Sunday, June 22, 2008

book review: no way home by carlos acosta

No Way Home by Carlos Acosta is the second memoir on my list. For those paying attention, alphabetically it came first, but it took time to get it in at the library. The Entertainment Weekly memoir list noted it as a childhood memoir: grew up "in a Havana slum", but Acosta's memoir is so much more than that. In many ways his childhood would have been completely ordinary: he shared experiences with the other precocious young children in his neighborhood. He took to break dancing and adored soccer. In fact, if Acosta hadn't been quite so predisposed to careless choices and trouble making in his early days, his father might not have pushed him into ballet school. The world should be glad Acosta messed up just enough to get there.

Today, Acosta is one of the world's most famous ballerinos. He's choreographed a contemporary ballet based on his Cuban childhood. I admit I love ballet, especially contemporary ballet (I am a Center Stage devotee), far more than the average reader, but this book is far more than just a ballet story or a Cuban story. Acosta's tale is certainly remarkable, but he is perhaps the most remarkable part of the story. He is proud without being arrogant, and he is thankful and appreciative for all of his life experiences. He is a brilliant dancer and a brilliant human. His writing is perhaps not brilliant, but it's fine. The story's brilliance shines through.

The book begins in childhood, and I learned so mcuh about life in Cuba. The reader follows Acosta around the world as he dances, a feat that seems impossible in the first part of the book. It's only refreshing because one knows he makes it. Otherwise, his early years might be endlessly depressing. Acosta's honesty about his own missteps is wonderful. No Way Home is a satisfying, enlightening read, and for those of us stateside who haven't had the chance to see Tocororo, it's a gem. My one complaint comes from it being only a book. Although Acosta describes ballet with such passion and beauty, I kept finding myself pulling up youtube clips of him dancing. I wanted a more interactive experience. Whether you read No Way Home or not, it's definitely worth checking out some of these clips. My favorite, of course, is from Tocororo.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

book review: die a little by megan abbott

I've been meaning to read Megan Abbott for several years now. If you're not familiar with her books, she writes 1950's era pulp noir mysteries. I'd read great reviews everywhere I looked, and my expectations only got higher when I read her biography on the book cover:

Megan Abbott has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000, and in 2002 Palgrave Macmillan published her nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in New York City.

Amazing, no? Astute in literature, film and gender studies, Abbott is the perfect author for this genre. The 1950's have so many fascinating gender subtexts, and Abbott boldly explores them in Die a Little. It's a great book in so many ways: it's a mystery you can't wait to finish, a brilliant character study, an intriguing look at 1950's Los Angeles and the movie studios, and a beautifully written novel.

I loved it, and I won't wait nearly so long to read Abbott's other two books.

Rating: 3 stars (loved it)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

book review: love the one you're with by emily giffin

Love the One You're With 
Let me preface this review by confessing my undying adoration for Emily Giffin. I adored her first book, Something Borrowed. She made a woman who stole her best friend's fiance the one I rooted for. When Something Blue had the scorned former best friend as the narrator, I couldn't imagine Giffin could make her likable. She did. When Baby Proof came out, I sat on my couch and read it cover to cover, despite nomadreaderboy's sweet offer to do something interactive. When I was at the library to pick up a book I'd requested, I'm quite certain I literally squealed when I saw Love the One You're With had already come in too. Needless to say, I had ridiculously high expectations.

As Giffin does so well, she hooked me with the first few sentences. I adored the first 100 pages. The characters were all flushed out beautifully. I knew trouble was coming, and I didn't imagine it would be tragedy. As Ellen made some poor choices, I started identifying less with her. Giffin kept bringing me back to Ellen, however, by making even her silliest, stupidest choices seem logical. It's an immensely satisfying read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also loved the shifting geography of the story: Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem, New York City and Atlanta. I'm familiar with all the cities, and they provided lovely richness to the narrative.

Love the One You're With might be my least favorite Giffin book yet, but it's still a winner. I will buy it when it comes out in paperback, and place it on the shelf of books I'll reread in a few years. I also imagine if I hadn't read it right on the heels of Laura Dave's London is the Best City in America, I might have been even more starved for quality, young female narrators. For the record, Baby Proof will perhaps always be my favorite Emily Giffin novel.

