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John Adams

By David McCullough

Like most Americans, I've known that John Adams was our second President since I was in grade school. And, as I'd imagine is also true of most Americans, that was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man. The first glimpse I got into Adams as more than just that one fact came in 2003, when I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Ambrose, who clearly idolized Thomas Jefferson, didn't hold Adams in the same high regard. Indeed, I came away from that book thinking of Adams as an ambitious man, bent on consolidating power to himself, possibly even wishing to become an American emperor. A man who, fortunately, was defeated in his second election by Jefferson, before he could do any more damage.

The second impression I got of Adams--and of Jefferson, for that matter--came three years later when I read Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington. Quite unlike the tyrant that Ambrose portrayed, Ellis described Adams as a man of integrity, while Jefferson, no longer quite the noble farmer-scholar, came off as a schemer, practically a villain. To Ellis, Adams was a patriot and a loyal Vice President, though not as effective a President as he might have hoped.

I started seeing copies of this book around the same time, but despite being interested to learn more about Adams as well as being attracted to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, my reading list had gotten quite long by then and I put it off. It wasn't until HBO started airing its miniseries adaptation that I finally resolved to read it. It took me over two months to finish, but I now wish that I hadn't waited--this was an excellent read.

McCullough has a real gift for taking facts and sources and weaving them into a compelling narrative. It helps, of course, that Adams' life was so amazing. Here was a man who was involved in nearly every part of the American Revolution, indeed, nearly all of the important events of his era. But it's not merely the great events that make this book so wonderful to read. Because just as important are Adams' friendships, his relationship with his family, and, most of all, his marriage--indeed, the latter is one of the great love stories in American history.

This is the brilliance of McCullough's book, that it presents such a colossal figure in our nation's history in such human terms. By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt I knew Adams, certainly in a more personal way than any other man I've read about. In fact, by the end of the book I felt an attachment to him that rivaled anything I've felt from reading a novel--I lingered over his death scene for a long time, having a very real feeling of loss.

Simply put, John Adams, is the best biography I've ever read. It's balanced, nuanced, and just a pleasure to consume. Adams, himself, had his flaws, to be sure, but reading about a man of such integrity and passion and intellect, such warmth, wit, and good humor, I can't help but wish I'd been able to meet him, myself.


Started: 6/23/2009 | Finished: 9/2/2009

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(500) Days of Summer

In the opening monologue of (500) Days of Summer, the narrator tells us, "This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story." That declaration is, on its face, a short and simple description of the film. But it's more than that, too. It references the well-established and universally-known tradition of the boy-meets-girl romantic comedy and relies on the fact that we all know that genre so well to quickly set up our expectations. The very next sentence, it turns that expectation on its ear. Really, it's a comment on the genre, itself, and the way we as audience members interact with it. And in that way, it reflects the film as a whole.

This is the thing about genre conventions, though: they're so deeply ingrained in our psyches that even with this kind of up-front warning, we can't help but fall into the trap. We can't help but expect that this movie, just like every other romantic comedy, will follow that pattern we're used to of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And that's what's so great about this movie. By being so conscious of these genre conventions, by both following them and breaking them, it manages to give us a fresh experience. What's more, by giving us a main character that is just as locked into these patterns as we are, it challenges us to re-evaluate the impact these patterns have on the way we approach real life.

Somewhat paradoxically, the film's strength is also it's weakness. By creating a main character that's so representative of the audience's expectations, the film ultimately produces a character that's unreasonable, kind of whiny, and ultimately difficult to truly sympathize with. But then, that may well be the point.

Overall, I have to give the cast pretty high marks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the lead role, seems to have matured very nicely since his days in 3rd Rock and films like 10 Things I Hate About You. Zooey Deschanel was her normal quirky self, which worked perfectly for the role. The main letdown in the cast was actually a bit part, and was ultimately what kept this from being an A movie for me. Unfortunately, I can't say much more than that without spoiling things. (Though, with a movie like this one that telegraphs so much and is so wrapped up in rom-com tropes, it's hard to say that it could really be "spoiled" as such.) But the problems were pretty minor, and I have to say that this is the smartest, freshest romantic-comedy I've seen in quite a long time.


