Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Best Books 2013 (According to Moi)

You know the drill: I read a few books that were published in the year 2013. I make the list. You decide whether I'm crazy or not. About the books, I mean. Not in general. These were the ones I was crazy about:

1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer 

The Interestings
Meg Wolitzer has always been one of my favourite American authors (The Wife, The Position, Surrender Dorothy) and her newest has appeared on a few "Best of"lists and for few good reasons: the subject matter is, well, interesting, and the writing is fantastic.The novel spans several decades but mostly follows a group of adolescents - children, really - who meet at summer camp in the 1970's and then follows them into their middle age. Their conversations, fights and troubles strike you as real and the title is deliciously ironic because, really, no one is quite as interesting as they think they are at age 15, non? It is yet another example that, despite what is happening to you in the zeitgeist (AIDS, cult marriages, 9/11) that the more the world changes, the more people remain maddeningly the same.

2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously. I know how badly the phrase LOL gets used but this finally appropriately applies. Allie Brosh, for those of you unaware, is a brilliant cartoonist and blogger who describes herself as a an artist who "lives in her bedroom"in Bend, Oregon. She wrote her first comic at 28 (I Need to be Famous by Thursday)before graduating from college. Now she writes stand-up quality material in book form and posts it to her over 5 million fans. And she gets to do it with her pyjamas on.  Culled from her blog and alongside other material it is both funny and moving: like testing her dog for mental retardation. Or eating so much cake as a five year old that she pukes rainbows. Seriously, funny. And strangely life-affirming when you consider that two years ago, Brosh her brush with depression led to the blog's 18-month hiatus and a serious contemplation of suicide (she had formed a suicide plan and was talked out of it by her husband and mother). This book is the result of her struggle and I can't imagine what the year would have been without it. Or her.

3. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed
Sometimes a book that you find in the dentist office can fool you. This sucker was just sitting there and when I went to return it after my cleaning, I secretly hoped that the receptionist would let me take it home. It was hers and she was delighted to give to me. Success! What resulted was 3 days where I didn't make meals for my family, so engrossed was I. The material is devastating ( an impoverished labourer hands over his 3-year old daughter to a wealthy couple in Kabul, for starters) and the consequences of the decisions each character makes radiate through a series of over-lapping, perspective shifting narratives that leave bring together unlikely characters in different surroundings. It's big in scope and in emotion but it never feels manipulative. Amazing storytelling.

4. The Tenth of September by George Saunders

Tenth of December
In a year that saw Alice Munro win the Nobel, it would seem short shrift to not put a book of stories on the list. This one is fantastic beyond measure and written by a guy who is universally agreed to be one of the best living writers of the millenium. His commencement speech at Syracuse University went viral this year and the message in that great piece (maybe minus the obvious advice he gives about swimming in a river full of feces) was that if you could do one important thing in life, it was to err on the side of kindness. It's that sentiment that infuses all of the pieces in this phenomenal collection. Particularly poignant is the story of a man who abandons a suicide attempt to rescue a a boy who has fallen through the ice. Saunders uses his big brain and sharp, sharp humour to good use here in innovative ways. It's almost a guide to being human.

Here are some also rans:

The book that made me happy I didn't have Rich Parisian Bourgeois Problems: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The book that made me wish I could jump a plane to London to eat everything I saw between it's pages: Ottolenghi, the Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi

The book that made me realize that some actors should stick to just reciting lines: Actor's Anonymous by James Franco

The book that gathered the most dust on my must read list and yet I still can't bring myself to open it and read it, God Damn It!: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The book that managed to make even a father-and-son hunt for his sister's attacker seem hilarious: Let's  Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

The book that humanized the obesity epidemic for me: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

The book that confirmed to me that living with a badly-behaved husband would be a total buzz kill: The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison

The book that confirmed that growing asparagus is a leap of faith: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Aging: Not for the Weak

So here it is. I'll try and keep it short. 

