Monthly Archives

May 2010

Book Review: Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST

It was with a sense of melancholy that I closed the cover on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, May 25, U.S. release) after finishing the last page. For it is the last page; there will be no more Lisbeth Salander, a character I’ve been rooting for from the moment I met her in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, someone I’ve enjoyed spending time with, as antisocial as she is. I tried to prolong the experience, reading slowly and in small spurts, but failed miserably.

The events of the previous books in the Millenium trilogy have led to this (spoilers for those who haven’t read the other two books): Lisbeth being captured and put on trial for attempted murder, aggravated assault and other trumped up charges. She has to face Dr. Peter Teleborian, the nefarious psychiatrist who conspired with a maverick faction within the Secret Police to have Lisbeth sent away to an asylum when she was 12. Teleborian and his colleagues once again attempt to have her committed, neutralizing all claims of how they’ve abused her civil rights, but this time Lisbeth fights back with the help of her journalist friend, Mikael Blomkvist, and his lawyer sister, Annika Giannini, who decides to rep Lisbeth.

Meanwhile, the police are searching for her murderous half-brother Ronald Niedermann, who has unfinished business with Lisbeth. The two share the blood of their father, a depraved Russian spy defector, and in the end, Lisbeth must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice in order to stop the evil from spreading. (End spoilers.)

While misogyny has been a running theme in these books, the other two also had strong mysteries built in. There are mystery elements here (who’s sending hate mail and stalking Erika Berger, former editor of Millenium magazine?) but I felt Larsson finally going all out with his condemnation of how some men still treat women, of how absolute power corrupts when there’s no one to watch the watchers (it’s convenient that one of the heroes is a journalist, as Larsson was). A dirty police inspector thinks the following while looking at Lisbeth:

She’s fucking retarded, [he] thought…He reminded himself that she was a lesbian and consequently not a real woman.

The fight Lisbeth now has on her hands is less a physical one than an intellectual one, for she must prove she’s not only mentally competent now but always has been. She must convince the judge that she and her rights have been repeatedly violated by men in power, not just because she’s a woman but a smart and resourceful one, a threat to those with malicious intent. These are big claims from a petite girl and I’ll just say her day in court is immensely satisfying.

Before she can get there, Lisbeth spends much of the book in seclusion (though she’s hardly idle), first in a hospital with a police guard then in jail awaiting trial. Because she’s such a badass, I wanted her out putting the hurt on those who deserve it. But she does have a final confrontation in which she makes a surprising decision, one which shows how her travails have changed her. And while I was sad to say goodbye, it’s good to leave her in a hopeful place, one in which she may no longer need to play with fire or kick hornets’ nests.

Nerd verdict: Girl finishes strongly

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Movie Review: LETTERS TO JULIET

Letters to Juliet (opening Friday, May 14) is like a chocolate truffle—a little too sweet, delicious-looking but not that filling.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact checker and aspiring writer at The New Yorker, takes a pre-honeymoon to Verona, Italy with her fiancé, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), since it’s the only time he can spare before the opening of his restaurant. Victor is immediately caught up in finding the perfect truffles and wine for his restaurant, leaving Sophie alone to explore the town and Juliet’s house. There she finds letters taped to the wall, messages from women asking Juliet for advice, romantic and otherwise. Sophie also meets a group of women who answer these letters, calling themselves secretaries of Juliet.

After finding a letter from 1957 written by a Claire Smith (Vanessa Redgrave) about her lost love Lorenzo Bartolini, Sophie writes the woman back, encouraging her to find him. Soon, Claire shows up with her impatient grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), and the three set off to visit all the Lorenzo Bartolinis within a certain radius to see if The One is among them (a montage with several different Lorenzos is quite amusing). Along the way, the annoyance Charlie and Sophie feel for each other develops into something else.

The main reasons to see this movie are the resplendent Vanessa Redgrave—she practically radiates light on screen—and the gorgeous Italian scenery. Redgrave elevates the material with her mere presence, giving it an elegance it may have lacked otherwise. It’s because of her I found my eyes wet at one point.

The sun-drenched Verona and Siena vistas are another major draw, at least for me, since I went there several years ago and this was like my travel album coming alive but with better pictures. If you’ve never been, it’ll serve as a beautiful primer and/or inexpensive virtual vacation. You’ll want to eat Italian food afterward, drink Carpazo wine and take a long drive in the countryside.

