Friday, December 30, 2011

Summer of Butter Pecan Ice Cream and the Brooklyn Dodgers

Penny from Heaven
by Jennifer L. Holm
A Yearling Book
288 pages
ISBN:  0375836896

It's the summer of 1953 and eleven-year-old Penny, so nicknamed because her father loved Bing Crosby's song "Pennies from Heaven," thinks Heaven is full of butter pecan ice cream, swimming pools, and baseball games.  But Penny's summer's not much like Heaven:  She's never been to a baseball game, and she's not allowed to swim in public pools because she might catch polio.  Penny's father died when she was a baby; she lives in New Jersey with her mother and grandparents.  Me-me, a terrible cook, takes care of Penny when her mother is at work; Pop-pop is obsessed with WWII and has radio conversations with the beloved nephew who died in battle; and her mother has started dating the milkman.  The milkman!

Penny spends a lot of time with her father's large Italian family, none of who ever speak of the War.  Her uncles shower their fatherless niece with gifts all the time.  Her best friend, cousin Frankie, is often jealous of the attention Penny receives, and her mother worries about Penny spending so much time with her prankish cousin.  But then her mother doesn't like Penny spending so much time with any of her Italian family:  In fact, the two sides of her family don't even speak to one another.  Penny's paternal grandmother Nonny loves cooking huge meals for her family, but harbors great sadness.  Her favorite uncle Dominic, consumed by his own sorrow and guilt, wears bedroom slippers and lives in his car.  At one time he was slated to play baseball for Penny's favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, but something happened and Dominic gave up baseball completely and now works in his brother Ralphie's store.  Nobody, not even Uncle Dominic, will tell her how her father died.

Penny from Heaven, an engaging portrait of one Italian-American family in the mid-twentieth century, tackles an overlooked segment of our nation's history:  the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II.

To purchase this book from Amazon, click on Penny from Heaven.

To purchase the Bing Crosby CD, click on Pennies From Heaven.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Child Is This?

The most moving story in all of Western Civilization is that of the lowly birth of the Christ child.

"Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)  To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Following are sixteen of the loveliest Christmas carols inspired by this beautiful tale:
  1. Angels We Have Heard on High
  2. Away in a Manger
  3. Do You Hear What I Hear?
  4. The First Noel
  5. Go Tell It on a Mountain
  6. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  7. Good Christian Men, Rejoice
  8. Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing
  9. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  10. Joy to the World
  11. O Come, All Ye Faithful
  12. O Holy Night
  13. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  14. Silent Night
  15. We Three Kings
  16. What Child Is This?
Post a comment and tell us your favorite Christmas carol.  It doesn't have to be on this list.  Click here for my ten favorites of 2010 and here to read about the first day of winter.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Is All Around

Love Actually (2003)
Written and directed by Richard Curtis
Starring Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney and Martine McCutheon
Cameos by Rowan Atkinson and Billy Bob Thornton

Love Actually was written by my favorite romantic-comedy screenwriter Richard Curtis whose other credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones' Diary, The Boat That Rocked, Mr. Bean, and Black Adder.   Set in London in the five-week period leading up to Christmas, Love Actually focuses on nine interlocking stories of all kinds of love--unrequited, fulfilled, illicit, lost, and platonic.

Jilted Jamie is a writer holed up in a rustic house in the south of France who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper.  David, newly elected Prime Minister, is enchanted by one of his housekeepers.  Mark is in love with his best friend's wife.  Widower Daniel helps his step-son deal with his first love.  Karen suspects her husband is about to engage in an affair with his secretary.  Colin, fed up with "stuck up" British girls, flies to Wisconsin where he's sure American girls will love him for his "cute British accent."  Sarah, an American abroad, is smitten with a colleague.  And Jack and Judy get acquainted while filming a porn movie.  Meanwhile, aging pop star Billy Mack is attempting the impossible:  a number one Christmas hit.

