Book Review: “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama

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Right now, I want you to set aside what you know about politics and Republicans and Democrats. Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father is not really about any of these things. It’s about racism and identity: a black man with a white family trying to find his place, and who he is, in an unfair, confusing world. Dreams From My Father follows Obama’s life through his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia to his acceptance to Harvard and his journey to Kenya.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Dreams From My Father gets right: Whether or not you voted for Obama or enjoyed his presidency, you can learn so much from this book. Obama speaks with the voice of someone who has thought a long, long time about what he’s going to say and how to say it in the best way possible. He’s not afraid to use harsh language or metaphors, but he tempers this anger with understanding. Even as a fiery college student, he recognizes that others haven’t read what he has, or don’t struggle with their identity in the same way he does, and he’s willing to look past the differences and reach across the boundaries.

I’m white, so I will never have the racist experiences and burdens that Obama has faced. Racism shaped and scarred his entire journey of self-discovery. Despite my own ignorance and disconnection to Obama’s struggles as a black man, I appreciated his willingness to open up; and what I can relate to and aspire to in his narrative is Obama’s drive for truth and justice. Like Obama (although for different reasons) I also went through several months of reading every black thinker I could find in the library: W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marcus Garvey. And like Obama, I found that the man who made the most sense and greatest impact on my way of thinking, even though I definitely didn’t agree with his religion or his views on women, was Malcolm X.

Obama read these books as a young man for his survival; he did not have the luxury of reading a persecuted peoples’ history from a place removed as I did. I read these books to try and see the world through an opposite perspective of my own: a black male experience. Whatever your reason for reading these timeless classics, though, you will emerge with an enlightened view of how the world works and what we can do about it- the same tried and true lessons that you can learn from Dreams From My Father.

What Dreams From My Father does wrong: I loved this book because of how it fed me intellectually, so it’s hard for me to find much fault with it. I will note that there’s some uncomfortable language in it, but I think it’s warranted by the subject matter. It was also hard to read how women were treated in Obama’s Kenyan family (who were in a patriarchal culture where men could beat their wives and take multiple wives, whether the women consented or not).

Who should read Dreams From My Father: People who want to learn more about racism in the United States, and what it was like to grow up as a biracial man in the sixties and seventies. Readers who are interested in Obama’s life story and how he became the man he is today.

Who shouldn’t read Dreams From My Father: If you’re looking for something light to read or for a fiction book, then just add this one to your “TBR” list for now.

 

Dreams From My Father is available in print book and audiobook formats at the library.

Content note: language.

 

Book Review: “Before I Fall” by Lauren Oliver

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Have you seen the movie Groundhog Day? Even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the basic thematic concept of living the same day over and over again- it’s been done in many movies and books. Sometimes this kind of storyline can get boring and repetitive. However, when it’s done right, it can be effective and even entertaining, and Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is a great example of this.

Before I Fall  examines the life of a popular “mean girl,” Samantha Kingston, and what happens when she dies and then has to relive her last day multiple times.

 

What Before I Fall does right: Samantha (Sam) goes through the stages of grief when she realizes that she has died, has to relive her last day, and isn’t sure why or how to get out of it. One day shows her taking a nihilistic view- if she’s really dead, then nothing she does matters, right? On a different day, she’s so grateful to see her parents, friends, and town again that she practically beams the whole day. I find this take on the popular “Groundhog Day” theme to be pretty realistic.

The characters in Before I Fall dance off the page as if they were real. Hardly anyone is two dimensional, even though they may seem that way at first. Sam learns more and more about the people around her and how her actions have affected them for better or for worse. She seeks to make things right with those she has wronged- in particular, she wants to help a bullied girl named Juliet when Sam realizes that Juliet committed suicide on the same original day that Sam died.

Sam herself undergoes a fair amount of character development, but it doesn’t seem rushed, forced, or overly moralistic. She changes slowly, with plenty of frustration about her situation and toward her friends when they don’t understand why she seems different with each relived day. It’s a believable amount of growth, but Before I Fall still leaves you with that glowing sense of redemption.

 

What Before I Fall gets wrong: There are parts of the book that seem a little long, and there are times when Sam makes choices that seem cringey or obviously wrong- doesn’t she know better by now? But all of this is leading to her ultimate redemption, and it’s worth it to keep reading.

