Friday, June 29, 2012

Staff Recommendation #6: "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James

If you haven't read it, you've certainly heard about it. The Fifty Shades trilogy by E L James is sweeping the bestseller lists, has over 1,300 holds in the Allegheny County library system (for the first book alone!), and the movie rights have been swept up by Universal Pictures.

The wild, runaway success of the trilogy is not something author E L James likely expected. A wife and mother of two who currently lives in West London, James already had a successful career as a TV executive. She had always been interested in writing, but one of the most interesting things about Fifty Shades is how it started life -- not as a trilogy of novels, but as a series of fanfiction stories about Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.

Fanfiction is stories written by fans about previously-existing characters -- and, as such, falls into a, well, grey area of copyright law. When James's Twilight stories proved immensely popular online (where people could read them for free), she was eventually inspired to rewrite the stories as original -- and sellable -- novels. The series took off.

Read on to hear more about the popular reads from one of our own staff members!

The "Fifty Shades" Trilogy

Staff review by C.O.

Well, what can I say about Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James?  First, I'll say that I actually downloaded all three books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) to my Kindle because I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. Why have there been over 1,300 holds on the book in the countywide library system?  Did the trilogy live up to the fuss?

Was I disappointed? ... yes and no. Yes, because the writing lacks quality, the dialogue is weak, the characters unbelievable -- and it seems to have sex on every other page, which personally I could do without. No, because I realized underneath the sex and the dominate/submissive scene, this is really nothing but a love story. A little skewed, but definitely a love story. And who doesn't love a silly, little love story?

When you first meet Anastasia, you get the picture of an awkward, innocent, not entirely comfortable-in-her-own-skin person, who just happens to meet this billionaire, 26-year-old Adonis by the name of Christian Grey. Wow, who wouldn't want to meet this guy!  But underneath, he is a control freak who wants to dominate women because that is the only way he can have sex. Then he meets Anastasia Steele ... and he doesn't know what hits him. She confuses him, intrigues him, and excites him, all at the same time. She has a way of getting under his skin and breaking his shell wide open, something that he is not very comfortable with -- nor does he quite like the feelings of not being in control.

I really thought the sex scenes were overboard, and could have been toned down without taking anything away from the story. I understand the sex scenes were part of why Christian is the way he is portrayed to be, but to me, it was too much. But I believe the reason Christian finds Anastasia attractive, and eventually falls in love with her, is because she stands up to him. She's not afraid to let him know what she will or will not do in the relationship. She is not there to use him for his money, she is not there to make a name for herself. She's there because she loves the man she sees hidden deep inside of him. A side he really doesn't want to come out, a side that makes it hard for him to have a real relationship -- not just with Anastasia, but with all who love him.  At one point in the book, his mother actually thanks Anastasia, because Christian is slowly opening himself up to his family -- a family who loves him in spite of himself.

But the more I read, the more I wanted to find out what happens to Anastasia.  Does she succumbs to Christian's wants and needs, and lose herself in the process?  Or does she stand firm against him and walk away?  If you manage to make it through the first book, I do suggest reading all three -- because you will get the answers to all your questions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Read Like Harry Potter

June 26 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the British publication of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The publishing world would never be the same again. We all know Rowling's story -- a young single mother on the dole sits in local cafes in Edinburh, Scotland, and writes an amazing story about the young boy who didn't know he was a wizard. Rowling is now one of the richest women in the world and also one of the most beloved authors of all time.

Her character, too, is known and beloved worldwide. But the Harry Potter series didn't just usher in a new generation of readers -- it also ushered in a new generation of original science fiction and fantasy books. While most, if not all, were marketed as Harry Potter read-alikes, they all have their own merits.

So if you're a Harry Potter fan, celebrate the "season" by trying one of these fantastic YA adventures that owe at least a little corner of their success to the fantasy fans Harry Potter created.

1.) Maximum Ride

This James Patterson series chronicles the story of half a dozen teens who have been genetically altered to possess bird DNA -- giving them wings and the ability to fly. Part of a secret government experiment, these teens are now on a mission to save the world, X-Men style.

2.) Artemis Fowl

Eoin Colfer has described his YA series as "Die Hard with fairies!"  Artemis Fowl is a teenage criminal mastermind, who starts up his criminal career with a kidnapping and ransoming ... in the world of fairies. Like Harry Potter, Artemis straddles the line between a world of magic and a world of "Muggles" -- but Aretmis is decidedly more of an anti-hero.

3.) Eragon: (The Inheritance Cycle)

This coming-of-age fantasy saga, about a farm boy who is chosen to become a Dragon Rider, is famous for having been written by a teenage author.

4.) A Series of Unfortunate Events

When the series begins, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have just recently become orphans. Things only go downhill from there. This darkly-funny children's series follows the trio of siblings as they try to escape from their new guardian, Count Olaf, who knows that the kids are all that stand between him and a major inheritance. The ending must be read to be believed!

