Thursday, October 31, 2013

4 YA Books Everyone Should Read

Over the past year, I’ve read a bunch of young adult (YA) novels including the four listed below. The YA novels of today are a far cry from the Babysitters Club of the past with current novelists capturing the best and worst of adolescence, including the typical topics of first love and bullying, but also tougher subjects such as suicide and sexuality. The fact that more and more adults are reading YA novels speaks to both the quality of writing as well as the many overarching themes addressed in these books which apply to young and old alike, including love, loss and our own mortality.

I loved each of these books for different reasons, and while each story couldn’t be more different from the next with subjects as diverse as cancer, sexual identity, rape, and bullying; the common underlying thread in each is courage; for each protagonist has their own journey to undertake and demons to face, but each does so with courage – not in the absence of fear and doubt – but in spite of it; an inspiration to all of us, no matter what age.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green. Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. OMG…get your Kleenex out for this can’t miss book. An absolutely beautiful and poignant tale of star-crossed lovers that will easily replace Romeo & Juliet as the ultimate tragic love story.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance. A captivating story which reminds us of the pain of not fitting in, our need for acceptance and the power of friendship.

Luna, Julie Anne Peters. Regan's brother Liam can't stand the person he is during the day. Like the moon from whom Liam has chosen his female namesake, his true self, Luna, only reveals herself at night. In the secrecy of his basement bedroom Liam transforms himself into the beautiful girl he longs to be, with help from his sister's clothes and makeup. Now, everything is about to change-Luna is preparing to emerge from her cocoon. But are Liam's family and friends ready to welcome Luna into their lives? Compelling and provocative, this is an unforgettable novel about a transgender teen's struggle for self-identity and acceptance. A provocative tale which is as much about family and the redeeming power of love, as it is about a teen’s struggle with his/her sexual identity.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson. The first ten lies they tell you in high school. "Speak up for yourself--we want to know what you have to say." From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. This is my second favorite after "The Fault in Our Stars"; a powerful novel, written in the form of journal entries, narrated by an authentic, brave and at times ironically funny heroine.

The books listed above and the protagonists in them prove that age doesn’t determine wisdom. Each of the memorable and compelling characters in these books impart their own hard-earned truths and in turn offer the reader lessons on love, compassion, and hope.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Film)

12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga Springs, NY who in 1841 is duped into traveling to Washington DC to perform with his violin and upon his arrival is instead drugged and turned over to a slave trader who has him transported to Louisiana where he is sold and serves 12 years as a slave until he is finally successful in his bid for freedom and is returned to his home and family.

I will caveat this review with the statement that my sentiments for the movie are in large part due to the fact that I read Solomon Northup’s book, 12 Years a Slave, published in 1853 prior to seeing the movie, and having read Mr. Northup’s personal account, I must say there was a gentility of spirit and humanity in Solomon’s own words, told with such pathos, that in all honesty even the best director or actor would find it difficult to capture the same on film.

12 Years a Slave was a gut-wrenchingly brutal and moving film, but while the film easily taps into our emotions through the sheer power of the images on the screen, there was an eloquence in Solomon’s own words on the page which McQueen was not able to seamlessly translate on film. McQueen relies on our own humanity to easily pluck our heartstrings throughout this evocative tale; for how could you watch a human being be beaten like an animal and not be moved to tears or witness the magnitude of slavery’s injustice and not seethe with anger. The images are truly brutal, making no concessions to anyone’s delicate sensibilities, depicting the horror of the act but also its repercussion; showing the crack of the whip flying through the air, the spray of blood as it impacts against a victim’s cringing back, quickly followed by the gruesome sight of the splayed flesh which bore the brutal punishment.

While the scenes of savagery will undoubtedly become ingrained forever in your mind, there were a number of more simple moments which I found less manipulative and more captivating and poignant, such as the shot which juxtapositions Solomon yelling for help through the bars of his Washington DC slave pen with the U.S. Capitol in the background, hauntingly and memorably capturing the irony of the injustice taking place in the shadow of a structure which was supposed to stand for a nation and government based on the conviction that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Another equally stirring moment was Solomon sitting on the dock in Louisiana waiting to be sold and his flashback to a shopping trip in which he, his wife and children, dressed in fine clothes, strolled down the street of their hometown; a sweet family moment so far removed from his current reality that you feel the memory's bitter sting against your own heart.

As for the acting, Ejiofor delivers a gripping portrayal of a man robbed not only of his freedom, but of his home and family, though not his hope. Through his expressive eyes we can both see his horror, for as a free man the reality of slavery is as new an experience for him, as it is to us as viewers, and his resolute stoic determination. Yet there was an aloofness in his depiction, I’m not sure if intentional or not, which in the moment I found a little cold. In hindsight, I think maybe that was part of his character’s portrayal; a distance established between himself and the other slaves, a defense mechanism against the hopelessness found in other slaves for whom this wasn’t a newfound reality, but sadly one lived the entirety of their lives. Fassbender is brilliant as the sadistic slave owner Epps. He conveys the man’s depravity with such believability that your skin practically crawls when you see him appear on screen. The weak link in the cast as far as I’m concerned was Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a slave and mother of two, who is heartbreakingly separated from her children. There is no more moving a moment in the book than when Eliza is separated from her children; a moment which Northup perfectly compares to the moment a mother looks upon the sight of a casket containing her dead child being lowered to the ground, and the knowledge that she will never see that child again. With those poignant almost poetic words as a measuring stick for her performance, Ms. Oduye falls short in conveying the power of those emotions. The shining light in the entirety of the film is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey. Ms. Nyong’o did more than perform her role, she lived it, embodied it. Her every scene is profound and powerful; making you cringe, cry and despair for Patsey’s hopeless situation. A true testament to Lupita’s talent is that while the movie is Solomon’s tale, as I walked out of the theater, it was Patsey or Ms. Nyong’o’s face etched in my mind and heart, and her pain and sorrow which made me weep.

Overall, I’d say 12 Years a Slave was a wonderful film, falling short of great only in comparison to the book. A film which will undoubtedly be looked upon as pivotal in educating a new generation of Americans to the truth and horror of this shameful part of our nation’s history.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

My Notorious Life

Inspired by the true story of Ann Trow Lohman known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a "female physician" in New York City during the late 1800s, My Curious Life by Kate Manning tells the tale of a brave and daring young heroine who fought the system and powers that be for the greater good of womankind.

It was February or maybe March of 1860 when 12-year old Axie Muldoon, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants, and her younger sister and baby brother, Dutch and Joe, respectively, meet a stranger which exchanged their uncertain future for another equally uncertain. Starving ("my legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder") and freezing with no hats or mittens, the trio stood outside a bakery doorway praying for the kindness of strangers, not particular, they would eat even the crumbs swept out for the birds ("we was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats"), when they meet Reverand Charles Brace of the Children's Aid Society. While Brace's assistance helps to initially save Axie's mother's life, what at first seems a God send, turns out to be the catalyst that sets in motion a chain of events which results in the irrevocable destruction of the Muldoon family, and Axie's temporary separation from her mother and siblings.

