Now Departing for : Texas

Hello Online Reading Challenge Members!

Yee haw! We’re off to the Wild West this month! Well, we’re off to Texas and the American Southwest, a part of the United States with a colorful history that continues to be a favorite of writers and film makers alike. There will be no shortage of excellence this month.

I have to admit, when I first drew up this year’s list of subjects for the Online Reading Challenge I included the American Southwest with Texas because I didn’t think there would be enough books just on Texas. Wrong! I discovered lots of great titles, many of which are among my personal favorites. Here are some of them:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Don’t let the various awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) for the this book scare you off as “too literary”. It is indeed a masterpiece of writing and a joy to read, but more importantly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It is the story of one last epic cattle drive across open country, fiercely real, set against an unforgiving landscape and filled with tragedy and triumph,  You will never forget the characters or their stories. An excellent mini-series, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is also highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles reminded me quite a bit of Lonesome Dove although it’s a very different story. What they have in common is uncommon characters, epic adventure and tragedy and triumph. I blogged about it in more detail last year. Highly recommended.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman’s books then do yourself a favor and start! Set in the Navajo Territory, these books follow Lt Leaphorn and Officer Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as they work to solve crimes in this beautiful but remote and isolated part of the country. While these are on the surface crime-solving mysteries, there is a lot going on beneath the surface including the push and pull of old vs new – Leaphorn is older but does not believe in the Navajo myths; Chee is a young man studying to become a Navajo shaman – and the frequent misunderstandings between cultures. Hillerman was a master writer, spare and evocative with great respect for the Navajo Nation. Amazing books. The Blessing Way was the first book; Skinwalkers is the first with Leaphorn and Chee working together; The Thief of Time is probably my favorite (although I love them all).

Finally, there are many tv shows and movies set in Texas and the Southwest. My favorite is Friday Night Lights and I will argue that it is one of the best television shows ever. Starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, this series features great writing, excellent characters and epic stories all beautifully filmed and with a pitch perfect final episode. Set against the backdrop of football crazy Texas, it’s actually about family and friendship, finding your own way and growing up. I wrote (enthusiastically) about the show here and here.

My plan for August is to go to the classics and read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop I’ll you know how it goes.

Now, what about you? What are you reading this month?

Alaska – Halfway Home

So, how is reading about the Great White North going for you – have you found anything that has grabbed your attention or made you want to move to Alaska and begin a life of rugged outdoor adventure?

If you’re looking for rugged, wilderness adventure, but prefer to live near running water and grocery stores, check out some of the great movies about Alaska; many of them will have you on the edge of your seat.

Insomnia stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. It follows an LA police detective trying to solve a murder in a small Alaskan town. Already having difficulty sleeping, the never-setting midnight sun of the Alaskan summer wrecks havoc on his mental state until he has trouble telling what is real and what is not.

Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s ground-breaking book, the true story of a privileged young man leaving everything behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness with less than successful results.

The Grey, starring Liam Neeson is about a group of men stranded in the winter in the Alaskan wilderness after their small plane crashes. Relentlessly pursued by rogue wolves and battling the elements and their injuries, this is a brutal and suspenseful story.

If you prefer your entertainment a little less terrifying, try The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Bullock’s character, a high-powered executive, threatened with deportation back to Canada, announces that she is (unknown to him) engaged to her assistant. His price for agreeing is that she travel to his family home in Alaska and see if his relatives accept her. Hilarity ensues. A charming, light-as-air romantic comedy.

Any one of these should help cool you off during this hot Iowa summer. What are you going to watch (or read)?

 

Get Out: A Film Deserving of the Hype

Horror cinema is an ideal format for illuminating and discussing mass anxiety. Zombie film comes to mind as one representation of “fear-of-the-crowd”, i.e. the fear of being engulfed or overtaken. In 1976, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was shot in a shopping mall replete with lumbering zombies whose sole purpose was to consume. In the 2004 remake, the zombies returned to the shopping malls in which they spent their human lives; but they were super-charged and stronger than ever. 21st-century zombies lack personal agency, wit, and intellect like their slower-moving predecessors; but you can be sure they own and can operate their cell phones.

