Friday, June 2, 2006

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin played a prominent role in the early development and establishment of the United States of America, and is renowned for being a shrewd politician, witty writer, inquisitive scientist, and ingenious inventor. Most of us know about Franklin from the schoolbooks we read as children, but never really study his contributions to the country outside of that setting. For anyone who wants to learn more about one of the most extraordinary men of the past few centuries, I suggest checking out Franklin's Autobiography.

Many of today's politicians pen autobiographies, and in fact, it's becoming something of a tradition that former presidents publish theirs within a few years of leaving the White House. But back in Franklin's time, the practice wasn't as widespread. As a result, readers of his Autobiography aren't getting the highly edited, polished, and ghostwritten pieces that we see on the shelves today. If you're expecting Franklin's book to be a chronological retelling of his life from birth to old age, then you'll be sorely disappointed in this work.

Indeed, Franklin didn't even write his Autobiography with the intent that it would be published. He was actually writing it for the benefit of his son William, and wanted the book to serve as something of a guideline or advice manual for William to refer to throughout his own life. As a result, the reader is privy to Franklin's pure, unadulterated thoughts and musings. The look back on his life as a young adult is both frank and heartwarming, and sheds greater insight into Franklin's personality than any history book ever could do.

Franklin opens the book by explaining to William that he, Benjamin, has always enjoyed reading about his own ancestors, and hopes that William can someday derive the same pleasure from reading Franklin's words. He then talks a bit about his father, mother, and siblings (Franklin was the 15th out of a total of 17 children), as well as a few episodes from his childhood that reveal the beginnings of his studious personality. As a modern reader, and someone who is not particularly interested in history or genealogy, I found this part of the Autobiography to be fairly slow going. I had trouble making it through these chapters and actually but the book aside for a number of weeks until I convinced myself to continue slogging through. I would advise you to do the same, because the payoff really is worth it.

As with most people who go on to do great things with their lives, there were several important incidents in Franklin's childhood that would serve to shape his future actions. For instance, Franklin was apprenticed to a printer's shop at the age of 12. This not only gave him a chance to acquire a respectable skill that would help him earn a living later in life, but also gave him the opportunity to read pamphlets, newspapers, and other items that might not otherwise have fallen into his hands. Some of the things he read, including The Spectator, would even give him a writing style to try to emulate.

The printing business (as well as writing) would of course play a major role throughout Franklin's entire life. The Autobiography tells us how and why Franklin started printing pamphlets on his own, and how these activities eventually get him noticed by some very important people.

In addition to telling William about his working life during these early years of adulthood, Franklin also delves into a lot of personal items. For example, we find out that Franklin was something of a troublemaker in his youth, and liked to spend his money on food, drink, and women whenever he had the chance.

But we also see another side of Franklin, one that yearns for self-improvement. In the pages of the Autobiography, readers can clearly see that Franklin constantly strives to be a better person. Towards that end, he was always trying various experiments, such as getting up at a certain time in the morning, having a set schedule that he tried to follow religiously, and consciously trying to perform virtuous deeds every single day. He also tried to eat only one meal per day in an effort to free up some extra time for other things, but soon gave that up as impracticable.

It's important to note that Franklin's Autobiography doesn't say anything about his role in the American Revolution or in the establishment of the United States as a new nation independent of British rule. These are arguably the most critical times of Franklin's life, yet they aren't given any coverage in the book. But just remember that Franklin never intended his Autobiography to be as comprehensive as those we are used to seeing now, and he never expected the book to be printed for mass distribution. It should also be pointed out that Franklin kept copious notes and journals about those events, but just never had the time (nor, perhaps, the inclination) to add those to his Autobiography.

Overall, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating look into the private life of one of America's earliest public figures. Although I found both the beginning and end of the book to be a bit boring and uninteresting, the work taken as a whole is certainly worth reading. It's a very short book as far as autobiographies go, especially when you consider how much Franklin did during his lifetime. It won't take a very big time commitment to make it through the book, so read it today!

The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, by Dan Brown

By Christina VanGinkel

Everyone it seems is talking about the book, The DaVinci Code, by author Dan Brown these days. I had read the book a couple of years ago when it was first released, after reading the first book detailing the exploits of the book's main character, Robert Langdon, in Angels & Demons, several years before that. I have since read and listened to a lot of hype from both Catholics and others offended by some of the mentioned references to past and present church going ons. However, then and now, my main thing that I liked about the book was how it had the sense to draw the reader into the story, with details of famous paintings, sculptures, and architecture around the globe.

The story line itself tells the tale of Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor who teaches on such subjects as religious symbology. When he is awakened by the concierge at his hotel at 2am in the morning, with a request that someone wants to meet with him, he is not at alarmed at first. That is until he realizes the police are who want to talk to him, and the curator of the Louvre, whom he was to meet with earlier in the evening, but had not shown up, is now dead, apparently the victim of a murder. The victim had time before he died though, to leave behind some very cryptic clues that soon have Mr. Langdon on the run, along with the curator's granddaughter, trying to solve both the crime at hand, another one centuries old, and at the same time, prove his own innocence.

Upon my first reading of The DaVinci Code, I can recall pulling out other books that I had on my bookshelf, or turning to my computer's search engine, to look up some of the very paintings and other artifacts that were being discussed and referenced in the pages of the story. I also remember thinking that it sure would be nice if the publishers had included a few pictures of the very detailed subjects that the author delved into, right in the pages of the book itself. Lo and behold, I am now the owner of a copy of The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition.

This illustrated version has photographs of everything from a chalice belt, a medieval form of self torture to remind the wearer to keep their thoughts pure at all times, to pictures of the Louvre museum inside and out, including the stunning pyramid that was added in the not too distant past. Most helpful to the reader though, are many of the famous paintings and statues that are referenced in the pages of the book. There are snapshots of buildings, line drawings, and more, all lending a layer to the story that was lacking in the version that is not illustrated.

The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, is available in both hardcover and soft cover. I opted for the soft cover, paperback version, but for those of you who would prefer a hardcover edition, they would make a fine addition to your personal library, especially if this is a book that like me, you plan to keep. I chose the paperback version simply due to the few dollars that I would save over the cost of the comparable hardcover edition. When one buys as many books a year as I do, and are on as strict a budget as I am, the dollar savings of a soft cover edition over a hardcover can really add up. The best part of this particular book is also that there is not a big enough difference between the two to make it worth paying the extra, beyond personal preference. The paperback edition is made with a sturdy cover with a flap that can be used to mark your page as you read even. It will hold up to repeated readings well, and I imagine that this book will be on my shelf for many years to come.

If you have read The DaVinci Code, and plan to read it again, or have yet to read it for the first time, I would highly recommend that you buy The DaVinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, as it has a lot to offer the reader visually.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards

One of the most beloved books in my personal book collection is a young adult book called "Mandy". It is written by an author named Julie Edwards-- an author that you may think you never heard of, until you look at the book jacket to see that Julie Edwards is really the award winning actress Julie Andrews (of 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Sound of Music' fame). Recent editions of the book have her author's name as Julie Andrews Edwards.

The book is a beautifully written account of a lonely child named Mandy. Mandy lives at an orphanage called St. Ann's and although there are dozens of other children that live there, Mandy prefers to surround herself with animals and nature. She is a creative little girl-- and also a little bit adventurous.

Mandy works at a small local grocery store every Saturday-- presumably to earn pocket change to buy art supplies like paints and paper. Because Mandy is one of the older children at the orphanage, she attends school at a local school outside of the orphanage. On her trips back and forth to school, as she walks through the beautiful country, Mandy dreams of what it would be like to live out there. Although the orphanage is a pleasant place and the head matron and all of the staff are very kind to her, Mandy longs for a real family and a life outside of the orphanage.

Mandy was fascinated by the big stone wall that surrounded the orphanage. She often wondered what was on the other side--and one day her curiosity gets the best of her. She carefully climbs the stone wall and breathlessly looks at what lay before her: hundreds of trees, and a little path that led to who knew where. Mandy decides to follow the path to see where it will take her.

It is then that she stumbles upon a run down little cottage. Mandy is enthralled with her find and even though the cottage is old and the windows are broken, she decides to take it under her wing and make it her own. She begins using her grocery store earnings to buy supplies to take care of her little house--a broom, cleaning supplies, some tea and food. She also begins taking small items from the orphanage, telling herself that it really wasn't stealing and that she was just borrowing the items. She stocks the tiny cupboards with tea cups, dishes, and other essential items. She decides to plant and tend to her own little garden over at the cottage property. And when it's time to trim the hedges at the cottage, Mandy even "borrows" some heavy garden shears from the orphanage gardener.

It is hard for Mandy to keep her cottage a secret. She finds herself lying to the head matron about her whereabouts. She also has to keep her secret from her best friend sand roommate at the orphanage, Sue, because even though she loves Sue dearly, Sue would never be able to keep such a big secret to herself. It is hard for Mandy as she lives her "double life".

It is after a while that Mandy notices another presence around her secret cottage. It is apparent that someone else has been visiting her little cottage when she is not there. And one day she comes to find a note from a secret admirer.

