In the week before the Academy Awards, and not too long after a cold spell and blizzard nearly did us in here in New York, I asked my “What We’re Reading” colleagues at LJ/School Library Journal two things. First, prompted by a very lively #askalibrarian chat on Twitter, I asked if they liked to read seasonally, or against the prevailing weather conditions; secondly, in honor of the Oscars and SLJ editorial assistant Tyler Hixson’s new movie blog (and by popular request), I invited them to discuss “What We’re Watching” (WWW).
In the future, we’ll probably break the WWR and WWW columns into two sections or alternate, or something; we haven’t figured that out yet. This week, we’re all together: there are some readers, some watchers, some who do both; those who read chilly tales in winter and those who do not; and some who read (or watch) a thing and then cross formats in a quest to learn all they can about a new favorite subject. Come join us as we gobble up all the media we can!
Ellen Abrams, Guest Editor, LJ Reviews
“I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re like a cookie full of arsenic”; “Cat’s in the bag, bag’s in the river”; “You’ve got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster”; “In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.” If snappy patter like this makes you swoon with appreciation of the scripted word, then The Sweet Smell of Success is a movie you will want to view again and again. Released in 1957, starring the always amazing Burt Lancaster (who coproduced), and featuring a surprising performance by Tony Curtis (who also coproduced), this story of a too-famous New York gossip columnist and the publicist whose ego and livelihood he is crushing beneath his leaden thumb, is not to be missed. Cowritten by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina; North by Northwest, among many others) and playwright Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty, The Country Girl, among many others), the screenplay is a rhetorical dream come true. Filmed in glorious, grainy, gritty black and white, the backdrop is New York City at night, always at night—except for the final scene—and the characters are straight out of a hyperrealistic Manhattan hipster-drome, where you would need a klieg light to find an honest man, but where you scarcely care. Here is early indie filmmaking at its finest. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit; The Ladykillers), the film didn’t find an audience upon its first release, but over time, it has come to be recognized as a throbbing, thrilling theater full of characters who speak a jazzy kind of urban patois that rings true, even if it couldn’t possibly be so. You might not want to meet most of these folks in a dark alley, but you sure would enjoy hanging around and listening to them.
Kate DiGirolomo, Community Coordinator, SELF-e
It’s happening, people! I am finally reading the last in V.E. Schwab’s “Shades of Magic” series! A Conjuring of Light (Tor) has easily been my most anticipated book release for a while now—if my write-up for it in last fall’s editors’ picks and various posts to WWR about the first two books weren’t enough indication. Now I’m trying to savor this final installment rather than making a mad dash to the end (hopefully the glorious 600-plus page count will help with that). The news of a miniseries is a definite comfort. When I’m forced to say goodbye to these characters on the page, I can still look forward to their small-screen counterparts. And if any casting directors are listening, tap Dev Patel for Rhy immediately.
Bette-Lee Fox, Managing Editor, LJ
We all seem drawn to books about books, and Paul Cavanagh’s After Helen (Not That London) has a number of things going for it. It’s his first novel, having won him the inaugural Lit Idol crown at the London International Book Fair. A key ingredient is a bookstore in London (Ontario, that is), where our hero meets and pursues his future wife. As the book opens, history teacher Irving is already a widower, but readers will become glued to his tale of how he won the fair Helen and how her death caused a rift between him and his 16-year-old daughter. So, ultimately, it’s a love story but one that shows how love can be elusive and abrasive and even corrosive if not tended well. Did I mention the Arctic expedition? There’s a lot to discover here.
Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, I fell in love with a building I spotted in a lost Orson Welles silent film. The film is an unfinished extended chase scene along the lines of Mack Sennett’s funny flicks, or the inspired slapstick of silent comedians Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Too Much Johnson (1938), a loose adaptation of the 1898 William Gillette play, stars members of Welles’s acting troupe, the Mercury Theatre; a young Joseph Cotten is the main player, and he’s chased around the markets and rooftops of lower Manhattan by Edgar Barrier.
