Saturday, January 31, 2009

Author and Poet John Updike

Many readers will be familiar with the late John Updike whose body of work over the last half of the twentieth century has merited boat loads of recognition from both publishers and critics. Unanimously praised for his articulate exposition and fine prose, it's ironic how much of his fiction is restricted to the small towns and rural portions of the American northeast. The winner of two Pulitzers, Updike was also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine where his keen eye for satire and sentimentality entertained devoted fans for years.

Rabbit, Run (1960)
When 26-year-old Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was in high school, he ruled the roost as a star on the basketball team. In those days, Harry imagined life as promising and adventurous, his wistful ambitions fully within reach as he faced an anticipated future. But now, after having married his then sweetheart Janice, he feels the fullness of personal disillusionment as a husband and father to his two-year-old son and in his job as a door-to-door salesman of kitchen gadgets. Knowing only that he must get out from under his situation, Harry embarks on a series of loosely planned alternatives to the life he now lives. Updike's first widely-recognized novel was revered upon its first publication for its dramatic interpretation of suburban angst in America, a condition ironically meshing well with the period and individuals in similar circumstances on a widespread scale. Rabbit, Run was followed by four sequels over the next several years--Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich & Rabbit At Rest. (FIC UPDIKE)

The Centaur (1963)
George Caldwell is a man going through the motions. A schoolteacher in rural Pennsylvania, he's essentially tuned out to the world around him. It's a world which includes his distant wife Cassie, his artistically-minded son Peter and classes of his students who seem wholly obtuse to George or anything he might have to say. What little comfort he derives from his humdrum existence is only through nostalgic memories of his once eventful and somewhat glamourized youth. Updike's most autobiographical novel and a book with the revolving themes of mental escape and grand ambition, 'Centaur' figuratively identifies the novel's characters with names from Greek Mythology, specifically the gods and goddesses associated with the myth of the Centaur Chiron whose immortality was sacrificed to free Prometheus. (FIC UPDIKE)

The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
Their lives ruined by former husbands and male counterparts, three women--Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart and Sukie Rougemont--bond together as single ex-wives in the small New England town of Eastwick. Their ameliorative union manifests more than just a solid friendship, however, as a each's newfound "gifts" in the realm of the black arts suddenly unveils an entirely new world. Enthralled by their exciting new powers, the threesome seeks to gain the upper-hand over the male sex (and with life in Eastwick in general) only to have their plans interrupted by the devilish Darryl Van Horne who, as it turns out, has plans of his own. Van Horne's charm is soon able to seduce all three women, after which he subsequently enters into a mutually 'loose' relationship with each inciting scandal in the town and ultimate dissension inside the love quadrangle. The situation becomes further embroiled when Van Horne starts courting the young (and innocent) Jenny Gabriel, a longtime friend and associate of Sukie's, whose subsequent move into Van Horne's extravagant home sparks an uproar among his former lovers. Embittered over Van Horne's abrubt dismissal of them in place of a monogamous relationship with Jenny, Alex, Jane and Sukie ultimately decide that revenge is only too necessary. (FIC UPDIKE)

Terrorist (2006)
Updike’s most recent novel centers on the modern age of terrorism and its implications on domestic life in America. A New Jersey resident and son of an absent Muslim father, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a lonely American teenager currently questioning the contradictions of his firm Islamic convictions with the blatantly secularized world around him. Under constant harassment at school and publicly scrutinized around his hometown of New Prospect, Ahmad’s only solace is found in the passages of his daily Qu’ran readings at his mosque where his mentor, Shaikh, furthers Ahmad’s beliefs towards radical fundamentalism. As time passes, Ahmad moves on from his school days and takes a job as a truck driver, an occupation presenting the opportunity for what he feels may be his ultimate destiny. (FIC UPDIKE)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Crazy School / by Cornelia Read

26-year-old Madeline Dare may be a former debutante, but she’s hardly living a glamorous lifestyle currently as a history teacher at an alternative boarding school in western Massachusetts. An institution for at-risk kids and--in Madeline's case--court appointed teachers, much of her time at the Santangelo Academy is spent keeping her mentally disturbed pupils from going off in expectantly unpredictable ways. Still she’s popular with the kids, her toned-down rebellious streak and neverending supply of 60's reminisces (book is set in 1989) never failing to resonate with students, and warrant some backbiting from the other, less-liked faculty in the process.

