I’m back with my much-delayed review of some of the notable media I consumed in the spring of 2014! Despite the lateness of the hour, I have stuck to those that I read/watched/played in April, May, and June. You’ll get your July next time.
In my quest to make these recurring features ever more relevant and useful to you, my library-adjacent reading public, I have added a brief note on each item’s potential for use in your favorite biblioteca. Feel free to jump around to what interests you, but books and movies are kinda obvious--expand your mind! Read about board games and graphic novels (discussion of which falls under both movie and TV shows, oddly enough).
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The book so good it’s a recent winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Library value: As if you need any encouragement to add Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest to your shelves? This would make a great centerpiece to a seminar or lecture, perhaps tied to your community’s own history during the Gilded Age.
A mixed bag: the past and the present, the East and the West, and one instance of pointless, self-indulgent schlock.
My review of Jack of Spies by David Downing
My review of Night Heron by Adam Brookes
My review of I Am Pilgrim, one of the few books I couldn’t finish.
Library value: Two must-haves and a miss. Jack and Heron are particularly attractive books, so adding them to a summer reading display would catch eyes.
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
A mind-bending Shakespearean metafiction of a narrative nesting doll.
Library value: This is tailor made for book clubs. There will be a lot of contrasting opinions on the scurrilous narrator, his scamp of a father, and his sympathetic but difficult sister.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Did someone mention mind-bending metafiction? The gold standard of the tenuously--and yet deeply--intertwined multi-narrative. Sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, travelogue, etc.
Library value: This is one of those books, like House of Leaves and, to a lesser extent, American Gods, that needs to be on your shelves just waiting for the reader that needs to find it, wrestle with it, figure it out, dismiss it, come back to it, lather it, rinse it, repeat it.
Game of Thrones season 4
That was a rollercoaster of a season. It stretched longer than usual for me, since I was fortunate enough to attend a fan premier event in Brooklyn in late March; based on that first episode, I had high hopes for the nine that followed...hopes that were only partially met. The highs were very high: various intense scenes with pivotal and fan-favorite Oberyn Martell, that massive battle at the Wall, and some definitive turning points in numerous storylines. But there were missteps, to my mind, as well. As good as most of Oberyn’s scenes were, I came out of the season feeling like he was underutilized. Then I had some general pacing concerns, a fact born from the adaptation choice that undergirded this outing from the beginning: by and large, these episodes covered the last third of A Storm of Swords, a sequence of pages chock full with some of the biggest shocks and cataclysmic climaxes of the entire series. Such events could leave viewers breathless and overwhelmed, but spacing them as the production did led to some uncomfortable dead space in certain storylines, space that was filled with varying degrees of success. (Space that left the series open for that controversial Jaime-Cersei scene, a moment drawn from the books that the writers and directors nonetheless seemed not to know how to approach.) I’m generally happy with the season, though, and thrilled by this year’s finale and where various characters are heading--and I can only hope that certain missing elements are being cagily held back to shock everyone, even book readers…
Library value: One university has already had a major course designed around this series and the books that inspired it. Why not your library? Make a Thrones course for the people. Use it as an opportunity to bring in local experts to elucidate fantasy, filmmaking, adaptation, fandom, the Dothraki language...
What a delightful discovery this was for me. What started as an idle need to watch *something* while hanging out with a friend on chilly late spring nights turned into my latest animation obsession. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed as hard as I did when Bob decided to live in the walls of his apartment/restaurant to avoid his overbearing in-laws (a natural, and hilarious progression of an otherwise tired TV trope). Yet somehow even that was surpassed in humor shock value in one moment of absurd cow-death. Yet more than just belly-shakers, Bob’s Burgers gives us a sweet portrait of a modern-ish, struggling middle class family, with megalomaniacal and bunny eared daughter Louise to enthusiastic, unexpectedly hard-bitten mother and wife Linda, and most especially awkward, randy, blossoming young woman Tina…*uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh*. But Bob himself brings new life to the trope of the schlubby, struggling, animated family man: he’s less dopey than Homer Simpson, more of a dad than Peter Griffin, and has more of a moral center than Stan Smith. H. John Benjamin’s patented everyman drawl, with its notes of improv, make Bob the most realistic guy ever incarnated in lines and color.
Library value: The DVDs for seasons one through three are available. Give your community the gift of Bob bingeing! A’riiiiiight!!!
American Horror Story seasons 1 & 2
One thing I’ve noticed in the two seasons of AHS that I’ve watched so far is that there isn’t necessarily enough to the writers’ initial concept to fill 13 episodes, and so they end up throwing the kitchen sink at us before circling back to the logical, thematically-satisfying conclusion to the original conceit. This season treated us to a potentially haunted asylum, a murderous maniac or three, twisted mommy issues, Nazi experiments, UFOs, the Devil, the Angel of Death...and I’m honestly not sure if more than two of those really had much of a bearing on the very effective finale. It doesn’t really give a sense that the creators have any interest in providing neatly-bound stories. But who cares? Every smidgen of it is stylish and interesting, and you’re never sure which bit will end up being relevant to the endgame. Most importantly, the cast knocks it out of the park. Jessica Lange is particularly impossible to tear your eyes away from, whether as the southern mom with a dark secret in season one or as the harsh nun who feels an honest calling to help the wretches in her care in season 2. Her various transformations, particularly throughout the second season, are transcendent.