 

Who should read Before I Fall: Older teenagers, college students, and adults alike may enjoy this realistic depiction of teenage life (played out through an unrealistic Groundhog Day theme). Before I Fall can be very sad at times, but the ultimate messages are of love, friendship, family, and redemption.

 

Who shouldn’t read Before I Fall: With its mature themes and language, Before I Fall is not marketed towards younger readers. However, older readers will probably enjoy and relate to this book. Please be warned, however, that this book contains heavy themes and intense depictions of teen and adult problems (think Thirteen Reasons Why and read the content note below).

 

Content note: language, suggestive content, heavy themes (including eating disorders, suicide, and inappropriate relationships).

 

Before I Fall is available in the library’s Family Room.

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “12 Years A Slave”

In 2013, director Steve McQueen adapted a film from the memoir 12 Years A Slave, which tells the harrowing story of the life and enslavement of Solomon Northup. Born a free man in New York in around 1807 or 1808, Northup was a farmer and a violinist. Grave misfortune befell him when he was lured into the company of men who drugged and kidnaped him and sold him off as a runaway slave. Northup was sold in New Orleans and remained a slave in Louisiana for 12 years as he struggled to survive and attempted to contact his family and friends in the north.

12 Years A Slave features an amazing cast who are so superb in their performance that it’s hard to imagine anyone else come close to pulling it off. The cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup/Platt. Michael Fassbender portrays the cruel and sadistic slave master Edwin Epps. Lupita Nyong’o landed her breakout role in this film for her moving performance as the slave Patsey. Her performance in this role would earn her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Each of the supporting actors adds their amazing talents to bring depth to this film Sarah Paulson in her role as Mary Elps shows that she can be just as cold and frightening as her husband. Benedict Cumberbatch, through the character of William Ford, gives us insight into how an honest and good man (who is also a Christian preacher) deals with the culture of Southern slavery. Lastly we are introduced to Brad Pitt’s character, a Canadian carpenter/Quaker who laments the evils of slavery and eventually helps Solomon in his quest for freedom.

This film is an amazing achievement, especially in its subtleties, which include: using period specific clothing, shooting on location of historically preserved plantations, and even researching dialect and speech patterns of the time period. All of this is made even more powerful by the film’s amazing score thanks to its famed composer Hans Zimmer. The precise attention to detail shows how immersive the scale of this production was.

12 Years a Slave would go on to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screen Play, and as mentioned earlier, Best Supporting Actress. The film was also a huge success at the box office, earning nearly 188 million off a modest budget of 20 million. This is a monumental period piece and an astounding film. At times it’s quite difficult for a modern audience to comprehended how such callously horrific events could even occur in our nation’s past. It goes to show why the Civil War was imminent in the coming years, as hundreds of thousands of men would give their lives to end the scourge of slavery. This film also highlights the nearly unbreakable human spirit and our quest for justice and freedom.

This film is available at the Union University Library.

*Please note: this film is rated R for intense and violent scenes throughout, some nudity, and harsh language.

 

 

 

Spotlight On “Film Criticism”

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Film Criticism is the third oldest academic film journal in the United States and an open-access resource where you can download and print its various articles. Through Film Criticism, you can access full-text and peer-reviewed critiques of film experts about different movies, directors, and cinematic themes. Often the articles will also connect films to the real world, focusing on merchandising and cultural impact.

You can also read about TV shows in this journal, like Twin Peaks or Storage Wars. While Film Criticism is aiming at an academic audience, reading the reviews of the latest media could also help you find your next favorite show. If you’d like to be the one writing about entertainment, Film Criticism accepts submissions here.

Look for Film Criticism online or on the library website by searching the “Journals By Title or Subject” tab.

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “I, Tonya”

In the field of women’s figure skating, the name Tonya Harding will undoubtedly remain the most controversial one. Her story and notoriety continue to draw a wide range of emotional views on her legacy.  Some find her utterly contemptuous and unworthy of the annals of U.S Women’s Figure Skating history. Others view her career as a tragic fall from grace. Many have come to feel that Tonya’s skill and elegance in skating far outshined the stigma of her personal flaws, social class, rough upbringing, and poor life choices that inevitably led to her down fall.

