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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meeting Murakami

Written by Jon Williams

For the past few weeks you’ve been seeing Haruki Murakami’s name at or near the top of the bestseller lists. His recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, released on August 12, went straight to the top of the New York Times list, where it remains in the top ten. It follows the main character as he attempts to get his life in order by reuniting and making amends with friends from his youth. Murakami’s own story, though, is just as interesting.

Born in Kyoto 1949, Murakami went on to study drama in college in Tokyo. Instead of pursuing that as a career, however, he and his wife opened a jazz club. According to Murakami himself, he didn’t write at all until he was 29 years old. Then, while attending a baseball game, he was struck with the notion that he could write a novel. He had to stop on his way home from the ballpark to buy a pen and paper, but he began work that very night on the manuscript that would become Hear the Wind Sing, his first novel. Although that book is not widely available in English, a new translation is in the works, scheduled for a 2015 release. It will be paired with a new translation of his second novel, Pinball, 1973, which is also rare in its current English version.

While Pinball, 1973 was his first novel translated into English, Murakami did not gain international acclaim until his third and fourth novels, A Wild Sheep Chase (written 1982, translated 1989; currently unavailable) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (written 1985, translated 1991), which worked in elements of fantasy and magical realism. Then came Norwegian Wood (currently unavailable as an audiobook, although the movie adaptation is available), a realistic coming-of-age novel, and perhaps his most famous to date. That made its way to North America in 2000. Since then he has published such novels as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84 (his most recent work prior to Colorless Tsukuru), all of which came available to English readers in much shorter order than his previous works.

Murakami’s novels are his most popular works, but they are by no means his only literary occupation. He is a noted translator, adapting into Japanese so much of the American literature that has had such an influence on him, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Long Goodbye, and The Great Gatsby, among many others. In between novels he writes short stories, a form in which he claims to find more joy. You can find examples of his short fiction in the collection After the Quake, a collection dealing with the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. He also ventures into non-fiction with What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir of his dedication to fitness. Like his writing life, Murakami came relatively late to running—beginning at age 33, he has run one marathon each year since, as well as one 110km ultra-marathon.

Needless to say, you haven’t heard the last of this driven literary dynamo. A new story, Strange Library, arrives in December. With the print version coming it at a scant 96 pages, its length is quite a contrast to most of his work. What comes after that is anyone’s guess. As Murakami prefers to challenge himself as he writes, it’s certain to be compelling.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ready for Kickoff

Written by Jon Williams

The month of August is winding down, and the kids are back to school or getting ready to do so very soon. While this can bring on emotions ranging from excitement to angst for the students in question, it also heralds the return of the popular community institution that is high school football. The traditional Friday night game has long been a source of fascination in both fiction and non-fiction, evidenced by the film When the Game Stands Tall, opening in theatres today. It tells the story of the De La Salle Spartans, a high school team in California that maintained an incredible 151-game winning streak from 1992 through 2003. It’s just the latest in a long line of stories to explore both the romance and the dark side of the game and the young men who play it.

Of course, the gold standard for high school football-related media is the Friday Night Lights juggernaut. The 1990 book by Buzz Bissinger was turned into a 2004 film exploring the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, dealing with the pressures of a highly touted team making a run at a championship in a state where football is king. The success of that movie then spawned a critically acclaimed TV series focusing on Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) taking over as head coach in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and the trials and tribulations of his players and family. The show ran for five seasons, ending in 2011, and while there were persistent rumours of it coming back to the big screen, it now appears that won’t happen.

Still, there are a number of other film portrayals of high school football. One is the 1983 movie All the Right Moves, which features Tom Cruise as a star player seeking a scholarship and Craig T. Nelson as his coach (Nelson, of course, would go on to earn an Emmy Award playing a college football coach as the star of the ABC series Coach). In 1999, Varsity Blues introduced young stars James Van Der Beek, Paul Walker, and Scott Caan as players with a tumultuous relationship with their overbearing coach (Jon Voight). 2000’s Remember the Titans, like Friday Night Lights (the movie), depicts a true story, this one of a 1971 Virginia team dealing with racial tensions. Denzel Washington won accolades for his portrayal of the team’s coach, Herman Boone.

