Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Hendrson (2011): 4.5/5 stars

I first picked up Ten Thousand Saints because I thought it was cool that it was written by an Ithaca College writing professor. That is cool, but the book is even cooler. The novel addresses drugs, sex, pregnancy, AIDS, love, loss, grief, death, and family set against and embedded in the 1980s straight edge scene in New York City.

When fifteen-year-old Teddy McNicholas dies of a drug overdose in a small town in Vermont at the end of 1987, teenage rebel Jude Keffy-Horn, Tedd’ys brother Johnny, and new acquaintance Eliza come together in the city to struggle with holding on and moving forward. Johnny introduces Jude to the hardcore straight edge culture, and Jude’s initiation into the vegan, celibate, drug free world is a sharp contrast to his previous life and the people in it. Meanwhile, all three characters’ lives are changed when Eliza discovers that she is pregnant.

Jude. Johnny. Eliza. Teddy. Les. Rooster. I was absolutely fascinated by every character in this novel, from the protagonists down to those who only had minor roles in a few scenes. Each one had a strong voice and motivations, and the interactions between the characters were honest and powerful. I was especially drawn to Johnny, the tattoo artist and musician who served as Jude’s guide into the scene with simultaneously coping with his own losses and secrets. I was somewhat worried that Eliza would be playing the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl when she first showed up, brash and beautiful from the big city, ready to change the lives of our heroes, but over the course of the novel I really warmed to her. She had the vulnerability you would expect of someone her age in her situation, but an independence and strong willed personality that let her hold her own against parents, love interests, and her own fears. There are no heroes and no villains (except for maybe death and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic) in this story; each character’s flaws are on full display, but at their hearts they believe they are doing the best they can.

Henderson’s voice is as strong in her setting as it is in her characters. I know very little about the 80s punk, hardcore, or straight edge scenes in New York City. However, I imagine that the atmosphere of the time was full of the same intensity that electrifies this novel. Every page is bursting with description and emotion, so much that sometimes I felt like I didn’t know where to look or what to think. Occasionally this was overwhelming; even more occasionally it seemed unnecessary. But for the most part I was engrossed by this portrayal of a subculture rife with passionate ideals and equally passionate characters. I was fascinated by the politics and the religion, the sexual and sometimes homoerotic undertones of the culture, and the way that the people in it connect and break apart. All of this is relayed with vivid and intense description.

The novel’s “weak” point is in the plot itself, which is sometimes meandering, sometimes jagged, and mostly unresolved. At the same time, I put “weak” in quotation marks because this lack of a single focus or closed ending is fitting with the tone of the book and the characters in it. The novel captures a moment in time, and the characters go on beyond it, profoundly changed by their experiences but not stagnated within them. A more focused conclusion would artificially end their stories, when the realism of the novel dictates that they should go on. Overall, Ten Thousand Saints is a novel full of authentic characters and rich in its description of an intense, emotional era.


The Best Pictures of the year… and I haven’t seen a single one

Yesterday, the 2012 Academy Award nominations were announced, and for the first time in at least ten years, I haven’t seen any of the Best Picture nominees. I’m planning to see The Artist this week, but at the moment I’m 0 for 9, so at first I didn’t think I’d have much to say about which films are deserving and which were snubbed. Then I realized: this is the internet! I don’t need to be knowledgeable to have an opinion. So here are my thoughts on this year’s options for Best Picture, based on their trailers:

The Artist (Trailer)

The reason I’m determined to see this one in theatres is because I know I don’t have the patience for watching silent films on dvd. However, I also think it looks like a really great film. Much as I love dialogue, I also love the importance of conveying emotion through action and facial expression. And just from the trailer, I can tell they do it well. Plus, how cute is that dog?!

The Descendants (Trailer)

This one doesn’t look very exciting. From what I can tell, George Clooney’s wife left him for some guy, and George and his kids stalk him in a humourous and heartwarming way. Also starring the girl from that pregnant teenager show on ABC Family. I’ll probably watch it in a few years on television.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Trailer)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favourite books, but even with Tom Hanks, I somehow doubt that the film is as good as the novel. However, everything about the trailer, from the voiceovers by the little boy, to the use of a U2 song, to the super close ups and super wide shots, screams Oscar bait, so if the film is the same I can see why it was nominated.

The Help (Trailer)

I am so unbelievably uninterested in this film. It has been criticized for not focusing enough on black voices during the civil rights movement in which it is set, and in the trailer the first African American character doesn’t show up until almost 30 seconds in. I can tell from the trailer that the acting is excellent, so I would be glad to see Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer recognized, but the film itself looks like nothing special.

Hugo (Trailer)

This film looks like a whimsical mix between The Polar Express and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Visually beautiful films often do well at the Oscars, but I can’t tell enough about the film to decide if it could be deserving of Best Picture or just Best Cinematography.

Midnight in Paris (Trailer)

Didn’t Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams play love interests in Wedding Crashers? This movie is probably nothing like that one. Either way, I like both of them, as well as Kurt Fuller and Michael Sheen, who also appear in the trailer (and who I didn’t know were in the film until right now). I thought the film took place in the 1920s, so I’m a little confused, but I think I would like to see it.

Moneyball (Trailer)

I feel a little biased against this film because Jonah Hill was nominated for it while all of the supporting actors in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, etc.) were snubbed, but even if I don’t love sports, I love sports films (and Brad Pitt), so I’m willing to give this one a try. The trailer has some very inspirational-sounding music that I’m sure reflects the tone of the film.

The Tree of Life (Trailer)

I’m going to be honest: I don’t really know what was happening in this trailer. However, from what I’ve heard, that is a pretty good representation of the movie itself. I usually find Terrance Malik’s films beautiful and well-acted, but very slow moving and often odd. The Tree of Life looks like it’s no exception. However, it’s also the kind of film that Oscar voters love, so it definitely has a shot.

War Horse (Trailer)

I have some friends who saw this in play form at the National Theatre in London and I wish that I had gotten the chance, because they all loved it and I’ve heard mixed reviews about the film version. However, the cinematography in the trailer looks beautiful, and it has a strong cast of actors.

In Conclusion…

Who Will Win: The Tree of Life or The Artist
Who Should Win:  The Artist

P.s. Gary Oldman finally got an Oscar nomination and it was well-deserved because his role as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was some of the best acting I’ve seen in a long time and also I think he is just brilliant.