I, Tonya premiered in 2017 set as a biopic drama and dark comedy. The film is based on a number of interviews of those involved throughout Tonya’s life and takes a narrative/mockumentary approach that constantly breaks the fourth wall. The film explicitly states at the beginning that the following dialogues and interviews are unreliable, thus leaving the audience to determine the truth of Tonya Harding’s story.

The film begins with a young four-year old Tonya being enrolled into a skating class by her mother LaVona Golden (played by Allison Janney). The portrayal of LaVona Golden would go on to earn Allison Janney an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this role. I must take a moment to say that her acting is amazing in this film as she plays arguably the most detestable, foul-mouthed, cold, cruel, irredeemably loathsome woman to ever appear on film. Next we are introduced to Tonya’s coach, Diane Rawlinson, played by Julianne Nicholson. Diane is hesitant to take on training Tonya because she is so young but sees promise in the young girl due to her dedication and skill.

We see throughout Tonya’s childhood and teenage years that she suffers from non-stop verbal and physical abuse from her mother, who rationalizes that it will make her a better skater. The teenage and adult Tonya is played by Margot Robbie, and I feel this is her best performance to date. Despite her tragic upbringing, Tonya’s skill is unmatched and she becomes one of the top female figure skaters in the country; however, she is constantly denied a top prize, first place finish. Tonya blames this on her “white trash background” and her inability and unwillingness to act the part of a debutante on and off the ice.

One day while practicing, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan). Tonya and Jeff begin dating and are soon married. Their relationship is almost instantly toxic as Jeff is very physically abusive to Tonya and their marriage grows strained and dysfunctional at best.  Tonya’s career improves and she gains notoriety as she become the first U.S female skater to land the Triple Axel in competition.  It seems if she will become an Olympic champion, but fate steps in and she fails in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Defeated and depressed, Tonya thinks her days of skating are over, but her former coach Diane returns hoping that she will get in shape and compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics.  This brings about the “incident” to which Tonya’s lasting infamy is attributed.

Leading up to the games, Tonya is tied in skill next to her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Noticing this, Jeff enlists the help of his friend Shawn Eckardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser). Shawn is a moronic individual who styles himself as “Tonya’s bodyguard” and brags about being a counter-terrorist expert. Jeff asks Shawn to send out a death threat against Nancy Kerrigan in order to keep her from preforming in the Winter Olympics. Shawn recruits a couple of small-time crooks even dumber than him to carry out “the mission” as he calls it and it goes downhill from there. I feel the film from this point portrays the events leading up to the “incident” in a faithful way showing the numerous contradictory elements of who knew what and who was responsible.  The dramatic ending, the indictments and the final perspectives are as thought provoking as they are tragic.

Margot Robbie’s performance in this film is superb, and she was nominated for Best Actress. She seamlessly transitions from an aged, bitter narrator to a young, sympathetic protagonist who can’t catch a break in life. Tonya Harding will always remain a controversial character in the history of U.S Women’s Figure skating, but I do feel that this film did its best to humanize her and help us understand the full scope of the situation and those involved.

I, Tonya is available at the Union University Library. Please note it is rated R for intense language throughout, violence and some sexual situations.

 

 

 

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

1988 isn’t only the year of your humble author’s birth- it also happens to be the year the hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released. This mix of live action and animation  was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by the great Robert Zemekis. In order to pack this movie with so many iconic animated characters, it required Disney, Warner Bros, and Universal Pictures to officially allow the lending of their famous creations. At the time, this film was the most expensive animated movie ever made at an eventual budget of $50 Million.

The film’s setting is that of 1940’s Hollywood, where cartoons and people co-exist in the entertainment industry. It stars Bob Hoskins as Private Detective Eddie Valiant, a down- on-his-luck private eye whose past history gives him a prejudice towards Toons. Charles Fleischer provides many voices of the animated characters in this film, but he is best known for that of Roger Rabbit, the costar of the film. Roger is a celebrity and the most popular Toon in Toontown. Kathleen Turner provides the voice for Roger’s wife Jessica Rabbit, a beautiful seductress and singer at a local supper club. Lou Hirsch plays Baby Herman, Roger’s co-star and best friend in their hit cartoon series. Joanna Cassidy stars as Eddie Valiant’s ex-girlfriend Dolores, a local bar owner. The antagonist in this film is played by none other than Christopher Lloyd as the ominous and ruthless Judge Doom, a superior court judge who has recently created a toxic sludge called “dip” that’s capable of killing cartoons.