Rated R for language and nudity, Love Actually is actually a heartwarming fun Christmas movie with a fabulous ensemble cast and a terrific soundtrack.  So good is the music I couldn't choose only one video to accompany this post.  Or maybe it's just because, like Karen (Emma Thompson), I love Joni Mitchell, and "true love lasts a lifetime."  Incidentally, for another good Christmas movie, click on One Magic Christmas to read my review from last December.

Here are the Amazon links:
Love Actually (Widescreen Edition)

Love Actually (Blu-ray)

Love Actually Original Soundtrack

Friday, December 16, 2011

Freshman Freak

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
by David Lubar
Perfection Learning (2007)
288 pages
ISBN:  0756980038

Scott is a typical fifteen-year-old freshman nerd:  skinny, smart, and suckered out of his lunch money every day by senior bullies.  He has a huge crush on Julia, a suddenly gorgeous girl he once shared a package of crackers with in kindergarten.  Trying to get Julia to notice him, Scott runs for student council, becomes the least athletic kid to ever write the sports column for the school paper, and tries out for the school play.  Meanwhile, his friendship with Lee, a freakish girl, blossoms.  What he needs is a survival manual to get through the next four years of high school.  When his mother announces she's pregnant, he begins writing that high-school survival manual:  his first gift to his unborn sibling.

To order from, click on this link:
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another You

Another Earth (2011)
Directed by Mike Cahill
Written by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill
Starring Brit Marling and William Mapother

Winner of the 2011 Sundance Festival, Another Earth centers around Rhoda, a seventeen-year-old high school student, and John, a professor of music.  On the night Rhoda is celebrating her acceptance to MIT, another earth becomes visible in the sky--just a little blue spot east of the North Star.  As Rhoda is gazing at the other earth, her existence collides with John's, changing their lives forever.  In her own words:  "She's naive, reckless.  She does something that's unforgivable."

Four years later, the other earth has gotten closer and is quite large in Earth One's atmosphere.  Scientists learn that Earth Two mirrors Earth One.  Does this mean a chance at another life?  Hoping for that chance for a new beginning, Rhoda submits an essay to a contest, the prize being a trip to Earth Two.

Another Earth is a wonderfully unique film with a super remarkable ending.

If you'd like to order this movie from Amazon, click here: Another Earth.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
MTV Books
February 1, 1999
213 pages
ISBN:  0671027344
Ages 14 and up

A coming-of-age novel in the vein of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie, a brilliant freshman, whose best friend has committed suicide.  Charlie tells his story through the letters he writes to his "friend."  Charlie is a wallflower who sees things others miss like his grandfather quietly crying at Thanksgiving.  With the help of Bill, his English teacher who assigns Charlie extra reading, and his two new senior friends Samantha and Patrick, Charlie manages to navigate his first year of high school and avoid sliding into depression.  Charlie loves the novels he writes about for English class, and he loves rock and roll and making mixed tapes for friends, a real nineties kind of thing to do.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower tackles tough teen issues like teen suicide, mental illness, drug use, teen sex, promiscuity, rape, pregnancy, and violence.  This is not a novel for middle-school students, but I think high school students will empathize with Charlie's struggles and the world he inhabits.  Stephen Chbosky is directing the movie, which will be released next year and stars Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson and Hoot) as Charlie, Emma Watson as Samantha, and Paul Rudd as Bill.

To get this book from Amazon, click on this link:  The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Interview with Dan Boehl

Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt by Dan Boehl is an imaginative dystopian novel set in Endless Ranches, Texas in a post-gasoline world.  One corporation, the factory, controls all of the food supply, and there is only one food:  paste.  Fourteen-year-old Naomi knows something is amiss and sets out to uncover the truth about Endless Ranches.  You can read more about Dan and his writing at  Following is my interview with Dan about his art and his life.

What were your favorite books when you were a kid?

