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Best of 2014: Movie Edition, Part 1

My year in movie viewing was a mixture of new releases and Classic Hollywood, and you’ll find both in my top 10 list. Bust out the popcorn bowl for numbers 10 through 6!

10. American Hustle

American Hustle

I discovered two new favorite filmmakers in 2014, and the first was David O. Russell. I saw The Fighter (2010) during my early days of Netflix, and although I really loved it, most of my focus was on the acting. It was his two subsequent films that really cemented my love for the director. American Hustle (2013) draws cast members from both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but remixes them with a serious 1970s aesthetic. Between the costumes and the con man plot, American Hustle is more of a confection than his previous films, but the cast still delivers dynamite performances. And I’m not just talking about Bradley Cooper’s perm and Amy Adams’s cleavage.

9. The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars Poster

As a huge fan of the novel, I was seriously nervous about this adaptation. How could Hollywood possibly be trusted to communicate the subtleties of John Green’s story? For some reason I was much more suspicious about Shailene Woodley as Hazel than Angel Elgort as Augustus. Well, I couldn’t have been more off-base. Woodley nails Hazel’s quiet strength, not to mention the physical toll of her illness. It was pure joy to see the Amsterdam trip translated to the screen, complete with canals and the Anne Frank House. And yes, I cried on at least three separate occasions. The sensitivity of this adaptation was the year’s most pleasant surprise.

8. His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday

Early in 2014 I went on a bit of a Classic Hollywood binge. His Girl Friday (1940) was one of my favorites to come out of that period. The film is famous for its mile-a-minute dialogue, and watching Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s verbal acrobatics is endlessly enjoyable. The costumes and newsroom nicknames only add its charm. Based on Russell’s matching hat and blazer ensemble, how could this woman not be an ace reporter? She tells Grant, “You’re wonderful in a loathsome sort of way,” but after ninety minutes of schemes and screwball comedy, you’ll be inclined to think he’s just plain wonderful.

7. Gone Girl

Gone Girl - 2014

My other favorite filmmaker of 2014 was David Fincher. While I admire David O. Russell for his focus on characters, Fincher is a master of ambiance. That makes him an ideal director to adapt Gillian Flynn’s work, which similarly hinges on the mood of a place. Few adaptations can fully satisfy the avid reader, but Gone Girl comes close. Its deviations are easy to forgive because it’s just a quality film. My greatest wish was for the movie to feel unsettling, and Rosamund Pike under Fincher’s direction makes that a reality. On a lighter note, best use of a cat for subtle character development! (Read my full review here.)

6. Rear Window

Rear Window

Oh, Jimmy Stewart, you excellent creeper. Rear Window (1954) was the obvious progression from multiple viewings of Vertigo (1958) in college. If you forget that Rear Window is an established classic, it’s miraculous to think that a movie about a man confined to his apartment with a broken leg can be so filled with tension. The film stealthily progresses from summer doldrums to murder mystery, culminating in a genuinely frightening climactic sequence. (Particularly if you’re alone in your apartment in midwinter.) Then again, I’m the sort who’s happy to watch Jimmy Stewart look out a window for two hours.

Tomorrow this list comes to a cinematic conclusion with my top 5 movies of the year!

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Reading Roundup: Winter 2013

After reading many new books in the last four months of 2012, I began the new year with a desire to reread. The first on my list was The Fault in Our Stars. I read it back in February of 2012 and spent the rest of the year recommending it to friends and customers. It seemed like a good time to refresh my memory. During my second reading, I laughed out loud, cried more than once, and appreciated a new favorite book all the more.

I enjoy the comfort of rereading, and I didn’t want to stop with The Fault in Our Stars. My last book of 2012 was Flame of Sevenwaters, the latest installment of the Sevenwaters series. (It could be described as a pair of trilogies or just a series of six books.) As with any good addition to a series, it made me want to revisit the earlier books. After realizing how scarce they are through Hennepin County Libraries, I finally added Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows to my personal collection. What better way to escape dreary winter than a thick fantasy novel?

