Saturday, January 31, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

2008 Academy Award Nominations

There’s always next year, right? That pretty much sums up my feeling about this year’s Oscar nominees - and my feeling about the Chicago Cubs. Though much of what was handed down is exactly (or awfully close to) what I expected, there were some surprises. To wit:

• Clearly, a number of people both saw and remembered Frozen River, which is excellent. They’re probably already engraving Meryl Streep’s name on the Best Actress trophy, but that Melissa Leo is nominated in the same category really ought to give them pause. Bet on Streep, but don’t be surprised if the Oscar goes to Leo.

Jenny Lumet may be pondering a slightly less expensive dress for the ceremony, providing that she’s still planning to go - and Courtney Hunt may be calling her about that dress.

• No noms for Gran Torino, either because even the venerable Clint only gets the love for one picture a year - this year, and for reasons passing understanding, the picture is Changeling - or because no one was much interested in seeing Dirty Harry and the Sunnyvale Retirement Village.

Richard Jenkins - I’m rooting for him to win Best Actor on general principle, even if I wind up liking Mickey Rourke better when I finally get around to seeing The Wrestler.

• Almost no love for Revolutionary Road, a superior film to The Reader, which did get a surprising amount of love. Revolutionary Road is up for Art Direction, Costumes, and Supporting Actor and has a 0% of winning any of them. If it has even a tiny chance, it’s for Art Direction, but this is one of the few categories where The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button actually deserves to win.

And speaking of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, you know what would have been nice? A Supporting Actress nomination for Tilda Swinton, even if the bit near the end that reprised her character was goofy. I don't think it would change anything - Penelope Cruz is going to win that category - but she was excellent in the tiny bit of the film she was in.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

1.20.09 (Or, Rising Unemployment Is Not Always A Bad Thing)

There was a headline on the news tonight that asked if the expectations were perhaps too high for President Obama. Well, of course the expectations are too high. Unless he takes the oath of office, strolls down to the mall, and walks across the reflecting pool while snapping his fingers and chucking fishes and loaves at the adoring onlookers...if that happens, then it’s possible he’ll be able to live up to the expectations that have been building for his presidency since November 4th.

He’s not going to fix everything. He may not even fix most things. Hell...he may not even actually fix one single thing. But there will be improvement. If he can manage to keep from obstructing the work of Congress, there will be improvement; if he reverses President Bush’s policies on science, particularly on embryonic stem cells, there will be improvement; if he can help Israel and Hamas maintain the cease-fire, which is currently about as stable as Ron Kovic on a tightrope, there will be improvement. And so on.

Hell...if he can convince the morons running the BCS to peel one game off the regular season schedule, reduce the number of bowl games by a third, and introduce an eight team, three week playoff (with seedings based loosely on the current BCS ranking methodology, corrected to ensure that every team with a zero in the loss column at the end of the regular season gets into the playoff - and, on general principle, fuck Notre Dame), there will be improvement.

Will he make mistakes? Sure he will. Will people deride him as worthless from the moment of his first mistake? Sure they will. But these are people who thought it was a good idea to vote for Sarah Palin, so there’s clearly no reason to start taking them seriously anytime soon.

President Obama, do not be cowed by the kind of Republicans who torpedoed the presidency of Bill Clinton. These cheap, simple people think humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time. To acknowledge them is to encourage the feeble-minded never to improve their minds and get those neural synapses firing. Stand up and do the good work you talked about during the Neverending Campaign. We know you won’t keep every single campaign promise, but then again, no reasoned person expects you to. Some of us understand that running for President is practically nothing like actually being President. You have to say a lot of things on the campaign trail to pander to voters, most of whom are dolts. (Humans riding dinosaurs? Seriously?)

