Among the Missing by Dan Chaon – A Book Review

This National Book Award finalist is a short story collection by an author I was not familiar with.  As usual, my friend Tom, known for helping meet quality authors, brought him to my attention literally on my thirtieth birthday.  I am so glad he did.

My initial reaction to the short stories in this novel was somewhat negative as I thought here we had yet another author working through his issues from childhood.  However, while many of his stories still strike me as such, they really are pleasurable to read.  I think the author’s technique is what I find so attractive about this work.

His stories are completely relatable.  We’ve all felt, experienced, or imagined at least on a peripheral level the plights of his characters, and so it is not terribly difficult for us to become personally invested in them.  And trust me, some of these stories we will be quite humiliated to find familiar. 

Another talent the author has is the ability to make us feel as though we’ve gone on an epic voyage by the end of one of his short stories, yet we then realize it was only a few pages long!  I think some writers have an intangible quality that sets them apart from other authors and Chaon’s is certainly the skill to give us a total and complete story without telling us hardly anything at all. 

I really enjoyed this book and if you like reading short story collections I think Chaon will satisfy.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Every once in a while a book comes along that completely engrosses you both on an intellectual as well as an emotional level.  The Brooklyn Follies is one such book.

I’ve read two Paul Auster books and found myself utterly impressed by both.  The New York Trilogy astounded me because of its experimentalism and form.  Mr. Vertigo forced me to fall in love with it because of its superb story and characterization.  Because of these two drastically different styles by the same author, I wasn’t sure which was the true Paul Auster.

Simply put, they both are.  Unlike so many authors, Auster is not a one-trick pony.  From what I’ve seen, he can write anything about anything.  Don’t get me wrong, he has his favorite themes and such, but he’s not one of these writers who essentially delivers the same story book after book after book.

The Brooklyn Follies offers a very complex story delivered in such a fashion that the reader doesn’t even realize the true complexity unfolding, which, of course, is the sign of a master writer.  What would seem to be nothing more than coincidences are both a statement by the author about life as well as what I can only assume was the result of careful planning on Auster’s part.

But the characters!  Few authors so perfectly convey the characters found within their work.  I tell you, I completely became friends with the characters in this book and it saddens me that their story came to an end.  I don’t mean that in the fatal sense, I literally mean I finished the book. 

If you want a story that will truly be a joy to read, I urge you to try The Brooklyn Follies.

How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers – A Book Review

This short story collection by Dave Eggers was hit or miss for me.  Never a traditionalist, Eggers makes sure that each and every one of his stories is original and unusual in some facet or another.  At times, this method works brilliantly; however, sometimes it also gets irksome.

Don’t mistake me, I’m all for experimental writing.  It’s just that story after story of it got old.  I don’t blame the author for this.  I was largely unfamiliar with Eggers’ work and wanted to give him a try.  In my mind, he simply isn’t a writer to curl up with in order to relax, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There were a few stories in this collection that I truly enjoyed and found masterful.  “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” was one such story.  Practically a novella, this story makes up the bulk of the collection and the price of the entire book is worth this one story alone.

All in all, if you’re looking for a page-turner to get lost in, this isn’t for you.  But, if you’re looking to study the form and substance of a work of original literature, Eggers will please.

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it-if you are not reading Tobias Wolff you are only cheating yourself.  The man simply does not write anything less than absolutely mesmerizing.  I assure you, that is not an exaggeration.

This latest work of Wolff’s I’ve read is called In Pharaoh’s Army.  It is a memoir offering us what lead to his taking part in the Vietnam War, his actual tour, and then the aftermath.  Now having read all of Wolff’s work, I purposefully saved this one for last because I mistakenly believed I’d like it the least. 

I loved this book.  Those of us born after the war have a notion of what Vietnam was like thanks to Hollywood movies, but Wolff gives us a totally different perspective, though no less horrific.  Wolff’s memoir deals with the one thing nobody likes to talk about too much-fear.  He was afraid to go.  He was afraid while he was there.  And when he got back, he was afraid of what he’d become.  Wolff is not a weak man, you’ll gather that from his recounts, he simply does not bother to hide the fact that he was counting down the minutes until he got home, and he just wanted to stay alive.