Library value: The lesson of American Horror Story is constant reinvention, within and between seasons. Don’t let that be lost on your library. Your Library Season One can be brought to an end; start season two with all new costumes and personalities. Season One: Haunted Library...dusty and stodgy. Season Two: Creepy experiments at the sleek info center. Am I over-extending this metaphor? Er, also, I’m sure your 20-something patrons would love an AHS themed Halloween party or something.
Veep & Silicon Valley
It has been noted that Veep is the king of the awkward human interaction on TV. To be more appropriate, Veep is the president, and Silicon Valley’s first season makes a very strong showing for Speaker of the House, at the very least. or maybe chair of the House Science and Technology Committee? Regardless, both these shows provide laughs and groans in equal measure. While Veep continues to expose what you can’t help but feel is a very authentic portrait of the venal, self-absorbed people who populate the heights of the American government, SV is much more everyman in its take on a group of brilliant but discombobulated techies attempting to launch a web startup. I grew very fond of the hapless protagonist, in all his earnestness, and the various twists and turns of fate demonstrate the lingering uncertainty of the tech world. (And if you weren;t afraid of the possibilities inherent in self-driving cars, you will be after this season.) And Veep Selina? She’s a trainwreck, but you can’t help rooting for her self-serving grasping at power, especially as she continues to suffer numerous unnamable indignities.
Library value: All right, I’m having trouble coming up with appropriate library ideas for these HBO and FX shows. Obviously you should own all this stuff on DVD--especially these premium-station shows that a lot of your patrons may not be willing or able to pay for...and we want to discourage piracy, don’t we? Oh, that actually gives me a grand idea. I was going to say that we could take these shows as an inspiration to hold light-hearted debates on current events and technology developments--feel free to do that too--but an even better idea is to use all your premium channel DVDs in an anti-piracy campaign. I don’t have all the details. That’s your job. But it would be nice for libraries to engage in this kind of thing in a variety of ways. It can be fun! And bloody and sexy, possibly. Probably.
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD season 1 and Arrow seasons 1 & 2
Let’s start with Marvel. The series (which I always enjoyed because I’m a nerd, don’t get me wrong) really picked up toward the middle of the season, after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In case there are any out there who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the Marvel Universe-shaking revelations, but its ramifications really sent this show in a new direction. The new status quo will lead to some interesting storytelling next season, even as things are looking strange for our beloved Agent Coulson in the wake of his death and rebirth. I was, though, disappointed that, after weeks of non-stop tension, psychological drama, and even a taste of horror, the season ended with a glorified fistfight. I would have expected they’d conserve a little of the budget to send the season off with a near-cinematic climax, but no. And there were a few Chekhov’s Supervillains teased through the year that have yet to be fired, so hopefully next year we’ll get some of that. All in all, I’m looking forward to a strong season 2. My other new favorite superhero show was Arrow, which approached comic book adaptation in a very different--some might say more traditionally “actiony”--manner. I continue to be charmed by its cast of supporting characters, and the acrobatic antics of the title hero put the somewhat clumsy choreography of SHIELD to shame. The best element of the show continues to be its parallel narratives, showing Oliver Queen as the vigilante in the present attempting to fulfil his vow to save Starling City, while in the past we witness his gradual development into a hero. The end of the second season was oddly inconclusive, though, to my taste--after a big buildup, it was certainly less climactic that season one with its doomsday device. There’s a lot to be said about the difference in approach to comic book adaptation that these two series take--not least in regards to one actually directly adapting an established character, while the other adapts an entire universe through the actions of mostly original characters--but I think that’s better left for when both series come back in the fall, and I can do real side-by-side comparisons.
Library value: Everybody loves superheroes. (Admit it.) All these movies and TV shows are a great way to lure patrons into reading. “Love Oliver Queen in that WB show? Here’s 900 pages of his comic book adventures!” Keep these possibilities in mind the next time you’re working on your collection development. Comics and graphic novels are excellent additions to your library. Still holding out? Wanna fight about it?
Guilty pleasures: Nashville, Revenge and Scandal
I can’t believe I got into Nashville this year, but there it is. It helps that my boyfriend moved down there, but I got hooked on the show in a hotel room well before that happened. The musical element is almost entirely non-obnoxious, and even pleasant more often than not. It’s some fun, slightly-trashy evening soapiness, served up with a twang and unrealistic southern righteousness, but I found myself compelled by Rayna Jaymes’ quest to redefine herself in the music industry, and there’s an interesting gay subplot that deals sensitively with self-repression in a not always welcoming context. Speaking of trashy soap, Revenge happily returned to form this year, with Emily Thorne focusing more on the Graysons and less on shadowy international cabals. Victoria’s compulsion to end Emily grew ever more baroque, as a long-lost son’s return gave her all the more reasons to act the finely-appointed Hamptons mama bear. Sadly, Nolan was a little underused this year. We want more Nolan! Finally, Scandal served up its usual jolts. I can’t even talk about the murder and betrayal that went on. Olivia Pope found herself at her lowest ebb, and it was heartbreaking to see this usually-composed woman racked with doubt and recrimination. To say nothing of Mellie, whose self-abnegation for the sake of her husband has forced her to endure psychological wounds that the president’s uncomprehending scorn serve only to continually tear open. And faces were licked, unfortunately.
