Blogging for a Good Book
What exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.
Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.
Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.
Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”
Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”
Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.
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Mice live in the shadows, overseen by the moon, which they believe is the eye of their god, Wotan. As their legends go, in years past they were protected by a band of fierce warriors, guardians of the night: the Templars. After years of defending as a unified brotherhood, one year, for a reason yet unknown, the Templars were divided and began warring against each other. After the epic battle, no Templars were allegedly ever seen again. Now the mice have mere watchmen guarding them against all the creatures, large and small, who threaten their existence.
Karic is a young mouse who soaks in all the stories of the battles of yore with relish and loves to imagine himself as a brave fighter. His obsession with combat seems a harmless boyish phase until his village gets attacked by an army of rats. Any similarity between this story and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is quickly squashed with the first (of many) beheaded mouse in the vicious, horrific bloodbath that ensues. Karic loses contact with his mother and sister, surviving the conflict and receiving a message from the fish gods claiming that he is some kind of chosen one. He meets up with an old warrior mouse named Pilot who admits to being a former Templar living in exile. Pilot takes Karic under his wing as they begin searching for answers and a path to follow.
These mice are far from fluffy and cute. They have huge ears which display their mood, droopy when tired or sad, flung back when on the attack, perked up when focused. These same ears are often marked with notches, scarred from the ongoing battle for their fragile lives. Their bodies are thin and angular and every mouse appears exhausted, deep shadows under their eyes. They are ruled by gods and prophecy, though they fear that their god has abandoned them. And it is hard to fault them, as almost everything seems to exist as a threat to the tiny creatures, and their world quickly begins to spiral into terrible, bloody chaos.
As Karic’s journey progresses, he is forced to learn, and then unlearn, then learn again. In this land of wars and betrayal, exactly who represents the good and the right is hard to discern, as everyone has blood on their paws. Tiny as he is, even compared to other mice, it will be up to Karic to live up to his billing as the one chosen by the god Woten.
Dark and unrelenting, this title is not recommended to those who prefer lighthearted, humorous tales.
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I can’t think of a more unlikely animal to swath in the robes of a noble hero than a mouse. After all, mice have a position about as close to the bottom of the food chain as is possible, and seem to spend the day scurrying around tucking food away and trying not to get eaten themselves. Shouldn’t the fighting be left to those creatures that were born with rippling muscles or fearsome claws or at least a mighty roar? Maybe it is just this somewhat odd juxtaposition between underdog and champion that has piqued the interest of several authors including David Petersen.
In his fictional medieval world, mice have created cities tucked away in tree roots and rocky caverns where they are protected from discovery by predators. Travel between cities is treacherous, and mice that need to make the trip are protected by the Mouse Guard. Originally called into action as soldiers, recent times of calm and prosperity have altered their role into a more passive one of watchful escorts to merchants.
Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam are three members of the Mouse Guard, who are trying to track down a grain merchant that disappeared while traveling between cities. In searching for his person (or his body), the trio stumbles onto a plot that threatens the very foundation of their world. Can they prevail against the worst threat their society has ever faced before? As one of their sayings goes: “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for.”
Winner of the 2008 Eisner Awards for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album, the ink work is phenomenal, with deep shadows and sharp edges. This then sets up space for waves of watercolor-like hues to paint the appropriate mood, whether it is bright sunny beach scene or the terrifying glow of burning embers.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels who love a good adventure story and fiercely adorable protagonists.
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The mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.
On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.
Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.
Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.
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I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?
I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
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It’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”
Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.
Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.
When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor. Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.
The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.” Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.
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I work on a public service desk, so I see lots of people from all walks of life and economic classes. When they ask for computer help, or to use the phone, it is impossible not to see or hear what they’re doing. (The cardinal sin of librarianship is denying them service based on those observations.) But when I hear someone reeking of cigarettes negotiating a payday loan, or see a woman with a toddler and a baby bragging about her sexual adventures on Facebook, it’s hard not to mentally question their choices. Linda Tirado has given me 191 pages of smackaround for my presumption in asking those questions.
Tirado came to international attention when her essay on the bad decisions many poor people make went viral. Based on that attention she was able to get a book deal to expand on the post, and to share the experiences of other people she knows. Those people might as well be the ones I see coming in the door of the library, because they face the same problems: minimum wage jobs where they rarely get 40 hours, second jobs that frequently conflict with the first, unreliable cars, uncertain housing, lack of resources or time to buy and cook fresh food, and difficult choices about prioritizing the little money they earn.
