Monthly Archives

May 2010

Book Review: Ann Brashares’s MY NAME IS MEMORY

As I began this review of Ann Brashares’s My Name is Memory (Riverhead, out today), I wondered if I’m way too old to be its target audience. The novel contains the kind of melodramatic language one might find in a young girl’s diary, including mine from another lifetime. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since Brashares is best known for her Young Adult Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. But since this title is deemed “adult,” I guess it’s fair game for my assessment.

Our hero Daniel has lived many lives, starting around 520 A.D. He has “the memory,” the rare ability to recall events from all his past lives. In most of them, he has loved a girl named Sophia, though she’s had different names through the ages (at a certain point, Daniel decided he would only go by that name no matter what moniker he’s given at each new birth). His main goal in each life is to find Sophia and convince her of their eternal love since her memory is not so good. His attempts have been repeatedly thwarted throughout the centuries, often by a malevolent character named Joaquim, who was once his brother. In that lifetime, Sophia was Joaquim’s wife but ran off with Daniel to escape the brother’s abuse (Daniel and Sophia never consummated their relationship) and Joaquim has wanted revenge ever since. The story jumps through different time periods, with the hope that Daniel and Sophia, named Lucy in present day, will finally get to be together.

The concept is intriguing—I’m a fan of time-travel stories—but the execution is problematic for several reasons. The first is a contradiction of the following declaration:

There are so many things I’ve seen that I could tell you about. But I am telling you a story, a love story, and I will try, with limited digressions, to hold on to my thread.

But digress Brashares does, impeding the urgency and momentum I felt is needed in Daniel’s search. For example, he goes looking for Lucy at the University of Virginia, where she’s a student (the college is never named but it’s definitely UVA from the descriptions), and promptly gets off-track by reminiscing about the time he met Thomas Jefferson in the ’60s when TJ was reincarnated as a black man.

Another problem was my difficulty in discerning the difference between Daniel’s and Lucy’s voices. Chapters alternate between their points of view but the writing style remains mostly the same. I suppose one could argue this means Daniel is in touch with his sensitive side but his voice isn’t convincingly masculine.

The biggest obstacle for me, though, was the overwrought prose about the couple’s love for each other. If you’ve ever been in love or longed for someone, you know exactly how that feels. It doesn’t need to be explained in all the quickening-heartbeat-when-the-other-is-near-and-staring-out-the-window-morosely-when-he/she’s-not details. I want the language to make me swoon, not do all the swooning for me.

To be fair, I think this book would do well among Brashares’s YA fanbase despite its adult categorization. I’ve seen the first Twilight movie (haven’t read any of the books) and Bella and Edward talk the way Daniel and Sophia/Lucy do. While that style is not for me, I can see its attraction for younger readers because once upon a time, when my heart was more innocent, I might’ve fallen for it, too.

Nerd verdict: Spotty Memory

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What Memorial Day Means to Me

My mother and brother on front page of Washington Post’s Metro section upon our arrival. Photo: Douglas Chevalier

Thirty-five years ago on Memorial Day, my family and I stepped off a plane at Dulles Airport in D.C. to begin our new life in the States. We arrived at that point with the help of American military personnel to whom I’d like to pay tribute today, whether or not they’re deceased. Before continuing, I must say this is a personal story, not meant to be political in any way. These are my memories, my experiences, nothing more.

Before we ended up in D.C., my family spent almost a month at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA, waiting for papers and sponsorship. Pendleton was the first refugee center erected in the States to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese evacuees after the fall of Saigon. I recently drove down to Pendleton to view the exhibit “Images at War’s End,” depicting refugee life at the camps on base in the spring and summer of ’75.

I looked like this wearing a Marine jacket. Photo: Maj. G.L. Gill

The black and white photos instantly brought tears to my eyes but not for the reasons you might think (more on that later). Master Sergeant Tyrone Ash, who was with me, immediately stepped back and said, “Hey, don’t take it out on me. I wasn’t there!” I looked at him with my “Huh?” face, and only after recalling an earlier incident did I understand his meaning.

On this other occasion, I was talking to someone and mentioned how grateful I was that my family had been airlifted from Saigon, saving us from a slow, torturous journey by boat. My conversation partner was visibly moved and said, “Thank you for saying that.” I said, “Saying what?” She said, “My dad fought in Vietnam and for years I felt guilty that he was part of something destructive to your country. I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or ashamed he was over there. It means a lot that you don’t hate veterans.” After recovering from my astonishment, I said I couldn’t tell her how she should feel about her dad, but I could tell her what servicemen like him meant to me.

My family and I were evacuated from Saigon on a C-141 at the end of April 1975 and, after short stays at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Andersen AFB in Guam, arrived at Pendleton as part of Operation New Arrivals, the largest humanitarian airlift in history. Having received very little notice, more than 800 Marines and civilians worked 24/7 and within days built tent cities to house about 18,000 of us in that first wave.

