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Archive for 2007

A movie about six unemployed steel workers, set in the depressed industrial north of England, doesn’t exactly sound like the recipe for a successful comedy but believe me, The Full Monty is a terrific film. It is British independent film making at its best.

Driven by a desperate need for cash, and inspired by a local performance of the male “dance” show Chippendales, Gaz (Robert Carlyle) comes up with a plan – surely he and his mates can make a few quid by taking off their clothes for the ladies? Just one problem – there is not a good physical specimen amongst them! Indeed, as their old boss Gerald is keen to point out to Gaz and one of his mates – “he’s fat, you’re thin, and you’re both ****** ugly”. Despite their physical shortcomings and their total lack of skills on the dance floor, the group agrees to go “the full monty” – or to strip totally naked – in order to attract the largest possible audience and earn the most cash.

Along the way to their one-night only performance, there are some hilarious scenes – my favorite is the impromptu dance in the queue at the unemployment office – but there are also some more serious notes. The film deals with the importance of work to self-esteem, the despair and hopelessness of industrial decline, and the lengths some will go to to hide their situation. But these more serious themes only add to our sympathy for the characters, and don’t hinder the progress of a very entertaining and comical storyline.

The humor is down to earth and full of colorful language (not exactly Jeeves and Wooster stuff), but if you don’t mind a good dose of swearing and some challenging accents, you will enjoy a hilarious and poignant view of British life. The sound track is jolly good too – a great mix of seventies dance tunes to tap your feet to!

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Truman Capote is probably recalled by most people today for his flamboyance, his odd speaking voice, and his dissolute lifestyle in the 1960s and 70s. Others may think of him as one of the founders of the narrative nonfiction movement with the success of In Cold Blood, published in serial form in the New Yorker in 1965 and then in book form in 1966. Students of Southern literature may think of Capote for his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. All of these are vital pieces of who Capote was. But I have always thought of Capote as the author of one of the most charming and moving Christmas stories that I have ever read, A Christmas Memory.

In this brief story, Capote recounts one Christmas time in his youth in the early 1930s. He is seven years old, already an outsider, even from his family. After his parents divorced, Capote was sent to live with his mother’s people in Alabama. Here, he struck up a friendship with a sixty-some year-old cousin, Sook Faulk, who was the only person in the family who seems to have really cared for him. Over the course of the story, which begins with the cousin waking one November morning to announce that “It’s fruitcake weather,” Capote describes the preparations and gathering of ingredients for the pair’s annual baking of Christmas fruitcakes. It seems a slight subject on which to hang a tale, but Capote is a wonderful storyteller, and knows how to put together a sentence. There are memorable characters throughout the piece, including Mr. Haha Jones, the local bootlegger, from whom the pair manage to get the whiskey needed to soak the cakes.

It is a bittersweet tale, and there is an elegaic tone that runs throughout the story. The changes that would come to the South and to Capote himself are just around the corner, and in both cases, you get the sense that these are changes for the worse. Nonetheless, ever since I came across the piece on my parent’s bookshelves thirty five or so years ago, I have had a warm affection for Truman Capote and for his recollections of Christmas time.

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“It’s a good thing she’s dead.” It was my friend Nora on the phone. Not hello, Penelope, this is Nora, how are you? Just “It’s a good thing she’s dead, or I’d kill her.”

I’d bugged Nora to read the Lymond Chronicles, raving that it was the most intense reading experience of my life. Now Nora had just finished book four, Pawn in Frankincense. She was crying, she was raging, and she wanted nothing better than to throttle Dorothy Dunnett. I knew how she felt.

I made the mistake of picking up the Lymond Chronicles while in library school. I was immediately, hopelessly hooked. For weeks, late at night when I was supposed to be studying information-seeking behavior, I was instead lost in the adventures of the dazzling Scottish mercenary, Francis Crawford of Lymond. Over the course of the six-volume saga, Lymond is entangled in plots, seductions and duels at most of the royal courts of mid-16th-century Europe, from France to Constantinople to Russia. Every chapter brings another surprise, another narrow escape, another wonderfully rich scene of Renaissance life.