I keep forgetting my own age. I mean, I'm forty-four years old. It just seems really strange to me, and kind of awkward when I tell someone I'm a year younger than what I really am and then walk away, only to realize that I’m off by a year. I know a lot of people don't put much mind into their age, but to literally forget? I've had to actually recalculate from my birth date to see how old I was (whether I was off by a year or so). I don't have any severe mental illnesses (that I know of...) but for the past few years, every time my birthday rolls around, I literally have to calculate my age. Mostly it’s because I’ve brainwashed myself into believing that I am whatever age I want to be. Forget about age completely, I tell myself each morning and live as you see fit. This, I continuously tell myself, is the key  to keeping sprightly. And then it all goes to Hell in a hand-basket when I find myself explaining the concept of a phone booth to my kids and have them look at me like I am either, making it up, or emerging from the Dark Ages.

It's possible there is nothing wrong. From birth to the age of 21, it is a never ending series of positive milestones all lumped together. We not only count our years, but sometimes count our months in anticipation of the next step toward adulthood. But once you've reached 21, isn’t the world is pretty much your oyster? Aren’t you old enough to do what any other adult can do? There is no need for a countdown to your next birthday,  no real need to remember your exact age - especially when you have so many other numbers in life to remember.

When I told my husband about it, he thought it over carefully and decided that my age-forgetfulness wasn’t creepy or a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“You just suck at math.”


Thursday, November 14, 2013

3 Months a Parent

12 Years a Slave film still

We have a new addition to our household: Saara Laine! Saara is an exchange student from Finland who is gonna be shacking up with the Dinesen's for three months. She has been here for only a few short weeks and has already taught us so much about her country and what it like to have a 17-year-old super-athlete living under your roof. (Hint: it involves a quart of milk per day and a pound of bananas, so stock up next host parents!)

Saara likes her pop culture so she came to the right house. With the exception of her terrible taste in sitcoms (How I Met Your Mother...really?), she is hungry to explore and discuss what is out there in the zeitgeist. Our first conversations were about music, movies and art that engages and inspires us. It was a fantastic gateway into knowing who she is and what she likes and dislikes. Last week, she asked me if I would take her to see a movie and, of course, I said I would. And then I found myself in a dark theatre watching a movie that was so incredibly brutal and frightening that I wondered whether I had been a good 3 month-only parent to her.

The movie was 12 Years a Slave and I will say it is an absolutely exceptional movie in every way. Like many slavery films before it, 12 Years a Slave unfolds in the sweltering heat of southern plantations but, unlike its predecessors, director and visual artist Steve McQueen’s film focuses on a free man from the north who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His name was Solomon Northup and the story is a true account. The reason, McQueen took this angle, apparently, was because he wanted everyone in the audience to feel like the main character.  And  Solomon, according to McQueen was that "someone who can take you, the audience, in this unfortunate conveyor belt of slavery.”

Well, mission accomplished.

Where  the movie breaks new ground is in the way that it exposes the old films on slavery - the old plantation epics - as frauds. This isn't a Gone With the Wind where the slaves live in harmony with their owners. It is also a very far cry from the absurdist fairy tale/revenge fantasy of Django Unchained.  It is, as David Denby of The New Yorker, pronounced it "easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery". No film has humanized the experience the way that this one does.  Anyone who has ever feared losing everything will identify with Solomon. And there are scenes and shots staged and photographed with such beauty that you won't forget them: in Washington, the men and women about to be shipped south, standing naked in a yard and washing themselves; the languid heat of the Louisiana summer where men chop wood from sun-up to sundown. And Solomon's face, the exceptional Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face—square jaw, furrowed brow - every time he is appalled or horrified by a situation and knows that he can't demonstrate his emotions because it will take his very life away.