5.) Inkheart

This German-language YA trilogy became immensely popular when the English translations were released in America. Meggie is twelve when she discovers that she and her father have the power to bring characters from books to life into the real world -- and to send real-life people into the pages of a book. When Meggie finds out that she "read" her mother into a book when she was only three, she knows it's up to her to bring her mother back.

6.) Ranger's Apprentice

Originally published in Australia, this action-packed series follows the apprenticeship of fifteen-year-old Will. An orphan, he is saved from a lifetime working in the fields by being chosen to become a Ranger instead. (This fantasy read is a good bet for any teen, or teen-at-heart, who also likes spy fiction.)

7.) Septimus Heap

The seventh son of a seventh son, Septimus Heap is the possessor of great magical powers. Those powers also bring a lot of danger his way. Luckily, Septimus has a magical family to who's always there to lend a hand. These books have much of the same sort of wit, charm, and character that the Potter series does, with an emphasis on family at their heart.

8.) His Dark Materials

Though the first book in the series, The Golden Compass, was published before Harry Potter, it wasn't until after the Potter-craze that this trilogy shot to its own international acclaim. Possessing one of the most unique child heroes to appear in recent fantasy reads, the series tells the story of Lyra Belacqua (and her sidekick Pantalaimon) -- in their world of talking bears, ageless witches, golden Dust, and cities between the stars. With rich world-building and great characterization, this is a unique fantasy series that's not to be missed. (... although Ms. B still doesn't like the ending!)

9.) Percy Jackson and the Olympians / Kane Chronicles

Percy Jackson is a series about another young boy who has trouble fitting in until he discovers the secret of his parentage – his father is the Greek god Poseidon. This information leads him to Camp Half Blood, a place for children of Greek gods and humans. Of course Percy and his new friends must save the day (several times), and end up on some exciting adventures -- adventures which are now being continued in the sequel series, Heroes of Olympus.

The Kane Chronicles, meanwhile, tell the story of a brother and sister who find themselves enmeshed in a world of Egyptian mythology. Though they've no camp to rely on, they do have a wide assortment of Egyptian deities and legends to help them out through their own crazy adventures.

10.) The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, the dystopian science fiction trilogy, is a rare series that has a strong, yet flawed, young female protagonist. In Panem, a future North America, young people are chosen to compete to the death in the annual Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen’s sister, Prim, is chosen from their district. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place, which throws her into a world of survival and rebellion.

-- Post by Tracy and Ms. B

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Staff Recommendation #5: The Works of Connie Willis

I like science fiction stories and always have. But, I’m finding that what I really like is time travel and alternative histories. It has become my latest obsession! Feeding this obsession has been my discovery of the author Connie Willis. Last year I read her marvelous story, Doomsday Book (1992). That book tells the story of a young woman, Kirvan, from the year 2054 who travels back to 14th century England and finds herself in the middle of the plague and unable to return to her own time. Meanwhile, in 21st century Oxford, they are also dealing with a plague epidemic. Her mentor and advisor, Mr. Dunworthy, is desperately trying to find Kirvan and bring her home.

Almost 20 years later, Connie Willis has written a two part sequel (of sorts). It’s actually two books – Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2010). The year is now 2060 and it seems that they have worked out the kinks that were a problem in Doomsday Book. Or have they? In Blackout three young historians are sent to study World War II. They are all in different parts of England, taking on different roles, but soon come to learn that they are unable to return to Oxford. Eileen is working as a maid in a country manor studying the effects of sending children from their London homes during the Blitz. Polly is working as a shop girl in London studying how people survived in the shelters. And Mike is posing as an American journalist covering the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Polly and Mike soon learn that they have not arrived at their destinations on the correct day. Their arrivals are way off. They aren't sure why this happens but they continue on with their plans to observe. Meanwhile, Eileen has been unable to get back to her drop (how they arrive and return to their own time) due to an outbreak of measles among the children. When she can make it there it won't open. Polly and Mike soon have the same problem.

After much difficulty the three historians manage to find each other in London. Now they have to figure out how to get back to their proper time period.

In All Clear the action picks up right where Blackout left off. The three young people are still searching for a way to return home. Polly is still working as a shop girl and Eileen has also found work at the same shop. Mike, meanwhile, is using is cover story as a journalist to get jobs where he can move around and try to find other historians and hopefully leave messages for any retrieval teams that are looking for them. In All Clear the reader finally gets a glimpse of what is going on in 2060 to retrieve our historians.