When a student, Fay Perry, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend Mooney LaChance, Madeline is the only one to know of their predicament just prior to both kids sudden and shocking death by poisoning. Despite the hush-hush attitude assumed by the school’s eccentric headmaster, David Santangelo, along with much of the faculty, Madeline knows something’s amiss and becomes determined to have the truth realized even if it means being implicated in the ongoing investigation. Of course her part-time sleuthing’s not so popular with everyone, evident when certain "accidents" start to befall Madeline at seemingly every turn. Finding herself in too deep to back out now, Madeline must fight not only solve the mystery of the poisoned teens, but to clear her name and preserve her reputation in the process.

Cornelia Read's second Madeline Dare novel dishes out some serious attitude accompanying its heroine as she strives to peg the real menace at Santangelo Academy. Along the way, she encounters some particularly disturbing, off-the-wall characters at what could almost pass as a halfway house for the underaged. It's a place where curious, compelling and downright dangerous episodes are merely an on-the-job hazard. It's also what makes this a perfect 'read' (no pun intended) for fans of whodunit capers and amateur sleuth novels. (MYS READ)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Problem of Pain / by C.S. Lewis

Best known for his popular Narnia novels, C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis was also renowned for his accumulation of Christian Apologetic works, compiling an impressive body of speeches, letters, diatribes and exegesis' during his time as a tenured Oxford professor. First published in 1941, The Problem of Pain deals with the existensialist dilemna of suffering in the midst of an omnipotent and benevolent creator.

Most rationally-minded individuals will acknowledge that man in the state of nature indelibly experiences suffering (meant to imply privation of pleasure), whether through bodily discomfort, mental strain or emotional distress, at varying levels during the span of one's lifetime. But what is the nature of such a contradictory symptom of existence, especially in relation to theological doctrines of an ordered universe and sovereign deity? As intuitive and articulate as he was, Lewis rarely lent the individual the benefit of the doubt; and this occasion was no different as the 'problem of pain' isn't so much about a 'problem' as it is about frame of reference.

Contrary to opinions voiced by contemporary psychologists, therapists and popular evangelicals, Lewis remains decidedly more metaphysical (read: abstract) when confronting this particular issue. His dissertation, while reflecting notions passed on by Aristotle--"To perceive is to suffer", or even Kant whose treatment of happiness depended largely on man's morality, conceives that inherent suffering not only exists and serves a purpose, but is a necessity in proliferating the dogmatic principles of redemption and eternal life. Dissecting the issue from a broad-minded, almost cosmic view of 'pain' as universal tribulation in biological existence, he progresses into the realm of contemporary experience only after firmly establishing the basis for man's predilection toward such stimulus. Within the context of pain as personal affliction, persons undergo pain not as a by-product of individual weakness or frailty, nor to necessarily augment positive experience, but, in part, to further realize omnipotent "love" for what it is--perfected love. "Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere 'kindness' which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect at the opposite pole from Love . . ." (p.61). (231.8 LEWIS)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Unprofessionals by Julie Hecht

This is Julie Hecht’s first novel, after two collections of short stories “Happy Trails to You” and “Do the Windows Open?”. She first wrote for the New Yorker magazine, and “The Unprofessionals” fits their brand of fiction – quirky, sophisticated and unsentimental. I was reminded of Joan Didion’s “Play it as it Lays” when I read this book, except that Hecht has a lighter touch – you feel the characters’ distress but not acutely, since the writer presents her thoughts in a self-disparaging kind of way. The “unprofessionals” are the book’s narrator, a photographer in her 50’s, and her best friend, a young man of 21 who is like a soul mate to her. They both struggle to find meaning in their life but are so sensitive to inconsistencies and ugly surroundings in modern America that their only solace from it is to share their insights with each other on the details of meaninglessness or irony around us. Hecht is very good at finding things like that in our surroundings – she describes an all-night supermarket in L.A., but it could be the same store anywhere, with banal music piped in, and parking lot cleaning trucks being driven recklessly outside. But Hecht's narrator is not setting herself above us, since she can barely manage life’s details, and her friend doesn’t do much better by experimenting with drugs and ending up in rehab. When so many people are searching for balance through diet and meditation and pharmaceutical drugs, this is a book relevant to what ails us, although with no pointers to head us in a different direction.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Serial Killer Investigations: the Story of Forensics and Profiling through the Hunt for the World's Worst Murderers

"Society wants to believe it can identify evil people, or bad or harmful people, but it's not practical. There are no stereotypes . . . The thing is, some people are just psychologically less ready for failure than others." -- Ted Bundy.

