March 31, 2011

BOOKS: Read This Next, Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark (2010)

The failure mode of clever is "asshole." -- John Scalzi
And to prove it, we have Newman & Mittlemark's book. It's a recommendations list for book groups, and it could be very useful, were it not written in a tone so smirky and wiseass as to offend anyone who takes books seriously.

It's a well-organized book. Ten chapters are devoted to broad themes -- war, family, politics, humor -- and each chapter focuses on a dozen books, providing a short summary and some questions for discussion.  Each chapter also includes three or four "Read These Too" lists, rapid-fire lists of a dozen books, usually on a theme triggered by a book from the chapter's main list. So, for instance, in the "Family" chapter, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home leads into a quick list of graphic novels; Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina triggers a "misery lit" list; and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is the cue for a group of African American books.

And the range of books included is interesting. Newman & Mittlemark aren't snobs; they embrace a wide range of reading, and their categorizations aren't always the most expected, which could offer readers the opportunity to make interesting connections among disparate books. The chapter on death includes not only John Hersey's Hiroshima, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, and James Agee's A Death in the Family -- all relatively safe choices, given the topic -- but also Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which might not be among the first books that leap to mind.

But the book goes horribly wrong almost every time Newman & Mittlemark speak. Their discussion questions sometimes start off well, but the authors can't resist the temptation to throw in a joke at the end of almost every single question. Take this, for instance, from their questions for Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love:
Linda never cared for her daughter Moira, and never had much interest in her. Is this a writerly conceit, or does that happen in real life? Have you seen it in real life? Do you find the open discussion of this liberating? Would you like to admit to the group that you've never cared for your kids? Go ahead. Nobody will think badly of you.
The question itself isn't bad, and could start some interesting conversation, but the smirky bit at the end grates, and the book is plagued with these smug attempts at humor. You may very well come away from Read This Next having found a few unfamiliar books you'd like to read, but you'll also come away from it hating the authors and wanting to smack that smirk right off their faces. The failure mode of clever is indeed asshole, and that's precisely how Newman and Mittelmark come across here.

March 30, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Elton John

After the drama of the Judges' Save (and America, what the hell were y'all smoking last week? I mean, Casey? Really?), we're back for The Final Eleven 2: Electric Boogaloo, and two musical lives are on the line tonight. It's Elton John night, which provides a diverse enough songbook that everyone should be able to find something appropriate.

The rundown:

Scotty, "Country Comfort" -- The song feels like it's written by someone who's trying to throw in every country cliche he can think of. Grandma, farm, train, truck -- throw in a dog and some beer, and you've hit 'em all. And given a bad imitation of a country song, Scotty sounds like a bad imitation of a country singer. His pitch is off, especially in the verses, and the twang feels affected rather than natural. Even the low note at the end has the feeling of the punchline to a joke that wasn't very funny.

Naima, "I'm Still Standing" -- An unexpectedly mellow Naima, and it turns out that when she's not screaming at us, there's a lovely voice hiding in there after all. Not a perfect performance -- she bobbles the pitch badly on the entrance to the chorus, the old shouty Naima comes back a bit at the very end, and the accent was ill-advised -- but her best work to date.

Paul, "Rocket Man" -- As it did last week, the guitar helps him immensely. I'm always left, though, feeling not so much that Paul is naturally quirky as that he's decided to be quirky. The breathy voice, the strangely pronounced vowels, the weird fade to silence on the last three notes -- they feel like tics he's picked up from other singers, but they're not organic, and he's layered on so many of them that he -- whoever he is -- is buried beneath them.

Pia, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- If you came across that on the radio, you'd stop and listen. And you'd think, "she's got a really nice voice." And when it was over, you'd go on to something else, and it would never occur to you to wonder what her name was, or whether you could buy that on iTunes, or what else she'd recorded, because there's no personality behind that really nice voice. She's a Stepford singer.

Stefano, "Tiny Dancer" -- It's the standard Stefano performance. The louder and beltier he can get, the better he sounds, but when he's forced to be quiet and sensitive, the sound gets pinched. (Whatever technical flaws are producing that tone are also, I think, why he squints through every song; his facial muscles are tensed in ways they shouldn't be.) And even the big stuff wasn't all that impressive tonight.

Lauren, "Candle in the Wind" -- You can hear in the way her voice breaks that she's naturally a country singer, and her best moments here are when she gives in to that, when she lets those breaks and that little bit of twang happen instead of fighting them. She still doesn't project much personality, but there are hints here of a good singer struggling to break out.

James, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" -- Excellent song choice for his style and his voice. The pitch on the big "yeah" at the end was a bit iffy, but otherwise very good; the first thing tonight that's gotten a smile out of me.

Thia, "Daniel" -- Pitch is all over the place, enunciation is sloppy, and that descending series of high notes at the end of the chorus ("Daniel, you're a star...") is inaudible. Not a good night for Thia, and with two people going home, you really don't want to have a noticably bad night.

Casey, "Your Song" -- That last note didn't need to be falsetto, but aside from that, this was lovely. There was a warmth that I haven't seen from Casey before, and he even managed to make one of Elton's clunkier lyrics ("If I were a sculptor/but then again, no") feel almost natural.

Jacob, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" -- Impeccable.

Haley, "Bennie and the Jets" -- I like the fluidity of her voice, the ease with which she moves from high to low and back; the pop up to head voice on "magazine," for instance, is lovely. But this is a weird performance. It feels like a bad Vegas lounge act, one of those moments where an older performer trots out a recent hit to show how hip they are -- Steve and Eydie singing "Black Hole Sun," or Pat Boone's metal album.

A middling night, for the most part; Jacob and Casey help themselves the most, and Haley and Thia slip down the list.

For the night: Jacob, Casey, James, Naima, Pia, Lauren, Stefano, Paul, Scotty, Haley, Thia.

For the season: Jacob, James, Casey, Pia, Scotty, Stefano, Lauren, Thia, Haley, Paul, Naima.

Let's send home: Paul and Naima are clearly the bottom two of the pack; no one else is close.

MOVIES: Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010/US 2011)

A bit more spoiler-y than usual, I think, but not about the plot -- not that plot's really the point in this one -- and it's hard to say anything much about the movie without discussing its central device to some extent.

James (opera singer William Shimell, making his film debut) is an English author whose latest book is a philosophical inquiry into the notions of originality and copy in art; the copy, he argues, is (if well made) no less valuable than the original, and there's no real reason to prefer the actual to the simulated.

He's in Tuscany, doing lectures in support of his book, and in attendance is a woman who is never named in the movie, but let's call her Juliette, since she's played by Juliette Binoche. Juliette whispers something to the host of the lecture and leaves her address; James comes to visit her at her antique shop, and the two set out for a Sunday drive through Tuscany. A waitress in a cafe mistakes them for husband and wife, and they do not correct her; even after leaving the cafe, they continue behaving as if they were married.

