What Unites Us by Dan Rather

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The 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump seemed to usher in a new era of division amongst the American people. President Trump has become known for his unfiltered, off-the-cuff remarks that leave many within the country feeling alienated and offended. Our country has always featured differing ideas and been the better for it, but now it seems like there are is only my side and your side. We seem to have lost the in between space. At a point in history where Americans seem more divided than ever, legendary newsman Dan Rather seeks to discover What Unites Us.

You'll probably be surprised to find out that little of Rather's book focuses on criticizing President Trump. Rather has been a vocal critic of the President on his Facebook account, but true to the title of the book, Rather focuses more on finding constructive ideas to get the country back to a place of civility and productivity. In fact, I'd argue that both Rather and the President want to "Make America Great Again." The only difference, is that Rather argues for a return to the ideals that have always made the country great while still allowing for scientific and social progress.

The book is comprised of several detailed essays that each follow a similar structure. Rather focuses on a single topic (anything from patriotism to inclusion) providing historical context based upon his years as a reporter, comments upon the evolution of that ideal throughout history, and ends with suggestions on how we can return to the basis of that idea today. He includes many personal excerpts that highlight his own reconciliation with some of the topics he writes about. As a child of the south, Rather had his own evolutions in regards to racial equality and sexual orientation. He recognizes that not every person will come to the same conclusion in the same ways, but the tide of social progress inevitably moves forward.

Regardless of political leanings and opinions, What Unites Us is a collection that all readers will be able to relate to and find value within. Rather and his writing partner Elliot Kirschner have assembled a collection of ideals and beliefs that are both extremely relevant to our current political climate and timeless in their relation to the morals that America has always cherished. The writing is never preachy. Instead, each essay attempts to start a national conversation about the things we as the American people hold dear to us. Hopefully, this book is the tipping off point for those conversations to begin across our nation.


For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2018, 16)




Friday Flicks: Ready Player One

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Ernest Cline's Ready Player One rocked the literary world with a killer combination of 80's pop culture references, relatable characters, and a clever adventure story. The novel had such a broad appeal that a movie version was inevitable. Enter Stephen Spielberg, a director who built his career making the kinds of films that Cline's novel holds in such a high regard. Despite the status of cultural icon, choosing Spielberg to direct a big-budget sci-fi/action movie was a seemingly risky idea. He may have built his career on the epic scale movies that Ready Player One was destined to become, but he has focused more on smaller budget, historical films over the last ten years. Still, if anyone was up to the task of making Ready Player One into a hit, Spielberg was still a pretty safe bet.

Like the book, Ready Player One revolves around Wade Watt's journey through the Oasis to capture Halliday's Easter Egg. It is the 2040's and Watts is living in the slummy stacks, a towering collection of run-down mobile homes. At this point in history, man has explored every piece of earth and nearly depleted all of the natural resources. People largely take refuge in The Oasis, a virtual world that was crafted and governed by the genius James Halliday. When Halliday dies, he reveals that an easter egg has been hidden within the codes of his world. The finder of the egg will take complete control of The Oasis.

Beyond that premise, the book and film version of this story take very different directions. While both stories see the characters facing three challenges to ultimately reach the egg, the book and movie challenges are completely different. In the novel, the challenge are more about the mind than physical acts. Because film is a visual medium, Spielberg elects to make his challenges involve physical tasks and visually unique settings. Smartly, the film broadens its appeal by making references that are more widely known than the specific video game and Dungeons and Dragon lore. To be fair, keen eyed viewers will still spot several references that were mentioned in the novel, but there are more nods to different pop culture icons that there were in the book.

I'm usually not a fan of movies that stray too far from the book, but Ready Player One ends up being an exception to that rule. With Cline co-writing the screenplay, the film maintains the spirit of the novel while offering a fun and visually dazzling experience. For his part, Spielberg proves doubters that he still has the ability to make the kind of movies that have been missing from his filmography for the past 10 years. I'm happy that I can now enjoy both the movie and book for the wonderful and unique pieces of pop art that they both are.




Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

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Ever since reading and enjoying Hag-seed, Margaret Atwood's splendid re-imagining of Shakespeare's Tempest, I've faithfully kept track of the other installments in Hogarth Publishing's ambitious Shakespeare project. The more recent efforts have been somewhat lacking, but I've still been eagerly awaiting Jo Nesbo's take on Macbeth. I enjoyed reading many of Nesbo's Harry Hole novels years ago, so I was excited to see the master of dark, Norwegian crime novels take on Shakespeare's darker work.

True to his bare-bones approach to writing his bestselling novels, Nesbo wisely stays close to the source with his retelling. His Macbeth is set in the middle of a 1970's drug war. Chief of Police Duncan battles notorious drug lord Hecate. Hecate plans to use SWAT officer Macbeth to  see his own agenda advanced. Macbeth has always strayed into the gray area of the law and has no problem falling into a path of lawlessness.

Nesbo has a penchant for writing darkly persuaded characters with a depth and empathy that is second to none. I couldn't help but compare his Macbeth to Harry Hole. Fair or not, Nesbo's Macbeth never reached the fully drawn level that I've come to expect from him. Consequently, it was rather difficult to root for this protagonist. Still, Nesbo is a pro and managed to give his story a suspense that I've never felt in the play.

Despite a few gripes, I found myself enjoying this retelling and constantly reveling in the connections to the original work. Jo Nesbo has a signature authorial style that transcends his novels. Fortunately, this unique voice found itself front a center of this version of Shakespeare's classic. While I still think Atwood's retelling was more satisfying, Nesbo's Macbeth comes in a close second. We have a few years now until Hogarth releases their final announced novel in the collection. With a strong effort from Nesbo, I'm eagerly awaiting Gillian Flynn's take on Hamlet in 2021.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 15)

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

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"We had the stars, you and I. And this is given once only."

