On Captain Fantastic

I’m usually one to let a movie simmer in my mind for at least a few hours before delivering an assessment of it. I like to hear others’ opinions and to have a few discussions about a film first, and only then do I decide upon its merits. But when my husband leaned over to ask what I thought as the credits rolled for Captain Fantastic, I was able to deliver the simple, precise review that I loved it. Captain Fantastic is, quite simply, one of the most satisfying dramas I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.

My interest was initially piqued by a trailer showcasing the pristine wooded setting, an Oregon forest where Viggo Mortenson’s character Ben raises his six children completely off the grid, providing them with rigorous mental and physical “training.” Ben’s comprehensive version of unofficial homeschooling involves things as varied as Buddhist meditation, daily runs through the woods, a close reading of all the literary classics, hunting skills, a strong yoga practice, knowledge of how to set a broken bone, and the ability to carry on philosophical debate, just to name a few. The result is a vibrant, close-knit family unit, one whose members are highly educated critical thinkers, shunners of the capitalism and consumerism that define the mainstream culture they despise, and self-reliant outdoorsmen. The children not only subscribe to Ben’s way of raising them, they thrive under it, demonstrating mastery of high intellectual concepts and enviable physical prowess.

Writer-director Matt Ross introduces audiences to his characters with countless scenes of Ben and his children going through their typical daily routine. In fact, he devotes a large portion of the first act of the film to simply showcasing the utterly unconventional lifestyle of this family. But Ross’ arduous efforts never grow tiresome or boring. We see the children run through gorgeous, untouched forests; we bear witness to Bo, the oldest of Ben’s kids, kill his first deer, which his younger siblings then proceed to dismember; we watch as the children eagerly read classic novels and philosophical texts, delivering thoughtful opinions on them to their father; we view scenes of meditation circles, dinners made over a campfire, and jam sessions in which every family member fully contributes to the musical cacophony they collectively create. These scenes of family life feel absolutely idyllic, set against the background of the pristine Pacific Northwest wilderness and colored by the delightfully mismatched patchwork clothing worn by the family. It’s hard to resist the pull of the life that Ben has so carefully constructed for his children.

But at times, it almost feels as though Ross is trying to convince his audience that Ben has made a good choice in raising his children this way. The ideology which motivated Ben to forge such a path with his kids is made evidently clear from the way he constantly talks about modern society, government, and the like, to the way in which his children speak of various economic, religious, and political systems. And Ross takes advantage of every opportunity in which the plot allows Ben’s children to show off their smarts. Undoubtedly, the children’s degree of knowledge and intelligence surpasses that of most other children their age educated in traditional school settings, as well as that of many adults viewing the film too. While I certainly didn’t mind getting so many glimpses of this strange and wonderful world, Ross really didn’t have to try so hard to get me on his protagonist’s side; I was hooked on this lifestyle from pretty early on in the film. But once Ben’s parenting decisions are thrown into question, it becomes clear why Ross found it necessary to push them so heavily on us at the outset.

The real crux of the plot is centered around events related to the children’s mother Leslie which force them out of their woodland home. We understand that she was fully on board with the way that Ben is currently raising their children. And early on in the film, her absence is explained in a conversation that alludes to her residing in some sort of medical institution. In time, audiences come to find that her parents, particularly her father (winningly portrayed by Frank Langella), denied her agency in deciding to raise their grandchildren as she and her husband did. These frictions within the family, as well as those with the children’s aunt (played by Kathryn Hahn), uncle (portrayed by Steve Zahn), and cousins, are both opportunities to showcase the humorous way that living apart from society can lead to mishaps in social interaction and circumstances when big questions about how to balance one’s ideals with the demands of society, about how best to raise a child, and about what types of experiences are the most important ones to provide children are raised – and never clearly answered. It is when Ben is forced to take his family out of their paradisal home and into the wider world that these questions come to the forefront, leaving me with the type of ambivalence and uncertainty that only great stories can evoke.

These heavy questions, however, are tempered with brilliant moments of levity, many of them unexpected. It is this balance that makes the movie so compelling. Once the first third of the film documenting the daily life of Ben and company in the woods is through, the movie grows more dramatic and a bit darker. But the change in tone never feels jarring as Ross undercuts difficult scenes by following them up with hilarious moments ranging from a teenage son not understanding social conventions and references after receiving his first kiss to children breaking out into song as though they were traveling Christian evangelists to throw others off their scent. I found the humor in the movie surprising but well-placed, unusual but satisfying. Much of this is owed to Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben. Never one to take himself too seriously, nor afraid to show his true nature in front of his children, Ben often reacts to distressing situations with grace and a light temperament, endearing himself to audiences as a principled and loving, if unconventional, father. The film provides a portrait of parenthood that is ultimately appealing and enviable, despite Ben’s missteps and socially unacceptable decisions. Again, it’s all about balance, and Mortenson is able to find the sweet spot that makes his complicated character work.

While Mortenson’s performance supports the film immeasurably, I would be remiss not to give due credit to the young actors for their brilliant portrayals of his children. It’s pretty remarkable to see such strong performances across the board in a film with six young actors playing characters aged six to eighteen years old. Writer-director Ross also deserves a nod here too; in the space of 119 minutes, all six of the children were considerably well-developed characters, each with their own singular personalities, aptitudes, obstacles, and interests. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily develop a particular feel for each child’s storyline in under two hours of running time. The eldest son Bo, portrayed by George MacKay (who was also excellent in The Boys Are Back), struggles with relating to others outside his family unit, particularly females, and with deciding upon whether and where to attend college. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Zaja has many unanswered questions about sex that her father is not afraid to answer frankly, to Zaja’s horror and revulsion. Rellian, the second oldest son, has the most difficulty accepting his father’s decisions and, as a young adolescent, has just as much trouble figuring out how to channel that rage and confusion. Each child feels nuanced and real, a true feat given the size of this cast.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a real treat of a film, a continually surprising and constantly thought-provoking drama about family life unlike much of anything I’ve ever seen before. You’ll find yourself drawn into a remarkably enticing world, lured by compelling performances all around, only to later question all that you thought you believed. Ross’s ability to effortlessly twist the story, and viewers’ answers to the questions it raises, is a feat the likes of which I haven’t experienced in the theater for some time. I’m fascinated by every element of this film, from the actors’ performances to the writing and dialogue, from the gorgeous setting to the way Ross had me laughing and thinking hard and crying in such quick succession. This movie stands as a great example of independent filmmaking at its very best.



On Homegoing


Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

On A Little Life

There are plenty of valid reasons not to read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, not least among them the fact that it clocks in at 720 pages or that it features gruesome, painful-to-read scenes of self-mutilation and abuse. But any reader that skips this book on these or any other bases would be doing a great disservice to her- or himself. I finished this book sobbing and heartbroken and wrecked and nothing short of amazed at Yanagihara’s ability to bring this story so vividly and movingly to life.

While the book at first appears to be the story of four college friends as they mature, seek love, find success, and struggle with maintaining their friendship over a period of some thirty-odd years, the novel truly comes to center on one man of these four, the most tortured and mysterious among them. Unfortunately a brief plot synopsis just won’t suffice to capture the complexities of this story, to give you a true picture of what you’re getting yourself into when you decide to embark on the valiant task of finishing this novel. A more full and detailed description will spoil the beauty of Yanagihara’s ever-so-careful construction, will eliminate that element of surprise that I so cherish when engrossed in a really good book. I take great lengths to go into reading as blindly as possible, abstaining from seeing any reviews beyond the initial one that prompted me to select the title, never even skimming the book’s inner flap synopsis prior to reading.

But I will give you this: A Little Life becomes the story of one Jude St. Francis, a man with an enviably devoted circle of friends, a student of logic and law, someone with a brutal past that, at every turn, continues to shape his interactions with the world, a childhood of secrets so horrific that he is unable to reveal its entire nature to even his most trusted confidants. Yanagihara crafts an epic story around how Jude struggles with unbearable demons, considers if he can make a life worth living out of his tortured history, and fails to deal with a past that is in every way defining his present.

Wisely, Yanagihara decided to reveal to readers the truth of Jude’s upbringing in the way that memories often present themselves; at first only vaguely hinted at, then parsed out a bit at a time, interspersed with the ongoing events of current life as elements of the past become relevant or once the mental muscle to suppress them is completely compromised. There was no other way that the narrative of Jude’s past life could have been written; it would have been far too painful and sorrowful to consume all at once. Because Jude’s past was dealt in increments, readers share a common experience with Jude’s loved ones regarding those undisclosed parts of his story. We experience the awfulness of not-knowing and an ever-growing curiosity, paired with a desire to protect ourselves from what must be a horrific truth, an acknowledgement that knowing what happened to Jude may be too painful to bear.

Yanagihara practiced this careful provision of information throughout the entirety of this story. Many sections of the novel end on cliff hangers, and then she teasingly begins the next section without immediately answering readers’ burning questions. Sometimes the author even pushes readers to a point a few years in the future or centers the next block of narrative on a different character than the one she left us off with, so we are constantly forging ahead to find clues as to what happened. It was a frustrating and wearying and distressing experience for me as a reader, but also an incredibly compelling choice on Yanagihara’s part.

