group recounts a less than successful sailing trip taken by a father and son, in which the son realizes his father's humanness in a way he never expected. And Summer Boys, which completely knocked me out, explored the sometimes-obsessive friendship of two young boys and the fragile innocence of youth.

What prevented this collection from being completely satisfying was Rutherford's over-reliance on stories about men stranded on ships in the middle of nowhere, on what appear to be hopeless voyages. Although I really enjoyed the title story, by the time the third story about men on a boat searching for an elusive creature rolled around, I wished that the collection had more stories like Summer Boys and some of my other favorites, and less on ships.

That criticism aside, I was blown away by Rutherford's writing talent and the majority of the stories in this collection. He is certainly a writer you need to experience, and I can't wait to see where his career will take him. I know I'll be watching.

Book Review: "Bobcat and Other Stories" by Rebecca Lee

Good short stories can transport you into the lives, situations, and, in some cases, settings of their characters. When you find yourself getting fully invested in what is unfolding with the characters, when you wonder what happened after the stories end, those are hallmarks of an excellent storyteller.

After reading her collection Bobcat and Other Stories, I can unequivocally say that Rebecca Lee is an excellent storyteller. Nearly all of her main characters are emotionally vulnerable in some way, whether because of something they did themselves or because of the situations around them. Lee grips you quickly, draws you deeper and deeper into the story slowly, and often surprises you with the outcome, but even when you see the ending coming, the stories are almost always tremendously satisfying and resonate with you.

Of the seven stories in Lee's collection, I absolutely loved five of them, while one story in particular irritated me a bit because of the idiosyncrasies of a particular character that was core to the story. In the title story, Bobcat, a dinner party is the catalyst for self-discovery and the turning point for two marriages. A woman finds herself in Hong Kong, being hired by her friend's father to find her friend a wife in the emotionally rich Min. In Fialta, an aspiring architect gets to do an apprenticeship with a legendary architect and finds himself battling his mentor for the love of a fellow apprentice. And in World Party, a woman's anxiety about her young son is juxtaposed with her serving on a faculty hearings committee evaluating whether a fellow professor (whom she is attracted to) is responsible for a group of student protestors going on a hunger strike.

I really enjoyed the way Lee moved between the present and the future in many of her stories, as if the characters actually had the gift of foresight. These stories are tremendously intriguing, rich in characterization and plot, and simply beautifully written. If you're a fan of short stories, definitely pick this collection up and be ready to marvel.

Land of the free, home of the...ridiculous?

Sometimes I think people should have to take IQ tests before they use any type of social media, much less choose to procreate.

Apparently during Tuesday evening's MLB All-Star Game, singer Marc Anthony sang God Bless America. Apparently that didn't sit too well with a number of Neanderthals on Twitter, who posted the following gems:

Impressive, huh? Now Marc Anthony happens to be of Puerto Rican descent. Which means he is an American citizen, but the fact is, he was born in New York. But that fact seems to be lost in, well, translation:

So, here's a lesson: Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

Puerto Rico is not Spain.

People from Puerto Rico are not Spanish.

Makes you wonder how much longer the U.S. can be considered a superpower if so many of our citizens are far from super...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Movie Review: "The Way Way Back"

This is the 16th movie I've seen this year (not counting a few on DVD), and while I've been enthralled by some great summer blockbusters (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3) and become enamored with some indie movies (Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, The Sapphires), there haven't been too many movies that have made me say, "Yeah, I loved this."

Add The Way Way Back to that short list. While it's not a film that blows you away, nor is it one that surprises with its plot, it was tremendously heartwarming and funny, and full of memorable performances.

Duncan (a terrific Liam James) is on his way to the beach house of his mother's loutish boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, stubbly and playing against type), for the summer. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), knows that Trent may not be the best catch, and he may not be treating her son as well as she'd like him to, but she's determined to hang on to the relationship as long as she can, just so she doesn't have to face life alone.

The beach house is about what Duncan expected—Trent's daughter, Steph, treats him poorly, and Trent and his mother are a little too free with the alcohol and the public displays of affection. And although Trent's next door neighbor, Betty (a magnificently manic Allison Janney), is an uncontrollable ball of energy, Duncan is interested in her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and befriends her awkward son, Peter. But Duncan's encounters with Trent, and Trent's public bullying of him, is enough to send him racing away from the beach house, looking for a haven from the storm.

