Middlesex it Ain’t

It has to be tough as an author to write another novel after publishing one of the best reviewed and most awarded novels of our time. I feel for Jeffrey Eugenides. His 2003 masterpiece Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, was named the best book of the year by The Los Angeles Times, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was an Oprah selection, and, frankly, is one of my favorite novels ever. No wonder it took eight years to follow-up with the much-anticipated The Marriage Plot.

The book was destined to be a let down, and I’m sorry to say it is indeed just an average novel. I enjoyed The Marriage Plot, but it wasn’t great. The novel is set in the early 80s at Brown University where Eugenides himself went to college. In fact, one of the lead characters (Mitchell Grammaticus) was of Greek descent and hailed from Michigan (like Eugenides) so one can’t help but wonder how much of Mitchell is based on the author. The story is a sort of collegiate love triangle between Mitchell, the brilliant but manic Leonard Bankhead and the beautiful Madeleine Hanna. Both Mitchell and Leonard vie for Madeleine’s heart but Madeleine is drawn to Leonard. The story takes some twists and turns, but ultimately the relationships between these characters are doomed. I suppose it should come as no surprise to Eugenides’ fans that happy endings are hard to come by in The Marriage Plot given his first novel (The Virgin Suicides) was about a group of young sisters who one-by-one kill themselves. And of course Middlesex is centered around a person born into a body with both male and female junk. Eugenides is certainly no typical romantic.

The Marriage Plot is also the title of Madeleine’s senior thesis, which we can assume from her studies and love for Victorian-era literature means she is a romantic. Unfortunately for her, Leonard is not and even if Mitchell was he doesn’t do it for her the way the brooding and tortured Leonard does. My trouble with story is I didn’t know who to root for. I disliked both Leonard and Mitchell, and truthfully Madeleine struck me as a drama queen herself. With nobody to cheer on, I lost interest in the love triangle and instead spent my mental energy on the subplots of Leonard’s mania and Mitchell’s religious quest across Europe. From that angle the story is definitely a coming-of-age novel and without giving anything away all three characters do grow throughout the story and eventually “find” themselves (at least we know Madeleine and Mitchell do since Eugenides kind of leaves Leonard’s issues hanging in the wind).

The Marriage Plot is getting pretty good literary reviews, including one from The New York Times and others from NPR and The Los Angeles Times. And Eugenides has already cemented himself among the best of his generation along with the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Again, I liked The Marriage Plot but didn’t love it.

To Infiniti…and Beyond!

What do you get when you take one 45-year-old man and add in a heart attack? A serious mid-life crisis! Surviving a heart attack last month really fucked with my concept of the future and now I truly understand what people mean when they say life is short. Shit, life can end in the blink of an eye. So why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?

For me, that means getting the car of my dreams. I have always wanted a convertible but old “practical” Len kept buying the Honda Accords and the Nissan Altimas. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being practical and those cars served me well. But this life-altering event called for something really, really impractical! Why not, right? We have the Murano for long trips and hauling stuff around town, so today I got the flippin’ convertible!

Len Gutman would like to introduce the newest member of the family — the fully loaded 2011 Infiniti G37 convertible:

This is a car show image, but this is the car I leased today…black obsidian with wheat leather interior. Rear-wheel drive. V6. 330 horses. Retractable hard-top roof. Wicked sound system with Bose speakers built into the headrests. Navigation with real-time traffic. Heated and cooling seats.

I’m kinda diggin’ this whole Len 2.0 thing. You know you’re jealous! 😉

AFI #72: The Shawshank Redemption

Ask a group of people what their favorite movie is and you can be pretty confident that at least one person will say The Shawshank Redemption. It’s just one of those films that makes a huge impact on people and always seems to make “best of” lists. In fact, with more than 650,000 votes it is the top-ranked film of all-time by the readers of the world’s most complete film site, the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). Number one…just beating out The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2. That’s unbelievable.

The Shawshank Redemption is not one of my all-time favorite films, but watching it again today made me realize that it certainly is one of the best films of all time. It certainly holds up well and even though I knew exactly what was going to happen at each turn I was thrilled nonetheless. It’s a great film…with a great plot…a great Stephen King inspired story…and great acting across the board. Would you believe it didn’t win a single Academy Award? I know, huh? It lost out to Forrest Gump for Best Picture (also nominated that year were Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction and Quiz Show). Morgan Freeman lost the Best Actor award to Tom Hanks and Tim Robbins wasn’t nominated.

Why do we love The Shawshank Redemption so much? I think there are several reasons. To begin, it’s an underdog story. Andy Dufresne is wrongfully imprisoned for murder and despite huge odds turns the tables on the system. It’s also about good guys and bad guys — in this case the good guys are the imprisoned and the bad guys are the law. We seem to forget (or we don’t care) that Morgan Freeman’s character Red was a convicted killer. Yet we still love him (and of course we love his narration). We all love a good prison movie, especially when there’s an escape. We sure love films when a bunch of misfits (prisoners in this case) put one over on “the man.” We do love Stephen King stories! Truth be told, it’s hard to see why this film is so beloved — it just is. I mean, it’s great…but Godfather great?