Seyfried makes a plucky enough heroine, crying beautifully when required, but there’s nothing especially appealing about Egan. The two generate more heat when they’re bickering than when they have to look at each other with moony eyes; their reversal of feelings seems rushed to me. Despite their lead billing, their story doesn’t have the emotional resonance of Claire and Lorenzo’s affair. Claire’s true love is played by Franco Nero and, interestingly enough, the cinematic story mirrors the two actors’ real history. After beginning a romance over 40 years ago, Redgrave and Nero separated then reconnected and married less than four years ago. Art imitates life, indeed.

Nerd verdict: Letters not first class, but visually pleasing

All photos by John Johnson/Summit Entertainment

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Betty White on SNL

Photo: NBC

Did you see Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live last night? It was one of the funniest episodes in years. She scored in almost every skit while the average host is lucky to get a couple laughs in the entire show. Though the running theme was “Let’s see how dirty Betty White can be” (it did get gimmicky towards the end), she was game and showed she could raunch it up with the best of them.

And she was among some of the best cast members from the show’s recent history. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer returned to form an all-star company around Betty, with Shannon bringing back her Sally “I’m 50” O’Malley character, only to have Betty whup her ass (she did the kicks!) by declaring “I’m 90.”

Highlights: (click on links to watch the skits)

  • Gasteyer and Shannon reprising their roles of the droll NPR ladies hosting the Delicious Dish talk show, discussing food in double entendres (see: the famous Schweddy balls skit with Alec Baldwin). This time they bring on Betty to talk about her muffins. Gasteyer: “There’s a tangy taste in this muffin. Is that a cherry?” Betty: “My muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
  • Betty giving wacky answers to Fey when Fey shows up at her apartment as a census taker. Asked what her ethnicity is, Betty replies, “Superior to Asians but not as intelligent as blacks.” Fey: “How many people live at this residence?” Betty: “Zero.” Fey: “You don’t live here?” Betty: “Oh, including me? Three.”
  • In her opening monologue, she makes fun of Facebook, which fans used to campaign for her hosting gig. “[In my day], we had poking but it wasn’t something you did on a computer. It was something we did on a hayride. Under a blanket.” She concluded by saying, “If I could, I would take you all on a big hayride.”
  • In an old-fashioned Little Women-style skit, Betty tells her girls if she could do it all over again, she’d probably be a lesbian. “There’s one thing I would not miss: balls.”
  • Betty telling some punks if they don’t shape up, they won’t get a fairy tale ending but will instead come face to face with “the Wizard of Ass” in prison.

What did you think of the show? Did you find Betty being naughty funny? Or did her saying “motherf***ker” go too far?

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Hell is Other People: Review of Piper Kerman’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

This review is by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and editor-in-chief of the literary webzine Da Mau.


Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black, deftly invokes the themes of “white girl gone wrong” and No Exit. In fact, the memoir’s best selling point is the atypical profile of its author: a blond, blue-eyed Smith graduate who happens to be a federal offender, sentenced to 15 months in prison for a drug charge committed thoughtlessly in her “bohemian” youth. (Kerman was released after 13 months for good behavior.)

Early on in the book, Kerman describes her self-surrender at the women’s minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut with dissonant yet arresting (no puns intended) details: slowly shedding her identity before going behind bars by first taking off her seven gold engagement rings, then the multiple earrings from “all the extra holes that so vexed my grandfather.” In the lobby of the prison, she stalls the inevitable moment by munching on a foie gras sandwich chased with Diet Coke, wryly wondering if she is the only Seven Sisters graduate who samples her last gourmet meal at the entrance of a penitentiary. The book’s epigraph—lyrics from “Anthem,” a song by Leonard Cohen—says it all:

Ring the bells that still can sing
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

The attraction of Kerman’s memoir is the story of a privileged, middle-class girl who transgresses, then later redeems herself through her own self-discipline and the emotional support of her family and prison peers. The horror of her condition is not unlike the horror of hell described by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous play No Exit: hell is not an external condition like torture or physical pain, but the deprivation of one’s community and the relentless confrontation of the imperfect self.

Kerman’s prison, her version of hell, is in fact the classical notion that her self-worth and free choice as a functional member in society have been taken away due to her crime. Behind bars, a prisoner is forced to become institutionalized by accepting all the arbitrary rules, spoken and unspoken, about prison life. Yet, as Kerman reflects, the prisoner’s acceptance of her new environment reveals a cruel paradox: Most prisoners with long sentences are not given any preparation or emotional support to cope with the outside world once they are released. Like the characters in No Exit, prisoners are conditioned to feel as if they will never be free, even after all barriers to their physical freedom have been lifted.