So why do poor people smoke? Wouldn’t you, if it cut down on hunger, gave you a jolt of energy, and allowed you some break time at work? Why do poor people live in such lousy housing? Wouldn’t you, if you had to come up with first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit on a place that goes for more than a few hundred bucks a month? Why do they pay sky-high interest rates on short term loans? Wouldn’t you, if your car broke down and it was still a week until payday? Why are they so poor at planning for the future? Wouldn’t you be if a supervisor, a manager, a district supervisor, and corporate policy all dictated when you could go to the bathroom?
Our prejudice towards the poor is enshrined in our public policy, which begins with an automatic suspicion that poor people can be divided into the worthy poor and those who are to blame and ought to pay the price. And I’d bet you couldn’t get 10 regular people, much less the 21 senators, 51 delegates and 1 governor in Virginia to agree on who is worthy. Tirado’s writing is conversational and often funny, but her humor doesn’t negate the anger in her voice when she talks about those policy-making individual and political prejudices. And her name couldn’t be more perfect for this book – it’s a cross between a tirade and a tornado, demanding that we listen and pay attention.
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The art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.
Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.
Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.
This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.
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I have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.
Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
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I thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.
Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.
Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.
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Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
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Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
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My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.
After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.
Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.
Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.
Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.
Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.
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Life is relatively uneventful for high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale). When he’s not spending time with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), or best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), he’s watching horror films. He’s particularly enamored of a late night horror film series called Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a one-time star of Hammer-style vampire films.
Charley’s routine life is interrupted when the Victorian mansion next door is purchased by a man named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). Although Charley’s mother insists Jerry bought the mansion because he restores houses for a living, odd incidents around the house convince Charley that Jerry may be a vampire. One night, Charley sees Jerry and his housemate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement. A few nights later, a young woman who visited Jerry’s house turns up dead. Charley starts watching the house through his bedroom window and soon gets the proof he needs when he sees Jerry biting a woman’s neck.
Convinced he needs to do something to stop Jerry, Charley first turns to his local police department. Billy offers plausible explanations for everything Charley saw and the officer ultimately dismisses Charley’s story, believing he has an overactive imagination. Amy and Ed are skeptical of Charley’s story as well, and in desperation he turns to the one person he thinks will believe him: Peter Vincent. This turns into yet another dead end as Peter informs him that Fright Night is being cancelled because, “The kids today don’t have the patience for vampires. They want to see some mad slasher running around and chopping off heads.” Thinking Charley is an obsessed fan, Peter speeds away from the station.
Concerned that Charley’s belief that Jerry is a vampire is affecting his mental state, Amy and Ed contact Peter and offer to pay him if he will demonstrate to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire. Peter agrees, and a meeting is arranged with Jerry. The meeting is intended to be a harmless way of putting Charley’s mind at ease; however, the lives of Charley, Ed, Amy and Peter are put in grave danger when Peter accidently discovers that Jerry really is a vampire.
What I enjoy most about Fright Night is the way Holland (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly mixes humor with horror. The scenes from Peter Vincent’s show, particularly the clips from Vincent’s films – complete with Roddy McDowall in a bad wig – gently parody the Gothic vampire films popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, the Peter Vincent character has some of the best lines in the film and McDowall gives a wonderfully droll performance. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, particularly Chris Sarandon as the charming and seductive Jerry Dandridge. The elaborate visual effects are effective and creepy, but don’t overwhelm the story.
A remake was released in 2011, with Colin Farrell playing the role of Jerry Dandridge and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) as Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas magician and vampire expert. I recommend the original film, but fans of Colin Farrell and David Tennant might enjoy the remake.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) enjoys a prosperous career as a banker with all the trappings of success; however, he has few personal connections and is estranged from his former wife Elizabeth and younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Conrad pays him a surprise visit and gives him a voucher from a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). If Nicholas redeems this voucher, he will receive a virtual reality game custom designed for him. Conrad refuses to describe the game in detail, but insists that it is a life-changing experience.
Intrigued, Nicholas visits CRS and meets with a man named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Like Conrad, he offers few specifics about the game, telling Nicholas that it’s like an “experiential Book-of the-Month club.” Nicholas decides to fill out a lengthy application for the game as well as undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. Shortly after applying for the game, he receives a message from CRS informing him that his application was rejected. However, this message actually turns out to be the first move in Nicholas’ game.
