Monday, December 29, 2008

"No Man's Land" / a play by Harold Pinter

Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter is remembered as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, his numerous plays, scripts, and essays forever leaving a lasting impression on his generation. Known for portraying ambivalent characters within strongly conflicted atmospheres, his plays and movies are most notable for their tension-rendered scenarios, often executing scenes offset by harsh personal histories and constrained animosity. “No Man’s Land”, penned in 1970, depicts a confrontational meeting between two vague acquaintances and the subsequent dissolution and fallout as an end result.

"Down the hatch. Right down the hatch."

A bachelor in his sixties, Hirst may live alone but he's fond of sharing a drink with a friend every so often. A more or less struggling writer with little to do and less to get, he's pleased when he meets an old school acquaintance, Spooner, with whom he can share long-forgotten memories over a whisky and soda. Back at home the night takes an awkward turn, however, when one drink becomes too many and words transition into verbal taunts. With each man's mood escalating, the testosterone-charged atmosphere is only worsened when Hirst's two boarders, Foster and Briggs, invade the already unquiet setting. With all four soon well-intoxicated, a sobering calm steadily descends upon the scene, each character's sudden self-repose revealed as a distinct conviction of isolation and despair--'no man's land'. (822.914 PINTER)

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Testament / by John Grisham

Self-made billionaire Troy Phelan is a very proud man. Like anyone else whose personal worth registers over $11 Billion, he's rigidly protective of his assets. So it's not so odd that at age 80, Troy promptly decides to die, popping up out of his wheelchair, through a glass window and plunging down 33 stories to the pavement. Troy's suicide was in fact done with 'rational' intention, an act perpetrated to prevent his children, grandchildren, ex-wives and a horde of mooching lawyers from inheriting the fortune he'd worked so hard for. With stipulations in the current will (re-drafted just prior to the fall) admonishing Troy's sane diagnosis and with no reputable doctor to state otherwise, potential heirs are essentially "cut off" from the money. The uncontested and legally valid will bequeaths--with bittersweet irony--the bulk of the inheritance to one Rachel Lane, a heretofore unknown illegitimate daughter currently working as a missionary in remote South America.

Attorney and once-revered litigator Nate O'Riley is currently where many lifelong drunks find themselves--rehab. His wife long gone, alienated by his kids, and having forfeited his job and all but a few friends, Nate has used up whatever second chances he was once given. So it's somewhat a surprise when he's asked to go on a strange business trip to a remote region of South America--Brazil to be exact--to locate a missionary and dictate legal conditions pertaining to a vast sum of money she's just inherited. But even Nate has his doubts about maintaining sobriety long enough to reach her, much less pinpointing her exact location. While he's no Faulkner (even if he does inhabit the same hometown), John Grisham's long list of court room thrillers have never failed to entertain, making him a publisher's dream over the last two decades. It's the endearing nature of his characters along with his story's humanistic appeal which most garner applause and of course the southern gothic elements in many of his books always making for a dramatic story. Not so much of the legal jargon is dished out here though as 'Testament' definitely stays on the lighter side of things; its colorful depictions of the vulturous Phelan flock, Nate's will to succeed against addiction and the uniquely compassionate heroine all making for a one-of-a-kind inspirational story. Readers wanting an absorbing read for say, a really long trip, can't go wrong here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Called Out of Darkness: a spiritual confession, by Anne Rice

In this memoir, Anne Rice depicts her personal history growing up as a Catholic in New Orleans, her break with that tradition upon becoming an adult, and her subsequent return to the Catholic faith at age 57. This was my first time reading Rice, an author of Gothic vampire fiction who became a writer of inspirational fiction after coming back to the church. The first half of the book is about the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood, and how stirring and beautiful so many of these things were. Rice remembers feasting her eyes on flowering trees and vines which adorned stately homes in her neighborhood, and of churches filled with color – with statues and soft lights and incense. Church ritual and pageantry were an integral part of her school and family life. Despite the tragic circumstance of her mother’s alcoholism, made starker by her father’s long absences due to work, what Rice wants to impress on us is how the Catholic church was not simply an element in her life, but gave a structure and coherency to everything else. Her break with the church came out of her rebellion against its strictures – strictures regarding sex, regarding what books to read. What brings her back is not a change in her thinking – she deliberately informs us that she had no information on the present Catholic teachings , and desired none – but just an overwhelming need, a need to return to the God she loved. The book is different than other autobiographies in that Rice does not dwell on painful events, neither family deaths nor her own near fatal illness. She passes over them, going back and forth in time, trying to elucidate her main point. She regrets certain of the Church’s present teachings, and hopes that they will pass out of favor, as the old index of “Forbidden books” came to the end of its usefulness in 1966. She fails to grasp, in my opinion, that the doctrine that spawned the strictures is still present in Catholicism –for example, in Catholic confessional guides which help you to examine everything for purity. But it’s enough for her to be back, and she vows that nothing will ever make her leave again, no matter what “scandal” or “quarrel” the Church suffers from in the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Secrets & Lies (1996) DVD w/ Brenda Blethlyn, Timothy Spall & Marianne Jean-Baptiste; a film by Mike Leigh

"This is the life, innit, sweethearts?"
Widow Cynthia Purley is a woman doomed by fear and insecurity. Over the hill and over-involved in the lives of her now grown son and daughter, she's become a product of isolation and despair, unwilling to confront being left alone. Loving and considerate her children may be, her son Maurice and live-in daughter Roxanne are frustrated by their weepy mother's pandering intrusiveness, equally desirous to have their hands untied. Both have their own lives now, Maurice with his wife Monica, a new home and photography business and Roxanne, who despite living with Cynthia, is increasingly occupied with her job and new boyfriend. Meanwhile, not too far across town, Hortense Cumberbatch has just lost her adoptive mother to cancer. Resolving to seek out her birth mother after 30 years, Hortense goes through the process of locating her real family in between shifts at her optometrist practice only to find the results too far-fetched to believe. The records show Hortense, who's black, to have a mother who's white. When double-checks and second opinions confirm this as the actual truth, Hortense bravely decides to seek out her real mom for the first time.

