Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: "Wake Up Happy Every Day" by Stephen May

Ever read a book that has an excellent premise, which starts off well, and then utterly loses momentum and its way by the end?

Yeah, I have, too. And now I can add Stephen May's Wake Up Happy Every Day to that list.

Nicky Fisher and Russell Knox were childhood friends growing up in England, although over the last few years they haven't been as close. Although they shared the same upbringing, their adult lives couldn't be more different—Russell is spectacularly rich, a business giant with money all over the world, while Nicky and his girlfriend, Sarah, are struggling to make ends meet, especially after the birth of their intellectually challenged daughter, Scarlett.

So when Russell drops dead of a heart attack on his 50th birthday, while Nicky and Sarah are visiting, Nicky devises what seems like a foolproof plan—pretend that he died instead, and then he could assume Russell's identity—and they could take advantage of all of the benefits that his life would offer them. It's not like anyone would miss Nicky anyway, right?

At first, spending the money isn't an issue. It's easy (although hard work) to transform overweight, bedraggled Nicky into the well-groomed, physically fit Russell. But as they have to deal with the everyday problems—like getting care for Scarlett—they quickly realize that having all of this money isn't a guarantee for happiness, or that their relationship or their lives will be any easier.

In addition to following Russell/Nicky and Sarah's story, Wake Up Happy Every Day also follows Nicky's estranged father, who suffers from periods of dementia, and Polly, a young woman who volunteers at the assisted living facility where he lives; Lorna, an Englishwoman trying to track down her father; and Catherine, a sort-of soldier-for-hire who has a keen interest in Russell.

I felt as if the book started out really well, and just lost its way as the story unfolded. Focusing on multiple characters would have been fine, because each of these individuals was interesting in their own right, but in many cases May never really closed the loop on their connections with Russell/Nicky and Sarah. Why was Catherine hunting Russell down? What was the point in telling Polly's story? These questions were never answered.

I'm disappointed because I thought this book had a lot of promise, and I like the way May writes, but this just never hooked me.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Movie Review: "Wild"

I have been a fan of Reese Witherspoon for years, since I saw her in her film debut, The Man in the Moon, almost 25 years ago. Nearly all of her performances, particularly those for which she's most known, have an inner pluckiness which helps her characters overcome the challenging situations they find themselves in. While I don't have a problem with that in general, sometimes I feel as if I'm watching her play the same parts over and over, despite enjoying watching her.

But with Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir recounting her 1,100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, Witherspoon is at times an absolute mess, at times fighting to keep afloat, and it's definitely one of the strongest performances she's given in her career.

Following the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern), Strayed's life completely unravels. She feels utterly empty, and tries to fill that void by sleeping with various men (much to the chagrin of her husband) and experimenting with drugs. When she feels as if she's about to hit rock bottom, she decides to challenge herself with a solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon. She's never really hiked that much, and she has no idea what she's getting herself into—which is easy to see with the first glimpse you get at her gigantic pack (nicknamed "The Monster" by a fellow hiker).

While she has the opportunity to be alone with her thoughts and revel in the beauty of nature around her, she also tries to figure out how she let her life go so off course, and wishes she had the opportunity to be the woman her mother always thought she could be. She has to face harrowing conditions and more physical aches and pains than she could ever imagine, and every encounter she has with other hikers or people she meets has the possibility of being fraught with peril. But this is a journey of self-discovery, and an opportunity to regain the faith in herself she so desperately needs.

Strayed's hike is interspersed with flashbacks of her childhood, being raised in a home with an alcoholic, abusive father, and then watching her mother struggle to make ends meet for her and her younger brother as they live on their own. But despite the bleakness of the situation, Strayed's mother never lost her zeal for life, her positive attitude, and her desire to be the best person she could be, and this frustrated and confused Cheryl more times than she could count. How could her mother not just give up? How could she not want to curl up into a ball, or do something self-destructive, instead of soldiering on each day and trying to better herself and her children?

I didn't read Strayed's book, but I expected it to be a little more Eat Pray Love-ish than the more introspective and inspirational story that it was. While obviously I knew that Strayed survived her hike in order to write about it, I watched most of the movie half expecting some crisis to befall her while on the trail. But little did I realize that the crises were mostly her own, having to come to terms with feeling she disappointed her mother and didn't know how she'd be able to go on after she was done with her hike.

Dern gives a beautiful, charismatic performance, as does Thomas Sadoski in his few scenes as Strayed's ex-husband. But this movie belongs to Witherspoon, as for most of it, she's the only one on screen. Her performance is raw, nuanced, emotional, yet restrained, and is simply mesmerizing. As much as I loved her in movies like Legally Blonde and Election, this is the movie which truly demonstrates the depth of her talent, and this is a performance absolutely worthy of an Oscar nomination. (More so, in my opinion, than the role she won for, in Walk the Line.)

While Wild is a little slow to start (much as Strayed was at the beginning of her hike), as it picks up steam, it picks up emotion, depth, and heart. It's a movie that makes you think as it tugs at your emotions.

Movie Review: "Into the Woods"

While this may lead me to having my gay cred get knocked down a few pegs, I'll confess that of Stephen Sondheim's musicals I didn't know much about Into the Woods going into the film adaptation, save being familiar with a few of the songs from Tony Award telecasts and a few CDs. Luckily, such knowledge wasn't a prerequisite for enjoying the film, which was a great deal of fun and full of terrific performances.

Into the Woods follows characters from some of your favorite fairytales—Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is desperate to go to the royal festival and meet the prince (Chris Pine), despite the machinations of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters; young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is being badgered by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to go to the marketplace and sell their ailing cow; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to her grandmother's house; and a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are desperate to have a child.