Nicholas continues to go about his daily business, but soon cracks start appearing in his orderly world that may or may not be a part of this game. These range from the mildly annoying and inconsequential – a leaking pen and a locked briefcase – to the bizarre – a trashed hotel room filled with photos that appear to show Nicholas in compromising positions.
Along the way, Nicholas discovers clues to the game, and one of these clues leads him to a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may be an innocent victim of the game or one of its key figures. As Nicholas continues to play the game, the stakes get higher, and soon the game threatens his career, finances, and life.
The Game is a fascinating portrait of a man whose carefully constructed life is completely upended by forces beyond his control. Nicholas is being manipulated, but by whom and for what purpose? Is the game a harmless, if occasionally inconvenient, diversion, or a sinister plot to gain control over his life and his fortune? Nicholas’ attempts to find answers to these questions lead him down the rabbit hole to a surreal nightmare that tests his patience and sanity.
I especially enjoyed the performances in the film. Michael Douglas is perfect as the successful but distant Nicholas, and Deborah Kara Unger brings an intriguing icy reserve as the mysterious Christine. Director David Fincher keeps the pacing sharp and focused, gradually ratcheting up the tension as the game becomes more intense and dangerous.
A complex thriller filled with unpredictable plot twists and moments of dark humor, The Game is a good choice for anyone looking for a surreal thriller this Halloween.
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The films of French director Claude Chabrol are often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and in his film Merci Pour le Chocolat (based on the 1948 novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong) there is a similar level of suspense and craftsmanship.
The film opens with the wedding of Marie-Claire “Mika” Muller (Isabelle Huppert) and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Mika runs her family’s successful chocolate company in Lausanne, Switzerland, and André is a famous concert pianist. This is the couple’s second chance at love. They were previously married and divorced years earlier, and reunited after the tragic death of André’s second wife, Lisbeth, a photographer. Mika’s relationship history with André is the subject of lively gossip at the wedding, with one guest telling another, “She hates losing.”
The couple lives in an elegant mansion in Lausanne with André and Lisbeth’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Shortly after the wedding, a young woman named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) pays the family a visit. Jeanne was born at the same hospital as Guillaume, and when André came to the hospital to see his wife and child, the nurse mistakenly brought Jeanne to him instead of Guillaume. Although Jeanne’s mother, Louise, insists that the error was immediately corrected, Jeanne is struck by the curious coincidence that she’s a pianist just like André. The purpose of her surprise visit is twofold: she would like additional coaching before an upcoming competition and she wants to see if it’s possible that she and Guillaume really were switched at birth.
André is impressed with Jeanne’s talent and offers to help her practice for the competition. He welcomes the chance to help an aspiring concert pianist since his son Guillaume is not musically inclined. Guillaume, however, is distant, suspicious of Jeanne’s motives for visiting his father. Mika is warm and welcoming, but an incident causes Jeanne to wonder if there’s more to Mika than meets the eye. While admiring some of Lisbeth’s photographs, Jeanne sees Mika deliberately spill a flask of hot chocolate she’s prepared for Guillaume. Jeanne asks her boyfriend Axel to help her investigate Mika and her reason for spilling the chocolate.
As Jeanne becomes more involved in the lives of André, Mika and Guillaume, long buried family secrets begin to emerge and Mika’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable. Is Mika’s charm and elegance merely masking sinister intentions, and what is in the chocolate she always insists on preparing herself?
At the center of this gripping psychological thriller is a compelling performance by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. On the surface, Mika appears to be generous and caring. She opened her home to André, Lisbeth and Guillaume when they needed a stable place to live and she uses the profits from the chocolate company to fund anti-pain clinics. Although her behavior appears to be good, she secretly delights in doing things to catch people off guard, like spilling a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s foot. Huppert’s performance captures the enigmatic nature of Mika and the compulsions that drive her behavior throughout the film.
Chabrol establishes a strong tone that perfectly fits the plot and characters. The film moves at a steady and deliberate pace as the secrets are gradually revealed. Music also plays an important part in the story and Chabrol’s use of Liszt’s Funérailles is effectively quite chilling.
Hitchcock fans looking for other well-crafted suspense movies should consider trying the films of Claude Chabrol.
Merci pour le Chocolat is in French with English subtitles.
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Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a wealthy and free-spirited socialite living in San Francisco. One afternoon she visits a pet shop, where she meets a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Mitch has met Melanie before, but she does not recognize him. Knowing her propensity for practical jokes, Mitch decides to play one of his own and pretends to mistake her for a sales clerk. Melanie’s anger at Mitch over his joke quickly turns to interest. She makes a few inquiries and discovers he lives in Bodega Bay with Cathy and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Determined to see him again, Melanie purchases lovebirds as a surprise gift for Cathy and travels to Bodega Bay to visit Mitch and his family.