I let my kids watch a lot of stuff that might be deemed inappropriate but I do it because they almost always want to talk about it afterwards. We've built a Wash, Rinse, Repeat-model for ingesting pop culture (except it's more Watch, Talk, Repeat) and it has served us well. But, after sitting through that movie with Saara, I wondered whether my model was one-size-fit-all appraoch was a sound one as she was very, very quiet afterwards. On the drive home from the theatre, I broke the ice by apologizing to her for exposing her to a movie that was emotionally very taxing. Then I told her about a few films that I would absolutely never see again: United 93, Requiem for a Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, Boys Don't Cry. I told her I would add this film to that list. She agreed that she was pleased that she'd seen it but that she, too, wouldn't watch it a second time. Difficult cinema is out there, I told her, but we all have a choice to watch or not. Some of us choose and still wish for a happy ending that we know is not coming. I think Saara figured out that she was one of those.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Real New Year's Day

Yesterday's retreat from the cottage was bittersweet. As we packed up our belongings and headed home as we always do, it was with the unspoken knowledge that we were embracing a new rhythm.

The thought was confirmed as I slid the car into the driveway and noticed that the roadside maple in my yard had jumped the gun and was already flaming. My lily's had long-since dropped their petals, their stems turned reedy. Not to mention, I have more tomatoes than I know what to do with, peppers begging to be pickled or turned into chili sauce and a bunch of rosemary so massive and fragrant that the squirrels have mistaken it for a tree and play ring around the rosy round it.

But the real ripening in my home is human. My son has outgrown his summer shoes and sleeps like a hibernating bear. He will rue the day each coming morning when I rouse him from bed for school, I suspect. My daughter flits around the house like a drunken butterfly her limbs threatening to overtake even mine in length. Whatever they may feel about returning to school, it causes me to wonder how they - not to mention me - got to be so old.
The feeling was echoed again perfectly as I read my morning newspaper: Labor Day, it proclaimed, has nothing to do with the rhythms of nature, nothing to do with the movement of the sun. It just happens that we pause every year about now and look around us and notice the way the small changes add up. It’s a reminder that we could do this almost any day of the year: declare a holiday, stand back, and consider the ebb and flow of the world we live in.

Labor Day, not New Year’s, is when the new year really commences.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Summer Camp

My sweet-faced daughter is at camp and I miss her. I send her a letter every second day and get none in return. This is the way I like it. Getting letter from your kid at camp is like that day on Survivor near the end where you get a visit from your family: it just makes you realize how bad you miss them. The major difference at our house, however, is that unlike those on Survivor people, the rest of us will not end up stabbing each other in the back the moment our family member has left the island. We just don't roll like that. I guess that means that we aren't ready for prime time. I can live with that.

I do have a ton of time to read, write and spend time with my son who sees my daughter's two weeks at camp as the ultimate vacation. He can sleep in and his life is peaceful, easy and sister-free. When I ask him if he would like me to add a line to the letters I write he usually rolls is eyes until I can see the white parts. Then he tells me to tell her that he got a tattoo. That's usually when I sigh and make something up.

This year, I packed her a book that she loved. It was called, P.S. I Hate it Here. It is a book of letters that kids wrote to their parents while at summer camp. Some are good. Some bad. Most are hilarious.

Here is a sample:

And another....

See what I mean?

