Monday, December 31, 2007

The Gambler (DVD) 1974 / w/ James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, etc.

Loosely adapted to the modern day big screen comes Dostoevsky's personally reflective novel of the same name. Fresh off his stint in The Godfather is James Caan as Axel Freed, a man who can ill afford to lose...much less win. Blessed with an upper-class upbringing, solid teaching job, and serious girlfriend; Freed is none the less a man plunging to his emotional and monetary depths near everyday through various chance endeavors. For every 'win', he suffers countless losses at the expense of money and credibility until ultimately his addiction lands him at the mercy of mafia heavyweights. His life now on the line he must coerce others into misdeeds he himself would shun.

Caan was the right man at the right time for this rather overlooked film acutely portraying one man's abuse of an age-old vice. Freed deserves no sympathy and gets none as his countless efforts to confront the 'disease' fail miserably deepening his depravity, throwing him at the feet of others, and further isolating those who love him. The Gambler has a very raw, edgy 1970's New York City feel similar to movies like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, or Dog Day Afternoon. (DVD GAMBLER)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last Lessons of Summer / by Margaret Maron

Following her mother's fatal accident 20 years ago, Amy Steadman became sole heir to a lucrative family business. Yet at the moment her life is anything but prosperous. With her grandmother and benefactor at death's door, certain 'aggressive' family members are demanding authorization on potential business interests. Turmoil from extended family is bad enough but her on-the-rocks marriage to husband Ted is only making the situation worse.

Needing some re-evaluation time, Amy decides on a personal vacation to clear her head. So following her grandmother's funeral, Amy takes an indefinite residence at the family country home in North Carolina. It's here she comes across some old archives revealing several long buried secrets about the family's source of wealth; secrets that don't line up to what she's been told. Amy's tranquil holiday soon turns treacherous as certain 'accidents' (perhaps intended to frighten or even harm Amy) start happening. It's all too evident that someone is targeting Amy. But why? Could one of her own family be out to harm her?

Maron is most well-known for her 'Deborah Knott' mysteries about a North Carolina district court judge. But her other writings include several stand-alone novels this one, exhibiting a sort-of 'big city vs. good 'ole boy' contrast, all surrounding female protagonists. The story's themes and motives may seem a little overblown and impractical (family money from toddler story books, Amy as the only heir, relatives she's never met/known about, husband Ted as a virtual non-entity the entire book, etc.) but Maron won't have trouble finding an audience with people wanting a little more umph to a domestic fiction. (MYS MARON)

The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal: More Than 450 Infamous Incidents from the 1600s to the Present [REF] / George Kohn, ed.

A great resource for anyone wanting to know about the infamous and underhanded events throughout American history. From the Salem Witch Trials to Benedict Arnold and all through the twentieth century with McCarthyism and OJ. Simpson. This is a great resource for anyone wanting to know what the Teapot-Dome Scandal or the man who really was Jimmy Hoffa. Recommended for anyone wanting to investigate the darker side of our nation's heritage...and for further reading ask the reference desk about other books involving scandals and conspiracy.

Rats Saw God / by Rob Thomas

Semi-local author Rob Thomas has published several YA novels over the past decade. This, his first, chronicles teenager Steve York at multiple times during high school. Steve's last day of eighth grade is turned on its head when his parents announce their impending divorce ultimately sending his mother and sister to San Diego and him to Houston to live with his repressive (and somewhat despotic) father--"The Astronaut". Facilitating things the best he can amidst unfamiliar surroundings, Steve carves out his new existence; gradually making friends and learning to survive his homelife simultaneously. His saving grace appears in the form of Wanda "Dub" Varner, with whom a steady-crush morphs into love by the end of freshman year. Until its bitter end his junior year, the reader is let in on all the relationship's details through segmented entries describing the 'then' blissful romance and his 'now' emotionally-reduced, drug-addled life after the break-up.

Though Thomas' later books were less well-received, Rats Saw God will find an audience with its drenched-in-sarcasm attitude and gritty realism. The 'then and now' style really fleshes out Steve's personality and relationships; displaying how both compliment each other and play off his actions. Generation X & Y'ers of the 80's/90's period will identify with the book's cultural aspects.

Life Expectancy / by Dean Koontz

Jimmy Tock is a man born on the same night his grandfather dies. Simultaneously as he is brought forth from his mother's womb, his grandfather utters his final words; a prediction for his grandson's life. The prediction is a series of five precisely set dates in the future that offer an ominous warning for the infant Jimmy. The string of prophetic days does not begin until Jimmy is an adult and well on his way to becoming a career pastry chef like his father. The book follows each date as events unfold introducing us along the way to Jimmy's nemesis, Beezo the Clown, who lies at the root of each fateful day.