And even if you don’t get much done in four years, don’t worry. A precedent has been set. You can screw up completely, lie to the American people, send our troops to the desert to die for no good reason and with no exit strategy (coherent or otherwise) in place - and still manage to be re-elected. Just think how well you’ll do in 2012 if you actually do a few things right. (Hint: Filibuster-proof Senate, which will eliminate even the most obnoxious and onerous behavior of the obstructionist Republicans).

Best wishes and good luck, Mr. President. We’re counting on you - not to raise Lazarus from the dead, or turn water into wine...but rather to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Revolutionary Road

You should read the book first - and not just because it’s an excellent novel by an excellent author who was almost completely unappreciated in his time, and also not just because the novel is almost always better than the film adaptation. The best reason to read the novel first is that having all of the expository material already in your head about Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, sharing lead billing for the first time since that boat movie) will go a long way toward helping you understand the film’s flaws.

Much of the Richard Yates novel, published in 1961 (and set in 1955, which is important to remember when the dialogue starts sounding a bit goofy), is expository writing that examines with something approaching surgical precision all of the things that are going on in the heads of the two main characters; translating that kind of material when adapting a novel to film is difficult. One of the best examples of the trick being done well is Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption; and on the other side of the coin, one of the most ham-handed examples of the trick being bungled is Todd Field’s Little Children, in which the voice-over that relays the exposition is so creepy that it detracts almost fatally from the final product.

It’s possible, and I can only speculate here, that Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes very wisely avoided using a voice-over to flesh out the characters of Frank and April Wheeler because he saw Little Children enough times to know that employing such a device imperfectly can come close to destroying your movie; and the only reason that I think it more likely than not that Mendes learned this lesson from Field’s film is that Mendes is married to Kate Winslet, who stars in both. It’s certainly possible that he chose not to use a voice-over for an entirely different reason, although I can’t imagine that anyone could watch Little Children and not almost instantly become extremely dubious about the very concept of the voice-over. But that’s just me.

That lacking in character development - which is not a wholesale lacking, but only a partial, minor, one - and the overarching feeling of melodrama for the sake of melodrama in the first two acts are the only flaws in an otherwise excellent film. Unfortunately, they’re sort of major flaws - and yet, they’re not enough to sink the film, although I have read the novel almost twice now, and am very fond of it. I expect that that makes me biased, willing to overlook certain things because I have read the novel and I know what’s missing. (In the case of character development, the scene late in the film that develops between April Wheeler and Shep Campbell is particularly lacking - it’s obvious what’s going on, but what it really means to the characters to whom it is happening is lost in the film.)

(One other thing that is missing from the film, though again it’s a minor quibble, is the flavor of the deft, descriptive prose employed by Yates. His ability to turn a phrase, illuminate the humor in the mundane, and expose humankind’s essential vulnerable nakedness - or at least that of post-war suburban Americans - is second to none. Go read the damn book!)

That being said, I think Mendes and company have done a fine job of bringing to the screen the best novel of Richard Yates’ sadly underappreciated career. The story is of Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple residing in suburban Connecticut in the mid-1950s and hating the fact that this is the life to which they have resigned themselves. They believe that they were always destined for something more than the standard suburban middle class life. Mendes uses a number of establishing shots early in the film to illustrate the sameness of post-war suburban America: the parade of men - all clad in grey or grey-ish suits and hats and carrying briefcases - getting on and off the train that shuttles them from home to work and back again, and the line of trash cans set at the curb, each can the same as the rest, placed at the curb in the same way, stretching down the street and out of the line of sight.

The images are a bit heavy-handed, but I think that might be the point; if the Wheelers are so special and so enlightened about how much there is in the world to go out and get, how is it that they fail to see the extent to which they themselves are perpetuating the very manner of living that they profess to disdain? Or is it that they understand this about themselves and yet refuse to act upon that knowledge? Subtle is not a word I would use to describe the work of Richard Yates, especially in this story; the images are supposed to hit you heavily across the forehead, probably with some sort of comic book-style sound effect - THWOCK!

