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.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction / by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'brien was an Army lieutenant during the Vietnam War. An infantry platoon leader, he was in on his fair share of up-close-and-personal enemy encounters as well as the often contradictory nature of "true" war stories. Among his other books, 'Things They Carried'--though fictional--re-creates the essence of a wartime atmosphere with unequaled clarity.

"A true war story is never moral." (p. 45)

A girl dancing in a bombed out village. Chamber music in the darkest, most isolated jungle. Boredom in the midst of gunfire. Not having the courage to run away from your fear. A man's death caused by his lieutenant's preoccupation with a girl thousands of miles off. Perhaps not the most characteristic depictions of the Vietnam War but "true" all the same. From the pages of this book, it's hard to believe there aren't more political assassinations. The most fervent nationalist angle could never reconcile the idiocy of going off somewhere, not to fight or employ 'diplomacy by other means', but to encounter death at such a level that ". . . you slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted or believed in." (p.212). It's not even as if Obrien's world, reconstructed within loosely linked vignettes of personally prevaricated reminisces, carries that much of an 'anti-war' sentiment. The book is more an observational blend of the disturbingly nondescript events which--dreadful as they were--reinvent the commonplace incidents that happen(ed) within a combat atmosphere. (FIC OBRIEN)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Blessings / by Anna Quindlen

A journalist for the New York Times, Anna Quindlen won a Pulitzer for her column "Public and Private" in 1992 just prior to becoming a full-time author. Blessings focuses on the intersecting lives of two isolated individuals when an infant girl is dropped at the doorstep of a wealthy widow.

In the wee hours of a summer morning, a teenage couple drives up to an unknown house, stopping only to leave a small object near the entrance before taking off again into the night. . .

Only 19, Skip Cuddy's already done time in the big house. Well, not exactly, more like ten months in the municipal jail and then only because he took the fall for a "friend" after a routine prank gone awry. Now back into things, his new life as caretaker of a large estate is no pie in the sky; but it could be worse, his dad might come around again.

The casualty of a bygone era, Lydia Blessing's no stranger to sadness. Its been years since the passing of her husband and she's steadily learned to accept the unalterable despondency inhabiting her secluded life. It's not that she misses him exactly, just that other life, that "before" life which had or seemed to have some semblance of taste, some substance at least to balance the creeping monotony at her gloomy New England estate house.


Blessings might capture the charm of 'cozy' fiction, but it's far more insightful than your prototypical domestic lit. A rare book that manages to balance sentiment and realism, it recognizes that imperfections continue and errors are repeated even with maturity of the characters. Sympathetic as they are, Lydia and Skip still epitomize everyday society (flawed) rather than resemble anything noble or distinguished. Smart and worldwise Skip lacks the experience to deal with adult-type issues while Lydia, as one confronted with repressed memories (masked by irascibility), sees her emotional void as a product of external circumstances rather than an internal inability to adapt. Not that there's much 'dark' about the book; heavy on compassion, the style--with its skillful prose--remains permanently sensitive to the reader, delivering the story at a steady pace eloquently interweaving descriptive narrative and genuine dialogue.