It becomes somewhat of a mystery this point, as Mandy (and the reader) tries to figure out who the anonymous admirer is. When Mandy is confined to the orphanage after the head matron questions where she has been going all the time, Mandy decides to sneak over one last time to leave a note for her admirer. It is then that her life changes forever.

I love the way Julie Andrews Edwards writes. She writes in such an endearing way that you can't help but feel for Mandy. Although this book is geared for the young adult set, I have re-read it many, many times since I first received it as a gift years ago. I can't wait to share this book with my young daughter in a few years and I may even buy her a new edition of the book as my copy is rather dog-eared after years of reading it. This book is a timeless tale of a hopeful young girl and it is a great read for any young girl who dares to dream.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston

Pam Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness" is a collection of short stories that was first published in 1991. Filled with stories about wild women and even wilder men, the stories still ring true today.

Houston hit the scene shortly after her short story "How to Talk to a Hunter" was selected for the highly acclaimed "Best American Short Stories" series in 1990. That story was the launching pad for this book-- or at least it was the reason that I bought this book in the first place. I just had to read more of this author's work-- and what better way than to delve into her short story collection? Turns out it was a good choice because this book is one that I read repeatedly.

The book contains 12 stories, mostly set in the West. Cowboys are everywhere though, not just out west-- and some of the stories are set in Alaska as well. Most of the stories center around the theme of love-- real or unrequited. And although all of the men in these stories are not all cowboys per se, the cowboy motif describes the image of Houston's bad boy, the untamed man. The women in the book are not dumb-- they are educated, sensible women but they tend to fall for the wrong men. Sometimes over and over again.

At the time that she wrote this book, Houston was a part time river guide and hunting guide, so it's no wonder that her stories are written about adventurous types. Outdoorsy type imagery is prominent throughout the book, whether it's a tale of white water rafting ("Selway") or just a casual mention of a desert within a story. Some of the stories are very short-- just a few pages long ("Symphony", "A Blizzard Under Blue Sky") but the words pack such a punch that even the shortest stories are riveting.

If you're not the outdoorsy type (or not a hunter or a river rafter) then you may long for some urban imagery with your fiction, but Houston keeps you interested in things you would normally never even think about: Dall sheep hunting, for instance. And eating moose steaks for dinner.

In "How to Talk to a Hunter", undeniably the most famous of these stories, we hear from a nameless narrator, in love with a man so deeply that she overlooks his "flaws"-- the fact that he listens to top 40 country music and that he doesn't play back his answering machine messages when she is in the room. He's a pseudo-hunter: he sleeps under moose skins, yet expresses remorse for a deer that he killed-- a deer that he all the while he displays on his wall.

While you feel for the narrator of this story, you may find yourself also looking down on her-- until you realize that she may be just like you. The "hunter" in this story is clearly seeing another woman, a woman whose voice the narrator hears on the answering machine one morning. Still silent, she does nothing and says nothing to her hunter. Why? Because he takes care of her. Because he makes her feel safe. Her two best friends-- a man and a woman-- offer tidbits of advice throughout the story. Advice that makes sense, depending on your gender. And while the narrator in this story could come off as a desperate woman, she doesn't because you understand her. Set with a backdrop of the Christmas season, this story is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

Houston has a wonderful way with words and her descriptions of the mountain tops and other outdoor images are written in a beautifully lyrical way. Her talk about animals-- from white tailed deer to two beloved dogs named Jackson and Hailey (who seem to make it into a couple of the stories) is delightful. The dialogue in her stories is realistic and keeps the flow of the stories going nicely.

If you enjoy the short story genre, I highly recommend the book "Cowboys Are My Weakness". While all of the stories in this collection are well written, be sure not to miss the title story, as well as "How to Talk to a Hunter", "Selway", "Highwater" and "Sometimes You talk About Idaho". These stories will undoubtedly make you want to read more.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World by Peter D'Epiro and MaryDesmond Pinkowish

I've made no secret of the fact that I love to read. I've been an avid reader ever since I was a child holed up in my room for the summer with the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collections sitting before me. Usually, I like reading novels, but sometimes it's fun to branch out and read other kinds of books -- especially those that I can just browse through instead of reading in chronological order. What Are The Seven Wonders of the World (subtitled And 100 Other Great Cultural Lists - Fully Explicated) by Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish is just such a book whose chapters can be read entirely at random.

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World is basically an in-depth look at some of the most famous "numbered" items from a wide range of topics, including history, science, literature, art, and mathematics. In other words, this book takes a question, such as that found in the title (what are the seven wonders of the world), and then lists the answers for the reader along with a detailed explanation of each particular item in the list.

The book starts off with the number three. So some of the first questions that the reader encounters are: Who were the 3 sons of Adam and Eve? Who were the 3 Furies (from ancient mythology)? What are the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics? And What were the 3 temptations of Christ. As you can see, these are some very common and very interesting questions that are nevertheless quite difficult to answer.

In all, the book contains 101 of these questions, and covers numbers ranging from 3 to 15, then 18, 20, and 24. You'll be able to answer some of the questions right off the bat (what are the seven deadly sins?), but others will leave you scratching your head (which were the 15 decisive battles of the world according to historian Edward Creasy in 1851?).

As I mentioned above, this is the kind of book that can be thumbed through at random. You can view the table of contents and then just read any sections that sound interesting to you. Or, you can read the book straight through if you like. What I've discovered is that I often just pick a random place in the book, and then get caught up in everything and start reading straight through from that point. As a result, I read the entire book in just a couple of days.

What Are the Seven Wonders of the World is meant to be a reference book. I have to admit that I haven't really used it as such though. After all, if I really needed to determine what the 14 Points of Woodrow Wilson's famous speech were, I could find the information from the Internet just as (or even more) quickly than I could leafing through the book. Nevertheless, I like to keep the book near my desk and pull it down once in a while to refresh my memory about some of the more famous numbered lists in the world.

Although I can't claim to remember every single thing that I've read in What Are the Seven Wonders of the World, I will say that I've learned a great deal of new information, which has come in handy on many occasions. For example, I have been able to answer a few extra crossword puzzle questions due to the knowledge I've picked up from the book. I've also been able to answer several Jeopardy! questions, and I've been able to start some really great conversations with friends and co-workers. I won't go so far as to say that I bring up the information I've gleaned from the book when I'm at parties or anything, but the I guess that's always a possibility as well!

Overall, I recommend purchasing What Are the Seven Wonders of the World (and 100 Other Great Cultural Lists - Fully Explicated) by Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish. It will make a wonderfully informative addition to your home reference library and is a book that you will actually enjoy reading. It also makes a terrific gift for those readers on your list that have read just about everything else you can think of.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Safe Place by Lorenzo Carcaterra

A Safe Place is a book written by Lorenzo Carcaterra, who also wrote the book Sleepers. A Safe Place is a true story, which tells about the life of Lorenzo Carcaterra, who was also the young boy in Sleepers that attended a state facility for committing a crime while he was a minor. In Sleepers, you learned about how Lorenzo was beaten, abused, and raped as a child. In A Safe Place, Lorenzo tells you about his life with an abusive father, and a mother who was very distant from him. The book also looks into the life of Lorenzo's mother and father, before he was born.

The book starts out with Lorenzo and his mother walking along an island beach in Naples. His mother tells him that she needs to tell him something very important about his father. She then tells him that his fathers first wife did not die of cancer, his father actually murdered his first wife. Lorenzo's mother then left him alone to think about what she had just told him. Before his mother told him about his father, Lorenzo adored his father and thought the world of him, but at that moment, Lorenzo hated his father. He did not know if he could believe what he had just heard.

Before his mother ever told him the truth about his father, Lorenzo had many great memories of his father. His father loved him and would do anything for him, and he told him that often. But Lorenzo could also remember his father beating his mother, hitting her in the face, and embarrassing her in public. Lorenzo's father also had many affairs. He slept with married women, widows, young women, and pretty much any women he could get to sleep with him. He racked up credit card bills buying appliances for men he was trying to impress, by buying women expensive dinners, and any other way that he could make himself out to be a great guy. Although he spent money he did not have on other families, his own family lived in run down apartments in the bad parts of town, and Lorenzo's mother often had to borrow money from neighbors to pay her bills, get Lorenzo's father out of debt, and she even had to borrow money to put food on the table. Lorenzo's father worked but not very often. If his mother would leave his father, his father would get a job and tell Lorenzo's mother that he had changed until he got her back, and soon enough he would turn back to his old ways.

Lorenzo's mother only married Lorenzo's father because he was her aunt's son. She thought that a man who was of the same blood as her father would take care of her. She had two children from a previous marriage, but the youngest one died from a hit on the head. Lorenzo's mother, Raffaela, was only sixteen when she met Lorenzo's father, Mario. The day they left Ischia, Mario told her that he had a daughter that lived with his wife's family. When Raffaela asked where his wife was, he told her that he killed her. That night, Mario beat Raffaela for brushing her hair over the sink. At that moment, she knew that by marrying Mario, she had made the biggest mistake of her life.

