BOOK: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

March 14, 2015

readyplayeroneMan, it has been a long time since I’ve had this much fun reading a novel. For some reason, over the last 6 months or so, I’ve had a hellova time getting into any fiction book I’ve picked up. I’ve started and discarded at least a dozen, even making it about 85% of the way through the new Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, before deciding I just didn’t care enough to want to keep going.

When I picked this one up a week or so ago, however, I was sucked in almost immediately.  Which is funny because it’s not particularly well-written, and if it weren’t for the heavy 80s references, I’d say it’s more a YA novel than a grown-up one (YAs aren’t old enough to get the jokes, I’d wager).  But a book doesn’t have to be a brilliant work of creative writing to be incredibly entertaining.  And that’s what this book is in a nutshell: incredibly entertaining.

It’s set in the year 2044, and the star of the story is high school senior named Wade Watts. The Earth has practically been destroyed — cautionary tale about fossil fuels — and as electrical grid after electrical grid has fallen, people have flocked to the cities, living in stacked towers of mobile homes where they can wire themselves together for limited power and utilities.

The vast majority of mankind has begun to spend most of their hours awake logged into a virtual reality world called The Oasis — sort of like Second Life, only cool (sorry, Second Life).  The creator of The Oasis, a mega-billionnaire with a heart of gold named Halliday, recently died and, in his will, announced to the planet a complex scavenger hunt of sorts he left behind in the code.  Figure out the clues, solve yourself to the end of the puzzle, and you inherit everything he owned, including The Oasis itself. Thing is, in order to fulfill this quest, you have to be an expert in everything Halliday loved — almost all of it 80s computer, gaming, or pop culture-related.

As the novel opens, we’re a couple of years into the challenge and nobody has managed to solve the first clue.  That is, until now.  Wade, who spent most of his earlier teenage years devouring everything from the 80s he could lay his hands on, is the first to unlock the first of three magical “gates,” reigniting the contest.  Meanwhile, a nasty mega-corporation, Innovative Online Industries, is on the scene, stocked with hundreds of employees, each trained into expert-dom on a single 80s-related game, TV show, film, or other element. Using complex computer systems, IOI is able to call on the nerdy superpowers of their entire workforce at any moment through a single avatar, and has announced to the other gamers that if they win, they will take over The Oasis and do whatever with it they damn well please.

Can Wade, and the other individual gamers he ends up befriending, solve the clues and get to the end before IOI?  Or will they be destroyed by the greed of an evil corporation determined to use its powers for evil?

It’s not much of a plot, I suppose, and the game itself is a little on the cheesy side at times.  But the characters are a delight and the 80s references were a total blast.  Lots of stuff I’d forgotten about and was so happy to recall, as well as, I’m sure, a ton of references, especially related to gaming, that went riiiiight over my head.

If you’ve been looking for a light read and you’re on the nerdy side, this is a book you should give a shot.  And if you have any teenagers who like this kind of stuff, I especially highly recommend it to them because, again, it really did seem better suited, writing-wise, to a YA audience (even if they don’t get all the references, they’ll get enough to be able to follow along, and will probably be charmed by some of the old-school tech). Highly, highly recommended!  Can’t wait to see what this author puts out next (I’ve read his next book is due out soon, and also rumors this one is being made into a movie as well, by the way)!

[SCIENCE FICTION]

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New TV This Month!

March 9, 2015

tvsetIn case you missed it, a whole bunch of new shows started up last week.  Instead of posting this before they started, I decided to wait until I’d watched them all so I could actually say something useful.  If you missed any of the ones that sound good, I’ve noticed almost all of the pilots are available for free on Amazon Instant Video (and/or on the TV stations’ web sites).  I’ll update again later this month as more stuff comes out!

Sunday, March 1

battlecreekBattle Creek – CBS – 10pm. This one was developed by Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad and its new, utterly delightful spin-off, Better Call Saul) and David Shore (House), and stars Dean Winters, an actor I’ve loved since I first saw him on the HBO series Oz.  It’s a little uninspired in terms of premise: cynical, grizzled, no-nonsense detective is partnered up with a polite, manscaped, naive FBI agent (Josh Duhamel) — seen that combo more times than I can count.  But it was entertaining and clever enough I’ll definitely be sticking with it for now.

