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Friday, March 27, 2015

Going to the Dogs

Written by Jon Williams

If you’re anything like me, you’re a sucker for a good dog story. Actually, if you’re even more like me, you tend to avoid a lot of dog stories, because you tend to get a little too emotionally invested in them. What can I say? Some of my best friends have been dogs. Fortunately for storytellers and moviemakers everywhere, though, it seems that most people are not like me in that regard, as stories about dogs always turn out to be quite popular.

One such upcoming release is sure to be a hit with young library patrons. Mogie: The Heart of the House begins with a litter of puppies that are all designated to be trained for a variety of jobs—all of them, that is, except for Mogie, who is too high-spirited for any of these roles. However, Mogie eventually finds his place keeping kids company at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston, Texas. This is a touching true story, and you can read a bit more about Mogie here.

One of the most popular recent dog stories, of course, and another true story, is Marley and Me. John Grogan’s memoir of “the world’s worst dog” captured hearts and leapt onto the bestseller lists. It spawned a movie adaptation starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. And that movie then inspired a prequel of its own, which features a talking Marley going on adventures as a puppy with his human pal. Bodi. And for those who like dog memoirs, another one that has gotten plenty of attention is A Big Little Life from bestselling author Dean Koontz, who shares the life of his golden retriever Trixie. Koontz’s affection for dogs is well known, as he has presented heroic canine characters into many of his most popular novels, including Watchers and Fear Nothing.

One dog story I found particularly compelling was David Wroblewski’s novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I was hardly alone in that, as it was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and Oprah, along with Tom Hanks, is said to be working toward bringing it to the big screen. The story is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with Edgar’s three dogs playing a pivotal role. Fantastic in its own right, it also made me aware of the story of Hachiko, the dog who accompanied his owner to the train station each day, and continued to make the pilgrimage even after the owner’s death. That tale was made into a movie, Hachi, starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen, and it was also featured in Martha Sherrill’s Dog Man, a book about Morie Sawataishi, who saved the Akita breed from extinction.

The list of dog “tails” is nearly endless. In addition to the above, there are classics like Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and Sounder, as well as more contemporary comedies and family films such as Turner and Hooch, Because of Winn-Dixie, Hotel for Dogs, and the Air Bud movies. Then there are all the animated films—101 Dalmatians, The Fox and the Hound, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Balto—not to mention TV cartoon dogs like Snoopy and Scooby-Doo. Oh, and we can’t forget about Cujo, the one dog that’s the complete antithesis of all these warm and fuzzy pets, companions, friends, and heroes.

Clearly, there is plenty of interest in stories about man’s best friend. What are some of your favourites? Tell us about them in the comments section below.

Friday, March 20, 2015

WWII Still Fascinates

Written by Jon Williams

Although it ended nearly seventy years ago, World War II remains a major factor in the events of today, and stories surrounding the worldwide conflict continue to connect with audiences, whether they are grounded in truth or fiction. One of the most incredible true stories to come out of the war is that of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner for the United States who then joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. When his plane went down in the ocean during a 1943 rescue mission, his tale of survival would become one for the ages. That story is told by Laura Hillenbrand in the bestselling book Unbroken, which was then made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. And the rest of Zamperini’s life makes for a pretty good story in its own right, available in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In by Zamperini and David Rensin.

Another tale of World War II is getting quite a bit of attention right now, this one on the fictional side. Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See came out on May 6 of last year and has been on the New York Times best sellers list nearly ever since, topping it several times and sitting even now at #2. A beautiful story of a young blind French girl and a German army radio expert, whose disparate paths somehow converge in the war’s closing days, it’s easy to understand how it has become and remained so popular.

Of course, there are any number of World War II stories for your interested patrons. On the literary side, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own favourites, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. These epic novels detail the lives of U.S. Navy Captain Victor Henry and his family as they are swept up in the events leading up to and carrying through the war. Books like Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl detail the true-life horrors of the Holocaust, while the classic novel and Catch-22 injects an element of black humour into the dire situations facing those fighting the war on a day-to-day basis. There are even young adult books that address the war, like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Number the Stars, the Newbery Medal-winning novel from Lois Lowry.