We stayed in a crowded barrack, crammed in with several other families. Our bunk beds were so close together I could practically roll onto my neighbor’s bed in the night. But here’s the thing: I don’t remember being miserable. Yes, my father had been separated from us and we hadn’t received news of his status (he’s fine), but Marines took good care of us otherwise.

Marine Corps Photo

They gave us jackets to wear (the spring California air was freezing compared to tropical Vietnamese temps), three squares a day, cleaned our bathrooms, taught us basic English words and showed us kids cartoons—my favorite was the funny, stuttering pig—to introduce us to American culture. I made forts out of blankets, played with other children and ran around freely—no school, no air raids, no curfew.

Marine Corps Photo

One man in particular made an indelible impression on me. He was blond, blue-eyed, uniformed and spoke almost perfect Vietnamese (picked up while he was in country?). Always a picture of calm, he occasionally came into our barrack to give us updates. I was transfixed by how his voice, singsong while speaking our language, didn’t match his Caucasian face. I looked forward to his visits because he made me feel closer to home. I regret not having the grace to properly thank him for that back then.

Photo: LCpl J. LaVigne

I shared some of these stories with the daughter of the veteran I was talking to years earlier, and with MSgt. Ash during my Pendleton re-visit. He was instantly relieved and we ended up having quite a few laughs. (He wasn’t even born in ’75—gah!)

I also explained to MSgt. Ash that my tears were happy ones because the photos confirmed my memories of having moments of joy while living on base, how we weren’t broken, despairing people like some might believe. This was largely due to the kindnesses of Marines and civilian volunteers who gave us sanctuary and prepared us for the adventure ahead. Looking at the images, I was suddenly reminded of WALL*E finding that seedling on a desolate Earth, proof that one world may have been gone but new life was just beginning.

Today I remember and give heartfelt thanks to deceased and living veterans, people who go above and beyond to fight for freedom, especially those who personally had a hand in securing it for me and my family 35 years ago.

How are you observing Memorial Day?

For more info, read this interview with Camp Pendleton historian Faye Jonason and watch the video below showing reactions of refugees and a former Pendleton Marine to the exhibit.

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Movie Review: SEX AND THE CITY 2

This is an escapist, girly movie—no getting around that. I went in not expecting it to remotely resemble my own life and ended up mostly enjoying the fantasy of the foursome’s lives.

It’s two years after the events of the first movie and the ladies have a new set of problems: Carrie is afraid she and Big are turning into a boring old married couple, Miranda isn’t appreciated at work by her sexist boss, Charlotte’s kids are driving her crazy, and Samantha’s going through menopause. Conveniently, a sheikh offers Samantha an all-expenses paid vacation to Abu Dhabi to possibly engage her publicist skills to promote his luxury hotel and of course she wouldn’t go without her girls. While there, the ladies shop, drink, play with fire, get arrested, talk about their issues before coming home with new insight and appreciation for their situations.

The movie’s main attractions for me—no surprise—are the furniture and fashion porn. Big and Carrie live in a “little bit of heaven”—an impeccably decorated New York City apartment with a dream closet—and the women’s outfits are so jaw-droppingly over the top that they sometimes made me laugh. But that’s the way it should be; who wants to see them in Old Navy duds and Keds?

I also ogled the scenery (Morocco subbed for Abu Dhabi) and suddenly got the urge to ride a camel and/or Jeep over sand dunes. I love the friendship the characters have, how they’ll always be each other’s anchors. I enjoyed seeing Raza Jaffrey as Carrie’s butler, Guarau. On MI-5, the actor plays a formidable agent so it was quite a change to see him as the gentle, wise Indian man. And Liza Minnelli channeling Beyoncé! She must’ve gone to the Tina Turner School of Legs Preservation. Go, Liza. SATC2 is lighter in tone than the first one, though some of the jokes are rather crude (one involves camel and toes).

What I didn’t like? Samantha repeatedly flouting Abu Dhabi’s public dress laws by showing too much skin. I don’t agree with how women are forced to wear burkas but if I choose to go there, I would obey the emirate’s laws. Flipping off the men isn’t liberating, it’s disrespectful. Samantha claims hot flashes and hormonal changes as an excuse and Miranda does step in to talk some sense into her, but the scene smacks of arrogance. The ladies’ karaoke rendition of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” is also much too literal a declaration of girl power.

SATC2 certainly isn’t perfect but it doesn’t apologize for its fantasy elements, nor should it. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour virtual vacation to an exotic locale, allowing you to bask in the sun and not worry about frying too many brain cells.

Nerd verdict: Frivolous City life

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Lee DeWyze Wins AMERICAN IDOL

Jason, you were right.

Lee DeWyze was crowned the ninth American Idol tonight, with the result coming at the end of a two-hour-plus show that was actually entertaining at times. DeWyze is a decent enough singer and seems like a nice guy, but when Crystal Bowersox so obviously outshines him in every way, I don’t know what to say about his victory.

