Thursday, November 29, 2007

Library science fiction

Gotta watch for this one. It's from Production I.G., where they know how to make intelligent science fiction -- hope it makes it across the ocean to us...thanks to Steven Cohen at Library Stuff :

from Anime News Network

Japanese publishing group MediaWorks officially announced that Hiro Arikawa's popular novel Toshokan Sensō (Library War) will become a TV anime series. ...

Taking place in the year 2019, Library War focuses on the battles fought by "Library Armies" to preserve the freedom of having libraries when a new law threatens to clamp down on freedom of expression.

It takes place in a fictional Japan, where a "Media Improvement Law" is being enforced. The Media Improvement Committee's Special Improvement Organization tries to expunge any bad books, while the library's Book Defense Force tries to fight them to protect the books under the Library Freedom Law. Broadcast will begin April 2008 on Fuji TV's late night anime block.
This sounds like my everyday job!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Next, please

  • Mystery
  • Fantasy & science fiction
  • Humor
  • Literary allusions
Roll 'em all into a smooth ball, and what you have are Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next stories (and the spin-off Nursery Crime series). The stories are set in an alternate world where England is still fighting in the Crimea in 1985 and was occupied by Germany in WW II, time travel is not unknown, and where people have genetically engineered dodo birds as pets.

Thursday begins her career in The Eyre Affair, fighting a nefarious villain who kidnaps Jane Eyre right out of her book, forcing an abrupt ending in every existing copy. In order to set things aright, Thursday has to enter the novel and get personally involved with the plot and characters. This device proves so successful that in subsequent books she moves into the fictional world full-time, as an agent of JurisFiction, the policing agency of the fictional world. As a trainee in fiction, she is apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Havisham proves not only feisty, but pursues a longstanding rivalry with the Red Queen and is addicted to high speed motorcars and wont to getting into races with Mr. Toad.

You get the idea: books within books, etc. As the Fforde Ffan Club FfAQ says "there are a lot of jokes that play upon jokes that have played upon puns that travel from book to book". Suffice it to say that there is one laugh-aloud moment after another. The books are well-suited to anyone who enjoys mystery, SF and humor based on literature. Indeed, there are so many literary allusions, one never knows how much one is missing! You don't have to have read Jane Eyre, etc. to enjoy these books, but it helps.

These stories make you want to read others to find out what you're missing. Librarians, among others, should love these! Does anyone have a copy of Shadow the Sheepdog?

As of this writing, the novels involved are:

Thursday Next
Nursery Crime

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beowulf: Stardust goes viking with Pulp Fiction

Hwæt. We Gardena in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
As students have had to learn for centuries, these are the opening lines of the poem Beowulf, practically an English national epic as one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems, written over 1,200 years ago. The recent best-selling poetic translation by Seamus Heaney notwithstanding, as an undergrad years ago I found the poem difficult and dull. Yet the story is undeniably memorable. Not only is it the first significant piece of English literature, but a tale for the ages, enduring because of its inherent power and images.

Also powerful and memorable is the new film version by Robert Zemeckis. In recreating the old story in a movie that works Zemeckis has beautifully fused two creative elements: motion capture animation bringing the fantastic to life, and an edgy script from Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction).

The motion capture goes the next step beyond that used by Zemeckis in his 2004 Polar Express or Peter Jackson in 2001's Lord of the Rings. While characters clearly appear animated, individual actors are recognizable and facial expressions are captured with subtlety. The animation feels less intrusive than Polar Express and allows for both strong performances and smoothly integrated special effects. All the lead actors turn in creditable work: Anthony Perkins and John Malkovich are expansive as leaders of the Spear Danes, Robin Wright Penn is nicely understated as the Queen and Ray Winstone's Beowulf is appropriately withdrawn as the heroic braggart with secret shame. Grendel and the dragon are suitably monstrous studies in SFX and Angelina Jolie is memorably animated.

It is in the character of Jolie as Grendel's mother that the script has its genius. By changing the nature of the mother and the encounter between her and Beowulf, Gaiman and Avary manage to tie together the disparate plot elements and story conflicts, making the whole story more cohesive than the original as well as more cinematic. If their Beowulf is less than a heroic caricature, he is a more human character -- and his story the more riveting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Black Book / Zwartboek

My expectations about this movie went up and down. When I first saw a trailer in the theater, it looked intriguing. Then when I saw it in Netflix and put the DVD in my queue, I was reminded that it was a Paul Verhoeven film and my expectations dropped -- a lot. I've seen a few Verhoeven films: liked a few a bit and disliked more. But even the ones I liked, I liked more than I respected. Movies like Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are strictly guilty pleasure films. Robocop was pretty bad, I've never been able to bring myself to watch Showgirls, and Hollow Man was solid crud. Maybe his Dutch movies are better than what he's done in Hollywood.

