Friday, November 20, 2015

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas (♦♦♦♦)

Dementia pugilistica, dementia that boxers can develop from repeated blows to the head during their careers, had been documented in medical literature for at least two centuries. There were concerns among some prominent brain scientists about the possible damaging effects of repeated concussions to football players, but NFL-sponsored research pointed to the opposite.

In 2002, Mike Webster's (a.k.a. Iron Mike) corpse ended up at the Allegheny County morgue in Pittsburgh as a result of accidental death. Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu performed the autopsy. And brain being his specialty, decided to preserve Webster's brain for further evaluation.

Dr. Bennett Omalu wasn't familiar with football as a pastime, but as an outsider he reasoned that the blows to the head that football players received didn't seem that different from those that boxers did. As he would learn later, he was far off in that regard; depending on defensive position played, football players receive blows with forces ranging between 30g to 120g!!!

Since Dr. Omalu was indulging his own curiosity, he asked a tech friend to run a battery of tests with markers for common neurodegenerative diseases on slices of Webster's brain, and lo and behold, there was a high buildup of tau proteins, a sign of brain damage similar to the ones observed in the brains of boxers with dementia pugilistica.

Dr. Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurology from the American Association of Neurology in 2005. He coined the term CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) for the damage he found in the brain. Soon after the report was published, prominent doctors with ties to the NFL demanded a retraction. And that's when Dr. Omalu's nightmare as a scientist truly started for he became ostracized and nothing short of dismissed for his findings.

Over the following years, Dr. Omalu found more cases of CTE in brains of dead football players, and kept reporting them, and the NFL kept denying the negative effects of repeated concussions to the brain. Studies reported a 19% more incidence of Alzheimer's disease among retired football players than in the overall population.

In the last few years, families of football players have joined in a collective lawsuit against the NFL for wrongful deaths.

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is part memoir, part chronicle of a discovery and its aftermath. In the first few chapters we get to know Dr. Omalu from childhood in Nigeria, his dreams, and his shortcomings, until he becomes a doctor and eventually travels to the US with a student visa for a medical fellowship. Then, after specializing in neuropathology in NY, he ends up in Pittsburgh as a sidekick to world famous forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, and the rest is history.

Concussion is a provocative reading on many fronts; it speaks openly about race and discrimination as Dr. Omalu has experienced them. It denounces front and center the manipulations of the NFL to keep Congress, the public, and particularly active and former football players from finding out the brain damaging effects that derive from playing football on a regular basis. It speaks of how scientific research may be corrupted when is sponsored by organizations related to the field of inquiry.

You don't have to be a football buff to read this book, though it helps to recognize some famous cases, or have a medical background to understand and appreciate this book, and that is ultimately why the public should read it.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cinderella (2015) (♦♦♦♦♦)

My gosh! I loved this movie. I got such a high that I practically felt like I was in love. No kidding, I'm still smiling and my heart is fluttering!

What can I say about this live version of Cinderella? It's perfect! How you noticed how many exclamation points I've used already? Let me calm down...Ah... The cast is perfect: Lily James is an adorable, courageous and kind Cinderella. Richard Madden, the gorgeous Robb Stark of Games of Thrones (GOT) fame is a dashing and charming prince. Gosh, he practically stole the movie from Lily James and Cate Blanchett with that smile of his. Cate Blanchett is perfection as the malevolent and scheming stepmother, though I can't stop thinking that she should have been given more screen time. Hayley Atwell did whatever little she could in virtually a cameo appearance as Ella's mother, though I hardly recognized her as a blonde. Helena Bonham Carter has a flair for interpreting whimsical characters and she literally does magic as the fairy godmother. Derek Jacobi as the dying king, Stellan Skarsgård, as the grand duke, and Nonso Anozie, also of GOT fame, as the captain of the royal guard complete the ensemble.

But the cast is not the only beautiful touch in this movie, so are the lavish and colorful costumes, the sweet musical score, the special effects, and the masterful direction of Kenneth Branagh.

I want to watch this gem again before my rental expires, but I think I will be buying this one to treasure it. This version of Cinderella is simply a winner in every sense.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (♦♦♦½)

Oskar Schell is a precocious nine year-old who lost his father on the World Trade Center on September 11. A year or so into the death of his father, Oskar finds a mysterious key inside a vase on top of his father’s closet, along with an envelope on which the word Black is written. That leads Oskar to start a hunt around New York City’s five buroughs looking for the lock the key opens, whose owner may tell him more about his father and how he died.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came to my attention via a coworker. She spoke excitedly about it, so I thought I should read it. I started reading it years ago and abandoned it about page 50. But since the previous book I was reading this time around wasn't grabbing my attention, I took a look at my book shelves and decided to give this one another try.