Like so many orphaned or abandoned children of immigrants during that time, the Muldoon children are sent off with promises of a brighter future on an orphan train which leads them to Rockford, Illinois. After months of heartache and rejection, it is Axie alone who returns to the familiar streets of New York City and her mother's arms only to be permanently separated from each other after her mother's tragic death post-childbirth. Orphaned and per her mother's dying wish, apprenticed to a doctor and his wife, Mrs. Evans, herself a midwife, Axie is welcomed into their home where she serves as a maid and helper in the kitchen to kindly Mrs. Browder. Axie's inquisitive mind, small hands and kind heart captivate Mrs. Evans and she becomes Axie's willing teacher, imparting her wisdom and skills to her young student and thereby helping to cement the path which would become Axie's life's work. As Axie struggles with the complexities of a midwife's role due to cruel taunts of "little babies mudered in that Evans house" from her friend Greta, Mrs. Evans tries to explain herself and offers Axie words she'll never forget, "the soul of a midwife is a broad soul and a gentle soul, and she delivers the greatest blessing the Lord bestows on us poor creatures. But, a midwife must also keep comfortable with the complexities. What I call the lesser evil. You will learn not to judge too harsh on others. If you don't learn this, you're not suited to the work."

Following the lessons from her teacher, Axie grows in both experience and understanding, and in doing so lets midwifery chart the course of her life, helping her to find love, fame and riches which drag her from dingy tenement rooms of her youth to a mansion on Fifth Avenue. When circumstances put her in a collision course against a group of powerful men threatened by her presence and her beliefs in women's reproductive rights, Axie must rely on her courage, will and determination to stand up and fight for her family, her freedom and all she holds dear.

My Notorious Life was a wonderful and thought-provoking book. It enlightens on the every day struggles faced by women of that era in relation to their reproductive rights, whether it was childbirth and their inability to rely on pre-natal medical care or the safe, sterile environment of a hospital to deliver their child and insure their well-being; or the lack of contraception, or the more sensitive subject of a woman's right to choose, married and single women who desperately took measures and matters into their own hands, sometimes with tragic consequences because there weren't safer recourses at their disposal. As in all rights movements, there is always a standard bearer fighting for the cause and willing to bear the repercussions of going up against unenlightened minds, and such is the case with Axie, the heroine in this story. The reader can't help but fall in love with her as a child, moved by her struggles and heartache, and as an adult, to be inspired by her courage and determination to fight for her convictions; her will, despite being vilified and persecuted, to fight for the poor women without recourse or voice who needed her help to rise above their every day fight for survival. As much as the book focuses on Axie's crusade, it is also a tale of love, family and loyalty.

We as women take for granted the rights and resources we have today which ensure a safe childbirth and, in turn, a healthy future for mother and child combined; as well as a society, which at most times, is open-minded and enlightened enough to not only accept, but embrace, a woman's innate right to control her own life. In the early 1800s, women were marginalized and expected to focus their attention and interest on raising a family. A real education or professional career was a pie in the sky, and women didn't even have the right to own their own property or keep their own wages. Lest we forget, women didn't have the right to vote in the United States until the year 1920. It is therefore moving to read the real story, even if through a fictional novel, of what many women had to go through due the few rights alotted to them as second-class citizens, and thanks to the strict code established by men of that time. Women who died in childbirth every day because of uninformed and unscrupulous doctors; women who despaired at their life, at having nine or ten children which they couldn't feed; women cast out in shame from their families to the streets just because they were expecting a child.

My Notorious Life is an engaging and poignant work of fiction which memorably reminds us of how far we (women) have come, and in turn inspire us to continue on with the work still to be done.

All Is Lost

All is Lost is a bold and brave film which dares to be different; featuring a cast of one, the brilliant Robert Redford, with no use of flashbacks and barely any dialogue, it is an intense and moving tale of survival. At the movie’s onset, an unnamed man (Redford) is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean and wakes up at the feel and sound of impact only to see water gushing through a hole created in the hull of his yacht; the damage caused by a collision with a shipping container floating haphazardly in the middle of the ocean. Upon disengaging from the container, he goes down below to find waist high water, floating seat cushions, and the fact that his navigation equipment and more importantly his radio, his sole source of communication with the outside world, damaged and unusable. Working slowly and methodically, our man (name later given in credits), addresses each issue with the apparent confidence and ease of someone who’s been sailing a lifetime; until mother nature throws a curve ball of her own in the form of a violent storm which he had sailed into unawares. Our man survives that battle, but as circumstances become grimmer by the moment, we question whether he’ll survive the war. Braving the elements, sharks, hunger and dehydration, he will need to rely on his sheer will and determination to live to come out victorious and survive.
“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. All is lost here, except soul and body.”
Those few words comprise more than 90% of the dialogue in the entire movie and they come in the first couple of minutes of the film. Uttered in Redford’s voice, the words resonate with weariness and resignation and set the tone for what becomes two-hours of profound, gripping drama which leaves you drained and energized at the same time.

This is a truly glorious film and movie experience that does for the sea what Gravity did for space; which is to leave you in awe, in awe of both its beauty and brutality; and to serve as the vehicle for what has got to be the best performance of Robert Redford’s career. With silent stoicism, he lets viewers practically see his wheels turning, as our man faces each crisis with calm ingenuity. Without giving voice to an inner dialogue to share his thoughts and actions; without a supporting cast to rely on, unless you want to credit the sea as the second character in the film; without eloquent monologues or flowery lines to express his hope or lack thereof; Redford conveys with his mere furrowed brow, gritted jaw, and expressive eyes every feeling and thought and completely ensnares us in his struggle, so his fight for survival becomes our own, as we will him to keep on fighting, to not give up.

The cinematography is beyond words, as each shot could be a picture postcard capturing the breathtaking wonder that is the sea; capturing the sea’s beauty – calm, blue, serene in the bright sun of a cloudless day or shimmering and sparkling like diamonds in the splendor of a setting sun; and the sea’s ferocity – roiling, violent and roaring louder than a freight train during a storm. It is no exaggeration that the sea in truth is the movie's second character. Our man's nemesis and companion.

All is Lost was beyond intense, a roller coaster ride of emotions, and Redford’s silence only served to ratchet up the anxiety, so when our man finally lets lose with a good ol’ four-letter expletive yelled at the skies, we feel our own sense of relief. In addition to being touching, thrilling and poignant, as well as telling a compelling story, the movie's glowing achievement has to be the fact that it reintroduces the public (or in many cases introduces for the first time) to a great talent, reminding many why they fell in love with him in the first place; because before he was Robert Redford the director, or Robert Redford the founder of the Sundance Institute and Film Festival, he was Robert Redford the actor, and believe me in this film, he shows how truly great he is.

All is Lost takes viewers on a voyage of self-discovery for our man is every man and at the movie's end we are left to ponder, how far would you go, how long would you fight, in a seemingly losing battle? In closing, All is Lost is a must see. Here's hoping the little golden guy goes home with the Sundance Kid on Oscar night.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks tells the true harrowing tale of Capt. Richard Phillips, whose crew and ship, the Maersk Alabama, which was carrying commercial cargo and food aid while traveling around the Horn of Africa in its journey from Oman to Kenya was hijacked and Phillips taken hostage by a rag-tag group of Somali pirates.

