My Favorite Novels of the Decade

As we wind our way down to the end of the decade I will consume a whole lot of “best of” lists from magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. I love me some lists. And I love to create my own as any regular reader of this blog can attest. In the next few weeks you can expect to see a post about my favorite films of the 2010s, my favorite albums of the decade, and my favorite albums of 2019. But I thought I’d start with a list of my favorite novels of the decade.

Please note that my lists reflect my favorites rather than what I consider to be the best. I’m not a professional critic of music, films or writing, and while I have opinions on these sorts of things I prefer instead to simply share the art that brought me joy. It’s harder to disagree when I’m not declaring that a book, album or film is objectively the best — I’m happy to do that over a coffee or an adult beverage if you are so inclined, but I write these posts to identify art you may wish to discover on your own to see if they also bring you joy.

So with that, here are my 10 favorite novels of the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:

  • Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford (2017). This was a selection from my men’s book club this year that really jumped out. Ford weaves together a heart-wrenching story of immigration and survival that is beautifully told and very unique.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015). It’s a book about a black man living in LA who wants to reintroduce segregation. Yes, it’s a satire. And yes, it’s biting and hilarious. Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, becoming the first American to win the prestigious U.K. award.
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (2016). I was not prepared for the emotional ride that this story about a man and his canine companion took me on. It was funny and sad, but ultimately a story of growth and survival.
  • The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015). Bacigalupi’s dystopian take on life in the American Southwest after the water dries up is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It’s fiction, but it hits home so hard I almost wanted to move to Oregon directly after reading it. Check out my full review.
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2012). No countdown of great novels is complete without Tom Wolfe. Back to Blood isn’t his best novel, but it’s pure Wolfe and that’s good enough for me. RIP Tom.
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010). What if a man with four wives and 28 children had a midlife crisis? It’d make for a darn funny novel. Udall also happens to be a member of the famous Mormon political family that includes a host of current and former U.S. Congressmen that spans generations.
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012). You’ll definitely enjoy the hidden secrets of this fictional bookstore in San Francisco. It’s a crazy, fun ride full of mystery and conspiracies.
  • There There by Tommy Orange (2018). One of the most talked about and best reviewed novels of the decade, Orange weaves together a selection of stories about Native Americans growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Oakland. Powerful, eye-opening, and important.

10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011). Patchett is one of my favorite novelists and State of Wonder is a great example of why. It’s an adventure story that takes place in the Amazon where a group of scientists are searching for plants that could lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs and the huge financial rewards that come with it. Needless to say there is intrigue and ethical dilemmas. Patchett writes unique and developed female characters that give this old man better insight into the finer gender.

9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011). Rarely has a novel captured my teenage years as well as Cline’s futuristic tale of throwback video games and 80s pop culture. It’s dystopian and familiar at the same time, and god help us if we continue down the path toward all of us living in a virtual world. Such a blast of a novel, and just an “ok” film version if I’m being honest. If you are geek that came of age in the 80s (or just someone who loves the 80s) this novel will undoubtedly resonate with you.

8. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014). From the author of Cloud Atlas comes this hair-raising tale of supernatural beings with a not so pleasant plan for mankind and the group of mystics working to foil their plans. It doesn’t sound like a novel I’d be interested in from the sleeve notes, but damn Mitchell is otherworldly in his tale-telling abilities — perhaps the best storyteller and writer of his generation.

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). This is perhaps the most inventive novel of the decade and it’s deserving of all the accolades it received when it was released including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction. I’ve read three of Whitehead’s novels now and he is clearly one of the country’s best authors. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Amazon series based on the book.

6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016). Chabon has been churning out brilliant novels for decades now and he’s definitely among my favorite novelists. Moonglow is his best work in a long time and it’s so interesting in that it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. The story is a tribute to his grandfather, as told by a character named Michael Chabon. My full review is online.

5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013). This Man Booker nominee is the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love — it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism. 

4. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (2016). Proulx is an American treasure and now that she is in her 80s we should cherish every word she writes before her time runs out. She is the author of my all-time favorite novel, 1993’s The Shipping News, and she also penned Brokeback Mountain. Reading Barkskins seemed like a daunting task at first because it’s so dense, but I should have realized I’d end up enjoying every sentence of its 736 pages. Here’s my full review.

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). This coming of age story about a 13-year-old boy who loses his mom in a terrorist attack has it all — fascinating story lines, interesting characters, intrigue, mystery, and so much more. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through and the story has stuck with me since. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I know it didn’t get great reviews, but I loved this novel so much I’ll definitely be streaming the movie once it’s available. It seems I really do love coming of age stories whether in books or movies (hint hint there will be a major coming of age story in my upcoming post about my favorite films of the decade). Don’t let the film’s bad reviews keep you from reading this novel as it’s clearly one of the best novels of the decade.

2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’m a sucker for stories that jump around from generation to generation and take place in multiple locations (see A Tale For the Time Being above). Walter’s satirical look at Hollywood culture takes the reader from Italy to L.A. and from the 1960s to today. The lives of the main characters are weaved in and around the story of the filming of 1963’s Cleopatra and the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. I find it cool when writers mingle fiction with reality to give their fictional characters an anchor based in reality. Tarantino recently did this with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and it worked great. Walter is an inventive writer and it’s impossible not to love Beautiful Ruins. There’s been a film version in the works for years but it hasn’t gotten out of development yet. I sure hope it does.

And my favorite novel of the 2010s:

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012). Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son is a brilliant tale set in North Korea that pulls you in from the first moment and takes you along on a journey that seems impossibly hard to imagine. The protagonist is a young North Korean named Pak Jun Do who journeys from orphanage to soldier to prisoner. Apparently Johnson based this novel on interviews he did with North Korean refugees and it is based on stories they relayed to him about life inside the mysterious country. It is from this novel that I learned about just some of the travesties going on under the regime of the Kim family. I love a novel that can both entertain and educate and Johnson’s amazing novel does both using brilliant storytelling and beautiful prose. Johnson is a gifted writer and his future work will always be on my reading list. Plus, he’s an ASU grad so there’s a great Arizona connection. Fork ’em!

Brown is Back and So is the Padres Identity

Being a fan of a sports team is more about identity than it is about winning. How else do you explain the long-suffering Cubs fans who stayed true to their team despite a 108-year World Series championship drought? Or the fans of the Detroit Lions who have gone 58 years and counting since their last championship? Or the Atlanta Hawks who have gone 48 years without a championship? Winning, it seems, is not in fact the only thing despite what former UCLA football coach Red Sanders is famous for claiming.

Being a true fan of a team means that team is in your blood. It’s a part of you and a part of how your friends perceive you. Ask 100 people what they know about me and I suspect one of the first things most of them would think of is that I’m a Padres fan.

The identity of a team includes the vibe of its community, its traditions, its great players, its uniforms, its logo, and yes, its colors. When you think of the Dallas Cowboys you think of the blue star. The Yankees? Black and white pinstripes. The University of North Carolina? Carolina blue. When you think of the San Diego Padres? Okay, nobody really thinks of the San Diego Padres. But if you did, you’d swear they were always brown and you’d recall that iconic swinging friar!

But the Padres have been some various shade of blue for the past three decades. It has never felt right. And yes, I grew up in San Diego in the 70s and early 80s when the Padres last wore brown as their primary color. So of course there is some nostalgia involved. But it’s more about identity than a longing for the glory days of the past because there were no glory days of the past. The team has been around for 50 years and despite two trips to the World Series they’ve never won a championship.

I’ve always hated the Padres in blue. I understand why they switched to blue, orange and white in 1991. Marketing. Brown is not exactly a popular color. But blue has always been a mistake and yet decade after decade they’ve doubled down on it, finally moving to plain old blue and white for the past few years. But blue is the color of their biggest rivals, the Dodgers. You don’t try to look like your rivals. Could you imagine Ohio State changing its color scheme to blue and maize? No. They wouldn’t. Because it’d be stupid. Which is why the Padres changing to blue in 1991 was stupid.