The only element that made me keep reading was Oskar and how authentic his voice felt throughout the novel. I had an extremely hard time reading the first 200 pages for several reasons: 1) I find hard to feel sorry for a character who was already dead when the book started; 2) I don't like when the author has the upper hand in the unfolding of the story (i.e., a mysterious character whose identity isn't revealed until further on); 3) the book structure is far from conventional--that chaotic structure is more associated with thought patterns, and I don't like books narrated in the way I think.

However, as the novel reached page 208, I finally turned around and Safran Foer won me over. I loved the passage about New York City's Sixth Burough, narrated by Thomas Schell (Oskar's dad). I found very realistic the chapters about the bombardment of Dresden in WWII, and the endless loop in the news on September 11, 2001, about the Twin Towers on fire, people waving banners from the upper floors, and the buildings collapsing. I thought Safran Foer brought the story home by using repetitive phrases to depict an endless loop of news on cable television; the picture was very vivid.

Although I considered Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close an uneven novel, it had laugh out loud moments, and the events on the Blackest Tuesday in history were approached with tenderness and raw vulnerability.

Defining quote:

“…When you fell asleep with your head on my lap, I turned on the television.
I lowered the volume until it was silent.
The same pictures over and over.
Planes going into buildings.
Bodies falling.
People waving shirts out of high windows.
Planes going into buildings.
Bodies falling.
Planes going into buildings.
People covered in gray dust.
Bodies falling.
Buildings falling.
Planes going into buildings.
Planes going into buildings.
Buildings falling.
People waving shirts out of high windows.
Bodies falling.
Planes going into buildings.
Sometimes I felt your eyelids flickering. Were you awake? Or dreaming?”  Page 230

Have you read this novel? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Did you like it? Do you think there's a way that it could have been better?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (♦♦♦♦)

England, 1870.
Bathsheba Everdene is a young woman with only her education to pride herself, but upon the death of an uncle she inherits money, a mansion, and a farm on several acres of land. Working on her farm is Gabriel Oak, the first man she refused to marry. He accompanies her through life's ups and downs, her whirlwind romance to spirited sergeant Frank Troy which ends up in a failed marriage, and another truncated marriage offer from her land neighbor and middle aged bachelor Mr. Bolwood.

I love period pieces and romantic movies and Far from the Madding Crowd doesn't disappoint on any front. The acting is superb; the photography, musical score, and cinematography are simply beautiful. This movie has soul and a moral: enduring love grows from partnership and sacrifice; it isn't born from infatuation, but from every day acts.

I like Carey Mulligan's acting style, because she can conjure at will different characters such as the innocent girl in An Education, the vain and pretty Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, the heartbroken and ever expectant lover in Never Let Me Go, or the strong headed Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. Mulligan also has a good instinct about the roles she chooses; thus far she has avoided being typecast.


Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba Everdene), Matthias Schoenaerts (shepherd Gabriel Oak, first suitor), Michael Sheen (Mr. Bolwood, second suitor), Tom Sturridge (Sergeant Frank Troy, Bathsheba's husband), Juno Temple (Fanny Robbin, Frank Troy’s paramour)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Grace of Monaco (♦♦♦♦)

Between 1961 and 1962, French president Charles de Gaulle issued an ultimatum to the principality of Monaco to stop luring away businesses from French soil and pay them taxes accordingly. Prince Rainier of Monaco and his cabinet refused de Gaulle's demands and Monaco was blockaded under threat of an impending war with France.

Meanwhile, princess Grace wanted to return to the business of movie-making with a role offered by Hitchcock. The crisis between her adopted nation and France puts everything in perspective for her as she has to decide if her love for the prince can endure with so much at stake.

No living actress has either the allure or the beauty that Grace Kelly did, but in Grace of Monaco, Nicole Kidman comes very close. The photography takes advantage of a distant likelihood of Kidman to Grace Kelly, and they exploit the close up angle to her eyes and hair to perfection to show off that Kidman genuinely owns the role. And she does, from the scenes in which her marriage seems doomed to fail, to the Red Cross Gala where she assumed the greatest role of her life, that of Princess of her people.

