Lincoln: The Man, the Legend

The historical drama Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is based in part on the book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln was produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, who immediately wanted rights to the film once he heard that Goodwin was planning to write the book.

The film focuses on Lincoln's last months of office in 1865, during a time of war and change, and his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would abolish slavery. The film depicts the tension and conflict in the United States, while painting a revealing portrait of Abraham Lincoln during a momentous time in American history.

With an all-star cast that also includes Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the critically-acclaimed film was nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and twelve Academy Awards. Daniel Day Lewis won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actor for his phenomenal performance as the President. There are still grumbles that Lincoln should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that honor went to another recommended historical drama, Argo.

Another Stead Picture Book Collaboration

Bear Has a Story to Tell, written by Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead, is a warm, wonderful story about patience and friendship that will delight young children and people of all ages who may want to read it aloud or over a young person's shoulder. The Steads are the Michigan duo that created A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal. The books are companions in tone and style.

The lovely pencil and watercolor illustrations Bear Has a Story to Tell depict the changing natural landscape, as Bear tries to remember the tale he wants to tell his animal friends and they try to jog his memory. There are warm acts of kindness, giving the book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book of 2012, the feel of a classic likely to be read and shared by many future generations.

Living Life with the Gift of Do-Overs

What if there were second chances? Or third chances? How many tries would it take for you to get your life right? Kate Atkinson, author of Case Histories, weaves a tale of life and death in Life After Life that pulls the reader into the story of a woman who possesses an extraordinary gift: multiple chances at a single life.

It’s a snowy night in England in 1910. Ursula Todd is born. Ursula Todd dies before drawing her first breath. On the same snowy night in 1910 England, Ursula Todd is born again, and this time lives to tell the tale. Her life will follow this cycle of reincarnation throughout her childhood, adolescence and adulthood, taking her through countless catastrophic deaths, wars, family tragedies, and world-altering events. Each one of her deaths brings about a new lease on life, and a chance for Ursula to avoid the paths that lead to her untimely demises.

Atkinson weaves a lovely tale of life, death, rebirth and strength. It's a tale that takes readers on a journey with Ursula, a woman who experiences the turbulent times of the 20th century with wit, charm and compassion.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Based on Stephen Chbosky’s popular young adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), an introspective loner who loathes the thought of entering high school. Being a freshman is hard enough without dealing with the suicide of a friend, the ghost of his aunt, and his own mental illness while searching for a place to belong. Eventually, Charlie befriends the beautiful and carefree Sam (Emma Watson) and the flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller). They take Charlie under their wing and show him how to live a little as he experiences many firsts: midnight screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," his first school dance and his first love.

Written and directed by Chbosky, the film is a look at the personalities you might find in high school, maybe those hanging out on darker versions of the 1994-95 TV series My So Called Life or the 1985 film The Breakfast Club. In general, high schoolers are just trying to cope and get by day to day, longing for what’s next. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another genuine high school film. Chbosky tries to get the audience to embrace the now and enjoy moments as they happen, and to let ourselves experience a greater love than we think we deserve.

A Cautionary Tale, Because Teens Need Advice, Too

It didn't sound like a novel I would like, but Panic by New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper turned out to be gripping and powerful. Written for ages 14 and older, the novel centers on a close-knit dance troupe and bad decisions made by two young dancers -- with horrible, undeserved consequences.

When Diamond goes to the mall with a friend, she leaves, alone, with a stranger who promises to make her a film star. She is kidnapped and held captive
by the man, who makes porn. Meanwhile, the other dancer, Layla, clings crazily to her sexy boyfriend, Donovan, who abuses her physically and emotionally. The story seems alarmingly realistic; once begun, it is hard to put down. Four alternating narrators tell the tale, adding richness to character development and plot.

In an article on Shelf Awareness.com, Sharon Draper allows that her latest book is "a little edgier than anything I've written, but I think it could save a life. . . .We tell our six-year-olds not to talk to strangers, not to talk to a man with a nice dog. We don't tell our teens anything. They think they're smart enough and mature enough to tell the difference between a nice guy and a bad guy."

Teen Fiction: Boy21

Boy21 is a novel about basketball and so much more, encompassing male friendship, poverty, the Irish mob, grief, and love. I highly recommend this fast read by Matthew Quick, who became one of my favorite teen authors with his 2010 book Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Quick's latest novel, published in 2012, opens in ugly, tough Bellmont, Pennsylvania, where quiet, obedient Finley lives with his wheelchair-bound grandfather and widowed father. Finley -- whose childhood is a mystery until late in the book -- is flourishing as the only white kid on the high school basketball team. When the coach asks him to mentor a hot new -- and very mysterious -- player from California, Finley does, but suddenly luck and life seem to turn against him and toward the new guy. Nonetheless, Finley continues to support his friend, "Boy21," and their friendship grows, until Finley's girlfriend Erin is injured and Finley can't stand it anymore.