See, Frank and April yell at each other quite a lot, too often succumbing to a violent rage that betrays both the idea that they are a happily married couple and the idea that either of them is really happy about anything at all. Makes you feel all warm and cozy inside, doesn’t it? Richard Yates wasn’t really happy about very much, either, and he channels that unhappiness into his writing - creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; he writes very well, but what he writes about is so disheartening that it’s not hard to believe, having read even just a small amount of his work, that such work would not easily find a wide readership. I don’t have a good explanation for why some authors achieve legendary status writing largely misanthropic fiction (Philip Roth and, especially, Marcel Proust leap to mind) and others, like Yates, don’t.

The story follows Frank and April through the summer of 1955, as the banality of the life they have made for themselves wears each of them down to the point of breaking. Frank works at the same company his father worked at, April keeps house, and they both smoke and drink a lot when they get together with their neighbors (Shep and Milly Campbell, who live the same kind of life the Wheelers live, except that they don’t feel trapped by it, and they don’t understand why the Wheelers do feel trapped by it) or with their realtor and her husband and their son John, who has mental health issues - and absolutely steals both of his scenes by cruelly subverting traditional notions of mental health. He cuts through the pretentious bullshit with more of that surgical precision, and an insight that verges on the uncanny.

What is perhaps most compelling about the film is watching how Frank and April conform to societal gender roles even as they pretend to be superior to such behavior while simultaneously working within those roles to try to dream up a way that they can be happy. Frank hates his job working in the home office of a company that sells those newfangled computers to American businessmen, but then accidentally creates a product brochure that wows the higher-ups and gets him and his work noticed and opens the door to a promotion and more money; and April pines at home for the days when they were young and could go anywhere they wanted and do anything they wanted, before they were shackled by a mortgage and children. Frank convinces himself that this new angle at work might be the thing that can cure their ills, and April convinces herself that they can still move to Paris, where she can get a job and Frank can spend some well-deserved time finding himself and figuring out what he really wants to do with his life.

Both DiCaprio and Winslet do a tremendous job of trying to contain the rage and pain inside their characters, and they do an even better job when Frank and April are unable to stop that rage and pain from exploding out of them. DiCaprio is particularly good at revving himself up and foaming at the mouth and going red in the face, taking Frank right to the edge of losing control without ever quite going all the way over. Winslet is somewhat more controlled, but in exerting that control she shows that April internalizes more than Frank does (another nod to the traditional conception of gender roles). That Winslet can do this so well should come as no surprise. That DiCaprio does such fine work should come as a surprise, and it does. I liked him a lot in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, but have been disappointed with everything I’ve seen him in since (other than films directed by Martin Scorsese). know what just occurred to me? Kathy Bates, who plays realtor Helen Givings here, was in that damn boat movie, too.

The film feels very anesthetized in the early going, and doesn’t build up a head of steam toward its climax so much as it sort of ambles along until things become too much for anyone to handle anymore; and yet even when things start to unravel and the horrific conclusion reveals its inevitability, the tempo grinds nearly to a halt in places, and a number of scenes toward the end of the film run a touch too long. At about an hour and forty-five minutes, the film only barely starts to feel long during some of these later, slower scenes. A bit of additional character development early in the film would probably have been a better use of time than the lingering shots near the end.

And by now you’re thinking that I have surely gone on long enough, and that there can’t be much more to say; alas, there is more to say. Reading over these comments on the film, I think that you might come away with the impression that I didn’t like the movie. This is not the case; in fact, I liked it a lot, and the more I’ve thought about it in the three days since I’ve seen it, the more I’ve come to realize just how much I liked it. Part of this stems from having enjoyed the novel so much; and part of it comes from the fact that so much of the dialogue is taken word for word from the novel - it’s a very faithful adaptation (almost to the point that a few bits of stage direction scribbled in the margins could render a copy of the novel into a workable shooting script). I hope that it plays as well for those who have not read the novel as it did for me, though I suspect that probably will not be the case (and if it’s not the case, maybe you’ll like the art direction and set decoration, and the score - all of which are pretty good, too).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