At the film’s onset we are introduced to the lead characters in the drama and given a glimpse into their respective lives; back home in Vermont, we see Phillips leaving his family home and driving a minivan while discussing his kids future with his wife, in that brief snapshot we get a sense of his role as family man and the bond and love between he and his wife; cut to Muse, the leader or captain of the Somali pirates, whom by contrast is seen amidst the squalor of a poor fishing village in Somalia. Roused from bed at the arrival of the gang leaders for the Somali warlord to which they all answer to, the men are chastised for their lack of recent deliveries and threatened with dire consequences if a target isn’t acquired soon. Muse’s gaunt face and haunting eyes are a testament to the poverty and desperate circumstances in which he lives. As he makes his way to the shore and the skiffs which help him earn a livelihood, he is surrounded by men and teenage boys, each desperate to prove themselves and provide for their family. Despite the odds against them, as they depart in their battered skiffs and failing motors, their thin faces and wide-open eyes carry a look of life or death determination, as failure is not option.

At sea on the Alabama, Capt. Phillips reads an email with dire warnings of pirate activities and quickly begins security drills to prepare his crew for the eventuality of an attack. No sooner do the men begin preparing the fire hoses used to prevent pirate boarding, when our own hearts skip a beat as we see two ominous blips on the captain’s radar screen indicating their worst fears are about to realized. The tension builds on both sides of the David and Goliath battle as the ship and skiffs try to outrace each other, each pushed to the limits in their bids for escape and attack, respectively. Using his smarts and ingenuity Phillips manages to dissuade one of the skiffs from their mission, but desperation and need are a strong driving force and Muse has gone too far to turn back. Despite Phillips initial success at evading the enemy, a quiet night passes only to bring a new attack from the determined Muse. As the four man skiff finally draws beside the massive cargo ship, you hold your breath with each bump between the two vessels, and your breath (and an expletive) explodes out as that ladder finally hooks onto the railing and the inevitable occurs, the first pirate jumps on. It’s a mad dash for survival at that point as Phillips bravely tries to save his crew and ship; it becomes a battle of wills and intellect as the two captain’s go head-to-head for their men, their livelihood, and their very lives.

While Gravity has been getting all the box office glory lately, don’t let this great film pass you by without going to see it. Despite knowing the event’s outcome, once the action starts the movie keeps a steady rapid-fire pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat. When the story shifts from the cargo ship to a smaller lifeboat, you automatically think the action’s done for, but instead the tension builds as the clock counts down and the pirates realize the futility of their circumstances. Once you’re in the heart of the movie, the rare early glimpse of Muse becomes invaluable to better understanding his motivation. While not excusing his actions, in those few scenes, we are privy to the need and lack of hope that prompts Muse or thousands like him, to do what they do. One item of note which caught my attention was the glaring fact that throughout the movie the pirates are seen constantly chewing something, Khat (it’s referenced in the subtitles), a term which I had never heard before. Since it's never explained in the movie, I googled the term when I got home and learned that Khat is an amphetamine-like stimulant that is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria; this knowledge goes a long way towards explaining the Somalis manic wide-eyed expressions and increasingly erratic behavior as they start running out of the stuff.

As for the acting, Hanks yet again offers a tour de force performance, which I have no doubt will garner him, at the bare minimum an Oscar nomination, if not an Oscar outright. Hanks’ counterpart in the movie, Barkhad Abdi who portrays Muse was absolutely phenomenal, especially when you take into account that he had NEVER acted before (so much for acting school). Abdi was born in Somalia but at the age of 14 immigrated to Minneapolis with his family; he learned about the role through a local TV ad announcing auditions.

Captain Phillips is an intense story about real life heroes, which are the best kind. This movie is a trip to the high seas which you won’t soon forget.

Monday, October 21, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Book)

Originally published in 1853, 12 Years a Slave, is the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman born and living in upstate New York who is tricked by a couple of con artists into traveling to Washington DC to perform with his violin, where he is drugged and sold to a slave trader that transports him to Louisiana where he serves as a slave for 12 years until his bid for freedom sees fruition.

As if the facts of the story weren’t compelling enough, Northup’s eloquence and poignancy in relaying the horrors of his enslavement are heartbreaking and chilling. As a reader you are bombarded with images of the harsh reality lived and the pain and misery endured; from his initial panic and desperation at waking up and finding himself in chains, separated from his wife and children; to his physical suffering as he’s whipped and beaten upon his cries of being a free man; to the emotional toll of the uncertainty of what his new life had in stored for him, as well as the pain of witnessing the torment of the other poor souls living through the same hell with him. The magnitude of the horror endured by so many and the lack of humanity and compassion displayed by others is beyond disconcerting and the mind boggles at the barbarous knowledge that one human could, and more importantly would, inflict so much torment on another human being.

One of Solomon’s initial cell companions while in DC was Eliza, a young slave and her children, Emily and Randall, whom he meets at the Williams Slave Pen before being transported to Louisiana. Solomon states that wearing silk with rings upon her fingers, her good manners and propriety of language showed that Eliza had at some time stood above the common level of a slave. As a reader you are enveloped by Eliza’s despondency at the betrayal which brought her to that God forsaken place, and share in her anguish when she is separated from her beloved children. Eliza’s all-consuming sorrow brought tears to my eyes as she was first separated from Randall, who bravely yet vainly, tries to console his mother; and you feel an almost physical ache for the pain which serves to break her as no whipping ever could, when her beautiful Emmy is torn from her arms. Solomon relates:
“I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fill with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child.”
Sold and his name changed to Platt, God initially proved kinder to Solomon than Eliza, for his first master is William Ford, whom Solomon calls a “kind, noble, candid, Christian man.” Despite the hardships already endured, Solomon is a forgiving enough man to not only see the goodness in his new master, but in honest and fair contemplation to excuse his master’s ignorance in embracing slavery as a result of a lifetime of living in an inhumane system. Solomon states:
“The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection…Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.”
Unfortunately, as with many slaves, Solomon ultimately has more than one owner and fate isn’t as kind with the two masters which followed William Ford – Tibeats (“a small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful man”) and Epps (“a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found”). By comparison, these two men impart unrelenting suffering on his person, and on more than one occasion he has to run from them for fear of losing his life. It is while under Epps tyrannical rule that Solomon meets Patsey, a young slave that could out work any man, harvesting 400 pounds of cotton per day, yet who’s back nonetheless bore the scars of at least 1,000 stripes, not because she was slow, lazy or rebellious but because was the slave of a depraved master and his jealous wife; “The enslaved victim of lust and hate.”

Solomon finally has reason to hope in 1852, when he meets Bass, an abolitionist carpenter and native of Canada whom he trusts enough to confess the truth of his plight and beg for help in informing his family of his location. After the initial suffering incurred at his cries of freedom, he had never again told a soul of his circumstances. In January of 1853, Henry Northup, the son of his father’s former master, answers the call for justice and returns Solomon to the bosom of his family.

In addition to the human tale, Solomon shares countless tidbits of information on the slave experience, from the fact that each slave is examined prior to purchase, with owners checking their teeth as if they were purchasing a horse instead of a human being, and checking their backs for scars for they were considered “evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit” or the fact that a slave’s name changed with his change of master. Solomon also offers insights into the inner workings of a plantation such as planting and harvesting schedules for cotton, corn and cane fields. In doing so, he highlights the fears and labors faced by a slave each day; a vicious daily cycle of angst, despair and hardship.