Night Circus

In my “By the Book” self-interview, I mentioned the books waiting on my dresser. I eventually read both The Dinner and The Night Circus. A lot of booksellers are comparing The Dinner by Herman Koch to Gone Girl, and I can see the connection between these psychological thrillers. The Dinner may be somewhat more “literary,” but I found Gone Girl far more engaging in terms of both character and plot. In a completely different vein, The Night Circus was a satisfying historical romp about dueling magicians.

In March my reading had an unintentional theme. I found myself reading multiple works about the Soviet Union during World War II. The first was a manuscript that I was lucky enough to be assigned at my internship. Not all manuscripts given to interns are promising, but I finished this one with pleasure. The second was City of Thieves by Daniel Benioff, a book recommended by my friend Hillary. We had dinner in February, and I (nicely) demanded book recommendations. It’s a quick and memorable read. I feel that I’ve read a lot about World War II, but these books made it clear that there’s more to learn.

City of Thieves

There are many exciting books coming out this spring and summer, including new novels from Khaled Hosseini and Sarah Dessen. I can’t wait for sunny afternoons reading in my backyard!

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 2

These five books are so wonderful that most of them have already been mentioned on the blog. Still, they each deserve another moment in the sun. Here are my favorite books of 2012!

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is not a thriller that you can enjoy and then forget about the next day. More likely you’ll to want to reread it searching for clues and tell all your friends. This story of a disappearing wife and her suspicious husband moves beyond the thriller genre to be an all-around stellar book. As I said in my original review, it’s part mystery, part thriller, part relationship drama. You may think you know where it’s going, but you’re probably wrong. There’s more to Gone Girl than meets the eye.

4. The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

This is Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, and I can only hope it’s the first of many. (A synopsis can hardly do it justice, but I tried.) I have rarely seen such intricate, beautiful writing in contemporary fiction. It is a novel of juxtaposition: darkness and light, sweltering heat and bitter cold. From Mabel’s first description of the unsettling silence of the Alaskan wilderness, I felt immersed in her claustrophobic world. The Russian fairy tale influence infuses the story with magic. The Snow Child is lovely from start to finish, and I was sad to see it end.

3. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

If I were to write an English paper about Sweet Tooth, it would be challenging just to pick a topic. Should I write about its exploration of the relationship between reader and writer? Should I analyze the complex narrator Serena Frome? I got to do that a bit in my original review, but there’s so much more I could say. Ian McEwan lays his characters bare in a style that keeps me fascinated. In terms of quality, Sweet Tooth is right on par with Atonement. A few spy-versus-spy plot twists and a surprise ending are just icing on the cake.

2. The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

When I compliment the beauty of Eowyn Ivey’s writing, the only rival on this list is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The Prisoner of Heaven is a continuation of both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I was a little nervous to read it since The Shadow of the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. As it turns out, I should have had more faith in this incredible writer. He wisely focuses The Prisoner of Heaven on Fermin, a colorful secondary character whose story is not fully revealed in Shadow. Barely scratched the surface might be a more accurate description. As Fermin tells his story with characteristic wit and wisdom, the reader learns how the characters of all three novels are connected. If you’ll pardon me the pun, I was in heaven.

1. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

John Green has become one of my heroes. I’m revealing my bias when I say that it brings me so much joy to see him succeed as he has with The Fault in Our Stars. This book is proof that young adult novels can be both respected and beloved by more than just teenagers. Hazel is the truest of narrators — she just happens to be sixteen and have cancer. I often tell customers that this book has everything to offer:  laughter and tears, romance and tragedy. We don’t always want our fiction to savor so strongly of real life, but I think the best fiction usual does. If you haven’t already, please read my blog post about it. The Fault in Our Stars is worth your time, I promise.

The Fault in Our Stars

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No Fault in These Stars

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books . . . which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.