And here's where the movie gets odd on us. The relationship that James and Juliette create for themselves is unusually complete (and hostile); they seem to agree on surprisingly specific details without having to discuss them, and Kiarostami begins to drop hints that perhaps they really are married, and it was the meeting as strangers that was some sort of play-acting. Married or strangers? And given James' notions about the relative value of actual vs. imitation, does it really matter whether their squabbling is real or pretend?

I've very much enjoyed reading the reviews of this film since seeing it. Many of the critics are adamant that there's no ambiguity in the relationship, and that it's perfectly obvious what's really going on. Which would be swell if only they could agree; there seems to be a roughly even split between those who are convinced they're strangers playing at being married and those who know it's the other way around.

There are interesting philosophical notions at play here, and some of the conversations about those ideas are fascinating, playing somewhat as My Tuscan Road Trip With Andre. Binoche and Shimell are completely convincing from moment to moment, and they have terrific chemistry, regardless of what their relationship is supposed to be at any given instant.

The problem is that since we never do know which version of their relationship is real, we have no idea what's at stake, and no reason to care what happens to them. I enjoy a good puzzle movie, but this one is all ambiguity and no resolution, which left me floundering with nothing to grab on to. Good performances, and the movie isn't boring, but it's all style and very little substance, and rather a muddle in the end.

BOOKS: Bad Science, Ben Goldacre (2008/US edition, 2010)

Since 2003, Goldacre has written the "Bad Science" column for The Guardian. Here, he expands on the frequent themes of that column in a spectacularly useful and informative book.

Goldacre's targets are, in the words of the book's subtitle, "quacks, hacks, and big pharma flacks." He explains, precisely and methodically, how drug companies and practitioners of alternative medicine are able to so easily befuddle and confuse the public, and how we can better recognize such trickery when it's happening.

The problem is, Goldacre argues, that we are not taught anything useful about the scientific method, so we have no idea how to interpret the results of studies. Most crucially, we fail to recognize when those results are being deliberately misrepresented, either by drug companies looking to make their products look better than they are, or by the media trying to stir up fear and controversy.

In straightforward terms -- nothing here is beyond the grasp of any high-school graduate -- Goldacre explains all the things that we need to know about medical research: What's a placebo? What's a double-blind study? How do I spot bias? He also takes the media to task, both for helping to perpetuate our ignorance and by playing into it for ratings.

And in a terrific final chapter, Goldacre goes after Andrew Wakefield and the other doctors who have spent the last decade perpetuating the myth of a relationship between childhood vaccinations and autism. Carefully and methodically, he explains how all of their research was at best flawed, and more likely outright fraudulent, and how and why the media were suckered into going along for the ride. (The vaccine/autism "link" was an even bigger scare in England than it's been here.)

I can't recommend this book highly enough. You'll never hear another "can eating pizza double your risk of spontaneous human combustion?" story again without immediately running through a mental checklist of all the things that are wrong with the reporting (and probably with the study in question). This should be required reading in American high schools.

March 24, 2011

BOOKS: One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Jasper Fforde (2011)

Seventh  Sixth in the Thursday Next series, and another fine installment, but (as will quickly become clear) probably not the place for the newbie to jump into the series.

The adventures of Thursday Next, Jurisfiction agent, continue with the usual inventive wit, but Fforde makes two big changes here that shake things up a bit. First, he completely re-structures BookWorld with "the great rewriting." The Great Library is gone, and it's replaced by a geographically arranged BookWorld; we spend the most time on Fiction Island, which is broken down into Genres (Horror, Human Drama, Comedy, etc.) and further broken down into districts/neighborhoods. In Comedy, for instance, you might travel through Slapstick on the way to Knock-Knock (be careful not to get lost on the Dudley Moor).

The second big change is that this novel takes place almost entirely within BookWorld, and Thursday is not our narrator. Well, not the real Thursday, at any rate; the narrator here is the written Thursday, who's very much like, but (as a fictional version) not precisely the same as the real thing. She looks very much like the real Thursday, though -- far more so than most fictionalized versions -- so when the real Thursday goes missing, Jurisfiction calls on her to fill in at a crucial negotiation. (That nasty border skirmish between Racy Novel and Women's Fiction won't settle itself, you know.)

These changes give Fforde a lot of new ideas to play with. In particular, we get more insight into the daily life of a BookWorld character, largely through written Thursday's training of a new understudy. There are also the usual inspired riffs on classic literature -- there's a Dostoevsky bit in the first chapter that had me in giggles -- and the marvelous character names. Meet the gentleman who runs the Conspiracy district, for instance: Roswell Bilderberg.

If you haven't read any of the previous volumes, much of the preceding is probably rather confusing. They're all really good books, though, so start at the beginning with The Eyre Affair and work your way through.

March 23, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol: Motown

The singers face their most restrictive theme thus far, but it shouldn't present too many difficulties for anyone but Scotty, should it? Let's find out...

The rundown:

Casey, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- He did a good job of following the producers' advice; that was a very restrained performance, and the better for it. Even so, I'm finding myself beginning to tire of a style that's starting to play as shtick, and wondering if he's slowly becoming this season's Taylor Hicks.

Thia, "Heat Wave" -- Words are vanishing in the low notes, and I don't think the words "heat wave" were ever in tune. And you can feel how much she'd rather be singing another goopy balad; she's singing with nervous, overly polite restraint, like someone trying not to step in a puddle after it's been raining.

Jacob, "You're All I Need To Get By" -- I've never seen anyone make quite so many strange faces while singing. Aside from that, the song is right in his wheelhouse and he does extremely well with it indeed. I'm still distracted by his vibrato, which is overdone for my taste, but that's more a question of style than of talent.

(On a side note, that bit with hugging the audience was very good for Jacob. There's a certain type of cool elegance and refinement that doesn't go over well with Idol voters, especially from African-American singers, and that moment of goofiness does a lot to humanize him.)

Lauren, "You Keep Me Hangin' On" -- Perfectly respectable performance. Not terribly memorable or interesting, but nothing glaringlly wrong with it. Probably enough to keep her around for another week, but not anything that's going to move her up in the ranks.

Stefano, "Hello" -- As always, he sounds lovely when he can belt, but when he can't, those quiet moments -- the first verse, for instance -- sound harsh and strangled, and that's entirely a matter of technique. Hard to build an entire career on nothing but big moments, though. (And he's still not always managing to keep his eyes open.)

Haley, "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" -- It's like one of those YouTube videos with the six-year-old girls doing stripper routines, and I feel vaguely dirty for having watched it. She isn't a sex kitten, and it's painful to see her trying to be. On a musical level, she doesn't find the right key until she reaches the bottom of the stairs, and she really needs to learn that growling is not a substitute for singing.