Thursday, June 13, 2013


He ate the same breakfast every morning: two boiled eggs, two pieces of toast with marmalade and tea with four teaspoons full of sugar. When he got older, he added Bran Flakes to “keep things moving”. He packed his lunch each morning in a metal lunch pail and inside it were almost all of the same items he had for breakfast. The only change was the bread: it was not toasted. He ate his supper at the same time – 4:30 PM – and didn't care if anyone joined him. Prefered it, in fact. He also didn’t care what was on the menu provided that, whatever it was, was served with rice. This he made himself because nobody did it as well. This is the same reason he gave for ironing his own shirts. The dry cleaner botched the job. He used a hanky. He kept it in his left pants pocket and after blowing, meticulously folded the dry part over the wet before putting it back in his pocket. He snickered and shrugged his shoulder when we moaned that this was disgusting yet refused to surrender the practice. He played golf every day after work in the summer, turned on the television and watched sports when the snow started to fly. When spring came  again, he started it all over again. He was a Habs fan. He thought the 1984 Lakers had the first best first line in the history of basketball. He thought Lee Trevino was under-rated and didn’t understand why Jack Nichlaus was “Golf’s Darling”. He screamed so loudly when he saw Joe Theisman’s leg break that the house shook and the neighbors rush over to make sure everything was all right. It took two days for him to stop shaking his head and saying, Now that is disgusting. He called women he liked, “Darling”, men he liked, “Boss”. He loved to tell us what a “handsome son-of-a-bitch” he was and the way he said it lets us know that he still thought he was. He read the Sunday New York Times every week even though the paper didn’t reach town until Tuesday. He clicked his tongue at the headlines when it arrived and referred to the people in it by their first names. Pierre and Margaret are breaking up, for instance. Or, Fidel is having another anti-American rally in Havana. His legs were muscular and attractive in shorts and I secretly hoped that mine were the same. He loved to tell anybody who would listen about the time he got into an elevator in Montreal with Liz Taylor, how her eyes were violet and she wore a pill box hat. She smiled hello and he was instantly struck mute. He could recite most of e.e. cummings by heart and did so when the spirit struck him. He cried when Cher won an Oscar. He's gone but he is everywhere. In my son's quiet gaze. In my daughter's laugh. In the smell of cut grass. In the sound a car makes on gravel. Everywhere. All the time. Here. Now. Always.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Cost of Safety

Saturday Evening Post - 1952-09-06: Crossing Guard (George Hughes)

If getting the kids out the door on time were an Olympic sport, in our house we would be Lichtenstein: we wouldn't medal. To be fair, we’d be doing fine if we could get it together by 8:15 but, for some odd reason, the wheels seem to mysteriously fall off around this time. Suddenly, I realize that in my pursuit of making myself the perfect cup of tea, I have neglected to make the kids' lunches. Or, it's Track and Field day and my daughter can't find her sun hat. Or, no one brushed their teeth or hair. And why, Universe, when we step outside and realize that it's dropped 10 degrees colder overnight, can we never step back inside the house and instantly find our lucky toque? Suffice it to say, 8:15 to 8:35 a.m. can be the low point of the day. 
Remember those visions you had of yourself while you were pregnant? You know the one: where you're cast as the ideal parent, laughing and smiling and walking off to school, early, with your children leading the way, skipping and holding hands and telling knock-knock jokes? Keep dreaming. 
But even on my most Lichtenstein-y days, I know I have an ace up my sleeve when it comes to getting my kids to school safely and as close to on-time as is humanly possible for me. It's my school crossing guard, Luva. But Luva is more jewel than ace standing at the side of the highway of 7A - rain or shine -  and sparkling through the gloom like a jewel in DayGlo orange. While I'm at home scraping mustard off of my pants,Luva is that parent stand-in I conjured in my pre-natal fantasies. Only she's way, way better, is nicer in the morning and gets to carry a giant stop sign. Plus, as an added bonus, she has the eyes and reflexes of a jungle cat (which are equally effective at spotting speeding cars and light-jumpers-too- busy-putting-on-eye-liner- to-notice-they-are-in-a-school-zone, as they are whining-heel-draggers-who-forgot-to-finish-their-toast), she is fiercely serious about her job and wields her Stop sign more as a calling than a call of duty (which is, how I secretly suspect, she sees her job). If I were a real estate agent trying to sell a house within a five-block radius, I would mention that she comes with the neighborhood. She's that much of a selling point.
Last week, the head of our local school association sent out a mass e-mail SOS. In an effort to cut costs, our township proposed to eliminate Luva's position on the side of the highway, as well those of her fellow guards across from the school and further down the street near a busy thoroughfare. As far as I know, an alternative has not been proposed. 
Look, I appreciate that municipal governments are strapped for cash. And I love saving money as much as the next guy. I do. But isn't it time we had this conversation: how much is a child's life worth to us? I know mine are worth well more than the several thousand per year it takes to man those corners every day. Plus, as long as we're talking math, isn't putting even one child at risk as they cross a busy highway or intersection, just too much? Aren't crossing guards a symbol for community's that claim safety as a top priority? Plus, remind me: didn't I pick up a municipal flyer that claimed that my township was an "active community"?  How can we pay lip service to that when our smallest, most impressionable local citizen aren't safe to walk or cycle to school each morning? 
Several decades ago, a young boy was killed crossing the busy highway Luva so ardently watches over. A crossing guard was added. Several years afterwards, when that was a distant memory, another young child - a girl this time- was killed and a light was added. I know I'm not the only one who sees getting rid of the Luva's of this world as moving backwards. Isn't it time to put our money where our mouth is? Let's leave crossing guards alone.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No. I. Won't.


