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Movie Freak

posted by: February 26, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for Movie FreakFilm critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.


By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.


His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.


Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.


Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.



Mysteries for Young Readers

posted by: February 24, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Captain CoconutCover art for The Queen's ShadowCover art for Warren the 13thYoung sleuths looking for a case to solve can have their pick with the latest selection of new titles. Each of these books holds secret lessons on science and math that will help burgeoning detectives spot clues and decode puzzles.


Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar introduces a new “First Chapter” series from India, led by the crazy and entertaining Captain Coconut, detective extraordinaire. When he’s not inventing booby traps and reading pulpy detective stories, the Captain has readers using simple arithmetic to solve crimes. Chapters are interjected with Bollywood-esque songs praising Captain Coconut’s numerous talents while the accompanying illustrations belie many jokes at the Captain’s expense.


The Queen’s Shadow, by acclaimed picture book author Cybèle Young, uses the framework of a mystery in an animal kingdom to study the special kinds of vision different animals have — from the trinocular vision of the mantis shrimp to the panoramic eyesight of goats. Young interjects her narrative with sidebars detailing these feats and uses her illustrations to demonstrate the ways animals’ vision differs from our own. Readers will be impressed by the creatures she features, some of whom are strange and exotic, but many of which are fairly common and all the more interesting when seen in this new light.


Fans of Gravity Falls and Roald Dahl will want to check out Warren the 13th and the All Seeing Eye, an action-packed story about an orphan who cares for the hotel his ancestors built. Minded by his devious aunt and dim-witted uncle, Warren’s days of riding dumbwaiters and exploring hedge mazes are interrupted when he takes up the task of thwarting his scheming relatives’ plans for treasure hunting. To prevent the mysterious “All Seeing Eye” from falling into the wrong hands, Warren must uncover the secrets of the Warren Hotel with some creative thinking and the help of his friends. With a cast as kooky as the Addams family, Warren the 13th is a fast paced, art-driven story first conceived by its illustrator, Will Staehle, and further developed by writer Tania Del Rio, who has promised a sequel this fall.




The Marvels

posted by: February 23, 2016 - 7:00am

The MarvelsIf I could award a book for best cover design, Brian Selznick's The Marvels would be the winner. One of the reasons why I selected The Marvels is because the book cover had me at “Hello!” It is a large, navy blue and gold book with gold trimmed pages. Do not let the page count intimidate you, even though it's nearly 700 pages (Yikes!). It's part pictures and part words (Yay!).


The first half of The Marvels is in illustration. The drawings tell a story set in 1766 about a 12-year-old boy named Billy Marvel, who becomes the lone survivor of a horrid shipwreck caused by a storm. After an English ship saves him, he settles in London and works at the Royal Theatre. This theatre becomes the place where several generations of Billy’s family perform and become well-known actors.


The second half of The Marvels is in prose. This story takes place in London and is set in 1990. It focuses on another young boy named Joseph Jervis, who runs away from boarding school to track down his best bud, Blink. Unable to find him, Joseph seeks help from his long time, no-see estranged uncle, Albert Nightingale, to assist him with locating his friend. While searching for his uncle’s address, Joseph meets a new acquaintance, Frankie, who helps him find his uncle’s home. At first, Albert is reluctant to have Joseph stay at his home, but he gives in once he sees that his nephew is unwell. After experiencing the presence of ghosts, hearing weird noises and seeing enchanting portraits throughout the home, Joseph quickly notices that his uncle and his house are very mysterious. He and Frankie gather that it may have something to do with the Marvels and the Royal Theatre. They both go on a mission to discover Albert’s connection to the theatre and the Marvels.


My favorite part about The Marvels is the wonderful job the author has done telling the story through the amazing illustrations. Although this is a children’s book, I want to point out that it has LGBT themes and it brings up the topic of AIDS. The story has some heart-breaking moments and an unexpected twist. Overall, this was a good read.


Fans of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck will relish his latest release The Marvels.


My Name Is Lucy Barton

posted by: February 23, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for My Name is Lucy BartonThe mother-daughter relationship is complicated at its best, damaging at its worst. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout deftly tells the tale of one such complex relationship in her latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. This beautifully written story is filled with hope, pain, love and understanding.


