Friday, March 31, 2006

Excel 2003 For Dummies by Greg Harvey

Since computers are such a big part of everyday life, it can be easy to assume that everyone knows how to use them -- and knows how to use the programs that come pre-packaged with them. When you buy a new computer at the store, chances are that it comes with several Microsoft Office programs already installed: Word, Access, PowerPoint, and Excel, with Word and Excel being the two most popular programs for home-based users.

Although most people can work their way through the basic word processing functions of Word, trying to create spreadsheets in Excel is a much more daunting task for someone who has never used that kind of program before. In addition, there's only so much you can learn from "playing around" with the Excel toolbar buttons. If a new user really wants to get the most out of Excel, a book or study guide is probably in order. That's where Excel 2003 For Dummies by Greg Harvey comes in.

As you probably know, the For Dummies series of books breaks subjects down into their most basic parts to help people learn something new. In this particular book, Harvey sets out to help readers tackle Excel 2003. Like all of the For Dummies books, the author assumes that the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject whatsoever, and starts from the very beginning.

Thus, Excel 2003 For Dummies starts out with a chapter that takes the reader on a quick tour of a blank worksheet, showing what cells and cell addresses are for. He also shows the reader how to start Excel from the Start Menu or from Explorer in the Windows OS (I told you this book was for beginners!). Once Excel is open, Harvey takes the reader on a much more detailed tour of Excel, explaining what all the buttons on the Standard Toolbar are for, describing the significance of the different pointer shapes, and telling about all the other features that the user will see on the screen when running the program.

Next, Harvey shows the reader how to create a worksheet, which simply means entering and saving data. Here he takes some additional time to give the reader a few tips about how to save time when performing data entry by using features such as AutoFill, how to correct mistakes, and how to create a few simple functions.

Other topics that Harvey spends a lot of time on include how to edit worksheets to make them look more professional, how to create tables and charts, how to create and utilize hyperlinks, and how to create simple macros.

When I first picked up this book, I knew a bit about Excel 2003, but not enough to do much with the program. As a result, I found that I could basically just skip the first few chapters about the layout of a typical worksheet and dive right into some of the later chapters. Prior to buying Excel 2003 For Dummies, I was particularly interested in learning how to create different functions to help me crunch some numbers for a specific task that I have to do pretty often. Before getting the book, I had to enter all the data and perform the mathematical functions by hand. My goal was to be able to enter just the raw numbers and have Excel spit out the end result thanks to some prerecorded functions that I wanted to enter in specific cells. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to learn how to do that from Harvey's book.

I am a bit torn on what kind of recommendation to give Excel 2003 For Dummies. On the one hand, it is supposed to be an introduction for beginners -- which is what it clearly is. But on the other hand, the book doesn't go very far into the subject. Don't get me wrong; the book is very thick and contains lots of information. It's just that the information won't allow you to be able to do anything substantial with Excel once you're finished with it. I realize that a book for beginners isn't going to be able to go as in-depth as an advanced volume would, but I felt that Excel 2003 For Dummies fell far short of being what I would call a "complete" beginner's guide.

This book certainly could have benefited from a few tutorials thrown in here and there. As things stand, there are no sample exercises in this book that would allow you to check your progress or understanding of the concepts. Sure, it's possible to follow along with what Harvey is saying by executing the commands that he describes in the book, but anyone can do that. It's obviously much harder to do things when you start from scratch and have a series of data to enter.

On the plus side, I will admit that the book was easy to follow along and understand. Harvey did a good job of explaining the basics of Excel without lapsing into techno-babble and without using too much jargon. I do feel much more comfortable working with Excel 2003 now that I've read this book; I'm just not able to do as much as I thought I would be able to after reading this guide.

Overall, Excel 2003 For Dummies will get you up to speed on what a spreadsheet is and what all the buttons are for. But it won't take you beyond that. If you need something more, I suggest getting a book of tutorials instead.

Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra

The book Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra is a heart wrenching book that spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. It is also a major motion picture and many famous people play in it such as Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Kevin Bacon, and many more. Before the book starts, there is a page that resembles part of a dictionary, stating that the definition of a sleeper is either an out of town hit man who spends the night after killing somebody, or it is a juvenile that is sentenced to serve a period longer than nine months in a state facility. This book is about four boys who almost accidentally kill a man and get sentenced to serve in a state facility. It is a story of their time in the facility, and the horrors that they go through for the rest of their lives because of what happened to them there.

The book starts out in the winter of 1993, where one of the boys who were in the facility is confronting one of the guards who tortured and brutalized him for the duration of his stay in the facility many years before. The man is begging the boy that he tortured many years before to forgive him for what he did to him as a child. This book is a true story, but Carcaterra has changed most of the date, locations, and people to keep the people involved a secret. He also states that many people helped recreate his story, but he promised to keep all of the anonymous.

The story starts out in the hot summer of 1963, in Hell's Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood. Four best friends are preparing for a go cart race, where the first prize is worth fifteen dollars. The four boys, Shakes, John, Butter, and Michael, decide that Shakes is going to be the driver of the cart. In the end, Shakes does not make it or win, and all of his friends laugh and joke at him like best friends do. The four boys were inseparable, and hung out every day together. They all came from broken homes, where their fathers beat their mothers, and there was not much love in the home. They were all each other had. They all went to the same Catholic school together, and got along well with Father Bobby. Father Bobby was more like a friend to the boys than a priest, and all the boys would go to Father Bobby for something important instead of going to their parents.

All of the boys loved going to church and also loved playing pranks on people. Sometimes, the boys would sneak into the confession booths and act like a priest to hear confessions. Although they never got into trouble, one lady confided in them that she was sleeping around which was a very big deal in those years, and then she told them thank you and she knew they would keep it to themselves. The lady never told on them for it, even though she knew that they should not be doing it. Besides pulling pranks on people, they all loved to go swimming, play stickball, and harass the older people in town like Fat Mancho, the owner of the bodega downtown. They would go in and take candy without paying for it, then tease him. It was all in good fun, and even though Fat Mancho acted like he did not like the boys, deep down, he cared for all four of them. The four boys had very foul mouths, and acted a lot older than they all were, but they were actually really good boys. None of the boys ever caused any real trouble or really hurt anybody with their antics.

One hot summer day, like every other summer day in Hell's Kitchen, they decided to steal a hot dog cart from a vendor, and leave it a couple of blocks away. They had done it before and nothing serious ever came of it. What started as a joke ended up sending them to the Wilkinson Home for Boys. They never planned that the vendor would give chase, and when he did, the boys took the cart further than they planned, and ended up dropping it down a flight of stairs. The cart ended up pinning the man against the wall, and it almost killed him. Father Bobby did all he could to keep the boys out of the home, but to no avail. Shakes had a feeling that Father Bobby knew something bad about the home, but he would not tell him about it. He knew that Father Bobby did not want to scare him and the other boys. He wanted all of the boys to go to the home and be strong about it.

Soon after being sentenced, all of the boys were loaded on a bus and sent to the home. The first day the boys got there, they knew that their stay was going to be unforgettable. In the Wilkinson Home for Boys, each of the four boys lost their innocence. In words that should not be spoken, the boys were beaten, raped, and tortured by the young guards that were supposed to be watching over them and keeping them out of trouble. The four boys tried to stay friends and stand up for each other, but the more they stood up for each other, the worse the abuse got. For the whole time the boys were in the home, they withstood beatings and rapes daily. At one point, there was a football game where the inmates and the guards played against each other. The inmates teamed up and got the biggest guys in the facility on their team to try and give the guards back what they received the whole time they were there. During the game, the guards are very rough and end up killing one of the inmates. They boys thought that they were standing up against the guards, but they only made it much worse on themselves.

When the boys finally got out of the home, they all stayed friends, but two of the boys grew up to be killers, John and Tommy, who they called Butter. Michael became a lawyer, and Lorenzo, who they called Shakes after Shakespeare, became a writer. One day, two men shoot and kill a man in a bar. The two guys who killed him are John and Tommy, and the man that they kill is one of the guards who raped and tortured them as children. The two men plead innocent when they are caught, and to their surprise, their best childhood friend, Michael, decides to prosecute them. At first, they think that Michael is crazy and he really does want them to go to jail. Over the period of the trial, it becomes apparent that Michael took the case against his two best friends to lose, and to open the doors on the Wilkinson Home for Boys.

