It doesn’t matter what you think of ‘Emma in the Night’

No matter what you think of Wendy Walker’s newest psychological thriller “Emma in the Night,” that doesn’t matter.

“We believe what we want to believe,” writes Walker in the book’s opening lines, perhaps challenging those who dismiss it as a worser version of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or as a book that makes so sense.

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“Emma in the Night” 
By Wendy Walker. 
305 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
2017.

The theory in her case is two teenaged sisters went missing on the same night about three years ago. Three years later, Cass Tanner, now 18, returns on her mother’s doorstep. Her older sister, Emma, is still missing, but Cass says Emma’s held captive on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Walker’s book alternates between the first person perspective of 18-year-old Cass and that of 32-year-old Dr. Abigail “Abby” Winter, an FBI forensic psychologist who’s been examining the case with her partner Agent Leo Strauss. (Weirdly enough, since the chapters are titled either “Cass” or “Dr. Winter,” Dr. Winter’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person where the narrator knows what Abby is thinking and feeling — a direct contrast to the “Cass” chapters, which are written in first person.)

These writing conventions make “Emma in the Night” a bit hard to follow, for perhaps both author and reader — especially when you’re reading points of “Dr. Winter” chapters when Cass is supposed to be talking, but speaks as if she’s writing; or when you’re reading Abby chapters where Abby knows exactly what Cass means with a bit of obscure dialogue.

It’s as if Walker is arguing about a pig who could fly with an elephant on its back in a submarine in outer space.

But that’s besides the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you hate “Emma in the Night” because there will also be those who love it, its unreliable narrators and it’s plot twists. To borrow Walker’s words, “We believe what we want to believe” — which means it’s pointless to try to convince someone why they need or don’t need to read “Emma in the Night.”

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‘Out of Sight! Art of the Senses’ changes how you think of art

The Albright-Knox Art gallery’s experiential modern art exhibit “Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” seems like it’s geared toward “millennials who prefer experiences over things.”  

Curated by Peggy Pierce Elfvin, Janne Sirén, Joe Lin-Hill and Cathleen Chaffee, “Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” features contemporary art you can not just see, but also touch, smell, feel or taste.

The exhibit opens with Feliz Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Water)”  — a curtain of aqua-blue and clear beads hung from wall to wall. Torres intended for the viewer to interact with this work by either running their fingers along the beads to feel the “water” or walk through the beads to get to the other side.

Many walked around the work, but those who walked through it found Lucas Samaras’ “Mirrored Room” (1966) — which is exactly what it sounds like, a cube of mirrors which contains only a desk and chair. Since it’s a square room made up of 300 mirrored surfaces on wood, it seems much bigger than it is — almost infinite.

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“Mirrored Room” by Lucas Samaras. (Photo by Qina Liu)

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The subject(s) change depending on who’s in the room and where they are in that space. It’s also the perfect place for the most epic “Matrix” mirror selfie you’ve ever taken.

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All the works in this exhibit encourage you to interact with them in some way. Korean artist Do Ho Suh built a life-size polyester-made replica of the corridor to his old apartment and invited viewers to walk through his past.

Ernesto Neto’s “SoundWay” (2012), features this giant crochet blanket suspended in mid-air to form a tunnel of waves. Bells and shells form the tassels of this blanket, but they don’t make sound without a subject. As you experience this piece, run their fingers through the blanket so the bells and shells clank together — forming the melodic and meditative “sound wave.”

One of the coolest and perhaps scariest pieces in this exhibit (depending on how much you like actually talking to people) is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work — a orange tent where its attendants (whether friends or strangers) are encouraged to sit for tea and conversation.

Works like these challenge how you think of art — not just as something pleasing or unpleasing to the eye — but also as space, experiences and memories that could last lifetimes.

“Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” was organized by Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director Janne Sirén, Deputy Director Joe Lin-Hill and Chief Curator Cathleen Chaffee. The exhibit is displayed from Nov. 4, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. 

