Tuesday, December 30, 2014

5 Best Books of 2014 - Aka: You Need to Read These

The year started off weak.  Admittedly, I ended with a terrific ‘bang’ last year, as I eagerly devoured the last few pages of George Saunders’s brilliant Tenth of December only minutes before the ball dropped.  This year I was preoccupied with planning my wedding and accidentally led myself astray by haphazardly downloading a bunch of random novels onto my Kindle just before boarding a 10-hour flight to Hawaii.  In what I will term a ‘First World Tragedy’, none of the books I had downloaded were captivating and I was stuck with sub-par reading material for ten excruciating hours.

After I returned from my honeymoon I became choosier with my reading selections, and it paid off.  From August to December I went on a fantastic run of books that hit my literary sweet spot.  Many of those books are mentioned below, and my sole purpose in rambling on about them is so that you'll read them.  Because, you know, sharing is caring.  And no one wants to get caught on an airplane without a good book. (Some that didn’t make the ‘Top Five’ cut but are also definitely worth your while include Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, Life Itself by Roger Ebert and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.)

In compiling this list I attempted to stick to books that were released in 2014, but as you will see I ended up deviating from that format a bit.  Why?  I don’t generally stick to new releases published in any one year, and 2014 was no exception.  I don’t claim to have read even a broad sampling of the books published this year, but I strongly feel that the five following books deserve to be applauded and enjoyed for a cornucopia of reasons.

Get it here. 
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is structured much like Jennifer Egan’s fantastic A Visit From the Goon Squad.  The plot leaps around in time, following a tangentially related cast of characters that includes a jaded paparazzo, an aging film star, and a scrappy, knife-wielding girl in a traveling theater.  The central conceit of the story is that society has collapsed following the outbreak of a particularly deadly virus called the ‘Georgia Flu’.  As Mandel weaves the tapestry of her world, her tone is playful but sincere.  She generously peppers her story with pop-culture references, grounding her characters in a fragile world on the verge of collapse.  The non-linear form of the story spans over approximately forty years in time, from twenty years prior to the ‘Georgia Flu’, to twenty years after the outbreak.  If nothing else, the book is worth reading for nostalgic passages focusing on a ‘Museum of Civilization’, a showcase for relics of the world that we as readers currently know and enjoy.  Mandel asks the poignant question of what’s left in this world without technology, and doesn’t presume to present us with an answer.

Get it here.
The Martian by Andy Weir is a novel that centers on one man and his fight for survival after being left for dead on Mars.  According to Wikipedia, some have called it a mash up between ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Cast Away’, and I feel that this is an apt categorization.  Given that description, it’s no coincidence that the novel has been fast tracked for a feature film, but the more amazing story may be how it was published at all.  Weir self published his book in 2011 as a serial online.  Shortly after the novel was published in its entirety his readers requested that he publish it in Kindle format, so he did, setting the price at the lowest denomination, 99 cents.  Over time the book became a self-publishing behemoth, and finally got its due as a properly published novel in early 2014.  (For more on this amazing underdog story, heres a link to a recent article from Entertainment Weekly). 

I couldn’t put this book down.  Weir writes his main character, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney as if he is the funniest, most intelligent and level headed guy you know.  As Watney documents his struggle to survive in the inhospitable Martian climate, I found myself smiling, laughing and almost talking back to the book at times.  And as an extra bonus, I have it on good authority that the astoundingly complex science in the book is totally on point.  I cannot wait for the movie, and whatever offerings Weir sends out into the universe in the near future.

Get it here. 
Yes Please is comedienne Amy Poehler’s publishing debut.  On the day the book was released, I was geeking out so hard that I woke up a few hours early just to wait for the UPS lady.  Once I heard the knock on the door, I grabbed the cardboard packaging and shuffled over to the couch, digging in before I went to work.  (Did I mention I work at night?  Did I also mention that maaaaaybe I was a little late to work that day because I couldn’t put the thing down?)  Poehler’s honest, slightly self-deprecating preface hooked me right away, as she openly ruminates on what it is to write and be a writer.  Subsequent chapters that focus on her experience as an extremely prego lady at SNL, her dogged devotion to comedy, and her obligatory childhood stories are indelibly entertaining, revealing and have a humorous and familiar light touch.  If Poehler’s aim was to write a book that makes the reader want to be her BFF, she’s succeeded with flying colors.

Get it here.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tart wasn’t technically released in 2014, but it did earn the distinction of being the Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction in 2014, so I’m kind of still within my aforementioned 2014 parameters.  I knew very little about this book when I picked it up, save for the fact that it is written from the perspective of a young boy who has recently lost his mother.  I’m reluctant to tell you anything more as I feel my lack of information heightened my experience with this particular work.  I will say that Tart’s prose is so gorgeous it will actually have you thinking about the world in a richer, more refined way.  The story itself is captivating, heart breaking, mysterious, and compelling.   I have heard that some people do think the book is overlong and labored, but I emphatically beg to differ.  I truly enjoyed and savored every sublime sentence.  The Goldfinch has won its way into my heart and mind and has a permanent spot on my list of favorite books of all time.