Join four best friends on their journey and trial while they are trying to prosecute the men who ruined their souls. You will meet a lot of great men and not so great men from the boy's childhoods, the men that the boys grew up around. Although the boys caused trouble when they were younger, the men they grew up around like Fat Mancho, Father Bobby, and King Benny knew that the boys were good boys, and they wanted the men who hurt them put to rest. During the trial, the guards who tortured the boys were very surprised to see all four of them in the same courtroom, and they all tried to deny what they did to the poor boys. I promise, if you read this story you will laugh, you will cry, and you will meet four great men who are bonded for the rest of their lives weather they like it or not.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary

Anyone who has ever taken a foreign language class before knows that you need at least two books in order to succeed. The first is the actual textbook that the class will use; and the second is a dictionary to help you decipher the thousands of yet-unknown words in the new language.

Even though a dictionary is one of the most important tools a person can use when learning a new language, you'd be surprised at how many people don't spend a few extra moments to choose a good one. Instead, they seem quite content to pick up the first one they see on the bookstore shelf, buy it, and then forget about it. But that kind of selection process (if you can even call it that) is likely to get you into trouble later on because the dictionary you chose might not be suitable to your purposes. If you've had trouble finding a good foreign language dictionary in the past, I recommend taking a look at the Collins Gem series -- specifically, the Latin-English, English-Latin dictionary produced by this company.

The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary is a pocket dictionary that really packs a punch. It is billed as a "mini-dictionary," and as such can almost fit into the palm of your hand. It is extremely compact and lightweight, which means it won't take up much space in your backpack or cause you any undue shoulder strain that sometimes occurs when lugging around much heavier books. But don't let its size fool you. The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary is filled with useful information that goes well beyond the definition of words.

But let's talk about definitions first, since that's obviously what you'll be buying the dictionary for to begin with. I am not an expert on the Latin language, so I can't say with any authority which words are the most common. However, I have been using The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary for several years now as a supplement to my Wheelock's Latin Grammar and other introductory texts. I have had to look up hundreds of words in my Latin dictionary, and I have yet to come across a word that wasn't included in the Collins version. In other words, even though this is a mini-dictionary, it's not likely that beginning learners will have to find another source to help them define words. This one seems to cover the basics pretty well.

One thing that is quite a bit different from full-sized dictionaries is the length of the entries. The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary is all about succinctness and doesn't drag definitions out unnecessarily. In fact, most of the time you just get one or two synonyms when using the Latin to English portion of the book. The English to Latin portion contains a bit more information, and will tell you standard details about nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In other words, you will be able to figure out how to decline nouns and adjectives and conjugate verbs from the entries in this dictionary, which is absolutely essential for any student of Latin.

Besides the definitions, this dictionary contains numerous supplemental pages intended to serve as a quick reference guide. For example, there is one page that lists ancient Roman measurement standards so that you can perform conversions in Latin. Another page lists Roman numerals in case you forget how to write some of the less common ones. There is also an extremely helpful grammar section in the middle of the dictionary that contains examples of conjugated verbs in all tenses and voices, declined nouns in all 5 declensions, a brief pronunciation guide, and even several pages to help you make sense of Latin poetry. Although this kind of information might not be necessary when you have your textbook sitting right in front of you, it does help when other reference materials aren't available. Plus, many foreign language teachers allow the use of dictionaries during exams, so this extra information could really come in handy at those times!

If you're looking for a good dictionary to help get you through your first few years of high school or college Latin, I suggest checking out The Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. It's a convenient little book that more than adequately serves its purpose.

The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter

Many people -- even those that aren't writers by profession -- have at some point in their lives dreamed of writing a book. They fantasize about how satisfying it would be to see their names in print, their pictures on the dust jacket, and their book on the shelves of major retailers all across the country. Sadly, however, the reality is that only a small percentage of the manuscripts received by large publishing houses ever make it to press. So, what are all the other aspiring authors supposed to do? Well, according to Dan Poynter, the answer might be self-publishing.

The Self-Publishing Manual is a how-to book designed to show would-be writers how to get their manuscript published without having to deal with agents and the bureaucracy that usually slows down the entire process at the bigger publishing firms. He states early on that his instructions are geared more for people interested in writing nonfiction for niche markets rather than those who believe they have the next Harry Potter phenomenon on their hands. I knew that was the focus of his book before I purchased it, so I didn't feel misled and wasn't disappointed at all.

The first thing I noticed about The Self-Publishing Manual is that it looks professionally done. It doesn't look like something that was run off on a basement press or anything, so this gave me additional hope. Moreover, the About the Author page near the front of the book shows a picture of Poynter with a tall stack of books. The note on the page says that Poynter has written, published, and produced over 80 books.

I'm mentioning these two points right at the start for a very important reason. You should be wary of anyone who claims to be an expert at something, yet doesn't have the resume to back those claims up. For example, Poynter is supposed to be an expert on self-publishing. Therefore, it would look very strange if he only had one or two books with his name on them. That would indicate that he actually makes all of his money from selling advice rather than books, which is not what I'm interested in at all. So the fact that he has produced so many books coupled with the fact that the book actually looks professional gave me high hopes that I might be able to achieve the same results.

At the beginning of the book, Poynter lists a bunch of reasons why self-publishing might be better for some people than going the traditional route. Although these pages served to reinforce my convictions about purchasing the book (which very well may have been his intention), I thought they were pretty unnecessary since most people who buy this book will have already done quite a bit of research into the topic.

After that, things start to get really interesting. Poynter gives advice about how to get your manuscript out of your head and into your word processing program. He presents some ideas about organization and research, and even lays out a blueprint of what the back cover should look like. Again, the actual book that I was holding in my hands followed that advice to the letter, and the result was excellent. So I was still convinced that Poynter was on to something.

Then Poynter goes into a lot of details about the actual printing and binding process, along with many descriptions of the different types of paper and cover stock that printers have to work with. He gives some guidelines about which kind of paper to use that will be best suited to your purposes, and talks about how to get artwork for your cover design. This stuff was actually a bit confusing and boring while I was reading the book, but I'm sure it will be useful later when I finally reach that stage with my manuscript. But for now, I just skimmed that part.

Finally, Poynter talks about what to do with your finished product. He tells of the importance of promoting your book, talks about how to get on radio shows, and gives tips on how to get your book reviewed by significant people in your niche market. He then explains how pricing works, reiterates the importance of fulfilling orders promptly, and talks about how to deal with being a published author. I found that part to be a bit cheesy, especially when he devotes a couple of paragraphs to the problem of signing autographs -- but that's just my opinion!

Overall, I am pleased to say that I found The Self-Publishing Manual to be very informative. Unlike a lot of how-to books on the market today, this one was not full of vague advice and rehashed cliches that have been circulating forever. In most of the chapters, Poynter gives step-by-step instructions on how to get things done, often including measurements and other details that show he really knows what he's talking about. Plus, for almost every piece of advice he gives, the reader need simply look at the book itself for a concrete example of how the finished product will turn out.

I also found the chapter on electronic books and e-publishing to be very useful. Poynter gives enough information in this section that it would be possible for even a novice to produce an e-book without going through the other steps to produce a printed book. This is obviously a much cheaper and faster option, and could be quite useful for people who need to immediately capitalize on an idea that might not be able to wait for the printing process to run its course.

I haven't followed all of the steps in this book yet, so I can't say with 100 percent confidence whether or not they will work. But I have taken Poynter's advice about several preliminary steps and I seem to be on the right track now. After reading this book, I feel very excited about continuing on with a few book projects that have been on the backburner for some time now. The fact that Poynter's book has inspired me to start working on my own projects again is another reason that I liked it.

If you know that you have a great book idea inside of you, but you can't make any headway with the big publishing houses because you don't have the right connections, then I recommend reading The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. This guide will tell you everything you need to know in order to get your book into printed form and ready for distribution. Now you can stop dreaming of being an author and instead take the steps to make it happen!

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

When I was young, I loved reading, and I loved to be read to. Even now, my favorite thing to do is lie down in bed, and read a good book. Now that I have a young son, he also loves to be read to, and when the time comes, I am almost positive that he will love to read as much as I did. When I was about eight or nine years old, my grandmother bought me the book The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Over the years, my book became lost, and when my son was born, I wanted him to have it. I was surprised one summer day to find a copy of it at a rummage sale. I was even more surprised that it was in great condition. I was so excited! I snatched it up, and drove straight home so I could read it to my son. I just knew that he would love it!

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling was made into a Disney movie. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney is about a young boy that was found in the jungle by Bagheera, the Panther. Bagheera saw the little boy in a broken boat, and he decided to bring him to the wolf family. The family of wolves had recently had a litter of baby cubs, so Bagheera knew that the mother wolf would be able to care and feed the little boy. As soon as the little boy seen the first wolf, he quit crying and became content. The wolf family decided to name the little boy Mowgli, and from that day on, Mowgli was part of the wolf family.

