Friday, May 29, 2009

Shipwrecks & Treasure Troves

The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century / by Jonathan Miles
Arguably the worst shipwreck prior to the Titanic and certainly one of the most (in)famous sea disasters ever, the 1816 destruction of the French naval vessel Meduse was nothing if not a testament to the corruption and incompetence of man pitted against the forceful brutality of nature. The wreck and subsequent sinking of the ship near the west African coastline was only the beginning. What followed in the hours, days and weeks aboard the crew's one lifeboat and a makeshift life raft of 150 mutinied passengers would be one of the most excruciating survival experiences ever recorded. French author Miles accurately re-crafts the story of the most doomed voyage in the Age of Sail, not shying from the utterly deplorable accounts of barbarism, atrocity, mayhem and murder.
Sea Venture: Shipwreck, Survival and The Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World / Kieran Doherty
Few people familiar with the story of Jamestown, England's first New World colony, realize the particularly dire straits it experienced in its first formidable years of existence. Illness and harsh conditions had dwindled the burgeoning township of over 500 settlers to a meager 50 by the time rescue aid arrived onboard the cargo ship Sea Venture; and yet the ship's tale of perseverance through adversity had been as harrowing as that of the fledgling colony. Originally the flagship at the helm of 9 smaller frigates embarking for North America, all was nearly lost when a vicious storm obliterated the fleet, destroying all the subsidiary vessels and only sparing the Sea Venture when it washed ashore at Bermuda. Even then it would be a ten month hiatus before the voyage could successfully be re-engaged and the rescue mission completed. Doherty's fantastic narrative of this largely overlooked but incredibly important historical tidbit is a great read for anyone even remotely interested in America's earliest years.

Treasure Ship: The Legend and Legacy of the S.S. Brother Jonathan / by Dennis M. Powers
While the Civil War waged in the eastern United States, the Pacific coast remained largely uninvolved subsequently carrying on with routine matters. Gold was still an avid interest and prospectors, craftsmen and merchants continued unheeded with the business of trading the precious metal. So it was on July 30, 1865 that the S.S. Brother Jonathan, a steamer noted for its efficiency, was traveling north along the California coast with over $50 million in gold bullion when turbulent seas violently heaved it onto an uncharted reef. Only 19 of the ship's 247 passengers survived and the ship's remains along with its lucrative cargo were seemingly lost forever, a presumption upheld through several salvage efforts over the years until in 1993, amid a fluke expedition, the wreckage was discovered. Numerous adventurers, archaeologists and treasure hunters would descend to the site only to have their eager retrieval efforts jutted by a myriad of ensuing legal battles, political proceedings and lawsuits which would be ongoing for nearly a decade.

Treasure Hunt: Shipwreck, Diving and the Quest for Treasure in an Age of Heroes / by Peter Earle
Earle, bestselling author of The Pirate Wars, informs and entertains in this riveting account on the evolution and lasting romantic legacy of treasure hunting and the heralded adventurers who lustfully sought it out. From the early years when Spanish galleons and Dutch traders would trundle vast quantities of gold and jewels from the New World to the years immediately following when commercial voyages and pirates would earnestly seek out the same merchant vessels--sunken, shipwrecked or otherwise--and into the age when primitive diving equipment was employed to retrieve unsalvaged booty, this is a book that will delight fans of the true-adventure novel as well as anyone curious about the real history behind lost riches just waiting to be found. For a non-fiction compendium to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, this is a great read.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Blade Runner] / by Philip K. Dick

A scion in the Science Fiction realm, Philp K. Dick is one the genre's truly unique individuals, authoring over 30 novels and countless short stories all expanding the boundaries of modern literature. Like many gifted though unconventional writers, Dick's artistic vision has come into the public conscience via Hollywood; most notably with Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner based on Dick's futuristic dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The movie quickly became a cult hit and is still unanimously praised as a cinematic masterpiece.
In a world ravaged by nuclear war and the military-industrial complex, life in the purely organic sense has become almost obsolete. While advancements in science have helped preserve much of humanity, plants and animals are all but extinct. With radiation fallout imminent, humans meeting certain requirements are routinely encouraged to emigrate to fledgling colonies on Mars where, as an added incentive, each is paired with a servant android, or "andy".
Though androids are manufactured robots indistinguishable from humans, each are programmed with enough innate intellectual capacities to simulate psychological sensitivities, a condition giving rise to renegade behavior and rogue droids clandestinely infiltrating earth's population. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter in charge of rounding up and "retiring" six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, some of the most advanced and therefore most threatening forms of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile truck driver John Isidore, labeled a "special" for defective medical problems, deals with being relegated as substandard within the human realm and subsequently being denied potential emigration to the more desirable planetary colonies.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is ultimately a book about what it means to be human; and, furthermore, man's exploitation of technology at the expense of nature. From Deckard's personal war against the droids to the irony of John Isidore's "special" qualities and planet earth's post-apocalyptic decrepitude, it's a story emphasizing the contradictory atmosphere of "real life". Man's dissident caretaking of the natural world and the faulty side-effects of man-made innovations hold staggering consequences. Rather than improving on the inadequacies of existence, technology has wrought the demise of "life" in the purest sense; and while humanity has survived, the biological world is a mere degenerate habitat now infested by man's own 'personal recreations'.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption / by William "Cope" Moyers w/ Katherine Ketcham