He finds it in Water Wizz, a water park straight out of the 80s allegedly managed by manchild Owen (a fantastic Sam Rockwell), although it's actually run by Owen's sometime girlfriend Caitlin (the always-enchanting Maya Rudolph). Duncan quickly finds himself enmeshed in the world of the water park, finally feeling like he has a purpose and he fits in, because people care about him. As tensions between Trent and Pam ratchet up, Duncan doesn't want his mother to get hurt but he doesn't want to be caught in the middle of it, so he looks to Owen for guidance, some semblance of security, and affirmation of his worth, something he doesn't get otherwise. (As seen in the previews for this movie, you'll see one exchange between Duncan and Trent, in which Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1-10 and then Trent tells Duncan what he thinks his rating is, which made my heart hurt.)

You know how the story will unfold but it doesn't take away from its appeal. Co-writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Community), who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Descendants, do a terrific job making you laugh and tugging at your emotions without either being excessive. (Both appear in the movie in small quirky roles as well.)

But as much as this movie is about its heart, it's also about its performances. Rockwell's lightning fast delivery of some of the film's funniest lines is terrific, and although he likes to play the slacker who never will grow up, you can tell there's so much more going on in Owen's brain and his heart than he lets on. Liam James brings an awkward, goofy charm to his role, as well as a sensitivity that makes you feel for him. And Allison Janney is in full-on, post-West Wing, Allison Janney mode—loud, brash, ballsy, needy, and hysterical.

The Way Way Back combines the lightheartedness of summer comedies with actual sensitivity and intelligence, and although it hit a little too close to home for me in a few places (and those who know me well will know why), I'd definitely say it's one of my favorite movies so far this year.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Book Review: "Love All" by Callie Wright

Where would we be without relationships, and the difficulties we encounter with them? If I had the answer to that question, I'd be the wisest person alive, but I do know one thing—the literary world is so much richer because the course of love, and relationships, rarely run smoothly.

At the start of Callie Wright's wonderful new novel Love All, Joanie Cole dies in her sleep, leaving her 86-year-old husband, Bob, behind. Bob moves in with his daughter, Anne, with whom he's had a strained relationship since she was a teenager, and her family. Anne is a successful lawyer who is growing suspicious of her preschool principal husband, Hugh, after too many missed phone calls and family dinners, and too many unconvincing explanations. Hugh is starting to wonder what direction his life is taking, and whether pursuing it is worth the destruction of all he has worked for.

Meanwhile, their daughter, Julia, a smart and sensitive high school sophomore, is in the midst of an emotional upheaval of her own, as she finds herself in an unexpected love triangle with her two best friends, Sam and Carl, and can't quite figure out how to pursue what she wants without displacing the strong bond the trip has. And their son, Teddy, whose confidence on the athletic and romantic fields has always been strong, is getting nervous about his impending departure for college—and then he witnesses something that shakes him emotionally.

All of the relationship trouble in this book is mirrored against a story from the past. When Anne was growing up in the early 1960s, her hometown of Cooperstown, New York was rocked by the publication of The Sex Cure, a Peyton Place-like book that took a swipe at the foibles and infidelities of many of the town's residents at the time. The book cast a pall over Joanie and Bob's marriage, and affected Anne's relationship with her father. When a copy of the book resurfaces in moving Bob to Anne's home, it reopens old wounds and highlights the fact that secrets—particularly those of the heart—rarely remain so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish. Callie Wright did an excellent job at developing her characters and making you feel something—sympathy, frustration, suspicion, even anger—toward them. Like so many books about relationships (and real-life relationships), Love All was as much about the things that we don't say as it was about the things that are said. The characters are not without their idiosyncrasies, but that is what made the book seem more real, and more compelling.

There's no shortage of books out there about love and the troubles it causes. But Callie Wright's Love All is definitely a book worth reading, and a worthy addition to that pantheon of books that explore the quirks of the human heart—and the mind. Excellent.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: "The Measures Between Us" by Ethan Hauser

The theme song from the hit television show Cheers said, "Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got." Sometimes that is absolutely true. Although life is often filled with the ordinary, punctuated by moments of drama or stress (or both), simply making it through the every day struggles we face can be difficult and require more strength and fortitude than we can imagine.

Ethan Hauser's novel The Measures Between Us is a beautifully written book about people making it through the struggles of everyday life, and coping with the bumps and bruises along the way. Vincent, a high school shop teacher, and his wife, Mary, are contemplating sending their troubled daughter, Cynthia, to a mental hospital because they fear she might harm herself. Vincent seeks the counsel of a former student, Henry, who is now a psychologist. Meanwhile, Cynthia, both before and after her time in the hospital, has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jack, an intern on a project that tries to understand climate change, particularly flooding, and how it affects those who choose to stay in their homes during floods.