last manThe Last Man on Earth – FOX – 9pm.  I almost didn’t watch this one, because it conflicted with something else I was recording and, as you know, I’m not usually a huge sit-com fan. But, man, am I ever glad I tracked it down, because I was thoroughly charmed almost instantly.  It’s about the last man alive on Earth after a virus has wiped out the entire world, and the first episode was absolutely delightful (it opens with him about to complete a months-long road trip around the U.S. looking for survivors and for cool stuff to decorate his house with, like paintings from the Met, a couple of Academy Awards, Babe Ruth’s bat — that made me laugh so hard, because it is EXACTLY what I would have done too). Episode two got even better, though, when Kristen Schaal (The Daily Show) shows up. Not the “last woman on Earth” he was hoping for, I’m afraid, and boy, is this one gonna be fun, people.

secretsSecrets and Lies – ABC -9pm.  I wanted to like this series, if only because it’s so rare a show featuring a female detective casts a woman actually old enough to be a detective (Juliette Lewis).  The problem is, that same actress is so remarkably awful in this, she’s almost laughable. And by “almost,” I mean, “utterly.”  It’s about a family man, played by Ryan Phillipe, who is out for a run one morning when he comes across the dead body of the little boy who lived across the street from him — the son of a woman he’d had an affair with years ago.  Instantly, he’s a suspect, surprise surprise.  This series is a scene-for-scene remake of an Australian show by the same name; I watched the first episode of that one last night and can already tell it’s going to be ten times better (also: surprise surprise).  Better acting, especially (though it would’ve been hard to be worse in that regard).  Deleted from the DVR and moving over to Netflix for the original instead.

Wednesday, March 4

broadchBroadchurch — BBC America — 10pm.  Back in September when I was talking to you guys about the new show Gracepoint, a few of you hadn’t seen the original BBC series it had been based on, Broadchurch.  I’m hoping you’ve sought it out by now, because it was just worlds above the American version.  Season two starts where we left off in season one, which, to be honest, I was a little disappointed by, because, whew, was that ever a bleak, bleak story. I would’ve been okay with a new crime to solve. Nevertheless, this show is so compelling, it’s worth the suffering. Looks like we’re in for some major courtroom drama this round, as Joe Miller takes the stand at his trial and announces his plea: not guilty.

cyberCSI: Cyber — CBS — 1opm.  I had a feeling this was going to be terrible, and it lived up pretty perfectly to those expectations. Did you guys know that when hackers insert malware, they make that part of the code RED so it’s super-easy for the FBI’s cyber crimes division to spot it?  That seems like kind of a dumb way to go about it to me, but, hey, what do I know? I ain’t no hacker.  Patricia Arquette stars, which is the only reason I’m going to go back for a second episode. Well, her and also two ex-Boyfriends of the Week, of course, Peter “The Biscuit” MacNicol, and James “The Dawson” Van Der Beek. I don’t expect this to make it past season 1, but we’ll see if any of these three talents (and yes, I just called Van Der Beek a “talent;” you be quiet) can do anything about how utterly ridiculous it’s been so far.

Thursday, March 5

amnericancrimeAmerican Crime — ABC — 10pm.  Developed by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), this series is going to examine the impact of a single crime on multiple residents of a “racially divided” California town. The pilot reminded me a lot of the movie Traffic and so far, so good. Definitely will keep going on this one. Costars Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Benito Martinez, and Penelope Ann Miller.

digDig — USA — 1opm.  I was really surprised by how much I liked this one.  For a USA series, it’s surprisingly NOT totally goofy. It’s set in Jerusalem and has been described as a murder mystery with a Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy subplot, which sounds pretty fun to me.  Jason Isaacs stars as an FBI agent stationed in Israel whose investigation into the murder of a young female archeologist will reveal a complex conspiracy that goes back thousands of years. Costars Anne Heche and Richard E. Grant, and is actually filmed in Israel, too — apparently it was supposed to start last fall, but war there delayed completion.  Kind of fascinating.  Is USA finally growing up?  Let’s find out.

Friday, March 6

kimmyUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix.  This is the new Tina Fey project we’ve been hearing about for the last few months.  Stars Ellie Kemper as a woman trying to rebuild her life after spending 15 years in a bomb shelter as part of a cult that believed the world had ended.  Utterly charming, and a few truly hilarious moments so far (we’ve only watched the first two, but laughed out loud more than once — Rich Mom throwing the unopened bottle of water in the trash made us laugh so hard we had to pause for a second. So perfect!). It’s not perfect, but it’s fun, and I have a feeling it will improve with time.

More coming soon!