Even though Mowgli was in the wolf family, Bagheera often stopped to visit with the small boy that he had found abandoned in a broken boat years before. Shere Khan, a grumpy tiger, knew that Mowgli would grow to be a man, and Shere Khan thought that when that day came, Mowgli would become a hunter and kill them all. Shere Khan is a tiger with a very bad temper and hated all of man kind. He made a pact with himself that he would never let Mowgli grow to be a man, and he thought that this would be best for all animals in the jungle.

When the rest of the animals in the jungle found out about Shere Khan's plan, they called a meeting to decide what to do with Mowgli. Everybody knew that he could not live in the jungle alone, so Bagheera told the animals that he knew of a village where Mowgli could be a regular boy, and he would also be safe from the evil Shere Khan. When Bagheera told Mowgli where he would be taking him, Mowgli cried and was very persistent that the jungle was his home and that was where he wanted to stay. Bagheera felt sad for the boy, but he knew that the man village was the best and safest place for little Mowgli to live.

On their trip to the man village, they ran into some obstacles. The first one was Kaa, the snake. When Bagheera was sleeping, Kaa cast a spell on Mowgli. He squeezed Mowgli with his body and was just about to eat him when Bagheera woke up and whacked Kaa.
He quickly let go of him and slithered away. The next morning, they ran into the elephant tribe. The elephants were marching in a line, which interested Mowgli very much. Mowgli started copying the baby elephant, and decided that he would rather live with the crowd of elephants instead of in the man village. Bagheera would let no such thing happen, so they started their journey once again to the man village. Next, Mowgli met Baloo, the bear. When Mowgli told Baloo that he was going to have to live in the man village, Baloo decided that he could live with him, and he would teach him to be a bear. They had a great day together, eating yummy fruit and playing all day, but Bagheera knew what Mowgli needed and tried to get him away from Baloo.

Bagheera finally gave up, and let Mowgli stay with Baloo. When Baloo and Mowgli were floating down the river, the monkeys stole Mowgli when Baloo was not looking. When Baloo tried to get the boy back from the tricky monkeys, they laughed and taunted him. They tripped Baloo with a vine and knocked him out. When Bagheera found Baloo and woke him up, Baloo was very dazed. They know that the mischievous monkeys have taken Mowgli away, and they think they may have taken him to the hated Shere Khan. They know that they must find the boy before something terrible happens to him. Bagheera suspects that they have taken Mowgli to the old ruined city. What Bagheera suspected is actually what happened. They took Mowgli to their king, King Louie.

Join Bagheera and Baloo on their way to find the boy Mowgli. You will have to read the book to see if Mowgli goes to live in the man village or stays with him wolf family for good. You will also find out if the evil Shere Khan finds Mowgli and kills him before he turns into a man. This is a great book for an adult or a child to read. It has great, colorful pictures and is a very good story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, M.D.

I suppose the following is as much of a review of the diet as it is of the book, but they seem hard to separate. How, after all, can one review the book without trying the diet?

My initial exposure to the South Beach Diet was during a conversation with my father. During a visit at his home, I noticed that a copy of the book was on the table. I asked my father if he was trying the diet, to which he had replied that he had lost over 10 pounds in just 2 months. Given that I felt about 20 to 25 pounds overweight, I was also interested in losing weight, so we started discussing it.

From that moment, I virtually cut out all breads, pastas, and rice, reduced my fruit intake by 80% or more, reduced refined sugar intake by 90%, and began drinking Metamucil prior to lunch and dinner. The most immediate result was that within a couple of days I felt better than I had recalled feeling in years, notably better. It was not that I felt bad; I just did not know that I could feel better. It should be noted here that this effect appears to be specific to me as it does not seem to be mentioned, as I recall, in the book as an effect for others.

So I bought the book. Even better, I actually read it!

I found the book to be an easy read. The author mixes in a sufficient amount of science and test results to give one a feel for the "why it works" and "what to expect" of the diet. My only criticism is that I found the testimonials to be a bit on the overly-promotional side, sort of like "AND THAT'S NOT ALL, YOU'LL ALSO GET THIS SET OF KNIVES", if you will. Regardless, these testimonials are in boxes, easily identifiable such that you can take them or leave them. In my opinion, read a couple, then skip them.

After reading the book, I began following the diet more religiously, completely cutting out carbs, fruits, and sugars for about 3 weeks, then only reintroducing negligible amounts of high fiber breads, fruits, and sugars. In about 3 months I have gone from 220 pounds to 197 pounds, although it should be mentioned that I have also increased my level of exercise. Regardless, I believe that the majority of my weight loss is attributable to the diet.

The change has been so dramatic it is really not believable. It is as if the weight just melted off of me. Frankly, I never thought it could come off so easily and quickly. Put me down as impressed.

My father's total weight loss, in his case with no change in exercise, is now in excess of 25 pounds, all in about 4 months. You can also count him as impressed.

Along the way, I have seldom been hungry. The key to this diet is to eat lots and lots of vegetables, which I do, in addition to eating meats, eggs, and nuts, up to and until content, in sensible amounts. When I'm particularly hungry, I keep grazing on celery, bell peppers, and cucumbers until I'm full.

The only time I have found myself hungry is when I was not prepared. The South Beach Diet is a low carb diet in a high carb world. I have learned to always have a pocketful of nuts with me, which can generally get one through a stretch of time when one just can't stop and slice a cucumber. At this point, I cannot imagine that I'll ever get off of this seemingly healthier diet.

I have recommended this diet to a number of friends, and I recommend it to you. Buy the book. Follow the diet. It is quite likely that this book will change your (then quite possibly longer) life.

The No Spin Zone by Bill O'Reilly

Over the years, cable news show host Bill O'Reilly has tried to portray himself as someone who values the unadulterated truth. Towards that end, he has dubbed the set of his show the "no spin zone," which implies that once guests agree to come on and be interviewed by him, the spin must stop while only the truth gets out. This is a rather tall order, particularly considering the fact that most of his guests are politicians, lawyers, and other people whose profession practically requires them to put a good spin on everything that their clients or cronies do.

The No Spin Zone is the second book published by O'Reilly since his show vaulted to the top of the cable news ratings. The subtitle of the book is "Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous in America," which I think is a rather telling line that describes the way he treats the people he interviews. O'Reilly views everything as a "confrontation," so there is necessarily a lot of yelling, interrupting, and generally rude behavior during the interviews on his show.

That spirit of discontent carries over into the book because the book is essentially a glorified transcript of his television show. Yep, that's right: if you are a regular viewer of The O'Reilly Factor, then you'll probably already be familiar with at least a portion of this book. The No Spin Zone is divided into 16 chapters, and 13 of those contain a rehash of an interview with a powerful or famous person that previously aired on the show! Then one chapter is a "fantasy" interview with Senator Hillary Clinton, where O'Reilly lists the questions he would ask her if she ever appeared on his show. Another chapter is spent dealing with questions from viewers, and the final chapter contains advice from O'Reilly on how readers can "establish [their] own personal No Spin Zone."

Each of the first 13 chapters starts with a snippet from the previously televised interview. Then O'Reilly chimes in with several pages of information that is intended to give the reader some background information about the subject under discussion, as well as to lay the groundwork for his own personal opinion about the matter -- ostensibly so the reader can understand why he takes the position that he does during the interview. After that, he reprints more of the interview, and wraps the chapter up with a few final thoughts on the subject. Some of the subjects covered in The No Spin Zone include sex education in the public schools, graphic content on television, graphic lyrics in rap and other forms of music, and America's so-called "drug culture."

I found the format of the book to be a bit troublesome. After all, O'Reilly was basically dragging his interview opponents back into the ring and dissecting their answers and positions once again. Only now, he obviously has the upper hand because he has had time to think about and plan out a longer response, as well as gather more examples to support his side. And of course, his opponents do not have an opportunity to offer a rebuttal because, well, this is after all O'Reilly's book.

Another thing that really bothered me about this book was the fact that almost all of the issues that O'Reilly addresses in it had previously been discussed at length on this television show. Maybe I didn't read the publisher's description closely enough before ordering it from a website, but I think that if I had known what kind of book this was, I wouldn't have purchased it to begin with. The amount of original content versus previously aired material varies from chapter to chapter. Just from a quick perusal here (and these calculations are by no means scientific), one of the chapters from the book is approximately seven pages long. One of those pages contains transcripts from the TV show, leaving six pages of original text (or, a ratio of 14.3 percent rehashed content to 85.7 percent original content).