Just a few moments after I completed A Little Life, my husband came home to find me sobbing on the couch. I immediately provided him with a detailed explanation of the plot, replete with spoilers, a lame attempt at conveying just what brought me to tears. After he heard all the tragic and miserable elements of the story, he asked me if there had been any levity to the story, confused as to why I would continue reading something that made me feel such sorrow. While there certainly are brief periods of lightness and plenty of scenes of beauty throughout (we’ll get to those in a minute), they had nothing to do with the tenacity I applied to reading this book. Rather, the reason I continued reading had everything to do with Yanagihara’s characters. They felt so real to me and were developed so vividly, that I deeply cared for them. I yearned for them to find happiness and had to see if they eventually did. I’m sure the length of the book had something to do with my total immersion in these characters’ lives – you can’t read a 700 page novel without connecting to any of the people that populate it – but I think that Yanagihara also exercised a particular magic of fiction here. I was completely involved with this story and could not abandon it without seeing it through to the conclusion. I’ve never been so mad at a book before – for being so long that I knew it would be days until I finished it, for being so painful to read and yet impossible to put down, for making me care so deeply for people that experienced inordinate hurt and sorrow. My anger toward previous works of art has always been rather one-dimensional and superficial, frustration over authorial choices that I perceived to be silly or vexed by editorial decisions that lessened the novels impact. This type of anger was a whole different experience for me.

But as I said, this story isn’t all sadness. Jude’s narrative is couched in that of his college friends JB, Malcolm, and Willem. JB, an artist, is difficult to like at times, but his sometimes-poor attitude and self-centered ways become so predictable that you start to feel a fondness toward him as well as some disdain. His moments of immaturity are countered, however, by his artistic talent and the content of his work. JB is a painter and he finds professional success re-imagining photographs of his friends in oils and acrylics. Yanagihara provides compelling descriptions of his work, of paintings full of deep and obvious love for his friends, of stunning scenes possessing great beauty. Although JB’s role in Jude’s life falls increasingly to the wayside as the book progresses, his pieces are interwoven through the story, standing as tangible representations of the bond these four men share and the better side of JB. I found Malcolm to be the least developed of the four, but his story is still a source of beauty. Malcolm works as an architect, designing beautiful country homes and glorious New York apartments for his friends. The affection and thoughtfulness that infuse his designs are palpable and the descriptions of his work make me yearn for accompanying visuals of it. And then there is Willem, Jude’s most devoted friend. Willem is the single person we as readers most trust with the tender Jude, proving to be a character whose steadfastness is almost unreal. At first a waiter and struggling actor, Willem’s career steadily grows until he becomes one of the world’s biggest film stars by novel’s end. Willem is just so plainly good on all counts that, in hindsight, he seems unbelievable. But while reading, his character feels absolutely necessary; Yanagihara had to give us someone we could never doubt, a person who we could always rely on to stick by Jude, helping us retain a sense of rightness about the world the author created.

It is this picture of friendship, displayed both in the small moments shared and the larger sense of enduring commitment between characters, that gives both life and light to this story. There are times when these men are in so much pain that there seems no chance for happiness to take hold. But then it does, even if briefly, in the most obvious of ways: through the relationships they possess. And these relationships aren’t limited to what these four share with one another. Other notable characters include Harold, Jude’s beloved law school professor who becomes like family; Andy, a resident-turned-doctor that Jude relies upon ever since the former man’s time in medical school; and Richard, the artist friend that gives Jude a home to suit his unique needs. Even though Jude is surrounded by people that care so deeply for him in such demonstrable ways, it is still not always obvious to readers how he will pull through the struggles in his life. The sad trick is that, through his narratives, we readers begin to think like Jude, doubtful of the world’s inherent goodness and expecting the worst. But then, inevitably, it becomes apparent that the characters peopling his life are be the solution, that they pose the only feasible way of getting through. And then you wonder how you, as a reader, ever could have doubted them.

I started making notes for this review about 400 pages in. When I reached the final page, I deleted everything I wrote. I felt both completely unable to put into words how I felt about a novel that left me so emotionally distraught and absolutely confused as to how to make sense of the feelings and their intensity. The next morning, however, I woke up with a deep-seated desire to write, my mess of feelings translated by time (or maybe rest) into a moderately coherent collection of thoughts that I just had to share. I don’t feel that I have done Yanagihara any justice (which seems to be a common theme in many reviews of her work) but if I hadn’t written a thing, I would have felt deeply unsettled for days. Because that’s the kind of book A Little Life is. A narrative that takes on a life of its own without your permission, that won’t release its grasp on your mind. It’s a story that contemplates so many issues that readers can take their pick: what does it mean to know another person, how much importance should we grant to our histories, how do we face sadness and pain and self-hatred, can we instill hope in the hopeless, is there a point as which life no longer is worth living.

A Little Life is a hard book to recommend. While it resonated with me for days, it also filled me with sorrow in a way that nothing else I’ve read ever has. I believe everyone should read a book as brilliantly crafted and beautifully written as this one, and yet inevitably, readers’ hearts will be broken in the process. Despite how terrible A Little Life will, at times, make audiences feel, reading this novel is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor. I would far rather have read something as deeply felt and remarkably moving as this, than to have abstained from doing so for fear of the full range of the experience.

On Where’d You Go Bernadette


Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Maria Semple’s critically acclaimed novel Where’d You Go Bernadette is one of the most refreshingly unusual family dramas I’ve ever come across in fiction. Through Semple’s ingenious storytelling, readers are introduced to Bee Branch, exceedingly intelligent eighth grade student at a Seattle-area private school and daughter to Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch.

The story launches when Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica, an idea which nearly pushes her overly-anxious mother over the edge. Once an L.A. architect, Bernadette despises her Seattle life, spends most of her time in an Airstream trailer in the family’s backyard, and delegates even the most mundane household tasks to a virtual assistant named Manjula. Meanwhile, her husband Elgin Branch is the picture of tech success, a Microsoft employee whose lead position on a new project gives him star status in the company and whose innovative work he discussed in the world’s fourth-most-watched TEDTalk. The tension between an agoraphobic mother, a workaholic father, and their brilliant child trying to exist as transplants in an elite Seattle community make up the stuff of this novel. But while this meager outline of Semple’s main plot points is certainly accurate, it does nothing to describe the experience of reading such a uniquely entertaining and constantly surprisingly book, equal parts satire and touching portrait of a family trying to navigate the absurd world in which they find themselves.

I usually find it irritating when novelists opt for an epistolary style, using a compendium of documents, such as email correspondence, news articles, and the like, in lieu of a traditional, straightforward first- or third-person narrative form. The former feels clunky and cumbersome, rendering it a chore to immerse myself in the world of a novel, rather than the delight it should be. But Semple deftly executes this often-aggravating device, parsing out bits of information on her own time and, in so doing, playing on readers’ curiosity. The correspondence of Semple’s many characters are interspersed with letters sent home from school, report cards, workplace memos, receipts, news articles, psychiatric reports, FBI files, and the like. Some of the emails are blatantly expository, documenting dialogue exchanges between the email-writer and other characters in a narrative fashion that would never be seen in real life emails. Doing this served to advance each character’s perspective so well, however, that I forgave the obviousness of Semple’s effort.

Although I did not find it to be clear initially, this collection of narrative artifacts is supposed to be presented to the reader at the hands of young Bee. This fact becomes more apparent with time. But it also means that, mixed among the epistolary documents, are brief but consistent blurbs of first-person narrative from the perspective of Bee. These more traditional sections of story serve to bring readers up to speed on Bee’s rational view of the situations at hand and act as a check in to make sure we readers pick up on all the subtle clues as to what is occurring. This, I believe, is a large part of what makes Semple’s novel work. We know who we as readers should be attending to most because we hear her voice directly.

Semple at first anchors her narrative documents around Bee and the Galer School which she attends in Seattle. Even though readers come to find that this novel is not so much about Bee’s education as it appears to be, this initial focus allows readers to gently settle into the world of that Semple has created. The material contained in the first section primarily consists of emails exchanged between Bernadette and her virtual personal assistant Manjula, correspondence between Galer School moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, delightful first-person interludes from Bee, and letters sent home from school personnel about attracting more “Mercedes parents” to their institution. Through the lens of this school community, I completely caught on to the complex central relationships and problems, even those contained within the Branch-Fox family unit. Granted, the majority of this information comes from Galer moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, who are obviously unreliable narrators. Nevertheless, their gossip-laden email exchanges about the Galer School community, and very often the Branch-Fox family in particular, convey the sense that something is objectively not quite right with this Bernadette character. Semple subtly suggests throughout part one that there is indeed something more to Bernadette’s oddities, a clearly identifiable reason for her unusual behavior which the title character evasively refers to as the Huge Hideous Thing that occurred in her past.

It is not until part two, however, that the specifics of this event are finally, tantalizingly, revealed. I failed to realize just how much I wanted to uncover Bernadette’s secrets until they began to emerge. Then I simply could not stop consuming the story, and therein lies the magic of the novel’s construction. I was torn between an intense desire to soak in every detail of every line and a compulsion to inhale this section as quickly as possible, seeking answers to my every last question. Would the Huge Hideous Thing that Bernadette cites as the cause for her family’s relocation to Seattle be related to criminal activity, a family on the run? Would it have to do with a deep and bruising pain, some issue more psychological than practical in nature? Would it be revealed that Bernadette was just as crazy as she seemed, having no sound logic to back up her choices, the title character proving unable to procure a description of the Huge Hideous Thing that warranted the reaction she took? I had no idea which way Semple would go, and it was this not knowing that made my desire to uncover the answers both so strong and so surprising.

