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Archive for the ‘Benjamin’s Picks’ Category

levA few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.

Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.

I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.

The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.

Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.

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topsyI looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.

Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.

Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.

Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”

Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.

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nowOver the past few years there seem to have been a number of movies related to professional magicians. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, Now You See Me takes its place among them, providing some strong performances and an unexpected plot for the audience.

The movie starts by introducing us to four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco), each making a living at their chosen profession, however, not all of them necessarily in the most ethical manner. In turn, each illusionist mysteriously receives a Tarot card that includes an invitation to gather in a single location, at a particular time. The magicians, for whatever reason, feel compelled to heed the call and find themselves in an enigmatic apartment. Smoke fills the room and the next thing we know a year has passed. They are transformed into the Four Horsemen, the top magical act in Las Vegas, playing to a sold out theater. The Four Horsemen are in the midst of their greatest performance. They promise that before the show ends, they will rob a bank. And they do. This all happens in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. From there, it gets exciting.

While the magicians soon are wanted criminals, they also continue to perform, eluding agents Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Laurent), and staying ahead of professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Filled with entertaining repartee, creative magic, and plenty of sleight of hand, like any magic show, Now You See Me, keeps the audience guessing. It is a fast-paced, crime, mystery thriller. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in story arc.

I enjoyed the plot, characters, writing, and concept of this film. However, as much as I enjoyed Now You See Me, I admit to personally being disappointed by parts of the final resolution. That shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this movie. I know others liked the ending just fine. Now You See Me is a fun example of a film filled with magic, but not encumbered by wizards. It has sophisticated themes appearing throughout the story, although nothing too risqué. So, if you enjoy a good show magic show you may want to sit down and watch this one.

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blyIn 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world.  Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days.  Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip.  Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889.  Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west.  The “race” was on.  Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.

This is a captivating and fascinating story.  First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure.  Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so.  Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit.  Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time.  In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.

Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles.  He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture.  Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country.  This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated.  The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.

There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history.  The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue.  It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.

Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives.  The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort.  If you want further proof consider the following:

As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library.  After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910.  How cool is that?

Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days

Also available as an ebook

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This week, WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg takes a look at some fascinating books and films.

wonderstoneThis is a sweet movie.  As school children Albert and Anthony found each other in the school cafeteria.  They instantly became best friends and magicians-in-training.  And so began the story of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  As adults they transformed into full-fledged magicians, having crafted a Las Vegas magic show that delivers them to the pinnacle of their profession.  But, where can they go from the top?

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows a familiar buddy film storyline.  There’s nothing innovative in that respect, but the well-rehearsed construct does not detract from the enjoyment of the movie for me.  It makes it comfortable to watch.  As with many films of this ilk the story includes a love interest, Jane (Wilde), a nemesis, Steve Gray (Carrey), and a guiding light, Rance Holloway (Arkin).

Early into the story the duo’s popularity is vanishing, their act is stale, and their friendship has all but disappeared.  Smaller audiences and the rising infamy of street magician/competitor Steve Gray force them to try to freshen things up.  The attempt is a complete failure and presto chango, even the illusion of friendship is gone.  Like a woman in a box, their friendship is sawed in two.  You see it coming because Burt has become an egotistical, self-absorbed, fool.  The rest of the film is about putting the friendship back together (focusing more on Wonderstone than on Marvelton, as the title suggests) and saying abracadabra to magically reunite the act. Carrell and Buscemi are wonderful as best friends and angry partners.  They have a chemistry together that is fun to watch.  Carrey’s character is classic Jim Carrey.  He’s obnoxious, loud, annoying, and witty.  Wilde and Arkin fill out the cast with nice performances that add to the story.

While a straightforward storyline, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone includes some inside jokes about (and I suspect for) magicians, that suggest the script was Informed by someone familiar with the world of illusionists.  Some of the lines and attitudes offer glimpses into the world of performing magicians. In fact, the production notes reveal that world renowned magician David Copperfield served as a special consultant on the movie.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was a delightful family (PG-13) movie.  We made our ice cream disappear while watching it.  There are some scenes that are suggestive, but nothing too racy.  The plot provides a simple, positive moral that leaves the audience ready to pick a card, any card.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

Expendables2Anyone who watched The Expendables is destined to make time for the second installment of this high adventure, low dialogue, complete fluff, action movie. Starring some of the most prolific action movie stars of the last quarter century, there is so much testosterone in Expendables 2, I am convinced it could power a small nation, or half of Manhattan, for at least three days. The actors acknowledge their respective ages, make light of it, and then use movie magic to present themselves as super-humans, bordering on invulnerable heroes. As with the first Expendables, there is an over-abundance of violence in this movie (although relatively little swearing). If you dislike movies that feature bullets, fists, and aircraft hitting everyone and everything in nearly every scene, avoid this movie. If that’s your sort of thing, Expendables 2 is a good match.