Seven Mother's Days ago, I got into an awkward.... uhmm...disagreement with my Mother-in-law after a well-meaning comment she made. My daughter was having a meltdown after I refused to bend to her will over ingesting yet another piece of candy or something and she pitched a fit. On Mother's Day. While she screamed bloody murder in a corner and I tried not to drink wine before noon, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, "You know, you don't believe me now, but one day, you're going to miss this." 

Breathe, I told myself. You don't want to end up on the cover of The Sun.

"Maybe," I shot back, "but today is not that day!"

I could tell by the way my husband flinched that I maybe should have kept quiet. But come on! You know that's the sort of comment that could lead to matri-in-law-cide, right?

Unsolicited advice is the scourge of parenthood and, happily, I am not alone in my hatred of it. I had the chance to read an excerpt from the amazing comedian, Jim Gaffigan's new book, Dad is Fat, and aside from having the most perfect title, the section of the book that killed me the most was the passage that dealt with just these sort of "insightful" exchanges (which Gaffigan gets in spades, by the way, having fathered five children. Five!) 

From the moment the baby bump shows, people view it as an open invitation to give unsolicited advice about everything baby-related: "Your wife shouldn't be walking up stairs!" "Looks like your wife is having a boy!" Then with the newborn: "Isn't your baby hot?" "Isn't your baby cold?" Or my favourite regarding a baby in a sling: "Can he breather in there?" No, he can't. And I plan to put you in there next.

Of course, "You're going to miss this!" is not typical advice. It's a confession from these parents with older children that they may not have taken enough time to appreciate the chaos. That's why when people tell me "You're going to miss this!" I always offer to let them take a trip down memory lane and come over and change some of Patrick's diapers at 4:00 AM or tell my three-year-old the same Scooby Doo story for five straight hours.

Brilliant. Where is advice like this when you need it, I ask?

Listen, I know that she meant well. And I assume that she was talking about my kids being young and not the conversation we were presently engaged in (as I wasn't going to miss getting unsolicited parenting advice). And I get it: I will miss them being cute and cuddly and generally sweet in all the things that they do. Hell, I already ready miss how easy it was to buy them clothes without being told that the ones I chose are "a bit lame. No offence, Mom." I suppose it's rather ironic that after all of the toddler meltdowns in the library, the grocery store and various parks throughout the metropolitan Toronto area that, someday, my kids be embarrassed by something as small as my musical choices. (BTW, Michael Jackson is still cool with the kids, right?)

But I will never miss the unsolicited advice. Never. I would rather spend eternity dropping my kid off a block from school without his friends having to see me driving in my pyjamas than have an old lady tell me in the line up at the grocery that my kid is too young to be eating a lollipop.

If lollies are a chocking hazard than fill your cart, lady. Now, that is advice that I can live with.....

Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Get Out of a Ticket: the Laura Way

08_05_17 (134) by Mr Rodriguez; or, Frank
08_05_17 (134), a photo by Mr Rodriguez; or, Frank on Flickr.

Today, as I made my way home after a successful trip to Costco, I was stopped on the highway by a proud member of out local police force. Here is an actual transcript from that event:

Police Officer (looking very self-satisfied): Well! I've been sitting here all morning waiting for you!