Lymond is my favorite sort of hero: the tormented mastermind. He is a poet, musician, mathematical genius, and the greatest military mind of his day. He is witty in at least a dozen languages. He is also so racked by self-loathing that he repeatedly tries to goad otherwise nice people into killing him. He commits appalling acts for reasons that may become clear only hundreds of pages later into the story. Which brings me back to Nora’s phone call. Dunnett inflicts some cruel sucker punches on her readers. This is embarrassing to admit, but at one point, I screamed “Traitor!,” threw the book across the room, and began wailing in grief. My bewildered husband tried to comfort me, saying “But it’s only a story.” Only a story? For the past six weeks, it had been my life.

Check the WRL catalog for the first volume of the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings.

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Here, read the first sentence and see if you’re hooked:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

With A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving managed to write the rarest of books, a Christian novel that’s not the least bit inspirational. Within the story there is ample evidence of God’s influence in the characters’ lives, but at no point does anyone proselytize: Irving never suggests, even indirectly, that the reader adopt Christianity. And yet this is a very religious book in the sense that God plays a large role—and the main character himself is a Christ figure.

Heavy issues of religion, faith, and spirituality abound in Owen Meany—but in case one weighty topic per book isn’t enough for you, you’ll also get a healthy dose of politics. The story starts simply enough, in small-town 1950s New England, but by the latter half of the book, America is embroiled in Vietnam. Thoughts of war, duty, and personal responsibility occupy the the mind of the narrator, an American who moved to Canada duing the Vietnam War (though not, significantly, as a draft dodger).

With all these meaty issues, Owen Meany is, literally, thought-provoking. For days after I finished it I found myself, er, provoked by thoughts. I would be lying in bed, or taking a shower, or trying to concentrate on a different book, but I kept coming back to Owen Meany. “Wait!” I yelled at my cat as I was feeding her. “Did John Irving mean…?”

Most books with heavy themes are—how shall I say this delicately?—are not over-focused on plot. The Brothers Karamazov, my favorite novel ever, raises every philosophical question known to humankind, but it’s not what you’d call a fast read. Owen Meany, now—the story grabbed me from the get-go and didn’t let go till the very last page, at which point I put the book down and bawled my eyes out. What can I say? The characters grow on you.

Caveat reader: Owen Meany contains strong language and violence (I’m telling you, this is just not typical Christian fiction) and a peculiar strain of anti-Catholicism from one of the characters; I didn’t find the book to be anti-Catholic on the whole, but some readers may be upset by the prejudices of the guy who is, otherwise, a swell protagonist. And most importantly: If you react like I did, you’re looking forward to a protracted bout of histronics when you hit that last page.

Check the WRL catalog

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For some, Christmas is a time of joy; for others the holidays are difficult. For me the holidays are a big mix of nostalgia, stress, annoyance, confusion, and sheer wonder at the bizarre extremes of behavior that I see this time of year. That, in a nutshell (with emphasis on the nuts), is why I can really appreciate a novel like Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel: a Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

Moore rounds up the wacked-out residents of Pine Cove, California (several of his books are set there) for another ridiculous adventure. When Lena Marquez accidentally kills Santa in self defense (a Santa played by her rotten ex-husband, the town’s resident Evil Developer) she gets help from helicopter pilot Tucker Case and his pet, the giant fruit bat Roberto, in hiding the body. Unfortunately, a video-game obsessed boy named Josh has witnessed Santa’s slaying. Raziel, the screw-up angel of the title, has been sent from heaven to perform the annual Christmas miracle, and when he hears Josh wish for Santa to return to life, he raises the Evil Developer and the rest of the town’s dead from the grave as ravenous zombies.