My favorite books were by John Bellairs. Particularly the House with a Clock in Its Walls and the Trolley to Yesterday.  I also loved Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.  So, anything kind of scary and fantastic.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was 13 or 14. I had just read The Blue Sword, and I remember sitting on the front porch of my house with a pad and writing, "Kai had a sword." That was as far as I got on that one.

Where do you get your ideas?

My ideas arise from settings.  I grew up in the country outside of Baltimore, MD and York, PA.  Many of my stories have a country attitude.  Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt came about because I traded the story to my friend Naomi for a T-Shirt.  I asked her what kind of story she wanted and the book arose from her request.

Why is your first book a novel for teens?

The book just kind of happened to be for teens.  I really liked the style of writing.  It is like spinning a yarn rather than trying to write literary fiction.  It is fun and exciting, and teens are more accepting of the fantastic and the weird.

In Naomi and the Horse Flavored T-Shirt paste is the only food the characters have available to eat.  Until they discover the delicious taste of vegetables and fruits.  (I suppose only the absence of produce would make vegetables taste good to most children.)  Is the paste--I won’t give away its main ingredient--in any way analogous to the overly processed foods Americans consumer today?

Yes, I think paste is a stand-in for the overly processed foods Americans eat and analogous for American consumerism.  But really I just wanted paste to be something discussing and bland.  Something that people accepted because they had no imagination.  Naomi has imagination, and therefore she hates paste and the conformity it represents.

Your novel is set in Texas after all of the oil is used up.  No more gasoline.  What do you imagine the country would be like when there is no more oil?

Well, I think by the time the gasoline runs out there will be electric alternatives for transportation and a better bicycle and mass transit structure.  There is a lot of coal in America, so we are not teetering on an energy crisis, but there needs to be an alternative to gasoline and car culture.  I imagine fewer roads, more trains, and cleaner air.

The paste corporation controls everything to the point that children are indoctrinated with paste propaganda in their schools.  Do you think corporations have undue influence over what schools teach?

The paste propaganda in schools in Naomi is a nod to Fahrenheit 451, one of the great dystopian novels.  I do feel there needs to be less corporate presence in public schools that make junk food and sodas available to kids.  Also, in Texas, there is an ideological debate being waged about what should and should not be taught in science class.  I wanted Naomi to experience this culture in her classroom.

This is a weird question that I read in an interview once, but in light of the purple horse-flavored shirt Naomi wears, I’ll ask it.  If you could be any color, what would it be and why?

I would be two colors: pink and grey. These are my favorite colors. One is soft and pretty, the other soft and strong.

Who is your favorite Beatle?

George.  Is that the right answer?  I like his spiritual mindedness.  Have you seen that interview with him on the Dick Cavett show?  He is amazing when he talks about the Beatles and how he fits in, how he doesn't fit in.

What is your favorite food?

Maryland crabcakes.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

I was a high school English teacher in a Baltimore County prison.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

I would be a lawyer and I would sue the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of incarcerated teens.

Do you have any advice for people who want to write?

Get up every morning and write 300 words.  Do it 5 times a week.  Get one person to read your work and make sure they are only allowed to tell you good things. 

If you'd like to order the Kindle version from Amazon, click here: 
Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No Escape from Stalag 13

Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971)
Created by Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy
Starring Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer, and John Banner

Hogan's Heroes is my holiday show:  For the past few years now, I have watched it from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year's right past Valentine's Day. Until 2008, I hadn't watched Hogan's Heroes since it aired when I was a child in the sixties.  There was the brief period in the winter of '96-'97 when I had the show on at three in the morning while I was up with an unsleeping infant, but, as I was dropping off to sleep, I wasn't too focused on the broadcast.  It was the death of Ivan Dixon (Kinch) that got me started watching Hogan's Heroes again.