Get Out , a break-out film written and directed by Jordan Peele has been classified as horror, thriller, and comedy and I’d say it’s a type of zombie film. (You may remember Key & Peele–a sketch comedy television series featuring Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key).  Peele’s film has been a sensation: Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 99%!   Although you won’t find prototypical, grey-faced zombies mindlessly lumbering through a mall, the main protagonist must fight for his life….and his brains. If we look at Get Out in terms of how it fits into or critiques the culture and society that produces it, what current social or cultural issues might be present? (The inimitable Nina Simone sums it up well: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”) What cultural or social issues does Get Out bring to the forefront or interrogate?

Cinema that enables viewers to experience life from the perspective of another is powerful. As a white woman, I watched Get Out  from the point-of-view of a young black male. In watching from this perspective, I stepped into the shoes of Chris, the lead character. You will certainly sympathize with Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya), as he begins to unravel how his white girlfriend’s family (The Armitage family) and their affiliates are entangled in a twisted and evil operation. Get Out  presents an ominous view of human nature and confronts issues of overt and subtle racism.  Despite some much-needed moments of comic relief (after all, comedy is often a medium for acknowledging & coping with the absurdities and injustices of life), the tone of the film is decidedly morose.  Early on, viewers watch as a young black man is kidnapped–a foreshadowing of chilling and disturbing events to ensue. Horror cinema–unlike Rom Coms or even Drama (in my opinion) most effectively acknowledges and critiques society and culture. Horror effectively conveys and validates terror in a way that no other film genre has been able to do.

In a similar vein as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a supplanting operation of the creepiest kind is underway in Get Out  when Chris notices how strangely his black contemporaries are behaving. The speed of the film coupled with the unmistakable feeling  that something horrifying looms in the not-so-distant future contributes to the paralyzing anxiety experienced by Chris as he meets his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that Peele was heavily influenced by Stanley Kurbrick as Get Out presents several bizarre and anxiety-producing scenes in which you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, but your gut tells you to get out! Subtlety itself takes on a very important role and purpose in this film: sometimes the most terrible realities are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Subtle terror creeps in undetected (but not unfelt, necessarily) until it’s too late. Like Chris, viewers begin to feel a bit crazy as self-doubt sets in. After all, the Armitage family initially appears relatively harmless; but their ignorance is also immediately palpable.

Get Out  effectively uses cinematography, scoring, acting, and directing to produce an undeniably paranoid & distrustful atmosphere. You see and feel what Chris feels. Every detail in this film was carefully considered — even down to the opening song, Redbone, by Childish Gambino: “Well, first of all, I love the ‘Stay Woke’ [lyric] — that’s what this movie is about,” he (Peele) explains to HipHopDX Editor-in-Chief, Trent Clark. “I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the black horror movie audience’s need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent and observant people would do.

This film is not just a run-of-the-mill horror flick designed to give you a thrill: it sticks with you. We don’t do a good job of collectively discussing issues racism in this country, but this film prompts another discussion. The Director stated poignantly in an interview: ” ‘Part of being black in this country, or being a minority in this country, is about feeling like we’re perceiving things that we’re told we’re not perceiving,” said Peele. “It’s a state of mind. It’s a piece of the condition of being African American, certainly, that people may not know. They may not realize the toll that it does take — even if the toll is making us doubt ourselves.'”

When  your fellow human beings experience something on a mass scale, listen to them. Listening–not denying & not being silent–is revolutionary.

 

 

 

 

Florence Foster Jenkins on DVD

Florence, possessing a heart of gold and a tin ear, wishes more than anything to be a great opera singer. She is very active in the mid-1940s New York City music scene and rubs elbows with many of the famous including conductor Arturo Toscanini, songwriter Cole Porter and actress Tallulah Bankhead. But while she has many friends and has helped many musicians, her dream remains out-of-reach – until she decides to do something about it.