Each of Wolff’s chapters are like mini-stories, and they each offer the hilarity, absurdity, and sometimes tragedy of his life during that time.  I was surprised at how much of the book is spent leading up to his deployment and then his eventual return.  I’d say only half of the book actually deals with his actual time in Vietnam. 

As I’ve said, I’ve never experienced anything like this book and I completely recommend you read it if you are interested in either Wolff himself, the Vietnam War, or in the form and style of a masterly rendered memoir.

Please, do us both a favor-read something by Tobias Wolff.

Surprisingly, I Don’t Give Rave Reviews To Every Movie I See, and Here’s the Proof!

I know it typically seems as though I write glowing reviews for a lot of movies.  The fact of the matter is that, like all of us, my time is limited so I typically write only reviews for those movies I actually enjoyed.  My wife and I watch many, many movies on DVD, so it’s hard for me to let you know about every single one of them, especially those that failed to move me in some way, shape, or form.

So, here it is!  Here’s a list of all the movies I’ve seen in the last six months that I didn’t feel compelled to write a review on.  Prepare for an onslaught of nastiness…

The Brother’s Grimm – Terrible acting, terrible story.

The Ice Harvest – Cusack usually good.  Movie bad.

Corpse Bride – I actually enjoyed this one.  Great animation with a fun premise.  Burton is gold in my mind.

The Weather Man – Nothing special about it.  At all.

Munich – I actually had to turn it off.  I can take some violence, but this just got to be way too much for me.  I understand violence is a part of our world, but I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to watch this one.

Broken Flowers – Hate to admit it, but it bored me to death.  Had to turn it off.

The Producers – Had to turn if off.  Very, very annoying.

The New World – Bored me to tears.  Didn’t watch the whole thing.

I Heart Huckabees – I actually loved this one.  I sadly simply never found the time to write a review on it.  Really good movie, but only if you’re into postmodernism and metafiction.

Fun With Dick and Jane – Run away from this movie as fast as you can … and don’t look back.  I’ll be praying for you.

Ultimate Avengers 2 – About as good as the first one, and that’s not very good.

Date Movie – Utterly stupid and insipid.

Memoirs of a Geisha – I know I’m supposed to like it, but I found it very difficult to sit through.

The Da Vinci Code – A heartless copy of a fun book.

Stay – Darn it!  I actually really liked this brain tease as well, I just never found the time!  Rent this one if you get a chance, I thought it was very engaging and it had some excellent acting.

March of the Penguins – See Memoirs of a Geisha

The Invincible Iron Man – Vincible.  Very vincible.  (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word, but alas …)

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – If you’re that into Superman, you’ll get a kick out of this.  It’s how the sequel was originally supposed to be, before director Donner got canned halfway through.

Lady in the Water – I won’t mention the director’s name because it’s obvious he’s in the business of promoting himself over his art and I’m not going to assist him what that, but let’s just say that this movie was wrong on every possible level.  It’s one thing to subtly give yourself a quick shot on screen if you’re a director, it’s another to make yourself an integral part of the plot, especially when you act as well as my dog Lady, and she’s been dead for 27 years (true story).

Beerfest – I can’t very well chide this movie when I’m the one that sat through the whole thing, but I am not proud of that fact.  If you’re actually drinking beer yourself, this will probably seem hilarious.  If you’re sober and you like it … God help you.

Marie Antoinette – Again, visually interesting at times, but rather snore-inducing.

A Scanner Darkly – Crud!  I really wanted to write an in-depth review on this one.  Long story short, rent it if you’ve got nothing else to see.  Kind of cool, kind of discombobulated, but definitely hard to take the eyes off of. 

Okay, the bloodbath is over.  Hope you enjoyed learning I, in fact, don’t like every single thing I see.  Disagree with some of my choices?  Feel free to sound off!

Borat – A Movie Review

I would have really enjoyed Borat had I not seen seventy-five percent of it already in the promotions.  Even the majority of the extra footage had been aired, despite their claims.

Hey, I know, I know … I should have gone and seen it in the theater as soon as it came out.  It’s my fault for waiting for it on DVD.

Even so, it still was pretty hilarious.  Some of the scenes that weren’t appropriate for television were especially funny/disgusting.

If you like Borat, you’ll like this movie.  If you don’t understand what he’s about and demand a tight plot, I think you’d rather watch something else.

