Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-in

Hello Online Reading Challengers!

How is your March reading going? Are you still scrunching up your nose at the idea of science fiction? Try a movie! They’re like an adventure story, only with lots more makeup! Here are some ideas to get you started:

Mad Max: Fury Road starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy is a non-stop action, can’t-catch-your-breath, edge-of-your-seat survival story. But beyond all that sand and all those crazy people, there’s a lot of humanity.

Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner”, stalking genetically replicated criminal replicants in a chaotic society that is nearly impossible to tell what’s real. The new film takes place 30 years further into the future and a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling) and his search for the former blade runner.

Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Is it possible to fall in love with an Artificial Intelligence? What happens when the AI believes it has outgrown you and wants to “break up”? It’s a question that hits closer to home in this age of Alexa. Quirky, touching and cautionary.

Tired of all the scarey, dystopian visions of the future? Then go for Star Trek, which presents a future that, while we’re still not perfect, at least we haven’t blown up the Earth (yet) and have managed to live among the stars. You have lots to choose from – television series, movies, original, spinoffs, alternate universes.

The Trip to Spain on DVD

Guest post by Laura

I wish I had known there were two previous “Trip” movies because I would have watched those first. I feel I was watching the twilight of what was probably a great run for actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. My aspiration to visit Spain someday was the impetus behind my selection of The Trip to Spain. I certainly got what I was hoping to see in breathtaking scenic views and Spanish cuisine.

There were times I laughed so hard at the banter and celebrity impressions I couldn’t stop but about two-thirds of the way in it began to wear thin. I think this was by design since I could see that happening in real life to people with strong personalities after spending that much time together.

This film is a commentary about the fickle nature of success in Hollywood and coming to terms with becoming middle-aged men, all while lodging at gorgeous hotels and running for fitness on narrow cobblestone streets. Each man is in a different stage of life, Rob has an up-and-coming career, a wife and young children and Steve is facing a stalling career, has a twenty-year old son, and a complicated long-distance relationship with an American woman. I think there are enough issues between them for both to be relatable to many viewers.

Since our libraries have the previous two movies, The Trip, and The Trip to Italy available, I plan to watch them as well. I’ll view them as travelogues with a side of drama and humor.

Beatriz at Dinner on DVD

Guest post by Laura

Salma Hayek plays the lead in this thought-provoking “comedy.” Although I laughed at times throughout the film, it would be more accurate to categorize Beatriz at Dinner as a drama. Hayek is finally given a break from the stereotypical sexy Latina spitfire role in which she in normally cast. She doesn’t disappoint in her portrayal of a spiritual, non-materialistic healer with a strong desire for fairness and justice. Although this character could easily have been a blonde hippie, Beatriz’s backstory as an immigrant from Mexico deepens the storyline.

The movie takes place in the grand Southern California home overlooking the ocean of one of her massage clients. Her car breaks down and her client, who also considers Beatriz a friend, convinces her husband to let her stay for his dinner with his business partners. The evening enfolds with much drama spurred on by far too much liquor and the uncomfortable pairing of people from opposite ends of the socio-political and economic spectrum in this country. Jon Lithgow matches Hayek in his performance as a Trump-era capitalist and verbal sparring ensues.

The ending has become a Google search phrase, as evidenced by my starting to type it and it popped up. I was satisfied with the movie until the end, which disappointed me at first. I read an interview with the director, Miguel Arteta, who explained, “we have gotten really used to having our ending be predigested for us.” He goes on to say he wanted an open-ended conclusion to make people start thinking for themselves. After reading the interview, I have created my own justification for the end in my mind. It worked! He got me to think for myself and not accept a neat and tidy ending fed to me by Hollywood.

Like a complex novel that merits re-reading, I might have to view Beatriz at Dinner again to dissect all of the layers and nuances. While it’s not a movie to invite your friends to watch for a lighthearted good time, it is worth watching as a Latino director and a Latina actress’ take on our current political climate.


Victoria and Abdul on DVD

This is the Queen Victoria that most of us are probably familiar with – elderly, dour, overweight, always dressed in black. She is mostly a figurehead now with the ruling of the country handled by the Prime Minister and her councilors. She has outlived most of her contemporaries, despises her children (especially Edward, the heir apparent), is in poor health and has few interests. And then, into this dull and tedious existence steps an unexpected bright spot – Abdul.

Victoria and Abdul is the story of the unusual (but true) friendship between the Queen of the most powerful country in the world, and a commoner from India. Sent to England to present the Queen with a coin created in honor of her Golden Jubilee (he was chosen because he was tall), Abdul looks past the trappings of the Crown and sees the person. He is optimistic, cheerful and respectful and, when she asks questions about his country and his life, he answers her easily, weaving colorful, poetic pictures of a life very different from her own. Victoria emerges from her shell, delighting in new interests.

However, not everyone is happy about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul. There is a lot of racism against Indians in England (there is a great deal of unrest in colonial India resulting in several battles during this time; India did not become independent from England until 1947) and there is a concerted effort to remove Abdul from Victoria’s circle, testing the bonds of loyalty.

