Blogging for a Good Book
I started off the week with Nick Hornby’s collected essays about books, so it seems appropriate to end the week with one of Hornby’s novels. High Fidelty is my favorite, and I recently reread it in ebook form.
As can be seen in his essays in Songbook, Hornby not only loves music, but he can write about songs, performers, and listening to music with affection and understanding. High Fidelity recounts the story of record store owner and occasional DJ, and inveterate list-maker, Rob Fleming. When the story opens, Fleming is making a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups,” which he then shares with the reader. Sadly, or not perhaps, his current breakup does not make the top five list. But it is his relationship with Laura, the current breakup, that drives the story.
Well, that and music. For Rob–and Dick and Barry, his two employees at the record store–everything comes back to music. They are forever creating and critiquing lists of songs such as “best side one, track ones of all time.” Rob’s list is “Janie Jones” (The Clash), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), and “Return of the Grievous Angel” (Gram Parsons) in case you wondered. These lists and the myriad other musical references provide a sound track to the novel that carries the story along.
Hornby understands how people talk about their interests, music in this case, and how those interests can sometimes slide into obsessions. In Rob’s case, his musical obsessions seem to keep pulling him away from making commitments. It is easy to just keep going back to the shop everyday and not worrying about your relationships.
Like a great song, High Fidelity pulls you in to the flow of the story, has its crescendos and decrescendos, offers some great solos, and finishes with a satisfying cadence. What more could one ask?
We have reviewed a lot of Bill Bryson’s books here at BFGB. For good reason: Bryson is one of the wittiest writers currently publishing. Whether he is writing about travel, literature, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson always has the right turn of phrase, and often it is one that leaves you laughing out loud.
But there is often a more serious side to Bryson’s writing; it is not just about the jokes. That is the side that comes out in his thoughtful and intriguing look at America in the summer of 1927. It was a busy summer, and Bryson pulls a lot of threads together as he examines what was capturing the public imagination. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was in May, Babe Ruth was breaking home run records while leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series, the Mississippi was flooding, and Al Capone was taking over Chicago. These are just a few of the stories that Bryson weaves into his narrative.
What makes the book more than just a dry history lesson is Bryson’s seemingly effortless ability to move from these big events back to the individual. He always can find the personal in the global, and it is the stories of these smaller lives that make One Summer: America, 1927 come alive. Part of the book’s poignancy is knowing that the Great Depression was just around the corner, and that many of the people that you are reading about will face hard times. There is an elegiac tone to the whole book.
Reading history often can tell us as much about where we are now as where we have been, and as we come out of the most recent recession, with our own big events playing out on the global and national stages, it is fascinating to compare the similarities as well as the differences between 1927 and 2014. Bryson is an astute observer and an able guide on this journey.
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In Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.
It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.
Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:
[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.
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Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.
Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.
Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.
There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations. Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.
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I am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy. Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.
There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.
Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.
This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.
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Time for a confession. I’ve been binge-watching the SyFy series Haven on Netflix. Haven is a fictional small town in Maine where people are cursed with unusual gifts–like being able to conjure storms when they are stressed or make monsters attack when they are frightened. It’s not spells or demon powers–it’s what residents call “the troubles.” The series has an interesting (and attractive) cast, and I like the supernatural twist on the solve-the-mystery-in-an-hour format.
In the opening credits of every episode there’s a note that the series is based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. So I read the book.
Newspaper intern Stephanie spends an afternoon with veteran newspaper men Vince and Dave discussing a cold case mystery. It’s a case the older men say isn’t really appropriate for a big newspaper like the Boston Globe because unlike many of the often repeated local stories–like the ghost lights or the mysterious shipwrecked boat–this one doesn’t have a clean “musta-been” explanation. For example, the ghost lights appearing above the baseball field “musta-been” a reflection off the clouds, or maybe it “musta-been” aliens. As Vince explains, the story of the Colorado Kid has too many unknown factors.
He and Dave proceed to tell Steff what little they know about how a man from Colorado went to work one morning and ended up dead on a little island off the coast of Maine only hours later. He was unidentified for months. But even when the police followed an initially missed clue and identified him, they were no closer to understanding why he was found so far from home or why he had a Russian coin in his pocket.
Nothing fits together, and that can be frustrating for some readers, but I liked the interaction between Stephanie and the old timers. It was nice to see that she was beginning to fit in with the small town community. And I liked that Vince and Dave laid out all they knew about the Colorado Kid and accepted there are just too many things still unknown to be able to give a guess, a “musta-been” explanation, as to what happened. The newspaper can’t print the story because there’s nothing but questions left at the end.