One day when lamenting their childless lives, the baker and his wife are visited by a devious witch (Meryl Streep), who is also their neighbor. She admits to putting a curse on their house after the baker's father stole some produce from her garden as well as some magic beans years ago. (The witch's loss of the beans led to her transformation from a beauty to a crone.) But being a generous witch (aren't they all?), she offers to reverse the curse, provided the couple bring her four items before the blue moon three days hence—a cow as white as milk; a cape as red as blood; a slipper as pure as gold; and hair as yellow as corn. Sounds easy, no?

The baker and his wife make their way into the woods (go figure) to find these items, and they encounter Jack, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood, and also learn that Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) has been banished to a high, doorless tower by the witch. Of course, with any good fairytales, each of the characters possesses something the couple needs to get to the witch—but how to get them? And the witch, meanwhile, is desperate to keep Rapunzel from leaving her and seeing the world, which becomes more of a challenge when Rapunzel meets the prince's brother (Billy Magnussen).

The couple's quest is not without its challenges, and each character learns some valuable lessons. In fact, if I was to point out any weak spot in the movie in my opinion, it was that it felt a little preachy, as each character learned the moral of their particular fairytale. These lessons weren't without context, and obviously, when delivered musically, they're much more palatable, but I felt as if they were hammered home a bit too much. But that being said, it didn't stop me from getting choked up, big sap that I am, or from enjoying the movie from start to finish.

There isn't a weak link among the performances in this movie, unlike in many adaptations of Broadway musicals (Russell Crowe as Javert, cough, cough). Meryl Streep is absolutely fantastic as the witch, in stronger voice than she's ever been before, and chewing up the scenery as if it were coated in chocolate. I've waxed poetically before about my total infatuation with Anna Kendrick, and she is both headstrong and introspective as Cinderella. But equally impressive were those performers whose singing ability I wasn't aware of prior to this movie—Emily Blunt does a wonderful job with her emotionally charged role; James Corden is charismatic and charming, and a bumbling ball of energy; and Chris Pine is a prince in the Gaston model, who is equally as infatuated with himself as he is with the bewitching runaway princess. (The scene where he and his brother lament their romantic problems is well-sung and hysterically cheesy.) Theater veterans Huttlestone and Crawford do quite well, and Johnny Depp is pleasantly slimy and menacing as the wolf who takes a shine to Little Red Riding Hood.

This was a fun, sweet, and dynamic movie which had me singing along, laughing, and even tearing up (whatever). Definitely one to watch if you're a fan of musicals. They just don't make them like this anymore...

Book Review: "Almost Famous Women" by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn't a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive."

The annals of history—and the literary world—are filled with tales of famous women, those whose names have become common knowledge and in some cases, even household words. But for every famous woman, there are countless women whose fame is fleeting, or even those who remain just out of the spotlight, yet their stories deserve to be told.

In Megan Mayhew Bergman's new short story collection, Almost Famous Women, she brings attention to the stories of some women whose names might be vaguely familiar, and many which are not. From a pair of conjoined twins who flirted briefly with show business to a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band in the midst of racial unrest, author Beryl Markham and Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen to Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma, the characters in these stories are vivid and fascinating in many cases, teaching us many things we'd probably never know and getting us to think in ways we might never do.

Some of the stories which resonated with me the most were: "Saving Butterfly McQueen," told from the viewpoint of a young missionary determined to convert the atheist actress to Catholicism; "Hell-Diving Women," which followed the aforementioned swing band as it travels through the south and meets controversy because of the band's integration; "Who Killed Dolly Wilde," told by a young woman fascinated by the reckless war heroine; and "The Siege at Whale Cay," which told of M.B. "Joe" Carstairs, a speedboat racer known as the fastest woman on water.

Bergman is tremendously talented (I absolutely loved her first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise), and she fleshes out her characters with emotion, complexity, and flaws. Not all of the stories were as interesting to me, and some are so brief you have little chance to connect with the characters, let alone understand why they were selected to have their tales told. (I would really have loved to have read more about Beryl Markham in "A High-grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch," for example.)

If you're a fan of historical fiction, or enjoy particularly strong and/or quirky female characters, definitely pick up Almost Famous Women. You'll marvel at Bergman's storytelling ability, and perhaps even learn a thing or two.

Movie Review: "Gone Girl"

I'll admit I was one of the few people who wasn't entirely enamored with Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl.

When I read it two years ago, I remember enjoying some of the plot twists, but ultimately I had trouble because I found the main characters so immensely unlikeable. But since it didn't make that positive of an impression on me, I didn't remember much about the book save the major gist of the plot, so I had no worry about whether or not the film adaptation would be faithful to the book. After seeing David Fincher's movie (filmed from a screenplay Flynn wrote), I can unequivocally say that, unlike what occurs in most cases, this is a film adaptation that far surpasses the book on which it's based.

It's the fifth wedding anniversary for Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). The couple met cute at a party in New York City and had a few good years of marriage, but after they both lost their jobs and they moved back to Nick's Missouri hometown, their relationship has been strained, to put it mildly. But when he returns home after spending some time at the bar he and his twin sister (Carrie Coon) own, he finds his front door open, Amy missing, and evidence of some kind of struggle in his house.

Nick has no idea what happened to his wife, but as his actions as the concerned, grieving husband are met with increasing skepticism by Amy's parents, his fellow townspeople, and the media, a dogged police detective (Kim Dickens) is determine to figure out exactly what happened to Amy, and what role Nick played. And as more secrets about Nick come to light, there becomes increasing sentiment that Nick must have killed Amy, even among those closest to him.