Scotty, "For Once In My Life" -- Quite nice, for the most part. The arrangement works pretty well, and there's some nice intensity in the second half of the song. That last little flourish comes off as precisely the sort of cheap lounge act that Jimmy warned him not to be, though.

Pia, "All In Love Is Fair" -- She may have the best voice in the competition. The high notes are never shrill; the low notes are relatively strong; the transitions from high to low and back are very smooth. But there's not always much personality behind it, and she can come off as very distant and chilly. If she can get the emotional force to match the vocal force, she'll be unstoppable.

Paul, "The Tracks of My Tears" -- The guitar helps. It anchors him to the stage, and when he's not hurling all that energy into the goofball dance moves, he can put it into the singing, and that makes this his strongest performance yet. I still can't stand his voice, but this is the first time that I've found him even remotely appealing.

Naima, "Dancing In the Street" -- That's Naima having fun? Damn, I'd hate to see her pissed off. She's bringing a scary intensity to the song, glaring at us as if we're not dancing hard enough. She wields the song as a weapon, and it's not a pleasant experience.

James, "Living for the City" -- The wordless wailing passages aren't quite in tune, but aside from that, this is terrific. The opening verse is especially good, with some serious emotional intensity behind it.

A pretty good night overall. No real goosebump moments, but a step up from the blandness of last week. Still a very closely bunched group (with the exception of the bottom two). James moves up a bit; Haley moves down a lot.

For the night: James, Jacob, Casey, Pia, Scotty, Lauren, Stefano, Paul, Thia, Naima, Haley.

For the season: James, Pia, Scotty, Jacob, Casey, Thia, Stefano, Lauren, Haley, Paul, Naima.

Let's send home: Paul was good enough tonight to earn himself a reprieve. Naima's been the most consistently awful, and deserves the boot this week, though a goodbye for Haley would not be unreasonable.

March 21, 2011

MOVIES: Win Win (Tom McCarthy, 2011)

McCarthy continues his fine record as a writer/director with his third terrific film (following The Station Agent and The Visitor), this one about a group of people coping with various forms of loss.

Paul Giamatti stars as a New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice. He also coaches the local high-school wrestling team, which isn't doing very well, either. Desperate to make a few extra bucks, he takes on legal guardianship of an elderly client (Burt Young) who's in the early stages of dementia; things get complicated when the old man's grandson (newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up, a grandson who happens to be a spectacularly good wrestler.

As usual with McCarthy, the casting is superb. In addition to Giamatti and Young, you've got Amy Ryan as Giamatti's wife, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as his fellow coaches, Melanie Lynskey as the kid's mother, and the always welcome Margo Martindale as a rival attorney. Shaffer is the movie's weakest link, and his flat affect and monotone grate a bit by the time the movie's over, but the rest of the cast carries him very well.

As in McCarthy's other movies, the characters are rich and complicated, and they don't always make the most moral choices. But the writing and performances are so good that they (almost) always have your sympathy, and you have no problem understanding why they've done what they've done.

This is an excellent movie, definitely worth looking for.

MOVIES: The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011)

I've never read any of Michael Connelly's novels, so I can't speak to how faithful an adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer is. But as a movie, it's a reasonably good legal drama.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mick Heller (yes, I know that in the books, it's Mickey), a Los Angeles lawyer who scrapes by with a few regular lowlife clients (a pot-growing gang of bikers chief among them). He's not the first lawyer that would come to mind for Los Angeles' upper crust, so it's rather a surprise when his services are requested by Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe), son of a wealthy family who's been accused with the rape and beating of a prostitute. Louis claims he's innocent, and the police report would seem to back him up, but there is (surprise, surprise) more to the story than meets the eye.

There's a fine supporting cast -- William H. Macy as Mick's investigator, Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife (who is, of course, a prosecutor), Frances Fisher as Louis's mother, Michael Pena as a former client, Bob Gunton as Louis's snooty family lawyer. And in smaller roles, you've got John Leguizamo, Trace Adkins, Bryan Cranston, and Josh Lucas.

McConaughey's still not a great actor, but his natural cockiness serves him well in this role, and he's surrounded by actors who have the talent to make him look his best. The story goes through the obligatory twists and turns, some of which you'll see coming a mile away, but it moves along at a brisk pace and the cast is sharp enough to keep the predictability from getting too irritating.

March 20, 2011

the things we do for links

Los Angeles Times, Richard Winton:  Should the Los Angeles City Attorney be able to stop a prominent graffiti artist from profiting by selling his legal art signed with his tag?

Shady Characters, Keith Houston: Part three of the suprisingly interesting history of the pilcrow. (That's this thing: ¶)

Strange Horizons, Genevieve Valentine: Winter's Bone considered as a fairy tale.

Sad news from the Associated Press, where the stylebook is dropping "e-mail" in favor of "email." Horrible and wrong. It's not "tshirt," it's not "fstop", and it's not "email"

And in this video from Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian argues that True Grit's Mattie Ross is not a feminist character. I'm not entirely convinced, mostly because I think it's wrong to expect a 19th century character to live up to a 21st century conception of feminism, but it's an interesting argument, and Sarkeesian makes it well. (via The Film Experience)

March 16, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Songs from birth years

The wannabes take us from the mid-80s to the mid-90s tonight, with one of the show's stranger recurring themes: Sing something from the year you were born, when you weren't paying a damn bit of attention to pop music. Because heaven forbid they should get to sing something that means something to them, or that they have an emotional connection to. Ah, well.

Anyway, the rundown:

Naima, "What's Love Got to Do With It" -- Hate the arrangement. The opening verse is the best she's ever been. It's restrained and understated, and she's actually got a pretty voice. But from the chorus on, there's an unpleasant aggressive quality; it's as if she's stalking the song (and us) instead of singing it. And that closing riff is just silly.

Paul, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" -- Vocally, he's laid-back to the point of catatonia; physically, he's a bundle of nervous energy with the weird little squat step and the constantly swinging arm. The combination is very disconcerting, and it puts me on edge whenever he takes the stage. His voice is ugly, and the last ten seconds or so were wildly out of tune.

Thia, "Colors of the Wind" -- It's a flow of very pretty notes, and that's all it is. Her voice is overly smooth, to the point that the words are frequently lost in the flow. It's a bad song choice, because it's nearly impossible to make the song interesting; it's like singing the Greenpeace mission statement. Yay, birds.

James, "I'll Be There for You" -- Some rough going pitchwise at the beginning, but on the whole, not bad. But also not especially interesting or memorable. It's a spectacularly competent performance.

Haley, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- Alicia Keys to LeAnn Rimes to Whitney Houston: I don't think she knows who she is as a singer, and it shows; every song feels like a new personality being tried on for size, and none of them feel like her. (And I typed those words before hearing Randy say almost exactly the same thing.) This was pretty much the equivalent of James' performance -- technically proficient and instantly forgettable.