Lorenzo does not have very many good memories of his early childhood between his mother and father. He remembers his father taking him on dates with different women, and he remembers his father making him fight in street fights when he was as young as seven and eight years old. He remembers his mother crying and begging his father not to do this with their son, but his father would just laugh at her and walk out the door.

At one point, Lorenzo and his mother take a trip back to the country where Rafaela grew up. Lorenzo gets to meet his grandmother, his aunts, and many of his cousins. On the trip, Rafaela and her son get to spend a lot of time together, which they did not get to do in the United States because of Mario. Lorenzo also becomes very close to his grandmother and his cousins. When his mother tells him the truth about his father murdering his first wife, Lorenzo tries to convince his mother to stay in Ischia and live for the rest of their lives.

Read this book to find out what happens in Ischia, and if Lorenzo and his mother decide to return to the states or stay where they are. This book is very dramatic, and since it is a true story, you really feel for the young boy and his mother.

Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia Block

Francesca Lia Block is a renowned young adult author most famous for the Weetzie Bat series and lyrical writing. Now she has entered the realm of adult literature with Necklace of Kisses. Feeling unhappy with her marriage, Weetzie hides out in the same hotel where she attended her high school prom. She feels a kiss she didn't receive that night may have been a pivotal moment in her life. While there, she finds a host of strange characters and magical events while pursuing the lost kiss.

I was left feeling unsettled after reading this book, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. I could honestly say that I enjoyed the book, but there was something lingering in the back of my mind I didn't enjoy so much. I asked my friend who had originally given me the book if she had read it before, and unfortunately, she hadn't, but by talking with her in general about the book I finally narrowed it down to three things.

My first problem with the book is I felt the fantasy elements were more pervasive throughout the entire book than they were in the other Weetzie Bat books. Now, it has been a few years since I read the original series, but it seemed like there was usually a single fantasy element introduced in each book, such as a genie. It might have been an extended element essential to the plot, but it was kept to that one thing. In Necklace of Kisses, fantasy element piled upon fantasy element until I was in overload. I don't want to tell you all of the things Block includes so as not to ruin the plot, but everything from the creation of the titular necklace to a possible mermaid to Weetzie's favorite genie adds to the fantasy atmosphere. I think part of my problem is it almost seemed more believable when there was just a single fantastic occurrence. Certainly, it was unbelievable, but maybe, just maybe, magic could appear in our world from time to time. But when everything Weetzie touches is magical then it becomes a little less possible.

The second unsettling thing, not necessarily a problem, was a feeling of melancholy brought on by the events of the book. Mainly, if Weetzie Bat can grow old and have marital problems, what hope is there for the rest of us? Weetzie is supposed to be an eternal teenager, full of hope and wonder at the world. She's not supposed to leave her husband behind and run away to hide out in a hotel. Weetzie Bat just isn't allowed to have a mid-life crisis. The first book was published in 1989, though, so perhaps some of Weetzie's first fans are facing such dilemmas right now, and Block is just catering to her older audience. Not that Block seems like the sort of author to "cater" to anyone. She strikes me as an inspired author who probably wrote this story because these were the sorts of issues pressing on her at the time. Perhaps she just wasn't in the mood for whimsical musings.

On a related note, Weetzie's problem with her husband stems from the 9/11 attacks. After that day, he spends too much time reading the newspaper and being depressed. For some reason, it didn't ring true to the Weetzie Bat world. Now certainly, the punk aesthetic of some of the earlier Weetzie books probably only belongs to a certain time I don't know much about, but there was an overall timelessness to the stories that maked them as good in 2006 as they were in 1989. I feel like the references to 9/11 will date this book and detract from it in 15 or 20 years.

So I guess you just can't make me happy. I'm not content when there's too much magic in the book and I'm not content when Block introduces too much realism into the narrative. Despite my ranting about the problems I had with the book, I still recommend it completely since I love Weetzie Bat, and I was happy to spend just a little more time in her world, even if it didn't make me completely happy.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I've read hundreds of books in my lifetime, and it would be practically impossible for me to select a single favorite. However, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh would definitely be in the top 5. I knew the very first time I read this book that it was something special, and I am happy to say that my opinion of it hasn't wavered through many more readings of it. It's hard for me to articulate just what it is about the story that makes it so poignant, but I'll do my best here.

The main protagonist in Brideshead Revisited is Charles Ryder. When the novel opens up, Ryder is a Captain in the British army during World War II. Captain Ryder's regiment happens to come upon an abandoned mansion, which Ryder instantly recognizes as Brideshead, the ancestral home of the Flyte family, with whom he spent many years of his early adulthood. As Charles sees the home and wanders through the rooms, he recalls all of the significant things that he experienced with his university friend Sebastian Flyte, and later, Sebastian's sister Julia. Then, Waugh launches into a flashback to tell the story of Ryder's younger years in the present tense.

Charles and Sebastian first meet as undergrads at Oxford. Sebastian came from a wealthy family, and it showed. He had fancy clothes and cars, and never had to go without. Sebastian was also something of an eccentric. He always carried around a teddy bear named Aloysius, and frequently talked to the bear, brushed its hair, and did other things that would make casual onlookers believe that he (Sebastian) thought the bear was a living being. Charles was pretty much the polar opposite of Sebastian in that he was from a middle class family, didn't have any wealth to flaunt, and saw right through Sebastian's eccentric airs. The two quickly became friends.

The friendship between Sebastian and Charles was at first centered on alcohol. Sebastian liked to drink (eventually, he would develop a full-fledged problem with alcoholism), and Charles served as a mostly willing drinking buddy who was ready to go off with Sebastian whenever the fancy for a bottle of wine came upon him.

Charles and Sebastian's friendship soon deepens, and Charles is eventually invited to Brideshead to meet the Flyte family. Sebastian's mother is a devout Catholic who grates on her children's nerves with her constant harping on values and morality. Charles then realizes that most of Sebastian's actions are probably intended to upset his mother by going directly against her professed faith. Sebastian's sister Julia is quite a different story. She seems to be genuinely struggling with her faith, and can't decide whether she wants to embrace Catholicism or not. As a result, she has trouble making decisions in other areas of her life as well, which plays a big role later on in the story.

Soon, Charles gets entirely caught up with the Flyte family. He becomes the steadying influence that both Sebastian and Julia turn to whenever they need advice. He also becomes romantically entangled with both siblings at varying times, and this further complicates matters.

Eventually, however, Charles makes a break from the Flytes and their problems. Sebastian's drinking problem reaches a point where Charles can't stand to be around him anymore. Sebastian instead just spends time drinking and carousing with random people in random countries until Charles can't keep track of him anymore and essentially gives him up as a lost cause. Charles then loses touch with Julia when she decides to marry Rex Mottram instead of pursuing a relationship with Charles. Then, Charles himself marries a different woman, and gets on with his life.

That might have been the end of things except that Charles happens to run into Julia while they are both on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. The two soon start to reminisce and catch up, wondering if perhaps they made a mistake by not getting together when they had the chance. Whether they make up for lost time on the ocean liner or not is something I won't reveal here.

As I mentioned above, Brideshead Revisited ranks as one of my favorite novels of all time. The characters are richly drawn, well developed, and highly memorable. They all take actions that are consistent with the personalities Waugh has given them, and even though they exasperate the reader at times because of their stubbornness, everything nevertheless rings true. This is due in large part to the fact that Waugh does such a fabulous job with the dialogue and other nuances that help the reader get to know the characters on a pretty intimate level. At the same time, the characters aren't of the cookie-cutter variety, meaning that although their actions are consistent, they aren't always predictable.

I should also take a moment to say that Brideshead Revisited was made into a very successful miniseries that aired on both the BBC and PBS (I believe). Although the miniseries was critically acclaimed and is a fan favorite, I never quite warmed to it. I think Brideshead Revisited is one of those stories (like The Great Gatsby, another favorite of mine) that is much better on the page than it is on the screen.

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend Brideshead Revisited to anyone looking for an interesting story with great characters. It's the kind of book that you don't want to end, but would rather keep reading about the characters for a long, long time.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald

When it comes to epic poetry, there's no question that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are two of the best known in the entire world. It's no wonder, really, when you stop and consider that those are a couple of the true literary masterpieces in the Western canon. In fact, the basic stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey have inspired, and continue to inspire, countless writers over the centuries. One of those was Publius Vergilius Maro, otherwise known as Vergil.

Vergil's epic poem The Aeneid, borrows heavily from both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and yet is clearly a classic in its own right. Vergil wrote the poem at the behest of his emperor, Caesar Augustus, who wanted a "national poem" written specifically to celebrate the glory of Rome and its citizens. Vergil was one of the foremost poets of his day, so the commission for the national poem naturally fell to him. Vergil labored for years on this task, and The Aeneid was born as a result of his efforts. According to most accounts, Vergil was supremely dissatisfied with The Aeneid, and didn't consider it a finished product. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to burn the masterpiece, and is said to have made a deathbed request for his friends to do just that. However, they didn't obey his final wishes, and The Aeneid was eventually published.

