Sunday, February 28, 2010

Road trip and Inglorious Basterds

Busy few days for the Rileys. On Thursday morning we drove over to Albuquerque for a feis. We went to a sports bar Thursday night, Sneakers, to watch the Badgers put a beat down on Indiana. Friday we went to a science museum and the girls went nuts in the pool. Friday night the Albuquerque contingent of Tir Conail threw a little party for the out-of-towners. I spent a good chunk of the party watching the women's gold medal curling match. Quite a nice time actually. The feis itself was Saturday morning; the girls finished dancing by noon. We got our last results around 12:45, on the road by 1:00, home around 7:30, pretty good time I'd say. It was about 9:00 by the time we got everything unpacked and the girls in bed, so I was thinking a little Olympics, call it an early night. Meg surprised me by suggesting we watch Inglorious Basterds, which we'd finally gotten from Netflix. It had been in our queue for six weeks, very long wait my ass, so Meg called before we left, and whatdayaknow, it was in the mail before we left Tucson. A little proactive goes a long way sometimes. I have to say, we haven't been impressed with Netflix lately, they need to get their act together.

Meg falls asleep during movies quite a bit, much more than she will admit to, so starting a 2 and 1/2 hour movie after 9:00 is not the norm in the Riley house. With the Oscars a week away however, Meg will go to drastic measures to see as many of the movies as possible. There was no need to worry about Meg falling asleep during this one, way too good to be falling asleep. Inglorious Basterds is Taratino doing an old school war picture. I kept expecting to see digital versions of Lee Marvin or John Wayne show up. The acting is great, Tarantino has a real knack for casting. I thought Brad Pitt was great as Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds, another good comedic performance from him. Chris Waltz is sweeping all the awards for his work as Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter, and deservedly so. From the very first scene you know he's nailed it. That first scene was reminiscent of Dennis Hopper and Chris Walken in True Romance for me. I know Tarantino didn't direct TR, but he wrote it, and both scenes are unusually long, with a sense of impending doom building through the strength of the acting. I also saw shadows of Reservoir Dogs in the basement scene. It's these kinds of scenes that make Tarantino great. Of course, putting them all together into a cohesive whole is no small task, and a lot of movies fail to do it. As usual, Tarantino uses multiple plot lines and nonlinear storytelling to tie it all together beautifully. He may never match Pulp Fiction in my eyes, but I think this is his best work since then.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I don't why it took me so long to read this book, I am a huge Dave Eggers fan. I really admire what he does with McSweeney's and his 826 writing program. Admiration aside, this is one of the best books I've ever read. I know the title is supposed to be hyperbole, but I have to say, it's right on the money, this book is heartbreaking all over the place and its genius is staggering, no lie. This is Eggers own story: the loss of his parents and the aftermath, raising his brother while still trying to finish growing up himself. Eggers doesn't portray himself as the tragic hero, sacrificing everything as he tries to raise his younger brother. In fact, Eggers lets us in on a dirty little secret: he is often more concerned with how things are affecting him. Maybe he's being selfish, but it looks to him like no one else seems to care how he's dealing, so his internal life becomes very self-centered. That internal life is brutally honest, and Eggers pulls off an amazing feat, giving readers true insight into the mind of someone grieving. It's not what you expect, but make no mistake, it lives up to the title.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Getting Ready for the Oscars

Meg and I made it to the cheap seats this past Saturday to see Precious. Simply put, this is American film at its very best. It is unrelenting in its honest portrayal of the black experience and the destructive force that is poverty in this country. Gabourey Sidibe is absolutely brilliant as Clarice "Precious" Jones; her performance is utterly heartbreaking. How she hasn't won every acting award is beyond me. I will have a real problem if she loses the Oscar to Bullock or Streep. She is every bit as good as Mo'Nique, who has dominated the award circuit, and deservedly so. It takes real courage to play a truly disgusting character with such conviction. For me her performance is reminiscent of Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I've worked with many kids living in poverty over the years, and breaking the cycle is a herculean effort in our society. Director Lee Daniels has given us a character in Precious Jones who just might be able to do it. Her life is tragic, but watching her struggle to break free is truly inspiring.

Saturday night we watched A Serious Man, the Coen's latest. For the record, I love the Coen brothers. Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are two of my all-time faves. This one, not so much. Quite frankly, I have a hard time buying it as a best picture nominee. I know the Coens always have some crazy stuff going on in their films, like O Brother being an adaptation of The Odyssey, that kind of thing, and I'm sure there was something going on with this one, especially in light of the beginning sequence and the last scene, but it was too much work to figure it all out. I usually enjoy the Coen's dark sense of humor, but again, not so much in this one. I've read that this is their take on growing up Jewish in Minnnesota, and I'm sure that's true. I'm just not sure what the hell they're trying to say about growing up Jewish in Minnesota. Don't get me wrong, any Coen brothers' movie is required viewing, I just don't think this is one of their best.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dad Time at the Movies

Scout and I went to see Percy Jackson last weekend. Quinn thought it might be a little scary, so we set up a play date for her at the house. Scout loved it so much she reread the book, and then read the next three. We need to get the last book, but I'm waiting for it in paperback. Scout's obsession is rubbing off on Meg and Quinn, so I'm sure we'll all see it together soon.

