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Archive for the ‘Setting’ Category

Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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PenguinsAs the title says, Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a guide book, but here in Williamsburg we are very unlikely to see a penguin landing on our bird feeder and pushing off the chickadees, so today’s book isn’t needed for immediate avian I.D. but is more for browsing, learning about these fascinating birds, and enjoying the dazzling photographs. Editors and publishers like to use superlatives to sell their books, but even without exaggeration, The Ultimate Guide lives up to its Ultimate hype!

Penguins are remarkable birds that also happen to be very cute. Author Tui De Roy grew up in the Galapagos Islands and has a long acquaintance with penguins and says they have an “exuberant gusto.” The book is arranged in three main sections headed by the three main authors who between them clocked up fifteen years of study and travel in the book’s creation. The first section, by Tui De Roy, goes over penguins’ general biology and occurrence; the second section, introduced by Mark Jones, includes double-page spreads by seventeen separate authors who are scientists, researchers and experts in their fields, with up-to-the-minute information such as “Beyond Prying Eyes: Tracking Penguins at Sea” by scientist Rory P. Wilson.

The last section, “Species Natural History,” is what you would expect from a guide book. It goes through the different species with common names, scientific names, physical appearance, distribution, breeding, conservation status, and so on. This section includes smaller close-up photos of individual and small groups of penguins to make positive identification. These contrast with many of the earlier photos that are often breathtaking landscapes with penguins.

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide has everything you need to know about penguins and plenty you didn’t realize you needed to know. If you consider yourself an amateur (or professional!) ornithologist, read it alongside Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley. Near Williamsburg Regional Library you are not going to see penguins, but you can always dream…

For travel buffs the book takes you to some out-of-the way locales that time seems to have forgotten, such as Subantarctic Campbell Island, in the empty ocean south of New Zealand. It brings home to me how lucky I am to have been hiking in New Zealand’s mossy and ferny Fiordland, a place about which Tui De Roy says; “there are few places on earth that feel more primeval and mysterious… Based on fossil evidence, this forest has changed little from the time it was still a part of the supercontinent Gondwana 80 million years ago and dinosaurs roamed in its glades.”

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is worth reading even if you have read Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch from 2007, as Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is larger, more in-depth, and more up-to-date.

Visual enough for children to enjoy perusing, break it out for fans of Happy Feet or the murderous penguins of Madagascar. For an overload of nonfiction cuteness, pair it with March of the Penguinsand I challenge you to view either without going “Awwww….”

Check the WRL catalog for Penguins: The Ultimate Guide.

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raise_the_red_lanternZhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.

Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.

At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.

As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.

Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.

Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.

Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.

Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Raise the Red Lantern

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strange libraryA young boy finds himself trapped in a bizarre library with a sheep man and a mysterious girl in Haruki Murakami’s illustrated short novel, The Strange Library.

His journey begins with a trip to his local library to return two books: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd. He tells the librarian that he’s also looking for some books, and she directs him to Room 107, located in the library’s basement. When he reaches Room 107, he encounters a cantankerous old man sitting behind a desk. He impulsively tells the older man that he’s looking for books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, and he’s presented with three books: The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.

The boy plans to check out the books and leave the library as quickly as possible; however, he’s told that the books can only be read in the library.  He’s travels down another corridor, where he meets a man wearing what appears to be sheepskin. The sheep man takes the boy to the Reading Room and the boy gets another surprise: the Reading Room is a jail cell. The old man locks him in the cell and tells him that he must spend the next month memorizing the content of the books. At the end of the month, the man will question him about the books. If the man decides that the boy has mastered the content, he will set him free.

Later that evening, the boy receives another mysterious visitor: a mute girl who brings him a gourmet dinner. Communicating through hand gestures, the girl tells him that her vocal chords were destroyed. After she leaves, he finishes the dinner and starts reading The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector.