A love like ‘A Million Junes’

Normally I don’t start a book by reading it’s end, but “A Million Junes” ends with a love letter so beautiful that even if you didn’t read the rest of Emily Henry’s 391-page young adult novel, I’d encourage you to read just that.

It’s like that game parents and children play where each ask the other to guess how much they love them — the type of love you want every child to have and know.

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“A Million Junes”
By Emily Henry.
391 pp. Razorbill. $17.99.
2017.

These feelings are probably why “A Million Junes” feel like the warmest of hugs.

Henry’s book is a ballad about a love that defies death — how a child copes with the death of a beloved parent, whose body is cold even before the book begins.

Jack O’Donnell’s death is the emotional stimulus for much of his daughter’s writing, which one imagines as lyrical as Henry’s own. In it, June O’Donnell tells the tales her father passed down to her — how her great grandfather settled in the Five Fingers and started a cherry farm, how coywolves steal shoes from their backyard, and how their house is haunted by ghosts (which are mostly good).

Both are still playing that game and the child still can’t win. The child, high school student June O’Donnell, loves her dad from the moon and back while her dad, Jack, loves June from beyond.

Love has it’s own rules, of course. It can become boundaries like “if you love me, don’t.” And O’Donnell’s don’t. They don’t go to Five Fingers Falls. And they don’t hang out with their neighbors the Angerts because for generations (at least) whenever O’Donnells and Angerts meet, bad things happen. Bad things like her father’s death.

This becomes problematic when 20-year-old Saul Angert drops out of school and returns home to care for his sick father. June starts seeing Saul hanging around town and her high school. Worst of all, she starts liking him — which seems to defy her dead father’s wishes.

But as June learns, to love is to live — even if it hurts.

Disappear in ‘The Blinds’

If you want to disappear (from the latest sexual harassment scandal, Trump tweet, breaking news push alert, or _______ ) for six hours, pick up Adam Sternbergh’s sci-fi western mystery thriller “The Blinds.” It’s the type of book you get lost in and end up finishing in one sitting.

The name for the book comes from the nickname for Ceasura, Texas — a shoebox type of town in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad ever happens. That changes when someone’s shot dead in a trailer.

To realize how strange that is, there’s a few things you have to understand about Ceasura. First off: it’s in the middle of a desert.

Second off: no one has guns.

And lastly, The Blinds isn’t your normal town.

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“The Blinds”
By Adam Sternbergh.
382 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
2017.

The Blinds is the place where people go to disappear from the world when they have exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go. It’s a place where there’s no cell phones, no Internet, no guns (except the one the sheriff carries). A place where it’s rude to ask someone about their past.

Since The Blinds was built as a safe haven when a select few can start over without a past, anonymity is key. Everyone is given a new name in The Blinds — even the sheriff and his deputies. (The formula for creating new names is to mash-up first and last names from recognizable celebrities and forgettable vice presidents.)

With these new names and identities, the residents of The Blinds are told they can never have any visitors and they cannot contact or return to the outside world.

This arrangement goes relatively well for a while — until a homicide becomes the catalyst for the town’s unraveling.

Most of the 48 residents in The Blinds don’t remember their lives before The Blinds — even if you asked. A total or partial memory wipe which took away your worst memories was one of The Blinds’ entrance fees. The only people who know their past are Ceasura’s sheriff (whose not actually a sheriff even though everyone calls him one), Calvin Cooper (whom I imagine as Sheriff Hopper from “Stranger Things” — a generally good guy with a few skeletons in his past); and Cooper’s two deputies, Robinson and Dawes.

These three are in charge of figuring out who or what killed a man they don’t even really know.

The scariest part of the new ‘It’ movie

The scariest part in Andy Muschietti’s film adaption of Stephen King’s novel “It” was never Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård).

It’s the eyes you feel staring at you in the dark. It’s the feeling of frantically reaching for something you need, but can’t seem to find. It’s the voices telling you that you’re not good enough.