Get it here.  Now.
The Stand by Stephen King is where my selection goes completely rogue.  First off, I had read this book before.  Secondly, this book was published nowhere near this decade, or even this millennium.  Yet, oddly enough, almost 40 years after it was originally published, The Stand is still captivating and relevant and certainly belongs on this list.  If you haven’t read it, go get it.  Now. 

Yes, right now.  I’ll wait.

I’m not kidding.

Did you get it?  Hint:  The Amazon link is embedded above.

Got it?

Good.  Let’s move on.

The Stand is the granddaddy of all American apocalypse novels.  Hints of King’s influence live on in the generous pop-culture references sprinkled throughout the aforementioned Station Eleven, and also in oodles of other novels and television shows, such as The Walking Dead.

The plot of The Stand focuses on a world ravaged by a killer disease called ‘Captain Trips’ which makes quick work of 99.4% of the population (yes I know I have a ‘thing’ for this genre, but I can’t help it if the stories are so damn fascinating!).  Led by supernatural dreams, the survivors pool into two camps, and good is eventually pitted against evil.  I picked this tome back up in 2014 because there’s a series of films in the works, to be helmed by one of the ultimate Stephen King fan-boys - director Josh Boone of The Fault In Our Stars fame.  Boone recently spoke to Kevin Smith about his vision for the films, and ZOMG am I excited.  I have a more detailed post in the works about my everlasting love for this novel because it is one of the best books I have ever read, and certainly one that touched my mind and heart.  Now go read it.  You did get it, right?  Right?!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

5 Reasons Why Mixed Nuts Is The Best Christmas Movie You (Probably) Haven’t Seen

Mixed Nuts has been my favorite Christmas movie since I was a wee tween. (For more proof, scroll to the end of a post I wrote back in 2010.) My yearly present wrapping ritual is not complete unless I watch it in its entirety.  It’s magical.  One year, I was at college and had forgotten my VHS copy of the movie at home. I was upset, but set to the task of wrapping my pile of gifts as I halfheartedly flipped through the channels.  To what did my wondering eyes appear?  Motherfucking Mixed Nuts.  Starting in ten minutes.  Like I said.  Magic.

Upon its release Mixed Nuts was a complete and utter bomb both commercially and critically.  The delightfully talented Nora Ephron was coming off the wildly successful love story, Sleepless In Seattle.  Due to this success, she was given free reign for her next project, so obviously she decided that her next move would be to write and direct a broad comedy set at a suicide hotline on Christmas Eve.  This definitively proves that Nora Ephron is my type of woman. 

As this year is the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, I felt compelled to express my undying love for Mixed Nuts, as it’s most certainly an underappreciated gem in Ephron’s oeuvre.  Here are 5 reasons why you should add it to your Christmas viewing list ASAP.

One – The plot is unique and surprising.  Steve Martin is the head of a struggling suicide hotline on the verge of eviction on Christmas Eve.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers since in all likelihood you haven’t seen it yet, but I can say that the script is wonderfully odd and full of madcap twists. The inclusion of a transvestite as a main character, and the conceit of centering a holiday film on heavily flawed characters may seem common now but remember that two decades ago, back in the world of VHS, these ideas were relatively untested. Mixed Nuts was ahead of its time in many ways, and in my opinion the plot has only gotten better with age.  In fact, I think it would make for a fantastic stage production, but that’s a topic for another post.

Two – The ensemble cast is a veritable treasure trove of gifted comedians cast in offbeat roles.  Aside from Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, and Madeline Kahn who play the employees of the aforementioned hotline, a famous funny person embodies each supporting character to perfection.  Liev Schreiber plays a prissy, misunderstood transvestite, Adam Sandler is a goofy songwriter with a ukulele (so, basically he’s just playing Adam Sandler with a ukelele), Gary Shandling is a heartless landlord, and Juliette Lewis is a pregnant makeup artist.  For good measure, Jon Stewart and Parker Posey pop up in brief cameos throughout the film as a preppy roller blading couple obsessed with finding the right Christmas tree.

If this picture doesn't convince you to watch this movie, I don't know what will.
There's so much going on!  WTF is up with that guy in the Santa suit?
Why does Adam Sandler look like an unemployed gondola operator?  Watch and find out...

Three – Madeline Kahn free-style raps.  Using a children’s toy microphone.  While trapped in an elevator.  And it’s wonderful.  That’s all you need to know.

Four – Given this talented group of actors, physical comedy abounds.   Steve Martin waltzes around a cramped apartment with Liev Schrieber as a broad-shouldered transvestite. At one point Schrieber even tosses Martin into the air in a hilarious pirouette move.  Haven’t you ever wanted to watch Steve Martin dance with a transvestite twice his size?  Why am I even asking? Your answer to that question should be yes.

FiveMixed Nuts has the funniest fruitcake in film history.  In a possible homage to Johnny Carson’s running joke that there’s only one fruitcake in the world and that it just gets passed around from family to family, the fruitcake in this movie is like the re-gift from hell.  The shiny red tin pops up numerous times throughout the movie in situations each more comical than the last.  

Fun Drinking Game Alert: Drink every time a character mentions "fruitcake".  Merry Christmas to you.