Rating: four stars (loved it)

Monday, June 16, 2008

movie review: the incredible hulk

While I appreciated the opening credits catching up the non-fan in me, if I hadn't had nomadreaderboy sitting next to me, I would have missed many of the references in this film. I have to wonder for whom this film is intended? I'm aware enough of pop culture to know Stan Lee (and love Stan Lee) and be able to recognize Lou Ferrigno. I don't know enough about the Hulk, through comics, tv or movies, to know who the Abomination is. I didn't have many expectations, good or bad, going into the movie.

I was disappointed. I appreciated the slow start, as we pieced together Ed Norton's life in Brazil. It was Bourne-like, with a little Batman Begins thrown in. It was a strong foundation for what could have been a character study. Ed Norton was fantastic; Liv Tyler was better. She had very little dialogue, but her eyes alone deserve an award for their acting. I found their relationship ridiculously intriguing, and yet, there was so little shown. More unsatisfying for me was her relationship with the psychiatrist. She seemed happy. He seemed understanding to let her go. Could we not get one scene where the two share a conversation? I would take an extra twenty minutes to flesh out some of the storyline between Hulk episodes. The movie itself was less than two hours. I think a little more character exposition would have made those dull by the end Hulk scenes more complex.

I realize I am not the intended audience, and I know after what fanboys consider Ang Lee's debacle of the 2003 version, this picture is meant as a love letter to the fans. Considering the film clearly sets the stage for more movies, perhaps it would have been wise to add a little heart and soul into the Hulk to attract a few new fans. This film did make less than the ultimate love letter to fans, Sex and the City made in its opening weekend.

Bottom line: The performances of Norton and Tyler make it theater worthy viewing, but the film itself is barely Netflix worthy.

Rating: 2 stars (liked it)

movie review: kung fu panda

Perhaps I went in to Kung Fu Panda expecting more than I should have. Angelina Jolie and Jack Black together! Glowing reviews, including an A- from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, with whom I usually agree.

The fight scenes were enthralling to watch, but became a tad ubiquitous. I realize the name of the movie involved kung fu, but there was very little plot. Not much happened. It was family friendly action movie. Despite the beautiful animation and occasional funny moments, I often found my mind wandering to the larger themes and implications. Again, I understand it's a movie aimed at children, and one is not supposed to think too deeply. Glorified obesity not limiting mobility when it truly matters? No injuries from fighting? Who else is counting the days until the evening news has a story of a child hurt from trying to reenact a scene from Kung Fu Panda?

There were certainly some quotes from the film I'll be using for years to come, but it was a dull film. There were no surprises, nothing invented to distract along the logical direction of the film. At only an hour and a half, it seemed long. I wouldn't rush to the theater to see it, but it is definitely red box worthy. Ske-doosh.

Rating: 2 (liked it)

book review: london is the best city in america by laura dave

London is the Best City in America is the best book I've read this year. It is one of the most perfectly true and enjoyable novels I've read ever. Laura Dave manages to have a relatively simple and utterly believable story seem ridiculously wise and nearly universal. Every word, every scene, every aspect of each character is honest and necessary. I'm longing for a sequel. I'm longing to have dinner with Emmy, Josh and her parents. After less than 250 pages, they've become my life long friends. It's a book I will read more than once because although there is suspense, it doesn't matter what happens to these characters; it's a joy to simply share in their experiences.

Rating: 5 stars

book review: the story of my life

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran a feature "So You Want to Write a Memoir?"
It details the current market glut of memoirs under the premise, if you actually want to write your own, check this list first to make sure it hasn't already been done. I am a huge fan of the memoir, as well as the similar autobiographical novel. I decided to find my inner A.J. Jacobs and read every memoir on the list. I didn't want to do it topically, as I figured some sections would be disastrously depressing. Instead, I methodically typed each book into a list alphabetically by author. The first one available at my library was Farah Ahmedi's The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky.