The Expendables are a group of hardcore mercenaries who are nearly unstoppable and always ready for a fight. They specialize in risky rescues. While they are black-ops trained soldiers, they do not kill without cause and they never attack anyone except their enemies.  The stage is set for Expendables 2 when a job goes wrong. Following the death of one of their own, the leader of the Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), sums up the plot of the rest of the movie, saying, “Track him, find him, kill him.”  He’s referring to Vilain (very subtle name—played by Jean-Claude Van Damme), the head bad guy who murdered their compatriot. From there the movie follows this directive without deviation.  There’s no need for any deep thought or much introspection. This movie is about getting revenge and exacting damage. The Expendables are a team with a mission and they will not be stopped.

As you might expect from a movie like Expendables 2, the dialogue is contrived. In this case that’s a good thing. It is hard not to laugh when the actors ham it up by directly lifting lines from the box office hits that made half of them into household names. Certainly these verbal cues are included on purpose to amuse anyone familiar with their earlier movies. Having seen most of the action titles being referenced, I found the dialog to be a hoot. With costars Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie is a quintessential example of the action hero genre on an exponentially larger scale. There isn’t a scene in it that doesn’t shout, “Tough guys kick butt.”

For people looking for movies that feature unrealistic escapism mixed with trite catch phrases and buff/gruff protagonists, Expendables 2 might well appeal. All together, these elements make the movie entertaining in a “this is so ridiculous it’s fun” kind of way. But, if you miss this movie, don’t worry. Rumor has it Expendables 3 is in the works, so you can be sure they’ll be back.

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FryFor people familiar with British comedy, the name Stephen Fry is one that often brings a smile to one’s face or mention of any number of British shows with which he’s been involved. Known for his unique look and style, Fry bolsters his reputation as a man of eclectic intellect and delightful humor in this, his second autobiography. Before getting into details, the author warns his reader of his penchant for wordplay, “rambling” sentence structure and involved linguistics. His vocabulary is broad. There were plenty of words I could not immediately define. Despite what might be considered a complicated text, I found his writing to be engaging and entertaining.

To reveal the twists and turns of his life from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Fry employs an articulate, stream of consciousness writing style, sometimes going off on tangents, but not without reason. I am tempted to say the style is contrived to entertain and amuse the reader, since Fry only ever slips off for a paragraph or two before jumping right back into the middle of his main topic. Plus, when he does drift, he always has a cogent point to make. He’s not really changing the subject, just expanding on it to make the point all the more clear. I wonder if the stream of consciousness style is actually quite practiced and deliberate. Fry admits he enjoys language, its sounds, its formation, and its meaning.

While Fry mentions his childhood and teenage troubles in passing, he focuses this autobiography on his formative late teens and early twenties. He jumps forward and backward on occasion, but much of The Fry Chronicles focuses on his years as a college student at Cambridge and immediately thereafter. It was during college that he discovered his love of acting and comedy overshadowed his enjoyment of teaching. He spent most of his college years either acting in plays or hanging out with other actor friends between performances. It turns out that since college Fry has been chums with modern British comedic and acting luminaries such as Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson. Upon meeting, he and Hugh Laurie became instant mates and now have worked together professionally for decades.

Fry intertwines his college and post-college shenanigans and adventures with revelations of self-doubt, disappointments, and insecurities. He discusses his obsession with computers, his efforts to pursue a personal form of conspicuous consumption (buying cars, gadgets, a country house, etc.), and his adoration of radio. Fry has an ability to convey thoughts in a manner that requires the reader to pay attention. He incorporates a supreme honesty into his writing, admitting “…the business of autobiography is at least to strive for some element of self-revelation and candour” (pg. 224). The Fry Chronicles achieves this aim as far as I am concerned. This autobiography richly delves into the life and times of Stephen Fry, as perceived and presented by Fry himself. I do hope he pens his next installment soon (as he closed the book on a cliffhanger), but in the mean time I can enjoy this honest, earnest, irreverent, and wholly entertaining autobiography.