Known as your favorite director's favorite director, Mike Leigh has long been one of the world's most influential filmmakers, his deeply intimate films revealing an unprecedented vision of dramatic realism. While at the center of this moving film are of two women--one bold, the other frail--mutually encountering a daunting truth, it's the peripheral characters, specifically Roxanne and Maurice, who complete the drama. Maurice played by Timothy Spall may be the only thing standing between Cynthia and the deep end, his shaky stability practically the fulcrum by which the family stays afloat. And yet his own life is weighed down by convictions of personal inadequacy and self-doubt, perpetually confronted with a wife unable to give birth and a need to sustain his teetering photo business. Seemingly held back by her circumstances, Roxanne might have the incentive but lacks the direction and most of all the means to get out from under. The story's ultimately defined by its two leads though, the culminating meeting and revelation between Cynthia and Hortense portrayed as an intensely awkward but wholly believable circumstance. (DVD SECRETS)

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Mercy / Toni Morrison

As one of the the United States' most repected living writers, Toni Morrison's books are always highly anticipated. Her newest weighs in at a very slim 167 pages and visits some familiar territory (slavery, motherhood, love lost, broken families, gender relations), but her elegant, lyrical prose continues to amaze.

This novel is set in the late 1600's on a farm in what will become the United States. The characters take turns telling their story in the first person, a bit reminiscent of a Greek chorus. They are all caught up in the web of slavery as is the entire nascent culture in which they live. The farm owner, Jacob Vaark, owns two slaves, one black, one Native American, uses the services of two white indentured servants, and also has one other young foundling of indeterminate race with servant status in the household. Through these characters, Morrison explores the full range of forced servitude in an era before slavery was limited to people of African heritage.

Vaark is a so-called benevolent slaveowner, who likes to feel that he is above the flesh-trade. Vaark and his wife Rebekka have lost all of their children to accident or disease, and so treat their subordinates as quasi-family, having none of their own. They work side-by-side and strive together to keep the farm running in a difficult natural environment.The group lives, if not in happiness, at least in peace until Vaark falls ill with smallpox and dies. Then the little world they've carved out for themselves in the wilderness quickly crumbles. Without the master of the house, neither wife nor slave nor servant has any status in the outside world. Perhaps more troubling, they no longer have the security of hanging together as a unit. Each is an orphan in a dangerous world, and the mechanisms of bondage have stripped their ability to connect to each other on the most basic of human levels.

Morrison uses language in a really beautiful way in this novel. Each character has a distinct voice and way of relating to the world around her. The author does not feel the need to fully explain everything that happens in the book -- some things she leaves to the reader to figure out, others she explains later through the voices of other characters. The plot is slight, but the characters are complex and their relationships to each other and to the world are even more complicated. Underpinning all of this is the knowledge that Morrison is describing the very beginnings of our American culture. This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you've finished reading.

New Diet Books

Body With Soul: Slash Sugar, Cut Cholesterol and Get a Jump on Your Best Health Ever/ by Randy Jackson
Long-time music industry rep and current American Idol judge, Randy Jackson’s not been hard to miss by people familiar with the most popular show on TV, or the entertainment media for that matter. Here he opens up about his own struggles with weight control and high cholesterol, revealing how overcoming these issues has revamped not only his physical condition, but his overall lifestyle and well-being. Whether you want to lose weight, lower cholesterol or just get healthier, Randy's new book can help recreate a whole new you.

Diabetes Diet Cookbook: Discover the New Fiber-Full Eating Plan for Weight Loss / by Ann Fittante and the editors of America’s Leading Healthy Lifestyle Magazine
More Americans are at risk for diabetes than at any time previous. Yet influential knowledge on both control and prevention aspects of the disease have gained ground in recent years, specifically pertaining to the very practical elements of diet and nutrition. This brand-spanking new chronologue detailing exactly what at-risk individuals should eat and not eat is a can’t miss read for anyone involved with nutrition for diabetics.

Neris and India’s Idiot-proof Diet: a Weight-loss Plan for Real Women / by India Knight and Neris Thomas

Tired of stick figure women splayed over the covers of dozens of “health” books and magazines, many (all) of them digitally altered per the direction of publicity and marketing departments? Here, finally is a much-needed rebuttal to all the Madison Avenue stereotypes in this book by two women eager to bridge the divide between perception and reality. Knight and Thomas provide some good diet info but also advise on the importance of establishing your own milieu so to speak when it comes to health and appearance.

The Park Avenue Nutritionist’s Plan: The No-fail Prescription for Energy, Vitality and Weight Loss / by Jana Klauer
Word on the street is that optimum health and sustained body control is obtained as much by lifestyle pattern as it is by diet and exercise regimens. Veteran nutritionist and health practitioner Jana Klauer confirms these hypothesis while simultaneously expounding on reasons why certain people never break from yo-yo dieting and fluctuating weight patterns. Anyone looking for a compendium to the South Beach or Sonoma diets will recognize many similar aspects in this, Klauer’s latest nutritional diatribe.

Southampton Row / by Anne Perry

Investigator Thomas Pitt may no longer be an ‘official’ police detective on staff at London’s Bow Street station, but he’s no less uninformed about goings on within his sector, having insider access to oft-concealed capital murder cases through his ties with Special Branch. Only slightly worse for wear after being relegated to remote investigative duties following some treacherous dealings in head office, Pitt and his razor-sharp wife, Charlotte, have kept busy trapsing after the city’s abundance of crooks, deviants and layed-low criminals, not to mention coming in contact with some bizarre society circles.

