Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the two faces of America

As Marilyn Nelson explains in the foreword to A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), her book-length poem is a heroic crown of sonnets, "a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets, in which the last one is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen."

Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 when he was kidnapped and murdered by two white men for supposedly whistling at a white woman. His mother held an open-casket funeral so the public could see how her child was mutilated by these men, who were charged with the murder but ultimately acquitted after a trial by an all-white jury.

Nevertheless, the battle for civil rights in the Deep South had begun.

Nelson's words pack a punch, especially in the following sonnet:

Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne's lace,
woven with oak twigs, for sincerity ...
Thousands of oak trees around this country
groaned with the weight of men slain for their race,

their murderers acquitted in almost every case.
One night five black men died on the same tree,
with toeless feet, in this Land of the Free.
This country we love has a Janus face:
One mouth speaks with forked tongue, the other reads
the Constitution. My country, 'tis of both
thy nightmare history and thy grand dream,
thy centuries of good and evil deeds,
I sing. Thy fruited plain, thy undergrowth
of mandrake, which flowers white as moonbeams.

Young readers who stick with A Wreath for Emmett Till through Nelson's various twists and turns of phrase will be rewarded with an experience that bears comparison to a fiery gospel sermon delivered by a preacher whose heart is filled with equal parts rage and forgiveness. (Philippe Lardy's artwork is pretty, but the pen is mightier than the brush here.)

Not easily forgotten.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rock Bio #8: a-ha

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for Rhino.com in the spring of 2010 ...

To many Americans, a-ha were a one-hit wonder who reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985 with the synth-pop megahit "Take On Me," then quickly faded away. But like fellow European acts Simply Red and Jamiroquai, a-ha's popularity around the world continued to grow, dwarfing whatever chart success it enjoyed in the U.S.

Paul Waaktaar-Savoy (guitar), Magne "Mags" Furuholmen (keyboards), and Morten Harket (vocals) began collaborating in 1982 in Oslo, Norway, eventually moving to London to pursue a recording contract, where they signed with Warner Bros. Records. The original version of "Take On Me" was released as a single in the UK in 1984 but failed to chart. It was then rerecorded but failed to chart again, at which point the American arm of Warner Bros. invested in an innovative music video that combined live action and pencil-sketch animation. It became a huge hit on MTV and the song finally charted in the UK, peaking at number two.

The accompanying album, Hunting High and Low (1985), produced one more Top 40 hit in the U.S., "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.," though the song went all the way to number one across the pond. The band's next LP, Scoundrel Days (1986), featured a harder-charging sound on cuts like "Cry Wolf" and "Manhattan Skyline."

In 1987 a-ha recorded the theme song for The Living Daylights, the first James Bond film to star Timothy Dalton; it was another top-five UK hit for the group. Their third album, Stay on These Roads (1988), went platinum in Brazil, and in January 1991, while touring behind East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1990), a-ha played to a crowd of 198,000 at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. It was the largest paying concert audience of all time.

After 1993's Memorial Beach, which included "Angel in the Snow," a song Waaktaar-Savoy wrote for his wife as a wedding gift, a-ha went on hiatus, with each member concentrating on solo projects. Then in 1998 they reconvened for the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, performing a new song Waaktaar-Savoy wrote for the occasion called "Summer Moved On." Two years later the track appeared on the platinum-selling Minor Earth Major Sky (2000) and went to number one in 17 countries, a triumphant comeback for the Norwegian trio.

Lifelines (2002) and the live disc How Can I Sleep With Your Voice in My Head (2003) followed in quick succession, and on the 20th anniversary of Hunting High and Low, a-ha released Analogue (2005), featuring guest vocals from Graham Nash. The single "Analogue (All I Want)" became the band's first to crack the UK top ten since "Stay on These Roads."

They continued their upward climb with 2009's Foot of the Mountain, which debuted at number five in the UK. With the '80s revival in full swing and Coldplay naming them as an influence, a-ha returned to their synth-pop roots on Foot of the Mountain while incorporating 21st-century influences like Arcade Fire.

That fall the band announced a farewell world tour for 2010, including dates in the U.S. The title of their final album notwithstanding, the "Ending on a High Note Tour" finds a-ha at the top of the global pop-music mountain.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Movies = Fall Books

The following book recommendations were compiled for the website of the Robert M. Finley Middle School library in Glen Cove, New York, earlier this month. (Yes, I did it for a class project.)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the final installment of the film series based on J.K. Rowling's best-selling books, opened to rave reviews and blockbuster box office in July. Another popular series begins winding down this year: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, the fourth film derived from Stephenie Meyer's novels about true love and true blood, hits theaters in November, with Part 2 arriving 12 months later. And if you're hungry for a new book-based series to replace those two on the big screen, The Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence (she plays Mystique in X-Men: First Class) as Katniss Everdeen, opens March 23, 2012.