News That Practically No One Will Care About

I watched Revolutionary Road a couple of nights ago and have since been pondering what I thought of the movie, both on its own terms and in compare/contrast terms with the novel upon which it is based (which I have just about finished reading for the second time); and I've been trying to decide whether or not I want to shell out the dough for the original score (by Thomas Newman, who also scored the previous Suburbia Is Hell film by Sam Mendes, American Beauty). I checked some of the Interwebs and found out that the only Borders in the city that didn't have the CD in stock was the one right next to the mall I work in, and the Castleton store was already closed when I got off work, so I had a go at Barnes & Noble. They didn't have the CD, but I did discover something cool while I was browsing the fiction racks.

Two of the three novels by Richard Yates - who wrote Revolutionary Road - that had previously been out of print are now back in print. The store had one copy of each novel - Disturbing The Peace and Cold Spring Harbor - and I snapped up both of them, almost thinking I was seeing things. I checked the Borders website when I got home, and it says that the third out-of-print novel, Young Hearts Crying, is due to be re-released in March. This means that, come March, all of the fictional works of Richard Yates will be in print.

Monday, January 12, 2009

We're On A Mission From God

Okay, so here goes trying to remember exactly what I said to Amy when I got home with dinner from Yats and she told me that Tony Dungy had decided to hang it up as head coach of the Colts. I already knew that he had made his decision because, unlike when I worked for another major competitor, we can actually check the news and stuff on the Interwebs at the theatre.

So, she tells me that Dungy decided to retire and I said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I know.” Amy said she thought I would be more excited. I don’t imagine it’s a secret that I’m not a big believer in the whole Tony Dungy mythos, and that I’ve been hoping for years now that he would beat a hasty retreat to Tampa after another abysmal showing by the Colts in the playoffs. The exception to that statement was after the 2006 season, when the Colts won the World Championship Of All Football. I still wanted him to go, but obviously the Colts were not exactly abysmal in that season’s playoffs.

I should be excited, then, about his decision to hang it up, right? Yes...and no. See, I’m glad that Dungy’s gone...but I can’t exactly get fired about the heir apparent, Jim Caldwell, who some describe as Tony Dungy Lite. That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. We’ve had enough of “lite” coaching, on the Colts sidelines, I think. You know what I want? Bill Cowher roaming the sidelines in blue and white, foaming at the mouth and screaming so loud that he doesn’t need to miked up for one of those neat-o Ahmad Rashad shows. I want Jon Gruden storming up and down the sidelines with his face beet red and looking like he’s about to have a coronary. In short, I want someone who looks, on any given Sunday, as though he might drop dead right there on the sidelines. Hell, bring back Woody Hayes so he can punch Ryan Diem for every false start, and Kelvin Hayden for every missed tackle (and anything else he ever does that makes him look like the second coming of Ray Buchanan).

I’ll give Jim Caldwell the benefit of the doubt - for now. I might even start a Jim Caldwell fan club if he can do but one thing for the Colts - teach them how to blitz. One of the best things about the Colts defense is that it contains Bob Sanders, who is healthy at least four games a year and who can hit so hard that, if we went back in time and dropped him out of the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, the resulting impact would have sunk Honshu and maybe even dragged parts of South Korea into the Sea of Japan.

Let’s threat of the blitz (safety or otherwise), crappy linebackers (a corps that resembles a revolving door that somehow manages to eject the best player almost every offseason), and no double-wide defensive tackle to plug the line (and theoretically give the Colts the ability to use the 3-4, which would really be a case of a paradigm shifting without a clutch). Other teams must love the week leading up to playing the Colts - probably everybody on the team gets a couple of extra days off. The only guys who have to practice are the offensive linemen and the tailbacks. Run the ball, flush Manning, and you win. Period, end of report, next case.