One of the points made in Grace of Monaco, in words of a dear priest friend, is that people marry into royalty thinking is just a fairy tale, but as superhero movies always remind us, with great power comes great responsibility, and it feels good in this movie to see that Grace Kelly actually grew in the role of a charismatic, and savvy silk-gloved diplomat.

Nicole Kidman (Princess Grace of Monaco), Tim Roth (Prince Rainier), Frank Langella (Francis Tucker, priest friend), Paz Vega (Maria Callas)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Devil's Violinist (♦♦♦♦)

Paganini had extraordinary talent but lacked an audience receptive to his heavenly music. A man who turned out to be the devil offered him a deal: everlasting fame and filled concert halls, everything his heart desired, in exchange for his soul in the hereafter.

It's been long since I didn't see a movie that gorgeous, the screenplay, the storytelling, the acting are to die for. The music is just exquisite, which by the way was arranged in part by the gorgeously looking David Garrett (who looks like a young Ricky Martin) in the leading role as Paganini.

The two movies that vaguely convey the same spirit of music perfection are Nannerl (la soeur de Mozart), and Quartet.

The story transmit enough emotion to make us feel bad for the doomed genius whose talent has gone to waste in the prime of his life, and to make us empathize with a blooming love thwarted by evil intent.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. If you love classical music, as do I, you shouldn't miss The Devil's Violinist.

Lovelace (♦♦♦♦)

In the 1970s, Linda Lovelace starred in an adult movie that became a sensation. She became an overnight celebrity. Little did people know that she had been an unwilling pawn in her husband sick way of making money.

Amanda Seyfried usually stars in bubbly, feel good movies, but in Lovelace she sheds her good girl image and delivers the performance of her life as Linda Lovelace. The role is challenging enough for an acting heavyweight, but Seyfried as usual makes it seem effortless, as if all the sugar coated roles that preceded this one had been in preparation for Lovelace. Don't get me wrong, there is a bubbly personality underneath the sexy persona, and Seyfried shines equally as the girl next door turned unwilling celebrity than she does as a common woman needing love and protection.

Peter Sarsgaard has the role of the abusive scumbag husband, and he owns his role as well. He is the villain in the story and you get to hate him for it.

Lovelace is not a family movie; it is intended for adults as much for its graphic nudity, drug use, depiction of the sex movie industry, as it is for scenes of domestic abuse.

Far from the suggested explicit sexuality, the real message of Lovelace resides in a woman who was abused, exploited in a relationship, and turned her life around and gave a voice to victims of sex and domestic violence.


Amanda Seyfried (Linda Lovelace), Peter Sarsgaard (Chuck Traynor, Linda’s husband), Sharon Stone (Dorothy Boreman, Linda’s mother), Robert Patrick (John Boreman, Linda’s father), James Franco (Hugh Hefner), Bobby Cannavale (Butchie Peraino), Chris Noth (Anthony Romano)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova (♦♦♦♦)

The O’Briens are an Irish Catholic family who live in Charleston, Massachussetts. Joe O’Brien, the patriarch, is a police officer with the Boston PD. Rosie, the matriarch, is a part-time worker. The O’Briens have four children between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five.

At the age of forty-five, Joe O’Brien starts experiencing unexplained rage, jerky involuntary movements, loss of coordination and balance…After a genetic test, Joe is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. Life as the O’Briens knew it, is over because HD is a hereditary disease and every one of Joe’s kids has a fifty-fifty chance of being gene positive and start developing symptoms ten to twenty years into the future.

Two of the siblings are gene positive. Another one is ambivalent about wanting to find out her health status, and the remaining sibling doesn’t want to find out. As HD progresses on their father, the family must come to terms about how the next few years will be lived; whether they face life head on or they succumb to fear.

Inside the O’Briens is as much a medical tale with meticulous description of symptoms at various stages, as it is about the uncertainty the sufferers feel and how devastating the diagnosis of an incurable, fatal disease is for patients and their families.

I had to take breaks from reading every once in a while because the story is overwhelmingly heartbreaking and I became emotional several times while I read. Fortunately, Lisa Genova concludes her novel with a positive note. Some, even most of the O’Briens may die, but everyone dies eventually of something, so they decide to live their remaining years with optimism and hope that a cure may be found before they are due.