His penchant for intrigue withstanding, even Pitt is more than a little unsettled when he and Charlotte’s much-needed vacation is put off after a murder tied to the recent Parliament election falls into their hands. On the upside the case is no less a prestigious one, involving several inner circle politicians--most notably the pompous Charles Voisey--in the mysterious death of a well-known society spiritualist. Early leads turn out to be less than clairvoyant, however, as clients of the dead medium, Voisey’s opponent’s wife to be specific, are revealed as largely ambiguous—if not altogether unreliable—sources of information. With Charlotte sent north of the city to search for background details on the deceased, Thomas and his sister-in-law Emily must wade through the foggy streets of London’s Southampton Row (and an even foggier political climate) to try and pin down the real reason behind the “séance murder”.

For years Anne Perry has entertained mystery fans with her own interpretations of life, love and crime in one of history’s most fascinating periods and places—Victorian England. Her recent Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels, depicting a husband and wife detective team trailing cases closely-linked to issues of the day have been her most well-received with the pair’s engaging—often perilous—investigations never failing to dazzle readers. Though a bit further along in the series this story’s not hard to follow as the context provides enough background info for anyone to pick up on preceding events. This book's police procedural aspects will attract readers who'll like how the case weaves its way through high-profile intrigue and entreaty, ultimately tagging the real culprit behind the glamorous medium's death. (MYS PERRY)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Steppenwolf / by Herman Hesse

A veteran of the First World War, German author Herman Hesse was one of the interwar years' most venerated figures, assembling a uniquely esoteric body of work as a poet, novelist, philosopher and artist. A westerner with a penchant for eastern wisdom, Hesse's buddhist-centered novel, Siddharta (1923), was well-recieved by nations the world over and continues to be a cross-cultural influence today. Steppenwolf, published in 1927, details the emotional progress of a man unequivocably disturbed by his own intellectual frustrations.

When the young nephew of a woman running a boarding house chances to find a manuscript left by one of the wards, he's uncomfortably exposed to the brutally honest world of a man internally tortured by the paradoxical human condition. The treatise and preceding memoir are all tied in to the figure of the "Steppenwolf", a dual-souled (man-wolf) individual for whom life in the generic context is woefully ill-suited.

The journal depicts narrator Harry Haller as a man both deeply disturbed and deeply perplexed at the world around him. One of a rare, but no less real, breed of men naturally predisposed to forlorn melancholy, Harry is an individual perpetually at war against himself, involuntarily immersed in a constant reality of bottom-dwelling misery. Not only is there no escape from his pit of despair and angst-ridden existence, his burden is increasingly compounded by a perceived ignorance in others towards any similar sentiment or frame of mind. But this is only one side of his dual persona.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

We Have Books About TV

Brought to You in Living Color: 75 Years of Great Moments in Television & Radio from NBC / by Marc Robinson; w/ foreword by Tom Brokaw
Beautifully illustrated with digitized photographs and footage stills from some of TV's most memorable programs, this book looks back at some of the greatest moments in the NBC network's illustrious 75 year broadcast history. Like with television, Robinson as much as lets the pictures do the talking, merely supplying filler material in between the tell-it-all photos. Still, his colorful captions and behind-the-scenes tidbits on some of the most popular and long-lived shows provide this coffee table book with some gloss to go with its well-preserved glamour.

The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television / by David Stewart
From its inception in 1969 until the present day, America's public network has hosted some of television's most beloved series. Renowned for children's programs like "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street", this member funded station has succeeded in virtually all demographics, even generating sizable ratings shares for shows like "Masterpiece Theatre" and "NOVA". Additionally, PBS has flourished for its ability to facilitate broadcast listings for local markets, long-providing it with a decided edge over national and private sectors in that regard.

TV Guide Book of Lists / by the Editors of TV Guide Magazine
So just what are the 50 greatest shows ever? What about the funniest TV characters? The top female leads? This is the 'list book' to trump all other list books--and blogosphere pundits--when it comes to nailing down just who was the best TV dad, the most colorful sports analyst or the roguest detective in a police drama. Written and annotated by the best critics (in the magazine business) to ever review the not-so-silver screen, this is a fun and informing read for anyone wishing to see just who cracked what list.

Get on TV!: the Insider's Guide to Pitching the Producers and Promoting Yourself / by Jacquie Jordan; w/ foreword by Donny Osmond
With winning candor, this shameless how-to book by a veteran TV producer lays down some can't miss tips on promotional marketing for all the small screen wannabees out there. Jordan states that while looks and talent certainly help, they aren't always what producers look for when auditioning for a potential role or reality TV spot, nor are they always the necessary qualities which can launch a budding career in the right direction.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread / by Don Robertson

On an ordinary day in an ordinary American city, spunky 9-year-old Morris Byrd III sets out with his red wagon and little sister en route to a friend’s home across town. Morris may only be a fourth-grader, but he’s well aware of the War currently being waged in this the year 1944, the implications of which have indirectly affected life at home. After all, it would be hard to ignore the day-to-day bustling industry in his hometown of Cleveland, to say nothing of similarly echoed sentiments on bravery and patriotism issued by his teacher. Not so much concerned with the grown-up world at the moment, Morris is more interested in reaching his friend Stanley Chaloupka's house in time for dinner.

Things change in a hurry, however, when an accident of historical proportions occurs right in front of Morris’ eyes, exposing the young boy to a terror seldom experienced by soldiers much less underage civilians far from the front lines. Those familiar with the localized 1947 incident won’t be so much the same concerning the Cleveland Gas Explosion of 1944 which, prior to Texas City’s own infamous disaster, was the largest-scale industrial accident of the twentieth century. A native Clevelander, Robertson delivers a trademark novel depicting an altogether more serene time and place prior to a immensely violent event ruptured the lives of not only those directly involved in it, but an entire city which was irrevocably altered and a generation forever changed thereafter. (FIC ROBERTSON)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Betrothed at the age of three, Catalina has been groomed since birth to be Queen of England. Raised by her parents Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, to always place duty and country first, Catalina comes to England at the age of 15 to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales. Catalina is confident, ambitious and highly intelligent, and is herself a master of intrigue and political expediency. But soon, widowhood at young age of sixteen, she finds herself alone in the labyrinthan Tudor court of Henry VII, mocked and penniless, and a pawn caught between two countries. Now she must rely on her own intelligence, skills, and ambition, to survive the intrigues of her parents, her court and even her husband to become Queen Katherine of Aragon.

