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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.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magician King

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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.

Check the WRL catalog for Now You See Me

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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.

Check the WRL catalog for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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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.

Check the WRL catalog for The Expendables.

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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.

Check the WRL catalog for The Fry Chronicles

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