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Pope'sJews

I read this book on the heels of Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross, which turned out to be a nice coincidence. The titles obviously share a common World War II focus, but they also have overlapping themes of secrecy, deception, saving lives, and unsung heroes. In addition, like Macintyre’s book, The Pope’s Jews is very well written, easy to digest, thoroughly researched, and examines in detail events that rarely have been documented before this history.

Thomas is clear from the outset that he has an agenda. He maintains that Pope Pius XII has been unjustly criticized for his unwillingness to directly condemn Hitler and the Nazi atrocities as they were being perpetrated. Thomas wants to correct the impression that Pius XII was Hitler’s Pope. In fact, the author illustrates in amazing detail the extraordinary efforts to which the Pope worked to protect and save as many people as he could during World War II; Jews, allied soldiers, and anyone in harm’s way.

The book begins with some Papal background and continues through the German occupation of Italy, ending with the liberation of Rome by the Allies. Along with his historical narrative of events, the author weaves into the text portraits of those living in the Jewish Ghetto; members of the Italian, German, Allied, and Vatican governments; and a selection of Rome’s citizens.

Thomas reveals how rather than abandoning the Jewish people, the Pope used his resources to protect Jews all over Europe. Prior to the German invasion of Italy, the Pope covertly ordered priests and nuns to do everything in their power to protect and save Jews, including paying for visas and providing fake baptismal certificates to thousands of non-Catholics. Papal properties including churches, monasteries, convents, and the Vatican itself were used to hide Jews from the Nazis. When Rome was occupied by German troops, the Pope worked within his network to secretly deliver food and supplies to those hiding around the city. He used Catholic hospitals to keep Jews safe and expended church funds to save lives.

That said, circumstances also saved lives in Rome. The Germans did not occupy Rome until late in the war, by which time their resources were limited. That meant the Nazis could not transport as many Jews to concentration camps as they might otherwise have moved. While unquestionably horrible, the timing of events saved many of Rome’s Jews.

After reading The Pope’s Jews I have a renewed appreciation of the Vatican as a political entity. The actions taken by Pius XII definitely reflected his beliefs in the sanctity of human life, however, they also revealed the political and diplomatic power with which the Vatican is imbued. I understand the criticism that Pius XII did not directly oppose Nazi atrocities, yet also recognize the limitations the Pope saw on his actions and the overwhelming desire to avoid all violence. He was guided by the belief that a public denunciation of the Nazis would result in more deaths among the Jews and, it should be noted, the Catholics. One researcher estimates that Pope Pius XII’s actions saved over 700,000 Jews across Europe. While that number is difficult to substantiate, Thomas’s book makes it obvious that Pius XII used the church’s resources to protect and save as many Jews he could.

Check the WRL catalog for The Pope’s Jews.

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DarkShadowsI admit it. I had preconceived notions of how a movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp might flow. Sometimes I really enjoy their collaborative efforts (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands), but more often their combined work doesn’t interest me (Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd). I was pleased to find that Dark Shadows falls into the former category for me, rather than the latter one.

Actually, the flow was not so different than I expected. But, the topic was kooky enough that it worked. Dark Shadows is a movie adaptation of a soap opera of the same name that aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It features the Collinses, a stalwart family of long lineage, who have fallen from grace and have many secrets. The patriarch, Barnabas Collins (played by Depp), is a vampire. Buried in a coffin for almost 200 years, Barnabas is accidentally freed, whereupon he discovers there’s something fishy in his family’s town of Collinsport. Namely, the family home, Collinswood Manor, is in disrepair and the seafood business is in ruin, put to shame by a competitor. Barnabas is determined to rebuild the family, the business and their fortunes.

It turns out that the “present day” Collins family nemesis, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is the same witch who, once spurned by Barnabas, cursed him and turned him into a vampire. This was after Angie had killed Barnabas’s true love, Josette. The movie is based on a soap opera, so what did you expect? It doesn’t actually get too much more complicated than this, but there are a few more twists and turns.

Given many of the roles Johnny Depp has played, playing the part of a vampirical, out-of-time, looking for love, former fishing empire mogul really isn’t a stretch for him. If you know Depp as an actor, he plays the part just as you would expect. For me there were no standout performances, although I liked Chloë Grace Moretz’s role as the overwrought, underappreciated teenager Carolyn Stoddard.