For me, these two books combined the best of science fiction and historical fiction that I have ever read.  Connie Willis creates such a believable world that, as the reader, you feel like you are stuck in this time along with Eileen, Polly and Mike. Willis also has a remarkable way of capturing dialogue that seems to fit the time. There is a lot of conversation in these books, but it never drags the story down. It drives the story. All of the talking shows the strong relationship that the three protagonists have with each other. There is deep feeling and caring about each other that never comes across as sappy. And it would have been very easy for Willis to create a romantic triangle but she chose not to go down that path, which I really appreciated.

If you are looking for a page-turning summer read, I highly recommend 2011 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. And when you finish those, consider going on another time travel trip with Doomsday Book. You won't be disappointed!

-- Post by Tracy

Monday, June 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

Thanks to fellow-MPL Librarian Janet B. for her great guest-post today about Sir Paul McCartney!

I have heard it said that the music of adolescence is the music a person most identifies with throughout life. For me, as a teen-ager during the 60s, it was the music of the Beatles. The biggest regret of my life (and I still throw this up to my parents) is that I did not get to see the Beatles when they performed in Pittsburgh. Even though I would have gone with a group of friends, my parents were convinced it was much too dangerous for a thirteen-year-old to be in a crowd of wildly excited teenagers. I do have a souvenir from their visit, because a friend knew a photographer who covered the Beatles in Pittsburgh, and gave me one of his photographs from the press conference. If you look closely, you can see a KQV microphone in front of Paul at the very edge of the photo.

Feeling guilty, perhaps, after not allowing me to see the Beatles, my parents agreed to delay our return from a vacation at the Jersey shore so I could see “A Hard Day’s Night” a week before it was released in Pittsburgh.

I still have the original Capitol albums, now too scratched to play, and even though I listen to remastered digital versions. I’ve kept these albums as treasured keepsakes. I collected Beatles’ merchandise as well, including the doll pictured at the top of this post, who, as part of the complete set, is worth much more than the original $1.98 price. 

I knew all the lyrics to their songs and loved that their music changed and grew as I did, from the youthful exuberance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” to the haunting “Yesterday,” to the mature acceptance in their final single, “Let it Be”. While I love all the Beatles’ songs, often my favorites were either written primarily by Paul or featured him singing lead. My little granddaughter seems to share my preference, because she would stop crying to listen quietly as I sang, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to her when she was very tiny.

The Beatles had such an important influence on popular music that it seems they were together as a group much longer than just the ten years from 1960 to 1970. Members of the group went on to separate careers after their breakup, with the most enduring career being that of Paul McCartney, who still tours, headlined the half-time show at Super Bowl XXXIX, closed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert this month, and is scheduled to close the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in London next month. 

His music has continued to change as he grows older. His band, Wings, performed from 1970 to 1981 with many hit songs, including “Band on the Run,”  and “Live and Let Die.” He is still composing and recording, with his most recent release in February of this year. “Kisses on the Bottom” is a collection of standards performed with guest performers Diana Krall, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder, but also includes two new McCartney compositions. A live performance of songs with his guests was streamed over the Internet on February 9, 2012, in nostalgic black and white, from Capitol Studios, where it was recorded.

Watch more of the February 9th show here.

Sir Paul has been touring with a new band since 2001, and in August 2010, I finally got to see a Beatle perform live, when I attended one of the two concerts he performed in Pittsburgh as the first act to play in the new Consol Energy Center. The concert was three hours of nearly non-stop music. The playlist included Beatles’ songs, well-known Wings’ hits, and more recent releases. It felt like he was sharing his entire musical life with the audience, who loved every minute. Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described it as a “high-energy show” in his review.

Sir Paul has received numerous honors and awards during his now-70 years. Among the honors are the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize in 2009, Kennedy Center Honors in 2010, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012. In 1997, he was knighted as a Member of the British Empire for his service to music, and became Sir James Paul McCartney.

A few years ago, I was asked to name the person I would most like to meet, and, of course, I replied without hesitation, “Sir Paul McCartney.” I’m sure I would be star-struck and tongue-tied if I ever had the opportunity to meet him, but I can be more eloquent in print. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul, with best wishes for many, many more, and thank you for the gift of your music to me and all your other fans!

-- Post by Janet B.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's Audiobook Appreciation Month!

MS. B: Growing up, I had lots of those "read-along" picture books, where you put a cassette tape into your tape player and then listened to the narrator read while you followed along in the book. I'm a member of the Teddy Ruxpin generation, too -- a toy that was, in hindsight, pretty much the stuffed-animal version of an audiobook. (And yes, I had a Teddy Ruxpin.)

But I vividly remember my first real audiobook. It was The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Nowadays, you can listen to The Golden Compass narrated by Philip Pullman himself, with dialogue recorded by a variety of British actors.

But my copy was a two-cassette abridged version read by actress Natasha Richardson, and came to me as a Christmas gift from my grandmother. Every year, after Christmas, my family and I would drive down from Pennsylvania to Georgia to visit my aunt and uncle -- and, as a pre-teen kid prone to carsickness, that meant a twelve-hour car trip with nothing to do but stare out the window and sulk. My grandmother's Christmas gift that year was her attempt to help me find a way of alleviating the boredom.