Life Expectancy is, at most, a 'lighthearted' thriller and too radically far-reaching to sense any real danger despite some severely traumatic incidents which attempt to pique the reader's concern. With the exception of Punchonello-- Beezo's son, all the characters are one-dimensional bores as Koontz fails to flesh out any real-ness amidst the various bizarre episodes. Life Expectancy is quirky and absurd but may attract readers who like "fun" plots.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Water for Elephants / by Sara Gruen

An award-nominated novel by author Sara Gruen, the book is set mostly during the Great Depression with brief, present-day interludes of the protagonist as a geriatric patient. Water for Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski who at 23 is days away from an ivy league degree when his parents die in a car accident. Grief-stricken and penniless (his parents entire estate paying his tuition); he literally 'hops' the next train. The locomotive is a circus caravan complete with aerialists, freak shows and an animal menagerie; the latter employing Jacob as a veterinarian.

This book is less about amusements though; focusing instead on the pitiless world of depression-era showbiz. Gruen's tone begins mildly but eases into more sinister territory as Jacob falls desperately in love with Marlena, wife to an evil-hearted ringmaster. Beyond the love triangle is the stark reality of genuine hard times endured by nearly all characters: "red-lighting" of unneeded circus workers, the greed of the management at the expense of food and medicine, and the austere cruelty in beatings doled out to animals who won't perform. Gruen manages to balance the weightier issues through Jacob's eyes as he confronts the human condition with its inevitable paradox; brilliantly interweaving carnality and wickedness with love and harmony. (FIC GRUEN)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Narnians Unite!....or...."The Literature of C.S. Lewis" w/ Professor Timothy Shutt

This audiobook/lecture series/study guide is part of the Modern Scholar series of professor-led courses on various topics in the humanities and social sciences. A valuable tool for continuing education, this series features prominent scholars and real students interacting within an academic setting rendering it an ideal literary aid. Each Modern Scholar "kit" features recorded lectures along with a workbook and study guide allowing you to follow along with each talk.

Professor Timothy Baker Shutt of Kenyon College (MI) is an expert on the literature of C.S. Lewis, particularly his Science Fiction and Fantasy works. His literal and transfigural insight into Lewis' fictional Narnian world really enhances the characters and motifs elucidating each book's relevance within the 6-part series. With the second Narnia movie, 'Prince Caspian', appearing in theaters, this is really a great (and not too hard) read for inquiring minds. Shutt also chronicles important events in Lewis' personal life detailing how certain incidents may ultimately have impacted his literary style.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Network (DVD) 1975 / w/ William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, et. al.

Ratings for a national TV network soar one night when news anchor Howard Beal (Finch) announces his impending suicide on the air. Pleasantly intrigued network heads give Beal his own show--"Mad Prophet of the Airwaves", on which he raves about television's counterproductive influence on society. Friend and program director Max Schumacher (Holden) attempts to shield Beal (now clearly deranged) from unfeeling executives wishing to further exploit the situation.

William Holden was a man with "voice"; a sort of primal authority extending from his vocal chords. He was a good actor too prompting Hollywood scripts to provide Holden's characters at least one passion-driven monologue per film intended to vocally 'stamp' the movie (think Sunset Blvd, Born Yesterday, Stalag 17, etc.). Here he has like 3 or 4 such rants and yet is almost (though not altogether) overshadowed by Peter Finch's oscar-winning performance of a man driven to fanatical 'revelations' about television's vacuous hold over the masses. Faye Dunaway is the cold-hearted executive willing to sacrifice humanity for higher ratings and only prevented so by Schumacher, an on-the-outs program manager and Beal's longtime friend. In his only scene, Ned Beatty delivers a core truth (worth at least some 'real world' validity) about network television's partnership with corporate enterprise.

Ironic Footnote: (SPOILERS!!!) Howard Beal dies at the end of the movie and Finch himself died from a heart attack only months prior to being awarded a (posthumous) best-actor oscar for 'Network'.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua

This is the first novel written by Yu Hua, who has had two other books published. This one first came out in serial form for a literary journal. The events take place in rural China during the 1970’s, during the last years of the Cultural Revolution. The action focuses on a boy and his family, and his tenuous connection with them. His parents give him away to a childless couple when he is six, and he returns to his family at age twelve, after the death of his foster father. The boy, Sun Guanglin, narrates from the first person, as an adult remembering and recreating what he experienced. His father is a ruthless bully who intimidates his sons and wife, carrying on an affair with a widow and making advances to his daughter in law. Yu Hua conveys Sun’s emotional isolation and despair and we see Sun’s attempts to reach out to others to offset his family’s rejection. The book is especially striking showing how the political situation is felt at the village level. Traditional values are scorned by the party line, yet the condemnations and punishments applied for criminal or immoral actions seem rhetorical as well as harsh. The result is a culture in limbo, with the past erased and the future uncertain.