Library value: Okay, you got me here. But just like with romance novels, your library needs a little guilt here and there. Remember that we’re not running a boarding school! Your patrons are free to have a good time. Stock up on those DVDs.
Farewell, Revolution, and my favorite character, the schlubby, heroic, dispossessed tech nerd Aaron. I don’t think enough people gave this show the chance it deserved, but I suppose two seasons is more than a lot of ambitious sci-fi dramas get on network television. To be fair, I merely endured the interminable gunfights and fistfights that always seemed to leave Our Heroes only negligibly differently-off each episode. The territorial and philosophical differences between the various factions were interesting in the abstract, but when it was all reduced to fisticuffs, the appeal waned--though when “the Patriots” began brainwashing youth into killing machines, well, that offered a disturbing, dystopian element that the show needed (and hearkened back to its faux-Hunger Games roots). But for my money, the best element of the show was in the burgeoning sentience of the nanotechnology that suppressed the world’s electricity in the first place, offering a “face” to the overall threat as well as an opportunity for eventual resolution. Now we’ll never see that potential play out.
Library value: It’s always good to invest in some alternate sci-fi--it’s not all Star Wars and Star Trek, and some of the best speculative fiction is based right here on good ol’ planet Earth.. Bonus points for dystopia and for making your patrons think about the primacy of technology in their lives.
I’m gonna lump these together because I can, and we all know what I’m going to say. Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Godzilla was a fun romp. X-Men: Days of Future Past was an effective reset to the X-Men movie mythos and a pretty affecting film in its own right. And The Amazing Spider-Man --well, there was nothing wrong with it, but it just didn’t leave me as excited as the other movies on this list. Sony hasn’t quite got the formula down yet.
Library value: I’m getting verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. Here, I’ll give you a topic: The Marvel movies are way better than the (plans for the) DC movies, even considering underwhelming Spider-Man and X-Men films and really good Batman ones. Discuss.
Here’s one of those classics of the mature board game set that I had been itching to try out. It is not as thematically engaging as Puerto Rico, nor as cleanly enjoyable as Settlers of Catan, but it is definitely a worthy game. You place tiles to build up the French countryside, extending roads, cities, and monasteries as you go. It’s a bit of a puzzler, essentially the ingredients of an abstract game given some irrelevant thematic trappings (which I absolutely appreciate--when I play games, I’d much rather feel like I am in a way rehearsing some human activity, rather than simply plugging arbitrary sockets together. Which I guess is something some humans do in real life, but I much prefer stepping back and saying “Oooooh French countryside in an alternate universeeeee, look what we didddddd”).
Library value: It’s always a good idea to stock up on gateway games and classic games. This one fits under both categories.
This game is a treasure. You and your friends compete to see who can have the nicest time strolling from Kyoto to Tokyo in feudal Japan. Each player adopts a persona, each with particular bonuses for engaging in the activities you can choose from along the way. Do you have an artistic soul? Then collect tryptichs of the splendors of nature you see from the roadside. A bit of an epicure? There are many fine meals to be sampled. Or maybe your tastes are more hedonistic; feel free to indulge in the hot spring spas that dot your path. All these and more make for a truly lovely frame to a game of collection and progress, where the slowest traveler--more intent on the pleasures of the journey, perhaps--always gets to go first, and the only requirement is that you spend each night in an inn with your fellow travelers. It sounds like it might be dull, but instead Takaido captures the perfect balance between competition and relaxation. It is also the most beautifully designed game I have yet played, with a foundation of pure white splashed with a sheer, shimmering palette that puts me in mind of sunlight shining through cherry blossoms. No lie.
Library value: People of all ages will love this game. This would actually be a great candidate for generation-bridging game events. Nothing to get too worked up and competitive over--just a lot of enjoyment for everyone.
Is it too late to talk about the pirate craze? Maybe, but this game remains fun whether Jack Sparrow is a la mode or not. I played this one early in the spring, so its details elude me, but in general each player seeks to leverage the strength and skills of their pirate crews for advantage in claiming various treasures. It’s sort of a light deck-based card game, with a lot of neat pirate ships to choose from and some entertaining scurvy cutthroats on your cards. This is a game I felt like playing again in order to better appreciate its intricacies--I just haven’t had a chance yet.
Library value: What better activity for next year’s Talk Like a Pirate Day observances? (You know your library celebrates Talk Like a Pirate Day.)
And that’s that. Hope you found something of use in my report. I just read and watch for fun (“I do not read to think. I do not read to learn. I do not read to search for truth.
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need!”--bonus points if you can name the musical), but every little stick of media can be turned into worthwhile programming or marketing. Don’t be afraid to flavor your library with your personal tastes.