04 February 2014


by Colum McCann

"I suppose one finally learns, after much searching, that we really only belong to ourselves."
I can't think of a better way to spend a sick day than covered in quilts, reading a great book.  I've been meaning to read McCann for a while now -- years, probably.  A friend from law school and I recently reconnected via Facebook, and then Goodreads, and when she told me that TransAtlantic was her favorite book from last year, I decided that it was time.  I'd planned to read TransAtlantic first, but as I was flipping through the first few pages of Dancer, I was hooked.

Now, here's the part where I admit that before yesterday at approximately 7:45 pm, I'd never heard of Rudolf Nureyev.  The first section of the book is a heavy and exhausting description of a Russian wartime winter.  It's mesmerizing, and disgusting and so beautifully written I nearly cried.  If it weren't for the title of the book and a few snippets of some Amazon reviews that I glanced through, I wouldn't have even known until quite a ways in that the plot centered on ballet, and if I hadn't recognized Margot Fonteyn's name about halfway through the book and then Googled, I probably wouldn't have realized at all that the central character is a real person, and that this novel (such as it is) is a fictionalized account of his life (it's not entirely fictional; I'd liken it more to a Capote-esque non-fiction novel).

It's difficult for me to articulate what McCann's strength is because I think he's good at everything.  He tells this story from multiple perspectives, sometimes first person and other times third person, and we hear from a variety of people -- sometimes an omniscient unknown narrator, but primarily the characters themselves:  Nureyev's teachers, his housekeeper, his lovers, even the man who makes his ballet shoes.  The chronology is clear, but it sometimes takes a few minutes to realize whose voice we're hearing, whose agenda or biases we're being expected to adopt.

We hear only once from Nureyev himself, and it's only in a group of carelessly written passages, mostly lists of tasks, practice schedules, reminders.  Sparse as it is, this section gives wonderful insight into how obsessive and driven he was about his craft.  Strangely, it's not from the artist himself but from those who surround him that we learn about his humanity, his kindness, his worries, and his greatest successes other than ballet.

I really loved this book, and yes, I then spent hours on YouTube watching Nureyev dance.  I know less than nothing about ballet, but when it comes to storytelling, McCann is definitely a master.

03 February 2014

Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan

Finishing Sweet Tooth was my consolation accomplishment for never having finished Atonement. It's a difficult book to categorize, but I did really enjoy reading it.

From the Amazon.com synopsis: "Cambridge student Serena Frome’s beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England’s legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named “Sweet Tooth.”

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one.

Once again, Ian McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love and the invented self."

I have to assume that part of the reason I liked this book was because it combines so many of my favorite things:  it's set in England and during an interesting time historically, there are various literary allusions, and there's a bit of mystery to it.  There is, of course, a little bit of a love story thrown in for good measure, but I found that the book's plot is driven more by tension than anything else.  

Now, while I was entertained, I wouldn't go quite as far as the Amazon reviewer.  I didn't find it terribly dazzling or superb; I did, however, enjoy the internal dialogue about the extent to which a person can reinvent herself and then find that, rather than helping to avoid a dilemma, her duplicity has instead caused a worse problem.  At the risk of sounding flippant, I will admit that I was just relieved that something -- anything -- happened in this book because Atonement was a study in fictive inertia if ever there were such a thing.

02 February 2014

Marula Oil

About two weeks ago, I replaced my nighttime moisturizer with Marula Oil at the suggestion of the Sephora employee who had to deal with my (quite evident) aggravation upon learning that they no longer carry REN skincare in-store.  Aggravation notwithstanding, I am so glad they didn't have it because I think this has been the most advantageous skincare change I've made since I started using REN cleanser a few years ago.  (I still use that cleanser, by the way, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  I also still use their amazing daytime moisturizer during the summer.)

Marula Oil is, I learned, the only naturally moisturizing oil that also contains natural antibiotic properties.  This explains, of course, how it manages to moisturize while preventing blemishes, decreasing pore size, and overall, improving my complexion.  It is not at all greasy; in fact, the reviews indicate that a substantial number of people use it as their makeup primer because it soaks in and mattifies within about 30 seconds.  I haven't tried that yet because inasmuch as I do believe that a high percentage of my recent breakouts were due to over-drying and over-exfoliation on my part, I'm still not yet comfortable with spreading layer after layer of moisturizer on my combination/oily skin.

I use Marula Oil in conjunction with philosophy's Miracle Worker eye cream and Astara's Blue Flame Purification Mask (about once or twice a week), and so far, I'm a convert.

The Oscars: Nebraska

For all my talk about how I didn't want to see this film, about how staring at Bruce Dern for two hours couldn't be anything but aggravating, about how black-and-white movies in the year 2014 are pretentious...I loved it.  In fact, it may be my favorite so far.  Bruce Dern isn't the least bit annoying, and June Squibb is just precious and delightful.

