Books made into movies: Summer 2011

This summer there are some major movies coming to theaters that were originally books!  Here are a few of them:

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin – This one is already in theaters!  It is about a girl who falls in love with her best friend’s husband-to-be after a one night stand, and the movie stars Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin, and John Krasinski. Guest blogger Bethany wrote about it just yesterday.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – The final part of this saga is finally coming to an end with the epic battle between good and evil.  Before the midnight showing of the movie, I might have to flip through a copy of the book again.  After all, I have to get my costume just right!

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay – This book club favorite tells the story of a journalist writing about a girl caught up in one of the raids of World War II.  The movie will star Kristin Scott Thomas. Ann blogged about this book here.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement, this bestseller is about a girl fresh out of college who has taken on a writing project about the experiences of African-American maids.  The film version boasts an all-star cast, including Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, and Allison Janney. Read Ann’s blog about this book here.

If you want to read the book before heading to the theater, stop by the library to see if there’s a copy available!

Cookies as History

Here is almost 70 years of history one cookie at a time. The editors of Gourmet magazine (which recently ceased publication) went through their vast files of cookie recipes and chose one “best” cookie for each year, 1941-2009. The result is The Gourmet Cookie Book, a treasure trove not just of recipes, but as a reflection of our history.

Presented year by year, it is remarkably easy – and fun – to watch how recipes and baking have changed over the years. Early recipes are much more casual than what you may be used to now  with instructions like “bake in a moderate oven until done” or “add flour until stiff”, indicating that they assumed that the reader was an experienced cook;  more recent recipes give precise measurements and directions.

The style of recipes has also changed – early on, they are written in an almost conversational style, in paragraph form very different from the now standard list of ingredients followed by mixing instructions. Each recipe is presented as it originally appeared in the magazine but never fear – added notes take the guesswork out of anything that might be unclear.

It’s also interesting to track the trends and interests of the country through the years. The 40s reflect the lean years of wartime shortages and food rationing – cookies are simple and plain, using few ingredients. Recipes became more daring in the 60s with many international flavors, the 80s were the decade of chocolate and the 90s see the introduction of espresso as a regular ingredient. The look of cookies changes through time too, from simple shapes to colorful and complex. Yet they all hold one thing in common – they’ve all stood the test of time and they all taste great.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

As someone who is not a history buff at all, I was hesitant to pick up The Partly Cloudy Patriot.  But at the urges of my best friend, I gave it a shot, and I am so glad that I did.  Sarah Vowell makes her nerdiness wholly endearing in this series of humorous essays with topics ranging from the Salem Witch Trials to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the 2000 election of George W. Bush.  Vowell fully embraces her nerdiness, especially when describing her “nerd voice” and her various vacations to (often depressing) historical landmarks.  Though I always found myself bored in history class, Vowell’s book taught me some things I didn’t know all while making me laugh.  She makes the information simultaneously humorous and personal; one of my favorite chapters was about Al Gore speaking to a group of high school students and having his remarks taken wildly out of context by the media, changing his message of hope into something egotistical.  Not all her stories are aimed at those interested in politics and history; she also has some gems about how to deal with her parents visiting  for the holidays and her fear of Tom Cruise.

Just for a taste of her dry wit, here’s one of my favorite passages:  “I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.”

Parrot & Olivier in America

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

Parrot & Olivier in America

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

Young Victoria on DVD

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of Queen Victoria? I bet it’s of a photograph of her as an old woman, dressed in black widow’s weeds with a glum look on her face. With that indelible image, it’s easy to forget that she was once a young woman of 17 who loved to dance and was falling in love. The Young Victoria brings the early years of Queen Victoria’s life – just before and after her coronation – brilliantly alive.

Kept isolated and under tight control throughout her childhood by her mother, Victoria was poorly prepared to rule what was then the richest country in the world. Her mother’s adviser, Sir John Conroy, tried to force Victoria to sign a regency document allowing him to rule through her, but Victoria, showing surprising spunk and determination, refused. Just six weeks after her 18th birthday, King William died and she became Queen. Now dependent on various politicians for guidance, she found herself turning more and more to her cousin Albert.

Planned by their uncle that they should eventually marry since they were babies, Victoria and Albert did the nearly unthinkable and fell in love. They made a nearly perfect team, complimenting each others strengths, and together ruled England for 20 years until Alberts death. Victoria mourned him for another 40 years.