So what’s all this have to do with Haven the TV series? Some character and place names are the same, and some facts about the mystery of the “Colorado Kid” are mentioned in earlier episodes, but you really get to the meat of it in the author notes at the end of the book. King explains that not all mysteries are solvable, and “it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to stay sane.” Nicely put, Mr. King. And I think the reminder that everything doesn’t always have an answer is the inspiration for the television show.
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Just for fun, check the WRL catalog for season 1 of Haven
Ten years ago, Quinn was interrupted right before she walked down the aisle by her fiance’s brother, Frank. Frank felt compelled to tell her that Burke, her fiance, had had an affair (or two) while they were engaged. After calling off the wedding, Quinn and Frank leave town for a couple days of drowning sorrows and steamy sex. When Quinn comes back to her senses, she returns home alone and settles into a quiet rut. Which is where the story picks up.
Quinn has a successful business making original bridal gowns (as penance for walking out on her own wedding?) She prides herself on being able to create the perfect gown for the bride and her party.
When Dolly, the grandmother of the two brothers decides to get remarried, she comes to Quinn for her gown. And Quinn realizes she’s not as over the high school romance as much as she thought she was.
With the help of her best friend Glenn, she tries to change her life. He gives her a mission every day for a month (experience speed dating, eat breakfast out, try a new hairstyle, etc.) There are some laugh out loud moments as Quinn tries new things to shake up her perspective. (I made a mental note not to try all of Glenn’s suggestions!) And with the brothers back in town for the wedding, there is certainly opportunity to confront the past and put it behind her.
In many ways it reminded me of the movie The Runaway Bride. Like the Julia Roberts character, Quinn needs to figure out who she is before she can take the steps to be with someone else.
Harbison’s characters are imperfect, and that’s what makes them appealing. I felt like I knew people like them in “real life”–and ended the book hoping they would find their happily ever after.
Check the WRL catalog for Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave him the Wrong Finger
If you enjoy television shows like Criminal Minds or CSI or Cold Case, or any of the many TV dramas that involve solving criminal cases in an hour, you should pick up the YA novel The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Cassie is a 17-year-old with a gift for reading people. At the beginning of the book she’s working in a diner using her gift of picking up subtle details to figure out what kind of eggs a customer might order, or if they are likely to skip on the check. She catches the attention of an FBI agent named Briggs who has developed an experimental program that uses gifted teens to help solve cold cases.
He asks Cassie to join his group of “naturals” so she can develop her skills. Cassie doesn’t have anything to lose. Her dad is serving overseas in the military and her mother, who taught her much of what she knows about reading people, was murdered years ago. With little to keep her in Denver with her grandmother and the hope that maybe she can learn something about her mother’s unsolved murder, she agrees to join the eclectic group and work for the FBI.
The “naturals” live together in a house in Quantico, Virginia, near FBI headquarters. She meets Michael, the handsome rebel who reads emotions, but doesn’t like to be read himself; Dean, the other profiler, who is the son of a convicted murderer; Lia, who specializes in deception and sarcasm; and Sloane, the computer nerd whose gift is numbers and probability. The characters are easy to distinguish and likeable–if also somewhat stereotypical.
The plot moved along quickly and kept me entertained. Interspersed with the training exercises and the teens getting to know one another (in part through a risky game of “Truth or Dare”) are chilling chapters from a serial killer–a killer who seems to be escalating in the number and brutality of murders… a killer who targets Cassie as the next victim.
The Naturals is listed as the first in a series. I couldn’t find out when #2 is due, but will stay on the lookout.
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Nancy from Circulation recommended this book to me. In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it! It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters. The voices were perfect for the story, and I was quickly drawn in. But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:
In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.
The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.
The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy. She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.
Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him. She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.
Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result. The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix. Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.
The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.
Check the WRL catalog for The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
When Maxine Cambridge is dumped by her controlling husband for a younger woman, she moves in with her mom. The divorce is messy. She describes it as being at DEFCON 5.
In her desperation to get a job, any job, she unloads the whole story to the luckless manager of the Cluck Cluck Palace–so right from the beginning of the book, you know what Max is up against. There’s a prenuptial agreement. Her husband cheated on her. She left their home with their teenage son, but few clothes, very little money, and not a glimmer of self respect–and she needs a job desperately. Now imagine the scene as she attempts to keep a hapless teen from entering the restaurant until she convinces the manager to hire her. Actually, just read the book, it’s as good as anything you could imagine.