This book provides an intriguing and detailed look at the Tudor monarchy amid the geopolitical realities of Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The author combines extensive research with a clear and captivating writing style to create a superb picture of this amazing and extraordinary woman.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Flying Troutmans / Miriam Toews

Ever wished you could just run away from it all? Hattie Troutman does, but unfortunately, it all -- in particular, her family -- just seems to keep following her. Hattie's living in Paris and is recently homeless, recently boyfriend-less, and just a bit directionless when she receives a call from her 11-year old niece that she's urgently needed back home in Canada. She arrives to find her older sister deep in the throes of a serious depressive episode and her niece and nephew trying valiantly to fend for themselves and their sick mom.

Although I know that librarians are supposed to be immune to this, I was totally attracted to this book because of the cover. I don't know if the kid on the front is supposed to be Hattie's niece, Thebes, who has a mild obsession with art projects (especially creating giant checks out of posterboard to give to people she thinks need a little boost to their day) or if it's supposed to be a representation of Hattie herself -- who, although in her late 20's, is just a bit immature for her age and feels moderately to totally overwhelmed by the responsibility of suddenly being the primary caretaker of her sister's family. Regardless, the kid covering her eyes in the funny hat is a perfect representation of the mood of this book. A little wacky, a little serious.

At its heart, this book is a road trip book with literary underpinnings that are pretty well disguised by the book's quick pacing. After putting her sister in the hospital, Hattie and the kids embark on an epic journey in a marginally operational minivan across the United States to search for the kids' elusive artist father. They have some adventures and meet some nutty characters. More often than not, they ARE the nutty characters.

Hattie's niece and nephew are such appealing characters, by turns vulnerable and funny, wise and silly, that you can't help but be drawn into their voyage. Hattie has a complex relationship with her sister that the author gives us little glimpses of through flashbacks throughout the storyline. Hattie herself is tired of cleaning up her sister's messes, but she loves her family despite their flaws. She has to make an uncomfortable decision: what is she willing to give up for the ones she loves?

This book is has a wacky sense of humor and a streak of irony. While some of the characters are kind of out there in the zaniness realm, it does deal in a sensitive way with the effects of having a person with mental illness in the family and the unpalatable choices that family members are forced to make.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Michael Crichton

Little intro is needed into the career of the late Michael Crichton. Long one of America's brand-name authors, his uber-popular Sci-Fi/Adventure books have planted him securely among the Grisham-King-Steele-Clancy circle of defacto mainstream novelists. As with many of his contemporaries, accessibility is the clutch; Crichton's writing style (withstanding a good dose of formidable techie-speak) allows multiple ages and genre-likes to easily tap into his stories. While one could argue it was Jurassic Park which made him a household name, he's been on the radar since The Andromeda Strain was published in 1967, never not having a bestseller every three to five years or so.
Congo (1980)
On a specialized mission in the deepest African jungle, an American research team and their Congolese guide suddenly vanish without a trace. All communication between the 11-man team and their California base is permanently lost; the only evidence being a replay from the team's onsite camera filmed just prior to the signal's disconnection. Vaguely, amidst horrifying cries of terror and scrambled background noise, the image appears to show a peculiar subspecies of mountain gorilla roaming in the vicinity of the ruined encampment. When airborne surveillance and rescue efforts prove unsuccessful, it's decided that a new team--this time heavily armed and reinforced--will re-attempt the operation, simultaneously seeking answers to the previous team's demise. Surely, now all of their advanced technology and superior weapons will withstand any potential aggression. Right?

Jurassic Park (1990)
When extracts of Saurian (pre-historic reptilian) DNA are found in a remote region of Central America, a bold new vision forms in the mind of billionaire-scientist John Hammond. Kept strictly confidential, Hammond's new "theme park" is swiftly engineered, erected and made (theoretically) operational on the tiny Isla Nublar west of Costa Rica. Awaiting only the cooperation of reluctant investors, Hammond summons some of his closest friends, scientific experts and legal advisors for a sneak-peek, intending to reveal all the unique park has to offer in the way of "natural" fascination. But how can anyone, even Hammond himself, be sure that modern science will so easily prevail over such a "resurrected" species, especially one of "tyrannical" proportions never before encountered by humans?

Eaters of the Dead (1976)
In 10th century A.D., Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a scholar under the Muslim Caliph al-Muqtadir was sent on an expedition to recently conquered territories in the North. Intent upon learning and interpreting details pertaining to the nomadic tribes of that region, Ibn Fadlan arrives at his destination only to have his party raided and slaughtered by Vikings. Though eager enough to kill off his companions, the barbarians take Ibn Fadlan captive, indicating his presence in addition to their 12-man group a "good luck" charm for the journey home. Gradually with time, Fadlan is integrated into the Norse tribe, essentially their "13th Warrior" accompanying them in their travels and ultimately battling alongside in the fight against their deadliest enemy--the 'wendol', or 'monsters of the mist'.

Sphere (1987)
Prof. Norman Johnson little suspected that his long-ago written magazine article on a potential alien encounter would land him and a 7-man research team at the bottom of the Pacific ocean where a sunken spacecraft of preternatural proportions has prompted a top secret investigation. Soon things become less a realm of the scientific and more a domain for the unimaginable as the ship--seemingly absent of any marine capabilities--proves to be more than just an interesting find with peculiar technology and nomenclature. Traumatic occurrences in form of a giant squid attack and jellyfish shock-currents soon force Norman and his team to reconfigure analysis concerning the mystery vessel; focusing not just on its origin, but on the singularly entrancing sphere-shaped artifact contained within. Now with time running out inside their underwater biodome, the team must solve the mystery of Sphere not just to satisfy curiosity, but to save their very lives.