Although Dark Shadows seemed more comedy than horror in content and story, it should be noted that the story does involve regular inclusion of supernatural events and undead creatures. It might be funny, but if you don’t care for monsters and ghouls, this movie is not for you.

I would not say that Dark Shadows was an incredible movie, but it was a fun Friday night movie to watch with family or friends. If you’re really interested and motivated you can make a marathon of it and watch the original series also. The cult classic soap opera is in the library’s collection as well.

Check the WRL catalog for Dark Shadows

Check the WRL catalog for the original series of Dark Shadows

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DoubleCross

Previously I read and enjoyed Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag and The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, so I was anxious to pick up Double Cross. The book does not disappoint. An excellent storyteller and cogent writer, Macintyre regales the reader with the complex and astounding tale of Great Britain’s espionage program, Double Cross. Double Cross was a program run by MI5 (the British equivalent to the modern FBI) during World War II. The basic goal was to convince spies working for the Germans in England to work for the Allies, against the Germans. In short, MI5 sought to turn
Abwehr agents (German Secret Service) into MI5 double agents.

Led by an eclectic group of talented individuals, the B1A section of MI5 was headed by Thomas “Tar” Argyll Robertson. Tar Robertson was a hard drinking, intelligent Scot, who championed Double Cross as a way to learn more about Axis plans and more importantly, misdirect the Nazis. As WWII dragged on, the role of Double Cross agents in planting false intelligence to aid Allied war efforts became the single most important element of the program. It culminated with the D-Day landing.

The spies of Double Cross were even more eclectic than their handlers. Macintrye focuses on a select group of spies whose accomplishments and antics make them especially interesting to the reader. Among his central protagonists are Elvira Chaudoir, code named “Bronx” (a Peruvian party girl) and Roman Czerniawski, a.k.a. “Brutus,” a former Polish air force pilot and former espionage agent in France. Possibly the most imaginative agent was Juan Pujol, who was known as Garbo because of his uncanny “acting” skills. Garbo fabricated an entire spy network, complete with detailed reports from all over Britain (again fabricated). There was also Dušan Popov, an Austrian playboy code named “Tricycle” and agent “Artist,” Johnny Jebsen, a friend of Popov’s, who while working numerous scams also was an Abwehr officer.

Many of these double agents shared common indulgences like numerous lovers, enjoyment of late night drinking, and a penchant for casinos. Their acceptance of risk and excitement seemed to make them all better candidates as spies, however, it also increased the responsibilities of the MI5 handlers (some of whom were willing participants, at least in the drinking). Spies and handlers worked in tandem to provide information to the Abwehr through wireless transmissions, letters written in invisible ink and face-to-face encounters. Communications were a combination of valid, but innocuous, fact (known as chicken feed) and fictitious information intended to deceive or at least confuse the enemy.

By 1944 Double Cross agents were feeding the Germans intelligence designed to give the impression that the main thrust of Allied forces would not be at Normandy. The goal was to keep enemy reinforcements from making the beach landing more difficult than it had to be. Double Cross agents maintained their deception beyond June 6, allowing the Allies to gain enough ground so that they could no longer be repelled. Despite the carnage of D-Day, the deception invented by the Double Cross team saved thousands of lives.

Double Cross is a fascinating read. Macintyre’s research is thorough and easily digested. If you enjoy WWII history and spy novels, you certainly will enjoy Double Cross.

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BraveI’ll watch most any Pixar movie, at least once, just because it is Pixar. Pixar Animation Studios is known for its excellent animation, fun stories, and interesting characters. In these respects Brave finds its mark. Set in Scotland, the story focuses on Princess Merida, daughter of the refined Queen Elinor and the earthy King Fergus. The plot follows a fairly traditional storyline. Merida is loved by her parents, but eventually she rebels against them when her role as princess gets in the way of her desire to make decisions for herself. I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that when Merida learns she is expected to marry an unappealing suitor, she gets upset. What ensues, while not unpredictable, is well choreographed. Merida does some rash things and then bravely and effectively deals with the consequences. There’s magic, mayhem, malady and madness to be sure.

One thing to enjoy about this animated feature are the characters. While zany at times, when it matters they all prove to be grounded in “real life.” For example, King Fergus is an over-the-top Scotsman, full of bluster and boast, but when his family is in trouble, he’s totally focused and dedicated, willing to lay down his life to protect those he loves. Even Merida’s horse has elements of realism that I liked. Okay, the magic is not as true to life.