I know what you’re thinking. Brown is an awful color for a sports team. It’s why there are so very few brown sports teams. You have the Cleveland Browns of course. And the Baltimore Orioles are brown and orange. The University of Wyoming is brown. But it’s not a popular color. Hell, Brown University uses silver and red as its primary uniform colors.

But when I think of the Padres I think of brown and yellow. I think of Ozzie Smith, and Nate Colbert, and Dave Winfield. I’m not saying the Padres should bring back those god awful brown and mustard uniforms. When the Astros decided to move on from the rainbow uniforms of the 70s and 80s they didn’t switch to green. They modernized their look using their primary colors of blue and orange.

The Padres should be brown. They should have always been brown. And I’m thrilled they are bringing back the brown permanently starting with the 2020 season. Is it going to make them a better team? No, of course not. But it will bring back their identity and frankly give them something to hang their hat on that not a lot of other teams have — a unique look. When you see the Padres moving forward you’ll think of brown. And that’s as it should be.

I don’t love brown. But I love the Padres and they are brown. Maybe you don’t think you look good in brown? I don’t care. You know who does? Manny Fucking Machado.

And you know who else looks great in brown. The franchise — Fernando Tatis Jr.

I can’t wait to see the Padres new uniforms when they are released. I can tell you as well that my Christmas list will be full of nothing but brown Padres merchandise. I love that the Padres are going to be distinct again.

Brown is back, baby!

50 Things I Love About My Wife

This is a photo of Leslie and I just a few months ago in Paris. I look all of my 52 years. Leslie looks like she’s still 30. Damn I’m a lucky son of a bitch.

Leslie Gutman turns 50 years old today and she’s not happy about it. Time is a bitch that never slows, and while 50 is a monumental age I don’t think it’s something to fear, rather it’s something to embrace. Hell, a lot of humans don’t make it to half a century, and many who do don’t look half as good as Leslie. I mean, she still gets carded buying alcohol sometimes.

But what Leslie is failing to realize is that she may be 50, but inside she still lives her life like she’s 25. She is physically active, she has a robust work life, she has lots of friends, she travels, she’s relatively healthy, her mind is sharp. She’s a freak of nature. She epitomizes youthful exuberance — and frankly I wish I had just a fraction of her joie de vivre.

So to honor my wonderful wife on this special occasion, I submit to you 50 reasons why I love her. Truthfully, it only took me a few minutes to come up with these and I could have kept going all day. I love everything about her (even the things that drive me crazy). Isn’t that what love is really all about?

In no particular order, here you go:

  1. I love how she literally saved my life…twice.
  2. I love how she puts the needs of others above her own.
  3. I love how she plans recurring medical appointments on her birthday so she doesn’t forget them
  4. I love how whenever I’m feeling down about something she reminds me how great I have it
  5. I love how she still giggles like a little girl when she hears something silly (this is the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters!)
  6. I love how messy she keeps her car and fights me if I try to clean it up as if she knows where everything is and there’s a reason for it
  7. I love how she’s always prepared for anything
  8. I love that she volunteers to do taxes for the under-served
  9. I love how she celebrates the hell out of Christmas even though she’s an atheist
  10. I love how wherever we go on vacation she buys a new Christmas ornament for the tree to remind us of the trip
  11. I love how she never goes outside without a hat, sunscreen, and water
  12. I love how much she helps Connor with the big decisions in life (and the small ones too)
  13. I love how much she enjoys bad reality TV
  14. I love the fact that she cooks dinner almost every night even after a hard day’s work
  15. I love how tipsy she gets after just one Mojito
  16. I love how she looks so damn young that she still gets carded all the time
  17. I love how she can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything
  18. I love how unconditionally she loves her family (except for her brother. Did you even know she has a brother?)
  19. I love how she tries on 10 different outfits before heading out for the day and then just when you think she’s got it set she emerges from the bedroom with something else on
  20. I love how every day she comes home from work and asks me the same question – anything exciting happen today? (as if)
  21. I love how she embraces Connor’s friends as if they are her own kids
  22. I love how she likes Flo Rida and Pitbull despite how crappy their music is
  23. I love how diligently she plans vacations, leaving nothing to chance
  24. I love how she unabashedly loves any television show with vampires, werewolves, or demons
  25. I love how she watches the evening news every day even though the news is a shit show and never seems to change
  26. I love how she drives with the driver’s seat back in what looks to me like the most uncomfortable way possible
  27. I love how uncomfortable she is with change (wait, we’re switching from Google Play Music to Spotify?)
  28. I love how she calls to check in on my parents more than I do
  29. I love how she keeps a drawer full of greeting cards for every occasion just in case
  30. I love how even after 25 years of marriage she still knows how to turn me on (sorry, TMI)
  31. I love how dedicated she is to watching Kentucky basketball simply because she has a long-term crush on Coach Calipari
  32. I love how competitive she is no matter what’s at stake
  33. I love how whenever she sees something she doesn’t like at work she writes a sternly worded memo to the highest ranking executive she can find
  34. I love how she’s remained dedicated to her company for more than 25 years even while I’ve changed jobs 13 times in the same time period
  35. I love her smile
  36. I love how everyone I know calls her for advice about life
  37. I love how she manages our finances so spectacularly that I haven’t bothered to log into our bank account website in…like…forever
  38. I love how she pronounces eggs like aygs
  39. I love how much she likes the Saturday Night Safety Dance on SiriusXM 1st Wave
  40. I love how she can find anything on the Internet. Seriously, she’s a web ninja.
  41. I love how she gets teary eyed during sappy television commercials
  42. I love how when she puts her mind to something you might as well call it done
  43. I love how she’s already got a dog picked out to replace me when I croak (and she’s even named the damn thing after me)
  44. I love how much she knows about finance
  45. I love that she’s stuck with me through thick and thin
  46. I love how loyal she is to brands she loves
  47. I love how she plays off a Malaprop as if she meant to say it
  48. I love how much she loves and cares for Connor
  49. I love how she goes to the doctor prepared to tell him or her what her diagnosis is already
  50. I love how much she shows her love for me even after so many years together

Happy 50th Birthday Leslie Gutman. I love you with all of my heart.

‘Flow My Tears’ Leaves Me Wanting More P.K. Dick

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right off the bat — I don’t typically read science fiction. In fact, I can probably count the number of science fiction books I’ve read on one hand. Truth be told, it has less to do with not liking science fiction and more to do with the fact that I’m admittedly a bit of a literature snob and I don’t usually read any “genre” fiction including romance, mystery, fantasy, etc. I’m sure I’m missing out on some great reads.

I’m trying to be more open-minded though. I started a book club last year and we take turns picking a book each month and I have enjoyed trying new things. I scoffed at We Are Legion (We are Bob) and I ended up really enjoying it. I think maybe I’ve had a blind spot for science fiction because of what I think it is, when in reality science fiction can be a lot of things. I’ve always equated science fiction with stories about alien visits and robot wars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not my thing.

But recently I’ve been watching some really great television that fits into the science fiction category and I’ve realized that I most definitely like stories of dystopia and alternate universes. Black Mirror may be the best show on television. I have thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, 12 Monkeys, and the new Star Trek Discovery series. And most of all, I love The Man in the High Castle, which brings us back to Philip K. Dick.

My son loves science fiction, and given I could hardly get him to pick up a book when he was growing up I have been encouraged by his newfound love of reading. He adores Philip K. Dick and he’s been bugging me to drop my pretentiousness and give him a try. He suggested Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said as a good place to start and I picked it up a few days ago and flew right through it.