So, I’ll just recap some of the things I liked about the show. Yes, most of these people are older and their voices are a little thinner, but they sang the music of my youth and made me feel 10 years old again.

  • The Bee Gees! If you know me at all, you know my soft spot for Bee Gees music. Maurice was missed since I’ll always think of the brothers as a trio but it was cool to have Barry and Robin Gibb come out singing “How Deep is Your Love.” When I was a kid learning English, I’d try to transcribe songs I heard on the radio and this was one of them since it was nice and slow. (I still had a little trouble: “And we’re living in a world of fools, drinking us down…”)
  • Alanis Morrissette sang with Crystal on “You Oughta Know,” which was kickin’. Alanis was classy enough to hold back vocally so she wouldn’t steal Crystal’s spotlight (I’ve seen Alanis live from the pit—she can blow!) and immediately stepped away when the song was over, giving Crystal the floor. I had to laugh, though, at the cleaned up lyric made safe for prime-time TV. Crystal sang, “Is she perverted like me? Would she go down with you to a theater?” Wait a minute, so every time I accompany someone to a theater, I’m a pervert? Dang, I guess I’ve been perverted my whole life, sometimes for hours in one day with double features.
  • Hall & Oates singing “You Make My Dreams Come True,” with Daryl Hall in strong voice and John Oates almost unrecognizable without his famous ‘stache. I suppose this is an appropriate song considering the occasion but I wish they’d sung “I Can’t Go for That”—I like that song’s groovy, sexy feel—instead of leaving it to the Idol guys, including 16-year-old Aaron Kelly singing lyrics like “I’d do anything that you want me to…,” which is kinda wrong.
  • Bret Michaels dueting with Casey James on “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Six months ago, I couldn’t have cared less about this performance since I’m no Poison fan. But seeing Michaels come out to sing was pretty amazing, considering he was at death’s door just weeks ago due to a brain hemorrhage. He looked and sounded as if nothing had happened, with him and Casey shredding their guitars with glee and harmonizing as if they’d been doing it for years. I don’t care what anyone says—I think Casey’s a true rocker. Watch video below.
  • I had mixed feelings about Janet Jackson‘s two-number performance. The first song, “Nothing,” was kinda boring but the eery thing was she sounded exactly like Michael! If you closed your eyes, you would’ve thought MJ was singing. Her voice has never resembled his that much before so I don’t know what was going on. And then she got “Nasty”! Anybody getting nasty on stage is good entertainment.
  • Oh yeah, I guess I gotta mention all the Simon tributes. Paula looked great but should never do standup—so awkward up there trying to crack jokes. Simon should never try to act, like he did in that one skit with him and Randy waking up together in bed. Enjoyed the satellite toast from Ricky Gervais, always the funniest man in the room. Other than that, I’ll miss Simon but as Paula said, the show will go on. After tonight’s results, though, whether I’ll watch is yet to be decided.

What were your favorite moments? No, it couldn’t have been Lee singing with Chicago. What else? Did anyone vote for Lee? What did you think when Bret Michaels walked out on stage?

Photos: FOX


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Crystal vs. Lee: The Final Battle – AMERICAN IDOL Season 9

by Jason Matthews

America, as it often does, in its infinite wisdom, is about to make a mistake: They are going to name Lee DeWyze as the next American Idol.

Even more than last week, this week is hugely predictable. Even though Crystal outperformed, outcharmed and outclassed Lee, as she always does, Lee is going to win. Lee was a deer in a world full of headlights, while Crystal was the picture of calm (hippie) professionalism. Lee was uneven, pitchy and amateurish, while Crystal was invested, take-charge and spectacular (Simon was right, making “Black Velvet” interesting to listen to is as hard as fixing the economy). Lee biffed his final number, Crystal brought the house down. The judges seemed eager to tell Lee he was failing, and couldn’t jump high enough to stroke Crystal’s gross dreads. None of it matters. Crystal is about to join the exclusive club of Idol runner-ups who are better than their victors.

The producers started the mistake. Crystal was too far ahead from the beginning, a runaway winner. Worried the season would be boring, the judges started pushing other, lesser Idolists. Anyone remember the shortlived reign of Siobhan? Or the minute-long memory of a Tim Urban dark horse victory parade? But as the season wore on it became clear Lee was the patsy to beat. Suddenly he was pulling the anchor spot, getting a bagpipe backup and lauded with praise from the judges. And Crystal? She got her props, but it was always an afterthought, the presumed finalist. She couldn’t have been taken for granted more. Now look where we are.

In every way, Crystal Bowersox outshines Lee DeWyze. She is a better singer and musician. She is a better role model for aspiring Idolists. She opens far more interesting avenues for next season’s talent pool. She is unique, whip-smart and timeless. She is in the mold of the best and most successful former American Idols (Carrie and Kelly). Most importantly, she will sell more records. But don’t tell that to America, ’cause they want Lee.