And’s not just Tony Dungy’s conservative coaching style that has kept the Colts from amassing more Lombardi trophies. Bill Polian, who will be renamed Al Davis when the real Al Davis shuffles off this mortal coil, is as much a part of the problem as Dungy. Dungy coaches teams to almost greatness, and Bill Polian builds teams to almost greatness. He built the Buffalo Bills team that went to four straight Super Bowls and lost of them. Then he built the Panthers from scratch and the Colts from the Manning up - and yet if you were to make a short list of Super Bowl matchups that will never, ever happen, this one would be near the top of the list:

Indianapolis vs. Carolina.

These two teams appear to have a pathological desire to avoid being world champions. Building a team with an offense that is designed to play with a lead has clearly not worked. The Colts lucked themselves to one Super Bowl win against a sub-par NFC champion. That’s not a vindication of team-building skills; it’s a happy accident. (Yes, I know, the Bears had great numbers that year. Fine, okay. They also played the easiest schedule in the league and both their division and their conference were pretty bad that year. Click here for the final regular season standings from 2006.)

(And click here to see a little NBC Sports feature about the worst Super Bowl teams of all time - and vote for which team you think was the worst! For the record, I voted for the 1985 Patriots, not the 2006 Bears. But the 2006 Bears did place third in the polling.)

I think there’s more wrong with this team at a systemic level than a head coaching change can fix, especially if Jim Caldwell’s coaching style is enough like Tony Dungy’s to warrant the Dungy Lite moniker. That’s worrisome. The Manning era is on the back nine - maybe not the back nine on Sunday, but certainly the back nine on Saturday. Here’s hoping that Jim Caldwell brings a much needed sense of urgency to his new role as head coach, that he shakes the Dungy Lite thing - and that Bill Polian has the good sense to draft a great big 400-pound DT from the SEC.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

He's Good Enough, He's Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Him!

I almost feel bad for Norm Coleman. I mean that sincerely. I really almost feel bad for him. For a Republican, he's not bad. His positions aren't nearly as incorrect or borderline criminal as others of his ilk (paging Sarah Palin). But I hope he loses anyway - I hope he loses however many more recounts there are, I hope he loses his lawsuit, and I hope he loses the case if it goes before the Supreme Court.

It won't make up for the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on this country by the Supreme Court after the 2000 "election," but it will hopefully result in the Republican party as a whole never again needing to look up the definition of the word irony.

I also hope that Mr. Coleman makes a comeback and finds some way to remain relevant in politics on a national level. The party desperately needs moderate voices, especially if its rising stars are to be people like Mystery Alaska and His Holiness Pope Jindal.

But that's a few years away. For now, Norm, you're just going to have to stand there and take it like a man while karma kicks your ass a little bit. My last hope to do with this issue is that Senator Franken is not the only Al smiling tonight.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Do you all remember “political capital,” that nebulous and vaguely defined “stuff” that Bush-the-gasbag said he had earned in the 2004 election, and which he planned to spend wisely in his second term? I bring it up only because I wanted a frame of reference for the idea of “cinematic capital,” which had never really occurred to me before tonight, while I was watching The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. (Unlike Bush, however, this movie earns the capital - but the movie does piss away its capital the same way Bush pissed away his legacy.) Amy and I roped her parents into babysitting and went to Zing for dinner and then the movie afterwards. Benjamin Button was the one Oscar heavy so far that I just couldn’t make up my mind about - is it really an art film, or just an effects-laden Hollywood production masquerading as art because it’s based - however loosely - on a short story by Scott Fitzgerald?

I haven’t read the whole story yet, although I have found a couple of good links to the entire text online. Based on the first few pages, however, the film appears to be connected to the story in name and basic premise only - that is, a person called Benjamin Button who is born as a little old man and ages in reverse. Much like There Will Be Blood departed from Oil!, the Upton Sinclair novel upon which it is based, David Fincher’s film pretty much does an about-face and marches in exactly the opposite direction from the Scott Fitzgerald story.

