Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Friday: Mockingjay (Part 1)

NOTE: The conclusion of a three-part series. For part one, discussing the original Hunger Games, click here. For part two, about Catching Fire, click here.

After the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire, Mockingjay picks the story right up and shows Katniss Everdeen unsure of herself as she takes the mantle of the titular bird and becomes the face of the rebellion against Panem. Meanwhile, Peeta and Johanna are held captive in the Capitol, leading Katniss to demand the rebels of District 13 rescue her fellow games participants. Eventually, there is a full-on assault on the Capitol.

One of my few issues with the book was that Katniss seemed to take a step back in her journey toward being the face of the rebellion, as if she was suddenly unsure of herself. While some hesitancy is expected, I thought author Suzanne Collins overplayed her hand on that aspect. If my town was firebombed out of existence by its own government, I'd be beyond furious and wanting to take action. However, when the assault on the Capitol begins, it's a thrilling page-turner from the word go.

One of the book's strengths is the skewering of creating propaganda for a war. District 13 and the Capitol are both trying to rally support, propaganda pieces, or "propos" as they are called in the book, each side is using people to sell the cause, some better than others. Let's just say Katniss isn't a natural in a studio reading prepared scripts. 

I think of The Hunger Games series like dual sliding scales. On the first scale, the survivalist and hunting themes in the original novel are a major presence, but by the time the reader gets to Mockingjay, they have diminished. Conversely, the second scale is the political and social commentary, which is noticeable in the first book but dominates the third.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Despite a couple of missteps, The Hunger Games saga has a generally satisfying ending.

As for the film, my dislike for singular books being split into multiple parts has been documented. Also, Mockingjay Part 1 was coming off my favorite book and film in the series, so it was already behind the proverbial 8-ball. Having said that, the film makes the most of being prematurely split into two. The end scene isn't quite where I thought it was (though it came really close and the screen goes black at where I had guessed it would end).

Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie) make the best of the material while Julianne Moore (Coin) came off as a bit of a stiff, but one could argue her character is in the book as well. Yes, Effie subs in for Katniss' prep team in the book and is in District 13 in the film. This was a change I totally expected in part because fans and viewers who have not read the books would have been asking throughout Part 1, "Where's Effie?" They probably could have been true to the text had the film not been split into two.

The other major change in the film is the rescue. In the book, Katniss' first-person perspective does not allow us as a reader to see it and we are instead in Katniss' head where she frets about the possibilities. So it was a welcome change when the camera goes along with the rescuers and we see it unfold. Chalk that up to the camera being a third-person POV.

There is another potentially huge change involving Katniss' deal of becoming the Mockingjay of the rebellion, but it depends on how things unfold in Part 2.

Grade: 3.5/5 stars. Is the film good? Yes. Should it have been split into two? Probably not. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: Publishing

It's the watermark of writing: Getting a book published. Some writers hope to get their one dream book published, some manage to be the next James Patterson and get a million books published, and some go it alone and self-publish.

Gail Godwin's memoir on writing, Publishing, is set to be published January 13 by Bloomsbury, but I was able to review it early thanks to NetGalley. The book is a quick read and gives a taste of the author's quest to be published. Godwin opens the book with an author's nightmare: getting turned down by a scout from Knopf, one of the most distinguished publishing houses (many in the publishing world name Knopf and Farrar, Straus and Giroux as two of the most distinguished houses). Godwin manages to bounce back with several bestsellers including A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991), and Evensong (1999).

All three were published by different houses, but Godwin explains some of the writing process, having an agent and editor among them. At one point, she laments changes at Viking after it became part of the Penguin Group. Considering the recent mega merger of Penguin and Random House, two titans in the publishing world, how does it compare now to the Viking-Penguin merger back then? That was a question I had during most of the book.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read any of Godwin's books prior to Publishing. Fans of hers will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at how she wrote her books. I was more intrigued by the tales of her getting her books published, but there is also a fair amount of her life story intertwined as well.