I suppose the love we have for The Shawshank Redemption will always be a mystery. All I know is it’s a great film that inspires the viewer. That’s good enough for me.

Next on the list: Saving Private Ryan

AFI #73: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Who are those guys?

It’s always a treat to watch one of my favorite movies and such was the case today when I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the umpteenth time. There’s a big difference between what the American Film Institute says are the 100 best American films and what I call my favorite films of all time, but in this case both are true. Of course, if it were my list the film would be among the top 10 of all time.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my favorite films for a lot of reasons, but first among them is that Paul Newman and Robert Redford are brilliant together in this film. The film is the epitome of the buddy picture. Oh, I’m sure the real Butch and Sundance weren’t as witty as Redford and Newman portray them, but that’s history for you — Hollywood changed reality. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch) and his partner in crime Harry Longabaugh (Sundance) have been replaced in history by Redford and Newman and I’m sure they’re better for it!

Screenwriter Robert Goldman (All The President’s Men, Chaplin, The Princess Bride) probably deserves as much credit for his wonderful script as Redford and Newman get for their roles (Goldman won an Oscar for the screenplay). The dialogue is brilliant from the very moment the film begins right to the very end. Redford’s Sundance plays straight man to Newman’s Cassidy throughout but the Kid gets his licks in as well.

My favorite line:

Butch Cassidy: [to Sundance] “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

And here’s a great example of how the whole film goes:

Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.
Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
Sundance Kid: Oh, shit…

For my money Redford and Newman are the best film pairing ever. Of course, each has made numerous great films on their own, but Butch and Sundance plus The Sting put them at the top of the dynamic duo list for me. It’s hard to believe Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar in 1970 (that went to Midnight Cowboy), but it’s even harder to believe neither Newman or Redford got nominated for their roles (John Wayne won that year for True Grit so it’s hard to argue with the win). Oh well, what does the Academy know anyway!

Next Up: The Shawshank Redemption

Are You a Heart Attack Waiting to Happen?

The most common question I’ve received so far from friends and relatives regarding my heart attack is how in the world did this happen to me? It’s true, on the surface I seem like the least likely person to have a heart attack. But the truth is, I was a ticking time bomb and had no idea. This much is true — I am thin, I run three miles three times per week, I do not eat meat with the exception of some fish, I have a relatively stress-free job and I see my doctor regularly. So why did I have a heart attack at 45?

I’m not sure we’ll ever fully know the answer to that question, but here are some other facts:

  • I have had high cholesterol and triglycerides  for more than a decade. I have been monitoring this, however, and have been on a baby aspirin and a statin (Lipitor) for many years and every six months I get my blood tested and my cholesterol numbers have been good. Last check my overall cholesterol was around 175.
  • I have a terrible family history of heart disease. My grandmother and grandfather on my dad’s side both died relatively young from heart related illness. My father had a heart attack in his early 60s, had both carotid arteries blocked and had quadruple bypass surgery. He has high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • I grew up in a household where both parents smoked and I ate a shitload of red meat and fatty foods well into my late 20s. I had a 80-90 percent blockage in one artery and it probably started long before I began to take care of myself.
  • What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that with my family history I should have done more to keep my cholesterol down even lower.

So what could I have done differently? What can you do if you have concerns about your own heart health? The first step is to see your primary care physician and get a blood workup. After that, make an appointment to see a cardiologist to get a baseline of your heart health. They’ll do an EKG and maybe even a stress test. I saw a cardiologist about 8 years ago right after my dad had his bypass. I was 38 and the doctor told me to take a baby aspirin every day, stay active, eat right and come back and see him in five years. I did not, and looking back he may have done a stress test at that time and found the blockage before I had my heart attack.

But there’s a new test that is available now that anyone can take and it can determine your likelihood to have a heart attack well in advance and it is non-invasive. It’s called a Calcium Score Test and it’s a simple CT scan that can show whether or not you have any blockages. Had I had one of these tests they would have seen my blockage and been able to go in and clear it out before I had a heart attack and before any long-term damage was done to my heart. Wow.

The test is available at many places around the Valley. Because it’s new, it is not covered by most insurance companies (why does that not surprise me? ) but it’s really inexpensive. You can get the test for under $100 at Abrazo and Chandler Regional for example:

Get smart for your heart!

AFI #74: The Silence of the Lambs

It wasn’t as scary the second time! I always think of The Silence of the Lambs as being one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, but watching it again today it didn’t seem so scary and not just because I knew how it ended. I’ve said it a lot during these reviews, but memory definitely plays tricks on you.