Apparently, we haven’t gotten our fix of generic bland alt-rocker boys, ’cause we’re about to crown a third in a row (and our picks are getting more generic, more bland and less alt). And that’s just not OK. For this, and the above reasons, the departure of Simon, the misfire of Ellen DeGeneres, Randy’s continued uselessness, the diminishing of Ryan’s natural wonders owing to forced gusto over lacking Idolists, a scary decline in production quality, time management and contestant choice, for the fact that we’re batting .225 in winners picked (and that’s generous) and the fact the show is just too damn long, I suggest we call it a day on this once transcendent reality show.

Enjoy the finale for the spectacle and travesty that it is. Say your goodbyes to Simon. Gaze lovingly at Ryan Seacrest one more time. Visit Randy’s dog pound. Fake laugh at Ellen’s fake jokes. Be put off by Kara, again. Try to remember that day four hundred years ago when we were all in love with Didi Benami. Relive the mistake that was Andrew Garcia. Laugh at the rest of the talentless kids we put through this year. Marvel at the Idol Elders, all better in a blink than Lee is in a whole evening of effort. And then watch as he is crowned the next American Idol, while Crystal politely congratulates him, the judges force themselves to be happy for him, the Top 12 duly crowd around him, and he brutally murders U2’s “Beautiful Day.”

When that is all said and done, America, I suggest we follow the advice of our country’s greatest TV personality and call a “Seacrest OUT!” on this mistake of a season.

Thank you for sticking with me through the season, PCNers, I hope you enjoyed the reviews.

Jason OUT!

Photos: FOX

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Nerd Chat with Thriller Writer Brett Battles + Giveaway

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these because I’m lazy selective about who I ask for a chat. Potential interviewees must go through rigorous testing to determine if they have the Cool Factor. Today’s guest, author Brett Battles, not only passed, he set a new record for most tacos eaten while trapped in a shark tank. He’s a doer of the right thing, defender of the free world, champion of justice. I’d bet if we search his place, we’d find a Brettmobile in his Brettcave.

When not world-exploring and engaging in derring do, he writes the Jonathan Quinn series about a cleaner employed by a nebulous government faction to dispose of bodies. Besides being twistily plotted and action-packed, the novels take place in exotic locales, captured in vivid details from Brett’s own travels. The third book in the series, Shadow of Betrayal, comes out in paperback tomorrow (May 25) and Brett’s giving away two signed copies.

But first, he parachuted in for a nerd chat.

PCN: Settings for your books include San Francisco, L.A., Saigon, Berlin, D.C., Singapore—all places I’ve spent time in. Why is Quinn stalking me?

BB: Simple. In Quinn’s line of work, it’s all about the preparation. Making bodies disappear is not something you just do on a lark. Knowing as much as possible about an operation is essential to performing flawlessly. That, of course, includes getting a good look at future…eh…projects. (Height, weight, that kind of thing.) Oh, and best of luck on your future travels!

Brett at the Grand Palace in Bangkok

PCN: Um, I think I’ll use the fake passport and gain 60 pounds before my next trip. Both you and Quinn travel a lot. How would he dispose of a body on a plane if he had to? No particular reason why I ask, because I never encounter annoying people on planes.

BB: Well, it’s not like you can just open a door and throw the body out. I think the key would be to make it appear to other passengers (and crew members) that the body is still alive, like he’s just dozing. But make sure his seat belt is on and his chair is all the way up so a flight attendant doesn’t try to wake him. Then it’s a quick trip to the toilet where, despite FAA regulations, you put in a call to one of your team members who then arranges to have someone pretending to be a doctor waiting at the gate. From there it’s just a case of a passenger who’s taken ill and needs assistance getting out. Done and done.

PCN: Brilliant! I’ll make note of that. I sometimes feel like a cleaner because friends often call me to get them out of jai–I mean, pick them up from airports. Are you the cleaner type, the guy who likes to get dirty, or both?

BB: Wow…it all depends on the context in which that question is asked, doesn’t it? Let’s just say I’m whatever I need to be in whatever situation I find myself. (HA! God, if only I was that clever!)

PCN: Your writing process sometimes involves sitting outside taking pictures and/or just letting a video camera capture life as it happens. What’s the juiciest thing you’ve caught on tape that ended up in one of your books?

BB: Well, there was this one time I found myself invited to a barbeque at this politician’s house, so I thought I’d take some photos and video. Who knew that when I opened the study door, I’d find him and– Wait, I forgot. By the terms of our settlement I’m not actually supposed to talk about that. Let’s just say the video function on my camera works very well in low light. I did get a photo of Paris Hilton checking out the self-help/relationship section at Barnes & Noble. True story.

PCN: She can use some self-help all right. You’ve said one of your favorite words is “kit,” because “someone who has a specific kit usually is a pro at what they do.” What’s in your writer’s kit besides giant 2.5-feet Post-Its? And why so big?