I really enjoyed O'Reilly's first effort (The O'Reilly Factor), but I can't give The No Spin Zone the same kind of endorsement. If I were you, I would just skip this one entirely. You wouldn't be missing much, especially if you already watch O'Reilly's television show!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

Stephen W. Hawking is probably the most famous theoretical physicist in the world. Nearly everyone knows his name, if not what his specific contributions to the field have been. He holds the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, which is one of the most prestigious positions in the academic realm. Indeed, the position dates all the way back to 1663, and has been occupied by such luminaries as the great Sir Isaac Newton.

Part of the reason that Hawking is such a familiar name, if not sight, to average, everyday people who otherwise don't care much about mathematics and physics, is that the professor has succeed in this world despite suffering from ALS for most of his life. Hawking is confined to a motorized wheelchair and can only communicate through a voice synthesizer. However, I think it's safe to say that another reason Hawking is so famous is that he has written several books on physics. One of them, A Brief History of Time, was on the bestseller list in the United Kingdom for nearly four years. However, by Hawking's own admission, that particular work was rather dense and too difficult for most people to understand. Therefore, he decided to write another book, this time with "regular" people in mind. The result was The Universe in a Nutshell.

In The Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking tackles a lot of different cosmological topics. Some of these are easy to understand, even for someone like me who has zero background in mathematics or physics, but a lot of the concepts are very abstract and therefore difficult to come to terms with. The book is organized in such a way that only the first two chapters are "required" reading. Hawking presents a lot of basic information and background in these chapters, and subsequent chapters build off of this material. After the first two chapters, the reader may pick and choose chapters at random, with the relative assurance that he or she will be able to get the gist of what the author is talking about.

As I said, I am not interested in either mathematics or physics at all. I received this book as a gift, and decided to give it a shot. I am happy to report that I found a majority of it to be very absorbing and worthwhile to read. For example, I enjoyed Hawking's explanations of Einstein's general and special theories of relativity. I also liked how Hawking gave quite a bit of additional information about Einstein. Although Einstein is obviously known for his groundbreaking equation E = mc^2, I didn't realize how many things he was wrong about and how many other breakthroughs were within his reach if only he had been willing to step back and reconsider some ideas.

Another part of The Universe in a Nutshell that fascinated me was Hawking's discussion of time travel. I like the way Hawking says that time travel is not merely the stuff of science fiction, but can also provide excellent fodder for physicists. Although Hawking ends up showing that time travel in something like a spaceship is not possible, it was still a fun topic that I think most people would find intriguing.

What sets The Universe in a Nutshell apart from Hawking's earlier efforts is that this book contains many diagrams and illustrations that are intended to help the reader visualize the concepts that Hawking is explaining. I found that these were indeed invaluable, and I truly believe that I wouldn't have understood half as much of the book if the drawings had not been available to me.

Some people that I've talked to about the book have mentioned that it is a bit repetitive in certain ways. But it must be remembered that Hawking intended the material to be presented in a manner that didn't require readers to plod straight through from cover to cover. So it's only natural that he would repeat certain key points in different chapters, just in case readers do in fact decide to skip around.

Overall, I have to say that The Universe in a Nutshell is a wonderful book that will satisfy your curiosity about some of the major problems in physics and cosmology. Hawking does a great job of distilling complex concepts into understandable language, so don't be afraid to give this work a try!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The King of Torts by John Grisham

Although I am an avid reader, there are times when I simply hit the proverbial wall when it comes to the classics. That is to say, no matter how hard I try, I just can't make it through some particularly dense work. When that happens, I have a surefire cure: I read a John Grisham novel instead. That's definitely not a knock on Grisham; what I actually mean is that I can be relatively certain that I can a) get through the entire book in just a few days; and b) enjoy it enough to make the detour into popular fiction worth my while.

But recently, I'll admit that I've been extremely disappointed with the Grisham works that I've chosen. I used to read his earlier books while they were still new enough to have hardcover versions circulating at the library. After a few years, however, I went in search of other writers and left Grisham alone. So now that I'm back, I have a lot of "new" books to choose from. The latest one for me was The King of Torts, first published in 2003.

The first few chapters of the book are "typical" Grisham from his legal thriller days, so I immediately had high hopes for this work. The setting is Washington, D.C., and the reader is apprised of a very mysterious shooting that occurred one night in the inner city. A young man gunned down an acquaintance seemingly for no reason at all. There were no drugs involved, no money squabble, no girl troubles… it was a puzzling case to anyone who was willing to look beyond the surface details. But of course, since the shooting took place among poor people in the poor section of town, no one cared to ask the right questions. It was an open and shut case as far as the police were concerned. The suspect was assigned to a public defender, and that would probably be it.

The public defender is Clay Carter. He's been in that line of work for five years, and it was taking its toll on him. As a graduate of Georgetown Law School, he was worth much more than the minimal salary he was pulling in at the Office of the Public Defender. But he never quite found the energy to move on -- until a stranger named Max Pace comes into his life.

Pace says that he is a "firefighter," someone hired by a large corporation to contain small problems and make them go away before they turned into larger, unmanageable problems. He claims to represent a pharmaceutical company that manufactured a bad drug. This drug is supposed to help people kick their addiction to street drugs based on opium or cocaine. The potential profits from such a drug would of course be huge, so the pharmaceutical company rushed the drug through clinical trials. But this was the kind of thing that had to be tested on humans in order to see if it really worked. So the company started leaking the drug to rehab facilities in different parts of the world, including Washington, D.C.

According to Pace, the company soon discovered that about 8 percent of people taking the drug would go start randomly killing people for no reason at all. This, Pace says, is what was going on in Clay's shooting case. The killer was one of the 8 percent adversely affected by the drug. Pace reasoned that since the use of drugs and narcotics were not really a legal defense strategy in murder, Carter should drop the case. Instead, Pace would point him to the rest of the people affected by the bad drug. Clay would get their families to sign up with him, and he would represent them in a very quiet class-action suit against the pharmaceutical company. Since the company was the one orchestrating everything in the first place, the settlements would be guaranteed, and they would be quick. The company was willing to compensate each family to the tune of $5 million, and Clay would receive $30 million for his services.

Although Clay has trouble comprehending what it all means, he soon decides to go for it. After all, the families would be taken care of, and he would essentially be winning the lottery. So Clay leaves the Office of the Public Defender, opens his own firm (under Pace's direction) and goes to work signing up families. Everything plays out exactly as Pace said it would, and soon Clay is richer than he ever dreamed he could be.

Clay, who had spent far too many years scraping by, then goes on the expected buying spree that anyone who comes into a sudden windfall would surely indulge in. He gets Armani suits, a brand-new Porsche, a $3 million townhouse, etc. He has no qualms about spending all this money because Pace has promised more cases.

True to his word, Pace delivers another huge case to Clay. From this point on, Grisham describes the world of the high-rollers involved in the mass tort industry, the lawyers who make all the money off class-action lawsuits, usually while their clients end up with far less than they deserve.

The pacing of The King of Torts is extremely fast. The rise of Clay Carter can only be described as meteoric, since the entire scope of the story covers less than two years. In that time, Clay manages to secure $120 million in legal fees. But he soon discovers what only the truly rich can ever know: that as fast as money pours in, it goes right back out. There are vacations, planes, island getaway homes, high-maintenance women, and of course business expenses.

On the whole, I had several problems with this book. In the first place, I felt the "message" was off, or was at least delivered in the wrong way. Grisham obviously meant this book to be somewhat of a warning to regular folks about the dangers of greed and excess. But the way he went about it was a bit strange. First of all, the main character was far too likable. I was rooting for Clay to succeed the entire time. Even though he changed for the worse after he started raking in huge fees, he didn't turn into a complete and utter jerk. So at no time did I want him to fail. In addition, Grisham spent so much time describing the perks that go along with living the high life that, if anything, it seems that he would inspire people to try to go out and make as much money as possible, rather than to control themselves and be content with what they have.

Another problem I had with The King of Torts was the fact that the minor characters were never well-developed. All of them were two-dimensional, and clearly existed simply to move the plot along. When their usefulness ended, they simply dropped out of sight without much of an explanation from Grisham. A few paragraphs to explain the various disappearances would have gone a long way towards making the reader feel as though all loose ends were tied up. I'm not sure if Grisham did this on purpose in order to make things seem more "mysterious" or whatever, but it just didn't work for me.

But the biggest problem of all, in my opinion, was the way the book ended. I would say that the last quarter of the book felt extremely rushed. I kept glancing at the number of pages left and thought to myself, "There's no way this can get wrapped up in 50 pages." If I were watching a TV show, I would have fully expected to see a "To be continued..." notice at the end. That doesn't happen with novels, of course, so Grisham did indeed wrap things up in a very short period of time. As a result, everything felt contrived and wasn't believable at all. I don't want to go into too much detail and risk giving the ending away, but suffice it to say that though events seem headed in one direction, they finished exactly the opposite.