Kerman is most effective in evoking this constant stigma: the strip search—the women are forced to remove their clothes, squat on the floor, and cough hard—after every visit or contact with the outside world, the grim notion that a prisoner’s words have no value if weighed against the “truth” as asserted by her jailer, the sight of small children being wrenched away from their mothers as the visiting hour ends, prisoners giving birth, then having to leave their newborns in someone else’s care before being whisked back to prison in shackles.

While Orange does not try to scale the cosmic questions raised in Crime and Punishment, its central message echoes the lesson learned by a penitent and existential Raskolnikov: Even if there is no God or no viable authority to guide anyone, a moral code exists naturally within the individual. This moral code makes him suffer once he transgresses. Yet the awareness of a moral code is like “a crack that lets in the light,” the very thing that redeems the individual in the end because it makes him realize he has the freedom to choose between good and evil.

When not in her introspective mode, Kerman speaks of the prison’s unspoken but entrenched code: No one is supposed to ask how anyone ended up there. The reader does not know specific details about many of the women’s crimes, only that most of them are amazingly kind, and fairly normal, like any woman who’s not in prison. They gossip, bicker, commiserate, give each other forbidden pedicures, cook prison food with the aid of a microwave (Kerman’s signature prison cheesecake serves as a nice contrast to her foie gras sandwich eaten prior to her admission).

Photo by Sam Zalutsky

But all this normalcy, meant to encourage public acceptance, is a bit disturbing. By making the world behind bars accessible to the average reader through her Margaret Mead observations, rendering Danbury as a gritty “all-girls high school” with West Side Story tribal overtones, where Kerman becomes healthier and thinner by running track and practicing yoga, the author occasionally dilutes or contradicts her message. While it’s unusual for a well-educated, girl-next-door type to land in prison, Kerman’s confinement does not make it more fashionable, more tragic, or more acceptable than for someone who comes from the wrong side of the social equation.

Orange should not, ever, be considered the New Black, given the personal stigma and erosion of self-worth that Kerman so eloquently evokes in the book’s more forceful, memorable chapters. I wish she had probed more deeply into other cases besides her own, to prove that the mandatory minimum sentences in non-violent drug cases are inherently unfair to defendants and financially disastrous to the country’s economy. (Kerman’s Justice Reform links on her website makes a better argument than her memoir). Nevertheless, Orange is the New Black should probably be required college-level reading on social justice.

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Movie Review: BABIES

Let me be clear. I’m not into cutesy stuff. You try baby talkin’ to me, I will probably punch you. I don’t fall for awwwjerking entertainment.

Ponijao

But I love cute babies and Babies (opening today, limited release) has four of them. Producer Alain Chabat, who came up with the idea, and director Thomas Balmès documented the kids from birth to first steps by letting the camera observe them in their natural habitats with no interference (which gets a little nerve-wracking sometimes).

Bayar

The cast: Ponijao, a Namibian girl; Bayarjargal, a boy from Mongolia; Mari, a Japanese girl, and Hattie, a girl from San Francisco. There’s hardly any dialogue or music; adults are practically extras. The babies are the main attractions and they are enough to carry the movie.

Mari

My favorite segments are with Bayar, the adventurer who roams free on all fours among cows and goats, and Ponijao, who loves sticking everything in her mouth, including a bone of unknown origin found in the dirt. Mari has one of the funniest scenes in the movie, throwing herself on the ground in fits of despair when she can’t figure out the concept of simple toys. Surprisingly, the parts with Hattie are least engrossing, though it’s no fault of hers. Because her American upbringing is so familiar—playgrounds, Kindermusik-type lessons, parents reading parenting books—her experiences offer no new insight.

Hattie

Watching these babies discover the world is a delight, even if it was difficult at times to see Ponijao and Bayar surrounded by flies. I wanted to reach through the screen and wipe their faces, yank out things that shouldn’t be in their mouths. But whether crawling in dirt naked or being carted around in strollers, the babies are much more resilient than we give them credit for, and they don’t need fancy trappings in order to thrive. Bayar looks elated eating toilet paper, while Ponijao finds wonder in licking a dog. And can you remember when your own feet fascinated you? Director Balmès doesn’t try to hit us over the head with any kind of statement; for me, Babies was a simple reminder that no matter how we were raised, we were born strong and can find joy anywhere.

