Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock

I finally got around to seeing this movie, mostly because I was really curious about Sandra Bullock's performance in it. After all, she garnered the Academy Award for her portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy. While I generally have no strong feelings regarding Sandra Bullock (before this I wouldn't have said that I despised her or really loved her - thought that she was cute), I wouldn't have expected her to pull off an Academy Award winning performance. Anyways...

This movie was released in 2009 and was directed by John Lee Hancock. It was based on the book The Blind Side: An Evolution of a game, written by Michael Lewis. It stars Sandra Bullock (as Leigh Ann Tuohy), Quinton Aaron (as Michael Oher), Tim McGraw (as Sean Tuohy, and yes, that would be the country singer). When we first meet Michael Oher, he's 17 years old, poor and bouncing around from foster home to foster home, mostly because he runs away. A father's friend manages to convince the football coach at a wealthy, private, Christian school that Michael is a natural athlete and, as a result, Michael is enrolled at the school. While at school, he befriends Sean Tuohy, Jr. and they become fast friends.  One day, after a Thanksgiving pageant at the school in which Sean has starred, Leigh Ann and Sean, Sr. see Michael walking down the street, in the cold and rain, shivering and wet.  Leigh Ann offers Michael a place to stay, becomes his legal guardian and helps him to navigate the worlds of school, scholarships and football so that he can get into a college.

The movie itself wasn't all that great - I had to keep reminding myself that the story is a true one, where Michael Oher actually was drafted into the NFL.  The movie was so sugarcoated that I thought that I was going to get cavities at least an hour into the movie, if I didn't have them already by that time. It also seemed to be steeped with stereotypes - the rich, white, highly coiffed woman helps the poor, athletic, black boy - and that made me feel really uncomfortable. There was also a ton of really bad product placement. Usually, good product placement is done so that the viewer is hardly aware that it's being done. But in this movie, Taco Bell and Borders Bookstores are ostentatiously placed in the viewer's faces, so that it's really hard to miss. 

As far as Sandra Bullock's performance, I don't see how or why she got the Academy Award for this role.  She wasn't charismatic, she didn't have to raise her voice or have any passion or anything of that nature.  I just don't think that the role or the performance was deserving of an award.

Good to rent, but probably not to own.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

I've had this book for a while but have just gotten around to reading it. It takes place in New York City in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The narrator, Hans van den Broek, is a Dutchman that begins playing at the Staten Island Cricket Club, having rediscovered his childhood passion. He and his English wife, Rachel, have moved to New York in 1998 so that he can work at the NY Stock Exchange as a broker and she can work as a lawyer in the New York Branch of her law firm. They bring a young son, Jake, along with them.

During one of his very first matches, Hans meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant and businessman who is obsessed with bringing cricket to the mass market in America, mostly by building a tremendous stadium in the outer boroughs of New York. As Hans and Chuck became closer, Hans begins to accompany Chuck around the city. Hans, whose marriage has failed (Rachel has returned to England with Jake), believes that the trips are so that he can practice his driving as he is insistent upon getting an American driving license. He soon realizes that the trips that he takes with Chuck are so that Chuck can engage in murky, sketchy business practices. Eventually, Hans opts to return to England to salvage his marriage but learns a year or two later that Chuck was murdered and his body found floating in a local river.

It took me a while to get into this book.  O'Neill's long sentences take a little bit to get used to so at the beginning, I had to begin sentences over again. But once I got used to his ebb and flow of writing, I found it really wonderful and entertaining to read. I really enjoyed the themes that O'Neill presented as well - family and identity in foreign places.

Go out and get this book immediately!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is Stieg Larsson's third, and final, novel in the Millenium series. It begins where the second novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, left off.  Lisbeth Salander, the "girl" referred to in all three titles, is being sent to Sahlgreska Hospital in Stockholm after sustaining a bullet wound to the head and massive wounds to her shoulder. Surprisingly, she's still alive. After a long, intense surgery, Lisbeth is placed in the ICU, where she is only visited by medical staff, police and her lawyers, since she's under arrest for pretty serious offenses - attempted murder, aggravated assault and the like.  There's also talk about getting her committed to a mental hospital for pretty much the rest of her life. But the book itself, like it's previous two books, centers around government corruption and conspiracies, hatred and abuse of women (and Larsson's obvious concern and hatred of that hatred), and the threat to Swedish democracy by right wing elements in Swedish society. It's secondary themes seem to be loyalty and friendship and love.