And if you prefer even more realism, there are a number of documentaries that take a look at various teams as they wilt or bloom under the lights. One of them is 2011’s Undefeated, which looks at a traditionally bad team in an underprivileged Memphis area when a new coach takes over, determined to take the team—and its players—to new heights. A staple in the genre is Go Tigers!, following the 1999 team in the football-crazy town of Massillon, Ohio.

This is just a small sampling of football movies, and doesn’t even get into the number of audiobooks (both fiction and non-fiction) that are available. For more, come search or browse on our website, and make sure your patrons have everything they need to whet their appetites for the coming season.

Friday, August 15, 2014

In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall

Written by Jon Williams

It’s been a rough week in Hollywood. It started on Monday afternoon with the news of Robin Williams’s passing, which stunned and saddened the entertainment industry and millions of fans worldwide. The veteran comedian and actor, who parlayed his role on the sitcom Mork and Mindy into a long and successful TV and movie career, was just 63 when he died.

With the shocking nature of that news, the death of another big-screen icon has been nearly overshadowed. On Tuesday, Lauren Bacall passed away at age 89. Yes, she was married to Humphrey Bogart, but she had quite a career in her own right. Her work as a model brought her to the attention of filmmaker Howard Hawks, who brought her to Hollywood. He was the one who assigned her to a voice coach that helped her develop the low, sultry voice she became known for. Hawks then cast her in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, and the rest is history.

It was on the set of To Have and Have Not that Bacall met Bogie. The two married in 1945 and remained so until Bogart’s death in 1957. In addition to being husband and wife, they also paired up on the silver screen three more times in the 1940s, beginning with 1946’s The Big Sleep (another Howard Hawks film). Adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel about detective Philip Marlowe, it featured a screenplay co-written by William Faulkner. That was followed in 1947 with Dark Passage, and in 1948 with Key Largo, directed by John Huston.

Bacall’s career was at its peak in the 1950s, beginning with Young Man with a Horn (currently unavailable), an early jazz film. She also starred in such films as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Woman’s World (1954), and the classic Written on the Wind (1956), among others. The 1957 film Designing Woman (currently unavailable) was filmed as Bogart’s health was failing, and released just a few months after his death.

Beginning in the 1960s, Bacall dialed back her involvement in Hollywood productions, although she continued to act into her later days. One of her most significant roles was as part of an all-star ensemble cast in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. Speaking personally, the first time I saw her was in a small role in Stephen King’s Misery adaptation, as author Paul Sheldon’s agent. In 1996, her role in The Mirror Has Two Faces earned her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, as well as her first Academy Award nomination. She also put that famous voice to good use with roles in such animated projects as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ernest & Celestine (2012).

With Lauren Bacall’s passing on Tuesday, we’ve lost another small piece of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Share her films with your patrons. In addition to the movies listed above, you can SmartBrowse her name on our website for a more comprehensive list.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Scream Reboot Coming to MTV

Written by Jon Williams

“What’s your favourite scary movie?”

That’s the most iconic line from the 1996 slasher flick Scream, the Wes Craven-helmed sendup of horror movies and their conventions that managed to be pretty creepy in its own right. That film brought in over $100 million at the box office and spawned three further installments. Now the franchise is getting a facelift, with Bob and Harvey Weinstein set to bring a reboot series to MTV. Craven will serve with the Weinsteins as another executive producer alongside showrunner Jill Blotevogel, Marianne Maddalena, and Cathy Konrad.

Wes Craven, of course, is a legend in the horror movie business dating back to 1972’s The Last House on the Left, which he wrote and directed. He did the same on such films as The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Swamp Thing (1982) before the birth of his most famous creation. In 1984, Freddy Krueger made his debut as the undead, dream-haunting, teen-stalking serial killer of A Nightmare on Elm Street. A number of films and a TV spinoff followed (including a 2010 remake), but Craven was only involved in Dream Warriors and New Nightmare (currently unavailable).

When Scream came out in 1996, it poked fun at the horror genre and updated it at the same time. It flouted conventions by featuring characters that were horror-savvy and aware of the clichés (“Don’t go in there!”), and then by casting well-known actors and actresses to portray those characters. The first film starred Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, and Skeet Ulrich, among others. Its success was followed quickly by Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), with Scream 4, the most recent, coming in 2011. All the sequels brought back Campbell, Cox, and Arquette.