I agreed that Philip K. Dick was a good entrance point to science fiction for me because he specializes in dystopia and he has been occasionally compared to one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Having finally read a P.K. Dick novel I agree the comparisons are fair. They are both nuts!

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is the story of Jason Taverner, a world famous television star and singer who wakes up one morning in a strange place and he quickly discovers that he is no longer famous and in fact he lacks any identification at all. This is a huge issue in the not-too-distant future (1988) of this novel in that the world has become a police state where not having identification can lead to a permanent trip to a forced labor camp. As Taverner makes his way in his new reality as a regular person he quickly realizes just how privileged he was in his previous life.

First, a few cons from my perspective. P.K. Dick didn’t win any awards for literature, primarily because his writing style is sophomoric. He’s no literary lion, but I’m sure that didn’t bother him much nor does it concern his fans. This particular book, and I have no other P.K. Dick novels to compare it to yet, does not leave much to the reader to figure out. I think great literature shows but doesn’t tell — Dick’s style (at least in this book) is to explain what’s going on through the narrator’s inner voice. I was disappointed by how he explains everything as it leaves very little to the reader’s imagination. Finally, I was quite disappointed in the ending of the novel. I won’t give it away, but I’ll just say Dick wraps everything up in a bow.

But my complaints about the novel are quite minor. In fact, I really loved the story despite not liking the way it ended. Dick gives away the mechanism by which Taverner found himself in a parallel universe and I would have preferred he leave that to the imagination and the readers conjecture. Yet, I liked what being in that parallel universe meant for Taverner and the reader. The novel revolves around the themes of fame, identity, surveillance, genetic enhancement, and altered states to name a few. These are topics worth exploring, whether through a science fiction novel or a philosophy class.

The novel was published in 1974 and the issues it is about are even more relevant today given where we are as a species and a society. One of the things that makes P.K. Dick so special is how prescient he was in writing about these issues in the early 70s. One gets the feeling maybe he discovered some portal to the future just as the Nazi’s did in The Man in the High Castle. I know what you’re thinking — his “portal” was LSD! Perhaps, but regardless of how he got to his theories of the future it’s remarkable.

I liked Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, but I didn’t love it. The good news is, P.K. Dick was a prolific writer so there’s so much more to discover. Now that my mind has expanded, I suspect I’ll be adding a few of those novels to my to-read list. I’ve been told Ubik is pretty mind-blowing, and Valis gets great reviews. I’ll probably give Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a try even though I know the story having seen Blade Runner a bunch of times. If you are a Philip K. Dick fan, I’d welcome your suggestions.

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Dud

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been on my IMDB Watch List for close to seven years, but for whatever reason I never clicked “buy” on Google Play Movies or recorded it off HBO. One reason this Watch List challenge is so interesting to me is because it will force me to finally watch some films that have been languishing in my “get around to it” file. And while I’m not a reader of John le Carré novels, this film appealed to me because I love a good international spy film and the cast of this adaptation is remarkable.

The film stars Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even a young Tom Hardy. That’s a lot of star power. Alas, it wasn’t enough to restart my heart after I nearly fell asleep from boredom after about 20 minutes. I mean, usually I’ll give a film a half hour or so before giving up, but life is too short to waste 30 minutes let alone two hours plus. My wife didn’t protest at all when I hit the stop button on the remote. 20 minutes might be a record for me in terms of giving up on a film.

I know this film has an 85/100 metacritic score, a 7.1 out of 10 on IMDB, and was nominated for three Oscars including a Best Actor nod for Gary Oldman (who finally did win an Oscar recently for Darkest Hour which I still haven’t seen). But boring is boring. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the first two episodes of Killing Eve way more and it’s basically the same plot.

Next Up on the Watch List: Margin Call

Film Review: No Redeeming Value in McQueen’s ‘Shame’

You know that feeling you get when you watch a film and as it comes to a close you think to yourself what the hell did I just watch? That’s how I felt about Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame. Honestly, it’s rare for me to dislike a film as much as I disliked Shame.

Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011)

Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, who on the surface appears to be a normal guy but who harbors a secret life of sexual addiction. He spends his nights hooking up with strange women, or hiring prostitutes to fulfill his desires. When he’s not having random sex, he watches porn and jerks off. Even at work. The guy has no life outside of his perverted hobby.

Enter his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who turns up unexpectedly needing a place to stay throwing a wrench into Brandon’s habit. Sissy has her own issues, not the least of which is that she is psychotic…and…well…the tension builds until something’s got to give.

I’m the furthest thing from a prude, so it wasn’t the NC-17 rating that caused me to dislike this film. Nor was it the underlying sexual tension between brother and sister, or the porn, or the gratuitous full frontal nudity on display from both Fassbender and Mulligan. It was the complete and utter lack of story beyond the sex. The film was simply about a guy who has a problem with sex and his nutty sister moving in to take him off his game. Not much happens and nothing is resolved. I have no idea what McQueen was trying to say.

I added this film to my Watch List for several reasons, including the fact that I adore Carey Mulligan as an actress and Fassbender is always intense. But mostly I added it because McQueen is now considered an elite filmmaker having given the world multi-Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave. I even enjoyed last year’s McQueen drama Widows. But Shame is just bad. I can think of many much better films about sexual dysfunction and taboos. David O. Russell’s Spanking The Monkey comes to mind. Or Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Sex, Lies, and Videotape. These films are art. Shame doesn’t compare.

Next up on the Watch List project: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Film Review: War Horse Should Have Been Taken Out to the Barn and Shot

War Horse (2011) Directed by Steven Spielberg

War Horse was on my IMDB Watchlist for one reason — it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The director has given us some of the greatest films ever made, and more than a handful of my all-time favorite films. Schindler’s List. Empire of the Sun. Lincoln. ET. Amistad. Saving Private Ryan. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on and on. So of course I was going to want to see War Horse. What a waste of two hours and 26 minutes.

This film was more like a 1970s Disney film or an After School Special. It was so corny and predictable from start to finish. Boy meets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again. I felt like I’d seen this story a million times before, but with a dog, or a pig, or a pigeon in the anthropomorphized lead role. No, the horse didn’t talk (he’s no Mr. Ed) but he did have a personality that made him feel more human than he is.

There were a few things I liked about War Horse. The battle scenes were cool and really well shot. Not a surprise for a director with the skills of Spielberg. And it didn’t do too bad critically, with a 76% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But the review also included this line: “Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg’s customary flair.”

That about sums it up. Yes, beautifully shot but over-the-top sentimental. Oh, and there was one little surprise for me. Scottish actor Peter Mullan played the dad in the film, and once again my mind was blown. I had no idea he was Scottish while he was playing Jacob Snell in the amazing Netflix series Ozark or James Delos in Westworld. This guy is a tremendous actor who I love and now I like him even more. How many times am I going to be blown away be a foreign actor playing an American? I mean, he plays a Brit in War Horse and I thought he was putting on the accent! Are there any good American actors left?

Next up on my Watchlist challenge: Shame (2011)

Book Review: Shapiro’s ‘Inheritance’ Proves There Are Layers to Who We Are

“What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Who are you? I suspect we all have a basic sense of who we are. I’m a 52-year-old husband and father, born in New York but raised in California, a sports fan, a writer, a liberal, an atheist. I’m Ashkenazi Jew on both sides of my family tree going back as far as the historical record. This is the “story” I tell myself and others about me. But what if one day you found out that a huge piece of your story was based on a lie?

Author Dani Shapiro thought she knew her story as well, until one day the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test she took “on a whim” came back with a shocking result. She was not genetically related to her father (the only father she ever knew). Shapiro’s world was turned upside down and her story changed in an instant. As a writer who specializes in memoirs, she handled this life event in the only way she knew how — she wrote a book about the experience. The result is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf ( 2019).

