Friday, February 22, 2019

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018, PG-13)

Did you spend at least part of your childhood in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?  (If so, I'm joining with you, nodding my head and answering "Yes!") For me, as a very young person, Mister Rogers was an almost daily visitor;  I can remember being fascinated with his house with its trolley tracks running through the kitchen and into a tunnel in the wall, with his magic picture frame, and his miniature toy versions of the Land of Make Believe houses.  That said, you might imagine that I would approach this biography with a certain nostalgic sentimentality.  You'd be absolutely right. 

What I'm taking away from it, though, is a new-found, adult appreciation for what Fred Rogers accomplished, both with his television show and his life.  Set for seminary school as a young adult, Rogers became interested instead in child psychology and in using the still young medium of television as a learning tool, eventually creating a locally produced children's show in Pittsburgh in 1953.  While he produced the show and worked off-screen as a puppeteer, and was ordained as a minister in 1962, he didn't appear in front of the camera until 1963.  He went on to create his landmark program for PBS in 1968, and is credited as instrumental to saving the network's funding in the early 70's.  Throughout the program's long run, his caring, soft-spoken demeanor endeared him to both children and adults, though he was sometimes cynically criticized over the years as promoting exceptionalism, and was also parodied at times by the likes of Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson.  What should never be lost, though, is that his program spoke to the youngest of children in ways that did not belittle their emotions and questions about life. 

The documentary includes interviews with co-workers and family members, punctuated with footage from the show, interview, and silent animations that parallel his Make Believe characters to his life. Its culminating portrait hews very closely to the persona that we saw on our tv sets every day.  Some of the footage I had never seen before, such as an interview with late night host Tom Snyder, who seems to be charmed in spite of himself when Rogers introduces him to Daniel the Tiger.  I was both charmed and moved as well, and I highly recommend this film to anyone who would like to enjoy an uplifting experience.  After all, "A little kindness makes a world of difference," as the tag-line says.   -Barb

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Monday, February 11, 2019

Anonymous (2011, PG-13)

Of all conspiracies out there, the most important to ask what side you’re on is:  Are you an Oxfordian, or Stratfordian?

To those who do not know the meaning, there are two schools of thought that surround the most famous and studied playwright and poet of history: William Shakespeare.  Many believe it was a man named William Shakespeare from Stratford, England.  Then there are those who are firm in the belief that there is no record of a "William Shakespere" attending the grammar school of Stratford or a noble line of family to give this author such an extensive education and knowledge of the human experience to create the best plays in history.

Here exists Anonymous (2011) directed by Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day).  Anonymous is a film that argues for the Oxford side, exploring the lives of those who were involved with the writing of the best plays such as "Hamlet", "A Midsummer’s Night Dream", "Romeo and Juliet", and "King Lear".  The film surveys the life of the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (performed at different ages by Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower), and his involvement in the literary world of Elizabethan England.  The film presents the argument that William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) was an actor hired to claim authorship of the poetry and plays at the time.  Because the plays are often wrought with skepticism on royalty, and hard denouncement of the human experience, Edward could not merely place his name on the plays due to his noble title.  This is why Edward uses the actor William, who is presumably illiterate.  The plot thickens with intrigue, illegitimate children between Edward and Queen Elizabeth (performed by Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson), and Edward with other courtiers.  The son of Edward and Queen Elizabeth is presumably the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesly (Xavier Samuel), the subject of the first 161 famous sonnets.  A man named Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is to help Edward to preserve the originals of the plays and poems, but because of the of the treason and royal politics involved with the queen and Edward, the plays will never bear the name of the actual author, but will continue to hold William Shakespeare.

What is great about this film is the effort to put into the historical accuracy in the production.  Costumes, settings, language… it’s fantastic.  The contemporary style of filming helps separate this tale from being a staged play, but rather a suspenseful drama of some of the most brilliant writing.  The film uses flashbacks to support the story between Edward’s youth, Edward’s young manhood, and what brings about his death.  If you do not believe in the theory of the Earl of Oxford being the author, this film helps compel you to re-think the whole premise of the authorship.  There is love, sex, violence, war, art, and poetry… it’s all there.