What it is, though, is one heck of a great film! Maybe that’s why we remember it as scary — just look at Anthony Hopkins’ eyes! He’s one creepy dude. It’s a great film because it has everything. It has a detailed and complex story. It has memorable characters. It has shock value. It was beautifully shot. It was a thriller unlike any other and it’s one of the best films ever made. But make no mistake…The Silence of the Lambs is all about acting.

Hopkins has never been better and the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter is easily one of the greatest creations in film history. And he did it all with his eyes and his voice. Jodie Foster portrayed a naive but confident Clarice Starling and made us believe that an FBI student could solve the toughest crime of a generation. And the guy who played the killer, Ted Levine, was downright scary good from his voice to his intense close ups (and lest we forget the famous “tuck” scene)!

The Silence of the Lambs was of course rewarded with a handful of Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Actress, but also Best Director for Jonathan Demme and Screenplay. And it remains one of the only thrillers to bring home the Oscar for Best Picture. Oh, and bonus points for a Chris Isaak cameo as an FBI agent!

Next on the List: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Len 2.0

I realize this is a clichĂ©, but I have been thinking a lot about life these past few weeks and I sort of get the whole re-birth thing. I really do feel like I have a second chance at life and that has caused me to think about all of the things I always said I wanted to do but never got around to. I have also been thinking about past mistakes and regrets, and although I have made it a point not to dwell on the past, there are some things I’d like to go back and fix.

Yesterday, for example, I reconnected with an old friend that I lost touch with. I was thinking about all the great times we had in college and afterward and I realized I had no idea why we lost touch. All I knew is that I wanted to talk to him and find out what he’s been up to — and after a 20 minute phone call I felt great about rebuilding that relationship, hearing about his new family, and generally just knowing he was doing well. I’m not going to get all preachy during my recovery but if there’s someone important out there that you have lost touch with take the first step and give him or her a call.

My friend and co-worker Mike McClary and I both returned to the corporate world together last year after many years in solo practices and we agreed the second time around in the corporate world would be different because we were wiser, older and less concerned about all the usual corporate B.S. that made us hate corporate America in the past. We call this new attitude “Corporate 2.0” and for the most part we’ve managed to make it work. This has inspired me to call my post-heart attack life “Len 2.0”

Len 2.0 is more than just a philosophy though because I really did almost kick the bucket a few weeks ago! I remember after my mother-in-law passed away at an early age Leslie and I talked a lot about how she had done all the things expected of a wife and mother and when she was finally free from those responsibilities she always thought she’d be able to finally do all the things in life she wanted to do. She was young, had some money and had the desire…but it turns out she didn’t have the health and unfortunately she ran out of time. We always said we weren’t going to make the same mistake — we were going to do all the things we wanted to do while we had the chance. But it’s not so easy. Sure, we went to Hawaii a few times and I went back to school to get a master’s degree. But the truth is there are tons of things we want to do but haven’t gotten around to. That changes now.

I have actually created a bucket list. I don’t care how silly it seems — life is just too damn short. I’ve added a page to this blog to host the list and it’ll be a living list that gets updated as I think of more things I want to do. There’s not much there yet, but I assure you it will grow. Feel free to offer suggestions, but I can tell you now I’m not going to jump out of an airplane no matter what!

AFI #75: In The Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night must have been something big when it was released in 1967 at the height of the civil rights movement. I can only imagine what audiences in the south must have thought about a film in which an African American cop solves the crime of a murdered white man.

I really liked this film, both for its murder mystery and for its racial message. But when I think about it in the context of 1967 it becomes even more remarkable. The hicks in this fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi were not caricatures of southerners — they were realistic portrayals of what it was like in some southern towns in the 60s. Sure, the crime itself wasn’t racially motivated, but the town’s reaction to the involvement of a smart, northern, black cop was downright scary. Sometimes I still shake my head in disbelief that people ever felt this way about people of color, but then I remember my one year living in the south and it all comes back. Heck, the civil rights movement was less than 50 years ago!

The film also has a sort of groovy late 60s vibe to it as well which added to the fun. Some of the townspeople, especially the guy who worked behind the counter at the diner, had a real Dobie Gillis quality. And the soundtrack by Quincy Jones and the title song by Ray Charles added to the 60s groove.

But this film is really all about two performances — Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Sheriff Gillespie, a complex character caught between wanting to do the right thing for his town and his disrespect for not just an outside cop, but a black cop. Steiger was brilliant and believable — at times you dislike him and at other times you are empathetic toward him and that’s the sign of a complex piece of acting. Steiger made some great films over his career, including Dr. Zhivago and On the Waterfront, but In the Heat of the Night was a triumph. And Poitier was wonderful as Virgil Tibbs, a character he went on to portray in several sequels. The classic moment is of course when Gillespie smarts off to Virgil and asks him what they call him in Philadelphia and Poitier says “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Magic.

Next Up: #74 The Silence of the Lambs