Now excuse me while I go play with my toes.

Nerd verdict: Fun to watch Babies

Photos courtesy Focus Features

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Book Review: Lee Child’s 61 HOURS

After 13 books, you may think you know Jack Reacher pretty well but in 61 Hours (Delacorte, May 18), Lee Child allows small, revealing glimpses into Reacher’s psyche that might surprise you. This 14th novel is different from the rest in quite a few ways, hinting at more revelations in future installments, starting with the one coming out October 19 (two books in one year is also a change for Child).

Reacher is on a bus doing his nomad thing when it skids on ice and crashes in Bolton, South Dakota in the middle of a blizzard. The cops can’t come to the passengers’ aid right away because they have another situation on their hands—providing 24/7 protection to an important witness in an upcoming drug trial. Knowing a useful ally when they see one, the police recruit Reacher to become part of the witness’s protective detail against an unknown assassin. The case is complicated by riots at the newly installed prison and mysterious dealings in an abandoned military building just outside of town. During all this, a clock is ticking down from 61 hours to an explosive, cliff-hanging ending.

One of the reasons I love Child’s books is the rocket-speed action. Here, it slows down as Reacher spends most of the 61 hours waiting in the witness’s home for a showdown with the hitman. At first, I thought, “Come on! Knock some heads!” But as the book moves along, I realized the tradeoff is the lovely bond Reacher forms with the witness, a wise old woman who sees through his tough-guy exterior and asks him hard questions about the real reasons why he chooses a rootless life.

His relationship with the requisite Reacher babe, a woman who has his old army job as CO of the 110th Special Unit, takes on an entirely different nature than what we normally see him engage in. The CO eventually uncovers information about Reacher dating back to childhood. As she wonders, “Why was the army holding paper on a six-year-old kid?”

In the end, Reacher does kick a little ass (literally—you’ll see when you read it) after experiencing a moment of vulnerability that scared me a little (Reacher can NOT doubt himself!). This just means, though, there’s still a lot left to learn about him, a good thing in a long-running series.

Nerd verdict: Reacher is changed in Hours

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Strangeness in the Night: AMERICAN IDOL Season 9 Top 5 Perform Sinatra

American Idol is officially asleep at the wheel. That’s the only explanation for how they allowed these 5 clowns to attempt to croon on national television, when not a one of them has the charisma, vocal chops or musicality to pull it off (yes, Crystal included). Harry Connick Jr. pulled a Ryan Seacrest and did EVERY job ever invented last night, from writing the arrangement to playing on stage with the Idolists to actually mentoring them (which means giving them constructive criticism that helped to enrich the performance, not saying nice things about them in the manner of Adam Lambert) to carrying the humor of the show. All Crystal, Mike, Aaron, Casey and Lee had to do was say words out loud in a melodic fashion, and yet they STILL failed miserably. What an abject failure of a performance night.

Why couldn’t Harry have just performed for an hour using different voices attributed to each Idolist (I’d die to hear his Aaron Kelly squeak)? Wouldn’t that have been more fun? Wouldn’t that have sounded better?

Here are the reviews of the performances, from best to worst.

Lee DeWyze – “That’s Life”

Photo: FOX

If Harry Connick Jr and Elijah Wood had a kid, it would be Lee DeWyze exactly. Wears a suit well, dreamy blue eyes, lovely singing voice, short as a hobbit and awkward when speaking. Lee gave the best of a bad bunch of performances. He dressed for the theme of the night, which is always a smart move. And he looked like he was actually enjoying himself, the way Frank Sinatra used to perform. Spectacular arrangement by Harry; wild to watch him stare in horror at his less talented doppelganger.

Crystal Bowersox – “Summer Wind”

Crystal was the only Idolist Harry took seriously. I loved his observation that the more obscure she makes her connection to the song, the more personal the audience will feel toward it. She looked FANtastic, shockingly sexy even. While the performance was a bit boring, with an unflattering, clunky arrangement, Crystal showed surprising genre range. Since Crystal is going to win this thing no questions asked, it’s good of her to give us a little taste of all the sounds she’ll be recording down the road. And it’s an ever better opportunity for us to prepare for all the sounds we’ll be ignoring when she records them.