St. Clair, her beloved husband, knows perfectly well that Florence cannot sing, but he pays her voice coach and new pianist very well to treat her as if she has a lovely voice. When Florence is determined to give a recital, St. Clair makes sure the tickets are sold only to fans and friends and bribes reporters into write glowing reviews. All goes smoothly – well, except for the fact that Florence has a terrible voice – and St. Clair relaxes. Which is, of course, when St. Clair’s well-meaning white lies come around to bite him. Florence, without telling St. Clair, books Carnegie Hall. Oh, and records an album. St. Clair’s carefully constructed safe haven for his wife is about to come crashing down.

Florence Foster Jenkins is simply a lovely movie. Charming, funny but also bittersweet. Starring the always amazing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant (still so handsome), this is a movie that will make you laugh but it’ll also make you stop and think. It’s about reaching for your dreams, about overcoming the obstacles life throws at you (Florence’s life hasn’t been easy), about finding your true friends and standing with them. It’s about having the courage to follow your passion and never give up.

Halfway Home : San Francisco

Hello Fellow Readers!

How are you liking our trip to San Francisco so far? Do you have an overwhelming urge to eat Rice-a-Roni? (omg that aged me!) Have you managed to soak up some of the atmosphere and culture and history of this lovely city?

If you’re having trouble settling on a book, you might want to try a movie. Some great classics are set in San Francisco including Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood and Vertigo with James Stewart. Or check out the award winning Milk starring Sean Penn (who won an Oscar for his performance) about the first openly gay man to hold an elected public office. Or try a TV series set in San Francisco such as Monk starring Tony Shalhoub as a private detective with OCD.

And don’t forget, we have lots of Books on CD, especially nice for a summer road trip. Or check out Overdrive which has both ebooks and audio books – your local library is never far away, no matter where you are in the world!

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat“You have the best kids books!”, exclaimed a library patron with her son in tow. Smiling, I thanked the patron and stole a quick glance of the title in her hand. Javaka Steptoe’s Caldecott award-winning Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat  is as beautiful as you might expect a book about Jean-Michel Basquiat to be. What is particularly unique about this book, in addition to the messages it conveys, is that Steptoe’s illustrations emulate the kind of street art you might find Basquiat himself producing in New York in the 1980s on various organic textures & surfaces. The book itself is a literal work of art.

The dominant message Javaka conveys in this book is simple: imperfection is beauty.  Is this not an important and timeless message that we can and should celebrate and teach? Adults and children alike stand to benefit simply by acknowledging this pure and simple wisdom. Determined to create a masterpiece, the narrator notes that young artist Jean-Michel’s pictures “are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird” but they are nonetheless “still beautiful”. I’ll definitely be reading this book to Pebbles, my 8 year-old Blue Heeler dog since I don’t have any human children. I’m a dog mom — does that count? Also, Pebbles embraces the “imperfection is beauty” credo because she likes to rip holes in comforters and knock the trash can over. She gets it.  But in total seriousness, spread the aforementioned important message! (Especially in today’s Black Mirror world in which the bizarre expectation and practice is that the images we project of ourselves on social media are disproportionately perfect, happy, and overflowing with rainbows and unicorns). Let us remember that what is flawed is real. Even more?: what is flawed is beautifully and uniquely human.

Other representations of Jean-Michel Basquiat are also available at Davenport Public Library if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating and legendary artist! For example, check out the 2002 film entitled Basquiat  that features David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Benecio del Toro and others alongside Jeffrey Wright who plays the unforgettable part of Jean-Michel. (The late great David Bowie, playing the role of the quirky and iconic Andy Warhol easily makes Basquiat one of my absolutely favorite films.) One particular scene in this film perfectly summarizes the idea that imperfection is beauty when Jean-Michel takes a paintbrush to his girlfriend’s new dress because he thought “it needed something”. In short, this film does an excellent job of illustrating 1980s Brooklyn and how Basquiat went being homeless to a wildly successful artist overnight. Sadly, and as is the case with so many inimitable artists of our generation, however, Basquiat struggled with a drug addiction that would derail him and his career.  What Basquiat left behind–his legacy–is far greater and more memorable then any of the challenges he endured in his lifetime.

Also amazing? Check out Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, a book of poetry by the amazing Maya Angelou with illustrations by the one and only Jean-Michel Basquiat!

Now Arriving from: Paris

So, how was your April in Paris? Nothing can compare with the real thing, but I hope it was good!