This book was an unforgettable read, both educational and compelling. I am inspired by Solomon’s strength of character and unrelenting determination and hope. Solomon’s invaluable tale helps to shine a light on a dark blemish in our American history. A shameful part of our collective story which truly went against everything we today hold to be true and dear, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fall Movie Preview

Can you say Oscar? It’s that time of year when squirrels gather their nuts for winter and movie studio executives instead put their nuts on the line, hedging their bets on releasing what they think will be this year’s surefire Oscar contenders. I haven’t seen any of these movies, so I can’t yet offer an opinion on their worthiness or not (I'll post movie reviews once I actually see them), but these select few have captured my interest through mere buzz, stellar casts and compelling storylines. So while they might not all share in Oscar glory come March, with names like Redford, Streep and Pitt in the mix, I have no doubt they’ll each at least give the competition a run for its money. In addition to the big names, I threw in one small Indie film (The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete) which, Oscar nomination or not, I’m really looking forward to seeing.

August: Osage County (Limited Release December 25, 2013)
From the official website: “AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY tells the dark, hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. Letts’ play made its Broadway debut in December 2007 after premiering at Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre earlier that year. It continued with a successful international run.”

12 Years A Slave(Limited Release October 18, 2013)
From the official website: “TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.” I'm almost done with the book on which this movie is based, and if the movie is anywhere near as good as the book, then I'm sure it will be a hit.

Her (NY & LA December 18, 2013)
From the official website: “Set in the Los Angeles of the slight future, “Her” follows Theodore Twombly, a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha,” a bright, female voice, who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other.” Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Twombly and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (Limited Release October 11, 2013)
From the official website: "During a sweltering summer in New York City, 13-year-old Mister’s (Brooks) hard-living mother (Hudson) is apprehended by the police, leaving the boy and nine-year-old Pete (Dizon) alone to forage for food while dodging child protective services and the destructive scenarios of the Brooklyn projects. Faced with more than any child can be expected to bear, the resourceful Mister nevertheless feels he is an unstoppable force against seemingly unmovable obstacles. But what really keeps the pair in the survival game is much more Mister’s vulnerability than his larger-than-life attitude.”

All is Lost (NY & LA October 18, 2013; Nationwide October 25, 2013)
From the official website: “Academy Award® winner Robert Redford stars in All Is Lost, an open-water thriller about one man’s battle for survival against the elements after his sailboat is destroyed at sea… Deep into a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man (Redford) wakes to find his 39-foot yacht taking on water after a collision with a shipping container left floating on the high seas. With his navigation equipment and radio disabled, the man sails unknowingly into the path of a violent storm. Despite his success in patching the breached hull, his mariner’s intuition, and a strength that belies his age, the man barely survives the tempest… with the sun unrelenting, sharks circling and his meager supplies dwindling, the ever-resourceful sailor soon finds himself staring his mortality in the face.”

The Book Thief (Limited Release November 8, 2013)
From the official website: “Based on the beloved bestselling book, THE BOOK THIEF tells the inspirational story of a spirited and courageous young girl who transforms the lives of everyone around her when she is sent to live with a new family in World War II Germany.” One interesting note about the young adult novel on which this movie is based is that the story is uniquely narrated by death.

Tune in Thursday, January 16, 2014 when Oscar nominations are announced to see if any of my picks make the list. The 2014 86th Academy Awards (Oscars) are scheduled for Sunday, March 2, 2014.

The Blacklist

I’ve been making a concerted effort to remain unglued from my TV and keep up my summer-built reading momentum. In year’s past, you could’ve easily found me glued to the boob tube for at least 3 hours per day (the entirety of the primetime lineup, 8-11 pm), but I broke the nasty habit over the summer and took great pride in my accomplishment. With the hope of, if not maintaining my two books a week rhythm, at least not dropping it all together, I promised myself to not get lured in (because TV is an evil siren in my house) to every new show in the Fall TV lineup. I had succeeded in narrowing the viewing to strictly The Voice on Monday and Tuesday and X-Factor on Wednesday, but alas, thanks to my younger brother, I’ve fallen off the wagon, maybe not fallen off completely, but it feels like I’m dragging my foot outside the wagon for sure.

During my regular weekend visit to see the knuckleheads, my brother introduced me to NBC’s The Blacklist, and I’m definitely hooked. After watching all four of the episodes which have already aired, I’ll go so far as to say it’s the best show I’ve seen on TV in quite a while; heck, it's probably the best show airing right now.

So, let me tell you a little about the show. From NBC’s The Blacklist website:
"For decades, ex-government agent Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader, "The Office," "Boston Legal") has been one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives. Brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the globe, Red was known by many as "The Concierge of Crime." Now, he's mysteriously surrendered to the FBI with an explosive offer: He will help catch a long-thought-dead terrorist, Ranko Zamani, under the condition that he speaks only to Elizabeth "Liz" Keen (Megan Boone, "Law & Order: Los Angeles"), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. For Liz, it's going to be one hell of a first day on the job.

What follows is a twisting series of events as the race to stop a terrorist begins. What are Red's true intentions? Why has he chosen Liz, a woman with whom he seemingly has no connection? Does Liz have secrets of her own? Zamani is only the first of many on a list that Red has compiled over the years: a "blacklist" of politicians, mobsters, spies and international terrorists. He will help catch them all... with the caveat that Liz continues to work as his partner.”

The pilot definitely sent off a “Silence of the Lambs” kind of vibe, but as I watched the rest of the episodes my feelings definitely changed. First of all, I don’t see Red as this evil or sinister villain ala Lecter. He’s a bit of an enigma; while he might not be Snow White - pure as the driven snow - he's definitely gotten his hands dirty, I get the sense that there’s definitely more to his backstory. In the pilot episode, we learn Red was originally in the Naval Academy and was being groomed to be an Admiral, when he abandoned his wife and daughter and dropped off the face of the earth until he, himself, started leaking information about his exploits. Maybe I watched too many episodes of Alias, but I’m thinking double-agent, maybe working undercover to help his country. It’s kind of a stretch, because he’s definitely abetted criminals and none have gotten caught until now, but there’s something there. I guess it’s a little too soon to figure out the puzzle just yet. At one point in the pilot though, Red says to Liz “I’m a criminal; criminals are notorious liars. Everything about me is a lie, but if anybody can give me a second chance, it’s you.” I think that statement is telling and probably very close to the truth in that everything we have been told to believe about him is a lie. As to the why he chose Liz, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself yet again, but I would bet ANYTHING that she’s his daughter. It was in the simple smile and sort of look of pride on his face when she’s first brought in to meet him; and definitely in his calm fury in the last episode when harm was done to her.

The show is great because while you get a new, standalone story in each episode, as a new member of his blacklist is targeted; there’s also the larger, big picture thread woven into every episode: 1) the conundrum of figuring out Red himself, 2) his relationship to Liz, and 3) the mystery surrounding Liz’s husband (a plotline introduced in the pilot). James Spader is brilliant in the role; he brings the same charm and dry wit to Red which he brought to Alan Shore on Boston Legal. He is in all ways the star of the show.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to believe you’ll watch the show just because I say so, but I’ll take a shot anyway. Watch this show! It is a compelling, gripping, and sometimes a little creepy (in particular, I’m referring to Episode 4, The Stewmaker…wow, they should give that guy an Emmy as Best Guest Actor.) hour of television. If like me, you are arriving late to the party, then visit NBC.com The Blacklist, where you’ll find all four episodes from this first season.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sisterland

In Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland twin sisters Kate and Violet (Vi) have shared a special bond as well as special senses or psychic abilities since their childhood, and though Vi has embraced her gift, Kate has chosen to hide her abilities and abstain from using them.