I highly recommend Anonymous to all I encounter when speaking about "Hamlet" and "King Lear" (two of my most favorite plays of all time), and especially to you, readers, who want to explore more into the genius of the writing we attribute to William Shakespeare.  -Patrick

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

For my first Reader’s Blog submission I have chosen the very bleak, the very troubling, and the absolutely masterful Everything Flows, by Vasily Grossman. 

Everything Flows is a fictional story set in the post-Stalinist, but still extremely repressive, Soviet Union. The story begins as we meet Ivan Grigoryevich, a former political dissident who has just spent the past thirty years in a Soviet labor camp, and follow him around Moscow and Leningrad as he reconnects with old acquaintances, searches for an old lover, and struggles to make sense of his place in this new world. I imagine that sounds pretty typical of a story like this, “Guy Just Gets Released from Prison,” but what will draw you in is how Grossman frames these interactions and uses them to segue into the “second” portion of the book, the “unconventional” (and most fascinating/heartbreaking) parts.

See, the plot gradually turns from this “fish out of water” story about Ivan into a series of meditations on what I consider to be some pretty profound topics. The paradoxical effects “freedom” and “hope” have on imprisoned humans; the various impetuses that drives political informers to destroy others’ lives; the slavish nature of Russians throughout history (he got a lot of heat for that one); and the antithetical nature of state authoritarianism.

These meditations are riveting because, beyond providing helpful historical context, they are often opportunities for Grossman to talk directly to the reader, sometimes not even through Ivan. For example, at one point, Ivan runs into a man named Vitaly Pinegrin on the street while visiting Leningrad. The man is clearly rattled, but not because Ivan is a former convict; there’s something else. Gradually you begin to realize that Pinegrin is the man who informed on Ivan, and now here he is, right in his face, talking with him. But Ivan does not know this. The men separate, and that is the end of it. What follows, however, is an intense lesson on informers, but because Ivan does not know Pinegrin was his, it becomes clear that this section is Grossman addressing his reader directly. It was if to say “The story can wait; I need you to hear about this, right now. Let me tell you something about informers.” He does this more than once, and I loved it every time.

What I love even more about Everything Flows stems from knowing who Grossman was, knowing his story. While he was a celebrated journalist during World War 2, later in life Grossman was a victim of severe political repression due to the politically critical nature of his writings. Many of his works were denounced, vetoed, or flat out confiscated, such as his other, lengthier masterpiece, Life and Fate. He wrote under constant doubt that what he produced would ever be read. But he continued to write honestly, nonetheless, about life in a Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union, detailing the famines, purges, and imprisonment that characterize the era, and the resulting sociological and psychological impacts on the Soviet people. He never sought fame or celebrity status, something that could have made his life exponentially more comfortable, but instead wrote to provide an objective account of the events. In his own words, he “[Spoke] for those who lie in the earth,” and is still regarded as “our writer” by Russians and former Soviets. 

I want to go on for pages extolling the writing, the stories/characters, the emotional effect the book will have on you, and the courage it must have taken to write an honest portrayal of an authoritarian state while under control of that authoritarian state. I want to point out how you might be amazed to find such a strong presence of Christianity in the stories, despite the “godlessness” of Soviet Communism. Or, that you will without a doubt notice that the kulaks, one of the most severely oppressed classes of people because of their ownership over farm lands, were not just purged due to their wealth, but because they were racialized and identified en masse as vermin, a social plague. I could also expound on Grossman’s most controversial theory, which he describes in great detail: how there was no difference between Stalinism and Nazism. And I REALLY want to talk about his absolutely scorching analysis of Lenin.