Whether grotesquely intriguing or singularly chilling, serial murder cases and serial killers have long held a fascination with the public, even as they contribute to less than 1 percent of murders committed annually. Infamous serial murderers from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer have invariably found their way into the spotlight, often remaining notorious cult phenomenon long after trials and executions have put an end to things. As bizarre as so many cases involving serial murderers have been (e.g., Manson Family), could there be a trait which distinguishes them all? What, if any, are the conditions or characteristics which give rise to such destructive antisocial behavior? And what evidence is there from past cases which could aid criminologists and forensic pathologists now?

In as concise a volume of facts, interviews and evidence as has ever been available on some of the world's most nefarious villains, Wilson details how each were tracked, caught and convicted, highlighting the ever-evolving investigative techniques which have been employed and extracted in the process. So just what is the common denominator? Is there one? It's all contained within as some of history's most notorious, cold-blooded murderers are scrutinized, analyzed and profiled; all rendering police detectives, federal investigators and behavioral psychologists with vital information for the present day. (364.152 WILSON)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Know How to Operate: Writing Your Own Business Plan

How to Write a Business Plan / by Mike McKeever
If you're unsure about all things entrepeneurial and want some introductory-level info on how to get going with your own start-up biz, this is a great all around resource. Providing examples and outlines pertaining to exactly what steps should be taken as well as which format and structure to employ, this official NOLO handbook contains the essential guidelines along with some beneficial advice for just what you need. (658.15224 MCKEEVER)

The Entrepeneur's Guide to Writing Small Business Plans and Proposals / K. Dennis Chambers
A writing coach as well as small business owner, Chambers advocates the "value proposition", or the "what's in it for them" angle, when constructing a business plan or proposal. The use of persuasive, succinct rhetoric is the key to obtaining a loan, getting financial backing or closing on a contract--no matter what type of venture you may be involved with. Even if strictly used for proposal ideas and language orientation, this is a great book for anyone needing help with getting their business plan on track, especially when it comes to writing down what you want to say (and what you want your audience to understand). (658.4012 CHAMBERS)

The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan / by Timothy Berry
You know the saying, right, "we'll cross that bridge . . .". While it's not quite as laid back as that, Berry's book takes a very non-traditional approach to business planning, stating that an "evolving" business plan may work best for your intended operation. This informal manner of entrepeneurship hinges on the necessity for established project identity and market timing, without which your objectives will suffer and adjustments won't be enough to maintain stability. The book is very user friendly and Berry's easy manner of explanation provides some helpful hints. (658.401 BERRY)

Business Plans that Work: For Your Small Business / Alice H. Magos, ed.
As a division of the Toolkit Media Group which sponsors a series of small business resources, this book provides several example plans ranging from one-person start-ups to multiple party proprietorships. Also, in addition to its practical, user friendly orientation, the text is very up-to-date on the current financial by-laws and market regulations. Anyone desiring a quick-reference guide for a specific plan or proposal should take a glance at this book. (658.4012 MAGOS)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alex & Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg

“Alex taught us how little we know about animal minds and how much more there is to discover.” Here, in a nutshell, scientist and researcher Irene Pepperberg sums up the impact of her 30 years work with the African Grey parrot, Alex. The book starts at the ending, detailing the outpouring of love and sympathy which Pepperberg received after Alex’s untimely death. Since Alex had substantial press and TV coverage throughout his life, his influence was widespread. The book tells us about how difficult it was for Pepperberg to get serious recognition for her work with Alex, since the idea of parrots having enough brains to “speak” and not just “mimic” language was not accepted by the scientific establishment. Her struggles and Alex’ struggles also (with boredom, with frustration, with sickness) make for an interesting read. Pepperberg explains her language goals with Alex and allows us to witness his full-fledged (no pun intended) communication of moods and intent, along with evidence of problem-solving activity. While the author keeps reminding us that birds are not humans, and we shouldn’t mistake them as such, Alex’s comments and behavior seem to add up to a unique and lovable personality. If nothing else, the book is further proof of what an amazing world this is, with such creatures in it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hornet Flight / by Ken Follett

In 1941 it's looking dour for allied partisans in the Nazi occupied country of Denmark. 18-year-old Harald Olufsen is a prominent physics student on the cusp of an illustrious career when the War interferes with his schooling. Angry with indignation at his lot and his helplessness to aid in ridding his country of the pompous enemy soldiers, Harald's time away from school quickly heats up when he discovers a mysterious military installation near his remote island home. Dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to facilitate anything in such an isolated location, Harald thinks little of it until his test pilot brother, Arne, and Arne's English fiance Hermia indicate it might serve as a secret radar station, one that may be pivotal in the war overhead between the Luftwaffe and British RAF.