Rating: 3/5 stars. I readily admit, I probably would have enjoyed this more had I read Godwin's previous works, but there was enough here to keep me invested. I was left wanting more details of the publishing industry, but Publishing was a good starting point.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Film Friday: Catching Fire

NOTE: The second in a three-part series leading up to Mockingjay, Part 1. To see the one on the original novel, The Hunger Games, click here.

I rarely watch television and when I do, I actively avoid reality shows. So it wouldn't surprise you when I say I dislike Survivor, especially its All-Star editions. The same idea is behind part 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.

Katniss and Peeta thought they had escaped the clutches of the Capitol for good. But when the 75th Hunger Games (also referred to as the Quarter Quell) rolls around a year after the events in the first novel, they are back in with other victors from previous editions of the Games. Meanwhile, unrest continues in the districts as Katniss and Peeta's act of defiance at the end of the first Hunger Games sparked talk of a revolution.

Of the books in the series, Catching Fire is my favorite. The spectacle of the arena continues to be peeled away for the grotesque and macabre rampage that it is and the political subtext that started in the original becomes more apparent. Peeta is elevated from being the damsel in distress and Katniss rounds into form as the take-no-prisoners heroine the reader knows she will eventually become. The book also has one of the better cliffhanger endings of any book I've read in recent years and showed a willingness on author Suzanne Collins' part to shake up the formula her books had held to up to that point.

A lot of people like the side characters in the original novel, namely Rue and Prim, but I like the supporting characters in Catching Fire better. Each of the previous victors that are being forced to return to the Games rebel against the Capitol in their own unique way, from Beetee's knowledge of electricity to Finnick's inner rage at what happened to his sweetheart Annie. There are major consequences to side characters we've known since the original novel, so the stakes are raised more than they ever were in The Hunger Games.

One caveat on Catching Fire is the audiobook version. I briefly flirted with trying to listen to audiobooks last year and the first one I tried was Catching Fire. I made it about two hours in before I couldn't take it any more. Katniss came across as a whiny heroine that didn't have a backbone.

When the first Hunger Games film made $152 million in its opening weekend, still the highest-ever for a non-sequel, a green light for Catching Fire was a foregone conclusion. The studio swapped director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence (no relation to series star Jennifer) in order to make a November 2013 release date. Some were concerned because Francis' most notable film up to that point was I Am Legend, the Will Smith zombie action film. The worries turned out to be for nothing.

Catching Fire managed to improve on the original in every aspect. Less shaky cam, better character development, and with some minor exceptions it stayed true to the text. The movie is second only to Silver Linings Playbook on my "best Jennifer Lawrence performance" list. She managed to show Katniss' growing confidence in her role as the eventual Mockingjay well.

Like the first movie, my favorite scene has Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman in it. Main characters Katniss and Peeta pull a surprise on the capitol that leaves the audience upset at Caesar. Again, as was the case in The Hunger Games, the book's more political subtexts really stood out here.

The movie is intense and managed to leave the cliffhanger from the novel intact. When I saw the film with my sister and brother-in-law, I could hear him saying something to the effect of, "Oh man, they're going to cut it on that last shot" while I said "Just like the book." Below is the last scene, in its entirety, that set up the countdown clock to this weekend's Mockingjay Part 1.

Catching Fire managed to raise the stakes, change up the world of The Hunger Games and was a page turner from beginning to end.

Grade for the book: 4.5/5 stars
Grade for the movie: 4/5 stars

What did you think of Catching Fire?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

National Book Award Winners

It was a good night to work for Penguin and Farrar, Straus and Giroux last night at the National Book Award ceremony. Penguin books took the honors in fiction and young adult, while FSG walked away the winner in nonfiction and poetry. All four winners are first-time recipients of the award.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)