300 – A Movie Review

When I first saw the preview for 300 several months ago, I knew that this would be a film that would have the same impact upon the industry as did The Matrix and the original Star Wars.  It looked so unlike anything else out there!

Guess what, folks?  It finally came out last week, and it delivers.  300 was a visual feast from start to finish.  Moreover, it was quite compelling!

Granted, I’m not going to say it will win any awards for story or acting, but I have to tell you, the acting was much better than I expected.  Gerard Butler had me convinced he was King of the Spartans.  That guy just seethed power and passion!  Plus, it actually had much more story to it than I thought it would.  Bonus, right?  At no point did it feel drawn out or overextended, yet it still came in at feature-length.

I was a bit concerned going in because of Frank Miller’s connection to this film.  Miller, who created the source material, is known for his gratuitous violence.  I feared 300 would resemble Sin City in its ridiculously over the top displays of brutality.  Anyone remember the scene where a man had his testicles pulled off in Sin City?  Yeah, that’s when I decided that movie was not for me. 

Not to worry, friends, while 300 was very vicious, the violence, like everything else in the movie, was so hyper-stylized that it at no point even resembled reality.  I think that was a good call on the makers’ part.

Hyper-stylized-that’s how I would describe this film.  Truly a joy to watch.  Some people are complaining that its too testosterone-fueled, there’s too much yelling, too much machismo, but you want to know what I think?  When done in such an interesting manner, I see nothing wrong with those things every once in a while.  I mean, if you’re going to see an action movie, don’t you want action?  Don’t you want fervor?  I do.  I was so in the moment, I didn’t even notice all the yelling.  To me that means it must have fit perfectly within the scenes.

The director of 300 is supposedly in line to direct the film version of Watchmen.  Let me just say that if he does half as good a job on Watchmen as he did with 300, I’ll be very happy indeed.

My only question is, where did those warriors in ancient Sparta get all the ab-rollers?  Seriously, every dude in this movie had a sixteen-pack for a stomach.

Casino Royale – A Movie Review

Okay, so as much as I enjoyed the previous James Bond movies, at no point did I actually think any of them (yes, ANY of them) had the sort of hand-to-hand combat abilities the characterization would lead you to believe.  James Bond was supposedly a human weapon along with being a lady charmer, and while most of the actors pulled off the latter quite well, the former always left me a little … unsatisfied.

But hey, who cared, right?  I mean, we had all those crazy gadgets!  Sure, Roger Moore couldn’t throw a decent looking kick to save his life, but he had one tricked-out car!  But I’m afraid even that got old.  As our technology advanced in the real world, Bond’s gizmos didn’t seem so incredible anymore, and when they tried to up the ante on them, they just came out looking ridiculous (invisible car, anyone?).

As I saw it, they only had once choice.  Get rid of the ludicrous weaponry and focus on the man.  And in order to do that, they had to get a man.  Not just a man who looked good in a tux, but a man who could actually make you believe he could kick your tail with virtually no effort at all.

Enter Daniel Craig.

I always liked this guy (see Layer Cake), and I knew they’d found the right Bond the moment they picked him.  Bond was originally intended to be a bit of thug.  Sure, the ladies loved him, but his attitude toward them was rather one-and-done.  He was cold, calculating, and he didn’t mind spilling blood to get what he wanted.  He had a license to kill, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.  He’d been in some scraps, and his face showed the history of those fights.

With Casino Royale, that’s the Bond we get through Craig.  The action is amazing, absolutely amazing, and it’s so amazing because it is mostly physical action.  The near-opening scene will have your eyes bulging, and it’s mostly just a foot chase!  Craig is truly an athlete with a physically superior body, just the sort of thing you would expect from a secret agent of Bond’s caliber. 

Thankfully, the technological aspect to Bond was kept to a minimum and none of it seemed unrealistic or over-the-top.  It still played a role, mind you, but nothing that makes you slap your forehead and yell, “You’ve got to be kidding!” 

Yes, the story runs a little long, and yes, it gets more than a tad confusing at times, but who cares!  I was mesmerized with Craig the entire time and the story, while certainly not mind-blowing, was more than entertaining.  I actually found it surprising they took some time to lay some character groundwork for Craig to work with.

