Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

God gives each of us a gift of 86,400 seconds a day. It seems only right that we take one second out of EACH day, not just Thanksgiving Day, to give Him thanks and praise for the countless blessings (big and small) that He so generously shares with us.

On a lighter note...
May your stuffing be tasty,
May your turkey be plump,
May your potatoes ‘n gravy have nary a lump,
May your yams be delicious,
May your pies take the prize,
May your thanksgiving dinner
Stay off of your thighs.
Gobble gobble! Don't forget to set your scales back 10 pounds tonight.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Based on a True Story: A Memoir

Just so we’re clear, Norm Macdonald’s Based on a True Story: A Memoir is not a memoir, though it says memoir on it, it’s a novel. Norm explained this fact in usual Norm fashion while on with Conan; “It’s like if you buy Grapes of Wrath, and you’re like, hey there’s no grapes. Or you put it in the grapes section, that’s smart; then everyone will find Grapes of Wrath. People that like grapes.” Yes, that sort of nonsensical absurdity is scattered throughout this novel’s (not a memoir) pages, which makes for some head-scratching, eyebrow-raising, guffaw-inducing reading.

From the publisher: “As this book’s title suggests, Norm Macdonald tells the story of his life—more or less—from his origins on a farm in the-back-of-beyond Canada and an epically disastrous appearance on Star Search to his account of auditioning for Lorne Michaels and his memorable run as the anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live—until he was fired because a corporate executive didn’t think he was funny. But Based on a True Story is much more than a memoir; it’s the hilarious, inspired epic of Norm’s life.”

While the book is liberally laced with facts and anecdotes from Norm’s life, including his childhood in Canada, time on SNL's Weekend Update, and gambling addiction, Norm gave himself free-rein to copious amounts of artistic license in ‘tweaking’ (for lack of a better word) each tale to farcical proportions so that at times you didn’t know exactly where the truth ended and lie began; at other times, it was pretty obvious. Case in point is the story of his SNL job interview and how he earned the gig by offering Lorne Michaels a bag with seven grams of government-grade morphine (love the commitment to detail). Truth or fiction? You be the judge. Or the forlorn confession to his unrequited love for fellow cast member Sarah Silverman, and his sinister but thankfully unsuccessful plot (thanks to Colin Quinn, the snitch) to hire a hit man to dispatch of his rival and Sarah’s love interest, SNL writer Dave Attell.

I gotta admit that having read this hilarious novel, I hope against hope that Norm writes a real honest-to-goodness memoir for it was the chapters where he was most vulnerable and honest that I loved most. 'My First Five Years' was a hoot; as he laid claim to the fact that at age one he was in peak physical condition and that his best friend was the cat, “who only knew one word, “meow”, but at the time it was one more word than I knew. I thought the cat had it all figured out.” Or his droll self-mockery at the fact that at that age he could do no wrong in the eyes of his parents; “sometimes all I had to do was show up” but how that changed at age three when the “aren’t you the smartest boy in the whole wide world?” changed to “is there something wrong with that boy?” Most notable of all and utterly heartbreaking if it contained even a kernel of truth was the chapter dealing with a family friend (Old Jack) that worked on his parent’s farm that (perhaps, possibly) subjected him to years of silent abuse.

Based on a True Story takes readers on a mindbender of a road trip filled with laughs such as only Norm could deliver. A raw if not honest look at an often underrated, overlooked and underappreciated comedy icon.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

All Is Not Forgotten

Our lives are comprised not of minutes, hours or days but of moments, both happy and sad, that help shape us. What if we could erase the darkest of memories, those moments best forgotten? If the question wasn't could we, but should we, then would we? Would you erase the pain of loss, fear or heartbreak? Would we miss them as if having lost some integral part of ourselves? All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker offers just that hypothetical dilemma in the guise of a riveting psychological thriller.

From the publisher: “It begins in the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut, where everything seems picture perfect. Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, struggles to pretend this horrific event did not touch her carefully constructed world.”

I found All Is Not Forgotten provocative, intriguing and engaging, yet I can't say that I loved the book. The science at the center of this compelling tale is still hypothetical, but the family dynamics which propel the story are firmly rooted in reality and well fleshed out by the author. Though I found the plot suspenseful, the pacing deliberate but not plodding, and the narrative around the rape disturbing and dark yet authentic to the tale and not gratuitous, I felt the choice of narrator diminished Jenny's voice and the chance for her to own her journey. In essence, the narrator hijacked Jenny's tale of fight and survival and made it instead about his Machiavellian plans and manipulations.

Despite my issues with the construct of the novel, I was utterly fascinated by the subject of memory and its manipulation as planted before us in this memorable tale, and the dilemma of whether it's best to forget or to face our boogeymen and wounds, even those more painful than those that bleed, head on. I'll say that while I found our narrator's actions at times contemptible, on this thought-provoking issue I wholeheartedly agree with his contention that moments of pain and trauma must be faced not erased, for in that confrontation can be found hope, healing and strength. The truth is that some memories even when seemingly forgotten still linger within us, like ghost in rattling chains, because once lived they're forever a part of us. As such, it seems unsurprisingly inevitable that excising those memories would engender the phantom pain of a missing part of us; their absence mourned by mind and soul.