Leonard Simon Nimoy, 1931-2015

February 27, 2015

A moment of silence.

meg live long

MOVIE: Nightcrawler (2014)

February 26, 2015

nightcralwerLos Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief with a nasty streak looking for his next big score. One night while out punching people and taking their watches, he comes across the scene of an accident, and is fascinated to see a group of freelance “newsmen” there with cameras, filming the carnage.  After a brief conversation with one of them (Bill Paxton), Lou learns just how lucrative the gig can be and quickly arms himself with a camcorder and police scanner.

Almost immediately, he manages to score some footage he’s able to sell to a blood-and-gore-thirsty news director, Nina (Rene Russo), desperate to raise her station’s ratings before she gets fired. She’s impressed enough to hand him a check for a couple of hundred bucks and thus a new career for Louis is born.

As it turns out, his life of not giving a crap about anybody else around him turns out to be a handy asset in his new biz, called “nightcrawling” because, it appears, everyone who does it is a big slithery worm only coming out after dark.  Methodical to the extreme, and a lover of self-help books and TED talk equivalents, Lou soon develops a complex business plan, which he begins to share in motivational poster-style quotables with his new “intern,” the hopeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid desperate and dumb enough to be willing to do just about anything for $30 a night.

Then one night, Lou crosses the line — he moves a body to get a better angle on the shot.  It ends up being so effective, he can’t resist going to greater and greater lengths to catch the perfect grisly footage, finally even breaking into a murder scene right after the killers leave and just before the cops arrive in order to get close-ups on the carnage. Meanwhile, Rick is growing first a set of balls and then a niggling sense of moral unease, just as Nina is starting to make the horrified realization she has joined forces with an absolute sociopath — one who is so outrageously good at what he does she doesn’t dare defy him lest he take his footage and its sky-high ratings somewhere else. Oh, moral complexity: why you gotta be so morally complex?

This was a pretty entertaining, well-crafted film, though it’s not one I’m likely to watch ever again.  Of the players involved, Riz Ahmed is by far the most interesting, both as an actor and in terms of his character in the story.   I have no idea if “nightcrawling” is an actual “thing” in TV news, especially since I thought the FCC had some pretty strict rules about showing real-life shotgun wounds in HD at 6pm. Then again, they don’t say “If it bleeds, it leads” for nuthin’, after all.  Still, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the film was, really, since the idea that American TV news watchers are all sickos who love seeing the suffering of others in technicolor is hardly revelatory.  Plus, there’s always something vaguely dissatisfying (for me, anyway) about a movie in which the yucky people win.

Nevertheless, this one is definitely worth a rental if you like crime thrillers — both my husband and I enjoyed it for what it was.  Solid entertainment on a Saturday night; you could do a lot worse for $3.99.

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

BOOK: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (2014)

February 21, 2015

onimmunityEula Biss gave birth to her first child right as the H1N1 flu epidemic was freaking out the globe. As many new mothers do, she took to the Internet to try to learn more about the risk of the flu versus the risk of the flu vaccine for her newborn baby.  The information she found there was conflicting, confusing, and ultimately not all that helpful at resolving her myriad questions (welcome to my world as a research librarian, Ms. Biss!).

Ultimately, she erred on what she decided was the side of caution and ended up going along with her doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate her child (for the flu and everything else).  But that sense of overwhelming responsibility, confusion, and fear led her to rethink that choice more than once over the following years, as vaccines after vaccines were pumped into her child’s veins.

This book is what came out of her quest to get to the bottom of the truth about vaccine safety (i.e., that vaccines are vital and everybody who can get them should), and it’s a fascinating journey to take at her side.  Into this well thought-out combination of science and emotion, Biss mixes in a healthy dose of history, analysis of evolving cultural norms (changing notions of “filth” and “purity,” for example), a look at pop culture’s role (vampires, anyone?), and ideas taken from both literature and philosophy as well.

The trip is a wild ride all over the map, and as engrossing as it is, I confess I felt Biss’s writing wasn’t always up to the task.  At times, the book gets a bit bogged down by a tangent that isn’t quite worthy of the boggage, and begins to feel more than a little unfocused.

Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed her perspective on this.  There’s an awful lot of anger on both sides of the vaccine “debate” these days, and one of the things that puzzles me the most about that is the way in which it’s often coming from parents against other parents.  This despite the fact that parents on both sides of the issue are acting out of identical, powerful, and innate motivations — the goal of protecting their children from harm.