As compelling as Bernadette’s past proved to be, the novel continued to unfold in delightfully unexpected and complicated ways, such that I was constantly questioning whose story this truly was. Does it really belong to Audrey and Soo-Lin, since their commentary on the affairs of the Branch-Fox family, at first, consist of the bulk of this novel? Or is it essentially the story of Bernadette, who is, after all, our title character? Bee’s character becomes rather dormant in the middle of the novel. But her perspective is the only one specifically intended for us as readers, so does the narrative belong to her? As we gain a fuller understand of each character’s backstory and their evolution over the course of the novel, our sense of who is heroine and who is not is called into question. With so many figures swirling about and their respective moralities constantly in flux, Semple kept me on my toes, never quite sure who to consider the protagonist. While to some this may sound like a patent flaw, it was done in so deliberate a manner that it actually proved to be one of the novel’s main strengths.

Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that this is the tale of Bernadette and Bee, a novel about the depths of the relationship between a tortured mother and her brilliant daughter. When Bernadette goes missing (which happens far later in the novel than I expected it to, given that the title suggests this very thing will occur), we see Bee transformed into a different child, coming unhinged with grief and confusion and a sense of despair. While the circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance at first seem almost too fantastical for this book, they are adequately explained in due time, as are all mysteries in this novel. And with this explanation, the profundity of Bernadette’s relationship to her daughter is fully exposed with all of its beauty and flaws.

There isn’t much more I want to say about this novel for fear of spoiling the delightful unfolding unsuspecting readers have in store when they begin Semple’s book. This is a completely engrossing tale, with a touch of international adventure, a taste of the detective novel genre, and a healthy dose of good old family drama too. The characters are both fascinating and vivid, especially the female figures, while the satire is spot-on. But all of these seemingly-disparate elements, set in this slightly-more-absurd Seattle are nicely balanced by a sweet and particular type of mother-daughter relationship, the likes of which I have yet to see before in fiction.

On The Book of Strange New Things

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

A genre-bending sci-fi story of evangelizing extraterrestrial life on a far off planet, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things never feels as out of this world as you would expect – in a good way. The novel follows Peter, a Christian minister sent by an enigmatic corporation to bring the word of God to native aliens on the planet Oasis. Contrary to what this meager plot outline may seem to suggest, however, Faber’s book is largely ground in very human struggles and emotions, rather than the mysteries of outer space.

I will admit that Peter was the one who got me hooked. The story takes its time coming to life due to the density of Faber’s prose, and it was my affinity for the protagonist that kept me reading when I wasn’t sure where the story would lead, let alone if I would be much interested once it got there. The reveal of Peter’s big mission is withheld from audiences for a seemingly long time – we know he and his wife Bea are anxious about an impending, indefinite amount of time spent apart; we learn that Peter is proud to have been selected for his mysterious mission after a rigorous selection process, full of grueling interviews; and we receive tidbits hinting at the evangelical nature of his new position. But what USIC (the acronym for the corporation sending him to Oasis) even stands for, where Peter will actually find himself after his flight from home, what characteristics led to his selection, the fact that his mission involves traveling to another planet – all these crucial details elude readers for so long that I found myself questioning whether to even get involved in the novel much further. Fortunately, I pushed through.

Upon arriving on Oasis, Peter first struggles to connect with the various personnel around him at the base complex operated by USIC. In particular, Alexandra Grainger who functions as both community pharmacist and Peter’s personal guide, remains frustratingly elusive but also represents Peter’s best chance at understanding this strange new place. Supplying Peter with only the most vague and noncommittal information about the Oasans as possible, Grainger takes Peter to his first encounter with the natives. Lucky for Peter, the Oasans are surprisingly eager for the teachings of Christ. In fact, they identify themselves by the name “Jesus Lover” followed by a number identifying the order in which these Oasans came to Christ.

Peter starts to get comfortable on Oasis as he settles for a few days (and these are lengthy days as the Oasan sky’s cycle is much longer than that of planet Earth) with the Oasans, alternated with a few days back on base. Despite the humid air from which the Oasan settlement offers no respite, the sea of indistinguishable fetus-like faces the Oasans present to their religious leader, and the strange tongue in which they speak, Peter experiences a feeling of great calm among the natives, priding himself on starting to know them as a people and to understand them as individuals. In stark contrast, there is an atmosphere of doom looming whenever Peter finds himself on the USIC base. I was filled with a constant sense of foreboding simply reading these scenes, always fearing that the true, sordid reason the corporation brought Peter to Oasis was about to be revealed. I had a gut feeling that the actual nature of USIC’s work on the planet was not as they had originally revealed to Peter (although there never was an especially specific reasoning offered), that we would discover something much more dark and horrible when the truth finally came out.

While Peter has a surprisingly easy time communicating and engaging with the native Oasans, he encounters great trouble in connecting effectively via “the Shoot” (essentially, a computer with email access only) with his wife Bea back at home. The two find themselves growing ever more emotionally distant while Bea describes scenes from an increasingly chaotic planet Earth, changes which Peter can barely comprehend while so far away and, perhaps even worse, from which he cannot protect his left-behind wife as she needs.

Peter’s tense exchanges with his wife, his incrementally-increasing knowledge about USIC, and his heightened sense of comfort with the natives come to a head that is neither highly surprising nor profound, but satisfying for readers to arrive at nonetheless given all the work it took us to get there. It seemed that Peter’s relationship with the Oasans was supposed to abruptly change in the end, but instead I felt a sort of gradual falling apart leading up to it. And when we uncover the true nature of USIC, it struck me as far less monumental and not nearly as horrible as Faber made readers previously fear. Although I was underwhelmed with the conclusion to this novel (most specifically, a late series of events that Faber tries to arrange as an epiphany of sorts), the weakness of its ending did not undermine the pleasure of reading all that came before. In fact, the very length of the book may have been the reason why its ending felt so pale; in a sea of so much information, the climax felt lost.

The novel clocks in at a daunting 500 pages and while it doesn’t suffer for its length, Faber could have sacrificed his verbose and lurid description of Peter’s experience on Oasis to produce a far slimmer volume. But I appreciated the attention he devoted to some of the more seemingly mundane aspects of this other world setting – his efforts at creating a beautiful, detailed picture of Oasis truly pay off.

I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but there were aspects of life on Oasis that I found truly fantastical, set alongside other elements that were wholly unimaginative. Peter’s inability to define gender on this planet was a very interesting consideration of extraterrestrial life to include. Despite repeated attempts to understand whether Oasans considered themselves male or female, Peter continually failed to garner a true response on this point from any of the Jesus Lovers. Faber’s exploration of how a different species of life, one that does procreate (we even witness an Oasan give birth in one scene), experiences gender, if they do at all, was a pretty fascinating trip. Peter also describes a mystical, dancing type of rain that creates musical, rhythmic sounds as it patters on the rooftops. Faber’s descriptions of Oasan rain were the type of image that I always love and hate in equal parts in literature; I’m captivated by the unreal beauty described, but find my imagination falling short in its ability to fully picture the author’s vision. Its times like these when I yearn for a movie or some other visual to supplement the gorgeous written description provided.

But on the other hand, the Oasans’ settlement felt way too Earth-like for me to readily accept. True, the buildings had no real doors or windows and they were low and squat, without the ambitious height of metropolitan and suburban dwellings these days. But still, the architecture of the place was described in such terms as to make me picture Adobe houses on a desert plain, rather than a literally out of this world community of homes. The fact that some Oasans could speak English, despite difficulties with their “s” and “t” sounds, seemed remarkably under-explained. Although the community previously had contact with other USIC staff that purportedly taught the natives English, the depth of their knowledge of the language as well as their ability to read it was distractingly dubious, enough to take my mind out of the story in order to muddle over these doubts.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in how Faber never offers any type of judgment, good or bad, regarding Peter’s strength of faith. Rather, the fact that his protagonist is a devoted Christian missionary is presented plainly, unemotionally, factually. Certainly there are moral dilemmas that Peter muddles through under the guidance of religion, and his faith comes through in conversation with the USIC staff as well as the Oasans, but readers are not encouraged to look down upon Peter as a naive God-lover, nor to uphold him as a perfect Christian specimen. I certainly liked Peter, respected him and hoped that only the best would come to him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way Faber treated his main character, given the outline of Peter’s persona. As we near the book’s end, Faber inches ever so slightly toward a higher level of judgment about religion, but only through the direct thoughts and actions of Peter and Bea, never in terms of how the author treats his characters. I found Faber’s whole relationship with his protagonist and his corresponding religious views rather fascinating.

Flawed but compelling, inventive but not wholly so, Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a solid good read, an opportunity to be transported to another world in the truest sense of the phrase. While I wasn’t completely blown away with this one, I was eager to continue reading, not just because there was so much to get through, but rather because it was so enjoyable to dwell with Peter in Faber’s Oasis.