The Winner: Redeployment
My Pick: All the Light We Cannot See
My Runner-up: Station Eleven
Heading into the awards ceremony, I figured it was going to come down to the books by Klay, Doerr and St. John Mandel. All three are on my TBR, though I've read large chunks of the latter two and I've sampled Redeployment. Most of the social media traffic and blogs seemed to favor Doerr and St. John Mandel, though Klay had gotten a lot of attention earlier in the year. All the Light We Cannot See is written in a very lyrical style, while Station Eleven is a wonderfully descriptive take on the well-worn post-apocalyptic genre. Meanwhile, Redeployment is a jarring collection of stories that look at a soldier's life both at war and returning home. Consider the opening paragraph, "We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I'm a dog person, so I thought about that a lot." Quite the opener for what follows. Much like when The King's Speech won the Oscar in 2010 when I was rooting for Inception and The Social Network, I get why Klay's book won the award, despite not being my first choice. Definitely a worthy winner.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)
The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright/Norton)
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (Metropolitan/Henry Holt)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton)

The Winner: Age of Ambition
My Pick: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
As someone who initially read only nonfiction books when I resumed reading daily as an adult, I thought I had my finger on the pulse after reading or successfully guessing the last two winners (Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers and George Packer's The Unwinding). Apparently, the judges and I didn't see eye-to-eye on the nonfiction side at all this year. My early picks didn't make it onto the shortlist, then the book I thought would win lost out to Osnos' account of modern China. That isn't to say Age of Ambition isn't good, but that it wasn't on my radar at all until the shortlist. And even then, I thought Chast had it. Consider Age of Ambition the newest addition to my TBR list.

Other winners included Louise Gluck for Faithful and Virtuous Night (Poetry) and Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming (Young People's). Both Gluck and Woodson are huge names in their respective fields, so it's great to see them finally get a National Book Award to add to their already large trophy cases.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Dance Floor Democracy

Throughout my schooling and especially when I pursued a history minor in college, I thoroughly enjoyed studying World War II-era history. Some of my favorite films take place during that time period, ranging from 'Saving Private Ryan' to the pulpy 'The Rocketeer' and 'Indiana Jones' films.

I received Sherrie Tucker's Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen as a NetGalley read, in part, because I was curious about an aspect of World War II-era history that I hadn't seen before. The Canteen was only open for three years, but nearly three million servicemen stopped by the club before or after being sent overseas. The club catered to all servicemembers, including women, and Allied soldiers. Starlets and actors would frequently dance with attendees and everything was free. Warner Bros. even made a film about the canteen towards the tail end of the war.

Sherrie Tucker's book is a very academic study in the history of the war via the nightclub, namely how the jitterbug dance represents the war to some younger generations and how people remember social history. However, I wasn't expecting it to be as academic of a study as it was (not that there's anything wrong with that, just not quite what I had prepared to read). Tucker delves into racism, sexism and other social forces, but is written in an academia-friendly way.

Rating: 2/5 stars. There's a good story to be had here, but it was way more technical than I was expecting, which made it a more difficult read. It veered off into directions that I wasn't expecting and admittedly, I lost interest at the halfway mark. Readers accustomed to university presses and more technical reading will enjoy it, so I can't give it my usual 1-star rating I give to books I don't finish. To the book's credit, it did make me look up more information on the Canteen.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games

NOTE: Part 1 in a three-part series leading up to Mockingjay, Part 1.

"But it's kids killing kids."

That's what friends and co-workers would say whenever I mentioned Suzanne Collins' novel The Hunger Games. The story of a heroine in a post-apocalyptic North America taking part in a gladiatorial game to the death is a hard sell to people unaware of the novel's first half. Supposedly, the novel was conceived by Collins after flipping through television channels and seeing a reality television show then footage from the Iraq war. With that in mind, the novel's first half is the best part because it's able to set the tone for the unsettling action to follow. The early scenes of The Reaping, where main character Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her much younger sister Prim in the games, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the state-sanctioned games are all a bit unnerving in that it isn't all that far off from reality.

My favorite scene in both the book and the subsequent film has nothing to do with the games or the arena. It's when the contestants, or "tributes" as they are called, are interviewed by television hose Caesar Flickerman. The crowds adore the tributes, yet everyone knows those same contestants are heading into certain death...and the crowds are entertained (cue Gladiator's Maximus "Are you not entertained?) There's jabs at high society, all adorned in ridiculously over-the-top fashions, wagering over who will survive the games The dark satire, practically embodied by the oft-quoted "May the odds be ever in your favor," plus elements of class warfare, poverty, and government oppression elevate the series above its YA post-apocalyptic brethren.

