THE BIG SCREEN: THE STORY OF THE MOVIES
By David Thomson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 551 pages, $35)
David Thomson is a gourmet writer, one who uses sophisticated words and ideas the way a new-age chef wields a blowtorch. As in his masterpiece, "The New Biographical History of Film," Thomson is determined to turn conventional wisdom on its head, challenging readers to consider the first half of "The Magnificent Ambersons" as superior to "Citizen Kane," pornographic film as a legitimate field of study, and that the most effective director of our times may be none other than Tim Van Patten, best known for helming episodes of "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire."
Thomson may come across as too stuffy for casual moviegoers who prefer the chatty style of Roger Ebert or the naughty wit of Pauline Kael. But for those who take their films seriously, "The Big Screen" will you have both rethinking some mainstream ideas and reorganizing your Netflix queue.
NEAL JUSTIN, MEDIA CRITIC
By Bronwen Hruska (Pegasus Books, 330 pages, $25)
In her captivating first novel, Bronwen Hruska takes sharp aim at elitist private schools and their intense need to overachieve. At the fictitious Bradley School in New York, administrators and teachers push students beyond their capabilities and encourage the prescription of Ritalin and other drugs to keep antsy 8-year-old boys in their seats. Hruska's story centers on Sean, a doting but hesitant single dad, and his rather adorable and level-headed son, Toby. The book opens with a hilarious sex scene (Sean, who spends most of the book reacting rather than acting, is seduced by a frighteningly toned and aggressive mother) but quickly sobers up when one of Toby's best friends collapses and dies in the school. "Peanut allergy," the administration said, but Sean comes to understand that it was actually a reaction to Ritalin -- the drug that the school has just persuaded him to give to Toby. Hruska's book suffers from fairly stock characters: Sean is good, Toby is sweet, his mom is messed up, his teacher is wide-eyed and sexy. And at times the narrative bogs down when one character or another intones for several pages about the dangers of prescription drugs. But Hruska knows how to spin a story, and despite its flaws, "Accelerated" proved hard to put down.
LAURIE HERTZEL, BOOKS EDITOR