If you've read Gone Girl you know this is where Gillian Flynn totally flips the script. And on the off chance you haven't read the book and don't know the twist, I'm going to just say it changes everything—some say for the better, some for the worse. (Count me among the former.)

Fincher brings his trademark style to this movie, which is part mystery, part social commentary on how quick the media is to make judgments which influence so many people in our society. The music, by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, brings a chilly feel to the film which suits it perfectly.

The film runs just over two and a half hours, but other than wondering exactly how the movie would tie itself up, I never looked at my watch. (I did continuously glare at the man on one side of us who kept texting, and a couple who spent the entire movie talking—loudly—but that's another rant for another day.)

The performances in this film are wonderful, led by the exquisite Rosamund Pike. You can't take your eyes off of her, because she's stunningly beautiful, of course, but more because her performance is full of fleeting glances and expressions that give her character so much depth. Pike's Amy is everything you'd think a man would want in a woman—sexy, smart, romantic, naughty, supportive—until you realize just how crazy f--king psychotic she truly is. This is a woman you do not want to mess with, but Pike is utterly mesmerizing, and completely worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Ben Affleck turns in another strong performance, once again proving that early jabs about the longevity of his acting career were unfounded. You don't quite know what to make of his Nick—is he grieving, relieved, guilty, or just a lying psychopath? Affleck's performance is slippery enough to keep you interested, and you don't know whether he's presenting Nick as genuine or as the person he thinks people want to see. He more than holds his own against the charismatic Pike.

The supporting performances in the movie are terrific as well—notably Carrie Coon as Nick's sister, who is simultaneously devastated for what is happening for her brother and wondering exactly what he isn't telling her; Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex-boyfriend of Amy's; and Kim Dickens, as the police detective who doesn't want to get taken in by the public cry for Nick's arrest, but doesn't know whether to trust her instincts or trust the facts that she is finding. Missi Pyle has some fun moments as a Nancy Grace-like zealot voicing outrage at the case.

I enjoyed this movie far more than I expected, and while it's obviously a depressing commentary on marriage, I found it truly compelling. The one thing I remembered about the book is that when you're presented with the story of two flawed, not-entirely-honest people, you don't know exactly what to believe is true. And you may very well walk away from this movie with questions, but that's part of its charm. I wouldn't be surprised—and I'd be pleased, actually—to see this nominated for Best Picture as well this year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: "Dear Committee Members" by Julie Schumacher

You know, it has been a while since I've read a supposedly funny book that actually turns out to be funny, but Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members was great fun. I even laughed out loud in a few spots, and I don't think it's entirely because I was picturing the book as if it were read by a committee member of mine, who tends to write with the same verbose style as Schumacher's narrator.

Jason Fitger is a weary professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University. He was once a writer with some promise—his sensationalized account of his experiences at a famed literary workshop (known as "the Seminar") caught the eye of the then-director, who championed it to a publisher. But his later books never demonstrated the same type of potential, and now he can't get anything published. And his romantic life is in the same decline—he is divorced, although still hung up on his wife, and he tends to bobble any other relationships he enters into, which would be unfortunate even if they weren't with women who work at the university.

All is not rosy at the university, either. The administration has made draconian cuts to the English department, cutting the graduate program and refusing to fund programs. Department instructors are being forced to work in squalor, dodging debris and inhaling construction fumes, as the Economics department, which resides upstairs, is being given more lavish offices. And to top it off, administration has put a sociologist(!) in charge of the English department. What's a guy to do?

Jay spends his days writing letters of recommendation. (Writing, mind you, not filling in the blasted blanks in electronic forms.) He's championingg one of his students for a fellowship at the Seminar, now being run by a former friend (and lover) of Jay's. Jay thinks this student's novel—an updated version of Bartleby called (of all things) Accountant in a Bordello, but the student can't seem to catch a break, which Jay thinks is because everyone is punishing the student to get back at him for slights both real and imagined. As the student's fortunes become more and more bleak, Jay writes recommendations everywhere to try and find an opportunity—even an RV park.

But those letters aren't the only ones he writes. He recommends current students for work-study and off-campus jobs; he recommends colleagues for fellowships, awards, and other positions both within and outside the university; he recommends former students for employment opportunities and graduate school; and in some cases, he recommends students he barely knows for opportunities he doesn't understand. But don't mistake his letter-writing for endorsements; he isn't afraid to tell the truth about those on whose behalf he's writing, so often the letters are more passive-aggressive than positive.

What makes this book so amusing is Jay's verbose use of language (he is a writer, after all) and his need to correct or castigate those to whom he is writing if he feels it necessary. Here is one excerpt from a letter he is writing to (believe it or not) recommend a colleague for a position at another university:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university—dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question—but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently—correct me if I'm wrong—atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas. You've reinvented yourselves and gone secular, but clearly, in various pockets and odd recesses of the campus, glassy-eyed recidivists and fanatics are still screaming hosannas, denying the basic tenets of science, and using a whetstone to sharpen their teeth."

Jay is more than a pompous blowhard, however. He knows how people feel about him and he doesn't care, but there are those about whom he truly cares about. That's what gives Dear Committee Members its depth, making it more than just a farcical epistolary novel, and adding shade to its humor. I really enjoyed this book, and while a book full of letters chockablock with SAT words might not appeal to everyone, it's great fun and a great read.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Review: "The Imitation Game"

Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Yet because of the work he did, and the circumstances of his death, very few people know of him and what he accomplished. Hopefully, thanks to The Imitation Game, people may better understand the history-making contributions he made to our world.