Many people have long enjoyed the groundbreaking work of broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. His pleasant mannerisms, classy personal skills and poignant insights have always been highly esteemed whether the topic be politics, cultural analysis or grassroots domestic issues. So it was somewhat a surprise and a disappointment that a man so linked to old fashioned family values could have a son, William "Cope" Moyers, who while demonstrating admirable qualities much like his father's on the outside, was actually a lifelong junkie with a relentless crack/cocaine habit. Absolutely nothing was known about the Cope's problem until he was well into his 30's, having established a reputable career as a Washington, D.C. journalist and married over a decade to an unsuspecting wife and father to a toddler son.
Even after the secret was 'broken' to his family in 1994, it would be a grueling 7-year path to sobriety, compacted with numerous relapses, methodone treatments and stints in rehab, not to mention several heartbreaking counter-reactions from those closest to him. Ultimately Moyers would find and maintain a full recovery only after permanately discarding all pride, dishonesty and personal dignity, a theme clearly identified in the memoir as utter "brokenness". His own words say it best, "Sobriety couldn't just be a part of me--it had to be me, become me, overtake me . . . If I lost it, I would have nothing because I would be nothing." (p. 332). Cope Moyers is now vice-president of the Hazeldon foundation which advocates better facilitation and treatment for addicts in dire need of recovery just like himself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Maxed Out on the Half-Pipe: Skateboarding Books

Scarred for Life: Eleven Stories About Skateboarders / by Keith David Hamm
This book hits the streets with the skaters--both famous and obscure--who've carved their paths on the asphalt, covering over four decades of the thrasher lifestyle from its West Coast origins to its embodiment as a youth movement and on to its glorified X-games status. Complete with pics and personal quotes of real-life street legends like Steve Alba, Tony Caballeros and Jen O'Brien, Scarred for Life gives a authentic history of skateboarding, its cultural impact and the icons who made it what it is today.

Skater Girl: A Girls Guide to Skateboarding / by Patty Segovia & Rebecca Heller
A very all-inclusive guide to skating as it applies to the fairer sex, this book lets you in on everything about female participation in what's predominately considered a male-friendly activity. With advice on choosing the right board to safety gear as well as what shoes to buy, where to skate and pile-driving on the half-pipe, this book tells girls all they need to know about skateboarding and skate culture, striking down any pre-conceived notions on what can and can't be done.
Stalefish: Skateboard Culture From the Rejects Who Made It / by Sean Mortimer; w/ a foreword by Tony Hawk
Before YouTube, the only way to gauge who could really shred on a board was to attend contests where legends like Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi and Stacy Peralta routinely displayed their skills. As these contests increased in attendance, the events became more celebrated, the tricks more daring and the sport more popular. It was a time when skateboarding bonded with aspects of music and youth culture to become the phenomenon it is today. Through a variety of sources and feedback Stalefish describes the transformation of skateboarding, its emergence from the back alleys and playgrounds, its social trendsetting, tie-ins to popular culture, and legacy as not just a sport but a 'lifestyle'.

Skateboarding: Ramp Tricks / by Evan Goodfellow
A veteran skateboarder and ramp enthusiast, Goodfellow offers a few well-explained tips for beginners, all of which are illustrated with in-action photographs. While it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that ramp boarding (and pretty much all of skateboarding in general) is potentially dangerous, Goodfellow outlines several helpful hints and guidelines which can limit those inevitable cuts and scrapes. He also offers a few construction techniques which might help any amateur carpenters and novice craftsmen in fabricating their own backyard ramp or half-pipe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beyond Eden / by Catherine Coulter

Lindsay Foxe has had a rough go of things. Daughter of the prestigious but pompous San Francisco Judge Royce Foxe, she's been overlooked in place of her older, more glamorous step-sister Sydney all her life. When, at 18, she's viciously raped by her brother-in-law and falsely blamed for seducing him, Lindsay's informally cut off and forced to relocate from her family. Her alienation takes on a literal form when she resolves to take on a new name and profile; "Eden", as she's now called, begins her new life alone in New York City.