I'll never forget that trip. It was the first long car ride that didn't seem like a chore. I still remember sitting in the backseat, clutching the tape recorder in my lap, completely spellbound. Pullman's story -- and Richardson's performance -- had pulled me miles away from the family car, and sucked me into a world of talking animals, stately scholars, armored bears, and mystical witches. I fell in love with Lyra Belacqua, the little orphan girl who was the story's protagonist, because she was clever and brash and brave -- but I also fell in love with her because Richardson's reading of Lyra made me believe in her as a character. My grandmother hadn't just given me an audiobook -- she'd given me my own personal, portable storyteller.

Audiobooks got me through the next few years of family car trips. In college, having opted out of dorm life to drive the fifty-eight mile round trip from home every day, frequent trips to the local public library kept me well-supplied with audiobooks from authors like Dave Barry, Stephen King, and Douglas Adams. By the time I was in grad school, I'd discovered another wonderful type of audiobook: the recorded radio play. It might be rare nowadays to run across a radio play being performed live on the actual radio -- but CD collections of audio plays are easy to find, with new plays being constantly produced. I could drive from Pittsburgh to visit my family while listening to cast members from Star Trek perform The War of the Worlds.

Living now in the age of the iPod and mp3 file format, my love of audiobooks has thrived. In between the hundreds of songs on my iPod, I've managed to squeeze on a not-inconsiderable number of audiobooks and radio plays. I've done dishes and dusted shelves while listening to the adventures of Percy Jackson. I've sat in airports and listened to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce perform Sherlock Holmes plays. I've gone hiking with actor David Tennant -- the Doctor himself! -- telling me a Doctor Who story.

Oral storytelling used to be the sole way in which we humans told each other our stories. Nowadays, the art of storytelling is growing comparatively rare. I'm grateful, then, for the audiobook -- which lets us hear the music of Story whatever we do, wherever we go.

TRACY: According to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), 25% of Americans have listened to an audiobook in the last year. That means about 7 million people are listening! And the average listener spends about 5 hours a week listening to audiobooks. Audiobook listeners are avid readers who use audiobooks as a way of enjoying an author's work when they are not able to read.

94% of audiobook listeners had read a book in the past year, vs. 70% of non-audiobook listeners. Between 2007 and 2010, the total number of audiobook sales doubled from 3,073 to 6,200. The biggest growth has been in downloadable books.


While the most popular format is a book on Compact Disc, there are a few other formats worth mentioning. One of the newest ways to listen is with the Playaway. This is a small device (half the size of a deck of cards) that can hold up to 80 hours of content. It’s much more convenient than CDs because there are no discs to mess with. The story can be paused at any point and be picked up in the same spot when it is turned on again. All you need is a battery and headphones.

Another alternative is downloading books to your computer, which then can be transferred to an mp3 device (i.e., iPod). There are a couple of ways of doing this through the library. One, is to download audiobooks through OverDrive (they also provide ebooks and evideo). The books can be downloaded to your computer and then to a listening device, or you can download directly to your smartphone. The other option is OneClickDigital, which works in the same way as OverDrive. (To use either of these services all you need is a valid Allegheny County Library card.)

While the above formats are the most popular, many library still have audiobooks on cassette tape for those that prefer them. For some people, they find it easier to change tapes instead of compact discs while in their car. Also, some people don’t have a CD player in their car or at home.

However you choose to listen, be sure to try an audiobook this month. Happy Listening!

Ten Audiobook Suggestions for You:

The Alphabet Series by Sue Grafton

This mystery series -- starring Kinsey Millhone, private eye -- takes place in the fictional California town of Santa Teresa.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

You know what the books are about. We've got the whole trilogy in CD and Playaway!

Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel.

The collision of the world's greatest optimist -- and the world's worst pessimist -- in one impossibly bizarre day in New York City.

Love in a Nutshell by Janet Evanovich and Dorien Kelly.

Kate Appleton's got dreams of running her very own B&B. Too bad she's gotta take an undercover gig as a small-town spy.

The Rope by Nevada Barr.

A gritty thriller about a woman who wakes up at the bottom of a dry well -- without her clothes, hiking supplies, and any idea of who's trapped her there.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

A fantasy novel about the magic and mystery behind life in the circus. (Read by Jim Dale -- the same performer for the Harry Potter novels!)

A dystopian novel of a possible future by actor Albert Brooks. 

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory.

Gregory's latest historical novel about the Tudors family.

The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker.

An officier of the LAPD must decide if his ATF agent friend has merely gone deeper undercover -- or if he's disappeared into his role entirely.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Hear the original novel before you go see the movie!