Usually, this would be called a "twist" or a "surprise ending," but I think those phrases are reserved for authors who carefully plan for those changes and make them plausible. Sadly, this does not apply to Grisham in the case of The King of Torts. Instead, the 180-degree turn that all of the events take are not explained in the least, which makes me thing that the author was either facing a very tight deadline or just got tired of where the book was headed and decided to end everything right there and then. It was very abrupt, and not fair to readers that had stuck it out that far.

With a different ending (one that was more thought-out), I think I would have liked The King of Torts a great deal. As it is, though, all I can do is shake my head and file this book under "Do Not Recommend."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

My Big Book of Stories and Rhymes by Peter Stevenson

As an avid reader myself, I am a firm believer that every child should grow up around books. My son is only three years old, but he already has a book collection that would rival those of many adults that I know, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Although it might seem like it, I do not indiscriminately purchase books for my son. I spend a lot of time at the bookstore looking through the children's section, and I only buy the ones that seem to be both educational and entertaining. That's precisely what My Big Book of Stories And Rhymes illustrated by Peter Stevenson is.

My Big Book of Stories And Rhymes is an oversized volume that would look big even on an adults bookshelf, so it positively dwarfs the other books on my son's shelf. Its 383 pages of text and illustrations are divided into four separate parts. They are: Teddy Bear Tales, Animal Stories, Nursery Rhymes, and Nursery Tales. I've discovered that these different sections are appropriate for different ages. Thus, my son loves and understands the Nursery Rhymes and several of the Animal Stories, but many of the Nursery Tales and all of the Teddy Bear Tales are too long and involved to hold his attention. Nevertheless, I decided to purchase the book because it seems like something that will last for many years.

The Teddy Bear Tales section consists of 14 different stories and 5 poems about different kinds of teddy bears. Like children, all of the teddy bears featured in the stories have very different personalities. Some are good little teddy bears, while some like to misbehave. Some are outgoing, some are shy. All of the stories are wholesome and instructive, so once your child is able to understand and follow the plots, I'm sure these Teddy Bear Tales would be entertaining.

The Animal Stories section consists of 20 shorter stories and 7 poems about many different kinds of animals. The stories were written by several authors, including Joan Stimson, Nicola Baxter, Tony Bradman, Lucille Hammond, and Jane Resnick. Many of the stories serve to break "stereotypes" or show the animal characters triumphing over their shortcomings. For example, there is a tale about a duck that doesn't like the rain. There is also a story about a penguin who is scared of learning to swim, but eventually gathers enough courage to give it a try. Although I don't think my son understood much about these stories, they are short enough for me to get through without him getting too restless and fidgety.

The Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Tales sections are the best for my son at his particular age right now. The editor of the book chose to include almost all of the nursery rhymes that I remember from my own childhood, plus quite a few that I either forgot or just never heard of. So, you'll get things like "Jack and Jill," "Old Mother Hubbard," "Three Blind Mice," "Hot Cross Buns," "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe," "Humpty Dumpty," and many, many more, for a total of 151 nursery rhymes in all. This section is my son's favorite by far, and he has a ball reciting the shorter ones that he knows by heart. The Nursery Tales section contains shortened versions of familiar stories such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "Cinderella," and "The Three Little Pigs." Again, I don't think that my son can actually follow the entire plot very well, but he at least sits still and listens for a bit.

I have to say that I am truly impressed by My Big Book of Stories and Rhymes. There are obviously lots of different nursery rhyme collections out there, but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion. First of all, it has wonderfully detailed illustrations that make the stories, tales, rhymes, and poems come alive. So in addition to just listening to me read from the book, my son loves to examine the pictures and identify the particular characters that each story is talking about. In fact, I have to go so far as to say that this exact same volume without the illustrations wouldn't nearly be as interesting to any child.

If I were to identify one thing that I didn't like about My Big Book of Stories and Rhymes, I would have to say it's the size and bulk of the thing. This is a pretty big and heavy book, and is too unwieldy for a smaller toddler to handle by him- or herself. In all fairness, the book doesn't have any suggested ages listed on it, and it has paper pages. This leads me to believe that it is probably for slightly older children, possibly in the 4-8 year old range. Certainly children of that age would be able to lug the book around by themselves, so that won't be an issue for you if you have an older child at home.

Other than the size and bulk, I have no complaints about this book. It was truly a fantastic find, and my son wants me to read from it every single day. Another great thing about this book is that it is so comprehensive. So if you are pressed for space or funds, you could simply buy this single volume instead of having to buy 10 or more separate books containing similar stories and rhymes. You have nothing to lose by giving this book a try!

Friday, March 24, 2006

2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions by Charles Earle Funk

One of the reasons that the English language is so colorful is that it makes prolific use of idiomatic expressions. Some of these expressions have been used for centuries, while others are of more recent origin. If you love words or are interested in etymology at all, then the book 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephants to Song and Dance by Charles Earle Funk is something that you need to purchase for your home library.

As you can tell from the title, this book delves into the mysteries behind 2107 common phrases in order to explain to readers exactly why the phrases mean what they mean. Sometimes the meanings of these idioms have been pretty well preserved from the original; but quite often, you'll see that the current meanings are far different than what they were a few decades ago.

2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions is a massive volume that covers 954 pages (not including the index). Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the phrases contained inside. They don't appear to be in chronological order, and they certainly aren't in alphabetical order, either. So you'll definitely have to make use of the index if you want to find something in particular.

Speaking of the index, it's arranged so that you can look up phrases in two different ways. First, if you know the exact phrase, you can look it up in the traditional way (i.e. alphabetically). But if you don't know the exact phrase you can still look it up by focusing on the keywords. Let's use the phrase "[to] cry over spilt milk" as an example. If I know the whole phrase, I can find it under the "C" section (for "cry"). If, on the other hand, I didn't know the whole phrase, I could look up the keyword "milk" and find reference to the entire phrase that way as well.

That being said, the book is quite a lot of fun to browse through. I frequently discover that once I start reading a few of the entries, I simply can't stop and I end up reading for an hour or more. As a result, I now can explain the origins of such phrases as "to have an ax to grind," "keeping up with the Joneses," "ride the gravy train," "walk the plank," "tooth and nail," and 2102 others.

You might recognize the last name of the author, as he is the Funk of Funk & Wagnalls dictionary and encyclopedia fame. There is both a positive and a negative aspect to this connection. On the positive side, at least you can be confident that Funk knows how to research words and word origins, and you can be relatively certain that what he says is pretty much the accepted view. On the negative side, however, the scholar in him shines through way too often. This makes some of the entries extremely tedious to read and comprehend. There are many long, drawn out sentences broken up by numerous commas throughout the book. The writing style seems pretentious these days, but I guess that was pretty much par for the course in his time.

Overall, I think 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions can be a useful book for a variety of purposes. For example, it will certainly help you brush up on your knowledge of trivia and will help you review some words that you probably don't use all that often anymore, which can come in handy if you like to play Scrabble or do crossword puzzles. This book can also assist people who are trying to learn English as a Second Language. One of the stumbling blocks to learning any foreign language is getting a handle on idiomatic expressions. If someone made a concerted effort to study this book, then he or she would probably end up knowing more about the language than many native speakers!

In short, this is one of the more interesting reference books out there. You'll definitely get your money's worth, so buy a copy today and keep it in your office for the next time you need to satisfy your curiosity about the origins of a certain word or phrase.

To Train Up A Child by Michael and Debi Pearl

When our children were still quite young, due to a variety of circumstances, we decided it would be best for our family if we took our oldest (a second grader) out of the local public school to homeschool him and his two younger sisters. At this time, homeschooling was still rather new and our family and friends were skeptical and concerned. We knew only one other homeschooling family in our large city, and as fate would have it, they lived just down our street. This family was different than us. We always considered ourselves conservative, but as we lived in a California beach community, we were very open to wearing bikinis, watching television, and living life in the average way, while still remaining conservative and adhering to our values. This other homeschooling family was against swimsuits of any kind, all the girls in the family wore dresses only, they did not own a television (never had), and were very careful about letting any outside influences affect them or their children. The beauty of it was that we became friends, in spite of our differences, and we encouraged one another, while not being the least bit judgmental.

It was this family which gave me my first copy of the book, To Train up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl. At the time, my son was eight-years-old, and I had two daughters, ages two and three. After lamenting to my homeschooling friend about the less-than-perfect behavior of my three children, she loaned me her copy and told me it was the best child training book she'd ever read. I was a very conscientious parent and I had read countless parenting and child rearing books, but as I love to read, I gladly took the thin, paperback book and began reading it that very night. What I found in those pages were principles and insights that I had never heard before. It was completely simple, but completely revolutionary. The introduction page of the book states that "any parent with the emotional maturity level higher than the average thirteen-year-old can, with a proper vision and knowledge of these techniques, have happy obedient children." If this was true, then I wanted to sign up.