Me (looking even more smug and self satisfied): Well! I got here as fast as I could!

End Scene.

And that, dear friends, is how you get your sorry ass out of a speeding ticket.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lady Business

A few year ago, there was this great skit on SNL called, Lady Business. The bit, written by Tina Fey and staring the best female cast members of that year (actually, of any year) - Kristen Wiig, Amy Pohler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch- was a spoof of this Brook Shields vehicle that NBC was pushing heavily in their schedule. The Shields' show claimed to be a sexy, yet celebratory, insider look at women in the business world but was such a ludicrous, one dimensional view of women everywhere that it tanked after only a few episodes. That left it ripe for the picking and the SNL ladies nailed calling it by writing a skit that called it out in a way that only great comedians can do: by reducing it to a line that you can kick like a dead horse. Awesome.

Of course, ever after every time there was some weirdness that pertained to women, whether positive or negative, I chalked it up to "lady business". My daughter has a disagreement with a friend at school: Lady Business! The old man at Sobey's pats me on the derriere? Lady Business! A friend is sick and tired of doing laundry and shoots it all on the front lawn for her family to do for themselves? Lady Business! 

If you want to see Lady Business at its finest, however, you need to haul your ass over to the comments section of Amazon where a little product called,The Bic Pen for Her, is getting a heavy dose of action Lady Business-style. Have you heard about this product? The re-boot of the Bic Pen only this time, made entirely for Ladies? If it weren't real, it would make me cry. Instead, the snarkiest members of the internet have seized upon it as an opportunity to let the corporate world know how stupid and reductive the've been by bombarding it with sarcastic reviews from women and men alike. The aim, of course, is to undermine what some have called a sexist marketing endeavour and the comments on the most highly trafficked sites are genius. Comedy Gold of the Highest Order, seriously. Here are some examples:

        Finally! For years I've had to rely on pencils, or at worst, a twig and some drops of my feminine blood to write down recipes (the only thing a lady should be writing ever). I had despaired of ever being able to write down said recipes in a permanent matter, though my men-folk assured me that I "shouldn't worry yer pretty little head". But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like calluses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!" - Breemeup

        "The normal black pen casings are just so hard on the eyes. It was like a breath of fresh air to see lady colored pens. For once, I don't have to grip a giant, man-sized pen just to sign receipts at Saks. And the ink just hits the paper so smoothly, not at all like the rough, gritty man ink in Bic's normal pens. My only complaint is that they are a bit finicky. When I was copying down recipes from my neighbour, it worked just fine, but as soon as I sat down with the bills, nothing. It wouldn't work! But that's okay, my woman brain gets all muddled trying to figure out finances anyway." - Virginia

Rather than piling on either five-star or one-star reviews, the BIC for Her also attracted dire warnings for anyone too manly to hold the pens deemed "essentially for women."

        "I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day's tree-felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks."

Oh, Bic! You've just run into some Lady Business!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Putting the B in Oscar

I would like you to meet Mystery Critic.

Besides being a wise, fantastic and generally hilarious person, he has been blessed with an incredible skill. 
What is it, you ask?
He can sum up a film in a few simple sentences. 
And his predictions: Spot on.
Suck on that Mayans!

Let me just show you a hint of his prowess by way of example. Here are his observations on one of my current obsessions, Downton Abbey:

Mystery Critic: Whose that lady and why is she making you cry?
Me: Her name is Lavinia and she's dying.
Mystery Critic: What's she dying of? Boredom.

End scene. 