Henry's life is not without its own problems. He and his wife, Lucinda, are expecting a baby, and although their relationship appears to be strong, both are struggling—Henry with fidelity, and Lucinda with feelings of dread about her pregnancy and her life with Henry, because she isn't sure if she can handle how much he loves her.

I was completely captivated by Hauser's writing and the way he spun each of his characters' stories, but ultimately, I found this book not entirely satisfying. Other characters in the book are brought into the plot and appear at its periphery, but you're never quite sure why. The book spends some time recounting Henry's interviews with people who lived through significant floods, but you're never quite sure where these stories connect to the plot (except for one incident that seems to be a catalyst for an encounter that never goes anywhere). And I found the ending of the book completely jarring, as something occurs but is only mentioned, and I felt totally robbed by it given my investment in the plot and the characters.

Interestingly enough, the description of The Measures Between Us talks about an unprecedented storm threatening the East Coast, but that is really a minor plot point that goes nowhere. This is a book more about the storms of everyday life and how we choose to weather them (or avoid them). And, like life, our success rate is mixed—sometimes the storms pass and sometimes the storms hit us. I just wish the book was as fully engaging as Hauser's writing is.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shalom, 13...

So I watched the video of my Bar Mitzvah last night for the first time in more than 25 years. Wow.

My Bar Mitzvah was 30 years ago this year, January 8, 1983. The theme was Pac-Man. I even had a robot that talked (controlled by a guy who hid in the coatroom or something, but it was high-tech for 1983).

Watching the video I was struck by a number of things.

It gave me a combination of warmth and sadness to see so many relatives and family friends who have passed away since then. My grandfather, George, was very ill with cancer at my Bar Mitzvah, but to watch the video you would never know it. He channeled every bit of energy and happiness and pride and love into his body that night, and it showed, so it's amazing to think he died a little more than a month later. My grandmother, Gloria, suffered so much from osteoporosis later in life, that it's wonderful to see her actually standing upright.

Seeing people I've lost that meant so much to me in my life at a time when they were so full of life was simultaneously wonderful, surreal, and depressing.

Thanks to the amazing power of social media, I keep in frequent contact with, or have connected with nearly all of the friends who attended my Bar Mitzvah. The only ones I've not been able to get back in touch with are those not on Facebook or those who remain impervious to Facebook and Google stalking. (Shameful, I tell you.) But seriously, that's pretty great.

Although I had a lot of hair back then (it was the 1980s and I was from Jersey, after all), and bigger, darker glasses, it's unsettling to see how many of 13-year-old Larry's mannerisms I recognize. (My favorite comment from W when watching this was, "Wow, you rolled your eyes even then!")

Since then, I've grown a bit taller (although not much, sadly), my voice got deeper (thankfully), and I worked hard to lose my Jersey accent, but the Larry of 1983 isn't vastly different than the Larry of today. More sarcastic, sure, more confident in myself (most of the time), and certainly a bit wiser and more cynical (it is what it is), but still fairly similar. And I don't know that I mind.

I am so thankful to have these memories so accessible, and so grateful to have had so many special people touch my life, and continue to do so. Makes a Bar Mitzvah boy proud.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Happy Wednesday!

If you're like me and struggling to make it through the rest of the week (where's my four-day weekend?), maybe this GEICO commercial can bust through your doldrums, even briefly. Don't make me get the cavemen...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Light it up...

Thought this was inspiring and oh so true. Thanks to George Takei.

Book Review: "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting

Amazingly, as I sit down to write this book review, I can't stop thinking of a question that was addressed on, of all places, The 700 Club recently. And while Pat Robertson gave another vile, intolerant, hate-filled answer, the question was an interesting one, which I'll paraphrase to fit my needs. By saying I thought this book was tremendously well-written, that I even enjoyed it, am I, in essence, condoning the subject matter?

An interesting conundrum.

Celeste Price is a beautiful eighth-grade teacher at a junior high school in Tampa, Florida. She has a rich husband, Ford, who is devoted to her, and indulges her every whim.

The thing is, Celeste doesn't teach because she loves to inspire students or because she loves sharing knowledge. She has an obsession with 14-year-old boys. An unquenchable obsession that proximity to these students helps feed. As she put it, "In my view, having sex with teenagers was the only way to keep the act wholesome."

