Monthly Archives

October 2009

Winner & Runner-Up of the 1st Best Nerd Award

As part of my first blogoversary celebration, I asked you to share your nerdy stories for a chance of winning 1 hardcover or 2 paperback books of your choice from my list of available titles. The stories made me smile because it’s clear we’re united by our nerdiness, but I think our owning it also makes us cool.

There were many good stories so this was really hard for me to judge, but I finally chose the following two people as winner and runner-up. The winner gets first choice of book(s) from the list.

Winner: Poncho from Mexico, for traveling all the way to Germany for a trading card tournament and—this is the deal clincher—speaking Elvish. If you don’t even know what that language is, that’s exactly why Poncho won.

Runner-up: novelwhore from New York, for counting authors instead of sheep when she can’t sleep and for terminating relationships with people who use cutesy text lingo and/or emoticons in e-mails.

Congrats to both of you! Please e-mail me or hit “contact” in the upper right corner of this page, provide me with your address and let me know which book(s) you’d like.

Thank you to all who joined in the celebration, old and new friends alike. Stay tuned for more giveaways and another year of nerdy moments!

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Movie Review: AN EDUCATION

In this coming-of-age movie, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) receives quite an education—in academics, sex, music and fine living. She owes most of this to her much older lover, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whom she meets one day in the rain when he offers to shelter her cello, if not her, in his car.

Soon, she and David are devising ways to convince her parents to let her go out with him to dinners, dancing and even Paris (there’s a romantic Parisian montage which made me ache to go). Her stellar school grades plummet and her goals of attending Oxford begin to recede. Like David, it seems Jenny would rather attend the “University of Life,” much to the chagrin of her teachers. Her glamorous experience abruptly ends, however, after an upsetting discovery, forcing her to re-examine what kind of education she really wants.

jenny in rainYou may or may not have heard of Mulligan (she played Kitty Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley) but I believe she will be well known here in the States very soon. The 24-year-old actress believably conveys the giddiness and innocence of a 16-year-old, then blossoms before our very eyes into a sophisticated young woman—with her plummy voice and gazelle legs—who learns a lesson she won’t forget. The movie is based on the life of British journalist Lynn Barber, who wrote an article about her rude awakening.

sarsgaardI found the casting of Sarsgaard a bit problematic. While I think he’s an extremely talented actor who does good work here, he brings with him cinematic baggage from often playing edgy/smarmy guys who can’t be trusted. David is supposed to be a suave and classy gentleman who not only seduces Jenny, he charms her parents into practically pushing their daughter into his arms. Knowing Sarsgaard doesn’t do the straight-up, nice-guy thing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does, the impact is muted.

alfredAmong the stellar supporting cast, Alfred Molina stands out as Jenny’s blustery father, who at first pressures his daughter to strive for Oxford but then thinks maybe a rich man would be better for her future. Despite the character’s temper, Molina makes him sympathetic, a father who simply wants to assure his daughter’s well-being in an age where professional options for women were limited. Olivia Williams turns in a subtle yet effective performance as Jenny’s teacher, a “spinster” whom Jenny eventually sees in a different light. Rosamund Pike, known for playing classy or icy smart women, displays her comedic chops as a dim-witted blonde who often parties with Jenny and David and her own boyfriend, Danny (Dominic Cooper).

loneDanish director Lone Scherfig, in her American feature debut, does a nice job guiding the actors to strong performances, which is crucial in a film that’s more character study than plot-driven. Novelist Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, peppering it with his usual humor and smart dialogue, and consulted on the music, which is 1960s groovy.

Scherfig, Sarsgaard, Mulligan, Cooper and Williams showed up to do Q & A at the Variety screening I attended. Insights gleaned from the session:

  • Sarsgaard is handsome and personable in real life, not creepy at all.
  • Mulligan is sporting a chic pixie cut and will use an American accent for her role as Gordon Gekko’s daughter, Winnie, in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, currently shooting in NY. She’s more sophisticated in person than in Education, speaking in a lower register and showing no signs of Jenny’s gigglyness.
  • Cooper, whose on-screen presence has never made any impression on me, was hilarious in person. He had a funny answer to everything and was very flirtatious without being obnoxious.
  • Scherfig is a smart, fascinating woman. She said the people she’s inspired by are completely different from the people who influence her work. Example: She gets a lot of advice from Lars von Trier (Antichrist) and admires him but would never try to do anything resembling his work.
  • Williams identified with her role as Jenny’s teacher in the film because she’s a grammar nerd. (Love that!) She said the crew on her current Fox series, Dollhouse, is constantly teasing her for picking out split infinitives and dangling prepositions in the scripts.

