The Great Book Anticipation of 2011

I had just read about this new book coming out and immediately ordered it from the library. An email a few days later told me that The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was already waiting for me at the circulation desk. The librarian handed over the 575-page tome, and without a hint or irony, said, “Due back in two weeks.” Right.

The novel is narrated in first-person by Bruno, a chimp who acquires language and explores what it means to be human. Also, there is chimp-human sex. I just thought you should know.

I discovered this hefty little gem by Benjamin Hale on this drool-worthy list of the most anticipated book preview of 2011. If there’s anything bibliophiles love more than reading, it’s squirreling away a stack of books like acorns for the coming year. And if you live in New England where it continues to snow, you need some meaty books for the winter.

Karen Russell’s writing is beautiful and I’ve been hoping she’d come out with a novel since her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her novel, Swamplandia!, grew from one of those short stories and is about a family that runs an alligator wrestling attraction. Uh-huh.

The New York Times reviewed both books today. Clearly, its reviewers take their cues from my blog.

Oddly, I’m looking forward to a memoir called Fire Season by Philip Connors who served as a fire lookout in New Mexico for years. With all that time to sit there scanning the sky, and presumably having to shout “Fire!” only once in awhile, he’s gotta have some interesting thoughts to share.

A new book by Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty) is always something to celebrate, except maybe that last novel, Run, that wasn’t so hot. But if State of Wonder is classic Ann Patchett, all will be forgiven. June, however, is a long time to wait. Fortunately, I have the tale of Bruno the chimp to keep me company.

OWN: Oprah’s new network

Like millions of other women who have enjoyed watching Oprah over the years (aside from the low moments of salaciousness when the producers got desperate for story ideas), I was curious to check out her new network, OWN, launched this week, because my elaborate 200+ channel offerings are just not sufficient. Who doesn’t need someone to champion their hopes and dreams through inspirational guests and You go girl! chants?

However, the show Master Class: Jay-Z and more Dr. Phil do not a new network make. A venture of this magnitude takes enormous planning and offerings, but already her reality show (Your Own Show) and Season: 25 Oprah Behind the Scenes are playing on an endless loop, as in every night. Really? Reruns in week one?

Tomorrow is a snow day at work (woo!), which means a serious indulgence in daytime TV. I mean, who can shovel when the ladies on The View are sharpening their claws? It would have been the perfect day to settle in on the couch and bond with the big O, except I can’t see spending my day with Dr. Oz who will have me analyzing my pee followed by hours of obsessive research on WebMD.

Mini movie reviews

The Staircase is a riveting 6-hour documentary about a man on trial for allegedly killing his wife. Or did she fall down a staircase? Six hours feels inadequate because you’ll be sure he did it and then sure he didn’t.

The Hurt Locker is gripping, stellar movie making. I mean, no one really wants to watch a movie about the war in Iraq but I feel like the least we can do is to try to understand it from the comfort of our plush couches. The camera work is intimate and every shot is wrought with tension. Five minutes in, I thought, No one should have to do this job. 

Glengarry Glen Ross is classic David Mamet filled with more F bombs than a sailor documentary. The story is simple—salesmen grapple for leads, trying to outsell each other while conversing in that idiosynchratic Mamet speak. The film features a cast of young whippersnappers: Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Ed Wood, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino, all performances worth watching in this testosterone-filled flick.

A Town Called Panic is a charming stop-motion French film that played in a screening room so small I thought I was in somebody’s living room, though it should be playing in wide release. Its quirky plastic toy characters, Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, get into all kinds of trouble and are entertaining to watch in simple scenes like Horse takes a bath. Click on the poster for a preview.

Mini movie reviews

Crazy Heart: Despite the fact that I’ll never understand the appeal of The Big Lebowski, I found Jeff Bridges to be a charming alcoholic in Crazy Heart, a movie I liked more than I expected. Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Colin Farrell all gave excellent performances, but Robert Duvall made me want to revisit every movie he’s made. Plus, we saw it in this charming old movie house in Hingham where you can afford to buy a ticket and popcorn.

Bright Star: I’m halfway through this Jane Campion film and need advice from someone who’s seen it. Should I watch the second half? I was drawn to the romance between Keats (the poet) and his love interest, but so far there are no sparks. I suppose things pick up, but right now, no one seems passionate about the poetry or each other.