Check out the rest of Monroeville Public Library's audiobooks here!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Here's Johnny!

Johnny Depp's birthday was June 9th. To celebrate, Tracy and Ms. B present you with this, er, "objective" rundown of Depp's Top Ten Movies:

TRACY: I don't really remember the first movie I ever saw Johnny Depp in. It might have been What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but I can't say for sure. I knew who he was from his days on 21 Jump Street, although I didn't watch that show. No matter how it happened, once I did see him in a film, I was hooked. I loved that he never played the same type of character twice and always brought something new and fresh to the screen. So here, in no particular order, are five of my favorite Johnny Depp movies.

Benny & Joon (1993)

When this first came out, the studio really tried to push it as a romantic comedy with Mary Stuart Masterson and Johnny Depp as the couple. While there is a romance between their characters, this is a story about what being a good sibling means. Aiden Quinn plays Joon's older brother Benny, who is his sister's guardian since the death of their parents. Benny has a hard time taking care of Joon due to her mental illness. There has been a revolving door of help in their house, since Joon can be quite difficult. Enter Sam, played by Johhny Depp, a young man who is the cousin of one of Benny's friends. Sam ends up moving in with Benny and Joon, and soon all three lives are changed forever. Sam is a delightful and unique character who is a devoted fan of silent film star Buster Keaton. A young Depp plays Sam with a lot heart and he displays his ability for physical comedy. (Rated PG)

Chocolat (2000)

The story is about an unmarried woman (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter who blow into a small French village at the beginning of Lent and open a chocolate shop. This, and other aspects of her life, puts her at odds with the mayor. Depp plays a roving musician who leads a band of gypsies into town. A romance develops between Vianne (Binoche) and Roux (Depp). I found this to be a very charming and lovely film with wonderful performances by all actors, but especially Johnny Depp. He was already a huge star who probably could have had the lead in just about any film he wanted. But he took this supporting role and made it come alive. This is one of those rare occurrences where I liked the movie more than the book by Joanne Harris. Granted, I read the book after seeing the movie, but even then I usually prefer the book. (Rated PG-13)

Ed Wood (1994)

If you've ever seen the film Plan 9 From Outer Space, then you have seen the work of Edward D. Wood Jr., considered to be the worst director of all time. And if you have seen Plan 9, you have also seen the "best" Bad movie of all time. It is so wonderfully bad, it's fun! The thing with Ed Wood, though, was that he was very passionate about his filmmaking and put everything he had into it. That comes through beautifully in this film, in which Depp plays the title character. This film is funny one moment, and then bittersweet the next. Depp manages to play this person in such a way that you can't help but like him, even though you know that things don't end well for him. Ed Wood, of course, never achieves the greatness that he is searching for, but somehow, you still hope that he will. That is due to the wonderful performance of Johnny Depp. A special mention should be made for Martin Landau's Oscar-winning performance as Bella Legosi in his last days. Depp and Landau portray the special friendship that developed between these two men late in Legosi's life. (Rated R)

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

This most likely was the first film I saw with Johnny Depp in it, which also was the first time that Depp worked with director Tim Burton. This was the first of many roles that Depp would take on where he is physically transformed into the role.

Edward is the creation of an inventor who dies before he can give Edward hands, and Edward is left with scissors for hands instead. After the death of his creator, he is left on is own, until one day an "Avon" lady comes calling and realizes that he is all alone. She invites him into her home, where he becomes a part of the family. That is, until Edward is taken advantage of by a local young man. Edward is then accused of many things, none of them true. He is forced to return to the castle, where the townspeople believe he has died. This is a beautiful and sweet performance from Depp. He brings an innocence to Edward that is believable and moving. (Rated PG-13)

Finding Neverland (2004)

I have to admit, I've never been a huge fan of Peter Pan. Of course I've seen the many different film versions there have been over the years, and I've enjoyed most of them, but that is the extent of my interest in Peter Pan. Until I saw this film, I'm not even sure if I was aware that the story started as a stage play, before becoming a book and then numerous films. This is one of those rare times that Johnny Depp plays a "normal" person: J.M. Barrie, the creator of the boy would didn't want to grow up. How much of this is true, I have no idea, but it was wonderful to see the inspiration for Peter Pan come to life in front of our eyes and to see the special relationship Barrie develops with the family who inspired him. It is also one of the rare films that actually made me cry. (Usually, I might get a little teary eyed or choked up, but I never cry.) If you haven't already seen the film, I won't say what made me cry, but if it doesn't move you then I'm not sure anything does. (Rated PG)

MS. B: I've only been a Johnny Depp fan for the past ten years, myself -- but we'll get to that later. In the meantime, here are my personal five favorite Depp flicks (and boy, was it hard to pick just five):

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

I always struggle to describe this movie to people, because, in many ways, it defies description. Genre-wise, it's listed as an action picture -- which is true -- but on more than one occasion I've described it as a modern folk tale, bordering on myth.