In a recent video blog, John Green said that he wanted The Fault in Our Stars to make readers “feel all of the things.” That is, it cannot be easily categorized as a sad book because it has moments of humor and romance and irreverence. But ultimately, it’s a novel that deals with Big Questions, and I can’t talk about it without getting all serious on you.

The Fault in Our Stars is about a pair of teenagers who meet at a support group for kids with cancer. That’s the one-sentence synopsis that John Green has been using, and it’s perfectly accurate and free of spoilers. But it should be mentioned that this book has little in common with a certain genre of weepie novels about cancer. I mean, I never read Lurlene McDaniel in middle school, but I can only assume her books are of the sort that John is rebelling against. (Anyone who publishes a book titled Don’t Die, My Love should be regarded with suspicion.) Hazel and Augustus aren’t symbols or martyrs; they’re normal kids who have been dealt a bad genetic hand.

What gives John Green the authority to write about young people with cancer? Well, he worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in his younger days and has been trying to use the experience in a novel ever since. Hazel, the novel’s narrator, is concerned with many of life’s Big Questions. Seems perfectly natural when you’ve been terminally ill since the age of thirteen. What I love is how John intertwines Hazel’s soul-searching with an examination of the relationship between reader and text.

Okay, that sounds incredibly heady, but the topic is approached in a manageable way. Like, you don’t have to be a nerdy English major to enjoy this book — I promise! The theme presents itself this way:  Hazel is obsessed with a book called An Imperial Affliction, which is also about a girl with cancer. Green invites the reader to think about how we use made-up stories to make meaning in our own lives. As a creative-type person and a lover of media, I can strongly relate to using books and movies and music as a lens for figuring out the world. Who hasn’t latched on to a certain song or album because it precisely fits how they’re feeling at that time?

John Green isn’t arguing that it’s wise to take any piece of art as the be-all, end-all in our search for meaning. But he does portray it as innately human to look for a point of connection with something outside of yourself. This is his greatest novel to date. If these are questions that interest you, or even if they don’t, I would recommend it without reservation. It might make you cry, but it will do much more than that. You may even FEEL ALL OF THE THINGS, which is satisfying in itself, I think.

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Blast from the (Recent) Past

This weekend I took a trip to Northfield, the town of my college years. It’s not a long trip — less than an hour from my apartment in Minneapolis. But considering how much my life has changed in the months since graduation, the distance can feel considerably farther. Revisiting a place can be jarring, even if you haven’t been gone for very long. What follows is a collection of moments from my trip, some disconcerting and some downright awesome.

As I drive through town, I expect to see my classmates at every turn. It’s hard to imagine them existing in Boston and London and Washington D.C. and Japan instead of here.

The building that used to be a Wendy’s has been converted to an Asian restaurant called Tokyo Grill.

I eat a quick dinner at the Arby’s where I always stopped before driving home at the beginning of school breaks. The cashier spells my name “Cortney” on the receipt. A valiant effort, I decide.

I find a signed copy of The Fault in Our Stars at Target. In purple Sharpie at that, which Nerdfighters will know is rarer than green Sharpie. (No Hanklerfish though.) A guy sees me stroke the signature with one finger and gives me a rather sympathetic look.

Talk about surreal. I buy stickers at my college Target for the teaching job that I never would have anticipated having. Life is nothing if not surprising.

I stop at Blue Monday for a cup of Mexican hot chocolate. I don’t like coffee, but I love hanging out in coffee shops. There are two or three Carleton students with headphones and laptops, probably doing work early so that they can go out later. I get the ideal seat by the window. A year ago I would have felt awkward being here alone on a Saturday night. Now I want to see, and I don’t mind being seen.

I go to the Contented Cow with my old roommate Katie. The Cow remains my favorite bar on the planet. The bartender recognizes me, which is sweet, and I see a guy who used to be in a band with my friend Miki. Maybe not so much has changed.

I feel grateful to have spent four years in such a lovely town. I feel grateful for the friends who let me sleep in their extra room. And I feel grateful for where post-college life has taken me.

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