I read this book as quickly and voraciously as I could, considering that I work full time, am on a broken ankle at work (yes, I finally returned!) and have a 2.5 year old.  It only took me one week to read a book that is 500 + pages. I was happy that the first one hundred pages or so resolved a number of mysteries left over from the first two books, even though I struggled to remember what had happened. I had to skim synopses from the first two books in order to remember.  What I didn't like was how Mr. Larsson introduced new characters so quickly; it was done so quickly that I had to keep a list and refer to it often to keep straight who was who, especially because there were at least two sets of characters whose names were fairly similar to each other. I thought that Larsson did an admirable job in his social commentary. He takes on really complex issues - issues that people have fought over and will continue to fight over for years to come - and he does so morally, cleverly and in a way that people can understand.  Some of his characters can be trying at times - for instance, while Mikael Blomkvist is an astoundingly dogged and loyal friend, who will do anything to make sure their voice is heard, he is unerringly vain and that vanity rubbed me the wrong way.  Of course, having a flawed hero isn't necessarily a bad thing - one can't have someone completely unrealistic take the helm otherwise readers won't necessarily identify with that person. The action sequences were good but what I really appreciated was how he made women equal players on the scene - police officers, lawyers and the like. It was fantastic.

Highly recommended but make sure you start with the first in the trilogy - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Monday, June 7, 2010

This is the third in a series of young adult books written by Megan McCafferty. Jessica Darling, the protagonist from the first two novels, has returned and is a student at Columbia University in New York City, a place that is decidedly different from her hometown of Pineville, New Jersey. She is still madly in love with her high school boyfriend, Marcus Flutie, who has decided to attend college in California. Because he's off to California, they don't see each other all that often. This novel follows Jessica's life from a freshman through her graduation from Columbia and is told as entries in Jessica's journals.

I thought the first book was pretty good - Ms. McCafferty seemed to have really hit upon something with Jessica. She had developed a character that was smart, witty, and was outside the box.  These traits were developed in the second book in the trilogy - aptly named Second Helpings.  But somehow, it got lost in the third book.  Jessica wasn't the same person. Jessica began going for months - literally, months - without writing in her journals. I was disappointed because Jessica didn't seem to be the type of person to just forget to memorialize what was going on in her life. Writing in some way, shape or form was so important to Jessica - she had written brilliant, snarky editorials for her high school newspaper and wonderful journal entries all throughout her life. Now, she left out parts of her life - perhaps the parts of her life that were the most interesting or could have been the most interesting to us. The book seemed disjointed and didn't flow very well at all, due in large part to the lost months of time.  The cool, complicated girl that I knew from the first two novels became annoyingly cloy, one dimensional and predictable and I hated it. 

You can pass on this one.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

Wes Moore was born in Maryland in 1978 but currently works for Citigroup in New York City. His life path was  pretty interesting.  At three, he saw his father die in front of him after his father was misdiagnosed at a local area hospital.  His mother moved the family around a bit and sent her son to a private school. While there, he failed out because of behavioral issues and non-attendance, even though his two sisters did fairly well.  He was then sent to a military academy in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with honors and as a regimental commander, even though he attempted to run away four times in his first week there.  Wes eventually went on to college and became a Rhodes Scholar.

As Wes was preparing to attend Oxford University in 2000, Wes learned of another man named Wes Moore who also, coincidentally, grew up in Maryland.  In fact, the two had lived in the same neighborhood, and the "other" Wes Moore was two years older. The two had never met. The "other" Wes Moore was starting a life prison bid after being convicted of murdering an off duty police officer during the course of a bank robbery. So the Wes on the outside of the prison wrote a letter to the Wes Moore that was behind the bars.  Wes Moore, the author, had burning questions that he wanted answers - how did two men with the same name from the same neighborhood with similar backgrounds end up on such markedly different paths in their lives?