Moments after the most humiliating experience of her life, an old high school classmate notices her. And this is not just any guy–this is a guy who leaves Max speechless as she gazes up at his handsome face. She doesn’t recognize him as the geeky kid who had been her lab partner senior year. But now Campbell Barker exudes sex appeal and success. It really hits home for Max how little she has accomplished since high school. She can barely make excuses for why she can’t have coffee with him to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since high school before she breaks down.
As fate would have it, Campbell is helping his dad do odd jobs–at the same senior citizens retirement village where Max’s mom lives. Max and Campbell run into each other again and again. And finally things start to look up in her life, not just because of Campbell’s attention, but because she gets a job and starts building her self-esteem.
The book has a good bit of romance, some steamy sex, a number of laugh out loud moments, and a dollop of self-analysis as Max remembers how she doesn’t have to give up all her hopes and dreams just to be with a man. Let me tell you, Campbell is a treasure to put up with all the self-doubt Max has to work through!
I liked the characters and appreciated that they were more mature than the 20- or 30-somethings that seem to dominate the romance genre. The dialog is snappy and fun. The supporting characters are interesting and provide some depth to the story (though this is still a breezy read). There’s a great twist to the divorce at the end. It made me feel good to spend a few hours in Max’s world.
Check the WRL catalog for You Dropped a Blonde on Me
A few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.
Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.
I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.
The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.
Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.
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Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly
I looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.
Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.
Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.
Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”
Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.
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Over the past few years there seem to have been a number of movies related to professional magicians. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, Now You See Me takes its place among them, providing some strong performances and an unexpected plot for the audience.
The movie starts by introducing us to four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco), each making a living at their chosen profession, however, not all of them necessarily in the most ethical manner. In turn, each illusionist mysteriously receives a Tarot card that includes an invitation to gather in a single location, at a particular time. The magicians, for whatever reason, feel compelled to heed the call and find themselves in an enigmatic apartment. Smoke fills the room and the next thing we know a year has passed. They are transformed into the Four Horsemen, the top magical act in Las Vegas, playing to a sold out theater. The Four Horsemen are in the midst of their greatest performance. They promise that before the show ends, they will rob a bank. And they do. This all happens in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. From there, it gets exciting.
While the magicians soon are wanted criminals, they also continue to perform, eluding agents Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Laurent), and staying ahead of professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Filled with entertaining repartee, creative magic, and plenty of sleight of hand, like any magic show, Now You See Me, keeps the audience guessing. It is a fast-paced, crime, mystery thriller. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in story arc.
I enjoyed the plot, characters, writing, and concept of this film. However, as much as I enjoyed Now You See Me, I admit to personally being disappointed by parts of the final resolution. That shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this movie. I know others liked the ending just fine. Now You See Me is a fun example of a film filled with magic, but not encumbered by wizards. It has sophisticated themes appearing throughout the story, although nothing too risqué. So, if you enjoy a good show magic show you may want to sit down and watch this one.
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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Matthew Goodman
In 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world. Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days. Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip. Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889. Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west. The “race” was on. Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.
This is a captivating and fascinating story. First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure. Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so. Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit. Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time. In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.
Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles. He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture. Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country. This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated. The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.
There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history. The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue. It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.
Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives. The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort. If you want further proof consider the following:
As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library. After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910. How cool is that?
Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days
Also available as an ebook
This week, WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg takes a look at some fascinating books and films.
This is a sweet movie. As school children Albert and Anthony found each other in the school cafeteria. They instantly became best friends and magicians-in-training. And so began the story of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). As adults they transformed into full-fledged magicians, having crafted a Las Vegas magic show that delivers them to the pinnacle of their profession. But, where can they go from the top?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows a familiar buddy film storyline. There’s nothing innovative in that respect, but the well-rehearsed construct does not detract from the enjoyment of the movie for me. It makes it comfortable to watch. As with many films of this ilk the story includes a love interest, Jane (Wilde), a nemesis, Steve Gray (Carrey), and a guiding light, Rance Holloway (Arkin).
Early into the story the duo’s popularity is vanishing, their act is stale, and their friendship has all but disappeared. Smaller audiences and the rising infamy of street magician/competitor Steve Gray force them to try to freshen things up. The attempt is a complete failure and presto chango, even the illusion of friendship is gone. Like a woman in a box, their friendship is sawed in two. You see it coming because Burt has become an egotistical, self-absorbed, fool. The rest of the film is about putting the friendship back together (focusing more on Wonderstone than on Marvelton, as the title suggests) and saying abracadabra to magically reunite the act. Carrell and Buscemi are wonderful as best friends and angry partners. They have a chemistry together that is fun to watch. Carrey’s character is classic Jim Carrey. He’s obnoxious, loud, annoying, and witty. Wilde and Arkin fill out the cast with nice performances that add to the story.