It was received enthusiastically at the time of publication, and was felt to be a supreme account of the founding of Rome. Over the centuries, support for The Aeneid as one of the finest poems ever written has waxed and waned. Some critics feel that Vergil's work is on par with Homer's, while other critics maintain that The Aeneid is just a very poor substitute that borrows much too heavily from Homer's works. The debate continues even to this day, and you can still find people in the academic world that have very strong feelings about this particular subject.

The Aeneid is comprised of 12 books, with the first part bearing many similarities to The Odyssey, and the second part being more like The Iliad. In the first half of the entire work, we are introduced to the main character, Aeneas, who is a Trojan prince. We discover that he is "born of a goddess," and true to Homeric form, Vergil uses this epithet quite often when talking about Aeneas. Aeneas' mother is Venus (or Aphrodite), and she plays an important role throughout all the events of the story, much like Achilles' mother Thetis does in The Iliad, and much like Pallas Athena does with her favorite warrior Odysseus in The Odyssey.

When the action opens in The Aeneid, the city of Troy has already been sacked at the hands of the Greeks. Most of the Trojan heroes have been slain, but Aeneas managed to escape with his son Ascanius and his father Anchises. This is how it was meant to be, because the gods have already decreed that Aeneas' duty is to seek Italy and find a new home for his displaced people. An important theme that is revisited throughout the work is that practically everything Aeneas does is in accordance with his fate and destiny. Aeneas is often described as "pious," a word that reflects the knowledge he has of his duty. There are many instances where Aeneas would clearly do something other than what the gods want, but he always gives in and does the "right" thing because of his profound sense of duty.

Nevertheless, just because it has been decreed that Aeneas should settle in Italy and father a race of people that will become the ancestors of the great Romans, that doesn't mean his task will be easy. This is due in large part to the goddess Juno, who has a long-standing grudge against Aeneas' mother Venus thanks to the event known as the Judgment of Paris. Ever since Venus was deemed the most beautiful goddess, Juno has had it out for her, and will stop at nothing to try to thwart Aeneas and his crew. Towards this end, Juno first sends storms and high winds in the way of the Trojans so that their ships are buffeted off course and into potential hazards.

Fortunately for Aeneas, his mother is always looking out for him and seems to be able to get an idea of what Juno's plans are just in time to either remove Aeneas from the situation, or at least make things more bearable for him.

This can clearly be seen when Juno sends the Trojans to Carthage, home to very aggressive warriors led by a queen named Dido. Ordinarily, landing in Carthage would have been a pretty dangerous thing for the small Trojan crew led by Aeneas, as the Carthaginian army could have easily overpowered them. But Venus intervenes and takes a few steps to ensure that her son receives a warm welcome.

Once in Carthage, Aeneas is asked by Dido to retell of the sacking of Troy. He does so in pretty good detail, and is understandably overcome with emotion when he remembers all of his fallen comrades. Dido's request is a device that Vergil uses in order to get the story of the Trojan War out there. Although brief, Aeneas' account of the war is an important part of The Aeneid, and is one of the most famous passages in the whole poem. In fact, there are many famous scenes in the first half of The Aeneid (more so than the second half, certainly), so I won't have time to recount them all here. Suffice it to say that if you are pressed for time, I recommend reading the first half of The Aeneid if you want to familiarize yourself with the work without having to make a long-term commitment to reading the whole thing.

As I mentioned above, the second half of The Aeneid resembles Homer's Iliad. In this part of the poem, we get numerous battle scenes between Aeneas and various leaders from the new places he goes to. Among these battle scenes is the showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, which is pretty much the climax of the poem, and parallels the final battle between Achilles and Hector in The Iliad.

Overall, I have to say that The Aeneid is indeed worthy of being read alongside the two classics by Homer. Of course, I may be a bit biased since I studied Latin for several years while in school and have fond memories of laboring over long translations from the poem. But even disregarding my personal history with the poem, I still believe that it is worth reading in modern times. It gives us insight into the characteristics that the ancient Romans viewed as worthy and honorable. We see Aeneas as the semi-fictional embodiment of the perfect Roman leader, and from this we are able to learn a lot about the once great civilization.

In addition, I believe that this particular translation by Robert Fitzgerald is one of the best English language versions of The Aeneid around. Fitzgerald does a wonderful job of rendering Vergil's words into fantastic approximations that capture the poet's literary intent in phrases that won't seem awkward or archaic to modern readers. When reading a work that was originally written in a foreign language, the translator obviously plays an important role, and very often makes all the difference between liking the original or hating it. When modern readers take up Fitzgerald's interpretation of The Aeneid, I am confident that a majority of them will fall into the former category.

If you are interested in reading epic poetry from ancient authors, or if you have to read The Aeneid in Enlgish as part of a class assignment, then I highly recommend the Robert Fitzgerald translation. In my opinion, it's one of the best out there!

Broken Prey, by John Sandford

By Christina VanGinkel

Broken Prey is the sixteenth novel in the Prey series by the author John Sandford. John Sandford is actually the Pulitzer Prize winning author John Camp. The Prey novels follow the exploits of the character Lucas Davenport, a police investigator in a department made up just for the multi faceted personality that the character portrays. Along with several sidekicks, including Elle Kruger, a friend and a nun that he has known since childhood who doubles as a psychological profiler, and Sloan, both a friend and fellow officer, Lucas Davenport has half the police departments in the state of Minnesota helping him. They are following a serial killer, sometimes coming so close they can see the taillights of his vehicle, yet not close enough to catch him before he kills another victim.

As far as genres go, I would have to classify all of the Prey novels as thrillers / mystery, with a bit of who-done-it glossed over the top. If you enjoy reading any of the afore mentioned genres and have yet to read a John Sandford novel, Broken Prey would be an ideal introduction to this fascinating style of writing.

The story tarts out with Charlie Pope, a convicted sex criminal being released from a mental hospital, and before long, you are peeking into the psyche of this demented individual. You soon learn that even though he has been released for the crime that he was convicted, he has killed before, but was never caught for those crimes. With dead bodies popping up all over the state, he is a prime suspect. The only problem with this scenario though is that Charlie Pope is a bona fide nut case, and some wonder if he had the mentality to pull of the vicious killings that are being committed. These murders obviously took careful planning and most of the people involved in solving the crimes doubt that eh was capable, yet he is the prime suspect and then he calls in to a newspaper reporter, Ruffe Ignace, and confesses.

Readers are also introduced early on to the ramblings of another character, Mihovil Draskovic, one Millie Lincoln's boyfriend, and they know that he is not all there either. Demented is as good a word as I can come up without going into detail. Millie just thinks he is the ultimate lover though, bringing her to new heights of ecstasy.

When all of these characters start to collide, some readers might think they have it all figured out. This book is full of surprises though, and things are never what they seem, or are they? From the bean fields outside of Mankato, to the city streets of Minneapolis, a serial killer is running loose, and looking for his next victim to kidnap and torture. Will Lucas Davenport, along with Sloan, Elle Kruger, and all the other players be able to capture the killer, and be assured that they have the right person before yet another victim dies? You will have to read it yourself to find out!

Before you do though, be sure to first read the first fifteen novels in the Prey series, including Rules of Prey, Shadow Prey, Eyes of Prey, Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Night Prey, Mind Prey, Sudden Prey, Secret Prey, Certain Prey, Easy Prey, Chosen Prey, Mortal Prey, Naked Prey, and Hidden Prey.

As a side note for those of you who are big fans of the Prey Series, at the beginning of this novel, Lucas Davenport's wife, famed surgeon Weather herself, has recently purchases Lucas a gift card worth 100 songs for his iPod. With it, he plans to purchase what he feels are the "Best Songs of the Rock Era" and the completed list is included in the back of the book. The story itself is woven with conversations by his friends and family as they try to help him assemble this all-important list. Songs are added, removed, and some all time greats are remembered only after chance hearings. Subject matter such as this allows the readers of the Prey series to feel as if they are reading about a friend they know instead of just a character cop in some book. This book is another success and you never once feel as if you can walk away from the story at hand. It is a page-turner by all definitions and well worth adding to your summer reading list.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is a name that needs no introduction to those who are fans of British literary works from the Victorian Age. He published several novels during his lifetime, including Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, Under the Greenwood Tree, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Although widely acclaimed and still studied today in almost any high school or college English Literature class, many of Hardy's novels were actually considered quite controversial in his time. So much so, in fact, that Hardy would eventually give up writing novels to focus on producing poetry.

The Mayor of Casterbridge starts out with a very memorable and shocking scene. A young man of 21 years of age is walking along the road towards a fair at a place called Weydon Priors. He is concentrating on reading a book even though he has two companions with him, a woman and a young child of two or three years of age. Hardy tells us that the man's name is Michael Henchard, and his two companions are his wife Susan, and their daughter Elizabeth Jane. All three members of the family are wearing old clothing and are obviously quite poor, although not yet to the point of destitution. Henchard is carrying a bundle of hay trusser's tools on his back, and we're told that he intends to find work in this area of the country.