Stefano, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" -- Surprisingly good. He didn't quite make it all the way through the last big note without cracking, and he has the bad habit of pulling the microphone away from his mouth before the phrase is finished, but there was some genuine emotion coming across. His best work yet.

Pia, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- Given how smooth she's been in previous weeks, there's something oddly clunky about her phrasing -- "where. do. broken. hearts. go" -- with each word pounced on separately. Her usual fluidity is missing, and she's got no sound at all in the lower register. Still, she's got a big old voice, and the money notes are impressive.

Scotty, "Can I Trust You With My Heart" -- OK, the voice is there, and he knows how to work an audience better than any of the other contestants. But I think he's coasting a little on the gorgeous voice, without making any emotional investment in what he's doing. And if there is one genre where fans demand real emotion (or at least the extremely skillful simulation thereof), it is country music.

Karen, "Love Will Lead You Back" -- There's something very beauty pageant about Karen's performances; they're all polish and not much substance. It's a very high grade of polish, to be sure, but I'd like to see a little more depth. And not that I mind the Spanish or anything, but if she doesn't want to be thought of as just the Spanish singer, she could maybe try a song or two without Spanish lyrics.

Casey, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- He's not singing, he's screaming. And he's screaming wildly out of tune. A ghastly mistake. Not the right song for him, and a performance so bad that it comes off as if he's trying to make fun of the song. (Love his parents, though.)

Lauren, "I'm the Only One" -- A few little odd breaks and cracks, most likely due to the flu, but on the whole, a very nice performance. Good enough to be relatively memorable on a night dominated by the adequate. 

Jacob, "Alone" -- He just can't resist throwing in those gospel runs and riffs, can he? And they're the worst moments of the song. When he's just belting out the tune, it's surprisingly effective. His vibrato is way too wide and wobbly for my taste, though, and that's more noticable (and more inappropriate) on a song like this than on his usual R&B material.

On the whole, not a great night, with almost everyone delivering slightly bland and unmemorable performances. Stefano moves up a bit; Casey moves down a lot; everyone else stays pretty much where they were.

For the night: Stefano, Lauren, Pia, Jacob, Scotty, Thia, Naima, Karen, James, Haley, Paul, Casey.

For the season: Pia, Scotty, Haley, James, Thia, Jacob, Casey, Stefano, Lauren, Karen, Naima, Paul.

Let's send home: For consistently poor performances, Paul is the most deserving. I would not weep to see Naima leave, and while I don't expect him to leave, don't be surprised if Casey lands in the bottom three.

BOOKS: Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

We're somewhere in Africa, somewhere after an unspecified apocalypse, and human nature hasn't changed much. In this part of Africa, the Okeke and Nuru tribes have reached an unsteady, unsatisfactory state of co-existence. In some places, they mostly leave one another alone; where they live together, the Okeke are usually servants and slaves to the Nuru.

Into this world Onyesonwu is born, to an Okeke mother who'd been raped by a Nuru soldier. The tribes look different enough from one another that such children can usually be identified on sight, and these children (known as Ewu) are outcasts. It is believed that as the children of violence, they will grow up to be violent themselves, or at the very least, to bring violence down upon their community.

But Onye has powers that are rare among her people. Before she reaches her teens, she's begun shape-shifting, taking on the forms of various birds. The local sorcerer is reluctant to take her on as a pupil, both because she is a girl and because she is Ewu, but her power cannot be denied. As Onye grows to adulthood, news arrives of a new leader among the Nuru, who has decided to strictly follow the teachings of the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke for good. It becomes clear that it is Onye's destiny to challenge this general.

The story follows a relatively familiar pattern -- the coming-of-age of a child with special gifts and a difficult destiny -- but the African setting gives it a distinctive flavor. That setting can be a bit distancing at times; I often had the sense that I was reading a fairy tale from a culture so foreign to me that I was missing basic cultural references. There are parts of the story that I'm sure would carry more symbolic resonance if I were more familiar with African literature and mythology. (Try to imagine, for instance, what it would be like to read Cinderella without understanding any of the cultural associations that surround "prince," or "ball," or "stepmother.")

Okorafor's pacing often felt slow to me, but again, I wonder if this is a cultural difference; I'm wanting a hurry-up-and-get-to-the-point story from characters and a world that are tuned to a more leisurely pace.

Despite that slight sense of alienation from Okorafor's world, I did enjoy the book, and it's probably a good thing to experience that feeling of being on the outside looking in once in a while. (Certainly makes it easier to empathize with Onye, who spends most of the book feeling that way.) Onyesonwu is a marvelous character who can't always overcome her anger, and who sometimes gives in to her power without thinking first. Great strength and great impulsiveness can be a dangerous combination, and watching Onye navigate those tricky waters is fascinating.

March 13, 2011

da da da I don't link you you don't link me aha aha aha

At The Washington Post, Gene Weingarten proposes a new national anthem: The Bill of Rights, set to a familiar tune. (And sung by none other than Christine Lavin!)

Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz wonders if today's sitcoms are so filled with pop culture references that they'll be too dated for future generations; Macleans' Jamie Weinman responds.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight on the predictive value -- or lack thereof -- of Ohio in presidential elections.

And we close with The Living Sisters:

MOVIES: Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

First things first: I'm going to assume that I don't need to worry about spoilers for a movie based on a book that's more than 150 years old and a staple of high school/college literature classes.

And Fukunaga's version does stay fairlly close to Charlotte Bronte's story, though it shuffles a few things out of sequence, beginning with Jane's arrival at the Rivers home and telling the earlier parts of the story in flashback. That fidelity to Bronte, though, is one of the movie's problems.

By modern standards, the amount of torment that life dumps on Jane is absurdly melodramatic. I was summarizing the story last night for a friend who'd somehow never read the book, and even before I got around to Rochester, he thought I must surely be making this up. The first act -- Jane's childhood -- comes across as particularly overdone here. The abusive aunt (Sally Hawkins, on whom evil does not sit comfortably), the terrible boarding school, the cruel headmaster who forbids the other children to speak to Jane, the death of the one friend Jane does make (from consumption, which is here depicted as a mild cough) -- it provokes nothing so strongly as giggles.

Another problem the movie faces -- and this may be inherent to any attempt to tell this story in Hollywood, where one must have beauty at all cost -- is its insistence that Jane and Rochester are, as they are in Bronte, ugly ducklings. When you've got the very pretty Mia Wasikowska and the strikingly handsome Michael Fassbender playing the roles, you really can't get away with Rochester's famous line to Jane, "You are no more pretty than I am handsome."

The biggest problem, though, is that there's very little romantic chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender, and each is such an unlikable character that it's hard to imagine why either would be drawn to the other. She's a rude, insulting woman who (by the standards of her society) doesn't know her place; he's an arrogant, condescending jerk who looks down his nose at Jane before abruptly (and unconvincingly) declaring his love for her.

