Men Who Stare at Goats

Men Who Stare at Goats

Despite being a little over the top, the film is an often-entertaining (if ultimately somewhat pointless) ride through the PsyOps of the New Earth Army, with The Dude as guide (you could pretend that Jeff Bridges is playing a different character here, but he’s really not). From killing goats to locating long-lost idols and nemeses, the psychic abilities of Clooney’s character (“Jedi warrior” Lyn Cassady) prove remarkably effective, at least within the fictional realm. The film’s a sort of Fear and Loathing in Baghdad with a little Catch-22 mixed in, plus some Kevin Spacey going borderline Nazi (it’s mostly the mustache, but he’s also quite an asshole to his fellow Earth Army members). Perhaps more important than Cassady’s excessive tan and his appropriately groovy mental prowess, though, is the subtle yet sustained presence of Boston in the film.
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Gordon Willis Takes On Manhattan

Woody Allen Manhattan

Willis described a scene between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, where the characters not only occupy opposite ends of the screen but also are free to leave the frame and return, as a form of “peekaboo.” He discussed this scene several times alongside the tableau scene in Davis’s (early) apartment, where Muriel Hemingway reading on the couch is contrasted with an infamous, poorly lit spiral staircase. These and other scenes, notably one that places Allen and Keaton in a tiny corner of the screen, dwarfed by the 59th street bridge, show Willis’ tendency—particularly in Manhattan—to relegate the subjects of his shot to the corners.
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Kelly O’Connor McNees, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O’Connor McNees has crafted a gentle tale of a strong-willed woman who prioritized her own success over social pressures to marry and have a family. By setting up Alcott in the fictional situation of having a long-lost love, McNees ironically works in a similar framework to Alcott herself, who famously based Little Women on her own family: frail Lizzie, comely May, stalwart Anna, and her own headstrong self. McNees paints Alcott as stubborn but sensible, sewing pillowcases to make her way until her stories start to sell, and highly family-oriented but still unwilling to give up on her own dream.

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Daniyal Mueennuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In Other Rooms Other Wonders

“So, what are the wonders?” you might ask upon encountering Daniyal’s Mueennuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a Story Prize finalist (the prize winner will be revealed tonight, in NYC). Many interpretations of the title are possible: the stories themselves, the characters in them, valuable objects. But the predominant “wonder” derived from reading the story turns out to be a stark realization of the human thread connecting the reader and the characters, all of whom stem from diverse cultural backgrounds. And not just the wonder of that connection, but the wonder of our collective ability to continually forget it.

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TC Boyle, The Women

The Women

TC Boyle’s new book, The Women, traces Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in an innovative way: through the story of his many wives and mistresses. The tale is told from the point of view of (imaginary) architectural apprentice Tadashi Sato, who’s editing the insertions of his granddaughter’s husband, Seamus O’Flaherty. It’s a complex construct, but the book still reads smoothly. Most interruptions come in the form of outbursts from Miriam, Wright’s morphine-addicted second wife, but Tadashi’s footnotes to O’Flaherty’s tale provide amusing anecdotes as well.

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Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

As we all know, Boston is the hub of the universe, but it’s easy to forget the extent to which our fair city was once a hub of Puritanism. Sarah Vowell puts this component of Boston’s identity in the spotlight in The Wordy Shipmates, an in-depth exploration of the Puritans’ arrival and continuing influence in our country. As witty as we cleverly predicted last year, Shipmates is the story of our founders’ religion and how it has affected us to this day, right down to the “city upon a hill” rhetoric that politicians from Kennedy to Reagan to certain current presidential campaigners have adopted.

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Andre Dubus III, The Garden of Last Days

The Garden of Last Days

The Garden of Last Days came to Andre Dubus III in piecemeal visions: a wad of cash here, an inspired title there. What he originally thought of as a short story grew to 700+ pages and over a dozen characters, which he cut down to a more manageable 500-page tome. Like its subject matter—choices that are difficult to understand—The Garden of Last Days is multilayered and complex. Chapters narrated by different characters give the reader a holistic perspective on the action. The plethora of voices is more compelling than confusing, and Dubus infuses the plot with enough urgency to create a quick, heart-racing read.

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George Lakoff, The Political Mind

the-political-mind

Lakoff divides schools of thought into conservative and progressive in part to avoid making distinctions across party lines, but also to emphasize that you can have both conservative and progressive frames of mind. You can think conservatively on one issue and progressively on another. What’s not rational is taking a conservative standpoint on an economic issue—like, say, taxes—based on conservative social values. The problem is that conservatives have convinced Americans to think in a consistent conservative framework. Recognizing that it is sometimes, even often, rational to hold different types of positions on different issues is one of the first steps in breaking the overarching conservative frame that shapes our nation’s current political outlook.

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Gary Marcus, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

Kluge

Gary Marcus is smart. He understands the workings of the human brain, including evolutionary mechanisms that make us “the only species smart enough to systematically plan for the future—yet dumb enough to ditch our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification.” His new book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind reveals how evolution has worked both for and against us when it comes to making smart—as opposed to instinctual—decisions.

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