This book is told in alternating sections, which I guess is effective in detailing the differences between the two men.  However, there is no passion - it's simply a re-telling.  The author talks about the works of Malcolm X and how he was inspired by him as well as Colin Powell. However, none of the passion that those men wrote with or even an ounce of their skill is apparent in Mr. Moore's literary capabilities. I think that the real value in this book is the question that was asked and the questions that remain unanswered - how do two people from similar backgrounds end up taking such different paths?  What social forces are in play to make people choose to do one thing over another? What happens when the village cannot raise the child because it isn't equipped to do so?

My Life in France by Julia Child

I picked up this book and started reading it right after I finished up reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell (reviewed here). My Life in France is an autobiography by Julia Child (written with her husband's grandnephew, Alex Prud'homme). It was begun during the last eight months of her life and completed and published by Mr. Prud'homme after she died in August of 2004.

The autobiography is comprised of various stories, linked of course, and which focus on Ms. Child's life from 1948 through 1954. During that time period, Ms. Child and her husband, Paul Child, began their life in Europe - most notably France - and focuses on how Julia came to love all things French - the culture, the people and the food, of course. It also focuses not just on her life there, but on how she and her co-authors wrote her famous treatise on French cooking: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It details their struggles to find a publisher and get the cookbook slimmed down (it was apparently a TREMENDOUS book - bigger than what it currently is). Julia Child also looks at how she began cooking on TV - she was one of the pioneers in cooking live on TV and owes that success not only to her book but to WGBH, Boston's public television station.

Like many people my age (31), you probably remember seeing Julia Child cooking on TV. She was a staple on television - I swear that she was on all the time - but I don't remember much about her besides her mannerisms.  I was too young to be allowed anywhere near a stove (some say that I'm still too young to be near a stove). I've never been to France or tried to cook anything French (besides the dubiously named French Fries) but I loved this book. Julia's voice is charming - I think that she would have been a person that I would have liked to call her a friend.  She was funny, witty and observant and this all showed through in the book. Maybe, due to my love for food and wine (when I can drink it!), I really loved the details about the food that she made and the wine that she drank. Her details about the places in France that we lived or visited were just as fascinating. 

Generally liked this book...but you can decide yourself whether to purchase it for your collection or not.

Stitches by David Small

David Small tells the story of his unhappy childhood in this graphic memoir. About 50 years ago, when Mr. Small was 14, he underwent surgery that rendered him mute for all intents and purposes and also resulted in his thyroid gland being removed. He believed that a cyst was being removed, but it turned out that the "cyst" was a tumor that had begun to grow as the result of the x-ray treatments performed on David when David was just an infant by his own father (who was a radiologist). At the time that David was an infant, radiological treatments were used to cure sinus and breathing issues, which David had as a child.  As a result of the insane amount of radiology used, David developed cancer. For nearly a decade after his surgery, he couldn't physically speak above the level of a hoarse whisper, no matter how hard he trained his remaining vocal cords.

The fact that David's father gave him cancer is one of the devastating sad parts of the story; but there is a second theme that is just as devastating: the communication, or lack of it, that is apparent in David's family  The fact that David was exposed to a high risk of cancer by his father isn't really discussed by David, his father OR his mother aside from a very, very brief conversation a few months after the surgery. In fact, it's almost as if David learned that he had cancer by accident and would have continued to believe that a cyst was removed if he hadn't accidentally stumbled upon it. Other communication was non-verbal - his mother only communicated her displeasure by a little cough that she had. She wasn't very adept at showing her love for her son, if she even loved him at all. It's also about having a voice - or finding an alternative method to having your voice heard when your original voice has been literally ripped from you without your knowledge or consent.

The book is really raw. My heart wrenched, particularly at the parts where David is flashing back to getting the high doses of radiation when he learns that he, in fact, was exposed to cancer by his father.  Mr. Small has a way of illustrating the raw, strong emotions without words being necessary to convey what he intends.  Needless to say, if you haven't figured it out yet, I loved how Mr. Small drew this book. While the story itself moves quickly because of the careful format, I urge you to slow down or go back after the first read through so that you can study the illustrations and really appreciate them.

Definitely one to add to your collection.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...