I didn’t know anything about Huntington’s Disease and that’s not a coincidence. Millions of people are affected in the U.S. by any form of cancer, or other terrible diseases. In contrast, the total sum of HD patients in the U.S. is 37,000 (Fenway Park filled at full capacity). Lisa Genova makes the point that for pharmaceutical companies is big business to focus their research effort on a disease like cancer due to the staggering number of sufferers than it is to focus on finding a cure for Huntington’s Disease, and that’s simply sad and repugnant.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

One Lovely Blog Award

I was just nominated by Lynn @ Lynn’s Book Blog for the One Lovely Book Award. Off course I felt honored because I love to hang out at Lynn’s blog and take parts in the discussions she sparks with her wit, and because I’ve never been nominated for a blog award. Here are the rules:
  • You must thank the person who nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  • You must list the rules and display the award.
  • You must add 7 facts about yourself.
  • You must nominate 15 other bloggers and comment on one of their posts to let them know they have been nominated.

 Here are 7 facts about me:
  •  I have been a reader practically since I learned to read. My mother used to work at a library so I had a great deal of books at my disposal.
  •  My two favorite authors are Daniel Silva and Susanna Kearsley.
  • Growing up I wanted to be an author; I used to write short stories, poetry, and essays; now I just blog about books and movies, and occasionally I voice my opinions on politics.
  •  I’m a scientist by training; I have several artsy hobbies, and politics is my only and favorite sport.
  • I’m a couch potato. I love to sleep. I read in bed.
  • I eat less than it seems and virtually no junk food. Rarely any soda either.
  • If I could afford it, I would take a year off and travel the world over, in style, off course.

And now I nominate 8 fellow bloggers I follow and admire:

I hope to see all your answers soon. Regards.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (♦♦♦♦)

In this the version of the story from Eleanor's point of view, we get drop wise clues of possible reasons why Eleanor has left a marriage that by most accounts seemed happy. She doesn't know who she is in life or where she is going, but her somewhat reticent friendship with a female professor, who as most of us has problems of her own, helps pave the way for Eleanor to connect with the pain and the feelings she has suppressed. Tragedy is what drove Eleanor away. The couple lost a baby that wasn't expected but was welcomed nonetheless. She put her studies aside when she got pregnant...And him? He is trying to win her back but doesn't know the right words to make it all better.

It was an emotional experience watching the chemistry among the characters in this movie. Eleanor's parents look broken; they seem to be having a crisis of their own likely triggered by the mother's regrets for having jumped into family life leaving her career as an artist by the roadside. The mother projects her failure onto Eleanor, who is unwillingly repeating her mistakes. Eleanor also has an awkward relationship with her sister because the sister is a mother. Eleanor's quasi therapy sessions with her female professor are eventually what lead her to figure out she just can't keep running, for her family and her husband have experienced a loss as well.

It is always a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain, because she becomes the characters she portrays. In the role of Eleanor, Chastain has an opportunity to shine and she doesn't disappoint. Her chemistry with James McAvoy is off the charts. Her interaction with Viola Davis (a cast mate in The Help)--in the role of professor Friedman-- starts tense and evolves into a sharing of secrets that helps not only Eleanor to find her way but finally helps the audience to figure out the puzzle that is Eleanor Rigby.

Jessica Chastain (Eleanor Rigby), James McAvoy (Conor, Eleanor's husband), Viola Davis (Professor Lillian Friedman), William Hurt (Julian, Eleanor's father), Isabelle Huppert (Mary, Eleanor's mother), Bill Hader (Stuart, Conor's best friend)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (♦♦♦♦)

A nice complement to the story of Eleanor is Conor's point of view. He is not coping well with the loss of their baby, but he is putting one foot in front of the other so to speak. Then, Eleanor blindsides him with news that she wants a break. She unexpectedly vanishes and he goes to share his father's apartment for the time being while he figures out his next move. Meanwhile, the restaurant/bar he owns is going under.

I enjoyed more this side of the story than her side. Eleanor's side had to be painstakingly pieced together. It was a nuanced performance by Jessica Chastain but at times the plot seemed sketchy. Conor's story moves along nicely and quickly, providing the missing pieces of the story we already know. Conor's father's perspectives on topics like love, aging, and loss, are refreshing and their dynamics, as well as Conor's complicated relationship with Stuart, his best friend, propel the story forward seamlessly.

I have a soft spot for James McAvoy. His performances of broken hearted lover boys are outstanding, and he plays that role here to a T.