I wouldn't have been aware of Call Me By Your Name if the film adaptation had not been the critical success that it is. I try to watch all of the Oscar nominated films each year, but I skipped this one to read the book first. The book is almost always better than the movie, so I knew I would be in for a treat. I couldn't have anticipated the pure, raw emotional reaction that I was about to have to this novel.

Elio is excited to meet the latest student to occupy his parent's home on the Italian Riviera. Each summer, they invite one graduate student to live and study in their little slice of paradise. When Oliver arrives, there is an immediate connection between him and Elio. Though both try to hide their feelings, they simply can't be denied.

What follows is a love story that is so emotionally demanding that I could hardly bear to keep reading it. Through the course of the novel, Elio must come to terms with his sexuality and learn how to manage his feelings of love and lust. As people of academia, his parents are not too concerned about their son's sexual desires, but Oliver is less certain. Oliver is seen as a ladies man and Elio worries that the feelings may not be as mutual as he wishes them to be.

Call Me By Your Name has no right being as good as it is. Aciman's writing is bare bones and often leans to precariously into cliche. There's poetry, music, and the kind of daring sexual description that screams of an attempt at literary greatness. Still, there is something about the characters that drew me in and would not let go. Several times, I resolved that I wouldn't be able to write a positive review, yet here it is. I was deeply moved by the forbidden love of the story and heartbroken by the ending. My bet is that your reaction will be similar. I've yet to watch the movie, but if it comes anywhere close to the emotional triumph of the novel it will be great.

For more information, visit Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 14)

Finders Keepers by Stephen King

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Stephen King is best known for being the creator of nightmares for generations. His horror novels are some of the bestselling and most well-known books that have ever been written. What the general public may not realize is that there is much more to Mr. King than spooky stories. One of his more recent undertakings has been the Bill Hodges trilogy, a set of novels that focuses on a retired police detective. I read the first book Mr. Mercedes last year and completely fell in love with the story. King crafted a solid thriller with a flawed but endearing protagonist and terrifying bad guy. Devoid of his usual haunts, Mr. Mercedes showed how horror could invade the real world.

Finders Keepers, the second novel in the trilogy, begins with a completely new set of characters. In the late 1970's author John Rothstein has become known more for his seclusion from the rest of the world than the brilliant novels he wrote years earlier. After all of the acclaim of his writing, he completely disappeared from the public eye and stopped producing new works. Now there are three masked men inside his isolated home. They immediately go to the large safe that houses all of the cash that Rothstein has stowed away. One of the thieves seems more interested in the more than 150 moleskin notebooks in the safe. The money is valuable, but the price of the unpublished writings inside these notebooks could have a much greater significance.

The first part of the book alternates between the flashbacks of the Rothstein robbery and aftermaths with the much more modern story of thirteen-year-old Peter Sauber. Peter's family has had a tough time since the financial crash of 2008. Their financial woes are compounded by the debilitating injuries that their patriarch suffered during the heinous attack that was detailed in the opening of Mr. Mercedes. While walking through the brush between the local recreation center  and his home, Peter discovers a trunk buried into the roots of a tree. Inside he finds $20,000 in cash along with countless moleskin notebooks. This could either be the salvation his family needs or the beginning of something much worse.

Bill Hodges doesn't appear until the second half of the novel. Several years after the events in the previous book, he has started his own private investigation firm and taken a much more proactive outlook on his health and life. He is still haunted by the crimes of Brady Hartsfield, the psychotic mastermind behind the crimes of the last novel. Hodges gets drawn into Peter Sauber's story when Peter's sister comes to his office.

While not as engaging as Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers is still a worthy a read. The story here is mostly new, meaning that it could probably work as a standalone. Still, I'd recommend starting with the first book so that you pick up on all the pieces that connect the two. I don't think I've ever read a bad book by Stephen King. His characters are strong, the plot moves quickly, and the mystery is strong. All that said, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing from this one. The villain was never as terrifying as Brady Hartsfield, and the conclusion seemed a bit inevitable to me. Nevertheless, I was glued to the pages and completed the novel in just a few sittings. The book ends with a brief tease of what promises to be a thrilling conclusion in the next story, so I'll definitely be picking up End Of Watch soon.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 13)

Friday Flicks: Love, Simon

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Simon is a normal teenage boy. He is in the midst of his senior year of high school. His parents were high school sweethearts who married and started a family. He's the older brother to Nora a precocious youngster whose obsession with the show Chopped has turned her into a budding chef. Each morning Simon drives his used car to pick up his best friends before heading to class. Life is completely normal. But Simon has one huge secret. Simon is gay.

Through a post to a school message board, Simon discovers another student (Blue) is also harboring the secret of their sexuality. The two begin emailing each other anonymously and start to fall for each other. One day, Simon makes a fatal mistake by leaving his email logged in on one of the school computers. Another student sees the messages and blackmails Simon.

Forced to face the reality of others learning his secret, Simon follows along with the blackmailer's demands. Along the way, he turns to Blue for support and starts to come to terms with accepting himself. If Blue can accept Simon for who he is, maybe everyone else will be able to too.

Based upon the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon is a brilliant coming of age story of love, friendship, and acceptance. The mix of comedy, romance, and drama reminded me of many of the John Hughes films from the 1980's. Director Greg Berlanti frames the story in a way that is both extremely topical and classically timeless. Being one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to touch on coming out places a ton of pressure on the film to get it right, but Love, Simon shoulders that responsibility with grace, humor, and thoughtfulness. The film's message of acceptance and compassion is important for all audiences, especially families.




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