The Great Train Robbery (1975)
The 1853 outbreak of the Crimean War between Russia, France and Britain indirectly resulted in large sums of money having to travel long distances (over land) from the London banks to troops in the Caucasus. What more fortuitous occasion could there be for exhibiting travel by Railroad than to safely transfer funds across the continent via locomotive? So was the thought prior to the Great Train Robbery of 1855 in which 12 million pounds (approx. $10,000,000 today) was successfully stolen from a heavily guarded and securely bulwarked train en route from London to Southampton. In this fictionalized rendition of the heist, Crichton recounts--in riveting fashion, though with obvious liberties taken--the details, circumstances and planning of just how the operation was carried out; and, ultimately how the money was eventually recovered.
Rising Sun (1992)
The murder of a beautiful woman atop an LA skyscraper attracts more than just routine attention, it unleashes a powderkeg of international drama as the American investigating authorities clash with an emerging Japanese business conglomerate. After being jerked around by faulty leads and more than a few desperate characters, amateurish Detective Peter Smith reluctantly relies (solely) on direction from former LAPD Officer John Connor, Smith's roguish Japanese translator and partner. Together they claw through a web of misinformation, deceit and cultural divide to find not only a murderer, but a far more grisly culprit undermining the very backbone of the global business infrastructure.

Friday, November 7, 2008

College Football

100 Years of Texas Longhorn Football / by Gene Schoore; w/ foreword by Darrell Royal
Burnt Orange Nation can’t go wrong with this comprehensive and very-well illustrated book commemorating a century of Longhorn football. All aspects of the program are touched on as notable players, coaches and games fill this book with all a gung-ho gridiron fan could want concerning UT football. Legendary coach Darrell Royal talks about the Big 8 years while Schoore does a good job well-representing the team that’s become a stamp of the Lone Star State.

The Last Coach: the Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant /
by Allen Barra
Deified by fans of Alabama football, Bryant was the legendary Crimson Tide coach of the 60’s/70’s glory years during which the program routinely clamped down on SEC competition and was never out of the national title picture. See why Bama crazies continue to pay homage, erect shrines, and devote rooms in their houses to the coach who’s been dead over two decades but still lives on.
A Fire to Win: The Life and Times of Woody
Hayes / by John Lombardo
‘Three yards/Cloud of Dust’ coach Woody Hayes may not be too pleased with the way the game has assumed a more airborne mode of moving the ball. Offensive schemes haven't just deviated from tradition; old ideologies are routinely tossed out the window as teams undergo full-on transformations practically overnight. Fans nostalgic about the olden days of limited forward passing and simpler playbooks will like this unique insight into the former Ohio State Buckeyes legend.

Runnin' with the big dogs : the true, unvarnished story of the Texas-Oklahoma football wars / by Mike Shropshire
Shropshire recounts the origins of the Red River Rivalry/Shootout with exceptional intuition; stating the case for why this particular “border war” inhabits the American spotlight on a yearly basis. Both teams, both states, both fan-bases and all those caught in the cross-hairs are accounted for as this is a great read for anyone wanting more of the Big XII’s most intense rivalry.

Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer: a Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania / by Warren St. Johns
Ever wonder why fans willingly shed their clothes, write numbers/letters on torsos, and don face paint in the coldest weather imaginable? For all those bewildered over the reasons behind such antics and anyone just looking for a good read, here is a book to satisfy curiosity. Author St. Johns divulges some of the awkward reasons why college football’s die-hard fans routinely exhibit the most extreme and often peculiar rituals when rooting on their favorite schools and teams.
Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey as the First Woman to Play Division One College Football / by Katie Hnida
A true American success story, female place-kicker Katie Hnida recalls her time as a Division 1A college football player first with the Colorado Buffaloes and later at the University of New Mexico. Acquainting the reader with hardships endured with first garnering serious attention for her abilities and then persevering amid discrimination and abuse, Hnida delivers a breakthrough testimony about becoming the first ever female to compete at the highest amateur level of the male-dominant sport.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter)

This book is famous in publishing circles for its hefty advance, of $1.25 million. Whether the book will live up to its expectations is anybody’s guess. I read the book and am left none the wiser, although I enjoyed reading it. The cover is a real winner, showing Dewey’s soulful gaze. Dewey is the library cat who was found in the book drop of the Spencer, Iowa town library one freezing January morning. He was adopted by the library, and the rest is history. The director who saved Dewey writes the story (with help from Bret Witter) and chronicles his life at the library along with her own family saga and some information about life in Iowa. When Dewey arrived in 1988 the family farms were in deep trouble, going into foreclosures and being bought up by big conglomerates. The director, Vicki Myron, believes that having Dewey around really helped brighten up people’s days, and it sounds like he did. He was a particularly “people-oriented” kind of cat (unfortunately he’s not still around, but his final resting place can be seen on library grounds), heading for people’s laps regardless of newspapers or books getting in his way. He helped Vicki connect with her teen-aged daughter, and he gave her a warm welcome each cold and dark morning. He was an inside cat, and some of the physical details of his bouts with sickness may not deter the cat-loving reader, but hearing about his finicky diet (offered as many as six different flavors on a given day) was a bit much for me. If this book is going to compete with John Grogan’s book about Marley, you have to swallow that unlike Marley, this is not about a cat in a natural state. But so many cats in this country live indoors, that may pass unnoticed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Upstairs, Downstairs" [DVD/TV-mini]

Before the digital age back when entertainment was bland and inoffensive, television had a far greater appeal not just as an instrument to waste time, but as a medium to promote artistry. Programming had just barely progressed into syndication and networks could still rely on an audience's attention span to cover specific time slots, even maintain interest enough to tune-in the following week. It was the golden age for dramatic sitcoms, soap operas and miniseries.
"Upstairs, Downstairs" was a program that not only flourished in this era but withstood the test of time as one of the most remarkable TV series ever broadcast. Produced in partnership with the BBC and seen on networks worldwide, the show portrayed an Edwardian era household in which a prominent politician's family resided "above" ground while their servants inhabited the "below" ground quarters. Airing in 1971, it was carried for six full seasons until 1975, fictionally representing the three decades between 1900-1930.