There are some nice supporting performances to be found here. Jamie Bell is appropriately prim and tightly wound as St. John Rivers, and Judi Dench is delightful as Mrs. Fairfax, giving the movie some much-needed jolts of warmth and wit. And Adriano Goldman's cinematography is lovely, particularly in the scenes of Jane running wildly across the countryside after leaving Thornhill.

MOVIES: Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010/US 2011)

Based on actual events about a group of French monks murdered by terrorists in Algeria in the mid-1990s. It's worth noting that I only knew where and when the movie was set because I'd read articles about the movie. The events were apparently big enough news in France that the audience didn't need any explanation, but it would have been helpful for American audiences to include a simple "Algeria, 1996" subtitle at the beginning.

There are eight monks, and they have made a comfortable place for themselves in a mostly Muslim community. They support themselves by selling honey and other farm products at the local market, and Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) runs a medical clinic for the villagers.

But political turmoil has come to Algeria, and a group of extreme Islamic terrorists kills a group of Croatian guest workers. The monks realize that they may not be safe in the new political environment, and they debate whether or not they should stay. The leader of the group is Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), who is determined to stay; gradually, the rest of the monks come around to his point of view.

The movie is rather flat dramatically. Lonsdale and Wilson are the only actors given real characters to play, and they're fine; Lonsdale makes the bigger impression as the sweetly avuncular doctor/monk. The other characters never rise above the level of Generic Monk #1 or Terrorist #3. There's no passion to the monks' debates about staying or leaving, and no real discussion of just how high the stakes might be.

Your reaction to the actual story, I think, will depend on your level of faith. If you are a believer, you may be moved by the monks' martyrdom and their devotion to their community. If you are, like me, not a believer, you are more likely to see these events as an illustration of the level of foolishness men will stoop to in pursuit of their superstitions. When you have one group of men willing to kill for their fairy tales, and another group willing to die for theirs, you're not going to have a happy ending.

March 09, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: "Your Personal Idol"

The producers had promised us less restrictive themes this season, and here's our first example -- it's not so much a theme as it is a "oh, sing whatever you want" shrug. We also get our first real look at new permanent mentor Jimmy Iovine, who brings in a variety of the industry's best producers to work with the singers.

The rundown:

Lauren, "Any Man of Mine" -- If you don't have the lung power to get through long phrases, then maybe you shouldn't pick a song that requires you to sing long phrases. Aside from that, not bad, though rather devoid of personality and distinctive energy.

Casey, "With a Little Help From My Friends" -- Very distinctive and compelling. A few oddly mannered moments, perhaps, and those "hoo hoo hoo"s are a bit cuckoo-clock, but those are tiny quibbles.

Ashthon, "When You Tell Me That You Love Me" -- She's got the big notes and the runs, but that's about all she's got; there's no warmth, no charm, no joy in what she does. It's very chilly and impersonal. (And it took me about five seconds to decipher that she wasn't "shining like a Ken doll in the dark.")

Paul, "Come Pick Me Up" -- A few too many double espressos before the show, you think? He's bouncing across the stage with so much unfocused physical energy that there's not much left to go to the voice, which is a breathy, inarticulate mess. The pitches are there, I suppose, but there's no force to them, and the notes are faint wispy things that are blown away by the breeze caused by his manic hopping about.

Pia, "All By Myself" -- Very fine, and any complaints would be nitpicking. The big high notes are certainly impressive (and never shrill), but I really liked her in the verse, where her lower register has a strength (that she didn't seem to have last week) and a calm that remind me a bit of Karen Carpenter.

James, "Maybe I'm Amazed" -- Another terrific performance. The high notes are absolutely wailing, and every word is perfectly clear (a rare thing in this style, in my admittedly limited experience). He's completely connected to the material, and I like the arrangement. (On a shallow physical note, I would suggest that when you have Dumbo ears, straight up might not be the best choice in hairstyle.)

Haley, "Blue" -- She still loves the growl a little too much, but her joy and enthusiasm are contagious, and that yodel is spot on; the very last note is particularly nice. Yet another really good performance, in what is turning out to be a remarkably strong night for a first week.

Jacob, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- OK, he's got technique out the wazoo. Fine. We get that. Now let's work on restraint, subtlety, understatement. When everything is over-the-top fabulous, it begins to feel like an assault, and it stops being very interesting. One technical flaw: In that opening verse, the pitch tends to droop at the end of the notes. (And don't we usually have to wait for the finale before the gospel choir gets trotted out?)

Thia, "Smile" -- I believe I was speaking of subtlety and restraint? This is what I'm talking about. Absolutely lovely. The arrangement goes to pot a bit when the percussion kicks in (up to that point, I was thinking "I would buy this"), but Thia sounds marvelous throughout.

Stefano, "Lately" -- The big long notes are very pretty, but everything else? Meh. His enunciation is weirdly affected, and for someone who was so concerned about the song telling a story, there's zero emotional communication going on; it's just a string of notes.

Karen, "I Could Fall in Love" -- She's got a pretty voice, and her high notes are especially nice. But it's the sort of very competent performance you'd hear at any of your better theme parks, and in a year with this much talent and personality, that's not going to cut it.

Scotty, "The River" -- It's a song about persistence, determination; it should be a bit inspirational, even. And Scotty's just a bit too low-key to put that across tonight. The notes are all in place, and he's clearly comfortable in the style, but it's a rather lethargic effort.

Naima, "Umbrella" -- This is her best effort yet, but I really dislike her voice. It's harsh and grating, and long notes end with an unpleasant, wobbling vibrato. And what was that strange little 10-second interpretive dance break about?

Overall, a marvelous night. The strongest group of finalists the show's ever had, combined with the work of real producers, made for a show with only one or two really bad performances. There are at least five or six people who I could see winning this thing.

For the night: Pia, Haley, Casey, Thia, James, Scotty, Jacob, Lauren, Ashthon, Karen, Stefano, Naima, Paul.

For the season: Pia, Casey, Scotty, Haley, James, Thia, Jacob, Ashthon, Karen, Lauren, Stefano, Paul, Naima.

Let's send home: Paul was so bizarrely awful tonight that he really should go home, but I would not be disappointed with either Naima or Stefano.

March 08, 2011

MOVIES: The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011)

The Adjustment Bureau is the latest in the long line of movies based on stories by Philip K. Dick (this one, very loosely indeed, taking not much more than the basic concept and building an entirely new story around it). It's got the common Dickian theme of the paranoid guy who really is being chased by mysterious powerful forces, but this one also has a romance story that you'd be unlikely to find in Dick.

Matt Damon stars as David, a young politician who has just suffered his worst defeat when he meets Elise (Emily Blunt); there is an instant attraction between them, but they are separated before they can swap contact info. They meet by chance a few years later, but separated again; in the process, David stumbles upon the existence of the Adjustment Bureau, an army of men in fedoras whose job is to make sure that everyone's life goes according to The Plan.