When a small earthquake rocks their hometown of St. Louis, Vi publicly shares a premonition that a larger more catastrophic quake will occur in the near future. As word spreads and Vi ends up on national television, Kate, a wife and stay at home mother of two, is both horrified at the public spectacle created by her sister and terrified that her prediction will actually come true. As the date of the quake draws near, tensions in the city and between the two sisters rise, and cause Kate to re-evaluate their relationship and her life.

Hmm...what can I say about this book? I'll start with WHAT THE HECK? but first things first.

The novel is narrated by Kate and switches between past and present to share Kate and Vi's childhood, adolescence and young adulthood and to give us, the readers, an insight into the women they've become. Through the childhood flashbacks, we learn that while the girls had an average middle class childhood, suffering no hunger, deprivation or abuse, they were ignored and neglected by a distant and emotionally-absent mother and a weak-willed father which made them rely on one another for the love, support and comfort every child needs. It is these early experiences which clearly helped form the indelible bond which exists between them still. Despite drifting apart through adolescence and the college years, and even through the rocky patches in their adult relationship, they remain each other's ballast in life and still know each other better than any other person.

Each character is well written and even though they are identical twins we get a clear picture of two very different women; one bold and daring, determined to live life on her own terms, the other more secure in playing it safe and leading an inconspicuous life, while always remaining in control; each taking very different paths in life and each facing their own individual struggles. Sittenfeld does a good job with character development, and offers an insightful look at a sibling relationship, doing so with a lot of warmth and humor (there were countless times were I laughed out loud) BUT...

Here comes the WHAT THE HECK part. The book does all of the wonderful things I mention above for more than 300 of the nearly 400 pages, and then in the last 90 plus pages the key plot point which has been driving the narrative goes nowhere, seemingly becoming a moot point, and instead the author takes a complete left turn which not only takes the story in a totally different direction but also causes the main character to act in a way which goes completely against everything we've been lead to believe about who she is. It was like the last 90 pages were written by a different author. As a reader, I felt cheated of a true organic ending, one that was true to both the story and the characters I'd grown to care about.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Yes!!

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has announced that funny ladies, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, will be hosting the Golden Globe Awards not only in 2014, but also 2015. I wonder who they ticked off? After all, as Poehler deadpanned during this year’s hilarious award show monologue, "We want to assure you that we have no intention of being edgy or offensive tonight, because, as Ricky learned the hard way, when you run afoul of the Hollywood Foreign Press, they make you host this show two more times.”

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Globe ceremony where as Amy eloquently stated “the beautiful people of film rub shoulders with the rat faced people of television.” The Golden Globes air on NBC on Jan. 12, 2014.

Author Spotlight: Lesley Kagen

There’s such a feeling of satisfaction and anticipation in discovering a great author and in turn a path to new worlds and new characters to fall in love with, to learn from and to be inspired by. I had the good fortune during my blogging hiatus to do just that, when I found New York Times best-selling author Lesley Kagen, whose novels proved to be a gold mine of great stories filled with heart, humor, and compelling, memorable characters. Lesley’s simple stories of childhood and family bonds, set in simpler times and places draw you in and enchant you.

Relying on children or young adults as her narrators, she imbues each story with their unabashed sense of optimism, honesty, and courage. Kagen has said “The way kids see the world and the people in it is as close to the truth as one will ever get. Most children don't wear armor the way adults do. They wear their hearts.” Such is the case with my first Kagen novel, Whistling in the Dark, which was so funny and charming that I immediately followed it with Good Graces, Land of a Hundred Wonders, and Tomorrow River.

In Whistling in the Dark, it’s the summer of 1959 in Milwaukee, two young girls have been found dead in the span of the year, and ten year old Sally O’Malley is sure of two things: that she knows who the killer is and that she’s his next target. Determined to make good on the promise she made her daddy before he died, Sally is focusing all her energy in protecting her younger sister Troo. When their mother is hospitalized and their drunkard of a stepfather is too busy for them, the girls rely on their own courage and the kindness of neighbors to make it through unscathed.

Good Graces is the sequel to Whistling in the Dark and in it Kagen reconnects the reader with these two unforgettable sisters. It is one year later and now eleven-year old Sally is still dealing with the near escape from a murderer and molester the previous summer. Dealing with a new round of worries, including a string of home burglaries in town and the escape from reform school of her sister’s nemesis, Sally is still focused on keeping Troo out of danger and keeping her promise to her dad, even if her life depends on it.

In Tomorrow River, it’s the summer of 1968 when we meet Shenny Carmody and her twin sister Woody, who has stopped speaking since the night their mother disappeared. Dealing with their father’s drunken rants and dire threats of putting Woody away in an institution, Shenny is determined to find her mother before it’s too late. As her perilous search for the truth begins, Shenny begins to uncover some painful truths that could turn her young world upside down.

In Land of a Hundred Wonders, Gibby McGraw is what other’s term “not quite right” (brain damaged) since the tragic car accident that took both her parents. A fledgling newspaper reporter, Gibby stumbles upon the story of the century when she finds the dead body of Buster Malloy, the next governor of Kentucky. Determined to break the case, that is if she can remember what she found and where, Gibby hopes to prove to her overprotective grandfather that she can get Quite Right again, but in the process she finds more than she bargained for, including love.

It was Whistling in the Dark that hooked me like a trout and made me a Kagen fan. I fell in love with Sally O’Malley and her effervescent and wily sister Troo. While the book does have a mystery element to the plot, it doesn’t weigh down the story and is ultimately overshadowed by the larger than life personalities of these two intrepid young sisters and their unbreakable bond. As the story’s narrator, Sally’s wiser than her year’s insight, as well as her kindness, generosity and courage radiate light and warmth throughout her tale, and you can’t help but both admire and be dismayed by her gumption and innocence. The added bonus is the amusing and interesting cast of characters which comprise Sally and Troo’s circle of friends, including Fast Susie Fazio, Mary Lane (skinny as a rail and a big fat liar), Willie O’Hara, and Wendy Latour. The incredible sense of family in this small neighborhood brings you back to a simpler time when kids were truly kids with no scheduled play dates or organized activities; you just stepped outside your door and played with the countless kids which where your neighbors and friends.

Good Graces was as charming as Whistling, with Sally’s voice coming through as authentic and honest as ever. Troo is still giving her poor sister fits, while keeping us (the readers) well entertained. Both Shenny and Gibby from Tomorrow River and Land of a Hundred Wonders, respectively, are as sweet and endearing as the O’Malley sisters, while the mystery elements in these last two novels are much more compelling than either O’Malley tale, and play more of an integral role in the story. In addition to the light mysteries in all her novels, the books also deal with a number of other important subjects such as racism and loss.

Each of Kagen’s heroines will easily capture a spot both in your heart and memory. Do yourself a favor and dive into any of Kagen’s novel (with a special shout out to Whistling); you’ll be enveloped in pure unadulterated magic with a dash of nostalgia and a heaping teaspoon of fun.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Chocolate Bar IQ Test

I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed of the fact that I can name almost all of the chocolates pictured above; my double chin would say ashamed, definitely ashamed.

Friday's Double Feature

There are a select few movies which I love and have seen too many times to count. Movies that despite all plans to the contrary and all rational thought, I watch time and time again, sometimes even deliberately seeking them out, which was the case this past Friday when I watched You’ve Got Mail for the 100th time.