The story is told in a frame, which is difficult to do well (for instance, The Green Mile) and adds - often unnecessarily - to the film’s running time. The character of Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is attended at her deathbed by her daughter (Julia Ormond, in a wasted role) and asks her daughter to read Benjamin Button’s journal to her - she says - because she just wants to hear the sound of her daughter’s voice. Frame narration is a useful way to ease transition, and sometimes to elucidate plot points; but the plot is not especially complex here. To wit: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born an old man - tiny little baby body, but shriveled skin, cranky demeanor, and so on. In fact, come to think of it, there is no plot. The film simply follows the life of Benjamin, playing on the novelty of a character who ages in reverse.

After the frame intro, we zap back to New Orleans in 1918, and the birth of Benjamin on Armistice Day. His mother dies in childbirth and his father, horrified at the appearance of the baby old man, abandons him on the doorstep of a gentle black woman named Queenie, who - though also horrified by his appearance - takes him in and raises him as her own. The art direction is very good throughout most of the film, but particularly early on, evoking the mood of the south in the early twentieth century in dark earth tones and low lighting and elaborate sets.

There’s no doubt that the picture looks really good, especially in the bits that are more along the lines of period piece. The acting is also reasonably good, especially Brad Pitt in the bits where he’s the much-older, goblin-sized, young Benjamin. Pitt’s voice-over work is also good, subtle but expressive. The trouble is with the scope of the film - and this is really just a way of saying that it’s too damn long and is trying to do too damn much. David Fincher has a tendency to let his movies get away from him (The Game, Fight Club), though perhaps not to the extent that Martin Brest (Midnight Run, Meet Joe Black) lets his movies get away from him - but man, is he on his way.

See...Benjamin grows up, learns to walk and run and drink and visit brothels, and he meets the love of his life as a old young man, and then he goes out to sea, and eventually he returns, but the love of his life is gone, and then she’s back and they get together, and then break up, and get together again, and break up again - and this last break-up has him abandoning his own child the way his father abandoned him (only for the opposite reason). And yet, there’s no kind of weight to what’s happening, only the barest of irony that Benjamin, in classic Faulknerian fashion, repeats the sin of his father. It’s as though Benjamin should be thought noble for sparing his child the indignity of watching her father age in reverse, as though the idea of such a person is so much greater than the actual character.

And thus it appears - whether this was the intent or not - that achieving the form of epic was the highest goal. Never mind the implausible directions that the already-implausible story takes, never mind the ways in which an injection of science (maybe Fincher is a Republican who toes the party line and chooses to believe that science neither exists nor works) might have contributed to the kind of subtle humor that pops up from time to time (how many different ways did that guy get hit by lightning?). Never mind any of that. A man born old who ages in reverse surely won’t have any trouble conceiving a child. Clearly junk science did not die with global warming denier Michael Crichton. the space of about half an hour while writing this I’ve managed to develop what sounds like an active antagonism toward a film I liked two-thirds of. That’s not the case. The first two acts are actually pretty good; most of the junky crap is relegated to act three. It even took me longer to develop an active antagonism toward Slumdog Millionaire, although that engine has built up a good head of steam at this point. Would that someone had called William Goldman and said, “Hey, Bill, I’ve got a script here that’s got a solid act one and a solid act two, but act three is a piece of shit. Can you help us out?" But maybe no one calls Mr. Goldman anymore; or perhaps he’s too jaded from that whole Good Will Hunting fiasco. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, however, I understand (if I do not agree with - and I absolutely do not) the Best Picture buzz on this one. Oscar loves epics, even grossly overrated ones (gotta love the 1990s for spawning three such pictures: Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, and Titanic). Lop off the last act, write a quick, effective fifteen minute ending, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, Scott’s grave is liable to catch fire from all the spinning he’s doing.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Crannies And Nooks - Books Read In 2008

Here's the list of books I read in 2008, a total of 65, up from 51 last year. The increase has come at the expense of writing, I'm sorry to say; but getting a novel right is hard, or at least getting this novel right has been hard for me. This year's list is in alphabetical order, separated into fiction and non-fiction. Only one of the books has a link with it - there was a really good review of American Wife, posted on the New York Times website, by Joyce Carol Oates.