My one complaint in the book is the graphic descriptions of some of the tributes' deaths once the games begin. There were whole pages that I was like "Yeesh, that's a gruesome way to go," followed by me quickly turning the page. However, despite those few pages, the book has something to say about modern culture that rises above the gladiatorial fray. It's worth a read. Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

When The Hunger Games film debuted in March 2012, the fate of a studio was riding on it. Lionsgate was fending off a takeover attempt by activist shareholder Carl Icahn and the studio plunked down $78 million to make the film. They hired director Gary Ross, who I enjoyed previously from when he directed Seabiscuit (but he's also known for directing Pleasantville), and Collins herself helped write the script.

The film made Jennifer Lawrence, who was already an ascending star via Winter's Bone and X-Men: First Class, a household name. But the movie's strength is in its supporting cast, namely Stanley Tucci as Flickerman, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and Donald Sutherland as the villainous President Snow. Tucci is outstanding as Flickerman and really drives home the satire of the reality television show that is the games. Harrelson is likeable as Katniss' drunk mentor and Sutherland has arguably the best line in the movie when he speaks about containing the spark of hope against an oppressive regime. Below is the scene where Katniss is interviewed by Flickerman...

Thankfully, the book's more poignant points don't get diluted in the jump to celluloid, though some minor side characters are left out. The biggest example is Madge, the daughter of the mayor of District 12, who gives the famous mockingjay pin to Katniss (in the movie, Katniss gives it to her sister Prim, who then returns it to Katniss). Also, I thought the movie gave more of a sense of place, since you can very easily tell the filmmakers shot in North Carolina and Appalachia, where District 12 is said to be in the novel. The movie handles the violence better than the book, mostly through the use of shaky cam and quick cuts so as to keep a PG-13 rating. As a result, I usually tell people interested in the movie but concerned about the violence to see the movie rather than read the book. This is one of the few properties that breaks my rule of "book first, then movie." Rating: 4/5 stars

And it's more than just "kids killing kids."

Have you seen The Hunger Games? Are you excited for Mockingjay Part 1?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Holiday Movie Preview

Picking up where the fall movie preview ended, the holiday season is chock full of high-quality films that are vying for awards contention. Many are based off books this year and stand a real chance to be mentioned come Oscar time (along with fall preview mentions The Theory of Everything and Foxcatcher. Here are the eight films that will be making the jump from page to screen...

Nov. 21 - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate)
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns in the penultimate episode of The Hunger Games series as Panem is in full-blown civil war. While I liked the book in general, I really don't care for studios to split a single book into multiple parts, whether it is Harry Potter or The Hobbit or The Hunger Games. I remember walking out of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 saying, "WB just sucker-punched us." At least with that movie, it was only an 8-month wait until Part 2, whereas Mockingjay's conclusion won't be in theaters until November 2015. In these split films, plot lines tend to get super-stretched and because Mockingjay's book wasn't that long, I suspect there will be plots divergent of the source material when there didn't need to be. And yet, I'll still see it opening weekend. Yes, I'm a sucker. Below is the final trailer.

Nov. 28 - The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co.)
Based on the book Alan Turing: An Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film details the efforts of British mathematician Alan Turing to build a computer in order to break Nazi codes. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, the film has already garnered major awards buzz (as of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes already posted a score of 86%). I'm really looking forward to this one, especially to see Cumberbatch in light of his excellent job in the BBC's Sherlock series. The film is opening in limited release, likely focusing on New York and Los Angeles, so the release date may be later for other audiences. Should it gain traction in the Oscar race, expect a wider release in January. See the trailer below.

Dec. 5 - Wild (Fox Searchlight)
Debuting in limited release, Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon stars in this take on the Cheryl Strayed memoir about her discovering herself on the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Southern California to Washington. Witherspoon jumped all over the film rights for the book and it is a passion project of hers and based on the awards buzz, it looks like it paid off. I still think of her from Walk the Line and Sweet Home Alabama, though she was really good in this fall's The Good Lie. Director Jean-Marc Vallee also knows his way around awards season after directing last year's Dallas Buyers Club. The teaser trailer is right here...