However, movies adapted from novels aren't the only kind of big-screen entertainment that can spark an interest in the written word. For instance, if this summer's big-screen version of Thor made you curious about the mythological origins of the Marvel Comics superhero, you should check out Norse Mythology A to Z: A Young Reader's Companion, in which author Kathleen N. Daly gives the lowdown on Thor, Loki, Odin, and the Frost Giants as well as the fantastical worlds of Asgard and Jotunheim.

Thor is based on ancient folklore, but X-Men: First Class and Transformers: Dark of the Moon are based on true stories. Well, sort of. The X-Men prequel takes place against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962. Disaster was averted thanks to clearheaded thinking among the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States, not Professor X and Magneto, but in the end a good story's a good story, right? If you'd like to read more about the real-life decisions that were made to defuse the crisis, pick up a copy of Norman H. Finkelstein's Thirteen Days/Ninety Miles.

Meanwhile, the third Transformers movie puts forth the theory that the U.S. wanted its astronauts to be the first men on the moon in 1969 so they could investigate the crash landing of an Autobot spacecraft. Truth be told, the "space race" was an informal competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to be number one in cosmic exploration, and you can read about the many astronauts, cosmonauts, and scientists who made space travel possible in the 1950s and '60s in the graphic novel T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon.

Captain America: The First Avenger is another summer movie that can stake a claim as historical fiction: the bulk of its comic-book-inspired action takes place during World War II. The hero, Steve Rogers, is a scrawny but brave young American who volunteers to become a genetically modified U.S. Army "supersoldier," while in Iain Lawrence's novel B for Buster a 16-year-old who goes by the name Kak lies about his age to enlist in the Canadian Air Force so he can escape an abusive home. As the book's dust jacket describes it, Kak "thinks the night ops over Germany will be like the heroic missions of his favorite comic-book heroes. Good will vanquish evil. But his first time out, in a plane called B for Buster, reveals the ops for what they really are—a harrowing ideal."

If Super 8 inspired you to make your own no-budget horror movies with your friends—minus the spectacular train crash, of course—then Troy Lanier and Clay Nichols's Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts is a good place to start in learning the tricks of the trade. You'll also need a good script, which is why Christina Hamlett's Screenwriting for Teens: The 100 Principles of Screenwriting Every Budding Writer Must Know is another essential read.

Finally, in case you were wondering, Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz, is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, including those who've given you detention or failing grades, is purely coincidental.

For more on books that have been turned into movies, visit any of the following sites:

ChasingtheFrog.com: Movies Based on Books
Mid-Continent Public Library: Based on the Book
Arrowhead Library System: From Books to Movies
Movie Licensing USA: Books to Movies
KidsReads.com: Books Into Movies

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why We Read

The following book passages and author quotes were compiled for the website of the Robert M. Finley Middle School library in Glen Cove, New York, earlier this month. (Yes, I did it for a class project.)

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

"Look at all these books," he said.

"There aren't that many," I said. It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

"There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here," Gordy said. "I know that because I counted them."

"Okay, now you're officially a freak," I said.

"Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish."

"What's your point?"

"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."

Wow. That was a huge idea. —from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. —from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go. —from I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! by Dr. Seuss

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." —Groucho Marx

"Information is the currency of democracy." —Thomas Jefferson

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." —Frederick Douglass

"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." —Joseph Addison

"It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it." —Oscar Wilde

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." —Harper Lee

"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting." —Henry David Thoreau

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." —J.D. Salinger

"We read to know that we are not alone." —C.S. Lewis, as played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1993 film Shadowlands, written by William Nicholson

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." —James Baldwin

"My alma mater was books, a good library ... I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity." —Malcolm X

"When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young." —Maya Angelou

"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you." —Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." —Stephen King

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." —Robert Frost

"The man who has no imagination has no wings." —Muhammad Ali

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." —Mark Twain

"I imagine that yes is the only living thing." —e.e. cummings

"If you're serious about becoming a professional writer, prepare to have some other way of earning a living. Many fine writers don't earn enough to live on. Read widely. Master the tools of writing. I know that spelling, punctuation, and grammar are boring, but they are necessary." —Beverly Cleary

"Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window." —William Faulkner