Other supporting cast include Stubby Kaye, who portrays Marvin Acme, the owner of Acme Corp and Toontown. Alan Tilvern plays R.K Maroon, the owner of Maroon Cartoon Studios who hires Eddie to investigate Roger Rabbit due to recent performance issues with his lead actor.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a box office success, earning over $300 Million; it would go on to win three Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. It went on to help to rekindle interest for the classic cartoon characters of Warner Bros and Disney.

This movie may appear to be a light-hearted animated story, but the performances by its cast make this a hybrid cross between an animated comedy and Noirish murder mystery. It still retains a 97% rating on the popular review site Rotten Tomatoes. It remains enjoyable for children but also for nostalgic adults who can appreciate the technical achievements of flawlessly bringing animated cartoons to life. This was one of my favorite movies of my childhood, and I can’t tell you the number of times I rented it growing up. No matter how many times I watched the film, I always felt amazed by its seamless transitions, jaw-dropping effects, and attention to detail. I encourage all who haven’t seen it to come on down to Union’s library and check it out for yourself.

*Check Who Framed Roger Rabbit out at the library.

**Please note: while this movie is PG, it contains a few suggestive situations, alcohol use, and some minor language.**

 

Top 5 History Journals

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For history majors, the library has a long list of historical databases. The 5 listed here were chosen because they cover the widest variety of topics and trends in history, but remember that you can always search the library catalog for more specific historical topics.

 

American Historical Review

The library provides access to the American Historical Review from 1975 to the present day. The official publication of the American Historical Association, it strives to cover a wide variety of historical events and cultures. According to Oxford Academic, “the AHR has been the journal of record for the historical profession in the United States since 1895—the only journal that brings together scholarship from every major field of historical study. The journal also publishes approximately one thousand book reviews per year, surveying and reporting the most important contemporary historical scholarship in the discipline.”

 

The Historian

Members of Phi Alpha Theta can take pride in The Historian, which is published by Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Phi Alpha Theta. Parts of The Historian can be found on JSTOR as well as other databases that the library subscribes to. The Historian often covers controversial topics in history and analyzes different trends in historical theory.

 

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Reviews In American History

Reviews In American History dives into the latest history books and reviews them. This journal is a great resource for history majors needing secondary sources and criticism on current books.

 

Technology and Culture

Technology and Culture contains interdisciplinary essays on “the history of technological devices and processes, and the relations of technology to politics, economics, labor, business, the environment, public policy, science and the arts.” This cutting edge journal has articles as specific as “Technology on the Spot: The Trials of the Congreve Rocket in India in the Early Nineteenth Century”  and as general as “Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s.”

 

Comparative Studies in Society and History

This journal is a product of Cambridge University Press; it covers topics such as anthropology, ethnography, colonialism, and global politics. Use Comparative Studies in Society and History when you need resources on how history impacts societies.

 

*Helpful links:

History Research Guide

Search Library Journals Online

 

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “Fargo”

The Coen brothers have consistently produced groundbreaking and hallmark films, and their 1996 motion picture Fargo stands the test of time.  This film features a dark comedic take on a criminal plot that spirals out of control leading from one disaster to another.  This film stars Francis McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell and Kristin Rudrud.

The film’s plot revolves around Jerry Lundegaard (Macey), who is a sleazy car salesmen that has fallen into debt due to fraud and money laundering and orchestrated a plot to have his own wife Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrud) kidnapped and ransomed to her wealthy father Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). The two small-time bumbling criminals Mr. Lundergarrd entrusts with this scandalous endeavor are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), who plays a tough talking albeit inept wannabe gangster, and his partner Gaear Grimsrud, played by the fantastic character actor Peter Stormare as a soft-spoken sociopath with a thousand yard stare.

The protagonist at the heart of this story is Chief of Police Marge Gunderson played by Francis McDormand. This role would go on to net McDormand an Academy Award for Best Actress. Marge Gunderson is a pregnant police chief struggling to piece together the trail of murder and mayhem left in the wake of the incompetent henchmen that Jerry Lundegaard hired.