Viewed: 8/24/2009 | Released: 8/1/2009 | Score: B+

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The Hangover

It's been almost a month since I saw this movie and I saw it over a month after it premiered. Despite the fact that it is still in first-run theaters, I think a normal person would, at this point, admit defeat and blow off writing the review altogether.

Clearly, I'm not a normal person.

Still, by now, what can I really add to the discussion? Does anybody not know what this movie is about?  That the humor is male-oriented and vulgar? Has anybody not heard about the credits? (Anybody that would actually see this movie, I mean.) Probably not. I guess all that leaves is my own opinion.

Well, I thought it was funny. OK, really funny. Obviously we're not treading any new ground here, but that's hardly the point. I mean, would you criticize Bachelor Party for not being innovative Oscar material? Of course not. I could have done without Ken Jeong's full frontal nudity, but on the other hand, Mike Tyson rocking out to "In the Air Tonight" was genius.

All in all, if you're in the mood for a raunchy guy comedy, this should fit the bill pretty nicely.


Viewed: 7/11/2009 | Released: 6/5/2009 | Score: B

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Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

My introduction to Anthony Bourdain came on a trip to visit my mom and stepdad, who are fans of his show, No Reservations. We watched several episodes on that trip, and something about the combination of exotic locales, sardonic humor, and a deep love of food caught me, and Juliette and I were hooked for several months afterward. It was just a matter of time before I picked up the book that first brought him to fame: his memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

Like a lot of people, I spent a part of my youth working in restaurants, first as a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender. The experience left me with the solid understanding that I'm not cut out for that sort of work. Still, despite the fact that it was a difficult and mostly thankless (from the customers, at least) job, and despite the fact that I hope never to have to do it again, there's something alluring, almost romantic about that time in my memory. And talking to other ex-waiters, it seems this is a pretty common thing.

What I loved most about Kitchen Confidential was the authenticity. Granted, I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen--indeed, in most restaurants, the floor staff and kitchen staff are not only separate, they're at least a little antagonistic toward each other--and the two kitchens I came to know were nowhere near as profane as what Bourdain describes. Nonetheless, there was so much in the book that I recognized. It really took me back.

Everything I love about the show, too, is present in the book. Bourdain has a really distinctive voice, and by that I don't just mean his writing style, but also his actual speaking voice. And more than any other book I can think of, I found it really easy to imagine it being spoken by the author. I can't think of anybody else who manages to come off as both sarcastically arrogant and genuinely self-effacing, not the way he does.

Anyway, if you've ever worked in a restaurant--or are thinking about working in one--I highly recommend this book.


Started: 6/1/2009 | Finished: 6/19/2009

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Star Trek

Juliette and I finally got a chance to go see a movie this weekend for the first time in almost five months. As you might imagine, since we hadn't been to one in a while and probably won't get to go to another for a while, we wanted to make sure that we saw the one that was really pulling at us. Actually, it turned out that Juliette didn't have any that she was dying to see, which meant that I got to satisfy my inner geek and go see Star Trek. As it happened, not only was it a successful outing for me, but Juliette also really enjoyed it.

Now, the fact that I'm a big Star Trek geek might make you think I'm biased, but the truth is that sci-fi fans--especially Trek fans--are notoriously difficult to please. A movie like this has to walk a fine line between innovation and nostalgia. Too far in one direction and the fans will be outraged at having their cherished memories violated. Too far in the other and the film will be nothing more than a stale rehash of stuff we've already seen. I think that director J. J. Abrams managed to pull it off. There were enough references to satisfy a veteran fan like me but it also stood on its own legs enough that someone like Juliette--who I'm not sure has ever actually seen an episode of any of the shows--had no trouble following along. The characters were all familiar and recognizable, but the film's premise required them to also be a little different from the ones I knew, and the contrast was fun to see. The cast was, overall, pretty good. I particularly liked Karl Urban, whose Dr. McCoy was just spot-on. Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine as Spock and Kirk were also good, and Simon Pegg's take on Scotty was fun.