The Strange Library has many elements familiar to readers of Murakami’s work: quirky characters, surreal settings, and sense of melancholy or impending loss. Murakami’s characters in this novel are nameless except for the ones mentioned in The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. This approach is very effective; the boy is an ordinary boy whose seemingly routine trip to the local city library takes an unusual and ominous turn.

The lavish color illustrations highlight the surreal nature of the narrative, and the repetitive images, including birds, eyes, and insects, reinforce the unusual nature of the boy’s journey and the people he encounters along the way.

Haunting and poignant, The Strange Library is a quick read compared to many of Murakami’s works, but the engaging prose and fantastic illustrations may inspire readers to make return trips to Room 107.

Check the WRL catalog for The Strange Library

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JacketIt doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?

Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car.  And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.

Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.

Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher.  And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.

Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spark and the Drive

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orfeoWhat does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo

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ice_storm_dvd

DVD

I don’t remember why my husband and I first watched the DVD The Ice Storm, but it was probably because we were enjoying movies directed by Ang Lee  (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pushing Hands; Brokeback Mountain, and others). We had been through Williamsburg’s ice storm of 1998 and knew how dangerous it could be. The movie wasn’t so much about the storm itself, but about two troubled white, middle-class, nuclear families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973. The emotional impact of the movie was shattering.

Events take place when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal are topics on the news. The sexual mores have loosened considerably from the constraints of the 1950s and have not yet been walloped by AIDS. The Hoods, Ben and Elena, have two teens: a boy in boarding school, Paul, and a girl in middle school, Wendy. The Carvers, Janey and Jim, have two boys: strange, pensive teen, Mikey, and pre-teen, Sandy, who likes to blow things up. Throughout the course of the Thanksgiving week, each person in each family, except Paul who is away, explores his or her sexuality with others in the other family.

But the story is much more than about sex, and the sex certainly isn’t a feast of sensual stimulation. Almost the opposite, the sexual encounters are interrupted, fumbled, “awful” or, after the fantasy of the encounters have been built up, they don’t take place at all. The real story is of the emotional relationships between each of the characters. The actors are extremely good at showing these changing relationships. The cast includes top-rated actors Kevin KlineJoan AllenTobey MaguireChristina RicciElijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Katie Holmes plays a rich, sort-of girlfriend of Paul’s. There are some very funny scenes, mostly of adolescents being adolescents, such as Wendy’s giving grace, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” Her father’s reaction, “Jesus! Enough, all right? Paul… roll?”

One of the key scenes in the movie is a neighborhood “key party,” where men put their car keys in a bowl and, at the end of the party, after much drinking, their wives pull out random keys, and, at least in theory, go home with the owner of that set of keys. Meanwhile, there is an ice storm outside. The roads are slick, the power goes out. The adults are high or drunk at the party, and their children are left at home, within walking distance of each other’s houses. What could go wrong?

ice_storm_book

Book

After watching the movie a second time, I decided to read the book, by Rick Moody, on which it was based. Although there are a few plot differences between the book and the movie (and the name Carver is Williams in the book), both are excellent in depicting the members of these two families. Each uses a different medium to portray the individuals and the dynamics between them. Moody’s words are a joy to read. “The idea of betrayal was in the air. The Summer of Love had migrated, in its drug-resistant strain, to the Connecticut suburbs about five years after its initial introduction. About the time America learned about the White House taping system. It was laced with some bad stuff. The commodity being traded was wives, the Janey Williamses of New Canaan. The payoff was supposed to be joy, but it was the cheapest approximation of exalted feeling. It was just a demonstration of options, nothing more.”

The characters in the book, notably, are less attractive and more “real” than those in the movie, and I was thinking that if readers have to “like” characters to enjoy a book or a movie, they may want to stick with the movie.  If you want to get a real depiction of changes some families were going through in the early 1970s, you may want to read the book. The language in the novel is frank and raw, but intricate and beautiful in places. Ang Lee’s theatrical adaptation, however, is also very good, distilling Moody’s words into a stunning visual portrait.

Check the WRL catalog for the DVD The Ice Storm.
Check the WRL catalog for the book The Ice Storm.

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