2007 Best American Short Stories - Stephen King, ed.
The Abstinence Teacher - Tom Perrotta
All The Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy
American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
Appaloosa - Robert B. Parker
The Amber Spyglass - Phillip Pullman
Brokeback Mountain: Story To Screenplay - Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger
Christ The Lord: The Road To Cana - Anne Rice
Choke - Chuck Palahniuk
The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy
The Dark Tower: Song Of Susannah - Stephen King
The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower - Stephen King
Downtown Owl - Chuck Klosterman
Duma Key - Stephen King
The Dying Animal - Philip Roth
The Easter Parade - Richard Yates
The Garden Of Last Days - André Dubus III
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets - Jo Rowling
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince - Jo Rowling
Hearts In Atlantis - Stephen King
Insomnia - Stephen King
Just After Sunset - Stephen King
Little Children - Tom Perrotta
Lost Girls - Alan Moore
No Country For Old Men - Cormac McCarthy (2)
Oil! - Upton Sinclair
The Reader - Bernhard Schlink
Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett
The Rules Of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis
Story Of My Life - Jay McInerney
The Subtle Knife - Phillip Pullman
The Tales Of Beedle The Bard - Jo Rowling
Twilight - William Gay - (No, not that Twilight.)

The Age Of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 - Sean Wilentz
The Bishop’s Daughter - Honor Moore
Bound By Honor: A Mafioso’s Story - Bill Bonanno
Catch Me If You Can - Frank Abagnale
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide To Global Warming - Bjorn Lomborg
Covert: My Years Infiltrating The Mob - Bob Delaney
Fair Game: My Life As A Spy, My Betrayal By The White House - Valerie Plame
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson
Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History - Helene Stapinski
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - And The Journey Of A Generation - Sheila Weller
God Without God: Western Spirituality Without The Wrathful King - Michael Hampson
Hep Remembered: Memories Of Terry Hoeppner From Those Who Knew Him Best - Terry Hutchens
Hey Rube - Hunter S. Thompson
Hit & Run: How Jon Peters And Peter Guber Took Sony For A Ride In Hollywood - Nancy Griffin & Kim Masters
The Ice Man: Confessions Of A Mafia Contract Killer - Philip Carlo
Keys To Parenting Your One-Year-Old - Meg Zweiback
The Iron Road: A Stand For Truth And Democracy In Burma - James Mawdsley
The Last Amateurs - John Feinstein
Made Men: The True Rise-And-Fall Story Of A New Jersey Mob Family - Greg B. Smith
The Majors - John Feinstein
A Man Without A Country - Kurt Vonnegut
My Father’s Houses: Memoir Of A Family - Steven V. Roberts
The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria
Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built A Company One Cup At A Time - Howard Schultz
Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, And Priorities Of A Winning Life - Tony Dungy
The Rape Of Europa: The Fate Of Europe’s Treasures In The Third Reich And The Second World War - Lynn H. Nicholas
Savage Grace: The True Story Of Fatal Relations In A Rich And Famous American Family - Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson
A Season On The Brink - John Feinstein
So Wrong For So Long: How The Press, The Pundits-And The President-Failed On Iraq - Greg Mitchell
The Stone Boudoir: Travels Through The Hidden Villages Of Sicily - Theresa Maggio
What Happened: Inside The Bush White House And Washington’s Culture Of Deception - Scott McClellan

The best of the bunch in the fiction books that I read this year is The Garden Of Last Days, about a woman who brings her daughter with her to work one day and misplaces her while she is working. Set in late 2001, the novel is informed by events leading up to 9/11 - a cautionary study of human nature in the twenty-first century. Extremely well written and difficult to put down, even though it clocks in at well over five hundred pages.