But I’m going to leave those for you to come across and absorb for yourself. So I will close, instead, by saying I have never come across a more powerful critique of state authoritarianism than what Grossman provides in this book. I’ve read numerous others and they all pale in comparison. Maybe this is because Grossman never points to another political or economic system and says “That one is better. If we had used that one, it would have been better for us.” That’s one of the many things that make Grossman so appealing to me, that at the heart of all his writings, what he cared about wasn’t political partisanship, or professing loyalty to a state he knew to be antithetical to its own tenets: it was solidarity with his fellow citizens and a resoluteness for chronicling their stories so that there would be a record, not a purging, of their suffering.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is an evocative, poetic, sometimes gritty look at shepherding culture and lifestyle in modern Lake District in England. The book’s sub-caption sums up the book beautifully: “Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.” I was quickly drawn in by Rebanks' unique narrative voice, lyrical at times but also very stark in describing both the highs and lows of an agricultural lifestyle.

Rebanks tells the story of his life shepherding in modern England, connecting his experiences to those of his father, grandfather, and shepherds going back generations. The narrative is told in a series of vignettes that jump backwards and forwards in time, loosely gathered around the four seasons of the year. He struggles with the pull between his ancient occupation and the incoming push of modernization that threatens his (and others) small family-run farms being overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. A large part of his thoughts center around the dichotomy of how he, a Lake District native, sees the region compared to the multitude of tourists and vacationers that visit the area each year.

As a “ranch kid” myself, I at times felt Rebanks was describing a completely familiar culture, one that I grew up in as well. In that way I found this book to be deeply personal, and really enjoyed comparing the similarities and differences between shepherding in England and cattle ranching in Montana.

Altogether, I found The Shepherd’s Life to be a charming, engrossing and interesting read. If you like learning about different cultures and lifestyles, or happen to be interested in the minutiae of what makes a good sheep, this is the book for you. -Carla

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Monday, January 14, 2019

The Go Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Happy New Year, nerds! As you all know, January typically brings a big sigh of relief and a chance at a brand new, fresh start. For me, 2018 was a pretty good year and I was a tiny bit disappointed to see it go. 2018 brought a TRUE fresh start for me, as a lot of 2017 was, to put it bluntly, a DISASTER. 2018 was a chance to pick up the pieces, start over, and figure out who I am/want to be. That was my resolution and I was pretty darn successful with it, if I may boast.

Since I got a lot of the big stuff out of the way in 2018, I have decided to focus on smaller, day-to-day changes in 2019. One of these changes is gaining some additional control and understanding of my finances, as well as the business world as a whole. This is not to say that I’m a total idiot with no sense of control already, but I do have some considerable room for improvement. To get my motivation rolling, I decided to read a few financially-inspiring books. The first one I read is called The Go Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea by Bob Burg and John David Mann. This book presents what the authors have termed to be, “The Five Laws of Stratospheric Success,” which are: Value, Compensation, Influence, Authenticity, and Receptivity.

Overall, these laws stress that in order to receive, you have to be willing to GIVE. “Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment” (26). If you want to be truly successful, you must be willing to take risks. Will all of your risks pay off? Absolutely not, but that in itself is a risk we all need to be willing to take.

While this book is classified as nonfiction, it is written in a narrative style with characters and a plot, which makes it a lot easier to read and follow. It’s a little cheesy, but in a good way. What I loved most about this book is that the business principles presented can be applied to other aspects of your life (something the authors do mention at some point). I found this book particularly useful when leading discussions at church regarding charitable service and time management.

As always, I don’t want to give too much away about this book. I give it my highest recommendation and hope you’ll give it a go. I found it to be a quick, breezy read. If you’re looking to dip your toes in the entrepreneurship pool, this book is a fantastic place to start. All the ideas in it are presented in relatable, accessible, user-friendly ways. This isn’t just some other dry, boring business book. I guarantee you will walk away feeling both entertained AND inspired.

Happy Reading!  -Lena

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski

Who does one summon to hunt and kill the monsters of the night that plague humanity like werewolves, vampires, and goblins?  I present to you Geralt of Rivia, a man known as a Witcher, who kills beasts for money — using magical signs, potions, and the Witcher’s trademark: two swords of steel, and of silver. This post speaks on the excellent writing of Andrzej Sapkowski in his 8th book Season of Storms, written in 2013 but published in English in 2018.