Meanwhile in London's military intelligence office, Digby Hoare has been investigating why so many British planes are being disproportionately lost to the enemy, particularly at night and particularly in the North Sea over Norway and Denmark. Everyone including Winston Churchill has been heavily monitoring Digby's progress; yet despite working around the clock, little has been gathered as to why so many planes are being shot down. Now Digby's only hope may be his fledgling field agent Hermia covertly operating in Denmark.When Arne is killed suddenly in an accidental rendezvous with Nazi aircraft, Harald can no longer take being kept away from the action. Together with his new Jewish friend Karen Duschwitz and further assistance through Hermia's connections to Digby Hoare and British Intelligence, Harald embarks on a mission of extraordinary daring to relay info on the radar station safely into the hands of the Allies.

Suspense author Ken Follett has penned a number of historical and military thrillers over the years, long entertaining his countless fans with riveting tales of international intrigue and wartime drama. Hornet Flight is no exception. Follett's heroic tale of adventure, espionage and the world at war is a nonstop suspense thriller complete with noble characters, admirable motives and plot twists. Even the budding romance between Harald and Karen blends nicely in to the fabric of the story. Recommended for anyone interested in aviation, military and historical fiction or just a fun time. (FIC FOLLETT)

Monday, January 5, 2009

New skills for the New Year

The experts' guide to doing things faster : 100 ways to make life more efficient / Created by Samantha Ettus

I had the best time flipping through this book. It is a collection of 2-5 page articles about how to do all sorts of things faster and more efficiently, from teaching your dog to sit to the correct way to iron a pair of pants to making yourself memorable to others . My favorite was a tie between the one on how to do mental math more quickly and the article on how to make yourself get up out of bed in the morning.

All of the articles are written by experts on their topic, and the book includes a brief biography of each of the authors. Some names you will recognize (Colin Cowie, Laura Mercier), others haven't published before. You won't be surprised at all of the advice -- odds are you heard some of it from your mom -- but there are some new ideas tucked in here, and the short little chapters make it easy to flip around to the topics that interest you. I was amazed (and sometimes delighted) that someone had put that much thought into some of these topics (how to make someone feel good, how to chop vegetables). Definitely a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Winesburg, Ohio / by Sherwood Anderson

Few writers have captured the conscious of small town America as uniquely as Sherwood Anderson. His 1916 novel Winesburg, Ohio was described by John Updike as “feverish, phantasmal and dreamlike . . . a veritable cross-section of Midwestern life”. Similar in scope to Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town" or even Joyce’s Dubliners, Anderson’s fictional Winesburg is a string of loosely interconnected short stories centering on several of the community’s more prominent (and not-so-prominent) figures.

“That’s how it’ll be. That’s how everything’ll turn out.”

20-year-old George Willard wants to write. Louise Drunnion wants a husband. Farmer Jesse Bentley wants his grandson to see things his way. Tom Foster wants another drink and Seth Richmond just wants to be left alone. All want something other than what their quiet Midwestern town of Winesburg, Ohio has to offer. Because in 1890’s America, Winesburg is still an agrarian society, a world of farming and dependence on the soil far removed from the progressive industry and accelerated pace of cosmopolitan metropolises. Little in the way of lifestyle has changed in the last 150 years. How each person manifests his and her own destiny is not just a personalized endeavor, but an enterprise reflecting the conscious and collective temperament of the entire town. Quiet desperation looms like a fog over everything, giving rise to indiscretions, misunderstandings and personal tragedies; unintended for the most part, but disheartening all the same.

Seamlessly does Anderson weave together his microcosm of 19th century American life and yet his world is one which could exist anywhere at anytime. Because, as Anderson demonstrates, all persons must encounter the human condition in one form or another. In Winesburg, though honorable and even noble ambitions aspire within each character, misfortune and disillusionment are realized as the common fate, an inevitable conclusion for anyone mercilessly thrown underfoot of carnal temptations and personal passions. (FIC ANDERSON)