On The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Rob Peace since I tearfully made my way through the last few pages of Jeff Hobbs’ book chronicling his life. Although the title indicates, before even opening to the first page, that Peace’s life is somehow tragically cut short, the pain of how it plays out was still highly palpable in me when I reached the book’s end. The rise and fall of this promising young African American man makes for a heartbreaking journey throughout.

Raised by a single mother and son of a drug dealing father, Rob’s story started out not too dissimilar from that of most young men born to poverty-stricken families in the greater Newark, New Jersey area. But as Rob grew, his inherent intelligence was unmistakable. This promise led the young man to St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School and eventually Yale University. It drove Peace all over the world, starting with a trip to Rio de Janeiro after receiving his undergraduate degree. But like far too many young black men with great potential, Rob’s life was cut short by the kind of violence that can ultimately be attributed to the conditions of a life lived in desperate poverty.

Writer Jeff Hobbs, who mid-way through the book is revealed to be one of Peace’s randomly-assigned freshmen roommates at Yale, offers a heartfelt, well-written portrait of his friend while paying due attention to the larger social structure within which Peace existed. He covers Peace’s childhood and family life, including the many sacrifices Rob’s incredibly strong mother Jackie made in order to send her son to a prep school that would match his educational potential. Largely because Rob’s father, Skeet, was a known drug dealer, she made the conscious decision not to marry the man nor have him live in her home as a traditional father figure to Rob. In Hobbs’ efforts to carefully contextualize Rob’s family, a more empathetic and compassionate side of Skeet emerges, an image of a father who helped his son with homework, visited often, and protected the boy’s innocence as best he could. Hobbs demonstrates how hard Jackie worked just so that her son could attend a high school where he would have a fighting chance of being seen by a four year university, the efforts she took to keep her son separate from the drug culture rampant around them. This was a woman who did everything she could in an effort to help her son succeed despite an array of obstacles, from the color of his skin to his family’s income tax bracket to the town where he was born.

This background on Peace pre-Yale was easily my favorite section of the book. The culture at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, the way that Rob positively blossomed there, the group of lifelong friends he developed who fondly donned themselves the Burger Boyz. It was a treat to see this young man defy the odds and flourish in an academic environment, knowing that soon the world would be at his feet when he stepped onto Yale’s campus. It was encouraging to hear about a subculture within the Newark environment where teenage boys were formed into true men. It was inspiring to behold one man cashing in on so much promise despite the odds.

Once Rob moves on to Yale, I yearned for him to again construct the type of community he created during his high school years. It was a slow process, one that initially made me feel immensely wary, worried Rob would lead a friendless, solitary existence in the Ivy League. But in due time, Rob’s caring nature and easy way of connecting with others gave way to an ever-widening social circle until ultimately he became a friend to many on Yale’s campus, a standout student, an initiate into one of the university’s secret societies, and a known source for grade A pot. Since the time he first tried marijuana in high school, Rob smoked nearly every day. And at Yale, trafficking low level drugs to his fellow upper-class students was an easy way to turn a quick buck, build a generous financial cushion, and even direct some money toward his mom’s household without raising suspicion. Again Hobbs emphasized context, how Yale was a safe place for this kind of drug trade, how it helped to widen the scope of people with whom Rob interacted, how it was never detrimental to his academic performance (in fact, Rob proclaimed that the high he got from pot enabled him to complete his schoolwork). Rob seemed to be at the height of his game during his Yale years, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, saving for highly-anticipated travel and the future, set to accomplish something few people from his station in life thought possible.

Unfortunately this four year high was followed by a slow decay in Rob’s ambition after graduation. I hated to read about this seemingly-aimless portion of Rob’s life, but I also found it to be the most compelling. The beginning of this downfall came with the loss of Rob’s drug money. He had saved $100,000 from his dealing days at Yale, all in cash. When Rob traveled to Rio de Janeiro after graduation, he stored this money with a close family friend, the type of man who would accept and store a large box for two months’ time without question. When Rob came home, however, he found the lock on his box busted and every last cent gone. Instead of having a nice financial cushion to fall back on while figuring out what comes next, Rob was put in a position of desperation not at all dissimilar to that of anyone existing in poverty without any savings to speak of. Even though he was fresh out of Yale, Peace began to put off graduate school applications in favor of first teaching high school science at his alma mater, then pursing harebrained real estate schemes just as the housing bubble burst, eventually performing manual labor at Newark International, and ultimately drug dealing again. But dealing marijuana at Yale was a completely different ballgame than contending with the gangs and powerfully competing drug interests of Newark.

Hobbs doesn’t paint Peace out to be a saint, especially as the years progress and Rob Peace the Yale undergrad begins to seem incongruous with Rob Peace the marijuana-dealing Continental Airlines luggage handler. Certainly the choices Peace made placed him in a position where drug-related crime and violence threatened, and ultimately ended, his life. But under Hobbs’ deft hand, you can’t help but recognize the forces beyond Peace’s control which lead him to do the type of manual labor and illegal activity that most college-educated people attain a university degree in order to avoid. Rob put off his grad school applications, he got overly comfortable with the Burger Boyz, he fell prey to one too many bad ideas that promised him a quick financial fix. Were he to have been a white, upper-middle-class Yale graduate, the kind of person with a strong web of connections built up over the whole of his and his family’s lives, maybe Rob would have made out better professionally. If he was able to be supported by mom and dad in the transition after college graduation, instead of being expected to become the family’s prime source of financial support, maybe Rob would not have fallen so far.

The sad reality is that these were not the conditions of Rob’s life after Yale. Looking at the post-St. Benedict’s trajectories of all five of the Burger Boyz really drives this point home. These were all prep school educated boys, four of who headed to college upon their high school graduation. Other than Rob, only one of his friends from this group successfully completed college. And their careers in adulthood were not the type of white collar, professional jobs a prep school or four year university graduate would likely aim to attain. That’s not to say that these men led unhappy or unfulfilling lives; it just goes to show that the pressure of existence in a place like Newark makes it near impossible for anyone, even the area’s brightest young people, to ever get much further than where they started from, let alone to the achievement of even their more modest dreams.

While this book is undeniably about a certain person’s life set within a very specific set of circumstances, it is irrevocably tangled with the social, economic, cultural, and political history of a notoriously rough neighborhood. If someone with all the god-given natural ability in the world can’t make it out of Newark alive, is there much hope for anyone? Not that getting out of Newark should be the goal. Rob was so deeply embedded in the lives of everyone he loved from Newark, finding a life that took him away from that place was never the goal. The fact that areas like Newark exist, where so many people don’t feel safe in their own homes but don’t have the means to leave and set up homes elsewhere, isn’t the problem but rather just one symptom of a dysfunctional society that fails to care for its own, that fails to make dangerous communities more livable again. I worry that too many of Hobbs’ readers will decry Peace for returning to Newark, that they would measure Rob’s success, were he still alive today, based upon his ultimate remove from the place where he grew up. Applying this kind of litmus test to success only reinforces the idea that places like Newark are inescapable, an idea I want so badly to believe is untrue. Unfortunately I also can’t shed the nagging suspicion that, if the place were Rob was born to were just ten minutes up the I-280, staying there would not have been so inextricably tied to his downfall and untimely death.

Most of the book’s critics cite the gaping difference in the life circumstances of the author and his subject as reason to avoid Hobbs’ work. What right does a privileged white Yale legacy novelist have to write about the life of a black man from Newark? Some, maybe even Hobbs himself, would answer very little. He is fully cognizant of his shortcomings as Peace’s biographer. Hobbs profiled his friend’s life with a thorough recognition that he, a Yale-educated white male from a long line of Yale-educated white males, could never fully comprehend what it was like to grow up as Rob did. I find it actually lends a certain compassion and insight to this biography of Peace that I appreciated. There’s an acknowledgement underlying every paragraph that we as readers and Hobbs as our narrator cannot truly understand what Rob was thinking or feeling, how he was holding it all together, why he made the decisions he made. In Hobbs’ fond portrait, Rob is treated as a remarkably kind, loving, intelligent, determined, and gifted human being, but also a flawed and unknowable one, as we all ultimately are.

Other critics argue that Hobbs is just profiting off the death of a young black man, one that he was barely even friends with. Admittedly, Hobbs was struggling to get his second novel published after the first was received with little fanfare. But a story as compelling as this one begged to be told and the very fact that Hobbs had ambitions of becoming a successful published author made him a prime candidate for writing this book. He was interested in the subject but also separate enough from him that he could do some investigative journalism, recount events in Rob’s life for which he was not present without the taint of foggy memory or his own subjective perspective. Hobbs obviously worked arduously to get the facts straight, to uncover the gritty minutiae of Rob’s life, to get to the anecdotes that would belie what meaning Rob made of his own existence. It would require a lot of trust and confidence from Rob’s closest friends and family, a very wide circle of people indeed, to write this book, let alone to do so this well. The faith that Rob’s loved ones demonstrate in Hobbs by opening up to him about their beloved friend speaks for itself.

Hobbs doesn’t treat his book as a mission to seek justice for his friend nor as an account of Peace at Yale, the only time in Peace’s life that Hobbs can truly speak to. The author makes his best effort to remove himself from the picture of Rob’s life to the point that I spent the first hundred pages wondering how Hobbs had ever come to learn about Rob in the first place. He speaks to his perceptions and understanding of Peace’s life as his roommate when he can, but this doesn’t color the narrative throughout. Clear and concise, Hobbs’ prose captured both the facts and the unanswerable in his friend’s short life. He elucidates the sadness of losing a remarkable friend, inseparable from the much larger problems that led to that lost. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is an important book, a timely one, and the type to encourage discussions about race and class that we can’t afford not to have.