I started reading the series a couple years ago when a bunch of my 7th graders turned me on to it. I really enjoy the books, and I was very excited to see the movie, especially when I found out Chris Columbus was directing. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I hope it succeeds so the other books make it to the screen as well. The special effects are top-notch, and the actors are likable enough, particularly the guy who played Grover, very funny. I"m not usually one to complain about changes from the book, but I do think the omission of Ares is suspect. Who knows, maybe we'll see him in a second film.

The thing I like most is Scout's reaction. She clearly bought into the whole movie magic thing with this one, and that elevates it for me. I remember that feeling as a kid with movies like Star Wars and Raiders. I don't know if I would like Percy as much if weren't for Scout, but her enthusiasm is contagious, so right now, I'm a big fan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nothing Phony About It

I love Catcher in the Rye as much as the next guy, so when I heard that Salinger had died, I got it off the shelf straightaway. I enjoyed it this time through more than ever. It's been years since I've read it, and a couple things struck me.

First of all, it's an absolute joke that I was not REQUIRED to read this book in either high school OR college. Not something I'm particularly proud of. I had to take it upon myself, after college. I'm sure Holden would get a kick out of that. They never let you read the good stuff in school.

Everybody loves this book, loves Holden. The people who love this book the most may be writers. I can see and hear Salinger in so many of the authors I've read over the years. Not that people are copying, it's just hard not to be inspired by Salinger's voice and style. This may sound like I'm stating the obvious, but it really hit me as I was reading. I dare say, the influence of this book is Shakespearean.

I guess I forgot, but I was struck by all the swearing, smoking, and sex talk. Made me wonder how a book like Catcher would be received in our current cultural climate. I can just see the culture warriors at Fox losing their minds. Of course, that could help too, but I just couldn't shake the feeling that ol' Holden would have more than his share of detractors. There may have been a lot of phonies in his time, but I'm afraid we may have him beat.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Sad day for the Riley family. We said goodbye to our dog, Goldie, today. We adopted Goldie in 1998 from a former student of mine. The vet figured she was 3 years old at the time, so she made it 15 years, pretty impressive for a mutt who was severely abused for the first couple years of her life. My former student, Hutch Earl, adopted her from the pound and helped rehabilitate her. She was still skittish when we adopted her from Hutch, but over the years she lost that fear and flourished with our family. Everyone who ever met Goldie fell in love with her, she was the sweetest dog I've ever known.

What really gets me is the relationship Goldie had with the girls. They were a wreck when I told them after school that we had to put Goldie down. They don't know life without her, and that breaks my heart. In their excitement, the girls could be pretty rough with Goldie, but she never got angry, not even a growl. I feel a bit like the guy from Marley and Me. All of our family history includes Goldie, and tomorrow will be the first day of that history without her. Feels like something has come to an end. Rest in peace sweet girl.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Love Will Tear us Apart

I was at a local bookstore with some friends, just killing some time while they looked around. I had no intention of getting a book, but I couldn't resist the title. I picked it up to check if the title was a reference to the song, and checking the back cover, I gathered that it was. The summary sounded good, so I found myself reading the first few pages. By the time my friends were ready to go, I was hooked. The power of a catchy title.

Any time I read an author's first book, I'm always pulling for it. Rainone clearly has writing chops, but I just didn't feel this one. I had a hard time relating to the characters. A group of twenty-something friends have drifted apart, but now they're coming together for the wedding of perfect couple, Dan and Lea. These two aren't developed much, they're really just there to build the other characters around. The problem is, I found those other characters uninteresting. You have Cort, the hippie chic; Alex, coked out fashionista; Shaun, not-quite-out-of-the-closet gay guy; and Ben, the boorish jock. Author Sarah Rainone does her best to push these characters past stereotypes, but I don't think she succeeds. I hate to admit this, but there might be a generational gap here. Rainone wants us to sympathize with these characters as they transition into an uncertain adulthood, but quite frankly, they all seemed like whiners to me. Rainone does a good job of showing the struggles young people go through, I just didn't like how her characters handled them. Of course, if I thought these characters were intentionally unlikable, that would be one thing, but I don't think that was Rainone's intent at all. She wants us to like these people. I tried, I really did, I just couldn't get there.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I haven't read Pete Dexter before, but I was very impressed with his latest book, Spooner. With a new author it can take a little while to get into their rhythm, but once I got there, I found myself really enjoying the flow of Dexter's writing. I especially enjoyed the extensive use of creative and humorous figurative language. I have a feeling the style of writing in this book is indicative of Dexter's work in general, so I look forward to reading more from him.

Reading Dexter's acknowledgements, it's clear this book is liberally based on his own life. When I finished I felt like this book was written as a sort of tribute to someone who'd recently died, someone the author loved deeply, but imperfectly. Throughout the story, Spooner tries to figure out his stepfather, Calmer Ottoson, and in the end, isn't quite able to do it. Spooner's moment of realization ends the story, and it is very powerful. Ultimately, this is a story of men, sons and fathers, and the struggle to connect. Spooner struck me as a bit of a Forrest Gump at times, but his odyssey to understand the most important man in his life is truly universal. This may be the best book about men that I've ever read. I can't recommend it highly enough.