Celeste has a list of criteria to find the perfect student. And she settles on Jack Patrick, a quiet young man all too happy to indulge her voracious appetite as well as her demands about their relationship—that it be kept a total secret, that it only happens on her terms, and that it is purely sexual, not emotional. Yet of course, Jack can't help but fall in love with his teacher. And that's not the least of the complications that ensue.

This book is tremendously graphic, which made me a little uncomfortable, as did the subject matter. But Alissa Nutting so effectively created Celeste as an unabashed sexual predator, someone so fixated on fulfilling her own needs that not only doesn't she care about others, they don't even register except when they're doing what she wants them to. Nutting—and Celeste—make no apologies for how she is, this is just an aspect of her personality she knows she can't fight, but she methodically knows how to satiate herself.

I definitely admire Nutting's storytelling ability and her effectiveness in creating these characters. After so many books with male sexual predators as characters, it's nice to see the table turned and look at this issue from a female perspective. Is this a book you tell people about? Regardless of your decision there, I know that Tampa is a book that will stick in my mind for its narrative skill, not its subject matter.

Your morning science fix...

Even if you're not good at math or science, you might be able to appreciate this equation. Truth be told, if I have any caffeine in the morning it's a Diet Coke (although I've been avoiding those), but I know how this feels...

Good morning, all!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Review: "Let It Burn" by Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton may be one of the best crime/thriller writers out there right now. He's written 10 terrific books featuring dogged Michigan private investigator Alex McKnight, which take place in the Upper Peninsula town of Paradise (the first book in this series won an Edgar Award) and two equally fantastic stand-alone novels, the most recent of which, The Lock Artist, also won an Edgar.

Alex McKnight used to be a police officer in Detroit. After he was seriously wounded in an incident in which his partner was killed, he retired from the force and moved up to Paradise, where he rents out several cabins to tourists and finds himself (often reluctantly) in the private investigator game. One day he gets a phone call from his former commanding officer in Detroit, telling him that a man he had helped put in prison was being released after a number of years. It was a case Alex hadn't thought about in many years, because it happened just before he was wounded.

The phone call brings him back to Detroit, and the decline of the city really hits home for him. Having a drink with his former sergeant, he starts thinking about the case that could have launched his career if he hadn't been wounded. The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes he has questions about what transpired. These are questions nobody wants to hear, and Alex isn't sure he wants to know the answers, but he starts to wonder whether the right man was sent to prison all those years ago. And when other similar murders are uncovered, Alex is determined to try and help solve the mystery—and understand what happened in the first place.

Whenever I read a book in Hamilton's McKnight series, I feel as if I get to spend time with old friends. Alex is rarely sunny, but he's enigmatic, fiercely loyal, and so complex that I love getting to know him more and more with each novel. And after 10 books, his friends in Paradise are all too familiar to me—I know their quirks, what drives and bothers them, and I almost could see them in my mind's eye.

Let It Burn featured Alex in an even more angsty mood than usual, but it doesn't make him any less appealing. I thought this was another tremendously well-written and captivating book in this series, and once again, I marveled at Hamilton's knack for character development, introspection, and terrific action.

The only thing that was missing from this book, by and large, was Paradise, as the story mostly took place in Detroit. And barely any Paradise meant barely any Jackie or Vinnie, although Alex's former partner and constant guide, Leon, did make a few appearances. If the Paradise connection is what you like most about Hamilton's books, you'll be disappointed; I enjoyed getting to see this other dimension in Alex's life and coming to understand the events that have made Alex Alex.

If you're a fan of crime novels, pick up any one of Hamilton's books. I'm fairly certain that once you do, like me, you'll become hooked, and you'll find that you devour his latest novel so quickly you'll be sorry you'll have to wait for the next one.

Movie Review: "20 Feet from Stardom"

What makes a song memorable to you? While there isn't one solitary factor—it could be a classic guitar or saxophone riff, amazingly poetic lyrics, or a can't-stop-singing-it refrain—one thing that nearly always captures me is the harmonies, the background vocals. Whether it's the "sock it to me-sock it to me-sock it to me" of Aretha Franklin's Respect, the "do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do" of Lou Reed's Take a Walk on the Wild Side, or Oleta Adams' soulful harmonizing during Tears For Fears' Woman in Chains, those and other similar moments keep songs stuck in my head—and make them fun to sing along with.