In this sequel to writer/director Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, Antonio Banderas stars as a vigilante mariachi (yes, you read that right) up against the local drug cartels. And then there's Johnny Depp as Agent Sands, a member of the CIA dispatched to Mexico to help keep the peace. Sands is looking for an unofficial partner to help him keep things in balance -- though the agent seems to have his own ideas about exactly what that means.

But a description like this doesn't do justice to this gritty and quirky action picture, which plays more like an urban fairy tale than any kind of straight-up action flick. The plot is not nearly as important as the characters -- those fighting to take control of the county, those fighting to save it, and those merely fighting to save themselves. In the middle is Agent Sands -- whose wry, ironic agent (Sands walks around Mexico wearing lame tourist t-shirts while reading Judy Garland's biography) easily steals the show. (Rated R)

Sweeney Todd (2007)

It's a musical for people who don't like musicals and a horror flick for people who don't watch horror. Johnny Depp stars as barber Benjamin Barker, returning to London after spending fifteen years in prison convicted on false charges. Thoughts of his wife and young daughter waiting for him had kept him going -- but now he returns to learn that his wife has died, and his daughter has been adopted by the very judge responsible for Barker's wrongful imprisonment. Vowing revenge on the judge and the society that's wronged him, Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd and teams up with the erstwhile landlady Mrs. Lovett to exact a particular type of vengeance -- Todd finishes off his customers' shaves by finishing off the customers themselves, leaving Mrs. Lovett with fresh "ingredients" for her famous meat pies.

Casting Johnny Depp as the lead in a musical was a gamble, since the actor -- though a long-standing musician -- had never sung before. Luckily, Depp can sing. (Co-stars Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sasha Baron Cohen all pull off their roles with noteworthy aplomb, to boot.) With songs by Stephen Sondheim, this musical transcends its gory premise to become a tale that's about the sinister and precarious path of revenge. (Rated R)

Secret Window (2004)

Combining Stephen King and Johnny Depp is sort of as good as it can get for me -- especially when the Stephen King story being adapted for film is the amazing novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden," from King's superb collection Four Past Midnight. Depp plays novelist Mort Rainey, whose recent divorce from his wife Amy (Maria Bello) has put him in an emotional tailspin. He retreats to his summer home at Tashmore Lake, hoping to find a little peace and solace -- maybe even enough to start writing again. Instead, he gets John Shooter (John Turturro), who shows up on Rainey's front porch to deliver the most frightening accusation an author can receive: "You stole my story."

According to Shooter, Mort Rainey plagiarized one of Shooter's own stories -- a tale called "Sowing Season" -- and rewrote it as the story "Secret Window." Rainey stole something from Shooter; so, according to Shooter, it's time for Rainey to pay him back. When Rainey refuses, having no memory of reading "Sowing Season," Shooter begins to do what he can to convince Rainey to rethink his decision ... with murderous consequences.

This had already been one of my all-time favorite King stories, so having Johnny Depp appear in the lead role makes this one of my most treasured Depp flicks. King loves telling stories about authors and the power of fiction, and Secret Window is about the mystery of where we get our ideas as much as it's about the human desire for justice ... and revenge. For being a thriller, it's also got a surprisingly funny lead in Depp's Mort Rainey -- a good thing, since much of the movie consists of Depp in scene alone. The ending is also far removed from the original King novella, so even if you've already read the story, make sure you stick around till the credits!  (Rated PG-13)

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I have been a fan of Lewis Carroll's world of Wonderland -- and its protagonist hero, Alice -- since childhood. When it came to fantasy stories about kids discovering strange and hidden worlds, I liked stories about Narnia and Neverland, too, but Wonderland was always in a class by itself. This was partly because I so enjoyed the illogically-logical weirdness of Wonderland, but it was also because I so loved Alice.

This Tim Burton-directed film is a sequel of sorts to Carroll's original tales Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Mia Wasikowska gives a brilliant performance as Alice Kingsley -- who, now that she is nearly grown up, has quite forgotten her time spent in "Underland" as a child (save for the occasional bad dream). She's attending what turns out to be, unbeknownst to her, her own engagement party -- when she abruptly catches sight of a white rabbit in a waistcoat. Chasing him down the rabbit-hole, she soon finds herself back in Underland, though as far as she knows, she's never been there before. Indeed, she doesn't even protest when the various inhabitants of this bizarre otherworld insist she's the "wrong" Alice, because she knows she can't be who they're looking for. She can't possibly be the Alice they think she is, the one destined to slay the Jabberwocky and bring the Red Queen's evil rule of tyranny to an end ...