What makes this film so memorable is the setting in which it takes place:  the backcountry of Minnesota and the snowy and glamorous metropolitan expanse of Fargo, North Dakota. The geographic location was a key choice for the Coen brothers due to the particular accent that is spoken there.  The dialect featured so heavily in the film is that of “Minnesota nice.” As part of its Wikipedia entry states:

The cultural characteristics of “Minnesota nice” include polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.

With this in mind, you’ll find yourself incapable of keeping yourself from quoting this film’s unique dialogue.

Finally, I feel that William H. Macey’s portrayal of Jerry Lundegaard is superb. Jerry Lundegaard is a hopeless loser and a sorry excuse for a criminal. He time and again fails to cover his tracks and his pathetic downfall is a great example of why crime doesn’t pay. Marge Gunderson sums it up perfectly in one of her last lines at the end as she laments the calamity of the whole situation. “And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”

Fargo is a great dark comedy drama, but it’s not suitable for the whole family as it is rated R for violence and language. Whether you are watching it for its memorable quirky dialogue or its star-studded performances, Fargo is a great film don’tcha know.

****And it’s available for check out at Union’s Library***

*written by Matthew Beyer

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “The Dark Knight”

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film The Dark Knight. As far as films featuring Batman go, this is by far the most dramatic, thought-provoking, and epic in scale. The film boasts an all-star cast of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, sparring off against his greatest nemesis, The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger. Ledger’s performance in this role would earn him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor.

The film’s supporting cast contribute in no small part to the memorable depths of this film. Gary Oldman portrays Jim Gordon, one of the few remaining honest and incorruptible cops left in Gotham. Gordon is followed by newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent played by Aaron Eckhart. The two seek to battle crime legally and prove the system can work to defeat the criminals of Gotham. The cast continues with Michael Caine reprising his role as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s stoic butler and father figure. The film’s lead actress is that of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s childhood friend and romantic interest of both Wayne and Dent.

The film is filled with such familiar and iconic themes that make it so memorable to audiences that it will inevitably transcend time and culture. Aside from the classic good vs. evil encounter, the film’s themes run much deeper embodied by our lead characters. We see a tragic hero in that of Bruce Wayne as he forgoes his own happiness and dreams in order to become a symbol of hope and justice for the citizens of Gotham. Contrast that with one of the most iconic villains to ever appear on film: The Joker. This character is deeply frightening as his motivation is so devilishly simple in that his only desire is to unleash chaos on the people of Gotham. The Joker is disgusted by the world with its rules, laws, and order. He sees the world and the people in it as a bad joke. Due to this mentality he has sensed morphed himself into a twisted and disturbing parody of how he views humanity. His aim is to terrify and corrupt the people of Gotham. What makes his motives even more insidious is the fact that he isn’t interested in coming out on top or winning; his only goal is to ensure that everyone loses. As Alfred puts it in his grim take on the Joker: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

This film features a dynamic clash between Order & Chaos, and how far good people will compromise their morals and ethics before they become the very thing they sought to overcome. The Dark Knight is simply a masterpiece- not only as an action-packed thrill ride, but the themes it expresses through its characters and setting will no doubt be studied and praised for years to come. If you’re watching this film for the first time I’d advise you to hold on tight because it is going be a bumpy ride. If you are giving this a second go, try and appreciate the film’s subtleties.

 

*Note: this film is Rated PG-13 and features some language, intense action, and some frightening scenes. *

**You can check out The Dark Knight trilogy from the library.**

Using Choice Reviews Online

 

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For professors, Choice Reviews Online can be a life-saver. This database contains almost 200,000 reviews of academic titles, making it easy to weed out new titles that are unnecessary or to add essential material to your department.

The ratings icons that Choice Reviews uses are shown below:

 

  • Outstanding Academic Title icon
  • Outstanding Academic Title
  • Community College Recommended icon
  • Recommended for community colleges
  • Community College top 75 icon
  • “Top 75” highly recommended titles for community colleges

 

You can access Choice Reviews Online by using the library’s Databases tab on our website. From there, click the “(?)” tab on the Choice Reviews home page. The (?) tab explains how to best use Choice Reviews, featuring information on how to create an account, how to create a list, and how to search the databases.

Choice Reviews also offers video tutorials, which are linked below:

 

Further, you can view helpful Choice Review webinars like the one below:

 

To access more Choice Reviews tutorials, check out their YouTube account, Choice Media Channel.