Incidentally, with the death this past April of John Cedar (the young Corporal Langenscheidt--only a true Heroes fan would even know who he is), Richard Dawson (Newkirk), Robert Clary (LeBeau), and Cynthia Lynn (Helga) are the sole surviving cast members.  I think the reason I watch Hogan's Heroes from November through February is thematic:  It is perennially winter at Stalag 13.  (Klink:  "Hogan, look how the winter sun glistens on the barbed wire.")  Oh, sure the deciduous trees are the green of summer, and palm trees sway in the background.  But there's white powder on the ground and buildings, and we viewers suspend disbelief and accept that white powder as snow.  Further evidence of the season are the Germans bundled in heavy coats, while the prisoners shiver in their lighter outer garments.

A few years back I saw a TV Guide list of the worst television shows ever, on which Hogan's Heroes clocked in at fifth place.  That's absurd.  I can only assume those behind Hogan's ranking on the "worst" list have never actually watched the show and mistakenly believe Hogan's Heroes to be set on a concentration camp.  Like Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, a really good movie to which many comparisons can be made--perhaps another time--Hogan's Heroes is set on a prisoner-of-war camp.  Big difference there.

It's hard for post-Vietnam viewers to accept even a prisoner-of-war camp as legitimate fodder for fun.  But in that time between World War II and the Vietnam War, all men did a stint in the armed forces.  Those men and all the vets of World War I, World War II and Korea were a large part of TV land in the sixties.  Those guys liked watching buddy pictures about the military.  Combat, 12 O'Clock High, McHale's Navy, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. were watched by all those vets and their families.  And, of course, the ultimate buddies-in-uniform program--though each of the buddies was in a different allied air force uniform, they were working together to defeat their common enemy--was Hogan's Heroes.

There's a lot of humor in this show, and some really talented actors.  Some comedic elements worth noting:  Carter's (Larry Hovis) impersonation of Hitler or any other high-ranking Nazi, Schultz's (John Banner) cowardice, Klink's (Werner Klemperer) incompetence, and Burkhalter's (Leon Askin) bullying bluster. To really have some fun with Hogan's Heroes, play a drinking game while watching.  Every time Schultz says "I know nothing," or Klink claims that "there has never been an escape from Stalag 13," or one of the grouchy Germans mentions the weather on the Russian front, drink a shot.  If you don't drink, substitute M&Ms for the whiskey.

If you'd like to order the complete series from Amazon, click on this link:  Hogan's Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant's Kollection. If you'd like to order just the first season, click here: Hogan's Heroes - The Complete First Season.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"the fruitcake files" Is a Year Old

I can't believe I've been writing this blog for a whole year, but it's true.  I launched "the fruitcake files" on November 13, 2010.  I wrote a post on blog stats on May Day, and I thought the first anniversary would be a good time to revisit stats.

In my first year in the blogosphere, I wrote 77 posts, roughly six a month.  Not too bad.  The top posts (drum roll) are:

Tom and Huck Down on the Farm
A Christmas Movie
In Defense of Chop Suey
Harry's Makeover
Celebrating the Winter Solstice Full Lunar Eclipse
Harry's Law
Grimm's Tales
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Blog Stats

Given that Harris and Me is one of my favorite books, I'm not surprised that Tom and Huck is the most read post, but I confess I didn't expect my interest in chop suey to be shared by so many.  I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one who still likes The Mod Squad (Solid), and I'm glad that others agree that Harry's Law, which I confess I still watch, took a wrong turn this season with its makeover.

Recent posts that have been hard hit in addition to the above list include:

Thirteen Halloween Movies
Veteran's Day 11/11/11
Aliens Among Us
The Galloping Hessian of the Hollow
Banned Books 
You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley
I Love Lucy and Ethel
Uncle Bill Knows Best
$200 A Day, Plus Expenses

Readers come from every continent save Africa and Antarctica.  I'm not holding out much hope for Antarctica--though it is the world wide web and those stationed down there do have computers, don't they?--but I sure would like to add Africa to my hit list.  The three countries with the most fruitcake readers, in order, are the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom.