That's not to say that the movie was perfect. There were some pretty big plot holes, and some of the action scenes got a little repetitive. And some long-time fans may be disappointed at the fact that it's a pretty straight-ahead adventure story with little in the way of unexpected twists and turns. For me, though, that's not really a problem--as far as I'm concerned, Trek has always been about adventure, especially the original series. Certainly some of the later shows added some depth of concept or character development that's beyond what you'll find here, but I think that Abram's Star Trek captures the spirit of Roddenberry's original show quite well.

I'm definitely planning to buy this one when it comes out on DVD. Probably the highest praise, though, comes from Juliette: watching this movie made her want to try out the show.


Viewed: 5/30/2009 | Released: 5/8/2009 | Score: A-

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Perdido Street Station

By China MiƩville

If I had to come up with one word to describe my experience of reading this book it would be "dirty." And I don't mean that in the sense of "erotic" or "immoral" or "forbidden"--though perhaps I should mention that there are several scenes that could easily be described as perverse. But, no, I literally mean it as "covered in filth." China Miéville has created a setting--the city of New Crobuzon--that is squalid and grimy. His vision of urban life in this fantastic world is bleak and alienating. New Crobuzon is full of downtrodden poor, corrupt politicians, self-serving criminals, all grubbing in the muck of their environment. Reading Perdido Street Station I felt like I was crawling through sewage much of the time.

Nonetheless, it was compelling. Despite the setting and the prose that was, at times, overblown and almost cheesy, I had trouble putting this book down.

But perhaps I should back up a bit and explain the book some. I had a hard time getting my arms around Perdido Street Station at first--the entry is a little jarring and there weren't the usual genre pointers to help me get my bearings. To give you a little start there, Perdido Street Station is part horror and part fantasy, set in a world where magic mixes with steampunk technology. It's weird. Of course I mean "weird" in the way we normally use the word these days, but also in the older sense, the kind that invokes that eerie feeling you get where you know something is wrong, but can't quite figure out what. The story centers around a brilliant but sloppy scientist named Isaac, who, at the beginning of the book, is approached by a half-man, half-bird creature that has lost its wings and wants to fly again. About the first third to half of the book is spent showing you the city and its denizens, and setting up the action that explodes in the rest of the book. You meet Isaac's part-insect artist girlfriend, Lin, and several of his friends and associates--things move a little slowly, but everything steadily and kind of creepily builds before terror explodes into the plot about halfway through. The climax and the action leading to it is harrowing, and the eventual resolution is well done, even if it also leaves a taste like ashes in your mouth.

I think my problem with this book is its negativity, its darkness. Mind you, I'm not looking for sunshine and rainbows in my fiction--I loved Glen Cook's Black Company novels, for example--but Miéville's story is willfully, even oppressively dark, like he's throwing it in your face. Reading a bit about him, I learned that he's in Michael Moorcock's philosophical camp of fantasy writers, disdaining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien for comforting his readers instead of challenging them. Yet, for all that reading this book made me want to take a shower, I didn't find it challenging, exactly. It didn't present any new ideas or push me to see familiar things in new ways. Rather, it reminded me of a high school kid from the suburbs with piercings, painted nails, and all-black clothes, rebellious for rebellion's sake.

Still, don't get me wrong, it's a well-crafted story. It took a little while, but I did connect with the characters, and the bittersweet ending definitely affected me. I think I'd even say I liked it. This sounds like pretty thin praise, I suppose, but given how unpleasant the setting was, I think the fact that I'd say I liked it at all speaks to how good it was. If you like your fantasy dark, I'd say this book very well may be for you.


Started: 5/12/2009 | Finished: 5/22/2009

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Ilium

By Dan Simmons

After finishing my second series by Dan Simmons, I seem to be noticing a pattern. The first book has an interesting premise, is tightly plotted, and seems to be going somewhere good, but ultimately the series ends up being kind of disappointing. That was true of the Hyperion series, and I think it's even more true of Ilium and Olympos.