Dec. 12 - Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox)
Movies based on the Bible are a complete crapshoot, given the inevitable controversy that stirs. One could argue that The Ten Commandments could not be made in today's era of cinema. Darren Aronofsky's Noah ran into a buzzsaw of controversy earlier this year, but still managed to make $100 million Stateside. For Exodus, director Ridley Scott looks to do for biblical movies what he did for ancient epics with Gladiator, one of my favorite films. I won't be expecting this one to be anywhere close to the text, but consider me somewhere between cautiously optimistic and excited on this one.

Dec. 12 - Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.)
It's amazing that a writer of Thomas Pynchon's storied reputation and caliber has waited this long to get a film adaptation, but his 2009 novel is getting the Silver Screen treatment. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and yes, Reese Witherspoon, the film is a drug crime caper in 1970's-era Los Angeles. The movie will debut in limited release before expanding nationwide January 9.

Dec. 17 - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Bros./MGM)
The trilogy is mercifully ending. I never thought I'd say that about The Hobbit, since the Lord of the Rings finale is my favorite film (and series) of all time. But, I've watched the previous Hobbit films with dismay after seeing plot lines stretched out, characters doing really dumb things, and plot rehashes from Fellowship of the Ring that cause continuity problems down the road. I have many friends who love the Hobbit films and I'll likely see it with them since they enjoy it so much and I love Tolkien's book, but my enthusiasm for the movie is very dampened compared to what it was prior to An Unexpected Journey. Here is the most recent trailer that's making a lot of noise online.

Christmas Day - American Sniper (Warner Bros.)
Starring Bradley Cooper, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the Chris Kyle memoir, the teaser trailer for this movie was fantastic. Kyle was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history and was infamous among Iraqi insurgents. The movie will debut in limited release and barely qualify for Oscar contention before expanding nationwide January 16 (typically, most Oscar films this late in the season have a limited release run in order that they can qualify for awards, then expand in January. Last year, Lone Survivor used the same tactic). I'll be reading Kyle's memoir for sure before I see this at my local multiplex. Below is the riveting teaser trailer.

Christmas Day - Unbroken (Universal)
This one's the big one. The adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's memoir of World War II hero and Olympian Louie Zamperini's life was one of my most eagerly-anticipated films of the year. The book, which I read in the spring, is currently my No. 1-rated book of the year. Directed by Angelina Jolie with a screenplay written in part by the Coen brothers, the film has pedigree up and down the credits list. This is clearly a project Jolie cared deeply about, met with Zamperini multiple times and lobbied Universal to direct the film. So while she has little directing experience, I'm optimistic that she's up to the task. Below is the most recent trailer.

Is there a movie you are most looking forward to this holiday season?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Travels With Casey

Growing up, I had three retired racing greyhounds, Magoo, Zoey and Kismet. After watching a documentary on the horrors of greyhound racing, my parents contacted a local rescue agency and, over the years, we brought home the three. Being that greyhounds are one of the fastest land animals with speeds up to 46 mph, taking care of them required some additional protections. For example, taking a greyhound to an open park is an exceptionally bad idea, but taking them to the local elementary school's enclosed field isn't all that great either (school security guard nearly called the cops because we were trespassing).

Reading Benoit Denizet-Lewis' Travels With Casey (Simon & Schuster) reminded me of those years our family owned the greyhounds. Blending a travelogue and a pet-focused memoir, Denizet-Lewis takes his yellow labrador Casey all across America in a rented RV. The book looks at every aspect of pet ownership, from dog whisperer Cesar Milan's compound (which I didn't realize was in my hometown) to the Westminster Dog Show to the unpleasant reality of overcrowded animal shelters. There is one particularly gut-wrenching chapter about dogs' lives on Native American reservations in Arizona. That chapter led the author to do something most people wouldn't do, but is incredibly noble.