The casting also is well done. Anyone familiar with Billy Connolly’s work will immediately recognize him in the role of Fergus. He’s as entertaining, loud and silly as ever. Emma Thompson brings her usual elegance, wit and sophistication to the part of Elinor. Kelly Macdonald, as Merida, is strong, sassy, rebellious and smart.

For me the most appealing aspect of Brave is the animation. Not only are the human characters fun to watch, the animals come alive in and of themselves. Especially impressive is the scenery; buildings, trees, vistas, even the sky, are all drawn with care and beauty. Apparently, the animation is so spectacular because Pixar wrote new software to make it that way.

Because this is a Pixar (and Disney) production, you can be sure that eventually everything will be set right. Getting there is the story. Brave offers fine coming of age and family values messages. Like most animated movies of this genre it gives the viewer a story filled with excitement, remorse and some touching moments. In short, Pixar’s movie Brave tells a good story in a fun and entertaining way. With animation that is astounding, the movie can be enjoyed by anyone, whatever your age.

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napoleonWhile waiting for my turn to read Macintyre’s latest book about spies and the D-Day landing in World War II, I picked up this older work by the author.  Past reading experience suggested that any biography by Macintyre would be worth reading.  This one did not disappoint.

Although not well known these days, in his heyday, Adam Worth was an international thief of extraordinary renown.  Born in the 1840’s, Worth was of German-Polish descent.  He lived with his parents until his early teens, but left for New York before he was 15.  Never taller than about five feet, two inches, he was given the nickname “Little Adam” and soon learned the “craft” of picking pockets. When the Civil War started he joined a New York regiment and went to war. During the war, Worth became adept at deserting one regiment only to join a different one and get paid an enlistment bonus. While the con got him multiple payments, it didn’t keep him out of battle and he developed a lifelong dislike for violence. This was why Worth’s criminal career was highlighted by careful planning, expert execution and clean getaways.

At the height of his power, Worth planned forgery scams, bank robberies, art heists and jewel thefts. His exploits read like fiction, so it is not surprising that his life of crime has been the basis for several books and movies. In fact, the author and other scholars maintain that Worth was the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.

Able to transform himself again and again, for years Worth lived in London using the name Henry Judson Raymond. Outward appearances would have neighbors believe he was a member of the gentry, wealthy, English and with no obvious source for his vast financial resources.  He was known to be generous to all who asked and excessively loyal to his compatriots.

Macintyre admires Worth’s positive attributes and suggests, as criminal masterminds go, he was among the most benign.  He robbed from the rich and gave to himself and his friends. He had a keen eye for fine art (among his most famous heists was stealing Thomas Gainsborough’s The Duchess of Devonshire, which he hid for 20 years), a healthy respect for competent lawmen (the Pinkertons in particular) and the lifelong belief that he was justified in his actions because he was not a bad person.

Macintyre makes a convincing case that Worth was nearly unique in the Victorian criminal world. Not only did his career span over three decades, he simultaneously lived the dual lives of English gentleman and unabashed thief. The author’s style is easy to read and digest. His research is extensive and impressive, although Macintyre is fortunate that toward the end of his life Worth bonded with William Pinkerton and the thief shared his life’s story with the private eye (who recorded it). If you enjoy nineteenth-century historical biography you should try The Napoleon of Crime. It offers a fascinating and interesting slice of the Victorian underworld rarely seen elsewhere.

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harmonIn my opinion, any book that includes the tag line “Someone’s Playing Reindeer Games for Keeps” is worth reading.  Written in the style of a noir detective novel (think Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler), this is advertising copywriter Ken Harmon’s first novel.  It pokes fun at the genre, while creating a delightful yarn set in and around Kringle Town.  Mostly, the book is silly, funny and entertaining.  Harmon clearly has spent many hours immersed in classic Christmas imagery and stories.

The author fills his text with not-so-subtle puns and references to classic Christmas characters and fairy tales that most readers will recognize with a smile.  He includes well-known names like Comet, Tiny Tim, the Whos of Whoville, Frosty the Snowman, and Kris Kringle.  To these he introduces an enjoyable assortment of new, appropriately-named characters such as Charles “Candy” Cane, Dingleberry Fizz, Jubilee Rosebud, and the protagonist Gumdrop Coal.