This duology is set a few thousand years in the future, when some humans have engineered themselves into god-like beings, others are living a life of ease and ignorance, and there are sentient robots living among the asteroids and gas giants of the outer solar system. There are a number of intertwining storylines--one involving a 20th-century classics scholar who is resurrected by what appear to be Greek gods who task him with observing their recreation of the Trojan war, another involving a group of the post-civilized humans on Earth questioning their existence, and a third involving a group of robots from Jupiter setting out on a mission to find out what's going on back on Earth and Mars. It sounds confusing, and it kind of is, but it starts off really well. And it's really smart when it starts, too, with both oblique and explicit references to literature from the Iliad to Shakespeare to Proust to Nabokov.

Unfortunately, the second book doesn't deliver on the promise of the first. It's just kind of all over the place--a bunch of stuff happens, but it all feels unfocused and scattered, like Simmons had loaded a bunch of ideas into a shotgun and let it spray. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, only to leave you to go back to a different plotline. It got kind of aggravating after a while, and the resolution left a lot to be desired.

I think that this is probably worth reading for the first book, but try not to let your hopes ride too high as you go into the second.


Started: 3/13/2009 | Finished: 4/3/2009

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Brokedown Palace

By Steven Brust

It seems like usually when an author continues to write story after story set in the same world, things get stale after a while. Steven Brust appears to be an exception to that rule, though. I've read ten of his Vlad Taltos books, two of the Khaavren Romances, and now this one, and the more I read about Dragaera, the more I want to read.

Unlike most of the rest of Brust's novels set in this world, Brokedown Palace isn't set in the Empire--the focus is on one of the Eastern Kingdoms. (Familiar readers will recognize the setting as Vlad Taltos's ancestral homeland.) The tone is also markedly different from both of the other series. The original series is told in a straightforward, sometimes sarcastic voice. The Khaavren books are modeled after Dumas. This one reads more like a fairy tale--in fact, it appears to be explicitly modeled after a certain oral tradition, which I can only assume is Hungarian as that is Brust's background. As fables go, I found this one to be quite well-written--tight, well-paced, and with a really nice overall structure. I was reminded a little bit of Tolkien's Silmarillion, except this was more fun to read.

The only thing that detracted from the experience for me was the title, which was taken from a Grateful Dead song and is shared with a movie that starred Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, neither of which have anything to do with this book. But, anyway, overall I have to say I very much enjoyed this one.


Started: 3/9/2009 | Finished: 3/12/2009

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Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

By Chuck Klosterman

If you're at all like me, you have occasionally pondered the cultural significance of things like video games, movies, bands, and other pop culture phenomena. You may have even thought about writing down these ideas you've had, perhaps in a blog or book. If you're like me, well, reading this book may make you despair a little, since Chuck Klosterman does so much better a job with this sort of thinking and writing than I do.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays delving into such topics as what paying the video game The Sims tells us about ourselves, or the impact of MTV's The Real World on the personalities of young people today, or why Billy Joel is important despite the fact that he's not cool. It's sharp, funny, and, for the most part, spot-on in its analysis of American pop culture. The only drawback may be that Klosterman's touchstones are not universal--people below a certain age range were too young to be aware of these things when they happened, and people above that age range likely didn't care. So, if you're not between the ages of about 25 and 40, this book may completely miss you. If you are close to my age, though, I'd say this book is probably worth checking out.


Started: 2/13/2009 | Finished: 3/2/2009

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King's Shield

By Sherwood Smith

As you may know from my previous reviews, I loved the first two books in this series, Inda and The Fox. As luck would have it, my copy of King's Shield arrived in the mail the very same day that I finished The Fox, and I was very excited to dive into the next book. Unfortunately, something changed between the two books and I found myself not liking this one quite as much. Don't get me wrong, King's Shield is still pretty good. But I just wasn't captivated by it in the same way that I was by the first two installments.

I'm not sure exactly what it was about this one that didn't do it for me. The characters are still complex and they've grown in ways that make sense. The writing hasn't changed, and the pacing is still good, with action happening in all the right places. Maybe it was the change in focus. The first two books are very much about the principal characters growing up. This one is much more about political intrigue and war. I guess I also didn't really like the way the character Sponge changed--the changes are plausible, but I found that I didn't really care for the adult he became.

Whatever it was that rubbed me the wrong way about book three, I'm still very much looking forward to Treason's Shore, the fourth and, I believe, final episode of the series.


Started: 1/31/2009 | Finished: 2/11/2009

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