This exploration of a real mother’s real fears in trying to figure out the best thing to do for her own child adds a level of humanity, empathy, and understanding to a conversation I have long felt, as a health educator of sorts myself, has been sorely lacking in all those elements. The result is a refreshingly compassionate approach to the subject, and one far more likely to make a difference to parents who are still wary of vaccinating than the insults and rage I so often see thrashing about on social media whenever the topic comes up.  You can’t get someone to change their mind by calling them an “idiot,” especially when their chief motivation is fear. What you can do is try to approach them from a mutual desire to keep their child safe from harm, and to educate them patiently but persistently from that perspective instead.

Highly recommended to people on both sides of the conversation; this is a book I wish more people would read.

[NON-FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

January 30, 2015

guardiansThis movie was terrible. Terrible!  Terrible. Forced, trite, strangely lacking in any heart whatsoever, and featuring dialogue clearly written by a 13 year old boy (a precocious one, to be sure. Nevertheless).

THAT SAID, if LEGO Baby Groot ever comes to fruition, I will be first in line for purchase.

(p.s. TERRIBLE!)

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Sci-fi, Crap
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, yer mom.

 

MOVIE: World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

January 29, 2015

worldsRecently, I saw — and loved — the horror movie Willow Creek, written and directed by, of all people, goofy 80s comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. I’ve always been a Bobcat fan, but it honestly had never once occurred to me that he might be such a brilliant, not to mention deeply thoughtful, filmmaker.  Seeing that film really surprised and intrigued me, and I’ve been working my way back through his (short) writer/director catalog ever since.

This film, made in 2009 and also written and directed by Bobkitty, was, to be honest, a bit difficult to watch so soon after the loss of its star, the great Robin Williams.  It’s a film about death, you see.  A film about suicide, even (sort of).  Even harder, it’s a film about feeling negligible, a particularly poignant sensation for me, as well as the crazy-making impact of being a negligible person suddenly found necessary (knowing all along that it is a find both illegitimate and temporary).  Push your way through those emotional challenges, though, and you will be rewarded with a truly poignant dark comedy pumped up with so much effusive, legitimate heart it’s practically beating while it rolls.

Williams plays Lance, a high school English teacher, failed writer, and single father to a single teenage son, Kyle.  Kyle is essentially an outrageous asshole, and not just because he’s 17. You’ll try — you’ll try to write it off as a boy simply being 17 — but Kyle will not let you. He’s selfish, he’s judgmental, he’s snide, and frankly, he’s downright mean. Even worse, especially for his father, he’s also not all that smart.

Lance, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels things a little too much, painfully skulking away in a shy, dark corner way over on the opposite side of the empathy spectrum from his son.

When Lance gets home one night to find Kyle dead in his room from auto-erotic asphyxiation gone bad, his first thought is. . . well, his first thought is gut-wrenching grief. But his second thought is to protect his son from what he feels is a shameful, undignified death. The idea of his boy becoming even more of an outcast, a mockery, is so painful a notion he cannot bear it. So, he strings Kyle up from a pull-up bar in the closet (you see, then, why this was hard to watch in light of what happened to Williams) and fakes a poignant suicide note on his computer.

Though devastated by the loss of his son, the instant attention and affection Lance gets in the wake of his loss,  from the very people who used to make him feel so terribly, agonizingly invisible for so long, is utterly addictive. And while at first it’s easy enough to ride along, when Kyle’s “suicide note” is leaked to the school paper, things kaboom out of control.  Thus ensues a dark, satirical look at the way we humans so, so love revisionist history (as long as it’s revised in our favor, of course), as students and teachers galore begin claiming close, personal connections to the lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood Kyle. Latching onto Kyle suddenly makes them all feel less invisible too, of course, as they seek each other out for memorials, cry-fests, memorabilia swaps, and deep conversations with the poor dead boy’s lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood father. The world’s greatest dad.

Caught in the undertow of his own wave, Lance is astonished by the power his faked note has on the people around him, and can’t resist digging himself ever-deeper, next writing and releasing Kyle’s “journal.”  It’s the first time in his life his writing has ever gotten anyone’s attention, and that attention, to this poor ol’ underachieving big-heart, is painfully, agonizingly consuming — and, ultimately, painfully, agonizingly consumptive.

This is an incredibly smart, sharp, clever, witty, beautiful film.  It’s also a powerful reminder of the broad-achieving talent of Robin Williams, and his ability to play a wide range of moving characters, both inside and outside of comedy. (Extra irony here too, of course, because of the intense outpouring of love and support for Williams after his own death by many whom, I would imagine, actually barely knew and hardly liked his work. In my own defense, I was a completely unapologetic fan of Patch Adams, even, and so my aim here is true.)