Gumdrop is a 1,300 year-old elf who has been working by Santa’s side since the beginning.  He’s a tough little fellow.  For most of his career he was in charge of the Coal Patrol – a group of elves who deliver coal to kids on the naughty list.  As the story begins Santa fires him for being too mean and Gumdrop Coal is left to his own devices.  That’s when the intrigue starts and Coal finds himself up the North Pole, without a paddle.  He’s becomes a pariah, accused of mischief and murder.

The majority of the book is Gumdrop’s adventure trying to clear his name, get the girl and survive the twelve days of Christmas.  I found that a couple of times, Harmon is heavy-handed with his moral.  It seems out of place with the rest of the book, for me.  The book is wacky so often, when his message of good will toward all is so blatant it doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the story.  But, this is a Christmas story, so it’s not unexpected.

Harmon leaves himself room to write more stories with these characters.  Who knows, maybe the next title will be The Woman Behind The Fat Man.  In any case, The Fat Man isn’t a standard Christmas story and it isn’t a children’s tale either.  An easy read, it is a romp into silliness and a satirical tribute to noir detective novels.  Go ahead and read it.  I dare you.  I double dog dare you.

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junkyardThis is definitely a genre book. It is for people who want to know more about the history of American professional wrestling. Specifically, it is for people who crave more information about wrestling in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even more specifically, the book is about wrestling in the Mid South wrestling promotion (a.k.a. territory). Mid South was the territory run by Bill Watts (an icon in American professional wrestling). In the late ‘70s, Watts turned Sylvester Ritter into the first undisputed African-American wrestling superstar: The Junk Yard Dog, a.k.a. JYD. Klein wrote this book to ensure that Ritter’s legacy as the first big name African-American professional wrestler was not lost. Klein makes an easy case to follow and provides an interesting story along the way, although the author’s thesis is perhaps overreaching.

The book starts by offering a brief history of some of the more prominent wrestling territories. Since the machinations of wrestling territories in the mid to late 20th century were convoluted at best, Klein is wise to gloss over them, touching only on the fact that numerous territories existed and that there were battles for fans and profits among them. Klein also puts his story into context with respect to some of the most famous and infamous wrestlers of the period including Verne Gagne, Hulk Hogan, Ernie Ladd, and Andre the Giant.

The most compelling element of Klein’s narrative history is that the Junkyard Dog’s success was prescient in terms of the rise of African-Americans in the professional wrestling industry, as well as their integration into this form of entertainment. JYD had fans of all ages and races which Klein feels was his legacy, at least within Mid South. In the author’s words, “although the Junk Yard Dog was King of New Orleans for the length of his run [1979-1984], it was the decision to base the entire territory around him that really broke barriers.” In this way, Klein suggests JYD’s role as wrestling superstar had overarching civil rights consequences. At the same time, any civil rights stance was unintended, as the territory promoters were motivated by greed, not skin color: JYD was a good draw, and that translated into profits. Klein does note that “wrestling does, in fact, exploit nationality and ethnic stereotypes to create drama,” and JYD’s entire career was directly tied to that reality.

Klein’s writing is straightforward, perhaps reflective of his journalist background. He’s retelling this story to make sure it is preserved. Interestingly, Ritter is almost tangential to the book. Klein focuses on the decision makers and JYD rarely had a say in his in-ring persona. I have the impression he was told where, when, and whom to wrestle. Ritter’s personal life is barely touched upon.

Klein’s The King of New Orleans is a history of Mid South Wrestling and the Junkyard Dog. His story continues into JYD’s more well-known time as a national performer with the World Wrestling Federation, however, Klein notes that by then JYD’s personal and professional lives were unraveling. Fans of professional wrestling who did not watch during the 1980s might learn a thing or two reading this book. However, since i- depth analysis is not something that needs to be vigorously applied to wrestling, one should read for the story, not for the insight.

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tower-heistThis movie has plenty of star power in it. For me, that has generally suggested a less than stellar movie. I always figure producers try to compensate for a weak script by hiring big named actors. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Tower Heist. It is smart, funny, well acted, and entertaining. The script doesn’t talk down to the viewer and stays away from making the characters behave as fools or dullards.

At its heart, Tower Heist is a caper flick. The not-so-far-flung premise has Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller) as manager of an exclusive apartment building in New York City. Kovaks and his staff cater to the every need of their residents, especially the penthouse occupant Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). When Shaw is arrested by the FBI, they assume it is a misunderstanding. It is not. Shaw is the mastermind behind a huge Ponzi scheme. Sound familiar?