Being released in 2011, Scream 4 coincided with a resurgence in popularity for the horror genre. It was originally intended to be the beginning of a new series featuring younger co-stars like Hayden Panettiere and Aimee Teegarden. While it’s unclear how or if the development of the TV series will affect plans for further feature films, it’s certain that the series will feature a younger cast. The pilot episode is set to film this summer; stay tuned for more details, like premiere dates, as they become available.

Of course, it’s not too early to start thinking about your Halloween movie collections. SmartBrowse on our website for plenty more by Wes Craven, and while you’re there, take a look around for plenty more of the horror films your patrons will be Scream-ing for.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Guardians of the Galaxy – Who Are They?

Written by Jon Williams

It’s one of the most-hyped movies of the summer. Finally, after months of excitement and lead-up, Marvel’s The Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theatres everywhere on Friday. The powers-that-be behind the film are so confident in its success, a sequel has already been announced—with an expected release date of July 28, 2017. And as anyone who has seen the trailers and TV spots will tell you, it’s for good reason. The movie looks to be a pure fun, action-packed summer blockbuster.

Of course, this isn’t Marvel/Disney’s first go-around with bringing a high-powered superhero ensemble to the big screen. In 2012, The Avengers took the box office by storm, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Of course, that movie dealt with a group of well-known superheroes; each of the principals (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk) had at least one standalone movie prior to their big-screen team-up. The Guardians, on the other hand, are relatively unknown outside of the comics world. So who are they?

The Guardians are led by Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt. Quill finds himself in possession of a powerful object that sets him in the way of the evil Ronan, an alien warlord played by Lee Pace. In order to protect the galaxy from the chaos planned by Ronan, Quill teams up with a ragtag group of misfits—the Guardians of the Galaxy.

One of the most interesting members of the group is Rocket, a wisecracking, genetically engineered mercenary…raccoon. He provides some comic relief, but is an essential member of the team as their weapons and tactics expert. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper. Rocket’s sidekick in an anthropomorphic tree named Groot, a powerful warrior who is nonetheless the most unabashedly good-natured character on the team. Groot’s voice is provided by Vin Diesel.

Another warrior Guardian is Drax the Destroyer. Not a mercenary, Drax joins the team as a way to seek revenge against Ronan, who was responsible for the death of his family. This scarred hulk is played by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista. And rounding out the team is Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, familiar to sci-fi fans for her roles in Avatar and the Star Trek reboots. She plays an assassin trained by Thanos, the shadowy villain mastermind behind Ronan’s shenanigans.

Of course, Thanos and Ronan have a team of henchmen as well, made up of characters played by Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, and Karen Gillan (best known as Amy Pond, companion to Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor). Other well-known actors in the star-studded film include Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, Nathan Fillion, Peter Serafinowicz, and the voices of Josh Brolin and Rob Zombie.

With a cast like that, and all the fun the film is sure to bring, it’s no wonder that Disney feels good enough to already be thinking ahead to the sequel. The Guardians of the Galaxy are sure to be the talk of the summer from this point forward. The soundtrack is available now, and be sure to have plenty of other superhero films on your shelves for fans who just can’t get enough.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Oz Continues to Inspire

Written by Jon Williams

It all began in 1900. That year saw the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a novel intended as a fairy tale for children. Little did he know then that it would in fact capture the imaginations of adults and children alike, keeping the Land of Oz and its inhabitants and visitors alive and growing well over a century later.

Baum himself was able to capitalize on the success of the novel. Although he did not originally intend for a series, he wrote the first sequel in 1904. He hoped The Marvelous Land of Oz would quell the clamour; it did not. When he wrote The Emerald City of Oz in 1911 (the fifth sequel), he tried to cry off by claiming that he had lost his ties to Oz and therefore could no longer learn the stories from there. That didn’t work either. He followed it with The Patchwork Girl of Oz in 1913, and continued to publish a new Oz story each year after that.

Baum passed away in 1919, but as we all know, the story didn’t end there. The movie adaptation produced in 1939 has come to be even more famous than the novel that spawned it. Its bold use of new Technicolor technology brought to stunning life Baum’s fantastic world of Yellow Brick Roads and an Emerald City; paired with Judy Garland’s singing and performance as Dorothy, it remains a wonder to behold. The film was so beloved that it inspired adaptations of its own, such as 1978’s The Wiz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and 2005’s whimsical version starring the Muppets. And in 1985, there was a sequel called Return to Oz that mined some of Baum’s further adventures, and has since become a cult hit.