Nerd verdict: A worthwhile Education

All photos by Kerry Brown, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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Book Review: Lorrie Moore's A GATE AT THE STAIRS

Written by Thuy Dinh, contributing writer

My children, ages 11, 8, and 6, are discovering the Beatles for the first time. Not only do they listen to the songs endlessly during the rides to and from school, but they also play some of the Beatles’ simpler melodies on their piano keyboard almost 24/7.

It might have been a simple case of osmosis, then, or it could have been just a quirky coincidence that I heard the whole message of Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs, summed up in “All You Need is Love,” but with double negative lyrics:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be UNdone

Nothing you can sing that can’t be UNsung

Nothing you can say but you can’t UNlearn how to play the game

It’s NOT easy….

There’s nothing you can make that can’t be UNmade

No one you can save that can’t be UNsaved.

Nothing you can do but you can’t UNlearn how to be you

in time…

Though the message is unflinching, it’s affirming in that it holds the reader in high regard and tries to portray the world in a complex way. Told in the voice of Tessie Keltjin, a 20-year old college student, Stairs begins in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11. Right away, Moore sets the stage for the polarizing forces of her novel: faith versus faithlessness, love versus the absence of love, life versus death.

Tessie comes from the rural town of Dellacrosse (of the cross) and she goes to college in Troy (like its Greek antecedent, a liberal, cosmopolitan town somewhere in the Midwest). Soon, Tessie is hired to be the nanny of a mixed-race child adopted by the Thornwood-Brinks, a white, upper-middle class, progressive couple who live and work in Troy.

While working as a nanny, Tessie becomes involved with a darkly handsome but vaguely dangerous classmate in her Introduction to Sufism class. The man may or may not be Brazilian and only speaks or sings in Italian. The third plot strand is Tessie’s relationship with her family, most notably her close connection with her younger brother Robert, who plans to join the U.S. Army after high school. Moore takes her time getting to the heart of the story so at first it’s challenging, but once it speeds up, she covers impressive ground in a take-no-prisoners way.

The title of Moore’s novel is both literal and elusive. A Gate at the Stairs may simply mean a baby gate to prevent Tessie’s 2-year old charge, Mary-Emma, from reaching the stairs, or it could mean Babygate, Watergate, or even…Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The novel, which was clearly written before Professor Gates’ July 2009 incident with the Boston police, has a character in a consciousness-raising group casually mentioning a story about a black  youth being accidentally shot by the police in his own home). A gate, therefore, can be something shameful and secretive, an impediment to progress, barring the stairway to heaven, blocking the path to true understanding.

Stairs is streamlined and layered, more like a Chinese shadow box, or a Vidalia onion as opposed to a messy head of radicchio (vegetables are also prominent in Moore’s novel, as Tessie’s father is a gentleman farmer who cultivates organic “pearl” fingerlings for yuppie consumers). The various gates in Moore’s novel are variations on the same theme: love and/or the lack of, and loss of love. Her characters are either recklessly in love or reckless with love. Lust, hunger, lack of faith, neglect and/or mistreatment of children, and racism are simply manifestations of love’s absence. Tessie poetically compares a decadent meal to an empty experience that leaves “the spirit…untouched,” “a condition of prayerless worship,” or an “endless communion” that offers no grace or salvation.

Moore’s cast of passionate yet lonely characters, like her punning/cunning use of language, have names that aptly describe them, yet at the same time may not represent who they really are. Like doomed figures in a Greek tragedy, Moore’s characters misinterpret events, or misinform each other, to escape from their oppressive fates. Tessie always complains of “not hearing things right” or “not believing what she hears.” Language in Moore’s universe is itself a shape-shifting, subversive character. In church, Tessie thinks she hears “Our Father” as follows:

Our father who art a heathen

Hollow be thigh name

Thigh king is dumb

Thigh will is dun

on earth as it is

at birth.

Stairs is the feminine, and feminist, answer to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. (Incidentally, Holden Caulfield’s yearning to save the young children who run too close to the cliff of a rye field is also a deliberate misreading of a literary source. Robert Burns’ 18th century poem, “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” is sexually provocative and has nothing to do with saving children.)

At the end of the novel, after undergoing many forms of personal losses, Tessie becomes “nobody’s sister” who literally stares death in the eye. Wiser, sadder, but still at heart a romantic, Tessie concludes, “Love is the answer…It was OK…as an answer. But no more than that. It was not a solution; it wasn’t really an answer, just a reply.”

Just a reply, but it was way moore than enough for me.

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BABY, GONE Again As GIRL Arrives

Photo by Rose Lincoln

Hearing huge news about two of my favorite mystery series on the same day almost made me pass out from too much joy. The Boston Herald reports that Dennis Lehane, who last year told Entertainment Weekly “it’s highly unlikely” he would ever write another whodunit, much less another Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro book, will be bringing back the Boston P.I.s for another go-round. Not only that, it’s a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know this case really messed up Patrick and Angie. Can’t wait to see how they’ve handled the fallout and what happens when the case rears its ugly head again.