As I soon learned, this book, written by an Amish couple in Tennessee, was indeed a special book. While most books on parenting, child rearing or child discipline are based on cause and effect, as well as addressing certain types of behavior, the theories in To Train up a Child are to teach the proper behaviors; to TRAIN a child the right way, and then he will behave accordingly. In fact, they compare child training to dog or horse training. While some parents might be insulted or put off by this concept, it makes perfect sense when put to task. If a person training a horse never teaches the horse how to behave when walking along a busy road or when being saddled or scrubbed, the horse will exhibit whatever behavior suits it at the given moment, usually based on his temperament type. Smart horse owners never use this method; rather, they train the horse from the get-go on what is the proper behavior and what is not. Proper behavior is rewarded and improper behavior is stopped and punished if it continues. The same is true in training a dog. Anyone who has owned a dog knows that the dog will run wildly and excitedly when it sees another dog - unless it has been trained to obey the commands of the owner. Many uneducated dog owners can be seen out on city streets, struggling with the dog's leash, having their arms ripped out of the sockets by a dog who is out of control. Oddly enough, many dog owners seem to think this is normal and can be expected when owning a dog. Nothing can be further from the truth.

And the same is true regarding child training. Within the pages of this precious little book, Michael and Debi Pearl give us pearls of wisdom about how to train a child, beginning at a very early age. In fact, they say that if a child is old enough to show any hint of rebellion, he is old enough to be trained. Based on Biblical principles, this book encourages gentle training which gives children the desire to please their parents. Discipline alone is never enough; in fact, according to these principles, discipline is usually unnecessary with a child who has been trained properly. The Pearls also point out that there is no such thing as not training a child. Either a child is trained to obey and honor his parents, or he is trained to disregard, disrespect, and disobey his parents.

The book makes no apologies about its Biblical principles and its stand on the importance of homeschooling. But when parents read the reasons why, they might not want that lifestyle for their family, but they will hardly be able to disagree with the clear and easy concepts that are logical, if nothing else. After getting to know the Pearls and their family through the pages of the book, we are given a delightful treat at the end. The second to last chapter, just before the conclusion, is made up of two letters: one written by Michael Pearl to his two sons, and the second is written by Debi Pearl to her three daughters. The letters are precious glimpses into the love and life of their homelife. They give encouragement, exhortation, and most of all, love. They give life lessons as well as humor. Finishing To Train up a Child is like walking away from a nice, long visit with a solid family we want to make our own.

I might add here that after reading To Train up a Child, my husband and I put the principles to work in our own family. Our children were fairly good children already, but we did have our moments of having to repeat things and of course we had whining to deal with. After just a couple of weeks using the Pearl's method, our children were respectful, obedient, and were a joy to behold. While I loved my children before, training them made me love being with them all the time. We had mutual respect and we delighted in each other. Now, ten years later, I highly recommend this book to all parents with children still living under their roof. The principles are timeless, and while they may be used in different ways, depending on the age of the child, they are still worthwhile and best of all, they work!

Those Who Save Us, By Jenna Blum

By Christina VanGinkel

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum, tells the story of Anna Schlemmer's life over the span of over five decades, beginning as a teenager in Germany during World War II. Told from different times, the book itself begins in the year 1993, in the rural town of New Heidelburg, Minnesota, where Anna has lived for near on fifty years. Arriving there decades before, with her then three-year-old daughter, Gertrud Charlotte Brandt, known to all by the name of Trudy, and the American soldier, Jack Swenson, who called the town home, and who claimed her as his wife when Germany was liberated, the story takes a sweeping look into her past and the future.

The very first chapter though, portrays the funeral of Jack, and how all the townsfolk show up for his funeral, but do not do his wife of all these years, the courtesy to show her their sympathy, paints a vivid picture of how long hates can last.

The story continues, by delving into her past, before Jack became a part of it, and brilliantly portrays what it might have been like, to fall in love with someone who was perceived by many to be the wrong person. Hearts do not always know the difference, nor do people always care what others may think, not especially when love is at stake. When Anna's own father betrays her, she flees from their family home, and goes to the local pastry woman, who runs the bakery in town, for help. Anna knows her from her time spent hiding her love, Max, a Jewish doctor who was being searched for by the SS. Having made a deal with the local SS to provide them with bread and pastries, she is not on their side, and little do they know, but she is also taking this opportunity to leave food for many of the camp's inmates, who might otherwise starve to death quicker than they already are.

The story sweeps back and forth across time, but in a way that is easily followed. Soon, you are taken back to Minnesota, where Trudy, now a Doctor herself, of History, is having to deal with what she had first perceived to be an accident. She receives a phone call telling her she should come to the hospital where her mother has been taken after a fire in the home where she had lived all those years with Jack. Something tells Trudy though that it might not have been an accident. She decides to put her mother into a home, and close up the house herself, listing it for sale. She tells the listing agent to auction off the contents of the house, except for some personal effects she herself takes from the house for her mother. Mostly clothes, and a few personal belongings, she also takes from the back of the dresser where she had discovered it many years before, the picture of her Mother with a German officer.

If Trudy believes that this picture will tell her about her past, she might be right, but it is most likely not the past she believes it to be. When she thinks life cannot get any more complicated, a fellow professor at the college where she teaches asks her to participate as an interviewer of former Holocaust survivors. She first replies with a firm no, but then reconsiders.

This story is one that will make you smile, make you weep, make you laugh, just a little, and then roll you through all of the emotions again. It is a tale of the horrors of a war that is to this day hard to come to terms with for so many. Yet it has accomplished what many other fictionalized books on such a non-fiction subject have not, and that is to make you aware that things really did happen, even unspeakable things, all in the name of an evil figure by the name of Hitler.

If you want to read a book that, many would consider being an eye opening look at the horrors of World War II, told through the eyes of two women from two different times, but just as equally affected by the horrors, then pick up a copy of Those Who Save Us, By Jenna Blum today.

Dean Koontz's Frankenstein Prodigal Son

By Christina VanGinkel

When I first heard about Dean Koontz's Frankenstein Prodigal Son, it was in relation to how the author had pulled the story from being made into a movie. It had to do with how strongly he felt about the manuscript in the form he had written it, and how those involved in the movie wanted to take it into a very different direction than the book. I later heard that it was released on the USA network, but could not find out much about it. After reading a copy of Dean Koontz's Frankenstein Prodigal Son, I could fully understand why he would feel so strongly that the plot not be changed, as it is a well-built story, with each part depending on other parts to hold up, and hold up well it does. For any fan of any past Frankenstein rendition, from any author, buckle your seat belt tight, as this is as unique a look at this long famed subject as you will ever read.

The book, actually broken into three parts with the third yet to be released as I write this, starts with the first edition, Prodigal Son. Before delving into what the story is about, let me first tell you that I am a fan of Dean Koontz's work to begin with, but I loved this book. My only regret was that it was published as three separate books, and unlike a series, where you can often read one without reading the others, this is not so with this story. It is one story, and at the end of Frankenstein Prodigal Son, you are left hanging, waiting for the next book to come out. The second book ends the same, and I am currently waiting for the release of the third book. If you find it hard to wait from week to week for a second part of a two part sitcom to arrive, then I would highly recommend waiting until all three parts of the story are published, and then picking them all up at once to be read as one big continuation.

In the beginning of this book, you meet Deucalion, a man, or maybe monster, of mystery unlike any you will ever meet again. A tattooed creation, he walks through the folds of time, in search of something ort someone from centuries ago, when he was just created.

Not long into the book, you are also introduced to Victor Helios, otherwise known as Dr. Frankenstein in older books on this subject. Living, or should I say existing, in New Orleans high society, he is going through wives unbeknownst to those around him, as he creates them in hopes of making the perfect wife, discarding them just as easily as most of toss the daily paper in the trash. A monster himself created through evil and by his own hand, the reader will learn to hate this man enough to gain understanding of Deucalion.

Carson and Michael are the detectives on the case looking for one of the worst serial killers ever to strike anywhere. What they uncover is worse than even they could have imagined. When they meet Deucalion, life, as they knew it and believed it to be, suddenly no longer seems like it will ever be the same again. Chances are they are right. Because once they see things with their own eyes, and know that their own loved ones lives are at stake, they also know beyond a doubt that life is not what it seems. For what could be worse than a serial killer? How about someone who spends their whole life plotting and creating the perfect killers!