On Self-Inflicted Wounds

I’m crazy for all things Aisha right now. I first knew Aisha Tyler (as many people did) as Ross’ black girlfriend on the sitcom Friends. Little did I know back then, Ms. Tyler is a lady of very many talents (podcaster, comedian, writer, actress, TV host, writer), vast intelligence, and unparalleled quirkiness. My husband recently got me into her excellent interview podcast, Girl on Guy, on which she speaks with mostly male comedians and entertainers about their origin stories and always finishes up with a tale of their worst self-inflicted wound (Chris Rock’s is pretty epic and can be heard here). I’ve even gone so far as to make my husband suffer through rampant applause breaks and painfully shallow gossip during the 2:00 hour on snow days by watching The Talk, the panel-style afternoon talk show that Ms. Tyler co-hosts along with Cheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sarah Gilbert. I just can’t get enough of this lady.

So I also picked up her second book entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds” Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, the book defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn’t challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha’s playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches – and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she’s a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won’t let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it’s all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

On Whiplash

Now that I’ve seen Whiplash, even if it is two months into the new year, I feel like I’ve finally seen 2014’s best film. It wasn’t always easy or enjoyable to watch the expectedly intense and surprisingly bloody film, but the performances and concluding fifteen minutes made the whole gory experience worth it.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drumming prodigy of sorts in his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious New York City academy that Neiman repeatedly refers to as the country’s best music school. He is recruited for the studio band as an alternate by conductor Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons. The film profiles Neiman’s masochistic attempts to earn a core spot on the drums in Fletcher’s band, aiming to achieve his exacting conductor’s unrealistic expectations of musical perfection. But Fletcher is a difficult conductor to work with to say the least. His unwavering desire for excellence is equal only to his willingness to utilize any means, however dehumanizing or humiliating or dangerous, of procuring it. Fletcher rains verbal storms of homophobic abuse on his students, hurls chairs at Neiman’s head when he’s the slightest bit off tempo, and kicks musicians out of his band for being unable to determine if they are out of tune.

Through a serendipitous turn of fate, Neiman is promoted after accidentally losing the core drummer’s sheet music just minutes prior to the start of a jazz competition. Having memorized the piece from which the movie takes its title, “Whiplash,” Neiman is able to perform in the competition without the aid of sheet music, unlike the previous core drummer. But in Fletcher’s band, promotions are tenuous at best. Prior to the band’s next competition, Neiman finds himself fighting again for the coveted drummer position against two other hopefuls. After the three musicians cycle through the seat behind the drum kit over the course of nearly 12 hours, each in turn trying to match Fletcher’s desired tempo, the conductor finally grants the position to Neiman.

As unreasonable as Fletcher’s expectations are, however, Neiman’s desire to fulfill them proves equally irrational. This next anecdote from the film is a bit of a spoiler, but I found it one of the most telling scenes of the film. When his bus breaks down en route to the competition which he worked so tirelessly to perform in, Neiman rents a car to drive the rest of the way. Arriving only a few minutes after call time, Neiman realizes his drum sticks are sitting on a chair in the rental office. Racing back to perform after picking up his sticks, Neiman gets into a horrific accident, slammed on the driver’s side by an eighteen-wheeler. Neiman crawls out of his overturned, crushed car, blood dripping from his head, and runs the rest of the way to the auditorium. He gets to his seat behind the drums in the nick of time, and Fletcher allows his to stay.

The horror of Fletcher’s leadership methods is not lost on Shaffer Conservatory, but his means are almost justified to viewers in light of a parable Fletcher repeatedly shares about Charlie Parker. As the story goes, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker after the latter musician made a mistake while the two were playing together. Rather than discouraging Parker, Jones’ violent response encouraged Parker to practice all the harder, leading him to become one of the music world’s greats. As Fletcher sees it, legendary players only realize their greatness under duress. If he doesn’t push students to their limits with such exacting force, they could miss out on becoming the next Charlie Parker. Neiman wants so badly to achieve the label of musical genius that he withstands Fletcher’s abuses, using them as fuel to practice obsessively, even breaking up with his girlfriend prematurely because he knows he will be too consumed with drumming to be a suitable partner. The whole film becomes an exploration of the Jones-Parker metaphor, raising questions about the morality of this story, causing viewers to equivocate on whether Fletcher’s methods are right or wrong.

Though the film is tense, at times painful, and shows little redemption to any of its cast, the ending is immensely satisfying without being either cheesy or too neat. Just when we viewers think maybe Fletcher has learned the errors of his ways, we find that he is exactly as unrelenting and resistant to change as we feared. And after we think all hope is lost for Neiman, he proves himself capable of breaking free from the shackles of his victimhood. The film culminates in a final musical sequence that is powerfully acted, brilliantly shot, and exceptionally emotional. It’s a rewarding payoff that makes all the pain and suffering along the way, for both Neiman and viewers, worthwhile.

But the performances themselves make even the most difficult scenes in Whiplash all the more tolerable. In lesser hands, the character of Terence Fletcher would have been played as a caricature, a drill sergeant-like conductor whose madness alienated audiences and whose essential humanity was impossible to discern. Simmons brings all the delicacy he can muster to his portrayal of a man defined by his intensity and violent force. When Fletcher fully explores the Charlie Parker metaphor in conversation with Neiman three quarters of the way into the film, we are finally able to understand him, to relate to him, to even forgive him for all the havoc he’s wreaked in the past hour and a half because we receive a glimpse of the logical, human side. Fletcher’s unconventional conducting methods are revealed as conscious choices made in service of the music, the ideal of perfection, and the possibility of molding just one young person into the next great legendary player. I can’t imagine anyone but J.K. Simmons pulling this feat off without making a mockery of Fletcher or playing the character to such an extreme that the film is completely unbearable. Simmons fully deserves every last accolade this film brought his way.

Miles Teller is also pretty remarkable, both for his performance as an actor and as a drummer. Apparently Teller played the drums prior to securing this role, but the degree of musical talent and training required to perform at the level required for this film would be hard for anyone to achieve, let alone a person who spent the majority of their life focused on becoming a career drummer. Beyond his musical performance, Teller plays Neiman, a character that is neither a conventionally likable protagonist nor a hero, in a arduously compelling way. In a rare scene away from the conservatory, Neiman is having dinner with his father (winningly portrayed by Paul Reiser) and some family friends. As his peers are esteemed for their mediocre academic and athletic achievements, Neiman fights to get recognition for earning a core spot in Fletcher’s band. When a disagreement ensues over whether music can be deemed subjectively perfect, your heart goes out to Teller as you realize that his only true place of belonging is under the tutelage of a cruel and exacting conductor.

Neiman is certainly misunderstood, and Teller strikes a delicate balance with his portrayal of both the relatable aspects of Neiman’s character and the exceptional. While we all can recognize the satisfaction of putting in hours of work to accomplish a specific aim, I doubt that many viewers fully identify with Neiman’s level of talent or singularity of focus, nor the drastic sacrifices he makes in service of them. When he breaks up with his new girlfriend to prevent the future heartbreak he foresees when drumming inevitably comes between them, you can’t help but feel a little respect for the guy. Neiman is wrong on so many levels; his delivery in this decision is abrupt and totally lacking in subtly, his reasoning is premature and extreme, his inability to concede his faults is frustrating. But Neiman also displays a commendable level of dedication to his goal, putting aside the typical concerns of a young adult male in service of a larger end. This scene typifies how Teller is so winning; the audience will forgive his irrational logic, even support it, as long as we ultimately get to see him succeed. I had my doubts about this guy after seeing his revolting performance in the unremarkable film The Spectacular Now, but Teller quickly proved his worth to me in the time it took to finish Whiplash.

The film is available now on Amazon, iTunes, and all those good other digital outlets.

On Letitia Vansant and the Bonafide’s “Parts & Labor”

Since the time when Letitia Vansant released “Breakfast Truce” (review here) in 2012, the Baltimore-based songstress has expanded her band to comprise a trio of male musicians, including Tom Liddle, Will McKingley-Ward, and David McKindley-Ward. Known collectively as Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides, the group released their first joint effort entitled “Parts & Labor” today. The new album still resonates with Letitia’s folksy sound and her heart for social justice but shows greater depth and complexity with the inclusion of the Bonafides.

With “Parts & Labor,” Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides strike the perfect balance, treasuring both the old and the new in equal measure. To the casual listener, some of these songs might sound like tracks off one of grandma’s old bluegrass records. Belying the traditional folk sound, however, are the group’s acutely relevant lyrics, tackling head on some of the modern world’s most pressing issues, and an infusion of cross-genre influences. Vansant excels in metaphor, subtly channeling this skill into nearly every track but never to the point of exhaustion. This group of talented musicians blurs the boundaries between folk, country, bluegrass, and americana with effortless ease. The dichotomy between their old-fashioned leanings and the incredibly current, spot-on content of their lyrics makes this compelling album quite the rare find.