At the start of World War II, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an instructor at Kings College Cambridge and a published mathematician, goes to a job interview conducted by the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School. A military operation is searching for a way to break the German army's Enigma code so messages can be intercepted and the Nazis can be defeated. But this isn't a simple code—it changes every day at midnight, and there are millions and millions of possible permutations to consider.

Turing's confidence in his own intelligence, combined his with utter social awkwardness and obliviousness, quickly irritates the military commander (Charles Dance) who still reluctantly hires him, and then completely alienates him from the team of men with whom he is to work. And when the team leader (Matthew Goode) refuses to let Turing build the "super machine" he thinks could break the code, Turing takes matters into his own creative hands, and quickly gets control of the group, although he further raises the ire of the commander.

An effort to recruit additional people for the operation introduces Turing to Joan Clarke (a plucky Keira Knightley), a highly intelligent woman who wants a career far beyond those women were allowed in the 1940s. Joan is the perfect intellectual complement to Turing, a sounding board for his ideas and someone who tries to help him negotiate the more human side of his work. But while Turing truly enjoys Joan's companionship, he harbors a major secret of his own—he is gay—and the disclosure of this secret could land him in prison.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team as they race against time—and the powerful Nazis wreaking destruction across the world—to try and break the code. Turing must overcome those who doubt his abilities and the power of the machine he has built, he must battle the commander bent on firing him and labeling him a spy, and he must figure out a way to make sense of his life as it is unfolding. It is a heavy load for anyone to bear, especially someone who has always felt on the outside looking in.

I have always been a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. His eyes are tremendously expressive, and his performances always combine steely strength with emotional vulnerability. (See his marvelous work in both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Star Trek Into Darkness and you'll see what I mean.) But Cumberbatch is an absolute revelation as Alan Turing. Confident in his intellect yet insecure in what he is trying to accomplish, conflicted about the aftereffects of his work, and emotionally fragile, his Turing is so complex, admirable yet awkward, irascible yet sympathetic. While Cumberbatch's performance isn't as showy as Eddie Redmayne's in The Theory of Everything and isn't a comeback like Michael Keaton's in Birdman, it is his performance that affected me most profoundly. He already has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, and I expect to see him nominated for an Oscar next month, deservedly so.

Knightley brings some of her trademark toughness to her role yet she imbues Joan with tremendous sensitivity and even a little vulnerability. She more than holds her own in her scenes with Cumberbatch, in particular the scene when he admits to her that he is gay. She, too, has been nominated for both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and also is deserving of an Oscar nomination for her performance. The members of Turing's team—Goode, Allen Leech, and Matthew Beard, in particular—each have strong moments, as does Mark Strong as Turing's MI6 defender.

If I have any criticism about this movie it's the way it's structured. The movie shifts between 1951, when a robbery at Turing's home leads a police detective to suspect that the man is hiding something, to Turing's work during the war. It also periodically moves to the late 1920s, when he was a young man at boarding school and first let his emotional guard down. While I understand the need to tell all three parts of this story, the shifts back and forth were a little jarring, and at the end, what I really wanted to see was how they broke the Enigma code.

The Imitation Game is well done but I found it a bit difficult and painful to watch. But in the end, I hope that people realize what an incredible genius Alan Turing was, and realize that some of the greatest minds our world has seen aren't always the ones we expect, and are far from perfect.

Book Review: "The Young Elites" by Marie Lu

With her Legend trilogy (Legend, Prodigy, and Champion), Marie Lu proved she was a talented writer with the ability to create an entirely different world, memorable characters, and terrific action. The Young Elites, the first book in her newest series, proved that the first three books weren't a fluke—again, she has created a wholly different world as well as brand new characters who will be fascinating to watch develop.

Adelina Amouteru is a 16-year-old growing up in the 1300s in the city of Dalia, located on an island called Kenettra. A number of years ago, Kenettra, as well as many neighboring lands, was affected by a massive epidemic of blood fever, which killed any adults infected and left children with lifelong effects.

"You could always tell who was infected—strange, mottled patterns showed up on our skin, our hair and lashes flitted from one color to another, and pink, blood-tinged tears ran from our eyes."

Adelina lost one of her eyes to the fever, and a doctor removed it with a red-hot knife and a pair of burning tongs, leaving her permanently scarred. Her hair and eyelashes also turned silver. Her father is embarrassed that his older daughter is a malfetto, an abomination that has ruined his chance at fortune or good standing in society. Her younger sister, Violetta, was spared by the fever, and grows ever more beautiful every day, men from all over the land come to seek her hand in marriage, while barely looking Adelina's way. This causes her father to lavish attention on Violetta while being emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to Adelina.

Malfettos are blamed for all that is wrong with society, and soldiers acting in the name of the king ruthlessly destroy any they find. But some malfettos are rumored to have more than simply physical manifestations left from the fever—some purportedly have mysterious and powerful abilities. They remain hidden in society, but are known as the Young Elites. A secret society of the Young Elites, called the Daggers, are bent on returning to power the rightful heir to the throne, Enzo Valenciano, who was banned from the throne because he, too, is a malfetto.

One frantic night Adelina realizes that she, too, possesses these special gifts which make her dangerously powerful. When she is quickly arrested by Inquisition forces, and sentenced to death for her crime, the Daggers rescue her and hope to recruit her to their side. But her powers are unlike any they've ever seen—and they aren't sure whether she can be trained to control them, or if she's more dangerous to their cause. And when the leader of the Inquisition, Teren Santoro, takes Violetta prisoner, he forces Adelina to decide just who she should consider her allies. Either way, she faces dangerous, potentially deadly consequences.