Speaking of clocking in at over five hundred pages, the best of the bunch in non-fiction is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - And The Journey Of A Generation. I'm a sucker for music books, and this one was excellent, exploring the roles played by three prominent women through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as folk music laid the groundwork for the emergence of American rock and roll. (Okay, technically Joni Mitchell is not American.) The Rape Of Europa deserves mention here, too, because it might be the best of all of the books I read this year - it just wasn't the one I liked the most. If I were an art historian, however, I might well be singing a different tune. Might be a top five desert island book for people who live and breathe art.

Others Receiving Votes:

2. Christ The Lord: The Road To Cana - Yes, seriously. Finding Jesus (again) didn't diminish Anne Rice's ability to write. It might even have helped. I stopped reading her after Servant Of The Bones practically bored me to tears, but picked up the first Christ The Lord novel (Out Of Egypt) out of sheer morbid curiosity and was pleasantly surprised. The Road To Cana is even better. This is purportedly a planned trilogy, and I'm actually sort of looking forward to the third book.
3. The Reader - Had this not been made into a movie, I surely would never have discovered the novel; and that would be unfortunate. Another excellent study of human nature, the novel is full of rich, expository first person meditation - which is very difficult to translate into film. You'll appreciate the movie quite a lot more if you come to it having first read the novel.
4. The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass - Shame on the Catholic Church for the fearmongering that helped depress the grosses for the film version of The Golden Compass. There is now virtually no chance that parts two and three of this remarkable trilogy will ever be filmed. Maybe the ignorant Catholic fearmongering brought down bad karma on their heads - Disney has decided not to distribute the next movie in the Chronicles Of Narnia series, though Walden Media is reportedly going ahead with filming. Serves you right, you frogs.
5. Appaloosa - Hard-boiled, morally ambiguous cowboy western. The movie had closed by the time I finished the novel. Hello, Netflix.

2. The Age Of Reagan - This one was written by a liberal Democrat, oddly enough. It's brilliantly written, remarkably detailed, and (believe it or not) a page-turner. Begins with Nixon and goes right up to the present day, deftly illustrating the successes and failures of the socio-political ideology of Ronald Reagan and how that ideology became the black costume fused to the Peter Parker of the American electorate. A generation later, that ideology is still poisoning this country, having enabled the massive failures of King George II and Darth Cheney.
3. God Without God - An excellent study of perspective with respect to religion. Should be required reading but, alas, it's probably time for American Idol to start up again, right?
4. The Last Amateurs - Though golf is his true passion, John Feinstein is best known for writing about basketball, thanks to A Season On The Brink. This is the story of a season in the life of the Patriot League, a relatively new conference of smaller, more academically- and service-oriented schools in the northeast. These guys don't play for money or with any hope of winning the NCAAs. For them, winning the NCAAs is winning their conference championship and earning a 16-seed, so they can be destroyed on the first or second day of the tournament. But those two days are not only the best days of the tournament, they're also the best two days in all of sports. There is also mention in this book of Rick Greenspan and the good job he did as AD at West Point. Greenspan was most recently AD at Indiana, where he was thrown under the bus as a result of the Sampson purge.
5. The Post-American World - Tom Friedman's book The World Is Flat remains the seminal work on globalization, but this (briefer) book by Newsweek writer Fareed Zakaria is an important addition to the conversation. A lot of people in this country seem to think that the rest of the world doesn't have the right to grow up and get bigger and stronger, like the United States did after the Civil War. That opinion is wrong, of course, and it defines the modern day Ugly American. You'll find a lot of those people clutching their UAW cards and praying to their god for more bailout money for the Detroit automakers. Unfortunnately, the people who most need to read this book (and the longer work by Friedman) are the ones who are least likely to know it's there to be read in the first place.