David and Elise are not supposed to be together, but David refuses to give up hope, and when the two cross paths again, he decides to fight the Bureau and stay with her. (Y'know, it occurs to me that while David has no way of contacting Elise during their separations -- doesn't know her last name or phone number -- she could certainly contact him easily enough. He just ran for Senate, for god's sake, so she certainly knows his full name.)

Damon and Blunt are a very appealing couple, with strong romantic chemistry, and their relationship is the best part of the movie; I was rooting for them to survive as a couple so strongly that it carried me through some of the clunkier aspects of the plot.

Anthony Mackie, who plays the Bureau member assigned to David's case, and John Slattery as Mackie's supervisor, are also very good; Slattery has a nice dry sense of humor. (And in the suits and hats, it's almost like watching Mad Men's Roger Sterling away from the office.) The ending doesn't live up to the rest of the movie, and there is a fair amount of predictability here, but Damon and Blunt are a strong enough couple to make the movie worth seeing.

MOVIES: Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)

I had been skeptical of this one, if only because the characters were so visually unappealing in the posters and ads. But the movie turns out to be a terrific riff on old-fashioned westerns, and not, I think, a movie for kids, who won't get most of the jokes and movie references.
Johnny Depp provides the voice for our hero, a chameleon who winds up abandoned in the desert and wanders into the small town of Dirt. Dirt is in need of a new sheriff, and the chameleon (who is something of a drama enthusiast) takes on the job, adopting a tough-guy persona and calling himself Rango.

Dirt is in the midst of a serious drought, and no one can figure out why the water's stopped flowing. The story turns into a wacko riff on Chinatown, with Ned Beatty's corrupt mayor in the John Huston role, and Rango follows the expected path of the pretend hero who is forced to dig deep and find the real hero within.

There's a marvelous voice cast here. We've got Alfred Molina as Roadkill, an armadillo who offers mystic advice to Rango; Isla Fisher as Beans, a tomboy lizard who becomes Rango's romantic interest; Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West; and (best of all) Bill Nighy as the sinister Rattlesnake Jake.

Hans Zimmer's score is great fun, largely built around a mariachi band of owls who serve as combination narrators/Greek chorus. But he also uses existing music in wonderful ways -- an aerial assault set to a banjo-flavored version of "Ride of the Valkyries," a strange ritual line dance to the tune of "Cool Water." Some of the animation set pieces are spectacular; the first confrontation between Rango and Rattlesnake Jake is amazing, and Jake is a genuinely frightening villain.

Very much recommended, and worth seeing on the big screen.

March 07, 2011

MOVIES: Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, 2010 / US 2011)

(Original French title: Les Amours Imaginaires.)

French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan will turn 22 in two weeks, and Heartbeats is already his second full-length movie. In addition to directing, he wrote the script, stars in it, and gets credits for "conceiving" the costumes and sets (though he apparently didn't actually make them himself). He is also incredibly attractive. You could hate a guy like that, if he wasn't so damned talented.

In Heartbeats, Dolan plays Francis, who is at a party with his friend Marie (Monia Chokri) when both are taken by a handsome newcomer, Nicolas (Niels Schneider). Neither Francis nor Marie is brave enough to confess their attraction, and Nico is one of those guys who perpetually walks the line between being really friendly and being outright flirtatious, and seems utterly clueless to the idea that his inscrutability is driving his friends nuts. The three start hanging out together, theoretically as platonic friends, though both Francis and Marie are -- to the extent that their timidity allows -- flirting, each clinging to every little sign that he/she might be the one Nico's really interested in.

That is the extent of the plot, but Heartbeats really isn't about plot, anyway. It's a mood piece; it's about the frustration you feel when your beloved refuses to notice your interest, an indifference that only makes him more desirable. It's about the desperation of young people in love, and the way that a girl in just the right dress, a boy in just the right suit, can take your breath away.

Dolan is in love with moviemaking, with the beauty of images, and he pulls out every trick in the book here -- slow-motion pans over a perfect face, dancers moving jerkily in a strobe-lit room, bedroom scenes shot through candy-colored filters. The movie has no score, but Dolan uses existing music to set mood nearly as well as Tarantino; everything from Bach cello suites to a French-language version of "Bang Bang" shows up here.

It's often a mark of a young filmmaker that you can easily tell what he's most recently been influenced by, and that's sometimes true here. We get intermittent documentary-style scenes of young men and women talking about their own romantic disappointment that feel like a downer version of similar interludes in When Harry Met Sally; the long lingering shots of Francis and Marie, with emphasis on their brightly colored clothes, are like a Montreal version of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. But as visible as his influences are, Dolan is clearly well on his way to synthesizing them into something uniquely his own. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does next.

March 04, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: wild card night

Well, had I known there would actually be a wild card competition with singing and everything, I'd have watched the show last night.

But before we get to that, let's look at how the voting went. Surprisingly well, as it happens. All seven of the singers who I thought were most deserving got through -- in order of performance, that would be James, Scotty, Jacob, Casey, Karen, Thia, and Pia -- and the three other singers who were voted in (Paul, Haley, and Lauren A) -- at least came from the better end of the mediocrity pool instead of the genuinely awful end.

And that left 14 singers, from whom the judges chose six to compete for the wild card spots. I don't think I've ever before watched a set of performances when I already know who was going to survive and who wasn't, but let's see if we can be relatively objective as we watch the wannabes sing for their lives, shall we?

The rundown:

Ashthon, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" -- She's got volume, but there's not a lot of substance to her voice. This song requires a monstrously large personality -- she has to be able to stop that man from leaving through sheer willpwer -- and Ashthon doesn't have the volcanic force that's called for. Also, she needs to become more aware of where the camera is, because with that head of hair, we lose her face the second she turns away from it.

Stefano, "I Need You Now" -- When he can belt, he's very good, with a penetrating quality that reminds me a bit of Neil Sedaka. But when he gets quiet, his technique is crap; he's closing off his windpipe, forcing the notes out, which is why he can't sustain a quiet phrase for more than two or three notes.

Kendra, "Georgia On My Mind" -- She seems determined to use every tool in her box here. The attempt at sultry low notes, the belted high notes, the bluesy growl, the melismatic runs -- and it's just too much. She's throwing everything at the song except good taste. It's all frosting and no cake. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you are required to.

Jovany, "Angel" -- Very nice, perfectly fine performance, and utterly unmemorable. Nothing distinctive, nothing special, nothing interesting about it all.

Naima, "For All We Know" -- Well, it was certainly better than her "Summertime," but there's still something of the cheesy lounge act about her. And the way in which she approaches the song -- braying those big notes as if she's fighting to be heard above a dozen firetrucks -- is at odds with the romantic, slightly mournful nature of the lyrics.