Anyway. Dudes. Highly recommended, and DO NOT MISS.

[Netflix it (streaming) | Amazon Prime streaming (or DVD)]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Cast: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Morgan Murphy, Naomi Glick, Henry Simmons.

MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

January 6, 2015

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

BOOK: Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox (2014)

December 13, 2014

doesnotlovI picked this book up on a whim while I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago — I’d never heard of it, but was intrigued both by the look of the cover and the blurb on the back, which described it as a story about “domestic terrorism” and an “alternate reality Indianapolis overrun by Big Pharma.”

Those are both phrases I won’t be using again in this review, because, as it turns out, they’re the smallest, least interesting elements of the entire book. I can’t even remember, only a few weeks later, what role Big Pharma played in the first place. I have a vague notion it was some sort of blurry commentary about anti-depressants, but I couldn’t tell you anything more than that, and even that is a suspect recollection.

Instead, this is really a novel about a young couple struggling to overcome loss and not doing a very good job of it.  As the story opens, Viola and Robert are at the doctor’s office, where they are being told Viola has just lost another baby.  They’ve been trying to conceive for a while, and she’s miscarried multiple times.

This latest — this last — loss is the one that finally takes Viola down. It starts with her suddenly overcome with rage over the gentle nature of her husband, who does nothing in response but love and attempt to comfort her.  It’s not your fault, he tells her over and over. Of course it’s not. She tells him her womb has become a grave. Of course it hasn’t, he replies. In bed, he is kind and tender. And no, no, no more, Viola finds herself completely unable to stand even one more second of kind and tender.

In a desperate attempt to feel something — anything — she begins to lash out at him, demanding things she knows he can’t accommodate.  Wanting him to hit her during sex, largely. Wanting him to hurt her the way she feels she deserves to be hurt. He struggles to understand and comply, even watching videos on S&M to try to learn how to do what it is she wants him to do, but he can’t do it.  It’s so far beyond his nature, it’s completely incomprehensible.

In response, she begins a brutally physical relationship with a secret agent who has been monitoring her workplace, a local library.  And here’s where the “domestic terrorism” and “Big Pharma” things  sort of come into play, but only sort of, and with so little intent or weight they mostly feel like an idea the author had for another book he decided not to write, instead trying to roll the loosest version of that concept into this one at the last minute. It doesn’t exactly not fit. But it doesn’t exactly fit, either.

As their relationship starts to come apart at the seams, both Viola and Robert fight to keep it stitched, only managing in the process to tear it apart even more.  Eventually, though, they manage to come to this:

Viola thinks, Okay. Robert thinks, Is that all? Is it as cheap as that? I come back, she comes back, I come back? Viola thinks, Okay. That’s something.

And then they have sex in the kitchen, get dressed, go outside, sip lemonade on the porch, and talk about the weather.

Whether this is a happy ending or an utterly devastating one depends on the way you perceive marriage, I suppose. I could go either way — and I did, about 9,000 times a minute while I read this.

This is the second novel in about five months I’ve read that has so gut-punched me, so painfully, so to-the-core, I could hardly breathe while I read it. (The other one, incidentally, was Three Delays by Charlie Smith.) For very different reasons — and for all the same ones. Viola’s sense of betrayal from her own body, her compounding losses, and her resultant rage at both herself and anybody who dares to care about her — these were all things I related to on such a deeply personal, deeply indelible way I kept flipping to the front cover to remind myself: No, I did not write this and forget I’d done it. In fact, a MAN wrote this. A man wrote it. How is that even possible? That a man could write this? Every other line in this book made my heart crack and pop like a bum knee haunted by an old injury.  I kept thinking as I read, “I should put this down.”  And then I kept thinking, “I never want to read anything that doesn’t make me feel exactly like this ever again.”

Highly, highly recommended, though I have a feeling your mileage is going to vary dramatically. God, to write a thing like this someday — a thing that has this kind of impact on even one human being. Living the dream, Mr. James Tadd Adcox. Living it.

[FICTION]

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MOVIE: Willow Creek (2014)

December 5, 2014

willowcreekI’ve been incredibly, insanely busy lately, and also haven’t been sleeping well, which, wrapped together, turns me into this big buzzing beehive of unceasing energy. That makes it extremely difficult to sit down and watch a movie, read a book, or do just about anything else that requires focus of a relaxed variety.  I’m not really doing “relaxed” very much these days. Maybe in January. We’ll see.