Although it took a little bit of time to get acclimated to who was who in the book, I really enjoyed the start of this new series. Once again, Lu has created complex characters (and Adelina may be more complex than any she has created before) that keep you guessing, and the new world she has built is so vivid, but it isn't overburdened with detail. I also love how her characters are diverse in their sexuality in a matter-of-fact way, and it's not an issue.

I found the Daggers to be a fascinating group of people, and I look forward to seeing how Lu will allow them to develop in future books. And I can't even guess where the next book will go, since the epilogue brought in a new group of characters which should be an interesting mix. All in all, this is another great read from Marie Lu, and I can't wait until the second book in this series comes out next year. (Can I be a little bit obsessed already?)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: "Life Drawing" by Robin Black

There are certain books you would like to devour in one or two sittings because of the suspense or tension their plots generate—you just need to know what will happen next and how the plot will be resolved. Then there are other books you wish you could devour because the writing is so breathtaking and you are so engaged in what is happening with the characters. The two aren't always mutually exclusive, but for me, books often fall in one category or the other.

Robin Black's Life Drawing definitely fell into the latter category for me. This book was so exquisitely written, so compelling, I would have been happy if it were double its length. (This isn't a surprise, of course; Black's short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This was among the best books I read in 2011.)

Owen and Augusta (Gus) have been together for a long time. He is a writer and she is an artist, and they've always lived a happy but slightly unorthodox, anti-establishment kind of life. But after their relationship nearly collapses following Gus' confession to a short-lived affair, they move away from their city life in Philadelphia to an isolated farmhouse in the country, where they try to concentrate on work and rebuilding the trust between them. They both struggle with their work at times, and although things seem to improve between them, there is always some underlying tension.

"There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you're having and the one you're not. Sometimes you don't even know when that second, silent one has begun."

Into their isolation comes Alison, who rents the vacant farmhouse next door. Although Gus is at first resentful of Alison's stopping by and encouraging the couple to socialize with her, she eventually comes to enjoy Alison's companionship, and both disclose the secrets that are plaguing them, and Alison also is a sympathetic ear to Gus' struggles with her father's increasing descent into Alzheimer's. But when Alison's young daughter, Nora, comes to visit, her presence, and what she brings along with her, threatens to shatter all of their relationships.

"I was right up close in a staring contest with the undeniable fact that for all the little things over which we have some control, for the most part we have none; and I was at a loss to know how to respond."

Life Drawing, well, draws you into its plot almost immediately. Gus, Owen, and Alison are complex characters. They're not always 100 percent likable but they're utterly fascinating, and although Black divulges one major plot twist early in the book, you still wonder how the story will get there. Sure, this type of story has been seen countless times before, but it's also different, and Black's skilled storytelling definitely sets it apart.

This is a book about trying to keep your heart and your head aligned, about how you can simultaneously love and dislike someone, and about how the things you fear can often come back to haunt you. I am sad to have finished this (despite flying through it) and can't stop thinking about these characters. As soon as Robin Black's next book comes out, I will undoubtedly leap on it. She's just that good.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: "Porn Again: A Memoir" by Josh Sabarra

At first glance, it would appear that Josh Sabarra has led a pretty charmed life. A former high-level entertainment executive in Hollywood, he's good looking and charming, knows a lot of celebrity gossip, and can count a number of famous people among his friends. He also has a tremendously close relationship with his parents—or perhaps too close.

"My uniquely close relationship with my parents has been a point of intrigue among friends. The frank nature of our conversations—which happen multiple times per day by phone—includes everything from work to romance to sex."

But behind his public persona, Josh was a tremendously insecure person. Tormented from a very young age for being different, for being unathletic and more interested in music, theater, and fashion, he felt much more comfortable around adult women, embarking on friendships with several with whom he felt a kinship. This lack of self-esteem led to overeating, which led to his being overweight, which resulted in body image issues. And because he heard too many negative slurs about gay people—even from his own parents—he sublimated any acceptance of his sexuality—until he was 30 years old.

As he grew older, he became confident with his looks (through lots of plastic surgery as well as diet). Hiding his true self motivated him to succeed in his career, and he quickly rose the ranks as a publicist and marketing executive. But ultimately the pressure of hiding his true self became too much to bear, and he was desperate to find true love, and share the "true Josh" that had been locked underneath the heterosexual, driven façade he created.

Porn Again is the cheeky yet moving story of a man coming to terms with, and eventually loving, who he is. Given the title, the book does go into some explicit detail about his finally exploring his sexuality, through romantic relationships, sexual liaisons, encounters with hired porn stars, online dating and hookup services, and even some celebrities—and he's unabashedly willing to share details.

He's also willing to dish a bit about some of his celebrity friends and former friends. While in some cases he refers to them obliquely, like "Ms. Drama Queen," he spares Ricki Lake in particular no mercy. It's definitely fun to hear about the side of celebrities you may suspect but never have true confirmation.

I really enjoyed this book, both the introspective and the titillating parts. It was much more moving than I expected it to be—so many reviews I've read focused on the gossipy parts instead—and while my life has been significantly less glamorous than Josh's, I can certainly identify with many of the emotions he talked about and the issues of self-esteem and self-acceptance he confronted. This wasn't the book I expected, especially with a title like Porn Again; it's far more than that. This is fun and memorable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: "All We Had" by Annie Weatherwax

"When I thought about hell, I thought about life without my mother. She was all I ever really had. I tried to picture who I'd be without her and the only image that came to mind was of a ghost."

Thirteen-year-old Ruthie and her mother, Rita, often lived life on the fringes. Rita isn't above using her body or her sexuality to get what she wants, especially if it means ensuring a better life for the two of them. Rita smokes like crazy and likes to drink, but the one thing she knows for sure is that Ruthie is tremendously intelligent and is destined for great things.