This book offers strong characters, action, dialogue, and -- hard to believe with all the bad luck going around -- a semi-happy, if old-fashioned ending. Particularly appealing to me were the threads of responsibility, loyalty and friendship among two extraordinary young men.

Another Big Winner from Jon Klassen

This is Not My Hat is a clever, gorgeous picture book, a 2013 Caldecott Medal book, and a must-read for anyone connected with children in preschool through first grade and beyond. Jon Klassen repeats the theme from his 2011 bestseller I Want My Hat Back and adds a smart twist. The story opens with the memorable lines "This hat is not mine. I just stole it," spoken by a brave little fish who has lifted a blue bowler hat from a big sleeping fish. Little fish swims quietly to a hiding place, not knowing -- but we know -- that the big fish is chasing him. When the two fish vanish into seaweed, the words stop, and big fish reemerges with the blue hat on his head. The story is simple and works beautifully.

A six-year-old Amazon reviewer echoes what many people, young and older, are saying about this gem of a book: "I liked the story and I liked the big fish. The bubbles create movement. The little fish was bad and the big fish was just a big fish. You don't steal from a big fish."

5 Broken Cameras on DVD

The critically-acclaimed documentary 5 Broken Cameras is one man’s view of his village’s fight against encroaching development. Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat buys his first camera to document the birth of his fourth son. Over time he also begins filming the non-violent protests that take place in Bil’in, a West Bank village in Palestine, that begin after Israeli developers erect a separation fence and begin taking over part of the land in and near Bil’in.

The film documents the village’s five-year struggle to get the barrier taken down and development stopped. During this time,as Burnat is shot at and his cameras are destroyed during the protests, we see events unfold through one camera after another. Viewers not only witness the growth of Burnat’s youngest son, who is one day a baby and by the film end is attending the protests, but also the daily struggle of the community and Burnat’s family as they band together against military action. They are brutalized, arrested and defeated daily, but are led by such passionate leaders that they don’t give up, despite their sadness and anger. Burnat’s film is a touching, disturbing, personal account of the Bil’in residents and their part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

5 Broken Cameras, by filmmakers Emad Burnat, a lifelong inhabitant of the Palestinian village of Bil'in, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli documentary filmmaker and teacher who was born in Jaffa, is a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Sleepwalk With Me on DVD

Mike Birbiglia directs and stars in the indie comedy Sleepwalk With Me. Loosely based on Birbiglia’s life, his best-selling book, and his off-Broadway show, the film tells the story of the aspiring comedian as he struggles with his comedy act, drags his feet in his relationship, and battles a severe sleep disorder that spins out of control as he continues to ignore it. While trying to avoid committing further to his girlfriend of eight years, Mike hits the road for several comedy gigs. Along the way he finds adventure, freedom, jokes that are actually funny (revolving around his girlfriend), and a bit of joy that was missing from his life. Reality hits when Mike has a sleepwalking episode one night while sleeping and jumps through a second story window -- an event which actually happened to him.

From the producers of the public radio show This American Life, the critically-acclaimed Sleepwalk With Me is both funny and heartwarming, with a comedy style that is similar to Woody Allen films -- a humor that is personal, self deprecating, and deadpan. It’s the kind of film that has you laughing at moments of this man’s life, but at the same time feeling sympathetic toward this character, is truly suffering. I don’t know about Birbiglia’s future as a stand-up comedian, but he definitely has a strong film presence and a wonderful mind for storytelling.

To the end of the world...

Maria Semple's Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a witty, satirical and highly entertaining novel. The story follows the antics of Bernadette Fox – best friend and mother to 15-year-old Bee Branch, opinionated and idiosyncratic wife to Microsoft-guru Elgin Branch, and enemy to all meddling and annoying "gnats" of Seattle private-school society – from the Emerald City to the Great White Continent.

When Bernadette's daughter Bee aces her report card and makes plans to collect her promised reward – a family trip to Antarctica – her mother is forced to face the unthinkable: a three-week trip on a boat full of strangers, across the most treacherous body of water on earth, to an unforgiving land of ice and snow. Days before the trip Bernadette disappears, sending Bee on a journey to find the one person on whom she could always depend.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told in a flowing collection of emails, FBI documents, letters, faxes, and newspaper article clippings gathered by Bee to tell the tale of how the agoraphobic Bernadette, a once brilliant and revered architect, haunted by the past and unsure of the future, escaped her quickly deteriorating life to find herself – at the end of the world.

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