Skills like these shouldn't go to waste, so I asked him to weigh in on the Oscar films. But let me be clear: Mystery Critic's time is incredibly limited. He has zombies and aliens to slay in his basement and math test to pretend to study for, so some of the films he simply refused to screen. This was understandable, of course, but incredibly frustrating as a film fan thirsty for a fast one-take on each film. When I could get him to comment, however, it was well worth the wait.  Here are his simple but erudite predictions:

Mystery Critic on Beasts Of the Southern Wild - The people in this movie are eating shrimps right out of the shell. I didn't know you could do that?! Why don't you let me do that? Wow. Their table manners are pretty bad, huh? Wait, wait, wait: Is that guy driving a boat-made-out-of-the-back-part-of-a-truck? AWESOME!!

Mystery Critic on Argo- This movie was pretty good but The Town was waaaay better. Anything with Renner is better.

Mystery Critic on Zero Dark Thirty- So I can't see this because there are some torture scenes in it? That's lame. I play Black Ops, all the time! And why is Jessica Chastain in everything?

Mystery Critic on Lincoln- Is this about a dead president? Ugh. I'm out.

Mystery Critic on Life of Pi - This movie made me think about life. Alot. But not about pie. I prefer cake.

Mystery Critic on Silver Linings Playbook - No. Way.

Mystery Critic on Les Miserables - They got the title right, anyway.

Mystery Critic on Django Unchained - Why did you go to that without me? That is so unfair.

Mystery Critic on Amour - I have to listen to French all day at school. My brain needs a break from that language.

Peace out and enjoy Oscar Night! Or as we refer to it at our house The Female Super Bowl.

Friday, February 1, 2013

There Will Be Blood

Christoph Waltz Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

It is two years before the Civil War in the American South and an itinerant German dentist (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). The dentist and the newly freed slave make an arrangement: together they will form a bounty-hunting team that brings in wanted men dead or alive. It's a "flesh for cash business," the dentist explains to his new partner, an ironic and slightly pointless statement when you consider that Django has spent his entire life in bondage. No matter, because Django proposes a more daunting task: the two men will find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who had been captured by a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Easy-Peasy/Lemon-Squeezy, right? And so the two men set out on horseback to accomplish this very thing leaving a few laughs, more than a few uncomfortable moral quandaries and buckets of blood in their wake. 

As most of you know, the above is the set up for the film, Django Unchained, the latest opus from Quentin Tarentino, the man-child director who brought us Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Inglorious Bastards. What you may also know is that the film has already won the director a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, has received numerous accolades from the critics and a ton of criticism for its possibly-wanton use of the N-word. It is also has a great, star-studded cast - Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson - ripe dialogue and easily one of the funniest scenes involving the Klu Klux Klan ever written. Here's what you don't know, though, I suspect:  no horses were hurt in the film's making. Do you want to know how I know that? There is a statement to that effect at the end of this almost 3 hour-long (!) film and the reason I noticed it was because I had kept my eyes  closed for most the last 20 minutes of it. When I finally gathered the courage to open them again, I saw that statement and laughed and laughed and laughed. Perhaps a disclaimer warning that our sensibilities and imaginations might also be in danger might have been better suited. But I'm getting ahead of myself....

Anyone who has ever sat through a Tarentino film would know only too well that what he finds consistently exciting are people being murdered, people screaming in pain, people begging for mercy and in this, Django doesn’t disappoint. But the film is so self-indulgent that tension eventually dissipates. There’s an entire 10-minute sequence (with the Australian cowboys) that could’ve been omitted, or at least rewritten that adds so little that you begin to suspect that it only made the final cut because it stars QT himself, making a lamentable attempt at an Aussie accent. The first half is picaresque and essentially irrelevant, though things do improve once we get to the plantation (‘Candyland’) only to degenerate again in the mindless final bloodbath.

Don't get me wrong: the film isn't all bad. The main asset here are the performances. Leo plays has Candie, a bored libertine who lives for “a good bit of fun” with a decadent gleam in his eye. Samuel L. Jackson is initially clownish and finally chilling as his grotesque, Uncle Tom-ish retainer and I promise you, you won't look at him the same way again. Waltz has the juiciest role, though,  (he won a Golden Globe last week) from a story-moving point of view. He embodies the hypocrisy, or just complexity, of a man whose heart bleeds for the “poor slaves” yet who also has no compunction killing people labelled ‘bad’ by the system (even if they’ve turned over a new leaf. His dentist would make for a great character study – I also expected him to be called on the fact that he offers Django a third (not half) of the bounty money, making him a sidekick as opposed to an equal partner – but in fact Tarantino is unwilling, or unable, to accommodate such moral shadings. He points out the contradiction, but does nothing more with it. 