“Parts & Labor” deals largely in human heartache and suffering. But Vansant and the Bonafides approach heavy topics as varied as terminal illness, environmental degradation, poverty, and homelessness with a deep empathy rarely seen in the musical arts. The album is like a series of intimate portraits, each one highlighting the story behind a particular type of struggle. Taken as a whole, the tracks from “Parts & Labor” issue a sharp challenge to the notion that we are all simply disposable cogs in an indifferent machine, an image that Vansant brilliantly plays on throughout the album.

“Step in Line” opens the album with plucky banjo sounds, the twang of the slide guitar, and intriguing harmonies. Singing of the monotony of endless days spent working, the band likens time consumed with labor to a prison in lyrics like “the lines on the calendar are the bars on my cage.” But this tune also speaks to the promise of escape and the “green pastures of plenty” that await, an undercurrent of hope that finds refrain throughout the entirety of this album.

The first track I ever heard from “Parts & Labor” was “Rising Tide,” a song featured on Baltimore’s local independent station WTMD with gusto. Though track deals with the heartache of cancer, Vansant makes strong allusions to the profit over people mentality that wreaks devastation through means as varied as chronic illness, violence, and greed. The song swells to a beautiful, plaintive cry in which all members of the band join: “I am a cog in this machine that ruins lives of people unseen/I can’t stop it but Lord let me try/It’s a sad sad feeling comes to visit at night.” Not only are these lyrics endowed with beauty and hope, they’re delivered on the back of a remarkably unforgettable melody. One of the things I find so compelling about Vansant is her advanced wisdom, and the track’s most resonant line comes as she sings about acquiring that very thing: “As a measure of time, well, what good is age/It takes so many years to learn to hold on the days.”

There are plenty of remarkable tracks on this release, like “Tea Still Sweet,” a ballad that meditates on our increasingly urban nature, the resultant longing we feel for the countryside and the damage done to our family ties, and “When I Was Your Age,” a song full of nostalgia for an irretrievable past long before the singer’s own lifetime and ripe with regret about a lost future we can never hope to recover. But in my humble opinion, “Parts & Labor” is the showcase track off this album. I never thought a song with such a highly developed social conscious could be as gorgeous as this record’s title song. Every aspect of this ballad feels heavy and exhausted, the band’s mournful playing a perfect complement to Letitia’s weary vocals. While this may not sound like the stuff of conventionally beautiful music, I love that the song itself so perfectly reflects the feelings Letitia’s lyrics evoke as she meditates on injustice, her heart burdened by the way we take the comforts of our lives for granted. She considers the laborers down the lines of production that yield these comforts, a population far too often overlooked in all mediums of art. Letitia poignantly captures the tragedies of inequality and helplessness on “Parts & Labor” with lines like: “Is there anywhere on God’s green earth that I can pull my weight/A place for everyone and everyone in his place” and “I built a house of mud and straw/It cracked in the freeze and thaw/So I retreat on my knees/To the city I withdraw.” And like any great work of art, each time I revisit this song it reveals yet another layer of depth and beauty.

Then there’s “Go Darling,” the tongue-in-cheek tune of a deserted husband hoping for his “ungrateful woman” to return home. Armed with the knowledge that this was a song about marital abuse, the lightness of this little ditty surprised me at first. Letitia’s clever composition plays from the naively optimistic perspective of the bad husband, his false confidence reflected in the track’s upbeat tempo and carefree feel. While decrying his wife’s domestic shortcomings, the husband fails to do a single thing for himself in her absence, believing she will be back any minute. Lyrics like “Go darling go, it’s a long lonesome road/But the fire in your heart, and the trouble it would start/Would burn this old house down” hint that the struggles this broken woman will undoubtedly face for leaving are far less than what would come to pass if she returned home. It’s a refreshing variation on the classic country themes of a broken heart and desertion.

Despite the heaviness of the subjects Vansant and the Bonafides boldly tackle, there is still a strain of optimism through the end. The final track “Promised Land” critically examines the fearful way that we isolate ourselves from one another: “We’ve all been told there’s not enough for everyone/We guard what we hold dear with laws and with guns/Instead of all these walls, let’s build the kingdom come.” The brilliant simplicity of the song’s final two lines proposes a return to a more communal and generous time: “Now we build our own house/One with no walls that will shelter us all.” Part traditional folk ballad, part incisive social commentary, “Promised Land” is the perfect conclusion to a record so evenly steeped in both the modern and the days of yore. 

The album is available today. Learn more about how to get your hands on a copy here.

On Father John Misty’s “I Love You, Honeybear”

Under the alter-ego of Father John Misty, John Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer, has firmly established himself as a ground-breaker within the indie, folk-pop cannon with his remarkable album “I Love You, Honeybear.” Tillman’s sophomore release is an intimate and personal but consciously unsentimental exploration of love. The album speaks to the singularity of any couple’s love story, specifically that which he shares with his wife, while respecting the universal experience of exclusivity two people share when falling in love.

I surmised that the album was largely inspired by the goings-on of Tillman’s own life since so many similar themes are explored with such honesty, vulnerability, grit, and richly lyrical detail. After a little research, I found this to be true. Honeybear’s eleven tracks predominantly chronicle the lead up to his marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman, capturing the rush of their chance meeting in a parking lot to their first night together to his desire for her to take his name. A few songs also touch on life before meeting his honeybear, contrasting the emptiness of loveless sex and his past sins with the total fulfillment he feels with Emma, the weariness he feels in the face of this messed up world with the meaning he finds in love.

Tillman adapts the love song to suit the intimacy of his own unique experience and quirky aesthetic. He has unapologetically created a collection of distinctive songs on love and connection that transcend the modern indie-folk genre in sound, branching off into pop, punk, synth, soul, and even mariachi, and lyric. His instrumentation and arrangements are constantly surprising, both in the pairing of lyric with sound and in the progression of the songs themselves. But what I love most about the genre-bending, strange beauty that is “Honeybear” are Tillman’s moments of gritty disclosure and his lines of brilliantly lush imagery (my particular favorite – “the Rorschach sheets where we make love”).

In dramatic fashion, the opening track and title song paints a glorious picture of falling in love despite the depravity and destruction of the world. A dreamy chorus of “I love you, honeybear” circles around lamentations of death filling the streets, suspicious neighbors, inherited mental illness, and all range of social malaise. It’s an oddly romantic song in which Tillman juxtaposes the strength of his love and commitment with the inevitable downfall of the world in lyrics such as “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”

I was first turned on to Father John Misty when I heard “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” by chance on the radio. It felt, quite simply, like THE definitive song about falling in love. I was immediately swept up in the playfulness of the mariachi band and Tillman’s sweet lyrics, absolutely reeking of tenderness and infatuation and loving abandon. Now I’m already married, but as soon as I heard this song, I instantly wanted to go back in time to my wedding day and dance my heart out to this tune with my husband. Albeit, the tempo isn’t really appropriate for any kind of conventional dancing, but the images “Chateau” evokes are of love’s purity and joy and exaltation – the very things I want my wedding day and subsequent marriage to constantly evoke. “Chateau Lobby #4” is one of those rare songs that spectacularly captures the complete essence of the remarkable experience of falling in love.

We get a taste of Tillman’s take on soul in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a song about loving someone with honesty and full disclosure. I adore how Tillman ponders on loving someone for who they are: “I’ll never try to change you/As if I could, and if I were to, what’s the part that I’d miss most?” Although lyrically the song is relatively straightforward and short in length, Tillman draws this one out to its maximum emotive potential, making the simplicity of the sentiment all the more powerful and unmistakable.

The lyrics of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” a song which recounts with shame the singer’s drunken mishaps, seem like the perfect fit to a fast-paced, country-infused tune. While I certainly hear more country strains on this track than any other from “Honeybear,” Tillman surprisingly slows this one down to a ballad of sorts. It becomes a mournful lament on his mistakes in judgment and action and it works remarkably well.

“Bored in the USA” is Tillman’s largest departure from love songs, turning instead to witty social commentary set to piano and a laugh track. The restrictions, obsessions, and emptiness of middle class American life are all subject to Tillman’s harsh critique in the lead single off of “Honeybear.” It’s at once an interesting satire, a conventionally appealing song in the vein of piano men everywhere, and a plea for something deeper.

Tillman closes out his album by recounting the very event which inspired it all: meeting his wife by chance in a store parking lot. “I Went to the Store One Day” narrates their initial encounter and the absurd role chance plays in it all. The choice to end with this song is wise, as though Tillman explicitly withheld a description of the circumstances that gave way to the love expressed on “Honeybear” until his very last chance. But it also ends the album on a note of hope, with this great meditation on the future that is equal parts sardonic and endearing: “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years.”





On The Unspeakable


Image retrieved from meghandaum.com

I’m pretty smitten with this Meghan Daum character. I read rave reviews of her recently released essay collection The Unspeakable, only to find that every other reader in town found these same reviews and requested the book from the library before me. So I get my hands on the only other Daum work offered by the Baltimore County Public Library system (which marks a shamefully huge omission in their catalog since she has published a total of three essay collections and one novel), Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House, a surprisingly delightful read about Daum’s years-long obsession with finding the perfect home. When the library’s automated system emailed to let me know The Unspeakable was finally mine for a short three weeks, I jumped straight in to this volume with even more enthusiasm for having had a taste of Daum’s talent already.