The trouble is, most of the men Rita latches onto look good for a little while, and they save her and Ruthie from certain disaster, but their true selves are ultimately revealed, which leads to the need for a rapid and furtive escape. (Although they're not above taking a few parting gifts from these men on their way out the door.)

"This was how our story always went. With the wind at our backs we soared like bandits narrowly escaping through the night. And no matter where life took us or how hard and fast the ride, we landed and we always stayed together."

When Rita and Ruthie land in the small town of Fat River they don't plan to stay, but their battered vehicle decides otherwise. Through the mercy of Mel, who owns Tiny's, the local diner, Rita is able to get a steady waitressing job, and Ruthie is also able to make some money as a dishwasher. The two are able to let their guards down enough to make friends with Arlene, the tough-but-compassionate head waitress, and Peter Pam, Mel's nephew and the diner's transgender waitress. Rita and Ruthie are able to save enough money to rent a small, dilapidated house, which is actually the first place they can call their own, and their coworkers and neighbors become their extended family.

While Ruthie is content to live her life in Fat River, especially since they were able to buy their house thanks to the help of a crooked mortgage lender, it's not long before Rita starts feeling restless and their security starts rapidly going downhill. With seemingly no other solution, Rita relies once again on her feminine wiles to keep them out of poverty. But the decision that Rita makes has a tremendous impact on her relationship with her daughter.

Many books have been written about the often-tempestuous relationship between mothers and daughters, particularly those struggling to make something of their lives. Annie Weatherwax's All We Had is a sweet, enjoyable addition to this genre. The characters are well-drawn and tremendously engaging, and they seem larger than life without being caricatures of themselves. While you probably can predict how the plot will unfold, you're still captivated enough to want to keep reading.

My only criticism of the book is that at times it seemed like each chapter was an anecdote or interrelated short story rather than a continuous narrative. It almost was as if Weatherwax was trying to say, and here's yet another example of Rita's behavior. It didn't ultimately detract from my enjoyment of the book, but it felt a little less whole, if that makes sense. In the end, however, the vividness of the characters and the heart that Weatherwax imbued her story with really win you over.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: "All My Puny Sorrows" by Miriam Toews

So if you're thinking a book called All My Puny Sorrows is going to be a bit of a downer, you're definitely right, but the talent of Miriam Toews is definitely something to behold despite the harrowing nature of the book.

Elf (Elfrieda) and Yoli (Yolandi) are sisters and best friends. Growing up in a Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg, they were tremendously close as they united against the way the community's elders treated women and tried to marginalize Elf's talent playing the piano. They also tried to understand the mood swings of their father, a gentle man who felt desperately passionate about so many things.

As adults, on the surface Elf leads a glamorous life—she has a devoted husband and a successful career as a renowned concert pianist, while Yoli has been divorced twice and is struggling to cope with raising her two children as they approach adulthood, as well as financial, romantic, and career difficulties. Yet Elf suffers from a crushing depression and desperately wants to end her life, although her attempts have all ended in failure.

"It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other."

What Yoli wants is for Elf to finally get the treatment she so desperately needs, so she can finally enjoy her life and once again be the passionate, highly intelligent person Yoli knows and loves. And more than that, Yoli really wants her confidante again, wants someone to help guide her out of the mess that she is making with her life and help her regain the confidence she needs to move her writing career in a different direction. But despite the love of her husband, her family, and her fans, all Elf really wants is to die, so her suffering can end.

As hard as Yoli fights to change Elf's mind about dying, Elf fights just as hard to convince Yoli to help her end her life. How do you convince someone you love that their life is worth living when they are unable to see that for themselves? Is it our responsibility to help those we care about end their suffering?

I've never read anything by Miriam Toews before, but I was truly wowed by her ability to inhabit these characters. This is an incredibly moving book about the toll depression and suicide have not only on the person struggling, but on those who care about them. It's also a story about finding the strength to carry on when it feels like you have nothing left, and everything seems to be going against you.

This is a hard book to read because of the emotional nature of the subject matter and the suffering that the characters endure (and I've only scratched the surface in my description), but Toews' prose is so lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it truly immerses you in the story. At times it got a bit difficult because the hits kept on coming, and it was hard to watch Yoli make such a mess of her own life at the same time, but the beauty and power of Toews' writing compels you to soldier on.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: "A Small Indiscretion" by Jan Ellison

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"It's not always wise to assume that just because the surface of the world appears undisturbed, life is where you left it."

At age 19, Annie Black flees her unremarkable, hopeless life in California to seek a job in London. She feels lucky when she finds a job as an assistant to Malcolm Church, a structural engineer working on a bid to build a new light rail station at Canary Wharf. While Malcolm takes good care of her, and makes no secret that he is attracted to her, she spends her evenings drinking herself into oblivion and longing for more, and she thinks she finds it in Patrick Ardghal, a flirtatious photographer with an interesting connection to Malcolm and his wife, Louise.

One turbulent evening in Paris, while Annie is on holiday vacation with Malcolm, Louise, and Patrick, things come to a head, and the next day, Annie flees without a word and heads to Ireland. She meets Jonathan Gunnlaugsson, a fellow American, and the two travel through Europe and Asia, eventually falling in love.

Twenty or so years later, she and Jonathan are married and living a successful life in San Francisco. Annie designs custom lighting fixtures for her own store, and the couple is parents to three children—Robbie, Polly, and Clara. One day Annie receives a photograph in the mail that reminds her of that tumultuous time in Paris, and it reignites a passion in her she hadn't felt in some time. While on a business trip to London, she rekindles an old acquaintance, which sets off a chain of events she never expected.