I Like Killing Flies: an unusual documentary about Shopsin’s, an old restaurant in Greenwich Village churning out an outstanding variety of comfort food. The footage, however, lingers a bit too long on the grimy counters and unrelenting flies, so you’d never actually want to eat there, but the guy who runs the place is a riot, setting up arbitrary rules like, We don’t serve parties of five. You gotta love that.

Mini movie reviews

Revolutionary Road: not revolutionary, but disturbing in that American Beauty kind of way (same director) starring the same Titanic duo of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, except without the ocean liner. Oddly though, there was a steamy love scene with a hand pressed to a foggy window that recalled that scene in Titanic. Unintentional homage? Who knows, but, I liked it enough.

Please Vote for Me: an unusual one-hour documentary on the first Democratic election in China—for the position of class monitor in a third grade classroom. Let me tell you, third graders are cut-throat little suckers. The movie is an interesting reflection on democracy, life in China, and how kids are mean wherever you go.

The Road: it’s as bleak and dark as an end-of-the-world movie should be; and if the world has to end, I would like Viggo guiding me toward salvation. Or toward the grim road where the few surviving people in the world are out to get you—and eat you. Though in an ideal after-world, he would be clean-shaven and scrubbed clean.

An Education: a must- must- must-see. Carey Mulligan is delightful, and Peter Sarsgaard is more than delightful even when he’s not delightful. A charming movie with a message that as a woman, makes you go: right on, sister. Right on.

Four mini movie reviews

Up in the Air is not what you’re expecting. Well, if you’re expecting George Clooney to play George Clooney, then it’s partly what you’re expecting. And while he gets a lot of criticism for playing himself, I think there’s nothing wrong with watching a little pure George Clooney now and again without him being all Syriana-serious. I enjoyed the movie, though not quite as much as the critics who are falling off their movie seats praising the work (it just got a Golden Globe nomination). Up in the Air is a solid slice-of-life film about a guy with an interesting role in the wave of layoffs, with a twist that comes in the form of Vera Farmiga—one of those actresses you never really recognize but fall in love with for her skill. I’m not sure this is a movie I’d want to see if I were laid off, especially around Christmas, but then that would mean a whole lot of people skipping this movie, which seems unlikely when you consider The Clooney Factor.

Now for some recent DVD releases: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is intricate, suspenseful, and well acted by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney (Daddy Warbucks!) and Marisa Tomei. The story—a heist gone wrong—unfolds in a back-and-forth sort of way and is a meaty two hours.

Paper Heart is an indefinable hybrid of feature film and documentary. I stay away from books like this (is it fiction or memoir? Decide please) but this was entertaining nonetheless. Charlene Yi and Michael Cera are charming. Whether or not they are Charlene Yi and Michael Cera or characters playing Charlene Yi and Michael Cera, I have no idea, but the idea is clever and the scenes done with paper cutouts are homemade craft genius.

Frontrunners is the more obscure of the bunch. The documentary was released last year and profiles four student candidates running for council office at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in NYC where the rhetoric is Obamaesque and the drama is reminiscent of Bush vs. Gore. You almost wish you could vote.

Good review, bad movie

My boyfriend and I saw Cold Souls recently (hello, free passes), and while the premise was clever (what if you could store your soul?) and the movie poster and website were inventive (I don’t know why I think this is an indicator of movie quality, but I do), the movie fell short of what we expected. The flick was something along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which explored the idea of removing memories, but didn’t quite hit that level in terms of execution. OK, maybe it’s not fair to make such comparisons, but the concept was so similar, it’s hard to avoid measuring one against another.

After the movie, I went as I always do to The New Yorker. You can’t do this before you see the movie because the reviews are so comprehensive and revealing it’s like seeing the movie. The other thing about New Yorker reviews is that they’re so insanely well written, they’re often better than the movie. In this case, it was especially true, even though the reviewer appreciated the movie more than we did. The review has such gems as “Paul Giamatti, who is never going to be mistaken for Danny Kaye, plays himself—or, rather, he plays a convincing version of himself called Paul Giamatti . . . ” and this description: “We may not know what Paul’s soul consists of, but we do get to see what it looks like: a poor, pale squib of a thing, no bigger than a molar, in a glass jar.” Such good writing would have been nice to see in the movie.