Meanwhile, Former B-movie actress Molly “The Warrior Babe” is off her meds and hearing voices again and husband Theo, the town constable, has fallen off the wagon and is back to his pot-smoking ways. In a hilarious parody of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Molly gives Theo a bong (to celebrate his success in giving up pot) and Theo gives Molly a samurai sword (to commemorate her career). Neither realizes that the other has a dubious use for the symbolic gifts.

These are just the main characters in Moore’s fast-moving, funny story. It’s vulgar, it’s profane, and it all ends with a standoff between the zombies and the town residents they surround in a church during the annual Christmas party for the single and lonely. What fun! It reminds me of my family Christmas parties, but that’s another story

Try this or any of Moore’s delightful satires when you need a break from serious reading or the stress of daily life.

Check the availability of The Stupidest Angel in the WRL catalog

The Stupidest Angel

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Cheryl reminds us of why it’s worth returning to this Christmas classic:

Christmas may be a humbug to Ebenezer Scrooge but it certainly wasn’t a humbug to Charles Dickens who wrote several fine tales of the holiday season. His best and most famous Christmas story is of course, A Christmas Carol. People have grown up watching this holiday perennial on TV and know the story by heart so is there anything to be gained by reading it? Well, yes there is.

The well-known tale concerns a bad-tempered miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who finds enlightenment and redemption one cold Christmas Eve through the intercession of his dead former partner Marley, and three holiday spirits. Dicken’s wondrous way with words is evident in the delightful dialogue present in any of the better films, and by that I mean the Alastair Sim (1951) and George C. Scott (1984) versions, but the movies lack much of the evocative exposition found in the book.

Dickens LOVED to describe things in extravagant detail. There are long passages delineating everything from people’s moods to how a building looks at night or even the weather. I suspect his publisher paid him by the word. In some of his other holiday stories this plethora of prose can be confusing and even annoying, but in A Christmas Carol, he strikes just the right balance and his verbosity greatly enhances the story. Take this typical passage about Scrooge’s personality:

Oh! But he was tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold from within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

The written version of A Christmas Carol is rife with passages like this that vividly bring Scrooge and his Victorian world to life and make it a pleasure to read. In addition, the story’s message of mankind’s interconnectedness, that we are all, as Scrooge’s nephew says, “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys…” and the importance of sympathy and compassion for others is always timely but especially so during the Christmas season.

Happy holidays to all and in the immortal words of Tiny Tim, “God bless Us, Every One!”

Check the availability of A Christmas Carol (print version) in the WRL catalog

Audiobook of A Christmas Carol in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol film (1951) with Alistair Sim in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol film (1984) with George C. Scott in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol

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Connie brings us this well-reviewed piece of contemporary holiday fiction available in both print and audiobook formats:

The lobster in the title refers to the chain restaurant, Red Lobster, where the story takes place four days before Christmas in Connecticut, off highway I-9, next door to a run-down mall.

It’s the last day the Red Lobster is open, before corporate closes down the restaurant for good. The main character, manager Manny DeLeon is trying to hold everything together, and I mean everything. A snowstorm descends while Manny tries to keep his workers from deserting him AND satisfy each customer; from the difficult two-year-old, to the unexpected office party, to the busload of Chinese tourists. He also tries to figure out his complicated personal life-he’s in love with a waitress but has a pregnant girlfriend- and buy the perfect Christmas gift.

This is not your typical Christmas story, with a big happy ending. This is a perfect little snapshot of a day in the life of an ordinary working man who is just trying to hold things together and figure things out. I throughly enjoyed
listening to this story, especially after reading “Kitchen Confidential”, by Anthony Bourdain. Characterization of the restaurant help was dead on and the narrator’s portrayal was wonderful. (A note of warning- the language contains four letter words, which fit the characters, but may bother
some listeners).

Check the WRL catalog for availability of Last Night at the Lobster in print

And as an audiobook

Last Night at the Lobster

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