This is one of those rare things, a Johnny Depp movie where the Johnny Depp character is not my favorite character in the film. (That honor goes to Alice herself.) But I love Depp's Mad Hatter, who was originally the Royal Hatter to the White Queen (before she was overthrown by her older sister Red). For being yet another "bizarre Johnny Depp character," the Hatter has a surprising layer of subtlety to him: yes, he's quite crazy, but underneath that craziness is a very real anger and determination to end the Red Queen's rule and restore the crown to its proper monarch. (I also appreciate this movie for its third act, when it's the girl, not the guy, who gets to march off into battle and save the day.) This is a film I love a little bit more each time I see it.

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2011)

If not for this film series, Tracy would have been doing this list on her own. I don't think I'd ever seen a Johnny Depp movie before I sat down on Opening Day to watch The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first in Disney's four-picture Pirates of the Caribbean series. It was nothing like I, or anyone else, had ever expected. The runaway -- and completely unanticipated -- blockbuster success of the first film led to three sequels: Dead Man's Chest, At World's End, and On Stranger Tides. (At World's End is still my favorite.) And it was Depp's starring role in the series that made me into a Johnny Depp fan.

If you haven't seen the movies, I can't possibly hope to explain the twists and turns of their epic-spanning plot in a paragraph. Suffice it to say, these action/adventure, historical-fantasy pirate movies can hinge their success on one thing: Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow.

You don't have to have seen the movies to know that name. Clever and quirky, unbalanced yet always in command (or possibly just very, very lucky; you decide), Jack Sparrow became an iconic character from the moment he first sailed on screen. People the world over fell in love with the character's bizarre charms and completely unique humor, making him something unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.

I love the humor, too -- but I've also loved watching the subtle transformation of Jack Sparrow's character over the course of the series. When we first meet him, he's content to straddle the fine line between "bad pirate" and "good man," but as the story goes on he's forced to make a decision as to which side he truly stands on. He does it all while retaining his high good humor -- and remaining completely devoted to his ship, his freedom, and his rum. What's not to love?

You can check out these and other of Depp's films at Monroeville Public Library!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Bradbury Chronicles

"First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time -- because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power."  Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was well known for the two books mentioned above, but he was a writer who was so much more than just those books (although they are my personal favorites). Bradbury wrote over 500 published works which included screenplays, television scripts, plays, and, of course, novels. His stories touched so many lives in his sixty-plus years as a published author. And though his most well-known works were published in the 1950s and 1960s, he never stopped writing.

Bradbury was born in Waukegon, Illinois on August 22, 1920. His family moved around in the early part of his life, but he ended up settling in Los Angeles by his early teens. He did not attend college, but he earned his knowledge and skills as a writer by spending much of his time at the public library.
“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (New York Times article).

In 1943, Bradbury became a full-time writer, and by 1947 he had his first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, published. A few years later, The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. He never stopped writing after that; his last book was published in 2007.

I have to admit that I have not read a lot of Ray Bradbury's work, but what I have read has had a profound effect on me. A long time ago, there was a miniseries made out of The Martian Chronicles, which is a collection of short stories that tell a tale of the colonization of Mars. I don't think the mini-series was really that good, but it made me want to read the book. And the book has always stuck with me. A few years ago, I decided to re-read it, and it moved me just as much the second time around as it did the first. In many ways, this contributed to my love of sci-fi, even though Ray Bradbury did not consider this book to be sci-fi -- which now, as an adult, I see more clearly.

The other book that I love is Fahrenheit 451. I also read this when I was a teenager, and I was so moved by these people who risked their lives to save books that it might even have influenced me, in some subconscious way, to become a librarian. For someone who had loved reading all of her life, it was hard for me to fathom that anyone would want to destroy books.

There are several other books of his that I still want to read, and now with his recent passing at the age of 91 on Tuesday, I am even more inspired to read them. Here are the ones that I am most interested in, along with a few other of his works:

Dandelion Wine (1957) - In 1928, Douglas Spaulding wanders around Green Town, Illinois, with his brother and realizes that he is alive.

Farewell Summer (2006) - Celebrating the final days of summer, thirteen-year-old Douglas Spaulding and his friends declare war on the stuffy older set of their community, an effort for which the boys plot to stop the courthouse building clock as a means of staying young forever.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) - A story of two young boys who begin to encounter evil secrets when a lightning rod salesman gives them one of his contraptions covered with mystical symbols.

I Sing The Body Electric! (1969) - A collection of twenty-eight classic Bradbury short stories and one poem is set in a variety of locales, ranging from the verdant Irish countryside to the coldest reaches of outer space.

The Illustrated Man (1951) - Eighteen science fiction stories deal with love, madness, and death on Mars, Venus, and in space.

And if you would like to read a more in-depth biography of Ray Bradbury check out The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller.