Except for rare occasions, we don't really think about the unsung heroes singing in the background. Who are these people, and did they choose a life behind the spotlight, or is this what they wound up with? These are the questions answered by the brilliant, engaging, and entertaining documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.

The film looks at background singers from the earliest days of rock and roll—particularly Darlene Love, who, with The Blossoms, was the first group of African-American background singers, whose sound everyone wanted to emulate—through current background singers. While director Morgan Neville shares viewpoints and ideas and inspirations from recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger, as well as musical experts and industry professionals, this is a film about those in the background.

Love, an annual fixture with her singing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on David Letterman's show every year since 1986, is one of the five singers prominently featured in the movie. Love spent years under Phil Spector's management, and actually recorded a number of hits, only to find her voice was being used for other singers. The film also focuses on Merry Clayton, who most notably performed a duet with Mick Jagger on the Stones' Gimme Shelter (and who also had a minor hit with the song Yes in 1988, from the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing); 1970s background singer Claudia Lennear; Lisa Fischer, a Grammy-award winning singer in her own right, who is considered one of the best background singers in the industry; and Judith Hill, a background singer for Michael Jackson who rose to prominence when she sang at the singer's memorial service, and who was on The Voice earlier this year.

As a huge music fan, I absolutely loved this film, because it gave you the opportunity to see those whose voices I recognize but whose names and faces have not been known to me. You get to see the triumphs, the appreciation from the singers they work with (and the renown that these artists often give them on stage), and you also see the downside of perhaps being more talented than many artists out there yet never getting the chance for that big break. And in some cases, the breaks come, but these singers either didn't know how to handle them or didn't manage them well.

If you like music and like to immerse yourself in the inner workings of the industry, definitely see 20 Feet from Stardom. It gives you the exhilaration you get from a good movie, plus you get to hear some great music and some terrific stories. Once you see it, you'll think more about those people whose names don't show up on the record, or don't get mentioned by the DJ, but make the songs you like more memorable.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Remembering who you're playing for...

Bryce Harper is in his second year with the Washington Nationals. He's proven himself to be an extraordinary athlete and a fan favorite, but amazingly, for someone so young (he's 20 years old), he's proven himself to be a pretty extraordinary man as well. Despite a periodic inability to control his frustration or excitement (which usually winds up with him sustaining an injury or two), Harper conducts himself in a manner you don't often see in professional athletes, particularly ones so new to the success and notoriety he is experiencing.

That being said, I was still impressed when I saw the Washington Post's account of Harper's recent visit with a terminally ill fan.

Thirteen-year-old Gavin Rupp, of Ashburn, Virginia, has been battling cancer for two years. Gavin received radiation treatment and visited Children’s National Medical Center, twice undergoing surgery to remove a glioblastoma tumor from his brain. But despite the aftereffects of radiation and surgery, Rupp never stopped playing baseball, still keeping his starting position (shortstop) on his travel team.

Last month, the Rupps found out that Gavin's cancer had returned, and no further treatment options existed. But despite the bleak prognosis, Gavin was invited by the Nationals to throw out the first pitch during Friday's game against the Padres. Harper, his favorite player, came up to Gavin and introduced himself, and an hour later, up until about 45 minutes to first pitch, Harper was still there talking to Gavin and his family. Kyle Mann, the Nationals' coordinator of community relations, had never seen a player spend so much time with a kid before a game.

On the field, he gave Gavin the hat off his head and signed it for him. Harper asked questions to draw Gavin out. Gavin sat in a folding chair in the Nationals dugout. Harper leaned forward and his elbow on his left knee so his eyes would be at the same level as Gavin’s. Harper traded one of his wristbands for one of Gavin’s neon wristbands. Harper asked Gavin to sign a baseball for him. They hung out for an hour, and then Harper had to go play.

While there are many athletes who give back to their community, who are willing to give their time and energy to those in need, Harper has demonstrated time and time again that as much as he is energized by the game he loves and still awed by the celebrity he has become, he never forgets those who make the difference. I fervently hope that Harper never loses that quality, and hope he serves as much a role model for his fellow athletes as he does countless kids playing baseball all over the world.

Prayers to the Rupp family and to Bryce Harper, thanks.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Movie Review: "Mud"

Arkansas teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his smartass best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are dealing with the struggles of growing up in a depressed rural area—Ellis' parents are talking about separating, which means his family may lose their house on the river and be forced to move into town, while Neckbone is raised by his philandering but well-meaning uncle, Galen (Man of Steel's Michael Shannon, finally playing a reasonably well-adjusted person). Otherwise, they're typical teenagers, obsessed with girls and thirsting for adventure.