It’s knowing that no one can help you from the missing brothers, abusive fathers, or psychopathic bullies.

Not even the adults.

That’s where the new “It” film succeeds. It transcends the horror genre because most of these boggarts are things that we fight everyday. Those dark and suffocating feelings of powerlessness that keep us from pursuing what we really want. Those thoughts that linger even after our racing hearts have settled from the jump scares. Those voices that tell us to hide and to cower and to keep our secrets hidden in isolation so that they begin to grow and gnaw away at us, picking us apart from the inside.

These fears is where “It” thrives. Whatever “It” is. The fact that they’re nameless give them power.

But when we talk about “It” — we realize that we’re not alone. And that others might be living with “It” too.

Why you should be watching ‘American Horror Story: Cult’

The main reason: Evan Peters.

Yes, he’s great — transforming himself every season with Ryan Murphy’s anthology horror T.V. series “American Horror Story.” But “AHS: Cult” takes it on a whole new level. Peters carries the whole show as the charismatic psychopathic cult leader and Donald Trump supporting Michigan common council leader Kai Anderson.

What’s more: Peters embodies a host of other historical cult leaders in flashbacks.

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He’s scary good. We pinky power promise. But the season doesn’t get really good until about episode 9 or so.

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‘What happened to Monday’ is good, but could have been better

I’d like to think that Tommy Wirkola’s new Netflix original film, “What happened to Monday” (2017), is the product of a 48-hour film project — as if the writing and directing team were given four mandatory prompts to work with and were ordered to produce a film in a relatively short time frame. 

Written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson, “What happened to Monday” feels like the type of caffine-fueled delusions produced under these hypothetical circumstances. 

In this case, perhaps they were given the line: “Seven minds are better than one.”

The character: Karen Settman, a woman who works in finance.

Genre(s) to choose from: Sci-fi/Action.

And prop: Sauce pan.

The result is good — if they were working under these hypothetical constraints that probably didn’t exist. Without these limits though, it’s much easier to see “What happened to Monday’s” imperfections. The confusing and rushed plot. The underdeveloped characters. The way the film feels like many books or movies that came before it. (Think: Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children” books meeting the movie “Blade Runner” meeting an extra long “Black Mirror” episode.)

The world Botkin, Williamson and Wirkola envisions is that of the future. The year is 2073, when the world’s biggest threat is overpopulation.

For the past 30-plus years, politician Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) has attempted to control this problem by strictly enforcing the one child policy. Any siblings are seized and put to sleep indefinitely by the One Child Allocation bureau.

But Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) couldn’t separate his seven identical septuplets grandchildren (all played by the wonderful Noomi Rapace). Instead, he raised them to follow three basic rules:

  1. The girls could only go out one at a time on the day of the week in which they were named after (i.e. Monday would go out on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday, and so on and so forth).
  2. The girls would each share the identity of Karen Settman when they left their flat.
  3. The girls could never mention they had siblings.

This ruse kept all seven siblings alive well into their thirties, but one day, Monday goes missing.

The rest of the movie revolves around the siblings trying to find out what happened to Monday without being discovered by the One Child Allocation bureau.

There’s at least seven things to like about “What happened to Monday.” Rapace is phenomenal as all seven Settman sisters, who share the same name, face and screen time, but also have very distinct haircuts and personalities. They’re the reason you like “What Happened to Monday” and why the sisters are more than Sporty Sis, Sexy Sis, Responsible Sis, Techie Sis, Rebellious Sis, Boring Sis and Spiritual Sis. Thanks to Rapace’s acting and some creative special effects from editor Martin Stoltz, you have no trouble believing that there are seven Settman sisters, who squabble and tease each other as sisters do. Without Rapace’s acting (which includes many scenes involving clever green screen work), “What Happened to Monday” would be just as forgettable as its title.

That’s not to say that this movie isn’t good. (I still gave it a thumbs up on Netflix.) But you can’t help wanting this movie to be better — to be one of those things that takes up more brain space and changes the way you think. That’s what you expect from a good sci-fi movie.