Ahmedi's story is riveting, unfortunately her writing is not. Ahmedi was a non-native English speaker and high school student when she wrote her story, and it shows. It reads like a young adult level book, and it's certainly intriguing. Ahmedi grew up in war-torn Afghanistan, and she stepped on a land mine as a child. After receiving treatment for several months in Germany, she returned to the seemingly foreign customs of her native land. She faced numerous hardships as the Taliban began ruling Afghanistan, and she and her mother fled first to Pakistan, then to the United States.

Her story was riveting, and I enjoyed reading most of the book. For me, the most depressing part was what was left unsaid. After she and her mother came to the U.S. as refugees, the organization that brought them provided support for three months. Clearly it was not enough for two non-English speaking women with medical problems. If not for one volunteer who seems to take care of Farah and her mother as a full-time job out of the goodness of her heart and wallet, this story never would have been written. Ahmedi's outlook would have been bleak. How many refugees aren't fortunate enough to find someone to assist them with life?

It's certainly an interesting story of a life far different than I can imagine, but it's not well written, and it's not terribly introspective or deep.

Rating: 2 stars (liked it)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

june 2008 glamour: personal essay contest

I hereby confess Glamour is one of my favorite magazines. It certainly contains many pieces I cringe at each month, but it covers the celebrations and plights of women across the world better than most. The June issue featured the winner of the magazine's annual personal essay contest. Andrea Coller writes a heartwrenchingly honest tale of her ongoing bout with cancer. Truly, only her unparalleled honesty keeps this essay from being depressing. It's short on heavy-handed inspiration, but her ability to speak of her struggles so honestly and unflinchingly inspires me more than any feel good story I've heard lately.

Don't take my word for it. One of the reasons I love Glamour is the six judges for the essay contest: Susan Choi, Asali Solomon, Laura Hillenbrand, Jennifer Weiner, Jane Smiley and Sara Gruen. I will take uninspired fashion coverage next to seeing these ladies in print, even as judges. The good clearly triumphs over the bad; I only wish I could pass along the same news about Coller's cancer struggles.

book review: later, at the bar by rebecca barry

I love the premise of Rebecca Barry's Later at the Bar: it's a novel in stories. Interconnected short stories are among my favorite means of literature. I've also spent a fair amount of time at bars in my life, and I have an appreciation for the curious assortment of souls who gather there. Furthermore, the stories take place in an unnamed town in upstate New York. Everything is in place for this book to be magnificent, at least in my esteem.

It's good. I enjoyed some stories more than others. My favorite character by far is Linda, who writes advice columns for various magazines. My two favorite Linda quotes from letters she pens to her boyfriend of sorts rather than her readers:

Aren't you a little in love with me? It would be so convenient if you were.

It's such a comfort to be a regular at a bar, especially when you live alone. I mean that in the least pathetic and nicest possible way.

I admire the attempted scope of the novel. Telling interconnected stories through so many different points of view, albeit always through an omniscient narrator, is difficult. I wanted more depth. I found myself imposing personalities on the characters I'm not convinced were in the text, although perhaps I don't give Barry enough credit. The book itself checks in at 224 tiny pages of big font. It's a quick, enjoyable read. I believe the characters have more stories to tell, and I hoped for shared experiences. The stories are nice, but ultimately, not much happens, which I suppose is the point.

It's good, and it's worth a read. I'm more excited to recommend Barry's next book than this one. She's a lovely writer, and many of these characters are lovely, but I still find myself slightly unsatisfied at the end. Perhaps intentionally and definitely ironically, I feel like a character in the book myself as I search for that happiness, comfort, contentment or feeling of accomplishment that seems almost within my reach. Instead, I follow their suit and reach for a cocktail.

Rating: 2 stars (liked it)

Monday, June 9, 2008

book review: moo by jane smiley

I finally finished Moo. Its setting is Moo University in an unknown Midwestern state. Moo is primarily an agricultural university, and Smiley tells the story through a dizzying array of narrators: students, staff, townspeople, faculty, administration, world business leaders, elected officials and even a pig. It's delightfully satirical and witty. I adored the first half of the novel, but the second half fizzled a little for me. It's still a great book, however I can't imagine how even a storyteller as gifted as Smiley could execute a finish worthy of the brilliant premise. Chapter Four, "The Common Wisdom" is beautifully indicative of the scope of this novel. It begins:

It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.

