Cutie and the Boxer (DVD)

cutie boxerZachary Heinzerling’s debut documentary about Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara is a film that astonishes viewers not because Ushio and Noriko are wonderful artists—and they are—so much as because they’ve managed to stay married to one another.  Forty years ago, a beautiful young woman came to America to study art and met Ushio, a hell-raising iconoclast who gained a bit of fame as a performance artist.  Noriko fell in love.

Life with Ushio isn’t easy for Noriko—he drinks, doesn’t sell much artwork—but it is stimulating. She suffers, citing her husband (while sitting next to him!) as the source of her hardship. He suffers too, confessing that art is a demon that has drug him along. Cutie and the Boxer catches them at the moment Noriko gains recognition for artwork that chronicles her marriage, a development which appears to add daggers to an already wounded relationship. But the marriage endures. The dedication this couple has toward their art and toward each other can stem only from either fierce, stubborn loyalty or love of the brightest kind—probably both.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamotte

Bird by BirdI’m not a writer but Anne Lamott makes me believe that I could be a great one.  Bird by Bird is a writing manual that reads like a memoir, a very funny, life affirming, let’s get real memoir.  She reminds me a bit of Cheryl Strayed in her clarity and insight not only about writing but about relationships and priorities.  Lamott says, “if you want to know your characters, you have to hang out with them for awhile.”   I highly recommend hanging out with Lamott.

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The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan

vanishing coinMy family read The Vanishing Coin and its sequel, The Incredible Twisting Arm, in quick succession. The main character is a fourth-grade boy who has trouble concentrating and following up on his school work, and who generally seems to always be putting the wrong foot forward. Besides failing to live up to his parents’ and teachers’ expectations, he’s got a class bully to deal with and a new neighbor, Nora, who is embarrassingly smart, that he spends after-school hours with.

In The Vanishing Coin, when Mike discovers The White Rabbit, a shop downtown that he’s never seen before, he enters into a world of new possibilities. Here, he is welcomed and accepted, but can he and Nora pass the test set for them to truly be welcomed and learn magician’s secrets?  Finally, Mike succeeds at something Nora can’t and finds himself enthralled with the infinite possibilities The White Rabbit seems to offer.

In the second story, Mike is still stumbling through school and dealing with his class bully. He and Nora are good friends and magic partners. Mike finds himself struggling with Nora’s other friendships, and again with his parents’ expectations.  A chance for extra-credit science work at school provides him an opportunity to show his parents that he isn’t completely irresponsible and to maybe earn a new privilege (riding his bike to The White Rabbit on his own).

Included in each book are about 5-6 instructions for the magic tricks Mike learns through the story. We found that we didn’t need to buy anything to try these tricks out at home, either! The books also feature fun illustrations, which help break up the story. The illustrations, magic tricks, larger print, and uncomplicated plots make these great for younger readers.


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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (game)

With art from the esteemed Studio Ghibli, and mechanics that hearken back to the early days of RPGs, Ni no Kuni (literally “second country”) is a game that exudes charm from its every pore.

You play as Oliver, a young boy in a ’50s-influenced town who, after a charming introduction, suddenly loses his mother and is orphaned.  After weeks of withdrawn grief, his tears fall on a stuffed toy his mother had given him, and it comes to life.  The former toy, named Mr. Drippy, tells Oliver that he’s from another world and says that since the two worlds are connected, it could be possible to save Oliver’s mother if he goes to that world to find her counterpart: a great sage that’s been captured by an evil man.