The trio soon stops at the fair to take some refreshment and inquire about employment prospects. They enter a tent where an older woman is selling furmity (a kind of porridge), which they eat quite ravenously. The furmity seller slyly offers to spike their bowls with rum to make things go down more smoothly, as she puts it Henchard agrees, and enjoys the concoction very much. He has another, then another, and still more. Hardy does a wonderful job here of describing the way Henchard progresses through different emotions with each passing bowl of furmity until he finally reaches a point where he becomes loudly belligerent.

The focus of Henchard's anger while in his drunken state is his wife. He blames Susan for his current poverty, saying that he never would be in such dire straits if he hadn't gotten married at age 18 to such a woman as her. In fact, Henchard loudly proclaims to fellow patrons in the furmity tent that he would willingly sell his wife to the highest bidder. At first, no one takes Henchard seriously. But he presses the point and finally gets someone to act as auctioneer during the proceedings. The onlookers can't help but be fascinated by what was taking place at that moment, and Henchard managed to cajole a few men into submitting half-hearted bids.

Impatient with the way things are going, Henchard finally just names a price of five pounds and five guineas. Suddenly, a man in a sailor's uniform pipes up near the doorway of the tent and takes Henchard up on his offer. The sailor hands over the money, and takes possession of Susan and Elizabeth Jane there and then. Henchard sleeps off his drunkenness in the furmity tent, and awakens the next morning with the dim realization that he has done something terrible. Susan and Elizabeth Jane are still gone, and he suddenly remembers what he has done. Henchard searches the immediate surroundings for his now missing wife and daughter, but can't find them. On that day, he makes a vow that he will not touch a drop of alcohol for the next 21 years as a penance for the terrible thing he did.

The novel then flashes forward nearly two decades, and the action shifts to a town called Casterbridge, which is in the vicinity of Weydon Priors. Hardy doesn't fill us in on the intervening action, but does briefly tell of how Henchard settled in Casterbridge, amassed a small fortune by making shrewd business dealings in hay and corn, and now is mayor of that town. The reader is also informed that Henchard has remained true to his word and has not had a strong drink in all the intervening time.

Susan and Elizabeth Jane soon come back into the picture as well. The sailor who "bought" them at auction had treated them kindly, but was recently lost at sea and presumed dead. Though the sailor provided well for his family while he was alive, there wasn't anything for Susan and Elizabeth Jane to subsist on after he died, so Susan decided to try to find Henchard once more. The old furmity seller was still at the same spot, and she directed the pair towards Casterbridge, where Susan and Elizabeth Jane do eventually meet up with Henchard again.

After ascertaining Henchard's high position and the fact that he has not remarried in all that time, Susan sends Elizabeth Jane to the mayor with a sealed note. Elizabeth Jane does not know the true history between her mother and Henchard; she has just been told that Henchard is related to them "by marriage."

Elizabeth Jane carries the note to Henchard, who at first fears that these two women might be imposters. But after he meets Susan, he of course realizes that she is indeed the woman that he wronged all those years ago. Henchard seizes up this opportunity to make things right, so he orchestrates a courtship, and soon remarries Susan so that the three might live as a family once more.

But anyone who is familiar with Hardy's novels knows that things never end so peacefully for the protagonists. So the rest of The Mayor of Casterbridge deals with a number of events that happen to Henchard, Susan, and Elizabeth Jane after the second marriage.

Another major character that is introduced once the action switches to Casterbridge is a man named Daniel Farfrae. A native of Scotland, Farfrae was just passing through Casterbridge when he happened to meet Henchard, and was able to help the mayor with a particularly troublesome problem that Henchard was having with recent crops of corn. Henchard takes an immediate liking to Farfrae, and somehow convinces the kind, generous-natured man to stay on in Casterbridge as Henchard's foreman and business manager. Farfrae agrees, and the decision will have a profound effect on all the other characters in the novel.

On the whole, I have to say that The Mayor of Casterbridge was a very engaging story. It starts off with the very intriguing and unique wife-selling scene, and manages to maintain the readers interest throughout the rest of the pages. There are a few slow-moving passages that Hardy devotes to describing the town, the surrounding countryside, or a few of the minor characters involved in the story, but those passages are few and far between, which is somewhat surprising for a novel from this era.

True to Hardy's own personal style, the themes of fate and destiny are very important in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In fact, a reader who is not familiar with Hardy's other novels might have a tendency to pass off the events of this particular work as too contrived and coincidental to be believed. And indeed, many of the events do seem to be a bit convenient for the direction of the plot. Nevertheless, the events are at least within the realm of possibility, so the fact that they appear doesn't detract from the overall experience too much.

When considering all the major aspects of the novel, including character development, storylines, and the amount of reader interest that Hardy was able to generate, I can definitely recommend The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is not a perfect work, of course, but its strengths greatly outweigh its deficiencies, and I think most people would agree that reading the novel would be a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

You: The Owner's Manual by Michael F. Roizen M.D. and Mehmet C. Oz M.D.

I probably would never have picked up this book if I hadn't seen the Oprah Winfrey Show a few weeks ago. On the show, a 42 year old woman who had let herself go (and I mean really let herself go) was profiled. She was 50 pounds overweight, sedentary and ate a horrible diet that consisted of greasy Rueben sandwiches with fries (for breakfast) and 4 six packs of soda per day. This woman was a walking time bomb for health problems-- and then she received some help from the authors of this wonderful book, "You The Owner's Manual: An Insider's Guide To The Body that Will Make you Healthier and Younger".

The two authors of "You: The Owner's Manual" have each been famous in their own right for a while now. Dr. Michael Roizen was on the New York Times best seller list a few years ago for his popular book "Real Age- Are You As Young as You can Be?" And Dr. Mehmet Oz has been a regular on "Oprah" for the past two seasons, always educating viewers on important health issues.

On the "Oprah" show, the doctors used the techniques from their book to turn this unhealthy 42 year old into a healthy and fit woman. It happened quickly too-- in just a few months. The concepts were simple enough but I wanted to learn more so I went out and got the book myself.

First of all, "You: The Owner's Manual" is not a diet book. It's a book about lifestyle change. You do not need to give up soda for just three months--you need to cut it out of your life for good.

I like the way the book is set up-- it's chock full of diagrams and illustrations to help to better convey the author's points. With chapters on the heart and arteries, bones, the immune system and of course diet, this book is an overview on how to keep your body healthy. It goes into a detailed overview on everything from the adrenal glands to the aging brain. But it's not a textbook and the book is instead written in easygoing, layman's terms.

No book on healthy living would be complete without a section on exercise and this book actually has some very informative information. There is also a section on strength training exercises and the descriptions are illustrated (courtesy of a disturbing little elf-like creature, who appears throughout the book). I appreciate the illustrations, as it makes it easier to see how the exercises should be done properly. There's also some yoga techniques detailed and then an easy to decipher physical activity sheet to give you an idea of how to go about your workout routine.

Of course, the part I was most interested in was the chapter on healthy eating. Besides food recommendations and a listing of the foods that we all should eliminate from our diets (like foods that contain trans fats, sugars and hydrogenated oils), there's an action plan for changing how you eat. There are tips like avoiding eating late in the day, which we all should already know but few of us practice. The book also includes a few recipes, most of them delicious-sounding, for dishes like dijon chicken, grilled tilapia and cheese blintzes.

"The Owner's Manual Diet" is basically a lifestyle change, but there are a few rules and tips listed in the book ( a good tip: change your dinner plate size to 9 inches instead of the standard 13 inch-- it will trick you into thinking your plate is full).

There's a list of foods that we all should eat daily-- foods like nuts, whole grain breads and fruits (this is definitely not one of those low carb fad eating plans). There are also recommendations for how much water to dink and multivitamins that we should supplement with. In an easy-to-read format, the eating plan is listed by meal type, with dozens of choices for every meal. It makes for an easy mix and match eating plan, with enough variety to satisfy just about anyone.

So who do I think is the target audience for "You" The Owner's Manual"? I think it's a well written book for health conscious adults-- not for dieters looking for that quick fix. It's a book that you will turn to again and again for healthy living tips, information on ailments and yes, healthy eating plans.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Review of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

When the name Jane Austen is invoked, literature lovers invariably think of such enduring classics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. That's to be expected, since those are two of the most well-known titles from this particular author. However, Austen wrote several other novels in her time, including Northanger Abbey.

Chronologically speaking, Northanger Abbey was the first full-length work produced by Austen, and one which she had a lot of trouble publishing during her lifetime. In fact, it is said that Austen intermittently revised and polished the manuscript for more than a decade in the hopes of finally getting it published. It was all in vain, however, since the book wasn't accepted, printed, and distributed until after her death.

I had read this bit of background information regarding Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey prior to reading the book. I have to say that I wasn't exactly filled with confidence about the plot or characters after having learned that Austen couldn't even get anyone to touch the work when she was alive. After all, she had to have contacts in the publishing world after getting her other novels into print. At any rate, I started reading the book without expecting it to be on par with Austen's more well-known stories.