Robbie, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" -- Interesting. He's got a nice voice, but there's something weird going on emotionally that I can't quite pin down. Maybe he's overdoing it a bit? There's something insincere about it, almost as if he's making fun of the song. Still, in a rather weak bunch, this was one of the better sung efforts.

And the judges decide to take Ashthon, Stefano, and Naima. I'd have taken Robbie over Naima, but it's not as if there were any really great choices available in this bunch.

March 03, 2011

BOOKS: Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Here we have a Jane Austen pastiche with a touch of magic thrown in. There's just enough of it to qualify this as fantasy, and it is one of the nominees for the Nebula Award this year. It's not particularly impressive magic, mind you, but through "manipulating the glamour" -- playing with folds in space and light -- practitioners are able to create visual illusions.

The plot is standard Austen: Jane is a talented glamourist, a desirable skill in a lady, but alas, she is rather plain, and at the ripe old age of 28, has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Her only hope now for a comfortable life after her parents die is to see Melody (her younger, prettier sister) married well, hopefully to a man who will invite her into their home to serve as unpaid governess to Melody's children.

(A friend of fine points out that "Melody" is not exactly a run-of-the-mill Regency name. Given that the story isn't really set in our Regency, I give Kowal a bit more leeway for such anachronisms.)

There are, of course, several men on the scene as possible suitors for the sisters -- the charming Mr. Dunkirk, the dashing Captain Robertson, the taciturn Mr. Vincent (the most gifted glamourist Jane has ever encountered) -- and it should pose no serious challenge to the decidated Austenite to sort out which man Jane will wind up with. (You could almost do it from those character descriptions, I suspect.)

As such things go, this is nicely done. Kowal is particularly good at capturing the flavor of Austen's prose in a way that doesn't leave the modern reader feeling quite so bogged down as she might when facing the real thing. The opening paragraph gives you a good sense of her faux-Austen style:
The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect. The Honourable Charles Ellsworth, though a second son, through the generosity of his father had been entrusted with an estate in the neighbourhood of Dorchester. It was well appointed and used only enough glamour to enhance its natural grace, without overlaying so much illusion as to be tasteless. His only regret, for the estate was a fine one, was that it was entailed, and as he had only two daughters, his elder brother's son stood next in line to inherit it. Knowing that, he took pains to set aside some of his income each annum for the provision of his daughters.
It's a pleasant lightweight read, and those who are fonder of Austen than I am may well find it to be more than that.

March 02, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: women's semi-finals

The ladies take their turn in the spotlight, and I'm left with the impression that this year is going to be all about the men. It's not a strong night overall, and even the best performances pale in comparison to the best of last night.

The rundown:

Ta-Tynisa, "Only Girl (in the World)" -- The adrenaline's getting to her, and she's just a bit sharp throughout. She's got a powerful voice, though, and if she makes it through and settles down a bit, there might be something there.

Naima, "Summertime" -- What are all those poor folks on the Lido Deck going to do for entertainment now that Naima has abandoned them for Idol? Oh well, I suspect she'll be back on the Pacific Princess by the end of the week. There may be talent there, but it's buried under so many layers of bad taste that it's not going to be worth digging for it.

Kendra, "Impossible" -- A bit heavy on the ruffles and flourishes for my liking, but it is a Christina Aguilera song, so I suppose that's not inappropriate. Nice voice, well sung. Very solid, though not hugely memorable. I worry a bit about how squinty and pained she looks on the highest notes; that suggests that her technique isn't as solid as it should be.

Rachel, "Criminal" -- Terrible song choice. She doesn't have the naughty sultriness that's called for, which makes her look like a little girl playing dress-up in mommy's closet. Musically, it feels like it's in the wrong key, and she's straining to hit the low notes.

Karen, "Hero" -- Lovely. I like her smooth silky tone a lot, and I really admire her high notes, which are perfectly in tune and (unlike a lot of Idol women) not remotely shrill or piercing. She's also very poised and comfortable on stage.

Lauren T, "Seven Day Fool" -- Strong powerful voice with a distinctive husky quality, though the words occasionally get buried in all that darkness. I'm not wildly enthusiastic yet, but she's interesting enough that I'd like to see more.

Ashthon, "Love All Over Me" -- It's like someone took every major black diva of the last 20 years into a lab and cross-bred them all. What's missing, though, is any sense of a personality to go with the voice; there's something a bit robotic and chilly about her performance.

Julie, "Breakaway" -- The song is bigger than she is, and she's pushing so hard to be big enough that she's gasping for breath by the end. The final note, which is clearly meant to be a big dramatic finish, just fizzles out into nothing.

Haley, "Fallin'" -- I like her playfulness, and the ease with which she bounces from one register of her voice to another. She overdoes the growly thing a bit, but that's a relatively small flaw in an otherwise solid piece of work.

Thia, "Out Here On My Own" -- Some of the high notes are a touch flat, but I like that she had the nerve to do something relatively quiet and intimate. Love that she can get quiet without the voice disappearing entirely; there's still a solid core of sound there. Very promising.

Lauren A, "Turn On the Radio" -- The song calls for assertive and powerful, which Lauren translates as loud and shouty. It's a grownup's song, and Lauren isn't old enough to give it the right emotional layers.

Pia, "I'll Stand By You" -- Very good. I like the simple clarity of her voice, though like so many Idol women, she doesn't have any power in her lower register.

The choices are much harder to make among the women than they were among the men, because the women are (a) not as good and (b) far more evenly grouped. Where the men ran the range of talent from A to Z, the women are more tightly bunched from, oh, H to P.

So who deserves to stay? Well, I'd say that Karen, Thia, and Pia are the best of the bunch, and certainly deserve to move on. Beyond that, it's just a big bunch of OK. Pick any two from Haley, Kendra, Ashthon, and the Laurens.

BOOKS: Echo, Jack McDevitt (2010)

Fifth in the Alex Benedict series.

Set in the relatively distant future -- at least two thousand years or so -- this series features Alex Benedict, an antique dealer. And when one is dealing with interstellar travel, antiques can be very old indeed.

In this case, the central artifact isn't all that old, but it's certainly intriguing. It's a stone tablet with inscriptions that aren't in any known human language, and it's found at the former home of an explorer who devoted his career to the search for non-human life. Only one alien species has ever been discovered, so Alex is quite excited at the possibility that this tablet could lead to a second.

There are mysteries, though. Sunset Tuttle, the explorer in question, was something of a publicity hound, and if he had found alien life, it seems unlikely that he would have kept it a secret. The tablet's current owner, who was once Sunset's lover, gets very nervous when Alex starts asking questions, and does all she can to keep him from getting a good look at the tablet.

Alex and his assistant, Chase Kolpath (who narrates the story; she's sort of a Dr. Watson to Alex's Sherlock Holmes), set out to unravel the secrets of the tablet, a quest that will interstellar sightseeing trips, retired spaceship pilots turned hermits, and a menacing woman known as the Mortician.