Fans of classic RPGs will appreciate the structure of the game, with an overarching world map that can be freely explored—eventually by dragonback!—and towns with interactive NPCs.  The towns are distinct, often populated by humanoid animals, and provide a lot of side-quests and background information.  The combat system involves a little strategy, as each party member can control up to three creatures (called familiars) in battle, and non-lead characters are given general patterns of behavior rather than direct commands.  Familiars can be caught or evolved, adding further to the Pokémon-feel of battle…as does the fact that your first familiar is given to you by an Oak (tree).

ni no kuniThere is a surprising amount of depth to all of the characters, as should be expected of a Ghibli production, and the story is utterly delightful.  The only thing that is any kind of drawback is the pacing.  The combat is very easy right up until it spikes severely in difficulty, and right about the time you feel that the game should be wrapping up to a satisfactory ending—albeit with a few loose threads that might seem as if they could be picked up in a sequel—the game throws an unexpected plot twist at you with little to no warning, pretty much doubling your playtime.  For some, this might not be a drawback at all, but it felt jarring to me and threw me out of the immersive experience.  It hardly stopped me from playing to the end, though, and what an end it has.

Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous, entertaining, fun game, and its few flaws do nothing to keep it from being something worth playing.

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Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

hang wireTed Hall is a San Francisco blogger suddenly hit by strange events. After a fortune cookie explodes in his face in a Chinatown restaurant, he starts having restless sleep, apparently sleepwalking. Even worse, his sleepwalking seems to coincide with the actions of the Hang Wire Killer, a serial killer that’s been hitting the city, murdering people and stringing them up with wires like puppets. Meanwhile, a circus has come to Golden Gate Park, and the Celtic dance troupe is practicing eerie rituals in the off hours. A masked acrobat with no name has joined the circus. A beach bum who gives ballroom dancing lessons has started showing amazing, supernatural powers. And arcane, immortal forces are gathering above and beneath the city.

Author Adam Christopher has taken the kind of urban fantasy Tim Powers perfected and he has added layer upon layer of epic weirdness, creepy mystery and dark humor, jumping back and forth between contemporary San Francisco and throughout the history and geography of America. Hang Wire is a taut, macabre, wild ride, a Lovecraftian action movie of a novel. If you’re a fan of hardboiled mysteries and supernatural adventure, you’ll groove on Hang Wire.

(Bonus game: how many references to songs by the band the Pixies can you find in Hang Wire?)

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Hanging Gardens by Classixx (Music CD)

hnaging gardensLet the hunt for the summer jams begin! From the first bubbly synth line, it’s obvious that Classixx is all about fun. Which is a good thing as some dance music can take itself way to seriously and lose the whole point. Hanging Gardens is chock full of head-nodding, car-dancing, sun-bathing cuts that plays as the perfect summer soundtrack. Breezy, atmospheric and just the right bit of glitch are the perfect cocktail for a lazy day by the pool or just-loud enough for a dance party (usually right before or after things get out of control).

While there is a definite ambient feel to the album, it hardly gets lost in vague volume swells or messy keyboard washes. The crisp production of the percussion (which ranges from shakers, to tambourines, to the ubiquitous “trance” bass drum pounding every beat) goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere that is both present yet not unobtrusive, engaging but not nagging.

While there are a few tracks that feature full vocal performances (as opposed to simple vocal samples a la “Holding On”), I don’t consider those tracks to stand out from the rest of the album. Sarah Chernoff’s vocals on  “A Stranger Love” are fine enough, even if the wispy, nebulous nature of them sounds less like a human than a really breathy robot-lady. Unfortunately, Nancy Whang’s vocal performance sound more like a bored robot, if such a thing could exist. I’ve found that bumping the track all together provides a more cohesive experience (even if the chorus to the tune is quite catchy). The album closes with the pensive “Borderline”. And while the title does evoke Madonna’s hit from the era Classixx tend to pillage at will, the low-key final track shares little with the Material Girl’s hit. And that ain’t such a bad thing.

Key tracks: Hanging Gardens, Holding On, Borderline

Listen alikes: Royksopp, Daft Punk, Purity Ring

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The Name of the World by Denis Johnson

The Name of the WorldA few years after losing his wife and daughter in an automobile accident, Michael Reed finds himself working at a university for a nameless humanities department with a specialty so vague it’s impossible to imagine what he does for income, if anything.  Not that Mr. Reed isn’t busy.  His insights into humanity’s rougher edges are realized by a relentless labor of the mind. He’s strenuously alert to the injustices of middle age, the sublime beauty of reckless youth and the absence of the two people who once defined his life.