Northanger Abbey opens by describing the heroine of the novel, Catherine Morland, as a young girl. The first thing I noticed as a reader was that Austen's tone in this novel was quite different from her other works. That's because this book is presented as a satire of so-called "Gothic novels" which were at the height of popularity in Austen's day. If modern readers are not familiar with the stylistic conventions of Gothic novels, then a lot of Austen's humor and jabs will be lost.

At any rate, Austen proceeds to tell the reader that Catherine Morland isn't the typical heroine that the reader might be familiar with. Catherine was something of a tomboy when she was younger, and loved nothing more than to run and play noisily outdoors. She grew more feminine as she aged, and by the time she was 17, which is when the events of the novel take place, she was actually beautiful. Yet, Austen tells us, she was as "ignorant" as a young woman of that age could be.

Catherine's family could best be described as middle class. They certainly weren't poor, but they didn't quite have enough money to rub elbows with the truly wealthy. In Austen's time, this was a very important point. Marriages were often made based on incomes, and it was highly unusual for a man or woman of fortune to take a spouse who's personal wealth did not measure up at least to some degree. Since Catherine was of marrying age, readers could be relatively certain that her family's standing would come into play later in the novel.

One day, Catherine receives an invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Allen to join them on a trip to bath. The Allens are family friends of the Morlands. They are wealthy, childless, and have taken a liking to Catherine. The trip is soon arranged, and Catherine and the Allens set out on their journey.

At first, the trip isn't much of a success because the Allens don't know anyone in town. So Catherine's days and nights are pretty boring because she has no one to socialize with. Even when she attends a ball with Mrs. Allen, she can't have fun because no one talks to her and, worse yet, no one asks her to dance.

Soon after the ball, Catherine's stay at Bath will take a turn for the better. That's because she is introduced to a young man named Henry Tilney at one of the many social gathering places in the town. Henry and Catherine immediately hit it off. Henry is enchanted by Catherine's beauty, while Catherine is impressed by Henry's charm and wit. Even during their first meeting, the reader can tell that Catherine and Henry are destined for romance.

Of course, since Northanger Abbey is a novel, things won't proceed very smoothly for the characters involved. Sure enough, several obstacles present themselves to Catherine. First of all, Henry soon leaves Bath after their first meeting and she doesn't know if she will ever see him again. Second, Catherine has the misfortune to make the acquaintance of the Thorpe family, which includes Isabella, a young woman near Catherine's own age, and her brother John. Isabella and Catherine become fast friends, though Catherine is too naive to see that Isabella is using her as a means of getting closer to Catherine's brother James. Meanwhile, John falls in love with Catherine, but he is so boorish and overbearing that Catherine can't bear to be in his company for very long.

Eventually, Catherine and Henry are afforded more opportunities to spend time together. This is partly owing to the fact that Catherine befriends Henry's sister Eleanor. Eleanor, with her father's blessing, invites Catherine to stay at the Tilney home, Northanger Abbey, for a few weeks. Eleanor and Catherine become so close and grow so fond of each other, however, that the Catherine's visit gets extended.

Once at the Abbey, Catherine and Henry can get to know each other better, and their feelings for each other deepen. The reader gets insight only into Catherine's thoughts on the matter; Henry's feelings can only be divined by examining his actions.

There is one more obstacle that Catherine and Henry must overcome if they are to "live happily ever after." What that obstacle is, and whether or not the two young people do indeed succeed, I will not reveal here.

Overall, I have to say that Northanger Abbey certainly didn't feel like a typical Austen novel. I know that it's sometimes a good thing for authors to experiment and try different approaches to their novels, but I felt there was something missing in this story. It wasn't what I would call a page-turner, and since I am not familiar with the Gothic novels that Austen constantly refers to and satirizes within the pages of Northanger Abbey, I found a lot of parts to be quite boring -- and often ridiculous.

Nevertheless, as an Austen fan, I am glad to be able to say that I have finally read Northanger Abbey. I think a lot of people might come away from this book with mixed feelings. It doesn't inspire either love or hate; it's just kind of there. So if you are an Austen fan, I would advise you to approach this book with the knowledge that it's not at all like her other works. If you're not an Austen fan, you could probably skip this one entirely and not be any worse off for it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Dark Dreams: The Story of Stephen King, by Nancy Whitelaw

Stephen King has long been known for being a master writer in the genre of horror fiction. I remember when I was growing up, his books were passed around the middle school classrooms, with much talk of the books that ultimately became movies. We were all terrified of the stories written by Stephen King, but somehow, we could not stay away from them. Regardless of the terror, the gore, or the horror, Stephen King knows how to spin a good yarn, and just as importantly he knows how to develop a believable, real character; someone with whom we can all relate in some way. When I came across Dark Dreams: The Story of Stephen King, by Nancy Whitelaw, I was intrigued. It was on the shelf of our local public library in the youth section. I often find I enjoy youth biographies better than biographies written specifically for adults, because they are more to the point and leave out much of the pointless detail. Since we moved to Maine, many years ago, I have been aware that Stephen King is a neighbor of ours, but I have not put much thought into him, other than the fact that I do not want my children reading any of his books until they are much older. Yet, as a writer myself, I admire his gift and his craft. I decided it was time I read a book about what makes Stephen King tick.

Dark Dreams has an ominous title, but it is a wonderful biography about the life of Stephen King in relation to the current events going on in the world during his lifetime up to this point. It begins with his difficult childhood. His father left the family when Stephen was only two-years-old, and his mother struggled to make ends meet. Stephen grew up in the 1950s when the post war era was booming, but his family in rural Maine was struggling. But his mother was a good mother. She read to him and his brother whenever possible, and she encouraged his love of reading. As any good writer knows, good literature will encourage good writing. Stephen King could be the poster child for this concept. He read voraciously as a child, even skipping out of his school work to read books. He read the horror and science fiction of that day, but he also read the classics and all the old adventure stories. The book claims that sometimes he became so afraid by what he read, that he slept with the light on; but he claimed that one day he wanted to grow up and scare people like that. Not long after he began to write stories, he published an underground newspaper when he was in high school. From there, his love for writing took off.

Over the years, Stephen's wife, Tabitha, has been a great inspiration to him, as have his three children. He had his share of struggles with alcohol, according to the book, but his wife helped him give it all up.

Dark Dreams goes into great detail about the writings of many of his best selling books. From his first bestseller, Carrie, in the 1970s, which was also made into a movie, to the other favorites such as It, Pet Sematary, The Stand, Cujo and The Shining, the book gives glimpses into the interaction he's had with his publishers, editors, and with the public. Many have thought he should have taken out much of the gory parts of his books, but his fans disagree. They say his stories are complete as they are, and should not be changed. I, for one, can say that the stories I have read by Stephen King have always stayed with me.

In reading Dark Dreams, the reader will go away with a better sense about the most popular horror writer of our day. Readers will discover that he is just a regular guy with a regular life; a guy who happens to love to write and has an interest in horror stories. He has a humble past and he has worked hard to get where he is today. He has a family and a home and friends, and like most of us, likes a good story. This book comes highly recommended.

Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, by Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner, the best selling author of such works as The Dance of Anger and The Mother Dance, tackles head on the issues of anxiety, fear, and shame in her book, Fear and Other Uninvited Guests. Those three emotions: anxiety, fear, and shame, says Ms. Lerner, are what cause most of the unhappiness in our lives. Through this book, we are shown that anxiety, fear and shame are a bigger part of our lives than most of us imagine. We may go through life with issues that we never face, and feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness that ultimately comes back to anxiety and fear. Shame is the unmentionable emotion that no one wants to talk about because, ironically, it is so shameful. This is an encouraging book that anyone should read; especially anyone who realizes that anxiety and fear are simply part of living in our modern world.

Ms. Lerner begins her book with a chapter entitled, "Why Can't a Person be More Like a Cat?" This humorous beginning goes into great detail about how her cat seems so aloof to danger, and only feels fear when fear is due; for instance, when he is being forced into a carrying cage to be carted off to the vet. She goes into great detail about how the cat is unashamed to clean himself any and everywhere, regardless of who might be watching, he may enjoy a snooze in the sun without worrying that he might should be doing something more productive, and he will jump into someone's lap or jump out when he feels like it, without concerning himself about the person's feelings. He shows love when he feels love, and when he wants to be alone, he does just that. She points out that she has an idealized notion about her cat's emotional and spiritual life, but the fact is, he doesn't get bogged down by fear and shame.

The rest of us do not have it quite so easy. We have sometimes long entrenched fears that go back generations. We may have been taught by our parents to directly fear something or have anxiety about something else; or we may have been given subliminal or secret messages. The fact is, as Ms. Lerner points out, fear is powerful in all our lives because it hold us back from love and work, or it pushes us toward disaster. It causes all our problems with anger, intimacy, and self-esteem.

Of course, fear is a God given emotion that is necessary in our lives. Ms. Lerner explains how fear can be used as a means of self-preservation and protection from harm or danger. But we so often fear so much more than what is really there. She gives one example of the fear of rejection, and another of the fear of change. She then gives personal examples of people she has helped in therapy, as well as step by step suggestions and guides to dealing with and overcoming fear.