All the Living

I just finished a lovely little book called All the Living written by C.E. Morgan. And while it’s true I picked it up initially because of the cover—it features a black and white landscape with a barn; I’m a sucker stories set on farms—I found the writing superb and the story satisfying. 

All the Living

A young woman moves to Kentucky to be with her bereaved lover who is left to manage his family’s tobacco farm. While he retreats into monosyllabic communication, Aloma dreams of returning to the piano; their days are fraught with friction: she’s waiting for a proposal while he exhausts himself trying to save the farm. Aloma’s friendship with a preacher makes things…interesting.

Plus, as The New Yorker review points out, the author uses rare words like “letheless” (forgetfulness) and “mortise” (cavity in a piece of wood) that require me to get the hefty dictionary. No lazy words here.

Despite years of refusal, Morrissey needs your love

What’s up, Morrissey? I get the sense you’re feeling unloved. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but your lyrics are sad, man. Sad. True, it’s nothing new, but I thought by now you might have cheered up a smidge. You say some provocative things that can make a girl worry, like when you sing about throwing your arms around Paris because “only stone and steel accept my love” and later in that same song, this refrain:

Nobody wants my love
Nobody needs my love
Nobody wants my love

Oh dear.

In the unexpectedly lilting, “Something is Squeezing My Skull” there’s this little gem: 

Oh, something is squeezing my skull
Something I cannot describe
There is no hope in modern life.

Come, now. Is it really that dire? I’ll give you this: modern life is a bitch; but I just want you to have some hope and find love. But then you go and kill the dream in “That’s How People Grow Up”:

I was wasting my time
Trying to fall in love
Disappointment came to me and
Booted me and bruised and hurt me

No kidding, my friend, love does that. 

One sad man

One sad man


In “I’m OK by Myself,” you’re cheeky about your unlovability. 

Is this an arm around my waist?
Well, surely the hand contains a knife?

Clever, but still sad. Maybe I’m just reading between the lines or you know, reading the lines, but I think you’re unhappy. Your CD though—all those unhappy tunes— makes me happy, so it doesn’t matter if you’re at the edge of a precipice; it’s working for you.

Thanks, Astral Weeks

Today, in the chaos that is working at a college during midterms, I hoped for just a moment of solitude. When yet another student came in, I sighed. “I’m gonna go take my test,” he said. “But you’ve gotta listen to this.” He handed over his iPod and gianormous headphones and insisted that I listen to his favorite new CD: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s rare you get an assignment from a student, one who was still high on his new gig as a DJ at the college station, so I was game.

I’d read a review of Astral Weeks from the 70s that made it sound like a watershed moment in music history—the best album since the birth of albums. The column, by rock journalist Lester Bangs, was so glowing I went to the library to check it out (buying was still too much of a commitment). And while I enjoyed the collection, I didn’t bring enough musical knowledge to the album; I didn’t hear what I was supposed to hear. 


Today though, today—well, I didn’t hear it either. But I liked the new live version a whole lot more and felt it more at a deeper level. Maybe I was listening harder because I saw how excited this kid was. I suspect though, that the beauty of the moment was that I had nearly 10 uninterrupted minutes of privacy where I rocked out (OK, sat quietly in my office listening) while I didn’t have to respond to anyone because the headphones made it clear I was unavailable. So, I listened to it again. And again. And one last time for good measure. By the end, I was with Van Morrison all the way singing, “I believe I’ve transcended” because for a few glorious minutes, I had.

One word recommendations

I’ve enjoyed a spate of good books and movies lately, so let me summarize them with one word recommendations.

Unaccustomed Earth written by Jhumpa Lahiri: brilliant

Vicky Cristina Barcelona directed by Woody Allen: Javier


Javier Bardem

Javier Bardem



Oatmeal (I hadn’t tried it until this weekend): blah

Cost written by Roxana Robinson: exquisite

Lizz Wright’s song My Heart: sultry

There. Go forth and consume (just not the oatmeal).