Though I didn't love All Is Not Forgotten, I love having read it for it was a frustratingly thought-provoking, twisty and page-turning tale, which no matter your sentiment by book's end, you most definitely won't soon forget.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Discovering Johnny

You might think me a nerd, but I’ll confess to being a huge fan of movie previews. I await them with the same eager anticipation most reserve for the feature presentation, and despite the grumblings of other movie goers around me, never feel you have too many. I’ll admit though that the experience is usually so fleeting that between the too-brief trailers and watching the 2-hour movie that got me there in the first place, I usually end up only remembering the 1 or 2 most memorable ones. During yesterday’s screening of Hacksaw Ridge, one trailer worked its magic, obliterating all the rest, leaving me utterly enraptured and searching not for the trailer of the film, but for the singer and song in the trailer’s soundtrack.

The film was Logan, but much more importantly, the singer was Johnny Cash and the song was his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. As I’ve mentioned countless times, I’m not a music buff; I only have a handful of CDs that I keep in my car and otherwise listen to news radio. Yet, much like heavy metal band Disturbed’s cover of The Sound of Silence which left me singing its praises, Cash’s cover was so utterly gut-wrenching and haunting in its delivery that it stayed with me long after leaving the theater. Here’s the breathtaking video of the song which throbs with palpable emotion.

Released back in 2002, the video went on to win a Grammy award for Video of the Year, so I’m only 14 years late, and a dollar short in my discovery, but alas, this is one time when I can say with heartfelt conviction, better late than never. Oh, and by the way, here’s the trailer to Logan. I’m not an X-Men fan, I only ever saw the first film in the series, but I must admit Cash aside, the trailer looks fantastic and Hugh Jackman’s buff physique has nothing to do with it.

Hacksaw Ridge

"War is hell." Undoubtedly most war movies barely scrape at the surface of its savagery and futility, though Hollywood does its best to capture their version of the experience. Directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is the latest entry into this genre which unflinchingly delivers a story so unbelievable it must be true, making no concessions to the gentle constitutions of its viewers. The film does not scrimp in its gruesome, savage and gut-wrenching depictions of mangled bodies and much worse, instead opting through candid ferocity to help us better grasp the horror – the blood, guts and stench of battle – endured by our soldiers. Yet, here is the conundrum I find myself in while writing this review, for as much as it's a war movie, intense and violent and making no apologies for it, it is also – equally and unquestionably – a movie about faith.

From the official website: “Hacksaw Ridge is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWI, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

A riveting and powerful movie, Hacksaw Ridge is not for the faint of heart, for sure. It is bloody, gory, and heart-wrenching to say the least, but also AMAZING in its accomplished feat of highlighting in equal measure the vagaries and barbarity of war, as well as the strength and hope found in God and faith. Much like his epic The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has layered his film with violence AND spirituality. Viewers of all stripes (but especially people of faith) will be moved by Doss’ journey; beaten during boot camp by fellow soldiers who saw his reluctance to fight as an act of cowardice and mocked for his believes, he turns the other cheek, forgives their transgressions against him and with God’s grace and help (for the results are nothing short of a miracle) goes on to save countless lives. While war is a large part of this film, Gibson also beautifully captures moments of love and family. By starting the tale during Doss’ youth, Gibson lays the groundwork for viewers to better understand Doss’ conviction given life events which helped shape him as a man.

As for performances, Garfield does a wonderful job in conveying Doss’ faith journey and struggle for understanding, yet the actors which were a true revelation to me were Vince Vaughn and Hugo Weaving. Vaughn effortlessly delivered much needed moments of levity (to be expected), but also somber strength and emotion. As Desmond’s dad, Weaving (aka Agent Smith from The Matrix) brilliantly conveyed in every scowl and pain-filled grimace the grim, tortured soul of a man lost to the horrors of his own war past; whose drinking and violence is unleashed on his family not out of hate for them, but for himself. Honestly for me, every time Weaving came on the screen, there was a rawness – a bleeding heart laid bare before me quality to it – that was breathtaking. (Oh, you might not have seen the movie yet, but his performance during the dinner table scene when Hal informs them of his enlistment gave me a knot in my throat the size of a golf ball.)

Hacksaw Ridge is a gripping must-see film that shines a much-needed spotlight on a humble American hero whose life and actions serve to remind us that the task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us when faced with faith. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

All the Missing Girls

You can’t go home again they say, and if you were under suspicion in a missing person investigation, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway. Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls protagonist, Nic, chooses to fly in the face of such wisdom and returning home after 10 years is quick to realize another hard truth, you can’t run away from your problems because you can’t run away from yourself.

From the publisher: “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched. The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.”

All the Missing Girls was an engaging read (in that you had to put some brain power behind it), in part due to the author's original format which featured the story being told backwards (day 15 to day 1) from the point that the current day disappearance takes place. While this narrative device was unique (at least for me) and probably quite suited to a suspense novel, I felt like in this case it didn't add a new dimension to the story. In fact, I think it impeded the usual incremental build of tension and suspense which occurs in most mystery/thrillers. Despite some twists, the book never quite reached its full potential due to an at times plodding pace, a less than likeable narrator, and the bleh resolution to Corinne's storyline.

A fair to middling plot can be easily salvaged by great characters; nuanced, complex, likeable or at least relatable, but here Nic was none of the above. Readers are fickle but oh so forgiving of a book’s flaws if emotionally engaged with its characters, but I never truly felt invested in Nic’s struggles. Honestly, even the relationships, interactions and dialogue between the characters seemed contrived at times, not an organic or natural dynamic, but just a way for the author to get us from Point A to Point B. Well, I won't beat a dead horse. You get the idea, I didn't connect, care or empathize with the entire cast of characters.

All the Missing Girls could’ve stayed missing a little bit longer. I kid, I kid. No really, it was one of those middle-of-the-road books that in its averageness has a con for every pro. Original yet predictable, engaging but a little boring; the kind of book you read, finish, and forget by next week.