Life has come to a halt for Lucy Barton, a young married mother living in 1980s Manhattan. Succumbing to an unknown infection after routine surgery, she must convalesce in the hospital for nine weeks. Despondent and lonely, she wants nothing more than to get back to her family and her life as a writer in the West Village. To stave off loneliness, her husband flies in her estranged mother from the Midwest for a five-day visit. To say these two are not close is an understatement — they haven't seen each other in years and are barely on speaking terms. How and why did they become so distant? As Lucy tells of her mother’s visit, she also flashes back to her poverty-stricken childhood and forward to the future when her daughters are grown. We learn of her childhood, her college years and of her life in Manhattan. She attempts to forge a stronger bond with her mother during the visit, but she also hopes to get answers. Why did her mother not come to her wedding? Is she proud of her? Lucy soon realizes that as she learns more about her mother, she better understands herself.


Strout illustrates both the power and far reaching consequences of the mother-daughter relationship.  You will empathize and perhaps even identify with Lucy Barton and her mother, feeling their raw emotion in spades. Check out Strout’s other works for more moving stories about relationships. My favorites are Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Both great reads...and rereads!



Harper Lee, 1926-2016

posted by: February 19, 2016 - 12:15pm

Harper Lee 1926 - 2016Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Born on April 28, 1926, Lee was educated in Alabama and at one time thought about becoming a lawyer, but moved to New York in 1949 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.


It took nine years, but finally Lee’s manuscript was accepted and the book was published on July 11, 1960. Set in a small Southern town, Lee’s masterpiece tackles racial injustice and was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. The film adaptation starring Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus was equally sensational and only added to Harper Lee’s literary fame and expectations for her next novel. For decades, though, it appeared that Lee would never publish another book. That all changed in 2015 when a manuscript was mysteriously uncovered and Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was the book of last summer.


Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, recovered and resumed life in her beloved hometown which served as the model for the small town in To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, when asked by a radio interviewer about her small corner of the world, Lee said, “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it and something to lament in its passing.” She continued, “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”


The Portable Veblen

posted by: February 19, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for The Portable VeblenIf you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.


Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?


She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.


Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.


The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.



My Father, the Pornographer

posted by: February 18, 2016 - 7:00am

My Father, the PornographerIn the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.


Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.


But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.


For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.


Women in Computer Science

posted by: February 17, 2016 - 7:00am

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking MachineTechnology: Cool Women Who CodeWomen have been working in the field of computer science for a long time, but their accomplishments are rarely as recognized as the accomplishments of their male counterparts. In reality, many women have been integral to the development of computer science as we know it today. These two nonfiction books begin teaching children at an early age that the field of computer science has grown very quickly and the future is bright for anyone who is interested in becoming a part of it.


When were the first computers invented? Your child might be surprised to find that people have been working on developing computers and computer programs since the 1800s. Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark is a beautifully illustrated biography. Ada is credited for writing the world’s first computer program. She was so advanced in her field that modern-day computer scientists found Ada’s program was nearly perfect and still useable to this day, even though it was published in 1843. In addition to her compelling narrative, Wallmark includes a timeline and author’s note at the end that highlights the significance of Ada’s life in context. The illustrations by April Chu complement Ada’s life story well, using warm colors and soft lines to capture the time period in this historical biography for young children perfectly.


Technology: Cool Women Who Code by Andi Diehn offers a more modern-day perspective on women in computer science, targeted for children ages 9 to 12. The book introduces how computer science and programming languages work and different types of careers for people who are interested in technology. There are three great female role models highlighted in the book: Grace Hopper, a computer programmer for the U.S. Navy; Shaunda Bryant Daily, who explored the connection between computers and human emotion; and Jean Yang, an aspiring computer science professor. The book is graphically engaging and interactive, including text boxes with social and historical context, information about technology-related careers and thought-provoking questions such as, “What does innovation mean to you?” and “What will the computer industry be like 20 or 30 years from now if one gender continues to work in it the most?” The book also provides a magnum of resources for those who want to explore computer science careers even further, including primary resources from the women featured, different websites and books. This book is unique because it highlights issues of gender inequality alongside the excitement of the growing technology industry, which provides a great perspective for any aspiring young computer scientist.



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