The Young Victoria is a sumptuous production with superb acting, beautiful settings and gorgeous costumes (which won numerous awards including an Oscar) While the screenplay fudges on some historical details, it is overall accurate, and it is especially evocative of one of the great romances of all time.

(Baseball) Diamond in the Rough

An excellent little baseball movie that never got its due was Pastime.  Good luck finding it on any “best” lists.  Released in 1991, it is the story of an aging minor league pitcher named Roy Dean Bream seemingly holding on just for the love of the game or nowhere else to go.  Set in 1957, Bream is the only player halfway civil to a humble black rookie pitcher while the rest of the team addresses him as a pariah.

Either this little gem never got released or didn’t have any marketing budget.  Apparently some people other than myself enjoyed it…it won the audience award at Sundance and features cameos by Bob Feller, Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Bill Mazeroski and Harmon Killebrew.

Only the Ball was White

Only the Ball Was White, inspired by Robert Peterson’s book published in 1970. This film was produced and directed by Ken Solarz in 1980. The film is a historical look at the Negro League, which existed because baseball was a segregated sport until 1947, when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The film basically covers the official formation of the Negro League in the early 1920s as well as an introduction to some of the more well-known players to rise up from the ranks of the Negro League including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella.

For someone who knows nothing about the Negro Leagues, this film serves as a nice way to get an introduction to the subject. For more information about the Negro League, you should watch the made-for-cable Soul of the Game and the classic Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, you might be on your way to scratching the surface of Negro League Baseball.

If you want to read about the Negro League, the book Shades of Glory by Lawrence Hogan would be an excellent choice. This book was published by the National Geographic in association with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Lincoln’s Legacy

lincoln-railsplitting2Lincoln and Darwin had vastly different childhoods.  We know that Lincoln was born dirt-poor and was largely self-educated, whereas Darwin was born to wealth and privilege, privy to the best education money could buy. Still, even 200 years later, both have left their mark upon our world.  Unfortunately for both, that mark, or legacy, has become somewhat limited over time.

In the words of Adam Gopnik in his “Twin Peaks” article for the February, 2009 issue of the Smithsonian, ” With the usual compression of popular history, their reputations have been reduced to single words . . . “Evolution!”  for one and “Emancipation!” for the other.”  How true this is.  Both were complex individuals who contributed in many other ways to our relative societies.

One of Lincoln’s legacies, of sorts,  is the vast amount of literature that has been written about him.  At least in the Western world, it is estimated that there have been more books written about Lincoln than any other individual (save possibly Jesus and Napoleon).  And still, writers and researchers are uncovering new information and reformatting the old into numerous intriguing titles about Lincoln.  Check out some of these new tomes about our legendary 16th President:

In Lincoln’s Hand: his Original Manuscripts

1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Flood

“They Have Killed Papa Dead”: the Road to Ford’s Theater, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder and the Rage for Vengeance by Anthony Pitch

Giants: the Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer

Looking for Lincoln: the Making of an American Icon by Philip Kunhardt

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson

National Day of Listening

Today is the first annual National Day of Listening, sponsored by StoryCorps. The purpose of the day is to encourage you to listen to and record a story from the life of a relative or friend. The day after Thanksgiving is ideal since many people have the day off from work, and many families gather for the long weekend.

Capturing memories is beyond any price and you – and your children and grandchildren – will be glad you did. History taught in school may be about dates and big events, but the real flavor of history is in how people lived every day and how those big events affected them. Recording the story of how your Dad rode his horse every day to the one-room schoolhouse, or how your grandmother cooked elaborate meals on a wood burning stove not only brings them to life once again, it keeps them alive for future generations. Find out how your Uncle Bill felt when he returned from the war in Iraq, your Mother’s stories of moving away from home for the first time to go to law school, of the time your cousin broke his leg playing on the swing set or how your brother managed to flip your Dad’s car – twice. Listening may be the greatest gift you can give both to the storyteller and to yourself.

StoryCorps website has some excellent resources to get you started – how to get ready for the interview, how to actively listen to the speaker, how to record the stories (either in writing, on audio or on video) and even offer a Question Generator to help you get started. They also encourage you to share your stories through their website and list several that are available to listen to for inspiration.

For more information about StoryCorps and their goals, visit their website or check out Listening is an Act of Love by David Isay, a collection of some of the most inspiring and moving stories that have been recorded so far. You’ll be motivated to not only record some of your family’s stories today, but to make it an annual holiday tradition.