Shockingly, my month did not go as planned and I didn’t manage to finish any books set in Paris. However, books about Paris are always on my list and I will always be reading about the loveliest city, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Also, there are no Library Police.

I did squeeze in a movie though – Coco before Chanel  (yes, it’s in French!) starring Audrey Tautou. It’s about Coco Chanel’s early life and the experiences that helped shaped both her artistic vision and her life choices. As shown in the movie (and I believe it is accurate), Coco was not an easy person. She was opinionated and bold (at a time when women were encouraged to be quiet and decorative), and demanded her own way – which sometimes seemed to shift without warning. She is also largely responsible for cutting women out of restrictive corsets and creating clothes that are elegant, timeless and comfortable with clean lines and little fuss. In addition, she created and directed her own company in a world run by men and she set her own course unapologetically.

Sadly, there is very little about Paris in the movie until the end (Coco grew up in the French countryside, left in an orphanage by her father along with her sister after their mother died) and only a little is shown about her growing business and fashion influence. I would have like to seen more about that and also seen something about her life in Paris during World War II – she took a German lover during the Occupation and there has been speculation that she collaborated with the Nazis. She is a complex, enigmatic figure (French history seems to have lots of them!) and I’d like to learn more about her.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read/watch/listen to this month and what did you think of it?

 

Question: Is the Movie Ever Better Than the Book?

Here’s the question – Have you ever thought that a movie was better than the book it was based on?

This question is a little unfair – comparing books and movies is like comparing apples and oranges. They are very different media with very different user experiences; a 2-3 hour movie cannot possible capture the nuance of emotion or inner dialogue that a book can. Nor can a book show you sweeping vistas in full color (especially if it’s a landscape you’ve never experienced)

Most people would claim, strongly, that the book was better and for the most part, I agree. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy many of the movies based on books – movies have their own kind of magic and can often enhance the overall experience.

But there are some exceptions. A quick internet search brings up several articles with “better than the book” lists including these from Buzzfeed,  Bustle,  Hollywood.com,  and Purewow

It’s interesting to note that while there are some differences, most of the lists tend to agree on several titles including Forrest Gump, The Godfather, The Notebook, Jaws, The Princess Bride, Fight Club and Jurassic Park. This is often due to the creativity and vision of the director, or to careful editing of the original source material. It’s also enlightening to note that most of the books that these movies were based on were not hugely popular successes on their own, but considered fair to middling.

As for movies that enhance the book without insulting it, I would include movies such as the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings movies and Master and Commander. And as much as I love to read Jane Austen, some of the Jane Austen adaptations are some of my favorite movies of all (I especially love the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility and the PBS version of Emma) In all of these cases, the beautiful settings, costumes and music contribute to and expand well-loved stories. (Although I still prefer the book!)

What about you – have you ever thought the movie was better than the book? Or thought that the movie caught the spirit of the book especially well? Tell us what you think!

 

Little People, Big Dreams

I happened upon a charming series of books for children called Little People, Big Dreams. (Not to be confused with the TV series Little People, Big World.) These are picture book biographies of notable figures from different parts of history. I loved reading them and learning more about the protagonists along with my children. The depictions of the heroines are captivating and, although they do not all have the same author and illustrator, they share an endearing similarity in style – large, round faces and colorful attire and settings.

I first read Frida Kahlo to my kindergartener. He came up with so many follow-up questions, I soon realized I didn’t know as much about this famous artist as I would like. I mentioned this to a friend and she insisted I should see the 2002 film Frida starring Salma Hayek as the title character and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. I did (alone), and enjoyed the sensual interpretation of the artist’s life.

Then an idea occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be nice to read a bedtime story for the kids and after they are fast asleep, read or watch something more adult on the topic? You know how a wine will sometimes be suggested that pairs well with your food? Couldn’t we do that with the books we read, as well? With that thought in mind, here are some recommendations you might want to try.