I actually found this book to be somewhat spiritual in nature, not in the fact that is was a preachy book, not even close, but that it made me think about my own mortality and where we as human beings came from and where we might be going.

I highly recommend this book to an Dean Koontz fan, or any fan of a story that not only is a good read, but one that will make you think outside the pages, and keep you wanting to turn the next page long after you know you should have turned out the light and went to sleep.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide by Steve Craig

If you're anything like me, then you've probably caught yourself daydreaming a time or two about being a full-time sportswriter. After all, it seems like a pretty cool gig. You'd get paid to watch and write about sporting events, both of which things you most likely already love to do anyway. But unless you've got a journalism degree, a lot of writing experience, or numerous sports-related contacts, you might not know how to get started down the sports writing path. That's where Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide by Steve Craig can help you out.

As the name suggests, this book is meant to help provide novices with an idea of what it takes to be a sportswriter and what it would be like to have a regular job working in the sports department of a newspaper. The novices that Craig has in mind are actually high school or college students, but his advice works even for older adults that are thinking about a career transition. And even though Craig is taking on the role of seasoned sportswriter and mentor here, he never dispenses his advice in a condescending way, which is always a bonus in a how-to book.

Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide is a very thin volume, but its 163 pages are packed with very useful information, and none of the "filler" that has become all too common in how-to books. As a result, you can finish the book in just a few sittings and be on your way to writing becoming a better sportswriter in no time.

Since this is a beginner's guide, Craig assumes that the reader knows nothing about sports writing at all (or even reporting, really). So he starts the book with a few chapters covering the broader aspects of reporting and writing (the importance of remaining objective and taking notes during interviewing, as well as the importance of fact-checking, and things like that).

Once Craig tells readers the basics, he gets down to the nitty-gritty of sports writing. He reviews the five most common types of sports-related articles (the game story, the feature story, the sidebar, the notebook, and the column) and gives examples of the most important ingredients of each of these types. Finally, Craig ties everything together at the end and wraps the book up with a reminder that presentation (e.g. spelling and grammar) mean a lot, even in today's world of mostly casual correspondence.

I found Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide to be very readable, and the advice was practical. In other words, the things Craig advises doing can be done right away, without further preparation or cost. If you're used to reading advice books, then you know that a lot of times the so-called advice requires you to do even more research, study, investigation, or make additional investments in materials and equipment before the writer feels you're "ready" to venture out into the real world to give his or her advice a try. But of course that's not really advice at all. Fortunately, Craig stays away from this kind of thing.

Craig is an award-winning sports writer himself, so he speaks with a voice of experience and authority. He knows what works and what doesn't, but at the same time, he encourages readers to find their own "voice" when writing and to experiment with different styles. In other words, he knows that what works for him probably won't work for everyone, and he doesn't pretend that you have to follow everything he says to the letter in order to make it as a sportswriter.

One of the best parts about this book was the fact that Craig includes full articles to illustrate his points. For example, in the chapter where he talks about how to write a good game story, he also includes an article from his personal archive so that readers can see how it all comes together in the finished piece. When he talks about keeping track of game stats on your own, he provides examples of those as well. I found those examples to be extremely valuable in helping me understand exactly what he was talking about in the text.

Another great thing about Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide is the way that Craig encourages readers to cover all different kinds of sports. He realizes that there potentially is a niche for everyone, so he doesn't limit his book to talking about football, baseball, hockey, and basketball (although those sports are indeed featured prominently). He also talks about how to keep stats for volleyball, lacrosse, soccer, and other sports that usually don't get much attention in these how-to books. Craig realizes that beginning sportswriters will most likely have to start out at the bottom of the heap, which usually means covering high school sports for a local community newspaper. Since high school teams play a lot of different sports, a budding sportswriter better be ready to cover all of them.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Sports Writing: A Beginner's Guide. It has given me a better understanding of all the elements that make a good sports story, and has also given me some very good ideas about how to gather the information necessary to incorporate those elements into my story. It was an excellent book all around -- in fact, the only "deficiency" I can think of is that it was almost too short --  and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning how to write sports articles.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Football For Dummies by Howie Long

I am a big fan of the "For Dummies" series of books. This series is comprised of books on a wide variety of topics and are meant to be introductory primers on the topics. They boil down a lot of information into more manageable chunks, and when you finish reading the books, you really are more knowledgeable about the subject. Best of all, the books, even though written by different authors, follow a similar template and are written in a conversational style, making them much easier to read than a textbook or other type of reference book would be.

I have been watching football for more than 20 years, so I actually know a lot about the game. I can watch an entire broadcast on television and not have any questions about what's happening out on the field. Nevertheless, I have never played organized football in my life, so I don't know the intricacies of the game and really don't know what all of the players are supposed to be doing. If I watch a game with a friend who has played football before, he's likely to point out how someone on the offensive line missed a block or how a guy on the defensive line has excellent footwork. Those kinds of details escape my notice because I'm just watching the quarterback, the running back, or the wide receivers. I felt that learning about the details would enhance my enjoyment of the game, so I decided to pick up a book to help me out. I decided on Football For Dummies by Howie Long.

In case you don't know, Howie Long is a current football analyst for FOX Sports. Prior to that he spent 13 seasons as a defensive lineman in the NFL, all of them with the Oakland (and then Los Angeles) Raiders. He helped the Raiders win the Super Bowl in 1983 and was voted to eight Pro Bowls throughout his career. Long's best seasons were in 1983, 1984, and 1985 when he recorded double-digit sacks in each season after starting in all 48 games over that span. On the strength of his outstanding career, Long was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

As you can see, Football For Dummies was written by someone who knows a thing or two about the game. So I was excited at the prospect of learning something from all of Long's experience. Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed.

Football For Dummies is an excellent book all around, but is particularly useful if for newcomers to the game. The author states right from the beginning who his intended audience is, so if you've been playing organized ball for 10 years, you're not really going to get anything out of this book. But if you don't already know everything there is to know about football, you'll be able to enjoy this book.

For starters, Long gives an introduction to the game. He talks a bit about its history and origins, and then goes over the field and tells what all the different markings mean. Finally, he gives a brief overview of the most important rules and regulations of the game. After this introduction to football, Long talks about specific aspects of the game, including the offense, defense, and the rest of the team (kickers, punters, coaches, staff). He then has a section called "Football For Everyone" in which he talks about how you can get involved in the game no matter what your age or experience level. This section deals with things like joining local youth football teams, going out for the high school team, or getting involved with coaching youth teams. In addition, he talks about how you can stay involved as a fan, and gives information about some of the best football resources out there. These include newspapers, magazines, websites, fantasy football leagues, and more. Then, like all of the newer "For Dummies" books, he wraps things up with several of his personal top-10 lists of the best football players of all time.

Throughout the book, Long includes personal anecdotes from his playing days or from his experience as an analyst. These anecdotes are very interesting and add a lot of flavor to the book. For example, I've always noticed that the jerseys of offensive and defensive linemen are much tighter than they are on other players. But I really didn't give this much thought; I just figured the jerseys were tight because those are the biggest and widest guys on the field. But one of Long's anecdotes talked about how the Raiders would bring in a few professional tailors prior to each game in order to alter the jerseys of the linemen, tapering them to make them as tight as possible. Wearing tight jerseys, meant that opposing players wouldn't be able to grab onto the jersey and get an advantage when blocking. I never knew that, but will certainly look at linemen in their tight jerseys in a whole new light now!

Another thing that I really liked about this book is that it talks a lot about college football as well. Long starred at Villanova before moving on to the NFL, so he has a healthy respect for the college scene too. He talks about some of the best college football traditions out there, puts a spotlight on some of the most successful college football programs out there (Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, and USC, just to name a few), and gives his opinion on current trends in the college game, such as players leaving school early to join the NFL.

Where Football For Dummies really shines is in its diagrams. Because Long talks about various offensive and defensive formations and how each player moves on certain plays, he uses diagrams to help him illustrate his points. These diagrams are wonderful because they really do help clarify the words in the text. They are easy to understand, and in turn made me feel as though I could understand the game much better. It's too bad this is the offseason; I'd like to watch a football game now to see if I notice anything different after having read Football For Dummies.

Overall, I can't say enough good things about this book. It was easy to read, chock-full of useful and interesting information, and makes for a great reference book even after you're done reading it cover to cover. Best of all, it did what it promises to do, and that is give the reader a better understanding of football. In short, it was well worth the $19.99 cover price, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about learning more about the game.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss

Stepping Heavenward, by Elizabeth Prentiss, is the fictional diary of a young Christian woman named Katherine as she goes from her teen years into adulthood, being a wife and mother, and living a relatively simple life. Stepping Heavenward was written and published in 1869, and the story takes us right into the time period, as we watch the daily chores, duties, successes, and grievances of the main character.

