At age 36, about 13 years before he died, writer Mark O’Brien crafted an ad: “I am looking for an intelligent, literate woman for companionship and, perhaps, sexual play. I am, as you see, completely paralyzed, so there will be no walks on the beach.” The Sessions depicts the relationship that unfolds over six sessions between the endearing poet (played by John Hawkes, who is as impressive horizontal as he has long been upright) and Cheryl, the sex therapist who complied. (Helen Hunt is as impressive naked as she is clothed.) Perhaps the highest praise, however, goes to the film’s tone. New York’s David Edelstein writes that he thinks O'Brien “would be pleased that his story has been told as a good comedy with tears, instead of a by-the-numbers weeper with laughs.”
Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen
The "Hey, Nineteen" girl must be 51 by now, but Donald Fagen is still leering. The Steely Dan frontman's latest solo release veers away from his signature jazz-rock sound into funk, but lyrically, the thinking-man's songwriter hasn't changed all that much. In "Slinky Thing" he writes about "a burned-out hippie clown" desperate to hold onto "a light, young beauty." In "New Breed," he's Jurassic Park, jealous of a Genius Bar geek. Even the album's title is a nod to what Fagen calls "facing some of the realities of life." Though he's quick to point out, at 62, "I'm not completely underwater yet." Rolling Stone's Will Hermes agrees: "To this day, no one does booby-trapped boutique pop better."
The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia
HBO, Oct. 29, 7 p.m.
Books, chalkboards, tests, even combination locks on lockers — nearly every aspect of a normal school day — is merely a procession of nightmares for 1 in 5 kids in any given classroom. Dyslexia is that common — and as commonly misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Filmmaker James Redford set out to make a film he wishes he could have seen when his son Dylan was functionally illiterate in fourth grade. His documentary weaves the ongoing struggles of four kids, including Dylan (now a high school senior), with the success stories of super-achieving dyslexics like mega-mogul Richard Branson, who says to this day he can’t discern the difference between net and gross until he asks, “Is that good news or bad news?”
The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg
Novelists sometimes admit that despite their efforts to steer a story down one path or another, it’s the characters who often wrest control. “You write a book and after 50 pages you think it's about one thing, and then you write another hundred and you realize it's about something else," the author says. "And then by the time you're done you can look back and say, 'Oh, this is what it's about.' And even then you could be totally wrong.” Attenberg's new novel, endorsed by Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) is a compassionate portrayal of a dysfunctional Jewish family torn apart by the mother’s obsession with food.
WORTH THE TRIP
The Witch Trial Trail
Oct. 25-28, Salem, Mass.
In Salem, Halloween isn’t a day, it’s a season. The historically creepy city’s monthlong celebration runs the gamut from trite — the requisite/unfortunate pet costume contest — to tragic. Historian and author Jim McAllister leads an outdoor candlelit tour commemorating the summer of 1692, when 19 men and women convicted of witchcraft were carted off by hysteria-crazed neighbors to Gallows Hill, where they were hanged.
Pamela Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.