In Maya Angelou, author Lisbeth Kaiser and illustrator Leire Salaberria present to children the difficult topics of racism, domestic and sexual abuse, and mental health sensitively. Don’t let the fact that this book covers a difficult childhood deter you from reading aloud to your little ones what is a very inspiring story. Angelou’s story is, ultimately, one of hope. Most of us are aware of Angelou’s prolific career as a writer and civil rights activist, but how many knew her as a cook, streetcar conductor, dancer, singer, and world traveler? Share this inimitable woman’s story with the children in your life. Then on your own, read her classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings if you haven’t already done so (or even if you have, it may be time for a re-read). Also, listen to Angelou read her poetry in the book on CD entitled Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou. I’d recommend the kids not be within listening range of this one, as there are vulgarities in it.

 

I will be the first to admit I am not a couture kind of gal (my style would more aptly be described as thrift store eclectic). Still, I enjoyed learning about Coco Chanel in the book written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Ana Albero. Tired of seeing her contemporaries unable to breathe in their tight corsets, she designed clothing that was looser and easier to wear while dancing. She also designed hats and, of course, let’s not forget about the perfume. For more on the life of the woman once known as Gabrielle Chanel, you may wish to check out the 139-minute DVD Coco Chanel, a 2008 made-for-TV movie starring Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as old Chanel. You may also enjoy the coffee table style book Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniele Bott. With 159 illustrations, it goes into delightful detail on Coco’s unique styles. My favorite was the chapter on the Camellia flower, which is pictured on the cover. Other chapters detail ‘The Suit’, ‘Jewelry’, ‘Fragrance & Beauty’, and ‘The Black Dress.’

All the suggested children’s books are from the Little People, Big Dreams series.There are more books in this series and you can find all the ones the library owns by doing a series search for Little People Big Dreams. If you have favorite books or movies that you think go together like Chardonnay and Gruyere, please let us know.

 

The Return of the Doctor

Hello Fellow Whovians!

I am happy to report that the long wait is over – Doctor Who returns to BBC America on Saturday April 15! Hooray! This will be Peter Capaldi’s last season as the Doctor and Steven Moffat’s last season as the main writer and showrunner, plus there’s a new companion this season. Lots of changes coming for our favorite Time Lord!

Of course, change is nothing new for Doctor Who – the show is brilliant at reinventing itself season after season, changing to keep up with current tastes yet remaining essentially at its core the story of the Doctor, a survivor and explorer of the Universe, zipping around in his time traveling TARDIS (it’s bigger on the inside!), chased by Daleks and Cybermen. And who is not opposed to stopping and helping various aliens and cultures (and time periods) on his journey, always with a faithful companion or two in tow. There’s a lot of humor in this series, but there’s also a lot of depth and heart.

Doctor Who has been a mainstay of British television since it premiered in 1963. When the original Doctor, William Hartnell became ill and could no longer work, the producers came up with the idea of having the character “regenerate”, allowing a new actor to take over. This turned out to be a brilliant move, keeping the series running almost continuously since then and allowing each actor to bring his own interpretation and personality to the show. The show slipped in popularity, ending in 1989 but was revived 2005. It’s been embraced by old and new fans and is now enjoying some of it’s greatest popularity.

Interested in jumping aboard this crazy train? (It’s tons of fun) The library has DVDs of all of the series including the originals. I recommend that you start with the “modern” series by watching a season when a new Doctor is introduced – the Ninth Doctor (series 1), the Tenth Doctor (series 2), the Eleventh Doctor (series 5) or the Twelfth Doctor (series 8). This way you are introduced to the “rules” of this series at the same time as the new Doctor, who is just as confused and bewildered as you are as he adjusts to his new body and gets back his memories. There are also the Christmas episodes (a British Christmas is listening to the Queen’s Speech in the morning and watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special in the evening!) and the excellent 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor.

The library also has novelizations, graphic novels and fan guides. It’s a fandom that just keeps giving!

So, here’s a question that can set off endless debates: who’s your favorite Doctor? I love Ten (played by David Tennant and most people’s favorite) but Eleven (Matt Smith) is my favorite. (Actually, the TARDIS is my absolute favorite character!) Who is your favorite doctor? Favorite episode? (“Vincent and the Doctor” maybe, or “Blink”?) Favorite villan? (Weeping Angels? The Silence?) Join the conversation!