When Inglourious Basterds re-wrote history by having Hitler shot in a movie theatre – just like that! – it made an exhilarating point about cinema’s ability to improve on real life. But Django takes a trickier subject and offers less, not more. An attempt is made to make a complex moral issue that been tackled a million times by filmmakers more engaging but, ultimately, the drama lacks richness. This is a film made in broad stokes in which you are either black or white or bathed in blood.     

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Best Books of 2012 (According to Me Only, Of Course!)


I love it when books take centre stage and there is a great scene in David O. Russell's wildly exhilarating and heart-felt new movie, Silver Linings Playbook, where a book makes a fantastic cameo appearance. In the film, Bradley Cooper plays, Pat, a man with bipolar disorder who is struggling to  see past the shards of his broken marriage. In one of many unhinged attempts to woo back his wife, a high school English teacher, Pat decides to connect with her by reading her entire syllabus. He starts with Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. The better part of a day and most of a night are spent sinking into the tomb and by day's end - 4 in the morning to be exact - Pat is done. How do we know he's done? He takes the book and flings it so violently across the room that it promptly smashes through window, shattering it and waking up the entire neighbourhood. I know I should have been slightly horrified but I could barely sustain my glee. Who hasn't wanted to do this, I thought to myself? And how many times did I almost do that very thing this year? Hello, 50 Shades of Grey. I'm looking at you.

This year's Black By Popular Demand annual book report - my list of the books that I read and thought were the best distractions of the year -  contains no "Flingers". There isn't a single book on this list that you would even contemplate throwing out a window. It should be noted that this year, I was down on  my book count and if I am to believe the list I update to your right, I only read 45 or so books in 2012. I was off my game for several reasons: writing my own stuff, watching Homeland and eating come to mind. Mostly, though, I seemed to have been drawn to some big-ass books this year. Four were over 700 pages. Odd. Why was I drawn to bricks, I wonder? Unknown. But I will tell you this? None of them hit anyone the head but me. And I mean that in a good way.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This was my favourite read by far this year. I blogged about it, I pushed it on others, I forced my mother-in-law's book club to read it. Phenomenal. The plot is anything but simple: Nick Dunne's wife disappears on their fifth anniversary and though at first he seems like the ideal husband, things start to .....turn. Turns out she's no peach, either. The twists, the turns, the twisted! It doesn't get much better than this. Read it.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Some of the best reads nowadays can be found on the YA shelf. Why is that, you ask? Because kids aren't afraid to confront sadness the way adults do. In this one, a 16-year-old girl falls in love while coping with terminal cancer. Sounds like fun, huh? As gut wrenchingly sad as Stars can be, it finds it's joy in the unlikeliest places. Smart, clever, wise, it's a must read.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I am a bit of a freak when it comes to books that deal with nature but if you aren't drawn to the outdoors it won't matter. This book isn't just a memoir about one woman solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It's about survival off the trail. Finding your strength after coming through a divorce, the death of your mother and heroine abuse. Oh, and there are also rattlesnakes, dehydration, bears and sex in tents. It is called Wild, after all. The book offers the best life lesson of all: putting one foot ahead of the other will always get you to where you want to be. Even when your toe nails are falling off.

Are You my Mother by Alison Bechdel

In this amazing follow-up to her first brilliant graphic novel, Fun Home, artist and writer Alison Bechdel thrillingly takes on her mother - voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor - but also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel's childhood. Poignantly and hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf and it's a richly layered search that leads readers from psycho-therapy to Dr. Seuss to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother and real-time truce that will move and astonish all adult children.