Daum is a dazzling writer, there’s really no other way to put it. Her essays are ripe with gorgeous metaphor, display her unparalleled intelligence, and steal readers’ attention with their painfully honest wisdom. I found myself reading certain passages over and over again, caught up in the beauty of their perfect structure and artful parlance. But Daum doesn’t just have a way with vocabulary and phrasing; she pours her whole heart into every last sentence she composes, producing profound truths that left me marveling at the depth of her grasp on everything from life’s most meaningful mysteries to the dark fathoms of her own psyche.

Take Daum’s essay “The Best Possible Experience” which recounts her participation in a panel on delaying marriage trends, peppered with reflections on the poor example of marital bliss provided by her parents and tales from Daum’s own bizarre dating history. Personally, I wish I could have witnessed Daum deliver her carefully prepared piece, a meditation on the intersection of materialism, marriage, socioeconomic status, and the randomness of falling in love, to the aging audience members of the halfheartedly-attended event. Daum’s recollection of this (seemingly brilliant) speech isn’t self-aggrandizing so much as self-deprecating, poking fun at her audience’s complete disinterest in and, what she initially believes to be, misreading of her speech. The audience then proceeds to sap up every word from their next panelist, a best-selling author who simply reads from the introduction of her book in which she humorously derides women for being so choosy when it comes to love.

When one audience member labels our author as the romantic one and her fellow panelist as the practical one, Daum is completely taken aback, then ensues on a thoughtful consideration of romance and authenticity rivaling the brilliance of her previously recounted speech. You see, Daum always categorized herself as a profoundly unromantic person, given her aversion to traditional notions of commitment and long-term partnership. But upon further inspection thanks to a vocal audience member, she realizes that maybe her openness to experience and near-religious belief in the importance of authenticity are actually evidence of a nascent romantic nature, that her desire to meet wildly diverse types of people and to hear their stories indicates a sentimental hope that a stranger’s life could come to intertwine with hers in a great, unlikely love story. What I love about this piece is its display of Daum’s uncanny talent for slyly reeling readers in so that they end up just as surprised as Daum at her concluding discoveries; at first we, like her, are duped into thinking Daum’s no-holds-barred approach in these essays is far from sentimental, only to realize upon further consideration that her sincere efforts at writing authentically are better classified as heart on your sleeve, an undeniably romantic approach.

Basically “The Best Possible Experience” completely stole the show for me, and it was only the second essay in the book. In fact, I would have desperately loved The Unspeakable even if every other piece downright sucked. But that isn’t to say that the following essays are a drop off in any way; I simply connected with this piece and immediately wanted to ponder it at great length and depth, while also fighting the urge to forge on to the next wonderfully insightful installment.

Many of the other essays are actually much darker than this one, but the book never borders on depressing or cynical. Daum brings a refreshing degree of honesty to her writing that touches on those unspeakable things (hence the title) that most people would find ways to skirt around. She contemplates her mother’s death, their troubled relationship, and her ambivalence of feeling toward a person so overly concerned with appearances and desperately lacking in motherly warmth. Modeling after her mother, Daum worries how the home health aide, hired to care for her mother through her final days, views this family that faces its matriarch’s death in such a matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and tearless way. Daum forces readers to face truths about aging that are blatantly unpleasant, from the misguided nostalgia we feel for a youth that was never as good as it seems in hindsight, to the irreconcilable loss of a future ripe with possibility once certain decisions force our lives into corners and dead ends we can never hope to navigate out of. She highlights the contradiction between our overly-sappy, sentimental affection for animals, particularly canines, and their patently genuine animal nature, exploring her own fathomless love for these “ticking time bombs that lick our faces,” a species which she would rather have present at her deathbed over any human companion.

One of the more unspeakable topics that Daum touches upon in many of these pieces is motherhood, or rather her lack of interest in entering the realm of motherhood, even after learning that she is pregnant by her husband who desires to raise a child, followed by a miscarriage that is both a welcome relief and a source of great sorrow. These disclosures are heart-wrenching and at times unbelievable. They fall outside the lines of civil conversation, verging on bold truths we would be equal parts scared and shamed to admit even to ourselves. But what makes Daum such a gifted and unique writer, what makes her work so necessary to read, is that these harsh and unpleasant admissions also readily evoke deep empathy from readers.

In a piece reflecting on her experience meeting Joni Mitchell, Daum attributes to Joni the lesson that “if you [don’t] ‘write from a place of excruciating candor you’ve written nothing’.” The Unspeakable itself is a testament to this teaching, an exercise in exploring the ungenerous and unexplored sides of life with poignancy, frankness, and comedy (because what reveals the darkness of things with more honesty than humor?). Daum truly takes Joni’s words to heart, and luckily she is gifted with the rare ability to speak the unspeakable and gain so many devotees in doing so.

On Libraries

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I absolutely love the library. Sometimes it strikes me just how much of an incredible social good public libraries are, how lucky we are for such a concept to exist and for it to have lasted so solidly all these years. Think about it – a free service which is available to everyone that provides nearly unlimited entertainment, enrichment, education. (It also blows my mind to think about how many materials would be in the library if their entire inventory was in the building – if no books were taken out, all of them arrayed on the shelves, how packed would the place be!) These days, the entertainment industry is one of the most profitable out there, willing to go to great lengths to make a buck. We are forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a film projected for one time only while surrounded by tons of strangers who may or may not ruin the experience for us. Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, and similar services provide some modicum of entertainment- and media-sharing service at low to no cost, but there are plenty of limitations to the size, quality, depth, and breadth of their catalogs, not to mention the fact that you need an internet connection and a computer to access them in the first place.

The education industry isn’t much better, with colleges and universities (American ones at least) charging their students what equates to a middle class person’s annual salary for a service that our national dialogue insists is necessary to achieving the American dream. Post-secondary education is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills, prepare young adults for careers, and provide them with experiences to launch them into successful lives, but it also leaves many of them in insurmountable debt with unmarketable or impractical degrees in subjects that could have been mastered just as easily for free via self-guided reading. The piece of paper attained at the end of a four year education holds way too much weight in society, in my humble opinion, since it signifies more about a student’s social class standing than their intelligence or knowledge base.

But we can satisfy our needs for plot, story, character, knowledge, theory, and thought at no cost in every community. We can expand our minds on our own time without paying a penny of tuition (think Good Will Hunting).

Without a doubt, I would be flat broke if I had to pay for the countless books I’ve read courtesy of my local library. In considering this, I feel nothing but the deepest gratitude for those brilliant souls who insisted on instituting the public library way back when. This incredibly powerful and valuable social institution allows me, at absolutely no cost, to do the things I love most in the world: to read, to enter another world, to engage with a story, to stir my mind.

In this day and age, if the concept of the library had never previously existed, if it was only being suggested for the first time that we create a free book and media lending service, I am extremely confident that the public library scheme would not be implemented. Our national values are so misplaced, so profit-driven and individualistic, failing to see the vast benefits of providing people with certain basic social goods and services. And this fills me with great sadness (and the desire to give my local library a huge hug) but it also leads me to wonder if the future of the public library truly is in danger. It seems so anathema to what many political leaders value, I fear that it may become a more serious target of their budget-cutting and profit-prioritizing in years to come, especially as forms of media beyond the type so associated with brick and mortar libraries become increasingly valued over paperbacks. These fears may be totally unfounded in my lifetime – I really haven’t done the proper research on how imminent the end of the library may be if it is in fact a true likelihood – but I did some digging and found more than a few articles that piqued my interest on this topic. For further reading, check out the links below.

The Week: What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books: An interesting read on the importance of physical libraries as social meeting spaces and the site of helpful, brilliant librarians. Plus a smattering of library history launched off of Tim Worstall’s horrendous recommendation that everyone be given a Kindle with unlimited subscriptions so we can shut libraries down (has he seen the bad publicity e-reading before bed has gotten lately???)

Slate: What will become of the library? – An overview of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and other historical instances of biblioclasm as they relate to our modern-day predicament. Also looks at trends and changes in the form and function of libraries, including the fascinating Snead Bookshelf Company’s design of library shelving in which the shelves themselves are load-bearing such that their removal would literally compromise the structure of library buildings.

Knight Foundation: Future of Libraries – Interviews with library directors regarding how they are transforming their services to fit the needs of the modern world and what they envision the future role of libraries will become.

Go to Hellman: Are public libraries in a death spiral? – In response to library budget cuts and the suggestion of limiting library hours in 2010, a fellow blogger argues for enhancing the service and programming aspect of the local library, an aspect of the brick and mortar institution that online resources cannot replace.

On Obvious Child

Given that I’m married to a comedian, films about the art of stand up are more likely to cross my path than some other topics. But even movie-lovers completely unconnected to any of those masochistic souls that dream of earning a living by making others laugh will surely be fond of Jenny Slate’s endearing portrayal of amateur stand up Donna Stern in Obvious Child.

Hyped as “the abortion romantic-comedy,” I was initially surprised by how little I felt the movie actually dealt with abortion (my husband Mike, however, said the exact opposite). Protagonist Donna Stern is a struggling stand up comedian based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She works at a bookstore by day and spends most nights performing at a local bar. The film opens when Donna is brutally dumped in the grungy bathroom of said local bar by a guy who turns out to have been sleeping with her friend. Donna’s ego is badly damaged so she takes to drinking excessively as a means of coping.