Danish actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth

The other exciting news is that, according to Variety, the Swedish movie version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (called simply Millenium) will finally get a U.S. release early next year. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most arresting figures in crime fiction today and I imagine she’ll be just as badass on screen.

You excited about these news or is it just me? (UPDATE: Read my review of the Tattoo movie here.)

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Movie Review: THE INVENTION OF LYING

Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying is the funniest serious movie I’ve seen in years. There are many moments that will make you laugh out loud, but at its core, it’s also a smart meditation on faith, free will and happiness.

The movie opens with “chubby loser” Mark Bellison (Gervais) explaining that in his world, everyone tells the truth all the time. They know no other way. They don’t even have a word for “truth” or “true” because everything just is. This situation makes the first half hour of the movie ridiculously funny, with Jennifer Garner’s character, Anna, telling Mark exactly how she feels about him on their date, and a motel advertising itself as “A cheap place for intercourse with a near stranger.”

Courtesy Warner Bros./Sam Urdank

But after Mark utters the first lie out of desperation (he’d been fired and facing eviction from his apartment), he discovers what a truly awesome power he holds. He goes about making himself and others happy by feeding them lies, until one about “the man in the sky” gets way out of control. Everyone interprets this notion differently, making  Mark wonder if it brings people comfort or takes away their free will.

Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson, shows a side of him we’ve never seen before. In one scene, he exhibits such deep emotional pain, I had to keep reminding myself this is a man who’s always making me do the liquid-spewing laugh. But this is good, because he draws us in with the humor and then takes us to unexpected places.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Garner has never been lovelier than she is here. She imbues Anna with both the childlike innocence of someone with no edit button, and the confidence of the hot babe who knows she possesses excellent genetics. She has wonderful comic timing, cries beautifully, and is dressed in a wardrobe so fetching, I want to own everything she wears in the movie.

There are many comic superstars in the cast but most of them are underused. My idol Tina Fey is miscast as Mark’s assistant. She has such a take-charge vibe, I don’t buy her as anybody’s lackey. At first, Rob Lowe is quite funny as Brad, Mark’s rival for Anna’s hand, but his arrogant act becomes a little one-note after a while. Edward Norton has a wacky bit as a motorcycle cop, but Christopher Guest is frustratingly wasted.

There’s been some concern in the media that this movie might be offensive in its viewpoint but I feel that’s unwarranted. Gervais isn’t trying to make you believe anything; he’s simply showing a version of the world as he sees it and maybe provoke thought about some big ideas. You can choose to agree or disagree with him because hey, that’s free will. Or you can just look at it as a funny movie, which it is, and that’s the truth.

Nerd verdict: Lying isn’t perfect but still entertaining

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Movie Review: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

by contributing writer Eric Edwards

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are is a dark, engaging movie that is beautifully shot and composed. This is by no means a kid’s movie, however, and parents wishing to attend with children under the age of 11 will want to think twice because nightmares are sure to follow.

The opening minutes, shot with a handheld camera, has Max (newcomer Max Records) tearing through the house after a dog. Max is dressed in a homemade beast-like costume and alternately growls and howls at the terrified dog. At first, this scene had me laughing, but then I became increasingly aware of the disturbingly feral behavior the boy was exhibiting. This isn’t good-natured, rambunctious fun on Max’s part; he really looks like he might eat the dog when he catches it and throws it to the ground. The moment is so intense I expected the next scene to have Max in bed restraints at a hospital.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Instead, we next see Max playing alone outside, putting the finishing touches on a snow fort/igloo. His older sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), refuses to come out and play with him and soon a snowball fight ensues, resulting in Max’s fort being destroyed and the boy left crying. Later, an argument with his mom (Catherine Keener) triggers a tantrum that makes him run away from home.

When Max finally reaches the faraway land of alter-ego monsters like Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the levity provided by the beast and his cohorts is very welcome. Once Max is elected King, the long-awaited Wild Rumpus begins. They run, jump, howl and throw dirt balls at each other. Then the realities of their fears and emotional hurts get the best of them and Max realizes that maybe his home life isn’t as bad as it seemed.