Like everyone else, Kovaks believed Mr. Shaw to be a nice, self-made man, who looked out for the little guy and could be trusted. That’s what prompted him to ask Shaw to invest the employees’ pension fund. With the Ponzi scheme collapsed, the pensions are gone. Kovaks is angry at Shaw. Tower staff are angry at Kovaks. Basically people’s lives are in ruin, since their retirement funds have vanished. That’s when the movie gets a bit less like real life and more like a movie. Kovaks wants redemption, revenge and repayment. Together with a gang made up of Slide, a childhood acquaintance, turned thief (Eddie Murphy); Mr. Fitzhugh, a down on his luck Wall Street broker (Matthew Broderick); and his ne’er do well brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck), Kovaks hatches a plan to get everyone’s pension investments back. What ensues is not consistently realistic, nor completely plausible, but is perfectly enjoyable. There are story holes in anything of this sort, but we’re suspending disbelief here.

For me, pieces of Tower Heist were reminiscent of the 1999 Thomas Crown Affair remake, offering some good twists and reasonable writing. Mind you, not the entire movie, but certainly elements. Stiller’s portrayal of Kovaks as an earnest, well intentioned person is believable and heartwarming. Unlike many of his recent acting attempts, Murphy plays a character that is both smart and obnoxious (rather than just the latter). Slide reminded me more of the parts that made Eddie Murphy famous than anything he’s done in years. Alan Alda plays his part perfectly. Characterizations throughout the movie were sometimes exaggerated, however, generally not so much so that I wanted to turn away.

Impossibilities and improbabilities aside, this was fine entertainment. It is, after all, just a movie. There’s humor, retribution, a little action, and even some romance. I’m not giving anything away to write that by the end of Tower Heist the good guys win and the bad guys lose. If you a have an extra 104 minutes and enjoy light comedy/action genre movies, Tower Heist may be a good match for you.

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Starring the vocal talents of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, and Zach Galifianakis, this animated movie is simply fun to watch.  The eponymous lead character of the film is based on the Puss in Boots character created by the Schrek franchise.  The story is set before Shrek, in the same basic world construct, a combination fairytale and pre-industrial age society.  This lets the storytellers introduce magic, sword fighting, and cool outfits, as well as seemingly anachronistic elements that are okay because the world is make believe.  After all, this is an animated feature.

This version of Puss in Boots gives the viewer a history of the cat, from wastrel orphan to self-styled Zorro-esque hero.  Puss is quick on all his feet, fast with his blade, and an expert at romance.  He meets his match in the form of Kitty Softpaw, a cat burglar of the highest caliber.  Add to the mix Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, and some entertaining support characters and you get a delightful romp of swashbuckling kitties, adventure, treasure, friendship, and love.  What more could you want?

Part of what makes Puss in Boots wonderful is the brilliant casting of Banderas and Hayek.  Their characterizations of Puss and Kitty Softpaws make these animated creatures funny and exciting. It is obvious these two actors enjoyed playing their roles.  The animation is creative and bright, giving the movie the feel of a Disney classic, but seriously ramped up.  The writing is smart, quick, and witty.  Unlike many recent films of this ilk, Puss in Boots avoids most of the clichés and plot shenanigans that make a movie like this unappealing to adults (and some children). The angst is kept to a minimum, there’s little self-doubt by the main characters, and the moral is not hammered home so frequently that it overshadows the entertainment value.  That said, good does triumph over evil, and honesty is the best policy.

Puss in Boots is a great example of what DreamWorks can do when it has a strong script and does not dumb down the story.  Combining parts of various fairytales, this animated spinoff hits its mark over and over again.  People who are fond of creatures of the feline persuasion may especially enjoy the film.  It has numerous cat jokes that appeal to anyone who enjoys the company of a purring pet.  In 2011, Puss in Boots was among the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature.  Personally, I enjoyed it much more than the feature that won.  Even if you disagree on that point, you are bound to enjoy Puss in Boots.  It’s the Cat’s Meow.

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Today, Benjamin takes up a spirited memoir.

Mike Levy’s autobiographical work recounts his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in central China from 2005 to 2007.  Levy’s engaging writing and wonderful adventures make the book a quick and entertaining read.  His tale is amusing, disturbing, heartwarming, and revealing.