Hearing about a boat that had gotten stuck high in some trees on a nearby island, the boys venture out to see if the rumor is true. And upon finding the boat, they make an even more fascinating discovery—Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a grizzled hobo who has made the boat his home. Mud has taken to hiding on the island until he's able to meet his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who has promised to meet him. But there's more to Mud than meets the eye—it turns out he's on the run from the law and a band of rogue killers bent on hunting Mud down for killing Juniper's abusive husband.

As his life is in tumult around him, Ellis is determined to believe that love can conquer all, even though he sees many examples to the contrary. So he and Neckbone agree to help Mud plan his escape as well as his reunion with Juniper. Along the way they enlist the reluctant help of Mud's surrogate father, Tom (a weathered Sam Shepard), and Ellis uncovers more truth—about Mud and the other people in his life—than he expected. And as those hunting Mud down begin closing in, and the boys' actions are being watched, their quest to help their friend becomes more dangerous than noble.

This is a quiet movie with almost an elegiac feel to it. You get a chance to know and care about the characters, so I found myself watching the movie with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, because I knew something bad would happen. It's a somewhat familiar story, yet writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) doesn't completely hew to everything you expect. And although this movie takes place in rural Arkansas, Nichols cares about his characters and doesn't resort to stereotypes you often see in movies about this region.

In recent years, Matthew McConaughey has been stepping up his acting from the shirtless, cocky, underachieving ladies' man roles that have catapulted him to fame. Last year, he won several film critics' awards for his roles in Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe, and he was definitely in the mix for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. While he does appear shirtless briefly in Mud, it's McConaughey's acting that dazzles more than his still-impressive torso. His performance is quirky yet strong, and you can credit both the actor and the writer when you find yourself rooting for someone who did wrong.

The other actors have smaller roles, but do well with them. Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) and Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy) are strong as Ellis' struggling parents, Michael Shannon has some quiet moments, and Jacob Lofland provides some comic relief as the less-trusting Neckbone. Witherspoon looks tiredly luminous, although she doesn't have a particularly large role. But the movie belongs to relative film newcomer Tye Sheridan, who brings a quietly fierce sensitivity to the movie, acting as its anchor and its heart. I hope Sheridan's career takes off, because I'd love to see how his talent develops.

Some critics have likened this to a modern-day Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. While there's certainly elements of those in Mud, it's a movie that stands on its own, a story of friendship, love, loyalty, and faith that the right things will happen.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: "Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell

This book surprised and charmed me far more than I expected it would.

London, 1976. The country is in the middle of a legendary heatwave, and the drought and mandated water restrictions have everyone on edge. One morning Gretta Riordan's husband, Robert, goes to get his newspaper, just like he does every morning since his retirement. Yet this time he doesn't come back, and he empties out his bank account on the way.

Gretta, a loud, emotional woman, has never met a crisis she couldn't wring for dramatic effect. She summons her three adult children—Michael Francis, a frustrated high school teacher who had dreamed of being a professor in America before the responsibility of marriage and children sidelined his ambitions, and who is trying to make sense of his wife's need for her own intellectual independence; Monica, the favorite child, struggling to deal with two stepdaughters who hate her; and Aoife, the baby, who fled to New York to escape her family and the truth about herself, and who is estranged from Monica for reasons she doesn't understand.

When the family comes together to understand why Robert left and where he could have gone, they find themselves falling into familiar patterns, and revisiting familiar hurts and resentments. Yet at the same time, they discover some shocking things about their parents' relationship, and about their own problems.

This is familiar territory we've seen in other novels, but Maggie O'Farrell draws you into this family and makes you care about them and what is happening to them, even as you may be frustrated with their behavior. As with many novels that focus on family dynamics, Instructions for a Heatwave is as much about the things we don't say to each other, the things we keep hidden or avoid touching on, as it is about the things that are said. These are appealing characters (for the most part) whose lives you get invested in, although it happens quietly and unexpectedly.

Because the fact that the book is set during a heatwave in 1976 is almost secondary to the story, there were a few things I found jarring from time to time, because I couldn't understand why they even were issues, and then I remembered when the story was taking place. But my periodic cognitive dissonance didn't affect my enjoyment of the story or O'Farrell's storytelling ability. It's one of those quiet books you enjoy a great deal.