The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell: Who were the Puritans, other than the image of them I have from elementary school history class, a bunch of white people in buckled shoes with funny hats? Vowell aims to answer this in great detail and traces the Puritans' influence in modern America to great effect, both sobering and funny. Her light touch of self-deprecation and truthfulness adds to the narrative in wonderful ways, yet again affirming my suspicion that I would really love to meet her for coffee someday.
Alice in Sunderland, by Brian Talbot: OK, full disclosure: it wasn't until halfway through this book that I realized that Brian Talbot was maybe pulling a fast one on me, that maybe, just maybe, Sunderland didn't exist. And, ironically enough, it came from a part of the text where Talbot himself wonders if Sunderland is even real. At that moment, I put down the book and FINALLY read the blurb on the back where it presented the idea, from the beginning, that Sunderland might be an invented place. What a fool I felt at that moment! But then I considered the idea from the angle that Talbot had done so well with his invented history that I *had* completely fallen for it, thus proving one of book's theses: History is stories built upon stories and whether they're true or not, some of them take on a life of their own and spring up into history, unbidden, like weeds. Then I still felt a little stupid, but not as much as before.
Anyway, Alice in Sunderland is a dense and beautiful text and highly worth a look from anyone with an interest in history, fantasy, fairy tales, military history, Alice in Wonderland and its author, comic narrative, and the evolution of British society. (One Talbot's strongest points is when he makes a stirring anti-racist, pro-immigration statement, citing right-wing parties in Britain who self-admittedly twist the "too many immigrants" myth into fodder for their racist grandstanding.) Over the course of the book, Talbot examines every wrinkle of the Alice story and the popular myth that surrounds it; the way stories have shaped history, both world and local, and the way that being a storyteller influences his own view of the world. This was a slow read, but it was a spectacular and thought-provoking one that I'm sure I'll be chewing over for weeks and months to come. (I.e., the best kind.)
Honestly, if Talbot, Vowell, and Kate Beaton would get together and write about history, they would be my OT3 of history-related AWESOME.
Food, Inc.: I really wanted to like this film, but I got bogged down in annoyance over the poor presentation of the argument and over-reliance on emotional appeals rather than presentation of logical evidence of why the factory/food industrial complex is harming America. There's a lot of stuff to get angry about in this story (the sequence with Monsanto and its patented soybeans is one of the most depressing and wrong applications of law I've ever seen) but the movie ends up being spread a little thin in places. I wish the editors of the film could have picked and chosen a little better and focused on one or two stories. Still, an important film, and one I'm glad I saw.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans: MST3K provided the two quotations I need to summarize this movie (or the half of it we watched before we got bored and wandered off to watch The Daily Show.)
On Bill Nighy's "acting" in this production: "C'mon, skull, pop out of my skin!" (I mean, dude, seriously. He had these weirdo, almost glow-in-the-dark contacts, and I know he was going for Mysterious!Intense!Vampire, but damned if he didn't look like he was trying to learn pyrokinesis from a correspondence course.)
On the central conflict and love story: "Y'know what makes this movie so exciting? The fact that we care about the characters." (There was nothing to care about in this movie, except possibly some special effects. However, even those got boring after a while.)
The Men Who Stare at Goats: So preposterous that it must be true, but maybe it isn't? I don't know. I've read a lot of unkind reviews of this movie (the chief accusation has been that it's "smug") and I'm not sure what the reviewers were expecting when they went in. Did they want an insightful analysis of modern military morale? Or maybe some logic? Given that the final revelation of this story has to do with a mass orgy of LSD-inspired crazyness at a secret para-military base somewhere in Iraq, I don't think you're going to get either one of those two. But it was so crazy that it was tremendously entertaining and Clooney and MacGregor are awfully easy on the eyes. There are some very funny running jokes about Jedi warriors. And there's the world's cutest kitten and puppy (granted, their screen time is comparatively short). It was not a waste of time, and I did not find it particularly smug. Preposterous, yes. Worst movie of the year? By no means.