That said, two weekends ago I had some time to kill by myself at home, and I wanted to use it to watch a movie. A friend on Facebook had recently posted that this flick was fun, so I figured I’d give it a shot and see how long I lasted before I had to get up and clean something I just cleaned two days ago. (Upside to exhaustion-fueled mania: clean house!)

As it turned out, Willow Creek sucked me in right away and kept me thoroughly sucked-in throughout. For a rip-off of The Blair Witch Project about a mythical monster I find not-even-remotely scary, this movie was surprisingly effective for me.

It’s a “found footage”-style horror flick about a young couple, Jim and Kelly, who decide to head off on a road trip in search of Bigfoot for a documentary.  Jim’s been a Bigfoot fanatic since he was a kid and knows everything there is to know about the subject; Kelly’s a skeptic.  He seems to really believe there’s something to find out there in the woods; she loves him enough to be willing to go camping for a few days where there are no bathrooms. (I wonder what it’s like to love someone that much? I’ll probably never know. . .)

Similar to Blair Witch, they start out with an exploration of the small town outside the woods where the most famous Bigfoot sighting of all time took place (I have forgotten the details of that sighting, but apparently it’s legit lore).  There, they interview a few locals, get some advice on where to go, and film a few scenes for color — eating a “Bigfoot burger” at the local diner, smooching a giant wooden S’quatch statue, etc.

The next day, they head out in their car for the spot where they plan to park and hike in, only to be stopped on the access road by a man who threatens them aggressively, forcing them to turn around, and establishing nicely the possibility that what is about to follow is carried out not by Bigfoot but by a crazy local guy with a grudge against tourists (useful tool of reasonable doubt, always necessary in these sorts of things).

They manage to find another way in and start their hike, stopping periodically to film some scenes for their movie.  They don’t find much — some dubious-of-origin scat, a footprint — until night rolls around and they are awakened by a series of strange hoots and cracks from the woods (Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?). Something bashes against their tent.  A bear?  A giant, hairy man-beast? Nobody seems willing to venture out to check, surprise surprise, and not much sleep is had, to say the least.

The next day, exhausted and somewhat alarmed, they decide to hike back out and go home. Only they quickly get turned around, start looping back on themselves, and can’t find their way out (again, Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?).

And then the hoots begin again. This time in broad daylight. Something throws a rock at them.  They run. They’re still lost. They’re forced to camp another night. It does not go well.

Though the plot is obviously ridiculous, and not even remotely original, what makes this movie work as well as it does are the characters themselves and the script, which is very well-written. Jim and Kelly are an authentic, completely believable couple; it only took a few scenes for me to forget I wasn’t watching an actual documentary about two young dumb people on a quest to find Bigfoot.

There’s also a stand-out scene in the tent the first night (I think it was the first night, anyway) in which Jim proposes to Kelly and Kelly doesn’t exactly say yes. This was a surprisingly tender moment, thoughtfully approached. Did I mention the movie was written (and directed) by endearing weirdo comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, by the way?  That’s why I say “surprisingly tender;” who knew that was in there waiting to come out?

I went into this movie thinking Bigfoot was a pretty lame choice of villain, and I still mostly contend that it is. I mean, does anybody really believe in Bigfoot? And even if you do think there’s some giant, hairy man-beast in the woods no one has ever managed to get a good photograph of, why would you automatically assume it was evil?  I mean, a giant, hairy man-beast in the woods that was evil would probably be responsible for a lot more mysterious disappearances and dismembered bodies, right?

However, the last 15 or so minutes of this movie were effectively scary, to say the least.  For no good goddamn reason, I might add, because I DO NOT BELIEVE IN BIGFOOT.  There’s a long shot — maybe 8 minutes — that simply features Jim and Kelly sitting in their tent in the dark, the camera perfectly still, while she clings to him looking down, terrified, and he keeps his face up, listening intently to the sounds coming from outside.  Periodically, they both jump.  And then. . . Well.  Then things get a little nuts.  Something appears that has noooooo right being there.  No right at all, people The camera falls, there is screaming, and then we’re left to guess about what happens next.

All in all, this is a highly entertaining film, and I was really impressed by it.  I wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it was, especially with the aforementioned endearing weirdo comedian’s name attached to it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work (if anybody has a favorite, let me know in the comments!).

Highly recommended if you like scary movies, good writing, and giant, hairy man-beasts in the woods (well, who doesn’t?)!  Good clean fun.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Kristina Klebe, Alexia Rasmussen


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