No discernible thematic connection between today's post and Eric Clapton's "Hello Old Friend."  I just happened to be listening to it while writing today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day 11/11/11

Today, we commemorate all of the men and women who have served our country in the military.  Formerly known as Armistice Day, Veteran's Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany:  On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month World War I, or the Great War as it was known back in 1918, officially ended.  (For a really poignant story set on Armistice Day, read the chapter "A Minute in the Morning" in Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder.)

In February of this year the last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died on his farm in West Virginia.  Then in May, Brit Claude Choules, the last combat veteran of World War I, died.  Today, there is only one living veteran of World War I, Florence Green, a British woman who was a member of the Women's Royal Air Force.  In a world with far fewer people than today, more people--soldiers and civilians alike--were killed or maimed by combat and disease than in any other war.  Take a moment today to remember the Lost Generation of the War to End All Wars.

Woodrow Wilson had vowed to remain neutral when World War I began in 1914, and there was much debate as to whether the United States should become involved in the European conflict.  It wasn't until April of 1917 that the U.S. joined forces with the British.  Since World War I, Britain has been one of our staunchest allies.  Yet, America's first two wars (the American Revolution and the War of 1812) were fought against Britain.  Like the Civil War, the American Revolution pitted family members against each other.

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christoher Collier, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2005 (originally published in 1974), 240 pages, ISBN:  0439783607

Johnny Tremain and Woods Runner present the American Revolution from the side of the Rebels, or Patriots, but My Brother Sam Is Dead depicts a story of a divided family:  The father is a loyal-to-the-crown Tory; his older son Sam has joined the rebellion, but Tim, his younger son, is confused and torn.  Like the boy in The Rock and the River, Tim must make a choice between what his father believes and what his older brother believes, and the more Tim sees of the conflict raging around him, the less sure he is.  He's been raised as a loyal subject of the crown, and his father and cousins have told him that the rebels don't stand a chance of beating the whole British army, but when he witnesses the British "Lobsterbacks" attack his town, Tim isn't so sure anymore.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grimm's Tales

I turned away from the final World Series game temporarily the Friday before Halloween to catch NBC's new show, Grimm, and I've got to say that I love this comedy/fantasy/cop drama.  In fact, this is the only new show that I've sampled that I enjoy.  David Giutoli plays Nick Burckhardt, a homicide detective descended from the Grimms, a group of hunters who seek out and destroy evil fairy tale creatures like blutbotten or blutbaden (big bad wolves) and jaegerbears (hunter bears).  Burkhardt begins seeing these creatures, who look like normal humans to everyone else, when his dying aunt shows up and her grim gift is passed on to him.

Set in Portland, Oregon and its Black Forest-like woods, Grimm's first two episodes have riffed on both Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  In the pilot, girls in red sweatshirts are being kidnapped and/or murdered by a big bad wolf.  Assisting Burkhardt are his partner Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) and reformed big bad wolf Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell) who makes cuckoo clocks and keeps his inner wolf down through "a strict regimen of diet, drugs, and Pilates."  When he first meets Burkhardt, Eddie tells him, "My folks used to tell me stories about you guys.  Scared the hell out of me when I was a kid."  Unbeknownst to Burkhardt, his boss, Captain Renard, is a Grimm reaper, one of the hunters of the hunters.

In last night's episode Burkhardt had to save a young man and woman from a family of jaegerbears.  The victims, Rocky and Gilda, had entered the bears' abode, eaten their food, and slept in their beds.  When surprised by the arrival of the family, Gilda escapes out of the window, but Rocky is kidnapped by Barry, the bear family son.  Later, Gilda is also captured when she goes back with a gun to rescue Rocky.  Barry and his two friends, who look like skinheads, plan on letting Rocky and Gilda escape so that the three young bears can hunt them in the woods before ritually sacrificing them.  When the detectives come poking around, Mother bear tells the detectives to remember that "we're the victims here" echoing Eddie's sentiment that to the fairy tale villains, the Grimms are the bad guys.