The Witcher series is a high fantasy saga following Geralt of Rivia.  The man turned mutant can see in the dark with cat eyes, and is familiar with all folklore and superstition of mythical monsters such as griffins, leshens (frightful beings with elk skull as a mask controlling animals), gargoyles, etc.  The great thing about the Witcher series is the mix of western and eastern mythological creatures, superstitions, and how to destroy them.  Geralt’s primary focus is to protect the people these creatures harm, but at a hefty fine.  Witchers are contracted beast killers.  Geralt’s best weapons are his steel sword used for men and his sacred silver sword used for the more robust, mythical monsters.  He is in love with a sorceress named Yennefer of Vengerberg, and he loves wine with his best friend, a poet named Dandelion.

If not familiar with the Witcher series, Season of Storms is the 8th novel written by Sapkowski but falls between the first and second books, which are collections of short stories.  Sapkowski wrote the novel as a “midquel” to the series.  Here in Season of Storms, a town hires Geralt on a contract to kill a monster, but when he goes to get his reward, his name-sake swords, he discovers that someone or something has stolen them!  Following conspiracy after conspiracy, Geralt finds himself in a rabbit hole, forcing him to hunt more monsters but without his swords.

The universe of the Witcher has expanded in many forms, including games, novels, and comics. The comic series Fox Children elaborates on a chapter from Season of Storms, involving Geralt protecting a ship of men who stole a child from a Fox Mother, a magical creature known as a vixen who turns young girls into her kind.

Though this is a midquel to the collection of short stories, I also recommend The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny.  These three books make you laugh, cry, contemplate philosophy, and fill with adrenalin when the Witcher hunts dragons, sorcerers, and comes to the aid of a young girl name Ciri, who is destined to be by Geralt’s side.  -Patrick

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This librarian just read a library book called The Library Book. Obviously, I’m going to say I loved it. But even if you’re not a superfan of libraries and librarians – tsk, tsk – I think you will love it too.

This book is centered around the devastating fire in 1986, which burned for seven hours, wreaking havoc on the downtown Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Nearly every firefighter in LA was called to the raging blaze. It reached 2000 degrees and melted steel shelves. Rare volumes, classic fiction, microfilm, art books, new bestsellers, historical records, patents, and music burned or melted. It destroyed four hundred thousand books, and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Don’t be surprised if you never heard about it. The meltdown at Chernobyl happened the same day and got all of the world’s attention.

Investigators looked into the cause of fire. It might have been arson. A public library welcomes any number of people through its doors each day, but it might have involved one young wannabe Hollywood hero who might have been the man acting suspiciously that morning. The fact that his story changed each time he told it made him hard to pin down. The mystery tantalizes through the course of the book.

But Orlean moves beyond the events of the fire to tell a story about the history of the grand old Art Deco building itself, the history of the young city that valued learning and built it, and the stories of the wild characters who led or influenced the institution of the Los Angeles Public Library. She depicts the various services of the library, the people who staff them and the people who use them. She outlines the civic debates about budgets and services and why they mattered, and continue to matter, to the community the library served. And even further, she talks about the role libraries play in people’s lives, in that community, across the United States and around the world.

Orlean is a remarkable storyteller, and proves it again in The Library Book. It’s a beautifully written book, with meticulous research backing it. I cried twice reading the first fifty pages. Admittedly, my emotional connection with libraries runs deep. But even if you are not so deeply connected, the book is going to keep you spellbound to the finish.

Nonfiction writer Susan Orlean is best known for The Orchid Thief, which inspired the movie Adaptation. She has also written a bestselling profile of a superstar movie dog in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, as well as The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounter with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere. All of these are available to check out from the library.  -Dee Ann

Reserve this book or one of Susan Orlean's other titles!