One drunken night lays the plot-line for the remainder of the film. Donna meets Max, a nice, non-hipster guy who is clearly out of place at her regular Williamsburg haunt. The night ends in a one-night stand that also, incidentally enough, leaves Donna pregnant, and she decides unequivocally to have an abortion. It was refreshing to watch a film where the conflict was not whether to have an abortion, but rather, whether and how to break the news about it to Max (and I think this is why it didn’t feel as abortion-heavy as I expected – I imagined the central dilemma to revolve around her equivocating on the abortion thing).

Although abortion completely factors into the film, I found that this movie was more about the awkward, bumbling romance between two people from entirely different crowds. As Donna says on stage, she is the spitting image of Anne Frank. In private to her gay best friend, she describes Max as a Christmas tree because he is so obviously a good Christian boy. Her jokes at Max’s expense place him as a well-bred frat boy, a sharp contrast to her decidedly unladylike choice of language and penchant for fart jokes. Nevertheless viewers understand that Donna is attracted to Max in spite of their obvious surface-level differences.

Even more complicating is the fact that Donna plans to abort Max’s baby. She tries to avoid engaging in anything more than a one-night stand with Max because of this fact, only to have her plans foiled by circumstance and plain, old-fashioned attraction. This in itself is a great moral dilemma and a good conversation starter (for people with like-political-minds of course). Should she tell Max about the pregnancy? What about the abortion? How should she tell him? How much say should he have in the matter of getting an abortion? This highly entertaining film tricks you into thinking about some of these heavy issues while simultaneously making you both laugh and cringe at Donna’s social skills or complete lack thereof.

Jenny Slate is captivating in her portrayal of Donna. I find that sometimes the female comedian character is way overdrawn to the point of irritation. Thankfully Slate stops short of grating on your nerves. She portrays Donna as perky, complex, and quirky, but her performance is never dull, hackneyed, or annoying. Donna is flawed and she knows it, she’s a bit aimless and is okay with it, she’s hilarious even if in an unconventional way, and her stand up doesn’t fall on the standard tropes to which female comedy can frequently be prone. Sometimes you want to hold her back from embarking on a mistake, sometimes you want to give her a pep talk about doing the right thing, but mostly you just want to see how it all works out because you know she will land on her feet. Luckily, she has great friends and family, portrayed by Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper, to help her with the first two.

Jake Lacy plays Max, the all-American, Christian boy. While it’s obvious from the start that he would not typically fit into Donna’s world, audiences can’t help rooting for him nonetheless. He tries to understand Donna but never attempts to change himself in an effort to align with a superficial characterization of Donna’s supposed “type.” Max proves to be a genuinely sweet character and I find Lacy an appealing fit for that role.

Certainly prepare yourself for some gross humor, R-rated language, and lots of skinny jeans before watching this one. It’s not exactly friendly for all types of families, but I watched this one with my parents and sister with little of the discomfort that often accompanies family viewings of movies intended for the same target audience. All in all, Obvious Child will leave you with the type of feel-good vibes people are in search of whenever they watch romantic comedies.

On Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Meghan Daum’s pseudo-memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” is an account of her life told in zip codes, outrageous home prices, swoon-worthy woodwork, disastrous architectural layouts, and soul-crushing house hunting failures. I worried that I would quickly grow weary of a 245-page book about the trials and tribulations of real estate, despite my love of all things interior design and HGTV which, like Daum, I can wholeheartedly attribute to my mother’s influence. But “Life Would Be Perfect” is far more engrossing than even a final reveal episode of Rehab Addict. Via her constant search for the perfect home, Daum takes readers on a deep and entertaining exploration of her life story and the seemingly-innate desire for homeownership. Our author is a fascinating and intelligent personality in her own rite which makes her book so readable; Daum writes brilliantly, with great wit and an expansive vocabulary, but also frankly, exposing her flaws, pretensions, and ridiculousness to readers with no holds barred.

By meditating on her history of homes, and a very robust history it is as she tried on dorms, apartments, and houses with more fervor than most brides search for the perfect gown, Daum explores the way our abodes cradle not just our daily lives but also our very precious identities. We follow Daum in her exhausting efforts to fulfill her childhood dream of renting a sprawling and elegantly bohemian New York apartment to her more adult (but still childlike) desire for a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style prairie farmhouse, farm included notwithstanding the fact that Daum has really only ever lived in suburbia or New York City.

Over each incarnation of Daum’s elusive, imagined perfect home, she explores what longings were at the heart of her search – the desire to be among the New York literary elite, living in a home filled with the warmth of worn Oriental rugs, the sound of intellectual conversation, and the subtle essence of effortless wealth; a display of rugged individualism and the pull of a vast landscape in her own little house on the prairie; the appearance of self-possession, confidence, and excellent taste conveyed via careful interior design as a prerequisite for introducing one’s home, and thus one’s very self, to a new suitor. This theme of home being mixed up with imagined identities and real hope is perfectly captured in the very title of Daum’s book, playing upon the equal parts ridiculous and rational belief that our homes define us, that our houses can make or break or alter our lives, that the places we live are of profound significance, that our decor has meaning all its own.

Though this is a story of housing dreams and disasters, it also encourages readers to engage with Daum, at once a frustratingly impulsive and entirely relatable narrator. As she signs yet another lease or completes the paperwork to purchase a home in Lincoln, Nebraska the very same day she first saw it, readers will at turns cringe, be consumed with jealousy, wonder at the cost of all those damn movers, cheer her on, and wish to see these homes, both the gorgeous and the ramshackle ones, in the flesh. I reveled in descriptions of her beloved New York City apartment on 100th St between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, pursed my lips in disgust at her search for a home in the smog- and traffic-laden, over-priced hills of Los Angeles, and envisioned what my own prairie farm home would entail. I wished I could try on homes for size just as much as Daum, then gently reminded myself how much I deplore the reality of moving. But my shuffling thoughts were always followed by a wistfully envious phase, envy of Daum’s freedom both financial and geographical, her bold search for a perfect place to call home.

Balanced by the reality that our homes, like ourselves, are imperfect and impermanent spaces, “Life Would Be Perfect” inspired dreams of my own ideal forever home and sparked reflections upon the places I have lived, been defined by, missed out on, and hope yet to find. Unlike the cookie-cutter perfection of interior design and home-buying shows that leave me bereft, covetous, and unsatisfied with my own slightly grubby, hand-me-down rental, Daum’s indulgent meditation on her housing history made me more fond of my own space and all its reflections of me (not including its grubbiness though). Culling wisdom from years of attending open houses, making more moves than I could keep track of, and renovating to perfection, Meghan Daum considers why home is so important to us, how the physical and aesthetic concerns begin to override the true function of a house, and the true measure of a perfect home.

On Alvvays

It’s that time of year again when Best of 2014 lists pop up all over. After overindulging in a month-long musical smorgasbord of Christmas carols and holiday classics, revisiting some of the past year’s best releases offered a welcome change of pace. I’ve been pleasantly reminded of the year’s most unfairly forgotten albums, with Alvvays’ self-titled debut at the top of that list. Like a welcome day of sun-kissed summer air, Alvvays surprisingly and to much delight popped up on my radar again, audibly transporting me out of this December’s rain and drear.

Though Alvvays hails from Toronto, their sound blends polished, vintage southern California surf rock with modern low-fi, indie pop. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s brooding vocals drip with equal parts sincerity and disinterest, an endearing and enticing combination. The entire album is worth a thorough and uninterrupted listen to, the way they used to do in the old days. Here are just a few of my thoughts on my three favorite Alvvays tracks.

The album opens with “Adult Diversion,” a song you can’t help but imagine as score for a grainy home video depicting lazy summer day antics and grungy late night parties. I was delighted to discover that the group’s music video for this track encapsulated my vision exactly as, if not even better than, was pictured in my own imagination. But contrary to the carefree tone of “Adult Diversion,” the song’s lyrics express longing, insecurity, and even darkness: “If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat, and then go back to university/If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat and sit inside so very quietly.” This contrast, like that between Rankin’s dark vocals and Alvvays’ breezy instrumentation, is just the thing that keeps you coming back for more. 

From the first time I heard the single “Archie, Marry Me,” I was addicted to the sound. Alvvays perfects the indie pop hook on this track about desiring the rite of matrimony despite our most rational arguments against it. It’s a call to screw the man and buck convention in the very act of getting married. Maybe contrast doesn’t play such a big role in this tune but it still satisfies, begging to be heard and shared.

“Party Police” is a more subdued track in both lyric and sound. The song is a plea for keeping things simple, if not downright carnal, in spite of the confusion clouding the relationship between singer and subject. But Rankin doesn’t let the track end without tagging on the disclaimer “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” I love the rawness of this sentiment, how her insecurity is so honestly and frankly felt, even after suggesting to her lover/subject “we could find comfort in debauchery.”

I first fell for Alvvays during a rough summer, a season when I didn’t have the time or energy to feel the way this album made me want to feel (content, youthful, bold, free… the list goes on and on). But now, finally, as 2014 comes to a close, the lyrical accessibility, listen-ability, and optimism of Alvvays feels just right. Enjoy!