This show is fun:  part fairy tale, part NCIS, and I love some of the details.  The first red-shirted girl to be attacked by a big bad wolf is running through the dark woods of Portland and lured off the trail by a little Hummel figurine.  Both big bad wolves in the pilot episode drive VWs, the reformed wolf a bug, the not-so reformed wolf a microbus.  The bears' house is decorated with bear paws and carvings. With the two most obvious fairy tale villains out of the way, it'll be interesting to see where Grimm goes from here.  Grimm airs right after Chuck on Friday nights at 9 p.m. EST on NBC.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's Witchcraft with Elizabeth Montgomery!

Bewitched (1964-1972)
Created by Sol Saks
Starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Agnes Moorehead, and David White

Bewitched was ranked 50 in TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time's list in 2002.  When I was a kid, it was certainly one of my favorite shows. I especially enjoyed the comedy of Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne), Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) and Dr. Bombay (Bernard Fox).  But even as a kid, I felt the premise was a bit flawed.  A man marries a witch and doesn't want her to practice her craft?  She could conjure up a brand new convertible.  Her spells could fly them around the world.  A cold beverage is just a nose twitch away.  Who would want a "normal" spouse?  Darren Stevens does, and Samantha being a nice little 60s wife, obliges.  At least she tries to.

Most of the show's conflict revolves around either Samantha's inability to give up her gift, or the sudden appearance of one of her witch relatives, especially Samantha's mother Endora who likes to make mischief on Darren.  There is a also lot of fun with their goofy neighbor; nothing escapes the notice of Mrs. Kravitz (played by Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould), not a room full of fishing rods, not pictures moving by themselves on the wall, not a garage door opening on its own.  Her undue concern with the Stevenses makes one wonder if Mrs. Kravitz isn't descended from Salem Puritans.  Incidentally, in 2003 TV Land gave Bewitched "The Nosiest Neighbor" award, and in 2005 a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens was erected in Salem, Massachusetts.

Had the show taken its premise a bit further, so that there was some consequence to Samantha's use of witchcraft, it would have improved the show.  As it is, Darren comes across as either really sexist or really racist.  Or both.  Samantha can do something he can't, and he doesn't like it.  There needs to be more reason for Samantha to not practice witchcraft, like a real effect on the outside world.  Darren's selfishness notwithstanding, Bewitched is a fun program, especially the first two seasons.  Like The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched suffers some deterioration of quality once color is introduced.

A host of 60s personalities appeared on Bewitched including Adam West, June Lockhart, Reta Shaw, Madge Blake, Maureen McCormick, Peggy Lipton, Bill Mumy, Raquel Welch, and Willie Mays.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thirteen Halloween Movies

I'm leaving the obvious one off this list, as this is a list of non-slasher Halloween movies.  With the exceptions of An American Werewolf in London and Sleepy Hollow, none are too gruesome or rated R; despite their bit of gore, both are definitely worth watching.
  1. Arsenic & Old Lace (1944).  A drama critic (Cary Grant) marries his lady love (Priscilla Lane), but can't leave for his honeymoon just yet due to some trouble at home.  He's learned that his aunts have been murdering old bachelors who lodge in their home and that insanity gallops through his family.
  2. Bell, Book and Candle (1958).  Kim Novack is a witch with an interest in her neighbor (James Stewart).  She casts a love spell on him, only to fall in love herself.
  3. The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967).  A kooky old professor and his assistant travel to Transylvania to find real vampires.  Sharon Tate in one of her final roles appears as the innkeeper's daughter.
  4. An American Werewolf in London (Full Moon Edition) (1981).  Two students backpacking through Wales are attacked by what appears to be a werewolf.  One highlight is the best transformation of man to wolf.  On film.
  5. Ghostbusters (1984).  Three unemployed paranormal professors (Dan Ackyroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) open a ghost-removal business.  Before long every ghost in New York City is on the loose.  Who you gonna call?
  6. The Worst Witch (1986).  Before Harry Potter, there was Mildred Hubble, a young student at an exclusive witch academy, who is bullied by her peers and appears to be the worst witch ever.
  7. Hocus Pocus (1993).  Three hundred years after their deaths, three witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy) are accidentally resurrected in Salem on Halloween night.  Three kids and an immortal cat must stop them before they cast a spell on the whole town.
  8. Practical Magic (1998).  Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as two sisters who practice witchcraft to help people overcome obstacles on the path to true love.  Based on the Alice Hoffman novel.
  9. The Sixth Sense (1999).  A child psychologist (Bruce Willis) tries to help a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people.
  10. Sleepy Hollow (1999).  Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane is a police constable from New York City sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve a series of murders.  Though he believes firmly in scientific evidence, Depp's Crane retains the original's superstitious, imaginative, cowardly personality.
  11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).  Based on the J. K. Rowling's book that launched a million young readers. 
  12. Signs (2002)Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are farmers who discover crop circles that portend terrifying events.
  13. The Ring (2002).  Naomi Watts plays a reporter investigating a video tape that seems to cause the death of anyone who watches it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Galloping Hessian of the Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
by Washington Irving
Tribeca Books
September 27, 2011 (first published 1820)
54 pages
ISBN:  1612930980