A ridiculously talented cast of actors including Nicola Pagett, Pauline Collins, Anthony Andrews, Leslie-Anne Down, Gordon Jackson and John Alderton comprised the lead roles as the series' immense popularity held an unprecedented global appeal. A poignant drama to be sure, it was the show's qualitative insight into history that made it so intriguing, an amalgamation of characters and dialogue meshed alongside actual twentieth century events (WWI, Titanic, 1920's, etc.). Relevant social issues were also present. Working class scruples pitted against liberal capitalism, tradition versus progress, "place" instead of potential were all themes envived in the context, never failing to resonate with devoted viewers enchanted by a seemingly simpler but all-the-more intimate period.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fragile Things / by Neil Gaiman

Hardened rationalists desperately needing to broaden their imaginations should look no further. Where else could ever be found such a mind-blowing—and mind-bending—array of manifold literary vignettes? A mystery carnival vanishing into the night sky, a Friday night party where two friends are introduced to some “out-of-this-world” girls, Beowulf transplanted into the modern-day, a mimicked acceptance speech following a VooDoo ceremony, a clan of quirky pedestrian zombies and a side of Sherlock Holmes you’ve never seen. Such is the world of Neil Gaiman and his eclectic blend of tales, poems and filler sketches in this, his third collection of short stories.

As inventive as any Sci-Fi/Fantasy author—now or otherwise—and yet incomparably fanciful with his brilliant wit and darkly humorous angle, this volume lets the reader in on a generous sample (though certainly not the whole) of Gaiman’s world of enchantment and storytelling. Less distinct, perhaps than more long-revered stalwarts like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, Gaiman may not connect with all readers the same way. His writing isn't as spelled-out and storylines--though never failing to convey continuity--often derive from multiple perspectives. Veterans of the genre along with a good many novices won't be able to miss a good thing when they see it though.

Looking Back / by Belva Plain

There's a reason why friends come and go. A fact of life learned the hard way for three college roommates when graduation begets adulthood. Cecile, Norma and Amanda are practically family after four years together; literally so for the beautiful Amanda who's engaged to Norma's brother Larry. A marriage of sacrifice more than compatibility (definitely not love with Larry a total loser), it's a step toward the financial independence Amanda's always longed for. The price is high though as, predictably, things sour quickly between the couple, ultimately propelling Amanda into a dangerous affair with the worst possible person--her own father-in-law/Norma and Larry's dad.

Things aren't quite as desperate for the other the moment. Cecile's marriage to lawyer Peter couldn't be better. Really and truly their only disputes revolve around plans for their dream house and what to name their anticipated firstborn. And despite looks to match her name, Norma's liking life as well. Always the brainy one, her teaching job at a prestigious prep school has opened windows of opportunity she never could have imagined, even the soul mate she dared not dream of. But with Amanda's perilous circumstances escalating, how will all three friends handle the drama if (when) the affair is exposed?

Belva Plain's name has been thrown around with much the same weight as Debbi Macomber and Anna Quindlen in recent years. And for good reason. This is a "fun" book with characters fleshed out just enough to draw sympathy before some bitter misdeeds expose each's truest, darkest convictions. It's not quite dark enough to be sad though. Melodrama withstanding, the mood stays relatively "light", positioning characters and circumstances more to dissuade un-sympathy than promote partiality among the three friends. Easy and entertaining, it's a good book for lazy readers.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Sleeping in subway tunnels around Bucharest are the casualties of a fallen era. Disposed of, disheveled and drug-dependent, they're among the 30,000+ homeless children of post-communist Romania. 'Children' is no exaggeration, either, with kids aged 3 or 4 routinely cohabitating with 'elder' youths; mutually sharing scrounged-for food fragments, cardboard boxes, clothing and paint-thinner. The state being woefully ill-equipped to face things, the problem has essentially become part of the scenery, a permanent fixture on the post-socialist landscape.

For a period of three months, German director Edet Belzberg and a low-budget film crew monitored a handful of subway children, carefully divulging the origin and reason for each's displacement and examining the bitter reality of the mostly ineffectual attempts at intervention. In typical intrusive fashion the camera preserves the excruciating innocence of each child who, amidst the backdrop of a broader world, remains painfully unaware of their surroundings. 'Susceptibility' doesn't begin to describe their plight. Life's not so much day-to-day as it is moment-by-moment with their turbulent existence only perpetuated by hunger, disease, ignorance and brutality. Every instance, every confrontation, every awkward image of normal life drifting past is brilliantly captured by Belzberg, leaving the audience without a doubt that each kid is still just a kid, inhabiting a perversely distorted world of confusion, desperation and neglect.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Consolation of Philosophy / Boethius

An emissary of the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric in the mid-6th century, Boethius rose to prominence within the Roman court until treachery by political rivals landed him in prison. Though wrongfully convicted and ultimately sentenced to death, his time in prison inspired the text for Consolation of Philosophy and other treatises on the nature of an unjust world.