Even now, Oz maintains its grip on the imaginations of a new generation of writers and filmmakers who continue to tell stories of the magical realm. Witness the popularity of Gregory Maguire’s 2005 novel Wicked, which explored the origins and motivations of the Wicked Witch of the West, the antagonist of Baum’s novel. That itself spun off into three sequel novels and a wildly popular Broadway show.

The high level of interest in all things Wicked is one factor in the recent Oz revival that has continued to expand the story of the land and characters created by L. Frank Baum at the dawn of the 20th century. Last year’s box-office hit Oz the Great and Powerful tells the tale of how the Wizard himself, played by James Franco, came to the Land of Oz. This year, the animated film Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return brought the tale forward from Dorothy’s original visit to the Wizard, bringing her back to face a new threat to the Emerald City. And a recent novel from Danielle Paige, Dorothy Must Die, plays with a similar theme: that Dorothy has become a malevolent ruler over Oz, and must herself be defeated.

Needless to say, Oz devotees will find no shortage of titles to hold their attention. Search on our website to find more, and help transport your patrons over the rainbow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Weird Al Owns the Internet

Written by Jon Williams

In case you’ve missed it—and I’m not sure that’s possible—musical comedian Weird Al Yankovic has been absolutely killing it over the past week since the release of his latest album, Mandatory Fun. To promote it, he released eight music videos in eight days via various pop-culture-centric websites, beginning with last Monday’s “Tacky” (a parody of the Pharrell hit “Happy”) and finishing off with today’s corporate-buzzword-skewering “Mission Statement” (not a straight parody, but heavily influenced by Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”).

In between those videos were the grammar lovers’ dream “Word Crimes” (from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), the twisted ode to aluminum “Foil” (from Lorde’s “Royals”), the contractor’s commercial “Handy” (from Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), the honest college fight song “Sports Song,” a lamentation of “First World Problems,” and a name-dropping “Lame Claim to Fame.” All eight songs, plus four others (including the staple polka medley), can be found on the new album. (You can view all these videos at if you missed any of them.)

Yankovic’s career start came courtesy of the Dr. Demento radio show, which played his Knack parody “My Balogna” and then had Al on as a guest to record “Another One Rides the Bus” in 1980. Both songs appeared on his self-titled debut album, released in 1983. His real break came with his second album, Weird Al Yankovic in 3D, which featured “Eat It,” a parody of the skyrocketing Michael Jackson. Pairing his sharp-witted lyrical stylings with clever music videos gave him a leg up in MTV’s ‘80s heyday, as did support from Jackson, whom Weird Al parodied again with 1988’s “Fat” (on the album Even Worse, both a play on MJ’s Bad).

In a career that now spans more than thirty years, Yankovic has had to evolve, as he did with 1992’s Off the Deep End, with both the lead single (“Smells Like Nirvana”) and the album cover playing on Nirvana and the breakout of grunge music. He gave the songs on that album more of a satirical edge, which has carried through to his music today. Mandatory Fun is Al’s fourteenth album…and probably his last, although he’s not retiring. With the prominence of video sharing sites like YouTube and the rise of digital music, he plans to do future distribution via those means, so as to be more even timelier with his work.

And that’s not all from the world of Weird Al. Yesterday also marked the 25th anniversary of his film UHF, in which his character takes over a defunct TV station and creates zany programming that makes it wildly popular. Although neither the film nor its soundtrack is currently available, Al said in a recent Newsweek interview that there are commemoration plans he’s “not at liberty to talk about right now” for later in the year. Will it be a Blu-ray release? Maybe a sequel announcement? We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Weird Al’s popularity has risen to all-time heights—there’s a good chance Mandatory Fun will top Billboard’s chart this week, which would be a first in Al’s career, his previous best being 2011’s Alpocalypse, which made it to #9. So make sure you have the new album on your shelf, and SmartBrowse ‘Weird Al Yankovic’ on our website for even more by this hilarious (and Grammy-winning!) artist.