For those of you trapped under a rock for the past 15 years who haven’t seen this classic, You’ve Got Mail is a 1998 film written and directed by the brilliant Nora Ephron that stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In the movie, set in NYC, the sweet and perky Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the owner of an adorably charming children’s bookstore called Shop Around the Corner, which she inherited from her mother. Joe Fox owns Fox Books, a rival book superstore selling “cheap books and legal addictive stimulants” (cappuccinos)that is putting small independent books out of business, that could potentially include Shop Around the Corner when its newest superstore opens literally around the corner from the quaint little shop. Despite mixing like oil in water in person, unbeknownst to one another, this unlikeliest of pairs is actually falling in love with each other through their online communications as Shopgirl and NY152, respectively, that started after meeting in an over 30 chat room. Facing the loss of her shop, Kathleen aka Shopgirl turns to NY152 aka Joe for advice (“go to the matresses” he says), which is kind of like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. When Joe finally suggests that they meet in person, Kathleen agrees, and with Pride & Prejudice and red rose in hand she heads to the local cafĂ© to meet the man of her dreams, but all does not go as planned and love decides to take a quick detour before these two soul mates finally find each other.

I love this movie! It’s so perfect; funny, romantic, sweet, and the sentimental (some would say sappy) ending truly caps off a perfect two hours. Hanks and Ryan had such wonderful onscreen chemistry; you can probably chalk it up to familiarity, since this was their third film together; Joe versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle being the other two. In addition to the great leads, you also had a talented supporting cast featuring Dabney Coleman, Parker Posey and Jean Stapleton. Kathleen’s “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly” makes me swoon every single time. They don’t make em’ like that anymore! I mean in the 90s there were so many great romantic comedies – Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, to name a few. What’s the last great romantic comedy you can name which doesn’t require tapping your long-term memory banks? There aren’t that many for me, maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (more drama than comedy) and definitely Love Actually, but even those aren’t that recent. Oh, and lest I forget The Proposal, a recent favorite which is quickly racking up viewings.

The second movie in my double feature was one I had wanted to see for the longest time, The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 film on which You’ve Got Mail was based that starred one of my favorite actors, James Stewart, and Maureen Sullavan.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in 1940 Budapest and stars Jimmy Stewart as Alfred Kralik, the lead sales person at the Matuschek & Co. gift shop. Despite Kralik’s recommendation otherwise, shop owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) decides to hire Klara Novak (Sullavan) as a new shop girl after she successfully sells a cigarette box as a candy box (and for a mark-up). After their inauspicious beginning, Kralik and Klara continue to butt heads at every turn, unaware that each is the person they have fallen in love with through anonymous correspondences which Kralik began in response to a newspaper personals ad which Klara posted.

This was a sweet little film, but in my humble opinion, I think this is one of those rarest of occasions in which the remake actually exceeds the original. James Stewart was brilliant as always, bringing his usual every man, down-to-earth charm and witty humor to the role, and the supporting cast was equally talented, especially Felix Bressart as co-worker and family man, Pirovitch, but I found Sullavan’s Klara as sharp-tongued and annoying as did Kralik. While Hanks was more than equal to Stewart’s talent and charisma in the male lead, Ryan was by far the more likeable and endearing female lead between the two versions. The remake pays respectful homage to the original, obviously making concessions to the times by shifting the method of correspondence from handwritten letters to online communications, all the while staying true to the heart of the story and the memorable romantic dynamic between the two protagonists.

As a huge fan of James Stewart, as I am, The Shop Around the Corner was definitely worth watching. Though it wasn’t on par with some of my favorites of his, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Harvey or It’s A Wonderful Life; I say any time spent in the company of Jimmy Stewart is always time well spent.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Unity

In honor of this year's Unity Day, a day to unite against bullying, I thought I'd post this animated spoken-word poem titled “To This Day” by Canadian poet Shane Koyczan, which beautifully expresses, with more eloquence than I could, the pain and scars bullying can leave behind.



DoSomething.org reports that "over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year" and one in seven students in grades K-12 is said to be involved in bullying -- whether as a bully or a bullying victim. More than 160,000 U.S. students stay home from school each day from fear of being bullied. It’s up to parents, teachers, and students to stop a problem the National Education Association says has reached epidemic levels.

Talk to your kids and empower them with information, as well as your love. Teach them that the rhyme "sticks and stones, may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a lie; words can hurt but they can also heal and comfort, and by speaking up and being more than a bystander, they can be someone's hero.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gravity

Director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, a work of art four years in the making, stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) in command. During a space walk while Stone is making repairs, mission control warns them that debris from a strike on a Russian satellite has caused a chain reaction of destruction which is making its way to the location of their shuttle. Disaster strikes and the debris not only damages the shuttle, but causes Stone and Kowalsky to lose all contact with mission control and find themselves detached from their ship and stranded in space. Tumbling through space they remain determined to find a way to save themselves and make it back home.

This movie was breathtakingly, jaw-clenchingly and armrest grippingly great! I felt like my armrest was my tether (you'll hear that word alot during the movie) to the real world, and I was not letting go. If, no, when you go see this movie, see it on IMAX 3D like I did for you would be doing yourself and the movie a disservice by seeing it in any other format. The magnitude and majesty of each shot demands it. I'll never be an astronaut and get the chance to experience the grandeur of space in person, but after watching this movie, it feels like I just got pretty darn close to the real thing. The movie is dizzying in more ways than one; both literally dizzying as your eyes adjust to the tilted view of tumbling through space and zero gravity; and dizzying in the sheer scope and beauty of space, of our planet earth, of the sight of tears floating like crystalline pearls in front of you.

Bullock was great in her performance, conveying Stone's desperation in every gasp and panic-stricken stare, and deserves kudos not only for her acting but the incredible physicality of the role. I have to say though that George was just as phenomenal; his character's wit and humor serve to ground and tether us (there's that word again) to the human story that might otherwise get lost in all the CGI special effects. As to the CGI effects, they're so seamless that during not one second of the movie do you ever sit in awe of what is on the screen, you just accept it as real.

Is this a Best Picture Oscar winner? No, probably not. There isn't much of a plot or character development; the story mainly involves a chain of catastrophic events, a lot of heart pounding action, and two people struggling to survive. But is it a great movie that demands to be seen? Yes, a resounding yes; and if you watch it in IMAX 3D it's so much more than a movie, it's an awe-inspiring and at times frighteningly too real experience. So, book the babysitter and pull out the wallet, because this you've got to see.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Voice 411

(First row, left to right: Brandon Chase, Holly Henry; Second row: Caroline Pennell, Jonny Gray)

During last night’s 2-hour episode, “The Voice” coaches completed their 12 member teams, and therefore ended the blind audition rounds. Hence, beginning next Monday we’ll be moving on to the battle rounds in which two contestants from the same team compete against each other while singing the same song; their coach chooses which one advances to the next round.

Each coach will be working with a celebrity advisor to guide and encourage their team duos in advance of their performance. This year’s celebrity advisors are Cher (Team Blake), Miguel (Team CeeLo), Ed Sheeran (Team Christina) and Ryan Tedder (Team Adam). As with last year, singers not chosen by their coach during the battle round will be available to be stolen by another coach, with each coach allowed two steals.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve already picked my favorite for this season, Holly Henry from Team Blake. The 19-year old singer-songwriter stunned me with her amazingly beautiful, breathy and vulnerable voice, when she sang Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” The added bonus was the touching shot of her little brother wiping away tears during her performance. While I’ll be rooting for Holly all the way, there are a couple other performers worth following, including another Team Blake member (Brandon Chase) and two Team CeeLo members (Caroline Pennell and Jonny Gray). I would love it if Blake could manage to steal Caroline, who had a sweet voice and a quirky/shy personality that was just as charming. Blake had a chance at her during the auditions, when both he and CeeLo turned their chairs, but while she didn’t end up with the cowboy on the first go around, here’s hoping the second time is the charm and she ends up on the right team in the end.

