If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
Catching Up: Movies
I've somehow managed to average one movie a month since December, largely due to the fact that Jason is old enough to go to the theater now. That's way up from the past few years, but on the other hand, taking Jason with me means my choice of films has changed somewhat.
The Muppets: There aren't that many movies I get excited to see with Jason, but this was one of the few recent ones that fell into that category. I know that a number of purists--including Frank Oz--felt that too much license was taken with the characters, but for me this newest in a long line of Muppet movies hit all the right notes. The movie is overtly nostalgic, most of which would likely miss the younger audience members--especially those who are under the age of 4. But it worked perfectly on me, managing to both bring me back to my own childhood while still being clever enough to appeal to my current, "mature" self. And Jason liked it, too. (Viewed 12/27/2011.)
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: Look, sometimes you just need something to do that will keep your kid occupied. This was not a good movie, but that came as no surprise, and though I wasn't thrilled to see it, it also wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It gave me an excuse to eat popcorn and candy with my son, so at least on one level it was successful. (Viewed 1/2/2012.)
Beauty and the Beast 3D: Just as with the recent 3D re-release of The Lion King, I think that this movie was poorly served by the addition of 3D and I wish they'd leave well enough alone. Because we have it on DVD, Jason has seen Beauty and the Beast at least 20 times, so when I saw that it was coming back to the big screen I knew there was no way we'd be missing it. The thing is, though, it didn't need the 3D--we would have seen it anyway. Without the glasses sucking up the light from the screen, we'd have been able to see all of the color and brightness we were supposed to see. But the theater chains have to have some way to make money, and jacking up the ticket prices for 3D movies is the flavor of the week. As to the movie itself, I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with the "love" story the more I watch it and the closer I get to my daughter being able to understand movies, but at this point it's become such a fixture in Jason's film life that I'm kind of stuck with it. (Viewed 1/21/2012.)
The Hunger Games: When the buzz around this movie first started and Juliette asked me whether or not I wanted to see it, I gave the following reasons for why I did not:
- I enjoyed the book and found it well-paced, full of action, and with a compelling central character, and I didn't see what the movie could possibly add to the experience.
- Film as a medium is great at showing action and visual scenery, but it is bad at showing the internal state of its characters. So much of the book revolves around what Katniss is thinking and how she feels, and it's just not possible for a movie to do a good job of showing all of that, especially not in a couple of hours.
- In order to fit into a reasonable amount of time, parts of the book would definitely have to be cut out, but the book was already lean enough that there was a strong risk of important nuance or characterization or plot being left out.
As we were walking out of the theater after the movie, she asked me what I thought, and I told her that everything I thought beforehand, I still thought. It turned out to be about as good an adaptation as could be hoped for, and several of the performances were pretty good--Jennifer Lawrence, of course, but I also quite liked Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. At the end of the day, though, the movie just didn't bring anything new to the table--I really could have done without it. (Viewed 4/12/2012.)
The Pirates! Band of Misfits: I've been a fan of Aardman Animations since high school, when a friend of mine introduced me to Wallace and Gromit. I was really excited when Chicken Run came out. So the fact that I got to have a fun Daddy-Jason day at the movies at a time when this one was available was a real treat. I'm not sure I would put this latest title quite as high as some of the earlier favorites, but I found Pirates to be thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of the voice acting was top notch--Hugh Grant did a wonderful job, I thought, and I quite enjoyed Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson as well. I was also surprised and delighted to see that David Tennant provided the voice of Charles Darwin. Overall, a cute and fun movie that made for a fun afternoon out with my boy. (Viewed 4/28/2012.)
At first glance, you'd expect this to be just the sort of movie I'd hate. The plot revolves around a divorced couple who end up having an affair, which generally means that it will be full of the sort of humiliating scenes I have so much trouble watching in sitcoms. And it stars Meryl Streep, who is one of my least favorite actresses of all time. So when the movie was over and I didn't hate it, I have to admit to being a little surprised.
It turned out that there were far fewer uncomfortable scenes than I initially expected. And it seems that in light romantic comedies, Meryl Streep is capable of reigning in her self-indulgent "I AM STREEP" performance tendencies. (Come to think of it, she was pretty decent in Defending Your Life as well.) What's more, when it was getting it right, the film managed to portray some (dare I say it) complicated relationships quite deftly, not to mention some truly funny moments.
The problem, though, was that the script just had too much in it. As much as I enjoyed John Krasinki in his role as Meryl Streep's soon-to-be son-in-law, having the movie focus on him to the extent that it did took the focus away from what really mattered in the movie. In fact, having his character in the film at all was pretty unnecessary, as well at least one of the central couple's children. Talking about it with Juliette afterwards, we both ended up comparing it to Something's Gotta Give, which was a very similar movie but with a much tighter script. Which makes it all the more odd, considering that the same woman wrote and directed both movies.
I also found Alec Baldwin's performance to be a little too smirky--sort of Bill Murray-esque but in an inappropriate context and with less charm. And both Juliette and I agreed that all three of the kids' performances were pretty poor. Still, despite all that, I expect that there are a lot of people out there who will love this movie.
Viewed: 1/1/2010 | Released: 12/24/2009 | Score: C+