The premise for 'Consolation' is an allegory whereby Boethius confronts Lady Philosophy [theoretically] on the fleeting nature of “Fortune” and the spurious prospect of permanent virtue (“one true good”). For his part Boethius postulates, among other queries on free will and determinism, why evil men often prosper through unscrupulous means while the righteous fall to ruin for their integrity. Lady Philosophy contends that “the good" (prosperity) and “happiness” are internal manifestations and that virtue—though subject to Fortune’s duality—remains constant apart of man's fallible nature.

While the life of its author was short-lived, the work itself has flourished as an important contribution to western philosophy, still credited as a precursor to modern rationalist thought. Dante, Chaucer, Milton and Aquinas have all regarded it as a foremost influence, employing similar syllogistic approaches in their own work just as more contemporary authors--Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kafka, etc.--have mirrored Boethius allegorical style. With its concise translation and relatively easy text, this book would do well for anyone seeking a first-step-to-philosophy type read.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tsar by Ted Bell

Alex Hawke, a modern-day James Bond who also happens to be a British Lord, is perfectly content in his quiet, secluded, slow-paced hideaway in Bermuda. A former first-class counter-terrorist , he is slowly recovering from the physical and psychological wounds he suffered at the hands of sadistic terrorists and has withdrawn from the world. But he is soon drawn back into his crucial role of global protector by the ruthless plans of a resurgent and threatening Russia, determined to “reintegrate” former territories and to blackmail the world with its huge oil supplies. Insidious technical inventions, global greed and diabolical genius make this book a nail-biting read!Shockingly current with an unsettling picture of our near future!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Girl with No Shadow / Joanne Harris

It has been nine years since Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk first arrived in Lansquenet, France, to spellbind the local populace with her exotic chocolates and mystical ways. This summer author Joanne Harris finally published the sequel!

The Girl with No Shadow finds Vianne and Anouk in the Montmartre district of Paris in the present day. Their little family has grown with the addition of Rosette who, despite her 4 years, speaks only in sign language and seems to have strongly inherited the family gift for magic. Vianne has grown weary of the Changing Wind that continually blows her and her girls from place to place, so she has resolved to suppress her magical skills and live like "ordinary" folk in order to hide from the Wind and Kindly Ones who come to call in their debts. Anouk chafes under her mother's "ordinariness" and resents not being able to use her natural gifts.

However, when a not-so-kindly (and also magical) stranger arrives and begins to insinuate herself into their lives, Vianne and Anouk must decide whether to stand up for who they truly are or try to be like everyone else and blow away with the wind.
This book is best read in sequence, so if you haven't read Chocolat, pick that one up first. If you like character-driven women's fiction with a glimmer of magical realism, this one's for you. Read-alikes include Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen), Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic, The Third Angel), and Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate).

Monday, October 6, 2008

We all float down here . . .


Derry, Maine is like many towns. Families live there, jobs are adequate. Generations come and go with the years. Yet things are far from normal as hidden beneath the surface--indeed, under the very town itself--lurks a venomous evil. A creature of unearthly power and dimension, it's been a scourge of mankind for centuries, periodically sustaining its strength from the men, women and children of Derry.

Needless to say, 10-year-old Bill Denbrough knows of the terror plaguing his town. He'll never forget his brother's yellow slicker and galoshes worn the day Georgie went out to play in the rain. "Don't worry about me . . .". But Georgie was never seen again. Only in the following weeks and years will Bill piece together the fragments of what happened that day. He's not alone though. Bound by a common peril, he and his loyal friends--"the losers club"--are united in their quest; traversing space and time to unearth the ageless evil haunting their lives.

Simply put, this book is addictive. Effortlessly it entices the reader; alluringly exploring the complexity of a child's world paralleled against its (often familiar) adult antithesis. All is revealed amid the impermeability of trial-forged friendships, the trademark impressions of youth and the ugly, but redeeming reality of humanity. Maybe King's most ambitious work, this enthralling epic's not just a horror classic, it stands among the noted works of contemporary literature in recent decades.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Forsyte Saga (The Forsyte Chronicles – 1st Trilogy) by John Galsworthy

My colleague Daniel’s review of the first book in this trilogy about the Forsyte family inspired me to read it and continue with the full trilogy, the books entitled “In Chancery” and “To Let”. Galsworthy, the author, takes you into his story gradually. The opening scene in the first book, “The Man of Property”, is of a Forsyte family gathering. As you meet the members, the family tree (provided in the front of the book) comes in handy, but the range of people across generations is a bit overwhelming at first. One has to remember that when Galsworthy wrote, people had a little more time to spare when they read a novel! But the book is so well-written and the characterization so subtle, that you are soon under its spell. No matter that some of the characters are proud and arrogant (Soames) and others inscrutable (Irene) - among the cast there is always someone whose plight touches your heart, and whose actions perfectly portray their random thoughts and intentions. The author sees the human desire to own something as cause for great folly, and beauty as its antidote, to be reveled in for its own sake, without trying to hold or possess it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If I could just say a few words . . .

Who hasn't run into the problem of standing up in a crowded room, intent upon delivering some rousing toast, only to realize how very bad you are at it. Here are a few helpful guides to ensure that your next impromptu oratory won't be met with an awkward silence.

Here's to You: Creating Your Own Meaningful Toast or Tribute for any Occasion / by Florence Isaacs
Longtime journalist and contributor to several noted womens magazines, Florence Isaacs has authored several books on the appropriate ways to give toasts, eulogies and introductions. Her latest book tells any would-be send-up novice exactly what should be said at birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or funerals. Whether your a son, daughter, mother, brother, co-worker or generic sympathizer, Isaacs' etiquette-first book gives the essentials of what, when and how to say to/about that special someone.

Can You Say a Few Words: How to Prepare and Deliver a Speech for any Special Occasion / by Joan Detz
Noted speechwriter within political circles and author of the well-known It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It, Detz is very straightforward with her advice on public speaking. Among her leading points, she stresses the ability to appraise the mood ("climate") in order to deliver the necessary rhetoric (i.e.,"Nobody ever sold anything by boring his audience to death", p151). This book is split into very concise sections, each geared towards tailored events and could be a quick-reference guide for someone in a hurry.