Not soon after her return to California, she gets a shocking phone call about Robbie, which shakes their already vulnerable family to the core. As she tries to rally herself and her family together, more secrets are revealed, which surprise both Annie and Jonathan. She desperately tries to reconcile her feelings with trying to preserve the life she has known and taken for granted.

Jan Ellison's A Small Indiscretion shifts between the present day and Annie's life in London 20 or so years earlier. It's the story of being torn between seeking what you think you want and taking what you really want for granted. It's a revealing look at the ups and downs of marriage and building a life together, and just how destructive secrets can be, especially secrets you think you've hidden well.

This is a well-written and compelling book with a few twists and turns along the way. I liked it, but a few things frustrated me. I felt as if Ellison relied too much on foreshadowing as a narrative device, alluding obliquely to things that would happen later. Doing this a few times was fine, but the more she did it, the more I felt she undercut her own story. I also felt that on the whole, Annie was a fairly unsympathetic character, so it wasn't always easy to have empathy for the situations she found herself in.

While it's not as good as Charles Dubow's fantastic Indiscretion, which was one of my favorite books of 2013, on the whole, this is an interesting, well-told story. It definitely will make you think about relationships.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Foxcatcher"

This movie was c-r-e-e-p-y...

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was a gold medal winner in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, alongside his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). A few years after his Olympic victory, Mark is broke, living in Dave's shadow, and hoping desperately for another shot at glory in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

One day Mark is summoned to Foxcatcher, the Pennsylvania estate of John E. du Pont (Steve Carell, looking a little like a younger version of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns). John, it turns out, is a huge fan of wrestling, and wants to help train Mark for the world championships, which will give him a leg up toward the Olympic trials. He offers to pay Mark whatever salary he'd like, and house him at Foxcatcher, and all he wants is Mark's total allegiance—and the opportunity to be a coach and mentor. (Of course, you have to wonder whether the frequent glimpses of shirtless and singlet-clad Mark were part of the fringe benefits John had in mind.)

John initially tries to get Dave to join the Foxcatcher team, but he refuses, so John uses this to push the brothers apart, and swoops into an emotionally unstable Mark's life just when he needs a father/brother figure most. But after a hard-fought victory, and an introduction to two of John's favorite vices—cocaine and alcohol—their relationship starts to sour. When Dave finally does arrive (courtesy of an offer he can't refuse), he finds Mark desperate to escape John's clutches, and John desperate for credibility as a leader of men, and desperate for an Olympic winner.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story, but I won't spoil one of the key plot points (which I didn't know about until I read a magazine article about the story behind the movie), as the element of surprise is pretty powerful. (If you know what happens it doesn't ruin the movie, but it dulls the suspense a little.) Suffice it to say, however, that the movie just has this pervasively ominous feel throughout, partially from the muted tones in which the film was shot, to the chilly distance which resides between many of the characters.

Carell once again shows off that he is a tremendously talented and versatile actor. Sure, the prosthetics help, but he speaks in a stilted, awkward tone, and his mannerisms make you wonder if you should feel sorry for him or just steer clear of him. (The scene in which he first interacts with Mark almost felt as if he were a stranger offering Mark candy from his car window.) I hope that with this performance, Carell gets more of the respect he deserves beyond the comedy he has excelled at.

Tatum is brooding, shuffling, and insecure, and he imbues Mark with a borderline psychological instability and a simmering rage just beneath his surface. His character doesn't talk much, but there is hurt and anger in his performance. Ruffalo doesn't have as large of a role, but he's quite good as the brother trying to navigate the odd tension between Mark and John, and trying to determine whether the deal he's been offered is too good to be true. One scene in which he is asked to speak about John for a documentary he is filming about himself stood out particularly.

The performances in Foxcatcher are strong, but the movie doesn't rise to meet them. It's almost as if director Bennett Miller, in trying to convey the empty sterility of John's life and the bleakness of the situation the Schultzes find themselves in, doesn't allow the movie to have a great deal of passion, and the pacing is slow. It's a shame, because all of the elements are there for a strong film.

Carell and Ruffalo have been mentioned as potential Oscar nominees, and it will be interesting to see whether Carell is able to succeed in an area that other comedians—Jim Carrey and Steve Martin in particular—have not.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: "Guy in Real Life" by Steve Brezenoff

Lesh (his parents named him after Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead) is a high school sophomore who listens to a lot of heavy metal music, wears black all the time, and pretty much wishes he could disappear. Svetlana, a senior, is an artist who makes a lot of her own clothes, listens to Bjork and classical music, and is the dungeon master of a role-playing game involving a group of her friends.

One late night the two meet cute when Lana literally knocks Lesh off his feet—she hits the drunken boy with her bike while he and a friend are walking home from a metal concert. Lesh is instantly smitten; Lana is irritated that the mishap ruined a notebook with her drawings in it.

The two strike up an uneasy friendship, partially because Lana wants to avoid the son of family friends who has a serious crush on her. Lesh feels Lana is far too good for him, and his friends discourage him from getting to know her, but that doesn't dissuade him. He even allows her to convince him to join her role-playing game group, which causes some unease among her friends.

The thing is, Lesh has a bit of a secret. When he first met Lana he was so obsessed with her that he created a character in her image for an online role-playing game. And maybe he's been playing with the character, and attracting the attention of some other guys online. But how do you bring that up in conversation?