The book begins with Katherine's first diary entry on January 15, 1831. She exclaims fervently that she is now sixteen-years-old and is getting "dreadfully old." She then goes on to talk about her day much like any sixteen-year-old of that century or our own. She focuses on the weather, what she will wear, how she would much rather stay in bed, and a few things about her new years resolutions. We see at the very beginning that Katherine has a close relationship with her mother, but like any girl her age, also experiences conflict. They argue about the proper footwear Katherine will wear out into the snow, as well as her generally rebellious attitude. Katherine responds to many things with great emotional outbursts, for which she always manages to berate herself later.

Still within the pages recording the first day, we see that Katherine is taught to study, memorize, understand, and live out the promises of God in the Bible. She is taught not only to learn them, but to internalize them and make them real in her own life. Her mother encourages her to spend a bit of time each day pondering on God's word. At first, Katherine shows that she begrudgingly opens her Bible and seems to find verses that only make her feel solemn, but as we watch her grow and mature over the years, we see her begin to take heart in what she learns. As she enters her 20s, Katherine learns how to read the Bible; she is taught to "choose detached passages, or even one verse a day, rather than whole chapters... study every word; ponder and pray over it till you have got from it all the truth it contains." Katherine does just this.

One of the things Katherine learns in her ponderings is that one "can will to prefer a religion of principle to one of mere feeling; in other words, to obey the will of God when no comfortable glow of emotion accompanies the obedience." As the years pass, Katherine marries a doctor and lives not only with her husband, but with her husband's very difficult sister. The sister has an argumentative and sour disposition from the start, yet Katherine does her best to keep her cool and have a good attitude. She learns the hard way that she is not the best housekeeper, through the cutting remarks and constant sighs of her sister-in-law, but Katherine is a fast learner. She holds her tongue, cries in private, and devotes herself anew every day to drawing strength from God, and to doing her best at everything.

In time, Katherine becomes her own worst critic. She takes to looking back on her past year at all her journaling entries, and finds that she did not do the work of a Christian that she had set out to do. But in looking back, as we all often do, she turns and looks forward with new hope and a positive outlook, knowing, by the grace of God, that she will do better in the months to come.

At one point, late in the book, after Katherine has several years of marriage and has borne her children, she accompanies her husband to see a sick woman. The cantankerous old woman asks her where her joy comes from, and Katherine, thinking not only about her family and the other joys in her life, is reminded of God's faithfulness and ever present help in all she has seen and done. She gladly goes on to share this with the woman, and visits her several times after.

The book ends with Katherine in poor health at the age of 45. She looks back on her life, the ups and downs, successes and failures, and knows that the best is yet to come. All in all, Stepping Heavenward is an uplifting and encouraging book for those of any age who are seeking to follow God.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia

One thing that seems to be common in all professional sports these days (besides huge multimillion dollar contracts and prima donna athletes) is statistics. Each sport has more stats than you can shake a stick at in more obscure categories than you could ever imagine. When you watch sports on television, it seems that there's never a game situation that comes up where the commentators don't have statistical data concerning similar situations that have occurred in the past.

Out of all the major professional sports, baseball seems to have more numbers associated with it than any others. You can't get through a game with seeing hundreds of numbers flashed across the screen. Every time a batter comes up to the plate, they show his season batting average, number of home runs, and RBI. Then they also show his stats for the game (e.g. 2-for-4 with 1 RBI), his career stats against a particular pitcher, his batting average with runners in scoring position, etc. They have the same kind of stats available on the pitching side of things as well.

It seems that baseball enthusiasts really eat these numbers up, so it only makes sense that something like the Baseball Encyclopedia would be available to fans. The Baseball Encyclopedia is produced annually by ESPN, which is a cable network devoted to sports programming. The Baseball Encyclopedia consists of 1,743 pages of very small print (not tiny enough where you would need a magnifying glass, like the Oxford English Dictionary, but certainly not big enough to make for comfortable reading) detailing the stats of every major league player that has been involved in the game since 1871. It's just amazing to me that stats from that long ago are still around, and it's good to know that they will be preserved thanks in large part to books like the Baseball Encyclopedia.

This book obviously has value as a reference tool. If you want to find out how many home runs a particular player hit in a particular year, you can find that information quickly and easily. Similarly, if you wanted to know a pitcher's ERA or the team standings in the American or National Leagues for specific years, you can find all of that out too. In addition, the Baseball Encyclopedia lists award winners, Hall of Fame inductees, All-Star game information, and even pertinent information about all of the current major league ballparks.

Furthermore, there is a section called "Great Performances," which gives information about some of the long-standing records and relatively recent feats that have become legends in the game. For example, you'll get a breakdown of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, a look at the 15 players in all of baseball history who have hit 4 home runs in a single game, pitchers who have thrown multiple no-hitters, and much more.

The Baseball Encyclopedia is not a "pretty" book by any means. It is only available in paperback, the pages are completely black and white, and there are no pictures inside it whatsoever. I suppose that helps limit the bulk and cost of the book (I bought it on sale for less than $13 at my local bookstore), but it doesn't make it a very fun volume to browse through. In other words, it's strictly a reference book, not a coffee table book or anything else that you would want to put on display.

Overall, the book is an excellent value for what you get. If you are a baseball enthusiast or if you participate in fantasy baseball leagues, then I would even go so far as to say that this book is a must for your collection. Some might argue that all of the information contained in the Baseball Encyclopedia is readily available for free online or at the library. That's true, but it would probably take a long time to look some of this stuff up. Sure, you can quickly find the stats of current players by looking on the ESPN website or something, but if you want to find some stats and records from more obscure players, you'd have to search through a lot of different sites.

For an authoritative guide to all of the baseball stats you could ever want or need, I recommend adding The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia to your home library today!

GHOSTS! Personal Accounts of Modern Mississippi Hauntings, by Sylvia Booth Hubbard

By Christina VanGinkel

This is one of those books that you know the majority of people who pass it on a shelf, will roll their eyes at, yet many of those same people pick it up, browse through it, and before you know it; they are headed to the checkout counter with it. That is exactly how I came to own my copy. I was on vacation and browsing a bookshelf at a small bookstore looking for something to pass the time with while being a passenger in the car. This ended up being the perfect choice and it more than kept my attention for many a mile!

The book is a compilation of ghost and otherworldly stories that all happen to take place in the good old southern state of Mississippi. The book itself starts out with a story from the authors own personal experience. She and her husband had purchased a house in 1975 in the outer lying part of the town of Hattiesburg, where the zoning of the town itself would not affect them, as they wanted to combine both their living quarters and their business in one building. Before they even moved in, they knew there was something strange with the house, such as footsteps with no one there, and a room that was always cold, even in the heat of summer. As their family grew, even their children noticed things, and then their daughter even provided them with a name for the one ghost that they all thought of as the 'main' ghost of the house. Customers to their business also backed up their wonderings about the ghostly goings on through the years, and at the time of the writing of the book, the author, and her family were still living in the house, coexisting with the ghost. They had all mutually agreed that if the ghosts did not bother them, they would not bother the ghosts, and so life for the author and her family and the ghosts just merrily coexisted.

In part, from this personal experience, the author decided to delve into the many other legends of ghosts and hauntings that she had heard of throughout the Mississippi area, and she ended up with plenty to fill a whole book. There is the story of Miss Elizabeth, an unmarried woman who lived out her life in the family home, and was known to be a bit odd even before she passed on in her family's house in Temple Heights. In addition, the story of Amberly's roommate, which relates the tale of a single mother forced by a flood to take up residence in a house in Pearl. When she thinks someone, or something is coming down the hall, she is frightened, but not nearly as much as when she thinks whatever it is she saw is headed towards her daughter's room. You will have to read the book to learn just what happened and how she dealt with the apparition.

There are stories about record players that play even when unplugged, and of vacation homes that are home to more of a permanent type of resident than just those people showing up for some occasional fun and relaxation. One story that totally intrigued me was of an abandoned mansion in the woods surrounding West Point. When a couple hears of the house that has stood empty for some fifty years, they decide, quite unexpectedly, that it is the perfect restoration in waiting that they have been searching for. They move their family into the home, and other than noises, they thought all was fine. Then, several years into living in the house, they discovered that someone was already there, or so it seemed. Was somebody sleeping in one of the beds, and what would happen if they actually tried to discover whom or what it was? What was there, why did it wait so long to make its presence known, or did it, are all questions that can only be answered if you read the book. Besides these tales, there are many more, for a total of twenty-five must read tales, along with twenty-seven black and white photographs of many of the actual residences, both inside and out.