Start With a Laugh: An Insider's Guide to Roasts, Toasts, Eulogies and Other Speeches / by Liz Carpenter
"Welcome to Texas! Whether you arrive in Texas by birth, horseback, wagon train, jetliner, auto, or UFO, Texas is the kind of state that lets you belong to it..." (opening line of speech to Women's Newcomers Club of Austin, 1994). Liz Carpenter is well-known by Texans as the presidential secretary during LBJ's tenure in office and this book lets the reader in on why she was such an invaluable addition to the White House staff. Perhaps a more an example-minded reference with dozens of self-patented speeches by Carpenter, this book tells you what you need to know about, well, 'telling the audience what they need to know'.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Podium: The Speaker's Complete Guide to Great Jokes, Anecdotes and Stories / by Herbert V. Prochnow
Public speaking guru and author of The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest, Prochnow is the defacto person to go to when you can't think of an icebreaker. His new book is essentially a cataloged list of funny anecdotal one-liners and lead-ins intended for those desperate procrastinator's in need of some filler material. Seriously though, this is exactly what you need if you're about to toast someone (anyone) and are a total moron when it comes to public speaking.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Body Surfing / by Anita Shreve

Fortune hasn't exactly smiled on Sydney Sklar of late. At 29, she's been divorced once, widowed once and employed at several teaching jobs only to be left still contemplating her destiny. So when a unique opportunity courts her in the form of Julie Edwards, the beautiful but mildly-challenged daughter of a well-bred New England couple, Sydney sees nothing to lose. Hospitable people despite some characteristically WASPish airs, the family--Sydney in tow--is currently summering at their New Hampshire beach house where surf, sand and sea air provide a welcome break from routine, even more so when the Edwards' two sons--Ben(35) & Jeff(32)--arrive for weekend visits.

Both single yuppie-types, they make no pretense about their interest in Sydney whose amiability to both at first starts to favor Jeff as the summer progresses. As if reinforcing her convictions, even brief distractions like Julie's sudden disappearance fail to waver Sydney's strengthening feelings as, shortly after the girl's safe location, wedding plans are swiftly set in motion. Rejoicing for the happy couple is overshadowed by family tension, however, as restrained animosity between both brothers plus Mrs. Edwards' increasingly irritable behavior start to impose on the occasion. With Julie (legally 18) choosing to live separate from her parents, a steady stream of repressed emotion seeps into an already disquieted atmosphere, unleashing a tidal wave of bad blood by the story's end.

Anita Shreve is quite a well-known author in contemporary circles, penning bestsellers A Wedding in December, The Pilot's Wife and Weight of Water prior to Body Surfing. Exposited with extreme intuition, the author's focus remains largely on the predisposition(s) of Sydney's character, more or less negating any objective view of the Edwards clan. It's not long before the reader is lured into unsuspecting waters whereby some surprise bombshells promptly shake things up. Shreve's writing is esteemable enough and the story won't disappoint most readers even if some may be let down by the ending.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gung Ho (DVD) 1986 w/ Michael Keaton, Mimi Rogers, & Gedde Watanabe

Rust-belt America circa 1985. Even if no one's owning up to it, the heyday of American manufacturing is deteriorating. Not only are production methods outmoded, profit margins are declining as buyers and markets shift their interests overseas. Though circular reasoning might pin the problem on an insupportable American labor-force, there’s obviously more to the situation...Nowhere is the labor crisis more evident than Hadleyville, U.S.A. where a defunct automotive factory has left people jobless and hopeless until news of a new --foreign--contractor’s potential investment in the town raises spirits. Needing a labor representative to negotiate with corporation bigwigs, 'working joe' Hunt Stevenson is given the responsibility of meeting (and subsequently partnering) with the head office, even as he's totally clueless about all things Japanese and has even less managerial business sense. An insecure but optimistic Hunt nonetheless plows ahead with positive ambitions, delivering high-minded promises at both ends of the corporate spectrum in a desperate effort to make everyone happy. Only too late does Hunt realize how his shaky bargaining has endangered not only his livelihood, but the well-being of the hundreds of fellow workers as his lofty words just aren't panning out into like production numbers. Fortunately, Hunt's not alone in his trouble as he's paired with Oishi, his Japanese supervisor and cohort who'll be in worse trouble than Hunt is if the factory fails.

This movie was released to mixed reviews, drawing criticism for its weak supporting cast and pedestrian script. Yet it still merits attention nowadays for its intimate portrayal of international business relations at a time when the economic balance of power was shifting. Revealing the often grim underpinnings of mergers and acquisitions, the film observes the culture divide between East and West in very plain terms of labor habits, individual vs. group dynamics and project management. Michael Keaton as Hunt gave a great performance as the typical worker-friendly leader in an American work environment trying (and failing miserably) to embrace the Japanese mode of standards-driven performance. (DVD GUNG)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Feelings

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People / Maureen H. Hennessey, ed.

If ever an artist defied convention, it was not Norman Rockwell, whose ultra-contemporary portrayals of everyday life seeped into the national conscious during the ‘Greatest Generation’ era. A man whose work rarely featured anything but scenes from an idyllic mainstream, Rockwell’s art basically hinged on two things: nostalgia and charm. Children especially and family life in general were a favorite of Rockwell's whose representations of boyhood pastimes, little girl tea parties, and patriotic sympathy could hardly fail to bring a grin.

It was "The Saturday Evening Post" magazine which so readily delivered his artwork to the masses, the publication's covers featuring his clever caricatures for decades. Likely no other individual did more to secure the “good ol’ days” for those whose experiences during that time (1920-1960?) were at all worth remembering. Fans of the visual arts can't go wrong with this sample of his work, or any of the library's other seven Norman Rockwell books.