He wasn't kidding about giant

BB: I LOVE my giant Post-Its! When I’m working out the plot of a book you could come into my place and see several of them plastered on my walls. My other favorite thing is my dry erase board, also for plotting. I fill it with stuff, take a digital photo of it, transfer the photo to my iPad, then erase the board and start filling it again. My dream is to have a workspace someday where an entire wall is dry erase board. We had that at my old day job and it was AWESOME!

Here’s a partial list of my kit:

Giant Post-Its with multiple color Sharpies

Dry erase board with multiple color pens

Canon digital camera

Canon digital waterproof camera

Cheap HD palm-size video camera

iPad (I can’t believe how much I’m using this already)

iPhone

Laptop

Eyes for observing

Feet to wander around on

PCN: Love it. I already have eyes and feet so that gives me hope. I started reading your books after you got my attention on Twitter with tweets about burritos and grilled cheese sammys, which makes you one shrewd tweeter [he posts pictures, too]. How has social networking affected your relationship with readers?

BB: What social networking has done is not only narrow the gap between authors and readers, it’s pretty much destroyed it, which I am actually in favor of. Just yesterday I was exchanging messages on Facebook with a reader in Romania who listens to audio versions of my books. In the past, readers would have had to rely on sending letters to publishers who would then hold onto them for months before forwarding to the author. Now, my potential audience can reach me directly, and same day. Also, since writing is such a solitary task, social networks like Twitter and Facebook act as a kind of way to stay connected even when all I’m doing is writing in my dinning room. I could have dozens of conversations in a day and never actually speak a word. Wait…not sure that’s a good thing.

PCN: The Deceived [second Quinn novel] won the Barry Award for Best Thriller of 2008. Ever carry the award around to get free beer or cut in line at Disneyland?

BB: Why carry it around when I have a life-size, full-color reproduction tattooed to my chest?

PCN: Wow. I didn’t know you were the guy with the Barry tattoo. You have a standalone coming out next year called No Return. Can you tease us with a storyline? How was writing it different from writing the series?

BB: Let me give it a try:

What happens when you return to your hometown after seventeen years, only to witness the crash of a Naval fighter jet? What happens when the man you tried to save from the crash isn’t the man the newspapers and Navy claimed died? What if they don’t want you talking?

And what if they aren’t the only ones?

Set in the upper Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, No Return tells the story of television cameraman Wes Stewart and the journey home he should have never taken.

How’s that?

PCN: That’s summer-action-movie-trailer good.

BB: Okay, how is writing a standalone different from a series? Well, the biggest difference is with my series I have characters I come back to time and again. I know their stories. I know how they think. And I know how they will react in given situations. With the standalone, every character is new, as is every relationship and every reaction. I love writing both.

PCN: I like how even though you’re a thriller writer, you attended the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention this year and paraded around in your underwear. What was that about? Part of your campaign for the Mr. Romance Cover Model contest?

BB: No comment. But I should have won! Dammit!

I think he should’ve won, too, just to see what he’d do with a loin cloth and hair extensions. Deep thanks to Brett for subjecting himself to this interview and providing pictures. For more info, visit his website and Murderati, where he contributes a post every other Thursday.

Brett has generously offered to send two copies of Shadow of Betrayal to a couple lucky readers. He’ll also personalize them and his handwriting is supposedly nicer than a girl’s.

Requirements for entering the giveaway:

  • be a PCN subscriber or Twitter follower (if you tweet about this giveaway, you’ll get 3 entries)
  • leave a comment about a situation when you had to clean up someone else’s mess
  • be a U.S. or Canada resident

Giveaway ends Wednesday, June 2, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will be randomly chosen via Random.org and announced here and on Twitter. Winners will have 48 hours to claim the prize before alternate names are chosen.

Good luck!

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Reaction: GREY’S ANATOMY Season 6 Finale (Spoilers)

Oh. Mah. GAH!!

*Spoilers! Don’t read if you haven’t seen it!*

Not much on TV surprises me anymore but during the Grey’s Anatomy finale last night, I jumped as if my pants were on fire. The first time Gary Clark (Michael O’Neill) pulled out his gun and just put one right between Reed’s eyes? Craaaazy! I knew it was coming but it was still so shocking. I might need to buy a new chair or at least replace the arms I shredded with my nails during intense scenes.

This episode made me glad I stayed with the show through the uneven seasons and botched storylines (anything revolving around Izzie); it proved Grey’s can still be heartstopping drama. I think this ep topped the ones with the bomb in the chest and the pole through two people from the train crash, both standouts from past seasons. For two hours, I barely breathed and just watched in horror as the gunman went on a rampage at Seattle Grace, mowing down innocents right and left. With Cristina (Sandra Oh) unknowingly giving him directions straight to Derek’s office! April drives me nuts sometimes with all her neuroses but Sarah Drew turned in powerful work (e.g. her reaction when she discovered Reed’s body), as did most of the cast. My guts were wrenched as Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) sobbed when she thought Derek (Patrick Dempsey) was dead, and then had to stay focused to treat Owen (Kevin McKidd) as her baby just died inside her. I did like how she and Cristina had to save each other’s man (the women ruled!), and I’m looking at Dr. Avery (Jesse Williams) with new eyes now that he stepped up and pulled that trick on Clark with the wires.