So I lowered my hopes -- and was pleasantly surprised. This is the most respectable Verhoeven I've seen, even if not totally respectable. But it's an exciting and action-packed World War II story about Jewish refugees and the Dutch underground. Even with a bit of sexual pandering, a couple of cop-out stereotypes and a whole string of unlikely plot coincidences that would strain credulity if we had time to stop and think, the movie keeps drawing the viewer in. Well researched sets & costumes combined with excellent cinematography believably recreate occupied Holland.

A lot of the story's success depends on strong performances by the leads. Carice Van Houten is consistently riveting as the Jewish singer living through terrible trials and forced by circumstances to aid the Nazis. She essentially carries the film and won awards for her portrayal. In another strong performance, German actor Sebastian Koch -- who also starred in the Oscar-winning Lives of Others -- portrays a somewhat sympathetic Nazi officer.

The seriousness of the subject, high production values, the suspenseful and fast-moving narrative, and the strong humane characterizations make this movie worth watching.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I expect that librarians should be recommending books and that doctors should be keeping us well, but it doesn't always happen just that way. After I told my doctor about a recent trip to Transylvania, he said "wait a minute, I've got a book for you to read." And ducking into his office he returned to the exam room with Kostova's The Historian. He had just finished it and told me to keep it as long as I needed to (and it's a long book).

This wasn't the first time somebody had recommended the book, but this one felt like fate. Who am I to go against my doctor's recommendation? I didn't know that much about the book beyond the blurb, but I soon realized it was a vampire story -- a Dracula story, to be precise -- with a lot of history thrown in. By the time I got to the undead librarians, I was hooked.

This is a good book, and a lot of its charm comes from its settings. Much of it takes place in libraries, but the locaitons vary tremendously, from the U.S. to Britain to Western Europe to Eastern Europe and Turkey. The combination of travelogue and history woven into a suspenseful vampire story makes a fascinating read. Though one chapter reads like an extended history lecture, interest in the narrative rarely flags. Flashbacks within flashbacks can occasionally be a bit confusing in remembering who the point-of-view narrator is, but confusion is rare and the device adds a lot of interest and variety. I talked up the book around the house and it became one of the rare titles that Marsha & I both read and enjoyed.

I read much of this in print, but also listened to a lot of the unabridged recorded version on my iPod. The recording alternates between two readers, who change with female and male narration in the text. Both readers do an outstanding job with a large number of characters and accents appropriate to many nationalities.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys historical ficiton, horror, speculative fiction, travel stories or undead librarians!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is a magical book. As magical as stories, as picture books, as silent films -- because it's all of them at once and a terrific read to boot.

Brian Selznick has written a story accessible to older children but able to grab adults. The story unfolds both in words and pictures, and Selznick's genius is that the pictures are not normal illustrations, but long sequences of double page spreads that immerse the reader into a virtual silent film. As the story goes on, the technique grows increasingly natural and fitting.

The novel tells of young Hugo Cabret, secretly living in the Paris train station in the 1920s and eking out a living by petty theft. Hugo's life seems a tragedy, but is filled with small mysteries, as are the lives of the people he encounters.

Anyone who enjoys a good story and picks up this book will likely be hooked in a few minutes. It's a quick read, both moving and entertaining, and would be a good piece of historical fiction for reluctant readers.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Old Movies for Families

I stumbled across this film guide from Boston Globe critic Ty Burr while browsing at the library. I'm glad I found it: it's a worthwhile read for film buffs as well as parents. Subtitled A Guide to Watching Together, and using anecdotes from the author's experiences with his children, the book provides an accessible and useful guide to parents who want to spend quality time with their kids and introduce them to good movies.

In the introduction Burr relates how his daughter wanted, and got, a Katherine Hepburn party for her ninth birthday, complete with a screening of Bringing Up Baby. He goes on to list starter films for various ages. Additional chapters explore various film genres. An appendix lists films recommended for various ages.

The emphasis is not on protecting your kids from movies that don't have family values, but exploring good films with your family. Entertainingly written, with something for every movie buff, this is highly recommended.