To call the book a travelogue is selling it a bit short. What makes the book work is that it's really about the people and less about the environments they are in, so if you're expecting a travel book akin to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, you'll be disappointed. Perhaps a better way to describe the book is that its a pet book that happens to involve travel rather than the other way around. A chapter that takes place in a Manhattan dog park had me laughing, but as Denizet-Lewis' journey progressed, the author has challenges in his own life as well as seeing the aforementioned darker side of dog life in America. For that, the author should be commended for showing an even-handedness in portraying dog life.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book felt rushed, as if the author's rented RV suddenly grew rocket boosters on its back and hauled buns across the country. Admittedly, the author was going through some relational issues at that point in the journey. However, the whole book was leading up to what Denizet-Lewis discovered from his travels around our dog-obsessed country and if his relationship with his dog was any better than before their trip, but the book ends before finishing developing these ideas.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Despite the rushed ending, there's a lot to like about the book and I would still recommend it. Travels With Casey has moments of humor, lots of heart and shares concern for those dogs not yet lucky to find a home. Any dog owner will enjoy it.

To see videos Benoit shot during the road trip, visit his YouTube page here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Film Friday: The Blind Side

Fall is a time to watch the boys of the gridiron and this month marks the 5-year anniversary of the theatrical release of The Blind Side. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, the film earned $255 million at the box office as well as a Best Picture Oscar nomination and netted Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. I remember finishing reading the book within a few days of seeing the movie opening night, hoping as all book fans do that the adaptation doesn't botch what was beloved about the original source material. Thankfully, director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock delivered.

In professional football, the game has become more dependent on the quarterback who captains the offense and often throws the ball. In order for the quarterback to get the proper amount of time to throw a pass or determine what he wants to do with the ball, he has to have a strong offensive line, particularly an all-world left tackle to protect his blind side from defensive pressure. Often, the left tackle is the second-highest paid player on the team besides the quarterback. Essentially, they're the QB's insurance policy.

Lewis' book delves into the history of the offensive lineman position and specifically, Michael Oher, a Memphis teen with a troubled childhood who gets taken in by the Tuohy family and discovers a talent for protecting the quarterback's blind side on the high school football team. The book's structure is set up to where the two key threads alternate, so one chapter is on the football specifics, then the next one is on Oher's story. At the time I read the book, I was more into the sports minutiae than the human interest side of the story, but there were moments where I wanted to blaze through the lineman history chapter and get to the next part of Michael's story. The book is well-paced and informative, but may not be the best for readers not interested in the football position details.

That's where the movie comes in, for better or for worse. The explanation of the offensive lineman position is limited to a brief opening sequence, but then focuses exclusively on Oher. Bullock was well-deserving of an Oscar for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy, who spearheads the effort to take Michael in. The film is firmly rooted in realism (there's a lot of cameos by college coaches, namely current University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban) and the film's final scene is archive footage from the NFL Network of Oher being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. When I saw the movie with friends who had not read the book, they were able to guess the plot threads correctly, so there are few twists and turns for the average audience. Overall, Bullock's performance elevates what would otherwise be a very ordinary movie. Rating for both the movie and book: 4/5 stars.

When the film was released, Oher was in his debut season with the Ravens. He went on to a 5-year career in Baltimore, winning the Super Bowl in 2012. He currently plays for the Tennessee Titans. Meanwhile, Oher's alma mater, the Ole Miss Rebels, has an outside shot of competing for the national championship as of this writing. They were at one point this season the No. 3-ranked team in the country. The team is coached by Oher's high school coach, Hugh Freeze. The Tuohys have gone on to be featured on television and countless interviews (Leigh Anne is an interior designer, husband Sean owns dozens of restaurant franchises and previously worked as a broadcaster for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA basketball team).

When Oher won the Super Bowl, ABC News did a follow-up piece on the story. If you can't see the video below, click here.

Since the film's release, director John Lee Hancock earned acclaim for directing Saving Mr. Banks, one of my favorite movies of 2013. Sandra Bullock was terrific last year in Gravity and Tim McGraw (Sean Tuohy) will be in next year's sci-fi film Tomorrowland, but actor Quinton Aaron (Michael Oher) and actress Lily Collins (Leigh Anne and Sean's daughter Collins Tuohy) have not had the same level of success post-Blind Side despite receiving acclaim for their roles.