If I had to be super picky, I didn’t like how Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) had a complete turnaround at the end about wanting kids. She’d been so dead set against the idea and all of a sudden, she decided she wanted 10 children with Callie (Sara Ramirez). She just went through a seriously traumatic episode so I’m not sure how sound that decision was. I’m also not certain that Lexie (Chyler Leigh) loves Karev (Justin Chambers) instead of Sloan (Eric Dane). But these are little things. Overall, Shonda Rhimes kept me riveted without resorting to any special effects; she used good old-fashioned storytelling and that’s what made it special.

What did you think of the episode?

Nerd verdict: Heartstopping Anatomy finale

Photo: ABC/Scott Garfeld

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Movie Review: SHREK FOREVER AFTER

After the rubbish that was Shrek the Third, I thought if the filmmakers wanted to give us a happily ever after, they should stop making Shrek movies. My reaction to news about this fourth installment was, “Really?! Is it called ‘Every Last (Henny) Penny Wrung’?”

So I don’t know if it was because of my low expectations but Shrek Forever After (opening Friday, May 21) is better than I thought it would be, though it’s not up to par with numbers 1 and 2 and really should be the last. It’s as if everyone went back to the drawing board to rediscover why the movies were good in the first place and made a concerted effort to justify this sequel’s existence. And that’s what Forever After does—go back in time and ask the It’s a Wonderful Life-ish question: What if Shrek (Mike Myers) had never been born and therefore never saved Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the tower?

The situation stems from Shrek feeling too domesticated by his wife and three babies, fearing the loss of his true ogre-ness. He can’t take a mud bath in peace, his roar no longer scares anyone and is treated like a party trick. Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) comes along and promises Shrek one day in which he can be a carefree ogre again, without any familial responsibilities to blunt his edge. Shrek must give Rumpy a day from his past in exchange, so the evil R (I’m not typing that long-ass name over and over) takes the one when Shrek was born. This creates an alternate universe in which Rump rules Far Far Away with witches as sycophants and ogres as slaves.

But Fiona doesn’t take the situation lying down. She has escaped the dragon’s keep all by herself and become a leader of the revolution to overthrow Rumpy’s tyranny. She doesn’t have time for romance; she doesn’t even know Shrek when he shows up. He has exactly one day to extract a true love’s kiss from her before he turns into nothingness.

The movie is darker in tone than I remember the others being, with scenes of ogres in chains and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) being repeatedly whipped while used to pull a carriage. Though cowed, Donkey still has his trademark mouthiness. When he meets Shrek and thinks the ogre is going to eat him, he yells: “Eat my face last and send my hooves to my mama!” Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) probably gets the most laughs as a fat lazy cat no longer wearing his trademark footwear. And I must admit a badass chain-mailed Fiona throwing knives is more interesting than Housewife Fiona.

Myers, Murphy and Diaz turn in their reliable voice work (while stars like Jon Hamm and Jane Lynch are underused), but the cool backstory here is that Dohrn, the movie’s story editor, got to voice Rumpelstiltskin. Early in production, Dohrn recorded temp tracks for the animators to use while drawing the character, fully expecting an actor to replace his voice in the final version. But DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg apparently loved Dohrn’s work and kept it in, putting his name up in lights next to the A-list stars’. I’d call that a fairytale ending.

Nerd verdict: Diverting Forever After

Animation courtesy DreamWorks

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Final Showdown in Sight: Predicting Top 2 on AMERICAN IDOL S9

by Jason Matthews

As the dying whale carcass of this show lumbers slowly to the season finale shore, the machinations of the producers have become more and more transparent. It is clear as day that all involved want Crystal and Lee in the finale. From the low-fi song choice given to Casey to the anchor spot and gospel choir backup for Lee to the continued gushing over Crystal, American Idol was practically BEGGING us not to vote for lazy, lady-haired cougar bait Casey. Really though, who can blame them?

When you get to Top 3, reviewing performances is a bit redundant. We know all we need to know about the talent and skill of these kids, good or bad (mostly bad), so it’s really just who we like and don’t like as contestants. To that end we won’t be reviewing the performances from last night. But here’s a quick recap of last night’s show:

Ryan hates this season the most ’cause he had to give up his patented ‘THIS… is aMERIcan IDOL!” to the Top 3. The judges wake up, remember they are on camera, and then swiftly go back to sleep. Casey’s up first, he’s barely trying. Same as it ever was. The producers keep cutting to the audience where people are holding up signs for Lee. Always a good idea to show how little the audience respects the talent currently on stage. The judges automatically transfer $50 into your personal bank account so you won’t vote for Casey.

Crystal’s up, she’s fine, same as always, and the judges crank their BS up to 11 and practically step on throat of Melissa Etheridge’s reputation (who, by the way, has a really kick-ass new single on the radio) to call Crystal great for the 47th week in a row. Crystal forms her Caucasian dreadlocks into the shape of “DUH.”