Once she arrives in Bodega Bay, Melanie discovers that Mitch’s house is only accessible by boat. She also meets several of the local residents, including Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover. She rents a boat, goes to the house while Mitch and his family are out, and leaves the birds along with a note for Cathy. Just as she’s heading back, Mitch sees her on the water and watches as she’s inexplicably attacked by a seagull. He offers his assistance and invites her to dinner that evening. Melanie wasn’t planning on spending the night in Bodega Bay, but she’s interested in Mitch, so she rents a room in Annie’s house for the night and accepts the dinner invitation.
While at the Brenners’ house for dinner, Melanie bonds with Cathy over the lovebirds, and enjoys Mitch’s company. Lydia, however, is less concerned with Mitch’s new love interest than she is about the chickens she keeps on her property. The chickens won’t eat and, curiously, the neighbors’ chickens are refusing to eat as well. The dinner ends on a sour note after Mitch teases Melanie about a scandalous escapade that made the society pages. Once she returns to Annie’s house, Melanie learns more about Mitch and Annie’s ill-fated relationship, and why Annie relocated to Bodega Bay. Mitch later calls to apologize and invites Melanie to Cathy’s birthday party. After accepting the invitation, Annie and Melanie hear a thump at the front door. They open the door and discover a dead bird on the porch.
The unusual behavior of the chickens, the seagull attack, and the dead bird on Annie’s porch are not isolated and unrelated incidents: they portend dark and sinister events involving birds, including the strange death of Lydia’s neighbor and an attack on a group of schoolchildren. Melanie’s romantic getaway quickly turns into a fight for survival as the town of Bodega Bay is inundated by scores of birds whose attacks only grow in frequency and viciousness.
The Birds is frightening because the villain is not your average horror film creature. Instead of a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, the citizens of Bodega Bay are facing a threat from the natural world whose motive is unknown and whose behavior is violent and unpredictable. Hitchcock builds the tension slowly, starting with odd but seemingly random events that culminate in a harrowing night for Melanie and the Brenners.
More than 50 years after its release, The Birds remains a classic of the horror genre and one of Hitchcock’s finest films.
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Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, returns as the central character in this fast paced, intellectual, thriller. As the story opens, Langdon is waking up, disoriented, in a hospital. The people around him are not speaking English, but Italian. While it makes one wonder if Langdon actually keeps office hours on campus (he never seems to be there), it also grabs your attention. From the initial scene there are twists, turns, surprises, danger, and discoveries. Inferno introduces readers to an entirely new cast of characters including Dr. Sienna Brooks, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, The Provost, and Bertrand Zobrist, who keep readers turning pages late into the night.
This is Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel. With each book the stakes seem to grow, and as this plot unfolds the potential consequences of not solving the puzzle quickly expand beyond the lives of a few people. As the title will suggest for some, crucial to Inferno’s story is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The author has Langdon using his unique knowledge of symbols to examine and analyze Dante’s work, extracting clues, revealing truths, and saving lives. Langdon’s expertise and his eidetic recollection of art serve as key factors in the story.
Dan Brown’s smooth writing and attention to detail make for exciting story-telling. Brown engages his reader with vivid descriptions of historic architecture, art, geography, and society. The places, art, and history he includes in his novel are largely factual. The narrative Brown weaves into the fact is a big part of what makes Inferno so entertaining for me.
Another part is the protagonist. I find myself awed by Langdon’s superhuman personality. He embodies a combination of being unpretentious, ethical, brilliant, driven, analytical, and confident. Because Langdon has no significant character flaws, I think we need the suspension of disbelief that fiction allows to make the character convincing. I still can’t quite visualize Dr. Langdon, since I’ve never met a middle-aged, brilliant academic who also is extremely physically fit, and stands firm in the face of certain death. Indiana Jones showed us that archaeology and adventure are inseparably linked but, before Robert Langdon, who among us had included symbology in that cosmology? Is it a leap to expect that someone will soon write about the exciting exploits of a suave, globe trotting, death-defying librarian? After all, librarians are pretty cool too.
In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:
Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs). Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White. That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.
Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.
Taft did not crave the limelight. If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career. He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.
Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them. He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.
Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent. In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents. Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists. However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.