Guy in Real Life is a sweet, tremendously enjoyable read. I really liked both Lesh and Lana's characters, and thought that Steve Brezenoff did a great job getting you engaged in the plot very quickly. Even if you're not into gaming (which I'm not), the book didn't go too heavily into detail so it doesn't have limited appeal. While I found some plot points a little ambiguous, what I liked the best about the book is the refreshing way it looked at gender roles. No characters really fit into a particular stereotype, which is much more indicative of the world we're living in now versus the one I grew up in.

I'm really glad I heard about this book because it hit all of the right buttons for me. Once again, books like Guy in Real Life prove that the world of YA fiction is really thriving right now, and features authors just as worthy of acclaim as those writing "adult" fiction.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book Review: "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell

Holy crap, this book rocked! But honestly, as I was reading it and marveling in it, I kept thinking, "How am I going to review this?" So please indulge me.

"If you love and are loved, whatever you do affects others."

Holly Sykes is a sensitive yet rebellious 15-year-old growing up in 1980s England. When she gets into a huge fight with her mother over her new, older boyfriend, Holly leaves home, but quickly finds her plans to move in with him don't materialize the way she hoped. Searching for where to go next, she encounters strange people, hears voices, and finds herself in some bizarre situations. She remembers when as a child she heard voices she called "the radio people" and had visions of a beautiful, mysterious woman, but she was supposedly "cured" by a doctor. As Holly tries to make her way, things get stranger and stranger, and she has no idea she's caught in a tug of war between two different types of other-worldly people. And then she learns of a real-life tragedy that truly impacts her.

The Bone Clocks is divided into six novellas, of sorts, each in a different decade, from 1984 to 2043, and each main character has a connection to Holly. From an egotistical student at Cambridge with nefarious plans to gain the wealth he believes he deserves, to the war reporter who truly only feels alive when he's in the midst of crisis and danger, to the once-best-selling author determined to seek revenge on the critic he believes has ruined his chance for future success, each of the main characters find themselves drawn into the same type of mysterious situations Holly did.

For lack of a better word, this book is phantasmagorical, but so, so brilliant. I'll admit I didn't understand everything that happened between the horologists and the "carnivores" (and the less said about this, the better for someone yet to read the book), but David Mitchell's storytelling was so breathtakingly good, so utterly captivating, that it didn't matter. I truly was surprised by two things—that a 650-page book could have such rapid pacing, and just how much heart this book had. I was fascinated by the characters and the situations they found themselves in, and I was sad when the book ended, because I wish I could have spent more time with them.

I've never read anything by David Mitchell before, but The Bone Clocks has whet my appetite for more. This was unlike most other books I've read, but I am surprised at how much I loved it. This isn't a book for everyone, so you need to be comfortable with just letting the story flow, and suspending your disbelief. This is easily one of the best I've read this year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Movie Review: "Interstellar"

With Interstellar, his first film since 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan attempts to answer whether the world is ready to be saved by Matthew McConaughey. (You know the answer is "alright, alright, alright.") In all seriousness though, this is a movie that makes you think, and leaves you with as many questions as it does answers.

It's the not-too-distant future, and our world has been affected by extreme climate changes (go figure) which are making food, water, and breathable air a scarcity. A blight has permanently killed off many crops, and the air is thick with clouds of dust nearly all the time. Cooper (McConaughey), a former astronaut until NASA was shut down by the government, is a reluctant farmer, raising his two children alongside his taciturn father-in-law (John Lithgow). He wants more for his children—his teenage son could be an engineer, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murph, is tremendously gifted, but this isn't what society needs anymore.

Cooper and Murph stumble upon a group of scientists led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who have discovered a mysterious hole in the space-time continuum, which they are hoping to exploit in order to find a solution to the problems facing the world. Brand convinces Cooper (much to Murph's chagrin) to pilot a space mission through this hole, beyond our solar system, in order to find a planet that can sustain life and thus save the human race from eventual extinction. But this is a mission which will force Cooper and his fellow explorers (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) to confront the realities of time, since everything they do takes longer in real time than it does in space, thus putting those they're trying to save at further risk. They also are forced to make some harsh decisions about the directions the mission should take.

Interstellar delves into more of a scientific explanation for what the explorers are doing, and why what they does matters in specific issues. A lot of that explanation went over my head, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of this movie. (I did wonder whether what the characters were saying was accurate or not.) And the way the story concludes dealt with other dimensions and things I couldn't quite grasp but I got the gist of it. (Some of it, at least.)

At just under three hours, Interstellar is a bit longer than it needs to be, and at times I felt that Nolan wasn't sure whether this movie was a sci-fi thriller, an action movie, or an exploration of relationships against the backdrop of the all-too-fleeting amount of time we have in our lives. It definitely raised some big questions for me, however. Is love the strongest force of all? Do you work for the good of the few, or good of the many? Is it more dangerous to let people believe they're doing the right thing than tell them they're not?

The performances are good, particularly at emotional points in the film, but I felt like nearly every actor didn't have to stretch themselves too far. After a brief hiatus into other characters, McConaughey is back to his usual brand of McConaughey-ness in this movie. He's a talented actor, and he has some wonderful scenes, but at times, he almost seems like a caricature of himself. Hathaway is appropriately taciturn given that the weight of the world lies on the success of their mission, although she, too, has some good moments. Jessica Chastain hasn't quite pulled herself out of her Zero Dark Thirty character (which isn't a bad thing), but again, when dealing with her character's emotions, she is quite strong.

As I've remarked more times than I can count, I am a total sap, so you can bet the parts of the movie that dealt with McConaughey's wanting to fight for a better world for his children, and his sadness at missing out on so much hit me hard. But in the end, while this wasn't Nolan's strongest movie, I really enjoyed this, and I can't stop thinking about it.