In addition, to the great contestants, I must say so far it’s been great to have CeeLo and Christina back this season. I love CeeLo; he’s always so laid back and almost poetic in his critique of each singer. As for Christina, what can I say? I don’t know if absence made the heart grow fonder and she’s actually happy to be back, or if it’s some kind of personality makeover done for PR; but whatever the reason or cause, she seems sincere, sweet, and friendly; a welcome change from season’s past.

You can watch the auditions for all 48 contestants heading into the battle rounds by visiting NBC’s The Voice page. Here’s to a great season and, fingers crossed, that Holly wins. Go Team Blake! Yee-haw!

The Light Between Oceans

In The Light Between Oceans, the first novel by Australian author M.L. Stedman, Tom Sherbourne is returned from having served in World War I when he takes a post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an isolated island where he's the sole inhabitant, and his sole human interaction comes from the store boat which visits four times a year. During his initial visit to mainland Port Partageuse before being shipped to Janus, Tom meets young, beautiful and bold Isabel Graysmark. Isabel makes him feel alive and is a balm to his dark memories of the war. After corresponding and confessing his love he caves to her assurances of a happy life together and they marry. At first the island is magical for Isabel and Tom alike, but after a number of years and what seems a lifetime of heartache caused by numerous miscarriages and one stillbirth, Isabel is no longer the vibrant free spirit of the past.

On the day of the miracle, as described by Isabel, she is tending to the small, newly made driftwood cross which lies besides two older crosses, when she hears a child's cry in the wind. Convinced it's in her mind, she answers Tom's call from the lighthouse that there's a boat on the beach. Together they make their way to investigate and find a small boat with the lifeless body of a man, but also wrapped in a woman's soft cardigan a beautiful baby girl. As Tom tends to the boat and body, Isabel takes the child to the lighthouse and as she lovingly tends to this child, warm and alive, so different from the little boy she lost only weeks ago, she falls in love; for "looking into those eyes was like looking at the face of God." And "that she could have arrived now, barely two weeks after...It was impossible to see it as mere chance." Upon Tom's return to the lighthouse, he quickly sets off to do his job and send a signal, report the discovery but Isabel asks for one night and he concedes; though in the morning letting go is even harder and Isabel begs to keep this child who is more than likely an orphan. A moral upstanding man, Tom is torn by Isabel's request, yet he loves his young wife and having witnessed her suffering, he relents and reluctantly gives in to her request.

Naming her Lucy, which means light, Isabel bestows on this small child all the love stored in her heart from those three lost children of her own; but while Tom loves Lucy, the guilt of his decision weighs on his mind and soul like an albatross and like an acid begins to erode his marriage. When over a year later the small family goes on shore leave and arrives on the mainland, they see firsthand the heartache wrought on someone else by their decision.

I read this book some months ago, during my blogging hiatus, and found it heartbreaking, hauntingly beautiful, and so bittersweet. Through this well-crafted story and beautifully written characters we are asked to ponder a serious moral dilemma and decide what we would do; I was surprised by my own answer to that question. Despite Tom holding the moral high ground in this story, it was Isabel that captured my heart. Her pain was so palpable through every loss, especially the stillbirth scene, it was gutwrenching. The description of how she lovingly and reverently cares for the body of this small being whom she loved sight unseen and anxiously, yet hopefully, awaited for, brought tears to my eyes and a knot in my throat. How can you experience and share in that pain and desolation and not understand and forgive her act of selfishness in keeping Lucy?

While Tom is obviously written to be the hero of this tale; the sacrificed, sympathetic figure burdened by the decision forced on him, I was instead angered by his obsessive need to do what was morally right, by his consuming concern with his peace of mind to the extent that it outweighed the love for his wife. Without spoiling parts of the book, I'll say that I saw the actions taken by Tom to supposedly right their wrong as a traitorous stab in the back of the woman who loved him, offered him solace, and gave him a family; and ultimately, when it comes right down to it, it is Isabel who ends up making the ultimate sacrifice for their love not Tom, so why is he the hero? I don't know if there is a hero in all of this or if they're all just victims of circumstance. I guess you'll have to read it to decide on your own.

This book is this close to perfect. I guess the best way for me to describe it is to say it was as breathtakingly beautiful as the most delicate and perfect of roses, yet like a rose, it had quite a few thorns.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kinky Boots

I love Friday nights because they’re all mine. When the knuckleheads were younger, I used to pack up my panties and PJs on Friday morning and head up to Connecticut right after work; a telling barometer of my love and devotion to those two that I would willingly put myself through Friday night traffic on 684, but now that they’re teenagers and have social lives of their own and are too busy for their old aunt, I have re-appropriated the evening and made it all my own. The Friday ritual is pretty basic, it involves three key ingredients: pizza, couch, and movie in that exact order. I stop at my favorite pizza joint on the way home and pick up a couple slices, change into my coziest PJs and camp out on the couch with my favorite pillow and fuzzy blanket to watch a movie. Jasmin usually opts to start the evening atop her kitty condo and later employs her kitty sixth sense to determine if the movie proves a hit or miss. If it’s a hit, she stays atop the highest peak of her tower benevolently looking down on her subjects (namely me); if it’s a miss, she jumps down and slowly snuggles in for what ultimately proves to be a joint cozy cat nap. This past Friday my selection was spot on and we enjoyed one of the funniest and sweetest movies I’ve seen in a while.

Inspired by a true story, Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), a British chap who inherits the family shoe factory upon his father’s death. Despite initial reservations, Charlie is determined to keep the family business afloat and continue to provide for the loyal Northampton townsfolk who have for generations made their livelihood working at Price & Sons. This endeavor proves quite a feat when he learns that the store lost the large order which was keeping the workers employed. Determined to find a solution for the stockpile of shoes sitting idle in his store room, he sets off to London to try and sell his stock, even at cost. With marginal success, he’s leaving a local pub when he comes to the rescue of Lola (Chiwetel Ojiofor), a drag queen nightclub singer, who ends up having to rescue him. During Lola’s pre-performance ritual she gripes of the poor quality women’s shoes not built to carry the weight of a real man. After dejectedly heading home to Northampton, Charlie faces no other option but to start laying off staff, but Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), a young staff member doesn’t take the dismissal lying down and sets into Charlie for his 'woe is me, what can I do' attitude and tells him to instead put his big boy pants on and change the product or find a new niche market to save the company. Those simple words become the catalyst that transforms the old stodgy Price & Sons to the Kinky Boots Company and begins the tale of how a drag queen helps to rescue not only a company, but a man and a town.