Have you seen or read The Blind Side? What did you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards

UPDATE (12/4/14): The winners have been announced. To see the results, click here or read my take on the winners here.

This week, the annual Goodreads Choice Awards kicked off its first round of voting. There are 20 categories and 15-20 books per category and three rounds of voting. The first one ends Saturday, Nov. 8, the semifinal voting period runs from Nov. 10-15 and the final round of voting goes from Nov. 17-24. More than 825,000 votes have already been cast for the first round.

This is the second year I'll be voting in the awards. I admit, most of these books are on my TBR list because of the backlog of books I have, but more often than not, I've downloaded previews of each book onto my Kindle. Here are three of the categories and some of my picks:

1) Best Fiction
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin)

This category was brutal to pick a winner. Fikry, post-apocalyptic drama Station Eleven and Phil Klay's military tale Redeployment all have spots on my TBR. I've read excerpts for both Zevin and Emily St. John Mandel's novels, even going so far as to buy Station practically unseen. Both Station Eleven and Redeployment are shortlisted for the National Book Award. And yet, I'm giving my vote to Zevin's titular book store owner. The novel's line "No man is an island; every book is a world" is an apt description of the novel's key themes of loneliness, the rapidly changing book industry and a love for reading. What's not to love about that?

Outside of those three, the nomination list is stacked. Rainbow Rowell's Landline is sure to draw her legion of fans as will Jojo Moyes' One Plus One and Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, not to mention David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks and Haruki Murakami's latest.

2) Best Memoir & Autobiography
Life, Animated by Ron Suskind (Kingswell)

I admit the chances of Suskind's book advancing to the later rounds is probably slim (other nominees are more high-profile), but I'm rooting for this one out of deeply personal interest. As someone who is a total Disney fanatic and diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I had rapt interest in this book from the moment I read the first excerpt. Below is a Lesley Stahl piece on the Suskind family that aired on CBS Sunday Morning. If you can't see the video below, click here.

The book is up against the likes of Robin Roberts, Elizabeth Warren, Cleveland kidnapping victim Michelle Knight, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and The Princess Bride actor Cary Elwes.

3) Best Historical Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

This was the easiest lock in the entire vote. I've read the first several chapters of this book and it is beautifully written, almost lyrically. This book is a finalist for the National Book Award and has received near universal praise from all over the literary community since its debut in the spring. I'm a sucker for World War II-era books, so this one literally had me at its description of a blind French girl and a German boy who's a whiz at the radio. Their paths eventually intersect in the French coastal town of Saint-Malo as Allied troops prepare to bomb the town.

As for the category itself, it's a good category, even taking into consideration the heavy tilt toward Doerr's novel. Other nominees in this category include Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, Lisa See's China Dolls and Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: How Google Works

What was life like before Google again, I asked myself when I sat down to read Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg's new book How Google Works (Grand Central). As I read through it, I realized just how many Google services I use. This blog runs on the company's Blogger, as does its feed manager, Feedburner. I search via Google, use the Chrome browser despite having Safari built into my Mac, use Gmail and once briefly flirted with the idea of having an Android smartphone, but thankfully, the iPhone became available on Verizon and that was that. The point is, so much of our lives has been impacted by the company that started out as a search engine with the colorful logo (does anybody even remember the early internet search days of Excite? AltaVista?)

There has been some debate and consternation online from early reviewers who were disappointed by the title, assuming it was about how Google compiles its search results or how the company came up with systems like Google Maps. I will emphasize that How Google Works is about how Google is managed and would be right at home in the business book section. Where the book excelled is explaining strategies of what makes Google successful. The sections on the company's "Don't be evil" mantra and the breakdown of the "smart creative" were particularly useful. As someone who works in a more creative industry, I read the sections that involved how to manage creatives with keen interest.

The book is a solid addition to the business book canon and does peel back the curtain slightly on the inner-workings of the Silicon Valley giant.

Rating: 3/5 stars. 

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a review.