While a straightforward storyline, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone includes some inside jokes about (and I suspect for) magicians, that suggest the script was Informed by someone familiar with the world of illusionists. Some of the lines and attitudes offer glimpses into the world of performing magicians. In fact, the production notes reveal that world renowned magician David Copperfield served as a special consultant on the movie.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was a delightful family (PG-13) movie. We made our ice cream disappear while watching it. There are some scenes that are suggestive, but nothing too racy. The plot provides a simple, positive moral that leaves the audience ready to pick a card, any card.
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Volume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.
I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.
Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.
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It cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.
A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.
An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.
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The 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.
Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.
This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.
This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.
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Does anyone get out of their high school years unscathed? Free from uncomfortable memories of interactions they mishandled due to their own unnerving awkwardness? If you did, then you will not be able to understand the brilliance of Same Difference. The action in this novel is not about the present existence of the two main characters, but rather of the juxtaposition between their past deeds, clumsy with the emotional over-eagerness of youth, and their current ability to reassess those actions and desires through the lens of their adult experiences and maturity.
Simon and Nancy are two early-to mid twenty-somethings living in Oakland. For Simon, it has been seven years since he graduated high school and he dreads each return to the town where he grew up due to the embarrassment and unease of constantly running into people he went to high school with. Though Nancy teases him, she is just as reserved about her high school experience and fights any invasion of her privacy related to those gawky years. They both know that when you are young you are stupid and lack the experience to deal with the flood of emotions you are faced with on a daily basis. Neither wants their present judged on the transgressions of their past.
Nancy’s meddlesome response to some letters meant for a previous tenant of her apartment serves as the vehicle for a road trip for her and Simon back to Simon’s hometown. There Simon must face people and situations he thought he had long put behind him. I was especially drawn to his conflicted feelings over his meeting Eddie and Jane, two married members of his high school class who used to torment him in their separate and devastating ways. Seeing them walking down the street with one baby in a stroller and another on the way left them toothless and oddly, ordinary. Would you want to hang out with someone who tormented you in high school and called you a nerd? It would seem not, but time is an antiseptic which, if not heals, certainly numbs old wounds.
A winner of the 2004 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, 2004 winner of the Harvey Award for Best New Talent, and 2003 Ignatz Award, this title came to me with high expectations, but it far exceeded them. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and anyone who enjoys a coming of age story in all its painful clarity.
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Maggie is starting high school. That is a terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially for Maggie because she has, until now, been homeschooled. The youngest of four children, Maggie’s mother taught each of them at home until they were old enough to enter high school, but in Maggie’s case, things are painfully different. Her mother recently left, and none of the kids know why or where she went. The hole left by her mother’s absence remains unfilled as Maggie begins to navigate the emotional minefield that is public schooling.
Her older brothers, Daniel and twins Lloyd and Zander, have already navigated their first day in a new school, but things are not as easy for Maggie. For one thing, she’s a girl, and she’s been used to having her brothers for protection all these years. She slowly makes friends with punk girl Lucy and her older brother Alistair, who seems to bear the burden of past misdeeds concerning Daniel and the captain of the volleyball team, Matt. In case matters weren’t complicated enough, there’s also the matter of the ghost who Maggie has been seeing since she was about seven, but the specter refuses to speak or explain itself.
As with so many high school relationships, there are layers of memories and interactions. People change and grow up and the set of friends you have at the beginning of high school are often not the same as the ones you have at the end. But the inevitability of such breakups doesn’t make them uncomplicated, or any easier to understand for the participants. Maggie is stuck somewhere between factions. She’s not a cheerleader or jock like Matt, nor is she in the drama club like her older brothers. And she’s not really a punk like Lucy or Alistair, though those two serve as her only friends.
I fully admit that my love of graphic novels creates a deep bias, but I love how deep and meaningful emotions can be encapsulated so completely in the ephemeral expressions of characters in this format. The artwork can allow for profound emotions to be expressed without being overly saccharine in character all while incorporating humor to lighten otherwise weighty and insightful realizations about the character of man.
I would recommend this book to readers of YA literature, graphic novels, and coming of age stories who don’t have all the answers nor do they want them handed to them.
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