Few Americans know much about most of China.  What we generally learn is through the Western media and about urban areas.  China has large, modern, cosmopolitan cities that make the news as they grow in economic strength, population, and international importance.  The majority of the country, however, is rural and less advanced.  This is where Levy lives for two years.  After a two month crash course in Chinese, the author is shipped off to teach English at the local university in the city of Guiyang.  There this Jewish boy from America learns how the other billion Chinese live their lives. During his time in China, Levy plays on a basketball team, teaches English to undergraduate students, leads a graduate seminar on classic American literature, befriends a local peasant family, and, through no fault of his own, becomes the Ann Landers of Guiyang.

As probably the only Jew anyone in Guiyang has ever met, Levy is instantly the full-blown expert on his religion.  His social status is raised by the fact that Marx and Einstein were Jewish.  Soon his expertise extends far beyond Judaism, as he is asked for input on buying real estate, dating, celebrating Christmas and any topic the people surrounding him feel he has experience with because he is an American.  Mike Levy manages to take nearly everything in stride, from squat toilets to uncompromising prejudice.  As an outsider he is frequently viewed as a rich information source.  At the same time, when his knowledge or advice contradicts what his Chinese friends must believe, Levy finds his opinion dismissed. Levy encounters traditions that include superstition, dedication to communist dogma, acceptance of government propaganda, the desire for a better life, and a resignation to make do with less.  He sees both the genuine humanity of the people and their extraordinary contradictions.

Before the end of the book Levy admits he has gone native.  He no longer wonders what he is eating.  He accepts that often contest winners are predetermined based on their position in the community, not on merit.  While he does not always like what he sees, he accepts that people do the best they can with what they have and that is simply how life is for the people of Guiyang.

Kosher Chinese is a wonderful story of exploration, discovery, adventure, and friendship.  Fun to read, the book illustrates a part of China that is not frequently seen, yet clearly exists.  Anyone interested in learning more about the Chinese people through the humorous and lighthearted writings of a good-natured Peace Corps volunteer will certainly enjoy this memoir.

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Today, Benjamin’s review looks at contemporary danger on the high seas.

I first learned of this book through the Daily Show.  Jon Stewart interviewed the author, highlighting the audacity, or perhaps stupidity, of Bahadur’s decision to visit Somalia.  Indeed, the ubiquitous warning “don’t try this at home (or abroad) kids” comes to mind the moment you open the book.  Bahadur, a journalist by profession, decided to visit Somalia and interview the pirates there.  The reader can only wonder at how someone would actively decide to put his life at risk, but he does.

Somalia has made headlines for more than a decade as the pirating capital of the world.  Even discounting the inherent dangers of living among pirates, it has difficulties.  Its people suffer from poverty, violence, hunger, and corruption.  Not only is Somalia a difficult place to live in, it is a difficult place to reach.  Early in his book, the author relates his herculean 45-hour trip, just to arrive in the country.

Bahadur’s book peels back the layers of history to explain why the pirates exist, what motivates them, who controls them and why they have not been stopped.  Along the way the reader learns how the people of Somalia rely more on their genealogical connections than their political institutions to run the country.  There is no effective central government.  For that matter, there is no cohesive country.  Somalia is divided into regions that are defined by a combination of geography and lineage.  Bahadur illustrates how this geographic reality helped to shape the piratical realities within Somalia.

The author provides excellent analysis on the evolution of piracy in Somalia.  The most common explanation for what motivates Somali pirates is that they are protecting their fishing interests.  Foreign commercial fishing devastated the local industry and the pirates responded in the only way they could.  Bahadur notes that while this problem might have been an initial inspiring factor, it has long since ceased to be the main explanation.  Although there are still instances of large scale illegal fishing operations, piracy now is less about protecting the country’s sovereign fishing rights than about greed.  Somali pirates are members of gangs, thugs, controlled by larger players.  Those larger players make money, while the thugs earn almost nothing.  There is an intricate pay formula that determines how much each participant receives when a ransom is received.  For most of the men taking the risks as pirates, the payout is minimal and quickly spent.

According to the author, Somali pirates generally use their bounty to purchase a drug called Khat.  Somali men, especially the pirates, chew Khat daily.  According to the DEA, “Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.” Abusers are prone to violence, depression, insomnia, and gastric disorders.  Between the physical and financial costs of chewing Khat and the dangers of piracy on the high seas, these pirates do not enjoy much of the good life.

The Pirates of Somalia provides an interesting look into the world of these men.  Bahadur does not so much sympathize with them, as explain their evolution.  While he was both insane and inspired in writing this book, his greatest problem now might be figuring out how to top such an adventure, and live to tell about it.

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