Mike Lynche – “The Way You Look Tonight”

Was Harry blacking it up for Big Mike, or do we have to give him a pass for the jive talk ’cause he’s from the Treme? So look, Crooner Night carries an obvious level of fakeness, which, added to Mike’s natural resting state of corniness, automatically leaves a trail of bullshit a mile long. Putting a teeny tiny hat on such a giant head doesn’t make matters better. But if anyone was built for this night, it’s Big Mike, and he milked it for all it was worth. He’ll be back next week to give us more of that corniness we hatelove so much.

Aaron Kelly – “Fly Me To The Moon”

Never looked better, never sounded worse. He looked like the best-looking Newsie of Christian Bale’s dreams (speaking of, Aaron would make a FANtabs Cowboy Kelly in the remake), even though he was basically dressed for church. But that voice. That voice has no power to it. No danger to it. There is nothing sexy about it. So why would we buy him singing any Sinatra song, least of all “Fly Me To The Moon?”

Casey James – “Blue Skies”

The encapsulation of everything wrong with American Idol this season. Casey has the voice and attitude to croon. He has the look and the sex appeal. He can make it happen. So what does he do? Gives a half-assed, jokey, sloppy, karaoke performance that ensures him a ticket home. Who Gordon Gekko’d his hair? When did he put his voice into a meat grinder? Where was the pork pie hat? Why was he in an obnoxious purple shirt? What was he thinking??? Now we have to sit through a finale with boring-ass Lee. Thanks a bunch, Casey. Go take off your shirt for some cougars!

Does Idol have a chance to turn things around this season? Does anyone out there still care about these kids?

(Spoiler alert: both of those questions are rhetorical.)

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The Right Movie for Your Mother

Since this coming Sunday is Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what to get my mom. Which led me to thinking about movies about mothers and how DVDs would make great gifts.

But there are different kinds of mothers and you can’t just buy The Hurt Locker for someone who loves Sandra Bullock comedies, or Avatar for a woman who likes good movies.

Therefore, I’ve devised the short quiz below to help you to determine what kind of mother you have and the corresponding flick she might enjoy.

1. In high school, if she found out you were being bullied, she would:

a) strap on a giant machine gun and go confront the offending kid’s parents

b) call up the bully’s house and make snarky comments to put the kid in his/her place

c) sing a song about how you should send out an S.O.S. next time it happens

d) sue the bully’s family

e) tell you that suffering is part of life

2. If you got bad grades, she would:

a) say you have MUCH bigger things to worry about, like killer robots

b) say, “Oh well, at least you’re not pregnant!”

c) tell you it’s okay, you’ll always have a job helping her run the family business

d) lecture you long and hard about how you might end up in a trailer park with babies by different daddies if you don’t get your act together

e) tell you not to worry since you’d be married by 18 anyway. In fact, she’d already arranged your marriage for you.

3. Her relationship guideline is:

a) Make sure someone’s not from the future before you sleep with them

b) You should wait until marriage to have kids, or at least until you’re out of your teens

c) Don’t date 3 people at once

d) You should date people with nice jobs, like in a law firm, but bikers can be nice, too

e) You must marry Asian!

4. Her career advice:

a) Acquire leadership skills and learn how to use heavy weaponry

b) It’s cool if you just want to hang out, write songs and play guitar with your geeky friend

c) Don’t run your own business because you’ll work all night and work all day and still have nothing left

d) Work hard, stick to your convictions, but wearing a good push-up bra can’t hurt

e) What career? Your job is to have babies and take care of your husband

5. Her life philosophy:

a) Trust no one

b) Never lose your sense of humor

c) Be open about your past, even if you were a little slutty

d) Don’t be a f*cking hypocrite

e) Small feet are better

If your answers are:

Mostly a’s—Your mom would love a copy of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She’ll enjoy another viewing of it while she polishes her M16s.

Mostly b’s—I’d recommend a DVD of Juno as a thank-you for all those times she stood by you and didn’t judge even though you screwed up.

Mostly c’s—Your mother will feel a kinship with Meryl Streep’s character in Mamma Mia! And since she’s been working so hard, maybe you can throw in plane tickets to the Greek islands, too.

Mostly d’s—Send your mom a copy of Erin Brockovich with a card telling her she’ll always look fab in tight skirts and heels.

Mostly e’s—Invite your mother over for dinner, making sure the table is set properly and the soup isn’t too salty, and then present her afterward with a DVD of Joy Luck Club and the latest pictures of your 6 children, showing them playing piano or chess.

What will you give your mom?

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