The plan in 1938 was to incorporate the silent film footage with a live performance—yes, multimedia was a thing 80 years ago! Anyway, I watched the film recently with avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas accompanying the action. His “soundtrack” enhanced a very loose-limbed presentation. I was enjoying the antic footage immensely and not minding the retakes when all of a sudden Cotten clambered onto a gabled roof (the West Market). Behind Cotten-eyed Jo was the most gorgeous New York City skyscraper I’d ever seen—and I’m a big fan of many of them. After that first sighting of the Singer Building, erected in 1908, demolished in 1968 (shakes fist), I couldn’t get enough. When the film’s action moved from downtown New York to “Cuba”—actually a quarry upstate—I lost some interest. No more glimpses of my new obsession! I did find some antique postcards with the beautiful Singer building aglow at night and shining red and blue in daytime, but they didn’t have the same allure as the fuzzy black-and-white tower looming behind two actors scampering across the rooftops of New York.
Laura Girmscheid, Research Manager, LJS
My favorite snowy read is Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (Houghton Harcourt). This autobiographical book by renowned YA author Gary Paulsen tells the story of how he trained his dogs and competed in the Iditarod dogsled race. Twice. That’s 1,100-plus miles across Alaskan wilderness in March. Yes, the man doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. If you like man vs. nature stories, if you like dogs, if you like to laugh out loud, this book is for you. Now that I mention it, I think I’ll read it again.
Kiera Parrott, Reviews Director, LJS
In light of the recent popularity of George Orwell’s 1984 (it recently hit the No. 1 spot on both Amazon and iBooks), I started putting together a list of similar books—both fiction and nonfiction—as well as movies and TV shows. In particular, I was looking for materials that speak to the same themes Orwell explores in his 1949 classic, which are chillingly relevant today. I started rereading Orwell’s original, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Hannah Arendt’s On the Origins of Totalitarianism, and I even dug up some of the Noam Chomsky I read in college. Prophetic stuff. I’ve also discovered several books I hadn’t heard of, like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, recommended by LJ Prepub Editor Barbara Hoffert. One of my favorite parts was doing film research and revisiting some sf favorites, including John Carpenter’s They Live and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. LJ Reviews Assistant Editor Amanda Mastrull also contributed several excellent nonfiction titles on everything from government surveillance to media criticism.
Meredith Schwartz, Executive Editor, LJ
A couple of genre classics most evoke winter to me: C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. But I usually prefer to read counter-seasonally. I don’t want to read about snow in the snow, I want to read about warmth—at least snug domestic comfort, if not summery climes. For that, I’ve been turning to British cozy mysteries, or at least, a meta-version thereof. I’m about a third of the way through Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (Harper), a June 2017 release that I picked up at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in January. So far I’m enjoying the classic village story line, but since I’m aware from the blurb that this is a plot device—the story we start with is presented as a manuscript, and a “real life” mystery set in publishing will soon make an appearance—so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Stephanie Sendaula, Associate Editor, LJ Reviews
I’ve been on a period drama binge as of late, and I breezed my way through the first three seasons of TURN: Washington’s Spies. Now I understand why some of our reviewers are solely interested in colonial history—so much drama. The suspenseful scenes relating to the formation and near disintegration of the Culper Spy Ring made it a great show to craft to; I worked on needlepoint during the first two seasons. Of course, the show also made me more interested in Abraham Woodhull/Samuel Culper so I’m planning to read Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (Sentinel) soon-ish. I’m anxiously awaiting season four of TURN, although sad that season will be its last. Keeping in touch with the Revolutionary theme, I’m starting Poldark next.
Ashleigh Williams, WWR Emerita
I have a bad habit of letting my favorite nonfiction titles fall to the wayside (though I think V.E. Schwab’s “Shades of Magic” series is a valid excuse to set aside just about anything), but I am back on track with Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (Griffin: St. Martin’s). Professors Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps have a knack for blending academese with the anecdotal and providing high-quality analysis of hair, something so commonplace that folks may initially balk at examining its cultural significance. So far, we’ve explored the broad range of hairstyles sported among African societies in the 15th century, leading up to the explosive emergence of the black hair-care industry in the 1900s. Did you know that a black woman, Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), was declared by Guinness World Records to be the first self-made female American millionaire? Not to mention, she was inspired by an earlier entrepreneurial spirit, successful black businesswoman Annie Malone. I’m definitely launching a Google search for biographies of these ladies ASAP.