Acute physiological awareness is something author Denis Johnson does incredibly well. In The Name of the World he offers observations so clear and precise they approach the revelatory. He’s an author I would encourage anyone to read who likes complicated characters and a fair amount of realism – he’s extraordinary.

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One Summer America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

One Summer AmericaBill Bryson’s snarky style comes through in his book, One Summer America, 1927. He makes history a lot more fun than I remembered it in school.

So many things happened that year.  There was the famous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by Charles Lindbergh, baseball’s most exciting home run hitter Babe Ruth, who was on a hitting rampage and the Mississippi River was coming out of its banks in biblical proportions. The newspapers couldn’t get enough of the murder of Albert Snyder planned by his wife Ruth and lover Judd Gray. The case was so sensational that it was later “ripped” from the headlines and was the basis for the book and movie Double Indemnity.

The above events are just a smattering of happenings mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself. We learn that in Bath, Michigan, Andrew Kehoe who was incensed about paying higher taxes blew up a grade school that killed 44 people of which 37 were grade school children. Anarchists in an organized fashion were busy planting bombs in major cities including Boston, Massachusetts. Sound familiar?

This is an entertaining and enjoyable collage of 1927 packed with many fascinating details. Aviation buffs will particularly enjoy his detailed research on the early days of avionics.

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Desert Flower: the Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie

Desert FlowerThis memoir explores the life of Waris Dirie, recognized by many for her work as a model, and by others for her advocacy for human rights and a battle against female genital mutilation. The reader follows her from her early life as a nomad in the deserts of Somalia, to her difficult and sometimes dangerous journey to Mogadishu and eventually London. Working there as an underappreciated maid for her own family, she is “discovered”, and sets off on an equally nomadic life as a model. Throughout her journey, Waris has to face the world with her own wits and tenacity. The best part of this story is how, despite the many difficulties and indignities she faces, Waris carries on with such dignity and spirit, finding beauty and gratitude all along the way. While many might value her outer beauty, it is her inner beauty and strength which shine through in this amazing story.

I enjoyed Desert Flower from start to finish. Incredible story aside, what I most enjoyed was the narration. Waris, and presumably Cathleen Miller, her cowriter, deliver her story so straightforwardly and honestly. She doesn’t hold back her opinions about even her own family members, and what she has to say is often unflattering. But you never get the sense that she is giving her opinions in order to embarrass anyone, but simply to give true expression to what she has lived through, to make the reader understand. It takes courage to write honestly, and that is what stands out most about Waris in this book – her courage.

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Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Pirate CinemaIn the very near future, Trent McCauley is a 16-year-old in northern England who makes videos by cutting, pasting, and editing movies starring a dead actor he’s obsessed with. This isn’t just a hobby of Trent’s, it’s his passion (much like writing Simon Snow fanfic is a passion for Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl). But it violates copyright and pirating laws, which is why the state cuts off his family’s internet access for a year. Trent’s mother is now unable to apply for her disability benefits, his father loses his telephone support job, and his high-achieving younger sister can’t do her homework. Trent runs away from home to London, becomes a beggar and squatter, and begins a journey to becoming an outlaw artist and political activist.

Cory Doctorow has given us an exciting, engaging, postpunk coming of age story and a diatribe against government bought out by special interests (in this case, the entertainment industry) that care far more for their profits than the well-being of our culture. Doctorow wears his politics on his sleeve, and if you don’t share his politics and his concerns, this might put you off. But I loved it. Trent (a.k.a. “Cecil B. DeVil”) is absolutely lovable, especially when he realizes when he’s being an idiot. And he’s surrounded by lovable characters: Jem, Chester, Rabid Dog, Dodger, Rob, and especially 26 and Trent’s sister, Cora. Pirate Cinema is very much rooted in real, contemporary laws in the UK. It made me depressed about the future of our popular culture and the tools we use to contribute to our culture. But Doctorow’s passionate writing also made me hopeful that we can win out in the end.

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