I realize I border upon hyperbole, but Casino Royale may just be my favorite Bond movie ever-EVER.

DC: The New Frontier, Volumes I and II – A Graphic Novel Review

Note: This review refers to DC: The New Frontier Volumes I and II.

If you are a DC fan-I mean a hard core, DC or bust fan-you will love, and I mean LOVE DC: The New Frontier Volumes I and II.

I remember seeing the first issue of this series when it came out in single-issue format and thinking that it seemed a bit remedial. Overly simplistic. I made this deduction based off of looking at the art alone, not by reading any of it. However, I later discovered this book had been receiving critical acclaim from many established publications such as the New York Times, so I had to give the trade paperbacks a shot. I’m glad I did.

You see, the art is supposed to look a bit unpretentious because the story is set during the Silver Age of comics. For you non-comic book people, that means it takes place basically in the late fifties, early sixties. The Silver Age was when old characters from the thirties and forties received major revamps, such as the Flash, the Atom, and Green Lantern. It also introduced new characters such Adam Strange. DC: The New Frontier takes this Silver Age era and delivers a story with modern day sensibilities. For instance, Superman and Wonder Woman are trying to clean up Korea while maintaining some sort of autonomy from the US Government for whom they work. The space program is in full swing with Hal Jordan desperately wanting to be a part of it so he can reach the stars. A horrifying Batman realizes he may need to lighten up a bit after a disheartening experience with a child. J’onn J’onzz is unexpectedly transported to Earth and must acclimate or perish. We get traditional appearances from Hour Man, Aquaman, and Green Arrow. We see the Challengers of the Unknown, the Sea Devils, the Suicide Squad, and other favorites from the sixties, as well as re-imagined characters like Steel.

You see, in the comics, originally, all these things were spread out over decades, but now, the author and illustrator, Darwyn Cooke, has blended them all together into one cohesive plot line that culminates with all the heroes joining forces in a very non-traditional manner against a foe that could destroy the world.

This collection honestly feels like if heroes were real, this is how they would act with each other and how our government would react to them. DC: The New Frontier is a captivating read and I urge you to give it a try immediately. It will quickly become one of your favorites.

Green Arrow: Moving Targets – A Graphic Novel Review

Warning: If you’ve ignored national media for the last year, you may read some spoilers below…

So why write a review for Green Arrow: Moving Targets you ask? Is it the excellent writing? Perhaps the exquisite art? None of the above; but, don’t get me wrong, both are adequate, perhaps even above average in the comic book world. No, the reason I’m writing this review is because Judd Winick (some of you may remember him from an early season of MTV’s The Real World) has written an HIV positive character into the DC mythos.

Green Arrow’s had some hard luck with his sidekicks. His first junior superhero named Roy Harper, aka Speedy, became a drug addict ironically enough. Well, Speedy cleaned up his act and is now a full grown superhero called Arsenal. Then, Green Arrow discovered he had an illegitimate son named Connor Hawke, who, after dad died, took over the role of Green Arrow. Well, I won’t bog things down with explanation, but the first Green Arrow returned from the dead and now works side-by-side with his son, but not as a sidekick, as a partner.

Enter Mia Dearden. She was a fifteen-year-old prostitute that Green Arrow took off the streets and gave a home as introduced by writer Kevin Smith. Winick decided to take things a step further and revealed she was HIV positive from her days as a prostitute. Although pestering Green Arrow to let her become his sidekick long before her discovery, Green Arrow finally gave in, granting her the control over her own life she desperately needed, and so Speedy was reborn.

Now, despite some obvious issues I have with this plot (How do you rationalize a teenage girl with HIV working as a vigilante who uses a bow and arrows? Why did she have to contract HIV by prostituting? Not everyone with HIV acquired it through “illicit behavior,” you know?), I will grant Winick credit with treating it as sensibly as one can in the comic book genre. He kept Mia strong and assertive, without crossing into sanctimonious territory. Not only that, but Mia’s story is more sub-plot to the overall story taking place in Moving Targets. That overall plot, by the way, paled in comparison to Mia’s plight.

So, would I recommend Green Arrow generally? No, I wouldn’t, though Meltzer’s Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest was excellent. But, I would give Green Arrow: Moving Targets a read simply to witness a writer introduce a rather pioneering character into the conservative universe of DC.