The acting was so genuine, and -- yes, I admit it -- so very unpretentious, that I forgot what I'd been dreading about it.  It made me miss my grandparents so much it still hurts.  There is a calm and simple sweetness that pervades every second of this film; I watched all the way to the end of the credits just because I wasn't ready to leave yet.

I can promise it'll make you cry, more happy tears than sad ones.  I can promise it'll make you appreciate your parents, even when they call you 12 times in a day to ask how to work their new iPad.  I can promise it'll make you hate those sweepstakes idiots even more than you probably already do.  I can promise that if you were raised in a small town, you'll find yourself yearning to move back there to raise your babies (this feeling may be more fleeting than the others; it was for me).

I can also promise that if you're under the age of 65, you'll be the youngest person in the theatre.  I was -- by several decades.

01 February 2014

The Oscars: American Hustle

I think we can all agree (at least, we ladies can all agree) that we'd watch a film consisting entirely of Bradley Cooper eating sunflower seeds for two hours as long as he occasionally gazed into the camera with those sky-blue eyes of his.  Likewise, I think that most of us would agree that Jennifer Lawrence could read the ingredients list on the side of a granola box, and there we'd be, enraptured, screaming for an encore.  Except it'd more likely be the ingredients list on a bag of Doritos, which is one of perhaps nine thousands reasons why we all want her for our best friend.

As such, I was completely devastated that I didn't love this movie.  I was prepared to inhale it, hang on every syllable, and find myself so addicted that I wanted to watch it again immediately.  That is not at all what happened.  I left feeling a little bit confused, a little bit disconnected, and a lot let down.

I can't really pinpoint what went wrong.  The cast list is impressive (except that I will admit that for as much as I loved Amy Adams in Junebug, I hated her at least twice that much in both The Master and Doubt, and for reasons wholly unrelated to the characters she was playing).  The costumes are hilarious.  Hair and makeup must have loved coming to work every day.  And the premise was good, not the least reason for which is the whole based-on-a-true story hype that worked so well last year for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.

Part of the issue, I think, is that where Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were perceived as accurate yet entertaining, docudrama-esque retellings of pivotal American events, American Hustle just feels kitschy...like a cheap and flowery retelling of a story without a hero.  There's no one to cheer for in this film, and coming from a girl who prosecutes crime for a living, when you can't root for the cops, there's a problem.  And if you can't root for the cops, you should at least be able to root against them (The Town, Training Day, The Departed).

I didn't love it.  It's not Best Picture material.  I don't know what else to say.

The Oscars: August: Osage County

Wow.  I've seen Meryl Streep in everything from Death Becomes Her to The Bridges of Madison County, from Doubt to The Devil Wears Prada, and everything in between.  I have never seen her like this.  She is raw, mean, bigoted, selfish, and self-absorbed.  She is brilliant.

A family emergency, which soon turns into a family tragedy, brings a family together in their small Oklahoma home town, and it doesn't take very long to figure out that these are family members who are quite happy to remain apart.  Each of three sisters is complicated and struggling in her own way, which is of course exacerbated by sadness and their mother's illness and substance dependence.  The film begins on a dark and heavy note, and though there are glimpses of levity (Benedict Cumberbatch and an organ featuring prominently in one of them -- but my fixation with Benedict Cumberbatch is a story for a different day), it mostly remains there for the bulk of the substantial running time.

I'm not a huge Julia Roberts fan, and I haven't really missed her since she moved to Taos, had a bunch of kids, stopped making romantic comedies, and apparently forgot that prairie skirts are ugly (I say that because she's wearing one in 80% of the photos I see of her in tabloids).  That said, she was achingly good in this film, and I find myself hoping that she completely abandons any future films of the Oceans Eleven ilk in favor of more roles like this one.  She also has incredible skin, which I fixated on for most of the movie because though there are close-ups galore, she is mostly makeup free.

The Oscars: Blue Jasmine

Since the Golden Globes, where Woody Allen received some sort of lifetime achievement award, there's been a great deal of discussion about his alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.  I say alleged because although Dylan remains steadfast in her accusations, no charges were ever brought against him.  I regretfully admit that until recently, although I knew in general that such allegations were made, I knew no specifics and generally took no position one way or the other.  That is to say, I watched his films (and love Midnight in Paris) and gave no thought to the abuse Ms. Farrow maintains that she suffered.

That changed today.  She penned an open letter that was published in today's New York Times.  In it, she details not only the abuse, but also its subsequent physical and psychological manifestations in her life, and as an adult -- arguably free of the influence that her mother supposedly wielded when she was a child -- Ms. Farrow bravely and clearly names Allen as her abuser.  Her words are concise and largely free of the vitriol to which I believe she's more than entitled.

So, about Blue Jasmine.  It's lovely, and Cate Blanchett is stunningly broken and fragile.  I found it to be an almost frame-by-frame modernization of "A Streetcar Named Desire," though Allen replaces Williams's allusions to promiscuity and sexual violence with an illegal white collar investment scheme.  I truly loved watching it, which I suppose is nice, since it's the last Woody Allen film I'll be seeing.