McDevitt's style isn't flashy; it's comfortably old-fashioned. His future is not a particularly high-tech place, and it feels much like our own might if we took space travel for granted. Alex and Chase aren't the deepest or most complicated characters, but they're likable, and it's pleasant to spend some time in their company. They mystery of the tablet is well plotted, and comes to a reasonable and believable solution. Echo doesn't break any new ground in the genre, but it's a solid story, well told, and sometimes that's more than enough.

March 01, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: men's semi-finals

And we're off!

It's a new season, with new judges, of whom I've not seen much yet, since I don't join the show until Hollywood week. Based on Hollywood/Vegas week, I'm tentatively pleased with both Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, though I don't think we'll really know how they'll be as judges until we see them in live episodes. (The semi-final shows that air tonight and tomorrow were taped in advance.)

We've also got a new set and a new condensed semi-final format, in which 24 singers will be hacked down to a field of ten voter-chosen finalists (plus some wild-card picks from the judges) in only two nights. First up, the men, who will all struggle with the band being mixed just a little too loud.

The rundown:

Clint, "Superstition" -- Not bad, though it's not a particularly challenging song and the performance is too hyper for my taste, and on the longer notes, his vibrato gets a bit wide and wobbly, making him sound rather like a bleating goat.

Jovany, "I'll Be" -- Goodness, it's an old-fashioned truckdriver's modulation! We don't get many of those on Idol. Sadly, that was the most memorable thing about the performance, which was blandly competent. Jovany tends to swallow the low notes, so the chorus, which should begin with "and I'll be...," consistently begins instead with "dial be...".

Jordan, "OMG" -- He lacks power, especially in the lower register; the stuff we can hear is often out of tune, especially the falsetto. And it's not a good sign when a singer feels compelled to start peeling off clothing on the first night; it suggests that even he thinks that's all he's really got going for him.

Tim, "Streetcorner Symphony" -- I'm typing this less than 20 seconds after Tim finishes singing,  and I can already barely remember any of it. Duller than a Joe Lieberman standup routine.

Brett, "Light My Fire" -- I have the feeling that this will  be the guy whose appeal  I struggle all season long to understand. I find him shrill and terribly mannered, with oddly affected pronunciation, especially at the beginning, where "fire" seems to be spelled with 18 Rs.

James, "You've Got Another Think Comin'" -- Not my type of music,  but he's the first guy to choose a song that really plays to his strengths. The shrieking sounds natural and appropriate to the genre, instead of forced and pained as it often does with would-be Idol rockers.

Robbie, "Angel" -- I have the hunch that he might have a nice voice when he sings full out, but in this hushed quiet mode, he's only got a very narrow useful range. His high notes get pinched and whiny, and some of those falsetto runs are just ugly.

Scotty, "Letters from Home" -- I fear to think what will happen to him when he's forced outside his country niche, but within that niche, he's delightful. He has a surprisingly well developed ability to play to the audience (and the camera); the timing and inflection on that "y'all" was impeccable.

Stefano, "Just the Way You Are" -- He's pushing way too hard,  and there's a strangled quality to his voice, which may have something to do with the broad smile that's plastered on his face throughout. The high notes at the very end are painfully out of tune.

Paul, "Maggie May" -- Not a horrible performance,  really, but he's so self-consciously quirky and eccentric that it creeps me out a little. I'm also not sure it was a good idea for someonewith so naturally raspy a voice to choose a Rod Stewart song; might have been wiser to choose someone you can't be so obviously compared to, and suffer for the comparison.

Jacob, "A House Is Not a Home" -- Spectacularly wide range, and absolutely in control of it from top to bottom. He doesn't communicate a lot of emotion, and that will hurt him in the long run; cool and elegant don't last long on Idol. But the pyrotechnics will be enjoyable while they last.

Casey, "I Put a Spell on You" -- No serious technical flaws, and wildly entertaining; he commands the stage better than anyone else in the group.

What's interesting about the night is that the best singers are completely outside the usual Idol mold, and the most traditionally Idol-esque singers aren't very good. Only one question to be asked tonight: Which five deserve to stay? The first four are easy: James, Scotty, Jacob, and Casey. Beyond that, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about anyone, but if you forced me to pick a fifth, I guess I'd go with Clint.

BOOKS: Annabel, Kathleen Winter (2010)

Winter's novel opens as Jacinta Blake gives birth at home, surrounded by her friends and local midwives. Her friend Thomasina is the only one to see that this child is unusual, born with both a penis and a vagina. Her doctors determine that the baby should be raised as a boy, which pleases her husband, Treadway, but Jacinta senses that something is being lost in the decision.

There is no doubt that Jacinta and Treadway love their son Wayne very much, but rural Canada in the 1970s is not an easy place for a child who is different, especially when he's never been told the truth about himself. Treadway finds it particularly difficult to adapt to a son who's less interested in trapping and fishing than he is in watching synchronized swimming, and who makes friends with girls more easily than with boys.

It would be very easy for this story to give in to sensationalism, but Winter never allows it to. She simply tells Wayne's story, allowing us to live for a while in the mind of someone struggling to make sense of the most basic aspects of his identity. The writing is graceful and insightful, and Winter has a gift for finding the telling detail that makes a scene come to life. Her characters are vividly realized, and even the background characters feel completely real. Here's how Winter introduces us to one of Wayne's childhood classmates:
Donna Palliser came to the school in the middle of grade five. She took one look around her and decided who had to be taken out and who could stay. She had a slow way of turning her head and giving a poisonous look to anyone she was taking out. Sometimes the look alone took the person out and that person retreated to the background, and sometimes Donna Palliser had to take action, which she did in the playground when none of the teachers was looking. She did not have a strong body; she bullied mentally, not physically, and the first and most important person she wanted to take down was Wally Michelin, who had been queen before Donna got there, and whom Donna could see was the kind of queen who ruled by natural nobility and not by cunning or cruelty or clever resolve. Wally was easy to take down because she did not care if she was queen or not. Wally was not going to move. The other girls would move. The other girls would swear allegiance to the new queen, and there would be a ranking order, and no one would care about Wally's green dragon or orange flare, which they had genuinely admired. They would care about Hush Puppies crepe-soled Mary Jone shoes instead, and angora boleros, and having a ballpoint pen with pink ink, and Sweet Honesty perfume ordered from the Avon catalogue.
If there's a weakness here, it's that Winter draws the dividing lines between the sides of Wayne's nature in very traditional ways. The fact that Wayne isn't an outdoors-y kid is a sign that he's not a "real" boy, for instance; there's no room for the possibility that some boys prefer the arts to nature, or that some girls enjoy hunting and fishing.

But on the whole, this is a lovely and sensitive story about the need for acceptance, and the pain of those moments when it seems that we may never find it, least of all from ourselves.