This is a lovely movie, beautifully acted by Judy Dench and Ali Fazal with gorgeous imagery and costumes. It is also somewhat melancholy; Victoria doesn’t have much to live for at this point in her life – she still misses Albert, who died nearly 40 years before, and everyone around her is basically waiting for her to die. That the one bright spot in her life, Abdul, is discouraged and kept away is very sad. If you’ve been watching Victoria on PBS (which is excellent), it’s also a bit of a shock, the contrast between the young, vibrant and very active young Victoria and the elderly woman she becomes.

Halfway Home – Online Reading Challenge

Hello Readers!

In the midst of all the festivities and bustle of the holidays, have you been able to find some time for yourself to read? Have you found something set in New York City? We’d all love to hear what about what you’re reading!

If you just don’t have the time (or energy!) to read right now, how about a movie? Take a break from the holiday madness and watch a movie (or two). There are lots set in the Big Apple. Bonus! These have a Christmas backdrop as well!

You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is that rare rom-com that is funny and sweet without being mushy. The Christmas scenes will make you nostalgic for the past and who doesn’t love Meg Ryan’s apartment?

Elf with Will Ferrell doesn’t really need an introduction. It’s become a family tradition for many and for good (hilarious) reason.

Home Alone 2 with Macaulay Caulkin uses New York City as it’s playground with iconic scenes in the toy store and Central Park. Christmas in New York never look prettier.

Miracle on 34th Street. And of course you can’t forget about this classic. It hits all the iconic New York City Christmas moments (and probably was responsible for how many of us imagine New York City to be at Christmas)

But what if you’d had enough of Christmas madness for the moment and just want to escape for a bit? Try some television shows – Friends will never get stale (in my opinion) and Sex and the City still pushes the envelope. Then there are cop shows – several billion seasons of Law and Order and it’s many offshoots, Blue Bloods, NYPD Blue. And there’s no shortage if comedy is what you crave – Seinfeld, Will and Grace, 30 Rock. No excuses – there’s plenty of New York City for everyone!


Now Arriving from : St. Petersburg

We’re back from our book-ish trip to St. Petersburg and the surrounding area – how was your adventure? Did you find something new and intriguing? Any Russian novels that are light and happy? Yeah, I didn’t hold out much hope for that last one!

I went with watching a movie this month and I chose the recent production of Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. I have to admit, I’ve never read Anna Karenina (#badlibrarian) but maybe that helped. I watched with no expectations (well, it’s from Russian literature – I knew it was going to be dark and depressing) and, while I disliked the story line, I found the movie to be both beautiful and interesting.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s a quick rundown. Set in Imperial Russia during the late-1800s, Anna is a young woman who has nearly everything – wealth, status, a beloved child. What she does not have, but doesn’t realize she’s missing, is a passionate marriage. When she meets cavalry officer Count Vronsky, sparks fly and they begin an intense affair. When the affair is publicly acknowledged, the scandal has far-reaching effects on everyone around them.

My objection to the story is how Anna is treated (which was most likely typical for this time period). Two people take part in the affair, but when it is revealed it is Anna that suffers the most. The Count is married off – willingly it seems – to a princess. Anna’s husband, cold and dull, gains sympathy and custody of the children (Anna has a daughter with the Count). Anna, however, is not allowed to see her children, is shunned by society, divorced by her husband and abandoned for another woman by her lover. Plus, it’s very cold all the time. No wonder she does what she does. There is also some commentary on the excessive wealth of the upper class versus the simpler lives of the peasants – a hint of the social unrest that Russia will soon face, but it is not fully explored (in this version of the book).

The movie itself is quite beautiful – the costumes and jewels are stunning, with lots of sumptuous furs and dark, rich colors. The production is shown as if you were watching it in a theater, albeit a theater with spectacular, moving, multi-level sets. The movements of the actors are also very theatrical, with lots of hand waving and synchronized standing and walking and sitting. Plus, there is the strangest, arm-waviest waltz I’ve ever seen. I may not have appreciated the story, but it was a fascinating movie to watch.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read or watch this month?

Online Reading Challenge – Halfway Home!

So, how is your St Petersburg/Moscow/Russia reading adventure going?

I admit I’m struggling a bit this month. I wanted something a bit light and modern and, guess what – apparently that doesn’t exist in Russian fiction. Russian authors, historic and modern, tend to write really dark, really tragic stories steeped in mysticism and history. And it’s always cold.

Obviously, this is a huge exaggeration but I still could not find anything that wasn’t deeply sad (and not bittersweet sad but depressingly sad). I think a lot of this has to do with tradition and with Russian history which seems especially harsh with despotic leaders, crushing military battles and the bleakness of Soviet communism. And Siberia truly is extremely cold. Surely someone, somewhere has been happy? And warm? Sadly, I’m still looking for that book (please let me know if you’ve found one!)