Lee hits the stage, the crowd goes donkey-balls nuts, he sings as gruffly, blandly, Nickelback-y as humanly possible and the judges take turns having a compliment orgy over the thing. Somewhere in the world, David Cook just rolled his eyes, put on a pair of leather pants and full on blew the minds of an arena full of people. Same as it ever was. Lather, rinse, repeat, credits.

To make a very near perfect generalization, the Top 2 for every season of American Idol is always a dead heat, talent-wise. The Sanjayas, George Huffs, Scott Savols and Haley Mercados never make it this far. A fun personality and a catchy hook only get you so far; you have to be a real gamer to sing in the finale. Because of this, Top 3 is the most predictable results week of every season.

Casey James is going home. Let’s talk with facts, people, and those are the facts. Crystal and Lee gave two standout performances each, showed charisma, made smart choices, worked the crowd, and, you know, CARED. Casey looked half in the bag, bored by the spectacle, disinterested in the judges’ comments and not particularly upset when he got called out for being mediocre. He may become a top-selling country artist (and I believe he will be), but for now, he’s a disappointing, unworthy Idolist. All he had to do was show he really CARED about being the next American Idol and we would have considered vaulting him over Lee. We’re desperately seeking reasons to not be fake-wowed by his wannabe Daughtry ass, but Casey refused to give us any. And for that he will be sent home, so he can spend more time with his “music,” and by “music,” I of course mean “putting shiny conditioner in his lady hair.”

We’ll be back next week for an in-depth analysis of who deserves to be the Next American Idol. Until then, let’s all thank ABC for moving the Lost finale to Sunday so we Idolists can be free to attend the funeral for this hollow, empty season.

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Book Review: Lesley Kagen’s TOMORROW RIVER

I had a lump in my throat most of the time while reading Lesley Kagen’s Tomorrow River because it’s such a heartbreaking story, but when the lump burst open at times, I found myself laughing instead of crying. And that’s what makes this book exceptional: It zigs right when you think it’s zagging left, it’s love-affirming when you think it can hurt you too much.

The story takes place in 1969 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley where the Carmody clan lives. Twelve-year-old Shenandoah AKA Shenny, named after her birthplace, narrates as she tries to find her mother who disappeared a year ago. Since then, Shenny’s twin sister Woody has gone mute and their father, a judge and the most respected man in town, has turned into a mean drunk. Shenny’s convinced that if she can just bring home Mother, her family will be loving and whole again.

Her attempts are hindered by her father forbidding the girls from leaving their property (perhaps to prevent them from vanishing, too), occasionally locking them in the root cellar if they disobey and sneak into town. The judge is also threatening to remarry and send Woody away to an institution if she doesn’t start speaking again. With the help of her friend E.J., Shenny eventually finds the answers she seeks, but realizes that she and her family will never be the same.

Though the story sounds grim, Shenny’s spunk will win you over. She knows she’s at risk of losing everything but refuses to relinquish her sense of humor, too. She doesn’t give in to self-pity because she can’t afford to, being the glue that’s barely holding her family together. Her resilience makes me ache for her more than if she were a weepy child. When you see a kid fall down but then try to be tough and not cry, it hurts more to witness than if she’d just bawl and get it over with.

Shenny’s stubborn hope in her increasingly distant father is reflected in the following passage:

I gave his horse a bath and cleaned his guns and he never seemed to notice. I’ve offered many times to spend the night constellation searching. I remind him how the astronauts are going to the moon next month and how we were going to celebrate that historic event with a party. I slip notes under his study door. In them, I tell him how much I love him and ask if there’s anything else I can do to comfort his heart….I sign the notes, Your beautiful daughter of the stars. I’m sure I’ll hear back from him any day now.

That kills me. I wanted to scream at the judge, “Answer the notes, man!”

But as I mentioned, Shenny’s plucky and funny, too. She describes the town punk thusly:

He’s what you’d call the bad boy of our town. A regular James Dean minus the good looks. Remmy’s built like a doorway, but his face is squashed in like he ran into a wall. And he doesn’t hardly ever wear a shirt and won’t care if you just about toss your biscuits looking at his spotty back. Worst of all? The boy’s got red hair…like Clarabelle’s and he’s just as honking dumb. The kid could throw himself on the floor and miss.

Later she mentions he has “teeth that are buck enough to eat corn on the cob through a picket fence.”

Kagen spins an ugly tale about family secrets using beautiful language, making it bittersweet. Her words effortlessly carry the reader to that specific time and place (I’m familiar with the area from attending college in Charlottesville) with a wonderful Southern rhythm that begs for the story to be read aloud. Kagen has also created indelible characters in Shenny and Woody, girls you want to throw your arms around and keep safe, allowing them to be children just a little while longer.