James McAvoy (Conor Ludlow, Eleanor's husband), Jessica Chastain (Eleanor Rigby), Ciarán Hinds (Spencer Ludlow, Conor's father), Viola Davis (in a cameo as Professor Friedman), Bill Hader (Stuart), Isabelle Huppert (Mary, in a cameo as Eleanor's mother)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (♦♦♦♦)

Some of the details that worked well in the individual stories are lost in this film but this is after all the whole story. After watching both Eleanor's and Conor's versions this one feels redundant, and it is, but if someone had time to watch only one movie, then this is the one to see. Doesn't give the whole picture, just broad brushstrokes, but the main elements--the loss of the baby, Eleanor needing time away from her marriage to figure things out, the closing of Conor's restaurant/bar and both Eleanor and Conor's realization that they still love each other--are still present in the together version. 

Jessica Chastain (Eleanor Rigby), James McAvoy (Conor Ludlow, Eleanor's husband), Viola Davis (Professor Lillian Friedman), William Hurt (Julian, Eleanor's father), Isabelle Huppert (Mary, Eleanor's mother), Bill Hader (Stuart, Conor's best friend), Ciarán Hinds (Spencer Ludlow, Conor's father)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen (♦♦♦♦)

On the last day of a trip to Rome, Massachusetts native Julia Ansdell buys in an antique store a book of gypsy tunes that contains, between its pages, a loose sheet with the hand scribbled score of a haunting waltz that captures Julia's heart. Once at home, Julia struggles to master the waltz titled Incendio, playing it twice before she realizes her three-year-old daughter Lily is displaying aggressive behavior likely triggered by this music. But, what is this music that has such a bizarre effect on her daughter, who is its composer, and more importantly, where does it come from?

As Julia sees her family disintegrating, she embarks on a mission to prove her sanity and seek the answers to the puzzle. But she'll come face to face with an enemy she didn't know she had, intent on silence her, for Incendio is the only existing link between a family patriarch and the fate of a gifted violinist in the last years of WWII.

I truly enjoyed Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen. It captured my imagination as much for the modern (medical) mystery, as for the parallel account of the violinist before and during the war. Most books treating this topic go on at length, so it is remarkable that Gerritsen managed to write such a powerful story in under 300 pages. I cared about all the characters and their fates.

Playing with Fire turned out to be a learning experience as well. I didn't know that Italy had a transitional concentration camp--Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste--that became an extermination camp towards war's end. The account of what happened at San Sabba was sordid and horrifying.

It never ceases to amaze me how blindsided Jews were by the Holocaust. It is as if that measure of evil couldn't be fathomed. But the truth is that the signs had been there from early on, so the question becomes why did they miss it?

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Muse by Jonathan Galassi (♦♦♦♦)

Book blurb taken from Barnes & Noble, because after finishing this novel I couldn’t quite summarize it on my own:

Paul Dukach is heir apparent at Purcell & Stern, one of the last independent publishing houses in New York, whose shabby offices on Union Square belie the treasures on its list. Working with his boss, the flamboyant Homer Stern, Paul learns the ins and outs of the book trade—how to work an agent over lunch; how to swim with the literary sharks at the Frankfurt Book Fair; and, most important, how to nurse the fragile egos of the dazzling, volatile authors he adores.

But Paul’s deepest admiration has always been reserved for one writer: poet Ida Perkins, whose audacious verse and notorious private life have shaped America’s contemporary literary landscape, and whose longtime publisher—also her cousin and erstwhile lover—happens to be Homer’s biggest rival. And when Paul at last has the chance to meet Ida at her Venetian palazzo, she entrusts him with her greatest secret—one that will change all of their lives forever.

Absorbing, amusing at times, addictive, and erudite (I had to consult the dictionary every two seconds), Muse is an insider's look at the publishing world, taking place in a fictional publishing house, probably not all that different than real ones in the business.

All the personalities of the book world are depicted here: the larger-than-life author divas and the needy ones, the backstabbing agents, the feuding publishers, the entitled critics...All wonderfully dissected. Instead of emerging as the emotional vampires they very well may be, these personae come alive in full glory, with defects and virtues, but all too human.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Slade House by David Mitchell (♦♦♦♦)

Welcome to the Theater of the Mind, where your most luscious dreams and your worst nightmares come to life courtesy of the Grayer Twins. To access it, you must enter Slade House via a small black iron door, easily overlooked, located on Slade Alley, "a mugger's paradise". Only rare souls have easy access...And no way out.

Mind-bending, with echoes of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, but darker in tone, Slade House manages to keep an original touch. And just when you think the stories have started to become redundant, David Mitchell comes up with a background on the Grayer Twins that will give you goosebumps. Slade House's cliffhanger ending is both evil and deeply satisfying.

An eclectic mix of the modern and the gothic gives birth to this devilish Halloween fairy tale for adults.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.