In 1820 Washington Irving, America's first short story writer, published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" a scary little Halloween story in his collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.   "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," along with another story from the collection, "Rip Van Winkle," is one of the oldest examples of American literature that is still read today.  Set in post-Revolutionary America in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, near the Dutch-settled village of Tarry Town, New York, the story concerns Ichabod Crane, a tall, gawky, superstitious schoolmaster who is smitten with Katrina Van Tassel, the prettiest girl from the wealthiest family.  Vying for her hand in marriage is the brawny Brom Bones.

Ichabod spends his long winter evenings listening to the old wives spin yarns of ghosts and goblins and haunted fields and houses.  The whole area is said to be haunted; its dominant ghost is an apparition that rides around "on horseback without a head.  It is said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war."  Ichabod's walks home afterwards are filled with terror, as he imagines ghosts in the shadowy shrubs and trees everywhere along his path.  One autumn evening the Van Tassels host a party, attended by both Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.  It is after the party on his way home that Ichabod has his most terrifying journey ever when he encounters the headless Hessian.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a wonderful read for a late autumn afternoon.  After reading the story, find it on film.  Ichabod Crane has been played by a diverse range of actors including Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley, Jr. and Johnny Depp.  Johnny Depp's Ichabod in Tim Burton's 1999 Sleepy Hollow is not a superstitious schoolteacher, but rather a no-nonsense police constable investigating a series of brutal murders in the area.  Depp's portrayal of a man having seen the headless horseman is nothing short of brilliant.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Aliens Among Us

3rd Rock From the Sun (1996-2001)
Creators:  Bonnie and Terry Turner
Starring:  John Lithgow, Jane Curtin, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Co-starring:  Elmarie Wendell, Simbi Khali, and Wayne Knight

The nineties was the decade of extraterrestrial entertainment.  On The X-Files (1993-2002) FBI agents Scully and Mulder worked to uncover evidence of extraterrestrial life.  Will Smith fought aliens in both Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Martin O'Hara landed on earth in a movie remake of My Favorite Martian (1999).  Most irreverent of all were the Solomons of 3rd Rock from the Sun.

3rd Rock, unlike other alien entertainment, is told from the perspective of the alien:  The Solomons are four extraterrestrials disguised as humans in Rutherford, Ohio, whose mission is to discover everything they can about the human experience.  Dick their High Commander takes on the role of a physics professor; Sally the military expert poses as his sister "the woman"; Tommy the intelligence expert and the oldest member of the group is to be Dick's teenage son, and the transmitter is the slow-witted, deadbeat brother Harry.  Actual humans include Mary, Dick's neurotic colleague and paramour; Nina, his sarcastic secretary; Ms. Dubcek, their lascivious landlady; and Officer Don, an incompetent policeman and Sally's love interest.