Kismet can be kind as well as cruel, however, and Eden soon lands a job as a model, giving her life new meaning as she takes part in the exciting world of fashion and glamour. Opportunities in her newfound career offer the chance to meet many new, exciting people; but also some creepy characters. When Eden suspects she's being stalked, a private investigator is hired for additional security. The man, Taylor, is a former cop and part time computer troubleshooter who's abrasive mannerisms catch Eden off guard initially. But after some misadventures involving a would-be predator where her personal safety's jeopardized, Eden's more than relieved to have the dashing Taylor by her side. Soon things between the two settle into a trusting, solidified relationship, one Eden could have only dreamt of before hand.
Catherine Coulter is one of the leading 'names' in the genre of Romance fiction, having penned a plethora of Regency and Historical romance series prior to her foray into romantic suspense thrillers. It's a book which will delight true fans of the romance genre; its fast-moving plot, melodramatic backdrop and delicately sensitive heroine providing what romance readers have always treasured.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jaws / by Peter Benchley

Amity Island is a tourist town. Year-long residents number out at approximately 1,000 while its summer population is annually 15,000 mostly native New Yorkers--"summer people"--vacationing at their Long Island beach homes. Despite this yearly swell, year-rounders have it hard financially, often barely breaking even and finding themselves desperately dependent on tourist season. So when, over the course of three days, 5 people are attacked and killed by a shark, the unthinkable happens: the authorities close the beaches indefinitely
Though mayhem over the situation on land ensues, Police Chief Martin Brody knows that it's nothing compared to the savage fury and carnage the shark, a Great White, would continue to perpetrate if the beaches were left open because even as no one's actually seen the beast, few doubt its ferocity and the un-likelihood of its departure from Amity's shore while food is still 'provided'. Left with few alternatives, Brody and two other men, both well-aware of the shark's destructive capacities, embark on seemingly their only other option: hunt down the beast down and kill it.

Already respected for several previous novels, Peter Benchley's Jaws was a best-seller upon publication, meriting even further approval after Stephen Spielberg brought his own personalized version to the screen. While perhaps not as visually dynamic as the movie, its a book recognizable for its vivid descriptions of a small town, its residents and a monster of indescribable power. Benchley manages to generate a very viable and imminent threat while maintaining a genuine realism amid a frenzy of panic and upheaval. Subtly he shows how an inhuman presence deftly seeps through into the human conscience, culminating in a fatal conclusion on both literal and figurative levels. Subplots and side stories like the tenuous relationship of year-rounders vs. "summer people", the town chairman's dubious dealings with loan 'sharks' and the love triangle between Chief Brody, his wife and scientist Matt Hooper give the book a well-rounded sense of just how volatile the situation is. (FIC BENCHLEY)

"The Pickwick Papers" (DVD) 1985 / a TV-miniseries directed by Jack Davies & Brian Lighthill

From London's narrow alleyways to the pastoral serenity of the countryside and spilling over into quaint village inns and taverns, The Pickwick Papers is the resplendent work of a young Dickens at his best. Enamored with all the trademark elements which set him among history's greatest writers, the novel follows the inimitable Samuel Pickwick, a gentleman among gentlemen, and his charming group of friends--The Pickwick Club--along on their wistful travels; the group's indelible spirit, though beset by deceitful charlatans, dubious lawmen and misadventures of the sporting kind, remaining forever optimistic.
Masterfully applied to the small screen is the BBC's extraordinary rendering of this classic tale starring Nigel Stock, Patrick Malahide and Phil Daniels. This is how Dickens (and all established literature) should be done: true to the author's original vision yet diversified and segmented just enough to allow the actors time to effectually "become" the characters. It could well be said that Stock, a career supporting actor, was born to play the portly Pickwick. No small task was the role either, Samuel Pickwick is one of Dickens' truly special people. Sustained by the affection of loyal friends and constancy of his dutiful servant Sam, Mr. Pickwick is a man with a heart as big as his paunch and an unwavering certainty in the inherent 'good' of every man--convictions upheld despite numerous instances of affrontery, tribulation, betrayal and disappointment.

While central to the drama is Stock's marvelous portrayal of Pickwick, it's Daniels and Malahide, servant Sam and swindler Alfred Jingle respectively, who almost steal the show in their supporting roles. Though each's on-screen time is marginal, it's effective enough to earn awestruck approval of viewers. Daniels' inhabitation of the charismatic Sam, with his cockney charm and neverending supply of clever witticisms, could effectively stand alone as an independent story while the dexterous Malahide's embodiment of the garish, artful and fast-talking Jingle is a near-majestic performance. Still as breathtaking nearly 25 years since the original broadcast, "Pickwick Papers" is a lasting indication that you scarcely need lofty production values and 'names' to create a masterpiece. (DVD PICKWICK)