Instead I’m going to watch the DVD of Anna Karenina starring Keria Knightly. Yes, very sad and tragic (and cold), but I’ve read that the costumes are exquisite and the production is very theatrical. I’ll let you know what I think.

If you’re still searching for a Russian connection, you might try a DVD too. The Americans, a TV series starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell is about a young Russian couple that have been sent to America as “sleepers” – KGB agents that are infiltrating the United States by posing as Americans. It’s gotten lots of great reviews. Or check out The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer about Leo Tolstoy’s later years when, to his wife’s horror, he said he planned to give up everything to live in poverty. Child 44 stars Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman about a disgraced Soviet police officer that has been exiled to the countryside and is now searching for a serial killer.

So tell me, what you reading (or watching) this month?

The Crown – Now on DVD!

Good news if you’re a fan of English history or royalty. Or, you know, a fan of excellent film making and story telling. The first season of The Crown, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith is now available on DVD!

Opening with the young Elizabeth about to marry Philip, season one of this brilliant series follows the first ten years of her reign, from her accession to the crown upon the death of her father King George VI through the turbulent years guiding postwar England into a new, modern era. There is a strong push/pull between the old ways – which just won World War II – and the inevitable new. English society, with its long-held class structure and tradition, struggles with the changes and the Royal family, as an example to the country, must show the way, often with great personal sacrifice.

Highlights from the first season include Elizabeth and Philip’s sometimes rocky early marriage as Philip struggles to find his place as consort and yet maintain some independence (Parliament at first refused to allow him to take flying lessons); Elizabeth’s sister Margaret falling in love with a divorced man (very scandalous, especially after Edward VII abdicated to marry a divorcee); Elizabeth’s coronation; the question of how to treat the disgraced Edward VII and the reluctant stepping down of Winston Churchill. Throughout, Elizabeth remains serene (at least on the surface) and steadfast in her devotion to her country. The demands put on her, not just by the government and her duties, but by her advisors and family, is staggering.

Beautifully filmed, superbly acted (Claire Foy won an Emmy for her role), sparkling storytelling, this is a series well worth bingeing on – if you don’t have Netflix (who produced it) or missed it when it first came on, now is the time to catch up – season two begins December 8!

For more background both on the events and how they actually happened (the writers took some liberties although they stayed close to the facts) as well as insights on filming the series, pick up The Crown. Volume 1: the Official Companion by Robert Lacey. The book includes side-by-side shots from the time period with shots of the same event from the film – the similarities are striking. In addition, Lacey provides more information on why things happened like they did in more detail than can be done in the series. It makes for fascinating reading (and watching)!

Now Arriving from – China

Hello Reading Fans!

How did this month of the Online Reading Challenge treat you? Did you find something really fantastic to read? Something that opened a little window of understanding of the great mystery that is China?

I’m afraid I didn’t do so well this month – I got caught up in reading other books and never came across anything China-related that grabbed my attention. These things happen sometimes (This is why I’m not very good with traditional book clubs – the rebel in me doesn’t always want to read the chosen book!) Fortunately, there aren’t any Library Police and I can simply try again next month!

I do want to draw your attention to two favorite movies set in China that deal with the ancient history of China and are deeply rooted in mysticism. Both are absolutely beautiful

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon caused quite a sensation when it first came out and you may very well have already seen it. Beautifully photographed, superb acting and a story that requires the watcher, much like the characters, to take a leap of faith makes this a film that linger long after the closing credits. A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation with serious, long-reaching consequences.

Hero, starting Jet Li, was released shortly after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and may have been overshadowed by it, but it is stunning in it’s own right.  Set in ancient China, warring factions plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a minor official defeats Qin’s three deadly enemies, he is summoned to the palace to tell Qin the story of his surprising victory. The martial arts scenes, beautifully, artfully choreographed, are worth watching alone but the message, about power and how it is wielded is relevant to all times and societies.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

HBO premiered their film adaptation of the bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The film stars Renee Elise Goldberry as Henrietta Lacks, Oprah Winfrey as her daughter, Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as the author, Rebecca Skloot. The bestselling nonfiction book was published in February 2010. The hardcover edition was on the New York Times best seller list for 40 weeks when the paperback edition was released. The paperback edition was on the best seller list for 75 weeks. Libraries could not keep it on the shelf! So it comes to no surprise that HBO made a film about it.

If you have not read this book yet, I strongly encourage you to do so.  You don’t like nonfiction books? Well then you are in luck. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does not read like the typical nonfiction. This book is part biography, part medical science and a whole lot of drama!

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman living in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950. She had cervical cancer and was a patient at John Hopkins University. Her cells were taken and cultured without her knowledge and consent.  Her cells grew rapidly but Henrietta died in 1951. To this day, scientists use the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks for medical research. The cells are known around the world as HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, was curious about the woman behind the famous cells. She contacted the family about telling her story. Understandably, the family was hesitant to talk about her. The book and the HBO film cover Rebecca Skloot’s and Deborah’s interactions as they try to discover the story of Henrietta and what John Hopkins University Hospital did to her.