It was well known among the legislators that the faculty as a whole was determined to undermine the moral and commercial well-being of the state, and that supporting a large and nationally famous university with state monies was exactly analogous to raising a nest of vipers in your own bed.

Moo is definitely worth a read, and it would be a wonderful book for a book club. There are so many different characters and so much happening, I'm sure part of my lesser satisfaction with the second half of the novel is due to missing key tidbits in the first part. It's a book meant for taking a few notes.

Rating: 2.5 stars (really liked it)

first thoughts: legally blonde the musical: the search for elle woods

It likely comes as no surprise that I'm already riveted by mtv's latest reality competition, Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods. It's not great television, but I am a huge fan of competition reality shows. Giving away a starring role in a Broadway musical is huge. (Yes, I also watched Grease: You're the One that I Want, but that program was silly because viewers got to decide the winners. I'm guessing a different cross-section of America took the time to vote for their favorites than those who actually attend musicals in New York City.) A starring role on Broadway in what is, to my generation at least, an iconic musical.

One of the most amusing moments from the first episode was after a long montage and spouting statistics about the number of people who audition for Broadway each year versus those who are actually cast, let alone go on to win a Tony award. This montage was actually quite moving, and I initially felt like I was literally watching history unfold. How rare for anyone to make Broadway! I'm watching it happen. Cue the entrance of Haylie Duff (the arguably far less talented Duff sister), Broadway star. Suddenly, I'm jaded again and realize the show's producers have probably planted finalists from real rehearsals and are simply using the MTV audience, those teenage ladies with more disposable income than most of the world, as guinea pigs for an eight-week long commercial for the production.

Mike Hale of The New York Times has this surprisingly complimentary opinion:

They give the impression that they were plucked from the sidewalk outside the MTV studios and haven’t stopped squealing since. And as callow as they are, watching them being put through actual numbers from the musical, and comparing the results, is more interesting than watching celebrities learn how to tango.

It's still an entertaining piece of diversionary programming. Attractive young women sing, dance, gossip and cry. Ultimately, Hale is right. There's something much more appealing about youthful optimism learning how to do Broadway, where some of these young women might actually end up one day. It's more refreshing to see people at the start of their career than the end, even if the career itself is in question.

My money is on Emma landing the role. She's Broadway royalty. Her parents met performing in the original Broadway production of Grease (Kenickie and Frenchy!), and her father has four Tony awards. The cynic in me absolutely believe she's planted, but the softie in me doesn't care. She's a dream to watch, and even though she flubbed her solo because she just quit smoking, the judges only negative was that she looks too much like Reese Witherspoon. I'm not gullible enough to believe that's a negative: middle America adores Reese Witherspoon and might trek to the Big Apple to see a talented look alike in a story they know well.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

sex and the city, rounds three and seven

I did not meet my goal of watching every episode of Sex and the City again before the movie came out. Reviews are mixed, but I adored the film. I saw it twice opening weekend, and I will likely see it a few more times over the summer.

I loved the movie so much, I'm continuing my quest and still finishing all the seasons. I think the series starts to hit its stride around the middle of the third season. When Charlotte pulled out a roll of 25 cent stamps to mail her wedding thank you notes, I realized how long ago season three was. For all the events that came after, Matthew McConaughey still managed to have the same concept for a Sex and the City movie. When Carrie went to L.A. to meet with producers, he had a brilliant idea for adapting Carrie's columns to a movie:

Why don't we flush out the central relationships: Carrie and Mr. Big. I don't see why they couldn't make it work.

There will be a sequel, and I will likely love it. The show made six seasons (94 episodes) and one film about, at least to some extent, Carrie and Mr. Big. Their story may never be over. Regardless, the four characters are at their best when they're not with their men. I would sit and watch those four be fabulous, funny and affectionate for years to come.

Sex and the City (the movie) - 3.5 stars
I loved the film, and whether it's actually great cinema is debatable. I laughed, and I cried. At the end of the film, I wanted to be a better person. It's cheesy I know, but in seriousness, I want to try harder to have friendships like theirs.