There is a very helpful chapter on dealing with fear and anxiety in the workplace. The author exhorts us to keep the proper perspective about work vs. family, and she goes into great detail about how to keep a level head in the face of workplace anxiety. She talks about what can cause workplace anxiety, and all the different facets involved with dealing with other people on a daily basis. She explains the concept that the workplace itself, as an entity, has a certain amount of anxiety, which keeps it moving forward and productive.

The chapter on shame is revolutionary; it gives specific attention to women in the area of sexuality and having shame about their bodies, and it goes into great detail about age shame, political shame, and many other areas of shame. It is amazing to see oneself in this book, and sad to realize how much shame we, as humans, suppress and suffer from.

While the book has many helpful explanations on dealing with fear, the last chapter gives us hope when it explains that once in a while, everyone freaks out, even those who are completely calm and in touch with their fears and anxieties. It reminds us that we're all human and that we can press on and move forward, even if our fears sometimes get the best of us. This book comes highly recommended.

Monday, May 1, 2006

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International

If you're a first-time mother, then there are a lot of new issues that you have to deal with and a lot of choices that you have to make. Of course, you've been dealing with issues and making choices your whole life; only this time, the issues and choices affect not only you, but your newborn baby as well. One of the first choices you have to make involves how you wish to feed and nourish your baby. Do you want to breastfeed or do you want to give your baby formula?

Many women choose to breastfeed, and if you're one of those, then you might find yourself in need of advice. There are many books available on this particular subject, including one called The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. This book is published by La Leche League International, which is an international organization whose mission is "To help mothers worldwide to breastfeed through mother-to-mother support, encouragement, information, and education and to promote a better understanding of breastfeeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and mother."

When perusing the Table of Contents for The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, you get the idea that this book will be very helpful because it covers so many different topics. The book starts off with several chapters that give new mothers information about breastfeeding. This includes a list of some of the benefits of breastfeeding, how to prepare yourself for breastfeeding, and even what to wear when you're doing it. In addition, the book gives contact information for the La Leche League so that you can find out how to join a chapter in your area if you wish to attend meetings and get in-person support.

The next section of the book deals with bringing your baby home for the first time and the challenges many new mothers face when trying to begin breastfeeding. These chapters also talk about why the La Leche League thinks it's important for mothers not to give up on their breastfeeding efforts if things start to get a bit difficult. The book also talks about how many times you should feed your baby, how to tell when your baby has had enough, and how to go out with your baby and breastfeed away from home.

Other topics included in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding are: going back to work; breastfeeding for twins or multiples; what to do if you or your baby get sick; special-needs situations; nutritional advice; and also how to wean your baby once he or she is old enough to start solid foods.

The book is presented in a very easy-to-read format, which I felt was on of its biggest strengths. Many of the topics are addressed in a question and answer style, which serves to make the information seem more personal and relevant to "real" people. Some sections are even presented in a "case study" format. By this I mean that the authors describe a particularly problematic situation for a (presumably) real mother and child, and then give the reader advice about how to proceed if the same situation crops up in her own life.
If I had to tell you about the weaknesses of the book, I would say that it's the tone and content. While I was reading, I couldn't help but feel that La Leche League International published the book with the intent of pushing their own agenda, which of course, is to get as many women as possible to choose breastfeeding. Instead of doing it in a subtle way, however, or presenting breastfeeding vs. formula as a choice that every mother makes on her own, it seemed that the authors were doing everything they could to "guilt" me into breastfeeding.

In addition, I felt the book overstepped its bounds in numerous instances. For example, instead of sticking to the topic of breastfeeding, which is La Leche League's area of expertise, the authors delve into many other highly personal subjects -- including marital relations, going back to work, and bonding with your baby. Touching on these subjects might have been ok if the authors had dealt with them in an objective manner, but this wasn't the case at all. Instead, the authors again seemed to have a particular agenda to push. For instance, they made it seem as though any woman who would choose to go back to work rather than staying home full-time to raise her baby was somehow less of a mother than one who spends 24 hours per day with her infant. I thought this was very unfair, as many women are in a situation where they simply cannot afford to stay home full-time.

Overall, I have to say that The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is not a book that will appeal to a wide audience. It comes off as exceedingly preachy about many topics outside the sphere of breastfeeding, which will definitely turn a lot of women off to the book. Moreover, the book doesn't even contain that much useful advice as far as actual breastfeeding goes. After reading it, I did have some new pieces of information to draw on, but quite honestly, I felt that I could have gotten the same information from a quick chat with my pediatrician or from a friend who has gone through breastfeeding before.
The bottom line is that if you are absolutely committed to breastfeeding, I think you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I would say spare yourself some frustration and simply ask a trusted, experienced advisor about any questions you may have,

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Testament by John Grisham

The Testament is a sort of departure for John Grisham. The Mississippi born author, who became a bestseller with his second novel, has been experimenting with his last few releases. Instead of the stock legal thrillers for which he is known, Grisham has worked to provide readers with a bit of humor and adventure. The Testament is probably the most successful of those experimental novels.

The story begins with Troy Phelan, a communications billionaire with a mess of a private life. Phelan has amassed a fortune worth $11 billion in his lifetime, but he has no one to whom he wants to leave the money. He has three ex-wives and six children, and none of them are worth the money, in his mind. So Phelan sets up a trick, which is where the book begins.

He has each family of children bring in a psychiatrist. The panel examines Phelan and declares him to be competent. Phelan signs a will in front of everyone and then has them leave with the impression that the will divides the money evenly between the six children. Instead as they are leaving, Phelan pulls out a handwritten holographic will and leaves them very little. Then he jumps to his death.

The mystery will leaves a small sum to each of the six children and the rest of the fortune to Rachel Lane, who is an illegitimate child. No one knew of Rachel before the will, and Phelan left with only a clue about how to find her. She is a missionary in the Pantanal, a large swamp in the area bordering Brazil and Bolivia. She is without communication with the world, and Phelan leaves it to his lawyers to find her and give her the money.

And so the story begins. Josh Stafford, who is the primary attorney for the Phelan business matters, sends one of his attorneys, just out of rehab and with problems of his own, to the Pantanal to track Rachel down. She is living with a group of natives called Ipicas, but the firm knows little about how to find her.

Nate, the attorney charged with the location of Rachel Lane, finds himself on a whirlwind adventure, when he heads Brazil to find Rachel. First he tries to fly a small plane over the swamp to locate a settlement of the Indians, but the plane crashes in a huge storm, and he ends up deserted on a small farm in the middle of nowhere.

Then he and his hired guide, Jevy, charter the Santa Loura, a small boat but one of the best to sail the Pantanal. They take the boat, eventually leaving it because they need a small motorboat. The Santa Loura subsequently sinks; they run out of food and gas; get lost in the swamp; and Nate contracts dengue fever.

Meanwhile the six other Phelan children and their bevy of lawyers are chomping at the bit to contest the will. The will claims that anyone who contests it forfeits her or his portion of the original settlement, but the Phelan children pay little attention to the wishes of their late father. Instead they hire lawyers, PR firms, and put on a show, claiming that their father was of diminished mental capacity when he made his final will.

They are much unlike their sister, Rachel, who rebuffs Nate when he finally reaches her. The life of service to God Rachel chose for herself does not involve money. The Ipicas do not use money, and she plans to live with them until her death. She has no reason to believe that she will ever need the fortune that her father left to her.

This beginning of this tale moves rather slowly, as the reader must get acquainted with all of the elements and the people involved. Grisham does a commendable job, however, of letting the reader get closest to Nate, who under another pen would not be an admirable character. Instead the reader wants Nate to succeed in finding Rachel and to make it out of the Pantanal alive. The Testament is one of the better experimental works Grisham has put out in recent years and is worthy of a read on that beach vacation.

By Julia Mercer

Star Witness by Lia Matera

Star Witness finds attorney Willa Jansson ready to go on vacation from the prestigious law firm for which she works. Then a late-night call sends her to Santa Cruz, a hippie-town in California. The call Jansson receives is from Fred Hershey. Fred is the brother of Edward, a man Willa once loved, and he is calling in a favor that Jansson owes him. A psychiatrist, Fred has a patient with an odd story who needs a lawyer.

Jansson does not want to go and tries to plead her way out of it by explaining that she is on vacation and that she works in civil matters, not criminal. Still, the favor she owes Fred is a big one, so she must repay it. The case, though, turns out to be one that is far more bizarre than she could have imagined.

Her client is a man with a doctorate in mycology. He studies mushrooms for a living, and he is accused of killing someone. His car, a cute little Fiat, landed directly on top of a Buick and killed the man who was driving it. The odd part is that Alan was not in the car, and he does not remember the event. Fred is called in by the prosecutor because Alan seems out of sorts, and the two agree to a hypnosis session. During that session, Alan recounts in terrifying detail the story of an alien abduction.

Jansson does not believe in aliens or UFOs and completely dismisses the story. Still she is drawn in by her lawyerly instincts. The prosecution has no evidence. Alan was not in the car. In fact, he was not found anywhere near the scene. He has injuries, but they are not consistent with a car crash; they are, however, consistent with his abduction story. There are no tire prints, and there is no logical explanation for how the accident would have occurred as it did.