Instead, the movie feels a little stiff and off — as if the writing and directing team were also trapped within the confines of the rules they’ve created.

“What Happened to Monday” was directed by Tommy Wirkola and written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson. 

Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”

Surviving ‘Chemistry’

Weike Wang’s debut novel “Chemistry” begins with a boy and a girl. The boy asks the girl the same question over and over hoping to get a different answer. And the narrator can’t quite make up her mind.

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“Chemistry”
By Weike Wang.
211 pp. Knopf. $24.95.
2017.

Both are intelligent. The boy has a Ph.D. and the girl is working toward one in chemistry at a Boston college. (That’s where they met and started dating).

And the decision should be easy. It’s the next logical step.

The boy Eric is smart and thoughtful, gentle and easygoing. He cooks. And cleans. And walks the dog. But —

But his self-esteem is still in tact. And he isn’t a Chinese American riddled with a bad case of anxiety and imposter’s syndrome.

He’s a ginger.

If Wang wasn’t a scientist (who graduated from undergrad with a chemistry degree from Harvard) or a writer (who’s penned an impressive first novel), she could probably be a comedian or a psychologist.

In many ways, “Chemistry” is like a prescription for what’s wrong with me. Too insecure. Too indecisive. Too anxious. Too nice. Too Asian. Not Asian enough. Not good enough. Not good.

Wang, a Chinese immigrant herself, acutely articulates things I’ve felt that I’ve never told anyone else. (Like how “I don’t remember ever seeing my parents hold hands, or hug, or kiss. I wonder if this is why when I hear affectionate words, I want to jump off tall buildings despite crippling fear of heights”; or how “It might be true that I was raising my hand at nine months. It has become so instinctual to always still be polite. Like now, at this bar, where I have raised my hand a dozen times to ask a question. Can I have another drink? Another drink? Another?”; and how “It is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”)

She has a knack for making you simultaneously laugh and ugly cry into your pillow.

Just reading the staccato sentences in “Chemistry” makes you anxious — as if your phone notifications were blowing up with messages like: “Your biological clock is ticking” and “And you have X days to find someone to spend the rest of your life with.”

Then the alarms go off — blaring louder than the ones before. You can’t seem to put life back in “Snooze.” Instead, things blow up in “Chemistry” — both slow and sudden, leaving a gaping hole.

But as you and the nameless narrator girl learn: you can survive.

My ‘Wicked’ past 

Call me sentimental, man, but the 2017 National Touring production of “Wicked,” starring Jessica Vosk as Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda the Good Witch, made me cry because it reminded me of the time and people who left handprints on my heart, helping me most to grow.

You see, “Wicked,” the Tony Award-winning musical written by Stephen Schwatz and Winnie Holzman based on Gregory Maguire’s rewriting of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” was the anthem to my high school career. “For Good” was my high school class song. And my best friends literally sang “Loathing” and “Popular” in my ear since we were 13-year-old freshmen daring to defy gravity.

I’ve never seen the musical before, but my best friends were the Elphabas of my high school: smart, courageous, outspoken and different. (We all were in a way.) And perhaps that’s what united us. The fact that we were different.

I was never as brave as Elphaba or Glinda. As the child of immigrants with a funny sounding name, I’ve spent most of my pre-teen years trying to be invisible. But like Glinda at the Oz Dust Ball Room, they reached out, asking me to join their lunch table and included me. And that means the world when you’re young. It was brilliant.

They gave me my voice, and ignited my passions. We sang in streets and hallways; explored New York City, Disney and Cedar Point like they were the Emerald City; and listened to burned CDs of the original cast recording of the “Wicked” soundtrack even after it was scratched and skipping from overuse.

Together we were unlimited. Flying. Soaring. As we traded notes, books and secrets under stars.

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I wish everyone finds a friendship like Elphaba and Glinda’s — people who change you for the good. I know I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for them.