Nerd verdict: River runs deep

Buy Tomorrow River from Amazon
Buy from Indie Bookstores

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Linking Up

No, that’s not an invitation to hook up later at a bar, just me posting a few links for you to click on if you want to catch up on some entertainment stuff. I could write a long post about everything but it’s Monday and I’ve got a plate of eggs to eat.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Boris Kodjoe star in UNDERCOVERS

The TV upfronts are this week, which means networks are announcing their fall schedules. NBC’s going first today; you can see clips from some of their new shows here. Though likable faces show up (Jimmy Smits! Amaury Nolasco!), I must say the clips are all underwhelming, even from the J.J. Abrams pilot, Undercovers, about husband-and-wife spies. Worst offenders are Perfect Couples and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Chase. Wayyy too much overacting going on.

The only ones that looked slightly interesting to me were Friends with Benefits (that gross kiss is kinda funny!) and Outsourced, at least until the lame joke about a character’s Indian name. Jokes about people’s foreign names are not funny! Especially when you’re in their country! (Kinda sore subject for me: I have a cousin named Dung, a perfectly decent Vietnamese name but imagine the kind of ribbing that gets here.)

I’m assuming you’ve heard about NBC’s cancellations of Mercy, Trauma, Heroes, and original flavor Law & Order. Taking L&O’s spot on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. is Law & Order: Los Angeles. Wow, what a revamp. I think the network changed coasts just to avoid paying Sam Waterston’s salary. No cast has been announced for the new version because the pilot script isn’t finished.

I know I sound a little skeptical right now but when fall comes around, I’ll probably sample each show at least once. My cynical heart still hopes something will surprise and entertain me like Glee and Cougar Town have this past season (oops, both are on different networks). I’m also happy Chuck was renewed and NBC is putting scripted programming in the 10 p.m. slot again.

Over at Fox, these four shows have been confirmed as pickups. Shawn Ryan’s Ride-Along looks most promising to me. Jennifer Beals as Chicago’s first female police chief? I’m there. Looks like the Steven Spielberg-produced Terra Nova got a spot, too, though the pilot, like LO:LA‘s, hasn’t even been shot. Apparently, the production designer from Avatar is being brought in but the premise sounds dicey to me. I have about as much interest in a prehistoric drama as I have in a bladder infection. (UPDATE: Glee just got the coveted post-Superbowl slot next year.)

OK, enough TV talk. There’s also a little film festival going on in Cannes right now, with lots of movies being screened and reviewed, including the Wall Street sequel (why?) and Woody Allen’s new one, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. You can check out the Hollywood Reporter‘s extensive coverage here.

Do any of the new fall shows sound interesting to you? Were you heartbroken by any cancellations? Are you excited about yet another incarnation of The Three Musketeers, this time in 3D? How about the Martin Scorsese documentary on George Harrison?

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Nerdy Hot 10 List 2010

Maxim recently released its 2010 Hot 100 List of sexy women, which means it’s time for me to post my second annual list of nerdy hot guys—men known more for being quirky than chiseled—presented in no particular order. (Check out last year’s list here.)

  1. Matt Damon. Yes, he’s ultra cool as Jason Bourne but also super nerdy as Mark Whitacre in The Informant and the Ocean’s movies. Rumor has it he’ll be Tina Fey’s next boyfriend on 30 Rock, which means he’ll be bringing the dorkiness. Can’t wait!
  2. Craig Ferguson. He does the wackiest monologues in late night, and in a sexy Scottish brogue to boot.
  3. Harry Connick Jr. Sure, he’s a talented musician, singer and actor, but he’s also a giant goofball. Did you see him on American Idol recently? Aaron Kelly thinks Connick should replace Simon as judge next year and I think that’s the best suggestion yet.
  4. Robert Sean Leonard. His straight-laced Wilson is constantly being abused by House, but every once in a while, Wilson pulls a good prank on the mean doctor and I can’t resist a skilled prankster (as long as the joke’s on someone else).
  5. Nathan Fillion. Whether he’s playing a space captain or crime novelist, he’s always just a little bit goofy and that’s why he’s on this list.
  6. Hugh Grant. Good hair or not, he’s so awkward it’s almost difficult to watch him sometimes. But I do, because his discomfiture always makes me laugh.
  7. Zachary Levi. He plays Chuck, a super nerd carrying a top secret government database in his head, but excuse me, THAT’s nerdy? The only things that make the character believable are Levi’s thespian skills, Chuck’s clumsiness and tendency to talk too much.
  8. Matthew Morrison. Mr. Schue may lead the glee club and be unlucky with women, but if the glee club teacher in my school had looked and danced like him, I’d be a brilliant singer right now.
  9. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He plays outcasts in indie films and pines unrequitedly for Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, but the dancing he did to Hall & Oates in the movie and later on Saturday Night Live? Retro sexy.
  10. Jason Sudeikis. He’s often hidden behind ridiculous wigs & porn ‘staches on Saturday Night Live, but showed up looking perfectly cute as Floyd, Liz’s ex-boyfriend on 30 Rock.

Who’s on your nerdy hot list?

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