Jansson is unsure about the defense but decides to take the case anyway. She ends up embroiled in a battle about space exploration and finding out what really happened to her client that night. Lia Matera, who weaves this story of Jansson and her case, brings in various UFO theories and presents an interesting image of the study of alien life and the people who believe in it.

The book itself is not about aliens, and Matera takes no stance one way or the other although she certainly leads the reader to believe that aliens did nab Alan that fateful night. The story also includes the common elements of a legal thriller. Betty Adenaur, who was widowed by the accident, loses her mind. She tries to shoot Alan, Willa, and one of the witnesses before she decides to turn the gun on herself.

The story also includes Joseph Huizen, a brilliant mathematician who almost died the night of the abduction. Huizen developed diabetes and almost went into a diabetic coma. He called 911 but became delirious soon afterward. The day after the attack, the field behind Huizen contained a crop circle in the shape of a glucose molecule, a coincidence that Jansson felt compelling enough to bring before the jury.

Mix in an odd psychiatrist, a few bitter experts, a group of hippies traveling to see the crop circle, and a runaway teen, and you have Star Witness. The story leaves out little in its quest to bring to life the liberal town of Santa Cruz.

Matera does a good job with this book and leaves readers with much to consider about alien abduction. She includes real theories in the body of the book, and just for kicks, she adds some sources for interested readers to check out on the web. While she claims not to stake a claim in the aliens argument, she leads readers to consider aliens very closely, probably more seriously than most readers have done in the past.

This book is a quick read. It is only slightly more than 200 pages and flies by fairly quickly. Other than getting bogged down in some of the abduction theories, there is little tedious reading in the novel, making it a good choice for a lazy summer day.

By Julia Mercer

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Review of Marley & Me by John Grogan

I don't go into bookstores very often anymore, as I prefer to do most of my shopping online. However, I have been shopping a lot in recent months and one thing I've noticed is that the book Marley & Me by John Grogan -- along with the picture of that adorable puppy on the cover -- is everywhere. The book came out in October 2005, and has been on the New York Times Bestseller list since that time, which is a total of about 26 weeks or so. It debuted at number 10, but on the strength of excellent reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, the book made it all the way to the coveted number one spot.

I can't say that I was particularly interested in reading it when it first came out because it didn't seem that the author, a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia, would have anything overly interesting to say about owning a dog. So I held off. But the great reviews kept on coming, the book kept on selling, and those puppy dog eyes kept on staring at me whenever I stepped into a bookstore. I finally bought a copy last weekend, hoping that the story would be worth the money I spent.

Marley & Me is subtitled Life & Love With the World's Worst Dog. This struck me as an odd title, because, with the exception of Cujo by Stephen King, most books about dogs sing the praises of the canine species. Yet here was this one that purports to tell about "the world's worst" dog. I was intrigued and wanted to see what this dog could possibly have done to earn the title of the world's worst.

The author starts off by describing a scenario that many people no doubt recognize from personal experience. I know I did. Grogan had just gotten married to his longtime girlfriend Jenny, and they were settling into home life together. They had been contemplating children, but since Jenny couldn't even keep a houseplant alive, there were a few reservations about just what kind of parents they would make. So Jenny had the bright idea to get a puppy to see if they would be able to handle that kind of responsibility. After all, both Jenny and John had had dogs as children and knew that they would want to get another dog eventually.

So Jenny found a classified ad offering purebred Labrador retriever puppies, and the Grogans went to visit the breeder, promising themselves that they would only "look." Yeah, right. As you might expect, they ended up selecting a puppy that night (they chose the one that passed John's special "scare test"), and were told to come back in a few weeks, after which time the puppy would be weaned.

And that was how Marley first entered their lives. The author goes on to recount numerous stories about Marley's puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood, and, eventually, old age. Anyone who has ever had a dog can tell you that you always remember the distinct stages because of the different behaviors that occur in each. For example, a puppyhood filled with chewed possessions, destroyed furniture, and potty training missteps is enough to test anyone's patience. Plus, puppies have a seemingly endless supply of energy and never tire of playing. But once adolescence and adulthood arrive, most dogs calm down enough to make taking care of them much easier on their owners.

Somehow, though, that calming phase never really happened with Marley. He was a bundle of energy from the moment the Grogans brought him home, almost right up until the very end. The author tells us tales of mass destruction that only dog owners would believe -- or understand. Marley's favorite pastime seemed to be eating household objects that should have been strictly off-limits, including: garbage, jewelry, paychecks, shoes, and pillows.

Grogan provides readers with ample evidence to back up the claim that Marley was the world's worst dog. For one thing, the Grogans had trouble containing Marley whenever they had to leave the house. In their first home, they were able to keep Marley in an attached garage that was made of cement. It was pretty much indestructible -- or so they thought. Then a thunderstorm came along when they weren't home and they were suddenly, and gruesomely, introduced to Marley's greatest fear. Yes, the dog had a terrible phobia of storms, and bloodied himself by trying to escape the garage on many occasions. He clawed at the wooden door, tearing it to splinters, and cut up his face and paws in the process. For another thing, Marley didn't take to well to training. He was expelled from obedience school the first time he went, and seemed to have trouble walking on a leash for most of his life. Marley would constantly pull and strain on the leash, often dragging the author or his wife on a wild ride behind him.

But of course Grogan wouldn't have written this book if he didn't love and appreciate Marely deeply, so we are also treated to many instances of kindness and loyalty from man's best friend. One of the most touching scenes in the entire book was the one after Jenny and John first learned of Jenny's miscarriage. They were very excited at the prospect of being parents, so the news was obviously a crushing blow. Jenny had a hard time dealing with the news, but she didn't cry until she came home and was alone with Marley. The dog, who had shown no signs of ever slowing down before, somehow sensed that this was a very serious and somber moment. So he calmly laid his head in Jenny's lap and stood silently by while she gave vent to her grief.

I have to say that I found Marley & Me to be an extremely well-written memoir. I think the author had a tough task in front of him. The focus of the story was supposed to be about the dog, but there was really no way to concentrate only on the dog without bringing the family's life and struggles into the picture. But at the same time, Grogan realized that his reader's didn't buy the book just to read about him and his wife, so it was necessary to engage in a delicate balancing act throughout. Grogan handles it surprisingly well, however, and the story reads pretty smoothly while staying focused on the major events. The chapters are short, so they go by rather quickly. It's easy to read a good chunk of the book in one sitting, and to finish it in just a few hours.

As with all stories about dogs, this one ends on a sad note. The last portion of the book deals with Marley's advancing age, declining health, and ultimately, his peaceful death. By that time, the reader is wholly invested in Marley -- and, indeed, the entire Grogan clan -- so the death is bound to hit you as hard as if your own beloved pet were going through the same thing.

I have read a few negative reviews of Marley & Me, which is not surprising, I guess. Not everyone has the same tastes, so it would be highly unreasonable to expect everyone to love this book. Some of the criticisms I've seen come from people who feel that the author was actually "cruel" to his dog. One reason for this is that the author used a choke-style collar on Marley to try to get the dog to learn how to walk on a leash. Others couldn't believe that the Grogans kept Marley in the garage when they left the house, or that they went on a week-long vacation to Disney World when the dog was old and weak.

Although I am not here to defend Grogan, I will say that I don't agree with these criticisms. Many dog obedience experts advocate the use of choke-style collars on big or uncontrollable dogs because that's often the only way to get them to stop pulling. The alternative could be that the dog just breaks completely free and runs into oncoming traffic, which is a scenario that actually does happen from time to time. In addition, I think there's nothing wrong with the way the Grogan's left Marley in the cement garage. They were living in Florida, after all, so it was never cold. And because the garage was cement, it was probably a heck of a lot cooler than a wooden garage would have been. Plus, Marley was huge and wasn't responsible enough to have the run of the house while they were gone. As for the complaints about the family going on vacation, all I have to say is that the world doesn't stop just because pets -- or people, for that matter -- get old. The Grogans had three children at that time, and couldn't be expected to just hang around the house until Marley passed away.

Overall, I thought that reading Marley & Me was an amazing experience. The complete love and devotion from both owner and pet were evident on every single page of the book. I've had three dogs so far in my life, and they've all had vastly different personalities. Dogs are sometimes aloof, sometimes very clingy, and sometimes in between those two extremes. But usually, they all have a common denominator, and that is the fact that they love unconditionally. If you take care of your dog and provide a decent shelter, the dog will return your love a hundredfold.

Some people have said that Marley & Me has too narrow of an audience to make a truly big impact on the reading world. That might very well be the case, since I can't imagine someone who has never owned a dog being able to understand the sheer joy and utter devastation that comes from the relationship. But Grogan doesn't pretend that this book is supposed to be a literary masterpiece that's supposed to endure through the ages. I took it for what it was: a loving, heartfelt tribute to one of the best friends and companions a person could ever ask for. If you read it like that, and then apply the general themes to your own life, you will feel rewarded for having "met" Marley and the Grogans.