In a featurette on IMDb (click here to view), Jonze said he “wanted to make [the movie] dangerous…something that doesn’t talk down to kids or it wasn’t worth doing.” He is to be commended for accomplishing his goals, perhaps a little too well. There are many moments I found disturbing; I imagine they would terrify a small child.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Records is extremely photogenic, but not enough of an actor to sustain the film on his own. Thankfully, the supporting cast is strong enough to keep the film afloat, with Gandolfini being the standout. His voice is perfect for the growly beast, Carol, having a nasal quality that sounds like it could’ve come from the monster’s snout.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Shot in a burnt forest in Australia, cinematographer Lance Acord adds depth and shading to gnarled trees and acres of sand dunes to create an otherworldly playground for the imagination. The creatures of Maurice Sendak’s book are brought to the screen with a gentle deftness by art director Sonny Gerasimowicz, who got the job by submitting drawings of big, sleepy bears to Jonze (as revealed in a Q & A after the screening with Jonze, Gerasimowicz, Acord and several others from the creative team). Jonze made a wise selection because Gerasimowicz imbued the faces of the beasts with really strong emotional depth. In fact, they steal scene after scene from the photogenic Records. Then again, it’s all about the Wild Things.

(For two children’s perspectives on the movie, read these reviews from my junior reporters, Aline and Mena Dolinh, ages 11 and 8.)

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Winners of Sara Angelini’s THE TRIALS OF THE HONORABLE F. DARCY

The winners of Sara Angelini’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are:

Jen Forbus, for claiming Austenian spinsterhood (though that term hardly applies to her nowadays!) and her passionate determination to hold out for the right man. How can I not pick her?

Patti, because I want to help alleviate her plight of possible booklessness in the next few months.

Congratulations, Jen and Patti! Please click on “contact” in the top right corner of this page and e-mail me your address. I’ll forward it to my Sourcebooks contact, who will send you each a copy of The Trials of the Honorable F. Darcy.

Thanks, everyone, for entering. If you didn’t win this time but would like a chance to win another book, enter this giveaway here by sharing your nerdy stories. Have fun!

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My First Blogoversary Party

A year ago today, I woke up and decided I wanted to write a blog. Never mind that I’d never read a blog or had any idea how to start one. But due to some personal circumstances, I’d been cooped up in the house for a while and desperately needed a creative outlet.

So I researched blogging and, thanks to WordPress’s super easy setup, published my first post within two hours. It felt like I’d given birth to something wonderful.

I went on to write more posts, happy in my space, oblivious to the fact I was supposed to be doing things like trying to drum up followers/subscribers, reading other blogs, leaving comments, etc. I’d only researched “How to start a blog,” not “How to get people to read it.”

Imagine how I felt, then, when I looked at my stats today and saw I’ve had over 178,000 hits in the past year. HUH?! Who put acid in my coffee?! I mean, most of my own family don’t read my blog.

So I suspect I owe most of those hits to readers like you. To everyone who has left me a comment and encouraged me to keep writing, recommended or linked to my site, subscribe and/or follow on Twitter, guest-blogged, let me interview them by asking goofy questions, provided me with books and ARCs to review, and befriended me through this blog, I thank you deeply. You have expanded and enriched my life in profound ways. If you’ve been lurking and never left a comment, please de-lurk yourself, even if it’s only for today, because I’d love to meet all my guests.

I’d like to show my appreciation by doing yet another giveaway (sick of all the free stuff yet?). But this one is different in that everyone is eligible, no matter where you are! Two winners can choose their own prize(s) from the ARCs and books I’ve received from generous publicists in the past year. Most titles are in new or fine condition and I think there’s a nice variety. Click on them for more details.

Winners can pick 1 hardcover (HC) or 2 ARCs/paperbacks (PB) from the following list:

  1. Ravens by George Dawes Green (HC)
  2. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (PB)
  3. The Hidden Man by David Ellis (ARC)
  4. Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz (ARC)
  5. Race for the Dying by Steven F. Havill (HC)
  6. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Deception by Eric Van Lustbader (ARC)
  7. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett (ARC)
  8. Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton (HC)
  9. Detectives Don’t Wear Seatbelts by Cici McNair (ARC)
  10. The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha (ARC)
  11. The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale (HC)
  12. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (ARC)
  13. White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison (HC)
  14. The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam (HC)
  15. The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos by Margaret Mascarenhas (PB)
  16. Perfection by Julie Metz (ARC)

Now, how do you win? Share with me the nerdiest moment in your life so far and by this, I mean anything that might have been, um, awkward. Ever been caught with your zipper down during an interview? Happened to me. Ever been told on Halloween your costume was awesome while you were just wearing your regular clothes? Yup, me, too. Broccoli stuck in teeth all through a date? Check. That’s right—we celebrate nerdiness here so drag those stories out of your mental closet, share them proudly and loudly, and you might win a prize for Nerdiest Moment!

I’ll pick one winner with the funniest story and one runner-up. The winner gets the first choice of book(s). You do have to be a subscriber/Twitter follower to participate. Contest ends on Sunday, October 11, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will only be announced here and on Twitter; there will be no e-mail notification. If I don’t hear back within 2 days, alternate winners will be chosen.

Now, let’s get this nerd party started!

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