I’m not going to ruin the book for you with spoilers, but suffice it to say the memoir reads like a mystery novel and it’s beautifully written. I didn’t know Shapiro’s work prior to reading Inheritance, but I was really blown away by how she weaves this story and by how she lays herself bare in the process. It’s clear she was devastated by the results of the DNA test, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the reader along for the whole intimate ride. At each turn of the narrative she delves deeply into her psyche as she starts to put the pieces of the story — her new story — together like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Truthfully, it’s a brave retelling given how much of herself she lost along the way.

It’s interesting to think about the simple, almost matter-of-fact decision that led to the unraveling of Shapiro’s sense of herself. Her husband purchased a DNA test for each of them (even though she was not overly keen on the idea) and then decided to compare her results to those of her half-sister. Maybe she subconsciously knew her results would provide a surprise, especially given that as we learn in the book she had always felt a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite fit. There were little moments in her life that, on reflection, gave her pause about her deep Jewish roots. Plenty of people told her she didn’t “look” Jewish.

In 2003 when the Human Genome Project was completed, I suppose even the scientists involved couldn’t have imagined less than than two decades later people all over the world could spit in a test tube and for a hundred bucks or so get their entire genome mapped and categorized. Genetic sequencing has become an integral part of medical science and disease diagnosis and treatment, and it has applications in law enforcement, paternity testing, and of course ancestry research. With these advances have come a host of ethical issues, not the least of which involves privacy, and perhaps mankind has been slow to put sufficient guidelines around those ethical issues. Of course, when you agree to take a DNA test for ancestry research you agree to see the results no matter what news the results may bring. The internet is full of stories like Shapiro’s.

Ever since I almost died from a heart attack in 2011 I’ve been obsessed with ancestry and genetic detective work. My interest in genealogy has not been driven by my medical condition, but rather by a desire to know who I am and where I come from in order to pass my story on to future generations (especially my son). I was able to get my DNA sequenced as part of a heart study at the University of Michigan and in return for allowing them to use my DNA for their study I received a summary of my results. No surprises for me: I’m 65 percent Eastern European and 34 percent West Asian and North African. My people come from the area around the Black Sea and likely migrated up from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A classic story of Jewish diaspora.

But while reading Inheritance I found myself wondering what it’d be like if my DNA test had come back with a surprising result. I watch a lot of ancestry shows like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and Who Do You Think You Are? and people get surprised all the time. Hell, last season on Finding Your Roots, white actor Ty Burrell discovered he is part African American and African American radio host Joe Madison found out he was part white! Talk about changing your perception of self?

Of course, I knew I was genetically related to my parents. All you have to do is look at us to see that. Still, what if I found out a few branches back we were not Ashkenazi but rather something altogether different? You can imagine that kind of genealogy discovery would change who you are, let alone finding out you weren’t related to your father like Shapiro uncovered. And to find this out in your 50s, after both your parents had died, would make it even more hard to handle.

For Shapiro, a big part of her identity was tied to her upbringing as an orthodox Jew. So many of her childhood memories were tied to that Jewish culture, especially the times she spent with her devout father. And then to find out she’s not even related to her father? That’s she’s Jewish, but only on her mother’s side? She moved on from her religious upbringing, but it was still part of her identity — her story.

The book really made me think about story and how we identify. You know where you’ll find your story in its most basic form? Your Twitter profile! Mine says: “Husband, Dad, Desert Dweller, Sports Fanatic, Survivor.” Shapiro’s declares: “Novelist, memoirist, essayist, teacher, wife, mom.”

What’s your story?

Film Review: ‘Skin’ a Disturbing, Macabre Mess

The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz).

Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.

One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.

Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.

The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.

The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.

The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.

You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.

So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.

I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist:  Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)

Film Review: ‘Amigo’ Brings to Light the Horrors of the Philippine-American War


Amigo (2010) Directed by John Sayles

I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.

It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.

One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.

Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.

The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.

The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.

The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.

Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.

It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.

Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.

I give Amigo an 8 out of 10 stars.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)