With its broad comedic strokes 3rd Rock satirizes the nineties in a most delightful way, touching on everything from politics to daytime talk shows to art movies to John Grisham novels to Lord of the Dance to the Beanie Baby craze to alien obsession.  All the characters, be they the main cast or those with but a bit part, are cast with wonderfully talented actors.  Those in the roles of the Solomons brilliantly portray what it would be like to experience something for the first time.  And everything they do is being done for the first time.  Most entertaining is their dealings with feelings, all without any actual human inhibitions.

Some of the many things I like about 3rd Rock include the preponderance of green in the actors' clothes and the set decorations, Harry's wardrobe, Sally's swagger, Dick's hamminess, Tommy's one-liners, John Cleese as a visiting alien, Kathy Bates as an alien hunter, and William Shatner as The Big Giant Head.  I never see this show on lists of best comedies or best television programs, but 3rd Rock from the Sun deserves to be in the top ten of both such lists.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ghost Story

The Woman in Black:  A Ghost Story
by Susan Hill
David R. Godine
2002 (first published 1982)
144 pages
ISBN:  1567921892

In this video age, when it takes more and more gore and special effects to frighten audiences, it doesn't seem possible that a book relying on words to create a terrifying tone would be equal to the task.  Yet Susan Hill's The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story is more than equal to the task--truly a delightfully frightening read.  It's no wonder the adapted play is the second longest running play in London's history, having played in the West End since 1989.

Arthur Kipps, our hero, is challenged by his stepson to tell a ghost story one Christmas, but Arthur, who has a true ghost story to tell, does not feel that Christmas is the appropriate setting for his horrifying tale.  He does decide it's time to write down his story, which begins, appropriately, in a London pea-souper on a Monday afternoon in November.  Arthur, when still a young but arrogant solicitor, is sent by his boss on a journey north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of a Mrs. Alice Drablow.  Mrs. Drablow's home, Eel Marsh House, sits on an English moor on the isolated Nine Lives Causeway.  Arthur intends to stay at her house until he can wade through all of her many papers; Mrs. Drablow's local solicitor tries--without success--to dissuade Arthur from this plan.

Since Arthur's arrival, many strange and frightening things begin happening:  the odd reaction of the local people when they learn he is attending Mrs. Drablow's funeral; the 20 or so quiet, unsmiling,  and motionless children lined up along the fence by the church after the funeral; the creepy, realistic screams from the foggy marsh; the creaking of the rocking chair in the nursery; and--most tragically for Arthur--the appearance of the woman in black.  The Woman in Black, eerie and creepy throughout, has a sublimely terrifying ending.

Halloween's still a few weeks off, but it's not too soon to read a good ghost story, and, although The Woman in Black is a book marketed to adults, high-school and mature middle-school readers will also enjoy this one.  Incidentally, Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, will star as Arthur Kipps in the movie version in theaters next February.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Banned Books

Celebrate Banned Book Week (September 24 through October 1) by reading a banned book.  Following are ten of my favorites.
  1. In the Night Kitchen (Caldecott Collection).  Maurice Sendak's story of a young boy dreaming he's in a baker's kitchen is one of the most frequently banned books because the boy is drawn naked.  When my son was a preschooler this was one of his favorite books, and he never noticed the lack of clothing.
  2. Bridge to Terabithia apparently promotes occultism, Satanism, and New Age religion, so book banners would have us believe.
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird.A white attorney defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.  Enough said?
  4. Harris and Me.  My best guess on this one is that censors find the language and the boys' sexual curiosity objectionable.
  5. The Diary of a Young Girl was banned for "sexually offensive" passages and for being a "real downer." 
  6. The Catcher in the Rye,the most censored book from 1966-1975, was considered "obscene." 
  7. Lord of the Flies is frequently censored for "excessive violence and bad language."
  8. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryis guilty of depicting Southern racism and using the N-word.
  9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, was banned one year later by the Concord Public Library for being "trash suitable only for the slums." Today it is often banned for its use of the N-word.
  10. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Masturbation.