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." -- Ray Bradbury

-- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Welcome to Salem

I have the unfortunate feeling that my lifelong fascination with the Salem witch trails probably started when I saw the film Hocus Pocus, a somewhat corny, but nonetheless entertaining, family comedy about a trio of witches (played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and and Sarah Jessica Parker). Tried for witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, they return to life three hundred years later -- and set about casting a spell over the town when they're not busy trying to figure out how to get around in the modern world.

It's a fun, funny little movie for the whole family -- which means it's a pretty far cry from the real witch trials of seventeenth-century Salem. The result of a string of accusations from (initially) two young girls, the Salem witch craze saw more than 200 people accused of witchcraft -- twenty of whom were executed. The colony would eventually admit that the trials had been a terrible mistake, and provided compensation for the families of the trials' victims, but the anger, accusations, and paranoia fueling the witch craze would never be erased.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 were hardly the first time people (usually women) had been accused and stood trial for witchcraft. Witch trials were a regular part of the "witchcraft craze" that spread through Europe from the 1300s through the 1600s, with tens of thousands of people hanged or burned at the stake.

In 1692, tensions had already arisen in the colony of Salem, Massachusetts, thanks to an influx of colonists that strained Salem's resources to the breaking point. Furthermore, Reverend Samuel Parris had become the village's first ordained minister three years ago, and all were not happy with the appointment -- many found him rigid, strict, and even greedy. 

And then Reverend Parris's daughter (Elizabeth, age 9) and niece (Abigail Williams, age 11) began throwing fits. They screamed, wailed, contorted their bodies into odd positions, and threw things. A local doctor could find nothing physically wrong with them and eventually proclaimed the cause to be supernatural. Soon a third child -- Ann Putnam, age 11 -- began having similar symptoms. On February 29th, the girls were pressured by the local magistrates into revealing those were "attacking" them. The girls named three women: Tituba, a Carribean woman and slave to the Parris family, and two beggar women named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

Those who were poor or enslaved were easy targets. Tituba was particularly easy prey for the courts, as she had served as nanny to young Elizabeth and had told her folklore stories of omens and voodoo. All three women were interrogated by the Magistrates, but while both Good and Osborne maintained their innocence, Tituba -- most likely afraid of either her interrogators or of the Parrises -- confessed to using witchcraft. And all three women were arrested. 

The first person to actually stand trial for witchcraft was Bridget Bishop, who was known throughout Salem as a promiscuous gossip. Although Bishop, like Good and Osborne, maintained her innocence to the end, she was eventually found guilty of witchcraft and, on June 10, became the first person to be hanged in the Salem witch trials. 

Poor Bishop was only the first. Executions of "witches" continued throughout the summer, with five people hanged in July, five in August, and eight in September. One seventy-year-old man, Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea of innocence or guilt, knowing that if he was tried and then convicted, his family would almost certainly lose any inheritance he might hope of leaving them. Corey was therefore pressed to death with massive rocks and stones, his interrogators hoping to coerce a plea or confession out of him. Corey is reported to have said nothing but, "More weight" -- entreating his executioners to add more rocks to the load. (Contrary to popular belief, none of those executed for witchcraft in Salem were ever burned at the stake.)

Massachusetts governor Phipps would eventually step in (after Phipps's own wife had been questioned about witchcraft), ending further arrests and releasing many of those who had already been accused and imprisoned. By 1693, all those who were in prison on charges of witchcraft had been pardoned and released. But for Corey, Bishop, Good, and Osborne (who died in prison) -- as well as the rest of the falsely-accused "witches" of Salem -- the end to the witch-trials hysteria came too late. 

In 1976, Professor Linnda R. Caporael published an article with an intriguing hypothesis for the initial cause of the witch trials. Muscle spasms, delusions, and hallucinations are all symptoms of food that has been contaminated by the fungus ergot. Had Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris consumed rye or wheat that had been affected by the fungus -- a distinct possibility, given the warm and damp climate of Salem Village -- their symptoms and paranoia could have been the trigger leading them to make their accusations. It's a fascinating theory -- and one that more and more scientists and historians are beginning to suspect to be accurate.

Nowadays, the Salem Witch Trials have become such a part of America's cultural imagination that thoughts of the trial conjure up funny movies and Halloween festivals. Salem itself has even made itself a tourist attraction, not just with history museums but with ghost tours, magic shops, and haunted houses open year-round. But whatever the cause of the Salem witch trials, one thing remains certain: this dark -- and darkly fascinating -- period in America's early history was certainly no fairy tale. It serves, instead, as a harsh and grim cautionary tale about the dangers of suspicion and mass hysteria -- making it a story worth learning.


"Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" -- original article by Linnda R. Caporael.


Dorcas Good: the Diary of a Salem Witch -- a novel by Rose Earhart.


Salem Witch Trials -- a documentary by the History Channel.

The Crucible -- the 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller's famous play.