Kinky Boots is a British comedy in the same inspiring and uplifting tradition of The Full Monty and Billy Elliott. The story of hope and camaraderie between a desperate group of people coming together for a greater good is not new, but the wonderful acting, humor and heart keep it fresh and utterly compelling. Joel Edgerton does a wonderful job in his portrayal of Charlie. I’ve seen Edgerton in a couple other movies, Warrior and The Odd Life of Timothy Green, both of which were post-Kinky Boots and having seen this movie I totally see how it became the vehicle driving his American box office success. He’s good looking in a boy next door kind of way, not Brad Pitt/ Hollywood movie star kind of looks, and totally believable as a good guy, completely out of his element that’s determined to do the right thing. While I’d seen Edgerton before, Chiwetel Ojiofor was a complete unknown to me and that just blows my mind, because he was just that incredibly good. Chiwetel’s portrayal of Lola/Simon was brilliant. While he’s way too masculine to bring any femininity to Lola’s portrayal, he gave her so much heart and vulnerability that it totally made up for it. An added bonus was that Chiwetel did all the actual singing for Lola’s performances at the club and they were outstanding. I would buy tickets to see Lola sing. To demonstrate his incredible talent and artistic range, Chiwetel’s next role will be in 12 Years A Slave, based on the real life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, abducted and sold into slavery.

Kinky Boots also does a great job in addressing the issue of prejudice and the cowardly bias and hurtful words and actions that Lola, and people like her have to deal with every day. Through Lola’s dad, the movie highlights how sometimes those we love are the ones that do the most damage to our hearts and psyches; altering our own view of ourselves based on their hurtful words; and how it’s not until you can be brave enough to be yourself and accept yourself as you are that you can truly find peace and happiness.

I don’t know what it is about the Brits but they seem to have the perfect formula for these types of movies. They crank them out with seemingly little effort and always to resounding success; most of them even end up on Broadway, like The Full Monty, Billy Elliott or Kinky Boots itself, which won a Tony this year for Best Musical. Whatever their magic, watch this movie because from the touching opening scene to the rousing closing number, Kinky Boots is pitch perfect.

The Good Father

In Diane Chamberlain’s The Good Father, Travis is a 23-year old single dad raising his beloved 4-year old daughter, Bella, alone in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. When life unexpectedly leaves him homeless and unemployed, he desperately searches for the best way to provide for his child. Desperate for a solution he relies on the connections of a new friend and her almost too good to be true promises of a construction job and day care for Bella and relocates to Raleigh in hopes of a better future, but all turns out to not be as promised and he’s faced with a heart-wrenching decision which could change his and Bella’s life overnight.

The Good Father was an easy, though slow read for me. This is the first book I’ve read from this author, and while I enjoyed the story and likeable characters, I felt there wasn’t enough action or compelling drama to make me want to turn those pages faster. The story chapters alternate between three different points of view, Travis, the young dad desperate and scared; Robin, Bella’s birth mother who gave her up but is now suddenly overwhelmed with thoughts about her daughter; and Erin, a young woman who befriends Travis and Bella, that is dealing with the heartache and loss of her own young daughter, Carolyn.

Despite the alternating chapters, Travis is by far the heart of the story and I believed in both his love for his daughter as well as the naivetĂ© that led him to the decision he now faces; those blinders that we all put on when we believe something, because we want it or need it so much that we’re willing to turn a blind eye to all rational thought that says if it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true. Notwithstanding the book's pace, the author does do a good job in conveying the heartache, loss, grief and fear each main characters faces as they deal with their own set of personal demons; and brings about a satisfying resolution to the struggles faced by each.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Spread the Hope

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society approximately 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2013. Breast cancer is the number two leading cause of death in women, yet there are currently 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. alone. In spite of the scary statistics, when breast cancer is detected early and confined to the breast the five year survival rate is 98%. What can you do this month and throughout the year?

Be proactive. The best protection is early detection, so take control of your own health. If you're over 40 have a mammogram every year. Women always put the needs of others first, whether it's work, family, home or kids. Don't forget, the most important thing you can do for your loved ones is to be around. Make it about more than the here and now, make it about tomorrow and the day after, and make that appointment.

Get involved. There are countless runs, walks, and other type of charity events in every community with the sole purpose of raising funds for research, free screenings, or cancer support groups, so participate and make a difference however small, however you can. It could be as simple as having a yard sale and donating the proceeds to the American Cancer Society or another worthy organization. Every little bit helps.

Get the word out. Finding the cure starts with awareness. Whether it's wearing a pink ribbon, putting up a bumper sticker on your car, wearing a pink shirt, or simply adding a breast cancer awareness message to your email signature. Take every opportunity to raise awareness about this insidious disease that takes too many wonderful women; mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, aunts, and friends.

Make a difference. "Do it for those that have lost the fight and those who won't quit the fight."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

One to Watch: Derek

While recently visiting my knuckleheads, I discovered Derek, a new Netflix original series featuring Ricky Gervais.

The show centers around Derek, a care worker at a British nursing home, where he says all his favoritest people are at. Derek loves and pampers his patients, because he says old people are kind; they're nicer to him supposedly than anyone else in the world, and in turn he's beloved by them and the other staff, including Dougie, his friend and roommate who serves as the home's jack of all trades caretaker; Kev, a pervy unemployed friend who loiters about the place; and Hannah, the nursing home administrator who for the past 15 years has lovingly and selflessly cared for Derek and all her charges.

I've only gotten the chance to watch three episodes, including the pilot, from Season 1, and found that despite my expectations given Gervais' role, the show has been more poignant and moving than laugh out loud funny, especially the pilot which dealt with Derek's loss of his favorite patient, Joan, who reminded him of his mom. Those last few minutes when Derek shares Joan's words of wisdom to him, "Kindness is magic...It's more important to be kind than clever or good looking" and he softly pats his own head with her hand; ugh, I dare anyone to watch and not cry. After it ended, I could only wipe away tears and marvel at the fact that Ricky Gervais had made me cry.

Gervais does a wonderful job of offering a sympathetic, and not mocking, portrayal of a tender man with a child-like innocence in his view of the world; a man who despite going through alot doesn't feel sorry for himself, in fact, he says he's luckiest man in the world because of his many friends. While Gervais' name might be above the title, and his performance definitely surpassed my expectations, I think Kerry Godliman as Hannah is brilliant. In her portrayal of a sweet woman totally dedicated to the elderly patients entrusted to her care, she conveys so much compassion and understanding in her gentle smiles, and shy hopefulness in her confessionals in front of the camera (this show also features mockumentary style confessionals ala The Office). When she shyly, almost guiltily, confesses her interest in Annie's son, Tom, she reminded me of Pam talking about Jim on The Office.

With newfound respect for Gervais as an actor and not just a comedian, I'm definitely looking forward to watching what the remainder of Season 1 has in store for Derek.

P.S. Finished all of the Derek episodes (7 total). What can I say? Ricky Gervais, Karl Pilkington, and every actor on this incredible show are geniuses, and Derek was beautiful, moving, and filled with so much heart and sincerity. Every episode was better than the last; sweeter and funnier (I take back the not being laugh out loud funny). Each episode was like condensed life lessons with little nuggets of wisdom, mostly from good old Joan, including one of my favorites "You make a living from what you get; you make a life from what you give." Brilliant, don't you think? Gosh darn it, there's got to be more! I hope there's a season 2 because I loved each one of the Broad Hill crew and I want to know what life brings them.

P.P.S. I forgot to mention that despite not having Netflix I was able to watch all of the episodes on YouTube. Apparently, Derek aired pre-Netflix in the U.K. and thankfully, some fine old chap was kind enough to post all of the episodes. So, cheerio, and head on over to YouTube to watch an amazing show.

Morning Tea