For those who prefer movies to books, there are plenty of options as well. The aforementioned Winds of War and War and Remembrance were each made into miniseries starring Robert Mitchum as Captain Henry, and show the full scope of the war, including both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres as well as the Holocaust. Schindler’s List, detailing Oskar Schindler’s covert efforts to save lives during the Holocaust, is considered one of the best films of all time, while similarly acclaimed films like Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers depict on-the-ground combat, as does the recently released Fury, starring Brad Pitt. To see how the war affected daily life at home, you can’t go wrong with The War, from documentarian Ken Burns.

And this is just scratching the surface of all the books and movies out there on the subject of World War II. What are some of your favourites, or what’s popular with patrons at your library? Tell us in the comments section below.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Small-Screen Superheroes

Written by Jon Williams

These days, when you think of superhero-based entertainment, what comes to mind first is likely the big-budget blockbuster like The Dark Knight or Guardians of the Galaxy. While those movies garner a lot of attention—and for good reason!—there’s plenty to be excited about for fans looking for more regular installments in their favourite stories. There’s a long and stories tradition of superhero shows on TV, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

I mentioned The Dark Knight because, of course, Batman is one of the most popular superheroes. Making his DC Comics debut in 1939, the Caped Crusader finally came to television in 1966. Adam West and Burt Ward played Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, and the series also included iconic turns from Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, and Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as frequent adversaries. The lighthearted tone of that series differed greatly from the darker, grittier portrayals seen in the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale movies, as well as from the Gotham TV series currently airing on Fox.

Making his debut just before Batman, Superman has been a sometime ally and sometime adversary to his DC Comics counterpart, such as in the upcoming movie Batman v Superman. A cultural icon, the Man of Steel has been through many television iterations, beginning in 1952 with Adventures of Superman, which featured George Reeves donning the cape. In 1988, The Adventures of Superboy followed Clark Kent and his alter ego in his youth, while in 1993, Lois & Clark dealt with Superman’s adventures as well has his relationship with Lois Lane (actress Teri Hatcher’s big break). Following on the heels of that show’s popularity, Smallville, in some ways similar to Superboy, explores Clark Kent’s origins and younger days.

It’s worth nothing that yet another DC Comics character, Wonder Woman, also had a series from 1975-1979 featuring the Amazon warrior princess. There have been considerably fewer series featuring characters from Marvel Comics, at least until Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hit the airwaves in 2013. A notable example, though, is The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1978 to 1982 and starred Bill Bixby as scientist Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the green behemoth he changes into during moments of intense anger. A TV movie continuation, The Incredible Hulk Returns, was originally intended as a setup for a series featuring Thor, another Marvel superhero, but that never panned out.

DC and Marvel have been the source for so much superhero lore in pop culture, but there are a number of other tales as well. One of my favourite shows as a kid was The Greatest American Hero (currently unavailable), about a hapless everyman who comes to possess a suit that bestows a number of powers—but, unfortunately, he loses the instructions and has to figure it out as he goes along. It also featured one of the all-time great TV theme songs, “Believe It or Not” by Joey Scarbury. A similar premise underlies the more recent series Heroes, in which seemingly ordinary people discover their own superpowers. The show concluded in 2010, but a 13-episode follow-up is scheduled to air this fall on NBC.

For those who love their superheroes, there are obviously plenty of options to choose from, and more on the way. In addition to current shows like Arrow and The Flash, there are any number of shows coming soon, such as Powers, a superhero detective drama starring Sharlto Copley and Eddie Izzard, and Constantine, a series featuring the DC Comics character played on the big screen by Keanu Reeves. In addition, there will be a number of further additions to the Marvel universe, like Daredevil and AKA Jessica Jones, both of which will be offered by Netflix. So which of these older shows do you love, and which of the new ones are you looking forward to?